Crisis in the SWP

SWPGregor Gall writes on the crisis developing in the Socialist Workers Party which has set the focus on issues of democracy on the far left.

The unfolding crisis in the biggest organisation on the far left in Britain, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), is fundamentally about its political method of operating. What has triggered the crisis is the way in which an allegation of rape by a woman member against a membership of the leadership has been handled internally.

What has happened is that this event has lifted the scales of many members’ eyes, and now with this epiphany, they now see their party and the way it is being run in a very different light. That the event is connected to sex and the way in which leaders of the far left treat woman members is now new. We only need to recall recent events in the Scottish Socialist Party over Tommy Sheridan and back in the 1980s the case of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP).

Democracy on the Left

When a member joins the SWP or some such far left organisation, they invariably join and sign up to an existing regime and set of politics. Few have the ability to make any changes to these as a condition of their joining. More often than not, even the most scrutinising new recruit will not have peered into the issues of the way the party they have just joined in run internally.

There is, indeed, almost no need – and no stimulus – to do so because when joining, new members do so in high level of enthusiasm and commitment to the existing regime and existing set of politics. Essentially, they want to be active within the existing set up and for the existing set of politics.

It is only when they have cause to question what the outcomes of their efforts and that of their party’s efforts are that the possibility of criticism arises. This mostly obviously comes from situations when the overblown perspectives of the organisation on its own growth and influence – or the course of the class struggle – are never realised or never come to fruition.

The normal response of individual members is to either leave, drop out of activity or try to ignore the patent feelings of the leadership by being active in their own small way in a non-party campaign.


Why does situation arise? It’s essentially about the way in which far left organisations are asymmetrically dominated by their leaderships. All subscribed to the Leninist convention of democratic centralism – which is often characterised as maximum discussion leading to a collective decision by which all members are then bound to and bound to implement so that the organisation acts as one.

Fine in theory but the practice is that the convention has been used to do three things. The first is to create a leadership which chooses who the leaders are in a self-perpetuating manner. This means the central committee chooses the central committee. The second is that the central committee selects and control the party workers. Party workers have no independence from the leadership. The third is that criticism of the leadership is not only seen as disloyal but also illegitimate, dysfunctional and deviant.

Having, in the case of the SWP, the ability to form a faction or speak to other members through an internal bulletin in the run up to annual conference means that for the rest of the year, criticism and debate are not just curtailed by stamped on.

And when the leadership wins its positions are each annual conference by dint of these methods, any critic has to wait for another nine-months before being able to constitutionally put their head above the parapet.


Only every so often does the kind of crisis that the SWP is going through now erupt and startle – if not dislodge – the leadership. But the tentacles of this authoritarian control structure remain because quite often there is no possibility of change.

Again either people leave in large numbers or the organisation disintegrates because there is no mechanism or culture available by which to replace the existing leadership yet also at the same time maintain the organisation. The future of the leadership becomes intrinsically bound up with the future of the organisation.

There has to be some midway point in far left organisations between the authoritarian regimes which enable everyone to act as one but with democratically arriving at what this should be, and on the other hand, the form of network where everything is loose, anything goes and people do their own thing (or not).

Both throw the different babies of effectiveness and democracy out with the bathwater. While the internal regime of the SSP was far from perfect, it did have legitimate permanent factions, a plurality of opinion and a genuine ability to criticise the leadership without being demonised or shouted down. This at least marks out the SSP experiment as something worth studying, not least because the internal regime was effective in making the organisation an credible organisation to those outside it.

If there is anything good to come out of the current SWP crisis, it must be that the far left looks at itself more closely and in a mature, self-reflective way in order to address these issues. It palpably is not growing as it should at the moment and the internal regime it adopts has much to contribute to this failing.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author and editor of various books on the left in Scotland including the forthcoming, Is there a Scottish road to socialism? (2013).


10 thoughts on “Crisis in the SWP”

  1. Meh – the SSP was better than most, but it still suffered from many of the symptoms that you described. In the case of the SSP, the majority of the leadership would not back someone so toxic as Sheridan, but it found in doing that that its political conciousness was beyond many of the membership who blindly followed the SWP/CWI line or who could not conceive of a political party without a great man.

    Maybe if the SSP had been a bit more mature it might have survived; maybe if we had never had the MSPs, and had concentrated on building the grassroots, the political conciousness would be higher; maybe if we had developed feminism organically rather than using artificial mechanisms to try to bring it about, there wouldn’t have been so much resentment at the female leadership of the party; maybe if we had been more active in challenging micro-sexisms the crisis would have been seen in a political context; maybe if internet use had been more common we could have had a fuller discussion that would have undermined Sheridan’s attempt to mislead the membership.

    Its all just speculation now tho, but despite being one of the best models, ultimately the SSP imploded and it did so for many of the same issues that you identify in the SWP.

    1. There’s much in what you say, Mhairi but the mistake made the SSP was taking the SWP on board in the first place in the mistaken belief that the leadership of the latter organisation was interested in the advancement of socialism. In my experience, the CC of the SWP are simply concerned with promoting their own self interest and, in forwarding that goal, are willing to undermine and destroy any organisation, group or individual that is outside their control. While, there is no doubt that the vast majority of the rank and file members are sincere, the SWP is a toxic party and should be avoided like the plague by genuine socialists.

  2. I think the problem with the SSP was that it became top-down very quickly after the election of 6 MSPs, as Mhairi hints at, perhaps that election was the blow it didnt need, we stopped being a party based in communities and quickly became a support organisation for a parliamentary group, it was all about the Bills. We tried to move from a party that was seen as led by one high profile person to being one led by 5 high profile members, promoting the MSPs as personalities became a priority. When the Sheridan split came around parts of the party started operating separately from the party structures. The party wasnt strong enough to survive that

  3. Apologies for late arrival Gregor.

    I agree in general with your critique of democratic centrism but I wouldn’t pose the solution in quite the terms that you employ. Clearly the theory as practiced is far too rigid and especially so when modern social media is factored in. I think the main problem is that Marxism is not prescriptive, it’s a methodology yet practices have become fossilised.

    Beyond this there is a real problem on the left in relation to feminist theory and practice which needs to be addressed. There is no room in my opinion for separating the personal from the political because here lies the root of the controversy. Some male comrades are just not up to scratch when it comes to respect for women and this has to change. To my mind it’s a question of deciding why it is that some men in the movement talk the talk but don’t walk the walk and putting that right through political education.

  4. I was working with an SWP member at the time the WRP exploded over Gerry Healy’s conduct, it was on the lunchtime news, and knowing my WRP background the SWP man asked me whether I believed the allegations against Healy, and seemed surprised when I said I did. (In fact I was kicking myself for not having realised what had gone on). He then said “Well just because the guy had a lot of girlfriends(sic), surely that’s no reason to chuck him out?”.
    Now it was my turn to be surprised, though I suppose I should not have expected an outsider to understand what was so serious to us. But in the Mirror too, Paul Foot was more scathing about Healy’s economic ideas than the way he had treated young women. Suddenly people who had never had a good word for Healy were finding sympathy for him. Others cited experience of the WRP’s puritanism and strict regime to argue that there “could not have been any hanky panky(sic) going on” – unaware perhaps that it was precisely this regime and the hypocrisy that went with it which made it easier for Healy to conceal what he was doing, and harder for the victims to talk to anybody about their experience.
    Those who had studied abuse in families or religious cults might have found parallels both in the pattern of abuse and the different ways people responded to its exposure. But in the bourgeois media, and perhaps some of the Left too there was a sort of relief and pleasure among those who assumed the droit de seigneur was one of the perks of power, that Gerry Healy was one of them after all.
    The SWP was fortunate in not having a Healy, and though I could never take a liking to Tony Cliff, so far as I know he never beat or abused anybody. But what a former SWP member told me, and I think she was talking from experience, was that whenever women went to tell Cliff about the behaviour of a partner or other male comrade, they got told that he was a good working class militant or whatever and they would just have to learn to put up with it. They could even come away feeling guilty over their own supposedly “bourgeois” morality in complaining.
    That’s only an anecdote of course, and having never been in the SWP, I can’t vouch for it. But those who rightly criticise the more recent record of the SWP leaders might be kidding themselves when they hark to some supposed golden age when all was fine because Tony Cliff was in charge.

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