[Marxism] A tale of rape claims, abuses of power and the Socialist Workers party

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 8 05:39:07 MST 2013

(Interesting to see this article repeating arguments I made about Lars 
Lih, etc. Hmmm.)


A tale of rape claims, abuses of power and the Socialist Workers party

The SWP prefers to talks about organisation rather than rape, and that 
protects its leaders not its members

         Owen Hatherley	
         The Guardian, Thursday 7 February 2013	

Protesters with Socialist Worker placards
Protesters carry Socialist Worker placards. The party has been 
embarrassed by allegations of rape against one of its leaders. 
Photograph: Ben Cawthra/Rex Features

The crisis in the Socialist Workers party appears to confirm every one 
of the worst comic clichés about all that lies left of Jon Cruddas, as 
if the party's central committee were specifically aiming at eliciting 
unfunny Python comparisons. Not that there's anything remotely comic 
about covered-up rape allegations being handled by a committee partly 
consisting of the accused's friends, nor the assumption that to do 
otherwise would be "bourgeois justice", although there's something 
grimly farcical about expulsions for discussing said matter on Facebook.

But are gross abuses of power inevitable on the far left, part of its 
organisational practices? The party's leaders have chosen to frame an 
increasingly public debate over their conduct as being really about 
organisational forms, rather than about rape. It transforms into an 
argument over something called Leninism, which the SWP's opposition are 
apparently using the allegations as an excuse to abandon.

Leaving aside the huge and overwhelming matter of a self-selecting 
internal "disputes committee" quizzing a woman making a rape allegation 
about her drinking habits, there is something here that should be 
investigated. What exactly is, or was, this Leninism that is under 
threat? Received opinion and the SWP leadership can more or less agree 
on what it is. It's alternately the original sin or the greatest 
innovation of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as leader of the majority wing of 
the Russian Social Democratic party in the 1900s-1910s, based on his 
1902 text What Is To Be Done?, which apparently advocates the need for a 
centralised, disciplined vanguard party to steer the working class into 
something more radical than the "trade union consciousness" it achieves 
by itself. For the right, this leads inevitably to the gulag; for the 
SWP or similar organisations such as the Socialist party, it eventually 
leads to a glorious history of paper sales, rather successful front 
organisations and the mass production of branded placards. Is it 
historically accurate?

Both received and official SWP opinion run contrary to the most recent 
scholarly research on what actually happened in the Russian Social 
Democratic party. Lars T Lih's Lenin Rediscovered, for instance, roundly 
debunks the notion that Lenin ever wanted to create something distinct 
from the large and democratic Social Democrats of Germany. That said, 
there's little doubt that Lenin as a leader had a tendency to provoke 
splits, or that a tight organisation was useful in a party regularly 
infiltrated by the Russian secret police, whose agents even rose to a 
leadership position. Nor is there any doubt that Lenin's party genuinely 
became a "monolith" during the brutal Russian Civil War of 1918-21, and 
remained one until its 1991 dissolution.

The best thing about the myth is that it provides a formula. If a 
vanguard party led the Russian workers to revolution in October 1917, 
then maybe it might do so again. In its heart of hearts, every one of 
the Leninist groups of today, whether SWP, SP, the Communist Party of 
Britain or the smaller grouplets, believes that one day history will 
bestow upon it the mantle of the new Bolshevik party. Intelligent 
people, such as the respected social scientist and SWP leader Alex 
Callinicos, appear to genuinely believe this. So each organisation of 
the kind bans factions (except in the immediate run up to and during 
party conferences), offers a slate of previously agreed leaders to its 
members for ratification, rather than an open vote for leadership 
candidates. And in an interesting innovation that was nowhere to be 
found in What Is To Be Done?, each regularly creates front organisations 
as feelers into the non-revolutionary mass.

Yet, strangely enough, as the SWP's "democratic opposition" has pointed 
out, the Bolshevik party that seized power in October 1917 was a 
disputatious creature, large, unwieldy, democratic and faction-ridden. 
On the eve of the insurrection, two of its leaders published an attack 
on the planned action in a non-party newspaper. They were not expelled, 
but then Facebook had not then been invented. Perhaps, they seem to say, 
flipping the venerable historical example on its head, an organisation 
that was more democratic and less insular might actually be more 
successful, with Syriza a potential model. Thousands of non-aligned 
leftists would surely agree.

Yet Leninism conceived as a party drilled like an army has always had 
its uses. For the Stalin-led Communist International, it effectively 
silenced dissent from the 1920s on; as a useful organisational model, it 
was admired by Mussolini and the far right; but more pertinently, it can 
work as glue to keep together small, embattled groups. For the Militant 
Tendency of the 1980s, for instance, discipline helped protect members 
from being found out by and then expelled from the Labour party. For the 
SWP today, it provides a means of sealing itself off against the bad 
world outside. And as is now obvious, it is a useful means of protecting 
an organisation's leadership against its members, although the 
allegations suggest it is the membership that needs protecting.

A party committed to the total overthrow of the existing political and 
economic order necessarily follows different rules to any other 
(although attendees at Labour conferences may find some methods 
familiar). Such an overthrow would plausibly need a party of some kind 
capable of co-ordination and organised action.

But a party and a sect are not the same thing. Historian Gareth 
Stedman-Jones wrote of the SWP's great-grandfathers, the perpetually 
splitting Marxist sects of late Victorian Britain, that it was not their 
sectarianism that got them ignored by the mass of the people. On the 
contrary, the fact that workers were not radicalised turned the far left 
organisations into self-contained sects, whose impotence was sublimated 
into aimless doctrinal righteousness. The question is, when political 
circumstances change, can a sect change into a party? Being in a sect 
can be oddly cosy, reassuringly and stuffily familiar – to the point 
where any voices outside it are no longer heard at all.

More information about the Marxism mailing list