Another one bites the dust
Even before SWP comrades gather in London for their annual conference, the central committee has sacked Martin Smith as national secretary and replaced him by Charlie Kimber. Peter Manson looks at an organisation in crisis
The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party must be hoping against hope that its January 7-9 annual conference will be totally different from last year’s messy affair. Then conference was dominated by the factional battle between the Martin Smith-Alex Callinicos leadership and the right-moving opposition of deposed leader John Rees and his close allies, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham. Within months Rees and co, together with his entire Left Platform grouping, walked out of the SWP to form the Counterfire organisation.
After comrade Rees and the Respect debacle the central committee vowed, ‘Never again’. However, the SWP is stumbling from crisis to crisis. Late last year a fraught central committee meeting moved to pre-empt mounting criticisms of the SWP’s dismal performance under the new national secretary, Martin Smith. He was summarily removed from his post and as a consolation given token responsibility for industry and anti-fascism - a non-job. After all, Weyman Bennett continues in charge of anti-fascist work, while Michael Bradley retains the industry portfolio. The rather uninspiring Charlie Kimber - former Socialist Worker editor - is now primus inter alia, though many insiders consider Alex Callinicos the real power in the organisation. As a safe pair of hands, Judith Orr was hastily given charge of Socialist Worker - she is the first woman to edit the SWP’s paper. The central committee reshuffle has left Hannah Dee in charge of students, Joseph Choonara overseeing finance, Amy Leather responsible for the national office and branches, Dan Mayer looking after appeals and Marxism, while Chris Bambery has the thankless task of running the Right to Work campaign. Comrade Callinicos retains responsibility for international work and International Socialism.
So a classic palace coup ... and delegates will be expected not to question, not to challenge - just to acclaim the new order. Perhaps to ensure comrade Smith accepts his humiliating demotion quietly and is not tempted to rebel at conference unpleasant rumours have been circulated. They amount to character assassination. Eg, we at this paper have been sent allegations of sexual harassment and a central committee investigation. Frankly, we are not talking Gerry Healy, but of the kind of thing one hears in any fraught divorce case.
Anyhow, instead of honestly debating the SWP’s problems, failures and lack of direction under the leadership of comrade Smith, the central committee appears to view his sacking as a private matter. All thoroughly undemocratic ... but fully within the bureaucratic traditions of the SWP.
Having got the real business out of the way, the central committee is banking on running conference as a rally. The format is predictable: inspire the troops to resist the government’s austerity drive and yet another call to ‘build the party’. The contempt for the membership was on full display at the district aggregates that elect conference delegates. Instead of confiding with the membership, the central committee majority ensured that they were little more than hyped-up pep talks. According to the organisation’s internal weekly bulletin, “These meetings are an important opportunity to involve as many of our members in discussing our perspectives and response to the Tory assault. Each area should build these as SWP members’ meetings - ‘Seize the time: build the resistance’” (Party Notes December 8 - the full version, as opposed to what appears on the SWP website).
Last year’s aggregates saw fierce battles to maximise factional delegates, with the Left Platform alleging foul play. The debate over perspectives and personalities that raged at conference was also carried at the aggregates and, most noticeably, in the three Pre-conference bulletins, known within the SWP as Internal bulletins, or IBs. Compared to 2009, the October, November and December 2010 bulletins have been not a little dull - certainly when it comes to the airing of the differences that one would expect within an organisation facing severe problems.
For instance, there is no mention whatsoever in any of the central committee’s contributions in the Internal bulletin of last year’s battle with comrade Rees and co. Nor for that matter is there any attempt to explain or account for the resignation of dozens of members. The leadership’s attitude is: forget the past, look only to the immediate future and the opportunities that will surely come from feeding off the anti-cuts movement.
Even where the IBs do contain genuine exchanges of viewpoints, the format often makes it very difficult to ascertain who is saying what. The SWP’s obsession with ‘security’ (ie, keeping political differences hidden) also leads to the refusal to publish the surname of any of the contributors. This means that it is impossible, except for those in the know, to link a particular opinion with an individual leader, which in turn means those individuals cannot be properly held to account.
Of course, there are contradictions. So we have “Michael (Preston)”, who begins his contribution with: “As a local councillor ...”; or “Unjum from South London”. For the minority who do not know who these comrades are, it takes five seconds on Google to identify Michael Lavalette or Unjum Mirza, the prominent RMT union activist.
In contribution after contribution, the central committee plugs away at the opportunity for the SWP that the government assault provides: IB No3 (December) stresses that the key question is how to use it “to win a significant section of people moving into struggle to the need for a revolutionary transformation of the whole system and build the SWP” (my emphasis).
Fair enough on one level, except that there is no conception of the kind of organisation the working class needs - a mass, democratic Marxist party, to begin with uniting all the revolutionary left. Instead, the other left groups, whatever their size or influence, are viewed only as rivals, not potential partners, and are consequently ignored and implicitly written off.
So “Jonathan” from the Socialist Worker circulation department writes, also in No3: “The Vietnam solidarity protest in October 1968 saw the IS [International Socialists, forerunners of the SWP] grow by hundreds, while others on the left failed to increase in size. This was down to the sharpness of our message and its concrete application to the movement. Selling Socialist Worker can perform a similar function ...”
The CC itself urges: “We must become the detonators of resistance in every workplace, community and college” (IB No1, October); while in the following bulletin it is at its most hyperbolic: “There is no time to waste; it has to be action stations for the Socialist Workers Party ... “We don’t have a moment to spare. Right to Work on a national and local level has to think big and act fast.”
Following conference there will be a recruitment drive (as usual) and the SWP must “build strong and well-rooted branches”. But “What do you do if your branch is small, stale and moribund?” asks the CC. Obviously, you should “locate your branch in and around your local university or FE college”, where large numbers of students can be expected to revitalise it. According to “Christine” from the membership department, “our ‘open door’ recruitment strategy has translated directly into hundreds of students either joining or seriously thinking about joining” (No3).
I will return to the “‘open door’ recruitment strategy” below. But, short of relocating, what else can comrades do? Well, “The only other way is to recruit your way out of the problem” (IB No2, November). Thanks a lot, comrades.
Clearly this is easier said than done, as Christine reveals: “In Preston, there has not been a branch or public sale for some time. Despite brilliant work by our socialist councillor ... we had not recruited anyone for a while. In the last three weeks before their UAF demo, only three comrades were around to build it on the ground.” This certainly poses a number of questions about comrade Lavalette’s role and influence, and indeed the manner in which he was elected (with the support of the local mosque).
The centrality of the SWP’s ‘recruit at all costs’ strategy is directly reflected in the way it attempts to mobilise against the cuts. Not least through Right to Work, which the SWP “helped to initiate” in 2009. Wherever workers organise locally against the cuts, RTW must be there, the CC urges. “Of course, we should push for RTW speakers at all anti-cuts activities, and for affiliation to RTW of anti-cuts groups, but this isn’t enough - we have to build a separate RTW presence locally” (my emphasis). Why? The reason is not stated, but the answer is clear enough. Because RTW is controlled by the SWP and is viewed as a recruiting conduit.
Nevertheless, the SWP has to go through the motions of calling for a united fightback: “RTW has issued an appeal for unity ... and Socialist Worker has argued and will continue to argue for a coming together of the campaigns” (No1). In fact, the CC pretends that the lack of unity is all down to RTW’s rivals, the Coalition of Resistance and the National Shop Stewards Network: “... it is not possible for any particular organisation simply to proclaim itself the ‘one true group’ and expect everyone else to jump into line.”
This pretence is continued in No2, where the CC states: “At the very least it’s important to argue for coordination between existing campaigns, while recognising the People’s Charter, NSSN and indeed RTW have an independent existence and role” (my emphasis). So what is this “at the very least” about, when the leadership is clearly opposed to a single anti-cuts campaign?
It has to be said, however, that the SWP does have its own particular take on the type of resistance organisation that is needed and we should be grateful to “Jess” from Lewisham for explaining in No3 how the SWP model was put into practice there. There are, she says, “Two models of how to build: a sectarian one and our one”. She goes on: “While not forgetting the betrayals of Labour, or watering down our criticisms, we must go out of our way to seek unity with Labour Party members in action against the cuts.”
So far, so good. But when Jess contrasts this with the “very sectarian” local anti-cuts group, whose comrades “refuse to work with any local councillor or MP who is not opposed to all local cuts”, we begin to understand what she means. “The situation in Lewisham is complicated by the fact that we have a Labour council that is about to implement cuts of £60 million [They are now implemented - PM] ... But the fight ... is weakened when the anti-cuts movement fails to unite and find common cause with those Labour Party people who want to fight. We have to do this, even where those Labour Party people are not immediately opposed to all of the cuts.”
What on earth is this all about? How, in current circumstances - where a successful campaign to save a library will mean the closure of a community centre instead - is it possible to “find common cause” with Labour councillors who unanimously voted through the cuts package? Giving such people a platform, as RTW did in Lewisham, means selling out the anti-cuts movement.
Richard from Essex (actually Richard Allday, author of ‘Shell tanker drivers’ strike - oil on troubled waters’ Socialist Review July-August 2008, as his contribution makes clear) is one of the few remaining Reesites in the SWP. Nevertheless, he makes some useful points on the nature of RTW.
He had argued for some time for a “united front against the recession” and “This position was also argued at last year’s conference, by the Left Platform, and roundly defeated.” Despite that, a few weeks later RTW was launched (even the name had previously been suggested by comrades who were denounced at the time, he says).
Even though the CC was formally committed to a broad, inclusive campaign, the RTW steering committee is “overwhelmingly numerically dominated” by SWPers. “As far as I am aware ... there has not been a single meeting of the full steering committee since [January 2010] ... As far as I am aware, there is no mechanism whereby affiliated organisations are able to have any input into the campaign.”
By contrast, says comrade Allday, the Left Platform/Counterfire comrades, who “argued passionately for the tactic of the broad united front against the recession ..., have put their theory to the test” and it has proved successful: “Someone was right and someone was wrong.”
Comrade Allday also complains about the “poisonous atmosphere”, which caused the LP to think they were “no longer wanted in the organisation, and if they stayed they were likely to be ‘set up’ for expulsion.” He continues: “... having been told myself that I was considered ‘unreliable’ and that I was ‘being watched’, I can understand why they might feel that way” (No3).
“Andy and Kieran” from London also criticise RTW - but this time from the left: “Right to Work ... is a fudge of an organisation ... It is described, in the same breath, as both a broad front and a rank-and-file organisation - these are not the same and, in fact, cut across each other.”
The strategy of LP/Counterfire, the comrades write, was “to form a united front against an abstraction, a sort of Stop the Recession Coalition. If we accept the logic that united fronts can be set up against more or less anything, with no short-term strategy and no agreed long-term goals, we might as well propose a united front against capitalism.” But “the Counterfire group ultimately broke with us because they sought to liquidate socialist organisation utterly into broad, movementist work and had grown weary of the encumberment of the revolutionary party ...”
However, the two are scathing about the SWP leadership’s line: “It is sectarian to assume we should always be at the top table ... what we should do is ensure we are always the ones fighting for a perspective based around the self-emancipation of the working class ...” (No3).
This brings me to a related topic - the SWP’s conception of the united front. In the words of the CC, “The policy of the united front will remain vital in the period ahead. The revolutionary left is far too small to play a decisive role in the battles to come” (No1).
But if, as “Andy and Kieran” point out, such bodies have “no short-term strategy and no agreed long-term goals”, what do we think they will produce? For example, during the anti-war upsurge, the two comrades state, “We built a vast alliance and had the attention of millions of people in the Stop the War Coalition, but, paradoxically, ended up missing opportunities to fight for a more radical position.” In fact, “searching for a radical wing ... was always subordinate to maintaining unity”.
Isolated oppositionists “Martin and Anne” (West London) go further in No3: “The mistake the party made with Stop the War”, as it has done in “all united front work”, was “actually to deprioritise the revolutionary party itself .... In short we dissolved ourselves into the movement”.
Climate Camp fan John (North London) reports on the “rejection [by climate activists] of the Stop the War Coalition’s model of activity characterised by large A-to-B marches followed by speeches” and STWC’s “inability ... to discuss (or even consider) other tactics” (No3). But, unlike the others, he fails to understand that the root of the matter is not the tactics adopted, but the politics that revolutionaries ought to promote within alliances.
In the trade unions, for example, alliances with left bureaucrats should be undertaken only for limited objectives and should not be viewed as an end in itself. The CC says: “We do seek a good working relation with left officials. But we are also clearly still prepared to raise criticisms, no matter how difficult it makes life for us ...”
However, the CC goes on to warn of the “worst of all possible worlds” if we fail to build a rank-and-file movement: “We criticise the officials without doing the work to come into contact with the best elements of the rank and file. In other words, fall out with the ‘lefts’ without winning or expressing the anger of a new audience” (No3). The implication is that, in the absence of a rank-and-file movement, a “good working relation” ought to take priority.
Which is why there was such resistance from SWP comrades in Unite to the notion that rank-and-file candidate Jerry Hicks should be supported for general secretary, as opposed to left bureaucrat Len McCluskey, who was backed by the United Left within the union. Ten members of the SWP Unite fraction report: “The arguments for backing either candidate were finely balanced for most comrades. Should we support Len, along with comrades we were working with in the UL? Or do we threaten these carefully nurtured relationships by backing Jerry Hicks with a manifesto far closer to our own politics?
“.... We debated the issue for a year. This was necessary to convince the vast majority of the fraction of the correct position.” However, “a minority of the fraction refused to support the decision, but of even greater importance was the fact that the majority of comrades remain disengaged from the fraction” (No3).
State of the party
Despite evidence to the contrary throughout the bulletins, the CC boasts: “The party has grown in size and influence over the last year and its branches are stronger” (No1). I hate to think what Preston was like before.
The leadership writes: “The registered membership is 6,587. This is up on last year’s 6,417. In 2008 it stood at 6,155.” Of course, these figures are only ever allowed to go one way - up. But, if you read on, you will see that “over 1,000 members were recruited in 2008 and 2009, and 2010 looks to be heading for a similar figure”. So, although there have been 3,000 recruits over the last three years, the registered membership has increased by only 400.
This is particularly strange when you consider that “A registered member is a comrade who states that they wish to be a member of the organisation. Anyone who fails to pay subs or does not make contact to indicate they wish to continue to be a member after two years is removed from our registered members list and placed on our unregistered list of members” (IB No1, October 2009).
In other words, the figure includes all those who have filled in a membership application, whether or not they are ever seen or heard from again. But after two years such “members” are demoted to the status of “unregistered” and their details transferred to an out-of-date contact list. So you can see why there is such a high turnover - despite the leadership straining to maintain the annual rise (to be retained on the ‘registered’ list you only have to say you still want to be a member when a local comrade rings you up).
There is also a comment about “open recruitment” from Jonathan of the SW circulation department: “Comrades will have heard of the ‘net and spear’ approach. The spear relates to those immediate contacts we work with and the net is a more general milieu which we can attract towards us.” You have been warned - don’t get caught in the SWP “net”!
However, the rise in the numbers ‘speared’ has not translated into an increase in membership subscriptions. Quite the opposite: “The registered membership that pays a regular sub to the organisation stands at 40%” (No1). The CC’s financial report in No3 goes into more detail despite the following rider: “Please note that, given the unfortunate propensity for these documents to circulate beyond our ranks, we have given most figures as percentages.”
The leadership notes: “The graph [there is no graph - PM] shows the decline in real (inflation-adjusted) subs income over the last 10 years. We have lost the equivalent of 40% ...” the explanation for this is that new recruits pay far less than the old hands (and presumably, since the greater stress on “open recruitment”, a higher percentage of “members” now pay nothing). “Overall, only about 40% of our registered members paid subs” at the end of 2010. In some areas the proportion is below 30%.
However, the CC is pleased to report that “During the past three years, this long-term decline [in income from subs] has been arrested.” Phew. Yet this does not mean the SWP’s finances are under control. Far from it: “From February 2010 to January 2011 we predict that the monthly deficit will average out at £2,406.” This is clearly unsustainable and we learn it is only managed in the short term by taking out loans and delaying the payment of bills.
The answer? We need to “persuade some of those who have cancelled their subs at some point in the past to restart. This will involve a serious effort to contact members ...”
In IB No2 Dominic from Manchester suggests that the whole elaborate ‘registered membership’ pretence be dropped: “One of the problems we have currently is that there is a reluctance to take people off the membership list. I would like to propose that ... the party reintroduces, and actually uses, the concept of an unregistered member.” At the beginning of every year the “entire membership” should be “placed on the ‘joined but unregistered’ list”.
Dominic is aware that “One of the arguments against this idea is that people will be demoralised by the inevitable reduction in membership figures that this process will entail.” And the CC comes back in No3 to argue just that: “If we had done this last year, when we spoke to 33% of registered members, we would have reduced our registered membership below the number of people actually paying subs. Despite very serious efforts, there were just four districts (out of 45) in which the number of members we contacted reached the number giving money to the party.” It is a very strange revolutionary organisation that is unable even to contact a proportion of its subs-paying “members”.
But the CC mocks the very idea of membership commitment. It states that the subs drive at the start of the year should not be regarded as a “purge” to “whittle the membership down to the hard core of ultra-Leninists ... approaching the subs drive with a view to ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’ is to start from a negative rather than positive perspective ...”
Jonathan from the circulation department claims that, like SWP membership, the readership of Socialist Worker continues to rise: “We sell an average of 9,800 copies ... a week” and there are “around 4,000 subscriptions”. What is more, “over the last four years sales have been on a steady increase” (No3). However, a later comment seems to contradict this: “... it is possible to substantially increase circulation over the next period ... to move from consolidation to expansion.” I though readership “expansion” was already occurring.
Brian from Leeds gives a useful report of how the sad state of the membership is reflected in one locality: “Core membership, by which I mean those members regularly involved in branch meetings and wider district activity, is around 25% of the total.” There is a further 25%, comprising those “who pay subs and work with us”. The remaining 50%, “the ‘softer’ outer periphery”, are “essentially lapsed” (although they are not “uniformly inert” and some of them may actually pay subs).
Brian continues: “Overall, the quality of theoretical understanding in the organisation is quite poor. And, furthermore, there seems to be an attitude that education and other aspects of consolidation tend to be in conflict with ‘activism’ ... For example, when asked to explain in simple terms the labour theory of value, many leading comrades simply can’t.”
When he began setting up an education programme, Brian remarks that “there were those (usually more experienced members) who wished it well, while predicting its failure”. He advises: “Don’t take the excuse from older members that they know everything about a certain subject, so they need not attend. They are probably lying, but if they are such experts, they should be sharing their expertise with newer comrades.”
“Martin and Anne” (West London) ask: “How is it possible for a party like ours to be smaller after 10 years of political upturn than in the long years of political downturn?” They go on: “We are dogged with the twin problems of weak organisation on the ground on the one hand and strong hierarchical tendencies on the other .... The rank and file have openly been called ‘foot soldiers’ and treated with condescension and/or contempt by our ‘officers’. If the ‘officers’ do attend the odd branch meetings it is in the manner of visiting royalty.”
As for the ‘revolving door membership, “It is painful to see a new comrade enthusiastically proclaim that at long last they have found their political home, only to become disillusioned, say the opposite, reject the party and leave, sometimes just months later” (No1).
Sophie from Kent is another one who complains about “hierarchical tendencies”. She writes: “Too often people who are revolutionary come into the party and get their gusto and zeal for revolutionary ways knocked out of them because they must look up to and defend the respected ones ...
“There have been times when the bureaucracy within the party has been used to quell legitimate complaints and also to counter revolutionary criticisms from comrades in order that the hierarchical structure and order be maintained” (No1). She fails to provide any examples, however.
For its part, the CC merely notes: “The party has benefited from the changes introduced after the report of the democracy commission. The party is more united” (No1). I suppose it is bound to be “more united” following the walkout of its only organised oppositional grouping, but the CC does not elaborate on how “democracy” has been enhanced.
John (Home Counties) focuses on one area where formal democracy has long been usurped by bureaucratic manipulation: party council, the delegate body that meets between conferences. Whereas, according to the SWP constitution, party council “has powers to take decisions on matters of general policy binding on the CC”, the reality is that, like the pre-conference aggregate and conference itself, it has become a “mini-rally” (No3).
Apart from the one or two exceptions that I have mentioned, the healthy contest between competing ideas is almost completely lacking. The bureaucratic control of the leadership means that the CC is virtually unchallenged and the comments of people like Andy and Kieran or Martin and Anne appear more like ineffective sniping.
In the absence of either internal democracy, accountability or a consistent Marxist political approach, how can the leadership of a programmeless SWP persuade the members that they belong to an organisation that is both militant and principled?
The answer lies in a posturing ‘socialist morality’ and placing responsibility for it exclusively in the sphere of the individual. There are two illustrations of this in the bulletins concerning the example socialists are supposed to set in their attitude to two specific circumstances: voluntary redundancies and the role of supervisors.
In connection with voluntary redundancy (VR), the CC declares: “We are against all redundancies. We think that a VR is a job lost. These aren’t our jobs to sell and we should ‘fight for every job’. No SWP member can take a VR. There may be cases where there are extenuating circumstances. But any decision can only be made in conjunction with the industrial department and/or the CC. If there is no consultation with the SWP, disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who takes a VR” (No2).
Alan (South London) gives an example of what this means in practice in IB No3. He talks about a “distant party member” who was a “strong union activist” and a former rep: “... they were suffering a nasty mix of ongoing victimisation by bullying and harassment; with a long-term, work-related personal injury to boot. So, not surprisingly, they were considering taking a life-changing opportunity that the substantial payout offered ... I said they couldn’t because they were a socialist ... in truth I felt like a right shit.” That’s because you were behaving like one, Alan.
The CC decrees a similar blanket ban on SWP members ever taking up any role that might be considered supervisory or managerial, irrespective of the circumstances. Foremen and supervisors “are directly involved in enforcing harsher working conditions and discipline and are often the ones responsible for firing workers ... You don’t become a foreman - to do so means you have crossed the line” (No3).
Admittedly, in some workplaces “there has been a blurring of the lines between management and worker.” So, “where you find yourself in a supervisory role you must not discipline your fellow workers or report them to managers”. The last instruction is fine as a general rule, but it surely contradicts the edict that simply taking on a supervisory role “means you have crossed the line”.
In any case this ignores the fact that there has been a whole history of supervisors and managers, especially in the lower tiers, acting like proletarians and taking militant action to advance their interest as employees - as people who sell their labour-power, in other words - against the capitalists and the state.
The leadership also ties itself in knots over the question, “Should socialists stand for union positions?” In relation to the role of shop stewards and the like, the answer is a clear-cut ‘yes’. But when it comes to full-time positions, this is a source of much agonising. On the one hand, full-timers risk being sucked into the bureaucracy; on the other, most SWP members of union executives have served the members well. The CC admits that this is a tactical question, “not one of principle”, but still feels the necessity to issue rather prescriptive guidelines: “Where possible, comrades should not take more than 50% facility time. It is important to try and maintain a connection with the shop floor.” In fairness the leadership does stress the centrality of accountability to ‘the party’, however (No3).
Lack of space means I am unable to comment on other interesting features of the bulletins, including the information that “In line with this general approach [of helping to reconstruct the international left in some rather ill-defined ‘new circumstances’], the SWP has also re-established normal relations with the International Socialist Organization ... in the United States.” The ISO had been expelled from the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency for its failure to adhere to the SWP line on the ‘new social movements’, so it seems that this was not such a question of principle after all.
Finally I will leave you with two central committee gems:
“The BNP and EDL have consistently denied any connection between their organisations. But this mutual disavowal hides the very deep links that lie between them. The development of the EDL took place in the context of last year’s European elections, which saw the BNP poll nearly a million votes ... Many of the people who organise the EDL are current or former EDL members” (No1).
“... in Respect ... revolutionaries and reformists were able to work together to build a principled alternative to New Labour’s neoliberalism and imperialism” (No3) l