SWP factions: Two errors of the opposition
SWP lynchers were emboldened by a weak opposition, argues Eddie Ford
Various commentators and bloggers, whether prematurely or not, are already busily writing obituaries of the SWP. For instance, A Very Public Sociologist claims that it only took a few hundred votes to “kill the SWP” and acerbically notes that it “takes some mean manoeuvring to pack a meeting with your supporters when your own team is outnumbered”. He also says, with some truth, that “characteristically for all gatherings on which the fates of organisations turn” it is something of a “tepid, drippy affair” redolent of the official closing of the original CPGB, the shutting down of the Socialist Alliance, and the winding up of his school’s chess club.1
Sadly, it seems that the SWP spring is over - though admittedly it was a very pale imitation of Tahrir Square. The apparatus has regained control. Full-spectrum dominance, at least in the bureaucratic dreams of Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber. Presumably, now that the opposition has been roundly defeated, members can gratefully return to the ‘real world’ that the SWP central committee loves to talk about so much - like building for the next demonstration or meeting, flogging the next boring issue of Socialist Worker, mindlessly chasing the tail of the English Defence League, etc.
At the beginning of the week the resignations started. The world’s “smallest mass party”, as the SWP’s Ian Birchall once put it,2 is getting smaller. Nine members of the Brighton and Sussex Socialist Worker Student Society exited stage left, while dozens of members have signed a collective resignation letter on the grounds that they are “not prepared to accept or abide” by the decisions of the special conference.3
Amongst those who resigned were comrades Richard Seymour and China Miéville, the latter two being the effective leaders - the most militant agitators - of the (“Sino-Seymourite”) rebellion against the CC. The party’s “future brain trust”, as one blogger phrased it. As regular readers will know, comrade Seymour has especially helped to foment the anti-CC uprising - hosting numerous opposition posts and documents on his own well known Lenin’s Tomb blog and then setting up the explicitly oppositionist International Socialism blog.4 He and the other radicals or ‘hards’ in the Democratic Opposition faction eventually joined the larger but ‘softer’ In Defence of Our Party (IDOP), forming the Democratic Renewal platform within it.
In justifying his resignation, comrade Seymour remarks that he is “simply astounded” by how “inadequate, corrupt, stupid, narrow-mindedly bureaucratic and delusional” the SWP leadership has proven to be - to the extent that, “having done a Jonestown”5, they actually “think they’ve just triumphed”.6 He has now formed a new “discussion list” or “initial platform”, the International Socialist Network, committed to keeping alive the “best aspects” of the International Socialist tradition7 (apparently, the CC has actually spent the money and effort to go around buying up internet domain names such as ‘internationalsocialistnetwork.org.uk’ in a wretchedly petty and ultimately futile effort to disrupt the net presence of the new grouping).
What comrade Seymour says is quite correct, of course. The CC’s March 11 Party Notes may not be the longest suicide note in history, but it is certainly a sort of last will and testament - the leadership’s days are numbered. Having said that, the SWP will limp on in a bureaucratic half-life for quite some time yet - a ghastly monument to sectarianism.
Yet comrade Seymour’s resignation is in some respects symptomatic of the mistaken general approach adopted by the opposition - jumping before he was pushed. Instead comrade Seymour and the others, with doubtlessly many more resignations to come, should have dug into their fox-holes and made life as difficult as possible for the bureaucracy by forcing the CC to expel them - a far more ugly and costly path for the leadership. More awkward questions would have been asked, protests held. But just walking out in such a manner let the bureaucracy off the hook.
CPGBers have criticised many of the tactics pursued by the opposition. But it is possible to identify two fatal errors - which made defeat virtually inevitable. Firstly there was the IDOP decision to insist that all its supporters cease public criticism of the CC - that could now only take place through the faction’s own documents, mostly moderate in tone and officially circulated by the CC itself. This meant the closure of the blog set up by comrade Seymour. With that fateful decision, the opposition clearly lost the initiative.
Up until then, International Socialism had been the greatest weapon they possessed - exposing and undermining the cynical lies of the CC on a near daily basis. Not only that: it provided an essential outlet for oppositional articles, documents, model resolutions, etc - helping to fan the flames of dissent, much to the anger of the leadership. Of course, the fact that opposition comrades writing for it were using their real names was a massive bonus - especially when we were dealing with respected and talented comrades like Seymour and Miéville. This had the effect of emboldening those beginning to move into semi-opposition and winning over wavering elements to the side of the rebels. Incendiary stuff.
Now, it was a perfectly correct tactic for comrade Seymour and the other DO ‘radicals’ to join IDOP. By joining a wider grouping, it was more than reasonable to think that they made themselves less vulnerable to CC reprisal - safety in numbers. But what the IDOP leadership should not have done is demand that the comrades close down the IS blog as a condition of faction membership - big mistake. It was a mistake too for comrades Seymour and Miéville to accede to that demand - even if they did get to have their own DR platform within IDOP. They should have refused to close down the blog.
In fact, the opposition as a whole should have done the exact opposite - stepping up the attack, doubling the number of posts, holding more meetings and so on. You can only fight fire with fire. But from the start, IDOP leaders were seeking a ‘reasonable compromise’ with the CC in order to put the whole unpleasant business behind them. Shake hands like ladies and gentleman. Hence IDOP’s disgraceful decision not to support the Facebook Four - the comrades expelled just before the January 4-6 annual conference for discussing whether to form a faction. For IDOP that would have rocked the boat too much.
Instead, they should have threatened the CC. Not threats of physical violence, of course - we leave that to the apparatus and Alex Callinicos’s “lynch mobs”. Rather, the threat of solidarity - of walking out in a collective and disciplined manner if the bureaucracy went for the throats of Seymour, Miéville, etc. Possibly, though now we will never know, even the SWP leadership might have blinked at the thought of losing 532 members or more overnight.
No, closing down the IS blog sent out a sign of weakness to the CC.SWP leaders may be venal cowards, but they know an opportunity when they see one. Predictably, the apparatus became more intolerant and arrogant. Now we see the ramifications of that decision. Alex and his “lynch mobs”, despite the sugary words of Party Notes, are not thinking compromise and reconciliation, but revenge and retaliation.
The opposition’s other error was, if anything, worse. Namely, conceding that the special conference was “legitimate” - when, of course, it was totally gerrymandered in a fashion that would have made an old Ulster Unionist feel proud. Ironically, this was something pointed out by prominent IDOP comrades Mike Gonzalez and Megan Trudell - both veteran SWP members. IDOP circulated their forthright document on March 8 denouncing the “heavily rigged” conference and attacking the CC which has “battered, attacked and ultimately removed people without compunction”.8 A remarkable document in many ways, given the comrades’ tendency to pull their punches during the faction’s short existence.
Yet a mere day later a pusillanimous ‘clarification’ was sent out by IDOP saying that “to avoid possible misunderstandings” it was necessary to “emphasise that we are not suggesting that the special conference is illegitimate”. Rather, it transpires, IDOP only has “concerns about the way in which delegates were selected” - talk about the understatement of the century. Full of sweet innocence, admiring the beautiful green sky on their planet, the comrades were full of confidence that conference “will resolve the question of the dispute” itself and “hope that lively political discussion” will continue in the SWP. Some hope.
Yes, it seems the comrades did - just for a day - allow themselves to be brave or honest enough to call the special conference what it is, a “heavily rigged” sham. An outrage that violates the norms of working class democracy. Naturally, Charlie Kimber thoroughly approved of their ‘clarification’ - the CC, amazingly, “agrees that there should be no suggestion that the conference is illegitimate” and the “decisions of the conference will be binding on us all”, he righteously wrote. We are all equal but some are a lot more equal than others.
Sorry, comrades - you were right the first time. The conference was illegitimate. Loyalist delegates outnumbered oppositionists by three to one, thanks to elections being determined on a more or less winner-takes-all basis at aggressive and intimidating aggregates (or pseudo-aggregates) that disenfranchised the opposition.
In reality, the CC right from the beginning used its bureaucratic machine and 100 full-timers - paid for by the entire membership, remember - for its own narrow factional purposes. It anti-democratically utilised the resources of the organisation as a bureaucratic bludgeon against the opposition, which never stood a chance despite the very narrow difference in support enjoyed by the rival lists - 532 or more for IDOP and around 600 for the CC.
In the end, IDOP’s effective disowning of the DR ‘radicals’ who opposed the conference due to its manifest illegitimacy was interpreted by the CC - quite rightly - as yet another sign of weakness. Go for the kill.
The truth of the matter is that the SWP opposition, most obviously in the shape of IDOP, just lacked the necessary strategy and courage to take on the apparatus - it did not have fire in its belly or the politics to do the job. In this context, softness and vacillation proved to be suicidal.
5. Jonestown was a ‘people’s temple’ in north-western Guyana espousing “apostolic socialism”. Formed and led by Jim Jones, it became internationally notorious in November 1978 when 918 people committed what Jones called “revolutionary suicide” - all but two dying from cyanide poisoning.