Criticise, don’t boycott
Some on the left still want to boycott the Socialist Workers Party - and they are still wrong, argues Paul Demarty
Some eyebrows were raised at the recent conference of Stand Up To Racism, mostly when the celebrity guest arrived - none other than embattled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took the stage to a standing ovation and joined the throng in a cockle-warming chant about being nice to refugees.
This was not acceptable to some of his own MPs, according to LabourList, which reported on October 10 that there would be “questions” over his attendance of an event “promoted by the Socialist Workers Party”.1 The latter comment is off the mark, primarily because it is an insinuation. The event was not just “promoted”, but organised, stewarded, staffed and generally engineered by the SWP; we find it amusing that even LabourList, which you would think might have somebody available who knew the left, would be able to spot an SWP front when they saw one, especially SUTR, which could not have looked more the part if it was shouting slogans in an unconvincing ‘working class’ accent outside an east London tube station.
It is hardly surprising that Labour rightists are seething at Corbyn’s decision to attend, above all because the SWP is ... the SWP, a small Trotskyist group, and not at all the sort of people Jeremy should associate with when he is supposed to be ‘building bridges’ so we can ‘unite against the Tories’, etc. It was disappointing, however, to discover an ‘open letter’ on the same theme from sundry lefts, expressing “alarm at [Corbyn’s] decision to speak” at SUTR. They cited an earlier statement calling for him to withdraw, which stated “it is vital for women and non-binary people - particularly people of colour who wish to resist the racism they experience - to be able to organise politically without groups that facilitate or cover up sexual assault”, and further cite concerns that “the SWP was trying to use the Stand Up To Racism event to recruit both university and sixth-form students, who may be unaware of its record on sexual violence”.2
For newbies and recently awakened coma victims, it will be necessary to précis the events referred to above. In 2010, allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Martin Smith, in the run-up to the SWP’s conference; they were dismissed at conference, but resurfaced at the end of 2012, this time as an accusation of rape. The SWP’s disputes committee - consisting largely of leadership placemen and women - dismissed the charges, having investigated with all the competence and fair-mindedness you would expect. The 2013 conference narrowly voted to accept the DC report, effectively endorsing the handling of the Smith case; but a full transcript of the heated debate was leaked, with all principals anonymised (Smith becoming immortalised as ‘comrade Delta’), after which there ensued a bitter factional struggle that cost the SWP about half of its real membership and 95% of its students.
It cannot, of course, be denied by any reasonable person that the SWP made a truly atrocious mess out of the Delta affair. There is a certain insanity in the belief that a committee of comrades elected basically to arbitrate on whether comrade so-and-so had violated party discipline should be competent to investigate a charge of rape. It is a testament to the insularity and absurd hubris of the SWP leadership that this was ever considered a good idea. The results were cataclysmic for them.
Indeed, it is more or less admitted by the SWP - I have talked to several remaining members and they all sing the same tune: that the opposition factions were wrong to split and defy conference decisions, but that the 2013 conference should have rejected the disputes committee report, given the strength of feeling around it (and, indeed, the subsequent decision that, on a separate charge of sexual misconduct, Martin Smith did have a case to answer, after which he was quietly disappeared). I surmise, therefore, that this line is emanating from SWP centre.
The ‘open letter’ is a reminder that this response will never be good for anything other than internal consumption, at least for those who were active in and around the far left at the time. That bland ‘mistakes were made’ attitude is simply ridiculous in its understatement; the SWP spent a year ripping itself to shreds, with the leadership prosecuting a merciless war against rebel members; only after it all was done, I guess, did the likes of Alex Callinicos realise how much damage they had done, and how long the road back would be. If he and the rest of them had never made another political error (entirely untrue, by the by), the insouciance with which they mortally wounded their own organisation for the sake of the thuggish Smith’s reputation would mark them as forever unsuitable to lead an organisation of the Marxist left.
These are all points that ought to be made to their faces. The arguments made for boycotting SUTR are straightforwardly nonsensical - read again that citation about how “it is vital for women and non-binary people - particularly people of colour who wish to resist the racism they experience - to be able to organise politically without groups that facilitate or cover up sexual assault”, and count the tendentious assertions. “Cover up”, maybe, but “facilitate”? Do they mean merely by existing in a world where rape is common? Or perhaps there are particular features of the SWP which make sexual assault of junior members on the part of leaders more preponderant than necessary - but can they imagine that SWPers would consider that a good thing? And even if we accept that description, and the need for women and non-binary persons of colour to “organise politically without” the likes of the SWP, how exactly does the SWP continuing to organise in its own right prevent that?
As far as those poor recruits who “may be unaware” of the ‘danger’, I put it to the authors that undergraduates and sixth-formers are not in need of the benevolent and suffocating protection of their elders; and the idea that they would not be aware of this history flies in the face of its prominence in the SWP’s public image (there are 700 words on the Delta affair on Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake, and a million more a Google search away). Do our writers intend to boycott the umpteen other places - People’s Assembly demonstrations, Momentum meetings, trade union branches - that SWPers use for recruitment, and demand that Corbyn does so? Of course not: but in that case this is simply hot-headed posturing, a matter of being seen to strenuously object to rape.
It is deeply depressing to find among the list of boycotters Richard Seymour and China Miéville, who were among the leaders of the 2013 opposition’s most militant faction; is it really true that everybody they respected in the SWP is now gone from it? Can they seriously believe - having been in it a combined 20 or 30 years - that the organisation’s primary purpose is to lure sixth-form students into its torture dungeon? Moreover, Seymour was himself hounded out of the International Socialist Network, which he co-founded after leaving the SWP, over just such a confected storm of identity-politics pitchfork-waving. His stubborn commitment to the method is, at this point, truly tragic.
The authors reject attempts to “delay the resolution of these problems until some unspecified point in the future. In our movement, how we treat each other is part of our struggle.” It is, again, unclear what “these problems” are in this context - rape in general? the presence of the SWP in the movement? the refusal of Corbyn to cave in to a demand made in the name of some oppressed group? But what is abundantly clear is the paralysing effect this sort of defiant impatience actually has. Effective politics means setting priorities: something, eventually, has to be delayed, comrades, otherwise nothing will ever get done. Beyond that, I have nothing to add to Mike Macnair’s article on exactly this subject last week.3
The irony, of course, is that - with SUTR - the SWP is engaging in exactly the same sort of activity. If Weyman Bennett finds himself in a mischievous mood, he might retort that it is bad form to ‘delay indefinitely’ the struggle against racism, in the service of residual bitterness over the SWP’s recent past. This form of politics does not actually allow any problems to be resolved; because each participant believes that they win arguments automatically on the basis of their particular experience, nobody ever really wins at all. Yes, comrades, “how we treat each other is part of our struggle” - but the same goes for SWP members, who need to be convinced that they must do better than they did in 2013. Above all, we must treat each other as intelligent interlocutors, not carriers of some plague - nor, for that matter, as defenceless children.
3. ‘Attempt to outlaw justified anger’ Weekly Worker October 20.