The Self-Destruction of the Socialist Workers Party – Now is the Time for a New Left Party
The Self-Destruction of the Socialist Workers Party – Now is the Time for a New Left Party
Sexual Harassment & Alleged Rape Were the Symptoms Lack of Democracy was the Cause
Martin Smith on the look-out for teenage SWP members?
On Sunday March 10th an Emergency Meeting of the SWP voted to endorse the Central Committee’s [CC] handling of the allegations of rape and sexual harassment against Martin Smith ‘Comrade Delta’, as well as upholding the expulsion of four activists. The CC had used to good effect its control of the SWP machine, coupled by bullying, threats of physical attack and plain old fashioned rigging, to maintain its position. The immediate response was the resignation of scores of activists and the formation of an International Socialist Network. The CC has won a Pyrrhic victory and in so doing possibly created the catalyst for a viable socialist party in Britain.
People can also refer to the Weekly Worker which has made much of the running on the issue including printing the first open resignation letter, by former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker..
The SWP as it would like to be thought of
some, like Tom Walker, the cause of the problem in the SWP was a
hostility and inability to come to terms with feminism. I disagree.
This was the symptom of a deeper malaise. Feminism is a movement of
democracy within capitalism, it is not a complete analysis or solution.
It too is subject to factors of class.
Martin Smith’s only non-SWP supporter – Gilad Atzmon
In other words feminism and women’s liberation are not immune from class society. Women operate as both oppressors and oppressed. Who can doubt that white women in southern Africa or Israeli women are/were, at one and the same time, both oppressors of Black and Palestinian people – women included – at the same time as they were oppressed by white or Israeli men? Who can doubt that the White woman on a slave plantation was superior to the Black slave, of either sex? Did Nazi or SS women show solidarity with Jewish women?
The answers to the above questions are obvious yet they are ones that the feminist movement has avoided, as have some of its male proponents. Thirty years ago, with the formation of the Jewish Feminist Group and its adoption of a pro-Zionist position, supported by the feminist magazine Spare Rib, Black women and Women of Colour produced Outrage by way of reply.
SWP leadership’s leading internal critic – but with a strategy that guaranteed defeat
A parallel is a national liberation movement where the future oppressor and the present day oppressed combine to demand freedom and independence. One of the key differences between the revolutionary socialist and Stalinist traditions has been whether or not the oppressed classes economically should keep silent and postpone their own demands for socialism and equality in order not to alienate the richer capitalist section of the movement.
The communist parties were particularly appalling in this respect as one can see today from the support of the South African Communist Party for the police massacre of the Marikana miners. In Britain after 1945, the Communist Party even proposed the continuation in power of a National Coalition including the Tories! In Iran, the alliance between Khomeini and the Tudeh Party led to the butchering of thousands of socialists.
Laurie Penney – an early astute critic of the SWP’s handling of rape allegations
At certain key times women come together across class to make specific demands. The suffragettes were a good example. The demand for the right of women to vote crossed class boundaries. But even then the Women’s Social & Political Union, set up by the Pankhursts, later organised exclusively among the middle class. It broke from its alliance with the Labour Party because the latter adopted the call for universal suffrage! Why? Because it supported the maintenance of the property qualification for those voting.
It is no accident that a number of officers and members of the WSPU ended up in Sir Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists, including its General Secretary, Nora Dacre Fox (Elam) who became their Southern Women’s organiser. Emmeline Pankhurst and two of her daughters, Adela and Christabel, moved to the far right after the First World War. Only Sylvia campaigned for universal suffrage and opposed-imperialism and fascism.
SWP students – nearly all of whom have now resigned or been isolated
The idea that the root cause of the SWP’s problems lie in the magic properties of feminism are an illusion. Feminism in the 1970’s and ‘80s produced Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, whose hostility to the working class is matched only by their ardour to secure equality between oppressors.
However an organisation which is undemocratic and whose leadership behaves in an exploitative and manipulative fashion, is indeed likely to replicate the patriarchal aspects of capitalism. And being astute, the SWP CC thrust its leading women comrades into its defence. Of the 7 members of the SWP’s Disputes Committee who exonerated Smith, no less than 5 were women. Candy Udwin chaired the crucial session at the AGM, which not only exonerated the CC and Smith but which barred the victim from attending or listening to the session. The same session which was packed with pro-CC speakers and which was forbidden from discussing the issue itself was confined by Udwin to the question of whether procedures were followed.
The Changing Contours of Capitalism – There’s no success like failure
It seems to me that there are two, interrelated causes of the crisis in the SWP. The first is, like the Bourbons, the far-left is condemned learn nothing and forget nothing. It is the antithesis of the Marxism it nominally espouses. The leadership of the SWP saw socialism and desire for an end to alienation and oppression, including personal oppression, in much the same way as the leaders of the Catholic Church take Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and its injunction that the meek are blessed and one should seek righteousness to heart.
In The Left: There’s no success like failure’ I pointed out the obvious. Capitalism has restructured the working classand to a large extent, atomised it. There are no big battalions of miners, car workers, and shipbuilding workers in Britain today. The concentration on the working class at the workplace and strikes, which are of course important in their own right, is not in itself an answer to the question of how to build socialism. Capitalism no longer lives in fear of the industrial proletariat. Many classes – serfs, peasants, indentured labour – have been oppressed and exploited but the concentration on the working class was because of its potential for it being able to change society. Unfortunately there is no evidence for this bar Russia nearly a century ago, one of the most backward capitalist states in Europe.
Rather than face up to this, the SWP has concentrated its fire on the supposed threat to Leninism. What was Prof. Callinicos’s (or Stallinicos as he is known) response to the allegations of rape against a former National Secretary and the way it was handled? Nothing. Instead we have a patently dishonest article In Defence of Leninism or rather the SWP Central Committee’s interpretation of Leninism. In Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos Louis Proyect argues, on the basis of Lars Hi’s Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, that Lenin had never even sought to build a vanguardist democratically centralist controlled party but a party modelled on the German Social Demoratic Party.
I claim no expertise in these matters but as I showed in Rabbits Caught in the Headlights with my own expulsion, the SWP CC use democratic centralism not in order to intensify the fight against the state, whilst preserving our own secrets, but in order to control its own members. It was bureaucratic centralism, honed to perfection by the CC.
This means that like the Papacy, the CC is infallible. It cannot make mistakes. There is no analysis of history, where it has gone wrong, whether its root assumptions are correct. Respect, the Socialist Alliance, the failure of anti-war movement – these never happened. Therefore no lessons were drawn. Factions are verboten for all except 3 months of the year and the CC’s own permanent faction. All attempts to discuss the failure of the socialist left, the failure of resistance to the Coalition’s attacksor even to discuss the question of how to resist the Government’s Divide & Rule tactics between benefit claimants and workers or the public and private sector go by default. Even to map out a simple explanation of what has caused the latest capitalist crisis, its options and perils, is fraught with peril.
Far from Democratic Centralism providing some form of solution to the infiltration of spies such as Mark Kennedy in anarchist and direct action groups, it has actually done the State’s job for it by neutralising far-left groups politically. The key task ahead, the formation of a socialist party from the grassroots upwards, not the ghost that presently masquerades as the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, is an urgent necessity not least because if we fail now, then the far-right in the form of UKIP+ could step into the breach.
Just in case they feel missed out, as they have barely commented upon what has happened, a few words for the Socialist Party. They may not have the horrific practices of the SWP and their own internal structures, whilst no more democratic than the SWP’s at least seem able to tolerate a measure of dissent, but they are wedded to the same idea. The belief that the road to socialism lies in the incremental growth of the revolutionary party, though with the SP it is in alliance with left trade union leaders in a rerun of the formation of the Labour Party. In short economism long past its sell-by-date.
How should the SWP Central/Disputes Committee have reacted?
What would a democratic party have done if it had faced the problems that faced the SWP leadership over Martin Smith?
The first thing that should have happened, if the CC was seriously interested in investigating the matter, was to suspend Martin Smith’s membership pending an investigation. This is the normal response of an employer in these circumstances and one would indeed expect such an action in response to a complaint of rape or sexual harassment by a woman member of the union.
The second and most obvious solution would be for the woman alleging rape to be helped, supported sympathetically and directed to a Rape Support Group or the Police. Comrades should have been specifically directed to support her whilst the matter was investigated. Instead she and the woman who alleged sexual harassment were left to hang out and dry and even worse – they were victimised and villified.
If the alleged rape victim was unwilling to either go to the Police, understandable given their record, or to a Rape Crisis Group and she positively wished the Disputes Committee to deal with the problem, despite them having no forensic powers, or powers to question under oath, then they clearly faced a choice. Either to refuse to undertake the task or to accept that both people could not remain in a single party and to therefore decide the question of whether the woman was raped on the civil test, the balance of probability.
In actual fact, if Martin Smith was concerned at all for the fate of the SWP as opposed to his own power and privilege, he would have resigned until his name was cleared.
Those who personally knew Martin Smith on the DC should have stepped down. That they did not do so suggests that there was a determination to exonerate a trusted comrade and dispense with what they saw as a nuisance complaint. The woman concerned should have both been represented and allowed to cross examine Smith. Instead and quite outrageously, the women were denied all sight of Martin Smith’s evidence but he was allowed to see what they had said.
People complain about bourgeois justice but there are strict rules about things like Disclosure. In employment tribunals, where I practice, there are standard Orders whereby all parties have to provide a Standard List of Documents. If the employer provides evidence during the Tribunal one can object and usually one will succeed. Likewise in a criminal trial even more stringent rules apply and lack of disclosure can be fatal for the Prosecution. This, it should be borne in mind, has been forced from the bourgeois state. It was not granted as of right until the cases of wrongful conviction and police racism and brutality that sparked the riots of the early ‘80’s, became too much. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was brought in. It has to be said that the SWP’s ‘justice system’ is not a patch on the bourgeois state’s.
Likewise through a representative Smith should have been able to cross-examine his accuser, but not about her drinking habits, sexual relations, mode of life but about the allegations themselves and any relevant context.
The third thing would have been to look at the evidence itself, after a serious and reasonable investigation. It is of course impossible for me to comment on what, if any evidence was uncovered or gathered. However there is one matter I am curious about and yet no one seems to have touched upon it.
The woman herself seems to have been a very young comrade, 17 apparently. Smith is, I guess around the age of 50. If this is the case then Smith is about 3 times as old as the woman. There is no law against this but in general inter-generational sex is exploitative and to be frowned upon. A man of 50 is about 2/3 through his life. A woman of 17 is about to start adult life. There is a biological clock. People become more frail as they get older and the younger partner is expected to care for them in later years. This is not exactly equality as most such relationships involve older men. But an older man forming a relationship with a teenager has a confidence, in Smith’s case a party reputation and perspective that a teenager doesn’t possess. In other words he has power over her personally. Such a ‘relationship’ cannot be equal. It may not be a crime but it is indicative of a breach of trust for a senior member of the SWP to sleep with young members of the party and calls into question his own motives.
But there was a second charge by another woman, a full-timer who has it would seem been dismissed, of sexual harassment. Even the Chair of the Disputes Committee, Pat Stack, who I always knew in the student movement as an ultra-loyalist, believed that it was proven. Together on the balance of probability I would therefore reach the conclusion that the rape accusation was more likely than not and on that basis Martin Smith would have been expelled. That is not to say he was guilty but faced with two conflicting versions I would have preferred the testimony of the woman in view of the second allegation and the admitted sexual relationship.
But of course this was not an option. It did not happen and the woman in question was effectively called a liar. It now appears that the rape allegations against Smith aren’t the first of their kind amongst the SWP leadership. Allegations of rape and sexual harassment against another full-timer were also heard by the Disputes Committee when the allegations against Smith first surfaced. The evidence was overwhelming re the sexual harassment and he was suspended for two years. Unlike the 4 SWP Facebook members who talked about the allegations who were expelled, instantly, without a hearing, by SWP Secretary Charlie Kimber. Allegations of rape are less serious, it would appear, than conversing over Facebook.
Is there a pattern?
The SWP CC is a self-perpetuating body. It employs about 100 full-timers who keep tabs on the membership and quell any incipient rebellion. It presents a slate for election to annual conference. It is not possible to vote for or against individual members. There has rarely been an alternative slate and there has never been a successful challenge. The SWP leadership is quite immune from challenge and as recent events demonstrate it will do anything to keep its power intact.
Clearly any democratic party of the Left has to have an internal democracy which means that its leadership is elected and that members have the rights to form factions. The alternative is a leadership which sees itself as apart from the membership and even begins to see that membership as a threat. Sections of the SWP leadership seem to have developed a cult-like relationship. It is inconceivable that some members did not know of Martin Smith’s tendency to form relationships with teenage party members, itself a sign of potential abuse. The possibility that Smith’s behaviour was not a one-off are strong.
‘used to have a reputation that “no means yes”, and when he vistied some districts, experienced comrades in the know sought to ensure he was not left alone with young women.
When women who had been assaulted complained, they were diminished and hounded out of the SWP. I know of one occasion when a victim of sexual assault was sat down with a senior woman CC SWP member who told her to keep quiet for the good of “the party”, excusing the behaviour because “capitalism fucks everyone up”, and then warning if she didn’t keep quiet then no-one would believe her, and the SWP would destroy her reputation.
During the 1980s there was a strange phenomenon of several angry young womwn comrades who used to talk about the sexism of this leading comrade, but they had been intimidated out of explaining what had happened, and instead the discusion often focussed on seemingly trivial details, like the fact that he always referred to women socialists by their first names, and male comrades by surnames (lenin and marx, but Rosa and Clara, for example)
To fnd an organisation that systematicaly for decades covered up sexual assault and who intimidated women who complained into silence praised in this was is disgraceful.
Even worse, I know of an IS/SWP district in the 1970s who colluded in silence and looked the other way when a leading industrial militant was raping his own step-daughter: the individual in question had previoulsy been in the IMG, who had also covered it up. When as a young 17 year old I confronted him at a party and asked him loudly if he was still fucking his duaghter, it was me cautioned by the SWP, while the truth of thse allegations was quietly ignored.’
Like all bureaucracies, the SWP’s has developed rhythms and modes of behaviour which it deems acceptable. Preying on young women in the party seems acceptable to a certain leadership-friendship ‘fuck circuit’ as they have been called.
Where do we go from here
The SWP conference has taken place and some 71 of those who have resigned have posted a public statement as to why they did so. (see below) A new International Socialist Network has also been formed which does have the potential to bring about a party of the socialist left that is serious about building a new society. The largest party in Britain today comprises ex-members of the SWP, notwithstanding the hundreds who have been expelled over the years,
But such a network and hopefully an organisation should not look back to the IS with rose-tinted glasses. I was expelled from the IS in 1972, as the organisation moved from being a party of Luxembourgist to Leninist democracy (at least according to Cliff). Many were the mistakes it made and to imagine that there was a golden era will be to eventually repeat the mistakes that were made on the way. But the need for a new party of the socialist left, a party which is anti-capitalist but not sectarian, which prides itself on debate whilst at the same time being a party of activists (unlike the 5,000 missing members of the SWP) is something to aim for.
What is essential is that those who resign in disgust at the behaviour of the SWP are not lost to socialism. Now is the time for all those who are resigning from the SWP, including those who have had a former association and been expelled, to come together. As for the SWP itself, with its student organisation in ruins (members of the Brighton-Sussex SWSS have resigned en masse) its days are numbered as the leadership relies on the votes of the politically and in some cases physically dead.