And, we’re back. So here’s a thought. What has the bold interventionist leadership been up to lately?
Despite some of the more foam-flecked contributions at the time of the Special Conference, the leading honchos of the SWP have not seen fit to embrace the late Gerry Healy’s dictum that every defection makes the party stronger. While life isn’t exactly pleasant at the moment for oppositionists in CC-loyalist branches, there hasn’t been a massive purge. Which is not to say that there hasn’t been some grousing in the upper reaches of the party… so what’s going on?
There’s been a lot of talk – even more than usual, which is saying something – about the need to stop discussing and look outwards, to the big bold world of activism. Experienced comrades know to take this with a pinch of sodium chloride. Cynics will point out that there’s always something going on – just look at the morale-boosting reports in Party Notes of paper sales in Clacton and bedroom tax demos in Tintagel! – and, while the leadership can point to something going on in the outside world, it’s never the right time to discuss internal matters.
But hark! What is landing in the inboxes of National Committee members?
From: “Charlie Kimber”
Date: 3 Jul 2013 12:09
Subject: Special NC meeting: THIS SUNDAY
Dear NC comrades,
The Central Committee is calling a special meeting of the National Committee to discuss serious questions that have emerged around the launch of the website www.revolutionarysocialism.tumblr.com and other issues. It will take place from 11am in central London this Sunday, 7 July. It will end about 4pm. Details of the venue will be sent out as soon as possible. Please let me know if you can attend. I am sorry at the short notice, but this is an important meeting.
Let’s ponder this for a second. There may be legitimate reasons why the SWP National Secretary may want to call an emergency NC meeting. For instance, Charlie need only switch on his tele-vision set or tune in his wireless to hear that there are some exciting events going on in Egypt at the moment. Not only are the Egyptian events very important in terms of how the Arab Spring is going to play out, but the SWP has a rather substantial group of co-thinkers in Egypt who may be facing serious physical danger.
But that’s not what Charlie wants to talk about. Charlie wants to have an emergency NC meeting, at four days’ notice, to discuss SWP oppositionists setting up a blog. One’s first reaction to this is that it’s a peculiarly skewed set of priorities – indeed, it’s the sort of concentration on internal matters that SWP members are constantly warned against. We also note Charlie’s touching faith that he can control the internet, and get comrades off the blogosphere by passing a vote of the National Committee.
At least we may say that a solemn pronouncement from the NC is unlikely to have an effect. The NC has been the Central Committee’s rubber stamp for so long that few party members take it seriously. Moreover, any attempt by the NC to institute an Index of Forbidden Websites is likely, if anything, to boost the traffic of those blacklisted.
So, here’s an interesting little conundrum. Comrades will be aware that the CC which was in place before January split over the handling of the Delta case. It should be noted that this was a CC selected on the grounds of political homogeneity – that is, the divisions were (initially at least) solely over the handling of the Delta case. Four CC members went into opposition, though one of them eventually drank the Kool-Aid. The opposition within the party included some most surprising names, some people who hadn’t been oppositional in decades, if ever. And the dynamic of the situation forced people who started out with very limited criticisms to actually think, and to deepen their understanding of how we got to this point.
Which creates a certain fluidity. A worthwhile argument is actually being had right now in what we might loosely call the SWP milieu, which is no longer coterminous with the SWP itself. We note, for instance, the pointed but polite debate between Ian Birchall and Lord Acton (and see also this excellent follow-up from Ian) on what Leninism actually means in the current situation. It’s also striking that Alexander, possibly making a virtue of necessity, refers to the prolonged debates over the downturn and Women’s Voice at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, where the issues where given a full airing rather than being guillotined.
This would, on the face of it, be an excellent way to proceed. There are lots of issues that need to be discussed. If one takes the theoretical journal that Alexander edits, though the bad stuff we used to see (united fronts of a special type, etc) aren’t there any more, there are striking lacunae. To take some examples off the top of my head, there’s been very little on the trade union movement, either in terms of union politics or in terms of shop-floor organisation, for about 15 years. There’s been very little on the Labour Party for about the same amount of time. Those are rather important strategic issues if we’re to talk about, say, the People’s Assembly, what it is and what it means. From a different angle, there are debates emerging around feminism which are worth having, and even if you’re not convinced by what Sharon Smith is writing, it requires a more substantial response than dusting off your old Women’s Voice polemics. I’m far from being someone who believes that an old position is necessarily a bad one, but if your most recent theoretical article on pornography dates from 1989, predating that inter-net thingy that so confuses Charlie Kimber, it may just possibly be worth revisiting.
So things like this need to be teased out, and a somewhat more laid-back approach wouldn’t do any harm. It would be preferable to the usual situation where, for nine months of the year, debate is confined to the leadership, and where appointed organisers police the branches enforcing ‘the line’ on the most obscure of subjects. It would certainly be preferable to the bold, interventionist leadership of the old German-Rees-Bambery regime, where the stick was bent with such bewildering rapidity that it came to resemble a Curly Wurly. And you never know, by allowing the rank and file to have their say, it might come to pass that they have some good ideas.
However, the cynic in me suspects that there is a certain element here of making a virtue out of necessity. For one thing, the party’s ranks have been depleted to the point where the old response to departures – “good riddance, there’s plenty more where you came from” – simply is not tenable any more. For another, it’s an open secret that the CC itself (remember, this is the new CC, minus the old minority) is not entirely united about how to proceed. Some of us who remember previous disciplinary binges may suspect that it’s paralysis rather than altruism that is holding the CC back from a purge.
And this paralysis is not without reason. For one thing, the arguments leading on from the January conference not only led to substantial losses of cadre, but were some of the nastiest in the party’s history. (While the leadership now admits this was a bruising debate, it was probably a little more bruising for, say, party workers who were victimised for not supporting the CC.) For another, the party remains isolated, with former close allies such as Owen Jones not wanting to be publicly associated with it. And yet again, the party’s already none too coherent perspective is lagging badly behind events. Getting lots of people speaking from the floor at the People’s Assembly is all very well, but if your perspective still maintains that Unite The Resistance is where it’s at, then the perspective needs a little updating.
And, to pluck something else out of the air, the Delta affair is not going away either. Oh, the Disputes Committee investigation from last year is closed and can’t be re-opened, but remember that there was a second complaint that arose in the course of that investigation, though at the time it hadn’t been lodged as a formal case with the DC. There are other issues that may arise as a result of the case. Not least, while Delta himself is keeping an extremely low profile, that’s not to say that he’s inactive, or that sources close to Delta haven’t been networking extensively. It’s this which has convinced some very loyal comrades that the indispensable man needs to be dispensed with, for the good of the party. It’s doubtful whether the party could recover without him; it’s pretty much impossible with him.
If the current leadership was confident, had a coherent perspective and trusted the membership, this all might lend itself to a rational solution. Though to be honest… Charlie’s intervention doesn’t suggest that. Calling an emergency NC to order members off the blogosphere suggests a weak, brittle and prickly leadership. I remain to be convinced otherwise.