I recently wrote about how a number of organisations on the so called “revolutionary left” have proven unable to prevent sexual abuse, and have sometimes colluded in protecting the abusers, and silencing the victims.
The pattern is too clear, and the examples too numerous, for it all to be simple coincidence. In a recent article by Florian Wilde, an historian, and National Executive of the broad left party in Germany, Die Linke, he recounts events in the British SWP’s sister group in Germany that are eerily familiar.
In mid-2001 Linksruck entered a deep crisis that resulted in a split in the organisation. An accusation was raised within the organisation that the [Central Committee] CC had covered up a case of sexual assault involving a member of the organisation’s inner circle and even protected the accused. Following this, multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault by another member of the CC came to light. The CC had been aware of these allegations for some time but had not reacted to them. This accorded to their logic that leadership was the critical element in building the organisation, and thus must be protected at nearly all costs. After this we learned of another CC member’s embezzlement of party funds to pay for calls to phone sex hot-lines. The outrage amongst the membership was, as you can imagine, immense. The new comrades from the social movements viewed the behaviour of the leadership as sexist; many of the comrades who had been members for years were also no longer prepared to follow the leadership of the CC.
The situation escalated at a national conference at the end of September 2001. The CC argued that the group’s political orientation in the wake of 11 September should be debated first in order to establish a political basis upon which we could discuss the internal issues. A majority of delegates moved that the crisis of the organisation, in which many of them felt they could no longer work, would be discussed first. Then, the majority demanded the CC’s resignation. The CC refused, invoking the lack of a necessary statute in the group’s constitution – they would only resign with the mandate of a general assembly. This was the greatest political shock of my life, as I had spent years arguing for exactly that type of statute, which the CC had always rejected, arguing that leadership is based on trust – not on formal rules. Without the trust of the membership the leadership would be nothing. Now that the membership’s trust had clearly been revoked they cited formalities to retain their positions.
Many members were furious. A phase of intense internal conflict began. The persistent accusations of sexual assault simultaneously threatened to isolate the group on the radical left. Three different factions emerged from this situation:
- Arbeiterpolitik: the “conservative” faction of the CC and older comrades. They essentially argued to “stay the course”, coupled with a limited retreat from the social movements and a stronger orientation towards the labour movement. They accused the two other factions of adopting feminist and autonomist positions.
- Diametrically opposed was the faction Seattle-Bolschewiki. They gave the ultimatum that all members of the current CC resign immediately, demanded an increased orientation towards the movements and strived toward a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics. However, they drew moral strength and most of their arguments from sharply formulated criticisms of the sexist relations in the organisation and especially its leadership.
- In between them, even temporarily representing the majority, was the very heterogeneous faction Demokratischer Zentralismus (DemZ) to which I belonged. The thread that held them together was the demand for a comprehensive democratic reform of the organisation as the prerequisite step for a possible strategic reorientation, combined with consequences addressing the accusations of sexual assault; but without demanding the resignation of the entire CC. Instead the faction called for an expansion and renewal of the leadership as part of a democratic renewal of the entire organisation.
Arbeiterpolitik was able to come out in front fairly quickly. The CC suspended one of the comrades accused of sexual assault, expelled another from the organisation, and established a committee to investigate the matter. This took some of the wind out of DemZ’s sails. In addition to this they offered a coherent political orientation: a staying of the course, but with more focus on the labour movement and industrial organizing. DemZ had nothing of the sort, their unity was based primarily on the demand for clarification and reforms to establish a culture of democratic internal debate for all members. As the CC finally addressed the accusations and enforced consequences, DemZ lost one of its primary planks. Many leading cadre left DemZ and (depending on one’s perspective) were either convinced by or capitulated to the CC/Arbeiterpolitik faction. Their original goal to fundamentally reform and renew the organisation and thereby offer disappointed and demoralised members a new perspective was not achieved. Instead several members of DemZ were integrated into the new leadership.
Linksruck’s general assembly was held in November 2001. The Seattle-Bolschewiki gave an ultimatum: the resignation of the entire CC, which they accused of collectively protecting a sexual offender. Although many members were critical of the conduct of the leadership in dealing with the allegations of assault, they were not willing to accept the accusation that the entire organisation was guilty of sexism. When they were unable to win a majority, the Seattle-Bolschewiki left the room and the organisation. They took many activists and cadre with them, some of them new, others longstanding. They founded a new organisation, “Anticapitalistas” seeking to develop a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics embedded in the movements. Within half a year and the publication of two newspapers the organisation collapsed, its leadership led it into a dead end. They were not able to achieve either of their aims: first the renewal of Linksruck, and later the building of a new organisation. Some of its members became politically passive, others remain active somewhere today. But they were not able to survive as a collective entity for longer than a few months.
The outcome of the 2001 crisis was a political tragedy. Of the over 1,000 members we counted before the crisis less than 300 remained. Many branches (Hamburg, for example, had five branches before the crisis and only half of one after) and many of the cadre we had carefully recruited and trained fell away from the group.
These events were previously raised in the comments here a few weeks ago, but seemingly had a much lower public profile when they occured in Germany than the recent crisis for the SWP.
The alleged sexual assault by a leader, and the ridiculing of the victim are referred to here in the comments below an Indymedia thread about their conference (“aber eine Organisation,die einen Vergewaltiger in ihrer Führung behält und das Opfer über Jahe verhöhnt”), and a comment on this blog article refer not only to an alleged rape “in their own ranks” by the leading Hamburg comrade at the beginning of the 1990s but also to “Bunny-Parties” between “leading cadre” and young, female new recruits in the late 1990s in Munich. (Bekannt ist auch ein Vergewaltigungsfall in den eigenen Reihen Anfang der 1990er in Hamburg, der von der Hamburger Führung gedeckt wurde, sowie die „Bunny-Partys“ führender Kader mit weiblichen Jungmitgliedern in München Mitte/ Ende der 1990er.)
According to Daggi in the comments below, the SWP’s sister group in Austria discuss the 2001 crisis in Linksruck saying that three members were expelled within a fairly short period for “sexism”/sexual assault/etc. (including use of party phones to phone premium rate sex chatlines). They said there was an everyday culture of sexism in the Berlin “centre” which should have been impossible in an IST group, and no solidarity with the victims (Tatsächlich schien es sogar so etwas wie eine sexistische Alltagskultur in der Berliner Zentrale gegeben zu haben. Etwas was in einer IST-Organisation eigentlich unmöglich sein sollte. Man solidarisierte sich nicht prinzipiell mit den Opfern!)
The disgraced leadership held onto control of the small remaining organisation, and having weathered the storm the group engaged with the emerging left realignment in Germany that now results in them having three members in the Bundestag. These events will be virtually unknown to activists in the UK, but may well have informed the thinking of the SWP’s most prominent intellectual and regime loyalist, Alex Callinicos, who would surely be aware of all the details as the SWP’s international secretary.
However, the SWP’s leadership seem less conciliarity than the leadership of Linksruck were. The individuals most tainted by the scandal have not been expelled in Britain. The calls by the SWP opposition for a recall conference were thwarted by the 50 strong National Committee on Sunday, where the opposition only mustered nine votes. Motions calling for the censure of oppositionists were passed, and expulsions are expected shortly.
Moreover, the opportunities for the SWP leadership, though tasting the salty breath of triumph within their own ranks, are much more limited. The split has very much played out on generational lines, and their prospects in the universities and new social movements are slim. What is more, the few experienced trade unionists in the SWP will find life harder, and those union leaders or celebrity endorsers who have decorated SWP platforms and events will now be too cautious of being tainted by the toxic brand. As Cliff might have said “They won’t touch us with a bloody barge”
What is particularly interesting though is Florian’s account of how Cliff’s style of leadership contributed to the crisis.
The German section of the [SWP's international grouping] IST, the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG), was founded in the late 1960s. It managed to play a modest role in the political upturn of the 1970s and in the 1980s adopted the so-called “downturn”: focus on propaganda and the gradual accumulation of cadre. Starting in circa 1989, expecting a rapid upturn in class struggle, the roughly 50 members of the SAG shifted towards an interventionist strategy and recruited heavily, mostly in the anti-fascist movement of the time. By 1994 the group had grown to roughly 300 members, before promptly dissolving itself and entering the social democratic youth, the Jusos, as “Linksruck”.
In many ways the transformation from SAG to Linksruck was symptomatic of the internal democracy (or lack thereof) in the IST. Following a massive intervention by Tony Cliff and the leadership of the SWP, the old leadership of the SAG was pushed aside in favour of younger members who had begun work in the Jusos. The decisive strategic debates and arguments that led to this reorientation were conducted in small circles, and only the conclusions were presented to the organisation. The price of this course of action was high: many long-standing cadre left in disgust at the way the decision had been made, and many younger members from the radical and autonomist left refused to join the Jusos. My local branch in Kiel had grown to 20 members in 1994, but after we joined the Jusos in the middle of the year we were reduced to three. Even worse, the top-down approach during the transformation into Linksruck left the nucleus of the crisis that was to come: the leadership of the organisation found that it was legitimate and correct to conduct important debates amongst themselves and if necessary enforce them against the will of the membership. An overemphasis on leadership became a problematic hallmark of Linksruck.
…The political basis for founding Linksruck and joining the Jusos was the alleged necessity of breaking with the “swamp” of the German radical left in the early 90s. This led to complications when we began to increase our work in the anti-globalisation movement and sought to relate to and recruit from the radical left again, as many new members in turn brought feminist and autonomist ideas from the movements back into the organisation. These ideas collided with our well-established theoretical and practical traditions. Our years-long refusal to engage with this political spectrum in a productive but critical manner meant we lacked an internal culture capable of tolerating differences of opinion over the medium term. This came back to haunt us as it became an element in the approaching crisis.
The concepts of “the swamp” and the “downturn”, which will be familiar to those who were in the SWP during the 1980s, are typical examples of Tony Cliff’s tomfoolery. We can remark that the thesis of the “downturn” was always tendentious, but even if Cliff had been correct about it in Britain (which he wasn’t) it is absurd that the German sister organisation of the SWP simulateneously adopted the same turn, in dramatically different political condition. The “swamp” was a perjorative term used to innoculate the SWP membership from being influenced by the rest of the left, as Cliff perceived the rise of Bennism and the debate surrounding “Beyond the Fragments” as an existential threat, , which he countered by encouraging the SWP to turn in on itself to become a propaganda circle during the 1980s, including winding up much of its trade union activity.
As I have argued before it is impossible for any political group to develop a theoretically virtuous understanding of the world, based upon points of political differentiation, yet Cliff was precisely engaged in differentiating the SWP from the rest of the movement based upon the conceit that a few half-valid insights constituted a new paradigm of Marxism, conveniently decorated with the authority of a number of past great thinkers, who could not object to giving endorsement as they were dead.
The renowned Sovietologist, J Arch Getty, argues that the Leninist project inherently seeks to establish a hegemonic and obligatory political ideology. Indeed he argues: “The documents of the Bolshevik elite … provide a case study in the deliberate and intentional production and refinement of a prescribed belief system. Ideological definition was an important part of Bolshevik tradition and Stalinist rule. Lenin spent much of his life producing and debating political programmes. For the Bolsheviks before the revolution (and especially for the intellectual leaders in emigration), hairsplitting over precise points of revolutionary ideology was much of their political life. To a significant extent, Bolshevik politics has always been inextricably bound with creating and sharpening texts”
He argues how internal bulletins and statements from the leadership were carefully drafted, with the expectation that exact phrases and careful linguistic constructions would be analysed and used, shaping both action, and a shared perception of reality. Competing theories and texts were therefore hard to assimilate or compromise with; and a particular aspect of Leninist thought is the creation of symbolic categories of opponents, in classic high Stalinism “Kulaks” or “Trotskyists”; for the modern SWP “Autonomists”, “Reformists”, “Feminists” and “the bureaucracy”.
A peculiarity of the SWP though (and even more so in the shape of its bastard child, Counterfire) is the cult of leadership, the practice of which described so clearly by Florian Wilde above. In Cliff’s terms, from his handbook, “Lenin, Building the Party”
Lenin grasped better than anyone else the need for a centralised party organisation. However, he saw it not as an aim in itself, but rather as a lever to raise the level of activity and consciousness among the mass of the workers. To make the organisation into a fetish, to submit to it although it impeded mass action, went against his grain. When he found it necessary, as in 1905-07, or in 1917, he would appeal to the energy of the masses to overcome the conservatism of the party machine.
Tony Cliff Lenin himself is seen as the embodiment of socialist revolution, or rather the party in the here and now represents the immanent revolution which they believe will arise, and therefore a future, better society; and within the party the revolution is embodied by the leadership; who both prescribe the belief system for members, but also are trusted to “see further and better” (in the self-evaluation of Counterfire leader, John Rees) than anyone else. Tony Cliff Lenin is not bound by the party’s democracy, as he has a superior relationship with the future revolution, uninhibited by local peculiarity or routine.
Former SWP full time organiser, Andy Wilson, who was expelled in 1994 for reasons opaque, provides a persuasive account of this concept of leadership. We don’t need to accept Wilson’s own belief in the concept of “revolutionary socialism” to follow his reasoning:
In Lukács’s great early work, History and class consciousness, there are two important dimensions. One of them is something that is widely celebrated: Lukács’s application of Marxism in a way that Marx had not directly applied it. Lukács produces a critique of reification connected to a particular form: the commodity nature of production under capitalism. It is the way that ruling ideas assert themselves – and they assert themselves across the whole of society. So you do not have a working class with working class ideas, confronting the ruling class with ruling class ideas, in a direct showdown. What you have is the domination of ruling class ideas.
… On the other hand, Lukács is also concerned about the objectivity of our ideas. If ideas are created by reification, how can the working class break through that to achieve something like the truth? The key point, I think, is what Lukács says about reified consciousness: there is also such a thing as an imputed class-consciousness – the consciousness that the working class would have, if it were aware of its objective situation and interests. This imputed class-consciousness is, if you like, the ‘objective truth’ moment of his philosophical system. The really interesting thing is that Lukács says repeatedly in his book that the revolutionary party is the imputed consciousness of the working class. He also says that by this ‘imputed consciousness’ he means the socialist ideas that Lenin, in What is to be done?, says must be injected into the class from without – a formulation which the International Socialists tradition, culminating in the SWP, had always rejected.
This is a philosophical problem which gets at the essence of the culture of left groups. Fascist groups have the Führerprinzip – they must be created according to a hierarchical structure, at the top of which is the Führer. I am not saying that Trotskyist groups have anything like that idea, but what I will say is this: if you have an idea of imputed class-consciousness, which you more or less identify with the revolutionary party, then, wherever the members of the revolutionary party are interacting with the world outside, they are being pulled in a different direction. They are being pulled away from imputed class-consciousness. Sectional interests are defined as antagonistic to this correct class-consciousness.
Things get interesting when you go a little deeper. If the correct, imputed class-consciousness resides in the revolutionary party, and yet the members of the revolutionary party are in fact pulled in different directions by their day-to-day experience, where in the revolutionary party does it actually reside? Well, of course, if the members at the ‘periphery’ of the party – where it makes contact with the world outside, so to say – are being pulled by the class, then the correct consciousness must lie at the point furthest awa.y from this periphery – it must reside at the ‘centre’ of the party. That is why all the groups have their ‘centre’, and ‘centralised’ leaderships.
Therefore the authority of the “revolutionary party’s” leadership rests upon the assumption that they embody the understood “imputed class-consciousness” that the “working class” would ideally have in a presumed future “socialist revolution”, and future society. Every one of the pillars of that argument rests upon faith, and a self-referential ideology. It is a nonsense to impute an idealised consciousness to a social class, which they would have in circumstances that you would like to see, but which dont exist
In circumstances where outside influences are distrusted; where other left wing strands of thought are dissmissed as “the swamp”; where the party is vested with messianic purpose; and the leadership carries charismatic authority as the embodiment of a future revolution, then there will be an inherent pull towards cultishness; and unequal power relationships. Furthermore the concept of “imputed class consciousness” means that the ethical and moral standards to which the “socialist revolutionary” leadership are accountable are not those of the actually existing society that we live in, but those of a future they wish to create. They make up their own rules, and justify it by their own sense of destiny.