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|Martin Smith, former National Secretary of SWP - at the centre of serious allegations of sexual violence|
Can the SWP survive its own failures of internal democracy?UPDATE
Although I didn't realise it until reading the transcript, the second woman who made a complaint of sexual harassment against Comrade 'Delta' has been barred from working at the SWP HQ. In her own words 'Within days of the hearing I asked to be allowed to return to work, but in many meetings and appeals to the central committee I was repeatedly told that I’d disrupt the harmony of the office. The worst part and the most stressful part of this is the motivations that have been ascribed to people coming forward.'
If I were acting as her employment lawyer I would do, as I have done on many similar occasions with capitalist employers, tell her to resign and claim constructive dismissal and detriment on the grounds of having made a complaint of sexual harassment as well as the dismissal itself. That would be my strong advice to Comrade X now. The SWP has to know that it is not above the most basic laws that even capitalist society has conceded in respect of discrimination and sexual and other harassment.
I have also received the following from a recent member of the SWP:
'By the way, don't quote me as the source of this, but are you aware that not only are SWP members being expelled from the party but members of SWP staff in their office in Vauxhall are being sacked too? There seems to be a full-scale purge going on. Hannah Dee is now off the CC as part of the purge ...
Another thing: Judith Orr may have leapt to the defence of the party position over Atzmon, but my sources tell me that she was on the right side of the current split i.e. she supported the alleged victims. Again don't quote me on this please. Not sure whether she will also be purged, will resign or whatever ... watch this space.'
The debate at the SWP Conference was stacked. Most of the speakers were supportive of the Central Committee. The debate was curtailed instead of being extended. The victim of the alleged rape was barred from listening to the debate itself. The behaviour of the SWP is so bad one wonders where they have been for the last 30 years. Have they learn nothing? Do they not understand that asking the victim about her past/present sexual relationships, her drinking habits etc. is part of the process whereby rape is made acceptable?
The Socialist Workers Party is the largest group on Britain’s far-left, with an estimated membership of around 2,500 although the statistical manoeuvres, which are part of the greater problem facing the SWP, has led to these figures being inflated to around 7,000.
The present unprecedented crisis within the SWP, leading to the expulsion of four members before even holding their annual conference, just after the New Year, the near defeat of the Central Committee at the conference, a split in the CC itself, with four members standing on a separate slate and the resignation of a long-standing journalist Socialist Worker journalist, Tom Walker, whose statement is beneath, signify that the long-standing problems of lack of democracy, declining membership, auto-activism without political coherence, the legacy of Respect and now an inability to take on board serious allegations of rape and sexual harassment by a senior Party member, have come to a head. The question is whether the SWP itself can survive.
The catalyst for the crisis in the SWP were the allegations of rape by one member of the SWP and the sexual harassment of another member by Martin Smith, former SWP National Secretary. It is of course impossible to know whether there is any foundation to the rumours, although it is unlikely that there is no smoke without fire, but how they were dealt with by the SWP leadership speaks volumes about the mentality of the leadership clique led by Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber and their attitude to ordinary members. It also speaks volumes about their commitment to socialism since it is difficult to imagine a more serious and vile act than rape by a senior member of the leadership of a political group against a young comrade.
Martin Smith is, regardless of the truth of these allegations, a particularly unpleasant individual, both politically and personally. Weekly Worker of 12 July 2007 Stop thuggery in workers` movement described how Simon Wells, who was expelled from the SWP, was attacked without provocation by Smith, at Marxism 2007, when he refused to hand over the ticket he had paid for when queuing to go into a session: “The SWP`s national organiser angrily demanded comrade Simon`s ticket to the Marxism event and, when he refused, Smith instantly attacked him. Wrestled to the floor, comrade Simon sustained bruising, abrasions and back strain.”
It was also Smith who was primarily responsible for the SWP hosting and politically defending Gilad Atzmon against accusations of anti-Semitism. From 2005 to 2009 the SWP was content to make use of Atzmon’s status as a leading jazz musician, regardless of his racist views. Martin Smith, a devotee of John Coltrane and jazz, was content to ignore Atzmon’s views as taking secondary priority to his musical affections.
|Otto Weininger - Hitler's favourite Jew and the subject of Atzmon's talk to the SWP in 2005|
Although the reason Judith gave for Atzmon’s hosting an event, was to read from his book ‘My One and Only One’ in fact Atzmon gave a talk on Otto Weininger, a German Jewish philosopher and author of the anti-feminist Sex and Character, of whom Hitler once remarked that ‘Dietrich Eckart once told me that in all his life he had known just one good Jew: Otto Weininger, who killed himself on the day when he realized that the Jew lives upon the decay of peoples". In charge of stewarding and grimacing at the demonstrators was Martin Smith, who hovered at the entrance to Bookmarks. Even SWP members who had fraternised with the demonstrators were barred from the meeting.
I should confess my own experience of the SWP. In 1970, after having participated in my first demonstration, in Newport, South Wales against the tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, I came across and soon joined the International Socialists Group, forerunner of the SWP, at the age of 16 whilst still at school. By the age of 18, with less than 3 years membership, I was expelled from the group for breach of discipline, namely openly dissenting from the IS line, which was to wind up the Anti-Internment League. [see The Left: There’s no success like failure - Tony Greenstein bemoans the continuing self-marginalisation of Britain’s far left
|Martin Smith outlining the finer points of theory to the UAF|
What is remarkable is that an allegation as serious as rape even came before the Disputes Committee of eight, which is packed with 5 current or former members of the Central Committee. The DC found that the allegations against Smith were ‘not proven’, though one member dissented from this (also unprecedented). Just what expertise the DC has to pronounce on whether rape has occurred is not clear. The existence of an SWP forensic and detective department hasn’t previously been highlighted as a part of the SWP’s structures. They were unable to take sworn evidence, clearly there was no cross examination of Smith and it had of course no capacity to investigate the allegations.
Nonetheless, when it came to supporting a senior member of the Central Committee, the DC voted to support their mate Martin. By all accounts the women concerned were subject to the kind of hostile and obtrusive questioning that women have often complained about in the courts and treated with the kind of hostility that the Police were and still are famous for. We don’t know whether or not the women concerned decided not to complain to the Police but a DC was not the forum in which these allegations could be investigated and a verdict pronounced upon. The obvious question would be why a member of the SWP would make up such an allegation. Of course there may indeed be a reason, but she should have been strongly advised to go to the Police. But faced with allegations from 2 women comrades the verdict of ‘Not proven’ (which only applies under the Scottish legal system) was absurd. How could it have been proven? In a criminal court there is forensic evidence and cross examination. In the case of Martin Smith it came down to the simple question ‘Who to believe’ and Smith’s comrades preferred to take his word above the women members of the SWP. But having chosen to believe the alleged perpetrator, the SWP Central Committee’s glaring lack of democratic accountability was brought into the open.
Lack of DemocracyThe SWP’s Central Committee is in effect a self-perpetuating clique whose ‘elections’ are transparently undemocratic. Instead of individuals being elected or rejected by the SWP National Conference, a Central Committee slate is presented to the conference. Only once has there been an alternative slate. It is a take it or leave it situation which the SWP proposed in 2001 at the Socialist Alliance AGM and which destroyed the democracy of that body.
The SWP also has a quaint rule which forbids the existence of factions until a 3 month period before the national conference. When I joined in 1970 the SWP was still a more libertarian body and Workers Fight (now the AWL which was then a healthy socialist group) not only had the right to exist as a faction but had representatives on the Central Committee. In 1972 the rules were changed to ban factions.
Despite claiming to be a revolutionary socialist organisation, the SWP, unlike the Bolsheviks, refuses to allow permanent factions with the result that the only permanent faction is the Central Committee itself. The formation of ‘secret factions’ is outlawed and this was used as the basis for the expulsion of 4 members before Christmas. What it boils down to is that the very act of trying to form a faction within the 3 months period before conference can lay one open to the charge of secret factionalising! This is what is normally known as a Catch-22 situation after the author Joseph Heller. When the facebook conversations of 4 members of the Democratic Opposition, who in fact argued against forming a faction in discussions, were discovered they were expelled by e-mail by the Central Committee. Even the idea of a disciplinary hearing, which even the bourgeoisie concede in the case of a dismissal of a worker, is too democratic for the SWP.
The SWP isn’t the first organisation to face such a crisis. The Workers Revolutionary Party under Gerry Healy splintered as a result of rape and sexual harassment allegations against Healy. In both cases the root of the problem is the lack of democracy in the organisation that allowed powerful male leaders to emerge in a position to suborn and molest young and inexperienced female members. The SWP’s Central Committee is virtually impossible to remove. Its members aren’t individually elected or therefore accountable and there is a natural tendency amongst organisations and institutions, to protect those in authority. That is exactly what has happened over Martin Smith. And the alleged victims of his sexual violence were expected to shut their mouths for the greater good.
As I said above, the allegations of rape, which will undoubtedly be made use of by the Right, were the catalyst not the cause of the present furore and possible implosion of the SWP. When the SWP’s dalliance with Respect and George Galloway came to an abrupt end in September 2007, John Rees, then National Secretary was made the fall guy. He had accepted a donation of £10,000 from an anti-union Arab capitalist in order to fund a trade union fight-back conference! Rees formed a faction which was heavily defeated at the annual conference in January 2008 and shortly after both he and his partner, Lindsay German, left the SWP for Counterfire. Chris Nineham of Global Resistance and former National Secretary Chris Bamber also left the organisation. Ironically at the time, Rees and German protested furiously at the lack of democracy involved in his removal and scapegoating, even though he had never hesitated to preside over the apparatus of ‘democratic centralism’ itself.
Therein lies the problem. Democratic centralism. In the Bolshevik Party’s early years, democratic centralism meant free debate, factions and the ability of party leaders to dissent from each other. In the hands of the SWP and other British far-left groups it has become a mechanism of control of the party by the leadership. It isn’t democratic but bureaucratic centralism. It ensures that the debates of party leaders are never reflected back to the membership of the party, who as in the Respect Affair, were kept ignorant of what had been happening until almost the end. By definition it lacks all accountability and transparency and for what? Has the SWP advanced under the chains of its bureaucratic centralist means of control? All it does is allow the leadership to claim credit for the most insignificant of achievements, such as the Unite the Resistance conference last year (did you notice the difference that was made?) or in the case of the defeat of the EDL demonstration in Waltham Forest, to outrightly lie to the membership about what actually did happen.
Another feature of democratic centralism, as I highlighted in my article, is that democratic centralism enables the leadership to pretend that there has been a steady advance towards the goal of socialism. It prevents mistakes being examined or analysed, unless that analysis is itself prescribed by the Central Committee.
Democratic Centralism might make makes sense when combating a capitalist class that is itself resorting to military and authoritarian rule. One can hardly open and above board and democratically overthrow capitalism by being transparent in everything one does. Revolutionary groups in a revolutionary situation would also have to keep secrets and organise secretly if they wish to be successful. Not to do so means nothing less than permanent capitalism. But democratic centralism belongs to the age of revolution. We are not in a revolutionary situation or anything like it. In the current climate, democratic centralism means dictatorship by the leadership.
The running in this affair has been made by a small group, the Communist Party of Great Britain and its paper, the Weekly Worker. Despite the small size of the CPGB itself, it runs an open paper of the far-left and has managed to achieve the largest readership of a far-left paper via the Internet. In its current issue there are articles by the group itself SWP conference: Comrades in the SWP, rebel! and Tom Walker, Why I am resigning Tom Walker takes the opposite view from the CPGB, viz. that dissidents should now leave the SWP and organise to do so rather than being picked off separately. I agree with Tom Walker.
The SWP has had a mixed record being responsible for the creation of a mass anti-fascist organisation, the Anti-Nazi League before taking it over and closing it down. It was also responsible for launching the Stop the War Coalition and organising the monster demonstration in February 2003 against war in Iraq. But it has also operated as a revolving door as recruits came in one door and the disillusioned or expelled went out the other door. Permanent activity was counterposed to debating politics and strategy. That was the responsibility of the Central Committee. Indeed probably the largest political party in Britain today is ex-members of the SWP. But of course this problem has been addressed by fiddling the figures.
Below I reprint an article by Richard Seymour on his Leninology blog. Despite previous differences with Richard, the article is brave and well worth reading and it is likely to end up in his own expulsion. However up till now Richard has teetered on the edge as a loyal critic and refused to publicly criticise the SWP over Atzmon, preferring to see it as an isolated incident.
Likewise the article from Laurie Penny is also interesting but it also has a right-wing slant in its use of what has happened to bolster the merits of ‘identity politics. The alleged rape and sexual harassment of two SWP members has nothing to do with how they defined themselves and everything to do with the abuse of power by men who were powerful in the SWP. Identity politics is often used by the strong against the weak as Ms Penny should know from the use of ‘anti-Semitism’ by Zionists.
I also reprint an article by Mike Marqusee, a libertarian socialist and journalist. Mike’s contribution though is somewhat disingenuous as his account of SWP misdemeanours begins with the affair of the cheques forged by the SWP in the name of his partner, Liz Davies, who was at that time Chair of the Socialist Alliance.
What Mike omits to mention is that in the autumn of 2001, the SWP proposed a change to the SA’s constitution which led to the Socialist Party walking out (in error) and a new National Committee being proposed which was elected by, wait for it, the same undemocratic slate system that Mike is now taking exception to. A slate of individuals was to be put up en bloc to the SA Conference and could be accepted or rejected accordingly. Of course the SWP said it would include ‘independents’ but the problem was that they were not genuinely independent, but chosen by the SWP. For reasons that are still unclear, since Mike and Liz refuse to discuss the matter, Mike himself and Liz Davies agreed to become SWP independents. It was only after supporting this attack on SA democracy that Mike Marqusee and Liz Davies realised just who it was that they had got into bed with.
I said I agree with Tom Walker. The question of what to do is a tactical matter but within the SWP it is impossible to organise any sort of oppositional group. It would be far better if a large section of the SWP left to form, in conjunction with the others on the far-left without a home, a new revolutionary socialist grouping which had democracy at its heart. The SWP politically should be left to wither on the vine, a testament to where the methods of Stalinist democracy lead.
|The image of itself that the SWP likes to portray|
But word does get around. People begin to hear what has happened, and are outraged. They begin to hear of senior party members spreading the most disgusting rumours about the two women involved. Many members, especially young members, begin to kick off about it. It becomes clear that this will be an issue in the party conference of 2013. So, there is a preemptive strike against four members for participating in a Facebook thread discussing the case, which is alleged - on the basis of selective excerpts - to be evidence of 'secret factionalising', which is prohibited. The expulsion is enacted immediately, with no due process, no disciplinary hearing. The four comrades are expelled by email. This is totally at odds with the party's usual procedures. It is a clear bureaucratic manoeuvre to stymy the upsurge. But it produces a revolt. A group of comrades form a faction to contest the expulsions, campaign for the rejection of the Dispute Committee's report on the allegations, and challenge the party's democracy deficit. (Naturally I join this faction.)
We organise. But the members who raise this issue, many of them students, are yelled at in meetings, denounced for 'creeping feminism', or for carrying the germ of autonomism into the party. Old polemics against 'feminism' from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with. People who try to raise the issue at district aggregates are shouted down. Wised up hacks turn up at meetings, with their best 'what, us?' innocent expression, claiming to be shocked and horrified at the lack of trust in the party, and astonished that some people use terms like 'hacks'. They express befuddlement about why the faction even exists. They accuse dissenters of being 'inward-looking'. Nonetheless, the faction grows quickly. Soon, there are two factions, both opposing the expulsions and criticising the findings of the Disputes Committee. They have different emphases and different tactics, but similar objectives. They go to conference, expecting to be in a minority - after all, most comrades still haven't got the slightest clue what is happening, or have only heard the rumours and lies. In the history of party conferences, dissenting motions generally haven't fared well. But we find, suddenly, that there is a groundswell. The more members hear, the more they're throwing up. And we get to conference, and our delegates face down the most appallingly bureaucratic arguments. And we are surprised, and disappointed. The party ratifies the expulsions by two thirds to one third. The party ratifies the Dispute Committee findings by a slender margin. But the reality is that despite formal wins for the leadership, this amounts to a serious crisis for them.
How do they respond? A sane response would be to say, 'much of the party is still not convinced, we need to debate this further and work out a solution'. At the very least. More generally, a sane leadership might think about opening up year round communications so that party members can communicate with one another outside of conference season. They might think about creating more pluralistic party structures, ending the ban on factions outside of conference season and rethinking the way elections take place. Instead, they tell everyone in Party Notes that there will be no further discussion of the matter. CC members tell full-time party employees that the accused was 'exonerated' by conference (no such thing), insist that conference voted for an 'interventionist' party, rather than a 'federalist' party, and begin a purge. Report backs from conference either don't discuss the Disputes Committee session in any detail or discuss it in an arrogant, dismissive manner. A CC member gives a report back that instructs members, "if you can't argue the line, you should consider your position in the party" - as if the party was the possession of the bureaucracy. They tell members to get on with focusing on 'the real world'. In the real world, this is a scandal. And we, those who fought on this, told them it would be. We warned them that it would not just be a few sectarian blogs attacking us. We warned them that after we had rightly criticised George Galloway over his absurd remarks about rape, and after a year of stories about sexual abuse, and after more than a year of feminist revival, this was a suicidal posture, not just a disgusting, sickening one. They continued, obliviously, convinced that this was the correct, hard-headed Bolshevik position. Now members are caught between the choice of having to expend energy on a fight to save the party and its traditions, or burying their heads in the sand, or swallowing the Kool Aid and joining the headbangers.
There isn't enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day out.
This is the thing that all party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn't the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible. Not only this, but in acting in this way, they have - for their own bureaucratic reasons - broken with a crucial component of the politics of the International Socialist tradition that undergirds the SWP. The future of the party is at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don't simply drift away, don't simply bury your face in your palms, and don't simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled at conference. You must fight now.
***One last thing. There is an article in The Independent about this case. It uses the phrase "socialist sharia court". It is miles away, in tone and spirit, from Laurie Penny's piece. I would urge people to think carefully about who wants to use the sort of language deployed in the Independent article. I think the answer is, "racists". I would also point out that, as far as I know, the Independent did not speak to any party members. My advice is to disregard that piece.
When it comes to sexual violence, why should progressive organisations be held to different standards?
How do we deal with sexual violence on the left? Here's a case study.
The Socialist Workers' Party, for those who aren't familiar with it already, is a political organisation of several thousand members which has been a prominent force on the British left for more than 30 years. They are at the forefront of the fight against street fascism in Britain, were a large organising presence in the student and trade union movement over the past several years, and are affiliated with large, active parties in other countries, like Germany's Die Linke. Many of the UK's most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members.
Like many others on the left in Britain, I've had my disagreements with the SWP, but I've also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter. And it matters that right now, the party is exploding in messy shards because of a debate about sexism, sexual violence and wider issues of accountability.
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with 'internally' before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party's annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker - a party member who walked out this week in disgust - explained that feminism "is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters.... it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender."
In a brave and principled resignation statement published yesterday, Walker said that:
". . . there is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’. Socialist Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted cover-up, making abusers feel protected."
Members are now leaving the organisation, or being expelled, in large numbers after the case came to light at the party's conference and transcripts of the discussions were leaked online.
The writer China Mieville, a longstanding member of the SWP, told me that, like many members, he is "aghast":
"The way such allegations were dealt with - complete with questions about accusers' past relationships and drinking habits that we would instantly, rightly denounce as sexist in any other context - was appalling. It's a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for 'secret factionalism."
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
"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."
The British Socialist Worker's Party is hardly atypical among political parties, among left-wing groups, among organisations of committed people or, indeed, among groups of friends and colleagues in having structures in place that might allow sexual abuse and misogyny by men in positions of power to continue unchecked. One could point, in the past 12 months alone, to the BBC's handling of the Jimmy Savile case, or to those Wikileaks supporters who believe that Julian Assange should not be compelled to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden.
I could point, personally, to at least two instances involving respected men that have sundered painfully and forever friendship groups which lacked the courage to acknowledge the incidents. The only difference is that the SWP actually talk openly about the unspoken rules by which this sort of intimidation usually goes on. Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that's what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP's leadership seem to have written it into their rules.
To say that the left has a problem with handling sexual violence is not to imply that everyone else doesn't. There is, however, a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly. It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
That unwillingness to analyse our own behaviour can quickly become dogma. The image is one of petty, nitpicking women attempting to derail the good work of decent men on the left by insisting in their whiny little women's way that progressive spaces should also be spaces where we don't expect to get raped and assaulted and slut-shamed and victimised for speaking out, and the emotions are rage and resentment: why should our pure and perfect struggle for class war, for transparency, for freedom from censorship be polluted by - it's pronounced with a curl of the upper lip over the teeth, as if the very word is distasteful - 'identity politics'? Why should we be held more accountable than common-or-garden bigots? Why should we be held to higher standards?
Because if we're not, then we have no business calling ourselves progressive. Because if we don't acknowledge issues of assault, abuse and gender hierarchy within our own institutions we have no business speaking of justice, much less fighting for it.
"The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked," writes Walker. "Lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does." He's talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.
Equality isn't an optional add-on, a side-issue to be dealt with after the revolution's over. There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women's rights. The sooner the left accepts that and starts working the enormous stick of priggishness and prejudice out of its collective backside, the sooner we can get on with the job at hand.
|Mike Marqusee - socialist iconoclast|
To explain. After twenty years hard graft in the Labour Party I resigned in 2000 and became active in the Socialist Alliance campaign for the London Assembly. A year later, I was joined in the SA by my partner, Liz Davies, who had been a Labour councillor and an elected member of Labour’s National Executive. Liz was elected chair of the SA national executive in late 2001. As such she was made one of the signatories for the Socialist Alliance’s (meagre) bank account.
In autumn of 2002, we discovered that Liz’s signature was being forged on Socialist Alliance cheques. The forging was being done by people in the SA office, members of the SWP whom we knew to be in daily contact with the SWP leadership. When Liz raised the discovery with the SWP leadership, she was met with hostility. None of this was to be discussed by anybody. That was not acceptable to her. She brought the matter to the SA Executive. In the course of the discussion there it became apparent to Liz that there was a comprehensive refusal to grasp the seriousness of the offence or to take any meaningful measures in response. That was articulated by one SWPer at the meeting who said it would have been wrong not to forge the signature since the money was needed to get placards on a demo. Liz resigned in disgust and I followed soon after.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say but for those with doubts: by forging the signatures, these people were making unauthorised use of the dues paid to the SA by its members. They did it not once but repeatedly, and were only found out by accident. This was a sustained, furtive, and calculated violation of democracy and basic standards of probity, a high handed abuse of power, displaying contempt for the SA and its members.
Sadly not only the SWP but also most of the other groups involved in the SA could not grasp this. It suited them all for various reasons to downplay the whole thing. For some it served as an excuse to marginalise strong unaffiliated voices within the SA.
People on both sides of the current SWP conflict have understandably taken offence at the way they have been labelled by opponents. But this has been the modus operandi of the SWP towards critics outside its ranks for ages. Time and again, crude categorisations, given a spurious Marxist veneer, have taken the place of real engagement with the issues in question.
In the wake of our departure from the SA, we were dismissed as “Labourists” or “reformists” preoccupied with “formalistic bourgeois morality”. SWP leaders put it about that we were going to go to the police about the matter – an allegation that said more about their own petty mentality than it did about us.
In fact, because of the political situation in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we kept our counsel: it was obvious that this incident could be used to attack the Stop the War Coalition. Nonetheless we were treated by the SWP as persona non-grata at meetings of various kinds, our every intervention met with suspicion.
Some months after the invasion had turned into a long-term occupation, and the anti-war movement was taking stock, I wrote a piece critical of the SWP’s methods – it mentioned no names, made no personal references of any kind, and referred once only in passing to the cheque forgery incident, without giving details. In response, an article penned by the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition appeared in both the Morning Star and Socialist Review attacking me by name, lumping me in with Nick Cohen and David Aronovitch as an enemy of the Coalition, stating that I had played no role in the movement for the past year – which the authors of the piece knew to be untrue – and dismissing my concerns as the result of “personal bitterness”. There was no attempt at all to respond to what I’d actually said in the original article.
So I have to say that many features of the SWP’s current internal dispute seem bitterly familiar to me: treatment of whistle-blowers, smearing of critics, blaming victims, the unaccountability of leading cadre. When I see SWP members valiantly insisting that the recent dispute is nobody’s business but their own, I have to demur.
Some years later, when John Rees at al departed the SWP, SWP members approached me to say that we must be pleased with this development and suggesting that all could be forgotten now. But I saw and see no evidence of the SWP examining itself with the seriousness required. The question was and is: how was it that a socialist organisation that claims to be democratic could allow people with a coarse disregard for accountability in all spheres run their organisation unchecked for years? How was it that the SWP leadership’s obviously contrived and incomplete account of their rupture with us (described by them as a dispute over “administrative procedures”) went unquestioned by the vast majority of members, including the scores with whom we had worked amicably and constructively? Only three individuals (two of them now long gone from the party) were even willing to talk about the matter with us.
Shortly after I first learned about the forgeries, I made an effort to talk about it confidentially with three long standing SWP activists with whom I felt I had a personal relationship. Not one of them was prepared to accept that there could be any truth in what they referred to as “these allegations”. It spoke to me of a party culture of denial and solipsism.
Coming from a left Labour and trade union background, I was from the first taken aback by the SWP’s lax approach to what it regarded as the finer points of accountability and organisational integrity. For us in the Labour left, the whole battle had been about accountability, about members’ rights and power; we had no interest in joining an alternative that did not meaningfully enfranchise us – for which things like accurate and detailed minutes, reports from officers, etc. are a sine qua non. The cheque forgery was one example of the kind of misbehaviour that people with serious experience in the labour movement would never countenance. But the aura of “revolutionary” superiority in which the SWP wraps itself enables it to skate past all kinds of questions that are the daily diet of people in the broader movement. Perhaps that’s now coming back to haunt the SWP as they wrestle with the issues revolving around the current dispute.