Socialist Party: Taaffe’s significant silence

The Socialist Party in England and Wales appears to have decided to effectively ignore the SWP crisis. But why? Ben Lewis investigates

When it comes to the crisis engulfing the SWP, there has been an almost deafening silence coming from its Socialist Party in England and Wales rival. Let us be clear: this is no storm in an SWP sectarian teacup. We are not dealing with tittle-tattle and gossip. The outcome of this factional struggle, a fight over the very existence of the SWP, will have palpable effects on our side’s strength. Perhaps sensing this, certain sections of the bourgeois press have obviously smelled blood, and sought to exploit this crisis to smear the left as a whole. Step up the gut-wrenching Nick Cohen and the Daily Mail

The SWP crisis merely confirms, in the minds of such people, the rotten and warped outlook of revolutionaries who wish to overthrow capitalism. That we are fundamentally driven by a lust for power. That we need to take lessons on women’s liberation from liberal feminism and so on. Utter sanctimonious garbage - particularly from Nick Cohen, who cheered on the invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of ‘women’s rights’. That worked out well, didn’t it?

We on the left, then, have to show some basic solidarity with SWP comrades here: neither the Marxist left nor the SWP is replete with sexists, would-be rapists, macho head honchos and apologists for the oppression of women - and certainly not when compared with class society, for which Cohen and his cronies are craven apologists.

As such, during times like this, it is nigh on criminal to remain silent on some of the basic questions thrown up by the crisis around ‘comrade Delta’ and the shitstorm whipped up by the rightwing media. But why are some sections refusing to comment? Why the silence from the Morning Star, a publication that (rather risibly) claims to be the “daily newspaper of the left”? And what of SPEW? Are comrades in that organisation simply too busy, too overwhelmed by the demands of the class struggle to write an article? Or does their failure to comment reflect something significant?


Political capital’

SPEW, like the SWP, has a good number of solid trade union activists, hard-working student organisers and dedicated agitators who put in the hard yards at a local level. Personally speaking, while I - perhaps invariably! - have had the odd run-in with this or that district full-timer in my time, I find that many of SPEW’s activists are approachable, friendly and often willing to have a chat. This, it should be stressed, is in positive contrast to my experience of activists in some other groups. Though, I note, many of the friendlier, more interactive and more human members of the SWP have, for the most part, joined the ranks of the opposition.

Yet SPEW’s lack of response to the SWP crisis reveals much about the current problems of the left: conservative, uninspired and sectish. It would appear that SPEW has actually taken a formal decision not to comment on the SWP’s factional war. I gleaned this not from reading a report in the pages of the oh-so-dull and uninspiring The Socialist. I am only aware of it through the weird and wonderful Facebook-based internet grouping, Socialist Meme Caucus,1 which is in the main staffed by SPEW members.

The SMC group publishes satirical web memes that mock leftwing groups and leaders and comment on mainstream political figures and events. One such meme compares Counterfire numero uno John Rees to the fictional British comedy figure, Alan Partridge. Another features a picture of a handsome young Stalin alongside text such as: “With looks like this: who needs Marxist theory?” For the most part it is all good-humoured and light-hearted stuff, and a welcome initiative. After all, if there is one thing that bureaucracy fears, then it is humour …

And talking of bureaucracy, in recent times Alex ‘Stalinicos’ has certainly come in for his fair share of ‘meming’, particularly when it comes to his “dark side of the internet” comments. These occasioned the wonderful ‘Darth Alex’ image, used as a Weekly Worker front cover.2

When the CPGB website ran the leaked report of comrade Callinicos threatening “lynch mobs”, the web team decided to illustrate it with a meme superimposing Callinicos’s head onto the hit man played by Samuel L Jackson in the cult film, Pulp fiction. In response, a SPEW comrade admin for Socialist Meme Caucus posted up the image with the following strapline: “The Weekly Worker’s morbid fixation with the SWP - one more pathological than SMC’s - means it no longer functions as any kind of working class organisation. It is, however, progressive that they have taken up the tactic of meming in order to communicate political ideas.” Ha ha, comrade. When I pointed out that SPEW’s silence may just - perhaps - have something to do with the obvious fact that it is hardly unaffected by similar questions, I got the following response:

“The SP have taken the position that releasing statements on the crisis in the SWP would be seen as attempting to make political capital out of it. I wish the opposition the best of luck in changing the environment in the SWP, and I’m sure that’s the same for most other members of the SP.” Solidarity forever, comrade!

Now, of course, we will assume that this “the Weekly Worker is no longer part of the workers’ movement” line is, in all likelihood, not some kind of official SPEW policy, but more an off-the-cuff posting from a slightly narked internet warrior. Nonetheless, both the reasoning he provides for the Weekly Worker’s alleged defection to the camp of the bourgeoisie and the fact that SPEW has not said anything about the SWP crisis - at least in public - reveals that there is something rotten in the kingdom of Peter Taaffe.


Seizing the corners’

As Paul Demarty recently put it, “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 … This awkward reluctance speaks to a distinctly proprietorial, bourgeois culture among left organisations … 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.”3

This emphasis on proprietorial culture is absolutely correct. After all, left strategy today seems to consist of one small group increasing its ‘market share’ at the expense of others. As with the various drug gangs fighting over the street ‘corners’ of Baltimore in the hit television series, The wire, this can take the form of means foul and fair. Hell, sometimes these gang leaders even get together in dark rooms to discuss some kind of ‘unity’ initiative, only then to unceremoniously break the stitched-up ‘peace’ and go back to normal.

This mentality explains some of the language deployed in the brief exchange I had with SPEW comrades, such as “political capital” and even “unique selling point” - some fad political position to make you stand out from your competitors!4 What a mockery of revolutionary politics.

We could perhaps express some doubts about the actual sincerity of SPEW’s claim not to seek so-called political capital out of this crisis. After all, not only are SPEW and the SWP comparative in terms of size. In terms of their day-to-day work of ‘building the party’, they will be coming across, and fighting to recruit, similar layers of activists and militants.

Surely those currently out and about recruiting students and trade unionists will contrast SPEW’s ‘healthy’ regime to that of the ‘cult’ regime of the SWP? That is certainly how things have played out historically, where the Militant forerunner of SPEW would often delight in the mishaps and misfortunes of the SWP and vice versa.

SPEW’s decision to ‘not seek undue advantage’ is also cast in doubt by the fact that only last month we suddenly found online a rare critique of the SWP. The document was written by general secretary Taaffe back in 2009, when there were also factional rumblings in the SWP. But, perhaps this was one of those strange coincidences in politics, comrades?5


Small sects

So the comrades in SPEW who dismiss the Weekly Worker’s coverage of the SWP as “sectarian” might wish to think again, and look a little closer to home. Not only does such a standpoint rather nicely dovetail with the SWP leadership’s ‘navel-gazing’ understanding of ‘sectarianism’ (any loyalist seller of Socialist Worker will tell you that ‘sects’ are groups that talk about other groups instead of appealing to ‘the movement’). But playing the game of market share and political capital really is sectarianism, comrades. Looking to overthrow that narrow approach and move towards a serious party organisation is not.

The ‘sects and us’ view currently prevalent in SPEW is straight out of the Militant songbook. It also affects the outlook of the ‘other half’ of the Militant split around Alan Woods and Socialist Appeal, who have not deigned to mention the SWP crisis either.

For both sides of the ex-Militant divide, the world is astonishingly simple. There are the ‘mass organisations’ and your own important group ... and then a swathe of irrelevant sects. The latter are more often than not described as ‘small’ (whereas everybody knows that this is not the case with SPEW or its Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, don’t they?). While from time to time rivals may be glibly dismissed (‘the sects’ think this, ‘the sects’ did that), particular groups are rarely named. That would presumably be too complex for those poor ‘ordinary workers’.

Given the impending revolutionary crisis, the so-called ‘sects’ will be swept aside by the force of events, so why bother with them? But our own group - in this case SPEW - will be catapulted into prominence by the rising masses. The Militant take on Waiting for Godot - and a reflection of SPEW’s criminal neglect of the need to unite all revolutionaries into a serious revolutionary party in the here and now.

As comrade Taaffe himself has stated on several occasions,6 left unity can wait. What can be done in the here and now, of course, is to look to expand the influence of his own group by flattering trade union bureaucrats (sorry, ‘leaders’) into forming a bigger party, which can act as some kind of ‘transmission belt’ from a broad party of Labourite reformism into the tightly-knit, truly revolutionary, truly Marxist party that is SPEW.

Callinicos and Taaffe

For reasons of space, I will deal with comrade Peter Taaffe’s views on ‘democratic centralism’ in a future article. For now, let me simply note the following: comrades Taaffe and Callinicos share all the essential bureaucratic centralist traits, not least a horror of permanent factions and a revulsion against their members publicly expressing dissenting political views in the party press.

Of course, Taaffe and Callinicos are not unique. There is a very large rogues’ gallery of those claiming the mantle of Bolshevism who insist that disputes have to be had out ‘internally’ (if at all!). For such comrades, the masses have no right to know about differences of opinion within the ‘vanguard’. Yet such things are fairly essential if our class is to become capable of ruling, of liberating itself.

Grasping this basic commonality between Taaffe and Callinicos perhaps gets us closer to understanding the significance of SPEW’s silence. Raising questions about the SWP’s regime would necessarily raise questions about bureaucratic centralism closer to home.

Openly fighting this rotten culture and positively overcoming it at all levels of our movement are preconditions for the organisation of our class on a serious scale once again. Remaining silent when that culture is at least being questioned in some way, however inadequately, by the SWP opposition, is actually equivalent to excusing the bureaucratic regime in the SWP. After all, SPEW’s forerunners rightly protested against anti-democratic witch-hunters in the Labour Party, so why not do the same when it comes to the SWP?

That is why it is vital that the membership of SPEW, and of the left at large, follow the lead of the Weekly Worker on this question. The rearticulation of Marxist politics and the reorganisation of our class presuppose that we are able to show some solidarity, engage with, and perhaps even offer some political arguments to those standing up against such an anti-communist regime as that of the SWP bureaucracy under the sway of Callinicos and Kimber. If the leaders of SPEW are unable to do so, then perhaps it is time that its membership demand to know why.




1. www.facebook.com/socialistmemecaucus.

2. Weekly Worker January 31.

3. P Demarty, ‘The dog that didn’t barkWeekly Worker, February 7.

4. One SPEW comrade writes, rather bizarrely: “I thought that their [the CPGB’s] USP was that the Bolsheviks should not have taken power in 1917.” Erm …

5. Comrades can access this pamphlet at http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/books_pamphlets/Socialism_and_Left_Unity_-_A_critique_of_the_Socialist_Workers_Party.

6. P Manson, ‘Unity of the left can waitWeekly Worker November 8 2012.