A report from the SWP’s ‘Marxism 2010’ Festival by Claire and Zuri – published in Weekly Worker.
I’m writing as a member of the SWP. Attending Marxism has always been enjoyable for me – the opportunity to listen to debates within a left forum can be inspiring and help foster the belief that we can move forward together.
I’ll admit I have not always been unflinchingly supportive of the CC’s strategies and tactics, which often suggest a suppression of party democracy, combined with a drive to ban any contact between party members and the rest of the left. Attending conference this year provided some of the best ammunition to my cannon in this respect, but I will not go into that here.
This criticism, however, did not stop me from giving my support to the organisation – indeed, I hoped that my rank and file comrades would be open to my criticisms, and even share them, and that the CC could eventually be challenged. I did not believe that I should desert a party that had so much to offer in terms of dedication and potential. Unfortunately, circumstances have now changed as a result of a literal, and rather brutal, expression by rank and file comrades of this seemingly all-pervading attitude in opposition to openness.
I accompanied CPGB comrade Zuri to Martin Smith’s talk, ‘How to stop the EDL’, and waited outside whilst he handed out flyers for the CPGB’s fringe debate, ‘Bash the fash?’ After seeing Zuri approached by an officious-looking SWP member I intervened. He was asked to stop handing out flyers on the basis that the Institute of Education was ‘ours’ – ie, the SWP’s – building (going against all notions of communal property, I might add) and secondly that Zuri was not a member of the SWP, which obviously meant that he had forfeited all rights to open and democratic conduct in a public space.
I was incensed by this reasoning, so I took some flyers and started to distribute them myself. I was met with a barrage of abuse and physical intimidation, to which I retorted: “I am a member of the SWP.” The comrades ignored my pleas to be allowed to issue an invitation to a crucial debate taking place outside the festival’s timetable.
Eventually, I was approached in a more forceful manner. “I politely asked you to stop handing out the flyers,” claimed a steward in a not-so-polite tone, to which I replied: “I politely refuse because I don’t accept your reasoning.” After all, I wasn’t doing anything to jeopardise the security of the event or its visitors. Why was I not permitted to distribute information that I thought was relevant and directly linked to the subject matter discussed in the auditorium? Wasn’t this a ‘festival of ideas’? The answer remained the same: “This is our building.”
One of the stewards attempted to rip the leaflets out of my hand. “Typically Stalinist!” he spat at me, referring to the text that he had glanced at for a mere second. “Are you joking?” I asked. “I was born in the eastern bloc – I hate Stalinism.” But the steward was not to be reasoned with. With the situation escalating, I added that it was in fact him who was a ‘Stalinist’ because he was attempting to suppress dissent. This was a piece of heat-of-the-moment vitriol on my part and not terribly well thought out (there are Stalinists that are more open to debate than the average SWP loyalist), though I cannot say that it didn’t contain the proverbial kernel of truth. How democratic a workers’ state can arise under the leadership of a party that claims public spaces as ‘theirs’ and considers itself entitled to hold a monopoly on information within them?
“Build your own organisation instead of leeching off us,” the comrade foamed. I’m glad he said that, because his language told me something about the sectarian mindset so pervasive in the SWP – as far as he was concerned, everything played a subordinate role to the interests of the SWP apparatus. Other left organisations were not to be debated – they were seen as competition first and foremost. Hence the comrades’ almost corporate rationale: this is our territory, our money, our ideas. Want to have your own group? Set up your own stall outside. Isolated coexistence? No problem. Debate, exchange of ideas, revolutionary unity? Never.
The SWP member who had ‘convinced’ Claire to leave advanced towards to me shouting abuse. When I got too close to the entrance for his liking, he ordered me to move over to an arbitrarily chosen spot, assuming the tone and posture of the International Brigades general in the closing scene of Ken Loach’s Land and freedom, many a young Trostkyist’s feelgood movie of choice. When I disobeyed, the bully closed in on me and threatened to “rip my head off” amidst a barrage of abuse. “I’m not the kind of guy you want to mess with,” he informed me. I explained that I had absolutely no intention of entering the auditorium, but I was not going to be intimidated by threats of violence. “If you think I threatened you, then you’re fucking weak,” the enraged thug shouted. Figuratively speaking, I was gobsmacked. Surely “I’m going to rip your head off” is, by anyone’s definition, a threat.
I continued to hand out leaflets and tried my best to ignore further provocations that are not worth preserving for posterity. A few steps away, the steward who had called me a Stalinist pointed in our direction and smugly explained the situation to a sneering Dominic Kavakeb, whose talk on ‘Iran today’ we had followed a day earlier with some interest.
Four SWP stewards had assembled by now and stood by passively. Their comrade’s efforts at intimidation persisted for at least five or 10 minutes, but no attempt was made to take him on a leash and he eventually left on his own account. When everyone else cleared off, I found myself alone with two SWP stewards who had hitherto remained in the background. They looked a little embarrassed and took it upon themselves to disassociate themselves from their aggressive comrade. “We might have political differences with you,” they admitted, “but this was not OK”. Fair enough, but I wished they had had the courage to voice these sentiments earlier. As it stood, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to meet their request not to “let this reflect on our organisation”.
A little later, we spotted one of the SWP stewards outside the ULU building. My friend Mick, an SWP member, approached him to inquire about the incident. The best excuse the steward could come up with was that the SWP comrades had been “really stressed out” because they had anticipated a violent disruption by “350 EDL members”. The logic was priceless: apparently, the English Defence League stress factor led several SWP members to crack down on a lone communist handing out leaflets. But, of course, this was not an honest apology; the same steward had simply walked past me some 20 minutes earlier without batting an eyelid. Besides, it isn’t hard to imagine the hoo-hah the SWP would have drummed up to ‘defend Marxism against the Nazi EDL’ had there actually been any credible intelligence regarding a visit from the drinking class mob. The same steward that could have intervened earlier was now sheepishly promising to “look into the matter and find out who that guy was”. Let’s see what comes out of that.*
My SWP friend, a positive thinking person, has a tendency to see no evil when it comes to his party. “We’re only dealing with human beings,” he says. That is all well and good, but what he fails to realise is that these are systemic rather than individual errors, stemming from a certain political culture. In a political environment such as the SWP’s, where the long-term interests of the working class movement and Marxist unity are subordinate to the short-term interests of the organisation – especially its bureaucratic caste – it should come as no surprise that open debate is stifled, the rank and file manoeuvred away from ‘dangerous’ ideas, and people such as ourselves denounced as leeches. The tragedy of it all is that rank and file SWP comrades who so readily adopt the idiotic antagonisms programmed into them are ultimately hurting themselves.
It is disappointing that this had to happen as I attended Marxism with friendly intentions. The previous night, SWP top dog Martin Smith had impressed me with his talk on black music and the Black Power movement of the 1970s. “Alas, a good book on Disco has yet to be written”, he reckoned – so I passed him a little hand-written note at the end of the presentation. It read: “Tim Lawrence: Love Saves The Day – good book on Disco!”. Is this the way somebody thoroughly hostile to the SWP would act? You decide.
Ironically, the way SWP comrades dealt with us at Marxism was not dissimilar to the treatment Claire received from an EDL thug in East London earlier this year. Her crime was the same back then: she had been handing out communist leaflets.
* Postscript as of March 2011: nothing ever came out of it, despite our many attempts to contact the SWP. Our emails were routinely ignored. Our readers’ letter to Socialist Worker was not published. When Clare met two leading members of her SWP branch, she was merely told off for handing out leaflets from an organisation other than the SWP, regardless of the circumstances. At the same time, they refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with their comrades’ hostile conduct and violent threats at Marxism 2010.