Thursday January 03 2013
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SWP Central Committee counterattack

In response to criticism and the forming of factions by SWP members, the central committee has produced an urgent pre-conference statement

SWP Central Committee: Feeble riposte

 

FOR AN INTERVENTIONIST PARTY: STATEMENT BY THE SWP CENTRAL COMMITTEE

 

The annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party gathers this weekend in the shadow of a challenging situation. The global economic and financial crisis drags on despite the last minute deal between Obama and the Republicans to stop American capitalism falling over the fiscal cliff. The Arab revolutions continue, but confront tough opposition, whether in the form of Mursi’s power-grab in Egypt or of Assad’s bloody war in Syria . Politics continues to polarise in Europe , as we see with the rise of both Syriza and Golden Dawn in the Greek polls.

Here in Britain , the trade union leaders have sabotaged the pension strikes and failed to respond the new attacks mounted by the coalition – for example, scrapping collective bargaining for teachers and union dues check-off in the civil service. The assault on the poor is reaching near-crescendo levels. And the NUS demonstration last November underlined that there will be no easy rerun of the student revolt that exploded in November-December 2010.

Two groups of comrades have decided in the last couple of weeks to form factions. This is their right during the preconference period. But one might think that these decisions would have prompted by the objective situation and that the comrades concerned are trying to offer distinctive political approaches to how we should address it. Not a bit of it. As their names (the Democratic Opposition and the Democratic Centralist Faction) indicate, both these factions are turned inwards, concentrating their fire on the Central Committee for its alleged handling of two episodes and proposing changes to the party’s democratic structures.

They have nothing of any substance to say about the situation and how the party should respond to it. They do no discuss our major interventions of the last year, which – despite the difficulties we have encountered – have included some major successes, most notably the rout of the EDL by Unite against Fascism in Walthamstow and the Unite the Resistance conference in November.

Of course, it is entirely within every comrade’s rights to criticise the CC and seek to improve our democracy. But it is also the right – and indeed the duty – of the CC itself to respond to these challenges, particularly since they have been issued after the preconference aggregates have met and the last bulletin was produced. In our view, both the faction platforms are without merit. Not only are they completely wrong in what they say about the two episodes, but the logic of the changes they support would severely undermine the ability of the SWP to operate as an interventionist revolutionary party.

Expulsions

The formation of these factions has two pretexts. The first of these was the CC’s decision on 11 December to expel four comrades for their role in organising a secret faction. Any expulsion of a party member is extremely regrettable: it is a measure taken by the CC or the Disputes Committee only very rarely and as a last resort. So why did we take this step in this case?

Democracy is the lifeblood of a revolutionary organisation. In order to assess the validity of our analysis and the effectiveness of our interventions in the class struggle, we need the fullest possible discussion in the lead-up to and during conferences. It is to facilitate this that the party constitution makes provision for the formation of factions during the preconference period. But it also states very clearly: ‘Permanent or secret factions are not allowed.’

For over forty years we have refused to follow other currents on the far left (for example the Fourth International) in allowing permanent factions. These inhibit the free-flowing debate through which comrades can develop the party’s perspectives and shift their positions towards a better understanding of the tasks ahead. Moreover, as the partial breakup of the New Anticapitalist Party in France has shown, a regime of permanent factions can lead to a situation in which members put their faction first rather than the organisation as a whole. This is why the constitution requires factions to dissolve after conference.

Secret factions have all the defects of permanent factions, added to which are those of lack of any accountability to the party at large. We are confident that the four comrades we expelled are guilty of organising a secret faction. Contrary to the claims of the two open factions, these comrades were not expelled for discussing party affairs on Facebook. Members of the SWP are of course free to discuss face-to-face or online and, particularly during the preconference period, to get together to seek the outcomes that they want to achieve (though they should be careful not to involve non-members). There are many cases of this happening, usually quite informally, during the party’s history.

But this is not what the four comrades were doing. The discussions they led on Facebook show evidence that they were organising on a long-term basis – not simply planning to a meeting before this conference, but referring back to another meeting at last year’s conference, and discussing how to intervene in aggregates and what motions to move. If this was all above-board, as their defenders claim, why not openly form a faction? The rights of legitimate, open factions are recognised and defended by everyone, including the CC: witness the rights given the Left Platform in the 2009-10 preconference period.

It is clear, however, that the comrades concerned planned to organise secretly and permanently: one of the four expelled, opposing the formation of an open faction, writes: ‘There is nothing stopping a faction post-conference if it all goes Pete Tong.’ So the aim was a permanent faction, in violation of the constitution. Even more shocking is the advice to avoid open debate. Another writes: ‘My personal opinion is that it is better to get as many of us to conference as possible, and I think that if that means keeping your mouth shut for a bit then so be it.’ In other words, far from the expulsions being intended, as the Democratic Opposition Faction alleges, to ‘prevent debate’, the organisers of the secret faction were seeking to avoid an open statement of their views before the party.

What the CC was confronted with was not a ‘technical’ breach of the rules, as the Democratic Centralist Faction asserts, but a cynical defiance of the very spirit of democratic debate inside the party. We had no choice but to take the strongest measures against the four comrades, all former full-timers, who were playing the main organising role. The complaint that this shouldn’t have happened in the preconference period ignores the fact that by their actions these comrades were corrupting the democratic process leading up to conference. They have, of course, the right to appeal against our decision to the Disputes Committee, but, given the attacks that have been made against this decision, we will be asking the party conference to endorse it.

Disputes Committee

The second pretext for the formation of the two open factions (and indeed of the secret faction) was the case that the Disputes Committee had to deal with in October, arising from a very serious complaint that was made against a leading member of the party. It is greatly to be regretted that both factions have chosen to make this very difficult case a matter of internal party controversy. It is particularly shameful that the Democratic Opposition Faction criticises the comrade against whom the complaint was made because he did not ‘voluntarily step down’ (ie presumably resign from his party positions) immediately, in effect conceding his guilt without a hearing – a violation of the elementary principles of justice.

The struggle for women’s liberation is central to the SWP’s politics. We have a proud tradition of fighting all the different aspects of women’s oppression and of building a strong women cadre and women leaders. In recent years, confronted with a culture imbued with sexism and welcoming a new generation of women rebelling against this, we have sought to renew this tradition. In line with this, we had no hesitation in breaking with George Galloway over his disgraceful remarks over the Julian Assange rape allegations.

In line with this approach, we are proud of having over several decades developed a political culture that has zero tolerance for behaviour that harms women or treats them with disrespect. It is part of the role of the Disputes Committee (DC) to maintain this culture. The DC is a group of experienced comrades elected by and responsible to conference. They operate independently of the CC (as the constitution puts it) ‘to maintain party unity and principle and to investigate complaints relating to disciplinary matters by its members or units’. In dealing with cases of this nature, where disagreements over facts have to be scrutinised in order to reach a decision, there is no alternative to trusting the comrades we have elected to apply our politics correctly when trying to arrive at the truth.

While both factions have attacked the CC’s ‘handling’ of this case, its role has been confined to referring the complaint to the DC and facilitating its subsequent investigation. This investigation was thorough, rigorous, and painstaking. It was conducted in complete independence of the CC. The DC did not uphold the complaint and decided not to take any disciplinary action. The restrictions on the information concerning the case were dictated, not (as some have alleged) by an attempted cover up by the CC, but by the DC’s recognition of the right to confidentiality of both parties in the case. The CC nevertheless made a statement to the last National Committee about the case (summarised subsequently at different aggregates) in order to ensure that comrades were informed in advance of the DC reporting to the party.

The report of the DC will be submitted to conference, and must be endorsed or rejected by it. Some comrades wish to challenge the report, as is their right. But, in the view of the outgoing CC, conference should endorse the DC report. To take any other decision would have no basis in how the DC actually addressed this case. It would also show a quite unwarranted lack of confidence in the capacity of the party and its structures to maintain and develop our tradition on women’s oppression.

Democratic Centralism

These two controversies have provided the launching pad for calls by both factions to make various changes in our democratic procedures, in support of several motions that have been submitted to conference. Of course it is essential to keep our democracy under continuous review. Indeed in the 2009 conference, in response to the Respect crisis, established a Democracy Commission that reported to a special conference, which endorsed various changes to the party’s procedures. To a significant extent, the current proposals are attempts to revisit some of the issues that were debated intensively then.

Democracy, as we have already said, is essential to an effective revolutionary organisation. But democracy is not an end in itself: it is shaped historically and serves different purposes. In this case, the function of democracy is to make the party a more effective tool of revolutionary struggle. So the point of discussion is to assess and improve our analysis and our methods of working. Hence, in our tradition, the main concentration of debate during the annual preconference period, when discussion can help to clarify the tasks in the year ahead and inform the decisions taken at conference instead.

We call our version of democracy democratic centralism, following the Bolsheviks and the early Communist International. For us democracy and centralism are not in conflict: the discussions we hold would be meaningless if they did not lead to decisions taken by majority vote and if these decisions were not implemented in a united way by all members, whatever position they took in the debates leading up to conference.

Some comrades, including the Democratic Centralist Faction, point out that the general principles of democratic centralism are consistent with different organisational models for revolutionary parties. Of course this is true: how the Bolsheviks organised themselves as a mass workers’ party in the lead-up to the October 1917 insurrection inevitably was very different from how an organisation of some seven thousand revolutionaries dealing with, alas, a non-revolutionary situation in Britain are liable to operate.

Nevertheless, our model of democratic centralism is the distillation of over forty years of experience in building the largest far-left organisation in Britain and one of the largest in the world. Central to it is the principle of a strong central leadership directly elected by and accountable to conference that fights politically to clarify the tasks facing the party and to shape its interventions in the struggle.

This principle has informed our theory and practice throughout our history as a Leninist organisation. It was affirmed very strongly by Chris Harman in 1978, drawing on the experiences of the Russian and German revolutions:

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, as Cliff argues in the first volume of his Lenin or as Trotsky argues in his Lessons of October 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 their position. (‘For Democratic Centralism’, http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1978/07/democent.htm)

Leadership in this approach is not merely the arithmetical expression of the balance of opinion within the party. On the contrary, the leadership actively intervenes in the class struggle outside and the organisation within in order to shift the situation in a direction more favourable to the revolutionary forces. This is a form of leadership that is not afraid to conduct sharp arguments within the party if these will clarify our understanding of the situation and of the tasks we must address. It is clear from the Democratic Centralist Faction’s comments on the preconference debate that it is uncomfortable with our tradition of polemical leadership.

The basis on which we have chosen to select this kind of leadership has been through the outgoing Central Committee recommending a slate that is then endorsed or amended by conference. An improved version of this system was reaffirmed, after much discussion, by the Democracy Commission conference in 2009. The most important reason for using the slate system is that is elects the leadership as a coherent political collective, embodying a particular perspective and directly accountable to conference. One way in which we have enhanced this system in recent years is by insisting that the CC leads the party in dialogue with the lay elected National Committee that can hold it to account between conferences.

We believe that the various proposals for alternative ways of choosing the CC would fatally undermine the coherence and accountability that are the basis of the present system. As we shall argue in more detail at conference itself, they should be rejected. Particularly when combined with the proposal to make what the preconference bulletins a continuous feature of party life throughout the year, they would institute a regime of permanent discussion that would turn the party inwards and make it harder to hold the real leadership to account.

Harman wrote in the article already cited:

Few things are more stultifying for debate in a revolutionary organisation that a ‘government-opposition’ arrangement by which one section of the organisation feels that it is compelled as a matter of principle to oppose the elected leadership on every issue: this makes it extremely difficult for either the leadership or the opposition to learn from the concrete development of the class struggle.

Yet this is the logic of the proposals supported by the two factions. The effect would be progressively to undermine the method of interventionist organisation that has allowed the party over many years to shape much larger movements and struggles. There is a real danger that we can lose what has made us, for all our weaknesses and errors, such an effective revolutionary organisation. That is why we will vigorously oppose the factions’ arguments and proposals at conference.

 

Conclusion

The party faces many challenges. These stem mainly from the stalling of both the strikes and the student revolt. There is a natural temptation for comrades to turn inwards in such circumstances. But this temptation should be resisted.  It is because we have faced outwards that we have been able to achieve successes in this situation, notably around UtR and UAF.

We can also be proud of having won many new comrades in recent years, often from a new generation that has become radicalised by austerity and the Arab revolutions. In this context, we reject the Democratic Centralist Faction’s attempt to play the generation game by portraying a division between ‘younger activists and … comrades with a length of experience in the trade union struggle’. The truth is that everyone in the party, young and old, student and trade unionist, is frustrated by the stymying of resistance. We have very strong traditions, not simply on the central questions of class struggle but also on the different forms of oppression that serve to weaken and divide the working class, that we need to develop together to help us address the challenges facing us.

The outgoing Central Committee is happy to stand before the party on the basis of its record over the past year. With sufficient trust in each other and in the party’s theoretical traditions democratic structures, we can overcome the difficulties that have turned us inwards in the past couple of months. But that requires us to hold onto the principle of an interventionist party that is so central to what we have achieved.

 

Central Committee

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