Just what the world needs, another post on the ongoing ructions in the SWP! Well, as a blogger I'm a firm believer in difference through repetition, so I will allow myself the indulgence of tackling some of the issues around the debate in the SWP, particularly the semi-official discussion document on "united fronts", socialist recruitment and leadership, by John Rees (pictured). Also it's not like me to plug the Weekly Worker these days, but sect-kremlinologist extraordinaire, Peter Manson, has written a rather good commentary that puts some flesh on the factional bones.
But first things first I want to address the complaints some SWP comrades have been making on the relevant discussions over at Socialist Unity about the public nature of debate, before moving on to some of the points in Rees's document that demonstrate differences between how the SWP has traditionally built their organisation, and how the Socialist Party has built ours.
A few comrades have expressed their frustrations at these discussions being leaked because it's "not fair" non-members should get to read them before most of the membership have had the chance to talk about them in their branches. There's also the suggestion that seeing public discussions about the issues by non-members would somehow impact negatively on that taking place inside the party. So I asked myself whether things would be much different if the shoe was on the other foot and it was the SP that was leaking documents right, left and centre in the middle of an important strategic dispute? While it would be nice for members to see and discuss the issues first, is the sky going to come crashing in if documents are publicly available elsewhere? Second, might they not enhance the reputation of the organisation concerned among class conscious workers and socialist activists who take an interest in these sorts of debates? Couldn't it be seen as an opportunity to engage with an intelligent and active periphery who during the course of a public debate be drawn closer to the party? And finally, how can an organisation hope to withstand the tough conditions of a revolutionary situation if it is brittle enough to come apart when a few discussion documents escape the orbit of its membership? Facts are in this day and age all organisations are significantly leakier - if a revolutionary organisation of more than a few dozen members is having a debate chances are the arguments will turn up somewhere in public. This is a reality we're all going to have to get used to.
John Rees's document is a most interesting piece, outlining as it does the positions that mark him off from his erstwhile fellow central committee members. Brother Rees is understandably angered by the shoddy way he has been treated by the leadership. He points out that the Respect experience - how the SWP operated within it, the strategy it promoted for the formation, and its collective response to Galloway's mild criticisms were all backed to the hilt by the central committee. With the dropping of Rees from the outgoing CC's recommended slate due to be placed before the 2009 conference, it's clear to all that in the absence of a critique of Rees and of a thorough-going self-criticism, it is he who's being made the patsy for everything that has happened. Be sure you have to accept a large dollop of myth-making to go along with Rees's Respect narrative, but he is correct to write "to reduce the complex history of the very real successes and the demoralising demise of Respect to the failures of one comrade is doing a disservice to everyone who was involved or wants to learn from the experience".
For Rees the road leading to his downfall began last November, shortly after the two wings of Respect had split. The issue was recruitment to the SWP. Lindsey German had produced a document on the issue, which earned her a denunciation at the CC meeting from national secretary, Martin Smith. It seems sister German had mentioned the unmentionable, which Rees now repeats: why has the SWP not recruited as well as it should have done, given a more favourable turn in the political situation and the work it has done among various movements and campaigns? His answer is that some of it is partly due to the "classless" character of radicalisation, and partly because the SWP hasn't been geared up enough to take advantage of its opportunities. The party should have done more "united front" activity, and have promoted itself more aggressively inside them. Instead the party developed an uneven membership as it pursued the anti-capitalist/global justice and anti-war movements with those members who were willing to go along with the optimistic perspectives the CC developed for them. The result was a layer of members who were utterly disoriented and came to see the problems with Respect as a fractional problem for that element of the party engaged in that work, and not a something the party as a whole should take up. While Rees is happy to hold his hands up to the problems attendant of an uneven strategy, he clearly implies that other elements on the CC were not pulling their weight - instead they seemed happy just to get the members paying their direct debits so the SWP's "permanent" financial crisis does not come home to roost.
It is good that Rees sees no future for the SWP in a retreat into its sectarian bunker. Unfortunately, it is less desirable that he fetishises the role of the leadership. As he puts it, "to do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason ... if you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You have to ‘bend the stick’". It seems what Rees has in mind is substitutionism whereby the leadership substitutes itself for the membership, which is an amorphous (mini?) mass who do not play any role in determining the fate of their organisation. It is as if the "jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in" are a barrier to the party, to possessing the right political judgement, which is uniquely the province of the full time activists. Surely, if one wants to be old-fashioned and Marxist about these matters, having revolutionaries who are immersed full-time in an apparatus that, in Rees's words, "is necessarily devoted to raising money rather than raising the number of members" leading the organisation is a very bad idea. It is a recipe for isolation from the lives and experiences of our class and insulates the leaders from properly understanding the strategies and tactics best able to connect with it. The voice of the wider membership who are connected by a million and one ties to the class are dismissed.
I think this is one key difference between the SWP and SP. While it is true the SP possesses a full time apparatus and is led by an executive committee of full time activists, the distortions and the by-passing/denigration of the rank-and-file does not happen. Why? Going from my experience, it appears that SP full timers, including those who work in the national office, remain very much rooted in the life of the branches. Building sustainable and self-perpetuating branches through the development of local political strategies is the way the SP builds its organisation, and is something every member of the party is involved in. It means full timers out in the regions find their work guided more by local branch strategy than recruitment and fund-raising targets issued by the centre. By virtue of this method leading cadres are able to keep their feet on the ground and make them better able to assimilate the lessons from the branches when it comes to the development of new analyses and strategies. It's not a perfect system and I'm sure ex-comrades have their atrocity stories, but by and large it serves the SP well.
SWP comrades could do a lot worse than take Rees's advice about turning outwards, but they should also look at how their comrades over in the SP do things rather than lapse into revolutionary elitism.