Somewhat buried by the crisis around their failure to properly deal with a rape allegation, another piece of bad news for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) may have gone unremarked. The SWP has been expelled from the broad “United Left” faction in the UNITE union.
The United Left issued a statement last week in which they say:
Following the SWP’s decision this weekend to back Jerry Hicks for UNITE General Secretary, the UNITED LEFT must regrettably carry out the decision previously made to exclude SWP members from all our activities.
There is no doubt that the UNITED LEFT has tried very hard to keep the SWP within the fold in order to maintain the unity of the Left. Once before during the 2010 General Secretary election, the SWP also backed Jerry Hicks in spite of a clear and overwhelming decision at a properly constituted hustings meeting to back Len McCluskey. UNITED LEFT decided on that occasion to suspend SWP members for the duration of the election campaign but they were readmitted into the fold on the clear condition that there was no repeat of this lack of basic discipline.
The SWP’s decision to back Jerry Hicks a second time comes after an even more decisive resolve of UNITED LEFT to reconfirm its support for Len McCluskey. Unlike before, this decision comes after experience of Len’s exemplary role for 2 years in office as UNITE General Secretary.
Finally we wish to pay a special tribute to Frank Wood, UNITE Executive Council member for Health, who has immediately renounced his membership of the SWP following this weekend’s decision and will be backing Len. Thank you Frank for your courage and your conviction. You are welcome back into the fold and may others like you follow swiftly as well.
It is of course ridiculous that the SWP’s conference, and Central Committee, should decide for SWP’s UNITE members who they should back in an internal union election; as only those in the union are able to weigh up the value of the long term relationships and networks of solidarity, and the nuanced way the individual candidates relate to politics within the union.
Certainly their expulsion from UNITE’s United Left leaves the SWP more isolated in the union movement.
But the “Comrade Delta” affair is also already starting to affect them. The SWP’s celebrity blogger, Richard Seymour, reports the experience of students at Queen Mary College (QMC), University of London.
There, socialist students have been faced with a potential boycott by other groups they usually work with. A QMC student explains, “Networks we’ve fought hard to build with groups, such as The Palestinian Solidarity Society and elected positions on campus, have distanced themselves from us and are finding it difficult to work with us.”
The SWP’s political practice revolves around various front organizations, like Unite the Resistance, or Unite Against Fascism (UAF), where on the ground the SWP are in practice in charge, and able to use it as a recruitment pool. However, they have been adept at attracting Labour MPs and sympathetic union leaders to speak at conferences, and to nominally be members of committees that they don’t in practice attend. (Of course, this is a simplification, and it has been clear that at the national steering committee level, the SWP have not always held sway in the UAF.)
As the SWP’s brand turns increasingly toxic, then union leaders may prove less willing to work with them.
This is especially the case as the SWP seems determined to spread the damage to the wider movement. Not only did Candy Unwin make the appalling indiscretion of dragging the name of a prominent trade union General Secretary into the SWP’s conference debate, implying that he had known the SWP were carrying out an internal investigation into rape as far back as October 2012; but the SWP are pushing their national official at the heart of the rape allegations, comrade Delta, to be on the UAF delegation to Athens for an anti-fascist demonstration this weekend.
Of course, comrade Delta, is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but political reality demands better judgment than that; and what the SWP are effectively trying to do is use the UAF delegation to Athens to gain tacit endorsement of comrade Delta by the other members of the UAF delegation. This is potentially compromising or undermining the anti-fascist struggle in pursuit of the short term factional interests of the SWP’s leadership.
For the SWP leadership there are two interrelated aspect to the crisis in the short term; i) will external bad publicity and scrutiny continue; and ii) can they sufficiently contain or co-opt the internal opposition that the crisis has created.
However, in the longer term the resignation letter from a leading member which recently appeared on Counterfire, does suggest a trajectory of inevitable decline. I reproduce here an abridged version, but I recommend you read the whole thing.
The Socialist Workers Party is dying. For all the good it has done over many years, it has imploded over allegations of sexual assault and its inability to deal sensibly with them.
It will continue to limp on for at least a few more years but the descent into cultishness will now be rapid.
Clearly, as much as people can be intellectually aware of the arguments for women’s liberation they can still act in the ways socially ingrained in them by a patriarchal capitalist system. In this particular case there is also the question of power. But the question of power again raises deeper ideological questions: how could many thousands of good comrades, who are usually so suspicious of power and the powerful be so in awe of power on this occasion as to let this happen?
I want to argue that the SWP, for all its many good points and many good members, has suffered for many years from a structure and an ideology that is, in the final analysis, unable to cope with the myriad ways the world has changed over the past thirty or so years. Despite some major successes, most notably the role played in the anti-war movement, the SWP has suffered a slow build up of problems resulting from this, one which has accelerated in recent years and culminated in the recent implosion.
The question I want to answer boils down to this: how did it come to be that to accuse “comrade delta” of sexual assault was seen, in the eyes of so many, as code for an abandoning of the idea that the working class could transform the world, as an existential attack on the SWP?
Why was the leadership willing to jeopardise the entire organisation, jettison a whole layer of youth, over the supposed infallibility of just one comrade?
Here I think we have to look at the long-term trajectory of the SWP and also the decline of pretty much all the other groups that follow the Trotskyist model of Leninism.
Radical left ideas have flourished since the crisis. But the truth is almost none of the best thinkers on the radical left are from a Trotskyist background. Many are not Lenininst. Some (the horror) are not even Marxist. But the traditional left ignores them at its peril. It is the job of revolutionaries, as Marx did in his time, to synthesise the insights of the best anti-capitalist thinkers with the fundamental principle that it must, and can only be, ordinary people who bring about a society free from the horrors of capitalism. The SWP though ignores and dismisses thinkers just because they are from ‘outside the tradition’.
That is why even the SWP’s flagship Marxism festival has been played down. In an Internal Bulletin article that massively over inflated the membership figures (the reality is around 2,500, they claimed 7,500) the central committee actually lied about Marxism the other way – they made it 1000 smaller than it really was. They spent one sentence on Marxism but a whole page on SWP ‘educationals’. Why? One brings in outsiders, critics, heretics, new ideas; the other is totally safe repetition of things that were written in the ’80s.
Listing the successes of the previous year, the central committee listed Walthamstow’s anti-fascist demo (it was good, but a big demo against a spent force in multicultural left labour area which we spent six months building) and the Unite the Resistance conference (smaller than Right to Work, which was smaller than Organising for Fighting Unions) but clearly do not see relating to a new wave of ideological radicalization as a success (in fact Marxism disturbed them, they didn’t feel at home there).
Once any criticism of the religion – I say religion because that is what it is when an ideology becomes organisationally frozen in the past – once any criticism is labelled heresy – it is only a short step to what we have now. To the Sopranos’ model of leadership that the party suffers from. The mafia approach to criticism.
Because anything from beyond the brains of the central committee must have originated in the scary outside world. It must therefore be a Trojan horse for autonomism or reformism or Chris Bambery or whoever the main enemy is today.
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 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).
A sect may be regarded as a variant of the mainstream politics or religion; and sect members may live in both the mainstream cosmos, and participate in the ethos of their group, depsite the fact that there is tension; and lack of verdicality. For example, someone who beleived 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 group’s limited achievements.
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.
There are 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)
The question of whether there is an internal culture of cultism is very pertinent, because at the heart of the issue relating to the internal inquiry into alleged rape, is the question of unequal power relations, and the tendency of a self-referential group to reinforce such unequal power relations, and exclude and marginalise those who protest, especially those with a history of mental distress, women and black people (I remember SWP leader Moira N referring to BME members in my hearing as “the darkies”).
The bullying and marginalisation relies upon two things: i) the sense of entitlement of those who hold charismatic authority within the group; and ii) the silence and effective collusion of those who keep quiet about it “for the sake of the party”.
An important question is therefore who knew what and when?
Much is being made of the alleged unwillingness of W the woman alleging rape, to go to the police.
Although the SWP has always been institutionally hostile to the police, nevertheless most socialists outside the SWP were shocked to read in Socialist Worker in August 2011 the position put as starkly as this:
We don’t want more police on the streets. More “effective” policing means more deaths, more harassment, and more anger. The last thing we need is a state with more ways of attacking ordinary people. The police are the enemy of everyone who want to see a more just, fair society. It is the actions of the police that marginalise and criminalise so many. We should drive the police out of our estates and off our streets.
Socialist Worker is read by all SWP members, and provides a common framework of understanding. The editor is Comrade Delta’s partner. This article would surely have contributed to peer group consensus against reporting a crime to the police, especially one that might damage the reputation of the SWP.
The article was published AFTER the alleged rape of W by Comrade Delta, and AFTER W had complained to the SWP about sexual harassment. Did the editor of Socialist Worker know in August 2011 that there was an as yet unreported allegation of rape by her partner?
Another thing that is likely to go wrong for the SWP is that they will lose their celebrity defenders.
The protection of reputation of the SWP has also been shored up by its “celebrity” members (and some non-member supporters), who are effectively allowed much more leeway than any ordinary grunt member, and they allow the SWP to project an air of liberalism, and reach parts of polite society they would otherwise be excluded from. They provide a defensive wall so that if any less powerful member of the SWP who has been bullied or abused complains, then their complaint sounds inconsistent with the picture painted by the SWP’s celebrity cheer leaders and apologists.
In particular, a smokescreen has been put around allegations of sexism, and abuse of unequal power relationships; seeking to delegitimize it as “gossip” or “tittle tattle”. This is very reminiscent of the way the Catholic Church was protected, over child abuse allegations. Back in 2011, for example, a celebrity SWP supporter but non-member, wrote a “satirical” comment on this blog, ridiculing me for raising questions about Comrade Delta:
I don’t want to discuss this in public, but I’ve heard that [Comrade Delta] was having an affair with Bruce Forsyth. Don’t tell anyone, keep it under wraps but if people would like to discuss it, I won’t stand in their way. I think it could turn out to be of great significance to the…er…movement…
Elsewhere, Richard Seymour is now in open outraged revolt. But he seemingly by his own admission knew many of the details long before I did. Why did he not blow the whistle himself rather than waiting until AFTER it was already in the national press? Indeed, would Richard Seymour have raised his opposition if it had not become public? The transcript was published on Monday 7th January, Seymour did not make any comment until Friday 11th, when the story was run in the New Statesman.
Seymour himself seems to be using this incident as a job application for leaving the SWP and joining the liberal establishment, which explains his cack handed approach of opening up Lenin Tomb for releatively light weight articles by disgruntled SWP members, while himself courting expulsion.
Laurie Penny writes of the Socialist Worker journalist who resigned as being “brave and principled”? Really? He resigned AFTER knowing about it for months; and he condemned the fact the news had leaked out! So he must effectively support the kangaroo court process, but he just disagreed with the outcome.
Clearly for individuals like Richard Seymour and author China Mieville, up until now their SWP membership has given them an aura of radical chic, as they seek to make a career by their literary endeavours. The association is now toxic.
Laurie Penny writes:
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
Penny also quotes Mieville as saying
“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me. “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It was up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”
Admittedly perhaps China Mieville may be semi-detached from the day to day running of the SWP and didn’t previously know about the specific details of the rape allegtion before it became public knowledge ; but it was a brilliant bit of damage limitation for Laurie Penny’s article to quote him as if he were a long term dissident, thus insulating his reputation; as far as I know China has not been ”been openly fighting for a change” against the abuse of unequal power relationships within the SWP; or at least any such open opposition has been so quiet as to be inaudible.
So the SWP are likely to experience continued further external pressure, as they become more isolated, and have less defenders. What is more, external actors may yet take the initiative out of their hands altogether. Therefore the leadership will find it harder and harder to maintain the illusion that the SWP is being successful and influential; necessary conceits for sustaining the morale of the membership.
Let us return to the analysis of small group dynamics to see how this is likely to play out.
The central core weakness of Tourish and Wohlforth’s book which describes left groups as cults is that it is based upon the flawed Cold War era research of Lifton (1961), and which ascribes a dynamic of the older more experienced members converting and inducting the newer members.However, Richardson (1989) writing for the American Psychiatric Association’s committee of Psychiatry and Religion, turns this on its head.
(Let us not get hung up about the fact psychiatrists are being quoted in this debate, as there is no implication of illness. in fact people like Richardson and Galanter are involved to de-medicalise the debate about cults, and refute the idea that membership of groups outwith mainstream ideology have any greater affinity with mental distress than the general population. In fact the work by Pattison and Ness stresses non-conformity of groups from the mainstream, as a social good )
Richardson talks of non-conformist groups attracting “active seekers”, who then rapidly conform to role expectations to gain acceptance in the group; but despite their seeming strong identification, can just as rapidly leave. It is this constant churn of new recruits which, according to Richardson, reinforces the reification of the group’s collective purpose for the older experienced members, and reinforces the charismatic authority of the leadership group, as delivering on the group’s purpose. Turning Lifton on its head – it is the new recruits who seek out membership because they actively want to identify with the group; and it is their ready adoption of the group ethos which reinforces the group-think of the established elders.
How does this play in the SWP? Seemingly most of the young rebels are people whose political activity revolves around the axis of the SWP’s own routine, and “party building”. They cannot take control of the SWP, both because there is no institutional and constitutional way that can be achieved, but more because the SWP “belongs” to those who are the trustees of the physical and financial assets. Some branches are voting for a recall conference, which requires 20% of branches; but only the bureaucracy knows even how many branches there are, and which have passed such a motion. Anyone else within the SWP organizing a rebellion can be expelled for factionalising – indeed, all the leadership needs to do is hold its nerve. They may even hold a recall conference, but can retain the initiative over timing and delegates, thus simply encouraging frustrated rebels to leave.
So the young rebels will be expelled or resign; but without the infrastructure that the SWP provides, their political activity will require a complete paradigm reevaluation; and do they have the experience or leadership to do that? They could of course join Counterfire, but that organisation seems to be “the SWP with a cafe”, and they may find they have jumped from the frying pan into the firebox.
The loss of the newer members will demoralize the older members outside the bureaucratic core, and they will probably drift away. For those involved in trade union and community campaigning, after a brief trauma they will realise they are better off.
But the older code of the bureaucracy, who will still have the money, and the SWP’s name; they will just continue, as a much smaller, more cultish rump.
This is a whole sorry affair, and it needs to open a period of reflection and reappraisal of the type of socialist movement we need.