Monday, January 14, 2013

Crisis in the British SWP: An opportunity to build a stronger left.

A statement from:
John Throne
Richard Mellor

The crisis that has broken out in the British Socialist Workers’ Party, the largest left group in Britain, is not something that is limited to the SWP or to the British left. The conditions out of which this crisis arises are widespread throughout the left and have to be addressed. We have no wish to approach the developments in the SWP in a sectarian way but in a way that strengthens the left in general.  We have consistently argued for a serious appraisal of the false methods and the undemocratic internal life that is root of this crisis and pervasive throughout the left and we have an opportunity to learn from it.

The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) from which we were expelled (one of us after 25 years as a full timer) effectively bans factions.  Hundreds of people have been driven out of the CWI and other left organizations after years of dedicated activity.  This is often euphemistically referred to as someone “taking themselves outside the organization.”  The endless splits and expulsions that occur ritually with organizations on the left and the vilifying of comrades who have given their entire lives to them has led to a situation where there are more people who call themselves socialists or revolutionaries outside these organizations than in them.

When we were expelled from the CWI (we declared a minority faction) we were not allowed to appeal our expulsions and our written material was only partially circulated.  The process was accompanied by vicious lies and slanders as discussions with another group the leadership wanted to recruit were going on behind our backs. This other group was then used to help expel the minority faction and fire full timers.

The CWI had an equivalent of the SWP's disputes committee that was called the Control Commission. It was not stacked with CC members or former CC members like the SWP disputes committee, it was all non-CC members. But when we were being expelled we called for the Control Commission to sit and hear the issues and make a recommendation. The Central Committee would not let it meet, and so in this way we were denied our right to have this body hear our case. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

We are approaching the issue of the SWP, not to attack the SWP or gloat about its misfortune or the division that has opened up within it (which is so often the case in these situations as left groups jockey for members), but to show that the internal regime in the left groups in general has been wrong.

The internal life of left groups today have nothing in common with that of the Bolshevik Party in its most healthy period, that allowed factions and lively internal debate and disagreement. None of them are truly “democratic centralist” like the Bolsheviks in this period. Minorities or loyal oppositions are eventually driven out, vilified and written out of the party or group’s history.  This is a remnant of Stalinism, not Marxist practice.

This development in the SWP is not just a crisis for the SWP and the revolutionary left, it is an opportunity for the revolutionary left. It is an opportunity to discuss the incorrect internal lives of the left groups and how these must be changed.

Like thousands of other socialists and revolutionaries, we do not belong to any left organization. We are not prepared to join an organization that is not committed to addressing the undemocratic and unhealthy internal life of the left.  However, we are affiliated with the Workers International Network (WIN), a group of socialists primarily but not exclusively from the CWI tradition. WIN is committed to addressing this issue and is approaching the crisis in the British SWP with this in mind – not as sectarians hoping to benefit from the misfortune of rivals.  It is an opportunity the left cannot afford to let slip by.

WIN is a democratic forum trying to bring together workers and socialists from all left groups and from none, to discuss these issues. It has published three documents that can be found on this blog, (above) and a brief overview of what WIN is.  Here is an extract from WIN’s statement regarding the left:

How does WIN differ from existing left groups?
The left groups all have their origins in a period when there were mass socialist or communist parties numbering millions. Generations of workers lived, fought and died defending their political heritage. All that was holding them back from victory were the material interests of the bureaucratic cliques – reformist and Stalinist – at their head. The mission of the left opposition groups was to expose the crimes and betrayals of the leadership of those parties and prove themselves a worthier alternative vanguard.

The task facing socialists now is different. Historical, economic and demographic factors have changed the political landscape. Today it is a question of rebuilding the movement itself, rather than simply providing an alternative programme and leadership for it.

To varying degrees the old left groups succeeded in educating their cadres and sharpening their skills as theoreticians, writers, speakers and organisers, achieving in some cases admirable results. The loyalty of these activists to those organisations to which they have given their lives is an understandable and praiseworthy quality. However, it carries with it the risk of cliquism and conservatism; of a sectarianism which consists of an unwillingness to put the needs of the wider movement above the petty advantages of their own organisation. In such a situation, they risk losing a sense of proportion.

They would indignantly deny it, but in practice many of the old left groups still sincerely believe that the future depends on their winning leadership of the workers’ movement, and this leads them in practice to give priority to the need to build their own organisations before the objective needs of the class. They might agree formally that the tasks have changed; however, their style, structure and persona have not changed accordingly. They often present themselves still as a vanguard, as having all the answers; their internal regime is still insulated from the movement.

Within the left groups there are many admirable and dedicated workers. At the same time to varying extents they have drawn distorted conclusions from the special circumstances of the Bolshevik party in the Tsarist underground and of the Russian revolution during the civil war and its aftermath, which have helped foster a culture of lifelong mandates, an implicit tendency towards leadership cults, resulting splits, the discouragement of dissent, even the outright suppression of factions, and other blemishes. On a miniscule scale, the kind of petty abuses that have scarred the left groups would never have been tolerated if they had had an active mass working-class membership.

Within the old left groups, attitudes and understanding of the role of women in the class struggle was limited. WIN sees the struggles of women across the globe as a fundamental aspect of class struggle.

As the class struggle reawakens from its relative state of hibernation, it is to be hoped that the healthiest elements from within the existing left groups will abandon their obsolete pet shibboleths and join together with the fresh ranks of the new mass movement. (end quote)
We also stress that the role women have played in the global struggle against capital from the factories of Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, to the recent uprisings in the Arab world and the vast tracts of Brazil, Ecuador and Latin America is evidence of the rise of women internationally and the important role they will inevitably play in the future as leaders of the movement. Millions of industrial workers in the factories of the world today are women. The internal life of left organizations must reflect this in the struggle against sexism in our ranks.

To contact WIN in the UK, e mail Roger Silverman at:
WIN website:
WIN on Facebook:
Socialist Discussion Forum:
Contact Roger Silverman about the discussion group.

Roger Silverman will be speaking on WIN at a meeting in Dublin Ireland on Jan. 18th. Some details here:

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