To return for a moment to the organisational dynamics of the SWP, I want to explore a few points that may not be obvious to the outside observer without inside experience of the organisation. Peter Manson’s attempted Kremlinology in the latest Weekly World Worker News is a case in point, but there have been plenty of examples in commentary on the Respect crisis.
Firstly, you can only learn a limited amount from comparing the published utterances of leading members. Of course you’ll find differences of emphasis, but rarely out-and-out disagreements, and even then you have to consider that the SWP does not enforce “the line” in a totalitarian manner; the paper is the key outlet for instructing the membership, and comrades often take what they want from what they read.
Let us cast our minds back to the days of the “anti-capitalist” turn. Back then, if memory serves, the Weekly Worker got very excited over the idea that Chris Harman was leading an internal opposition, deriving this idea from comparing what Harman was writing to the pronunciamentos of Prof Callinicos. This failed to take into account that Harman has been in the central leadership for going on forty years and has never once, to my knowledge, gone oppositionist. For decades he was in fact known as the man who would stick his head above the parapet whenever Cliff felt a brainstorm coming on. So what Harman wrote during the post-Seattle frenzy, which in fact was nothing more than a restatement of the SWP’s formal position, really was nothing more than a relatively sober and nuanced perspective, which couldn’t help but contrast with the good professor’s rushes of blood to the head. Actually, it’s likely that many comrades who were dubious about the claims being made for “anti-capitalism” found Harman’s articles in SW comforting, which may well have been their purpose in the first place.
Now, in the present situation, the three people on the CC often singled out as being less enthusiastic about Respect are Harman, Chris Bambery and Martin Smith. Apart from some differences of tone, you can’t find any statement from the three amigos that puts them at odds with John and Lindsey. And as I haven’t been in touch with any of them in recent years, and don’t have the gift of telepathy, I can’t say what they privately think about Respect. In any case, a materialist rather than idealist analysis is called for. What the three amigos have in common is that the positions they hold in the party – editor of the journal, editor of the paper and national secretary – are geared towards the survival and prosperity of the SWP as an organisation. They may for all I know be all for Respect on a subjective level, but there are institutional restraints on them determining just how enthusiastic they can be, especially if Respect seems to be threatening the cohesion of the SWP.
Now we return to our friend Rees. John is, as I’ve said, in an exposed position and he’s in a weak position. This is mainly because he doesn’t hold a definite post in the SWP, but instead has owed his power and prestige over the last several years to being Mr Coalition. That’s worked well for him in the past, but has incurred a few disadvantages. One is that being Mr Coalition puts a premium on certain qualities, like tact, diplomacy and collegiality, that aren’t prized in someone who is climbing the greasy pole of the SWP hierarchy. Another is that, while John can write well, sometimes brilliantly, on politics and Marxist theory, as a practical politician he has serious limitations. Further, offering to stand down from the Respect national secretary position would have spoken well of him, and showed him to be somebody who would put politics before ambition, but the realities of what that would mean for him in terms of the SWP’s internal pecking order mean that he couldn’t move even if he wanted to. Hoist by your own petard, I think is the term.
Right, so what are the basic fault lines? It’s a mistake to see things in terms of an “opposition”, or to speak as Manson does of a “pro-Respect right wing”, even if we accept the idea of the SWP as the left of Respect and the others as the right, which I don’t. And of course it’s unlikely in the extreme that there will be an organised opposition at the upcoming SWP conference, bearing in mind that there hasn’t been a serious oppositional faction for over twenty years, the draconian restrictions on debate even in the pre-conference period, the method of delegate selection and so on. What it boils down to is that there won’t be a factional situation unless the CC splits, and there is no evidence of that as yet.
But that isn’t to say that there aren’t distinct schools of thought. There are those in the party, mostly older cadres, who’ve never really taken to Respect and would be delighted at a CC move to cut their losses, get the hell out and go back to doing pretty much what the SWP used to do in the 1990s, carrying out propagandistic campaigns, selling the paper and recruiting. This is a position I’ve an instinctive sympathy for, but there are problems inherent in it. Possibly it is sectarian, although that in itself isn’t reason enough to rule it out, then there’s the likelihood that a viable Respect would be left behind and present an obstacle for the foreseeable future. There are also those who really are in favour of Respect as such and would like to see it develop, who probably aren’t thrilled at the CC, and Rees in particular, buggering things up.
So while the odds are against a split in the SWP – I’ve seen so many predictions of that that I’ll believe it when I see it – the party is a good deal less cohesive than it’s been for many years. The honchos on the CC have tended to rely in the past on the assumption that the rank and file are basically mugs and, as long as the CC maintains a united face to the membership, they can get a 98% vote for any harebrained perspective. Well, hard as it is to tell what the relative strengths are, we’ll see if that’s the case this time round.
But before the SWP conference will be next month’s Respect conference, and I think a split is very likely. Here are the basic possibilities:
If the SWP win, is it likely that they will launch a reconciliation process, or is it likely that they will try to stamp their authority on Respect? If the latter happens, it’s quite likely that George, Salma, the East End Bengalis and just about all the non-SWP people will walk out and set up an alternative vehicle, and Respect will just be a shell, with nobody in it except the SWP, and no electoral support.
If the SWP lose, is it likely that they will agree to act as a disciplined minority, or is it likely that they will embark on a campaign of sabotage? If you have trouble making up your mind, I direct your attention to Scotland. The end result would be a Respect without the SWP – which might quickly make up what it’s lost in terms of numbers – and a determinedly isolationist SWP retreating ever further to the margins.
The propagandist road, as I say, does have its attractions. But that would require a change in politics, a dumping of Respect populism in favour of a harder Trotskyist profile. There is absolutely no evidence of this taking place and, whatever Seán Matgamna might fondly imagine, there is absolutely no evidence that the SWP CC’s alleged “left turn” in this crisis is anything other than rhetorical. That being so, we’re seeing the SWP absolutely pissing off all their allies and ensuring that nobody will work with them for a long time into the future, and without a hard political justification for this. The possibility is that SWP politics could be discredited in Britain for a generation, and I have enough residual affinity for the tradition to find that profoundly depressing.