SWP: Leatherites thirsting for a purge
Faced with criticism from two directions, the central committee is desperately trying to limit the damage. Peter Manson reports
With just over two months to go before the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference, the factional battle is hotting up.
The leadership, particularly national secretary Charlie Kimber, will find itself under fire from two directions at the December 13-15 conference. For it is not just the new Rebuilding the Party (RP) faction - which has taken over from where In Defence of Our Party left off at the special conference in March - that is critical of the central committee. There are also the ultra-loyalists grouped around CC member Amy Leather, who fired their first salvo in the shape of a document entitled ‘For Our Revolutionary Party’ (FORP) in last month’s first of three Pre-conference Bulletins.1
The Leatherites effectively constitute an ‘anti-faction faction’, whose members believe that comrades Kimber and Alex Callinicos have been far too lax in their tolerance of the opposition. Sparked by the uproar over the CC’s handling of the Martin Smith case, in which the former national secretary was accused of serious sexual crimes, criticism spilled over into questioning of the whole internal regime. The CC correctly states that the opposition has been operating as a permanent faction, even though factions are only permitted in the three-month pre-conference period.
However, the CC, despite many threats, has so far not taken disciplinary action against the opposition and the FORP response was: “Comrades who continue to belong to a permanent faction should be expelled, to ensure they do not damage and undermine our party.” This is ironic, of course, because the Leatherites themselves have been organising and meeting: ie, operating as a “permanent faction” outside the pre-conference period. But they could only muster 100 signatories - well under half the number who signed up to the RP statement published in the bulletin. This despite their haranguing of anyone previously considered to be a CC loyalist.
Amy Leather’s faction - jokingly referred to by oppositionists as IDOM (In Defence of Our Martin) - is particularly strong in Manchester, her home base, where leading comrades such as Mark Krantz, together with 22 others, have signed the FORP statement. Other supporters include SWP veterans such as Paul Holborow, Paul Blackledge and Maxine Bowler, together with prominent members of the SWP’s NUT and PCS union fractions, plus many who have been active in Unite Against Fascism - comrade Smith’s main area of work for several years. Also on board are Tony Cliff’s son, Donny Gluckstein; Laura Miles, the SWP’s favoured specialist on LGBT oppression following the marginalisation of Hannah Dee; and Roger Huddle, the comrade responsible for the closure of Leytonstone branch because of its domination by oppositionists.
While, however, FORP cannot boast huge support among the rank and file, it is certainly well placed to consolidate its influence on the central committee. Among those proposed by the outgoing leadership to join the new, expanded CC is none other than comrade Smith’s current partner, “Jo C”. She and “Sue C” are set to join the likes of comrade Leather and Mark Thomas as the most vocal supporters of the ex-national secretary.
In the meantime, the RP oppositionists have been urging the CC to play fair when it comes to the district aggregates that are about to elect delegates to conference. According to a bulletin sent to its supporters on October 5, “A delegation from the Rebuilding the Party committee went to meet the CC to discuss our rights in the pre-conference period.”
In the run-up to the March special conference, CC speakers addressed the aggregates at length, while representatives from the opposition were only allowed six minutes. Wherever CC supporters won a majority, however slight (including comrades who had, literally, not previously been seen for years), they took 100% of conference delegates.
But Pat Stack’s report of the faction’s meeting with the CC is relatively upbeat: “The tone of the discussion was generally friendly. The CC’s starting point was that, while they had done nothing wrong last conference, they were willing to review procedures. We pointed out that any repeat of last time would be a disaster, and what they had done had seriously contributed to the loss of members.” Hundreds have abandoned the SWP, of course, including the 120 or so who left to form the International Socialist Network.
The RP comrades have called for conference delegates to be elected in proportion to their local support, but comrade Stack reports that even the demand for equity in terms of speaking time was rejected - “on the grounds that they [the CC] have to cover wider questions than those the faction is raising”. However, RP will be permitted a “further four national mailings to all party members” in the pre-conference period - although its request for access to membership lists was rejected out of hand.
So, while comrade Kimber continues to play the role of the reasonable, “friendly” face of the CC, it is likely that the December conference will be every bit as rigged as the last two. The CC will use every trick in the book, thanks to its small army of full-timers, to reduce opposition delegates to the absolute minimum and will surely start expelling people if they do not go quietly after conference.
This is made clear in the latest International Socialism (October), which features an article written by the SWP’s two main leaders, comrade Kimber and Alex Callinicos, entitled ‘The politics of the SWP crisis’. They write: “… the central committee has abstained from taking the disciplinary measures against the faction to which it would be fully entitled under the party constitution. It has preferred to rely on political argument to resolve the differences.” But, they conclude, “this position cannot be sustained indefinitely”. In other words, there will be expulsions if you continue to campaign against us after conference.
The article admits: “The party has suffered serious damage to its reputation, it has lost members and it is still hampered by deep divisions.” But not to worry: “It has not stopped us acting as a revolutionary organisation. We have … recruited hundreds of new members … responded very effectively to the death of Margaret Thatcher … played a crucial role in blocking the revival of the English Defence League after the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich.” What is most worrying about this is the fact that comrades Kimber and Callinicos actually seem to believe in these “successes”.
Modestly, the comrades concede: “Of course, world history does not hinge on the fate of a small revolutionary party in one small part of the globe.” But they seriously want us to accept that the current SWP, complete with its bureaucratic-centralist regime - as opposed to a party armed with a Marxist programme that practises genuine democratic centralism and facilitates the active participation of different Marxist trends - has the potential to become the “revolutionary party”.
As you might expect, comrades Kimber and Callinicos exonerate the CC for any wrongdoing in relation to the Martin Smith case. It was perfectly normal for members of the CC to be represented on the disputes committee (DC) that heard and dismissed the allegations against comrade Smith, even though oppositionists have referred to the DC as a “jury of his mates”. They claim: “By the close of [the January 2013 annual] conference most delegates, including many who voted against the DC report, felt that the matter was now resolved. But this soon unravelled in a barrage of attacks on the internet and articles in the mainstream press that were triggered by the publication of a transcript of the conference session on the DC on a sectarian left website and of a highly tendentious article by an ex-Socialist Worker journalist on another.”
Comrades Callinicos and Kimber cannot bring themselves to utter the words Socialist Unity, let alone Weekly Worker (we were pleased to publish Tom Walker’s article, even though we disagreed with many of his conclusions2).
They accurately note that “One criticism aimed at us, mainly by those outside the party, was that we were not competent to handle an allegation of this kind”. However, they do not attempt to dispute this, arguing instead that no other course was possible or acceptable.
Responding to this article, SWP member Dave Renton hotly disputes his leaders’ version of events. According to him, “Alex Callinicos and the other members of the CC encouraged Smith and the woman to ‘negotiate’: ie, if the woman could be persuaded to keep the detail of the complaint out of the public eye, Smith would in turn agree to his voluntary demotion. During the course of the negotiations, he was able to bargain his proposed sanction down, from the original punishment (that he would stand down from all paid work for the SWP) to the end result that he would remain not just on the party’s payroll, but even on our central committee.”
Comrade Renton also takes the duo to task for failing to mention the deliberate rallying of support for comrade Smith at the 2011 SWP conference. He outlines how the session dealing with Smith’s decision to stand down as national secretary was successfully choreographed to generate a show of support for him: “In response to every signal from the people who had planned the session that the misconduct was of the mildest character possible, the delegates chanted, ‘The workers, united, will never be defeated’” and gave Smith a standing ovation.3
Comrades Kimber and Callinicos resort to the usual dishonest accusations against the opposition - the low level of strikes and organised working class action has caused demoralisation, and this has found a reflection in the SWP too. By decrying the entire opposition in this way, they hope they can avoid responding to its criticisms - on SWP democracy as well as SWP policy.
A loss of faith in the working class has led to “a desperate search for some other agency of change”, which has affected SWP oppositionists too, they claim. However, “we are not going to abandon our insistence on the special role of the working class and on the struggle at the point of production as the most powerful weapon available to workers”. It is here that the two descend into economism: strikes and so on, not political action of any kind, are workers’ “most powerful weapon”.
Their talk of the “united front” is just as pathetic. It is, of course, perfectly desirable to enter into alliances with all sorts of non-working class forces - although we should not label such alliances ‘united fronts’ - a term which Marxists use to describe campaigns alongside the reformists in our movement, with the aim of exposing their misleadership and winning the masses to break from them.
But the SWP takes the misuse of the term even further. Following the mass anti-war upsurge of 2002-03, it helped form a political party not just with reformists, but with non-working class, petty bourgeois forces. Respect, claim Kimber and Callinicos, “was a huge step forward from the Socialist Alliance” because it was ‘broader’ and thus enabled the left to pick up greater electoral support.
At least - and at last - there is some criticism of the SWP’s behaviour within Respect: “Instead of revolutionaries arguing for their politics among a much wider group of radical non-revolutionaries, we were deciding how much to hold ourselves back in order to seek wider alliances. That was problematic.” You can say that again.
Apart from that, they concede that “attempting to apply the united front to electoral work is particularly fraught, because it doesn’t involve unity around a particular action or struggle, but prolonged unity around a whole programme to fight elections - a terrain on which reformists tend to prove their superiority in practice”. In fact that “whole programme” can only be one for government. What is more, it was put forward in Respect alongside not only reformists, but small (and not so small) businessmen who just happened to be Muslims.
The two also attempt to detract from the opposition’s criticisms that their handling of the Martin Smith affair was behind the loss of hundreds of members, particularly students. To do this they are prepared to admit to past mistakes in the SWP’s student work too:
“The SWP was quite right to throw itself into and enthusiastically to build the student movement of 2010 ... As a result, we won many students to our ranks. The problem was that they were integrated into the SWP on a movementist basis that encouraged them to see themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of the party - part of a student vanguard that could lead the working class as a whole into struggle against austerity. This helps to explain why so many student members of the SWP abandoned the party in reaction to the DC controversy.”
So that was why they left. It was nothing to do with their disgust at the CC’s handling of the case, nor with the fact that they were beginning to recognise the SWP regime for what it is - undemocratic, unaccountable and opportunistic.
1. Available on the CPGB website at www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/swp-september-internal-bulletin.
2. ‘Why I am resigning’, January 10 2013.