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Ian Birchall Publishes On Why the SWP Deteriorated So Quickly.

with 12 comments

Let Party Skullduggery Run Rampant.

Ian Birchall’s resignation from the SWP was announced in December last year.

The news was quickly broadcast on this Blog (not to say all over the left).

We posted under the heading “A greatly respected comrade”.

“Ian Birchall’s resignation is …. something of great significance  for the left. It is perhaps a sign of the respect in which Ian is held that his critics, like myself, feel that we have to make our appreciation of him clear.”

Today we learn (from Louis Proyect) of, “SO SAD (TO WATCH A GOOD PARTY GO BAD). Ian Birchall.

On 15 December 2013 I resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, after some fifty years membership. I was no longer prepared to trust the party leadership with my money, nor to accept its discipline. I said at the time that I would make no further public criticism of the SWP and I have tried to stand by this. There are many more useful and interesting things to do than engage in arguments between small far left groups. Polemics about splits in small revolutionary organisations tend to be very tedious; I have no desire to add to that literary genre.”

Now we have Ian’s further thoughts on the “the problem as to why it happened. Why did an organisation which, though I knew its imperfections, seemed to me to be by far the best thing going on the British left, and of which I was proud to be a member, deteriorate so quickly?”

People will have to read the full – heartfelt – article but these are some extracts and observation.

So Sad centres, without dissimulation, on the core of the recent SWP crisis:.

Edward Platt in the New Statesman earlier this year summarised the initial spark for the party’s deterioration (on the left we would talk of its ‘degeneration’),

The first complaint against Comrade Delta was made in 2010. A woman who was referred to as “Comrade W” accused him of sexually harassing her, and he stepped down as national secretary while remaining part of the party’s leadership: its central committee, or CC. The party was told about the allegations at its conference in 2011.

This is Ian’s account of how he reacted,

On the basis of information available to me I don’t know if Delta was guilty of rape (though the evidence is that few women make false accusations of rape). What is clear on the basis of accounts accepted on all sides is that he behaved inappropriately and irresponsibly, and abused the privileges of the party office he held. (Here I should mention the suggestions made, not by the CC but by some CC supporters, that one or both of the women complainants could have been state agents. I think this is clearly megalomania: there is no evidence that the current SWP poses the sort of threat that would lead the state to use such measures. But if there were any possibility that such means might be used, then Delta, as a senior party official, was grossly culpable in not being much more careful about the relationships he entered into.)

I do not question the sincerity of the members of the Disputes Committee. But it is clear that they failed in their task. It was essential that justice was not only done, but was seen to be done, both by the membership and by the world outside, which undoubtedly would be watching what was happening. Both in the selection of personnel and in the procedures adopted, the Disputes Committee signally failed to convince that justice had been done.  The CC must share responsibility for this situation.

This seems to me to be a better response than those who scatter round accusations of “rape apologists” or “rape deniers” (a remark which I know will not make me popular either).

Ian sums up what it the nature of the SWP’s offence, “What some comrades clearly were guilty of is what might be called “rape trivialisation”.”

This is Platt’s observation which was exactly what most of the left thought at the time.

The party’s decision to investigate the allegation internally, through its disputes committee, rather than referring it to the police, is the most remarkable aspect of the affair: it has astonished people outside the SWP, and some within it, too. “What right does the party have to organise its very own ‘kangaroo court’ investigation and judgment over such serious allegations against a leading member?” wrote the former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker in his resignation letter. “None whatsoever.”

There is a great deal of detail of how the internal party crisis unfolded, which I find less than interesting.

But this rings completely true.

 I won’t go into detail about the pre-conference period. Some supporters of the CC acted extremely badly – for example making fraudulent phone calls to cancel room bookings for perfectly legitimate opposition meetings. Maybe the CC did not positively encourage such actions, but it made no attempt to rein in its more enthusiastic supporters. However, it seems to be a fact of history that in faction fights everybody behaves badly, and doubtless some opposition members conducted themselves in less than an ideal fashion.

The CC won the conference, with many supporters of the majority doing their best to encourage the opposition to leave, with moronic foot-stamping – something I do not remember from party events in earlier years. Not surprisingly some hundreds of members decided to depart.

Anybody with Ian’s life-long commitment would have already  left the party.

But, he stayed for a while.


For me the final straw came in September, when the CC announced that every single member of the CC that had screwed up so badly would be standing for re-election on the CC slate. After that I went through the motions of the pre-conference period, but I was clear that there was no future for me in the party.

Throughout 2013 the style of leadership offered by the CC seemed to be summed up by a song by the late Pete Seeger, “The Big Muddy”  (originally written as a comment on the Vietnam war). A platoon of soldiers on manoeuvres are ordered to ford a river by their captain, and though it becomes clear that the river is too deep, the captain obstinately refuses to change his instructions: “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on”.

We note with concern that far from crawling away to a hole to lick his wounds – never to come out again – Martin Smith (Comrade Delta) – is at present running a Blog with the cooperation of at least some in the SWP orbit (based in France). 

Many of the details of how the SWP organisation has been run (or come to be run) are of wider interest,

In more recent years, when the number of a district’s conference delegates has been based on vastly inflated and totally unrealistic membership figures, districts have often been unable to find a full complement of delegates. At the North London report-back meeting in January 2013 Weyman Bennett very frankly admitted that most years he went to sleep during CC elections; obviously he found them boring and irrelevant. And yet his position in the organisation and his right to make decisions derived from such elections. That a CC member should have such contempt for the democratic process is obviously a matter of some concern. But the real problem is the fact that the membership – myself included – paid so little attention to the democratic processes within the party.

This claim could perhaps be contested,

Indeed the SWP in general has been a very tolerant organisation, much more so than most far left organisations I know of. I’ve spoken at most Marxisms and at hundreds of branch meetings,  and never been given more than the vaguest indications of what the CC wanted me to say. I’ve written repeatedly for the party press. Occasionally articles were changed or even blocked, but very rarely.  Of course I exercised a degree of self-censorship. But I generally felt trusted and able to try and exercise a degree of influence. I should add that when I submitted the first draft of my biography of Cliff, I confidently expected to be asked to withdraw a few passages which I thought would be seen as excessively critical. It is greatly to the credit of the CC and of Alex Callinicos in particular that my draft was published virtually unchanged.

Outsiders have not noticed this tolerance when they got closer to the actual party apparatus.

My own experience is that a vocal minority of the SWP are the grip of the hallucination that they are steel-hardened Bolsheviks

The following anecdote is only one of many I could cite.

Nonetheless over the years there have been worrying indications of an unhealthy style of debate. Let me give just one example which has stuck in my mind. When the decision to join Respect was made, there was an aggregate meeting in London to endorse the decision. It was an enthusiastic, optimistic meeting – we felt that the party was on the brink of a significant step forward. Almost all the contributions from the floor favoured the strategy; I certainly shared the meeting’s enthusiasm.

Then one woman who spoke raised the question of Galloway’s flattery of Saddam Hussein (“Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”). Several people began to heckle her and one particularly thuggish young man in front of me attempted to shout her down. She was unable to finish her speech. This was of course entirely pointless; there was no danger that the massive majority in favour of Respect would be affected. It also occurred to me forcibly that this was precisely the sort of question that might be asked in the course of an election campaign, which is what we were about to enter. I suspect the hecklers would have run a mile if asked to campaign on the doorstep; heckling when the majority is on your side is an easy option. Neither the chair nor the CC member delivering the main report reprimanded the hecklers. I have always regretted that I did not speak to criticise the hecklers; so I bear as much responsibility as anyone else for what was a symptom of a declining standard of debate.

Not that the left, or indeed any political party, is immune from similar behaviour.

Comrades from the Labour Representation Committee will find these comments about “heckling” resonating all too clearly.

As I said Ian Birchall is greatly respected.

His article in New Left Review No 80 (2013) Third World and After, takes up (amongst other things) the contribution to the left by the anarchist-Marxist-libertarian Daniel  Guérin (a figure mentioned previously in Andrew Coates reviews: Revolutionary History Vol 16, No4: Ian Birchall (guest editor) European revolutionaries and Algerian independence 1954-1962).

I would like to think that Guérin‘s ‘centrist’ democratic socialist principles have something to contribute to the list Ian ends So Sad on,

The International Socialist stream will take certain ideas and attitudes into the river, in particular:

a)      The rejection of not only Stalinist state capitalism but of the very idea that state ownership is any part of the definition of socialism;

b)      The insistence that our starting-point must always be the actual struggle of workers at the point of production/exploitation rather than any abstraction such as “workers’ parties” or “workers’ states”;

c)      The stress on beginning with actual struggles, not preconceived strategies or programmes: in Rosa Luxemburg’s words “Mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary labour movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.”

Here at least Ian has the last word.

For many years the SWP defended those ideas within the socialist movement, and I remain proud of what we achieved. The débâcle of 2013 was profoundly sad, but the fifty years before that were not in vain. Like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.



12 Responses

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  1. Andrew, I think you get your response to Ian right. Ian is a very erudite, occasionally waspish and totally committed socialist. I have been a watcher of the SWP and often involved in joint campaigns since those days , long ago, when I was an associate of the SR group and we earnestly discussed the lessons given to us by Luxemburg. Later I moved to the IG and then the IMG but continued to regard IS and then the SWP as part of the serious left that would play a significant role in establishing a genuinely mass revolutionary party. Their members were recognisably human; not something easily ascribed to the SLL/WRP or the Maoist loons. But even from the time of the ANL, one of their great successes, there were occasions when they behaved in an arbitrary and commandist fashion within “united fronts”/alliances. This became more pronounced by the time of the SSP and Respect bust ups. In anti-fascist work both Smith and Bennett behaved in an arrogant and brutish fashion. These models were taken up by younger SWP members who appeared to have little political education and an inability or unwillingness to debate with other Marxists. It seemed that this inability flowed directly from the weak internal democracy within the SWP. I know there was a joke that the major physical exercise IMG members got was in carrying their vast bundles of internal documents, and undeniably we got some of these issues horribly wrong, but the ability to form tendencies and factions meant that we were not averse to discussing with other tendencies.
    I respect the pain of Ian in facing up to the disaster that hit the SWP but to put the date of the decisive change at 2012 actually makes it difficult to learn the real lessons of the debacle. The weaknesses were formed far earlier. It is also important to stress that the SWP contains many excellent comrades. The Delta affair showed horrific mistakes, but to characterise the SWP membership as rape deniers is very wrong. It is a means by which our opponents from Harry’s Place to the anarchists can attack the left.


    December 16, 2014 at 10:25 am

  2. As ex-IMG myself I recall those internal documents well!

    But the SWP have always had a major problem: their model was throwing themselves into a campaign (ANL being the paradigm) and then dropping it when things “moved on”.

    We used to criticise them for this ‘hyper-activism’.

    It has been fairly constant (in their inconstancy…) over the following decades.

    As you say their ‘united fronts’ became more and more ‘fronts’, though in my experience they always acted in an arrogant way – something which in our IMG trained Marxism we were and are more than capable of outdoing!

    So I agree that their weaknesses go back a long time – the people who left in the 1970s, at the change over from IS to the SWP (I’m thinking of comrades like John Palmer and Stephen Marks, amongst others) would trace their problematic strategy to that period!

    Yet I do think Ian has a point – there has been something that’s spiraled out of control over the last few years – from Respect, to a string of campaigns, Right to Work, Unite the Resistance – and they show all the signs of taking on the worst aspects of British Trotskyism.

    You only have to see their local ‘cadre’ to see that.

    Andrew Coates

    December 16, 2014 at 11:34 am

  3. I assume that Andrew means “ANL” rather than “AWL.” (Of course, the AWL emerged from the IS/SWP, so, understandable slip.)

    Does anyone know which tendency in the workers’ movement was the first to start using front groups? Was it the official Communist Parties in the ’30s? Because I don’t remember reading about Trotskyists using them until the ’70s.

  4. Yes, it was the Comintern and the CP’s

    Jim Denham

    December 17, 2014 at 2:03 am

  5. Opps, duly corrected. Jason.

    As Jim says on United Fronts, it goes back to the early Comintern – something hammered home to us for years and years and years.

    “The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.”


    For reasons which are not hard to explain (“all workers” being thin on the ground in the campaigns of the British elft) it has come to mean an alliance of left and pressure groups in a campaign on a specific issue, preferably with trade union and (some) Labour Party backing.

    Some of the left, for reasons which are hard to explain, given the lack of success of the US left, began more recently calling these in American fashion ‘coalitions’. Properly speaking this refers to the pressure group character of their politics, and in orthodox Marxist terms is a sign of revisionist backsliding.

    This fashion has ebbed – no doubt with the association of the word Coalition with ….er, THE Coalition.

    Andrew Coates

    December 17, 2014 at 11:57 am

  6. It works like this:
    Our party has helped create broad campaigns in which we, naturally, play a key role
    Your party tries to dominate broad campaigns
    Their party sets up front groups


    December 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm

  7. I could name another party other than the SWP which does this all the time – except that most people, even on the left, will have never heard of them!

    Andrew Coates

    December 17, 2014 at 12:50 pm

  8. My favourite pointless front group was one I encountered in Brixton in the early 1980s – three heavily made-up Boy George-lookalikes selling “the next step”. One approached me with his paper. “Ah, right”, I said, “you’re the RCP…” “Oh no”, he replied, “We’re the Revolutionary Gay Men’s Caucus. We *support* the RCP…” A year or so later I heard the group had voluntarily disbanded, having realised and publicly announced that it was unnecessary.


    December 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm

  9. But front groups and United Fronts are distinct things, no? I think of the various “Marcyite” front groups in the U.S. — ANSWER, Troops Out Now, etc. — and none of them are United Fronts as the early Comintern defined them.

  10. There’s probably a typology of these varieties somewhere – but as you say Jason pure Front organisations are pretty distinct and obvious.

    The example I was referring to above was the Socialist Party (ex-Militant) and Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE).

    It’s most ambitious claim was this, “YRE was launched by an international demonstration of 40,000 people against racism, in Brussels in October 1992.”

    The police incidentally estimated the number at 6.500 http://archives.lesoir.be/des-milliers-de-jeunes-ont-manifeste-contre-le-racisme-_t-19921026-Z05Z8F.html
    Another figure is 10,000 given here;

    The origins of the march go back to Blokbusters a movement of young people opposed to the far-right Vlaams Blok.

    Needless to say when it claim that it was the CWI which initiated (rather than participated in) the movement are dubious.

    Youth Against Racism in Europe never really took off, except (to a degree) in the UK, where it faced stiff competition from the ‘second’ AWL.

    The Belgian section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) continues to have a small section in Belgium – Parti socialiste de lutte / Linkse Socialistische Partij which at present claims to have 300 members (a contestable number in my view – 100 would be ambitious).

    Andrew Coates

    December 17, 2014 at 6:24 pm

  11. ANL, not AWL (again).


    December 18, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  12. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    Hell is eternal, Hell is eternal, Hell is eternal…


    April 30, 2015 at 9:08 pm

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