The following article by Mark Steel was written for the SWP’s Pre-conference Internal Bulletin (IB). It has now appeared on the Urban 75 site, so I reproduce it here. I would not have published it without Mark’s permission before it had entered the public domain.
[Editorial note – the Urban 75 article had an extra final line that did not appear in the version published in the SWP’s IB. I publish here without that extra line]
When I joined the SWP in 1978 I was instantly impressed by so many aspects of its ideas and methods. But one of the most decisive sides to its character was its honesty. We were proud of what we could achieve and what we could influence, but wary of the exaggerations. In particular, Tony Cliff exhibited an almost impudent scepticism towards any stories that appeared too glorious to be true. But one result of this outlook was that every success reported, no matter how apparently tiny, was genuine and a source of enormous pride.
How desperately we need a return to that honesty today. For by whatever criteria you wish to use, our party has shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago. In many areas where the SWP once represented a chaotic pump of activity that connected with all that was vibrant, energetic and rebellious in the city, now the meetings are tiny, bereft of anyone under forty and attended out of duty. Not many years ago, in most towns you were never far from a line of hastily slapped-up Socialist Worker posters, so they were almost an accepted part of any city centre, and there must be people who supposed the council was obliged to ensure they stayed up, on grounds of maintaining local heritage. But you’d have to conduct a diligent search now to find anything of the sort.
A few years ago, almost any campaign or labour movement event in a medium-sized town would include a Socialist Worker presence. But over the last eighteen months, of the many such events I’ve attended and spoken at, hardly any has been blessed with anyone visibly from the SWP, or for that matter Respect.
To give just a few of many possible examples: recently I was invited to speak at the conference of the campaigning student group People and Planet. It was an inspiring event, around 500 radicalised students discussing issues such as privatisation, global warming and AIDS, always with a view of how to campaign most effectively against the profiteering attitudes that are inflicted onto these matters. The conference was in Central London on a Sunday, but as far as I could see there was no one there from the SWP at all.
In July of this year I spoke at the annual protest known as ‘Independence from America Day’ outside the American base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. It was a vibrant and colourful affair, crackling with enthusiasm, and received widespread coverage including a long item on Yorkshire TV news. But no SWP.
On Sunday 23rd September there was a magnificent event at the Hammersmith Odeon (which I refuse to call the ‘Carling Apollo’), organised by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Although it holds three thousand five-hundred it was sold out a week in advance, and the whole place buzzed throughout the evening with the spirit of rebellion.
But it did so without the presence of the SWP or Respect, at all, in any way whatsoever. The previous weekend, incidentally, there had been a London-wide meeting of SWP members to discuss the future of Respect, which 250 people turned up to. It’s a shame half a dozen of them couldn’t get to Hammersmith to discuss the future of Respect or the SWP with the three thousand five-hundred.
In the spring of 2006 I did a tour of theatres in Britain, performing my show on the French Revolution, in over forty towns, to a total of around twelve thousand people. (I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that any member should be obliged to watch it, but it’s probably fair to say the audience it attracts includes the type of person who may be interested in something we have to say). So before the tour began I spoke at length to members of the Central Committee, on four separate occasions, about how the SWP could benefit from this, and they decided there should be Respect stalls at each venue. I arranged that for each venue there would be as many free tickets as needed, made available for Respect supporters, so that it could be used as a social event, as well as a means for publicising Respect with leaflets or anything else the branches liked. At not one venue did a single person turn up to do this.
In fact the only places where there was any Socialist Worker presence at all was Leicester (4 comrades), Windsor (one on her own) and a contingent of about twenty from Portsmouth, who sold Socialist Worker and distributed leaflets.
This isn’t an artistic luvvie strop about people not coming to my thought-provoking hilarious show, nor is it a complaint about lazy comrades failing to take up an opportunity. It’s simply an indication of how far the party has shrunk. These examples aren’t one-off failures of planning, they’re typical and not exceptions. There may be areas that have resisted the trend, but the overall decline is inescapable.
But the most disturbing side to the SWP’s decline has been the refusal to acknowledge this trend is taking place at all. For some time we were told there were ten thousand members, although this was a patently absurd figure. This number seems to have been revised downwards, which leaves two possibilities, either that the original figure was wrong or we’ve suddenly lost thousands of members, either one of which should merit a thorough discussion. But far from having one, anyone who has raised the issue has been derided.
(My personal low point in trying to address this problem came after a weekend in which I did two nights in Central London, where again no Socialist Worker stall or paper sellers were present despite 600 people attending each night. So I asked a Central committee member how he squared this with his claim we were rapidly growing. And he replied “It just goes to show there’s so much going on these days we can’t cover everything.”)
And so the problem becomes compounded. Tenacious comrades have tried to maintain branches that barely function, often with little success, then receive circulars telling them we’re in the midst of unprecedented opportunities and are generally thriving. But when your efforts result in little reward, to hear a series of super-optimistic claims about how well we’re doing isn’t inspiring, it’s depressing. Because either we’re being deceived, or it means everyone else is achieving success except you. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality has left countless comrades feeling it must be them that’s failing. If only they were more organised, or understood the perspective better, they’d be enjoying successes such as those they’re being told about. And so we arrive at the remarkable outcome in which the party designed to embolden socialists, to make them feel stronger and more capable of intervening in daily conflicts, makes them feel helpless and demoralised.
So what has happened to make the most thoughtful, dynamic and persistent socialist organisation of recent times behave in this way? This may seem an unusual phrase to offer in the internal bulletin but I don’t know. There’s certainly a widespread revulsion throughout society against the war, and against the reverence towards big business that dominates every aspect of modern life. But there’s also an enormous confusion amongst most of the people repelled by the warriors and profiteers as to what can be done about them. In these circumstances the triumphalist tone of the SWP throughout recent times may have been misjudged. It’s also possible the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago has had a greater global impact on socialist ideas than we anticipated. It may be that we over-estimated the revival of the organised labour movement, and the left in general has shrivelled. The difficulties in maintaining our organisation may be down to these reasons, or maybe something else, but our response has been to deny the problems altogether.
This attitude also appears to have transformed the tone in which the SWP operates. In recent years I’ve heard leading members dismiss other long-standing dedicated members who have contradicted them, by resorting to the ugliest vitriol, as if they’re auditioning for a revolutionary version of Eastenders. Maybe this passes for ‘robust debate’, but the result is that anyone else feeling uneasy about the ideas they’re asked to adhere to feels reticent about expressing themselves, and likely to drift away altogether.
To give just two examples of the damage caused by this lack of debate, firstly, following the extraordinary episode of George Galloway’s nightly exploits on Celebrity Big Brother, anyone associated with Respect faced a barrage of taunting or abuse from those around them. I don’t know of a single Respect supporter who came through that time unscathed, as many people who were sympathetic to George and the coalition felt let down, and withdrew their support. In those circumstances you might assume there would be a national discussion on how to deal with this, but instead there was none. Indeed the National Secretary of Respect, a leading SWP member, appeared on Newsnight to repeat the somewhat flimsy claim that the Big Brother escapade had been worthwhile because it had earned Respect a good deal of publicity.
The irony is that many of the same people who are now angrily reciting the reasons for why we must distance ourselves from George Galloway, were then refusing to allow any discussion on why he should be even questioned. By making this point I’m not trying to take sides on the current dispute around Respect, but simply to illustrate how deep the culture of resisting discussion has come.
Secondly, the Stop the War Coalition began as a magnificent example of how the ideas of the SWP can influence a movement in the most exhiliarating fashion. But as the massive anti-war march receded into the past, relating to those people who went on it became more complex.
The most typical attitude seemed to be that while no one regretted going on the march, they couldn’t see that it had made any difference. But instead of analysing how to address this sentiment, the SWP seemed to repeat the tone that suited the frenetic weeks before the war. Every march and protest was depicted as a triumph. And there was no acknowledgement of the process in which Stop the War meetings and rallies became smaller, and almost devoid of anyone under forty.
This method of dealing with problems also seems to inform our relationships with activists from outside the SWP at national level.
Whether in the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War, or Respect, we seem destined to land ourselves in acrimonious disputes. And the growing list of people who’ve selflessly committed themselves to a project alongside us, only to later lament that they feel betrayed and humiliated is one that, shall we say, needs addressing. I even found myself questioned at one point by the Central Committee, because after speaking at a number of Scottish Socialist Party events they considered I had become ‘Too friendly’ with Tommy Sheridan.
Retaining an enthusiasm for the activity of a campaign, and this must apply even more for a party, depends on a constant assessment of the question ‘Are my actions making a difference’? As socialists we have to try and take a long-term view on that question. A meeting may not rattle the ruling class, but if it inspires one new person to read about our history or participate in future activities it qualifies as making a difference. If we ourselves feel educated by the experiences of others who were there, it’s made a difference. We’ll tolerate sitting through pointless meetings, or participating in chaotic organisational disasters in which rooms are double-booked, pamphlets are locked in boots of cars and speakers don’t turn up because they’ve been sent to the wrong city, because that’s all part of the process. And we’ll tolerate the party unravelling in certain ways, if there’s an honest discussion about how to stitch it back together. But when the project appears to be collapsing, when the sturdiest of comrades desert in their hundreds, and there’s no attempt to raise the issue of why, the answer to whether our presence makes a difference is transformed.
And that transformation becomes even more pertinent when around us there are a number of exciting movements, young and bubbling with passion and hope, and eager to embrace discussion with an open attitude that may welcome a socialist input, if only we could present it by making it as far as Hammersmith.
For twenty-five years I felt that being a member of the SWP immeasurably strengthened my ability to argue socialist ideas, and campaign on the issues that anyone who dares to call themselves a socialist should care about. It was an organisation that existed to inspire, enthuse and educate, to convey a brilliant set of analysis about the role of the working class, the nature of the Soviet Union and so on, but in such a way that every member could apply those ideas in order to intervene against the vast injustices of our planet. As such the SWP made many many people feel immensely proud of the tiny but vital contribution we all made. Not a moment of it was wasted.
But there is now a large contingent, of people who were inspired for many years by their membership of the SWP, and who still act as socialists with courage and imagination, who have not become tired or cynical, but have dropped out of the party either formally or in all but name. Unless we radically address the decline we’ve fallen into, and transform the culture that has up until now resisted such a process, the SWP will become a group that few people with the sense of drive, imagination and purpose essential to change the world will be attracted to in the long term.