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Britain: Mark Steel on the crisis in the SWP -- 'Oh Good Lord what have they gone and done NOW?'

By Mark Steel

March 13, 2013 -- Mark Steel's Blog -- It shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t matter, should it, what goes on in the Socialist Workers Party. Their membership is roughly the average home gate at Mansfield Town. By the time I left them, in 2007, the most common comment I heard about them was, "Oh. Are they still going?" the way you might refer to Bernard Cribbins.

But somehow they’ve got themselves in such a mess that thousands of people have been gripped by it, as if it’s a real life Trotskyite soap opera, with onlookers settling before the internet with a tub of ice cream for the latest episode and gasping, “Oh my God they’ve called the faction leader a disgraceful liberal moralist, I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.”

Articles, forums and comment sections on their travails have reached beyond the political sections of online-land; at one point Mumsnet was among the sites discussing it. There are probably discussions on winemaking forums, in which someone has written, “These allegations against a leading member of the SWP have made me reconsider when to crush this year’s crop of elderberries.”

I’ve wasted whole periods of a day reading this stuff, until feeling the shamed sense of over-indulgence you get after eating an entire Swiss roll in the morning.

Part of my excuse is that I was a member for loads of years, and know many of the people at the centre of this pickle. But also, it does matter, for a whole pile of reasons.

The immediate cause is that in 2012 the party leaders reported a complaint had been made by a teenage woman, who alleged that during an affair she’d been having with one of the most senior members, a man of almost 50, he had raped her.

There had been rumours of "an incident" at the previous year’s conference, but the members weren’t told the details, and after a brief mention of him being involved in "difficulties", a standing ovation was orchestrated for the man concerned.

The woman was somewhat less than satisfied with this outcome, and as more members heard the full story the party decided to refer the "complaint" to their Disputes Committee, to "investigate" the matter. All eight people on this committee had worked with the accused for several years, most were his friends, and would you believe it, they decided the case was "Not proven", so no action was to be taken against him (although the chair of the committee dissented, declaring the accused had behaved inappropriately).

At the party conference in January 2012 the members were asked to approve the Disputes Committee report. During the discussion, it was revealed by a witness to the investigation that in its course the woman had been asked about another relationship she’d been in, and about her drinking habits. It also turned out she had asked to speak at the conference, but was told she wouldn’t be allowed in, and was now in a state of distress, as it’s not hard to imagine.

And it became known that SWP members who knew about the issue, and were uneasy about it, had been expelled from the party for discussing it on Facebook. Members who objected to any of this were told they were guilty of “bourgeois morality” and accused of capitulating to feminism.

The conference voted, narrowly, to accept the report. But someone who was there leaked a transcript of the discussion onto the internet.

The reaction among almost anyone who saw this was of bewildered horror, so at this point, and this took guile and dedication, SWP leaders managed to make things even worse.

The leading body, the Central Committee, declared the issue was closed, and no debate or discussion among members would be permitted. Presumably at this point, if an SWP member was asked how they could justify dealing with a rape allegation by arranging an investigation run by mates of the accused, they were supposed to change the subject, or to really earn points with the leadership, start playing a harmonica.

Unsurprisingly, the discussions did continue, with hundreds of members professing outrage. So Alex Callinicos, a leading figure in the SWP, wrote an article condemning the critics, humbly titled "In Defence of Leninism".

It begins, and this is an article written to defend their medieval handling of a rape allegation, remember, with a series of sentences such as “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

To his credit, no one’s likely to say, "Ah, that old cliché. That’s always wheeled out in cases of sexual abuse."

Maybe if a leading SWP member was accused of battering a pensioner to rob her purse, he’d reply “Marx was adamant that the 1848 revolutions in Europe represented a final break between the emergent working class and capitalism. Can I go now?”

In 3500 words the central incident is barely referred to, except as a “difficult disciplinary case” in which “scandalously, a minority inside the SWP are refusing to accept the democratically reached conference decisions”.

Now trade unionists who had participated in SWP activities wrote a joint letter, to explain they wouldn’t align with them again. Many of the SWP’s international groups declared their fury, and dozens of speakers who had appeared at their events declared they would no longer do so. A website that had been run for years by a prominent SWP member complained that critics of the Central Committee were being subjected to “Bullying, intimidation, and threats of violence.”

To which the SWP’s leaders replied “There is no evidence of damage to the party.” And with a magnificent sense of perspective, Alex Callinicos said that SWP members who opposed the leaders would face “lynch-mobs”. Presumably, if someone tried to drag him away from lynching some poor sod he’d scream, “Leave me alone, can’t you see I’m deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

Almost the entire student section of the SWP left, or joined the faction against the leaders, to which those leaders declared this was a sign of how SWP students felt demoralised following the introduction of tuition fees. Other people who’ve been accused of sexual abuse must envy how the party gets away with these explanations. Jonathan King must think "I should have said people were only upset with me as they were demoralised following an increase in the rate of VAT."

Most people, who have little awareness of the SWP, may conclude that the leaders and their loyal followers are simply psychotic, and not in a good way. So just stay well away. Others may feel this is all so predictable to not be worth stating, as Trotskyite groups are, by their nature, nuts. So you might as well write an account of the Mafia, gasping, “You’ll never guess what, they turned out quite violent.”

There’s certainly a part of me that thinks the SWP has become so adept and successful at demoralising and antagonising everyone in their own party, if they really want to help the cause of socialism they should join the Conservatives.

But they’re not all crazy, and that’s more chilling than if they were. My own initial instincts were that they can’t really be doing this, these people I used to know and drink with, and laughed with and did fund-raising benefits all over the bloody place for. I went to Telford once for the SWP. Surely I wouldn’t have done that if they were mad.

Now many of those I knew from those times are publicly backing this peculiar behaviour. The SWP produced a list of 500 of its members who supported the party’s conduct. I scrolled down this list gingerly edging towards the parts where, alphabetically, names I knew might appear, and I willed the Hs or Ns past in the hope they wouldn’t be there. Some weren’t but several were, people whose settees I’d drunk beer on and whose kids had played with my kids popping up, next to a declaration that proved they’d say or do anything, defend any act no matter how appalling, to protect one of their "leaders', in a manner approaching that of a cult.

Yet the people behaving in this irrational way did start out rational. I recall when it was an education being in the SWP, not in how to be at war with everyone but because you found imaginative ways to engage with the outside world, which was fairly important as this was by some distance bigger than the world inside the SWP.

The names on that list belonged to people who became socialists because they were enraged by war or poverty or racism, or maybe by the way women are treated in society, and they wished to combat those injustices. Many were instrumental in the Anti-Nazi-League, Stop the War and countless local campaigns.

So how could this change have happened? Maybe it started in the 1990s, when the SWP began to shrink, probably due to socialism becoming a harder product to sell. But it refused to acknowledge it was shrinking, preferring to insist it was constantly growing. Then, if anyone pointed out this clearly wasn’t true, they were told sharply that they were mistaken.

Like Basil Fawlty, rather than admit to telling small lies, they decided to protect them, by telling bigger and more ridiculous lies. And once that happens, internal democracy is under threat. Contest the distortions and you have to be denounced as an enemy.

Or maybe it came from such a determination to defend socialist ideas, against all orthodox thinking, that they became impervious to any criticism at all. They became so defensive that any suggestion of doing things differently was met with the phrase that this would “betray the tradition”. Even the internet was treated with heavy suspicion, with blogs and websites set up or contributed to by members frowned upon or banned.

Whatever the reasons, debate with people outside the party was replaced with vitriol. A trade unionist who usually backed the SWP disagreed with them on an issue, so a story was invented that they’d rigged the vote to get their union position. Often when people left the SWP, it was announced that they’d never been members in the first place.

The organisation which, whatever its faults, had once been a cauldron of exuberance, debate and enthusiasm, was edging towards becoming a cult. And that’s the most alarming aspect of this story, that cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.

SWP members who have taken a stand on the current issue seem bewildered as to why their leaders behave in this illogical way. But the reason may be that the debate isn’t really about the allegations, or attitudes towards feminism, it’s about accepting that you do as you’re told, that the party is under attack at all times so you defend the leaders no matter what, that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong. Dissent on an issue and your crime is not to be wrong about the issue, it’s that you dissented at all.

So it does matter, because the end result of this process is that many bright eloquent fighters against bullying have become the bullies, and many potential bright eloquent fighters against bullying may be put off from participating in that fight, if they think it will end with behaviour like this.

And it matters to me, because I can’t claim to be entirely innocent. I was in this party for 28 years. I must have accepted claims that didn’t make sense, and ignored accounts of appalling behaviour, or sighed and hoped the tricky issue I heard about would go away of its own accord. Somehow the critical faculties that led me to join a socialist group deserted me with regard to the group itself.

It matters because anyone considering taking part in the activities of the left is entitled to ask how we can ensure that abuse of women won’t be dismissed as "moralism".

And because there’s now an enduring sense of uneasy rage against the injustices of the free market, which encompasses a brilliant array of diverse characters, and between us we have to work out how to turn that into an effective opposition, without making the same mistakes. Surely we can establish movements and forums in which we can debate our aims and differences, in a spirit that inspires and invigorates all who take part, rather than berating anyone who disagrees.

There’s a mass of disparate individuals, committed to opposing the values of the bankers, the tax exiles and the sneering face of free market authority. Surely we can embrace that enthusiasm and energy, and encourage it rather than demoralise it.

We can’t ensure that no one in our ranks will behave appallingly, but we can ensure that everyone is accountable, so that no one is allowed special protection because they have a place on a committee.

Over the last few weeks I’ve almost dared to be optimistic. Effective characters such as Owen Jones, Salma Yaqoob, Caroline Lucas, Laurie Penny, along with Unite and other unions, and organisers of UK Uncut are launching the People’s Assembly, which could represent the most encouraging attempt for years, to create a movement that can attract the heaps of people appalled by the current order that’s running society.

So we have to follow the same rules as anyone who wants to win the support of a wide layer of people, by creating an atmosphere that attracts rather than repels, in which everyone who contributes feels a sense of accomplishment, where differences are celebrated rather than sneered at, and in which the many inevitable mistakes are part of the glorious chaos of building a genuine movement.

That movement will be the product of all who take part in it, and won’t be an end in itself to be protected no matter how it behaves, but a means to an end, which is a world less cruel, more exhilarating, less bullying and more fun, that it was when we found it.

P.S. Since writing the start of this I’ve looked up the average home attendance of Mansfield Town, and this season it’s been 2389, which is much higher than the SWP membership. After all this I’d guess they’ll be close to Braintree, on 624.

Comments

SWP Crisis

The mention of a cult situation by Mark is close but actually I suggest the correct term is a sect. The two forms share some characteristics but the sect is either religious or political, whereas a cult's obsessive devotion - which both share - can pivot around any esoteric interest. There is a range of sectarian characteristics. For those interested I have identified 10 in the article, 'The question of Sectarianism and calls for a General Strike' at www.critical-mass.net. However, the same sexist and authoritarian phenomena Mark and others have identified in SWP occurred in the WRP a number of years ago and both instances reveal the nature of sectarianism and its broader patriarchal tap-root across the left in general, as I suggest in 'Clinging onto Patriarchy 'also at critical-mass.net. Regards, Roy

When a Rigid Party Meets a Complex and Maleable Reality ...

...Something's gotta give and, guess what, it isn't the complex and maleable reality!

Thanks, Mark Steel. I am assuming that your original name is not Josip Djugashvili - a Georgian renowned for only laughing at people he sent to Siberia, and making a minor mistake concerning 'the Pope's battalions' (they are out there worshipping a dubious CEO whilst Stalin's battalions have melted like the Siberian snow in Spring [=July]).

I have no trouble admitting my schadenfreude (pleasure at another's...umm?... discomfort?) at the public exhibition of the shortcomings of the SWP (Shortcomings? I am here being polite and moderate). My experiences with the SWP were limited but dramatic. And I have no trouble admitting that they touched the raw nerve of my 30-40 years in the CPGB (I include my pre-YCL infancy, chanting 'Open the Second Front Now!).

1st Experience: Some kind of 'open' 'social-movement' event at Hammersmith Townhall, where a crowd of Socialist Worker Yahoos didn't know what the ICFTU and ILO stood for even though I was criticising them.

2nd: Sending to the 'Socialist Worker' a critical comment on an article about the contemporary working class, by Cde Harman and receiving not even an acknowledgement (paper lends itself better to control than cyberspace).

4th (sorry?): The European Social Forum, Florence, 2002ish, where the SWP had decided to take over the event by weight of UK numbers. And where, surrounded by more Reinvented Italian Communists and friends, literally grabbed the vanguard of a seriously big demo, chanted, imaginatively, 'One Solution, Revolution'. I shouted that they didn't know the difference between a solution and a problem but they remained unimpressed.

3rd - or maybe it was 4th?): A World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, 2002-3?, where Michael Albert-Parecon-Zindustries Unlimited, had mounted a programme, 'Life after Capitalism', to which Michael had invited a half-dozen British SWPers, all wearing different hats and thus able to speak that many times more than anyone else (Marta Harnecker, who took the time of even Alex Calinicos, excepted).

Last? Latest?: The London ESF, 2004, where the SWP had negotiated part-ownership of the event with other well-organised/funded 'verticals', whilst I was urging on the 'horizontals' the slogan, 'horizontals don't take things lying down'. (One of the things the latter didn't take lying down was my slogan).

Of course there are good people still in the SWP. But they are going to be even better when they are outside it with the rest of us who have been burned once too often.

Resignation Letter

RESIGNATION

I joined the SWP in February 1977, just after the party had changed its name (and always regretted never having been in the IS). I went straight into the thick of things - Grunwicks, Lewisham, Right to Work marches and then the ANL. I lost my job as a result, got thumpings and death threats from the NF and ended up, unemployed with a young daughter, selling the paper on my own in Chester through the Falklands war. Never regretted a moment of it and don’t now.

Later in the 1980’s I got work in welfare rights, a field I’ve stayed in ever since; politically ambiguous because it involves individual advocacy, rather than collective action but it earned me a living and at least did no harm. Did my bit during the miners’ strike and waited for better times. But things are a bit different in a modest provincial city rather than a metropolis. You work with the rest of the left - Militant and CND at the time - because you have to. The SWP kept me active and, yes, probably did keep me out of Cliff’s swamp, preventing cosy compromises.

But by the end of the 80’s I had a problem: the poll tax. The SWP took a disgracefully sectarian turn, in active opposition to the non-payment campaign. Let no-one tell you this was a principled position, arguing for action by council workers. It may have started like that but it went on, long after it was obvious that there was going to be a mass campaign of non-payment, as a reflex opposition to anything the Millies were doing. So I ignored the party and worked in the anti-poll tax unions. Fortunately the SWP changed position - just in time for the first Iraq war.

We talk about the IS tradition, meaning the ideas of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution and so on. But just as important is the ingrained tradition of praxis found in the party. And in the SWP perhaps the strongest such tradition is that we know what to do when our ruling class starts a war. We oppose it, actively and up front, whatever the difficulties. The period of my political activity of which I am most proud is the early 90’s when the poll tax and the anti-war campaigns ran into and fed from each other.

And so the reactionary ‘80’s became the nondescript ‘90’s. Without having a very clear idea what was going on (remember ‘the 1930’s in slow motion’ anyone?) the SWP grew quite impressively, partly because we were the only people left standing after the collapse of communism . I joined in intermittently.

Then came 9/11. Stop the War swept us all up and along. I woke up one day at a Merseyside aggregate to find John Rees telling us that because a Labour left challenge to Blairism had failed to materialise we were going to have to provide it ourselves, through Respect. News to me, having spent the whole of the 1980’s arguing against Labourist perspectives, (and having tried to make a real go the the Socialist Alliance). Never mind, the leadership had real, earned in action, authority back then.

But has anything gone right since?

TO COMRADES IN THE CC FACTION

You think you won in Hammersmith. You didn’t: you lost. For all the foot-stamping and cheering you lost, comprehensively and probably irrevocably.

I’m not going to go into ‘ the case’. But just look at the effects. And keep looking because it isn’t over yet.
● Hundreds of members have resigned with more to come. Hundreds more will just drift away. You only had 2,500 members to start with (don’t bother lying about the numbers - ask Mark H about the Merseyside members list).
● UtR backing is evaporating, as reported at last week’s branch meeting
● Marxism is going to be a small, dispirited event this year; most of the non-party speakers have already withdrawn
● the SWP in short is a small, shrinking and ageing organisation, living on past glories
● the CC do not have a clue what to do. They are divided and will split again at or before next conference (but they won’t tell you about it beforehand). Mark Thomas at last week’s meeting might as well have been represented by an empty chair for all the ideas and spirit he showed (in fact was he really there? It’s all rather vague in the memory...)

And don’t be fooled by the fact that people still talk to you. That’s because you’re all, as far as I’m concerned, decent socialists and militants, with your own records to lean on. People feel sorry for you.

I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel like giving each and every one of you a kick up the bum. Most of you have long and honourable records as class fighters. Yet you allow yourselves to be dragooned and misled by a completely mediocre leadership. You are each worth 10 of the current CC. 100! (1,000! Cliff would say but he always exaggerated).

Stay members, that’s fine, better than being inactive. But don’t put up with being lied to, patronised, kept in the dark, told what you can and can’t discuss, being required to say everything’s fine when it isn’t and listening to dreary speakers trying to reheat 30 year old ideas that you have already learned verbatim. Try not to believe (because it really can’t be true if you think about it) that your party’s problems are all being caused by the internet, young people today, ruling class attacks (they’re not attacking the SWP they’re laughing at you), uppity feminists or Richard Seymour. If bad things keep happening to your party, then it is not unreasonable, or disloyal, to hold your leadership at least partly responsible.

(But you’ll need to be ruthless and stick together or the Professor will get you too).

TO COMRADES IN THE IDOOP FACTION

I apologise. I voted for the sense of the final faction statement and so was committed to staying in with you. Then I contemplated going public and selling the paper. And I just couldn’t do it. I would be ashamed. For the first time in my life not just temporarily embarrassed by a turn I wasn’t convinced about but comprehensively ashamed.

I know we voted for the long haul of recovering our party from the present morass. But I’m not, after all up for it. And I’m afraid it’s all your fault. Yes, each and every one of you. Bastards. Because in the faction I experienced more creative political discussion and political passion than I have in years. And I want more of it.

We each have to make our own personal reckoning with the Party and I’m not going to tell anyone what to do. The faction leadership’s claims already to have made a difference within the party are not empty and I’m sure that, as you go on, you will force further movement. And I think the struggle is on the rise again, which will be good for everyone. For myself I’d just say that my MS is only gently progressive but it is progressing and I would like to be involved in something politically creative while I still can. Anyway, that’s my excuse for impatience.

WHAT NEXT?

The Professor opened proceedings at Hammersmith by announcing that “the SWP is not an institution of bourgeois society”. Note the polyvalent and evasive “of”. But the SWP is definitely an institution within bourgeois society and duly affected by that. That we have Marxist ideas in no way exempts us from the Marxist insight that the social relations of production in which we are embedded profoundly affect both our ideas and praxis. SWP comrades above all should know this.

And we have a problem with a party bureaucracy which has taken on many of the forms of the stratified and managerialist society in which it sits. We never discuss this. But that is the root cause of our current problems. The party’s bloated centre (3% or more of party membership is made up of full timers by my estimate) is identified with the party itself and must be defended at all costs. And so a pesky 19 year old making a complaint becomes a challenge to ‘Leninism’.

It doesn’t even work well. Our leadership is out of touch and ineffective. Our branch is working well round the bedroom tax. The leadership contributed nothing. Indeed they have offered no way forward since the collapse of the pensions dispute in December 2011 at least.

Of course they have some basic competence. They can produce an OK paper. They can defend an existing corpus of ideas competently, as can we all. They can occasionally take an effective initiative - the RtW assault on companies exploiting Workfare springs to mind. But nothing comes out of it.

Perhaps above all, in unprecedented times, when the ruling class is conducting open class war as never before in recent times, when Southern Europe is convulsed by revolt, when existing political and ideological structures are collapsing around us our leadership have next to nothing to say: just carry on with the routine, prattle about a weak government (our Coalition government might be weak; our ruling class is not) and wait for an upturn.

What does it mean to be a revolutionary in these times? What do we mean by socialism after the collapse of the supposed alternatives in the East? What would a socialist revolution look like and what sort of crisis might engender it? We actually need answers at this sort of level because history is asking us questions anew. Every day. Today, for instance, in Cyprus. Is the bank raid a model for the revolutionary appropriation of private property? Is there a prospect of a hegemonic alliance of the working class with small businesses against the oligarchy? Neil Davidson started to think about this sort of thing in his Big Book only to be slapped down in his usual patronising way by the Professor.

But it’s not just about high theory. What do we say and do about UNITE community branches? How do we fight back in the war on welfare? How do we relate to the million of workers in non-unionised private sector workplaces? We say nothing or talk about something else, even when faced with these everyday practical problems.

So, anyway, I say it’s time to try again. I actually find myself agreeing with every single proposition in this piece by John Game - “How to become a Leninist” at http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/
So I’m off to join the IS Network (temporary name I hope) and give that a try. Anyone else tempted is very welcome and there’s quite a few people there you’ll know.

Otherwise, I will see you around I’m sure. No particular hard feelings, and lots of respect, for everyone in the branch on my side; and I propose happily to ignore the convention that we do not talk to ex-members. Good luck with your project and if you can turn the SWP round (when you’ve sacked the Professor I’ll take notice) I will gladly admit my errors.

Richard Atkinson
18.3.13"

Statement of Resignation from Canada's IS

Statement of Resignation

1. Opposing violence against the oppressed, including violence against women, is a question of principle for socialists.

2. There has been an allegation of very serious sexual violence involving a leading member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party UK (SWP).

3. The SWP Central Committee has failed to deal with this with the seriousness it deserves. It has persistently rejected efforts by a substantial number of its members and supporters to address this adequately. In fact, members of the SWP have faced disciplinary action for attempting to remedy this situation.

4. The International Socialists (I.S.) in Canada has been for many years, and remains, a member of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), of which the SWP is the largest and leading organization.

5. In January 2013, delegates to the annual convention of the I.S. in Canada voted (14 to 2, with one abstention) to reject a resolution calling on the leadership to write a public a letter of concern over these matters.

6. It is now March. The SWP has held a special conference on this issue. The SWP leadership remains intransigent. The leadership of the I.S. in Canada still remains silent, and therefore continues to be undifferentiated from the SWP in the IST.

7. Silence is not an option. On principle, therefore, we the undersigned can no longer remain as members of the International Socialists. Regretfully, please accept this as our letter of resignation.

Abbie Bakan

Ian Beeching

Brian Donnelly

Jay Gannon

Paul Kellogg

John Riddell

Suzanne Weiss

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