Reply to the SWP Open Letter on Nice

LAN poster against military refueling at Shannon This Open Letter was written for in answer to an open letter from one of the main leninist parties in Ireland that had been published in their newspaper.  I'd recently had some bad experiences of their methodology in other struggles which inspired me to write this reply to explain why such a letter was not going to get a positive response.  Later in that year and across the following two we were going to have a lot of problems with this party in the anti-war movment and then the European Union summit protests of 2004.


Reply to the SWP Open Letter on Nice

Issue 180 of Socialist Worker contained an 'open letter to the left' on the Nice treaty. It argues that there should be one united left No campaign rather then four separate ones. This is a personal reply to that text (which can be found at the Internet archive, its no longer on the SWP site)

As it stands the Open Letter would appear reasonable to the casual reader from Mars who had no knowledge of the Irish left. It would seem obvious that a single united Nice campaign would have greater impact then the several No campaigns that are now coming into existence. But of course the letter doesn't argue for a single united campaign of all those calling for a No vote. Like everyone else on the left the SWP have no interest in unity with Justin Barrett, for all the right reasons.

So although it does not explicitly state this, the letter itself acknowledges that sometimes principles need to come before unity. This will be discussed in more depth below.

But there is something curious in this method of arguing for left unity; an Open Letter published in the paper of a single political party. With some thought it can be seen that this letter is not after all targeted at visitors from Mars but rather at people in Ireland concerned about Nice and wondering which campaign to involve themselves in. Not all of these people, rather just those who have so far had very little contact with the revolutionary left, and so very little experience of the reality behind SWP 'unity' calls.

After all this seems like a very odd way to go about achieving unity. Surely the sensible approach would have been to first address those you wanted unity with, many of whom may not regularly read Socialist Workers. Surely the SWP should have asked the three other campaigns if they were willing to discuss grounds for uniting on and what these might be. I'm a co-ordinator for the libertarian/anarchist 'No to Nice' campaign that is forming. So far this will probably involve four anarchist groups and a lot of unaffiliated individuals. Yet we received no contact, formal or informal from the SWP in advance of their Open Letter enquiring if we were interested in discussing the setting up of such a united campaign.

I'm also a maintainer of the No 2 Nice mailing list which was specifically set up to improve co-ordination between the various progressive anti-Nice campaigns. There are several SWP members lurking on the list. There are members of all the other left campaigns on the list as well as members of Sinn Fein and the Green Party. You might have thought this was the ideal place to raise any discussion of a united campaign but all the SWP have posted to it is their anti-Nice fact sheet. In fact they didn't even announce their 'need for a united campaign' public meeting there, not to mention the text of this 'Open Letter'.

Equipped with these facts only a fool would take the 'Open Letter' at face value. Rather then seeking unity between the progressive forces campaigning against Nice the SWP is launching a cynical attack on them. Of course there is nothing new here. The experience of the last ten years has seen dozens of such SWP fronts, some of which never last beyond their founding event, others like the ANL which go through endless cycles of burial and resurrection according to the whims of the SWP political committee.

Activists within these campaigns generally have no say in any of the major decisions that are made in terms of the direction of the campaign. Instead at meetings they are presented with finished leaflets to distribute or posters to give out. Campaign events are dominated by SWP speakers, SWP stalls and SWP banners. The bookstall at rallies will be provided by the SWP book service and will be dominated by SWP and other Leninist publications. Any attempt to raise discussion of this within the campaign is pushed aside by the need to 'do stuff'. Or it is promised that all this will be resolved at a national conference, an event that is either put off indefinitely (as in the case of the SWP front GR) or which is turned into yet another rally with a line up of SWP dominated meetings.

So it is easy to see why no left, green or republican organisation in Ireland is currently willing to be part of such an SWP front group. Some of us have tried in the recent past (GR initially involved several other groups). But like the leopard the SWP cannot change its spots, even when it changes its rhetoric, and with that lesson learned all soon left.

There is another possibility of course. That is rather then a 'united' campaign, which in reality is a front set up by the SWP, a broad alliance is set up that is based on a wide layer of groups and individuals and that defines its role at a founding meeting and as it goes along. As of the moment no organisation (including the SWP) is calling for such a campaign and it is worth considering why.

Again the answer here is something that a recently arrived Martian would be unaware of. The answer is that the experience of such campaigns, which the SWP have been involved in, has almost been as bad as SWP front groups. Although there are ongoing examples of these problems I'm going to use two recent examples of campaigns that have been wound up as illustrations.

1. S26 Collective

This was a broad alliance of organisations building Irish support for the S26 demonstrations in Prague against the IMF/World Bank. (See ). The SWP was involved from the start. A couple of weeks before the demonstration posters using the campaign logo appeared all over Dublin advertising a public meeting that had not been called by the campaign! Those who turned up found (as suspected) that this was an SWP meeting with the SWP banner on the platform and SWP speakers. There was a major row at the next S26 organising meeting when the SWP tried to insist they had done nothing wrong.

2. Alliance for a No Vote

This was another broad grouping brought together to campaign for a No vote in the last anti-abortion referendum. (See ). The organising meeting soon saw a familiar pattern where the SWP would send one or two members along to each meeting except when they wanted the campaign to do something. At those meeting 7 or 8 SWP members would turn up with most of them playing no role in the meeting except voting for whatever the SWP motion was.

This method was used to push through the organisation of a national demonstration just before the referendum. Many experienced activists argued that this was a waste of energy that could be better used in door to door leafleting, canvassing etc. In contrast the SWP argued that "thousands of women were ready to march" and that anyone who doubted this was simply "demoralised". They failed to get the march pushed through at the activist's conference so they packed the next organising meeting and got it through then.

Just over a week before the march was due to take place they again turned up in force, this time to insist that a particular SWP member would be a speaker at the rally before the march. But they had not quite brought along enough SWP members this time and despite the fact that they dragged out the discussion for most of the meeting (with one SWP leader insisting on speaking no less then 7 times) they lost this vote.

On the day of the march as the non-SWP members predicted only a few hundred people turned out. (see More amazingly the SWP turned up with yet another 'Open letter' this time arguing that the ANV was being too cautious and that the referendum would be lost unless a more openly pro-choice position was taken. The amazing thing was that in the weeks beforehand they had not made this argument ONCE at any ANV meeting.

In a touch of real comedy given their behaviour at the last meeting they also argued that too much time had been taken up in internal debates. Afterwards they dishonestly tried to present the argument at the meeting as being one about whether or not there would be a pro-choice speaker at the event. The lie to their claim is found at the link above, the DARG speaker (for an openly pro-choice organisation) finished her speech as follows "We will have to force the government to introduce free, safe legal abortion in an Irish hospital to any women that wants one." [There is a document in circulation written by an ANV activist which goes into these problems in a lot more detail then is possible here].

There were other more minor manipulations by the SWP in these campaigns and of course there are many others that I don't intend to go into here. The point is that the activists that the SWP fucked around in ANV and S26 Collective are in many cases the very same people that the SWP now demands 'unity' from. There is an old saying 'fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me'. The reality is that such is the desire for real unity on behalf of many activists that they have allowed the SWP to 'fool them' time and time again. Now it appears they have had enough.

It is important to realise that these manipulations are not just annoying for those they are practised on. They are also quite damaging to the campaigns involved. The arguments they generate are often demoralising and confusing those on the fringes of the campaigns and sorting out the mess they create wastes time that could be more usefully spent.

Finally let us return to the other reality that all, including the SWP recognise. This is that there can not and should not be a single united No campaign because it is essential that the likes of Barret are publicly opposed. This one political fault line running through the No side, but there are others. Another is the whole issue of 'national sovereignty' concept anarchist's reject. In this referendum we also believe that the sort of Europe we argue for is just as important as the Europe we are arguing against (in calling for a No vote on Nice).

In that context we have little in common with either the SWP or the Socialist Party. Both of these organisations describe the one party dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky which saw the abolition of workers self management, the closure of soviets at gun point and the jailing and execution of trade unionists and revolutionaries as the closest we have come to a revolutionary society. While this sharp divergence can be hidden for a while behind slogans like 'people before profit' or 'another world is possible' we feel that the circumstances of the Nice referendum mean this is not a time to do so.

In another context where there was the possibility of a real left campaign that was not a front for one or the other Leninist outfit then the question might be worth returning to. In reality there is no such possibility this time around, the independent socialist campaign being set up is perhaps closest in terms of principles but too weak in terms of numbers. That said there is still room for co-operation with whatever campaigns are set up, at least at the level of avoiding calling meetings at the same time or leafleting the same estates on the same evening.

So it seems four or more left 'No to Nice' campaigns are unavoidable. In the short term we need to deal with this by ensuring co-operation between them where this is possible. The mailing list No2Nice has been set up to help this happen, join it by emailing

In the longer term there are many lessons here for all who wish to see revolutionary change in Ireland. In this I include rank and file SWP members who have no real control over the manipulations their leadership choose to order in their name. As long as they continue to accept their lack of control then that vast majority of activists will not welcome working with them. It may well be the case that there will always be a layer of new and inexperienced people to be sucked into the party for a few months but in the long run the disillusionment that goes with this revolving door is extremely harmful to the revolutionary project.

There is however also a responsibility for those of us outside the SWP and SP. For too long many activists have refused to face the necessary commitment that would ensure the existence or real, healthy campaigns outside of these organisations. But where small number of activists have made this commitment real advances have been made, the X case march being perhaps the best example to date. To misquote the old bearded guy 'the point is not to criticise SWP fronts but to create alternatives to them".

Recommended further reading, which goes some way to explain why Leninist organisations act in the way that they do can be found at

First published in a personal capacity August 2002 on where is caused consideable debate

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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