SPEW: Peter Taaffe and his own scandal

Ben Lewis discusses SPEW’s version of ‘democratic centralism’

The Socialist Party in England and Wales has maintained a significant silence over the now notorious ‘comrade Delta’ case in the Socialist Workers Party. The reason for this can possibly be traced back to Peter Taaffe’s recognition that SPEW and the SWP share the same unBolshevik organisational norms. That and surely the fact that SPEW faces its own problems when it comes to accusations of abuse.

There are very worrying stories being circulated about Steve Hedley - a SPEW member and assistant general secretary of Rail, Maritime and Transport. He has been accused of physically and verbally abusing his ex-partner, Caroline Lenaghan. Comrade Lenaghan posted these accusations on her blog, along with photographs purportedly showing the injuries she sustained in an alleged assault. She is an RMT militant who also claims to have been subjected to a culture of ‘victim-blaming’ when she raised the issue within the union itself. Given that there is an ongoing RMT investigation into the matter, at this point it is probably most appropriate to simply point readers to comrade Lenaghan’s blog post, so that they can see it for themselves.1 Comrade Hedley, it should be emphasised, is at pains to totally deny the allegations.

The story has appeared in The Independent. It quotes an “RMT spokesman”, who says that the “RMT takes all allegations of bullying, abuse, domestic violence and harassment seriously and a full investigation is currently underway.”2 Meanwhile, on the left, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has commented that the charges needs to be taken seriously and discussed across the whole of the workers’ movement. For his part Andy Newman of Socialist Unity has written an (atypically) balanced piece. An online petition has also been launched under the title of ‘The labour movement must be a safe space for women’.

Yet, while SPEW has produced an article on the question of violence against women in the edition of The Socialist that appeared the day before International Women’s Day3, it still has to comment on the allegations themselves. Hedley, a longstanding militant, joined SPEW at its annual school, ‘Socialism’, back in November 2012. Towards the climax of a rousing speech at the school’s closing rally, he announced that, although he was “not a Trotskyist” and had differences with SPEW on several issues, he was going to join. The SPEW website still lists Hedley as one of its “public figures”. However, there is some speculation as to comrade Hedley’s status, but this is yet to be clarified publicly. A leading SPEW member told me that he could not comment in light of the ongoing legal difficulties, but that a statement would be issued when the matter was resolved.


It is important to establish a few points here. There will doubtless be some readers who will view this as the Weekly Worker ‘having a go’ and ‘engaging in gossip’. However, the allegations of the abuse of power that have come to light recently cannot, and must not, be understood in isolation from the nature of the organisational regimes, structures and cultural norms currently dominant on the left.

So I am not using these allegations to have a cheap swipe at SPEW. Nevertheless, given that the group itself has posed and postured around this very issue of domestic violence, we ought to expect something more than an SWP ‘trial by mates’. In the 1990s SPEW’s forerunner, Militant, founded the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, which fought “for better resources …, to promote awareness …, to campaign for legal change and to raise domestic violence as a workplace issue”.4

Contrary to the claims of Camilla Power in this issue, I can emphatically state that nobody in the CPGB sees rape as unimportant, or a non-political question. Rape is bound up with power and control. It is, moreover, a question that should be handled with the utmost seriousness by both men and women on the left.

Nonetheless, in bourgeois society, with its debased human relationships and warped values, there are invariably going to be all sorts of ghastly things that will emerge in our ranks from time to time, even when we manage to finally get our forces together into a mass revolutionary party. It is nigh on unavoidable. That is not to excuse these things or to downplay them in the interest of what some might deem ‘bigger’ political issues, such as continuing the fight against the cuts, the Tories, the threat of war, etc. It simply means that we need an organisational culture that can empower the rank and file as much as possible, one that is based on openness, fearless criticism and solidarity, not conspiracy, manipulation and bullying.


It is in this context that I turn to SPEW’s leader, Peter Taaffe. I shall cite only two of his works: Democratic centralism, written in early 1997,5 when there was a long internal debate about the future of Militant Labour, as it was then known; and another from 2008, Socialism and left unity: a critique of the Socialist Workers Party,6 when SPEW did intervene in the discussion around the SWP and the problems it faced resulting from its expulsion of the US International Socialist Organization from the International Socialist Tendency. The second document is largely based on his arguments from the 1990s,7 but throws in some SWP-bashing and footsy-playing with the ISO for good measure.

In the latter work, Taaffe is adamant that “the roots of the mistaken approach of the SWP … lie in their mistaken notion about how internal democracy works within a Marxist/revolutionary party, the purpose of internal discussion, tendencies, factions and the relationship between the leadership and the members.”

Comrade Taaffe writes: “The internal character of a party or organisation - and particularly the question of democratic rights of the members vis-à-vis the leadership has always been vital in the history of the Marxist movement.” In his 2009 text, he contrasts the “abundance of internal material on disputed issues” available in the Militant Labour debates of the 1990s with the lack of debate in the run-up to the expulsion of the ISO (my emphasis). I have indeed been assured by comrades that some of these bulletins from the 1990s were very interesting (we were supplied with them from an internal source). But should the working class not have had the right to freely read these debates at the time too?

For, while Taaffe’s correct 1997 warning that “anything which appears to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism repels the new generation looking for a political alternative”, it is worth noting, as this paper has on several occasions, that even the ‘official’ CPGB had the facility for members to write (short) critical comments in the run-up to party congresses which could be read by the public. Why not SPEW?

The only time that the SPEW general secretary even hints at the question of open debate and discussion is seemingly by accident: if there are longer-term issues to which some in the party are permanently opposed, then, for the Taaffe of 2008: “Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place in order that different ideas, programmes and tactics can be tested out before audiences of workers and young people” (emphasis added).

Of course, says Taaffe, there could then be a (so-called) “united front” with common work between the group and those who recently decamped. This rather spurious logic actually goes some way to excusing our movement’s current pathetic divisions. Hell, if disagreements over strategy or tactics reach a certain point, why not just split so that the great unwashed masses can finally hear about what those differences actually are? If we wind back the clock of history and place Taaffe’s SPEW in the position of the Bolsheviks in April 1917, then instead of unity through the public airing of enormous strategic conundrums, there would have been a whole series of debilitating splits and fractures!

Having the facility for strategic and tactical discussions to find open expression, a basic Bolshevik norm, would certainly make The Socialist - a front-runner for the title of worst weekly publication on the left - a much more interesting read. It would serve to properly politicise its members and readers, rather than create false hopes and sect illusions. Currently the publication consists of little more than super-optimistic reports of strikes and protests against the cuts, where the class grows from strength to strength and - if enough of them join “the socialists”, of course - where socialism is not too far from our grasp, etc. Of course, SPEW’s rivals on the left are, invariably, “the sects”.

While comrade Taaffe mocks the SWP for allowing factions only in the “pre-conference period”, his terminology on this question could come straight from the arsenal of any loyalist in the SWP: “A revolutionary party is not a debating club, let alone a debating circle, so beloved of the minuscule sects [typically sectarian language - BL] on the outskirts of the labour movement, it must, of course, be thoroughly democratic.” Notice how the two parts of this sentence, from the 1997 text, appear to be so obviously incongruous - even grammatically!

On the face of it, Taaffe’s argument seems reasonable: “All of this means that, while ‘permanent factions’ may be undesirable, at the same time they cannot be ‘prohibited’, either in a rigid ‘constitution’ or by the edict of an ‘infallible’ leadership.” Nonetheless, the obvious elephant in the room here is that, if all dissent is restricted to internal channels, then this once more cuts the class itself out of the equation.

Of course, the Bolsheviks were not characterised by permanent and entrenched factionalism, but a series of alliances and factions emerged in response to the demands of shifting political reality. Factional lines might be redrawn, but revolutionary unity could endure precisely because of the extensive democratic rights enjoyed by factions, which had the opportunity to raise their arguments - publicly - without having to split off first in order to do so!



1. http://carolineleneghan.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/3.

2. The Independent March 8.

3. The Socialist March 7.

4. www.cadv.org.uk.

5. P Taaffe Democratic centralism, available at www.marxist.net/namechange/nameframe.htm?4.htm.

6. P Taaffe Socialism and left unity - a critique of the Socialist Workers Party, available online at www.socialistparty.org.uk/books_pamphlets/Socialism_and_Left_Unity_-_A_critique_of_the_Socialist_Workers_Party/1

7. Some years later, the document was usefully made available to the public on the web: www.marxist.net/namechange/nameframe.htm.