I was a teenage SWP member

I was a teenage SWP member

A personal account of life in the Socialist Workers Party.

The Weekly Worker is known to many as the unrivalled gossip rag of the British far-left. Most workers wouldn’t give a toss about anything published in it, but to those of us who have passed through any of the various ‘revolutionary vanguards’ during our political lives, the newspaper can be a bit of a bit of a guilty pleasure. For those who are still members of the various ‘revolutionary vanguards’, the newspaper is often their only source of information about what their leaders are up to. So I was interested to read in the latest issue that the Socialist Workers Party’s central committee has expelled several party members for daring to have opinions (none of the SWP’s official organs have publicised this fact to the membership).

Like many people, the SWP was the first political organisation I joined. I must have been about 16 or 17 years old at the time, motivated by a feeling that the world was fucked up and something should be done about it. This was also roughly the time that the Catholic faith I had been brought up with imploded; swapping Catholicism for Marxism wasn’t such as big leap of faith. I also think studying the Russian revolution at secondary school helped fan the flames of my teenage radicalism. I remember our history teacher describing capitalist society as a pyramid, and saying that communism aimed to turn this pyramid upside down. That idea appealed to me, taking power/wealth away from the dickhead-dominated elite and using it to benefit everyone. Somehow I discovered and started reading the Socialist Worker online and then started going to meetings (the branch even paid my bus fare).

As a naïve teenager, joining an organisation like the SWP was pretty exciting. They give you answers to many of the questions you have about the world and you feel part of something that’s going to change it. The anti-globalisation scene was on the rise, as was the anti-war movement, there was also the Socialist Alliance which aimed to provide a left-wing challenge to New Labour. Things were happening, history was being made, and you felt like a participant rather than a spectator. There was always a protest or picket line or paper sale to go to, which made a nice change from staying at home watching DIY makeover programs on telly with my parents, attempting to get served in local boozers with my mates or trying to get a sneaky peak at my dad’s copy of Viz magazine.

It wasn’t long, however, before the novelty of being in a revolutionary party began to wear off and the fundamentally authoritarian nature of the organisation and ideology became clear. One of the first things that began to irk me was the constant insistence on following the so-called ‘party line’. This was arrived at, not through debate involving all party members, but was usually relayed by a phone call to the branch organiser. Before meetings of the various ‘united fronts’ the party was involved in, we’d take part in caucuses where everyone was told the line the central committee wanted us to take.

I’ll always remember the anxious looks on the faces of party loyalists when I started to express unorthodox opinions. As sympathetic as I was to the struggle of the Palestinian people against their Zionist oppressors, I wondered aloud that maybe we should have a meeting on a different issue that might attract people other than the same old faces from the local lefty crowd, such as apolitical working-class people for example. I also suggested that perhaps we should address issues such as crime and anti-social behaviour that blight the lives of many people on working-class estates (the same estates where I doubt many of the party members I met had ever dared to venture, let alone live). The rebuttal I received was swift: these were right-wing issues that wouldn’t be relevant after the revolution. The Independent Working Class Association (of which I was later a member) was making waves at the time, actually responding to issues that were important to working-class people, rather than lecturing from ivory towers or trying to get people to buy newspapers. I was told in no uncertain terms that deviations from party diktats meant siding with the likes of the IWCA, who were racists (because of their rejection of orthodox multiculturalism in favour of a purely class-based approach) and vigiliantes (because of the direct action they organised against drug dealers and anti-social families). Of course, the IWCA's biggest crime was it's rejection of left-wing dogma and jargon in favour of calling for "working-class rule in working-class areas".

It’s incredibly frustrating, disheartening and inhibiting to have your opinions and ideas dismissed in such a vehemently dogmatic manner, with little constructive criticism given. Freethinking is not encouraged in the SWP; everything you need to think can be found in the pages of the Socialist Worker, party bulletins or the many pamphlets authored by the leading cadres. There’s nothing more cringing now than seeing SWP foot soldiers clutching their newspapers to their chests on protests, or inanely asking passers-by to sign a petition against whichever injustice has been deemed worthy of passive opposition that day.

One year I attended the party’s annual showpiece Marxism event. While there were some interesting meetings, the nauseating dullness of the ones addressed by central committee members was compounded by the sycophantic, uncritical and unrealistically optimistic contributions from the floor. Likewise, the one party conference I attended was a full-on exercise in adulation of the central committee members seated at the top table.

There were however some positives that came out of my experience in the SWP. It helped me to become intensely distrustful of authority and those in leadership positions. It gave me a good insight into the workings of the Marxist left and helped me comprehend the authoritarian nature of Marxism and Leninism; indeed, the concept of democratic centralism seemed as ludicrous as the idea of papal infallibility. So I’ve got the SWP to thank for helping me to develop my libertarian instincts (although, assuming most anarchists were middle-class lifestylists, it was several years before I found an organisation and tendency – anarcho-syndicalism – that I felt comfortable committing to). And while I’ve never regretted my time in the party, I’ve also never regretted getting the fuck out of it either.

Posted By

thegonzokid
Dec 24 2012 18:51

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no1
Dec 25 2012 00:06

thanks for that - it's good to read something more personal on here for a change

thegonzokid wrote:
And while I’ve never regretted my time in the party, I’ve also never regretted getting the fuck out of it either.

It's obviously positive you have no regrets, but I imagine the more typical result is that people are put off "revolutionary politics" for life. I always wonder what the UK would be like if the SWP didn't use their members the way they do - there must be tens of thousands of angry young people who were chewed up and spat out again. What if they were now active workplace and community organisers instead ?

wojtek
Dec 25 2012 02:02

I think if one is going to link to that particular IWCA article then it's only fair to also link to this blog post in which the author attempts to clarify his views, because the reduction of any analysis that touches upon gender, race, sexuality, etc. in the original article to 'identity politics' and therefore dismissal comes across as this

Quote:
The rebuttal I received was swift: these were right-wing issues that wouldn’t be relevant until after the revolution.

The IWCA article at best doesn't unpack the concepts of 'Englishness/ Britishness' and at worst panders to the notion that these identities are being overwhelmed - I for one would like to know what they mean, because I haven't the foggiest.

flaneur
Dec 25 2012 02:07
no1 wrote:

It's obviously positive you have no regrets, but I imagine the more typical result is that people are put off "revolutionary politics" for life. I always wonder what the UK would be like if the SWP didn't use their members the way they do - there must be tens of thousands of angry young people who were chewed up and spat out again. What if they were now active workplace and community organisers instead ?

People say that all the time, albeit the SWP are a load of shite, but what's to say they wouldn't be as disillusioned for other reasons with the anarchist movement (or AF/Solfed if you want)?

wojtek
Dec 25 2012 02:23

thegonzokid wrote:

Quote:
It’s incredibly frustrating, disheartening and inhibiting to have your opinions and ideas dismissed in such a vehemently dogmatic manner, with little constructive criticism given. Freethinking is not encouraged...

Anarchists are not innocent in this department.

Spikymike
Dec 25 2012 12:33

Of course there are other interpretations of Marx and other non-authoritarian 'marxisms' which the SWP would not encourage it's members to explore let alone those of class struggle anarchism.

thegonzokid
Dec 25 2012 18:52
wojtek wrote:
thegonzokid wrote:
Quote:
It’s incredibly frustrating, disheartening and inhibiting to have your opinions and ideas dismissed in such a vehemently dogmatic manner, with little constructive criticism given. Freethinking is not encouraged...

Anarchists are not innocent in this department.

Very true, there are certainly countless example of anarchists exhibiting authoritarian/chauvinist behaviour when it comes to respecting the opinions of others, particularly on online forums where things can get heated pretty quickly. From personal experince though, my time in a small anarchist organisation has been massively more positive, empowering and fruitful than the time I spent in a much larger Leninist organisation. For example, during a talk I gave on community strategy at a weekend school several years ago, I mentioned crime and anti-social behaviour, and used the IWCA as a case study. The response I received were either supportive or constructively critical and free of condescending theoretical bullshit, in the SWP this would've been unthinkable.

thegonzokid
Dec 25 2012 18:54
Spikymike wrote:
Of course there are other interpretations of Marx and other non-authoritarian 'marxisms' which the SWP would not encourage it's members to explore let alone those of class struggle anarchism.

Indeed, I don't agree with them, but good luck to them.

Android
Dec 25 2012 20:01
Spikymike wrote:
Of course there are other interpretations of Marx and other non-authoritarian 'marxisms' which the SWP would not encourage it's members to explore let alone those of class struggle anarchism.

Whilst this is true. I think I remember reading somewhere that in the 1970s the IS/SWP tried to integrate Gorter and Pannekoek into their 'tendency', in fact I think it might have been their bookshop/publisher (Pluto Press? - which is now independent) who published the book on Gorter and Pannekoek's Marxism.

Aside from trying to draw upon unorthodox, heterodox trends within Marxism, since I think at the time they were into talking about 'socialism from below'. It is from before my time, so I could be wrong. But didn't they have a syndicalist phase (emphasis on industrial struggle, factory and rank-and file groups) before abandoning it as part of their overcoming 'a syndicalist deviation' (T. Cliff). Bob Holton's book on British syndicalism, which is widely read and respected was part of that work, I think.

redsdisease
Dec 25 2012 20:14
Quote:
didn't they have a syndicalist phase (emphasis on industrial struggle, factory and rank-and file groups) before abandoning it as part of their overcoming 'a syndicalist deviation' (T. Cliff). Bob Holton's book on British syndicalism, which is widely read and respected was part of that work, I think.

I've read that at their height in the 70s the IS was focused on building factory branches and had something like 70-80 of them. Is that what you're referring to? I was under the impression that most of them dissolved on their own accord rather than being abandoned by the leadership.

gwry
Dec 25 2012 21:29

I was a member of the IS(SWP sister grouping) in Norway from '86 to to '87, when it only had 15 members. We were constantly at meetings, attending demos and, of course, selling the magazine. It was very much an activist group pushing "Socialism from Below". I was a member of the Hotel Workers Union, which had been at the centre of a lock-out, and so there was a high level of class struggle.As a syndicalist I couldn't swallow the SWP line on the usual issues, but they were the only real activist group around at the time in Oslo other than the anarcho-punks at Cafe Blitz. It was nevertheless a useful experience.

Android
Dec 26 2012 14:34
redsdisease wrote:
Quote:
didn't they have a syndicalist phase (emphasis on industrial struggle, factory and rank-and file groups) before abandoning it as part of their overcoming 'a syndicalist deviation' (T. Cliff). Bob Holton's book on British syndicalism, which is widely read and respected was part of that work, I think.

I've read that at their height in the 70s the IS was focused on building factory branches and had something like 70-80 of them. Is that what you're referring to? I was under the impression that most of them dissolved on their own accord rather than being abandoned by the leadership.

That is what I was referring to, yeah. You could be right on the dissolution of the branches happening from below rather then from above. Although I think the leadership did move against them as well. Since was it not part of the transformation of IS into the SWP, which resulted in the pushing out, of a lot of those on the left of the IS such as Jim Higgins. For anyone interested his writings on the history of IS/SWP are interesting and funny.

Devrim
Dec 26 2012 09:52
Android wrote:
That is what I was referring to, yeah. You could be right on the dissolution of the branches happening from below rather then from above. Although I think the leadership did move against them as well. Since was not it part of the transformation of IS into the SWP, which resulted in the pushing out of the a lot of those on the left of the IS such as Jim Higgins. For anyone interested his writings on the history of IS/SWP are interesting and funny.

You are right. I am not quite old enough to remember it happening but just old enough to remember it being reasonably fresh. Building Worker Group (there is a link to a pamphlet and one issue of their bulletin here on Libcom) were certainly thrown out. I can remember talking about it with Brian Higgins once in the late 1980s.

I couldn't find much about on the web except on comment in an article about struggles in construction:

Quote:
In July 1982, Tony Cliff, the leading SWP ideologue, ordered the BWG to be disbanded. They rightly refused and those members in the SWP, of whom Brian Higgins was one were expelled from the party.

Devrim

Spikymike
Dec 26 2012 12:43

The IS before it transformed into the SWP did have a bit of a libertarian feel about it and was co-operative with the old London based Solidarity group for a brief period.

I was personally involved (critically of course!) for a short while (in the mid to late 70's?) with the SWP inspired, though not necessarily controlled locally, NALGO Action Group in Hull before the SWP line changed (as it often did) and they decided to wind it down.

Android
Dec 26 2012 15:00
Spikymike wrote:
The IS before it transformed into the SWP did have a bit of a libertarian feel about it and was co-operative with the old London based Solidarity group for a brief period.

When Tony Cliff invited others into his multi-tendency IS, such as Matgamna's Workers Fight. An invitation was also extended to the old Solidarity group, if I recall right. There was a small split, defection, from Solidarity to IS led by late John Sullivan (more well known for his pamphlets/books on left groups).

Andy Wilson (ex-SWP, now involved in the Association of Musical Marxists!*) recounted:

Quote:
I met Ken Weller, who decades ago had been a member of the Communist Party. He later joined the WRP, then helped form Solidarity, which was a sort of anti-Leninist group and became increasingly anarchistic. But in its early days, Solidarity was engaged by Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron in unity talks, with the idea that its members should join the early IS - still the Socialist Review Group at that time. Not only that, but members of Solidarity sat on the editorial board of International Socialism for a while. The point is that things were open-ended - people were genuinely rethinking their own traditions. I do not think that we have seen that for 20 or 30 years in any meaningful sense.

http://cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/884/imputed-consciousness-and-left-organisations

Which is a taken from a talk he gave at CPGB's annual summer school. If you are interested in things SWP it gives a useful account of its rigid uniformity.

* coincidentally, just saw on the homepage of AMM there is a document from Wilson's break with the SWP.

organdva
Dec 27 2012 09:50

"Every anarchist is a baffled dictator." - Benito Mussolini

I'm only anarchist in this sense just without "baffling".

My friend said to me: "homosexuality is not natural". So I attack it.
He raised his hands like I was pointing gun in his direction, then he said with spasm on his face: "everyone has right to his own opinion". This liberal "right" turned into justifying conservative ideas.

Autonomy is left ideology where you authoritatively draw line over humanity. You can make it individual, communal or national(Lenin). But then you need to justify all kinds of perverts, LDS Church or North Korea with respect to the line you draw.

wojtek
Dec 31 2012 02:34

“Selling the Paper”: a glimpse into the SWP

In one of the internal bulletins someone defending the CC describes autonomism as 'a creeping infection' lol.

direct action
Jan 12 2013 11:40

Great post. Succinct but with adequate examples, and very translatable. This very much mirrors my own experience in a Trotskyist organization in the United States (one not affiliated with SWP/IST). I still have great respect for the particular group and don't shy away from working together with them on activist projects in my East Coast city, but I would never again join any type of Leninist organization. This organization had the same anti-democratic tendencies, compartmentalized "committees", dogmatic enforcement of the "party line", and instant mistrust of any dissent, whether in public, at a branch meeting, or in the midst of a small, offline conversation between three or four comrades while having a smoke. Like you, I credit the organization and my time in it with motivating me to explore anarchism (which I began by reading The Conquest of Bread, still one of the most influential books I've ever had the pleasure of reading).

wojtek
Mar 12 2013 11:03

Devrim wrote:

Quote:
You are right. I am not quite old enough to remember it happening but just old enough to remember it being reasonably fresh. Building Worker Group (there is a link to a pamphlet and one issue of their bulletin here on Libcom) were certainly thrown out. I can remember talking about it with Brian Higgins once in the late 1980s.

See the 'Tony Cliff told to F*** Off!' subheading in Chapter 1 of this issue.

Entdinglichung
Mar 12 2013 11:13
Android wrote:

Whilst this is true. I think I remember reading somewhere that in the 1970s the IS/SWP tried to integrate Gorter and Pannekoek into their 'tendency', in fact I think it might have been their bookshop/publisher (Pluto Press? - which is now independent) who published the book on Gorter and Pannekoek's Marxism.

Bookmarks ... Pluto Press was the IMG's publisher but became independent in 1979