By Alex Callinicos, from SWP pre-confernce Internal Bulletin #4
The Socialist Workers Party is currently facing a double challenge – to come to terms with the damage caused by the collapse of Respect and to reorient in the face of what appears to be the most serious economic crisis the capitalist system has faced since the 1930s. Not surprisingly, the result has been a vigorous and many-sided debate on a variety of different though largely inter-connected issues. This is nothing to be afraid of – indeed, some of us might say that this is what the party has needed for years. Conducted in a responsible and comradely way, this debate can strengthen the party.
John Rees certainly has a very powerful claim to have his voice heard in this debate. He was a major protagonist in the Respect crisis. He was consistently advocated a strategy for the party in response to the economic slump – though thoroughly misconceived, this strategy deserves a hearing. Finally, the outgoing Central Committee has not included him on the slate for the new CC we are recommending to January’s national conference. For all these reasons, every member of the SWP will be interested in what John has to say.
Unfortunately, John’s document, ‘Where We Stand’ (already circulated by email in a somewhat different form from the version that appears here) doesn’t really rise to the level demanded by such an important set of debates. In order to defend his personal position John has sought to turn the real, but in many ways quite localized disagreements on the CC into a set of systematic differences. In the process he has had to engage in quite a lot of inflation, distortion, and innuendo. He has also attacked aspects of the party’s work on which he raised no significant disagreements in the past.
In this reply, I’ll try to stay on the high ground and concentrate on the main political questions, though I will, from time to time, have to correct various factual assertions and misrepresentations made by John. Let’s start with the issues that John emphasizes as a way of providing himself with protective cover – namely the party’s response to the economic crisis
and the CC majority’s alleged opposition to recruitment – before considering the origins of the differences in the leadership and concluding on the question of democracy. In the course of this I shall make some comments on Lindsey German’s document, though I think it adds little of substance to the debate.
The most important political question facing the SWP concerns how we respond to a rapidly developing global economic crisis that looks set to be at least as serious as that of the mid-1970s and conceivably as bad as that of the 1930s. John offers a systematic critique of the CC majority, claiming that we have been slow to wake up to the severity of the crisis or to orient the party towards it, that we are abandoning the stress we have put in recent years on building united fronts, and that we have failed to grasp the centrality of the People before Profit Charter. All this is associated with a break with the method of building the party through decisive leadership that Tony Cliff learned from Lenin and its replacement by a ‘‘‘buffet lunch’ approach to leadership – come whenever you like and take a bit of whatever takes your fancy’
I’m tempted to follow the American Trotskyist Max Shachtman and say that even the punctuation marks in these statements are false. But it’s dangerous to make jokes in a factional situation. One I made at the Manchester aggregate is twisted by John in the original version of his document into the admission that I’d ‘been late in seeing the depth of the recession’. Let’s try and get at the substance involved.
In the first place, I completely reject the claim that the present leadership has been slow to face up to the impact of the crisis. As a theoretical tendency we have consistently defended an analysis of the prolonged period of crises and slow growth that capitalism entered at the end of the 1960s as a result of a pronounced fall in the general rate of profit against bourgeois boosters of globalization, sundry reformists and academic leftists, and even some of our sister organizations (this analysis was an issue in the debates with the International Socialist Organization in the United States at the end of the 1990s).
Far from being taken aback by the onset of the financial crisis in August 2007, we saw it as a vindication of our analysis and have placed the developing slump at the centre of our arguments. This is evident from – among a plethora of examples – successive issues of International Socialism, the two Political Economy schools in autumn 2007 and 2008, numerous of my weekly Socialist Worker columns, the articles by Chris Harman and me in the October issue of Socialist Review, the interventions both of us made at successive Historical Materialism conferences, the document on the economic crisis in IB2, and the IS Tendency statement on the crisis reprinted in IB3.
This body of analysis – that will be further developed in the books that Chris Harman and I have written, due to be published in 2009, and another one I have been commissioned to write – may contain all sorts of errors. It certainly will need correction, updating, and further development. But it bears witness to the seriousness with which the present CC takes the economic crisis.
John makes the mystifying statement that ‘There is no theoretical agreement on the CC about the likely depth and length of the recession.’ What’s puzzling about this is that John has said or written nothing of any substance about the crisis since the financial markets froze in the summer of 2007. Of course, in fairness, he has had other preoccupations, but it’s still news that he has any distinctive theoretical position on these questions.
Instead, John objects when those of us who have contributed to our analysis of the crisis exercise a degree of caution about making precise predictions. For example, I wrote in the October Socialist Review: ‘The complexity of the capitalist economic system, in which different mechanisms and tendencies interact, means that it’s hard to predict the course and severity of the present crisis.’ Such remarks would seem to any serious student of Marxist political economy a statement of the obvious. But for John they are admissions of weakness. He and his supporters go around saying: ‘The CC majority think we can’t have a perspective because we can’t predict anything.’ This is ridiculous.
A Marxist understanding of the world allows us to anticipate the broad line of development, but not to predict precise turns of events. For example, the crisis in the financial markets turned into a full-scale crash after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September. This event arose from the interaction between an ideologically motivated (and catastrophically miscalculated) decision by the Bush administration not to rescue Lehman’s and a conflict between US and British company law that prevented Barclay’s from mounting a private takeover. If John really thinks he can predict the precise form of such complex turns of events then he could be making a lot of money working for a hedge fund.
What about the accusations of the majority’s ‘slowness’ in developing a practical response to the economic crisis? In the first half of the year, the crisis took mainly the form of paralysed financial markets. The most important effect on ordinary people’s lives was the collapse of house prices and the drying up of mortgages. There has been a quantum-leap in the severity of the crisis since the summer, with output beginning to fall fast, and soaring closures and redundancies. Maybe we could have done more to prepare for the development of the recession in the early part of 2008, though it would have been difficult to have gone beyond discussion and some planning. There were practical reasons why our focus was elsewhere.
In the first place, the most significant external development had nothing to do with signs of a developing recession, but was in response to another dimension of the economic crisis, namely the impact of accelerating inflation on living standards – the pay revolt, especially, though not exclusively, in the public sector.
Secondly, at the same time as relating to the pay revolt (in some success in a number of unions), the party had to put considerable energy and resources into campaigning in the May elections in London and other parts of the country. The returns of this intervention were, of course, pretty negative in London (though somewhat better elsewhere). Does John now think we were mistaken to have run in the GLA elections? Does he think the SWP Industrial Department shouldn’t have thrown everything it could at the pay revolt?
If he does, then he should have the honesty to acknowledge that he didn’t oppose either of these interventions at the time (indeed, of course, he led the Left List campaign) and therefore must take his share of responsibilityfor what he now believes – wrongly, in my view – to be mistaken decisions.
What leadership of a revolutionary party requires above all is, first, as Lenin put it, ‘the concrete analysis of concrete situations’, and, secondly, the capacity to respond quickly to sharp turns in the objective situation. The present CC has certainly been hampered this year by its internal differences. But that hasn’t prevented us from correctly weighing the objective situation and from pointing the party in the right direction.
In particular, the September National Committee was really important – less because of the row over the Left Alternative National Council than because this was preceded by a sharp argument over perspectives.
The clarity achieved by this debate – as well as the support the CC majority received from the NC – gave the impetus to turn the party sharply towards a focus on responding to the economic crisis and building resistance to its effects on working people. This is reflected in, for example, in the ‘Socialists and the Crisis’ meeting to mobilize the party in London on 8 October, the protests at the Bank of England and Canary Wharf, the Bookmarks pamphlet on the crisis by Chris Harman, and the mini-Marxism on 6December,
This is not to say that our response to the crisis hasn’t faced difficulties. The problem is not, as John claims, that the CC has failed to bend the stick. On the contrary, we have bent it too far for his liking. Thus he complains that I ‘told the South London aggregate that “It’s clear that Stop the War will be less important in the future.”’ What I did, in the first place, make clear (not just in South London but at all the other aggregates I spoke at) was the strategic long-term importance of the Stop the War Campaign, reflecting the analysis that John helped to develop at the end of the Cold War and that stresses that American imperialism has no choice but to rely on its military power to help maintain its competitive position.
But I went on to argue that Stop the War could have the kind of over-arching centrality to our work that it has had since it was launched in the aftermath of 9/11. It can’t be what Galloway called ‘the mother ship’, from which all other initiatives spring. This is partly because the economic crisis has come to occupy centre-stage. But it’s also true that, though popular opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains very high, the mobilizing power of the issue has declined. Compare the demonstration against Bush’s visit to London in October 2003, when more than 300,000 people marched on a weekday, with that against his return last June when a few thousand turned out.
To repeat: this isn’t an argument for abandoning Stop the War – Obama wants to escalate the Afghan war and may perpetrate atrocities elsewhere. And it’s perfectly possible that the result may be an upsurge in mobilization, as took place in response to Israel’s Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. But this doesn’t alter the current situation. If John wants to challenge this analysis, then he’ll have to come up with one of his own.
John’s complaint occurs in the context of the accusation that the CC majority is engineering a ‘full scale retreat from united front work’. This is nonsense. We need to continue to build and develop the existing united fronts – Stop the War, UAF, Defend Council Housing, and so on. We also want to help initiate and build united fronts that combat the effects of the recession.
Here there is a real disagreement. John accuses the majority failing to recognize the centrality of the Charter to our response to the recession. His error is instructive because in a certain sense it dovetails in with the criticism of the CC raised by some comrades – notably Ian Allinson, Neil Davidson, and Unjum Mirza – who, though hostile to the Charter and to John personally, accuse us of failing to provide the party with a strategy for the recession.
It’s important to see that, for John, Stop the War provides the model for the Charter. At the NC in September he called for ‘a massive centralized effort’ to build the Charter. At a CC meeting during the summer he said ‘the recession is the new war’. In other words, John believes that the SWP is in a position to initiate a mass united front campaign comparable to what Stop the War during its upswing in 2001-5.
The reason why John is mistaken can be seen at two levels. First, the economic class struggle is different from that of the struggle against war. In autumn 2001 the existing peace organizations were weak and conservative. The sheer shock of 9/11 and fear of the American response created a space where, by moving very quickly, we (including John, to his great credit), along with other anti-imperialists who shared our sense of urgency, could rapidly initiate a new kind of anti-war movement that grew very rapidly through a cycle of dynamic and expanding mobilizations.
In the economic class struggle, the organized working class is, of course, of central importance. That means there’s no getting round the trade union bureaucracy, which is an immense conservative force, relative to which our weight is much less than it in the anti-war movement. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing than we can do. On the contrary, we have been able to do a lot in the unions where we have some base – eg the NUT, PCS, and UCU. But getting support for initiatives is a much more complicated business in the unions.
Of course, the bulk of the union bureaucracy is involved in Stop the War as well. But the situation is different there. It costs a trade union general secretary nothing to make a speech at an anti-war rally and only money to make a donation to Stop the War. But united fronts are about action and action against the recession means, for example, resisting the public sector pay limit or fighting pay-cuts in the private sector. Leading trade union bureaucrats are only going to sign up to that under immense pressure from below.
Though John attacks the idea of the Charter as a petition, his own conception of it seems to be as a series of big rallies. He lists some of the speakers at these meetings – Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Larry Elliot, Paul Mason, Sally Hunt, Tony Kearns, and Caroline Lucas. This is impressive enough, but MPs and journalists can’t deliver action, and the trade-union officials have shown no sign of doing so.
The problem is compounded by the fact that we have seen the most important working- class action this year – the public-sector pay revolt – collapse in the last couple of months. This is all the more significant because it was the doing of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. This partly because of the pessimism of large sections of the left – the apparent belief of the Socialist Party, for example, that economic recession automatically means a collapse in working-class resistance.
But the larger picture is important, as well. By apparently moving leftwards, pumping money into the banks, adopting Keynesian measures to stimulate the economy, and moderately increasing taxes on the rich, Gordon Brown has brigaded the bulk of the Labour Party and the union bureaucracy – who were openly in revolt against him at the time of the party conference in September – behind the government. In the short term, at least, this has seriously undercut our ability to find national partners in fighting the recession.
This analysis is important for the comrades demanding a detailed ‘strategy’ against the recession. Marxist thought is necessarily strategic because it’s about not just analysing, but about intervening in the objective situation, pressing at the knotty points where all the social contradictions are concentrated. But strategic interventions depend on a realistic assessment of the alignment of forces. And the truth is that, at the moment, the alignment of forces isn’t very favourable to building united fronts against the effects of the recession at the national level.
The implication of this assessment isn’t that we should sit and wait for the situation to shift. We need to seize every opportunity we can to build united resistance to the effects of the recession. This will often meet taking primarily local initiatives to resist closures, redundancies, and repossessions. But local campaigns plainly aren’t enough. We need to look for openings at the national level, as well. The Charter has a role to play here, so long as it’s understood as one initiative among others.
The G20 summit on 2 April is an opportunity to build a broad mobilization that includes opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but that focuses on saying no to the ruling-class efforts to make working people and the poor pay for the crisis. If successful, this mobilization might facilitate continuing united action.
John will no doubt dismiss the open and experimental approach that I am setting forward as ‘reacting after the event to resistance as it arises’. This is an astonishing attitude for someone who parades their affinity with Tony Cliff – the same Tony Cliff one of whose favourite mottoes was ‘suck it and see’, his more down to earth version of Lenin’s misquotation of Napoleon: ‘You commit yourself and then you see.’ Any serious revolutionary intervention involves a pragmatic element – of taking up a position, translating it into action, and then assessing how successful the intervention was. There is absolutely no shame in saying that the perspective that has emerged over the past few months is a work in progress.
We have carried out a sharp turn in the party’s work and we are still in the process of establishing the most effective way of operating in a rapidly changing situation. New perspectives after a big shift in the objective situation are always a work-in-progress.
Cliff first formulated his analysis of a downturn in the British class struggle in early 1978. It took over four years for the party to develop, through a process of trial-and-error, a detailed perspective involving retreating from rank-and-file groups, focusing on general Marxist propaganda around geographical branches, and changing the nature of Socialist Worker. We first began to sense the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement in mid- 1999. It took two and a half years – and a fierce factional struggle in the IS Tendency – before it became clear how we should be working (and even then, as we will see below, there were difficulties).
Anyone who thinks a complete perspective should spring fully-formed from the head of the leadership is just kidding themselves. With luck, we can speed up the process of developing the new perspectives, but this will involve the party as a whole, individual comrades, branches, and districts, as well as the Central Committee itself, taking initiatives and then assessing the results through collective discussion. John’s grand-standing about the Charter is of little help in this task
Building the party
The logic of John’s accusation that the CC majority is abandoning united-front work is that we are retreating into a party-building propagandist perspective. Indeed he does accuse us of this, but he also charges us with being bad at party-building. To assess these charges, let’s turn to the much more objective way of addressing the issue that is offered by Neil Davidson in his document in IB3.
Neil offers a wide-ranging critique of the whole model of party-building we developed in the mid-1970s. Like Chris Harman and John Molyneux, I welcome Neil’s document because of the clarity and provocation with which it poses important questions, even though I disagree with him on many points of detail and in the conclusions he draws.
Plainly merely doubling our membership, from 3-4,000 in the mid 1970s, to 8-10,000 in the late 1990s is a disappointing record given how high our ambitions were (and still remain) – to build a mass revolutionary party capable of leading the working class in a struggle for political power. But – given that the quarter century in question encompassed the most decisive defeats that the British workers’ movement suffered during the 20th century – not simply maintaining our organization, but doubling its membership looks like a pretty solid achievement, of which we can be can be proud.
The really interesting question is why the SWP hasn’t grown in the period since Seattle and 9/11. If a decade ago someone had told be that we would help lead a movement that would organize a demonstration of two million, I would have predicted that the party would grow to 20,000 or 30,000. Instead we have had to run to stay in the same place. Why?
John’s explanation seems to be largely subjective error on the part of the SWP leadership: On reflection it appears we made a double error in the course of the last 10 years. Firstly we did not insist that every SWP member should fight to build the united fronts. Secondly we did not party-build systematically enough while we were involved in the united front.
These are, of course, contradictory aims and therefore hard to combine in practice. But we could have done better than we did. Since John has been a member of the CC for the past ten years, this seems to be a rare moment of self-criticism in a document all too eager to attack others. And what he says isn’t wholly mistaken. But it is the wrong way, in my view, to approach the problem.
To put the emphasis on our own failures ignores the fact that nowhere else in Europe, or indeed the world, has any other far left current succeeded in achieving a major qualitative breakthrough in the era of Seattle. Thus the LCR in France hopes that the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) it is launching at the end of January will have 10,000 members. This would be a step forward compared to the Ligue’s membership of 3,500, but hardly a leap into a qualitatively different terrain.
It therefore seems much wiser to start, as we normally do, with the objective situation. The nine years since Seattle have seen a massive political radicalization directed against neoliberalism and war. At the level of mass mobilization on street demonstrations this radicalization has been unrivalled. But Marxism of any kind has had the smallest influence it has enjoyed since the revolutions of 1848. The most coherent and influential alternative worldview has been what one might call Chomskyanism – an ideology that is firmly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist but that is different from Marxism in its denial to the working class of a central role and its rejection of socialist political organization.
It isn’t hard to explain the relative weakness of Marxism. Two objective factors seem important. The different sectors of the traditional left suffered in the decades before Seattle a prolonged crisis as a result of the defeats of the later 1970s and the 1980s that was reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberal triumphalism that followed it, and the progressive shift of the social-democratic parties in a social-liberal direction,. Secondly, while there have been significant victories for workers in different countries, there has been no generalized reversal of the earlier defeats, let alone anything resembling workers’ resuming the offensive struggles of the last upturn of 1967-76.
So, on the one hand, Marxism has been a weaker ideological reference point, and, on the other, it has been harder to prove in practice the centrality of workers’ struggle to any project for social and political emancipation. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the Greek explosion is so interesting, since it occurred in the European society where the conditions of the 1970s have survived most strongly.)
None of this means that it is impossible to win people to organized Marxist politics. On the contrary, we do it all the time. But it is more an effort to do so in a period of undoubted radicalization where the natural terminus point is no longer (as it was from the 1880s through to the 1970s) some version of Marxism. This brings us to the subjective factor. Is the problem that we just haven’t tried hard enough, as John suggests? Again, the answer is a bit more complicated. After Seattle we were confronted with the development of new movements of resistance, initially against neoliberal globalization, but increasingly, in this country at least, against the war on terrorism. We decided very quickly to put the emphasis on what united us with the other forces in these movements, irrespective of their political backgrounds – reformist, Stalinist, orthodox Trotskyist, liberal, anarchist, or whatever, rather than on our differences with them, and to give priority to building these movements on a united front basis. This choice was hotly contested within the IS Tendency by the ISO (US), which responded to these movements in a sectarian way, starting with the differences, but it was, I still believe, correct.
Nevertheless, this strategic reorientation has significant practical implications. In the first place, deciding priorities is above all about allocating resources. Many of our best, most active comrades threw themselves fully into the movements – a shift represented by the fact that three prominent, very talented CC members worked effectively full-time for Stop the War, but that was reflected at every level of activity. This took resources away from party building.
John complains that we should have built both the united fronts and the party, and indeed we emphasized that building the movements was the key to building the party. In a fundamental strategic sense this was right: if we hadn’t made the turn to the movements we would have withered into a sect. All the same, resources devoted to one purpose are taken away from another. Try as hard we could, giving priority to building the movements meant there was less energy and people for the SWP.
John might say that the problem was compounded by fact that quite a lot of comrades were not actively involved in the new movements. In some cases this may have political resistance – the feeling we were liquidating our politics, distrust of Galloway, etc. But more common, I suspect, was the problem of attrition – of comrades who had joined in the 1980s and 1990s, drifting into middle age, and using a shift in party work as an excuse to take a back seat. Perhaps we could have won more of these, but a feature of the practice of party-building developed by Tony Cliff that John normally so commends is that we lead by example, ‘create facts’, and then use our successes to bring other comrades along.
This problem was exacerbated by a second one, that of the branches. A party life centred on geographical branches had allowed us to survive the 1980s and 1990s but in the course of the latter decade the tendency of the branches to become too self enclosed and passive became an increasing preoccupation. There was a lot of tinkering around with the branches that didn’t overcome the problem and that many comrades think were counter-productive.
Then came the era of Seattle. The CC decided that the branches had become an obstacle to the necessary turn outwards and in effect scrapped them. The suspension of branch meetings in London during the GLA elections in 2000 symbolized this shift. I accept my share of this responsibility for this decision, which may indeed have been justified in order sharply to break with the past. But, right or wrong, scrapping the branches had consequences directly relevant to John’s and Lindsey’s complaints about party organization.
Scrapping the branches removed one key agency in recruiting comrades. More important, it meant that if we recruited someone, they had nowhere to go. Unless they were firmly attached to one of the united fronts, the individuals would drift into a shapeless mass of semi-detached members and all too often disappear.
But the collapse of the branches meant that all sorts of other party activities were undermined. The distribution and sale of party publications was, for example, badly weakened. In his effort to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the present CC majority, John complains about the chronic difficulties of party finances. This is surprising since these difficulties date back at least a decade, and John has, like the rest of us, taken part in many discussions about how to overcome our financial problems,.
There are various causes, but the most important, in my view, lies in the obstacles we have faced in achieving and maintaining the level of subs income that we could realistically expect, given the size of the membership, and that is required to finance the activities in which we need politically to engage. If branch organization were stronger, it would be much easier to overcome these problems.
These facts are important because, in their eagerness to rubbish the party, John and Lindsey conveniently forget that they, like me, took part in the decisions that led to the collapse of the branches. Indeed, when in the summer of 2003 Chris Bambery made the modest proposal that party branches should start meeting fortnightly, Lindsey, with the support of Chris Nineham, vehemently opposed him (though John, to his credit, did not).
The weakness of the branches nevertheless became a matter of increasing concern inside the party in 2003-4: on the Central Committee this concern was consistently articulated by Chris Harman. One of the most important initiatives that Martin Smith took after he took over as National Secretary in the summer of 2004 was to give priority to methodically rebuilding party organization. This has involved developed a team of comrades around Martin at the National Office, some of whom have joined the Central Committee. Their collective achievement is visible – in the recruitment figures, in the revival of the branches, in the successes we have had in student work, and in the good run of Marxisms we have enjoyed in the past few years. These results are so evident that they make John’s assertion that the origins of the divisions on the CC lie in Martin’s opposition to Lindsey’s November 2007 document on recruitment (appended to John’s document) seem quite ridiculous. Saying that Martin Smith is against recruitment is like saying the Pope isn’t a Catholic. One of the main things he has done is to organize several waves of Why You Should be a Socialist rallies whose aim is – recruitment.
John, following Lindsey here, counterposes to these rallies monthly branch public meetings. Why on earth we should have to choose between these is beyond me. Of course we should aim to have regular good local public meetings where we recruit. But why shouldn’t we have more less frequent rallies with a couple of national speakers, special publicity, and extra support from the centre? Is this really an issue that it’s worth dividing the party over?
Lindsey’s November 2007 document actually seems to argue for these rallies, but it also proposes what she calls a ‘recruitment drive’, which she compares with the kind of blitzes that Cliff directed on several occasions, notably in 1973 and 1977, and which were more recently pursued in the early 1990s. These were operations were recruitment took priority over everything else the organization was doing.
Personally I have no objection to such campaigns in principle, but they make sense only in very specific conditions. Did these prevail in November 2007, when the party was still reeling from the split in Respect? I very much doubt it. Pursuing a highly centralized recruitment campaign would probably not have produced very good results and might well have exacerbated all the problems – for example, the divisions between active and passive members and overreliance on the centre – that John rails against in an exaggerated way.
To sum up, there is certainly no reason to be complacent about either the size or the functioning of the party. But the problems involved are quite deep-seated, to a large degree long predating the present divisions of the CC. It is to the credit of the present majority that it includes the comrades who have made a concentrated effort to strengthen party organization. John’s and Lindsey’s portrayal of various real or exaggerated weaknesses in their polemic against the majority is evidence more of desperation than of any resembling a serious and constructive analysis.
Origins of the present crisis
So how on earth did we get to this point? The answer has nothing to do with any arguments, real or imagined, about recruitment. It was the crisis in Respect that has fractured the Central Committee. It’s true that shortly before news of John’s disastrous acceptance of the donation appeared in East London Advertiser in early December 2007 there was a row over Lindsey’s proposals on recruitment. But the real dynamic driving the row was a displacement of the tensions that had been building up in the CC for the previous three months. In itself the blow-up over Lindsey’s proposals was a storm in a teacup that would have soon been forgotten if a much deeper fracture hadn’t opened up on the CC.
The Central Committee has produced a detailed assessment of the Respect crisis and the party’s response, and it would not be useful to rehearse the arguments set out there in much detail. But that document makes absolutely clear that political responsibility for the destruction of Respect lies with George Galloway and his allies.
Therefore Lindsey’s claim that John is being made a scapegoat for this disaster is nonsense. The problem was rather that the crisis in Respect exposed certain systematic weaknesses in John’s methods of working – in particular a failure to respect the collective decision-making of the party and, in large part as a result, to make serious mistakes that caused him to lose the confidence of the majority, not just of the leadership, but of the party cadre as well.
If one wants to set a date for the beginnings of the crisis, it would be 25 August 2007, when the CC held a special meeting to discuss our response to George Galloway’s letter denouncing John. A meeting had already been fixed for 4 September between representatives of the CC and Galloway and his allies. The CC discussion was dominated, one might say paralysed, by John’s adamant insistence that he issue a public response to Galloway in advance of the 4 September meeting.
Most members of the CC thought it would be unwise to prejudge the results of this meeting. This was a tactical issue with no issue of principle at stake on either side. But most comrades there were taken aback by the vehemence with which John, with the support of Lindsey German (and also with a degree of sympathy from me), insisted on having his way. The tone was ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’.
It was that argument began the fracture on the CC. What produced the polarization was the assumption on John’s part was that he should define the leadership’s line on Respect. This reflected, more generally, how work on both Respect tended to be reported to the CC. While quite a lot of information would be shared with the CC, it wasn’t on a basis that really invited discussion or dissent.
In retrospect, this represented a breach with how the party has intervened in united fronts. It was always taken for granted comrades involved in leading united fronts would be under particular pressure to adapt to their reformist allies. The role of the Central Committee would be to support these comrades, but also to act as a counter-pressure to any tendency of rightward adaptation.
This mechanism broke down in the case of Respect. No doubt this was a consequence of how this united front was established – as an initiative in which two comrades who were both already powerful members of the CC and also central to Stop the War played a leading part – but it was a failure on the part on the leadership as a whole to allow it to become entrenched. In any case, once the Respect crisis had exploded, this pattern had to change. John complains ‘there never has been an area of party work that has undergone such scrutiny as the Respect work.’ What else did he expect? In effect, he appealed to the party’s aid to fend off an attack from the Galloway faction that developed into a potentially mortal threat to the SWP itself. Of course, the Central Committee and the party membership as a whole were going to demand a detailed say in how we responded.
The real problem was that, under the spotlight, John committed a series of errors that both undermined our confidence in him and exposed a persistent tendency to flout collective decisions. Rather than descending to the level of tittle-tattle, let’s concentrate on the most visible of these errors, the OFFU donation – not, as Lindsey asserts, in breach of double jeopardy, but it exposed John’s weaknesses most starkly.
There were three things wrong about what he did. First of all, John shouldn’t have accepted the donation without the prior approval of the CC. Just because of the growing tensions with Galloway, the fact that the latter’s adviser expressed his opposition to diverting the money to OFFU should have been a reason for extreme caution. Instead, the first I knew of the donation was just before we were to meet Galloway on 4 September 2007, long after John had accepted it. The fact of the donation was reported to the CC on 5 September, but – because they were on holiday – Weyman Bennett, Judith Orr, and Martin Smith only found out in December. This was a failure of communication for which the four comrades who met Galloway – Chris Bambery, Lindsey German, John Rees, and myself – must share responsibility.
Secondly, John shouldn’t have accepted the donation all. While it would be a mistake to say that workers’ organizations should never accept money from bosses, it was wrong to accept a donation for a rank-and file body from a businessman with privatizing associations. It’s true that, when I first became aware of these associations, about ten days after the meeting with Galloway, I was slow to alert the rest of the CC to them. But of course, by then it was too late to do anything about the use of the cheque. There was no intention to cover anything up on my part; I was simply too preoccupied with other aspects of the fight. I apologized at the January 2008 conference. John draws attention to my error, though you might have thought he should be more worried about the beam in his own eye than with the splinter in mine.
Thirdly, revelation of the donation destroyed OFFU, a very promising trade union initiative that would have come in very handy now. John completely fails to acknowledge this fact – rather surprisingly given his apparent preoccupation with building a united front against the recession.
John tries to throw dust in our eyes by comparing the donation to Morrissey’s financial support for the Love Music Hate Racism Carnival back in April. This shows that John still doesn’t get it about what he did wrong. There is simply no comparison between the two cases. Ten days before the Carnival UNISON withdrew its financial support for the Carnival, essentially because of its political opposition to Lindsey German, Left List candidate for Mayor, speaking there. Morrissey offered £28,000, and another associate £7,000, to help cover the gap. There was nothing secret about this – it was, for example, openly discussed at the LMHR steering committee, nor was there anything to be embarrassed about.
You would have thought that John would have been grateful that this rescue had been mounted, since otherwise the Left List might have been blamed for damaging the Carnival. Instead he tries to make a factional issue of the affair. Worse still, he doesn’t even bother to get his facts right, claiming that the donation was for £75,000 and was made to Unite against Fascism – assertions that are likely to cause problems in both LMHR and UAF. Not content with being involved in the collapse of Respect and having blown OFFU apart, John is now undermining two other united fronts. This is typical of the reckless behaviour that led us to decide that he could no longer remain on the Central Committee.
It was the revelation of similar recklessness over the OFFU donation that caused the accumulated tensions in the CC to explode in December 2007. It determined the majority of the committee to demand that John stand down as National Secretary of Respect. This was something that it was entirely within our rights to do so. Over the years, numerous
members of the CC have had their responsibilities changed or have been told that the rest of us thought they shouldn’t be re-nominated at the next conference. Most haven’t liked this, but they accepted the collective decision. But in this case we encountered intense resistance, not just from John, but from Lindsey, Chris Nineham, and (in a considerably more measured way) Chris Bambery.
In the end, the majority decided not to insist on their rights and agreed on a compromise proposed by Lindsey, under which John’s position would be reviewed in a few months’ time. In the circumstances, I think this was the right thing to do. The party was still reeling from the Respect split and we had the London elections to confront. The compromise allowed the CC to fight on a united basis for our GLA campaign – something that John never acknowledges.
But the GLA campaign was a disastrous failure, compounded by the desertion of the Tower Hamlets councillors (and another important ally, Mukul Hira, who stood in Camden in 2006 and 2008). I think it’s fair to say that most people in John’s position would have acknowledged the extent of the setback and resigned as National Secretary of the Left List (as our bit of Respect had become). Had he done this in May or June then I think he would have received much sympathy and been able to begin to rebuild his standing in the party and in the wider movement.
Instead John tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Indeed, he gave the impression that the Left Alternative (yet another name-change) would try to continue as a national electoral project. This was too much for the CC majority. There was the mother of all rows about this at our meeting before Marxism 2008. Subsequently we insisted that John stand down as National Secretary of the Left Alternative and give up responsibility for the party’s electoral work. This involved a laboriously negotiated compromise whose aim was not simply to keep John on the CC but to give him a continuing prominent role in our external work through a shared responsibility for the Charter.
This seemed to me, particularly in comparison with how various leading comrades were in the past bundled unceremoniously off the CC, a pretty good deal. But John effectively blew it up at the Left Alternative National Council on 6 September 2008. What this witnessed was a coordinated announcement of three resignations from this body – by John, Lindsey, and Chris Bambery. This amounted to a public protest against the CC’s decision to remove John from responsibility for our electoral work. It made what would have in any case been a difficult meeting quite unmanageable.
Lindsey tries to justify her resignation speech by saying that the CC were aware that she would be making it. It’s true that both during the negotiations over John’s removal and at subsequent CC meetings she had expressed, as she puts it, her ‘decision to resign’, from the Left Alternative NC. Of course, as comrades have pointed out, this wasn’t up to her – it was a decision for the leadership as a whole. But the feeling in the majority was that it would have silly to have insisted on this. Nevertheless, expressing an intention to do something isn’t the same as deciding how it will be done. There was no need for Lindsey to announce her resignation in a speech (particularly one that made references to ‘scapegoating’ that many of those there interpreted as an attack on the party). She could have resigned so by email or letter.
Lindsey didn’t make any effort to discuss the different options at the CC, even though the Left Alternative was a regular item on the agenda, nor did she or John attend the SWP caucus the night before the LA NC. She may indeed sincerely believe that she did nothing wrong – but this belief is a symptom of how far the normal accountability of the most leading comrades had broken down in Respect. The handful of comrades who did make the pre-NC caucus can confirm that the only resignation that was discussed there was John’s, reflecting the fact that we were not expecting Lindsey to make a resignation speech, let alone that Chris Bambery would announce that he would be standing down from the NC at the Left Alternative conference.
When at the next meeting of the CC the majority expressed their anger at what happened we were warned that if we went public this might split the party. We took this as a threat. This blackmail had the opposite effect to that intended. It determined us to take the issue to the SWP National Committee the following weekend since the alternative would be a permanently divided and paralysed leadership.
A resolution from the majority endorsed the CC’s decision to remove him from this responsibility, and did not restrict itself, as John asserts, to ‘saying that [he] was no longer responsible for electoral work’.
Confronted with this resolution and realizing that they were isolated, the minority responded by ducking and diving, refusing to address the arguments. Lindsey, for example, claimed to support the resolution and John’s removal – even though at the CC she had given her disagreement with this decision as her reason for wanting to resign from the Left Alternative NC, but refused to acknowledge that she had do anything wrong or to apologize for her speech the previous weekend.
These evasions did not prevent a overwhelming majority of the NC passing a resolution clearly intended as a rebuke to the three comrades’ actions at the Left Alternative meeting. Since I spoke on behalf of the CC majority, I want to correct two misrepresentations of what I said. First, I did not endorse Lindsey’s insistence that we ‘draw a line’ under the affair. I said that we had to try to establish the leadership as an effective, politically coherent collective: whether or not a line should be drawn would depend on whether it would contribute to achieving this aim.
Secondly, I gave no ‘assurances’, absolute or otherwise, about my support for John’s continuing membership of the CC. I explained that the compromise in the summer had been a way of allowing John to continue as an active member of the leadership and for the party to make full use of his talents. I said nothing about the future, because the point of the NC
meeting was to settle the party’s attitude to what had just happened. The question of future membership of the CC was a matter for the conference and the discussion leading up to it. Which brings us to where we are now.
The Central Committee, by ten votes to two (John and Lindsey absented themselves from the meeting), have decided not to re-nominate John. Some comrades ask why we are not suggesting Conference should not re-elect the other three comrades who supported him at the beginning of this fight. It’s true that Lindsey and Chris Bambery were involved in the
orchestrated resignations at the LA NC. They were wrong to have done so.
But neither they nor Chris Nineham have shown the same pattern of recklessness and unaccountability that John has consistently displayed. Lindsey and Chris Nineham appear to support John’s efforts to generalize the disagreements, but Chris Bambery does not. There is no case at present for treating all four comrades as a homogenous group. As far as the Central Committee is concerned, the issue is John.
This doesn’t mean that the issues at stake are, as some comrades say, ‘about personalities’. Holding even the most prominent comrades accountable is a political issue. Of course, this is an inconvenient position for John himself. Hence the constant effort to widen the front and involve others – symbolized by a document written by John, but called ‘Where We Stand’. In doing so he not only exaggerates the real, but quite limited political differences on perspectives and party-building that exist on the CC, but mounts an assault on the condition of the party that, if anyone else had made it, he and Lindsey would have been the first to denounce.
Neil Davidson’s document has been widely welcomed because it articulated a widespread feeling that the Respect crisis revealed that something had gone wrong with the party’s democracy. John has blown hot and cold on Neil’s document – responding positively when he believed he could extract some factional advantage from it, becoming more hostile when
he realized that Neil and his co-thinkers weren’t prepared to join an unprincipled bloc against the CC majority. In the first, emailed version of his document he accuses the majority of this kind of manoeuvring, asserting that we have welcomed Neil’s document ‘to conciliate critics [,] not for principled reasons’.
In fact, my own attitude to Neil’s arguments is very similar to Chris Harman’s, who has been privately been expressing for many years the kind of views stated publicly in his reply to Neil. Like Chris, I think the problem is less one of structure than of ethos. In other words, formally party structures are highly democratic, but the culture of internal debate has been much weaker in recent years, and more broadly the party has been over-reliant on top-down initiatives from the CC.
This doesn’t mean I agree with Neil when he questions the broader model of party-building we have followed since the 1970s (Neil is, of course, right that there is more than one way of being a Leninist organization, but there are real strengths in this particular version). The combination that we have of evolved of a strong centralized political leadership supported by a relative large apparatus of full-time workers and an activist membership sharing widely diffused and sophisticated Marxist theoretical culture gives us extraordinary capacities of intervention. We could have had nothing like the impact on the movements here in Britain and internationally without these particular organizational qualities, which are the inheritance of how we have worked for the past 30 years.
But Neil is right that the Central Committee, scarred by the crisis of the late 1970s, has been very cautious about expressing public disagreements, and indeed has become more cautious over about this over time. This tendency has been reinforced by features that become more prominent in the 1990s. Sustaining party activity in a period when, after a series of big, though unconnected mobilizations in 1990-4, was remarkably lacking in serious struggles required increasing doses of voluntarism on the part of the centre. At the centre itself a certain hothouse atmosphere and excessive preoccupation with trivial internal infighting and backbiting developed.
Contrary to what John says, it was in these years that the weight of the centre relative the membership was strongest.
The post-Seattle period offered a welcome opening of the windows and gave many comrades the opportunity of developing stronger roots in different movements and unions. This has generated its own problems – above all the danger of fragmentation – but it has produced a stronger and more self-confident cadre. It is this cadre that, having stood firm amid the splendours and miseries of the Respect experience, is now calling not just John as an individual, but the entire CC to account. This too is welcome. Some of the CC majority were at the centre of the party in the 1990s. We became deeply unhappy about some of the things that happened then.
As strongly as Neil, we want to see party democracy strengthened. What that will involve needs to be discussed in a thorough and open-minded way. The CC has suggested that the election by the forthcoming Conference of a Commission on Party Democracy would provide a good framework for this discussion, but that is for Conference for decide.
John, consistently enough, sets himself against this discussion. Or, more precisely, he’s only concerned about democracy when it favours his own case. Thus he complains that that the CC decided not to produce a fourth pre-conference Bulletin, insinuating that this was an attempt to suppress discussion. What we in fact decided was that the brute reality of the
Christmas break made it impossible to produce a Bulletin that would be open to the party as a whole with deadlines that would give comrades a fair chance of contributing to that Bulletin.
Instead, to facilitate the discussion, we decided to produce and circulate a set of documents, including an updated perspectives document and whatever John wanted to write in his defence. John decided instead initially to circulate his document electronically – apparently toall and sundry, whether or not they are party members.
One of the great advantages of the Democracy Commission would be that it could review and seek improvements in how we conduct internal debates (the issue of how documents are circulated is one thing we need to look at, given the way in which some have been distributed by email in a fairly random way).
But I don’t think we need feel particularly ashamed of the present one. It’s true that the Central Committee didn’t launch the preconference debate by announcing a decision to drop John from the slate. That was because we were preoccupied with turning the party towards resistance to the recession and so started with the economic crisis and political perspectives.
But, as soon as we decided on the recommended slate, we announced it to the party, more than six weeks before Conference – the first time the slate hasn’t been announced only at the Conference itself.
This allowed the slate to be discussed at most aggregates, again for the first time in the party’s history. Some aggregates missed it. If Conference does decide to elect a Democracy Commission, it should take a look at how to ensure things work better in future. But no one can deny that we are having a rich and thorough-going debate.
John appears to see this opening up as a threat. In fact, in many ways it resembles what happened thirty years ago, when the party experienced another crisis of adjustment (in that case to the downturn in class struggle) and the leadership split. Revolutionary parties don’t develop through a smooth, simple process of quantitative growth. If they are living organizations embedded in wider movements and struggles, then they undergo sometimes sharp and painful crises.
That’s how I see the present crisis – as a sign the party is alive. If we respond to it in a political, responsible, and honest way, whatever our different views, then we can emerge from it strengthened.
The problem with John isn’t that he disagrees with the CC majority. Disagreements are necessary to the development of a living party. But John sees everything through the distorting lens of the struggle to maintain his personal position. This leads him to inflate real, but quite specific disagreements into systematic differences and to rubbish aspects of the party’s work for which, as a CC member for the past 14 years, he must share responsibility.
For a year now the Central Committee has had to grapple with the unrelenting struggle of an undeniably talented comrade to shield himself for being held to account for the mistakes he has made. For those of us with a long history of party membership, who remember the many personal sacrifices made by individual comrades and their disciplined acceptance of unwelcome decisions, John’s behaviour is nothing short of a scandal. It is time that this conflict was brought to an end. That is why I support the CC’s decision not to recommend John for re-election.