SWP crisis: Opposition emboldened as demand for recall grows
The leadership can no longer lead - but a positive outcome to the crisis requires more than the removal of the entire CC, argues Paul Demarty
The Socialist Workers Party has been waiting a long time for a revolutionary situation. On some occasions, as with the fatuous ‘All out, stay out’ slogan it advanced to striking public sector workers last winter, it has tried, with dismal results, to force one - or delude itself into thinking there is one. Now, it has got one. But there is only one catch - it is not Britain that has been plunged into such a crisis, but the SWP itself.
I am only half being ironic here. Lenin famously defined a revolutionary situation as one in which the rulers cannot rule in the old way, and the oppressed will not be ruled in the old way. While the outcome of this brouhaha cannot be foretold, there is no denying that Britain’s largest (for now) revolutionary organisation is in chaos. The leadership is defensive and rudderless; and, for once, there is open and militant rebellion against them.
It is not hard to see why. The last week has been utterly calamitous for the SWP’s ruling clique. The release, on Andy Newman’s blog, of the now infamous transcript of the disputes committee report and debate at conference was already bad enough. An appalling misstep such as this absurd investigation into rape charges might have been manageable, had the whole thing been kept out of public view. Now, every SWPer from Aberdeen to Cornwall knows what went on - and so do all the people they have to work with in trade unions, on campuses and in other left groups.
Yet it was the Weekly Worker’s publication of Tom Walker’s resignation letter which exploded the situation. Two days later, the story merited a full page in The Independent, an entry on Laurie Penny’s New Statesman blog, and even the mockery of the Daily Mail. While comrade Walker effectively urged others to follow his example and resign, his article seems to have had the opposite effect (the best proof that it was the wrong advice). SWPers now feel emboldened to come out openly and criticise the leadership, daring Charlie Kimber, Alex Callinicos and their creatures on the central committee to expel them.
Penny’s article quoted the novelist China Miéville, for a start. “The way [the] allegations were dealt with ... was appalling. It’s a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’.” He also pointed out that “many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit”.1 Not as openly as this, comrade ...
Tomb of the infuriated
Compared to Richard Seymour, the man with whom he has previously teamed up as a democratic dissident, Miéville is positively bashful over this whole affair. Comrade Seymour - who runs the prominent Lenin’s Tomb blog, and now writes for The Guardian - followed up on Laurie Penny’s piece with an absolutely scathing run-down of ‘the story so far’, of the incompetent and shameful attempt at a cover-up and efforts to bully people back into line.
“[The CC] tell members to get on with focusing on ‘the real world’,” he writes. “In the real world, this is a scandal. And we, those who fought on this, told them it would be. We warned them that it would not just be a few sectarian blogs attacking us. We warned them that after we had rightly criticised George Galloway over his absurd remarks about rape, and after a year of stories about sexual abuse, and after more than a year of feminist revival, this was a suicidal posture, not just a disgusting, sickening one.”
He concludes with a call for resistance a great deal more convincing, in its own restricted sphere, than any of the canned rhetoric in the last decade of Socialist Worker: “The future of the party is at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms, and don’t simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled at conference. You must fight now.”2
The CC’s response, meanwhile, was pitiful; initially a strictly internal publication, its comment to members was quickly and inevitably leaked to Harry’s Place, and eventually - and grudgingly - put up on the SWP’s own website.3 “We took allegations against a leading member of the party very seriously,” Charlie Kimber pleads; “far from being a cover-up, this sort of open discussion [of the DC report at conference] shows that our procedures and elected bodies are accountable to our membership,” he insists.
In short, it was a repackaged version of the same bullshit that the CC has pushed throughout this affair. Seymour certainly was not fooled; if anything, his reply made his opening salvo look restrained:
“I urge people to stay, and to fight. But one hardly blames those who have had enough of the Kafkaesque nightmare, enough of listening to people spout demented gibberish in meetings and aggregates, enough of hearing the same lies repeated, enough of wildly tenuous historical analogies, enough of cheap Realpolitik passed off as wisdom. How many times can you hear, ‘Well, I was at a paper sale this morning, and no-one mentioned it’, before you start thinking of having people sectioned?”4
Others have now followed the comrades’ lead, and made public their own opposition to the CC. Nathan Akehurst posted a somewhat milder criticism on his blog5; Emma Rock and Ian Llewellyn added their thoughts to Lenin’s Tomb, which has now been thrown open as a platform for dissident SWP members. A new blog has turned up, under the banner of the ‘SWP Opposition’,6 with an open letter to SWP comrades, which we republish here, demanding a “focus on the political implications and challenges ahead for our party and more widely for the movement and our class”. Others have been sounding off, openly and anonymously, on Facebook, on comment threads and wherever else they feel confident to do so.
The remarkable thing, of course, is that they do feel confident to do so. Barely a month ago, the notion that the internet would be full of SWPers demanding a recall conference and the sacking of the entire central committee - many under their own names - looked pretty fanciful. Yet here we are. And underlying this fact is that ‘the rulers cannot go on in the old way’.
For the first time in decades, the initiative in the SWP has not been with the CC; they have surrendered it spectacularly, wildly underestimating the significance of the knife-edge vote on the DC report, the 11th-hour split in their own ranks and the level of anger that exists over this affair. Having spent years ensuring that an open rebellion could simply never happen, they are utterly at sea now that it has.
They are in something of an impossible position. Comrades Seymour and Miéville are the best exemplars of it; they are both assets to the SWP, with public profiles that lend it some credibility among broader layers of progressive-minded people. Given their notability, and given that this scandal has now reached the bourgeois media, the leadership clique shrinks from expelling them. But because these two get away with it, all opponents in the SWP are emboldened to speak up.
The gravity of the situation should not be overstated. This ‘revolutionary’ crisis is a moment, which still needs to be seized by the opposition. The possibility very much exists for the CC to regain the initiative; it cannot be expected to keep piling mistake upon disaster upon calamity.
There is also an element of ‘confirmation bias’ of which we should be wary - an SWP member calling for the blood of Charlie Kimber is much more noticeable than one who has, indeed, been cowed into submission. Still, there are certainly a great many more in opposition than are visibly complaining on the blogs, with entire branches dominated by people who want the CC out.
The demands that have been thrown up in the course of the rebellion are generally positive - and, more encouragingly, they are marked by an absolutely correct sense that this is the moment that a fight can be won.
The great unifying demand is to recall conference, which appears everywhere; it goes without saying that simply petitioning the CC to call one will not get too far, given that a central purpose of such a conference for many delegates would be to turf it out en masse. Within (broadly) the SWP’s constitution, oppositionists ought to fight for the national committee to call one (though it appears to be packed with loyalists). They are fighting in the branches for a motion to recall conference - for which they would need 20% of branches to sign up. That could be a stepping stone to a full conference. The NC, of course, has up to now never been more than a way for branch delegates to be cajoled into rubber-stamping the latest inane CC diktats - but then, the Paris Commune was merely a mundane bourgeois local authority before 1871.
These are technical questions. The fact that they have been linked - by comrades Seymour, Rock, Miéville, and countless anonymous commenters - to the question of the party regime as a whole is positive and necessary. Seymour suggests “creating more pluralistic party structures, ending the ban on factions outside of conference season and rethinking the way elections take place”; and indeed he and Miéville have repeatedly called for year-round discussion bulletins and other democratic reforms.
The sentiment is present elsewhere, although often in more diffuse forms. Emma Rock: “All party forums should be more than just talking shops and should have real teeth to implement new ideas. Likewise ideology and the development of our political position should not be left to a handful of theorists, but should be engaged in by every comrade in every branch. We should become a true hub for the development of new ideas, and not be left lagging behind groups such as UK Uncut or Occupy.”7
We will leave aside the last phrase, and simply point out that, surely, any revolutionary organisation should seek to arm its militants with theory, to become a ‘hub of ideas’, that its forums should not be talking shops. The SWP has increasingly had the opposite character, however, and simply a correct diagnosis of this problem is an advance.
Root and branch
The gaping hole in all this is political criticism of the SWP’s direction. The dissidents have all set themselves up as ‘defenders of the IS tradition’ against a leadership which has somehow perverted it. This is ultimately wrong-headed. That tradition is thoroughly implicated in all aspects of this disaster, and will have to be dealt with to avoid a repeat - even if the rebellion is successful on its own terms.
A pertinent demonstration is the ‘women’s question’, which is most directly posed by the form the crisis has taken. Most participants - leadership and opposition - have taken pains to stress the ‘proud tradition’ of the SWP in fighting women’s oppression. In fact, it is anything but, as Dave Isaacson makes clear elsewhere in this paper; the SWP’s history on this question is a series of flip-flops, according to the political exigencies of the leadership in particular contexts.
Yet this is exactly the approach you would expect on the basis of Tony Cliff’s reading of Lenin - the leader with the ‘good nose’, who could sniff the air and reorient the party overnight; the leader unafraid to ‘bend the stick’ to keep his troops on the straight and narrow, to make wrenching theoretical turns. This conception of political leadership results necessarily in wild political reverses; but, more to the point, it leads to unaccountable leadership.
The major form this has taken is the alternate accommodation to and anathematisation of feminism. The emergence of the IS and then the SWP as a significant force on the revolutionary left is coterminous with the emergence of second-wave feminism, which (thanks as much to the heady political context as anything internal to it) frequently took on a left tilt, and attempted to articulate itself as socialist in some way.
Yet this is, in a sense, perverse. The Communist manifesto itself calls for women’s liberation. International women’s day started out as a movement of working class women against feminism, and it was the workers movement which made it an international phenomenon (that movement has now been colonised - and that is the word - by feminism). The history of our movement is peppered with women (and men) who have made radical, even at times wildly utopian, proposals for ending women’s oppression and exploitation, explicitly tying it into the socialist project as an integral and inseparable part, and equally decrying feminism every step of the way. If this tradition had not been buried, second-wave feminism would have been dead on arrival.
What intervened was, broadly, Stalinism - the retreat from women’s liberation by the Soviet regime in the late 1920s and onwards; the accommodation by Stalinist parties in the west to trade union sectionalism, and corresponding development of a sexist internal culture and philistine political attitude to women. Similar maladies afflicted many of the Trotskyist groups - including, until the launch of Women’s Voice, the IS/SWP.
‘Feminism’ today does not mean the same thing as it did when Zetkin, Kollontai and the others were attacking it. But the fact that many SWP members are happy to self-describe as ‘feminist’ is ultimately a function of the failure of the IS tradition to live up to its billing. This tradition, after all, is the armour that supposedly protected the SWP from all the depredations of Stalinism, uniquely on the far left. Yet its utter confusion on the question of feminism is a direct result of its failure to do so. The thoroughly and obviously Stalinist handling of the recent furore is another index of that failure, and it is hardly a novelty, as generations of ex-SWPers will readily attest.
The present crisis in the SWP is, in fact, a result of the secular decay of its political tradition. Very well; we are all, in this period of reaction, products of decades of entropy. This paper derives from a rebellion against ‘official communism’. There is no reason the SWP could not buck the trend - but the obstacles do not end at the current CC: they include the political tradition and method they claim, with some justice, to defend. A revolution in the SWP, like any revolution, will have to involve more than a change of personnel.