Brother A began his lead off at last night's branch meeting by observing how bitching about the SWP is almost a bonding exercise among leftists outside its ranks. Perhaps I'm unique because I haven't had what you would call bad experiences with the SWP. At a Derby SWP branch meeting many moons ago I was told contemporary criticisms of the anthropology underlying Engels' Origin of the Family were "bourgeois". Then there was the time they kept on at me to join - it go so bad I did just that to appease my would-be comrades (I resigned 12 hours later, is that the shortest SWP membership in history?) And how can I forget being on a demo last year and getting told by a young activist from Tower Hamlets SWP-Respect that the Socialist Party didn't stand candidates in elections? They aren't too bad. Many comrades can speak of worse (in fact, I get on very well with Stoke SWP, such as it exists). However A said it's not enough to tell each other stories about the SWP. To understand why it does what it does requires a sober analysis of its theoretical approach, its organisation, its strategy and its tactics.
He gave brief outlines and criticisms of the SWP's positions on state capitalism and the national question (extended critiques can be found here and here). But the biggest problem in its politics comes down to a question of programme. It is to the International Socialist tradition's credit that it saw the flaws in Trotsky's Transitional Programme of 1938, but Cliff and co mistakenly threw out the transitional baby along with Trotsky's programmatic water.
To reiterate the basics: the transitional method is about raising demands that relate to the present consciousness of working class people. These act as a bridge to the drawing of socialist conclusions. For example, the reversal of PFI, abolition of internal markets, the taking back of sub-contracted services and the extension of democratic control by patients and staff in the NHS are all demands that are theoretically possible in the here and now. But if workers and patient groups take up these demands would quickly run up against the logics of the system. They become aware through their own experiences of the forces arrayed against them and some may reach socialist conclusions. To get these demands taken up by large numbers of workers in the first place is no mean feat. Socialists have to skilfully and patiently relate them to the uneven consciousness of working class people. If one's demands are too far ahead they want get a decent hearing. If they're too far behind there is the danger socialists could hold back the development of class consciousness.
A programme of transitional demands that is constantly enriched by engagement with our class is vital for any socialist organisation. It keeps our feet on the ground. It tells us what policies, demands and campaigns are likely to gain an echo among our class. Therefore the SWP's rejection of the transitional approach is its major political flaw. Without it the organisation as a whole is dependent on the direction of its leadership to steer it. And with no programmatic strategy to guide them the SWP can find itself all over the place. This is exacerbated by a political culture that stymies debate in the organisation and reduces its capacity to learn from its mistakes. Factions are only permissible in the three month period prior to conference after which they are expected to dissolve. Such measures ensure that if opposition congeals around certain questions it can never act as a serious alternative to the present leadership. Ties of patronage between the London-based apparatus and full timers in the regions mean the latter depend on the former for their livelihoods and will, in the most part, work to undermine opposition where and when it appears. It is no accident none of the comrades critical of the leadership's handling of the Respect crisis were delegated to the last conference.
This culture finds an expression outside its ranks in its relations with other left groups and activists, none of which really need going into. The flip side of this bureaucratic approach to socialist politics is what A termed a light-minded approach. Because the leadership is substituted for the programme what drives its strategy is the need to secure its existence. This means subordinating activity to party building and paper selling. Consistent work by the SWP in certain areas on certain issues are the exception rather than the norm.
To back this up, J, a Burslem postal worker, noted the SWP were not interested in the events at her depot until the campaign around the 12 suspended posties gathered national momentum. They occasionally turned up on picket lines at the beginning of the year and were all over the national demonstration that took place. They haven't been seen since. This compares unfavourably with Stoke SP's behaviour, who have consistently been involved with solidarity work from the very beginning and continue to do so.
P offered an observation about the SWP's commitment to 'socialism from below'. The key conclusion Cliff drew from his state capitalist analysis of the USSR was you cannot have a workers' state without the workers, regardless of how degenerate or deformed it may be. This was because if socialism was anything it was the outcome of conscious self-activity of the workers themselves. By fetishising "proletarian" property forms at the expense of actual social relations of production, adherents of Trotsky's "orthodox" degenerate workers' state position on the Soviet Union lay themselves open to the risk of supporting all kinds of non-working class movements and forces, if there is a chance a deformed workers' state (albeit one without the workers) is set up. It's ironic that the SP and CWI - the majority of whom who hold to Trotsky's classical analysis - pursues a politics far closer to Cliff's vision of socialism from below. While the SP believes hope lies with the proles across the world's geopolitical hotspots the SWP finds itself tailing various 'anti-imperialist' regimes and movements.
He also spoke of the SWP's lurch from ultra-leftism to opportunism in the trade union movement. He recalled how the SWP greeted the end of the 2005 pensions dispute between the PCS and the government with shouts of 'sell out!' Contrast this with their stance during the postal workers' national strike last year. CWU president Jane Loftus is a well known member of the SWP and refused to publicly campaign for a no vote to the deal on the table. By the same token the SWP more or less gave the CWU leadership an easy ride in the pages of Socialist Worker. So what was the difference between the two? In the PCS the dominant left trend is the SP. In the CWU it is the SWP. In the former it was about attacking opponents and acquiring factional advantage. The latter was about keeping that advantage. Once again the requirements of the SWP apparatus came before the needs of our class.
F recounted the year he spent within the SWP. They were the first socialists he had come across and was attracted to them on the basis of their anti-BNP stance. But very quickly he became disillusioned. On an anti-fascist mobilisation somewhere in the West Midlands, he remembered "we were screaming 'Nazi scum off our streets!' much to the bemusement of the locals whose streets we were walking through!" He concluded what was needed was a class-based electoral alternative to the BNP, seeing as vote-catching is their priority, for the moment. Militant-sounding slogans combined with alliances with Tories and vicars is not the best way of fighting fascism.
In sum the discussion helped clarify some of the differences between our organisation and the SWP. It was useful because Stoke SP hasn't had to "compete" with a local SWP branch for over a decade. But now our fair city is the site of two key struggles - Burslem and Keele - chances are we'll be bumping up against them again.