When the Respect debacle unfolded, John Rees, its National Secretary was thrown to the wolves and together with Lindsey German, an old-time hack, resigned from the Party to set up Counter-fire. Rees and German, who formed the ‘Left-Faction’ suddenly discovered the virtues of democracy when they were at the wrong end of the CC’s machinations. In reality Counterfire represented a right-ward split from the SWP, but it took a section of the leadership and those involved in anti-war work in Stop the War Coalition. Despite their belief that popular fronts are united fronts, and their alliance with sections of the Communist Party of Britain in the StWC included adopting the same Stalinist methods in relation to political opponents in that organisation, they were at least grounded in protest and and anti-war work and were prepared to challenge some of the shibboleths that the SWP Central Committee clung on to. The SWP has an attachment to the working class as the sole agent of change in society without ever once analysing the implications of de-industrialisation and atomisation, the disappearance of the most militant forces of the working class in the Thatcher counter-revolution.
When the latest crisis blew up who could blame the CC for thinking that a few decisive expulsions, the fixing of delegate elections and the use of the Party’s district organisers to keep discipline, would work. So 4 members of the SWP, whose only crime had been to hold a conversation on Facebook about how they would not be forming a faction, found themselves expelled for forming a ‘secret faction’. You are allowed to form a faction, but the fact of so doing, i.e. talking to fellow sympathisers, is in itself an offence.
But one of the problems of shielding yourself from the real world (a phrase the CC uses a lot) is that you begin to lose your political judgement. Whatever could be said about the International Socialists/SWP in the 1960s to 1980’s, it contained people who had first hand experience of fighting the class struggle. For all his sins, Tony Cliff had been a building worker in Palestine who was physically thrown out of the Zionist apartheid ‘union’ Histadrut for raising the question of Jewish-Arab collaboration. He also had a finger broken in one such incident. Duncan Hallas, Jim Higgins were in the same mould. Paul Foot added to the reputation of the SWP as a brilliant investigative journalist and with Cliff was one of the two best speakers the British left had produced. Economist Mike Kidron and a layer of industrial militants like John Deason, were part of a leadership which took its tasks seriously.
Today you have no serious heavy weights on the SWP CC. Prof. Alex Callinicos is about the best on offer and he has no experience of the class struggle or much of an academic reputation either. The rest of them, people like Charlie Kimber, are unknown and have no record of involvement in struggles. It is little wonder that the opportunism which was always a hall-mark of Cliff’s leadership, should be the sole card that Kimber and co. have left.
I mentioned in my previous article that the SWP had forged a tie up, between 2005 and 2009-10 with Gilad Atzmon. This was someone who openly spoke about Jewish conspiracies, kept company with holocaust deniers and made it clear where his sympathies really lay – and they were not with the Left.
SWP Statement Defending Atzmon and a Statement from Atzmon
When Jews Against Zionism announced its decision to picket an SWP meeting at Bookmarks at which Atzmon was the speaker, they issued a statementGilad Atzmon and Marxism 2005 which used the credentials of Cliff and the past record of the SWP in opposing fascism and racism, to justify the fact that they were consorting with an anti-Semite.
The statement itself has been moved to the SWP archive and I only found it with difficulty.
Our founding member, Tony Cliff, was Jewish and, like many of his generation, lost many members of his family in the Holocaust. Nazis in the British National Party and National Front have targeted our members for attack…. We have a record of opposing fascism, anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, that is second to none. The SWP does not believe that Gilad Atzmon is a Holocaust denier or racist.
The revolt of the SWP membership, over an issue of rape and sexual harassment, needed to be handled with care and delicacy in any event. But the CC, believing that it was immune from criticism, coupled with a pliant membership which was prevented, by the ban on factions and a slate system of elections from holding them to account, proceeded regardless. The slate system effectively prevents anyone who isn’t a buddy or hack, certainly not critics, even friendly critics like John Molyneaux, from being elected. The 3 weeks since the SWP Conference have shown them that behaviour that they would have denounced if it had been committed by others, does not render them immune from the outside world.
The bourgeois press, such as yesterday’s Times are having a field day. SWP members have been left to face the music and the criticism for the Central Committee’s failures. Above we see, banker and columnist Oliver Kamm, writing for the criminal Murdoch Press and happy to take advantage of the SWP’s stupidity over Atzmon.
The SWP fiercely denounced its one-time friend from Respect days, George Galloway and his comments re Julian Assange over sexual etiquette. But from what I’ve read, Galloway’s infantile comments pale into comparison compared with the behaviour of the SWP CC.
The Disputes Committee should have told the woman who alleged rape against Martin Smith (‘Comrade Delta’) that she should either go to the Police or speak to other women from, for example a Rape Crisis Project. Possibly they themselves should have taken the initiative to seek counseling themselves. Since she didn’t want to go to the Police, and that is a decision that should be respected, given the record of the Police in increasing the trauma of victims, comrades should have gone out of their way to ensure that she was provided with as much support as possible. Instead she was subject to questioning by the Disputes Committee, effectively about her sex life, which the SWP condemns without question when it is perpetrated by the police or the courts.
What could possibly have possessed them to find that the allegations against Smith were ‘not proven’ apart from a feeling of immunity from the principles that the CC/DC urge on others, remains a mystery. And to compound this by effectively suspending the second woman who alleged sexual harassment from Martin Smith is, by any standards, outrageous. The only member of the 7 strong DC, who upheld the allegation of sexual harassment, Pat Stack, has himself been subject to criticism from the CC and its friends, testifies to a culture of abuse and bureaucratic power and privilege. Pat Stack, who I knew from NUS, is a long-time hack who has previously upheld without question all expulsions, as Chair of their Appeals Committee. Yet Cde. Stack described, at the SWP Conference, how ‘At the end of the hearing I ended up in a minority of one. As a result I’ve
been the subject of lots of gossip and speculation.‘Which is a polite way of saying he too was subject to invective.
‘At its most extreme, the sycophancy appears cult-like. A number of CC members are big fans of jazz music. Under their leadership over the past few years, the party has organised a number of (mostly loss-making) jazz gigs as fundraising events. Regardless of their own musical tastes, comrades were told they were disloyal if they didn’t purchase tickets. This elevates the cultural tastes of the official leadership to a point of political principle; and clearly is not in any way a healthy state of affairs.’
What is gratifying is that this attempt to cover up alleged rape and sexual harassment by a Central Committee member, Martin Smith, this has provoked open rebellion in the ranks of the SWP. So much so that the CC now takes on the appearance of rabbits, transfixed in the headlights, not knowing what to do or where to go. For all their proclamations of leadership, they have taken on the appearance of Trappist monks. They have nothing to say, other than the fact that the vote of the SWP Conference should be respected. But the election of delegates to it was rigged to begin with, the Democratic Faction was effectively prevented from putting its case, conference was fed with false information and of course in the debate itself, there was no attempt to balance speakers in the crucial debate.
SWP Students Revolt
One of the more welcome features of what has happened is the resolutions passed by, it would seem, nearly all Socialist Worker Student Societies. A constant theme is that they have had no response or explanation for what has happened. In the words of the Sussex and Brighton SWSS Open Letter to the CC, there is
‘a complete disconnect with the political and personal burden your membership has come to bear as result of this fiasco, but more crucially displays an apparent obliviousness to the political reality that comrades are facing in their local unions, campuses and campaigns as a result of this.
What happens in the SWP is ‘none of your business’ – the suspicion is that Richard is looking for an exit from the SWP with his credentials intact for the left-luvvies
They work with people who are appalled at the behaviour of the SWP CC, who do not wish to work with them any longer. They resort in some cases, as with the meeting at the University of East Anglia at which Judith Orr of the CC (& Martin Smith’s partner) spoke, to outright lying. What kind of CC is it that feels the need to lie to its own membership?’
Richard Seymour & the Critics – A Need for Open Self-Criticism
It is important that the current SWP critics engage in honest and open self-criticism too. For too long they were also complicit in what has happened. Richard Seymour of the Leninology blog has led the way with his publicising of articles and letters and resolutions. That is all to the good and he should be commended for that. I know that Richard was personally opposed to Atzmon from the very start, because those of us on the picket in 2005 of the Bookmarks had a drink with him afterwards!
However Richard was silent since then, preferring to forget the Atzmon episode rather than seeing that it was a product of the lack of democracy and the opportunist method of the SWP. When I raised this with him, after he and fellow authors at Zero Books had issued a statement condemning their publisher for having issued Atzmon’s Wandering Who? book in 2011, he reacted in precisely the way that the CC expected members of the SWP to react when facing criticism of their internal affairs. It was none of my business.
Therein lies the problem. Just as the CC didn’t owe the membership any explanation, so the members didn’t owe other socialists outside the SWP any explanation. The problem this time round is that the periphery of the SWP and those they work with are now demanding answers, as the price of continuing co-operation. I sent Richard an e-mail which included the following, concerning the Zero Book authors’ statement:
‘Yes but it’s not before time. This has been known for 3 months. [in fact 2 months] It seems to have taken Andy Newman’s Guardian CIF piece to stir them into action.’
Richard’s bad tempered response was that ‘The completion and timing of this statement has nothing to do with Andy Newman’s piece. It has been in the works for some time, pending further information from Zero. Get your facts right, Tony. Or, as I would prefer, keep it shut.’
My response was:
‘Yes I’m sure you would prefer that I get my mouth shut. That way you can avoid being tempted into providing explanations as to what happened to the statement from Atzmon on the SWP website and why, to this day, you have not explained why the SWP maintained a relationship with Atzmon for some 3-4 years. It is a serious matter when an organisation that calls itself Marxist and revolutionary socialist deliberately promotes someone who is nakedly anti-Semitic. … Martin Smith should be expelled. Instead he is or was your National Secretary and is still a Central Committee member.’
To which Richard responded that:
‘The SWP’s long-since aborted relationship with Atzmon has nothing to do with this, and nor do I owe you any explanation for it. Nor, while I’m at it, do I owe you an explanation for why Zero authors released our statement when we did. We do not answer to you. No one answers to you, unless you happen to own a pet dog. You may wish to reflect on the fact that it is this sort of self-important bluster on your part that has been responsible for such calamities as the humiliation of Jews Against Zionism at the PSC annual conference and its subsequent disintegration.’
For someone keen on the facts, Richard Seymour managed to get a lot wrong. Only a few months later Atzmon and his supporters were dealt a decisive blow when an open holocaust denier, Frances Clarke-Lowes, was expelled from PSC. Those who had been involved in JAZ, far from disintegrating, had in fact grown into Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods and had worked closely with members of PSC Executive to secure this victory.
It is, of course, ironic that Martin Smith is now at the centre of the present crisis, but that is what political immunity and a lack of accountability can do. Richard’s response spoke volumes about the SWP culture.
But Richard’s response was symptomatic of the SWP’s political malaise. It owed no-one, not just me, any explanation. School-boy invective was a substitute for political accountability to the working class they sought to represent.
More pertinent is the fact that Richard Seymour, despite being the leader of the unofficial opposition, has suggested nothing concrete to resolve the situation. There has been no call for a meeting of those concerned, no organisation, no perspective. The suspicion is that as a budding author trying to make a name for himself with the Guardianistas, he is cultivating a reputation for opposition to what went on in the SWP whilst preparing for a hasty exist. Certainly he and China Mieville, have not outlined what they propose to cut out the cancer of the SWP’s leadership.
It is somehow fitting that the only person outside the SWP (or it would appear inside it too!) to defend Martin Smith and the CC is, Gilad Atzmon! And what a defence. Martin Smith is the one who has been raped. It’s all the fault of the Jews who have been out to get him. Why Laura Penney even has Jewish ancestry. One suspects that Atzmon’s support is, to paraphrase Lenin, like a rope supporting a hanging man. In an article ‘Sax Offender Vs. Progressive Rapists’ Atzmon writes that:
‘The exact same Judeocentric tribal coalition that, a year and a half ago, was formed to wreck my career (and failed) is now pursuing Martin Smith AKA Comrade Delta, former secretary of the UK SWP (Socialist Workers Party) who, they insist, is a ‘sex offender’.
Atzmon describes how
‘Between 2005-10 I worked closely with Martin and the SWP…. I toured with Martin, performed and spoke in quite a few of those Red gatherings. [NB: the reference to ‘Red gatherings’ is interesting in itself, it is how fascists describe the opposition – the Reds]I met some very nice people in the SWP, but I also came across their many Jewish gate-keepers and tribal operators.’
So you see. It’s not a question of allegations of rape and harassment that is what is at stake. It is a Jewish cabal who
Smith because he is a Jazz lover and an enthusiastic fan of my music.
They harass him because he gave me a platform in spite of the Jewish
demand to ban me. They want to bring Martin Smith down simply because he
didn’t obey his tribal masters. So If anything, it is Martin who is the
rape victim in this saga – he is punished because he refused to bow
down to the tribal junta.’
I neither know nor care whether either of the women involved is Jewish. It isn’t in the slightest bit relevant other than to Atzmon’s poisoned mind. Sexual violence and harassment are not ‘Jewish’ issues, but issues that affect every woman. But to Atzmon it was all about:
‘progressive’ but oh-so vindictive Jews [who] were mighty quick to celebrate their symptoms. Notorious AZZ Mark Elf today asked to see the SWP’s accounts – he really wants to know how much it cost ‘for the SWP to listen to Atzmon’. Isn’t it this just what you’d expect from this ‘Jew Sans Frontiers’? And Elf’s ideological twin, [me!] also made it clear that Secretary Smith is being chased for his affiliation with Atzmon who dared to use the platform given to him by the SWP to spread the thoughts of Otto Weininger.[the only Jew that Hitler had a good word to say about – because he committed suicide]
But here is something that may help our ‘progressive’ non-friendly comrade to better understand their situation. One of the SWP’s most popular videos ever, is a clip of myself, with the OHE, being a sax offender playing ‘Liberating The American People’ at one of the SWP’s Cultural Festivals
….Update: correction, i was just informed that Laurie Penny is not a Sabbath Goy, she is apparently “a woman of Jewish descent with many family members living in Israel” .. in other word she is just an ordinary tribal campaigner as well as AZZ.
For many of us, Atzmon’s intervention provides some light entertainment, as some of Martin Smith and the CC’s chickens come home to roost. However there are more important issues at stake, namely the future of Britain’s largest revolutionary organisation and what happens next. In my previous article I wrote that because of the grip of the CC, SWP members should leave and call a conference to set up a genuinely democratic, socialist organisation. I was wrong. It is clear that the reaction to the CC is now so strong that the CC is unable to expel for example Richard Seymour and China Mieville, whose article is below.
In one sense the CC has begun to understand one of the lessons of what happens to an ancien regime. There comes a time when a ruling class realises that repression alone will not stem the revolt. That happened to Mubarak and in its own small way is now happening to the CC. Expulsions will merely inflame the situation. The CC is retreating into itself and it is probably beginning to dawn on them that only a recall SWP Conference, at which they are likely to be heavily defeated, is an option. Either they let go and put forward concessions on the question of democracy and their own lack of accountability or there is another leadership. In fact the SWP probably cannot survive if its present leadership is allowed to stay.
The current leadership is simply too tainted by having tolerated an abuse of power by Martin Smith, including ignoring credible allegations of sexual harassment and rape and allowing a Disputes Committee made up of 2 CC members and 3 previous CC members to exonerate him.
My own expulsion letter no. 1
My own expulsion letter no.2
My own expulsion letter no. 3
Below is an important article by China Mieville, an author in the SWP, which is well worth reading and below that is the statement issued by Brighton & Sussex University SWSS groups, links to other SWSS statements and a letter from Linda Rodgers of the SWP’s Edinburgh Branch and a Unite shop steward at Scottish Women’s Aid.
My Own Expulsion
By way of enlightenment to readers, I am publishing for the first time my own expulsion papers, dated December 1972, from the SWP’s forerunner, the International Socialists Group. I was expelled for having voted, in public, against a decision of the Branch Committee of Liverpool IS, to close down the Anti-Internment League. Internment had been introduced in Ireland and IS was, having supported the civil rights protests and the nationalists in Northern Ireland, going back to an economism that denounced the IRA for defending the Catholic community. IS’s decision had nothing to do with supporting work over Ireland but naked sectarianism – it had got what it wanted out of the struggle in Ireland and it was time to move on to fresh pastures. Rather than simply abandoning the AIL it decided to destroy it. I could see no reason for this and voted accordingly. I have described the mechanics of my expulsion elsewhere. At the time I was about 18 and because I wasn’t prepared to buckle under and accept ‘the line’ without question I was, like hundreds of other members, swiftly despatched. Until the present crisis, China Mieville and Richard Seymour has made no protests about this kind of democracy in the SWP. They too have to accept some of the blame but, if they are not looking to their careers, then they are duty bound to take an active part in organising the opposition rather than courting expulsion and becoming heroes.
What I didn’t recall until reading the correspondence again was that the basis of my expulsion had been changed from the above to being ‘hostile to both the leading and local committees of the group and the IS politics that inform them.’ The ‘background information’ that Jim Higgins [who later resigned and became a dissident – see his More Years For the Locust] mentions is forming an ‘unauthorised’ Rebel (Youth) group. Self-organisation of young people was frowned upon, to put it mildly, building a Schools Action Group and the resulting publicity (a Daily Mail article on our activities) a criminal (not malicious) damage conviction were all thrown into the pot. In short a catch-all charge, beloved of McCarthyites and the dragging up of matters that had no relevance, formed no part of the original charge, but were all thrown into the melting pot. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t see the point of attending a meeting whose conclusions had already been reached. Certainly not unless they paid my fares!
Members of the SWP must understand what is at stake in the crisis rocking our organization. Not only is there already a steady outflow of members resigning in disgust at this farrago and its handling by the leadership, but now other organizations of the left are becoming hesitant about working with us, and in some cases are openly boycotting and censuring us.
This is a call to members to stay and fight. It is also to urge that we do so without illusions about the nature of the fight that we face.
Many of us have argued strongly that catastrophic errors of principle and process on the part of the leadership have taken us to this. But even those who – I firmly believe wrongly – disagree about this must recognise the situation we are in. This has rapidly also become a catastrophe for us strategically. Our name is becoming toxic. Our credibility as a collective and as individual activists is being grossly compromised, and is on the verge of being permanently tainted. We all know the allegations that any future potential recruit who takes two minutes to research us online will read. The hoary accusations of the loyalists that those of us expressing concerns are looking ‘inward’ to ‘blogland’ and are not in the ‘real world’ have never looked so pitiful as they do now. This is a real world, acute crisis, of the leadership’s making.
As we ‘dissidents’ have repeatedly stressed, the fact that we are on the verge of permanently losing our credibility is irrespective of the truth or otherwise of the allegations of rape and sexual harassment. (These, of course, deserve sensitive and appropriate examination in their own right.) This fact inheres in the grotesque and sexist nature of the questions posed to the accusers; in the ‘wagon-circling’ attitude of the leadership and its loyalists; in the failures and evasions of accountability that meant the processes involved could ever have been thought appropriate; and now in the belief-beggaringly inadequate and arrogant response of the CC to the greatest crisis we have ever faced. These are all political failings of astonishing proportions.
We must not only deal with this but be seen publicly to be dealing with it. A ‘quiet revolution’ will be no revolution at all. There is one chance to save the SWP, and to do so means reclaiming it. We must be the party whose membership saw that there was a catastrophe unfolding, refused to heed our own failed leadership’s injunctions to fall into line, and reclaimed the party and the best elements of our IS tradition. If we fail in this, the SWP is finished as a serious force.
We must understand that these are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures. Members’ usual – and usually understandable and honourable – instincts to show discretion and to trust their leadership are not only inadequate, they are counterproductive. This leadership does not deserve our trust, and our discretion now only serves them.
We must consolidate our efforts. We need to communicate with each other. It is invaluable to pass motions in branches censuring our CC and above all – this is critical – calling for an extraordinary conference. However, these motions must be publicized to the wider membership. This is not the time for private letters to the CC, for appeals to their wisdom, for concerned words to our district organizers. Such methods are part of the system that got us here. Comrades must go public, and link up with others attempting to salvage the honour of the tradition in which we fight.
Of course taking matters to the branches and discussing them there is vital. However, the allegation often made by loyalists that to also discuss them with the wider membership is somehow inappropriate or disloyal is wrong at any time, and utterly absurd now. The CC itself, in its shameful document ‘For an Interventionist Party’, defending the recent expulsion of four comrades for ‘secret factionalism’, claims that ‘[m]embers of the SWP are of course free to discuss face-to-face or online’. (This, incidentally, is a lie: as recently as the 2009 conference, those arguing for democratic renewal were denounced from the podium by a CC member for discussing our concerns on email.) Even according to the CC’s own ad-hoc positions, in other words, members are free to discuss with all others, including by email, Facebook or whatever, the nature of the crisis facing us, and how we fix it. And discuss we must.
By far the lion’s share of blame for our parlous situation lies squarely with the CC and its loyalists. However, none of us can avoid hard questions. What got us here was not merely the failures of this particular CC, but of our structures. These structures concealed from the members perfectly legitimate debate within the party; pathologised dissent on the CC and among the membership; and at worst legitimated whispering campaigns and bullying against members considered ‘troublemakers’. We could have stopped this train wreck at an earlier stage if the membership had been able and ready to call bullshit on the CC’s bullshit.
To overthrow these problems requires, among other things, a huge shift in internal culture. This, of course, is not possible in isolation from the structures that we have worked under. These have enabled the CC’s top-down and dissent/discussion-phobic style and mistrust of the membership; and among the membership itself have encouraged a damaging culture of deferral to the leadership.
This vicious cycle must be broken. To renew our party, in other words, must mean to trust in the membership, to encourage independent thought and comradely discussion. This in turn will enable the members not only to select the leadership we deserve, but to hold them to account in a way both we and they deserve.
Accordingly, not only is this fight one for the SWP’s survival as an interventionist force, but it is one that can only be won by a root-and-branch rethinking of how we operate. The scale of this catastrophe of their own making is slowly dawning on the leadership. It is inevitable that they will start to offer some kind of carrot-and-stick response, likely designed to minimize changes to the structures to which they have shown themselves wedded. We must be clear on the scale of what is needed. The removal of one or two people from positions of prominence would clearly be inadequate.
Our starting point must be public and immediate calls for an emergency conference. We must urgently mobilize our branches to pass motions making this call. To emerge from this catastrophe with credibility, at this conference we must demand:
• The immediate reinstatement of the four recently expelled comrades.
• The removal of this CC and Disputes Committee. By their stunning miscalculations, they have shown themselves to be inadequate to their tasks. They must go.
• A thoroughgoing reexamination of the structures of party democracy and accountability, to ensure that the culture of mistrust of the membership and closed ranks on the CC that created this situation in the first place cannot happen again.* This must include an expanded CC and one which airs its internal disagreements openly.
• Formal mechanisms for encouraging internal communications among all members, allowing them to air dissent, concern, uncertainty, as well as information, analysis and support.**
Such renovations will address the terrible situation in which we find ourselves. They should also encourage a spirit of comradely discussion and theoretical open-mindedness, allowing us to act as a pole of attraction for all those fighting for emancipation. This does not mean diluting our Marxism: it should mean invigorating it.*** The fight for the soul of the SWP is on now. The only hope of reclaiming a party on the brink of political annihilation is political audacity.
—————— *I have made no secret of my own proposals for this, including, e.g., an at-least temporary end to the slate system. This is argued not on principle, but because that system has in our party become a shibboleth for forces of conservatism and top-down leadership. **Many comrades see the end on the ban on permanent factions as indispensable for this. Another invaluable way forward, in my opinion, would be a regular internal bulletin.
***As for example when we began to address the lacunae in our approach to homosexuality by learning from the best wings of the gay liberation movement. Currently, we must end a situation where, for example, ‘feminism’ is used by some loyalists as a diss.
Sussex & Brighton University SWSS condemns in the strongest possible terms the Disputes Committee’s (DC) recent handling of serious allegations against a leading member of the organisation, the vote which ratified their report at conference, and the subsequent failure of the central committee to address the current crisis.
We note the failure of the DC in this case to carry out their investigative process in an entirely impartial way due to their composition, and the implications this has for any outcome they could have reached. We also reject aspects of the line of questioning of the two female comrades that came forward with the allegations as sexist, and at odds with the principles of our tradition. We recognize that the DC was faced with a difficult situation, with lack of precedent to enable them to handle this effectively. For this we fault the CC’s conduct with respect to W and the concerns she raised over the past few years. We also fault them for their failure to intervene and correct for failings in the DC’s procedure when they were so glaringly obvious, and for what many will see as their intentional misleading of the membership around the issue in past conferences.
To the CC, we say: not only have you failed W, X and every other comrade that might once have trusted in our disputes procedures. You have failed this entire organization, as well as the tradition in which it stands, by absurdly insisting on the shambolic series of fuckups and blunders that have constituted your “political response.” The list of these includes a process of misinformation in the lead-up to this conference and previous ones; banning the faction that tried to use our democratic processes so that comrades could make an informed decision on the DC report’s process; the removal or reshuffling of those CC members and full-timers that aired critical concerns regarding the matter; the moves to suppress debate in the organisation by asking comrades to “draw a line under it”; the expulsion of four comrades for an alleged “Facebook faction” (in practice a Facebook conversation) that is likely no different in content to those serious debates in which comrades are engaged today, in their branches and through other mediums of communication; the political slurs directed at comrades who have openly aired their views, including the unhelpful brandishing of “feminism” as an apparent insult, as well as the wholly disingenuous implication that the problem at hand is a “generational disconnect”; and the concomitant new CC appointment to the Student Office.
The aforementioned cannot be seen as anything but an attempt to “smash” critical student voices. These issues, coupled with the poor treatment and lack of support offered to the two female comrades that came forward with such grave allegations, has led to a complete breakdown in the trust we have in your leadership. We express our utmost concern for the fate of this organization and the role we hope we can continue to play, as SWP members, in building a revolutionary organization capable and worthy of leading the struggle against all forms of oppression under capitalist society. It is with this in mind that we write to you today, particularly in lieu of a public statement on SocialistWorker.co.uk that shows a complete disconnect with the political and personal burden your membership has come to bear as result of this fiasco, but more crucially displays an apparent obliviousness to the political reality that comrades are facing in their local unions, campuses and campaigns as a result of this. Recent events have forced us all to take a long look at how we found ourselves to be in this position, faults in our democratic procedures, perhaps a narrowing of space for debate, or a developing culture of political regurgitation and acquiescence and the inevitable lack of accountability that results. It is with the long-term view of how the party got here and what is necessary for us to be able to move forward that Sussex & Brighton University Branch came to an almost unanimous vote of no confidence in the leadership. We will be moving for the current CC’s dismissal from their post at the earliest available party decision-making body and/or conference at which we can do so.
Finally, to our comrades in struggle, to our colleagues and our friends, we would like to express our sincerest apologies for the recent failures of our organisation. We understand the distress and distrust that many of you have expressed as a result of this. We had hoped that the few responses circulated by comrades would offer at least some assurance that members of the SWP are fighting tooth and nail for the principles we share, and this letter should come as confirmation that Sussex & Brighton SWSS are no exception to this. We ask you to bear with us, to give us the opportunity to exhaust this line of enquiry, this line of protest, to allow us to fight for the very relevance (if not existence) of the organization that has equipped us to become the principled revolutionaries that you know us to be. And in turn we assure you that we will continue to uphold the proud tradition we stand in, that we will continue to fight oppression in our society in all its forms and variants and that we shall never dismiss or shy away from the criticisms and concerns of those in the movement and in the class as a whole.
We Call for:
1) An emergency conference, so that this organization may resolve this political crisis in a way that holds accountable those responsible and gives the membership the clarity and confidence needed to implement our political strategy moving forward.
2) An immediate public response that can provide clarity around the failures of the DC’s due process.
3) Delta to be removed from any official or public position within our organization, particularly given disagreement on the DC with respect to the question of Delta’s conduct.
4) The DC to resign their posts. Although we acknowledge the difficult situation the DC was faced with, we argue that their ability to carry out their functions as mandated by conference has been undermined by recent events. It remains the case that many members, including Comrade X, will not feel confident in taking their disputes to the current DC in light of recent events. See also the statements issued by a host of other SWP Student Societies.
Linda Rodgers, SWP Edinburgh Branch, Shop Steward, Scottish Women’s Aid
I am writing to express my condemnation of the process used by the leadership of the SWP to deal with an allegation of rape. As the shop steward at Scottish Women’s Aid I am horrified that the leadership of the SWP – of which I have been a member for 18 years – thought that it was in a position to investigate a serious crime such as rape. Would the DC have investigated a murder? I would guess not, but then what does that say about the level of seriousness with which the CC and DC treat rape?
The series of decisions made by the CC and the DC around the processes for dealing with this allegation of rape and their inability to either pull back from them when they started to go wrong, or to respond reasonably to criticism after the fact (despite access to a very clear analysis of what was wrong with the decisions made) indicate a real lack of understanding of rape, its definition and its consequences.
In addition to my concerns about the sheer inappropriateness of some of the lines of questioning -as raised by many others – I have a more general concern about the lack of specialism in the DC which is required when dealing with rape victims, and the separate set of specialist skills required when investigating rape when there is only one word against another. This allegation is about rape and sustained abuse within a relationship with a huge power imbalance rather than for example an isolated incident. My point is not that certain types of rape are more or less serious others. My point is that the investigators were not trained in understanding and investigating the different manifestations of violence against women and the various responses required depending on the experience of the woman.
We do reject the bourgeois system of justice but in this case aspects of the bourgeois process were used, and having read the available documents relating to this case it is not convincing that there was a there a clear analysis and understanding of what aspects of an investigatory and quasi-judicial process were accepted and which were rejected. Clear decisions around process needed to be made and then fully explained to the complainant so that she was aware of what exactly she was getting into, its limitations and how effective it could possibly be in terms of her need for a resolution and could make her own choice on that basis.
This shambolic playing at investigator, judge and jury held a real risk of ruining someone’s life and it is no thanks to the leadership of the SWP and only testimony to the woman’s strength if it hasn’t.
The response of the CC following the leaking of documents onto the internet and the subsequent media publicity has been the shamefully offensive “Statement by the Central Committee in response to attacks on the party”. This document is only further evidence of the failures of this process.
“Had the Disputes Committee believed that the accused person was guilty, it would have expelled him from the SWP immediately.” This statement alone sums up my point. Really? Do you think this could be an adequate response to rape? No responsibility to any other woman who might be at risk?
This document also states:
“If this case had been raised within a trade union or any other organisation there would be no question that the matter should be treated with complete confidentiality. This basic principle should also apply in this case.”
Of course confidentiality should apply; however, confidentiality really isn’t the issue here. The decisions you made and the way in which you handled the investigation are the issues. Focusing on confidentiality is a poor attempt to obscure the failings of the process and close down the debate.
As anyone who works in an organisation or operates in a trades union knows full well this matter would NOT have been dealt with through internal mechanisms. The procedures for investigating disciplinary matters or disputes between colleagues are not used by organisations or trades unions to investigate serious crimes. How could you not know that? Or are you just assuming that a sheepish membership will accept this untruth?
Even by your own terms you failed to follow the “basic principles” of a standard trade union process. I would refer you to ACAS good practice guidelines in terms of appointing individuals to panels that don’t have a personal connection with the individuals involved in the dispute being heard.
The introductory statement to the document is also untrue:
“A series of attacks on the party have appeared over the last few days – many in newspapers which are the sworn enemies of women’s liberation and workers’ rights”.
Most of the attacks on the actions of the CC and the DC are not in newspapers which are the ‘sworn enemies of women’s liberation’. Again, why lie to us? It does your position no good at all – most of us do have access to the internet. The issue at hand for the membership is never what the enemies of women’s liberation and workers’ rights say about us and to us, but rather how we can hold our head up and explain our actions and decisions with integrity to the world outside of the party with which we come into contact on a day to day basis. Your actions have seriously damaged the party’s integrity and members’ ability to operate.
Finally, it is false to claim that the party is somehow immune from sexism. There is no theoretical or evidence basis for making this claim.
I have seriously considered my position in the party over the last few days. I know many others who feel the same way that I do. I have decided I want to stay a member, however I can only remain as a member of the SWP on the basis that action is taken to remedy this:
· Conference must be recalled and the entire CC and DC need to resign.
· There needs to be an immediate and public apology to both of the women who made complaints including an acknowledgment of the mishandling of their complaints, and
· An immediate apology must be made to the membership of the SWP who have been shockingly let down by their leadership.
I would appreciate a sensible and thoughtful response to this letter.
Below is a letter printed by Counterfire from someone who was a leading member of the SWP until recently. It is unclear, to me at any rate, why s/he doesn’t put their name to it rather than hiding behind a pseudonym.
Donny Mayo (his name has been altered for all the usual reasons) was until recently a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party
I have written this article as an attempt to understand the rapid descent into madness of the party I had been a member of for 11 years. I respect and admire the many comrades who have not yet left the SWP but are fighting as hard as they can to hold the leadership to account (which in this case means overthrowing it) for events of recent weeks. However much I hope they win, it is my belief that they will not succeed and that a substantial realignment on the left is necessary in the near future.
I have chosen to publish on Counterfire despite the fact that the CC will use my article to divert from its failings by suggesting that the crisis was a plot against the party all along. I have done so because I want to make it clear that I do not believe (as some who are critical of the CC do) that beyond the SWP there is just wilderness; because rather than just state the need for dialogue with the rest of the radical left I wanted to actually take part in it; and because, as much as I disagreed with many of their reasons for leaving at the time, I do think those who formed Counterfire made a number of prescient criticisms when leaving the SWP and, moreover, when viewed in the context of a global crisis of old-style Trotskyist Leninism, they seem to me to be on the right side of history and the SWP as-is on the wrong side. I do not think simply joining Counterfire is an answer to all our problems. But I do think those interested in preserving the best bits of the International Socialist tradition should be working with them and I am convinced that they would be an important part of any radical left realignment of the sort the English left so desperately needs.
The Socialist Workers Party is dying. For all the good it has done over many years, it has imploded over allegations of sexual assault and its inability to deal sensibly with them.
It will continue to limp on for at least a few more years but the descent into cultishness will now be rapid. Those who have chosen to ‘stay and fight’ will be expelled or driven out soon enough (although I do, of course, wish them the best of luck in their fight) and those who see the need to ‘defend the line’ will find themselves saying and doing things they never dreamt they would say or do; they are in the process of crossing an intellectual ‘line in the sand’ from which their political minds will probably never recover.
It is not the intention of this article to rehash the allegations, or the grim events of the past few weeks (there are plenty of articles, many very good, that do that already). My aim here is to place recent events in a political context, to try to understand how and why this could happen, the better to build a new left in which this could not happen again.
Much of what has been written about the affair focuses on questions of democracy. Undoubtedly there are questions of democracy at play here. But if this is the case then there must also be deeper questions that need answering. How have thousands of decent people, who consider themselves fighters for liberation, allowed such a sham democracy to persist? What are the ideological justifications that allow good comrades to perform such contortionist arguments?
Many have also focused on the question of patriarchy within the left. This is an important question. Clearly nothing like this would ever have happened with gender roles reversed. Clearly, as much as people can be intellectually aware of the arguments for women’s liberation they can still act in the ways socially ingrained in them by a patriarchal capitalist system. In this particular case there is also the question of power. But the question of power again raises deeper ideological questions: how could many thousands of good comrades, who are usually so suspicious of power and the powerful be so in awe of power on this occasion as to let this happen?
Here I want to focus on some of those deeper questions. I want to argue that the SWP, for all its many good points and many good members, has suffered for many years from a structure and an ideology that is, in the final analysis, unable to cope with the myriad ways the world has changed over the past thirty or so years. Despite some major successes, most notably the role played in the anti-war movement, the SWP has suffered a slow build up of problems resulting from this, one which has accelerated in recent years and culminated in the recent implosion.
The question I want to answer boils down to this: how did it come to be that to accuse “comrade delta” of sexual assault was seen, in the eyes of so many, as code for an abandoning of the idea that the working class could transform the world, as an existential attack on the SWP?
Why was the leadership willing to jeopardise the entire organisation, jettison a whole layer of youth, over the supposed infallibility of just one comrade?
Here I think we have to look at the long-term trajectory of the SWP and also the decline of pretty much all the other groups that follow the Trotskyist model of Leninism.
It seems to me that for at least 30 years now any attempt to understand something that had changed about the world has been clamped down on as a revisionist shift away from revolutionary politics.
This wasn’t without reason. When the euro-communists said the working class had changed they were shifting to the right. But the problem is the working class had changed. When people talk about financialisation they often are talking about a shift towards a reformist variant of Keynesianism. But the problem is financialisation has happened.
The international socialist tradition was different to other Trotskyisms. It was heterodox. It wasn’t theological. It didn’t elevate small group politics to the level of principle.
But the SWP of today is not like that at all. It is orthodox. They might let young people write for the paper or the journal but nobody wants or asks them to write anything new or interesting – these articles are marked like a GCSE English comprehension question only with Harman substituted for Shakespeare.
Anything already written down is orthodoxy. Anything else is heresy.
The problem though is that the world has changed. Neoliberalism has made life harder for a generation. Work is different. The unions look different. The battle for women’s liberation is in a new place. Imperialism has changed. The third world has been transformed. The information revolution has changed the nature of both capitalism and resistance to it.
These are things we should be talking about. But to even gesture towards them is heresy.
Radical left ideas have flourished since the crisis. But the truth is almost none of the best thinkers on the radical left are from a Trotskyist background. Many are not Lenininst. Some (the horror) are not even Marxist. But the traditional left ignores them at its peril. It is the job of revolutionaries, as Marx did in his time, to synthesise the insights of the best anti-capitalist thinkers with the fundamental principle that it must, and can only be, ordinary people who bring about a society free from the horrors of capitalism. The SWP though ignores and dismisses thinkers just because they are from ‘outside the tradition’.
That is why even the SWP’s flagship Marxism festival has been played down. In an Internal Bulletin article that massively over inflated the membership figures (the reality is around 2,500, they claimed 7,500) the central committee actually lied about Marxism the other way – they made it 1000 smaller than it really was. They spent one sentence on Marxism but a whole page on SWP ‘educationals’. Why? One brings in outsiders, critics, heretics, new ideas; the other is totally safe repetition of things that were written in the ’80s.
Listing the successes of the previous year, the central committee listed Walthamstow’s anti-fascist demo (it was good, but a big demo against a spent force in multicultural left labour area which we spent six months building) and the Unite the Resistance conference (smaller than Right to Work, which was smaller than Organising for Fighting Unions) but clearly do not see relating to a new wave of ideological radicalization as a success (in fact Marxism disturbed them, they didn’t feel at home there).
Once any criticism of the religion – I say religion because that is what it is when an ideology becomes organisationally frozen in the past – once any criticism is labelled heresy – it is only a short step to what we have now. To the Sopranos’ model of leadership that the party suffers from. The mafia approach to criticism.
Because anything from beyond the brains of the central committee must have originated in the scary outside world. It must therefore be a Trojan horse for autonomism or reformism or Chris Bambery or whoever the main enemy is today.
Good ideas can only come from dead people or the central committee. A monopoly on ideas means a monopoly on power. And that is not the organisation I wanted to join, that I built, that I fought for, that I defended.
I didn’t join a socialist organisation so that I could be told I shouldn’t talk about how working life has become more precarious – lest I cede ground to ‘autonomism’. Where feminism is a dirty word, used like it describes a disease (‘creeping feminism’). Where autonomism is used as a swear word. Where instead of celebrating the rise of Syriza the CC look for reasons to condemn it. Where instead of celebrating the role new technology can play in building mass movements the CC ignore or dismiss it. Where people who read books beyond our tradition are seen as dangerous (some of those who left to form the Scottish ISG were told they read “too much Harvey, not enough Harman”). Where ideology is seen as a deviation from honest workers’ struggle. Where real workers’ struggle is seen as a deviation from getting a big (or at least bigger than the NSSN) audience in friends meeting house.
That’s not the organisation I joined. That’s not the tradition of the SWP. That’s not a party that will attract and recruit the best anti-capitalists of our generation – and it’s certainly not a party that will develop and keep hold of them.
This is not just a problem faced by the SWP, but by all parties that have followed the orthodox Trotskyist version of Leninism. How does the first generation of leaders loosen its grip and let a new generation lead? How, when so much of the organisational life has orbited around defending obscure interpretations of irrelevant theoretical arguments, how to change tack, to change those arguments when the outside world changes? How to deal with a structure so brittle that the tiniest criticism is treated as the greatest heresy?
And, as times move on, as a whole generation now has grown up under neoliberalism and instinctively (even if not theoretically) understands the changes wrought by it, it becomes harder and harder to hold the line. And as the internet disrupts previous models of organisation (it does for the capitalists too by the way), ‘democratic centralism’ becomes an increasingly cultish mantra.
I believe that the International Socialists were the best organisation on the British left in the 60s and 70s. I believe that the SWP had many things going for it. I think things possibly were salvageable. There was a conscious effort to ‘modernise’ the SWP after Seattle and the mass anti-war demonstrations. But then, for whatever reason, the leadership (including those who have since split) retreated from these attempts. After the failure of Respect though, the retreat became a full-on rout. Modernisation was consciously reversed. And in the context of the gravest capitalist crisis since at least the 1930s, the Arab Spring and the European Autumn, this was not the time to retreat from the outside world.
And so it became the case that the SWP suffered the same problems that had haunted the rest of the Trotskyist-left. Splits along essentially generational lines, brittleness to the point of absurdity (treating criticism of “comrade delta” as the abandonment of classical Marxism) and sectarian retreat and isolation.
Almost everyone who joined with me around the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements has already left the SWP (in fact it has retained between ten and twenty subs paying members for each year 2000-2005). The generation who joined over Millbank will mostly leave over this. Does any serious comrade, hand-on-heart, believe that the next generation of recruits won’t also be driven out? That, before all the older cadre retire, the SWP will be able to renew its leadership?
And with each blow, the sectarian retreat becomes worse. The ‘Millwall’ attitude (nobody likes us we don’t care) has become especially pronounced over Syriza and, on a smaller scale, the SWP’s expulsion from the Unite United Left. But it will become far, far, worse over recent events. The fact that some of my former comrades have spoken of the need to ‘defend revolutionary democracy from the bourgeois press’ in this situation makes me feel profoundly disturbed.
So what can be done? I don’t pretend to have the answers but I think that by understanding the context of this implosion we can at least avoid some wrong answers.
This was not just a case of ‘one bad apple’: there was something fundamentally wrong before that. This case just highlighted the fact that there is no ‘reformist’ (i.e. slowly and softly within the organisation) solution to those fundamental weaknesses. This was not just a question of structures: the lack of democracy resulted from a lack of ideological openness and a retreat from trying to understand changes in the real world.
Any solution has to take into account the generational shift away from orthodox Trotskyist organisations. It has to understand that the splits in Britain in the past decade have occurred roughly along these lines. That whereas splits on the far left generally lead to small rumps that degenerate and disappear all of these groups have actually improved since their splits – suggesting that they are on the right side of history and their ‘parent’ organisations the wrong side.
Reform inside the SWP is not an option: they will expel anyone who tries and the brand is now utterly toxic anyway.
Leaving to form a new version of the SWP is not an option: it is an historically outdated model and the last thing the British left needs is another small Trot organisation.
My hope is that something will rise in the SWP’s ashes. That enough people will leave, soon enough, and together enough (i.e. not just drifting off) so as to allow for some sort of regroupment of the radical left; a coming together of those who understand some of the problems described here (and many others who never felt any of the existing organisations were what they were looking for) into something much more plural.
I have been a member of the SWP for eleven years. For the first few I believe its hegemonic role on the far left was a very positive thing – look at the response to 9/11. In recent years I think it has been much more ambiguous (indeed if 9/11 had happened again I am not sure it would have been willing to play the same role). I think it would be truly disastrous if, after recent events, the SWP were to continue to to play a hegemonic role on the far left. But I don’t think it will be able to do so. The task now is to ensure that whatever does fill that role can learn from its mistakes.
See also SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY (SWP): WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? from Socialist Unity The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party and the future of the Left from Counterfire