Look in the mirror

They continue to denounce sexism in state institutions without confronting their own history. Paul Demarty calls for some self-criticism

An article crosses our desk - by comrade Sarah Bates in Socialist Worker.

Comrade Sarah effectively covers the anti-sexism beat at Britain’s shrillest Trotskyist weekly. She has written a lot of agitational articles on the fallout from the #MeToo movement, the grotesque rape and murder of Sarah Everard in London, and so forth, and in the January 10 issue she offers a somewhat more explanatory article specifically on sexist violence within the armed bodies of the state.

This comes after a series of unpleasant revelations about sexism and sexual violence in the Royal Navy, and the claim by the military women’s NGO, Salute Her, that 177 women have suffered rape at the elite army school, Sandhurst. Everard’s murder by the cop, Wayne Couzens, meanwhile, triggered greater scrutiny of the internal culture of the police - which turned out to be riddled with misogynistic banter. The article was, of course, published before the dismissal for misconduct of David Carrick of the Met Police, after he admitted to no less than 49 sexual assaults, including 24 rapes of 12 different women. Even the rightwing press on January 17 demanded answers as to how he could have gotten away with such hideous crimes for 18 years.

These things are often put down precisely to ‘organisational culture’; the fix is to change the ‘culture’, which is a rather vague affair that always seems to involve hiring a lot of expensive consultants. Bates is not satisfied with this (and nor should she be), so wants to dig a little deeper:

The revelations about the level of historic sexual violence within the Royal Navy, the army and the police aren’t incidental to the type of organisations they are. Instead, they tell us about how the organisations are run, who is likely to be in them, and their wider function within capitalist society.1

Take the police:

… the cops’ role in society is to suppress working class people and protect the interests of the rich. They reflect the worst sorts of oppressive ideas that are pushed from the top of society. And the toxic culture becomes an endless cycle of fresh bigots rising through the ranks. They are attracted by an environment where racism, sexism and homophobia runs rampant.

Unsurprisingly, a government report into plummeting prosecutions of rape concluded that “victim-blaming” was rampant. This ultimately comes down to the strict systems of hierarchy that govern these institutions: the armed bodies “use their systems of rank and hierarchy as an effective tool to shut down complaints in the first place”.


There are good and bad things about this analysis. But, not for the first time, we marvel at comrade Bates’s sheer cheek, given the history of the organisation she belongs to.

Her article was published, in a neat coincidence, 10 years and one day after the proceedings of the Socialist Workers Party conference were leaked, in part, to several leftwing ‘muckraker’ outlets, including the Weekly Worker (Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog was the first to publish). The leaked transcript was of a debate, usually a formality, over the report of the disputes committee (DC). That year, however, it was nothing of the sort. The DC had investigated allegations of rape against a leading member, national secretary Martin Smith, made by a much younger comrade. It had dismissed those allegations.

In the run-up to conference, four SWP members were expelled for organising to protest against this stitch-up (‘secret factionalism’ is a terrible crime in the eyes of the SWP). In the event, a knife-edge vote accepted the DC’s report, effectively endorsing its treatment of Smith and his alleged victim. It was “not a jury of his peers, but a jury of his mates”, in the words of resigning SWP member Tom Walker.2

What followed was a quite spectacular implosion. Public opposition factions were formed immediately; the response from the leadership was to completely stonewall them, and seek to draw a line under the affair at the earliest convenience. Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s leading intellectual, threatened oppositionists with “lynch mobs” if they did not fall back into line. The net result was the loss of about half of the SWP’s active membership - some to two more-or-less organised splinter groups and others to the ether of disillusionment. The SWP student section nearly disintegrated entirely. Its trade union fractions faced repeated attacks from the bureaucracy, who framed SWP activists’ presence as a clear and present danger to women members. Somewhere in the midst of all this, further allegations emerged against Smith: this time, the DC decided there was a case for him to answer, but the damage was done.

A historic blunder even of such proportions need not be mentioned, as it were, as a disclaimer to every Socialist Worker article about sexism and sexual violence; still less should the paper ignore an important question purely because it is a sticky wicket. What is remarkable is how closely the details of Bates’s account apply to the SWP. She notes the problem of “victim-blaming”; and such was the general diagnosis of the DC’s insistence on asking Smith’s accuser questions like “Would it be fair to say you like a drink?” Bates notes the culture of secrecy in the armed forces; but there could be nothing less transparent than the SWP’s internal disciplinary procedures.

Above all, there is the question of hierarchy. The SWP is organised in an extremely hierarchical, centralised way. Conference elects a central committee as an all-or-nothing slate, meaning it effectively appoints its own successors. The central committee appoints all local full-timers, who have broad disciplinary powers over the rank and file. Members have a right to declare a faction in a three-month period leading up to conference and at no other time - the faction must be dissolved at conference. Members do not have formal liberty of discussion outside of the formal structure of branches and regions (although, in the internet age, this has become unenforceable in the typical case, the rule remains on the books, to be held against any actual dissidents as and when necessary). We could not ask for a purer example of an organisation “[using] systems of rank and hierarchy as an effective tool to shut down complaints” than the Martin Smith affair - perhaps the Catholic church of the 1970s and 1980s dealing with abuse allegations …

Wishful thinking

The difference is, in some sense, obvious. The church - and, for that matter, the Navy, Sandhurst and David Carrick - got away with it for years. The attempt by the SWP hierarchy to quash the rebellion of members was an extraordinary failure from the get-go. The absurdity of small, bureaucratic left organisations is that they act as if they have vastly more power than they actually do dispose of. The hold they have on their members is merely the idea that the group is “The Party”, and outside it lies only sectarian irrelevance or the cynicism of the official labour movement bureaucracy. This is an illusion in every case, and the balloon is easily punctured by scandals.

There are more flattering comparisons, of course. The SWP is hardly characterised by “an endless cycle of fresh bigots rising through the ranks”; there is a contradiction between the character of the organisation and its operative aims, and that contradiction does not so much exist for organisations whose purpose is repressive violence. But here we notice a certain slippage in Bates’s argument: it is not clear whether the reactionary ideology of cops is a cause or a consequence of the structure and role of the police force (for example). Her argument that the institution attracts “sexists, racists and homophobes” may have some truth to it; but it also attracts people looking for a regular paying job in deindustrialised Britain. Indeed, it attracts people who want to “make a difference” to their communities. Many of these naive people too end up as cynics and brain-poisoned bigots.

The need to believe that the police, army and so on are necessarily subjectively bigoted as individuals makes all this much easier to deal with. One can avoid looking too closely in the mirror - after all, we are not sexist, racist, etc. This was as much a problem for the SWP’s splinter-groups, in fact: an organisational structure and culture that makes mishandling of a rape allegation very likely does not necessarily entail conscious sexism on the part of the ‘investigators’, and the insistence of the post-SWP grouplets on claiming the contrary - that the SWP was merely a misogynist organisation insufficiently imbued with feminism - committed them to even more fissile variants of left politics (we need only remind comrades of the split of the International Socialist Network over an inconsequential work of sculpture).

Any one of the DC members involved could have given you chapter and verse on the evils of “victim blaming” and what have you - it did not help. But the purportedly anti-authoritarian identity politics adopted by the minority who fought against the DC stitch-up failed even to produce large or stable enough organisations to potentially have these problems.

The left still has much to learn here - and nobody more so than the world-historically oblivious Sarah Bates!


  1. socialistworker.co.uk/features/why-do-state-bodies-breed-sexist-hate-and-violence.↩︎

  2. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/944/swps-tom-walker-why-i-am-resigning.↩︎