Here are the motions:
Motions to the SWP National Committee, 3 February 2013
Motion one: Central Committee
1) The SWP stands out on the left by the fact that it has a history of genuine democratic debate without permanent factionalism. We have developed democratic and accountable structures from our branches, elected district committees, the national committee and disputes committee, central committee, party councils and conference. In the recent period these structures were re-examined and strengthened by the work of the SWP democracy commission. We have full confidence in these structures and the method of democratic centralism.
2) This newly elected National Committee notes that the commission on “What sort of Party do we need?” that set out the democratic principles for guiding our current practice was approved by 239 votes to 91 by annual conference in January 2013.
3) At the core of democratic centralism lies the understanding that we have full and honest debate among comrades in order to reach decisions followed by united action to implement and argue for those decisions.
4) We therefore condemn the actions of those members who have circumvented these principles by campaigning to overturn conference decisions outside the structures of the party, using blogs and the bourgeois media. Many of these contributions have been characterised by the use of slurs, abuse and un-comradely language that seem designed to stop serious debate and make joint work impossible, as well as damaging the party’s reputation.
5) This undermining of our democracy should stop forthwith. We reaffirm the right of the Central Committee to impose disciplinary measures for violation of our democratic constitution.
6) Many of these contributions have been fuelled by the outcome of the Disputes Committee report to conference. This NC affirms its belief in the integrity of the comrades on the DC and of the investigation they conducted. We note the DC was re-elected without challenge at the January 2013 conference. The DC report was approved by conference and the case concerned must be regarded as closed.
7) This NC notes that immediately following the original DC hearing of this particular case, information about it was leaked to people, some hostile, outside the party. This helped fuel rumours and misinformation about the DC within the party. This NC also notes the disgraceful covert recording of the DC session at conference and the appearance of a transcript on a site hostile to the party in addition to the reports and debates in public blogs and internet forums regarding these internal party arguments.
8) This has created difficulties for any future DC hearing. Therefore it is in this light that the NC thinks it sensible to consider these issues, in particular:
i) how the future confidentiality of DC proceedings can be safeguarded
ii) how future findings of the DC should be reported to the party
These issues should be considered by a body composed of four members elected from the National Committee today, two from the Disputes Committee and one by the Central Committee. It will report to a subsequent meeting of the NC.
9) The NC supports the right of the CC, in consultation with the Conference Arrangements Committee, to set out a reasonable deadline for calls for a special conference. We do not believe that it can be acceptable for such calls to be collected together over a period of several months. This would institutionalise a practice of constantly presenting motions to our branch meetings. The NC agrees that the deadline for the recent calls for a special conference was 1 February.
10) We believe that underlying many of the recent debates in and around the party lie a series of vital political questions where we need to seek urgently to assert, develop and win our political tradition. Some of the key debates include:
a) The changing nature of the working class.
b) Lenin’s conception of the party, and its relevance in the 21st century.
c) Oppression and capitalism.
d) The trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file.
e) The radical left, the united front and the SWP.
11) The CC and NC are strongly committed to leading and facilitating extensive discussion and debate around such issues in every forum of the party. This requires a serious, systematic and urgent effort in all our publications, through branch and district meetings, wider party events such as Marxism and through educationals and day schools.
Motion two: Sue Caldwell
This National Committee agrees to censure those comrades, including Richard Seymour who have repeatedly and publicly criticised decisions made at Conference 2012. The SWP provides many opportunities for comrades to raise disagreements and discussion in a comradely and constructive way.
We are a democratic centralist organisation which means that having arrived at a decision we carry it out in a united manner. A very small group of comrades are attempting to operate in a way that amounts to a permanent faction by encouraging others to agitate against decisions that have been made. Most members are outraged to see attacks on our Party in the right wing press using ammunition provided by our own comrades, most of which consists of factual inaccuracies. The refusal of these comrades to accept decisions made by Conference is shameful and an insult to the Conference delegates.
Such activity should not be allowed to continue. The attempt to call a recall Conference has not been successful and the vast majority of comrades want to get on with the many challenging tasks that we face in the outside world.This National Committee supports the Central Committee in taking whatever action it sees fit, including expulsion from the Party, against any comrades who continue to act in this fundamentally undemocratic way following a clear warning.
Motion three: South Yorkshire District Committee
South Yorkshire District Committee believes we face many challenges in the coming period. Yet, the 20,000 that demonstrated in Lewisham and the protests in Sheffield against austerity cuts also highlight the opportunities we have in building working class resistance to the Government’s austerity agenda.
Our agreed perspectives arm every party member to intervene effectively and to increase our political influence within movements, workplaces and colleges. That is why we re-affirm the decisions taken by our 2013 national conference.
South Yorkshire District Committee also believes that:
• Democracy is a method by which an organisation takes decisions.
• Democratic centralism is essential, not just as an abstract national principle, but as the germ of party activity in each locality or party unit. Once you accept the need for coordination and centralisation in this way, you also have to accept mechanisms to make it efficacious.
• Those decisions only make sense if they are binding on members of the organisation.
• If they are not binding, there is no point in their being made. If a minority can ignore the will of the majority, why bother about finding out the will of the majority? Why go to all the effort of having elections, counting votes and so on? You cannot have democracy without some means of ensuring compliance to majority decisions.
Yet, since conference, a minority of comrades refuse to abide by those national conference decisions and continue to factionalise in public through blogs and facebook pages.
This District Committee condemns the derogatory, ill-informed and abusive comments that comrades face when challenging this factionalism.
This abuse of our democratic structures seriously obstructs our capacity to build politically, undermines our ability to seize opportunities and move forward. The stakes are too high to miss. Therefore, South Yorkshire District Committee calls on the National Committee, the Conference Arrangements Committee and the Central Committee, leading bodies of the party to:
1. Insist that all members abide by the decisions of our national conference.
2. Affirm that any failure to heed such a call contravenes our constitution and flouts our tradition of democratic centralism.
3. Uphold the right of the Central Committee or Disputes Committee to impose disciplinary measures for any violation of our democratic constitution.
South Yorkshire District Committee
Motion four: Jim Wolfreys
Addressing the Crisis in the SWP
In the weeks since conference a crisis of unprecedented proportions has opened up in the SWP. This cannot be wished away. It is not going to be possible simply to proclaim an end to the debate raging throughout the party and beyond. What is required now is decisive leadership that is able to provide a political response, rather than procedural solutions, to the immediate issues raised by the Disputes Committee session at conference. National Committee should therefore endorse the following measures:
1. An acknowledgment by the Central Committee of the widely held concerns within our organization and internationally in our tendency, and in the wider labour movement, about the handling of the dispute, and an assurance that we are taking steps to learn from this criticism and address problems.
2. A review of Disputes Committee (DC) procedures in relation to cases involving allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Sufficient time should be allocated at the next Party Council to discuss ways in which the DC and its procedures can be strengthened, with space also allowed for votes on proposals brought forward by branches and the leadership.
3. X to stand down from any paid or representative roles in our party or united front work for the foreseeable future.
4. No disciplinary action against those comrades who have publicly expressed concerns over the DC’s conduct and findings.
5. Full support for the comrades who made the complaints. Zero tolerance of any attempt to undermine them and others who have raised criticisms of the DC report. Action to ensure they do not suffer any detriment in the party because of the position they have taken. An end to the punishment of party workers who have expressed concerns over the dispute.
Motion five: Penny Gower/Sally Kincaid
‘This National Committee, a body elected by the delegates to SWP Annual Conference, has every confidence in the procedures, practices and personnel of the previous and current Disputes Committee, a body elected democratically by delegates to our SWP Annual Conference.’
Penny Gower/Sally Kincaid
Motion six: Penny Gower/Donny Gluckstein
To aid the report back process from SWP National Committee, the following international response be distributed electronically to all members, and paper copies to be made available at branch meetings:
Obviously this is an extremely difficult time for the party. We are under attack from many different sides ranging from the Daily Mail, to others on the left, a small section of our own members and a (small) international group of academics and intellectuals, threatening a ‘boycott’ of our publications and events.
I am not in Britain but I have received a number of messages and enquiries so I just wanted a) to say where I stand on all this b) to wish everyone well in the circumstances.
My position is one of strong support for the SWP and its democratically elected CC.
I attended the recent party conference and believe it was conducted in exemplary democratic fashion. Indeed I am not aware of any substantial complaint about the conduct of conference from any quarter. At that conference the CC majority received the backing of the majority on all the disputed questions after thorough and fair debate. The majority on accepting the DC was quite narrow, but still clear, and on electing the new CC it was substantial (5 to3). The CC, therefore, has a clear mandate to lead. Democracy does not mean that we all get our own way, it means the majority gets its way.
The demand for a recall conference is not a democratic demand but an anti-democratic demand designed to undermine the vote of the majority.
Yes, there are circumstances when the demand for a recall conference is legitimate; for example when there is major new development, such as the outbreak of an unforeseen war or major strike, on which the party is divided as to its response. But this not one of them. Nothing has changed in the outside world except for the public furore CREATED BY THOSE WHO DISAGREED with conference decisions.
Secondly, I think Alex Callinicos is right in his article on Leninism in Socialist Review: the question of Leninism and the revolutionary party IS at the heart of this debate. Many of the ‘opposition’ deny this (and complain it is a ‘straw man’ etc) but the fact is that the actual behaviour – as opposed to their formal declarations- of those who have gone public, in the bourgeois press, on their blogs and on Facebook (and FB IS public) shows that they either have a very different conception of the party or no real regard for it. In particular, a question I would put to Richard Seymour (and to his supporters) is do you believe that party rules and norms, which you must be aware of, do not apply to you or is it that you disagree with them all and think that everyone should be allowed to attack the party publicly in any way they like?
By the way, anyone who claims to be reclaiming the party for ‘the best in the IS tradition’ by doing this, simply does not know what they are talking about. I can assure them that it is impossible to conceive of any of the comrades who actually forged the IS tradition – the likes of Cliff, Hallas, Foot and Harman – ever doing such a thing.
There is a much wider issue here. It is clear that there are very powerful anti-party moods out there – nationally and internationally – look at the Indignados, at Occupy and so on. These reflect a widespread radicalised liberal individualism. When such moods are widespread and common in the movement they are frequently, and to some extent inevitably, reflected inside the party in one form or another. One form taken by this at the moment is not just anarchism/autonomism but yearning for a ‘broad’ ‘pluralist’ type party a la Syriza. Richard Seymour and Owen Jones, for example, both seem to favour this.
I, however, continue to believe that the building of an independent revolutionary party – as advocated by Lenin and Trotsky (and Gramsci) – is necessary for revolutionary victory. It is a vital, but also very difficult task and I think that achievements made should be defended not thrown away. Those who say, for example, the whole CC of the SWP should resign or be thrown out clearly have little regard for the party’s future. I also continue to believe, as I have always argued, that democratic centralism is not only necessary for effectiveness in the class struggle but also the most DEMOCRATIC form of party organisation because it controls and holds to account leaders. In the current situation it is not the CC who are not subject to democratic accountability but the likes of Richard Seymour.
Finally, I would say that this is a wretched time for many of us – the feeding frenzy on the net, added to by some who should know better, must make many comrades feel sickened. But I think the only way forward for the party is to stand firm in defence of its democratic decisions, [whether or not one agreed with each and every one of them] not yield to pressure, and continue the work of developing the struggle against the real enemy. I appeal to all comrades to adopt this course of action and to everyone who is doing this I send my solidarity.
Penny Gower/Donny Gluckstein
Document from Sean Vernell and Mark Campbell
This is NOT a set of specific proposals to vote on, but is designed to provide political context and encourage debate
Leninism in the 21st century
This paper was written before we saw Alex’s timely article in the forthcoming Socialist Review. We feel that it complements his article and we hope it will be read in that light.
The SWP finds itself in one of the worst crisis in its history. Significant and long lasting damage could be done not just to the SWP but the Leninist tradition if the party does not develop a coherent political and theoretical defence of the party and its tradition located in the period that we are in.
The debates, although started over an internal issue, have created a feeding frenzy amongst our political opponents outside the party within the wider movement and not just from sectarian groups.
The arguments surrounding the Disputes Committee’s report and the subsequent vote at conference has opened up a far wider debate about political parties adhering to a Leninist concept of the party reminiscent of the debate on the left in the late 70’s and early 80s around ‘beyond the fragments’ (see Laurie Penny and Owen Jones articles).
These arguments go beyond democracy and political parties to take in debate about women’s oppression and the question of working class agency. However at the centre of these historic debates is an argument about how the left should build a movement against the capitalist system. This is what lies at the heart of all these debates and it is this that we must address both internally and externally if we are to defend the Leninist method from its detractors. What follows is an outline of the kind of response we need to develop to rise to the challenges placed upon us since party conference.
Disputes Committee reform
It is clear that the political problems faced by the party go far beyond the issues raised by the procedures and organisation of the party’s internal structures. However, we should not be defensive about looking at how the party dealt with the case in question.
We believe the NC should decide to set up a sub-group from within the NC’s ranks to look into the suggestions that many comrades have raised in relation to how a disputes committee could and should be run when such serious allegations have been made. In particular, reviewing the processes adopted if such allegations are made against a member of the CC. This sub-group should then report its findings and any proposals to change the process/remit of the DC to the next meeting of the NC for discussion and endorsement.
Democracy and the SWP: locating the argument
The decision by the conference to support the DC report has raised several issues. The one which has generated some of the greatest debate is that of the internal democracy of the SWP. We do not want to rehearse those debates here. We, as have others, have written in IB3 a defence of democratic centralism and a refutation of the arguments put by the different ‘democratic’ factions. We believe if the party is to go forward we need to dig underneath these arguments to understand why they have become the central concern for some members of the party.
Frustration and political passivity
Frustration at the failure of the struggle against pension reform to break through has been given as an explanation as to why some comrades have turned inwards to look for a solution to the problems the movement against austerity has been confronted with since 19th December 2011.
This is an important starting point but in itself does not provide the whole answer. The frustration also stems from a political passivity amongst sections of the membership due to the leadership putting far too much emphasis on branch building rather than building united fronts in the aftermath of the faction fight four years ago.
By political passivity we don’t mean simply that comrades are sitting at home watching events unfold from a far. Comrades can be running around doing lots of different party activities none of which necessarily connects them or the party to the movement let alone allows them to place themselves in a position to offer leadership to the movement.
Over the last two years the leadership have made real efforts to shift this emphasis and has argued for the implementation of united fronts around several issues as an on-going part of the party’s work. As the economic crisis deepens, and the international response by working people across the globe develops, the SWP has rightly argued that we need to be at the heart of these developing struggles and central to that is attempting to initiate united fronts. It is clear to us that there are too many comrades not involved in attempting to build these united fronts. Every comrade needs to be involved in attempting to work with people, who are politically to the right of them, to construct a movement against austerity. It is this failure by a significant section of the organisation that has led to the often debilitating frustration that comrades described at conference.
Too often some party members hold a short-termism view of the struggle. Intervention is seen as the response to moments in which the balance of class forces can be shifted decisively in favour of the working class. The alternative to these moments are viewed as periods to recruit the numbers necessary to intervene in those decisive moments.
Obviously this is an oversimplified picture however it does capture to some extent the approach and short termism which allows some members to ‘flip flop’ from identifying an obvious rise in the class struggle as the moment in which a decisive break through is possible to an overly pessimistic approach, if and when the class struggle doesn’t make the predicted breakthrough. This approach is located within a wider, often unacknowledged, analysis, which is more fundamentally pessimistic, viewing much of the most recent period of history as largely undifferentiated from the “downturn”, apart from the more recent moments of class struggle. It also underlines an approach which ends up being much more resistant to the idea of united fronts as a more permanent feature of our involvement with the movement and struggle.
The gaps between the peaks in the struggle are as important as the peaks themselves. It is in these gaps that revolutionaries must fight for the battle of interpretation about what has happened and how the movement can best progress to the next round. Too many comrades were passive in the build up to the 30th Nov 2011 and became even more so afterwards. In UCU we have had sharp arguments with the left within the union about the strikes around 10th May 2012 and the fallout from them. We built a 100 strong UCU left conference in September as part of an attempt to reposition the left after the pensions action.
We brought delegations to the 1,000 strong UtR conference as part of a wider attempt to reposition the best activists within the movement after the pensions debacle. Around two-thirds of those who attended the conference were non party members. It was encouraging to see so many non-members attend as it clearly revealed the potential for such an organisation to be built. However, it was a real problem that only a relatively small minority of comrades attended and of those that did only around 20% brought anybody else with them.
It is not surprising therefore when members are politically passive in the way we have described above, and are not politically engaged with the movement in this way, or are not working with people to the right of them over a long period, that they end up questioning the party’s perspective of the period. They feel that it is a perspective that does not fit their experiences and therefore draw the conclusion that the leadership is not listening to them. They draw the conclusion therefore that it is not their lack of engagement with the movement that is the problem but instead the democratic structures of the party.
This is why a lot of the arguments at conference were articulated around contrasting “patiently explaining” versus “polemic” and often extrapolating that the failure of the party to grow stems from a failure of the leadership to patiently explain the changes in the situation to the membership of the organisation. And by extension that this could be better achieved if the leadership were more in touch with a wider layer of the party and individual members’ experiences and therefore by extension the old form of leadership is no longer fitting of the needs of organisation. Instead they argue a wider leadership which reflects more broadly all aspects of debate within the party needs to be established.
However it could be argued that the problems of passivity stem instead from a leadership that has been too hesitant to make the sharp turns necessary or has been too divided to make these turns precisely because it would strengthen certain sectional interests within the leadership. Unless we find ways of dealing with this political passivity these arguments will continue to rage. This starts, as always when the party is attempting to make a shift, with a minority who go out to create the facts on the ground, which then can be used to win others to that perspective.
An agreed and shared perspective
This requires an agreed perspective about the period and a leadership capable and willing to fight for such a shared perspective. Agreeing about how important strikes are for an organisation which stands in our tradition does not represent a perspective. Instead it allows the organisation to temporarily unite around some immediate tasks, only to see arguments which are essentially about perspective and an interpretation of the period to re-emerge after the moment of unity is ended.
The arguments however when they re-emerge become ever more deep and far reaching and often take a form which appears disconnected from the dynamics and interpretation of the class struggle.
A perspective requires a more thorough strategic view based on an analysis of the totality of the balance of forces within capitalism in this period of history; it is not an immediate list of tasks for the party to do. In turn this will, as it always has, pose wider theoretical questions about capitalism and political organisation. It is no surprise that a perspective is contested at this time. The period of the downturn allowed a shared perspective to provide the basis of a coherent organisation in which the level of agreement reflected the shared perspective about the circumstances in which revolutionaries were operating and allowed us to be much more successful than other organisations.
That period of shared perspective ended some time ago. From Seattle onwards it has clearly not been a period of downturn like the 1980s. However the overarching nature of the period since Seattle is not agreed or settled. And of course the period since Seattle is differentiated, not least by the economic crisis of 2008 onwards.
A period most on the left saw as different from what had gone before but often without being able to locate it within a wider historical period. This failure to debate and therefore grasp the nature of the period we are in has led to some of the problems identified above. It is an urgent task for the party to return to developing this kind of wider perspective which can allow the organisation to regain coherence in relation to the real objective circumstances and opportunities and engage in and lead debate within the rest of the left.
Students and the party
It is clear that many of our students are amongst the most concerned about the decisions taken regarding the disputes committee and more generally about the democratic structures of the party. At Party conference many student members described themselves as part of the ‘Milbank generation’ and it is from here that we need to start to understand why so many of our students do not seem to share the party’s current perspectives of the period or of the organisation of the party.
The impact of the defeat students suffered over the rise in tuition fees and cuts to the EMA clearly had a demoralising impact on those students who led the way in the fight against austerity. This is understandable but not inevitable. What has deepened the students’ distrust of the way the party works and the perspective the party has is the way that we organised our student intervention in that period.
The Milbank demonstration was a united demonstration jointly called by the NUS and UCU in response to tuition fees and cuts to EMA. After the Milbank riot there was an immediate struggle for leadership inside the student movement among the radical left and the official student machine who wanted to regain control. The rising influence of autonomism had shaped the radical left on campus ideologically and those ideas were part of the movement we were engaging with.
The leadership of the party did well at making sure that we were indentified with the fees and EMA campaign. However the setting up of the Education Activists Network (EAN) as a joint student and worker united front and the characterisation of students as the ‘detonators’ of struggle was a mistake. Rather than drawing them away from autonomist common sense that exists within student politics it unintentionally reinforced many of the central tenets of autonomist politics.
By trying to construct a student/ lecturer united front, rather than a student united front, it confused the understanding of the relationship between the working class and the oppressed. The SWP has always understood that there is an unequal power relationship between lecturers and students. Organising a united front that attempted to politically organise both was a mechanical attempt to win students to see the working class as the key agent for change and to winning workers to take up the fight of the oppressed (the student). PhD students were both workers and students and so the movement no longer needed to distinguish between them. This relegated the centrality of working class agency and the dialectical relationship between the street and the workplace.
This also denied our students their chance to cut their teeth in leading the strategic arguments amongst students, which often led them to relying on the authority of the lecturers to win the arguments. This led to a number of serious problems.
First it meant that many students started to see the campuses as spaces where there were effectively no differences in the social base between those who worked as lecturers and those who were students. Second that it meant that for some of our lecturers it meant focusing on building amongst students rather than lecturers.
It dawned on some of us that this approach was really becoming a problem when at the height of the struggle, in meetings packed full of students, the top table was controlled by forty something lecturers. Finally it meant that EAN increasingly turned into an election vehicle for our candidates for NUS and UCU elections. This clearly narrowed the potential to build a broad student united front built around the struggle against fees and cuts in EMA.
These problems were compounded by the party leadership describing the student role within the struggle as the ‘detonators’ of struggle. This is something the SWP had always argued against. Chris Harman in the Fire Last Time criticises the student ‘red base’ approach to student politics for their position of seeing students as the detonators of struggle. Of course there are key moments in history where certain acts can ignite a wider conflagration of struggle. The 1905 revolution was famously sparked by print workers taking strike action over payment for commas. May 1968 started by students being expelled after being caught in the dormitories of the opposite sex.
However, understanding how key moments can spark struggle is not the same as revolutionaries seeing themselves as the ‘detonators’ of that struggle. It is this approach that has led to the worst adventurism and substitutionism by revolutionaries in the past.
The theory of the offensive, another name for the detonator theory, was disastrously applied by the KPD in Germany in 1923 when the leadership argued for its members to attempt to start the revolution in certain German states believing their acts would galvanise the whole of the German working class into action. Needless to say it had disastrous consequences for the revolutionaries involved as well as the whole of the international working class movement.
Therefore the mistakes from Milbank onwards have meant that rather than leading students away from autonomism and towards seeing the working class as the agent for change it has made our students much more susceptible to the lure of autonomism and the short cut politics which that tradition entails. Forget winning the working class to the struggle we can do it on their behalf. When no break through occurred after Milbank, moralism and frustration filled the void.
For an interventionist party – yes but what does this mean?
At conference the CC organised around their statement ‘for an interventionist party’ to distinguish themselves from the abstract, pessimistic and passive approach being put forward by the various different factions. Of course this is a useful starting point to draw a clear line between those of us who understand that the period is one full of opportunities for revolutionaries to intervene and lead effective struggles.
However the notion of an interventionist party can mean different things to different comrades. For some it means building real united front’s within the movement and for others it means abstract party building and intervention in the struggle , for example simply turning up to meetings selling the paper and trying to indentify the ‘ones and twos’ that will join.
Therefore it is important that we indentify which version of an interventionist party we are referring to. As we have outlined above we understand that is the former not the latter. We feel that it is an important distinction to make because the abstract version does not fit and leads to a sectarian and passive approach to the movement in the present circumstances.
One of the reoccurring questions that is raised when debating the state of the party is the issue of why hasn’t the party grown from the different mass movements over the past decade. It’s worth pointing out that no other revolutionary left organisation has grown substantially in the most recent period and hence the answer perhaps lies in an analysis that attempts to grapple with some of the objectives circumstances facing the revolutionary left.
This is of course something that is being done by some sections of the left, many have argued this for years whilst some are more new to it, drawing the conclusion that the failure of the revolutionary left lies in systemic changes within the working class. It is clear that such false analysis of the objective world and the analysis that starts with the internal organisation of Leninist parties are becoming mutually reinforcing at the moment. As indeed they did at the time of ‘Forward march of Labour halted’ and ‘Beyond the Fragments’.
It is therefore vital that we begin a process of analysis that does not locate the key to growth simply within structures that fitted the 1980s or within an end to Leninist organisation. An analysis that also attempts to understand the more objective issues which to some extent have inhibited the growth of the revolutionary left in this country and others without drawing the conclusion that class as the central agency of social change is no longer relevant.
The party has elsewhere provided a useful starting point as an explanation of why organisations that adhere to Leninist organisations have not grown by pointing to the decline of social democracy and the collapse of Eastern European regimes. We need to return to this analysis and develop it.
Such an analysis is essential as without one these debates usually end up simply looking at the internal structures of the party, the state of the branches, how regularly they meet and are organised, as an explanation as to why we have remained a similar sized organisation over the past thirty odd years.
What has reinforced such a poor starting point is the experience of scrapping branches in the period when the party was attempting to build RESPECT. It is now widely accepted that this was a mistake and did damage to the party’s ability not only to recruit and develop new members but also hampered our ability to build the movement. However, often when discussing these issues the baby frequently gets thrown out with the bath water.
The mistaken conclusion for too many comrades being that the key to success for the party and the class is the routine and organisation of SWP party branches, often, but not always, posed in opposition to other forms of organisation such as broader united front work. The motivation to break up the routine of the party was brought about by the desire to shift the party so that it could rise up to where the most advanced sections of the class were at. The structures that we had built up in the 1980s and had allowed the party to successfully position itself throughout that period (allowing the party to come out of the 80’s as the most significant and cohesive amongst the various far left parties) had now become an obstacle to taking the movement and the party forward.
Unfortunately, we did not move quickly enough to come up with alternate structures that allowed members to meet up and discus their intervention and assess how it was going and where new people could be brought along and new members could be introduced to our political traditions.
Our party structures should stem from an analysis of the objective period we are in. Grafting on 1980’s structures into the 21st century in a period of mass movements will not help us grow or develop the kind of party that can successfully lead in the class and attract the most advanced fighters.
Realigning the left
The realignment of the left was a phrase that we used a lot at the beginning of the millennium. The struggles around the Balkan war, Seattle and the Iraq war allowed the SWP to put this into practice by initiating, with sections of the left, first the Socialist Alliance and then more successfully RESPECT. The failure of RESPECT to break through to become a significant force within British politics as a home for a much wider left should not make us fear attempting to try such initiatives again when the opportunity presents itself.
Trotsky argued that for a mass revolutionary party to be built in western democratic societies there would have to be significant splits from the mass Social Democratic parties. Such a new left formation cannot be conjured up out of thin air, the right circumstances have to be in place, primarily a mass movement against austerity. However it is important that the party has this as a central strategic aim and that party members and the movement understand that this is one of the strategic goals of the SWP in this period for the foreseeable future. Owen Jones’ opportunistic article in the Independent attacking the party and its Leninist traditions and pronouncing that such forms of organisation are dead was a clear attempt to position the Labour Left to lead any new realignment. He doesn’t call directly for people to join the Labour Party but instead a new ‘left network’ which he and the likes of McCluskey hope will be a bridge into the Labour Party.
Again, there are echoes of the late 1970s when after the Wilson/Callaghan government and the election of Thatcher there was a debate amongst the left about where to go. The IMG, an independent Trotsky party with some 4,000 members, argued for its members to ‘enter’ the Labour party. Combined with this were Lynne Segal’s and Shelia Rowbotham’s book, ‘Beyond the Fragments’, a book that essentially attacked what they defined as “macho” Leninist organisations. These were key defining moments that convinced a generation of activists to join the LP. At the time the SWP put out a call for the IMG and us to join forces to create an organisation of some 7,000 to act as a pole of attraction outside the Labour Party. Sadly we did not win this argument and the left missed an opportunity to build an organisation that perhaps could have had a say in the direction the left and the movement took during the 1980s.
We need to be alert to new possibilities for the call of new political formations. However, simply going around like the Socialist Party do sloganising around for the need for a ‘new workers party’ would not be a serious example of how to go about this. But ensuring that in our publications we promote the strategic need for the left to realign is something that we should do. If we are not alert to these possibilities others will step in and seize this initiative. This is why, although we shouldn’t expect much to come from Jones’ call for a new ‘left network’, we should take him up on it to see where they want to go with it.
For a political and theoretical setting out of our stall We also believe that the party needs to produce a new publication that presents an overarching analysis of the period we are in and offers a way forward. There is a battle of interpretation about the kind of period we are in. There is a pessimistic version often put forward by sections of the trade union bureaucracy summed up well by Sally Hunt, UCU GS, when she describes the last decade as ‘the reactionary decade’! On the other hand there are left theoreticians like Alain Badiou who are much more upbeat and optimistic about what opportunities this period of history offers. He refers to what is taking place around the globe as a ‘rebirth of history’. Unfortunately his politics leads him away from locating working class agency as the key to offering a way that human liberation can be achieved.
There is also a debate to be had about class. This publication will need to take up some of the arguments being put forward by different sections of the left including many of our ex comrades. What does the British working class look like? Mass unemployment, so far, whilst growing, has not seen so many workers put on the dole compared to past economic crisis. Instead an increase in part time working, hourly paid and agency has grown leading some on the left to put more emphasis on the precarious nature of the working class. This in turn leads them away from seeing the working class at the point of production as the key agency. These debates are reminiscent of the ‘core and periphery’ arguments we had to have with the left in the 1980s.
The publication will need to locate the period we are in today by looking back at the ‘Fire Last Time’ explaining why the resistance will not take the same form as then, that was a period of boom where shop floor organisation was built upon sectional economic strength and lead to the early 1970s strike movements etc. At that time the rising economic confidence and organisation grew into a generalised political offensive by the working class, in this period the last decade has shown that it is the other way round, where a higher level of politics is fermenting economic struggle and a new confidence amongst the organised working class.
It will also need to provide an analysis of the struggle since 1999 to the present day. Explaining how the continuity of these different struggles has influenced and shaped the struggles we are in today. We feel that a failure to recognise how the past movements have shaped and laid the basis for the present campaigns we are involved in hampers comrades’ ability to intervene in them correctly. Therefore, this must be seen as an important part of our analysis.
Finally the analysis will need to locate the struggles in Britain today within the wider international struggle that we are not in the same chapter but are in the same book as the struggles in the Middle East, North Africa and across much of Europe. It should provide an analysis of the strategies the ruling class today are deploying to attempt to make working people pay for their crisis and the shape of the resistance to that struggle.
We understand that there are ISJ articles being written that revisit important debates about women’s liberation and rape and sexual violence against women. We believe this will help in defending and clarifying the Marxist position on these important issues.
This paper is motivated by the desire to develop and offer an analysis of why the party has reached such an internal crisis and provide a political and theoretical framework as a way out of it. We believe now is the right time for the party to put forward a clear assessment of where we are and the way forward for the movement.
Sean Vernell and Mark Campbell