Molyneux contra Davidson contra Rees contra Harman ad infinitum…

This is of course pure gravy for me, but it’s nice to see the discussion in the SWP going on apace. I have to say that this is the most serious discussion for, oh, at least 20 years, and you have to hope that something good will come of it. By the way, I am greatly amused at the idea of my chum Richard Seymour writing an IB document calling for a culture of open discussion. What lends this some piquancy is that, despite the Tomb operating a comments policy akin to the Pravda letters page, there are people in the party hierarchy who reckon Richard’s blog to be dangerously undisciplined and anarchistic.

Sadly, this presumed comic masterpiece is not yet in the public domain, although a trip to the underground car park may yet turn up a copy. What we have at the moment is a goodish article from John Molyneux, a genuinely excellent one from Neil Davidson, and a pretty poor one from the Harmanator on behalf of the CC.

Let’s deal with Chris first, and I must say that, while there’s some good historical stuff on the United Front, in general it’s not a very inspiring read. On the other hand, I do remember many years ago being much taken by Chris’ “Party and Class”, and it’s nice to see Chris emerging as a champion of enhanced democracy in the party. Nice, if a little unexpected. Chris, remember, has been in the leadership for over forty years and in all that time has shown little sign of ever thinking that the SWP’s internal democracy fell short of perfection. Indeed, what he was best known for in the old IS days was never once voting against Cliff. On more than one occasion, Cliff and Harman were a minority of two, but it was a cast-iron rule that, if you knew what Cliff thought, that was also what Harman thought. His major role, in fact, was to render Cliff’s brainstorms into a workable perspective.

This has an unfortunate effect on the political content of the article. One expects Chris to defend the honour of the leadership, but the insistence on the leadership’s unparalleled wisdom over the decades does grate a little. I am especially unimpressed by Chris disinterring one of Cliff’s less attractive ideas, that the leadership was right even when it was wrong. Here he is on Bambery’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign shutting down the branches:

Most members of the current CC would probably recognise that the CC of eight years ago made mistakes over the branches at the time—mistakes we are still suffering from in some areas. But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist (with members beginning not to attend out of boredom). It is easy to forget that a good many members felt a sense of relief at the decision taken by the CC. We chose the wrong solution, but there was a problem.

No matter how much waffle about dialectics or stick-bending you throw in there, Chris, it doesn’t improve things.

On the plus side, Chris does realise that the internal democracy of the party is deeply stunted and atrophied, and that this has more to do with the culture of the party than the formal structures. I give Chris a brownie point for that, but promptly take it away for his suggestion that the lack of rank-and-file involvement in debate is the fault of the ranks for being too dazzled by the sagacity of the CC.

There is little else to say on Chris, although I’m slightly annoyed at the treatment of Respect, where it might be putting things too strongly to say that Chris’ pants are on fire, but there does seem to be some definite smouldering coming from his nether regions.

Look, I was hostile to the formation of Respect, for reasons that are probably not a million miles removed from those that Chris alludes to. I had doubts about George Galloway, I felt the closure of the Socialist Alliance and the launching of Respect was done in a completely high-handed manner (not that I had much time for the SA, but never mind), and while I felt the socialist-Muslim alliance coming out of the antiwar movement was extremely important, I suspected that the SWP was approaching this alliance in an opportunistic manner and that the alliance was too unstable to base a party around. While my position was probably sectarian, I do continue to feel that those concerns were justified.

An open argument around these issues would be quite healthy for the SWP, but unfortunately we don’t have one. John Rees is right to be aggrieved in that the whole leadership endorsed his actions last year, but that also restricts the ability of the CC majority to admit any mistakes. What all four of our writers give us is the libertyvalanced history of Respect, with Galloway’s right deviation being read ever further back into the past, with an insistence on the mythological “witch-hunt of socialists” in Respect, with AWL-lite stuff about rightwing Islamists, and with everyone saying the SWP was correct to “resist Galloway”. Resist him over what, one might ask? Over his complaints about John Rees’ performance as Respect secretary, and the suggestion that another SWP member be appointed to work alongside John? The same John Rees who’s just been sacked from the CC, on the basis of his failings as a leader? Since Harman, Molyneux and Davidson all bemoan their loss of the middle ground in Respect, they might like to consider whether continuing this sort of mendacity sheds some light on their lack of allies in a battle they didn’t even need to fight.

And, before I get too annoyed, let’s pass on to Neil Davidson. Neil begins his article with some spectacular puffery on behalf of the SWP, but I’ll leave that aside. I will also pass over quickly his failure to say anything substantial about the split in the SSP, as if it was nothing to do with him. These are not insubstantial points, but they don’t detract from the substance of his article, and the very strong points he makes on leadership.

I will point out, just as an aside, that Neil is good on the membership figures and in particular the strange category of “unregistered member” – that is, people who aren’t members but who remain on the books. There’s also the interesting point that the claimed registered membership is 6100, down from 6900 last year, despite by all accounts the SWP having done a good bit of recruitment around the colleges. This suggests that Martin Smith is trying to massage the claimed membership down towards something more closely approximating the real membership, without admitting that the present figures are massively inflated. Give him a few more years, and you might actually get an honest figure.

Anyway, here’s Neil on the party’s subjectivism:

However, since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism, lack of involvement, failure to understand the new mood, inability to see the silver linings in every dark cloud, or whatever.

Quite so. Which led to an assumption that the failings of the organisation could be traced to a lack of enthusiasm in the ranks, which led to the culture of forced marches and target-setting, which led to all sorts of other undesirable outcomes. Breaking with this subjectivism, and trying to achieve a reasonable sense of what can actually be achieved, is the beginning of wisdom.

Neil is also good on the United Front – which is, after all, at the heart of transitional politics – and on the CC’s habit, inherited largely from Cliff, of using dubious analogies with the past or seeking out bolstering quotes from Lenin or Trotsky to justify whatever it wants to do. Neil has the professional historian’s correct disdain for the false analogy, and his argument is all the better for it.

Neil is at his strongest on the question of leadership:

In some respects, of course, many aspects of our party’s organisation and approach have changed since the early 1980s–the size and number of branches, our attitude to participation in electoral alliances, our willingness to stand for full-time union positions–but not the relationship of the CC to the rest of the party. At the heart of this relationship is the idea that the leadership will debate issues amongst themselves, then decide on a course of action and only then inform the membership what this decision is and what it will involve them in doing–although we are of course then invited to ratify the CC’s decisions at Annual Conference.

This is bolstered by John Molyneux:

Two things are crucial here: one is the CC internal united front against dissidents, which has meant that differences within the CC are kept hidden from the membership while any critic is met with an overwhelming rebuttal. I will give a personal example (unimportant in itself and it happened to many others) just to make clear what I mean .Some years ago, at a Party Council, I questioned the estimation and figures given for a demonstration (the Birmingham demo against the closure of Longbridge). I was immediately replied to by five members of the CC, but, of course, given no right of reply to them. The other, less important but still of significance, is tone. Critics can be replied to politically and strong arguments put, without making the victim feel like they never want to speak at an SWP conference or council again. Such practices, once prevalent, have dramatically declined recently. They should not be brought back.

I’m sure plenty of John’s readers can add their own examples. Back to Neil:

Unfortunately, the attitude the CC has taken to avoid the problem [its debilitating fear of a split] is to suppress any debate beyond what it deems a reasonable level, which is usually about the practical or technical application of policies which members of the CC have decided among themselves. But this does not lead to the elimination of differences, just to their internalisation, which in turn leads to cynicism, inactivity and ultimately to comrades leaving the organisation. In effect, it produces the very situation it seeks to avoid, except that the lifeblood of the party is not transfused into another organisation, it simply drains away. The long term corrosive effect of this is actually far more debilitating than any open split would be.

Indeed, and I think one of the big problems with the Cliff legacy is the pas devant les enfants attitude of the CC to the ranks, combined with a myth of CC infallibility in the ranks. This was probably less of a problem when Cliff was alive (though it was hardly insignificant even then), but post-Cliff you end up with a problem of authority. It’s like Hegel’s idea of the enlightened monarch, which works fine if your monarch is Frederick the Great, less well if the man at the top is less able.

Neil has a further, extremely important point on the CC, which is worth quoting at length:

The other argument is that, if comrades are unhappy with the role of the CC, its membership can be changed at conference. But this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership in waiting capable of challenging the CC. Of course, a potential national leadership does exist out in the country–indeed, if it did not, and there were really no cadres who could possibly take over from the core of the CC that has been in place since the early 1980s, then we would have utterly failed in one of our key tasks, which is surely to develop such a leadership. The problem is rather that they are generally operating in isolation from each other, have few means of making themselves known at a national level and are rarely consciously developed.


In fact, with very few exceptions, most of the comrades who have been invited to join the CC since the early 1980s have been student or district organisers–in other words they are drawn from the ranks of the party’s paid officials, whose jobs had previously been to relay the views of the leadership to the members. Now, the organiser’s job is a necessary, difficult and not particularly well paid one. The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role–or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further. With one exception the entire CC consists of comrades who are paid full-timers, “professional revolutionaries”, all of whom live in the same city… Clearly, some current members of the CC would remain as part of virtually any reconfigured body, but not all. Can there be anything more damaging to the idea of revolutionary leadership than the perception that members of what I call the superior part of the CC occupy a sinecure or permanent fixture, that its members will retain their posts–or some post, at any rate–regardless of what they do or fail to do in the exercise of their duties?

And Neil continues:

The CC needs to be reorganised, both in structure and composition. The leadership should at the very least, be weighted as much towards those who are actually leading in workplaces, universities, campaigns, communities and intellectual life, as towards party full-timers. It also needs to reflect the different spatial experiences of the class: the rhythms of political life are different now in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and no decisions about the Britain as a whole can be taken without taking these differences into consideration.

This is very important. The composition of the CC is not simply a pragmatic issue, as it has tended to be taken up to now. The predominant view of the CC is that it is a political leadership and at the same time a management committee made up of the most capable administrators. (Although, even on the latter criterion, a major clearout is indicated. I surely don’t have to rehearse the biographies of current CC members in order to flag up failings in the administration.) These two are hard enough to combine at the best of times, but what’s completely missing is the idea that the CC is, in some sense, a representative body of the party. There is no geographical spread. There is no occupational spread, unless Prof Callinicos is taken to represent the worker members. There is no representation for political minorities. (Cliff and Harman, in years gone by, took it for granted that there would be. And I would certainly be in favour of Molyneux and Davidson’s election to a revamped CC.)

I will now end with John Molyneux, who deals a little with the question of Rees’ removal from the leadership. I have my doubts about John M’s position, which seems to me to be supporting the CC majority in the hope that they will issue in a new period of democracy, but I do think he’s right to flag up that Rees (and Lindsey, and Bambery, and Nineham) have never seen any problem of a lack of democracy in the party. In fact Rees seems to have gloried in the status quo, backed up by his peculiar Lukácsian notion of leadership. Molyneux says:

Obviously John is not the only one responsible for the difficulties in Respect/Left List/Left Alternative etc . In one sense the main responsibility lies with Galloway and co. In another sense it lies with all the CC, and in another sense with all leading party cadre. Nevertheless he was the CC member responsible for this area of work and this carries with it certain consequences when there are a series of mistakes, as I’m sure John, Lindsey, and Chris have had to explain to many a failing organiser in the past. Of course it is ‘personalised’ (in the sense of someone’s personal political record not their personal life) because the election of the CC is about the election of specific persons to lead the party. Fairness doesn’t come into it. No one has a right to be on the CC. The only right involved here is the right of the party membership to elect its leaders and it must elect the people who will serve it best, regardless of ‘fairness’.

That’s actually a very fair way of putting it. John continues:

John [Rees] also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently.


At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.

Well and good. I’ll believe this new democracy when I see it, and I’d be especially interested to see if Swiss Toni and his acolytes over here change their ways, but I wish you the very best of luck. God knows, the SWP has worn out a lot of good will, but if it can change and regenerate, it may yet have a positive role to play in the future, and not just a somewhat illustrious past.


  1. John Palmer said,

    December 18, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I, too, have read this succession of Internal Bulletin declarations with interest and some surprise. Neil Davidson, John Molyneux and even Chris Harmon come as close as dammit to conceding the SWP party regime is in crisis – not just facing a few transitory problems. Having known Chris H. over many decades I think this is the first paper I have ever seen of his to be at least as incipiently self-crticial as this one. Naturally, for someone of my generation, the temptation is to compare these latest upheravels with the full blown crisis that led to the split in IS (forerunner to the SWP) in the mid 1970s. But there are massive differences. At that time the IS had a limited (but significant) implantation in the organised labour movement. Indeed – as has been pointed out many times – the purge of the IS Opposition not merely removed various individuals with a long standing record inside the organisation (what is new?) but led to the loss directly and indirectly of hundreds of leading shop stewards and other TU militants. Today the SWP has no such implantation in the working class movement. Nor does any other claimant to leadership of the far left. Indeed that kind of working class movement has been fragmented and has disappeared from whole swathes of the country. There can be no satisfactory rendering of accounts inside the SWP (or any other left organisation) without coming to terms with this reality.

  2. John Palmer said,

    December 18, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Sorry for the silly typos – Chris Harman, of course

  3. Mark P said,

    December 18, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Davidson’s article is certainly interesting, once you get past the quite ludicrous stuff about the significance and glory of the SWP.

    The Weekly Worker has an interesting bit of related gossip, revealing that fifteen mostly quite prominent SWP members have signed Davidson’s motion. It also includes a few snippets of other contributions to their discussion (albeit carefully chosen by the CPGB/WW), which add further weight to the contention that Davidson and Molyneux aren’t on their own.

    One bit, incidentally, might be of interest to the Irish SWP given their current preoccupations: “… it is not our job to set up a left-reformist political ‘home’ for people who are becoming radicalised in struggle, so we can enter it, with the distorted view that what we can do is at worst huddle together for warmth or at best debate whether we can do well enough to be a ‘player’ on the scene of bourgeois politics”. That comes from an IB contribution signed by a number of London members, including someone who used to be prominent in the Irish organisation. I can’t imagine the British SWP going remotely that far in their change of line, but they certainly do look as if they are turning away pretty firmly from electoral work in general and Respect style arrangements in particular. On the face of it this would seem to leave the Irish SWP much further out of step with London than they have ever been before.

    As for where they go from here, it seems that there is an alliance of convenience between the CC majority and their pro-democracy critics – or at least that’s what I take from the Harman and Molyneux documents. I think you’d have to be pretty naive to imagine that people who’ve been in the leadership for decades have suddenly been overcome with pro-democracy sentiment.

    Finally, the membership figures in Davidson’s document (6,100 members on paper) makes for interesting reading beside the remark in Rees’ document about the fraction of members who attend meetings (a sixth).

  4. ejh said,

    December 18, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    The Weekly Worker has an interesting bit of related gossip

    This will never, ever, be true.

    despite the Tomb operating a comments policy akin to the Pravda letters page

    Ah…even this were true, have you ever tried to read it when it has not? It may be the most-trolled blog I’ve ever read, which is saying something. I’d moderate it with a blowtorch.

  5. ejh said,

    December 18, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    There can be no satisfactory rendering of accounts inside the SWP (or any other left organisation) without coming to terms with this reality.

    Indeed. And this is the point that I think nobody else is likely to make: no matter how uncomfortable it is to deal with the point (which is why it’s usually avoided) whatever the failings of the SWP in this area (or any other) nobody else has managed to do anything signicant either. Whichi s why we have this curious culture of people calling on the SWP to do this and that, in much the same way that the SWP (or the Mili, in their heyday, or the CP) used to call on the Labour Party, or the Labour left, to do this or that because they could not do it themselves.

    One assumes (lacking as I do the will to find out) that there are groups who spend a substantial amount of time making demands of the people who make demands of the SWP who make demands of….

    Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite ’em….

  6. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    December 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Definitely getting old. I can’t remember Grace Lally being a leading member but she may well have been. Remember Ray Morrell alright when he was in Edinburgh, a party loyalist at the time.

  7. Mike said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    In relation to the SWPs membership and vitality I was talking to a rather naive young man today and was informed that he was a delegate to conference cos his branch could not find enough volunteers to attend! And this in London not some far flung outpost.

  8. Andy Newman said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    ejh: “none else has managed to do anything signicant either.”

    Wwel that clearly isn’t the case, the most succesful left party in britain is plaid Cymru, and they have acheived participation in a coalition government, and run a county council – whch is clearly “someothing significant”.

    and even Mebyon Kernow has 17 elected councillors.

  9. Garibaldy said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    The arrogance of the Harmon document on behalf of the leadership (or should that be “we are duh management”) is astounding. Having said that, one thing that I would have thought was central to these discussions about what role the members may or may not have in shaping direction is the nature of the membership. I don’t know if it is the case (still?), but certainly the perception on the non-Trotskyist left is that the average life expectancy of the membership is 6 months or so. Even if it is not that short, there can be no denying that the SWP has a huge turnover of membership, as anyone who has observed their branches at a university from one year to the next will know. I presume some of the belief among their leadership that they must take all the important decisions is precisely because the membership is such a changing and changeable beast. I know of at least one continental party that has different levels of membership. It seems to me that if the SWP is to be honest with itself, it should introduce something similar, or serious probationary membership at least. That way the more dedicated and experienced but non-full time people would not be lumped in with the student who signed up for a laugh.

  10. End of an era said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    There is a lovely line in the piece from the Sage of Portsmouth that goes “I remember a conference speech by John [Rees] in which he explained to us all in general, and to some hapless branch in particular, that the art of leadership in a united front consisted of maintaining the ground for the broadest unity and at the same time DEFEATING (JR’s word) your allies on key questions of strategy and tactics. In Respect he did neither.”

    I’m not sure whether John M thinks Rees should go because of his overall strategy or simply because he failed to DEFEAT his allies effectively. What neither of the two John’s seemed to realise was that “maintaining the ground for the broadest unity” is never helped by lying about your allies’ motives and slandering them to your members. Here the ‘stop the witchhunt’ wheeze (invented by Rees, signed up to by Molyneux and supported by Harman despite being on holiday) was such a disaster as it was taken as personal insult to the integrity of many of the non-SWP socialists within Respect who then realised quite what contempt they were held in by the SWP.

  11. prianikoff said,

    December 19, 2008 at 7:08 am

    “…the strange category of “unregistered member” ”

    I’d like to propose the term “Ponzi Member”.

    “Ponzi recruitment” sustains an apparatus of full timers by replacing the layer of members recruited 2-3 years ago with people from freshers fairs.

    a.k.a the revolving door scheme

  12. ejh said,

    December 19, 2008 at 8:20 am

    the most succesful left party in britain is plaid Cymru

    Uh huh

  13. Mike said,

    December 19, 2008 at 10:47 am

    The current weakly wanker carries a list of signatories to Neil Davidsons conference resolution. Now I sympathise with Davidsons document as the most thoroughgoing reform document in the current debate but his resolution is deeply flawed as it would prevent Rees being removed from the C at the earliest possible opportunity. What is important about the list of signatories to the resolution however is that it reveals that there is a layer of experienced SWP members, including some with real experience in what remains of the workers movement, who back the idea that the SWP needs far more internal democracy and debate than the CC majority acknowledges. And this is clearly pushing comrades like Molyneux and the CC majority forward. What is more worrying is that the ranks of the group are very inexperienced politically, and I include the apparat in this category, with next to no knowledge of either Marxism or the workers movement itself highly bureaucratised of course. The question then arises as to whether the middle ranking cadre can muster enough support to substantially reform the group. One wishes them success.

  14. Dustin the Turkey said,

    December 19, 2008 at 11:54 am

    “[Lenny’s Tomb] may be the most-trolled blog I’ve ever read, which is saying something. I’d moderate it with a blowtorch.”

    Does this explain why Lenny has removed all discussion of the SWP documents from his blog then?

    Sorry, but the idea that he only deletes trolls is ludicrous.

  15. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I second Dustin’s sentiment. EJH’s claim is not only ludicrous it’s risible.

    But I don’t really think you can lay all the blame at Lenny’s door. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the SWP down the years knows that he’s only doing in the blogosphere what they’ve done as an organisation in every walk of political life.

  16. Phil said,

    December 19, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    his resolution is deeply flawed as it would prevent Rees being removed from the C at the earliest possible opportunity

    On the contrary, that’s one of the best things about it – it ensures that the current row won’t be artificially resolved by dumping Rees. The problem (or opportunity) is bigger than that.

  17. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Chris Harman wrote:

    “But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist”

    Aah routinist and it’s special cousin, routinism. Down the years I’ve seen those words pop up in many a SWP document. Nobody’s ever explained to me why those labels are never attached to the likes of Harman, German, Rees, Calliniocs, Bambery etc etc themselves. All individuals who have been in the upper echelons of the leadership of the SWP for a minimum of about 25 years.

    In Harman’s case, he’s been at the top table now for how many decades? Four maybe five? Does he have a special serum that inoculates him from falling into routinism himself?

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 19, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    You’ve never seen Chris bang his walking stick against the floor and transform into the Mighty Thor?

    But then, they all seem to hang around for decades, and you can’t shift them. Cliff was like that, Healy was like that, Grant was like that. Peter Taaffe is not an untalented bloke, but I don’t see that he is so special he should be General Secretary for 45 years and counting. Etc. It might be shocking to think of a CC without Harman or Callinicos or Lyndzee, but term limits may not be a bad idea. An occasional spell on the backbenches would do some of them the world of good, especially Alex.

  19. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm


    “But then, they all seem to hang around for decades . . .”

    yep, of course it applies to all the Generals Without Armies that make up the Leninist Left. The leadership of the Millies/AWL/whatever Thornett’s mob are called this month are all made up of individuals who all remember a pre-religious Cliff Richard.

    I’ve made the point elsewhere but, in the case of Taaffe, it would be the equivalent of Jo Grimond leading the Liberal Democrats today (‘But Jo’s dead . . . . but how can you tell?’)

    “you can’t shift them”

    Well, as it’s been made apparent in recent days via leaked documents – though it’s always been an open secret – the democratic mechanism isn’t in place for you to shift them. They can only shift themselves; either through visiting the Great Reading Room in the sky or because of a major falling out amongst themselves, where toys are thrown and rattles are shaked.

    And the fuckers still deny that they’re all a shower of 24 carat substitutionists.

  20. skidmarx said,

    December 19, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    ” they didn’t even need to fight.” The link isn’t enabled.

    Before I saw it I was going to make the same point as ejh about Lenin’s Tomb.

    ” but term limits may not be a bad idea.” Maybe if you were in the SWP your view on this would have some relevance.

    “Resist him over what, one might ask?”
    His attempt to destroy the democracy of Respect by insisting that power be taken from its noticeably numerous component. The idea that there would have been no battle between the SWP and Galloway if the SWP had given way on this one issue is risible. The reason why the four may be in agreement that Galloway had to be resisted is not mendacity but simple sense. Time and again since the split he and his faction have adopted positions to the right. From the tone of the debate that has followed it would seem the split was inevitable.

    “with AWL-lite stuff about rightwing Islamists”

    Is this the old misquote of Lindsey German where she actually talked about more extreme elements?

  21. Mark P said,

    December 19, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    The leadership of the Millies/AWL/whatever Thornett’s mob are called this month are all made up of individuals who all remember a pre-religious Cliff Richard.

    They’re really not, you know. Well perhaps excepting the ISG (Thornett) and in that case the leadership’s age profile is in keeping with the profile of the broader membership, given that they haven’t recruited anyone under forty in quite some time. Giving out to them for being led by middle aged people would be like giving out to their Irish sister group for being led by grumpy old men. Just who else is supposed to lead a group consisting only of grumpy old men exactly?

    But getting back to the wider point, the leadership bodies of almost every group on the far left contain a mixture of people who have been there a long time (and who are therefore generally older), people who’ve been there a while and people who are pretty new.Even the SWP, which seems to be getting a bit of stick here for having a lot of people of around Rees’ vintage also has a few younger sorts on its CC and only one person hanging around from the days before Rees, German, Bambery et al.

    It is true that “founding leaders” of left groups in Britain are relatively rarely evicted entirely however. Ted Grant must be about the only one who was ever unfortunate enough to get turfed out by his organisation over an actual political disagreement, as opposed to being revealed as a sex pest or the like (see Healy, G.). Although come to think of it, I can’t remember if the Permanent Revolution crew includes the original leaders of Workers Power or not.

  22. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    “Maybe if you were in the SWP your view on this would have some relevance.”

    That’s you telt, Splinty.

    SWP have pretensions to be the vanguard party of the working class – the giveaway is the P bit in their acronym – but raise any awkward questions and it’s none of your business.

    Wake me up when the SWP gets to the primitive stage of being as democratic as the Tory Party.

  23. Neil said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    “Cliff was like that, Healy was like that, Grant was like that. Peter Taaffe is not an untalented bloke, but I don’t see that he is so special he should be General Secretary for 45 years and counting.”

    Well I’d say the main difference with Peter Taaffe and the rest is that he’s been deeply involved in the day to day running of two mass movements, one of them victorious. Certainly Cliff, Harman or who ever can’t claim that. I think it would be a loss for us to lose that kind of experience from the leadership.

    Also you can say what you like about the SP/Militant (and people frequently do!) but I think it is a mistake to compare our internal runnings with that of the SWP nevermind the WRP etc. For one factions are allowed to function (at any time of the year) with full access to party publications, seats on the National Committee and Exec etc.
    While the SP does use a slate system for the NC the key difference I think is that only rank and file members elected from the branches at conference have a full vote. Full timers only get a consultative vote.

    Now this is not a perfect system that, by itself, guarentees a bureaucracy cannot come to dominate the organisation. No such system exists. The key ingredient that keeps bureaucracy and cliques at bay is a well educated, questioning membership that feels it has the right and duty to raise differences with policy and tactics at any level in the party.
    Despite the recent documents published by various factions in the SWP I see little signs of this yet in the SWP. One of the things I found most shocking in all these documents is Molyneux’s frank description (and Andy Newmans corroberation) of the way district full timers seem to rule their branches like fuedal lords and ladies. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the SP and your more likely to get a punch in the gob than reluctant obedience with that kind of behaviour.
    Such a culture of discussion can’t be implanted into an organisation over night.

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    No, it can’t. And I continue to hold that the culture is much more important than the formal structures. The specifics though are interesting – the SP/Militant tradition has always carried over a lot of the structures of the official labour movement, with pluses and minuses associated with that. The thing people find hard to grasp about the SWP is that its elevation of spontaneity and rank-and-filism goes hand in hand with a (seemingly libertarian) lack of formal structures that actually increases the gap between the leaders and the ranks.

    By the way, I wasn’t specifically suggesting that Taaffe be busted down to the ranks, still less that his experience shouldn’t be used in the leadership. But the left, and not just the SWP, has had a long history of dead hands on steering wheels, and you can think of as many examples as I can.

    Maybe if you were in the SWP your view on this would have some relevance.

    Nor are you in the SWP, but that doesn’t stop you having very specific views about what the SWP is doing.

  25. ejh said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    EJH’s claim is not only ludicrous it’s risible.

    It would be, had I made it.

    If Len’s been removing discussion of documents that weren’t for public discussion, I’d agree with him doing it: partly because no-one’s obliged to host anything on their blog they don’t want to and partly because it was be bizarre for him not to, being a member of the organisation which considers these documents in-house.

    I should say, and have probably said before, that I regard the practice of publishing other people’s confidential documents as pretty repugnant. There’s all sorts of good reasons why – partly because I wouldn’t want people rummaging through my private and confidential stuff, but partly because of what it says about the people who do it. You can think these documents ought to be public, and you may be right, just as if, were I to write an email to a third party about you, you might think I shouldn’t say things behind your back, and perhaps be right about that too. But in neither case do you really have any right to decide that it shouldn’t be private after all. It really gives me the creeps. I’m not kidding and not exaggerating. I don’t like the people who do this sort of thing and I don’t like their self-justifications.

    There’s always been a nasty self-appointed aspect about a lot of far leftists, and this seems to me to be a pretty unpleasant example of that – just as of course the aspect of “we must turn socialist discussion into a deninciation of our rivals” is to the fore.

    It’s stuff like this that took me away from the far left, in all and any of its forms, when I began to trie of it: it’s the way you do things. You just come over as thoroughly unpleasant people, always ready to overlook an ethical point if it’ll help you score a political one.

    Incidentally, Neil’s view of the SP’s internal workings don’t quite chime with those of Marc Mulholland” (or mine, though that’s another matter and an old one). I like Marc’s piece very much – it’s generously written, which is more than I can say for most of the contributions on this thread.

  26. ejh said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Nor are you in the SWP, but that doesn’t stop you having very specific views about what the SWP is doing.

    Relevance would be an exaggeration, I think: but there ius something ludicrous about people all piling into an organisation they don’t belong to and don’t like – and telling it what it should do. If you don’t like them, and you may have plenty of good reasons, why not go and do something else? Join or form a healthier organsation, a more relevant one – God knows if the accounts people give of the SWP are at all accurate, that shouldn’t be so hard.

    Perhaps you’re trying to save the SWP from themselves? Well, that’s kind of you, but perhaps they’d rather you let them alone? Wouldn’t you find the whole things rather bizarre and intrusive if the roles were reversed?

    Most of the contributions on this thread (and pretty much all the thousands like it) come into the category of Your Organsation Is Small, Irrelevant, Politically Bankrupt And In Terminal Decline And That Is Why I Spend So Much Time Talking About It. (Still, at least that’s better than the other popular version, which goes something like Hey, Buddy! Pull Up A Chair And I’ll Spend Several Hours Telling You All About My Ex-Wife.)

  27. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    “he leadership bodies of almost every group on the far left contain a mixture of people who have been there a long time (and who are therefore generally older), people who’ve been there a while and people who are pretty new.”

    Mark P.

    you’d have to define “pretty new” for me. I was referring to ‘leading members’ in these organisations, not the voting fodder that can make up the various Central Committees/National Committees/Executive Committees etc etc.

    Even in the case of the Millies, their youngest ‘leading member’ would probably be Hannah Sell, who just happened to be the last Millies LPYS rep on the Labour Party’s NEC.

    You’re right that of course they haven’t recruited in the same numbers as they have in the past, but they have recruited. And when the left recruit, they aren’t recruiting forty year olds, they’re recruiting kids and college students.

    All in all, it just seems so improbable that since the nineties none of these organisations appear to have thrown up a new leader for the high table. Is it simply the case that the quality hasn’t been there, or is a more probable explanation is that someone has to die first before there’s any thought of co-opting a new face into the leadership?

  28. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:42 pm


    I was agreeing with Dustin’s specific point comment of, “Sorry, but the idea that he only deletes trolls is ludicrous.”

    So I stand by the risible comment.

    Have a good one.

  29. ejh said,

    December 19, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Well you weren’t, Darren, because you described it as “EJH’s claim”. I mean scroll upwards man, it’s not so hard.

    I shall have a nice siesta shortly, ta.

  30. Doug said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    That’s a difficult question. I know in my SP region there are several extremely capable younger comrades but, like football managers, if they pushed upwards too quickly it does nobody any good. Another issue is that a lot of people actually have commitments – work, family etc – that makes the transition to the ‘pinnacle’ of an organisation extremely problematic. I think people are happy for things to pootle along unless there’s an almighty cock up or district organisers stop being co-ordinators and end up merely being CC enforcers. Again, that’s not my experience in the SP. One key factor people tend to overlook is that the SP not only values regular branch meetings to discuss matters of ‘theory’ and operational issues, there’s a general culture of Marxist education from day 1. In stark contrast to an SWP’er and trade union activist of longstanding (2-3 decades?) in my area, who has an appalling level of political understanding – a BNPer standing in a local election was met by the SWP/UAF/Respect with a ‘love poetry, hate racism’ stunt in a completely different town 15 miles away, along with the distribution in the ward concerned of the usual crass anti-BNP UAF stuff devoid of any political content whatsoever. When I criticised this the SWPer said ‘Let’s get rid of the Nazis first, then do the politics’, something not even an SP of 3 months would come out with.

  31. Darren said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    “most-trolled blog.”

    It’s implied you cheeky monkey, and it remains risible. 😉

    A siesta? I’m jealous. Now, I have to go out in the Brooklyn snow.

    Have that good one.

  32. Neil said,

    December 19, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    In fairness to Hannah Sell, she was 17 when she was on the LPYS and Labour NEC.

    As for the compostition of the SP EC it’s worth pointing out that the 90’s was an extremely difficult decade for us. In many ways we were in exile from the movement following the collapse of Stalinism that only began to come to an end at the start of the anti-war movement. (I think the current economic crisis has broken that isolation completely but that’s by-the-by)

    So we weren’t involved in the mass struggles of the working class like we were in the 80’s due to a)there being alot less of them and b) our shrunken size, internal dificulties etc. This meant the kind of people who had proved themselves in big struggles and movements weren’t coming through that could justify replacing them with older comrades who had. It would be a mistake to compare the SP EC to the SWP CC. Your talking about people like Hannah, Lois Austen who led the YRE, Bill Mullins a convenor at a Birmingham car factory in the 70’s (back when there was elements of dual power on the factory floor) as well as comrades who came through in Liverpool or the Poll Tax. That said only two of the current EC were there when the split with the Grant group happened.

    Most of the new talent that we recruited in the 90’s went into the trade union field, which is part of the reason the SP is in the strongest position of any left group, although of course that’s relative to the small size of the left in the leadership of the unions overall.

    I’ll shut up about the SP now cos this is primarily an SWP one but i’ll just say in relation to Ciaran Mullholland’s doc that I came up in the Irish org as well, although later on 98-01. Some of it made me smile as I recognised it bits of it, but as I said to him myself I thought he was too harsh on the internal regime. My impressions from our conversation was that his main beef was that our approach to historical questions was dogmatic and not based on historical fact rather than we had an internal regime similar to that of the SWP. My own experience of raising disagreements in the SP in Ireland and England & Wales is that I am free to do so but I had better be able to back it up as comrades are equally free to disagree with me. I’ve never experienced long term negative consequences for disagreeing in internal discussions.

  33. skidmarx said,

    December 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    “Nor are you in the SWP, but that doesn’t stop you having very specific views about what the SWP is doing.”

    First on the first six words, thanks for noticing. One of the things that over time convinced me that the supporters of Respect Renewal tended to be ignorant fools was their a priori assumption that the SWP was a crappy lying cult, which meant they could not conceive that someone would side with the SWP against them without being a currently brainwashed member.
    While generally agreeing with what ejh has said about telling organisations one is not a member of how to run their affairs, I thought the suggestion of term limits was an especially stark example of prescribing the minutiae.
    Actually I think it’s fantastically important in terms of the thing to say that most of my views of the SWP are general rather than specific.
    You haven’t responded to my suggestion of risibility. I was especially convinced that the split was a pre-planned operation by the Galloway crew because of the way Galloway’s assistants Ovenden and Hoveman failed to leave the party honestly and declare their allegiance for Galloway, instead trying to muddy the waters as much as possible in a failed attempt to convince a layer of party members that it was all about Rees. In any case the clear politcal differences and the vitriol coming from the Renewalists (and their undemocratic coup to seize the name Respect) suggests that the only thing the SWP did wrong at the time was not to be better prepared (like Cliff’s boy scouts should be). I can see that if there had not been failings in the way the SWP organises in recent years, Galloway and his crew would not have thought they could easily mess it up and achieve their objectives.

  34. Phil said,

    December 20, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    the only thing the SWP did wrong at the time was not to be better prepared

    Against Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden, Nick Wrack, Linda Smith, Jerry Hicks, Ger Francis, the scheming Searle brothers and all?

  35. End of an era said,

    December 20, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Skidmarx “I can see that if there had not been failings in the way the SWP organises in recent years, Galloway and his crew would not have thought they could easily mess it up and achieve their objectives.”

    And those objectives were:-
    1) a proper accounting and budgeting of Respect funds.
    2) A national organiser to work alongside John Rees
    3) an elections committee to oversee preparations for the forthcoming General Election.

    To this day I really can’t see why it was worth smashing the whole thing up over this. But it does seem that all the SWP big thinkers are united in the need to ‘resist’ Galloway’s fiendish plot.

    As for being a ‘pre-planned operation by the Galloway crew’ – it’s that kind of fantasy politics that makes people think the far left are all a bunch of nutters.

  36. Harrods is Burning said,

    December 20, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Darren “it just seems so improbable that since the nineties none of these organisations appear to have thrown up a new leader for the high table” How about Colin Smith – promoted straight from being student organiser to on the SWP CC and clearly the right side of 30?

    Harman points out that 4 members of the current SWP CC have been on for more than 18 years (CH, AC, LG, CB). I think there are another three who’ve been on for longer than five years (MS, JR, CN) and that the other six have all come on to the CC since the Stop the War March of 15 February 2003.

    With JR leaving I make that a 50-50 split between those who’ve joined in the last 5 years, and those who’ve been around longer.

  37. Gerry Downing said,

    December 20, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Well, speaking as an ex-Healyite I have to say that the first thing that I recognised after the WRP 1985 split was that the WRP, the SWP and the Millies had very similar internal regimes, these were guru-led organisations which had their origins in the Stalinist third period dogmatism of ultra leftist gesture politics; if you could not really make a difference in the political situation you could certainly impress your membership with a revolutionary blast which substituted. No real democracy was permitted to lowers layers of the organisations, even if we accept that it is necessary to have a category of candidate membership which prevents the revolutionary theory of the organisation, manifestly at odds with prevailing bourgeois values and culture, from being swamped by a sudden intake of new members.
    The SWP is the last of the three main historical trends of British Trotskyism to face its soul-searching split. We have being anticipating this event since 1985. It is good that it should. In a way the WRP was the most ‘theoretical’, that is it had a formal type of orthodoxy that seemed revolutionary and it did teach its members theory at quite a high level. But its ultra-leftism was combined with an opportunist capitulation to the Arab bourgeoisie (the ridiculously objectively developing world revolution which enabled Iraqi communists to be shot to allow its unfolding) and the reformist radicals labour bureaucracies represented by Livingstone and Ted Knight. The millies emphasised theory also, but clearly at a less orthodox level, the British Labour party could never be transformed into a vehicle to introduce socialism via an enabling act as they proposed in a reformist abandonment of a revolutionary perspective, the British army (even if you recruited them to a tu) would shoot you as soon as you got your majority votes in parliament. That is not to say that Healy was closer to the answer; in my view historically the Thornetite WSL came closest to elaborating a transitional programme of demands on labour leaders to educate a generation of revolutionaries for their historic revolutionary tasks, other subsequent splits like the ITC/RIL and later the WIL/LTT made significant efforts to assert the Transitional method and relate to the mass reformist consciousness of the workers by something other than self-proclamation and attempting to build new reformist half-way-house organisations themselves where they might get a better hearing on the left but which left ordinary workers unimpressed.
    Of the three the SWP survived so long because of its low level of theory; surely what was primarly wrong with Respect was its blatant Popular Frontism, its bland assumption that there was nothing wrong with making alliances with petty bourgeois forces like the BMA to defeat war and fascism. Once you grovel in this milieu (one councillor actually joined the Tories) then class politics, let alone revolutionary principals, historically evolved, are totally abandoned. In other words the SWP survived so long because the theoretical level of the organisation and membership was so low that the ideological onslaught of neo-liberalsm went over their heads until crass opportunism turned to bite them in the rear.
    Surely this split will present anew a radical rethink in the middle lawyers and newer membership; if any long term leaders do anything other than reassert some version of the past errors it will be an enormous surprise to me, given the experience of the WRP and the Millies splits.
    Gerry Downing

  38. End of an era said,

    December 21, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    But Harrods, I think you miss the point. The CC may change but in most circumstances they pick their own replacements – via the slate system – and in recent years those replacements have come form the ranks of the apparatus. In other words their politics have been those that the CC find most agreeable – the ones who speak out or disagree on tactics get sacked. Those CC members who go quietly into the dark are given some space, others are either publicly or privately denounced.

    The recent crop speak for themselves.

    Viv S – former District organiser
    Colin S – former student organiser
    Charlie K – SW journalist
    Judith O – SR journalist
    Hannah D – former district organiser
    Michael B – SW circulation
    Chris N – who cares

    See the pattern – but you seem happy with it so best wishes.

  39. Darren said,

    December 22, 2008 at 5:28 am


    I really don’t wish to appear too rude to the recent crop but, in truth, they’re non-entities in their own households.

    I’m talking about leaders who would have replaced the likes of Rees, Harman, Bambery etc etc not the voting fodder that seconds the CC resolutions.

    “How about Colin Smith – promoted straight from being student organiser to on the SWP CC and clearly the right side of 30?”

    Glad to hear it. bearing in mind the main area for recruitment in the last x amount of years is the student population, I’d be surprised if they didn’t co-opt the student organiser onto the CC.

    However, I’m tempted to write ‘Colin who’? It’s still the same old faces who get the headline gigs at Marxism, at the Conferences and Special Events etc. Sounds superficial, but the star system is still firmly in place, and it looks like whatever does happen at their forthcoming Conference it will be more of the same.

  40. skidmarx said,

    December 22, 2008 at 10:03 am

    “Against Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden, Nick Wrack, Linda Smith, Jerry Hicks, Ger Francis, the scheming Searle brothers and all?”

    And Uncle Tom Cobbleigh

    “To this day I really can’t see why it was worth smashing the whole thing up over this.”

    Then maybe Galloway shouldn’t have.

  41. Phil said,

    December 22, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    The point of my list is that half the SWP leadership’s ‘enemies’ in RESPECT could have been won round if the Galloway letter had been handled differently, and the other half weren’t even enemies when it all began.

    As for Galloway smashing RESPECT, this all started with Galloway criticising John Rees – in rather more friendly terms than Alex Callinicos is using about him now.

  42. Richard Searle said,

    December 22, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    ‘ the scheming Searle brothers and all’

    thanx for the accolade

  43. skidmarx said,

    December 22, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    41. Phil – I don’t believe that, and I’m not sure you do.Having viewed the split through the prism of the expulsions of Ovenden and Hoveman, who claimed right up to their expulsions that they had the same politics as the party and their refusal to carry out party instructions was a misunderstanding, I think very little of what has been said by Galloway and his acolytes can be taken at face value. Clearly there has been a conceted attempt to disorient SWP members by trying to present the whole affair as a clash between Rees and democracy; once the Renewalists had split the organisation and denied the Respect majority the use of the name by a bureaucratic manoeuvre, along with the defence of Galloway’s right-wing positions on Tibet, abortion, Ken Livingstone, de Menezes,etc. by those who had pretended to still have the SWP’s politics, it’s not surprising that noone in the SWP who hadn’t left for their own personal advancement was going to believe what you say.

    splinteredsunrise – I noticed you commenting on Andy Newman’s analysis of the split back in 2007 in a positive way. Is it not possible that you learnt at all in the last year that there was more to the coup in Respect than disagreement with the SWP’s way of organising?

  44. end of an era said,

    December 23, 2008 at 12:53 am

    “Having viewed the split through the prism of the expulsions of Ovenden and Hoveman”

    How strange Skidmarx – most sensible people would have viewed the split though the prism of the arguments made and the actions taken. But there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes.

  45. Richard Searle said,

    December 23, 2008 at 2:21 am


    can I ask you from which planet do you post from,

    most of us come from Earth,

  46. skidmarx said,

    December 23, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    44. I think that’s what I was doing.
    45. One of the things that over time convinced me that the supporters of Respect Renewal tended to be ignorant fools was the frequency with which their level of debate descended to nonsense. I’m from a planet where democracy means having a majority, where repeating personal attacks often enough doesn’t make them true, where George Galloway is not worshipped as an omniscient god who can do no wrong. I won’t be surpised if you can’t identify my home planet from that description, as you are from somewhere a very long way from anywhere else.

  47. Phil said,

    December 23, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Skidders – I’m quite sure I believe that the split could have been avoided, and some good activists stayed within the SWP, if Galloway’s letter had been handled better. All that would have been needed is for the CC to move against Rees and German with some of the decisiveness they’re showing now, but combined with a real commitment to building RESPECT (and listening to people with different views on the subject). The tragedy is that commitment to building in the left-of-Labour electoral space seems to be going out the door with Rees.

    the defence of Galloway’s right-wing positions on Tibet, abortion, Ken Livingstone, de Menezes,etc. by those who had pretended to still have the SWP’s politics

    This is one of those join-the-dots statements – look at this, and this, and this! and look what you get if you put them all together! The trouble is, half the dots aren’t there. Take Livingstone. RESPECT agreed (pre-split) to review the balance of forces, and specifically whether splitting the Left vote might help Johnson win, before making a definite decision to stand a candidate against him. RR decided not to stand; LL didn’t. This is not a left/right issue, unless you decide that the SWP line represents the Left and anything else must therefore be the Right.

    As for Tibet: Chinese imperialism or Tibetan revolution? Chinese state-capitalist development or Tibetan clerical reaction? Again, this is not a left/right issue, unless your definition of ‘Right’ is ‘disagrees with current SWP line’.

    Apart from those issues, I think the most you’ve seen has been a defence of Galloway’s right to make statements that not everyone within RESPECT agrees with.

  48. skidmarx said,

    December 24, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Phil – I don’t believe any current criticism of Rees within the SWP is comparable to that made by your confreres at the time of the split. Take the OFFU cheque. Comrades of Rees have criticised him for taking it and for not being clear about it to other comrades, because that helped Galloway and co. to attack the party. On the other hand the reference of the cheque to the Electoral Commission seems like nothing other than an attempt to knife the SWP in a factional battle. As Yeats says in Fairy Tales of an Irish Peasant:”My name is short, and I cannot stay much longer”. While you tried to put apparently reasonable arguments during that period, what did seem to be dishonest is the way you kept saying individual members of the SWP were welcome to join your split as individuals, as though your split had so much prestige all allegiance to the SWP was just going to drop away.

    On Livingstone, there was a lot of dishonest argoument that a first prefernce vote for Lindsey German would endanger Livingstone, it would have been a bit more impressive if the argument had been just “We’re don’t support her any more, so we don’t want to vote for her”. On Tibet, what finally convinced me to start contributing to a SUN thread was Kevin Ovenden claiming that the SWP’s position on Tianenmen Square in 1989 justified Galloway’s position now, as part of a continuing attempt to pretend his politics hadn’t shifted to those of Galloway.Unlike redbedhead on liammacuaid, I wonder if there was a conspiracy.

    It isn’t RESPECT when the other side is the majority.

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