SWP: At war with itself
The leadership is divided between two competing factions. Meanwhile there is the challenge presented by the official opposition. Peter Manson reports on the growing disarray
With the Socialist Workers Party three-month pre-conference discussion period now upon us, the opposition faction formerly known as In Defence of Our Party (IDOP) has officially been relaunched under the name of ‘Rebuilding the Party’.
As readers will know, permanent factions are not permitted in the SWP and must close down once conference - this year being held early, over the weekend of December 13-15 - is over. But that did not happen after the last annual conference in January this year - nor after the special conference in March, which was supposed to finally “draw a line” under the whole ‘comrade Delta’ controversy and see off the large opposition it spawned, challenging the whole nature of the SWP regime.
Of course, many of those involved in IDOP have since left the SWP - 100 or so resigned to form the International Socialist Network, while scores of others just drifted away. But many remained in the organisation and continued to organise, including through the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century blog.
But now - temporarily - it is all above board, and the first Rebuilding the Party statement has been circulated by SWP centre. While the faction’s 240-plus initial signatories undoubtedly share a variety of views, for the moment it still seems to be dominated by the ‘softly, softly’ approach that saw its IDOP predecessor so roundly defeated at the March special conference.
Strongly implying that the faction will obediently close down on December 15, the comrades state: “Over the next three months we hope to engage in genuine and comradely debate with all members of the party. We have asked for a meeting with the central committee to agree details of how this debate will be conducted, and the CC has agreed to meet us.”
The faction is hoping against hope that this time the CC will play fair and allow it equal speaking time at the pre-conference members’ aggregates - maybe the leadership will also cooperate in enabling representatives of Rebuilding the Party to be proportionally elected to conference. I am sorry to disappoint them, but this is unlikely to happen.
The RP document correctly states: “The leadership’s approach to political argument has been largely responsible for the damage caused: they sought to suppress information and debate; comrades have been misled; differences within the leadership have been hidden from the membership; the scale of the crisis has been consistently underestimated.”
But the comrades claim to believe that “Progress has been made”, thanks to the “intense pressure” felt by the leadership, and they even state that the disputes commission report, whose findings have been published in last week’s Pre-conference Bulletin,1 “could provide a basis to move forward”. However, as I commented last week, “Attempting to reform the disputes procedure will not cure the SWP of its bureaucratic centralism” (‘Treating the symptoms’, September 26).
Some of the CC’s bureaucratic failings are noted by the faction: “It is impossible for the organisation to make an informed decision about the membership of the CC when serious divisions are withheld from the membership - these divisions must be laid out before the party.” Calling for the replacement of the leadership, it demands: “The composition of our leading bodies … needs to reflect the fact that the political lessons of the past year have been learnt. This will require electing new ones mainly comprising comrades willing to recognise the mistakes made and work to correct them, and removing those members who have acted to frustrate and obstruct a satisfactory resolution to the disputes processes.”
The September Pre-conference Bulletin (usually referred to as Internal Bulletin or IB) carries RP’s ‘Statement of intent’, in which the same points are made. The “leadership’s approach to political argument” is sadly lacking - it “has been largely responsible for the damage caused: comrades have been kept in the dark about key issues and misled ... The scale of the crisis has been consistently underestimated.” What is needed is a “serious examination of the party’s internal political culture”, including its “democratic procedures” and the “scope for meaningful and frank debate within the organisation”.
All that is true, but it does not really get down to the heart of the matter: by appearing to accept that the operation of particular platforms or factions should be restricted to the three months before conference, the opposition is actually giving huge ground to the CC, allowing it to continue pulling the strings covertly, unchallenged.
It is perfectly natural and healthy for comrades of like mind to come together to try and effect change within a revolutionary organisation - provided their internal campaigning does not inhibit agreed actions. But why should it? It should be a given for Marxists that the exchange of ideas actually aids our practice, whether those ideas are proposed by individuals or groups of comrades (factions). The existence of factions within the Bolsheviks did not stop the whole party making a revolution, did it?
The CC’s response is truly pathetic. While its ‘General perspective’ document admits, “The SWP has faced the biggest internal crisis in the party since at least 1979-81”, it seeks to downplay its seriousness by grossly exaggerating the SWP’s “very successful interventions” in the class struggle: “We played a key role in Jerry Hicks’ election campaign in Unite, the party moved quickly and had a high profile around Thatcher’s death, we have been central to the fight against the bedroom tax …” See what I mean about ‘pathetic’?
Instead of in any way accepting the slightest responsibility for the crisis, the CC blames it all on the alleged political demoralisation affecting its opponents: “… we have … strongly argued that the tensions in the party have been driven by much more than the DC case. They also reflect wider political questions, even if these are not always candidly acknowledged.”
It goes on to explain that “austerity continues across the euro zone and Britain, and the counterrevolution gathers confidence in the Middle East. This has given rise to a ‘new pessimism’ among sections of the left, and this has had an echo inside the SWP.” These are “the political roots of the crisis in the party”, which has already seen “a series of splits towards movementism over the last six years”. For example, “The politics of the group that left with Richard Seymour and who now form the International Socialist Network represent an abandonment of Leninism and a scepticism about the potential for the organised working class to resist austerity.”
So the message is, there is nothing to complain about - everything is just fine in the SWP. What is more, there is nothing to be demoralised about: “… it would be a huge mistake to conclude that the process of radicalisation and revolt is in retreat on a global scale ... Whereas much of the left has viewed the events in Syria through the lens of a presumed mighty US imperialism and a (at best) puny revolutionary impetus from below, in truth what has been striking is the real limits of the US’s ability to shape events in Syria, especially in the face of a popular revolution …”
The CC concludes: “… while conference decisions will not, of course, signal the end of argument and debate in the party, the CC is also strongly committed to the view that it will mark the restoration of the collective discipline of the party and the termination of what has been the effective existence of permanent factions. Unless the conference votes to support permanent factions, then any attempt to continue such factions outside a pre-conference period, and in defiance of the decisions of successive conferences, will lead to disciplinary action.” In fact “end the existence of permanent factions in the organisation” is one of the four CC priorities for the SWP over the coming period.
This denialism is carried into all three of the CC documents contained in the IB. Take ‘Student perspective’, which simply urges comrades to recruit students and encourage them to get active, active, active. Admittedly, “a section of student members have left the organisation. However, it is also true that a number of students stayed in the organisation.” And that is it.
Every SWPer knows that the overwhelming bulk of Socialist Worker Student Society supporters have now given up on the organisation - SWP comrades themselves are commenting on it in the IB. For example, in ‘The party we need’, 14 comrades state: “From having the largest SWSS organisation in well over a decade, we are now in a situation where the majority of members under the age of 30 have left the party. Where we had a multitude of large groups, we now have only two universities with five or more members and have been wiped out on most campuses … The SWSS brand is destroyed at most universities.”
Yes, “a section of student members have left the organisation”.
The third CC document is entitled: ‘Facing the challenge of fascism’. Yes, everyone knows that ‘the Nazis’ are posing a powerful threat to the working class everywhere, and it is down to the SWP and its Unite Against Fascism front to see off the English Defence League. Did you know that in Tower Hamlets a massive “5,000 joined the demonstration against the EDL”? The “sheer scale of the opposition” meant that “the police would not let the EDL march into the borough - the anti-fascist mobilisation achieved its main goal”.
But “the police are not neutral” - they “see anti-racists and anti-fascists as the main enemy”. That is why they “always protect the Nazis and come down hard on anti-fascist protestors”. However, “One obvious subjective factor that has prevented fascism from taking hold in Britain to the same extent as in many other European countries is UAF. For 13 years it has played a central role in breaking the back of the British National Party and EDL.”
The reality is that the far right remains marginal (although, unfortunately, not as marginal as the far left). The ruling class despises the likes of the EDL - it has no need of a street-fighting force when the working class, whatever the SWP thinks, is posing no threat. It will call upon fascism as a last, counterrevolutionary, resort, when the continued existence of its system is in danger. But the SWP leadership pretends not to know this. After all, the members have got to have something to do to distract them from the CC’s failings.
An array of loyalists have come out against the faction (I say ‘loyalists’, but it is clear that many are no longer ‘loyal’ to the Charlie Kimber-Alex Callinicos leadership, which they believe has given too much ground to the opposition.)
So we have ‘Statement for our revolutionary party’, signed by 99 comrades, which urges the CC to take drastic steps: “Since our last conference, some members have organised in opposition to the party, acting as a permanent group, separate from the party, in opposition to our agreed perspectives and our elected leadership bodies ... We believe that being a member of a permanent faction is incompatible with membership of the SWP. Comrades who continue to belong to a permanent faction should be expelled, to ensure they do not damage and undermine our party.”
“Pete (Birmingham Small Heath)” parrots the CC line (for security reasons only the first names of comrades are published): “The development of the faction has, despite many denials, begun a process for some comrades of developing ideas which are moving away from ideas which are central to the SWP.”
Meanwhile, “Ray, Dave and Alex (Liverpool)” go further: “You either accept the party’s rules and structures or you don’t. The actions of these members has been another blow, leaving us mistrustful of them and wondering how we can work alongside them in the future.”
The trio claim that all the oppositionists on Merseyside were a waste of time in any case, preferring to moan about the leadership rather than ‘getting out there’. So, “while the numbers we lost would seem to be high, the proportion of these who could be described as active members even in the broadest sense was in fact small. We strongly suspect that being part of giving the SWP and its leadership a good kicking on the internet was a lot of fun for many of these people and much more exciting than selling papers, attending meetings and demos etc, the activities expected of our members. Such people were clearly not the loss they at first might seem.”
So let’s just boot them out: “We don’t waste our energy in long debates online or pandering to people who will not be won back this side of the revolution. We think the party nationally should do the same … Let’s see how many we are and just get on with rebuilding and put this terrible period behind us.”
For “Jon (Portsmouth)”, whose piece is entitled ‘Why I am not resigning from the SWP’, it is more a question of what else can be done, other than stick with the SWP: “Crucially it has proved far more successful at building a revolutionary party, quantitatively and qualitatively, than any of its rivals in Britain … None of the other established far-left groups - SP, Counterfire, AWL, Socialist Resistance, CPGB, etc - are serious contenders ... The SWP, whatever its flaws, is where it is at and where it is going to be in the coming period.”
Unfortunately Jon’s vision is severely limited by what exists. Neither the SWP nor any of its rivals have been “successful at building a revolutionary party” - Britain, like every other country on the planet, is lacking such an entity. But the answer does not lie in choosing the least unsuccessful of the left groups and turning a blind eye to its failings, but in fighting for what is necessary: the unity of the Marxist left within a single, genuinely democratic-centralist organisation.
A couple of SWP big guns are wheeled out to defend the leadership - in a more subtle, ‘even-handed’ way. So we have “Paul (Tower Hamlets)”, for instance. He couldn’t be the same person as “Paul McG (East London)” who appears on the outgoing leadership’s slate for a new central committee, could he? “Paul” writes: “More than ever we need a party precisely of the SWP ‘kind’.” Like the CC of which he will soon be a member, he claims that “adaptation to the pull and politics of movementism is a key element underpinning the factional opposition”.
And no doubt comrades Kimber and Callinicos were pleased when they read: “… perhaps the most important and inspiring feature of the last year is precisely how well the party has, despite its internal crisis, related to the wider struggle - from building UAF, through the bedroom tax to the struggles in the workplace and different unions.”
However, “Paul” warns of a possible overreaction: “It would be a real tragedy if in an entirely correct desire to defend the party from the pull of adaptation to movementism, and from the disastrous price we would pay from a culture of permanent factional organisation, good comrades were pulled into a spiral whose centre and end point was sectarianism.”
Meanwhile, among the seven comrades who signed ‘Learning lessons from the past year’ is “Candy (Camden)”. I don’t know about you, but the only person by that name I know in the SWP is national committee member Candy Udwin. Like “Paul” she and her co-authors want to appear reasonable.
True, “The experience of the last year shows why the party has always argued against permanent factions, which merely entrench political divisions in a way that is unhelpful and damaging.” What is more, “The behaviour of the faction has at times been outrageous and a clear breach of all party practices and traditions, including leaking internal and sometimes confidential issues; attacking the party in public; offensive language used against comrades; secretive and underhand ways of organising.”
However, the “behaviour on all sides has sometimes been found wanting”. In fact, “Some of us writing this document have changed our views over the course of the year. Some argued in private for certain courses of action, but didn’t challenge them in public. We now believe that it is important to be open about what we think went wrong.”
So, for example, while “Votes at party conference need to be conclusive decisions”, this “does not mean the end of political discussion. After the January conference it was a major mistake by the CC not to relate to the concerns of the substantial minority in the party over the disputes case.” Indeed, “those who were not convinced … had a right to their views. They should not have been characterised as only being factionally driven or motivated by ‘feminist’ or other incorrect politics.”
So the loyalists are at sixes and sevens, and their unity is clearly a thing of yesterday. Thought, not matter how tentative, moderate or incoherent, has broken out and is infecting the entire membership.
But individuals among the opposition are hitting back hard. So we have “Jim (Euston)”, who notes that a “small but influential group of party members, bound together by a collective sense of denial that the party faces any problems arising from the dispute, is … attributing all kinds of ulterior political motives to [the opposition] as evidence of its deviation from Leninism.”
“Jim” dubs these comrades “the Undeclared faction”, which has “been responsible for much of the destruction of the past few months. This grouping has been meeting on a regular basis since the end of last year. It has been able to exert an influence over the strategy of the central committee and the functioning of many branches and districts.”
Furthermore, “The Undeclared faction is acting in conjunction with a minority on the CC. The CC majority, while recognising the wider need to take political responsibility for the crisis around the dispute, is unwilling to draw out and resolve its political differences with this minority, and has turned a blind eye to the factional operation being pursued by it: in some districts branches have been closed down or ‘merged’ and comrades associated with ‘the opposition’ have been systematically removed from local positions.”
This is undoubtedly a reference to the diehard faction around Amy Leather which we have been reporting on over the last six months or so. Though, as a CC member, comrade Leather is not amongst its 99 signatories, she is without question the moving spirit. Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos are deeply unhappy with her ... but fear her popularity amongst the middle cadre. They are also deeply unhappy that factionalism is now de rigueur. Yes, paradoxically, one might even say hypocritically, the ‘ultra-loyalist’ Leatherites have been secretly communicating, organising, meeting together, working out a joint factional platform ... all in the name of ending factionalism in the SWP. You couldn’t make it up.
Anyway, making a telling point for the opposition, comrade Jim states: “Since a viable party cannot develop separate interests from the class, discussion of its policies must be conducted in the open, in full view of the wider movement. An important part of this process therefore is self-criticism, which has to be put before the personal pride of individuals.” The problem with the SWP has been that “debate was increasingly perceived as an obstacle to engagement in the movement by some CC members”. But the absence of “satisfactory internal debate” produced “simmering dissent”, which “often resulted in disengagement or silence, rather than open argument”.
Similarly “Dan (Norwich)” notes: “despite banning them, the SWP has had the worst aspects of permanent factions for at least six years, and probably longer. Three times in recent years the organisation has been thrown into deep turmoil due to attempts to defend the role of an individual figure in the leadership.” The first two occasions that leader was John Rees, claims Dan, and the third time it was Martin Smith.
“In each of these cases, networks of allies mobilised to defend the individuals concerned, because they were seen as somehow central to the party’s strategy. Meanwhile, different networks mobilised on the other side. Members were, as always, forced into basic questions of who they trusted more, which of the leadership you thought was lying to you least (this was certainly the judgement I had to make as a full-timer based outside of London in 2009).”
According to comrade Dan, “What you know becomes dependent on who you know, what you believe dependent on who you believe. This gives all the worst aspects of permanent factions - the blind personal loyalties, the entrenched differences, the culture of patronage - without even the political clarity that comes with acknowledging their existence.”
He goes on: “At the January conference we even had the preposterous spectacle of ‘the faction that was not a faction’ - meetings of CC supporters, from which others (including some CC members) were excluded … It has been obvious for anyone who wants to look that similar meetings have been taking place throughout this year, orchestrated by a minority on the CC, with the majority turning a blind eye to it.”
“Barry (Bradford)” and “Mick (Barnsley)” take up another line of attack: “One thing that is clear is that the party’s structures are not ‘fit for purpose’. One place that this is obvious is the ‘three-month rule’ on strategic and theoretical discussion and the frantic and futile attempts to proscribe online debating. This particular cat is well and truly out of the bag and cannot be stuffed back in. The point is not to ban something that is unbannable, but to manage the process in the interests of the entire party.” This is echoed by “Adam (Bury and Prestwich)”, who declares: “The party should have an internal forum where such discussions can be had in a ‘constitutional’ manner.”
But for comrades Barry and Mick there are many other democratic failings, including the notorious slate system: “The problem with that method of electing the central committee is that no-one (unless you are in a very select loop of personal associates) has a clue as to who on the central committee is actually proposing actions and strategies that are at fault and then persuading a majority of the others to go along with them. By the same token, we have no idea who remains unconvinced and outvoted, nor what concerns are voiced. This makes it impossible for the party membership to decide who should remain on the central committee, who should be replaced, and who should be the replacements.”
Two prominent oppositionists have pieces in the IB. The first is Mike Gonzales - “Mike (Glasgow North)” - whose article, ‘Who will teach the teachers?’,2 finally sees the light of day in an SWP publication (in an amended form) months after it was rejected by International Socialism and was then posted on the internet.
Then there is Pat Stack, who chaired the disputes committee for the Delta case, writing in the IB as “Pat (Euston)”. In ‘Time to do the right thing’ he says of the DC: “… the original procedures were largely drawn up by me. At the time I felt them to be a real improvement on what went before, but I have to admit when it came to this case they were simply not fit for purpose.”
Comrade Stack admits: “I made a mistake and I acknowledge it, and have done everything within my power to rectify it, in so far as I can. Now I am asking, urging, pleading even, with the leadership of our party to do the same.” What was that about deaf ears?
I must say that the level of critique from oppositionists is much better in this IB than what we have come to expect.
For example, “Rob (Croydon)” notes the SWP’s “sectarianism”, which “means we increasingly operate on the assumption that the SWP is the revolutionary party - a smaller version of the German Communist Party. This fails to recognise the size of the revolutionary left, our implantation across the working class and the size of the audience looking to our ideas.” He adds: “The party maintains itself through a routine which is increasingly internally referenced and geared at maintaining an ageing membership with a lower level of political activity. Specifically, we jump from one centrally organised event to another in order to maintain momentum.”
On this theme, “Ian (Bury and Prestwich)” criticises “repeated calls for frenetic activity and blind obedience to a leadership which is not clearly and democratically held to account”. In comrade Ian’s opinion, despite what the CC says, “the downturn continues”. The task is to “prepare for the upturn”, “so that “we can benefit” when “it eventually arrives”.
He slates the leadership for its ludicrous slogan, “All out, stay out”, back in 2011, in the run-up to the coordinated strike in defence of public-sector pensions on November 30: “If we had been serious about ‘All out, stay out!’ comrades would have tried to win votes in their workplaces to make that happen. Comrades didn’t, because they knew that, while the idea was popular, this was not where the argument was at in their own workplaces.”
In similar vein, “Simon (Huddersfield)” complains: “… all too often discussions in the SWP of ‘the state of working class organisation’ or ‘the state of the class struggle’ in Britain become falsely polarised into a caricature of debate between ‘optimists’ on one side and ‘pessimists’ on the other. And, of course, no-one ever wants to be labelled a pessimist, do they?”
Comrade Simon comments: “The response from many (including even the current CC) to this questioning about where exactly we are in ‘the class struggle’, has unfortunately been to accuse comrades who are asking awkward but pertinent questions of having already ditched, or being about to ditch, ‘the Marxist theory of the centrality of the working class’.”
Likewise, “Andy (Leicester)” states that since 1995 “the general strategy of SWP could be characterised as claiming that every strike and demonstration is the most important event and requires our complete support and attention. We must be optimistic about the possibilities, but being overoptimistic has brought enormous problems.”
Then there is “Mark (Tower Hamlets)” and “Amy (Cambridge)”, who in ‘Whither Socialist Worker?’ state: “Shouty headlines, over-used slogans and the panacea of the general strike liken it to a paper of abstract propagandists. This stands diametrically opposed to the reality of what comrades do with the paper: using it to keep up regular activity in localities, an opportunity to speak to people about politics and maintaining political relationships with key activists in the area.”
Finally, there is an interesting contribution from “Mike (Leeds City Centre)”, whose report is headed ‘Note on recruiting and retaining members in Leeds District SWP’. Mike informs comrades about the Leeds “re-registration effort earlier this year”.
As far as I am aware, there has been no national attempt to look into the accuracy of SWP membership lists. But in Leeds the comrades decided to actually check out each name they had been given by the Vauxhall HQ. Mike reports: “Leeds District began 2013 with 201 registered members in the five branches. As a result of systematic contacting we currently have 73, plus 12-15 who are likely to re-register, making a maximum of about 88.”
So how could this state of affairs come about? It has nothing to do with the recent resignations. Mike explains: “The most important reason is that the database has not been kept up to date for as long as five years. There are members who joined as long ago as 2007 who have never paid subs and no longer have valid contact details; members who cancelled a direct debit or standing order as long ago as 2007; members who transferred out years ago, etc.”
In other words, the whole thing is a shambles. So, when the leadership produces its official membership figures next month (they usually feature in IB No2), just remember Mike’s words. If Leeds is anything to go by, we should start by reducing the total by about 60%, and that will give us an approximation of the number of SWP contacts or supporters, as well as the actual activists.
1. The bulletin is available on the CPGB website: www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/swpinternalbulletins/IB1sept2013.pdf.
2. See www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/teaching-callinicos-a-lesson.