Originally posted at Rethinking the Left.
In the 20-odd days since SWP conference, events have moved quickly, but you would scarcely know it from the official response by the SWP leadership. Yesterday, the SWP central committee, a body with a majority of full-time party workers presiding over a further paid staff of dozens, finally released its first meaty statement on a situation which has seen the party’s reputation and legitimacy catastrophically undermined by the consequences of an appallingly managed scandal.
Despite pages of oppositional articles from within the party and very serious critical pieces by influential left-wing journalists like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones, Alex Callinicos has taken almost three weeks to produce anything at all. It’s been a long time coming and, obviously, it’s a tough call to allay the fears of SWP members and fellow travellers that there has been wrong-doing and a cover-up, while simultaneously taking on the various criticisms, concerns and disagreements that have been raised… so Callinicos doesn’t bother. Instead what he does is “defend Leninism”, claiming that all the disagreements, are part of one terrible menace to the true spirit of revolutionary socialism embodied as it is in the SWP – “one of the largest far left organisations in the world” as he fond of telling us. This organisation is the “distillation of 40 years of experience” and clearly anyone who criticises is irredeemable either for being reformist, autonomist, feminist, federalist or any one of a number of currents on the left. All of these must be trashed, never understood. When we see this sort of rhetoric in other organisations, we call it by its name: it’s sectarianism.
That the tone and content of ‘Is Leninism finished?’ is an absurd response to the problem at hand was proved in practice before most people had ever even had a chance to read it. The same day a number of notable former Marxism speakers signed a joint statement that they were unwilling to speak at future events because they were so disturbed at the party’s behaviour around the Disputes Committee affair. The claim by the CC and its supporters that there is no real crisis, that no-one is talking about it in the real world and that the real issue is one of internal discipline and that a section of the party’s membership does not adhere to Leninism and democratic centralism has been shown to be false. If a group of intellectuals who have worked well with the SWP in recent past are questioning their relationship to the party over this, one shudders to think what inveterate red-baiters, particularly in the larger unions, are thinking. Many good and decent people in and around the SWP could be facing an uncertain future.
Why has the CC’s response been so slow and inadequate, and why is it almost pathologically unable to view the situation as one of the SWP maintaining good relations with other forces in the movement and class? Why is it instead constantly returning to questions of internal discipline, permanently justified with a chest-beating insistence on the superiority of its own brand of democratic centralism? Donny Mayo puts this primarily as an ideological question, which is probably a good place to start, but I think it’s also worth exploring some of the strategic and organisational questions as well, if nothing else because we so seldom do it.
The last big turn
The SWP has traditionally not encouraged major discussion around structures, and not for entirely bad reasons. It is easy, when faced with strategies that haven’t worked or severe setbacks in struggle, to slump into being obsessed with organisational questions at the expense of political ones. However, if we’re all defending Leninism, then is worth remembering that Lenin advocated discussion of structure as a political question – we do need the right type of organisation.
We must remember at all times what this is all really about. The world today is becoming an even harder place to live in. We have now had more than a generation of life under neoliberalism and there a terrific anger amongst working class people throughout the world as the lives they had thought they would be able to lead has been denied them. In some countries, particularly on both the southern and northern states around the Mediterranean, this anger has fuelled insurrection and even revolution. None of the activity we are engaged in – not participating in discussion, nor attending conference nor even being in the SWP – is meaningful unless we are all committed to the goal of harnessing that anger and organising those young workers into a movement that can change the world for the better. This is most basic principal of Leninism: bringing revolutionary theory to mass working-class organisation.
The SWP’s organisational structures have been through several stages of change since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, it was beginning a process of major reorganisation. The SWP had managed to get ahead of the curve of the new mass movements that were emerging against neoliberalism (variously the anti-globalisation, or anti-capitalist movement as we fought for it to be known) and imperialism (the mass anti-war movement). The CC took some very difficult and controversial decisions to gamble on the success of these movements, one of the most far-reaching of which was forcing the branches, with their routinised meetings and attendances of dozens, to break up and form smaller, more local groups, orientated on getting active in local anti-war groups and hosting “Marxist Forum” meetings about anti-capitalist ideas. Anyone who claims this did not serve a purpose either doesn’t know or doesn’t remember any better: the party gained a profile it had previously not enjoyed, even greater than the high-tide of the Anti Nazi League, and earned massive respect as the driving force behind building the anti-war demos, the biggest street protest movement in British history. I think it says something about the state of the party now that the ten year anniversary of this time merited no mention at all at this year’s conference.
Remembering left re-alignment
The attempts to coalesce the new movements into something of an organised force had led to the creation of Respect. Now, this is definitely worth us looking back on. Respect came unstuck for the SWP so badly that many of us have had a not-unreasonable desire to move on from it, but this risks losing sight of what Respect was meant to be. The SWP had been returning to the question of contesting elections since the first term of the New Labour government, participating first in a ramshackle coalition of far-left groups, the Socialist Alliance. It was an attempt to reach out to traditional Labour voters who were disillusioned with New Labour neoliberalism, but it never really succeeded in doing this in any serious way. The big unions resolutely stuck with Labour, handing over huge amounts of cash and, more seriously, blocking any attempt by organised workers to resist New Labour policies. Socialist Alliance candidacies usually struggled to get out of the Official Monster-Raving Loony league of votes. The general level of politics was also terrible, as many Alliance branches were dominated by the kind of fossilised orthodox-Trotskyists who have never quite got used to the end of the Cold War.
Respect was a break from this, using the mass appeal and energy of the anti-war movement to persuade left-wing voters to switch away from Labour. The idea was not simply to get a few votes here and there; it was to undermine the dominance of Labour over the working-class by using the one issue that divided it from the class, the ‘War on Terror’. This was least of all about building a New Old Labour party, it was about splitting reformism, weakening the ‘dead hand’ of the Labour Party on organised workers and creating a space for the far left to grow. This was the point of left re-alignment.
This is crucial to understand: we have no evidence of any kind that revolutionary parties will ever grow incrementally; we have only ever seen mass parties come out of constructive splits in reformism or from the transition of other mass organisations (particularly syndicalist unions in the 20th century) into revolutionary parties. It was never part of the SWP’s tradition to assume that it would ever simply grow in a linear fashion, converting new people one-by-one.
The branches had been broken down, enabling some to thrive as major hubs for united front activity, but causing many others to wither. Members who were in small branches that struggled to connect with the new movements often ended up isolated, which is no good thing but not something that can be entirely avoided during a change of direction. One thing that didn’t change inside the party at this time, however, was its structure at the top. The central committee remained mostly unchanged and its full time organisers remained in place in exactly the same way as the implementers of CC policy. This did not become apparent as a problem during the ‘high tide’ of the new movements. But that tide went out – Respect and the anti-war movement peaked in 2005 and then began to suffer serious setbacks following the resignation of Tony Blair in 2007.
Learning from mistakes?
The party’s response was inconsistent and made the situation worse and not better. A CC that had lost touch severely with the bulk of the membership felt unable, even unwilling, to go to them with difficulties they were having with other forces in Respect in 2006 before the crisis became unmanageable, then swung the other way and began mobilising members for a messy break with Galloway, culminating in a badly misjudged attempt at launch a breakaway party from Respect (the ‘Left List’) in the London elections. It bombed in the polls and damaged our relations not only with those who still followed Galloway, but also many socialists who had been desperate to fend off the defeat of Ken Livingstone in the mayoral election (the actual impact the Left List had on Ken’s vote was not far off zero, it was the symbolic break that was the harm). Party members were rightly concerned and in many cases angry.
The internal struggle that followed last, on-and-off, for about two years, but the decisive moment is usually reckoned to be the party conference of 2009 at which John Rees and Lindsey German, the CC members most central to the anti-war and Respect projects, left the CC. Now, we have an official line on what happened after this, one that I believe must now be comprehensively rejected. The official story is that we began to rebuild after the ‘damage done’. I think we drew fundamentally false conclusions and are paying for it now.
By now, the world economic crisis had begun to bite down in earnest, although Britain was extremely slow to see any mass movements in response (although when they did arrive, in Millbank 2010, they were pretty exciting). The SWP rebuilt itself, officially, by putting branches back together and ‘organising the resistance’. This was much easier said than done. The party began to focus its efforts on pushing for big events such as TUC demos and anti-austerity conferences, on an almost three-monthly rhythm. One such event about the economic crisis would be coming up, we would focus all our efforts on it, it happens, and then we move onto the next one. Of course, demos and conferences about austerity and the crisis need to happen, but a Leninist and interventionist party is not content to simply bob up and down on the waves of activity that get tolerated by the trade union bureaucracy. This is not a strategy and it is not clear how the organisation could grow out of it. The year 2011, with its mass marches, huge public sector strikes, riots and revolutions overseas showed that range of possibilities, but it also showed us some of our weaknesses.
The branches are officially back to a model that precedes the changes of ten years ago, but there are demonstrably massive differences. In the 1990s branch meetings had dozen of active attendees and were at the centre of most members’ life with the SWP. Today, branch meetings are considered healthy if they get into double figures (no consistent data is actually kept on branch attendance). A personal alarm bell rang for me in the run-up to the great November 30 public sector strike: SWP members in the strike (as with many such strikes) were no more likely, or even less likely, to come to branches or contact branch members in the preceding weeks – it was not widely felt to be an important thing to do. You could view this as some sort of moral or loyalty question, but that really is just silly. The issue is political utility – SWP trade unionists weren’t calling on the branch to do anything for them.
As 2012 wore on, this situation got worse and not better. The bureaucratic mass strikes of June 30 and November 30 were now being wound down by the trade union leaders. The party organised rallies, under the banner of Unite the Resistance, to demonstrate enthusiasm for strikes – but as we know, the bureaucracy behaves as it does due to material factors, and by February there was no material pressure that could be brought to bear that would restart the public sector dispute. SWP branches were largely passive for much of 2012, being called on to mobilise for the UtR event and the October 20 demo, but that was about it. It’s difficult to see how meetings that a majority of the membership never attend can form the basis of a live functioning democracy, but it’s also difficult to see why those members should attend if those meetings do not help them organise.
The party has become fiercely defensive of these branches and the question of shutting one down that fails to meet is usually met with the response “but we want to expand, not shrink, we must build the branch!”, even though strategies for this are unclear and many branches barely exist apart from on paper. Why is this? Well, I would suggest that putting the emphasis on building the branches is working in a way to mask and deflect any discussion of the aspect of the structure that is usually beyond the scope of discussion in the SWP – the organisers and the centre.
The little Vatican by the Thames
Even though the CC’s elections and structure have been up for debate over the years, particularly the ill-fated 2009 Democracy Commission, there has hardly been a word mentioned about the centre. When one part-time member of centre staff, Ruth, wrote a mildly critical piece about its running in the second pre-conference bulletin, it attracted astonishing responses. She was variously accused of failing to understand Leninism or being so consumed with grief at the failure of the N30 strike as to be beyond rational thought. Why is there this level of passion about an office? I think these frantic responses are part and parcel of the same sectarianism that has fuelled the SWP’s non-response to the Comrade Delta crisis, and they emanate from the iniquitous nature of the CC’s most jealously guarded possession.
The SWP centre is a truly bizarre institution that many SWP members, particularly those outside London, quite simply know nothing about. The SWP’s 2,500 or so subs-paying members pay for the payroll of dozens of people, mostly to do work which other organisations (including most of the SWP sister groups in other nation-states) devolve to volunteer activity by regular members. The number of journalists employed on its weekly paper is something like double the full-time staff of a typical local weekly with a higher circulation. Bureaucracy, sadly, is self-justifying: there are fifteen people, more or less, paid to produce and distribute the party’s publications, and this tends to outclass any debate about the role of those publications in political activity.
There is team of people building and promoting meetings on behalf of the membership and there are even people solely gathering money. These teams exist and, naturally, have to justify their existence, so they are continually forced to act as substitutionists for activity that, in a party of leaders, one should really hope would be done by lay members. And, as branches have become less and less central to SWP members’ lives over the years and played less and less of an organisational role, it has become progressively ever more detached and bastardised from its roots. It has become the Vatican City-State of the party and is convinced, like all bureaucracies, that it must expand to meet its expanding needs. It also, like all bureaucracies, has the organisation, time and resources to put its views across and to stifle points of view that do not suit its needs.
One argument for not fundamentally changing the nature of the CC has been the one that states that a predominantly lay-leadership would not be able to direct the centre and the organisers properly. This one is interesting, in that it more or less concedes that full-timers within the organisation have a dangerous side, or at least, that there is always a danger that they will begin to pursue agendas contrary to the real goals of the organisation. Now that really is factionalism, and it tells me that we need less reliance on full-timers, not more.
The problems that have grown up in the SWP – its routinism, its loss of perspective and its horrific sectarianism – have their roots, in my view, in the way that the maintenance of the centre and its norms have overruled the political goals of the SWP. Real revolutionaries are loyal first of all to the class, and the precise mode of organisation used to direct the class are details, not ends in themselves.
Moving on from the mess
The past few months have been very stressful for SWP members. We told ourselves in 2008 that we had risen marvellously to the challenges posed by one crisis, only to be face with another, more bitter one. The Comrade Delta affair, with its combination of scandal, weak and cowardly leadership from the CC and truly shocking levels of bullying and dishonesty from some people, has been a battering. But I think, as events move on, there are also things we have learned.
The SWP opposition has proved more about the way revolutionaries can utilise social media and decentralised communication to organise and discuss ideas in a few weeks than months of debate about it ever would. When these contacts and techniques are applied in other ways, they may form the basis for radically improving far left organisation on the ground. No one is saying face-to-face meetings won’t happen, but it’s obvious that, particularly for working members (less so students) who simply can’t be at meetings every day, it provides a much more dynamic way to keep in touch with fast-moving situations. In terms of building up a new ideological leadership, also, I think progress may have been made in the simple fact that oppositional SWP members, many of them young, have written lengthy political discussions about the controversy – more skills we need.
I still think that the really big questions – where is this going? How will we build a bigger revolutionary left? – are yet to really start being asked in the right ways, and I agree with Donny and Tom that the SWP opposition needs to start looking at these bigger questions. That said, I think the potential to raise these questions is now present in a more serious way than it was even a month ago and also it’s worth mentioning that the individual leadership and intelligence that the women and men of the opposition have shown has won something of an audience for their arguments (look at the large hit count on the IS opposition blog, for a very crude measure). Our fear with the Comrade Delta affair was always primarily that it would cut us off from the class and the mass movements, but the very act of resisting that has shown that we can reach out to them: indeed the signers of the Marxism 2013 boycott statement were at pains to express solidarity with us. More can and will be possible.
The CC has an entirely destructive vision of how to proceed from here – witness the damage they are doing to the student organisation that had been built up around the 2010 radicalism. SWP members deserve better and should not let their leadership drag them down. Let the debate continue, whatever a beleaguered National Committee gets pushed on it on Sunday, in the CC’s upside-down version of the real world.