SWP: Annual show of ‘democracy’
This years first Internal Bulletin is a CC dominated token effort at democratic debate. Will this change, wonders Peter Manson?
period when Socialist Workers Party comrades are permitted to put their views
in writing before the entire membership has just begun and for the same period
members may also form temporary factions in order to put forward a commonly
held idea or set of ideas.
Contributions, whether from individuals or groups of
comrades, are published in three Pre-conference Bulletins, known as Internal
Bulletins or IBs, in October, November and December, prior to the
annual conference, to be held over January 4-6 in London. Apart from clipped,
three-minute interventions at pre-conference aggregates or at conference
itself, the bulletins are the only way in which members can participate in
something approaching political debate. The SWP does not host an email
discussion list and the only officially sanctioned means of horizontal
communication is via meetings of SWP branches or trade unions fractions, whose
business is overwhelmingly organisational.
IB No1 has just
come out - emailed to every “registered member” (anyone who has applied to join
over the last three years, whether or not they are ever seen or heard from
again). The first IB is always the shortest and least controversial and
this year looks like being no exception. Two-thirds of its 28 pages are taken
up by the central committee itself, dealing with either its own perspectives or
This time, national secretary Charlie Kimber outlines
the conference procedure for the benefit of those who have never attended: “The
main method of discussion is through what we call commissions. These are
documents drawn up at the end of conference sessions which summarise the main
strands of discussion and action to be taken.” The CC insists that, although
motions “can be useful”, commissions must be “the main method of discussion”.
This is because “It is perfectly possible to change your mind after hearing the
debate: this is the strength of the commissions system.”
You can also change your mind after hearing a debate
on a motion, I would have thought. But comrade Kimber is not referring to the
mass of delegates: he is referring to those who want to put forward an
alternative point of view. The CC hopes that such dissenting views can be
‘accommodated’ - or neutered - by making some vague reference to them in its
“commissions” or, better still, the comrades concerned can be persuaded to drop
their proposals - ‘change their minds’. The idea is that the final “commission”
statement will be seen to have overwhelming support and any hint of opposition
will appear totally marginalised, irrespective of the validity of its
criticisms. The system is even less democratic than the compositing so beloved
of union bureaucracies - at least composited motions are usually circulated in
These “commissions” are often based on the
leadership’s own lengthy perspective documents - in fact it is not unusual for
CC documents to emerge in the post-conference report exactly as they went in.
This year IB No1 carries the first three of these CC proposals -
‘Perspectives - a prolonged crisis’, ‘Fighting racism and fascism’ and ‘Syria
and the Arab revolutions’. Several more are promised. The handful of motions
from branches or other SWP bodies will be squeezed by the commissions - there
will be the usual rally-type speeches followed by comrades from the floor
giving their ‘local input’ to back up the leadership.
The first CC document stresses, of course, the key
role of the SWP itself. While it is “too small on its own to shape the
direction of class struggle nationally”, the “party” is able, thanks to such
influential bodies as Unite the Resistance and Unite Against Fascism, to make a
real impact. Through UTR “The SWP has played a prominent role in the most
important expressions of resistance to the coalition government.”
UTR is positively contrasted to, on the one hand, the
National Shop Stewards Network, which engages in “the ritual denunciation of
union leaders, except those who happen to be involved in the project”; and, on
the other, the Coalition of Resistance, which “falls into the opposite trap” of
making itself “the prisoner of sections of the union bureaucracy”. UTR, of course,
strikes just the right balance between these two extremes.
So building its November “conference” is one of the
SWP’s upcoming priorities. It must be even bigger than last year’s, which was
“over a thousand-strong” (in reality 600-700). That will really give the
opposition to austerity a boost and put some fight into the union
bureaucracies, won’t it? Well, at least it might enable the SWP to outdo the
Socialist Party’s NSSN and Counterfire’s COR in winning new recruits.
Meanwhile, the leadership claims credit for the
British National Party’s loss of support and council seats: comrades
“tirelessly knocked on doors, spoke at small meetings and undermined the Nazis’
votes. This was slow, meticulous and patient work, which finally undermined the
BNP’s electoral base …” The CC states that the “mainstream coverage has
emphasised the infighting and chaos within the BNP itself, but this ignores the
campaigning work of Unite Against Fascism”.
By the way, the CC believes that “Institutional racism
continues to scar British society.” In fact “Cameron’s speech in Munich
attacking multiculturalism and blaming Muslims for not integrating into the
‘British way of life’ in February 2011 represented a step change in state
racism.” In order to “deflect anger away from their failure to deal with the
economic crisis and in order to justify the so-called ‘war on terror’ the
Tories are shamelessly playing the race card.” This “legitimisation of racist
ideas” is one of the key factors in the “rise of the far right across Europe”.
It is as though there were no such thing as official
anti-racism - of the type that sees John Terry charged with a “racially
aggravated public order offence” for engaging in an abusive verbal altercation
on a football pitch. No, on the contrary, across Europe the ruling class is
deliberately engaged in the “legitimisation of racist ideas”.
The final CC document, ‘Syria and the Arab
revolutions’, is more measured, correctly stating its opposition to both the
Assad regime and imperialist interference. But it continues to totally
understate the latter, implying that the west is not serious about arming the
Free Syrian Army, which is “opposing tanks and air attacks with the most basic
of weapons”. The “heart of the revolution” is to be found in the Local Coordinating
Committees, which receive no imperialist aid, the CC claims.
IB No1 also
carries a few pieces with headings such as ‘Building Unite the Resistance in
Manchester’ and ‘Organising PhD students’ (yawn), but there is also a
contribution from “Ian (Manchester)” - no surnames are published in the
bulletins - called ‘Raising the political level of the party’.
In fact Ian is primarily concerned with facilitating
debate. He writes: “One of the silliest ideas that pops up from time to time is
that debate necessarily increases disagreements, which necessarily lead to
factions, which necessarily lead to splits. Debate normally increases the
understanding of all participants, increases the prospects of the ‘losing’ side
in any argument accepting the outcome, helps avoid mistakes and accelerates
learning from events.” So we should “bend the stick in the direction of greater
debate in order to help raise the political level of the party and intervene in
the struggle more effectively”.
Ian notes that, despite the successful motion at this
year’s conference - that “Socialist Worker should frequently carry
features on the theme, ‘debates in the movement’, which … can also be used to
air debates between SWP comrades in order to raise the level of clarity and
assist debate in party branches and fractions” - only two such debates have
been carried (on Syria and Scottish independence): “It is regrettable that the
CC has not made a more serious attempt to implement this conference decision.”
Ian also wants to revisit the failed attempt at the
2012 conference to effectively make the IBs an all-year-round feature:
“We have plenty of national meetings (national committee, party council) which
could theoretically take decisions, but we currently lack the space for
adequate debate to facilitate that. A bulletin wouldn’t necessarily need to be
tied to a particular meeting, though the CC could use and time them to
circulate discussion documents … if they wanted to stimulate debate in branches
on particular topics.” But unfortunately it is a big ‘if’.
Ian has further suggestions for improving internal
democracy. For example, while he does not object to nominations for the CC
being made using the existing slate system, “I think this year we should elect
individually”. This would “reduce the huge premium for being on the outgoing
CC’s slate”, which he says has been a “significant factor discouraging CC
members from promptly bringing major problems to the attention of the wider
party ... Doing so when in a minority would be very likely to result in losing
a place on the CC slate.”
He also encourages the open expression of differences
within the SWP apparatus: “We should … clarify that individual CC members and
full-timers can participate freely in the key areas of the party’s democracy … without
being bound by the CC ‘line’.” Discipline, he says, is required “for unity in
action in the carrying out of decisions, not to stifle debate”. It is
“necessary in a revolutionary party to ensure united action against the enemies
of the working class, not against our own members”.
Ian calls on other comrades to
respond to his arguments in the following IBs. Let us hope they do so.