SWP: Opposition springs back to life
The fightback must be principled and programmatically armed, urges Peter Manson
The Weekly Worker has previously pointed out that, however much the Socialist Workers Party central committee insists that the March 10 special conference had determined to “draw a line” under the bitter disputes and factional alignments of the recent past, things could never be the same again. There could be no return to ‘business as usual’, where the cadre simply respond to CC exhortations to get active and forget such key questions as the oppressive and totally undemocratic nature of the internal regime.
When well over 100 comrades announced their collective resignation from the SWP after the special conference, going on to form the International Socialist Network, the leadership did not even report this to the membership, let alone comment. A line had been drawn and that was that.
But the problems involved in behaving in such a way are obvious: a membership that has just emerged from the most intense period of internal debate in decades will not lightly comply with CC demands for unthinking activism. The fact that the leadership has not commented on the split does not mean it has not happened - just about every SWP member knew about it anyway, and the CC’s silence brought yet more discredit upon itself.
It was a mistake of the ISN comrades to walk out, just as it was a mistake of the opposition In Defence of Our Party faction (IDOP) to meekly close down after conference in accordance with SWP rules. But it was only a matter of time before forces within the opposition would reorganise and once more launch an open campaign for free speech, for open debate and for SWP democracy in defiance of the leadership.
And now it has happened. Last week a group of SWP comrades “who opposed the leadership’s handling of the crisis that enveloped the organisation” set up The Fault Lines blog.1 The comrades write enthusiastically in their founding statement about “the experience of being part of the opposition that kept many of us as members”. They passionately recall how they were “energised by the comradely spirit, inspired by the debate and discussion, welcomed as people who could make valuable contributions, regardless of length of time spent in the party. It felt like an organisation we wanted to be part of.” Key questions were being “debated as if for the first time” and the whole SWP was “buzzing with creativity, energy and political insight”.2
Why would anyone want to end such an experience? It should be the normal state of affairs for revolutionaries, for whom the constant regeneration of ideas informs practice and actually helps unite us. But not in the SWP, where communication between members across the organisation is only permitted - in a carefully controlled way - in a narrow, three-month slot before conference (the March 10 gathering tightened up the wording in the constitution to ensure that there is no longer any ambiguity about this crippling restriction, after it had been directly called into question by oppositionists campaigning for a special conference).
So the “space available for discussion and debate inevitably closed and we are left with a choice of ‘wait in silence’ or quietly leave the organisation. We intend to do neither.” That is the firm and principled declaration of The Fault Lines comrades. In a further statement a few days later they ask rhetorically: “Are we expected to keep quiet until October [the start of the next pre-conference period] and then, like a jack-in-a-box, spring up with fully formed arguments and perspectives?” Of course not. After all, the situation is urgent: “without quick, serious change, the SWP will no longer be any vehicle for working class struggle”.3
All communists, all revolutionary democrats will welcome this new development. But it is only a first step, however positive. As the comrades write, “we don’t necessarily agree in totality how we go forwards, or our individual analysis of what went so badly wrong”. The aim now, therefore, is to “provide a space where comrades can explore and discuss the range of issues with which we are now faced”, including, significantly, “What should a revolutionary organisation look like?”
In fact there is a strong possibility that they do not agree at all on how to “go forwards”. What unites them is a common abhorrence of SWP internal practice, not a clear vision for a genuine Marxist party fighting for a genuine Marxist programme. In a sense that is natural - the SWP regime has been antithetical to the development of such a vision. But it will mean that collective excitement could give way to a sense of anti-climax, if the blog merely becomes the vehicle for numerous, inevitably eclectic, ideas and criticisms. There is an urgent need to bring people together around a coherent alternative programme - a fully fledged faction, in other words. But at the moment the nearest we get to a programmatic statement is: “We deeply value the International Socialist tradition”.
There are, it goes without saying, encouraging signs of new thinking. For example, ‘Comrade Layla’ writes: “I have come to the conclusion that a revolutionary party such as the SWP can no longer base itself on the mantra of state capitalism (as important as it is to me). Even when we have people who agree with us on state capitalism (Rees, German, etc), we split with them. So it burns down to a question of perspectives, revolutionary trust and the tenet of socialism from below.”4
Or ‘Senex’, who declares: “The goal is a mass party, [with] a decent leavening of the best comrades carrying into that organisation something of the IS tradition. The large majority of the potential members of the party are neither in the SWP right now, nor in any other organisation” (my emphasis).5
Theory and practice
In a separate development, a comrade associated with the IDOP opposition, SWP veteran and Latin American specialist Mike Gonzalez, has written a highly critical document that has been widely circulated on the internet.6 Comrade Gonzalez not only describes the SWP’s democratic failings, and the total absence of vigorous debate, but identifies one of the basic causes: the “growing gap between our theory and our practice”, in that “the experience of the real world does not consistently inform or shape our theoretical development”.
He gives the example of the SWP’s attitude to the trade union movement and the need to resist austerity. He locates a “serious contradiction” that has arisen in the absence of any theoretical underpinning: “… in reality we appear often to be working with the bureaucracy at various levels in developing initiatives which are essentially top-down, while at the same time denouncing the trade union bureaucracy”. He refers to the SWP leadership’s “quite dangerous assumption” - that “the working class is essentially combative, but is constantly held back by the bureaucrats”. That, says comrade Gonzalez, was “the narrative on November 30 2011”. However, “When the predicted rise in the level of working class resistance did not appear, there was no explanation - only a sort of repetition of the same narrative in the hope that something would happen.”
Comrade Gonzalez talks of the “extraordinarily rich theoretical tradition on which the SWP stands” and in a sense that is true. The International Socialists were indeed characterised by the development of new ideas, however flawed.
Think of how the theory of state capitalism came about - through the rejection of the orthodox Trotskyite view that the USSR remained some kind of workers’ state. Of course, despite the fact that partisans of the “IS tradition” - whether loyalists or oppositionists - still swear by the theory, it always was totally unsatisfactory as an explanation of the Soviet Union, which bore no resemblance whatsoever to capitalism of any kind. In the USSR there was no real money, let alone anything resembling the law of value. Nevertheless, the development of this new theory was based on a simple insight - the Soviet Union was not an example of socialism or the rule of the bourgeoisie, but a totally new type of society.
Comrade Gonzalez states that the SWP’s theory “has not developed as it should in recent times” (some might think this is an understatement). He says that “The experience of argument and discussion which was once the feature of the party’s internal political life, and the source of its political development, has now all but disappeared.”
And he quotes Duncan Hallas: “The self-education of militants is impossible in an atmosphere of sterile orthodoxy. Self-reliance and confidence in one’s ideas are developed in the course of that genuine debate that takes place in an atmosphere where differences are freely and openly argued. The ‘monolithic party’ is a Stalinist concept. Uniformity and democracy are mutually incompatible.”
But monolithism and uniformity have been virtually synonymous with the SWP, as the leadership has set up a whole apparatus and adopted routine measures to suppress opposition and perpetuate its own hold over the membership - “to the extent that it is now defending its own interests against the interests of the party and the class”. Yet “In the history of our movement it has been common for leading committees to reflect internal debates - for factions, for example, to be represented there. Why not now?”
Comrade Gonzalez links the SWP’s bureaucratic-centralist regime to the absence of theoretical renewal and strategic thinking: “The hostile and confrontational attitude towards party comrades over time has led to a deeply flawed strategy, or to be more accurate to an absence of strategy - a gap then filled by frenzied activity, and in particular paper-selling and campaigning around specifics.”
The Weekly Worker has pointed out on numerous occasions that the lack of any accountability on the part of the leadership is directly linked to the absence of an official programme.
But now another SWP veteran has revealed how, 40 years ago, a programme was in the final stages of development, but was suddenly ditched without explanation. Ian Birchall’s article, ‘The programme of the International Socialists 1972-1974’, recalls “the extensive discussion within IS” about the programme’s contents: “A substantial draft programme was prepared and discussed at several meetings of the national committee [equivalent of today’s CC]. A considerable amount of material debating the programme appeared in the monthly Internal Bulletins of this period.”
According to comrade Birchall, “The draft was taken to the 1973 conference, where it was remitted to the NC for further editing. This job was then given by the NC to a sub-committee consisting of [founder-leader Tony] Cliff, Duncan Hallas and myself. However, Cliff, without consulting the sub-committee, let alone the NC, passed it on to Roger Rosewell, who turned it into a pamphlet called The struggle for workers power.”
By the following year’s conference, the question of programme had been relegated in the IS list of priorities. The 1974 annual conference gave over just 30 minutes to discussing it and comrade Birchall recalls that it was adopted “more or less on the nod” - although he is not sure about this: “it may have been remitted again”. But “In any case it is my fairly clear recollection that nothing more was ever heard of the programme.”7
This story also points to the true nature of IS/SWP democracy even back then. How can a programme be adopted by conference and then quietly dropped? But since then things have deteriorated to such an extent that comrades considered oppositionists are met in their branches with insults and driven out of the organisation. And comrade Gonzalez is right: in the place of theory and strategy the leadership resorts to instrumentality - whatever might get the members active and (at least temporarily) enthused is used as a substitute.
The SWP has not been fit for purpose for a very long time. That is why the opposition must fight back with ideas. It must defy the CC’s ban on factions and the free exchange of ideas. It must champion a genuinely democratic culture, where questioning is regarded as normal, not akin to treachery.
6. ‘Who will teach the teachers?’: www.scribd.com/doc/141977026/Who-Will-Teach-the-Teachers-2?secret_password=2ecnhcy9zk0z2fgp8x8s.