This is a cross post from Phil of A Very Public Sociologist. (Michael Ezra notes that Phil has substantial knowledge about the history of the SWP. This is not least due to the fact that a decent sized chunk of his PhD thesis was an analysis of the SWP’s activism in Britain. This particular blog post is an essential reading opinion piece for those following the crisis in the SWP.)
Where Now for the SWP?
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the fate befalling the Socialist Workers’ Party is proving to be the exception to the rule. Coverage in the New Statesman, The Indy, and The Daily Mail is bringing the SWP’s monumentally fatal decision to a wider audience. Surely other media outlets can’t be far behind, even if only as January filler between Celebrity Big Brother and impending snowmageddon.I also couldn’t help but note The Mail disallowed comments on their piece. If the most stupid and reactionary paper in the land can foresee potential legal difficulties, what does that say of the SWP’s Central Committee’s foresight, that flower of the British proletariat?
And yet, in this, what is likely to be the terminal crisis for the SWP, if your sole news outlet was Socialist Worker and the ramblings of its website, you could be forgiven for thinking the organisation doesn’t stand on the precipice of extinction. Yesterday, paper sales went ahead in city centres like they always have done. And the CC, forced to respond to negative press and blogging, has officially come out and said “nothing to see here.”
In the real world large sections of ‘the party’ are in open revolt. Two of its most prominent public faces, China Mieville and Richard Seymour, are now waging anopen political struggle. Off the top of my head, Sheffield and Leeds are pretty much solid oppositionists. The local branch here in Stoke are supportive of the rebellion. And the large (in far left terms) Birmingham organisation is said to be on the verge of decamping en masse. If the SWP were a zombie, we’re not talking about skin flakes or fingers falling off. It’s chunks of flesh and even limbs that are coming loose.
Nevertheless, the open struggle being conducted by Lenny and co. finds them in an extremely strong position. The CC risks inflicting a massive split on the organisation if its “celebrities” are expelled in the customary cavalier fashion. In fact, Mieville’s and Seymour’s open defiance is almost goading the CC into action. But also, the leadership cannot counter opposition politically. It can hide behind conference’s decision to endorse the findings as much as it likes. They cannot defend themselves even within the norms of “proletarian justice“.
The opposition have right on their side, even if their critique of the Central Committee is limited to the party’s petty authoritarianism and the disputes committee balls up rather than address whether it was appropriate for the SWP to investigate a rape allegation. Unfortunately for them and the future viability of their politics, they share the same revolutionary conceit as their erstwhile comrades in the leadership. Whatever the immediate fate of the opposition, fundamentally all that’s on offer is more years on the Leninist merry go-round.
Apart from the politics of the opposition, there are two insurmountable problems. Regardless of whether you think the SWP operates the “right kind” of democratic centralism or not, it is nigh on impossible to constitutionally replace a vanguard party leadership peacefully (i.e. without a split). As has been noted in discussions on Socialist Unity, the legal and financial apparatus of the SWP as an entity is shrouded in mystery. Who controls the monies, who has access to them, who the trustees are for party property, it’s all an extremely shadowy business. With a great deal of money and capital resources at stake, even if the opposition are successful in recalling the central committee there is nothing to stop the incumbent little Lenins marching off into the sunset with what, morally, belongs to the membership. There is as much chance of Kimber, Callinicos et al accepting a majority decision on their collective defenestration than Socialist Worker becoming readable over night. And if any reader who’s a member of another far left group is feeling particularly smug about this, ask yourself. Would your own revolutionary leadership submit to being bumped down to rank-and-file status after an open and democratic political struggle?
The second problem is far more serious. To put it bluntly, the SWP is fucked. Two minutes on an internet search by any new member will quickly turn up the dark heart of their organisation. In the wider labour movement, where it does not become a propaganda gift to those who’d like to see the back of the SWP, ‘normal’ trade unionists, activists, campaigners, all the people the SWP have tried to court over the years will prove far more reticent to associate with them.
The SWP opposition haven’t grasped this either. Even in the best case scenario, if the CC is expunged and replaced by an entirely new cadre of activists AND the culture and practice reformed to something approaching sane politics, the name and brand of the SWP is forever tainted. They are toxic. They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ‘democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.
Where now? The SWP can remain more or less coherent, organisationally, but lose hundreds of activists and dwindle its way to oblivion. Or it can blow apart in all directions in one or several splits. Other organisations will scoop up some of the activists, including Labour, but, as has historically been the case with socialists burned by the SWP, most will retreat from politics and the labour movement altogether. The responsibility for that outcome lies solely at the feet of its central committee and those stupid enough to blindly follow them.