Five things I learned when leaving the SWP

As some of you will know I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party for about a decade. It’s a long time ago now, a bit less than ten years I think, that I symbolically tore up my party card and started doing other things instead.

I’ve never really talked about the process of leaving before but, as the party is going through the biggest crisis in its history (at least according to le grande fromage Alex Callinicos), I thought it might be a useful time to pass on a few simple things that I learned when leaving;


  • You are not as well read as you think you are. 

So many books. So much Trotsky. All that Cliff. I had to knock through an extension in my brain in order to make room for all the books I read and, by quantity, I had good reason to think I was well read. The problem was that whilst I read a lot “within the IS tradition” I’d never been encouraged to get a broader education in case I became infected by alien ideas from other, naughty, traditions. So the works of poor old Ernest Mandel, Germaine Greer, or Hilary Wainwright barely existed, despite the fact that they are each have juicy and rich peaches that could only deepen an activist’s understanding of the world around them.

Don’t get me wrong. There are approved deviations. Hobsbawm, Zizek, Serge, and a small selection of other leftists are allowed – as long as they aren’t organising rival meetings or selling A SECTARIAN PAPER.

I remember reading Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” purely for the purpose of being able to denounce it more effectively. Imagine my shock when I realised that the SWP’s critique of the book pretty much relied on having read a fantasy version of the text where he says things he doesn’t say and doesn’t say things he did. I don’t want to be uncritical but, frankly, it’s quite interesting and I felt better equipped at understanding how evolution works for having read it.

Certainly I feel intellectually stronger for having read Satre and Wittengenstein which reached parts that Harman and Cliff never could, however because their works have no direct application to “building the party” they don’t appear on any reading lists. These are things people who’ve never been in the SWP know already, but have to be relearned for the party diaspora.

I used my first few years of freedom to read as widely as I could and purge my language of Marxist jargon and activist-speak. Even now I don’t think I’ve fully cracked it but in my view it’s essential. Not just because sounding like some sort of missionary every time you speak in a meeting really isn’t that helpful, but also the way you speak has a deep impact on how you think, if indeed you do.


  • The SWP is not the only game in town

One of the most often stated reasons people do not leave the SWP is that they believe that the party are the only ones actually doing anything. It’s one of the stupidest things that  SWP members think, but they believe it sincerely and for a reason. What I discovered when I left is that not only were there other left wing political activities going on in my small town, there were so many different things being organised there was no way I could get involved in them all.

It was like I’d been blind. Simply because they weren’t involved in activities that Party Notes were telling us to get involved in they were at best wrong to be organising around different issues and at worst did not even exist. They didn’t necessarily have a theory to overthrow world capitalism, but you soon come to realise that’s an advantage not a defect. Surprisingly having hubristic delusions of global domination can actually hinder making a contribution to your local anti-cuts campaign.

While I recommend looking more widely than this I suspect the pull of this argument isn’t quite as strong as it used to be because the People’s Assembly and the Stop the War Coalition specifically are high profile, relatively successful campaigns that most definitely are within the orbit of the SWP’s interests but are not under the control of the SWP. No matter how suspect that makes them they definitely exist in an awkward, obviously they are wrong, sort of way.

Electorally inclined SWP members will also have noticed the Left Unity initiative and, uncomfortably, that they aren’t involved in it. Those less inclined to testing their ideas at the ballot box wont be that bothered. Either way it’s evidence that if you walk out of the SWP’s saloon bar there are plenty of other pubs and clubs to go to.


  • Leave well, but don’t expect them to thank you for it

I had the fortune not to leave in the middle of a faction fight over a set of horrifically badly handled rape allegations so this was probably easier for me than it might be for you, but I still recommend the theory.

No matter what the temptation do not start denouncing and disrupting SWP activities, sneering at their useless paper, or pontificating at length about the stupidity of those who remain in your old unit. Some of these people are still your friends, although not as many as you’d have hoped. Some of these people you’ll still work with in the coming years, although by no means the majority. If you want space to manouver in your town don’t force them to force you out.

Draw a line under your time in the SWP and move on. They will not thank you for your model behaviour, but it’s not about them.

They’ll be busy telling each other that you’re Special Branch (even if you don’t have a van), a sectarian, useless, mentally ill, and every fault you have, both real and imagined, will be rehearsed and rerehearsed in order to reassure the remaining congregation that you were always untouchable. This is deeply unpleasant and a pattern that’s repeated pretty much line by line for everyone of any standing that leaves. Just because it’s happening to you does not mean you were not complicit in doing it to others before your time came.

It’s hurtful and distressing. Sometimes it made me cry. I got over it because the alternative was to get dragged under in dark, cold waters. Let your unflappable demeanor and ruthless politeness be your revenge.

The funniest accusation I had leveled against me was that I was “too active”, the saddest was the woman who told me I was selfish because she didn’t know how she’d get the paper to the few dozen contacts who had  it delivered by hand without me. Strangely I didn’t decide to dedicate myself to an organisation I didn’t believe in order to help with her paper round.

It’s only unthinking SWP members who will take the act of leaving the party in itself as an act of class treachery. None of the accusations leveled against you will have any resonance with those outside the SWP who will rightly regard them as cult like behaviour, unless you act up to them. Nor will they have any resonance with the activists still inside the SWP who really matter, those who want to remain your friends.


  • You don’t have to work against the people you work with

On page five of the latest SWP internal bulletin Alex Callinicos has a very telling accusation against “the opposition”. He claims “It organised its own “intervention” into a list of this year’s Marxism meetings—essentially treating the event like that of an alien organisation”. Let’s leave aside the fact that his faction also organised interventions at Marxism which presumably means they treated an event they organised as alien to themselves (if only Marx had a theory about that).

The practice of interventions is one where you go to an event you and/or your allies in the movement have organised and tell them, in a variety of tones, why they’re not as clever, principled and/or revolutionary as you are. It’s closely allied, in my view, to the theory of the united front which divides every campaign you are involved in into two camps “us”, the revolutionaries, and “them”, the people who’d shoot the revolutionaries if you gave them half a chance.

People outside the SWP often mistake this for the party treating joint campaigns as recruiting grounds. This is not so, they are in fact war zones where you “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov” as Trotsky once said. In other words the united front has encoded into it the idea that once you’ve shot your enemies, you shoot your allies. Dress it up how you like it’s a theory of distrusting those you work with and the people who work with you know it.

One thing I learned when leaving the SWP is that when I’m working in a campaign pretty much everyone in room is there from a sincere and genuine belief that the aims of the campaign are right. They bring to the table their enthusiasm, talent, humour, experience, vanity and a host of  human flaws. They are first and foremost my allies and are not pawns in my fantasy game of world domination to be manouvered, denounced, labelled or used.

If they are trying to sideline you or lose enthusiasm it might not be because you’re so very revolutionary, but because you’ve turned out to be a royal pain in the arse.

If you take this on board you will be happier, they will be happier and the campaigns you give your time to have a greater chance of developing decent long term political relationships.


  • There are two sorts of ex-member. Be the third sort.

There are two sorts of ex-SWP member. Those who hate the SWP with a vengeance and those who admire it from exile, accept its catechisms but can’t actually bear being card carrying members of a psychotic organisation. I strongly advise being the third sort.

There is a happy band of us who, after spending years under the flag, managed to escape its gravitational pull. Do that as quickly as you can. Every minute you spend talking, thinking or writing about the SWP drags you closer to the smallest mass planet in the solar system. You may think you’re re-assessing the tradition, but in reality you’re worrying a rotten tooth when you should be getting to the dentist.

Get involved in your local save the library campaign, or somewhere else where you are equally unlikely to see SWP members, and just help. This is the detox you need.

In time you can go back to it, one day you’ll be in a position to see the good and the bad in perspective, but for now you need fresh air in your lungs.

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