A few more notes on the crisis in the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that seems to have entered new territory.
Months after the crisis in the SWP burst into the open, this Trotskyist formation hasn't succeeding in leaving their problems truly behind. On the contrary, there have been new signs of division in the organisation that has already experienced a big loss of membership, prestige in the wider movement and political self-confidence. This is no bad thing, als long as the ones who are leaving find something better to do, and as long as the decent people still remaining keep on making a fuss and ask the right questions.
First, the outlines of the crisis. There has been a rape complaint against a leading member of the party, Martin Smith. The procedure of handling the complaint was scandalous: the Disputes Committee supposed to handle it, was made up of long-time acqaintances of Smith and could not be seen as independent. The complainant was treated almost as if she were the one who had asked for anything wrong that might have happened top her, with questions about her drinking and dating habits. The whole thing smelled of blaming the victim and a lack of seriousness about sexual abuse.
Members asking critical questions about the affair were bullied into summission, at least, that was tried. Some of them, talking on Facebook about forming a faction, were summarily expelled by e-mail. Soon, a faction fight broke out in which oppositionists called for more internal democracy, and in which the attitude opf the SWP to women's oppression came under critical attention. The leadershop reacted by dismissing criticims as signs of “autonomism” and “creeping feminism”. The leadership managed to keep control of the party ont he regular conference in January, on a party council, and on a special conference it felt forced to organize to head of the challenge. That was in March. Shortly afterwards, a core of dissidents, amongst whom Richard Seymour, blogging on Lenin's Tomb, left and formed the International Socialist Network (IS Network). Other oppositionists remained and, after weeks of silence, started to raise a public voice throught a blog, Fault Lines. More recently, another website, apparently also by SWP dissidents, has appeared: revolutionary socialism in the 21ths century. Here, documents shining a critical light on both recent goings-on as older crises in the party are made available. They contain historically useful information. For instance, Pat Stack, part of the broader, more moderate opposition still within the party, explains in a long historical piece on democratic centralism in the SWP, especially how the internat structure of the party was a leftover from earlier faction fights in the 1970, and how that structure became a hindrance for thorough debate and evaluation.
It also shows that ther has been criticism of thes practices, even by someone like Chris Harman, one of the important intellectual leaders of the SWP. Apparently, he swallowed his criticisms at crucial moments. Loyalty and fear of rocking the boat took precedence before principled criticism. Harman never lacked conviction, but courage to back it up and go against the leadership and bring his criticism out into the open was in rather shorter supply. However, according to Stack, “Chris Harman once described organisers meetings as as being like gatherings of sales reps competing to bring the best news to head office.” I recognize something here from my Dutch IS experience. One of the reasons om my beginning disenchantment in 2007- was what I called 'managerial language' being used, talking in terms of 'targets”concerning paper sales etcetera. CC comrades considered this observation an insult. But itt seems I had a rather unexpected co-thinker, at least on this issue...However: Harman made his peace with the others in the leadership, several times. I did so, too, several times – but eventually, I quit. But anyway, I digressed a bit. Both Stack and Harman belonged to the core leadership in the 1990s, Stack's views cannot easily be dismissed by the current leadershop as just grudges and disgruntlement of somebody who 'does not understand Leninism'.
All very interesting. Even more interesting is the information on the current state of the SWP that one finds here and there. Apparently, the SWP has lost 350 members since the faction fight, and 90 percent of the student membership is gone. Pat Stack, ion the piece I already mentioned, estimates "our active membership (before recent departurtes) would appear as rather less than 1,500.” Another observation of Stack: “A departure of another 300, 400 or 500 members would be a disaster.” Yet, such a “departure” cannot be excluded, now that a statement protesting the suspension of yet another four SWP dissidents already attracted 250 supporters. A day later, the Central Committee backtracked and unsuspended the suspended four. That does not mean that the haemorraging of membershop from the party clearly has come to an end. It seems an indication of how weak and unsure the current leadership has begun. Long ago, they failed to convince. Now, they even fail to expel. members. On Libcom, a commenter says : "if the SWP CC can't even arbitrarily expel/suspend members anymore, then they're just about to disintegrate” I would not count on quick disintegration. But a sign of strength and self-confidence it is not.
Still, the SWP plods on, it is not about to disappear. It even managed to renew its party website. The old one was no delight, and the new one is... not much better. The age of the internet has still not reached the organization. Okay, a somewhat more attractive opening page than before for Socialist Worker, 'the paper' (there are no others, as anybody knows...). Of course, still no 'comments' form below the articles. This is not just a technical thing. The same lack of talk back opportunities characterizes the website of the Dutch IS, sister organization of the SWP. It is almost a caricature of vanguardism: talking to the class, not even creating online opportunity of debating with the class, in a back and forth way. Of course, for 'the class', we can better read 'a few hundred or thousand readers' instead . But let us not spoil the, ahem, party.
Noticeable also is the defensiveness that crept into the tone of party publications. Nowhere do we find a clear view that anything is seriously wrong with the party. But, in an article on the state of the British radical left, we find Alex Callinicos writing that “the SWP has experienced a serious internal crisis.” He even quotes Ed Rooksby writing about “the recent bust-up in the SWP” and admits in a footnote that his “response to the SWP 's critics “had been “widely denounced”. The real world is intruding into the party where not long ago everything was always going well, getting better all the time, as the Beatles once sang. The crisis is no longer denied. The solution, apparently, consists in half-hearted admission of some internal debate, combined with continued attacks, up to bullying and expulsion, against dissidents. It is not a pleasant sight, and it is hard to see how the SWP can regain its former position as – for better or worse – a serious force on the left in Britain.
Neither mourning nor celebration
That is neither reason for mourning as for celebration. It is not a reason to mourn. The SWP was and is a top-down organization with politics that defend what should not be defended: the trade union bureaucracy (yes, they should be 'pressurized' but they are recognized as necessarty allies); electioneering as a way forward; the idea of a workers' state, the repressive practices of the Bolsheviks, 1917-1921 as 'necessary' although 'mistakes were made' (but very rarely actually mentioned), etcetera; the defence of reactionary movements and states against 'US imperialism' and/or 'the Zionist state'. The SWP talks about workers' self-emancipation and socialism from below. The SWP never consistently stood for these things in practice or even theory. 'Building the Party' to 'Conquer the State' was always more important. That this building is collapsing is no bad thing for ones who want to see workers' self-liberation, and who recognise that this can only be achieved through liberatory, bottom-up means.
Yet, there is no reasion for celebration either. Yes, you can say that the SWP was and is an obstacle for the fight from below, that is manipulates people sincerely believing is socialism from below into a theory and practice that is the opposite. In that sense, without the SWP, workers' struggle has one obstacle less to confront. But that is onlye one aspect. The other aspect is that the SWP groups hundreds, formerly several thousands, of activists doing their best as trade unionists, anti-racists, people protesting against wars, and propagating basically left wing ideas. These people are no creeps. They are generally sincere, hard-working people, fighting in their way for a better world. Their own way may be the wrong one, but that does not mean the struggle is better off without them.
Yes, the way the SWP operates is bad, as is the core of its politics. But, in many cases, I would rather see the bureaucratically organized protests by SWP and allies, than no protests at all. Better a deficient fight than no fight at all. At least, SWP events – just like trade union events – can express some of the class rage, however indirectly, however badly organized. And on bureaucratically organized protests, we as anarchists can at least be present trying to give things a more militant edge, attracting others to more radical, bottom-up approaches and visions. Throught them, we can get in touch with people who otherwise we might never get in touch with.
More importantly maybe: SWP members who get disenchanted may get cynical and demoralized. Cynical, not just about Leninism, party building or even the great God Almighty Karl Marx Himself. No, much more: cybnical about the whole idea of radical social change, revolution, the replacing of capitalism by a classless, cooperative society wether we call it communism, anarchy or both. Do we rather have bitter cynics sitting at home than misguided Leninists on the streets? I am not sure, but I tend to prefer these people on the streets, fighting. There, at least, we can challenge them on how their practices get in their way of their self-proclaimed goals. There are already too much cynical burned-out people, there is no reason to be glad of the SWP crisis adds a few hundred to their number. And I don't cheer the human suffering of people that the SWP is turning from enthusiastic activists into burned-out cynics either. I experienced something like that myself, and it was not pleasant. I wish them a much better fate than the dustbin of history that the SWP leadership is pushing them in to – a dustbin in which the SWP as a party so clearly belongs.