Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Depravity of the SWP

Depravity is a strong word, but what else can describe the the latest batch of revelations regarding the SWP/Delta alleged rape case? Going through the document one is confronted with the complete indifference, the arrogance, and the bullying the alleged victim, 'Comrade W', and her supporters faced. There are many unpleasantries, but for me the below set of incidences struck me as especially appalling:
In her district she was simply ignored as if she ceased to exist. When she did see members and tried to talk to them, her experience was one of abuse and bullying. Geoff D informed her “It is not appropriate for me to speak to you”, while Bridget P who confronted her on the street near her home called her “a silly girl” stating that 14 year olds get groomed not 19 year olds. Comrades also accused her of going to the Daily Mail when the story was leaked, despite comrade W’s clear distress at the press coverage and fear of exposure. Some comrades even arranged meetings in the café area at comrade W’s workplace, despite her having asked them not to do so. This caused her great distress and considering the number of cafés in the city was cruel. Charlie, when confronted with this, argued it was not fair to the comrades to ask them to meet elsewhere, despite W’s distress – part of his argument was that it would appear that W’s allegations were true if he intervened. After repeated complaints the CC were forced to intervene and stop the comrades meeting there. There were even reports that she was a member of another political organisation and in league with former members deliberately trying to smash the SWP.
Cruelty about sums it up. What was going on in these people's heads? As they sat there ruminating over the next paper sale and working out how to wreck their local anti-austerity campaign group, was their intimidation rationalised as a step toward full communism? Were there any qualms at all? Did they sit rigidly, recalling Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours while whispering "the ends justify the means" under their breath? Or, Winston Smith-style, their unconditional and genuine love for the Central Committee's Big Brother meant their task was carried out with the utmost enthusiasm?

As Andy has pointed out on a number of occasions, as a small organisation with pretensions of being seen as a political party, the SWP can be thought of as many-layered. Whichever view of Lenin's theory of the revolutionary party you subscribe to, the common denominator across all interpretations is that it is an activist collective. In its own way, each group taking after the combat party model seek to intervene in the strategic sectors of struggle it has identified. For the bigger organisations, like the SWP and the Socialist Party it is across a broad range of campaigns. For smaller groups, like the cpgb and the Sparts it's each others' meetings on the 1953 split in the Fourth International, or whether Marx really had a theory of the Asiatic mode of production. The precondition for success, such as it is, is an outward orientation. This explains why the SP and SWP have done relatively well - whatever their faults they recognise there's more to politics than arguing on Facebook about the AWL's Zionism.

In the SWP's case, historically it has positioned itself as the 'best builders' of any campaign going. Theoretically, anyway. They have long been the Trotskyist equivalent of ambulance-chasing lawyers. Wherever there's a campaign, an issue, a strike, a demo the SWP would swoop in, campaign energetically around it for a month or two, badger anyone hapless enough to buy Socialist Worker to join, then move on to the next big issue - usually without warning. And the SWP wonder why they had an appalling reputation before the Delta case came to light. As such, the SWP "breathes" like a shark. So the piscine predator has to force water through its gills by swimming constantly, the SWP have to intervene and gatecrash non-stop to pick up the new members to replace those lost to each twist and turn. This revolving door method of party building is, of course, counter-productive. Their only lasting success is an ever-growing trail of burned out, bitter and disillusioned people who will, quite rightly and understandably, have nothing to do with revolutionary politics ever again.

The typical SWP of old then looked something like this. There was a constantly shifting periphery of new members - mostly youngsters, mostly students, who'd wink in and wink out with startling regularity. Then there were those who stuck the course and managed to stay members for longer than a fortnight. Some of these sought out positions in the trade union movement, and a few of them might have gone on to be representatives on leadership bodies. Another tranche focused primarily on narrow party-building work. Not for them was the regular contact of working people in workplaces, their political lives were the stalls, the paper sales, the demos, the party meetings. These two long-term constituencies were the front-facing representatives of the SWP. The need to be a good union activist, or even a good paper seller demanded that one is, to an extent, disciplined by the political conditions one comes across during the course of their activity. They had to have some kind of relationship with the reality that exists beyond their organisation in order for the SWP to function as a member accumulator. Behind these were a strata of "cadre" who were employed by the party in various capacities. I use the term cadre loosely, as very often the greenest, most unsuited people would be taken on and given leadership responsibilities solely because they ticked loyalty boxes, not because they were competent - let alone schooled in Marxism. Their life is/was the party. They are compelled by the central leadership to hit arbitrary paper sales, books/pamphlets orders, and recruitment targets, not engage in the long-term strategic planning of their district/regional parties which of necessity would demand a proper engagement with politics outside the SWP's bubble (to its credit, this always seemed to be the SP's priority for its regional full-timers, at least in my experience).

Beyond the full-timers is the leadership core of the Central Committee. All of them, with the exception of Alex Callinicos, are there by virtue of having worked their way up the apparatus as party employees. Not one of them are there as a leader of workers, as an exceptional militant. Loyalty, not leadership is the L-word most prized by the self-perpetuating undeclared faction that has always run the SWP.

What this in practice has always meant is that the further up the hierarchy you go, the more insulated from the vicissitudes of the labour movement the SWP's leading figures are. And when you have a leadership recruited almost exclusively from the almost-as-isolated layer of full-timers, you have a problem. As Andy previously argued, you are left with an outer shell of (semi-) normal and sincere socialists. But moving in the rhythms and demands of the cadre and the leaders are governed by the self-recursive universe of the SWP itself. It is this dysfunctional state of affairs that lies behind the SWP's notorious rapid shifts in direction. It is a party-like structure on the outside, and on the inside it's a cult-like set up in which responsibility flows upwards to the sheltered, out-of-touch and unaccountable self-selecting elite.

Herein lies the precipitating cause of the SWP's crisis. Arrogance is the natural bedfellow of unaccountability, so one should not be too surprised - even if it is viscerally shocking - that the SWP took it upon themselves to "investigate" Comrade W's claims, while green-lighting and blind-eyeing the campaign of harassment against her and her comrades.

But there is something else going on too. Class matters. But class has changed. The SWP, formally at least, recognises this. But not in their practice. The old solidarities of post-war industrial capitalism have been broken up, and they're not going to come back. The defeats of the labour movement in the 80s, the fall back of class conscious socialist politics (whether revolution or reform-minded), the changing face of work and the recrudescence of precarious jobs, the shift in culture to peer-to-peer networks via the internet; these don't just constitute unfavourable circumstances for the SWP's Leninist (Zinovievist) project; they are antithetical to how the SWP does politics both in terms of its political strategy (such as it exists without a programme) and how it can reproduce itself as an organisation. The pool it fishes from is drying up, and its modus operandi is severely out of step with the irreverent, horizontal trends that increasingly structure popular culture - youth culture especially. Such a crisis can only exacerbate the isolationist, cultish features that rule the SWP roost. And when a crisis comes along, as was the case with their disgusting treatment of Comrade W, the consequence is a membership that is less telephone box and more shoe box.

Like many on the left, I don't like the SWP. It has an unenviable record of ruining campaigns, screwing folk over and putting many people off labour movement politics for life. They are a wholly malignant influence no amount of dialectical sophistry can soft soap. The left - the unions, the community groups, anti-cuts campaigns, the whole shebang would be a much better place if the SWP was no longer there, waiting to ponce off other people's hard work. The only consolation is that their congenital inability to readjust to the "conjuncture" means the doom of a long irrelevance prior to the final expiration awaits. I hope that for as long as that takes, no one else falls victim to the SWP's depravity.


Anonymous said...

Very good.

The time of the Trot sect-cults is over. All that is left is to watch them atrophy and implode - and hope they don't ruin too many potentially good socialist activists in the process.

But a key way to marginalise their influence is to offer a substantive alternative. If you are a young or new socialist, and you genuinely want to make a contribution to building a socialist movement, where do you go?

The attraction of groups like the SWP is that they offer an intense experience of comradeship and common purpose in a broader social environment that is, at present, extremely hostile to socialist ideas and values.

There are some positives to such experiences: they can help to nourish and sustain political committments that would otherwise wither. On the other hand they can feed a cultish sectarianism.

But to expect a young/new socialist to join the Labour Party and sustain their political committments in that environment is probably unrealistic. If there was a vibrant left within Labour it might be different. But there isn't at present. The internal culture of the Party is actively antithetical to socialist idealism and collective endeavour.

The Party is, in general, defined by a defensive electoralism to which all meaningful determination of policy is subordinated.

That is why I suspect the Trot sect-cults will continue to appeal to some young/new socialists. If the SWP is worthy of our contempt (which I think it is) then so is the wretched state of the Labour Party.


Jason Hill said...

Phil characterises the SWP as"working out how to wreck their local anti-austerity campaign group".

Now, whatever I think of the SWP and their appalling behaviour towards comrade W, I have to give them credit for their positive and consistent work in North Staffs Against Cuts. They are certainly not wreckers in that context.

From my experience, if any group deserves the label "wreckers", it is the political tendency of which Phil used to be a member.

Kapitano said...

The trouble with cults is, they tend to attract the kind of people who want to be in a cult - even if these people don't it admit to themselves.

Which means once a party has sunk into *being* a cult, it's very difficult to *stop* being a cult.

The SWP has long attracted the kind of people who discredit it.

Which means...the best people are the ones who leave.

Anonymous said...

Until this is taken to the police for a full investigation I am assuming this is a totally disported, one sided part of the story and the depravity lies on both sides.

i am not taking insinuation on the internet as proof of anything.

To say this is very good, when it could all be made up is faith replacing reason.

Anonymous said...

There were some SWSS students at our uni strike rally today- added to the gaiety of the occasion but they didn't look cut out to forge a new society based on a fundamental and irreversible shift in worker- capitalist relations. There was also a "Marxist Society" which frankly I found more interesting though perhaps it was just a front for another tiny democratic centralist organisation.

Anonymous said...

"Marxist Society" is Socialist Appeal.

Unknown said...

Most of Phil's blog is very good. Not "over the top" and starting from a view that we are socialists and do want social change but membership of a sect is not the way to get it.

The comment from Mike about joining the Labour Party is just wrong though - try it and see! Most CLPs (I'm in Thanet South) will welcome you with open arms and try to get you to take on loads of jobs - don't stand for everything but just do one or two jobs well is sound advice.

Most of the Labour Party membership is very left wing but divides into those who are "up for a fight" and those who agree but fear "rocking the boat". Most wards and branches have a lot of debate on such matters.

I am a bit fed up of people on the "hard left" pontificating about the Labour party from outside - "come on in - the water's lovely!

Steve Funnell said...

I agree with Jason. The SWP members in Stoke work hard on local campaigns in a non-sectarian way. They are people I am happy to have a drink and a chat with.

Gary Elsby said...

I'm scared just reading this stuff!!
I'd only feel safe having a drink with any of them so long as it was over the Internet!!

Phil said...

Funnily enough, I agree with you Jason. Stoke SWP are/were a good sort.

Of course, that certain tendency you speak of Jason was the very picture of revolutionary reasonableness when Steve and I were involved ;)

Phil said...

What a silly contribution from the first anonymous. I don't know whether "Delta" is guilty or not. But what *everyone* knows is that the investigation that took place was an utter travesty, and that the complainant was subject to harassment by party members. There my friend lies the SWP's depravity.

Phil said...

Keith is spot on. I am always tickled when someone tells me about the sociological composition of the Labour Party, or what its internal regime is like when they've either not been in for 20+ years, or have never taken out membership.

Of course, it depends on the nature of your political project. If you're wedded to some sort of latter day Bolshevism, then no, Labour won't be your cup of tea.

S&N said...

Come on Phil, you are better than this.

1. The choice is not limited to Labour or 'some sort of latter day Bolshevism'. Ralph Miliband, among others, sketched possible alternatives.

2. I was a member of the Labour Party for most of the 1990s and follow its internal politics closely. Your lack of membership of the SWP has not precluded you from offering some penetrating analysis of that organisation.

6/10. Could do better.


Phil said...

I was a member of the SWP for all of 12 hours in 1996.

You can't knock about very long on the left without running up against the SWP in some form. And my experiences with them, apart from those that were the local face of the SWP in Stoke, were pretty negative. Ditto for comrades I have come to know from all over the country. And now we have all this testimony coming out.

True, you don't have to be a member of an organisation or institution to analyse it. And people who lecture me about the nature of the Labour Party can continue to do so. The difference is whereas you find my discussion of the SWP "penetrating", I find a lot of far left commentary on Labour anything but. Unsurprising as theirs is married to world views designed to promote particular organisations, not to understand political reality as it is constituted.

EdExSWP said...

Joined in 1996 for half a day? You'll still be counted a member in that case Phil.

I was a member for 12 years until around 1999. They were investigating and adjudicating on rapes and sexual assaults back then too. The predecessor of the Disputes Committee seemed to be busy in my branch a heck of a lot. None of these "Delta" revelations constitute anything new. But then most people didn't have the communication tools we have today.

Anonymous said...

I think what is overlooked with the SWP is the idea that they have of how they are THE revolutionary party. The true successors of the Bolsheviks and how no matter what else happens they need to exist so that the revolutionary flame is never extinguished. Everything else is secondary to this.

The revolution becomes the same as the party and so the means become the ends.

Anonymous said...


I agree that much far left criticism of the Labour Party offers little political insight.

However, contrasting Labour with the most shrill and unattractive Trot sect-cults is too lazy and easy a contrast to make.

There are socialist critiques of Labour which do not boil down to advocating for a particular sect-cult. For example, David Coates' The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism, Leo Panitch's Working Class Politics in Crisis and several articles by Hilary Wainwright in Socialist Register.

None of these agitate for particular quasi-Bolshevik groups. They are all substantive critiques of the dull logics of labourism and their historical role in helping to marginalise socialist politics in Britain.

But if trying to provide a labourist gloss to Ed Miliband's compassionate neoliberalism is the limit of your political ambition, then I suppose lazy contrasts will suffice.


Phil said...

Again Mike, it depends what you're in Labour for. Does it contain seeds of socialist potentiality, or at the very least can be used to provide a more favourable terrain for socialist politics? In my opinion it does, and that is despite the serious criticisms of the folk you cite. And that more than anything else is why I'm there.

Phil said...

I don't think being in the Labour Party precludes taking critiques of labourism seriously. You need to build somewhere (at least,somebody needs to build somewhere, preferably somebody younger and more energetic than me). This doesn't mean everybody should join Labour, but it doesn't mean everybody should leave either - I've always felt that the most effective Left realignment initiatives have been those which simply sidestep or defer the question of being inside or outside Labour, bringing together whoever wants to work together. (And, of course, I share this view with H. Wainwright, the late R. Miliband et al.)

The point about the SWP seeing themselves as The Party is interesting. It's a bit more complex than that, but they (for example, loyalists writing in the Internal Bulletin) do believe that the future revolutionary socialist party will be built by or out of a Leninist party which exists now, making the key question "Which Leninist party should I join?" (rather than, say, "what can I do for the class struggle here and now?") It's a deeply substitutionist and genuinely sect-like belief - it assumes a direct line between political partisanship here and now and the Revolution in some unspecified future - but it is genuinely held.
I don't know if it's just the SWP, though, or if other Leninist parties have a similar self-image - if only we could ask somebody who'd been a member of one for several years...

Phil said...

In the SP there were certainly some who thought it was 'the party', and others who didn't. I remember someone telling me that she couldn't understand why the SP were buggering about with the new workers' party schtick as the SP was all the class needed - it was just a matter of building it.

Neither Workers' Power, nor the cpgb when I was around them back in t'day saw themselves as the party. A component, certainly.

Matt said...

Jason Hill said...

From my experience, if any group deserves the label "wreckers", it is the political tendency of which Phil used to be a member

You've got some cheek Jason. Considering your role in derailing the local anti-cuts group in stoke just as it was taking off.

facing Reality said...

I'm a bit late for this discussion, but I wonder what people think of the usefulness of autonomous womens groups within left organisations as an essential tool to fighting sexism within the group and in the wider world.
I've linked & reproduced some stuff from the late 70s & early 90s arguing this - including the swp's Callinicos!
Much of what this piece says about sexism also applies to any organisation like Labour Party, unions and campaigning groups.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, although I'd add that the SWP do an excellent job of ruining a Trade union as they do a campaign!

I remember the London march, our branch attended with the usual accomplishment of SWP banner carriers on our coach, which they did an initially march with us but I was left in disbelief as soon as the initial match was over, these people quickly left for other demos or to get to the park to sell their stinking rag and left us marching alone! I have no doubt that the SWP appear to doing great things, but I suspect in fact there's loads of local campaigners that have done the real work and have been trampled on by the publicity seeking SWP.

Then I have had SWP members claim they've been elected as reps when in fact the local workers are quite alarmed and shocked that a SWP member who sees them as the bourgeois is supposedly representing them! I read in their internal bulletins (SWP leaks like a sieve) that all members are encouraged to become reps and it seems when they do, what they try to do is filter union funds back to the SWP.