Trotskyism on the edge - on the SWP crisis

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.

Peter Storm

Posted By

rooieravotr
Jul 10 2013 15:25

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Battlescarred
Jul 10 2013 16:06

Oh dear, you haven't really broken with the IS/SWP tradition at all have you? "Neither mourn nor celebrate?" Sorry, but for me the right response IS celebration.

rooieravotr
Jul 10 2013 17:41

I gladly see the SWP collapse, which I clearly state in the very last sentence of the piece. The same applies to the whole IS tendency. But I rather not see all their former members turn into demoralized cynics; I would hope for something better for them. That is what I meant (and thought I explained). If that means that I "haven't broken with the IS/SWP tradition at all", I am glad that I didn't smile But I am willing to hear the argument why that would indeed be the case (which I do not see in Battlescarred's comment).

Battlescarred
Jul 10 2013 20:18

" 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." You see that's where we disagree, these actions are counter-productive. I remember when the Mumia Abu Jamal Defence Cttee was invaded by the SWP at the last moment before an announced demo who immediately began bureaucratic manouevring.- just for the sake of perceived paper sales at a demo that they had virtually seized.They sabotaged any hope of a mass anti-war movement spilling out into direct action , this wasn't an expression of class rage it was the ritualised form of "protest" that has characterised British politics for so long and has paralysed any real revolutionary alternative.
Substitute the appalling WRP for SWP in the above text and see the logic of that. The fact is the SWP does burn out hundreds of people on a regular basis anyway. It didn't need a crisis within it for that to happen , it was an ongoing process. That is one of the main functions of these parties, whether WRP, SWP, SP etc they are political rackets that make sure the hegemony of Labourism is maintained, that direct action and autonomous struggle are sabotaged.They act as political combine harvesters, sucking in idealistic people at one end and throwing them out at the back end as more often or not burnt out cases, cynical and apathetic.
Of course I'm concerned about the many idealistic people who may join the SWP or other Leninist outfits. But the best way to help is to hope that these organisations cease to exist altogether.

plasmatelly
Jul 10 2013 22:01

Good piece, I thought. SWP is changing so fast it's difficult to keep up with the latest way in which to hate them; especially since they,re losing those weird cult-like devotees from the universities they passed off as tractor factory workers (and then went on to bigger things). Looks like it's a race to the bottom.
The aguement that rather a stunted Left than no resistance to capitalisms excesses is solid enough, though the SWP traditionally complicated this opportunity for a degree of tolerance by crushing all before them.
For me, I think the best way to celebrate the demise of the SWP is to out do them.

rooieravotr
Jul 11 2013 01:23

@Battlescarred: Thanks! Now, at least I see what you mean, and I am going to think (again) about it. I may come back on it. Still, even if I would agree with you, it still is not the same as me not having broken at all with the IS tradition. I hold a somewhat different view of the SWP crisis and its fall-out, and I did not think that I deserved to be dished as, basicallly, still under the IS spell. I may be, for autobiographical reasons, a bit soft on them. Twenty years of IS is not totally undone by less than 4 years of anarchism...
@plasmatelly: thanks! Especially, this:

Quote:
For me, I think the best way to celebrate the demise of the SWP is to out do them.

There will be a second piece, on some of the ones who have left. But that may need some re-writing, after the comments here. So, thanks again.

Red Marriott
Jul 10 2013 23:25
Battlescarred wrote:
I remember when the Mumia Abu Jamal Defence Cttee was invaded by the SWP at the last moment before an announced demo who immediately began bureaucratic manouevring.- just for the sake of perceived paper sales at a demo that they had virtually seized.They sabotaged any hope of a mass anti-war movement spilling out into direct action

Since this issue blew up publicly it's always struck me as richly ironic that so many long-term SWP members are suddenly making such a big fuss about the Party's bureaucratic manipulations now being used against them - when these (ex-)members all for so long participated in loyally applying the same destructive manipulations to other struggles with no criticism or unease expressed at the repeated parasitical behaviour and attempted hijacking etc of various campaigns/movements they've perpetrated in the name of the glorious vanguard. I'm glad so many Party members couldn't swallow the leadership's attempted cover-up; but has there been any reflection expressed along those lines by the dissidents? They've reaped what they sowed.

Ablokeimet
Jul 11 2013 07:56
Red Marriott wrote:
I'm glad so many Party members couldn't swallow the leadership's attempted cover-up; but has there been any reflection expressed along those lines by the dissidents? They've reaped what they sowed.

If the contributions on Lenin's Tomb and the IS Network blogs are any indication, I think that there are quite a few who have engaged in some serious reflection. They haven't learnt all the necessary lessons, but they've learnt some, I think.

Ramona
Jul 11 2013 08:18

I thought this piece was a really interesting overview of what's been going on. However, much as I hate to come across the grumpy militant feminist (actually I don't hate it that much) in our discussion of mourning or celebration I can't help but notice the absence of the woman who was raped. Battlescarred, I appreciate the glee at the SWPs demise, but this is hardly time for celebration. A woman has been raped and then systematically undermined by her "comrades" in A way that makes bourgeois courts look like a paragon of virtue. It's not as if anarchists in the UK (or maybe anywhere) have our house in order on issues like this either, while we still have to do Victim Blaming 101 ad infinitum, or when people well versed in feminist theory rally round to defend their mates who abuse women, or when known perpetrators of abuse can't be told to stay away from anarchist run events without half the internet queuing up to cry about Franz Kafka and fantasise about the inevitable moment when all these women accuse every anarchist man of rape and leave the anarchist movement a shadow of its former self, made up of women running skill shares and forgetting everything the men taught us about class...

Basically yeah I won't be sad to see the SWP fall but let's not forget what actually sparked this cos it's not that far from home.

Battlescarred
Jul 11 2013 10:18

Point taken, Ramona! And sorry if I came over at first as abrupt, Rooieavotr. That's just my way, and I know I should do something about it.

rooieravotr
Jul 11 2013 15:24

Agree with Ramona. My article leaves a lit to be desired there. No worry and thanks, Battolescarred, I found your clarification useful.

On the dissidents, and Red Marriot's observation: They reaped what they sowed. Now, there have been several waves of dissidents and opponents, not at all the same. In 2009, a number of SWP members left around a spit led by John Rees and Lindsey German. They were bullies, whose conflict with the other B bullies was not about democracy and the treatment of oppositionists, but purely about tactics. Rees and co wanted a broad , centrally-operated anti-austerity front, a bit like Stop the War. Callinicos and co wanted to concentrate op the usual party building routines. Both used basically the same top-down procedures to get their way. Rees and German lost the faction fight, cried foul, and split. There is no reason to sympathize, of they had w one they would have treated Callinicos and co the same way. Somewhat later, another of the leading hacks, Chris Bambery split along similar lines. Again, no tea and sympathy for him.

The recent opposition is different. It started around a vital issue: the shameful mistreatment of a rape accusation against a leading member. Soor, matters of internal demor cracy and transparancy moved to the fore. The critics were not in the leadership, but ofthen younger members. Students, often recruited around the wave of resistence in 2010, were furious. Intellectually independent members of some prominence - Seymour and Mieville - already somewhat critical, moven into open opposition. Only after the fight was on, some leaders of promionence began to support the broader, more moderate wing of the opposition, still remaining inside. This applies to Pat Stack, for instance. The more radical opposition, Seymour and Mieville and their mates, now has, for a large part, left or has been expelled.

These more radical oppositionists were not your usual party hacks, though it is impossible to be an active member of an IS group for more than thee months without doing shameful manipulative things to other people, within or without the party. In that sense, even to them - and to me... - applies the verdict: "They reaped what they sowed.". But not all have sowed to the same extent, and the ones who have sowed only a little, are usually the ones reaping the most, in terms of bullying. These new dissidents are not responsible for the bureraucratic culture inn wjhich bullying takes central stage in the same sense or to the same degree the Rees/German/ Bambery types. Hacks in opposition are still hacks. But the recent dissidents try to act according to principles and some common decency. They seriously try to correct some evil, even if they only go half way.

Ablokeimet
Jul 11 2013 23:38
rooieravotr wrote:
These new dissidents are not responsible for the bureraucratic culture inn wjhich bullying takes central stage in the same sense or to the same degree the Rees/German/ Bambery types. Hacks in opposition are still hacks. But the recent dissidents try to act according to principles and some common decency. They seriously try to correct some evil, even if they only go half way.

Quite right. It should also be noted that the new dissidents around the ISN have the same criticisms of Rees, German & Bambery and also hold strong criticisms, on similar grounds, of some of the remaining SWP opposition.

One problem with some of the people in the ISN is that they have been using their criticisms of the SWP's organisational methods to move to the Right on the question of the State. It is unclear from the outside whether these people are in the majority, but I have seen a number of statements saying that it was not appropriate for the SWP "to investigate a rape" and that the issue should have been handed over to the police, with the alleged perpetrator suspended from membership until the investigation was over.

To these people, I have a response. Imagine that you are a member of a revolutionary organisation and one of your prominent comrades is accused of murder. He is alleged to have shot two men in a grocery store. He has been arrested and is to be put on trial. Do we investigate the situation and mount a defence campaign if we decide it is warranted? Or do we suspend the comrade from membership pending the verdict in the trial?

The above scenario is not hypothetical. It actually happened. The year was 1915. The revolutionary organisation was the IWW. The prominent comrade was Joe Hill.

rooieravotr
Jul 12 2013 01:45

A follow-up piece on the IS Network, just posted: http://libcom.org/blog/edges-trotskyism-some-ones-who-left-swp-12072013

Gregory A. Butler
Jul 12 2013 14:36

Dude, are you SERIOUSLY trying to compare Joe Hill to that rapist Martin Smith?

Sorry, bullshit - and an insult to a great martyr of the labor movement.

On the question, why exactly do you have a problem with "it was not appropriate for the SWP "to investigate a rape" and that the issue should have been handed over to the police, with the alleged perpetrator suspended from membership until the investigation was over."

That makes perfect sense to me.

If our priority is making the left a safe space for women (and it damned well should be) then we should make men who rape women persona non grata. Their violent misogyny makes them tools of the capitalist class and objective defenders of the system, just like a scab or a klansman, and they have no business in our ranks.

Let the police deal with them, and give them no aid or comfort.

When Martin Smith raped that young woman, the SWP should have advised her to contact the Metropolitan Police, immediately suspended Martin Smith from the organization, issued a public statement that he was being suspended because he's an alleged rapist and let him and his lawyers (paid for by him, NOT by the SWP) sort things out with the prosecutor and the cops.

Rapists are enemies of the working class and they do not deserve any aid and comfort from us

RedEd
Jul 12 2013 15:01
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
When Martin Smith raped that young woman, the SWP should have advised her to contact the Metropolitan Police

I agree with most of what you say, but I don't think any revolutionary organisation has any business telling survivors to go to the cops, not because of revolutionary purity, but because we ought to realise that the primary role of the police is absolutely not to help victims and the process of taking things through the courts can be extremely traumatic and unrewarding. Neither do we have any business telling people not to go to the cops in that situation. It's the survivors call, not that of the organisation which should, on principle, have no stance, in my opinion.

Quote:
let him and his lawyers (paid for by him, NOT by the SWP) sort things out with the prosecutor and the cops.

I also have reservations about this. Sexual predators are let off by the judicial system more frequently than not. I think we need to be more vigilant about this than letting the cops and court decide for us. Smith is known to be sexually predatory and I don't think that all the innocent verdicts in the world should mean that isn't dealt with. In his case almost certainly by permanent expulsion.

Ablokeimet
Jul 13 2013 06:55
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
Dude, are you SERIOUSLY trying to compare Joe Hill to that rapist Martin Smith?

Sorry, bullshit - and an insult to a great martyr of the labor movement.

What I SERIOUSLY believe in is the movement making up its own mind on the merits of the case. I've heard enough about the SWP case to know what side I stand on, but this is completely different from saying that any accusation of rape will be treated as proof, or even that any accusation will be handed over to the State to sort out. We've seen plenty of examples emerging recently of Special Branch infiltration of the Anarchist and broader activist movement, including conducting sexual relationships with women in the movement.

If we adopt the position that we will hand all accusations on to the police, without making our own minds up on the merits of the case, we will be issuing an engraved invitation to Special Branch to ensure its next batch of infiltrators are women coppers. They'd be rubbing their hands at the prospect of the damage they'd cause!

Ablokeimet
Jul 14 2013 13:02
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
AblokeImet, please don't derail this thread with the whole false accusations of rape thing. It barely ever happens and is not a significant problem. It is a major problem, right now, that survivors of sexual violence are not believed - as this topic of this thread shows.

Yes, I should have noted that false rape accusations are very rare and only ever happen under special and unusual conditions. My point was, however, to say that we should avoid inviting the police to create those special and unusual conditions.

jimk47
Jan 19 2014 20:14

I for one will welcome the demise of the SWP, an organisation that for decades has put its own narrow sectarian interests above those of the working class, while at the same diverting the energies of thousands of sincere socialists into futile gesture politics and opportunistic campaigns. I was of the opinion that the SWP was a state run organisation but after seeing the way their CC dealt with this issue, i can only conclude that they are a bunch of incompetent, bureaucratic opportunists. Finally, it is ironic that they should be brought to the brink of oblivion through a sexual abuse scandal after their opportunistic support of Sheridan in Scotland.

Good riddance to them and let's hope that we can rebuild a genuinely revolutionary movement in these islands.