Q: What’s wrong with this picture? A: The placards

Here are some situations in which the phrase “I used to be in the Socialist Worker’s Party” might not stand you in good stead:

  • On your professional CV
  • On your Guardian Soulmates dating profile
  • On your personal blog*

Here goes my online street cred: I was, for a stint at university, a few years in Dublin in the mid-nineties and another short period in London about ten years ago, a member of the SWP. I embodied some of the most oft- and rightly-criticised traits:

  1. A simplistic view of the world. I used to write reviews for the party newspaper of cultural products, such as books and films, evaluating them solely in terms of their contribution to the building of the revolutionary party. I also believed that there could be a thing called a ‘revolution’, just like in 1917 (or at least in Eisenstein’s inspiring rendition of it), which would be over by teatime and would not inspire a phenomenally violent and complex period of post- and counterrevolutionary violence. As recently as 2013, when I was involved in the laudable but short-lived initiative Left Unity, I witnessed an actual non-tongue-in-cheek discussion in the pub between SWP members about what they would do “on the day after the revolution”. Luckily George Orwell was just out of hearing distance (buying some more crisps at the bar as I recall), otherwise he might have eaten them all alive.
  2. Sectarianism. I viewed members of similar political organisations as more significant enemies of the class struggle than the police and the army, regarding them as rival species to be wiped out in the struggle for survival and eventual (but inevitable) triumph. I was not so much an activist as an evangelist.
  3. My main political concern was with the growth of the organisation, evidenced by increased newspaper sales, better-attended meetings, larger and louder demonstrations called and led by us, and the visibility of our placards on media coverage of said demos**. Of course, all of these things waxed and waned, but I was encouraged to believe that there was a deeper historical trend at work, that people were angrier than ever before and that provided they would get on the bus to the demonstration we would be able, nay obliged to, recruit them so they would sell the paper to their friends and workmates and the whole pyramid would grow to the point where the working class would soon be gleefully hurling the heads of capitalists down it.
  4. Hijacking events, using demonstrations and meetings in a purely instrumental way to build the party rather than the campaign itself. Oh, how we got sick and tired of being accused of doing this. Oh, how I got sick and tired of actually doing it, until the point where I became deeply cynical and (repeatedly) left the organisation.

How is this relevant in June 2017? Because the organisation is reclaiming a certain protagonism. On demonstrations over the Grenfell tragedy its placards are ubiquitous. This is, I think, dangerous for the reasons suggested above and also because:

Firstly, the SWP tends to mislead. Its chief figures are articulate and very adept at getting themselves onto platforms, but their strategy and tactics will lead any given movement down the same garden path to where the fairies live, on smaller and smaller national demostrations until everyone just stays at home and shouts at the TV instead.

Secondly, the prominent presence of the SWP is off-putting in at least three ways. Firstly, to the public. Someone once waggishly pointed out that the largest political group on the British Left is made up of ex-SWP members. Even for people who’ve never read the paper or attended a protest, Socialist Worker placards are a sign that the usual suspects are up to their old tricks again. Then there’s the fact that it allows the media to misrepresent the protest as a rentamob, as happened on Twitter last night in relation to the protests in Central London. Thirdly, it alienates potential campaigners and activists in the longer-term, in that very many people who come into contact with the organisation become, like me, cynical towards all forms of radical political activity and deeply undemocratic in their attitudes to the organisation of political campaigns.

Now, there remains an important thing to say, which is that for all the faults of the organisation, individual members of it should not be demonized. Despite the sometimes horrendous and often shameful antics of some of its leading members over the last few years, which have left many to abandon their political home (to be replaced each September by a new cohort of fresher-faced footsoldiers), most long-standing SWP members I’ve known have been heartfelt in their belief that the party is the best thing for society. To call them all ‘rape apologists’ is counterproductive and wrong. They’re mistaken and possibly morally compromised, but they are sincere***. Nevertheless, their attempts to play a leading role, whether in the Grenfell campaign or in Momentum should (continue to) be rejected. If other activists in the movement  don’t tell them, to use a phrase that’s been doing the rounds, to ‘get stuffed’, the right-wing media will use the presence of the party to discredit all those involved. 

The SWP is a bureaucracy and as such its aim is to survive and thrive, regardless of the success or failure of whatever cause it attaches it to. My past involvement in the party tells me that as an organisation (just like one or two very similar parties) it does not have the best interests of any given campaign at heart.

*Although I hope its obvious that I’ve only mentioned it in one of those contexts, I do admire the example of a perma-unemployed friend of mine who, when forced to produce a resume in one of those “HANDS OFF ME PENS!” job clubs mandated by the DSS came up with a piece of paper with his name, address and the details of his erstwhile role as local SWP branch secretary.

**Basically a branding exercise.

***It was meeting some very impressive and charming individual activists in East London in around 2007 that led me to briefly become a member again.

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