I was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, then called IS) on 4 December 1971. IS then was different from, and more open than, the SWP today. But there are links between then and now.
IS (SWP) had deliberately promoted itself as democratic and open since 1957-8, as a riposte to the bigger and more active, but tightly-controlled, SLL led by Gerry Healy (only tiny shreds from which continue today: it collapsed in 1985).
IS really was more open. There was debate in its press. In December 1968, it accepted a merger with the small Trotskyist group Workers’ Fight, forerunner of the AWL, which said explicitly that it had big disagreements with the whole IS tradition and would continue to argue its case inside the merger.
Yet IS was never as democratic as it seemed to be. Then as now, its leaders reckoned that building the organisation was more important than sharpness of political ideas. In those days, they explained it as a matter of IS’s job being to link together the different fragments of rank-and-file trade-union militancy.
The multi-coloured eclectic variety of the IS membership of the late 1960s looked different from the pretend-unanimity of the SWP today. But its political culture disparaged political clarity, and made socialist theory (on which IS prided itself: it had many academics and writers) a mandarin affair largely uncoupled from day-to-day agitation. With that culture, the very variety lent itself to the organisation being easily manipulated, not so much by a bureaucracy (there wasn’t much), as by a sort of extended family around the main leader, Tony Cliff.
By 1971 IS was probably bigger in terms of real activity than it is today. 880 members at Easter 1970, and 2350 at Easter 1972: the definition of membership was loose, but all those members would have been active adherents of IS on one level or another, unlike the 7000 “members” the SWP claims today, most of whom don’t pay dues, don’t sell or even read Socialist Worker, and quite often don’t even know they are reckoned to be members.
The organisation was beginning to recruit some trade-union activists, on the basis of the pitch about linking fragments of rank-and-file trade union militancy.
It ran up against political problems. The Tory government was taking Britain into the European Union, then called Common Market. The Communist Party, then a big force, deployed nationalist arguments to “keep Britain out”. The Labour left and most union leaders had a similar stance. Many Labour right-wingers backed EU entry (and some Tory right-wingers opposed entry).
IS’s slogan had been “In or out [of the EU], the fight goes on”. This put it at odds with the flow of the broad trade-union left. The IS leaders didn’t like that. The Easter 1971 conference reaffirmed the old position. In June 1971 Tony Cliff and Chris Harman proposed to the IS National Committee what they said was only a tactical modification: IS should still argue the old position, but in vote-outs in union branches between “support entry” and “keep Britain out”, IS should “vote with the left”.
The National Committee accepted that, with dissent not only from Workers’ Fight but also from such well-known figures as Jim Higgins and Paul Foot. Without any further formal change, that NC vote was used as licence to turn Socialist Worker to strident campaigning to “keep Britain out” and later to “get Britain out”.
Foot soon stepped into line, and Higgins didn’t fight on the issue. Workers’ Fight did. It campaigned for a special conference to call the NC to order for illegitimately overturning the Easter conference decision. The campaign won the constitutionally-required number of branches to requisition a conference. The IS leadership disputed one branch vote, and then short-circuited the argument by calling a special conference — but one to expel Workers’ Fight. Or rather to “de-fuse”, to reverse the merger of 1968.
The merger hadn’t worked, they said. The stroppy presence of Workers’ Fight made discussion difficult. Get rid of Workers’ Fight, and IS could return to its old, easy-going, civilised democracy.
I was by then a member of the Workers’ Fight grouping in IS, called the Trotskyist Tendency. Like the majority of TT members by then, I had joined it as a member of IS convinced by its arguments. What could “de-merger” mean to us? Expulsion.
Some people in IS argued that we should instead duck and weave. We should formally dissolve Workers’ Fight, seek continue as individual IS members, explain that there was now nothing to “de-fuse”, and maybe form a new caucus when the squall had died down.
We argued that it was not just a squall. The leadership was saying that there could be no “permanent” or “generalised” opposition groupings inside IS, only short-term caucuses on limited issues.
It was a while before a whole new set of rules was formally established, but we were right. The IS leaders had to have a special conference to expel (“de-fuse”) us. Little more than a year later, in April 1973, they were able to expel another opposition grouping by a simple National Committee vote, on the grounds that its political ideas were too far from IS majority parameters. (The IS leaders also made a lot of the fact that the grouping was a “secret faction”, i.e. not declared as such).
In 1974, yet another group was expelled for refusing to dissolve as a faction after IS conference; in 1975, two groups, also for refusing to dissolve as factions.
By now the SWP expels people with no more due process than a letter from the SWP office. If someone on the SWP CC disagrees with your expulsion, they are compelled as a condition of employment to pretend to agree with it.
It was not well along in the 1980s that the current SWP regime finally congealed (the change of name to SWP came in 1976-7), but the essential framework had been set by the mid-70s.
The Democratic Opposition faction, set up in the SWP before its 4-6 January conference, started to call for the regime to be liquefied again. Since 4-6 January all factions in the SWP are formally dissolved, but there is a visible and broad opposition calling for democratic reform.
Issues are bubbling up such as the removal of the rule of pretend-unanimity for CC members and full-timers; full and timely information for members on SWP affairs and debates; a mode of election for the CC which allows for piecemeal change, rather than forcing SWP conference into a yes-or-no vote on a complete, unamendable slate from the outgoing CC; a broader leadership committee which has real ability to call to account the necessarily small-sized day-to-day steering group; having public debate as customary alongside disciplined unity in action.
They are all important. But behind them lies the vital debate: on what a revolutionary socialist organisation is really for, and the centrality of political clarity.