SWP: 'Delta force' still in denial
‘The party’ had been on the right track all along, according to its leadership, and is now in fine health. Peter Manson reports on this year’s Marxism festival
Martin Smith: still has friends
After the substantial drop in attendance at last year’s Marxism, the annual summer school of the Socialist Workers Party, there was a further small decline at the 2014 event, held from Thursday July 10 to Monday July 14. Socialist Worker reports that “over 2,600”1 attended the event, compared to “more than 3,000”2 in 2013.
However, while the leadership may have steadied the ship somewhat following the crisis of the last couple of years, which resulted in the haemorrhaging of hundreds of members, there is very little sign that the SWP is either seriously trying to account for that crisis or attempting to learn the lessons. Its leadership under Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber has no concept of the kind of united Marxist party based on genuine democratic centralism that the workers’ movement needs.
This refusal to even address the possibility that the practice of the SWP - otherwise known as ‘Delta force’ - might be less than perfect was most evident at the big Saturday evening rally (that, in reality, was what it was, although it was billed as just another session), entitled ‘Is the left in crisis?’ and presented by comrade Callinicos. This was held in the Institute of Education’s huge Logan Hall, which holds almost 1,000 people and was very nearly full. It was one of those highly choreographed affairs, where, despite the speaker’s slips being handed out by the comrades from ‘Team Marxism’, most of those who came to the microphone after Callinicos’s speech had already been selected in advance.
The talk was based on his article, ‘Thunder on the left’, published in the latest edition of the SWP quarterly journal, International Socialism.3 Comrade Callinicos began by answering in the positive the question posed by the title of his talk and for a moment seemed to include the SWP itself amongst the left formations that are “in crisis”. Replying to unnamed critics of his article, he denied that it was an “attempt to conceal or explain away the crisis in the SWP”, which had resulted in “a series of splits” over the last few years.
Just as he did in the article, he referred to the “period of good feeling” that had begun in the late 1990s, thanks to the “forward march of new electoral formations”. It was a period when the European Social Forum was “effervescent, confident and growing”, and when new left parties like Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect started to build support. But unfortunately over the past period they have all been hit by “fragmentation and crisis”.
And the conclusion? Nothing but platitudes, such as the need to “keep our nerve” and stick to a “principled Marxist analysis” that was “honest and realistic”. After all, we “can’t just hope”. The implication was not only that the ESF, NPA, SSP, Respect, etc really were entirely positive, but that, as far as “the party” itself is concerned, everything had been, and remains, pretty much on course. The SWP “crisis” had, it seems, nothing whatsoever to do with flawed SWP practice or organisation. Ignore the debacle around comrade Delta and carry on as we are.
I went through the motions of filling in a speaker’s slip, giving my name and organisation, and stating that I wished to ask, “How about Marxist unity?” I watched as the ‘Team Marxism’ comrade handed my request to comrade Kimber, who was sitting in the front row vetting the slips and deciding whether to add new speakers to his list. He showed mine to the comrade next to him and exchanged a joke before discarding it.
True, an ex-SWPer who is now a member of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century was called to speak, and he correctly stated that the SWP needed to “talk about how we organise internally”, but nobody referred to the necessity for the left as a whole to organise differently - ie, to ditch the rival sects and unite on a principled Marxist basis.
In fact the message from most of the speakers was quite the opposite - the bureaucratic-centralist SWP is already the embryo of the party we need. So Candy Udwin urged comrades to step up their interventions - “everyone can be involved in struggles, trying to lead them” - while Maxine Bowler got very excited about the possibilities for advance, if only we had a “bigger SWP”. Members of the International Socialist Tendency in France, Spain and Egypt proclaimed the same message in relation to the global struggle - in the words of the Egyptian comrade, “Build the International Socialist tradition - let’s provide the revolutionary leadership!”
As comrade Callinicos began his reply to the ‘debate’, a collection to “build the party” was taken and I am sure a four-figure sum must have been donated by the assembled loyalists. Comrade Callinicos actually surprised me for a moment when he called the “fragmentation of the left” an “absolute disgrace”. But then it immediately became clear that he was only proposing, in his words, a “minimal degree of left unity” - he very much regretted that, “faced with such a crisis, the left isn’t able to get its act together in a common electoral form”. Such electoral cooperation, which would not be “contradictory to building the SWP”, is all that is required to overcome the left’s crisis apparently. But there is no doubt what the priority is. He ended by pleading: “Please join us - we need you. The truth is, you need us.”
The same inability to contemplate self-criticism was also on display at one of the much smaller sessions I attended. After Huw Williams had spoken on ‘Marxism and anarchism’, I was called to speak - there was no speakers’ slip system in operation here. In my contribution I stressed the nature of the party which, as comrade Williams had pointed out, distinguishes revolutionary socialists from anarchists. It must be a party that allows for a variety of views within Marxism and their open expression, I said, not one that expels members for voicing disagreements - a practice that I hoped the SWP would now leave behind.
I was taken to task by former ‘loyal oppositionist’ John Molyneux for saying such a thing. According to comrade Molyneux, the SWP had never engaged in such practices - he himself had in the past frequently voiced disagreements, but had never been threatened with disciplinary action, he said. In other words, the SWP had always been perfectly democratic, so there is no need for a rethink.
Fortunately, shortly after the meeting I bumped into comrade Molyneux when I was chatting to Simon Wells, a comrade who was indeed expelled from the SWP in 2006 (and who subsequently joined the CPGB). Comrade Wells had been telephoned out of the blue by then national organiser Martin Smith - yes, comrade Delta himself - who told him, “You’re out of the party”. He had not previously been presented with any charges, let alone been given a chance to answer them. He was only informed of the specific accusations when he said he wanted to appeal. The charges included “bringing the party into disrepute” for having reported on his blog what had happened at a local Respect meeting involving John Rees, who was SWP national secretary at the time. Comrade Wells had allegedly been “disrespectful” to Rees (who himself fell out with the rest of the leadership and flounced out of the SWP in 2010) for repeating verbatim the comments of the national secretary and those of Respect members who disagreed with him.
Although comrade Wells had been told before the ‘appeal’ that he was also accused of “factionalism”, that charge was not brought up at the ‘hearing’, so he was none the wiser about whom he was supposed to have been ‘factionalising’ with. The fact of the matter is that the real reason comrade Wells was expelled was for questioning certain policies at SWP meetings. Comrade Molyneux listened to what comrade Wells had to say, but I found it astonishing that he appeared not to know of the case, even though comrade Wells had subsequently told the full story in the pages of the Weekly Worker.4
Comrade Wells admitted that his views had been influenced by, amongst other things, what he had read in the Weekly Worker in the period before his expulsion, but is that an expellable offence? The future party will surely contain a huge variety of opinions on particular tactics, on how specifically we should organise, and so on. Naturally members will be open to persuasion by arguments that originate outside the party too. But none of that applies to the SWP.
However, if the SWP is to become part of the project for a Marxist party based on genuine democratic centralism and not its bureaucratic impostor, then it will have to start by recognising its past and current failings. The same applies to the group’s refusal to even discuss a revolutionary programme, by which it would be possible to assess the usefulness or otherwise of policies adopted and thereby hold the leadership to account. But comrade Molyneux in his response to me at the ‘Marxism and anarchism’ meeting declared that Socialist Worker’s 600-word ‘Where we stand’ column is “our basic programme” and there was no need for some “grand document”.
But this lack of any democratically agreed programme allows the SWP to flit from one mobilisation to the next, claiming that whatever the current campaign happens to be is central to advancing the struggle. And the latest such campaign is, of course, Stand Up To Ukip (Sutu), whereby SWP comrades mount pickets and demonstrations at meetings organised by the UK Independence Party, culminating in what it hopes will be a major demonstration at Ukip’s national conference in September.
So a key session was ‘Who are Ukip and how do we stop them?’, introduced by comrade Kimber himself. For him, Sutu was “one of the best things the SWP has done recently”. Ukip, he said, was spreading racism “on behalf of big business and profit”. And, just in case comrades in the audience might have believed that Ukip is a rightwing, British nationalist formation rather one that specifically targets certain ethnic groups or nationalities, he asserted: “There is no doubt it is racist.” To ‘prove’ it, he reminded us of Nigel Farage’s comments about how people would be “concerned” if a group of Romanians moved in next door and, even less convincingly, about parts of Britain becoming like “a foreign land”.
True, Ukip was only stating what the mainstream parties had been saying on immigration all along, continued comrade Kimber. But it was shifting the whole of politics to the right and for that reason it had to be opposed. It was “beginning to penetrate certain areas” and is “transforming the debate”. However, if Ukip is actually building on the mainstream anti-immigration consensus, what is the logic of targeting only Farage’s party? Surely, the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour must also be “racist” when, like Ukip, they claim immigration is a problem.
This inconsistency became even more striking when comrade Kimber talked about the importance of building a broad anti-Ukip campaign. While we in the SWP are for open borders, he said, it was perfectly correct to campaign alongside those who might say, “I think there should be some immigration controls, but I don’t like Ukip”. His conclusion was: “Good! Let’s work with them.” This really is a “united front of a special type”! One that joins forces with people who “don’t like Ukip” - even though they themselves favour immigration controls, which the SWP contends are in themselves racist. So we are uniting with racists in a campaign against racism.
Further adding to the contradiction, one speaker from the floor said that racism was Ukip’s “weak spot” and it was very “defensive” about it. At a recent local Ukip event picketed by the SWP, its members had objected: “We’re not racist - look at all the black and Asian candidates we’ve got.” But, to loud cheers from the audience, she declared this to be totally irrelevant.
Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party in England and Wales was the last speaker from the floor. She seemed to find nothing contradictory in comrade Kimber’s speech - in fact she agreed with “most” of it. But she strongly objected to the SWP inviting “Labour and Lib Dem councillors who are imposing cuts” onto its Sutu platforms. She also asked comrade Kimber, “What about an electoral alternative to Ukip?” Surely we should be prioritising the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
In his reply, comrade Kimber made “no apology” for organising meetings where Labour councillors had been invited to speak. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to campaign alongside, or form temporary alliances with, all kinds of forces, in specific circumstances, but comrades Kimber and Sell both missed the central point about this: the fact that this particular campaign is targeted at a party that is merely the most consistent and extreme in pursuing an agenda shared by all the rest - including those speaking from Sutu platforms!
As for Tusc, it was “an important part of our work”, continued comrade Kimber (although not so important that it had been the subject of even one of the 163 sessions at Marxism). But there would be “at least 500 constituencies” where Tusc would not be contesting next year’s general election, which is why “we need something broader” like Stand Up To Ukip.
Is comrade Kimber seriously suggesting that Sutu will make a greater impact than Tusc? In one sense, it might. It does, after all, fit in with the mainstream anti-Ukip consensus, so in theory it could win support from members of all the other parties (although I do wonder how SWP members would feel if they were commended for opposing Ukip by, say, the Tories). But in another, more important, sense Sutu is a disaster: it abandons basic class solidarity in favour of a cross-class campaign that targets one bourgeois party and implicitly exonerates all the others.
See what I mean about the absence of a programme?