SWP special conference: Apparatus uses fair means and foul
Peter Manson asks what can still be saved from the SWP
As everyone had expected, the Socialist Workers Party central committee won hands down at the March 10 special conference in London. The next day, dozens of oppositionists announced their resignation.
The CC had itself called the conference following the rank-and-file rebellion over the SWP’s handling of rape allegations against ‘comrade Delta’ in the weeks following the January 4-6 annual conference and had done everything in its power, using fair means and foul, to ensure a large majority for itself. In the event, every vote was won by a margin of around three to one.
According to the internal Party Notes, “the central committee main motion was backed by 77% of delegates (483 for, 133 against, 13 abstentions) and another motion amending the constitution was also passed overwhelmingly” (March 11). The first restated the CC position that everything about the Delta case had been handled correctly and deprecated the ‘factionalising’ that had been going on over the question. It demanded that “all factions and ‘platforms’ disband immediately after the conclusion of this conference and instructs party members involved in producing blogs on internal debates such as the International Socialism site to take them down immediately after the conclusion of this conference”.
The motion amending the constitution was aimed at closing the loophole which enabled the opposition to organise after the regular January conference, by specifying that a faction may only be formed “during a pre-conference period”. It also laid down a 28-day maximum period for the receipt of branch motions demanding a special conference. A special conference can be called if 20% of branches demand it - but only if they get their act together and all do so simultaneously. And, of course, if rank-and-file branches actually communicate with each other to try and coordinate this, they will undoubtedly be guilty of factionalising! Ah well.
Party Notes states: “Over 1,000 comrades took part in the aggregates which elected the delegates to conference”. This adds to the picture allowing us to estimate the true size of the SWP membership. The officially recognised In Defence of Our Party (IDOP) faction had recruited over 500 supporters, while more than 600 signed a statement in support of the CC. No doubt a few hundred others stood back from the battle, but I am sure readers will agree that the overall total comes nowhere near the SWP’s claimed “registered membership” of more than 7,000. The organisation clearly had under 2,000 members.
But now a sizable chunk, organised by the International Socialism blog around Richard Seymour and China Miéville, have called it a day. As I write, 98 comrades have signed the open resignation letter. They state that “the SWP leadership has done everything it can to silence members’ genuine concerns”, including:
- Expelling four comrades for discussing concerns about how the rape allegation was handled
- Gerrymandering and abusing bureaucratic measures in conference, aggregates and district meetings
- Sitting back whilst central committee supporters have bullied the complainants, their supporters and any member of the opposition.
The declaration concludes: “We are not prepared to accept or abide by the decisions of the special conference. The conference is a bureaucratic victory which will only lead to the demise of the SWP.”1 The comrades have set up a new International Socialist Network, which is also open to those who have chosen to remain SWP members.
For its part, the leadership acts as though it has just got over a little local difficulty - there is not a hint of the crisis that has wracked the organisation in national secretary Charlie Kimber’s 600-word report in Socialist Worker (March 16). Nor does the CC express any regret about any aspect of its behaviour, including its handling of the ‘comrade Delta’ affair.
Comrade Kimber’s article begins: “This is a crucial time for the working class. And it poses big questions for the left.” Almost half of the article is written in this vein and he concludes: “The party has been through an intense period of internal debate. It is now crucial it turns outwards.” After all, delegates had “expressed confidence in the SWP’s democratic method of full discussion before making major decisions and then every member implementing them”.
In reality, of course, the CC’s “democratic method” consists of fixing the terms of any debate in its own favour by preventing the free exchange of ideas amongst the membership. No discussion of SWP matters is permitted outside official structures and only temporary factions are tolerated. In the battle that began over Delta, the leadership refused to debate the real issues and resorted to slurs and charges of guilt by association against oppositionists.
Its version of democratic centralism (in reality bureaucratic centralism) means that members are obliged to publicly mouth the official line (on the Delta case, for instance), even when they know it to be untrue. According to the CC, writing in the Pre-conference Bulletin put out before the special conference, “every member is bound to uphold and defend the decision of conference in any public forum in which it is discussed, including online. If these norms of party behaviour are breached, we expect comrades to support and defend disciplinary action up to and including expulsion to enforce the will of the party as a whole.”2
By contrast, genuine democratic centralism obliges members to support agreed actions, not lie through their teeth about the SWP’s handling of a disciplinary case. And, when it comes to implementing conference decisions, the CC itself feels free to ignore them. Such as the unanimous vote in January to support the leadership’s perspectives for students. Just two days later these were overturned - by the CC.
In truth, the leadership’s victory is a hollow one. The SWP now looks destined to stumble from crisis to crisis, for things can never be the same again. By that I mean that many remaining members - no matter how much they pledged their loyalty to the leadership - have had their eyes opened. They have seen that the existing order can be questioned, and many must have a sneaking suspicion that it is indefensible. Just look at the kind of absurdities CC supporters have been coming up with - can anyone take them seriously?
For example, what had loyalists to say about the right to free communication amongst members? In the Pre-conference Bulletin distributed before March 10 - the bulletins provide the only opportunity comrades have to put forward their views to the SWP membership at large - the CC wrote of the opposition: “If it had been allowed to operate as it wished, it would have meant 11 months of a faction inside our party, with all that involves - factional meetings, speaking rights at district events and the distribution of documents to members. It is likely that other factions would have formed on the same basis, turning our party away from external intervention and towards internal matters.”
What a pathetic, philistine statement. As if debating at meetings or in documents is a waste of time and somehow antithetical to “external intervention”. All Marxists know that the two go together and both are essential.
But many CC supporters were prepared to back up their leaders in the bulletin. According to one comrade, “Debate and disagreements inside our party have always been robust and argued openly. This has been through our internal democracy of branch meetings, aggregates, conferences, in pubs and cafés after paper sales and meetings and in our publications.” However, “The turn to using blogs and Facebook to conduct political debate (and attack the party) has been one of the most pernicious developments in this period.” So says “Talat (Edinburgh)” - only the first names of contributors are given.
“Richard (Coventry)” compared the “indiscipline” of publicly debating internal matters with disclosing information on delicate matters of negotiation between a trade union and a company. For him, “It is not up to individuals to impose their choice of a public debate on the rest of the membership.” Yes, he is serious: only the CC can say what topics may be discussed within the SWP: “We can’t go on for much longer with a minority in the party holding the rest of us to ransom with their constant leaking to and posting on the internet, etc.” Holding them to ransom? By talking about politics?
A group of loyalists claimed that “… the use of such social media does not allow greater debate within a revolutionary organisation: it simply allows those who don’t share the same set of revolutionary ideas to shape that debate in ways which would not be possible if the debate had been had within the structures of the party’s own organisational communication networks.”
But everyone should have the right to put forward their ideas and thus attempt to “shape the debate”. And why is this seen to be in contradiction to having the same ideas debated through “the party’s” official channels? Unless, of course, the CC feels the need to control dissenting views (and suppress them outside the pre-conference period).
How about “Simon (Manchester)”? He writes that the internet “has been used in an undemocratic way, giving a minority a disproportionately loud voice. This should not escape party discipline.” That is like saying that those who speak out at meetings have a “disproportionately loud voice” compared to those who choose to keep quiet.
Former SWP loyalist and chair of the disputes committee Pat Stack, who was one of IDOP’s main spokespersons, had two contributions in the bulletin.
He asked in the first: “… is drawing up delegate election lists in a way that seeks to ensures the 40% will be woefully underrepresented at conference really a good example of democratic centralism in action? Or is it likely to lead a whole swathe of younger members to think that the term is just cover for bureaucratic manoeuvre. (It also suggests a very brittle and unconfident leadership, but that’s another question.)”
An obvious criticism - and one that even hardened loyalists will be hard put to dismiss. As everyone knows, the CC, far from attempting to facilitate a full debate at conference, deliberately manoeuvred to keep away key opposition speakers - for example, by persuading “registered members” who had not been seen for years to turn up to the aggregates and vote down oppositionists as delegates. A majority of one vote was translated into 100% of delegates.
In his second contribution, comrade Stack pointed to the employment of such control-freakery in another SWP body - the disputes committee: “Having chaired the committee for a number of years, it had become increasingly clear to me that many of the procedures were unsatisfactory and were weighted very heavily in favour of the complainants (most often the complainants were the CC, as most complaints either came directly from them or were passed through them).
“The charged comrade would often face a vague, catch-all charge like ‘bringing the party into disrepute’, and would receive no written clarification of the charge. This meant on the day they turned up, they would verbally receive the specifics of the charge for the first time, and were not allowed to be in the room to hear the main complainant or any of the witnesses.”
Some people might suspect that such a procedure was designed to push through the leadership’s wishes at all costs. But at least comrade Stack saw through it - eventually.
The current crisis has facilitated the questioning of long-held SWP ‘truths’ on the nature of genuine democratic centralism. In the bulletin, “John (East Devon, Somerset and Dorset)” noted:
“Alex [Callinicos] seeks to persuade us that the current SWP model of democratic centralism, one that has been largely unchanged for over 40 years, is a direct descendant of that of the Bolsheviks in 1917. This is just not true. That Bolshevik leadership was not elected by a slate system; Bolshevik internal debate was intense with differences in the public domain on fundamental questions.” He quotes Trotsky from The revolution betrayed as saying: “The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions.”
For his part, “Justin (Cambridge)” correctly stated: “… the IDOP and Democratic Renewal factions should be represented on a new, proportionally representative, central committee. Factions should be given polemical space in party publications, not least Socialist Worker. That would be genuine Leninism. Argument, discussion, thinking should be considered inevitable, natural and healthy.”
And “Damon (Tyneside)” highlighted the SWP’s intrinsic sectarianism: “… if we want to be a serious and attractive force on the left, to build the struggle and the party, we need the SWP to be the least sectarian place on the left. At present, we’re at pains to even acknowledge that other groups even exist!”
The bulletin also brought to light the fact that there was, and still is, a large pool of comrades who can be won to working class morality and democracy. A number of contributors were either waverers between the two contending factions or uncertain in their support for the CC.
For example, “Roger (Huddersfield)” commented that “The four former full-time comrades who were expelled behaved really badly and undemocratically before the national conference, and I supported their expulsion despite some doubts about its timing and severity.” But by the end of his piece he comes to the conclusion that “in the actual circumstances it looks like the overreaction of a leadership which felt vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, “Tony (Black Country)” cried: “I urge the CC and the In Defence of Our Party faction to attempt and seek some common ground”; while “Tom (North London)” wrote: “I’ve been following the debate about the handling of the rape allegation against X with growing unease. I’m not convinced by either side.” For his part, “Jonathan N” pleaded for even-handedness: “If you support the opposition, realise that 600 or more comrades have thought long and hard and carefully about this, because it really matters to them, and they do not agree with you. They are not slaves, or bullied. They really think you are wrong. And the other way round. Why do 500 people, who have thought long and hard, back the opposition? Whichever side you are on, if you can’t see why so many disagree with you, you can’t understand what is happening.”
Even “John (East Anglia and Norwich)”, who is four-square behind the CC - complaining of the opposition’s “breathtaking hypocrisy” - concludes by saying: “The party’s publications need to be opened up in a much bigger way than currently exists to those party members who find themselves differing with the CC/majority: we would all benefit from a vigorous debate over such issues as feminism, the internet and democratic centralism.”
Of course, such comrades are easy meat for an unchallenged leadership. But, the moment some new form of opposition arises, once more they will be plagued by doubt. After all, it does not take a genius to point to the ‘flaws’ and ‘weaknesses’ of the CC line.
The old-style SWP is gone forever. “The party” is facing either a long, slow death or, despite the departure of the current hard oppositionists, further crises, rebellions and fragmentation. We must do everything in our power to save the SWP - not as it is, but as a component of the future revolutionary party our class so desperately needs.