The left: Loach makes his bid for unity
Can anything positive arise from the SWP crisis? Peter Manson believes it can if we stick to our principles
Ever since the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference in January, the central committee has been desperately trying to argue that a ‘line has been drawn’ under the ‘comrade Delta’ affair, when a former SWP leader was accused of raping a young comrade - and exonerated by a committee dominated by his friends and close collaborators.
True, the leadership was eventually forced by oppositionists coming together in a faction to ‘reopen’ the affair through a special conference and, after having gerrymandered the voting process for delegates, achieved a clear majority for itself on March 10. So that line was even more clearly drawn now and the CC insisted that there must be no more discussion about the bungled handling of the affair, the accountability of the leadership, the treatment of women in the SWP - conference had decided that everything is just fine.
As we have pointed out many times, this left SWP loyalists in an invidious position. What were they supposed to say when challenged by friends, family members or colleagues about Delta? The matter is now closed? Except that it was still being commented upon in dozens of blogs, in the national press and even on TV.
And then last week it turned out that the matter was not closed after all. Approached by The Guardian to respond to an article by Laurie Penny on the impending demise of the SWP, Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos decided to put up newly elected CC member Julie Sherry. Hence, while Socialist Worker and the internal Party Notes stubbornly maintain a Trappist vow of silence over Delta and the SWP’s splits and divisions, the ins and outs of the whole affair are being fought out in the bourgeois press. And, of course, the editors of The Guardian were ready and waiting with their very own ex-SWP columnist, Richard Seymour, with a response to Sherry’s reply. The whole farce reminds me of Militant Tendency back in 1991, when its two sides waged their polemics in the letters page of the same newspaper - and certainly not in Militant’s own press.
Anyway, Penny had said that the SWP was in danger of imploding because “its leadership cannot confront its own misogyny”,1 to which comrade Sherry replied: “The SWP isn’t sexist and it isn’t collapsing.” She continued: “… far from ‘convening its own court, comprised chiefly of the alleged attacker’s friends, to decide whether rape had occurred’, the party engaged a committee, elected by its annual conference, to deal with the issue … This committee reported its decisions to the next annual party conference, where members considered whether the matter had been dealt with properly … This is a world away from the culture of cover-up in organisations like the Catholic church, the BBC and the Liberal Democrats.”2
A gift for Seymour, who just happened to be the most effective SWP oppositionist before he led the resignation from the SWP of over 100 comrades immediately after the special conference. As he pointed out, “The leadership appointed two individuals to sit on the committee, both known loyalists of the accused. Most committee members knew the accused well over many years as friends, colleagues or direct political subordinates”.3 Seymour went on to outline how the CC had systematically tried to stop the affair being raised even within the SWP: “in the run-up to conference, members were prevented from discussing the case at party meetings. Four members who discussed their concerns about the case in a private Facebook exchange were expelled after the thread was leaked to the party leadership.”
This does not sit very easily with comrade Sherry’s denial of a “cover-up”. As comrade Seymour points out, “Sensing a narrow escape, the leadership attempted to shut down dissent. The central committee falsely claimed that conference had voted never to discuss the case again, and toured local meetings telling members to defend the line or get out.”
Comrade Seymour paints a dismal picture of the SWP’s future. Not only are there the resignations of those like himself, who have now set up the International Socialist Network, but comrades are abandoning the SWP “every day”, with many more resignations in the pipeline. Several Socialist Worker Student Societies have cut their ties with the SWP, support for the Unite the Resistance SWP front is “evaporating” and the “annual Marxism festival is looking to be a bleak, isolated affair”.
No doubt the CC had this last comment in mind when it declared in Party Notes: “Over 1,000 people have already booked their place for Marxism 2013.”4 Which is an unusual statistic, because normally the first big boost for Marxism bookings comes in the final week when discounts apply, and that final week had only just begun when the current Party Notes came out.
But it is typical of the SWP leadership that it cannot openly confront oppositional claims and arguments in its own publications, and so is forced to resort to such cryptic denials. Its pathetic ‘If you don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen’ attitude shows that it regards its own members as children - as if those members are not themselves following all the attacks and discussion of the SWP on the internet and in the media. As if every group of comrades, whether in their branches or informally, will not be talking about the crisis that has wreaked such damage. One shudders to think at the kind of regime the CC would impose on the population as a whole if it ever gained state power (thankfully not a likely prospect).
What a contrast to the attitude of the Bolsheviks. Lenin insisted that differences must be argued out publicly - not just before the membership, but before the whole class. In One step forward, two steps back he urged comrades to go through all the material related to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s 2nd Congress in 1903:
“It is the duty of every party member who wishes to take an intelligent share in the affairs of his party to make a careful study of our party congress. I say ‘study’ advisedly, for merely to read the mass of raw material contained in the minutes is not enough to obtain a picture of the congress. Only by careful and independent study can one reach (as one should) a stage where the brief digests of the speeches, the dry extracts from the debates, the petty skirmishes over minor (seemingly minor) issues will combine to form one whole, enabling the party member to conjure up the living figure of each prominent speaker and to obtain a full idea of the political complexion of each group of delegates to the party congress.”5
Unlike the Bolsheviks, the SWP leadership does not want members to familiarise themselves with the “political complexion” of the different SWP trends - in fact it would like to pretend that such trends do not exist. It does not want members to know who said what at conference - look at how it reacted to the publication of the transcript of the January session on ‘comrade Delta’.
But the CC will never again be able to enforce complete control over the members. The crisis has not only cost it dear in terms of resignations - an estimated 10%-20% have now departed - but almost half of those that remain are supporters of the now dissolved In Defence of Our Party faction, and they are hardly reconciled with the leadership.
The SWP needs nothing short of a political revolution. Only by overthrowing the entrenched apparatus can SWP members create an internal culture worthy of the name of socialism. A culture which, of course, would see Socialist Worker squarely facing the truth and opened up to genuine debate - from dissenting members as well as other comrades in the movement.
However, as the Weekly Worker has consistently argued, the answer does not lie within the SWP alone. Its members make up just one section, albeit a relatively important one, of the revolutionary left; and the crying need is for the creation of a single Marxist party based on genuine democratic centralism, where each trend, platform or faction has the right to publicly state its own politics, while implementing majority decisions. Where the minority has the right to fight to become the majority.
True, there have been numerous attempts to unite the left on the basis of politics other than Marxism, and the latest such attempt is Ken Loach’s Left Unity appeal, which now claims over 5,000 signatories.6 This news should not be greeted with a sectarian sneer or treated with haughty indifference. On the contrary, it is to be welcomed. And the revolutionary left should seek to actively involve itself in any unity process. Not unity for the sake of unity, but with the aim of winning the argument for a Communist Party armed with a Marxist programme.
Of course, it is very early days. Five thousand signatures are not 5,000 members and even 5,000 members is nothing compared with what objective circumstances call for. Naturally there will be those ‘Marxists’ who insist that the time is not right for Marxism, that Keynesianism, that rosy image of 1945 Labour, that a reformist government committed to rebuilding the NHS and the welfare state represent the ‘realistic’ option. We have heard that too many times from the likes of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Alliance for Green Socialism, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, etc. But if we do not fight we shall never win.
So we have some sympathy for what Paris Thompson, one of the ‘Facebook Four’, has written: “I believe that many, many activists that are currently non-aligned (and many that are) would be drawn into any new grouping, enticed by the prospect of a serious, united left party. This would not only provide a much needed realignment of the left and facilitate more coordinated work within the anti-cuts movement: it would also provide an audience for the ideas of the Marxist left.”
Comrade Thompson goes on to state: “The formation of a revolutionary communist party, which is a shared end goal of almost the entirety of the Marxist left, can only be hampered by the division of the left into innumerable sects and grouplets, each with their own shibboleths to defend ...
“… we should be aiming to draw in as many people as possible into a revolutionary unity project, which can seek to unite the far left on the basis of the many principles upon which we agree. The scale of the international crisis is not only making the possibility of Marxist unification a much more realistic prospect: it is making it an absolute necessity. I believe the IS Network should place itself at the centre of these discussions, and should see its role as bringing about a much needed realignment within the British working class movement.”7
The implication is clear. We support left unity as a step towards a Communist Party.
1. The Guardian March 12.
2. The Guardian March 21.
3. The Guardian March 22.
4. Party Notes March 25.