“Once Tiberius is dead I, Sejanus, will rule as Emperor in Rome”

Sometimes, Suetonius can be a better guide than Lenin

Sometimes, Suetonius can be a better guide than Lenin

Well, things are developing as we reach the run-in to special conference. And there are contradictory signals. There are depressing if predictable reports of oppositionists being bullied intensely, and a trickle of not very voluntary resignations; there’s also the CC not-a-faction’s enthusiasm for stitching up conference delegations to the exclusion of all critics, even if that means sending fewer delegates than the district is entitled to.

On the other hand, there are signs of small wobbles, meagre bones, coming out of the Central Camarilla. For one thing, the “destroy all students” motion from Tottenham has been withdrawn, apparently because it wasn’t entirely congruent with what the CC is trying to do. Moreover, the Unite Against Fascism conference has just been held and was remarkable for two things – firstly, Delta didn’t attend, and secondly, Delta was not on the list of nominees for the new executive.[1]

There’s actually something approaching a nuanced line coming out of the CC at the moment, although it doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the less reflective of their supporters. Firstly, there’s an attempt to draw a distinction between the “good” opposition and the “bad” opposition – that is, those who will eventually submit to Big Brother and those who won’t. Secondly, it is being put about by the CC that Delta is no longer on the party payroll (technically true, though the appointment he currently holds is in the party’s gift) and that he’s being taken out of the public eye. This, they hope, will draw a line under the matter, pacify the “good” opposition and allow some exemplary discipline to be meted out to those pesky kids on the internet.

What gives the lie to all this, of course, is that the CC – and Alex has been quite candid about this when comrades have asked him – still think Delta is so important that, after a decent cooling-off period, he should be restored to the front line. It’s hard to express on how many levels this is wrong. But it does rather beg the question, why is the CC so determined to protect this sleazy old pervert? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to dump him? And this opens up a line of thought.

There are certain fairly obvious factors. Delta may be a bully, a thug, a habitual liar and a charmless oaf, but he does have a constituency in the party. There are certain areas where he’s led from the front and been prepared to get his hands dirty, and some in the party prefer that to a supercilious, aloof theoretician. He was also centrally involved in the dumping of John Rees and the driving through of the post-Rees consolidation perspective. Not to mention that, though Delta himself is no longer on the CC, he has several rather obvious proxy votes on that august body. But there are other factors, to do with both politics and the way the organisation functions.

The personnel factor

Let’s talk about indispensability. It’s generally thought by students of organisation that people making themselves indispensable is a bad thing. In fact, you should strive to make yourself dispensable, training up people who are qualified to be your successor. Sadly, in real-world bureaucracies, this isn’t always the case.

The situation in the SWP is complicated in that, while Cliff was alive, he actually was indispensable. But Cliff was unique – a genius, a force of nature who embodied the soul of the party, and while he could be an almighty pain in the fundament from time to time, he was genuinely irreplaceable.[2] However, nobody below Cliff was indispensable, as close collaborators like Mike Kidron, Jim Higgins and Steve Jefferys found to their cost. And while the current semi-feudal set-up, with individual CC members having wide autonomy in their areas, did originate under Cliff, in some ways it functioned a bit like Yugoslavia, with Cliff in the Marshal Tito role as ultimate arbiter and the others as the regional party secretaries. Cliff, ultimately, was the brake on any individual’s autonomy and the guarantor against elements of the leadership going off the rails. This was an imperfect system while Cliff was alive, and its imperfections have become glaringly obvious in the 13 years since he died.

The autonomy of party leaders in their areas is well-established by now, and pretty well respected even within the CC. Alex, for instance, runs the international tendency, and it’s quite rare for anyone else in the leadership to stick their nose in. Cliff used to overrule him of course, and not infrequently go behind his back, but in recent years the good professor has had the field more or less to himself.

A more striking example is the case of John Rees. When Respect split back in 2007, one thing we quite rapidly discovered was how two of the SWP’s main organising principles at leadership level – the monopoly of information and the autonomy of the individual CC member – worked in practice. It came to light, for instance, that Salma Yaqoob had been frozen out of Respect for months, and Galloway had not known this, because all information went through Rees. Most of the CC had no idea what was going on in Respect, much less had contact with Galloway, because everything went through John and Lindsey. (This may have been academic – I can’t imagine Harman getting on with Galloway – but the point stands.) The operative model in a front was that the responsible CCer would sit at the centre like a spider in the middle of a web. It was similar in Stop The War, which is one reason why the party lost control of Stop The War after Lindsey had departed, and that’s another factor that may be weighing on the CC’s collective mind. (Or at least on Alex, who represents what’s left of the CC’s brains trust after Chris Harman died.)

A digression on the history of IS industrial strategy

One thing that’s not very well understood, even by SWP members, is that the concept of rank and fileism is not something that Cliff plucked out of his left ear one fine morning. In fact it’s much more deeply rooted in the organisation’s ideological DNA. In some ways it goes back to Cliff’s work on state capitalism in the 1940s, which was not merely a critique of Stalinism, but more broadly positioned the group as strongly anti-bureaucratic in its political orientation. This was reconfirmed in the 1960s, during IS’s libertarian phase[3], when the group began to take a serious interest in trade union issues. The operative perspective was that the rank-and-file workers had a fundamental conflict of interest with the trade union bureaucracy; while one might support a Broad Left candidate in union elections or even participate in a Broad Left, this was only on the basis that a left leadership would give the rank and file more space to operate in than a right leadership. In fact, Cliff spent years flaying the Communist Party for its electoral strategy in the unions, which by the 1970s had reduced the CP to a left-wing mudguard for Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon.

Over the years, the how of the party’s rank-and-file strategy – the precise mechanism  for mobilising the workers at workplace level – has varied enormously. In the early 1970s IS went in big time for factory branches, at one point having some forty of them. There were also around this time rank-and-file papers like the Carworker or the Collier, which raised the group’s profile enormously in specific industries. The party’s rank-and-file networks, however, didn’t survive the downturn, and were wound up in the early 1980s as the SWP returned to basic branch-building as its survival strategy.

Some of these tactics were revived, however, in the mid-1990s when Cliff thought there might be the beginnings of a new upturn in trade union activism. There were attempts at workplace branches, and workplace bulletins patterned after those of the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière, and even rank-and-file newspapers. None of those lasted very long or left much of a mark, though the papers aimed at postal workers and London Underground workers were produced with some élan and helped make the career of an ambitious young full-timer, Martin Smith, who has since moved on to other projects.

That upturn failed to happen, of course, and an observer might suggest that the continued passivity of the unions, and their changing role in society, is something that needs to be analysed (while there is a crying need for a serious study like Harman and Callinicos’ The Changing Working Class from 1987, the theoretical journal has published almost nothing on this for the last fifteen years or so). But it would be a mistake to think the party has given up entirely on a rank-and-file strategy. It’s retained the same basic theoretical structure, though this has evolved in an ad hoc, untheorised way.

What the party has been able to do, over the last decade or so, is organise conferences which are supposed to be the launch-pad for rank-and-file networks, though networks never seem to materialise out of them. In 2006 there was an initiative called Organising For Fighting Unions (OFFU), which held a conference of around 700 activists, became a bone of contention in the Respect split, and was never heard of again. OFFU was supplanted by a new front, Right To Work (RTW), which was given some prominence by the party after the Coalition government came to power in 2010, and organised a conference of around 700 activists. RTW was mothballed by the party for reasons that remain obscure but may be related to the resignation of the responsible CC member, Chris Bambery.

The latest initiative is something called Unite the Resistance (UtR), which organised a conference of around 700 activists in November 2012. Now, you may think this is just running to stand still, and some cynics in the party have groused that UtR is set up on just as wobbly a political basis as RTW was. However, it is different in one important respect. UtR specifically does not market itself to party members as a rank-and-file initiative; indeed, it is explicitly conceived as a medium to long-term alliance with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The CC stated as much in last year’s Pre-Conference Bulletins:

“Precisely because a militant rank and file movement does not exist, UtR must also reach out to those left wing officials prepared to call for and support action. This is not simple, because even the best officials will vacillate. Nonetheless, if we are to give UtR the breadth and implantation it requires in the working class we need to bring on board those figures in the unions who can give confidence to wider layers of union members to fight. That’s why it is right that figures such as Mark Serwotka or Kevin Courtney of the NUT have spoken at and been involved in building UtR …”

In so far as this makes any sense, it seems to follow a logic familiar from South Park’s Underpants Gnomes:

  1. Give a platform to left bureaucrats.
  2. ?
  3. A militant rank-and-file movement emerges!

Some of the CC’s critics, internal and external, have said that this alliance is founded on an opportunist basis, and that UtR is precisely the sort of thing Cliff used to attack the CP for. I think this is not quite correct. Given that there’s no obvious benefit to the party from this arrangement, except a vague promise that the party will be shown the sunny side of Mark Serwotka’s countenance, it’s the sort of arrangement Bert Ramelson would have regarded as opportunistic. Nonetheless, it is the strategy in place, even if the implications haven’t been made explicit (and indeed, may not have been thought through even at CC level).

The cleft stick

Which brings us back to the question of why precisely the CC is so keen to protect Delta. One has to look at what the CC’s perspective is for the next period. At the risk of oversimplifying, the CC believes there are two absolutely crucial areas of work – anti-fascism and industrial strategy. The latter being the more important, as at party conference in January, industrial strategy was given twice as much time as any other subject. And as we shall see, Delta is considered indispensable in both areas. It’s reminiscent of how, when the two key areas were Respect and Stop The War, John Rees was indispensable, though comrades may feel that in exchanging the Rees regime for the Delta regime, they have exchanged the rule of Sejanus for the rule of Caligula.

Let’s take industrial strategy first. As noted, this revolves around UtR, which itself is based on the party forging a close alliance with a handful of left union leaders; and these are based in specific unions, most notably PCS and NUT. The point man for this is Delta, whose close personal relationships with two or three union leaders have made UtR possible. Essentially, the CC believe they need Delta around so they can deliver those union leaders onto those platforms. Moreover, looking at who else is in the Industrial Department these days, they may have a point.

(It is also worth pointing out that at January’s conference the two groups of delegates who were most solid in support of the CC’s line on the Delta case were PCS and NUT comrades; and that the most fanatical members of the CC’s Lynch Mob Faction, aside from full-time organisers, are SWP members who either sit on or are running for union executives.)

The other aspect of this is anti-fascism, and there’s an argument to be had about whether this merits the stress the CC place on it. Greece and Hungary may be useful for scaring the kids and dramatising the economic crisis, but in the actual conditions of present-day Britain, the BNP has imploded and the EDL has been in serious decline for the last two years.[4] If the Coalition falls, the alternative on the right is not a band of street-fighting fascists but the libertarian-populist Ukip – and, whatever you think of Ukip’s politics, it is absolutely not credible to view Nigel Farage as the second coming of Andrew Brons.

Be that as it may, the CC continues to believe that UAF is a crucially important area for the party. And this is another feather in Delta’s cap. The responsible CC member, Weyman Bennett, has frequently been absent on health grounds; and, even when he is there… well, even Weyman’s best friend wouldn’t say he was a born administrator. So the energetic Delta has effectively been running UAF, and, to be scrupulously fair, hasn’t made too bad a fist of it. He’s led from the front and made some sharp tactical turns.

So this puts the CC’s defence of Delta in some sort of perspective. In terms of their political perspective, he is the indispensable man – the united front of one – who can make things happen. He has become so crucial to the perspective that the CC appear willing to drive the party onto the rocks to defend him. This may be crazy – indeed, it is crazy – but there’s a certain internal logic to it which makes sense if you spend all your time in the cloistered world of the SWP Centre.

It may not be tenable, of course. The union leaders who are so crucial to the UtR project may decide that being publicly identified with a man who’s been outed in the national press as an alleged sex pest may not be what their image needs. It’s also the case that union money bankrolls UAF – this year’s conference was sponsored by the PCS, NUT and NASUWT – which can be viewed as an indirect subsidy to the party. The CC has painted itself into a corner over Delta; the unions, if they wake up to how toxic this whole thing is, may force them out of it.

[1] Although it may be worth watching to see if he manages to sneak back in, for instance as a delegate from LMHR.

[2] Take the question of why Duncan Hallas abandoned the IS Opposition in the mid-70s split, after having set it up. There are lots of theories around this, centring around what deal Cliff might have struck with Duncan and what pressures Duncan might have been under, but I think the fundamental point is that Duncan couldn’t imagine IS surviving without Cliff in the leadership.

[3] This is also the root of the ingrained anti-statism in the IS/SWP tradition, which possibly sheds some light on the reluctance of party members to involve the police in rape complaints. There was a similar phenomenon at Occupy New York, which certainly didn’t arise from “Leninism”.

[4] Indeed, the EDL’s major activity these days appears to be that of trolling Delta’s Twitter feed.



Filed under Left Politics

5 responses to ““Once Tiberius is dead I, Sejanus, will rule as Emperor in Rome”

  1. Doloras LaPicho (@chaosmarxism)

    As I thought – pure Scientology ethics! Delta is producing the goods in anti-fascism and union networking, so he gets a Get Out Of Rape Accusations Free Card. So if he were to stuff either of them up, Alex C would probably be the leader of those lining up to take W’s side and expel him.

  2. jimboo

    As a paid employee of LMHR can Delta be a delegate. I am waiting for the no platforms to start just to see which way the wind blows.

  3. Jake

    On the industrial strategy: it was interesting that the party’s Unite fraction should be so evenly split this year over the question of whether to support McCluskey or Hicks in the Unite GS election. Supporting the former seems to be logical if following the UTR strategy as outlined in your article. Supporting Hicks is I guess a reaction against that, either from a rank and fileist perspective and/or sheer disgust at the way the United Left operates within the union. It seems odd that the whole conference should have voted on who to support because of the impasse, so effectively non-Unite members ended up telling Unite members in the SWP who to campaign for! Not that I can see anyone on the McCluskey side of the split putting any effort in. In fact one of them, who is on the union’s EC, has resigned from the party as a result.

  4. From these accounts of the SWP leadership, it’s hard not to think of them as a live-action Pinky and the Brain.

    Or maybe that’s just me?

  5. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps