Wednesday, January 16, 2013

SWP in Crisis: What Do Socialists Say?



Guest post by Keith Watermelon:

My intention in this article is to give an overview of how this crisis has developed inside the party, of what I believe to be its roots, and to hopefully go some way to proposing practical solutions to the very precarious position in which we now find ourselves. 

I first became aware of the very serious nature of the allegations against Comrade Delta in late Autumn 2012 (not long after they had been made); as a result of a number of comrades, most of whom I have known for several years, contacting me to express their understandable grave concern.  It immediately became clear to me that the information comrades had been given at the 2011 SWP Conference – that Comrade Delta had had an affair which had ended but that he had continued to hassle the woman (now referred to as Comrade W) afterwards – was quite seriously inaccurate.  It adds insult to injury to recall that the session in which we were given this misleading information at the 2011 conference was turned into a kind of Delta love-in, culminating in a standing ovation for him (even at this stage it was effectively a standing ovation for having an affair) – but this demonstrates the effect that stage-managing a conference can have.  Some party members resigned in protest at this time.

Returning to late 2012 – those of us were in contact around this issue shared serious concerns about, and began to discuss how we could ensure the party deal with the matter satisfactorily.  Some of those involved in these discussions shared information passed to them on how the investigation had been conducted.  We were also aware that Comrade X had been removed from her party job following her complaint against Comrade Delta.  These discussions took place on Facebook as a matter of convenience – most of us lived at opposite ends of the country; our aim was to attempt to ensure there could be no hint of unfairness in the investigation; we were also acutely aware of the damage that would likely be done to the party and the wider left if this was not resolved in a fair and satisfactory way, as we viewed it as inevitable that it would eventually be leaked beyond the party.  Tragically, our worst predictions now appear to be coming true.

Fast forward to mid-December, and four of the participants in the above Facebook conversation (who incidentally had never all even met each other before) received emails from the Central Committee advising them that they had been summarily expelled from the party for 'organising, and taking part in, a secret faction' – at the absolute best, this could be characterised a massive overreaction; in my view it was actually an attempt to stifle dissent over the handling of the allegations against Comrade Delta.  It is also worth noting that two of the expelled had recently written constructive critiques of party democracy, structures and organisation within the party's internal bulletins.  Elsewhere, comrades who had written critical articles within these bulletins were blocked from conference through other comrades making unsubstantiated accusations of 'factionalism' against them at party pre-conference meetings.  To this day, I have yet to ascertain why I wasn't expelled with them, although the expulsions of four of the participants in these conversations rather than all or none of us is suggestive of a bureaucratic calculation rather than a political decision (I will return to this theme later).

We responded to these expulsions, which happened just a couple of weeks prior to Xmas and with few branch meetings left between then and conference, by initiating a petition calling for the reinstatement of the 'Facebook Four'.  This gathered around 160 signatures from party members prior to conference.  After a discussion, we also agreed to form an official faction, to oppose the expulsions, to demand the way the investigation into Comrade Delta was handled be reviewed, and to support very simple alterations to the party's democratic structures in the light of these developments.  Around 120 party members joined the Democratic Opposition, with a similar number joining the Democratic Centralist Faction, formed a few days later – factions of this size being unprecedented in the party.

A full review of the faction is a matter for another article.  But suffice to say the Central Committee, and its most loyal supporters inside the party (who some comrades understandably refer to as 'party hacks'), reacted terribly to this.  Comrades joining factions were smeared as 'undemocratic' (I have no idea how joining an official faction is anything other than an utterly democratic act); and our first meeting saw the spectacle of 3 members of the CC and the 'hacks' behaving in a deeply undemocratic manner (namely, by arriving in large numbers, heckling comrades and, rather than listen to our concerns, to lecture us on why we were, in their eyes, wrong).  I was warned by party full-timers (who were convinced there would be further reprisals against faction members) that I should 'keep my head down' – an absurd state of affairs within a revolutionary socialist party.

Without going into all the details of conference, the votes were tight, despite Democratic Opposition members being given little in the way of speaking rights (and indeed misled over these – we were promised speaking rights in one session in particular, but then not called).  This included being denied any right to speak on the expulsions, despite the faction being formed around these very issues.  The Disputes Committee session was of course the most important session regarding the discussion now taking place both in and outside the party, and the votes were very tight (239 for, 209 against, 18 abstentions and about 50 delegates not voting at all) despite a dirty tricks campaign from the central committee which included denying the comrades involved in the case the right to circulate a statement to party members, even as an official faction.

The day after conference, the transcript of the Disputes Committee session was leaked to a sectarian website.  Whoever was responsible has attempted to use this affair, which I view as a botched rape investigation, for political gain.  This is reprehensible (and indeed despite requests from Comrade W, Andy Newman, who runs said sectarian blog, refused to remove the transcript from his blog).  This marked what those of us involved in the Facebook conversation had feared and had worked to avoid – the matter not being dealt with adequately at conference and then being leaked into the public domain.  Four days later, this story started to appear in the bourgeois press.  The first article, by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, was in my view comradely in tone and essentially urged SWP members to sort out the situation.  Unsurprisingly, the articles that followed in the Independent, The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times, were far less friendly.  However, we should be clear that the fault here lies with the SWP Central Committee, not with some external force, for creating this situation,

To date, the Central Committee has not given comrades any advice on how to respond to questions around this which have inevitably arisen in workplaces, trade unions, colleges, and from families and friends.  All we are told is 'the matter is now closed'.  In short, the Central Committee has failed to provide even a modicum of leadership over the issue.  A number of comrades have resigned from the party – I urge anyone thinking of doing this to reconsider, and to stay and fight.

Meantime, attempts by long-standing party members to smear Comrades X and W continue.  At a recent meeting, one party worker compared the allegations against Comrade Delta to Lenin being accused of being a German spy.  The implication of this analogy is horrific – that these two women are liars.  This is slut-shaming, and has no place in any socialist organisation.   And Comrade Delta continues to act as a public face of the SWP.  But what is behind us reaching this situation, which places the very future of the party in question?


The Bureaucracy, The Rank and File and all that Jazz

The SWP has a particular understanding of the role of the bureaucracy within trades unions.  We view them as neither workers nor bosses, but rather as a vacillating force between the two.  The bureaucrat is insulated from the day-to-day life of the worker – of having the boss breathing down their neck, and from the collective interest that workers have within workplaces.  They depend for their continued existence, this insulation, and the level of prestige they hold, on the continuation of the capitalist system – if there were no longer any capitalist class to negotiate with, there would no longer be any need for the bureaucrats.   Nothing terrifies a bureaucrat more than being chucked back into the same world the rest of us, as workers, inhabit.  There is an old story of an RMT NEC member many years ago (before Bob Crow) who wished to support a strike ballot that the General Secretary opposed.  The General Secretary advised him that if he did so, he'd be back working on the tracks within days.  The NEC member withdrew his support for the ballot.

And it is this recognition that the interests of the bureaucracy are not those of the working class that leads us as revolutionary socialists to believe the only truly effective way to organise inside trades unions is on a rank and file basis.  We are with the bureaucrats for as long as they support our demands – we fight without them when they don't.  And we recognise a bureaucratisation that takes place when workers are removed from the shop floor – which is why, for example, it is officially only in exceptional circumstances that SWP members are allowed to take elected trade union positions on 100% facility time.  Because we recognise that you cannot act in the interests of the working class if you exist separately from it.  I want to illustrate that a failure to apply this analysis to the SWP itself is at the root of many of the problems we now face.

While very limited steps have been taken in recent years to address this, the Central Committee is made up almost entirely of full-time party workers (and it is notable that of the two CC members removed from the preferred slate 48 hours before conference, one is a respected trade unionist and the other is centrally involved in arguably the broadest united front the party is engaged in).  This is a separation from the outside world, and the experiences of the membership.  Worse, the slate system as currently constituted is designed to prevent any alternative leadership from emerging – as we are told to correct any error we must replace the CC wholesale; very difficult if they are also the party workers who run the apparatus.  As pretty much the only way to be elected to the CC is to be nominated by the existing CC, this means CC members owe their positions to the other CC members, not to the party membership.  And this means that, despite the party's Democracy Commission passing policy in favour of it, disagreements on the CC are not aired in front of the party membership, but rather are usually dealt with privately, with the first most members know of it being when a CC member mysteriously disappears off the slate.  I would argue the loyalty to each other this creates amongst CC members leads to many situations, such as those around Comrade Delta and the expulsions of the Facebook Four, being dealt with bureaucratically and behind closed doors and then presented to the party as a fait accompli.  Party policies and 'turns' are decided in similar fashion, with a National Committee or Party Council presented with a CC document that is discussed and then invariably approved, usually without any discussion in the wider party, let alone the class. 

This also has the effect of encouraging sycophancy,  Comrades who wish to develop their standing in the party, be selected for slates in trade union elections, be added to the CC themselves, or be touted as a public speaker, do so by developing a position of ultra-loyalty to the CC (these are the party members who some refer to as 'hacks'.  Party workers are all appointed by the CC, not by the membership, and are threatened with the sack if they dare venture their own political ideas that run contrary to those of the CC.  All of this has more in common with the organisation of Stalinist Parties than with the libertarian roots of the IS tradition.  The party actually starts to become the caricature painted of it by sectarians and red-baiters.

At its most extreme, the sycophancy appears cult-like.  A number of CC members are big fans of jazz music.  Under their leadership over the past few years, the party has organised a number of (mostly loss-making) jazz gigs as fundraising events.  Regardless of their own musical tastes, comrades were told they were disloyal if they didn't purchase tickets.  This elevates the cultural tastes of the official leadership to a point of political principle; and clearly is not in any way a healthy state of affairs.


What is to be Done?

“A fish”, as Tony Cliff was fond of saying, “rots from the head down”.  And so rotten is the party leadership now that it has been unable to offer any leadership or direction to comrades regarding the Comrade Delta issue.  The role of leadership must therefore be taken up by the membership; who must sweep aside not just the Central Committee, but also the bureaucratic structures within the party that give rise to this horrific situation.  This means it is incumbent upon the membership to demand a recall conference (which constitutionally requires the support of 20% of the branches), with a very open remit; to openly and publicly admit the very grave error that has been made, and to make all changes necessary to how the party operates to ensure that this situation cannot be repeated.  The issues surrounding this (both on women's liberation, and on what kind of party we need) should be discussed openly in the pages of Socialist Worker, and should include the views of those outside the SWP.  And comrades should be encouraged to debate these matters within the wider labour movement.  We cannot hope to build a party fit to lead the working class if we decide our policies and courses of action separately from the working class.

This is why this article has a deliberately provocative title.  The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP, and we should not be scared of the views of other socialists.  This is why I welcome the articles that have appeared on the internet from members of both the Canadian International Socialists and the American International Socialist Organisation.  No discussion, unless it is specifically around personal or possibly illegal matters, should be conducted in private and away from the class or movement.  I want to know what other socialists think.

Clearly, this also means the party needs a certain breadth.  Rather than the present CC's approach of slamming comrades with differing views as 'feminists', 'syndicalists', 'autonomists' etc; we should value and encourage differing strands of opinion within the party, as this will aid us in deciding how we should operate.  Many of those committed to women's liberation will at present be justifiably viewing the party, and the wider left, with some suspicion.  In my view, the revolutionary left should be the natural home of feminism, and it is a great shame that the prospects for this risk being irreparably damaged if we do not change course.  One of the first steps toward repairing this damage would also be to reinstate the Facebook Four, and open the gates of the party to many of those who have been expelled or forced out of the party by the CC and the various turns the party has made over the past 30-odd years (including a number of comrades who have resigned in the past couple of years in relation to the Comrade Delta incident).  Our tradition is not one based on orthodoxy, and so those orthodoxies that have developed (such as our response to women's liberation movements) must be vigorously challenged, and jettisoned if they are no longer useful to the class struggle as a whole. 

Comrades, this is a call to arms.  We have a relatively short window before the fish rots below the neck, and the party is irreparably damaged.  Even if you haven't been to a branch meeting in some time, speak to members of your branch, get to your branch meeting; and push for a recall conference and the steps necessary to save the SWP – we need your input in order to chart a route out of this crisis.  This is vital – the SWP remains, for all I've said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.