Thursday 11 February 2010

SWP Split: What Now?

Yesterday's news that long-time leading member of the Socialist Workers' Party, Lindsey German has resigned after 37 years of activity has sent shock waves through the far left. That said since the expulsion of Alex and Clare for "factional activity" and the defeat of the Rees/German sponsored Left Platform at the SWP's conference this year, it was inevitable that there would be a parting of the ways somewhere down the line. Whether what's left of the Left Platform will decamp en masse now one of its leading figures has gone remains to be seen.

What triggered the amazing email exchange between Lindsey and SWP national organiser Martin Smith? Why did Martin go all Koba and "request" Lindsey not speak at a Newcastle Stop the War meeting? It all comes down to factional manoeuvrings and central committee paranoia.

Regular readers of Alex Snowdon's excellent Luna17 blog will be aware of ongoing shenanigans in the SWP's North East organisation. Writing about his expulsion last November here, Alex was the first casualty in the CC's move against the Left Platform - how else to interpret his ejection immediately prior to the three month pre-conference period when the SWP allows factions? In the same month the SWP publicly attacked another of its North East comrades. Tony Dowling is chair of the Tyneside branch of the National Shop Stewards' Network and his "crime" was not to send circulate an email on the North East SSN discussion/announcement list. In this he was merely observing the rules of the organisation which barred sending out party political news. Coincidentally Tony is described by Alex as his closest comrade.

The writing was on the wall. Just over a week ago Tony was asked to step down from the NESSN committee in the wake of the SWP's regional retreat from the network. Understandably he refused and resigned, followed by eight more comrades who left in solidarity. In the fevered factional imagination of Martin Smith and the new SWP CC, he obviously saw Lindsey's trip to Newcastle to speak not in terms of her capacity as a leading and relatively well known Stop the War activist, but to get together with Left Platform supporters (probably to plot his downfall or something like that).

And so passes Lindsey German's lengthy SWP career. It seems likely others will follow in a mix of in-solidarity resignations and maybe the odd expulsion.

What does this split mean for the SWP? In one sense it is comparable to the split in Militant between a small minority around its main theoretician and guru, Ted Grant, and the majority behind Peter Taaffe. For Militant it was something of a watershed for the organisation in which a section of the existing leadership left/were expelled (depending on who you believe). The same is true of the SWP. However there are two significant differences, which speaks volumes about the respective health of the organisations. Ultimately, the split in Militant was unavoidable because it was over strategic direction. The minority thought they should stick with Labour. The majority were for open work under their own banner (first Militant Labour and then later as the Socialist Party). However, in the SWP split the difference between the Left Platform and the majority is, on paper at least, nowhere near this level of magnitude. Indeed, apart from stressing the need for imaginative leadership there is very little politically between the majority and minority. Both are agreed on the importance of 'united fronts', both want to turn outwards to fresh layers of workers, and both see participation in the new struggles being thrown up by the recession as key to moving socialist politics forward. That the SWP cannot even accommodate such minor differences of emphasis within its ranks says everything about the kind of regime it operates.

Will the split in the SWP mark a beginning of a period of decline, just as the split with Grant et al. did with Militant? It's difficult to say. But there is one observation worth making about a comparison between the post-split Militant/SP and the SWP. For the former the 1990s were marked by a period of retreat and loss that only begun to be turned around in the mid 00s. It was also a period in which the labour movement really suffered and working class combativity underwent sharp decline. In contrast the SWP prospered, enabling it to establish a hegemonic influence over the far left in England and Wales. Since the split with Respect this has gone into reverse. As the labour movement starts showing signs of recovery and tentative, almost teasing green shoots of working class resistance begin sprouting it is the SP who are building influence and moving forward. Meanwhile the SWP is thrown into crisis.

It might be difficult to describe the split in Militant as a tragedy, but it is entirely reasonable to label the SWP CC's actions as farce.

NB Alex reports on last night's meeting of Newcastle Stop the War with Lindsey here.


P said...

I've heard that the SWP has had a 'rule or ruin' attitude to the organisations it participates in for the last 20 years or so.

This attitude seems to be confirmed by their contemptuous treatment of a Stop The War branch.

They seem to feel they have the right to command a Stop The War convenor not to speak at a Stop The War branch.

What does this say about how they regard STW and the people who put so much effort into building it?

Marxist organisations need to teach (and trust) their members how to think critically, and to act with initiative and elan.

People who enjoy being bossed around don't make good worker's leaders.

EFComrade said...

I have often been struck aback by the SWP members or atleast a section of the membership and their blind faith.
While it is only fair to say that this blind faith is present throughout much of the far left organisations it does seem to be much more prevelant amongst the SWP. Making it easier for the leadership to change positions but crucially at the expense of actually developing marxist critical thinkers within the ranks.

I would be interested to see if these new revelations and the impact5 it will have on the possibility of a split it seems the case that this is largely in the North East, what are the possibility of them linking up with those who have left the IST behind in Belfast though?

P said...

Would they command a Trade Union convenor not to attend a branch meeting they were scheduled to speak at?

How is this any different? - this kind of control-freak behaviour could actually make it harder to get lefts elected to Labour movement positions.

Phil said...

From the other SWP post - apparently this is the letter Martin Smith sent after the infamous 'I acknowledge receipt of your resignation':

The reply from Martin Smith was a legal requirement. The actual response following this was as follows:

Dear Lindsey,

I am responding to your letter of resignation you sent to me earlier today (my earlier acknowledgment was required for legal/banking purposes).

On behalf of the CC I would like to say that we regret very much your decision to leave the SWP. We are very surprised that you regarded this matter as a resignation issue.

As we made clear to you in our correspondence we felt the disagreements could have been resolved at a meeting between you and ourselves.

The question of disciplinary action was brought into the discussion by you, not by us. Your resignation is your personal choice and was not forced on you or demanded by the Central Committee.

I would also like to assure you that we will continue to build the Stop the War Coalition and where possible work with you in a constructive and positive way.

Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)

Organized Rage. said...


We can navel gaze all we wish, but this is yet another clear example of democratic centralist groups being unable to deal with major differences without a split. What is ludicrous is that many comrades, still believe working class people in any great numbers would trust their futures to such conservative undemocratic group-lets

We are not completely stupid, one only has to read of the hatred which comes out in these splits to understand if by some warped miracle, these group-lets gained real power, they would make the lives of those who opposed them a misery.

To deal with a member of 37 years in this manner is brutish in the extreme and I say this as someone who is not a fan of the woman in question.

Jacob Richter said...

Speaking of Ted Grant and the minority in Militant, it seems that the IMT's days are numbered.

[There has yet to be a Weekly Worker article on the language-based split within the IMT, but the loss of its Spanish-speaking sections, including the Venezuelan section, speaks volumes.]

EddM said...

I largely agree with this. I've been following the SWP controversy for a while, and I still couldn't point to a major, or even much of a minor, political disagreement between the two sides.

Hopefully we won't get another group, identical to the SWP in politics but much smaller. Hopefully we'll get a group more willing to work constructively with other sections of the Left.

And I guess now we'll see just how strong the Left Platform was.

jgw said...

I hardly think that one member resigning from the SWP, even a high-profile member, counts as a split. Lindsey German's resignation is perhaps worthy of remark, but having remarked you should move on. She will and the SWP will. As time wil show, it's not worth dwelling on.

Phil said...

It's not just one person is it? Alex, Clare, Tony, plus eight other North East comrades and now Lindsey ... how many others? It will be interesting seeing what the comrades do next. But I know what they *won't* be doing - and that's sitting on their arses.

macullam said...

In this he was merely observing the rules of the organisation which barred sending out party political news.

Not strictly true the practice was very selective in that CP events were publicised. But Youth Right to Work stuff (and other items)was blocked on the basis it was an SP front.

Tony Dowling said...

The letter to Lindsey from Martin Smith is disingenuous in suggesting that resignation was not forced on her. Prior to the StWC meeting Lindsey had an email which requested that she "don't speak at the disputed StW meeting in Newcastle tonight", and was followed by the statement that "If you ignore our request we reserve the right to respond as we see fit."

Without resigning, it is difficult to see how she could have fulfilled her commitment to speak at the meeting.

luna17 said...

The specific issue here is very straightforward. The elected convenor of Stop the War was invited by a local StW group to speak at a public meeting. She obviously should have been able to do this. It is completely unacceptable for the SWP Central Committee to intervene to prevent her speaking. It is not 'democratic centralism' - rather it is interference in StW's democracy, both nationally and locally.

The basis Martin Smith has claimed for doing this is the meeting's supposedly 'disputed' nature. Even the most elementary enquiries could have established it wasn't in any way 'disputed' - why would it be? It was organised through the local StW group's democratic structures, with full accountability.

The convenor of Tyneside StW has now drafted a statement refuting Martin Smith's allegations, and expressing dismay at the SWP's negative interference in Stop the War's processes. It is shameful that an attempt at sabotage by a small group of local SWP members has been uncritically backed by the national leadership, to the extent of forcing the resignation of StW's national convenor from the party.

Redbedhead said...

"to the extent of forcing the resignation of StW's national convenor from the party."

At gunpoint, no doubt.

You're being rather disingenuous as evidenced by the fact that the February Mutiny event was announced within hours of the end of SWP conference (incl members of LP). And the Counterfire site that was supposed to be shut down as an obvious factional site, was up again in January (oops, you forgot to turn off the RSS feed, which meant I started receiving articles in my Google Reader) but under password, ready to be re-launched. And then a week before the meeting a series of resignations takes place in the area where LG has been invited to speak by the people who resigned. It's entirely reasonable that the CC would take this seriously and ask her to meet with them - which she refused. And then the correspondence with Martin Smith was sent out within hours to coalition partners and into the blogosphere.
It is the most obvious and transparent split maneuver ever.

andy newman said...

oh for goodness sake

Martian Smith and Alex callinicos are no angels, and there is a real danger of them consolidating a safety first strategy with a continued culture of deference.
But over this issue, I don't see that the SWP have done anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

Phil said...

"It's not just one person is it? Alex, Clare, Tony, plus eight other North East comrades and now Lindsey ... how many others?"

Well not many, judging by their support at the SWP's conference. And, indeed, that may well over-estimate their numbers. Conversations do tend to suggest that a large number of the Left Platform faction's delegates were elected on the support of opponents who believed that the Left Platfrom should be given a voice at Conference.

But it seems pointless to speculate. Time will tell.

In the meantime, it seems to have been forgotten that this all began with a revolt of the membership against the direction that Lindsey and her associates were taking the SWP

Oh, and for the record, Alex and Clare did not resign. They were expelled before the conference, and weren't very happy about it. At least that's what they said.

Luna17 said...

Which SWP members - Left Platform or otherwise - were involved in this week's Mutiny event? The answer is that none at all helped organise it, and from what I gather very few even attended it. I'm not surprised it was announced just after Conference - prime mover Clare Solomon couldn't organise it until after her expulsion had been ratified by conference. The CC paranoia around the event is completely unjustified.

On a more serious and political level, isn't this something the SWP should be getting on board with, or at least learning from? It should worry party members that the leadership has adopted such an extremely hostile attitude to it. It was a more inventive approach to political discussion than the familiar tired formats and brought in a large number of people (well over 100), many of whom don't normally attend political meetings.

As for the issue of Lindsey's invitation to Newcastle, your comment is quite disgraceful. No wonder most non-SWP activists are now so pissed off with the SWP.

Counterfire? You'd have to ask Ady about that one, rather than directing your comments to some sort of collective 'you'. But, yet again, how about learning from this innovative stuff and utilising people's skills and ideas, instead of demonising them?

skidmarx said...

Phil " many others". Probably not a lot. AS part of your thesis is on SWP members one might have expected more insight into the reasons why people join or leave the party, but you post seems to say they have a crisis, it's only getting worse, just as they befitted from our period of crisis to grow so after German our turn. I'd actually place their hegemony over the far left as strating much earlier, but the point is that you seem to have a very simple analysis that isn't particularly supported by fact or theory.

Liam said...

I attended this week's Mutiny event and am at a complete loss to understand why any organisation would not want to hold onto a bunch of imaginative organisers.

Phil said...

It was speculation Skidders, not hard analysis. For an intelligent man I'm surprised you couldn't distinguish between the two. If you'd bothered reading what was said instead of what you wish it said, you'll see how limited I acknowledge the analogy is.

That the SWP is in a period of crisis is a pretty unremarkable observation. How can you conclude otherwise from a brief acquaintance with its history since the split with Respect?

cliffite said...

Leaving aside the rather grand association between the left platform and the IMT. Surely there is something very obvious that is missing from the analysis of Lindsey's resignation. 1) If Lindsey still wanted to work with the CC it would have done no harm to meet the request to meet the CC before the NE event. 2) Stop the War is not UNISON it would have been easy to simply ask another leading Stop The War member not involved in the arguements in the SWP.

I find it hard to believe that other forces in stop the war nationally would not be supportive if the SWP requested a different speaker given the internal issues in the SWP. We would react in the same way if it was the CPB rather than the SWP.

More over the resignations are not a split but a reaction to a section of the leadership being deselected by the membership. Formerly leading members that are unable to accept being accountable to others in the party.

The Night Tripper said...

redbedhead, alas, does not have a clue what he's talking about:

1. Lindsey German was invited to speak at a Stop the War event before any resignations in the area, by people who have never been in the SWP.

2. Mutiny was built by non SWP members and very, very few SWP members attended - warned off by the notice put out from National Committee.

3. What, exactly was "factional" about Counterfire? Precisely nothing. It contained no articles criticising the SWP or its current leadership. Most of its content was straight out of Socialist Worker (as you know full well if you ever read the site).

Speculation is fine. Misinformed, ill-considered nonsense is another.

The Night Tripper said...

1) If Lindsey still wanted to work with the CC it would have done no harm to meet the request to meet the CC before the NE event. 2) Stop the War is not UNISON it would have been easy to simply ask another leading Stop The War member not involved in the arguements in the SWP.

Well, Rob:

(1) when, exactly? before or after the event she had been properly invited by a local Stop the War group to speak at? and would the CC have said, oh yes, sorry, whoopsydaisy, you can go now?

(2) other Stop the War speakers were invited first and couldn't make it.

More over the resignations are not a split but a reaction to a section of the leadership being deselected by the membership.

Nothing to see here, move along, nothing doing, nothing to see, move along, move along...

luna17 said...

In response to Rob: there was no time to arrange another speaker at such incredibly short notice, plus we'd booked Lindsey AFTER asking Rose Gentle and Clare Glenton (but still 2 weeks or so prior to the meeting). We'd already had Peter Brierly drop out, just the day before.

More importantly, why should a local Stop the War group be forced to cancel a speaker on the whim of the SWP National Secretary?

Thankfully, after all the nonsense, the meeting was a success. But local activists were left angry by what was transparently an act of sabotage motivated by factionalism and sectarianism.

skidmarx said...

Phil BC - I'm not sure I undertand your first point.Are you saying that as basic speculation you don't see any need to ground it in reality? As an intelligent man I just think you might do better.

The SWP seems to have been more in crisis during the split in Respect: not sure what was happening or why it was losing control and having problems with sometimes unaccountable leadership. It may not have reached the point where it has completely assessed that period or where it stands now in relation to the post-split Respect,but it has addressed its internal culture and does appear to be growing again. The saga with the Left Platform seems to be almost played out.AS that story has continued it does remind me of the expulsion of Galloway's assistants from the SWP: the similar claims that they were innocents being persecuted by an incompetent CC, while completely failing to explain why in a democratic centralist organisation they should be immune from any instruction from the centre. Hopefully that sort of culture is disappearing from the SWP and it will be in a better place for it.

Rev9 said...

This is a bit of a funny article to be honest... first of all it can hardly be described as a real 'split' - 'Whether what's left of the Left Platform will decamp en masse now one of its leading figures has gone remains to be seen.' If a dozen more LP supporters leave that hardly feels like a rush 'en masse'...

And the analogy with the split in Miltant is tenuous to say the least... just a part of this is the fact that the current exits from the SWP are ultimately a sort of medicinal consequence to the crisis of two years ago. Those who attempt to paint the LP as victims are completely missreading the situation. It also has to be said, and I say this genuninely, most people within the SWP currently seem more upbeat about the future, and they feel that some, though of course not all, of the organisation's serious problems from the recent past have been partially addressed.

'As the labour movement starts showing signs of recovery and tentative, almost teasing green shoots of working class resistance begin sprouting it is the SP who are building influence and moving forward.'

Steady on, old boy!

Highlander said...

Phil, your comments box is starting to resemble the bickering normally only reserved for the aptly named 'Socialist Unity'.

Phil said...

Highlander, this is usually the way when anything SWP-related comes up!

Obviously Rev9, I disagree with you. For the benefit of you and Skidders, let me restate the basis of the comparision again. I think Militant's split in the early 90s serves is a useful comparator because:

a) The split was with a key section of the leadership.

b) It marked something of a change with previous practice.

The key difference as far as I can see is whereas the division between the SWP and the LP is one of tactics, for Militant and what became Socialist Appeal it was a matter of strategic orientation.

It is also true the split in Militant marked the beginning of a period of crisis, whereas for the SWP the LP split is an outcome of a period of crisis (which may or may not be nearing a close. I personally doubt it but we shall see).

Workers Power said...

Workers Power response to Left Platform resignation,2279,0,0,1,0