Defections no answer

Peter Manson looks at the latest split from the Socialist Workers Party

In the wake of the Socialist Worker’s Party’s annual Marxism school, the organisation has suffered the loss of another small section of comrades. Activists from Doncaster SWP have decided to throw their lot in with former leader John Rees and his Counterfire group. The comrades have written  to national secretary Martin Smith claiming that the entire branch has resigned.[1]

The leadership of Martin Smith and Alex Callinicos may have thought they had seen the last of the defections to Counterfire following the decision of comrades Rees and Lindsey German to throw in the towel and quit the SWP in February. But there remained a thin layer of Rees sympathisers after 42 members of the Left Platform oppositional faction walked out. As the Doncaster comrades state, a number of them had “broadly sympathised” with the LP, which suffered a hammering at the SWP conference in January.

So now they too have gone - casting a somewhat different light on the recruitment, according to official claims, of 165 new members at Marxism. For the SWP it has always been a case of ‘easy come, easy go’, with the turnover of membership often likened to a revolving door: a large proportion of recruits never attend ‘party events’ or pay dues and a good number simply disappear, so lax are SWP membership criteria. So the organised defection of an active branch is much more of a loss than the fact that a few score students may have filled in a membership form at Marxism is a gain.

The Doncaster comrades note “with sadness” that after “many years of operating as loyal party members” they have concluded that the SWP is “no longer ‘fit for purpose’”. The decision to resign, they say, was particularly difficult, and they faced “a dilemma whether or not to leave” because of the attacks the working class is facing. But they felt they had to do so “in order to operate more effectively as socialists”.

This immediately poses several questions: what is it about the SWP that makes it “no longer ‘fit for purpose’” - ie, an organisation that once was, but no longer is, capable of leading the working class? What has changed so significantly? If it was able to fulfil that role previously, why did it so patently fail to do so? Finally what makes the comrades believe that they will be able to “operate more effectively as socialists” outside the SWP - specifically as part of the right-moving, movementist Counterfire sectlet?

Three failings

The Doncaster comrades make three kinds of criticisms. The first is for the most part a repetition of those raised by Rees et al: “the party” had begun to play down the importance of ‘united front work’. The second takes issue with the SWP’s current tactics in a couple of areas and the third, and most significant for them, relates to the lack of accountability of trade union full-timers who are SWP members.

Their “misgivings” about the SWP’s perspective are those of the LP/Counterfire: The SWP was tardy in launching a “united front against the recession” (along the lines of the Stop the War Coalition), and for that reason “lost valuable ground” when the crisis first broke. As we have previously pointed out, this was pretty desperate stuff when it came from comrade Rees and it remains pretty desperate now. The SWP leadership at first rejected the comparison with STWC, but within weeks had launched the Right to Work campaign in any case.

Counterfire criticised RTW mainly because the SWP had not managed to persuade enough Labour Party and trade union leaders to speak from its platforms. Apart from that, it seems an SWP led by Rees and his close collaborator, Lindsey German, would have run RTW along similar lines. It really is scraping the barrel to suggest that the slightly earlier launch of an RTW-type grouping would have made all the difference in preparing our class for the current cuts offensive, for instance.

In reality it was always unlikely that RTW could become an organising centre of resistance to the ruling class offensive. On the one hand, the union leaderships and rank and file themselves will, sooner rather than later, organise strikes, demonstrations, days of action, etc, as the cuts start to bite. It is likely that the TUC will at least partly coordinate such events and RTW will act as mere cheerleaders for them. On the other hand, if the SWP behaves as it always has in STWC and its other ‘united fronts’, it will work to prevent RTW adopting a serious, consistent strategy to channel spontaneous resistance into a real working class political force. The SWP’s popular-front policy has always been ‘broadness at all costs’ and this means it cannot go further than the lowest common denominator - ie, the next demonstration, the next rally-type ‘conference’.

The Doncaster comrades are, however, correct to protest about the SWP’s attitude to STWC in the recent period: “At times the party has downplayed its importance, not mobilised properly for demonstrations and appeared sectarian because it has appeared our only involvement in it is to recruit around flashpoints and not sustain a durable movement.”

The reason why the leadership “downplayed its importance” and failed to mobilise the entire SWP organisation as it had in the past was because in 2008-09 comrades Rees, German and Chris Nineham - the main organisers of STWC - were being or had been deposed as SWP leaders and comrade Smith was not overly keen on their claiming credit for bringing out large numbers onto the streets (in fact it is not very likely that greater SWP enthusiasm would have produced greatly increased STWC turnouts for much of that time).

The Doncaster comrades also take issue with a number of tactics adopted by the leadership. Whereas the SWP “used to be dynamic, imaginative and related brilliantly to the best fighters”, now it has become “tired and formulaic” and, as a result, does not respond in the appropriate way. Its idiotic invasion of the Acas negotiations between British Airways and Unite in May is cited (although, of course, the SWP leadership itself conceded within 48 hours - in its internal Party Notes - that this had been an error). The comrades also complain that the leadership failed to recognise “the threat posed” by the election of the English Democrat mayor in Doncaster and “did little to give us direction”.

Criticism is also directed at the SWP’s specific tactics in relation to the English Defence League (although not its overall approach). The SWP is said to have been largely responsible for “ dividing the very large demo in Bolton into three smaller groups”. This “left us looking smaller than we actually were and allowed the police a free rein to make mass arrests”. The SWP also caused “unnecessary aggravation, which gave the media the opportunity to portray the UAF as the aggressors”.

These criticisms are partially correct, but go nowhere near far enough. They completely fail to get down to the twin causes of the problem, neither of which are new: it is not that the SWP has suddenly become less “dynamic” and “imaginative”, but that it remains handicapped by its programmeless dogmatism (illustrated by the claim that the BNP and EDL are “Nazi” and closely linked) and shameless opportunism, just as it was under the Rees-German leadership.

Party discipline

For the Doncaster comrades, however, “the heart of the problem” - “perhaps the catalyst for our estrangement from the party” - centres on the SWP’s trade union work. Their main gripe is that members should not normally take up full-time union positions, but instead concentrate on building rank and file union organisations: “… full facility time should only be contemplated in exceptional circumstances and only on the proviso that the party closely monitors the comrade’s work, which must involve the CC, the local SWP branch and the respective union fraction”.

In my opinion, there ought to be no conflict in principle between seeking election as a union full-timer and promoting rank and file organisation. But the comrades are correct to stress the need for the accountability to the revolutionary organisation of union leaders at every level (including rank and file leaders). All members must work under the direction of the revolutionary organisation and it goes without saying that the leadership must make itself accountable to the members, not least by facilitating a healthy, democratic regime, where criticism and genuine debate are encouraged. Not that this was a feature of the state of affairs under comrades Rees and German any more than it is under comrades Smith and Callinicos.

The particular complaints of the Doncaster comrades against the local Unison full-time branch secretary was that he did not develop “the combativity and self-activity of the working class”, he did not “relate to the most advanced workers” and he failed to distribute SWP material or sell Socialist Worker. The comrade “often acted unilaterally against branch decisions”. Yet “our concerns were not taken seriously”, even though his “increasing bureaucratisation” was bringing “the party into disrepute”. All this resulted from “the lack of political support that the CC gave Doncaster SWP branch and Unison comrades”.

What is described is certainly a serious matter. But is it a splitting matter? Surely a combination of the misbehaviour of an individual comrade and the failure to take action to stop it on the part of the leadership, even if the allegations are completely true, is not sufficient to demonstrate that the SWP is “unfit for purpose”?

Perhaps in the realisation that this is the case, the comrades go on to state that the full-timer’s conduct is “a symptom of a wider malaise. In short, the party has lost direction.” They then remind us of the behaviour of Jane Loftus, an SWP member on the executive of the Communication Workers Union who voted against SWP policy on the CWU NEC, and of the decision to “substitute the party for Unite members and interrupt the talks between BA and Unite” - although in truth it is difficult to find much in common between the two examples.

The same applies to all the other complaints. Even if we agreed with every word of them, they still would not justify a decision to split. This is not the way to go about building a mass revolutionary party of the class. A fight needs to be had within the existing groups to combat the opportunism, bureaucracy and general lack of effectiveness of the left. The fact that no serious attempt ever seems to be made to overcome these failings internally, and no serious theoretical critique based on partyism is ever undertaken, indicates why all such splits are doomed to failure.

The comrades state that, since the leadership “will not change tack”, to “remain as party members would compromise our integrity and leave leading socialists in Doncaster in a state of paralysis”. Therefore they have embarked upon this “reluctant but essential break, which will allow us to operate as revolutionaries ... Although we now belong to a considerably smaller organisation, Counterfire, we think we are better placed to resist the cuts and fight war and imperialism and, therefore, bring new layers of workers towards revolutionary politics.”

Well, perhaps they are sincere, but if so they are seriously mistaken. Do they believe the intention of Rees and co is to patiently work for an SWP mark two and do they really think an SWP-type formation is the answer? Or have they bought into Counterfire’s movementism and given up on parties even of the bureaucratic centralist kind? There is a clue in their concluding words about the SWP:

“Of course, we recognise that there are many committed comrades in the party and we wish them luck in the coming struggles. Let us maintain our integrity, respect our differences and, in a non-sectarian way, develop the struggle for a better world. In the words of Trotsky: let us ‘march separately but strike together’.”

The “non-sectarian” phrases provide the cover for an abysmal retreat. What happened to the need for a single revolutionary party, to which they, along with the rest of the SWP, were once formally committed? Now it is sufficient for all “committed comrades” to “struggle for a better world” in whatever way we see fit. Of course, neither the Counterfire comrades nor virtually anyone active in the SWP is “committed” to genuine partyism, where differences are not just respected, but openly and publicly expressed within the party and where all revolutionary socialist and communist trends can unite.

It goes without saying that the action of the Doncaster comrades in its own small way represents yet another setback to the fight for the Marxist party that alone could not just resist the coming attacks, but begin to lead our class onto the offensive.


  1. Their letter is reproduced on the A very public sociologist blog: averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2010/07/doncaster-swp-why-we-resigned.html