Where will SWP opposition go?

Submitted by martin on 22 January, 2013 - 2:22

The row in the Socialist Workers Party is heading for a split. The opposition, which now has a public website, internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk, is calling for an SWP special conference and the removal of the current Central Committee and Disputes Committee.


This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.

The Central Committee (CC) has set an arbitrary deadline of 1 February for SWP branch motions requisitioning a special conference, and seems to want to see off the opposition at a meeting of a broader SWP committee, the National Committee, on 3 February.

It is trying to marginalise the opposition with circulars declaring: "There are some people who want to replace a Marxist analysis of women’s liberation with one centred on patriarchy theory. Others believe that changes in capitalism have altered the structure of the working class so fundamentally that it is no longer the key element in the battle for socialism..."

In fact the opposition remains, in general politics, very SWP-orthodox. The conflict is likely to move onto broader political questions, though not in the way the SWP CC suggests.

So far oppositionists are not questioning the SWP's method of choosing political slogans according to what "fits the mood" and positions the SWP well for organisational advantage, rather than to elucidate the logic of the class struggle. But some must doubt the SWP's half-hearted demagogy around 30 November 2011 - "all out, stay out".

So far they still see strategy as "building the party" in abstraction, rather than building a revolutionary socialist organisation as a means to transform the labour movement. But some must doubt the SWP's succession of ever-more-lacklustre industrial "fronts", Organising For Fighting Unions, then Right to Work, then Unite the Resistance, and the similar succession in the student field, Another Education is Possible, Education Activist Network, etc.

So far they accept the pro-Islamist turn which the SWP has taken since 2001-2 (with some foreshadowing before then). But some must be concerned about the 2004-7 Respect fiasco and the SWP CC's failure to dissociate from the claims by Gilad Atzmon that criticism of Martin Smith is an artefact of "Jewish lobbies".

A central fact in the crisis is a radical decline, over recent years, in the political authority among SWP members of the SWP Central Committee. Some oppositionists will start looking to other groups claiming to represent the broad political tradition of the SWP.

Counterfire, the group led by former SWP leaders John Rees and Lindsey German, should be well-placed; but it hasn't been doing well, and many SWP oppositionists' objection to the current CC is its failure on promises to improve on the "commandist" methods of Rees, German, and their ally Chris Bambery.

Better-placed may be the international network of groups claiming the same broad ideological tradition as the SWP, but out of favour with the SWP itself, notably ISO (USA), Socialist Alternative (Australia), and DEA (Greece).

These all more-or-less paralleled the SWP's pro-Islamist turn after 2001-2 (although they had all separated from the SWP by then). They have never questioned the SWP's 1987-8 turn to endorsing almost any militantly anti-US force as anti-imperialist and hence progressive. But they offer a record of greater practical success than the SWP in the last decade, and, by now, leaderships with a greater wealth of writers, speakers, and widely-experienced activists than the SWP CC.

DEA shows non-sectarian and effective activity in Syriza, while the "official" SWP-linked group in Greece, SEK, is stuck in a rut of demands for Greece to quit the euro as the banner of supposedly-revolutionary denunciation of Syriza. ISO offers a clear criticism of the SWP's support for the Muslim Brotherhood in recent elections in Egypt, and dissociation from Atzmon. Socialist Alternative wrote a sharp critique of the SWP's Respect turn.

The ISO and S Alt also offer a more pro-feminist profile than the SWP; but more on that below.

Socialist Alternative has a constitution which explicitly asserts that "members have the right to publicly express disagreement with decisions and policies of the organisation", and does not (like the SWP) limit the right to form factions within the organisation to a short period before each annual conference.

The ISO, by all accounts, has a formal structure much more like the SWP's. It offers a more civilised version of it. S Alt is in process of merging with a smaller grouping, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, of Castroite leanings, and promises ex-RSPers full democratic rights as a minority within the merger. The ISO accommodates as one of its prominent writers Paul Le Blanc, who argues that Cuba is a workers' state. (The web, however, features a good few stories of ISO members summarily expelled or pushed out in the way familiar to the SWP).

S Alt and DEA originate in rebellions against the turn which the SWP imposed on its international co-thinkers in the early 1990s. The SWP decreed that after a decade of "downturn", the world was entering a new era of huge "volatility", the "1930s in slow motion", opening the way for vast recruitment if only the revolutionary socialist groups turned to it.

The ISO was expelled from the SWP's international network in 2001: the scanty stated motives for the expulsion (the ISO's supposed slowness in turning to the "new anti-capitalist" mobilisations after Seattle) suggest there must have been tensions before then. That 2001 expulsion also shook loose a grouping from the SEK in Greece which went into DEA.

The ISO originates, historically, not from influence of the British SWP or its predecessor IS, but from the Independent Socialist Clubs, a grouping started by Hal Draper in 1964. At the origin the ISC had views on Stalinism and on Israel-Palestine close to those of the AWL today.

The ISC renamed themselves "International Socialists" in 1968. In the mid-1970s they went through a factional explosion, as the British SWP/IS sought to establish decisive influence, and splintered into six or seven distinct groups. The ISO was the splinter tied to the British SWP, and the one that has survived best. (Two of the other splinters eventually regrouped with others to form the organisation Solidarity).

S Alt also has some "Draperite" back-story, since a main influence in founding the Australian group from which it eventually separated in 1995 was a former member of the American IS, Tom O'Lincoln. O'Lincoln is a member of S Alt today, but both in the ISO and in S Alt the "Draperite" heritage seems to have been comprehensively discarded.

Both ISO and S Alt have grown tidily in the last 15 years or so through dogged concentration on high-profile socialist paper sales, stalls, meetings, etc. on university campuses. Their initial criticism of the SWP's desired "turn" of the 1990s was that it lost sight of that necessary basic work in favour of unrealistic schemes. S Alt is said now to have about 250 members (making it the biggest revolutionary socialist group in Australia), and the ISO a thousand or so (making it the biggest revolutionary socialist group in the USA, and about as big in real terms as the SWP).

S Alt was long notorious on the Australian left for almost exclusive focus on its stalls, meetings, and so on, and reluctance to join broader campaigns or trade-union activity. It has loosened up as it has grown, and has done good work in the campaign to defend victimised trade-unionist (and Workers' Liberty Australia member) Bob Carnegie.

Recently, however, S Alt condemned a large Reclaim The Night march in Melbourne, in terms which are more typical of its attitudes of some years ago.

The 7,000-strong Reclaim The Night march, on 20 October 2012, and an earlier "peace march" of 30,000 on 1 October, followed the abduction, rape, and murder on 22 September 2012, in inner-city Melbourne, of TV journalist Jill Meagher.

S Alt argued that "interest in and mobilisations around street crime, especially that directed against white women and children, will always tend to lead in a pro-state, pro-authority direction". A "moral panic" had been built up around a sympathetic victim, while little attention is paid to Aboriginals attacked by police or workers injured or killed at work.

RSP, the group which is merging with S Alt, not only backed the Reclaim The Night march but helped organise it. Kim Bullimore of RSP wrote: "Far from giving 'left cover' to a ruling-class agenda, socialist intervention in the Reclaim the Night marches helped to partially disrupt what the ruling class hoped to make of the public reaction to Meagher’s rape and murder".

John Passant, a longtime S Alt member, wrote: "just because the rich and powerful will try to use an issue for their own ends doesn’t justify sectarian abstention from a movement that attracted 30,000 people and which did not call for more CCTV cameras, or police or whatever". Passant says that he asked for his polemic to be published in Socialist Alternative, but it wasn't.

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