SWP: Another dreadful mess
The behaviour of the SWP brings the whole left into disrepute, writes Peter Manson
As many readers will be aware, the Socialist Workers Party stands accused once more of gross mishandling of a rape allegation. On October 11, an account written by the latest alleged victim was posted on the International Socialist Network website.1
The ISN was set up by over 100 former SWP members who abandoned the group after the bungling of the ‘comrade Delta’ case and the central committee’s rigging of the subsequent special conference in March 2013. So it is perhaps not surprising that the introduction to the piece declares that this new allegation shows that “the cases of W and X” - the two women who accused Delta - were not “‘isolated incidents’, but systematic in the organisation”.
According to the woman, she was raped by a leading local SWP member in December 2012 - just before the furore over the Delta case burst into the open, when a transcript of the session dealing with the Delta case at the January 2013 conference was published online. She says that at first she “refused to accept it and actually felt guilty”, but, “after confiding in a comrade who made me realise what really happened”, the woman decided to file a complaint with the SWP’s disputes committee. The complaint was for “sexual assault” - although “the description of what happened can be nothing but rape”, she remarks.
When she lodged her complaint, “It was suggested that a female member in the district would … act as my intermediary. This intermediary took notes and forwarded them to the disputes committee.” The accused comrade was then suspended while the DC looked into the case.
However, when the DC received the notes, it “replied that the complaint had to come from me in my own words”. So she made one small amendment to the intermediary’s notes and emailed the DC asking for this document to be taken as her formal complaint. Included in this statement were the names of other female comrades, who “would be happy to confirm that they had not only felt uncomfortable in that man’s presence, but had also, previous to the assault, mentioned to me that he was acting in a harassing manner towards me”.
But she received a reply stating: “You are asking the DC to accept a third party description of what you said to the third party, as the complaint. This is not possible. Currently, the DC has still not received your account of what happened to you, while the defendant has been suspended for the past two weeks. You need to finalise your own complaint.”
This surely smacks of a bureaucratic response intended to place obstacles in front of the complainant. Even if we accept that it is a good idea for a political organisation to ‘investigate’ such a serious crime internally - and this writer most certainly does not - it is clear from what the woman writes that the notes did represent her “account” of the incident.
But that was not all. The DC also complained bitterly that the woman had had the audacity to talk about what had happened to her to her local comrades. Its email stated: “Further, on the phone on Wednesday evening, you named three people to whom you have previously disclosed the identity of the defendant ... You have done this even though you have open access to your chosen intermediary. Your actions are breaching the confidentiality that must surround complaints processes as well as identities and complaint details.”
The DC was prepared to “recognise that this is difficult for you”, but a gagging order was essential to “protect the well-being, information and confidential identity of involved comrades to the best of our abilities”. And, just to rub in the point, the DC’s email warned: “This correspondence is confidential between the DC and yourselves” (meaning the complainant and the intermediary).
So someone in desperate need of emotional support is told that she must not even talk about the incident to those most likely to be able to provide it - her immediate comrades, including those also emotionally involved who are likely to empathise with her predicament. As the woman herself points out, “I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades - that I must only to talk to a woman who up until this point I had very little to do with.”
She reports that two female comrades from the DC came to her area to interview both the complainant and the accused. The woman says she believed her interview to be part of a formal hearing, but it seems the two DC comrades were only making initial enquiries. To her surprise, at the end of what was “a very long and upsetting interview”, she was asked whether she wanted to make an official complaint: “Up until this point I thought that this … was part of the official hearing.”
During the interview she was asked questions like: “What effect would you say drink and drugs had on you that night?” The woman admits that she cannot remember every last detail of the alleged assault - “not due to intoxication, but rather that I have blocked it out. He spoke to me throughout. However, while I can still hear him talking - feel it in fact - I cannot remember exactly what it was he said.”
She was encouraged to drop the case for three reasons: it was “unlikely” the DC would be able to “find either way”, especially “taking into account the level of intoxication” (the women comments: “in fact I was stone-cold sober by the time the assault happened, which I repeated throughout”); secondly, she “could not remember everything”; and, thirdly, a formal hearing would be emotionally very difficult.
She was told that “It is, of course, your decision. You do what’s best for you”. However, “Given such a bleak choice, I decided to drop the complaint. I in no way feel this decision was mine - I was basically told there was no point - something which, as I found out more later on, was most definitely true.” Incredibly, she says she found out later that the accused comrade had been shown her statement, “while I have not seen his or even heard from the DC what he had said in response”. Meanwhile, her alleged assailant had his suspension lifted and was elected, on a “strong pro-CC line”, by the district aggregate as a delegate to the March special conference - “even my intermediary voted for him”.
The woman declares: “They made me feel as if I was ridiculous for making a complaint and too damaged a person to really assess what had happened and how to deal with it. Following the interview I fell into a week-long state of mania.” She continues: “During the week that followed I was phoned three times by my intermediary and by members of the DC to essentially make sure I kept quiet.”
She claims she was advised: “If anyone asks you about the complaint or why it was dropped just say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ and ‘It was my decision’.” She notes: “Well, actually I do want to talk about it and it wasn’t my decision.”
Understandably, the woman concludes that “the Socialist Workers Party is a group that is sexist, full of bullies, and above all will cover up rape to protect its male members and reputation.” She advises everyone “who is a revolutionary, a socialist, a decent human being” to “have nothing to do with the SWP and its abhorrent practices. Deprive them and all rape apologists of air, do not in engage in any way.”
For its part, the SWP central committee has acknowledged in the internal Party Notes (including the version published on its website) that the DC did deal with a third case.
The CC reports: “An allegation has been made online about the disputes committee approach to a complaint of sexual assault earlier this year. The central committee regards the accusation of pressure on a complainant as extremely serious. The SWP utterly opposes sexism and all forms of oppression.
“The central committee has been told by the disputes committee that a thorough process was implemented. The CC will ensure that any matters raised around this case are properly dealt with. This case will be discussed during the disputes committee report at the SWP conference.”2
The statement ends by once more elevating the question of ‘confidentiality’ above everything else: “We regret the publication of the names of those allegedly involved online and insist that there should be no repeat of this.” In fact the only names given in the piece on the ISN website are those of SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber, former DC chair Pat Stack and the two women from the DC who interviewed the complainant.
The CC insists: “We also deplore the use by some SWP members of the names of comrades allegedly involved, which can have serious consequences for their work and other aspects of their lives. Members should also not link to/share articles that use names in this way.”
So if you come across a posting that provides such names, you must pretend you have not seen it, and certainly must not mention it to your comrades! What world does the CC inhabit?
The woman is right when she says that the SWP is prepared to “cover up rape” to protect its “reputation”. I do not, however, agree that it also wants to protect “its male members” - with the implication that the organisation is ‘institutionally sexist’, that it somehow structurally discriminates against women. That is clearly nonsense - it is SWP women just as much as men who at every level implement measures of bureaucratic control and are involved in desperate efforts to protect what remains of its shattered reputation.
The problem is that it is not just the SWP that is brought into disrepute - its antics cast a shadow over the entire left, so it is our reputation too that is called into account. On the face of it, it may seem natural for any organisation to seek to play down or deny the seriousness of embarrassing allegations. But in the case of the SWP the problem is increased a hundredfold by the CC’s insistence that its disputes committee is perfectly competent to investigate and pronounce on allegations of rape.
It is not. Much as we may dislike the idea, the only body that can look into serious criminal allegations at the moment is the police. Just as at this stage we are forced to use the police and courts if members of our organisations are the victims of murder. What we should not do is undertake an investigation into rape where we are simply unable to “find either way” in any definitive sense.
Instead of honestly advising alleged victims accordingly, the SWP places itself in a position where it appears to have no option but to pretend that nothing has happened. In effect it advised a victim of an alleged rape that she should just drop the whole thing.
It is exactly such manipulative behaviour - putting the interests of the bureaucracy before that of the members and the organisation as a whole - that has caused many to reject both democratic centralism and the very concept of Marxist organisation in favour of the ‘broad party’ morass.
2. Party Notes October 14.