In recent years, it's become obligatory for SWP conference time to be accompanied by a split, and 2013's meeting (due to convene at the customary 'secret location' in London today) is likely to see the tradition continue. And for the sad Kremlinologists who follow the far left, we're in for something of a treat.
In the red corner we have the 'Democratic Opposition' faction, which was formed to defend four oppositionists expelled prior to conference for "factionalising" (something the SWP's permanent leadership cadre is never guilty of doing), and raises questions about the appalling behaviour of its former national secretary.
In the red corner there is 'Democratic Centralist' faction. This accepts some of the concerns raised by the oppositionists, but positions itself equidistant between them and the all-powerful central committee. As far as I can tell, there appears to be little on offer here except a proposal to ameliorate the two positions.
In the red corner, there is the leadership itself. Far from impressed with the conciliatory orientation of the DemCent faction, it castigates both for having the temerity to raise internal differences "in the shadow of a challenging situation".
And in the final red corner, we have Damon Skinner of Middlesborough branch taking the CC to task and reminding them "that they exist to serves us [the membership], not the other way round". Something tells me Brother Skinner is not long for the SWP's world.
The eruption of dissent is serious business for an organisation not used to it, and a leadership clique not prepared to tolerate it. The hectoring tone adopted by the CC's contribution to the debate, plus the helpful prefaces added to the factional statements by Charlie Kimber (the scion of a banking dynasty, no less) is unlikely to win many over from either faction. But that was never the intention. Theirs is less about persuading dissidents and more about shoring up its own position. Like all petty revolutionary bureaucracies you find littered about the far left, the first, second, and third priorities of their day-to-day work is the preservation of the 'party', and therefore the apparatus. This in mind, the loss of 50, 100, 150 members now is unlikely to imperil the organisation. But if it is allowed to continue, the privileged positions enjoyed by the leadership and its gang of full-time insiders are more likely to come under sustained scrutiny. Not a place the little Lenins of the SWP's CC want to be in.
In a way, it is unsurprising the SWP continues to face internal opposition. Their attempt to build a monolithic party that proscribes free-flowing discussion between members has always been ridiculous. And now that the sharing of ideas is easier than ever before, its insistence on carefully delineated procedures for debate as set out by the party rules - that few of the SWP's present membership have ever voted on - tips it over into the absurd. If the CC cannot approach debate and decision-making sensibly, then why should anyone take their claims that socialism represents a more democratic form of society seriously?
The second problem is the SWP are still reeling from their stupid and childish behaviour on show during their split with Respect, and subsequent split and formation of Counterfire. Before then, despite the highly problematic character of the SWP and its awful internal culture, as far as the rest of the labour movement were concerned there was a sense people knew where the SWP stood. There was a certain consistency that ran from its hard anti-war stance right through to the role it played in Respect, and this is despite the SWP's dogmatic insistence of refusing to adopt a programme. And now?
It's a fair question to ask. What is the SWP for? I know what Counterfire is about. It's very clear what the direction of march is for their rivals in the Socialist Party. Even the smattering of tiny, tiny sects have a raison d'etre, if only defined by themselves. As they say in business school, what the SWP lacks is a 'offer'. You can sustain the usual round of stalls and paper sales on members' inchoate anger against the system for only so long without offering something to fight for. Compare and contrast for a moment. If you are one of the few who read any given issue of The Socialist from cover to cover, it is clear everything is linked up. The SP's participation in trade union struggles, anti-cuts campaigns, college protests, etc. are related to its grand strategy of building a Labour Party mk II. Open Socialist Worker all you get is "things are bad, so join the party mmmkay". Regardless of its field of work, it's about "stopping things". The only thing linking them up is building the party.
This has always been true of the SWP to an extent, but it seems particularly bewildered now. What is its strategy in the unions? What is its way forward for the anti-war movement? How should the anti-cuts movement be built? What about Labour? Where now for anti-fascism? On all of these it has absolutely nothing of substance to say. There is a continued and studied silence on how we get from the here and now to a socialist society.
The cpgb's long-held position on the far left is it would be better suited to adopt more transparent modes of organising and having debate out in the open. This would go some way to addressing the political and organisational malaise, including the culture of splitting whenever a serious difference arises. Unfortunately for them, as they themselves have suffered splits and resignations over political differences on a semi-regular basis this is no panacea. The chief problem faced by the SWP and the rest of the far left does not boil down to the interpretation and practice of democratic centralism - it is the belief, the faith even, that Bolshevik organisation and revolutionary socialist politics is suited to capitalism in the 21st century.
It is likely that by fair means or foul the SWP leadership will see off the challengers to its authority this weekend. After all, they've had 40 years practice of doing so. But ultimately all they and their opposition offer is life on the revolutionary treadmill, forever doomed to be sidelined by great events.