AVPS has the big scoop, in that longstanding SWP leader Lindsey German has resigned her membership. What we have to go on is this email exchange between Lindsey and SWP General Secretary Harry Worth:
On behalf of the CC, we are repeating our request that you don’t speak at the disputed StW meeting in Newcastle tonight [Wednesday 10th February]. We expect you, like all SWP members, to respect our decisions.
We also think that it is imperative that you meet with members of the CC at the earliest possible opportunity. Could you please give us some dates when you are free.
Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)
I asked Judith whether I would be subject to disciplinary action if I went to Newcastle. Your reply is ambiguous on this question. Could you please clarify. The STW meeting is not disputed, as you put it. It was agreed at two Tyneside STW steering committees, despite our comrades raising why I was going to the meeting. I therefore think your request is misplaced.
We have already made our decision very clear to you. If you ignore our request we reserve the right to respond as we see fit.
It is clear from your reply that your request is in fact an instruction not to speak in Newcastle tonight at the Stop the War meeting.
I regard such a course of action as damaging both to the party and STW. The meeting is properly constituted as evidenced by two sets of minutes of steering committee. There is no good reason for me to withdraw and none that I could possibly justify to STW members locally or nationally.
I have always tried to prevent internal disputes from damaging the movement. I feel that you have brought these disputes into STW and that is unacceptable.
It is therefore with the greatest regret that I am resigning from the SWP. This is a very hard decision for me. I joined more than 37 years ago and have always been committed to building it, which in my view meant relating to the wider movement.
I was on the CC for 30 years, edited the Review for 20 and played a major role in the movement and party building. My respect and affection for many party members remains, and my commitment to socialism as ever. I hope to continue working with them in the wider movement.
I acknowledge receipt of your resignation and have amended our records accordingly.
Please note it is your responsibility to inform your bank to close your Direct Debit/Standing Order.
Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)
This is obviously very big news. Not only was Lindsey a fixture of the national leadership for decades, she was also one of the two political heirs named by Cliff to ensure the party stayed true to his vision – the other being the late Chris Harman. It’s obviously an enormous shock, but what does it mean?
On the immediate issue, one thing that isn’t clear is how this went down at the centre. If the CC had been determined to get rid of Lindsey, she walked right into a trap. If, in the post-conference period, they had been thinking of playing nice with the Reesites in London – and I’d heard chatter to that effect – then it is possible that Yunus has fucked the dog rather brutally.
Let’s go over the Tyneside situation briefly, because personalities do come into this. I know a lot of party members who respect and even admire Yunus for the struggles he’s led and the personal shit he’s been through, but who don’t actually like him very much. Though I don’t know him well – I’ve bumped into him from time to time – that would be my position too, and I’ve said quite a few times in informal conversation that, while Yunus would be a fine addition to the industrial department or the paper, the idea of him holding a position of authority over other comrades fills me with absolute horror. It isn’t surprising that the North East became an opposition stronghold.
To tease this out a little more, factional lineups are never quite straightforward. Some of the most swivel-eyed Reesites of two or three years ago have become the most vitriolic anti-Reesites of today. On the other hand, there were quite a few people in the Left Platform who were not personal worshippers at the shrine of the Power Couple, but just happened to agree with them. This included, for instance, people whose centre of activity was Stop The War, and who did feel that the leadership was winding STW down. The concentration of minority supporters in STW, including its national leadership, raised the possibility that it could become, or be seen by the majority as, what in Maoist parlance would be called a factional headquarters. Certainly, the North East organiser (who, not so long ago, would have regarded criticism of Lindsey German or John Rees as a serious disciplinary offence) appears to have treated it as such.
So, on the formal question of discipline, Lindsey disobeyed a direct instruction from the General Secretary, which in SWP terms didn’t leave her a leg to stand on. From a political point of view though, instructing the STW convenor not to attend an STW event because the people organising it were no longer members of the SWP (although they were members in good standing until very recently) does not look very good, and is not made more attractive by the fact that Lindsey herself would have been quite prepared to use that sort of pretext against dissidents in the past.
Which brings us to the schadenfreude issue. Lots of people don’t like Lindsey. In particular, lots of ex-members don’t like Lindsey, because the number of expulsions she was involved in runs easily into three figures. It wasn’t entirely unknown for Lindsey to instigate somebody’s expulsion at CC level, then sit on the Control Commission that would confirm the expulsion. Those with long enough memories will recall Lindsey’s role in the closure of Women’s Voice, where she operated as Cliff’s battering ram, being sent on a tour of the branches to make sure they voted the right way. (If they voted the wrong way they’d be rewarded with a return visit.) In that instance, she managed to browbeat the SWP Gay Group into voting for the closure of WV, only to be closed down themselves immediately afterwards. At the centre, she had a reputation for extreme personal hostility to anyone who crossed her. So we’re not talking about an innocent abroad here.
On the other hand… let me make it clear that I don’t bear a personal animus against Lindsey. She has never done me wrong. The same goes for John Rees, who, on the few occasions I’ve had to deal with him, has been unfailingly friendly and helpful. The reservations I have about them – and have expressed about them from time to time – relate to their political track record and modus operandi, their lapses of judgement and accounts I’ve had from people whose judgement I trust and who have experienced them at closer quarters than myself.
Personalities do matter, though. When members of the British CC would visit their colonial franchise in Ireland, it would be widely remarked on that, while Lord Callinicos would always stay in a nice hotel and eat in a nice restaurant, Lindsey and John would stay in someone’s spare room and eat at a greasy spoon. Small things like that matter. And they also matter in a negative way, in that John’s increasing reputation for arrogance counted against him at least as much as the mistakes that were charged against him.
On the purely personal level, I’m distant enough from Lindsey not to have terribly strong feelings about that aspect of it. There are plenty of people who will have valued the contribution she’s made over the years, and I can understand that; there are plenty more people who will feel that what goes around comes around, and I can understand that; I suppose I partake a bit of both. (I leave aside the apparatchiks whose response to each and every departure is “good riddance”.) But there is a political aspect that concerns me more.
During the recent factional discussion, one point that I thought was terribly important to make – and a few comrades did so on the blogs – was that there were two tasks. One was to sort out the political questions that were tied up in the factional dispute. From the outside, I can understand that it must have looked like a completely apolitical bunfight, with only differences of nuance between the sides. But that’s not entirely the case. The different perspectives were inchoate and not very clearly expressed, but they were there. To recap, the reason I wasn’t hugely sympathetic to the Left Platform was that it seemed to me to have a very broad voluntarist streak, and I’ve believed for a long time that the SWP needed to get its voluntarism under control. The CC’s response to this, I believe, was seriously weakened by its terror of the opposition branding it “conservative”. Notwithstanding its own voluntarist streak and its teenage industrial perspectives in particular, there’s no question that the CC was putting forward a consolidation perspective. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it accounts to a large extent for the new regime’s popularity with cadres whose heads were spinning after a decade of bold and decisive leadership.
But, having said that, there was an arguably more important task, which was to democratise the party, and in particular to get rid of this habit of using disciplinary measures to short-circuit political differences. Another stumbling block was the party membership – there are those who honestly seem to believe the SWP’s internal democracy is nothing short of perfection, and there are many more who have been trained up to regard discussions of how you organise as sectarian, introverted and apolitical. On the contrary, the regime question is a political question of the first order. Not least because, if you have a democratic regime it’s much easier to correct mistakes. See Rosa Luxemburg on how the mistakes of a real movement are worth more than the pronouncements of the wisest Central Committee.
The thing leftists from other traditions tend to pick up on is the SWP’s constitutional ban on permanent factions and secret factions, especially the former. Now, I think these rules suck, and that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. The ban on permanent factions was IIRC brought in after the party dispensed with the services of John O’Mahoney – if you want to know what a disruptive minority is really like, ask somebody who was around back then – and has remained in force ever since. My view is that factions, even loyal and disciplined ones, are a pain in the hole, but restricting the rights of minorities is actually damaging to the party in terms of the chill it casts on open discussion. Then there’s the rule against secret factions, which is meant to be an anti-entrist measure – although it didn’t stop those two fascists in Manchester. Nobody of course will actually defend the existence of a secret faction. But the rule is wide open to abuse from the leadership – see, for instance, the squadist purge – and means that, if the CC say you’re a faction, then you are. However, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the vast majority of SWP members support these rules.
This is not to say that there’s no democracy in the SWP, or opportunities for dissent. You can do that without factions – when Progressive Labor split from the faction-ridden CPUSA, they decided right at the outset that they weren’t going to have factions, they were going to have criticism and self-criticism. (PL of course may not be the happiest precedent.) You can state your case in branch meetings, get delegated to Party Council or stand for the NC, raise concerns in your industrial fraction and what have you. There’s also a sort of informal democracy that you’ll notice on the fringes of the SWP conference rather than in the formal sessions, where comrades will compare notes from their areas (are the BNP a problem where you are, have you been managing to integrate students, what was your experience in the postal dispute) and share thoughts on where the party is going. The spread of electronic communications makes this much easier to do.
And yet, this informal democracy is radically disconnected from the formal democracy, which is the enlightened despotism of the CC (two contested elections in thirty years), and a layer of district organisers who function as feudal fiefs in their areas. The commission structure at conference means members aren’t used to proposing motions or taking votes. So initiative from below, when it happens, is usually a matter of someone having a bright idea and persuading the hierarchy it’s worth a try. Not an easy matter when discussion is institutionally rigged in favour of the leadership.
Now, there is no organisational quick fix that can solve these problems. (Talk to Socialist Party members, for instance, and they’ll probably moan to you about the ridiculous number of committees and working groups in the SP. It’s a contrast to the SWP’s back-of-an-envelope style, but different is not necessarily better.) As Chris Harman said a year or so back, it’s more a matter of culture than structures. I am, though, cautiously optimistic about the outworkings of the Democracy Commission, which is at least a baby step in the right direction.
But here’s the conundrum. The Left Platform may actually have had more success winning cadre to its position had it not had the Dynamic Duo leading it. For John and Lindsey to have opposed the Democracy Commission was an own goal of enormous proportions. (Not just in terms of the DC itself. John’s defenestration was popular because the CC sold it on the basis that nobody was above accountability; he hasn’t shown many signs of being chastened by the experience.) Beyond that, when it came to the organisational complaints of sharp practice during the pre-conference discussion, the CC could simply point to Lindsey and John having been involved in similar jiggery-pokery for years. One could also point out, when they called for imagination and flair, that during their dominance of the party only those within the magic circle were allowed to show imagination and flair. (When I hear that phrase, I always think of someone else who was praised for having imagination and flair, and helping to make STW the success it was. Where is she now, I wonder?)
You’ll sense that there’s a but coming, and indeed there is. When Catholic historians write about the Inquisition, they’ll often point out that the Inquisition’s standards of due legal process were actually quite advanced for the time, that only a minority of prisoners were tortured and that the level of executions was far below the death toll in Protestant Europe – from roaming amateur witchfinders in Germany, say, or state-sponsored religious persecution in England. This is almost certainly true, but you don’t justify something that was morally wrong by saying that someone else did more of it. And the current SWP leadership (which is the old leadership minus John and Lindsey) does not automatically become virtuous because of the excesses of the old regime (in which they were all enthusiastic participants).
There is a principle here, in terms of the democratisation process, which is not abrogated by the process having been opposed by some of the people currently receiving the rough end of the pineapple. One recalls a story Tariq Ali tells about some old caliph in Baghdad – this would be during the great flowering of Islamic thought – who decreed that Free Thought and Reason would be the guiding forces of Baghdad, and he would execute anyone who didn’t agree.
Which leads me back to Harry Worth. Perusal of the emails will reveal that Harry is an extraordinarily rude fucker, but we all knew that. As for Lindsey, I’m not all that interested in whether she retains her membership of the SWP. But you can despair of the SWP’s inability to tolerate dissent without necessarily sympathising with those who dissent. And you can think it curious that a Trotskyist group, that supposedly is made up of the most rebellious members of society, seems to aspire to monolithism in its organisation. Finally, though I doubt that Harry would understand the principled reasons behind this, let me finish on a pragmatic point. Expulsions, and resignations under conditions that seem like constructive expulsions, look bad. They almost always look bad. Unless the expellee is transparently guilty of something pretty fucking outrageous, most people will automatically sympathise with the expellee. When you’re trying to rebuild your reputation with the broader left, including people who John and Lindsey fucked over, you really don’t want to reinforce the reputation you already have for chewing people up and spitting them out.
 Alex has more on the local background. He has his own axe to grind, of course, so you take that under advisement if you wish.
 Now is not the time to get into the SWP’s disciplinary system, but I think this is a nice summary: “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22.