Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.


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