Donny Mayo (his name has been altered for all the usual reasons) was until recently a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party
I have written this article as an attempt to understand the rapid descent into madness of the party I had been a member of for 11 years. I respect and admire the many comrades who have not yet left the SWP but are fighting as hard as they can to hold the leadership to account (which in this case means overthrowing it) for events of recent weeks. However much I hope they win, it is my belief that they will not succeed and that a substantial realignment on the left is necessary in the near future.
I have chosen to publish on Counterfire despite the fact that the CC will use my article to divert from its failings by suggesting that the crisis was a plot against the party all along. I have done so because I want to make it clear that I do not believe (as some who are critical of the CC do) that beyond the SWP there is just wilderness; because rather than just state the need for dialogue with the rest of the radical left I wanted to actually take part in it; and because, as much as I disagreed with many of their reasons for leaving at the time, I do think those who formed Counterfire made a number of prescient criticisms when leaving the SWP and, moreover, when viewed in the context of a global crisis of old-style Trotskyist Leninism, they seem to me to be on the right side of history and the SWP as-is on the wrong side. I do not think simply joining Counterfire is an answer to all our problems. But I do think those interested in preserving the best bits of the International Socialist tradition should be working with them and I am convinced that they would be an important part of any radical left realignment of the sort the English left so desperately needs.
The Socialist Workers Party is dying. For all the good it has done over many years, it has imploded over allegations of sexual assault and its inability to deal sensibly with them.
It will continue to limp on for at least a few more years but the descent into cultishness will now be rapid. Those who have chosen to 'stay and fight' will be expelled or driven out soon enough (although I do, of course, wish them the best of luck in their fight) and those who see the need to 'defend the line' will find themselves saying and doing things they never dreamt they would say or do; they are in the process of crossing an intellectual 'line in the sand' from which their political minds will probably never recover.
It is not the intention of this article to rehash the allegations, or the grim events of the past few weeks (there are plenty of articles, many very good, that do that already). My aim here is to place recent events in a political context, to try to understand how and why this could happen, the better to build a new left in which this could not happen again.
Much of what has been written about the affair focuses on questions of democracy. Undoubtedly there are questions of democracy at play here. But if this is the case then there must also be deeper questions that need answering. How have thousands of decent people, who consider themselves fighters for liberation, allowed such a sham democracy to persist? What are the ideological justifications that allow good comrades to perform such contortionist arguments?
Many have also focused on the question of patriarchy within the left. This is an important question. Clearly nothing like this would ever have happened with gender roles reversed. Clearly, as much as people can be intellectually aware of the arguments for women's liberation they can still act in the ways socially ingrained in them by a patriarchal capitalist system. In this particular case there is also the question of power. But the question of power again raises deeper ideological questions: how could many thousands of good comrades, who are usually so suspicious of power and the powerful be so in awe of power on this occasion as to let this happen?
Here I want to focus on some of those deeper questions. I want to argue that the SWP, for all its many good points and many good members, has suffered for many years from a structure and an ideology that is, in the final analysis, unable to cope with the myriad ways the world has changed over the past thirty or so years. Despite some major successes, most notably the role played in the anti-war movement, the SWP has suffered a slow build up of problems resulting from this, one which has accelerated in recent years and culminated in the recent implosion.
The question I want to answer boils down to this: how did it come to be that to accuse "comrade delta" of sexual assault was seen, in the eyes of so many, as code for an abandoning of the idea that the working class could transform the world, as an existential attack on the SWP?
Why was the leadership willing to jeopardise the entire organisation, jettison a whole layer of youth, over the supposed infallibility of just one comrade?
Here I think we have to look at the long-term trajectory of the SWP and also the decline of pretty much all the other groups that follow the Trotskyist model of Leninism.
It seems to me that for at least 30 years now any attempt to understand something that had changed about the world has been clamped down on as a revisionist shift away from revolutionary politics.
This wasn't without reason. When the euro-communists said the working class had changed they were shifting to the right. But the problem is the working class had changed. When people talk about financialisation they often are talking about a shift towards a reformist variant of Keynesianism. But the problem is financialisation has happened.
The international socialist tradition was different to other Trotskyisms. It was heterodox. It wasn't theological. It didn't elevate small group politics to the level of principle.
But the SWP of today is not like that at all. It is orthodox. They might let young people write for the paper or the journal but nobody wants or asks them to write anything new or interesting - these articles are marked like a GCSE English comprehension question only with Harman substituted for Shakespeare.
Anything already written down is orthodoxy. Anything else is heresy.
The problem though is that the world has changed. Neoliberalism has made life harder for a generation. Work is different. The unions look different. The battle for women's liberation is in a new place. Imperialism has changed. The third world has been transformed. The information revolution has changed the nature of both capitalism and resistance to it.
These are things we should be talking about. But to even gesture towards them is heresy.
Radical left ideas have flourished since the crisis. But the truth is almost none of the best thinkers on the radical left are from a Trotskyist background. Many are not Lenininst. Some (the horror) are not even Marxist. But the traditional left ignores them at its peril. It is the job of revolutionaries, as Marx did in his time, to synthesise the insights of the best anti-capitalist thinkers with the fundamental principle that it must, and can only be, ordinary people who bring about a society free from the horrors of capitalism. The SWP though ignores and dismisses thinkers just because they are from 'outside the tradition'.
That is why even the SWP's flagship Marxism festival has been played down. In an Internal Bulletin article that massively over inflated the membership figures (the reality is around 2,500, they claimed 7,500) the central committee actually lied about Marxism the other way - they made it 1000 smaller than it really was. They spent one sentence on Marxism but a whole page on SWP 'educationals'. Why? One brings in outsiders, critics, heretics, new ideas; the other is totally safe repetition of things that were written in the '80s.
Listing the successes of the previous year, the central committee listed Walthamstow's anti-fascist demo (it was good, but a big demo against a spent force in multicultural left labour area which we spent six months building) and the Unite the Resistance conference (smaller than Right to Work, which was smaller than Organising for Fighting Unions) but clearly do not see relating to a new wave of ideological radicalization as a success (in fact Marxism disturbed them, they didn't feel at home there).
Once any criticism of the religion - I say religion because that is what it is when an ideology becomes organisationally frozen in the past - once any criticism is labelled heresy - it is only a short step to what we have now. To the Sopranos' model of leadership that the party suffers from. The mafia approach to criticism.
Because anything from beyond the brains of the central committee must have originated in the scary outside world. It must therefore be a Trojan horse for autonomism or reformism or Chris Bambery or whoever the main enemy is today.
Good ideas can only come from dead people or the central committee. A monopoly on ideas means a monopoly on power. And that is not the organisation I wanted to join, that I built, that I fought for, that I defended.
I didn't join a socialist organisation so that I could be told I shouldn't talk about how working life has become more precarious - lest I cede ground to 'autonomism'. Where feminism is a dirty word, used like it describes a disease ('creeping feminism'). Where autonomism is used as a swear word. Where instead of celebrating the rise of Syriza the CC look for reasons to condemn it. Where instead of celebrating the role new technology can play in building mass movements the CC ignore or dismiss it. Where people who read books beyond our tradition are seen as dangerous (some of those who left to form the Scottish ISG were told they read "too much Harvey, not enough Harman"). Where ideology is seen as a deviation from honest workers' struggle. Where real workers' struggle is seen as a deviation from getting a big (or at least bigger than the NSSN) audience in friends meeting house.
That's not the organisation I joined. That's not the tradition of the SWP. That's not a party that will attract and recruit the best anti-capitalists of our generation - and it's certainly not a party that will develop and keep hold of them.
This is not just a problem faced by the SWP, but by all parties that have followed the orthodox Trotskyist version of Leninism. How does the first generation of leaders loosen its grip and let a new generation lead? How, when so much of the organisational life has orbited around defending obscure interpretations of irrelevant theoretical arguments, how to change tack, to change those arguments when the outside world changes? How to deal with a structure so brittle that the tiniest criticism is treated as the greatest heresy?
And, as times move on, as a whole generation now has grown up under neoliberalism and instinctively (even if not theoretically) understands the changes wrought by it, it becomes harder and harder to hold the line. And as the internet disrupts previous models of organisation (it does for the capitalists too by the way), 'democratic centralism' becomes an increasingly cultish mantra.
I believe that the International Socialists were the best organisation on the British left in the 60s and 70s. I believe that the SWP had many things going for it. I think things possibly were salvageable. There was a conscious effort to 'modernise' the SWP after Seattle and the mass anti-war demonstrations. But then, for whatever reason, the leadership (including those who have since split) retreated from these attempts. After the failure of Respect though, the retreat became a full-on rout. Modernisation was consciously reversed. And in the context of the gravest capitalist crisis since at least the 1930s, the Arab Spring and the European Autumn, this was not the time to retreat from the outside world.
And so it became the case that the SWP suffered the same problems that had haunted the rest of the Trotskyist-left. Splits along essentially generational lines, brittleness to the point of absurdity (treating criticism of "comrade delta" as the abandonment of classical Marxism) and sectarian retreat and isolation.
Almost everyone who joined with me around the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements has already left the SWP (in fact it has retained between ten and twenty subs paying members for each year 2000-2005). The generation who joined over Millbank will mostly leave over this. Does any serious comrade, hand-on-heart, believe that the next generation of recruits won't also be driven out? That, before all the older cadre retire, the SWP will be able to renew its leadership?
And with each blow, the sectarian retreat becomes worse. The 'Millwall' attitude (nobody likes us we don't care) has become especially pronounced over Syriza and, on a smaller scale, the SWP's expulsion from the Unite United Left. But it will become far, far, worse over recent events. The fact that some of my former comrades have spoken of the need to 'defend revolutionary democracy from the bourgeois press' in this situation makes me feel profoundly disturbed.
So what can be done? I don't pretend to have the answers but I think that by understanding the context of this implosion we can at least avoid some wrong answers.
This was not just a case of 'one bad apple': there was something fundamentally wrong before that. This case just highlighted the fact that there is no 'reformist' (i.e. slowly and softly within the organisation) solution to those fundamental weaknesses. This was not just a question of structures: the lack of democracy resulted from a lack of ideological openness and a retreat from trying to understand changes in the real world.
Any solution has to take into account the generational shift away from orthodox Trotskyist organisations. It has to understand that the splits in Britain in the past decade have occurred roughly along these lines. That whereas splits on the far left generally lead to small rumps that degenerate and disappear all of these groups have actually improved since their splits - suggesting that they are on the right side of history and their 'parent' organisations the wrong side.
Reform inside the SWP is not an option: they will expel anyone who tries and the brand is now utterly toxic anyway.
Leaving to form a new version of the SWP is not an option: it is an historically outdated model and the last thing the British left needs is another small Trot organisation.
My hope is that something will rise in the SWP's ashes. That enough people will leave, soon enough, and together enough (i.e. not just drifting off) so as to allow for some sort of regroupment of the radical left; a coming together of those who understand some of the problems described here (and many others who never felt any of the existing organisations were what they were looking for) into something much more plural.
I have been a member of the SWP for eleven years. For the first few I believe its hegemonic role on the far left was a very positive thing - look at the response to 9/11. In recent years I think it has been much more ambiguous (indeed if 9/11 had happened again I am not sure it would have been willing to play the same role). I think it would be truly disastrous if, after recent events, the SWP were to continue to to play a hegemonic role on the far left. But I don't think it will be able to do so. The task now is to ensure that whatever does fill that role can learn from its mistakes.
More articles from this author
- Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds
- Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres
- Strike 4 Repeal: International Women's Day in Ireland
- International Women's Day and revolution
- Its our NHS and we'll fight for it - Counterfire freesheet March 2017
- Sylvia: a play about Sylvia Pankhurst
- The October Revolution: history and heritage