The Central Committee (CC) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the biggest would-be revolutionary socialist group in Britain, won a Pyrrhic victory at the SWP’s special conference on 10 March.
The CC scored, apparently, a four-to-one victory against those who have expressed doubts or criticisms, mild or radical, of the SWP’s commandist regime. Although the critics were roughly as numerous as the loyalists in the signatures won by rival statements, the CC and its network of compulsorily-loyal full-time organisers were better at rounding up inactive or semi-active members to vote through the delegates they wanted.
As a blogger aptly put it, “Order Prevails in Vauxhall” (the SWP HQ is in Vauxhall). According to the CC, this ends the row that broke out when many SWPers became dissatisfied about the CC’s handling of charges by a young woman SWPer of sexual harassment and rape against SWP organiser Martin Smith. But it doesn’t end it.
70-odd SWPers have publicly resigned, and formed a new International Socialist Network. The SWP’s entire student group at Sussex University has broken from the party. Dozens of individual SWPers posted resignation notes on social networking sites in the hours and days following the conference. More will follow.
The CC is now like a bank in the run-up to the 2007-8 crisis. It has overextended its credit. It has drawn deeply, too deeply, on the reserves of loyalty among SWPers, already depleted after the Respect fiasco of 2004-7.
It now runs an organisation where half, or nearly half, the active membership are deeply disillusioned with the leadership, even if they will submit for now.
It could get past that only by new political directions which convince and enthuse the members. But there is no sign of such: only of the same old lacklustre gimcrackery.
In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote about how political problems become “insoluble” in one-party states. He had in mind fascist Italy and, probably, the USSR as the Stalinists consolidated. The same thought applies to one-faction parties.
The SWP CC denounces “permanent” factions (i.e. factions operating for more than a few weeks prior to each annual conference). But in fact the SWP has one “eternal” faction. The CC (which, by SWP rule, confronts the rest of the SWP with pretended permanent unanimity) and its corps of full-time organisers (also obliged, as a condition of employment, always to push CC policy) are an eternal faction.
“The functions of such a party [or faction] are no longer directly political, but merely technical ones of propaganda and public order, and moral and cultural influence... Even if no other legal parties [factions] exist, other parties [factions, trends of opinion] in fact always do exist...
“Against these, polemics are unleashed and battles are fought as in a game of blind man’s buff... Political language becomes jargon... political questions are disguised as cultural ones, and such become insoluble”.
That is the SWP’s future. It will continue to crumble.
Many SWP and ex-SWP dissidents say they don’t want “another left group”. But a network is a group. Organising it very loosely may diminish its ability to formulate sharp ideas, to learn from criticism of the past, to mobilise compactly and with energy, or to have political control over its members who get trade union or student union positions. It won’t stop it being a group.
And what would we say to a doctor who, when many medical treatments have failed to fix a disease, and some have made it worse, responded: we don’t want yet another medicine?
The International Socialist Organization of the USA (former co-thinkers of the SWP, but expelled from the SWP’s international network in 2001 in obscure circumstances) has backed the SWP opposition and described leading oppositionist Richard Seymour as “an SWP comrade we know and respect”.
We don’t know whether the International Socialist Network will evolve into a “British ISO”. Socialist Alternative in Australia, which is linked to the ISO-USA and is the other sizeable group in the English-speaking world adhering to the SWP/IS “tradition” but at odds with the SWP, says it’s “not taking sides” for now.
In any case, for the ISN, and for all the activists now being shaken loose from the SWP, there should be two main priorities now.
First, join in united action with other socialists. You are no longer bound by the comminations of the SWP. Student ex-SWPers, for example, are now free to unite in action with the major force of the radical left in the student world, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
Second, discuss. Where you have differences with other socialists, like Workers’ Liberty, deal with them by dialogue and debate, rather than in SWP fashion by prefabricated curses.
If you do that, this crisis can be a step to a healthier left. If you keep to old factional prejudices and anathemas from your SWP days, it will bring only fragmentation and weakening.