The fight gets ugly

What does the SWP majority think democracy looks like? asks James Turley

Last year, the dispute between the majority faction of the Socialist Workers Party central committee and John Rees and his allies erupted, and in the aftermath all manner of smaller complaints began to arise; questions about the political basis of Respect, the party regime and much more.

At the time, the CC feigned approval for the 'upsurge in democracy' of the 2008 pre-conference period, all the while attempting to head it off from seriously threatening the basis of the leadership's entrenchment. The CC even proposed the election of a cosy little 'democracy commission', which would pretend to consider improvements in SWP democracy, and produce recommendations for the CC to pretend to take seriously.

This year, Rees and co have upped their game somewhat - their intervention is more political (comparatively speaking), and more organised. They even have a formally constituted faction, which the SWP constitution generously allows for the duration of the three-month pre-conference discussion period. Yet this time it is clear the CC majority has lost its enthusiasm for democratic practice, and has been busily exerting its bureaucratic powers to further marginalise the Reesites. The fight has begun to get ugly.

Of course, this attitude is partly understandable - it seems that Rees is readying for life outside the SWP in the medium term; the ostensible political differences, though real, remain those of tactical nuance, which have become retrospectively elaborated, and the bitterness of the dispute is wholly disproportionate to them. Yet the CC have responded with suspensions and expulsions alongside evasive polemics. The method is tried and tested: turn to organisational means so as to avoid the outbreak of generalised political debate.

In the first stages of the dispute, the CC suspended the membership of two comrades from the School of Oriental and African Studies, James Meadway and Claire Solomon. These comrades had the temerity to organise a series of meetings on their own initiative, under the title 'Mutiny'. This appears to be a characteristically SWPish venture, attempting to get various 'new layers' of an 'anti-capitalist' bent in a room with a few tent-pole speakers ... and a number of SWP comrades, of course.

Unfortunately for comrades Solomon and Meadway, they happened to carry out this admirable burst of initiative after throwing their lot in with Rees. Thus the 'Mutiny' meeting was 'discovered' by the party police to be an attempt to build a 'parallel organisation'. And now a third Rees supporter has fallen foul of the machine - Alex Snowden, an activist in Tyneside, has been expelled for 'factionalising' - a frankly bizarre charge, given that he belongs to an officially-permitted faction.

In a piece on his expulsion, which appears on the Socialist Unity blog, Snowden alleges that he had been the target of sustained harassment by some members locally. His complaint to the SWP disputes committee resulted somewhat perversely in his own suspension. The 'evidence' against him consisted of 'two private emails between members'[1].

The details of these sordid manoeuvres are paraded by the Reesites in the latest Pre-conference Bulletin (known as Internal Bulletin No2), which contains an entire section on current disputes committee cases. 'We do not normally publish contributions about ongoing cases the disputes committee is dealing with,' begins the section intro. Nevertheless, 'a faction has been declared and therefore we have decided to publish the complaints. The CC refutes the allegations and will respond to the complaints in IB No3 after the cases have been dealt with.'

There are three such complaints published: three comrades (identified only by their first names) weigh in to defend Snowden, and two others to defend the Mutiny project and the 'SOAS Two'. The third complaint has not resulted in formal disciplinary action - Ady Cousins, who ran a pro-SWP website, Counterfire, was called before leaders Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith on the basis that Counterfire was raising 'concerns' over party discipline. He was ordered to shut it down immediately, along with all linked Twitter and YouTube accounts, and barred from starting any more websites without the express permission of the CC.

Cousins complied with all these requests, but the more disturbing thing for SWP oppositionists is that he too found himself confronted in the way of evidence with private emails he had sent. Also reprinted in IB No2 is a letter, signed by all the recipients of the offending email, denying any role in the leak. Comrade Cousins is concerned that his private communications have been 'accessed illegally by a third party'.

This is a fairly sensational allegation and, while not wildly implausible, does not outweigh in the balance of probabilities a more prosaic leak from one of his 17 comrades, whatever their protestations. In any case, dirty tricks are in operation: either the CC has spies in the Left Platform camp (very likely), or they have engaged in some kind of black-ops operation hacking email accounts.

Or, their supporters might protest, the whole thing is an elaborate provocation by Rees supporters - yet the most obvious candidate for the charge of provocation is the CC itself. It certainly has an interest in Rees concluding his split before conference, which may this time see a highly charged debate (even if, as we have seen, a dispute over what appears to be relatively small differences), a debate that may shake its authority and would quite possibly bring to the surface many other, more important, political issues. The pattern of expulsions and suspensions - of secondary Rees allies (not nobodies in the party but not truly prominent figures either) - also points towards a cynical attempt to push Rees into jumping early. 'Is this what democracy looks like?' the authors of one of the complaints rhetorically ask. Indeed.


What do the majority think democracy looks like? A rather muddled picture is painted by John Molyneux in the current issue of International Socialism, the SWP's theoretical quarterly.[2] Molyneux is well known as a 'loyal oppositionist' - he has argued previously that the internal regime has a deleterious effect on the organisation as a whole. The comrade was also heavily involved in the democracy commission, and it seems he has been neutralised by the CC (who used complaints about the frustration of democracy as a weapon against Rees last year).

His article is long and, it is fair to say, meandering. The theoretical core of his argument, such as it is, is directed at the writings of Robert Michels, a sociologist and disciple of Max Weber. Michels was a supporter of the social democracy before World War I (and a fascist after it), and wrote an extensive analysis of the tendencies for leaderships to entrench themselves bureaucratically within political parties.

Michel's argument was essentially that, the larger an organisation got, the more basic administration was needed to keep it going, and so the less it was possible for a direct democracy to obtain. Representative regimes were thus inevitable, and just as inevitably gave rise to a distinction between the representative and the represented. The former would tend to be the best and brightest, and the latter the 'incompetent'. Between these two features, a permanent separation was unavoidable, and a democratic regime impossible.

Molyneux actually gives considerable ground to this reactionary position. Axiomatic for him is the position (whose ultimate source, paradoxically like much else in SWP orthodoxy, is Ernest Mandel) that isolation from the class struggle breeds sectarianism. Isolation, therefore, is the primary danger. The 'Leninist' vanguard party maintains the most democratic possible internal regime, but on the basis that membership is restricted to the most advanced and 'serious' activists, prepared to submit to discipline. This is 'necessarily a minority of the class' - how to square the circle with avoiding isolation?

He uses an example from SWP history: 'to have restricted the membership of the SWP [in the 1970s] to the criteria of commitment required by the Bolsheviks would, in our non-Bolshevik conditions, have reduced the party to the low hundreds at best and would anyway have been false "toy Bolshevism", since such fanatical "revolutionaries" would have lost the other key pillar of Leninism: the ability to "maintain the closest contact, and - if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people" [the quotation is Lenin's - JT]. Consequently circumstances obliged us to operate with a substantial proportion of members who were not sufficiently engaged to exercise democratic control over the party.'

We should not imagine the problem is completely unreal - the far left is in a disorganised and atomised state, and attracts as well as the hardest class fighters a fair cross-section of inexperienced activists, dilettantes and eccentrics. Many of these people are not suited to active political partisanship when they first come into contact with serious political organisations, and it is necessary to cultivate them outside the organisation before admitting them to membership.

In Molyneux's example the SWP internalised this periphery. And its existence within the organisation actually functioned as a weapon for the apparatchiks against democratic norms. It alone wielded the right to decide who was or was not a legitimate source of political criticism. 'Difficult' oppositions could be decried as petty bourgeois dilettantes.

A more serious difficulty presents itself in the implied approach to cadre development. How exactly are we to harden these elements up to the point that they are allowed to vote at conferences? Molyneux says very little - but the communist approach must surely be to incorporate them into debates within the movement, to steel them in holding and defending political positions, and in self-critical reflection where necessary. To train people to intervene effectively in party life means throwing them into that culture.

This, needless to say, necessitates a vastly different culture to the one the SWP operates. Internal party debates - where genuine questions of security are not paramount - should take place openly, before the members, before the periphery and before the working class. They must become the property of the whole movement, so the party can become a serious pole of attraction within that movement.

Debate also has to be permanent. That, of course, means an end to the ridiculous limitation of serious party-wide discussion to the pre-conference period. It also means an end to the ban on permanent factions, which simply guillotines debates after a routine show of hands. Settling questions is a living political matter, not a formality, and may take one conference or 10.

Molyneux has a lot of nothing to say about permanent factions. They were disastrous for the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, apparently, but its co-thinkers in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire maintained unity among a whole host of permanent factions (including, it should be noted, the French co-thinkers of the SWP). The comrade throws up his hands in defeat: the real question, he says, lies elsewhere.

The truth is that the IMG's decline had nothing to do with 'permanent factions', and everything to do with the unprincipled politics of that organisation, coupled with the manipulative means employed by the 'centre' faction (one of the only truly permanent factions in the group) to best its rivals. The IMG was parasitic on various official left patrons; it was these that pulled the factions apart most decisively in the end.

It is these politics - or variants thereof - that inform both principal factions of the current SWP dispute. They are, in the long run, incompatible with principled and democratic unity. The suppression of permanent factions, in the end, achieves nothing - it just makes unprincipled politics harder to shift, and ensures that disputes tend towards damaging splits. The SWP remains very much on course for one of those.


  1. www.socialistunity.com/?p=4885
  2. International Socialism October: www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=586&issue=124