Tuesday 28 April 2015

SWP Statement on the IS List

Here's a blast from the past. 20 years back when the Internet was a shiny new thing for some and a rumour for others, there was a rumpus over online goings ons. Long forgotten now, the International Socialist List was established to specifically discuss the politics, the history and, let's be truthful, the gossip of and about the IS tradition and its leading section, the Socialist Workers Party. Known then, as now, for not having the most liberal of internal regimes, when the Central Committee got wind of the list's existence they issued the missive below. Make of it what you will.

Why publish this very old news now? When I was putting together my short chapter on the recent political history of British Trotskyism for this fine tome, in the plethora of end notes accompanying the piece I had lost track of this document. It seemed to have disappeared from the internet - the old link had been operative in 2005 and not since. So for scholars and people interested in such things, here's the document for all to view for what could be the rest of time.

Many thanks to @EddieTruman for digging it out of his files.


For some time a number of members of various organisations belonging to the IS Tendency have been linked together on the internet through what is known as the IS-List. This arrangement seems to have been the result of a private initiative by comrades in various countries. As far as we can tell the leaderships of their organisations were not consulted; certainly no reference was made to the SWP Central Committee. The justification for this arrangement has been that it is a useful way of sharing information among comrades in different countries.

In fact, very little hard information is sent out through the IS-List, and what there is usually banal or irrelevant (e.g. a message sent out by a British comrade announcing to the world that John Major had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party). Much of the content of the messages consists in trivialities and gossip about the internal affairs of various groups. Many of the keenest participants are inactive members of their groups; some are involved in oppositional factions.

Moreover, communications are carried out on the IS-List without consideration for the most basic question of security. We have in recent years taken steps to tighten up security, particularly with respect to comrades' carrying around names and addresses on them when engaged in political activity, and to their use of the telephone. But users of the IS-List seem to subscribe to the fantasy that communication via the internet is fundamentally more secure than that on the telephone. This is, to say the least, an extremely naive attitude. One leading SWP advocate of the IS-List has already shown by his extremely irresponsible use of a comrade's name on e-mail that he cannot be trusted with comrades' security. This kind of attitude could seriously endanger our sister organisations operating under illegal conditions.

The highly dubious nature of the IS-List was confirmed by its users' reaction to the meeting at Marxism 95 on the internet. One comrade who dared to challenge the media-promoted mania for the internet that seems to have affected some on the left was subjected to repeated, scurrilous attack, both at the meeting and on the list. The leaderships of the SWP and of other groups were accused of 'technophobia' and a desire to suppress debate.

The Central Committee has decided that members of the SWP should not use the IS-List. This is not intended as a blanket ban on comrades' communicating by e-mail, though when doing so they should respect elementary considerations of security.

Our reasons taking this decision have nothing to do with any alleged fear of technological innovation. On the contrary: we are currently discussing arrangements which will allow our sister papers to get quick access to Socialist Worker on the internet. But we do not make a fetish of new technology. In particular, any sensible socialist should not fall for the immense hyping of the internet by papers like the Guardian, or for the postmodernist arguments that the net represents a radical democratisation of society. Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal, and conditioned by the bosses' domination of the economy and the state.

Our reasons for specifically banning SWP members from participating in the IS-List are as follows:

1. Security: The internet is not a secure form of communication. Most comrades have access to the internet through their job. Their employers will therefore be able to read their messages. There is, in any case, no way of protecting communication via the internet from surveillance by the state. Moreover, though each new subscriber to the IS-List must be proposed by a current one, there seems to be no mechanism for removing people who leave an IS group from the list. As it is, some of the most enthusiastic British defenders of the IS-List after Marxism 95 are not registered members of the SWP. Hostile left organisations can therefore easily penetrate the list and take part in discussions that do not concern them.

2. Democratic Discussion and Accountability: Only a small minority of our members have access to the internet. This reflects the fact that internet users are, in general, concentrated in universities and in upper-echelon white-collar jobs. Consequently discussions take place on the IS-List from which most comrades are excluded. Moreover, the international character of the list makes its users even less accountable. The IS Tendency is not an international organisation but a current composed of independent organisations who share the same politics. We therefore lack the means to make the list accountable to the organisations making up the Tendency. Political debate is essential in a healthy revolutionary organisation. But that debate takes place through the party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades can participate directly or through their elected delegates. Irresponsible gossip by a self-selected and relatively privileged clique is no substitute for discussion in a democratic centralist organisation.

3. A Diversion: It is clear that some comrades, particularly in other countries, have exaggerated political expectations of the internet. They do not understand that building our organisations depends above all on the face-to-face discussion involved in selling the paper and recruiting new members. The technological novelties of the internet, the world-wide-web, etc., seem to offer a short-cut, a substitute for the hard work involved in party-building. It is particularly alarming that members of some of our weakest groups are keen participants in the IS-List. It is a matter for the leaderships of other IS organisations to decide their attitude to the IS-List, but members of the SWP should do nothing to encourage these illusions.

Accordingly, members of the SWP are instructed not to use the IS-List. They are, of course, free to communicate by e-mail and to use the internet in other ways, but they should take the same care with security, particularly with comrades' names and addresses, as they should when talking on the telephone. Comrades who disagree with this decision are free to argue for its reversal in the pre-conference discussion period that is forthcoming, but they are still bound by our decision. Any failure to observe it will be subject to disciplinary action.

Central Committee

2 August 1995


Tim C said...

Hah, there's an element of 'stopped clock telling the right time twice a day' though with this:

"Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal, and conditioned by the bosses' domination of the economy and the state."

Phil said...

It's a classic of the internal document genre, if such a thing could be said to exist. If they could get away with it, they'd keep their members off the internet.