SWP: Treating the symptoms
Attempting to reform the disputes procedure will not cure the SWP of its bureaucratic centralism. Meanwhile, splits have opened up in both the opposition and loyalist camps, writes Peter Manson
“This bulletin is for members of the SWP only and it should not be distributed or forwarded to others.” Those are the words of Socialist Workers Party national secretary Charlie Kimber above his introduction to the 2013 Pre-conference Bulletin No1.
Some hope! Within hours of its publication I personally had been sent three different copies and it had already been posted on the Socialist Unity website (it is also available on the CPGB site1). Gone are the days when such documents were extremely difficult to come by outside the SWP. A combination of instant access thanks to the internet and the opening up of the organisation, following the devastating crisis of the last 12 months, has ensured that the SWP’s success in keeping its internal debates secret is, thankfully, now a thing of the past.
Published on September 23, a few weeks earlier than usual, the circular - usually referred to as the Internal Bulletin (IB) - is the first of three that will appear before the SWP’s December 13-15 annual conference. Usually the conference takes place in the first week of January, but this time it has been brought forward by three weeks in a vain attempt to cut down the time available to opposition factions.
Of course, comrade Kimber gave a different reason when he announced the central committee’s decision to change the date last month: “There are significant issues of politics, perspective and organisation which need to be debated and decided on in the SWP. It is best that we do this sooner rather than later,” he wrote.2 But the real reason became evident later in the same emailed circular: “… 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.”
Factions are only officially permitted in the three-month pre-conference period and even then all their material must be circulated via the SWP central office in Vauxhall. But since last year’s conference the opposition - sparked by the outrage provoked by the dire mishandling of the rape allegations made against a former SWP top leader - has effectively continued to operate more or less openly. So, by bringing forward the conference, the CC holds out forlorn hopes of reimposing a gag on the opposition by the end of the year.
This will present an existential challenge to the Revolutionary Socialist opposition. Though its website has been largely dormant recently, it has, in effect, been operating as a permanent faction. There have certainly been faction meetings and the discussion of tactics. Many opposition comrades, knowing that they cannot beat the CC and its apparatus at conference, have been talking about leaving. For what is not quite clear. Most oppose the idea of a smaller version of the SWP. But looking at the sorry fate of the International Socialist Network, most do not find the broad party swamp attractive (the ISN is, in fact, disintegrating, given the pressures of working in the Left Unity project).
However, it is not only the opposition that is divided. The loyalists are too. Those in the apparatus, especially at a district level, are itching for a wholesale purge of the opposition. Charlie Kimber is viewed as being soft, conciliatory and a ditherer. Rumour has it that he is deeply unhappy about being saddled with the post of national secretary after Martin Smith’s sudden resignation. Not being a natural political hard, he has found the last year or two absolute torture. Meanwhile, a swathe of loyalists have been looking to Amy Leather for a lead. She is viewed as having the necessary callousness, moral fibre and nerve necessary to rid the SWP of tiresome opposition voices once and for all. Hundreds of members, including veterans such as Ian Birchall, Neil Davidson and Pat Stack, will be driven out if comrade Leather and her faction gets its way.
This first IB carries over 50 contributions spread over 90 A4 pages and so, needless to say, I have been unable to read, let alone comment on, the vast bulk of them in the 36 hours since I received the bulletin.
This article will therefore concentrate on one piece: the report of the “disputes committee review body” elected at the March special conference. This body was set up as a concession to oppositionists in the aftermath of the Delta fiasco, to examine the way the SWP handles complaints and disciplinary action taken against members. ‘Delta’, a former leader, had been cleared of the rape and sexual harassment of a female comrade by “a jury of his mates” - as the disputes committee which ‘acquitted’ him (stuffed as it was with former and current CC members) - was labelled.
The DC review body, which, according to its report, “formally met on three occasions”, put the document published here before the SWP’s national committee earlier this month, but the CC decided to wait for the first IB before circulating it within the whole organisation.
The members of the review body were elected by the March special conference, which was supposed to “draw a line” under the ongoing period of factional opposition, which has seen several hundred members abandon the SWP in disgust. Although only one CC member was elected to it, its findings have, rather obviously, been very much influenced by the views of Alex Callinicos on what he calls ‘Leninism’ and ‘democratic centralism’. This is clear from the first section of its report following the introduction, entitled “Discipline in a revolutionary socialist party”.
Such a party needs to “combine the fullest discussion and democracy with unified action in practice,” states the report, So far, so good. It continues: “Such discussions should take place primarily through the democratic structures and publications of the party. It is not acceptable for comrades to raise important discussions which involve changing democratically agreed positions outside the party without having done so through appropriate party bodies and processes.”
Again, this too is in theory correct. Members of a democratic-centralist organisation should, it is true, in the first instance bring up their concerns and differences internally, and it is interesting that this passage seems to imply that subsequently it is quite acceptable for comrades to raise them externally too. That, of course, has not been the practice, which has been one where SWP members may never publicly criticise the leadership line, and this seems to be confirmed by the following passage:
“We expect all comrades to do their best to support, defend and implement the democratically agreed decisions of the party. Failure to do this - for example, by voting against party decisions in a union conference or executive, or openly arguing against the party position in a meeting - are serious matters of political discipline which undermine our basic approach.”
The problem with this is that it does not differentiate between agreed actions - where everyone must be won to pull in the same direction - and a more general “party position”. This could relate to the SWP’s line on, say, socio-political questions (are bourgeois state bodies ‘institutionally racist’, for instance?) or on questions of a historical or theoretical nature (was the Soviet Union ‘state capitalist’?). For the CC, “openly arguing … in a meeting” that today the bourgeoisie promotes an anti-racist form of national chauvinism or that the USSR was an example of a new form of bureaucratic society would be “serious matters of political discipline”, it seems.
Having laid out these parameters, the report makes clear that the DC should remain “a body of last resort”. This is because “In most cases disputes or disagreements should be resolved by the appropriate local or fractional unit of the party.” However, “Where the complaint against a member or unit of the party is serious and cannot be dealt with locally, or is a matter for the whole party and its reputation, the central committee [not the DC] has the prime responsibility to act.”
So the disputes committee’s primary role is to hear appeals - although “Cases involving any CC member, or full-time party worker appointed by the CC, clearly must go directly to the DC. And the CC may itself refer cases which cannot be dealt with locally to the DC to undertake the necessary detailed work to resolve the issue.”
We then come to the recommended changes that have clearly arisen from the Delta case. So we read: “… in cases when CC members themselves are directly the subject of a complaint, we think that CC members should not sit on the DC panel at any hearing, and nor should comrades who have served on the same CC as the individual concerned.”
All well and good. But this does not get to the heart of the matter. It is not so much the fact that CC or ex-CC comrades sit on the DC that is the problem. It is the fact that all its members are appointed precisely because of their ‘reliability’ - ie, loyalty to the CC and its bureaucratic-centralist regime. That is why attempting to reform the DC while leaving that regime intact is - well - futile.
The same applies to the “cooption of other SWP members”, which, recommends the report, “should be considered more frequently … to ensure geographical/gender balances and to draw on wider experience …” Do you think comrades from the opposition will be coopted - particularly if someone is accused of, say, breaking “party discipline” by speaking out publicly against the SWP line?
There are also the highly relevant “Additional guidelines for cases of sexual misconduct”. The report lays down advice for a more sensitive approach to those involved, and recommends: “In cases where there are allegations of sexual violence, there should be a presumption that the comrade complained against should be suspended from the party, without prejudice or any presumption of wrongdoing, pending an investigation.”
Well, that is an advance. We in the CPGB have pointed out that Delta’s membership should have been ended until such a time as he could clear his name. But it ought to be said that this should also apply to senior comrades accused of all types of serious misdemeanours, where there is a danger of the organisation being brought into disrepute if, as in the Delta case, the comrade continues with their duties as if nothing has happened.
Talking about suspensions, by the way, the report recommends that if they are “made in advance of a hearing, the DC must then endeavour to hold a hearing promptly, normally within six weeks”. You might regard that as common sense, but it seems that in the past suspensions have been allowed to run virtually indefinitely - perhaps in the hope that the comrade concerned will just give up in despair.
Members of the national committee had presumably been given prior sight of the report before their meeting, and a few proposed amendments from individual NC comrades are also published in the IB. For example, “Jen (Tower Hamlets)” states: “The current proposals in the DC review do not allow for equal access to information to both parties.” The comrade proposes: “In cases involving rape and more serious abuse it should be insisted upon that the person against whom a complaint has been made must present their evidence in advance of the hearing to allow the person making the complaint the opportunity to process the information and prepare a response.”
But the amendments proposed by others are generally inconsequential or trivial.
Clearly this report is intended as a sop to the membership and in a way it is a distraction from the main question - that of the SWP regime itself. Not just free speech, but also free association, is severely restricted within the organisation. Since factions are banned outside the three-month pre-conference period, comrades who simply exchange views about their common opposition to an SWP position, a leader or a section of the leadership can, and will, be accused of ‘factionalism’ if the CC so chooses.
That is exactly what happened to the ‘Facebook Four’ at the start of the current crisis a year ago. The comrades were expelled simply for discussing how they should pursue their differences with the CC. In the event they decided against trying to form an officially recognised temporary faction prior to the January 2013 conference and this proved to be their undoing: according to SWP rules, they were clearly operating as an unofficial, and therefore illegitimate, faction simply by virtue of their exchanges on Facebook.
The outgoing central committee, making use of the self-perpetuating, ‘take it or leave it’ slate system for the election of the leadership, has recommended that 11 of the current 12 members be re-elected en bloc. The one member elected last year who is not on the list is Mark Bergfield - he resigned from the central committee in February over the Delta case (although the IB does not tell the membership that).
Those proposing themselves for re-election are Weyman Bennett, Michael Bradley, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather, Judith Orr, Julie Sherry, Mark Thomas … plus “Esme C, Walthamstow” and “Jo C, Walthamstow” (last year the full names were provided for two CC comrades with the same first name, neither of whom is exactly unknown).
However, the new CC is to be expanded to 15 comrades, the four newcomers being “Sue C, North London”, “Paul McG, East London”, “Brian R, East London” and Sally Campbell, author of A rebel’s guide to Rosa Luxemburg. It does not take a genius to be able to work out who the first three are, provided you have been reading Socialist Worker or attending SWP-sponsored events where they have featured on the platform - often under their own name.
But personal circumstances change, including comrades’ jobs, so it is understandable that some people may no longer wish their name to be publicised. Nevertheless - and we have made this point before - surely the use of pseudonyms would provide better security?
2. Email to members, August 5.