SWP: Another split looms
The leadership refuses to accept that there is any truth in opposition criticisms. Peter Manson reviews this years final Pre-conference Bulletin
As the final district aggregates are held in the run-up to the December 13-15 Socialist Workers Party conference, it is increasingly clear that the opposition is facing a rout. With only a few meetings still to be held, it has won only around 20% of delegates, despite the substantial decrease in the numbers attending compared to the March special conference.
Even though in most districts there are fewer volunteers to be a delegate than there are places, in most districts where supporters of the two central committee factions are in the majority they would rather leave places unfilled than allow them to be taken by oppositionists - or even those who, despite not supporting the faction, are deemed insufficiently uncritical of the CC.
The reason why loyalists are often unable to fill all the places is because delegate entitlements are based on the absurdly inflated “registered membership” figures (more on this below). With one delegate for every 10 members and the official membership deemed to be four or five times the reality, it is frequently impossible to find enough loyalists to make up the quota.
In major districts, such as North London, Birmingham and Tyneside, not a single oppositionist was elected, while in Manchester, the stronghold of CC member Amy Leather and her ‘Undeclared Faction’, one oppositionist did manage to sneak into the 35-strong delegation - a previously inactive member nominated by the loyalists, who decided to join the Rebuilding the Party faction at the aggregate itself!
If delegates had been elected proportionally, then it is likely the RP faction would have had over 40%. RP’s true support is reflected much more accurately in the third and final Pre-conference Bulletin (known as Internal Bulletin or IB). The 140 pages of the November IB are divided pretty equally between contributions from the rival camps.
The most authoritative piece by an oppositionist is most certainly that of Neil Davidson. Its scathing, biting content makes you wonder how comrade Davidson managed to suppress his obvious contempt for the SWP leadership before the current crisis - I cannot believe that the scales have finally fallen from his eyes following the ‘comrade Delta’ fiasco.
Here, for example, is what he says about the CC’s indecisive and contradictory response following the clearing of former SWP leader Delta (or “M”) of rape and sexual harassment allegations by the disputes committee:
“There was to be no special conference; then there was. There was to be no commission into the DC; then there was. The DC review body was limited to examining questions of ‘leaks’ and ‘confidentiality’; then its remit was to review all DC procedures. There was no second case; then there was. Four comrades were going to be suspended, then they weren’t …”
As he correctly concludes, “to one side it displays weakness and to the other pusillanimity”.
And here is what he says about Amy Leather’s “Undeclared Faction”, which organised a meeting at the January 2013 annual conference: “A gathering of M’s supporters were presented with a list of approved names for whom to vote in the [national committee] election - an action which is somewhat difficult to interpret in anything other than a factional way. Yet when members of the open opposition factions attempted to gain access to this meeting, they were told that the organisers were not obliged to let them in because it ‘was not a faction meeting’. It is difficult to say which great literary satirist named Joseph is the most appropriate reference point here: Heller or Kafka.”
And of the CC majority, particularly Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos: “… they present their account in a manner similar to the omniscient narrators of 19th century realist fiction, pronouncing on the different scenes and characters in turn from a position of pretended objectivity; but in fact they are unreliable narrators, and their account a highly tendentious one, full of evasions, omissions and distortions.”
When it comes to the CC’s membership figures, they “involve a degree of fantasy easily the equal of anything in the novels of China Miéville”, says comrade Davidson. If his Edinburgh branch is typical - a total of only 40 comrades out of a claimed 170 ‘members’ turned up to at least one meeting during a period of protracted crisis - then the national membership would stand at 1,850 (although he says that the proportion of real members is higher in Edinburgh than elsewhere). Or you could take the figure of around 2,500 members who pay subs (many of whom do not take part in any SWP activity): “Let us say, then, that, based on these different methods of calculation, our ‘real’ membership … was somewhere between c1,500 at the lower end and c2,500 at the higher … The point is that, even if we accept the latter figure, it is not remotely compatible with a claimed membership of 7,597.”
The 2,500 figure is confirmed in the CC’s piece, ‘Money matters’, where the leadership states there were 2,137 comrades paying dues by direct debit in January 2013, plus “approximately 350 others who pay by standing order or cash”. However, “We want to establish as the norm that party members pay subs to the organisation.” Well, what an innovation. It would be a big improvement on the current situation though: “Astonishingly, at the January 2012 party conference about one-quarter of the delegates set to attend were not paying subs.”
It is all the more “astonishing” when you consider that a good proportion of those who pay subs are not actually “members” - more like vague supporters who happen to give the SWP a regular donation. But how about this from the CC? “Those who do not want to pay subs and do not wish to be in the SWP should be removed from the membership lists.” Incredible.
Readers may recall that in IB No1 (September), “Mike (Leeds City Centre)” reported a clean-out of the “registered membership” lists in Leeds, after it was discovered that well over half did not exist. To which the CC had replied in IB No2 (October): “We don’t believe this is a valid approach.”
So in IB No3 Mike (only the first names of comrades are published in the IBs) comes back. He quotes SWP founder Tony Cliff, who had told him long ago: “You pay for your politics - it’s too important not to.” Mike says: “I agreed and still agree; after all you can’t be in a union without paying subs - even more so should this be the case in a revolutionary party.”
And just to clear up the fact that no actual members were ‘deregistered’ in Leeds, he explains: “1. They didn’t pay subs - most never had - although some had cancelled. 2. There was no way of communicating with them - no valid email/phone and no longer at the postal address, which was checked for occupancy. 3. They were unknown to anyone in the district.”
That seems pretty conclusive, doesn’t it? But not for the CC, it seems: the most important thing is to maintain the pretence, even though no-one in the SWP believes it any more.
Mike explains how these “members” had probably once been “recruited” - perhaps “on a coach or at a street sale or a freshers’ fair - but not followed up. Most of them were recruited over three years ago and will have forgotten that they ever signed up - after all, they never paid subs and engaged in no noticeable activity.”
For him it is essential that the CC drops the whole “registered membership” rigmarole: “An army that plans a campaign based on 7,500 troops, only to find that it enters enemy territory with 2,500, of which only 1,500 are trained and equipped, will have problems.” To put it mildly.
But the CC’s counterproductive ‘official optimism’ spills into other areas. What about its perspectives? The current situation is always so full of opportunities and we are always just about to make a big breakthrough. As comrade Davidson puts it, “the CC has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions might have impeded the possibilities for party growth”. And when it comes to the big time that never quite arrives, “the degree of chutzpah involved here is of truly cosmic proportions. Was the CC previously lying about the opportunities it claimed to exist then?”
And this methodology has repercussions for internal democracy. Since the fragility of this ‘official optimism’ would be exposed if ever the method was seriously examined, the members must be prevented from engaging in any real debate on its merits. In this respect comrade Davidson comes up with an interesting citation:
“Discussion, which is dangerous to the leadership, can be checked by hyperactivity; and this, in turn, is justified by the nearness of crash. The membership, driven at a frenzied pace, has a high casualty rate. A large proportion is always new - and therefore does not remember the non-fulfilment of past prophecies …. Because the cadre is basically uneducated politically, as it must be in the absence of serious internal discussion, it must be protected from ‘contamination’ by contact with militants of other organisations.”
“Sound familiar?” asks comrade Davidson, who then goes on to identify the source of the quotation. It was written by Duncan Hallas of the International Socialists, forerunner of the SWP, in 1969. But he was not talking about his own organisation - he was referring to a group called the Socialist Labour League, before it declared itself to be the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973.
In his wide-ranging critique, comrade Davidson also comes very close to locating the SWP’s lack of programme as a major cause of its opportunism, when he describes how the “absence of a strategy” is expressed as “a becoming modesty in an organisation too small to seriously think about a ‘programme’ or an ‘International’.” However, he says, this absence “can also be a manoeuvre to give the CC absolute freedom of movement and to avoid any set of specific goals against which performance can be assessed or the leadership held to account for failed initiatives and the non-fulfilment of prophesies”.
Thankfully, this lack of programme is also dealt with by other comrades in the IB. For example, “Justin”, who is described as a “national member”, which I understand refers to someone who has been suspended from normal activity for disciplinary reasons (speaking out of turn, questioning the latest policy turn …), writes: “Without a principled Marxist programme the CC is free to change the ‘party line’ whenever it believes that, say, an opportunistic alliance will bring it some short-term advantage.”
Justin refers to the sudden switch at the beginning of the year in relation to student perspectives, and to the SWP decision to vote ‘yes’ in next year’s referendum on Scottish independence, even though “A principled Marxist programme would stand for working class unity and against nationalism of all varieties.” Unfortunately however, like comrade Davidson, he does not elaborate on the contents of this missing “principled Marxist programme”.
However, “Ollie (Colchester)”, while he too does not spell out exactly what he has in mind, places the necessary “common Marxist programme” within the context of a genuine Marxist party. In other words, an organisation far larger and more democratic, one that aspires to organise millions.
He describes it as “common sense within the organisation to believe that we’re ‘the’ party and every other left group is in la-la sect land”, but in reality “The struggle for realignment and a party of the whole Marxist left is the only solution” (my emphasis). He explains that “there are distinct theoretical and ideological differences within the parameters of Marxism, so any genuine combat party will have to be able to contain the different currents that exist in the revolutionary movement. What makes that unity possible, principled and potentially so powerful is working out and agreeing a common Marxist programme.”
But for that to happen, rather obviously, the SWP - not to mention the rest of the left - would have to discard “many of the internal methods” that would militate against such unity and create “an environment where democratic centralism can be a reality rather than the increasingly bureaucratic centralism that characterises the SWP in the recent period”.
Comrade Davidson does not go so far as to reject the current SWP version of ‘democratic centralism’ as an impostor, preferring to talk about “particular versions of the form which are appropriate at any given period”. This seems to imply that the SWP “form” - including the ban on permanent factions, which in reality means the abolition of freedom of association and freedom of communication within the SWP for nine months of the year - is one legitimate version among many. But perhaps he is getting there, as can be seen by his approving use of a Tony Cliff quotation.
“Cliff’s original 1968 proposal,” he writes, was for the EC and IS political committee, etc to be “elected by the conference as individuals, or on a list of candidates where there are factional groupings: each group of delegates is entitled to elect the number of people to the committees in proportion to their share at the conference” (T Cliff Notes on democratic centralism).
So the Cliff of 1968, unlike today’s Kimber and Callinicos, was for the election of the leadership “as individuals”, not as part of a ‘take it or leave it’ slate. Unless, of course, there were “factional groupings” within the organisation, when it would be necessary to ensure they were elected onto the leading committees in proportion to their support. The implication is clear: Cliff was talking about permanent factions - the proposal would not otherwise make sense.
Comrade Davidson goes on to say that within the SWP there is “centralisation without substantive democracy”, which “has a tendency to breed passivity (which is quite compatible with frenetic activity)”.
And it is Rosa Luxemburg whom he quotes in connection to this: “The self-discipline of the Social Democracy is not merely the replacement of the authority of bourgeois rulers with the authority of a socialist central committee. The working class will acquire the sense of the new discipline, the freely assumed self-discipline of the Social Democracy, not as a result of the discipline imposed on it by the capitalist state, but by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility” (‘Organisational questions of social democracy’, 1904).
In other words, democratic centralism must be based not on “obedience” to the CC and the “servility” that prevents comrades from speaking out or organising internally, but on “self-discipline”. But at the core of the CC’s bureaucratic centralism is the need to protect itself, to prevent the members thinking, prevent them from organising a replacement leadership.
Comrade Davidson states: “This, I think, is the real reason for the determination of the CC to protect M at all costs: he was simply much more important to them than most other comrades ... It was this, rather than what some departed comrades rashly described as the existence of a ‘rape culture’ in the SWP, which is the source of the problem.”
He concludes by asserting the need for what amounts to a revolution in the SWP: “Preventing our influence being reduced to that of a large sect, let alone recovering its former extent or increasing it to higher levels, will require nothing less than a complete relaunch, essentially a refounding of the SWP.”
In contrast to this bold vision, the comrade’s two immediate demands represent nothing but a damp squib: (1) The SWP must apologise to W and X, the two women who claimed they were sexually harassed by M, and were so badly let down by the disputes committee; and (2) members of the “Undeclared Faction” must be removed by conference from the leadership.
Perhaps it is his membership of and loyalty to the RP faction that causes comrade Davidson to restrict his immediate aims to such pathetic tinkering. That hardly amounts to a “refounding”, does it?
But, there again, he is not exactly optimistic about success: “If we are able to save and democratise the party it will be one of the very few occasions in the history of the left where a party in crisis has avoided splits, expulsions and collapse, and prove itself capable of internal reform and rebirth.”
In its contribution entitled ‘A reply to the faction’, the CC pursues its usual course of pretending that the barrage of criticism to which it has been subjected is not only totally unjustified, but is a serious distraction from the vital tasks facing ‘the party’ out there in the real world:
“Outside, the class struggle has reached a complex stage” and “there’s plenty happening for us to relate to”. But “Inside, a suffocating and rancorous internal debate is nearing its climax. Many comrades must have glanced through IB No2 with an increasing sense of despair at the immense detail and bitterness with which the differences that have developed over the past year are being pursued. They must ask themselves whether or not there is any way out of this private hell.”
But never fear: “The central committee … is confident that there is. It has sought, first, to continue to push the party outwards into the struggle; secondly, to bring the internal differences onto the terrain of the political issues that we believe are at play in the crisis; and, thirdly, to address what was legitimate in the grievances around the two complaints against M.” Who could say fairer than that?
By contrast, “seeking to maximise a sense of moral outrage around the two complaints (and anything else that can, however inappropriately, be swept together with them) is what the faction has been reduced to”. What is more, “the strategy it has chosen to pursue, and indeed to radicalise, makes it likely that many of its supporters will leave after conference”. Here the CC is not wrong. The overwhelming defeat resulting from the CC’s determination to exclude as many opposition supporters as it can from conference and thus avoid a genuine debate, where the strongest arguments from both sides can be put, will surely result in either another organised departure of oppositionists or the dropping out of dozens of demoralised individuals, who may give up not only on the SWP, but on the very idea of revolutionary organisation.
The CC asks the rhetorical question, “Is the central committee divided?”, to which - of course - it answers in the negative. What? An undeclared faction with members on the CC? How absurd! Admittedly, there are “some SWP members” who “feel strongly that M has been victimised and who, for example, criticise the steps that the CC took to ensure the second complaint was heard”. And there are also those who think “the CC hasn’t been … sufficiently ‘resolute’ in dealing with the faction.” However, “This has, in the main, nothing to do with these comrades’ views on the two complaints, but reflects the fact they oppose permanent factionalism and detest the way in which the faction have been flagrantly breaching the rules of democratic centralism.”
And they are quite right to feel that way: “… we also all agree with the large majority of the party that the present situation of permanent factionalism is intolerable. It cannot be allowed to continue after conference.” Here the CC majority sounds exactly like the Leatherites, almost agreeing with them that it has been too soft.
After all, the crisis has in reality nothing at all to do with the SWP’s internal regime or the CC’s failings: “it simply beggars belief to try to explain away the succession of crises the SWP has experienced since 2007 by the evils of the leadership, particularly because that leadership has changed considerably over the same period.” No, it is the constant pressure to adapt to “movementism” that has led to the parting of the ways with, first, John Rees, Lindsey German and the comrades who followed them into Counterfire; secondly, Chris Bambery and those who left to form the International Socialist Group in Scotland; thirdly, the 100 or so comrades who resigned after the March special conference and subsequently set up the International Socialist Network; and, finally, the current opposition, which is also about to say goodbye.
This may all be rather facile, but the CC is not short of loyalists rushing to its support. For example, 55 comrades, whose contribution is entitled ‘Facing future battles together’, claim that “the impact of a permanent faction has been divisive. Its existence, along with the behaviour of some of its supporters, has entrenched hostility and suspicion and reinforced walls on all sides … The effect has been to cement divisions over a wide range of questions, as every issue becomes viewed through a factional prism.”
This is the CC line, of course, but it is entirely fanciful. By this logic the membership must never complain, no matter how appalling the behaviour of their leaders. Or at least they must shut up once the conference period is over. If they do not, the very fact that they are still collectively discussing their grievances for longer than three months means that all rationality is lost - no-one is able to think freely any more.
The fact that this is patently absurd does not stop other loyalists from weighing in along the same lines. For instance, “John (Ipswich)” proudly reports that his branch “has gone from two to 24 members” in just 13 months. Quite incredible, especially when you consider that everywhere else membership has declined. But there is a simple explanation for this astounding success: “Ipswich SWP does not have a single supporter of the faction and never has done. We do not navel-gaze. We do not turn inwards. Because we have the confidence in the ideas of the party we are able to constantly push outwards.”
As for “Jenny (Hackney Dalston)”, she claims - apparently without a trace of irony - that “the faction have named and attacked CC members and others, and deepened and extended the witch-hunt in the party”. Meanwhile, “H (Swansea)” complains about “abstract, endless discussion and intellectual semantics”, which are obviously way above his/her head. S/he remarks: “If you are not bothered about engaging with the world or don’t believe that collective action is the only way to effectively do this - then why not just carry on chatting?”
Then there are the 14 members of comrade W’s district, who complain about the criticism levelled against them in IB No2: “We feel that the party needs to consider whether our Internal Bulletins should be used in this way. Surely our IB should not be the venue for comrades to make wild and false allegations against one another, that have implications for comrades’ employment and political activity.”
But perhaps the prize for philistinism goes to “Richard (Coventry)”, who slates the opposition for its ‘undisciplined’ use of the internet: “I see debating via the email and the internet (as opposed to people posting articles on the internet[?]) as an essentially individualistic approach to debate equivalent to postal ballots for strikes.” A bit like putting forward your own viewpoint in a meeting, I suppose. That is surely “individualistic” too. And all this fuss the faction is making about wanting to raise arguments after a conference has taken place: “All the debates they’ve wanted could just as easily have been held in the pre-conference period.” If the leadership shits on you afterwards, you just have to put up with it for another nine months.
Mind you, if Richard wins first prize, then a close second is Bradford branch for its conference motion, which reads: “The length of party Internal Bulletins is disenfranchising members who do not have the time to read such long-winded articles …. This conference mandates the national secretary, on behalf of the party, to issue an 800-word limit for pre-conference IB contributions from members and 1,500 words for central committee contributions.”
Death is preferable
There are, however, opposition comrades who are prepared to take on both the CC and the philistines. “Ian (Bury and Prestwich)”, for example, turns the accusations of “movementism” on their head. It is the CC, with its constant urging of the members to chase the latest ‘movement’, which is the guilty party:
“The crisis in the party around Respect provides a powerful example, and one we are in danger of repeating. It is now widely accepted that that the crisis arose because members of the CC were playing key leadership roles in movements (Stop the War, Respect) and were politically accommodating to them.” In fact, says Ian, “Some of us have been arguing consistently against what the CC now calls ‘movementism’ for a number of years.”
Ian, by the way, claims that in Manchester, where the Leatherites rule the roost, “Such has been the level of bullying and ostracism that there is now only one branch (mine) where faction members are able to fully participate.”
Then there is “Chris (Truro)”, who mixes his criticisms of the CC (and everybody else) with a peculiar form of humour. He implores: “Please, please, the small handful of good comrades left on the CC, resign before conference comes. Tell the truth and throw yourselves on the mercy of the party, so you can still be of service to the party - possibly in the granite mines in the Scottish Highlands …”
He goes on: “Give us back our party! Please don’t make us join the maggoty, sectarian Socialist Party or the permanent toothache called the CPGB. Death might be preferable.” And then he adds: “Personally I’m fed up getting my (incorrect) inside information about my party from the Weekly Worker or on some internet sites.”
After all, he can remember the time “back in the 70s” when there was a regular internal bulletin: “People used to whisper it was better than Socialist Worker.” It “included full minutes of EC and NC meetings”, so that “Comrades all over the country scoured the minutes carefully and nodded knowingly when Cliff, Harman and Hallas lined up against Protz, Foot and Higgins.”
Weyman out of order
Finally, let me end with the saga of Weyman Bennett, who was accused in IB No2 by “Phil (Hornsey and Wood Green)” of having been part of a Tower Hamlets delegation to the home office demanding that an English Defence League march in the borough be banned, even though the SWP opposes such state bans.
Phil had pointed out that comrade Bennett could be clearly seen with the rest of the delegation on a BBC London news bulletin and - quite reasonably, you might think - called for an explanation. Comrade Bennett’s reply was published immediately below Phil’s short piece, in which he railed against the faction for making unjustified criticisms. His ‘rebuttal’ consisted of: “I was not part of any delegation that went into the home office calling for a ban.”
Unsurprisingly Phil comes back in IB No3 to point comrades to where the BBC footage can be seen on YouTube: “You can see that Weyman is clearly part of the delegation, walking alongside Sabby Dhalu and behind Rev Alan Green, who is carrying the petition. The final seconds of the footage show the entire party entering the home office building.”
In response our Weyman attempts “refute the lie” in this way: “I was not part of that delegation. I went into the building and sat in the foyer while they had their meeting. The reason I waited for them was because we were going to have a planning meeting for the demonstration straight after.”
Well, that explains it. Even though he went into the home office with the delegation, he was not part of it. The fact that he waited in the building rather than outside - or even somewhere far enough from the delegation to avoid being associated with it - is irrelevant.
The honesty of members of the CC is rather striking, don’t you think?