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Britain: Reflections on the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party

"As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organising, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century." 

[For more on the British SWP, click HERE. For more on revolutionary organisation, click HERE.]

By Paul Kellogg

January 13, 2013 – PolEcon.net, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with author's permission

1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, Lenin’s Tomb, and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group to left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6, 2013, annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake.” Speaking of the party’s central committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight." Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don't simply drift away, don't simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a).

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for 'secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “one of simple, visceral disgust. I was shaking. I still am. I did not know what to do. I walked out of the building in a daze” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organisation in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organisation in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” ("SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST", 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.

Crisis

1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a central committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the central committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (disputes committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the central committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the disputes committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organising “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The central committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake?

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organising. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalisation – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against 'feminism' from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism… There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012). [Sharon Smith's talk is also available HERE.]

Democracy

In terms of left organising:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organising, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg

References

Bakan, A. (2012) "Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance", Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) 'Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition", Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) "Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor", Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) "Letter To Bolshevik Party Members" [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) "What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?" [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online]. wearemany.org.

"SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST" [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) "Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation" [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.

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Lenin's Tomb blog discusses SWP crisis

SWP member Richard Seymour's Lenin's Tomb blog is publishing contributions of SWP members on the crisis, from the perspective reforming the party. See http://www.leninology.com/.

For more contributions to the discussion, see http://grumpyoldtrot.wordpress.com/.

Crisis in the SWP affects the entire left

Posted on behalf of ACI

The crisis in the SWP affects the entire left

Stuart King and Luke Cooper look at the issues behind the turmoil in the SWP

The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took a dramatic turn in the week after its annual conference. Someone had recorded and released a transcript of what was clearly a traumatic session of conference – a challenged report of the Disputes Committee that looked into a rape allegation against a former Central Committee (CC) member. It was leaked to the Socialist Unity website and the dispute went viral. Articles about the issue have appeared in the New Statesman, Daily Mail and Independent as well as on scores of blogs. The political fall out is ongoing with SWP members resigning publicly, SWSS groups condemning the conference decision, the Serbian section of the International Socialist Tendency (the SWP’s international grouping) leaving the organisation, and the CC threatening to expel anyone who continues to raise the issue. For those of us outside the SWP, perhaps the most shocking thing is that the CC thought it was perfectly normal for its Disputes Committee to run a rape case pseudo-trial; and worse still to do so with a jury made up of associates of the accused. While we understand the woman comrade involved asked the CC to deal with the case, we do not know whether this was a result of party pressure against involving courts and police in matters to do with the organisation. In any case, a revolutionary organisation has a right, and duty, to say that there are issues where it is not competent and where its sanctions (suspension or expulsion) are just not commensurate with the extraordinary seriousness of the offences referred to it. This point has been put across very forcefully by Linda Rodgers, a SWP member and activist of Scottish Women’s Aid, in an letter to the CC published on Lenin’s Tomb.

Sexism and democracy

For those with long memories, the crisis recalls a sexual abuse scandal that blew up the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in 1985. In that case, Gerry Healy, who ran an authoritarian and bureaucratic organisation, was expelled for serial sexual offences against young members. These crimes had been going on for decades but were only revealed because of a political and financial crisis in the group following the miners’ strike. While the scale of the current crisis in the SWP inevitably invokes this comparison, it is important not to exaggerate the similarity. Healy and a clique that covered up for him used his political position within the party to put political pressure on young female members to have sexual relations with him. There is no suggestion that anything like this has taken place inside the SWP. The SWP have never reached the appalling authoritarianism that blighted the WRP, but it certainly has an internal regime that stifles democracy and debate and where the leadership lack accountability. This context makes cover-ups of leading members’ bad behaviour more likely. Tendencies are not allowed and factions are highly restricted. The CC is elected by the “closed slate system”, while the large full-time apparatus is appointed by the CC, not elected by the members. The length of their tenure is also determined by the CC. Anyone believed to be “in opposition” to the CC line is subject to bullying, isolation and often expulsion. The crisis over the rape allegation coincided, and it seems also encouraged, an unprecedented rebellion against these draconian and undemocratic rules, and the cultural practices they create. As longstanding SWP member China Mieville put it in discussion with Laurie Penny:

“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me.  “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It’s up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”

Organisations like the SWP can often develop a sect-like mentality which observes a sad and unfortunate logic. Believing they have a “monopoly in the sphere of politics” makes “building the party” the one true goal. Other socialist competitors become rivals and there is tendency to see the class struggle as an ever-upward curve that runs in parallel to the party’s recruitment figures. This can also lead to an isolated worldview. If someone suggests reality and their experience does not match the perspective of the leadership they can be made to feel like outsiders. The party naturally develops its own social scene too. Party leaders and organisers are looked up to with the related danger that they become unchallenged and unchallengeable.

If a culture is created that considers criticism not as normal and everyday, but a sign of being difficult and ‘rocking the boat’, then it becomes easier for leaderships to turn a blind eye to, or to play down, abusive or sexist behaviour. It can be particularly difficult for young women to complain and make their voices heard. In many revolutionary organisations and trade unions, the right to caucus for oppressed groups – women, black, disabled and LGBT comrades – is taken for granted as a means, for example, of raising and combating sexist behaviour. But this is not so in the SWP, where such bodies are seen as dangerous concessions to “feminism” and “autonomism”. Just as in the workplace, where a draconian and overbearing management style is more likely to produce sexist and oppressive behaviour, so it is in a revolutionary organisation. The more democracy and control given to individuals and branches in an organisation and the more freedom given to raise criticism and problems, the less likely it is that sexist or oppressive behaviour will be tolerated. As SWP member Richard Seymour has argued forcefully on his blog, Lenin’s Tomb, there is a direct link between the lack of democracy and accountability in the SWP and the way the leadership has dealt with this case and its critics.

Political disorientation

There is also a political backdrop to this crisis in the SWP. It has lacked direction and purpose since the crisis that engulfed the party in 2008-2009 after the Respect split. This crisis was the result of the first serious split in the normally monolithic Central Committee for years. John Rees was sacked from the CC over his handling of the Respect tactic and crisis, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham resigned in solidarity, and then formed an opposition tendency. Two supporters were expelled and others left. They went on to form Counterfire. They were followed a year later by another split in Scotland led by Chris Bambery.

After Respect, the CC conceded a Democracy Commission to look into reforms, but it introduced little substantive structural change in the party. Indeed, the debate was only partly over the Respect crisis. It also raised issues of democracy and accountability that have been involved in the current dispute. The leaders that went on to form Counterfire were scapegoated by the SWP leadership for the Respect crisis. But as key SWP-Respect leaders they also stifled dissent from critical SWP members and other tendencies within the electoral coalition. In December 2008 John Rees argued against those, like Neil Davidson, who linked the crisis in Respect to a lack of democracy within the SWP. John Rees wrote:

“Neil believes that we have incorrectly designated the attempts at building new radical parties as united fronts and that this has contributed to the reverses that have taken place in our electoral work. Finally, Neil suggests that if there were a less professional leadership that included those who hold down jobs and which was drawn from different parts of the country we would be more able to deal with these issues. He is more generally critical of a ‘top down’ and anti-democratic culture of debate in the SWP that closes off necessary discussion prematurely.”

He went on to argue that the SWP CC went too far to conciliate this argument for more party democracy:

“But he [Chris Harman] agrees with many of Neil’s most immediate proposals on party democracy. I believe that this is a dangerous course on which the CC majority has embarked for purely pragmatic reasons.”

Contrary to Rees’ position at the time, the present crisis shows that the Democracy Commission established in light of these criticisms did not go far enough. Rees was completely wrong to argue against greater democratisation of the party. It is important, as many current and ex-SWP members have emphasised, that a future new left realignment in Britain develops a culture of self-criticism and reflection on past mistakes and practices in order to develop a new form of working that can offer a way forward. No one should be excluded from a new left project due to mistakes they made years ago, but equally there needs to be an honest accounting of past errors. One factor in the current crisis is that the young people recruited into the SWP in the last few years, and particularly during the recent student struggles, come from an anticapitalist milieu influenced by general assemblies, Occupy, UK Uncut. It is a milieu imbued with respect for direct democracy and debate, contempt for authoritarianism and healthy scepticism towards top-down control. These positive features of the new anticapitalism are creating a deep crisis in bureaucratic organisations unable to connect with this new spirit of autonomy and democracy.

The SWP has also faced other problems flowing from its current perspective. It has been unable to bring in genuine allies and independent activists into its anti-austerity united front, Unite the Resistance, and as a result it is widely and rightly perceived to be a party front run as undemocratically as the SWP. At the same time there is little connection between the parties agitation for a general strike and its day-to-day practical work. Add to this, the habitually inflated membership figures that most party activists realise are clearly false and all the ingredients were present for a deep party crisis. These issues were highlighted by SWP member Neil Davidson prior to the conference when he reflected on the SWP’s lack of political direction:

“We have always refused to follow Orthodox Trotskyist organisations in drawing up programmatic demands, transitional or otherwise. For much of our history this has been a defensible position, allowing the maximum tactical flexibility to respond to changing conditions at short notice without reference to positions which may have been rendered historically irrelevant or counter-productive… But unconstrained manoeuvrability, like all forms of “stick-bending”, has come at a cost. To this day we tend to operate with a set of relatively short-term tactics through which we seek to intervene in the day-to-day life of the movement. We are endlessly exhorted to build for this-or-that all-important demonstration or event; yet when they fail to occur because the trade union bureaucracy refuses to move, or if they are significantly smaller than we predicted, or if they are successful but nevertheless do not galvanise the labour movement, this has no consequences or implications for our analysis, despite the significance we have previously ascribed to them. We simply move on to building for the next all-important demonstration or event. What is our strategy?”

In an important sense, the bureaucratism at the root of the current crisis arguably expresses an inability to respond to this political criticism.

Trigger for a party crisis

The attitude from the CC downwards to the sexual assault and rape allegations were the trigger for discussions on Facebook about whether to form an opposition tendency. This was enough to get four of them expelled on trumped up charges provoking two factions to form, a Democratic Opposition which made a series of sensible proposals for reforms, and a Democratic Centralist tendency that opposed the expulsions and criticised the CC handling of the rape allegation. A third of the recent conference opposed the expulsions and slightly under half rejected the Disputes Committee report. This is unheard of dissent within the SWP and the CC responded predictably, banning conference delegates from reporting on the Disputes Committee debate to the members, declaring the issue was now “closed” and demanding absolute loyalty from members and full-timers on pain of expulsion.

The CC has yet to wake up to the fact that they live in the age of the Internet where it is difficult, if not impossible, to suppress the free flow of information. Indeed following the conference the public debate has intensified with SWP members defying the ban, going public with their criticisms and their demands for more democracy and a recall conference. The political scandal is out in the public domain, ordinary members have to debate it, answer questions from their workmates and friends, defend or denounce “the line”. Many, like Sussex SWSS, are quite rightly denouncing it.

Overcoming the crisis of the left

No one should rejoice at the problems in the SWP. The scandal discredits the whole left and just confirms what many libertarians and non-party progressives think about the organised revolutionary left. An implosion of the biggest far left organisation in Britain in the absence of any alternative will weaken everyone struggling against austerity and capitalism. Many on the anticapitalist left, way beyond the activists that have collaborated so far with the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI), are looking for a new way forward, a method of overcoming the sectarianism and divisions of the past, a way of combating austerity and capitalism. The ACI should be flexible and try to contribute to this on-going process - the task of building a new, democratic and un-sectarian revolutionary left.

 

The SWP opposition is growing -- Lenin's Tomb

From Lenin's Tomb blog (Richard Seymour)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

For those who follow the IS blog [http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk] already, I don't need to point out that this week has seen a lot of activity.  After my own critique of Party Notes, now commonly referred to as 'Pravda' among members, we learned of one of the ways in which the document had lied to members.  We have also had a number of exceptional articles challenging the arguments of Central Committee members and loyalists, above all this incisive piece by Gareth Dale.  

As part of our remit of communicating practical information to assist members, we carried a sample motion for a special conference, and yesterday an update on how many branches have already passed critical motions, and motions demanding a special conference.  This last is essential, because members would otherwise have no way of knowing how far there is to go before achieving that goal.  From now on, we will try to give members as much practical, up-to-date information as possible.
There is also an anonymous letter to the National Secretary, which every party member needs to read and reflect on.  Note the trigger warning.

On Friday, there was an almost ceaseless stream of open statements by local Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) groups, from Kings College to Manchester, condemning the Central Committee and supporting the opposition.  This is hardly surprising given the leadership's willingness to sacrifice SWSS and its successes for the sake of winning its internal battles.

Today, there is an open letter of support from an Irish SWP member, and a further, excellent piece by China Mieville addressed to party members.

For those interested in critical reflections on the longue duree, I would refer you to this intelligent perspective piece by Neil Davidson, which we posted up on Monday.  And also, this thoughtful, acerbic article by our resigned comrade, Tom Walker.

In the week since the IS blog went up, it has had over 170,000 page views.

US ISO on the crisis in the SWP-Britain

http://socialistworker.org/2013/01/30/the-crisis-in-the-swp

January 30, 2013

Since its national conference in January, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, the country's largest revolutionary organization, has been shaken by the most severe crisis in its history, stemming from the failure of its leadership to properly respond to rape and sexual harassment allegations made against a leading member, and, in turn, from attempts to stifle discussion of this failure and its consequences.

The crisis has had reverberations beyond the SWP and beyond Britain in an increasingly public debate. The latest example: On January 28, an international group of left-wing writers and activists who have worked closely with the SWP issued an open letter declaring that they would no longer "participate in SWP publications and platforms 
until the party recognizes and seriously addresses the legitimate 
criticisms of its handling of this case and the ensuing crisis."

Tragically, the SWP leadership has so far summarily dismissed all such protests, including many from the party's own members, declaring that the decisions reached at the national conference are final and not to be disputed in any way. Also this week, the SWP's Socialist Review published an article by party leader Alex Callinicos titled "Is Leninism Finished?" which presents a highly distorted history in an attempt to paint the SWP leadership as defending "Leninism," while deriding members with perfectly reasonable concerns and criticisms as a "small minority" that is "scandalously" spreading "salacious gossip." This attempt to justify a badly mishandled internal dispute by claiming the mantle of the entire revolutionary Marxist tradition is a caricature of Leninism. Callinicos' article was published ahead of an SWP National Committee meeting on February 3 where the leadership appears to be preparing to take action against those who have criticized it.

While we are reluctant to comment on the internal affairs of other socialist organizations, the public nature of the controversy--and actions by the SWP leadership that have only exacerbated the crisis--compel us to address the issue. Below is a statement of the Steering Committee of the International Socialist Organization (ISO)--the publisher of this website--circulated two weeks ago, on January 15, to ISO members explaining its understanding of the SWP's crisis. We did not publicize this statement in order to respect the internal procedures of the SWP. But we now believe that the SWP leadership intends to disregard the traditions of socialist democracy and continue down a ruinous path.

We stand by the members of the SWP who have raised very grave doubts, which we share, about the leadership's attitude and behavior in the face of this crisis. We support these members' calls for the SWP to convene an emergency national conference to air the disagreements and come to a genuinely democratic decision about what must be done to rescue the party from this crisis. We oppose in the strongest possible terms the threat of expulsions and other disciplinary actions. Such measures would not only inflict grave and irreparable harm on the SWP, but damage the revolutionary left internationally at a time when economic, social and ecological crises underscore the need to project a socialist alternative. Further, we reaffirm our belief, as stated below, that the way forward for the SWP and for the left depends on an active commitment to democracy, free and open debate, women's liberation and socialism from below.

WE DO not normally comment on the internal affairs of other organizations on the revolutionary left. However, the current crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is being widely discussed on the Internet, and many comrades will already know about it. For this reason, we feel it is appropriate for us to address the important issues raised by the crisis with the ISO membership.

The crisis in the SWP grew out of a sharp debate over allegations of sexual harassment and rape against a leading member of the party. At issue are not only the allegations themselves--which should be taken with the utmost seriousness--but also the process by which the charges were heard and the measures taken against those who questioned the process and the outcome, even before the SWP national conference held in early January. The details have been leaked and commented upon widely on the Internet. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of these allegations, these give cause for concern.

The situation is deeply disappointing and disheartening. The largest revolutionary socialist organization in Britain has become the subject of ridicule and worse, and the crisis in that organization will have repercussions for the revolutionary left internationally. In the SWP, dedicated comrades are questioning whether they should remain in the party out of revulsion at what they believe to be a serious injustice within an organization that is dedicated to fighting injustice. Many others, including prominent members, are directly challenging the leadership's decisions and agitating for a more open and democratic party.

ISO comrades are rightly concerned with this turn of events. A commitment to women's liberation is a fundamental principle of the revolutionary socialist tradition and is central to the politics of our tradition. It is not enough to simply articulate our support of these politics in words. We must demonstrate this commitment in how we organize alongside others in social movements--and within our organizations. Likewise, we reaffirm our commitment to open, clear and comradely discussion, as well as democracy and accountability.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ISO MEMBERS approach this discussion with complete seriousness. Regardless of our differences with the SWP leadership in recent years, we take no joy in the crisis facing the SWP. The outcome will shape the future of the left, not only in Britain, but also around the world. For over 60 years, the SWP has been a leading force in the international workers' movement for its principled and militant defense of workers' democracy, socialism from below, self-emancipation, internationalist opposition to all imperialism, and defense of all the oppressed against racism, sexism, and homophobia. For many, its disastrous handling of this situation is calling into question its commitment to this emancipatory project.

As a result of the public nature of its crisis, the Socialist Workers Party has been laid open to attack by forces that would like to humiliate and weaken the revolutionary left. Articles in the mainstream press have caricatured the SWP as having set up a "sharia court" to resolve the allegations--a racist slur. On blogs and Facebook, radicals hostile to socialism have used the occasion to claim that all socialist organizations are dominated by sexism. These are slanders.

At the same time, we do not accept the sectarianism and bashing of feminism that this debate has occasioned among some comrades inside the SWP. The central tenets of feminism are women's liberation and opposition to sexism. For this reason, feminism has been under sustained ideological attack for more than four decades by right-wing forces who wish to erase all the gains made by the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Now is the time for the revolutionary left to defend feminism, not to attack it. In this context, attacks on feminism by SWPers, aside from being sectarian, raise the suspicion that the party doesn't take accusations of sexual abuse seriously when they are raised about their own leadership.

We also recognize that there are serious internal problems in the SWP. There appears to be an attempt by the SWP Central Committee to silence party members' grave concerns about how these serious charges were handled. In the run-up to the SWP conference, for example, four members were expelled on the charge of secret factionalism, adding to the view that there was some kind of cover up, and reinforcing the right-wing caricature of socialist organizations as top-down hierarchies that tolerate no deviation from their "line." Leading SWP members have described these and other actions by the Central Committee as a breach of democracy.

If the allegations that have been made--both formally at the party's national conference and through Internet discussions--are true, then the SWP leadership is directly responsible for the dire crisis the party faces today. It seems clear to us that the Central Committee handled this entire situation irresponsibly, producing widespread outrage inside the SWP. The SWP's leadership is attempting to close all further discussion on the subject after winning a vote at the SWP conference by a very narrow margin. This is not in keeping with the practices of democratic centralism, but an example of profoundly poor judgment on the part of the leadership. And it is not only the SWP that will pay the price. The charges made against the SWP will definitely be made against all socialists who seek to build their organizations, including the ISO.

The bourgeois press and sectarians with an ax to grind are interested only in seeing the SWP weakened by this crisis. That fact, however, should not impede SWP comrades and revolutionary socialists from taking up the critical issues raised by this crisis and engaging in a necessary debate.

Nevertheless, some people who are engaged in legitimate debate about the SWP and its actions--that is, party members and others on the left--have unfortunately made concessions on principles that the revolutionary left shouldn't make.

For example, the SWP journalist Tom Walker, who resigned from the party, was one among a number of left-wing writers who argued that the party's internal structures don't have the capacity to judge cases of rape. While Walker makes many important and valid points, he concludes that the allegations should have been turned over to the police and the courts. We don't believe this to be the case. We know that women who go to the justice system with complaints about sexual assault are very often disbelieved and humiliated by police and prosecutors. That is why only a minority of such incidents is ever formally reported. Moreover, the police investigating such allegations within a revolutionary organization would care not a bit about justice for the woman making the charges. Instead, they would seize the opportunity to harass and persecute the left. In fact, we understand that the female SWP comrade who made the complaint about the incident in question herself chose not to go to the police.

Of course, it is the choice of the woman who wishes to report rape or sexual assault to go to the police or not. Yet a revolutionary socialist organization should have the capacity--and indeed the responsibility--to establish the means to handle such allegations in a way that is impartial and respects the rights of any person raising such charges. We believe that a socialist organization built around principles of democracy must be capable of this, both to preserve the rights of every member and to uphold the principles of revolutionary socialism.

Any such charges involving sexual assault must be investigated fully and through a process that is unimpeachable. The proceedings must not have the slightest trace of the prejudices and humiliations capitalist society subjects women to when they make such a charge. The accused must have the right to respond, without a presumption of guilt. And a revolutionary socialist organization must be capable of taking any internal disciplinary action necessary to maintain its principles.

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THE SWP leadership has failed to address these serious charges in a way that gives the whole membership confidence that they have been properly investigated and resolved. As a result, the SWP leadership has undermined its own moral and political authority. Some of the statements made about how the SWP Central Committee handled the initial complaints--and how the Disputes Committee heard this case--are shocking and disturbing. Richard Seymour, an SWP comrade we know and respect, has written on his blog that if some of the questions directed at the women bringing the complaints had "been asked of someone making such allegations in a police station, we would rightly denounce them as sexist."

Likewise, there have been many descriptions of how the SWP leadership reportedly tried to silence dissent and squelch the concerns of members. These actions, if they are true, are a breach of democracy in a revolutionary organization. At the very least, it should be obvious from the extremely close vote at the national conference on the Disputes Committee's report, and the very public debate since, that the party remains deeply divided. The question is not settled, as the SWP Central Committee insists. Further discussion and action is necessary to allow the party to move forward in a spirit of unity and trust and to properly handle the charges brought to the CC and the Disputes Committee. It is incumbent on the SWP leadership to convince its membership of its case. A razor thin vote cannot be taken as a vote of confidence or a mandate.

Any bureaucratic measures to ban discussion of the biggest crisis the SWP has ever faced, including wholesale expulsions, will not end the crisis. The outside world will only be more firmly convinced that this is a cover-up in an undemocratic and sexist organization. For years to come, the party will have to face the hostile questioning of movement activists and will be unable to play the role it should in building among the new radicalization spurred by the current economic crisis.

Members of the SWP are discussing the future of the party and deciding on what course they should take. We have, as we said before, a very real concern about the outcome of the party's crisis, and ISO members will no doubt follow the discussion. We strongly urge comrades to treat this situation with the seriousness it deserves. Please contact the ISO national office if your branch has any further concerns.

In the meantime, we urge ISO members to think carefully and to be responsible in their commentary about this question in public forums, such as the many long Facebook threads that have developed. We understand that comrades have opinions and convictions, but we remind people that comments made online "live forever." We don't want to become, even unintentionally, purveyors of misinformation or arguments that can be turned against the left. SWP members must resolve this crisis inside their organization--which is why we hope that no disciplinary actions are taken against those comrades who are critical of the leadership.

Our most immediate concern is for this dispute to be resolved in a way that addresses the real concerns that have been raised by the SWP membership, and in a manner that clearly demonstrates the party's commitment to democracy, women's liberation, and the struggle for workers' power.

ISO Steering Committee
January 15, 2013

 

 

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