The SWP opposition:
Providing a failed
IMAGE: Rembrandt’s De anatomische
les van Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631)
Written by Corey Ansel, and originally posted at The Chair Leg of Truth, The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity, and The North-Star. While I am sympathetic to many of the arguments Corey makes here, and believe I understand his reasons for making them, I nevertheless remain somewhat skeptical of what I feel are some erroneous conclusions one might draw from his polemic/critique. These I will post in the next few days.
Hardly anyone on the left can claim to have been untouched by the crisis within the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Initially stemming from rape allegations against leading SWP member Martin Smith (now notoriously known as “Comrade Delta”), the crisis has managed to utterly discredit the organization in the face of the revolutionary left, as well as onlookers seeking ammunition to use against the workers’ movement. A special conference was held on March 10 to discuss the issues of democratic centralism, Leninism and other questions regarding the party question. But it isn’t the circus inside the SWP that is worth the attention of revolutionaries.
Enter Richard Seymour. A long-time activist within the SWP, writer and primary figurehead of the opposition against the internal bureaucracy within the SWP, Seymour has been scapegoated by top bureaucrats such as Alex Callinicos for jumpstarting a blog titled ‘International Socialism’ for those interested in discussing the crisis outside of party channels. It has long been known that the Cliffite tradition has nothing in common with Leninist theory, let alone the democratic centralist method of building a revolutionary party. Although Seymour and many of his co-thinkers resigned from the organization after the conference, aren’t there more pressing questions to be answered?
Charlie Kimber, National Secretary of the SWP, posted a response to criticisms of the party on their website in early January. He ended his apologism for rape and the internal bureaucracy by stating, “As far we are concerned, this case is closed. This is not a ‘cover up’. It is a determination to reflect the decision of our conference.” For those of us who have followed the sinking of the SWP ship for years, it came as no surprise that there would be no internal discussion or debate regarding accusations towards a prominent leader of the organization. For revolutionaries, the “case” has not only been “closed,” but the coffin has indeed been nailed shut!
For Seymour and the left, the issue was most certainly not closed. ‘International Socialism’ received an influx of letters from SWP members, supporters and other onlookers seeking to make sense of what seemed to be an unthinkable crisis. It was this phenomenon precisely that led Callinicos to bemoan the “dark side of the internet.” Firstly, it should be the duty of a Marxist organization to have such healthy internal discussion, complimented by collective unity in action, that going outside party channels would be totally unnecessary. However, this discussion has very little to do with the relevance of the Internet.
Something paramount lies at the core of this crisis. The problem of bureaucratic leaderships, cultism and hyper-activist milieus are nothing new in the practice of phony Marxist sect building. Pham Binh, who managed to make his way out of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) due to its relatively similar practices organizationally, had this to say in a recent article titled “‘Leninism’ Meets the 21 Century”:
Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party!
In the hands of bureaucrats like Alex Callinicos, Martin Smith and Charlie Kimber (among many others), the SWP has continued to conform into a business-like group that latches on to the day-to-day struggles of working and oppressed peoples much like how a leech siphons blood from its prey. That is why it isn’t a surprise to thinking Marxists when a bureaucrat speaks rhetoric about phony women’s liberation” and is subsequently caught in the act of terrorizing a party supporter sexually. While the SWP sells their newspaper at a rally one day and spews populism about “the 99% vs. the 1%” on another, there is a tiny elite that places itself at the helm of the party’s affairs. This is nothing unique to the SWP. Groups like the American Socialist Workers Party and the Spartacist League have long ago gone down the road of turning into obedience cults with many thanks to a parasitic leadership.
In the guise of providing “leadership” to the working class, competing groups practically ignore each other like strangers in a cramped elevator, just going about their daily business of keeping the sect alive. Organizations like to hitch their ride to whatever the popular movement of the day is, but they consistently avoid a real, concise class analysis in their consistent work of building popular fronts. That is why any group that critiques an ostensibly revolutionary organization for the left is merely brushed aside as “sectarian.”
The “leadership” the SWP provides is phony to the core. Callinicos and his group parrot Leninist theory while repudiating it in practice. But this didn’t stop Richard Seymour and the opposition within the organization from begging for a special conference.
On the International Socialism blog, a piece titled “Is Zinovievism Finished?” was signed by Seymour and about a dozen other supporters of the opposition within the SWP. While critiquing the anti-Democratic practices of Callinicos and Co., the opposition urged the need for an emergency conference to help resolve the issues at hand. The article states:
We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition — movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why many have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.
How very comical that one of the SWP’s “historical achievements” is the formation of the Stop the War Coalition that never managed to slow down the imperialist war drive. What the SWP promotes is very clear: a constant politics of hyper-activism and “movement building” while in every single regard failing to construct a seriously steeled revolutionary party. In fact, what the politics of the International Socialist Tradition are notorious for is their shoddy management of its membership bodies. For example, the ISO in the United States is infamous for using and tossing out students in a never-ending drive to keep the momentum and money flowing in the organization. This is more commonly known as a “revolving door membership,” in which students and activists wind up joining an organization, which is followed by their being indoctrinated with whatever brand of Marxism the leadership (Sherry Wolf and Paul D’Amato in the ISO or Callinicos in the SWP, for example) decides before they are thrust into a hyper-activist environment of constant paper selling, meeting attending and protest marching. Eventually new recruits find themselves burned out by the constant cultist routine of the pseudo-Marxist left and often find themselves leaving the organizations for fear of wasting any more of their time or instead being forced out for whatever apolitical reason the leadership deems necessary. Those who don’t fall in line are pushed out and those who do are groomed to continue their service to the bureaucracy. There are countless examples to cite regarding this, but the phenomenon is nothing unique to the ISO or SWP. It is a symptom of the entire ostensibly revolutionary left.
This is nothing new to Richard Seymour, who would have to be totally obtuse to not be aware of the nature of “Stalinicos” and the bureaucracy within the SWP. For anyone paying attention, it is obvious that the SWP opposition sought to fawn over the popular front building of the organization which “at best” influenced the ruling class and the anti-worker Labour Party to shift policy in the interest of the British bourgeoisie. As long as the SWP maintains the guise of being “the” revolutionary organization on the left in Britain, they can maintain their status. For the leadership, this means maintaining their privilege. So even when the SWP parrots the ever-popular program of reformism, it is often times considered “sectarian” to critique them from the left. Thus, the opposition sought no attempt at shifting the programmatic orientation of the organization. Their “opposition” was hardly political.
This begs the question: why did it take an alleged rape scandal to shake the SWP so intensely? If the leadership has maintained a bureaucratic control over the organization for some time now, complimented by a lack of internal democracy and programmatic zig-zags that compliment the lack of criticism within the organization, why are Seymour and his co-thinkers abandoning ship now? The opposition within (and now, primarily externalized outside of) the SWP has then chosen for years to hear and see no evil. In fact, it is difficult to find a critique stemming from Seymour’s position on the party towards the SWP before the accusations towards Martin Smith. Criticisms of internal bureaucratic regimes hardly qualifies as authentic political opposition. In fact, the organization’s program is what leads to such internal crises in the first place. It doesn’t take a special conference to explain that an organization is merely parroting Leninist theory.
In fact, it is quite telling about Seymour that it took this particular crisis to drive him out of the party. Even when he was first being accused for promoting the “dark side of the internet,” Seymour was consistent in telling his comrades to stand their ground and oppose internal attacks on democratic centralism. A democratic centralism that has never truly existed within the SWP! In fact, the SWP opposition would have had to willingly blind themselves into thinking that a conference would remove Callinicos and his cohorts from the reins. Thus, the SWP opposition was just a show. It was quite entertaining and it served to discredit the SWP even moreso than before in the face of the left and others, but at the end of the day, the tragedy still continues. The opposition never stood a chance and even if they had been armed with an opportunity, they would have surely failed to provide a serious investigative analysis into the political bankruptcy of the Cliffite family tree.
Seymour and several dozen of his comrades resigned from the SWP after the March 10 conference. The letter is fairly broad and Seymour has elaborated more on the situation on his blog Lenin’s Tomb. However, there is something glaringly suspicious in the post that followed the resignation titled “A New Network.” Seymour and Co. state:
The crisis that has engulfed and dishonoured the SWP should not be allowed to obscure the best aspects of the International Socialist tradition. We are committed to building and maintaining that tradition, as part of a strong and principled Left. As a first step, we invite those on the left who have been galvanized by the crisis to join the International Socialist Network by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best aspects of the International Socialist Tradition? Maintaining a tradition of political hypocrisy! Ignoring for a moment Trotsky’s words that what the workers of the world need is a party, once more a party and again a party, those who resigned their membership from the SWP did so primarily for bureaucratic and personal, not political reasons.
Let me be clear: the entire Central Committee of the SWP could be removed. The disputes committees and party branch leaderships could be put up to a vote for SWP members. In fact, the organizational practices of the group could be radically shifted. These factors are irrelevant. What is primary regarding the SWP is program. The Cliffite tradition is infamous for hailing the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union out one side of their mouths, while worshipping the Ayatollah in Iran out the other. No personal or democratic shift within their tradition will vindicate their political and programmatic zig-zags throughout the last few decades. In truth, the SWP (along with their former comrades in the American ISO) set the bar for reformism. Their greatest accomplishments are, in fact, building popular front coalitions that didn’t even challenge the ruling class in words, let alone in deeds.
These are things that even the most novice critical thinker could observe. I most certainly do not believe Richard Seymour to be incompetent. In fact, it is to his credit that he managed to, at the very least, get out of the SWP and avoid capitulating to the parasitic leadership. However, the fact that Seymour managed to tote the party line for so long is detrimental to his reputation. The working class movement needs authentic Marxists who are more than ready to ruthlessly critique those who falsely lay claim to the legacy of Leninism.
The rebellion is strong within you, Seymour, but you are not a Marxist yet.