Monthly Archives: July 2013

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

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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.

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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.

Double-facepalm-300x240

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.

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Just dropped in (to see what condition my condition was in)

And, we’re back. So here’s a thought. What has the bold interventionist leadership been up to lately?

Despite some of the more foam-flecked contributions at the time of the Special Conference, the leading honchos of the SWP have not seen fit to embrace the late Gerry Healy’s dictum that every defection makes the party stronger. While life isn’t exactly pleasant at the moment for oppositionists in CC-loyalist branches, there hasn’t been a massive purge. Which is not to say that there hasn’t been some grousing in the upper reaches of the party… so what’s going on?

There’s been a lot of talk – even more than usual, which is saying something – about the need to stop discussing and look outwards, to the big bold world of activism. Experienced comrades know to take this with a pinch of sodium chloride. Cynics will point out that there’s always something going on – just look at the morale-boosting reports in Party Notes of paper sales in Clacton and bedroom tax demos in Tintagel! – and, while the leadership can point to something going on in the outside world, it’s never the right time to discuss internal matters.

But hark! What is landing in the inboxes of National Committee members?

From: “Charlie Kimber”
Date: 3 Jul 2013 12:09
Subject: Special NC meeting: THIS SUNDAY
Dear NC comrades,

The Central Committee is calling a special meeting of the National Committee to discuss serious questions that have emerged around the launch of the website www.revolutionarysocialism.tumblr.com and other issues. It will take place from 11am in central London this Sunday, 7 July. It will end about 4pm. Details of the venue will be sent out as soon as possible. Please let me know if you can attend. I am sorry at the short notice, but this is an important meeting.

Solidarity,

Charlie

Let’s ponder this for a second. There may be legitimate reasons why the SWP National Secretary may want to call an emergency NC meeting. For instance, Charlie need only switch on his tele-vision set or tune in his wireless to hear that there are some exciting events going on in Egypt at the moment. Not only are the Egyptian events very important in terms of how the Arab Spring is going to play out, but the SWP has a rather substantial group of co-thinkers in Egypt who may be facing serious physical danger.

But that’s not what Charlie wants to talk about. Charlie wants to have an emergency NC meeting, at four days’ notice, to discuss SWP oppositionists setting up a blog. One’s first reaction to this is that it’s a peculiarly skewed set of priorities – indeed, it’s the sort of concentration on internal matters that SWP members are constantly warned against. We also note Charlie’s touching faith that he can control the internet, and get comrades off the blogosphere by passing a vote of the National Committee.

picard_facepalm

At least we may say that a solemn pronouncement from the NC is unlikely to have an effect. The NC has been the Central Committee’s rubber stamp for so long that few party members take it seriously. Moreover, any attempt by the NC to institute an Index of Forbidden Websites is likely, if anything, to boost the traffic of those blacklisted.

So, here’s an interesting little conundrum. Comrades will be aware that the CC which was in place before January split over the handling of the Delta case. It should be noted that this was a CC selected on the grounds of political homogeneity – that is, the divisions were (initially at least) solely over the handling of the Delta case. Four CC members went into opposition, though one of them eventually drank the Kool-Aid. The opposition within the party included some most surprising names, some people who hadn’t been oppositional in decades, if ever. And the dynamic of the situation forced people who started out with very limited criticisms to actually think, and to deepen their understanding of how we got to this point.

Which creates a certain fluidity. A worthwhile argument is actually being had right now in what we might loosely call the SWP milieu, which is no longer coterminous with the SWP itself. We note, for instance, the pointed but polite debate between Ian Birchall and Lord Acton (and see also this excellent follow-up from Ian) on what Leninism actually means in the current situation. It’s also striking that Alexander, possibly making a virtue of necessity, refers to the prolonged debates over the downturn and Women’s Voice at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, where the issues where given a full airing rather than being guillotined.

This would, on the face of it, be an excellent way to proceed. There are lots of issues that need to be discussed. If one takes the theoretical journal that Alexander edits, though the bad stuff we used to see (united fronts of a special type, etc) aren’t there any more, there are striking lacunae. To take some examples off the top of my head, there’s been very little on the trade union movement, either in terms of union politics or in terms of shop-floor organisation, for about 15 years. There’s been very little on the Labour Party for about the same amount of time. Those are rather important strategic issues if we’re to talk about, say, the People’s Assembly, what it is and what it means. From a different angle, there are debates emerging around feminism which are worth having, and even if you’re not convinced by what Sharon Smith is writing, it requires a more substantial response than dusting off your old Women’s Voice polemics. I’m far from being someone who believes that an old position is necessarily a bad one, but if your most recent theoretical article on pornography dates from 1989, predating that inter-net thingy that so confuses Charlie Kimber, it may just possibly be worth revisiting.

So things like this need to be teased out, and a somewhat more laid-back approach wouldn’t do any harm. It would be preferable to the usual situation where, for nine months of the year, debate is confined to the leadership, and where appointed organisers police the branches enforcing ‘the line’ on the most obscure of subjects. It would certainly be preferable to the bold, interventionist leadership of the old German-Rees-Bambery regime, where the stick was bent with such bewildering rapidity that it came to resemble a Curly Wurly. And you never know, by allowing the rank and file to have their say, it might come to pass that they have some good ideas.

However, the cynic in me suspects that there is a certain element here of making a virtue out of necessity. For one thing, the party’s ranks have been depleted to the point where the old response to departures – “good riddance, there’s plenty more where you came from” – simply is not tenable any more. For another, it’s an open secret that the CC itself (remember, this is the new CC, minus the old minority) is not entirely united about how to proceed. Some of us who remember previous disciplinary binges may suspect that it’s paralysis rather than altruism that is holding the CC back from a purge.

And this paralysis is not without reason. For one thing, the arguments leading on from the January conference not only led to substantial losses of cadre, but were some of the nastiest in the party’s history. (While the leadership now admits this was a bruising debate, it was probably a little more bruising for, say, party workers who were victimised for not supporting the CC.) For another, the party remains isolated, with former close allies such as Owen Jones not wanting to be publicly associated with it. And yet again, the party’s already none too coherent perspective is lagging badly behind events. Getting lots of people speaking from the floor at the People’s Assembly is all very well, but if your perspective still maintains that Unite The Resistance is where it’s at, then the perspective needs a little updating.

And, to pluck something else out of the air, the Delta affair is not going away either. Oh, the Disputes Committee investigation from last year is closed and can’t be re-opened, but remember that there was a second complaint that arose in the course of that investigation, though at the time it hadn’t been lodged as a formal case with the DC. There are other issues that may arise as a result of the case. Not least, while Delta himself is keeping an extremely low profile, that’s not to say that he’s inactive, or that sources close to Delta haven’t been networking extensively. It’s this which has convinced some very loyal comrades that the indispensable man needs to be dispensed with, for the good of the party. It’s doubtful whether the party could recover without him; it’s pretty much impossible with him.

If the current leadership was confident, had a coherent perspective and trusted the membership, this all might lend itself to a rational solution. Though to be honest… Charlie’s intervention doesn’t suggest that. Calling an emergency NC to order members off the blogosphere suggests a weak, brittle and prickly leadership. I remain to be convinced otherwise.

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