Is the Party really over?
THE late Tony Cliff came to Lancaster once, back in about 1971.. Speaking to a lunchtime meeting at the university about developments in industry, he said the new system of Measured Day Work (MDW) being introduced to replace payment-by-results would be accepted by workers, despite its adverse affect on conditions and pay bargaining.
When I suggested that where there was a proper lead from shop stewards, MDW could be opposed, Cliff countered by telling us that it had just been accepted at British Leyland's Cowley factory. "They don't tell you everything in the WRP!", he added, to the amusement of his audience. Someone must have told him about my affiliations back then.
After the meeting, a knot of people including Cliff's supporters were having a laugh about it, out in the precinct. One of them explained to me that Cliff had made up his exclusive news flash about Leyland. "Still, it was a good debating trick, wasn't it?", he said.
Cliff, born Ygael Gluckstein in Mandatory Palestine, founder and leader of the breakaway from Trotskyism which became the Socialist Workers' Party, had shown he was cleverer than me, but most people including me already knew that, so it was hardly necessary for him to travel all that way to prove it. There could have been a philosophical germ in what he had said, demonstrating the inadequacy of trumping each other with "examples"; but it seemed a rum way of introducing students to the struggles in industry.
Or of setting an example to his members of valuing the truth.
I next heard Tony Cliff speak many years later at a much larger meeting, a rally (probably part of what have became the annual "Marxism" jamborees) in the Alexandra Palace. I was outside the hall helping on a literature stall, but the doors were open. I could hear the speaker, and see a claque at the centre of the audience rise to their feet each time he paused, wave their arms in clenched fist salutes, and chant "The workers united will never be defeated!". These weren't over-enthusiastic teenagers, mind, but adults - I recognised one as a teacher I knew from Wandsworth. Had I been inside the hall I would have found it embarrassing, from outside it looked distasteful if amusing.
Whatever Cliff's faults, and those of his "state capitalism" theory, the movement he inspired and taught became the most successful of the competing left groups, attracting not only students and names like Paul Foot, but some serious trade unionists for a time, looking for an alternative to the Communist Party. It went on to lead the Stop the War Coalition, presiding ove the biggest demonstrations Britain had seen for many decades, and its annual "Marxism" events have been the biggest of their kind.
Only now the SWP is in trouble. Having already left behind a number of its activists in the ill-fated "Respect" adventure, and shed the two leading lights of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsay German and John Rees (who have found a new home in the Coalition of Resistance), it then had to depose its national secretary Martin Smith for reasons that were not widely advertised. Chris Banberry, one of the few people in the leadership to have worked with Tony Cliff, quit in 2011, and took a number of people with him north of the Border. Four people were expelled before Xmas for allegedly forming a "secret faction", and a far bigger number responded by forming an open faction demanding "democracy"; and it has not stopped there.
One result of all this upheaval has been that an internal report has come out on investigations into complaints by a woman member about the alleged conduct of a certain "Comrade Delta". A transcript was published on the 'Socialist Unity' site, which respected the SWP leadership's attempt at concealing names, and then in the Communist Party of Great Britain's "Weekly Worker", which does not. I dare say the Special Branch and MI5 could have worked out the names as easily as I did, but I am not sure what justification can be given for naming names, either of a person who faced serious allegations or members of the committee, particularly in view of the sensitive matters they were asked to investigate, and bearing in mind these are lay members with daytime jobs to go to, not full-time apparatchniks.
If I am not mistaken three of them were people who had already faced witch-hunts at work long before this business came up. Perhaps such mundane considerations don't occur to comrades whose involvement in workplace activity is limited, but I wonder how much of the "openness" they recommend for others extends to their own organisations, and those who hide behind pen names?
Whether the woman who alleged rape got any kind of justice, or whether they could expect it, is another matter. One person of undoubted left-wing persuasion told me the matter "should have gone to the police", and not the disputes committee. Perhaps he was unaware of the number of women and young people who do not go to the police, fearing the trauma of interrogation and a court case? Or those who loyally keep things "in the family"? Suppose the woman had gone to the police, only for them to decide there was insufficient evidence for a rape charge, and that her remaining allegations of harassment and ill-treatment were not really a police matter? (we will leave out the other possibility that the police would use an investigation as pretext to go storming through the SWP and its members' affairs with maximum disruption and misery all round and scant regard or result for the woman herself. Such things have been known.) Where would this have left her?
Surely a member of an organisation which aims to change the world for the oppressed is entitled to hope for better treatment from her own comrades, and that it would require higher standards from a leading member? In other words, justice. Well here is that report:
What about those who while not members of the SWP have tried working with it, in the Socialist Alliance (RIP) or Stop the War Coalition? Mike Marqusee speaks from bitter eperience:
After twenty years hard graft in the Labour Party I resigned in 2000 and became active in the Socialist Alliance campaign for the London Assembly. A year later, I was joined in the SA by my partner, Liz Davies, who had been a Labour councillor and an elected member of the party's National Executive. Liz was elected chair of the SA national executive in late 2001. As such she was made one of the signatories for the Socialist Alliance's (meagre) bank account.I should say that I heard of a case in another organisation where someone's signature had to be forged on a cheque. But this was in exceptional circumstances, the signatory appointed some time before was unavailable, and the organisation urgently needed to access its own funds to pay bills and wages. None of this applied in the Socialist Alliance, where there was no emergency. Liz Davies was going into the office, unaware that her name was being forged, or where the money was going. As a friend of mine commented, "They did it because they could do it". As Mike says, the Socialist Alliance had meagre funds. How would these characters behave if entrusted with much larger funds, in a trade union say?
In autumn of 2002, we discovered that Liz's signature was being forged on Socialist Alliance cheques. The forging was being done by people in the SA office, members of the SWP whom we knew to be in daily contact with the SWP leadership. When Liz raised the discovery with the SWP leadership, she was met with hostility. None of this was to be discussed by anybody. That was not acceptable to her. She brought the matter to the SA Executive. In the course of the discussion there it became apparent to Liz that there was a comprehensive refusal to grasp the seriousness of the offence or to take any meaningful measures in response. That was articulated by one SWPer at the meeting who said it would have been wrong not to forge the signature since the money was needed to get placards on a demo. Liz resigned in disgust and I followed soon after.
It shouldn't be necessary to say but for those with doubts: by forging the signatures, these people were making unauthorised use of the dues paid to the SA by its members. They did it not once but repeatedly, and were only found out by accident. This was a sustained, furtive, and calculated violation of democracy and basic standards of probity. It was a flagrantly high handed abuse of power, displaying contempt for the SA and its members.
Sadly not only the SWP but also most of the other groups involved in the SA could not grasp this. It suited them all for various reasons to downplay the whole thing. For some it served as an excuse to marginalise strong unaffiliated voices within the SA.
In the wake of our departure from the SA, SWP leaders put it about that we were going to go to the police about the matter – an allegation that said more about their own petty mentality than it did about us. We were dismissed as “Labourists” or “reformists” preoccupied with “formalistic bourgeois morality”.
In fact, because of the political situation in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we kept our counsel: it was obvious that this incident could be used to attack the Stop the War Coalition. Nonetheless we were treated by the SWP as persona non-grata at meetings of various kinds, our every intervention met with suspicion.
Some months after the invasion had turned into a long-term occupation, and the anti-war movement was taking stock, I wrote a piece critical of the SWP's methods – it mentioned no names, no personal references of any kind, and it referred once only in passing to the cheque forgery incident, without giving details. In response, an article penned by the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition appeared in both the Morning Star and Socialist Review attacking me by name, lumping me in with Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch as an enemy of the Coalition, stating that I had played no role in the movement for the last year – which the authors of the piece knew to be untrue – and dismissing my concerns as the result of “personal bitterness”. There was no attempt at all to respond to what I'd actually said in the original article.
So I have to say that many features of the SWP's current internal dispute seem bitterly familiar to me: treatment of whistle-blowers, smearing of critics, blaming victims, the unaccountability of leading cadre. When I see SWP members valiantly insisting that the recent dispute is nobody's business but their own, I have to demur.
Some years later, when John Rees at al departed the SWP, SWP members approached me to say that we must be pleased with this development and suggesting that all could be forgotten now. But I saw and see no evidence of the SWP examining itself with the seriousness required. The question was and is: how was it that a socialist organisation that claims to be democratic could allow people with a coarse disregard for accountability in all spheres run their organisation unchecked for years? How was it that the SWP leadership's obviously contrived and incomplete account of their rupture with us (described by them as a dispute over “administrative procedures” to which we as bourgeois formalists had over-reacted) went unquestioned by the vast majority of members, including the scores with whom we had worked amicably and constructively? Only three individuals (two of them now long gone from the party) were even willing to talk about the matter with us.
Shortly after I first learned about the forgeries, I made an effort to talk about it confidentially with three long standing SWP activists with whom I felt I had a personal relationship. Not one of them was prepared to accept that there could be any truth in what they referred to as”these allegations”. It spoke to me of a party culture of denial and solipsism.
As for Mike's work in the anti-war movement, he not only continued taking part while quite rightly critical of the leadership, but founded Iraq Occupation Focus, which boxed well above its weight in educating people about what was happening in Iraq, from depleted uranium and death squads to the plans of Western oil companies, and provided a platform for Iraqi comrades who seldom got to speak in Coalition events. It was Iraq Occupation Focus which brought Iraqi oilworkers' leader Hassan Jumaa over to speak in Britain.
I had my own experience in the Socialist Alliance. Having worked with SWP members (some very decent and hard working comrades I might add) and others in the Alliance in my area, I attended conference, and some friends nominated me to something resembling a Disputes Committee (I forget whether that was its title). They handed in a nomination slip with my name, but when the nominations were posted up on a board on stage my name was missing. My friends called out to ask what about me, and got the eventual reply that "Charlie Pottins is not part of the slate for this committee. If Charlie Pottins wanted to stand he should have put up an alternative slate."
In my naivety I had thought I was simply offering to join others on this committee, which would be asked to hear complaints and adjudicate impartially between members. It never occurred to me that such a committee would be stuffed with placemen, who knew what was expected of them, and that if you wanted to stand you must be mounting a challenge and have a complete slate with you.
Had we elected a proper committee to handle disputes and ensure fair play, such as I thought I was being nominated to, someone like Liz Davies could have come to it. What use a rigged committee would be, I don't know.
As for me, I had to laugh at what was going down. What else could I do, complain to the disputes committee?
Notwithstanding my longstanding differences and criticism of the SWP, I don't share the schadenfreude some people are showing at its present difficulties. There are these decent, hard-working comrades in my area who have endured its twists and turns while not losing sight of socialist goals or duty to the wider workers' movement. I don't want to see them demoralised. And though we can all agree that a real socialist party needs genuine democracy, calls for democracy will not in themselves deliver the kind of party or unions that we really need.