Left Platform throws in the towel
Following the departure of John Rees, Lindsey German and all their supporters from the Socialist Workers Party, lessons must be learnt, says Peter Manson
The collective resignation letter of John Rees, Chris Nineham, and other Left Platform members on February 16 came as no surprise to watchers of internal events at PO box 42184.
Lindsey German solemnly told the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference in January that the LP would dissolve. That she accepted the result of the debates, votes and elections. That she and her comrades would remain loyal members. Despite those promises, it is now clear that LP leader John Rees was looking for a quick exit strategy following his faction’s hammering - LP’s perspectives document received a humiliating 17 votes from around 500 delegates.
Comrade German had managed to squeeze onto the 50-strong national committee in 49th place. In contrast comrade Rees did not even dare stand. Whereas comrade German retains a certain popularity amongst the SWP’s rank and file, as shown by the 124 votes she gained, Rees is widely and actively disliked because of his perceived arrogance - a factor which makes him an easy scapegoat for the Respect disaster.
Members of a principled faction, confident that the truth was on their side and that they would eventually be proved correct, would have stayed and fought. After all, differences between the SWP’s central committee and the LP were always those of nuance - certainly not a splitting matter. However, comrades Rees and German had no stomach for continuing their derisory internal campaign. Instead they walked and gave the leadership of Martin Smith and Alex Callinicos the easiest of victories.
The CC was not exactly keen to make its peace with the Reesites. In fact, just after conference was the ideal time to launch another provocation against the LP. Having gerrymandered the SWP’s conference, and following what it regarded as a successful Right to Work talking shop last month, the CC calculated that its largely passive membership would be unlikely to overly object to another bureaucratic move to oust the demoralised LP opposition.
First it targeted the Left Platform in the North East, demanding, on February 3, that Tony Dowling step down from his position as Tyneside secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network for allegedly bureaucratic behaviour. Comrade Dowling immediately resigned from the SWP and was followed straightaway by 10 of his local comrades. An easy round for the CC.
What happened next was even more unexacting for the leadership. Comrades Dowling and Alex Snowdon, an LP comrade expelled for email ‘thought crime’ prior to the January conference, organised a Stop the War Coalition meeting in Newcastle. Not unnaturally, they invited Lindsey German to speak. The CC considered this intolerable, a provocation. In the pub afterwards there might be a factional get-together - and we can’t have that, can we?
National secretary Martin Smith emailed comrade German ‘requesting’ her not go to. Asking her to “meet with members of the CC at the earliest possible opportunity” - previous victims of the SWP’s disciplinary steamroller will recognise the method. Incredibly, however, that was enough for comrade German to give up on her 37 years of membership. The only surprise is that it took another six days for the remaining 42 LP comrades to follow her - perhaps comrade Rees had a bit of difficulty getting hold of one or two of them.
It was remarkably quick and simple from the CC viewpoint. A couple of minor bureaucratic jabs and it was all over - the entire Left Platform gone in less than a fortnight.
Comrade German tries to justify herself in her open letter, ‘Why I resigned from the SWP’. As is the way nowadays, it is readily available on the internet. She writes: “I have always been clear that if political differences between myself and the leadership brought about a conflict like this, I would resign rather than being expelled from an organisation which I have helped to build for more than 37 years, for most of which time I was part of the leadership.”
But why did you make that clear, Lindsey? Is it a point of principle for people subject to a little bit of bureaucratic bullying to instantly surrender rather than attempt to defend their record and go onto the offensive? Is it because you had done so much to produce that bullying regime that was now turning on you that you could not contemplate any other course?
Normal to split
Alex Snowdon attempts to dodge such arguments in his blog: “Almost all the major figures in the revolutionary Marxist tradition … have been members of factions at some time; all of them have also split from organisations. It is just silly to have a hysterical reaction to such things, as if it is treachery or some awful sin. In most countries, at most times, it is the norm (not the exception) on the revolutionary left ...
“When there are substantial differences - which we definitely have now - it is reasonable for someone to take the step Lindsey has taken. This is especially true when the internal culture has corroded so badly” (luna17activist.blogspot.com).
Unfortunately he is right - it has been “the norm (not the exception) on the revolutionary left” for comrades who are members of confessional sects to split at the drop of a hat. He is also correct to point out that this is usually connected with the internal regime operated by these groups. However, comrade Snowdon seems some way from the realisation that it is the “internal culture” of bureaucratic centralism - where minorities are publicly gagged, prevented from coming together to fight for change and as a consequence cannot hope to become the majority - that understandably leads them to the conclusion that they have no alternative. In other words, the “internal culture” that the SWP has always operated.
What about the issue over which comrade German had a difference with the CC - whether or not she should address an STWC meeting? She says: “For the convenor of Stop the War to be stopped from speaking at a STW meeting by the party leadership would not be understood or agreed in the wider movement and I thought it would damage the SWP in the movement locally and nationally.”
Let us leave aside the comrade’s concern not to “damage the SWP in the movement” - the widely-publicised resignation of that organisation’s only public figure would not do that, would it? But why not rebel against the ‘request’ to pull out of this particular meeting? The reasons given by the leadership for wanting her to do so were totally spurious. From there it should have been possible to move to a generalised counteroffensive.
Comrade German makes a number of other points which hardly justify her resignation either. She says of Respect: “Its failure meant that honest accounting on this question was impossible, drowned in a frenzy of personal abuse against John Rees for decisions which had been taken collectively.” Not true. There could have been an honest accounting for the Respect debacle. However, it is true that the entire leadership, including comrades Smith and Callinicos, voted for and publicly supported the Respect turn and, as far as I know, went along with comrade Rees over the falling-out with George Galloway and subsequent split, which the SWP cynically provoked.
It is true that comrade Rees must bear prime responsibility. He was the main driver of this disastrous embrace of classic popular frontism. But the rest of the CC should surely take their part of the blame for failing to oppose such dreadful opportunism. Equally to the point, neither side has made any meaningful criticism of the Respect turn - forming a joint party with the Muslim Association of Britain, George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley and a layer of Muslim businessmen.
Comrade German writes: “The second issue is the internal regime, which has deteriorated. There have been more expulsions and ‘offers you can’t refuse’ in the past year than at any time since the 1970s. Any national meeting now seems to be open season for personal attacks on Left Platform members.”
Whether the regime has “deteriorated” I cannot say. But from where I am it seems to be dominated by exactly the same bureaucratic culture of intolerance that it has exhibited from the beginning. Disciplinary moves, including expulsion, for members who dissent has been a perfectly normal feature of the SWP - including under the Rees-German leadership. The same goes for vitriolic attacks on comrades who go against the leadership - John Molyneux has been making this point for some years.
It is also tempting to say, ‘What else is new?’ in response to comrade German’s next point: “… I have felt politically curtailed in recent months: all LP members who submitted journal articles had them rejected; none of us are ever commissioned to write reviews or articles in publications; I was not asked to speak at the women’s school, despite having written and spoken more on theoretical questions on women than anyone else in the party.”
Comrade German really ought to look back over her 37 years of membership, most of which on the leadership, and try to weigh up honestly which of the above practices are a real departure from what went on when comrades Tony Cliff and John Rees were at the helm. Not very many, I would have thought.
The document entitled ‘Why we are resigning from SWP: an open letter’ signed by 42 LP comrades (apart from John Rees and former CC member Chris Nineham, they include STWC worker Elaine Graham-Leigh, the already suspended James Meadway and Adrian Cousins of Counterfire website fame) makes similar points.
Apparently “the events of recent weeks leave us with little choice” but to quit - although the 42 also cite the CC’s “request” to comrade German not to speak in Newcastle as the “immediate reason”.
But they also make more than comrade German of the current CC’s alleged turn away from the “open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements” which they claim was the main feature of the Rees regime: “The SWP leadership has abandoned this approach. The task of building broad, political opposition in every area to the disasters created by neoliberalism and war is now subordinated to short-term party-building.
“The most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession ... Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left.”
To be honest, this is pretty desperate stuff. RTW does not involve sufficient Labour MPs and union leaders? And apparently the current “authoritarian internal regime” has developed “as a result of this change in direction” (my emphasis). Surely the development of an “authoritarian internal regime” must have a cause more profound than a switch of emphasis (if there has been one) in relation to so-called ‘united fronts’. A more likely candidate for the SWP’s stifling culture is its combination of confessional sectarianism and programmeless opportunism - whereby the leadership is free to expel dissidents on the narrowest of grounds and at the same time pursue any quick-fix manoeuvre it chooses.
Opportunism certainly thrives in the absence of accountability (including to a programme) and a membership which can freely and openly criticise. In that sense both the Cliff and the Rees regimes were “authoritarian” too (in this context, the statement that “The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions of the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement” really made me laugh).
What will comrades Rees and German do now? Well, after his Timeline series on political history, I hear the Islam Channel has commissioned a follow-up from comrade Rees. Both he and comrade German have the occasional TV and radio appearance to their credit and are clearly eyeing the possibility of becoming media personalities.
Of course, Left Platform comrades are adamant that “we will, of course, remain active socialists and revolutionaries.” They even declare themselves still “convinced of the need for revolutionary socialist organisation”.
But how do they intend to put that into practice? By forming yet another sect? It hardly seems likely. The sad truth is that, despite the name of their faction, the whole trajectory of comrades Rees and German has been to movementism.
Despite that, because they, and their Left Platform comrades, pledge themselves to building a “revolutionary socialist organisation” we shall hold out the hand of friendship, as we do to all who say they are committed to left unity.