Despite being under considerable and unaccustomed pressure from reality, the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are poised to fight back and silence their critics. So far the leadership clique of the SWP have stuck together. Let us be clear who we mean by this: the small circle of colleagues who act as signatories, trustees and title holders of the SWP’s financial and physical assets. In contrast, when the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) blew up in 1985, the core leadership was itself split. As John Sullivan sardonically noted:
UNTIL August 1985, Gerry Healy was the most charismatic figure on the British left. Suddenly the Central Committee of the WRP, led by long-time Healy clone Mike Banda, announced that their founding father was being charged with the sexual abuse of dozens of female comrades, use of party funds for his own purposes, and complicity in the murder of opponents of the Iraqi government by selling information on Iraqi dissidents in Britain. Knowledgeable WRP-watchers reacted by saying: ‘That’s as may be, but what has he done to annoy Mike Banda?’
Importantly for the WRP, their main intellectual, the academic Cliff Slaughter, backed the coup against Healy.
In contract the current SWP leadership all have to hang together because they are all up to their necks in the same sorry cover up. As Jules Alford recounts the 2011 SWP conference when the allegations against Comrade Delta first surfaced:
I spoke to Kimber privately on the Saturday of conference shortly before the ‘special session’ took place (I did not know it was scheduled until Kimber told me so). I talked of my concern at the rumours circulating though I did not know the nature of the allegations. Kimber interrupted me and said he could not divulge their exact nature. I said I understood but that I wanted a reassurance that comrade Delta would not receive special treatment because he was a leading party member. Kimber assured me this would not happen and that a ‘special session’ would follow shortly that would address the concerns of comrades. I said OK and shook hands and stepped away. That was it, short and brisk. Five minutes later back inside the conference as delegates returned from a break to retake their seats I saw Delta and Kimber sharing a joke at the side of the conference stage. To say that I and the comrade accompanying were disturbed would be an understatement. Minutes later the ‘special session’ began. I and the comrade with me were so repelled and horrified we were unable to return for the second, final day of conference.
Because of the strictures of ‘confidentiality’, the name, age and branch of the young female comrade who subsequently became known as comrade W was not revealed at conference. But neither was the nature of the allegations, as we will see. A great deal of information was not shared with assembled delegates. When some delegates rose to give comrade Delta a standing ovation they and the rest of us were still largely in the dark.
During the ‘special session’ only six comrades were actually called to speak. Comrade Delta was the penultimate speaker and in the current argot of ‘Party Notes’ you might say his extemporized speech was “warmly received.” What was the gist of Delta’s address? He argued he was “no angel” and he had never pretended to be one. There was a lachrymose element to what he said also when he talked of his “real friends”; the ones who knew who he really was as a person, comrades from his days in Westminster branch in the late 1980s. There was also a passage many would have regarded as heartfelt where Delta spoke of the stress involved in his role as the very public face of the UAF that made him, his partner and his home a target for the fascists.
As a result of the informal complaint against him, Delta stepped down from, or was removed from, his post as National Secretary. But he remained on the CC. Delta informed us all that he was “happy as a pig in shit” to be returning to the Industrial department where he had always been happiest. Had the class struggle been the tempest we had all hoped it would be when the Con-Dem government was elected in 2010 with their vicious plans for austerity, it might have provided Delta with a suitable distraction. This performance was followed the rapturous applause and chanting of some of the assembled delegates that left other delegates bewildered in their seats.
Yet Delta’s speech has obscured two other significant contributions that day. Setting aside crass contributions from Sheila McGregor and others, Delta was followed by a brave young Asian female comrade (I cannot recall her name) who invited the delegates to consider if their applause and chanting was really appropriate given the context.
The other significant contribution – the significant contribution in hindsight, was that of Alex Callinicos, who kicked off the ‘special session’. It was a euphemistic triumph. At no point did Callinicos talk of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Instead Callinicos began by saying that he had something a bit unpleasant to relay but it would only take a moment of time before we returned to the main business of conference. There was a young female comrade who was upset at Delta and his behavior. Without divulging any real detail, Callinicos explained that Delta denied having done anything wrong but acknowledged that the female comrade was upset with him and he was sorry for that. Delta would no longer place himself in the presence of the female comrade. It was all so vague and Callinicos implied that the female comrade no longer wished to give the impression that she reciprocated Delta’s interest. Delta was sorry for any distress caused but he denied he had actually done anything wrong. It was a bit of a misunderstanding and both Delta and the female comrade wished to put it all behind them.
This coming Sunday, 3rd February, will see the convening of the SWP’s 50 strong National Committee (NC) of experienced lay activists, and the Central Committee has given this as the arbitrary deadline for the opposition to reach their threshold of 20% of branches asking for a recall conference. The National Secretary, Charlie Kimber, has said 19 branches are required, and the opposition is not even close; though the generational split is clear that student groups around the country are backing the opposition. In advance of the NC, the SWP’s leading thinker, the aristocratic Alex Callincos, has written a risible and threadbare article. Those of you who buy into the central conceits of so-called “revolutionary socialism” will appreciate the thoughtful response by Louis Proyect. The SWP oppositionists have also replied, rehashing some rather tired themes about party organisation, but without challenging any of the underlying political assumptions of how radical social change occurs, and again sidestepping the issue of how the SWP ended up institutionally sexist.
Max Dunbar, is quite good on this:
I just want to pick up on something Paul Anderson has touched on: that there has been far too much credit and good faith given to the SWP ‘oppositionists’.
The best known SWP writers in the UK are probably the novelist China Miéville and my old friend Richard Seymour. Neither has quit the party as far as I know. Both of them have written long condemnathon posts at Lenin’s Tomb, and Seymour has set up a new blog, International Socialism, featuring posts from the rank and file. Their denounciations of the SWP leadership are welcome. But these guys have been cadre for years. Why has it taken a leaked committee report for them to speak out?
The SWP has a great talent for hyperbole. One post on Seymour’s blog shrieks that ‘The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP… the SWP remains, for all I’ve said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.’ During the crisis, it has fallen back on its reputation. ‘Our record on women’s rights is SECOND TO NONE,’ a paper seller bellowed at me in Manchester. (Second to none? ‘YES’.) This is bullshit, of course. Close examination reveals SWP claims as defenders of feminism to be lies. The initial allegation was followed by the worst kind of Unilad slut-shaming. Laurie Penny writes: ‘not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.’
Clearly there has been a misogynistic canteen culture within the organisation for decades. And Seymour and Mieville only notice this at the moment the leaked report detonated onto the internet? As Omar says in The Wire: ‘Nigger, please.’
Fact is, the SWP can’t come back from this. It is finished. As the Very Public Sociologist put it: “They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ’democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.”
The SWP recruit predominantly from universities and it can’t do that as the SWP after this. The young people coming up now (and by ‘young people’ I don’t mean bloggers in their thirties, I mean people born in 1985-1995) are strongly feminist. Think of a popular young writer or blogger – Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis, Zoe Stavri, Juliet Jacques, the Vagenda team, Sianushka, the Nat Fantastic – and s/he is likely to come from a passionate feminist position. Big grassroots organisations are increasingly feminist and any far left group simply won’t get the numbers without them. The only remaining power play for a far left activist is to disassociate completely with the SWP and set up as some kind of new party that doesn’t have the SWP’s black past.
Before we look at the SWP opposition, let us look at the political and practical position facing the SWP’s leadership.
Callinicos’s argument is foolishly circular and self-referential for an ostensibly clever man. In its own self-evaluation the SWP is a reincarnation of the Bolsheviks; in its own judgement an SWP type party is necessary; the leadership of the SWP is the best representative of its own “tradition”; therefore to challenge or destabilize the leadership jeopardizes the whole project upon which the SWP is predicated. Add to which the crude amalgamation that the SWP oppositionists are allied with alien forces: kulaks, Mensheviks and saboteurs. That pressure from the outside world is due to sectarians, wreckers, and worst of all, Labour Party members.
When read by people outside of the SWP’s own sub-culture, Callinicos’s article is strikingly absurd. But that is not the intended audience. For the core of the SWP who have actively dedicated their adult lives to building the SWP with the lofty ambition of purging the world of all injustice and oppression; whose daily and weekly routine is structured about SWP activities, who have made career and relationship decisions based upon their SWP membership, who have made financial sacrifices to fund the SWP, who believe in the SWP’s project, and who have few if any close friends or confidants outwith the SWP; Alex Callinicos is making a call to arms evoking an existential threat to the core guiding purpose of their lives.
What is more, the ideological justification of the cult of leadership is fully consistent with the argument in Tony Cliff’s 1974 book “Lenin, Building the Party”. Described by Sullivan as reminiscent of a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus. This is an ideological paradigm that the SWP’s long term cadre are familiar with.
Alex Callinicos is making an implicit declaration that the SWP is on the road to becoming a cult, and the retreat from reality that this requires may be welcomed by a significant proportion of the membership; and a preferable alternative to dealing with the harsh scrutiny that the SWP is currently under.
My judgment is that the SWP leadership will get a majority endorsement from the NC on Saturday, and that will close down any route within the constitution of the SWP for the opposition to prevail, or indeed even stay as members. Even if the vote is closer, the current leadership control the assets and the payroll, and the opposition have no leverage on them.
There are however two problems. Firstly, for the few SWP members with positions in the trade unions and progressive social movements, the pressure of maintaining both the connection with the outside reality and also maintaining consistency with their SWP group-think may become intolerable. Secondly, the SWP will be forever dead in the universities and colleges; and without the flush of fresh young recruits, the remaining husk of the SWP will wither into what will effectively become an increasingly withdrawn and elderly survivors group.
So what of the oppositionists? Marx’s old adage of history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce may again seem prescient. In the 1970s, major figures in the IS, such as John Palmer, Roger Protz, Jim Higgins, along with many of the IS’s former industrial cadre, were either expelled or resigned to form the Workers League. The difference is that they actually did have a relatively coherent political project that deviated significantly from Cliff’s line of march but was also based upon alternative possibilities within the IS’s own political heritage. Nevertheless, without the infrastructure of the IS, and cut off from its resources, the Workers League foundered; and its luminaries dispersed.
It is clear from reading the positions of the current opposition in the SWP that in contrast they are just seeking to cobble together a political platform based upon the mere coincidence that they all find themselves in opposition to the way the SWP has handled the Comrade Delta fiasco. It is a contingent and not a principled opposition. The various statements from oppositionists seek to reassure other SWP members of their orthodoxy, they signally fail to evaluate how the SWP became so institutionally sexist; they continue to regret that the transcript was leaked and published. The sole substantial article, warms over ideas which Andy Wilson was hawking about 20 years ago about “Zinovievism”, which requires only the most cosmetic re-evaluation of the past history and political trajectory of the SWP.
Significantly, the current SWP opposition has no obvious leadership team who would actually have the time and inclination to forge a new organization, especially as Seymour and Mieville probably have much better personal options. The fate of the current opposition will therefore come down to a myriad of individual decisions (even if they do temporarily coalesce into a new group).
Hopefully individuals will reassess and try to make sense of what went wrong. The ones who don’t do that, who fail to learn from this debacle, and who are prepared to again collude in sexism and patriarchal hierarchy may well join Counterfire.