Sunday, January 08, 2006

Why hasn't the SWP grown?


Whatever the exact numerical facts, it's clear from the exchange between John Molyneux (pictured right) and the SWP Central Committee that in the last 10 years the SWP has numerically stagnated and even declined. Probably the decline is less than the 50% implied by Molyneux, if only because the real membership of 10 years ago was significantly exaggerated.
Before we get into the real reasons for this situation, let's make one comment on the tone. Leaderships get blamed for everything and minority critics often carp unjustifiably. But even if the author of the reply to Molyneux doesn't exactly take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the reply is pretty shirty, and indeed doesn't acknowledge that John Molyneux has done anything positive in asking for reflection on some of these problems.
Also the reply reveals, in its dismissal of the idea that John Molyneux might become a member of the CC, the extremely small size of the SWP's CC (maybe 10 people) for an organisation of 4000+. A tendency towards a top-heavy regime politically is almost built into this conception of a very small and extremely homogenous central leading body. The SWP leadership should (but won't) think about this problem. The question of style internally is connected to how you function externally as well.

John Molyneux has raised a very important problem, and it is not one that just affects one organisation. Unofficial discussion hints that the Australian DSP, deeply involved in the anti-war movement and the Oz Socialist Alliance, has also stagnated. In my view there are objective problems, not of the SWP's making, but there are also some subjective errors which the SWP has made.

The objective problem, touched upon in the SWP discussion and by Molyneux's contribution in particular, is the nature of the radicalisation today. How is it possible that the SWP is the central leadership of a coalition that mobilises two million people on the streets, and yet the SWP itself does not grow? At first blush this seems extraordinary. Remember the recent anti-war movement was much bigger, much, much bigger than the anti-Vietnam war movement - a time when every left organisation, even the most bizarre Maoists, grew. So what's the difference? This radicalisation is much broader but much more shallow. That's why when, three years ago, members of my local SWP branch said "this is better than '68", they were talking nonsense (I don't claim the SWP leadership agreed with that, by the way). This shallowness of political vision, this distance from the workers movement and socialism, is true both of the global justice movement and of the anti-war movement. And its shows the exaggeration in dubbing this movement universally an 'anti-capitalist movement'. It clearly isn't.

Of course it's different according to geographical area and according to some fairly random variables. In Latin America, where the anti-globalisation movement has linked with mass revolt against neoliberalism, the situation is clearly different to the advanced capitalist countries. In any case, much of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement never considers revolutionary socialism or Marxism as an alternative. This is not so much about the fall of the Berlin Wall which was much more important in countries where there was a big Communist Party.More important is the perceived lack of perspective in workers struggles, the evident organisational and ideological weakness of the workers movement, and especially the trade union movement, in the advanced countries. (Look at the ease with which the American ruling class swotted the New York transit workers strike.) That, together with the absence of an apparent major challenge to imperialism in the form of the Soviet Union and its allies, marks the major difference with the late '60s. People who come along and talk about socialism and communism seem to many young people today to be, well, fossils. Especially when a lot of the people who do that talking are indeed quite a bit older than them.

On the other hand this picture is partial, incomplete and therefore one-sided. There are examples where socialism has had the wind in its sails in the past period, for example the Scottish Socialist Party (even if that has been slowed by the Sheridan crisis); and of course the Left Bloc in Portugal, which has the advantage of deputies and a 'star' figure who get major and almost nightly coverage on TV.

At one time it seemed that the Socialist Alliance and maybe Respect could go in a similar direction. But with these formations the SWP has made major tactical mistakes, even if they are not the main cause of its failure to grow. First, the Socialist Alliance. If the SWP had been really committted to an open and pluralist approach, and had really driven the Alliance forward when there were 2 million people on the streets, the results could have been different. But they did not. On the contrary SWP members were forbidden to give out Alliance leaflets or march behind Alliance banners, amnd made instead to sell Socialist Worker. In the Alliance and Respect, the SWP have suffered from an unfinished cultural revolution, which now threatens to go back and not forward - just like what happened in the Militant/Socialist Party in the mid 1990s.

When the London Socialist Alliance election campaign was launched nearly 6 years ago there seemed a genuine enthusiasm among a layer of SWPers for working with the rest of the far left, and an openess towards the SWP on the part of the rest of the left, with the possible exception of the Socialist Party. Some of the smaller groups subsequently behaved in a stupidly factional way, in particular the unreformable Workers Liberty and Workers Power groups. The Socialist Party also angled for factional advantage and when it found none, walked out of the Alliance. Nonethless the SWP have largely failed to convince the rest of the far left, either organisations or unattached individuals, of its real respect for pluralism and democratic functioning. This is not just about the gut responses of the long-term SWP cadre at local level, trained in a rather limited propaganda routine. It is about overall perspectives.

The refusal of the SWP to countenance the Alliance or Respect moving towards being a party-type formation affected the political (and personal) relationships of everyone involved. Because the SWP's line that there formations were basically electoral fronts and indeed "united fronts of a special kind" said to everyone else "We are the real Marxist party, you are a subordinate part of our united front tactic and we will not allow you to get anywhereor have any significant influence; we will use of our majority to maintain an iron grip". In other words, far from it being the broad party idea that would have created anomalies, the party-united front relationship envisaged by the SWP as the relationship between itself an all the other socialists, embedded factional inequality into the sinews of these formationsfrom the beginning. The SWP's vice-like grip means that independents and even the ISG were feted so long as they did not develop differences; then brutally dumped from the SWP-organised inner-circle caucuses when they did.

The outcome for Respect is not yet clear, although the current unbelievable antics of George Galloway, and his preposterous attempts to justify them, do not auger well. The fight to build an alternative to New Labour has many twists and turns to go through before a broad socialist party is built.

3 Comments:

At 4:05 AM, Blogger noel said...

but...the SWP has grown 10% in the last year...you mean why hasn't the SWP grown massively out of the movements on the last year...which is actually a question you could ask of most of the revolutionary left in Europe who haven't faired much better

 
At 3:18 AM, Anonymous Bad Matthew said...

In the mid-90s it was pretty obvious that the real membership of the SWP was around 5,000. They claimed 10,000 on the basis of how many people filled in membership forms, but I distinctly remember a branch meeting at the start of the year where no-one knew anything about half the people who were meant to be in the branch, not even half of them. There is merit to the SWP's open-shouldered 'join and get involved' policy, just as there are deep problems about continuous exaggeration. The trouble with John Molyneux's excellent challenge, which can only lead to greater debate, is that it is 10 years to late!.
One reason for thinking the real membership in the mid-90s was attendance at the annual conference: that looks a lot smaller now, so the subs-paying membership must be less than 5000 and we have to ask how many of those are active.
When Moti says the SWP has grown 10% in the lasy year, can I ask what the absolute figures are: 10% bigger than what number?
In the mid-90s I mithered one comrade about membership size so much that he went and asked Chris Harman and Harman's reply was that there were two parties, an old party stuck in the past and a dynamic new party... and this was before Seattle and all those exciting things that have happened since.

 
At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Kronsteen said...

I am still in the SWP after six years for two reasons.

First, it's the only party with the size and organisation to make any difference.

And second, because of John Molyneux and people like him, who resist the ingrained habit of exagerating success, explaining away defeat, relentless and baseless manic optimism, and sometimes actually lying to membership.

The choice is to stick with an SWP that has a list of faults as long as both your arms...or effectively give up on marxism, left reformism, the anti-war movement, most trade unionism, and indeed much hope for the future.

 

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