There is currently a faction fight underway in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Britain’s largest far-left group. In the interests of openness and the widest possible debate on the left, we reproduce the key publicly-available documents here.
Statement of the SWP Democratic Opposition
Four comrades have been expelled for forming a ‘secret faction’ during the discussions prior to SWP conference. The expelled members had been legitimately concerned about the handling of very serious allegations directed at a CC member and the way that this was being handled by the organisation and had discussed about what this represented and how comrades could ensure the matter was dealt with properly.
There had been some discussion about whether to declare a faction or not. Some comrades, out of concern for how these matters had been dealt with previously, were in favour of doing so – but other comrades were worried that this might be premature or even disloyal. It is for having this discussion and sharing these concerns that the comrades have been expelled.
Importantly, the accusation of ‘secret faction’ was made against those concerned about declaring one whilst those in favour of declaring one have been referred to as ‘honest’ in a number of report backs from the CC to affected local branches, implying that those expelled were ‘dishonest’. We unreservedly reject this description as slander against the four excellent and valuable comrades who have been expelled.
We feel that this incident raises serious questions about democracy in the SWP in general and about the coming conference in particular. First of all, it cannot be right that a discussion about whether to form a faction is used as evidence of a ‘secret faction’ when it is in the general discussions of the pre-conference period. On a basic level, if we cannot have discussions about whether to form a faction or not, then, in reality, factions are de-facto impossible to organise and the right to form them is purely notional.
Secondly, it is not the case that this is the first, or even the most significant case of comrades discussing meeting before conference to discuss the possibility of a factional organisation that never ended up being formed.
In the run-up to the highly contested 2009 conference, a number of unofficial meetings between SWP members occurred, mainly in pubs and on one occasion after a party council, of members concerned about the developing crisis following the botched electoral strategy in 2008. The pace of events meant that these meetings, which were certainly planned in advance, never coalesced into a named faction, but no members were disciplined for involvement, certainly not the two people who serve on the CC since who had participated. The unofficial pre-conference meet-ups of 2008 were followed in Summer 2009 by an even more unorthodox grouping: a petition, written and organised entirely in secret and outside pre-conference season and mainly signed by party staff, to oust the then-editor of Socialist Worker. Again, no disciplinary procedure was employed – particularly not against the party worker who organised this factional group, who is now in the CC. These incidents, and doubtless others, show that any claim that the rules regarding factions are not, and have never been, implemented with a degree of judgement taking into account prevailing circumstances are wholly false.
There should not be an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the run up to conference. Leninism requires discipline to confront the class enemy – not to prevent debate amongst our own comrades. We believe that these malicious expulsions must be revoked immediately and that the CC must retract its accusations against the four people.
We are also deeply concerned about the impact of all this on our reputation inside the movement. It is little short of incredible that if the expulsions are not rescinded, comrades are going to be expected to defend the expulsion of four comrades (including one woman) simply for discussing concerns about the handling of very serious allegations in their own organisation.
Our feeling is that this is an untenable situation and will have an appalling impact on the morale of members and our ability to build in today’s movement. We think that one of the key lessons of the democracy commission was that no comrade should be treated as indispensable. We make no judgement of guilt or innocence of the comrade concerned but note that any other comrade facing allegations of this type with such frequency would be suspended until such time as the allegations were resolved. It is disturbing that the comrade concerned did not voluntarily step down when it became clear that the allegations, whether justified or not, had the potential to seriously damage the organisation. An attitude which treats individuals as indispensable and sacrifices the interests of the membership for them has nothing to with Leninism and more closely resembles the self-interested behaviour of reformist bureaucracies.
Importantly it is not just our reputation at stake here but the health of our own tradition. In response to the expulsions some comrades have repeated the language of some of Galloway’s defenders. There have been complaints about ‘liberal feminism’ and even belief-beggaring accusations that some of the comrades expelled have been MI5 agents, or acting on behalf of Chris Bambery’s organisation. Whilst the CC cannot be held directly responsible for such idiocy it is a warning of the kind of ideological degeneration possible when administrative coercion replaces the norms of debate in socialist organisation.
We are aware that serious concerns have already been expressed by those involved in the disputes committee case around this matter, as raised at a recent NC meeting, and that space has been set aside to discuss the way the organisation has mishandled the allegations. This is a positive development, but we believe that beyond the direct issue of the DC there are now equally serious questions about the condition of the SWP that makes a faction necessary if we are not to be expelled for expressing our concerns.
We propose that three things are necessary to prevent further damage to the good name of our Party:
1. The expelled comrades deserve a full and frank apology from the CC and the expulsions must be declared null and void.
2. Conference must re-affirm that comrades have full rights to conduct any and every kind of discussion in the pre-conference period. This should include raising questions of whether such freedom ought not to be extended beyond the pre-conference period.
3. The dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined, and the CC member concerned must be suspended from all Party activity and cannot work full time for the Party or in the name of the Party until all the allegations against him have been settled satisfactorily.
In addition to these statements, we are asking comrades to support the motions raised on the question of party democracy at conference. In our view, the conduct of the CC regarding both the expulsions, and the disputes committee referred to above, come as a result of structures and perspectives that restrict internal democracy and discussion.
We are aware that some comrades may share our concerns regarding the expulsions and/or this disputes committee investigation, but reject our conclusions regarding party democracy. We hope to persuade them of our position on this; but even if we cannot accomplish this, we would still ask you to vote for the reinstatement of the four comrades who have been expelled.
The SWP Central Committee replies
A group of comrades have decided to form a faction as they are entitled to under the SWP’s constitution. I have attached and pasted below their explanation of why they are forming a faction and the names of those involved.
You will see that the faction refers to the expulsion of four comrades. This followed the CC receiving extensive information about a closed Facebook conversation between a group of comrades.
The CC does not expel people for holding views contrary to the CC, nor for putting motions to conference that are critical of the CC or for seeking to change policy. We try hard to ensure there is plenty of space for discussion and debate in the party.
However, the norms of democratic centralism – the fullest debate before a decision, the united application of those decisions also relies on openness and transparent discussion.
In this case the CC found that at least some of those involved in the Facebook group had organised secret meetings to discuss internal party matters and had encouraged comrades to keep their views quiet in order to boost their chances of becoming conference delegates. Some were prepared to involve non-members in their discussions.
They had decided not to become an open faction, preferring their hidden discussions. This is the opposite of real party democracy.
Such behaviour trampled on our democracy and is contrary to our constitution. Therefore, in order to defend our democracy, we expelled four people. These are all former full-time workers for the party who are thoroughly aware of our democratic rules. They all played an organising role in the group.
They are entitled to appeal against their expulsions and such appeals will be heard by the Disputes Committee. The Disputes Committee case referred to by the faction concluded at the end of October. The Disputes Committee will present a report to conference where delegates will be able to vote on it.
The Democratic Opposition’s second document
It is absolutely crucial that the SWP throws itself into building the resistance to austerity in Britain and solidarity with the revolutions abroad. In a time of growing class anger, the SWP should be looking to grow and to grow seriously. We believe that democratic centralism is the best organisational system to face the challenges of the 21st Century. For us, that means open, and vigorous debate in an atmosphere free from intimidation, followed by absolute unity in action.
In the spirit of open debate this document has two purposes. It begins by giving a critical analysis of recent developments, including responding to what we believe to be falsehoods. The document then goes on to outline our vision of what democracy in a revolutionary party should look like today.
In the very short time that this faction has existed we have almost doubled in size and have received a considerable amount of support from SWP members from across the country. Many comrades have voiced concerns over the current atmosphere of intimidation and mistrust and are convinced that it is vital to take a stand.
Our initial declaration was limited in scope due to our belief we had to respond rapidly and let our position be known to the party immediately. We have faced various limitations and constraints due to the length of time and the particularly busy period in which we have had to act. We are attempting to bring a fuller, more thought out document to life and hold meetings as soon as possible to share and feed in experiences and opinions.
Since the original declaration’s release, we have received comments from the comrades involved in Disputes and, in order to respect their wishes, have decided to amend our original demands accordingly:
Point three originally read:
“The dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined, and the CC member concerned must be suspended from all Party activity and cannot work full time for the Party or in the name of the Party until all the allegations against him have been settled satisfactorily.”
It has been modified to:
“The handling of the dispute concerning a member of the CC highlighted above must be re-examined. This faction hereby waivers any right to intervene directly in the DC debate on the proviso that the Conference Arrangements Committee agree that people directly involved in the case are granted as much time to contribute as possible.”
Inconsistencies and dangerous precedents
In late October a Facebook conversation took place between SWP members. It is important to note that this was a conversation, not a secret or closed group which it has been portrayed as. Four comrades were targeted and expelled as a result of this conversation taking place. Having a combined membership lasting around forty years, these comrades were informed – via email – that they no longer had a place in the organisation they had dedicated so much of their lives to. Why were the four comrades specifically targeted in a conversation involving tens of people? The CC has told us that this is because they were the experienced members of the group who should have known better. Yet there were older comrades who had been in the party longer than the four expelled who were also involved in the discussion.
The CC has also claimed that the reason these four were chosen was due to the nature of their contributions in the Facebook conversation: that these four had argued against forming a faction, and were therefore somehow dishonest about their real intentions. This is nonsense– arguing that there might not be sufficient support for a faction is the last thing a faction, ‘secret’ or otherwise, would ever do. To compound the ridiculousness of the situation, it is worth pointing out that all of the four who have been accused of forming a secret faction, have yet to even meet.
Another inaccuracy that needs addressing is the claim by the CC that non-SWP members were consciously involved in the conversation by others. In fact, one person, who was until very recently a member of the SWP, was added by an individual who believed this person was still in the party. On finding out this individual was no longer in the party he was promptly asked to leave the conversation and immediately did so. He had not participated in the discussion and has not publicly mentioned it since.
There was no plan for this discussion to form the basis of a ‘secret faction’ and the CC has no real evidence to support this claim. By saying that this conversation breaches party rules, the CC has set a bizarre and disturbing precedent: any informal discussion between comrades that criticises, or even analyses, the state of the party can be regarded as factionalising. Does the CC’s permission need to be sought to phone other party members or meet them for drinks? This paranoia will look very strange to the wider movement.
The CC has claimed that these expulsions were essential for the maintenance of democracy within the party; that those expelled had been acting in profoundly dishonest and undemocratic ways; and that the Party’s constitution had been incontrovertibly, undeniably breached. We believe that not only are these assertions false, they are hypocritical and a product of the CC’s double standards. Groups and individuals pushing the CC line have clearly acted in ways tantamount to the existence of a secret faction if the rules were applied equally to them as they have been applied to the four comrades expelled in December. Examples of such inconsistencies and failures include, but are not restricted to:
- The ‘forgetfulness’ of CC members about the nature of their own activities in 2008/2009, which have been described in our original declaration.
- The CC’s toleration of some members circulating a petition to reinstate the accused CC member of the recent Disputes case. This action clearly required a level of information, organisation and coordination to take place, yet no disciplinary action has been used against those involved.
- Some full-time party organisers have been circulating information about the Disputes Committee in order to refute the allegations that have been made. The information they have been spreading could have only come from the members of the CC and DC of the party as it involves in-depth details of events. This breaches party rules.
- These organisers have been effectively factionalising for the CC, using information from them to undermine the allegations and smear the people involved. Biased information has been disseminated –particularly to new members- in order to garner support the CC’s position. This includes claims that the allegations are an insincere ‘attack from outside the organisation’, and that ‘soft feminism’ is the real cause of the unrest in the organisation.
- The CC chose to print the full names comrades in the Democratic Opposition faction in a general email. This is not done, for example, in the IBs where comrades are referred to only with their first names. The CC is fully aware that internal party emails are leaked. Printing full names could put people in seriously compromising positions, for example, in their employment or search for work. It was seriously misguided to put comrades in this potentially jeopardising situation and is yet another example of the limited changes introduced by the 2009 ‘Democracy Commission’.
- Many have experienced intimidation at district aggregates where comrades have been shouted down for raising simple concerns over the dispute and the implications it may have for our organisation. This runs contrary to the CC claims that there has been plenty of opportunity to raise concerns or criticism.
The party’s rules rest on principled political judgement. At the moment the CC is making inconsistent, contradictory judgements and, as we have seen, has selectively applied the rules laid out in the party constitution.
Why didn’t we form a faction earlier?
We completely reject any suggestion that we are caught up in a Machiavellian plot, declaring our ‘real’ intentions at the last minute in an attempt to unscrupulously force through our demands. The faction was a response to events as and when they occurred.
We further reject any suggestion that either this faction or those expelled have ever acted as proxy for non-SWP members and groups attempting to engineer a split or dislodge the CC from outside. This is simply an attempt to discredit dedicated members and their legitimate concerns.
Many members will be aware that the Facebook conversation in question, amongst other issues, involved a discussion on whether a faction should be formed linking questions of democracy with the Disputes Committee. Some argued in favour, some against. The expulsions only confirmed the worst suspicions and feelings: the CC has used its power of expulsion to make an example of the four comrades. We felt we had to act; many of us who had previously been against or uncertain about the formation of a faction were now convinced. This mood was further bolstered by the CC’s interventions at several emergency meetings called across the country, where arguments in favour of the expulsions were fundamentally weak, contradictory and ambiguous.
Rather than engaging with criticism, narratives have emerged from the centre in which critics of the CC are not comrades participating in debate, but rather individuals embroiled in a plot to attack the SWP, undermine Marxism and smash democratic centralism.. Terms including “creeping feminism” and “autonomism” have been bandied around to discredit critical thought. Not only does this reveal a lack of understanding concerning what such terms actually mean, it points to a reluctance to take any opposing view seriously or worthy of discussion. Comrades expressing alternative viewpoints are characterised as either dishonest or naive. It is patronising and dismissive to label any expression of dissent as a ‘misunderstanding’ of Leninism and democratic centralism. This approach will never allow the SWP to organise and include the thousands of new members we would need to rebuild a serious revolutionary Left.
The SWP’s internal organisation needs to be critically reassessed. We believe the expulsion of these members cannot be seen in isolation from the wider issue of party democracy; it is not an anomaly but a symptom of a real and growing problem.
Democracy and the Party
We are passionate about building a strong revolutionary party able to respond quickly and intervene effectively in struggles. The world today is becoming an even harder place to live in. We have now had more than a generation of life under neoliberalism while there is a terrific anger amongst working class people throughout the world. In some countries this anger has fuelled insurrection and even revolution. None of the activity we are engaged in – participating in discussion, attending conference, being in the SWP etc,– is meaningful unless we are all committed to the goal of harnessing that anger and organising those workers into a movement that can change the world for the better. This is most basic principal of Leninism: bringing revolutionary theory to mass working-class organisation.
We believe that a Leninist party must have organisational structures that allow it to effectively intervene in struggle. Any democratic deficit renders us less able to prove ourselves in practise as the best and most militant fighters to the working class. Therefore, far from being inward looking, reviewing our structures is a pre requisite to being able to look outwards and build the Party.
Certain aspects of the organisational structure that may have been correct for previous periods of downturn need to be adapted to fit our current context. We unremittingly stand by the principles of having the fullest debate, unity in action, the need for the revolutionary paper and the centrality of class. In Chris Harman’s article ‘Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left’, he distinguishes the IS/SWP model of organisation from the ‘anything goes’ and Stalinist methods of organising which crippled the left in Europe. We stand by this Bolshevik model he outlined:
‘a model that recognises that a leadership is needed – the class war is after all a war, and in a war an army has to be led. But it also recognises that the personnel, and the strategies and the tactics of the leadership should not be sacrosanct, but should be open to discussion by the membership, especially after key developments in the struggle and before conferences. Only thus can the leadership be forced to maintain contact with the lived experience of struggle.’
We need to be able to critically assess the organisation and its structures in order to build on successes and recognise failures. Capitalism is dynamic; so is class. We need a dynamic organisation which is able to respond to new developments in the class struggle and is open and honest about its position in relation to this. Members must be able to openly criticise and contribute to debates without facing draconian intimidation or expulsion. This is essential because, as Harman noted, ‘revolutionary politics finds its embodiment in revolutionary organisation.’
Asking questions about organisational structure does not inevitably entail abject naval gazing and a prioritisation of internal party issues over the wider struggle and ‘real world’. It is only through reassessing our own position in relation to movements outside that we can be effective. The two are not diametrically opposed but two sides of the same coin. There has been a tendency to characterise the democracy proposals as giving primacy to theory and organisation, situating debate in false polarisations of debate oraction, theory or practice, organisation or politics. We do not want to focus upon one aspect to the detriment of the other; rather we see these located within a dialectical relationship with one another.
It is important to note that we are not criticising all forms of leadership as inherently corrupting. Rather we want to examine how we can better certain structures so that disputes and disagreements are solved in front of members rather than behind closed doors.
Much more has been written in the IBs concerning the democracy motions which cannot be replied to point by point here. Yet it is worth observing how comrades who raised issues of democracy in the IB’s have been accused of fetishising particular organisational forms with no hint of irony by those who simultaneously fetishise the slate system as the embodiment and personification of democratic centralism.
Overall it is in the spirit believing that the best people to fix the SWP are its members that we have taken these actions. A recent slogan at SWP recruitment rallies was ‘It’s our Party, make it yours.’ We want every member to feel that the Socialist Workers’ party is a militant organisation that they have the power to shape. If you believe a democratic, fighting and united Socialist Workers’ Party is key to the fightback, then join us today.
Email email@example.com for enquiries, to join the faction, or to add your name to the petition to reinstate our expelled comrades.
Democratic Centralism Faction forms
The founding statement of the Democratic Centralism faction was circulated to SWP members with the following note from SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber:
Here is a statement from the Democratic Centralism faction. It makes allegations, particularly about the treatment of individuals, which I would strongly contest and regard as wholly inaccurate. Conference will hear the debate on such matters. I should also reiterate that the CC’s statement to the National Committee was not a “partial report” from the Disputes Committee. That report is delivered by the Disputes Committee to conference and to conference alone.
Charlie Kimber , SWP national secretary
Statement: Democratic Centralism Faction
We are constituting a formal faction and will dissolve at the end of conference. We feel events in the party make this necessary. If you want to support, join or discuss our statement please contact us at DCfaction@gmail.com We will be arranging meetings at conference open to those who support our statement.
The revolutionary left faces a difficult time in the UK . While we have anticipated and analysed the development of the crisis, the resistance at home is well short of the level we need. Since the rise of the student movement, mass TUC demonstration on March 26th and the June 30th and November 30th strikes, working class resistance has not recovered from serious setbacks, despite the large demonstration on October 20th. We were right to put our efforts into coordinating a response in the unions and ensuring we were the last to leave the battlefield. We were too small for our challenges to the right or left bureaucracy to make a decisive difference as they retreated from the pensions fight despite the successes of initiatives like UTR.
These difficulties inevitably impact on the party, exposing our strengths and weaknesses. It has also shown the difference between the recent experience of political radicalisation among younger activists and the experience of comrades with a length of experience in the trade union struggle. If we are to develop as a party we need to cohere these into a medium term strategy for resistance and a long term strategy for building and renewing a revolutionary cadre.
We can be proud that the SWP is today by a long distance the best starting point for building a mass revolutionary party in the UK . But the SWP is not the “finished article” – we have a long way to go in terms of size, roots and development. We have followed recent developments in the party with growing concern. Arguments have been allowed to develop in a fashion that has polarised the party along almost generational lines. That the CC has allowed the situation to develop in this way amounts to a crisis of leadership.
Many comrades, particularly younger ones, are not entirely happy with our current internal democracy. Some of this will undoubtedly arise from questioning elements of democratic centralism, distrust of leadership, or the search for some organisational short-cut to faster growth of the party and of resistance. But some of it will also arise from real shortcomings between our current way of working and the problems comrades face in their activity. The tone and content of the responses to articles by Ruth and Paris in IB2 were unhelpful. The main significance of their articles was in reflecting and seeking to grapple with the wider unease about our internal democracy, rather than their specific content. For the CC or comrades to imply that our current practice is the only model of democratic centralism is wrong, politically crude and falsely polarising. If the authors of the responses intended to educate members on democratic centralism then a far more engaged and political approach was required. Instead the main message being given by these responses to all the comrades with concerns is that they aren’t being listened to or engaged with.
It is our view that some of the concerns comrades have are legitimate and should be engaged with to consolidate our understanding of democratic centralism today. However changes can only be decided upon within the context of a wider assessment of the state of the party and the tasks ahead of us.
Expulsions before conference
We oppose the expulsion of four comrades on the allegation of organising a “secret faction” – a Facebook conversation. It is clear many comrades on all sides, including members of our elected leadership, have been discussing concerns and how best to take the party forward to conference beyond.
It is perfectly normal and acceptable for comrades to talk about party business outside of “official” party meetings. Comrades have always learned a lot from discussions in pubs and cafes, after meetings and paper sales, on the phone or round people’s houses. The party cannot operate properly if we allow an atmosphere to develop where even a significant minority of comrades feel they cannot talk freely to each other without fear of expulsion.
Whether or not the expulsions could be technically justified, handling the issue in this way shows a lack of political confidence on the part of the CC in dealing with the issues at conference.
The expulsions raised tensions around already difficult issues, increasing the likelihood of people being avoidably lost to the party, particularly given that two of the four expelled had advocated changes to party democracy in the Internal Bulletins.
The Disputes Committee hearing surrounding a leading member of the party is now known to comrades. Conference must consider the Disputes Committee report and any challenge to it independently from any other factional argument.
However, the fallout from the CC’s handling of the situation raises questions surrounding leadership in the party. The CC decision to only release a partial report to the NC allowed a period for damaging rumour and speculation to spread around the organisation. The treatment (including removing her from a post in the party centre) of a full time worker who reported issues, raises serious questions too.
It is important that the party deals with these wider issues but does not allow them to cloud comrades’ right for Disputes Committee cases to be heard independently of any wider arguments or factional considerations.
What We Hope To Achieve
We are organising as a faction to undercut the danger that conference becomes falsely polarised along lines determined by the CC’s expulsion of four comrades and the “Democratic Opposition” faction created in reaction to this.
The party faces a number of serious political and organisational issues which need to be dealt with constructively and politically at conference. It will do the party little good if the result of conference is that the CC and a loyal cadre “smashes” the “Democratic Opposition” and large numbers of our young cadre leave the party or become passive or cynical.
We want to politically defend democratic centralism while being open to discussion about weaknesses in how the party currently operates and how we might do better at overcome them. We oppose any unreasoning and apolitical defence of the status quo, especially through bureaucratic means.
We stand as a loyal opposition aiming to defend and extend the party’s understanding and application of revolutionary leadership.
Rob O, Croydon Robin B, LSE Ian A, Manchester Stephen E, Brixton Alys Z, Lewisham Rick L, Manchester Andy C, Manchester Paul B, Tottenham Matt C, Lewisham Daniel G, Manchester Lovedeep S, Slough Ian B, East London Sarah C, West London Soren G, Goldsmiths Lois C, Brixton Jamie W, Goldsmiths Ru M, Tooting Rebbeca S, East London Pete G, Hackney Patrick W, Tower Hamlets Ross S, Central London Dan S, Essex Uni Tom R, Bristol Stacey W, Brighton Sarah Y, Brighton Steve H, Tower hamlets Stephen M, Brighton Bill P, Walthamstow Brian P, Leeds Gareth E, Portsmouth Simon M, Huddersfield Paddy U, Brighton Pete S, Leeds Willie B, Edinburgh Bunny La R, Kent Sundara J, Birmingham Neil D, Edinburgh Amy G, Cambridge Dom W, Liverpool Alex S, Ealing
SWP Central Committee’s response: “For an interventionist party”
The annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party gathers this weekend in the shadow of a challenging situation. The global economic and financial crisis drags on despite the last minute deal between Obama and the Republicans to stop American capitalism falling over the fiscal cliff. The Arab revolutions continue, but confront tough opposition, whether in the form of Mursi’s power-grab in Egypt or of Assad’s bloody war in Syria . Politics continues to polarise in Europe , as we see with the rise of both Syriza and Golden Dawn in the Greek polls.
Here in Britain , the trade union leaders have sabotaged the pension strikes and failed to respond the new attacks mounted by the coalition – for example, scrapping collective bargaining for teachers and union dues check-off in the civil service. The assault on the poor is reaching near-crescendo levels. And the NUS demonstration last November underlined that there will be no easy rerun of the student revolt that exploded in November-December 2010.
Two groups of comrades have decided in the last couple of weeks to form factions. This is their right during the preconference period. But one might think that these decisions would have prompted by the objective situation and that the comrades concerned are trying to offer distinctive political approaches to how we should address it. Not a bit of it. As their names (the Democratic Opposition and the Democratic Centralist Faction) indicate, both these factions are turned inwards, concentrating their fire on the Central Committee for its alleged handling of two episodes and proposing changes to the party’s democratic structures.
They have nothing of any substance to say about the situation and how the party should respond to it. They do no discuss our major interventions of the last year, which – despite the difficulties we have encountered – have included some major successes, most notably the rout of the EDL by Unite against Fascism in Walthamstow and the Unite the Resistance conference in November.
Of course, it is entirely within every comrade’s rights to criticise the CC and seek to improve our democracy. But it is also the right – and indeed the duty – of the CC itself to respond to these challenges, particularly since they have been issued after the preconference aggregates have met and the last bulletin was produced. In our view, both the faction platforms are without merit. Not only are they completely wrong in what they say about the two episodes, but the logic of the changes they support would severely undermine the ability of the SWP to operate as an interventionist revolutionary party.
The formation of these factions has two pretexts. The first of these was the CC’s decision on 11 December to expel four comrades for their role in organising a secret faction. Any expulsion of a party member is extremely regrettable: it is a measure taken by the CC or the Disputes Committee only very rarely and as a last resort. So why did we take this step in this case?
Democracy is the lifeblood of a revolutionary organisation. In order to assess the validity of our analysis and the effectiveness of our interventions in the class struggle, we need the fullest possible discussion in the lead-up to and during conferences. It is to facilitate this that the party constitution makes provision for the formation of factions during the preconference period. But it also states very clearly: ‘Permanent or secret factions are not allowed.’
For over forty years we have refused to follow other currents on the far left (for example the Fourth International) in allowing permanent factions. These inhibit the free-flowing debate through which comrades can develop the party’s perspectives and shift their positions towards a better understanding of the tasks ahead. Moreover, as the partial breakup of the New Anticapitalist Party in France has shown, a regime of permanent factions can lead to a situation in which members put their faction first rather than the organisation as a whole. This is why the constitution requires factions to dissolve after conference.
Secret factions have all the defects of permanent factions, added to which are those of lack of any accountability to the party at large. We are confident that the four comrades we expelled are guilty of organising a secret faction. Contrary to the claims of the two open factions, these comrades were not expelled for discussing party affairs on Facebook. Members of the SWP are of course free to discuss face-to-face or online and, particularly during the preconference period, to get together to seek the outcomes that they want to achieve (though they should be careful not to involve non-members). There are many cases of this happening, usually quite informally, during the party’s history.
But this is not what the four comrades were doing. The discussions they led on Facebook show evidence that they were organising on a long-term basis – not simply planning to a meeting before this conference, but referring back to another meeting at last year’s conference, and discussing how to intervene in aggregates and what motions to move. If this was all above-board, as their defenders claim, why not openly form a faction? The rights of legitimate, open factions are recognised and defended by everyone, including the CC: witness the rights given the Left Platform in the 2009-10 preconference period.
It is clear, however, that the comrades concerned planned to organise secretly and permanently: one of the four expelled, opposing the formation of an open faction, writes: ‘There is nothing stopping a faction post-conference if it all goes Pete Tong.’ So the aim was a permanent faction, in violation of the constitution. Even more shocking is the advice to avoid open debate. Another writes: ‘My personal opinion is that it is better to get as many of us to conference as possible, and I think that if that means keeping your mouth shut for a bit then so be it.’ In other words, far from the expulsions being intended, as the Democratic Opposition Faction alleges, to ‘prevent debate’, the organisers of the secret faction were seeking to avoid an open statement of their views before the party.
What the CC was confronted with was not a ‘technical’ breach of the rules, as the Democratic Centralist Faction asserts, but a cynical defiance of the very spirit of democratic debate inside the party. We had no choice but to take the strongest measures against the four comrades, all former full-timers, who were playing the main organising role. The complaint that this shouldn’t have happened in the preconference period ignores the fact that by their actions these comrades were corrupting the democratic process leading up to conference. They have, of course, the right to appeal against our decision to the Disputes Committee, but, given the attacks that have been made against this decision, we will be asking the party conference to endorse it.
The second pretext for the formation of the two open factions (and indeed of the secret faction) was the case that the Disputes Committee had to deal with in October, arising from a very serious complaint that was made against a leading member of the party. It is greatly to be regretted that both factions have chosen to make this very difficult case a matter of internal party controversy. It is particularly shameful that the Democratic Opposition Faction criticises the comrade against whom the complaint was made because he did not ‘voluntarily step down’ (ie presumably resign from his party positions) immediately, in effect conceding his guilt without a hearing – a violation of the elementary principles of justice.
The struggle for women’s liberation is central to the SWP’s politics. We have a proud tradition of fighting all the different aspects of women’s oppression and of building a strong women cadre and women leaders. In recent years, confronted with a culture imbued with sexism and welcoming a new generation of women rebelling against this, we have sought to renew this tradition. In line with this, we had no hesitation in breaking with George Galloway over his disgraceful remarks over the Julian Assange rape allegations.
In line with this approach, we are proud of having over several decades developed a political culture that has zero tolerance for behaviour that harms women or treats them with disrespect. It is part of the role of the Disputes Committee (DC) to maintain this culture. The DC is a group of experienced comrades elected by and responsible to conference. They operate independently of the CC (as the constitution puts it) ‘to maintain party unity and principle and to investigate complaints relating to disciplinary matters by its members or units’. In dealing with cases of this nature, where disagreements over facts have to be scrutinised in order to reach a decision, there is no alternative to trusting the comrades we have elected to apply our politics correctly when trying to arrive at the truth.
While both factions have attacked the CC’s ‘handling’ of this case, its role has been confined to referring the complaint to the DC and facilitating its subsequent investigation. This investigation was thorough, rigorous, and painstaking. It was conducted in complete independence of the CC. The DC did not uphold the complaint and decided not to take any disciplinary action. The restrictions on the information concerning the case were dictated, not (as some have alleged) by an attempted cover up by the CC, but by the DC’s recognition of the right to confidentiality of both parties in the case. The CC nevertheless made a statement to the last National Committee about the case (summarised subsequently at different aggregates) in order to ensure that comrades were informed in advance of the DC reporting to the party.
The report of the DC will be submitted to conference, and must be endorsed or rejected by it. Some comrades wish to challenge the report, as is their right. But, in the view of the outgoing CC, conference should endorse the DC report. To take any other decision would have no basis in how the DC actually addressed this case. It would also show a quite unwarranted lack of confidence in the capacity of the party and its structures to maintain and develop our tradition on women’s oppression.
These two controversies have provided the launching pad for calls by both factions to make various changes in our democratic procedures, in support of several motions that have been submitted to conference. Of course it is essential to keep our democracy under continuous review. Indeed in the 2009 conference, in response to the Respect crisis, established a Democracy Commission that reported to a special conference, which endorsed various changes to the party’s procedures. To a significant extent, the current proposals are attempts to revisit some of the issues that were debated intensively then.
Democracy, as we have already said, is essential to an effective revolutionary organisation. But democracy is not an end in itself: it is shaped historically and serves different purposes. In this case, the function of democracy is to make the party a more effective tool of revolutionary struggle. So the point of discussion is to assess and improve our analysis and our methods of working. Hence, in our tradition, the main concentration of debate during the annual preconference period, when discussion can help to clarify the tasks in the year ahead and inform the decisions taken at conference instead.
We call our version of democracy democratic centralism, following the Bolsheviks and the early Communist International. For us democracy and centralism are not in conflict: the discussions we hold would be meaningless if they did not lead to decisions taken by majority vote and if these decisions were not implemented in a united way by all members, whatever position they took in the debates leading up to conference.
Some comrades, including the Democratic Centralist Faction, point out that the general principles of democratic centralism are consistent with different organisational models for revolutionary parties. Of course this is true: how the Bolsheviks organised themselves as a mass workers’ party in the lead-up to the October 1917 insurrection inevitably was very different from how an organisation of some seven thousand revolutionaries dealing with, alas, a non-revolutionary situation in Britain are liable to operate.
Nevertheless, our model of democratic centralism is the distillation of over forty years of experience in building the largest far-left organisation in Britain and one of the largest in the world. Central to it is the principle of a strong central leadership directly elected by and accountable to conference that fights politically to clarify the tasks facing the party and to shape its interventions in the struggle.
This principle has informed our theory and practice throughout our history as a Leninist organisation. It was affirmed very strongly by Chris Harman in 1978, drawing on the experiences of the Russian and German revolutions:
But what then happens when the ‘democracy’ of the party fails to reflect the experiences of the most advanced sections of the class? When the party members have become routinised and cut off from new upsurges of spontaneous struggles, or when they come from milieus which have no real contact with the factories? In such cases, as Cliff argues in the first volume of his Lenin or as Trotsky argues in his Lessons of October the party leadership cannot simply sit back and reflect the ‘democratic will’ of a party that is lagging behind the class. It has to campaign vigorously for the sudden turns in the line of the party if necessary reaching to forces outside the party to pressurise the party members to shift their position. (‘For Democratic Centralism’, http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1978/07/democent.htm)
Leadership in this approach is not merely the arithmetical expression of the balance of opinion within the party. On the contrary, the leadership actively intervenes in the class struggle outside and the organisation within in order to shift the situation in a direction more favourable to the revolutionary forces. This is a form of leadership that is not afraid to conduct sharp arguments within the party if these will clarify our understanding of the situation and of the tasks we must address. It is clear from the Democratic Centralist Faction’s comments on the preconference debate that it is uncomfortable with our tradition of polemical leadership.
The basis on which we have chosen to select this kind of leadership has been through the outgoing Central Committee recommending a slate that is then endorsed or amended by conference. An improved version of this system was reaffirmed, after much discussion, by the Democracy Commission conference in 2009. The most important reason for using the slate system is that is elects the leadership as a coherent political collective, embodying a particular perspective and directly accountable to conference. One way in which we have enhanced this system in recent years is by insisting that the CC leads the party in dialogue with the lay elected National Committee that can hold it to account between conferences.
We believe that the various proposals for alternative ways of choosing the CC would fatally undermine the coherence and accountability that are the basis of the present system. As we shall argue in more detail at conference itself, they should be rejected. Particularly when combined with the proposal to make what the preconference bulletins a continuous feature of party life throughout the year, they would institute a regime of permanent discussion that would turn the party inwards and make it harder to hold the real leadership to account.
Harman wrote in the article already cited:
Few things are more stultifying for debate in a revolutionary organisation that a ‘government-opposition’ arrangement by which one section of the organisation feels that it is compelled as a matter of principle to oppose the elected leadership on every issue: this makes it extremely difficult for either the leadership or the opposition to learn from the concrete development of the class struggle.
Yet this is the logic of the proposals supported by the two factions. The effect would be progressively to undermine the method of interventionist organisation that has allowed the party over many years to shape much larger movements and struggles. There is a real danger that we can lose what has made us, for all our weaknesses and errors, such an effective revolutionary organisation. That is why we will vigorously oppose the factions’ arguments and proposals at conference.
The party faces many challenges. These stem mainly from the stalling of both the strikes and the student revolt. There is a natural temptation for comrades to turn inwards in such circumstances. But this temptation should be resisted. It is because we have faced outwards that we have been able to achieve successes in this situation, notably around UtR and UAF.
We can also be proud of having won many new comrades in recent years, often from a new generation that has become radicalised by austerity and the Arab revolutions. In this context, we reject the Democratic Centralist Faction’s attempt to play the generation game by portraying a division between ‘younger activists and … comrades with a length of experience in the trade union struggle’. The truth is that everyone in the party, young and old, student and trade unionist, is frustrated by the stymying of resistance. We have very strong traditions, not simply on the central questions of class struggle but also on the different forms of oppression that serve to weaken and divide the working class, that we need to develop together to help us address the challenges facing us.
The outgoing Central Committee is happy to stand before the party on the basis of its record over the past year. With sufficient trust in each other and in the party’s theoretical traditions democratic structures, we can overcome the difficulties that have turned us inwards in the past couple of months. But that requires us to hold onto the principle of an interventionist party that is so central to what we have achieved.