Socialist Party: Taaffe’s significant silence
The Socialist Party in England and Wales appears to have decided to effectively ignore the SWP crisis. But why? Ben Lewis investigates
Peter Taaffe: something rotten
it comes to the crisis engulfing the SWP, there has been an almost
deafening silence coming from its Socialist Party in England and
Wales rival. Let us be clear: this is no storm in an SWP sectarian
teacup. We are not dealing with tittle-tattle and gossip. The outcome
of this factional struggle, a fight over the very existence of the
SWP, will have palpable effects on our side’s strength. Perhaps
sensing this, certain sections of the bourgeois press have obviously
smelled blood, and sought to exploit this crisis to smear the left
as a whole. Step up the gut-wrenching Nick Cohen and the Daily
SWP crisis merely confirms, in the minds of such people, the rotten
and warped outlook of revolutionaries who wish to overthrow
capitalism. That we are fundamentally driven by a lust for power.
That we need to take lessons on women’s liberation from liberal
feminism and so on. Utter sanctimonious garbage - particularly from
Nick Cohen, who cheered on the invasion of Afghanistan under the
pretext of ‘women’s rights’. That worked out well, didn’t it?
on the left, then, have to show some basic solidarity with SWP
comrades here: neither the Marxist left nor the SWP is replete with
sexists, would-be rapists, macho head honchos and apologists for the
oppression of women - and certainly not when compared with class
society, for which Cohen and his cronies are craven apologists.
such, during times like this, it is nigh on criminal to remain
silent on some of the basic questions thrown up by the crisis around
‘comrade Delta’ and the shitstorm whipped up by the rightwing
media. But why are some sections refusing to comment? Why the silence
from the Morning Star, a publication that (rather risibly)
claims to be the “daily newspaper of the left”? And what of SPEW?
Are comrades in that organisation simply too busy, too overwhelmed by
the demands of the class struggle to write an article? Or does their
failure to comment reflect something significant?
like the SWP, has a good number of solid trade union activists,
hard-working student organisers and dedicated agitators who put in
the hard yards at a local level. Personally speaking, while I -
perhaps invariably! - have had the odd run-in with this or that
district full-timer in my time, I find that many of SPEW’s
activists are approachable, friendly and often willing to have a
chat. This, it should be stressed, is in positive contrast to my
experience of activists in some other groups. Though, I note, many of
the friendlier, more interactive and more human members of the SWP
have, for the most part, joined the ranks of the opposition.
SPEW’s lack of response to the SWP crisis reveals much about the
current problems of the left: conservative, uninspired and sectish.
It would appear that SPEW has actually taken a formal decision not
to comment on the SWP’s factional war. I gleaned this not from
reading a report in the pages of the oh-so-dull and uninspiring The
I am only aware of it through the weird and wonderful Facebook-based
internet grouping, Socialist Meme Caucus,1
which is in the main staffed by SPEW members.
SMC group publishes satirical web memes that mock leftwing groups and
leaders and comment on mainstream political figures and events. One
such meme compares Counterfire numero uno John Rees to the
fictional British comedy figure, Alan Partridge. Another features a
picture of a handsome young Stalin alongside text such as: “With
looks like this: who needs Marxist theory?” For the most part it is
all good-humoured and light-hearted stuff, and a welcome initiative.
After all, if there is one thing that bureaucracy fears, then it is
talking of bureaucracy, in recent times Alex ‘Stalinicos’ has
certainly come in for his fair share of ‘meming’, particularly
when it comes to his “dark side of the internet” comments. These
occasioned the wonderful ‘Darth Alex’ image, used as a Weekly
the CPGB website ran the leaked report of comrade Callinicos
threatening “lynch mobs”, the web team decided to illustrate it
with a meme superimposing Callinicos’s head onto the hit man played
by Samuel L Jackson in the cult film, Pulp fiction. In
response, a SPEW comrade admin for Socialist Meme Caucus posted up
the image with the following strapline: “The Weekly Worker’s
morbid fixation with the SWP - one more pathological than SMC’s -
means it no longer functions as any kind of working class
organisation. It is, however, progressive that they have taken up the
tactic of meming in order to communicate political ideas.” Ha ha,
comrade. When I pointed out that SPEW’s silence may just - perhaps
- have something to do with the obvious fact that it is hardly
unaffected by similar questions, I got the following response:
SP have taken the position that releasing statements on the crisis in
the SWP would be seen as attempting to make political capital out of
it. I wish the opposition the best of luck in changing the
environment in the SWP, and I’m sure that’s the same for most
other members of the SP.” Solidarity forever, comrade!
of course, we will assume that this “the Weekly Worker is no
longer part of the workers’ movement” line is, in all likelihood,
not some kind of official SPEW policy, but more an off-the-cuff
posting from a slightly narked internet warrior. Nonetheless, both
the reasoning he provides for the Weekly Worker’s alleged
defection to the camp of the bourgeoisie and the fact that
SPEW has not said anything about the SWP crisis - at least in public
- reveals that there is something rotten in the kingdom of Peter
Paul Demarty recently put it, “Silence, in this context, is worse
than a crime - it is a mistake. It is a mistake made possible by the
ingrained sectarianism in leftwing culture … This awkward
reluctance speaks to a distinctly proprietorial, bourgeois culture
among left organisations … Underlying all these symptoms is the
idea that the given group has a unique existence, apart from all the
others. It is a fantasy. We are all swimming in the same pond, and
claiming that a particular six cubic feet of the pond is ‘your’
water is ridiculous.”3
emphasis on proprietorial culture is absolutely correct. After
all, left strategy today seems to consist of one small group
increasing its ‘market share’ at the expense of others. As with
the various drug gangs fighting over the street ‘corners’ of
Baltimore in the hit television series, The wire, this can
take the form of means foul and fair. Hell, sometimes these gang
leaders even get together in dark rooms to discuss some kind of
‘unity’ initiative, only then to unceremoniously break the
stitched-up ‘peace’ and go back to normal.
mentality explains some of the language deployed in the brief
exchange I had with SPEW comrades, such as “political capital”
and even “unique selling point” - some fad political position to
make you stand out from your competitors!4
What a mockery of revolutionary politics.
could perhaps express some doubts about the actual sincerity
of SPEW’s claim not to seek so-called political capital out of this
crisis. After all, not only are SPEW and the SWP comparative in terms
of size. In terms of their day-to-day work of ‘building the party’,
they will be coming across, and fighting to recruit, similar layers
of activists and militants.
those currently out and about recruiting students and trade unionists
will contrast SPEW’s ‘healthy’ regime to that of the ‘cult’
regime of the SWP? That is certainly how things have played out
historically, where the Militant forerunner of SPEW would often
delight in the mishaps and misfortunes of the SWP and vice versa.
decision to ‘not seek undue advantage’ is also cast in doubt by
the fact that only last month we suddenly found online a rare
critique of the SWP. The document was written by general secretary
Taaffe back in 2009, when there were also factional rumblings in the
SWP. But, perhaps this was one of those strange coincidences in
the comrades in SPEW who dismiss the Weekly Worker’s
coverage of the SWP as “sectarian” might wish to think again, and
look a little closer to home. Not only does such a standpoint rather
nicely dovetail with the SWP leadership’s ‘navel-gazing’
understanding of ‘sectarianism’ (any loyalist seller of Socialist
Worker will tell you that ‘sects’ are groups that talk about
other groups instead of appealing to ‘the movement’). But playing
the game of market share and political capital really is
sectarianism, comrades. Looking to overthrow that narrow approach and
move towards a serious party organisation is not.
‘sects and us’ view currently prevalent in SPEW is straight out
of the Militant songbook. It also affects the outlook of the ‘other
half’ of the Militant split around Alan Woods and Socialist
Appeal, who have not deigned to mention the SWP crisis either.
both sides of the ex-Militant divide, the world is astonishingly
simple. There are the ‘mass organisations’ and your own important
group ... and then a swathe of irrelevant sects. The latter are more
often than not described as ‘small’ (whereas everybody knows that
this is not the case with SPEW or its Trade Unionist and Socialist
Coalition, don’t they?). While from time to time rivals may be
glibly dismissed (‘the sects’ think this, ‘the sects’ did
that), particular groups are rarely named. That would presumably be
too complex for those poor ‘ordinary workers’.
the impending revolutionary crisis, the so-called ‘sects’ will be
swept aside by the force of events, so why bother with them? But our
own group - in this case SPEW - will be catapulted into prominence by
the rising masses. The Militant take on Waiting for Godot -
and a reflection of SPEW’s criminal neglect of the need to unite
all revolutionaries into a serious revolutionary party in the here
comrade Taaffe himself has stated on several occasions,6
left unity can wait. What can be done in the here and now, of course,
is to look to expand the influence of his own group by flattering
trade union bureaucrats (sorry, ‘leaders’) into forming a bigger
party, which can act as some kind of ‘transmission belt’ from a
of Labourite reformism into the tightly-knit, truly revolutionary,
truly Marxist party that is SPEW.
reasons of space, I will deal with comrade Peter Taaffe’s views on
‘democratic centralism’ in a future article. For now, let me
simply note the following: comrades Taaffe and Callinicos share all
the essential bureaucratic centralist traits, not least a horror of
permanent factions and a revulsion against their members publicly
expressing dissenting political views in the party press.
course, Taaffe and Callinicos are not unique. There is a very large
rogues’ gallery of those claiming the mantle of Bolshevism who
insist that disputes have to be had out ‘internally’ (if at
all!). For such comrades, the masses have no right to know about
differences of opinion within the ‘vanguard’. Yet such things are
fairly essential if our class is to become capable of ruling, of
this basic commonality between Taaffe and Callinicos perhaps gets us
closer to understanding the significance of SPEW’s silence. Raising
questions about the SWP’s regime would necessarily raise questions
about bureaucratic centralism closer to home.
fighting this rotten culture and positively overcoming it at all
levels of our movement are preconditions for the organisation of our
class on a serious scale once again. Remaining silent when that
culture is at least being questioned in some way, however
inadequately, by the SWP opposition, is actually equivalent to
excusing the bureaucratic regime in the SWP. After all, SPEW’s
forerunners rightly protested against anti-democratic witch-hunters
in the Labour Party, so why not do the same when it comes to the SWP?
is why it is vital that the membership of SPEW, and of the left at
large, follow the lead of the Weekly Worker on this question.
The rearticulation of Marxist politics and the reorganisation of our
class presuppose that we are able to show some solidarity, engage
with, and perhaps even offer some political arguments to those
standing up against such an anti-communist regime as that of
the SWP bureaucracy under the sway of Callinicos and Kimber. If the
leaders of SPEW are unable to do so, then perhaps it is time that its
membership demand to know why.
Weekly Worker January 31.
P Demarty, ‘The dog that didn’t bark’ Weekly Worker,
One SPEW comrade writes, rather bizarrely: “I thought that their
[the CPGB’s] USP was that the Bolsheviks should not have taken
power in 1917.” Erm …
Comrades can access this pamphlet at
P Manson, ‘Unity of the left can wait’ Weekly Worker
November 8 2012.