Sunday 10 February 2013

SWP: The End is Nigh

I didn't think I'd be writing this soon about the SWP again. The National Committee meeting of the "party", which took place last weekend, voted 39 to eight to support the Central Committee's brushing of the Comrade Delta debacle under the carpet. Pouring away the gravy of the tedious bluster and faux outrage, the meat of the carried CC motion came down to point five, "This undermining of our democracy should stop forthwith. We reaffirm the right of the Central Committee to impose disciplinary measures for violation of our democratic constitution." Now that the leadership's intentions were rubber stamped by the uber-loyalists and hacks that comprise the NC, all that remained was for the resignations to come flooding in. And for those who were left, explusion by email could be expected.

Unfortunately for the CC, as details of the NC leaked out the initiative quickly passed back to the opposition. On Tuesday we learned of the resignation of Mark Bergfield from the CC. Mark was previously the SWP's candidate for the NUS presidency and had, I understand, the responsibility for overseeing student work. As campuses have for decades been their primary recruitment pool, the loss of such an important portfolio holder was a fillip for the opposition and one in the eye for the CC. Then, on Thursday, came two more blows against the leadership. The soft jab of the Mieville/Seymour faction formalised as Democratic Renewal was followed up by the weightier punch of the In Defence of Our Party platform. The latter was no mobilisation of activists addled by bourgeois contaminants like due process and accountability, but was on paper a heavy hitter. It is signed by three ex-CC, 10 NC, and long-serving members that include party theoreticians and former full-timers (hello "Bunny L"!). The CC must have had kittens.

The platform of the M&S faction homes in on the disastrous hubris of the disputes committee rape investigation, and uses it to make a number of telling points about CC doublethink, stupidity, and petty authoritarianism. It rightly remains opposed to the expulsion of four members for chatting about party matters on Facebook (a symptom of burgeoning renegacy if I ever saw one); but the main plank remains the calling of a special conference with a full three month pre-conference discussion period for these issues to be thrashed out.

The DOP document is less strident, less insurgent. It talks about the need for winning dissenters politically as opposed to the CC's default 'expel on sight' position; taking action to avoid a damaging split, and, basically, wants everyone to be nice to each other. Practical proposals include the suspension of Comrade Delta from his party roles, a review of the Disputes Committee (albeit at the next annual conference(!)), no victimisation of dissidents, and a more conciliatory CC attitude. It is also very clear that the DOPies are not politically challenging the CC nor the decisions made by conference - rather it reads as a warm, avuncular hand on the leadership's shoulder as the faction whispers sage advice into its ear. Practically it's an attempt at reconciling an unabashed and unapologetic CC with the rising generation of SWP activists, for whom the leadership is a brake on party development.

You don't need a crash course in Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks to realise these two opposites are never going to interpenetrate again, and so the CC's attempt to seize back the initiative doesn't even pretend to try. Their announcement of a special conference could, at first, appear something of a coup for the opposition. But a cursory glance shows it really is nothing of the sort. With the usual chutzpah one has come to expect from the vanguard of the vanguard, it castigates "behaviour which is unaccountable, undemocratic and against the principles of democratic centralism", criticises the DOPies for "acting bureaucratically" and, with a straight face, claims "we do not operate a regime of innuendo and slurs". You've got to admire them for being so brazen.

The CC makes plain the nature of the special conference they're calling:
The CC has opposed the demand for a special conference, and those that agitated for one failed to win enough branches to call one. But we cannot go on as we are. Therefore, to establish absolute clarity and to draw a line that nobody serious can claim to ignore, the CC calls a one-day special conference for Sunday 10 March.

We understand that many comrades who have voted in line with the majority decisions at our recent conference and have rejected the call for a recall conference in their branches, or who are simply weary of constant internal debate at a time of new possibilities in the class struggle, will not want another aggregate and a special conference focused on these issues. However we cannot allow factional debate to dominate party discussions for the next 11 months.

The conference will be to reaffirm the decisions of January’s conference and the NC, resolve recent debates, clarify some elements of the constitution and move the party forwards. There will be aggregates over the next three weeks and an internal bulletin. Pre-conference discussion takes place in these aggregates, not branch meetings ...

We believe all the decisions of the last conference and this special conference are binding, unlike those of our critics who believe they are binding unless they disagree with them. The special conference must be the final word. We demand factions accept that – in practice, not words.
Not the vibes one would expect from a leadership wanting to address the avalanche of concerns members have, or to learn from what has been the biggest crisis in the SWP's 60 year history. Indeed, they go out of their way to say there are no lessons, no errors; "We do not believe the DC process was fundamentally flawed or dealt with the complaint in a manner that besmirched our record of fighting for women’s liberation. The complaint was a very serious matter which was treated with great care."

How have the opposition responded? The M&S reply basically does not recognise the CC's move as it lies outside the constitutional provisions. Without the three month discussion period, they correctly note this is about curtailing debate and trying to end the crisis bureaucratically. Clearly, the CC are minded to see significant numbers of members leave - after all, the party's property and money is in their hands and there's plenty to keep the full-time CC in jobs for the time being. How the DOPies and the layer of mainly loyal, mainly long-term cadre they represent will take the CC's digging-in remains to be seen.

As I understand it, ultimately, the goal of the revolutionary socialist party is to abolish itself. By organising the working class as a political party, it storms the heights commanded by the bourgeoisie and immediately sets about the construction of the socialist order. As the state withers from an organisation to protect workers' power into the simple administration of things, the revolutionary party dissipates into folk memory and the history books. This eschatology - or understanding of 'end times' - varies from the explicit to the implicit depending on the 57 varieties of Leninist theory and political practice one follows, or understands. The SWP in its conceit believes itself to be THE party, and that an enlarged SWP numbering millions will make a revolution. Unfortunately, precisely because it - or rather the CC's - belief that they are uniquely endowed with this task, the leaders and those browbeaten or too robotic to know otherwise are obstinately steering the ship into the SWP's own ending. This falls somewhat short of revolutionary glory. There will be no fond memory bequeathed to the future, just a tale of a tawdry implosion.


Unknown said...

I believe that the (latest) crisis in the SWP throws into bold relief the major flaw in both their party and social vision, that of socialism. In both party and putative future state, centralization is key--operations of the party and planning by the state. It is precisely centralization which has created the parasitic, corrupt clique that sits astride the SWP...and would similarly bring about an historically familiar degeneration in the nation, were they to assume real power. Leninists don't like facing it, but this is the real matter, and it is obvious to those outside their cloister. Centralization destroys democracy, and draws to it the worst elements of any political milieu. Something about power corrupting, as I recall.

Phil said...

Indeed. But while you could argue there was an element of necessity in the authoritarian centralisation of the young Soviet state, such as the small matter of a civil war and foreign intervention, what excuse does the SWP have?