Estelle Cooch reports from a critical debate at Marxism
The main hall of the University of London Union was packed out on Friday evening for John Molyneux‘s Marxism meeting “What is the real International Socialist tradition?”
In a sharp and at times heated debate, Socialist Workers Party members put forward their views on the essence of this tradition – an issue that is now hotly contested as a consequence of unprecedented internal arguments.
John Molyneux’s lead-off
John’s talk began by covering the three central elements of the IS tradition – the theories of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution. He noted that the IS emerged from the orthodox Trotskyist left but also reacted against it.
He underlined the emphasis the IS had once placed on factory branches, citing his own experience as a student heading down, paper in hand, to dockyards and factory gates in Southampton.
But the starting point of the IS, John argued, must remain twofold – on the one hand, the self-emancipation of the working class, and on the other, building a revolutionary party now to overcome division in the working class.
For this reason the IS, and its modern day descendant in the SWP, developed a unique understanding of imperialism, war and oppression that often placed it in minority positions within the left.
The success of the Anti Nazi League, writings such as Chris Harman’s The Prophet and the Proletariat and polemics against separatist currents in the women’s movement have all played a role in consolidating this tradition, he added. The IS tradition combines unconditional defence of the oppressed from the standpoint of workers unity, rather from that of separatism.
John concluded by suggesting that he is “for reasserting the fundamental tradition, not for revising it”. The debate that followed began to address whether this would be enough.
The floor debate
Contributions began with Jack Farmer from south London. He argued that by rereading Tony Cliff’s work in recent months, he had come to the conclusion that the “sharp turns” for which Cliff was famed stemmed from an acute sensitivity to both the mood within the party and that of the class. Both Jack and another comrade, Kim, asked how we could begin to recruit the students we have lost in recent months.
Colin Barker from Manchester continued in a similar vein. He said: “Of course our starting point must be the self-emancipation of the working class and all humanity. But we have to add something to that – the fact that the working class and the movement are always generating new forms.”
Colin reminded comrades that while Cliff was encouraged members to go down to the factory gates to build, he also sat in the coffee shop at the London School of Economics in 1967 talking to students. Cliff’s orientation towards students before 1968 meant that, unlike other organisations (notably Militant and the SLL), we were able to recruit extensively from the upturn in student struggle.
The next speaker was Ian Birchall, Cliff’s biographer, who reminded the meeting of a mock SWP slogan used as a slur against the party in the 1980s: “If it moves, recruit it. If it doesn’t, stick a poster on it.” This slogan, said Ian, was one we should proudly embrace.
If the SWP is an activist organisation rooted in the working class “it needs young people”, he said. Ian recounted the clash in 1975 between young militant workers and a more established industrial cadre, reminding the room that Cliff had sided with the youth.
Talat from Edinburgh spoke in response. She noted that while Cliff certainly was in the LSE coffee shops in 1967, he was not simply listening to students, but also arguing with them and winning them to our tradition. To not do this, Talat said, was “an abdication of political responsibility”.
Alex Callinicos on Cliff
The contribution that provoked the strongest reaction in the meeting was the next one, from Central Committee member Alex Callinicos. He said: “Were there life after death, Cliff would be boiling with rage at what has happened in the past few months.” He suggested that Ian Birchall go back and read his own biography of Cliff.
Alex noted that Cliff had once admonished him for being an “arrogant young intellectual”. Perhaps, he went on, “some think that only one of those adjectives has changed”.
He pointed to articles in recent years on the state of the working class today, on the economic crisis and on women. Comrades should not, he implored, “drop their tradition for eclecticism [or] for Richard Seymour”. To do so would be to turn away when the stakes are so high.
Ruth Lorimer and Pat Stack
The reaction to the next contribution contrasted starkly to that which had accompanied Alex. There was a tense silence as Ruth Lorimer from south London spoke about reasons so many formerly loyal comrades felt betrayed by the current SWP leadership.
“I am proud to stand in the IS tradition,” said Ruth. “But over the last eight months the SWP has been through a sharp internal disagreement triggered by what many of us perceive to be a failure to apply our principles of women’s oppression in practice.
“This has led to the most serious crisis in the party’s history. Over 400 people have left the SWP in disgust, including almost all of our student membership – people who should have been part of the renewal of our tradition and our leadership.
“In my opinion this is a fundamental betrayal of the IS tradition – and I would like to know how you square that tradition with the actions of the leadership in the last few months.”
Ruth was followed by longstanding member Pat Stack who said “dynamism” should be added to the list of features of the IS tradition. Yet to many young people who join the party, he said, it seemed as if “the ideas are shut and we have closed down discussion altogether”.
In direct response to Alex, who had criticised what he called an emerging “cult of the youth”, Pat said: “It is not a ‘cult of the youth’ to be worried when almost all of our student members leave the organisation.
“Nor are we the people who don’t want to argue. Quite the opposite: we are fighting for more discussion and more debate.” Pat told the room that anyone who thought the SWP’s politics on oppression was a closed book should go back and read what we once said about LGBT rights before we had properly theorised it.
John’s summing up
The lively, heated and at times perturbing debate ended with a plea from Huw from Bristol to remember that it “takes less time to split a party than it does to build it”.
John Molyneux’s summing up was brief and only addressed a few of questions that had emerged in the discussion. He said he had seen significant losses of membership before, both in the 1980s and 1990s, but he did not say how these episodes compared to the current crisis within the SWP.
John ended by saying that, although it might seem “ nfashionable”, he urged comrades to take their discussions off Facebook and blogs. He appealed to “everyone loyal to the IS tradition not to wreck the party”.