Thursday November 08 2012

Socialist Party: A friendly, successful but programmatically adrift event

Mark Fischer gives his impression of Socialism 2012

Friendly but programmatically adrift

The Socialism schools of the Socialist Party in England and Wales provide a far more accurate snapshot of the state of the host organisation than the Socialist Workers Party’s summer equivalent, Marxism. This is simply because, in relative terms, SPEW mobilises a far smaller proportion of non-members to its event.

For instance, the SWP’s November Internal Bulletin has this confusing typo - we are told that at Marxism this year, there were “3,063 members and 1,822 members” (sic). We presume that the first figure (rather than the second) should read ‘non-members’. Either way, the pull this main rival to SPEW exercises is considerably larger - I would say that at least 90% of those attending the November 3-4 Socialism 2012 were SPEW comrades. Despite its generally ‘safe’ ethos (ie, Marxism has no debates featuring differences in the SWP or awkward customers from other rival left groups), the SWP does cast its net far wider in terms of both audience and invited speakers.

The timetable at this year’s event Socialism therefore largely composed of SPEW comrades talking to other SPEW comrades. The CPGB was the only group with a stall inside the event at the University of London Union. The International Bolshevik Tendency made a brief appearance with a stall outside and its comrades spoke in one or two sessions, but the rest of the left was generally conspicuous by its absence.

This rather intense insularity might lead readers to assume that SPEW would have a surly, resentful attitude to outside organisations, but that would be incorrect. In general, the comrades were friendly, willing to buy papers, take leaflets and engage in discussion. In the individual sessions, our comrades were frequently called to speak - certainly, we got the impression that this was the inclusive attitude of older cadre and leading members (some younger chairs appeared a little more narrow in their approach, it must be said). My general impression was that the organisation is confident about itself and has grown (marginally) over the past period.

For instance, we estimate that there were between 750 and 850 at the Saturday rally - and with a noticeable contingent of younger and often inexperienced comrades in the hall. This demographic is the one that the bulk of Socialism is designed to serve, with the inevitable lowering in quality of many openings and debate that follows from this. That is not to suggest that an organisation should not facilitate younger or less experienced comrades finding a way into the discussions and be given the chance to swot up on the language and concepts being used. However, when much of what is said in a political meeting is consciously designed to engage with the least knowledgeable, the least experienced comrades in the room, the result tends to be that everyone comes away feeling patronised.

The apparent confidence of the SPEW comrades should not blind us to the problems of perspective the organisation is running up against. Its main political project - the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - is making no headway and, as a consequence, some ominous noises have come from the one union organisation the comrades have managed to pull on board. Speaking at the September 22 Tusc conference in London, RMT president Alex Gordon warned that his union would not remain the only one officially supporting Tusc “forever and a day” (Weekly Worker September 27).

As the debate on the Labour Party reported below shows, the general viability of the political project is suspect. Although SPEW stabilised itself after a couple of debilitating splits during what its hapless general secretary, Peter Taaffe, had dubbed the “red 90s”, it is really not hard to see political icebergs looming once more on the horizon. For example, how about those old favourites that have caused the organisation so much pain in the past - the question of the Labour Party and working class political representation, on the one hand, and Scotland and the national question, on the other? We cover these and other topics in our reports over the following pages.

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