Report of SWSS meeting at Wadham College with Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos (Photo: Farfahinne)

Alex Callinicos (Photo: Farfahinne)

In the squash court beneath Wadham College bar about 40 students gathered on October 15 for an Oxford Socialist Worker Student Society meeting with Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee and noted academic, who was billed under the title, ‘Is capitalism still in crisis?’

Before comrade Callinicos spoke, we heard a few words from the Communication Workers Union local branch secretary, Paul Garraway, on the upcoming strike action. He described the militancy of his members and bitterly complained of persistent management bullying.

On to comrade Callinicos. Within a few syllables he, somewhat predictably, made clear that capitalism was still in crisis. He then outlined some of the factors underlying the current recession, and twinned this with some telling criticisms of mainstream economics.

His discussion of Marx’s concept of the state was relatively good too. And his most interesting points were made here, as he explored the contradiction between, on the one hand, the idea of the state as, in the words of the Communist manifesto, a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” and, on the other, competition between capitalists.

Comrade Callinicos described the United States as international capitalism’s “key organiser”, and went on to explore the possibility of another state assuming this position. In line with the thoughts of those such as Hillel Ticktin, he argued that at present it was hard to see China becoming a new hegemonic state. It is just too tied up with American capital. The great threat, Callinicos argued, was due to climate change.

The comrade moved on to the nature of the workers’ fightback. No mention of democracy, perhaps unsurprisingly. But also no mention of other key necessities, like an organised party of the Marxists. The nearest thing to a programme or strategy that Callinicos came up with was the call for “more and more workers to do what Lindsey and Vestas have done”. Let us leave aside for now the tincture of hypocrisy here – the SWP, after all, opposed the first Lindsey strike.

Most of the initial contributions from the floor consisted of fairly simple questions – some interesting and pertinent, some less so. There was a bit of ‘But my brother is a banker, and I don’t think he is a nasty person’.

Then my turn came. I emphasised that we need independent working class politics. I therefore criticised the SWP’s conduct in the Stop the War Coalition and its role in the preventing the affiliation of Hands Off the People of Iran and the “We are all Hezbollah now” slogans repeatedly chanted by SWPers on demos.

I also picked up on comments made by the SWSS chair of the meeting that the BNP “didn’t deserve a platform” and the no-platform dogma. Does Ukip “deserve a platform”? Do the Tories? And then there is the question of Unite Against Fascism’s popular frontist strategy. I reminded comrades of some history, of how the left’s calls for a ban on the British Union of Fascists backfired with the 1936 Public Order Act, which lost its legislative virginity by being wielded not against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, but against the left. It has likewise been heavily employed by the state against Irish republicans and striking miners.

Finally I argued that it was a fatal mistake to rely on the state and call for the BNP to banned. Once again it was a question of working class political independence.

My remarks on the far right dominated the remaining discussion. Chosen SWSS comrades were quick to wheel out the usual arguments for tactical inflexibility. Apparently, the BNP are just really nasty – Nazis in fact (and, as posters on the wall informed any in doubt, this was a “Nazi-free zone”).

A few seemingly new people quite rightly suggested that the blanket no-platforming policy – aside from not having worked, considering the growth in influence of the BNP – might not always be the best approach. We end up no-platforming ourselves. Quite reasonably they, perhaps representing the majority of those at the meeting, thought that there must be occasions when we could use the power of our ideas to defeat the simplistic and in many cases easily disprovable arguments of the BNP. There were plenty of nods.

The chair announced there was time for one more speaker. No hands were raised, so I stuck mine up. Callinicos gave some of the most emphatic head-shaking I have ever seen, and hissed something to the chair. “Um, we would prefer someone who hasn’t spoken yet,” the poor comrade then announced. So someone else, who had also spoken already, was chosen instead! Don’t you just love the SWP? Things did not go fully according to plan, however. The ‘anyone except him’ substitute likewise argued against auto-no-platformism.

In his summing up comrade Callinicos ignored the unfortunate fact that I exist and had dared to open my mouth. He managed to make the bad arguments of the young SWSSers even worse. “The BBC is publicly funded,” he informed us, descending into liberalistic mode. As if this somehow made this cog of the capitalist ideological apparatus a friend of the working class.

Any talk of debating with fascists rendered one a fool, he then emphatically declared. Presumably this must include his own comrade, John Molyneux. A loyal oppositionist in the SWP who has recently had the good sense to question the no platform mantra as being self-defeating. Interestingly, this viewpoint has gained some considerable support within the SWP, including on its national committee.

Obviously Callinicos is rattled and feels under attack even within. That is how I explain his response anyway. For him the only correct strategy when Nick Griffin appears on Question time is to get into the BBC and “punch Griffin on the nose or a more sensitive part of his anatomy”. But what then to do about the million who voted for the BNP in June’s Euro election and those who elected their dozens of councillors? Should they be forcibly silenced too? Should their vote be discounted?

As the meeting was about to close, a comrade (I am not sure if he belongs to any organisation) indignantly criticised the way the chair had refused to allow me to speak again. Surely a basic norm in a debate where one side has taken a lot of flak? Callinicos launched into a tirade. Apparently I had simply said nothing important – “something about the Stop the War Coalition that I didn’t understand,” he blustered. So I shouted: “I want to discuss Iran and the role of the SWP in the Stop the War Coalition.” Callinicos defensively retorted: “I am here from the SWP, not the STWC” and tried to change the topic. “Yes, the role of the SWP in the STWC,” I repeated. The chair quickly closed the meeting, and Callinicos scurried off into the night.

As SWP-provided bottles of cider were opened following the meeting most of the comrades were in fact friendly and more than willing to discuss. Myself and other Communist Student comrades were able to have some good exchanges. Clearly many in SWSS are genuine revolutionaries and have no liking for the way the SWP leadership refuses to debate with others on the left.

Huw Sheridan

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