Seymour and Co.: The Fools on the Hill

by Corey Ansel on March 14, 2013

Originally posted at The Chair Leg of Truth The SWP Opposition: Providing a Failed Post-Mortem Analysis

Hardly anyone on the left can claim to have been untouched by the crisis within the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).  Initially stemming from rape allegations against leading SWP member Martin Smith (now notoriously known as “Comrade Delta”), the crisis has managed to utterly discredit the organization in the face of the revolutionary left, as well as onlookers seeking ammunition to use against the workers’ movement.  A special conference was held on March 10th to discuss the issues of democratic centralism, Leninism and other questions regarding the party question.  But it isn’t the circus inside the SWP that is worth the attention of revolutionaries.

Enter Richard Seymour.  A long-time activist within the SWP, writer and primary figurehead of the opposition against the internal bureaucracy within the SWP, Seymour has been scapegoated by top bureaucrats such as Alex Callinicos for jumpstarting a blog titled ‘International Socialism’ for those interested in discussing the crisis outside of party channels.  It has long been known that the Cliffite tradition has nothing in common with Leninist theory, let alone the democratic centralist method of building a revolutionary party.  Although Seymour and many of his co-thinkers resigned from the organization after the conference, aren’t there more pressing questions to be answered?

Charlie Kimber, National Secretary of the SWP, posted a response to criticisms of the party on their website in early January.  He ended his apologism for rape and the internal bureaucracy by stating, “As far we are concerned, this case is closed. This is not a ‘cover up’. It is a determination to reflect the decision of our conference.”  For those of us who have followed the sinking of the SWP ship for years, it came as no surprise that there would be no internal discussion or debate regarding accusations towards a prominent leader of the organization.  For revolutionaries, the “case” has not only been “closed,” but the coffin has indeed been nailed shut!

For Seymour and the left, the issue was most certainly not closed.  ‘International Socialism’ received an influx of letters from SWP members, supporters and other onlookers seeking to make sense of what seemed to be an unthinkable crisis.  It was this phenomenon precisely that led Callinicos to bemoan the “dark side of the internet.”  Firstly, it should be the duty of a Marxist organization to have such healthy internal discussion, complimented by collective unity in action, that going outside party channels would be totally unnecessary.  However, this discussion has very little to do with the relevance of the Internet.

Something paramount lies at the core of this crisis.  The problem of bureaucratic leaderships, cultism and hyper-activist milieus are nothing new in the practice of phony Marxist sect building.  Pham Binh, who managed to make his way out of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) due to its relatively similar practices organizationally, had this to say in a recent article titled “Leninism” Meets the 21st Century:

Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they      accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party!

In the hands of bureaucrats like Alex Callinicos, Martin Smith and Charlie Kimber (among many others), the SWP has continued to conform into a business-like group that latches on to the day-to-day struggles of working and oppressed peoples much like how a leech siphons blood from its prey.  That is why it isn’t a surprise to thinking Marxists when a bureaucrat speaks rhetoric about phony women’s liberation” and is subsequently caught in the act of terrorizing a party supporter sexually.  While the SWP sells their newspaper at a rally one day and spews populism about “the 99% vs. the 1%” on another, there is a tiny elite that places itself at the helm of the party’s affairs.  This is nothing unique to the SWP.  Groups like the American Socialist Workers Party and the Spartacist League have long ago gone down the road of turning into obedience cults with many thanks to a parasitic leadership.

In the guise of providing “leadership” to the working class, competing groups practically ignore each other like strangers in a cramped elevator, just going about their daily business of keeping the sect alive.  Organizations like to hitch their ride to whatever the popular movement of the day is, but they consistently avoid a real, concise class analysis in their consistent work of building popular fronts.  That is why any group that critiques an ostensibly revolutionary organization for the left is merely brushed aside as “sectarian.”

The “leadership” the SWP provides is phony to the core.  Callinicos and his group parrot Leninist theory while repudiating it in practice.  But this didn’t stop Richard Seymour and the opposition within the organization from begging for a special conference.

On the International Socialism blog, a piece titled Is Zinovievism Finished? was signed by Seymour and about a dozen other supporters of the opposition within the SWP.  While critiquing the anti-Democratic practices of Callinicos and Co., the opposition urged the need for an emergency conference to help resolve the issues at hand.  The article states:

We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why many have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

How very comical that one of the SWP’s “historical achievements” is the formation of the Stop the War Coalition that never managed to slow down the imperialist war drive.  What the SWP promotes is very clear: a constant politics of hyper-activism and “movement building” while in every single regard failing to construct a seriously steeled revolutionary party.  In fact, what the politics of the International Socialist Tradition are notorious for is their shoddy management of its membership bodies.  For example, the ISO in the United States is infamous for using and tossing of students in a never-ending drive to keep the momentum and money flowing in the organization.  This is more commonly known as a “revolving door membership”, in which students and activists wind up joining an organization, which is followed by their being indoctrinated with whatever brand of Marxism the leadership (Sherry Wolf and Paul D’Amato in the ISO or Callinicos in the SWP, for example) decides before they are thrust into a hyper-activist environment of constant paper selling, meeting attending and protest marching.   Eventually new recruits find themselves burned out by the constant cultist routine of the pseudo-Marxist left and often find themselves leaving the organizations for fear of wasting any more of their time or instead being forced out for whatever apolitical reason the leadership deems necessary.  Those who don’t fall in line are pushed out and those who do are groomed to continue their service to the bureaucracy.  There are countless examples to cite regarding this, but the phenomenon is nothing unique to the ISO or SWP.  It is a symptom of the entire ostensibly revolutionary left.

This is nothing new to Richard Seymour, who would have to be totally obtuse to not be aware of the nature of “Stalinicos” and the bureaucracy within the SWP.  For anyone paying attention, it is obvious that the SWP opposition sought to fawn over the popular front building of the organization which “at best” influenced the ruling class and the anti-worker Labour Party to shift policy in the interest of the British bourgeoisie.  As long as the SWP maintains the guise of being “the” revolutionary organization on the left in Britain, they can maintain their status.  For the leadership, this means maintaining their privilege.  So even when the SWP parrots the ever-popular program of reformism, it is often times considered “sectarian” to critique them from the left.  Thus, the opposition sought no attempt at shifting the programmatic orientation of the organization.  Their “opposition” was hardly political.

This begs the question: why did it take an alleged rape scandal to shake the SWP so intensely?  If the leadership has maintained a bureaucratic control over the organization for some time now, complimented by a lack of internal democracy and programmatic zig-zags that compliment the lack of criticism within the organization, why are Seymour and his co-thinkers abandoning ship now?  The opposition within (and now, primarily externalized outside of) the SWP has then chosen for years to hear and see no evil.  In fact, it is difficult to find a critique stemming from Seymour’s position on the party towards the SWP before the accusations towards Martin Smith.  Criticisms of internal bureaucratic regimes hardly qualifies as authentic political opposition.  In fact, the organization’s program is what leads to such internal crises in the first place.  It doesn’t take a special conference to explain that an organization is merely parroting Leninist theory.

In fact, it is quite telling about Seymour that it took this particular crisis to drive him out of the party.  Even when he was first being accused for promoting the “dark side of the internet”, Seymour was consistent in telling his comrades to stand their ground and oppose internal attacks on democratic centralism.  A democratic centralism that has never truly existed within the SWP!  In fact, the SWP opposition would have had to willingly blind themselves into thinking that a conference would remove Callinicos and his cohorts from the reins.  Thus, the SWP opposition was just a show.  It was quite entertaining and it served to discredit the SWP even moreso than before in the face of the left and others, but at the end of the day, the tragedy still continues.  The opposition never stood a chance and even if they had been armed with an opportunity, they would have surely failed to provide a serious investigative analysis into the political bankruptcy of the Cliffite family tree.

Seymour and several dozen of his comrades resigned from the SWP after the March 10th conference.  The letter is fairly broad and Seymour has elaborated more on the situation on his blog Lenin’s Tomb.  However, there is something glaringly suspicious in the post that followed the resignation titled “A New Network.”  Seymour and Co. state:

The crisis that has engulfed and dishonoured the SWP should not be allowed to obscure the best aspects of the International Socialist tradition. We are committed to building and maintaining that tradition, as part of a strong and principled Left. As a first step, we invite those on the left who have been galvanised by the crisis to join the International Socialist Network by emailing [email protected]

Best aspects of the International Socialist Tradition?  Maintaining a tradition of political hypocrisy!  Ignoring for a moment Trotsky’s words that what the workers of the world need is a party, once more a party and again a party, those who resigned their membership from the SWP did so primarily for bureaucratic and personal, not political reasons.

Let me be clear: the entire Central Committee of the SWP could be removed.  The disputes committees and party branch leaderships could be put up to a vote for SWP members.  In fact, the organizational practices of the group could be radically shifted.  These factors are irrelevant.  What is primary regarding the SWP is program.  The Cliffite tradition is infamous for hailing the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union out one side of their mouths, while worshipping the Ayatollah in Iran out the other.  No personal or democratic shift within their tradition will vindicate their political and programmatic zig-zags throughout the last few decades.  In truth, the SWP (along with their former comrades in the American ISO) set the bar for reformism.  Their greatest accomplishments are, in fact, building popular front coalitions that didn’t even challenge the ruling class in words, let alone in deeds.

These are things that even the most novice critical thinker could observe.  I most certainly do not believe Richard Seymour to be incompetent.  In fact, it is to his credit that he managed to, at the very least, get out of the SWP and avoid capitulating to the parasitic leadership.  However, the fact that Seymour managed to tote the party line for so long is detrimental to his reputation.  The working class movement needs authentic Marxists who are more than ready to ruthlessly critique those who falsely lay claim to the legacy of Leninism.

The rebellion is strong within you, Seymour, but you are not a Marxist yet.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Proyect March 14, 2013 at 4:12 pm

This begs the question: why did it take an alleged rape scandal to shake the SWP so intensely?

Because it is a fucking cult. All these groups are cults to one degree or another. The American SWP and the Socialist Equality Party at the far end of the spectrum and groups like the ISO and the British SWP until recently more grounded in reality. I for one have been shocked by Callinicos’s behavior in all this. Someone with both feet on the ground would have understood that his material privileges are threatened by having Martin Smith as part of the public face of the SWP. This group will be shunned by the broad left just as the people who got expelled are shunned by the cult.

I am the worst enemy of the American SWP on the planet but it took a process of deprogramming to reach that state. Keep in mind that I was persuaded to keep my resignation a secret from other members in order to prevent them from being “demoralized”. I just became an “unperson” after 11 years of activism and contributing upwards of $10,000.

But even then I was a sympathizer. What finally got me to break with them is anger over their workerist abstention from the Central America Solidarity Movement in the early 80s, followed by reading Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism”.

My feeling is that Richard Seymour had a lot more guts than I ever had when I was a member. I also expect him to make further progress as a genuine revolutionary leader with as much to contribute as other young people like Pham Binh once the shackles have finally been dissolved. At least that is my fervent hope.

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Richard Estes March 14, 2013 at 7:11 pm

The article has a Christian evangelical tone: “The rebellion is strong within you, Seymour, but you are not a Marxist yet.”

The issue is not whether Seymour took too long to abandon the SWP, but, rather, whether he has learned the right lessons from the experience in regard to his future activism.

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Corey Ansel March 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Christian evangelical? Please. If anything, it is the absurdity of suggesting that everyone who claims to be a Marxist is, in fact, a Marxist that should warrant the most critical of observations.

I am confident Seymour and the rest of the opposition will pose as having learned a lesson from the bureaucratic nature of the SWP. However, have any of them learned an ounce of political program from the crisis? Have they found an alternative means of authentic struggle against capitalism outside of its channels? Not in the slightest.

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Richard Estes March 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I prefer to more optimistic, and wait and see what Seymour and the others who have left the SWP do

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Brandy Baker March 15, 2013 at 5:08 am

This is a very traumatic event for anyone to have to endure. Objective political clarity and evaluation takes time, as noted above. An arrogant attitude (“you’re not a Marxist”) towards the opposition for not saying all of the right things or breaking before the scandal is not helpful. The opposition is to be applauded for their principled stand, not derided for imperfections. From the armchair and the laptop, it is easy to judge, but when you are in a situation like this, everything happens fast, there are twists and turn, you are fighting a CC that will (and did) throw everything at you.

Also, what no one is talking about is that it was the students who were pretty much the vanguard in this fight. They initiated it.

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Kronsteen March 15, 2013 at 7:38 am

If the SWP is dead, why are you still trying to kill it?

If the ISN is insignificant, why are you trying so hard to *persuade* us it is?

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D_D March 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

It is a little surprising to see The North Star give space to this common or garden ultra-left, programme-toting, vitriolic, ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ rant. This end of the left is even further than the British SWP from contributing to that new left that The North Star hopes for.

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Brandy Baker March 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Every time I encounter a revolutionary heavily breathing about their, “programme (or program, depending upon where you live or happen to be at the moment)” I want to run the other way as fast as I can. I’ve heard enough of that stuff to last five lifetimes and I don’t want to hear no more. Ever.

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Ben Campbell March 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

When we say, at North Star, that we don’t have a party line, we mean it. As such, you will find all sorts of things published here, from today’s Democratic primary piece to what you might call “orthodox Trotskyist.” You certainly should not come to North Star expecting to more-or-less agree with every piece, since that is impossible. Submissions are posted primarily for discussion, not for “party line.” If this piece is woefully misguided, then that is why we have comments (which are really the most valuable part of the site).

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D_D March 16, 2013 at 10:29 am

Fair enough Ben and I am all for openness and debate. The North Star, as for any political publication, electronic or print, has a general intention, a general promotion of a particular message, broad but with a function. The great value of the North Star is that it is a (really good) forum for exploring a new left and critiqueing the old. That is what draws its readership and its great contributors. It is not, as you rightly state, a party website, or even a party website open to opposing views. Sure. But neither is it a ‘come all ye’ blog inviting and promoting all shades of political opinion. There was a reason for it being set up. “A renewed radical left is urgently needed. The North Star aims to facilitate this process” .

OK, carry the odd piece at odds with the ethos of the site, even the bitterness above. But I’m sure you have not gone to all this trouble to herald hackneyed harangues available on a hundred other sites. Rather your platform is to fill a gap, provide a forum, for those interested in getting away from cant and bureaucracy towards a radically different vision of socialist method and organisation.

I’m sure you can arrange your own balance and thanks for one of the best left sites.

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Ben Campbell March 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Thanks for the feedback. What we’re aiming for with this site is a dialogue, between contributors and commenters. Obviously that requires integrating diverse viewpoints, from various strands of the radical (or not so radical) left. At the same time it won’t work if people find material so off-putting that they deem it not worth responding to, or if individual articles become atomized, with viewers only reading and responding to articles that they are in general agreement with. It will take some time and calibration for us to really hit the dynamic that we are aiming for. Thanks for reading.

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Johng March 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm

It’s always a good idea to address departing members of an organisation as if they are witless fools just looking for a bit of quality leadership. For one thing it provides a certain amount of continuity in what might be an otherwise bewildering experience.

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Pham Binh March 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Thank you for the high praise.

Creating a new and better left means engaging with the bad habits of the old left instead of pretending they don’t exist or matter. We’ll never go anywhere until we painstakingly review and discuss the mistakes, shortcomings, and pitfalls of our predecessors (as well as their triumphs and successes).

Another way of thinking about it is a new left that emerges will inevitably be stamped with marks of the old, kind of like how socialism emerging from capitalism will have to deal with all kinds of inherited crap and baggage foisted on us.

I didn’t care for the tone of this piece myself and the “program/ideas/perspective/politics makes or breaks The Party” is a long-standing idealist error made by Trotsky and his followers that I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

Despite those shortcomings, at least Ansel is ready, willing, and able to deal with criticism in an above-board manner, which puts him head and shoulders above The North Star‘s detractors who snipe and moan from the sidelines because they fear jumping into the fray of open debate and discussion.

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Ross Wolfe March 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm

^Yes. Corey has proved himself to have far thicker skin than his critics.

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Corey Ansel March 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

I have? When did this happen!

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Pham Binh March 17, 2013 at 3:23 pm

When you decided to outline your views in an article instead of riding the Facebook waaaambulance.

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Corey Ansel March 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Riding? I run that ship. ;)

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D_D March 18, 2013 at 10:53 am

Cannot disagree with anything said there Binh. Interesting reflection about “a new left that emerges will inevitably be stamped with marks of the old, kind of like how socialism emerging from capitalism”. Did not catch your Trotsky piece before and look forward to reading it.

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