Another SWP exile

Open letter from John Bossano, Southampton East Branch of the SWP

I HAVE been told I am to be expelled from the Socialist Workers Party. There are several reasons for this. It is known that I share many of Andy Wilson’s criticisms of the SWP, although I am not an International Socialist Group member.

However, the final straw came when I raised my criticisms at a branch meeting on ‘The revolutionary party’.

The speaker chose to illustrate her talk with the tape of Cliff’s meeting at Marxism, where he claimed that a revolutionary party has no rank and file and that the SWP is like a goldfish bowl, in that the membership always knows what the leadership is up to.

In order that comrades understand why I have differences with the SWP leadership I shall relate my experiences of being a member of the SWP for four years.

When I joined I knew very little about how the SWP operated outside Stirling branch. I was hardly ever given the Party Notes and was left in complete ignorance of problems in the branch.

As far as I was concerned, everything in the garden was rosy, as I had not been told otherwise. Of course there were problems, but I assumed that everyone was a committed socialist and that they were immune from the kind of demoralisation that had afflicted the left since the collapse of Stalinism.

My illusions came to an abrupt end in October 1992 when the mines closures were announced. The Stirling branch completely failed to relate to any anger that existed at the time. This was as much my fault as anyone else’s.

I produced a petition calling for a general strike, but allowed myself to be dissuaded from using it by another comrade who said that we had not been instructed by the centre to do this.

I was delegated to go to the SWP conference shortly afterwards. The conference talked about a revolution in the branches; that comrades had to fight against conservatism in their own branches. But I noticed an inconsistency. If so many party members were conservative, how come none of them were arguing their position at conference. Surely if this was a democratic discussion, rather than a long drawn out rally, then differences of opinion should be openly debated.

However, I put these misgivings aside and returned to my branch ready to get stuck into the class struggle.

The next seven months were pretty dire with only myself and one other comrade doing most of the work. Yet I deluded myself into thinking that this was a local problem and the SWP in the rest of Britain was doing brill-iantly and recruiting hand over fist.

My main mistake was to reduce the problems in Stirling branch to a failure of comrades to accept and carry out the leadership’s perspectives.

I graduated in 1993 and moved to the Southampton Shirley Branch. The leading comrade there was constantly moaning about other comrades doing very little and it seemed that he was in a similar position to the one I had been in. I later moved to the Southampton East branch at the time of the opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill.

I joined the South Hampshire Freedom Network, but the Southampton branches failed to build the local campaign against the CJB mainly because of sectarianism. People in the campaign were denounced, and some comrades were more interested in what the SWP could get out of the campaign and whether members were toeing the party line than actually making it effective. Neither the SWP nor anyone else was prepared to give the campaign a clear lead.

The SWP leadership also argued that we should not get involved in Freedom Network-type campaigns, but set up local Coalition Against the CJB groups.

Over the last year I have come to realise that I cannot go on reducing the SWP’s problems to a failure by comrades to follow the leadership’s perspective.

I feel that democracy in the SWP is lacking, but this is not a moral question. I feel that if the changed perspectives had been more openly debated in 1992, even if this meant the wicked conservatives arguing differently, then comrades in my branch in Stirling could have been won over and been able to develop a more thorough understanding of the balance of class forces.

I first read the ISG’s material on the Internet. I started off thinking it would be another sectarian diatribe but it fitted in with my own experiences.

What impressed me about the ISG’s fringe meeting was not so much what the ISG was saying, but what other SWP members at the meeting were saying. The picture I got was that at least a substantial minority of the SWP, if not the majority, are unhappy about the style of leadership. Yet very few members are prepared to openly criticise the central committee.

I would argue that this is not because they are particularly servile, but because most members are ignorant about the way the SWP operates. They are lucky if they know what is going on in their own branch or district, let alone throughout Britain. This means that they either take the SWP leadership’s word for it or they do not, and woe betide them if they do not.

My worst crime apparently is that I am prepared to take the word of Andy Wilson above that of the central committee. Why should I be placed in a position where I either believe Andy Wilson or the CC? If the SWP was serious about building an independent cadre then it would discipline people openly so that we would not have to choose who to believe.

I think that organisations like the ANL and the Coalition Against the CJA are SWP fronts, not because the SWP leadership wants to subordinate them to building the party, but because they do not trust working class people to run them and so appoint their own hacks. However, the main problem is the failure to openly discuss these questions before adapting them as party policy. Party members like me were put in an awful position around the ANL, where arguing that it was a party front was seen as treachery.

The question comrades will be asking is if the ISG is so brilliant and the SWP so awful, why not leave the SWP and join the ISG? I would argue that this would be a cop-out. Neither the ISG nor any other attempt to build a revolutionary party is immune from the kind of problems that have afflicted the SWP. The reason that democracy in the SWP has slowly been cut away is not so much a question of bad leadership. It is a culture which puts tactics above political principles such as democratic accountability, and a failure by the rank and file to challenge this culture. I feel that it is my duty to raise these kinds of arguments, not out of any illusions in changing the organisation, but so that if I am expelled the lack of democracy in the SWP will be exposed.

I would ask SWP comrades to oppose my expulsion. Those who support my expulsion should ask themselves this question: what kind of party are they trying to build? Are they trying to build an organisation where membership is conditional on absolute loyalty to the leadership and its perspectives, and a belief that the organisation is absolutely democratic when it isn’t? Are they saying that it is okay to have differences, as long as you do not argue them openly?

I would argue that the leadership should only expect loyalty from the membership if they can convince members of their perspectives. There should be an open and informed discussion in the party. In order to involve as many members as possible, this should be done first in the districts, and then at fully elected national meetings.

This would be helped by electing district committees and full-timers in the party, but it is more important to change a culture where initiatives are seen as flowing downwards from the leadership rather that upwards, from the rank and file. This may be less efficient, but will lead to greater unity of action in the long term, and will make a revolutionary party more effective in the class.

I would ask that no-one should leave the SWP purely because of my expulsion. I would rather that they argued their differences openly, even though this could mean that they too are either expelled or marginalised within the SWP. I would also urge comrades to contact the ISG and read their pamphlets.