Via Luna17, here’s what we’d all been waiting for:
We are writing to resign from the Socialist Workers Party. We do this with great sadness but the events of recent weeks leave us with little choice.
The immediate reason for our resignation is the attempt by the Central Committee to stop Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, from speaking at a Stop the War meeting in Newcastle. This demand was justified by the claim that the meeting was ‘disputed’ or bogus. In fact, it was a properly constituted Stop the War public meeting, agreed at two consecutive Tyneside steering committees. Two SWP members tried to block the meeting because it clashed with a party branch meeting. The Stop the War meeting was a success, but was boycotted by the local SWP. The Central Committee demanded that Lindsey should not go to the meeting and ‘reserved the right’ to take disciplinary action if she attended.
Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement. Unfortunately, it fits into what is now a well-established pattern.
For many years, the SWP has played a dynamic role in the development of mass movements in Britain. The party made an important contribution to the great anti-capitalist mobilisations at the start of the decade, it threw itself into the Stop the War Coalition and was central to the Respect electoral project. These achievements were dependent on an open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements.
The SWP leadership has abandoned this approach. The task of building broad, political opposition in every area to the disasters created by neoliberalism and war is now subordinated to short term party building. We believe this undermines both the movements and the prospects of building an open and effective revolutionary current in the British working class.
The most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left. Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left.
An authoritarian internal regime has developed as a result of this change in direction. In the run up to the recent party conference, four members of the Left Platform opposition were disciplined, three of them expelled. Since the conference, four of the remaining student comrades at the School of Oriental and African studies in London have been effectively pushed out of the party. A comrade in Newcastle was given an ultimatum to resign from a key position in the local movement in January. He resigned from the party and 10 comrades left in protest at his treatment. The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement.
For these reasons we are now submitting our resignations. We do not do so lightly and we will of course remain active socialists and revolutionaries. We all joined the party because we felt it would make us more effective. Sadly, we now feel that is no longer the case. We have, however, enormous respect for the many fine comrades in the SWP and we regard it as essential to continue to work with SWP members in the unions and campaigns, since we all share a broad agreement on the need to confront recession, war and fascism. We remain convinced of the need for revolutionary socialist organisation. In fact, the need for a radical political alternative and resistance on a massive scale has rarely been more urgent.’
And there follow the names of 42 resigning members, plus the additional endorsement of 18 who had previously resigned.
My first reaction to this was: holy piss. My second reaction was: holy piss. But now it’s been an hour or two, so here are a few disorganised thoughts.
I’d been expecting something like this, but not quite so soon. And the list is a bit longer than I’d been expecting, too. Time and attrition being what they are, a good lot of the names mean nothing to me, except that I seem to detect a bias towards comrades in provincial towns where Stop the War has been the consistent focus of activity. There are a couple of people I wouldn’t have expected; conversely, a couple I might have expected aren’t there. Nor is this the detritus of the party. Leaving aside for the moment the three former CC members, Neil F is a thoroughly good bloke with a fully functioning brain. Ady C has been one of the party’s most skilled propagandists, and is a known whiz with new media. There are a few others I recognise as genuine assets to whichever organisation has them.
Now, I hate to take a cynical tone, but the sentences
An authoritarian internal regime has developed as a result of this change in direction.
The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement.
immediately leap out at the reader and provoke the reaction “Oh yeah?” Without wanting to go over the regime that the former Power Couple presided over, with the enthusiastic support of most of the current leadership… it is wondrous to behold, how the strict disciplinarian can become a born-again democrat when the boot is on the other foot.
Within the ranks of the SWP, this will probably lead to some demoralisation but rather more widespread relief that the former minority is out from under the party’s feet. At least from the opinions I’d been canvassing, though some people understood that the democratisation process might require giving the oppositionists some slack – or at least giving them a considerable amount of rope – there was also a view expressed that these guys were on a split trajectory and so there was nothing to be gained from allowing them to hang around any longer. The comrades’ willingness to go in for organisational expediency to resolve a political problem remains something that has to be dealt with.
Moreover, let us recall the record of the three CC members at the core of this. These guys’ track record involves the smashing up of Birmingham STWC; the abrupt closure of the Socialist Alliance; the split in Respect; the dodgy OFFU cheque; the stoating success story that was the Left List; and on top of that, they opposed the Democracy Commission that, for all its weaknesses, was rightly very popular with party members. With a rap sheet like that, I would have thought it would take an absolute moron to make the former Left Platform look like the wronged parties, although the General Secretary and the North East organiser seem to be making a fair stab at it. One may also bear in mind Jazz Club’s letter to the troops explaining Lindsey’s departure, which quite openly signals that action will be taken against anyone suspected of “factionalism”, a charge so sweeping it’s almost impossible to be acquitted of it.
Look, as I keep saying, I don’t have a dog in this fight. My misgivings about the former LP are to do with the very broad voluntarist streak they’ve expressed and continue to, with all of Lindsey’s references to stick-bending, grabbing the vital link in the chain, and the small cog moving the big cog. These are all perfectly within the canonical Cliff tradition, but they’re all things that are problematic to say the least, and become even more so when combined with an elitist concept of leadership. On the other hand, the current leadership – which includes most of the former leadership that was complicit in the aforementioned rap sheet – is not unproblematic in itself.
Everyone makes mistakes, but the key question is whether you can learn from your mistakes. Some mea culpas would be nice, some bridge-building with people who’ve been done wrong, but at the very least an indication that the course has been corrected. John Rees would have much more moral authority today if he’d gone away, reflected on the things that he’d got wrong – regardless of how many other people shared the blame – and come back with a self-criticism. I’m not John’s biggest fan by any means, but I know that if he got past his ego and turned his mind to an honest account of what went wrong, he has the ability to produce something really worthwhile.
Nor does this absolve the other side. I was greatly encouraged by Chris Harman’s intervention around democratisation, because Chris understood that the problem was not simply one of structures, much less personnel, but of a deferential and top-down culture that positively encouraged arbitrary and hare-brained wheezes at CC level. This was true under Cliff, and it has been true since. The implication of what Chris was saying was to call for a cultural revolution in the SWP, and I would feel much more confident about the party’s future if he was still around. The Democracy Commission’s work is a step in the right direction, as long as it is a first step rather than a final one; and there are certain recent developments, such as a lionising of fulltimers, that are a little worrying. Party members who thought they had put bold and decisive leadership behind them had better watch out, lest they find themselves subject to more of the same, just from a slightly different cast of bold and decisive leaders. One doesn’t wish to compare Martin Smith to Joe Stalin, but there were a lot of Bolsheviks quite happy to see the back of Zinoviev’s bold and decisive leadership.
As for the splitters, time will tell. They have enough critical mass in terms of numbers to sustain a smallish organisation – perhaps of the magnitude of Socialist Resistance or the AWL – and enough of a pool of talent to do their tasks well, provided they set themselves sensible tasks. And thereby hangs a question. The perspectives of the Left Platform, to the extent that they made sense, made sense if you could marshall a couple of thousand people to carry them out. A perspective of hyperactivists running around the movements being brilliant will not work with sixty or seventy people – scale alone would force you to be more modest. But now their trajectory will be theirs to set, and the divergence won’t be long in making itself apparent.
Rud eile: I couldn’t let the day’s other resignation go unmarked, so here’s wishing good luck to AVPS as he ventures into the badlands of social democracy.