SWP crisis: Twilight of the idols
The central committee has once again failed to reassert control. But dirty tricks are inevitable, writes Paul Demarty
At this point, it is fair to say that the latest attempt by the Socialist Workers Party’s leadership clique to forcibly end the dissent in the ranks has backfired disastrously.
The central committee wanted to use the meeting of the national committee - packed with loyalists - to draw a line under things definitively. For a moment, it looked almost like it had worked. The CC motion to the NC (elected at conference on an individual voting system) was passed by 39 votes to eight; a dissident motion from academic Jim Wolfreys fell by the same margin.
Everything, suddenly, went quiet. Nothing appeared on the opposition’s International Socialism blog for three days. The news cycle abhors a vacuum; rumours started flying around. There were even whispers that some kind of deal had been reached - the opposition was said by some to have offered their silence in return for clemency when it came to the matter of disciplinary action.
The truth, as it turns out, was the exact opposite. Mark Bergfeld had resigned from the CC, and issued a scathing indictment of his erstwhile colleagues. More importantly, a new faction had been formed. Initially, it surfaced as a motion submitted to the NC but not circulated by Charlie Kimber and his goon squad, with some 163 signatures attached to it.
In practice, it seems to be a continuation of the shortest lived faction in history - the Democratic Centralism faction, which attempted to split the difference between the CC supporters and the Democratic Opposition before conference. Many of the names on the initial list of 163 were the same, certainly. By the end of last week, they had formally constituted themselves as a faction, under the name, In Defence of Our Party; as of February 12, they claim 389 members. Encouragingly, they have accepted the membership of the International Socialism bloggers, who have constituted themselves as a platform called Democratic Renewal within the faction.
What do the comrades in the new faction want? Firstly: “recognition that discipline in a revolutionary party is political - not administrative - and fundamentally a matter of conviction. This means that if contentious decisions are taken that do not have overwhelming support, the leadership cannot simply demand loyalty, but needs to try to win the membership politically to its position over a period of time.” A statement of the bleeding obvious, you would think, but not in the SWP.1
Secondly, they point out that “comrades need time and space to honestly debate the issues we currently face if we are to reach a political resolution that has the overwhelming support of members”. On slightly shakier ground - but still partly true as far as it goes - the comrades argue that “feminists are not our enemies, but potential allies”.
They also put forward “a number of immediate measures” to handle the present crisis, including the standing down of ‘comrade Delta’, whose alleged crimes sparked the crisis, from public SWP work, and full support for those who made complaints against him; rejection of disciplinary action against dissidents; and a “review of disputes committee procedures”.
This is hardly the most radical platform, but the faction itself is hugely significant. The fact that 389 members have signed up is a challenge to the leadership in itself, of course - it is the names on the list, however, which will have given it the most disquiet. These are not nobodies in the SWP. They are not semi-detached public figures (as Richard Seymour and China Miéville have been portrayed), nor are they head-banging students.
The faction includes a whole raft of middle to senior cadre, including 10 members of the NC and perhaps as many former members of the CC; it includes people of unimpeachable moral authority within the SWP, such as Pat Stack and Tony Cliff’s biographer, Ian Birchall. It is one thing to fold Richard Seymour into an amorphous morass of hostile anti-Leninists and ‘creeping feminists’. Ian Birchall simply does not fit the bill.
It was too much for the CC, in the end. Having spent every bit of energy it could muster on preventing the opposition from forcing a ‘special conference’ - from ruling motions out of order on technical grounds, to imposing an arbitrary February 1 deadline for such motions - it has executed a whiplash U-turn and called one itself.
The CC’s statement on the matter is remarkable principally for being almost identical to every other statement the CC has put out so far during this crisis. There are the usual attempts to foster a ‘bunker mentality’ among the membership, shoring it up against ‘attacks’; the usual guff about how the Delta case was handled with the utmost propriety; the usual scare stories about the horrors of permanent factions. There is just that one, tiny, almost insignificant difference: that one week ago, such ‘arguments’ were being mustered against the idea of revisiting the affair at a special conference, but now they have mysteriously become arguments for doing so.2
So, for all the bluster, this has to be read as a humiliating climbdown. It is an admission that, despite bullish talk to the contrary, it is not some insignificant minority unconvinced by the CC’s attempts to ‘draw a line’ under the whole affair. If it was, why such difficulties? Ignore them; expel them; move on. No - this truly is, as the oppositionists have been arguing all along, an existential crisis. This conference has been forced on the CC - the 163 signatories of the aforementioned ‘misplaced’ letter to the NC threatened to add their weight to the campaign to get motions for a recall conference through branches, and it was no longer possible to avoid that outcome.
Calling the conference itself affords the CC what measure of strength it can achieve in this position: having been forced into it, it will attempt to make sure the conference is home turf. To that end, it is playing silly buggers with the procedures. It has set the absurdly early date of March 10 - which gives comrades barely a month to discuss matters. There will be one internal discussion bulletin (IB) - as if discussion is possible on that basis. It is aggregates (regional meetings) which are to elect delegates, meanwhile, rather than branches - and aggregates are more likely to be at the mercy of full-time apparatchiks, being further removed from the rank and file.
Prepare to fight
To their credit, both the IDOP faction and the Democratic Renewal platform know this game all too well.
An internal IDOP bulletin states: “Many people have contacted us to say that they think the timetable the CC have proposed is too short, and that we can only resolve these issues effectively if comrades have adequate time for discussion.” A serious discussion would require “two IBs - two so that comrades can make written responses to the articles in the first IB - and aggregates. We feel that the aggregates can only start after the IBs have been produced, so that comrades are able to have informed discussion based on IB articles. This means that, if there is to be an adequate pre-conference discussion, the conference cannot take place until after Easter.”
More punchily, the DR platform recognises what is going on: the CC “calls a special conference on March 10, just over four weeks from now. We want a special conference. But this is, in fact, a manoeuvre of exactly the same type as the arbitrary deadline imposed on motions for a special conference prior to the national committee. Its purpose is approximately the same: to drastically curtail the period of debate.”3
Unfortunately, this will not be the half of it. A more recent statement of the DR platform comes with the self-explanatory headline, “Stop the bullying!”, and proceeds to outline the terrible logic that leads from facile straw-man attacks, to denunciations, to an atmosphere where comrades are apparently being threatened with violence.4 More broadly, the CC is determined to win this conference - at whatever cost. That means intimidation, gerrymandering and all the rest.
The opposition is growing, and it is on the front foot at the moment, but it has a difficult fight ahead. The most immediate aim, of course, is to circumvent - however possible - the arbitrarily foreshortened timetable for the conference; and then to fight what will inevitably by a grubby guerrilla war for delegates and motions on terrain chosen by the CC.
The counterpart to this must be ‘preparing for the worst’ - the still likely eventuality that the CC gets the conference it wants. The DR comrades are correct to highlight the bullying of SWP members by the apparat, and correct also to provide practical advice to those being ‘taken aside for a little chat’ at branch meetings.
More is needed, however. Every anti-democratic manoeuvre needs to be exposed. Every branch decision steamrollered by a local apparatchik, every implied threat of violence, every rigged aggregate vote should be documented in full view of the SWP membership and the class. Let the world see exactly how these so-called ‘socialists from below’ conduct their affairs. In short, a rigged conference must be delegitimised, just as the NC meeting was delegitimised. It is only natural, after all, for it is perverse to suggest a rigged conference is legitimate in the first place.
That said, there is everything still to play for. The CC has not yet lost by a long shot, but it has never really regained the momentum in the last month. It has been exposed repeatedly as a politically spent force, unable to find anything to say, unable to advance discussions beyond non-specific complaints about ‘slurs’. The only advantages it retains are bureaucratic (which is not, alas, to say they are insignificant).
It is thus worth a final comment on a particularly hypocritical accusation, wheeled out against the pre-conference factions and repeated in the statement calling the new conference. “The faction document is extraordinarily unpolitical,” Kimber and co whinge. “It has nothing to say about the economic crisis and the fightback, the battle against racism and fascism, the union bureaucracy and the rank and file, Unite the Resistance, anti-imperialism, building the SWP - or much else.”
It is, of course, unsurprising that a document intended to combat internal bureaucracy fails to discuss a whole list of other questions. However, leaving that aside, the CC’s response is utterly hypocritical. It is true that the leadership has plenty of policy on all these areas (if we are prepared to extend the definition of the word ‘policy’ to include platitudinous horseshit), and the opposition has said little about any of those things (we note, however, the rather significant omission of women’s liberation from the list).
Yet the SWP leadership has allowed this to happen, because its mercilessly bureaucratic modus operandi has precisely a depoliticising effect on the rank and file. It is worth remembering that two short months ago, there were not yet any factions in the SWP; this period of ‘great chaos under heaven’ is the first time in many newer comrades’ political careers that thinking independently of the leadership has become a burning necessity.
It is to be applauded that, among the opposition, the germs of serious political discussion have started to appear. Mostly this has focused on the women’s question, unsurprisingly, and has been of varying quality. (Even Pat Stack has put his oar in on this one.) Yet, on another level, debate is simply inevitable, and illustrates how much effort the SWP leadership puts into preventing such discussions.
SWP members should ask themselves: will the level of debate and comradely exchange of ideas be higher under the status quo ante, the bureaucratic regime that currently drives the SWP to the edge of destruction, or under a healthier democratic structure? Which option is really “unpolitical”? That is the decision that faces the SWP today: an internal revolution and with it the possibility of political renewal, or sectarian oblivion.