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

36 responses to “This is the way the party ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper

  1. Pingback: The SWP crisis: resources and accounts « Jim Jepps

  2. As ever excellent, clearly written work. A very good summary of how the party apparatus works too. Thank you.

    I think one thing conspicuously missing from this however is the outside world. How it effects the party, how the party effects it (or does not) and what the implications are for the organisation.

    On the plus side this means avoiding the kind of position Alex Callinicos adopted in his widely ridiculed January/February Socialist Review article which boiled down to all internal problems are due to external factors – the machinations of Owen Jones and Len McCluskey (people the party would normally be trying to court), the low level of industrial struggle etc. – handily letting off the hook of anyone in the party who may have behaved “poorly”

    But I do think when drawing a wider sketch of how the party operates it’s difficult to understand ‘party life’ without understanding the fact that there is a constant attempt to engage with actual struggles and events. For example the way the war accelerated some of the problems in the internal dynamic is key to understanding the Rees/German episode, if that’s not a clumsy way of putting it.

    I think that’s fine due to space but in terms of the SWP’s future it is a vital piece of the picture because the party has always thrived on a) being the biggest gang in town b) at the very least sloganising about real things that are happening c) trying to create united front events and groups that pull in those outside of the SWP – particularly at the top but also among “the periphery”.

    It’s the ability to relate to fellow travellers outside the party that has been most significantly hit by this period of crisis (four waves of crisis in five years? This being the hardest and most painful). It can pretend to operate in the same way, as it does with the rather silly ‘Unite the Resistance’, but it will either have to significantly address it’s reputation among the wider left or find a new way of operating that does not require building united campaigns with others on the left.

    Organisations like Luttle Ouvierre did this for decades in France and show it can be done, but they also show that it’s not healthy either.

    That’s why I think leaving the recruitment problem at ‘they’ve got no students now’ is only one (significant) part of a far deeper, far more difficult situation that they find themselves in. I don’t think they want to cancel Marxism and stop pretending UAF goes much beyond themselves but at some point they might not have an option.

    • That’s a very good point, and it’s a subject well worth discussing. It’s just that, you know, the word count was already a bit on the high side.

    • What really interests me is how this kind of engagement with the ‘outside world’ exists in a very scheduled form, though. What has always struck me when engaging with SWP activists is their clear sense of ‘calendar’. With Marxism as the spider in the centre of the web, demos which have to be ‘built’ for.

      It’s similar in calendar to the ‘Catholic calendar’, which some bloggers lament the death of. (I say this not as a slur, but to provide another example of people’s interior relationship with time being arranged that way, and being found compelling/fulfilling.)

      Participants priding themselves on ‘discipline’ don’t merely mean that they’re all saying the same thing (although they do), but that without the bullying SPG references, the ascetic dedication to early rises for pickets, long coach journeys, and lugging tables will abate.

      As is basically always the case with such teleologically driven lives, however, the end goal and the process can blur into one. As so much of this is being done by rote, analysis of how much good any of it is doing will almost invariably be performed from a defensive stance. Too much energy has been invested, and too much weight of identity rests upon these foundations, for them to be dismissed readily.

      Which is the kind of organisation required for surviving a ‘Downturn’, I suppose…

  3. “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.”

    Absolutely right. If you even think to attempt to give a class analysis of the reasons why the Far Left regularly goes through these ‘crises’ (and has done for well over a hundred years) you will be accused of ‘crude reductionism’, or worse.

    Or, it will simply be ignored, and then comrades will hold their hands up in horror when it happens again (as surely it will; it seems the ISN is already on the point of fragmenting!):

  4. John Palmer

    This was an excellent summary of a sad and destructive political decline. However there is a danger that we will focus exclusively on the internal organisational and cultural developments within the SWP which led to the present crisis. They were/are certainly critical. But there is also the external environment within which revolutionary socialists have had to act. The changes here go much deeper than the mere upturn or downturn in the class struggle. We are surely living through such massive structural economic and social changes in modern capitalism that more fundamental questions need to be asked. The economic and social changes which have been unleashed since the 1970s have atomised class consciousness. But class consciousness is the essential subjective force with which socialist politics necessarily must relate to have any significant impact – as “Old ISers” like Kidron, MacIntyre and – yes – Cliff then argued. Of course class still profoundly marks our times – arguably more so than ever. But, as has happened before in history, the working class is being “unmade” and “remade”. The question for the left is to get a better handle on what the re-emergence of “a class for itself, not just a class in itself” will mean for socialist politics today to become relevant.

  5. I understand, Soviet Goon Boy, that you have invested a lot of time and effort (and possibly money) into the IS/SWP over the years and that you can’t help but have a wholly/mainly negative attitude to its self-destruction in 2013. I have never been in the SWP – I was in Militant/the SP from 1990-98 and we had been predicting in internal discussions (perhaps in a sectarian manner) that the SWP would self-destruct a long time before it actually did.

    I have a much more positive attitude towards 2013 and prospects for this year, as expressed in, largely due to the formation of Left Unity (LU), of which I am a member. It was written off by the SWP as “left reformist” way before the direction(s) it will actually take was decided by the 30 November founding conference. I got an amendment passed on unions, encouraging strike action (including mass/general strikes), occupations and solidarity, in order to win individual disputes and change society. Whereas I know that simply passing resolutions isn’t everything, and the proof is in the pudding (what LU does in practice), this certainly doesn’t sound reformist!

    A split-off from the SWP, the International Socialist Movement, is already in LU and hopefully many others who have deserted the sinking ship that is the SWP will find their way into our ranks. Our membership (paying subs) was around 1,250 shortly after the conference, and such a broad socialist party (which I want to contain some sort of non-sectarian revolutionary “caucus”) is surely far better than what is left of the “Leninist” SWP.

    • A minor correction – the split-off from the SWP (in March 2013 I think) was the International Socialist Network, not Movement. I got it confused with the new name for Scottish Militant Labour (now dissolved) when the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was formed. I often get those two confused!

      I gave my take on the way the SWP operated, in contrast to the more democratic form of “democratic centralism” that the Socialist Party (and the CWI which links it to similar organisations internationally) used when I was in it, in (it hardly mentions the Russell Brand/Paxman debate – it was a blatant attempt to get hits and move on to the more juicy stuff!) To give one example – whereas the SWP discouraged its members from using the internet at the time, I ran a completely unmoderated CWI email discussion list with messages going through immediately (on which there was even a faction fight in the USA – and the only time I was asked to remove anyone from it was after the expulsion of some former leaders who lost that faction fight, and set up Labor’s Militant Voice).

      I do not know how democratic the Socialist Party has been since 1998 when I left (due to its failure to support the setting up the SSP, without it effectively being a rebranding of the Scottish Socialist Alliance) except that former Labour MP and Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist once told me that there are delays between sending messages out and them returning, suggesting a moderator, on the new internal discussion list.

      Although I am now dedicated to making Left Unity work, I don’t want to be (too) sectarian, and will encourage discussions with other left-wing organisations (including the Green Party) on trying to avoid standing in the same seats. Discussions have already been had with TUSC, which includes the Socialist Party and SWP, on this issue – although we have yet to debate our electoral strategy (which will happen at Left Unity’s next conference in March).

  6. As one who has just left the SWP after fifty years’ membership, I found this in many ways an interesting and useful contribution, But I also have to say that I found some aspects of the assessment too negative; there was much that was positive in the SWP (which is why I stayed for fifty years) and I hope that any new groupings that emerge from the present catastrophe will build on what was positive while learning lessons from what went wrong.
    Thus it is claimed that “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.” This does not fit my experience. Certainly there have been full-timers – and CC members – who adopted an intimidating and manipulative style. And it is true that quite vigorous language could be used when disagreements arose. Does that amount to an “endemic culture”. I don’t think so. It will be objected that I had an easy ride because I was somewhat older than most members and was a well-known party speaker and writer. But from the 1970s to the 1990s I travelled widely around the country and was able to observe the functioning of many branches. Obviously some were a lot better than others, but in general there was a positive atmosphere of fraternal discussion and cooperation. I don’t think I could have gone on attending so many meetings if there had not been.
    Nor do I think that full-timers constitute a “bureaucracy” in any of the normal uses of that term. Most of them work hard and their pay ranges between appalling and not very good. And in the recent factional dispute a lot of full-timers and former full-timers have played a very positive role – a number of them giving up their jobs (not an easy decision) in protest at the CC’s conduct.
    I for one was taken very much by surprise by the sharp deterioration in the atmosphere after the January 2013 conference. People whom I had regarded as comrades and friends over many years began to cut me dead, or, worse, to harangue me Jeremy Paxman-style. I found this profoundly shocking precisely because this seemed to be a radical break from my previous experience.
    Obviously I and many others have given all this a lot of thought over the last year. It is clear that:
    a) There were serious deep-lying faults in the structure and culture of the organisation that made it possible for things to go so wrong, so quickly;
    b) I and other long-standing comrades have a very real share of responsibility for not being more critical of the weaknesses in the organisation and trying to correct them before they led to disaster..
    However, I think we need a serious analysis of what went wrong. This will take time – many of us, myself included, are still so angry at recent events that it is very hard to get a balanced view. But we need (if I dare use the phrase) a dialectical analysis, one that examines the complexities and contradictions of the SWP, that sees that it had the vices of its virtues and the virtues of its vices.
    So let us be grateful to Soviet Goon Boy for his thoughts – but ce n’est qu’un début – l’analyse continue.

    • David R

      Hi Ian you write that

      ‘I for one was taken very much by surprise by the sharp deterioration in the atmosphere after the January 2013 conference. People whom I had regarded as comrades and friends over many years began to cut me dead, or, worse, to harangue me Jeremy Paxman-style. I found this profoundly shocking precisely because this seemed to be a radical break from my previous experience.’

      I am sure this must have been very painful for you, especially considering you many years of commitment to the SWP. But I am sorry but this behavior has been common place for years. It was witnessing this sort of behavior towards ex-members and ‘dissident’ members that in part lead to by own decision to leave the SWP 10 years ago, after 5 years of membership.

      The spark for this whole mess was the personal falling of Delta, but the response to it was entirely predictable and in keeping with standard SWP behavior. While I applaud all those who have fought for their principles over the last year (especially X, whose determination to keep fighting has if nothing else seen Delta forced to resign from the SWP, which is something of a victory), too many seem to be of the opinion that these flaws are a recent development. I am sorry but they are not.

      If those leaving seek to develop anything positive outside the SWP I think they must face up to the part they have played in helping to perpetuate this type of party culture.

    • You wrote “There were serious deep-lying faults in the structure and culture of the organization that made it possible for things to go so wrong”

      Yet earlier you used the word catastrophe to describe what occurred, surly far from being a catastrophe it had an inevitability about it, and should be welcomed as most indies like myself have come to regard the SWP as a hindrance to progressive change not a help. To put it bluntly it’s leadership, of which you were once a part, either had the patience of a nat, or the deceitfulness of a chameleon.

      Out of interest, did you cut anyone dead over those 50 years, please answer truthfully? It seems to me for all the talk about scientific socialism, etc, Trotskyists groups, are little different from the bourgeois parties, like them they have a close-nit leadership clique, who regard the membership as a necessary irritant, who are there to be at their beck and call. The difference being the bourgeois leaderships only call on their members during election campaigns, unlike the Trotskyist, who expect the members to carry out their every whim without serious argument.

      When intractable differences occur, due to the lack of internal democracy which could have taken up the strain, you get the inevitable split, which today has come to define the failure of Trotskyism, ie, the lack of democratic flexibility makes it unable to overcome the inevitable internal upheavals which periodically happened within all political organisations.

      The way language is used harshly within these groups is relevant as it is another reason why they have a record of splits. Not least because when differences arise there is often no way back, as after someone has been pilloried verbally, compromise is rarely the first thing which comes to mind.

      The art of politics is about more than being right, an element of political finesse is also called for, something Trotsky sadly lacked, unlike his opponent Stalin who understood human nature and used this knowledge skillfully on the way up.

      I will give you an example, when Trotsky told his followers that Stalin was a man of no consequence, a mere vessel of the party and State bureaucracy, they lost half the battle and understandably so as if their leader failed to take the party secretary seriously why should they. Tragically this negation of leadership by Trotsky led to many of these comrades loosing their lives

      Finally you wrote:
      “I think we need a serious analysis of what went wrong. This will take time – many of us, myself included, are still so angry at recent events that it is very hard to get a balanced view. But we need (if I dare use the phrase) a dialectical analysis, one that examines the complexities and contradictions of the SWP, that sees that it had the vices of its virtues and the virtues of its vices..”

      Interesting times ahead for sure but pouring over the tealeaves of the SWP implosion should take you a day at most, for after 50 years of membership if you do not understand clearly what went wrong, you never will, you will just be looking for someone to tell you what chimes with your own take on this.

      Which is sad because many members of the SWP did have certain virtues which are worth emulating, their tenacious desire to fight for, and believe a better world is just one.

      However it is the party’s vices and methodology which should make you close the door, move on and fight for a more open and democratic way forward.

      Comradely regards

  7. Brian Parkin

    As an ‘old ISer’ I am loath to wax too lyrical about the IS halcyon days of the early 1970’s. Roger Rosewell, (industrial organiser) although often charming and persuasive was essentially a fixer and a thug and his later replacement, Andreas Nagliatti (a ‘fucking little Maoist’, to quote Roger Protz) proved little better but more adept in the Lothario department. As for Jim Higgins, well he could more than teach MS a thing or two about gross moral turpitude (as we academics so delicately put it). But generally I would agree with much of what SGB says in his summary of IS, except to add that its exceptional good points by far outweighed its negatives. But the point is not to mourn, but to organise. (Joe Hill, I think).
    Brian Parkin.

    • John Palmer

      The dead cannot respond to snide slanders of the kind Brian Parkin makes about the late Jim Higgins. Suffice to say that I have never heard of anyone, anywhere who ever accused Higgins of the kind of behavior which was at the centre of the recent SWP rape scandal. Perhaps Brian would like to withdrawn his accusations.

  8. Pingback: another analysis of the demise of the SWP | Left Parties and Protest Movements

  9. Lindsey German

    I agree with much of Ian’s comment above about the nature of the SWP and its culture. We shouldn’t treat it as negative when for most of its life it had a relatively healthy and supportive internal structure. I wanted to take up a few of the points you made which i don’t think are quite accurate.
    1. Chris Harman definitely did fight the majority of the CC over the nature of Socialist Worker in the late 1970s. I was his close ally and helped write some the documents you refer to. Steve Jeffreys also did fight over the industrial situation and Women’s Voice/Flame around the same time _ for at least some of the time myself and Chris also supported him. So it isn’t right to say we didn’t fight Cliff when we thought he was wrong.
    2. You repeat what has become a commonplace, that divisions over Respect were kept within the CC. That isn’t strictly the case: disagreements over Respect were never brought to the CC, (at least only over minor questions) although it is clear to me that there was widespread opposition from the beginning, including from CC members, but they didn’t argue this openly. That is why they were never discussed more widely.
    3. You say that organisers were encouraged to expel people over issues of sexism/sexual harassment. That really isn’t the case if you mean that people were encouraged to look for such issues as a pretext. However, we did take a principled stand on these issues, something of which I was proud and played no little part in achieving. I regard it as a terrible indictment of the present SWP leadership that it allowed this reputation to be so sullied in defence of Delta.
    4. These arguments are never just about process or culture in an organisation, as both you and John Palmer say. They are always about wider questions. The left has suffered a series of defeats, the working class has recomposed since the 70s. The test of any socialist is how relevant she can be to those fighting in the wider world.

  10. I’ve just made a clarification above to where I was detailing how the story leaked out – obviously there was a lot of spin involved in the rumours, and apologies if sloppiness in presenting this has caused any distress.

    Also, the membership figure quoted for the mid-1970s is indeed too high, though it would still be higher than the real membership now.

    And thanks, everyone, for the constructive comments. Of course our experiences are uneven, and I’ve tried not to be relentlessly negative and cynical. Unfortunately it’s difficult to be otherwise in this situation.

  11. Maurice

    There is a choice now starkly posed to every sister organisation of the British SWP in the International Socialist Tendency. Which fragment of Cliffism in Britain do they now identify with as their fraternal organisation?

    Even if they see no purpose in having formal links with the more recent post-December conference split which is more substantial in terms of the personalities and potential cohesion than the Seymourites are they happy to retain links with what remains?

    The Serbian section of the IST left in January 2013 shortly after the transcript of the January conference was published on Socialist Unity blog. More recently on the Urban 75 blog it was reported that a leading member of the Dutch IS has publicly resigned citing that organisation’s support for the British CC.

    In Ireland there are faultlines within the SWP (Ireland) apparent from social media with some Irish members liking or even sharing the statuses of some of the recently resigned SWP (Britain) members and then again one full timer ‘liking’ posts by Alex Callinicos though such displays of support for the British CC have been rarer. I won’t identify individuals except where the people concerned have made blog postings clearly setting out their position.

    The position as I understand it in Ireland is that the majority of the Political Committee (not least John Molyneux who has intervened into the debate in Britain) initially held a position supportive of the British CC. However among some full time organisers and in the ranks there was support for the various opposition factions from the very outset of this crisis going public. This included former full timer and PC member Conor Kostick who has made public postings in this regard.

    Motions from a couple of branches of the Irish SWP went to their National Committee in February 2013 which sought to commit the Irish SWP to a position critical of its British sister party. After some arguement this motion passed albeit in an amended form. The compromise essentially entailed the Irish SWP not pro-actively publicising its position but if members are asked by anybody the critical position is given.

    When one recalls the circumstances in 2001 when every section of the IST at the behest of Alex Callinicos broke ties with the ISO (US) primarily on the basis of their ‘failure’ to orientate with sufficient vigour into the emerging anti capitalist movement it all pales in comparison to what has taken place in the British SWP over the last couple of years.

    My understanding is that the IST has two gatherings each year ,one around now and another immediately before or after the London Marxism event. It will be interesting to see if any of the sister groupings will seek to have the matter debated. The German section of the IST was rent apart in the middle part of the last decade over a similar mishandling of a rape complaint without any fallout in the IST. However the historical position of the British SWP, essentially being the parent in the IST family and it being the hub of IST relations poses matters very sharply indeed.

    Ian or some other comrade among the recent resignations might comment on what they are aware of in terms of debate in the other IST sections

  12. Another very interesting piece. I keep being drawn back to a passage from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks on the nature of parties more generally:

    “This order of phenomena is connected to one of the most important questions concerning the political party—i.e. the party’s capacity to react against force of habit, against the tendency to become mummified and anachronistic. Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organisations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs, nor of evolving pari passu with the overall relations of force (and hence the relative position of their class) in the country in question, or in the international field. In analysing the development of parties, it is necessary to distinguish: their social group; their mass membership; their bureaucracy and General Staff. The bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up by becoming anachronist and at moments of acute crisis it is voided of its social content and left as though suspended in mid-air. One can see what has happened to a number of German parties as a result of the expansion of Hitlerism. French parties are a rich field for such research: they are all mummified and anachronistic historico-political documents of the various phases of past French history, whose outdated terminology they continue to repeat; their crisis could become even more catastrophic than that of the German parties. [p 211]

    Perhaps in contrast to Ian Birchall, I can’t see how a revolutionary party can avoid building its own bureaucracy if it is to sustain itself over the long term. The question is, rather, whether the party’s relationship to “the outside world” (I hate that expression!) is based in a realistic assessment of what is actually going on, and therefore the bureaucracy remains subordinate to what seems to me to be the essence of “democratic centralism” — a scientific approach to the class struggle where falsifiable hypotheses are tested in action and honestly assessed. It seems to me that it’s when strategic perspectives break down and are not (for whatever reason) reassessed honestly that the bureaucracy must take on an exaggerated importance, in order to hold together a party that is getting things wrong and out of touch.

  13. This is very interesting and helpful-subject to what John Palmer and Ian Burchill say about the good things about the SWP and the fact that in my opinion there was a mean way that young 1980s new members like myself argued with people but there was not a culture of ostracism, we rowed rudely with them and then all went to pub-which is not to excuse being so harranguing and crude as many of us were. But the cuture was different back then, I disagreed entirely on women’s voice in 1981 but was encouraged to attend conference and hear the arguments and put my point of view. Contrast that to 2013.

    There has been real degeneration of the democractic internal culture, i frist noticed it beginning in east London with undemocratic practices arising early on in the Respect period and via the direct intervention of the CC members responsible for Respect. it was horrible just to ask questions about things and really confusing as the discussions that counted went on in the kitchens of key insiders and the “line” kept changing in ways that had nothing to do with the external worlld we were trying to relate to. But my reason for commenting is two fold.

    First off that I just wanted to highlight what John Palmer said about the working classs and the desperate need for us to find ways to build effective ways of fighting and organising in our workplaces, communities and political organisations that fit with the changes that we face. Although often the atomisation is overstated…

    Secondly, I also do not think it can be true that there were made up allegations of sexual harassment to get political oppositionists. I never heard or saw of such a thing in 30 years-but i have come to the conclusion in the years since 2010 when I left over the rape (and believe me it was clear to me that rape was the issue in 2010) that there was action taken in much more minor incidents if someone was either unimportant or troublesome and a pattern of ignoring serious,very serious, incidents including rape in other instances. Lindsey is being forgetful at best. Before 2010 I knew only of my own case involving an important man and I excused it away and burried it. Since leaving, a number of women who I know and trust and who have not said anything publically but have also left, have told me their stories. That makes a few messed up cases that I know about since writing on the issue. None of these got to the disputes committee or control commission as it used to be. But they did get reported to organisers and CC members. It is not possible that Lindsey did not know that there were real problems. She was certainly involved in discussions about the attempt to rape me when I was a very young student member and for which the perpetrator was excused as going through a mid life crisis and confused by me. In my view the problems arose from a culture which was widespread on the left of treating harassment as clumsy seduction and in which there was little understanding of what sexual harassment and rape really look like and their effects. For example in the SWP it was always assumed that sexual harassment didn’t really leave any scars and tough party women just shrugged it off or slapped the perpetrator. Added to this the way in which the party came to see at rape was not something to study and somehow the province of the right as connected into the splits in the women’s movement at the 1978 conference. From where I stand, what has changed with the Detla case is that all the bad processes have come to a head. Leading cadre are openly arguing rape mythology, have been lying to the members repeatedly and have made the political position that only socialism can bring women’s liberation into entirely crude economism while at the same time the democracy has been smashed apart completely on a national scale. Welcome to my world Ian Burchill

  14. Jan Hoby

    Development of the Danish branch of international socialists, has led to some turmoil. But the majority and especially the leadership has maintained 100% loyalty to the SWP CC. I left IS Denmark in autumn 2013 – after 23 years of membership – because of the self-inflicted crisis in the SWP and the growing political degeneration. I’m even the only leading trade union bureaucrat who has been a member of the IS Denmark, – in the past several years. But as the SWP’s political meltdown, also the Danish branch had the same fate. The source of political development stopped while SWP dried up. So for me it was only a matter of time, regardless of the current crisis in the SWP. I see myself still as a revolutionary socialist in the heart, brain and soul – anchored in the international socialist tradition. But SWP has totally abandoned the tradition
    Socialist greetings from Denmark
    member of the Danish (Enhedslisten) The Unity List – red/green alliance

  15. Penny

    [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.

    While this note takes the precauton of saying “Each group, of course, has its own very individual take on Leninism” the assumption behind it is that every group treated Lenin’s writings in the way it seems the SWP did, a dogma about party organisation to make a theory out of. Thus the idea that Lih’s work (of course very important and interesting) is the thing that means this theory should be “revised”. How about those that have read and tried to understand Lenin in the context and see where general points he made could be useful in how we organise today, or not.

  16. Pingback: That UK SWP crisis… | The Cedar Lounge Revolution

  17. Tigger


    I’m not sure whether you’ll like this observation or not! In large part it may have nothing to do with revolutionary politics. I’m struck by the parallels with what has gone on over the years in some distinctly non-revolutionary organisations.

    Wherever a central/governing group weeds out or doesn’t recruit, encourage or engage with different types of people who do not conform to its own image, whether consciously of because it is simply unaware of its own bias due to the lack of other genders, ethnicities, classes, ways of looking at the world etc amongst the group, then this sort of isolation, defensiveness, closing ranks despite (or simple indifference to) incompetence and abuse of various sorts, and a very similar lack of renewal and eventual lack of effectiveness and inability to deal with crises can and does result.

    • Penny

      I don’t disagree but the revolutionary organisations I have been in have made a positive effort to introduce diversity into their leaderships, by use of parity to ensure women’s representation, self organisation of youth and other specific measures

  18. I want to comment on a couple of things Ian Birchall said. Firstly, I don’t think you need to have large financial rewards for at leaast bureaucratic tendencies to develop among full-timers, especially if have positions of political leadership. I think that for far-left groups, the dangers are greater now than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Any form of financial dependence on the organisation can induce in individuals a desire to hang onto their job, as a personal priority. That is bound to breed conformity. In addition, a full-timer’s income is likely to be a bit better than the dole and once in position, the much greater scrutiny of “career breaks” nowadays makes leaving and getting a “real” job afterwards more difficult than it used to be. Finally, there is the personal satisfaction of doing what they want to do.

    Ian acknowledges the great sacrifice made by those SWP full-timers who have left in protest at the last few years’ shenanigans. I’m sure leaving such positions was easier in the past.

    Secondly, is about the culture of the SWP. I have never been in the SWP, but I have been politically active alongside it on and off, for forty years. I would say that for the last thirty I have experienced from a significant number of members a hectoring, intolerance that, when carried out by several of them together, borders on bullying, even when it happens in public or organising meetings. Examples I can give are the “debates” over whether to co-operate with Serbian nationalists in the campaign against the NATO bombing and the split in Respect. I am sure many socialists are familiar with the experience of saying something the SWP didn’t like at a meeting and being denounced by half a dozen SWP members, one after the other and all saying the same thing.

    Maybe the SWP’s arrogance started from when they declared themselves a party in 1977? On the other I hand, I did find it rather odd walking around revolutionary Lisbon in August 1975 and finding on the walls hundreds of posters declaring (something like) “International Socialists” THE British Revolutionaries”.

  19. Respect brought out many of the worst characteristics of the SWP. Its leadership of the project formed a praetorian guard around Galloway, taking his side when any criticism was made. The role of SWP members who had been given no opportunity to discuss this new strategic orientation was to provide a stage army.

    This happened in lots of negative ways. Most innocently in branches there was a body of people who provided some sort of basic infrastructure and political direction. However the old habit of always agreeing about everything in public remained and it prevented Respect developing an internal political culture. More malignly they were used as a mix of voting bloc and ancillaries in some deeply unpleasant practices, again in defence of Galloway. At one memorable Respect conference a procession of (now former) SWP leaders used unrelenting hectoring rhetoric to play to the 250 or so SWP members in the hall whipping them up to a pro-Galloway frenzy. People at the receiving end said it was worse than anything Healey had dished out to them. At the time I remember thinking “thank Christ I’ll never be in the SWP and obliged to disagree with the leadership.” It was a sign of how dissent would be dealt with.

    However the main issue is that all the twists and turns in Respect were decided by a tiny group at the top of the organisation. None of that experience was discussed and Respect was dropped like a toy by a bored kid.

    Bolshie Elane is saying something with very serious implications. She’s saying that someone tried to rape her, that the organisation’s leadership knew and then did nothing. She adds that other women had complaints (presumably about sexual violence or harassment) and the organisation did nothing. My inclination in these cases is to believe the women. There’s a long history of organisations refusing to hear or believe victims. There needs to be a meaningful coming to terms with the organisational structure and processes which made these things possible. At the moment they aren’t even a real part of the discussion.

  20. Liam, what I am saying is that Lindsey needs to reflect more carefully on her own role before sectarian point-scoring on this thread. You should also consider if using the issue for sectarian point scoring is appropriate. I don’t feel comfortable with my experience being used in that way.

    There have been, a few, other bad cases and none of them were referred to the disputes/control committee. i dont think most made it past the district organise and/or (usually female) CC member spoken to about it. There will not have been more of these cases than in other organisations (just google the number of labour counsellors and think about a number of recent trade union cases in several unions, cases in the anarchist groups for example) and I suspect rather less in the SWP but there should have been none.

    My point is that there has been widespread acceptance of rape myths from which the left is not immune and which were much more accepted in the 1970s and 1980s. I have written about this elsewhere and detailed the research that shows it is the right that most swallow rape myths, but ur culture as a left has not been immune. What happened to me was seen as nothing more than clumsy seduction by a middle aged man undergoing some sort of personal crisis-people just did not see it as sométhing serious let alone attempted rape. it was seen as trying it on and not very appropriate. My point is that i am pretty damn sure that Lindsey knew about the issue as having told my district organiser, who at first seemed horrified and was going to do something about it but suddendly changed tack, having gone off to talk to CC members. She has probably forgotten the incident 30 odd years ago now that to them appeared minor, but to me was extremely significant.

  21. Bolshie Elane, no current is immune from sexual violence, including my own. We have to confront these things.

    The document on Japan below describes how the Fourth International broke off relations with its group there because of ” a profound inability on the part of the male members to apply our programme concerning the fight against women’s oppression in the practice of the organisation.” The document by the Mexican comrades was a response to sexual violence in the group there.

    • Penny

      To be precise the FI did not break off relations but derecognised the section while maintaining relations.

  22. charles

    The situation in the JRCL dates back to 1991 has it been resolved since then?

  23. Sam

    The thing that baffles me is the repeated assertions that Martin Smith was indispensable because of his influence in the PCS. I suppose it’s possible that the CC may have believed this but in fact he hasn’t been an active member of PCS or its predecessor unions since I was at school – and I am over forty. The SWP has several comrades who are genuinely active and in significant positions in the PCS- they are far more important assets than Smith and now have had their election prospects significantl;y damaged. I also seriously doubt that Mark Serwotka would have ceased to support SWP initiatives if Martin Smith had been expelled or simply dropped into the background – why would he? He is an active socialist who supports platforms of a variety of groups – he isn’t doing a favour for Comrade Martin per se. Whether he will want to go on being associated with the SWP is another matter.

    • I don’t think Smith was indispensable. I’m just relating the reasoning coming from the top of the party that he was too valuable to simply ditch. In effect they’d pinned so much of their perspective on him that he couldn’t be allowed to fail.

      • Smith and Serwotka had worked in the same passport office (I believe) and so it was a useful personal relationship – although why the two SWP members on the PCS national executive (both of whom have now moved on) were not seen as having a similar useful relationship with Serwotka perhaps hints at how those outside the golden circle of the CC’s core people were seen as outsiders, no matter how loyal to the party they were.

        If Smith was genuinely indispensable as Callinicos believed (which seems extraordinary to me, but there you go) then the conclusion to draw is that the party was clearly not training and developing trade union organisers and that should have become a priority, not simply the retention of this one individual who was clearly retarding the development of those he was supposed to be organising.