Isaac Deutscher made a career out of divining the twists and turns in the Stalinist Russian state apparatus. Alongside his much praised but flawed biography of Trotsky he produced several apologias — posing as rational analysis — for the USSR.
His success, his plausibility, was in large part a function of a certain literary flair combined with sufficient chutzpah to fabricate what he — and everyone else outside of the ruling clique of Stalinist Russia — could not possibly know. There’s a certain temptation to replicate his method when dealing with the latest manifestation of crisis in the Socialist Workers Party. Why?
Because the nature of that organisation is such that getting to the truth of the matter is near-impossible. Like a Stalinist Politburo, the SWP is all but sealed-off from the outside world. We are left with rumour, interpretation and extrapolation. Some may argue the case, as many SWP members do, that the party has a right to conduct its deliberations in camera — after all, what business is it of non-members of “The Revolutionary Party”?
The basis for this argument is historically and logically flawed, particularly so for an organisation that claims to want to replicate the achievements of our revolutionary forbears. Even at the height of Tsarist repression, the contending factions of the Russian revolutionary movement had no reticence in conducting open and quite often sharp debates in public.
Unfortunately for the SWP, leaks happen.
The “Socialist Unity” blog, run by former SWP member Andy Newman, reported on 13 October that two student members have been suspended for “taking a different trajectory” from the rest of the party. He adds that “the sign up sheets for SOAS Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) have been taken away by the SWP, preventing the society from registering this year”. These are the basic facts and we have no reason to think that Andy or his source have fabricated them. So what’s significant about the suspension of these comrades and why does it point to the possibility of a new crisis in the SWP?
From blog comments that followed the story, it seems that a great deal comes down to Martin Smith’s attempts to consolidate his organisational (rather than intellectual) leadership of the party and see off the latest moves by the deposed Rees/German group.
The SWP is in a “conference preparation period”, the only time in which differences can be aired, arguments debated and factions formed in the tightly-run organisation. It is claimed that at the last SWP national committee, John Rees proposed an alternative approach (details unknown) to anti-fascist work to that currently taken by the party.
In a previous episode of factionalism, Rees is understood to have made unfavourable comments on the effectiveness of the party’s anti-fascist work. Rees, the self-styled master of the “united front”, wanted to teach Smith a lesson, and it seems he’s having a second pop at his slow-learning comrade.
Rees’ decision to oppose the formal line of the group over anti-fascist work is probably the opening shot in a major battle to come. Smith’s response has been to suspend two comrades who support the Rees/German group and to take or threaten “administrative suspension” against other groups of supporters. These suspensions will exclude members from the national conference because they are not permitted to attend branch meetings and therefore cannot be nominated.
In addition a website run by Rees/German supporters — Counterfire — has been shut down. More significantly, Chris Bambery is said to have resigned as editor of Socialist Worker.
There can be little doubt that if left to his own devices, Smith will come a cropper against Rees and German. Rees is more erudite and impressive as an individual (which does not mean more correct or clear!) German is also a notch above Smith in this regard and is old enough to have been part of the last major factional battles in the SWP. Once upon a time she told this writer about her part in locking Jim Higgins and supporters out of the party national office.
But Smith is not isolated. One explanation for his “administrative” actions so far could be that party “theoreticians” Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman — both of whom could mount a serious ideological assault on Rees — have not spoken, or at least not to the wider party. Another consideration is that the numbers thought to be supporting Rees/German are sufficiently small that simply suspending and driving them out of the party before an all-out conference confrontation is a price worth paying. This could well be the estimation of Callinicos and Harman.
Either way, further hypothesising can only lead to a mingle-mangle of speculation much of which will be off the mark. What we do know, the meagre leaked “facts” of the situation, point once more to a party not only in crisis but a leadership willing to act out of all proportion to prevent genuine debate in the ranks. We have yet more evidence of the political poison that typifies the SWP’s interpretation of Leninism.
The SWP may be rotting from the inside but for the sake of the left, we should once again make efforts to engage ordinary party members in discussion. If the SWP is about to experience further ructions and a further loss of membership, we cannot afford to lose genuine and previously committed activists to despondency.
The manifesting crisis in the SWP is a matter of politics and given the chance, we should seek and articulate political explanations for what’s going on.