Jules Alford: Fault lines - there are two SWP oppositions

Category: SWP Crisis
Published on Wednesday, 22 May 2013
Written by Jules Alford
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If it was not obvious before, it is now: the crisis of the SWP is far from over. This is indicated by the Fault Lines blog, produced by oppositionists who remained in the SWP after the Central Committee ‘won’ the Special Conference in March. The CC used their control of the party apparatus to roll over the opposition. As we know, the core of the Democratic Renewal Platform within the IDOOP faction that emerged in opposition to the CC’s handling of the case of Comrade Delta left to form the IS Network - and it's clear to me that we were absolutely right to do so.

Comrades now in the IS Network anticipated the CC’s likely triumph and argued it would be a pyrrhic victory. And so it has proved. Of course we were not alone – no crystal ball or ‘Leninist’ omniscience was needed to anticipate the outcome. But importantly that did not stop any of us from fighting as hard as we could to retrieve as much as possible from the wreckage.

Few of us expected the SWP to simply collapse or limp away from the scene. Why? Simply because we knew the SWP was not the WRP. Many of us – despite realising that the SWP had long deserted its own critical Leninism (whatever the limitations of that critical take) and donned the sectarianism that typifies ‘marginalised Leninism’ in Britain – understood there was more to the SWP. Once there had been a promising beginning with the heterodox Socialist Review Group, the theory of state capitalism, the shifting locus of reformism, the permanent arms economy and all of that. Once we had amounted to something not insignificant with the IS of the early 1970s, its factory branches and its tempered rank and file strategy. Once, in the late 1970s, the SWP had seen off re-emerging fascism with the mass mobilisations of the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. But even after the rot had taken hold, inevitably so perhaps, in the adverse objective circumstances of neoliberalism and downturn, the SWP managed one final stunning coup by providing the spine of the Stop the War campaign.

No, the SWP is not the WRP.

So the meltdown is proving protracted. Many valuable cadre and comrades remained in the SWP, many of the IDOOP comrades and even a few DRP comrades. Those comrades – mistakenly, we argued – believed it was possible to stay in after the Special Conference and fight. They believed that the reality of the SWP’s isolation in the wider movement might have a sobering effect and make it possible to retrieve more from the party’s crisis. I'm sure they were no less horrified than anyone else in the wider movement at the transparent bankruptcy, sectarianism and moral corruption of the CC, but they differed from those of us now in the IS Network as to how to respond.

So it is clear there are currently two SWP oppositions.

There are those of us in the IS Network and there is the opposition still inside the SWP. Reading The Fault Lines it is apparent that this internal opposition is becoming increasingly emboldened, maddened and exasperated by the CC. One comrade in ‘Losing the aura of competence’ evokes an image of a risibly incompetent, dull leadership working from notes left behind by previous, more competent political commands. They excoriate the paper’s reaction after the party’s former warm ally Owen Jones correctly jibbed the platform of Marxism 2013 after years of sharing party platforms, as that of “cross toddlers”. Quite right. The Fault Lines’ opening statement speaks of “a culture of dogmatism and defensiveness” and evokes the camaraderie of the factional struggle when comrades started to find their voices. It concludes they won’t be quiet and they won’t be going quietly.

Best of all has been 'Who Will Teach the Teachers', Mike Gonzalez’s riposte to Alex Callinicos’s threadbare defence of 'Leninism'. Gonzalez tears into the sectarianism of the CC and accuses it of defending its own interests over the interests of the party and the working class. The criticism of the CC’s present view of party and class is comprehensive: the teachers must be taught by those they set out to teach. You cannot simply ignore the wider world without paying a price.

In the top-down internal regime of the SWP the only significant debate allowed is the one that takes place among the CC and these comrades are regarded as indispensable, as in the case of 'Comrade Delta'. So ‘leadership’ becomes a sinecure rather than something that is constantly contested and renewed and as the full-timers function as a transmission belt for the CC’s directives, the party becomes ossified and sectarian. This arrogance inevitably alienates those we worked alongside as happened in Stop the War, Respect and Unite Against Fascism. Gonzalez restates the need for a revolutionary politics that is the product of a culture of controversy and debate, of “permanent and active collaboration among all its members” including the newest party members.

So, there are two SWP oppositions and it seems highly likely that those who are currently inside will in the not too distant future find themselves outside the party too. These comrades are our natural allies. We should wish them the best in their internal struggle but also we should try to reunite with them. Unsurprisingly the crisis of the SWP has proceeded unevenly among the party rank and file in the last few years with the opposition which was also subject to this uneven development – in terms of understanding and intransigence – beginning as a small minority and growing rapidly before the Special Conference. Clearly the fact the CC and its apparatus had to mobilise passive card holders to ‘win’ the Special Conference was the last straw for a part of the opposition. Another part of the opposition drew a different conclusion from this salient fact and decided to stay. Whether this was correct or not it is apparent that the CC by its conduct continues to alienate party members and create and solidify the internal opposition.

Whatever limitations, gaps, silences and omissions the IS tradition may have had it is where we collectively came from and it retains resources that are far from being exhausted. Inevitably, on breathing the freer air after our departure there has been a temptation to see the SWP and our experience in the most jaundiced light. Part of this reflects the cause of the party crisis and bitter factional struggle we all endured and that revealed to us the very worst side of the SWP. But also there is a natural inclination in the circumstances to eagerly embrace a breathless iconoclasm when there are so many outstanding questions about the tradition – women’s oppression, industrial strategy, neoliberalism, left realignment and more – all thrown up in the air, questions that were severely neglected or ignored by the SWP in recent years. A danger is that we all swap SWP horror stories among ourselves and with the suitors who are happy to flatter us, no doubt sincerely for the most part, that we were 'on the side of the angels' without a proper balance sheet of the SWP, the credit as well as the debit side. There is still much to be retrieved from the ongoing crisis of the SWP.

In terms of the IS tradition it would seem that any future it has in playing a part in left realignment and rebuilding the working class movement lies in not one but two oppositions that emerged to challenge the SWP leadership and it would be so much better for all of us partisans of the IS tradition if they were reunited.