New row in the Socialist Workers Party

Submitted by Matthew on 22 October, 2009 - 1:53 Author: Tom Unterrainer

Isaac Deutscher made a career out of divining the twists and turns in the Stalinist Russian state apparatus. Alongside his much praised but flawed biography of Trotsky he produced several apologias — posing as rational analysis — for the USSR.

His success, his plausibility, was in large part a function of a certain literary flair combined with sufficient chutzpah to fabricate what he — and everyone else outside of the ruling clique of Stalinist Russia — could not possibly know. There’s a certain temptation to replicate his method when dealing with the latest manifestation of crisis in the Socialist Workers Party. Why?

Because the nature of that organisation is such that getting to the truth of the matter is near-impossible. Like a Stalinist Politburo, the SWP is all but sealed-off from the outside world. We are left with rumour, interpretation and extrapolation. Some may argue the case, as many SWP members do, that the party has a right to conduct its deliberations in camera — after all, what business is it of non-members of “The Revolutionary Party”?

The basis for this argument is historically and logically flawed, particularly so for an organisation that claims to want to replicate the achievements of our revolutionary forbears. Even at the height of Tsarist repression, the contending factions of the Russian revolutionary movement had no reticence in conducting open and quite often sharp debates in public.

Unfortunately for the SWP, leaks happen.

The “Socialist Unity” blog, run by former SWP member Andy Newman, reported on 13 October that two student members have been suspended for “taking a different trajectory” from the rest of the party. He adds that “the sign up sheets for SOAS Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) have been taken away by the SWP, preventing the society from registering this year”. These are the basic facts and we have no reason to think that Andy or his source have fabricated them. So what’s significant about the suspension of these comrades and why does it point to the possibility of a new crisis in the SWP?

From blog comments that followed the story, it seems that a great deal comes down to Martin Smith’s attempts to consolidate his organisational (rather than intellectual) leadership of the party and see off the latest moves by the deposed Rees/German group.

The SWP is in a “conference preparation period”, the only time in which differences can be aired, arguments debated and factions formed in the tightly-run organisation. It is claimed that at the last SWP national committee, John Rees proposed an alternative approach (details unknown) to anti-fascist work to that currently taken by the party.

In a previous episode of factionalism, Rees is understood to have made unfavourable comments on the effectiveness of the party’s anti-fascist work. Rees, the self-styled master of the “united front”, wanted to teach Smith a lesson, and it seems he’s having a second pop at his slow-learning comrade.

Rees’ decision to oppose the formal line of the group over anti-fascist work is probably the opening shot in a major battle to come. Smith’s response has been to suspend two comrades who support the Rees/German group and to take or threaten “administrative suspension” against other groups of supporters. These suspensions will exclude members from the national conference because they are not permitted to attend branch meetings and therefore cannot be nominated.

In addition a website run by Rees/German supporters — Counterfire — has been shut down. More significantly, Chris Bambery is said to have resigned as editor of Socialist Worker.

There can be little doubt that if left to his own devices, Smith will come a cropper against Rees and German. Rees is more erudite and impressive as an individual (which does not mean more correct or clear!) German is also a notch above Smith in this regard and is old enough to have been part of the last major factional battles in the SWP. Once upon a time she told this writer about her part in locking Jim Higgins and supporters out of the party national office.

But Smith is not isolated. One explanation for his “administrative” actions so far could be that party “theoreticians” Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman — both of whom could mount a serious ideological assault on Rees — have not spoken, or at least not to the wider party. Another consideration is that the numbers thought to be supporting Rees/German are sufficiently small that simply suspending and driving them out of the party before an all-out conference confrontation is a price worth paying. This could well be the estimation of Callinicos and Harman.

Either way, further hypothesising can only lead to a mingle-mangle of speculation much of which will be off the mark. What we do know, the meagre leaked “facts” of the situation, point once more to a party not only in crisis but a leadership willing to act out of all proportion to prevent genuine debate in the ranks. We have yet more evidence of the political poison that typifies the SWP’s interpretation of Leninism.

The SWP may be rotting from the inside but for the sake of the left, we should once again make efforts to engage ordinary party members in discussion. If the SWP is about to experience further ructions and a further loss of membership, we cannot afford to lose genuine and previously committed activists to despondency.

The manifesting crisis in the SWP is a matter of politics and given the chance, we should seek and articulate political explanations for what’s going on.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 27/10/2009 - 17:07

The services rendered to our movement by the Weekly Worker Group are few and far between. But every so often the contents of their normally execrable rag have some use. The comrades have managed to get their mits on a copy of the first internal bulletin in the run-up to the SWP’s national conference. Contained within are two motions put to the party’s National Committee and reaffirmed at a ‘Party Council’ in October.

The substance of the two motions is identical. Both re-affirm commitment to an interpretation of the ‘No Platform’ idea. Both are unequivocally against SWP members ‘debating’ Nick Griffin. So why two motions?

According to the second motion, which it seems was authored by John Rees, several members of the Central and National committees of the SWP had previously spoken of the need to relax commitment to ‘No Platform’. Specifically, the spectre of a SWP member being invited onto Question Time in the guise of ‘Unite Against Fascism’ was raised. Rees and his supporters objected.

Why did they object and were they right to do so? The faction fight in the SWP, which commenced with the exclusion of Rees from the Central Committee and the resignations from that same body of Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, continues. The fundamentals of this fight, if you exclude a certain amount of personal ill-feeling, appear to be around the question of ‘Party and Movement’. That is, what’s the relationship between the two? Does the party grow from the movement or vice-versa? Boiling it down to SWP-specific questions, why hasn’t the SWP grown when it lead a mass anti-war movement and when it plays a central role in the official arm of anti-fascism? Who’s to blame? What did they do wrong?

So for the opening salvo in the escalation of this fight into an actual official ‘faction’ (the ‘Left Faction’) to centre around ‘No Platform’ seems puzzling.

If you had to guess what was going on – and it would have to be a guess – you might conclude that this is really about asserting commitment to the ‘International Socialist Tradition’. This ‘Tradition’ (something of a mythology, in fact) basically boils down to claiming the legacy of Tony Cliff. Rees’ motion makes reference to the “SWP’s traditional stance” and talks of “maintaining our full No Platform policy”.

For some time after the death of Tony Cliff, Rees appeared to be the intellectual and organisational heir to the great man. To all intents and purposes he was the ‘leader’ of the SWP; editing the theoretical journal, fronting Stop the War and then Respect.

But Rees’ attempts to reassert the ‘legacy’ have come a cropper in the face of the limber Martin Smith and the SWP ‘majority’. Smith’s motion makes reference to the possibility of the BBC inviting UAF onto Question Time. Media coverage of the debate indicates that a whole slew of people were approached to the face-off with Griffin only to be let off the hook later on. The BBC were hedging their bets. Smith et al were given pause for thought but seeing what Rees was up to, changed position.

Were they right to do so? In short, not necessarily. Whilst we should be relieved that neither Martin Smith nor Weymann Bennett turned up on our screens – can you imagine? – it is not out of the question that socialists would accept such an invitation.

The decision over whether or not to debate with fascists is purely practical. The invitation of Griffin onto Question Time should be viewed for what it is: a defeat for anti-fascists but essentially one of a series of defeats which include all of the other media coverage, television interviews etc... that the BNP currently enjoys. Rees dismisses the comparison between Gramsci debating with fascists in the Italian parliament and the current situation. But it is not out of the question that socialist councillors would have to debate BNP councillors – indeed, it seems like an imminent possibility. The decision on whether or not to debate the BNP in such a situation is one of practical necessity: adjusting your tactics to the established facts of a defeat. The inclusion of Griffin on Question Time is an established fact of defeat. In such a situation, would socialists on principle reject a platform for our ideas and the opportunity to contest and expose fascists? Would we leave the ground to bourgeois politicians? Is engaging in such a debate counterposed to a mass mobilisation to shut a meeting/event/broadcast that includes fascists? No, it’s a matter of tactical practicality.

For instance, a socialist on the Question Time panel could have argued with Griffin at the same time as arguing for the camera operators to switch off their machines. They could have used the opportunity to encourage the studio audience to walk out or take other action. Any number of possibilities depending on the mood, preparation and ability of the person debating Griffin.

By rejecting such an invitation to debate, wouldn’t socialists simply be compounding the defeat?

Jack Yates

Two motions on “No Platform”
The first motion (BNP and No Platform) was passed by the NC and at October’s Party Council overwhelmingly. The second motion (In defence of No Platform for Nazis) was submitted to Party Council and was overwhelmingly defeated, with 11 votes in favour.
BNP and No Platform
1. The national committee notes the shock and anger when the BNP won two seats in the European elections earlier this year.
2. Since then UAF has been building up the pressure on the BNP with protests from the egging of Nick Griffin outside parliament to the kettling of the Red white and Blue festival in Codnor. There have also been two successful counter protests against the English Defence League in Birmingham.
3. The decision of the BBC to invite Nick Griffin to appear on Questiontime has led to a groundswell of anger.
4. The Labour Party will now drop its opposition to sitting on panels with BNP members–they will put a representative up on the Question Time panel.
5. The BBC has indicated that UAF may be invited on the panel.
6. SWP members in UAF will refuse to appear on a panel with Nick Griffin.
7. We will redouble our efforts to win the case for no platform for the BNP in the media and build the UAF campaign of protests and pickets to challenge the BBC’s decision – “Pull the plugs on the BNP thugs”.
In defence of No Platform for Nazis
Party Council notes:
1. The SWP is currently engaged in an important campaign to deny the BNP a public platform in the media and elsewhere. We are campaigning against Nick Griffin being invited onto the BBC’s Question Time.
2. But at the last two National Committee meetings of the SWP a majority of the CC who spoke argued that the SWP should be prepared in the future to debate with members of the BNP in the media after Nick Griffin appears on Question Time on October 22nd, thus abandoning the No Platform position.
3. A majority of NC members who spoke supported this position, despite the fact that the last NC reaffirmed No Platform for the moment.
4. The only public reference to this change of position has been a letter from John Molyneux in Socialist Worker (13th June) arguing that we should abandon the No Platform position.
5. The justification for this reversal of the SWP’s traditional stance is that the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in the policy of the BBC means that we have to change our tactics and debate with the BNP. John Molyneux argues that Gramsci had to debate with Fascists in the Italian parliament in the 1920s and that we should adopt the same tactic.
6. The BBC has never operated a No Platform policy for the BNP. The BNP have already appeared on the BBC main news, Newsnight, the Today programme, the Moral Maze and so on. The only change is to extend this policy to Question Time.
7. A large majority of people in the Metro newspaper poll supported the No Platform position. There have been letters and articles in the press from a range of people defending No Platform, including right wing Labour MP Denis McShane.
Party Council believes:
1. That the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in policy by the BBC does not mark a significant enough shift in the balance of forces between the left and the BNP to justify abandoning No Platform.
2. The return of the BNP to the streets in the guise of the English Defence League actually marks an opportunity to defend No Platform on the grounds that the BNP are really the street thugs that we always said they were.
3. The analogy with Gramsci’s situation is inaccurate. The Italian working class had seen a general strike smashed by the Fascists, left wing organisations attacked by over 2,000 fascist squads, their offices burnt out and 35 fascist MPs elected to the Italian parliament. Nothing resembling this situation exists in Britain today.
4. Labour and other mainstream parties are going along with this development for their own opportunist reasons. This will aid the BNP. If we do not defend No Platform in the media this will weaken the resistance, not strengthen it.
5. The BNP will not be beaten by ‘clever’ debates. What they want is legitimacy. If we appear with them, even if we win the argument, we lose the real battle because we add to their legitimacy. The principle at stake here is that the BNP should not be regarded as a legitimate bourgeois party.
6. If we abandon No Platform in the media it will open up the space for an attack on No Platform in the colleges and NUS, in the unions, the civil service and other public bodies. It will be much harder to ban Nazis from various professions and expel them from unions. Everyone from the BNP themselves to the liberals will say ‘if you debate them on TV, why not here?’
7. Revolutionaries will not be the main people debating the BNP. The media will choose cabinet ministers and MPs (Jack Straw is going on Question Time) and they will continue to do so whether or not we put ourselves forward to debate the BNP.
8. Maintaining the No Platform policy does not mean that we are excluded from the media. Most of the media accept that we will be interviewed, often directly after a BNP spokesperson, and do not require that we share a platform with the Nazis.
Party Council resolves:
1. That we should maintain our full No Platform for Nazis policy.
2. That we should campaign in the movement against the Nazis and in the unions to sustain this policy.

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