I have to admit that I don’t recognise the majority of the names of the 42 Socialist Workers Party members who this week publicly resigned from their organisation, ostensibly in protest at the attempt by the SWP Central Committee to stop prominent member Lindsey German from speaking at a Stop the War meeting in Newcastle.
John Rees, of course, was once a leading party member before rightly taking most of the blame for the Respect implosion and apparently Carole Vincent was on Big Brother, according to work colleagues, but I haven’t watched it since the first series so I don’t know how significant that really is. I know Elaine Graham-Leigh was national treasurer for Respect at the time of its collapse and that Stop the War Coalition national officer Chris Nineham was until recently a SWP central committee member and that he is still listed (along with Noel Douglas and Guy Taylor, who also signed the resignation letter) as a steering group member for the party’s now moribund front-organisation Globalise Resistance.
What I find astonishing, however, is how disingenuous the arguments in their letter are. As Mike Marqusee remarked back in June 2003, the SWP has always, had “an air of unreality in its assessment of events”, but claims in the letter that the achievements of the Stop the War Coalition and Respect were “dependent on an open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements” or that “use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP” are pure fantasy. They are simply not borne out by the experience of most of the independent left, including the many, many former members of the party.
Many individual SWP members are hardworking, committed and in some cases friends: but the party itself has a long, long history of divisiveness and control freakery with people like Rees, German and Nineham amongst the worst offenders. I therefore have to agree with Mike Marqusee’s essay on democracy and the left, which is definitely worth rereading in full:
Mike accurately described the SWP’s “flagrant ethical relativism” in which the interests of the party justify “any behaviour, no matter how dishonest, duplicitous, or destructive to others. In their competition with the rest of the left, in their drive to maintain control (including control of their own members), anything goes.” Now that ethical relativism has been turned on some of its most fervent proponents – and we are supposed to sympathise when they complain about an “authoritarian internal regime”?
Everyone here will have had the experience of attending a meeting ostensibly to discuss or organise an initiative or campaign only to find themselves faced with a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities. The non-SWPers present may hold a variety of views or doubts, but these end up rotating around the axis established by the SWP. It’s a lop-sided and ineffectual discussion because a key participant – the SWP – is playing by a different set of rules, and not engaging openly and fully with the debate as others see it.
I hope that many of those who resigned this week discover that the experience of no longer being “subordinated to short term party-building”, by a leadership that treats them and the rest of the left contemptuously, is an exhilarating one. However, quite where shameless political opportunists, particularly German and Rees, go now is extremely hard to imagine – who on earth would want to work with them considering their appalling track record for domineering behaviour?