Revolutionary Discontinuity

The Socialist Workers Party UK is on the verge of collapse. Or so it seems.

After a scandal erupted involving the rape of one of their members by one of their leaders and an ensuing cover up, the SWP voted–twice–to accept the finding that the allegations were not proven. Many have left and yet quite a few have remained, including many who disagree with the handling of the rape case.

It is necessary for revolutionaries to maintain a link with past struggles in order to maintain a memory of their successes and failures. It is equally necessary, at times, to break with the past, to get rid of the muck of ages in order to try something now. The current situation is an example of the latter.

To members of the SWP

First, a word to the comrades still in the SWP: it is time to leave. Now.

Nobody can blame you for giving every effort you could to saving your life’s political work, which has been subsequently flushed down the toilet by your leadership. You would be unserious to do otherwise. But at this point, what exactly are you waiting for? What exactly is your endgame in this situation, and how do you see the SWP being reformed?

Will there be another conference, this one more democratic than the previous two, that will allow these issues to be dealt with appropriately? Will there be another scandal bigger than an act of rape by one of your leading members which will cause all the loyalists and fence sitters to abandon the leadership?

More importantly, consider the role that you are playing in this disaster. The SWP has shown itself to be a space that is not safe for women. Are you really going to recruit women into the SWP? Or men, for that matter? Are you going to invite them to attend Marxism 2013 so that they can hear Alex Callinicos speak from on high as some sort of revolutionary hero and not the utter scoundrel that he is? Honestly, you are either going to do those things, which are unconscionable, or you are going to leave, or you are going to be expelled. There are not many other options here. Time is up.

If you have some secret plan to leave as a group and take as many people with you as possible, then great. I hope that is the case. But make it quick because the longer this waits the more inertia sets in, and the more those fence-sitters who nodded their heads in agreement with you last week just find it easier to go along with the party program. That is what they have always done in the past, after all. They have been socialized to respond this way, which is precisely why they have not left already.

Cynical, tired and bitter

The comrades who have left to form the “IS Network” have begun reformulating their views on revolutionary struggle. Let’s all hope they keep an open mind and critically re-analyze everything they have been taught rather than accepting bad habits. Significantly, one of them recently noted what a breath of fresh air it was to have an open discussion where the answers were not already prescribed by the leadership.

This comment, simple enough, begs a much deeper question: is the SWP really a vanguard? If not, is it capable of developing a vanguard? I would contend that rather than developing a vanguard–that is, a grouping of some of the best militants in the class struggle–the rigid atmosphere, bureaucratic structure and commandism endemic in the SWP are not a path to developing a vanguard but are, in fact, a path to stifling a vanguard. They take excited young people ready to tear the head off the system and make them cynical, tired and bitter.

People have come around the SWP who are more often than not young, open to new ideas and probably more than a bit green politically. There is nothing wrong with that. But the SWP, rather than turning them into independent thinking, critical revolutionaries who can develop new ideas and methods of struggle, sets their entire political lives to be structured around a set of activities and ideas which they are expected to rigidly follow or else face the wrath of their local full-timer.

Yes, they can recite state capitalism and they have read everything Alex Callinicos has written, and can can sell newspapers and organize meetings. That’s fine for what it is, but what does any of this have to do with building a vanguard organization?

Older comrades are not necessarily any better off. In fact, the weight of bad habits probably bears down even worse, and more often than not they are complicit in unprincipled political maneuvers carried out by the SWP for years. Consider, for example, the tactics used to destroy RESPECT after John Rees was criticized by George Galloway. It was a witch-hunt against the left! A list of loyal comrades was drawn up to support the SWP. A comment in a meeting revealed that Martin Smith planned to “go nuclear”–not unlike Callinicos’s comment about “lynch mobs.”

Yes, the “Comrade Delta” scandal is a replay of the ludicrous RESPECT nonsense all over again, first time as farce, second time as tragedy. And many of the comrades–most?–who joined the SWP opposition during the Delta scandal were previously responsible for carrying out this backward line during RESPECT. How surprised they must have been to see this same mode of unprincipled attack directed against themselves.

Well, everybody makes mistakes. The problem is not making mistakes but refusing to admit to them and correct them. These comrades, having seen their own sectarian manuevres directed against themselves, will need to unlearn this and all sorts of other unhealthy behavior.

What has been proven through this scandal is that there are at least 400 zombies inside the SWP who will never admit to the mistakes of their leadership, no matter how disastrous or stupid. They will follow them off a Cliff if they are asked, and that is essentially what just happened. No, this body cannot and should not be saved. It needs to be obliterated. Everybody involved needs to relearn from scratch how to be a radical.

This does not mean that people cannot be allowed to learn from their mistakes–but that is precisely the point. Every ridiculous turn from here on out in the SWP will make unlearning these wretched habits all the more difficult until the weight of guilt makes it so that it is nearly impossible to correct any error whatsoever. Remember those who defended Stalinism for decades confronting the fall of the Berlin Wall? Their entire world crumbled before them as they finally fessed up to what horrors they defended. Imagine the SWP member admitting to inappropriately talking down a comrade or mindlessly defending the new line on something or other, and then admitting this mistake, only to realize that this ingrained habit once led them to cover up the rape of a teenager. Do you really think these simple mistakes will be so easy to deal with from here on out? Not likely. These abuses will mount rather than dissipate. Guilt hangs over the present like a nightmare. A little democracy will only release all the skeletons in the closet, and we are certainly not just talking about Comrade Delta here.

When all is said and done, the SWP will not be reformed. It will be demolished under the weight of its own abusive structures and petty demagogues, sooner or later.

It is time to leave, now, lest you become just another bit of this wreckage. Or worse, become even more complicit in the mess and future disasters that are sure to come.

To the former SWP members

The SWP leaders are scoundrels. But it is critical to look at the method that not only led the party into this mess but also allowed well meaning people to defend it over the years

These are not just bad habits–they are a consequence of the methods applied by the SWP. Promising not to make the same dumb mistakes again is not sufficient. Rather, the entire approach to party building has to be reevaluated and rejected. Many of these are not just “bad” people or “bad” leaders–though most in the Central Committee certainly are–rather they are people committed on some level to overthrowing capitalism and yet find themselves responsible for such treachery–covering up a rape. The method is ingrained in their entire approach and all of their assumptions. The fundamental method and political approach needs to be entirely reevaluated. It is encouraging to see signs of this in the IS Network documents. Frankly, this attitude cannot be encouraged enough.

Many SWP members have no idea how to build a movement without also building their organization and, frankly, putting their organization first. Many members–I would guess most–have no idea how to formulate an opinion without looking to see what Alex Callinicos has to say about it first. This, it should go without saying, is a serious problem. This approach has nothing to do with developing a vanguard. In fact, this is symptomatic of the opposite–building an organization of followers instead of a vanguard. It is an obstacle, not a path.

The entire approach is one based not on developing a cadre of free thinking revolutionaries who question the (many) mistakes of their leadership but rather of followers who are skilled at apologetics, who can defend their line on anything–short of the rape of one of their own members–in defense of their vision of revolution.

EVERY member of the SWP–every single one–has the experience of arguing with a new member or potential recruit about some bit of IST theory–state capitalism, white/male privilege and benefits, etc. and then patting themselves on the back when the argument is “won”–or worse, when the argument has ended by the other person accepting mere defeat by shutting up about it.

This has absolutely nothing to do with building a revolutionary vanguard. It is the opposite.

What building an organization of people committed first and foremost to a political line inherited from 60 years ago, and recruiting people largely on the basis of the ease of which they are willing to follow that line uncritically, has to do with building a vanguard, is something too few Leninists stop to consider. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with building a vanguard, other than slapping the name on the edifice and insisting it is the same thing.

A genuine revolutionary organization would never come to agreement on so many minor issues, nor tolerate a lack of debate on them. Serious revolutionaries do not simply fall in line behind simple formulas but question them, expand on them, reject them, over and over, not out of petty point scoring but out of honesty, self-criticism and plain old curiosity  This is not some sort of petty bourgeois deviation, rather it is a serious approach to political theory which is complicated, slippery and rarely lends itself to simple formulas. Yes there are dangers to constantly questioning your politics, but good God look at the alternative.

Dealing with problems–by making them go away

The party-building method of the SWP breeds passivity and cynicism. Every argument that arises from a new member about one of Tony Cliff’s theories is suddenly a problem, not an opportunity. Every comrade who questions the “new perspective” and “new opportunities” is a problem–until they shut their mouths. These “problem members” are never given credit for having predicted the failure of a perspective, even when they do so year after year. Rather, they are just a problem to be dealt with, year after year, until they shut up or leave.

This entire attitude needs to be dispensed with. It must be rejected outright. And yet, this is precisely the practice in which the entire membership of the SWP have been trained, some for their entire adult lives.

We do not need an SWP with a better Alex Callinicos. If the SWP did not exist it would not, as Callinicos has stated, need to be invented. On the contrary, as it does exist in its current form, it needs to be replaced with something entirely different. Preferably, without the good professor.

If comrades in the IS Network want to build something more healthy and productive, they will need to question everything. They will need to question their assumptions about what struggle is and how to build it, question the methods of evaluating a political action (“at least there were new people there!”) and ask whether or not actions are contributing to the struggle against capitalism, not just building an organization.

This is not to say that building struggle and building an organization are necessarily different things, but the SWP has always assumed that these are entirely the same thing. They are not. Now is a great time to better appreciate that.

The question to evaluate political action should be: are you contributing to or weakening the status quo of capitalist relations and strengthening the self organization and activity of the working class? That should the measure, first and foremost. You will be surprised how often the results look quite a bit different than how you have been trained to measure struggle in the past.

In closing, comrades: You have nothing to lose but your preconceived notions of party building. You have a world of unexplored theory and organizational methods to win.

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2 Responses to Revolutionary Discontinuity

  1. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps

  2. This is outstanding. Apart from its not addressing the issue of feminism–aka “the woman question”–I think it the most complete and non-jargon-infested explanation I’ve found to date.

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