This is a guest post by Senex
In so many ways you are right. Things are far worse than they were in March. Habits of lying, which were once occasional, have become general. “Delta has been removed from the payroll”. No he hasn’t; he works full-time in a job funded, controlled, and set up for him by our leadership. “A commission is investigating the disputes procedures.” A commission has indeed been chosen, but every one of its members had signed the CC statement. Not one of them believed in January that our disputes procedures required reform. Why should we expect them in May or July to do anything other than provide the old system with their fresh support?
The bullying has been every bit as bad as it ever was. Dissident comrades have been spat at in pubs by members of the party loyal to the CC. Other dissidents, waiting for the CC to decide their complaints against loyalists who treated them abysmally during the recent faction fight, might as well wait till hell itself freezes over. “An amnesty has been declared; the DC will not investigate any complaints against any comrades subject to complaints between the two conferences.” But there is an exception to the general amnesty: if the accusation is that you spoke against the leadership, then you should expect disciplinary action to be taken. For some, it has already been taken. This supposed amnesty turns out to be for one side only.
When it comes to the urgent crises of the present, the rise of an old racism in new clothes, the party’s publications have nothing to say. There is a reason for the paper’s vacuity; its sole focus is on preparing an ageing, narrow cadre for the next stage of their faction fight against us. This is the revolution comrades; composite 1 rather than composite 2, public sector strikes without any ideas as to how they might be different from the last, unsuccessful round of public sector strikes, and in the faint, long-distant future (whisper it quietly), the possibility that we rather than the Socialist Party might provide the next General Secretary of one of the teaching unions.
The SWP represents a small packet of historical potential, the genius of a few insights, the memory of some extraordinary people. Its credit is almost exhausted. Give it a few more months like the last two and the residue will be gone. “The party crisis is silent”, a supporter of the leadership announces. Another comrade, of five decades standing, whispers at the back of the room: “it is the silence of the grave.”
You are right to be passionate. And yet ... history is full of examples of people who by acting too soon jeopardised the very campaigns which meant the most to them. We think of Rosa Luxemburg as a lifelong champion of spontaneous action. Her last, fatal campaign was a failed attempt to stop her young comrades launching an insurrection too soon. Wouldn’t Trotsky have done better to put off his plans for military conscription, tested them on a few friends, rather than rush to publishing a programme which for a decade afterwards the Stalinists were able to throw back at him: “you’re against military labour discipline? It was your idea!” There is of course no need to be grandiose; we do not have 150 Trotskys, nor 100 Luxemburgs (and nor are they a disciplined army of 500 Lenins). Any activist after more than a few months’ campaigning will have seen for themselves the difference between an idea that was right but the timing was wrong, and one whose moment had come.
One vice of the opposition, from its inception, has been our shared failure to address the consequences of the difference between its student members and those who work. The former inhabit a different universe, politics happens more quickly. Other people’s mistakes haunt you faster. The need to justify your positions is more urgent. If what you say in one part of your activity is demonstrably contradicted by your activity in the rest of your life, you have an audience. At meetings, or when you sell the paper, people know. They point out the contradiction to you.
For comrades who work, it is different. A few years activism in your union and you will have built up a certain credit. The legacy of what you’ve got right previously protects you against other people’s errors. You may absolutely well know that this has been the biggest political crisis of your entire life, and the leadership has been unequivocally on the wrong side. The thought must be there; if they could get something this simple, so badly wrong, how could you trust them not to be this bad again in any other crisis? But one moment’s conviction leads inexorably to a second of caution. The temptation is always to withdraw back to what you know best.
Student timescales encourage talk of resolving a crisis before the autumn; few people in work face the same urgency. The pressure will be to delay as long as is possible. You have to recall what ten years of crisis leadership has done to the age-profile of the organisation: after the students, the next silvers of comrades are in their early 30s, and then around 40. The real numbers of SWP members do not kick in until you get to the 1980s generation in their early 50s. People who have been in an organisation for almost all their adult lives will not rush to leave.
Even on the campuses, we should not exaggerate the difficulty of winning new members to “a reform SWP” perspective. The votes at NUS conference, where less than one in 30 delegates were members of the SWP (i.e. the votes were decided not by the party, but by our potential audience) showed clearly that people outside our ranks understand the moral difference between the comrades who fought against the leadership, and those who sided with oppression: 189 votes for a fighter, and 15 votes for the stooge. On paper, they were both members of the same organisation. Outside the party’s ranks, everyone could see the difference.
A party of 200 or 300 students would be infinitely more fragile that a group of 100 workers. The best student networks are based on intense circles of friendship; the end of the three years of a degree course breaks this up. The best activists, usually in the second or final year of their studies, have by definition just 8 or 20 months of university life left. Countless generations of radical students have been lost to the movement not through a lack of will, but because of the extraordinary discipline that is needed to adjust from the relatively-political atmosphere on campus, to the depoliticised atmosphere in most workplaces. And that is before you think how difficult it has become for any ex-student to find a job anymore which has a recognised union, and any sort of political atmosphere, even a diminished one.
This is why the brief period, from October to January, is so significant. In our strange, indefensible calendar of 3 months of relative democracy and 9 months of silence, it is the only occasion when the majority of comrades are confronted with the extraordinary gap there is between how we think about our politics, and how our politics looks to everyone in our audience. The black mirror of the internet gives a distorting image, but it is nevertheless a mirror. It shows us something of how other people see us. Other people know that this is our calendar; that everything builds up to a conference where the old leadership will either be replaced in its entirety, or it will not, and (if not) the party’s last chance of renewal will be gone.
There is a logic to what I am saying; that people will have to start preparing now for the battles in the autumn. We should not be planning on the basis of “set piece” articles published in waves to coincide with the internal bulletins. We need to duplicate rather the internal culture of last year, in which a very large number of people were writing, using every outlet available to them. There would be good reasons to be setting aside now articles, arguments, ideas for publication in the autumn. There are a range of positions where the party’s thinking has become outdated: on class, on oppression, on democracy, on the nature of neo-liberalism… We need to show the practicality of next January’s central argument: that the present leadership is running the organisation into the ground but that there is an alternative leadership in waiting and that the narrow leadership faction does not know best. It will not be easy, the maths make victory almost impossible. Without some significant movement of the middle ground, which is so unlikely as to be almost impossible, our best chance is very heavy defeat. And yet what have socialists ever done in circumstances of isolation but to argue and to fight? We plan to defeat capitalism don’t we: and in that battle, what forces can we presently call on?
In the branches, when comrades who identify with the leadership try to pick on you; respond with politics. “We need a Leninist party”. Aye, but I am a Cliffite, and I remember how much he wrote about Lenin and how little about Leninism. “There are five big meetings coming up over the summer, we need to build them.” Good, and when we have built them what, really, do we will hope they will produce? “The district organiser has appointed a branch committee, and the branch committee has decided what tasks you are required to carry out.” Yes, but I believe in this revolutionary idea, you may have heard of it, it is called socialism from below.
Argue for different meeting titles. Argue for a wider set of speakers. Make the first half of the meetings longer, and force the old guard for the first time in decades to read: Duncan Hallas, Paul Foot, Dave Widgery… Tell them what you have been reading, and how much livelier it is than the ideas now in SW.
We need to cohere as many people as possible. “It is so difficult”, comrades say, “there are barely a couple of hundred of us left. Yes, but 200 people in an organisation of 2000 is a serious number. Get to January, fight, and if we lose, we leave. To be 200 people then, in a population of 60 million. That is isolation.
It is May now. Those outside are no longer watching us so closely. And they matter more than we do. The goal is not to reunite the fragments of the Socialist Workers Party. The goal is not to make a party hospitable enough for the ISO to be able to resume fraternal greetings. The goal is not to get “one over” our former comrades in the IS Network. The goal is a mass party, which a decent leavening of the best comrades carrying into that organisation something of the IS tradition. The large majority of the potential members of the party are neither in the SWP right now, nor in any other organisation. And yet, all the time, they are watching us.
How could we explain to anyone we might hope to rally to our banner: “in March 2012, the party made a decision that was indefensible.” “Ok, why, then did you leave months later? If it was right to stay in March but wrong in the summer, what had changed in the interim?” “Well, nothing had changed, but …” There couldn’t be an explanation, or no good one that I can think of. “I did not want to stay to fight it out one last time, because I was not finding the party hospitable.” Of course it’s not. There was a faction fight; and, we lost. More is to play for than our personal comfort. What is at stake is whether any fragment of the present, decaying SWP will have the moral authority to play any part in the left realignments of the future. I still believe that there is enough good left in the party so that we deserve to be heard, but we must earn the right to speak. And that means staying a little longer...