The former Socialist Worker journalist, Tom Walker, who resigned over the Comrade Delta issue, recently explained the mechanism by which the SWP leadership is insulated from reality:
The party’s inability to deal with its crisis – in fact the CC and loyalists’ denial that it is even happening – is a symptom of the huge disconnect that has opened up between the party and the wider world, and its incredibly insular culture as an organisation. Contrast the response of party members to the response of anyone else on the left who hears about this scandal. It is as if much of the SWP has come to exist on a different plane of reality. In other words, unfortunately, it is not just the leadership who are “totally divorced from the class”.
The CC-supporting members deny what’s in front of their noses. They post up Facebook statuses waffling on about how great their paper sale was, and how everyone was so angry about the Tories and the rest of it. They re-dedicate themselves to aggressively continuing exactly as before. There is no crisis. Loyalty trumps reality.
The party has some fine theories about ‘party and class’, but once it becomes unable to face up to reality, that relationship completely breaks down. Instead there is only a feedback loop of self-delusion. The leaders tell the members that everything is fine. Then the members that the leaders speak to – the ones who follow the twists and turns of the line, and as a consequence aren’t considered ‘conservative’, ‘slow to move’ and the various other epithets the CC like to throw at the rank and file – are asked how things are going. Being loyal line-followers, they feed back that, just as you said wise leader, everything is fine. Like a king taking advice from his courtiers, the leadership takes this not as toadying but as reinforcement, and doubles down on its tactics.
In this way the centralised leadership is not only cut off from the day to day rhythms of the workplace, but in fact from any way of genuinely assessing its tactics. Any report that things aren’t working is dismissed as ‘pessimism’, or worse, the development of the dreaded ‘political differences’. There is no reverse gear, only escalation. This echo chamber has operated since long before the current crisis, reinforcing incorrect perspectives long past the point of absurdity and causing a succession of crises as the leadership’s delusions smash at 100 miles per hour into the brick wall of reality. The long-term cadre are the self-selecting group who decided to stick with the CC through every previous time this happened. A crisis of this magnitude is too much for some, but for most it’s another day ‘defending the party’.
I can already hear the various long term ‘oppositionists’ saying they do not recognise this picture. We’re always disagreeing, they say, and we’re tolerated and even listened to. And yes, you may be tolerated – though not trust.ed – but that is as long as you stay within certain boundaries. The issue is whether you appear to pose a direct challenge to the authority of the CC. If you’re not a threat, then who cares, do what you like, have a debate, write a book, whatever. But if you start to look like a threat, the clampdown won’t be long in coming. This is not openly stated but nevertheless well understood
I remember a very amusing conversation I had with Chris Nineham about ten years ago, he was then a leading SWP fulltimer but is now with the rival Counterfire organisation. He rang me to ask whether I had rung around SWP contacts in Swindon to get them on some utterly pointless demonstration that the SWP had called. I honestly told him that I hadn’t and had no intention of doing so. He had a complete tantrum, in response I replied in a sarcastic tone that I now remembered and had rung them all the previous week. Completely missing the sarcasm, and obvious implausibility, he clearly believed me and said “that’s better”, in a relieved tone.
I discussed before how understanding the dynamic of small left groups can draw upon research into “New Religious Movements”
Pattison and Ness in their paper “New Religious Movements in Perspective” refer to a useful definition of religion (and correspondingly to secular belief-oriented organizations).
“A religion is to be found where persons take it for granted that their own ethos corresponds to the meaning of the Cosmos” Applying this definition … we recognize three analytical dimensions: 1) the creation of an ethos , 2) a process of cosmization, and 3) the reification of ethos with cosmos.
The relationships between ideology, ethos and belief is complex. Some cults become the mainstream ideology of society, and recast social ethos in so doing. some organized belief systems act as mainstream religion in one part of the world, but act as a sect in other parts of the world (the difference in practice of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Utah, compared to the practice of the same organisation in the Baptist dominated Southern USA is interesting)
Some taxonomy may help, where a mainstream religion or political movement to an extent posseses the virtue of verdicality (truth correspondence) between the belief groups ethos (their habitual character and behaviour), and their social cosmos ( the society they live in).
The language of sects and cults developed in mediaeval religious discourse, and has been adopted by ethnographers and sociologists, but it unnecessarily pejorative.
A sect may be regarded as a variant of the mainstream politcs or religion; and sect members may live in both the mainstream cosmos, and participate in the ethos of their group, despite the fact that there is tension; and lack of verdicality. For example, someone who believed themselves to be a Bolshevik revolutionary in twenty-first century Britain, could function effectively in most situations, but their political practice is orthogonal to the social and political institutions of our society, which will limit their political effectiveness outside of short term radical campaigns; and there will be a tension between their big ambitions and the groups limited achievements.
In contrast a cult seeks to resolve this lack of verdicality by limiting their interaction with mainstream society. This can be dramatic, such as the migration of the Pilgrim fathers to the Americas. Or it can be undramatic, where cult members simply immerse themselves more and more in the routine and ritual of their religious or political observance.
The SWP presents quite a complex social interaction of an immanent cult within a sect; and it is the tendency towards cultishness from the bureaucracy that creates the bullying culture, and the haughty arrogance of those whose authority is entirely self-referential from within the SWP. Their retreat from reality in face of the Comrade Delta draws upon a dynamic that already exists. Indeed the extraordinary incidents of cult like intimidation of oppositionists now being reported can only have arisen in a context where the bureaucracy are already accustomed to bullying and abusing members
Comrades around the country have been summoned to meetings on their own, or at best with one fellow member to accompany them. In these meetings they have been accused of all manner of attacks on “forty years of British Leninism”, and recantations, confessions and apologies have been demanded, along with suggestions that they leave if they cannot toe ‘the line’.
Simon Pirani recently published a fascinating account of how the self-referential cult world affects the understanding of those within the bubble.
There was a sense in which the pre-1985 WRP was held together by a [bogus “revolutionary morality”] – the sense that we were a combat organisation, ordained by our ideology to bring certain truths to the working class and replace its treacherous leadership with our own, and that we had to do so on the basis of a set of moral precepts opposite to, and superior to, those of capitalist society. … I can best explain this in terms of my reaction to authoritarian and intimidating behaviour by WRP “leaders”. Like almost all WRP members, I was completely ignorant of Healy’s sexual abuse until the summer of 1985. (When I first heard allegations of it, I tried desperately to put them out of my mind – a complicated reaction I am happy to discuss, but won’t discuss here; once I understood more, I strongly supported bringing the charges against Healy.) But when it came to “leaders” bullying and demeaning militants, I could hardly have remained in the organisation without accepting it and becoming used to it.
I [suppressed] my instinctive uneasiness about hierarchical and bullying behaviour by senior party members. Having joined the WRP as an energetic but impressionable teenager – the best type of recruit for any sect – I soon learned to block off altogether any thoughts at all about authoritarian forms of organisation, … The theoretical trick played by the likes of Corin Redgrave to justify the WRP’s regime was that, as revolutionaries, we based our behaviour on a set of moral considerations “higher” than those of bourgeois society. Reference was made to Lev Trotsky’s pamphlet Their Morals and Ours … although, on a close reading, even there Redgrave’s position is demolished. Trotsky argues that the ends justify the means, but cautions (a) that they do not justify all means, and (b) that the ends themselves have to be justified. Clearly, Healy’s abuses could only be justified in terms of “means” if one considered, as Redgrave did, that the construction of the organisation was not a means, but an end in itself. In the WRP’s case, once the construction of a “revolutionary” organisation, separate from the wider movement, was made the end in itself, it increasingly became the case that, in terms of means, “anything goes”.
In particular, Simon Pirani emphasises the vital point that the heart of the issue is how inappropriate sexual relations based upon unequal power could be tolerated. While the alleged misconduct in the SWP is on a much smaller scale than the WRP’s, it is worth recalling that the WRP scandal occured in the context of a much more sexist and oppressive background. Those were the Jimmy Saville years.
For years after the break-up of the WRP, a few people who participated – and many more who did not – suggested that Healy’s sexual abuse was not “the central issue”, and that his “political degeneration” was more important. As Cliff Slaughter (who, like all the Marxist writers of the pre-1985 WRP, participated in the opposition to Healy) insisted from the start, sexual abuse was the central issue. What could be more important than unravelling and undoing the processes by which a “revolutionary” organisation – in however complicated a manner, and behind most of our backs – turned young women who sought to fight oppression into victims of an abusive “leader”? What process could be more immoral, from any truly revolutionary point of view? What on earth does all the talk about “fighting capitalism” mean, if the forms of alienation that hold capitalism together are reproduced in “revolutionary” organisations? And which of these forms of alienation could be more central than the patriarchy and the distorted relations between men and women, that preceded capitalism but are essential elements of social relations dominated by capital? In my view, these and similar issues are of paramount importance.
There are indeed sensible voices within the SWP today focussing correctly on the issue of sexism and abuse. Linda Rogers exposes the scary fact that the SWP’s disputes committee has investigated rapes on 9 previous occassions!
The reason that the DC thought it was fit to investigate this case is precisely because it did not recognise rape within relationship, acquaintance rape, date rape or whatever you want to call this woman’s experience as a ‘real’ rape. Part of their disbelief may have been because they were friends or long standing colleagues of Delta. Part of their disbelief may be because the party’s position on women’s oppression is flawed, it has not kept up to date with the most current theories in feminism and it has not kept itself at the forefront of the battle against women’s oppression. Part of their problem was that they are human, they live in this world, in this time and, despite protestations to the contrary, they were not immune to the rape myths that exist in this society.
I have also faced the argument that the DC has investigated 9 rapes in the past (I’m not clear on how recently these ‘investigations’ were conducted). I believe this argument is put forward to reassure comrades of the competency of the DC. I don’t find it reassuring in the slightest; in fact I find it terrifying. But it illustrates my points above. Our understanding of rape has developed over the years. Rape within marriage was only recognised in law in the 1990’s (England) / 1980’s (Scotland), date rape (acquaintance rape) is an issue that we are continuingly developing our understanding of and we have the women’s movement to thank for the progress made in changing attitudes towards these issues. If the party, in the past has underestimated the seriousness of rape and has attempted to investigate it, surely it is valid to suggest that that time has now passed and we understand enough about rape to understand that it is not a dispute between two people that can be resolved through a disputes committee?
But much too much of the discusion by the SWP opposition just blethers on about the comfortable leftist hobby horses of “democratic centralism”, and self-congratulatory exhortations about the necessity of saving or reinventing the party, reflecting the same Messianic sense of self importance that Simon Pirani describes. Of course many of the oppositionists are young and inexperienced, and they have been bold and radical in the act of standing up to the SWP leadership, despite the conventionality of their trot-speak language.
But remember that people like China Mieville and Richard Seymour, now standing as bold oppositionists only came out against the SWP leadership AFTER the issue was already in the public domain; and their own critiques have centred upon the incompetance of the SWP leadership, without examining how the cult behaviour arose, or how unequal power relationships provided the perfect culture for patriarchal and oppressive behaviour to flourish.
These leading SWP oppositionists say of their party’s leadership “After the catastrophes of the last five years a measure of humility would also be welcome.” Indeed, and a measure of humility and self reflection should also be expected from those who now pose as heroic oppositionists, but who failed to speak out when they knew of injustice. Who failed to speak out when they could see abuse of power and bullying right before their eyes. Who failed to speak out after the 2011 SWP conference gave a standing ovation with foot stomping in support of a leading member being forced to step down due to allegations of sexual harrassment.
The leading luminaries in the SWP opposition have learned nothing from this fiasco when they write, in all seriousness:
We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why many have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.
Alex reiterates that if the SWP did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. We agree – and that for the party to continue to exist, it is necessary to reinvent it. This is not alien to our tradition: perhaps it is best to leave the last word to one of its brightest lights, David Widgery in his review of the third volume
of Cliff’s biography of Lenin:
“The blossoming-blighting process which Cliff documents froze over Leninism and only mass revolutionary working-class action is able to melt it from its icy limbo. Lenin is therefore trapped in his moment, surrounded by a thicket and awaiting political rescue: ‘An old communist conceives an embryo of longing’. One day, his Modern Prince will come. Until he is woken with the proletarian kiss, the problem is not that Leninism has failed, but that it has not been tried.”
The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue.
This is the same conceit of being members of THE indispensible and world-historic party that has acted as self-justification for people keeping silent when they knew of injustice and oppression. Nothing better can be built on that basis