That the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) is embroiled in a deep internal crisis is now recognised by most of the Left, and even acknowledged by broad swathes of SWP members. At the Party’s recent conference, held over the first weekend in January, substantial numbers of delegates voted against the Central Committee line and also opted to support an alternative slate for the election of the CC itself – something previously unheard of in the SWP’s history. There have subsequently been high profile resignations from the Party, a rising tide of demands for change from within the party, even one of the SWP’s sister organisations withdrawing itself from the International Socialist Tendency (IST) of which the SWP is the most significant member.
These events are not merely gossip and scandal for sectarians to gloat over. The SWP remains the largest single component of the revolutionary Left in England, with an active membership of perhaps over 2,000 and a much larger periphery, as well as a relatively high public profile. Its modus operandi, and its perspectives on joint work within the many campaigns where it organises alongside other socialists, are of legitimate concern to the rest of the Left.
The first indicators of its current crisis emerged in the struggle from 2008 onwards between supporters and opponents of John Rees and Lindsey German. This led to the defection of Rees and German, in February 2010, to set up Counterfire along with a group of their supporters. In April 2011 Chris Bambery followed them out of the party, forming ISG Scotland.
That factional struggle produced two immediate results.
Firstly, the SWP turned its back on the strategy of building “united fronts of a special kind” (e.g. Stop the War and Respect) which had been a hallmark of Rees’s leading role in the party. On his departure, the SWP returned to a more insular approach, prioritising their direct party-building over any involvement in broader campaigns alongside other forces.
Secondly, a Democracy Commission was established (February 2009) to examine the party’s internal structure. Its recommendations were ratified at a Special Conference in June 2009.
The groundwork for the most recent outbreak of factional strife was laid by this opening up of a discussion around democracy, combined with the Commission’s failure to implement any substantial changes to the party’s internal regime. This regime is a variant of democratic centralism, but incorporating the kind of restrictions on freedom of debate and organisation which were brought in as temporary measures in the Russian Communist Party in the aftermath of the civil war, a period in which the working class was decimated and the revolution teetered on a knife-edge.
The version of “democratic centralism” that reigns in the SWP is an ossified form of that model, removed from its historical context and turned into a fetish. The party’s top-down structure rests on three key pillars which in turn condition the party’s internal life and culture. Firstly, the CC (Central Committee) is re-elected annually through a slate system which ensures that it is almost impossible for the membership to effect changes at the top (the ousting of Rees and Bambery was the exception to the rule insofar as it originated in a split within the CC itself); it also wholly excludes oppositional voices from the ruling body. Secondly, a top-heavy apparatus of full-timers appointed from the top maintains CC control at local and regional level. And finally, party members are only permitted to organise around dissenting perspectives in the three months immediately preceding annual conference, and even then only via the party “centre”, which vets and distributes all pre-conference documents.
Even within this highly centralised structure the CC regularly intervenes to undermine residual democratic rights. Prior to the 2010 conference, Rees-German supporters took advantage of the pre-conference period to form a “legal” (i.e. constitutionally legitimate) faction, the Left Opposition. In November 2009 two prominent faction supporters were suddenly expelled on questionable grounds, a move that could be interpreted as a warning to others in the runup to conference. The CC also ensured that delegates supporting the Left Opposition found it difficult to attend that conference – a reversal of the democratic centralist norm where oppositional factions are encouraged to attend in order to represent the diversity of views in the party. These tactics worked. At the 2010 conference the expulsions were ratified, and the Left Opposition was overwhelmingly defeated.
The departure of the Rees-German faction was hailed by many as a new dawn for the SWP, but it was clear from the minimal tweaks to the existing system sponsored by the Democracy Commission that it would be business as usual for the new leadership.
Allegations of very serious sexual misconduct, including rape, against a leading party member, and the way those allegations were handled, fed into renewed rumblings of discontent in the latter half of 2012. This prompted the declaration of a “legal” pre-conference faction, the Democratic Opposition, basing itself on modest demands for democratic reform. But even before this faction was up and running, the CC (in a repetition of November 2009) moved to expel four of its supporters on charges of “secret factionalising” – which seems to have amounted to no more than their involvement in an informal Facebook discussion. To quote the Democratic Opposition:
“On a basic level, if we cannot have discussions about whether to form a faction or not, then, in reality, factions are de-facto impossible to organise and the right to form them is purely notional.”
In the wake of this, yet another “legal” faction – Democratic Centralism – also emerged. Describing itself as a “loyal opposition”, its apparent focus was also on internal democracy. It opposed the recent expulsions and cautioned against a draconian reaction from the CC, which it feared would result in an exodus of young, disillusioned party members.
The modest structural changes advocated by the Democratic Opposition were, of course, not to be countenanced by the party leadership. But it was (and remains) clear that the struggle around the Rees-German group and the setting up of the Democracy Commission has opened a Pandora’s Box that may prove impossible to close.
The SWP conference in January 2013 naturally became the central arena in which the various interweaving conflicts that had developed within the organisation were to be played out.
Perhaps inevitably, the questions of internal democracy became irrevocably bound up with the very serious allegations that had been made against “Comrade Delta”, and particularly with the way that the Party had handled (or rather, mishandled) that case. It is, by now, unnecessary here to go into the exact details of those allegations or the SWP’s mistaken policy of handling them as a matter for a purely internal investigation – much of that detail has already been widely circulated on the internet and has become common knowledge, at least on the Left.
However, it quickly became clear that the SWP’s leadership continue to be intent on closing down discussion, and especially on sweeping the controversy around “Comrade Delta” well and truly under the carpet. But the consequences of that approach are proving little short of catastrophic for the SWP as a whole.
Within a few days of the Party conference, a journalist on Socialist Worker, Tom Walker, resigned from the organisation and wrote a highly damning open letter explaining his reasons for doing so.
Furthermore, Walker wrote, the SWP is in his opinion now facing inevitable destruction. “I am not its destroyer – it has already destroyed itself. Maybe it will be days, months or years, but it is now a permanent time bomb. I cannot imagine how it will hold on to any recruit who knows how to use Google…In the absence at the very least of the most grovelling public apology and a massive process of internal reform, I am afraid I think the SWP is broken for good”.
The truth is that Tom Walker is almost certainly reflecting the opinions and feelings of very many SWP members at this point.
Richard Seymour, a longstanding SWP member whose blog Lenin’s Tomb is widely read and respected on the Left, has launched a stinging public attack on the leadership of his own Party:
“There isn’t enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day out.
“This is the thing that all party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn’t the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible. Not only this, but in acting in this way, they have – for their own bureaucratic reasons – broken with a crucial component of the politics of the International Socialist tradition that undergirds the SWP. The future of the party is at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms, and don’t simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled at conference. You must fight now”.
It is beyond question that the SWP leadership will lose more members, perhaps in considerable numbers, both through further expulsions and through a steady trickle of resignations. As it tries to shroud its own crisis in secrecy, something that was never likely to work even before the emergence of the internet and social media, it also risks looking increasingly absurd and outdated in its desperate attempt to retain tight bureaucratic control over the organisation.
More weight is given to this assessment by other subsequent events, especially the resignation from the SWP’s own international body, the IST, of their Serbian sister organisation Marks21.
The Serbian comrades, in their open letter of resignation, specifically cite the SWP’s mishandling of the “Comrade Delta” case alongside the Party’s turn away from united front activity as reason for their departure.
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether more of the IST’s affiliates will follow the Serbian group, and also the extent to which comrades like Richard Seymour are able to fight for their position within the Party. But on the basis of bitter past experiences, the prognosis cannot be good.
The SWP’s implosion gives us no cause for celebration. Whatever its many faults, the Party contains large numbers of good comrades, many of whom will be embittered and demoralised by these events, and perhaps in many cases will be lost to revolutionary Marxism forever.
Those of us who have been part of the International Socialists/SWP tradition, and who still relate to the best elements of that tradition even though we may have moved into membership of other political tendencies, need to avoid any inclination to smugly say, “We told you so”. But even while the agonies of the SWP contain elements of both tragedy and farce, any crisis is also an opportunity.
At the same time as the SWP is in turmoil, there are a number of encouraging unity initiatives; the recently formed Anti Capitalist Initiative, for example. The various currents of the radical Left in England, including Socialist Resistance, have their own contributions to bring to the discussion, yet the finished article must be a collective effort, and above all must learn from the wider movement rather than being yet another indulgence in quasi-Bolshevik navel gazing. What confronts us now is a real chance to reforge the revolutionary Left in Britain as a genuinely democratic, pluralist, dynamic force. The new organisation that we need will take time to build, even with encouraging signs of some recomposition on the Left in the wake of crisis and scandal. But we need to start the process of building it now.
To that end, we hope that any comrades departing the SWP in the current crisis will join in with the conversation, and move forward with us to the kind of non-sectarian revolutionary Marxist organisation that we all know is an absolute necessity.