Left press and the SWP: The dog that didn’t bark
The silence of significant sections of the left on the Socialist Workers Party crisis is a symptom of sectarianism, argues Paul Demarty
Adam Smith famously observed: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”1
Something similar has been in place over the last month among those of us whose “trade” is revolutionary socialism. The members of rival left groups, it is true, are no more inclined towards a “conspiracy against the public” - that is, uniting our scattered forces - than usual. But there is one destination a conversation will inevitably reach: the Socialist Workers Party, and its busy progress towards self-annihilation. Some are alarmed; others rubbing their hands with glee. All are fascinated, reading every dissident blog post and marvelling at every inept central committee clampdown with rapt attention.
This reality ‘on the ground’, as it were, is very unevenly reproduced at the level of the left press. Most of the smaller groups have weighed in - Workers Power, Permanent Revolution, Counterfire and others. But the silence from other quarters is deafening.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales is a case in point. It is, broadly, competing for the same people as the SWP. It is jostling for the same union positions (a little more effectively), and the affections of the same union tops; it is the other relatively substantial Trotskyist group in the country and, while it remains smaller than the SWP (although who knows how long that will last?), it fights in broadly the same weight bracket, with a thousand or so members.
In short, it has every interest in the crisis afflicting the SWP. Yet it is entirely absent from its press. The last month’s worth of The Socialist, SPEW’s sleepy weekly, consists of the usual monotonous gabble about resisting the cuts, fighting back against the cuts, and striking against the cuts - not a word is inked on the enormous bust-up which is provoking, at the very least, morbid curiosity on the part of its members and periphery.
SPEW has condescended to comment on the affairs of other groups in the past. Its ‘international’ issued a gloating statement on the matter of a series of splits in the International Marxist Tendency, which split from Militant in the early 90s, taking founder-leader Ted Grant with it.2 The IMT affair was corralled into service as a spurious justification for SPEW’s strategy, which is effectively to build a new Labour Party by breaking trade unions from their affiliation to the existing one.
Surely, something similar could be achieved with reference to the current turmoil in the SWP. It may be a terrible strategy, but at least it is a strategy - something the SWP has been lacking in any recognisable form. There are a few glimmers of awareness of this fact. A pamphlet, from the pen of leader Peter Taaffe, on the SWP at the time of John Rees’s regicide in 2009, became available for free on SPEW’s website on January 14.3 It contains plenty of formulations regarding the SWP’s reputation having been “tarnished” by the Respect disaster. I suppose we are meant to draw our own conclusions. Meanwhile, the rest of the SPEW press will presumably keep shovelling an endless diet of ‘Cuts are bad’ platitudes into our ungrateful mouths.
So it is for the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, the only other group to number more than a few hundred members in the country at present (why any of them bother is a problem that continues to flummox the rest of us). If anything, the matter is more peculiar still with the Yawning Star, self-styled daily “paper of the left”, whose contributors are by no means universally characterised by the decrepit CPB’s Ostalgie.
Yet the only reference to the SWP in the recent period of Star output comes as an incidental aside in a comment piece by left-Green stalwart Derek Wall. Comrade Wall’s main focus is the sorry state of the left, and ways to move forward. Comparing strategic alternatives, he notes that “The cyclical crises of the Socialist Workers Party provide a soap opera for others on the left, which have been used by some to argue that ‘top-down’ Leninist structures are destined to founder. While I am not a Leninist, it hardly seems fair to blame Lenin for the failures of British left parties a century after he wrote.”4 This perfectly reasonable point made, he moves on to defend his membership of the Green Party.
And that’s it - the sum total of everything the Star has to say on the issue.
It is an issue that, need we remind ourselves, has sneaked onto the national news agenda. This Saturday saw a hysterical exposé in the Daily Mail, from which we learnt nothing new - except that now journalists from that toxic rag are doorstepping people involved, including Comrade Delta’s partner. Leveson be damned - SWPers can expect the Christopher Jefferies treatment from here on in, and the indignity of being lectured over women’s rights by the very vanguard of twisted British misogyny. Nick Cohen also contributed a tissue of unsubstantiated tittle-tattle to The Observer (for a man so keen to tout ‘reason’ in his hysterical tirades against reactionary Islam, his actual copy is getting ever more foam-flecked and bonkers).
The subtext of both pieces - actually, not so much the subtext as, well, the text - is guilt by association. The addle-brained shriekers of the Mail and Nick Cohen alike wish to tar all of us on the revolutionary left with misogyny. This is just the sort of thing that we get up to, they argue, we who want to overthrow liberal civilisation, with our millenarian pronouncements and our contempt for ‘bourgeois justice’.
Silence, in this context, is worse than a crime - it is a mistake. It is a mistake made possible by the ingrained sectarianism in leftwing culture. Among those who have commented on the SWP, one occasionally finds evasive comments such as this, from the US International Socialist Organization: “While we are reluctant to comment on the internal affairs of other socialist organisations, the public nature of the controversy - and actions by the SWP leadership that have only exacerbated the crisis - compel us to address the issue.”5
This awkward reluctance speaks to a distinctly proprietorial, bourgeois culture among left organisations. The SWP has for a long time represented the most concentrated and absurd form of this culture itself - it treats other left groups who dare to turn up to its Marxism summer school (which, in a beautiful piece of business-as-usual fantasy, is already being advertised) in much the same way as a country gentleman of the old-fashioned type treats poachers on his land.
It is something held in common with other groups, however. The Socialist Party’s insistence on maintaining its own front groups on the basis of tactical shibboleths, as opposed to united campaigns with others, is one expression. The increasingly absurd delusion on the part of CPBers that all groups to their left are insignificant, petty bourgeois ‘ultra-leftists’ is another.
Underlying all these symptoms is the idea that the given group has a unique existence, apart from all the others. It is a fantasy. We are all swimming in the same pond, and claiming that a particular six cubic feet of the pond is ‘your’ water is ridiculous - quite as ridiculous as the capitalist’s self-image as a ‘self-made man’, a ‘rugged individual’. In your own mind, you may be the unique inheritor of the best traditions of the Fourth International, with the only viable strategy for socialism. In the mind of the person in the street, you are a Trot - like all the others - and pretensions to uniqueness are precisely the most blindingly obvious shared attribute of all.
The bourgeoisie, quite correctly, does not consider our side a serious threat at the moment. Yet it is plainly not above scurrilous attacks. The Mail piece and Nick Cohen’s rantings seek to propagate the idea that the far left is hopelessly sexist and disbarred from course correction by its absolute, religious sense of self-importance. The latter, certainly, is true of the SWP and most of its competitors - but how dare these people make the accusation?
The left needs to go on the offensive. It needs to prove it can learn from its mistakes, that it can seriously address issues thrown up by this scandal - the issue of party organisation, of containing sexism and other products of our deformed society as best we can within our own ranks. It needs to isolate and criticise those comrades - such as the SWP central committee - who refuse to learn anything. To pass the issue over in deathly silence, imagining that one’s own approach to united fronts with union tops or Labour councillors will somehow insulate one’s group from the fallout, is to hand victory to invertebrate scum like Cohen and the Mail.
1. A Smith An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (1776).