By Chris Jones*
I joined the International Socialists in 1973 and was finally expelled at the 1994 SWP conference.
When I first came into contact with IS, in the late 1960s, I was still in the Labour Club at Lancaster University. The thing that impressed me was their engagement with current issues.
That fed into the theoretical issues. I read the magazine International Socialism. What struck me was their refusal to get involved in “crisis mongering” — in contrast to the Militant and, in particular, Healy’s organisation.
The IS seemed to look at the issues in terms of long-term development, rather than immediate short-term results.
Their attitude to the Labour Party had begun to change. In the early 1970s I was selling the Socialist Worker, while not yet actually being a member of IS, and still being a member of the Labour Party. There was still a blurred edge to the Labour Party issue. And, in fact, that helped me to make the transition from Labour to IS.
The orientation to the working class has stood IS-SWP in good stead. It allowed for the development which took place in the workers’ movement during the 1970s, and led to the influence they had by the mid-70s.
The orientation to the class also helped to counterbalance some of the worst excesses which took place in the 1980s. For example, by the early ’80s people like Roger Cox were actually arguing that just to hold a steward’s card would pull comrades to the right!
The most crass excesses of this period — around 1983 — were, in part, dealt with after the SWP found itself unable to deal with the miners’ strike.
During this “downturn” period I wrote material opposing the new orientation. The argument went that as the Labour left disintegrated, the SWP had to break many of the links with the other organisations which had been made during the Anti-Nazi League period, or through the shop stewards’ movement.
The external orientation was replaced with a turn inwards. Work in broad organisations was abandoned with the reasoning that as the environment was hostile only “ones and twos could be recruited.”
By 1983 the rank and file organisations had been shut down. The hospital workers’ organisation was closed just before the health strike of 1982. Then they closed The Collier down. Although, by that stage, The Collier was a rump organisation in terms of members, it had some organisational capacity. It had been delivered to lodges up and down the country for some years. If the paper had still existed in 1984 the SWP would have had an entrance into a great number of lodges.
Looked at objectively this period has some very peculiar aspects. The problem was that comrades did not look at the situation objectively.
After the miners’ strike the branch committees developed to such a point that they replaced the branch meeting as the body that directed the work. From this point branch meetings were turned into public meetings, with a few announcements at the end, when you learnt what you would be doing in the next week. There ceased to be any discussion about aims or objectives. The branch was effectively disenfranchised, and the real control rested with the committees.
Behind the committees stood the organisers appointed by the centre. The committee members then formed an inner layer and this is the basis of the current slide toward a two-tier membership structure in the SWP.
At the same time a layer of young people were developed — “Young Turks” — people like Andy Wilson and Phil Taylor. They were given instructions on how to behave, and they were very ruthless inside the branches.
The only moderating force against the excesses of these young people was a layer of older, middle cadre. Where this layer has been strong the straight line to the centre has been disrupted. Where the middle cadre is weak — like Merseyside — we have had some appalling switches and turns, with no moderation whatsoever.
There are an awful lot of Micawber-types in the SWP — just waiting around to see if something happens. Some have been waiting ten years. Nothing has turned up yet!
Inside the organisation there are people who bend the knee. However this is in contradiction to every other aspect of their lives. As in the Communist Parties of the 1930s there is a certain “disjunction” — weird and wonderful reasoning about why what happens internally should be different to what happens outside the organisation.
The thing which is at the back of this is that the SWP is built on the principle that someone — Cliff, Harman, Rees — is right, and the rest should shut up and listen to them. This culture is in absolute contradiction to what is necessary to build a revolutionary cadre, and what worries me is that there will be the same sort of wastage of revolutionaries that we saw with the WRP and, more recently, with the Militant.
My expulsion began with the refusal to publish an article I had written to Socialist Review. One of the issues which the expulsion brought to light was that this was not the first time that articles had been refused. There are a lot of issues that SWP members discuss that never appear in their press. In this case the article not only landed in the editor’s bin, it led to a disciplinary investigation.
The first I heard of the disciplinary action that was being planned was from an ex-member who phoned up to tell me to “watch your back.” Then I got an invitation to attend the District Committee. The invitation was odd because the District Committee are appointed and this had been justified on the grounds that they were simply “functional” rather than political committees. The District Committee tried to patch together a number of allegations about my local work and behaviour. These charges would not stand up and, in fact, were never formally used to justify my expulsion. I requested confirmation of what was happening in writing. This was refused but I was referred to Pat Stack who was in Liverpool for these meetings and agreed to meet me. I thought this was more appropriate as the centre had initiated this and the District Committee was just a smokescreen.
It was put to me that I was hostile to the monarchy and that I supported the Party having a programme. Quite true! I had never hidden these views. They were expressed properly in the internal bulletins. I was thrown out on political grounds, not for disciplinary reasons, for holding views incompatible with membership. Most noticeably since my expulsion Socialist Worker has carried articles on most of the issues I raised, the monarchy, the national question and now the trade union conference.
I got thrown out. I had very limited support inside the SWP. Part of the reason for this is that the organisation is so atomised it is difficult to get across Branch and District boundaries.
The process of expulsion casts the SWP in a very bad light. The Control Commission is unbelievable. The Central Committee rep makes accusations in private. To this day I do not know what he said. The CC witness from the District had only just returned from a three-month stint as a south London organiser. She also gave evidence in secret. I have never been given the charges against me in writing. This has allowed my accusers to vary the charges according to circumstances. The accusations about my local activity didn’t form part of the formal expulsion and fell locally because people knew better. They were used nationally as a smear. The procedure would be unacceptable in a bourgeois court or a trade union. In a revolutionary party it is a disgrace.
Now I am expelled I have to start from the premise that the SWP is not just going to disappear. It must have an income of £3 million from subs alone. That gives it an organisational capacity. It has a self-perpetuating centre.
Nevertheless, the SWP has to exist on the left and one thing that will make a difference will be what passes for political life in the SWP being rejected by the broader left.
That means much more than Workers’ Liberty taking up the issue. It means people like Tony Benn and other Labour Left MPs, who currently accept SWP platforms uncritically, turning round and saying “this is not on.”
* Chris Jones is a Liverpool fireman