SWP conference: Comrades in the SWP, rebel!
The central committee was delivered a body blow at this weekend’s conference - but for dissidents the fight must go on, argues Paul Demarty
lot can happen
in a few short weeks. The last issue of this paper reported the
expulsions of four Socialist Workers Party members, on charges
straight out of the imagination of Franz Kafka.1
Between then and the January 4-6 conference, it is fair to say that
the SWP has had a busy holiday season. Two substantial factions
declared themselves, and the central committee found itself split at
the 11th hour.
when the votes were counted, the CC won the day on all the key
matters to come before conference. Yet by SWP standards it is hardly
a victory. Given how comprehensively stitched up its model of
‘democratic centralism’ is, substantial minorities voting in open
defiance of the CC line in itself represents a serious blow to the
leadership. The closest vote at conference was won by a margin of
just 22 - with 18 abstentions.
what has become abundantly clear over the last period is just how
fragile an organisation the SWP is. Allegations of sexual
misdemeanours (and worse) against a leading member ended up setting
off an explosive chain reaction that left the SWP in disarray come
its conference. All of this is down to the sort of organisation the
SWP is: its bureaucratic structures and political disorientation have
made an explosion of this kind inevitable.
begin at the beginning, there is the question of the man referred to,
in a transcript of the relevant conference debate, as ‘comrade
Delta’. This insistence on anonymity that has long been blown is
almost touching. For those who have not been following SWP intrigue
over the past few years, his name may or may not begin with ‘Martin’
and end with ‘Smith’.
the run-up to the 2011 conference, we (and numerous other left
outlets) received an anonymous email, accusing Smith of sexual
harassment. At the time, we did not report on the detail of the
allegations: they were “the kind of thing one hears in any fraught
and circulated in a manner which suggested (in the context of moves
the CC) that they were being put about with other motives in mind
than disgust at violence against women.
the case, the whispers of bad behaviour on Smith’s part have
refused to die down, and in September of last year, a rape allegation
was made against him. The matter was put to the SWP’s disputes
committee, which decided that the allegation was not proven, and that
Smith should face no sanction (he nonetheless decided to step down
from the CC - with no external inducement at all, I’m sure).
situation has since become even more fractious, with yet further
harassment allegations from another comrade (who claims to have been
edged out of a full-timer post at party centre because her presence
was ‘disruptive’). All these issues are in dispute - readers
should consult a transcript of the conference debate on the matter.3
is not the place of a third-hand commentary piece such as this one to
pronounce on comrade Smith’s innocence or guilt. In fact, it
is hardly the place of the mighty disputes committee of the SWP to
investigate rape allegations, which seems to be the height of
pretentiousness. As a movement, we are not in a position to replace
the criminal justice system on this point. The latter’s record in
investigating rape cases is infamously dreadful, of course - but,
with the best will in the world, what modern methods of investigation
are available to the DC? What forensic scientists do the good
comrades have on call?
is clear - from the aftershock, at least - is that, even
within its remit, the DC’s handling of the case was deemed
insufficient by large swathes of the SWP. It is this issue which led
the four expelled comrades to their fate - the crime being ...
deciding not to form a faction, which in the SWP’s
life-world, amounts to ‘secret factionalism’ (you couldn’t make
it up). And it is this issue which proved the most divisive at
conference - the DC report was accepted by a margin of 231 to 209
why should this mummer’s show of legal arbitration have been so
unconvincing - and, assuming his innocence (he has not, after all,
been proven guilty), why should these allegations against Smith prove
so instinctively believable
SWP rank and file? The second question is easier to answer. Whether
or not such behaviour is reproduced in the comrade’s personal life,
it is undeniable that he is a bully and a thug. It was Smith, for
example, who hounded comrade Simon Wells out of the SWP - and later
wrestled him to the ground at the SWP’s Marxism festival to
confiscate his ticket.4
It was Smith whose phone calls were dreaded by SWP organisers, and
resembled the hectoring of the worst kind of shop-floor manager.
character, alas, made him ideal material for the role of SWP national
organiser - the SWP operating a version of ‘chain of command’
which would be recognisable to any police constable or private. A
genuine revolutionary working class organisation would promote
capable, thinking leaders who had earned the respect and trust
of the rank and file. The SWP, with some honourable exceptions,
for the disputes committee, the problem is the same. The CC’s claim
that the DC is wholly independent of the leadership is transparently
bunk. Two CC members sat on the eight-strong DC that discussed the
case, along with a further three former CC members. The revolt
against its handling of the Martin ‘Delta’ Smith case is only
partly a matter of ‘party morality’, or women’s liberation; it
is a conscious or unconscious rebellion against the SWP apparat.
The closeness of this vote at conference is a testament to how deeply
rooted this malaise is.
most positive feature of this whole farrago, then, is that
this link became conscious for a good many of the dissidents.
Its most significant organisational expression was the Democratic
Opposition - the faction that the four expellees thought it
inadvisable to form, and then brought into being by virtue of
their expulsions, in a textbook example of Hegel’s ‘ruse of
reason’. (The dispute threw up yet another faction, the Democratic
Centralists, who took a classically centrist, conciliatory line
between the DO, characterised as misguided youth, and the CC, whose
expulsion-happy antics were strongly criticised.)
DO made the link between the (alleged) mishandling of Smith’s case,
the arbitrary expulsions and the general political culture of the
SWP. Its documents make the case well: “We believe the expulsion of
these members cannot be seen in isolation from the wider issue of
party democracy; it is not an anomaly, but a symptom of a real and
growing problem,” they state bluntly.5
recommendations were, by SWP standards, fairly radical, urging
support for motions calling for an end to the slate system, an end to
‘collective cabinet responsibility’ on the part of the CC and
full-timers (ie, the ban on such members making their minority views
known among the wider membership), and more internal bulletins linked
to SWP party council meetings.6
Individual comrades had also called for - horror of horrors - the
CC’s response to these heresies - under the pompous title, ‘For
an interventionist party’7
- is as predictable as it is disingenuous. (It also betrays all the
signs - innumerable typos and so on - of having been written in a
hurry.) The usual old saws are out in force. The SWP’s refusal to
allow permanent factions (the DO and DC must now officially disband
following the three-month period leading up to the conference) has,
apparently, allowed it to survive where other organisational products
of the non-Stalinist new left have remained crippled by interminable
disagreements - an obvious stupidity in the light of the painful
slow-motion split with supporters of former leader John Rees.
latter debacle also gives the lie to another basic view defended by
the CC - that the leadership must be a politically homogenous team to
be able to lead effectively. Hence, ditching the slate system (let
alone the suppression of differences on the CC) would be a disastrous
folly. The problem is that, the CC being composed (more or less) of
humans, disagreements are quite inevitable - and quite incapable of
being dealt with effectively if they are suppressed.
if to prove the point, there was one final twist in the
pre-conference period: the CC found itself split (quelle
surprise!). An alternative slate was proposed for election by
Hannah Dee, Ray Marral, Joseph Choonara and Mark Bergfeld. The
comrades appear to have taken this step - another surprise - in
response to the handling of the Smith case; that is comrade Dee’s
account in the aforementioned DC debate, and comrade Marral seems to
have incurred the ire of the leadership clique by attempting to
indirectly raise the problem at a meeting of the SWP national
council. He and comrade Dee were dropped from the CC-recommended
slate; the minority proposed the status quo.
is worth stressing the general character of these four comrades.
None, to put it mildly, are known for their forthright criticisms of
the SWP’s direction. By their own account, they are in total
political agreement with the CC majority. Choonara and Bergfeld,
meanwhile, are not exactly nobodies: the latter has led the SWP’s
all-important student work in the recent period, and Choonara is one
of the few intellectual heavyweights on the CC. Yet even a completely
ideologically homogenous committee has split under the pressure
stupidity of this bureaucratism is summed up in the CC document with
a peach of a quote from Chris Harman: “But what then happens when
the ‘democracy’ of the party fails to reflect the experiences of
the most advanced sections of the class? When the party members have
become routinised and cut off from new upsurges of spontaneous
struggles, or when they come from milieus which have no real contact
with the factories? In such cases ... the party leadership cannot
simply sit back and reflect the ‘democratic will’ of a party that
is lagging behind the class. It has to campaign vigorously for the
sudden turns in the line of the party, if necessary reaching to
forces outside the party to pressurise the party members to shift
there you have it - monolithic centralism is necessary on the
off-chance that Charlie Kimber is better attuned to the state of
class-consciousness than the mass of SWP activists. Better safe than
sorry, I suppose.
underlying assumption of the CC documents - and the argument in the
name of which the votes at conference were won - is a quantitative,
zero-sum relationship between discussion and action; the more time
one spends on the former, the less there is for the latter.
truth - and the DO grasped this, to its credit - the relationship is
qualitative. Action guided by honest and searching discussion of
theory, and serious critical appraisal of previous actions, is much
more effective than action for action’s sake.
an honest appraisal of the ‘interventions’ of the SWP in the
recent period reveals a frankly dire picture. The CC cites the “rout”
of the English Defence League in Walthamstow and a “thousand-strong”
(in reality, there were 750 at best) Unite the Resistance conference
in November as “successful interventions”, which really says it
all. The EDL march was not smashed, Cable Street style, by
anti-fascist mobilisation. It was banned by the council. The UTR
conference did not ‘unite the resistance’ at all - it simply
‘united’ the SWP and its trade union periphery in a conference
room for an afternoon, during which nothing significant was discussed
or decided - and, indeed, perpetuated the division of the
‘resistance’ into several competing front organisations, with
rival far-left sponsors.
SWP is utterly directionless. It recruits a thousand or so
pseudo-members a year, and transforms a small fraction of those into
activists, who are employed strictly to recruit the next contingent.
It is not a ‘party’ - indeed, it can barely even be called an
organisation. It is a self-perpetuating machine, which sustains
itself by keeping its lower cadre quiet and occupied with building
the next demonstration or meeting, be it a pseudo-conference of trade
union militants or another fruitless turn of the ‘anti-fascist’
gerbil wheel. It lacks even the beginnings of a strategic direction
in this period.
idea that the SWP’s inner-party regime is “interventionist”,
and allows any decisive impact on the class struggle, is a
straightforward inversion of reality. The SWP’s regime allows it to
isolate its members from reality, so that the illusion of
a mass impact can be sustained with any plausibility. So when the CC
complains that the DO does not talk about the world situation, or the
class struggle, but only picks fluff out of the SWP’s navel, it
misses the point (to put it kindly). No serious discussion of
the world at large is possible under the present internal regime of
the SWP - only the recycling of convenient fictions.
will, of course, be necessary for SWP dissidents to ‘do politics’
at some point. They will have to subject the hallowed ‘IS
tradition’ to some searching criticism, to sort out what was
positive and what was downright wrong in it (this, remember, is the
specific priestly liturgy that the SWP apparat exists to
defend). But the organisational is political - and the fight for SWP
democracy is a worthwhile one on its own merits.
results of conference may, on the face of it, be a defeat for the
opposition. The disputes committee report was carried (albeit
narrowly), the majority CC slate was passed (despite a respectable
minority vote), and the expulsions were ratified (interestingly, by
the largest margin of the three - but still with around a quarter
voting against). Our sources speak of a paranoid atmosphere obtaining
in the group now, with the leadership leaning on known dissidents and
making life generally unpleasant.
or not it really is a defeat depends overwhelmingly on what
happens next. We urge - as we always do - comrades to stay in the
organisation, to weather the current storm and regroup. There is no
way to fight for their aims within the letter of the SWP
constitution, moreover (which actually makes the ‘official’
CPGB’s look democratic!); so the comrades should be prepared to
break bureaucratic rules. Doing so, in the age of anonymous blogs and
so forth, has never been easier.
SWP has just faced its most serious internal crisis since it
succeeded the International Socialists over three decades ago. It is
now at the crossroads. Either the opposition comrades fight to
overthrow the apparat, and save the organisation; or, quite
simply, it dies. It may die spectacularly, like the disintegration of
Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party. It may die slowly, like
the US Socialist Workers Party, which expelled wave after wave of
dissidents until it wound up as a shrivelled, petrified sect.
happens, the status quo is not an option. To save the SWP for
revolutionary socialism means transforming it, organisationally and
politically. It was never going to be done over a January weekend -
we call on the comrades who recognise the need for change to keep
before conference begins’, December 20 2012.
one bites the dust’, January 6 2011.
thuggery in workers’ movement’ Weekly Worker July 12 2007.