by Jim Wolfreys, Colin Barker, Louis Bayman, Simon Behrman, Anindya Bhattacharyya, Estelle Cooch, Neil Davidson, Hannah Dee, Jacqui Freeman, Amy Gilligan, Mike Gonzalez, Mike Haynes, Jonny Jones, Andy Stone, Dan Swain, Megan Trudell, Alexis Wearmouth and Jennifer Wilkinson
As members of the editorial board of International Socialism we wish to disassociate ourselves from the recently published article, “The Politics of the SWP Crisis”, written by the journal’s editor and the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).1 It purports to offer a summary of the recent disputes that have divided the organisation along with an overview of the party’s trajectory over the past decade. The article’s account of both processes is partial and misleading. More than this, however, we believe that the political stance adopted by the authors will, if left unchecked, destroy the SWP as we know it and turn it into an irrelevant sect.
The authors find much that is “shocking” about the dispute. They bemoan the “falsehoods” that circulated about it and the fact that people behaved “shamefully” or “outrageously”. Yet their anger is exclusively reserved for the way details of the case filtered out to the party membership and the public at large. They have nothing to say about the treatment meted out to the two women complainants, nothing to say about the campaign orchestrated by leading party members to undermine them, nothing to say about the denigration of these women as “jilted lovers” and “liars” carrying out a vendetta against a CC (central committee) member because they were motivated by “feminist”, “autonomist” and “movementist” deviations.2 Indeed, the authors have nothing to say about the second complainant at all, aside from an oblique reference to “a subsequent hearing”. She remains, as far as they are concerned, invisible.
Why is this so? Have they forgotten that the CC was instructed to apologise to the second complainant for distress suffered as a consequence of her treatment following her testimony in the first dispute? Have they forgotten that the “subsequent hearing” ruled she had provided enough evidence of sexual harassment to require the former CC member to answer the case against him should he ever try to rejoin the SWP? Why is there no mention of any of this?
For many hundreds of party members the gap between the party’s politics on women’s oppression and its practice in this case boils down to a simple fact: when confronted with evidence of sexual harassment presented by two women on the one hand, and the word of one CC member on the other, the Disputes Committee (DC)—mainly composed of current or former CC members—came to a verdict of “not proven”. In the process they subjected one woman to questions about her sexual history and the other to questions about her drinking habits.
At this point the Central Committee, driven by a sectarian minority in its ranks, made a decision that would cost the party dear. It opted to defend the disputes committee and argue in a statement to all members that anyone siding with those challenging the process would be demonstrating “a quite unwarranted lack of confidence in the capacity of the party and its structures to maintain and develop our tradition on women’s oppression”.3 The CC did this before the women had even presented their case to conference. They wrote a document arguing that party members “should endorse the DC report”. They wrote that “to take any other decision would have no basis in how the DC actually addressed this case”. They used the party apparatus to persuade over 500 members to put their names to the document. All this before either of the women had been able to put their case to the membership. In the weeks before conference the CC even refused to let the complainants and their supporters circulate a list of proposals to members recommending changes to the disputes committee procedures.4
In the face of unprecedented uproar from members and from outside its ranks, in March the leadership agreed to set up a commission to look into its disputes procedures. This commission has identified a number of shortcomings in the procedures and has recommended changes to them, notably that no CC member should sit on the committee in cases involving other CC members. In other words, the CC’s position has changed. In January it claimed challenges to the disputes procedures amounted to an attack on Leninism, democratic centralism and the entire International Socialist tradition’s capacity to deal with questions of women’s oppression.5 It deliberately suppressed information detailing shortcomings in the procedures. By September it was forced to acknowledge these shortcomings and adopt virtually every proposal made last December by the complainants and their supporters.6
Quite a climbdown. There should be no shame, however, in changing a wrong position. Yet this is clearly too much for the authors. Instead they adopt a series of positions that are at best contradictory, and at worst totally incoherent. A “willingness to re-examine our procedures”, they argue, “should not be allowed to cast any doubt on the integrity of the process in the original case”.7 The problem is not real, it is one “of perception.” The leadership, in other words, did nothing wrong but has suffered from a perception that it did. And where has this perception come from? From the basic facts of the case and the shortcomings identified by its own commission? No—from the “frustration felt across the party due to the failure of struggle to break through after 2011”, from “the influence the new feminism has exerted within our ranks”, from “the belief that the working class has been so rotted by neoliberalism that it is fragmented and broken”, and from “contempt for the actually existing workplace struggle”.
These highly charged phrases bring us to the point of the Kimber and Callinicos article. Problems in the SWP have not arisen because any kind of injustice has occurred or because the leadership has done anything wrong. No. The crisis in the SWP, like every other crisis experienced by the party “since 2007” can be put down to one thing: “More than anything else”, they argue, problems have occurred because of “the pressure of movementism”. 8
The spectre of movementism looms large throughout the article like some hidden hand. After Millbank, the authors explain, “We won many students to our ranks”. They then adopt a passive voice to explain that sadly, these students “were integrated into the SWP on a movementist basis that encouraged them to see themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of the party, part of a student vanguard that could lead the working class as a whole into struggle against austerity.”
This is a breathtaking assertion. We are asked to believe that the hundreds of students who detailed their reasons for leaving to the national secretary all through the spring were not motivated by rage against sexism and injustice or the sense that the party was failing to apply its own politics in the dispute controversy. They had apparently come under the influence of a previously undetected elitism fostered by the hidden hand of movementism. It is this, the authors argue, that “helps to explain why so many student members of the SWP abandoned the party in reaction to the DC controversy”. What a curious thing that such an incredibly powerful phenomenon remained undetected within the party for over two years, only coming to light as a side effect of the CC’s attempt to account for its own role in the dispute crisis.
The perpetrators of this insidious movementist vanguardism are not identified by the authors. Nor do they provide any evidence to back up their assertions no articles or bulletins or examples are cited. The authors rely upon unsubstantiated claims and insinuation rather than rigorous argument. In doing so they undermine the credibility of this journal. The authors sift through the internet for evidence of heresies committed by the opposition. Rather than cite any actual documents produced by Rebuilding the Party supporters, they simply assert that the faction’s hidden agenda is to leave. What source is provided for this assertion? An anonymous Facebook post!
Others are subjected to the same disingenuous debating tactics. Michael Rosen, for example, who has produced a series of comradely but critical pieces calling on the party publicly to take responsibility for its mistakes, is cited by the authors.9 They do not refer to any of the uncomfortable questions he asks of them, but instead cite his skepticism about democratic centralism. “Michael is entitled to his opinion, but in expressing it he confirms that what’s at stake can’t be reduced to the DC case”. The subtext here is familiar: those critical of the party’s handling of the DC case have ulterior political motives. Like the comrades who were agitated about the dispute because they had lost sight of the centrality of the working class, people like Michael Rosen claim to be concerned about how organisations might improve the way they handle rape allegations, but what they really want to do is criticise democratic centralism. Such figures, in other words, are simply objective allies of the hidden hand of movementism.
To their credit, the authors do cite words written by Michael Rosen, however selectively. When it comes to criticising “the faction” they are happy to revert to speculative insinuation. The Rebuilding the Party faction is a grouping of several hundred members who have developed fierce criticisms of the leadership and forced it to concede on a number of points that mean the party is today in a position where its rehabilitation within the movement is at least a possibility. Like Michael Rosen and the students, however, they are not motivated by the dispute but by a lack of discipline or concern about wider political questions. The authors note “the increasing tendency for faction members to freelance in different areas of work, notably anti-fascism, where some members of the opposition counterpose squaddist ‘direct action’ against the Nazis by a self-appointed vanguard to the emphasis on mass mobilisation that has distinguished both the ANL and UAF.” The authors do not bother to cite any evidence for this “squaddism” but are happy instead to insult, by a process of lazy amalgamation, significant numbers of opposition comrades who have devoted a large part of their lives to developing and engaging in the party’s anti-fascist work.
The authors rely too much on logical fallacies and vague generalisations. There is only one clear reference to an actual article written by a faction member. Neil Davidson is criticised for noting that only 14 percent of private sector workers are unionised.10 They counter his figures by claiming that in 1925, 30 percent of South Wales miners were not unionised. As an argument this does not make sense. But that is not the point. In this instance, the authors are not interested in engaging in an argument to develop the party’s understanding of neoliberalism. They are simply bringing the authority of the CC to bear in an attempt to discredit a faction member.
The article is full of loose formulations about an “increasing tendency” to do this, or the way “some members” do that. It was once argued that “the history of philosophy is written in the future anterior”. For the authors of this article, the history of the SWP is written in an impersonal, passive voice: “there is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which neoliberalism has weakened and fragmented the organised working class”; “it can seem inappropriate to sell our publications or to fight for recruitment to the party”; the remedies proposed by the democracy commission “were not sufficient to prevent the development of even more severe conflicts over the past year”; “the veneration of the movement leads to the sidelining of the revolutionary party”. Bad things tend to happen to the organisation but it’s never clear how or why or who is responsible. When it came to the disproportionate role played by the SWP in united fronts, for example, “The fault perhaps was not to recognise it… it’s a tremendous temptation simply to celebrate the movements.”
Such formulations are not accidental. They reflect a desire on the part of those who played a leading role in the mistakes listed above to evade responsibility for any of them. This underpins the basic political weakness of the article. The authors claim that:
In reality only a serious attempt to air the political differences on every side, to thrash these out openly in the party and to fight to win members to the outcome of these debates can minimise the losses to our organisation. Papering over political differences in order to hold the faction together only heightens the likelihood of a split.11
But the entire article is so full of insinuation and evasion that it does precisely the opposite of this. None of the direct political challenges to the leadership posed by the Rebuilding the Party faction are addressed. Since February opposition comrades have been arguing that the party must undertake a proper political accounting of the crisis we have faced; they have done this not to discredit or attack the party, but to ensure that it emerges from this crisis as a credible political force.12 This means acknowledging and accounting for mistakes and coming to terms with how they occurred. It means offering full support to the women who brought the complaints. It means openly and directly confronting those who have attempted to distort the issues at stake and obstruct the party’s disputes procedures by delaying the hearing into the second complaint.
A first step in taking political responsibility for this situation would be to offer a simple apology to the two women complainants for shortcomings in the disputes process—shortcomings identified by the party’s own disputes commission. Acknowledging these mistakes would in turn allow us to begin addressing flaws in the party’s operation. Ultimately we want structures and a daily functioning that develop conscious and effective means of confronting the various challenges this period presents for a revolutionary organisation. This does indeed mean that the party, and its leadership, must begin “to air the political differences on every side, to thrash these out openly in the party.”
The CC majority, which the authors lead, refuses to do this. It continues, as the article demonstrates, to indulge in, “Papering over political differences” in order to hold the CC together. It is this, not the alleged shortcomings of the faction that “heightens the likelihood of a split”. The CC has consistently refused to reveal political differences among its own ranks and lay them before the party. This is what lay behind the Respect crisis: real questions about the political direction of the party were obscured behind evasive insinuations and coded messages that meant what was really at stake only emerged in hindsight. The CC has repeatedly allowed successive factions to develop within its own ranks, precipitating splits. But in each case it has concealed internal divisions from party members, and maintained a facade of unity.
It is doing precisely the same thing today, ignoring the democracy commission’s recommendation that such divisions should be explained to members.13 As “The Politics of the SWP crisis” makes clear, the CC majority is pandering to the notions put forward by a sectarian faction, operational since at least the end of 2012, which has consistently peddled the myth that the complainants and those who support them are motivated not by justifiable concerns but by a dissident political agenda. For all its bluster about the dangers of permanent factionalism, dangers which most opposition comrades are fully alive to, it has rewarded the supporters of the sectarian minority on the CC by inviting one of its leading members to join the ranks of the leadership.14 This will ensure factional division remains part of the life of the organisation for at least another year.
For all its unsubstantiated claims about the Rebuilding the Party faction being led by the nose by a minority that wants to leave, it is the CC majority that is being driven by the imperatives dictated by sectarian voices in its own ranks. This approach is leading the party into further retrenchment and isolation from the broader movement. It will ensure that the cycle of splits that have occurred since 2007 will continue, not because of some hidden hand of movementism, but because the party leadership is incapable of looking reality in the face and dealing with it. This is the direction of travel pursued by the authors of this article. They present themselves as drivers of a car, eyes fixed in the rear-view mirror, passively observing the mistakes that lie in their wake, eyes averted from the crash they are blindly directing the party towards. All those who want to see the SWP survive as a viable organisation must now unite to help the party steer a different course.
1: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013.
2: Such behaviour has been documented in formal complaints to the Disputes Committee.
3: Statement from SWP Central Committee, January 2013.
4: These proposals were eventually published in the March 2013 Pre-Conference Bulletin, p46.
5: Kimber, 2013.
6: SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, September 2013, pp41-45.
7: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013, p63.
8: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013, p73.
9: Rosen, 2013.
10: Davidson, 2013.
11: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013, p80.
12: SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, March 2013, p59; and In Defence Of Our Party, February 2013.
13: SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, October 2009, p25.
14: SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, September 2013, p16.
Davidson, Neil, 2013, “The Neoliberal Era in Britain: Historical Developments and Current Perspectives”, International Socialism 139 (summer 2013), www.isj.org.uk/?id=908
“In Defence Of Our Party” faction statement,
emailed to SWP membership on 9 February 2013.
Kimber, Charlie, “Statement to SWP members”,
emailed to SWP membership on 12 January 2013.
Kimber, Charlie, and Alex Callinicos, 2013 “The Politics of the SWP Crisis”,
International Socialism 140 (autumn 2013), www.isj.org.uk/?id=915
Rosen, Michael, “Open Letter to the SWP”, 22 July 2013, michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/open-letter-to-swp.html
SWP Central Committee, “For an Interventionist Party”,
emailed to SWP membership on 3 January 2013.
SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, 2009, “Commission on Party Democracy” (October).
SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, 2013, “Improving the Working of the Disputes Committee” (March).
SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, 2013, “The International Socialist Tradition and the Current Crisis in the SWP” (March).
SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, 2013, “Proposed Central Committee”, (September).
SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, 2013. “Report of the Disputes Committee Review Body” (September).