SWP crisis: some analysis, some thoughts

Wednesday, 13 March, 2013

Written for Libcom.org, where it can be read as well.

The SWP, British Trotskyist organisation, is in deep crisis after rape accusations and faction fights have ended in the leadership reimposing some ‘order’ , and oppositionists leaving the party in droves. Some analysis, and some ideas on what attitude anti-authoritarians might fruitfully take.

The SWP crisis and ongoing implosion is a horrible, yet fascinating, development. It is horrible, for – again – hundreds of serious people will drift out of the party, and many of them will be too demoralized and exhausted to pick up class struggle activity. Those among them that will remain active will not necessarily turn to anti-authoritarian revolutionary theory and practice. Some of them hopefully might. Many of them, however, will drift to social democracy; many of them will remain Trotskyites and will try to find or invent an SWP 2.0, restore the ‘original IS tradition’ in all its glory, in other words: keep on reinventing an wheel on a train on the wrong track. As a former IS member in the Netherlands, I’ve felt that attraction myself: THIS form of Leninism does not work, let’s try and find an better one…

How did SWP things come to pass like this? A short version . A young women member of the SWP complains of having been raped by a prominent older member, Martin Smith. An internal organ, the Disputes Committee, containing mosttly close comrades of Smith and two CC members, looks into the case, says that no rape has been committed, no sexual misdeeds can be proven. Case closed. A leaked report indicates that the young woman has been interrogated in a totally inapprpriate way; you like to drink, don’t you? Surely, you are known to date loosely? In other words: you did it bring on to yourself. The complainant was not treated as probable victim, but as a suspect herself. Many SWP members were rightly disgusted by a precedure that Tom Walker – SWP journalist that left the party in protest – called a trial, not by a jury of his peers but by a “jury of his mates” (1). But the leadership called the case closed, expelled four members by email for having an critical conversation on Facebook in which they discussed forming an faction but didn’t decide to actually form one. “Secret factionalism”was their offense. The horrible rape investigation, combined with the clampdown on dissent, provoked a democratic opposition to be formed in the run-up to a January conference. The opposition lost the vote, the leadership said: that’s it, back to work everybody, discussion is over. But discussion was not over, an oppositional blog was set up, oppositionists, among whom Richard Seymour, well known blogger, began a campaign for a recall conference. Then, a much broader opposition, with prominent ex-CC member Pat Stack and other familiar SWP names – Mike Gonzalez, Ian Birchall – among them – appearad. The CC, under pressure, suddenly announced an extra conference, but on such conditions and on such short notice that the leadership could almost stage-manage the affair. Oppositionists were harassed, CC member Callinicos hinted that “lynch mobs” (2) might appear if opposition would not shut up after conference. That the conference could have any other outcome than a CC victory did not seem to have entered Callinicos’ mind.

The CC got around 500 names behind a support declaration. The broad opposition got more than 500 people behind their faction. In the preparatory district meetings, so-called ‘aggregates’, however the CC used their bureaucratic grip to restrict oppositionists’ allotted time to speak; they mobilized all kinds of passive members who had not been to SWP activities in ages, to outvote opposition support and see to it that the conference would have a strong CC majority. The end result was clear: a resounding CC victory. The report in Socialist Worker, the party paper: “77 percent of delegates backed a motion from the party’s leading body the central committee. It expressed confidence in the SWP’s democratic method of full discussion before making major decisions and then every member implenting them. The conference made clear that this applied to all pary members.(…) The motion passed expressed delegates’ belief in the integrity of the party members who were involved in handling the disciplinary case and of their investigation.” (3) In other words: decision taken, nothing wrong with the rape investigation, everybody shut up now. A sizable group of SWP members, among whom Richard Seymour, left the party the following day, and set up an International Socialist Network (4) for and by ex-SWP members willing to build around a reinvigorated version of what they keep calling the IS tradition.

That is in short, what happened. But what was the conflict really about? There are several dimensions. There is the callous way in which a rape complaint has been treated – a callousness that seems to be much more than an accident. Another rape accusations has appeared e few days ago, people ask openly whether the SWP is a safe environment for women. The fact that members criticizing the way the rape investigation has been handled were accused of, among other things “creeping feminism” is an indication of how women’s oppression is NOT taken as serious as should be the case, not in theory and certainly not in practice. This attitude – soft on rape, hard on criticism that uses anything other than the only recognized analytical framework, a rigid marxism, is connected with an organizational model in which higher-ups control the party from above; relations of power and dependency create an environment in which power is likely to be abused, with young female members at serious risk of such abuse by leading SWP-ers. This is not to say that such abuse could not take place in other, less hierarchical organizations. But the hierarchical structure and functioning of the party did not exactly help to protect vulnerable people. On the contrary. They put people at risk..

That brings us to another dimension. The conflict was about different versions of Leninism, different interpretations of what Leninists call ‘democratioc centralism’, decision making through majority vote, and then executing the decisions whether you agree with them or not. One version more open-minded, with a better eye to historical practice as well; another, propounded by the leadership, very rigid, exaggeratedly top down, and disregarding the much more flexible approach among the Bolsheviks in Lenin’s time. But it was not just a clash of interperetations, of visions. It was a clash of interests, a class struggle in miniature, a revolt against a party regime under threat. We saw Egypt at the Thames, and Mubarak won this round.

The CC consists mainly of paid fulltimers; candidates for the CC are usually taken from the full time apparatus of district organizers and so on – people appointed by the very same CC. (5) The more open, less rigid version of democratic centralism that oppositionists defended, was not hust doctrinally wrong in the eyes of the CC; it was a serious threat to their position, and to the party apparatus itself and its paid functionaries. For instance, the way of electing the CC came under fire. In the SWP, this operates through a slates system: you can vote for or against the whole list of candidates for the CC – a list that is assembled by the outgoing CC itself. You cannot vote for and against individual candidates. This, combined with the system of appointment of functionaries in the party apparatus, gives the leadership an almost unchallengeable grip. Ending the slate system – interestingly enough introduced in the Russian party not under Lenin, but under Stalin in 1934 (6) – thereatened that grip. Ending the ban on factions outside the pre-conference period – another of the authoritarian absurdities in the SWP – was another demand from oppositionists, at least the more radical ones. This also would augment the pressure on the leadership and weaken their grip. The attacks by CC loyalists on the opposition were attacks on a leadership that heard ‘The members demand the end of the CC regime’ and did not like the sound. Arab springs are well and good in Tunis and Cairo; Trotskyist springs in Londen were a different matter entirely, as far as the leadership was concerned.

A question remains, and it is not unimportant. Why didn’t the CC spare itself all the hassle, why did it not throw the one accused of rape to the lions, kicked him out of the party in order to pre-emptively prevent further criticism and shore up its reputation on women’s liberation as well? Why defend the man so ferociuosly, throwing the part in deep crisis in the process? Sure, even a leading member is expendable for the Greater Good of the Party? One reason is probably simple miscalculation. They stood uop for a close clolleague, thought that they could get away with it, underestimated the storm about to break, and were seriously stunned when it did. But then, they stuck to their line. Why?

Here, the role of the prominent SWP member is relevant. His name is Martin Smith, and he has played a quite central organizational role. Here , the SWP trade union strategy is relevant. The party talks of the need of rank and file activism, pressure upun the trade union bureaucracy and so on. But in practice, the party cultivates close relationships with a whole numer of left wing trade union leaders, who are invited to speak at SWP-dominated events. Influence along these lines apparently is spposed to activate trade union members, so that the rank and file activism comes closer. But the actual organizational connection operates through relations between SWP leadership and leaderships of several unions. The SWP functionary operating this connection? You guessed it: Martin Smith, apparently quite an effective organizer in this respect. It seems plausible that the CC considers him the holder of the key to the much desired trade union influence of the party. That role makes him quite indispensible in the leaderships’ eyes. This then took precedence over the rape accusation and the lack of democratic accountability. CC members did not just stand up for their mates; they also stood up for the one through which the party gained some influence and prestige. Power and influence were more important that principles, more important even than garuanteeing a safe environment for women in the organization. Behind the clampdown was not just an authoritarian vision, combined with widespread tolerance for sexist behaviour. Behind the clampdown lies a combination of material interests of the party apparatus, and the operating of a styrategy promising dome real-world influence and prestige. Its those interests that help explain the stubborn, rigid attidude of the CC and their loyalists – usually older members, quite often members of trade unions where the party has some influence. (7)

What about the opposition? In the first phase, before it broadened out into the mainstream of the party, oppositional noise was heard amongst students, and amongst members not connected with the apparatus but active outside party structures. Students had often entered the party in the aftermath of the student revolt in Britain of November- December 2010. They saw the SWP as a place to channel their activism and anger, but they took their way of doing things with them. They found it quite natural to operate non-hierarchally, in horizontal network structures; anti-authoritarian attitudes ware prevalent, the use of Faecbook and other forms of internet communication almost second nature. These were not people who found the merits of democratic centralism very obvious in practice. That is the rational kernel of the “creeping autonomism”, another of the sins oppositionist were charged with by the CC, alongside the “creeping feminism”. Of course, these students mostly were not consciously autonomists or anarchists. They consider themselves Leninists, and upholders of what is best in the “IS tradition”. But their attitudes – anti-authoritarian, rebellious, insisting on democratic accountability and transparancy, disrespectful of bureacratic limitations of any kinds – were entirely healthy and admirable. They deserve any libertarian communist support that can be given. Part of the crisis in the SWP can be seen as a kind of follow-up student revolt inside that party: Milband Part Two.

Prominent leaders of the opposition were China Mieville and Richard Seymour. Neither of them had formal leadership positions in the party: the absence of CC and former CC members in the original oposition – calling itself the Democratic Renewal Platform – is significant. Seymour is a former student, a blogger, and a writer of political books and Guardian articles. Mieville writes science fiction novels. These are intellectuals, not trade union functionaries, not members of the SWP apparatus, and surely not your average party hacks. Their lives as writers gives them a professional existence outside the party as well. Of course, their role as intellectual guarantees nothing: it can pull them into a career upwards – and away from radical politics. At the moment, however, their position as professional intellectuals gives them an independence from the stranglehold of the party. It makes their oppositional role possible, quite natural even, in a way.

And they got the Original Sin: they have minds of their own. Reading Lenin’s Tomb, Seymour’s blog, is an interesting experience for former Trotskyist who have evolved towards anarchism, like I did. Seymour mixes classical Marxist analysis with a whole number of other influences. During the SWP crisis – but before it came out in the open for all to see- , he wrote positive words about patriarchy theory (8), an analysis of women’s oppression usually frowned upon in the SWP. He challenged the party line on Greece, where the SWP and hetr sister organization support a small anticapitalist coalition where Seymour argued for critical support for Syriza during the elections last June (9). The point here is not that Seyour has it right and the SWP had it wrong: I think both positions make no sense from a revolutiionary point of view; both are stuck in electoralism and governmental illusions. No, the point is, that Seymour thinks for himself, and – already before the recent crisis broke – came to very different conclusions than the official Party Line. And he did not keep these conclusions to himself. Reading his blog is reading someone doing some independent analyzing; reading Socialist Worker is reading someone repeating formulas. Of course, the analyzing can bring Seymour to conclusions well to the right of his former comrades, but that is not the point here.

The independence of mind, the large student involvement with their anti-authoritartian asttitudes and its lack of roots in parts of the SWP apparatus, makes the DRP – and now the IS Network formed now many of them left the party – quite different from earlier split-offs. Counterfire, for instance, was formed when John Rees and Lindsey German lost a faction fight in 2009. Rees and German were former CC members – and every bit as bureaucratic and authoritarian as Alex Callinicos in the current CC. Chris Bambery broke with the party somewhat later, and formed a smaller International Socialist Group. Bambery also was a former CC member, and not widely known for his democratic credentials. Bambery, Rees and German all stood for centralized top-down leaderships. Like Callinicos, they inspired not so much respect as fear among party members, especially when they stepped out of line. Counterfire has a much more dynamic website than the rump of the SWP hich does not seem to know the difference between internet and a company message board run by management; Bambery at least can write decent articles, even if I don’t agree with the politics of them. But in essence, there is little to choose between the three organizations.

The new IS network, however, smells different. Yes, the positive talk of Leninism and the IS tradition is explicit. That is a limitation, for it is withim that Leninist IS tradition that many of the SWP’s problems are rooted. The fact that Seymour and his comrades have started challenging at least some of the organizational rigidities that characterize the SWP, combined with the rebellious attitudes of the students involved, may push them to the limits of their Leninism, and beyond. People having just rebelled against the Callinicos dictatorship may think twice of defending the suppression of their Kronstadt predecessors by Callinicos’ predecessor in the 1921 Kremlin. Part of the logic of the opposition’s struggle, and the arguments that it brought up, leads into an anti-authoritarian, libertarian direction. This is to be watched with sympathetic interest, and it is to be gently encouraged where possible. It would be good if these people encountered anarchists, and autonomists,  creeping or otherwise. It would be even better if those anarchists could resist the ‘I told you so’ temptation and just communicated with these former SWP members on an equal level, criticasl but friendly.

But another part of the dynamics around the ex-SWP people leads in the direction to entirely different, much less inspiring, possible outcomes. Among oppositionists, there is much concern for the ways the bureaucratic games of the SWP, its sectarianism and now its defense of sexism as well, limits the party’s ability to cooperate with wider forces, for instance around anti-austerity activism. Implicit here is the desire for broad left coalitions, only maybe not dominated by one or another Trotskyist group anymore. This can easlily combine with broad left electoral initiatives and other unity formations. Electoralism, broad coalition building: this runs counter to a deeper evolvement in revolutionary anti-authoritarian direction. On the contrary, it may easily evolve in a left Social Democratic direction, or the building of an extra-parliamentary activist wing while the Labour Party does the electoral job – the idea of Owen Jones that is in the air these days. Seymour’s positive attitude towards Syriza becames relevant here. It is a danger sign. Anti-sectarianism is healthy, but without the kind of ferocious criticism of electoral politics and of the Left Unity illusion so effectively made recently on Libcom (10) as well, it easily brings you to left wing social democracy. That would be a tragic outcome. Still, resistance is better off with ex-members of the SWP going all over the place, including social democracy or soft Leninism, as long as they remaing active – or return to activity after a well-deserved period of rest and recovery – in the defence of jobs, communities etcetera, than with the same people stuck in their SWP straitjacket and basically foot soldiers a of a preposterous leadership.

Nothing, however, is inevitable, and here the role of anarchists/ libertarian communists comes into play. We could say: what the hell, SWP leadership or SWP opposition, CC or dissidents, they are all Leninists, we’re not interested, y’all go to hell until you see the anarchist light.. I think that would be a mistake. First, I am on the side of the SWP rebels because they fight for a bit more freedom and dignity, because I don’t want rape acusations shoved under the carpet and so on; it is a rebellion against imposed authority, and as such already justified. I am on the side of similar rebels within the Catholic Church as well, so why not in this case? Second, although the rebels mostly frame their politics along Leninist – i.e. still authoritarian, state-oriented – lines, there is more to it: there is a lot of difference between the rigid Leninist formulas of Callinicos on the one side, and the efforts to think for themselves, while still using the same language and categories as Callinicos. The open-endedness of the rebels’ ideas makes them different. That means that anarchists better take a friendly attitude, without hiding their own ideas and criticism, but without the hostility and dismissivness the SWP usually gets, and as a party, fully deserves. Yes, I see a bit of myself in these rebels: I drifted out of the IS in 2008 with similar Leninist ideas as many of the current SWP dissidents; if anarchists in the two years after that would just have haugtily dismissed me as long as I was not one of them, I may never have found my way to the anarchist movement, and would not be writing this on Libcom…

Even if the people leaving the SWP, or being kicked out,do not turn to anti-authoritarian revolutionary politics, they are different that the disciplined party members from before: they stand on their own feet, they are breathing fresh air. Even if they remain Trotskyist out of conviction, or turn in trade unionists/ activists with a left reformist frame of mind, they are are out of their straightjacket, and that is progress. The last thing they probably desire is to be treated as potential recruits in yet another potential venture, however revlolutinary, anti-patriarchal and anti-authoritarian that venture may be. They have seen, committed and suffered too much recruitment and political operations already. Let’s not give these people another rough time while working together and talking to them where it make sense. These people have been in hell, fought toward the exit, and are bearing the scars.

On sources: many articles and documents on the SWP crisis can be found through “SWP crisis: who is saying what”. http://www.jimjepps.net/?p=273


1 Tom Walker, “Why I am resigning”, http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/944/swp-why-i-am-resigning

2 “Callinicos threatens ‘lynch mobs’”, http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/callinicos-threatens-lynch-mobs

3 Charlie Kimber, “Delegates meet and discuss the way forward for the SWP”, http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30848

4 “A new Network”, http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/a-new-network.html

5 Insightful articles on Soviet Goon Boy, a very intersting blog where ut coibncerns SWP matters, have been helpful here. “The SWP crisis: some reflections”, http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/the-swp-crisis-some-reflections/ gives a good explanation of the workings of the party apparatus and the dynamics that go with it.

6 See Jim Jepps, “The origins of the slate system”, http://www.jimjepps.net/?p=268

7 See another beautiful peiece on Soviet Goon Boy: “Once Tiberius is dead, I, Sejanus, will rule as emperor in Rome”, http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/once-tiberius-is-dead-i-sejanus-will-rule-as-emperor-in-rome/

8 Richard Seymour, “Patriarchy and the capitalist state”, http://www.leninology.com/2013/01/patriarchy-and-capitalist-state.html

9 For instance, Richard Seymour, “The challenge of Syriza”, http://www.leninology.com/2012/06/challenge-of-syriza.html

10 Phil, “’The real enemy?’Why we should reject left unity as a concept”, http://libcom.org/blog/%E2%80%9C-real-enemy%E2%80%9D-why-we-should-reject-left-unity-concept-17022013

Note, March 14, 0.41 hour: edited slightly and got rid of quite a number oftypos/ errors


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