SWP: In decay and in denial
Peter Manson contrasts the speakers lists for Marxism 2013 and Counterfire
A month or so later than usual, the timetable for the Socialist Workers Party’s annual school, Marxism, has finally been published. Titled ‘Exploring the world in turmoil’, Marxism 2013 will be held over what is virtually a long weekend - starting at 2pm on Thursday July 11, with the opening rally later that evening, and finishing at 1pm on Monday July 15.
The reason for the delay is obvious: the leadership - unable to persuade a good number of those you might expect to speak to do so this year - has been having difficulty filling the vacant spaces. There are, of course, a number of reasonably well known leftwingers - economist Alan Freeman, US author and International Socialist Organization member Paul Le Blanc, Egyptian economist Samir Amin (who “exceptionally” supported the imperialist intervention in Mali last year) and academic Gilbert Achcar (who thought about withdrawing, but then decided against doing so, as explained in his widely circulated comment, ‘Why I decided to maintain my participation in the SWP’s Marxism 2013’).1
Also speaking are authors Sally Campbell, Radhika Desai, Anne Alexander, Kevin Doogan and Fred Pearce; and a number of union leaders, the most prominent of whom is Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes. The others are Liz Lawrence, president elect of the University and College Union, Jerry Hicks, defeated left candidate for Unite general secretary, Jane Aitchison, president of the Public and Commercial Services Union department for work and pensions section, and Ian Hodson, president of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union. But none of the above are exactly challenging when it comes to strategic thinking.
Contrast this to the event this coming weekend organised by Counterfire, the organisation set up by former SWP leaders John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham. Counterfire’s ‘Dangerous ideas for dangerous times’ lasts less than two days - 2pm on Friday May 31 until 7.30pm on Saturday June 1 - but it features Terry Eagleton (according to Wikipedia, “widely regarded as the United Kingdom’s most influential living literary critic”2), Paul Gilroy, leading scholar on race, racism and culture, former SWP member (left to help form Counterfire) and Marxist historian Neil Faulkner, plus a whole number of familiar names you might normally expect to appear on a Marxism platform - Owen Jones, Clare Solomon, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, David Harvey, Laurie Penny, Jeremy Corbyn, Andrew Murray, Lee Jasper, Seumas Milne …
So why are the above not speaking at Marxism? Well, those absent friends - like John McDonnell MP, who stated in a three-word Tweet, “I’m not attending” - are not exactly rushing to tell us the reason, but anyone on the left will tell you why: something called the ‘comrade Delta’ affair, when a leading SWP member was cleared of raping a young comrade by a ‘committee of his mates’, otherwise known as the Disputes Committee. The central committee completely botched the handling of this case, which the DC was totally unsuited to investigate - even if some of its members had not previously worked closely with comrade Delta and had not wanted him kept within the leadership circle.
As a result, all sorts of insults were hurled at the SWP by feminists and others, who claimed that the SWP as a whole was not a ‘safe space’ for women and that the comrade Delta affair proved that sexism was rife within the organisation. It did no such thing, of course. It proved (once again) that the SWP is a bureaucratically controlled sect with unaccountable leaders. But for a whole swathe of the left the SWP could no longer be touched.
So Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos have had to resort to calling upon far more of the SWP’s own members to lead Marxism sessions - including oppositionists like Mike Gonzalez, Pat Stack and Neil Davidson (who is also speaking at the Counterfire event, by the way).
To give you an idea of the extent to which the SWP has been forced to scrape the barrel, this is from the latest SWP internal bulletin: “Speakers confirmed include Peter Hain MP, talking about his recent documentary on the Marikana massacre; Tommy Sheridan, chair of the All-Scotland Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation; Jerry Hicks; Petros Constantinou from the KEERFA movement against racism and fascism in Greece; and many others.”3
Petros Constantinou? Is he a headline speaker? And a centre-left Labourite like the former minister Peter Hain? Perhaps he will rise above crude apologetics, but is he really an authoritative speaker on working class politics in South Africa? And what about Tommy Sheridan, who is speaking on ‘How can we stop the Tories’ assault on welfare?’
Comrade Sheridan, as I am sure every Weekly Worker will know, is not most well known for his prominence in the campaign against the bedroom tax. This former member of the Scottish Parliament, convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party and dynamic working class leader is notorious for splitting the SSP over his insistence on denying details of his private sex life published in the News of the World. Although comrade Sheridan won his defamation case in 2006, he was subsequently convicted of perjury and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011, before being released a year later.
I am not suggesting that his disgraceful behaviour in putting his own claim to be a ‘respectable family man’ before the interest of the working class movement ought to disbar him from speaking at working class events - although it has to be said that he has none of the standing he had before the disastrous defamation case. But the SWP leadership seems oblivious to the fact that, for the same feminist-inspired milieu that wants Marxism boycotted, comrade Sheridan is almost as bad as comrade Delta. Unlike Delta, comrade Sheridan has never been accused of a serious sexual offence, but he has actually been revealed as a serial womaniser who frequented sex clubs and so, in the eyes of that same feminist milieu, he must have regarded young women as ‘sex objects’.
I suspect that the Sheridan session at Marxism might be popular for (from the CC point of view) all the wrong reasons. If you were going to stage some sort of protest against ‘SWP sexism’, then this would be the perfect occasion.
Has the leadership considered this? It is quite possible that it has not. Almost alone in the world, the CC pretends that a “line has been drawn” under the Delta affair and everything has ‘returned to normal’. Even though the affair sparked a huge rebellion, with at least half the active membership aligning themselves with the opposition, the CC claims that its rigged victory at the March 10 special conference has signalled the end of all ‘inward-looking’ controversy. It did not even report to the membership the resignation of well over 100 comrades following the special conference, let alone try to explain it or justify its own behaviour. According to ‘Hebe’, a contributor to the new The Fault Lines opposition blog, at a recent meeting of the 50-strong SWP national committee, the leadership admitted that “350 people had left the party”4 (Hebe thinks the true figure is considerably higher).
SWP leaders want the remaining membership to believe that the raging controversy of the last year is now a thing of the past. Perhaps they actually believe this themselves. Of course, as has been shown by, for example, the formation of The Fault Lines and the continued publication of critical articles, such as Mike Gonzalez’s ‘Who will teach the teachers?’,5 the opposition is far from dead and a huge number of questions about the nature of the SWP are still to be resolved.
In other words, the SWP itself ought to be a topic for discussion at Marxism. A democratic, open and above all serious working class organisation would host an honest debate about how the SWP matches up to the revolutionary party in embryo it claims to be. Imagine Neil Davidson debating Joseph Choonara not on ‘Has neoliberalism changed the working class?’ (July 13, 3.45pm), but on the internal SWP regime. Now that would really be worth listening to.
3. Party Notes May 27.