Take this line from Alex Callinicos's contribution to number four of the SWP's pre-conference bulletin, for example:
The problem is compounded by the fact that we have seen the most important working- class action this year – the public-sector pay revolt – collapse in the last couple of months. This is all the more significant because it was the doing of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. This partly because of the pessimism of large sections of the left – the apparent belief of the Socialist Party, for example, that economic recession automatically means a collapse in working-class resistance.As a member of the Socialist Party and a reader of its publications, this came as a bit of a shock to me. It makes you wonder how the SP can simultaneously hold the belief that we're entering a more favourable period for socialist ideas while the very agency of those ideas, the working class, is politically paralysed. Is this a case of dialectics moving in mysterious ways? Or is it a clumsy misreading of the SP's position by brother Callinicos? It's certainly a case of the latter. The nearest SP publications have come to describing such a scenario is the idea the economic downturn could stun sections of the working class. And guess what, there is some evidence this is happening. Take for example the acceptance by JCB workers of wage cuts in return for no job losses, as opposed to a struggle to defend their position (an agreement management has already reneged on). Or take the Woolworth's fiasco - there is resistance, but primarily of a petitioning/Facebook campaigning character. See the narrow vote in the PCS ballot for strike action. Some of the responsibility can be heaped in the sections of the trade unions, but it tends not to be the case of bureaucrats derailing action. Rather it's a case of the passivity of the membership that let them get away with doing very little, which itself is a legacy of decades of neoliberal attacks. But whatever, recognising how a recession can impact on some parts of the class in the short term is not it is the same thing as saying that recession means a collapse in working class resistance, is it?
Unfortunately, this has probably gone down into SWP legend, alongside the fiction the SP is weak on LGBT rights, we do not stand in elections, and all members are required to carry a photo of the executive in their purses and wallets. But this is a two way street, and it's only fair and balanced we take a look at the myths that have aggregated around an SWP position. And the one that comes to mind is Tony Cliff's theory of the downturn in the class struggle, which he formulated in the late 1970s. This theory was not, as it immediately appears, an argument that class struggle was going to be less intense in the 1980s. Instead it was a forecast that workers' disputes would tend to be of a defensive character. Not all struggles, but the general trend would be in this direction. It was not an iron law and could have been changed by, say, the victory of the miners. But it has become generally accepted that Cliff and his comrades had come up with a recipe for passivity - the same crime Callinicos accuses the SP today!
All too often workers in the polemical foundry take opponents' political positions and bend them into shapes unrecognisable to their author. This is used to attribute foolishness to that position, which in turn feed into the established divisions on the left. Wouldn't it be better to take arguments in their own terms and respond to them as they stand? How about it? Is it too much to expect the far left to develop a polemical culture that owes more to understanding and solidarity over invective and distortion?