SWP leadership crisis: If you don’t talk about it ...
Peter Manson thinks that the SWP leadership needs to stop doing its ostrich impression
“What a weekend,” begins the latest Party Notes, the Socialist Workers Party’s internal weekly bulletin. “Campaigners across Britain held 52 protests against the bedroom tax, thousands marched in north London in defence of Whittington hospital, hundreds came to the Sheffield Unite the Resistance conference, anti-fascists confronted the Nazis in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Rotherham, firefighters and their supporters marched in south London - and much more!”1
Yes, that’s the exciting “real world” for you. At a time like this, why would anyone want to talk about the crisis that has wracked the SWP? The bungled handling of a rape accusation against a leading comrade. The expulsion of those who complained about it on Facebook. The rigging of the March 10 special conference through the use of the full-time apparatus to ensure that oppositionists were excluded as delegates wherever possible.
Who in the SWP is interested in the resulting resignation of hundreds of their comrades? Most of those who have now left the organisation have simply packed it in as individuals, but, at the last count, 121 comrades have signed the open resignation letter put out by the newly formed International Socialist Network.2 Has the central committee nothing to say about their departure? No, not a word. Neither Party Notes nor, of course, Socialist Worker even mentions it. If you don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.
This, if nothing else, demonstrates the absolute bankruptcy of the CC. As if the remaining few hundred activists do not know how serious the situation is. As if they are not wondering what the future holds for the organisation - indeed whether it will even survive in its present form. What a way to treat comrades who in many cases have sacrificed decades of their lives for “the party”. In the eyes of the CC they are just like children who have to be protected from the cruel truth and pepped up with exaggerated stories of mass resistance (with the SWP at the centre of it, of course).
None of this is a cause for celebration. Certainly not the departure of so many class fighters - many of whom will now drift away from revolutionary politics rather than join the ISN. Burnt by the experience, fewer still will think of throwing in their lot with one of the other sects.
In a sense it was hardly surprising, but it has to be said that the ISN comrades around Richard Seymour and China Miéville have been guilty of two linked mistakes. First, they agreed to accept the discipline of the In Defence of Our Party temporary faction, and immediately cease all public criticism of the leadership’s antics. It was all very well declaring after the event: “We are not prepared to accept or abide by the decisions of the special conference”3 - ie, it was illegitimate - but they should have said so, loudly and repeatedly, in advance. They should not have agreed, at the behest of IDOP, to effectively close down the International Socialism blog in the weeks before March 10. IS had continually exposed the CC’s gerrymandering and provided a focal point for all those who at last were beginning to recognise the CC’s bureaucratic centralism for what it is.
The second mistake was to organise a walkout. They should have done the opposite: in other words, continued to organise inside the SWP, whether or not the CC recognised their right to do so. The leadership’s ban on free association and free speech is unacceptable for any revolutionary and as a matter of principle democratic partisans of the working class must constantly seek to overturn such restrictions on our basic rights.
While IDOP has obediently shut up shop after the conference in compliance with the bureaucratic constitution, the IS comrades should have declared an open rebellion. In the case of Seymour, Miéville and no doubt others, they were facing expulsion, no matter what they did. They should have rallied their supporters to defy the bureaucrats - ‘Let them drive us out if they can’ should have been the attitude. It is the duty of revolutionaries to rebel not only against the outrages of the class enemy, but against those of their unconscious agents within our movement too.
The silence of the leadership is all the more remarkable in view of the coverage accorded to the SWP crisis by the mass media - the BBC, The Times, The Independent and The Guardian all reported on the special conference. And just two days before Party Notes came out, the Daily Mail was at it again.
Implying that it alone had broken the story, it continued its assault on not just the SWP, but by extension the entire organised left, by alleging that - unlike bourgeois institutions, not least popular newspapers - our organisations are awash with sexism. Leftwing men will, it seems, sexually assault young women comrades as soon as look at them - the Mail took up the claim previously made on the internet by a former member that the SWP disputes committee had investigated no fewer than nine rape cases internally.
Of the special conference, the ignorant Mail journalists stated: “They say that, had all the estimated 1,000 or so party members been allowed to participate, under the time-honoured principle of ‘one person, one vote’, the leadership would have been forced to resign en masse.”4 Of course, all the mainstream parties allow their entire membership to vote at conference, don’t they? (The Tories do not even bother with votes!) None of their conferences are restricted to delegates, are they?
But the CC’s vow of silence prevents it from responding to what just about every one of its members must have read for themselves. You see, a “line has been drawn” under the ‘comrade Delta’ affair and no-one in the “real world” is talking about it. Much more important is the fact that 200 people attended a Unite the Resistance meeting in Sheffield and a couple of thousand people protested against a threatened hospital closure in London. What goes on in an organisation that aspires to lead those protestors, along with millions of fellow workers, is actually none of their business. The nuts and bolts of revolutionary organisation is the sole preserve of the SWP central committee.
In reality its gross mishandling of the Delta case must be confronted. The CC should have stated to the alleged victim that it was not competent to investigate the matter. Yes, her complaint had to be taken seriously. Delta should have been told to give up his membership until such a time as he was able to clear his name - the cost to the SWP of defending him even from demotion for so long is now obvious to everyone.
Perhaps learning from this in a negative way, the Socialist Party in England and Wales has adopted a totally different approach in the case of Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary of the RMT union, who last week announced his resignation from SPEW, following an allegation of an assault on his former partner. Comrade Hedley denies it, but he has written to SPEW to say: “I know this puts the Socialist Party in a difficult position and am therefore resigning my membership.”5
Whatever the truth of the allegation, the correct course has been followed. I am sure the resignation letter did not exactly come as a surprise to SPEW - in fact comrades Peter Taaffe and Hannah Sell might well have been familiar with its entire content before the email landed in their inbox. Comrade Hedley ought to be welcomed back into membership if and when he can demonstrate his innocence.
The two cases are real enough, and we will continue to expose the bureaucratic inadequacies of the left groups. But we will not join in the hypocritical witch-hunting of the likes of the Mail. We will defend the SWP from their attacks, even if it is not willing to do so itself.
1. Party Notes March 18.
4. Daily Mail March 16: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2294198/Special-report-Did-Socialist-Workers-Party-cover-NINE-rapes-Kangaroo-court-cleared-official-raping-teenage-member-scandal-goes-far-deeper.html.