Thuggery at the SWP’s ‘Marxism 2010’

A report from the SWP’s ‘Marxism 2010’ Festival by Claire and Zuri – published in Weekly Worker.

Claire:

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.

Claire

 

Who’s a ‘Stalinist’ now?

Zuri:

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.

Zuri Zurowski

* 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.

4 thoughts on “Thuggery at the SWP’s ‘Marxism 2010’

  1. I am becoming less enamoured by the SWP the more I learn about them and what you have written does not really surprise me.
    I am fairly new to to actively being a member of a left wing organisation and get asked by a non politically active friend why I joined the group I did and not the SWP as they are larger and better known .
    I am quite willing to admit that when I decided to enter into activism I was clueless to how much there was to learn about a whole variety of things ranging from the history of working class struggles to differing ideas of the best way to move forward how different parties operate how my group functions on a logistical level for example .
    I am still the newest and least knowledgeable person I know and still learning about what I need to know let alone learning it.
    However 6 or 7 months on and still learning more and more on an almost daily basis has led me at least so far to the conclusion that a decent knowledge of the left is a somewhat crucial prerequisite to becoming a decent well rounded and effective activist.
    I make that comment and the following at the risk of it sounding to a degree conceited but our organisation are more thorough as individual party comrades in developing and learning from not just each others experience and mistakes but from others experience ,mistakes and shortcomings in a historical context as well as contemporary context.
    We certainly do not have the recruiting success of the SWP and in some respects envious of that but we do place a real importance in building our organisation solidly and keeping true to our values which crucially include among other things equality and involvement for all members through out.
    Maybe my overall knowledge of the left is still in some respects too limited to make completely fair criticisms out of hand of left wing organisations such as the SWP but
    I have made observations in some of their behaviour that I feel lets them down.
    Some of the negative aspects with the Swp that stand out to me include their apparent lack of an overall all inclusive democracy in how they operate which leads to a hierarchy and therefore room for some egotistical individuals taking control.
    This in turns leads to potential inequalities and lack of a sense of inclusiveness in the ranks so then to feelings of resentment and rogue behaviour such as experienced by you from some of their members.
    The amount of people they recruit appears to provide quantity and not quality and this so called type of communism is more akin to Orwell’s Animal farm rather than a pure socialistic communism which should in my view speaking as a Trotskyist always be strived for.
    They had their Marxism week exactly when the ESF was on and not only did they not send anybody to the ESF it also meant that quite a few of my comrades , I and many other members of the left as a result attending the ESF could not take part in the Marxism public debates which seems like a deliberate tactic employed by the SWP to avoid too much scrutiny into how they actually operate and what sort of party they actually are.

    Of course I accept differing opinions from the left but I personally am critical of any group who do not describe themselves as permanent revolutionists.

  2. Assuming this is a true & accurate account, I still don’t think you can claim that it is typical of the party. I’ve been a member of the SWP for well over a year & was at Marxism 2010, & I’ve never seen other members behave like that. I certainly wouldn’t.

    I did see members of other parties leafleting outside some of the Marxism meetings, in addition to stalls of everyone from anarchists to Spartacist League. At the meetings themselves people spoke freely, including those critical of the SWP & its politics. They were just asked to keep within the usual time limit so others could speak as well. At one meeting (Chris Bambery on World War 2) a guy got up & denounced the SWP as “social chauvinists” & interpreted our old slogan of “neither Washington or Moscow, but international Socialism” to be an endorsement of British imperialism. Naturally several of the subsequent speakers refuted this nonsense, as did Chris Bambery, but there was no violence or threats, & the guy was trying to sell some paper outside immediately afterwards.

    More generally, we’re happy to work with Socialists from other parties. I know a CP member who quite often does anti-fascist or anti-war stuff with us & was at Marxism. I’ve seen a Labour member occasionally attend our branch meetings. As an organisation we are perfectly happy to work with people or organisations on specific issues (opposing the wars, say) who might disagree with us about various other things.

    “Build your own organisation instead of leeching off us,”

    To be honest, I can understand this attitude. You get tired of hearing the same stupid sectarian shit again & again from tiny organisations that seem to put more time & effort into critiscising the SWP than anything else; who turn up at Marxism or SWP public meetings specifically to tell SWP members how shit they think the SWP is; who call us “social fascists” & so on. We get this from parties that can’t fill a room, can’t write a decent paper, can’t organise a protest, can’t really do fuck all but want to come & point out everything they think is wrong with us. It’s natural, I think, to ask them to remove the beam from their own eye before the mote from ours.

    I’m not talking about the CPGB here, as I’ve got no experience with them, but about members of some other parties.

  3. Hi JN

    First off, thanks for your reply. I think you got some things slightly wrong. I’m not claiming that SWP members are running around physically threatening comrades from other left groups as a matter of habit and that this behaviour is therefore typical of the SWP. What it typical of the organisation, however, is a certain proprietary attitude (“our party, our territory, our ideas”) and their intolerance towards dissenting voices that are perceived as undermining the CC line. This can, and occasionally does, result in episodes such as the one Claire and myself experienced.

    I can assure you it is not the first time: three years ago, my comrade Simon Wells was wrestled to the ground by Martin Smith himself, who attempted to confiscate his festival ticket, because Simon dared attending Marxism 2007 after having been expelled from the SWP. His crime and reason for expulsion? He had “criticised senior Respect Coalition members” on his personal blog. Martin sent him a text message banning him from attending any SWP organised meetings, even public ones. Apparently, Martin had decided that Simon was no longer a member of the public.

    “At the meetings themselves, people spoke freely” – or at least those whose contributions hadn’t been weeded out through the speaker slips system, which ensures that the most uncomfortable criticisms are pre-emptively nipped in the bud. Our comrade Yassamine Mather, for instance, has no chance in hell of being allowed to speak at SWP meetings on Iran.

    I have no problem believing you that here and there, members of the Spartacist League and other groups were selling their papers outside meetings without being harassed. It is somewhat of an unpredictable affair, which – I am guessing – depends on the subject matter and its importance to the party organisation as well as on the relative tolerance of the individual stewards. For reasons I shall not go into here, the EDL is currently hugely important to the SWP. I can only guess that our views on the EDL, the BNP, ‘no platform’ and such are considered blasphemy by loyalist SWP hard-liners such as the gentlemen we had the misfortune of running into.

    >”Build your own organisation instead of leeching off us,” – To be honest, I can understand this attitude.”

    I’m sorry to hear you are taking this view. It is exactly what I think is wrong with the SWP – to my understanding, the very definition of sectarianism. Sectarians do not wish the positions and actions of their organisation to be criticised or undermined because they are putting the interests of the organisation first. Marxists, on the other hand, put the interests of the whole revolutionary left, and therefore the interests of the working class first. “Criticise everything mercilessly”, demanded Marx of communists. And I could give you examples of both Lenin and Trotsky insisting on open criticism of the Central Committee in the communist press – something I don’t see happening too often in the pages of Socialist Worker. It isn’t sectarian to criticise – it’s sectarian to be opposed to criticism.

    In the 1970s and 80s, the SWP sometimes showed up at the ‘official’ CPGB’s annual school. Whatever valid criticisms the SWP brought up, the CPGB had only one reply: “We are a party of hundreds of thousands in the UK. We have massive influence in the trade unions. We are part of an International that currently rules one third of the world. And you bunch of 6000 members want to tell us what’s right and wrong? Stop leeching of us and build your own organisation”. Today, the SWP tells left groups that are even smaller than themselves: “We have 3000 members. Stop leeching of us and build your own organisation” – It was pathetic then, and it is pathetic now.

    Or as Ghandi once put it: “Even if you’re in a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

    >can’t write a decent paper, can’t organise a protest, can’t really do fuck all but want to come & point out everything they think is wrong with us. It’s natural, I think, to ask them to remove the beam from their own eye before the mote from ours.

    I would invite you to have a look at our Weekly Worker paper. This is not because I’m trying to recruit you (in my opinion, you should stay in the SWP and fight for party democracy where there isn’t any), and not just because I think that you would find it to be a very decent paper. It’s also because you would find that we are in a permanent process of removing beams and motes from our own eye as well as from the eyes of others.

    Our paper’s adversaries call it a “gossip rag” because we do what a communist paper should do: criticise in order to advance the movement. By their logic, Lenin’s ‘Iskra’ would have been a “gossip rag” because it was full of polemics against all manner of left groups. And yet, it was vital in the process of separating the wheat from the chaff – a process that culminated in the formation of the Bolshevik Party and its leading the Russian Revolution.

    The left has to change in many respects, comrade. If we want to avoid repeating what we experienced back in the eastern bloc, we better start changing ourselves now. Trust me, it makes little difference whether bureaucracy comes under the guise of ‘official’ Communism, Maoism, or Trotskyism. It’s the political culture of the party that matters.

    There is no way I can prove the authenticity of our report (we didn’t have a video camera running), but I appreciate that you don’t find the behaviour we reported to be reasonable. And I’m sure there are many in the SWP who would agree with you on that.

    If you wish, I can tell you all about our attempts to resolve this situation through SWP channels (letters to Socialist Worker, contact with the local SWP branch) and the response we met with? I can even offer you to get in touch with Claire, who is still an SWP member.

  4. The readers letter that Socialist Worker won’t publish:

    Dear comrades,

    I would like to express my concern about an altercation I had with Socialist Workers Party members at this year’s Marxism. I was distributing flyers for a ‘London Communist Forum’ fringe meeting outside one of the sessions when I was approached by stewards who demanded that I stop handing them out. When I refused, one of the SWP members threatened to “rip my head off” and assured me that he was “not the kind of guy to be messing with” amidst a barrel of abuse and intimidation. The stewards watched on passively.

    Even if I was in breach of some rule on leaflet distribution – written or otherwise – then the comrades’ reaction was completely inappropriate and disproportionate. It was hardly as if I was shouting down any of the speakers, disrupting the discussion or posing any sort of security threat to the meeting about to take place.

    Indeed, at festivals like Marxism it should be completely natural that groups and individuals will issue their own ideas and publicity for other events. The healthy exchange of ideas and views – free from intimidation and violence – has always been a hallmark of the best parts of our movement. In other words, if you actually do have a rule that restricts people advertising political meetings on the fringe of the main event, it is wrong.

    I hope that you will take appropriate action to ensure that such an incident does not occur again. It not only discredits the SWP, but the left as a whole.

    With communist greetings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s