The crisis in the SWP: how not to argue

Submitted by Matthew on 21 March, 2013 - 10:48

Some ridiculous things have been said during what passes for debate inside the now much-degraded and damaged Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

For example, in their drive to crush internal opponents, the leadership denounced them as “feminists”. The opposition have, apparently, been “contaminated” with ideas from the movement around them, including nasty feminism.

From a distance, the AWL has watched supporters of the SWP Central Committee argue something along the lines of: “I used to be a feminist, but then I realised the SWP was right, and what we really need is a socialist revolution”. How stupid is that? As stupid as, say, “I used to be a militant trade unionist, but I’ve junked all that because I realised the SWP was right, and what we really need is a socialist revolution”. On the face of it, the SWP’s world is a place where two ideas can’t complement or supplement each other.

But it is not quite as simple as that. These are political people who haven’t chosen to fight against their opponents’ “feminism” for no reason. The demonisation of feminism is an attempt to answer — or at least to have something to say back against — the charge facing the leadership, that they have not taken seriously an allegation of rape made by a young woman against one of their leaders. “Object to that, do you? You nasty little feminists, standing outside our tradition, putting yourself outside our ranks...”

The SWP leaders’ attempt to kick into the long grass an inconvenient allegation of rape is just another example — albeit of an unusual type — of the SWP subordinating political principle (or indeed human decency) to the practical organisational needs of their party.

The shoddyness, and crudeness, of the leaders’ drive against their opponents is a measure of the weakness of their case. It is also an indication of a habitual distrust of opposition by a bureaucratic regime with a complete disdain for accountability. It also underlines the point we’ve made countless times to the SWP over decades: an organisation built in this bureaucratic way will, in the end, self-destruct; certainly it has the wrong specifications to do the job of fighting for socialism.

Bureaucratic administration of the machine, above political principle, runs counter to what revolutionary socialists are about — winning the battle of ideas. Members of left groups must be able to learn to think and argue freely, test ideas, speak our minds. If we are constrained by petty rules, intimidated into silence, battered, trained to subordinate principles to organisational needs, we undermine our ability to act as effective socialists inside the workers’ movement.

Take another shameful example of how not to argue — the SWP’s disputes committee (which dealt with the rape allegation) wrote a report to the their January conference the following paragraph:

“We … thought it was important to be clear that the disputes committee doesn’t exist to police bourgeois morality, so we agreed that issues that weren’t relevant to us were whether the comrade was monogamous, whether they were having an affair [and] the age differences in their relationship, because as revolutionaries we didn’t consider that should be our remit to consider issues such as those.”

Buried in the report here is an oblique reference to a central issue: an SWP leader, close to 50 years of age, had been accused of rape by a party member who, it turns out, was of school age. Seemingly everywhere we turn — the Liberal Democrats, the Savile scandal, Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester — there are older men using positions of authority and power to abuse women. According to the SWP machine, to believe this abuse of power is disturbing and wrong is “bourgeois”.

If it is, good for the bourgeoisie! The left can probably learn from the best practice of bourgeois institutions which have rules and structures in place to obstruct opportunistic and predatory sexual behaviour.

Dismissing “bourgeois morality” in this way is cynical, and evasive. It is demagogy which aims to shut people up.

People in the SWP opposition have just been put through the SWP grinder. They have found themselves lied about and the victims of abuse and bureaucratic tricks. Maybe the shock might help them rethink the ways in which they themselves have behaved in the past. For instance, towards the AWL!

One example from last year — the SWP supported a motion to the student National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference which opposed war against Iran. The motion contained no criticism of the regime, nor support for the struggles of workers, women, or students inside Iran. The AWL proposed an amendment to the motion that added a clause supporting democratic and working-class opposition to the Iranian regime. Our amendment did not alter the motion’s opposition to war and sanctions, and we made it plain in our speeches that we opposed a American, British, or Israeli attack on Iran.

We won the argument and the amendment was accepted by the conference. But the SWP then voted against the substantive motion, because, they said, the AWL supported a war against Iran and the inclusion of our amendment made the motion pro-war. This, despite the text, the speeches we’d made, and a headline in the issue of the paper we were selling at the conference which read: “Iran: no to war and sanctions”.

There are several issues here. One: the SWP actually supports Iran against the west but isn’t brave enough to say so openly for fear of losing potential recruits (organisation trumps political honesty and clarity).

Two: even if the SWP was right to support Iran against the west, it would be wrong to stop criticising its anti-working class government and supporting its working-class opponents.

Third: the SWP machine would be a lot less likely to get away with this sort of nonsense if the SWP students had, for example, thoroughly educated themselves in the Trotskyist tradition many of them now say they want to renew. And we don’t mean Cliff’s opinion of what Trotsky would have said if Trotsky had been as unprincipled as Cliff, but Trotsky himself, and others.

SWP students might do well to read Trotsky on the rise of German fascism and try to think about how that squares with the politics and practice of UAF; or Trotsky on the united front and think about the way SWP members behave in the unions; or Trotsky on Palestine and square that with what the SWP says on Israel-Palestine. Just because Trotsky said something doesn’t necessarily make it right, but SWP members and ex-SWP members whose education in Marxism has consisted in reading Marxist ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and others as filtered through the work of Cliff, Harman, and Callinicos would do well to do some independent self-education and reading of the real thing.

Recent ex-SWPers have been part of a party that has, for example, regularly called AWL racists, Muslim haters, “Islamophobes”. Why? Superficially, because we opposed boosting the conservative right-wing of the Muslim community (as the SWP did through its alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain in the Stop the War Coalition and Respect), because we advocate a two-states settlement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and because we oppose the Muslim Brotherhood in places like Egypt.

The hatred generated towards us — regularly denouncing us as “Zionists” — has an organisational function, shoring up a sect and sealing young SWPers off from us.

It is impossible to deal rationally with people who simply assert that we hate Palestinians, or that we are “pro-imperialist”. But let’s suppose a two-states position does imply a reactionary attitude towards the Palestinians (and ignoring the fact that the majority of Palestinians themselves favour two states), then the linkage has to be argued, not simply asserted. Shouting “racists” across a room doesn’t make a case, it simply makes the person doing it look deranged, and prevents a rational exchange of views.

Those oppositionists now leaving the SWP have been on the receiving end of the same method. Hopefully they will abandon it in their own politics.

We want to discuss with others on the left, including the fragments of the SWP, because without such an open exchange of ideas it will be impossible to rejuvenate our movement and make Marxism a mass force again. We say that the movement needs to read, think, educate, and debate clearly, openly, and honestly. There is an opportunity to do that now.

Let’s call an end to politics which serve party machines.

The rank-and-file alternative

Many comrades leaving the SWP are students; but many are trade union activists, and as time passes, more will be.

Their break from the SWP is a chance to rethink the negative aspects of the SWP’s work in the labour movement, and think about how to do something better.

The SWP’s approach has been to create fronts such as Unite the Resistance and Right to Work, with no real structures or independent life, through which they can establish a relationship with some of the more left-wing union bureaucrats. Far from putting pressure on these bureaucrats from the left, the effect is to pull the SWP to the right and prevent it from making adequately sharp criticisms. At times SWP members on national executives have been sucked into siding with their union leadership (in the case of the CWU’s Jane Loftus even leaving the SWP as a result).

Despite the good work done by many SWP members in their workplaces and unions, the organisation is fundamentally a disorienting, disorganising force.

Fronts such as Unite the Resistance also serve to divide and weaken the broad anti-cuts movement. In Lambeth, for instance, the SWP repeatedly tried to split the Save Our Services campaign and set up its own front, losing many members as a result.

The alternative is shown, in rudimentary form at least, by what is being done by left and rank-and-file activists in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) — who have created the Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC), a network of branches and school groups organising around the key issues facing teachers independently of and in opposition to the NUT's “left” leadership. The SWP has stood aside from this new organisation and in part defended the NUT leaders against it.

At a time when working-class anger is running high but working-class confidence is low, there are no easy answers to how socialists can rebuild and renew the labour movement. But the question cannot even be thought about without a different approach from the SWP’s — one which focuses on rank-and-file organisation, develops unity in struggle and is militantly independent of all factions of the union bureaucracy.

We urge ex-SWP comrades to change course and work with the AWL and other socialist trade unionists to develop this approach.

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