SWP: Expelled before conference begins

Once more the SWP central committee has acted to silence critics and cut off debate, reports Peter Manson

Expelled, but not from heaven

Commenting on the contributions from a minority of Socialist Workers Party comrades in the second of this year’s Pre-conference Bulletins, I wrote: “It is most encouraging that these … comrades … are clear-sighted and courageous enough to make such far-reaching proposals - proposals aimed at transforming the SWP into a genuinely democratic-centralist force, capable of playing a leading role in the struggle for the mass party we so desperately need”. I concluded: “It remains to be seen for how long they would be tolerated if their ideas began to make headway” (‘An anatomical investigation’, November 8).

Unfortunately, however, even before those ideas have had a chance to make such headway, the central committee has responded in the only way it knows: by summarily expelling two of the comrades who had written such powerful criticisms, together with two others who are alleged to be involved in “secret factionalism” alongside them.

The four expelled members are Paris Thompson (Leeds), Tim Nelson (Bristol), Charlotte Bence (London) and Adam Marks (London) - the first two had contributions published in the Internal Bulletins, as the documents are known. Ironically, temporary factions are permitted during the three-month pre-conference period and we are in such a period right now (the 2013 SWP conference will be held in London over the weekend of January 4-6). But the SWP constitution stipulates that the central committee must be notified of their formation in a document signed by “at least 30 members of the party”.

According to the constitution, “A faction will be given reasonable facilities to argue its point of view and distribute its documents. These must be circulated through the national office, to ensure that all members have the chance to consider them. Debate continues until the party at a special or annual conference reaches a decision on the disputed question. Permanent or secret factions are not allowed.”

I understand that the charge relates to communications exchanged among the four via social networking sites. I say ‘charge’, but in the SWP there is no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Members can be instantly expelled without the accused being given an opportunity to state their case, literally at the whim of the CC or even the national secretary. I hear that the four are attempting to mount a campaign within the organisation in the hope that their case will be taken up at conference, and that they intend to appeal to the disputes committee - the body elected by conference, which for some reason always seems to uphold CC decisions.

It is clear that this rule serves only to prevent members from exchanging views, so as to prevent any effective opposition to the leadership from emerging. All horizontal communication must take place through official structures - branch meetings, district aggregates and national delegate gatherings, including ‘party councils’ as well as conferences. In addition, discussion documents from individuals and groups of members are restricted to the three IBs published in October, November and December each year.

But how are such groups of members supposed to organise their submissions in the first place? How are they supposed to know which other comrades agree with them, apart from those in their own branch, for example? In other words, the process leading to the formation of an officially recognised national faction before conference must itself involve the risk of being charged with ‘secret factionalism’ - if the CC decides to interpret your efforts in that way, of course.

It is notable that the only recognised temporary faction in the recent history of the SWP was the misnamed Left Platform, organised by deposed national secretary John Rees in 2009, with the support of 64 members across the country. Of course, comrade Rees was able to make use of the numerous contacts he had officially collated and knew exactly who would support him. In his case the minimum of 30 signatures could be rapidly obtained. But how are less prominent members to do that? The very act of canvassing for support will leave them open to accusations of factionalising - that surely is the conclusion to be drawn from these latest expulsions.

What is the CC worried about? A handful of comrades exchange views in the run-up to conference and some get their branches to propose critical motions. What is the problem? It is not as though oppositionists have ever been able to come near to winning a vote - the Left Platform was trounced at the January 2010 conference. The CC’s control is so overbearing that it dominates regional meetings to select delegates and the overwhelming majority attending conference unquestioningly accept the leadership’s recommendations.

Of course, a genuinely democratic-centralist organisation would positively encourage members to express their views, relishing the opportunity to strengthen the group’s fighting capacity through deepening its collective understanding. Neither can the ideas proposed be described as retrogressive in any way. In fact for the most part they appear to be useful and constructive proposals for change.

For example, comrade Thompson, writing as “Paris (Leeds and West Yorkshire)” in IB No2 (only the first name of contributors is given for ‘security reasons’), pointed to the CC’s dishonesty in constantly inflating “registered membership” figures by including everyone who has filled in an application to join over the last two years. He commented: “It is well known that the majority of people on the lists are not members (many never were), and that it is easier to squeeze blood from a stone than getting people taken off. These lists are then used as a basis for an assessment of our organisation’s size, which is clearly going to be completely distorted.”

The motion proposed by comrade Thompson contained proposals which must have had CC members trembling with rage, representing as they did a revolution in SWP culture: “Political differences should be openly acknowledged, with the debates open to the party. Different political tendencies should be represented on the CC, not suppressed behind a veil of ‘unity’. This would be an important step to fostering a culture of open and honest debate within the party.”

In comrade Thompson’s view, “the democratic aspect of a revolutionary party is not an added extra, but an absolutely integral element … The complete freedom of exchange of ideas and criticism in the first instance, and the absolute unity in action once a decision has been reached, remains the clearest and best way of organising a revolutionary working class organisation.”

The comrade concluded by stressing the connection between democracy and effectiveness: “Taken overall, far from the organisation being one of controversy and debate, most comrades are politically under-confident to raise criticism, unused to the rigour of constructive debate and argument, and the overall political level remains very low.”

Writing in IB No3 was a certain Tim (Bristol), who I assume is Tim Nelson. His piece, headed ‘Ending substitutionism’, like comrade Thompson’s submission criticised the “top-down style of leadership from the central committee and a lack of participation by the membership in party democracy”. During the anti-war upsurge of the last decade the SWP had adapted to “movementism”, where “we dissolved into the movement and neglected the building of a revolutionary party” and “our apparatus, as a result, had to substitute itself for the membership”.

He continued: “The apparatus, becoming used to the necessity of substituting itself for the membership, can become a potentially conservative bloc. A virtue is made out of a necessity, and the self-organised activity of the membership can become viewed with suspicion. This can lead to a top-down, anti-democratic view of party structure, which can become extremely damaging, particularly when the movement begins to come out of a downturn.”

Adam Marks had previously made similar criticisms in relation to Respect. The leadership had used the metaphor of “concentric circles” to describe the relationship between the “revolutionary party” and the Respect “united front of a special type” - with the SWP at the centre, of course. Comrade Marks had witheringly pointed to the vacuity of the metaphor: “We ‘build’ the circle and then what? Does one circle expand in relation to the others? Does Respect grow into a mass party and we sink our roots into it, or does the SWP build itself and Respect fall away like scaffolding?” (IB No2, November 2007).

While comrade Marks, like Charlotte Bence, did not contribute to this year’s IBs, you can see how his disquiet with the SWP leadership’s bureaucratic-centralist method and practice might have overlapped with those of the others. But so what? Any constructive critique can only benefit from interchange with others of like mind - and with those who disagree. It is perfectly natural, and desirable, for comrades to engage in such interchange, whether or not what results is labelled a faction.

That is why it is vital for healthy forces in the SWP to forthrightly demand the immediate reinstatement of the four expelled comrades - and the withdrawal of sanctions against those like “Justin (Cambridge)”, who tells his story in IB No2 (see ‘An anatomical investigation’, November 8). This is not the first time such cynical action has been taken in the run-up to conference. But it should be a matter of principle that disciplinary measures should be avoided if at all possible in the pre-conference period. What makes it even worse is the fact that the CC has not even bothered to inform the membership as a whole - through its weekly Party Notes, for example - that it has taken such drastic, unwarranted and anti-democratic steps.

Instead of taking the usual form of a series of tame rallies, the SWP conference ought to see a full and honest political debate. The bureaucratic-centralist ban on the right of members to form permanent or semi-permanent factions must be ended by delegates. In truth it is an important means by which the only permitted permanent faction - which goes by the name of ‘central committee’ - ensures its own total control.

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