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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."
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.
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.]
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
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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