Thursday, February 18, 2010

But where will they go?


AFTER Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German quit the Socialist Workers' Party last week, it has not taken long for the rest of her flock to follow. Around mid-day on Tuesday a letter was e-mailed to the SWP's national secretary Martin Smith. Signed by 42 SWP members, and endorsed by a further 18 who had already gone in recent weeks, it said:

"We are writing to resign from the Socialist Workers Party. We do this with great sadness but the events of recent weeks leave us with little choice.

The immediate reason for our resignation is the attempt by the Central Committee to stop Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, from speaking at a Stop the War meeting in Newcastle. This demand was justified by the claim that the meeting was ‘disputed’ or bogus. In fact, it was a properly constituted Stop the War public meeting, agreed at two consecutive Tyneside steering committees. Two SWP members tried to block the meeting because it clashed with a party branch meeting. The Stop the War meeting was a success, but was boycotted by the local SWP. The Central Committee demanded that Lindsey should not go to the meeting and ‘reserved the right’ to take disciplinary action if she attended.

"Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement. Unfortunately, it fits into what is now a well-established pattern. For many years, the SWP has played a dynamic role in the development of mass movements in Britain. The party made an important contribution to the great anti-capitalist mobilisations at the start of the decade, it threw itself into the Stop the War Coalition and was central to the Respect electoral project. These achievements were dependent on an open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements.

The SWP leadership has abandoned this approach. The task of building broad, political opposition in every area to the disasters created by neoliberalism and war is now subordinated to short term party building. We believe this undermines both the movements and the prospects of building an open and effective revolutionary current in the British working class.

The most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left. Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left.

An authoritarian internal regime has developed as a result of this change in direction. In the run up to the recent party conference, four members of the Left Platform opposition were disciplined, three of them expelled. Since the conference, four of the remaining student comrades at the School of Oriental and African studies in London have been effectively pushed out of the party. A comrade in Newcastle was given an ultimatum to resign from a key position in the local movement in January. He resigned from the party and 10 comrades left in protest at his treatment. The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement.

For these reasons we are now submitting our resignations. We do not do so lightly and we will of course remain active socialists and revolutionaries. We all joined the party because we felt it would make us more effective. Sadly, we now feel that is no longer the case. We have, however, enormous respect for the many fine comrades in the SWP and we regard it as essential to continue to work with SWP members in the unions and campaigns, since we all share a broad agreement on the need to confront recession, war and fascism. We remain convinced of the need for revolutionary socialist organisation. In fact, the need for a radical political alternative and resistance on a massive scale has rarely been more urgent."

In January, Lindsey German told the SWP annual conference that her Left Platform (LP) faction would dissolve, that she accepted the result of debates, votes and elections, and that faction members remained loyal Party members. It has not taken long for that loyalty to be tested, and even less time for the dissolved faction members to come together for an agreed response.

But then the SWP leadership has not wasted much time with false sentimentality about old comrades or pretence of unity, as testified by long-standing central committee member and former Socialist Review editor Lindsey German, who just squeezed back onto the CC in 49th place out of 50 at the last conference, since when " … I have felt politically curtailed in recent months: all LP members who submitted journal articles had them rejected; none of us are ever commissioned to write reviews or articles in publications; I was not asked to speak at the women’s school, despite having written and spoken more on theoretical questions on women than anyone else in the party.”

On February 3, the SWP leadership demanded that Tony Dowling, a Left Platform supporter, step down from his position as Tyneside secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network for allegedly bureaucratic behaviour. Dowling quit the SWP instead, and was joined by 10 of his comrades in the area. Then Dowling and Alex Snowdon, who had already been expelled before the January conference for "factional" activity in the form of e-mails, decided to organise a Stop the War Coalition meeting in Newcastle. The SWP has been the predominant group in the leadership of Stop the War, and Lindsey German one of its best-known faces on demo platform and television, but apparently the remaining members of the SWP objected that the public meeting would clash with their branch meeting. Heaven forbid they be asked to consider switching their branch to a different night, or postponing it to focus on Stop the War, in between the Chilcott inquiry and the latest Afghan offensive.

As we know, ignoring Lindsey German's duty as Stop the War convenor, Martin Smith emailed her, ‘requesting’ her not go to, and asking her to “meet with members of the CC at the earliest possible opportunity”. Recognising the knuckles gloved in official language, -she had after all been on the Central Committee for thirty years -German decided to honour her commitment, and to save the leadership the bother of expelling her, she quit.

John Rees, whom many SWPers (and Respect members, not least those left by the departing SWP) chiefly blame for the debacle in Respect, probably figured that if Lindsey could go, there was not much chance for him. Already at the January conference he had avoided the humiliation of a low vote by not standing for the CC. So now, with the dire duo and their sixty followers gone, the SWP leadership of Martin Smith and Alex Callinicos has got rid of the opposition without either a prolonged faction fight - in which people might at least have clarified political issues - or the trouble of disciplinary proceedings.

For anyone concerned about "recession, war and fascism" , and convinced, as the faction claim to be, that "the need for revolutionary socialist organisation" has"rarely been more urgent", the question may be asked "but not as urgent as getting out of the SWP?", particularly as those leaving speak so warmly about wanting to work with the comrades they have left behind. And for both SWP members and those quitting, the question they are going to face is "what did you split over?". A commentator sympathetic to the breakaway faction refers us to the historic splits of the past, while a defender of the leadership reminds us of democratic centralism and revolutionary discipline.

Yeah, but this was a "historic" split over whether there should be a particular meeting in Newcastle one night, and the leadership exercising its authority to tell a comrade she could not go. I can see the Marxist scholars of the future debating the significance of this, if it is not settled beyond doubt. Meanwhile I suppose the documents are being translated for mass meetings of workers in Bolivia and Kazakhstan. What bigger issues have we socialists to argue about?

The word among SWP members is that Rees and German, carried away perhaps by their experience of addressing big meetings and occasionally making the media, became "movementists", belittling the role of "the Party", and thinking themelves superior to the footslogging, paper-selling rank-and-file party members. Those who have gone, on the other hand, accuse the leadership of turning away from the broader movements and being unwilling to work with other people. I notice by the way that though alluding bravely to Respect, they have nothing to say about the Socialist Alliance which they dumped in favour of it. Nor, curiously, do they mention the twice-born Anti-Nazi League, or its successor Unite Against Fascism (UAF). The latter had its conference at the weekend, and was gingerly handling a call from Brent and other areas for internal democracy and unity in the anti-fascist movement.

For many who have had experience of the SWP and its ways of working in broad movements the response towards those proclaiming the need to engage with others now will be one of skepticism, and towards both past and present leaders -a plague on both your houses. I suspect that though Smith and Callinicos may now feel they are running a tighter ship, this exodus will not be the last, as their type of "party-building" sails into a dead-end. I expect the ordinary members will find their keenness and socialist militancy welcomed into whatever areas of struggle they become involved. But for now, though Lindsey German may keep her place in the anti-war movement, I can't see where otherwise she, and even more John Rees, have got left to go.



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