Cliffites in Crisis

Bad Politics & Bureaucratic Cover-Ups

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Britain’s largest left group, has been undergoing what its central figure, Alex Callinicos, recently described as an “acute internal crisis” which three national conferences held in the course of 2013 were unable to resolve. The crisis, which has resulted in a continued exodus of members (particularly youth), initially erupted at the group’s annual conference in January 2013 when the Central Committee nearly lost a vote to endorse its handling of allegations against a leading male SWPer who was accused of sexually assaulting a young female member. The refusal of nearly half the cadre to rubberstamp their leadership’s actions was unprecedented in an organization that has historically marginalized or driven out dissidents.

The following IBT statement was originally released in February 2013.

The current convulsions wracking the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), resulting from anger at the leadership’s handling of rape allegations against a senior party member, ‘Comrade Delta’, threaten to seriously damage the Tony Cliff franchise. The Central Committee’s attempts to contain the anger generated by their ‘Disputes Committee’ report with organisational heavy-handedness seems only to have fuelled the fire, with the open revolt headed by Richard Seymour appearing to have substantial support among the group’s core cadre.

Many outside and inside the SWP seem to think that this is a problem that can be fixed by organisational means—a new conference, a new leadership, more bulletins and broader factional rights. There is no doubt that the internal practices of the SWP are far removed from those of Lenin and Trotsky, but ‘more democracy’ will not fix the political problems that have given rise to bad organisational practices.

The roots of the current crisis lie in the entire political history of the Cliff tendency, which has been consistent only in its willingness to adapt its politics to those it seeks to influence and recruit. The International Socialists originated in the early 1950s, when Tony Cliff and his supporters broke with the Trotskyist movement by refusing to defend the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers’ states in the Korean War—a conflict in which British, American and other imperialists sought to ‘roll back’ Stalinist insurgents in Asia (see ‘Tony Cliff’s Family Tree’, 1917 No.6). In the 1960s, after the emergence of a radicalised New Left, Cliff flipped once again and backed the Vietnamese Stalinists against the US and its allies and puppets.

Since then the Cliffite political tradition has been marked by an endless series of capitulations and adaptations, all driven by a desire to cash in on prevailing popular moods. One recent example was the decision to bury the SWP’s position on the right of women to abortion in order to cement a bloc with George Galloway in Respect (see ‘Cliffites, Clerics & Class Collaboration’, 1917 No.28). A decade ago their Stop the War Coalition (StWC) mobilised thousands, occasionally millions, but did nothing to raise socialist consciousness because it was built on the basis of pacifist slogans in pursuit of an alliance with bourgeois liberals, not as a means of popularising the call for defeating imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan (see ‘Imperialist War & Socialist Pretenders’, 1917 No.25). Last year [2012] in Egypt, the SWP called for votes to the Muslim Brotherhood, who, when victorious, turned around and physically attacked the left (see ‘Cliffites Vote for Muslim Brotherhood’, 1917 No.35).

The internal regime of the SWP ultimately derives from its profound political instability. Despite many ‘educationals’ on the history of Marxism and a wide variety of questions, the SWP has failed to develop and politicise its membership. In the SWP, ‘Marxism’ means an annual political event in London—not a guide to action. In making their rapid twists and turns with Respect, StWC, etc., the SWP leadership has openly flouted the core propositions of the class politics they profess to uphold. The reason they have been free to do so is that much of the membership does not understand (and some do not agree with) the logic of Marxism—and, in any case, do not have much say in determining the policies of their organisation.

Democratic Centralism

The organisational practices of the SWP have nothing to do with those of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin, and cannot be described as democratic centralist. What passes for ‘Leninism’ in the SWP may well lead many to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but democratic centralism is the necessary organisational framework for a revolutionary combat party. Centralism is required for effective action and democracy is essential to politicise the group and ensure that members understand the programme, as well as being a mechanism to challenge decisions of the leadership, correct its mistakes and, when necessary, replace it.

With the SWP leadership strongly discouraging discussion on the findings of their Disputes Committee regarding the rape allegation, and bureaucratically declaring ‘the case is closed’, dissidents have taken the discussion outside the party. Some observers welcome this as being a good thing in principle. In this case it seems to be necessary, but in a healthy revolutionary organisation, internal debate is the most effective way to arrive at correct decisions regarding the inevitable problems that arise in political life. To open such discussions to the public is to invite those who are not obligated to carry out the decisions reached (as well as reformists, cranks, confusionists and trolls) to gum up the works. This is not, as anti-Leninists contend, a means of shutting down programmatic debate, but rather raising the level of debate inside and outside the revolutionary organisation.

Rape and Bourgeois Justice

We do not, and cannot, know what happened between comrades ‘W’ and ‘Delta’. As a ‘tribune of the oppressed’ a revolutionary organisation is duty-bound to take accusations of sexual violence seriously. A Marxist organisation must have a means of investigating complaints by one member against another. Any investigating body must be comprised of reputable comrades who are as impartial as possible, and all parties to the dispute must have adequate representation and support of their choice.

Revolutionaries do not call on the police to intervene in disputes within the workers’ movement. A member who was found guilty of rape or crimes of comparable seriousness would be automatically expelled from the organisation. We recognise that under capitalism, individuals often have no other recourse than to use the bourgeois justice system, but in no case do revolutionaries call on the agencies of the class enemy to sort out problems within the socialist movement.

Revolutionary Struggle

There are many SWP members who may be disgusted and demoralised by the current state of their organisation and retreat from active politics. For those wanting to move forward, it is necessary to go beyond a fight for a more democratic SWP and address the organisation’s liquidationist history of Labour Party entrism, economism in the trade unions and adaptation to everything from feminism to Islamic reaction. The SWP leadership’s disregard for the core of working-class politics led to building cross-class blocs like Respect, and offering political support to reactionary bourgeois political formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The ‘IS tradition’ must be politically rejected in its entirety. An authentically Marxist vanguard can only be built on the revolutionary tradition of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky—only this sort of party can actually solve the problems of the oppressed and exploited.