Monday, July 21, 2014

The 47th SWP Convention

The Socialist Workers Party held its 47th Constitutional Convention in Oberlin, Ohio, in late June. It must have been a pretty tedious affair. The convention was preceded by an Active Workers Conference--a combination summer school and pep rally. Both events stretched out to a week.

My recollection is that conventions must occur every two years, but the 46th Convention happened in 2010--four years ago. So there's some extra-constitutional hanky-panky going on, though probably innocent enough. I think it results from there being very little for the Party to talk about.

Doug Nelson's article hits the four highlights of Party activity for the coming year:
  • Expand readership of the socialist press (aka The Militant).
  • "[F]ree the Cuban Five and defend Cuba's socialist revolution."
  • "[G]ive more leadership attention to organizing party members to work together in industrial workplaces."
  • Recruit new members.
This is an extraordinarily modest agenda--much less ambitious than what they proposed in 2010. It certainly does not rise to the dramatic changes in American politics proclaimed by Jack Barnes: “Like coming out of a long tunnel, the decades-long political retreat of the working class is more and more behind us."

This year's event attracted 320 participants, compared to 350 in 2010. So the Party is shrinking slightly. On the plus side they recruited three new members, whose names they proudly report: Sydney Coe, Jose Acosta, and Lara Canales. The latter two hail from Edinburg, TX, and will move to Houston to join the branch there. New recruits usually don't last long in the Party--most of them are gone within a couple of years.

If comrades' median age is 60, then their median life expectancy is about 25 years. That means they'll lose 4% of their membership every year due to natural attrition. Thus they need to recruit five to ten people annually just to break even, something they are not doing as the decline in convention attendance indicates.

So it's clear they need to recruit new members. What about the other items?
The party’s regular sales of the Militant and books on workers’ doorsteps over the recent period has been, and will continue to be, the bedrock of this perspective. “We have built a large periphery of readers,” said Barnes, “but we have only started to focus on getting to know them,” to have the discussions that will lead us to more workers, more fights and other activity we can join with them.
Simply astonishing! The Party has a long history of renewal campaigns, forums, and get-togethers aimed a Militant readers. It's not as though comrades haven't tried to reach their audience--Mr. Barnes simply insults his audience.

Such efforts have failed. The reason for that failure is the Party is stuck in an early 20th Century communications medium--a print newspaper on a rigid, weekly publication schedule. They need to employ social media. Even the grandma crowd is avid users of Facebook, not to mention anybody under the age of 50. The Party's risible efforts to engage readers with their current tools are laughable.

I don't understand the fascination for the Cuban Five. These are five Cubans convicted of espionage in 2001 and sentenced to long prison terms. I have not followed this case at all because I think it is unimportant. All appeals have been exhausted and no judicial proceedings remain. There is no defense case anymore. Indeed, one of the five was released on parole and repatriated to Cuba.

Nevertheless, the Party is on an extended campaign to--do what exactly? For the last year or so they've been touting the prison paintings of Antonio Guerrero, though not for any aesthetic value. Instead, according to Mary-Alice Waters,
...still ahead of us is organizing the kind of events that really tap into the opportunities to win support for this campaign among working people — to take this fight deeper into the working class where a “jury of millions” can be built. That’s where we find those who are attracted to the Five as revolutionary fighters, not suffering victims.
It's not clear to me how these guys are "revolutionary heroes." All they did was go to jail. A 13 year-old case around people of at best ambiguous moral or political credentials is a loser. I don't think the Party has won any traction with this.

Their support for Cuba seems misplaced. Unmentioned is the fact that Cuba is supporting Russia rather than the Ukrainian government. Fidel even remarked that he thought the Ukrainian government had shot down the Malaysian airliner. Both of these positions are at odds with The Militant's. And nowhere is "Venezuela" mentioned--odd since it is the major financier of Cuba's much touted internationalism.

Finally, they greatly exaggerate the turmoil within the American working class. The lede paragraph of Mr. Nelson's article illustrates.
The worldwide slowdown of capitalist production and trade over the last half decade has spurred the propertied rulers to intensify their offensive to whittle away at the living standards, job conditions, rights and expectations of working people. This is generating stirrings of labor resistance and a widening and sustained receptivity to communist politics not seen in decades, creating greater openings and responsibilities for proletarian parties.
Elsewhere, they contradict this: "No electable politicians are calling for a frontal assault on Social Security, Medicare, or other social benefits, or even dismantling the Affordable Care Act."

The Party's pessimism about the global economy is overstated. Yes--governments the world over are in debt. But as Tyler Cowen points out, this is a political problem rather than an economic one. The economy is actually doing pretty good: stock prices are at new highs because of corporate earnings, housing prices are rising slightly, and technology promises to dramatically improve our standard of living.

On the other hand, the industrial working class as it existed in the first half of the 20th Century simply doesn't exist anymore. The Party's tactic of selling Militants in front of plant gates is doomed to failure. Outside the public sector the union movement is not just dying, but arguably is dead and gone--witness the most recent AFL-CIO convention.

So there is no evidence of any stirrings of labor resistance, Mr. Nelson's long list of anecdotes notwithstanding. We're all petty bourgeois now--everybody is an entrepreneur. The Marxist template which The Militant wants to impose on reality simply does not fit.

The Socialist Workers Party is doomed. In twenty five years it won't exist.

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