SWP crisis: Silence of the lambs
The softly, softly approach of the Socialist Workers Party opposition contrasts with the leaderships aggression, argues Paul Demarty
There have been several times during the Socialist Workers Party’s ongoing crisis when it looked, for all the world, like it would be over soon.
It looked, first of all, like the clockwork-regular griping of more sensible voices in the pre-conference internal bulletins would amount, as nearly always, to nothing substantial - but then the central committee made the fateful decision to expel four comrades for discussing internal politics, including the bungled rape allegation against ‘comrade Delta’, during a private Facebook chat.
It looked like the factions that resulted from that act would simply be defeated at conference - but the disputes committee debacle saw all hell break loose and, for what must be the first time in decades, an open factional struggle of admirable panache and ferocity. The meeting of the national committee a month ago was supposed to draw a line under the battle, but succeeded only in multiplying the numbers opposed to the leadership, and producing another faction.
The next candidate for ‘resolving’ the crisis is the upcoming special conference. Given the endless surprises throughout this whole story, it is hardly beyond the bounds of possibility that the CC will once again fail to ‘restore order’. There is still time for the opposition factions - the ‘moderates’ of In Defence of Our Party, and the ‘radicals’ of Democratic Renewal - to turn things around. Yet it is less likely this time, and the leadership has reason to be cautiously confident that its campaign of smears, intimidation and bureaucratic manoeuvres will finally bear bitter fruit.
Why such pessimism? After all, the opposition is now larger than it has ever been - over 500 members at the last count, getting on for half of the SWP’s active membership (as opposed to the nakedly stupid official figures). It claims the allegiance of unimpeachable Cliffites, such as Ian Birchall and Colin Barker.
Yet - as I argued last week1 - IDOP has adopted exactly the wrong strategy. Its fundamental aim, in the words of leading light Rob Owen, is to “maintain party unity” and avert a split; as such, it seeks a reasonable compromise between the opposition and the leadership, so that a line can really be drawn under the matter, with the humble acknowledgement of mistakes on ‘both sides’, allowing the SWP to ‘move forward’.
To this end, various olive branches have been offered to the leadership. Most importantly, there has been a collective decision to work exclusively through the existing structures of the SWP, and thus suspend open criticism of the leadership and exposure of its grubbier activities.
This commits IDOP to fighting on the CC’s turf. It is an understandable mistake, because much of the IDOP majority talks almost as if this is not a fight at all; and also because many of its most active comrades have cut their teeth leading SWP ‘interventions’ in the world at large, through its ‘united fronts’ (emphasis on the word ‘front’). As such, its recommendations to faction activists have the character of the way in which the SWP at large recruits to itself - providing a ‘crib sheet’ for ring-rounds to activists.2
Yet they are under no illusions as to the sort of thing their opponents are up to. The CC is desperately keen to make the March 10 special conference a rout. Aggregates - the regional meetings of the SWP which elect delegates - look to be rigged by all means short of literally stuffing ballot boxes. IDOP reports that aggregates so far have seen CC supporters packing meetings and insisting on sending no opposition delegates at all to the conference. “In the Home Counties and Leicester,” IDOP points out, “CC supporters prevented any IDOP members being elected - even using inactive and non-subs-paying members to block key party activists from going to conference.” Similar stories abound in Hackney, Glasgow and elsewhere.
The CC has also encouraged, as Party Notes puts it without a hint of self-awareness, “debate [on] the issues at conference” by awarding its supporters a minimum of 45 minutes of speaking time, and an opposition speaker - should any be lucky enough to be called - just six minutes. No wonder district after district is being steamrollered by the bureaucracy. “It seems [CC supporters] don’t have the confidence to argue their case politically without the advantage of 45 minutes for one side against six for the other,” the IDOP document drily notes.
The comrades even drop dark hints of active sabotage: “At yesterday’s faction meeting in Manchester ... comrades on arriving found that the room booking had mysteriously vanished. The room for tonight’s Leeds faction meeting had also been cancelled by someone else.”
Given how little time the comrades are being given to speak within aggregates, it is all the more stupid to suspend public criticism. Unfortunately, as a platform within IDOP, Democratic Renewal - including Richard Seymour, China Miéville and others - has acceded to this edict, and suspended its International Socialism blog. Even the four expelled comrades - who recently had their expulsions ratified by the infamous disputes committee, although they will generously be allowed to reapply for membership in 18-24 months time - are keeping quiet, barring some disappointed but stoical complaints on (what else?) Facebook. This is particularly odd, seeing as they are obviously not under any kind of discipline.
Perhaps they genuinely expect to be allowed back into the SWP in two years time; but that really depends. After all, if the CC is defeated and ousted - if there is a revolution in the SWP - then they could be back in the fold within a month. If, on the other hand, the CC successfully clamps down, then all manner of unsavoury outcomes are possible. Perhaps, in two years, the SWP will have shrivelled to a state where no right-thinking person would apply to rejoin; perhaps it will have disappeared altogether; perhaps it will have some other existence. One thing is absolutely certain: it is very unlikely that Paris Thompson, Tim Nelson, Adam Marks and Charlotte Bence will ever again be SWP members while Alex Callinicos and the rest of the current CC faction hold the whip.
The suspension of public criticism, of course, does not have any immediate practical effect for the rest of us. At the Weekly Worker, we are receiving (from the most unlikely sources) ‘updates’ from both IDOP and the CC on an almost daily basis at the moment - the SWP is a leaky boat at the best of times, and all the more so now that it is obviously holed beneath the waterline. The same is no doubt true of various others outside the SWP: Andy Newman, the sub-Stalinist blogger, clearly has his sources, and so does the International Socialist Organisation in America, which has publicly opposed the SWP leadership. Even the Irish SWP has passed a resolution condemning its British comrades’ handling of the Delta case.
The difference is this. In this situation, all the old leadership accusations ‘still work’. The opposition can still be smeared as taking a lead from ‘outside the party’, and in cahoots with the SWP’s enemies. But when the IS blog was on the warpath, the most devastating material was being published by people who openly affirmed their loyalty to the SWP project. The opposition was able to take ownership of the struggle; it was able to go on the offensive. That we have gotten to this point proves that it was a successful tactic.
But now the opposition - by accepting in principle the ‘keep it internal’ dictum of the CC - can no longer defend itself from such slurs. The paradoxical result is that the dispute, far from thereby being limited to the SWP, inevitably is routed through all kinds of ‘external’ channels. The ‘open struggle’ will continue as long as there are people prepared to leak every document as soon as it arrives; the opposition has merely made the absurd decision not to take control of when and how its own input goes public.
Meanwhile, the general attitude of the CC loyalists becomes ever more unpleasant.
On the sillier end of the scale, there are attempts by more simple-minded CC supporters to lend weight to the innumerable comparisons of the current SWP crisis and the explosion of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, by spouting the sort of paranoid gibberish that Healy made his trademark. Simon Assaf has been particularly busy in this regard, accusing all and sundry of being state agents on Twitter.
More serious than the gibberings of a moron like Assaf - and in some ways more bizarre - is the re-entry of the SWP’s students into this affair. A rather Delphic conference motion, proposed by one ‘Anna G’ (presumably Gluckstein) and seconded by ‘Alan W’, has been agreed by the Tottenham branch and is now circulating widely within the organisation. It is titled - again, with no intended irony - ‘Taking the long view’.
“There is a huge fear amongst our comrades that if we are too hard in holding the positions democratically won at our conference, branches and elected national committee we will lose many of the young student members of our organisation,” states the motion. “None of us want that to happen. However ... we cannot hold on to members at a political price which will fundamentally damage our ability to organise.” On the bright side, “new students arrive at colleges every year. If we raise the level of politics to fit the present situation, the SWP can recruit and develop layers of Marxist students successfully.”3
An IDOP statement makes the obvious point - this motion “lays the ground for a justification for forcing a split between the students and the party, while justifying taking disciplinary measures against students who remain in the organisation post-conference”.4 As the CC’s most idiotic hack, Weyman Bennett, asked in an earlier phase of the crisis, “Who cares if we lose 30 students?” The numbers are probably closer to 300, but, still, who cares? That appears to be the view of Anna G.
It is undeniable that the Socialist Worker Student Society has been most restive in the post-conference period. Mark Bergfeld, student organiser, resigned from the CC last month, and two SWSS candidates for NUS positions have had their candidacies effectively canned by the SWP student office.
Worse, according to IDOP, “The student office has almost dissolved itself post-conference. Many SWSS groups are no longer being contacted by the student office. No reason has been provided for this.” No reason is necessary, of course, since various SWSS branches effectively signed their own excommunications by openly criticising the SWP leadership. The Kimber-Callinicos clique is evidently prepared, if necessary, to lose whole swathes of SWSS, if that is what it takes to crush the SWP opposition.
More evidence - if it were needed - that the leadership is preparing a split. ‘Party unity’ is to be on its terms or none at all. Oppositionists will be expected to recant, to defend in public whatever asinine, self-justifying line comes out of the special conference, humiliating themselves before their comrades, colleagues and the class; they will not be trusted with any serious party roles, and internally ostracised. Their lives will be made unpleasant, in the expectation that they will leave. If they do not leave, and they step out of line, they will be expelled. This is what employment law calls ‘constructive dismissal’ - but the SWP is not bound by the strictures of ‘bourgeois legality’.
It should be clear, then, what defeat means for IDOP. In fact it seems to be ‘managing expectations’ already: “There will also be a national faction caucus and meeting on Saturday March 9,” the faction writes. “As well as preparing for conference, the caucus will discuss how we can hold comrades in the party afterwards and continue to fight for a stronger SWP after the faction dissolves at the end of conference” (our emphasis).
Is this an admission of defeat? It is to be hoped that things are otherwise. Yet there is a patently obvious way to “continue to fight for a stronger SWP” after conference in the event of a defeat - do not dissolve the faction. A faction that is to reappear in - what? - six months when the next pre-conference period begins to “continue to fight” is a permanent faction, comrades. Alex Callinicos will correctly point that out. Seymour, Miéville and co will celebrate the fact, because they understand that the ban on permanent factions is a stupidity (if they have not been expelled). Under the SWP constitution - that bureaucrat’s charter - it is impossible to rebel by half-measures.
But before thinking about how to continue the fight, it would be better to stop playing rope-a-dope and land a few punches now. The comrades’ own reports make it abundantly clear - the forthcoming special conference is a stitch-up that would make Vladimir Putin proud. The last posting on the IS blog carries the title: “When is a conference not a conference?” How right they have been proven; and, if they must cease publication, then no more poignant last word could have taken its place.
IDOP comrades should give it another read; or, better still, they should open their eyes and ears. How many aggregates have to be packed, how many pseudo-members have to be cajoled into being voting fodder, how many calumnies and insults have to be thrown around, before the comrades accept this inevitable conclusion and denounce these sham proceedings?
1. ‘Lynch mobs and lèse-majesté’, February 21.