SWP crisis

As 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.

The 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 open discussion.

The 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.”

Now, 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.

The 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 down?

If 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.

We - 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.

Factions 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.

This 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.

Damon Skinner

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Slate system

The 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.

From 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.

A 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:


  1.  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 Organization); and,
  2.  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.

Lenin 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.)

Without 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.

Today, 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 shibboleths.

This 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.

Pham Binh

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Party line

I can’t see how the SWP is ever going to change.

I 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.

Democratic 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, of course.

I 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 branches.

Chris 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’.

This 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.

This can’t happen unless there is a huge change in culture.

Steve White

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So many groups

As 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 …

Where 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.

I 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.

GDT Tiddy

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Quote, unquote

If quoting Marx and Engels is Steven Johnson’s only means of argument (Letters, December 20), perhaps I can counter with another:

“One 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.

“For 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’” (http://goo.gl/YI8A4).

While accepting a great number of positions of Marx and Engels, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has never treated all of them as unchallengeable canon.

Alan Johnstone

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Surprisingly, 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.

Witt-Stahl 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’.

But ‘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.

As 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.

What 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.

But 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 special.

Susann 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.

Interested 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.

Otherwise, 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.

Angelus Novus

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I 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 agitation.

For 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 whatnot.

Why 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.

Without 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 China.

“Embellishing [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.

Jacob Richter

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Divide and rule

The 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.

The 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.

Of 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.”

The 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 minimum wage.”

In 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 age benefits.

As 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.

John Smithee

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I 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.

For 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).

David Ellis
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