Why I am not resigning from the SWP
I didn't really want to write a post like this - but have been prompted to do so in part by the (uncharacteristically) incredibly sectarian and indeed rather disgusting tweet by left wing Labour Party member Owen Jones, who as a respected journalist one might have hoped would have known that there are often two sides to any story, and that he knows and can know only one side of this particular story. As a SWP member who attended the party's national conference this weekend, I thought I should just briefly explain why I am not joining those who have sadly decided to now leave, but am instead - like the overwhelming majority of comrades, including a significant section (and indeed possibly the majority) of the former 'Rebuilding the Party' faction - staying in the party.
It is pointless to try and pretend that this last year has been one of the 'finest hours' in the history of the SWP - despite the many positive contributions to the wider movements and struggles the SWP has made over the past year - to the anti-Bedroom tax movement, helping to force the Labour Party to include a commitment to abolition in their manifesto - to the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, helping through mass Unite Against Fascism mobilisations to block the advance of the fascist EDL at a time when fascism is growing across crisis-ridden Europe - to name just two examples. A useful report of this weekend's conference by the party's national secretary Charlie Kimber can be found here, but in short the conference went as well as possible given the depth of the crisis that has so badly afflicted the organisation this past year, a crisis that has now hopefully been finally resolved as a result of the democratic decisions taken at the conference. It is worth quoting from this section of Kimber's report:
The conference passed overwhelmingly a motion that set out the political context of the divisions and the debates they have sparked. And delegates passed near-unanimously a revised set of procedures for our disputes committee which looks at matters of discipline and conduct. We hope this will give every member confidence in the processes.
Furthermore the central committee (CC) made a statement that many people have suffered real distress as a result of taking part in or giving evidence to the disputes committee, or due to slurs on the internet and we are sorry to all of them for that. Specifically two women who brought very serious allegations suffered real distress. We are sorry for the suffering caused to them by the structural flaws in our disputes procedures, the way in which the two cases became a subject of political conflict within the party and slurs on the internet.
Delegates showed through the votes at conference that they did not believe the party and its leadership are sexist or trampled on the politics of women’s liberation or covered up injustice.
In fact, it is testament to how well the conference went - given fears among members about how it might go beforehand - and the new spirit of unity that the vast majority of those attending the conference would have left with - that the faction not only voted to wind itself up after conference but have also handed over their factional blog to those who have just left the party. There will still of course be debates, tensions and discussion within the party - (to be honest, there are always debates, tensions and discussion within an organisation like the SWP) - especially when the matter of the causes of the crisis arises, but the vast majority of the party voted essentially to 'agree to disagree' about the details of this - and try to move on, hopefully slowly rebuilding the trust that has been damaged through actions rather than words. In other words, the SWP has survived, and, with time, can hopefully slowly move forward in a unified manner now and rebuild.
Why is this important or noteworthy for anyone reading outside the SWP? Well, this is partly because for all its faults the SWP remains the largest revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain, and one of the largest internationally. To build up such a revolutionary organisation to the size of something like the SWP takes decades - anyone wanting to read more on this should definitely read Ian Birchall's fine biography of SWP founder Tony Cliff. It is telling that in his resignation letter, Birchall notes that 'I do not intend to join any other organisation'. This is doubtless not just because of his age and health as he says, and not only because none of the alternatives on the revolutionary left in Britain look particularly appetising for various reasons, but because as a historian and activist he knows just what a long hard slog building a revolutionary organisation from very small beginnings is - particularly in the non-revolutionary conditions of modern Britain. After all, Birchall has dedicated a large part of fifty years of his life to the building of such an organisation - indeed he has made a incredibly valuable contribution to such a task over those years. Such a task of building from scratch is surely only to be taken if it is absolutely necessary (I once wrote about when this would be the case before on this blog here).
No doubt at least some of those now leaving will try to form some new revolutionary socialist organisation at some point - but they should not be in any doubts about the very difficult task they have ahead of them. They would say of course such a task is easier than working to rebuild the SWP - well now they are free to go and test that opinion in practice. This to be honest will probably be the best for all of us in many cases. I will still see many of those leaving as comrades and am sure many of them will continue to make a very positive contribution to the working class movement. They should just not be under any illusions as to how difficult such a task they have ahead in waiting for them.
This is particularly because in the current conditions, when there is a basic contradiction in Britain between huge anger at the Tories' brutal class warfare - and the general lack of a fightback, at least on a national level, from our side in response. The low level of class struggle means that any socialist organisation is going to be in ever-present danger of turning inwards through frustration at the lack of progress. In such a context, a very serious accusation as that levelled against the SWP's former national secretary was always going to be incredibly damaging, and serve as the catalyst for pent up bitterness and wider frustration with the leadership.
More critically, the low level of class struggle means that there are pressures in two directions on every revolutionary organisation - and indeed on every individual revolutionary. Firstly, there is an ever-present danger of sectarianism - standing aside from the movements and just denouncing everyone else on the Left - and in particular the trade union leaders who (since retreating from the mass co-ordinated strikes in 2011) have not led as effective a fightback against the Tories as they might have done - from the sidelines. This is easy to do - there are numerous sects on the left in every country one can find who just do this. The temptation to simply rail against the trade union bureaucracy for the sake of it when one is in a tiny minuscule grouplet is even greater. The SWP - no doubt in part because of not only its intellectual tradition and culture but because of its small but not insignificant roots in the wider movements and class struggles - has not retreated into sectarianism but continued to build the wider movements against austerity, working with the trade union leaders for example when they call even the mildest kind of action in the hope it can fan the flames of a wider revolt - and supporting more moderate initiatives like the People's Assembly as well as building more militant groups such as Unite the Resistance to try and put more pressure on the official leaders of the trade union movement through building up rank-and-file networks from below.
Secondly, the SWP has also to date resisted the other ever-present danger or temptation - that towards liquidationism. It sometimes seems easier and more desirable and 'realistic' for revolutionaries (again particularly those in very small organisations) to play down their revolutionary Marxist politics and make 'short cuts' (towards for example electoralism, particularly strong after the welcome success of left parties like Syriza in Greece) or look for a new 'saviour upon high' to deliver instead of stressing the centrality of the organised working class in changing society. For example, in Britain we have seen a widespread pessimism towards the possibility of militant class struggle in response to the Tories attacks, and an adaptation towards the dominant popular ideas of both 'movementism' and 'left reformism'. The SWP for example was rather a lone voice on the left in Britain when it criticised Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union (and someone whose militant rhetoric about civil disobedience against austerity has meant he has been seen by many as a kind of 'saviour from on high'), after his disastrous failure to effectively act to defend jobs at Grangemouth.
Many of those on the wider Left - including Owen Jones - who refused to criticise McCluskey for not organising a militant class fightback over Grangemouth (through for example trying to encourage workplace occupations) did so because they agreed with McCluskey about the possibilities and potentialities of 'reclaiming Labour'. This idea would make more sense if it was 1913 instead of 2013 - we have over 100 years of trying to 'reclaim Labour' and since 1945 every Labour government has been worse than the previous one. An Ed Miliband government, given the economic crisis which looks set to continue, will - sad to say - be even worse than Blair and Brown's governments, not because Miliband is personally politically worse than Blair or Brown, but because of the scale of the crisis, and the resulting welfare cuts and attacks on workers Labour in office will make as a result in order to try to show they can 'manage' British capitalism just as 'responsibly' as the Tories.
The need for independent working class politics and revolutionary socialist organisation remains as great as ever - indeed in some ways it has never been more needed than now. As many people have noted, if an organisation like the SWP - a revolutionary organisation that tried to intervene in the movements to win people to the politics of socialism from below while avoiding both sectarianism and liquidationism didn't exist, it would have to be re-invented from scratch. Fortunately, the organisation does still exist. In his resignation letter (the partial, misleading and one-sided nature of his account about conference and the dispute cases I am not going to try and respond to), Dave Renton notes that
'one of the things I liked about the SWP was that ... there were comrades who were self-effacing, articulate and principled. I think of well-known figures such as Duncan Hallas and Paul Foot, but the real strength of the SWP was far below, in the branches, almost every one of which had an autodidact Marxist, a worker who had never gone to university, a person who would quote obscure ideas of Marx or Lenin and use them to relate events happening in the world outside and to the tradition of the workers’ movement. Over the past 20 years the self-taught workers have almost all left, while the party-liners have multiplied...'
The reason this decline of self-taught working class Marxist intellectuals in the SWP has happened is overwhelmingly for objective reasons - the defeats the working class movement has suffered in Britain over the past 30 years under Thatcherism and then Blairism and now neo-Thatcherism, and the resulting wider decline of the revolutionary Left and its wider cultural institutions in society. It would have been more incredible and surprising in a sense if the regrettable shift that Renton describes had not happened in such circumstances. What the SWP has nonetheless still managed to do - in a way that most of the revolutionary Left has not done - is to survive as a relatively sizeable national organisation in this objectively unfavourable climate with small but at least in some places significant roots in the organised working class movement.
Since Dave Renton evoked Paul Foot, it seems perhaps fitting to end with a quote from Foot which remains as essentially true today - despite the damage done to the organisation this year - as it was over ten years ago when it was written:
Of the socialist parties in Britain today by far the largest, by far the most disciplined, by far the party most likely to organise wider campaigns in a non-sectarian manner, is the Socialist Workers Party, whose main (though not its only) fault is that it is not big enough.
Edited to add: A statement from the SWP in response to some of the recent resignations