Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Is interventionism finished?

This is a guest post by "Kevin Crane"

In the 20-odd days since SWP conference, events have moved quickly, but you would scarcely know it from the official response by the SWP leadership. Yesterday, the SWP central committee, a body with a majority of full-time party workers presiding over a further paid staff of dozens, finally released its first meaty statement on a situation which has seen the party's reputation and legitimacy catastrophically undermined by the consequences of an appallingly managed scandal.

Despite pages of oppositional articles from within the party and very serious critical pieces by influential left-wing journalists like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones, Alex Callinicos has taken almost three weeks to produce anything at all. It's been a long time coming and, obviously, it's a tough call to allay the fears of SWP members and fellow travellers that there has been wrong-doing and a cover-up, while simultaneously taking on the various criticisms, concerns and disagreements that have been raised... so Callinicos doesn't bother. Instead what he does is “defend Leninism”, claiming that all the disagreements, are part of one terrible menace to the true spirit of revolutionary socialism embodied as it is in the SWP – “one of the largest far left organisations in the world” as he fond of telling us. This organisation is the “distillation of 40 years of experience” and clearly anyone who criticises is irredeemable either for being reformist, autonomist, feminist, federalist or any one of a number of currents on the left.  All of these must be trashed, never understood. When we see this sort of rhetoric in other organisations, we call it by its name: it’s sectarianism.

That the tone and content of 'Is Leninism finished?' is an absurd response to the problem at hand was proved in practice before most people had ever even had a chance to read it. The same day a number of notable former Marxism speakers signed a joint statement that they were unwilling to speak at future events because they were so disturbed at the party's behaviour around the Disputes Committee affair. The claim by the CC and its supporters that there is no real crisis, that no-one is talking about it in the real world and that the real issue is one of internal discipline and that a section of the party's membership does not adhere to Leninism and democratic centralism has been shown to be false. If a group of intellectuals who have worked well with the SWP in recent past are questioning their relationship to the party over this, one shudders to think what inveterate red-baiters, particularly in the larger unions, are thinking. Many good and decent people in and around the SWP could be facing an uncertain future.

Why has the CC’s response been so slow and inadequate, and why is it almost pathologically unable to view the situation as one of the SWP maintaining good relations with other forces in the movement and class?  Why is it instead constantly returning to questions of internal discipline, permanently justified with a chest-beating insistence on the superiority of its own brand of democratic centralism?  Donny Mayo puts this primarily as an ideological question, which is probably a good place to start, but I think it's also worth exploring some of the strategic and organisational questions as well, if nothing else because we so seldom do it.

The last big turn

The SWP has traditionally not encouraged major discussion around structures, and not for entirely bad reasons. It is easy, when faced with strategies that haven't worked or severe setbacks in struggle, to slump into being obsessed with organisational questions at the expense of political ones. However, if we're all defending Leninism, then is worth remembering that Lenin advocated discussion of structure as a political question – we do need the right type of organisation.

We must remember at all times what this is all really about. The world today is becoming an even harder place to live in. We have now had more than a generation of life under neoliberalism and there a terrific anger amongst working class people throughout the world as the lives they had thought they would be able to lead has been denied them. In some countries, particularly on both the southern and northern states around the Mediterranean, this anger has fuelled insurrection and even revolution. None of the activity we are engaged in – not participating in discussion, nor attending conference nor even being in the SWP – is meaningful unless we are all committed to the goal of harnessing that anger and organising those young workers into a movement that can change the world for the better. This is most basic principal of Leninism: bringing revolutionary theory to mass working-class organisation.

The SWP's organisational structures have been through several stages of change since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, it was beginning a process of major reorganisation. The SWP had managed to get ahead of the curve of the new mass movements that were emerging against neoliberalism (variously the anti-globalisation, or anti-capitalist movement as we fought for it to be known) and imperialism (the mass anti-war movement). The CC took some very difficult and controversial decisions to gamble on the success of these movements, one of the most far-reaching of which was forcing the branches, with their routinised meetings and attendances of dozens, to break up and form smaller, more local groups, orientated on getting active in local anti-war groups and hosting “Marxist Forum” meetings about anti-capitalist ideas. Anyone who claims this did not serve a purpose either doesn't know or doesn't remember any better: the party gained a profile it had previously not enjoyed, even greater than the high-tide of the Anti Nazi League, and earned massive respect as the driving force behind building the anti-war demos, the biggest street protest movement in British history. I think it says something about the state of the party now that the ten year anniversary of this time merited no mention at all at this year’s conference.

Remembering left re-alignment

The attempts to coalesce the new movements into something of an organised force had led to the creation of Respect. Now, this is definitely worth us looking back on. Respect came unstuck for the SWP so badly that many of us have had a not-unreasonable desire to move on from it, but this risks losing sight of what Respect was meant to be. The SWP had been returning to the question of contesting elections since the first term of the New Labour government, participating first in a ramshackle coalition of far-left groups, the Socialist Alliance. It was an attempt to reach out to traditional Labour voters who were disillusioned with New Labour neoliberalism, but it never really succeeded in doing this in any serious way. The big unions resolutely stuck with Labour, handing over huge amounts of cash and, more seriously, blocking any attempt by organised workers to resist New Labour policies. Socialist Alliance candidacies usually struggled to get out of the Official Monster-Raving Loony league of votes. The general level of politics was also terrible, as many Alliance branches were dominated by the kind of fossilised orthodox-Trotskyists who have never quite got used to the end of the Cold War.

Respect was a break from this, using the mass appeal and energy of the anti-war movement to persuade left-wing voters to switch away from Labour. The idea was not simply to get a few votes here and there; it was to undermine the dominance of Labour over the working-class by using the one issue that divided it from the class, the ‘War on Terror’. This was least of all about building a New Old Labour party, it was about splitting reformism, weakening the ‘dead hand’ of the Labour Party on organised workers and creating a space for the far left to grow. This was the point of left re-alignment.

This is crucial to understand: we have no evidence of any kind that revolutionary parties will ever grow incrementally; we have only ever seen mass parties come out of constructive splits in reformism or from the transition of other mass organisations (particularly syndicalist unions in the 20th century) into revolutionary parties. It was never part of the SWP's tradition to assume that it would ever simply grow in a linear fashion, converting new people one-by-one.

The branches had been broken down, enabling some to thrive as major hubs for united front activity, but causing many others to wither. Members who were in small branches that struggled to connect with the new movements often ended up isolated, which is no good thing but not something that can be entirely avoided during a change of direction. One thing that didn't change inside the party at this time, however, was its structure at the top. The central committee remained mostly unchanged and its full time organisers remained in place in exactly the same way as the implementers of CC policy. This did not become apparent as a problem during the ‘high tide’ of the new movements. But that tide went out – Respect and the anti-war movement peaked in 2005 and then began to suffer serious setbacks following the resignation of Tony Blair in 2007.

Learning from mistakes?

The party's response was inconsistent and made the situation worse and not better. A CC that had lost touch severely with the bulk of the membership felt unable, even unwilling, to go to them with difficulties they were having with other forces in Respect in 2006 before the crisis became unmanageable, then swung the other way and began mobilising members for a messy break with Galloway, culminating in a badly misjudged attempt at launch a breakaway party from Respect (the ‘Left List’) in the London elections. It bombed in the polls and damaged our relations not only with those who still followed Galloway, but also many socialists who had been desperate to fend off the defeat of Ken Livingstone in the mayoral election (the actual impact the Left List had on Ken's vote was not far off zero, it was the symbolic break that was the harm). Party members were rightly concerned and in many cases angry.

The internal struggle that followed last, on-and-off, for about two years, but the decisive moment is usually reckoned to be the party conference of 2009 at which John Rees and Lindsey German, the CC members most central to the anti-war and Respect projects, left the CC. Now, we have an official line on what happened after this, one that I believe must now be comprehensively rejected. The official story is that we began to rebuild after the ‘damage done’. I think we drew fundamentally false conclusions and are paying for it now.

By now, the world economic crisis was had begun to bite down in earnest, although Britain was extremely slow to see any mass movements in response (although when they did arrive, in Millbank 2010, they were pretty exciting). The SWP rebuilt itself, officially, by putting branches back together and ‘organising the resistance’. This was much easier said than done. The party began to focus its efforts on pushing for big events such as TUC demos and anti-austerity conferences, on an almost three-monthly rhythm. One such event about the economic crisis would be coming up, we would focus all our efforts on it, it happens, and then we move onto the next one. Of course, demos and conferences about austerity and the crisis need to happen, but a Leninist and interventionist party is not content to simply bob up and down on the waves of activity that get tolerated by the trade union bureaucracy. This is not a strategy and it is not clear how the organisation could grow out of it. The year 2011, with its mass marches, huge public sector strikes, riots and revolutions overseas showed that range of possibilities, but it also showed us some of our weaknesses.

The branches are officially back to a model that precedes the changes of ten years ago, but there are demonstrably massive differences. In the 1990s branch meetings had dozen of active attendees and were at the centre of most members’ life with the SWP. Today, branch meetings are considered healthy if they get into double figures (no consistent data is actually kept on branch attendance). A personal alarm bell rang for me in the run-up to the great November 30 public sector strike: SWP members in the strike (as with many such strikes) were no more likely, or even less likely, to come to branches or contact branch members in the preceding weeks – it was not widely felt to be an important thing to do. You could view this as some sort of moral or loyalty question, but that really is just silly. The issue is political utility – SWP trade unionists weren't calling on the branch to do anything for them.

As 2012 wore on, this situation got worse and not better. The bureaucratic mass strikes of June 30 and November 30 were now being wound down by the trade union leaders. The party organised rallies, under the banner of Unite the Resistance, to demonstrate enthusiasm for strikes – but as we know, the bureaucracy behaves as it does due to material factors, and by February there was no material pressure that could be brought to bear that would restart the public sector dispute. SWP branches were largely passive for much of 2012, being called on to mobilise for the UtR event and the October 20 demo, but that was about it. It's difficult to see how meetings that a majority of the membership never attend can form the basis of a live functioning democracy, but it’s also difficult to see why those members should attend if those meetings do not help them organise.

The party has become fiercely defensive of these branches and the question of shutting one down that fails to meet is usually met with the response “but we want to expand, not shrink, we must build the branch!”, even though strategies for this are unclear and many branches barely exist apart from on paper. Why is this? Well, I would suggest that putting the emphasis on building the branches is working in a way to mask and deflect any discussion of the aspect of the structure that is usually beyond the scope of discussion in the SWP – the organisers and the centre.

The little Vatican by the Thames

Even though the CC's elections and structure have been up for debate over the years, particularly the ill-fated 2009 Democracy Commission, there has hardly been a word mentioned about the centre. When one part-time member of centre staff, Ruth, wrote a mildly critical piece about its running in the second pre-conference bulletin, it attracted astonishing responses. She was variously accused of failing to understand Leninism or being so consumed with grief at the failure of the N30 strike as to be beyond rational thought. Why is this there level of passion about an office?  I think these frantic responses are part and parcel of the same sectarianism that has fuelled the SWP’s non-response to the Comrade Delta crisis, and they emanate from the iniquitous nature of the CC’s most jealously guarded possession.

The SWP centre is a truly bizarre institution that many SWP members, particularly those outside London, quite simply know nothing about. The SWP's 2,500 or so subs-paying members pay for the payroll of dozens of people, mostly to do work which other organisations (including most of the SWP sister groups in other nation-states) devolve to volunteer activity by regular members. The number of journalists employed on its weekly paper is something like double the full-time staff of a typical local weekly with a higher circulation. Bureaucracy, sadly, is self-justifying: there are fifteen people, more or less, paid to produce and distribute the party’s publications, and this tends to outclass any debate about the role of those publications in political activity.

There is team of people building and promoting meetings on behalf of the membership and there are even people solely gathering money. These teams exist and, naturally, have to justify their existence, so they are continually forced to act as substitutionists for activity that, in a party of leaders, one should really hope would be done by lay members. And, as branches have become less and less central to SWP members’ lives over the years and played less and less of an organisational role, it has become progressively ever more detached and bastardised from its roots. It has become the Vatican City-State of the party and is convinced, like all bureaucracies, that it must expand to meet its expanding needs.  It also, like all bureaucracies, has the organisation, time and resources to put its views across and to stifle points of view that do not suit its needs.

One argument for not fundamentally changing the nature of the CC has been the one that states that a predominantly lay-leadership would not be able to direct the centre and the organisers properly. This one is interesting, in that it more or less concedes that full-timers within the organisation have a dangerous side, or at least, that there is always a danger that they will begin to pursue agendas contrary to the real goals of the organisation. Now that really is factionalism, and it tells me that we need less reliance on full-timers, not more.

The problems that have grown up in the SWP – its routinism, its loss of perspective and its horrific sectarianism – have their roots, in my view, in the way that the maintenance of the centre and its norms have overruled the political goals of the SWP.  Real revolutionaries are loyal first of all to the class, and the precise mode of organisation used to direct the class are details, not ends in themselves.

Moving on from the mess

The past few months have been very stressful for SWP members. We told ourselves in 2008 that we had risen marvellously to the challenges posed by one crisis, only to be face with another, more bitter one. The Comrade Delta affair, with its combination of scandal, weak and cowardly leadership from the CC and truly shocking levels of bullying and dishonesty from some people, has been a battering. But I think, as events move on, there are also things we have learned.

The SWP opposition has proved more about the way revolutionaries can utilise social media and decentralised communication to organise and discuss ideas in a few weeks than months of debate about it ever would. When these contacts and techniques are applied in other ways, they may form the basis for radically improving far left organisation on the ground. No one is saying face-to-face meetings won't happen, but it's obvious that, particularly for working members (less so students) who simply can't be at meetings every day, it provides a much more dynamic way to keep in touch with fast-moving situations. In terms of building up a new ideological leadership, also, I think progress may have been made in the simple fact that oppositional SWP members, many of them young, have written lengthy political discussions about the controversy – more skills we need.

I still think that the really big questions – where is this going? How will we build a bigger revolutionary left? – are yet to really start being asked in the right ways, and I agree with Donny and Tom that the SWP opposition needs to start looking at these bigger questions. That said, I think the potential to raise these questions is now present in a more serious way than it was even a month ago and also it’s worth mentioning that the individual leadership and intelligence that the women and men of the opposition have shown has won something of an audience for their arguments (look at the large hit count on the IS opposition blog, for a very crude measure). Our fear with the Comrade Delta affair was always primarily that it would cut us off from the class and the mass movements, but the very act of resisting that has shown that we can reach out to them: indeed the signers of the Marxism 2013 boycott statement were at pains to express solidarity with us. More can and will be possible.

The CC has an entirely destructive vision of how to proceed from here – witness the damage they are doing to the student organisation that had been built up around the 2010 radicalism. SWP members deserve better and should not let their leadership drag them down. Let the debate continue, whatever a beleaguered National Committee gets pushed on it on Sunday, in the CC’s upside-down version of the real world.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The SWP: where did it all go wrong?

There are only two ways out of the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party: transformation or disintegration. Which one prevails will be decided by an internal struggle that now looks like it will be messy and protracted, as the opposition continues to grow and the central committee (CC) attempts to stifle it bureaucratically. Nevertheless, when the weekly membership bulletin Party Notes feels the need to insist that the party is not “facing annihilation or isolation”, you know it’s only a matter of time. Like the government minister who tells the press “I am not resigning”, the act of denial exposes the fear of the inevitable.

The immediate question posed is whether there can be a ‘revolution’ within the party: to begin with, the removal of the entire leadership, but then a thoroughgoing process of trying to fix the SWP and somehow make amends for the disastrous way it handled the rape allegation at the centre of this crisis. Paradoxically it seems my own public resignation from the party was part of a series of events that opened up more space for this possibility. I still think it will be extremely difficult to succeed, but it is clear that members are determined to try, and I stand with them in that (though I think they should be ready to leave if they do not succeed). On the flip side, if the leadership can keep control, it will mean more expulsions and resignations – and a husk of a party left behind, fading away, likely keeping a small hardcore but too politically toxic for anyone else to touch.

Either way, whether it’s inside or outside the SWP, the opposition is about to face the task of building the organisation anew. My thinking and reading has been very much influenced by their own writings, but I hope to add some more thoughts about where the party went so wrong, in a wider theoretical and historical context – and suggest how we might avoid making the same mistakes again.

The echo chamber

I’m not going to restate in detail my view that the SWP’s lack of democracy created the conditions where, despite the party’s politics on women’s liberation, sexism and abuse could not be effectively challenged. But events since have shown just how deep the rot goes.

The opposition has put forward a good analysis of the CC bureaucracy and its role as what Emma Rock calls “a conservative layer now firmly ingrained in the party and focused on preserving its position”. But how do we explain the fact that a relatively large section of the rank and file membership is either silent on this most awful of issues or determinedly supportive of the leadership?

The party’s inability to deal with its crisis – in fact the CC and loyalists’ denial that it is even happening – is a symptom of the huge disconnect that has opened up between the party and the wider world, and its incredibly insular culture as an organisation. Contrast the response of party members to the response of anyone else on the left who hears about this scandal. It is as if much of the SWP has come to exist on a different plane of reality. In other words, unfortunately, it is not just the leadership who are “totally divorced from the class”.

The CC-supporting members deny what’s in front of their noses. They post up Facebook statuses waffling on about how great their paper sale was, and how everyone was so angry about the Tories and the rest of it. They re-dedicate themselves to aggressively continuing exactly as before. There is no crisis. Loyalty trumps reality.

The party has some fine theories about ‘party and class’, but once it becomes unable to face up to reality, that relationship completely breaks down. Instead there is only a feedback loop of self-delusion. The leaders tell the members that everything is fine. Then the members that the leaders speak to – the ones who follow the twists and turns of the line, and as a consequence aren’t considered ‘conservative’, ‘slow to move’ and the various other epithets the CC like to throw at the rank and file – are asked how things are going. Being loyal line-followers, they feed back that, just as you said wise leader, everything is fine. Like a king taking advice from his courtiers, the leadership takes this not as toadying but as reinforcement, and doubles down on its tactics.

In this way the centralised leadership is not only cut off from the day to day rhythms of the workplace, but in fact from any way of genuinely assessing its tactics. Any report that things aren’t working is dismissed as ‘pessimism’, or worse, the development of the dreaded ‘political differences’. There is no reverse gear, only escalation. This echo chamber has operated since long before the current crisis, reinforcing incorrect perspectives long past the point of absurdity and causing a succession of crises as the leadership’s delusions smash at 100 miles per hour into the brick wall of reality. The long-term cadre are the self-selecting group who decided to stick with the CC through every previous time this happened. A crisis of this magnitude is too much for some, but for most it’s another day ‘defending the party’.

I can already hear the various long term ‘oppositionists’ saying they do not recognise this picture. We’re always disagreeing, they say, and we’re tolerated and even listened to. And yes, you may be tolerated – though not trusted – but that is as long as you stay within certain boundaries. The issue is whether you appear to pose a direct challenge to the authority of the CC. If you’re not a threat, then who cares, do what you like, have a debate, write a book, whatever. But if you start to look like a threat, the clampdown won’t be long in coming. This is not openly stated but nevertheless well understood.

It is also the root of the confusion over issues like whether ‘horizontal communication’ between branches is allowed under the party’s rules or not. Surely such a thing couldn’t be banned? Of course most of the time it’s fine – perhaps even encouraged. But just try communicating across branches to organise an opposition! Suddenly you feel the full weight of ‘the rules’ – not the kind that are written down anywhere, but ones that can nevertheless be deployed at a moment’s notice. A conversation on Facebook turns out to be a most dastardly exercise in ‘factionalising’, and you get the boot.

The question is, how was a culture like this allowed to develop? How far back does the problem go? What is the root of this isolation, reality-denial and anti-democracy – and how can we overcome it?

What is the IS tradition?

The first charge levelled at any opposition is that they are ‘outside the tradition’, either because they have consciously abandoned it or because they never understood it in the first place. But let us go back a little into the history of the International Socialism (IS) tradition, and examine exactly what is and isn’t part of it.

The SWP traces its roots back to the IS of the 1960s and 70s, and from there to the 1950s Socialist Review group. This then-tiny tendency, led by Tony Cliff and expelled from the remnants of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was born out of the crisis of post-war Trotskyism. The failure of the second world war to end in revolution had seen the Trotskyists’ perspectives systematically falsified. They were attempting to deny this in various ways, and collapsing into placing their hopes in Stalinist regimes of one sort or another.

Against the orthodoxy of ‘official’ Trotskyism, Cliff’s group was deeply heterodox. Realising the mess it was in, its members devoted themselves to rethinking and debating. They developed new theory as they attempted to find a way out of the rut. The group’s key contention was that the Soviet Union was state capitalist, and therefore not any kind of ‘workers’ state’, a view that most importantly gave no quarter to those who argued Moscow and its satellite regimes were either socialist or could be pushed that way by internal ‘reformers’. It was also able to take a long hard look at the post-war economic boom and try to explain it, even as other groups were still refusing to admit it was happening.

These two paragraphs from then-member Jim Higgins’ More Years for the Locust, written in his characteristic style, give a feel for the spirit of the group:
“In these days of harsh ‘Leninist’ orthodoxy, it is hard to recall the atmosphere at the cusp of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialism Group. The regime was relaxed and activity was directed by persuasion and moral pressure rather than the threat of sanctions. ... Politics came up and were developed at meetings of editorial boards and at aggregates. It was also the case that changes in line would, as it were, spring fully fledged from Cliff’s left ear. This was less serious than it might seem because there was no insistence on a monolithic line before which the comrades must genuflect in a suitably humble fashion. If Cliff had an advantage, it was that his articles had a better than even chance of appearing once he had written them. On the other hand almost anyone else had a pretty good chance of saying the contrary and also of having it published.
“It was this that was stimulating in the Group; it was open and open minded, there was virtually no need for an internal bulletin because there was nothing to be said, worth saying, that could not be said in the open press. Here was a Marxist organisation that seemed to have learned the lessons of the past. It did not require the mindless uniformity that characterises both Stalinism and graveyards, nor did it suffer from the delusions of grandeur that afflicted orthodox Trotskyism and Baron Munchausen. Unlike these two, it had noticed that the real world gave rise to problems for which received wisdom had no answer, and it attempted to provide a Marxist response to these difficulties. … For Cliff, at this time, the Group was a ‘post bolshevik’ formation, not one that was lurking in a telephone kiosk only waiting to spring out, resplendent in Leninist underpants worn bravely over the trousers. For the young who were coming into politics for the first time it gave intellectual coherence to their spirit of rebellion and its libertarian style gave some feel of what a new life might be like under socialism.”
Higgins hardly papers over the flaws – but it is still clear to see that this was a model far in advance of what we have ended up with today. The group was hardly free from internal strife, but it was able to grow relatively quickly.

Yet Cliff, who had seen the predictions of imminent revolution for what they were just two decades previously, was taken aback by the scale of the events of 1968. He attributed the failure of the French May to end in revolution to the lack of a disciplined revolutionary organisation. With Ian Birchall, he wrote, “The May-June events raised the two issues of the limitation of the effectiveness of spontaneity and the need for a revolutionary party in the sharpest and most urgent way… The May days in Paris showed clearly that, while a few hundred students or workers can build a barricade, to overthrow the capitalist regime and seize state power a much larger centralised organisation is necessary.”

The May events suggested to Cliff that the same situation would soon arise in Britain – he wrote, “We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off.” The loose, undisciplined IS group looked to him ill-suited to the task of challenging for state power. 

Cliff began the long task of his ‘turn to Lenin’. He started work on his pioneering four-volume biography of the great Russian revolutionary – certainly thorough but very much written to ‘bend the stick’ towards discipline – and began to push for more Leninist discipline in the group. In doing so he provoked a bitter faction fight that ended with many of the IS’s most prominent members walking out. It was after their departure that, in 1977, Cliff declared the transformation of the IS into the Socialist Workers Party – a party designed for revolutionary possibilities that by then were receding. It emerged into an era of defeats, which Cliff later called the ‘downturn’.

Shorn of its more libertarian elements, the SWP had a newfound rigidity. It became unable to change course, and had difficulty relating even to a struggle on the scale of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Then the defeat of that great strike turned the ‘downturn’ from a reverse to a rout. The party went further in locking itself down, to try to hold its members through the turmoil as large sections of the left gave up on the working class and started to look elsewhere. The SWP clung tight to the certainties of the 1970s, keeping the flame burning in anticipation of the day when it would all become true again.

The party was able to hold itself together through these ‘bunker years’ – but it came at a price. The outside world came to be seen as a risky place, full of renegades who were turning their back on socialism and capitulating to the market. Better the insular life of the party. The leadership were the repository of correct revolutionary perspectives. The class, and by extension the members, were not to be trusted. ‘Democracy’ is little more than a way of bringing the errors (or ‘unevenness’) of the outside world into the party, and so should be resisted.

By the turn of the century, when the leadership recognised the new political radicalisation of the anticapitalist movement and attempted to look outwards once more, the party was deeply scarred by its years of insularity. It came out of the bunker, but could not break with the bunker mentality. The result has been protracted crisis, from the break-up of Respect to the departure of a section of the leadership and then the awful handling of the recent rape allegation. All have their roots in behaviour by leading members of the party that those outside it see as nothing short of scandalous, but each time the problem was denied internally until the pressure finally became too much.

If we accept my diagnosis, the problem is: how does the party return to reality? How do members break long entrenched habits and attempt to ‘de-fossilise’ the organisation? 

Going back to the IS would be a start, but insufficient on its own. Indeed a large part of the problem is that party courses on the ‘IS tradition’ present those heterodox theories of the 1950s as a codified dogma. We can’t just pick up where we left off. As ‘Roobin’ has argued, its three “pillars” of theory are still relevant in parts, but are nothing like as potent as they were back then. The IS was of its time – we do not live in the same world.

Nevertheless, the real IS tradition is surely to be found in the iconoclastic spirit of those years. To ‘defend’ this tradition means not parroting its writings but rethinking them – it means throwing out the old, stale formulas, and making a genuine attempt to engage with the world and how it has changed. It means a new wave of fundamental theoretical work. It means letting members speak, tell us what they truly think, and be heard. It means a cacophony of debate, where ideas are taken seriously instead of being dismissed, critiqued through the prism of dogma, or seen as a ‘distraction’ from struggle.

It means, most of all, admitting our mistakes.

A reckoning delayed

Speaking of admitting mistakes – if you didn’t read their statement on the SWP crisis too closely, you might think my line of argument has something in common with that of Counterfire, the ex-SWP splinter group set up by John Rees and Lindsey German in 2010. True, they also trace the roots of the problem to the leadership’s “failure to relate to the changing world as it actually is”. Unfortunately, however, admitting their own mistakes couldn’t be further from their minds. The main thrust of their statement’s argument is that Rees and German were right all along, and those who held them to account inside the organisation are to blame for the most recent crisis.

So, for example, they are still contemptuous of the mild reforms of the 2009 SWP Democracy Commission, which they opposed at the time. There’s also all the usual Counterfire stuff in there about how the working class is a bit rubbish and the anti-war movement is much better. But it’s this part of the statement that really gives the game away:
“As the minority warned Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith in December 2007, an attack of this kind [on Rees and German] would, first, irreconcilably split the leadership; second, it would split the party; and, third, it would ‘unleash a factionalism into the bloodstream of the party that would prove impossible to remove’. That prediction proved depressingly prescient.”
In this view, ‘factionalism’ is an unmitigated evil, caused by disgraceful slurs against the party’s rightful leadership, Rees and German. Better to keep it all hushed up and away from the members. The problem, it turns out, is not that there is too little democracy, debate and dissent in the organisation, but too much! The problem wasn’t the egocentric leaders who blew up the Respect crisis, but any attempt at holding them to account. They see their removal as a sort of glasnost moment, opening the way for a level of dissent far beyond what the leadership intended.

Trotsky mocked those who fear ‘factionalism’ in this way: “Just look, the lid of our apparatus has just scarcely been raised and already tendencies toward groupings of all sorts are manifesting themselves in the party. The lid must be jammed back on and the pot closed hermetically. It is this short sighted wisdom that pervades dozens of speeches and articles ‘against factionalism’.”

Then, woe upon woe, Counterfire says that “Demoralisation, in turn, has provoked demands for greater internal democracy.” If only you’d listened to us, they tell the SWP CC, we would have kept a lid on all this democracy nonsense! Who cares, you might say – but while the party may have broken with Rees, it never really broke with his methods.

Does that mean I’m for that great bogeyman of ‘permanent factions’? There is no doubt that such an arrangement can distort the internal life of an organisation. Yet the far greater danger is the ban on factions, because it gives the leadership the right to subject any member who disagrees to disciplinary measures if they so much as mention them. After all, comrade, why are you talking about your disagreements to others, if not to set up a faction? The same goes for any enforcement of temporary factions, which leads to the ‘you may never speak of this again’ pronouncements that came from the CC after conference. Trotsky again on the absurdity of this: “If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together.”

The unconditional right to set up factions as you see fit is the only defence against such tyranny. Yet at the same time factions remain a symptom of a culture where debate is suppressed. Members should not have to set up factions to get a hearing – instead anyone with an alternative view should feel not just allowed but encouraged to speak and write about it, whether they are in a minority of 200 or a minority of one.

To return to the party’s former leaders: Among an opposition devoted to democracy, the widespread contempt for Rees and German is understandable. (Some might even have contempt for Chris Nineham, if they remember his existence.) The memory of their anti-democratic attitude is all too fresh – the people who fought their attempts to cling to power are part of this fight too. The ex-leadership resemble nothing so much as one of those ‘national councils’ of former regime elements, waiting for their chance to swoop in and scoop up the unwary.

With those insults out of the way, though, we might acknowledge that ‘Rees-ism’ is somewhat double-edged. For all its many, many faults, it did represent an attempt to open up the SWP and engage once more with the outside world, beginning by understanding the significance of the 1999 ‘Battle in Seattle’. It was the driving force behind arguably the party’s most successful ever initiative, the drawing together of the Stop the War Coalition.

The problem was that, having turned to mass movements, the Rees-German leadership attempted to dominate them in the old way, turning themselves into the self-appointed ‘leaders of the movement’ and working out their own, very problematic, view of how ‘united fronts’ should work. Original ideas and initiatives were discouraged as far as possible, because the leaders of the movement had decided its correct priorities. A clique used to being in control could brook no challenges to its authority. John Rees’ post-split book Strategy and Tactics, with its endless military metaphors, raises control-freakery to the level of cod-philosophy. I wouldn’t recommend reading it, but I have always thought the cover image of a chess game tells you all you need to know. Rees is the player, and we – the party, the movement, the working class – are his pawns. He’s just having to make do with a smaller chess set these days. 

In Respect their rotten manipulations caught up with them, as they were outwitted by an even more cynical political operator in the form of George Galloway and then, yes, scapegoated by the rest of the CC for a fiasco they all bore the blame for. But the CC could only get away with that because of how badly Rees and German had treated the rank and file over the years – the people they kicked on the way up, as the saying goes, kicked them twice as hard on the way down.

Unfortunately the remainder of the leadership decided that the way out of the Respect crisis was to ‘turn the clock back’, and retreat to the comfort zone of the 1980s. Back came the emphasis on building the party in splendid isolation, and the Tories won the 2010 election just in time to let us re-use all the old slogans as well.

Frozen in time

Gramsci observed that parties have a “tendency to become mummified and anachronistic”:
“Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organisations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs.” 
He noted that the parties of France at the time were “all mummified and anachronistic historico-political documents of the various phases of past French history, whose outdated terminology they continue to repeat”. He locates the problem in the party bureaucracy, but argues that what he calls a “crisis of authority” in the state would tend to expose such anachronisms and exacerbate the party’s inability to respond to the situation, leaving it “as though suspended in mid-air”.

If we look across the left in Britain 2013, in this period of capitalist crisis, it is not hard to spot the anachronisms, with each organisation stuck in what it considers its “heroic period”. For the SWP, as we have seen, this is roughly the early 1970s to the early 1980s, running from rank-and-fileism to the Anti Nazi League. For Counterfire it is the early 2000s, and most symbolically of all the great anti-war march of 15 February 2003. (This is not some defect of the IS tradition. Just look at the Socialist Party, formerly Militant, constantly reliving the period from the Liverpool council battle of 1984-5 to the anti poll tax campaign of 1990-1.)

Of course our history matters, and has much to teach us – but we cannot simply map all future struggles onto it, clinging to the models of the past instead of looking for the models of the future. The tragedy of ‘Donny Mayo’, by the way, is that he saw that being stuck ten years ago is in many ways better than being stuck thirty years ago, but went much too far in believing that the re-enactors of 2003 could be part of the answer to the problem we now face.

Any attempt at a stitching-together of the anachronistic groups, along the lines of the Socialist Alliance or more recently the Convention of the Left, will fail unless it can somehow achieve the near-impossible task of getting them to break with the multifarious dogmas they hold so dear. In fact what Gramsci points us towards is that as the crisis of capitalism continues and intensifies, so will the crisis of the existing left.

If we want to rebuild, we will have to look far beyond the existing groups, to their numerous ex-members but more significantly to the immeasurably bigger number who passionately want rid of capitalism but are currently repelled by our stale analysis and harsh organisational regimes. We cannot let ‘small left unity’ be a barrier to this ‘big left unity’.

If we are to reach out to these people, we need to think much more fundamentally about what kind of organisation we need – and how we can stop it turning into yet another sect.

Centralism and interventionism

One achievement of the SWP opposition has been to force the CC to argue its theory of organisation openly, exposing for all to see what rot it is. Against those gently suggesting that our practice should be more flexible, the CC argued:
our model of democratic centralism is the distillation of over forty years of experience in building the largest far-left organisation in Britain and one of the largest in the world.” 
Big fish, small pond. This distillation argument, as expounded several times by Alex Callinicos in the conference, is purest triple-filtered nonsense.

‘Democratic centralism’, as practiced in the SWP today, has gone far beyond even the strictest version of Lenin’s regime in conditions of illegality. There are obviously plenty of disagreements on the CC – it would be extraordinary if there weren’t – but this is denied in the name of a ‘united leadership’, a sort of mock-Bolshevik version of collective cabinet responsibility. Members are then not allowed to publicly disagree with the CC line – but not only that, as I elaborated in the section on factionalism, you are not allowed to privately disagree either, whether it’s on Facebook or in the pub. You can ask cadre whether they back the line, and they will say they cannot tell you or lie to your face. Hell, I’ve done it myself.

The ‘democratic’ forums of the party, such as the national committee, party councils and conferences, are subjected to ‘interventionism’ by the CC and their paid apparatus, to ram through the pre-agreed CC line. This is the real meaning of their ‘interventionist leadership’. In this way we do not even have “three months of democracy and nine months of centralism”, as a few have put it – we have twelve months of ultra-centralism and an elaborate exercise in rubber-stamping.

This is a recipe for one person who holds sway on the CC subjecting the party to their whims. As Trotsky wrote in 1904,
“The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” 
Tony Cliff quoted this approvingly in 1960, and added, “The history of Bolshevism since 1917 seems to have completely vindicated Trotsky’s warning of 1904.”

But simply condemning the CC as ‘dictators’ doesn’t help us get to the root of this. We need to more seriously look for the theoretical problems that have led them up this alley.

Cast your mind back to the CC’s ‘reply to Paris and Ruth’ that opened the third internal bulletin before SWP conference [pdf]. It was made up in large part not only of slanders and misrepresentations of the two of them but also, somewhat out of nowhere, a lengthy attack on Rosa Luxemburg. The semi-anonymous voice of authority tells us:
“Luxemburg conceived the revolutionary party primarily in terms of the propaganda of ideas rather than intervention into the class struggle.”
What ahistorical rubbish. A leadership that can write this is not just politically bankrupt but actively attempting to distort the history of Marxism. It’s all the more extraordinary when the party’s own constitution explicitly says [pdf]: “We belong to and develop the revolutionary communist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky.”

What could have motivated this crude attack? What are they scared of? It’s that, as they well know from their education in the IS tradition, the most damning critique of what they have become is to be found in what Luxemburg argued all those years ago.

Luxemburg, most importantly, had a very different conception of party and class to that of today’s SWP central committee. As Tony Cliff put it in his 1959 pamphlet on Luxemburg:
“The party … should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put it as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it.”
Or as Luxemburg herself wrote,
“In general, the tactical policy of the Social Democracy [ie. revolutionaries] is not something that may be ‘invented’. It is the product of a series of great creative acts of the often spontaneous class struggle seeking its way forward.”
She condemned the “blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party centre which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all”.

Cliff goes on to elaborate her point, arguing that it was the workers of France who set up the Paris Commune, with Marx only later realising the significance of it, and it was Russian workers who spontaneously invented the soviet (workers’ council) during the 1905 uprising – that was a year in the future when Luxemburg was making the argument. At the time the soviet faced some hostility from the Bolsheviks, who again only later realised what it represented. These great theorists of history, in the great moments of history, got their ideas not from any party but from the class.

This cannot happen when we have erected what Rosa Luxemburg warned would be the result of “ultra-centralism”: an “air-tight partition” between party and class. For a would-be revolutionary party, such a partition cuts off our only supply of oxygen. Ultimately this adds up to taking seriously the idea that, in Marx’s phrase, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

Luxemburg was no spontaneist opponent of centralism – in fact she was a defender of her own conception of centralism against Lenin’s. But equally she understood the importance of apparently spontaneous action and what it can teach us, and believed no one had an organisational model that would be correct for all situations. Like all these debates, it was about looking for the best way of organising in the circumstances we find ourselves in. She wrote:
“Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labour movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”
Or more famously, “the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

Luxemburg is, in my view, the best place to start in further reading if you want to understand the problems of the SWP and think about how a better left could organise. Start with her relatively short 1904 work, Organisational Questions, then from there – and especially if you think 1917 invalidated her earlier criticisms – read The Russian Revolution, written in 1918 and posing some hard questions about the Bolsheviks’ theory and practice. I’ll elaborate some more thoughts on Lenin’s legacy in a future essay.

Some questions

I want to finish for now by putting forward a few questions of my own.

There are some more immediate issues. I hope people by now see the slate system for the stitch-up it is – but the various proposals around it pose the question of precisely what kind of leadership a revolutionary organisation needs. A modified ‘central committee’ type structure, or something completely different? Whatever it looks like, I feel sure that it should be rooted in the workplaces and the movement instead of drawn from a free-floating full-time apparatus. How can we break down the unchallengability and hostility to new ideas that any leadership tends to develop over time? Would term limits help? Formal powers of recall?

How can we drive sexism out of our organisation, beyond the points I have already made about greater democracy giving us a better chance of rooting it out? I haven’t said much about this in this essay, mostly because I’m conscious that our methods have failed and I don’t have ready-made answers. I would suggest, though, that at the very least any socialist organisation should have a proper women’s caucus, alongside LGBT and black and Asian ones, both to organise our activity in the movement but also to allow internal problems around oppression to be aired properly rather than brushed aside, before they become crises. Further: can we learn from the feminist movement and the way it has attempted to construct ‘safe spaces’?

What has changed since the party’s period in the ‘bunker’? It’s been a long time. Clearly debates around oppression are one thing. What about the state of the working class? It doesn’t look quite like it did before. Someone went and invented the internet – what does that mean for us? One objection to more democracy has been that we ‘can’t have a vote on every decision’, but the internet surely allows for much wider democratic discussion, even in time-sensitive situations. Could we decide things in a more agile way, without subjecting ourselves to long journeys to hear long speeches telling us things we already know? While we’re at it, is devoting so much of our energy to paper sales the best use of our time when tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will read what we have to say online? How can we best use our resources to harness the internet’s massive potential?

You might completely disagree with the direction of my thinking so far. Of course I want to hear critiques. But more importantly, wherever you stand, I think we all need to take a little time to think, discuss and debate.

You have to make a mental break with the CC’s idea that it should do your thinking for you, and your only role is action. Step one is making a little space, away from the frenetic pace of ‘interventions’ and building whatever you’re being told is this week’s ‘next big thing’ (it will get along fine without you). Step two is reading, thinking, and working out a thought-through position of your own, first getting out the anger at the CC over the current crisis but then going beyond it, and being adventurous in looking at which bits of the party’s overall theory and practice currently work, and which don’t. Step three is that you start to write and argue it out openly.

The CC may push a stifling orthodoxy, but the SWP is full of hidden heterodoxy, bubbling just below the surface. Here is a group of thousands of experienced socialist activists, and the monolithic face the CC attempts to present to the world is deceptive. People with a whole spectrum of different views have stayed in the party, sometimes for decades, because they’re convinced of the need for socialist organisation and the SWP looks like the best hope. They will have valuable things to say about the way forward that they are keeping to themselves as part of a misguided pretence at ‘unity’. Now is the time to hear them.

If you can speak out now, and encourage others to do the same, then whether the SWP can be transformed or is doomed to disintegration, we are on our way to a healthier left.

You can get in touch on rethinkingtheleft@gmail.com. If you've read this far, why not follow me on Twitter: @tomwalkr.