I've been trying to avoid it - no, honestly, I really have - but I can't stay away from the slow implosion of the SWP. It's being covered with perhaps rather ill-hidden glee by a website run by a former ally of theirs in Respect here, and here, and here and...well no doubt a lot of other places as well by the time you get to read this post. Across the Irish Sea Splinty's joined in as well - and the debate on his post is much more sophisticated than on the Socialist Unity site. Comrade Tom Cobbleigh and all are also having their say.
These are most definitely not 'my people'. When I was politically active they would have despised me as a reformist. Or possibly as a Stalinist. Or both. & the distaste, politically speaking, would have been pretty mutual, although that never stopped me being friends with and even sharing flats with SWP members when I was young. But I do accept that twice in my life time - around the Anti-Nazi League at the turn of the '70s/80s and in the Stop the War Coalition - they played pretty vital roles in popular front style movements. (Even if, for reasons of internal theology, they always describe these patently cross class initiatives as 'united fronts', sometimes qualified by the mirth inducing suffix '..of a special type'.)
I've posted before on how the problems within the SWP resonate with my experience in the 1980s Communist Party. & like the CP of old they now seem to have reached the point where they have many more ex members than actual current members. Membership is small and broadly stagnant - ours was dropping of course - and sometimes inflated for the purpose of keeping the troops' spirits up. Effective purchase on political developments is usually more imagined than real. So the question arises of how to make the organisation relevant. The argument gets wrapped up in all sorts of Marxist obscurantism - and is, initially, filtered through purely organisational disagreements and petty 'office politics' amongst the full timers - but it's basically about asking the question, " If we just keep on keeping on why on earth should we expect anything to be different?" The would-be grand priests of theory and of faction then march onto the polemical stage and offer finely honed analyses of Why You Lot Have Been Doing It All Wrong And Why You Should Take My Line (WYLHBDIAWAWYSTML*)
But it's over. In retrospect I can see the people running Marxism Today knew this a generation ago. A Party no longer feels like the correct organisational form from which to change consciousness and culture, even if it is indispensable for fighting elections and pretty helpful in organising demonstrations and the like. A comment from someone called 'ejh' in the Splinty discussion puts this eloquently:
"...it doesn’t really matter if whichever organisation you’re discussing has a better line on this or that, a healthier approach to party democracy, deeper roots in the working-class, a more bottom-up approach to policy-making, a more disciplined approach, a more flexible approach, a less opportunistic approach or whatever the criticism of choice may be. Nobody is making any meaningful progress at all with whatever approach they take, and that’s because the whole idea has come to a dead end. The political habits and ideas on which it depended have withered away."
He goes onto link this to a more general decline in the very idea of working class solidarity, which has clearly also occurred. The manual working class, both unskilled and, especially, skilled is much, much smaller than it once was. An awful lot of the psychic identity of the old organised Labour movement was built on that identification with (predominantly male) manual work alone. The new working class jobs are generally white collar and tend to involve doing repetitive tasks in a sterile environment (think about call centres, or various service industries). As yet, no organisational culture has grown up around such jobs that can be seen as anything like the old trade union workplace solidarity.
But even if it does I can't see a place within it for a 'revolutionary party' of supposedly tightly knit cadres holding the Truth. It's possible one day soon we'll find ourselves with a new 'culture of resistance' as different from what went before as, say, the 'New Unionism' of the 1880s was from the Chartist struggles of a generation previous. I'm sure many current and ex SWP - and Communist, and other left party - members will be part of that culture of resistance.But they won't be a party.
*Co-incidentally also the name of a small railway station that was one of the 'Little Moscows' in the 1930s Rhondda Valley. Dr.Beeching closed it.(N.B. Note for my more serious dialectical friends: this is a joke....)