Here’s an interesting aspect of the current faction fight. As ever, there’s an element of randomness in how people line up – in any faction fight, alignments are very often forged on the basis of where you live or who you’re friendly with rather than strict ideological considerations – but there are still discernible differences between the two camps, in age, geography and occupational profile. Actually, since there are few strictly political questions at stake – despite some long-term background tensions, the fight as such revolves entirely around how the party leadership dealt with the Delta case – these are very striking indeed.
One thing that’s struck your author is the interesting composition of the IDOOP faction. Of course they have the students, overwhelmingly. But not only the students, not by any means. There are recent ex-CC members, some of the party’s sharpest thinkers, not to mention veteran comrades, some of whom have been in the party for forty or fifty years. So it doesn’t simply break down as a split between the student organisation and the adult party. Looking at the more experienced members of the faction, you could easily put together a Central Committee from their ranks that’s more credible than the incumbent one.
(Parenthetically, there are some very surprising people in the faction – not to disrespect them, but people who’ve been in the party for decades and never been oppositional. Some still seem a little bemused that they’re in a faction, or as Cliff might have put it, “he is a fish out of water and you can’t make him drink”.)
Okay, so the students are explicable. The veterans are also explicable, in that they’ve devoted many many years of their lives to building the SWP, only to see the leadership seemingly determined to piss it all away. But what of the other side? What of the CC’s undeclared posse of loyalists, the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-Faction?
There is, again, a very definite profile there, at least when you strip out the fulltime party workers. Certain districts are more loyal than others of course, but it’s the age and occupational profile that’s most striking. The List of Shame reveals a very strong bias towards members of the NUT, UCU and PCS; and, from my own knowledge of the people involved, they’re very much the Downturn generation, people who joined in the 1980s predominantly. Actually, rather few of the teachers did join through NUT militancy – they generally joined as students and stuck with the party as they went into the teaching profession.
Anyone familiar with the internal workings of the SWP will be aware that this layer of membership has traditionally been the most fanatically loyal to whatever wheeze is emanating from the CC at any given point in time. There’s also scope for an anthropological study of SWP teachers, who both form a relatively privileged freemasonry in the party and simultaneously have a masochistic tendency to defer to the most boorish and overbearing elements of the apparat. On a rhetorical level, this manifests itself in a buttock-clenchingly stentorian “Leninism” that’s slightly over the top even by SWP standards. One recalls the late James D Young who talked about a type of party discipline that wasn’t innate but cultivated, and really was little more than an attempt to dignify middle-class elitism.
Anyway, we’re seeing this in some of the stuff coming out of the CC’s Not-A-Faction right at the moment. Yes, there’s the inevitable and depressing attempt to frame this whole thing as a defence of Bolshevism against the Menshevik opposition. And it’s melding with the CC’s usual response to critics (though it works better with individual critics than a sizable opposition), which is to say that if you don’t like how the leadership runs the party, you should just get out of the party. It’s that sort of small-business proprietorial attitude that gives democratic centralism a bad name.
And so we arrive at the rhetorical weaponry being loosed off at the students at present. There’s a report in the Weekly World Worker News that tallies well with what I’m hearing independently. Notable is the reference to a conference motion from Tottenham branch – specifically from two longstanding and well-respected comrades who’ve lined up behind the CC – which is being given wide circulation in the party. I reproduce it below, because it’s quite revealing [my emphases]:
Taking the long view
We are now in the 7th year of a worldwide capitalist crisis. The depth of the crisis in countries such as Greece is leading to deep polarisation between the left and the Fascist right. The UK is in a triple dip recession. There are no signs of any serious recovery.
The history of our party (and of the Bolsheviks and indeed other organisations in our tendency) prove the need for a unified, Leninist organisation which can provide a revolutionary pole of attraction for the working class.
There is a huge fear amongst our comrades that if we are too hard in holding the positions democratically won at our conference, branches and elected national committee we will lose many of the young student members of our organisation. None of us want that to happen. However, we also have to be clear that whilst engaging in a political argument to win and keep as many comrades as possible, we cannot hold on to members at a political price which will fundamentally damage our ability to organise in the working class.
New students arrive at colleges every year. If we raise the level of politics to fit the present situation the SWP can recruit and develop layers of Marxist students successfully.
To preserve a revolutionary current in this country for the inevitable struggles ahead we need to ensure that we fight to win all comrades to a democratic centralist position in practise as well as in name. And, at the same time, we need to demand and enforce with discipline if necessary the right of the majority of members to have decisions respected and our action to be unified. Without that we cannot effectively move forward in this epoch of crises, wars and revolutions.
Proposed: Anna G
Seconded: Alan W
Let’s leave aside the flannel about war and fascism and economic crisis. That belongs to the emotional blackmail school of argument to which CC loyalists are much addicted, and which takes the form of “Fascism is on the march in Greece! Therefore you must support the resolution on the Disputes Committee!!!” The most striking thing in this motion, which has been tabled by two comrades who should really know better, is the clear implication that the students are expendable. There’s a logic behind this, though a slightly crazy one, and it’s reflective of the arguments being put forward by CC loyalists, though whether the CC believes them is anyone’s guess.
Two things. One is that the SWP leadership still hasn’t got over the technophobia it displayed in the mid-1990s, when party leaders were prone to describe the internet as a passing fad that would never take off. This was justified by a lot of cod-proletarian verbiage about the internet being inherently elitist because only a few people had access to it – at one point, if memory serves, Professor Nostradamus said that anyone who worked with a VDU was by definition middle-class. This is obviously an outmoded attitude when the large majority of the population has internet access, but it still lingers on. There’s a view promoted that, while students are obsessed with blogs and Facebook and suchlike, this is just online froth, ephemera that are of no interest to the working class. Actually, that’s how Lenin’s Tomb got going, by sailing under the radar of a leadership that didn’t take the internet seriously. Obviously, it’s not really tenable in our hyperconnected society.
The second is the rather dismissive point made by Anna and Alan above, which is that there will always be another batch of students coming along. But this is based on a misapprehension of the SWP’s ecology. For many years now, the party has relied on recruiting a sizable number of students every October – the majority will soon drop out, but if 800 are recruited and 300 of those hang around, that will be enough to make up the party’s losses and maintain headcount.
There’s also an aspect that former leaderships understood very well. One of the less attractive features of the party Cliff built was the theory of the “conservative block”, that older members are necessarily cautious, conservative, if not just tired and burned out, whereas the fresh recruits from the colleges were the real raw revolutionaries. This theory was first given an airing by Cliff in the 1970s, and didn’t improve with age. In practice, it meant that more experienced and knowledgeable members – who had an annoying tendency to think for themselves, and required convincing before going along with the CC’s latest get-rich-quick scheme – could simply be dispensed with, and the students used as shock troops against them. Sure, you’d lose valuable knowledge and experience, but when you had Cliff and Harman in the leadership, that was all the knowledge and experience the party needed. Again, this wasn’t a very useful approach when Cliff and Harman were alive (and they were relatively sparing with it), much less so nowadays when the sitting CC doesn’t have their great strengths.
What hasn’t been the case before now is that the party has driven out the students. In fact, the old-time leadership was very careful not to do so, sometimes making unjustified concessions to trendy ideas on campus. This can’t be stressed enough – the colleges are the main transmission belt into the party. This should be an obvious point to the fortysomething teachers in the CC faction, the vast majority of whom were recruited at college. And this also relies on there being a critical mass of students around – if there is no SWSS group at a particular university, adult party members (not least district organisers) would have a hard time rebuilding them from scratch. Let us also not forget that student members, having time and energy going for them, shoulder a disproportionate amount of the party’s activity. You need the critical mass in the colleges. But if we’re to go by the five or so students out of the 500 names on the List of Shame, the SWP leadership seems determined to reduce its college presence down to the scale of the Spartacist League.
And this flags up just how weird the CC’s unstated perspective is. Not only do they take the view that their gruesome mishandling of a rape allegation is just internet froth of no interest to anyone but students; they further think that, hey, students have no memory, and if we lost almost the entirety of SWSS next month, well, another lot will be along in October and we can just pick up where we left off with a more malleable student organisation. This is assuming students are too stupid to use Google and find out about the group that wants to recruit them.
Well, it may be a comfort blanket for some of the more unthinking CC factionalists. But can the leadership really be so deluded as to think this will work? Seriously?