A Guest Post by B. Smeaton
First off, this piece is nothing which is either groundbreaking or adding new, controversial details into the scandal that is bringing down the Socialist Workers Party, an organisation in which I have spent the bulk of my political life. It is certainly not addressed to the party loyal which will no doubt write this off in the same way as Alex Callinicos, that this is merely the “dark side” of the internet, that it’s all lies, heresy and so forth. If this is you, I am not really interested in your judgement or response to this – I think the response of the organisation in recent months has been very clear, that it will sacrifice principle, members and resources to cover up the indefensible. The reports surfacing that the party’s Disputes Committee has in fact ruled on more allegations of rape than was previously known is outrageous, yet in what perhaps is the most ugliest part of the affair, entirely unsurprising for many of us. Any reply or defence you make is one which, in my view, spits in the face of victims, wider involvement in the left, and everything radicalism should stand for.
I also don’t wish to use this space to talk about those in the party who were involved with either the In Defence of Our Party faction or the Democratic Renewal Platform, many of whom have left. Now, I genuinely believe that most of the people involved in IDOOP had good intentions, but I disagreed with their strategy of “reclaiming” or “saving” the party. I am glad many involved have now resigned from the party, realising they cannot stay in an unsafe and rape-denying organisation. If you decide to stay in the party, you are becoming implicit in this. You need to leave, and you know the arguments why. What I’d like to do here is to recant my experiences of being in the SWP, and try to offer some insight into why the organisation has transformed into a cult-like formation which threatens to discredit much of the left.
Like many of my generation, I was radicalised by the anti-war movement, and for me it started before the huge demonstrations we witnessed in 2003 – it started on a localised level, in the North-East of Scotland, at many of the stalls and ‘flash’ demos in town in the run-up to the war. I quickly got involved as much as I could. One thing that can be said about the anti-war movement is that it was a good breeding ground for the left, in the sense that, for young people, this was the first war that wasn’t just images on a TV screen but a real organic movement of opposition in the streets. Being exposed to the anger and passion so many people had tends to rub off on you, and so do the other questions you are exposed to: why are there billions for war, yet hospitals are shutting? Why is there no money for the welfare state? The Scottish Socialist Party were active in Aberdeen at the time, and I would eventually end up joining them a short time later.
Now here’s where the SWP comes in. The SSP in Aberdeen North/Central was small, at one point almost disappeared, and then suddenly became really active – helping to organise trade union action, getting buses booked for demos in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and holding regular public meetings. The SWP, at this point a platform within the SSP, were doing much of the organising in the area; and if you’re young and involved in politics the chance to get in amongst it all seemed to be a pretty good one. I didn’t particularly care about Tony Cliff or how good the state capitalism theory was, it was purely motivated by the fact that I wanted to get in amongst the activity. I even thought Socialist Worker was a decent read. When you join, or at least when I did, it was almost reassuring – talking about how important democracy is, how vital it is to engage with the wider movements against war and racism, and that we need to look out to the class rather than in on ourselves. To this day I still hold these things up as being key parts of the socialist and internationalist tradition.
Throughout the next five or so years being a member, I was relatively loyal. That’s not to say I agreed with everything the party did, but not to the extent that I would ever speak outside of party circles on the issue. The reason for doing this was pretty simple, namely that I bought into a political culture that preaches openness and democracy, yet on many occasions actually failed to deliver on this. What I mean by this is twofold. Firstly, aside from the recent scandal engulfing the party, the SWP doesn’t comment on criticism from outside forces. Anything levelled at the party is internally dismissed as “sect talk” that we “don’t engage with because we look out into the movement”. Now, I disagree with responding to every single thing flung at an organisation if you’re in one as, let’s be honest, it’s time and energy which could be spent on better things and half the time it is some sect that wants to have a go on how you’re selling out the true values of the Secretatiat of the Fourth International Provisional Central Democratic Renewal Faction Committee (Pabloist)(Bolshevik-Leninist). However, when there is a serious political question or criticism levelled at you, it simply isn’t good enough to dismiss it out of hand and blame it on the wee groups. While I’m on that point, not all small groups are sects either, yet certain sections of the SWP like to be very triumphalist about their party’s numerical position in the British anticapitalist scene.
Because of this attitude internal democracy suffers as well. If all criticism and disagreement is sidelined on the outside, it’s almost natural that it will happen on the inside also. Any criticism can often be met with either a rebuttal that it isn’t as important as the wider united front movements, or simply no response at all – people in certain positions just keep doing what they’re doing. This counts, to some extent, the so-called ‘leading members’ that organise the campus or industrial activity, and always seem to make the decisions for the group, but for the most part it refers to a certain ‘old school’ style of member, the ones that go on about how they’ve been in the party ‘since the beginning’, never actually go out and build events, yet every time there is a conference or election to a steering committee, always sail through. Of course, this can lead to understandable resentment from some sections of the membership, especially those who actually are involved in day-to-day building and activity. This is not just an SWP phenomenon, but again creates another rift within an organisation where younger or inexperienced members then do not have the confidence to speak up to the ‘political heavyweights’. When you dismiss all criticisms as just idle chatter from the sects, this becomes a tension which bubbles below the surface of party organisation.
To me, this is the crux of the matter. Party democracy is constantly and consistently handled in the most appalling of ways. Factionalism is central to this – within the SWP, factions can only be declared in the run-up to conference, and must be disbanded immediately after. This simply doesn’t work. I regard factions as a breakdown in a party structure itself. If members are unable to air disagreements in an organisation in an open and comradely manner, for fear of dismissal and ridicule, this is a problem; and it is nothing that banding together in a few months before a conference is going to solve. If you allow this factionalism to permeate, it is used as a convenient excuse for certain sections to attach blame to members, or even drive them out. A textbook case or this arose during recent events, when four members were expelled for ‘factionalising’ by having a conversation on Facebook. Depending which branch you are in, it’s also difficult to ever be involved in a faction or dissenting opinion if it goes against the majority (or Central Committee) view. An example of this is when Neil Davidson’s Internal Bulletin document in 2008, calling for an overhaul of SWP structures to make it more democratic, gained support amongst Scottish students in their branches; yet many who openly supported the document at Glasgow Uni, myself included, failed to get delegate positions at the upcoming conference due to the majority of members there being CC-loyal (as the document was particularly critical towards the CC at that point). Neil’s document pointed out many inconvenient truths which did not make positive reading for the leadership – pointing out that the party’s culture resulted in revolving door membership, that the CC and organisers “seem to have no conception of how to work with other forces in situations where they cannot control them” (this, I would wager, is pretty key to why much of the left has a low opinion of the SWP in years past) and that ‘Leninism’ is something which is thrown around the justify the party’s line, yet curiously enough it’s never really explained exactly what is Leninist about it.
This brings me on to Alex Callinicos’s recent article in the Socialist Review, entitled “Is Leninism Finished?” No, argues Alex, because the SWP is here. Indeed, “If the SWP didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it”. Firstly, this is straight-up nonsense, as it almost inherently belies an idea that the SWP has some sort of potential to act as a vanguard, which simply isn’t true. It also is using Leninism as a way of making a huge diatribe against members who opposed the CC and their rape apologism, trying to alienate members who were (in my view, fruitlessly) attempting to take back the party from them. But what is ‘Leninism’ about having an unaccountable CC you cannot directly elect? In fact, I struggle to think of any other organisation which uses a slate system to elect their main theoretical and organising body. This is highly undemocratic, and rather than the excuse it is to make the CC collectively responsible when the party fucks up, it is merely a shield to make sure the usual suspects are able to keep their positions. The CC has never taken collective responsibility, and this can be seen in how former leading members, perhaps not as close to the big theory engines, have time and time again been pushed to resignation or to step down , despite their errors being no worse than the likes of Callinicos. The ‘democratically elected’ CC merely makes a ‘suggestion’ for a slate (which always goes through at conference) and that’s that. You cannot substitute members without suggesting an entirely new slate. I think even deep down long-term SWP members recognise this is ridiculous, and has needed to go ever since its inception. If a group you are involved in is going to take such great lengths to create, contrary to its beliefs, a top-down culture, they’re likely to do a lot worse if one of their kin are threatened. The ridiculous lengths taken to protect Martin Smith (the rapist referred to as “Comrade Delta” who the SWP’s Disputes Committee held their own trial of and found “not proved”) are testament to this.
Let’s go back to the recent stage-managed conferences this year and be clear about them. If you are in a position of still supporting Martin Smith, were one of the people who in the lead-up to conferences used terms such as “creeping feminism”, supported denying the rape victims’ right to attend the conference and communicate their side of the story, and cheered at the inevitable pasting the IDOOP faction got, your loyalty is to the monolith that is The Party – not to women, not to workers, and not to the ongoing fight to challenge the culture of sexism in the left. You know something is wrong when Socialist Worker report-backs and Party Notes opens with the line that “the conference was democratic”, as if that’s some kind of excuse for what happened at them. The entire concept was flawed from the start – to ask a Disputes Committee to act as some kind of court is abhorrent; and to make it worse the mind-numbingly simple fact that the majority of DC members, for instance Dave Sherry, Candy Udwin and even two members of the CC, who have worked alongside and been friends with Martin Smith for countless years, are not going to be able to make an impartial ‘judgement’ anyway. There were no support networks for the victim. A ‘not proved’ verdict is as much as not believing her, or as most of us suspect, not relevant to the DC in their defence of their friend and their party. This is a cult of personality – that the SWP is infallible, that Martin Smith should have special treatment because of his position and work, and damn the consequences to everyone else as long as the party and leadership survives. I think it’s pretty unhelpful to look at things in ‘what if’ scenarios, and that appalling acts of sexism and rape apology cannot be solely blamed on the likes of party democracy, but if the lack of said democracy in the party had been increasingly challenged from the beginning, perhaps the SWP wouldn’t have the structures in place that have allowed prominent members to get away with one of the biggest and most detestable cover-ups in the history of the British left.
The challenge for us, on the outside of the party, is now to make sure that our movement is protected from those who trivialise rape, and not to allow the work we are doing to be infected by the SWP’s toxic brand. In the past few months, the party has tried to reinvent themselves – and it’s our responsibility to make sure they do not go unchallenged. On campuses, they’ve already tried a series of meetings, shockingly, on the subjects of feminism and International Women’s Day. They showed up for the rally against GUU misogyny in Glasgow, with placards which said to ‘kick sexism off our campus’. In light of this, many on the demo tried to put the SWP in their place, but a few dissenting voices will not stop the SWP monolith trying to get into every event and demonstration possible. The SWP will no doubt be involved in the upcoming demonstrations about the Bedroom Tax – in Glasgow a Disputes Committee member will be speaking on the platform. They will attempt to ‘move on’ from what has happened. But we cannot and must not move on, for pure safety’s sake if nothing else. I can envisage their response already, but there is nothing sectarian about challenging rape or the Socialist Workers Party. We have to guarantee to those most affected by sexism, by the bedroom tax, by the Con-Dem austerity, that they will not wreck our movement, by action or association, and leave efforts for a fairer society in jeopardy. They are no longer ‘us’, and the wishes of the thousands of activists and agitators who will not work with the party must be respected. Now that is real democracy.