The 2013 faction fight in the SWP is now of interest only to historians. Those of us who were involved have made our choices, and now, in the wise words of John Lennon, “We’re all doing what we can” wherever we happen to be. But before I finally erase the events of that horrible year from my brain cells, I’m putting on line (for the benefit of the historians – if there are any) a few letters, a small selection from the many discussions, by e-mail and face-to-face, that I had over the year. I have removed the names of addressees and most other people mentioned, with the exceptions of “Delta” and Callinicos, who were widely discussed in public. The responsibility for these comments is mine and exclusively mine, and I do not want to personalise issues. I have also removed a few passages that seemed extraneous or inappropriate. Omissions etc. are noted in square brackets [ ].
Two points that emerge that might be relevant to anyone going through a similar experience:
a) Breaking with an organisation to which one has given decades of one’s life is a slow and painful experience, but it can also be intellectually liberating;
b) It was a long, slow process to move from “how can we save the party?” to “I can’t remain in this organisation any longer”. If the Central Committee had been only a little more conciliatory, things might have been very different.
My letter of resignation is at http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2013-letter-of-resignation/ and my subsequent analysis of why things went so wrong is at http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2014-so-sad/
14 January 2013
In reply to a long-standing comrade
Thanks very much for your letter. Obviously I am also very distressed by the whole situation. I have various things I should be getting on with and am finding it impossible to do so. In particular I’m supposed to be writing a piece about Paul Levi and the March Action and I found the parallels (crisis leading to massive loss of members, when do you oppose the party publicly ) too painful, so I’ve put it aside for the time being.
I’ve had discussions and e-mail exchanges with a few comrades, but I haven’t taken a position as yet. I refused to sign the pro-CC statement that was circulated before conference.
I wrote the following to a couple of comrades a few days ago explaining my position:
I think as far as my position is concerned there are three factors:
1) Cowardice/Loyalty/Nostalgia: I’ve been in the party for fifty years and I don’t want to see it destroyed. Of course the present crisis can’t take away the good things we’ve done, in terms of propaganda and agitation, but it would be a sad end to a political life. So I’m very wary of doing anything rash that could make the situation worse.
2) Genuine Uncertainty. I don’t necessarily think the CC were wrong to try to resolve the problem within the party and if I’d been on the CC I’d probably have gone along with it. On the other hand the result has been an unmitigated disaster. On the basis of the very inadequate evidence I have I would tend to believe [….] that “Delta” was guilty of sexual harassment but innocent of rape. The problem is that given the way the thing was done, nobody (certainly nobody outside the party) will ever believe that he was innocent. But how it could have been done better I genuinely don’t know. So I’m not going to denounce them.
More generally, I am struck by the contrast between what I am hearing from comrades whom I’ve known many years and whom I would respect and trust, and what I hear elsewhere. On the one hand comrades at my aggregate last Wednesday, comrades I’ve worked with over many years, were saying it had been a good conference and we can go forward. On the other I read things from comrades I also trust and respect, like [….] that take a very different position.
A lot depends on how the CC respond. If they move for more expulsions it will be a disaster – each expulsion will provoke more opposition. The CC need to build bridges to the critics and restore confidence – how exactly I don’t know, but they have to show some leadership. I’m prepared to give them a few days before I decide anything. I’m not even sure about the call for a recall conference – I’d want to hear more arguments.
3) Neutrality. Maybe if I don’t rush into taking sides I can possibly help mediate at some point, or, if the worst happens, at least help to keep lines of communication between the different groups. I doubt if I can achieve much but every little helps.
I’d add a few further thoughts. I don’t necessarily think the CC were wrong to try and resolve the problem inside the party. It was an incredibly difficult situation. But the results are very much less than satisfactory. Obviously I don’t condone the leaking of the transcript of the DC report [….] BUT:
a) Surely it was predictable, to comrades who are supposed to be aware of the impact of the internet, that even if it was not recorded, there would be leaks and rumours. Indeed, I think it is better that it is in the public domain than the even more lurid rumours which would have circulated if it had not been published.
b) I accept the DC report because I’ve known the comrades [….] a very long time and I have a high regard for their integrity. But why should someone who joined six months ago trust them? Why should people outside the party? And while I understand the points you make [….] about “outsiders” the situation is in the public domain. Contacts, people we work with in united fronts, will ask about it and we cannot simply tell them that it’s a private matter.
c) Apart from the woman in question, of whom I know nothing, the result has been unfair to [Delta]. I’m fairly sure he is innocent of rape (though perhaps guilty of harassment and almost certainly of highly irresponsible behaviour). But will anyone outside the party ever believe that? And [Delta] is an important figure in UAF, LMHR etc.
I think I might be slightly more critical of the CC than you. From what I hear they fought very hard at conference to keep the leadership. They have to take responsibility for the situation and show a way out of the mess they have created. I don’t know what that way out is, or if there is one. (But then I didn’t claim I should be entrusted with the party’s leadership – they did.)
However, there is one solution I am sure is not the right one, and that is more expulsions. I don’t think the four expulsions before conference were justified – on what I read they seemed to have been expelled for what they might be going to do rather than for what they had done. ([A CC member] told me after the aggregate that there were other factors – I can only judge on what has been made public.) While I understand your opposition to [an oppositionist] “going public” I do hope the CC will not expel [him]– each expulsion will simply generate more opposition and more departures. I think more expulsions would lead me to break my silence.
But until then my feeling is: the CC want to lead, let them lead. As you say, last year’s Marxism was a great success, and I was very impressed by the large number of faces I’d never seen before. There certainly will be losses, but these must be held to a minimum. (The late Gerry Healy once used the phrase: “With every defection the party grows stronger”. If that position takes over we are lost.)
Otherwise for the moment I will give the CC the benefit of the doubt. I don’t support the call for a recall conference at the moment. But if the CC haven’t managed to start pulling us out of the situation by the summer, then I shall want to hold them to account.
It doesn’t need saying that this is a private communication between ourselves.
All best wishes,
31 January 2013
Reply to a letter from a loyalist
The current situation is of course very distressing. I have spent fifty years of my life trying, in a small way, to build the organisation. If the party were to disintegrate (a possibility Alex envisages in his SR piece) I should have the sense of having wasted my life. Of course whatever happens the party’s very real achievements, both theoretical and practical, would not disappear, but the organisational continuity would be destroyed.
So although I have spent a very great deal of time thinking about the situation I have not said anything publicly beyond discussions with a few individuals. But I’m very aware this may be cowardice; I have a great many friends and comrades on both sides of the dispute and don’t want to create unnecessary antagonism.
There was much to agree with in your letter. However, I have some serious reservations, and I’ll set them out here, in the hope they may be of some mild interest to you and also in order to try to clarify things in my own mind. My feeling was that you were a bit too complacent and a bit too formalistic. I’ll try and spell this out.
a) I read carefully the transcript of the Disputes Committee. I have to say I am very glad that it was made public, for if it had not been the rumours that would have circulated would undoubtedly have been far worse. I’ve also heard and read various other bits of information, some (but probably not all) of which may have been “salacious gossip”, in Alex’s phrase.
b) My conclusion – based on such information as I have – is that Delta is probably innocent of rape and harassment, but almost certainly guilty of gross irresponsibility. (Briefly, he should have kept his cock in his trousers.) I have never been a personal friend of Delta’s, but I have had a high regard for what he has done for the party. But he must take a considerable share of responsibility for the present situation. He would best show loyalty to the party by giving up positions, getting a job and vanishing into obscurity for a while.
c) I have known members of the Disputes Committee [….] for many years and I trust their judgment. I do not believe they would cover up rape. But I cannot simply assert that to a young member who has been in the party for six months, and has never heard of the comrades. A fortiori I cannot use that argument to people outside the party. We are asking people outside the party to join us or to work with us in united front bodies. They have every right to ask questions about the party. We can’t tell them “it’s nothing to do with you” or “we trust our leaders” or “the majority have decided”.
d) In this situation we risk serious losses, especially among the newer members. You can make the formally correct arguments about decisions having been made, and old‑timers like me will accept them, but newer members may simply vote with their feet and walk out. It’s worth comparing with 1968. In 1968 we carried democratic centralism by a relatively small majority, but we kept most of the comrades who opposed it because we didn’t force the argument too quickly. And that was in what appeared to a much more urgent situation (Cliff was promising revolution in 5-7 years (“or I see you in the concentration camps”).
e) In formal terms you are right about [certain oppositionists]. They have broken the rules and there is a case for expulsion. (I think they know that and may be being deliberately provocative). But if they are expelled it won’t be a matter of cutting out a few individual signatories – we shall lose hundreds. Each wave of expulsions in the present situation will create a new layer of oppositionists.
f) One CC member I spoke to seemed to be coming perilously close to the position adopted by the late G Healy – “With every defection the party grows stronger”. I just hope that the more reasonable forces in the CC try to defuse the situation rather than provoking confrontation.
g) I agree with you about the demand for a recall conference. Not so much on the formalist grounds you invoke as because I don’t think it would achieve anything. The CC would almost certainly win, particularly, as you point out, because the opposition don’t have a replacement CC. And I think some of the more vociferous oppositionists are being disingenuous about this. [….] And a recall conference at which the CC won would probably cause hundreds more to leave in disillusion.
h) My own current position, therefore, coincides with yours, though in slightly more cynical form. The CC fought very hard at conference to retain the leadership. Let them lead. They bear a considerable part of the responsibility for the situation we are in. Let them get us out of it. And if they can’t, then the time will come, within the next year, to hold them very seriously to account.
i) Where I cannot agree with you is when you write: “Nothing has changed in the outside world except for the public furore CREATED BY THOSE WHO DISAGREED with conference decisions.” To blame everything on malevolent elements in and outside the party will not do. If a leading CC member acts irresponsibly and other CC members act ineptly in trying to handle the situation, then it is entirely predictable that some party members will be upset and angry. And that various elements outside the party will try to take advantage of the situation is likewise predictable. Of course Owen Jones is an anti-Leninist Labourite. But any united front will be with anti-Leninist Labourites – otherwise we’re back with the Third Period. So we can’t take a dismissive attitude towards them
j) What I am uncertain about is how far the CC foresaw the situation. Did they realise they would provoke a “public furore” and do they have a strategy for dealing with it? I hope so, but I have to say I am not entirely confident. But if they didn’t foresee the furore, it means that they don’t realise the very strong feelings that rape allegations provoke and that they don’t understand the implications of the internet. It’s all very well Alex deploring the “dark side” of the internet, but it exists and moralising statements won’t make it go away. And if the CC have been taken by surprise by the situation, it doesn’t speak very highly for their intelligence. For the moment I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But only for the moment.
k) For me the crunch will come with Marxism. (Obviously the various areas of united front work will also be crucial, but in my semi-retired situation Marxism is the one that affects me most.) Last Sunday I attended a Marxism planning meeting. It was a very positive experience, and briefly I thought I had probably spent too much time on the internet and that this was the “real world”. There were over fifty comrades present, young and old, and nearly all spoke with useful concrete suggestions for meetings etc.
l) Among many other themes two that were mentioned were a debate with Owen Jones and the need to relate to the Historical Materialism milieu. Both seemed to me to be good ideas. The next day Owen Jones publicly rejected the invitation, and a number of the key figures in HM issued a statement saying they would not participate in Marxism. So my momentary optimism rapidly disappeared again.
m) Last year’s Marxism was excellent – full of faces I’d never seen before and a very good level of debate. This year will probably be smaller (we’re back to ULU/Institute). But if the CC can hold things together and refrain from mass expulsions, then hopefully it will be reasonably successful. If so, while I shan’t actually start loving the CC I shall grudgingly admit their achievement. But if Marxism is a débâcle, then I shall certainly want to hold the CC to account (as indeed the elementary principles of democratic centralism require me to do).
n) There is a long-term problem. Apart from Alex, the CC now entirely consists of comrades who have come up through the apparatus (even the two with “proper jobs” are former full-timers. Paradoxically Delta was the only one who had a record as a trade-union militant.) They’ve gone straight from college to working at the centre to the CC. Unless more places on the CC are taken by comrades with workplace experience, I foresee more difficulties.
Anyway, those are some of my thoughts. I do hope we can come through this very difficult period without too many losses.
All best wishes,
28 April 2013
Comments on a document by a member of the opposition
I agree very substantially with most of [****’s] arguments, and I think they will make a good basis for the further discussion which is undoubtedly needed. They have stimulated a number of thoughts on my own part, which I am noting here in case they are of any interest to anyone.
1) I do not see the slate system as the cause of the problem, though it may have contributed. I have always supported it, not with any great enthusiasm, but because it was better than what preceded it. The old NC elections were a popularity poll where writers and speakers got better votes than trade-union activists because they were better known. On one occasion a new member (with admittedly an impressive past) came top of the poll, above Cliff, after a powerful speech to conference; he was out of the organisation before the year was up. In fact the Executive (in the person of Jim Higgins) used to produce a recommended list which was circulated to loyalists. Sooner an open slate than an underground one.
2) The essence of the problem is the personnel on the CC. The CC consists not just of full‑timers, but of people who have spent virtually their entire life (usually since graduation) in the party apparatus. This, of course, has been the practice for a very long time, contrary to the promises when the CC was first introduced that it would herald in a “worker leadership”. (Though the first CC included Steve Jefferys, and John Deason, both of whom had brief but impressive industrial experience.) But the problem was masked as long as Cliff, Duncan and Chris Harman were on the CC. Cliff was unique. Duncan had led a mutiny, worked in a large engineering factory, been an organiser for the NCLC and helped build a rank-and-file group in the NUT. Chris had real experience of a mass movement in the student struggles of 1967‑69. As long as those three were there the CC had real authority in the party (even if it sometimes used short-cuts which created bad precedents). They probably did understand better than the rest of us, on the basis of talent and experience. This is not true of the present bunch.
3) Can anything be done? I’m not sure. We need a radical renewal of the leadership (which doesn’t mean sweeping away every single member of the present CC, but it does mean some major changes). Realistically that would mean some will to change on the part of the existing leadership, otherwise we would simply get a rerun of the Special Conference scenario. From their recent behaviour I don’t know if they are capable of it. I certainly intend to reconsider my position after next January’s conference.
4) One possibility occurs to me. The party contains a good number of experienced trade-union (and local) activists. A number of them are recently retired or are coming up to retirement age, but are not yet suffering the physical decay the afflicts the older among us. If a fewer of these comrades could be brought onto the CC they could help to transform it – and possibly oversee some more long-term changes. We should also experiment with bringing non-full-timers onto the CC. This was done with [a former CC member], a very encouraging sign, but he was then dropped like a hot potato as soon as he disagreed.
5) However, I think the CC will have to remain a largely full-time body. The pre-1975 experience was of a National Committee which was ostensibly the leading body, elected by the membership and accountable to it, while the Executive was merely a Sub-Committee of the NC. In fact the EC always led the NC by the nose. Events require rapid response, and only full-timers can make such a response. So I prefer a situation where the body that actually makes the decisions is the accountable one.
6) One further point on the present leadership, which is difficult to make without it appearing to be motivated by personal animosity [….]. When Alex Callinicos first emerged in the 1970s some of us violently disagreed with some of his specific enthusiasms (Althusser, etc.) But we welcomed the fact that he was prepared to engage with intellectual currents outside our tradition, and his work seemed to open up the possibility of more open and wide-ranging intellectual life in the party. His excellent book on Marx began with Marx’s claim that “I am not a Marxist”. Yet today Alex is reduced to defending “our tradition”. Anyone who dared suggest that Lenin was not a “Leninist” would be promptly slapped down. For Alex to be given the job of spearheading a faction fight when he obviously resented it and was impatient and bad-tempered throughout was clearly a mistake. Alex is very good with books but is clearly ill at ease with human beings. The CC needs to consider whether his very real talents are being used to their best advantage and whether he needs to be on the CC to do what he does best.
7) One point I do disagree with [****] on is his suggestion of factional representation on leading bodies. Any formal recognition of factions actually obstructs real debate; reality is constantly changing, and so are the issues that divide us. As a result the line-up of alliances will be constantly shifting. In 1968 the IS incorporated factional representation on the NC into the constitution. As Peter Sedgwick very pertinently enquired – what happens if someone changes their mind? (Cliff was very good at changing his mind. The present bunch – like bourgeois politicians – are scared to do so because they see it as a sign of weakness.) But of course the present tendency to homogenising the CC, and removing people as soon a divergences appear, should be reversed.
11 June 2013
Letter to a member of the opposition following a meeting of opposition members
I found the meeting on 1st June of great interest. I was in general agreement with the analysis of the current situation, [****]. However, I was somewhat surprised to discover how far plans for the future had been developed. I have given the situation a lot of thought over the last few days and am writing this brief note to clarify the situation.
While I accept in general the criticisms of the current state of the SWP, I am less optimistic about the prospects of any new organisation. I shall reconsider my position with regard to SWP membership after next year’s annual conference. But it is highly unlikely that I shall join any other organisation. Obviously I say this with regard to my own personal situation – age, health, personal intentions. I am not trying to dissuade anyone from doing what they believe to be right, and if I were younger I might take a different position.
Obviously I do not expect to be invited to any future meetings. But of course I am happy to discuss with comrades and to cooperate where possible. I am writing this simply in order to avoid any misunderstandings; I would not want anyone to feel that I had let them down.
With all best wishes,
20 June 2013
Reply to some queries from a member of the International Socialist Network (ISN)
An attempt to answer your questions:
What would have to change by next conference for you to stay?
I don’t have a clearly formulated list of demands. There will obviously be a very lively pre-conference discussion period which I shall observe with great interest and probably participate in. So I’m prepared to be flexible to some extent. But I think the three basic points for me would be:
1) An acceptable report on the Disputes Committee, to ensure that nothing like what happened this year could ever happen again.
2) A very clear recognition by the CC, in the pre-conference perspectives, that things have gone very badly – as distinct from the inane optimism of Party Notes, which seems to assume we are all stupid and don’t know things are going badly. And for the CC to take its responsibility for what has happened.
3) And hence – a radical renewal of the leadership. Not just one or two cosmetic changes of the CC, but a thorough shake-up. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of all the current CC, but it would mean replacement of at least half – I’m not naming names because I don’t think scapegoating helps and they are supposed to share collective responsibility. And the crucial point for me would be that the CC stops consisting almost entirely of people who have spent most of their lives inside the party apparatus and that we bring in people with real experience of trade-unionism/campaigning. (There are various ways this could be done – non-full-timers on the CC, take people out of jobs, bring in some recently retired comrades – I’d be flexible on that.)
How likely do you think it is that it will change?
To be brief and honest – not very likely. Thus far the CC have shown amazing obstinacy in not facing up to things. However, three points about the way things seem from my point of view, as someone who has been a party member for fifty years:
1) There were people on both sides of the factional dispute whom I have known for many years, and whom I have regarded as comrades, and in many cases friends. That is why the whole thing was so distressing. But it also means that I don’t want to write people off too easily – I still hope, against the evidence, that people I have known and respected over decades will finally wake up and see what is happening to the party. Thus for example [a former CC member] has, by all accounts, acted appallingly over the last few months – but I also can’t forget [his] role in the ANL. That doesn’t justify his current behaviour – but it also means I can’t just dismiss him.
2) In particular the CC majority now seems to be divided at least three ways. On the one hand there are the ultra-loyalists, who seem to think the problem is that we haven’t lost enough members yet, who may now be an embarrassment to the CC. On the other hand a number of experienced and long-standing comrades who backed the CC over the special conference are now saying that the situation is very serious and that something muist be done. And the CC are trapped between these two, and looking very weak (despite their rhetoric of “strong leadership”), not offering very much.
3) Some good things have happened. There was a reasonable response to the two BNP/EDL demos in Central London, with a good (though rather grey-haired) SWP turnout. And there was a good response (400 people at a vigil at 24 hours’ notice) to the fire-bombing of the Muswell Hill Islamic Centre - of course the SWP don’t take all the credit, but we clearly did play a significant role in organising it.
What are the plans to attempt to make such change happen?
I’m not sure I can answer that in any detail. I have talked informally to various individuals, but I don’t know enough to have an overall picture. (No names, obviously.) My impression is that there are a number of people like myself who will wait for next conference but don’t have a clear picture of where they be after that. And of course some people are already getting the argument going – [….]
Do you have an idea of those left who are unwilling to wait until conference, and those who are?
I can’t give you names or numbers. I think in a sense the damage has been done - when the CC acted as it did last January it created a situation that is now irreversible. There have been massive losses, perhaps a quarter of the membership, and these will continue. And many of those who leave will not join anything else, though they will retain their basic politics and be active in unions or campaigns.
Would it change your stance if you heard that there was a majority trickling out in ones and twos over the coming months and very few left by January?
I think that to some extent this will be the situation - to an extent it depends on the local situation and how difficult people find it to stay. The damage has been done – all any of us can do is pick up the pieces.
After special conference I was acutely miserable for a couple of weeks, and seriously considered leaving. I decided not to, though I have taken a more detached attitude to the party in various ways. I decided to stay till January and I shall stand by that. If there were a major trickle I couldn’t do anything about it. If I were talking to an individual who was considering leaving I should urge them to stay till January – but I’m not sure I could do so very convincingly.
you could play a part [in a new organisation] simply by being a paper member and writing, without being a key player in all of the organisational tasks
It’s not a question of being afraid of donkey work – although my age/health would not permit a great deal. For fifty years I have been in the SWP, despite spasmodic disagreements and reservations, because basically I believed in the organisation and thought that what it was doing was overwhelmingly positive – that that was the best place I could be to advance the socialist cause. Now I don’t believe in the SWP like that anymore, but I also don’t believe in any alternative. So if I leave the SWP I am very unlikely to join any alternative. I realise this is an evasion of choice, and if I were younger I should have to make a decision.
What seems likely is that by this time next year there will be three or four groups all issuing from the SWP. (There was a similar situation in Australia till recently.) How they will develop I don’t know, and may not live to see.
If you could substantiate, and I mean this in the least defensive way possible, the criticisms you have, or the reasons for your reservations, I’d be very keen to hear them. It is difficult to imagine how the ISN looks from within the SWP.
I want to be very cautious in responding to this. I have not studied the ISN anything like fully enough to produce a proper critique. I look at the website from time to time but I don’t read everything. [….] That there is a lively and interesting discussion going on there is undoubtedly the case, and that is certainly a good thing. Whether it is the basis for an organisation is another question.
I suppose my judgements of the ISN will be determined by the people I know – what of course I don’t know is their role in the organisation and how significant they are.
Now I realise that is all very impressionistic. If the ISN is developing new approaches and analyses I welcome that, and I am always happy to discuss and cooperate with yourself and any other ISN members. I’ve no wish to attack you or polemicise against you, and I wish you well (no group has a monopoly of the truth). But, for reasons given above, I would not join you.
[….] the fact remains that we are likely to be faced with the situation where there are three or four groups all emanating from the SWP. Even if (as I hope) they refrain from public denunciations of each other, they will necessarily be in competition with each other for members/influence and will have to define themselves against the other groups. I don’t find this a happy situation, though I have absolutely no idea how to avoid it.
I hope these comments are of some interest. But if not, it’s been useful for me to try and clarify my position.
I hope we can carry on the discussion at some point.
All best wishes,
16 July 2013
Letter to a member of the opposition written just after Marxism
I’m sorry you were so upset by Marxism. I can understand why you and other comrades felt angry at some of the stupid arguments that were used against the opposition, though I hope comrades don’t decide to leave at this point. Following Marxism and discussions I had with various comrades, I’ve got a slightly different take on the situation. I’m setting it out here mainly in order to clarify my own thoughts, but also as a contribution to discussion. Obviously it’s based on my own very partial experience (including what I hear from other comrades), and I may have missed important aspects.
1) Marxism was better than I had feared. Certainly it was smaller than last year (3000 against 5000 according to Charlie, and I think that may be a reasonable estimate). That is a serious setback, but it’s not a disaster. It’s true a lot of the donkey-work (SW sales, stalls) were being done by grey-haired comrades, but there were also quite a lot of young people around. In the big confrontation meetings (Molyneux, Callinicos) a reasonable number of opposition comrades were allowed so speak; there was no crude bias or suppression from the chairs. In general I thought opposition contributions were good, firm but fraternal, and without personal attacks. And there were lots of meetings where the factional dispute only appeared very marginally, if at all, and where there was a good level of discussion.
2) So we need to evaluate where we are and what we can achieve. On the initial issue of the Disputes Committee there will certainly be some progress. The report will have to take on board a lot of our criticisms. On the more general question of the role of the leadership we can make some real gains, but probably won’t get total victory. Those comrades who want to sweep away the entire CC will almost certainly be disappointed. But I think we can get a shift away from a CC based on lifelong full-time apparatus members and a move towards a renewed and restructured leadership with a significant change of personnel. We also need a change of leadership style. Alex is right to call for a leadership with “confidence and authority”, but authority needs to be earned, not asserted. I think such a change can be achieved over a period of time, not a single conference.
3) There are also certain imponderables, especially in relation to the second disciplinary case. [….]
4) [….] there is a middle ground which is far from happy at the way the CC is dealing with things, but which does not support the opposition. If we alienate that middle ground, we shall be a small and impotent minority. We have to consider what demands we can raise that will get support from that middle ground but will make a real contribution to getting us through the crisis.
5) So we need to stop talking about a split. We were absolutely right to stand firm against the suspensions, and our success shifted the balance of forces. But I think it was a serious mistake for comrades to be discussing a split, even in private correspondence. Firstly talk of splits will alienate much of the middle ground, which wants to reform the party, not to smash it. Secondly I do not think we have the basis for a split. What unites the opposition is outrage at the way the dispute was handled, and, more generally, profound unease at the style and methods of the present leadership. That is not a sufficient basis for a new organisation. It was because so many comrades seemed to have a split perspective that I was unhappy about the 1 June meeting, and decided not to attend the follow-up. Of course, if nothing is achieved by next conference, comrades may want to discuss leaving, a new organisation, etc. But leave it till then.
6) I think the experience of the ISN bears this out. There are some excellent comrades in the ISN, and it was a tragedy to lose them, contrary to the silly slanders put out by the CC’s supporters. But I remain to be convinced that there is enough coherence in the ISN to be the basis of an effective organisation. [….]
7) The faction had developed a number of ideas on various aspects of SWP thinking – oppression, changing working class etc. This reflects the fact that SWP official thinking has often become defensive, repeating old analyses rather than confronting new realities. Comrades have produced interesting and useful analyses. We should remember what Alex Callinicos wrote in 1983 [Alex should also remember it]:
It is especially a danger at a time such as the present that revolutionaries will simply retreat into the stronghold of orthodoxy, pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Mike Kidron … coined the phrase ‘Maginot Marxism’. He had Ernest Mandel in mind, but a similarly defensive attitude, a refusal to admit that Marxism requires anything except reiteration, runs through Peter [Binns] ’s article. I remain convinced that ‘classical Marxism is not a seamless robe, a monolith’, but involves ‘gaps, aporias, too-hasty answers’ and therefore requires ‘conceptual development’. [Alex Callinicos, 1983, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1983/xx/binns.html ]
8) Whether there is a coherent body of analysis that unites the faction is a very different question. We need to be very careful to avoid polarisation. Take the question of “pop-up unions”. The only rational position [….] is that pop-up unions are an interesting phenomenon which have been thrown up by workers’ struggle. We regard them with sympathy and interest, but we also examine them critically and point to the dangers. What we must avoid is a situation where the faction is seen as advocating pop-up unions, whereupon the loyalists denounce us – thus closing their eyes to anything to be learnt from the experience – and [falsely] accuse us of supporting red unions.
9) I think therefore we must defend the blog and keep it going. [….] the pre-conference discussion has effectively begun, and the blog can be a useful contribution. The CC opposition is, I think, not fear of the internet in itself – after all, all the party’s publications are available on-line - but concern at a debate taking place without editorial control. We should argue against the fetish of the editor – though if the blog becomes more widely followed we shall need to moderate destructive trolls.
10) This brings me to my own relation to the faction. I wrote two replies to Callinicos, and spoke from the floor in two Marxism meetings. I think these contributions were probably perceived by people on both sides as being on behalf of the faction. I’ve no objection to that, but the faction is not a democratic centralist body. I intend to contribute to the pre-conference discussion, and my ideas may not always coincide with those of other faction members.
Just a few thoughts about where we are and what we can hope to achieve. Perhaps we can talk more in a few weeks’ time.
All best wishes,
11 September 2013
Comments on a document written by a member of the opposition
Many thanks for letting me look at this. I am, of course, in sympathy with the main thrust of the argument. But I think I am rather more pessimistic than you. I shall naturally stay with the opposition till 15 December, because I greatly welcome what you have been doing, and I want to show solidarity. But I think in effect we have already lost. Organisations, like human beings, have a life span – despite the points you make, which are largely true, the SR/IS/SWP played a very positive role from 1950 to 2012. But I don’t see the possibility of sufficiently meaningful reforms being implemented to enable it to carry on. It may stagger on for a few years (after all, the various fragments of the WRP are still there 28 years after the 1985 implosion), with an ageing and increasingly unimaginative leadership. Or maybe not. The CC is, as you point out, deeply divided; what will happen if, as seems likely, a large part of the opposition depart after 15 December? Without the struggle against the opposition to unite them, will they start fighting among themselves. Will there be further splits or defections?
There is also the whole question of Cliff. Of course you are absolutely right to counterpose Cliff to the present leadership, as you do in your document. But I think it is also true that Cliff instilled some bad habits into the organisation. It didn’t seem to matter too much because we generally got things right. So most of us, perhaps culpably, got on with the (overwhelmingly good) things we were doing and didn’t worry too much about the mechanisms. But there is a real problem with an organisation structured around a charismatic individual. Blanquism, which was a significant and positive force in the French socialist movement for decades, flew apart when Blanqui died – though many of those involved went on to play a role in Guesdism and the PCF. Can there be Cliffism without Cliff, any more than Blanquism without Blanqui? Something new will arise, though probably not in my lifetime.
All best wishes,
6 December 2013
Letter to a loyalist who had made a last-ditch effort to persuade me not to leave
Thanks for this. Like you, I found our meeting useful and interesting. As I said before, I am in favour of dialogue, and I want to keep lines of communication open. Over the last few months I’ve had reasonably friendly conversations with [various ex-SWP members]. Whatever our organisational alignments, we need to maintain fraternal contacts. You gave me a number of things to think about, although you have not changed my mind on the main point. [….]
Whether the faction is “spreading lies” I don’t know; I think it is just the general process of rumour, which exists on both sides. [….] At one time gossip was spread by word of mouth in pubs; I often felt I didn’t really know what was going on at the centre because I didn’t drink in the same pub as people who worked at the printshop. Now such things go on Facebook. You say that I “did not respond to any of the wider political arguments (you) put forward”. I’ll try, but it will be in pretty general terms – I don’t have a fully developed analysis of neo-liberalism. The basic question, which you touched on when you talked about the difference between the 70s, when working-class power was a concrete reality, and now, is: what do revolutionaries do in a non-revolutionary period? I would answer two things:
a) They participate in, and if necessary initiate, struggles of the exploited and oppressed, and within them, argue for the best way of carrying the struggle forward, and seek to overcome divisions among the exploited and oppressed;
b) They try, in William Morris’s words, to “make socialists”, that is, they produce socialist propaganda at all levels, and develop educational structures that will form a new generation of socialist militants. Those are the basic tasks; of course one could go into much more detail. These are the jobs which the SWP has been carrying out over the last thirty years, and which in general (obviously there have been mistakes) it has carried out very well, which is why I have been prepared to contribute a fair amount of time, energy and money to the party.
You accuse me of deciding to leave because of “internalised and personal issues”. There are no personal issues; with a few very minor exceptions everyone has treated me personally with great courtesy, though I am shocked by the way some other younger comrades have been treated. The issue is internal only inasmuch as I now believe the leadership to be completely incompetent and unfit to lead the party in the activity which I approve of. If that leadership remains in office, I shall find it very difficult to remain a member.
As you may well imagine, I had little appetite for getting involved in this wretched dispute. I have done a fair amount of donkey-work for the party over the years, and I intended to spend such time as remains to me by doing a bit more writing. Initially I thought I should probably grit my teeth, go along with the CC, and hope that things eventually got better (as they have done after crises in the past). Alternatively I could simply have stood aside and avoided involvement, [….] When I first decided after discussions with comrades, to support the opposition, I genuinely hoped that we would persuade the CC to see sense; I believed that the CC were just being slow to wake up to the gravity of the crisis. Gradually I have had to abandon that hope; I now think the damage is irreversible. The party is becoming an ageing rump, and I wonder how many of the hard-liners [….], who have been very successful at driving people out of the party, will hang around to rebuild. I suspect they will vanish into their own private lives. I genuinely hope I’m wrong, because, as you said, if the SWP disappears the left as a whole will be weaker. For 55 years, from Young Guard to Respect, our current had a real, if minor, influence in the broader labour movement. I fear that time is now over.
You say I made “unanswerable assertions of a ‘lack of trust’.” Trust is, of course, subjective; you said you accepted the Disputes Committee report because you “trusted” the comrades. Of course you have every right to feel such trust, but you cannot require me to accept the DC’s actions on the basis of “trust” – we are not a religious organisation. […] I used to trust Cliff, because he generally got it right in the end, despite some odd deviations from time to time. I don’t trust the present CC – I could set out the reasons, but it would take a long time and they have been set out in innumerable faction documents. There are comrades I trust whom I have known for 40 years or more [….] and I trust their accounts of the terrible things that have been done to faction comrades in various parts of the country.
You say my resignation would be reported in the Weekly Worker and that people would use my “departure as a stick to beat the party”. Perhaps. But what is the alternative? The logic of your position is that we can never criticise the party in any context where we may be reported because such criticism will be used by our enemies. So all criticism must be delayed until all our enemies have been eliminated – by which time it won’t matter any more. Remember that the whole debate in the CP between Hungary 1956 and the Congress in Spring 1957 was conducted in a journal on public sale, World News.
This has been a problem for a long time. When I was working on the Cliff book I read Steve Jefferys’s papers at Warwick University. In the late seventies I was very active and, I suppose, a “leading member”. But I had no idea of what was going on on the CC. If you treat the members with contempt and refuse to let them know what is going on, sooner or later the problem will come back to bite you. As for the international tendency, it is hardly I who will damage it; the responsibility lies with [Delta] and Alex Callinicos. At Historical Materialism I talked to a number of people from the tendency and other organisations from several countries. They have all been following events and know what is going on. I very much doubt that my resignation will make much difference one way or the other. I have to say that they all seemed sympathetic to the opposition.
The same is true locally. I don’t think it is a secret that a number of comrades in North London are having anguished discussions about what they will do after conference. They are, quite rightly, thinking deeply about the issues. But I doubt if a single one would say “Oh, Ian Birchall’s leaving so I will too.” They are intelligent and highly political comrades, and will make their own minds up.
On Monday you recalled that you had organised the vote that defeated Steve Jefferys in North London in 1981. I’m sure you did it with the same efficiency as you stitched up last month’s aggregate. But what were the consequences? We lost Steve Jefferys, a better leader and organiser than I have ever been. And we also lost a lot of other good comrades [….] (Was it a price worth paying? I voted for the line, so Ii won’t condemn other comrades. But I don’t think it was our finest hour.) We survived, because we had a competent leadership – Cliff-Hallas-Harman - and because we had a miners’ strike which helped us pull things together and draw in a new layer of comrades. Whether it serves as a model – it worked then so it’ll work now – I am much more dubious. Perhaps the first time as tragedy, the second as farce …..One of the most thought-provoking things was what [****] was saying about there being a whole generation of people who don’t read printed newspapers and don’t go to meetings. If that is true, then we really need to be thinking quite radically about forms of organisation rather than banging on about “Leninism” and “our traditions”. (By the way, I have been saying at meetings and educationals for the last ten years and more that there is no such thing as “Leninism” – if I said that now, I should be accused of factionalism.) Charlie invited me to conference as an observer, but I declined – I was ill for a fortnight after the Special Conference. As for maintaining our relationship, I made it clear on Monday I hope for cordial fraternal relations. I do hope you will keep me on your e-mail list and inform me of activities in North London. My health isn’t what it was and I can’t promise too much activity but I will do what I can. Likewise I’d be happy to cooperate with the SWP nationally – for example I’d speak at Marxism or write for the ISJ as a non-member, though I doubt if they’d ask me. But I shall also work and discuss with people who have left. There is now a diaspora of organisations deriving from the SWP – Counterfire, ISG, ISN and probably one or two more to come. In real terms the SWP won’t be all that much bigger than the others. I’ll do what little I can to encourage friendly dialogue. Hopefully there will eventually be a regroupment, though that will depend on events in the “real world” and will probably not occur in my lifetime.
With all best wishes,
23 December 2013
Letter to a member of the opposition who had appealed to other oppositionists not to leave.
You asked for comments on your thoughtful and constructive document. Here are a few points that may merit discussion.
As far as I personally am concerned your plea is too late. I have already made public a statement of resignation and I do not intend to go back on it. http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2013-letter-of-resignation/ I have been agonising over whether to leave or to stay ever since the Special Conference last March; my mind was made up when the CC issued their slate for the new CC, including every single member of the body that has presided over the last disastrous year. That convinced me that there was no intention to accept responsibility and that I could not remain within the organisation.
I therefore fully understand the feelings of those who have made similar statements of resignation. I should however add that I have not urged anyone else to leave and will not do so. I recognise the strength of the case for staying in the SWP; if I were twenty years younger I might have been persuaded by it. You have a long, hard task ahead of you and no guarantee of success.
You note various indications that the SWP, under its present leadership, is moving in the right direction. While these are of some significance, they still seem to me very modest. I am not convinced of a will to change among leading cadre. Thus a couple of weeks before conference I had a long – and largely amiable – discussion with [****]. But he remained resolutely pleased with his role in stitching up the North London aggregate. I should want to see much stronger signs of self-criticism before I was convinced of the possibility of a real renewal of the SWP.
I, and various other who have resigned, have stressed that we want to continue working with the SWP. But that is a two-way street. Will ex-members be invited/allowed to contribute to Socialist Review or the ISJ? Will we be able to attend and participate in Marxism? I suspect the CC will be split down the middle on this. Comrades remaining might explore this.
My own feeling is that the best outcome of the present situation would be a regroupment of what can be called the Cliffite diaspora – remnants of the Respect débâcle, Counterfire, ISN, the current wave of resigners, etc., the many individuals who have dropped out in recent years but not found a new political home, plus a great many of those still in the SWP, whether ex-faction or loyalist (excluding only the current CC and the hundred or so rabid head-banging Idoomers).
Doubtless this is impossibly optimistic, but at least it is an initial target, which can be cut down to size in the light of experience. I hope comrades, whether inside or outside the SWP, will do nothing to obstruct the possibility of as broad a regroupment as possible.