• 2014 : SO SAD


    Don’t misunderstand me… The army isn’t completely rotten. There are plenty of good and honourable men in the High Command. But if it came to it they would all put the interests of the army first. Certainly none of them is going to want to bring the temple crashing down around their ears….  [A character in Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy explains why Dreyfus got no support in the French army.[2]]

    On 15 December 2013 I resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, after some fifty years membership. I was no longer prepared to trust the party leadership with my money, nor to accept its discipline. I said at the time that I would make no further public criticism of the SWP and I have tried to stand by this. There are many more useful and interesting things to do than engage in arguments between small far left groups. Polemics about splits in small revolutionary organisations tend to be very tedious; I have no desire to add to that literary genre.

    Yet I am left with the problem as to why it happened. Why did an organisation which, though I knew its imperfections, seemed to me to be by far the best thing going on the British left, and of which I was proud to be a member, deteriorate so quickly? I have fifty years’ experience of the IS/SWP, seven of which I spent writing a biography of Tony Cliff, a narrative which was necessarily entwined with the history of the organisation. My observations may therefore be of some interest to others on the left, both inside the SWP and in other groupings currently at an early stage of their development.

    This is not conceived of as an attack on the SWP, though of necessity it will contain some quite harsh criticisms. There are many comrades in the SWP who supported the CC in last year’s faction fight, but who recognise that there are real problems and that measures need to be taken to rebuild the party. They will doubtless not agree with my analysis, but I hope they will at least take it as a contribution to discussion.

    Moreover, I would stress that this is an exercise in self-criticism. If the recent crisis revealed unhealthy trends that had developed over a period of time, then I, as much as anyone else, bear responsibility for allowing that to happen and for not speaking out.

    Of course enemies of the SWP, or of the Marxist left in general, from both the right and the left, may quote this document out of context for their own political purposes. But if we let ourselves be deterred by that prospect, we should never be able to discuss our problems seriously. I know that some friends in the SWP will think I should have remained silent. But without discussion how can we recognise problems and attempt to overcome them? For too long I believed that such discussions could be safely left to a small group of “leaders”, talking behind closed doors. I no longer have any confidence that that is enough, or indeed that it will happen. Any organisation calling itself “Leninist” should remember Lenin’s words (dated September 1917): “By analysing the errors of yesterday, we learn to avoid errors today and tomorrow.”[3]

    I am now a member of no organisation, though I still identify very strongly with the revolutionary left. I am speaking for myself alone, and what follows is based on my own perceptions and experiences. Others who experienced things differently may have insights that complement, or indeed contradict,  my account.

    I have let some time elapse before embarking on this analysis. When I left the party my dominant emotion was anger against those who had allowed the party to get into such a state. But anger is not a fruitful emotion and I have allowed it to dissipate with the passage of time. And I have tried, as far as possible, to avoid blaming individuals. The problems that have befallen us go deeper than the defects or misjudgements of any individual. Yet individuals do have some importance. If, as Alex Callinicos tells us, in the SWP’s model of democracy “a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party’s work”,[4] then surely those individuals must be held responsible when the party makes damaging mistakes.

    When the crisis erupted in January 2013 my first reaction was to feel that I had wasted my life. Over fifty years, I have sometimes encountered comrades holding local and even national office who were quite unfitted for the jobs they were doing. At a time of crisis it is very easy to look back at such people and see them as evidence of a rot that goes back a long way. When I read contributions by ex-members on various blogs describing the bad experiences that led them to leave the party, I often have a sense of recognition. I too have had quite a few bad experiences – but I have also had a lot of good ones.

    IS/SWP gave me an unparalleled political education, both in terms of theoretical analysis, and in terms of how to operate in a trade union and a united front. I have met hundreds of good comrades, people who put their money where their mouth was in pursuit of their principles, who made great sacrifices in terms of their careers and personal lives in order to pursue their political ideals. (One of the great sadnesses of last year’s factional dispute was to find myself on the opposite side to people I have regarded as comrades and friends for many years.)

    The Anti-Nazi League certainly prevented the far right from taking off in Britain, and Stop The War helped to prevent further military adventures by the British government. SWP intervention in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and in the campaign against the poll tax was highly creditable, as was our involvement in many hundreds of smaller disputes and campaigns. The annual Marxisms, Bookmarks publications and the International Socialism journal have carried out a job of political education and theoretical innovation which it would be hard to parallel anywhere on the international left. Not for one minute do I regret having joined IS and stayed with the organisation for so long.

    So what went wrong? Why could I not die happy in the knowledge that we had built an organisation that was well-prepared for future struggles. There is no point raking over the details of the “dispute” that sparked off the party crisis. But a few points need to be made.

    The accusations against comrade Delta[5] created a difficult situation. There was no easy formula for dealing with the situation, and if I had been involved I should have found it as difficult as anyone else. But then we do elect a leadership because it is supposed to have the intelligence and experience to deal with difficult situations. With the benefit of hindsight I think the best solution might have been if the Disputes Committee had ruled itself incompetent to judge a case of rape – and then suspended or expelled Delta for “bringing the party into disrepute” – which he undoubtedly did.

    On the basis of information available to me I don’t know if Delta was guilty of rape (though the evidence is that few women make false accusations of rape). What is clear on the basis of accounts accepted on all sides is that he behaved inappropriately and irresponsibly, and abused the privileges of the party office he held. (Here I should mention the suggestions made, not by the CC but by some CC supporters, that one or both of the women complainants could have been state agents. I think this is clearly megalomania: there is no evidence that the current SWP poses the sort of threat that would lead the state to use such measures. But if there were any possibility that such means might be used, then Delta, as a senior party official, was grossly culpable in not being much more careful about the relationships he entered into.)

    I do not question the sincerity of the members of the Disputes Committee. But it is clear that they failed in their task. It was essential that justice was not only done, but was seen to be done, both by the membership and by the world outside, which undoubtedly would be watching what was happening. Both in the selection of personnel and in the procedures adopted, the Disputes Committee signally failed to convince that justice had been done.  The CC must share responsibility for this situation.

    A number of accusations have been made by enemies of the party that are clearly false and simply muddy the waters. Party members are accused of being “rape apologists”; the term is capable of several interpretations, but if we accept the definition “rape apology is an umbrella term for any arguments suggesting that rape is infrequent, misreported, over-reported, not that big a deal, or that it is even excusable in some circumstances”[6] then it clearly is not  applicable to the SWP or to any SWP members I have known. The term “rape denier” is even more inappropriate. If a rape denier is someone who denies that there is any such thing as rape (because women are always consenting), then that position has never been put by any SWP member; if on the other hand it means that someone denies that rape took place in a particular instance, then that is a common-sense position that would be rejected only by an ultra-feminist who believes that all penetration is rape. As for the claim that women are at risk in SWP gatherings, this is grotesque nonsense; SWP events are well-conducted and women are far safer there than they would be at an assembly of drunken Liberal Democrats.

    However, this does not let the party completely off the hook. What some comrades clearly were guilty of is what might be called “rape trivialisation”. It takes the form of asking why we are spending so much time discussing the dispute when we should be organising against the Bedroom Tax. What the comrades who adopt this line of argument forget is that because the dispute was allowed to fester it made us far less effective in fighting the Bedroom Tax.

    How badly the party was damaged is shown by recent issues of Socialist Worker. Two stories which got enormous tabloid coverage in the autumn of 2014, and obviously provoked widespread workplace discussion, were those of Ched Evans (a convicted but unrepentant rapist trying to resume his football career) and of the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. Neither got a mention in Socialist Worker. Obviously the parallels between the Evans case and the allegations against Delta would have meant that whatever the paper said it would provoke embarrassing criticism. The reason for ignoring Pistorius is less clear – as far as I know no CC member has been accused of murder. But perhaps it was felt that the whole question of violence against women is too hot a potato. In fact two years ago, SW carried an excellent article on the Pistorius case by Alex Callinicos,[7] which could easily have been reprinted or cannibalised. But apparently it was felt safer to avoid the entire issue. That SW cannot discuss such obvious topical examples of the oppression of women is nothing short of catastrophic. No amount of learned analyses of Lise Vogel can make up for this.

    But it was how the dispute was then handled that was truly disastrous. At the January conference in 2013 the CC put all its efforts into winning the vote, apparently oblivious of what might happen afterwards. At the post-conference aggregates we were told that the issues had been debated and decided – now we were required to shut up. This despite the fact that many comrades, including myself, had heard only the vaguest rumours of the dispute before the conference and therefore could scarcely be said to have participated in a decision process. (I had heard reports of the expulsion of the “Facebook Four” before conference, but I had assumed that it was an insignificant split and that the CC knew what it was doing. Clearly I was culpably and disastrously wrong, and it is a reminder that party loyalty should never override vigilance.)

    The dominant rhetoric emerging from the CC, and echoed faithfully by the loyalists in the localities, was “we debate, then we decide and we act in unity”. A crude fetishism of the vote, absolutely alien to the party’s traditions and especially to Tony Cliff’s deep hatred of formalism, now dominated the discussion. A particularly blatant example of this was found in a letter from Mark Krantz to Socialist Review, where he challenged my claim that the Russian Revolution was not made by voting alone, saying:

    To claim, as Birchall does that, “insurrections cannot be carried out by majority vote” is not true. Three times the Bolshevik central committee voted on motions for an insurrection. In the final vote, there were 20 votes in favour, 2 against, and 3 abstentions. With Russia ripe for revolution, and the majority decision carried out, the insurrection was organised, and it was successful. This was the 1917 October Revolution.[8]

    To reduce the Russian Revolution to a mere question of a Central Committee vote seems to me to be a complete abandonment of the revolutionary tradition.

    Things went from bad to worse. If Delta had given priority to the organisation to which he had devoted thirty years of his life, he would have immediately resigned from all positions and withdrawn into obscurity for a substantial period of time. Instead he and the CC agreed that he should have a high-profile speaking engagement in Greece. This was obviously seen as an attempt to humiliate the CC’s critics. (A leadership that sets out to humiliate a substantial section of the membership is obviously on the wrong track.) A number of prominent figures in our periphery announced that they would boycott Marxism.

    Initially I, and a great many comrades, were deeply depressed and stunned. If the CC had shown some willingness to reassess the situation, to look for reconciliation and compromise, I am sure that many of us would have responded positively. But the CC seemed concerned only to prove how tough it was.

    One CC member told me that it would be a good thing if the party lost members, since that would strengthen it politically. He compared the situation to the 1975 split – of which he appeared to know little.  I asked him if agreed with the late Gerry Healy’s axiom that “with every defection the party grows stronger”. At this he did demur.

    Eventually some of us agreed to form a faction. We gained a special conference.

    The conference preparation was a dispiriting affair. Delegates were elected on the basis of a grossly unrealistic set of membership figures, so that it was highly questionable whether they represented the real membership. The CC sought to stifle debate, not encourage it, by limiting opposition speakers to a mere six minutes. Every effort was made to exclude opposition supporters from attending conference. When I pointed out that in the past, Cliff and his CC had made efforts to ensure that articulate oppositionists attended conference in order to ensure that the real debate was had, I was accused by comrade Callinicos, in tones of snarling aristocratic contempt, of trying to present a “cuddly Cliff”. Cliff, as I knew all too well, was far from “cuddly”, but he had the political confidence to want open debate at the highest level.

    I won’t go into detail about the pre-conference period. Some supporters of the CC acted extremely badly – for example making fraudulent phone calls to cancel room bookings for perfectly legitimate opposition meetings. Maybe the CC did not positively encourage such actions, but it made no attempt to rein in its more enthusiastic supporters. However, it seems to be a fact of history that in faction fights everybody behaves badly, and doubtless some opposition members conducted themselves in less than an ideal fashion.

    The CC won the conference, with many supporters of the majority doing their best to encourage the opposition to leave, with moronic foot-stamping – something I do not remember from party events in earlier years. Not surprisingly some hundreds of members decided to depart.

    At this stage I considered my position, but decided to stay. The party had gone through bad patches before, and had managed to recover. I still hoped, against the evidence, that the leadership, having won its victory, would now look for reconciliation. Instead the leadership made it clear that there would be no more than cosmetic changes.

    The one point at which the CC was forced to step back came just before Marxism. When the CC suspended four leading members of the opposition, a large number of Marxism speakers announced that they would withdraw from the event. The CC backed off. (Strike action can win, as the SWP has often proclaimed.) But any hopes that the CC might use this to embark on a broader reassessment of the situation proved vain.

    For me the final straw came in September, when the CC announced that every single member of the CC that had screwed up so badly would be standing for re-election on the CC slate. After that I went through the motions of the pre-conference period, but I was clear that there was no future for me in the party.

    Throughout 2013 the style of leadership offered by the CC seemed to be summed up by a song by the late Pete Seeger, “The Big Muddy”[9]  (originally written as a comment on the Vietnam war). A platoon of soldiers on manoeuvres are ordered to ford a river by their captain, and though it becomes clear that the river is too deep, the captain obstinately refuses to change his instructions: “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on”.

    How did the party which did so many good things in the past, of which I was genuinely proud to be a member, deteriorate so badly? Was there a crucial turning-point at which things started to go wrong? Various suggestions have been made but I am sceptical of all of them.

    1950: Doubtless there are a few blinkered orthoTrots who think it can all be traced back to Cliff’s development of the theory of state capitalism. One might note that the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” did not save the WRP from a far worse scandal and implosion in 1985.

    1968: Was it Cliff’s turn to democratic centralism that set us on the slippery slope? Doubtless one can criticise the way Cliff argued for the turn, with his excessive reliance on quotes from Lenin. But some comrades[10] have presented a rather romanticised account of the pre-1968 IS. I remember it well, and it had its fair share of faults. More important, the 1968 turn was a turn to interventionist organisation. The charming informality of the pre-1968 IS was largely a function of our irrelevance. Even if our hopes in 1968 were exaggerated, we were entering a period of major struggles, and we did have a reasonable perspective of making a difference to them.

    1975:  Jim Higgins, in his book More Years for the Locust[11]and various of his comrades have argued that the events of 1975, when Higgins, Roger Protz, John Palmer, a number of leading industrial militants from Birmingham and other comrades were excluded, marked a fundamental degeneration in the organisation. It is hard to deny that the whole thing was handled badly, and that at least some of the losses could have been avoided. The CC, and Cliff in  particular, were impatient and seemed to believe we could squander cadre because there was an unlimited supply of new recruits. Yet there were real political reasons behind the split, in terms of the leadership style of Higgins,  the fetishism of professional journalism by Protz and the accommodation to the trade-union machine and the Broad Left by some trade-union activists.  I would still largely stand by the critique of Higgins I made some years ago in reviewing his book.[12]

    1979:  Was it the recognition, in 1979, of the “downturn” in class struggle, and the consequent reorientation of the organisation, with the closure of the rank-and-file groups, that marked the beginning of the decline? Again it has been argued: “It was after 1979 that the party bunkered down and insisted on its members’ political sameness.”[13] Here I would disagree strongly. It was Cliff’s recognition of the downturn that allowed the party to survive in reasonably healthy form during the 1980s, when many other organisations in Britain and around the world paid the price for not adjusting their perspectives to a more difficult period. Of course it is true that the downturn lasted a lot longer than Cliff, or any of us, expected, and that we should have made a more fundamental reassessment of the new period we were entering.

    1982:  Was the closure of Women’s Voice in 1982 a nail in the coffin of the SWP as a healthy organisation and a warning of worse sexism to come? It is undoubtedly true that the existence of Women’s Voice from 1972 onwards played a crucial role in developing an understanding of women’s oppression and transforming the organisation from one that was overwhelmingly male-dominated to one in which women played a central part. Yet there was also a problem – as long as Women’s Voice existed, women tended to be pushed into WV activity, while the rest of the organisation, and its trade-union and campaigning work, was still dominated by men. Some of the Women’s Voice activists recognised this danger; as Norah Carlin argued in 1984: “Our voices are still here – and are heard a lot more in Socialist Worker and Socialist Review nowadays than when we were ghettoised in our ‘own’ corner.”[14]

    1990s: Certainly the strategy adopted in the 1990s, with the turn to ever smaller branches, created a lot of problems and in retrospect seems to have been based on a false perspective. Yet the results were not wholly bad. The branches of the 1980s had been dominated by branch committees which planned and controlled everything. The changes of the 1990s made the membership more self-reliant. And though the hoped-for upturn did not come, we were responsive to new openings, such as the anti-capitalist movement. And we responded very quickly after 9/11, taking the important initiative that led to Stop The War.

    2000:  Was Cliff’s death the end of the road?  It was undoubtedly a massive loss, and I shall  say more about Cliff’s role below. But things did not deteriorate immediately. Stop The War, whatever mistakes were made, and whatever the subsequent evolution of some of its leading figures, was a major success and SWP members could be proud of their role in initiating it. All anti-war movements decline once the war starts, but STW maintained its momentum well, notably with the anti-Bush demo in November 2003.

    2007: The Respect  débâcle was certainly a major setback for the SWP. Serious errors of judgment were made by the party leadership. George Galloway was a difficult ally – in the words of the children’s rhyme, “when he’s good he’s very very good, but when he’s bad he’s horrid”. The fact that Respect failed to draw in other forces, especially from the Labour Party, meant that the organisation became far too centred on Galloway’s individual personality. Yet the initial impetus was not wrong; if it had been possible to build a left electoral alternative to the Labour  Party, that would certainly have strengthened the left as a whole, as well as giving the SWP a favourable environment to work in.

    Indeed, I would argue that the SWP was still in a reasonably healthy state, given the low level of struggle, right up to 2012. Marxism 2012 was one of the best I have ever attended (and I’ve been at all but one since 1977).  It was full of faces totally unknown to me, many of them young. I left the event feeling real optimism about the party’s future. It was all to be squandered within a few months.

    What I would argue, therefore, is that there was not one turning-point where things began to go wrong, but rather a series of negative processes which continued, often ignored or not taken seriously by the membership. Eventually quantity turned into quality, and a disastrous crisis erupted. The immediate cause was in some ways accidental. If, to put it crudely, comrade Delta had kept his trousers on, things might have developed very differently. I suspect, however, that the problems would have eventually made themselves felt in one way or another.

    One central aspect of the problem has been a long-term decline in inner-party democracy. This needs to be evaluated carefully. It is not a question of a power-hungry leadership robbing a reluctant membership of its democratic rights. On the contrary the membership has been at least as much to blame as the leadership, and as a long-term member I must accept my own share of the responsibility for the way things have gone wrong.

    First it is important to be clear about the nature of democracy in a revolutionary organisation. Revolutionary organisation is not prefigurative  – it does not seek to resemble the truly democratic society we aim to build in the future. Equality does not exist within a revolutionary organisation. When I joined the International Socialists in 1962 I was a postgraduate student who had read a handful of Marxist books but knew absolutely nothing about the working-class movement. Formally I had one vote, the same as Tony Cliff, with his enormous erudition and experience. In practice, quite rightly, Cliff’s influence over decisions was immeasurably greater than mine.

    But democracy in a revolutionary organisation is still essential. For two reasons. Firstly, leadership must be accountable and hence subject to constant scrutiny. Whatever the good intentions and revolutionary commitment of individuals, a leadership that is not challenged, that can take its re-election for granted, will become lazy and careless, will not bother to explain and justify its decisions, will take shortcuts because it begins to feel it can get away with anything.

    Secondly, a revolutionary leadership needs to know what is going on in the working class. It cannot do this by reading the Financial Times, it has to listen to comrades who have roots in different sections of the class and who can report on what is happening on the ground. As Cliff argued: “… they have to learn from their fellow workers as much as – or more than – they have to teach. To repeat, the job is to lead, and to lead you have to thoroughly understand those you are leading. Leadership is a two-way process….many see the party leadership as the repository of doctrine, of theory, of organisational skill and knowledge. Of course it has to be all these things to some degree. But mainly it has to be the most apt learner, the most sensitive ear and the firmest will.”[15]

    A good example of what this could mean was shown when the pit closures were announced in 1992; the SWP raised the demand for a general strike. At first sight this seemed to contradict the way we had always rejected such a slogan as ultra-left. But, for a couple of weeks at least, it fitted the mood in workplaces and union branches up and down the country. Paper sales and recruitment showed we were swimming with the stream. How did we get it right? Because the centre was constantly on the phone to organisers and key activists throughout the country. The leadership learns from the membership. But this means that members must report what they are really experiencing, and not what they think they are expected to say in order to make themselves look good. Otherwise we get the dreary triumphalism of Party Notes.

    And sometimes the leadership has to be made to listen to truths that are uncomfortable for it, that go against the line that it has been advocating. If the membership is reluctant to speak up and contradict the positions of the leadership, then all the leadership will hear is comforting echoes of its predetermined position. It will push on into the Big Muddy.

    Yet all too often we have allowed democratic mechanisms which are quite adequate on paper to fall into disuse. Back in the eighties, when strong branch committees existed, the branch committee would nominate a slate of conference delegates. While it was obviously possible for members to nominate an alternative slate, this was frowned on, and in practice was relatively rare. I recall a chairperson telling us the agenda for a branch meeting and saying “and then the conference delegates will be announced”. In practice he was right – this was what usually happened.

    In more recent years, when the number of a district’s conference delegates has been based on vastly inflated and totally unrealistic membership figures, districts have often been unable to find a full complement of delegates. At the North London report-back meeting in January 2013 Weyman Bennett very frankly admitted that most years he went to sleep during CC elections; obviously he found them boring and irrelevant. And yet his position in the organisation and his right to make decisions derived from such elections. That a CC member should have such contempt for the democratic process is obviously a matter of some concern. But the real problem is the fact that the membership – myself included – paid so little attention to the democratic processes within the party.

    The reasons for this apathy towards the democratic process lie deep in the culture of the party and can be summed up in the phrase “outward-looking”, which has wide currency in the party. Cliff was always scathing about comrades whose concerns were in his view “inward-looking”. And of course he was right. A revolutionary organisation exists in order to intervene in situations that have originated outside itself, to relate to movements, struggles and people outside its own ranks. The effectiveness of such interventions is the only criterion by which the value of organisations can be judged. But the danger inherent in this attitude, and one for which we eventually paid the price, is that any concern with the internal workings of the party is not the concern of members, and should be left to the apparatus – the CC, the full-timers and the district committees, who could on occasion be very “inward-looking” themselves, but who rejected the right of others to concern themselves with such internal matters.

    The other reason why the membership was so apathetic to internal democracy was that the existing set-up worked. From the 1960s onwards we had reasonably good results – in the Young Socialists, with Cliff’s books on shop stewards and productivity deals, with the rank-and-file groups, with the ANL, with our interventions in the miners’ strikes and the campaign against the poll tax, right up to Stop The War and Respect. We were growing slowly but steadily for much of the time, and didn’t have unrealistic expectations. As the CC tirelessly reminds us, we were able to “punch above our weight”. Why would we want to have a great row at conference when the existing leadership was taking us in the direction we wanted to go? (Actually any small group with an active – or hyperactive – membership can “punch above its weight”;  in itself it is no proof of correct politics.)

    These achievements depended very substantially on three people, Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman. From 1968 to the late nineties they were the core of the leadership. This is not to downplay the contribution made by a number of other talented individuals, but those three stand out above the rest. On Cliff little more needs to be said: I have written a very large biography of him, and I stand by my assessment. As I wrote “I can say with certainty that he was the most remarkable person I ever met”. He had his weaknesses, but in general they were the vices entailed by his virtues.

    Duncan Hallas had been a factory worker and had helped lead a mutiny in the British army. He had a profound knowledge of both Marxist theory and the British labour movement. In 1973-74 he had taken a lead in forming an opposition to Cliff; Cliff, who respected people who would stand up to him, took good care to win him back before taking on the opposition. But he was willing to challenge Cliff, to moderate some of his wilder whims and to “patiently explain” (to use a phrase of Lenin’s) the leadership’s line.

    Chris Harman was a very talented intellectual, whose work developed and complemented Cliff’s. Though in his younger years he had owed a great deal to Cliff, he quarrelled with him sharply in the late seventies over Cliff’s ideas about the orientation of Socialist Worker. But Cliff respected his judgment and was happy to see him resume the editorship for over twenty years. It is true, however, that after the deaths of Cliff and Duncan, Chris had problems in asserting himself as a leader.[16]

    These three in their interactions were able to give the membership effective leadership. Hence throughout this period there was no serious challenge to the leadership – and by the time all three were gone we had largely got out of the habit of challenging the CC. But the present leadership does not have the ability or the experience to command the same loyalty, and would have been well advised to adopt a different leadership style. Leadership has to be earned, not enforced by a vote.

    Of course the Cliff leadership made mistakes. At the beginning of both the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the campaign against the poll tax, the SWP initially took positions which had a certain justification, but which could easily lead into a sectarian isolation, from the miners’ support committees and the non-payment movement. But in both cases the leadership observed the situation carefully and recognised the need for an adjustment of the line.

    I will add here an anecdote about Cliff which I did not include in my biography because I could not get it corroborated, but which I remember vividly. In March 1972 there were police raids on certain IS members who were (wrongly) suspected of having IRA links. The National Secretary, Jim Higgins, issued a statement which went rather too far in dissociating IS from the IRA and from political violence. The Executive Committee (equivalent to the CC) discussed this and in effect agreed a cover-up, with only Chris Harman dissenting. At this point the woman who was taking minutes exclaimed: “But that’s a lie”, burst into tears and walked out of the room. Cliff’s immediate response was to say “That is how the membership will see it”, changed his position completely and persuaded the EC to disown the statement.

    Bourgeois politicians are terrified of changing their minds because they think it makes them look weak. In fact an inability to change one’s mind is a sign of weakness and makes one weaker, because one is trapped by past decisions. Cliff was always adept at changing his mind if circumstances required it. As long as Cliff was there, members could be confident that there was a flexible and sensitive leadership which would change course if necessary. So the mechanism of such changes, and the fact that they came from above and not from debate within the membership, was disregarded.

    No leadership is infallible, so all leaderships make mistakes. The question is whether they are able to correct those mistakes and recover from any damage they may have caused. It is only possible to speculate as to what would have happened if the Delta affair had happened when Cliff was still in the leadership. My own feeling is that Cliff would have got it wrong initially (“Boys will be boys”) and defended Delta. What is inconceivable is that Cliff would have allowed a haemorrhage of hundreds of members without doing anything to change course.

    The first indication that the post-Cliff leadership was not up to it came with the alliance with Galloway in Respect. My rather cynical, but I think accurate, judgment was that each was seeking to use the other. Galloway wanted to use us because he needed the foot-soldiers to do election work; we wanted to use Galloway because he would give us a higher profile and a bigger pool to fish in. Naïvely and stupidly, I had little doubt that we would come out on top; I remembered the ANL and other united fronts. How wrong I was.

    To sum up. The SWP has suffered from a serious lack of internal democracy. This was not simply imposed by the leadership – though it took advantage of the lack of accountability – but was a result of a membership which, understandably but wrongly, wanted interventionist politics and was satisfied if it got results. Hence the lack of democracy which produced such catastrophic consequences when the Delta affair exploded was a question of the culture inside the organisation much more than of constitutional structures, and there was no simple solution in terms of constitutional change which could remedy the situation.[17]

    Hence I would argue that many of the issues that came up during the faction fight were actually secondary in nature. “Democratic centralism” was invoked on all sides, yet the meaning of the term is very slippery. On the one hand, almost any form of collective action requires some sort of democratic centralism; there must be some way of achieving agreement. On the other hand there are so many forms and varieties of democratic centralism that it is hard to reduce it to an essence. To make “democratic centralism” a matter of principle seems to me to simply lead to confusion.

    The question of permanent factions was a red herring invented by the CC. It may be that individuals associated with the opposition advocated permanent factions – a faction on a specific issue is not homogenous. But it was never part of the faction’s demands. My own view has been for many years (since I was a member of a permanent faction back in 1969) that permanent factions are undesirable because they polarise argument. Issues are constantly changing and the danger of a permanent faction is that it becomes a party within a party. However, the moral panic about permanent factions created by the CC during the faction fight merely confused issues further and did not assist a proper discussion of the appropriate forms of internal debate.

    As for the slate system, I supported it from its inception, since I had seen at first hand the failures of the alternative, a popularity poll for individuals which meant that those known nationally as speakers and writers  got far more votes than comrades who were active in workplaces or localities. The slate system allowed the election of a balanced group of individuals whose skills complemented each other. It should be remembered also that in 1973 we had the worst of both systems, since the National Secretary circulated a secret slate to trusted comrades.

    However recent events have shown the limitations of the slate system. It has become a means whereby the CC can indefinitely propose itself for re-election, co-opting approved individuals as it goes. Moreover, a career path has now clearly emerged – comrades, generally former students, become full-timers, and if they are successful, they rise in the apparatus and become CC members. Thus we get a CC almost entirely composed of people who have spent most of their political life as full-timers and have very limited experience of work or trade unionism. When I made this point in the internal discussion, I received an irate response from the CC: “Four of us have helped organise strikes in previous workplaces, two more took part in the public sector strikes of 2011”.[18] It’s a pretty modest record for the self-styled leadership of a workers’ party. Two years ago an experienced trade unionist was taken on as a non-full-time member of the CC. Many of us welcomed this as at least a very first step in the right direction. But as soon as the comrade in question dared to disagree, he was promptly removed.

    I’ve known a great many SWP full-timers, and most have been dedicated comrades, working hard for meagre pay. But there is an essential difference between a party full-timer and a workplace activist – a difference of timescale. A workplace activist needs time – months, even years – to build credibility and establish her ability to lead. A full-timer is under pressure to get quick results. There is necessarily a tension between the two. Back in the 1970s and 1980s this was generally a healthy tension; workplace and trade-union activists  could easily lapse into routinism, and full-timers had to challenge this.  But now the CC seems to perceive the world entirely from the perspective of full-timers.

    In some ways this process parallels what is happening elsewhere in the political world. A report in the Guardian showed that “about half of Labour‘s candidates selected to fight in marginal seats at the next election have links to Westminster as former special advisers, party workers, researchers, lobbyists or MPs”.[19] This is an important aspect of the growing distrust of professional politicians by voters. (It is something Cliff would have seized on and analysed with great eagerness.) But the SWP cannot pursue a critique of the Labour Party on this basis because the parallels with its own career structure are so obvious.

    It seems scarcely surprising that so many comrades stood by the CC, despite its blatant ineptitude. We had got so out of the habit of exercising our democratic rights that we had almost forgotten how to do so. Those of us who joined the opposition faction could scarcely have imagined ourselves taking such a step even a few months earlier.

    There were other factors that put pressure on comrades to back the CC. I should stress that I am not adopting a superior or patronising position here. On the contrary I am describing pressures which I felt very powerfully myself. I do not doubt the sincerity of most comrades who backed the CC, nor the fact that they thought, deeply and in anguish, about the issues at stake.

    Firstly there is the question of organisation. People who become revolutionaries do so because they are angry, because they want to change a world based on oppression and exploitation. After their initial feelings of revolt, they come to recognise that they can only achieve anything effective by collective action, by becoming part of an organisation. The organisation is a means to an end, that of social transformation. But as we get involved in the minutiae of political activity, it is all too easy for the means to become an end in itself. The Leninist tradition in particular has always stressed the importance of organisation; Lenin was highly flexible about forms of organisation but he never abandoned the central principle “We need to be organised”. So often the defence of the organisation can become an end in its own right.

    The consequence is sectarianism. It is noticeable that in the language of SWP members, the word sectarian is generally used, not in its correct sense of putting the interests of the organisation ahead of those of the class, but rather to mean anyone who belongs to an organisation other than the SWP. Likewise in SWP propaganda the perfectly correct proposition “we need a revolutionary party” tends to slide into the rather more dubious “we are the revolutionary party”.

    And from here it is easy to lapse into megalomania. A few years ago a parliamentary by-election being contested by Respect happened to fall in the week of Marxism. I was assured by a number of SWP members that the Labour Party had deliberately fixed the date in order to disrupt Marxism. This is especially dangerous at a time when organisations on the left need to recognise their weakness in size and organisation, and not to claim to be more important than they are.

    Then there is the question of trust. Comrades have presented to me as a knockdown argument “I trust our Disputes Committee”. I understood what they meant, even if the beatific smile on their faces was a little too reminiscent of a child reciting the catechism. The comrades on the Disputes Committee were estimable comrades, with a  good political record.

    No organisation, and certainly not a voluntary one like a revolutionary party, can exist without trust. This is clearly shown by the fact that over several decades the SWP has extracted large sums of money from comrades and non-party supporters without ever publishing accounts, for the obvious reason that this would leave the party open to state harassment. We didn’t need to see the accounts – nobody in the party apparatus was getting rich and we had before our eyes the newspapers, placards and underpaid organisers that our money was paying for. So when rumours spread that full-timers paid from our contributions were hacking members’ e-mails it was easy to dismiss them as malicious slanders.

    Thirdly there is the question of loyalty. Peter Sedgwick once wrote a brilliant account of his own days as a Communist Party member before 1956, and why he had accepted the line put in the party press. He described participating in a demonstration which involved clashes with the police:

    The press on the following day was full of it, of course. Riots in the West End. Terrible scenes of hooliganism. One priceless head-line I still remember: Crowds of Reds Attack Police. We had expected nothing different.

    There was another better press, though, beholden to no trust of millionaires or Cold War liberals. The Daily Worker reported the lobby, the march and the police attacks, all magnificently. Any eyewitness could have compared the Worker with the newspapers of “the capitalist press” (a title that was not simply bestowed on them but well and truly earned); such comparisons would be made, by workers engaged in labour disputes, and by participants in a host of other struggles, repeatedly over many years, and always to the advantage of the Daily Worker. ….. Only two visions of reality, one reflecting the standpoint of the rulers, the other faithfully reporting the struggles of the ruled, contended in mutual exclusion, many newspapers against one, millions of bank notes against the shillings of the Fighting Fund. Two visions: two versions. Two media: two messages. This being so, thousands of Worker readers, drawn from circles of political allegiance well outside the ranks of the Communist Party itself, were also inclined to give its reportage the benefit of the doubt when its version of fact clashed with that of its unfriendly competitors, on other matters: the Soviet Five-Year Plan, say, or the trials in Eastern Europe.[20]

    Though we do not live in an age of moral Manichaeism like the Cold War of the 1950s, the feeling is familiar. We are used to the SWP being attacked and denounced by the right-wing press, and often by sections of the far left also. Our spontaneous response is to defend the party we belong to and have devoted our time and energy to. So when details of the Delta affair began to emerge, on the internet and then in the press, it was natural that we should feel sceptical, believe that what was going on was somehow a conspiracy against the party. The fact that the CC attempted to suppress discussion, rather than giving members an honest account of what had gone on, only made things worse. Organisational loyalty is natural and without it the very real sacrifices made by members would not happen. But it can also be dangerous.

    Another thing that became very noticeable during the course of the faction  fight was the style adopted by CC supporters. Again it seems to me that this is something which could be traced back for a good number of years. When the frequently well-informed Soviet Goon Boy writes that “It is well known that the SWP has an endemic culture of bullying”,[21] I think he is wrong. In my fifty years’ experience I have certainly seen full-timers – often young, inexperienced and politically insecure – attempt to bully members, but such bullying was an exception; for most of the time the party was an agreeable, comradely place to be. Some of us would not have stayed nearly so long if it had not been.

    Indeed the SWP in general has been a very tolerant organisation, much more so than most far left organisations I know of. I’ve spoken at most Marxisms and at hundreds of branch meetings,  and never been given more than the vaguest indications of what the CC wanted me to say. I’ve written repeatedly for the party press. Occasionally articles were changed or even blocked, but very rarely.  Of course I exercised a degree of self-censorship. But I generally felt trusted and able to try and exercise a degree of influence. I should add that when I submitted the first draft of my biography of Cliff, I confidently expected to be asked to withdraw a few passages which I thought would be seen as excessively critical. It is greatly to the credit of the CC and of Alex Callinicos in particular that my draft was published virtually unchanged.

    Nonetheless over the years there have been worrying indications of an unhealthy style of debate. Let me give just one example which has stuck in my mind. When the decision to join Respect was made, there was an aggregate meeting in London to endorse the decision. It was an enthusiastic, optimistic meeting – we felt that the party was on the brink of a significant step forward. Almost all the contributions from the floor favoured the strategy; I certainly shared the meeting’s enthusiasm.

    Then one woman who spoke raised the question of Galloway’s flattery of Saddam Hussein (“Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”). Several people began to heckle her and one particularly thuggish young man in front of me attempted to shout her down. She was unable to finish her speech. This was of course entirely pointless; there was no danger that the massive majority in favour of Respect would be affected. It also occurred to me forcibly that this was precisely the sort of question that might be asked in the course of an election campaign, which is what we were about to enter. I suspect the hecklers would have run a mile if asked to campaign on the doorstep; heckling when the majority is on your side is an easy option. Neither the chair nor the CC member delivering the main report reprimanded the hecklers. I have always regretted that I did not speak to criticise the hecklers; so I bear as much responsibility as anyone else for what was a symptom of a declining standard of debate.

    Another prominent, and regrettable, feature of debate during the faction fight was the tendency for comrades to explain what the argument was really  about. Thus “You may think you are objecting to the way a complaint of rape was handled, but in fact you are arguing against the historical agency of the working class, for permanent factions, against Leninism,  etc. etc.”)

    I remember encountering, just after signing the faction statement,  at a meeting unconnected to the dispute, a comrade whom I had liked and respected for several decades. Without even saying Hello, he began to jeer at me for believing in consensus decision-making, a position I do not hold and on which, as far I know, I had never expressed an opinion. He did not seek to ascertain what my position was, simply attacked the position he was attributing to me. This style of debate became all too common.

    When people argued in this way I was often reminded of a passage from the writings of Sir Karl Popper, who in attempting to refute what he called “historicism” stated:

    I have tried hard to make a case in favour of historicism in order to give point to my subsequent criticism. I have tried to present historicism as a well-considered and close-knit philosophy. And I have not hesitated to construct arguments in its support which have never, to my knowledge, been brought forward by historicists themselves. I hope that, in this way, I have succeeded in building up a position really worth attacking.[22]

    In other words Popper knew better than his opponent what his opponent really meant. The fact that the leading intellectual on the CC is a great admirer of Popper may not be entirely a coincidence.

    Only a few loyalists may have read Popper, but all of them had undoubtedly seen Jeremy Paxman. And Paxman’s interviewing style, based on self-promotion and contempt for the person being interviewed, was copied widely in the debate, generally by comrades who had all Paxman’s charm but little of his talent. During the course of the faction fight it was rare to encounter a comrade who would say: “Clearly the party has a serious problem; we need to work out how to deal with it. Tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you what I think. Then we can see if we can reach some agreement.”

    On the contrary, the assorted mini-Paxmans were confident they knew the correct line, and seemed to assume that since I might not have studied my internal bulletins carefully enough, it was necessary to harangue me with the CC position. There was generally no time for me to state my position or even to answer the questions they were shouting at me. All in all this was a style of debate which probably convinced few if any oppositionists, but made the loyalists feel warm inside because they were proving their loyalty.

    Let me make it quite clear that I am not being squeamish about vigorous debate and polemic; that is normal and healthy, especially when the stakes are high. It is the style of argument I am objecting to. Above all because fear of debate is a product of a lack of political confidence. A leadership that at national, district and branch level attempted to curtail debate, use cheap debating tricks and organisational manoeuvres, was a leadership that did not have the political confidence and the level of political understanding necessary to take on the real arguments. They should remember Cliff’s warning: “Another danger is to talk at people instead of to them. We have to learn to listen to what people are saying and respond. We can’t always choose the terms of discussion.”[23]

    This fear of debate also extends to relations with the rest of the left. A couple of years ago I asked Charlie Kimber if I could attend the CPGB summer school in order to promote an issue of Revolutionary History that I had edited. He replied that I should not since they are “our political enemies”. I really had to wonder whether an organisation of 27 members with minimal involvement in the labour movement were “political enemies” or marginal humourists.

    Another feature of the debate which I found negative was the tendency to rely on the party’s past. Thus in defending “Leninism” Alex Callinicos told us that

    In 1968 the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation. In other words, we decided to take our reference point in how we organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.[24]

    In the mouths of countless loyalists, the argument became “This is how we have done things in the past and we shall go on doing them in the same way”. That the 1968 turn came at the beginning of a period of heightened class struggle, and that we are now in a very different period, seems to be forgotten.

    Increasingly in recent years the party has come to rely on its past. The education pamphlets edited by Joseph Choonara were in many ways valuable, and made some important texts available for study. But a good deal of the material dated from the last century, and the most substantial contributions came from the deceased trio of Cliff, Hallas and Harman; more recent items tended to be of a journalistic rather than a theoretical nature.

    A related symptom has been the increasing tendency to talk about “Leninism” (a term promoted by Zinoviev after Lenin’s death) rather than about the historical figure of Lenin. This seems to me to be a comparatively recent trend. In my little Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (published by the party in 2005, presumably with CC approval) the word “Leninism” occurs only four times (once in a book title) and the word “Leninist” twice – once in the statement “there is no such thing as the mythical ‘Leninist Party’.”

    Now I have no desire to underestimate the importance of history – indeed I think of myself as a historian. Continuity with the past is vital, and the movement’s rich history contains many lessons. But the strength of our tendency, from its very beginning with Cliff’s document on state capitalism, has been a willingness to combine the essentials of Marxist analysis with a readiness to look at the changing reality of the world we live and fight in. My favourite quotation from Cliff is “If you sit on Marx’s shoulders you see far, but if you sit on Marx’s shoulders and close your eyes, you don’t see very far at all.”[25] As Cliff  used to say, the post‑war Trotskyists were like people trying to find their way around the Paris métro with a map of the London tube.

    I still remember the IS group which I joined in 1962. Our main political opponents (in the Young Socialists, which was our chief arena of activity) were the orthodox Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League (SLL). Debate between the two tendencies was rarely productive because of what one of our comrades described as “personal abuse and mindless vituperation”.[26]

    One of the charms of the 1960s IS was that we did not respond in kind. We mocked the SLL’s outdated jargon – when they accused us of being “left Mensheviks”, Glasgow comrades announced that they were forming the “Left Menshevik Male Voice Choir”. While the SLL were still putting across a view of the world (in the early 1960s) based on impending slump and even the imminence of fascism, we prided ourselves on a perspective based on a study of the evolution of modern capitalism. We had Tony Cliff, Mike Kidron, Alasdair MacIntyre and Nigel Harris, comrades who were on Marx’s shoulders, but with wide open eyes. We might not understand every detail of the analysis, but the main points were clear enough. And they gave us political confidence, so that we could argue in a calm, respectful fashion, listening to our opponents instead of talking past them and shouting them down. That confidence persisted into the eighties. Because of Cliff’s downturn analysis we were able to look at the world realistically, to recognise defeat and our own limitations, to combine optimism of the will with pessimism of the intellect. But now that self-confidence has faded, along with the high level of political analysis and understanding it was based on.

    So when I and my comrades were subjected to “personal abuse and mindless vituperation” during the recent faction fight, I wondered what had changed. Individuals, as I am all too well aware, age and become decrepit. Is the same true of organisations? Do they have an all too brief period of vigour and effectiveness, followed by a slow decline into feebleness and irrelevance?

    Certainly the SWP has an ageing membership. Marxism 2014 was reasonably well attended – but it did look a bit like a pensioners’ rally. In itself this has its positive side. When I meet comrades who have survived thirty, forty and even fifty years I am struck by the power of ideas – Marx transmitted via Cliff – which not only attracted us in our youth but have continued to hold our commitment ever since.

    Yet all too often comrades seem to have forgotten their own youths. To see one of the founders of Rock Against Racism (a historic initiative of which we should all feel proud) transformed into a grumpy old man is a sad spectacle. Of course these older comrades want to recruit new young members – but they want new members who are like they were when they were young. Unfortunately the world has moved on and such people are in short supply. One comrade from my own age group lamented to me that the young comrades in his district who supported the opposition were “not in the same party as I am”. Now they are indeed not; I hope he is confident that he is in the right organisation.

    One example of generational conflict was the venom directed against Richard Seymour at the beginning of the faction fight. Richard is a talented young writer who has produced several useful books. His website, Lenin’s Tomb, was, in its best period, a fantastic asset, which provided a place for serious but lively discussion of a range of issues. It had an international reach; to an aspiring socialist in somewhere like Texas, a thousand miles from the nearest paper sale, it must have been a beacon. When I interviewed people for the Cliff biography, they could still remember forty years later the first time they had heard Cliff. I suspect in forty years’ time veterans of the movement will recall their first debate on Lenin’s Tomb. Now I have my disagreements with Richard, and I certainly cannot guarantee his future development, but nothing he has done so far deserves the abuse he has suffered.

    He was constantly presented as a central figure in the opposition, though this was not the case (indeed, I think Richard was open to criticism for not taking more part in the faction fight). He was accused of careerism because he occasionally writes in the Guardian. (Personally, whatever disagreements there are, I would sooner read Richard in my Guardian than Polly Toynbee or Zoe  Williams.) This was rampant hypocrisy because the self-same comrades who attacked him are full of nostalgic admiration for Paul Foot, who was also once an ambitious young man who wrote in the bourgeois press. Cliff spent a great deal of time on Paul Foot, recognising his talents but also seeing the need for firm but fraternal discipline. Nobody in the present leadership was willing to give the same kind of attention to Richard.

    Yet among loyalists the hatred was poisonous. One longstanding comrade known to me admitted he had read nothing by Richard and that he had never visited Lenin’s Tomb. Yet when Richard’s name was mentioned he drew his finger across his throat, signifying that he should be immediately expelled ….. or worse.  Alex Callinicos was once a bright – and ambitious – young thing, who incurred the disfavour of Cliff and Harman because of his unorthodoxy, notably his love of the Stalinist Althusser. Does the elderly gamekeeper look at Richard and see an image of himself as youthful poacher?  I disagreed with Richard’s decision to leave the party after the special conference, but I can well imagine why he felt he had to.

    I would argue, therefore, that the SWP’s decline is because of a lack of political self-confidence. As I mentioned earlier, Cliff had supreme self-confidence; he wanted to confront oppositionists because he believed he could win the argument. In 1988-89 the CC was arguing that there was a “new mood” which would mean a rising level of struggle. A comrade well-known to me expressed reservations about this analysis. She was rung up from the party centre and told she must be a conference delegate because an articulate representative of the opposition was required. Contrast the present leadership running away from debate, with their fingers on their stopwatches to ensure that the opposition did not get a second more than six minutes to put its case.

    The self-confidence that characterised IS/SWP from the sixties to the eighties was based on an analysis of the world. Cliff’s famous troika (state capitalism, arms economy, deflected permanent revolution) preserved us from softness on Stalinism, Third Worldism and underestimation of the resilience of capitalism. But that world came to an end in 1989. Some valuable books and articles have been written on changes in the working class and new developments in imperialism, but they are only partial contributions. As I wrote in chapter thirteen of my biography of Cliff:

    The logic of Cliff’s position was that if Marxism is to remain a “guide to action” in the modern world, a whole series of troikas may be needed, as successive generations relate Marxism to the realities of their particular epoch. Socialists in the twenty-first century face new patterns of employment, the revolution in communications produced by the internet, the challenge of globalisation and the threat of disaster from climate change.[27]

    I don’t know if anybody got that far.

    Of course I don’t have a snappy answer to the situation – I don’t know what the new “state capitalism” will be. I’m not going to argue that what will solve the left’s problems is an adequate analysis of neoliberalism/intersectionality/climate change/call centres/the experience of the indignados-Podemos.  (I suspect all five and a lot more.) A new analysis will emerge from struggle and from an environment in which innovative thinking is encouraged, not feared; where that will be I have no idea. But I doubt if it will come from scrutinising the footnotes in Capital or tweeting Financial Times headlines.

    Can the SWP survive and renew itself? I am genuinely agnostic about this. I hope so, because for the SWP to collapse or shrivel into a meaningless sect would weaken an already fragile left. The SWP still has a significant number of well-respected activists in workplaces and communities – though I suspect that often, like CP members in the 1950s and 1960s, their credibility depends on their own qualities rather than on the party they belong to.

    But renewal would mean an almost total change of leadership and, even more important, a change in the culture that I have discussed above. There are many competent and experienced comrades in the SWP who could replace the present rather mediocre bunch on the CC, who I gather are once again presenting themselves for re-election en bloc, as though any change in the leadership team would be seen as a sign of weakness.

    A renewed leadership would need to urgently address the question of membership figures. Despite recent tightening up, there is still a huge disparity between the claimed numbers and those who actually participated in, for example, the aggregates prior to the special conference (intensively and legitimately whipped by both sides). It is hard to see the point of this; who do the CC think they are lying to? The members (except perhaps some very naïve new recruits) don’t take these figures seriously, and nor does the movement outside the party. (Any revolutionary knows that lying is sometimes justified. The problem is who is being lied to.) And the result is that other figures given by the party (for example the amount contributed to the Appeal) will be regarded with a certain scepticism.

    A second important question is Socialist Worker. In 1974 Cliff organised the removal of a very good editor – Roger Protz – because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that the paper could become even better.[28] Contrast the complacency of the current CC about a paper which is increasingly drab and tedious. In 1980 Paul Foot wrote a letter to SW commending the paper: “The last four or five centre spreads in Socialist Worker have reached a standard which in my view is higher than anything yet achieved by the paper…..SW is breaking out of the mould which so many of its enemies want to cast it in. It is taking risks, which itself is a sign of confidence and when SW shows confidence that is good for all of us.”[29] Today Socialist Worker takes no risks; the letters page seems to fear the slightest hint of disagreement. Back in the 1970s and 1980s SW had writers like Peter Sedgwick,[30] Dave Widgery and Eamonn McCann, who often deviated from the line; sometimes they infuriated the readers, but they provoked controversy and kept readers interested.

    The various attempts, still continuing,  to boycott or ban the SWP show that the opposition was absolutely right to insist that the whole Delta affair could not be brushed under the carpet; the air of injured innocence adopted by the SWP is, to say the least, disingenuous. Nonetheless such boycotts, notably the exclusion of Alex Callinicos from the London Historical Materialism conference (which enabled Callinicos to present himself as a victim), seem to me misguided.

    Of the people who have left the SWP, I have been most impressed by the comrades of RS21. They combine thoughtfulness, an orientation to practical activity and a recognition of their own limitations. For largely personal reasons I have decided not to join them, but I wish them well and will be happy to co-operate with them. But it is still far too early to predict their future.

    My own feeling is that organisational regroupment is not desirable at the present time. Unity would mean agreement on both programme and organisational forms, which seems to me to be unlikely. Indeed, it could make things worse; to adapt Joy Division, “regroupment will tear us apart again”.

    What is needed is not organisational unification, but a culture of fraternal dialogue very different from the trading of clichés and denunciations on the left with which we are all so familiar (and of which I have been at least as guilty as anyone else). The Marxist left is small and deeply divided; we need to work together wherever we can, and engage in an open exchange of ideas, rather than starting from the standpoint that any group is the pre-appointed vanguard.[31]

    The fact that International Socialism  No. 142  contains two pieces by members of RS21 and that it acknowledges their authors’ affiliation is a tiny straw in the wind but a welcome one. I should add that, with one notable exception, SWP members have treated me in a friendly and fraternal manner since my resignation. I was very pleased to accept an invitation to speak at Marxism 2014.

    The capitalist state is highly centralised and we need a centralised party to confront it. True, but scarcely relevant at the present time. Neither the SWP nor any other group on the British far left could confront a bunch of drunken football hooligans, let alone a bourgeois state. The important thing at present is the battle of ideas; as William Morris put it, “it should be our special aim to make Socialists”.[32]

    As Cliff pointed out “ideas are like a river and a river is formed from lots of streams”. The IS/SWP has been one stream among many; I also liked the fact that our international organisation was called the International Socialist Tendency, since it implied that we were just one current in a broader movement (even if that was not the intention of whoever dreamed up the name).

    All revolutions are surprises, and we cannot predict future struggles. What we need at present is the greatest possible clarity in theoretical understanding, combined with the greatest possible unity in practical struggle. New organisations will emerge which will doubtless seem alien to both Alex Callinicos and myself. They will probably not be “Leninist” in any normal sense of that term, but they will draw on Cliff and on Lenin, just as we continue to draw on Babeuf, Marx, William Morris and many more.

    I still remember driving Cliff home after an Executive Committee meeting in, I think, 1972. The party was making good progress and at the meeting we had all shown the customary optimism. But afterwards Cliff was in more philosophical mood; while expressing satisfaction at what we had achieved, he added: “And if we fail, some of our comrades will be part of the next wave”. It is a statement that has always stayed with me and helped me not to identify the long-term struggle too closely with any particular organisational manifestation.

    The International Socialist stream will take certain ideas and attitudes into the river, in particular:

    a)      The rejection of not only Stalinist state capitalism but of the very idea that state ownership is any part of the definition of socialism;

    b)      The insistence that our starting-point must always be the actual struggle of workers at the point of production/exploitation rather than any abstraction such as “workers’ parties” or “workers’ states”;

    c)      The stress on beginning with actual struggles, not preconceived strategies or programmes: in Rosa Luxemburg’s words “Mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary labour movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.”[33]

    For many years the SWP defended those ideas within the socialist movement, and I remain proud of what we achieved. The débâcle of 2013 was profoundly sad, but the fifty years before that were not in vain. Like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.

    Ian Birchall

    December 2014

    [1] My thanks to several ex-members of the SWP with whom I have discussed these issues and who have helped me clarify my ideas. But this final version is solely my own responsibility. Thanks also to the Everly Brothers for the title, [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z3qOzsVviI ] (though I don’t agree with Don and Phil about permanent factions).

    [2] R Harris, An Officer and a Spy, Arrow Books, 2014, p. 386.

    [3] http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/22a.htm (Thanks to Mike Jones for drawing this quotation to my attention.)

    [4] A Callinicos, “Is Leninism Finished?”, Socialist Review, February 2013, http://socialistreview.org.uk/376/leninism-finished

    [5] I use the name Delta because that is how he is referred to in the transcript of the conference session, and in a great many other online documents. It is on the basis of these that I have had to make my no doubt inadequate judgment of the individual in question. How “Delta” relates to the flesh and blood individual whom I knew (though not well) and respected is hard to determine.

    [14] N Carlin, “Women and the Left”, City Limits, No. 141, June 15-21 1984, cited I Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time, p. 473.

    [15] International Socialism 81-82: September 1975, pp. 47-8.

    [16] See the very guarded criticisms in the obituary by John Molyneux and Andy Durgan: http://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/obituaries/obituaries/harman.htm

    [17] See Phil Gasper, “Is Leninism Dead?” http://rs21.org.uk/2014/10/15/is-leninism-dead/  for some thoughts on the importance of a democratic culture.

    [18] Central Committee, “A Reply to the Faction”, Pre-conference Bulletin 3, November 2013.

    [20] Peter Sedgwick, “A Day in the Life of the ’Fifties” http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1971/xx/fifties.htm

    [22] A Pocket Popper (ed. D Miller), Fontana, 1983, p. 291

    [23] Socialist Worker, 19 November 1988.

    [24] Socialist Review, February 2013, http://socialistreview.org.uk/376/leninism-finished.

    [25] Meeting at Marxism 1999.

    [26] For a vivid and highly amusing account of the atmosphere in the Young Socialists at the time, see Jim Higgins, “A Weekend With the Lumpentrots” http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1964/05/lumpentrots.htm

    [27] Tony Cliff, p. 540.

    [28] See chapter nine of Tony Cliff for full details.

    [29] Socialist Worker 24 May 1980.

    [30] In 1972, the peak year of working-class struggle, SW carried a furious correspondence about the politics of RD Laing. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1972/03/familyltr.htm

    [31] Alex Callinicos tells us that “We have to shake off the petty narcissism of our different projects …History will judge us very harshly if we fail.”  [Socialist Worker 14 October 2014, http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art/39198/The+left+must+unite+to+be+an+alternative] Given the state of the British left today, I suspect “History” will not even give us a footnote. A realistic appreciation of where we are is a precondition for moving towards where we want to be.

    [32] W Morris, “Statement of Principles of the Hammersmith Socialist Society”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1890/hammer.htm

    [33] Cited T Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, Harrow Weald, 1959, p. 41.