This guest post by John Rees, the clapped out and utterly defeated ex-RESPECT supremo first appeared at Socialist Unity
Many people have asked me in recent weeks what are the politics behind the current argument in the SWP. The debate is currently focussed on what happened in Respect. Many of us were deeply involved with the Respect project, and felt a great deal of disappointment at its outcome. We all deserve a full examination of this experience. But this is not what we are getting in the pre-conference period. And the debate concerns a lot more than Respect and most comrades have been given no information about these wider disagreements.
I have always hesitated to take these arguments beyond the Central Committee. I remember from the internal fights in the 1970s that such debates can be damaging as well as enlightening. But I now think that we have no choice but to initiate a full and wideranging debate in the SWP. This document deals with the following key issues.
1 There is a serious debate to be had about the experience of Respect. But this should be an informed political discussion not a personalised blame-game that distorts both the facts and the general lessons that can be drawn from our recent
2 The personalised and restricted nature of the discussion so far obscures the fact that four Central Committee members (Lindsey German, Chris Nineham, Chris Bambery and I) have raised a number of issues that have resulted in sharp disagreements on the CC over the last year. These are: recruitment to the party, the SWP’s slow response to the recession and the CC majority’s failure to support the Charter.
3 The nature of leadership in our party. This is now being contested by a number of comrades, including those who support Neil Davidson’s document in Internal Bulletin 3, but also by some CC members.
I’d like now to look at these issues in turn.
The context of the debate
The crisis in the SWP is the most serious for many years. There are many issues in thisdebate. But one aspect of the debate, the crisis in Respect, is being handled in a personalised and destructive way. The decision to remove me from the CC slate for conference has not been argued in political terms. It was taken so late in the preconference discussion period that there could be no written discussion on the reasons for this decision.
The CC majority has since rejected the proposal of Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham that it should produce an additional bulletin to allow for this discussion before Christmas. This document attempts to discuss some of the political differences that have arisen in the last year. It also examines what actually happened in Respect and answers some of the charges against those of us involved in it. Finally, it examines wider problems in the party and it attempts to take up some of the points made in Neil Davidson’s document ‘Leadership, membership and democracy in the revolutionary party’ in Internal Bulletin #3.
The immediate problem has been that despite the fact that all important decisions taken during the Respect crisis were agreed, argued out and defended collectively by the Central Committee, the majority of the CC have since decided to respond to disquiet in the party by personalising the issues rather than continuing to discuss and argue them out in a serious way.
But there are deeper, underlying issues that have contributed to the crisis. First the weakness of our recruitment and, second, a failure to convince a large enough section of the party of the importance of the various united fronts we have been involved in since Seattle. In the process what has also emerged is a more general move away the traditional style of leadership in a Leninist party.
Taken together these problems have generated a sense of paralysis in the party that has meant that we have been unable to respond with anything like our usual decisiveness and élan to the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s.
The Respect crisis
The demise of Respect led to disorientation and disappointment in the party. Many people put a great deal into building it and hoped that it would be a genuine left alternative to Labour. The split not only meant that both sides failed to create that alternative and for many that hope is now more distant. The CC document deals with a number of the more general points about how the project went wrong. Here I want to add my own views and to explain the actions that I took.
Firstly, Respect was always a coalition involving forces that came together in the antiwar movement. Much of the left including the Communist Party of Britain abstained from the beginning, as did other left Labour MPs. So we were left with George Galloway, a talented and high profile anti-war campaigner but one whose record historically was not on the hard left of Labour; radicalised Muslims; a number of other activists radicalised by the war and disenchanted with Labour, and the far left, predominantly ourselves.
This coalition worked relatively well for the first two years and reached a high point with the election of Galloway in 2005. But things began to go wrong after that, largely as the result of the pressures of electoralism. Political differences in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham especially turned into acrimonious disputes over questions such as selection of candidates. But these arguments were about much more than tactical decisions made by local or national comrades.
They expressed two very different approaches to building Respect that became increasingly polarised: on the one hand our comrades and our allies tried to pull it leftwards by emphasising trade union work and OFFU, attempting to broaden Respect generally and by campaigning over issues such as LGBT and women’s rights. On the other a growing opportunist strand increasingly prioritised electoral success at almost any cost. This strengthening of the right took place against the ebbing of the very strong anti war sentiment. The events of 7/7 also had a profoundly demoralising effect on sections of
the Muslim community. As we tacked left tensions grew. And once Gordon Brown made his (eventually abortive) run for an early general election in the late summer of 2007 it became clear that George Galloway was not going to wait for the London mayoral election before he struck.
It is sometimes said by CC members that they knew nothing of these tensions. That is simply untrue; they were repeatedly brought to the CC. And in early 2007 an NC was devoted to the emerging problems and the strategy of tacking left was discussed. Kevin Ovenden and Nick Wrack both made coded defences of the status quo in Respect. Kevin Ovenden argued we couldn’t move beyond the ‘three-legged stool’ of the SWP plus Galloway plus radicalised Muslims and was criticised by other comrades, notably Charlie Kimber.
We also attempted to strengthen the Respect office politically and asked two comrades, one now on the CC and one a former CC member to take on the work. Both refused for different reasons, and maybe we should have tried harder to find other people to work there. In my speech on Strategy and Tactics to 400 people at Marxism 2007 I placed heavy emphasis on the need for a revolutionary party to be able to act independently of its allies and flagged up the problems in Respect as fully as was possible in a public forum. It is therefore obviously the case that the CC recognised a series of political problems and tried to address them.
This political account of the history of Respect has been presented before. No doubt it can be added to. Unfortunately at the moment it appears that in some circles it is being abandoned. To reduce the complex history of the very real successes and the demoralising demise of Respect to the failures of one comrade is doing a disservice to everyone who was involved or wants to learn from the experience.
But the real question before the party now is how we handle this reverse. First let us gauge the dimensions of the reverse. It is a reverse in one area of the SWP’s work and it is a reverse for the left, not for the whole working class. It cannot be compared, for instance, to the defeat of the 1984-85 miners strike.
Nevertheless, for the SWP, it is a serious issue. There are two possible ways we could go. We can handle it as we did the decline and eventual closure of the ANL in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the threat of the Nazis receded we gradually, though not without argument, altered the focus of our activity and kept with us many who had joined the SWP as a result of the ANL’s activity. We were then in the best position to resume action on this front when, year’s later, it became necessary. Or we can go the way of the Militant after they led the anti-poll tax campaign~internal recrimination, splits and
It would be better if we laid aside the whole framework of personal recrimination and focussed on the emerging political debate in the SWP, much of which is not about what happened in Respect. But to do this we must address some issues repeatedly raised by the CC majority either in public debate or as part of a whispering campaign.
The first is the issue of accountability. Of course every member and especially CC members have to be accountable. In general CC members are accountable given the high visibility of their work, and rightly so. However, there has never been an area of party work that has undergone such scrutiny as the Respect work. The CC, or sub committees of it, met daily or several times a week during the Respect crisis. It is certainly true that if other areas of work were subject to the same detailed investigation there would be many things that could be questioned. And it is worth repeating that the Central Committee agreed all the substantive decisions that were made. The question is thus raised why have the CC majority chosen to focus on this issue when they know that there are wider political differences at stake that have been debated at the CC across the last 12 months?
The central question raised in discussions about my accountability is the OFFU cheque. But the issue of the OFFU cheque was supposed to have been resolved at last year’s conference, when I apologised to the whole conference. It is being deliberately used a year later to renew a factional attack on the CC minority. I apologised for not having looked at the background of the cheque more carefully and for only reporting it to Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery and Lindsey German (the sub-group of the CC who were involved in the discussions with Galloway) rather than the whole CC.
It should however be recalled that after the first meeting with Galloway where he raised this issue there was a report back meeting held at ULU on the following Friday evening which was attended by hundreds of SWP members. Alex Callinicos gave the report of the meeting with Galloway. He reported the cheque issue as a ‘minor financial issue of the sort that always arises in faction fights.’ When the PFI element of the argument was introduced into the discussion by Galloway’s press officer in a later letter Alex described this as ‘just more psychological warfare from Galloway’. At no time did he think it sufficiently important to report it to the whole CC himself or to revise his account given to the SWP members meeting.
But contrast treatment of the OFFU cheque with another donation made to a united front earlier this year. UAF received a £75,000 cheque from the singer Morrissey in the run up to the LMHR Carnival. This was never reported to the CC. Morrissey was at that time embroiled in the court case arising from the NME’s accusation that he had made racist remarks during an interview with an NME journalist. The donor of the OFFU cheque got nothing in return for his money~no publicity, no soft-peddling on PFI. But Morrissey did get something for his money~anti-racist credentials during a court case in which he was accused of racism.
Should we have accepted this cheque? We were never given the chance to discuss it. Earlier money for the Carnival from the NME might also be an issue for debate. The NME is published by IPC, a firm with an anti-union record. Moreover it also publishes Nuts and Loaded. The former’s advertising slogan was ‘The best boobs in Britain, get them every week’. Should we have taken the money?
My view is that if the only way of saving the Carnival was to take the money, then we should have done. We are not moralists but Marxists for whom the advance of the struggle sometimes requires difficult compromises. After all, Lenin accepted the help of the German state in the midst of war to return to Russia even though he was accused of
being a German spy ever after.
What is objectionable is that those who took this money, didn’t report it to the CC, and then attack the decision over the OFFU cheque. The only difference in these cases is that Galloway cynically used the OFFU cheque and reported it to a state body in order to destroy OFFU and embarrass the SWP. The CC majority should have said this, while acknowledging the mistake. Instead they divided their own leadership over an issue that had no bearing on the split in Respect since Galloway only used the issue after the split had happened.
The other major episode cited in the debate is the Left Alternative NC in early September at which Lindsey German, Chris Bambery and I resigned. Martin Smith has claimed we ‘blew up’ the NC and that our plans were unknown to the rest of the CC. This is untrue. It was agreed some weeks previously with a sub committee of the CC that none of us would stay on the NC since we all took collective responsibility for what had happened. We assumed that this would be communicated to the rest of the CC, since we had also given up responsibility for the work. I personally raised at three successive CC’s that someone needed to take responsibility for the LA, although we were then accused of not sufficiently preparing for the meeting.
We did not ‘blow up’ the meeting. It would always going to be a difficult meeting because many people on the committee, especially the non-members but also some members, did not agree with the decision. What was needed was a recognition that actions by the party leadership were not popular among some Left Alternative members and a degree of patient argument was needed to win those people over.
As in the case of the OFFU cheque, these events were debated in a highly confrontational manner at the party NC. The majority produced a resolution saying that I was no longer responsible for electoral work (a resolution which had already been agreed some time before by the whole CC). The minority was told that no resolution would be put before the NC. An hour before the meeting we were told that there would be a resolution and we were not given the opportunity to put our names to it. We were then baited when we argued, truthfully, that we had no disagreement with it, as it was in fact a CC document previously circulated to the SWP members on the Left Alternative NC at my specific request.
However traumatic that meeting was, we were told by Martin Smith and others that it would be the end of the matter. Alex Callinicos said in the meeting itself that there was no question of this episode bringing in to question my membership of the Central Committee. Far from being the end of the affair, the NC became the launch pad for a series of lies. First that Lindsey never told CC members about her resignation plans and, second, that Lindsey, Chris and I broke party discipline even though the one other CC member at the Left Alternative NC meeting, Charlie Kimber, has clearly stated that there
was no breach of discipline.
We are also told that the CC minority ‘want to continue electoral work’. This is a continuing accusation despite the fact that in my resignation speech to the Left Alternative NC I said that: ‘there will be no opening for a left of Labour electoral project at least until after the next general election’. This was exactly in line with the original assessment that he gave at the Left Alternative NC on June 28th and which is recorded in the minutes of that meeting:
‘John Rees, National Secretary, delivered a report on the recent defections of the councillors and opened a discussion on our direction for the future.
It was agreed that we need to adapt as an organisation to the changing political climate and concentrate on grass roots campaigns as opposed to a top-down approach.
There was agreement that we could not work in the same way as the immediate past but that our role in campaigns should be as a unifying factor that provides a wider political argument and in the wider political movements as providing links via some activities and newsletters.
It was noted that the political situation outside of London is different and more positive. It was agreed that we assemble work around the Charter.’
This is precisely the formulation still be used by the rest of the CC. But the CC majority need to invent a difference on this issue to justify their attacks on the CC minority. If we are to have a full assessment of the Respect experience we have to look at the whole context as well as the series of tactical decisions made. In this light we should acknowledge the present difficulties of those who stayed in Respect: George Galloway is clearly moving back towards Labour, witness his endorsement not just of Ken Livingstone but of the candidates in the Glasgow East and Glenrothes elections. It looks extremely unlikely that he will contest Poplar and Limehouse in the next election, Respect having come third behind Labour and the Tories in a recent by election in Tower Hamlets. Alan Thornett’s group have now produced a document arguing that they have to try to pull Respect to the left _ exactly the argument that the SWP put in the past. This is
further evidence that the tensions in Respect were not about individuals but about politics.
There has been a personalising of the argument to an extent unprecedented inside the party. The CC majority claim that I am the problem and they are happy to continue with Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and Chris Bambery on the CC. Yet they know that all four of us have held the same political positions throughout this crisis. We are already hearing that some CC members are telling people that they want others of us removed from the CC. Of course this will be denied. But then Alex Callinicos solemnly promised the last NC that the resolution over electoral work and my removal from the work had
nothing to do with trying to get me off the CC and that he would personally oppose such a move. Comrades will judge for themselves how to take his more recent assurances.
How the division began: the first argument over recruitment
The first serious division on the CC was not over the crisis in Respect. But immediately after the Respect split last November there was a discussion on the CC about SWP recruitment. It seemed obvious to us that party recruitment was lower than it should be and that the end of the Respect project and the interregnum in the ‘war on terror’ meant
that we could launch full scale a recruitment campaign.
Lindsey German produced a paper for the CC suggesting this and that another worker should be appointed to assist Martin Smith in recruitment (see Appendix 1). The reaction from Martin Smith was instantaneous: he refused to discuss the idea with Lindsey and attacked her so forcefully at the CC that Alex Callinicos, the chair of the CC, later apologised for not having stopped this attack. Lindsey withdrew the proposal over recruitment. Two weeks later Martin Smith launched the attack over the OFFU cheque.
Why was recruitment such an important and explosive issue? The lack of party growth stands behind much of the discontent in the SWP at the moment. The question behind the questions is ‘Why have we not grown as much as we should have done through the period of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements?’
The SWP has thrown itself into these movements, led many of them, and gained enormous respect. We have recruited from among the best activists in the movements and there is no doubt we would now be much a smaller and older organisation had we not taken this turn. However it is also true that recruitment has not fully matched expectations. Why?
There is part of the explanation that is objective: the nature of the radicalisation that has taken place. This has largely been a deep seated (but nevertheless mostly) political reaction to neo-liberalism and war. And in Britain at least, the lack of a real specifically class dimension, the decay of the Labour left and the level of industrial struggle made the argument for socialism and the power of the working class less obvious than would otherwise be the case.
Nevertheless, even within this limitation we should have grown more. On reflection it appears we made a double error in the course of the last 10 years. Firstly we did not insist that every SWP member should fight to build the united fronts. Secondly we did not party-build systematically enough while we were involved in the united front. These are, of course, contradictory aims and therefore hard to combine in practice. But we could have done better than we did.
To understand what is necessary, lets look at these two propositions more carefully. First, the turn to the united fronts in the 1990s, especially forcefully after 1999. The eruption of this phase of struggle came after a long 20-year period of stability in the SWP. The basic branch structure and propaganda orientation established in the early 1980s was still in
place. Of course we had been involved in struggles and united front activity during this period as well~but not on the scale, duration or in the same depth as we were after 1999.
When we helped create Globalise Resistance, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect we largely adopted a method of charging forward with those comrades who were willing to move. The demands of the time were great and time was short. We argued a perspective, largely accepted by the party, and fought to make as much progress in building these mass campaigns as we could. But a significant section of the membership, while not openly or effectively opposing the perspective, remained rooted in the old party structures and habits of mind. They felt uncomfortable with the party’s evolution, critical of a ‘move away from Leninism’ and so on.
Over time this produced a differential experience among party members. Some understanding the needs and challenges of the united front, others unhappy that the SWP seemed to be forgetting the truths of revolutionary socialism as they had been taught them in an earlier phase of the struggle. This gap mattered less as we rushed forward and encountered no reverses. But it has cost us a great deal when we encountered a problem in Respect. Too many people encountered this as an external threat caused by the specific behaviour of comrades in this area of work rather than as a problem that we were all engaged in and had to solve collectively.
We should have done more to win these comrades to active involvement in the united front so that we all shared the view that we needed to party build through the united front and not in opposition to it.
But these comrades also had a point. The SWP should have found ways of recruiting more effectively from the movements. But this error cannot be blamed only on those comrades who were most centrally involved in Stop the War. There is always a division of labour in the party, and that applies to the leadership as well. We attempted to continue to play a central role in party building long after the united fronts began. Lindsey German and I continued to edit Socialist Review and the ISJ respectively until 2004 _ several years after we began Stop the War. The truth is that there has not been single minded and
systematic attention to recruitment. That is the responsibility of the whole leadership. The recruitment figures given in Internal Bulletin 1 show some success but they do not tell us about party growth because they only tell us about those who have joined not those who have left. Retention is the vital issue here. But because of the permanent financial crisis in the SWP retention is primarily addressed by the CC majority as a question of paying direct debit. This is not necessarily a sign of active engagement in the party. A member can pay a direct debit and be just as passive and inactive as those who do not.
The retention issue is not being addressed politically by strategy of actively engaging members in both the work of the united fronts and the party.
The recruitment issue was, as we have seen, the origin of the first major conflict on the CC last November~not the Respect crisis. The weakness of recruitment~alongside the leaderships handling of events~has been a major reason why the split in Respect has turned into a crisis for the SWP. It has contributed to a sense of paralysis in the party. Even now recruitment takes place at sporadically organised rallies rather than at monthly public meetings. Such regular recruitment meetings would act as a focus for branches and improve the flow of new recruits, making the branches more habitable for new and old comrades alike. In the past Socialist Worker would have been used as a bridge pulling people from the movements into recruitment events, interviewing new members, reporting on recruitment rallies. But for the paper to act in this way it has to have something more than the current rate of recruitment to report.
The result of not following this course is that the party structure and the active membership are in a worse condition than at any time since the early 1980s. Preconference aggregates involved perhaps a sixth of the membership. It is unlikely that total branch attendance is any greater on average. There is a division in the membership and the active membership is in crisis.
The apparatus of the party has increased its weight in relation to the membership. The full-timers now often substitute for an active membership rather than being given a strategy to develop an active membership. This has, in the recent debate, created a bullying and intimidatory atmosphere where the apparatus of the party plays a far larger role in the internal debate than it has done in the past when the membership was more active and party structures better attended. The recruitment crisis has also become a financial crisis as the membership cannot sustain the apparatus inherited from a previous era.
The majority of the leadership have reacted to this crisis by blaming it all on the reverse in Respect~generating an atmosphere in which any united front is now being viewed with suspicion by some sections of the membership. This view is not being effectively countered by a divided leadership and is being encouraged by some sections of the
This situation has had its impact on the SWPs response to the recession that has been late in general and especially hesitant on the question of the united front.
The recession and the confusion in the SWP leadership
The current economic crisis did not begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. It was obvious at least from the collapse Northern Rock a year ago. There is no theoretical agreement on the CC about the likely depth and length of the recession. In the course of attacking me for saying that the SWP had been late in responding to the recession Chris Harman told the last NC that we had no idea how deep the recession would be on the very day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. Just a day later Martin Smith opened a joint CC and local organisers meeting with the words ‘we’ve been
late on the recession.’ In the Manchester pre-conference aggregate Alex Callinicos admitted that he had been late in seeing the depth of the recession because he did not want to seem like one of those Marxists who are always claiming there is going to be a crisis of capitalism.
The division in the CC that began over the double crisis over weak recruitment and Respect, widened by the response to the OFFU cheque, has impeded our response to the recession. When Lindsey German and I first raised the issue of the Charter in May it was rejected by the CC. When it was eventually won Martin Smith introduced it to the NC as a petition, but had to retreat under criticism from the floor from comrades who saw in it much greater potential.
This attitude towards the Charter still persists. The lines of division are slightly different to those over Respect but they have still badly hampered our ability to respond to the unrolling economic crisis. Despite the fact that the Charter has been the most successful form of united front response to the recession the SWP did not prioritise the recent Charter/UCU rally with Tony Benn, as Charlie Kimber admitted. The result was the almost impossible to achieve audience of just 120 for a Benn rally.
For a substantial period of the summer and autumn this confusion took another form: the John McDonnell/PCS initiative Public Sector not Private Profit was run by the CC as a possible response to the recession. In the discussion at the CC on this issue we pointed out that this initiative, though having the advantage of some union support, was slow and controlled by forces hostile to the SWP, notably McDonnell’s office. The Charter was in some ways as broad and it was faster to move and it allowed the SWP to play a leading role, we argued. Nevertheless SWP members had to go through months of organising PSNPP meetings before Martin Smith finally announced at the autumn Party Council that PSNPP was ‘too slow’ to respond to the recession. Since then this initiative has been unceremoniously dropped without discussion or debate.
Some of the practical confusion about the Charter has now resulted in theoretical confusion about the Charter and the united front in general. The current International Socialism doesn’t actually name the Charter but it is clear that this it is the intended target of this passage: ‘Struggles will arise over wages, housing, fuel poverty, the health service, against racism and war. Inevitably many of these will break out when people least expect them. There cannot be a single plan, drawn up in advance, on how to react. What will matter will be the capacity to respond pragmatically to movements and struggles that arise locally or nationally…’ (p.11)
Now of course there will be unforeseen struggles and of course we will have to relate to them and attempt to influence them. But the recession is well underway and we know some of the issues that concern people. We should be already developing tools (like the Charter but not exclusively the Charter) that seek to provide a political focus for resistance and to organise protest.
It is simply not a perspective to say ‘something will turn up’. Politics is always unpredictable. But this should not prevent us from developing a perspective even if we have to change it (or even abandon it) at a later date. To do anything else is simply
‘tailism’ as the Bolsheviks used to call it. It leaves us disarmed in the face of initiatives taken by other political forces, often smaller than us, who are not content to ‘wait and see’.
There are undoubtedly great opportunities for socialist propaganda at the moment. But our perspectives cannot be reduced to propaganda only. It was regrettable that at the mini-Marxism in early December Alex Callinicos’ final rally speech did just this. In front of a the biggest left audience any of us will address for many months Alex effectively made a number of good points about the failures of capitalism, the desirability of socialism and the need to join the SWP. But he did not mention the Stop the War Coalition, The Charter or any other united front. Neither did he mention the mobilisation against the G20 or the anti NATO protest next April, the major mobilisations of the coming months.
Surely there can be little useful argument designed to prove that an adequate revolutionary strategy in the recession is only combined of two elements: propaganda for socialism on the one hand and reacting to the spontaneous struggles of the class on the other~no matter how essential both of these must also be in a total strategic response to the crisis.
We cannot go into the most serious economic crisis in a generation with a response only based on propaganda and reacting after the event to resistance as it arises. We have also to work with others to try and generate resistance and to shape it politically as it emerges. Besides which our Charter is not the only one out there. John McDonnell has one. So do the Morning Star. It is not a choice between our version of the Charter and no charter. It’s a choice between our vision of the Charter and a poorer, less political, less dynamic version led by someone else. There is, as ever, a premium on speed of reaction. Had we not formed the Stop the War Coalition then others would have protested against the war with less adequate, less broad and less effective forms of organisation. It is always thus.
Leadership and democracy
The fundamental problem of the leadership in the SWP is not the constitution of the party, as Neil Davidson argues and as the CC majority seems to partially have accepted. Frankly the constitution is a very general document that has remained unchanged while the real structure of the party and the relationship between its parts has altered considerably. We need to look beneath the words and study the real active relationship between the party and its leadership.
The main problem has already been addressed: we have not grown as quickly as we should have done. There is no general culture of recruitment and the leadership has not fought hard enough to construct it. We have made some quantative advances in recruitment levels (as you would hope given the political climate) but there is no centralised, systematic prioritising of this issue. There is an ‘increased emphasis’ on recruitment~but not a recruitment campaign. The recruitment meetings are, as we have said, too sporadic. Recruitment is not regularly discussed at party committees, lists of the next ten recruits are not drawn up and the visits arranged. There are not recruitment campaigns carried in all the party publications. It is not the second item in Party Notes every week~and nor could it be because there is not enough going on to report.
This simple fact reflects itself in every area of party life. Why should long-standing party members go to branches that don’t have new people at them? Why should they do educational meetings if there aren’t new people to listen? Too many branches are small in size and become places where people who have been doing the same things for years discuss the party routine. Lack of recruitment means lack of energy feeding into the party from the mass movements.
Moreover, the financial crisis (itself a product of lack of recruitment) means that a huge internal engine is necessarily devoted to raising money rather than raising the number of members.
This problem has been discussed at the CC and was the original cause of the split on the CC. Some of us raised the model of recruitment that Cliff used to speak about. This was that we would push out and recruit in large numbers even if we then lost some people. Cliff used to say, ‘if we recruit 2,000 and lose 1,000 at least we will have kept 1,000. If we didn’t aim to recruit 2,000 we will only get 250’.
Cliff’s method in this was right. To do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason. People have jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in. If you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You
have to ‘bend the stick’.
The majority of the CC has now specifically and consciously set this method aside. Their claim that it is ‘too divisive’, ‘too argumentative’, risks ‘alienating people’ and is ‘too polemical’. Arguing too determinedly is seen as not ‘treating every member as golddust’. Now, of course, this method can be over-used. Necessary exaggeration can tip over into the kind of fantasy perspective that has sometimes gripped some of the left sects. And ‘bending the stick’ can exaggerate an error~as we did with the ‘punk paper’ at the height of the ANL mobilisations in the 1970s.
But properly used it is indispensable. There is simply no other effective way of leading a revolutionary party (at any level) than identifying the key link in the objective situation, prioritising it, polemiscing to get the party to prioritise it and arguing through this necessity with other members.
The alternative is what we are too often getting from the CC majority now~a confusing mush of different perspectives with no prioritisation or consistency over time. This is the ‘buffet lunch’ approach to leadership~come whenever you like and take a bit of whatever takes your fancy. Organisers and branches are bombarded with a series of demands from
the centre that override priorities even when they are given by the CC.
The outbreak of the recession has made this weakness all the clearer. It has raised confusion to the level of theory. It is clear that these divisions on the CC are only allowed to surface as if they are about the Respect crisis. The CC majority are using the understandable disquiet that a reverse causes in the party to try and remove and intimidate those on the CC who have a different notion of leadership. It is convenient for them to centre the attack on me because I was most closely involved with Respect but it is aimed at Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and Chris Bambery as well.
The SWP is now at a turning point. If the entire leadership group associated with the Stop the War Coalition is removed or silenced it will send the message to SWP members and to the whole left that we are in full scale retreat from united front work. This process is already underway. While some CC members have been stressing the continued centrality of the Stop the War Coalition, Alex Callinicos told the South London aggregate that ‘Its clear that Stop the War will be less important in the future.’ The divisions on the CC are already undermining the Charter. Chris Harman told the Bristol aggregate that the Charter is ‘a national united front that we don’t have’ and insisted that the SWP is isolated in its response to the recession. This will be a self-fulfilling prophecy if one rejects the Charter where Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Larry Elliot, Paul Mason, Sally Hunt, Tony Kearns, Caroline Lucas and many others do work with us.
But even more seriously it will mark a transition from one kind of leadership to another. This is not the conventional issue for an argument inside a revolutionary organisation but it could not be more important.
If the ‘steady as she goes’ method takes hold, as it has done in other left organisations, then a slow decline into a shrivelled caricature of the former state of the organisation is likely.
But if we recover the polemical and dynamic methods of leadership at every level, meet the challenges of the recession head on, redouble our efforts to recruit from the radicalisation around us, we can emerge stronger than we have ever been. Splitting the leadership over electoral work, which is in any case and rightly a secondary concern a present, and persisting in this split is a massive diversion from this central task.
In reply to Neil Davidson
I do not agree with much of Neil Davidson’s argument but it does at least raise important issues. Chris Harman has made a reply widely circulated at his request by other comrades. I agree with many of the historical and theoretical points that Chris makes in criticism of Neil. But he agrees with many of Neil’s most immediate proposals on party democracy. I believe that this is a dangerous course on which the CC majority hasembarked for purely pragmatic reasons. Like the decision to divide the leadership over the OFFU cheque it is being made to conciliate critics not for principled reasons. An independent critical examination of his document may therefore help us.
Neil argues that from 1968 to the present the SWP has failed to grow as much as it might have done because it has failed to be precise about the nature and purposes of the united fronts it which it has been engaged and because its democratic structures have impeded its ability to react correctly to events.
Specifically Neil believes that we have incorrectly designated the attempts at building new radical parties as united fronts and that this has contributed to the reverses that have taken place in our electoral work. Finally, Neil suggests that if there were a less professional leadership that included those who hold down jobs and which was drawn from different parts of the country we would be more able to deal with these issues. He is more generally critical of a ‘top down’ and anti-democratic culture of debate in the SWP that closes off necessary discussion prematurely.
Neil is at pains to insist that he wishes to focus on the subjective barriers to recruitment and that he is suspicious of explanations that stress limits imposed by objective conditions. Thus he quotes George Lukacs to the effect that what we should focus on is the gap between what seems objectively possible for a revolutionary party in any given period and what it actually achieves, accounting for any discrepancy with an explanation that focuses on what we might do to close that gap.
I agree, but the relevant timescale is not the entire period from 1968 but the more recent period since the rise of the anti-globalisation movement in 1999. Let’s first look at why I think Neil’s timescale is wrong and then say where the problem he refers to has come from.
It is surely not credible to claim that the main barriers to growth over a 40-year period are subjective.
This period has after all encompassed an enormous worldwide radicalisation and upsurge in industrial struggle after 1968, the defeat of that wave of struggle, the onset of neoliberalism and a global offensive against the gains of the upturn, the destruction of the state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia, the emergence of a radical antineoliberal mood and the growth of a mass, global anti-war movement.
It is demonstrably the case the fortunes of the whole left, and of the SWP, were related to these events. Indeed it might be an equally if not more valuable task to compare our fortunes with those of other currents on the left. In other words, why not ask the question: given the same objective conditions how did the SWP fare in comparison with other organisations on the left?
A brief overview might conclude something like this: in the upturn we did well emerging as the most important organisation to the left of the CP. As the upturn turned to downturn and the far-left was attracted into the Labour Party by the rise of Bennism we survived better than most, although this was not apparent until the collapse of Bennism. While Bennism lasted other forces, including the Militant, looked more prominent than we did. We only finally emerged as the most significant left of Labour organisation with the dual collapse of Bennism in the second half of the 1980s as Kinnock finished off the Labour left and the demise of the CP after the revolutions of 1989. It is however worth noting that we underestimated the effect that the damage done to the rest of the left would have on us While the revolutions clarified arguments among the left they also brought into question for many the whole project of building a socialist party.
The left’s crisis evaporated a wider environment in which socialist ideas were current and therefore made the case for socialism harder to make to newly radicalised audiences in the movements that arose in the 1990s and after. This is one of the reasons why autonomist and anarchist ideas made a return during the birth of the anti-capitalist
Neil is right, however, to highlight the one big subjective error that we made in this period: the ultra left attitude to the Poll Tax in Scotland. This cost us a leadership role in the anti-poll tax campaign, gave Militant an extra lease of life, allowed the disastrous condemnation of the anti-poll tax rioters by the movement’s Militant leadership in 1991 and, in the longer term, assisted in allowing Tommy Sheridan and the former Militant cadre to a lot us a subordinate position in the SSP. There are few more dramatic demonstrations of the cost of sectarianism in our history.
There were, of course, other errors. We took a long time to adjust to the downturn. In the Miners Strike we zig-zagged over the correct forms of solidarity and the right slogans to raise in different phases of the strike. But none of these made a substantial difference to the size or standing of the SWP in the longer run.
This example points to a better way of assessing our subjective errors: we have to look at what is possible within each phase of the struggle, noting of course how success or failure in one phase impacts on successive phases. It we don’t do this then trans-historical explanations begin to creep in~here the classical traditions definition of the united front and the SWP constitution.
Neil Davidson’s document wishes to narrow almost to vanishing point our definition of the united front. But first lets step away from definitions for a moment and state directly the relationship we wish to have with reformists, leaders as well as rank and file members. Surely it is this: we wish to co-operate in specific fields of action while retaining the independence of our revolutionary politics and organisation.
The most widely applicable definition of this experience would seem to be the united front, but it would smell as sweet by any other name. I used the term ‘united front of a special kind’ in the debate with the SSP. I used it because in the united front it is quite clear that revolutionaries retain their political and organisational independence. This allowed us to contrast this form of co-operation with the model of the SSP that requires the dissolution of separate revolutionary organisation. This is still the model that the LCR is about to adopt in France where it is due to dissolve itself into the New Anti-Capitalist
Party. I still think that SSP-LCR model is a mistake and that the virtue of the united front definition is that it underlines the continued organisational independence of the revolutionary party.
Now Neil doesn’t say a lot about the SSP. In fact he says more about It’s a Wonderful Life. But I assume that he acknowledges that this form of the radical left party generated all the same problems as Respect and ended in at least as damaging a split. It seems therefore that the ‘new party’ formula is no more of a defence against failure than the
united front approach.
So the problem remains: how do we build a wider political formation without losing the identity of a revolutionary party? It seems to me that limiting the classical tradition’s approach to the united front will not help us here. Trotsky’s examples (actually most of the quotations in the Charter article in the IB are from the Comintern theses which Trotsky wrote but which Lenin and the rest of the Comintern supported) may not be perfect. But creatively applied their general approach remains valid because they reflect the underlying structure of uneven consciousness in the working class.
Neil reminds us of the valuable remarks made by Cliff about the decay of reformist organisation and the problems this creates for a united front of the classical kind. And he is right to remind us also of Duncan Hallas’ injunction that we must act in ‘spirit of the united front’. But it seems odd to recall these sentiments and then to insist on an even more restrictive notion of the united front than that found in the Comintern. The point, for me, about both Respect and the Charter in their different ways was that they were a creative adaptation of the general united front approach. But perhaps Neil didn’t mean
that we should be quite that creative!
So if it’s not an incorrect theoretical approach to the united front that is at the root of our difficulties will they perhaps be resolved by altering our constitution? The CC propose setting up a ‘democracy commission’ meeting once a month, but I doubt this will prove to be a solution.
I’m sure there are valuable improvements that could be made to the party constitution and to party democracy. The important thing is to find ways of increasing our political clarity by involving more comrades in discussion of and participation in our political strategy. Crucially this involves strengthening the branches, the basic democratic unit of the party. As well as recruiting, this means getting members back to the branches by making them places where politics is discussed in the context of activity, where we develop explanations of events but also discuss and organise the broadest possible campaigning activity.
It also means diminishing the weight of the apparatus and its abuse of the existing democratic structures. It is obvious for instance that the current delegate entitlement, where there are sometimes more people elected to conference than there are people in the room to elect them, needs to be reformed. But these sorts of proposals should be brought directly before conference.
But a semi-permanent ‘democracy commission’, especially at a time when the CC has been weakened, will become a House of Lords for the SWP that will review the work of the CC either formally or informally. It will be resonator for the kind of factionalism that we have seen in the current debate and it will be a step towards the kind of semiprofessional
CC that Neil desires.
This will be another step away from the clear and decisive leadership the party really needs. To get that political clarity is the essential thing, not organisational reform. I hope this document will assist in developing that clarity.