I was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party today, following my disputes committee hearing in Newcastle this afternoon. I joined the SWP in October 1992, shortly after my 14th birthday, and have been a member without interruption since then.
I have been suspended from the SWP for the last few weeks. The basis of the expulsion is, incredibly, ‘factionalising’. The Central Committee’s case that I was guilty of ‘factional behaviour’ rested on two private emails between members.
My suspension, disputes committee hearing and now expulsion are, fundamentally, political affairs. They stemmed from a series of political and strategic differences that have opened up within the Socialist Workers Party since about a year ago.
Instead of addressing these differences through open and democratic discussion – in a tolerant and respectful atmosphere – the national and local leaderships of the SWP chose to turn them into a disciplinary matter. Rather than engage in principled and political debate they embarked on a course of personal vilification, principally but not exclusively focused on me.
Is this what democracy looks like?
At a series of internal SWP meetings in Tyneside, a small number of members adopted an extremely hostile attitude to me and conducted discussion in an unpleasant and personalised manner. When a number of us raised concerns with the National Secretary about this conduct he unequivocally backed the most dogmatic leadership supporters. He excused even the worst excesses of their behaviour.
The situation was made worse in September when the individual most responsible for the personal vilification, and suppression of debate, was appointed full-time district organiser. This was against the wishes of many local members (including some who, politically, support the leadership). He set out to crush any internal criticism. He also continued to re-orient the party away from political and practical engagement with others on the left and in the movements, towards an increasingly sectarian ‘Party first’ model.
The Central Committee refused to countenance even the mildest of criticism of the new organiser, and instead attacked those members who dared to speak out against the mounting authoritarianism. The CC’s insistence on persisting with my disputes committee – in the face of growing evidence demonstrating that I had done nothing wrong – was a clear sign of its position.
I was suspended on the same day - 13 October - that the Central Committee was notified of a formal temporary faction, Left Platform, which I had helped initiate. The suspension was timed to prevent me participating in pre-conference debates. It followed the suspensions of two other supporters of Left Platform four days earlier. We were all accused of ‘factionalising’, an absurd charge in the circumstances.
As I noted above, the use of disciplinary proceedings (on the back of a sustained campaign of slander against me) has been motivated by differences over political perspectives and strategy. The CC failed to produce a single scrap of evidence showing misconduct on my part, exposing the politically motivated nature of the whole vilification campaign. Leading members, at national and local levels, have simply been unwilling to tolerate the criticisms levelled by some of us.
Tony, my closest comrade in Tyneside, and I articulated our views in a lengthy document last December. We wrote an article for a SWP internal bulletin in April, and I wrote a contribution to another bulletin in May (these were the two internal bulletins produced in the run up to the SWP’s Democracy Commission conference). A number of positions have remained consistent for us, placing us in opposition to the trajectory of the SWP leadership.
The perspectives document of Left Platform offers the best and most up to date explanation available. In summary, there are three crucial issues: the SWP’s response to the recession, the relationship between the SWP and Stop the War, and the question of how to build the SWP in an era of frenetic campaigning activity.
The economic crisis has not triggered a significant revival in class struggle. There have been green shoots of resistance, but no generalised fightback. It is vital that socialists relate to the industrial resistance – strikes, occupations etc – that does take place. SWP activists have done this with a degree of success, and will continue to do so.
But this obviously isn’t enough. The crisis has been not merely economic but political and ideological too. It is essential that socialists respond to the crisis in all its dimensions, operating in a political not syndicalist manner. Yet the SWP leadership has shifted away from what we call a ‘political upturn’ perspective, adopted in the aftermath of the Seattle demonstrations and then 9/11, and therefore weakened our capacity for generating a dynamic political response to the crisis.
The abandoning of the political upturn stance – which acknowledged that political radicalisation, evident in anti-capitalism and the anti-war movement, outstripped any industrial revival – has been accompanied by an abandonment of the united front method. The banal ‘turn to the class’ – a phrase justifying the downplaying of the movements and a lowering of the political level we function at – is thus accompanied by a ‘turn to the party’. This appeals to conservative elements inside the SWP, who believe the united front orientation ‘went too far’ and we now need to focus on ‘branch building’.
The united front depends upon revolutionaries being willing to work constructively with others, attempting to shape strategy and tactics in wider movements of resistance, and gaining a larger audience for revolutionary socialist ideas in this context. The failure to build any united front response to the crisis has resulted in two parallel phenomena: accommodation to more right-wing forces, and a lapse into ultra-Left sectarianism.
This was illustrated by the Brighton demo on 27 September, which was far too small: built as ‘Rage Against Labour’ (dictionary definition ultra-leftism) one minute, promoted as a moderate protest led by the union bureaucracies the next (accommodating to the right). What was missing was any united front operation worth the name, which would have enabled the SWP to initiate a far bigger mobilisation and laid the basis for a stronger Left in the longer term. As a result the Right to Work Campaign has remained a SWP front.
Stop the War is the best experience we have of utilising united front strategy successfully. Despite this – and regardless of the deepening crisis around Afghanistan – the SWP leadership has systematically downplayed Stop the War as a political priority. It has wrongly juxtaposed it to the economic crisis, suggesting it is somehow an either/or choice for mobilising, when we should be pursuing both vigorously and finding ways to connect them.
Stop the War is not only politically central, due to the integral place of the ‘war on terror’ in contemporary capitalism (and the crisis of the system), but on a purely pragmatic level it offers a large pool of highly political and radical activists. The movement is simultaneously broad and radical, its activist core being generally anti-imperialist. Its protests and meetings are still amongst the largest political events to take place in this country.
Finally, the issue of party building is shaped decisively by the factors already outlined. The currently dominant idea – that we need to re-focus on ‘branch building’ after a period of emphasising united front work – is a misguided view shaped by broader political perspectives. It is influenced by a combination of two ideas: we should respond to the economic crisis as the SWP, without also initiating broader formations, and it’s time to retreat from routine participation in Stop the War.
This approach is evidently not working, judging by recruitment figures, branch meeting attendances, etc. Instead we ought to be re-committing to the united front method and applying it to the crisis as well as the war. In this context we can build the SWP.
That means adapting some of the ways in which we do things, being more creative and flexible. We have to transform how we use online tools, develop more imaginative formats for public meetings, and focus far more on organising interventions in campaigns during our branch meetings.
It also means a concerted push for recruitment – not as an increasingly isolated party, juxtaposing itself to the movements, but as an interventionist organisation comprised of the best activists. The crisis of capitalism, the ’long war’ and the growth of the BNP demand a response from the Left better than that which we have seen so far.