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The two women are still owed a proper apology

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This piece was originally published in the SWP’s pre-conference bulletin 1. It was of course heavily edited by the CC. Even with those changes, I think it is appropriate to republish it now, at a time when the detail of the cases is much more widely known within the party. On a second reading, some of the details here may take on added significance. In particular, I think it is important for comrades to be aware of the gracelessness and hostility with which the CC acted on the DC’s advice that it should make a (limited) apology to the second complainant

The SWP has suffered the worst year in the party’s history. We have had to have three conferences in one year, the numbers attending Marxism have fallen by half, and the party has suffered hundreds of resignations. Everywhere in the organisation, we see ageing and decay. If the SWP is to survive, we desperately need to change course.

The basis of survival is at least clear. First, there will need to be a significant change in our leadership: at the minimum it will need to involve the removal of the minority of our old CC who voted against the adoption of the second DC report and of Alex Callinicos, whose intervention at our January conference (“this is war”) set the party up for our last eight months of continuous internal conflict. A new set of comrades needs to emerge, not selected on the basis of how they voted in the last 8 months, but on whether they are capable of moral leadership and of playing a consensus role.

Second, at every level of the organisation, we need to break the culture of “following orders”. It was this mentality, that the next rank up of leadership is perfect, which led the first DC into repeated errors. How can you properly investigate a leadership you have been trained to think infallible? The purges which members of our outgoing CC have authorised in North London, Walthamstow, and Manchester must stop. The relationship between the CC and NC, and between each of them and the branches, needs to be reversed. Initiative has to be allowed to come from below.

Third, there needs to be a public and meaningful apology to the two women at the centre of the complaint. After our conference in January 2013, Charlie Kimber wrote to all members of the SWP saying, “We believe that both parties to the case should have their right to confidentiality and their right as members in good standing respected.”

Eight months later, no-one can pretend that the situation is still the same. The person about whom the first complaint was made (until 2013 a member of our Central Committee) has resigned from the party, and following a second complaint our disputes committee has found that he has a case to answer on a complaint of sexual harassment.  He is no longer a mere non-member of the SWP, and if he wanted to join the party, he would have to apply to join.

The phrase “case to answer” is itself curious. The former CC member resigned from the party in July 2013, just weeks before the DC that was due to hear complaints against him. A decision was taken, even before the DC investigation had begun, that the disputes procedure investigating the second complaint would be limited to the two options only of “case to answer” or “no case to answer”.

Where an employer investigates a complaint against a worker, or a grievance against a manager, or where a union investigates misconduct, or where a professional body investigates allegations of misconduct casting doubt on a worker’s fitness to conduct their profession, in the employment tribunal, or in the family or criminal courts – all of which investigate complaints of sexual harassment – an investigation is not halted halfway merely because the person subject to the complaint says “sorry, I won’t attend a hearing”. In all these other bodies, a decision maker investigates, and makes a decision as to what probably happened. In all of them, a wilful refusal to attend is taken as a small but significant sign of guilt.

Only in the police, where senior figures are allowed routinely to resign to forestall misconduct investigations, is there a culture of protecting senior figures by refusing to investigate fully when the senior figure resigns, and stopping a decision short of saying robustly, “yes, on the evidence before us, he did it”.

The DC recommended that the party apologise to the second complainant because her move to another place of work and to a more mundane job with less political content, caused her “unintended but nonetheless real hurt and distress”. Our outgoing CC waited a month before belatedly accepting the need to apologise in these terms. Its apology was partial and expressed its reservations with the DC report.

If the party wants to remove the terrible stain that has accumulated over the last three years, we will have to go further, and apologise properly and publicly to each of the two women.

In terms of the second complaint, the DC did not go far enough in suggesting that the party only needed to apologise for moving her but not for the sexual harassment which was what her complaint was about.

Following the most exhaustive investigation of which the party is capable, a two-day hearing in which a number of witnesses were heard and documents read, it was found that the former CC member had a case to answer for sexually harassing the complainant.

The period of time her complaint relates to is one when she worked for the party and he was our National Secretary, the person who appoints everyone else who works for the SWP. Part of her complaint was that it was his role as her employer which meant that she was required to keep on seeing him.

There could be no logic to justify saying: “We accept the complaint of sexual harassment has enough merit so that we can decide to place an obstacle on the former CC member rejoining the party, but we do not believe it has enough merit to oblige us to apologise to the woman concerned.”

In terms of the first complaint, the reasons for an apology are slightly different. Part of the need relates to our process of disputes procedure reform. In drawing up new procedures the party has accepted that our old rules were not good enough. But those were the rules under which her complaint was heard. If our old procedures need change; it must follow that the complainant has not had what we now consider a fair hearing.

There is another reason. In both complaints the women wanted an investigation of what they said was sexual conduct involving the same man. If the decisions had been heard in the reverse order, with the first complaint determined after the second, then by the time the first complaint had been heard we would have already decided that there was a case to answer on a complaint of sexual misconduct.

Anyone who has ever been involved in even the simplest kind of workplace investigation will know what this means. Where a company investigate a worker for two thefts or two assaults, and finds on one of them “case to answer”, the second hearing is inevitably more robust. The worker has to do so much more to be heard and believed where at first sight there appears to be a pattern of similar behaviour by him.

The same point applies with even more force in the courts, where what is called “similar fact” evidence is allowed in sexual cases – the similarity of the behaviour justifies placing an extra burden on a person to disprove the case against them.

For all these reasons, the part has a choice. The CC could say now to the first complainant, “We don’t know whether all your complaint was true, and in truth we will never have the complete answer. But we are serious about our politics, and if there is any possibility at all he did it, that is enough for us, we will apologise to you.”

Or, if that is a step that our outgoing CC will not take, the new report into the future of the DC recommends there should be an appeal process against the DC’s decisions. If this is the only way in which the party will allow proper findings about our former National Secretary, then so be it. To reclaim any scrap of authority, the party must revisit the first complaint – and, this time, investigate it fairly and properly.

You cannot re-build a party around an injustice. As part of the steps needed to bring the party’s crisis to a conclusion which we can explain to the outside world, the two women who made complaints each require a full, public apology.

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An organisation with integrity

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[The following piece was published today by Exchange magazine]

The main motion for discussion at the SWP conference in December will say, “Conference recognises … That all the comrades involved in the DC hearings sought to apply our politics in a principled way at all times and tried honestly to do the best they could in the circumstances. All DC hearings have been conducted with integrity”. That last word, integrity, is the important one.

I don’t want to make familiar points going back over what happened at that DC hearing; or whether it is possible to transform an investigation from scandalous to principled merely through a conference vote. Here, I want to ask: what does the left need to do, if we are ever going to have again a reputation for integrity?

The word “integrity” means at least two different things. In a first sense, it just means being principled and living by what you believe.

For a very long time, in so far as the SWP has thought about “principles”, we have assumed that they could be subordinated to the interests of the party, which stood in our understanding as a proxy for the class, which stood for all of humanity. “Anarchists”, we have explained, may see a revolutionary group as the harbringer of a new society, but “Marxists” don’t agree with them: it is not possible to wash off what Marx once called “the muck of ages” (i.e. oppression and its effects on both oppressor and oppressor) merely by wanting to be better, without a social revolution. But in the last year we have found that we are being judged, not for the formal content of our ideas but the mismatch between our ideas and what we have done.

A socialist party cannot pretend to be the growing embryo of a potential future society. But behaving repeatedly in an unprincipled manner is enough to kill any organisation and especially one which aspires to carry the dreams of millions.

One way to reorient the left is through adopting detailed codes which formulate basic rules as to what behaviour so obviously “crosses the line” that it is incompatible with membership of a socialist group. This winter, for example, the International Socialist Organisation (which was for many years until 2003 the SWP’s American affiliate) is preparing for its own annual conference. One of the documents being circulated by its leadership is a Code of Conduct for the ISO’s members.

The Code commits them to conducting debate rigorously, but with civility and respect. Members are made accountable for actions that bring serious harm to other members or to the organization. Discrimination and harassment are prohibited. All sexual encounters must be consensual, whether with another ISO member or not.

Elsewhere, in the main body of the ISO’s rules, the group prohibits members from making false statements to obtain membership or engaging in financial improprieties, or acting as a strike-breaker, a provocateur, or an informer

I like the document and I support the ideas behind it but I won’t pretend that it, alone, could cure the problem. For one thing, the behaviours prohibited by it seem to have been selected quite arbitrary. I accept I wouldn’t want to be in a party with a police informer or an agent provocateur, or indeed a former informer. How about a police officer? (I assume not) Or a prison officer? Or a serving soldier? Someone who owns their own business? What if the business has a left-wing content? In the SWP, we tried to prohibit for a time our members having jobs in the union bureaucracy or even on 100% facility time. Unfortunately our former National Secretary had a number of friends in these positions, so we maintained the rule, but applied it arbitrarily. In some cases, through the party’s ignorance of what its members were up to; we didn’t apply it at all. Should we have kept the comrade who serves in the bureaucracy, as a very senior manager (i.e. with a power to hire and fire), and who has an OBE for his services to trade unionism? Does it make a difference that he is one of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet, as well as a committed revolutionary?

It is quite obvious, after the Delta rape scandal, that any left-wing organisation with any survival instinct will respond better than the SWP has done to complaints of rape. But any Code isn’t made useful by its ability to recognise last year’s errors, you want it to guide you through next year’s crises, whatever they may be.

The definitions of discrimination in ISO’s document mirror American law, but US law is relatively underdeveloped compared to various international counterparts. European law (and therefore even UK law) prohibits a much wider set of behaviours directed against wider sets of disadvantaged groups. This isn’t to praise UK law, by the way, which is itself the product of certain kind of social compromises and has all sorts of limitations, but only to say that any list will always be incomplete. The trick is to work out what the principles are behind our prohibition of certain behaviours, and to hope that those principles will guide you right even in unfamiliar situations.

Integrity has a second meaning; consistency. We in the SWP often say that women’s liberation is “integral” to our politics, if this is going to be more than hot air, it would have to mean that every aspect of our socialism was shaped by our commitment to ending women’s oppression: that we could not think about trade unions, universities, anti-fascism or anything else without thinking about women’s oppression.

One story about the old SWP illustrates nicely what integrity can mean. The revolutionary journalist Paul Foot had been educated at Shrewsbury public school, and his friends there, including Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker later worked with him on the magazine Private Eye. Unlike them, Foot was a socialist, joining the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists, in 1961 after leaving Oxford and remaining with IS/SWP until his death in 2004. A few years before he died he suffered a heart attack and was recovering in hospital, mute and seriously unwell. Friends from Private Eye visited him, and, as lay in bed, said that they had raised enough money for him to swap his NHS bed for one in a private hospital. Unable to speak, Foot lifted his fingers at them in a V-sign. Ill as he may have been, he was the same Paul Foot he had always been.

How do parties show integrity? Socialist Alternative, the largest IS group in Australia, published five years ago an Anti-Sexism Manifesto, setting out how to enable women to take part in a group as equals with men.

The pamphlet describes, in ways which any socialist should recognise, how men can dominate in social relationships, how women still tend to do the majority of housework and certainly childcare (even in socialist relationships). It notes the persistence of old, stereotypical ideas about how men will be the ones who work and women the ones who do most of the caring. It accepts that there is a limit to how far sexism can be overcome under capitalism, but makes a comparison with workers’ subordination: “Socialists do not passively accept that workers will always submit to their bosses’ authority, or that they will automatically adopt racist or other divisive ideas … We fight these ideas vigorously when we can. And so it is with sexism.”

Much of the pamphlet is about consent, and why socialist men should never chivvy a woman for sex, get her drunk in order to sleep with her, pretend that a “No”was playful rather than serious, etc. “No means no at any time”, its author writes. It talks in practical ways about what is wrong with men controlling women. Socialist Alternative encourage their members to practice safe sex, and to see this as something which is the man’s primary responsibility. Last of all, the authors of the pamphlet insist that no-one should use the group as a pick-up joint.

Some of the ideas in their pamphlet are things which people on the left have done intuitively for years. Even in the SWP, we don’t normally ask men to speak at Marxism on women’s oppression. Generally, we do try to have a number of women either speaking, or at least chairing, our national events. And any comrade who has been in the SWP more than a few years will remember a time when we tried much harder to challenge sexism than we do now. In the past, for example, we did try to provide childcare to enable parents to attend our meetings. The problem is that all these things we do, or did, feel partial. We never explain properly why we do them. They are not followed through in our campaigns or our publications.

A theme of the SWP opposition has been that if we want people to believe that we actually have a theory which makes women’s liberation “essential” to our project, then we need to demonstrate that our internal practice matches up to the way we like to present ourselves to the world. You can’t say one thing and do another …

[the piece continues here, at page 18]

Christopher in Khaki (2001)

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On the sad disappearance of the What Next website, I thought I should repost here a few of my favourites among the half dozen or so articles I published there, and which are no longer online anywhere else.

By all reckoning, Christopher Hitchens enjoyed a good war. In addition to his columns for the Nation, Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, Hitchens recorded his Englishman-in-New-York perspectives for both the Guardian and the Mirror. Those of us who worked for a living could only wonder, where did he find the hours to write so widely? Hitchens told one audience that Bin Laden advocated ‘Islamic fascism’, another that Americans have stood up bravely to all inconvenience. ‘Americans are finding it quite easy to go about their business, and to stay committed to whatever it takes.’ I don’t know about Wall Street, but I am sure Hampstead was reassured.

A third article informed us that the September 11 massacre was chosen to meet Islamic deadlines. ‘It was on September 11 1683 that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna … The Ottoman empire never recovered from the defeat; from then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around.’ Even in the depths of September, the argument seemed bizarre. What Muslim fundamentalist would base their entire strategy around dates chosen from a Western calendar? Nor indeed does the failure to capture Vienna rank in the pantheon of contemporary Muslim anguish. Just compare Hitch’s date to the humiliation caused by the occupation of Palestine, and ask yourself which process most Islamists think of today?

They say that war bring out the best in people. Prime Minister Tony Blair, silent through years of cuts and privatisation, only woke up once that thousands of human lives are on the line. He did the same for Diana. Geri Halliwell, once a UN goodwill ambassador, reappeared as the new forces sweatheart. Christopher Hitchens was the thinking man’s Ginger Spice, blonder than his model, and rather portly these days. But he too was an ageing rock star with an agent in town.

The new Hitchens-incarnation informed us that Tony Blair was the greatest leader that Great Britain had ever possessed. But the last Hitchens was more sceptical – of Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger among other icons. There was even an earlier Christopher Hitchens who fulminated against Bill Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. But our hero had put all such youthful indulgence behind him now.

The last Hitchens I met in 1999 was still in his idealist phase. We spoke for no more than a minute. I was there to listen, not respond. ‘I hear you’re an anti-fascist. We need more of them.’ I nodded – how could I know then that his latest Hitchens would join in placing the Taliban, Bin Laden and Milosevic in the same magic box? His articles explain the spell – ‘In one form or another, the people who levelled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques.’

Of course the Taliban advocated religious theocracy – who has ever claimed otherwise? – but the passage remained incomplete. Hitchens’ practice was ‘only’ one of intellectual omission, but our back-seat bomber was telling lies, and he knew it. Unlike the Reagan-revivalists that surround George Bush Junior, Christopher Hitchens understands the basic laws of political analysis. There are always two sides, and the actions of one can make no real sense without some description of the other. This principle was most certainly needed this autumn, when our governments found themselves at war with a force they armed and prepared.

Those who followed Hitchens’ choice – and argued for the state to bomb the Afghan people – were morally complicit in a generation of further state murders, accomplished by the Bush twins George and Tony this time, our proxies the next, and then ourselves again, when our rulers wage just war against whichever force they appoint to take the Northern Alliance’s place.
One deliberate falsehood galled. ‘Islamic fascism’. Who could miss the lazy logic in placing all our enemies in the same camp, whether in power or out, secular or religious? The first post-war Moslem to get tarred with this label was Colonel Nasser. Would Hitchens have joined Eden in labelling Nasser the ‘new Hitler on the Nile’?

I have already mentioned Hitchens’ suggestion that the September 11 bombers were primarily motivated to seek revenge for historic Muslim defeats. When pressed to defend this claim, what evidence did he cite to defend the point? Christopher Hitchens appealed to the authority of an earlier generation. Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he wrote, ‘In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton.’ Hitchens’ last reference was puzzling. Why were these two alone praised? Was it Hilaire Belloc arguments against the (‘servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens, or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly reviewer) for ‘the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists.

In this recent war, Hitchens shed even such left sensibilities as had persisted two years previously. He complained of tiresome anti-racists – we would do better, Christopher Hitchens told us, to acknowledge the generosity of those people who have applied with minimum vigour the lynch laws of the deep South. ‘The shameful attacks on random Sikhs and other ethnic-minority citizens were very few, and took place (as such things normally do) far from the scene of the crimes.’ You can read the passage many times, but it still make no sense. Why should a murder become forgivable, when it occurs ‘far’ from the acts used to excuse it?

In the Spectator, Peter Hitchens accused his brother of composing ‘a prose version of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic.’ When even that salon Tory was to the left of Christopher – you know something has gone badly wrong.
Hitchens was at his most servile in November, following the fall of Kabul. Most people I know responded to this event with a jumble of feelings, including in different measures, surprise, hope, anxiety and concern. After all, we knew that the new rulers of Afghanistan would be the men who had accomplished genocide in the mid-1990s. Hitchens was more direct, insisting once again that American was the best of states and therefore had deserved to win the war. It was a formula expressed in Christopher’s exemplary genre, the facile paradox. “Afghanistan, where the world’s most open society confronts the world’s most closed one”. (The most open society would be the one which has the greatest number of people in jail?) “Where the world’s most indiscriminate bombers are bombed by the world’s most accurate ones.” (These would be the same bombers who hit the UN’s warehouse, twice).

Christopher Hitchens was not only the most elegant advocate of bombing. More than this, he was the media’s pet leftist, a role he hawked with glee. ‘If the silly policy of a Ramadan pause had been adopted’, he wrote, ‘the citizens of Kabul would have still been under a regime of medieval cruelty … I don’t stop insulting the Christian coalition at Eastertime.’ (An impressive sounding-claim, until you recall that since Thatcher and Reagan came to power, Hitchens has never failed to back our Christian rulers in war). ‘As a charter supporter of CND I can remember a time when the peace movement was not an auxiliary to dictators’. (What is a charter member? The phrase ‘a founder member’ is more common. And if this was Hitchens’ claim, then fortunate indeed were the Aldermarston marchers to enjoy the leadership of an eight-year old boy.)

Even now, I have my memories of a different, more ambivalent writer – but a man still decidedly of the left. And if I am depressed by the contrast, what must his peers think? Those who knew him in 1972, during the miners’ strike and the dockers protests that killed Heath’s anti-union laws, who judged him then the liveliest of the best generation, the living embodiment of the potential smychka between a university and a trade union left?

The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – has been his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary older brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot, as if one could be produced as a clone of the living first. One strength which Foot possessed, and which Hitchens lacked, was the necessary humility of a talented man with more genius than the majority of his co-workers. For forty years, the older man has remained a part of the movement. In contrast, Hitchens lasted maybe four.

And so the dreary cycle continues from youthful activist to middle-aged advocate of what exists. A young man wanted to be a revolutionary leader, and then forgot his lines. In place of earnest optimism, the new tone Christopher adopted in the 1980s was more condescending … as if people could be argued into radicalism through being convinced of their own stupidity first. But hope remained, smudged by a certain condescension. And then even hope was lost. Elvis reappeared in his white jump suit to swat the A-rabs. Blonde Geri wiggled her hips – not for our side this time, but for the troops.

I miss the old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol, and the seductive embrace of the system. The man who used to warn us of trusting those prophets who could lead us into the promised land, because they would surely lead us promptly back out again … has proved the wisdom of his own rule.

Cliffism: reopening the age of interpretation

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The historian of the future, when tracing the origins of the SWP crisis of 2013, might do worse than begin, far from the scene of the final battle, with the reception accorded to Neil Davidson’s book on Bourgeois Revolutions. When Neil spoke at a one-day conference of the International Socialism Journal in September 2012, he was followed by Alex Callinicos, who responded to Neil’s gentle remarks by saying in the fashion which has become so familiar, “I don’t really agree with what Neil said”. Callinicos then went on to recapitulate first Trotsky and then Cliff’s theories of permanent and deflected permanent revolution, as if by merely stating them and their differences from Neil’s, he was proving Neil’s error. He concluded with the words, “What Neil said was so provocative that it couldn’t simply be ignored”.

The discussion was operating at a certain level of code but long-term members of the SWP could hardly have been unaware that Callinicos was accusing Davidson of apostasy and inviting his listeners to treat Davidson thereafter as a Marxist in error, a category for which the appropriate treatment, as it would be a child at school with a disease, is isolation from the rest of the group who must be kept safe from infection.

Yet anyone who had actually read Neil’s book would have known how generous he is in placing at the heart of his theory of bourgeois revolution the early postwar theories of Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron about state capitalism and about the defeat of the colonial revolutions. By re-interpreting the Algerian, Kenyan, Egyptian and Cuban revolutions as the last bourgeois revolutions, Neil made Cliff’s short observations at to the failure of Nasser etc to introduce full Communism central to his own project of rethinking historical materialis,.

Neil’s project was about affirming Cliff’s truths through understanding and applying them; in contrast to Callinicos, who was seeking to make them timeless, fixed, incapable of analysis, “true” only in the way that that a believer must treat decades-old Papal decrees as Infallible.

That was a year ago, there have been many other intellectual police-actions since.

At the end of the SWP’s December conference, it is tolerably clear, delegates will be offered two conceptions of how the SWP might be in the future.

In one conception, the age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979. New members, on joining the party should be expected to acquire, i.e. learn by rote, the important elements of the IS intellectual tradition; state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, permanent arms economy, the downturn, organisational “Leninism”. The ideas, they will be told, are fixed and correct and can equip any new activist for any practical difficulties they face. The party is a transmission belt for the ideas of a dead generation; the job of new members is to justify their adoption of Leninism to their parents and family, who (it can safely be assumed) will be opposed towards their decision to join. The member protects the group, and the group the member – in both cases from a world which is hostile to them.

A sceptical observer might object that some of the ideas I’ve listed (the first three of them) were intended to explain an age which has now definitively ended – the 1984-universe of big-power blocks and centralised state planning. The fourth was only ever an attempt to explain why, after the demise of the first three processes, the workers were not (yet) winning. And the party consensus is that the downturn is over. If Orwell’s novel seems dated now, why should we defer to Cliff, whose ideas were intended to explain the same epoch?

The young sceptic’s more sceptical teacher (Comrade Loyalist) will explain that it does not matter how long ago the Soviet Union ended. The gap between theory and practice can be cured, on the Loyalist’s urging, by intense periods of frantic activity, by giving away newspapers to people who sign petitions (but please do not ask them to go to any of our meetings), by distributing leaflets which someone else has designed, by recruiting students at one of our two SWSS groups (small numbers are apparently now our “strategy”), and persuading recruits of the truth of ideas that reached their fixed form many years ago.

Yet while Callinicos might today seem the counterpart in politics of George Eliot’s Casaubon, even now he can say to his credit – “well, in my philosophy, the world stopped in 1979. Compared to many others on the left, I am the very model of the modern Marxist theorist.”

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Within Left Unity there are other groups who also desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall. But the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities), and merely wishing that defeat away will not make it un-happen.

You might prefer to begin with those who saw 1917 or 1936 as breakthroughs. Even now, some British Trotskyists want history to end in 1938 with the Transitional Programme, with capitalism incapable of further expansion, and with a mass workers’ movement whose spare young activists can be enrolled in the tens-of-thousands strong legions of anti-fascist workers’ battalions. Wishing the ranks were full won’t make it happen.

The ideas of one dead political economist may of course preferable to another; Marx is a better place to begin than Smith or even Keynes, and Marx is not diminished if you add to him Luxemburg and Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky. But even if your list goes on and on and reaches beyond Mandel even to Cliff, the difficulty remains. The difficulties of the present are our own, and we have to find new strategies to overcome them.

There is therefore a second conception of the relationship between theory and practice which is struggling to break through. This is of a party which would be Cliffite but in subtler ways. It would learn from the first generation of International Socialists modest perspectives and their good humour, from their willingness to turn quickly in the direction of struggle once it is seen to be happening, and from their ability to admit the obvious when struggle was low.

It would share with Kidron, Cliff, Hallas, and many others of their generation a belief in the revolutionary potential of workers, through their struggles and the mutual solidarity without which any authentically working-class protest is doomed, to change the world.

It would see in the story of Cliff himself, the original anti-Zionist Palestinian Jew, an opposition worth repeating to racism and oppression in all its forms.

It would learn from a more recent case of grotesque, institutional injustice the need to be deeply, rather than casually, supportive of women’s liberation.

It would be a party of the young and the engaged, and it would be youthful and questioning in its approach to theory

Such a party would wear its Cliffism in Regular not in Extra Large; in just the same way that the first generation of International Socialists refused to call themselves “Trotskyists”, not because he had been wrong about Stalin or Hitler, but because the mere repetition of formulas is an obstacle to the sort of activist re-thinking we need.

The immediate omission of course is a serviceable theory of Neo-Liberalism; one which connects as the Manifesto once did the emergence of the working class to capitalism’s defeat (even if Marx’s notion of an “immediately following” workers revolution as soon as the capitalists had defeated the feudal lords now seems a little optimistic). Or as Kidron’s Arms Economy once did, in locating the independent-minded shop stewards of the 1960s and the unofficial strikes on the shop-floor as the best antidote to the world of Doctor Strangelove.

Getting to a better place will involve some reading (just as Kidron had to borrow from the exotic corners of American Trotskyism), and a genuine sharing of ideas. As is only possible between members of collective, who share their time and their ideas fruitfully.

In light of our recent history, we will also need to reimmerse ourselves in revolutionary feminism – not just in theory, but in activity, without which all theory is grey.

It was Tony Cliff who used to say that, of course, and before him Rosa Luxemburg.

Maybe if we learned to depend a little less on Cliff himself and did better at using him, we would get closer to the politics that he tried to teach us.

The Trial of Paris Thompson

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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

The Stupidity of Being Stalinist

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I am old enough to remember a much younger Seth Harman telling the SWP conference at the end of the 1990s that the average age of our party had increased from 27 (his own age, then) five years before to 32 (his own age by the time he was speaking). One of the positive consequences of the campaign waged this year by the student office against our (then) student members is that the age of branch attendees appears to have risen by a healthy twenty years or more even since Seth spoke. If we keep going at the present rate, we should soon enough be able to host a genuine October 1917 Recreation Society (rather than our present mere shadow of one), enabling us at long last to settle the definitive question raised by our present leadership: if we were all back in time in Russia, who would be the purer Bolsheviks, Lenin and his recent admirers or us?

Finding ourselves in an Old Party has the secondary advantage that some readers may understand my concern with the disastrous course on which we are set. The longer Alex, Judith and Charlie remain in place, the less we seem like the organisation which Tony Cliff once founded, and the more we appear to have taken over the old political and organisational habits of late British Stalinism.

We have a policy on oppression which increasingly insists that all such vogueish notions as the oppression of women or of black people can be wished out of existence. Yes, women and “others” (always acknowledged, never identified directly) are oppressed, but no-one should worry since by some wonderful magic no-one else benefits from their oppression. While Marx once insisted that oppression was real but could be solved only by the unity of the working-class, we reduce oppression to something vestigial and passing. The Stalinists used to say the same about fascism in the 1930s (“the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”), that it was the only a vanishingly small number of monopoly capitalists who gained from it, enabling them to paint red non-Nazi forces far to the KPD’s right (liberals, nationalists even on one troubling occasion a fascist martyr) and happily solving the problem of what otherwise might have seemed Adolf Hitler’s troublingly high vote in democratic elections.  Minimising  fascism’s social base allowed loyalist KPDers the fantasy of After Hitler Us.

Like the Stalinists, we have a cadre of senior union activists, secure in NEC positions or on facility time. We behave as if, like the old CPGB, we increasingly see the future of ourselves in the unions as depending on the goodwill of union Broad Lefts rather than on our support in the rank and file.

We find social media as bad and as incomprehensible as once the Stalinists were terrified by the deep Americanism of superhero comics and amplified guitar music.

Another thing we share with the old CPGB is the attempt to hide embarrassing facts from the membership, and keep the party in line through the threat of disciplinary action. At Marxism, Alex Callinicos formulated a series of ad hoc political justifications for administrative measures – accusing Rob Owen of wanting to turn the party into a movement, Dan Swain of giving up on the vanguard, Ian Birchall of not having read Ian’s own books, etc. There were so many political errors he invented, as he accused his opponents of being ridiculous, so many barely-concealed threats of expulsion.

Those of us who have been around the block a while know full well that even more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary argument by which Socialism is made to appear ridiculous is this: you can’t build a better society without it falling into tyranny and violence, the decay of the Russian Revolution proves it.

The continuity of that myth is why the present course is so destructive. Promises that conference will bring an end to the discussion; threats of loyalty oaths for those who have seen the moral poverty of our CC, ideas that consensus can be achieved by threats; banning of membership without reason but by caprice; the election of 100% faction slates  from aggregates on the basis of code words which their authors didn’t believe, and the careful purging not just of oppositionists but even important national activists in the middle ground who (without needing to be asked) could just be assumed to be politically unreliable – don’t just threaten to weaken the party, but to make the whole project of socialism look positively sinister.

If there is anything the last year should have taught us it is that there are not several lefts but only one. Your SWP branch may not have done anything to assist the purges, it might be the very model of independence from the leadership. Yet with every Callinicos speech on YouTube, every fixed aggregate, every article seeking Smith’s return, another person who had been in your audience shifts from neutrality to hostility.

And beyond the promise to deal violently with dissent, what else, if anything, still unites our decaying leadership?

If you want to intervene, stop being miserable

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If Tony Cliff had arrived in Britain in 2013 rather than 1947, what might he have seen? The bosses have been winning, with outsourcing, casualisation and zero-hours contracts all on the increase. A weakened, but still large union movement, sustained by around a quarter of a million wirkplace reps. The largest of the unions, UNITE, turning to politics to solve its weaknesses and recruiting left-wing activists in large numbers to sustain recruitment campaigns, such as at Crossrail – a strategy which has resulted in both defeats and victories. Small, sectional but militant strikes by groups such as out-sourced housing workers. Where the unions weren’t striking, there were attempts by activists to inspire breakaway unions (the SOAS cleaners), or, the different phenomenon of “dual unions”, as at Sussex University. The government’s austerity project was unpopular, but still successful. Various left projects were launched in response: the People’s Assembly (bureaucratic but an attempt to organise) and Left Unity (a smaller, but more democratic project with a clear underlying ambition of challenging Labour electorally to its left).

All these processes, Cliff would have considered as opportunities, because that was his instinctive approach to life. He did not see theory as a series of castle walls, designed to protect a perfect version of the 1917-era revolutionary party in its relationship to an idealised 1972-era working class, saving both from the potential onrush of history, which in the strange version of “Marxism” that our leadership is now trying to promote is always, by definition, hostile to us and therefore better ignored.

Cliff would not have sent Joseph Choonara to Marxism to tell his audience that casualisation was exaggerated; he would not have asked Alex Callinicos at the same event to flatter our members in the NUT and PCS unions by calling them the vanguard of the working class.

Cliff would have begun rather by trying to evaluate how significant casualisation really was. Grasping the reality that tens of millions of workers are now employed in some combination of self-employment, part-time, fixed-term, agency or zero-hour contracts, he would have thought about how these workers could combine and sought to generalise their struggles whenever they fought.

For a year, the party’s de facto analysis of student and women’s politics is that both represent hostile, alien forces, quite as opposed to the socialist project as anything else ever dreamed up by the right. I have had to listen to well-meaning comrades tell me how good it was we have always “fought” Slutwalk (two years ago, we were not opposing this campaign, we were building it), and how terrible it must be for student activists to organise where feminists are present (two years ago, some SWP members were Women’s Officer sabbaticals!). In so far as we have a theory of the internet, it is summed up in Alex’s complaints about its “dark side” (and this in a piece which was posted – online – ten days before it appeared in print).

At the same time as the leadership has been promoting a supposed vision of the SWP as “an interventionist party” (aka stop complaining about Martin; sell the paper instead), the party’s horizons have shrunk in, and the world we imagine outside our ranks has become as small as the telephone line connecting Kevin Courtenay and Mark Serwotka’s offices. Should a message cross between their two desks “plans enclosedcfor a joint 1-day strike”, that would be, more or less, the advent of the classless society itself. But should anything else happen, anywhere else, our default position has become this predictable. “Something happens … we are against it”.

In “My Life” Trotsky tells a story of being shown around London by Lenin. “From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred of course not to the English but to the ruling classes. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized, but coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man, and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum…” This was Lenin’s approach to life, as it had once been Marx’s and Engels’ and later it was Cliff’s: to see the world as a series of opportunities, to imagine the treasures of capitalism and to envisage them as capable of being shared by all.

There is a way to save the SWP, of course, and its contours have been tolerably clear for a year now. The old leadership needs to apologise to the women complainants (and, through them) to the membership and to our supporters outside our ranks, for the three-year campaign they fought to protect Martin Smith. Those on the CC who fought to block the second investigation into his activities should never work full-time for the party again. Neither can the CC member who spent her first three months on the CC bullying hundreds of students out of the party. Nor can we keep in the leadership the comrade who repeatedly minimised Martin Smith’s activities and sought to intensify the conflict between the party’s two wings by declaring “war” on those who grasped what Martin had done. Plenty others have stood down from the leadership before and returned to the ranks; now it is their turn.

The party’s industrial politics have been changing through the last year. As well as the barren old, we see hints of something better struggling to emerge (two day-schools for new members or those in unorganise workplaces, the beginnings of an analysis in Socialist Worker of Unite’s industrial politics and of zero hour contracts). It is just about possible to see this part of the party’s work being rescued and becoming healthy again should the worst-contaminated parts of the leadership of the party change. Other parts of what we do (UAF) or used to do (LHMR) have become so bureaucratised, and the decision-making has been taken so far away from the members of the party, that they could be only be rescued by being completely disassembled and rebuilt afresh under new names.

The party’s survival will depend more than anything else on losing our present sense that the SWP is 1,500 people capable of hiding from a changing world for all of our lives until the revolution should come from somewhere else to save us. Cults can hide for years; Marxists can’t.

Philosophy is not mediaeval Christianity, it has a wider purpose than to protect the Believer from a hostile world. Social movements (eg the AntiNazi League, Stop the War) are not the capitalist class – Marxists are allowed to take part in them. The faction, unlike our leadership, has never pretended they could stand in place of an insurgent working class. History does not exist to be cheated.  A social revolution does not break from nowhere, but must to some extent be prepared by its makers living through and learning from previous tumults.

We want to be the sort of party that people enthused by the People’s Assembly, Pop-up Unions, and any other opportunity out there in the world – might consider joining. To make the party something which new members might inhabit in any serious number, we must stop seeing the entire world as something gone wrong, and start admitting that new possibilities are opening and new people are organising. People are moving; we must be with them.