Imagine the scene: two weeks before SWP conference, the Central Committee is due to meet. The leadership is not yet divided between two blocks: one which sees the conduct of Martin Smith as unacceptable, and a second which rests bureaucratically on the findings of a Disputes Committee to pretend that he has been “exonerated”. The former have until now remained coded in their criticisms. They have hesitated for two months before stating openly that they think Smith should be removed from all positions, and have only just decided to bring their case to the CC. Before they can speak, Alex Callinicos has in his hand a file of papers. He throws them on the table. They are a Facebook conversation between half a dozen members of the SWP mostly in their late 20s. “Look”, Callinicos shouts, “you are allying with people who want to smash the party!” In this way, he disorients the CC minority, and buys for Smith another few weeks on the payroll.
The leadership of our party has done so many stupid and destructive things over the course of this past year that it is easy to forget that only 12 months ago they used the fact of a closed Facebook conversation as an excuse to expel four people from the SWP. Re-reading that conversation, what is extraordinary is how timid the “Facebook Four” were. For example, asked to explain what the group stood for, Paris Thompson wrote, “1) Martin Smith’s position within the party, or at the very least within the leadership, to be completely untenable”. Didn’t even the “loyalist” faction in our leadership accept that his conduct was so bad that he could not remain on our CC? Hasn’t Martin himself, by resigning not just from the leadership but from the party, gone rather further even than the Facebook Four were demanding?
Paris’ next demand was hardly more threatening to our organisation: “2) The whole [dispute] process is reviewed; [X – the second complainant] is reinstated within her position within the industrial office.” Since conference in January 2013, the leadership has accepted the necessity of a complete review of our dispute procedures. With Martin having been finally removed from the industrial office in March 2013, the explanation for having demoted a woman who had complained about him (i.e. it would be bad for morale at the centre to have the two of them working together), which was always thin, no longer has no longer has any basis at all. This is something we could have conceded at any time after March; only the stubbornness of Martin’s supporters in the leadership held us back from a necessary step.
This was Paris’ third proposal: “3) The party comes out with a re-affirmation of its commitment to fighting sexism and condemns the appalling way this case has been dealt with”. Again, you do not need to be a member of any faction to grasp that these would be good and necessary steps, going any barely further that the general and unspecific concession of “mistakes” which Callinicos has been making for months.
Of course, while our CC finds itself increasingly taking the very same public positions that once it fought, when they were suggested by the Facebook Four, the official justification for taking action against those comrades was not “political” but bureaucratic. The main crime they were accused of was “secret” factionalism.
Now this accusation of secrecy has a certain sort of sense in that the Four did discuss forming themselves into a faction, but decided against it. If you assume that by making this decision they were lying to themselves, and that they had “secretly” decided to be a faction in reality, then secrecy is just about right. They were doing something so secret that even they did not realise they were doing it. In the paranoid mindset of Stalin’s Prosecutors this could just about make sense. To anyone else who had been allowed to read their conversation, it would be ridiculous.
The real charge against the Facebook Four was that they had flouted the party’s rules by meeting (if only, at that stage, online) and by being “factional” (i.e. disaffected) and by saying so privately during the conference period.
Everyone reading this will know the damage that was done by Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s crackdown on the Four (and by the other measures which accompanied it). Hundreds of people left the organisation – on the leadership’s figures around 40% of the people who had attended a pre-conference aggregate between January and March 2013 had gone by June; on the opposition’s figures “only” 33%, but by either figure, a significant proportion of our active membership was lost without any corresponding benefit.
A leadership spooked by the results of its own aggression has since attempted to be more cautious. In July, the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century blog was set up, to which dozens of comrades have contributed by name, and a group of comrades were organising “factionally” (i.e. in a disaffected way) and doing far more than the Facebook 4, meeting, planning, and intervening together in the talks at Marxism. The CC has limited itself to calling, passively, for the blog to come down.
In the unintended way in which things so often just happen, the effect of the repression of the Facebook Four has been to legitimise dissent: not in private but in public, not during the conference period but long outside it. The permanent factionalism of which the Facebook Four were wrongly accused has become an everyday reality of life in the SWP. A reform faction has organised openly, inviting those outside to its meetings. A secret faction continues to control the apparatus, relying for its survival on the willingness of passive members who turn out once a year at aggregates, and are nostalgic for the bolder SWP of 30 years ago, to tolerate the lie that the leadership “is” the party.
The CC have had to concede, but have fought against every concession. They have learned nothing except an ever-lengthening list of names against whom they would “take action” if only they were strong enough to carry them through.
A modest proposal. If you are serious when you say that you want to bring the crisis to an end; why not begin by reinstating the comrades who should never have been expelled