The wacky world of revolutionary mathematics


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.


  1. Madam Miaow said,

    November 23, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    5,938? Yes, in dog years, or whatever the far left body count equivalent is.

  2. Dr Paul said,

    November 24, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    When I was a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, we could get around 1000 people to our summer schools, whilst we had a membership of a couple of hundred and a slightly bigger number of supporters. That means for everyone in and immediately around the group, we brought along someone else. Logically, Marxisms would have around 10 000 to 12 000 people attending if they had the same sort of drawing power.

    On the basis of the figures given, the SWP couldn’t mobilise all their own members to attend their summer school, the party’s most attractive event. I think that the disparity is explained by their actual membership being a fair bit lower than the stated figure. This is also suggested by the very low membership of Respect.

  3. margo said,

    November 24, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Just as a point of information. Unregistered members mostly do pay subs, but haven’t signed a re-reg form. I know I live with one of them. I have also been one from time to time.
    This category fluctuates from month to month also as direct debits are cancelled, either as a cancellation of membership or because the money was not there to be taken.
    The category has been around for several years now, and was brought in when the then membership secretary argued that automatic re-registration should stop, and instaed members should be asked to re-join each year.

  4. Darren said,

    November 24, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    What the Doctor said.

    When one thinks of the effort (and pressure) put in by SWP members to build their annual recruitathon, one cannot take the figure of 5.938 at face value.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 25, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    I’m grateful to Margo. It’s not a category I remember… perhaps going down the old road of having registered supporters might give a more accurate picture.

    Although it’s still hard to reconcile the various sets of figures even if we do assume them to have a basis in fact.

  6. November 25, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    I assume, that most SWP-“members”, who joined at a stall or a rally (because of constant pressure to “join the party” or of permanent semi-harassing phone calls) and have disappeared after around six weeks are still counted as members … the German SWP clone “Linksruck” had a more accurate method of counting members … but the result of it did reveal the damage, “Linksruck” had done in a much clearer way … between 1994 and 2001 more than 10.000 people have passed through Linksruck but membership was at no point higher than 1.200 … most former “Linksruck”-members are really fed up with involvement in a socialist organisation because of their experience in “Linksruck” (non-democratic internal structure, sexism, paper selling as a substitute for real political activities, etc.)

  7. rob said,

    November 26, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    What amazes me is how Respect Renewal can fit “upwards of 300 people” in a room with an official capacity of 210. That was the figure you gave, wasn’t it ?

  8. David Broder said,

    November 26, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    The CPGB’s Weekly Worker claims that the SWP has 1,000 members, which seems plausible to me based on their turnout at demos and so on.

    (How many members the CPGB actually has is quite another question…)

  9. Binh said,

    November 27, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    This was made worse in the early 1990s when the “dash for growth” meant that membership criteria were massively relaxed.

    The ISO is in the process of rectifying this. One of our members put it well: “we are building a Bolshevik organization that used Menshevik methods of recruitment.” There was always tension between the open-door recruitment policy we inherited from the Brits and the core Leninist idea of limiting party membership to active revolutionaries.

    In my experience, we often would vote on goals for new members (3 solid, integrated newbs by the end of the semester, for example) but they were not hard and fast Stakhanovite quotas. The SWP’s manipulation of membership figures and the pressure to keep up the numbers seems to be a very desperate attempt to find some positive results in perspective that has been nothing short of a disaster since the 1990s.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 27, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Rob, I stand by 300+, based on a rough headcount I did. There were getting on for 300 seats, and consistently a good number of people standing, milling about etc. We’ve been into this already on SU.

  11. margo said,

    November 27, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    The question of membership is difficult however it is organised. Paid membership is a constitutional criteria for membership. However, a friend of mine who left years ago (over Respect actually) stills pays subs but is not on any list. He gets mailouts but does not appear as either a registered or unregistered member as it has been at least two years since he signed anything.
    I only include this as it sheds some light onto the situation that Mark Steel refers to from an IB published over on SUN.

    The real difficulty though is that of active membership. This is the real test in my opinion, and why commentators believe the membership to be smaller than published.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 27, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Well, quite so. The question is, what definition of membership are we talking about? Let’s say the active membership of the SWP is around a thousand, while the CPB’s published membership is around 900. But as we all know, that’s not comparing like with like, and the CPB’s active membership, by the SWP standard of active, is a good bit smaller.

    Perhaps fuzzy maths is what’s called for.

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