Fight the CC apparatus
As the Socialist Workers Party's annual conference looms, James Turley urges SWPers to settle accounts with the enemies of democracy and principle
The Socialist Workers Party faces its most important annual conference this month. Long-time leading light John Rees and his closest allies, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, are at loggerheads with the central committee majority led by Alex Callinicos and national organiser Martin Smith, not least over Rees’s de-selection from the leadership slate to be put to the conference.
Not since the early 1970s have we seen such divisions at the top. The self-perpetuating central committee - normally enforcing its will through a squad of toadying full-timers - has split and this has provided space for discontent below to find expression. The most obvious battleground so far has been in the Pre-conference bulletin - unofficially called the Internal Bulletin.
The IBs amount to almost the only concession to internal democracy to be found in the SWP, open to extensive contributions from party members. An indicator among many of the depth of the crisis is that for the first time in years, there have been four of these documents, rather than the usual three - presumably the optimum quotient of debate according to the SWP’s late guru Tony Cliff.
Most years they are a direly boring read, informing the audience in that thoroughly SWP-ish way of the great strides made by local branches in their ‘united front’ work (more on this dubious phrase later), and there is no shortage of such contributions this year either.
Apart from the two CC factions, a third force can be found in a number of prominent secondary cadre, most notably the historian Neil Davidson. Davidson penned two contributions to IB No3 - a sustained polemic in favour of more democracy, along with a motion in favour of the same.
The motion’s signatories will be a matter of some concern to both the CC factions: alongside Davidson, there is another noted academic in Colin Barker, best-selling fantasy author China Miéville, Unite executive member Ian Allinson and RMT political officer Unjum Mirza. None of the 16-strong signatory list is a ‘nobody’ in SWP terms.
The motion’s content is rather less ambitious, unfortunately (a strange thing, given that almost all those on the list have put their names to other, often caustic texts in the three IBs) - it calls for a three-month extension of the pre-conference discussion period, followed by a recall conference to make decisions on the issues raised in that time.
The detailed arguments made by comrade Davidson, as well as an earlier contribution to IB No2 from comrade Miéville and Richard Seymour (aka ‘Lenin’ of the noted blog Lenin’s Tomb), were critically outlined in the last issue of this paper (December 18). They both were harshly critical of the SWP’s anti-democratic culture. Miéville and Seymour, to their distinct credit, even took the radical step of demanding a permanent IB, available electronically as well as in paper form.
This is, surely, a most basic requirement for a functioning party democracy. Miéville and Seymour decry the “preposterous” conception of ‘democracy’ that insists on debate going through the branch structure (where, needless to say, it can be easily crushed by the apparat).
Arrayed against the democratic dissenters are the CC factions. The minority has documents from John Rees and Lindsey German, the majority - after the ‘special edition’ fourth IB, labelled “Pre-Conference Documents” - a whole raft of contributors, including Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos and John Molyneux (who, at the 2006 conference, made similar criticisms to Davidson’s about the stifling SWP culture, and moved an alternative CC slate on that basis - which gained a healthy vote).
The two sides form a devilishly complex weave of interlocking hypocrisies, each meandering through the Davidson document in order to beat their main enemy.
The essence of the majority’s case is that John Rees is in dire need of being held to account, has made a number of political errors and has been ultimatist and underhand in his dealings with the CC majority. As far as his critics go, the outburst of discontent below is to be pacified, and there certainly should not be any structural changes - instead, the ethos and spirit has to be reinvigorated. Davidson’s document is therefore “welcomed”, but ultimately disagreed with in all significant respects. (The rather more pointed suggestions of Miéville-Seymour on this issue are completely ignored.)
The CC suggests (in IB No3) a “democracy commission”, which would look at ways to improve the democratic culture in the party. A pretty obvious ploy to defuse opposition without actually committing to anything, of course - but that is the way of the bureaucratic sect.
Rees, in his document, throws everything he can at the CC. Primarily, the majority is accused of not dedicating itself with enough energy to recruitment, to the ‘united front’ strategy, to responding to the economic crisis, to the risible People Before Profit Charter of sub-reformist demands. The democracy commission is unprincipled - it would be a “House of Lords” (eh?) vetting the CC’s every decision.
If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is the same line fed by the leadership and apparat to the members - in Davidson’s words, “exhortations not to dwell on the past, not to pick at old wounds, not to be inward-looking - because, after all, comrades, there are always new demonstrations to be organised, public meetings to be arranged, papers to be sold: move on, get over it. We never make mistakes.”
Lindsey German is something else entirely. Somewhere, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud demonstrates a neurosis with a parable. A man asks to borrow his neighbour’s kettle. A day later, when it is returned, the kettle is broken. The neighbour confronts him about this, and he responds: “Firstly, I never borrowed your kettle; secondly, it was broken when I received it; and thirdly, I returned it in working order.”
And so it is with German on Respect - she says, in effect, Respect was a success; its failure was not our fault; and it was all our faults, not just John Rees’s. To Freudian scholars, this reasoning is amusing; but it must be a source of intense embarrassment to a membership which on the whole retains more fondness for her than her partner, Rees. Add to this an incredibly ham-fisted (and revealing) reference to the prospects of “white socialists” in Tower Hamlets, and the pathos is palpable.
All of this symptomatically reveals much of note about the SWP’s recent troubles.
Firstly, it is clear that the contention of the CPGB, among others, that a SWP split would start at the top layers of the organisation has been entirely vindicated. The result, though painful for SWPers fed a diet of endless lies about the dangers of ‘factionalism’, has been very positive for the workers’ movement - what is by the SWP’s standards an explosion of criticism and self-criticism by cadres who have often been overly suppliant towards their ‘betters’.
Secondly, it has revealed a fundamental truth about democracy, which is that when people are given the right to say something, they will damn well find something worth saying. The shot in the arm provided by this unusually vigorous pre-conference period has drawn out all kinds of criticisms of the SWP’s current (lack of) direction. Comrade Allinson, in IB No2, excoriates the People Before Profit Charter; Davidson frames his criticisms over democracy over a sustained, if partial, critique of the notion of Respect as a united front.
These criticisms, unsurprisingly, have not gone far enough. It is dispiriting, in particular, to see comrades who really should know better (Davidson, and the various contributors to an unintentionally ironically-named IB No1 document, ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’, to say nothing of the CC’s intellectual heavyweights, like Callinicos! confuse the SWP’s concept of the united front with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s.
The SWP insists the united front involves putting aside differences and “searching for the point of agreement” rather than the point of dispute (Callinicos); Lenin argued that it served to highlight differences through common action, exposing the superiority of the communists. We are not to be the “best fighters” for the actually existing organisations of the movement, but for the interests of the working class. The SWP’s conception is not, of course, without precedent - it is just that their true theoretical precedent is Georgi Dimitrov, architect of the popular front. And Respect adheres almost eerily closely to the line of the late 1930s Comintern - except with respect to its lack of popularity.
Those SWP comrades who register differences with the party regime, but insist on general agreement with the ostensible ‘united front’ strategy, must wise up. Respect was based on suppression of criticism of George Galloway. In order to guarantee to George that he would not be criticised, it was crucial for the SWP centre to have its iron heel over the membership at large.
And, indeed, the first major campaign embarked on by Cliff after he purged the democratic structures of the SWP in the mid-1970s, and instituted the party regime of which today’s is simply a variant, was ... the Anti-Nazi League popular front. A match made in opportunist heaven.
For the SWP, solving one problem necessitates solving the others. Its comrades must fight for democracy, must squeeze the power of leadership and apparat until their pips squeak - but to stop at a permanent internal bulletin would be to send their group careering into the same errors all over again. The membership must make a full re-examination of the SWP’s political basis. A serious accounting for the Respect catastrophe would be a start.