The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the biggest revolutionary organisation in Britain, and one of the most well-known and influential in the English-speaking world. But it’s currently in the midst of a crisis which brings issues of democracy, bullying, and sexism within the revolutionary movement to the fore.
The facts of the case have been repeated all over the radical-leftist Internet, so the following is only a brief summary. A female member of the SWP (comrade W) was in a relationship with a senior male leader of its Central Committee (CC) known as “comrade Delta”. W has accused Delta of sexual harrassment escalating to rape – and recently another female comrade has come forward with similar accusations.
The SWP insisted on handling these allegations internally, via a Disputes Committee. This Committee was made up of senior members of the organisation who knew “Delta” well, and knew nothing of W. Some commentators allege that the party put pressure on W not to go to the police.
In the course of the investigation, W was retraumatised by intrusive questions about her personal life – about her intimate relationships, and about her drinking habits. Finally, the Disputes Committee report to the SWP’s annual conference returned a verdict of “not proven”.
This report was only accepted by a tiny margin in the Conference, after a stormy debate in which the strongest criticisms of the whole handling of the case were aired. A transcript of this debate was leaked to a leftist blog critical of the SWP. (1)
Since then, the CC has claimed that comrade Delta was “exonerated”, and demanded that all discussion in the SWP on the case must end. But far from drawing a line under the issue, it has exploded. Richard Seymour – blogger at Lenin’s Tomb (leninology.blogspot.com) and the SWP’s most prominent public intellectual – has openly come out against the CC.
Seymour – along with other prominent SWP members such as science fiction author China Miéville – is demanding a recall of the SWP conference, the resignation of the whole Central Committee, and reforms to ensure that that future leaderships will be democratically accountable. This kind of open defiance is historic in an organisation which traditionally presents a monolithic face to the wider Left.
The radical blogs have preserved W’s anonymity, but Delta’s real identity is an open secret and the curious can find it by a quick google. While he was removed from the CC, he is still a leading figure in a delegation the SWP is sending to an anti-fascist conference in Greece. One of the demands of the opposition is that he be withdrawn.
Shutting down debate
While the Disputes Committee’s victim-blaming and dodgy process should be a scandal to every revolutionary, the Central Committee’s attempts to shut down debate on the subject have brought the situation to a head.
In the SWP, formal factions are only allowed in the three months before a national conference. A few comrades began discussing on Facebook whether they needed to declare a faction. The CC responded to this by expelling four of them for “secret factionalism”!
In response to this, two factions were declared. Their names – Democratic Opposition and Democratic Centralists – suggest what the real issue is in the SWP today. Activists felt that not only had the CC attempted to stifle the formation of opposition groups, but had actively lied to the membership about the content of the accusations against Delta.
Sadly, the SWP has “form” when it comes to “protecting the leadership”, at the expense of politics or even the truth. Issues raised by opposition currents as far back as 1994 look familiar today. (2)
When the SWP split with the broad-left Respect Coalition in 2007, Respect supporters in the SWP were pre-emptively expelled. Members were rallied with accusations that the dispute was a “witchhunt” against socialists in general and against senior CC leader John Rees in particular.
The now-defunct Socialist Worker, the New Zealand member of the SWP’s international socialist tendency (IST), criticised this at the time:
If [the expelled] comrades are not being victimized for raising a political alternative to the line of the Central Committee, it certainly gives the appearance of such victimization - or even, to use a word which has become common currency recently, witch-hunting. (3)
Some SWP members who went along with the process at the time now see parallels with the current attempts by the CC to create a bunker mentality around comrade Delta.
Socialists and the police
Some comment on the case has suggested that the SWP did the right thing by dealing with the case “in-house”, since socialists should never go to the police.
It’s certainly true that the police under capitalism cannot be trusted to treat accusations of sexual violence towards women sensitively or even seriously. But the report from the Disputes Committee makes it clear that, in that regard, the SWP also has a terrible record.
A bourgeois court will be a retraumatising and victim-blaming space for survivors of sexual assault. But even a bourgeois court wouldn’t dare have the case judged by colleagues of the accused. In a police investigation, we could expect that trained professionals would be available to help the complainant. The SWP does have at least one comrade trained in rape crisis – but, far from helping W, she was on the panel judging her.
It’s argued that going to the police would give the forces of the State an excuse to destroy our organisations and frame our members. But the attitude that we shouldn’t talk about our problems in front of outsiders is deeply problematic. Secrecy promotes abuse. The police protect the powerful against the powerless – but the SWP Disputes Committee seems to have done the same thing, only less professionally than the police would.
Comrade W’s supporters claim that they were subject to a whispering campaign against them by supporters of comrade Delta and the CC. Among the accusations allegedly thrown at them was “creeping feminism”. This is not a new accusation. In a faction fight within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) of 2006, SWP-aligned members of the SSP argued that their political opponents were under the influence of “feminist ideas” which the SWP had dealt with back in the ’80s.
To see why this strange-sounding accusation might have been raised, it’s necessary to go into SWP history. In the late 1970s, the SWP published a Women’s Voice paper in an attempt to interact with the growing feminist movement. In the early 1980s, a faction fight was launched against the supporters of Women’s Voice, whom it was argued were abandoning Marxism.
The late Tony Cliff, founder and main leader of the SWP, argued that Marxism and feminism were actually opposed to one another. Since then, the SWP and other IST parties have had a very negative line on feminism. Over the last thirty years, this line hasn’t been updated to take account of third-wave feminism, queer theory or other recent developments.
The SWP’s hard line on feminism was criticised by Socialist Worker NZ in 2008:
[M]ore and more, particularly young, women are identifying as feminists… the attitude of most revolutionary socialists would be to engage these women in discussion, talk about how capitalism is at the root of the problems… and hopefully be open to learning things from them as well.
… We are also doing ourselves no favours if we fail to acknowledge that socialists have, at times, been less than welcoming to women or have marginalised women’s issues. (4)
Sexism on the left
The SWP of course has a line on women’s issues, but of a moralistic bent. Recent campaigns against “raunch culture” - that is, commodified sexuality – centred not around defending women’s right to free expression of sexuality, but, in the words of one blogger “ridiculing working-class women for wearing push-up bras” (5). As a former SWP member told The Spark, this political attitude:
was moralistic, reactionary and oppressive. It demanded an eternal vigilance about “sexism” on the part of male comrades which actually enforced a humourless respectability and became a front for hypocrisy. (6)
On the subject of hypocrisy, it is clear that comrade Delta’s behaviour is not something new in the British SWP. The blogger mentioned above made these pointed remarks directed at that party in 2007:
…there is a very senior cadre who is notorious for his wandering hands, at least when he’s had one too many. … [N]ot one but several young female comrades feel uncomfortable around a longstanding cadre because of his persistent habit of talking to their cleavages.
[T]he group has a culture of institutional bullying, where women are not given more consideration, but generally speaking less… (5)
Another former SWP member told The Spark about an incident which happened in the early 1990s:
an SWP Central Committee member sexually assaulted one of my friends (this was not a matter of an ‘unproven allegation’, since the person admitted his guilt at great length to me, putting it down to his heavy drinking). … She fought back, and eventually stopped him in his tracks … The woman didn’t want to pursue the matter in any way and, not surprisingly, dropped out of the SWP shortly afterwards. As an SWP district organiser I raised this with the CC, asking that the person be disciplined even though there was no complaint as such, but it was explained to me that “this sort of thing happens under capitalism”, and nothing could be done about it. (7)
These are only the most shocking examples. Relationships like the one between Delta (an older male leader) and W (a younger female ordinary member) have been allowed to flourish within the SWP. If Delta was W’s employer in a capitalist workplace, even a liberal feminist would be able to recognize sexual harrassment, or at least a very unhealthy power dynamic.
As Lenin said, socialists must be judged not by never making mistakes, but on how they respond to mistakes. The British SWP has responded to its mistakes in the Delta/W case – as in previous cases - by protecting its leadership, and attacking comrades who won’t let the matter drop. It’s putting its own group’s prestige and power ahead of principles of women’s liberation and democracy. Marxists call that “sectarianism”.
Fightback (formerly the Workers Party) has challenged sexually predatory behaviour on the left, and conducted discussions on safer spaces in political organising. (8) Socialists have to take issues of power and sexual harrassment seriously within our own organisations. We have to build alliances with feminist and queer movements and build safer spaces for women to develop as activists. And we have to reject any leadership which does not hold itself to strict standards of democracy-from-below.
A socialist organisation isn’t some kind of “magic circle” protected from the sexist attitudes and power politics of the real world. Our job as socialists is not to protect “our own” no matter what, but to root out and expose bullying, abusive and exploitative behaviour, with the ultimate goal of universal human liberation. If we don’t do it, we are letting down ourselves and the whole movement.
- Newman, Andy. “SWP Conference Transcript: Disputes Committe Report. Socialist Unity, 7 January 2013. http://www.socialistunity.com/swp-conference-transcript-disputes-committee-report/
- Wilson, Andy. “IS Group: Discussion Document of ex-SWP Comrades (1994).” Unkant Publishing, 24 December 2012. http://www.unkant.com/2012/12/is-group-discussion-document-of-ex-swp.html
- Lawless, Daphne. “The crisis in Respect: a letter to the British SWP”. Unity blog, 31 October 2007. http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.co.nz/2007/10/crisis-in-respect-letter-to-british-swp.html
- Potts, Anna. “How Marxism and feminism work – together”. Unity journal, March 2008, pp 111-16. Not currently online.
- Splintered Sunrise blog, 17 December 2007. “I am not a number!” http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2007/12/17/i-am-not-a-number/
- Personal communcations.
- Hartendorp, Kassie. “Safer Spaces in Political Organising.” Workers Party, 10 August 2012. http://workersparty.org.nz/2012/08/10/safer-spaces-in-political-organising/