Stalinist atmosphere reigns

Our republication of a mildly critical piece from the Socialist Workers Party's Pre-conference bulletin seems to have caused a furious row inside the SWP - at least judging by the reaction of its author, Dave Crouch. Peter Manson reports

Comrade Crouch's internal discussion article, 'Socialist Worker: is it doing its job?', expresses concern that the paper, and therefore the SWP as a whole, is in danger of losing its distinctive identity. According to comrade Crouch, last year's changes in the content, format and style of Socialist Worker "threaten to dilute its leadership role". The "political risks" he points to in "opening the paper so wide to non-party voices" go beyond the danger of "repetition and bluster" and "insufficient structured argument and fact". The paper is losing its shape: it is becoming "disjointed and incoherent" (Pre-conference bulletin No1; see Weekly Worker November 24). We noted in our commentary that comrade Crouch seems to be expressing the viewpoint associated with leadership veteran Chris Harman: ie, opposition to the way the SWP applies its so-called 'united front' tactic, not least in relation to Respect - watering down its revolutionism with the aim of making itself more approachable. Comrade Crouch's Harmanite criticisms often seem to be purely technical, but they are clearly aimed at the whole approach of the Rees-German-Bambery triumvirate. At least, that is how it appears to us. And, of course, nobody - least of all the SWP rank and file - is officially allowed to know what differences there are on the SWP central committee. This secrecy was referred to by another SWP veteran, comrade John Molyneux, in a Pre-conference bulletin one year ago. He noted the "almost perfect unity and solidarity which the CC maintains in inner-party discussion. Whatever disagreements arise between them - and arise they must - they are kept strictly to themselves (apart from the occasional leak to close insiders), and a common front is presented at national meetings" (Weekly Worker November 18 2004). While comrade Molyneux seems to have been equanimous about the publication in the Weekly Worker of his critique in 2004, the same cannot be said of comrade Crouch. Last week he rang CPGB national organiser Mark Fischer to complain bitterly about the fact that we had published his discussion piece. He also emailed us a short statement for publication in the Weekly Worker, which not only admonished us for reproducing his article "without my permission", but went on to "make it clear I am not a member of your party [and] share none of your criticisms of the SWP" (see below). I later rang comrade Crouch to discuss publishing his statement and at first, as with his conversation with comrade Fischer, he seemed calm enough. But in both cases the conversation ended abruptly after just a couple of minutes - comrade Crouch hung up when we attempted to state why we think it is often right to publish a given document even when we know the author will not give their permission. The SWP is hardly an insignificant organisation on the British left. The way it organises, the type of paper it produces, its strategy and tactics - all are matters for the workers' movement as a whole. If we hold that socialism is the rule of the workers themselves, then surely workers must have the information, and know the arguments, to enable them to exercise that rule. Since socialism can only result from the fight for extreme democracy in the here and now, it is self-evident that openness cannot wait until 'after the revolution'. Without it, and the empowerment it brings, there will be no revolution. Of course, we are not in favour of disseminating information that could jeopardise the security of individual comrades or the organisation as a whole, but comrade Crouch's article could hardly be said to fall into that category - if it did, it would be wrong to publish it even in the SWP's Pre-conference bulletin, with its readership of a few hundred. We can assure the comrades that, though the Pre-conference bulletin is officially closed off to others in the workers' movement, MI5 has no difficulty whatsoever in getting its copy, or for that matter finding out what is going on in the central committee. In other words SWP security and secrecy is a conspiracy directed against the left, not the state. In fact, it is the mark of a small-time sect mentality to try to keep such discussion pieces secret. What happens when the party of the working class wins to its ranks hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers (that is, after all, the type of party we are aiming for)? But why, in any case, should the author of such an article want to restrict its circulation? What is so harmful, or embarrassing, about a debate on the nature of Socialist Worker - who should write for it, what its political balance should be, the order in which its various features appear, etc? So what made comrade Crouch so angry and upset? Why did he refuse even to respond to my query about the statement that he himself had asked to be published in our paper? Surely it was not the fact that we had reproduced his article without permission? You would think that under normal circumstances he would be pleased we had thought it worth publishing before a wider audience. But 'normal circumstances' do not apply within the SWP. Its internal regime is the very antithesis of a healthy democracy. As comrade Molyneux pointed out in his understated style in 2004, the leadership actively discourages the mildest criticism of its actions, let alone open opposition. According to comrade Molyneux, "The fact is that in the last 15 years (perhaps longer) there has not been a single substantial issue on which the CC has been defeated at a conference or party council or NC. Indeed I don't think that in this period there has ever been even a serious challenge or a close vote. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of conference or council sessions have ended with the virtually unanimous endorsement of whatever is proposed by the leadership. Similarly, in this period there has never been a contested election for the CC: ie, not one comrade has ever been proposed or proposed themselves for the CC other than those nominated by the CC themselves." None of this, in and of itself, proves an absence of democracy, although it provides a strong pointer to such a deficit. However, comrade Molyneux then goes on to explain how this situation has arisen: ""¦ the party has developed, almost imperceptibly, a series of practices which reinforce the dominant position of the leadership". Molyneux refers to "the habit - fortunately much reduced of late, but still not entirely a thing of the past - of attacking people who disagree, aggressively and personally". He also comments on the organisation of internal meetings, where it is quite normal for a comrade who dares question the leadership version of past events or proposals for future action (within the three minutes they are permitted) to have their comments rubbished by a whole series of speakers who have been encouraged (directly or indirectly) to parrot the 'official' line. Comrade Molyneux concludes: "The net effect of these practices has been (a) to load all debates massively in the leadership's favour; (b) to make open disagreement at national meetings (as opposed to in private conversation) a highly disagreeable experience with little prospect of success. In other words it has been to deter dissent. "Overall it has led to a conception of the many national and local meetings primarily, even overwhelmingly, as transmission belts for the dissemination of policy from the leadership to the membership rather than as opportunities for the members to determine policy or hold the leadership to account" (Weekly Worker November 18 2004). You can imagine, then, that expressing open opposition in print will also be "a highly disagreeable experience" - except, presumably, for hardy and experienced comrades like Molyneux himself. In theory every SWP comrade has the right to submit articles, proposals, criticisms, etc to the Pre-conference bulletin in the pinched period prescribed every year. For this period only, temporary factions are permitted, enabling a group of comrades to put their names to a common document. Outside this short time, however, jointly signing a minority document can be a hazardous business, since the leadership can deem this to be engaging in factional activity - an expellable offence. Even during the pre-conference period, you can be accused of belonging to a permanent faction if the same group of comrades come together every year or are said to be combining politically at other times as well. And what happens if you are suspected of being a sympathiser not just of a banned internal faction, but of some outside grouping, such as - heaven forbid - the CPGB? Well, you really are in trouble then. Which no doubt explains why comrade Crouch was in such a rush to "make it clear I am not a member of your party" and "share none of your criticisms of the SWP". Not that anyone would seriously believe that comrade Crouch is a closet CPGBer. Nevertheless, when there are deep divisions within the SWP over its entire political trajectory, such an accusation can be bandied about in the factional interests of the leadership (the leadership actually represents the one faction that is permitted). Perhaps the fact that comrade Crouch addressed the CPGB's Communist University in 2004 could be added to the evidence. We invited him to give his views on a subject he had researched, the Bolsheviks and religion, following an article he wrote for Socialist Review. There was sharp disagreement at CU on particular aspects of the question, but the debate was conducted in a comradely atmosphere and we were happy to reproduce his speech in a subsequent Weekly Worker - although, of course, that did not mean the CPGB leadership or editorial team agreed with everything he had said. It comes to something, however, when such fraternal relations can be used against you. But such is the state of SWP 'democracy'. It is worth considering that even the 'official' CPGB's pre-conference bulletins in the 1970s and 80s were publicly available and openly sold - in this respect at least, the SWP is less democratic than 'the Stalinists'. Email exchange between Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson and Dave Crouch, November 29-30 Original statement from comrade Crouch On the front page of your November 24 issue you published my contribution from an internal SWP document. You did so entirely without my permission. I wish to make it clear that I am not a member of your party, I share none of your criticisms of the SWP, and I never read the Weekly Worker - unless forced to by a circumstance such as this. Dave Crouch SWP, north London Manson to Crouch Further to our telephone conversation, I would be happy to publish the statement below. However, as you know, the contribution itself was not published on the front page, as your statement says. Would you like me to change the wording in the first sentence to read: "In your November 24 issue you published my contribution from an internal SWP document and carried my photograph on your front page"? Comradely Peter Manson PS: Tomorrow (Wednesday) I will be at the Weekly Worker office (020 8965 0659; weeklyworker @cpgb.org.uk) if you wish to discuss this further. Crouch to Manson Drop dead. Manson to Crouch Dave, I know you're upset, but I'm trying to help by publishing a statement that both expresses your feelings and is technically accurate. Crouch to Manson Get a life. Manson to Crouch I take it you no longer want the statement published. If I am wrong, please let me know some time today. Crouch to Manson Go fuck yourselves.