Rumblings of rebellion

SW Kenning reports on last weekend's SWP conference

Socialist Worker (January 14) features a report of the organisation's January 6-8 conference in London's Camden Centre. Unusually for the SWP, this actually gives an outline of some of the small number of debates and controversies that animated an otherwise pretty flat gathering. In particular, the paper reports the contested elections for the central committee, in which comrade John Molyneux stood on a critical platform demanding "more honesty and more balance in our political perspectives and in regard to the state of the party", as well as a "more democratic culture" that tolerates "open debate" (see Weekly Worker January 5).

Encouragingly, the comrade did well: he secured 57 votes for his platform, against 208 for the leadership's recommended slate (with 11 abstentions). Socialist Worker tells its readers that at the heart of this difference lay a "divergence over assessing the political situation" and the consequent "prospects for the party to grow in strength and influence" (January 14) - only partially true, of course. Yes, the Molyneux criticisms of the SWP's "lack of realism" and the impact of the collapse of Stalinism and what he called the "low level of the class struggle" were covered. But nowhere is there mention of the key element of the comrade's critique of the contemporary culture of the SWP - its disgraceful lack of democracy and leadership accountability.

It is significant in this context that, as in the pre-conference debate, the key point of potential contemporary controversy - Respect and the SWP's right-bending relationship to this hybrid political party - did not make an appearance at conference. As we have observed, such is the vice-like bureaucratic grip of SWP leaders, criticisms of the Respect adventure are likely to bring down accusations of "islamophobe" on the heads of any soul brave enough to venture them. It should be recalled that comrade Molyneux felt it necessary to end his critical contribution with a perfunctory genuflection in the direction of today's leadership perspectives, as opposed to those of 10 years ago: "I strongly support, in theory and practice, the party's united front initiatives, including and especially the Respect project," he flatly intones to demonstrate his loyal oppositionism (Weekly Worker January 5).

Thus, while Socialist Worker recognises that the Molyneux candidacy on some level articulated disagreements over the potentials embodied in today's "political situation", the same article informs us that "the policy documents" that expressed the leadership's "positive appraisal for the prospects for the movement, the radical left and the SWP" were passed "either unanimously or overwhelmingly" (Socialist Worker January 14).

Clearly then, the 20%-plus of the delegates who supported the Molyneux platform are far from being a consistent minority opposition - and that assessment must include comrade Molyneux himself, of course. Obviously, some of the 57 comrades who defied the leadership's recommended slate were expressing little more than fatigue with the central committee's constant exhortations to the membership to work harder for that ever-elusive 'imminent' breakthrough. (For example, the CC's explanation of the organisation's failure to grow in the 1990s - that our "our existing members and branches" neglected to "[follow] up people who had signed up to join" (see Weekly Worker January 5) - has gone down very badly with a number of comrades who were active during that period).

However, amongst the 57 there are also comrades with serious misgivings about the political direction of their organisation and the opportunist appetites of their leadership.

These comrades face a problem, of course. Despite the puff in this week's Socialist Worker that all delegates recognised that the debate "was conducted in the best democratic traditions of the party", what opportunities now exist for SWPers who support the Molyneux platform - or have oppositional politics of their own to develop - to organise together, to clarify ideas and challenge the leadership? Must they now simply allow themselves to be gagged for another 12 months or so?

Notwithstanding the conference report in this week's Socialist Worker, the journal is clearly not going to become a forum for open debate and clarification in the manner of the Weekly Worker. So, while we should welcome even this degree of pinched openness in its pages, we must be clear about what has produced it.

First, it represents a bowing to the pressure of this paper. SWP apparatchiks were well aware that we have some ability to report both the pre-conference discussion and the conference itself. Getting their version of events out before ours therefore makes political sense for them. Secondly, given the standing of John Molyneux and the healthy level of support his dissident platform attracted, it was inevitable that - even without our efforts - reports of what really happened at conference would filter down in to SWP branches and perhaps from there leak out to the wider workers' movement.

The bureaucratic culture of the SWP has not changed, however. Responding to the solitary comrade at conference who dared criticise SWP support for the religious hatred laws at the November 2005 Respect conference (Weekly Worker November 24 2005), Rees spat: "Yes, comrade, you voted with the CPGB on this one."

So what? The CPGB was defending the elementary democratic principle of free speech. But instead of explaining why the SWP had lined up Respect to vote with Blair and New Labour "on this one" he resorted to an old sectarian trick of painting the CPGB as being somehow beyond the pale. Of course, for comrades with a modicum of politics, this simply underlines the flimsiness of Rees's popular front turn. It also gives a taste of how the central committee would respond to efforts to organise an opposition faction within the SWP - they would be accused of being in league with the devilish CPGB.

What are referred to as "permanent or secret factions" are not allowed, according to the SWP constitution (Pre-conference bulletin No1, November 2005). Leaving aside the obvious point that - given the closed nature of discussions and public unanimity - the central committee thus constitutes itself as the only tolerated faction in the organisation, this restriction amounts to nothing less than a constitutional ban on the rights of SWP membership to think seriously about political questions. A faction is simply an unofficial organisation in the party "united ... by a particular platform of views on party questions" (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Vol 17, Moscow 1977, p265).

There are many statements from the giants of our tradition such as Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg to the effect that not only were factions viewed as a normal feature of any healthy workers' organisation, but their ability to openly express their viewpoint in public press was taken as a general norm.

Indeed, Tony Cliff himself wrote in 1970 that the revolutionary organisation "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. It is not true that the working class has one cohesive point of view. The revolutionary party would reflect that lack of cohesion, of course. And therefore, if you speak in terms of dialogue with the class, the class itself has different views, and therefore this democracy is necessary ... there is no question about it: if a majority decides, the minority has to obey it; the minority of course has to have 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, reprinted in Socialist Review May 2000).

In stark contrast, today's SWP appears totally unable to conduct a "dialogue" with itself outside the anointed ranks of the leadership. The truly remarkable thing revealed by the pre-conference discussion, and only partially redeemed by the conference itself, is the shocking absence of debate, controversy or genuine political life. The whole process speaks of an organisation that beneath its CC - where a strict facade of political unanimity is imposed - is practically apolitical.

Via the Respect initiative, the SWP is engaged in a strategic manoeuvre, a huge change in its methods and perspectives. In any political organisation, you would expect - be 100% certain, in fact - that in the ranks there would be heated argument, not least as a range of diverse new experiences were made sense of.

Yet, incredibly, the three skimpy documents that constitute SWPers' only annual opportunity for internal discussion are graced with just 51 contributions. Out of this total, there were five from the central committee itself, including its reply to the platform of John Molyneux (Weekly Worker January 5). Of the rest, only three could be defined as containing anything like substantive criticism - that of Dave Crouch (Weekly Worker November 24 2005), comrade Molyneux's intervention plus that of Matt Kydd of Northampton branch, who observes that "in my three or four years in the SWP, I have not heard of any 'vigorous controversy'" and thus, the comrade complains, "I have to read the Weekly Worker to find out the opinions of the CC and what way the SWP will be voting in groups like Respect and Stop the War" (Pre-conference bulletin No3, December 2005).

In fact, as I pointed out in last week's paper, the bulk of contributions were along the lines of 'Building the SWP in Preston', 'Selling Socialist Worker in the movement' or 'Building paper sales in Derby'. Much the same dreary fare as in previous years, in other words.

It is no surprise that this intellectual torpor was reflected in the mood of conference itself. Report after report of glittering SWP successes - particularly in the colleges and universities - seemed to produce little sincere enthusiasm. Delegates had heard it all before, of course.

As comrade Molyneux pointed out, the brutal truth is that after the "spectacular success" of initiatives such as the Stop the War Coalition, "the fact is that the SWP has not only not grown (despite innumerable urgings to do so), but is now numerically and organisationally weaker that it was in the 90s" (Weekly Worker January 5). Thus, a level of cynicism was present about the predictable official optimism gushing from the platform - when have the leadership and their loyalists ever said anything different?

However, this reaction actually underlines the scale of the task facing oppositionists in the SWP. There is plenty of discontent in the ranks, but without a far more coherent and comprehensive political challenge - plus an open schism at the CC level, where genuine political debate is currently monopolised - it is impossible to achieve a change of leadership and a change of direction.