SWP crisis: Opposition emboldened as demand for recall grows
The leadership can no longer lead - but a positive outcome to the crisis requires more than the removal of the entire CC, argues Paul Demarty
China Miéville: Open rebellion
Socialist Workers Party has been waiting a long time for a
revolutionary situation. On some occasions, as with the fatuous ‘All
out, stay out’ slogan it advanced to striking public sector workers
last winter, it has tried, with dismal results, to force one - or
delude itself into thinking there is one. Now, it has got one.
But there is only one catch - it is not Britain that has been plunged
into such a crisis, but the SWP itself.
am only half being ironic here. Lenin famously defined a
revolutionary situation as one in which the rulers cannot rule in the
old way, and the oppressed will not be ruled in the old way. While
the outcome of this brouhaha cannot be foretold, there is no denying
that Britain’s largest (for now) revolutionary organisation is in
chaos. The leadership is defensive and rudderless; and, for once,
there is open and militant rebellion against them.
is not hard to see why. The last week has been utterly calamitous for
the SWP’s ruling clique. The release, on Andy Newman’s blog, of
the now infamous transcript of the disputes committee report and
debate at conference was already bad enough. An appalling misstep
such as this absurd investigation into rape charges might have
been manageable, had the whole thing been kept out of public view.
Now, every SWPer from Aberdeen to Cornwall knows what went on - and
so do all the people they have to work with in trade unions, on
campuses and in other left groups.
it was the Weekly Worker’s publication of Tom Walker’s
resignation letter which exploded the situation. Two days later, the
story merited a full page in The Independent, an entry on
Laurie Penny’s New Statesman blog, and even the mockery of
the Daily Mail. While comrade Walker effectively urged others
to follow his example and resign, his article seems to have had the
opposite effect (the best proof that it was the wrong advice). SWPers
now feel emboldened to come out openly and criticise the
leadership, daring Charlie Kimber, Alex Callinicos and their
creatures on the central committee to expel them.
article quoted the novelist China Miéville, for a start. “The way
[the] allegations were dealt with ... was appalling. It’s a
terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture
that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing
against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those
in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’.” He also
pointed out that “many of us have for years been openly fighting
for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to
address exactly this kind of democratic deficit”.1 Not
as openly as this, comrade ...
of the infuriated
to Richard Seymour, the man with whom he has previously teamed up as
a democratic dissident, Miéville is positively bashful over this
whole affair. Comrade Seymour - who runs the prominent Lenin’s
Tomb blog, and now writes for The Guardian - followed up
on Laurie Penny’s piece with an absolutely scathing run-down of
‘the story so far’, of the incompetent and shameful attempt at a
cover-up and efforts to bully people back into line.
CC] tell members to get on with focusing on ‘the real world’,”
he writes. “In the real world, this is a scandal. And we, those who
fought on this, told them it would be. We warned them that it would
not just be a few sectarian blogs attacking us. We warned them that
after we had rightly criticised George Galloway over his absurd
remarks about rape, and after a year of stories about sexual abuse,
and after more than a year of feminist revival, this was a suicidal
posture, not just a disgusting, sickening one.”
concludes with a call for resistance a great deal more convincing, in
its own restricted sphere, than any of the canned rhetoric in the
last decade of Socialist Worker: “The future of the party is
at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as
members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply
drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms, and don’t
simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled
at conference. You must fight now.”2
CC’s response, meanwhile, was pitiful; initially a strictly
internal publication, its comment to members was quickly and
inevitably leaked to Harry’s Place, and eventually - and
grudgingly - put up on the SWP’s own website.3 “We
took allegations against a leading member of the party very
seriously,” Charlie Kimber pleads; “far from being a cover-up,
this sort of open discussion [of the DC report at conference] shows
that our procedures and elected bodies are accountable to our
membership,” he insists.
short, it was a repackaged version of the same bullshit that the CC
has pushed throughout this affair. Seymour certainly was not fooled;
if anything, his reply made his opening salvo look restrained:
urge people to stay, and to fight. But one hardly blames those who
have had enough of the Kafkaesque nightmare, enough of listening to
people spout demented gibberish in meetings and aggregates, enough of
hearing the same lies repeated, enough of wildly tenuous historical
analogies, enough of cheap Realpolitik passed off as wisdom.
How many times can you hear, ‘Well, I was at a paper sale this
morning, and no-one mentioned it’, before you start thinking of
having people sectioned?”4
have now followed the comrades’ lead, and made public their own
opposition to the CC. Nathan Akehurst posted a somewhat milder
criticism on his blog5; Emma Rock and Ian Llewellyn added
their thoughts to Lenin’s Tomb, which has now been thrown
open as a platform for dissident SWP members. A new blog has turned
up, under the banner of the ‘SWP Opposition’,6 with an
open letter to SWP comrades, which we republish here, demanding a
“focus on the political implications and challenges ahead for our
party and more widely for the movement and our class”. Others have
been sounding off, openly and anonymously, on Facebook, on comment
threads and wherever else they feel confident to do so.
remarkable thing, of course, is that they do feel confident to
do so. Barely a month ago, the notion that the internet would be full
of SWPers demanding a recall conference and the sacking of the entire
central committee - many under their own names - looked pretty
fanciful. Yet here we are. And underlying this fact is that ‘the
rulers cannot go on in the old way’.
the first time in decades, the initiative in the SWP has not been
with the CC; they have surrendered it spectacularly, wildly
underestimating the significance of the knife-edge vote on the DC
report, the 11th-hour split in their own ranks and the level
of anger that exists over this affair. Having spent years ensuring
that an open rebellion could simply never happen, they are utterly at
sea now that it has.
are in something of an impossible position. Comrades Seymour and
Miéville are the best exemplars of it; they are both assets to the
SWP, with public profiles that lend it some credibility among broader
layers of progressive-minded people. Given their notability, and
given that this scandal has now reached the bourgeois media, the
leadership clique shrinks from expelling them. But because these two
get away with it, all opponents in the SWP are emboldened to speak
gravity of the situation should not be overstated. This
‘revolutionary’ crisis is a moment, which still needs to
be seized by the opposition. The possibility very much exists for the
CC to regain the initiative; it cannot be expected to keep piling
mistake upon disaster upon calamity.
is also an element of ‘confirmation bias’ of which we should be
wary - an SWP member calling for the blood of Charlie Kimber is much
more noticeable than one who has, indeed, been cowed into submission.
Still, there are certainly a great many more in opposition than are
visibly complaining on the blogs, with entire branches dominated by
people who want the CC out.
demands that have been thrown up in the course of the rebellion are
generally positive - and, more encouragingly, they are marked
by an absolutely correct sense that this is the moment that a fight
can be won.
great unifying demand is to recall conference, which appears
everywhere; it goes without saying that simply petitioning the CC to
call one will not get too far, given that a central purpose of such a
conference for many delegates would be to turf it out en masse.
Within (broadly) the SWP’s constitution, oppositionists ought to
fight for the national committee to call one (though it appears to be
packed with loyalists). They are fighting in the branches for a
motion to recall conference - for which they would need 20% of
branches to sign up. That could be a stepping stone to a full
conference. The NC, of course, has up to now never been more than a
way for branch delegates to be cajoled into rubber-stamping the
latest inane CC diktats - but then, the Paris Commune was
merely a mundane bourgeois local authority before 1871.
are technical questions. The fact that they have been linked - by
comrades Seymour, Rock, Miéville, and countless anonymous commenters
- to the question of the party regime as a whole is positive
and necessary. Seymour suggests “creating more pluralistic party
structures, ending the ban on factions outside of conference season
and rethinking the way elections take place”; and indeed he and
Miéville have repeatedly called for year-round discussion bulletins
and other democratic reforms.
sentiment is present elsewhere, although often in more diffuse forms.
Emma Rock: “All party forums should be more than just talking shops
and should have real teeth to implement new ideas. Likewise ideology
and the development of our political position should not be left to a
handful of theorists, but should be engaged in by every comrade in
every branch. We should become a true hub for the development of new
ideas, and not be left lagging behind groups such as UK Uncut or
will leave aside the last phrase, and simply point out that, surely,
any revolutionary organisation should seek to arm its
militants with theory, to become a ‘hub of ideas’, that its
forums should not be talking shops. The SWP has increasingly had the
opposite character, however, and simply a correct diagnosis of
this problem is an advance.
gaping hole in all this is political criticism of the SWP’s
direction. The dissidents have all set themselves up as ‘defenders
of the IS tradition’ against a leadership which has somehow
perverted it. This is ultimately wrong-headed. That tradition is
thoroughly implicated in all aspects of this disaster, and will have
to be dealt with to avoid a repeat - even if the rebellion is
successful on its own terms.
pertinent demonstration is the ‘women’s question’, which is
most directly posed by the form the crisis has taken.
Most participants - leadership and opposition - have taken pains to
stress the ‘proud tradition’ of the SWP in fighting women’s
oppression. In fact, it is anything but, as Dave Isaacson makes clear
elsewhere in this paper; the SWP’s history on this question is a
series of flip-flops, according to the political exigencies of the
leadership in particular contexts.
this is exactly the approach you would expect on the basis of Tony
Cliff’s reading of Lenin - the leader with the ‘good nose’, who
could sniff the air and reorient the party overnight; the leader
unafraid to ‘bend the stick’ to keep his troops on the straight
and narrow, to make wrenching theoretical turns. This conception of
political leadership results necessarily in wild political reverses;
but, more to the point, it leads to unaccountable leadership.
major form this has taken is the alternate accommodation to and
anathematisation of feminism. The emergence of the IS and then the
SWP as a significant force on the revolutionary left is coterminous
with the emergence of second-wave feminism, which (thanks as much to
the heady political context as anything internal to it) frequently
took on a left tilt, and attempted to articulate itself as socialist
in some way.
this is, in a sense, perverse. The Communist manifesto itself
calls for women’s liberation. International women’s day started
out as a movement of working class women against feminism, and
it was the workers movement which made it an international phenomenon
(that movement has now been colonised - and that is the word -
by feminism). The history of our movement is peppered with women (and
men) who have made radical, even at times wildly utopian, proposals
for ending women’s oppression and exploitation, explicitly tying it
into the socialist project as an integral and inseparable part, and
equally decrying feminism every step of the way. If this
tradition had not been buried, second-wave feminism would have been
dead on arrival.
intervened was, broadly, Stalinism - the retreat from women’s
liberation by the Soviet regime in the late 1920s and onwards; the
accommodation by Stalinist parties in the west to trade union
sectionalism, and corresponding development of a sexist internal
culture and philistine political attitude to women. Similar maladies
afflicted many of the Trotskyist groups - including, until the launch
of Women’s Voice, the IS/SWP.
today does not mean the same thing as it did when Zetkin, Kollontai
and the others were attacking it. But the fact that many SWP members
are happy to self-describe as ‘feminist’ is ultimately a function
of the failure of the IS tradition to live up to its billing.
This tradition, after all, is the armour that supposedly protected
the SWP from all the depredations of Stalinism, uniquely on the far
left. Yet its utter confusion on the question of feminism is a
direct result of its failure to do so. The thoroughly and
obviously Stalinist handling of the recent furore is another index of
that failure, and it is hardly a novelty, as generations of ex-SWPers
will readily attest.
present crisis in the SWP is, in fact, a result of the secular decay
of its political tradition. Very well; we are all, in this period of
reaction, products of decades of entropy. This paper derives from a
rebellion against ‘official communism’. There is no reason the
SWP could not buck the trend - but the obstacles do not end at the
current CC: they include the political tradition and method they
claim, with some justice, to defend. A revolution in the SWP, like
any revolution, will have to involve more than a change of personnel.