Marx famously wrote ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’ In the case of the ongoing implosion of the Socialist Workers Party, the quote should be reversed. The collapse and fragmentation of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985 was also triggered by the exposure of dreadful sexual misdeeds – in that case by the ghastly Gerry Healy – but by then the WRP had become a tiny and totally marginalised parody of itself and the whole affair was farcical (except for the women bullied and raped by Healy of course). What appears to be the beginning of a slow motion collapse of the SWP is tragic though.
What began as a botched and thoroughly misjudged response by the SWP’s Central Committee to the complaint by a young female party member that she had been raped by a leading member of the self-same CC has escalated to a major challenge, not just to the unquestioning obedience expected of members and the party’s internal culture of bullying, but also to it’s practice of a peculiarly undemocratic form of democratic centralism and resistance to honest and open political debate. The opposition within the party is unprecedentedly large and public. At the current count, at least a dozen Socialist Worker Student Society groups have made public calls for a special conference and fifteen party branches have demanded a recall conference or passed resolutions condemning the CC.
The CC has responded essentially by claiming apostolic succession to Lenin and the organisational model of the Bolsheviks in 1917. In reality, the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was a vastly more democratic organisation than the SWP today – in vastly more difficult circumstances. It claims to uphold ‘the IS tradition’ but that tradition is the very antithesis of the dishonest and opportunist practice of the current SWP.
In 1971, Duncan Hallas, a then leading member of the International Socialists, the forerunner of the SWP, wrote of how revolutionary socialist parties should behave: ‘Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.’ How dare the current leadership of the SWP claim to be the defenders of that tradition
No matter what one’s criticisms of the SWP may be (and I, along with the other surviving members of the IS Opposition of getting on for forty years ago, can justifiably claim first place in the queue when it comes to critics) the fact remains that it is the largest group of revolutionary socialists in Britain – certainly as big as all the others combined. No attempt to build any sort of united left capable of establishing even the most modest popular base can ignore it, and an SWP cleansed of the bureaucratic centralism and opportunism that have characterised it for so long would be a massive asset to the Left. A messy and extended demise, with the spectacle of hundreds of committed socialists just drifting away from organised activity, the feeding frenzy of the circling micro sects looking for political carrion and the gloating chuckles of the right wing commentariat, would be a truly tragic setback for the cause of socialism in Britain.
No matter what our historical grievances with the SWP may be, I think that just now we should be setting them aside and wishing those comrades within the SWP who are beginning to demand democracy, honesty and respect within the organisation good luck with their efforts – because their success is in all our interests.
I really hope that this isn’t an issue to which I will feel any need to return – but I really fear that I will be forced to.