The Cult Rundown: an introduction

L Ron Hubbard audits a tomato plant using an E-meter, for reasons best known to himself

L Ron Hubbard audits a tomato plant using an E-meter, for reasons best known to himself

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Today, for a reason I’ll get to presently, is a good day to kick off a new series of posts. What I will seek to do over the next little while is to tell you a story that is truly grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – yet entirely true. It is the story of the Great Leader, his successor the Dear Leader, and the hermit kingdom founded by the former and ruled as an absolute dictatorship by the latter. No, not North Korea, but the Church of Scientology, a world unto itself that rivals any weirdness coming out of Pyongyang.

Many people pick up bits and pieces about Scientology. You probably know about its Hollywood connections, notably Tom Cruise acting like a lunatic in interviews, and that John Travolta movie we’re not supposed to talk about any more. Perhaps you’ve come across it being satirised by Frank Zappa or South Park. You may have seen the excellent movie The Master, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, which gives a lightly fictionalised take on the cult’s early years. Possibly you’ve heard about the cult’s legendary appetite for money as it guides its adherents up the Bridge to Total Bankruptcy Freedom; you may have heard stories about brainwashing which cause you to give a wide berth to those smiling young people offering you a free stress test.

And yet there’s much more to it than that. One frustrating thing, if you’ve any interest in the subject, is the habit journalists have of referring to Scientology as if it’s deeply mysterious. Actually, no; the cult is deeply secretive, which is not quite the same thing. There really isn’t that much that isn’t known if you’re willing to dig deep enough, and the more you dig the more you realise that this is a hell of a story. It’s a story that seems so far-fetched not even Neil Gaiman could imagine it. And at the heart of it, an organisation that manages to be both ludicrous and terrifying at the same time.

This isn’t just laziness though. There have been whistleblowing accounts since the late Cyril Vosper published his wonderful book The Mind Benders way back in 1971. But a lot of people were afraid to take on Scientology publicly. Journalists were scared of the cult after what happened to Paulette Cooper; defectors took note of what happened to Gerry Armstrong and others. Get on the wrong side of the cult and you would be followed by detectives, be tied up in litigation for years, literally have your trash gone through… So critics were “shuddered into silence”, to use L Ron Hubbard’s telling phrase.

This isn’t so much the case now. There’s been a revival of interest from a small but dedicated band of journalists, exemplified on this side of the Atlantic by John Sweeney’s massively entertaining Panorama documentaries (albeit much more entertaining for the viewer than for Sweeney, one suspects). And there have been a slew of accounts, in books, blogs, videos and all other media, from defectors giving us the picture from inside the hermit kingdom. The community of defectors, enabled by that pesky internet thing that David Miscavige doesn’t like, have done and are doing a great job of exposing injustice. They’re an impressive bunch of people, and you just want to give them a good shake and yell “What the hell were you thinking?!”

So there’s much to be got out of this subject, and your obedient servant will seek to reflect on issues like what causes intelligent, rational people to do crazy things, and why in a relatively free society you find people who will actively seek to build prisons for themselves. It raises questions, in an extreme form, about toxic subcultures and how they become toxic. Potentially, it tells us something about the human condition.

But it’s also a compelling story, so it will be necessary to lay down some verbal tech about the cult’s mercurial founder. Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, whose 103rd birthday it is today, is in my view one of the most extraordinary characters of the last century, well worth looking at in his own right even if it wasn’t for the movement he built in his own image. And it’s doubly timely because Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, the classic myth-busting biography of the guru, has just been republished. Go get yourself a copy, and if it piques your interest, get Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky as well. You won’t regret it. Tony Ortega has an interview with Miller here, and Marty Rathbun, who was heavily involved in the litigation that prevented it being published in the US, has a major cognition here.

Hubbard, of course, was a storyteller, and loved nothing better than telling tall tales about himself. Yet, as Miller points out, Hubbard’s own life was much more bizarre than any of the outrageous lies he told. After all, we are talking here about a redneck from Nebraska who convinced hundreds of thousands of people that he was the Buddha. A poverty-stricken pulp sci-fi writer who transformed himself overnight into the millionaire guru of post-war America’s first self-help craze, then in short order into the messianic founder of one of the weirdest of the New Religious Movements (a field not short of the strange and startling). A man who malingered his way through his Navy service, then became the Commodore of his own private navy. An extroverted showman who ended his days as a recluse on the run from the FBI, and whose followers continue to believe that he never really died and will return one day to lead them.

But it will also be worth trying to get a sense of what happened after Ron discarded his body in January 1986. That would cover the rise to power of David Miscavige, surely living proof of the law of diminishing returns, and how the diminutive dictator has transformed Scientology from the strange cult that Hubbard built into something arguably stranger, a peculiar cross between a North Korean gulag and a real estate company. Miscavige represents, essentially, the rule of Tiberius giving way to the rule of Caligula; so much so that even many Scientologists who remain totally loyal to the memory of Hubbard have decided they can’t take it any more.

Incidentally, it is probably worth giving Scientologists fair warning at the outset that they won’t like some of the things your author will be saying. I assume they won’t like L Ron Hubbard being described as a megalomaniac, or David Miscavige as a sociopath, but for me this is reasonable comment, and if anything restrained. There may also be reference to things you’re not supposed to know about until you get to OT III. So if you’re reading this, you can just assume that this blog is entheta and go on your way.

If, on the other hand, you’re outside the bubble, I hope to be able to provide some entertainment and possibly illumination. We shall return to this subject anon.


Filed under The Cult Rundown

This is the way the party ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper


“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” – Yogi Berra

Sometimes I feel like Lisa Simpson.

Allow me to explain. The aesthetes among you will recall the classic Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for five dollars. It’s then up to Lisa to convince Bart that he’s done something wrong, even though she’s not entirely sure Bart has a soul. That’s sort of the way I feel about the SWP, and on darker days, the left in general.

2013 has been pretty hideous, even for those of us who’ve been estranged from the family for quite some time, and it’s necessitated some hard thinking. David Renton has said what needs to be said; my excuse is that that’s not all that can be said, especially if we’re concerned to not have this sort of disaster repeat itself.

To recap: the chronology

I may as well begin by considering what I knew and when I knew it. The chronology itself tells a story, and not a good one for the party.

The original complaint was made against Martin Smith in, I believe, July 2010. It would have been about October 2010 when I was given a relatively detailed account. According to this version of events (which turned out to be substantially untrue), Smith had had an affair with a young woman comrade in [city redacted]. When I say young, no age was given; I assumed mid-twenties rather than late teens. She had broken things off; he, refusing to take no for an answer, had got stalkerish, initiating unwanted contact. A complaint was made to the Central Committee and was investigated by [two named CC members, one of whom is still on the CC], who determined that Smith’s behaviour had been inappropriate. As a result, Smith was standing down from his post as National Secretary, though remaining on the CC.

Important note: this was the version of events that I was told at this early stage: it turned out to be wrong in many respects. There was no affair, no breaking off, simply sexual harassment of a young comrade who made it clear she wasn’t interested. And yes, it was wrong to make assumptions about her age, as about any other matter we didn’t actually know about.

The next important event was the “special session” at the January 2011 party conference. On it being formally announced that Smith was standing down as National Secretary (this having been extensively leaked beforehand), a short and cryptic speech was given by Alex Callinicos acknowledging that there had been a complaint, although Alex did not deign to give details. Smith immediately followed with his now notorious, demagogic “I’m not an angel” speech, where he mentioned how hurt he had been by slurs on the internet (and compare here the CC’s pseudo-apology at last conference). This speech was followed by an orchestrated standing ovation and chants of “The workers united will never be defeated”, although many delegates, puzzled perhaps at so much talk about a complaint that couldn’t be detailed, remained seated. The speech was followed by other speeches from leading comrades about what a wonderful fellow Smith was.

Shortly afterwards it became clear that Comrade W, the original complainant, was seriously dissatisfied at proceedings, particularly with the fact that Smith was still on the CC and very much in a leading role. There was also talk that [named district organiser] was acting in a very hostile way towards the complainant and her local supporters. The grotesque spectacle of the “special session” was surely a tipping point.

Let’s pause for a moment and parse this. The first thing to note is that this was presented as, essentially, a sexual harassment case – which I believe was the substance of the initial complaint. At that time even well-informed party members would have been unaware that non-consensual sex may have been involved; that came later, and only those very closely involved would have known of that dimension. Nonetheless, the CC investigators had found Smith to have been guilty of inappropriate and harassing behaviour so serious as to require a very public demotion. The second point of interest is that the Disputes Committee was not involved at this point. The lead was taken by the Central Committee, in line with long-established party practice that the CC investigated its own members. The people who would have been most aware of the contours of the case were the members of the CC and the two members who most set the political tone – Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber – would have been very well aware of the details. It was also the CC which attempted to negotiate a settlement.

That was the beginning of 2011. Things rumbled on beneath the surface for a year or more, though Smith hardly let it cramp his style. Being the CC member responsible for trade union work and anti-fascism – the party’s two key long-term priorities, as per Alex – he continued to play a very public role in the party’s life. Then the case reopened.

The reopening of the case in 2012 significantly raised the stakes. Firstly, this was now a rape complaint on the part of Comrade W; secondly, there was corroborating evidence of sexual harassment from Comrade X, a worker at the Centre. Finally, the case was heard by the Disputes Committee in a formal process, not an investigation-cum-negotiation by two CC members. And as badly as the DC failed, I believe that Pat Stack did his utmost to ensure that there was at least an attempt at a fair and thorough hearing, to the extent that the party’s structures let him.

It’s also at this point that the SWP’s well-developed rumour mill got going. Not merely from critics of the leadership, though; also from the leadership camp. Presumably the well-advertised rumours that this was a trap set by John Rees and Chris Bambery, aiming to oust Smith and reclaim control of the party, did not originate with Martin Smith’s critics. And, yes, members and non-members in all sorts of places were told with great authority that Comrade W was a Counterfire plant, which puts the CC’s talk of confidentiality in some sort of perspective.

The remainder you probably know. The leaks that accelerated during the pre-conference period of winter 2012-13. The Kafkaesque affair of the Facebook Four, expelled by email for “factionalism” for an online conversation where they decided not to form a faction. The DC session at the January 2013 conference, where most delegates learned for the first time about the details of the complaint (though the complainant herself was barred from speaking). The CC’s denial that there was a second complaint; their attempts to delay hearing the complaint in the hope that Comrade X would give up and leave; and Smith resigning his party membership to avoid having to attend the hearing. And of course the biggest faction fight in the party’s history, which has cost it an enormous chunk of its already declining membership.

So that’s what happened. Why did it happen?

Reasons, and not reasons

It’s clear there were failures on a whole number of levels. There was the initial attempt by the CC to make the original complaint go away by negotiation. There was the Disputes Committee’s assumption that it was competent to hear a rape complaint. There was the CC’s unfortunate habit of lying to the members to protect its collective back.

To sum up the practical side briefly: Best practice in safeguarding would be to involve the police, or at least to encourage someone alleging a serious sexual offence to go to the police. Maybe a complainant might not wish to go to the police, but whatever you think of how the criminal justice system handles rape complaints, the party does not dispose of any resources in forensics, it cannot arrest suspects or subpoena witnesses, it cannot impose any penalty greater than expulsion. (At which many of those who have experienced the party’s disciplinary system will breathe a sigh of relief.) With the best will in the world, the party’s Disputes Committee cannot set itself up as an alternative criminal justice system.

Further: the party has (or had) in its ranks plenty of lawyers, rape crisis counsellors and similar professionals whose expertise might have helped the DC not fuck up so catastrophically. But apparently the methods of commandism and secrecy were too important to be sacrificed.

And again further: only a court of law can pronounce Martin Smith guilty. The most that a party tribunal could have done was to say the allegation was credible, and pronounce on whether or not he was fit to be a party member. As things stand, the party failed the women involved in the most disastrous way; but it also failed the most basic tests of fairness and credibility. Hard as it is to summon up any sympathy for Smith, he will always have a cloud hanging over him because the case has been so tainted that few will believe he isn’t guilty. (And that, I promise, is the last sympathy he’ll get from this quarter.)

Now, to look at it another way… Jim Cannon famously said that, whenever the party splits, there are always two reasons – a good reason and the real reason. There’s a cynical way of looking at this, which is that people will hide their true motives – which is sometimes true. But really, the guff coming from Kimber and Callinicos about how concerns over the Smith case are just a cover for creeping “movementism” will not do.

The fact is that the Smith case has been the proximate reason for the party crisis. But it’s also exposed long-term problems with the party, and had this crisis not blown up, there would probably have been another one sooner or later, maybe on a smaller scale. So it’s worth looking at just how some of these issues have arisen.

What the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten

If you know the later Marx – the very late Marx, when he was preoccupied with Russia – you’ll be familiar with the idea of the Asiatic mode of production. Several decades later, when Russia had a nominally Marxist government – this would be the Stalin regime – the Asiatic mode of production was airbrushed from the canon. Seemingly old Karl’s analysis of Asiatic despotism was too close to the bone for Joe Stalin. And to this day, you still get occasional academic conferences organised by the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam aiming to prove that there’s no such thing as Asiatic despotism. Well, go figure.

Someone, probably the late John Sullivan, once pointed out the irony that parties adhering firmly to historical materialism are even firmer in refusing to apply it to their own organisations; instead insisting, like the best idealists, that they be judged on their programme alone. This really won’t do. Okay, ideology is rarely purely instrumental – it does inform certain decisions – but where a group stands on, say, the Permanent Arms Economy tells you rather little about how the group actually functions.[1] To do that, we need to look at the structures of party organisation, and more nebulously but perhaps more importantly, the party culture.

This isn’t an issue of “Leninism” per se[2]. We actually need to be a lot more specific about the variant of cargo-cult Leninism historically practiced by the SWP. Neil Davidson has made a valuable contribution here, but I want to draw out a few particular aspects.

Firstly, let us dispense with the polite fiction that the party conference is the supreme decision-making body. In Bagehot’s terms, conference is the “dignified” part of the party’s constitution. The “efficient” part is the machine, which we shall come to presently.

Party conference very rarely decides anything; January 2013’s vote on whether to support Jerry Hicks against Len McCluskey was remarkable by being such a rare event. Instead, conference endorses verbose “motions” based on the perspectives documents circulated by the CC before conference – that is, perspectives that are so broadly written as to have very few obvious practical conclusions. So, in terms of decision-making, almost all of it is carried out by the CC, while conference, the Party Council, even the National Committee, function largely as compliant transmission belts for the CC’s latest Big Idea.[3]

Conference also, in theory, has the function of electing the incoming CC, but since this is a winner-take-all vote on a slate proposed by the outgoing CC (which invariably proposes its own re-election, with one or two minor changes), and since party districts themselves elect conference delegates based on a winner-take-all slate… well, it’s not hard to see how the party ended up having one contested election in almost thirty years. The leadership becomes self-perpetuating, and this has consequences for the party culture.

It’s worth noting that this is not how Cliff envisaged democratic centralism working when IS adopted it in 1968-9. Under the then constitution, the Executive Committee was a subordinate body of the larger National Committee. The NC was not elected by slate, but individually, with the proviso that if there was a faction, the faction would be represented on the leading bodies in proportion to its support. (And Cliff assumed that there would be factions, and this was not necessarily a bad thing.) This is, however, largely a closed book to the 1980s generation now running the party – Alex will remember, but he’s not telling.

The current system was improvised roughly between 1975 and 1982, and though it allegedly derives from Cliff’s four-volume Lenin biography (which also gifted us with the concept of “stick-bending”, or the leadership correcting the members by systematic exaggeration), its roots are quite material. There was the shattering effect of the 1974-5 split with the IS Opposition, after which the surviving leadership determined never to go through all that again. As a result, when there were major disagreements in the leadership over the “punk paper” or the downturn perspective, Chris Harman and Steve Jefferys decided not to take on Cliff in a faction fight. Thus developed the leadership’s habit of always presenting a united face to the children membership, and never admitting mistakes until years later, by which time the point would be moot.

We’ve seen the outworkings of this in recent years, notably with the SWP’s involvement in Respect, where serious disagreements in the CC were kept to the members of the CC (and their confidants, and whoever else happened to be well plugged into the party’s bush telegraph). These were never debated among the members at large, who just knew that the leadership unanimously went to war with its closest allies in the anti-war movement to defend John Rees, then not long afterwards dumped the same Rees amid a shower of invective that put Galloway’s fairly mild criticisms in the shade. One couldn’t blame them for being puzzled.

ANYWAY, what you end up with is a permanent leadership that’s practically unchallengeable. And, flowing from that, a party that’s supposed to consist of nature’s rebels develops a regime that’s remarkably efficient at rendering the members docile and deferential, if at nothing else. Chris Harman was pointing out the problems of the current setup as far back as 1979:

At first the consequences of the trend to a narrowing of leadership discussions to a very narrow group of individuals were not clear. But over time the trend meant that the only discussion about the political priorities and the direction of the organisation came to be carried on within a very narrow group of CC members and full-timers. The attitude towards the rest of the organisation was almost “Don’t let the children find out we don’t always get on”.

The small group at the Centre has been under very little discipline to articulate its perspectives including its disagreements about perspectives to a wider section of the cadre. This inevitably has had its consequences in terms of the discipline on the CC even to articulate clear perspectives for itself. Responsible to no wider body for 12 or even 18 months at a time, the CC has become politically sloppy in its method of working. Decisions are rapidly made that are just as rapidly forgotten. No perspectives at all are drawn up for whole areas of work. Individual members of the CC take very important decisions without any reference to the rest of the CC or to the other CC members individually (thus no major decision over the direction of the paper has been made by the CC as a whole since last August: political decisions like those taken over Carnival 2 were made by a couple (or at most 3) of CC members without any consultation with other CC members who were at hand etc.

It is this lack of discipline on the CC that has enabled repeated policy zigzags to occur.

Well, quite. The obvious comparison is not with Lenin’s Central Committee but, if we fast forward a couple of decades, with Mr Tony Blair’s sofa government. One can only wish that Chris had said this much more often and more forcefully down the years.

Beneath the CC


We are not, of course, utopians. We recognise certain basic facts of life and of organisational life. We recognise that any organisation is going to be made up of flawed human beings; and that since most societies and subcultures revolve around certain primal urges – money, sex, power – building a subculture based on idealism is extremely difficult. (Though few people ever made money out of the SWP, and nobody did so honestly; the other two temptations were still there, as we know.) There is also the tendency identified by CS Lewis in his famous essay on the Inner Ring, for any self-selecting group to see itself as an elite; and the tendency of any group of a certain size to develop a bureaucracy.

The SWP, of course, does have a bureaucracy, with something between 2% and 5% of the membership (depending on your estimate of membership figures) being on the party payroll. This includes the workers at the Centre, and the district organisers. Most importantly, the party has developed a tradition of the vast majority of CC members being full-timers; for many years, the only CC member not on the payroll was Lord Acton, which is significant in itself.

In the old IS days, there were few full-time posts, and these (except for Cliff and Harman) were filled on an ad hoc basis by people who volunteered, who had specific skills and were willing to be paid a pittance to use those skills for the benefit of the party. Later, as the party grew, so did the number of posts to be filled; often they were filled by victimised trade unionists. Later still, they tended to be filled by young graduates who had made a name for themselves in student politics and were headhunted by the Centre, having the advantage of youthful energy and willingness to work for little money. This is where you can see a career structure developing for a smallish but significant subset of party members. More recently, we’ve seen key posts being filled entirely on the basis of cronyism and nepotism.[4]

Here’s Chris Harman again, from the article quoted earlier:

The confining of political discussion on national perspectives to the CC and a small group or organisers has another disastrous consequence. It means that the only people with experience and confidence in national political discussion come from this group. It tends to mean that the only ‘viable’ alternatives to the present members of the CC are seen as being existing full time organisers. Hence the tendency for the CC to change only by the addition of people very much like itself.

Organisers play an indispensable role in any revolutionary organisation. They clearly have to be part of the leading cadre. But they should only be part. The danger with the structure we have at the moment is that it tends to make the organisers into the only national cadre we have. Unless we rectify this situation, we as a party are bound to make mistakes, with an embattled leadership feeling that it faces a potentially hostile membership.

It should be added that the argument about the danger of organisers dominating the political decision making of the party is not new. The argument about the political limitations of ‘committee men’ was made very emphatically by Cliff during the discussions on the proposed second long march in 1976. The argument retains its point. We have to avoid falling into the trap of ending up with a situation where the ‘committee men’ automatically dominate leadership bodies. [Emphases in italics in the original; bold are mine.]

Chris makes several good points here, but perhaps the most striking is that the CC creates an apparatus in its own image. It is well known that the SWP has an endemic culture of bullying, and often (not always by any means) it is the full-timer who sets the tone. (I immediately think of one organiser whose idea of fun is to bellow “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” in the faces of comrades half his age and size.) And again, the person who sets the tone is the one who organises the organisers; for many years that was Chris Bambery, who didn’t have a particularly emollient management style[5]; he was succeeded by Martin Smith, who was much worse.

This is important because the SWP has almost no structures between the Olympian CC and the grassroots membership: there are the organisers, who have almost feudal authority in their areas and are specifically tasked with being the CC’s enforcers, and beneath that the party largely runs on the basis of cliques.[6] The organisers initiate disciplinary proceedings, while themselves being accountable only to the CC which appoints them, not to the members of their district. They used to revel in being the sole sources of privileged information, before that pesky internet came along.

One other point: the full-timer combines the role of enforcer with that of a regional sales rep trying to impress Head Office. This is where we find the root of one of the party’s chronic conditions, Organiser’s Bullshit Syndrome, where the CC-appointed full-timer tells the CC what he thinks it wants to hear. An early example of this came in the 1970s when Cliff instituted a league table of organisers based on recruitment in their districts (which only benefited the most extravagant liars); the same process continues today of organisers solemnly telling the National Secretary that they’ve overfulfilled their quota. This helps explain how the membership lists got so swollen; and nobody at the Centre has a particular interest in bringing them down to realistic levels.

The bounce, arrogance and bullshit of some full-timers is annoying, but does betray a deeper problem. More so than the CC and the workers at the Centre, who are rarely seen by members outside London, for most SWP members the district organiser is the face of the leadership. And this at a time when there has been little stability in branch structures. Branch committees are set up across the country, then abolished, then restored. Even the branches were abolished for a while. The full-time organiser is the sole stable element in the equation. And this is set against a background of the party’s membership visibly shrinking and ageing; and a low level of class struggle meaning much of the party’s activity is the political equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again. Is it any wonder the machine comes to loom ever larger?[7]

Excursus 1: on revolutionary deference

But it’s not simply a question of military discipline, of deferring to the hierarchy. There was a context here, forged in the “downturn” period, when the party went into something of an ideological bunker. As Cliff once put it – I think this was in the context of debates around the Bennite movement – the swamp was rising around us, and we had to fortify our little island to survive. Pat Stack discusses this process:

The outside world was difficult – with the loss of struggle and as Cliff described it a period of defeats punctuated by disasters. The retreat from revolutionary politics was real, movementism and the growth of left reformism (in particular Bennism) became enormously attractive to erstwhile revolutionaries, pulling much of the far left off course. To stand up to this and preserve revolutionary Marxism, meetings on the history and traditions of the movement became central to our perspective.

The problem though was how did democratic centralism function in such circumstances? It was no longer the feedback and pulls of and on shop stewards, the day-to-day struggles of workers, the waves of student unrest that were in the main informing the membership, and therefore creating the two-way tension with the leadership which lies at the heart of democratic centralism.

After all who knew more about the Russian Revolution than Cliff, the German Revolution than Harman, the Comintern than Hallas? Even if the odd individual developed a “heresy” how could it be tested, and why would the membership trust a “gobby would-be intellectual” against the people who had lived and breathed this stuff all their adult lives. In other words who could teach the teachers?

Quite so. The Cliff group at its best had been supremely non-defensive in its approach to ideology; now there was a shift towards a closed system, the sort of Maginot Marxism people like Kidron had so effectively demolished in years gone by. Bookstalls and educationals were invariably framed by the small number of leading intellectuals at the top of the SWP; the Marxist classics were in a distant second place; and being seen reading, say, Mandel or Castoriadis was as big a faux pas as walking into a branch meeting with a copy of Penthouse under your arm.

This also spread to the international tendency, where a bad habit developed of letting the Brits do all the thinking. The American ISO, which had no shortage of smart people, published two books in the first 25 years of its existence. Being cut off by London was an intellectual liberation for them.

Just to illustrate from experience: many years ago I went to a smallish meeting addressed by Harman. The subject matter is unimportant now; the point is that at one point in his talk I became aware that Chris had said something which I knew from personal experience to be untrue. I don’t think in retrospect that Chris was lying, more likely that he’d been misinformed or been given a partial report and filled in the gaps based on guesswork. But I didn’t get up in the discussion and say this. Chris, I discovered later, would have welcomed the correction. It was just that you didn’t get up in a meeting and say that the great Chris Harman was wrong, even on a fairly trivial issue. Some people would have taken that as a sign of disloyalty; even asking an awkward question would have rubbed some people up the wrong way. John Molyneux, before he learned to love Big Brother, was dumped on regularly for asking awkward questions, and his experience was a lesson to others.

So we learned to bite our tongues and police our conversations. So it goes.

Excursus 2: on discipline and predation

In theory – though, as any lawyer will tell you, it doesn’t always work like this – the benefit of a system of criminal law is its predictability. There are offences which incur certain penalties, and there is a system of due process which is fair to all sides. That, ideally, is how a legal system should work, and the same basic principle applies to disciplinary codes of voluntary organisations.

Unsurprisingly, the SWP’s disciplinary system doesn’t work like this. Partly it’s because of a commandist leadership that sees the members as a problem to be managed, partly it’s because of a cliquish life in the branches based on shifting in- and out-groups. The end result is a fairly arbitrary system that’s very much focused on punishing members of out-groups and protecting members of in-groups. To put it another way, if they want to expel you they will, often on extremely flimsy (or no) evidence; but if you’re an insider you can get away with a hell of a lot (until you fall from grace, when you find all your past faults have been carefully recorded).

One thing that leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth is the vigour with which “anti-sexist” campaigns were prosecuted in the branches. Sometimes, to be fair, this was addressing real problematic behaviour; sometimes, though, it was simply a means of getting rid of “problem members” (which could mean anything from political dissent to simply not getting on with a particular leading member). Organisers were actually taught to expel people for sexual harassment (as opposed to, say, ideological offences) as a deliberate tactic; and that has to be set in the context of an organisation where apparatchiks are very assiduous at ostracising and smearing anyone they don’t like.

I remember joking to a comrade years ago about the party’s kangaroo courts, that if one took the party’s disciplinary records seriously, the SWP would be absolutely full of sexual predators. It doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

So how ingrained was the problem of predatory behaviour? It wasn’t typical by any means, or even widespread. But any experienced cadre would be aware of certain cases. You might hear that a branch secretary in [area redacted] was notorious for trying it on with any young women who joined his branch. If the Centre had ever kept up-to-date membership records, someone may have noticed that certain branches seemed to have a lot of trouble holding onto female recruits. But anyone who you heard about in this context would be the alpha male (or rarely female) in a branch or district; and these are not the people who the disciplinary system is set up to punish. The idea that, the more senior the cadre, the higher the expected standards of behaviour, does not feature in the party’s culture. Au contraire.

So, no, I don’t think there was a “rape culture” in the SWP. But I do think there were factors making it less likely that a complaint against a leading cadre – in this case, the de facto leader of the party – would be taken as seriously as it should.

Why did the CC do what it did?


In any case, this was not simply a case of the party leadership rallying around to protect one of its own. There’s certainly been an element of this, but then the leadership quite happily dumped Lindsey German, who’d been Cliff’s right hand for much of the 1980s and 1990s. They dumped Rees and Bambery. Lots of people have left the leadership over the years and faded into obscurity. Smith could simply have been taken out of circulation.

Except, except, except… As Alex Callinicos explained, the two medium-term priorities for the party were industrial strategy and anti-fascism, and Smith was indispensable to both. Since he’d cut his teeth campaigning against the BNP in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s, Smith was the party’s anti-fascism expert – and, with Weyman Bennett often being absent on health grounds, ran UAF more or less single-handed.

Moreover, the party’s industrial strategy had morphed into a medium-term alliance with the left wing of the bureaucracy, and here Smith’s contacts going back to his days as a civil service union militant were invaluable. Specifically, his friendships with Mark Serwotka of PCS and Kevin Courtney of the NUT, though I’m not sure if Mark or Kevin want to be identified with him any more. Smith could deliver general secretaries to speak on Unite The Resistance platforms, and – in the absence of any firmer idea of what Unite The Resistance is for – that carried a lot of weight.

And again: Smith continues to have a base in the SWP, and even though he’s not a member, could pull strings if he feels like it. His long-term partner is still on the CC. Several other CC members, and many full-timers, are tied to him by personal loyalty. This is the core of the IDOOM faction[8] which continues to regard him as the king across the water, and would restore him tomorrow if they were strong enough.

And yet again: Smith may be a bullying, thuggish oaf, but he did build up some support in the party’s rank and file. People respected him as an activist who got his hands dirty, rather than a supercilious academic like Lord Acton. And he’d earned popularity for orchestrating the palace coup against the Rees-German regime, and reversing some of the Dynamic Duo’s less popular innovations like abolishing the branches.

It’s not surprising, then that he was given a lot of freedom to operate. This extended to his friendship with jazz saxophonist and anti-Semitic wackaloon Gilad Atzmon; even after it was decided Atzmon shouldn’t be hosted on party platforms any more, he was still lined up for “fund-raising” concerts (which invariably lost the party money) to which party members were expected to buy tickets. This one thing, above all else, is why the SWP has become so toxic even amongst firmly anti-Zionist Jews. Yet it was allowed to go on for years, and some of the more boneheaded cadre actually thought defending Atzmon was a point of honour.

So, all in all, with these factors working in his favour, with the picture drawn above of unhealthy developments over the years in the party’s structures and culture… it isn’t all that surprising that the CC – Alex and Charlie in particular – thought they could chisel and negotiate their way out of this mess. Except they only dug themselves in deeper. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

What next?

Sometimes parties die, though they take their time about it. We saw this happen to the Communist Party (the real one, not the Weekly Worker) in the years after 1979. This wasn’t immediately to do with the period – Thatcherism was very good for the SWP and Militant. Rather, it was a delayed consequence of the party’s crisis in 1956-8, following Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. The CPGB lost a third of its membership in two years, and never really recovered.

Oh, the Gollan leadership put a brave face on things and said that they’d mostly lost middle-class intellectuals, and the party’s working-class base had held up well. This wasn’t entirely untrue, but the CPGB couldn’t replenish its cadre in later years – and when the movements of the 1960s arose, it was the upstart forces of Trotskyism and Maoism that were better placed to fill the gap. By the latter half of the 1980s, the CPGB was dying on its feet, and its final liquidation just a recognition of the inevitable.

Forty years ago, the International Socialists had 4,000 members – that’s dues-paying, active members. Around a third of these were manual workers; the median age of an IS member was something like 25. Socialist Worker was regularly hitting 30,000 sales a week. The group was not only energetic, but had a freewheeling, non-sectarian style that made it very attractive; it had an extraordinarily talented leadership; it was open and undogmatic. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but there was something there.

Hints of this survived a long time. I cherish the memory of a particular Paul Foot meeting in the 1990s, not because Paul made a brilliant speech, but because there was an extraordinarily good discussion, really bringing out the knowledge of the audience, and because at the end Paul went around taking people’s contact details for an article he was going to write. It was a glimpse of the potential genius of the party. Things didn’t just suddenly go from great to terrible; that’s not usually how it works in the real world. It’s been a gradual process.

That said, the SWP today is in bad shape. Leaving aside the finances (which are shrouded in mystery) and the precise membership figures, there have been somewhere between 600 and 700 resignations in the past year. The party is no longer of a size where this is sustainable. And it’s likely to shrink further. The oppositionists who are staying in to try and reform the party are not going to succeed, and are probably going to find life quite unpleasant. I suspect many of them will be gone by the time the Pooka comes. Even the middle ground in the party, represented in a fashion by Alex and Charlie, may find that life in a shrunken party, devoid of allies and dominated by IDOOM, is not very pleasant.

The student operation has been wiped out, and with it the main source of recruits. The SWP has long been reliant on recruiting a thousand or so students every October. Even if only 200 of them could be turned into party activists, that would balance out the loss of older cadre through death, resignation or expulsion. But the students are gone now, and most remaining party members are ten to fifteen years off retirement. One point of interest – few of the party’s NUT militants joined through union militancy; most joined as students, before they became teachers.

Many in the party are telling themselves that if they just keep their heads down and do constructive work, things will get better. No, that’s not necessarily true.

If you go on a large demo in London, you might see a banner from Sheila Torrance’s WRP, or a few elderly people selling News Line. The Torrance group inherited enough assets from Gerry Healy to continue on as a zombie party nearly thirty years after the sleazy old pervert was exposed. That isn’t, though, a very appealing future. Nor is that of Jack Barnes’ US SWP, now effectively a real estate company with a subsidiary bookselling business.

There is a big responsibility here on the party diaspora. What might come next, I am not sure. That the party failed is obvious. That it can’t be resurrected – well, that’s a judgement call, though I think that starting again, tough as it is, is a more realistic proposition than party reform. What’s important in the immediate future, I think, is to consider how we got where we did. If we can properly understand how the party fucked up, then that helps us to avoid similar fuckups in the future.

It’s been incredibly painful to see what was once among the best of the tendencies degenerate into something that looks like Healyism 2.0. But that wasn’t inevitable. It can’t be inevitable that a radical-left group will degenerate into an obedience cult (though it’s happened so often that we should think hard about why it happens). If we accept all this as inevitable, the only course of action that makes sense is to hide under the duvet and cry.

And tempting as that response is… in the long run, I think we can do better.


[1] Note also that when we refer to far-left groups, “ideology” often means simply mining the Marxist classics for apposite quotes that will support what the group leadership wants to do at the moment. All the groups do this to some extent. Compare the Alliance for Workers Liberty, which has become quite expert in cherrypicking the Marx-Engels Collected Works for quotes to lend some tone to the AWL’s eccentric version of Stalinism.

[2] Each group, of course, has its own very individual take on Leninism, which invariably bears no resemblance to what Lenin was trying to do when writing What Is To Be Done? back in 1902. Interestingly, though Lars Lih has left most latter-day interpretations of Lenin without a leg to stand on, no group has bothered to revise its theory in the light of his research.

[3] Not to mention how perspectives are disseminated through the international tendency, but that would take us too far afield for the moment.

[4] Though this tendency isn’t unique to the SWP by any means. Get me started sometime on the incestuous oligarchy that runs the Labour Party.

[5] Although if you meet Chris these days he’s very pleasant, now he isn’t professionally obliged to be a bastard.

[6] The SWP, despite its lack of structures and appearance of informality, has a very elaborate pecking order, like an Indian caste system only more complicated because it’s unacknowledged and constantly shifting. It can take several years for a recruit to accurately orient herself in this hierarchy.

[7] Something else to bear in mind: the considerable number of lapsed members who haven’t been seen at a party activity for years, but continue to pay a standing order, either as an expression of political sympathy or simply because they’ve forgotten to cancel it. Inactive members who pay subs to sustain a layer of professional activists… that’s exactly the sort of thing we used to lambast Labour for, and rightly so.

[8] IDOOM = In Defence Of Our Martin, as it’s been facetiously dubbed. This grouping acts as a faction but refuses to declare itself as such. Therefore, under the SWP constitution, it’s illegal and should be expelled en masse.


Filed under Left Politics

Ageing despot contemplates cracks forming in regime

Not Paul Dacre, but close enough

Not Paul Dacre, but close enough

All right, let’s return for a moment to the question of Paul Dacre. Not so much how he misjudged the Miliband story, but what the fallout tells us about the situation at the Mail.

Fortuitously, a new edition of one of the best books ever written about journalism has just been published. No, I don’t mean Manufacturing Consent, which has its interesting points but is somewhat handicapped by Herman and Chomsky only having the very vaguest idea of how journalism actually works. (This is less worrying from two academics than the fact that there are people who make a living in journalism who follow their analysis and don’t appear to know how journalism works. Happily, most of those people are kept on the comment pages of the Guardian and New Statesman where they can’t do much harm.)

I am of course referring to the classic Stick It Up Your Punter! by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, which tells the story of the Sun during its glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, and a gripping tale it is too. The only criticism I’d make of it is the one I always make of books about Fleet Street, namely that there are too many true stories left out on the grounds that readers would never believe them. But seriously, it’s quite wonderful, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself.

This has some relevance because, to a very large extent, it tells the story of Kelvin MacKenzie’s editorship, and it’s hard to convey to people nowadays just how much Kelvin bestrode the landscape like a colossus. He had a very sharp sense of exactly what the punters wanted; whether you liked his editorial decisions or not, he was a superb technical editor putting out a highly professional product every day; and yes, that brash flamboyance, which was so much part of 1980s culture, really put the Sun into a position of being able to dictate the news agenda. It’s never quite regained that since; the agenda-setting mantle has long since passed to the Mail, though the Sun continues to outsell it.

One of the most interesting points to consider is how often Kelvin screwed up, and sometimes disastrously, Hillsborough of course being by far the worst blot on his record, but considering the sheer number of times he was caught out publishing dodgy stories or monstering blameless members of the public, for years he seemed to lead a charmed life. If circulation was high and the finances were healthy and the Currant Bun was beating the competition, Uncle Rupert was happy and Kelvin was untouchable. Until there came a time when he wasn’t untouchable any more, when he was being caused trouble by relatively minor things that he could have shrugged off a few years previously. The point being that every regime, no matter how solid it looks on the surface, will weaken eventually. If only because the boss has been there for so long people get sick of the sight of him.

It’s a common process in politics and in many other institutions. The weakening is often hard to spot in its earlier stages. It becomes obvious when there’s blood in the water. Think of the “Back to Basics” affair, and how John Major’s government was crippled by relatively minor sexual scandals while both his predecessor and successor survived much worse.

Are we now at that point with the Dacre regime at the Mail? Dacre is not Kelvin MacKenzie, and eschewing publicity has probably helped him last as long as he has, coupled with being extremely good at what he does. Circulation is still booming, and the Mail is one of the few papers that’s still profitable. But he’s been in post for over twenty years now, and nobody lasts forever. Bearing in mind that he’ll turn 65 next month, the unthinkable scenario of the Mail without Dacre becomes quite thinkable. And since the Mail, unlike some papers, doesn’t change editors at the drop of a hat – David English helmed the paper for 21 years before Dacre took over – one could hardly blame hacks for speculating.

So there are, I understand, alliances being formed and people are moving into position for the post-Dacre era. And indeed the great man has made some concessions lately – the axing of Melanie Phillips being one gesture towards smoothing out the paper’s sharper edges. As for the Miliband story, it won’t have escaped notice that, following that Mail on Sunday reporter gatecrashing Ed’s uncle’s memorial, MoS editor Geordie Greig was very quick to apologise in a way that invites comparison with his opposite number at the daily. It’s probably fair to say, too, that Greig and Dacre are not known for being the best of buddies.

But yes, I sense weakness in the air, as much in the tone of the defence as anything. While I’m none too fond of Mehdi Hasan, for instance, devoting two pages to attacking him – well, what’s the point? From the Mail’s point of view, Hasan should be a fly to be swatted away, not a serious enemy who deserves a serious response.

Think of the timeline around Hackgate two years ago. There was an entire process of Murdoch setting off controlled explosions, getting damaging information out in vast infodumps almost too big to process, getting rid of compromised personnel, eventually closing the most compromised newspaper, all aimed at limiting the damage to the company. The ruthlessness with which he went about it indicated that he wasn’t as vulnerable as he appeared. If the Mail is going off on goose chases against enemies that ultimately don’t matter… well, perhaps its veteran editor is more vulnerable than he appears.

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Filed under Media

A word on Comrade Ralph

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

So, the last week hasn’t been very edifying, has it? I want to give here two briefish reflections on the ongoing Mili-Mail story, one contemporary and one historical.

Firstly, I can’t for the life of me think what on earth Paul Dacre is thinking. There’s a school of thought that says he’s lost his touch, his famed sense for the worldview of the Mail reader. In this scenario, running a hatchet job on Ralph Miliband – accompanied by a certain amount of dog-whistling about rootless cosmopolitans – would be a catastrophic misjudgement similar to the Sun’s monstering of Kenny Everett when the popular TV funnyman revealed he had AIDS. This went down like a cup of cold sick with Sun readers, who had grown up with and loved Kenny, and it’s worth noting that the paper never subsequently felt able to engage in the sort of rampant homophobia that it used to go in for in the 1980s. I’m not suggesting here that Mail readers feel a deep love for Ralph Miliband – few will ever have heard of him – but going after a politician by publishing a hatchet job on his deceased dad just seems nasty. And, yes, there’s no moral difference with publishing a hatchet job on the late Ian Cameron to have a go at Dave.

There’s another, more Machiavellian school of thought which runs like this: Paul Dacre is not a stupid man. The consequences of his actions have been, firstly, to make the public warm to Ed Miliband (something Ed hasn’t achieved under his own steam), and secondly, to overshadow the Tory conference (thus annoying Dave, who is not Dacre’s favourite politician). This is intriguing, but may be a case of overthinking the situation. There’s another aspect, though: ten years ago the Mail could have (and frequently did) get away with this sort of thing. Not so in the age of social media, which has levelled things out a bit.

As for what Ed is thinking, well, it goes without saying that he’s fiercely defensive of his dad. (Actually, just about the only time Ed Miliband is able to move me is when he’s talking about his parents. That’s when you get those rare flashes of overt emotion from him.) Ed, mind you, is also a politician, and one with a pronounced ruthless streak. He believes that his greatest triumph came with the taming of News International, and one could well understand him thinking it’s about time to have a go at taming Associated. He knows how his grassroots feel about the press, and how much they loathe the Mail in particular. And, while being nasty about Ed’s dad is not exactly a transgression on the scale of hacking a murder victim’s phone, one does not get to choose one’s circumstances.

Who knows? Maybe he really does think it’s time to have a more civilised discourse – though, if that’s the case, it doesn’t help to have Alastair Campbell going on Newsnight to complain about bullying and smears. I merely mention this.

Now to the historic side, which interests me more – or, more accurately, annoys me more, because we’ve been having yet another of those displays of invincible ignorance which remind me how few people in the British political-media class actually know any history or ideology.

I think it’s quite sad that Ralph had become such an obscure figure, known only (and then only to politics geeks) as the father of the Milibros. His books are quite hard to obtain these days (hint to his publishers, if they have any business sense), and the political milieu he lived in has been forgotten in these postmodern times.

So perhaps it’s understandable that only one or two people in the commentariat seem to have the vaguest idea of Ralph’s work. Many on the right (including a few people I usually rate highly) seem to have just seen the words “Marxist academic”, and lazily dusted off their old denunciations of Eric Hobsbawm, rather missing the point that Ralph was not Eric and had very different beliefs. Miliband senior was not an apologist for Stalin any more than Orwell was, and it really won’t do to say “Well, maybe he didn’t support the invasion of Hungary, but he knew Hobsbawm, who did.” On that basis we’d have to condemn lots of people who knew Hobsbawm, starting with Her Majesty the Queen, who made him a Companion of Honour.[1] But, I reiterate, Ralph was not Eric.

On the other hand, it would be a pretty serious misrepresentation for Labourites to portray Ralph as just another common-or-garden social democrat. No, he was much more interesting and idiosyncratic than that.

If we’re going to do political heredity – which I’ve always thought sits rather oddly with people on the left – it might be worth noting that Ralph’s father, Samuel Miliband, had a background in the Bund, the Jewish socialist party in Poland, which was closely linked to the Russian Mensheviks. Not only were the Bundists not Stalinists, rather a lot of them ended up being killed by the Stalin regime. (Those who weren’t were mostly killed by the Nazis.) I think that background has some relevance.

As for Ralph, well, he was a Bevanite in the 1950s, but drifted out of the Labour Party circa 1960 and never joined anything else. I’m certain he always voted Labour, for want of an alternative, but that’s as far as he went, and for good reason. There’s an old and rather cruel joke, but one with a grain of truth, that Ralph Miliband wrote books about how Labour would always let the working class down, and his sons went into politics to prove him right. And indeed his major works – firstly Parliamentary Socialism and then The State in Capitalist Society – were all about the inherent limitations of Labourite politics. And this in the 1960s, when Labour was much more identifiably social democratic than it is today.

Two points are worth making here. The first was that Ralph’s criticism of British parliamentary democracy was that it wasn’t sufficiently democratic. Right through his thought you find him constantly returning to the themes of the self-activity of the masses, and a profound scepticism about saviours from on high transforming society on the masses’ behalf. It’s all a long way from the cult of personality.

The second point, flowing from that, was a belief that the working class needed to be in politics on its own account. It needed a political vehicle. That wasn’t the Communist Party, hopelessly compromised by its dependence on the Kremlin; it wasn’t the Labour Party, which always raised hopes only to dash them; the smaller sects weren’t even in a position to start offering alternatives. What Ralph was driving at here was the concept of a democratic socialist party rooted in an active and conscious working-class movement. However, not only did this not exist, it wasn’t even apparent how we might get there.

Hence Ralph’s refreshing realism about the actual political situation we found ourselves in. Here’s a snippet from a sceptical though not unsympathetic take on the Labour left back in 1966:

The Labour Party, it is always tritely said, is a coalition; but it is less often noted that it is a coalition on certain very definite terms, mainly that the Left should not expect to shift the whole axis of the Party. Not that the Left has ever come near to doing that. But on those occasions when it has managed to defeat the leadership on an important issue of policy, it has also, with very few exceptions indeed, found that there was a world of difference between defeating the leadership at a Party Conference and forcing it to act upon that defeat. This has been the case even when the Labour Party has been in opposition. It is doubly true when the Labour Party is in office, precisely at the moment where policies can actually be implemented, but also when the power of the Labour leaders vis-à-vis their followers is greatest.

You said it, Ralph. And in fact, doesn’t it say something about our current situation that Miliband junior can be labelled ‘Red Ed’ for espousing a very, very mild Fabianism of the sort his father used to denounce?

Maybe boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy is about the best the British left can aspire to these days. Certainly, boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy would have more to recommend it than the postmodern technocratic element that’s come to dominate Labour politics these days. But a time when that even seemed possible grows more and more distant, and fewer and fewer people remember that it was ever a possibility.

You can sing the Red Flag and have a Clem Attlee avatar, but with every year that passes it becomes more kitschy, like the Mao memorabilia trade in China. What’s more, it becomes kitsch that’s incomprehensible to anyone born after the 1970s at the latest. How that can be dealt with, I have no idea. But maybe a (Ralph) Milibandian approach would be to identify and anatomise the problem, and trust that people (not an impersonal ‘History’) will find solutions. Maybe. The old chap’s scepticism was marvellous, but outright pessimism seems very tempting.

[1] Actually, I largely agree with Tony Judt’s assessment of Hobsbawm, with some added reservations to do with internecine Communist Party politics. But that’s another story.

Update: I’ve been reminded that in fact Hobsbawm did not support the invasion of Hungary in 1956 but publicly opposed it. Chalk that one down as another example of the perils of assuming you know what someone believed.


Filed under British Politics, History, Left Politics, Media

Letter from the ‘Facebook Four’ to the leadership of the SWP

Dear Charlie Kimber –

We are writing to you in light of Martin Smith’s resignation from the Socialist Workers Party, news of which reached us yesterday afternoon.

Whilst we are not in the business of simply repeating ‘We told you so” over and over again, tempting though that is, we do feel it is worth noting that house of cards you constructed in order to expel us have now crumbled.

We maintain now, as we did in November 2012 and throughout our vilification by Martin’s supporters both on and off the Central Committee, that we were in fact not guilty of the factionalism you accused us of. We maintain now, as we have done since our email expulsion, that the real reason we were expelled is because we were critical of a flawed disputes process that ‘exonerated’ the accused and did not give fair hearing to Comrade W- or to Comrade X, who we are pleased to learn will finally have her own hearing in the coming weeks. Our support for these women has not faltered, and our determination to see real justice for them remains unchanged. We feel that Martin’s resignation is an important part of their fight within the revolutionary party, which, whilst far from over, can be seen to have progressed somewhat this weekend.

You are hopefully well aware that the current battles you face within the party will not now simply disappear. Martin’s resignation cannot be seen as a panacea for peace in the SWP, and neither should it. The wider issues of democratic failure in the SWP will continue to be fought, and should now be seriously addressed by the leadership if you truly want to save the organisation that the vast majority of us have given so many years to. We sincerely hope you rise to the challenge that comrades in opposition have presented you with, and conduct a serious and thoroughgoing review into democracy in the party, making the changes to the organisation that must be made in order to prevent the total collapse of what was once, and could be again, the biggest and best revolutionary party on the British left.

Step one of this process needs to full and public apology to the Facebook Four with the option for all four of us to re-join the Socialist Workers Party should we wish to do so. You know, as we do, that our expulsion was a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issues of the party’s failure to take Women’s Liberation seriously. Martin’s resignation presents you with a unique opportunity to remove that smokescreen, by issuing us with an apology for the appalling handling, and outcome, of our case.

United, we can all begin to rebuild the organisation in the spirit of inclusivity, cooperation and democracy.

We await your response.

In comradeship,

Charlotte Bence, Adam Marks, Tim Nelson and Paris Thompson


Filed under Left Politics

Exit Delta

We have movement! Finally!

Here’s the situation, as I understand it. First, Delta has resigned from the SWP. Second, it has been decided that, rather than trying to crudely draw a line under the affair, the Disputes Committee will proceed to hear the second complaint – the sexual harassment complaint brought by Comrade X, which has been postponed several times already – in his absence.

This seems pretty good, if a few bear traps can be negotiated.

It’s unclear, for a start, why this has happened now. I discount the possibility of Delta having had a sudden attack of conscience, because I’m not convinced he has a conscience. It seems more likely that the Central Committee, having been given a torrid time of it by the opposition recently, has leaned on him to get out of the way. That’s quite something, since it’s not so long ago that Alexander was telling anyone who’d listen that Delta – specifically his ability to forge alliances with union leaders – was so vital to the party that losing almost the entire student membership was a price worth paying.

It’s unclear, though this may change soon, what Delta is actually doing with himself. As CC members have noted, he’s not been on the party payroll for quite some time, although this has been an academic distinction as he’s been employed at a party-controlled front. Presumably he’s going to go off to be a mature student, which would explain the appeal being circulated by the Gluckstein siblings to encourage party members to support his studies.

We also don’t know what’s going to happen in the longer term. Perhaps the thinking still is that he can lie low for a period and then be reinstated. But at this point, I’m not sure that the CC actually does have a plan – and the CC has been seriously divided anyway.

However, this is movement. This is very significant. It removes one logjam, and does give an impetus to moves to open the party up. Which is all to the good. Now the serious work begins.


Filed under Left Politics

The Central Committee cannot hold

Now here’s a thing. You know the way I said the other day that the SWP leadership was profoundly weak and brittle? Well, we’ve now had positive confirmation of it.

Sunday of course saw the emergency meeting of the National Committee, better known within the party as the House of Lords, at which a couple of things took place. There was some discussion about a certain ongoing Disputes Committee investigation. But the bulk of the meeting dealt with the awkward fact that many party members don’t have much confidence in the leadership, and some have even been saying so on the interwebs. This, of course, cannot be tolerated. And so four comrades were suspended, and the Central Committee issued an incredibly pompous statement telling us that unfortunately such draconian disciplinary measures were necessary because, Egypt! Also, Ed Miliband!

This then drew a sharp and immediate response from the opposition. And so it came to pass that last night the four suspended comrades were unsuspended. While this sudden display of clemency from the CC is most welcome, it’s worth unpicking slightly to see what it means. Why did the CC back down?

Firstly, their timing was all wrong. The Marxism festival, the SWP’s prime showcase, is coming up this weekend. Already it promises to be smaller than last year’s by around half, and it’s likely that there will be interventions from the floor making embarrassing reference to the Delta case. The disciplinary crackdown threatened to make things much worse. By my reckoning, some 22 of the advertised speakers at Marxism are part of the opposition; 17 of these had signed the statement threatening to pull out, which would have left some gaping holes in the timetable. Moreover, I understand that Jerry Hicks, one of the party’s few remaining trade union allies, was planning to make some pointed remarks about the party’s situation in his speech. That’s serious leverage.

Secondly, the opposition was united. During the January to March period, the CC gained a big advantage by driving a wedge between the hard and the soft opposition. They haven’t been able to do so this time, not least because events have caused the former soft opposition to significantly harden its stance. If the opposition had been this firm a few months ago, things could be very different today.

Thirdly, the scale of the rebellion. The SWP, having lost somewhere between 350 and 400 members, simply doesn’t have much of a margin of error left. A rebellion of over 250 comrades – that’s real members, not paper members, many of whom have been part of the organisation’s hard core for decades – at this point, even some CC members will baulk at provoking a walk-out.

Finally, the CC itself is on shaky ground organisationally. Which is a point worth teasing out a little.

We’ve grown used to a regime in the SWP where the Central Committee presented a united face to the membership; it was backed up by a small army of appointed fulltimers who could be relied upon to argue the line; and where annual conference would pass every CC motion with a 90% plus majority. This regime was remarkably stable for a remarkably long time, managing one contested election for the CC in 38 years. There’s an interesting study to be done, and Pat Stack has made a valuable contribution, of how a party made up of society’s rebels ended up with such a somnolent internal life. But that’s in the past now.

The CC simply can’t rely on having such an easy life any more. This isn’t just a question of having a large internal opposition who make no bones about their view that the CC is full of shit. More to the point, they can’t rely on the support they once took for granted. Once the spell is broken – once it’s no longer tenable to view the CC as the source of all wisdom – then the ground beneath their feet becomes precarious.

This has not been a matter of some disgruntled rank and filers facing the full weight of the apparatus. The split has also been within the apparatus; those appointed party workers, often (not always) chosen for loyalty rather than ability, have not been unanimous in their support for the CC line, and the victimisations and sackings of party staff have put backs up even further. The latest batch of resignations – seven or thereabouts – underlines this.

Nor can the party necessarily rely on cadre who in the past have been totally identified with the conception of a monolithic party. Some of the most extraordinary people are starting to make rebellious noises. A little late in the day, perhaps, and some of them may be suspected of being slightly hypocritical, but the fact remains: there are ultra-loyal comrades who have devoted their whole adult lives to building the SWP, and who are belatedly coming to the conclusion that the party is dying on its arse.

Most importantly, I think, the split has extended within the CC itself, and doubtless also within the Disputes Committee. This is entirely down to the pressure of events. Last year’s CC, if you remember, a committee that was basically politically homogeneous, split specifically over the handling of the Delta case. This led to Hannah D and Ray M being dumped from the leadership at the January conference, and Mark B resigning soon afterwards. Yet the remaining CC, which entirely endorsed the outcome of the January conference and which contains several members tied to Delta by bonds of personal loyalty, remains paralysed. Sometimes it’s making conciliatory noises, sometimes resorting to crude threats of purges, sometimes the same CC member will do both within the same speech. Alex Callinicos may mutter about lynch mobs or roasting fags at Rugby, then be Mr Smooth the next time you see him.

One may speculate on the reasons behind this. It’s probably not unconnected to the fact that throughout the crisis it’s been some CC members – notably Callinicos, Kimber and Bradley – who’ve been going out into the branches, meeting people, arguing their case, debating the opposition, sometimes getting a rough reception. Other leading members have remained holed up in the Vauxhall bunker. The question is not so much one of hawks versus doves, it’s more a question of which members of the leadership maintain some tenuous grip on reality. There are those who very much don’t.

There’s a further issue here. I’ve mentioned that some members of the leadership are wary of provoking a large-scale split. There’s a constituency, mostly in the apparatus, which is positively gung-ho for a purge, the sooner and more drastic the better. These are the true-believing cultists, the people who put you in mind of Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes. At least one senior CC member has openly referred to them as ‘the nutters’. Maybe you think that’s uncharitable. But these people, concentrated in the party’s middle management, are absolutely spitting blood at every concession to the opposition, and regard much of the current CC as having gone soft. It’s from this quarter that you find plans of Baldrickesque cunning to ‘save the party’, usually involving (a) mass expulsions and (b) a new broom in the leadership, which would coincidentally see them being promoted to the CC.

And if you doubt the world-historic stupidity of this element, let me just mention that, once they depose the sell-out Kimber, the candidate envisaged to be the new National Secretary is Amy Leather.


I mean, come on. In what alternate sci-fi dimension does that even make sense? It’s hard to think of anyone more compromised by recent events. You may as well reinstate Delta in the National Secretary position; he at least was a competent administrator.

And what of Delta? It’s worth recalling that he could still, at any moment, defuse a lot of the tension by simply walking away for the good of the party. Nobody has a God-given right to be in the SWP leadership; it wouldn’t be a travesty of justice for him to fade into obscurity. What’s preventing that?

His own ego, I suppose. And there’s the view of some CC members that he’s so valuable, mainly for his contacts with trade union leaders, that after keeping his head down for a longer or shorter period he’ll have to be rehabilitated. This in itself is questionable; it’s by no means clear what role the party’s ‘Unite the Resistance’ front has now that the union leaders have a shiny new People’s Assembly to play with.

And, of course, there’s the gormless element in the party who, since he’s been criticised by oppositional running dogs, think it’s a badge of honour to defend him – Delta, the Dreyfuss of our times. Take the appeal that’s being circulated asking selected comrades to stump up a tenner a month to pay for the great man to do a masters’ degree. I assume that this is a piece of private enterprise on the part of Donny and Anna Gluckstein and not sanctioned by the CC, but in the circumstances, it’s a bad joke at best and one hopes this has been communicated to the junior Cliffs in no uncertain terms.

I can’t say that removing Delta would solve the party’s crisis; the party has many, many difficulties that may turn out to be insoluble. But this bastard is the albatross around the party’s collective neck, and no progress can be made without removing him. I know there’s at least one very clever man on the CC. Surely this must sink in eventually.


Filed under Left Politics