20 Dec 2009

Lindsey German and John Rees to be expelled from SWP

I am not a fan of the Socialist Workers Party to be frank. I tend to agree with those who argue that they recruit students and others who want to engage in socialist politics run them ragged with frantic activity and alienate them. The Party clearly has a control freak tendency. Building the SWP as a Lenninist vanguard is more important than building for wider political change. It used to be that you would organise an anti-cuts meeting, trade union campaign, peace movement and a small number of SWoppers would swop in and take it over. Not good!

The Party has a classic pyramid structure. Although in theory democratic, the Central Committee (or what ever they are called) are elected as a slate, you vote for the entire slate or against, this means those at the top tend to stay in place. Full timers who work for the party owe their modest salaries to the CC and enforce their control. The foot solidiers sell Socialist Worker and march around but don't participate and shape the party they are members of.

Marxism is a powerful body of thought for understanding ecological crisis, the movement of capitalism and much else besides. Marxist political parties have been almost uniformly dreadful, unimaginative, top down and often with a very repressive political culture. To be frank political parties period have not been wonderful and if you look say at New Labour it has a deformed political culture where members have little real say and a rather right wing set of policies.

And when it comes to policies the left has to be green and move beyond central planning to the democratic and creative commons. I have to admit that the Socialist Workers Party has just published an 'Marxism and Ecology' booklet by Martin Empson which is actually quite good.

The commons is not part of their vocabulary. If socialism means being told what to do by a distant and self-proclaimed committee hey count me out.

Anyway war has broken out in the SWP. The latest internal bulletin lovingly stolen and placed on the internet here, reveals that the Central Committee view the 'Left faction' as traitors who need to be expelled.

In the run up to their annual conference the SWP allows temporary factions, permanent factions are expelled. In the war of words the Left faction led by Lindsay German and John Rees is likely to be booted out because it has been deemed permanent.

Already Clare Solomon who is said to be close to John and Lindsey has been expelled, partly for organising what looked like a good cultural and political event at SOAS.

Rees and German were keen on the SWP taking part in George Galloway's Respect Party and have been leading lights in the Stop the War Coalition.

Conflict broke out in the Respect Party between the SWP and others, leading briefly to two different Respect Parties (incidentally I spoke at both their conferences when I was Green Party Principal Speaker, confusing!)

A host of SWP full timers and key activists including Ger Francis (who incidentally I had a quick pint with last wednesday) and Jerry Hicks (who has since become a friend of mine) left the SWP and stuck with Respect mark 1.

This created a crisis in the SWP and Rees/German were marginalised. From being effective leaders they are now out in the cold and don't like being their.

They have mobilised a group of supporters and as far as I can tell are keener to work with other political activists for broad social change than the new leadership

The dominant figures on the current SWP are very much batten down the hatches, sell the paper , recruit the next generation of students and get involved with whatever demos and industrial battles are going on....i.e the same as the last 50 years of SWPism.

Briefly in the 1970s the SWPs forerunner International Socialist, was more grassroots in nature, proclaiming Rosa Luxemburg as their star along with Lenin.

I think they have got stuck in a grove.

They need to participate in a flexible democratic way and rethink. Karl Marx didn't say 'sell the paper build the party' he said 'Doubt everything' i.e have a critical edge.

In Britain there is a General Election coming up, SWP members should go and do leg work for good candidates, leafletting canvassing, etc....doing nothing or trying to take over or constructing a 'just add water instant left party'...are not serious options.

They should build on Martin Empson's excellent booklet 'Marxism and Ecology' and participate in non violent direct action.

Above all they should take a long hard look at their own political practices, even on the left they are unpopular and if you build a narrow sectarian left politics which pisses everyone off you only help the right.

I would love them to say live and let live to the likes of Lindsey and John, to reinstate Clare Solomon and to look at what is good about the progress that left has made in Latin America under Chavez and Morales.

Above all I would love them to support practically all the indigenous struggles for surival and ecology, I have never met an SWP member who has heard of Bagua.

A big christmas SWP gift list for me....hey if they were just a bit less control freaky we might love them a bit more. Doesn't that sound good.

Will they change, I doubt it. That's sad, they have several thousand members and the world is in very severe crisis, thats several thousand people who could be building a sane future.


Anonymous said...

I have learned a lot from the writings of both Lindsey German and John Rees. The analysis and propaganda put forth by the SWP is usually superb in my view. But their party structure seems to suck. Brings to mind a few Hal Draper classics that couldn't be more relevant today.
"Anatomy of a Micro-sect"

"The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of The Party” or What They Did to "What is to be Don?""


R9 said...

Mr Wall, you should change the title of the post, it's totally not on to imply that a desicion to expell Lindsey and John has been made when in actual fact no such thing has happened, despite your interpretation. Keep to the facts! I'm suprised as you are often rather more judicious about what statements you make.

Also the expulsions are not as clear-cut authoritarian as you imply - Snowden in Newcastle has more than a few times been caught out for sexism and harrasment, behaviour that sadly intensified in the atmopshere of the faction.

One other thing, have you ever thoguht of changing writing style to one that actually seeks to engage, criticise and analyse, rather than sound like a repetitive, incoherent moan?

Derek Wall said...

You are an SWP member I guess?

So I guess you feel no need for a make over or change of approach?

Anonymous said...

Derek, I'm sure SWP members would be more likely take your criticisms seriously if you didn't begin your post with this rubbish:

"Full timers who work for the party owe their modest salaries to the CC and enforce their control. The foot solidiers sell Socialist Worker and march around but don't participate and shape the party they are members of."

As an SWP 'foot soldier' of 13 years standing, I can honestly say that your characterisation of the party is utter bollocks.

Not only that but it's also incredibly patronising and insulting to thousands of dedicated socialists - including some of the best industrial militants in the country - to describe us like this. Why would so many good socialists remain in a party like the one you describe? Or do you think we are all unthinking automatons following orders from above? (That's a typical middle-class liberal criticism of revolutionary socialists, isn't it)

Seriously, if you want to engage constructively with SWP members you'll have to junk your received-wisdoms and clichéd criticisms first.

And I really don't think a former leader of the the Green party is in any position to lecture socialists about internal democracy!

luna17 said...

A few factual points:

R9 claims: 'Snowden in Newcastle has more than a few times been caught out for sexism and harrasment, behaviour that sadly intensified in the atmopshere of the faction.'

This is 100% untrue. I have never even been accused of 'sexism' or 'harrassment', not even once during my disputes committee hearing last month (which culminated with my expulsion on the grounds of 'factionalism'). I suggest a simple apology might be in order.

On Derek's original post:

1. No decision has been taken to expel anyone other than Clare and myself. This may change, but that's certainly the case for now.

2. Clare S is a SOAS student, but the 'Mutiny' event you refer to was in east London and drew an audience from a wide area - it was organised by a loose and informal collection of SWP members and other activists.

3. Rees and German were not 'keen on taking part in George Galloway's Respect Party' - they were central, along with Galloway and others such as Salma Yaqoob, in founding Respect in the first place. They continued (with the backing of the SWP) to play leading roles in it until the split of November 2007.

4. The Respect split didn't result in the SWP losing 'a host of full-timers' - this is a huge exaggeration.

Derek Wall said...

I am happy to be corrected, Alex, thanks.

AC said...

Derek, seeing as you're happy to be corrected you could start by spelling the names correctly - its Lindsey German not Lindsay.

Derek Wall said...


apologies for mis spelling

Anonymous said...

I'd second what the anonymous swp member above said. The SWP has its problems, and isn't perfect, but the idea that it is characterised by mindless disempowered footsoldiers is a joke. There is a lively internal debate, and if the membership was a touch too trusting of the leadership in recent times that's changing for the better now. The title of your piece is just plain wrong, and if you are honest you will change it.

midlands swp member

Derek Wall said...

I think if I keep the title I am more likely to be proven wrong, which is something which I would like to happen!

I am not sure that the SWP is particularly grassroots but I am happy to hear your point of view.

luna17 said...

While I don't agree with the central thrust of the argument about Leninism, the characterisation of the current split is basically correct. Left Platform supporters want a much sharper orientation on what those of us from a SWP background call united front work. This is a core part of the Leninist tradition: a revolutionary party is not built in isolation - or as an end in itself - but through constant engagement with wider forces.

The current SWP leadership insists it is not possible to instigate united front work around the recession, and is in effect downplaying Stop the War activity. Copenhagen also illustrates the party leadership's ambivalent attitude to the movements - there was only minimal inovlvement from SWP members in this vital mobilisation. Far greater emphasis is being placed on a predictable routine of branch meetings (adhering to a very traditional format) and SW sales, but with little evidence that this approach is achieving its objective of 'building the party'. It also, of course, does little to expand the party's influence in wider movements and campaigns.

None of this, however, illustrates the bankruptcy of Leninism. The real tradition of Lenin is captured in a volume of his own writings, edited by Paul le Blanc, called 'Revolution, democracy, socialism'. I also recommend the short Luckacs book on Lenin from the 1920s, which clarifies what revolutionary leadership is really about. Tony Cliff's Lenin volume 1 - Building the Party - from the 70s is an extremely useful account by the SWP's founder.

Derek Wall said...

cheers for these thoughts, I am not a Leninist but Lenin may have been a lot more pluralist than some suggest.

and there is Leninism and Leninism, any thoughts on the direction of former SW affliates in the US and New Zealand or my amigos in the Green Left Weekly/DSP?

By the way for those who want to make me feel more fondly about the SWP mentioning the membership of Keith Flett and John Molyneux is more likely to succeed than yelling at me.

polizeros said...

As one who was in a US party similar to SWP UK, I can say unequivocally that the foot soldiers sold the papers and had no input into decision making. Can't imagine SWP is much different.

The real problem though is that in such vanguard groups, any front group exists primarily to recruit for the party, not for the ostensible cause of the front group. Thus, for example, antiwar coalition front groups can never be a broad-based coalitions because the party members won't allow anyone but hard core ideologues into positions of power. That drives the moderates away and insures that the coalition will never be anything but on the fringe. But it will get them more party members.

luna17 said...

There's a profound difference between genuine united fronts and mere party fronts. In a united front revolutionaries sincerely want to build the movement. This is both because the relevant campaign or coalition is deemed important and also to provide a context in which revolutionaries can build their own political current.

A party front is really just an operation designed to pull people into the socialist organisation behind it. This is unlikely to genuinely involve wider forces - even if they do participate, they are unlikely to have any role in decision-making. Such an approach is dishonest, but more importantly it means revolutionaries make little contribution to the bigger struggle for change. They simply recruit a few more people.

It also leads, over time, to the organisation becoming more inward-looking and sectarian. The party becomes something to build as an end in itself - rather than as a means to social change - and there's a tendency to become opportunistic (there's also a sharp decline in the party's reputation amongst those beyond its own ranks).

Stop the War is clearly a serious united front: big and broad while having revolutionaries playing a central role in its leadership and influencing its strategy. There has, however, been little effort by the SWP to shape anything broad-based in response to the capitalist crisis. The Right to Work initiative is still too narrow and has made little impact - this is 15 months after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers.

aberfoyle said...

The split in N.Z. has lead to a small but vibrant party, the Socialist/Aotearoa Party, who!s line of thought is Freda Luxenburg.They are as stated very active, although small in number make up for it in approach and vigour.Check out their site.It is sad that Leninist partys seem to like a good infight.

Derek Wall said...

I think you mean Rosa not Freda, may be she had a sister, and hey I can't spell as someone pointed out early

SWP NZ/A have some very cool stuff on their blog, lots of Latin America, indigenous struggle, ecology and I have had some good contact with them.

I think they are fairly specifically ecosocialist so I may be biased but take a look http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/

ModernityBlog said...


All fair points, I do wish that the SWPers would look in the mirror occasionally, and learned to be a bit more thick skinned.

In the past 30 years the SWP has managed to achieve (according to its own standard) very little, 30 years of "building the Party" have left them a sect, a small group when compared with the mass parties of Left in Europe.

They have managed to muck up, mangle or other ruin many useful political projects, eg Socialist Alliance, Rank and File, etc and are still around at the same membership figure of 30 years ago, 3-6K (depends on who you believe), they were out foxed by Galloway and couldn't even get that right.

Political amateurism and the belief that they know-all is a strange mix, but the SWP has it in bucket loads.

aberfoyle said...

Silly me,i was doing some stuff on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,she must have been stuck in my mind.

skidmarx said...

It should be swoop not swop in the first paragraph - I guess, unless you're saying the SWP tries to swop the indigenous leadership of a campaign for theirs. I can appreciate your objection, though it is not surprising that those with politics a little more single issue than the SWP [I note you objecting elsewhere to someone describing the Greens as single-issue in absolute terms] will be more likely to initiate a campaign, if the SWP collectively thinks it is valuable,mostly in terms of its own objectives, but yes also to try and recruit (by showing itself to be the best activists, simply preaching the benfits of joining them is generally seen as bad practice because it is counter-productive), and it is not surprising that they would want a role in shaping a campaign's direction based on the size of their involvement despite any late entry.
I think it's also Ger Francis not Frances.
Respect also for pointing out that the internal bulletins are stolen, though less for linking to them. It is hardly the way to engage the SWP to begin by dictating that they cannot have private conversations between themselves.
Rosa Luxemburg said "Freedom is the freedom to think differently." But Leninism as I understand it (and Lars T.Lih at Marxism 2008 while having specific criticisms of Cliff's view of Lenin did have a lot to say for it) involves following an agreed party line even when individuals disagree with it, if they wish to act differently they have to do it outside the party.
Having read Mark Steel's account of the Respect(majority) conference following the split, I can see why the comments made about the Greens didn't endear you to them.

Tim - I've also liked the writings of German and Rees, though I did wonder if they learned relatively little from the Respect split, and seem to have a similar lack of professed political difference combined with a belief that they should be in charge, along with a lack of respect for party rules that a couple of the comrades who were expelled at the time of the split displayed. It is ironic that those who went with Respect Renewal at the time claimed that a faction opposing Rees and German would emerge opposing the SWP's line on the split, whereas in fact it is the Left Platform that is closer to the Galloway supporters.

polizeros - which SWP-UK style organization were you in?

Derek Wall said...

cheers Skid,

The Respect stuff just amused me, going to the REspect swp conference and being attacked by name by Rana Khan and then speaking immediately after

yes some of the SWP literature is quite useful, will be reviewing Martin Empson's Marxism and Ecology booklet.

sapronov said...

There's are bit of truth in what you say Derek, from my perspective i think that Leninism is dead because its a organisational method that is based upon a different epoch in which the working class were geographically and socially much more homogeneous than today and that the top down approach democratic centralist groups seem to offer is completely against the zeitgeist, all these revolutionary sects think they have the answers for the peoples of Bolivia, Venezuela, etc but they can't even get marginal support in their class at home.
I was an swp member and I still have some friends in the party that i respect very much, the thing is, as contrary to an anonymous poster above, that the internal debate in the party never encompasses the political work of the party broadly, is it extremely top down, though this varies from branch to branch, and when people disagree with the leadership concerning anything remotely practical they immediately slated by the hierarchy or their supporters for disloyalty or lack of understanding. For a group who says it believes in dc because of united and flexible action it takes a awfully long term to turn the ship around, and that's if the leaders don't just deny anything is wrong to cover their own arses.
One of the most damaging things, especially in the swp - and I've seen even brilliant Marxists fall for it - is the idea that the Leninist group is the only capable formation for the success of socialist transformation. Now the argument about state power is an important one but in 60 years of Trotskyist politics no one has ever even got close and for me practical application has to be the benchmark for the judgment of a model, not the abstract logic of it. I think splintered sunrise said something his blog about trots not being very materialist when it comes organisational analysis. I think that is very true.

polizeros said...

skidmarx, I was in PSL. They split from Workers World a few years back and took the ANSWER Coalition with them.

Indeed, why has the Marxist left been so utterly silent about the financial crisis? No protests, no calls to action, they've really done nothing. It makes no sense, but is what's happening.

In the States it's been mostly libertarian blogs run by financial insiders that have done spectacular reporting and research, breaking major stories. Blogs like Calculated Risk, Mish, Naked capitalism, and especially Zero Hedge. (ZH has broken stories that forced Congress to take action.) But the socialist left is just asleep here. Anyone have ideas why this is?

aberfoyle said...

The much maligned S.P.G.B.have done some excellent stuff on the whole issue of the present financial debacle.However their stance on the Marx/Engels theory of a socialist society without money is a anathema to many left parties.

It is always sad to see left thinking orginisations being divided by personality and purpose,and does little for the cause of the left.In my opinion Leninist thinking parties are the most disliked by working people (i am a ex member of one of them)my parting was my decision and in no way pressured by any individuals.

The one issue at this time that we all share is the issue of global warming.This issue above all others is the one that is going to have major ramification for all whatever our political persuation, and if ever there is a issue for unity of the left it is this one.

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