How the SWP "Marched on Parliament".

Submitted by AWL on 11 November, 2005 - 10:07 Author: John O'Mahony

Between fifteen and twenty thousand students marched through London on 23 February [1994] in protest at the Government's decision to cut student grants by one-third over the next three years. They were organised by the Student Activist Alliance, initiated by supporters of Socialist Organiser.

That march may prove to have been the beginning of a deep and powerful mobilisation of students for a serious fight to force the Government to retreat. It was an important event.

By contrast, the Socialist Workers' Party's [SWP's] much-advertised student "March on Parliament" on the same day - and, indeed, "on" the same demonstration, as we'll see - was a silly fiasco, a real non-event. They got no nearer to "marching on parliament" than making a feeble attempt to stop the march in Aldwych and pushing half-heartedly at the police lines there, over a mile away from Parliament.

The most malevolent critic of the organisation led by Tony Cliff could not have imagined or concocted the sequence of events which unfolded around the SWP's "March on Parliament" - not even as a piece of fiction designed as a parable about the faults of the SWP.

For the left - and on the blighted landscape of the left today, the SWP looms large: strange and politically weird but comparatively very large - for the left, the SWP's "March on Parliament" was an important event, too.

This, as I understand it and as I witnessed some of it, is the story.

The Student Activist Alliance called the demonstration on 23 February, believing that it is now possible to mobilise tens, and ultimately maybe hundreds, of thousands of students against the Government. It was planned as an orderly march because it was intended that those attracted to the demonstration would be asked to go back to their colleges and agitate for larger-scale action against the Government - that is, to go back and agitate with presently right-wing and a-political students to get them to begin to act in their own interest against the Tory cuts.

Stunts like a major clash with the police would be counterproductive here.
Support built up for 23 February. Then the SWP decided to "intervene".

They started advertising it - as an SWP event. Then they called on the Student Activist Alliance to turn the demonstration into a "March on Parliament". Whatever the SAA did, they announced, the SWP itself would make 23 February into a "March on Parliament".
The right-wing Labour leaders of the National Union of Students eagerly picked up this notion. They urged people not to demonstrate on 23 February, because, they said, it was an SWP march, and they were concerned for students' safety. Reports indicated that they had some success in this.

But the SWP seemed to know what they were doing. Large numbers of posters were put up on walls throughout the country announcing the "March on Parliament" for 23 February.
SWP leaflets said that the demonstration, combined with student occupations, could "bring down the government". At the SWP's national student event early in February there was - so I'm told - much excited talk about the "March on Parliament" and how it could spark a student revolt as big as that of May 1968 in France. One SWP banner on the demonstration summed up this mood: "Paris, May 1968; London, February 1994".

Thus, an organisation which claims 8000 members, at least 2000 of them students, seemed to be mobilising as seriously as it could to assemble the forces for a real attempt at marching on Parliament. And an attempt to force the Student Activist Alliance to follow their lead.

On the eve of 23 February, they held a SWSS stewards' meeting to discuss tactics for compelling the demonstration to become a "March on Parliament". What could they do? They decided to sit in the road and provoke clashes with the police.

Of course, it was the sheerest nonsense. It is illegal to march within a mile of Parliament while it is sitting. That ban is rigorously enforced. All the formidable forces of the state would be deployed to stop a "March on Parliament". Unless the police and the army were seething with rebellion and ready either to desert or to go over to the "marchers", you would need a good army to clear the road for a "March on Parliament".

When a student demonstration announces that it will "March on Parliament" that is just a grandiloquent way of announcing that it will fight with the police in the streets, far away from Parliament. That's all the SWP "March On Parliament" could possibly have meant.

Of course, a limited student campaign might reasonably decide on a publicity stunt involving clashes with the police. Socialist Organiser supporters have done such things, in the "Arts Attack" protests, for example. To do it on 23 February was to go in for a bit of street theatre instead of working to mobilise a mass campaign against the Tories. Unknown thousands who can be mobilised in their own self-interest would be scared, alienated or repelled by such ultra-left posturing.

The colleges and the National Union of Students have moved distinctly to the right in the last few years. They can now move quickly to the left by way of a mobilisation to defend and secure things that are in the students own interest; but they have not yet done so. The job of serious socialists is to help them do so.

Instead of working to develop a movement, the SWP calls for 'instant barricades', and proclaims as the immediate goal of the very first national demonstration against the grant cuts nothing less than a "March on Parliament" and the bringing down of the Government!

This SWP approach would simply take the socialists out of all constructive work - the work that might well build towards large-scale student confrontations with the police that would not repel but rouse up more student anger and whet their determination.

The SWP leaders know all this. They knew that they could not have mobilised a march the size of 23 February on the call for a "March on Parliament". That is why they tried to hijack the Student Activist Alliance march. They probably know, too, that their hi-jacking effort lost the march much support. But that is not their concern. Recruits to the SWP, and "exposing" Socialist Organiser are what concerns them.
Their call for a "March on Parliament" was directed only at the Student Activist Alliance.

The SWP leaders never really believed a "March on Parliament" to be a real possibility, or a proper goal to set the demonstration. They are political fools, but not plain stupid.

What happened on 23 February? As the march assembled in Malet Street, London, many are hundreds of Socialist Worker placards carrying a cartoon of Tory Prime Minister John Major with a meat cleaver stuck in his head, were given out. Lots of students took placards, making the SWP seem a formidable force on the march.

Those who don't know the SWP leaders might have found it odd that the placards made no mention of the "March on Parliament". The technique of parachuting in on demonstrations with SWP placards depends on making the placards broadly acceptable to the demonstrators. They knew perfectly well that "March on Parliament" would not be acceptable to many on the march. It was not, as we'll see, acceptable even to some of those willing to carry SWP placards.

Little knots of SWSS people did chant for a "March on Parliament". Why? "That's where the decisions are made", the very anti-parliamentary SWPers chanted, " so that's where we should go". "We must go where they can hear us".

As the march assembled, one SWP organiser could be heard shouting: "We're going to march on Parliament... to lobby the MPs". The demonstration would smash through police lines, take over central London - as it would have to - and then go and chat to a few MPs!

The SWP stewards' meeting had decided that they would try to force themselves into the front of the demonstration, and seize the lead. As the march set off they did not even try.

Back in the good old days of the late 1960s, when anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations would divide on whether to go to Trafalgar Square or to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, the separation would take place at an appropriate point and those out for a fight with the police would go and get stuck in. That's what the SWP and those who agreed with them would now try to do?

Apart from spreading the ridiculous rumour that Parliament had closed down for fear of their "march", they didn't try anything until the march reached Aldwych, at the bottom of the Holborn Kingsway. The set route demanded that the marchers turn left; their "march on Parliament" demanded a turn to the right.

As the march moved down the left side of Kingsway, a group of SWPers made a "revolutionary" beachhead on the traffic island in the middle of the road, and, with loudhailers, called on people to assemble and turn right with them to "March on Parliament". Inside the march, groups and individuals took up the cry.

Organisers and SWPers with megaphones shouted themselves hoarse, competing, exchanging abuse. The march organisers said: keep going to the left. The majority did that, flowing past the citizens of the traffic island like a river, disgorging SWPers who swelled the crowd on the traffic island and narrowed the channel for the march.

A group of anarchists joined the SWPers. Waverers wavered on the fringes of the island. But that did not stop the tide, which continued to flow past as the big majority turned left, rejecting the proposed stunt. One of the odd sights was a large number of SWP placards flowing past the stranded hard-core SWPers.

The SWP stewards' meeting had - so we heard - decided that they would sit down on the road to divert the march. Now was the time for it. It might have stopped the flow. But the ground was wet, greasy, sloppy and cold.
Hasn't Trotsky described how the Russian Revolution in February 1917 advanced on its kneeds, with women crawling under the belly of Cossack horses? But no, the SWP did not want to get their backsides wet.

March on Parliament? Yes! Sit down on the cold wet ground? No. It was one measure of their seriousness.

Most of the marchers had plainly made their minds up not to go for a stunt, endorsing the arguments for the development of a mass campaign put by the organisers of the march in a leaflet.

By now most of them had gone past the SWP, and the waverers were being magnetised and starting to follow after. What would the SWP do now? Having separated the revolutionaries from the others, would the SWP now "march on Parliament"?

They had only a few hundred people, probably a lot fewer than the number of SWP sympathisers on the march. Yes, but "marching on Parliament" never meant anything but a clash with the police, and a few hundred SWPers could do that, at least.

Well, they didn't. They never meant to. Instead, they shouted feeble abuse down megaphones at the rest of the marches. One man was shouting that Socialist Organiser students were students "from police colleges". But they were not willing to follow their own advice and charge the police, or even push very hard.

When a Socialist Organiser man asked one of their organisers, a bit later, why they had not at least gone ahead and charged the cops, he was told: "We're not adventurists!"

The slogan they raised for the whole march was adventurist? Yes, but it was not meant seriously. It was to "expose" Socialist Organiser!

A few brief moments of scuffling with police now erupted at one end of the island, and three people were arrested. The anarchists, at least, were serious, but there were not many of them; and the SWP left them in the lurch.

Now the heroes on the island, who would neither get their backsides wet nor risk getting their noses bloodied, had come to the moment of decision: what would they do? They ran to catch up with the demonstration!

Having failed to "march on Parliament", did they now loyally join the march? No. Led by full-time organisers, a couple of hundred of them dashed down a side street and came out at the head of the march, confronting it as a hostile force.

This at least made the focus of their efforts clear. Were they going to "sit down without illusions" now, to frustrate the intentions of the big majority of the marchers? No. The ground was still just as wet and they were not, I guess, in the best state of morale by now. This was just a show of petulance.
After a ten minute delay, they let the march through. The SWP contingent crossed Waterloo Bridge ahead of the main march, turned off to the right in another feeble gesture, stopped at the police lines when they got to them
- and eventually turned round to chase after the main march, again - shouting the accusation that Socialist Organiser had blocked the "March on Parliament"!

That was how the SWP "marched on Parliament" on 23 February 1994.
Isn't all this reminiscent of something else? Haven't we been here before, and recently?

In late 1992, the SWP reacted to the widespread, but only-just-beginning, outcry against the Tory announcement of a new wave of pit closures by calling on the TUC to initiate an immediate all-out General Strike. The labour movement was to go from its lowest ebb in decades to a quasi-revolutionary general strike - which is what an all-out general strike is - in one bound, and led by the TUC! This was a crazy proposal and at least some of the SWP leaders must have known that. The SWP, having expelled those in its ranks who rejected the new turn, dropped it soon afterwards.

For serious Marxists there is no such thing as a slogan or a proposal put forward merely for effect, for projecting a militant image, or to "expose" opponents. We work to educate and mobilise large movenents of workers, or students. By that method - by putting forward proposals and perspectives for the broad movement - and within that work, we recruit to,educate and build our own socialist organisation.

We do not put forward "militant" but politically nonsensical slogans like calls for a "March on Parliament" designed only to create a "militant" image and "expose" opponents.

On 23 February the SWP put forward a preposterous proposal - which the SWP leaders themselves did not believe in - that served to distinguish them from the organisers of the march but which cut against the attempt to develope a mass student movement against the Tory cuts. They are not concerned with such things any more than they were concerned with developing the on-the-ground practical action to support the miners in October 1992 which, if developed, might have been made to coalesce into generalised action against the Tories.

At the first sign of pregnancy they raise the "demand": "The Baby Now! Now! Now!". But the SWP leaders do not believe in it themselves. It is all a cynical game. They are irresponsible demagogues, not honest or serious ultra-lefts.

When they were trying to be a serious political organisation, they were militantly hostile to "transitional demands", the breaking down of the socialist programme into a series of linked demands, geared into the developing struggle. Now they use the most vulgar and ridiculous version of "transitional demands", indeed, a hostile caricature - demands that "can't be met", raised merely to "expose" someone. They do not use slogans and demands as tools for mobilising people on goals which are limited but which open up a perspective of developing a movement to higher and higher levels in struggle. They use them as mere literary devices for smart-alec posturing in confrontational debate.

On 23 February, we had the strange spectacle of an organisation with at least 1000 student members relating to a national demonstration called to fight a massive Tory attack on student living standards with the sole purpose of "exposing" an opponent organisation, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Socialist Organiser, whose student membership, though a lot more useful and politically better-educated than theirs, is not even a tenth of theirs.

The word parasitic suggests itself here, except that that is only part of it.
The SWP is now a radically disoriented organisation. It uses slogans and ideas with an advertising-agency cynicism similar to that of the Labour Party leaders and "mainstream" politicians. Pretty much anything goes. Organisational self-promotion devours everything else.

Nothing matters but to recruit to "the party". We too recruit to our organisation, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. But an organisation is what it does, tries to do, represents, stands for, proposes, does educational work for.

At the heart of the SWP's performance on 23 February lies deep pessimism, defeatism and demoralisation. They acted as people who could not believe in even the possibility that the left can develop, build, and midwife the powerful student anti-Tory movement which is now possible.

All they were capable of doing was self-obsessed posturing and faking to "build the party". The feebleness with which they went about getting their "March on Parliament" – in practice, a bust-up with the police – is explicable only on the assumption that they did not believe in it themselves.

The SWP does now what the Healyites did in the late 1960s. The SWP slogan on 23 February was ultra-left. But they did not behave as ultra-lefts. As their organiser said, "we're not adventurists". These are newspaper and placard ultra-lefts, not real ones.

The "fake left" - Labour and trade union leaders talking militant for the rank and file - is an ancient and dishonourable tradition in the British labour movement. Now, in the SWP, we have a fake ultra-left! Progress, it isn't.

Socialist Organiser 591, March 3, 1994


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/11/2005 - 15:56

More SWP insanity. Congratulations on facing them down. Hopefully the more this happens the more demoralised they will become and the less they will try to inflict their style of nihilist poitics and posturing upon the rest of us. Note the complete insanity of the SWP's whole caper on this occasion. Alternative march? No, we're the SWP we will take over your march and you must do as we say. Well nuts to that.

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