by David Broder
The evenings are getting darker, the leaves are falling off the trees, and oppositional texts are appearing in the Socialist Workers Party “discussion bulletin”. Yes, it’s that time of year again: the “pre-conference discussion period”, the three months of the year allotted by the SWP to limited discussion of party strategy, the only time when factions are allowed to exist and express themselves.
Former SWP leader John Rees and his followers have taken the opportunity to declare a ‘Left Faction’ and submitted a motion to the last Party Council advocating ‘No Platform to fascists’ – a resolution remarkably similar in tone to the rival motion submitted by the existing leadership. So is the revolutionary party opening up, or not?
This year’s free speech fest kicked off with cartoonish irony, including the suspension of two SOAS students from the SWP for supposed ties with what they called “anti-party elements”, and the shutting down of the Counterfire blog.
An article by Ian Birchall in Socialist Worker (24/10/09) on ‘Lessons from Lenin’ extols the values of free speech and criticism from the membership, “The SWP is not perfect. We’ve made many mistakes. But you need us, so that you can participate in a collective, debate over strategy and then put it to the test. And we need you, your ideas, your enthusiasm – and your criticisms. Why not join us?”.
Unfortunately this libertarian and iconoclastic spirit is not quite matched by the reality of the SWP (nor by the remarkable cartoon used to illustrate the article, below): it is a pity that Ian does not feel the need to say quite which ‘mistakes’ have been made, so that they might not repeated, and anyone who did want to mention any would not be able to get any space to express this in Socialist Worker. Note the comma between the words ‘collective’ and ‘debate’: it is not a collective debate over strategy, just participation in a ‘collective’, with all discussion taking place behind closed doors, using the style of ‘debate’ where one small group of people tell another larger group of people what to think. Speaking to young SWPers at their Marxism summer school in July, they were mostly highly unaware of even such recent failed ventures as Respect, the Left List and Socialist Alliance: clearly the leadership does not want them to raise any uncomfortable questions about their repeated false dawns, and prefers to keep them in ignorance.
Nonetheless Ian believes that more members means more ideas and a better chance of finding a way forward: he quotes from the Stalinist playwright Bertolt Brecht to the effect that “The individual has two eyes, the party has a thousand eyes”. Only a thousand eyes – perhaps an admission that the much-derided SWP membership figures are indeed exaggerated and there are only five hundred people left? In any case, the plot of this Brecht play The Measures Taken revolves around a militant who exposes his identity during a clandestine mission to China and then consents to being shot by his comrades in the interests of the Party, and indeed the passage Birchall quotes goes on with the rather less appetising sentiment, “One man can be annihilated, the Party can never be annihilated”.
John Rees fell victim to a similar fate last year, falling on his sword as a scapegoat for Respect, as did Chris Nineham and Rees’ partner and close political associate Lindsey German, who resigned from the Central Committee. Much of this is about personalities and egos rather than substantial political differences – neither side is clearly to the ‘left’ of the other, and all the leaders supported Rees during the Respect years. But after a year away from the limelight Rees, leader of the party since the death of its guru Tony Cliff in 2000, wants to return and has now worked out a ‘reason’ why he really ought to be the steady hand at the tiller, which is that he thinks the SWP does not focus enough on its fronts as a means of ‘building the party’.
This is perhaps rather curious, since the SWP has been running some remarkably shallow fronts of late, from ‘Right to Work’ to ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ and the usually-in-cold-storage Unite Against Fascism (after briefly reverting to ‘Anti-Nazi League’ last summer) and both sides of this dispute (i) see party-building as the number one focus of all SWP activism and (ii) advocate a cross-class front against the BNP. Both sides are also astonishingly silent on the small matter of whether UAF does actually effectively retard the rise of the BNP, and nor do they care to mention that the SWP’s Weyman Bennett did debate the BNP’s Simon Darby on radio this February, no-platforming himself by maintain a steadfastly anti-political and ‘neutral’ stance rather than argue why neither the BNP nor the established parties have any solutions to the economic crisis.
The ‘Left Faction’ motion below woefully comments “The BNP will not be beaten by ‘clever’ debates…” – much in line with the belief that we should not compete for votes and support, or ask why people turn to the BNP, simply shout ‘Nazi’ and hope they go away, “What they want is legitimacy. If we appear with them, even if we win the argument, we lose the real battle because we add to their legitimacy. The principle at stake here is that the BNP should not be regarded as a legitimate bourgeois party”. It seems doubtful that the malign theoretical construct ‘legitimate bourgeois party’ pops into too many people’s heads, whether pro- or anti-BNP, while it is hard to see why going on TV and denouncing the BNP face to face would ‘legitimise’ them: and does throwing an egg at Nick Griffin ‘de-legitimise’ the BNP?
The rather rambling ‘Left Faction’ motion also refers to John Molyneux writing a letter about Antonio Gramsci having to debate fascists in the Italian parliament in the 1920s (a move which in Rees’s Kremlinology is interpreted as a subtle notification of a change in party line!) and explains why the situation is not directly analogous, “The Italian working class had seen a general strike smashed by the Fascists, left wing organisations attacked by over 2,000 fascist squads, their offices burnt out and 35 fascist MPs elected to the Italian parliament. Nothing resembling this situation exists in Britain today.” Fine, but what does this list of circumstances tell us about the issues under dispute? The mere fact that the situation is different does not necessarily point to any specific tactical alternative, in particular the one advocated by Rees, given that unlike then, the BNP are not a direct or immediate threat to the existence of the left. Should the left refuse to take its seats in the European Parliament simply because among the 700-odd other MEPs numbers Nick Griffin?
Of course, given the available strength of numbers and force it would be great if we were able to break up BNP meetings, and for sure we should organise to resist English Defence League-style marches designed to intimidate Muslims and other migrant communities. But ‘smashing the fash’ is not a real strategy given where the left is at – by all accounts, at the recent Manchester and Birmingham counter-demonstrations against EDL marches, the police were effectively defending UAF from being routed by a much larger and stronger EDL force. In 1996 the BNP claimed to have 400 members: with the leaking of its latest membership list it now claims to have thirty times that figure. The far left for its part has shrunk below the size of the far right, and with far less presence in the media and mainstream political debate. Although the underlying aim of both sides of the SWP ‘faction fight’ is to ‘build the party’, in fact in their anti-BNPism they forever subordinate advocating an alternative to capitalism – one resisting the establishment, and indeed standing up for ‘no borders’ – to trying to defend ‘legitimate bourgeois’ politics from itself.
Two motions on “No Platform”
The top motion is from the existing leadership, the other one, which the Party Council voted down, is from the ‘Left Faction’.
BNP and No Platform
1. The national committee notes the shock and anger when the BNP won two seats in the European elections earlier this year.
2. Since then UAF has been building up the pressure on the BNP with protests from the egging of Nick Griffin outside parliament to the kettling of the Red white and Blue festival in Codnor. There have also been two successful counter protests against the English Defence League in Birmingham.
3. The decision of the BBC to invite Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time has led to a groundswell of anger.
4. The Labour Party will now drop its opposition to sitting on panels with BNP members–they will put a representative up on the Question Time panel.
5. The BBC has indicated that UAF may be invited on the panel.
6. SWP members in UAF will refuse to appear on a panel with Nick Griffin.
7. We will redouble our efforts to win the case for no platform for the BNP in the media and build the UAF campaign of protests and pickets to challenge the BBC’s decision – “Pull the plugs on the BNP thugs”.
In defence of No Platform for Nazis
Party Council notes:
1. The SWP is currently engaged in an important campaign to deny the BNP a public platform in the media and elsewhere. We are campaigning against Nick Griffin being invited onto the BBC’s Question Time.
2. But at the last two National Committee meetings of the SWP a majority of the CC who spoke argued that the SWP should be prepared in the future to debate with members of the BNP in the media after Nick Griffin appears on Question Time on October 22nd, thus abandoning the No Platform position.
3. A majority of NC members who spoke supported this position, despite the fact that the last NC reaffirmed No Platform for the moment.
4. The only public reference to this change of position has been a letter from John Molyneux in Socialist Worker (13th June) arguing that we should abandon the No Platform position.
5. The justification for this reversal of the SWP’s traditional stance is that the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in the policy of the BBC means that we have to change our tactics and debate with the BNP. John Molyneux argues that Gramsci had to debate with Fascists in the Italian parliament in the 1920s and that we should adopt the same tactic.
6. The BBC has never operated a No Platform policy for the BNP. The BNP have already appeared on the BBC main news, Newsnight, the Today programme, the Moral Maze and so on. The only change is to extend this policy to Question Time.
7. A large majority of people in the Metro newspaper poll supported the No Platform position. There have been letters and articles in the press from a range of people defending No Platform, including right wing Labour MP Denis McShane.
Party Council believes:
1. That the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in policy by the BBC does not mark a significant enough shift in the balance of forces between the left and the BNP to justify abandoning No Platform.
2. The return of the BNP to the streets in the guise of the English Defence League actually marks an opportunity to defend No Platform on the grounds that the BNP are really the street thugs that we always said they were.
3. The analogy with Gramsci’s situation is inaccurate. The Italian working class had seen a general strike smashed by the Fascists, left wing organisations attacked by over 2,000 fascist squads, their offices burnt out and 35 fascist MPs elected to the Italian parliament. Nothing resembling this situation exists in Britain today.
4. Labour and other mainstream parties are going along with this development for their own opportunist reasons. This will aid the BNP. If we do not defend No Platform in the media this will weaken the resistance, not strengthen it.
5. The BNP will not be beaten by ‘clever’ debates. What they want is legitimacy. If we appear with them, even if we win the argument, we lose the real battle because we add to their legitimacy. The principle at stake here is that the BNP should not be regarded as a legitimate bourgeois party.
6. If we abandon No Platform in the media it will open up the space for an attack on No Platform in the colleges and NUS, in the unions, the civil service and other public bodies. It will be much harder to ban Nazis from various professions and expel them from unions. Everyone from the BNP themselves to the liberals will say ‘if you debate them on TV, why not here?’
7. Revolutionaries will not be the main people debating the BNP. The media will choose cabinet ministers and MPs (Jack Straw is going on Question Time) and they will continue to do so whether or not we put ourselves forward to debate the BNP.
8. Maintaining the No Platform policy does not mean that we are excluded from the media. Most of the media accept that we will be interviewed, often directly after a BNP spokesperson, and do not require that we share a platform with the Nazis.
Party Council resolves:
1. That we should maintain our full No Platform for Nazis policy.
2. That we should campaign in the movement against the Nazis and in the unions to sustain this policy.