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.