[Marxism] Notes on the SWP crisis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 12 07:10:00 MST 2013


Notes on the SWP crisis
by Nathan Akehurst

When coming to write this piece, when coming to share my opinions on the 
results, implications and possibilities that the crisis the SWP has been 
precipitated into, I am out of necessity conflicted and worried. There 
is an ideological, moral and intellectual clarity to the usual line of 
leftist articles- an attack on whatever injustice the forces of capital 
have created, one that provides a focus, a dichotomy, and a method of 
resistance. Polemic is much less easy when it takes place against the 
backdrop of one's own organisation- in my case a party whose philosophy 
and perspectives I remain fully committed to.

However it is from that commitment that I come to writing on what was 
happened in the wake of the allegations engulfing the Socialist Workers' 
Party. I joined in June 2010 out of a sense of principled opposition, of 
joining the organisation that  I thought provided the clearest answer, 
the most sustainable, strategically logical and above all right way of 
fighting the attacks ordinary people were due to be faced with when the 
Coalition Government was elected a couple of months earlier. It is out 
of that same spirit of principled opposition that I move to publicly 
discuss what has happened in the past few days now, on two levels. 
First, my opposition to the flagrantly unfair, construably sexist and 
without a doubt poor practice of the party's Disputes Committee in the 
case whose transcript was leaked via the Socialist Unity blog, and the 
poor excuse for democratic centralism surrounding it. Second, to 
preserve the spirit and reputation of an organisation that in spite of 
these failings I remain proud of in other respects, for its activist and 
movement work, and the education, practice and alternative it has 
provided and will continue to provide. Third, as a response to the media 
circus that has opened around the issue and is spreading like wildfire, 
beginning with this sober and repsonsible piece written by Laurie Penny 
in the New Statesman and conversely this shambolic Independent article 
that compares the party's procedures in an unpleasant and highly 
racialised way to a 'socialist sharia court.'

It was a long time after joining the party that I began to involve 
myself in its internal democracy. The excitement, opportunities and 
politics of a demonstration, picket line, political festival or radical 
meeting was what I had slowly found myself drawn into the anti-war, 
climate justice, anti-fascist and anti-austerity movements by, and it 
was what I joined the SWP to make the maximum contribution I was able 
to, to my limited ability. However, on doing so, I was pleasantly 
surprised. Myself and other members had debates and arguments. Sometimes 
they were won and lost by different participants, but we were committed 
to the same goals and worked with each other and of course that body of 
dedicated and wonderful activists that exist outside the party and/or in 
alternative ideological strands. The party's democracy impressed me and 
it was something I was pleased to be a part of- what I think remains the 
healthiest and most vibrant democracy of the parties on the British far 
left. Not that it is a wise idea to ever measure oneself against 
opponents alone- the strive for success is, in a Weberian fashion, its 
own goal (except that success in moulding a revolutionary party has much 
greater, ambitious, and more idealistic endpoints.)

This preamble is there to not only reaffirm my own dedication to 
socialist politics but the highlight the shock and betrayal I and many 
others in the organisation felt over the intervening weeks between the 
pre-party conference period and now. When rumours emerged through word 
of mouth about allegations of sexual abuse committed by a senior member 
(and one incidentally whom I respected upon seeing speak), I didn't want 
to believe it. But my involvement in socialism had given me a basic 
sense of egalitarianism at the core of my politics- the revolution 
starts here and now. It doesn't start with the Petrograd Soviet- we 
prepare for the heights of class struggle, of political strikes and 
victorious social movements in how we interact on a daily basis. In 
terms of womens' liberation, the left has come along way from the 
'Working men of all countries unite.' Thus when the allegations broke, I 
expected them to be treated with severity. It was entirely fair that the 
woman in question did not wish to approach the police- it is up to 
victims of abuse how they handle the fallout from their experience. They 
chose to approach the party's democratic structures because they thought 
that was the forum in which a fair hearing and I assume closure could be 

This was not the case. The Disputes Committee report, as we know, 
exonerated the man believed to be responsible. A panel of his close 
friends and associates sat in judgment, and questions included asking if 
it was fair to say that the victim 'liked a drink.' When I heard of 
Police, the 1980s documentary set in Thames Valley Police that explored 
how they routinely regarded rape claims as false and asked traumatic 
questions, I was disgusted. I see no reason why institutions in 
revolutionary organisations, if they are forced into the unfortunate 
position of hearing such cases, should be held to the same- in fact a 
far higher- moral standard. This is something many in the party did. 
However, the case was flawed from the offset. The second woman who 
complained was bullied at meetings by ultra-loyalists to a bureaucratic 
and not officially extant 'party line.' In response to the problems 
surrounding the issue, members raised questions and started to discuss 
the situation among themselves, attempting to find a way to proceed. No 
sooner had I been drawn into those discussions, whilst still recovering 
from a heady term of academic work and activism, than four members 
involved were summarily expelled. Their crime was being involved in a 
semi-dissident Facebook conversation, on a fallacious charge of 'secret 
factionalising.' Now, I respect democratic centralism. Democratic 
discussions are meaningless if they are not acted on, and in order for 
democratic debate to exist on an equal playing field, perspectives have 
to be shared. That is no excuse for using the fetishisation of democracy 
as a shallow pretext to clamp down on individual conversation. In the 
run up to conference, the cabal of bureaucrats escalated. 'Feminist' was 
used as an insult by some. Members were accused of being sympathisers 
with invented ideologies and forces to the point of paranoia. A Central 
Committee member argued that they hoped members left over the issue as 
it would 'separate the strong from the weak.' A dynamic of intimidation 
and rank double-standards was what I witnessed from an unrepresentative 
bureaucracy in the run-up to the 2013 National Conference.

Conference was the catch-all that was anticipated, something that would 
hopefully allay our fears and provide a base for the party to move on. 
We were focussed on the continuing amelioration of the SWP into the 
healthy democratic revolutionary tool that is able to intervene in the 
movement, at the same time as maintaining its fundamental commitment to 
womens' liberation, not merely in what it does outside but within. We 
were sorely disappointed. The procedure that took place was one that 
would have party members champing at the bit to picket, protest and 
condemn had it occurred in, for instance, a sex discrimination case in a 
major capitalist firm. The outcome of the vote on accepting the Disputes 
report was narrow- 231 conference delegates to 209, with 18 official 
abstentions, more unofficial ones and Disputes able to vote upon the 
validity of their own report, alongside the initial woman being blocked 
from speaking for bureaucratic reasons. That is not a democratic outcome 
I can accept, especially in the light of the disinformation, lack of 
communication, slander and gerrymandering (our perspectives on the 
report and other matters were introduced in party emails with preamble 
rebuttals from the National Secretary) that took place prior to and 
after the vote. Conference was a disturbing event for all, with members 
leaving shocked and saddened, some in tears.

For better or for worse, the Disputes report was leaked upon the 
Socialist Unity blog by a delegate and broke into the blogosphere, with 
cataclysmic results. The Independent and New Statesman have responded to 
the case. Tom Walker, a former Socialist Worker journalist, resigned 
from the organisation, and many others have considered doing so, in 
protest against the Disputes outcome in regard to the sexual abuse 
allegations, but also in response to the wider undemocratic and 
pervasive culture engendered by a powerful and entrenched cadre of 
bureaucrats and sympathisers in the upper echelons of the organisation's 
leadership. It is thus that the silence needs to be broken. With the 
case circulating widely anyway, there is no reason party members who had 
concerns about it should remain silent any longer in the interests of 
the womens' privacy or party reputation. In fact, it is morally 
incumbent for both reasons to express dissent publicly. It needs to be 
made clear that members of the party will not stand for this sexist 
current corroding our organisation, and that we will speak up about it. 
It is the democratic right of an activist to respond when (justified and 
grounded) charges of misogyny, bureaucracy, a lack of democracy and even 
cultism are levelled against us by the wider public and otherwise-allies 
on the left. In any circumstance, but even more so in light of the 
anti-rape movement in South Asia currently, and the feminist renaissance 
that has seen the growth of womens' activists on campuses, workplaces 
and in civil society in Britain and the world, it is vital that our 
principles and politics on these issues remain sharp and regularly 
subject to frank self-criticism. We rightly broke with George Galloway 
over his sexism in regards to the rape allegations levied at Julian 
Assange (unlike many other organisations on the left), and conversely we 
rightly opposed the NUS motion to 'no platform' George Galloway on the 
grounds that 'No Platform' is not a tactic used against people who say 
unpleasant things, but a specific strategy developed by the antifascist 
movement in Britain in response to the methods fascists use to organise. 
Our policies and perspectives are defined, but they are meaningless if 
they do not pervade our deeds inside the party and without, and look 
(correctly) hypocritical to those outside the party in the wake of cases 
such as these. Not that, sadly, sexism is exactly new to the British left.

This is why the case cannot be abandoned and simply 'moved on from', 
though I more than anyone else want nothing further than to return to 
activism and keep doing whatever small, qualitative bits I can not to 
just to theorise about the state we live in but to act; as the Marxist 
tradition reminds us 'the point is to change it' - something not ringing 
untrue with our own organisation at present. The response of party 
apparatchiks to this has been to bury their heads in the sand like 
ostriches, to wring their hands, and to deploy ever more paranoid 
allegations and tactics against the membership. Not only is this 
draconian and myopic but frankly wrong- one would think some have lost 
all sight of the fact that there has been collusion in the complete and 
utter mishandling of sexual abuse. That we are an organisation allied to 
feminism and ultimately the fullest form of human liberation free from 
exploitation does not justify it- far from it, it in fact throws the 
affair into stark relief and makes it worse. To appeal to them- for the 
sake of your own organisation and all you claim to have fought for, if 
nothing else, stop. To those considering leaving the organisation- 
don't. If you walk, they have won, if you stay, you can be a part of 
reclaiming the organisation you have helped to build. To those on the 
outside- if you are mystified and shocked by this, I am as well, and it 
is a shame (but as Laurie Penny points out), perhaps endemic that this 
is taking place. If you are active on the organised left, continue to 
work with the party and do not be dissuaded from involvement; the SWP is 
not a swamp of bureaucracy and misogyny, but those are tendencies within 
it that proliferate in every organisation and must be constantly watched 
for and fought when they manifest. I am certainly not the first party 
member to respond publicly to the issue- one need only look at SWP 
academic Richard Seymour's response to the case on his blog.

So there we have it. There are no backroom politics, no measures to 
control the media or silence the facts that would resemble a lousy 
version of a Thick of It screenplay, only a series of frank truths, 
ideas and perspectives in freefall across the internet and newspapers 
that can be perused, and hopefully perused with a view to digging 
ourselves out of this rut and getting back to intervening inside the 
struggles and tensions that will no doubt be breaking out as austerity 
and the government's ideological assault continue to bite. But no matter 
how grand the field upon which we operate in, we cannot forget this 
episode and members of the SWP can do no better than use it as an 
exemplar of the need to maintain our tradition of revolutionary spirit 
and defiance- internally as well as without.

More information about the Marxism mailing list