Letters

Rebellion

Last week I attended an SWP public meeting in the immediate aftermath of the conference, and what I found surprising was its uncharacteristic level of constructive debate.

In the interest of protecting the identities of the comrades involved, names and places have been redacted. I hope the comrades involved understand that I write this in the interest of facilitating the widest possible debate about ideas and democracy.

The speaker reporting back from conference began by talking about the disputes committee session. They told the meeting that they had voted against the report and explained that - despite the best intentions of the DC - investigating rape allegations was well beyond the remit and ability of the SWP, that whatever the committee had done it would have been wrong, and that this was a serious mistake that needed to be learned from. A young woman asked whether the same people had been re-elected onto the disputes committee, and we were told that they had - presumably because no alternative candidates had been proposed.

We were then told that the branch delegates had voted with the minority against the expulsion of four comrades accused of organising a secret faction.

The big discussion during the meeting was about party democracy. One member repeated the central committee’s allegation of the Democratic Opposition proposing a “federalist” structure, and talking about “anarchists” and “autonomists”, though this was corrected by the speaker. The same member commented that the SWP’s internal democracy had been “good enough” over the years, though recognised that some changes might be necessary and that a dialogue about what sort of democratic structures were necessary needed to be had.

The speaker indicated that they were in favour of some of the milder proposals put to the conference, such as bulletins before party council. They also admitted that the Democratic Opposition and the Democratic Centralist factions had drawn up their proposals in a very short period of time and recognised that more time was needed in order to produce better proposals.

I argued that if they wanted to continue the debate about internal democracy then they ought to allow the two factions to continue in the post-conference period - it was because factions had to dissolve that this discussion could not continue. I said it was important to allow them to organise in the post-conference period in order that a set of coherent ideas could be developed and taken to the next conference. I pointed out that the SWP does not have any alternative structures to allow any meaningful debate about internal democracy.

The main counter-arguments against allowing factions were that they doomed an organisation to failure: the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and the Fourth International were proof of this; and that allowing factions would prevent the SWP from effectively engaging in activity because they would be permanently preoccupied with theoretical discussion. One member claimed that the SWP spends three months debating theory and strategy in the pre-conference period and then spends the next nine months carrying out the decisions made at conference. It was further claimed that the SWP is a Leninist party and that its current internal regime is an example of democratic centralism.

I pointed out that the Bolsheviks had allowed factions to develop their own ideas and produce their own daily newspapers - Bukharin and Kommunist for example - that attacked the leadership, yet the Bolsheviks successfully carried out a revolution. I said that the SWP cannot, on the one hand, claim the political legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, while, on the other hand, refuse to allow factions to develop and argue for a set of ideas in order to encourage debate and achieve clarity of ideas in the group as a whole. I also argued that debate and activity are not counterpoised to one another: they should be practised side by side. Finally, if the argument to allow factions appears “sensible and reasonable”, as one SWP member present commented, it is because it is. It should not be dismissed because of the problems with the NPA.

The most notable thing about the meeting was that, despite the insistence that comrades would adhere to the SWP’s conception of democratic centralism, they risked expulsion by openly defying the central committee ban on talking about ‘comrade Delta’ in public and seriously discussing their thoughts on internal democracy in the post-conference period.

Comrades, you clearly want to discuss what went wrong, to discuss the lessons that need to be learned, while the central committee tries to silence dissent and declare, ‘Case closed’. Don’t accept the CC nonsense that this is navel-gazing: it is not; it has had wider political consequences in the past.

If you think that it is wrong that the same people are still on the disputes committee after their ramshackle investigation of the comrade Delta allegations, that it is wrong their comrades have been expelled for raising legitimate criticisms, and that the debate about internal democracy needs to continue - if you want to save the SWP - follow the recent example of other comrades and rebel.

You have already taken the first step. Encourage others to do the same.

Andrew Thompson
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Shocking

In our egalitarian hunter-gatherer past, the rule against rape was the foundation of all culture. If the human body isn’t sacred, what is?

But today in patriarchal class societies, whether that means institutions such as the BBC, the police, children’s homes or the church, internal cultural forces protect the vested interests of the powerful to the point where they crush any victim who dares raise their voice.

So how shocking is it that a socialist organisation as significant as the SWP - which pays lip service to debating issues of class and gender inequality - should fall into the same pattern: closing ranks around their leadership, and expelling anyone who questioned the procedures used to investigate allegations?

How shocking is it when Tom Walker tells us that “feminism is used effectively as a swear word” by leadership supporters against class-conscious comrades such as Hannah Dee? Walker notes this is a “legacy of a sharp political argument conducted decades ago against radical feminism and its separatist methods of organisation” (‘Why I am resigning’, January 10).

There is a history of SWP paranoia about women’s right to organise. In my experience of engaging in SWP debates on the origins of women’s oppression, at Marxism in the early 1990s, I was one among several academic colleagues - some members of the SWP, others not - who reported on cutting-edge anthropology. Our work vindicated and updated Friedrich Engels on early human society being based in the solidarity of the matrilineal clan. We debated the sex strike theory, then a new and intriguing model of human origins. At the first, very large Marxism summer school I attended, there was genuine interest, with comrades young and old wanting to know more and debate the questions raised. Over the subsequent year, at SWP branch level, the ideas inspired numerous follow-up debates. At the following Marxism - I believe 1991 - we were astonished at the ferocious attack on all SWP colleagues who wanted to engage in these debate. They were threatened with expulsion if they ever dared mention the matter again. This clampdown came from the very top.

Later, we reflected on the vehemence of the response of the male-dominated leadership. Could it be that they perceived a theoretical academic discussion about the human revolution as threatening? Why? The idea that modern science could bear out Marx and Engels in the argument that women in solidarity had leverage against bad male sexual behaviour evidently came too close to the bone for some of the men of the central committee.

Engels’ theory, embracing its modern updates, teaches us that sex and gender are not merely issues to be dealt with on a moral level - although they are that - but they are central and crucial to any revolutionary effort whatsoever. Revolution means turning the world upside-down. Only when society is run and organised by women and children at the centre of decision-making - as we see in any hunter-gatherer camp - can we possibly succeed. When Marx and Engels advanced their thesis, they were making clear they saw women as the revolutionary sex. Their concept of the proletariat as the revolutionary class entailed logically the notion that the oppressed sex would play the critical role in organising resistance.

Camilla Power
London

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Victim

The recent eruption of discontent among SWP comrades does not come as a surprise to those of us who have fallen victim to the machinations of the SWP hierarchy. It is regrettable that this issue had not been addressed earlier and handled in a less tortuous way. But with hindsight it is easy to perceive the logical conclusion of events that happened two years ago and even more.

In my particular case I was expelled from the SWP for criticising the direction the party was taking when it formed a cross-class alliance with the small business owners of Brick Lane and the East End. George Galloway, Respect’s figurehead, triumphed in ousting Oona King and winning the most votes in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency to become Respect’s first MP. The SWP’s John Rees, then their national secretary, buoyed by this election success, decided he would stand as a councillor in the borough of Tower Hamlets (no doubt imagining he would be a latter-day George Lansbury fighting cuts and war).

Up until then my journey in the SWP had been fairly routine for a new member - paper sales, conferences, Stop the War ... I was slowly being sucked in by the organisation, including being asked to attend meetings for those select comrades who were on message and who showed enthusiasm for carrying out party work. However, I was beginning to have my own doubts, particularly after attending meetings of Respect in east London. It was clear that John Rees’s plan was not working out as he intended. The balance of forces in Respect appeared to be swinging the way of the small businessmen and their allies.

At the same time I was starting to read other papers and locate different perspectives. When Martin Smith attended a local branch meeting and I questioned the SWP’s version of Leninism and democratic centralism, things came to a head soon after, when I was handed a mobile phone by the local party organiser who said that Martin Smith wanted to talk to me. Effectively his words were, ‘You’re out of the party.’ I tried to find out why, but he said he didn’t want to talk about it, and the call ended. I could not think of a reason.

I appealed against the expulsion and had a hearing before a disputes committee that included Pat Stack. My expulsion was upheld on the basis that I had been blogging public meetings of Respect. My sentence, laughable at the time, also included not being allowed to sell Socialist Worker and attend Marxism. This I thought had to be challenged.

The next year I turned up at Marxism, ticket in hand. I went to one of the larger sessions and was waiting for it to start, when Martin Smith, who must have been eyeballing me, came over and sat next to me. He said, “Simon, I thought I told you not to attend Marxism. Can you come with me and hand your ticket back?” I thought this was completely ridiculous. However, I did not want to argue with Smith, and slowly followed him out towards the door. However, I did not see why I should stand for this bullying, and headed towards the back exit, still carrying my ticket. Smith noticed and chased after me. Unfortunately I couldn’t get away in time, and he wrestled me to the ground, trying to grab my ticket. I was totally shocked and a little terrified about this sudden turn of events. Eventually I managed to extricate myself from Smith’s clutches and get out of the building to the safety of some friendly comrades. But no SWPer was prepared to say they believed my version of events, preferring to side with Smith - as evidenced by an opportunity I had to raise the issue at a later Respect conference.

Looking at recent events, it is easy to see why SWP comrades pretended not to believe critics of their party. It was and still is, I believe, run on authoritarian lines, with a bullying culture verging on the narcissistic to keep everyone in line. Those who disagree are not tolerated. I hope for the good of the left that the comrades who voted against the CC stay in, rebel and fight for a revolution in their organisation’s culture.

Simon Wells
London

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Quantity left

I am someone who has never been a member of the SWP, but have in the past (1980s) worked on campaigns alongside them. What, of course, has stifled the real growth of leftwing politics in this country has been purest factionalism. It is one thing to have strong political beliefs based naturally on evidence-based knowledge, but this has meant division and distrust amongst like-minded people, who are to all intents and purposes trying to achieve the same ends.

Whilst I am not aware of the background relating to the rape allegations and their implications to the SWP member, it is clear that this is too big an issue to side-step and its impact is politically devastating to future support. This then is an opportunity for members to reflect globally on where they actually are in the political spectrum and how best their efforts can be directed to influencing politics; against the backdrop of the most reactionary government that we have seen in living memory.

What is now required is for all leftwing factions to unite under one banner of the left, like Die Linke and the Front de Gauche. Today there is a much clearer picture as to where the blame lies for the economic and environmental devastation that we suffer, but it is not being effectively articulated because the working class mass party (Labour) supports the same neoliberal agenda as the Tories (Con Dems).

The cat has also been let out of the bag in the guise of quantitative easing. Professor Steve Keen has made the case for the total restructuring of the ‘casino economy’. Never in the history of mankind have so many opportunities displayed themselves for democratic control of the economy than now, which is why the left should not squander it by factional infighting and separation. QE today is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. A united leftwing force in government could use it to fund government expenditure for the benefit of people rather than corporate interests. All that is standing in our way is the will to do it.

Mervyn Hyde
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Conflict site?

Readers of the Weekly Worker may be amused to find that the crisis in the SWP is echoing in the text of the SWP’s Wikipedia page. Now, as a repository of common knowledge publicly accessible to all with an internet connection, the contents of the Wiki page of a group, company or organisation, and how this is written, is of great importance in terms of public image management or the provision of a fair and impartial account of history, depending on one’s view.

Given the highly contentious nature of the present crisis in the SWP, combined with the organisation’s structural dislike of critical reminders of past events, one could imagine how sensitive the Wikipedia page could become for any bureaucrats unhappy with their past follies and betrayals of the membership, as they see them pop up there on the web for all to read.

It may just be a coincidence, but the SWP page has seen an absolutely frantic increase in editorial activity, with more alterations made in the first two weeks of January than in the whole of the last six months of 2012! Could there be a connection with the present crisis?

One item that has been tussled over is the brief mention that the CPGB gets in all this, with its support for the Democratic Opposition within the SWP getting a nod. However, the wording here has clearly been seen as somewhat sensitive. On the one hand, edits have been made, perhaps, to insinuate that the CPGB is pulling the strings of dissent within the SWP, with the Democratic Opposition having to offer a denial of the connection (simply getting someone to deny something so inherently daft is a classic from the dark arts of media relations).

Since then, edits have been made to ensure a scrupulously neutral and clear wording, to the effect that the Democratic Opposition formed itself, leading the CPGB to offer its support ex post facto, with no sinister implications. Needless to say, there would be very little mileage in the SWP bureaucracy attempting to imply that any of the dissenters are puppets of the CPGB. No-one would believe that. Does the SWP bureaucracy need a more convincing villain?

This could all just be coincidence and entirely innocent, but it shows nonetheless that open sources of information and its free flow can be the enemy of the bureaucrat, as we have seen from the SWP central committee’s negative attitude to the internet as a whole and to the rights of the organisation’s members to communicate, share ideas and organise with each other. If it were not coincidence, I do not think anyone would be surprised.

Michael Copestake
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Coining it

I’m not sure what the connection is between the current lamentable situation in the SWP and Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism in Russia (we’ll have to wait for part two of Jack Conrad’s article, ‘Origins of the crisis in the SWP - part one’, January 10). But I do see a connection between Cliff’s theory of state capitalism and Conrad’s theory of ‘bureaucratic socialism’.

Both argue that a fundamental economic change took place in 1928. But what? Both before and after 1928 the state industries were organised in the same basic way. Both before and after 1928 workers were paid money wages for the sale of their labour-power. Conrad fails to show that the management of state industries changed in 1928. He also makes the rather bizarre claim that, after 1928, workers were paid in “non-money or at most pseudo-money”. According to the logic of his theory, after 1928 workers must have been some sort of state-slaves. But what were they before 1928? Were they then paid in real money?

He is right that whether workers in Russia after (and, indeed, before) 1928 sold their labour-power is the key issue in deciding whether or not Russia can be described as capitalist (rather than as some new class society). I would say they were and that, far from Russia being some sort of “post-capitalist” society, as Conrad claims, it never ceased to be capitalist after 1917, because the wages system was never abolished. Quite the reverse. It was the policy of the Russian government to expand and extend working for wages at the expense of peasant farming.

Adam Buick
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Crippled

I was delighted to read Jack Conrad’s ‘The Soviet Union question’, in which he argued so cogently for a position that I have long held to be the only reasonable one for a Marxist unencumbered by dogma. Clearly, the post-1928 USSR and other ‘second world’ socio-economic systems cannot be placed on a scale running from capitalism to socialism, but represented a divergent evolution, concerned with industrialisation by non-capitalist means.

 I came to this conclusion following my personal observation of Poland, where I spent the academic year 1959-60 on a Unesco scholarship, and my view was later confirmed when I read the famous open letter of Kuroń and Modzelewski. Later I discovered that the same sort of thing was argued, also from personal observation, by that unjustly neglected communist writer, Ante Ciliga, who was one of the first Marxists to hold this position, long before Shachtman et al.

Whether that system can be dignified by the term ‘mode of production’ is a secondary matter. Hillel Ticktin thinks it can’t, but I think it can. Unstable and short-lived as it was, production did take place, relations of production existed, surplus product was extracted. Maybe we should call it a crippled mode of production.

This seems like a purely academic issue, following the demise of these systems. But it isn’t. Those who hold to the ‘workers’ state’ view display profound lack of understanding of exploitation and the state, let alone a workers’ state, while the ‘state capitalism’ brigade display a lamentable lack of understanding of actual capitalism.

Moshé Machover
London

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‘Anti-Germans’

Overall, I found Susann Witt-Stahl’s ‘Excusing capitalism of role in rise of Hitler’ a very decent article, which reflects the difficult and exhausting struggle between the German left and the so called ‘anti-Germans’ in a very authentic way (Weekly Worker December 6 2012).

As I became politicised, in particular within Linksjugend, the youth organisation of Die Linke, I came across these militant nationalistic and pro-war activists at an early stage. I first had personal experience of BAK Shalom members at the federal conference of the Linksjugend last year in Berlin. BAK Shalom is a faction which describes itself as “a working group against anti-Semitism [sic], anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism and regressive anti-capitalism within the Linksjugend”. Its political work focuses mainly on supporting Israel’s apartheid politics and action against the “Muslim threat”, and denouncing every criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

Their justification for this unconditional solidarity with Israel is in line with those who claim that Germans, with their Nazi heritage, have a special responsibility for the safety of all Jewish people around the world and that this can only be achieved through a strong Israel. (Personally, I fight against every form of anti-Semitism just as strongly as I oppose anti-Muslim racism, sexism, homophobia and all other types of discrimination, as is absolutely natural for every leftwing person.) Their allegations of anti-Semitism have not only been totally untruthful, but have severely damaged the left and led to a big smear campaign against Die Linke within the German mainstream media, whilst giving the bourgeois parties further material for denunciation.

At the federal congress in Berlin, the left within the Linksjugend called on BAK Shalom to withdraw support for the ‘Stop the bomb’ campaign or else face exclusion from the youth organisation. It was pointed out that a campaign which is supported by people like Henryk Broder, a journalist who works for various Springer papers and is well known for his anti-Muslim vitriol, can hardly be progressive. That part of the motion calling on BAK Shalom to withdraw was accepted after a debate where the tension between the left and the ‘anti-Germans’ was very noticeable. Delegates from the eastern German Länder in particular were quite supportive of BAK Shalom - members from eastern Germany are more likely to support coalitions with bourgeois parties and to abandon essential left principles in general.

However, when it came to the second part of the motion, many were very reluctant to vote for the exclusion of BAK Shalom should they refuse to comply with the decision of the congress. At first I could not understand this contradiction, but then a comrade explained to me that this might be because of a false understanding of left pluralism within the Linksjugend, which is often mistakenly justified by Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that “freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”. But what did she actually mean by it? Was it really in her interest to defend nationalistic, bellicose and bourgeois forces within the left? I do not think so.

Rosa Luxemburg provides a glowing example of how fight for left ideals, for which she finally paid with her life. Using her for pseudo-left purposes can only soil her memory and political legacy, but this is what the ‘anti-Germans’ continuously do.

Jeannot Freitag
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Erfurt required?

I have absolutely no idea what David Ellis is talking about in his cryptic comment (Letters, January 10). It certainly does not relate to anything I actually wrote other than to get what was said completely the wrong way round!

For example, I did not say that the purpose of a workers’ state was to force the sharing of the fruits of the workers’ labour. Quite the contrary: the point I made follows on from Marx’s statements in Critique of the Gotha programme, in which he attacks the position of the Lassalleans, who did argue for that. Marx makes clear that such a thing cannot be achieved even under the first stage of communism, let alone under capitalism.

The point I made was that, in so far as such a society has not raised its productive potential to allow that to happen, any such redistribution would mean having to retain some form of state to bring it about. The whole point here is that if this is, as Marx says, the first stage of communism, then we have already gone beyond the stage of a workers’ state - ie, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie have already been defeated by this stage, and the state should be in the process of withering away, if indeed it has not already done so. We can only move to the principle of sharing out society’s total production to meet individual needs - apart, of course, from the provision of the social insurance fund to cover illness, old age and so on - in proportion as society’s productive potential rises to make it possible.

As for sharing out the available work, that is something which could be done under the first stage of communism. But how exactly does David Ellis believe such a demand could be implemented outside a revolutionary situation? The working class is not powerful enough to enforce it, and the capitalist state has no reason to voluntarily introduce it. It falls into that category of demand that Marx criticised as “revolutionary phrase-mongering”.

The demand for a living wage is a different matter. Winston Churchill introduced the first minimum wage in 1909 and did so on the basis of arguing against the small, bad employers undercutting the larger, better employers. Such a demand is quite possible and achievable because it fits with the needs of big capital, and helps them to bring about greater concentration by undermining small capital. But its extension into providing a similar level of income for the unemployed, which I support, is not in the interest of big or small capital, and will not be volunteered by the state.

Quite the contrary: it’s why we cannot rely on the capitalist state for such measures, and instead have to develop our own worker-owned and controlled social insurance funds, as Marx and Engels and the First International advocated. They demanded that the state keep its hands off the workers’ friendly societies established for that purpose, and called for the return of funds where that state had appropriated them. It is why Engels opposed the demand for the establishment of a state-run national insurance scheme put forward in the Erfurt programme.

Arthur Bough
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