The SWP has been a small but important part of political life in the UK for some decades; not least in the valuable role they played in launching the Stop the War Coalition. Their present behaviour will strike many as cultish, but this conflicts with the experience that many SWP members are well grounded and capable activists, who have good relationships with others outside their group, and play a constructive role in the labour and other progressive social movements. How can we explain the paradox? The SWP is not a cult, but sometimes behaves like one.
I think part of the problem of discussing cult like behaviour is that the language is so value laden. Some of this has been deliberate, for example, discussion of “thought reform” models in professional psychiatry in the 1950s was partially informed by the idea that unwilling converts could be inducted and converted to Communism. This cold war model unfortunately dominates the sensationalist outlook of “On the Edge, Political Cults Right and Left” by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth; and can be summarized as a delegitimizing technique to isolate political radicals as “weird people who believe crazy stuff”
That is why professionals, sociologists, social-anthropologits, psychologists and psychiatrists prefer to use the value neutral terminology of New Religious Movements (NRM) with the confusing caveat that some NRMs are not religions!
Nor should we accept any necessary permanence or validity of the current organisation or ideology of mainstream society, just because it is mainstream.
Pattison and Ness in their paper “New Religious Movements in Perspective” refer to a useful definition of religion (and correspondingly to secular belief-oriented organizations).
“A religion is to be found where persons take it for granted that their own ethos corresponds to the meaning of the Cosmos” Applying this definition … we recognize three analytical dimensions: 1) the creation of an ethos , 2) a process of cosmization, and 3) the reification of ethos with cosmos.
The relationships between ideology, ethos and belief is complex. Some cults become the mainstream ideology of society, and recast social ethos in so doing. some organized belief systems act as mainstream religion in one part of the world, but act as a sect in other parts of the world (the difference in practice of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Utah, compared to the practice of the same organisation in the Baptist dominated Southern USA is interesting)
Some taxonomy may help, where a mainstream religion or political movement to an extent posseses the virtue of verdicality (truth correspondence) between the belief groups ethos (their habitual character and behaviour), and their social cosmos ( the society they live in).
The language of sects and cults developed in mediaeval religious discourse, and has been adopted by ethnographers and sociologists, but it unnecessarily pejorative.
A sect may be regarded as a variant of the mainstream politcs or religion; and sect members may live in both the mainstream cosmos, and participate in the ethos of their group, depsite the fact that there is tension; and lack of verdicality. For example, someone who beleived themselves to be a Bolshevik revolutionary in twenty-first century Britain, could function effectively in most situations, but their political practice is orthogonal to the social and political institutions of our society, which will limit their political effectiveness outside of short term radical campaigns; and there will be a tension between their big ambitions and the groups limited achievements.
A cult seeks to resolve this lack of verdicality by limiting their interaction with mainstream society. This can be dramatic, such as the migration of the Pilgrim fathers to the Americas. Or it can be undramatic, where cult members simply immerse themselves more and more in the routine and ritual of their religious or political observance.
Now let us look at the very interesting testimony in comments on this blog from from Alan Gibbons, and Dave Harker, (and my own experience was very similar),.
I joined the SWP in 1974. I left in the mid ninety nineties. I worked on Socialist Worker for a time. I was a member of the National Committee for many years. Most of the experience was positive. I was around at the start of the Right to Work Campaign, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. I can still look back with pride on those years. I was a shop steward in a factory in the north west when we broke the 10% pay freeze, winning our members a 16% pay rise. I was President of Knowsley NUT. The SWP taught me working class history and fired me with a conviction that women’s liberation, internationalism and anti racism were at the heart of the fight for socialism.
Over time I started to become disenchanted with some elements of the organisation’s practice. On a number of occasions I excused things I thought were inexcusable, but never anything like the alleged events that have emerged recently.
After being harried for some years as a ‘syndicalist’ and becoming the victim of some very underhand, unpleasant and dishonest behaviour I hung on because I subscribed to most of what the SWP was saying. It wasn’t exactly ‘my party right or wrong’, but it wasn’t far off. Eventually that became untenable and I quit. My resignation letter featured two issues: party democracy and unrealistic perspectives.
Like a lot of other exes, I did not stop being a socialist just because I left an organisation. I have a great affection for much of the party’s tradition and am close friends with many SWP members. I find myself looking on aghast at recent developments however. I am now an independent socialist and a prominent library and anti cuts campaigner. I am in a party of one and there are disagreements! I work with SWP members, Socialist Party members, Respect, Counterfire and Labour Party members and others, but mainly with people in no party, trade union and community activists and ordinary members of the public who want to save what is left of the public services.
I joined IS in summer 1975, and hadn’t a clue what was going on, though I recall overhearing the Manchester full-timer telling some comrades to stop a cheque to Liverpool comrades for their books. (I later discovered that I joined in the middle of a massive faction fight and that Cliff’s faction managed to establish a regime based on a slate for electing a CC which guaranteed a self-perpetuating oligarchy.) I was never ambitious in IS or the SWP, and didn’t take the self-appointed hacks and parrots seriously, but I sold the paper, recruited a few members, tried (but failed) to build a branch at work and where I lived, built for the Right to Work Campaign and other SWP initiatives, organised buses to Anti Nazi League events in London, tried to organise the SWP contingent on Manchester Trades Council and built Miners’ Support Groups at work and in Buxton.
My only brief conversation with Cliff ended by him informing me that an idea I had had about retaining working-class members ‘wasn’t in the Leninist tradition’. In the 1990s I supplied Bookmarks with thousands of secondhand socialist books and I and another Manchester comrade built the biggest-ever SWP district bookstall. However, by 2000 my day job had made me ill, so I had to retire, and the SWP was going nowhere, locally and nationally, so I quietly walked away.
Around 2007 I attended a meeting of Manchester Trades Council. Afterwards, the SWP Secretary invited me to join the SWP District Committee, but I was not a member, had no intention of rejoining and could not take an unelected position. He was substituting for the delegates and SWP members at an Olympic standard, and looked absolutely knackered, so I felt sorry for him, and I suggested that he find a replacement. He chose a younger woman who had recently left the SWP. My union branch elected me as their delegate and she, myself and a few others got stuck in.
I intended going back to live in the NE, so in 2008 I helped to organise the unaligned North East Shop Stewards’ Network. Several NE veterans and I wrote ‘The Flying Pickets’, and the Des Warren Trust and I paid for it to be printed, but we let the SWP bookshop Bookmarks keep all the proceeds.
In 2009, NESSN suffered from an ‘absconding Treasurer’ – an ambitious young SPer – but after our Treasurer exposed this, leading SPers in London launched a vicious campaign against the elected NESSN Committee. We remained stubbornly unaligned, so Tyneside SP and SWP hacks formed a momentary united front and packed an ordinary NESSN meeting. They and several others had no elected union positions, and so no right to vote, and some were not even in the email network; but they all pretended that it was an AGM and tried to vote me out, because the Committee had declined to advertise their front organisations on http://www.nessn.org.uk – our modestly successful website. However, we were re-elected at the next AGM and there are now almost 300 activists in NESSN. We have been central to organising Workers’ Memorial Day and other events, and we have revived County Durham TUC, along with a few unsectarian SWPers and SPers.
By 2010, several MTUC delegates, including ex-SWPers and SPers, were tired of income deriving from union members’ subs being used as a piggy bank for SWP front organisations, especially after a fellow-traveller asked us to give £100 to ‘Socialist Worker’ because it had ‘nothing to do with the SWP’. At the 2011 AGM, the hard-working ex-SWP woman comrade stood for President, but thirteen non-delegates and a few SWP delegates and fellow travellers among the 30 or so people present voted for the SWP fellow-traveller to carry on. It took the Treasurer – a Labour Party member – several months to find out what had happened, and he was also very concerned at the state of previous accounts. At the 2012 AGM, the SWP Secretary and one fellow-traveller ‘stood down’, and the former Treasurer and two ex-SWPers were elected as officers, but an SWP-led smear campaign against us began immediately. Last summer, when I took responsibility for running the MTUC website – http://www.manchestertuc.org – I found yet another can of SWP worms, but the site is currently averaging 50,000 hits a month, and the ‘shtraggle’ continues.
Cliff’s mid-1970s books on Lenin virtually ignored the underground party workers who did all the hard work and took all the risks in Russia, and he was silent about the unprincipled methods that a few émigré Bolshevik intellectuals used in faction fights, yet the Bolsheviks’ ‘democratic centralism’ was far more democratic than that of the SWP CC from 1977 to 2013.
There are a number of very well grounded SWP members, who combine the basic politics of the organisation with a fairly active engagement in mainstream trade union and outwards looking campaigning activity. There is also, however, a bureaucratic core to the SWP, of the CC and full time organisers, and there is also a large layer of lay members of the SWP whose politics activity is all “party building” – paper sales, meetings, the contrived hot-house debates about theory, packing meetings of front organisations, etc.
Harker’s testimony suggests the operation of quite a complex social interaction of an immanent cult within a sect; and it is the tendency towards cultishness from the bureaucracy that creates the bullying culture, and the haughty arrogance of those whose authority is entirely self-referential from within the SWP. Richard Seymour, the SWP’s celebrity blogger confirms this insulation from outside society: “[the CC] can offer no lead to members beyond thrusting them out into that ‘real world’ they are all completely insulated from” (emphasis in the original)
Now prior to the Internet, SWP branches were not in contact with one another, and lots of dedicated SWP members (let us put them in the sect category) suspected that something was wrong, but beleived that the problems were local to them, and overall the rest of the party was healthy. Particularly in small towns, SWP branches had limited contact with the bureaucracy, and usually liked it that way; and were more able to develop as a relatively healthy affinity group within the wider labour movement. This was also true of some of the industrial fractions.
What is more, the SWP’s strong point historically was presenting itself as a dissident focus to an actually existing labour movement. In the absence of a strong trade union movement, a CP, and Labour left, the SWP found itself forced into the responsibility of leadership in Stop the War, the Socialist Alliance and then Respect.
This is the point where the sect/cult dynamic became poisonous; where the cultists like Chris Harman, Martin Smith, and Alex Callinicos resisted the moves that could have allowed the SWP to potentially break out of the sect ghetto, and enter more mainstream politics. (Of course this is a vast simplification, and some of those like Rees who did embrace the change had some rather unfortunate personality traits that came from the cultish milieu of the SWP centre)
That is why I do think that the bureaucratic core of the SWP acts as a cult, despite the fact that there are many good things about the SWP, and it has many hundreds of good active members, who themselves are semi-detached and weary of the bureaucracy.
A particular challenge for what I call the “after the horse has bolted” opposition in the SWP, is that many of them have their political life revolved around an axis of routine SWP activity. But that activity is predicated upon the existence of a cult infrastructure that they are now rebelling against; the inner circle of which are unlikely to readily relinquish control of the SWP’s physical and financial assets.