WeeklyWorker

25.07.2013
Charlie Kimber: bumbling

Delta resigns: Now the rest should follow

The resignation of Martin Smith was long overdue, argues Peter Manson

"For the sake of us all he should go", we wrote two weeks ago (Weekly Worker July 11). We were, of course, referring to former Socialist Workers Party national secretary Martin Smith, who has been the subject of accusations relating to sexual harassment and worse for two years now.

We cannot, however, claim that this call precipitated comrade Smith’s resignation from the SWP - rumours of which began to appear on the left blogosphere a few days ago. We have been arguing since the whole issue came to light in January that the central committee ought to persuade him to take that course of action. With such serious allegations hanging over his head, it was clearly in the interests not just of the SWP, but of the left as a whole, that he should have stepped down from membership of the organisation until such a time as he was able to clear his name.

So it is good that this course appears at last to have been followed. I say ‘appears’, because there has been no official confirmation either from the SWP leadership or comrade Smith himself. But that is par for the course - when has the central committee ever issued a statement on an internal matter that has caused it embarrassment, unless it has been forced to do so? So, once again, the membership has been left in the dark over the hardly trivial matter of the departure of the comrade who was the SWP’s number one until January 2011 and remained a CC member until the beginning of this year. Just about every SWP comrade will have heard the rumours - and assumed they are true - but the CC has uttered not a word about it either publicly or internally.

It is frankly a mystery why the leadership insisted on standing by comrade Smith for so long. At the January 2012 SWP conference loyalists even organised a standing ovation for the man prior to his re-election to the CC, despite knowing that he faced very serious charges. Comrade Smith may well be a competent bureaucrat, but he is hardly renowned for his oratorical skills, theoretical acumen or even tactical nous.

It was comrade Smith who on May 22 2010 decided spontaneously at a gathering of the SWP front, Right to Work, to organise a totally inept stunt. He led SWP members and a few others, from among those who had gathered for an RTW conference, into the nearby Euston Tower headquarters of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), where union leaders were in negotiations with British Airways over an industrial dispute. The disruption caused by the brief occupation of Acas provoked a furious reaction from Tony Woodley, then joint general secretary of Unite, who was trying to strike a deal on behalf of his cabin crew. Woodley may have wanted to persuade his members to accept a pay cut, but the rank-and-file cabin crew themselves had not called for any protest at the talks.

Incredibly, comrade Smith posted a crowing statement about the ‘success’ of the action on the SWP website, only to be overruled by the CC, who replaced it within hours with a more neutral comment. Two days later the internal Party Notes carried criticism of the action undertaken by the SWP national secretary: “... it is important we learn some lessons from the protest on Saturday. We are trying to bring together a serious coalition that can resist the cuts ... That means when we hold stunts and protests we need to point all our fire at the Con-Dems and the bosses, and should try and avoid at all costs protests that embroil Labour and trade union leaders in them” (May 24 2010).

Yet even after this debacle the SWP kept Smith on the central committee. Apparently his union contacts (like brother Woodley?) and organisational skills made him a valuable asset. Even today loyalists are said to be clubbing together to help pay for his MA course. Donny and Anna Gluckstein are said be the moving spirits here.

Crisis

The departure of comrade Smith must be seen in the context of the overall crisis that has gripped the SWP since allegations against him began to circulate in 2011.

Of course, as we have pointed out many times, the crisis, while sparked by those allegations, is not just about sexism or a failure to uphold the SWP’s stated position on women’s rights and women’s equality. The crisis has in fact been generated by the organisation’s anti-democratic bureaucratic centralism, and by its opportunism, linked to its lack of any programme.

Those very same negative characteristics have led to the CC flailing about hopelessly in response. Something approaching 500 members have quit the SWP this year - over 100 resigned en bloc to form the International Socialist Network, while the rest simply gave up in disgust. Of course, the SWP’s official “registered membership” figures were always a complete fiction (according to Pre-conference Bulletin No2, distributed to members in November 2012, they totalled 7,957). The Weekly Worker has long pointed out that these figures, which officially include everyone who has filled in a membership application form over the previous two years, in reality are nothing more than a (largely out-of-date) contact list. Most in the SWP milieu now seem to agree that the real membership figure is probably around 1,000.

Adding to the leadership’s woes, Michael Rosen, the famous children’s author and a supporter of the SWP dating back to the 1960s, has issued an open letter and broken off relations. As for the Socialist Worker Student Society, it is a mere husk.

But it is not just oppositionists who feel betrayed. Even loyalists have been dismayed by the leadership’s bumbling indecision. Take the 50-strong national committee, which met earlier this month and agreed by 26 votes to six to suspend four oppositionists after it was discovered they had set up a factional bank account. But after 250-plus members signed a protest petition initiated by the Revolutionary Socialist Opposition the CC overturned the suspensions agreed by the NC (whose decisions are “binding” on it, according to the SWP constitution). So it appears that the six who urged restraint and a compromise were right after all and the 26 who went along with Charlie Kimber, Alex Callinicos, Michael Bradley and co were wrong. No wonder there are moves within loyalist ranks to install Amy Leather as the new national secretary. At least she possesses a backbone, it is said.

And now the dithering CC has implied that the Revolutionary Socialist Opposition will be allowed to continue without let or hindrance right up until the next SWP conference in January 2014. The constitution outlaws permanent factions - indeed temporary factions are only permitted during the three-month pre-conference period (usually October-December of each year), after which they must be dissolved. Even during this period all factional statements must be issued via the central office and certainly not independently via any unauthorised website or email list. So the constitution is reduced to a mere piece of paper. And this, of course, has middle-rank loyalists splitting blood and demanding a full-scale purge.

In its pep-talk circular to members, ‘After Marxism 2013: the fight against austerity and the role of the SWP’, issued last week after the annual summer school, the CC states: “Marxism 2013 showed the strength of our organisation despite the difficult period the SWP has gone through … But it’s clear we still have some real problems in the SWP. The party now has an open faction operating. It has its own organisation, website and meetings. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of members have shown time and again that they oppose this kind of factional organisation.”

The leadership claims that “The SWP has never been the kind of organisation that deals with political argument simply by diktat or disciplinary action. These are political questions and the debates have to be won politically.” Leaving aside the obvious fact that this claim flies in the face of reality, it is interesting that the CC concludes: “… we have to be really clear that if we’re to continue to have a real influence in the movement, both in Britain and internationally, the next SWP conference must return the party to its normal functioning. The CC is determined that the next SWP conference will do this and bring an end to permanent factions for good.”

And there were the leadership loyalists thinking that the March special conference had done just that! Hadn’t it passed a constitutional amendment closing a loophole which the opposition had exploited beforehand? Previously the constitution had not actually specified that the pre-conference discussion period, when factions are tolerated, only lasts three months. But now they have to wait until January 2014 to “return the party to its normal functioning”.

By the way, the statement features a particularly blatant example of the SWP’s notorious dishonesty, when it declares: “Marxism 2013 was a real success for the SWP, with over 3,000 attending.” How is “real success” to be measured? In 2011 “over 4,500” came to the school (Socialist Worker July 9 2011); and in 2012 “over 5,000” showed up (Socialist Worker July 14 2012). Every regular at Marxism knew that there were far fewer attending this year - not only had many of the SWP’s own members and supporters stayed away, but it had been boycotted by a whole swathe of speakers and activists across the left. But still the leadership fails to openly and fully come to terms with its crisis.

And unfortunately the opposition has so far failed to do so too. True, at last large numbers have woken up to the reality of SWP bureaucratic centralism and to the abysmal failings of the CC, but no clear political differentiation can be discerned between the leadership and the faction. Where, for example, is the critique of SWP opportunism - the clearest recent example being its disastrous popular frontism of the Respect period?

In fact it is the ban on factions that has contributed to the absence of the necessary political clarification. In any democratic organisation members must have the right to discuss freely, and publicly, alternative policies to those proposed by the leadership. That is not to say that the existence of factions is in itself a good thing. But the right to form factions - at any time of the year and for as long as they are deemed necessary - is essential.

Many in the opposition are agreed that the leadership of Callinicos, Kimber, Bradley and co must go. Good riddance to Martin Smith, they say - now the rest should follow. But if the SWP is to play a part in building the mass revolutionary party the current situation cries out for, much more is needed. Centrally what is required is a fundamental critique of the “International Socialist tradition” - not least its dishonest political methodology, its programmeless opportunism and its debilitating sectarianism.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.org.uk