SWP sex implosion: it’s dehumanisation in the left that leads to sexual abuse by Anna Chen
When you treat human beings as disposable things in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome.
The recent rape allegations that have sent the SWP into freefall are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the organisation. The alleged sex abuse seems to have been of a different order to that of the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s and 80s: Gerry Healy regularly raped women activists and the WRP’s internal regime was straightforwardly violent. When I was a member of the SWP between 1996 and 2003, if anything, I found the leading men in the SWP curiously sexless and not half as attractive as the women, and can count the episodes of sex pesting I heard about on the fingers of one hand (without the thumb).
There was the guy who we jokingly named the Lothario of the Left, who seemed all talk and no trousers (he wished!) and who I thought posed no real threat beyond being a bit of a pain in the butt (he wished!). The more serious rumours concerned one senior member of the central committee (now dead) who was so predatory when he was drunk that his close comrades had to keep him away from young women.
Now there’s the case of an SWP woman comrade who has accused a senior party member of rape — and the widespread horror at the way they dealt with it. I’ve only read the kangaroo court transcript and the cryptic comments at SU and seen SWP males up close. What I suspect was happening was that two odd-looking men (politics being showbiz for ugly people) were so repressed that, when they were in proximity to female activists, the power of their party status went to their heads.
This has its roots not only in society but in the culture of the organisation. It’s all very well the SWP flaming their critics but this has been building for years. They continue to stick their fingers in their ears when they should have been addressing the objectification of their own members.
I can empathise totally with W, a woman who has struggled to get a fair hearing, sympathy and respect from her comrades, not to mention an overhaul of dodgy practises, over two years or more and then in desperation went for broke.
In my own case, working full-time for no pay on the SWP’s press over several years while being subjected to their own form of obedience training left me heavily in debt and marvelling at my own stupidity.
I did the press for their Socialist Alliance (SA) and Stop the War Coalition (STWC) campaigns when I should have been working on my own writing, but however many hours I worked, it was never enough for them. You may be behind the computer from 8am to gone midnight on their behalf when everyone else is earning a living, but if the district organiser demands you attend a paper sale at 6am you must do it even if only she and one other turn up and no-one else in the whole of West London does and you only sell one paper. If the central committee head honcho tells you, f’rinstance, to screw over friends and sympathisers Paul Mason and Dave Osler and, later, RMT’s Greg Tucker out of bloody mindedness when they’ve done an excellent job, to refuse to obey their authorit-eye as I did is to invite the SWP’s wrath.
The head honcho I refer to here had offered me patronage when I’d mistakenly assumed his encouragement was appreciation of new blood. If only I’d realised before the sun went down that it was new blood in the way Transylvanian children of the night appreciate new blood, I’d have ridden the coach outta town. My aim had been to bring any skills I might have into the organisation and leave it in a better shape than I found it — those skills chiefly being the ones I’d learned from the talented arts publicists who’d gained me a stack of press for my performance work. As a result the media were beginning to take notice and a strange glint was appearing in the comrades’ eyes.
I was pleased to be asked to write for the International Socialism Journal which head honcho edited (pieces on Sergei Eisenstein and George Orwell). I was glad that the Socialist Review magazine — edited by one of his girlfriends — could use my cultural reviews. I was happy to help out in the printshop proof-reading (for this I received £20 per day once in a blue moon). And being trolley-dolly looking after the outside speakers at their annual Marxism events was fun in parts.
However, head honcho’s sudden announcement that I was now on the Socialist Review editorial board was an unpaid duty too much (they all drew wages). I was supposed to acquiesce to this command because of the star-fuckery honour of attending meetings at Paul Foot’s house. As magnificent as Paul was (I did his national press when he stood for the SA) it was yet one more time-killer and space-filler. On top of this, I was told I was to be the party’s press officer — with no consultation with me — when all I wanted to do was train up members to engage with the media. You can politely decline all you want but this sort of disobedience drives them several degrees off-sanity central.
I’d tried to be a principled comrade, helping other members of the left: to name but three examples, doing the PR that broke SWP’s China Miéville into the public eye for free when he complained that his publisher wasn’t making him famous; free publicity for SA chair Liz Davies’ book Through the Looking Glass; in 1999 paying one skint SWP member a fiver an hour we couldn’t afford for 4 hours cleaning per week (her idea and a fiver more per hour than I was getting for my labour for her party) while she studied for her degree, and nearly taking out a £600 overdraft for her rent arrears before we realised her SWP parents were a lot better off than we were with well-paid full-time jobs. Quite often I’d feed her a hot meal and we’d talk politics, her correcting my poor grasp and explaining why I was petit bourgeois because I was an art worker and we were all atomised. (Others were telling me I was petit bourgeois because I was Chinese and we all work in catering).
But no good turn goes unpunished and the blowback from these instances was typical of the irrational spite and fury permeating much of the left. Maybe it was something I’d done, something I said? But when I asked if I’d done something wrong either politically or personally to deserve the hostility I was getting, head honcho merely muttered that I was “exemplary”. He still wouldn’t tackle the bullying, though.
There is a tide in the affairs of man, and so on. Instead of riding the wave of my fledgling career as a writer and performer, I’d jumped off it in order to service, not the revolution, by some fairly unpleasant middle-management types who wouldn’t have been looked at twice had they not climbed the greasy pole of the SWP.
In order to write my book, Coolie — about the strike by several thousand Chinese workers on the American trans-continental railroad in the 1860s — I’d decided to rent out my flat for a year and move in with my boyfriend. Once fees and expenses were paid, that would allow me to live frugally. Yet here I was in 2001, four years later with nothing written because every minute of time and every inch of psychic space now belonged to The Party, going deeper and deeper into debt for them.
Surely, Anna, I hear you say, it was worth it for the greater good what you done? Well, no, sadly. Head honcho took an axe to the Socialist Alliance to get into bed with the Birmingham mosque and then Respect. Then he did … er … more stupid things in Respect and, several years after I’d pointed out some questionable behaviour and been stuffed for it, he and his mates had to leave the SWP to form Crossfire or Counterfire, whatever the splinter’s called. But I get ahead of myself. And the class should never be premature for then down comes the big Monty Python foot.
Even the big anti-Iraq war demo ten years ago in February 2003 wasn’t immune. What a backstabbing palaver that turned out to be. Head honcho’s side were alarmed by the magnitude of the anger over the coming war and during a critical period instructed their members in the SWP via Party Notes not to build the demo, leaving it to the Socialist Alliance to mobilise (with the notable help of some/a few/several honourable SWP members in the provinces who effectively blew a big raspberry and carried on regardless). Then Birmingham, the biggest and strongest STWC branch, was purged. The hippies who put together the amazing Peace Not War CD as a fund-raiser and cultural response to the impending war were screwed over. When a Jewish socialist group requested platform time to speak against the war, they were refused on the grounds that their presence would alienate Muslims. The guy who’d made their case protested and was told that “you people” were “too sensitive.” I was banned from doing the press on the day but went ahead and worked from home, getting Bianca Jagger and Americans Against the War followed on the march by ITN, doing what I’d been doing all along … Oy veh, it got FUGLY.
That huge demo was built on the spine of the SA and yet the SA chair was denied a place on the platform while Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was welcomed with open arms … and then promptly supported “our boys” once action started. And where’s it all gone, anyway? If the SWP, Counterfire and STWC claim 1 to 2 million were on the march, then they have to give a good account of where they’ve all gone, ’cause it’s not into the left movement.
Who needs this crap?
In the eighteen months of love-bombing it took to recruit me, I received numerous assurances of SWP superiority when it came to human relations. Tony Cliff’s partner, a dear sweet but fiery old lady called Chanie Rosenberg, would do her turn on the platform at conferences, making it clear how, perhaps not every sperm, but every member was sacred. “Like gold dust.”
More iron pyrites than gold, I’m afraid.
I looked from pig to man and then man to pig and then back again and wondered who’d look better in a bacon sandwich. Then I looked a bit harder and realised that the senior women had been part of what I once rudely called the “fuck-circuit”: two power couples at the top; a complicated nexus of, ahem, “relationships” over the years; Lindsey calling me into a room at SWP HQ (said to be swept for bugs) to grill me on my new boyfriend. They are OK if you come already attached to a partner but woe betide you if you change partners and the lucky fella’s not from the SWP pool. As the sympathetic partner of a senior member told me regarding my treatment, “It’s because you’re not available.” Mostly, it’s less about sexual coercion and more about idiotic ego.
Once head honcho finally got himself a new special friend, she waltzed over and told me in a most unsisterly fashion that she was doing my job so there! Which would have been lovely had she done the work. That would have been difficult, however, as she was allowed to make a living at a paying job, but the status I’d built up from sheer hard slog over the years made the sweetest love token when handed over on a plate by her beau.
Still, if that’s how the SWP like it — it’s their party and their choice.
We need a strong left that is able to counter the coalition’s attacks on the working and middle classes that are looking like something out of the Enclosures. However, like anyone else who ever looked at the disgusting state of the world and wanted to do something about it, I never signed up for SWP abuse and I certainly never signed up for their omerta that they go around imposing on errant former members on pain of The Treatment. It is important that this stuff gets aired for so many reasons. If they can’t, after all this grief, look at themselves honestly, then they deserve everything they’re getting. And the working class is better off without them.
So, sister W, I sympathise and feel your pain. You learned the hard way that there is little solidarity or comradeship in that tiny corner of the left. I wish you the best of luck in rebuilding your confidence and your self-esteem. Your new life starts here.
Nick Cohen adds his take to the recent SWP mess: Why leftist revolutionaries are not the best feminists.
Anna Chen writes about this in 2003 in A Bad Case of the Trots.