Ian Birchall Publishes On Why the SWP Deteriorated So Quickly.
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.”
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.
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