Tag Archives: Socialist Workers Party

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

Letter from the ‘Facebook Four’ to the leadership of the SWP

Dear Charlie Kimber –

We are writing to you in light of Martin Smith’s resignation from the Socialist Workers Party, news of which reached us yesterday afternoon.

Whilst we are not in the business of simply repeating ‘We told you so” over and over again, tempting though that is, we do feel it is worth noting that house of cards you constructed in order to expel us have now crumbled.

We maintain now, as we did in November 2012 and throughout our vilification by Martin’s supporters both on and off the Central Committee, that we were in fact not guilty of the factionalism you accused us of. We maintain now, as we have done since our email expulsion, that the real reason we were expelled is because we were critical of a flawed disputes process that ‘exonerated’ the accused and did not give fair hearing to Comrade W- or to Comrade X, who we are pleased to learn will finally have her own hearing in the coming weeks. Our support for these women has not faltered, and our determination to see real justice for them remains unchanged. We feel that Martin’s resignation is an important part of their fight within the revolutionary party, which, whilst far from over, can be seen to have progressed somewhat this weekend.

You are hopefully well aware that the current battles you face within the party will not now simply disappear. Martin’s resignation cannot be seen as a panacea for peace in the SWP, and neither should it. The wider issues of democratic failure in the SWP will continue to be fought, and should now be seriously addressed by the leadership if you truly want to save the organisation that the vast majority of us have given so many years to. We sincerely hope you rise to the challenge that comrades in opposition have presented you with, and conduct a serious and thoroughgoing review into democracy in the party, making the changes to the organisation that must be made in order to prevent the total collapse of what was once, and could be again, the biggest and best revolutionary party on the British left.

Step one of this process needs to full and public apology to the Facebook Four with the option for all four of us to re-join the Socialist Workers Party should we wish to do so. You know, as we do, that our expulsion was a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issues of the party’s failure to take Women’s Liberation seriously. Martin’s resignation presents you with a unique opportunity to remove that smokescreen, by issuing us with an apology for the appalling handling, and outcome, of our case.

United, we can all begin to rebuild the organisation in the spirit of inclusivity, cooperation and democracy.

We await your response.

In comradeship,

Charlotte Bence, Adam Marks, Tim Nelson and Paris Thompson


Filed under Left Politics

Exit Delta

We have movement! Finally!

Here’s the situation, as I understand it. First, Delta has resigned from the SWP. Second, it has been decided that, rather than trying to crudely draw a line under the affair, the Disputes Committee will proceed to hear the second complaint – the sexual harassment complaint brought by Comrade X, which has been postponed several times already – in his absence.

This seems pretty good, if a few bear traps can be negotiated.

It’s unclear, for a start, why this has happened now. I discount the possibility of Delta having had a sudden attack of conscience, because I’m not convinced he has a conscience. It seems more likely that the Central Committee, having been given a torrid time of it by the opposition recently, has leaned on him to get out of the way. That’s quite something, since it’s not so long ago that Alexander was telling anyone who’d listen that Delta – specifically his ability to forge alliances with union leaders – was so vital to the party that losing almost the entire student membership was a price worth paying.

It’s unclear, though this may change soon, what Delta is actually doing with himself. As CC members have noted, he’s not been on the party payroll for quite some time, although this has been an academic distinction as he’s been employed at a party-controlled front. Presumably he’s going to go off to be a mature student, which would explain the appeal being circulated by the Gluckstein siblings to encourage party members to support his studies.

We also don’t know what’s going to happen in the longer term. Perhaps the thinking still is that he can lie low for a period and then be reinstated. But at this point, I’m not sure that the CC actually does have a plan – and the CC has been seriously divided anyway.

However, this is movement. This is very significant. It removes one logjam, and does give an impetus to moves to open the party up. Which is all to the good. Now the serious work begins.


Filed under Left Politics

The Central Committee cannot hold

Now here’s a thing. You know the way I said the other day that the SWP leadership was profoundly weak and brittle? Well, we’ve now had positive confirmation of it.

Sunday of course saw the emergency meeting of the National Committee, better known within the party as the House of Lords, at which a couple of things took place. There was some discussion about a certain ongoing Disputes Committee investigation. But the bulk of the meeting dealt with the awkward fact that many party members don’t have much confidence in the leadership, and some have even been saying so on the interwebs. This, of course, cannot be tolerated. And so four comrades were suspended, and the Central Committee issued an incredibly pompous statement telling us that unfortunately such draconian disciplinary measures were necessary because, Egypt! Also, Ed Miliband!

This then drew a sharp and immediate response from the opposition. And so it came to pass that last night the four suspended comrades were unsuspended. While this sudden display of clemency from the CC is most welcome, it’s worth unpicking slightly to see what it means. Why did the CC back down?

Firstly, their timing was all wrong. The Marxism festival, the SWP’s prime showcase, is coming up this weekend. Already it promises to be smaller than last year’s by around half, and it’s likely that there will be interventions from the floor making embarrassing reference to the Delta case. The disciplinary crackdown threatened to make things much worse. By my reckoning, some 22 of the advertised speakers at Marxism are part of the opposition; 17 of these had signed the statement threatening to pull out, which would have left some gaping holes in the timetable. Moreover, I understand that Jerry Hicks, one of the party’s few remaining trade union allies, was planning to make some pointed remarks about the party’s situation in his speech. That’s serious leverage.

Secondly, the opposition was united. During the January to March period, the CC gained a big advantage by driving a wedge between the hard and the soft opposition. They haven’t been able to do so this time, not least because events have caused the former soft opposition to significantly harden its stance. If the opposition had been this firm a few months ago, things could be very different today.

Thirdly, the scale of the rebellion. The SWP, having lost somewhere between 350 and 400 members, simply doesn’t have much of a margin of error left. A rebellion of over 250 comrades – that’s real members, not paper members, many of whom have been part of the organisation’s hard core for decades – at this point, even some CC members will baulk at provoking a walk-out.

Finally, the CC itself is on shaky ground organisationally. Which is a point worth teasing out a little.

We’ve grown used to a regime in the SWP where the Central Committee presented a united face to the membership; it was backed up by a small army of appointed fulltimers who could be relied upon to argue the line; and where annual conference would pass every CC motion with a 90% plus majority. This regime was remarkably stable for a remarkably long time, managing one contested election for the CC in 38 years. There’s an interesting study to be done, and Pat Stack has made a valuable contribution, of how a party made up of society’s rebels ended up with such a somnolent internal life. But that’s in the past now.

The CC simply can’t rely on having such an easy life any more. This isn’t just a question of having a large internal opposition who make no bones about their view that the CC is full of shit. More to the point, they can’t rely on the support they once took for granted. Once the spell is broken – once it’s no longer tenable to view the CC as the source of all wisdom – then the ground beneath their feet becomes precarious.

This has not been a matter of some disgruntled rank and filers facing the full weight of the apparatus. The split has also been within the apparatus; those appointed party workers, often (not always) chosen for loyalty rather than ability, have not been unanimous in their support for the CC line, and the victimisations and sackings of party staff have put backs up even further. The latest batch of resignations – seven or thereabouts – underlines this.

Nor can the party necessarily rely on cadre who in the past have been totally identified with the conception of a monolithic party. Some of the most extraordinary people are starting to make rebellious noises. A little late in the day, perhaps, and some of them may be suspected of being slightly hypocritical, but the fact remains: there are ultra-loyal comrades who have devoted their whole adult lives to building the SWP, and who are belatedly coming to the conclusion that the party is dying on its arse.

Most importantly, I think, the split has extended within the CC itself, and doubtless also within the Disputes Committee. This is entirely down to the pressure of events. Last year’s CC, if you remember, a committee that was basically politically homogeneous, split specifically over the handling of the Delta case. This led to Hannah D and Ray M being dumped from the leadership at the January conference, and Mark B resigning soon afterwards. Yet the remaining CC, which entirely endorsed the outcome of the January conference and which contains several members tied to Delta by bonds of personal loyalty, remains paralysed. Sometimes it’s making conciliatory noises, sometimes resorting to crude threats of purges, sometimes the same CC member will do both within the same speech. Alex Callinicos may mutter about lynch mobs or roasting fags at Rugby, then be Mr Smooth the next time you see him.

One may speculate on the reasons behind this. It’s probably not unconnected to the fact that throughout the crisis it’s been some CC members – notably Callinicos, Kimber and Bradley – who’ve been going out into the branches, meeting people, arguing their case, debating the opposition, sometimes getting a rough reception. Other leading members have remained holed up in the Vauxhall bunker. The question is not so much one of hawks versus doves, it’s more a question of which members of the leadership maintain some tenuous grip on reality. There are those who very much don’t.

There’s a further issue here. I’ve mentioned that some members of the leadership are wary of provoking a large-scale split. There’s a constituency, mostly in the apparatus, which is positively gung-ho for a purge, the sooner and more drastic the better. These are the true-believing cultists, the people who put you in mind of Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes. At least one senior CC member has openly referred to them as ‘the nutters’. Maybe you think that’s uncharitable. But these people, concentrated in the party’s middle management, are absolutely spitting blood at every concession to the opposition, and regard much of the current CC as having gone soft. It’s from this quarter that you find plans of Baldrickesque cunning to ‘save the party’, usually involving (a) mass expulsions and (b) a new broom in the leadership, which would coincidentally see them being promoted to the CC.

And if you doubt the world-historic stupidity of this element, let me just mention that, once they depose the sell-out Kimber, the candidate envisaged to be the new National Secretary is Amy Leather.


I mean, come on. In what alternate sci-fi dimension does that even make sense? It’s hard to think of anyone more compromised by recent events. You may as well reinstate Delta in the National Secretary position; he at least was a competent administrator.

And what of Delta? It’s worth recalling that he could still, at any moment, defuse a lot of the tension by simply walking away for the good of the party. Nobody has a God-given right to be in the SWP leadership; it wouldn’t be a travesty of justice for him to fade into obscurity. What’s preventing that?

His own ego, I suppose. And there’s the view of some CC members that he’s so valuable, mainly for his contacts with trade union leaders, that after keeping his head down for a longer or shorter period he’ll have to be rehabilitated. This in itself is questionable; it’s by no means clear what role the party’s ‘Unite the Resistance’ front has now that the union leaders have a shiny new People’s Assembly to play with.

And, of course, there’s the gormless element in the party who, since he’s been criticised by oppositional running dogs, think it’s a badge of honour to defend him – Delta, the Dreyfuss of our times. Take the appeal that’s being circulated asking selected comrades to stump up a tenner a month to pay for the great man to do a masters’ degree. I assume that this is a piece of private enterprise on the part of Donny and Anna Gluckstein and not sanctioned by the CC, but in the circumstances, it’s a bad joke at best and one hopes this has been communicated to the junior Cliffs in no uncertain terms.

I can’t say that removing Delta would solve the party’s crisis; the party has many, many difficulties that may turn out to be insoluble. But this bastard is the albatross around the party’s collective neck, and no progress can be made without removing him. I know there’s at least one very clever man on the CC. Surely this must sink in eventually.


Filed under Left Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.


Filed under Left Politics

The bureaucratic imperative

SWP national secretary Charles Ponzi

SWP national secretary Charles Ponzi

After the uprising of the 10th of March
The National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party
Had Party Notes emailed out to the comrades
Stating that the Party
Had forfeited the confidence of the Central Committee
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the Central Committee
To dissolve the Party
And elect another?

– After Bertolt Brecht, “Die Lösung”

Things have been moving along quite rapidly in the past week or so, what with mass resignations and the new IS Network being formed. Notwithstanding the Central Committee’s apparent belief that it can magic away reality by a gerrymandered conference vote – and this is yet another demonstration of the current CC’s rabbit-in-the-headlights weakness – objective reality continues to have an effect.

The flow of disclosures about the SWP’s increasingly cultish internal life has not ceased, either. Phil BC has this genuinely revolting post [trigger warning: do not read while eating], which is all the more disturbing when you realise, given the occupational makeup of the SWP, that there were very likely teachers involved. Moreover, there are other disclosures still to come which will make this look mild. The SWP leadership don’t seem to realise that there are a lot of people out there who have a lot of stories, and who aren’t under party discipline any more. This may not make sense to the Charlie Kimbers of this world who reason like “She isn’t a party member any more; therefore she can’t make a complaint to the Disputes Committee; therefore the incident which may have been complained about never happened”, but that’s the way it is in the real world.

But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about bureaucracy; what Bagehot might have termed the efficient part of the party’s constitution, as opposed to the dignified part (conference, Marxism etc). Because, if we’re looking back and asking ourselves how the hell the party got this way, it’s important to anatomise the beast. Full disclosure: I have never licked whipped cream from the naked body of a CC member, which may be why I never got offered a job at the Centre.

Whence the bureaucracy arises

It would be a digression too far, I think, to go into an in-depth discussion right here of what the SWP means by “Leninism”, which is only tangentially connected to what Lenin was trying to do a century ago, and doesn’t take into account that the “Leninist theory of the party” is itself a myth. Suffice to say that the SWP’s peculiar approach to party-building, which came together as a more or less coherent whole in the mid-1970s and was refined in the 1980s, is regarded within the party as exemplifying a timeless “Leninism”. Well, most Leninist groups do the same.

And yet, this existed in a certain tension with other elements of the SWP’s politics, not least its anti-bureaucratism and stress on “socialism from below”, that is to say, the most attractive elements of its eclectic political cholent. John G has a stimulating take on this (emphases and comments are mine):

This conception had very broad implications for all areas of politics and practice (and I believe still does). One of them involved a revisionist theory of Leninism. We believed that talk of ‘the vanguard party’ had been distorted by the Stalinist tradition (beginning of course with the degeneration of the Comintern from a very early stage) into a species of substitutionalism. Here the vanguard was seen as an elite separated from the class, not that different from various kinds of underground nationalist organisations. Within a degenerated orthodox Trotskyism there were more scholastic and less militaristic forms of elitism. What they had in common was a reification of both ‘leadership’ and ‘theory’ as something that developed independently of the class struggle. In our tradition, by contrast, the vanguard was simply something that already existed in the working class [it doesn’t currently, but say on], and our argument was that this vanguard (which hopefully we were a part of) should organise itself: in other words actually existing militants and fighters and not a bunch of experts with some special esoteric theory. We incessantly asked ‘who teaches the teacher?’ to such pretenders. [A very useful riposte to NUT reps.]

Implicit in the theory, you see, is a criticism of a methodology that’s long plagued the left, probably going back to the Second International, which prioritises investment in the apparatus as soon as you have a few quid to spare. We saw it in the early Comintern, where Moscow gold meant the German party suddenly found itself possessing dozens of daily papers and having no clear idea of what to do with them.[1]

Nor was the Trotskyist movement immune. In the 1980s, the Militant tendency famously had more fulltime workers than the actual Labour Party it was supposed to be an entrist faction in; around 200 people all told. The absurd example is provided by Jack Barnes’ SWP (US) when the money from the Trotsky copyrights made the party flush; at one point more than one in five party members was on the payroll, and George Novack boasted of having an infrastructure that could serve a party of 100,000 members. Obviously, the spectacular growth that may have justified this investment in infrastructure didn’t happen (instead the party began to shrink markedly), but the enormous party bureaucracy, far beyond what could have been sustained by members’ subs, did provide a material base for Jack to do with the party very much what he wanted to.[2]

And so it was with the IS/SWP, though in this case Cliff’s Building the Party can’t be blamed – the book is often self-serving, especially with its fetish of “stick-bending” and Lenin’s alleged instinct for the correct turn (this is why Cliff’s Lenin bears an uncannily close resemblance to Cliff) – but you will not find there any attempt to theoretically justify an elitist party bureaucracy. Chris Harman’s essay “Party and Class” has its difficulties, and a more developed elitist concept can be detected in John Rees’ work on Lukács, but generally the bureaucracy wasn’t theorised at all. It was just a matter of the party’s established practices – which were more enshrined by custom than actually thought about – being dignified with appellations like “Leninism” or “democratic centralism”.[3]

Be that as it may, the specific weight of the bureaucracy in the organisation has increased quite a bit over the years. A clue to this may be found in the IS tradition’s analysis of substitutionism, which acknowledges that substitutionism is an inherent danger, but it becomes a particularly acute one at times when the class struggle is at a low ebb. Here, for instance, is Alex Callinicos on “The Rank-and-File Movement Today” (1982):

Certainly there has been a tendency for the rank-and-file groups to become substitutes for an orientation on rank-and-file activity. This tendency has been encouraged by some formulations used to characterize the groups. For example, Steve Jefferys, the chief architect of the second attempt to build the NRFM, attacked the notion of Teachers Rank and File as ‘a caucus’ as ‘very narrow’: ‘We want all who are ready to fight consistently over a wide range of issues to join us in Rank and File’. He then went on to describe the group as both ‘the organisation of the SWP members in a particular union or industry’ and ‘made up of all consistent fighters among the rank-and-file’. This sort of confused reasoning, which treated an ‘organisation of SWP members’ as ‘all consistent fighters among the rank-and-file’ could only encourage the groups to substitute themselves for the rank-and-file. Whereas in 1977 this sort of approach led the SWP dangerously close to ultra-leftism, in the very grim climate of more recent years it has promoted an accommodation by the groups to the trade-union bureaucracy.

Would that Alex had remembered what he used to know…

But actually, this brings us closer to the crux of the biscuit. That is the climate that set into the party in the Downturn period of the 1980s when, as Pat Stack used to say, “We all went a bit mad.” The political aspect of this was Cliff’s view that the swamp was rising all around us so we had to fortify our little ideological island. But there were organisational consequences too, not so well noticed. Shawn has a terrific post which I’ll quote extensively about what happens to bureaucracies in periods of ebb, beginning with how unions evolve in downturn situations:

Downturns in struggle have many effects on the working class. One of them is to increase bureaucracy within the working class movement. Unions, which had strong rank and file networks in the 1960s and 1970s were weakened, in the USA this led to a secular decline in union density to single digits today in the private sector. Workers retreated from activity but the unions still needed to function and represent the members’ interests. The full-time apparatus took up that role (rather than, say, wildcat strikes led by shop stewards and other rank and file leaderships). You can see how after a while the full-time apparatus starts to be identified with the union because they carry much more of the union’s functions and day to day operation. They are the union and the members are there to support the active element – the full-time official.

And this is not just an issue of the general secretary on a six-figure salary developing elitist conceptions:

Many union staff are just working class shmos like the rest of us, have living standards not much higher in many cases (if at all) then the workers they represent and live in working class communities. Much of the time they may be more progressive than the members, and their day to day struggle to hold together union organization gives them a not unreasonable sense of ownership over the union – just as we feel in our workplaces. You can understand why they might not like to be summarily shoved aside by some impetuous group of workers who doesn’t know how things work, doesn’t know labour laws or the rules of mediation or even their own collective agreement. What’s more, in most unions, the full-time staff are not accountable directly to the members. They are hired and fired by management staff who answer directly to the union leadership – and almost all the pressure on them comes from this direction. They become used to deferring upwards, not downwards to their membership.

And as with the unions, a fortiori with a smallish revolutionary group that is of a sufficient size to have a fulltime apparat, but not big or socially rooted enough to have a large popular base that it needs to be responsive to. Bear in mind also that in the absence of large struggles, most of the party’s activity – branch meetings, paper sales, recruitment rallies – is not only propagandistic but, more to the point, self-generated. At this point the fulltime apparat becomes more than just a useful resource, it becomes a life support machine for a demoralised party, keeping things ticking over until the upturn arrives. And so the apparat comes to substitute itself for the party…

It’s important to realise that this wasn’t intentional – as ever with the SWP, if Cliff had intended things to develop this way, the implementation wouldn’t have been nearly so effective. We’re talking about an institutional process here, that can only really be seen clearly in retrospect. But this is where we can see the exaggerated weight of the party bureaucracy; the increasing cult of the professional leadership; and the deference towards the apparat that is most marked among the 1980s generation, which forms the backbone of the current CC faction.[4]

And what happens when the upturn in class struggle doesn’t emerge? The situation in the 1990s and beyond, despite such invigorating buzzwords as “the political upturn in the industrial downturn” and “Weimar in slow motion”, has been notable by the fact that traditional class struggle has been extremely low, and not only have many traditional working-class jobs gone, but union density has massively declined outside of a handful of areas (mostly in white-collar public sector jobs, which carries its own challenges for the labour movement). The Communist Party is gone, the Labour left has suffered a generational collapse and the radical left (which was always more dependent on the Labour/CP left than it would have liked to admit) has also declined in a very serious way. The landscape described by Hallas in 1971 simply does not exist any more.

What we do find when we look at the 1990s is Cliff realising the party had to break out of its rut, largely by relating to single-issue movements (anti-war, anti-fascism, the Criminal Justice Bill etc) and that some stick-bending was in order. And this seemed to be working as the party grew quite rapidly, though largely this was a function of being the last group standing on the radical left. But what we find here is a forcing of the pace, a bureaucratic solution to the party’s conservatism. Here’s Shawn again:

Cliff understood that the 80s had made the party conservative and that it needed to be shaken up. But the effects of conservatism were not experienced solely by the membership and were, arguably, felt more acutely by the party machine. That distortion explains why the cure for conservatism was directed solely at the membership. [That old canard about the “conservative block” again.] It was they who were the problem. The Party by now was the machine, what was needed was a better membership. Of course, we now see precisely what that means. And there’s no use pretending that this was a process that was resisted all along the line by the membership. [In fact, many were quite happy with it if the machine was getting bums on seats.] Certainly there were individuals who were unlucky enough to attract the tender mercies of the full-timers and the CC. I remember John Rees gleefully telling us how he had expelled some workers who were contemptuous of him. But the majority of old time cadre were committed to the IS tradition and to the party. They internalized this degeneration and outlook, having long since lost any memory of a different kind of organization in a different kind of context. It’s a bit like the Stockholm Syndrome or the way in which the oppressed internalize their own oppression.

So you find these organisational twists and turns running right through the period. Abolishing branch committees, then restoring them, then abolishing them again. Splitting large city-centre branches into tiny neighbourhood branches, which supposedly would be the basis for rapid new growth. Bambery’s cunning plan during the anti-war movement to disband the branches altogether. Pushing for rank-and-file papers in certain unions, then abandoning them. All sorts of political lurches to go with the organisational disorientation. And this all serving to increase the membership’s reliance on the revolutionary bureaucracy. This is not healthy for a party supposedly based on the premise of “socialism from below”.

But another pertinent question is: what sort of machine have the comrades got for their money?

Sunshine Desserts

Depending on whose membership estimates you believe, somewhere between 3% and 5% of the SWP’s membership is on the party payroll. The party of “socialism from below” has, in practice, developed an organisational structure that even the late Russ Meyer might have found ridiculously top-heavy. Moreover, the task of nurturing the members’ freewheeling rebellious spirit has not been made easier by the apparatchiks’ tendency to see themselves as an officer caste within the party.

There are distinct subsets of these, but perhaps it is worth starting with how they are selected. This is very much a who-you-know world. Contrary to popular myth, screwing a CC member isn’t the only, or even the main, way into the apparat. Being related to a CC member also helps, as does drinking in the same pub as a CC member. Back when Cliff was alive, he used to headhunt promising people from the districts, which wasn’t always successful – Cliff was often an appalling judge of character – but did at least introduce an element of randomness. Since Cliff’s passing, the randomness has largely gone, and the apparat has reproduced itself, creating new apparatchiks in its own image.

The majority of members will have encountered the apparat in the form of their district organiser. These people very often function like feudal barons – indeed, Bambery specifically viewed them as enforcers for the CC in the districts – and, by virtue of their appointment by the leadership, are assumed to speaking with the Voice of God. A good organiser – one who’s sensitive and modest and honest – can be a genuine asset. More often, you’ll get one who bullies the branch comrades while bullshitting the CC about the tremendous successes in his district. If you get one of the latter type, it’s preferable to have a lazy sod who spends his days sitting around in his underwear watching cartoons. An energetic organiser without much real work to do can cause havoc by spending his time hatching grandiose schemes to impress the CC, conspiring against “problem members” (those whom the organiser has taken a dislike to for whatever reason) and generally swaggering about like a pound shop Lenin. The only countervailing force is the branch cadre, but branches are often so clique-ridden as to make this worse than useless.

More important, though, is that strange institution called “The Centre”, which will be little known to comrades outside London, and isn’t all that transparent to those inside it. The Centre is reminiscent of nothing so much as that sequence in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix where Asterix and Obelix have to enter the Madhouse of Bureaucracy. The literally dozens of comrades working in the Centre, some of whom have been there for decades and made a career path out of it[5], do jobs which, to a very large extent, should be the responsibility of lay members.[6] In a parody of socialist planning, the Centre seems to work on the theory that there’s no job a lay member can do that can’t be done better by a fulltimer, or better still, three fulltimers.

The benefit the members actually derive from this overstaffing isn’t always apparent. It helps to have someone to coordinate, say, an intervention into a UCU strike, though that presupposes that (a) you will be able to get the Industrial Department on the phone, (b) the Industrial Department will know what’s required and (c) the Centre will supply you promptly with the high-quality assistance you need. A cynic might assume that the useful functions of the bureaucracy are providing a payroll vote for the CC and encouraging the members to be dependent on direction from above, rather than self-organising their activity. But that would be a cynic talking.

A cynic might also recall that great triumph of political spin, Mussolini’s claim to have made the trains run on time, when a moment’s thought would tell you that nobody has ever succeeded in making Italian trains run on time. A passing thought: one of the more appealing sides of Cliff’s Building the Party is his keenness to debunk Stalinist myth-making about the immaculate party by detailing just how shambolic the Bolshevik organisation was for much of the time. Though the full story has yet to be written, Cliff’s own organisation is far from immune on that score.

The Central Committee itself forms a not inconsiderable subset of the apparat. For a long time, the only non-fulltimer on that august body was Lord Acton; recent attempts to broaden the leadership’s base have taken the non-payroll component to a whopping three out of fourteen. As has often been documented, the slate system of election and the ban on factions for nine months of the year (in practice longer) means that the CC becomes self-perpetuating. As John (East Devon, Somerset & Dorset) points out in the pre-special conference IB:

Our current method of electing the CC has much in common with the bureaucratic rituals of “dead-man’s shoes” and “Buggins’ turn”.

When an existing CC member dies, resigns or is deemed inappropriate for some reason [which is almost never explained to conference delegates], the remaining members of the CC will choose a replacement. That replacement will generally live in London, be an ex-student and be an employee of the party.

Most importantly from the CC’s point of view, the person selected will be someone who agrees with their own current perspectives. What we end up with is a CC with limited experience of the world outside of the hothouse of National Office or student politics. In normal circumstances that CC will then carry on relatively unchanged until the next person dies, resigns or is deemed inappropriate.

Lenin was always adamant that leaders are only there because they have earned that right in the struggle and they have to continually re-earn that right. What we need is a leadership with experience of real struggles in the real world and a method of nomination and election that achieves it.

Quite so, and, without wanting to over-personalise this, the human factor counts as well. Past leaderships had obvious talent that made up for the structural weaknesses; but those people have largely fallen by the wayside. It’s true that Cliff, Hallas, Harman, Paul Foot and Julie Waterson have died, and there’s nothing we can do about that; Dave Hayes seemed to vanish off the face of the earth; and while I have reservations about Chris Bambery, Lindsey German and John Rees, who between them were implicated in some really appalling hackery over the years, they were relatively substantial individuals. I’m not sure the same can be said of the current CC, except for Alex, who has been there since 1977 and should probably have been put on gardening leave some time ago.

Another side is the enormous arrogance displayed by many (not all) apparatchiks towards the membership they are theoretically there to serve. It’s not always clear what the officer caste has done to deserve its privileges, but it certainly feels they are deserved. Some examples are trivial: the current editor of Socialist Worker has a conversational style that, even in small informal groups, recalls Gerry Healy’s immortal quip “How dare you speak while I’m interrupting”; at Marxism one finds talks being done by people miles out of their depth, because plum speaking assignments are handed out as rewards rather than on the basis of expertise. Some can be actually damaging: an organiser screwing up a campaign or strike on the assumption that she knows the correct tactics better than the people involved in running it; valuable cadres being done over because some fulltimer feels they haven’t been deferential enough.

And this is without going into the differential punishments handed out by the disciplinary system… we know about that already.

The question that has to be asked is – this revolutionary bureaucracy carries significant overheads in comparison to the benefits it brings, but is it really necessary? Couldn’t most of the work be done by lay members, as in the smaller and poorer groups in the international tendency? Perhaps there’s a clue here to the apparat’s Luddite attitude to the digital revolution.

Cliff, in his more lyrical moments, used to envision SW as a paper with thousands of correspondents – the lay members and supporters of the party. Purely in terms of producing propaganda, web publishing and social media are far outstripping the century-old model of a printed newspaper to give us the party line. Lenin’s Tomb has a significantly larger readership than Socialist Worker, and beyond that, such new-fangled devices as “e-mail” and “comments boxes” allow a two-way discussion that the old-school letters page lacked – and it is instantaneous. Moreover, one may wonder why, in the days of electronic communication, it is necessary to have a Central Committee who all live within a few miles of each other in Hackney.

In conclusion, and at the risk of being a tad cyber-utopian[7], there’s a fascinating passage in the recent book The End of Politics by the thoughtful Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Carswell tells us that he used to spend a lot of his time helping constituents with schools admission appeals. This doesn’t happen any more, because mums are getting in touch online and comparing notes as to how to prepare their appeals. One doesn’t have to buy into Carswell’s Hayekian worldview to see the implications of this; nor to realise that the digital revolution has helped to render obsolete a system of organising that may have seemed like simple common sense in 1975. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the Dark Side of the Force.

[1] As we know, this was carried over into the party-state structure of the People’s Democracies when the Communist Parties took power; so in the GDR, some 10% of the population worked for the Stasi, which may have satisfied Erich Mielke’s OCD, but also seems to function as a punchline to one of Ludwig von Mises’ jokes about socialist inefficiency.

[2] There is much more that could be said about the degeneration of the US SWP, which in the 1970s was a fairly impressive organisation of a couple of thousand well-trained Trotskyists, and nowadays is a real estate company with around 30 members that occasionally does a bit of über-Stalinist propaganda. Suffice to say that it’s a cautionary tale well worth studying.

[3] Though, strictly speaking, the SWP’s regime isn’t democratic centralism. It’s centralism.

[4] It may also be relevant that this generation entered politics at a time when the Communist Party was moribund and the Cold War reaching its conclusion. Therefore this generation has never had to think seriously about Stalinism; although we shouldn’t overstate this, as nor have the succeeding generations.

[5] Not a very well remunerated career path, true, but as Tim Wohlforth once remarked, for the truly political person, being a fulltime activist is itself a great privilege.

[6] The ISO in the States is of a similar size to the SWP, but has many fewer fulltimers. It’s also got a significantly healthier culture, which may be related to the relative lack of bureaucracy.

[7] To guard against this tendency, comrades should read The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov.


Filed under Left Politics

Order prevails in Vauxhall

Professor Callinicos is pleased at the conference's outcome

Professor Callinicos is pleased at the conference’s outcome

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

HL Mencken

And so it is that the rigged conference has taken place, the leadership has secured its victory (though it may well be a Pyrrhic victory) and the opposition has been crushed. Rage and despair will be the natural reactions; however, it’s a good time to pause a moment and take stock.

The leadership is morally bankrupt

Let’s be blunt. The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place? On the face of things, no; on the face of things, the majority of delegates today don’t think that is at all important.

To recap, this starts off with the allegation of sexual harassment made against “Delta”, the then national secretary of the party, in 2010. Comrade W took her complaint to the Central Committee, the result of which was Delta having to accept a demotion. Although the SWP grapevine is quite efficient, this was all that most comrades knew – that Delta had had an affair which ended badly, and he had behaved inappropriately. At the time the talk wasn’t of rape; at the time, people outside the district didn’t know just how young Comrade W was – that this case involved someone who was effectively a schoolgirl. However, the very fact that Delta – basically the leader of the party at that point – was forced to take a demotion indicated that those people in the leadership who knew the details knew that things weren’t right. They knew Delta had misbehaved badly. They can hardly deny it now, though that won’t stop them trying.

And then there was the 2011 conference. Where Delta – demoted, but still on the CC – gave a cringeworthy ten-minute speech in his own justification, followed by a (highly orchestrated) standing ovation, complete with clapping and chanting. A lot of comrades didn’t like that. Equally, and even without knowing all the details, they didn’t like the hectoring of Comrade W’s supporters that took place that year. This is important background – things were bad before we knew this was a rape complaint.

Which brings us to the Disputes Committee. With the best will in the world, and even assuming that DC members could put aside any unconscious bias (not necessarily an assumption that outsiders would be willing to make), the DC is simply not competent to hold a quasi-criminal hearing into an allegation of rape. It doesn’t dispose of any forensic resources, isn’t composed of legal professionals… and, perhaps more importantly, can’t impose any sanctions beyond expulsion. The Chinese Communist Party can lock up Bo Xilai; the SWP Disputes Committee doesn’t have any such powers at its disposal, thankfully. If a woman comrade makes an allegation of rape, the DC should gently explain that they aren’t in a position to hold a rape investigation, and should encourage her to go to a rape crisis centre and/or the police. The DC, as something analogous to a professional ethics body, is only competent to rule on whether or not an individual is fit to be a member of the party, or at least to hold a leading role in it.

One further point: it isn’t a punishment to not be a member of the leadership. The party chooses who is an appropriate individual to represent it. This needs restating for the benefit of those comrades who seem to believe in a Divine Right of Delta.

Well, the DC made its decision, and this was accepted (just) by conference. Two things, though, are important. The first is that Comrade W, who had expressed a desire to speak to conference, not only was not allowed to do so, but was not even allowed to enter the hall and listen. This is a pretty appalling way to treat a vulnerable young woman who has already been bullied for making a complaint against a leader of the party. The second point is that the vote was incredibly close – roughly 51% yes to 45% no, with 4% indicating an abstention and many delegates simply sitting on their hands in shock.  The “majority” for accepting the DC report was actually one of less than two in five delegates. And this was in a context where no amendments or supplementary motions were accepted – delegates were simply allowed a straight up-and-down vote where they could either accept or reject the DC report in its entirety. Not very impressive.

And that’s before taking into account this weekend’s revelations about a further case involving a woman comrade who was beaten and raped by her district organiser. If anything, the news report understates how bad that case was. What is true is that the organiser, having been found guilty by the DC, was expelled for two years. Two years. That’s the same penalty that was handed out to the Facebook Four for an online discussion about how inadequately the party was handling the Delta case; a discussion where they decided not to form a faction and, in a Kafkaesque twist, were expelled for “factionalism”. Hell, Andy Wilson was expelled for life for proposing to set up a cultural magazine. What sort of organisation has such skewed priorities?

The obvious answer is, an organisation which feels that the ends justify the means absolutely; that in the cause of the socialist revolution (or at least maintaining the current leadership in their positions of power; the CC doesn’t distinguish the two) the only thing that matters is the preservation of authority. If Delta is a good organiser who is crucial to the perspective, he must be protected – nay, even restored to the CC as soon as they can get away with it. Most of the doubts about his behaviour – say, whether it is appropriate for the leader of the party to use his position to try it on with teenage girls – are ruled out of court as “bourgeois morality”. And the victims in all this are simply collateral damage.

It’s the logical end of a process of dehumanisation, of chewing people up and spitting them out. I once remonstrated – quite mildly in retrospect – with a senior CC member about the party’s habit of losing good people by way of the apparat’s casual use of bullying and slander to get their way. “You have to understand,” he explained, “it’s unfortunate, but some people just couldn’t carry the perspective.” I wish I’d had the nerve at the time to tell him what an utter [redacted] he was. But then, we didn’t know then what we know now.

The leadership is politically weak

This is the context for the rebellion in the ranks, and it’s been heartening to see so many comrades saying that this is something they can’t possibly defend. Indeed, the fact that the mishandling of the rape complaint is indefensible is itself demonstrated by the fact that the leadership and their proxies haven’t even tried to defend it. The most “substantial” justification from the CC is Professor Callinicos’ Socialist Review article, which merely refers, opaquely and in passing, to a “difficult disciplinary case”, before going on to discuss how the SWP’s Leninism is being threatened by reformist and movementist currents, the former represented by TV’s Owen Jones (here Alex reveals the little-known fact that young master Jones is a member of the Labour Party) and the latter by former SWP CC member “Donny Mayo”, who has since thrown in his lot with Counterfire and is therefore a proxy target for John Rees, the party’s current numero uno Emmanuel Goldstein figure. (Paul D’Amato has a good response here, perhaps a better one than the article deserves.)

None of this is particularly germane to the issue in hand – the party’s disastrous mishandling of the disciplinary case Alex wants to gloss over – but it has provided a useful script for the CC’s supporters. If you read through the monstrous pre-conference bulletin, the contributions of CC supporters are notable for completely avoiding the issue and banging on instead about Leninism!!!, and how the opposition have deviated from it. This is our 1903 moment, they declare, when the Bolsheviks have to split with the Mensheviks. Quite what the Delta case has to do with Leninism is anyone’s guess, but the obvious conclusion is that this is a way of dignifying a fairly insubstantial argument. There’s also the unintentionally hilarious argument that the opposition want to exchange the SWP’s tried-and-tested way of doing things for the model of Syriza, which of course is so much less successful than the SWP.

Indeed, there is a pronounced tone of brittle defensiveness all the way through the discussion. The same has been true in party meetings. The 1980s generation, the backbone of the CC’s support, have dusted off their polemics about building our ideological defences to keep us from sinking into the swamp. In particular, this means acting as if thirty-year-old arguments over Women’s Voice are the last word on feminism; the idea that if you don’t agree with Sharon Smith’s articles it’s at least worth engaging with them seems to have completely passed them by. Better to deploy the bell, book and candle.

But actually, most of this is really sub-political. It amounts to the CC yelling “Respect our authoritah!” and then deploying every trick in the book to win the vote.

It begins with CC members – Callinicos, Kimber, Bradley et al – touring the branches and lying through their teeth to the members. This, sad to say, is not unexpected. We’ve also seen Party Notes turned into a factional publication, without of course offering any sort of right of reply.

There has been the punishment of party workers – Hannah Dee, one of the few leading members to command genuine respect and affection from the rank and file, was unceremoniously dumped from the CC purely for disagreeing with how the rape allegation was handled, and then found that her employment with the party had been terminated. There have been reports of bullying at the centre; the student office either is not communicating with SWSS groups or has ceased to function altogether.[1]

We’ve seen, in the pre-conference discussion, CC supporters openly referring to the opposition as scabs and narks. As for Donny Gluckstein’s ramblings about MI5, it pains me to get Yiddish on his ass, but he’s a shonda to his father.

There’s been the practice of winner-takes-all delegate selection, where if the CC loyalists had a bare majority in a district, they scooped 100% of the delegates from that district. Particular Stakhanovite exertions were observed in Glasgow and Sheffield, and one hopes the CC appreciates the efforts of Dave “The Hatchet” Sherry and Mad Maxine Bowler. Dave and Maxine, incidentally, sit on the Disputes Committee, which is supposed to protect party members from the arbitrary use of power by leading comrades.

And then there was that little stunt at the faction caucus, when a posse of CC members and hangers-on appeared to demand entrance. It was, apparently, unheard of for a faction to have a closed meeting. Let’s leave aside the fact that at the January conference, the CC held a “supporters’ meeting” which excluded oppositionists, and even one member of the CC’s own election slate. Let’s leave aside the likelihood that they intended to disrupt the caucus. The shocking thing was the appearance of Chanie Rosenberg and Anna Gluckstein, the founder of the party’s nonagenarian widow and his daughter:


It’s hard to think of a tactic more apolitical than this. The only possible reason for bringing Chanie along was to dare the opposition to close the door on the Mother of the Party. One is inevitably driven to think of Stalin wheeling out the elderly Krupskaya to lend himself moral authority; and it does a tremendous disservice to the memory of Cliff, who really despised the whole idea of personality cults, let alone a cult of his family.

A leadership that deploys tactics like this is a leadership that has no confidence in its ability to win an actual argument. It is hard to disagree with Ian B’s assessment that:

I have the impression of a very weak leadership panicking but unable to break out of a purely defensive stance… The CC fought like cats at conference to retain the leadership, but do not seem to be offering any way forward.

Eppur si muove

If there’s been one thing that’s characterised the CC’s response over recent weeks, it’s been the reversion to technophobia. From Callinicos talking about the “dark side of the internet” – as if socialists who disagree with Alex Callinicos are on a moral level with 411 scammers – to the repeated insistence in pre-conference aggregates that “the blog” was the source of the party crisis. The latter is a clear case of shooting the messenger, and is more than a little reminiscent of Cardinal Law declaring a fatwa against the Boston Globe. It’s also rather funny in that the opposition have been very disciplined online in the pre-conference period, while CC loyalists have been extremely prolific (if not very convincing) in their online appearances.

It strikes me, again, that the SWP leadership don’t get the digital revolution at all. They still have a commandist model based on a not very accurate apprehension of what the Bolsheviks were doing a century ago, with an omniscient Central Committee and a paper that pronounces “the line”. On the contrary, the internet is corrosive of all hierarchies; it points the way towards a style of organising that is much less vertical and much more horizontal (and not in the Skegness rally sense); that we now live in a world where activists are both hyperconnected and can share information instantaneously. Above all, it means the party can’t keep its dirty little secrets to itself the way it used to.

The positive side of this – and the thing that drove the CC absolutely nuts – was that a very large element of the party membership (a) exercised its critical faculties and (b) self-organised. The comrades of the IDOOP faction didn’t wait for the CC to graciously grant them permission to organise; they did it. This is still a way of thinking that is alien to the SWP leadership, and probably has been since the late Pete Sedgwick departed.

It’s also true that the rape case – awful as that has been – has become a lightning rod for all sorts of other submerged issues. There are many people in the SWP who are sick of being lied to, being bullied, being treated as cannon fodder for the permanent leadership’s Ponzi schemes. The older ones remember when the party was better – hell, they remember that the IS of forty years ago was a good deal larger and more influential than the SWP of today. They also realise how toxic this situation is, and how it’s tarnishing Cliff’s legacy. The younger ones are of a generation that doesn’t accept authority without question.

What next? I certainly don’t have any quick and easy answers. If the good comrades aren’t to be lost to politics entirely, we will need to go through a long process of thinking, writing and discussing. What is clear, though, is that the SWP’s discredited leadership has no way forward. Even if it maintains control of the apparatus, its future will be that of Sheila Torrance’s rump WRP, which inherited enough assets from Healy to still have a sort of zombie existence nearly thirty years later. But Alex – remember your glory days, for you will never fly so high again.

You foolish lackeys, your order is built on sand…

[1] To be scrupulously fair, Mark Bergfeld’s resignation may have caused some disruption to the student office, and someone will have to be co-opted to the CC to take his place. Perhaps Martin Smith would be available.


Filed under Left Politics

After Sunday

The following IDOOP faction document, by Mike G and Megan T, has been circulated to all SWP members. It is being reproduced here as an excellent summation of the situation. Emphases are mine.

As we approach the Special Conference, it is important that we discuss where we go from here. The faction has been tremendously successful: 532 party members have joined – far from the fringe grouping that we are characterised as.

Our concern at the start of this process was that the ‘middle ground’ of worried members would drift out of the party or into passivity if there was not pressure on the CC to address their concerns. The existence of the faction, and the seriousness of its arguments, have kept many comrades in the party and given heart to many more that a significant section of the membership does not agree with the CC’s tactics and responses to the questions raised by the disputes committee report, and has been prepared to stand up and say so.

In our view, we must be very careful not to abandon all that we have gained in recent weeks in the name of party discipline. In some senses, the building of the faction has been a demonstration of how a living organisation should work. It has been a conversation among comrades, horizontally, which has opened new networks and connections and made it possible to argue and debate issues directly, without formulae and slogans, without ‘holding the line’ or defining ourselves in relation to the leadership. What has emerged is not just a deep discontent, but a generalised feeling of disenfranchisement among party members.

The CC is fighting for its life, and for the methods of resolving issues it has used, largely uncontested, for a very long time. It has battered, attacked and ultimately removed people without compunction. That retaliatory spirit is obvious in the treatment of student comrades since conference, in the motion sent to Tottenham branch and in Terry, Donny and Penny’s piece in the IB, which begins and ends with threats of expulsion. The withdrawal of the Tottenham motion, proposed by two leading CC supporters and dismissing the student comrades with a wave of the hand, is an old tactic – create the arguments, spread them wide, and then withdraw the motion but not the position that it reflected. So it has created a point of reference for all those with a leaning towards heresy hunting.

We have argued that the party leadership has used exclusively administrative and procedural justifications and methods to respond to the IDOOP faction. While protesting at the “misuse” of our constitution, every bureaucratic device has been mobilised to block the faction. The manoeuvring to get CC supporters elected to the special conference by whatever means possible has nothing to do with the winning of political arguments that is assumed when we discuss democratic centralism and the unity it can promote.

That unity based on conviction, shared understandings and debate between comrades is the only guarantee that our understandings and methods are appropriate for the times in which we live (the “this-sidedness of thinking” as Marx called it). That is what politics is, not the manipulation of party structures. Or have we abandoned the idea that the centre of our theory is agency, real people intervening to change the world in circumstances not of our own choosing – or to put it another way, to break out of the structures that imprison our thinking?

The standard issue CC introduction to every aggregate gives a general, broad picture of the world and then moves on to attack the faction for narrowing that grand vision to internal matters. But that sweeping and general overview is no substitute for the complex and searching analysis of the society in which we live which has been the greatest strength of the SWP tradition, and which has enabled us to “punch above our weight”. Those ideas have been carried and won by comrades well prepared with arguments that have given them the confidence to work as they have. That confidence is severely damaged when the leaders of our organisation cannot offer a political explanation for their own actions.

The reasons for that are very clear. They were wrong. That was the immediate cause of the current crisis, and the error was then compounded by the refusal to acknowledge it and to respond to widespread disquiet by attempting to close down discussion. Indeed, it is the CC’s response to its mistake that has exposed a deeper weakness and what many of us have seen as a shocking willingness to reach for bureaucratic solutions to a political problem.

In recent years the CC has split time and again. The problem is not the splits in themselves, but the fact that they were concealed from the members of the party until they burst on us like a sudden storm. The gulf between the leadership and the party began to widen, the party apparatus increasingly substituted itself in various forms of activity and successful leadership became increasingly replaced by instructions, commands and moralism, always veiled by a tone of urgency to justify the failure to discuss things with comrades. That process has impaired the relationship between the CC and the party as a whole and withered the democratic reciprocity between sections of the party; this has not only affected individual comrades and distorted the party; it has weakened the leadership.

The DC dispute was the final straw in that imbalanced, frustrating and unequal relationship. At some point the CC began to treat the party with suspicion and outright hostility. And we have seen in the last six weeks how deeply embedded that suspicion is. It is easy to demonise two comrades who are being made responsible for a generalised leak of our internal discussions. Nothing can really be concealed in the age of the internet, and we would do well to understand that. But the faction contains over 500 comrades from every area of the party – why is this never discussed?

There is an alternative to ill-tempered protests about bloggers. It is as if the problem was not the method that came to grief and failed to convince nearly half the party’s conference delegates but the fact that it was discovered! In the age of instant communication our internal conduct and our external actions have to coincide. If we talk about democracy we have to exemplify it.

Part of the role of the CC in a revolutionary organisation is to fight to win over the majority of the membership to ideological positions and the practical activity that flows from an analysis of the current political situation. If the CC is not willing, or able, to do this then it is not leading. It is not the role of revolutionaries to support a weak leadership no matter what, but rather the obligation of party members to conduct an internal argument if they believe that the positions or tactics of the organisation are not matching the potential of prevailing circumstances and resulting in growth – numerical growth, rising levels of theoretical understanding and practical confidence, and in influence beyond our ranks.

How did the insistence on building a revolutionary organisation in which knowledge and experience, theory and practice, met in a “vibrant collaboration” (Lenin’s words) between all its members become transformed into a frozen transmission of pre-digested ideas from the top to the bottom? That’s a process that all of our comrades, and all the people we work and struggle with, will immediately recognise as the way capitalism functions. And we are supposed to be its gravediggers.

The faction has already won its first battle, whatever the outcome of the heavily rigged conference on the 10th. It has burst open the formal and restricted arena of discussion, and created a space of vigorous, honest and horizontal debate about much more than just the DC decision. It has re-established the fundamental socialist principle of accountability by demanding an explanation from the CC. And when it refused to provide one, it began to analyse that response and to connect the specific to the general, the flawed way in which the DC was handled with the general sense among a large chunk of the membership that they had been disenfranchised.

In just a few weeks, the desire to analyse how we got to this point has resulted in many faction members, both longstanding and new cadre, starting the process of attempting to fill some theoretical gaps. This is fantastically encouraging, and a glimpse at how political pride can be rebuilt and how fruitful honest collective discussion is. The very fact of the conference is a victory, but if we accept that silence must follow, then we have not achieved what we set out to achieve.

The CC argues that we are ‘permanent factionalists’. On the contrary, we are fighting to restore political debate and discussion in a democratic atmosphere to the heart of the organisation, for the SWP to rediscover the traditions that won it so much respect beyond its own ranks – in other words, to dissolve back into a party that has reaffirmed its openness to the debate and comradely argument that will make every comrade a leader, and acknowledge what every one of us contributes to our theory.

That means that while the faction will cease to exist – and on that we’re all agreed – the debate can and must continue, in the branches, the colleges, the day schools, the coffee shop discussions, the conversations after a sale or a demonstration; and it needs to continue in all our publications and meetings. There must be no separation between the theorists and the activists and, while we accept party discipline, we can’t accept the reimposition of control under threat of expulsion or sanctions or exclusion from this conference or that party event.

There should be no reprisals of any kind after conference, and a clear instruction from the CC to all their supporters that this is a condition for the party to heal its divisions. Branches and districts must continue to allow free and frank debate while we are united in our activity. That is the political duty of the leadership, and it needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

We want to win back an open democratic party culture that others can look on from the outside and admire, together with a unity of purpose that is sustained by that culture. The comrades who have argued that all this discussion inhibits activity are contradicting themselves. Socialists are active out of conviction, not out of loyalty to structures, procedures, or to this or that leadership. Our loyalty is to a political tradition and to the revolutionary project – the tradition that has kept that flame alive.

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Building the leadership

“It is like a car. You pull the gear lever and it does not start.”

Tony Cliff

Let’s begin by talking about reification. I know Cliff, back in the day, liked to talk about “substitutionism”, but it’s worth casting the net a little wider; after all, if we confine the discussion to substitutionism, we open the door to the conceit that there’s some ideological vaccine that will prevent us falling into the trap. No, there isn’t; we can only be aware of the danger and guard against the temptation as best we can.

Actually, the virus of reification can be most virulent amongst the practical people. You know the sort of people I mean. They’re the sort of people who tell you to get off the internet – that ephemeral trend that only students are interested in – and engage with the “real world”. That this injunction can be made with a straight face by full-time apparatchiks who haven’t been involved with the real world for years tells you something interesting about reification.

Let’s begin with a practical person, someone with a strong activist bent. Someone who’s concerned with outcomes and regards processes as unimportant. Your practical person doesn’t understand why we need to spend a couple of weeks discussing what to do about, let’s say, a library closure, when it’s much easier to just organise a demo that the meeting would probably have decided to do anyway. This is the sort of thought process that drives your allies in the campaign absolutely up the walls.

Good old Lev Davidovich had a few things to say about this tendency in Our Political Tasks, way back in 1904:

Comrade Lenin in his “plan” suppresses “discussions” by virtue of an enviable logic: they do not correspond to the requirements of conspiracy and disturb the unity and harmony of the plan! So what are these “discussions” for? The results these discussions tend to reach can be reached by much less costly means: it is enough simply ‘that all participants in the work, all the circles, without exception, have the right to bring their decisions, their wishes, their questions, to the attention of both the local committee and the Central Organ and Central Committee. Such a procedure will make it possible to consult all members sufficiently, without having to create such cumbersome and non-conspiratorial institutions and the “discussions”.’ (Letter) How suspiciously Lenin then alludes to the “dilettante” committees, to the workers’ and students’ circles, composed of “non-specialised” members, who waste their time in “interminable discussions about everything” instead of working over “professional experience.” To think and deliberate “about everything” should be the prerogative of the “Centre”; and the circles, groups and isolated agents must think and deliberate according to their estate, workshop by workshop. The Party’s consciousness is centralised – there is nothing left for it but to make the individual experience of the individual member the patrimony of the Centre (‘to bring to the knowledge of the Centre’); that will be enough to enrich the practice of all individual members who will steep themselves in the consciousness of the Centre – which is conscious by profession.

You may well recognise the pattern of behaviour described by Trotsky here. It hasn’t grown much less aggravating in the intervening century and a bit. This, of course, is the pamphlet containing the famous warning about substitutionism:

For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”

In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”…

Quite so. So why talk about reification? Cliff in his treatment of Trotsky treats substitutionism – exemplified in Russia by the Narodnik terrorist tradition – as a temptation to which revolutionaries succumb when the level of struggle is low and the revolutionary movement is small and isolated. Actually, this is only indicative and not an iron law – certainly it wouldn’t explain the March Action in 1921.

Reification, if you like, is turning things on their heads, of understanding the leadership question from the bottom up rather than the top down. There’s plenty that can be said about the thought processes that go on at the top – it’s well worth reading Andy Wilson on this – but we don’t often consider the psychology of the leadership loyalist.

Many years ago, your author used to have a running argument with a leading member of the SWP, who accused me of lacking loyalty to the party. My counter-argument was that “loyalty to the party” (what in Russian we would call partiinost’) was a Stalinist concept – the correct subjects being the working class and socialism, and the party being a means to an end. In fact, the party could become an obstacle, and then another means would have to be sought, just as Trotsky concluded that the Comintern was irreformable. Don’t get me wrong, loyalty is a thoroughly good human trait, but blind loyalty, the loyalty that simply says “my party right or wrong” is, well, blind.

So it’s not merely a question of the party substituting for the class and the apparatus for the party etc – those are real phenomena, but we need to ask why the members let it happen. And there are powerful subcultural influences at work here – there’s the arrogance one gains on joining a Marxist group, or for the older cadre the emotional investment and ties of comradeship one has built up of years, even decades, in the party. In smallish, highly counter-cultural groups struggling through hard times, those influences are all the more intense.

And thus it is that, since the party is the memory of the class (sometimes I think the organised amnesia of the class is more like it) and the great repository of theory and programme, that the party can be assumed to see the interests of the class better than the class itself.[1] So we identify the interests of the party with the interests of the class; and, if we trust our leadership unquestioningly, we identify the interests of the party apparatus with those of the class. All the more so if we are in a strongly hierarchical group which makes great play of an “interventionist leadership” that’s constantly bending sticks.

This can be extremely dangerous, and it’s a process that has aided many shysters from Joe Stalin to Gerry Healy to Jack Barnes. Because, in unscrupulous hands, the ethic of partiinost’ allows comrades to be guilt-tripped into believing that expressing criticism of the leadership is a betrayal of the party, a capitulation to Menshevism, etc. One sees a lot of this in the recent discussion and, without wanting to get personal, someone who has written a book about Bukharin should know a thing or two about the rise of Stalinism. Notably, that Stalinism originated precisely as a degeneration within our own movement.

Well, these dangers are inherent. And there’s no cure for them except to have an ingrained suspicion of established leaderships – not necessarily to distrust the individuals, but to be aware of the traps that even the best leadership can walk into. Here is Rosa Luxemburg on the leadership question:

It is a mistake to believe that it is possible to substitute “provisionally” the absolute power of a Central Committee (acting somehow by “tacit delegation”) for the yet unrealizable rule of the majority of conscious workers in the party, and in this way replace the open control of the working masses over the party organs with the reverse control by the Central Committee over the revolutionary proletariat…

The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role. Experience shows that every time the labour movement wins new terrain those organs work it to the utmost. They transform it at the same time into a kind of bastion, which holds up advance on a wider scale.


And again yes! While admitting that Luxemburg was not a libertarian[2], she had enough experience of the bureaucratic regime in the SPD to know what she was talking about. This doesn’t map across directly to qualitatively smaller and poorer revolutionary groups, but any bureaucracy, no matter how small, tends to confirm Lord Acton’s good joke about power.


One more point from Luxemburg that really shouldn’t need saying:

More important is the fundamental falseness of the idea underlying the plan of unqualified centralism – the idea that the road to opportunism can be barred by means of clauses in the party constitution… A manual of regulations may master the life of a small sect or a private circle. An historic current, however, will pass through the mesh of the most subtly worded paragraph.

A smart leadership – that is, a modest, open and non-defensive leadership – can counteract this to some extent. A leadership marked by grandiosity, authoritarianism and a defensive brittleness on programme and even day-to-day tactics – not so much.

A couple of points need to be made about Cliff. A perennial question that would come up in argument was whether (and this was often speculation about what would happen after the revolution) the SWP could degenerate into something analogous to Stalinism. Cliff always stressed that of course it bloody could! If the party of Lenin and Trotsky, with all the dedicated and experienced revolutionaries who made up the Bolshevik ranks, could degenerate into the Stalin regime, we’d have to be bloody arrogant to think we were immune.

The other point is to remember one of the paradoxes of Cliff’s style. He was, let us say, forceful in argument and sometimes unscrupulous when it came to getting his own way. But he also welcomed people standing up and disagreeing with him. He revelled in having a proper argument. This, of course, worked best when there were others in the leadership (think of Kidron, or Nigel Harris, or Duncan Hallas) who did disagree with him and were prepared to say so. The benefits were less apparent in his later years, when there were fewer independent thinkers left standing and more sycophants. A deferential culture was much less capable of correcting the leadership’s excesses.

One also recalls Harman, not long before he died, lamenting that he’d written an intentionally provocative article on the economy and nobody argued with it. Well, yes, Chris.

Ideally, your party democracy should be raucous and freewheeling and characterised by a high degree of spontaneity. The questions of the day should be thrashed out openly and vigorously, the better to achieve clarity and correct mistakes. You need a membership that can check the leadership, and a leadership that can rise up from the ranks under its own steam. At one time, IS politics was very much about that sort of thing.

But a bunkered leadership that’s isolated from the members, never mind the class, and responds to real political problems with administrative sanctions? A self-perpetuating clique that sustains itself through cronyism and nepotism, and treats the members with contempt? Perhaps half of the membership being prepared to allow these jumped-up panjandrums to treat them with contempt, because they’ve internalised the idea that the cause of socialism is coterminous with defending every last manoeuvre of the apparatus? You build a party like that, I’ll tell you straight, you’ll never achieve anything.

Rosa Luxemburg again:

The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history.

Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.

And Duncan Hallas:

Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.

You said it, Duncan.

[1] This could lead us onto an interesting discussion of false consciousness, a concept that’s had some pretty pernicious effects over the years.

[2] It’s arguable that the regime Luxemburg and Jogiches ran in the Polish Social Democracy was more stringent than that of the Bolsheviks. It may not be coincidental that Feliks Dzierżyński got his political training in the SDKPiL.


Filed under Left Politics

Lord Acton and the guillotine: our Tendency after Cliff

A guest post from ‘Comrade Sigma’



The big failure: A party in decline

The battle for Cliff’s heritage is raging. The result is the destruction of his life’s work.

Throughout the 80s, the CC stubbornly claimed that the SWP had 4,000 members. In the nineties the numbers floating around rose to 6,000, later to nearly 8,000 and on very enthusiastic summer days reached close to 10,000 members. Today the SWP is down to 2,400 sub-paying members. Active membership is surely below 30%.

Whatever the credibility of any of the aforementioned numbers, we have arrived at the lowest number of party members in three or even four decades: the SWP is in decline! (1)

Now. Contrast these sobering realities with all those “historic opportunities” in conference papers and strategic documents. Contrast these declining numbers with the global crisis of capitalism, the ideological meltdown of neoliberalism, the longing for new perspectives throughout society. Contrast it with the tireless activism of the remaining and newly recruited members, the boundless self-sacrifice of a shrinking, but devotedly fighting active membership!

No doubt: the level of class struggle still is rather low and the strategic context remains complex. But while these objective factors do prevent a mass breakthrough in recruitment, they hardly explain the continuous decline. Should not a party that somehow found ways to organize modest, but real and continuous growth in the “downturn” eighties, find ways to at least not shrink under our present conditions?(2)

Accountability, Cliff-Style

Comrades who knew Tony Cliff in a position of leadership, will remember what this meant, and it was not easy. Cliff’s method of leadership was “hands-on”. Accountability was something he not only expected, but ensured and enforced. Whether you organized a demonstration, a national recruitment drive or an event like Marxism, Cliff would demand to know what numbers you expected. If your results missed that mark there would be a lot of questions asked to find out what went wrong.

Normally, Cliff remained encouraging. But make no mistake: having Cliff question you after a big failure was hardy a relaxing experience. Filing false excuses not only was futile, but a big, big mistake, because an angry Cliff was not something you would like to have on the phone.

Cliff in alarm mode, finally, was quite a show. Whenever he sensed something going very wrong, he would go berserk on all available channels until the reason for failure was corrected, or, often enough, the comrade in charge replaced.

The frequently asked question “What would Cliff say / think / do?”, by the way, has a very easy starting point. Each and every comrade who knew Cliff, even from afar, will agree that for him, the health, growth and strength of the organisation was at the heart of revolutionary politics – and it was his unforgiving measure to judge any leadership’s achievements.

The fish rots from the head

All this was the flipside of the radical centralism Cliff believed in: if you were the one in charge, you were the one to blame. If you occupied a position of centralized power, you had to live up to the pressures of centralized responsibility.

To commit errors was forgivable, of course. Cliff would consistently encourage you to be daring, to act, to be fearless and bold. If he then felt that you had tried and given everything, but still you had failed, he would simply say: “That’s alright!”, laugh it off and move on to the next project. For what he sought to create, was active leadership. He preferred a leadership actively committing errors to all variations of passivity and drifting, which he saw as the cardinal error in revolutionary politics.

Still: whenever something seriously went wrong, whenever the party was drifting or going down a dangerous path … it was automatically and without exception the leadership that had to question itself, its perspectives and its actions. Shifting the blame downwards, to your members, was an absolute No-Go. “You are the leadership. You take the blame.”

A decade of decline? A shrinking membership in times of increasing struggle? Cliff would be furious! His sense of alarm boundless! Cliff would be mad as hell and his anger and rage would rattle the party. And his full wrath would be directed to the people in charge: to the CC and the top echelon of the party! Certainly not to a bunch of blogging youngsters or abstract excuses like “a lack of discipline”.

Lacking discipline?!

A lack of authority, leadership!

“The fish rots from the head”, Cliff would scream.

The late Cliff: a difficult heritage

But, Clixton: it isn’t so easy. Measured by your own standards, it must be said that you, too, carry quite some responsibility for the decade of crisis following your final journey.

Repeating it through the nineties, Cliff coined the phrase: “Weimar in slow motion” (3) to characterize the state of the world capitalist system, adding, that the slow crisis had to spin out of control, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was that there would be deep crisis, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was clearly that this escalation was to happen rather soon.

When the so-called “tiger crisis” terminated the long boom in East Asia, the subsequent revolution in Indonesia against Suharto in 1997 electrified the Tendency. Even more so, as we were in comradely contact with a group of revolutionary youngsters over there. Tony Cliff was a living legend for them. To have him on the phone in person drove them crazy with excitement. We had a real chance of recruiting them to IST.

When he and I were discussing the situation in Indonesia, he shouted out: “If there will be just one workers state today, it will spread around the world, like wildfire. Like wildfire! Like wildfire!!”

This, to be sure, was not an isolated outbreak of enthusiasm on Cliff’s behalf. His predictions became increasingly dramatic as he approached the black door. So, when Cliff and I spoke at a rally shortly before Tony Blair’s election, he declared his conviction that there would be “no honeymoon at all” for Blair – but “a race between the SWP and the BNP”, starting the very day after election night, to win over the myriads of rapidly frustrated Labour voters.

Nor was Cliff alone with such high-flying expectations. American comrade Joel Geier saw the tiger crisis as the start of an imminent meltdown of world historic proportions. Alex Callinicos repeated the metaphor “Weimar” or “the 1930s” in “slow motion” more than once in spoken and written form.

Seattle and the fire next time

After the “downturn” of the 1980s and a “period of transition” in the 1990s, a “new upturn” was the logical next stage. This was the general expectation within our ranks at the turn of the millennium.

As we know today: the revolution in Indonesia stopped right where it was. Despite several most important outbreaks of anger and some massive mobilisations, Tony Blair did not meet resistance on the scale most of us had expected, while global capitalism reached a new, though increasingly shaky equilibrium. This particular Weimar in slow motion was moving very slowly, indeed.(4)

At first, however, events seemed to vindicate our optimistic outlook. In 1999 the successful blockade of the WTO conference in Seattle made the global left break out in jubilation. The “Anti-Globalization Movement” was born. “The fire next time” had been lit, in the heart of the beast.

Hence, when Cliff died in 2000, it seemed that his boldest predictions were about to come true. The Tendency was bristling with confidence and longing for the real battle, Cliff had so artfully prepared us for, to finally commence. Also, the revolutionary household Cliff left behind seemed perfectly ordered, so the leading layer of activists imagined to be in position to weather the upcoming storm.

Tony Cliff’s final distributions of tasks

Cliff left behind some clarification of the distribution of power he wished to see in place after his departure. If you read Cliff’s autobiography, you will find that there is quite some name dropping going on. A careful arrangement of a post-Cliff power pattern is clearly intended. Chris Bambery as National Secretary, Alex Callinicos heading the Tendency, and so on. The German experiment – Cliff’s beloved child of late – receives one final upgrade with a whole chapter entitled: “Linksruck – a success story”. The American comrades, on the other hand, could have been treated somewhat more nicely in the book, you might think.

In Britain, Cliff’s heritage seemed particularly well-ordered and power was to remain were it used to be: it automatically fell to the CC left over from Cliff: Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery, John Rees, Lindsey German, Pat Stack, Julie Waterson, Dave Hayes … this CC had been selected by Cliff himself and commanded authority. Below it were some rising stars. There existed a broad layer of well established, highly respected elder comrades. Finally, there were a handful of founding comrades left from Cliff’s own generation.

All this gave you the impression of a skilfully-built, rock solid construction – too solid, perhaps.

The first year without Cliff: the Linksruck implosion

Revolutionary leaders traditionally seem to have bad luck with such pre-posthumous arrangements. In Cliff’s case, too, there were more than cosmetic problems with the given pattern, which were clear even by the time his autobiography was published.

Florian Kirner, for instance, who is quoted at some length in the Linksruck chapter and presented as the editor of Linksruck, had in the meantime resigned from all party positions, very soon to be expelled. Ahmed Shah, for almost ten years “Cliff’s man in Germany”, descended from power under scandalous circumstances soon after.

The German success story took a sharp, nasty turn, and within months Linksruck imploded, losing the bulk of its 1,000 or so members.

This did not come as total surprise to every observer, maybe. These German young Turks had displayed some overconfident zealousness. No surprise: Cliff had agitated their youthful leaders over and over again that Germany was the key to the international situation, with them, personally, being the key to the German revolution. Messages like that were a lot to stomach for youngsters in their early twenties. This was part of an educational program Cliff unapologetically called: “cloning”.

Risen to the sky of the Tendency like a rocket in Cliff’s final years, crashing down like a stone within months after his passing, Linksruck paid the price for ambitious dreams of an upturn, but also stumbled over the downsides of a particular style of education.

The first year without Cliff: the expulsion of our American section

The disastrous shake-up inside the Tendency in the first year without Cliff did not stop in Germany. What happened in Germany and America are connected in curious ways.

While Linksruck, sharing and regularly surpassing Cliff’s urgent expectations for “the fire next time”, imploded – the American ISO, mildly sceptical of such prophecies, was expelled from the Tendency, accused of “conservatism” and “abstentionism”. Allegedly, the ISO failed to share “the Seattle perspective”. The real reasons for the expulsion of one of our most prominent sections were never clear to the vast majority of comrades.

So how then did this expulsion (it was, damn it: not a split!) come about? Who was responsible for this disaster, leaving us without any serious representation in the United States to this very day?

Some were responsible due to their irresponsible lack of action and interest. Pat Stack, for instance. When I once asked him about an important international issue, he declined to make a judgement saying: “You have to ask Callinicos about this. He is the man who rules the Tendency.” Take Lindsey German. At the height of the conflict with the ISO, I presented her with an extended hypothesis that the conflict might have to do with a lasting influence of Shachtmanism. “You seem to have a whole theory about this!” Lindsey exclaimed lightheartedly. She did not seem to bother even having any kind of serious explanation for the loss of our American section – while her partner, John Rees, happily played a very pro-active role in pushing the ISO out of the Tendency.

And internationally? The leaderships of the tiny sister groups of the mighty SWP understandably felt insecure in face of this utterly unexpected and quickly unfolding crisis. They left the decision to the British CC.

Starfleet & the IST: the Prime Directive

To be fair: the expulsion of ISO did meet some resistance. SEK split in the process and lost a third of its members. There were fierce conflicts about the issue in the bigger IS groups like Canada or Australia. The implosion of Linksruck also was fuelled by the opposition’s solidarity with ISO.

That this bizarre expulsion could be pulled off at all, had to do with the structure of the IST. Apart from the “International Meeting” once a year – a very casual kind of gathering, lacking all the glamour you might associate with it – there was practically no regular, formal communication going on, not to speak of any proper decision making. (5)

The assessment behind this lack of formal structure was twofold. First, there was some reluctance to follow other left currents in their mimicry of an International en miniature, having absolutely no mass support behind it. Secondly there was the connected insight that some chronic problems in the history of the Third International from 1919 onwards had to be avoided.

Rosa Luxemburg had been opposed to the Comintern’s very foundation and her worries were tragically justified before long. “The Russians”, carrying huge weight as the victors of the worlds’ first communist revolution, and having superior means at their disposal as owners of a sizeable state apparatus, soon started to intervene with gusto all around the world. The list of utterly disastrous interventions by this or that Russian representative is long and painful. People like Bela Kun or Karl Radek were able to destroy more than one promising revolutionary situation.

The official doctrine of the IST therefore was the good old “Prime Directive” of the United Federation of Planets (aka Starfleet’s “General Order #1”): no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations!

Digressions from the Prime Directive

The one big exception to the Prime Directive was called: “Tony Cliff”. Tony Cliff sending letters abroad, Tony Cliff hanging on the phone, Tony Cliff using every occasion to chat with comrades from all over the world in London, making up for his legal inability to travel. A chat with or a letter from Tony Cliff might have dramatic consequences.

Cliff became much more active in international matters in his final decade. The German experiment, for instance, of dissolving the old organisation in favour of Cliff’s cunning plan of entrism into the SPD’s youth, did not command much initial support. Cliff’s unquestioned authority in tactical matters combined with a feeling that the situation in Germany was bad enough that not much could be lost anyhow, carried the day. But even with Linksruck’s “success story”, tensions never really ceased.

Cliff did his best to shield the young German leadership from the ongoing controversy. But it was clear that his position inside the CC was not always very comfortable, and during Marxism and other occasions these tensions were acted out below Cliff’s radar.

Thus, the Prime Directive of non-intervention was increasingly undermined during the 90s. Mostly by Cliff himself, but also by various British CC members. John Rees and Chris Bambery, in particular, started to “cliff around” a bit on their own account. Meanwhile the role played by the International Secretary lacked any palpable definition beyond Alex Callinicos being it.

The ISO and the SWP: a complex affair

There were other factors of some weight inside IST. The Greek SEK seemed on their way to catch up with the SWP in size and influence (which they did in the meantime, mostly by the SWP shrinking). SEK’s leadership was ostentatiously treated as equals by the British CC. Yet their interest in international issues remained generally low.

The much smaller ISO on the other hand achieved a stubborn and steady buildup of their numbers under difficult political circumstances. Like SEK they were not too interested in other organisations’ business, but leading members of the ISO played a very prominent and independent role in the development of IS theory and general perspectives, in analyses of the world economy, the twists and turns of imperialism and so on. Several ISO leaders were among the most popular speakers at Marxism and contributed regularly to the ISJ or Socialist Review. The top cadre of the ISO and SWP was intertwined by quite a few intense friendships. It all looked like another Anglo-American love affair – except that there was a sizeable legacy of past hostilities and distrust, stemming from as far back as 1978.

Back then, our “man who rules the tendency” had played a prominent and typically dubious role in a split occurring in the ISO’s predecessor.

The ISO rejoined the tendency in the wake of the first gulf war in 1990. A meeting to test the grounds for this re-union took place in Cliff’s house in Hackney. Everything went smooth – until the old issues came up in the discussion. This immediately resulted in a terrible row. Still, the ISO re-joined the IST and during the following decade this cooperation grew ever more intense.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere between the ISO leaders and Alex Callinicos was not rosy. When I visited the ISO in the late 1990s, the opinion about the man’s character was expressed by a then member of the ISO’s steering committee in the words: “He lies with impunity!” (6)

The man who rules the Tendency wants to rule it … alone!

Where did this setting leave us in the event of Cliff’s death? Unlike the SWP, the household of the Tendency was not very well ordered at all. A formal structure did not exist. The natural heir of Cliff’s long standing prerogative to override the “Prime Directive” of Non-Intervention was its International Secretary. To believe, however, that the ISO would from now on happily follow the lead of Alex Callinicos, required a lot of wishful thinking. And as we know, Alex Callinicos is not a man of such extended imagination.

You really have to understand these hidden dynamics to grasp the full monstrosity of the ISO’s bizarre expulsion. What happened in that so-called “split” against the ISO was nothing else, but a pre-emptive strike, orchestrated by the man who wished to rule the Tendency alone in the future. Alex Callinicos just loves “pre-emptive strikes”.

You cannot believe this? In that case explain the political reasons. Go back and read the documents leading up to that brutal ousting. (They are mostly available on the net.) The disturbing truth is that there are no political reasons to be found for this mysterious disaster! If minor differences in the post-Seattle analyses can be detected at all, the ISO’s “conservatism” has been vindicated. But you will have a very hard time to find any basis for a serious disagreement out of these thoroughly weird documents, let alone discover any sufficient justification for kicking out a successful sister organisation.

On giants, dwarfs and my poor father

When it comes to the situation in the SWP and the qualification of the leading personnel Cliff had left behind, we discover a few problems deriving from Cliff’s overwhelming authority. Cliff often used the metaphor “standing on the shoulders of giants”, referring to the heritage of classical Marxism and revolutionary history. Up there, on the shoulders of Marx and Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, you can see far and wide, it was meant to say, even without being a giant yourself. But of course: you also can be seen quite well by others, up there.

Cliff himself was a giant in our eyes, and rightly so. The way up to his shoulders could be crowded at times, and those “leading comrades” who had managed to climb up there, could easily be mistaken for giants themselves, if watched from below. The authority various IST stars and SWP leaders enjoyed, was, however, not a mere fake. The general theoretical level back then was superb. The spirit of togetherness was real. We were in the thick of the struggle, whenever a struggle was fought.

But then I think of my poor father. He worked as a clerk for 45 years. In these long decades he was such a strong personality, full of willpower, a brave man, a man of conviction and values. After he retired, he changed radically. He became lazy and moody, bossing family members around and falling into self-pity the very next moment. I came to diagnose that his enduring stability in the long years of his working life had to do with a readymade structure imposed on him. Inside this structure he functioned smoothly and this structure also made him feel secure, which translated into confidence and strength.

Out of the job, he proved incapable of structuring himself.

For tactical option to concept to dogma: “Bending the stick” 

In the case of Cliff’s diadochi (7) this effect could be observed, too. This is not to say that Cliff only left epigones behind. Chris Harman, for instance, was a brilliant mind and a truly original thinker. (That he was a modest, comradely and sensitive person, greatly played to his disadvantage around 2004.) But generally it must be said that the leading personnel figured much larger with Cliff at the helm of the crowd than afterwards, without him.

To some extent this was due to the fact that Cliff was simply … Cliff. You had to be an idiot not to admire the energy and genius of the man. His determination transmitted a feeling of tremendous security to everyone connected to him. “Collective Leadership” was a mere ideal, as long as Cliff was alive.

There were some real problems, related to his style of leadership, too. Growing up in unforgiving opposition to a bureaucratically frozen Stalinist left, Cliff was very much aware of the danger of creeping bureaucratisation. So he came to simply love sharp turns, which he saw as necessity in revolutionary politics, a healthy counter measure to comfortable stagnation.

Initially, to bend the stick very hard in one direction in order to break inertia and make the party move, was just one tactical option, reserved for use in rare, extreme cases. In Cliff’s biography of Lenin, “Bending the stick” evolved as a full blown concept. Over time “Bending the stick” was in inflationary use and increasingly degenerated into a ready excuse for all kinds of crude turns at all levels of the party. Every cruelty and exaggeration tended to be legitimized as great tactical skills. “Bending the stick” lead to overcompensation for mistakes that had to be compensated by another round of “Bending the stick”. Sticks were broken more than once. And the cadre was educated to follow these sharp turns swiftly. (Naturally, sober hacks were much better suited for this regular exercise than hot-blooded independently-thinking rebels.)

Cloning the cadre: Cliffs revolutionary chemistry 

The “cloning” process was another, related problem.

Like Lenin, Cliff could suddenly fall in – and out! – of love with people. Had he fallen in love with some comrade he did everything to mould him to a fully fletched revolutionary. Being cloned by Cliff was a tough experience, however. ISO leader Ahmed Shawki had fled Britain for the United States to emancipate himself from Cliff’s influence. The list of people who neither made such a bold move nor survived their treatment in Cliff’s laboratory is long and sad.

This is not to say that Cliff intended to produce epigones. Far from it, he sometimes seemed to beg for someone disagreeing with him. And if you dared to do so, his reaction normally was one of surprising openness and warmth. Speaking publicly, Cliff never forgot to emphasise the need to put everything into question at all times, as the circumstances might change every minute – and with them, established truths could suddenly turn into obstacles. Also, ever since the theory of state capitalism, Cliff as a theoretician, was most impressive for his ability to intellectually break through systems of generally-accepted believes.

But it must be said that Cliff’s Menschenkenntnis followed Lenin’s example, too: his understanding of other peoples’ character was hopelessly poor at times. Cliff also underestimated the power and the impact of his personality. Without Cliff’s shoulders to lift them up and his brilliant directions, many “giants” turned out to be rather short-sighted dwarves.

They increasingly reminded me of my father, the retired clerk… But make no mistake: nothing is more dangerous than a short-sighted clerky dwarf impersonating a revolutionary giant.

Where is the old guard?

Did Cliff lead to Callinicos? Today, the old guard he left behind is mostly gone. Some are dead, and I am inclined to say: it was the best of the gang who have passed away: Duncan Hallas, Julie Waterson, Paul Foot, Chris Harman … Others have sunk into obscurity, like the former Linksruck leaders, or got kicked out of the family, like our comrades in the ISO. And what ever happened to Dave Hayes? Why did Mark Steel leave the party in 2007? Where are Kevin Ovenden, Elane Heffernan, Rob Hoveman, Guy Taylor? I do not miss John Rees and Lindsey German tremendously, but their replacements are not a great improvement on them, are they?

To cut the history of the Tendency after Cliff short: we have lost too many of our very best people and promoted too many third-rate figures.

Chris Bambery was an active player in a cruel and deteriorating system of control, and it can be argued that he finally got to taste the fruit he used to dish out so generously. Yet reading Bilko’s bitter letter of resignation really makes you wonder how a mediocre figure like Martin Smith could dare to talk down to a devoted revolutionary of Bilko’s stature in such a derogatory fashion. By the way: did the CC make sure to pay Chris Bambery the money back he lent to the party? Or are we thieves now, too? How far we have come!

To be sure: not all that glittered was gold in the party of Cliff’s lifetime. There have been stupidities, cruelties and fuckups all along – and naturally so. You have every right to make mistakes if you are fighting for a better world. And there is no blueprint how to build a revolutionary party.

That said, you simply cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall.

The master of disaster

What we see at this very moment is just the latest dramatic episode in a process of disintegration going on for more than ten years. You cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall. This process has one central figurehead and his name must be called out in public to take the responsibility for a decade of permanent factional wars and a poisonous internal atmosphere full of lies, slander, intimidation and pre-emptive strikes from the top down.

Not, because he is the sole root of all problems.

But he is the single biggest obstacle to renewal!

It is absolutely evident that there can be no turn-around before falling off the … Cliff, without the removal of Alexander Theodore Callinicos from any leadership position.

He must be stripped from a lone power he has accumulated throughout a decade of decline, factionalism and moral corruption.

Cliff may have had too great a love for radical “turns” and the tactical device of “Bending the stick”. But this is a time to not only bend the stick hard – but to swing it like a dancing club over the heads of would-be leaders that have presided over a decade of decline.

If the party is lost, a new one has to be built. It happened before in revolutionary history. Still, there is hope.

The party is still alive. But in order not to die very, very soon, it must break free. The fish starts to rot from the head. But if there is anything a real revolutionary should be able to do, it is cutting off heads.

Breaking free!

The current crisis shows not only the depth of the degeneration the SWP and our Tendency have suffered. It also shows a surprising core of healthy spirit and very good people left inside this organism. Instead of freaking out about the lack of discipline on behalf of our “Seymourites” and “China-men”, I am damn grateful that this shadow of our once proud party managed to recruit such prolific representatives of a new radical generation. They might make up for the terrible drain of so many of our best people.

And instead of whining and screaming about the bad, bad internet we should at last develop a serious analysis of the bloody thing and use it to the best of our common cause.

Our common cause? The abnormal situation we face is that today there are far more people identifying themselves with the IS tradition outside of our official organisations than inside.

Many were kicked out, many have left in disgust thanks to a cruel and increasingly corrupt internal regime.

Others may have had real political differences, but I suspect that many of them would see these differences minimized by time and the terrible effects the auto-cannibalism of a decaying capitalist system is bringing about.

Should we rid ourselves of old mistakes and our own bureaucracy, if we open up for new people, if we take a fresh look at new ideas and new movements, fearlessly welcoming everybody to our ranks who is burning to take part in a real, global fightback – we will find that there are many more of us today than we see in the lists of our branches.

So fight for the SWP with everything you have, as good as you can.

Should the party be lost, however, a new one must and can be built.

(1) Internationally the picture is similar. The Greek SEK seems to experience some growth amidst a wild escalation of domestic class struggle, but this cannot cover up for a recent history of splits all over the Tendency and the loss of ISO (US), Linksruck (Germany) and a bulk of the Tendency’s once up to 20,000 global members.

(2) Before the party exploded to some size in the late 60s and early 70s, Cliff and a handful of comrades had built the nucleus of our Tendency in far less favourable circumstances.

(3) The Weimar Republic in Germany (1919 – 1933). The reference to “Weimar” was used in this context to describe a parliamentary democracy plunging into total crisis with society experiencing mass radicalisation in the wake of deep economic depression.

(4) Writing for an audience that displays some addiction to wilful misunderstandings of various kinds, I state here clearly: that the aforementioned passage is not intended to downplay or even make any analytical statement about the current state of the capitalist crisis – it purely serves to contrast the development with our expectations in the final years of Cliff.

(5) Actually the expulsion of ISO stands to this very day as the only formal decision the Tendency has made as a whole body in its whole history – while the formal correctness of the move is open to a lot of questions…

(6) This is an observation I have found to be true many times ever since, and if you wish: google any one of the uncounted unaccounted splits that took place in the Tendency all over the worlds since Alex Callinicos fully took over, unhindered by Cliff or anybody else: you will find hundreds of (ex-) comrades claiming the extensive use of lies and smear tactics on his behalf.

(7) After Alexander the Great’s sudden death in very young age, his empire was divided between his eight sons in a series of wars.


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