Mark Thomas has had enough of the SWP

The anti-war movement suffered from the dominance of the SWP: its main interest was in recruiting mo

A friend of mine claims that he and his wife are in the biggest and probably fastest-growing political party in Britain - they are both ex-members of the Socialist Workers Party. They, like many, found being in the SWP not unlike being in a cult. They too had directives from a central committee or leader; they too had to follow an ideology strictly; and they too had to perform daily tasks and rituals, namely selling the party's paper. If the SWP had the flair of the Hare Krishnas its members would be dancing up and down Oxford Street banging drums and chanting: "Marx and Trotsky, Marx and Trotsky, Trotsky and Marx."

Unfortunately, flair is just one of a number of qualities the SWP doesn't possess - popularity being another that just happens to spring to mind.

The party has been criticised for its involvement in the anti-war movement - mainly by those in the pro-war camp, who condemn the it for being a "far-left" group and therefore, by implication, too radical. For some the problem with the SWP is the polar opposite - it is too conservative.

It was not surprising that the party dominated the Stop the War Coalition; its leaders are old hands at controlling "popular fronts". They have to be. Without fronts like Globalise Resistance (commonly known by activists as Monopolise Resistance), the SWP would have shrivelled into political oblivion long ago.

What should be surprising is the party's treatment of its coalition partners. It may hate the competitive pressures of capitalism and believe in our ability to co-operate with each other, but the SWP itself is totally incapable of co-operation. Coalition partners would be presented with decisions as faits accomplis: the SWP would call a demonstration, then inform everybody else after the press release had gone out. Moreover, it actively undermined protests and demonstrations that it didn't control.

As far as many activists are concerned the party isn't that active. For a bunch of revolutionaries, its members seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in shopping centres selling the paper and recruiting. I don't recall Che Guevara uttering the words: "You can pay the monthly subs by direct debit if you like."

On the London demonstration on 22 March it was the SWP stewards who tried to stop protesters taking part in a spontaneous sit-down protest outside Downing Street. They have a problem with direct action or civil disobedience, as do some Labour MPs who have conveniently forgotten that they got their jobs as a result of direct action. One senior member of the anti-war steering committee was quoted as saying, in full-blown Pravda style, that "direct action is elitist". How can protest actions that anyone can organise and commit be elitist?

It is natural for the party to dislike people organising independently. What use to the party are people who spend the day chaining themselves to the gates of a nuclear base? Chained to a fence, you can't even hold a pen to sign the membership form.

The SWP's main priority is recruitment. Why else did it continually call demonstrations week after week during the Iraq conflict? This was a big tactical error for the anti-war movement. When the bombing started, many people felt dispirited and tired, but were organising and carrying out further actions and protests. More importantly, the SWP had not realised that many people on the enormous demonstration in February were there because they felt they had been denied a democratic voice. These demonstrations were bound to result in diminishing numbers - and many were bound to judge that as the collapse of the anti-war movement.

However, if recruitment to your party is the priority, the size of the demo doesn't matter. Even if you get only 20,000 people out, they are what market researchers might term a pure market group. They are prime targets for recruitment - and who cares if the peace movement breaks in the process.

For many in the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements, the act of creative dissent is a cornerstone of their moral and political philosophy. They want to empower and inspire themselves as well as others. More than a million people marching in London against the war was inspiring.

But isn't it also inspiring when a group of Quakers spike the bombers' support vehicle at Fairford or a carnival of dissent is held at RAF Menwith Hill? More inspiring, surely, than hearing the words: "Copy of this week's Socialist Worker, comrade?"

We don't know exactly which country President Bush will attack next, but there is no doubt that he will attack somewhere. The peace movement could do a lot worse than start to organise a coalition free from SWP domination, one that regards peace as the goal and co-operation as the means of getting there.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The final bout