Sunday 23 December 2012

Statement of SWP Democratic Opposition

And there I was just minding my own business when this below tumbled into my inbox. Readers may be aware from a number of discussions at Socialist Unity and the Weekly Worker that a handful of members have been expelled in the lead up to the SWP's conference in early January. Under the rules, SWP members can form a faction in the three month period leading up to their annual meeting. It would appear from internet grapevine gossip that the four members in question fell foul of the central committee's expulsion compulsion for daring to communicate with each other outside the party's internal structure. In the SWP's world, talking politics with a mate via Facebook is a heinous crime.

I reproduce this here for interest, and because I can. By coincidence, I was going to write a sort of reply to Andy's thread on whether the left has lost its way. That will come before the close of the year, deadlines permitting.

Statement of SWP Democratic Opposition

Four comrades have been expelled for forming a ‘secret faction’ during the discussions prior to SWP conference. The expelled members had been legitimately concerned about the handling of very serious allegations directed at a CC member and the way that this was being handled by the organisation and had discussed about what this represented and how comrades could ensure the matter was dealt with properly.

There had been some discussion about whether to declare a faction or not. Some comrades, out of concern for how these matters had been dealt with previously, were in favour of doing so - but other comrades were worried that this might be premature or even disloyal. It is for having this discussion and sharing these concerns that the comrades have been expelled.

Importantly, the accusation of ‘secret faction’ was made against those concerned about declaring one whilst those in favour of declaring one have been referred to as ‘honest’ in a number of report backs from the CC to affected local branches, implying that those expelled were ‘dishonest’. We unreservedly reject this description as slander against the four excellent and valuable comrades who have been expelled.

We feel that this incident raises serious questions about democracy in the SWP in general and about the coming conference in particular. First of all, it cannot be right that a discussion about whether to form a faction is used as evidence of a ‘secret faction’ when it is in the general discussions of the pre-conference period. On a basic level, if we cannot have discussions about whether to form a faction or not, then, in reality, factions are de-facto impossible to organise and the right to form them is purely notional.

Secondly, it is not the case that this is the first, or even the most significant case of comrades discussing meeting before conference to discuss the possibility of a factional organisation that never ended up being formed.

In the run-up to the highly contested 2009 conference, a number of unofficial meetings between SWP members occurred, mainly in pubs and on one occasion after a party council, of members concerned about the developing crisis following the botched electoral strategy in 2008. The pace of events meant that these meetings, which were certainly planned in advance, never coalesced into a named faction, but no members were disciplined for involvement, certainly not the two people who serve on the CC since who had participated. The unofficial pre-conference meet-ups of 2008 were followed in Summer 2009 by an even more unorthodox grouping: a petition, written and organised entirely in secret and outside pre-conference season and mainly signed by party staff, to oust the then-editor of Socialist Worker. Again, no disciplinary procedure was employed – particularly not against the party worker who organised this factional group, who is now in the CC. These incidents, and doubtless others, show that any claim that the rules regarding factions are not, and have never been, implemented with a degree of judgement taking into account prevailing circumstances are wholly false.

There should not be an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the run up to conference. Leninism requires discipline to confront the class enemy – not to prevent debate amongst our own comrades. We believe that these malicious expulsions must be revoked immediately and that the CC must retract its accusations against the four people.

We are also deeply concerned about the impact of all this on our reputation inside the movement. It is little short of incredible that if the expulsions are not rescinded, comrades are going to be expected to defend the expulsion of four comrades (including one woman) simply for discussing concerns about the handling of very serious allegations in their own organisation.

Our feeling is that this is an untenable situation and will have an appalling impact on the morale of members and our ability to build in today's movement. We think that one of the key lessons of the democracy commission was that no comrade should be treated as indispensable. We make no judgement of guilt or innocence of the comrade concerned but note that any other comrade facing allegations of this type with such frequency would be suspended until such time as the allegations were resolved. It is disturbing that the comrade concerned did not voluntarily step down when it became clear that the allegations, whether justified or not, had the potential to seriously damage the organisation. An attitude which treats individuals as indispensable and sacrifices the interests of the membership for them has nothing to with Leninism and more closely resembles the self-interested behaviour of reformist bureaucracies.

Importantly it is not just our reputation at stake here but the health of our own tradition. In response to the expulsions some comrades have repeated the language of some of Galloway's defenders. There have been complaints about 'liberal feminism' and even belief-beggaring accusations that some of the comrades expelled have been MI5 agents, or acting on behalf of Chris Bambery's organisation. Whilst the CC cannot be held directly responsible for such idiocy it is a warning of the kind of ideological degeneration possible when administrative coercion replaces the norms of debate in socialist organisation.

We are aware that serious concerns have already been expressed by those involved in the disputes committee case around this matter, as raised at a recent NC meeting, and that space has been set aside to discuss the way the organisation has mishandled the allegations. This is a positive development, but we believe that beyond the direct issue of the DC there are now equally serious questions about the condition of the SWP that makes a faction necessary if we are not to be expelled for expressing our concerns.

We propose that three things are necessary to prevent further damage to the good name of our Party:

- The expelled comrades deserve a full and frank apology from the CC and the expulsions must be declared null and void.
- Conference must re-affirm that comrades have full rights to conduct any and every kind of discussion in the pre-conference period. This should include raising questions of whether such freedom ought not to be extended beyond the pre-conference period.
- The dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined, and the CC member concerned must be suspended from all Party activity and cannot work full time for the Party or in the name of the Party until all the allegations against him have been settled satisfactorily.

In addition to these statements, we are asking comrades to support the motions raised on the question of party democracy at conference. In our view, the conduct of the CC regarding both the expulsions, and the disputes committee referred to above, come as a result of structures and perspectives that restrict internal democracy and discussion.

We are aware that some comrades may share our concerns regarding the expulsions and/or this disputes committee investigation, but reject our conclusions regarding party democracy. We hope to persuade them of our position on this; but even if we cannot accomplish this, we would still ask you to vote for the reinstatement of the four comrades who have been expelled.

[Here was the list of declaration signatories.]

If you are an SWP member, you agree with us and would like to join the Democratic Opposition in the run up to 2013 Party Conference, please email The Democratic Opposition is a temporary faction, in line with Party rules, and will dissolve itself after Conference closes.


Anonymous said...

If you join an organisation that is rooted in the traditions of ultra-left Jacobinism then you should not be surprised at the absence of democratic norms.

There is no shortage of material on the web that testifies to the anti-democratic culture within the IS/SWP. None of this is new or surprising.

Time to start again...again.

Phil said...

Indeed. In fact, I can't imagine an organisational form more unsuited to the political realities of 21st century Britain than the SWP's interpretation and practice of democratic centralism. If it locks them into irrelevance, that's no bad thing.

Chris said...

Before you open the champagne, I would remind you there is more to socialist decline (this is what we are talking about make no bones) than organisation and structure. I fear it goes far deeper than this, and I for one ain't laughing.

But merry xmas anyway!

Phil said...

Covering email sent out by the Central Committee:

Dear Comrade,

A group of comrades have decided to form a faction as they are entitled to under the SWP’s constitution. I have attached and pasted below their explanation of why they are forming a faction and the names of those involved.

You will see that the faction refers to the expulsion of four comrades. This followed the CC receiving extensive information about a closed Facebook conversation between a group of comrades.

The CC does not expel people for holding views contrary to the CC, nor for putting motions to conference that are critical of the CC or for seeking to change policy. We try hard to ensure there is plenty of space for discussion and debate in the party.

However, the norms of democratic centralism – the fullest debate before a decision, the united application of those decisions – also relies on openness and transparent discussion.

In this case the CC found that at least some of those involved in the Facebook group had organised secret meetings to discuss internal party matters and had encouraged comrades to keep their views quiet in order to boost their chances of becoming conference delegates. Some were prepared to involve non-members in their discussions.

They had decided not to become an open faction, preferring their hidden discussions. This is the opposite of real party democracy.

Such behaviour trampled on our democracy and is contrary to our constitution. Therefore, in order to defend our democracy, we expelled four people. These are all former full-time workers for the party who are thoroughly aware of our democratic rules. They all played an organising role in the group. They are entitled to appeal against their expulsions and such appeals will be heard by the Disputes Committee.

The Disputes Committee case referred to by the faction concluded at the end of October. The Disputes Committee will present a report to conference where delegates will be able to vote on it.

Central Committee

Any enquiries about this matter should be addressed to Charlie Kimber. SWP national secretary,

Phil said...

The SWP's problems are far deeper and go beyond their over-centralised way of organising things. It is something that has afflicted the far left, the Labour left, and the Labour Party itself. And that is the crisis arising from the recomposition of the working class. I'll have some more thoughts about that in the new year.

But as an aside, the SWP put out an interesting pamphlet in *1987* on that very topic. And how has it informed their political practice since? It would be fair to say 'not at all'.

Phil said...

There really is nothing there meriting expulsion - and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the party's rules, while permitting the formation of factions, make the actual process of forming a faction illegal.

The Left is a weird place these days. The Dem Opp - like Counterfire before them and Soc Res before them - look vibed-up and outward-looking and generally a Good Thing. But what's happening on the ground? Approximately 10% of bugger-all - and on the rare occasions when things do kick off the tribunes of the left are generally doing a Macavity.

Realistically, "Martin Smith is a dick (but otherwise everything's been all right up to now)" isn't going to ignite the revolutionary flame, any more than "John Rees is a dick (but, etc)". We need to go back to first principles, viz. working-class self-organisation. Basically I think Red Action were right all along - we need less Leninism and more Marxism.

Jim Jepps said...

Ridiculous behaviour by the SWP CC here, but as someone else said I don't think the SWP's aim is create a more democratic society so there's no reason to expect it to understand democratic norms that exist, for example, in the trade union movement.

It's interesting that it's always the SWP that we hear about though and I always hesitate to say it's the model to blame because of this.

What happens when SP members want to form a faction or have serious organisational disagreements? Do they just split (as with Socialist Appeal) or do they rub along harmoniously agreeing to disagree until next conference? I just don't know.

I'm all ears for anyone who does!

Phil said...

I'll be talking a bit about this when I write something about the SP in the new year. Just as a quickie, there were the facilities to call a faction though during my four year membership no one did. Differences were expressed via the internal members bulletin which did not appear too often. One reason why differences requiring factions didn't arise was because there was a high degree of ideological homogeneity. Why this is the case will be discussed in greater depth later.

Of course, SP readers are more than welcome to reply to Jim's question.

Mac said...

Re: Jim Jepps

My experience of Militant/SP in the past was that factions and splits were usually confined to disputes within the senior full-time leadership. Such divisions were kept from the members - until reports appeared in non-Militant/SP media.

Factions initiated by members in partial opposition to the leadership were almost unknown.

The reasons for this were complex. There was genuine agreement on may core issues. But also the national full-time leadership held a suffocating authority within the organisation that acted to diffuse and demobilise opposition into informal channels.

A key reason for this authority and homogeneity was the practice of deep and long-term entrism within the Labour Party. Discipline came less from the formal attempts by leaders to suppress dissent (which was rare) and more from being constantly mobilised against the Labour right and soft-left.

Militant/SP is an interesting example of an authoritarian Trot sect that secured internal homogeneity largely by means other than expulsions and bureaucratic plotting.

Jim Jepps said...

Phil "there was a high degree of ideological homogeneity."

Mac "genuine agreement on may core issues"

You say potato... :)

I agree. I've never had the sense that there were SP members straining at te leash to go in a significantly different direction.

Until, I think, Respect was launched I think the same was true in the SWP, I saw this more closely so know that there were plenty of "moaners" (like me) who were actually pretty disatisfied with the way the party was run and the lack of accountability over poor decision making. I was never in a position to know if the same was true in the SP.

The why is thee interesting question I think because in neither organisation was it necessary until recently to actually expel political dissidents.

Mac "Discipline came less from the formal attempts by leaders to suppress dissent (which was rare) and more from being constantly mobilised against the Labour right and soft-left. "

I think this may the key.

In the SWP there is always a big push for a crucial game changing event, which occasionally is game changing but is normally soon forgotten. If you say something like "I don't think this demo is very important to build for" life becomes very difficult with comrades hectoring and badgering you until you conform or keep quiet.

This means you're a) very busy doing what you are told, and b) either able to cope with the inability to disagree with minor decisions from the centre which becomes a habit of conformity - or you leave.

I suspect most of those who would be a different current of opinion in proper political parties actually just leave so in both parties, in different ways, the effect has been the same over time - conformity and lack of confidence to think for yourself.

Merry Xmas!

Anonymous said...

Happy Christmas Phil good to see you back blogging! I won't bother to enter the fray on this discussion other than to say well done and respect to the SWP DO for standing up to bureaucratic centralism!

Best wishes for the new year,

Tim - aka Karl Shayne

Phil said...

Cheers, Tim. Glad to see you're still knocking about!