Reflections of an ‘oppositionist’

Ian Allinson writes:

Marxism 2013, twenty-five years since the event at which I joined the SWP, was dominated by comrades with a variety of views fervently believing they were defending their party and our tradition – from each other. There is clearly a risk of our party continuing to tear itself apart, despite the shared desire to build a large, principled, active and rooted organisation of revolutionary socialists.

Duncan Hallas once reminded comrades that if you want to win an argument, you should focus on the strongest arguments of your opponents. It’s easy to score debating points, stoke divisions and gain popularity on your “side” by focussing on sloppy formulations on secondary issues by your opponents, but this will only irritate anyone who doesn’t already agree with you – it won’t win anyone over.

I spent a lot of time at Marxism listening to and talking to people with whom I don’t agree. If I can’t understand where they are coming from, I have no chance of persuading them. This article aims to bust a few myths in the hope that comrades on all sides of the debates can focus on the central issues.

The faction’s position on Marxism and Doctor Who

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the opposition does not have a position on Doctor Who, despite this being one of the most popular meetings at Marxism.

It’s necessary to make this point because of widespread misconception about what the opposition is. Many comrades who haven’t been involved in the opposition seem to think that it has (or ought to have) positions on a wide variety of questions. I keep hearing “the opposition thinks this” or “they think that” – usually in connection with views that I don’t share.

Comrades need to be clear, this web site was set up by people in the opposition to facilitate debates happening in and around the party, not as a platform for a faction. I don’t agree with everything that people have written on it, and I doubt that anyone else does. Articles by Ian Birchall and Alex Callinicos have both been linked on here – do they secretly agree?

Articles on this web site have names on them for a reason – they reflect the views of the individuals who wrote them and not necessarily anything more. The web site has facilitated open political debate – something every comrade should welcome. A political culture where comrades daren’t ask a question or say what they think because they are afraid of being wrong and where repeating half-understood orthodoxies is the “safe” option is no use for developing Marxism and no use for developing ourselves politically.

Within the opposition, just as throughout the rest of the party, you will find comrades who are wrong about a wide range of questions. Comrades interested in “opposition bashing” get frustrated that they can’t identify a general alternative political viewpoint to attack. This leads them to either attack us all on the basis of what one or two comrades might have said, or to denounce us as politically incoherent. The opposition is politically diverse precisely because it is not a generalised opposition preparing for a split, but is a broad group of comrades who share little more than a desire to end the crisis afflicting the party on a principled basis that allows us to build in the future.

So what is the opposition?

At the end of the 10 March special conference, the In Defence Of Our Party (IDOOP) faction wound up. I was amongst those who argued for this. I thought the party could hold together until the pre-conference period and that the debates which the special conference had agreed should take place would allow a period of political clarification. I thought former IDOOP supporters could look after each other through what was bound to be a difficult period. I thought it likely that the pre-conference period would see one or more factions around positions developed through those debates (not necessarily following the boundaries of IDOOP v “loyalists”).

By the end of April it was clear that I and others who had argued similar positions had been wrong. Little had been done to get the debates going. Many former IDOOP members had been left isolated and not looked after. The party had lost hundreds of members, including most of our student groups. The experience of those who remained was uneven, but the atmosphere in parts of the party was so bad that it was impossible for former IDOOP members to ask a question or disagree about anything without being abused. Comrades were continuing to be driven out of activity or out of the organisation. There was no sign of the bleeding stopping.

At the end of April a number of us concluded that it would be irresponsible to sit back and do nothing while the party continued to disintegrate.

The opposition did three things:

  1. Got comrades together locally and nationally to discuss the situation.
  2. Organised “working groups” to try to involve more comrades in discussing the issues identified at the special conference, encouraging more people to try to write things for discussion and for party publications. We also identified which meetings at Marxism were likely to see debate on these questions.
  3. Set up a web site to provide a focal point for the debates on the themes identified at the special conference – linking to articles in the party publications as well as new material.

Hundreds of comrades had already left the SWP because they felt that our party had strayed so far from the IS tradition in terms of its commitment to women’s liberation or its political culture that it could not recover. Those that remained had the full spectrum of views, from those who felt confident the SWP remained the best starting point for building the party we need, to those who felt this was little better than flogging a dead horse and were on the brink of leaving.

The opposition facilitated comrades participating in the political debates in a way the party was still refusing to do. Only a tiny number of comrades feel able and felt confident to write for the Review or ISJ. Few were in part of the organisation where it was possible to have a serious political discussion without getting your head bitten off based on what their position had been on the dispute case dealt with at the January conference. Most felt the pace and limited space for debate in party publications was inadequate.

By widening participation in the debates that were meant to be taking place in the SWP, by providing a support network for comrades excluded and abused by the behaviour of a minority of those opposed to them, by arguing with comrades to stay politically active and to engage with those beyond the opposition and by arguing that testing it in practice rather than debates on “optimism” v “pessimism” was the way to see whether the SWP could recover – the opposition was very successful in stemming the party’s loss of membership and activists.

The opposition has no faction statement or political programme. Much was made of us having a “committee”, which we called the “coordinating group”. This was never intended to be a political leadership; it was a group of people who volunteered to help coordinate the three activities listed above.

Disputes cases, IDOOM and Eamonn McCann

More recently, it has become widely known in the party that the complaint made by the second woman against the same man was formally submitted some months ago. Many of us were appalled to hear that the man hadn’t been immediately suspended and case heard promptly. Whatever the merits of the allegations and evidence, this failure seems completely out of line with our commitment to women’s liberation.

The explanation for this failure is pretty clear. There is a group of comrades, rapidly becoming known as the “IDOOM” faction (In Defence Of Our M———), who have broken from our principles on women’s liberation and done untold damage to our party’s organisation and reputation to protect one man. They have been organising to prevent the case being dealt with and to drive out of the organisation those associated with either complainant or who demanded they be treated fairly. IDOOM clearly includes some members of leading bodies of the party.

For the record, I had no previous beef with the man at the centre of this storm. I had my agreements and disagreements with him, like any comrade, and he had his strengths and weaknesses. I think he was second to none in his feel for the dynamic relationship between different sections of the rank and file and the union officials. He often played a key role in introducing a dose of reality into discussions of our industrial work when comrades were getting carried away with wishful thinking. I spoke in his support at the party conference where he stopped being National Secretary. But none of this should have any bearing either way on how we deal with allegations such as those he has faced.

IDOOM at last began to come out into the open at the final rally at Marxism. Eamonn McCann gave a blistering and inspiring speech giving examples from Ireland of why an uncompromising stance against oppression is essential for socialists. In any other year, such a speech would have been met with universal applause. After all, this has always been our politics. Indeed, the vast majority of comrades applauded Eamonn enthusiastically and gave him a standing ovation. But a minority of comrades felt unable to applaud his speech. They felt it was an attack on them and their stance over the disputes cases. They would only feel this way if they knew, in their heart of hearts, that their words and deeds broke with the SWP’s politics on women’s liberation which Eamonn set out so powerfully.

The rest of the party

Much of the party is perplexed and angry at the ongoing faction fight. I’ve had my share of conversations with comrades shocked and upset that I was involved in what they saw as a “secret faction”.

The reality is that the opposition would still have faced an onslaught had we organised openly. It is not the fact that we organised discreetly that is the issue – it is the fact that we organised at all. I think most opposition supporters are relieved that this period is now over and discussions can take place more openly.

People are also upset that the opposition organised at all, seeing this as going against conference decisions or the party constitution. The phrase “permanent factions” is being bandied around with much fury. As I’ve explained above, I don’t see a loose opposition operating for a few weeks as a faction, let alone a permanent one, but I’m not interested in quibbling over words. Our actions certainly weren’t in line with the way we’ve traditionally operated as party members and I can understand a degree of alarm at this. But I’d ask comrades a question. If you believed that the party was being seriously damaged by a group of comrades putting one man above the party’s political principles, would you keep quiet because of any set of rules? Would you really put the constitution above socialist principles? Would you want to be in a party of comrades that would?

Comrades meeting up outside the party’s structures is nothing new. I’ve been involved in this during previous party crises. If my memory serves me right both Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith were in at least one of the same meetings as me on a previous occasion. Doubtless it was the memory of such previous episodes that led to the inclusion of “Members of the SWP are of course free to discuss face-to-face or online and, particularly during the pre-conference period, to get together to seek the outcomes that they want to achieve” in the CC statement issued on 3 January 2013.

Many comrades thought the opposition were trying to reopen the original dispute case that was dealt with in January and were unaware that IDOOM had been blocking a second case in a way that is unambiguously unacceptable. There was no decision taken at the special conference that further allegations of sexual harassment should not be dealt with while leaving the alleged perpetrator doing branch meetings on behalf of the party. I don’t believe the conference would have supported such a position for a minute.

Moving forwards

Marxism represented a turning point. Comrades across the spectrum of opinion are talking about the elephant in the room and trying to work out how to deal with it.

We are assured that the second dispute will be dealt with properly and without further delay. A range of comrades, including Alex Callinicos, openly talked about “mistakes”. It will be easier for comrades to learn from them if comrades actually say what they think mistakes were so we can all avoid them in future. At the closing rally Charlie Kimber made clear that the debates must continue. Several leading comrades from well beyond the ranks of the opposition talked about the idea of a party web site to facilitate debate – it seems this site has proved that it is possible to do this without degenerating into abuse or party-bashing. I hope that the CC helps facilitate debate throughout the party.

We should all be working to build the party we need – one where every member (and particularly all those in leading positions) is happy to applaud a speech about opposition to oppression being an unshakable principle that never takes second place behind strategic or tactical considerations. That means resolving the current crisis, but also learning from it, so we do as much as we can to ensure that when a future leadership makes mistakes (as they surely will) the cadre of the party corrects them as quickly and smoothly as possible. Doing that will require the efforts of comrades across the party and will involve debates which see lines drawn in many different places, not an “opposition” cobbled together in a crisis – and most definitely not an IDOOM.

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