SWP: Creating a desert waste
For the third time in just over a year, the leadership is drawing a line. Actually, argues Ben Lewis, Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos are busily destroying their own organisation
SWP - deserted
Reading the official report of the Socialist Worker Party’s annual conference provides a neat little summary of the disdain with which its leadership treats politics, openness, the truth and the working class more generally. There are breath-taking levels of self-delusion in the special two-page Socialist Worker spread (risibly described as a “full report” in Party Notes) that occasionally border on the tragic.
This conference, after all, was convened in the midst of the biggest crisis in SWP history. And it was followed by the departure of one of its main thinkers, the biographer of the group’s founder, Ian Birchall. Others, like David Renton and Jonathan Neale followed, as will many more. Not surprisingly, the December conference saw the opposition crushed. Some delegates were visibly reduced to tears in anguish and frustration. The loyalists are, of course, in denial.
National secretary Charlie Kimber at least admits that “It would be foolish to pretend that this has not been a difficult and divisive year for the party”. But he manages to chime an optimistic note by claiming that the SWP has recruited “around 800 people this year” - which seems utterly implausible even by the SWP’s extremely liberal interpretation of what constitutes a “party member”. Leave aside the hundreds who have formally jumped ship, there are thousands of ‘dead souls’ who still inhabit the SWP’s lists, but pay nothing, sell nothing, do nothing.
The fact of the matter is that the December conference had 500 delegates elected by 40 district aggregates. However, there were often fewer people in attendance than there were places to fill. Oppositionists complain that loyalists preferred not to send full delegations rather than include those who might vote the ‘wrong’ way. 1
Have no fear though. Comrade Kimber has good ideas to redress what seems like a terminal crisis: “Structured educationals”, “detailed attention to the nuts and bolts of the organisation” and - wait for it - “increasing the sales of Socialist Worker” and thinking about “how every comrade can get one or two more sales” will do the trick. Moreover, the “battle plan” that will supposedly lead the SWP back from the brink is pushing “for action in the trade unions”, “increasing the resistance” and campaigning against the cuts. Moreover, there will be some work around 2014’s “independence referendum” (ie, left Scottish nationalism); a vague nod towards the party’s intervention in the Euro elections and, of course, the party’s game-changing work in Unite Against Fascism and Unite the Resistance.
This crisis, therefore, will be resolved by business-as-usual activism, getting out there and ceasing to be “inward-looking”. According to this logic, all of the nasty stuff could have been avoided if only party members would stop writing pieces that are critical - however mildly - of the party apparatus and instead crack on with “building the party” that is patently falling apart at the seams. This approach was underlined by Alex Callinicos in a conference speech that has been described as both aggressive and arrogant. He contended that what had prevented the SWP crisis “from being a complete disaster” (I wonder what would constitute a “complete disaster”) “has been the active membership of the SWP … They have continued to intervene in the struggles and movements of the day.”
Over the last three conferences the leadership has repeated this message, ad nauseum. Yet divisions have actually deepened and become more protracted.
Callinicos’s intelligence and erudition cannot hide his utter hypocrisy in blaming “the faction” for “politicising” the two rape allegations against erstwhile apparatchik, Martin Smith. Even a cursory glance at the history of the dispute shows that, from the very outset, the entrenched leadership, in its own bureaucratic interests (ie, not as a result of “sexism” or “rape denial”, as some claim) was seeking to protect itself. Crucially, the SWP central committee tried to restrict, distort and manipulate information about both cases - what came out was almost entirely due to oppositionist pressure.2 Comrade Renton, who as a legal professional worked closely with the second complainant, often known as “Comrade X”, claims that the party’s Disputes Committee (which had already heard the first case of rape against Smith) was engaged in “shoddy attempts … to decline to hear the second complainant, and to put off her case until after January 2014 in the hope that she would leave the party”.
Moreover, as to the leadership’s contention that “the faction” is the source of all evil, it is worth remembering that there is more than one “faction” in the SWP. Besides the Rebuilding the Party faction (previously named In Defence of Our Party) which had 69 votes at conference, there is the (highly permanent) leadership faction, headed by Callinicos himself, which controls Socialist Worker, Socialist Review and presides over the party’s resources and contact lists. Then there are the “Leatherites” around the re-elected CC member Amy Leather. Its political outlook was summed up in a collective submission to the SWP’s Internal Bulletin. Entitled ‘For our revolutionary party’, it argued for a pre-emptive purge of anybody expressing “factional” outrage at the mishandling of the rape allegations, whereupon some dubbed it the “In Defence of Our Martin” faction. The irony of forming a faction against factionalism seems lost on these comrades. Yet the faction is of growing significance in that it now includes figures such as United Against Fascism’s Weyman Bennett, and Judith Orr, editor of Socialist Worker.
Further fissures opened up within the apparatus over the handling of allegations by “Comrade X”. Here was the second complaint against Smith, which in law would increase the likelihood of charges being brought against him. Prominent members of the DC - Dave Sherry and Candy Udwin - stuck their heads above the parapet to express their discontent with the process. The two cases should have been taken together.
They did not win, however. The new CC is making much of the “amended disputes procedure”, which strikes me as a paltry sop to a disgruntled membership, like the misnamed ‘Democracy Commission’ in 2009 which was preceded by the Counterfire split around Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Nineham. Yet a motion to formally apologise to both female complainants was overwhelmingly defeated. And even though Callinicos was able to say “we are sorry” for the suffering of the two women, this only arose from the “flaws” in procedures and from their cases becoming a “subject of political conflict”. So it was an apology along the lines of: “I am sorry for your suffering caused by others”: an approach pithily summarised in the remarkable words of one leadership loyalist at conference: “I am prepared to say sorry. I am not going to apologise.”
The heavy defeat endured by the RtP faction at conference should provide occasion for a rethink by those comrades who have already resigned and those - such as the political academic, Mike Gonzalez - who intend to stay and fight another day. The opposition’s submissive approach in the factional struggle played right into the hands of the apparatus.
Opposition numbers are probably four or five times the 69 votes its slate received. From the very moment conference was announced, the leadership pulled out all the stops to ensure that it would be gerrymandered. Delegates would be elected on a winner takes all basis and therefore skewed in favour of the leadership. Having a representative political argument had to be avoided at all costs. District aggregates were packed with inactive members - thanks to the tireless telephoning of full time organisers. No less undemocratic was how speaking time was allotted. CC members were given 20 minutes and the chair often totally excluded oppositionists.
Yet the RtP faction proved unwilling, or unable, to confront this fake ‘democratic centralism’ and challenge the legitimacy of conference. Indeed, the RtP has not refuted Charlie Kimber’s assertion that the hugely disproportionate aggregate speaking times were actually agreed by the faction.
The RtP’s softness showed itself in its pre-conference statement, which focussed on a symptom of the SWP’s regime, “whether or not we have properly applied our politics on women’s oppression in dealing with this dispute and its fallout”, and not the organisation’s “structural flaws”. This point of departure lent itself to focussing on “reforming” the disputes procedure - a card that Callinicos and co have been able to play to their advantage. Moreover, the statement implied that there may be a place for Kimber and Callinicos on the alternative leadership if they came over to the outlook of RtP - pigs might fly! We are informed that this approach was agreed after much discussion within RtP. Some had wanted to keep Callinicos and Kimber on the slate as a sign of moderation and rationality.
And the RtP faction still wants to play the game according to CC rules. Its website states: “The Rebuilding the Party opposition faction in the SWP decided to dissolve itself at its closing meeting on Sunday 15 December, in line with conference wishes. At that meeting comrades discussed and voted on the future of this website, which was set up by SWP opposition supporters prior to Rebuilding the Party being formed. The faction voted to hand over control of the website to those comrades who had now decided to leave the party. This is a notice to that effect.”3
No halcyon days
It is as of yet unclear where the many comrades leaving the SWP will go, and the extent to which their next moves will be coordinated. A certain gloomy sentiment seems to exist that there is no real choice between sectarian oblivion and the doubtless well-meaning but utterly useless politics of the swamp.
Yet now is not the time for despair. It is time for SWP oppositionists to conduct a forensic analysis of the germs that led to the present horrible state of affairs. Comrade Birchall may have been happy to “die a party member” a year ago,4 but I am sorry to say that the SWP project did not suddenly “fall from grace.” Nostalgically looking back to “the party of my youth”, as comrade Renton does, may be understandable when breaking with an organisation one has helped build, but it does not get to the core problem in the SWP - or for that matter, in the left more generally. The SWP rot goes back to the theoretical foundations of the SWP. Its programmophobia has ensured that far-sighted Marxist historical thinking and political strategy is reduced to ‘building the resistance’, marching against the fascists, etc.
We in the CPGB think Marxism, a well founded revolutionary programme and democratic centralism are key to moving forward. As such, we urge dissident SWPers and former dissident SWPers to break with the ‘bunker mentality’ and begin a dialogue with us.
2. This becomes evident from the rejection, under the auspices of “confidentiality”, of comrade Amy Gilligan’s motion to a recent National Council meeting. The motion, which 33 members of the two loyalist factions opposed and which won only eight votes from members of the main opposition faction, read as follows: “Confidentiality is an important part of bringing forward any complaint” … but it is “crucial that the issue of confidentiality does not take on greater importance than the case itself” and it certainly “must not be used as a gagging clause”. A very telling rejection indeed.
4. From Ian Birchall’s resignation letter: http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2013-letter-of-resignation/