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SWP conference minority position and reply by Central Committee. (From Weekly Worker)
Why I have decided to stand - John Molyneux

I have decided to stand as a candidate for the CC at this year’s party conference in January. I intend to stand on a simple platform with two main planks:

(1) The need to face reality: I want to see more realism, more honesty and more balance in our political perspectives and in regard to the state of the party.

(2) The need for a more democratic culture in the party: I want to see more open debate and more involvement with the national committee and party members in decision-making. This document sets out the background to this decision and elaborates on these points.

A paradox

The reality is that we face a somewhat perplexing paradox. Since the end of the 90s, in particular since Seattle, we have argued that a process of political radicalisation was occurring internationally and nationally. We have responded to this radicalisation with three major strategic initiatives: enthusiastic participation in the international anti-capitalist movement, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect. Moreover, each of these responses has met with remarkable, at times truly spectacular, success. Yet after all this the fact is that the SWP not only hasn’t grown (despite innumerable urgings to do so), but is now numerically and organisationally weaker than it was in the 90s.

How do we explain this paradox? Unfortunately we do not have a coherent explanation because we have not really faced the fact that the problem exists.

Precisely because we have not so far squarely faced the facts, it is probably necessary, at this point, briefly to justify the assertion that we are “numerically and organisationally weaker”. At some point in the 90s - I think about 1994 - we announced that we had 10,000 members. We stuck to this claim, reiterating it again and again, into the new century. However, at the last conference in November 2004 we were told that we had 4,000-plus registered members and 4,000-plus unregistered members.

Unless the last year has seen a mass registration of the unregistered (and if so, why haven’t we heard about it?) this means we have about 4-5,000 members. So somewhere during this period of radicalisation and outward success the party appears to have lost up to 5,000 (50%) of its membership (without ever acknowledging that this was happening). In addition to this there is the evidence of one’s eyes of attendance at successive Marxisms, party conferences and councils and NC meetings, the anecdotal evidence about the state of the branches and the figures for Socialist Worker sales (about 7-8,000 per week or less).


Facing reality

It was Trotsky who said: “It is the first duty of a revolutionary party to look reality in the face”.

It was Tony Cliff who made this principle central to the International Socialist/SWP tradition from its foundation. It was crucial to the theory of state capitalism, to the non-catastrophist economic perspective of the permanent arms economy, to our attitude to the pseudo-Fourth Internationals and to the analysis of the downturn in 1979-80. “Revolutionaries must tell the truth to the working class”; “Don’t lie to the class, don’t lie to ourselves”. How often did Cliff repeat these maxims?

Yet somewhere along the line - I think it was particularly in the 90s - we started to lose sight of them. It was in relation to the membership figures that the departure from reality was most stark: we continued to claim 10,000 long after it was virtually impossible that we had that size of membership.

But it was not just over membership - a similar veil was thrown over the sales of Socialist Worker. Every week Party Notes would report excellent sales here and excellent sales there, but the overall figures were never given, never even spoken about in private.

The habit of talking things up and exaggeration (of the size of demos, meetings, Marxism, etc) became part of the culture of the leadership, all to sustain the morale of the members. For a period this seemed, on the surface, to work, with overt enthusiasm being maintained, but in the long run it proved counterproductive. A layer of the membership simply dropped out, while others sank into passivity and cynicism.


The perspective

At the bottom of all this was the question of the perspective. The reason we found it difficult to face reality was that reality was not conforming to the perspective. The perspective was not all wrong: it correctly identified many positive developments and opportunities. But it was one-sided: it failed to take sufficient account of negative features of the period.

A key problem, in my opinion, was our estimation of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism. We were right to identify this as fundamentally historically progressive and to argue that internationally it created a space for genuine socialist ideas to get a hearing. However, we seriously underestimated the extent to which it was perceived by millions, indeed hundreds of millions, as the defeat of socialism.

This led to what was a major characteristic of the 90s and is still with us today: namely a yawning gap between the large numbers who could be mobilised against various things (pit closures, the criminal justice bill, the nazis, ‘capitalism’, war) and the small number who could be recruited for active revolutionary socialism.

Failure to recognise this contradiction cost us dear, as we kept going for organisational structures - ever smaller branches, based on the idea that we could “grow and grow quickly” when the growth was not materialising.

Having an over-optimistic perspective was not, however, the most serious mistake. The most serious mistake was not facing up to it and correcting it when it was clear that it was not working - and this mistake was closely connected to the declining democratic culture in the party, to which I shall return.

Unfortunately, the problem of the perspective was compounded by two other important factors. First, the rather extraordinary fact that the British economy has enjoyed from 1992 to 2005 13 years of continuous growth.

Now it can be argued that this growth has not been as strong as Blair, Brown and the media claim, that underlying weaknesses persist, that it is fragile, and that it may be about to come to an end. But the fact remains that this was not our perspective: our perspective was one of increasing instability and crises, and the fact also remains that we have not come to terms, theoretically or politically, with this inconvenient reality.

Second, and clearly connected, is the historically low level of strikes and industrial struggle which has persisted throughout the period (at far lower levels, by the way, than in the period we identified as “the downturn”). Now this is a fact that the party has acknowledged, but it is not a fact we have analysed, explained or theoretically accounted for. Instead our approach has been to announce periodically that “the green shoots of recovery” were starting to appear and that the tide was about to turn. Yet these two basic facts - the state of the economy and industrial struggle - cannot fail to have serious implications for the development of the party.

Now I am not saying that I have solutions to all or any of these problems, but I do hope that by standing for the CC I can focus attention on the need to address them and that, should I be elected, I would become a voice within the leadership arguing persistently in favour of honest accounting and facing reality.
Party democracy

I have written before on the question of party democracy (in last year’s pre-conference bulletin). I stand by that argument and will not repeat it all here, but some things need to be said.

There is an intimate relationship between the question of facing reality and honest accounting and the level of party democracy. If members are not provided with adequate and honest information about the state of the party, it is very difficult for them to participate in democratic debate about its strategy and tactics. Moreover it is clear that they are not really expected to do so, whatever the formal democratic procedures.

In the course of the last 15 years or so there has hardly been a single significant challenge to the line of the CC on any major issue, nor till now has there been a contested election to the CC. This is not a normal state of affairs in the history of the socialist movement (just check out the history of the Bolsheviks, the Trotskyist movement under Trotsky or, indeed of the IS/SWP in the 60s, 70s and 80s). Nor in my view is it healthy. We need more debate and we need an atmosphere and culture that facilitates that debate.

Last year at the pre-conference party council and the conference there were signs of positive movement in this regard. Many members, myself included, hoped that we were going to see an improvement in the democratic life of the party. However, an episode has unfolded this summer which makes it clear that there is still a major problem.

Since before July a debate appears to have been running inside the leadership about the future of Socialist Review. As this debate has been conducted entirely in secret, I have only the sketchiest outline of its content and course (for example, I do not know who argued for what or why), but my understanding is that there was a proposal to close the Review and replace it with a monthly Socialist Worker supplement.

Apparently no agreement was reached on this and the proposal was shelved (temporarily?), but somewhere along the way the editor, Peter Morgan, departed the scene and was replaced by Chris Nineham.

My concern here is not the rights or wrongs of this issue, but that it was dealt with without consulting either the membership or its elected representatives in the shape of the NC (which met during the period). Surely the leadership, especially if they were divided, should have wanted to know what the membership thought about the Review before reaching a decision. Surely the decision would have been more likely to be correct if the opinions and wishes of the membership were taken into account.

I assume that at some point the matter would have been put to the NC, or perhaps will be put to conference, but as a virtual fait accompli with the CC and leading cadre lined up to support it. But I see no reason why there should not have been much wider involvement in the decision-making process.

There is a more general point here. I believe the party would be healthier and stronger if there was more involvement of the membership and the NC in decision-making. Obviously we are a combat party that often has to respond to events quickly and decisively, but equally there are a range of issues and decisions that could be put to the NC and branches for their input.

At the moment there is too strong a tendency to decide everything at the top and then simply to get the NC, branches and conference to endorse it. If this approach were adopted, I think the overall level of debate in the party would improve and so would attendance at NC meetings and conference and also, most importantly, the confidence of members in the party.

This then is the basis on which I am standing and, if elected, I shall argue to move the party in this direction while also working to strengthen and build the party in every way I can. Obviously as I am standing I hope people who agree with these ideas will vote for me and that in order to do so they will get themselves delegated to conference.

I am not sure whether this final paragraph needs to be written but in order to avoid misunderstandings let me make the following clear:

(1) I adhere completely to the historic positions of the SWP and the IS Tendency

(2) I strongly support, in theory and practice, the party’s united front initiatives including and especially the Respect project

3) I believe the success of these initiatives makes the need for an independent, strong and growing SWP greater than ever before.

 

Reply to Molyneux - Central Committee

Any member of the SWP who disagrees with the perspective for building the party presented by the central committee has not only the right, but the duty, to argue his or her position during the pre-conference period. And if they feel the disagreements are important enough, they are entitled to try to change the composition of the CC at conference. That is part of our being a democratic as well as a centralised organisation.

From the start we would like to make it clear that John Molyneux has every right to stand for the CC. However, John has not presented an alternative perspective for the period ahead.

In his second paragraph he asserts: “We have argued” for “three major strategic initiatives”, each of which “has met with spectacular success”. Who does he mean when he writes “we”? It is the central committee which has developed these initiatives and argued for them within the wider SWP, sometimes in the face of a degree of scepticism from some members. Yet this is the CC he wants to change because of a supposed inability to recognise “reality was not conforming to the perspective.”

It becomes clear by the sixth paragraph of his document, however, that he does have a complaint about perspective - not the present perspective, but that of one which guided the party in the past, through the 1990s. So it is not the line of the present CC he is challenging, but that of the CC of a decade ago - a CC that included only five of the present members (Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German, Chris Bambery and John Rees), alongside Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Pat Stack, Julie Waterson and Dave Hayes.

He claims the perspectives of that CC were wrong, on three points.


The fall of the wall

First, “a key problem was our estimation of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism”. We were not, apparently, pessimistic enough about its impact. What was the background against which we reacting? It was one in which much of the far left internationally were speaking as if the workers’ movement worldwide had suffered a major historical defeat. This miserablism led to the disintegration of many organisations (including the old CP in Britain) and to the battening down of the hatches of many others.

We argued, by contrast, that we were in for a decade which would see new struggles. The argument was particularly pertinent in Britain after Labour’s unexpected defeat in the 1992 election, which led to near-suicidal defeatism right across the left. If the CC had followed the line John is now proposing, the SWP would have gone along with this mood. We refused to and we were proved correct, with the revolt against the pit closures five months after that defeat, the strikes in France at the end of 1995, the shift in the popular mood that produced electoral victories for social democracy across Europe in late 1990s.


The economy

Second, John alleges that the “extraordinary fact that the British economy has enjoyed 13 years of continuous growth ... was not in our perspective”. Sorry, but this is simply false. Such growth might not have been expected in 1992 itself, amidst the Major’s government’s debacle with Black Wednesday, rising unemployment and record number of housing repossessions. But a quick look at Socialist Worker or the conference perspectives for subsequent years shows that we recognised renewed growth once it occurred. But we also recognised something which John completely ignores: the contradictory character of such growth, something which meant it was qualitatively different to growth in the first three post-war decades.

It was growth accompanied by massive devastation to traditional industries and jobs, with the effects still shown in the combined figures for those on unemployment and invalidity benefits. It was growth accompanied by a continual onslaught on welfare benefits, job security and conditions. It was growth which produced the high levels of popular bitterness which led to the devastation of the Tories in the 1997. Continuing bitterness, even if often politically undirected, lost Labour four million votes by the time of the 2001 election and half its membership by this year.


Class struggle

Thirdly, John claims: “The party has acknowledged” but “not ... analysed, explained or theoretically accounted for” the “historically lower level of strikes and industrial struggle”. What does he mean by this? That the innumerable articles in the paper and the Review on the low level of confidence among workers were not really printed? That we never spoke about the way the crisis was restructuring the working class and devastating old sectors? That we never understood the impact of the defeat of the miners and printworkers in the mid-1980s?

Mark Twain once said a lie goes round the world while truth is putting on its shoes. So let’s spell out our record. The CC wrote for the 1995 party conference: “Workers have not found it easy to regain confidence in their own ability to struggle after the defeats of the 1980s. They have been prepared to vote in ballots for industrial action, but have very rarely been willing to take such action without the go-ahead of the trade union bureaucracy.”

And for the 2000 conference: “The situation in Britain is still characterised by a low level of overt class struggles, as measured by strike numbers and strike days, compared with the 1970s and even the early 1980s. The defeats of the mid-1980s still lay heavily on organised workers. The union leaders have used this as an excuse to squash any real resistance to the employers and the government ... But they have not been able to prevent the widespread growth of a political mood to the left of Blair over a wide range of issues among many people who voted Labour three and a half years ago.”

What is true is that we tried to relate positively to all the “sparks” (the phrase used in Socialist Worker: not “flare-ups” or “explosions”, but “sparks”) of struggle that occurred - from the Dundee Timex dispute and the signalworkers’ strike and on into the strikes in the post. This meant resisting any tendency to see defeat as ordained in advance for these strikes. At more than one conference we spoke of “optimism of the will” as well as “pessimism of the intellect”. But “optimism of the will” means fighting, not just sitting back and saying things are bad. If that was a crime, it is one people should be proud of.

SWP membership

But these are John’s complaints about a CC that no longer exists - unless John is using them against its remaining members, the two Chris’s, John, Alex and Lindsey. What are his complaints about the present CC?

Essentially that the party membership is not as big as was claimed 13 years ago and that it has not grown with the movements of the last six years. About the present party membership there should be no dispute. We spelt out the figures at last year’s conference and will do so again at this one. The figure is lower than that we claimed in the early 1990s. But that was against the background of the poll tax riot, Black Wednesday, the pit closure crisis and the near implosion of the Tory government. Discontent was at a peak and thousands of people did sign up to join the SWP. Some of the reasons we did not hold on to nearly enough of these new members were beyond our control as a party. People who had looked to us lost heart as the trade union leaderships squandered the chance to inflict a quick defeat on the Tory government.

As the CC perspectives explained at the 1996 conference, the mood for change swung into people putting their hopes in a Labour electoral victory. But we also lost people for subjective reasons, to do with the response of our existing members and branches. These reasons did not lie, as John suggests, in us pushing out too hard. Rather they lay in not following up people who had signed up to join. All that involved hard work, which often overworked party activists found difficult. But that does not mean it was wrong for the centre to try to exert pressure on them to undertake it. And the proof of the pudding is that we did hold a portion of the people we recruited in that period.

Something else happened over those years recognisable by anyone active in any branch or district. The core of the old membership, recruited in the aftermath of the miners’ strike, grew a little older, often found themselves facing new family responsibilities and were subject to the other side of John’s “extraordinary” economic growth - pressure to work longer and more intensively, leaving them less time and energy for political activity. A fair number dropped away from party activity (although usually continuing to accept our ideas). And one by-product of the ageing, clear by the end of the 90s, was a tendency for branch life to become routinised and internalised.

Our response was to embrace wholeheartedly the ideological shift represented by Seattle. This did not happen automatically. It required a push from the centre to get the party as whole to change the way it operated.

No doubt mistakes were made in implementing the change. There were particular problems with working out how to reshape our old party structures to cope with new tasks, and these are among the issues to be debated at this conference, as at the last two. But John needs to answer: was the overall shift we made the right or wrong thing to do? If it was the right thing, stop talking about the CC being “out of touch” and suggest practical ways of coming to terms with the implications of the shift.

Another shift was needed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The CC called a party meeting in London within three days and from that launched the initiative for Stop the War. Again, to turn the idea of an anti-war movement into a reality involved a push from the centre on branches and comrades who were slow on the uptake. Does John object to that?

A final shift was required with the launch of Respect. And again, sections of the party lagged in learning how to respond to the possibilities, and arguments were necessary with them.

John asks why we have not been able to grow massively as a party since Seattle. The answer quite simply is that the whole point of our shift after Seattle was to involve ourselves in united front activity with wide numbers of people who were beginning to be radicalised. We should not be surprised if they were not immediately won over to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. United front activity involves proving the credibility of your ideas and action to people who start off being politically distant from you. It necessarily takes time for many of them to be won to your ideas.

That is why the far left across Europe did not recruit massively from the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements in the first five years after Seattle (as Chris Harman explained in his article in ISJ No105). What it did do was increase its influence. And this has certainly been the case with the SWP. Our influence has grown through a period in which, to be honest, we have not put a great deal of effort as a party into recruitment.

Over the past 18 months the SWP leadership /NC/ conferences have debated fully the need to address some of the weaknesses that have developed in the party as a result of throwing ourselves into the movement. We have and are going to continue to spend a lot of effort attempting to strengthen the party. That is why we have argued for the setting up of district committees, and greater emphasis has been put on branch meetings, SWP public meetings and, most exciting of all, student work.

We now believe that the combination of that influence and further radicalisation among some elements of the movement (particularly among young people) does present us with real possibilities to recruit to the party. That is why we have been testing out the possibilities with SWP rallies in a number of cities. That is why we have been putting renewed emphasis on strengthening SWP branches.
Democracy in the SWP

John has one final argument against the CC. It says, in so many words, that we are “undemocratic”, despite “formal democratic procedures”. His proof? “In the last 15 years there has been hardly a significant challenge to the line of the CC, nor until now has there been a contested election to the CC”.

Now, there have in fact been challenges, albeit unsuccessful and short-lived, to the CC’s line at NCs and national meetings. There were, for instance, hard arguments within the NC over our Scottish comrades joining the Scottish Socialist Party and over the break with the American International Socialist Organization.

But even if we ignore these cases, John’s argument is completely phoney. For he himself has been present at CCs, national meetings and conferences through all these years - and so have many other comrades with long experience in the party, often with high standing within their unions precisely because they are willing to stand up and speak their minds. If such people (including John, remember) have not challenged the CC’s line, it is certainly not because they are intimidated by the CC. It may even be because they agreed with the CC line.

In any case, the CC itself cannot be blamed for their silence. It isn’t as if we have a regime in the party where those who disagree with the CC are disciplined in some way (we have very few expulsions and they are almost invariably for unacceptable behaviour to other comrades). Is John suggesting that the CC has to organise an opposition to it to prove that it is democratic?

Finally, John throws in a ludicrous example, that of Socialist Review. The exact future form of the publication is in debate. Why? Actually because Paul Foot raised the idea of it being a supplement to Socialist Worker at a national committee meeting about two years ago!

At the time it would not have been technically possible for us to have implemented his idea (our printing machinery could not cope). Over the last year it has become possible, and the CC made it clear it would put the alternatives to the national committee.

There was some delay in working out the financial costs, and so the matter will be decided at conference. That’s how “undemocratic” we are!

But let’s return to fundamentals. The important thing at conference is getting the party’s perspective right, both in general and insofar as it applies to particular areas of work. Comrades who disagree with the main strategic directions the CC is taking should be using the pre-conference period to state their views, just as comrades who accept the perspective should be critical when they believe the CC has made mistakes in implementing it. There is no other way for the party to arrive at the correct policy and for comrades to be clear about it.

John Molyneux’s document does not raise important, currently relevant issues of this sort. Instead, it involves carping about things which were supposedly done in the past. And in no way does he explain why putting him on the CC would improve either the orientation of the party or the practical implementation of that orientation 1.