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

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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.