SWP crisis: Lynch mobs and lèse-majesté
The Socialist Workers Party leadership is fighting a dirty war. Unfortunately, writes Paul Demarty, nobody seems to have told the opposition
On Sunday February 17, the In Defence of Our Party (IDOP) faction of the Socialist Workers Party held its first internal caucus. It was, primarily, a ‘business meeting’, at which documents were agreed and a committee elected.
Naturally, the central committee had other plans. On the evening of February 15, Charlie Kimber had this to say in an email to the SWP membership: “It has always been the party’s practice that faction meetings should be open to all SWP members (and only to SWP members). It is, however, reasonable that part of a faction meeting can be closed to comrades who are not members of the faction in order to have a caucus. We are one party, not two. It is unacceptable to have wholly closed meetings, and factions should feel able to argue their political perspective with other party members.”
Obviously, then, the leadership clique was up to something. That ‘something’ turned out to be a particularly crass stunt. The evening after the caucus, one Anna Gluckstein - daughter of the late Ygael himself - took to ‘the dark side of the internet’ (that is, Facebook) to complain: “As you know I never do Facebook,” she begins, “but today I feel compelled to. Today there was a faction meeting in central London. I went along with a couple of comrades and others and we were barred from entry! This was not only me: this was two CC members and two of our journalists. I had invited my mum [ie, Chanie Rosenberg, widow of the International Socialists/SWP founder, Tony Cliff] to the meeting and then I had to tell her she wasn’t allowed to come.”
If you wanted a glimpse into the bizarre life-world of SWP loyalism, here it is. From their perspective, it is the perfect stunt! Wheel out two members of the Cliff clan - the two who, to my knowledge, have remained silent throughout this affair (although Donny Gluckstein has been behind several unhinged and foam-flecked interventions). If the faction lets you in, Chanie and Anna can serve as a meat shield to deflect criticism of the CC’s conduct - which, inside an opposition faction meeting, would undoubtedly be foul and disruptive.
On the other hand, if you are refused entry, there is a whole other ‘crime’ with which to smear the opposition - lèse-majesté, or insulting behaviour towards royalty. Either way, you ‘win’ - but only on the basis that one or another section of the membership will be dazzled by the aura of royalty that envelops Cliff’s family. This is a bizarre attitude for a revolutionary socialist organisation, one would have thought, but there is an advantage to building a cult of the dead. The living, after all, tend to have feet of clay - a lesson amply demonstrated by the CC’s recent conduct.
IDOP, to its credit, sent these miserable, manipulative would-be wreckers packing. On the other hand, the overall tenor of the policy agreed during the day leaves a lot to be desired.1
The approach of the majority of IDOP comrades appears to be a very soft one. They seek some kind of reasonable compromise with the CC, in order to put this farrago behind them. They offer a number of ‘helpful’ tweaks to the disputes committee process, for example (as if that was the problem - motion 5). They reaffirm the SWP’s “exceptional” record on women’s liberation (motion 4 - so vast is the evidence to the contrary that it is difficult to fathom the universal agreement to this hypothesis).
A piece by Rob Owen, agreed so far as I know, lays out “our strategy” (motion 12), which is broadly of this character: “We intend to focus on the key proposals which we think could help rebuild party unity, so that the broader questions can be addressed adequately over time,” he writes. There are consequences for the opposition. Motion 9, concerning the internet, notes that: “The party has adopted a conservative and undertheorised attitude towards the internet for many years; in consequence our internet presence leaves much to be desired ... But we cannot begin to address these issues properly until the current crisis is dealt with.” Accordingly, “all criticisms of the leadership between now and conference [should] be channelled through party structures, such as faction meetings, aggregates and IB [Internal Bulletin] contributions. In particular the IS blog [the International Socialism website run by Richard Seymour, China Miéville and co] should be put on ice.”
This, indeed, is a peculiar argument. It is pretty self-defeating, for a start. The IBs and aggregates, for example, are quite clearly in ‘enemy hands’. There are usually three IBs, officially titled Pre-conference Bulletins, published before the SWP’s annual conference, but now that the CC has been forced to concede a special, or recall, conference, to be held on March 10, it has decreed that there will be but one such IB. How can it be a forum for any kind of exchange of views? Aggregates - according to the SWP constitution - are by definition led by members of the CC. Factional meetings, meanwhile, are curiously assimilated to the category, “party structures”; but they are not part of those structures.
To argue that is to accept, in principle, Charlie Kimber’s last-minute demand to be able to send spies and wreckers to the IDOP meeting. After all, the CC is the organisation between conferences. On what basis did the comrades turn the hacks away? On the basis that they - as a faction - decided that this meeting, their meeting, was closed to non-members of the faction. If you call this a ‘party structure’, in fact, you may as well call the IS blog a ‘party organ’.
In a sense, however, using this kind of technical argument is ridiculous. The fundamental misapprehension behind this soft approach is in a little phrase of comrade Owen’s that we have already quoted. He aims to “help rebuild party unity”. Very good, comrade. But Charlie Kimber does not. He, Alex Callinicos and the rest of the leadership clique are plainly driving towards a split.
Here it is the time to bring in the hallowed ‘IS tradition’, but perhaps not in the way that the IDOP comrades would like. This is generally summarised as ‘socialism from below’, plus Cliff’s state-capitalist theory of the USSR, plus the theories of the permanent arms economy and ‘deflected permanent revolution’. The things at work here stem from, if you’ll forgive me, the ‘dark side’ of the IS tradition: the enthusiasm Cliff and his successors have consistently shown for radical surgery. Cliff was quite happy to lose half his organisation in a wrenching turn, provided that those who were left were the ‘best’ (read: the most loyal) elements.
That Kimber and Callinicos are attempting the same move should be transparently obvious. The Chanie Rosenberg stunt is one thing. The ratification of the expulsions of the ‘Facebook Four’ - Paris Thompson, Tim Nelson, Charlotte Bence and Adam Marks - is a further sign that compromise is not on the agenda. The appeals of the four were rejected the day before the IDOP meeting - the disputes committee upheld the decision of the CC to summarily expel them by email for “secret factionalising”: ie, exchanging views on Facebook about the possibility of setting up an official faction a couple of weeks before the January 4-6 annual conference.
More bizarre, and disturbing, is a leaked report of an editorial board meeting of the SWP’s quarterly journal, International Socialism. This report really needs to be read in full.2 Callinicos does not come over well, putting in a twitchy and paranoid performance. He seems to regard criticism of the SWP as a kind of conspiracy of Richard Seymour, the Historical Materialism editorial board and the US International Socialist Organization in order to force SWP members to read Bob Jessop.
As for the ‘special conference’, he repeats the line already put out by the CC - “it will be an opportunity to reaffirm the decisions taken at the January conference. Whatever comes out of it will have to be accepted by everyone. Anyone who doesn’t accept ‘will attract the righteous anger of the bulk of party members’.” A naive comrade, Adrian Budd, suggests to him: “That’s surely the wrong way to go about it - to present it as a way of rubber-stamping decisions already taken. Surely it should be about airing the points of contention fully.”
“To this,” writes the anonymous reporter, “Alex barked a surly ‘That’s what you think!’” And when this rubber-stamping exercise is complete? “If party members refuse to accept the legitimacy of the decisions taken at the special conference, ‘lynch mobs’ (his words) will be formed.” There are no doubt many things on comrade Callinicos’s mind at present. ‘Party unity’ is pretty far down the list.
In the name of ‘unity’, however, the IDOP comrades wish to divide themselves. Their caucus disowned, until some indeterminate point in the future, the Facebook Four - after all, there is no ‘party structure’ remaining for them to appeal to, now that the DC has thrown their appeal out.
An incensed SWP comrade has described to me Rob Owen’s performance in the run-up to the January conference as “conducting a factional battle like an intervention at NUS conference”. There is certainly something of the Socialist Worker Student Society in IDOP’s approach to the discussion on the expelled comrades: “A motion to include the reinstatement of the four comrades as a demand in the faction statement was voted down by the meeting. Speakers for and against the motion said that they personally opposed the expulsions and would support challenging them at national conference when the disputes committee report is formally heard” (emphasis added).3 In other words, it is not about what we think, comrades, but what the people out there think!
The more IDOP insists on routing its intervention through “party structures”, the more it hands the advantage to the CC. Given that the CC would like to drive through a split, behaving in this way actually makes a split more likely. Softness, in this context, is suicide.
The one advantage the opposition has had until now is openness, which piled pressure onto the leadership by making sure the wider movement, and indeed the world at large, knew what it was up to.
It is the open struggle through the IS blog of those now grouped in the Democratic Renewal platform that helped make sure there is still anything to fight for at this stage. The IDOP majority is a sequel of sorts to the ‘Democratic Centralist’ pre-conference faction, which immediately and politely dissolved itself after it was battered by the SWP leadership.
Its reappearance, it is certainly true, came just in time to circumvent a purge; but all the matters which have driven these comrades to re-form the faction would have slipped off the agenda entirely but for the IS blog/DR platform. In short, if the DR comrades had not blown the gaff on what was going on and kept doing so (and if, for example, Tom Walker had not gone out with his resignation letter), these ‘reasonable’ comrades would have kept shtum. They would have accepted the CC’s authority, and become accomplices.
DR is a small minority, IDOP a far more substantial one. That the former’s intransigence and insistence on openly expressing its dissent created the latter faction and succeeded, at the last second, in forcing the CC to revisit these matters at a conference should say something about the power its strategy had. The CC is bureaucratically strong and politically weak. Open struggle exposed and exploited that weakness. That is why it is very much to be regretted that the DR comrades, having joined forces with IDOP, appear to have agreed to the call to effectively shut up shop - the IS blog was last updated on February 12.4
Yet accepting open debate as a legitimate tactic would put the faction on the right side of history. A DR document, voted down at the IDOP caucus, goes out under the title, ‘Under no circumstances should this text be posted on the internet!!’5 It reads in part: “The above, or some close variant, is a new default header and/or footer to documents produced by SWP members writing in response to the crisis we’re in.” The authors correctly observe: “Of course, within a few days at most, every single one of these pieces is posted on the internet.”
The SWP leadership’s approach to the internet, on the other hand, is dire: Facebook and blogs are “hostile territory”, the DR comrades note. “It is telling, for example, that the CC, who for years responded to suggestions that we take the internet more seriously by pooh-poohing blogs and such like as vaguely distasteful silliness and a refuge from ‘The Real World’, are now blaming those blogs - rather than their own actions - for the party’s crisis. The internet - especially its now notorious ‘Dark Side’ - has gone from having no, to having dreadful, power. The CC have lurched from Luddism to technological determinism without passing through strategy.”
On the positive side, IDOP talks a fairly good game as far as going through the “party structures” goes. The faction expects its members to recruit, to ring round, to caucus and to get motions passed through branches. (Alas, it does not even occur to IDOP to demand space in the weekly Party Notes or Socialist Worker.) Perhaps it really can beat the bureaucracy at its own game.
We doubt it. The apparatus mobilises for war; the opposition expects a comradely debate. They will need to harden up if they do not want ‘a line drawn under the matter’ - to repeat the CC phrase used to dismiss the concerns of comrades who are still fuming about the gross mishandling of allegations of rape made against ‘comrade Delta’. No doubt a line will then also be drawn under scores of membership cards - and any remaining potential the SWP may have for the revolutionary project.
1. All documents from the caucus can be found here: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/idoop-faction-caucus-agenda-and-documents.