By Jay Blackwood
We are going through a period of profound change in the way that people organise and fight back. For socialists of my generation, particularly those of us who for many years have followed a particular tradition, this can be disorienting and sometimes disheartening. The old certainties are disappearing, and in their place we face the influx of new ideas and strategies that are largely untested. External events like the sharp anti-austerity struggles in Greece and Spain, or the phenomenon of Latin American socialism around Chavez, have had a huge impact on the Left in this country, not least on young people who are coming into activism for the first time.
The sub-text to recent events in the SWP is one example of this seismic shift in the landscape of Left politics. Let’s leave aside for now the rights and wrongs of the ‘Comrade Delta’ case. Readers will have their own views on this, and anyone who has followed my blog will know where I stand. But it seems to me that behind the flurry of accusations and counter-accusations something of more lasting interest and import is taking place. The real sting in the tail of this affair, I suspect, lies not so much in the details of the case as in the terrain over which the resulting conflict has been fought.
The expulsion of the ‘Facebook Four’ was one of the defining moments of the Delta Affair. However it’s dressed up by party loyalists, the fact is that four experienced SWP cadres were kicked out of the party for holding a closed Facebook discussion about whether or not to form a faction. The question of whether this in itself constituted ‘secret factionalism’ can, for the purposes of this argument, be set aside. The most striking aspect of the expulsions (which of course were subsequently ratified) is that they were made in response to party members using social media that have become ubiquitous in modern life, and that most people use without a second thought. This rendered the CC’s decision, particularly in the eyes of younger party members, every bit as comical as it was sinister. Suddenly the drive to keep discussion within certain pre-set limits (imposed or agreed, depending on your perspective on the SWP’s internal structure) seemed more than anything else to be simply absurd.
As details of the SWP’s internal crisis went viral, it became increasingly clear that the earlier parameters within which factional struggles could take place had been completely superceded by the opportunities for the dissemination of information and debate provided by the internet. Whereas even ten years ago a group like the SWP could have hoped to mount a damage limitation operation with some degree of success, this was no longer a possibility. Gone were the days when the German, US or Zimbabwean group might split from the IST without the party’s UK membership even getting to hear about it. Gone were the days when an internal scandal could be ring-fenced through a combination of moral and organisational pressure on the members to ‘keep it to themselves’. The scale of the shift from the old situation to the new soon became apparent.
In this respect at least there can be little argument that the CC and its most loyal supporters struggled to manage the crisis. Every comment by the likes of Alex Callinicos about ‘the dark side of the internet’, or Pat Stack’s characterisation of ‘anti-party’ bloggers as ‘filth’, only made the SWP appear even more antediluvian and – frankly – comical. The more the discussion about Comrade Delta spread, the more desperate were the attempts to close off that discussion. I know I’m not the only critic of the party who was assigned a couple of ‘minders’ on Facebook – old friends, utterly loyal to the CC line, who were apparently taking it in turns to monitor my posts and replying to them within seconds of them being uploaded. The trouble with this tactic is that it was both over-the-top and also painfully obvious. It only deepened the widespread unease about the SWP’s methods, and the feeling that the organisation was still living in a pre-digital era.
Every development in the Comrade Delta affair, and similar cases that are gradually coming to light, has been leaked onto the internet. Details of discussions at conference, party bulletins, even Central Committee meetings, have all popped up on a blog or a Facebook page or a tweet. The attempts of the SWP’s CC and its supporters to stem the flood has exacerbated the problem precisely because each intervention has simply provided more material for dissemination.
The implications of all this for the way socialists organise is now becoming clearer. The old methods – strict internal party discipline, secret caucuses and fractions, ‘burn after reading’ internal documents and so on – have now become completely obsolete. It is not that the ideas in the heads of socialists have changed – in many cases they haven’t, as we’ve seen all too clearly in recent weeks. It is rather that the material basis of the exchange and circulation of information itself has changed; and it has changed in such a profound way that the old methods have become not only redundant but actually risible.
We cannot go on in the old way. Secretive revolutionary sects have become unsustainable as well as irrelevant. Full transparency and full democratic debate are not just aspirations – they are actually prescribed by the material conditions in which socialists now operate. The only conceivable exception would be tiny Blanquist groupuscules, whose need for absolute secrecy would limit their size to a handful of individuals, fit only for the most absurd substitutionist strategies.
For the rest of us, the choice is a clear one. We either view the internet and all its offshoots as a hydra against which we must continue to struggle, taking our cue from the leadership of the SWP, or we embrace the new possibilities and allow daylight to flood in where before there was only darkness and secrecy. In truth, only one of those two options makes any sense at all.