SWP:Apparatus gears up for war
This weekends national committee meeting looks set to trigger a showdown, writes Peter Manson
The Socialist Workers Party leadership appears ready to launch an all-out offensive against the democratic opposition at this weekend’s meeting of the SWP national committee.
Up to now the self-perpetuating central committee has held back from taking disciplinary action against members involved in opposition blogs, not least the two-week-old International Socialism site headed by Guardian writer Richard Seymour and regularly featuring science fiction author China Miéville. This temporary CC tolerance stands in marked contrast to the treatment meted out to four comrades involved in a Facebook discussion late last year, who were summarily expelled by email simply for exchanging ideas outside official structures and thereby forming a “secret faction”.
But there can be no remaining doubt that the International Socialism comrades do indeed constitute a faction - and, of course, factions are banned in the SWP outside the three-month period leading up to the annual conference in January each year. On January 29 what can only be described as a factional statement was issued by 19 SWP members, including comrades Seymour, Miéville and Scottish historian Neil Davidson.1
But now the CC could well use the February 3 meeting of the 50-strong national committee to clamp down on open dissent. The NC was elected at the January 4-6 conference and, although I recognise five names that could be considered critics of one sort or another, it consists overwhelmingly of comrades who are known for their loyalism. Of course, following the crisis sparked by the CC’s treatment of the rape allegation levelled against former national secretary Martin Smith (‘comrade Delta’), no-one can be regarded as a 100% loyalist any more - there are signs of wobbling everywhere.
As readers will know, oppositionists have been campaigning for conference to be recalled in view of the furore that has erupted. According to the SWP constitution, “A special conference may be called by the central committee or at the request of 20% of the branches. The decisions of a special conference are as binding as those of annual conference.” Oppositionists believe there are 93 SWP branches and the CC has apparently confirmed that the trigger for a special conference is therefore 19. As I write, a total of eight branches have so far passed motions demanding a recall - together with 13 Socialist Worker Student Society groups, which do not have branch status. A further eight branches have passed critical motions that have stopped short of calling for a new conference.
But these are still early days and oppositionists are confident that many more branches can be won to the campaign in a relatively short time. No doubt that is why the CC has imposed an arbitrary deadline of February 1 - allegedly in order give the NC time to distribute such motions before it meets. In the internal Party Notes issued on January 21, the CC announced: “After consultation with the chair of the conference arrangements committee, any motions for a recall conference have to be in by 5pm on Friday February 1. This is to make the NC aware of them.” What has the conference arrangements committee got to do with it? Either there are enough branch motions or there are not. In reality, of course, the hope is to cut short the momentum for a recall. In the words of Party Notes, “We are not going to overturn the decisions made two weeks ago by a very open conference, the highest level of our democracy.”
However, oppositionists have pointed out that there is no such deadline stipulated in the constitution. According to comrade Seymour, “We admit that the NC must be made aware of motions for a special conference passed by branches. But it can just as well be made aware on February 2, or February 28, or March 12, or any other date on which a branch chooses to pass such a motion.”2
No doubt taking this into account, the CC amended its deadline statement in the following Party Notes (January 28): “After consultation with the chair of the conference arrangements committee, any motions for an immediate conference (which has been demanded by some motions) have to be in by 5pm on Friday February 1. This does not affect any branch’s rights” (my emphasis).
I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies, but what exactly does the CC mean? If there are fewer than 19 branch motions, are Charlie Kimber et al implying that the call for an “immediate conference” will therefore fall and any further campaign will have to start from scratch?
Comrade Seymour correctly points out:
“The purpose of this is to use the national committee meeting as the base from which to attack the growing opposition among members, and end the dispute on the CC’s terms. Those terms, made clear in Party Notes, are very simple. The central committee will stand by its train wreck of a strategy, and insist that the party endorse its indefensible position, even to the point of destroying the party’s ability to be the effective, ‘interventionist’ force that the leadership claims to defend. There isn’t even any sign of a minimal gesture, such as removing ‘comrade Delta’ from party work - quite the opposite. Clueless and vindictive, they acknowledge no crisis, register none of the damage being done to the party’s work, and offer no sensible lead.”3
As comrade Seymour says, “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.” But it was followed this week by the circulation to all SWP members of an unbelievably inept Socialist Review article written by the CC’s main theoretician, Alex Callinicos (see opposite). Again the timing is unmistakable. The February 3 NC meeting is intended to ‘draw a line’ against all this ‘factionalising’ and put a stop to all opposition calls for democracy and accountability.
But what of the CC claim that the opposition wants to “overturn the decisions made two weeks ago by a very open conference, the highest level of our democracy”? This is false on several counts. First of all, the CC always does everything in its power in the run-up to conference to ensure that the event is stage-managed and that it will retain full control. Of course, this year it badly miscalculated when it tried to divert criticism over ‘comrade Delta’ through a special session at conference on the disputes committee handling of the case. It totally underestimated the outrage felt over the fact that the accused was ‘tried’ on such a serious charge by current and former members of the central committee - in the words of former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker, a “jury of his mates”.4
So this year not everything went to plan, despite all the usual ruses, such as mobilising to ensure by fair means or foul that oppositionists are not elected as delegates at pre-conference district aggregates; expelling four comrades who might have been able to influence delegates; withholding rights from the two officially recognised pre-conference factions, preventing their comrades from speaking at both aggregates and conference itself; denying members full information before and during conference about the central issue in dispute.
The idea is to put on a show of ‘democracy’ and ‘unity’ through the exclusion of dissent in order to keep the bulk of members on board. In this way, the CC is given a free hand to decide everything, while conference provides it with the near-unanimous rubber stamp. Fortunately, however, large numbers of SWP comrades have at last begun to see through this charade, as epitomised by comrade Seymour, who writes:
“According to the theory, conference discusses and decides (democracy) and then comrades, including those who opposed the agreed position, carry out the decisions (centralism). Fine: but what does conference actually decide? It is presented with a series of general perspective documents which are usually so bland and platitudinous that it is virtually impossible to disagree with them: the economic crisis is not going to be resolved, times are hard, but there are also opportunities, we must not be complacent over the threat of fascism, and so on. To agree with this kind of statement is not to make a decision over strategy or tactics, or anything specific enough for the CC to be held to account. The real decisions about actual policy - to establish united fronts, to join electoral coalitions - are almost always made by the CC itself between conferences, with conference asked to ratify them after the event.”
While I would not go along with the idea that it is “impossible to disagree” with CC perspective documents - they usually contain large elements that are dubious, to say the least - nevertheless such a recognition of the disastrous SWP method represents a big advance (perhaps one should resist the temptation to say, ‘Better late than never’).
The truth is that the CC, despite its increasingly desperate efforts, is losing every last shred of credibility - in the eyes of its own members, in the eyes of those who are normally regarded as SWP allies, but who are now tackling members about the ‘Sexist Workers Party’, and in the eyes of former co-thinkers abroad. The US International Socialist Organization, which was once part of the SWP’s ‘international’, has decided to end its discreet public silence: “Any bureaucratic measures to ban discussion of the biggest crisis the SWP has ever faced, including wholesale expulsions, will not end the crisis,” it writes. “The outside world will only be more firmly convinced that this is a cover-up in an undemocratic and sexist organisation.”5
Again, one does not have to agree that the problem is SWP ‘sexism’ - in my view it is not: the problem is its appalling, opportunist contempt for working class democracy, as comrades like Richard Seymour are now beginning to identify, and - very much connected to this - its programmeless opportunism. But will the CC listen to the voices of those who clearly desire a positive outcome in the shape of a healthier SWP? History tells us that it will not.
In view of the avalanche of criticism it has faced, the leadership has so far held its fire and there has been a kind of phoney war. No doubt it wants to reassert its control at the least possible cost to itself in terms of membership losses and influence over its periphery. But the signs are that it is now ready to act against the ‘factionalists’ - perhaps irrespective of the cost.
But the opposition should not lose heart. Comrades like Richard Seymour and China Miéville could still play an important role from outside if they are expelled, but, more importantly, others must be ready to step into their shoes. Branches and SWSS groups must continue to agitate around the key demand for a special conference. They must make no bones about the immediate decisions that such a conference should take:
- Recall the central committee and elect a national committee that includes all important SWP trends.
- The CC must be answerable to and recallable by an NC armed with real powers.
- Remove the ban on permanent factions - allow all members to freely associate and organise.
- Rescind all expulsions and suspensions of oppositionists.
- Open up Socialist Worker to the entire membership to facilitate full and frank public debate.
- Approach other communist and revolutionary socialist forces with a view to unity talks.
Contrary to what the CC pretends to believe, such measures would put the establishment of a real Marxist party, based on genuine democratic centralism, firmly on the agenda.
2. ‘Reply to Party Notes’: http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/reply-to-party-notes.html.
3 . ‘Reply to Party Notes’: http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/reply-to-party-notes.html.
4. ‘Why I am resigning’ Weekly Worker January 10.