SWP: Opposition flexes its muscles
The leadership got its disciplinary vote, writes Paul Demarty. But then it pathetically backed down
It was supposed to be over. A line had been drawn and it was time to move on, united, to more important matters.
That was the assertion of the Socialist Workers Party leadership, as its gerrymandered parody of a special conference closed in March. The biggest rebellion in the SWP’s history was defeated; it was over. Moral indignation at the bungled handling of rape allegations, at the cultish and hostile atmosphere that developed, at threats of “lynch mobs” and worse - all had come to nothing. The Facebook Four had been expelled for an arithmetically apposite fourth time. The most impatient oppositionists walked out to become the International Socialist Network. Many others drifted away, bruised and cynical.
Yet a return to ‘business as usual’ was always impossible. The average SWP rank-and-filer can swallow a lot of bullshit, it is fair to say. This time, however, it was a tall order. The fallout saw the SWP lose something like 90% of its total student supporters - not a minor matter for an organisation that recruits overwhelmingly from campuses. For those, like the oafish idiot, Weyman Bennett, who did not care if we lose “a few dozen students”, there were problems elsewhere. The SWP was being witch-hunted by union bureaucrats in Unison. Union branches and student unions were thinking twice about renewing their standing orders to Unite Against Fascism, seeing as how the comrade at the centre of the rape allegations was also pretty close to the centre of UAF. Prominent speakers - old friends - were boycotting this weekend’s Marxism festival, which features a far less flashy speakers list than at any time in recent memory.
And now what remains of this spring’s opposition faction - then called In Defence of Our Party, now grouped around a blog entitled Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century - has re-emerged.
SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber called an emergency meeting of the SWP’s national committee - “to discuss serious questions that have emerged around the launch of the website, revolutionarysocialism.tumblr.com, and other issues”. The meeting concluded with the immediate suspension of four comrades (why always four?) for allegedly planning a split and, naturally, an order for the blog to be shut down. However, as with heavy-handed moves in the spring, it had the opposite effect, and within days 250 comrades had signed a statement condemning the suspensions.
The four - named as “Hanif L, Pete G, Ruth L, Søren G” on the RS website (it is strange, by the way, that the comrades believe that withholding the surnames of SWP members whose first names are Hanif and Søren somehow stops them from being identified) - had been targeted because of their association with a bank account, which the leadership claimed had been set up to finance a new breakaway group. But in a statement the four announce: “The CC has now lifted these suspensions with immediate effect on the assurance that this account will be closed.”1
Correctly, the four state: “This rapid about-turn has exposed the entire episode as a bureaucratic manoeuvre and a farce.” However, “The CC still has not addressed the political questions the crisis has raised. The party is still in a potentially terminal crisis. And it is clear that a resolution to this situation is beyond the ability of the current leadership.”
Significantly the four publicly reiterate the demands published a few days earlier when the site was launched, including that: “the pre-conference discussion period is opened immediately to let an urgently needed democratic debate occur through official party channels”; and “the leadership and all other members cease the attempts to silence, sideline and vilify the opposition within the party”.
In other words, while the CC pulled back, the opposition most definitely did not. But the response of the four provoked a furious rejoinder the next day. Describing their statement as a “vitriolic assault”, the leadership claimed it “underlined their desire to harm the party, not to make it more effective”.
And then there was the usual hot air: “The working class in Britain faces an enormous onslaught. Internationally the situation in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere shows the crucial need for revolutionary organisation. The stakes for socialists are very high. The future of the SWP is not to be treated as a game or a trivial matter.”
The CC explains just how keen it had been to come to an amicable settlement - but those ungrateful oppositionists would not hear of it: “Of course under normal circumstances the four would have remained suspended and could have been expelled. However, after months of difficult debates and arguments in the party, and with Marxism just a few days away, CC members felt it was necessary to take their assurances in good faith and to try to unify the organisation.”
And then it was back to either-or. Either debate or activity - even on the eve of Marxism you cannot contemplate doing both: “The SWP is not a debating society. It is a revolutionary organisation with a long history of serious work in the movement. We repeat our call for the end of all factional activity and for the faction to take down its website.
It seems that for some people the ‘cut and thrust’ of factional intrigue is far more important than building working class resistance to austerity. Such people are arrogantly irresponsible.”2
I suppose the four could respond in similar vein by claiming that for the CC the clampdown on oppositional viewpoints is “more important than building working class resistance to austerity”.
All this leads me to ask why on earth Kimber and co imagined that using the NC rubber stamp to launch its latest moves against the opposition would actually work. The RS comrades know very well that what they are doing is against the rules; they are breaking the rules because they know, at some level, that the CC’s authority has eroded and the leadership is now widely regarded as beneath contempt.
Even in its own terms, it would have been more tactically astute for the CC to have kept its powder dry until after Marxism. Because of its actions, the SWP goes into its biggest event of the year with a large minority of its comrades in open rebellion. In fact opposition speakers such as Ian Birchall had decided to pull out (he was due to speak on the German revolution), presumably making the judgment that he would somehow be dignifying the sham ‘debate’ pushed by the CC by participating in it. However, following the CC’s retreat on the suspensions, comrade Birchall responded by announcing that we was now willing to speak after all.
It must be baldly stated that, in many respects, the picture is not a pretty one. In the spring, IDOP’s membership was pushing 600; today, ‘son of IDOP’, judging by the signatories to its statement of protest, numbers around 250. The comrades estimate that the SWP lost about 350-400 members over the recent period, and that would tally with their own reduced support.
It must also be said that, while the CC bears moral responsibility for this calamity, political responsibility is shared with the erstwhile leadership of IDOP, who previously attempted to reach a ‘sensible’ compromise with the CC and in doing so lined their ranks up for an inevitable and crushing defeat.
If there were two mistakes that encapsulated IDOP’s weakness, they were its suspension of public criticism, confining the battle to a terrain in enemy hands; and its acceptance of the legitimacy of the March special conference. The comrades had about half the active membership in their ranks; they never stood a chance at that conference. Why? Because it was illegitimate in every way it is possible for a conference to be illegitimate. Even Vladimir Putin would not rig the delegate election process so blatantly.
It is good that some lessons have been learned; the opposition blog is publishing openly and continuously, and carrying some very sharply worded contributions. And now this open defiance has produced immediate results. Yet it is difficult to shake the frustration that the SWP opposition is conducting the battle it should have fought in the spring - in a depleted and exhausted condition.
The opposition will now take solace in the fact that it is not the only weak side in this struggle. The CC is plainly out of ideas as to how it can regain its authority. The story of the post-conference period is of its attempts to deploy a carrot and stick approach, but demonstrating proficiency with neither.
The special conference was used to make it abundantly clear that no factional battle on that scale was ever to happen again. The SWP’s constitution was ‘clarified’ such that factions were only permitted in the pre-conference period. Bilious hostility towards the radicals in the opposition faction would no doubt have translated into purges, had not these comrades split first. (The ISN’s existence was not even acknowledged in SWP materials, public and internal, for months - although polemical exchanges did spill over farcically into The Guardian.)
On the other hand, the conference decided to allow a series of debates in the SWP press on matters of contention thrown up in the course of the factional struggle. The only one that seems to have seriously picked up is on the question of Leninism, which was sparked off during the open hostilities by Alex Callinicos’s execrable, historically illiterate article, ‘Is Leninism finished?’3
Two replies from the ex-faction formerly known as IDOP surfaced, both of which were submitted to Socialist Review. One was rejected - Mike Gonzalez’s ‘Who will teach the teachers?’4 was too “inward-looking”, which is to say, it named names and commented directly on the SWP crisis. Another, Ian Birchall’s ‘What does it mean to be a Leninist?’5 was published; and its references to the bust-up were rather more oblique: “Lenin [was] a complex person, a ‘great teacher’, but also one who knew how to learn from the working class. He knew when to be ‘hard’, but also when to conciliate, when a split was necessary, but also how to pull together (since splitting is so much easier, Lenin’s self-appointed successors have generally concentrated on this).” (Remind us of anyone, Alex?)
Comrade Birchall is as good a protagonist as any in this little drama, in fact. His article attracted rebuttals from Callinicos and a handful of correspondents; but by the time he saw fit to reply himself, the situation had changed. The opposition was regrouping, and the Revolutionary Socialism blog had appeared. The first many people heard of it was, ironically, from comrade Kimber’s Party Notes: “This site, a sort of permanent Internal Bulletin” - quelle horreur! - “is directly contrary to the votes of recent conferences on how comrades wanted debate to take place,” he fumed, without (of course) naming it and saving interested parties a whole quarter-second of Googling.
Unlike previous short-lived attempts at such an initiative, a condition applies for those who wish to publish on this blog - they have to use their real name. Comrade Birchall’s is a good name to have in the SWP. His entry was rather more sharply worded than had previously been the case:
“The problem is that rather a lot of comrades have [resigned]. Some years ago we were told the SWP had 10,000 members,” he writes. “Now, judging from the CC’s own figures, we have around a thousand. We may indeed have ‘an influence on so many important campaigns out of all proportion to our size’, but if we continue to shrink that influence will not be all that great ... perhaps a shrinking party should recognise that it cannot afford to squander cadre.”
He displays refreshingly little credulity - compared to some other IDOP comrades - about the significance of this new era of ‘debate’. “Alex [Callinicos] in his final paragraph urges me to accept that ‘we both have a duty to ensure that, after a period of bruising internal debate, the SWP is reunited and turns outwards towards the struggles where we really live’. Maybe I am so bruised by debate that I have become cynical, but I cannot help interpreting this as a ‘duty’ to persuade those who think as I do to shut up. Alex may genuinely believe his final paragraph is an olive branch - but on inspection I find few if any olives.”
He concludes by defending his decision to ‘go public’: “I would refer them to World News, the weekly journal of the British Communist Party, for the period from December 1956 to April 1957. This journal, on public sale, contained a more extensive discussion on the CP’s post-Hungary crisis than anything the SWP’s press, public or internal, has ever carried.
“Those we work with, in campaigns and unions, those we try to bring to Marxism or hope to recruit, are aware of our internal disputes. If we expect them to trust us and work with us, they have a right to know what we are talking about.”
This - along with a piece by fellow SWP veteran Pat Stack, not to mention several others by less widely known names - had been enough to nudge the leadership into dropping the carrot and reaching again for the stick.
The SWP leadership’s projection of ‘business as usual’ was always wishful thinking; in truth, the SWP is more gravely wounded than its leaders can allow themselves to accept. The logic at the moment is entropic - 250 people, yes, are up for the fight. We hope they succeed. But how many more are disillusioned, in political and moral crisis? How many continue to drink the Kool Aid on the side of the CC?
For the SWP, this is the new normal - cynicism, simmering resentment and episodes of open warfare. The leadership has some power, but little authority. Yet the opposition is unable so far to provide an alternative centre of political leadership. It presents an image of a better internal regime, yes - it is most welcome that they are in open rebellion against the CC’s bureaucratic centralist regime, against its bans on free speech and free association. But the SWP dogmas with which the comrades do not want to break are far more closely imbricated with its pseudo-‘Leninism’ than they would like to think.
They had better think quickly; the line of least resistance for the SWP is disintegration, and none of the incompetent bureaucrats in its leadership have any hope of steering away from that danger. The fate of this organisation is once more in the hands of its dissidents; it is to be hoped that they do not fluff their lines this time..
3. A Callinicos, ‘Is Leninism finished?’ Socialist Review January 2013.
5. I Birchall, ‘What does it mean to be a Leninist?’ Socialist Review July 2013.