SWP conference: Comrades in the SWP, rebel!
The central committee was delivered a body blow at this weekends conference - but for dissidents the fight must go on, argues Paul Demarty
A lot can happen in a few short weeks. The last issue of this paper reported the expulsions of four Socialist Workers Party members, on charges straight out of the imagination of Franz Kafka.1 Between then and the January 4-6 conference, it is fair to say that the SWP has had a busy holiday season. Two substantial factions declared themselves, and the central committee found itself split at the 11th hour.
Unsurprisingly, when the votes were counted, the CC won the day on all the key matters to come before conference. Yet by SWP standards it is hardly a victory. Given how comprehensively stitched up its model of ‘democratic centralism’ is, substantial minorities voting in open defiance of the CC line in itself represents a serious blow to the leadership. The closest vote at conference was won by a margin of just 22 - with 18 abstentions.
So what has become abundantly clear over the last period is just how fragile an organisation the SWP is. Allegations of sexual misdemeanours (and worse) against a leading member ended up setting off an explosive chain reaction that left the SWP in disarray come its conference. All of this is down to the sort of organisation the SWP is: its bureaucratic structures and political disorientation have made an explosion of this kind inevitable.
To begin at the beginning, there is the question of the man referred to, in a transcript of the relevant conference debate, as ‘comrade Delta’. This insistence on anonymity that has long been blown is almost touching. For those who have not been following SWP intrigue over the past few years, his name may or may not begin with ‘Martin’ and end with ‘Smith’.
In the run-up to the 2011 conference, we (and numerous other left outlets) received an anonymous email, accusing Smith of sexual harassment. At the time, we did not report on the detail of the allegations: they were “the kind of thing one hears in any fraught divorce case”2 and circulated in a manner which suggested (in the context of moves against Smith on the CC) that they were being put about with other motives in mind than disgust at violence against women.
Whatever the case, the whispers of bad behaviour on Smith’s part have refused to die down, and in September of last year, a rape allegation was made against him. The matter was put to the SWP’s disputes committee, which decided that the allegation was not proven, and that Smith should face no sanction (he nonetheless decided to step down from the CC - with no external inducement at all, I’m sure).
The situation has since become even more fractious, with yet further harassment allegations from another comrade (who claims to have been edged out of a full-timer post at party centre because her presence was ‘disruptive’). All these issues are in dispute - readers should consult a transcript of the conference debate on the matter.3
It is not the place of a third-hand commentary piece such as this one to pronounce on comrade Smith’s innocence or guilt. In fact, it is hardly the place of the mighty disputes committee of the SWP to investigate rape allegations, which seems to be the height of pretentiousness. As a movement, we are not in a position to replace the criminal justice system on this point. The latter’s record in investigating rape cases is infamously dreadful, of course - but, with the best will in the world, what modern methods of investigation are available to the DC? What forensic scientists do the good comrades have on call?
What is clear - from the aftershock, at least - is that, even within its remit, the DC’s handling of the case was deemed insufficient by large swathes of the SWP. It is this issue which led the four expelled comrades to their fate - the crime being ... deciding not to form a faction, which in the SWP’s life-world, amounts to ‘secret factionalism’ (you couldn’t make it up). And it is this issue which proved the most divisive at conference - the DC report was accepted by a margin of 231 to 209 votes.
So why should this mummer’s show of legal arbitration have been so unconvincing - and, assuming his innocence (he has not, after all, been proven guilty), why should these allegations against Smith prove so instinctively believable among the SWP rank and file? The second question is easier to answer. Whether or not such behaviour is reproduced in the comrade’s personal life, it is undeniable that he is a bully and a thug. It was Smith, for example, who hounded comrade Simon Wells out of the SWP - and later wrestled him to the ground at the SWP’s Marxism festival to confiscate his ticket.4 It was Smith whose phone calls were dreaded by SWP organisers, and resembled the hectoring of the worst kind of shop-floor manager.
This character, alas, made him ideal material for the role of SWP national organiser - the SWP operating a version of ‘chain of command’ which would be recognisable to any police constable or private. A genuine revolutionary working class organisation would promote capable, thinking leaders who had earned the respect and trust of the rank and file. The SWP, with some honourable exceptions, promotes hacks.
As for the disputes committee, the problem is the same. The CC’s claim that the DC is wholly independent of the leadership is transparently bunk. Two CC members sat on the eight-strong DC that discussed the case, along with a further three former CC members. The revolt against its handling of the Martin ‘Delta’ Smith case is only partly a matter of ‘party morality’, or women’s liberation; it is a conscious or unconscious rebellion against the SWP apparat. The closeness of this vote at conference is a testament to how deeply rooted this malaise is.
The most positive feature of this whole farrago, then, is that this link became conscious for a good many of the dissidents. Its most significant organisational expression was the Democratic Opposition - the faction that the four expellees thought it inadvisable to form, and then brought into being by virtue of their expulsions, in a textbook example of Hegel’s ‘ruse of reason’. (The dispute threw up yet another faction, the Democratic Centralists, who took a classically centrist, conciliatory line between the DO, characterised as misguided youth, and the CC, whose expulsion-happy antics were strongly criticised.)
The DO made the link between the (alleged) mishandling of Smith’s case, the arbitrary expulsions and the general political culture of the SWP. Its documents make the case well: “We believe the expulsion of these members cannot be seen in isolation from the wider issue of party democracy; it is not an anomaly, but a symptom of a real and growing problem,” they state bluntly.5
Their recommendations were, by SWP standards, fairly radical, urging support for motions calling for an end to the slate system, an end to ‘collective cabinet responsibility’ on the part of the CC and full-timers (ie, the ban on such members making their minority views known among the wider membership), and more internal bulletins linked to SWP party council meetings.6 Individual comrades had also called for - horror of horrors - the open airing of disagreements.
The CC’s response to these heresies - under the pompous title, ‘For an interventionist party’7 - is as predictable as it is disingenuous. (It also betrays all the signs - innumerable typos and so on - of having been written in a hurry.) The usual old saws are out in force. The SWP’s refusal to allow permanent factions (the DO and DC must now officially disband following the three-month period leading up to the conference) has, apparently, allowed it to survive where other organisational products of the non-Stalinist new left have remained crippled by interminable disagreements - an obvious stupidity in the light of the painful slow-motion split with supporters of former leader John Rees.
The latter debacle also gives the lie to another basic view defended by the CC - that the leadership must be a politically homogenous team to be able to lead effectively. Hence, ditching the slate system (let alone the suppression of differences on the CC) would be a disastrous folly. The problem is that, the CC being composed (more or less) of humans, disagreements are quite inevitable - and quite incapable of being dealt with effectively if they are suppressed.
As if to prove the point, there was one final twist in the pre-conference period: the CC found itself split (quelle surprise!). An alternative slate was proposed for election by Hannah Dee, Ray Marral, Joseph Choonara and Mark Bergfeld. The comrades appear to have taken this step - another surprise - in response to the handling of the Smith case; that is comrade Dee’s account in the aforementioned DC debate, and comrade Marral seems to have incurred the ire of the leadership clique by attempting to indirectly raise the problem at a meeting of the SWP national council. He and comrade Dee were dropped from the CC-recommended slate; the minority proposed the status quo.
It is worth stressing the general character of these four comrades. None, to put it mildly, are known for their forthright criticisms of the SWP’s direction. By their own account, they are in total political agreement with the CC majority. Choonara and Bergfeld, meanwhile, are not exactly nobodies: the latter has led the SWP’s all-important student work in the recent period, and Choonara is one of the few intellectual heavyweights on the CC. Yet even a completely ideologically homogenous committee has split under the pressure of events.
The stupidity of this bureaucratism is summed up in the CC document with a peach of a quote from Chris Harman: “But what then happens when the ‘democracy’ of the party fails to reflect the experiences of the most advanced sections of the class? When the party members have become routinised and cut off from new upsurges of spontaneous struggles, or when they come from milieus which have no real contact with the factories? In such cases ... the party leadership cannot simply sit back and reflect the ‘democratic will’ of a party that is lagging behind the class. It has to campaign vigorously for the sudden turns in the line of the party, if necessary reaching to forces outside the party to pressurise the party members to shift their position.”
So there you have it - monolithic centralism is necessary on the off-chance that Charlie Kimber is better attuned to the state of class-consciousness than the mass of SWP activists. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.
Trapped by tradition
The underlying assumption of the CC documents - and the argument in the name of which the votes at conference were won - is a quantitative, zero-sum relationship between discussion and action; the more time one spends on the former, the less there is for the latter.
In truth - and the DO grasped this, to its credit - the relationship is qualitative. Action guided by honest and searching discussion of theory, and serious critical appraisal of previous actions, is much more effective than action for action’s sake.
And an honest appraisal of the ‘interventions’ of the SWP in the recent period reveals a frankly dire picture. The CC cites the “rout” of the English Defence League in Walthamstow and a “thousand-strong” (in reality, there were 750 at best) Unite the Resistance conference in November as “successful interventions”, which really says it all. The EDL march was not smashed, Cable Street style, by anti-fascist mobilisation. It was banned by the council. The UTR conference did not ‘unite the resistance’ at all - it simply ‘united’ the SWP and its trade union periphery in a conference room for an afternoon, during which nothing significant was discussed or decided - and, indeed, perpetuated the division of the ‘resistance’ into several competing front organisations, with rival far-left sponsors.
The SWP is utterly directionless. It recruits a thousand or so pseudo-members a year, and transforms a small fraction of those into activists, who are employed strictly to recruit the next contingent. It is not a ‘party’ - indeed, it can barely even be called an organisation. It is a self-perpetuating machine, which sustains itself by keeping its lower cadre quiet and occupied with building the next demonstration or meeting, be it a pseudo-conference of trade union militants or another fruitless turn of the ‘anti-fascist’ gerbil wheel. It lacks even the beginnings of a strategic direction in this period.
The idea that the SWP’s inner-party regime is “interventionist”, and allows any decisive impact on the class struggle, is a straightforward inversion of reality. The SWP’s regime allows it to isolate its members from reality, so that the illusion of a mass impact can be sustained with any plausibility. So when the CC complains that the DO does not talk about the world situation, or the class struggle, but only picks fluff out of the SWP’s navel, it misses the point (to put it kindly). No serious discussion of the world at large is possible under the present internal regime of the SWP - only the recycling of convenient fictions.
It will, of course, be necessary for SWP dissidents to ‘do politics’ at some point. They will have to subject the hallowed ‘IS tradition’ to some searching criticism, to sort out what was positive and what was downright wrong in it (this, remember, is the specific priestly liturgy that the SWP apparat exists to defend). But the organisational is political - and the fight for SWP democracy is a worthwhile one on its own merits.
The results of conference may, on the face of it, be a defeat for the opposition. The disputes committee report was carried (albeit narrowly), the majority CC slate was passed (despite a respectable minority vote), and the expulsions were ratified (interestingly, by the largest margin of the three - but still with around a quarter voting against). Our sources speak of a paranoid atmosphere obtaining in the group now, with the leadership leaning on known dissidents and making life generally unpleasant.
Whether or not it really is a defeat depends overwhelmingly on what happens next. We urge - as we always do - comrades to stay in the organisation, to weather the current storm and regroup. There is no way to fight for their aims within the letter of the SWP constitution, moreover (which actually makes the ‘official’ CPGB’s look democratic!); so the comrades should be prepared to break bureaucratic rules. Doing so, in the age of anonymous blogs and so forth, has never been easier.
The SWP has just faced its most serious internal crisis since it succeeded the International Socialists over three decades ago. It is now at the crossroads. Either the opposition comrades fight to overthrow the apparat, and save the organisation; or, quite simply, it dies. It may die spectacularly, like the disintegration of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party. It may die slowly, like the US Socialist Workers Party, which expelled wave after wave of dissidents until it wound up as a shrivelled, petrified sect.
Whatever happens, the status quo is not an option. To save the SWP for revolutionary socialism means transforming it, organisationally and politically. It was never going to be done over a January weekend - we call on the comrades who recognise the need for change to keep fighting.
1. ‘Expelled before conference begins’, December 20 2012.
2. ‘Another one bites the dust’, January 6 2011.
4. ‘Stop thuggery in workers’ movement’ Weekly Worker July 12 2007.