Shutting out reality
The SWP has been dragged into the sexual harassment scandal. Paul Demarty revisits the case
Among the cacophony of voices raised in condemnation of the sexual skulduggery of Westminster, one especially shrill shriek is identifiable as that of the Socialist Workers Party.
This week’s Socialist Worker front page screams: “Sexists, thieves and liars: let’s drive them all out” (last week’s was basically identical, with “Rich sexist scum: Tory MPs harass women”).1 There is an obvious partiality here - after all, it is hardly exclusively Tories who have been subject to allegations in recent weeks, but it is only Tories Socialist Worker wants us to talk about. Why so reticent about accusations flying around on our side, however broadly conceived?
One explanation - which is, all told, probably the largest part of it - is that Socialist Worker is contemptuous of its readership, whom it imagines is unable to read a paragraph lasting longer than one short sentence. It hardly trusts the ‘ideal idiot’ reading its pages to navigate such a complex domain as the sexual harassment (and worse) of women (and a few men): he or she might start thinking and that would be a disastrous distraction from ‘driving out’ the Tories - or racists, or whoever it is this week.
One alternative explanation, of course, trips rather neatly off the tongue. So obvious is it, indeed, that it even occurred to the Sunday Express, which used the occasion of the present scandal to refer readers to the story of “how rape claims nearly destroyed the Socialist Workers Party”.2 This is not the first time the SWP’s dodgy record has come up this year. Last month, the National Union of Students executive passed a motion supporting its affiliated unions in excluding the SWP from campus for the same reason;3 earlier this year, Owen Jones got a lot of attention when he accused the organisation of being “a cult which covered up rape”.4
Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of the Express hit-piece in this week’s Socialist Worker - far too confusing for ordinary workers with Tories and racists to drive out! It does, however, have plenty of room to rake over Michael Fallon’s misbehaviour:
Fallon left after several sexual harassment claims were made against him. He gave a mealy-mouthed apology, saying his behaviour had “fallen below the high standards of those in the armed forces”. But then he also defended himself, saying his actions would have been acceptable a decade ago. This isn’t true, and MPs shouldn’t use the historic nature of the allegations as a defence.5
The SWP is singularly ill-advised to talk about ‘historic allegations’ of this nature; but it has never allowed anything so vulgar as the real world to intrude on its determination to bury a certain issue.
The scandal referred to by the SundayExpress and Owen Jones began a while ago now. Towards the end of 2010, anonymous rumours began circulating around the left that Martin Smith, then the SWP’s national secretary, had engaged in sexual harassment and other abusive practices against a young woman comrade in Birmingham. At the time, Smith was being edged out as secretary by the power behind the throne, Alex Callinicos, so it seemed possible that a messy break-up had made its way into palace-coup politics, but in the end nothing seemed to come of it. At the SWP’s annual conference the following January, it was apparently brought up in such vague terms that few had a clue what was going on. Smith made an ‘I’m no angel’ sort of speech and the matter was dismissed (we were told at the time by slightly bemused witnesses) with a rousing and pseudo-spontaneous round of “The workers united will never be defeated”.
Problem solved - for a couple of years. But then the 2012 pre-conference season arrived, and midway through it, there was a flurry of suspensions of members accused of forming a “secret faction”, which it later transpired was centred on Smith’s actions. The allegations now included that of rape, and the parties internal disputes committee had effectively found him innocent. When this emerged at conference, the whole thing exploded; transcripts of the key sessions were leaked to the Weekly Worker, the Socialist Unity blog and elsewhere. Dissidents went public. By the end of 2013, the SWP had lost a third to half of its active membership, and something like 95% of its student organisation. When a further rape accusation emerged against Smith, it found he had a case to answer and suspended him.
Throughout this whole procedure, the SWP’s core leadership adopted a bizarrely intransigent attitude. The main issue arising out of the 2013 conference was that the proceedings had been leaked. The main issue arising out of the 2013 conference was not the monstrous failure of the leadership and disputes committee to deal with the case before it, whatever it happened to be about, but that the proceedings had been leaked ... according to the wise men and women of the SWP’s central committee. The opposition were first of all rejecting ‘Leninism’. Then, at a later stage, the real issue was their ‘lack of faith in the working class’.
The grain of truth is that rape and sexual harassment are symptoms rather than causes, however one looks at the matter - the fundamental cause being class society, or male domination of society, or porn, etc. In that sense, the SWP’s rape crisis could not fundamentally be ‘about’ rape, because even rape is not about rape. In this case, it seems pertinent at least that the question is not a new one on the far left. The most egregious previous offender was, of course, Gerry Healy, the thuggish Trotskyist leader who progressively transformed his organisation into a bizarre obedience cult - obedience including the duty of younger female comrades to act as comfort women to the degraded socialist Ubu Roi at the top.
The revelation of Healy’s behaviour occasioned the total fragmentation of the Workers Revolutionary Party, but he was never without his defenders - foremost among them were Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, the thespians, who stuck with him until he was committed to the cold embrace of the earth in 1990. “If this is the work of a rapist,” Corin is supposed to have declared at some tempestuous meeting in the mid-80s, “let’s recruit more rapists.”
The SWP is not so very like the WRP in its fine detail, although it has become more so since the Martin Smith debacle. There is no personality cult around a single leader. It does not pretend constantly that a military coup is imminent. It does not present a turgid lump of incomprehensible ‘dialectical philosophy’ as the price of admission - indeed, there is barely any intellectual requirement placed on lay members at all. Yet it resembles it above all in its siege mentality - in the assumption that any internal criticism is a reflection of external forces, be it merely a matter of ‘ideological pressure’ or deliberate treachery.
In the end, this is a matter of what it has in common not only with the WRP, but also the pests of Westminster, Hollywood and beyond. The SWP’s operative theory comes down to the idea that through the most energetic efforts to build the ‘real’ struggle of the working class (‘real’ meaning strikes and street demonstrations), a small revolutionary ginger group can bring about a mass confrontation with the powers that be, which will then require revolutionary leadership for victory. The trick is to select the correct terrain of struggle, the right line on the right issue, and act decisively on it. Rank-and-file members will be under the conservative pressures of routine trade unionism and so on - it is up to the leadership to campaign decisively among the members for the correct line.
Command and control
What that means in practice is a rigorous command and control structure, in which the CC tells the full-timers (who are in its gift) what to do, and the full-timers tell the average member. At the top of the full-timer tree is the national organiser, who once upon a time was Smith (and before him Chris Bambery, whose violent temper was such that lay members nicknamed him Bilko). In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that a CC member should extort sex from people, for what is set up is a worse hierarchy than you would find at an average capitalist firm.
The SWP crisis is a standing rebuke to the old cliché that every cloud has a silver lining. The subsequent split saw all sides degenerate. The most radical among the opposition collapsed into identitarian idiocy, split amongst themselves over a work of sculpture, and no longer exist as an organised trend. The more ‘moderate’ clung far too long to the fantasy that they could win fair and square, and - defeated - decided that Alex Callinicos was right when he said that Leninism was at stake in the dispute, and retreated into the sort of revolutionism equivalent to the Christianity of borderline-atheist Anglican vicars. The SWP itself became more restricted merely to activities in which its motives were seen to be unimpeachable, with the result that its politics seem nowadays to consist entirely of shrieking about racism - as if that was remotely subversive to an establishment that agrees entirely.
The whole farrago set us all back, by shifting the balance of forces within the left towards the principled opponents of working class socialism - the supporters of identity politics, the prophets of the new post-industrial age and what have you. All of this could have been avoided if nobody had had the absurd idea that the SWP’s disputes committee was competent to investigate rape; some of it might have been avoided if all leaders involved had accepted responsibility and resigned, rather than blaming those who rightly objected. That was the path not taken, and so we are still paying for the SWP’s failures, four years on l
1. Socialist Worker November 7, October 31.
2. Sunday Express November 5.
5. Socialist Worker November 7.