World Politics

The Period and the Party

Duncan Chapel

War declared on the John Rees-Lindsey German faction: impending split in the British SWP?

December 28th, 2009

The faction fight in the SWP, which pits the majority led by Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith against the Left Platform led by John Rees and Lindsey German, is utterly depressing, for several reasons. First it is a reflection of the generally depressed and demoralised state of the whole of the British left, although of course with its own specific characteristics.

Second, whatever the ultra-factional vultures on the fringes of the far left may think, it is also depressing that the main organisation of the revolutionary left finds itself in such factional disarray. That is bad news for everyone; the very poor turn out for the recent Stop the War Coalition demonstration testifies to that.

Third, this whole sorry mess, which has included the sidelining of the Socialist Alliance in the early part of the decade, and the split in Respect and its fallout inside the SWP, was utterly avoidable.

If the SWP leadership in particular, but also the Socialist Party leadership, had been less rigid in their political conceptions, if they had shown more openness to political pluralism as demonstrated by international developments like the NPA in France and the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in Turkey, it could have turned out very different. Indeed, the SWP also had the opportunity to learn from the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France, which the SWP’s organisation in France (SPEB) was part of. Not only did the League allow the right of minority tendencies but also the right of women and LGBT members to self-organise, in addition to an autonomous youth organisation. It is also very important to consider the respectful commitment to political debate that LCR showed to smaller organisations like SPEB not by “recruiting” them but merging with them. Several years ago there was a rather different discussion when the International Socialist Group in Britain was invited to join the SWP. It didn’t join because tendencies in the SWP wouldn’t have the same rights as SPEB enjoyed in the LCR.

Below we explain why, but first to some of the all-too-familiar the specifics of what’s currently going on inside the SWP.

Bureaucratic repression

From the contributions in the internal discussion bulletin number 2, it’s clear that the majority are doing everything possible to organisationally harass the minority. First, the accusations of factionalism based on intercepted emails.

The SWP does not allow factions outside of the 3-month discussion period; anyone having discussions about the possibility of forming a faction inside the 3-month period it open to accusations of breeching the constitution. So the Rees-German minority is accused of disloyal factionalism by sending emails to one another!

At this point though we have to say something that the Left Platform have to think about : John Rees and Lindsay German are the victims of an internal regime and an external policy that they were the upholders of when they were indeed in the majority, in fact the two central leaders, themselves. For example, the exclusion of John Rees from the Central Committee at the time of the 2009 conference was indeed an utter scandal. But it stems from the policy of excluding minorities from the CC that Rees and German of course defended in 2007 when it was a question of whether John Molyneux could be on the CC.

Members of the minority have been told to close down their websites. Most of all the majority leadership is doing everything possible to minimise the representation of the Left Platform, by for example branches and districts refusing to allocate any delegates to the minority, CC member standing as ordinary delegates to exclude minority representation etc etc. This is all documented in the article by Lindsey German in preconference discussion bulletin no 2.

The aim of minimising the representation of the minority at the national conference is very familiar to anyone who knows anything about the recent history of the sectarian left internationally. In a normally functioning democratic centralist organisation it would be elementary to allow the Left Platform adequate representation to express themselves fully, to represent their strength (or lack of it) inside the party, and to go into the debates in adequate detail. This is not what the Callinicos-Smith leadership have in mind. They intend to try to crush and humiliate the minority, to try to demoralise its supporters, and probably to expel the leadership of the Left Platform. This is absolutely typical of the way in which sectarian ‘Trotskyist’ groups have behaved through Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes, Pierre Lambert and all their ilk. Alex Callinicos finds himself in bad company.

Something else that the Left Platform leadership should think about is this: an organisation that has an informal policy of suggesting to members who have differences that they might like to take a six-month leave of absence, in the hope they will leave, is not really preparing a democratic internal life and a healthy attitude to discussion and differences.

The political debate

All the merit in the political debate is entirely with the Left Platform. The main documents of the platform accuse the leadership of retreating from the more open that the SWP tried to develop at the star of the decade, when it made its turn to the STWC, the Socialist Alliance and Globalise Resistance. The platform says that the majority leadership want to downgrade united front work like the STWC and instead replace it with a narrowly conceived ‘Right to Work’ campaign, of the type which those active in the 1970s will remember. Most of all the Platform’s documents make very apposite points on the question of the united front, pointing out that Trotsky never limited the united front to being a mere ‘tactic’, but explained it was a ‘policy’ with strategic significance. These explanations by the Platform are all correct.

But in the formal terms of the debate do not in themselves explain very much, for two reasons. Neither side deals with the fact that for many SWP rank-and-file members, as well as a section of the leadership around Chris Harman, the ‘open’ turn to the Socialist Alliance was very unpopular. And the Platform stops short of dealing with the real strategic question that is staring them in the face, and which the experience of the NPA in France and the Left Bloc in Portugal demonstrates: the importance of trying to create a broad socialist/left alternative at a national political level, using the ‘united fronts’ like the STWC as bases of support for a global political alternative. The Socialist Alliance and Respect both failed because the SWP refused to take the step of fighting for a real pluralistic national political alternative, and instead, when the chips were down, tried to channel everything through the SWP – especially during the height of the anti-war movement in 2003-4.

In effect the SWP adopted a half-way policy of building the Socialist Alliance and Respect as ‘united fronts of a special type’. But they were not. They were political blocs, with global socialist policies. They could not work if the attempt was made control them by the SWP, or at least to subject them to SWP veto.

The proof of the pudding is in the Scottish eating. At first the SWP abstained from the Scottish Socialist Party, but then went into it as a minority faction almost from day 1. By the middle of 2002 the atmosphere between the SWP faction and the SSP majority was icy, with the SWP trying to pick every conceivable little thing to create differences. Then the SWP made the utterly opportunistic and disastrous decision to back Sheridan’s break away Scottish Socialist Solidarity, which of course is now in the process of disappearing.

It is not even clear if the extent of the factionalism by the SWP in the SSP was decided in London, or whether – like the scorpion that stings the frog that is carrying him across the water – it was just in the nature of the rank and file militants who couldn’t help themselves. The decision to back Sheridan’s breakaway was of course decided in London and an act of cynical folly.

In this period it is impossible for Marxist organisations to proceed on the basis of a ‘no risk’, defence of existing acquisitions, policy. Building a broad socialist formation like the New Anticapitalist Party in France, or the Left Bloc in Portugal – or indeed participating in Die Linke in Germany – involves major risks. That arises from the nature of the period. But attempting to avoid the risks inherent in creating broad political alternatives to the left, in defence of the working class and the planet, is full of risks itself.

The period and the party

The left in Britain – even more than elsewhere – seems completely at a loss in the face of the massive economic crisis that has hit Western and especially Anglo-Saxon capitalism. This is obviously combining with a gigantic world environmental crisis, so that the issue is not now stopping climate change, but limiting it and deciding who will pay the cost of adaption. In this situation the right, and even the far right, has the initiative, especially at the electoral level.

Britain faces the biggest attack on working class living standards, the welfare state and democratic rights since the 1970s. To try to respond to that with a few more paper sales and a few more recruits is idiotic.

The tasks facing Marxists is that of building a political force to the left of social democracy that seems like a realistic alternative to millions. This cannot and will not be done by the SWP on its own or by the Socialist Party on its own. These frameworks are too politically narrow.

At the same time it is abstentionist to say that broader political alternatives are impossible without a rise in the level of the class struggle. Such devices are excuses that enable factional leaderships to get on with day-to-day propaganda routine: sell the paper, hold forums, recruit. In the case of the Callinicos-Smith leadership it’s a matter of ‘back to the bunker’, just as it was in 1994 for Peter Taaffe when Arthur Scargill vetoed the attempt by Militant Labour to join the SLP.

On the question of building a broad socialist alternative the SWP leadership now talks out of both sides of its mouth. Fulsome in its praise for ‘our comrades’ in the French NPA or the Portuguese Left Bloc, policies inspired by the same political methods in Britain fall foul of Alex Callinicos’ contemptuous ex-cathedra dismissal. A leadership content in its ability to issue tactical advice to anyone worldwide will have no difficulty erecting sectarian schemas in Britain.