The crisis in the SWP affects the entire left
Stuart King and Luke Cooper look at the issues behind the turmoil in the SWP
The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took a dramatic turn in the week after its annual conference. Someone had recorded and released a transcript of what was clearly a traumatic session of conference – a challenged report of the Disputes Committee that looked into a rape allegation against a former Central Committee (CC) member. It was leaked to the Socialist Unity website and the dispute went viral. Articles about the issue have appeared in the New Statesman, Daily Mail and Independent as well as on scores of blogs. The political fall out is ongoing with SWP members resigning publicly, SWSS groups condemning the conference decision, the Serbian section of the International Socialist Tendency (the SWP’s international grouping) leaving the organisation, and the CC threatening to expel anyone who continues to raise the issue.
For those of us outside the SWP, perhaps the most shocking thing is that the CC thought it was perfectly normal for its Disputes Committee to run a rape case pseudo-trial; and worse still to do so with a jury made up of associates of the accused. While we understand the woman comrade involved asked the CC to deal with the case, we do not know whether this was a result of party pressure against involving courts and police in matters to do with the organisation. In any case, a revolutionary organisation has a right, and duty, to say that there are issues where it is not competent and where its sanctions (suspension or expulsion) are just not commensurate with the extraordinary seriousness of the offences referred to it. This point has been put across very forcefully by Linda Rodgers, a SWP member and activist of Scottish Women’s Aid, in an letter to the CC published on Lenin’s Tomb.
Sexism and democracy
For those with long memories, the crisis recalls a sexual abuse scandal that blew up the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in 1985. In that case, Gerry Healy, who ran an authoritarian and bureaucratic organisation, was expelled for serial sexual offences against young members. These crimes had been going on for decades but were only revealed because of a political and financial crisis in the group following the miners’ strike.
While the scale of the current crisis in the SWP inevitably invokes this comparison, it is important not to exaggerate the similarity. Healy and a clique that covered up for him used his political position within the party to put pressure on young female members to have sexual relations with him. There is no suggestion that anything like this has taken place inside the SWP.
The SWP have never reached the appalling authoritarianism that blighted the WRP, but it certainly has an internal regime that stifles democracy and debate and where the leadership lack accountability. This context makes cover-ups of leading members’ bad behaviour more likely. Tendencies are not allowed and factions are highly restricted. The CC is elected by the “closed slate system”, while the large full-time apparatus is appointed by the CC, not elected by the members. The length of their tenure is also determined by the CC. Anyone believed to be “in opposition” to the CC line is subject to bullying, isolation and often expulsion. The crisis over the rape allegation coincided, and it seems also encouraged, an unprecedented rebellion against these draconian and undemocratic rules, and the cultural practices they create. As longstanding SWP member China Mieville put it in discussion with Laurie Penny:
“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me. “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It’s up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”
Organisations like the SWP can often develop a sect-like mentality which observes a sad and unfortunate logic. Believing they have a “monopoly in the sphere of politics” makes “building the party” the one true goal. Other socialist competitors become rivals and there is tendency to see the class struggle as an ever-upward curve that runs in parallel to the party’s recruitment figures. This can also lead to an isolated worldview. If someone suggests reality and their experience does not match the perspective of the leadership they can be made to feel like outsiders. The party naturally develops its own social scene too. Party leaders and organisers are looked up to with the related danger that they become unchallenged and unchallengeable.
If a culture is created that considers criticism not as normal and everyday, but a sign of being difficult and ‘rocking the boat’, then it becomes easier for leaderships to turn a blind eye to, or to play down, abusive or sexist behaviour. It can be particularly difficult for young women to complain and make their voices heard. In many revolutionary organisations and trade unions, the right to caucus for oppressed groups – women, black, disabled and LGBT comrades – is taken for granted as a means, for example, of raising and combating sexist behaviour. But this is not so in the SWP, where such bodies are seen as dangerous concessions to “feminism” and “autonomism”. Just as in the workplace, where a draconian and overbearing management style is more likely to produce sexist and oppressive behaviour, so it is in a revolutionary organisation. The more democracy and control given to individuals and branches in an organisation and the more freedom given to raise criticism and problems, the less likely it is that sexist or oppressive behaviour will be tolerated. As SWP member Richard Seymour has argued on Lenin’s Tomb there is a direct link between the lack of democracy and accountability in the SWP and the way the leadership has dealt with this case and its critics.
There is also a political backdrop to this crisis in the SWP.It has lacked direction and purpose since the crisis that engulfed the party in 2008-2009 after the Respect split. This crisis was the result of the first serious split in the normally monolithic Central Committee for years. John Rees was sacked from the CC over his handling of the Respect tactic and crisis, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham resigned in solidarity, and then formed an opposition tendency. Two supporters were expelled and others left. They went on to form Counterfire. They were followed a year later by another split in Scotland led by Chris Bambery.
After Respect, the CC conceded a Democracy Commission to look into reforms, but it introduced little substantive structural change in the party. Indeed, the debate was only partly over the Respect crisis. It also raised issues of democracy and accountability that have been involved in the current dispute. The leaders that went on to form Counterfire were scapegoated by the SWP leadership for the Respect crisis. But as key SWP-Respect leaders they also stifled dissent from critical SWP members and other tendencies within the electoral coalition. In December 2008 John Rees argued against those, like Neil Davidson, who linked the crisis in Respect to a lack of democracy within the SWP. John Rees wrote:
“Neil believes that we have incorrectly designated the attempts at building new radical parties as united fronts and that this has contributed to the reverses that have taken place in our electoral work. Finally, Neil suggests that if there were a less professional leadership that included those who hold down jobs and which was drawn from different parts of the country we would be more able to deal with these issues. He is more generally critical of a ‘top down’ and anti-democratic culture of debate in the SWP that closes off necessary discussion prematurely.”
He went on to argue that the SWP CC went too far to conciliate this argument for more party democracy:
“But he [Chris Harman] agrees with many of Neil’s most immediate proposals on party democracy. I believe that this is a dangerous course on which the CC majority has embarked for purely pragmatic reasons.”
Contrary to Rees’ position at the time, the present crisis shows that the Democracy Commission established in light of these criticisms did not go far enough. Rees was completely wrong to argue against greater democratisation of the party. It is important, as many current and ex-SWP members have emphasised, that a future new left realignment in Britain develops a culture of self-criticism and reflection on past mistakes and practices in order to develop a new form of working that can offer a way forward. No one should be excluded from a new left project due to mistakes they made years ago, but equally there needs to be an honest accounting of past errors.
One factor in the current crisis is that the young people recruited into the SWP in the last few years, and particularly during the recent student struggles, come from an anticapitalist milieu influenced by general assemblies, Occupy, UK Uncut. It is a milieu imbued with respect for direct democracy and debate, contempt for authoritarianism and healthy scepticism towards top-down control. These positive features of the new anticapitalism are creating a deep crisis in bureaucratic organisations unable to connect with this new spirit of autonomy and democracy.
The SWP has also faced other problems flowing from its current perspective. It has been unable to bring in genuine allies and independent activists into its anti-austerity united front, Unite the Resistance, and as a result it is widely and rightly perceived to be a party front run as undemocratically as the SWP. At the same time there is little connection between the parties agitation for a general strike and its day-to-day practical work. Add to this, the habitually inflated membership figures that most party activists realise are clearly false and all the ingredients were present for a deep party crisis. These issues were highlighted by SWP member Neil Davidson prior to the conference when he reflected on the SWP’s lack of political direction:
“We have always refused to follow Orthodox Trotskyist organisations in drawing up programmatic demands, transitional or otherwise. For much of our history this has been a defensible position, allowing the maximum tactical flexibility to respond to changing conditions at short notice without reference to positions which may have been rendered historically irrelevant or counter-productive… But unconstrained manoeuvrability, like all forms of “stick-bending”, has come at a cost. To this day we tend to operate with a set of relatively short-term tactics through which we seek to intervene in the day-to-day life of the movement. We are endlessly exhorted to build for this-or-that all-important demonstration or event; yet when they fail to occur because the trade union bureaucracy refuses to move, or if they are significantly smaller than we predicted, or if they are successful but nevertheless do not galvanise the labour movement, this has no consequences or implications for our analysis, despite the significance we have previously ascribed to them. We simply move on to building for the next all-important demonstration or event. What is our strategy?”
In an important sense, the bureaucratism at the root of the current crisis arguably expresses an inability to respond to this political criticism.
Trigger for a party crisis
The attitude from the CC downwards to the sexual assault and rape allegations were the trigger for discussions on Facebook about whether to form an opposition tendency. This was enough to get four of them expelled on trumped up charges provoking two factions to form, a Democratic Opposition which made a series of sensible proposals for reforms, and a Democratic Centralist tendency that opposed the expulsions and criticised the CC handling of the rape allegation. A third of the recent conference opposed the expulsions and slightly under half rejected the Disputes Committee report. This is unheard of dissent within the SWP and the CC responded predictably, banning conference delegates from reporting on the Disputes Committee debate to the members, declaring the issue was now “closed” and demanding absolute loyalty from members and full-timers on pain of expulsion.
The CC has yet to wake up to the fact that they live in the age of the Internet where it is difficult, if not impossible, to suppress the free flow of information. Indeed following the conference the public debate has intensified with SWP members defying the ban, going public with their criticisms and their demands for more democracy and a recall conference. The political scandal is out in the public domain, ordinary members have to debate it, answer questions from their workmates and friends, defend or denounce “the line”. Many, like Sussex SWSS, are quite rightly denouncing it.
Overcoming the crisis of the left
No one should rejoice at the problems in the SWP. The scandal discredits the whole left and just confirms what many libertarians and non-party progressives think about the organised revolutionary left. An implosion of the biggest far left organisation in Britain in the absence of any alternative will weaken everyone struggling against austerity and capitalism. Many on the anticapitalist left, way beyond the activists that have collaborated so far with the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI), are looking for a new way forward, a method of overcoming the sectarianism and divisions of the past, a way of combating austerity and capitalism. The ACI should be flexible and try to contribute to this on-going process – the task of building a new, democratic and un-sectarian revolutionary left.