For a cultural revolution!

The factional struggle between the leaderships of the British Socialist Workers Party and its American offshoot, the International Socialist Organisation, is an important development for the revolutionary left as a whole. Its tragi-farcical nature should underline to us the fact that the age of the sect is, or should be, over. Such organisations must initiate a cultural revolution in their ranks, or sooner or later face extinction.

What began as a secret struggle between the tops of these two groups is now - thanks to the internet - known about, commented on, and being politically evaluated by thousands of people around the globe. Even the members of the SWP and the ISO - usually the last people to be informed of what is happening in their own organisations - now have the chance to catch up on the escalating war between London and Chicago.

On paper the differences appear pretty minimal. The ISO leadership is accused by the SWP of being organisationally conservative and politically inert. So what? In fact, the real problems appear to stem from an ISO challenge to the SWP's 'right to manage' its international trend as it sees fit, without a hint of democratic accountability.

As part of their machinations, the two leaderships began fermenting factional rebellion in each other's organisations. As the temperature rose, the leadership of the ISO eventually felt compelled to circulate an internal discussion bulletin outlining the dispute. Predictably, this document was treated as incendiary material - it even came stamped with a warning that, "given the sensitive nature of this material, it should not be left for copying at a copying centre". A small group of ISO members had other ideas, thankfully.

They set up an open discussion list on the internet, posted the document and their comments, and invited comrades from the SWP, ISO, or any fraternal organisation of the International Socialist tendency to participate. These comrades hid their identities behind Yahoo and Hotmail pseudonyms to avoid expulsion.

Faced with this threat to the integrity of their sects, the leaderships of the ISO and SWP apparently joined forces against the whistle-blowers. Disgracefully, the internet service provider that hosted the list received 23 complaints from ISO and SWP loyalists that the list should be shut down. Reacting to silly accusations of encouraging 'spamming' - the sending of unsolicited and unwanted e-mail traffic - the service provider shut the dissidents down. The next day, predictably enough, the opposition set up a new list with an ISP less susceptible to this type of censorial pressure. Healthily, the comrades have now invited revolutionaries from other traditions to join their list and have allowed them to take part in debate. The attempt by the leaderships of the ISO and SWP to plug the hole failed: the dam has burst.

Certainly, an element in all of this has been the accessibility of new technology. Five years ago, the SWP leadership was already badly panicked by the 'threat' the web posed to its police regime 'discipline'. It was right to be nervous. Here is a medium with the potential for anonymous, global, instantaneous, and open discussion. It is a bureaucrat's worst nightmare. The SWP tops went as far as to order comrades not to use parts of the web: in particular, certain discussion lists. They used three feeble justifications for this.

First, a spurious egalitarianism: "Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal and conditioned by the bosses' domination of the economy and the state." Second, the potential anonymity of discussions on the net meant there could be no "accountability". In other words, how can we expel people for their views if we can read the views, but can't identify the author? Lastly - ludicrously - it was suggested that the internet was a "diversion" from the real political debate ... which never takes place in the ranks of the organisation anyway, of course (Weekly Worker August 24 1995).

For example, SWP comrades have the right to form factions - organisational expressions of particular views - but only once a year, for a brief period, in the lead-up to national conference. As John Page of Stoke Newington branch wrote in the 1996 pre-conference Bulletin No2, "The central committee's view is that we should debate perspectives on the leadership's terms once a year and then become regimented tools to be directed into activity, yet the very habit of unquestioning undermines the revolutionaries' ability to intervene in the class struggle." (Weekly Worker July 11 1996) Exactly.

The current spat arrives at a delicate moment for comrades in Britain. The SWP's political committee has embarked on a very different general course to the one it has followed for the last 20 years. After inculcating in its cadre the prejudice that involvement in elections was more or less synonymous with "electoralism", it has thrown its forces into the London Socialist Alliance's campaign for the Greater London Assembly and is now looking to generalise electoral interventions. After turning most of its branch level cadre into churlish, sectarian dolts, unable for the most part to acknowledge the physical existence of other left groups, let alone hold a political conversation with them, it has insisted its people now work with the left in an open and inclusive way. It is hardly surprising that there are unease, doubts, and hidden opposition in the ranks.

Without democracy, without the ability for critics of the new perspectives to openly state their reservations, divisions which could be resolved by debate become issues liable to fracture organisations such as the SWP, criminally exacerbating the fragmented and ineffectual nature of the left. In the past, dissent would simply have been dealt with by bureaucratic fiat. Whole layers of cadre were summarily removed and replaced with others more amenable to the new line. Whether this will be possible today without precipitating deep splits in the group is highly debatable.

In the latest issue of Socialist Worker, a report of a "Socialist Workers Party delegate meeting" on May 14 quotes SWP national secretary Chris Bambery (May 20). He correctly suggests that, "The success of the LSA poses the question of an electoral challenge to Blair at the next general election." A very different take on the meeting's proceedings came from 'Alex', a participant on the new dissident list. S/he writes that, "They [the SWP leadership] lined up the troops for an all-out participation in the Socialist Alliances around the country. They talked about wiping out the Socialist Party and other 'hostile' forces. The SWP leadership proposed and it was accepted - with very few nominal opponents at the meeting - to launch a national campaign to send all available members into existing SAs and into organisations such as the Scottish Socialist Party ... There is opposition to this plan, but few dared to speak up at the meeting. Some of us felt that this sudden shift would confuse many of our members and sympathisers ... This decision [dissolving the London branches to facilitate LSA work and the proposal to extend this to the rest of the country] and the fact that the organisation is now on record with a drastic shift towards electoral work ... left more than one stunned at the meeting. Is this liquidationism in its embryonic form? Why not take some time to debate the issues?" (internet posting, May 19)

'Alex' clearly articulates the misgivings that many SWPers will be feeling. The leadership faces conservatism from the ranks. As an organisation, the CPGB welcomed the SWP leadership's move towards challenging Blair in the ballot box, its new willingness to work with other socialists and revolutionaries. However, while we support the new turn, we warned of problems when the SWP announced to the outside world that it planned "to put forward class politics and stand candidates on a class basis". We wondered, "given its infamously authoritarian internal regime, how will it resolve ... contradictions? ... The turn has not been preceded by any debate. It is simply announced to an almost apolitical membership ... how much longer will this organisation be able to maintain this fragile monolithic unity?" (Weekly Worker May 28 1998)

What is posed by this difficult moment is the need for the SWP to open up rather than tighten up. The direction it intends to travel, and the discussion of the politics that inform its initiatives, must cease to be the private preserve of the leadership. Not only must the members be fully involved in the political life of their own organisation, but the rest of the left must have the right to participate in the process of clarification.

Evidently this is a million miles away from the narrow, sect-understanding displayed by the SWP leadership a few years ago in a pre-conference Bulletin of 1995. Back then, it suggested that one of the main dangers posed by the internet was that other leftists could "take part in discussions that do not concern them" (see Weekly Worker July 11 1996).

Ironically our understanding of democratic centralism in the CPGB is closer to Tony Cliff's views, expressed in an interview from 1970 and reprinted in Socialist Review (May 2000). In order to build a party of the class, he declared, "it must be extremely democratic, because the only way in which you can reflect the mass of people is by having a great deal of internal democracy ... [a minority must have] a complete guarantee that it will have all the time the opportunity to express its views and influence the views of the majority - and not in secrecy, but in open debate in front of the class." (my emphasis)

The type of transparent, democratic party regime briefly championed by Tony Cliff in 1970 and by our organisation today would entail a cultural revolution for much of the left. Without such an upheaval, however, the left risks consigning itself to the margins of contemporary politics permanently.

Mark Fischer

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