Trotskyism on the edge – on the SWP crisis

woensdag 10 juli 2013

The piece below was written for my Libcom blog, where you can already read it.

A few more notes on the crisis in the SWP that seems to have entered new territory.

Months after the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (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 to 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 submission, at least, that was tried. Some of them, talking on Facebook about forming a faction, were summarrily expelled by e-mail. Soon, a faction fight broke out in which oppositionists called for more internal democracy, and in which the attidtude opf the SWP to women’s oppression came under critical attention. The leadership reacted by dismissing criticims as signs of “autonomism” and “creeping feminism”. The leadership managed to keep control of the party on the 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 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 it seems I had a rather unexpected co-thinker, at least on this issue…However: Garman 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, in 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 cCentral 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 strengtj 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 befor 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 in to 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 thast this can only be achieved through liberatory, bottom-up means.

Yet, there is no reason 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, antiracists, 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 replace ing of capitalism by a classless, cooperative sociaiety 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 enthousiastic 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.

Peter Storm

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  1. #1 by Astrid Essed on 2013/07/17 - 07:52


    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for your reaction, which I appreciate, as all your valuable
    articles on your website.
    Respect, but I have said that before.

    Israel as a zionist State

    Indeed I see now, that you were referring to the SWP approachment
    of the anti imperialistic struggle on which I will give no comments now.
    Perhaps another time.
    I am glad to see that you share my point of view about Israel being a zionistic State.
    In think the misunderstanding was, that you referred to ”Zionist State” , which I
    interpreted as a denial of the zionist character.
    That’s not surprising as such, since there are progressive people, who
    condemn Israel as an occupation State, but deny the zionist character.
    In contrary with you I don’t think my explanation of the zionist
    character of Israel was totally unnecessary, because emphasizing
    that fact is never a loss in argumentation.


    And to end with:
    I share your opinion, that Hamas is not a progressive organisation,
    since their goal is an Islamic State.
    If you have read my comment well [and you did, I am sure of that]
    than you have noticed, that I reject any religious State, whether it
    is christian, Islamic, Jewish or other, since
    it inevitably [in contrary to true religious principles] leads to
    intolerance and oppression.

    But fact stays, that Hamas has the right to resist and fight
    against Israel, since Israel not only is an occupying State,
    but responsible for ethnic cleansings and and neo colonialism,
    stealing the country from the original population,
    the Palestinians.
    But we agree about that

    Again, thanks for your reaction

    Kind greetings

  2. #2 by peter on 2013/07/17 - 05:45

    I am a former Trotskyist who became an anarchist. So it is not surprising that I am glad to see people moving from Trotskyism to anarchism/ autonomism. And ofcourse, an anarchist finds former SWP-ers who still remain Leninists rather less attractive than former SWP-ers who move closer to anarchism. I always welcome new allies: ) I don’t understand the surprise there, or the shock. I find it rather natural. Just as I find it natural that Leninists take an opposite view.

    And if my attention about this has to do with “a sort of psychological exercise to rid myself of past demons” – so be it. There ARE demons to get rid of there, and, alas, not only past ones. And yes, this is still my struggle – just like any clash between what I see as wrong and what I see as better politics, ideas and/ or practices, is my struggle. I am no Catholic, but Catholics fighting their hierarchy have my symnpathy.I am no Trotskyist, but Trotskyists trying to break from their orthodoxy towards more anti-authopritarian positions have my sympathy. It IS my struggle. Liberation is unversal, and I don’t see why I should exclude my former political home from that universality.

  3. #3 by peter on 2013/07/17 - 05:26

    DEar Astrid
    You write: “I agree with you
    Except your apparent disagreement with the SWP point about the Zionist State”

    You think Israel is not.”

    No, I do not think so. I did NOT deny that Israel is a Zionist state. I only objected to the SWP habit of siding with almost any and all forces as lomng as they are against both US imperialism and/ or the Israel. I only used quotation marks to indicate that I was presenting the way the SWP tends to formulate its arguments. All your argument that Israel is a Zionist/ colonialst state is correct, but unnecessary here – because I nowhere denied that it is.

    About Hamas: yes, they fight the State of Israel. But that does not make them in any way progressive. Replacing a colonial ethnic state by an Islamic state isn’t progress. It replaces one form of reaction by another.

  4. #4 by Astrid Essed on 2013/07/14 - 02:40


    Dear Readers
    Dear Peter

    Peter, thanks very much for your interesting article ”Trotskyism
    on the edge-on the SWP crisis”
    Mianly I agree with you, but I have some little points of critic

    About the SWP

    You write among else

    ”That is neither reason for mourning as for celebration. It is not a reason to mourn.”

    I agree with you that there’s no reason for celebration.
    But yes, I think there is a reason to mourn about the decline of the SWP

    Because which faults were made and however bureacratic, that party is an important
    ally in the struggle against racism and US and Western imperialism and military
    conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine etc

    And you are also right to warn against ex SWP members become cynical and
    not protesting at alll anymore

    Still one more remark

    You write

    ” 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.”

    I agree with you
    Except your apparent disagreement with the SWP point about the Zionist State

    You think Israel is not
    I think Israel IS a zionist State, in his history and ideology

    Israel is founded on the basis of late 19th century zionism, which is founded by the Jewish Austrian
    journalist Theodor Herzl.
    Direct cause was French antisemism in the Dreyfuss affair.
    Deeper cause were the late 19th century superiority movements, which deeply influenced
    zionist thinking and the then ruling colonialistic views.

    Zionism is the line of thinking of the founding of a Jewish State in Palestine, which was then
    a colony of the Ottoman Empire.

    Problem with that was, that there was an original Palestinian Arab population, whose rights were
    That was the normal colonial thinking at the end of the 19th century, but of course was the ground for the latter

    There was a zionist colonization from the beginning of the 20th century, buying a part of the land
    with colinists taking a superior attitude to ”the Arabs” as though they were the original
    population and the Arabs the strangers in their own country.
    The dirty deal with the British colonial power [since 1920 Palestine was a British Mandatory]
    did the rest
    The Balfour Decl;aration [1917, when Turkey was still the colinial power], with the promise
    of a Jewish Homeland and the divide et impera role of the British led to the deeper zionist
    colonisation at the cost of the Palestinian Arab people, who had no voice in this.

    After World War II with Un Resolution 181 Palestine was ”divided” into a Jewish and
    Arab part without any voice of the original Palestinian population, who demanded
    [and with right!] its independence of the British without any political division
    of their country.
    After the zionist leader Ben Gurion proclaimed onesidedly [the UN was still deliberating
    about the form the new divided Palestine would get] the State of Israel, the Palestinian
    Arab nationalists resisted, war broke out, resulting in the etnic cleansing of more
    than 750 000 Palestinians.
    More than 500 Arab villages were destroyed [ Ilan Pappe/The etjnic Cleansing of
    Zionist masslaughers in a couple of Arab villages and at least one Arab masslaugher of
    a Jewish medical team were the further humanitarian tolls of the war

    And thereafter, Israeli occupation [since 1967] of the Palestinian territories, with
    its repression, war crimes and crimes against humanity [Gaza blockade]

    You know that whole tragedy

    But it stemmed all from the zionist idea of megalomania of the foundation
    of the Jewish State in the country of another people, without that
    people had any voice in this process.

    That was colinialistic
    The UN Resolution 181 dividing Palestine was neo colonialistic

    No wonder, that the Palestinian cause is widely supported by the Third
    World countries, knowing what colonialism is.

    So yes, Israel is a zionist State
    The SWP is right about that

    And concerning the SWP defence of rea

    See also

    And concerning the SWP defence of reactionary movements against the ”Zionist State”

    If you mean Hamas, then I state, that Hamas has the full right to resist against the
    Israeli occupying State, while I of course NOT defend human rights violations
    of Hamas [suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, which is not legitimate and inhuman,
    in contrary to the legitimate attacks on the Israeli army]

    Moreover, Hamas is NOT anti semitic, but anti zionist
    They always speak of the zionist enemy, never of Jews.
    I don’t agree with their goal, foundation of an Islamic Palestine
    [I am against all religious State and am an adherer of one secular Palestinian
    State with room and rights for all people]

    But Hamas does want a State with respect for the rights [including religious]
    for all inhabitants,
    So the tale of driving all the Jews out is a bad fairy tale

    See also

    Kind greetings
    Astrid Essed

  5. #5 by ben on 2013/07/12 - 15:32

    Is this a disgruntled former Trotskyist gloating over the demise of the SWP? Peter, it seems to me that you are making the same mistakes as your former comrades, categorizing political positions into the ‘good’ anarchist and the ‘bad’ Leninist. You are speaking with arrogance of the enlightened arrogance of someone who ‘has seen the light’ preaching to the herds still cloaked in darkness. Is it not slightly deterministic or schematic to paint a picture of a Leninist grouping splitting up and then calling for the ‘saviour’ of the disgruntled who show some sort of autonomist ‘promise’. ‘There is hope!’ the preacher said, arguing for the saviour of the worthy, autonomous talents, while condemning the rest to irrelevance.
    You spend a lot of time and space on this topic, almost making it seem like some sort of psychological exercise to rid yourself of past demons. This is no longer your struggle (or is it??). As a loyal reader of your blog, I would urge you to write more theoretical pieces about autonomism, horizontal organisation, consensus democracy and the like. In this way, you’d make a more positive contribution to the struggle against the system…

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