Business as usual

All that the SWP's membership has been offered is a sop, argues James Turley

This year’s Socialist Workers Party conference, held in January, was dramatic. The disagreements at the top of the organisation, which had come to a head with the catastrophic blow-out for the SWP’s Left List in the London assembly elections, finally produced something like a new order, with the summary dropping of John Rees from the central committee.

Rees had been the de facto leader of the organisation since the death of its founding patriarch, Tony Cliff, in 2000; the Stalin to Cliff’s Lenin, he led the party through the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War Coalition and Respect.

The latter split, however - very visibly, and very much to the detriment of the SWP. The group is now shrinking; its relations with other left groups - fraught but often workable in the SA and even Respect periods - have completely collapsed. Where once it had good relations with prominent left figures, it has now poisoned relations to the point where it seems it has only enemies on all sides. Rees’s standing in the membership plummeted, and ultimately the discontent with his reign developed into a split on the CC.

Rees and his allies - principally partner Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and Socialist Worker editor Chris Bambery - found themselves in a minority, with the CC majority (with national organiser Martin Smith playing the role of Khrushchev in our succession drama) removing him from responsibility for election work - most notably in Left Alternative, the farcical electoral sub-front which will not stand in elections and is all that remains of the SWP wing of the Respect split (Rees and his allies do, however, retain key positions on the STWC steering committee).

The continuing tensions between Rees and the CC majority will no doubt erupt again - for now, however, our interest is in a side effect of this struggle. The SWP, in its usual state of affairs, adheres to its stated doctrine of ‘socialism from below’ in a unique and innovative way - that is, by handing the line down from the CC and enforcing it through a rigid apparat of full-timers and toadies.

But the split left the CC bereft of the appearance of unity - it suddenly found it immensely difficult to keep a lid on grumblings from below. After all, in the name of what line would it do so? There commenced a pre-conference discussion period (the only moment on the SWP calendar where members are actually allowed to articulate their differences) which, instead of featuring endless banal bilge about SW sales in Preston, carried some very forthright, if limited, criticisms of the SWP’s (lack of) strategic direction - and in particular, its internal regime.

This presented the CC majority with a quandary: on the one hand, they needed to marshal the membership’s support in order to rid themselves of Rees. On the other, the rank and file discontent had infected a number of prominent secondary cadre, including leading SWP trade unionists and academics, and could not simply be conveniently wound down. So lip-service was paid to the “upsurge in democracy”, but the most subversive proposals (such as Richard Seymour and China Miéville’s call for - shock, horror! - a year-round discussion bulletin) were ignored. Instead, there was to be a ‘democracy commission’, which would have a look at ways to improve the SWP’s internal culture. Creating a quango to improve democracy - that’ll be ‘socialism from below’, then ...

If it was clear enough that this commission was at best a sop at the time, now it is undeniable. The SWP membership has been issued a report of its first meeting. A single side of A4, it outlines the planned process of its work, along with the issues it is to discuss. Having now elected its chair, it will visit “every district in the country” over the next six weeks to give comrades “a chance to raise issues and concerns that they would like to see addressed”.

It will then - after “appropriate” debate - present its proposals to a special one-day conference no later than August, which will be preceded by an entire month of pre-conference discussion. The agenda is not on the inspiring side of things either - a rather technical list of things including “chairing meetings”, how various elements of the leadership - CC, national committee, party council - are to be elected and so on. Technical questions which need to be answered, of course - but a few tweaks to the slate system will not produce a democratic culture.

The SWP apparat is not about to do itself out of a job. Its entire nature militates against democratic culture. It organises bureaucratically, practising what Tony Cliff called a permanent mistrust of the membership by the centre. This bureaucratic centralism is something it has in common with most of the far left, of course - but the sheer level of detail in its mechanisms for repressing initiative is something uniquely breathtaking, at least since the demise of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain.

It has institutional forms: the SWP’s inviolate vertical structure, whereby members are forbidden from discussing minority opinions with comrades from other branches, for instance; or the ban on forming permanent factions, which means that oppositionists cannot discuss their disagreements with the leadership with like-minded comrades without risk of being accused of breaches of discipline; where dissenters are sidelined and eventually expelled summarily if they voice their opinions too forcefully. What about the holding of the leadership to account? Members are encouraged to discount discussions on past failures as “inward-looking” - in the words of Neil Davidson, who wrote the most extensive critique of the SWP’s regime in the pre-conference period: do not “dwell on the past ... pick at old wounds, 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” (Pre-conference Bulletin No3, December 2008).

True, John Molyneux came second in the poll at conference, when it came to the 10 elected members of the democracy commission. Julie Waterson and Neil Davidson are others. So there are oppositionists and a platform from which to fight for radical changes. But Sheila McGregor has been confirmed as the chair. Four members were appointed by the CC and she is a trusted operator. It is thus depressingly likely that, barring a few tweaks here and there, the commission will simply decide that it is important to raise doubts and criticisms only through the official structure (controlled by the full-timers) and is undermined by horizontal communications between comrades from different branches; that factions inevitably lead to splits; that CC discussions must remain confidential; and other such nonsenses that currently constitute SWP orthodoxy. After all, according to CC member Chris Harman, “the SWP is already a democratic organisation” - although he is prepared to admit that “there is room for improvement” (Socialist Worker January 17).

The SWP leadership believes that it can build a party and avoid splits with this kind of regime. In reality, it can only build a sect, whose purpose is to keep the flame burning for Tony Cliff’s theoretical contributions and political method. This political method has comprehensively failed. Despite assertions to the contrary (in reality, conscious lies), the organisation has not grown significantly since its foundation out of its predecessor, the International Socialists - and since the Respect catastrophe has undoubtedly shrunk. True, it continually attracts recruits, especially on campuses, and then loses most of them by its entirely instrumentalist approach to new members, who are treated as paper-selling golems and force-fed the theoretical shibboleths of the SWP/IS tradition - if they are lucky enough to be educated at all. The SWP is the biggest and most unwieldy revolving door in Britain.

In contrast to such an utterly sterile method, Marxists organise on the basis of the most vigorous democracy. Disagreements are inevitable - because of this, they need to be brought to the attention of the party membership rather than buried, and fought out rather than ignored. Suppressing differences does not avoid splits - it just makes them inevitable in the long run, as there is no other way of expressing a minority view than forming your own separate organisation (and in the meantime individuals just drop out). The SWP claims it has avoided splits since adopting ‘democratic centralism’ - in reality, when IS started on that path, it provoked several, and the inability to hold onto members is basically a split than never ends.

Part and parcel of fighting out disagreements is the right to form factions - permanently and openly, with space in the party press for minority opinion and freedom to produce factional material outside of the party organ. It goes without saying that serious factional rights cannot exist without the right of members to communicate outside of their branches. The ludicrous injunction against this has no other conceivable purpose than to protect the bureaucracy from the members.

And, lastly, differences must be discussed openly, before the class. Party comes from pars, the Latin for ‘part’. The proletarian party is supposed to be part of the class. In presenting itself fully formed with a monolithic ideological front, the SWP - and others who renege on this duty - set themselves as separate from the class. This is a dangerous logic, and it propels these groups away from the most basic thesis of Marxism - that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. To conceal things from the class is conspiracy - something routinely lambasted by Marx, and even the substance of the split in the First International.

None of these basic principles of organisation seem to be part of the democracy commission’s remit - but SWP members must be unsparing in their efforts to get them onto the agenda. Comrades are expected to go out and bust a gut implementing policies decided for them by the leadership, with any discussion restricted to the how, not the why. Recently such policies have been, even by the standards of SWP opportunism, disastrous. Now, these same bureaucrats are offering the membership a sop.