This leaflet handed out today by SWP members at UNISON’s women’s’ conference in Liverpool sums up the disconnect between how loyal party members perceive their current crisis, and how the outside world sees the issues.
As seen from the outside, the SWP’s troubles concern an appallingly mishandled allegation of rape, which the SWP took the ridiculous decision to investigate themselves without involving independent rape advisors, and without involving the police; it involved the SWP’s kangaroo court asking inappropriate questions about the drinking habits and behaviour of women complaining; and it involved the SWP’s “amateur hour” investigation panel being packed with friends, colleagues and long-term acquaintances of the accused; it involved a second woman complainant being moved out of her job.
Furthermore, it has since been revealed that the SWP’s internal “Disputes Committee” has investigated 9 previous rapes over the years, and even found men “guilty”, where the worst sanction at their disposal was to expel them from the SWP. No police involvement, no sex offenders register, no professional risk assessment. We also learn that the SWP’s sister organisation in Germany, Linksruck, covered up an alleged case of rape by a leading member in Hamburg in the early 1990s.
So in the outside world the crisis surrounding the SWP is very much about them being the ones trivialising rape.
Yet the SWP leadership steadfastly refuse to engage with this real world narrative. Freelance journalist, and ex-SWP member Solomon Hughes points out:
But where is the public defence, where is the systematic taking apart of the allegations? The Party has been mostly silent, which is deeply destructive. Arguing that this is an “internal matter” and “confidential” doesn’t really work when the “confidential” debate has appeared in Britain’s top selling newspapers. There is nothing new about facing attacks in the newspapers. When the Sun accuses the SWP of helping organise teacher’s strikes and worrying ministers (as it recently did) the answer is “I bloody hope so”. When the Daily Mail attacks the SWP for mishandling allegations of rape, there should be the firmest possible answer. Instead the only firm stand in the party is being taken against critics of this mess.
In contrast, let us look at how the issue looks from within the walls of the bunker. This week the SWP circulated a risible statement from the oddball Australian group who identifies with the SWP. This states:
The National Committee has discussed the issue and wanted to set the record straight as we believe that there is a huge amount of misinformation circulating, as well as entirely opportunistic and unsubstantiated attempts to present the SWP as somehow sexist or sectarian towards feminism…. a long transcript of the debate about this issue at the SWP’s recent party conference was posted on the internet. While its posting is unfortunate, it does clarify that the process through which the allegation was investigated was scrupulously fair and entirely consistent with the understanding of and record of fighting sexism which revolutionary socialists and the SWP itself embody. …
The decision to deal with this complaint internally through the party’s Disputes Committee was entirely appropriate. The courts and the police have a terrible record in handling issues of rape and sexual assault. The only people we can have confidence in to deal with these issues are those with a clear political understanding of the way sexism is constructed under capitalism, how it affects men and women and how it must be fought. This means it is only experienced and trusted comrades who are capable of defending revolutionary principles and properly dealing with such sensitive issues.
The leaked notes of the editorial board discussions of the SWP’s theoretical journal, the ISJ, were very revealing. First the level of anger, secondly the denial of reality.
Sheila MacGregor, … is “very angry”. We should not hold a special conference! We just had a conference, at which the issues were “all” fully aired! The present turmoil was started by party members. The SWP’s reputation is not in fact suffering damage in the ‘outside world.’
Alex [Callinicos] … summed up the session: The crisis has been driven from within the party. Richard Seymour is the principal culprit. He is an eclectic thinker; he grabs ideas from everywhere—including even Bob Jessop!—and throws them into an “incoherent mess.”[Comrade Delta] must be allowed to fully return to political activity. … There’s no way a 3 month discussion period before the special conference will be allowed. It would “destroy” us. If party members refuse to accept the legitimacy of the decisions taken at the special conference, “lynch mobs” (his words) will be formed.
The language of lynch mobs suggests an entirely frenzied mind-set. Furthermore, in a quite extraordinary development, the SWP leadership has published a list of 500 supporters around the country who buy into this nonsense. There are a number of things to say about this list, most obviously it exposes a huge generational rift in the SWP, most of the loyalists are over 40 years old; secondly, it shows a disproportionate tilt towards SWP members being teachers and lecturers. Politically, circulating this list shows a casual disregard for the interests of these individuals, and their standing in the unions. It is a desperate act by a desperate clique.
But for the 500 signatories, there is a bigger personal significance. They have rejected the evidence of their senses that the crisis in the SWP has real world impact and concerns mishandling of rape allegations; and instead adopted a narrative that only makes sense within a closed sub-culture of the SWP, that the crisis is about lack of Leninist discipline, and eclectic thinking.
It is perhaps worth repeating my argument about how the SWP can seem to act as a cult, even though it has many members rooted in the real world.
A mainstream religion or political movement to an extent possesses the virtue of truth correspondence between the group’s habitual character and behaviour when compared to the surrounding society they live in.
A sect may be regarded as a variant of the mainstream politics or religion; and sect members may live in both the mainstream society, and participate in the character and behaviour of their group, despite the fact that there is tension;. 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 outside 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 group’s limited achievements.
A cult seeks to resolve this tension 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.
There have been a number of very well grounded SWP members, who combine the basic politics of the organisation with a fairly active engagement in mainstream trade union and outwards looking campaigning activity. There is also, however, a bureaucratic core to the SWP, of the CC and full time organisers, and there is also a large layer of lay members of the SWP whose politics activity is all “party building” – paper sales, meetings, the contrived hot-house debates about theory, packing meetings of front organisations, etc.
There is 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. Richard Seymour, confirms this insulation from outside society: “[the CC] can offer no lead to members beyond thrusting them out into that ‘real world’ they are all completely insulated from” (emphasis in the original)
What the 500 signatories have done is to move from the relatively normal world of belonging to a left sect and enter the door of the cult, by abandoning acknowledgement of the real world impact of these events, to instead immerse themselves in an SWP generated fantasy world of intrigues and betrayal. The battle lines are being drawn between the in-group loyalists against the traitors who are aiding the out-group critics who want to destroy the SWP.
To a certain degree of course, the oppositionists share a similar world view. When the leader of the White Knight bid, Pat Stack, set out the prospectus of their proposed management buy-out for the SWP rank and file, he carefully noted “I think a lot of comrades would like some respite from the filth that is out there (here I’m talking about non-party bloggers)”. This is setting the parameters, that if everyone in the SWP can agree to all hate us purveyors of “filth”, then that establishes shared boundaries within which permitted secondary disagreements can be articulated.
The March 10th special conference will be decisive. The oppositionists seem unprepared for the ferocity with which the current leadership will hang to power, involving as it does control of significant physical and financial assets, and to a certain extent a career. But the indications are that the SWP’s leadership are prepared to retreat further into being a cult, in order to save themselves.