While making his legendary speeches on state capitalism, the late Tony Cliff had a good joke that always got a chuckle from the assembled faithful. This was in dealing with the Five Year Plans, when the bureaucracy would announce (and I don’t have my copy of State Capitalism handy, so I’m plucking a figure out of my left ear) that they would aim to produce 21 millions tons of steel. Then when it came to the next plan, the target would be raised to 16 million tons. Your average Soviet punter, of course, was so starved of information that he couldn’t do a quick compare and contrast.
This joke of Cliff’s comes to mind when reading the SWP Central Committee’s “state of the party” reports in the pre-conference bulletins. We shall skip tactfully over the “World economy – back to the abyss” perspective that opens IB #1, and turn to the membership figures. The CC (and presumably this is Martin talkin’ now) says that “Today there are 5,938 registered SWP members and about 1,700 unregistered members (registered membership is up by over 200 on last year).” This calls for a little deconstruction.
In the first place, this recent innovation of the “unregistered member” is more than a little fishy. These are people who have effectively dropped out, but are kept on the books. They aren’t active and don’t pay subs, which means that they aren’t members in the sense that we always used to understand. I can think of no reason for keeping members who have been inactive for up to two years on the books, except to puff up the numbers. By the way, when the Yanks were excommunicated, one of the proofs of the ISO’s incurable sectarianism was its insistence that branches regularly weed their membership lists.
But is the registered membership a useful guide to anything? I suggest not. Readers with long memories will recall that in the 1970s Cliff had the novel idea of introducing the rigours of the competitive market into party recruitment, by setting up a league table of regional organisers, with the hotshot recruiters at the top and the slackers at the bottom. This did not noticeably speed up recruitment to the party, but it did give an unfortunate boost to what Ahmed Shawki pithily describes as “organiser’s bullshit syndrome”. Of course, the more outrageous spoofers would be found out eventually, and would feel the wrath of Cliff, but the precedent set was not a happy one.
This was made worse in the early 1990s when the “dash for growth” meant that membership criteria were massively relaxed. Many of those counted as members were effectively sympathisers, who might turn out for a big event (Marxism of course, but remember Healy used to regularly get 10,000 or so to his big jamborees) or put a few quid into the appeal if asked, but who weren’t active by any sensible criterion. As for the annual re-registration, it is well known that organisers would bust a gut getting the maximum number of signatures for the centre, whether or not it reflected the real membership in their districts. It has become painfully obvious that carding simply doesn’t take place any more, at least not in a systematic way. And that’s without the possibility of double bookkeeping at the centre itself.
So, five thousand, nine hundred and thirty eight. So how come the pre-split Respect had only 2,500 members, even on paper? And how come the loyalty oath circulated by the CC was signed by only a fifth of the party’s claimed membership, including people I know to have been inactive for years? Isn’t this stretching credibility just a little?
I also notice that the claimed circulation for Socialist Worker is 8,000 per week. Now, it isn’t many years ago that the paper was regularly shifting 30,000 per week. And, if we take the membership figures as accurate (which I don’t), that would mean that virtually nobody outside the party was taking the paper. I know the print newspaper is a dying medium, but it surely isn’t in that parlous a state.
I am therefore immensely cheered to find in IB #2 a long-time comrade who shall remain anonymous remarking that “on July 15, 2006 Socialist Worker reported that, ‘Some 4,100 activists gathered to discuss and debate a huge range of political issues’ at Marxism 2006. However, in the first IB a CC document reads, ‘Marxism 2007 was a great success. Over 4,100 people attended the event, up over 400 on last year.’ The size of Marxism is one indicator of the standing of the party and we are entitled to ask which is correct.”
A very good question, and one which party members deserve a straight answer to. I’m glad to see that the spirit of critical inquiry is not dead, although this comrade’s impersonation of the under-socialised child who pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothing may see a quick termination of membership in the pipeline.