The crisis in the SWP has left comrades in an impossible situation. The faction fight polarised the party, split it into two camps and has now driven at least 400 out of the organisation. For some this has raised fundamental questions about the party very suddenly, for others it has been a much longer process. The situation is not ideal and there is no solution not fraught with difficulties. This article is an attempt to address questions that have been put to those who believe it is not possible to win back the SWP.
What do we want?
Comrades on all sides of the argument in the SWP in theory share one aim – the need for a mass revolutionary party capable of seizing power. It is perhaps worth setting out what our vision of that party would be. It must be committed to the idea of socialism from below, understand the centrality of the working class and have an uncompromising stand against oppression. It must be explicitly revolutionary socialist and open to discussion about how its ideas can be renewed - in its publications, relationship with those around it and internal life. Importantly it must be able to face up to and analyse the changing world around it. These are prerequisites to being truly democratic centralist in more than name only.
The crisis has posed many questions that different comrades are trying to address and answer. What is the shape of the working class today? What is the role of a revolutionary organisation today? How do we apply democratic centralism today? How do we understand the radical left and united fronts? How can we update our politics on oppression? All of these questions should be debated out as openly as possible in the party, its publications and within the wider left. This is not about abandoning the IS tradition but applying it to a changing world and synthesizing the best new insights into our view of the world and how to change it.
Can these debates be resolved in the SWP?
A majority of comrades in and around IDOOP shared these questions and a sense that together we could develop answers. The faction meetings demonstrated a depth of politics and debate and gave many faith the SWP could be renewed. For those isolated in their localities it was a breath of fresh air and sustained them through a rough time in the party’s recent history. But we also saw the opposing side of the SWP mobilised around an abstract loyalty to the leadership.
This section of the party aimed to resolve the crisis not through political discussion but through appeals to loyalty. Any criticism was treated as a threat by those that had broken from or did not understand our tradition. Mike Gonzales’ recent article, ‘Who will teach the teachers?’ addresses the resonance this found with a layer of card carrying members who bolstered the most conservative elements of the party.
The question of whether any of these debates could be resolved at this conference should now be clear. We lost the faction fight not simply because of undemocratic manoeuvring but because we did not hold a majority in the organisation. The manner in which the “pro-Comrade Delta” faction asserted its victory sealed that defeat and in doing so closed down any chance of recovery. IDOOP comrades were not drawn back into the party but marginalised. The promised space for debates we hoped to have never materialised, replaced with an attempt to consolidate a distorted version of our tradition. Their side has hardened while ours has been devastated.
At the NC it was reported that at least 350 people had left the party. Contact work suggests the real figure is higher. Those left are largely holding on for lack of an alternative and few seriously believe we would be given a hearing in a future party debate. The consequence is that any process of clarification will not spread beyond those who were supportive of IDOOP, and the few remaining branches we have sway in. A serious analysis must see any faction fight further dividing the organisation on a terrain the opposition can’t hope to win.
To change the direction of the party in future would require one of three things: 1) An opposition large enough to lead a credible fight. 2) A figure like Cliff or Harman with the personal standing to recognise and argue for a turn. 3) A section of those currently loyal to the CC to respond to events and challenge the leadership. 1 and 2 no longer exist and the third is unlikely for reasons I explore below.
How did were reach this point?
The strongest argument for remaining is that future events could force the party to turn outwards and revive the chance of rebuilding the SWP. For that to happen the SWP would have to become part of a serious new struggle and win a generation of activists to its ranks. To do so would require a sharp turn away from the practices we are currently institutionalising.
For many in the organisation the crisis did not begin with the revelations of conference. The party’s response to it, while appalling, reflected a deeper malaise. Comrades were called on to back the CC and disputes verdict not on its own grounds but because to challenge it meant challenging the authority of the leadership. This flew in the face of good sense, but evasions and half-truths provided enough cover. The comrades mobilised were neither “rape apologists” nor part of a cover up - the rallying call was to defend “our tradition” and “our party” against all challengers.
Those that led the charge (on and off the CC) were in effect a faction lead to defend Comrade Delta but also a particular model of the party – one heavily shaped by the experience of the 1980s. Those in IDOOP were characterised as being soft on the movements by comrades with a model of the Party developed to survive the downturn. This resonated with a layer of comrades caderised in the 80s who wished to see the party survive but had reduced their day to day relationship with it. Many also had roles in the public sector unions that have been at the centre of our recent perspectives. This layer was able to pull behind it others with a substitutionist notion of party building and more who simply wished the crisis would blow over.
At the centre of this faction were comrades who had been mobilised to defeat the left platform a few years previously. That had been a faction fight that united them with younger elements in the party. However, they now moved to pressure a weak leadership into moving decisively against a section of the party shaped by the recent crisis of capitalism. This faction now reinforces the most sectarian elements of the leadership and is adjusting the party’s politics to justify a rapid sectarian turn. Their permanent war footing has created a self-fulfilling prophesy that those in IDOOP are on a route out of the party. Elements of the CC that recognised this were either not confident, or unable, to challenge the dynamic or those on the CC who encouraged it.
Some examples of this sectarianism include a one-sided hostile attitude to a revival of the Labour left; a failure to recognise the role revolutionaries could play within the People’s Assembly (in drawing out its real contradictions); a persistence with UtR despite its existence as a front group; a refusal to acknowledge that public sector strikes have not been a central site of struggle since the December sell out; turning necessities – such as the lack of speakers for Marxism – into virtues; a willingness to smash our student work to destroy the faction; a distortion of our politics on women’s liberation – I could go on.
All of this goes unchallenged as the CC and cadre need to keep things going after isolating many of those who have built the party over the past decade. Having reactivated a layer of comrades around a sectarian vision of the party they have now become trapped by it. The scale of the People’s Assembly demonstrates a centrality of politics and broad desire to mobilise that we set in opposition to abstract calls for a general strike. Left Unity demonstrates (in an ephemeral way) a desire for left of labour organisation that we are absent from. Counterfire steal the best speakers associated with our summer festival and we down scale Marxism.
Given all this it is unlikely that the majority will be willing to undergo the far more destabilising debate that a re-analysis of the shape of the working class today or the role of the revolutionary left in the current period would entail. The party has entrenched an internal culture of heresy-hunting where such arguments are a means of exposing comrades, not trying to understand changes in the world around us.
None of this is intended to paint a one-sided picture of the SWP. It will remain the largest group on the far left for years and continue to do much good work. To say the SWP is unlikely to be able to relate to new bursts of struggle is not to deny the positive role it will continue to play in many campaigns and unions, or its role in promoting basic socialist ideas and fighting fascism. It is to say that if you are committed to building the revolutionary left this is not enough. A genuinely revolutionary group has to seek to win over the most dynamic elements to the fight for socialism from below. It has to engage in a dialogue that attempts to understand new ideas and relate to them. It has to have a searching analysis of the balance of forces, its own resources and relationship to the struggle. On these three counts the SWP has failed.
The recent fight has accelerated a dynamic that has long existed. In doing so it has calcified distortions left over from the downturn and years of low struggle, as well as severing links with a generation shaped by the biggest crisis of capitalism in living memory. This generation had represented the best chance of renewing our organisation in years.
Our immediate task has to be to wage an open fight for ideas in the party. The central question is the role of a revolutionary organisation and an assessment of the period we face. Many other questions relate to this and comrades thinking and writing should be encouraged to put them into the public domain. The run up to Marxism provides a sense of urgency. Comrades questioning the role of the party need to be armed with the viewpoints of others to enable a genuine debate to be tested. If we can’t contest the current orthodoxy at the SWP’s most important gathering than starting later will be untenable.
We also need to think whether a new organisation is needed. Politics does not reward good intentions but ideas, organisation and timing. To sleep walk into a split is a recipe for being blown to the four winds. Those who call for political clarity are correct but this call obscures a more fundamental question. This is not a debate about when to break from the party but whether the party can be saved. A faction fight might be desirable but to fight on the important questions would inevitably see us carved out. The pro-CC faction will not allow us a fair hearing and will divide and isolate the faction – a process which has already begun. To charge into such a fight without clear aims will mean losing further waves of comrades to inactivity and demoralisation.
Our real debate is over the role of revolutionaries today. Our discussions across the country reveal a greater convergence then comrades might expect. We are developing a vision of what a revolutionary party should look like based on the insights from the IS tradition and the experience of collective debate. To discuss what the SWP should be throws its degeneration into stark relief.
Comrades in the opposition hold a range of positions on what we should do. All of them need to be subjected to a deeper analysis. One factor to look at is the current relationship we have with the party. How many oppositionists are still engaged enough with the party to participate in a credible faction fight? If we are to wait for an upturn in struggle where does that leave the majority of our support? Is it credible to think we can divide a weak CC that is trying to hold the party together? Most seriously, what is our assessment of the period and the future prospects of the SWP?