an active Socialist Workers Party member, I’ve collected my
thoughts enough in order to write a statement of sorts regarding the
central committee’s recent expulsion of four long-standing party
members and the forming of the Democratic Opposition faction. I
registered my support for the faction and urged others to do the
same, especially those attending national conference in a position to
affect the outcome of matters.
CC states that four comrades were expelled for forming a “secret
faction”. I think this is outrageous for a number of reasons.
Expulsion should be reserved for only the most serious misdemeanours.
I don’t think party members going about forming a temporary faction
(as is their right around the time of conference), however ‘secretly’
or clumsily, justifies such a serious punishment. It sends entirely
the wrong message to the wider membership and, in practice, means a
less accountable central committee if members don’t feel they can
challenge things. We don’t need a climate of fear, but free and
CC’s response to the whole affair has been, in my opinion, quite
ridiculous. Consider the following paragraph from their formal
statement on the matter:
the CC found that at least some of those involved in the Facebook
group organised secret meetings to discuss internal party matters and
had encouraged comrades to keep their views quiet in order to boost
their chances of becoming conference delegates. Some were prepared to
involve non-members in their discussions.”
to be even-handed, the comrades involved in factional discussions
probably deserve some criticism here. Ideally, factions should be
established in an open (not secret) way. But that is all they deserve
- criticism, not expulsion. I must stress the use of the word
‘ideally’, because no situation is ever ideal, and perhaps the
comrades were afraid to speak openly about what they were doing, at
least initially. Certainly their fears were confirmed by the
draconian punishment meted out by the CC.
last sentence from the above CC quote is quite frankly ridiculous.
“Some were prepared to involve non-members in their discussions.”
It reads like this was the final straw for them; that perhaps if
non-members weren’t privy to some of the conversations, there might
still have been hope left for the comrades! Evidently not, though, as
involving non-members in party-related discussion is a heinous crime.
Or is it? Is the CC really that paranoid that it believes everybody
outside of party ranks secretly wants to undermine it and bring it
we’re going to be honest, let us call a spade a spade. This is
sectarian and cultist nonsense of the highest order. I can’t think
of any other way to describe this. Why couldn’t a non-member - a
comrade from a different organisation on the left - contribute
something useful to the debate? If any leadership in any organisation
insisted that discussion should be held exclusively within its own
ranks and that members should be distrustful of outsiders, we would
in my mind label it a cult.
- rank-and-file SWP members - have the right to form temporary
factions. We should militantly defend this right, and also remind the
CC that they exist to serve us, not the other way round. I’m no
hardened party theorist, but in my mind the leadership within a
democratic-centralist organisation must surely exist to (a) enforce
the principles of democratic centralism and (b) be responsive to its
membership. Factions are necessary to ensure the ‘freedom of
debate’ aspect of that fundamental principle, ‘freedom of debate;
unity in action’ and, when the CC bans people from the organisation
for attempting to exercise their democratic right, democracy within
the party is undermined.
can be treated in two ways - as a dangerous distraction to be
repressed, or a legitimate process to work through. I’ve seen too
much of the former within our party and feel we do a disservice to
the ideal of democratic centralism when we suffocate dissent in such
a way as the CC has just done.
is a statement in support of the Democratic Opposition faction.
Reinstate the expelled comrades, and let us discuss what democracy
and the role of the CC within our party should look like.
underlying issue in the SWP dispute is the internal regime:
specifically how it elects its central committee. Like almost all
Trotskyist groups, the SWP uses what is best described as a
closed-slate system. A slate system means a ticket of names is voted
on as a single bloc. In and of itself, there is nothing untoward or
undemocratic about a slate system. However, in the living context of
the SWP, it is untoward and undemocratic.
a rank-and-file members’ perspective, any attempt to hold a single
CC member accountable by removing them would require coming up with
an entirely new leadership, usually upwards of a dozen people, since
existing CC members will decline nomination as part of a rival slate
(hence why the system is ‘closed’). Leading cadre outside the CC
are usually appointed to their positions by the CC, so the likelihood
of them accepting a position on an opposition slate is close to zero.
Inevitably, the CC puts forward itself (sometimes with a few
personnel changes) as a slate for re-election at the SWP’s annual
conference. All of these factors acting in concert ensure that the
CC’s slate is the only one delegates vote on in an open show of
hands, aye or nay. Only once in the SWP’s history has there been a
competitive election for the CC between slates at a party conference.
one-slate party is no more democratic than a one-party state, and the
closed slate system is not how Lenin and the Bolsheviks elected their
CC. In his Trotsky: towards October 1879-1917, Tony Cliff
noted the following vote totals for the CC of the Russian Social
Democratic Labour Party, elected by the 6th Congress, held in the
summer of 1917: “The names of the four members of the central
committee receiving the most votes are read aloud - Lenin: 133 votes
out of 134; Zinoviev: 132; Kamenev: 131; and Trotsky: 131 (loud
applause).” Here we see that the party was led not by a politically
homogeneous slate, but by its most popular and outstanding figures,
whose differences with one another throughout 1917 in the middle of
the revolution are well known (although not well understood) and need
not be repeated here. The point here is twofold:
- The method of electing a CC used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks is
nothing like that used by the SWP (and the whole of the International
Socialist Tendency, including the American International Socialist
- This discrepancy has significant political ramifications for party
life and practice. The closed-slate system prioritises political
homogeneity and creates a leadership team that agrees on just about
everything, while a secret ballot for individuals prioritises
popularity with the rank and file and creates a leadership team
marked by vibrant debates, precisely because they do not agree on all
issues all the time.
explicitly rejected the notion that the party’s leadership should
be of one viewpoint or tendency at the 1918 party congress held to
debate party policy on the controversial Brest-Litovsk treaty: “Lomov
very cleverly referred to my speech in which I demanded that the
central committee should be capable of pursuing a uniform line. This
does not mean that all those in the central committee should be of
one and the same opinion. To hold that view would be to go towards a
split.” (He was arguing against the left communists’ decision to
boycott the CC and won; the congress passed a resolution affirming
the right of individual CC members to dissent publicly with the CC,
and left communists Bukharin and Uritsky were elected to a 15-member
CC, along with eight alternates, by a secret ballot.)
the SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff, to manage and resolve divisive
disputes at the top, the party has fractured and entered into a
terminal decline within a decade of his passing. The closed-slate
system’s structural inability to properly regulate political
differences among members of the CC played a major role in shaping
the way the SWP shipwrecked itself in 2007-10, when its political
mistakes within Respect accumulated, leading to a series of painful
debacles and waves of resignations/expulsions of long-time cadre. The
CC made one of its members, John Rees, the scapegoat for all its
errors and missteps as a collective leadership body and he was
excluded from the CC slate at the party’s annual conference in
2009. Eventually, he and his co-thinkers split from the SWP and
created Counterfire. CC member Chris Bambery followed suit in 2011
and created Scotland’s International Socialist Group.
the United Kingdom has three competing groups based on Tony Cliff’s
politics. An organisation that claimed 10,000 members in the early
1990s has been reduced to three small rumps. For revolutionaries, the
SWP’s difficulties are no cause for joy, although its competitors
undoubtedly salivate at the prospect of grabbing the party’s market
share by recruiting the politically inexperienced to their particular
crisis is an opportunity for all those involved to go back to the
drawing board, rethink their political assumptions, study Lenin and
the Bolsheviks more closely and critically, reject what does not work
and forge a new left not hidebound by ridiculous rules, tradition for
tradition’s sake, and the ‘Recruit recruiters’ model that has
failed to stop the austerity steamroller.
can’t see how the SWP is ever going to change.
left the party because I opposed their support for the Religious
Hatred Act on the grounds that it was an unnecessary and bad law. I
was a member of Respect and the SWP at the time and I remember
clearly how other SWP/Respect members opposed the new law and were
easily convinced by me and one other non-SWP member that it was
a bad law. I even remember arguing with John Rees a few days after
that it was a bad law and he stated publicly that there were pros and
cons in supporting it. This was not quite what he said a day or two
later when he decided that all SWP members should now support it.
This meant, of course, that all the SWP/Respect members who were
opposed to the law in Waltham Forest now supported it against all
their previous independent judgement, and despite the fact they had
voted to oppose it in a Respect meeting before John Rees instructed
them to change their minds. This highlights the root of the problem.
centralism, SWP style (and, to be honest, I’m still not sure it is
needed - perhaps something far looser would work even for the CPGB),
means following a bad line when told to. It is top-down. It opposes
reason and debate, it is not democratic and it is only centralist.
This model is still being repeated in the SWP and other sects today,
followed the SWP bulletins with some interest and recognise some of
the partly-disguised names. Some of those arguing for the
(undemocratic) slate system are known to me and I find it fascinating
that they would argue for it. However, on another level it makes
complete sense that they would argue for a functional system over a
democratic one: they have already been well trained in their
Knight argues something along the lines that language can’t evolve
unless it rests on a culture that comes from the need to cooperate.
Well, freedom of thought can’t evolve within the SWP branches
because it is totally discouraged due to the need to keep a closed
system that blindly reproduces itself around its top-down leadership.
Any attempt to disagree is immediately pounced upon by their zealots
in branch meetings. There is no doubt in my mind that they have all
the features of a religious sect. Not surprising then that they don’t
need to be instructed to blindly follow a party line with no debate
necessary. They are very keen on it and will justify all sorts of
things like the slate or 30 signatures (which no member can ever get
in the first place unless they are at leadership level) - all because
they want to be validated as ‘good members’.
is tragic and means that the left is small and splintered, as more
people pass through its revolving doors. It also means that appalling
party lines are followed blindly. It seems to me that the tired old
lines are cleaved, no matter what the situation. Workers are on the
verge of revolution or close to it, according to the SWP party line -
they are just held back by the bureaucratic union officials. In fact,
some union leaders, such as those in the National Union of Teachers,
are in advance of many workers at the present time. The result of
such ‘broadly brushed’ assertions is that the real level of class
struggle is never assessed and becomes grossly exaggerated. I believe
the current lines are: the coalition government is about to fall
because it is so ‘weak’ and workers are ‘highly politicised’,
even more so than in the 1970s. Probably not true in either case,
but, even if it were partly true, they won’t do as clichés, but
need to be debated in depth.
can’t happen unless there is a huge change in culture.
So many groups
a supporter of the general policy outlined in the Weekly Worker,
I find it very refreshing to see the encouragement of open debate. My
guess is that there are some hard lessons to be learnt from our
history - the most important being how to grow a mass party. There
are so many left groups around with mostly similar policies. Whenever
two or three gather together …
there are two policies in apparent opposition, is it ever considered
that both might be valid? For example, it seems very unlikely that
the Labour Party could have any connection with socialist policies in
the foreseeable future. But we cannot predict that future with any
degree of accuracy. Hence it might be possible for the unexpected to
occur! Thus, where there is agreement on most policies, differences
over this type of issue should not prevent those who uphold them from
being members of the same party. Of course, ‘agreement on most
policies’ is hardly a well-defined term.
have a request. It would be good to see an article (or three) giving
an analysis of the current economic crisis in simple terms, together
with clear predictions for the future.
quoting Marx and Engels is Steven Johnson’s only means of argument
(Letters, December 20), perhaps I can counter with another:
must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ‘unity’. Those
who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the
most dissension ... Those unity fanatics are either the people of
limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one
nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up
the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are
now all together in one pot ... or else they are people who
consciously or unconsciously ... want to adulterate the movement.
this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and
rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody
in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous
than the unity shouters ... the International would indeed have gone
to pieces - gone to pieces through ‘unity’”
accepting a great number of positions of Marx and Engels, the
Socialist Party of Great Britain has never treated all of them as
considering she is a journalist, Susann Witt-Stahl apparently does
not understand that for meaningful communication to take place, words
and concepts have to have reasonably fixed, specific referents. To
take an example, when apologists for the state of Israel make
inflationary use of the word ‘anti-Semite’ and apply it to any
and all critics of Israel, the term itself loses all meaning, so that
it basically becomes an empty signifier devoid of any content.
does something similar with the term, ‘anti-German’ (Letters,
December 20). I now understand why she thinks the ‘anti-German’
phenomenon is still a relevant tendency within the German left: quite
simply, she applies the label to pretty much any phenomena exhibiting
an apologetic stance toward Israel, or other unsavoury positions she
disagrees with, so that anybody, from the neo-conservatives to the
Springer Press, to rightwing, pro-Zionist Social Democrats, are all
subsumed under the label, ‘anti-German’.
‘anti-German’, at least as understood by radical leftists, for
whom signifiers still refer to relatively well-defined and limited
concepts, has a much more specific meaning. It usually refers to a
diverse but well-defined spectrum of radical leftists emerging out of
the ashes of the network, Radikale Linke, and its ‘Nie wieder
Deutschland’ campaigns during the period of German reunification,
as well as the minority tendency in the Kommunistischer Bund during
the same period. It survived throughout the 1990s in the editorial
boards of journals like the now-defunct 17 Grad (with an
orientation toward post-structuralism and cultural studies) and
Bahamas (more dogmatically oriented toward the Frankfurt
school). During the post-second Intifada and Iraq war period, the
milieu around Bahamas and its various pupils on the margins of
the antifa movement briefly achieved notoriety with freak-show
displays of American and Israeli flags on demonstrations.
I have already noted, the hard-core milieu around Bahamas
drifted into an explicitly non-communist neo-conservatism, while the
notoriously fashion-prone antifa milieu has already moved on to other
theoretical trends. What so fascinates incorrigibly middle-brow
pseudo-intellectual leftists like the Platypus Society was precisely
this brief period of self-declared ‘communists’ embracing openly
reactionary positions. But that period is now over; the reactionary
positions remained, but any pretence to ‘communism’ has been
dropped. In that sense, the ‘anti-Germans’ are indeed gone.
Witt-Stahl means by ‘anti-German’, however, is simply any sector
of society (not just the left, apparently, since she names the
notoriously anti-leftist Springer hack, Henryk Broder!) that engages
in apologetics for Israel. So the BAK Shalom tendency, who are
basically bog-standard rightwing Social Democrats, are also
‘anti-German’ in Witt-Stahl’s eyes.
there’s nothing theoretically novel about a Zionist, pro-war
tendency in social democracy. One just has to take a quick glance at
tendencies in the United States around Max Shachtman and Albert
Shanker to see how common and influential such positions were in the
labour bureaucracy in the United States. Indeed, the milieu around
the ‘Social Democrats USA’ (SDUSA) that emerged from the split in
the American Socialist Party in the 1960s would eventually become
quite influential during the Reagan administration, giving birth to
the ‘neo-conservative’ phenomenon, as we now know it. The
existence of similar tendencies in Germany is really not anything
Witt-Stahl also gets her chronology wrong by implying that
squeamishness about Israel in the German left is a legacy of the
‘anti-Germans’. In fact, one finds pro-Zionist sentiment as far
back as the writings of Ulrike Meinhof in her pre-guerrilla period.
Indeed, the German New Left as a whole was relatively pro-Zionist in
the pre-1967 period. In the late 1980s, organisations such as the
Revolutionary Cells and the autonome LUPUS Gruppe published documents
attempting to wrestle with the legacy of perceived anti-Semitism in
the radical left, and explicitly attacking anti-Zionism as a variety
of anti-Semitism. Whether one agrees with this assessment is another
topic entirely. I’m simply trying to point out that these kinds of
discussions predate the anti-Germans as a defined tendency, and have
also outlasted the death of the anti-Germans as a defined tendency.
readers looking for a good, scholarly account of the rise and fall of
the whole phenomenon of the anti-Germans would be well-served by
Bernhard Schmid’s essay, ‘Deutschlandreise auf die Bahamas: Vom
Produkt der Linken zur neo-autoritären Sekte’, collected in the
book Sie warn die Anti-deutschesten der deutschen Linken. Or,
if somebody wants to make a reasonable offer to pay me for a
translation, drop me a line.
I’m finished arguing over the relevance of a marginal sect that has
achieved a sort of sinister legendary status among Anglophone
leftists far beyond its actual shelf-life.
welcome Paul Demarty’s response (Letters, December 20) to my letter
of the previous week. He is absolutely correct on every point, save
for one distinction: the difference between political education and
political education, we absolutely “need the truth, the whole truth
and nothing but the truth, not convenient fictions”. Political
education in the workers’ media should not serve as a platform for
“demagogues to manipulate a mob”. However, political agitation is
an entirely different beast, whether ineffective or effective. ‘Us
versus them’ is the basis for standard populist agitation, but
typical rhetoric today, left-populist or otherwise, talks only of
‘greedy bankers’, ‘corporate executives’, ‘lobbyists’ and
did I bring up chambers of commerce/industry, federations of small
businesses and employer associations? They are larger groups for
applying the ‘us versus them’ technique. Think of all the many
legal persons belonging to each one of these organisations! By
implication of ‘funders’ and ‘fellow travellers’, they can
expand all the way to the whole bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.
this, we’re stuck with the usual ‘it’s the system’ stuff, and
we all know the most reformist spins of this: the capitalist is not
at fault. This then leads to class-collaboration, and more of it down
the road. I don’t need to elucidate upon Jiang Zemin’s ‘three
represents’ and allowing capitalists into the Communist Party of
[capitalist society’s] demerits into the bargain” propelled the
German workers’ movement to class independence from the bourgeois
liberals and to greater heights, no matter how inaccurate ‘one
reactionary mass’ was as a slogan.
Divide and rule
Tories campaign against benefit claimants seems to be having an
effect. A recent Trades Union Congress opinion poll shows that more
than 40% of those polled agree that benefits are too high and,
therefore, should be cut.
latest attempt by the Tories to divide employed workers from those
unemployed involves limiting increases in working age benefits to
just 1% for the next three tax years. However, 60% of those affected
by this 1% increase are those in work who are in receipt of working
tax credits. The Tories are also using this to portray Labour as the
party of benefit claimants and so-called scroungers, skivers,
spongers and the work-shy.
course, communists can clearly see that this is just the latest
version of the well-tried ruling class policy of divide and rule. As
the CPGB Draft programme section on the unemployed points out,
“Permanent full employment is not compatible with the continuation
of capitalism. The capitalist class and its state will therefore act
to restore the reserve army of labour to counter the combativeness of
the organised working class.”
offensive of the Tories against benefit claimants is part of their
attempt to counter this combativeness. However, as all generals know,
the best form of defence is attack. It is therefore necessary for all
communists to vigorously put forward their minimum programme of
immediate demands, including: “A maximum five-day working week and
a maximum seven-hour day for all wage workers. A minimum net wage to
be set on the basis of what is needed by a worker and one child to
lead a full life, participating materially and culturally in society.
All benefits, pensions and student grants to at least match the
2013, that means fighting for a maximum 35-hour week with no loss of
pay, and a minimum wage of £400 a week. However, because Ed Miliband
and Ed Balls accept the continuation of capitalism, they will not
advocate such a policy. Hence, the cul-de-sac that Labour’s front
bench have got themselves into regarding their position on working
communists, however, we can put enormous pressure on Miliband, Balls
and the rest of Labour’s front bench, by fighting for a 35-hour
week and a £400-a-week minimum wage within the trade union movement.
By doing so, communists can unite employed and unemployed workers,
and defeat all the Tories’ attempts at divide and rule.
hope Ben Lewis (Letters, December 13) is suitably chastened by the
fact that he has gained the support of Arthur Bough (Letters,
December 20) for his attack on the programmatic demands of full
employment by sharing the productive work and a living wage for all.
Arthur, who uses Marxist vocabulary to rationalise his strange ideas,
thinks a workers’ state is mainly about forcing workers to share
the fruits of their labour rather than oppressing the bourgeois
remnants of the old society.
over 6,000 years, working people have allowed the private
appropriation of the surplus they produce by a tiny ruling elite. I’m
sure the workers’ state will have more trouble trying to stop those
who would reinstate private appropriation by a tiny elite than with
workers reluctant to see redistribution of the social surplus to
those unable to work (young, old, sick, disabled).