SWP crisis: Offering token concessions
As the crisis rumbles on, the SWP leadership admits it has gone through an extremely bruising period. Peter Manson reports on the central committees perspectives
It seems that the Socialist Workers Party has to a limited degree finally accepted reality: the crisis that has afflicted the organisation over the last few months has not been resolved and the repercussions rumble on. The central committee has at last admitted to the membership that there has been a split, with over 100 SWP members collectively announcing their resignations in March. It had previously ignored this parting of the ways, merely insisting that “a line has been drawn” under the ‘comrade Delta’ affair and the intense controversy that had gripped the organisation following the annual conference in January and the subsequent March special conference.
The recognition that all is not well came in the CC’s perspectives document put to the June 2 meeting of the party council - the branch delegate body that, according to the SWP constitution, “normally meets once a year”. Party council “reviews the political and organisational work of the SWP” and “has power to take decisions on matters of general policy binding on the CC”.
The internal Party Notes reported “an excellent day of debates, reports and discussion”.1 Along with Party Notes, the leadership sent to all members its own perspectives document, which was discussed at party council, but not put to the vote. This document begins in the SWP’s usual ‘official optimism’ mode: the organisation has enjoyed a “number of successes in recent months” - in fact the SWP’s “recognition of the bedroom tax as a key issue, our support for the Hicks election campaign, our response to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and to the Woolwich murder, are things that all members should take pride in”. Hmm.
However, the document - available on the CPGB website2 - went on: “… there is no doubt that the SWP has also been through an extremely bruising period of internal debate. We have lost members and trust has broken down between some groups of comrades.” What is more, “the CC faces criticism from inside the organisation itself”. In such a situation, the leadership concludes, “There are two dangers. One is that the party turns in on itself and concentrates solely on internal debate and argument. The second is that we pretend there is nothing wrong and hope that by ignoring the problem it will go away.”
Well, I am tempted to refer to that second conclusion as a breath of fresh air, although perhaps that would be overdoing things. The CC normally warns only of the first ‘danger’ - as if debating and criticising the workings of the internal regime ought not to be perfectly normal, indeed essential, for revolutionaries; and as if such debates somehow detract from agreed actions rather than making them more effective.
Nevertheless, it is an advance that the CC seems, at least implicitly, to have acknowledged its error in “ignoring the problem” of the recent split. At last it tells the membership that “a hundred or so broke with the party to form the International Socialist Network”. Up to now the CC has behaved as though no such thing had happened, even though just about every SWP member must have been following the details of the split - the internet does have its “dark side”, doesn’t it, in allowing the cadre to inform themselves about things they have no right to know? Despite this tardy admission, however, there is no attempt to account for the crisis or the CC’s own part in provoking it.
In fact, the CC deliberately misinforms the membership about the split. It claims that it “involved a break with our tradition” - the ISN allegedly “represents a quite different approach both to Leninism and to initiatives such as Left Unity”. In reality the ISN comrades are, as far as I can see, virtually unanimous in declaring they intend to uphold the SWP’s “International Socialist tradition”. As for Left Unity, it is hardly surprising that a small group like the ISN would want to get involved, whereas the SWP’s practice is to engage with ‘united fronts’ only to the extent it can control them. I do not think, unfortunately, that the ISN’s positive attitude to LU represents a difference in strategy or principle in relation to ‘broad parties’.
For the CC, the influence of “left reformist” and “movementist and autonomist currents” - and the “pressure they bring to bear on the party” - is to blame for the ISN split, just as it was with “the small group of comrades who left when we broke with George Galloway in Respect, or those who split along with Lindsey German and John Rees, for example”. Clearly if you leave the SWP you can only be moving rightwards.
However, declares the CC, “not all differences in a revolutionary party necessitate a split”. An interesting comment for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the implication is that, in the above cases, a split was indeed ‘necessitated’ - it was, presumably, a case of good riddance. Secondly, it implies that differences usually “necessitate a split”.
And that gets to the essence of the problem with the whole SWP regime. Because there is no legitimate way of raising such differences before the whole membership - apart from during the three-month pre-conference period, when three internal bulletins are published - comrades who feel strongly that their criticisms are correct, but cannot even be aired, may believe they have no option but to resign. When a group of comrades share that feeling, they may collectively decide that their differences “necessitate a split”.
In my opinion, it can often be a better option to remain in the organisation and fight. In a group like the SWP, that will obviously mean breaking its undemocratic rules, which curtail free speech and free association - factions are only permitted in the same three-month pre-conference period. Nevertheless, oppositionists can hardly be blamed for believing they have no option but to quit.
According to the CC’s perspectives document, “After the special conference, which was the culmination of weeks of internal debate and discussion in the party, there were decisive votes on a number of issues. These included overwhelming agreement that the faction that had been formed would be dissolved, as the two factions had previously committed to do at the national conference.”
Of course, that leaves out of the equation the small matter of the CC’s rigging of those votes through the exclusion of large numbers of oppositionists. Using its full-time apparatus, it ensured wherever possible that the local aggregates called to elect delegates were stuffed with its own supporters, some of whom had not previously been seen for long periods, and, whenever it had a majority, used it to keep from conference everyone associated with the opposition.
The leadership of a revolutionary working class party would adopt precisely the opposite stance. It would try to ensure that all serious oppositionists could attend conference so that their views could be fully debated. It would recommend that opposition representatives be elected to leading committees too - the practice of the Bolsheviks up to and immediately after the Russian Revolution. But in the SWP monolithism reins - the leadership must be given a free hand.
The CC states: “Delegates recognised the danger of permanent factions and factionalising in the party and voted to confirm that factions should only be formed in the pre-conference period. Despite this it’s obvious to many comrades across the party that in some areas a minority faction exists in everything but name. Now an anonymous factional blog by purported SWP members has appeared online and documents posted attacking the party and decisions made by the national conferences.”
This is a reference to The Fault Lines, of course, which suddenly appeared in mid-May. However, this blog seems to have very little life to it now - after an initial flurry of postings from a variety of comrades, everything has slowed down. Nevertheless, the very fact that it still carries critical articles, even from a ‘guest’, is highly significant. The opposition might be buried deep underground, but it is alive and has the potential to think, plan ... and act.
But why do “permanent factions” pose a “danger”? According to the CC, “they give birth to entrenched divisions and prevent comrades from assessing debates on their own merits, weakening our democracy”. This standard SWP ‘wisdom’ is in fact totally nonsensical, as anyone who thinks about it for a moment will realise. Do SWP fractions operating within trade unions weaken union democracy? Do they stop the unions concerned uniting behind actions? How come the Bolsheviks were still able to make a revolution despite the operation of recognised factions?
The CC asserts: “Contrary to the protestations of a minority, being against permanent factions does not mean there is a dead hand on debates and discussion in the party. In an active, interventionist party debates inform everything we do.”
This is little more than a sick joke. What passes for “debates” in the SWP is the leadership laying down the line and everyone chipping in with comments ‘proving’ the CC correct. Anyone raising criticisms of the line may be listened to for a few minutes, but if those criticisms persist they will be approached by the branch secretary or local full-timer and asked to consider whether they really belong in the SWP.
Now the CC promises “the opening up of a period of debate within the organisation around a number of themes identified by the central committee”. It states: “The next issue of International Socialism will contain an article criticising our approach to neoliberalism and its impact on the working class, and two responses to Sheila McGregor’s recent article on women’s oppression. In Socialist Review we have carried Ed Rooksby’s article on Left Unity and we have invited contributions from members critical of our approach to our industrial work and Leninism for future issues.”
And in the current Socialist Review (June) there is an article by oppositionist Ian Birchall entitled ‘What does it mean to be a Leninist?’3 - a response to Alex Callinicos’s notorious piece, ‘Is Leninism finished?’, which was carried in the January issue.4
Comrade Birchall’s article clearly relates to the SWP’s internal regime - but only if you are in the know. Otherwise you might think it is just an interesting theoretical piece, not one that actually implies devastating criticism of the SWP leadership. Birchall states that “For revolutionaries the crucial point is not winning the vote, but winning the argument.” And he goes on to explain:
“A leadership that wants to win the vote will try to ensure that as many conference places as possible go to pro-leadership delegates, that the opposition’s right to argue its case is limited, so that uncommitted comrades are not confused. A leadership that wants to win the argument will allow the opposition ample time and space to put its position, and will ensure that conference delegations are balanced and that the most articulate representatives of the opposition are present. This is not from any liberal principle of ‘fairness’. It is because you can’t win the argument if you don’t have it. The leadership will do so because it is confident in the superiority of its positions and its ability to convince the minority.”
Comrade Birchall was either prevented from specifying the SWP as an example of a leadership that tries to “win the vote”, not the argument; or else he decided to write in such coded terms to comply with the need for self-censorship.
By contrast to comrade Birchall, fellow oppositionist Mike Gonzalez’s own response to comrade Callinicos was not published by the SWP. The CC explains why it was rejected in its perspectives document: “For the sake of clarity, comrades should know that Mike G’s article, which he published online, was thought too internal for Socialist Review, but he was offered the opportunity to write a critique of Alex Callinicos’s article on Leninism. He did not take this up, instead putting his article online.”
The first thing to say about this is that comrade Gonzalez actually began the rejected article in this way: “My starting point for this discussion paper … was a phrase in Alex Callinicos’s Socialist Review piece … ‘In defence of Leninism’.” In other words, it was - at least in part - “a critique of Alex Callinicos’s article”. But, unlike Birchall, comrade Gonzalez was upfront about who and what he was criticising. He bluntly stated that the SWP central committee “is now defending its own interests against the interests of the party and the class”. And he continued:
“The process towards the special conference illustrated that at its very worst. The defence of the bureaucratic and administrative methods referred time and again to constitutional rules - as if our political conduct should be governed by rules whose task is to reflect our organisational methods, rather than be laws governing them. In a formal sense, the CC won a vote across the country - but it did so by using those rules to impede debate, at the same time as mobilising a large number of comrades across the country who had not participated in the debate within the party until that point, representing the internal crisis as an attack by hostile external forces.”5
Spot the difference? To be fair, comrade Gonzalez has been invited to speak at the SWP’s Marxism school. But don’t worry - it isn’t anything “too internal”. He will be telling us about ‘Chávez and 21st century socialism’. Similarly, comrade Birchall’s two sessions will tap into his expertise in two fields: Jean-Paul Sartre and the ‘Lessons of the German revolution’ (debating with John Rose).
Over and over again, the Weekly Worker has pointed out that nothing short of a cultural revolution within the SWP will make it fit for purpose. The current leadership cannot bring itself to admit that its internal practice has actually been antithetical to democratic centralism. Utterly incapable of changing course, it does no more than offer token concessions.
1. Party Notes June 3.