SWP: No return to normal

The fight for democracy and accountability in the SWP is gaining ground, reports Ben Lewis

A week can be a long time in politics. Since the Weekly Worker went to press last week, the unfolding factional struggle in the Socialist Workers Party has gathered more momentum: a genuine opposition blog has been established, more and more activists have publicly spoken out, and controversy is breaking out in branch meetings up and down the country.

The opposition’s decision to create the International Socialism blog,1 which was launched on January 20, is a timely step forward. Despite being in existence for just five days, it has provided an outlet for oppositional articles (at the time of writing 15 in all) and helped to fan the flames of dissent - much to the consternation of the leadership. Moreover, in comparison to the previous, rather mysterious SWP Opposition blog, which has now disappeared from the internet altogether, this one bears the stamp of authenticity. Opposition comrades are writing for it under their real names - not least Richard Seymour and China Miéville. This can only help to embolden those beginning to move into opposition and, hopefully, convince those still unsure about whether to take up the fight or not. The blog has become a repository for polemics, oppositional statements, branch model motions, open letters to the central committee and longer pieces on the International Socialist tradition more generally. Hopefully in time it will seek to draw in, and engage with, forces beyond the SWP as well.

Turn off your PC

The SWP central committee’s reaction to this blog - ‘Don’t waste time on your computer’ - has been as pathetic as it has been predictable. After all, the Cliffite ‘tradition’ hardly has a glowing record when it comes to the internet, which was initially dismissed as “middle class” and therefore inherently elitist. What the SWP leadership has always feared, of course, is what Trotsky described as the “foundation of party democracy”: namely, “timely and complete information, available to all members of the organisation and covering all the important questions of their life and struggle”.2 Like the printing press, and then the photocopier, the internet is the bane of the bureaucrat.

For the SWP leadership, as well as for the leaderships of far too many on today’s left,3 the public discussion of differences on the internet simply cannot be countenanced. So, while “the party” is mired in crisis, while SWP activists across the country are constantly being asked about a controversy that even the Daily Mail has covered, Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos want their minions - sorry, members - to close their eyes and cover their ears. Nothing to see here - go forth and ‘build the party’.

To the extent that they are willing to concede discussion of the crisis in the SWP at all, activists are being told that this should exclusively take place in branches, not online. SWP activists are implored to turn off their computers and step out into the “real world”. In one of the articles on the International Socialism site, comrade ‘Roobin’ calls on SWP members to reject this nonsense: “… don’t hide away in your branch meetings: get out into the real world, where two-thirds of UK citizens are regularly online.”4

As the Weekly Worker has quite rightly insisted, SWP comrades should, of course, kick up a stink in their branch. The ‘model motions’ to recall conference conveniently provided by the International Socialism blog are a very good starting point. But the notion that this thorny matter cannot be discussed on the internet (as if it won’t be anyway!) betrays a distinctly instrumentalist, ‘barracks-room socialism’ mindset on the part of comrades Kimber and Callinicos. Moreover, they seem perfectly happy to use the world wide web when it comes to their own particular factional manoeuvres. In the run-up to the January 4-6 conference, four members were expelled by email (they had committed the heinous crime of exchanging ideas on Facebook).

Another of the new opposition blog’s strengths is that it has been able to quickly and effectively respond to the pitiful, indeed delusional, statements of those like comrade Kimber. Thus the blog features a public rejoinder - hopefully not the last one either - to the most recent internal Party Notes weekly bulletin. In response to the campaign to recall conference in line with the SWP constitution (20% of branches is what it takes) the leadership has insisted on an arbitrary (and, of course, unconstitutional) deadline of February 1 for such branch motions. Richard Seymour’s retort is spot on: “Members have to think fast about how they want to respond to this. This is the first sign of a coordinated response to this crisis by the central committee, and it is a response that aims to bring the membership to heel. And if this is lost, then the party is lost.”5


The oppositional blog is also striking a defiant tone in the face of the leadership’s gerrymandering. As comrade Tomás Ó Tuathail puts it, “What is to be done? Get your motions in to your branch secretary or district organiser, link up with all the comrades you’ve been chatting to on paper sales and after branch meetings who are as pissed off as you are, and make sure they get along to vote to support motions for special conference to sort this shit out.”6

From some of the comments on Facebook and internet discussion blogs, it is also fairly evident that several oppositionists - while looking to work within the (bureaucratic) laws and stipulations of the SWP structures as much as possible - are also quite prepared to break them.

As yet it is difficult to gauge what impact the blog has had. Some ex-members I have spoken to are claiming that between five and 10 different branches have passed conference-recall resolutions. Portsmouth, Liverpool, Hull and Edinburgh are said to be among them. Edinburgh in particular is significant, in that it is the branch to which historian Neil Davidson belongs. Comrade Davidson is a popular and well-known SWPer, and has written a number of articles on the question of party democracy.7

I hear that in some places motions to recall conference have been rejected on bureaucratic grounds by local officials. But oppositionists have not been deterred. I know of one case where the comrades intend to resubmit their motion, suitably reworded, at the next branch meeting: ie, in good time for the leadership’s so-called ‘deadline’.

A Scottish members’ aggregate will take place this weekend, in the run-up to the next national committee meeting on February 1. This aggregate will presumably take a position on the possibility of a recall conference as well. Some are absurdly claiming that the actions of oppositionists can be compared to those of Chris Bambery, who skulked off to form his own pristine splinter, the International Socialist Group, in 2011. In reality the contrast could not be more marked. The mood now is to stay and fight - for democracy and accountability.

Student opposition

The students, as they say, are revolting too - yet not in the way that comrades Kimber et al would like. Leeds Socialist Worker Student Society took the lead in publicly making a statement8 a couple of weeks ago. Since then it has been followed by Sussex SWSS, whose statement is also published on the International Socialism blog.9

Word is that they will be followed by other campus groups by the end of the week. If that is true, then it is not exactly insignificant. After all, the SWP apparatus is notoriously reliant on the day-to-day legwork of its student members, and it will be looking to cling onto this base as much as possible.

And it is often these sincere and dedicated student comrades who are at the sharp end of the SWP’s view of politics, where activism is everything. After all, students generally have more time to sell papers and sign up the new recruits on whom the party machine is so dependent.

Yet, unless they organise it on their own initiative, many student activists, even leading ones, receive painfully little by way of political education. SWSS meetings - like those of SWP branches - are designed to restrict the time and space necessary to process and grasp complex ideas. After all, there are Unite Against Fascism leaflets to give out on Saturday, right? And it’s the leadership’s job to develop the ideas, isn’t it? Those that even faintly challenge the latest wisdom of the full-timer or the invited speaker, especially if they happen to originate elsewhere, are regarded by the machine with utter disdain and contempt.

Those who wish to see our class organised into a Marxist party worthy of the name must play our part as well. We cannot allow dedicated activists to dejectedly turn away from Marxist politics towards well-meaning but blind activism, identity politics or an amorphous ‘anti-capitalism’. To paraphrase China Miéville, combating the “terrible situation” in the SWP (and, one might add, on the far left more generally) “does not mean diluting our Marxism: it should mean invigorating it”.10



1. http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk.

2. Quoted at www.workersliberty.org/swpdemocracy.

3. For a brief overview, see B Lewis, ‘Rebellion, regroupment and the party we needWeekly Worker January 17.

4. Roobin, ‘Comrades need to stop complaining on the internet and bring their concerns to branch meetings ...’ (http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/comrades-need-to-stop-complaining-on.html).

5. R Seymour, ‘Reply to party notes’ (http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/reply-to-party-notes.html).

6. T O Tuathail, ‘Sample motions calling for special conference’ (http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/sample-motions-calling-for-special.html).

7. N Davidson, ‘Leadership, membership and democracy in the revolutionary party’ (http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/leadership-membership-and-democracy-in.html). Back then, in 2011, the Weekly Worker welcomed the discussion of democracy in the SWP: see P Manson, ‘Signs of an awakeningWeekly Worker December 22 2011.

8. Statement available at http://grumpyoldtrot.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/swp-leeds-university-swss-statement.

9. http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/sussex-swss-open-letter-to-central.html.

10. C Miéville, ‘The stakes’ (www.leninology.com/2013/01/the-stakes.html?m=1).