SWP special conference: Divided they fall
The Socialist Workers Party leadership is attempting to divide the opposition. Taking the bait would be suicide, reckons Paul Demarty
The Socialist Workers Party’s special conference looms ever closer. Though there are still a few aggregates to take place as I write, most of the delegate votes are in, and on any reasonable count victory is certain for the central committee on March 10 - unless god himself intervenes and strikes down 400 of their delegates with cholera (or, worse still, common sense).
The approach from the CC is uneven. In many districts, aggregates have been approached aggressively; those comrades in the In Defence of Our Party faction (IDOP) have faced a barrage of hysterical abuse. ‘Dirty tricks’, such as sabotaging the caucuses of the faction by anonymously cancelling room bookings (exemplifying the very high level of politics we have come to expect from the SWP leadership), have been in force. Meetings have been packed in order to prevent, where possible, any IDOP members from attending conference at all.
Elsewhere, however, a different tack has been tried. Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s top ‘red professor’ and de facto leader, put on a scarcely believable conciliatory act at the West/North West London aggregate. “We are listening,” he declared. There were “legitimate concerns” about the disputes commission’s handling of the rape charge against ‘comrade Delta’, and its future shape. The comrade even mooted a “wider debate” on democratic centralism.
All of which is a marked change of tone from that which we have seen so far - which has consisted primarily of the leadership, its lackeys and deluded loyalists repeating the same nonsense over and over again, giving not an inch to their foes. Literally not an inch - because, no matter what IDOP comrades (and the more radical Democratic Renewal platform around Richard Seymour and China Miéville) said or wrote, the same mantra came back in reply, in spite of its increasing implausibility. It had three mutually incompatible premises: there is no SWP crisis; people do not care about the SWP crisis out there in ‘the real world’; they only care about the SWP crisis in the ‘real world’ because of the ‘disgraceful’ behaviour of the oppositionists.
Carrot and cudgel
Looking at other aggregate reports, it seems most SWP opposition comrades, outside the sacred circle of west London, are still being clobbered over the head with this nonsense. The anecdotes do not make for pretty reading: one comrade reduced to tears after the meeting, others stared down sociopathically by Michael Bradley. Alex Callinicos may have played down his aggression simply because accusing Pat Stack - the nominated opposition speaker - of treachery would not have gone down well with the SWP general audience.
All the same, the proffering of measly concessions in one district may be significant. It will not make a difference to the result at conference; but the SWP leadership is not so short-termist as to look only a week into the future. It knows that it stands to lose a lot of people over this.
Making such tokenistic concessions, of course, can have only one serious purpose. The CC wants to split the opposition. While there are many in IDOP whom Callinicos and co would like to keep on board, there are a good few who they will be glad to see the back of for good - chief among them comrades Seymour and Miéville. The CC wishes to split the opposition along its natural fault-line, between the ‘soft’ IDOP majority and the hardcore DR platform. To the soft oppositionalists, Callinicos offers the nakedly implausible idea that they will be generously “listened to” - but also the implication that there is a future for them under the ancien régime, that they will not be turned into ‘non-people’ and frozen out of SWP life as a result of their ‘disloyalty’. A quite dishonest implication - but the most dangerous lies are not those you tell, but those that people tell themselves.
It is - by the granite-faced standards of the leadership’s conduct so far - a bold gambit. It inevitably begs the question of the opposition’s response. It is clear that the writing on the wall is perfectly legible to the IDOP comrades. Already, after the first round of aggregates, sessions were being added to their final pre-conference national meeting to discuss how to “continue to fight” after the fateful day itself - the unspoken assumption being that March 10 will deliver the staged punishment beating for which it has been designed.1
So what is plan B, comrades? Unfortunately, it seems so far that there isn’t much of one at all. “Over the coming week, leading up to the special conference, we will be circulating a few articles written by faction members about how they see life in the party in coming months and how they believe the party can overcome its current difficulties,” promises one circular; but all that has emerged since is an unsigned piece under the heading ‘Where next?’ - which does not stoop to actually proposing any particular line of march. Rather, it serves as a wry trailer for their discussion on the subject on Saturday.
In lieu of anything else, we are left with that vague commitment to “continue to fight”, which falls hopelessly between two stools. On the one hand, it would easily count as evidence of ‘permanent factionalism’ - a worse crime in the Alex Callinicos schema than mass murder; he and his cronies are certainly most unlikely to let a fight “continue” under their noses.
On the other hand, that is no reason not to fight - but the general approach of the IDOP majority so far has been premised on winning over ‘wavering elements’ by being terribly reasonable. We may assume that this is how they hope to “continue to fight”, in which case it is as hopelessly inadequate a strategy for after this Sunday as it has been so far. The leadership has a whole apparatus of full-timers, which has long substituted for the initiative of rank-and-file comrades almost completely. The well-worn channels of the SWP’s chain of command will inevitably be the best mobilisers of passive members, many of whom have been corralled into blocking opposition members from going to conference.
So the comrades lack plausible cover going forward, and equally lack - thus far - the kind of militant strategy that could sustain a fight in the face of the bureaucratic clampdown that awaits all those not satisfied by what DR comrades rather drily call “the conference of a special type”. Yet they have at least one more chance to rectify this - they can change tack, radically, at their pre-conference meeting.
One pictures the comrades filing into the meeting room - some dejected, despairing at the autocannibalistic course taken by the organisation to which they have dedicated countless hours; others frustrated; still others dreading the humiliation to come the next day; and a final group, which one hopes against hope will be the largest, who still have some fight in them. It is the latter who will have to galvanise the troops, and they will need a serious plan to do so.
To keep the fight alive, IDOP will have to play to its advantages. Its main advantage, to put it bluntly, has always been numbers - and increasingly so, as the faction membership topped 500. In this context, as in so many others, solidarity is crucial - and it is obvious who is in direst need of it just now. Richard Seymour and China Miéville are transparently being set up for expulsion, and the hope will be, no doubt, that the other hard-core troublemakers will follow them away.
Taking Callinicos’s bait, then, is suicide - at least if the IDOP majority are sincere in their desire to “continue to fight”. It would mean - at best - acceding to a six-month ceasefire, during which time any remaining damage to the apparat would be repaired, and any remaining momentum for the opposition steamrollered by a renewed bout of characteristic SWP hyper-activism. This stitched-up, sick parody of a conference will then truly be where it all ended - the last moment of the last fight for the soul of the SWP.
Instead, the comrades should up the stakes - and close ranks around those threatened with expulsions. If Seymour is expelled, everyone from Pat Stack to Rob Owen should say, with one voice, then we all walk. If the SWP leadership is genuinely concerned about losing 500 members overnight (perhaps, even in their recent paranoid delirium, Callinicos and Charlie Kimber genuinely are), then they will blink. Frankly, they will be out of ideas.
If they do not, then they will quite simply kill their organisation - but in a sense they have already dealt the mortal blow, by determining that the grip of Alex Callinicos and his closest allies to the reins of power in the SWP is more important than the political authority of their organisation in wider society. The whole world knows, now, how they run things; how intolerant they are of the slightest challenge to their power; how pitifully small the SWP Potemkin village is compared to its ludicrous claims of 7,000-plus members. The two possible responses to this situation are a visible and genuine attempt to radically overhaul the organisation (the task of the opposition); or a further retreat into the self-delusion of the Potemkin village.
This latter is the truth of the Callinicos-Kimber promise that ‘great things can be done, if we only get over these internal squabbles’. The SWP crisis is a distraction from building up the resistance to the Tories and the far right, and so on, and so forth - so we had better get back to building Unite the Resistance and Unite Against Fascism!
This will be a tempting lure to many in the SWP opposition. The truth, however, is the reverse: Unite the Resistance is a distraction from fighting the Tories. It is not the next Stop the War Coalition, or the next rank-and-file experiment in the great ‘IS tradition’. It is a stillborn front, in a long line of stillborn fronts, which exists more or less exclusively to boost the SWP’s self-image. UAF is not stillborn, but its politics will never stamp out ‘the Nazis’, who will spring back precisely as long as capitalism survives. The fervent activity dedicated to this work - along with countless other minor SWP campaigns - is in reality inward-looking but just not smart enough to realise it. These campaigns certainly make zero difference in that much-vaunted ‘real world’ I hear so much about.
Alternatively, if the SWP really does take a good long look at itself, and embarks on a serious round of self-criticism, the human resources are there - the talent and the energy - to really make a difference. It can only do so if the parish council of this Potemkin village is purged.
The raw material for making this happen are the same comrades we met earlier, filing into a meeting room. Let us now imagine them filing out - of the conference itself, in lieu of a serious commitment to seriously fight the sham results it has produced. Where do they go now? Some will stay in the SWP, in spite of everything, and become cynical. Some will leave, and be attracted to the many varieties of watered-down broad-leftism on offer, or anarchism, or some other ideology which represents more abrupt a dead end than the IS tradition itself.
A decent slice, regrettably, will be disillusioned to the point of overt and irreconcilable hostility to the left - and, where they do not take this attitude out of the movement altogether, will reappear as witch-hunters in the unions and the Labour Party (there are simply too many examples of this ‘switcheroo’, hailing from the SWP and elsewhere, for its likelihood to be understated here).
The leadership looks certain to win the day on Sunday - but it won the day at the national committee meeting a month ago, and we all know how that turned out. There is still time to fight - to save the SWP, and its members, from the different political oblivions that threaten them. Let us hope the opposition finds enough strength to do so.