David Broder reflects on this weekend’s Marxism festival, a thousands-strong conference organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party. He argues that the libertarian left should be doing more to engage with SWP comrades in order to provide a positive alternative for those put off by how it organises.
Marxism is the biggest event on the British left. Across five days several thousand people converge on London for the Socialist Workers’ Party summer school, including representatives of most other significant left groups. The conference itself is SWP self-promotion, so they do not invite groups they disagree with for debate: they prefer to give a platform to ‘big name’ trade union leaders, politicians like Tony Benn or Marxist academics, who may sermonise for socialism but won’t really question the SWP’s own modus operandi.
This is a great shame, since ‘Marxism’ has great unfulfilled potential. It could be a weekend for the left to debate strategy and ideas in a collective way. Instead, the meetings are heavy on top-table speakers, while SWP audience members tend simply to reaffirm what the speaker has already said. Often in an anti-cuts meeting or similar, The Commune members will question whether we should really be collaborating with Labour politicians, what kind of direct action is appropriate, or if we should be making more radical, positive proposals rather than purely defensive demands. The SWP stock reply is: this isn’t the time to debate among ourselves, we need to be ‘out there’ campaigning. OK, so when can we have these debates?
The problem is that without an understanding of what exactly we want and how we are going to win it, we are just headless chickens. This is a recipe for defeat. Indeed, this is borne out by the SWP’s own recent experience. In the years 2004-2007 George Galloway was feted at Marxism as the tribune of the people; those of us who said Respect was undemocratic and Galloway unaccountable were ignored; soon enough Galloway abandoned the SWP and they lost control of Respect. The SWP’s totemic recent mobilising success, the Stop the War Coalition, was ‘broad’ and liberal in orientation and top-heavy in its structure: it was politically ineffective and the SWP lost control of it with the departure of John Rees and Lindsey German.
SWP members are undoubtedly very active in the anti-cuts movement, they seem to have had the ground cut from under them somewhat by Rees and German’s Counterfire group. The latter set up the Coalition of Resistance, which is politically indistinguishable but far more of an organising success than the SWP’s own Right to Work campaign, a shallow front organisation. RtW has no basis for independent existence, except that the SWP can control it unchallenged.
Yet there is no public debate as to why these problems have come about. SWPers do of course think about and question these things: at Marxism I met plenty of individual SWP members who were very critical of this experience. But a number of them attributed the ‘mistakes’ only to individual leaders, now-removed; others were critical but unable to organise with others to change the party. This seems both to be a result of the SWP’s ‘formal’ lack of internal democratic structures, but also the political justification behind this lack of democracy: that debate and ideas are less important than urgently-necessary activism, or rather, that debate is unimportant because activism is so important.
To a degree this view extends beyond the SWP itself, and this is reflected in what I would see as the ineffectual libertarian attitude to SWP comrades. There exists a sort of received wisdom that ‘the Trots’ are just conniving to betray the working class, that ‘Marxism’ is shit because it is an SWP recruitment rally, or that being a free spirit unattached to a group is a far higher ideal than being part of some party machine. So we shouldn’t bother to relate to the SWP, but just leave them to do their malevolent thing. We’ll do our activism, they’ll do theirs. Such views extend from the anarchist left to the Socialist Party, who did not have a stall this weekend.
I can see why people say these things. Outside ‘Marxism’ meetings SWP members dish out membership forms: you could join their party without explaining your own views, as long as you are willing to fill out a Direct Debit. The SWP sees itself as the revolutionary party, the instrument of socialist transformation in embryo, and this is certainly reflected in their confident self-promotion, deprecation of other left groups and insistent, repetitive focus on party building. Personally I was particularly shocked by the damaging role they played in the 2009 SOAS occupation, for these very reasons.
Against a backdrop of defeat the SWP has to manufacture triumphalism and stress the possibility and reality of immediate successes to keep the party-building going. There is thus a sharp contradiction between the SWP’s revolutionary socialist theoretical assumptions (nationalised economies are state capitalism; Labour is just a bourgeois party) and reformist everyday demands (nationalise the banks and industry; ally with Labour against the Coalition). They collapse into choosing between the alternatives immediately posed by bourgeois politics (Washington vs. Tehran, Labour vs. Tory), which are always impossible to answer satisfactorily precisely because capitalism is itself the problem.
But nonetheless I think this ‘left common sense’ about the SWP misses the point. It does not relate to SWP comrades as comrades. They join that group because they want to make a better world, their highest ideals little different from anyone else on the left’s. Many do so because it is the biggest group, or due to the accident that the SWP was the first set of activists they come across. The SWP may well – certainly do – fuck up campaigns and struggles, but not because they actually want to.
Moreover, their desire for collective organising or to pull people into political activism is ultimately borne of a healthy instinct. Pulling together people in the same workplaces or communities into joint action is clearly superior to atomised individuals feeling they can do nothing. As such the appropriate attitude is not to ignore or flatly denounce ‘the Trots’, both of which attitudes merely keep these comrades at a distance, but rather to more consistently engage with their ideas. I feel the text of ALARM’s leaflet was sort-of-OK in this regard, although it failed to explain what exactly is wrong with the SWP and exaggerated anarchist successes in Spain or UK Uncut.
Having attended Marxism each of the last eight years – and been called a ‘sectarian’ and worse more than most people – I have no illusions that winning over SWPers is easy, and clearly tonnes of people in the SWP believe all other groups including us to be irrelevant, slightly fruity sects. But given the great contradictions of a zig-zagging organisation, and its very high membership turnover, we have a responsibility to ensure the people put off by the way the SWP work do not develop hostility towards the left, or organisation, in general, but rather instead join our own, positive project. If ‘the Trots’ are too self-promoting, it is too easy to react by recoiling into a sort of self-deprecating passivity, or taking their enthusiasm as a bit of a joke.
How we relate to them
As the saying goes, the biggest group on the left is the ex-SWP. If we want to build revolutionary organisation and ideas in this country, we have a responsibility to address that problem. If indeed the way ‘the Trots’ organise discredits and weakens the left, what are we going to do about it? Will there be tens of thousands of isolated ex-members – many put off or expelled for the same reasons – or can we engage these comrades in discussion as to what are the right lessons to draw? Far from me to say that our focus should just be on the left, or people already in organised groups, but libertarians ought to at least relate to these people. Otherwise, someone put off by the SWP’s bureaucratism or insistent self-promotion could as easily drift into reformist campaigning as turn to a libertarian communist organisation.
Moreover, we should try and undercut the SWP in doing those things they do best. The fact that we raise difficult questions about how the left organises or what society we want to see, and provide an open forum for debate, is not opposed to but rather should go hand-in-hand with being positive and outgoing. One way in which The Commune are going to do this will be with our new paper. We will be greatly increasing our circulation and also handing it out for free. This should allow for a wider propagation of our ideas and better engagement with the broader activist left. Similarly, we hope those who find our ideas of interest will be willing to help distribute the paper, even if they do not feel prepared to join our network.
I say all this largely as self-criticism. At Marxism this weekend the leaflet I authored was rather-too cynical, and we did not do enough to build for our fringe meeting, which attracted about fifteen people. We did do a stall on three of the five days, sold some papers and gave out a lot of leaflets. But given some of the conversations we had, I feel that a more systematic intervention would have been worthwhile. First and foremost this is a matter of speaking to people at the stall, on the grass outside UCL, in the bars. But going and making points in the meetings would also have been worth it: however little time they give you, it would have been worth making our presence better felt.
We will never likely be in the same organisation as the SWP, still less some electoralist left unity project like Respect. The left is riven with in-fighting, sectarianism and people who won’t even talk to people in other groups. But the answer to this is not to turn away in disgust, but to try and combat this culture. If we do not take responsibility for addressing what is wrong with the existing organised left, we will never overcome the barriers the big Trot groups pose to revolutionary organisation.