Monday, March 18, 2013
The crisis in the SWP, part IV posted by lenin
A CC member, affectionately known to the party faithful as 'Bishop Brennan', was heard to say to the Central London aggregate, "If you can't argue the line, you should consider your position in the party."
This was several days after the leak, on Monday 7th January, of a transcript of the Disputes Committee session at conference. In one way, the leak was shocking. Certainly, documents had been circulated in hostile publications, email threads leaked, bulletins excerpted on blogs. Prior to conference, even some of the discussions of the Democratic Opposition faction had been leaked to the Weekly Worker. During conference itself, I noticed individuals in the online gossip mills who had demonstrated knowledge of the case, and even mentioned the r-word. But taping and transcribing about ten thousand words from a lengthy and emotional discussion took either resources or commitment.
In another way, it fit in entirely with an increasingly demented situation. Even before the leak it was clear that there was no way that this story wasn't getting out, and soon - and from there, it would spread. Not everyone understood just how far it would spread. I well remember trying to persuade even sensible comrades that the tabloids would indeed care about such a story. The trusty, consoling line that "most people aren't thinking about what the SWP gets up to" had been bandied about: a streak of bullshit that I remembered from the Respect debacle. But it was clear to anyone who had their eyes open that this was going to come out in some form. The question was how the party would carry it. And the answer, evidently, was by retreating to the bunker. As in, Archie Bunker.
Brennan was not alone in his dispensation. Other CC members had conveyed the same message. Generally, this was conveyed with the preferred imprecations of the CC member in question. So Father Purcell might remark that "Conference voted for an interventionist leadership, not federalism!" Sister Assumpta might claim that the accused had been 'exonerated', and no one would be suffered to say otherwise. Or Father Macduff might mention that people in the parochial house had been behind the factions, and it had to stop. Whatever: the coup de grace was invariably the suggestion that we might think about getting on with the important business we had to attend to in "the real world". Of which, evidently, the CC knew fuck all. Indeed, there were signs of Jesuitical distinctions being drawn on this front. One of Brennan's acolytes - who for the sake of consistency we'll call Father Jessup - was heard to have said that it was a duty of members to defend the line even in private relationships. The brittle defensiveness of the leadership's posture had evidently only been exacerbated by the leak.
There were some of us having email and Facebook exchanges. Our collective attitude was that we weren't going to waste a single breath trying to 'defend the line', or make life easier for the lunatics in charge. But each new twist of absurdity throughout that week produced another collective round of forehead slapping and despairing cries of 'fuck sake'. For example, it quickly became clear that 'Comrade Delta' was being finessed back into full-time politics. This, days after the Disputes Committee transcript had been leaked. Then it emerged that full-time party workers were being called into individual meetings with CC members, and made to swear loyalty oaths: you defend the party line, or you're out. Those who didn't either quit, or were sacked. Members who had supported the faction at conference were being isolated or treated like dirt in some branches. The two CC dissidents had decided to stay in the leadership rather than resign. Two affiliates to the international tendency had quit. The results of elections for the National Committee (NC), or the 'House of Lords' as it's known, came in: it was more dominated by loyalists than usual, and certainly didn't reflect the support the factions had achieved at conference. On top of this, of course, the two new entrants to the CC, replacing those who were dropped, were both ardent loyalists of the accused.
So we had a CC that was even more nuts than before, a slavish Lords, a purge of the full-timers, a fracturing tendency and, amid the leaking of the party's shameful business, an attempt to restore the accused to full-time work. Magic. Even so, most people didn't want to say anything publicly, and risk giving ammunition to the right-wing press. Such a decision would, anyway, simply entrench the 'circle the wagons' mentality that had already spread to sections of the party long before conference. I had personally told anyone who would listen that I wasn't going to defend this, and had words with worried comrades, who urged me not to get myself expelled. I didn't have to lie about my views if asked, but I should not make any kind of public statement either: this would require a long fight in the party, and we would have to dig in and maintain discipline. The perspective, even at this stage was, see if it would be within our rights to get an emergency conference, or see if we can legitimately form a faction.
Tom Walker's resignation statement changed everything. First of all, because it expressed concisely and eloquently what the rest of us had been thinking and saying to ourselves. Secondly, because within hours of publication, it had been re-tweeted by @pennyred to 56,000 followers. Articles were coming. The Independent's journalist was tweeting Andy Newman looking for a quote. Laurie Penny was writing. I spoke to China, as I had throughout the crisis. He had long since passed the point where he was willing to toe the line: to do so was to be a chump as far as he was concerned. The party name was already irretrievably tainted. Only open defiance could save it. He was ready to give a statement to Penny, who had emailed an enquiry. I read his statement; it was good. I passed it round to some friends; they agreed that it was good. China was ready to be expelled. I said that for me, the idea of maintaining a muted dissent without openly saying what I thought was becoming impossible. I would wait for a bit, because I wanted to see what others wanted to do, but it was a question of when, not if.
By the evening of Friday 11th January, when the New Statesman article came out, I and several others were already deciding what to say in response. The crisis had gone public; it was not because of us, and there was no way that we could avoid responding to it. But it was when the Independent's version, with its nasty line about 'socialist sharia courts', came out that the wider political stakes became glaringly apparent. This story was going to be about the SWP, certainly, but the conclusions people would draw from it could be much more general: this is what those Muslim-loving lefties are like; this is what political parties lead to, they're all the same, etc; this is what revolutionary socialists are like, stay well away, they're extremists... In contrast with the Independent piece, Penny's article was principled, left-wing and on the side of the party's opposition. So, we made definite decision, probably a dozen or so of us at first, to intervene in the public mess and back up Penny's version of events.
I wrote, furiously, but cathartically. It was a big kamikaze dive right into the cult's lair. An enormous relief descended, for about three days. I expected the expulsion email to come over the weekend, or by Monday at the latest. 'Fine: let them expel me for telling the truth. If it comes to that, I'll appeal.' Soon, however, it became clear that the leadership was paralysed. We heard that they were stunned, devastated, literally in mourning. And that meant there could be a fight for the party.