Saturday, 5 January 2013

SWP: Life on the Revolutionary Treadmill

In recent years, it's become obligatory for SWP conference time to be accompanied by a split, and 2013's meeting (due to convene at the customary 'secret location' in London today) is likely to see the tradition continue. And for the sad Kremlinologists who follow the far left, we're in for something of a treat.

In the red corner we have the 'Democratic Opposition' faction, which was formed to defend four oppositionists expelled prior to conference for "factionalising" (something the SWP's permanent leadership cadre is never guilty of doing), and raises questions about the appalling behaviour of its former national secretary.

In the red corner there is 'Democratic Centralist' faction. This accepts some of the concerns raised by the oppositionists, but positions itself equidistant between them and the all-powerful central committee. As far as I can tell, there appears to be little on offer here except a proposal to ameliorate the two positions.

In the red corner, there is the leadership itself. Far from impressed with the conciliatory orientation of the DemCent faction, it castigates both for having the temerity to raise internal differences "in the shadow of a challenging situation".

And in the final red corner, we have Damon Skinner of Middlesborough branch taking the CC to task and reminding them "that they exist to serves us [the membership], not the other way round". Something tells me Brother Skinner is not long for the SWP's world.

The eruption of dissent is serious business for an organisation not used to it, and a leadership clique not prepared to tolerate it. The hectoring tone adopted by the CC's contribution to the debate, plus the helpful prefaces added to the factional statements by Charlie Kimber (the scion of a banking dynasty, no less) is unlikely to win many over from either faction. But that was never the intention. Theirs is less about persuading dissidents and more about shoring up its own position. Like all petty revolutionary bureaucracies you find littered about the far left, the first, second, and third priorities of their day-to-day work is the preservation of the 'party', and therefore the apparatus. This in mind, the loss of 50, 100, 150 members now is unlikely to imperil the organisation. But if it is allowed to continue, the privileged positions enjoyed by the leadership and its gang of full-time insiders are more likely to come under sustained scrutiny. Not a place the little Lenins of the SWP's CC want to be in.

In a way, it is unsurprising the SWP continues to face internal opposition. Their attempt to build a monolithic party that proscribes free-flowing discussion between members has always been ridiculous. And now that the sharing of ideas is easier than ever before, its insistence on carefully delineated procedures for debate as set out by the party rules - that few of the SWP's present membership have ever voted on - tips it over into the absurd. If the CC cannot approach debate and decision-making sensibly, then why should anyone take their claims that socialism represents a more democratic form of society seriously?

The second problem is the SWP are still reeling from their stupid and childish behaviour on show during their split with Respect, and subsequent split and formation of Counterfire. Before then, despite the highly problematic character of the SWP and its awful internal culture, as far as the rest of the labour movement were concerned there was a sense people knew where the SWP stood. There was a certain consistency that ran from its hard anti-war stance right through to the role it played in Respect, and this is despite the SWP's dogmatic insistence of refusing to adopt a programme. And now?

It's a fair question to ask. What is the SWP for? I know what Counterfire is about. It's very clear what the direction of march is for their rivals in the Socialist Party. Even the smattering of tiny, tiny sects have a raison d'etre, if only defined by themselves. As they say in business school, what the SWP lacks is a 'offer'. You can sustain the usual round of stalls and paper sales on members' inchoate anger against the system for only so long without offering something to fight for. Compare and contrast for a moment. If you are one of the few who read any given issue of The Socialist from cover to cover, it is clear everything is linked up. The SP's participation in trade union struggles, anti-cuts campaigns, college protests, etc. are related to its grand strategy of building a Labour Party mk II. Open Socialist Worker all you get is "things are bad, so join the party mmmkay". Regardless of its field of work, it's about "stopping things". The only thing linking them up is building the party.

This has always been true of the SWP to an extent, but it seems particularly bewildered now. What is its strategy in the unions? What is its way forward for the anti-war movement? How should the anti-cuts movement be built? What about Labour? Where now for anti-fascism? On all of these it has absolutely nothing of substance to say. There is a continued and studied silence on how we get from the here and now to a socialist society.

The cpgb's long-held position on the far left is it would be better suited to adopt more transparent modes of organising and having debate out in the open. This would go some way to addressing the political and organisational malaise, including the culture of splitting whenever a serious difference arises. Unfortunately for them, as they themselves have suffered splits and resignations over political differences on a semi-regular basis this is no panacea. The chief problem faced by the SWP and the rest of the far left does not boil down to the interpretation and practice of democratic centralism - it is the belief, the faith even, that Bolshevik organisation and revolutionary socialist politics is suited to capitalism in the 21st century.

It is likely that by fair means or foul the SWP leadership will see off the challengers to its authority this weekend. After all, they've had 40 years practice of doing so. But ultimately all they and their opposition offer is life on the revolutionary treadmill, forever doomed to be sidelined by great events.

19 comments:

Phil said...

From this thread on Socialist Unity - a third of SWP conference delegates vote against the new CC, after a CC minority statement and alternative slate for election was circulated. Major, major split looming unless the leadership tread carefully. So, maybe it's not business as usual after all.

Mike said...

I am no fan of the SWP as a whole, but they do some things quite well.

For example, there is a need for a stream of publications that make the case against capitalism and for socialism.

The SWP's publications, in particular their International Socialist Journal and some of their books, do this quite well. Few far left groups would invite non-members (such as Leo Panitch and David McNally) to contribute articles that are very critical of party positions.

The left in the Labour Party, while arguably better placed to influence ordinary people, tends to be reactive and defensive in what it publishes and argues for e.g. Ed should do 'less of that' or 'more of this'.

There is a need to push at the boundaries of policy rather than simply make abstract demands for 'socialism'. But there is also a need to make the case for socialism among those party/union members that are open to such ideas.

There are socialists inside the Labour Party who do good work. But they lack strategy and a distinctive socialist voice. Being against Progress isn't enough.

Dare I say they could learn something from the SWP?

Phil said...

I do agree the left in Labour lack a strategic direction. Well, I don't - I know why I am where I am, but will have to dig around in the archives for my old posts on that subject.

I will grant that Socialist Review and International Socialism are interesting publications. The SWP makes a good show of engaging with the fashionable thinkers of the day. But fundamentally it is an encounter of the most superficial kind - the theory is never integrated into their practice. Compare again with the SP. It appears much less sophisticated and appealing to postgrad types because it tends not to fill Socialism Today with articles mooning over Badiou and Zizek, but the theory they generate themselves - whatever you think of it - does guide their practice. Whether that theory is modified in light of subsequent practice is a discussion for another post.

As far left groups go, the SWP aren't the worst ever to have existed in this country. But they have done more these last 20 years to burn out young activists and wreck promising initiatives than any other organisation. They are basically well-meaning radical liberals who blunder about without a clue, and as such deserve all the negative coverage they attract.

Phil said...

Correction from last night - the CC vote's not due to take place until today. Apparently, it was a vote on the dispute committee's report - 230 to 209 votes in favour of acceptance.

Anonymous said...

"But they have done more these last 20 years to burn out young activists"

Or young activist gets a well paid job in the city exploiting the shit out of people!

swapper said...

Thanks for the vote details. Sounds a pretty fundamental difference of opinion there!

For all the opportunism and organisational protectionism that the SWP can be accused of, it seems hard to really justify the 'radical liberal' / strategy-less charge. Working in unions, promoting miiltancy and working-class organisation has always been a prime focus for the party (regardless of the questionable sub-strategies that may have been applied in pursuit of this aim, most obviously the Respect shambles).

Nevertheless it would be fair to say that the SWP, like many socialist individuals and groups, is in some level of denial about the transformed class composition of capitalism in the US and Europe, and the material and ideological disconnect of the contemporary working class from the left.

For me, Bordieu's notion of 'habitas' has much to offer Marxists in reassessing the depth of our malaise, and how to respond to it. At the same time the defence of traditional approaches to class is very understandable as a counter to the risk of dismantling the whole conceptual foundations of socialist organisation. Which brings me to your point about superficial relation of ISJ pieces to other approaches, which is an interesting one.

Phil said...

Central committee majority slate elected by 334 to 201. More than a third dissenting. Very interesting times ahead!

Phil said...

I think the strategy-less charge stands simply because they lack a game plan over the short to medium, and medium to long-term. Building the party by selling the paper and collecting standing orders, while intervening as a movement's "best builders" is an organisational strategy for preservation, not a political one.

Louis Proyect said...

"it is the belief, the faith even, that ... revolutionary socialist politics is suited to capitalism in the 21st century."

---

Well, isn't it?

Phil said...

No. Or if it is, not according to the templates beloved of Leninists and anarchists.

Mike said...

I think the SWP do have a strategy of sorts: it is to build the SWP in the hope that when a revolutionary crisis erupts they are in a position to lead it.

It is not, in my view, a wise strategy - but it helps to explain why they are in their current crisis.

The 'build the party/revolution is the only answer' strategy is meaningless abstract sloganising in the context of contemporary political conditions in the UK. It therefore has little or no traction among the mass of working people.

Sustaining this strategy in a context where it plainly has little practical political relevance requires cultivating a party world-view that insulates members from reality and which guards against external influences which challenge it.

In this context democracy and dissent is mistrusted and often demonised.

The guardians of the official world-view (the national leadership who are 'steeled' in the party's ideological orthodoxies) regard themselves as the only legitimate leaders because they can fully articulate and defend the world-view against any and all opposition.

The only acceptable form of 'party democracy' is that which reproduces a leadership which embodies the orthodoxy. Hence the Central Committee effectively decides all future Central Committees. Calls for forms of democracy that may challenge this continuity are demonised as 'distractions' from the class struggle etc.

So it has been for most Trot sects over the decades. There are no lessons to be learned by the SWP because they are incapable of anything but a brittle and intolerant defence of their dogmatic and hyper-abstract form of politics.

Anonymous said...

Is the socialist party aware that one of its most prominent bloggers thinks revolutionary socialism is a busted flush?

Chris said...

I think the vitriol directed at the SWP is frankly, disgusting.

It is funny that people go on about politicians telling the truth, but when they do all hell breaks loose and that political parties should accept differences of opinion but when they do their opponents say they are split.

This poisonous atmosphere contributes to the New Labour style top down control freakery politics, which tails the tabloid press. Totally unhealthy and an aid to reaction.

You should rise above this sort of thing.

Housey said...

@Anonymous - AVPS hasn't been in the SP for some time, as might be obvious from his support for the economic record of the Blair / Brown government and his opposition to councillors voting against cuts etc.

Phil said...

Bless Anonymous. Though, of course, if Blair and Brown were that bad, Housey and his comrades wouldn't be busying themselves defending the public services built up by Labour over 13 years from the LibDem-supported Tory government. Because if they were both completely awful, those services wouldn't exist.

Phil said...

The problem is Chris is, despite the occasionally useful role the SWP and its members have played, on the whole I think its balance sheet in the labour movement and the far left has proven to be counter-productive. That is why I reserve the right to post pompous and sarcy blogs about them when the mood takes.

Anyway, as you can see from the threads on Socialist Unity, the differences at stake aren't just about jolly old debates on secondary political issues. It's about how one of its leading members has been accused of rape, and that the SWP stupidly decided to try and investigate it themselves. I'm sure such situations have arisen in Labour before and will again in the future - but no one would be stupid enough to try and resolve the issue through its internal disputes procedures.

Shawn Whitney said...

Because the state does a much better job of dealing with rape as evidenced by conviction rates and their refusal to use it as a political tool to advance, say, racism.

Anonymous said...

Mike argues " I think the SWP do have a strategy of sorts: it is to build the SWP in the hope that when a revolutionary crisis erupts they are in a position to lead it~".
Except when faced with the biggest social movement since the Miners strike, ie Stop the War, it broke the organisation, I know I was in it at the time. Then they witch hunted themselves our of Respect, The words, Not fit for purpose, never mind their 'October 1917' movement they were all saving themselves for. I bailed by the way

Richard S

Phil said...

Ridiculous and infantile ultra leftism from Shawn there.