James Turley sees SWP politics reduced to ultra-shrill self-parody
It has been a busy week for the Socialist Workers Party – the largest and most visible far-left group in Britain today. Its members and periphery formed the biggest part of Saturday’s demo against the Afghanistan war, as well as the bulk of Thursday’s shrill protest at the appearance of the bumbling British National Party leader Nick Griffin before a hostile Question time audience.
All this against the background of the ‘pre-conference discussion period’ – that is, the three months every year when the SWP membership is allowed to discuss things other than how many leaflets are needed for Saturday’s Stop the War stall. This is the second year running that the usually dull autumn exchanges have halfway merited the name ‘discussion’ – and both times the name at the core of the disputes is that of John Rees, the erstwhile prima inter pares on the SWP central committee who was ousted last year.
On the ‘anti-fascism’ front, there have been no perceptible public changes in the stance of the SWP – no news, in this case, being bad news. The big ‘event’ this week is, obviously, the Question time episode, to which Griffin had been controversially invited following his election as an MEP. The show itself was a high point in terms of audience figures; the same cannot be said for the turnout for the hysterical protest outside BBC television centre, staged by Unite Against Fascism, which is staffed by the SWP.
It falls to the never-knowingly-perceptive party organ, Socialist Worker, to solve the contradiction posed by almost every concrete activity the SWP today undertakes – that is, directing endless opprobrium at the sheer awfulness of the current state of affairs, while simultaneously talking up its own influence on events.
True to form, Esme Choonara writes a report this week entitled ‘Nick Griffin’s BBC appearance sparks angry protest’ (Socialist Worker October 31). That contradiction is visible from the off: “Thousands of anti-fascists laid siege to the BBC’s studios in London on Thursday of last week as fascist British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin was handed an unprecedented publicity coup on Question time.” Apart from the fact that there were probably only a thousand or so anti-fascists, they failed in their objective of stopping the broadcast. Later on we are told that “anti-fascists came very close to breaking through and were only held back by security gates and lines of police”. To which one can only respond: what other obstacles are there to breaking into a building that were successfully overcome by these intrepid demonstrators to justify it even being mentioned? The gruelling walk to the police lines from White City tube station?
Unfortunately, the heroic failure of UAF to stop the QT circus bodes ill for the British and indeed European masses. Griffin has cultivated links with various organisations in Europe, with a view to forming a “new Europe-wide Nazi group”. “Outrageously, the BBC hid behind claims of ‘impartiality’ to hand a Nazi organisation a platform to peddle racist and homophobic lies” – which seems rather compatible with the dictionary definition of ‘impartial’ – unlike, say, the absence of any far-left forces on the platform. Whether or not the BNP is fascist, meanwhile, it is certainly ‘peddling lies’ to call it ‘Nazi’ (even in the 1980s, it was the rump National Front which identified more closely with Nazism). But the BBC would not have to face this particular moral dilemma, even if a left electoral success forced it to invite, say, Weyman Bennett onto Question time, as SWP members take the trouble to no-platform themselves by refusing to debate the likes of Griffin face to face.
All this is much of a muchness with the SWP-style ‘anti-fascism’ we have gotten rather used to – an insistence on labelling anyone to the right of the Tory Party (barring, for some reason, the UK Independence Party) Nazi and nothing less; an implicit contempt for the masses who will apparently be won instantly to Griffin’s programme if he appears on TV; a pseudo-politics based entirely on moral distance from ideological degenerates who simply cannot be touched; and a millenarian view of the consequences of budging on this (gas chambers all the way down).
Yet, to believe a motion put before the October 10 SWP party council (the delegate body which meets a couple of times between annual conferences), the central committee is on the verge of abandoning all this. This critical motion is reproduced in the first SWP Pre-conference Bulletin (known as the Internal Bulletin or IB) over an extensive list of names, including those of Rees, his partner and close collaborator Lindsey German, and long-time ally Chris Nineham. It is obviously enough the work of Rees’s newly formed Left Platform faction, which has been officially recognised for the duration of the pre-conference discussion period. The motion frets: “At the last two national committee meetings of the SWP a majority of the CC who spoke argued that the SWP should be prepared in the future to debate with members of the BNP in the media after Nick Griffin appears on Question time on October 22, thus abandoning the ‘no platform’ position.” Not only that, but a majority of the NC had spoken in favour of this heresy.
On the contrary, “the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in policy by the BBC does not mark a significant enough shift in the balance of forces between the left and the BNP to justify abandoning ‘no platform’.” Here is a curious logic indeed – it is fine for the SWP to abandon ‘no platform’ once the establishment does.
“The principle at stake here,” the comrades argue, “is that the BNP should not be regarded as a legitimate bourgeois party.” But why should this be treated as a “principle”? In times of severe social crisis the bourgeoisie can turn to fascism to retrench its rule – thus instantly rendering the fascists ‘legitimate bourgeois politicians’. In fact leading establishment figures could switch to the fascists or attempt to transform what the SWP currently regards as ‘legitimate bourgeois parties’ into fascist organisations. To insist on a hard and fast distinction here is to introduce one where none really exists – social democracy differs vastly from fascism, but both are expressions of rule considered “legitimate” by the bourgeoisie at different times.
This motion was overwhelmingly defeated at party council, which approved a rival motion from the CC. However, the latter motion did not contradict Rees’s at all in terms of substance, reiterating that SWP members in UAF “will refuse to appear on a panel with Nick Griffin”. The SWP “will redouble our efforts to win the case for no platform for the BNP in the media and build the UAF campaign of protests and pickets to challenge the BBC’s decision”. Nonetheless, we cannot but note that there is wriggle-room in the approved motion, which concentrates on the narrow issue of the BBC, and leaves open the question of whether the SWP may later embark upon a wrenching turn.
The ‘smoking gun’ for Rees and co was a rather innocuous letter from ‘loyal oppositionist’ John Molyneux published in Socialist Worker – very sensibly headlined ‘“No platform” must not be a fetish’ (June 13). “Yes,” argues comrade Molyneux, “we should campaign against the BBC and other broadcasters giving the Nazi British National Party (BNP) airtime. But when it is clear they are going to appear anyway it is to our advantage that they are confronted by anti-fascists.” An impermissible sell-out for the Reesites – and for the successful party council motion.
IB No1 – alongside such riveting items as ‘Nurturing the roots in Kings Lynn’ – contains a number of items related directly or peripherally to the anti-BNP crusade. One proposes a “change of strategy”, which turns out to be reviving the SWP’s old Anti-Nazi League as a hard faction within UAF – Occam’s razor is never knowingly applied by SWP cadre when it comes to front organisations.
‘Holding the line on “no platform”’ (authored by four London comrades identified as Dean, Paul, Julie and Jim) parallels the Rees party council motion. It is highly confused. For example, it states that “BNP support contains a strong irrational element”, and so “argument is a less effective weapon against fascism than force”. The “Nazis” cannot be defeated in rational debate because they are “deceptive liars, distorting and exploiting the real issues …” As everyone knows, the poor, ignorant masses are always taken in by irrational lies and are never persuaded by lucid argument exposing those lies for what they are.
The comrades warn that agreeing to debate with Griffin on national TV or radio would “undermine” ‘no platform’ locally: “Why shouldn’t our student union host a debate with the BNP? Martin Smith/Weyman Bennett appears on TV with them.” But then, just a few paragraphs later, they write: “Locally, though, we do have significant positions that may involve tactical decisions about whether to appear on platforms with the BNP, when they also have prominent roles as councillors, in tenants associations, etc. To refuse in such circumstances might amount to sacrificing a key role in a campaign for the sake of holding a line on the BNP that could be detrimental to the wider campaign.” Exactly.
This contradiction demonstrates that there are those in the ranks of the SWP who are not completely stupid. Some are actually showing signs of trying to think. There may be a time when the principle of ‘no platform’ might have to be reconsidered, they say: if, for example, “the BNP has achieved a level of legitimacy comparable to the French or Italian fascists. We would then have to re-evaluate our stance in the light of a different balance of forces.”
But not quite yet … at least nationally. The comrades attempt to rebuff a point made by comrade Molyneux in his Socialist Worker letter. He pointed out that Antonio Gramsci had been prepared to debate with Benito Mussolini in the Italian parliament. The comrades respond: “There is no comparison with the position Gramsci found himself in under Mussolini in the 1920s and the political landscape of Britain in 2009. The working class is not defeated and our comrades are not being assassinated by fascist hit squads.”
So now that the BNP is not a serious threat to the workers’ movement, being in the same room as a member is a mortal sin; but when it becomes one, it’s time to start debating? Such, apparently, is the logical consequence of defending an idiotic policy.
The wooden spoon for the whole bulletin, however, undoubtedly goes to one Ben from south London, who relates at length his experience building yet another SWP front – Defend Council Housing – from scratch in his area. It is for the most part a tale of patient, low-level activism come good, although one wishes always for a little more political ambition from such cadres to marry to their masochistic desire for grunt-work.
One anecdote stands out, however – one of the first people interested in his campaign turned out to be “on the leaked membership list of the BNP”. When he discovered this (“it pays to Google everyone who approaches you in these campaigns,” writes Ben in a footnote – “If I hadn’t found out about his membership until later, it could’ve become a damaging issue for the DCH group”), he pinned him down and “popped the question”: “… he was candid with me. He said he had been a member previously, and agreed with them on everything except the racism.” Naturally, of course, he was immediately excommunicated from the campaign. A final footnote reveals that he was later elected chair of the local tenants’ association.
In the 1930s and 40s, the ‘official’ Communist Party had to confront the far more threatening presence of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. They often did fight the fascists in the streets, most famously at Cable Street; yet where the CPGB was strong, it was able to perform exactly the kind of community activism to which Defend Council Housing aspires (and the BNP has been so adept at using in recent years). Party activists would make an effort to draw BUF supporters into communist-led rent strikes – not a few tore up their BUF cards on the spot.
Conversely, Ben in south London effectively cut himself off from a seemingly talented and well rooted community activist on the basis that he had once been a member of a nowadays very diffuse-at-the-edges far-right organisation. The SWP’s pathological aversion to engaging with the BNP’s supporters – never mind for a moment properly hardened fascists – not only reduces its politics to ultra-shrill self-parody, not only entirely disarms it before the bourgeoisie, but even serves to sabotage the low-level activism among ‘real people’ it so venerates.
Comrades should learn the lessons – denying the far right a platform is a tactic, which may be appropriate under certain circumstances. In other circumstances, as the comrades are starting to realise, debating with the BNP might be more effective. The SWP should drop this “fetish” once and for all.