Crisis can no longer be hidden
The crisis that split apart Respect is now enveloping the SWP itself. Peter Manson looks at the bitter debate within the organisation
For the first time in a generation the Socialist Workers Party is wracked by passionate and genuine debate. What a pity it has taken a profound political crisis to provoke it.
The period leading up to the SWP's conference in January 2008 has seen a series of expulsions, resignations and bitter clashes over the leadership's sudden about-turn on Respect. A sizable minority has vigorously opposed the no-holds-barred attacks on George Galloway, Asian businessmen and local "communalists" and the SWP's deliberate prompting of the recent split. Although this opposition is coming unmistakably from the right, it is calling into question the whole SWP method of operating, its organisational norms and its leadership's opportunist and shameful dishonesty.
The first Pre-conference Bulletin, which came out in October, is remarkable for its high proportion of submissions from former members of the SWP. Since writing their contributions, Nick Wrack, Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman have all been expelled, while student Ian Drummond has resigned over the SWP's insistence on delegate status at the Respect conference for (mainly SWP) representatives of Student Respect. This was one of the issues that led the Galloway wing to give up on the official conference and call a rival Respect Renewal rally.
Most of the rest of Pre-conference Bulletin No1 is taken up by the leadership itself, in the shape of three long central committee motions, and reprints of the SWP constitution and previous documents on the Respect crisis under the names of John Rees and Elaine Graham Leigh, and the CC.
The central question dominating everything is Respect, including in the CC's first motion, entitled 'The world economy - back to the abyss'.
Here the leadership claims: "The crisis in Respect ... isn't happening in isolation." This is meant to reassure the rank and file that the split was caused by factors outside the SWP's control, since there is, it seems, something in the current global political situation that makes things very difficult indeed for left alliances:
"... the new left parties are facing a different context from the heady days of the Genoa protests in July 2001, the first ESF in Florence in November 2002, and the great anti-war protests of February and March 2003. A polarisation is developing between left and right in the movements resisting neoliberalism and war ... Accordingly, the radical left is in crisis in a number of countries."
However, just what it is that has led to such "polarisation" and "crisis" is not spelled out - although it is apparently connected to the fact that "the anti-capitalist movement in Europe has been in decline for several years". That is about as far as the analysis of the "different context" goes. It certainly does not re-examine the SWP's assertion that Seattle, Florence and the European Social Forum, etc represented some kind of watershed that would open up tremendous possibilities for drawing new forces into struggle.
In this motion (which is supposed to be on the world economy, remember) the leadership declares: "The crisis in Respect has amply vindicated our refusal to adopt the SSP model of a 'broad party' and liquidate the SWP into this party." This is a theme that is gone into in more detail in the next CC motion, 'Respect, the united front and the revolutionary party'.
Here it is stated: "Broad parties .... find themselves partly in opposition to and partly accommodating to the values and institutions of the system." Absolutely. So what should be the role of "the revolutionary party" within such "broad parties"? Well, "... a revolutionary party cannot be built in a country like Britain without breaks from reformism and ... we should actively participate in this process to encourage it, deepen it and build the party within it."
That tells us nothing. Should we be encouraging the part that is "in opposition" to split from the part that is "accommodating to" the system? Or is it a good idea that they remain together in the same party formation? If so, to what end? And in what way can Respect be described as one of those "breaks from reformism", when the politics of working class socialism was specifically excluded from its platform by the SWP itself? In fact, the aim was, at best, the recreation of old Labour and, at worst, a cross-class popular front.
The leadership is very much on the defensive, not to say disingenuous, when it tries to counter allegations that its behaviour in Respect has been unprincipled. It remarks that certain unnamed "critics of the SWP's position have organised themselves under the slogan, 'Firm in principle, flexible in tactics'." The CPGB would certainly uphold such a slogan.
For us, while no tactic is ruled out, our principles can in no circumstances be compromised. Whatever alliance we enter, whatever tactic we adopt, we will never stop arguing for working class socialism, secularism, a republic, a woman's right to choose an abortion, open borders, a workers' representative on a worker's wage "¦ True, we may choose to continue an alliance even if we are defeated on such questions. But, unlike the SWP, we will never voluntarily water down or drop our principled politics in order to accommodate the right wing.
However, rather than attempting to answer these arguments, the SWP leadership declares: "We should be clear that principles are involved in tactical decisions." Of course they are - nobody is disputing that. We make those tactical decisions on the basis of finding the best way under particular circumstances of upholding our principles.
But the SWP leadership goes off at a tangent: "There is a long and unworthy tradition in the socialist movement of separating principles and tactics ... Willie Gallagher in his pre-Bolshevik days preaching Sunday afternoon socialism with no effective embodiment in the mass movement and the German SPD with its principled conference resolutions and electoralist practice both show the limits of this approach."
This is an open goal. "Preaching Sunday afternoon socialism" at SWP branch meetings "with no effective embodiment in the mass movement" - or in this case within Respect - is a pretty good description of SWP practice. As for "principled conference resolutions and electoralist practice", unlike the SPD, the SWP does not bother with the first. Its opportunist resolutions at Respect conferences have been perfectly in line with its opportunist electoralist practice.
Perhaps that is what the SWP leadership means when it says: "We should understand that tactical decisions have consequences for our principles." Consequences? Should we tailor our principles to match the tactic adopted? Is this what the comrades mean when they refer to the close connection between principles and tactics?
State of the party
The third CC motion, 'Party building under Brown', unusually provides the membership with some hard figures: "Today there are 5,938 registered SWP members and about 1,700 unregistered members (registered membership is up by over 200 on last year)." And: "On average we sell about 8,700 Socialist Workers a week. Just over 3,100 people subscribe to SW ..."
National secretary Martin Smith explains elsewhere the difference between registered and unregistered members. In a reply to Mark Steel, who had been told at one point that his membership had lapsed, he says that members become unregistered for a period of two years if they stop paying dues - a process which ensures "we do not write people off too quickly". It seems that comrade Steel had stopped paying dues for a period and, when he resumed, the money was not matched to the name at SWP centre. As a result, he was deemed to be a non-member and his contribution to Pre-conference Bulletin No1 was rejected.
However, comrade Steel does make it into Pre-conference Bulletin No2 (November) - and his comments are amongst the most perceptive of all the contributors. His own experience - notably the absence of SWP comrades and stalls at events where he has been speaking or appearing as a comedian - tells him "how far the party has shrunk". For him, "the overall decline is inescapable".
However, "the most disturbing side to the SWP's decline has been the refusal to acknowledge the trend is taking place at all. For some time we were told that there were 10,000 members, although this was a patently absurd figure. This number seems to have been revised downwards, which leaves two possibilities: either that the original figure was wrong or we've suddenly lost thousands of members ..."
Comrade Steel also criticises the dishonesty of the leadership in consistently talking up the political opportunities, leading to demoralisation: "... when your efforts result in little reward, to hear a series of super-optimistic claims about how well we're doing isn't inspiring: it's depressing. Because either we've been deceived or it means everyone else is achieving success except you."
It is the same story when it comes to the Stop the War Coalition: for many of the thousands mobilised onto the streets in 2003, the "most typical attitude seemed to be that, while no-one regretted going on the march, they couldn't see that it had made any difference. But instead of analysing how to redress this sentiment, the SWP seemed to repeat the tone that suited the frenetic weeks before the war. Every march and protest was depicted as a triumph. And there was no acknowledgement of the process in which Stop the War meetings and rallies became smaller and almost devoid of anyone under 40."
For comrade Steel, it all goes to show "how deep the culture of resisting discussion has come". However, while declining to "take sides" over Respect, he comments: "Whether in the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War or Respect, we seem to land ourselves in acrimonious disputes. And the growing list of people who've selflessly committed themselves to a project alongside us, only to later lament that they feel betrayed and humiliated, is one that, shall we say, needs addressing."
All in all, it is a pretty far-reaching and damning critique.
But comrade Steel's interesting contribution is only one of many in Pre-conference Bulletin No2, in which the battle over the question of Respect really begins to hot up.
On the one side there is the central committee, with yet another motion - this time entitled 'Pay, Brown and the fight in the unions'. It is backed up by loyalists in Preston, Birmingham and Tower Hamlets, together with LBGT activist Colin Wilson, who have all clearly been commissioned to give the official side of the story in the various areas of contention.
On the other side, there are a number of individuals, the most prominent, apart from comrade Steel, being Paul Holborrow (who jointly authored the piece in No1 with expelled member Nick Wrack and this time is joined by Jan Nielsen), Simon Hester and Julie Waterson.
The CC has no trouble bringing Respect into its motion on the unions: "Only the SWP, not Respect, could have had the speed of response and the politics to intervene effectively in the [Royal Mail] dispute. We are now having to criticise the bureaucracy in a way that Respect could not."
This is echoed by Michael Lavalette, who notes: "... if there was to be a Respect leaflet on the picket lines it would be reduced to a broad and general leaflet supporting workers on strike ... but it certainly wouldn't and couldn't be one that called for all-out action, mass pickets, independent rank and file action, etc, because this is not a strategy that George, far less Salma, agree with or support."
I find this far from convincing. Why is it so impossible for Galloway and Yaqoob to come out for, or be won to the idea of, militant rank and file action? In any case, why should it be the minority that decides what position ought to be taken on a given question? The answer is - because it's a popular front, stupid! (Although I note that Respect's appellation now seems to have changed in official SWP-speak: it is referred to by both comrade Lavalette and the CC not as a "united front of a special kind", but as a "united front of a particular kind". Obviously not so special any more.)
In this connection Adam Marks (central London) takes up the central committee's metaphor for its "united fronts" - that of "concentric circles" with the SWP at the centre. He asks: "We 'build' the circle and then what? Does one circle expand in relation to the others? Does Respect grow into a mass party and we sink our roots into it or does the SWP build itself and Respect fall away like scaffolding?"
It falls to the Tower Hamlets loyalists (Shaun Doherty, Paul McGarr and John McLoughlin) to defend SWP allegations of "communalism" made against Yaqoob and the Tower Hamlets Respect majority. They state: "In all advanced countries it has become commonplace in elections to harvest votes based on ethnicity or 'community', commonly by relating to self-styled 'community leaders'."
And in relation to Respect council group leader Abjol Miah, they claim: "Abjol, for example, has often argued that the selection of candidates has to relate to their ability to mobilise votes based on the village of origin of families in Sylhet ..."
While this is hardly a principled way to select candidates, it does not amount to "communalism", which is not just the 'harvesting' of votes on the basis of ethnicity, religion or any other sectional loyalty - that is just a form of electoralism, in fact. Communalism means championing one group by whipping up fear or hatred of another.
The Tower Hamlets Asian businessmen are also accused of sexism in addition to communalism. For example, at a meeting held in the borough in October, women who attended were allegedly told: "We have left our wives at home. What are you doing here?"
Of course, if true, this is a pretty despicable attitude. But it does provoke the question posed by Rebecca Lewis and Tom Jenkins of Merseyside: "Why were shadowy businessmen with sexist attitudes allowed to gain positions inside Respect and why all of a sudden are these people intolerable?" And, just as pertinently: "Why was the membership of the party not aware of such differences, until breaking point?"
Their fellow Merseysider, Nick Wall, has dug up a quote from last year. In 2006 the CC wrote: "Tower Hamlets Respect provides a good model" - after the election of that bunch of sexists and communalists. Comrade Wall, who thinks his leadership has been engaging in "playground politics", concludes: "... the call to members to wage battle for the existence of the socialist left within the coalition ... looks not like the action of an embattled minority, but the reactionary behaviour of an already powerful grouping calling on the loyalty of its members as a short cut to winning the arguments."
Simon Hester and Julie Waterson, in their joint submission, ask more highly relevant questions: "If the political difficulties over the past year or two required a split, a clean break and a change of direction, why did the CC not discuss this with the membership? The temperature was raised so swiftly after Galloway's initial letter that it begs the question - when did the CC decide a confrontation was inevitable or necessary?"
They conclude: "This autumn the CC appear to have either covered their real intentions with spurious justifications for confrontation or they have woefully failed to anticipate the consequences of their actions. Either way, they should be held to account by the party ..."
It is quite remarkable, and symptomatic of the SWP's crisis, that someone like comrade Waterson - for so long regarded by so many as one of the leadership's most reliable hacks - is now among the most forthright oppositionists, who are openly accusing the Rees-German-Bambery leadership of lying incompetence.
That is not all. Paul Holborrow and Jan Nielsen call into question the nature of the internal regime: "How have we managed to expel three of our leading comrades in Respect over the very issue ... that is dominating the pre-conference discussion period? ... what was the hurry to act so fast and so precipitantly instead of taking the views of these experienced members into account?"
It is a good point. True, all three did indeed break 'party discipline' by refusing to abide by the instructions of the political committee. Comrades Ovenden and Hoveman were not prepared to walk out of their jobs at Galloway's parliamentary office, while Nick Wrack did not see why he could not take up the new post of Respect national organiser.
But that is to ignore the fact that the leadership had not won the political battle for its sudden change of line. After all, the three comrades may have rebelled from the right, but they could certainly claim to be defending the previous line of building the 'unity coalition' - which had, of course, been endorsed by the last few SWP conferences. A principled leadership (the two words just do not go together in relation to the SWP, do they?) would have held its fire until it had won not only the vote, but the argument.
So, yes, comrades Wrack, Hoveman and Ovenden are hardly more worthy of support than Rees and German on the basis of their politics. But their expulsions signified another attack on the rights of the membership as a whole - in particular the right to full information, a democratic debate and a due decision-making process. Only if there is democracy in the SWP (Judy Cox of East London accuses the leadership of running a regime that amounts to "democracy - until someone disagrees") will it be possible for a principled left wing to emerge.
It is left to Lindsey German in her submission, 'The party and democracy', apparently made on behalf of the CC, to try and ward off all these devastating criticisms - and more. The SWP's method and internal regime is perfectly democratic and open, she argues: "There is nothing secretive about organisations like the SWP: most of our meetings are open; we produce weekly, monthly and quarterly publications which openly argue our politics."
What is more, "We also try to argue divisions in as public a way as possible through our publications." That really does take the biscuit. As everyone knows, Socialist Worker is just full of SWP members arguing out their differences, isn't it? And it goes without saying that their debate is always fully informed, thanks to the leadership's conscientious and honest reporting of problems and difficulties. Remember how Chris Bambery warned us for months in advance of the brewing crisis in Respect? No, neither do I.
For example, did you know that, as Lindsey tells the SWP members, even back in 2005 "it was apparent that there were problems in Tower Hamlets with some of the people involved in the campaign"? And comrades German and Rees had warned us about the difficulties with Galloway, hadn't they? As she says, "Some of these might have been avoided had he been prepared to act in a democratic and accountable way: it was clear from the beginning that he had no interest in that" (my emphasis).
But German does at last seemed to have realised that it is now futile to attempt to keep the lid on internal differences: "... given electronic communication, which ensures internal documents quickly become public, this is a public as well as an internal debate." Gone is the time when SWP members were banned from participating in "undemocratic" email discussion lists. It was a losing battle.
And now there is another battle the leadership looks like losing. It is the battle to keep a once docile, unquestioning membership under control. The leadership may win out in January, but the crisis that split apart Respect is now enveloping the SWP itself.