Socialist Workers Party faction declared
Around 100 comrades have signed the founding document of the Democratic Opposition, a temporary faction within the Socialist Workers Party.
Watch what you're saying there, comrade!
are only allowed in this organisation in the immediate lead up to
annual conference and must dissolve immediately afterwards – see
below for the three pre-conference discussion bulletins and our
comments on them. As the DO comrades write, while the spark for the
formation of the DO is the expulsion in this pre-conference period
of four SWPers for forming a what the leadership dub a "secret
faction", far more is at stake as "this incident raises
serious questions about democracy in the SWP in general and about
the coming conference in particular." (see Peter Manson in the
last issue of the Weekly Worker).
CPGB has written to the DO, welcoming the formation of their faction
as we believe that "the
centralism that dominates at all levels of our movement has to be
fought: in our view, this is an
essential part of shaping our class into a future ruling class"
(full text below).
1. Statement of SWP Democratic Opposition
2. Response from the SWP Central Committee
3. Message from the CPGB
4. New document from DO faction
5. Pre-conference bulletins
6. Open letter from Damon Skinner, Middlesbrough branch
of SWP Democratic Opposition
Four comrades have been expelled for forming a ‘secret faction’ during the discussions prior to SWP conference. The expelled members had been legitimately concerned about the handling of very serious allegations directed at a CC member and the way that this was being handled by the organisation and had discussed about what this represented and how comrades could ensure the matter was dealt with properly.
There had been some discussion about whether to declare a faction or not. Some comrades, out of concern for how these matters had been dealt with previously, were in favour of doing so - but other comrades were worried that this might be premature or even disloyal. It is for having this discussion and sharing these concerns that the comrades have been expelled.
Importantly, the accusation of ‘secret faction’ was made against those concerned about declaring one whilst those in favour of declaring one have been referred to as ‘honest’ in a number of report backs from the CC to affected local branches, implying that those expelled were ‘dishonest’. We unreservedly reject this description as slander against the four excellent and valuable comrades who have been expelled.
We feel that this incident raises serious questions about democracy in the SWP in general and about the coming conference in particular. First of all, it cannot be right that a discussion about whether to form a faction is used as evidence of a ‘secret faction’ when it is in the general discussions of the pre-conference period. On a basic level, if we cannot have discussions about whether to form a faction or not, then, in reality, factions are de-facto impossible to organise and the right to form them is purely notional.
Secondly, it is not the case that this is the first, or even the most significant case of comrades discussing meeting before conference to discuss the possibility of a factional organisation that never ended up being formed.
In the run-up to the highly contested 2009 conference, a number of unofficial meetings between SWP members occurred, mainly in pubs and on one occasion after a party council, of members concerned about the developing crisis following the botched electoral strategy in 2008. The pace of events meant that these meetings, which were certainly planned in advance, never coalesced into a named faction, but no members were disciplined for involvement, certainly not the two people who serve on the CC since who had participated. The unofficial pre-conference meet-ups of 2008 were followed in Summer 2009 by an even more unorthodox grouping: a petition, written and organised entirely in secret and outside pre-conference season and mainly signed by party staff, to oust the then-editor of Socialist Worker. Again, no disciplinary procedure was employed – particularly not against the party worker who organised this factional group, who is now in the CC. These incidents, and doubtless others, show that any claim that the rules regarding factions are not, and have never been, implemented with a degree of judgement taking into account prevailing circumstances are wholly false.
There should not be an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the run up to conference. Leninism requires discipline to confront the class enemy – not to prevent debate amongst our own comrades. We believe that these malicious expulsions must be revoked immediately and that the CC must retract its accusations against the four people.
We are also deeply concerned about the impact of all this on our reputation inside the movement. It is little short of incredible that if the expulsions are not rescinded, comrades are going to be expected to defend the expulsion of four comrades (including one woman) simply for discussing concerns about the handling of very serious allegations in their own organisation.
Our feeling is that this is an untenable situation and will have an appalling impact on the morale of members and our ability to build in today's movement. We think that one of the key lessons of the democracy commission was that no comrade should be treated as indispensable. We make no judgement of guilt or innocence of the comrade concerned but note that any other comrade facing allegations of this type with such frequency would be suspended until such time as the allegations were resolved. It is disturbing that the comrade concerned did not voluntarily step down when it became clear that the allegations, whether justified or not, had the potential to seriously damage the organisation. An attitude which treats individuals as indispensable and sacrifices the interests of the membership for them has nothing to with Leninism and more closely resembles the self-interested behaviour of reformist bureaucracies.
Importantly it is not just our reputation at stake here but the health of our own tradition. In response to the expulsions some comrades have repeated the language of some of Galloway's defenders. There have been complaints about 'liberal feminism' and even belief-beggaring accusations that some of the comrades expelled have been MI5 agents, or acting on behalf of Chris Bambery's organisation. Whilst the CC cannot be held directly responsible for such idiocy it is a warning of the kind of ideological degeneration possible when administrative coercion replaces the norms of debate in socialist organisation.
We are aware that serious concerns have already been expressed by those involved in the disputes committee case around this matter, as raised at a recent NC meeting, and that space has been set aside to discuss the way the organisation has mishandled the allegations. This is a positive development, but we believe that beyond the direct issue of the DC there are now equally serious questions about the condition of the SWP that makes a faction necessary if we are not to be expelled for expressing our concerns.
We propose that three things are necessary to prevent further damage to the good name of our Party:
1. The expelled comrades deserve a full and frank apology from the CC and the expulsions must be declared null and void.
2. Conference must re-affirm that comrades have full rights to conduct any and every kind of discussion in the pre-conference period. This should include raising questions of whether such freedom ought not to be extended beyond the pre-conference period.
3. The dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined, and the CC member concerned must be suspended from all Party activity and cannot work full time for the Party or in the name of the Party until all the allegations against him have been settled satisfactorily.
In addition to these statements, we are asking comrades to support the motions raised on the question of party democracy at conference. In our view, the conduct of the CC regarding both the expulsions, and the disputes committee referred to above, come as a result of structures and perspectives that restrict internal democracy and discussion.
We are aware that some comrades may share our concerns regarding the expulsions and/or this disputes committee investigation, but reject our conclusions regarding party democracy. We hope to persuade them of our position on this; but even if we cannot accomplish this, we would still ask you to vote for the reinstatement of the four comrades who have been expelled.
Response from SWP Central Committee
The national office of the SWP circulated the founding DO document (as it is required to do by the the constitution) along with this brief statement from national secretary Charlie Kimber/the central committee:
A group of comrades have decided to form a faction as they are entitled to under the SWP's constitution. I have attached and pasted below their explanation of why they are forming a faction and the names of those involved.
You will see that the faction refers to the expulsion of four comrades. This followed the CC receiving extensive information about a closed Facebook conversation between a group of comrades.
The CC does not expel people for holding views contrary to the CC, nor for putting motions to conference that are critical of the CC or for seeking to change policy. We try hard to ensure there is plenty of space for discussion and debate in the party.
However, the norms of democratic centralism – the fullest debate before a decision, the united application of those decisions also relies on openness and transparent discussion.
In this case the CC found that at least some of those involved in the Facebook group had 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.
They had decided not to become an open faction, preferring their hidden discussions. This is the opposite of real party democracy.
Such behaviour trampled on our democracy and is contrary to our constitution. Therefore, in order to defend our democracy, we expelled four people. These are all former full-time workers for the party who are thoroughly aware of our democratic rules. They all played an organising role in the group.
They are entitled to appeal against their expulsions and such appeals will be heard by the Disputes Committee. The Disputes Committee case referred to by the faction concluded at the end of October. The Disputes Committee will present a report to conference where delegates will be able to vote on it.
Message from the CPGB
This message from the CPGB was sent to the Democractic Opposition on Saturday, December 29:
The Communist Party of Great Britain welcomes the formation of the Democratic Opposition faction and wishes you well in the struggle you now face. The bureaucratic centralism that dominates at all levels of our movement has to be fought: in our view, this is an essential part of shaping our class into a future ruling class. We urge you to stay in the Socialist Workers Party and carry out a disciplined, unremitting struggle for genuine democratic centralism and principled communist unity. We will do our utmost to ensure that your case is heard amongst the most advanced elements of the workers' movement - both in this country and internationally.
With communist greetings
Mark Fischer, on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain
New document produced by the DO faction:
It is absolutely crucial that the SWP throws itself into building the resistance to austerity in Britain and solidarity with the revolutions abroad. In a time of growing class anger, the SWP should be looking to grow and to grow seriously. We believe that democratic centralism is the best organisational system to face the challenges of the 21st Century. For us, that means open, and vigorous debate in an atmosphere free from intimidation, followed by absolute unity in action.
In the spirit of open debate this document has two purposes. It begins by giving a critical analysis of recent developments, including responding to what we believe to be falsehoods. The document then goes on to outline our vision of what democracy in a revolutionary party should look like today.
In the very short time that this faction has existed we have almost doubled in size and have received a considerable amount of support from SWP members from across the country. Many comrades have voiced concerns over the current atmosphere of intimidation and mistrust and are convinced that it is vital to take a stand.
Our initial declaration was limited in scope due to our belief we had to respond rapidly and let our position be known to the party immediately. We have faced various limitations and constraints due to the length of time and the particularly busy period in which we have had to act. We are attempting to bring a fuller, more thought out document to life and hold meetings as soon as possible to share and feed in experiences and opinions.
Since the original declaration’s release, we have received comments from the comrades involved in Disputes and, in order to respect their wishes, have decided to amend our original demands accordingly:
Point three originally read:
“The dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined, and the CC member concerned must be suspended from all Party activity and cannot work full time for the Party or in the name of the Party until all the allegations against him have been settled satisfactorily.”
It has been modified to:
“The handling of the dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined. This faction hereby waivers any right to intervene directly in the DC debate on the proviso that the Conference Arrangements Committee agree that people directly involved in the case are granted as much time to contribute as possible.”
Inconsistencies and dangerous precedents
In late October a Facebook conversation took place between SWP members. It is important to note that this was a conversation, not a secret or closed group which it has been portrayed as. Four comrades were targeted and expelled as a result of this conversation taking place. Having a combined membership lasting around forty years, these comrades were informed - via email - that they no longer had a place in the organisation they had dedicated so much of their lives to.
Why were the four comrades specifically targeted in a conversation involving tens of people? The CC has told us that this is because they were the experienced members of the group who should have known better. Yet there were older comrades who had been in the party longer than the four expelled who were also involved in the discussion.
The CC has also claimed that the reason these four were chosen was due to the nature of their contributions in the Facebook conversation: that these four had argued against forming a faction, and were therefore somehow dishonest about their real intentions. This is nonsense– arguing that there might not be sufficient support for a faction is the last thing a faction, ‘secret’ or otherwise, would ever do. To compound the ridiculousness of the situation, it is worth pointing out that all of the four who have been accused of forming a secret faction, have yet to even meet.
Another inaccuracy that needs addressing is the claim by the CC that non-SWP members were consciously involved in the conversation by others. In fact, one person, who was until very recently a member of the SWP, was added by an individual who believed this person was still in the party. On finding out this individual was no longer in the party he was promptly asked to leave the conversation and immediately did so. He had not participated in the discussion and has not publicly mentioned it since.
There was no plan for this discussion to form the basis of a ‘secret faction’ and the CC has no real evidence to support this claim. By saying that this conversation breaches party rules, the CC has set a bizarre and disturbing precedent: any informal discussion between comrades that criticises, or even analyses, the state of the party can be regarded as factionalising. Does the CC’s permission need to be sought to phone other party members or meet them for drinks? This paranoia will look very strange to the wider movement.
The CC has claimed that these expulsions were essential for the maintenance of democracy within the party; that those expelled had been acting in profoundly dishonest and undemocratic ways; and that the Party’s constitution had been incontrovertibly, undeniably breached. We believe that not only are these assertions false, they are hypocritical and a product of the CC’s double standards. Groups and individuals pushing the CC line have clearly acted in ways tantamount to the existence of a secret faction if the rules were applied equally to them as they have been applied to the four comrades expelled in December.
Examples of such inconsistencies and failures include, but are not restricted to:
- The ‘forgetfulness’ of CC members about the nature of their own activities in 2008/2009, which have been described in our original declaration.
- The CC’s toleration of some members circulating a petition to reinstate the accused CC member of the recent Disputes case. This action clearly required a level of information, organisation and coordination to take place, yet no disciplinary action has been used against those involved.
- Some full-time party organisers have been circulating information about the Disputes Committee in order to refute the allegations that have been made. The information they have been spreading could have only come from the members of the CC and DC of the party as it involves in-depth details of events. This breaches party rules.
- These organisers have been effectively factionalising for the CC, using information from them to undermine the allegations and smear the people involved. Biased information has been disseminated –particularly to new members- in order to garner support the CC’s position. This includes claims that the allegations are an insincere ‘attack from outside the organisation’, and that ‘soft feminism’ is the real cause of the unrest in the organisation.
- The CC chose to print the full names comrades in the Democratic Opposition faction in a general email. This is not done, for example, in the IBs where comrades are referred to only with their first names. The CC is fully aware that internal party emails are leaked. Printing full names could put people in seriously compromising positions, for example, in their employment or search for work. It was seriously misguided to put comrades in this potentially jeopardising situation and is yet another example of the limited changes introduced by the 2009 ‘Democracy Commission’.
- Many have experienced intimidation at district aggregates where comrades have been shouted down for raising simple concerns over the dispute and the implications it may have for our organisation. This runs contrary to the CC claims that there has been plenty of opportunity to raise concerns or criticism.
The party’s rules rest on principled political judgement. At the moment the CC is making inconsistent, contradictory judgements and, as we have seen, has selectively applied the rules laid out in the party constitution.
Why didn’t we form a faction earlier?
We completely reject any suggestion that we are caught up in a Machiavellian plot, declaring our ‘real’ intentions at the last minute in an attempt to unscrupulously force through our demands. The faction was a response to events as and when they occurred.
We further reject any suggestion that either this faction or those expelled have ever acted as proxy for non-SWP members and groups attempting to engineer a split or dislodge the CC from outside. This is simply an attempt to discredit dedicated members and their
Many members will be aware that the Facebook conversation in question, amongst other issues, involved a discussion on whether a faction should be formed linking questions of democracy with the Disputes Committee. Some argued in favour, some against. The expulsions only confirmed the worst suspicions and feelings: the CC has used its power of expulsion to make an example of the four comrades. We felt we had to act; many of us who had previously been against or uncertain about the formation of a faction were now convinced. This mood was further bolstered by the CC’s interventions at several emergency meetings called across the country, where arguments in favour of the expulsions were fundamentally weak, contradictory and ambiguous.
Rather than engaging with criticism, narratives have emerged from the centre in which critics of the CC are not comrades participating in debate, but rather individuals embroiled in a plot to attack the SWP, undermine Marxism and smash democratic centralism.. Terms including “creeping feminism” and “autonomism” have been bandied around to discredit critical thought. Not only does this reveal a lack of understanding concerning what such terms actually mean, it points to a reluctance to take any opposing view seriously or worthy of discussion. Comrades expressing alternative viewpoints are characterised as either dishonest or naive. It is patronising and dismissive to label any expression of dissent as a ‘misunderstanding’ of Leninism and democratic centralism. This approach will never allow the SWP to organise and include the thousands of new members we would need to rebuild a serious revolutionary Left.
The SWP’s internal organisation needs to be critically reassessed. 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.
Democracy and the Party
We are passionate about building a strong revolutionary party able to respond quickly and intervene effectively in struggles. The world today is becoming an even harder place to live in. We have now had more than a generation of life under neoliberalism while there is a terrific anger amongst working class people throughout the world. In some countries this anger has fuelled insurrection and even revolution. None of the activity we are engaged in – participating in discussion, attending conference, being in the SWP etc,– is meaningful unless we are all committed to the goal of harnessing that anger and organising those workers into a movement that can change the world for the better. This is most basic principal of Leninism: bringing revolutionary theory to mass working-class organisation.
We believe that a Leninist party must have organisational structures that allow it to effectively intervene in struggle. Any democratic deficit renders us less able to prove ourselves in practise as the best and most militant fighters to the working class. Therefore, far from being inward looking, reviewing our structures is a pre requisite to being able to look outwards and build the Party.
Certain aspects of the organisational structure that may have been correct for previous periods of downturn need to be adapted to fit our current context. We unremittingly stand by the principles of having the fullest debate, unity in action, the need for the revolutionary paper and the centrality of class.
In Chris Harman’s article ‘Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left’, he distinguishes the IS/SWP model of organisation from the ‘anything goes’ and Stalinist methods of organising which crippled the left in Europe. We stand by this Bolshevik model he outlined:
‘a model that recognises that a leadership is needed – the class war is after all a war, and in a war an army has to be led. But it also recognises that the personnel, and the strategies and the tactics of the leadership should not be sacrosanct, but should be open to discussion by the membership, especially after key developments in the struggle and before conferences. Only thus can the leadership be forced to maintain contact with the lived experience of struggle.’
We need to be able to critically assess the organisation and its structures in order to build on successes and recognise failures. Capitalism is dynamic; so is class. We need a dynamic organisation which is able to respond to new developments in the class struggle and is open and honest about its position in relation to this. Members must be able to openly criticise and contribute to debates without facing draconian intimidation or expulsion. This is essential because, as Harman noted, ‘revolutionary politics finds its embodiment in revolutionary organisation.’
Asking questions about organisational structure does not inevitably entail abject naval gazing and a prioritisation of internal party issues over the wider struggle and ‘real world’. It is only through reassessing our own position in relation to movements outside that we can be effective. The two are not diametrically opposed but two sides of the same coin. There has been a tendency to characterise the democracy proposals as giving primacy to theory and organisation, situating debate in false polarisations of debate oraction, theory or practice, organisation or politics. We do not want to focus upon one aspect to the detriment of the other; rather we see these located within a dialectical relationship with one another.
It is important to note that we are not criticising all forms of leadership as inherently corrupting. Rather we want to examine how we can better certain structures so that disputes and disagreements are solved in front of members rather than behind closed doors.
Much more has been written in the IBs concerning the democracy motions which cannot be replied to point by point here. Yet it is worth observing how comrades who raised issues of democracy in the IB’s have been accused of fetishising particular organisational forms with no hint of irony by those who simultaneously fetishise the slate system as the embodiment and personification of democratic centralism.
Overall it is in the spirit believing that the best people to fix the SWP are its members that we have taken these actions. A recent slogan at SWP recruitment rallies was ‘It’s our Party, make it yours.’ We want every member to feel that the Socialist Workers’ party is a militant organisation that they have the power to shape. If you believe a democratic, fighting and united Socialist Workers’ Party is key to the fightback, then join us today.
Pre-conference bulletins and WW commentary
This years first Internal Bulletin is a CC dominated token effort at democratic debate. Will this change, wonders Peter Manson?
-- Pre-conference bulletin no.1 (PDF)
A minority of SWP comrades are taking advantage of their right to
put their views before the membership once a year. Peter Manson reviews
the latest Pre-conference Bulletin
-- Pre-conference bulletin no.2 (PDF)
Following criticisms of the SWP’s culture and practice in the first
two Internal Bulletins, the leadership has mobilised to rubbish
opponents. Peter Manson reports
-- Pre-conference bulletin no.3 (PDF)
6. Open letter from Damon Skinner, Middlesbrough branch
As an active SWP member, I’ve collected my thoughts enough
in order to write a statement of sorts regarding the Central Committee’s recent
expulsion of 4 long-standing party members and the forming of the Democratic
Opposition faction. I’ve registered my support for the faction and urge 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 and hope that, for the sake of the health of
democracy within our party; the expulsions are repealed at national conference.
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 ‘secret’ 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
FB 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
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
have now being 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 want 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
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. Re-instate the expelled comrades, and let us discuss what democracy
and role of the CC within our party should look like.
Damon Skinner – Middlesbrough branch.