Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Stakes

Guest post by China Mieville:

The Stakes. Members of the SWP must understand what is at stake in the crisis rocking our organization. Not only is there already a steady outflow of members resigning in disgust at this farrago and its handling by the leadership, but now other organizations of the left are becoming hesitant about working with us, and in some cases are openly boycotting and censuring us. 

This is a call to members to stay and fight. It is also to urge that we do so without illusions about the nature of the fight that we face. 

 Many of us have argued strongly that catastrophic errors of principle and process on the part of the leadership have taken us to this. But even those who – I firmly believe wrongly – disagree about this must recognise the situation we are in. This has rapidly also become a catastrophe for us strategically. Our name is becoming toxic. Our credibility as a collective and as individual activists is being grossly compromised, and is on the verge of being permanently tainted. We all know the allegations that any future potential recruit who takes two minutes to research us online will read. The hoary accusations of the loyalists that those of us expressing concerns are looking ‘inward’ to ‘blogland’ and are not in the ‘real world’ have never looked so pitiful as they do now. This is a real world, acute crisis, of the leadership’s making. 

As we ‘dissidents’ have repeatedly stressed, the fact that we are on the verge of permanently losing our credibility is irrespective of the truth or otherwise of the allegations of rape and sexual harassment. (These, of course, deserve sensitive and appropriate examination in their own right.) This fact inheres in the grotesque and sexist nature of the questions posed to the accusers; in the ‘wagon-circling’ attitude of the leadership and its loyalists; in the failures and evasions of accountability that meant the processes involved could ever have been thought appropriate; and now in the belief-beggaringly inadequate and arrogant response of the CC to the greatest crisis we have ever faced. These are all political failings of astonishing proportions. 

We must not only deal with this but be seen publicly to be dealing with it. A ‘quiet revolution’ will be no revolution at all. There is one chance to save the SWP, and to do so means reclaiming it. We must be the party whose membership saw that there was a catastrophe unfolding, refused to heed our own failed leadership’s injunctions to fall into line, and reclaimed the party and the best elements of our IS tradition. If we fail in this, the SWP is finished as a serious force. 

We must understand that these are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures. Members’ usual – and usually understandable and honourable – instincts to show discretion and to trust their leadership are not only inadequate, they are counterproductive. This leadership does not deserve our trust, and our discretion now only serves them. 

We must consolidate our efforts. We need to communicate with each other. It is invaluable to pass motions in branches censuring our CC and above all – this is critical – calling for an extraordinary conference. However, these motions must be publicized to the wider membership. This is not the time for private letters to the CC, for appeals to their wisdom, for concerned words to our district organizers. Such methods are part of the system that got us here. Comrades must go public, and link up with others attempting to salvage the honour of the tradition in which we fight. 

 Of course taking matters to the branches and discussing them there is vital. However, the allegation often made by loyalists that to also discuss them with the wider membership is somehow inappropriate or disloyal is wrong at any time, and utterly absurd now. The CC itself, in its shameful document ‘For an Interventionist Party’, defending the recent expulsion of four comrades for ‘secret factionalism’, claims that ‘[m]embers of the SWP are of course free to discuss face-to-face or online’. (This, incidentally, is a lie: as recently as the 2009 conference, those arguing for democratic renewal were denounced from the podium by a CC member for discussing our concerns on email.) Even according to the CC’s own ad-hoc positions, in other words, members are free to discuss with all others, including by email, Facebook or whatever, the nature of the crisis facing us, and how we fix it. And discuss we must. 

By far the lion’s share of blame for our parlous situation lies squarely with the CC and its loyalists. However, none of us can avoid hard questions. What got us here was not merely the failures of this particular CC, but of our structures. These structures concealed from the members perfectly legitimate debate within the party; pathologised dissent on the CC and among the membership; and at worst legitimated whispering campaigns and bullying against members considered ‘troublemakers’. We could have stopped this train wreck at an earlier stage if the membership had been able and ready to call bullshit on the CC’s bullshit. 

To overthrow these problems requires, among other things, a huge shift in internal culture. This, of course, is not possible in isolation from the structures that we have worked under. These have enabled the CC’s top-down and dissent/discussion-phobic style and mistrust of the membership; and among the membership itself have encouraged a damaging culture of deferral to the leadership. 

This vicious cycle must be broken. To renew our party, in other words, must mean to trust in the membership, to encourage independent thought and comradely discussion. This in turn will enable the members not only to select the leadership we deserve, but to hold them to account in a way both we and they deserve. 

 Accordingly, not only is this fight one for the SWP’s survival as an interventionist force, but it is one that can only be won by a root-and-branch rethinking of how we operate. The scale of this catastrophe of their own making is slowly dawning on the leadership. It is inevitable that they will start to offer some kind of carrot-and-stick response, likely designed to minimize changes to the structures to which they have shown themselves wedded. We must be clear on the scale of what is needed. The removal of one or two people from positions of prominence would clearly be inadequate. 

Our starting point must be public and immediate calls for an emergency conference. We must urgently mobilize our branches to pass motions making this call. To emerge from this catastrophe with credibility, at this conference we must demand: 

 • The immediate reinstatement of the four recently expelled comrades. 

• The removal of this CC and Disputes Committee. By their stunning miscalculations, they have shown themselves to be inadequate to their tasks. They must go. 

 • A thoroughgoing reexamination of the structures of party democracy and accountability, to ensure that the culture of mistrust of the membership and closed ranks on the CC that created this situation in the first place cannot happen again.* This must include an expanded CC and one which airs its internal disagreements openly. 

• Formal mechanisms for encouraging internal communications among all members, allowing them to air dissent, concern, uncertainty, as well as information, analysis and support.**

 Such renovations will address the terrible situation in which we find ourselves. They should also encourage a spirit of comradely discussion and theoretical open-mindedness, allowing us to act as a pole of attraction for all those fighting for emancipation. This does not mean diluting our Marxism: it should mean invigorating it.*** The fight for the soul of the SWP is on now. The only hope of reclaiming a party on the brink of political annihilation is political audacity. 

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*I have made no secret of my own proposals for this, including, e.g., an at-least temporary end to the slate system. This is argued not on principle, but because that system has in our party become a shibboleth for forces of conservatism and top-down leadership. 
**Many comrades see the end on the ban on permanent factions as indispensable for this. Another invaluable way forward, in my opinion, would be a regular internal bulletin. 
***As for example when we began to address the lacunae in our approach to homosexuality by learning from the best wings of the gay liberation movement. Currently, we must end a situation where, for example, ‘feminism’ is used by some loyalists as a diss.