Apparatus preparing to hit back

CPGB aggregate: Seeking a positive outcome

Michael Copestake reports on the January 26 meeting of CPGB members, where the SWP crisis dominated the agenda

The perhaps unsurprising topic under discussion at the CPGB members aggregate in London was the ongoing crisis in the Socialist Workers Party.

Introducing the session was John Bridge, who began by expressing his view that the present level of the crisis was, in a sense, actually quite unexpected. The SWP’s pre-conference period at the end of 2012 had seemed to be going the way of just about every other SWP pre-conference period in recent times. The usual dissident suspects appeared in the Internal Bulletins - they had not got very far every other year, so why would this one be any different? The wheel was sleepily turning in its usual fashion, and then - an explosion, at the centre of which was the controversy around ‘Comrade Delta’, former national secretary Martin Smith, and the disputes committee hearing into allegations of rape. Into the mix was thrown the expulsion of the ‘Facebook four’ on trumped-up charges of ‘factionalism’ before conference.

Comrade Bridge stressed that in spite of the fact that delegates had turned up to the January 4-6 conference only half-informed as to the case of Delta and its handling by the central committee and DC, the vote only went the way the bureaucracy wanted by the narrowest of margins - 22 votes (and there were 18 abstentions). Delegates went to conference as loyal SWP members and in many cases returned to their branches as oppositionists.

The roots of the present crisis, the comrade said, lie not in ‘macho culture’ or ‘sexism’, but in what the CPGB and its forerunner, the Leninist faction, have been emphasising for years now: the bureaucratic centralism, programmelessness and economism which fosters an instrumentalist view of ordinary members by the SWP apparatus. Even the members of the ‘official’ CPGB got to elect their district full-timers, he stressed, who had to develop a relationship with the members they represented and keep their respect. This is why it is excellent, he went on, that the leading edge of the democratic opposition has drawn the focus of the debate onto wider democratic questions rather than just the appalling mishandling of the Delta case.

The only people who do not seem to have grasped that something has gone terribly wrong in the organisation are those same ultra-loyalists who thought that the debate and the information around it should be restricted in the first place (chair Karen Reissman, in closing the conference debate on the DC handling of the case, requested that delegates give nothing more than a short and vague outline of the session to their comrades in their report-backs) and who continued to believe that even after the explosion it could somehow still be ignored or contained.

All this boils down, comrade Bridge went on, to a crisis of perspectives for the SWP - a crisis which itself is part of the wider ongoing crisis of the far left as a whole. As with the ‘official’ CPGB or the Scottish Socialist Party, this could end very badly, resulting in a further diminution of our forces and deepening disillusionment. The organisation could effectively die, even though a husk bearing the name could continue into some kind of afterlife. He pointed to the small grouping going under the brand of ‘Workers Revolutionary Party’, but no-one doubts that in reality the WRP is dead.

Could the SWP be heading the same way? Comrade Bridge hoped not, but, unless there was a revolution within the SWP, he feared the worse. In his opinion, the more SWP oppositionists who name themselves in public, the better. That would embolden others, who would see that they are not alone. So far the most prominent who have come out remain Richard Seymour and China Miéville.

Comrade Bridge noted that the 50-strong SWP national committee that was elected at the conference appears to be loyalist-dominated, but this is somewhat speculative in view of the change that has taken place. In any case, it is highly unlikely that the present CC remains representative of the views of the membership. But we can probably expect some kind of ultimatum to the opposition coming out of the February 3 NC meeting - national secretary Charlie Kimber’s has issued an utterly arbitrary bureaucratic deadline of February 1 for the submission of branch resolutions demanding the recall of conference. That and/or expulsions, either in salami slices with bogus ‘concessions’, or simply en masse.

Mass expulsions have happened before in SWP history, he reminded those present. Tony Cliff was willing to butcher his own organisation repeatedly in order to retain control. The influential Women’s Voice, the SWP’s ‘answer’ to feminism, was closed down in 1982, and the leadership has had no hesitation in taking the axe to various rank-and-file union groupings if it felt they had got out of control. All those who opposed the CC were simply expelled. Kimber, and many others in the SWP leadership, are of that school of thought, emphasised comrade Bridge. Thus the failure of the opposition to fight as hard as it can here and now would mean the likelihood of defeat.

In order to get a special conference 20% of branches have to pass motions demanding such. But, wondered comrade Bridge, is the information on the official number of branches available to every SWP member, or is it the private property of the CC? Could the CC just simply ‘create’ more branches if it wished? In any case, any conference is likely to be ‘managed’, should the CC permit one to happen. But the opposition should not wait for the CC’s permission if this is not forthcoming, he added. They should call the special conference themselves in that case. But that would amount to a de facto split, which is why the opposition must reach out to others on the left. The CC will not - cannot - indefinitely tolerate this outbreak of free thought and demands for the democratisation of the SWP’s internal life.


In the debate that followed, Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson stated that, while it is excellent that at last SWP comrades are echoing the paper’s own criticism of the organisation’s bureaucratic centralism, he was pessimistic as to the likely outcome, simply because the opposition has yet to demonstrate an alternative politics to that of the opportunist leadership. This was illustrated by the fact that the CC’s dismal perspectives documents were overwhelmingly passed at what was otherwise a relatively contentious conference.

I disagreed. It was hardly to be expected that an opposition would immediately emerge with a fully formed alternative politics. In my view the democratic questions had to be settled before a proper reassessment of the SWP’s broader politics could take place - and in fact such a reassessment was in evidence in some of the critiques produced in the recent period.

James Turley stated that despite the possibility that the CC will try to ‘smear’ opponents as being ‘tools of the CPGB’ we should continue to be open in our support for the opposition - Tom Walker, though now ex-SWP, chose to use the Weekly Worker as the platform for his resignation statement for a reason. He said that if, as we have seen, comrades who had previously been regarded as CC hacks can bring themselves to go over to the opposition, then there is indeed hope for the SWP as a whole. If someone like a Choonara or a Bergfeld were to openly do so - not an impossibility, he thought - then that could be a “game-changer”.

For Sarah McDonald it was apparent that the CC does not want to expel prominent members like China Miéville and Richard Seymour, as they bring the group influence and recognition beyond its social weight. If they had been ‘ordinary’ members, they would have been expelled in a flash. She agreed with others that the problem for the SWP was not its ‘macho culture’. Her experience in the Scottish Socialist Party told her that anyone who dared to voice strong views or dissent was castigated as behaving in a ‘macho’ fashion, and that the term can be abused to close down the expression of differences - which nonetheless bubbled with even greater animation under the surface as a result. She noted that the SWP has plenty of female hacks.

In Tina Becker’s view the SWP leadership is presently paralysed, but that when it does move it will be to initiate expulsions. Part of its weakness, in her view, is that the only ‘big gun’ from the old days left on the CC is Alex Callinicos. She agreed with James Turley that we can take some pride for both the fact that Tom Walker came to us with his statement and the fact that in the arguments of the oppositionists we do hear strong echoes of what the CPGB has been agitating around for some time now.

Comrade Farzad was strongly of the belief that you cannot build a party around ‘fighting sexism’, that the failings of the DC in the case of comrade Delta were not due to the SWP failing to combat sexism. The root cause is the lack of democracy and the absence of any viable perspectives - a weakness which at the present moment also effects the emerging opposition. If the opposition does not have its own perspectives, perhaps the CPGB needed to put more emphasis on the question of programme in our interventions. She added that the disintegration of the SWP would be a disaster. Looking at the broader picture, comrade Farzad said that, despite the many reasons to be pessimistic, we must remind ourselves that, for example, the USSR is gone and that no-one seriously thinks that China is socialist, so we are at least free of burdens that previously hampered the development of a strong, democratic Marxist left.

Mike Macnair began by saying that, although we had not seen this specific moment of crisis coming, the CPGB had been saying for some time that a crisis of some kind was inevitable in the SWP, given its organisation model and opportunist politics. In relation to other comrades’ comments on the opposition’s upholding of the ‘IS tradition’, he explained that the particular version of that tradition which appealed to them was the established model of the International Socialists/SWP prior to its ‘Bolshevisation’ by Tony Cliff in the mid-70s.

He noted that some SWP comrades may not have been happy about the organisation being ‘Bolshevised’, but that they stuck it out because at first they could point to an increased membership, then to the success of the Anti-Nazi League and later the anti-war movement - all of which have disappeared, leaving various competing forms of nostalgia for the popular fronts of the past.

On the supposed three main planks of IS tradition - the state-capitalist theory of the USSR, the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution - the comrade noted that, in practice, Callinicos and the CC do not feel overly obliged to defend them. In reality all that is left that differentiates the SWP is the ban on factions and the bureaucratic ‘interventionist’ leadership.

The main issue, continued comrade Macnair, is the need for the SWP to break with the 1968 ‘New Left’ paradigm: ie, the road to social revolution allegedly being based on the initiative of the SWP leadership in catching onto some hot, new, passing social movement, which justified empowering the CC at the expense of the membership. That the opposition still seem trapped within this exhausted political framework is a big potential problem.

Illuminating the workings of bourgeois justice, the comrade noted that, contrary to some popular television programmes, 90% of all convictions are based on confessions, not forensic evidence per se. The police can hold and question people until they confess. This is a power that any ‘workers tribunal’ set up to investigate crimes in the movement would lack, and at the end of the day we must concur with Lenin when he said that, inevitably, serous matters such as allegations of rape have to go to the courts.

Similarly, Jim Gilbert pointed out that a proper investigation would have looked into the background and past behaviour of those involved. There was an ingrained culture of bullying in the SWP and certain people had been protected and allowed to continue in their ways for many years by others in the hierarchy.

Responding to the discussion, John Bridge commented that it was highly unlikely that the opposition will immediately come out with what we would regard as excellent politics, and that so far we have seen a mix of the very good and advanced in some parts, and the pretty bad in others. He suggested that the opposition itself probably understands that it is unlikely to be able to win at a conference, and that this is why it must reach out to others on the left. Comrade Bridge affirmed that CPGB is correct to try and intervene in the debate about programme - for example, in advocating a Marxist party, as against the Syriza-type organisation that Richard Seymour seems to favour.

In short, CPGB comrades must seek to intervene, including at SWP public meetings in their area, and maintain our emphasis on the need for politics, the need for programme.