Why I don’t buy Socialist Worker

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You weren’t a member, you tell me, in 2013 when the arguments happened. You’ve heard, of course, there was some controversy but you have been told that the people who left were sectarians. That’s true, isn’t it, they had some grievance with the SWP and they used a disagreement about the SWP’s internal procedures as an excuse to leave? Hadn’t they been planning to leave for years? 

In 2010 a man called Martin Smith (“Comrade Delta”) was the National Secretary of the SWP, its day to day leader, the person who employs the other party workers. In July of that year, a 19 year old woman (“Comrade W”) complained that he had mistreated her. She didn’t use the word “rape”, but the people who met her and heard her knew what she was talking about.

From the start, Smith’s supporters (including Weyman Bennett, who worked with him on the SWP’s anti-fascist campaign) put pressure on the women who helped Comrade W, calling one of them a “traitor”, ostracising and dismissing them and forcing them out of the SWP.

The complaint was investigated by Charlie Kimber, who is now the editor of Socialist Worker. He met comrade W, told her that he believed her and that disciplinary action would be taken against Martin Smith. The extent of the punishment was as follows: Smith was demoted from his position as National Secretary but remained in the SWP’s full-time leadership on its Central Committee.

Smith’s demotion was eventually explained to the membership at the SWP’s 2011 conference, where it was introduced by Alex Callinicos who complained about outside forces reporting on internal difficulties within the SWP. He said there was a complaint, he didn’t explain its seriousness and he said that Smith himself had asked to be moved to a different role. The session ended with delegates clapping, stamping their feet in Smith’s defence and shouting, “The workers united will never be defeated.”

In 2012, W, taking at face value the SWP’s recent involvement in anti-rape campaigns, decided to rejoin. She was still traumatised by what had happened, suffering flashbacks and was tearful, and eventually she asked the SWP’s disputes committee (“DC”) to investigate. This time, she did describe what had happened to her in 2010 as rape.

The investigation was loaded: a majority of those investigating were Smith’s friends and appointees. He was given sight of her written statement (which the SWP has always refused to publish). She was not allowed to read his.

A second complainant came forward: at this stage, the DC heard but refused to investigate her complaint.

By a majority, they decided to take no action against him. One person who dissented was the chair of the committee, who found that there probably had been improper sexual conduct – “sexual harassment” – and that Smith’s behaviour was incompatible with membership, or leadership, of a left-wing party.

At the start of 2013, the SWP conference narrowly approved the disputes committee report; from then on large parts of the organisation operated a loyalty test: if you were willing to back Smith, you could remain in the party. if not, you were told to leave. The atmosphere, at its worst, was as hostile as could be. Members of Smith’s personal anti-fascist bodyguard, men in the late 40s, spat in the faces of a woman in her 20s who disagreed with them. Smith’s supporters threatened to beat up another young, male critic. People were silenced, jeered, told to their faces to leave.

The second complaint was eventually heard. It was in writing. It too, has never been published. In careful, painful detail, it described further improper sexual conduct by Smith. This time, and for the first time in the entire scandal, the SWP’s leadership decided that a degree of damage limitation was necessary. A fresh panel was convened and Martin Smith resigned rather than face investigation.

In the SWP, you will be told that Martin Smith was vindicated. He wasn’t. The last panel to investigate his complaint found that there was enough evidence of sexual harassment that if he was to ever seek to rejoin he would have to explain his conduct.

In the SWP, you will be told that the leadership’s critics were a few malcontents, people who were on the verge of leaving the organisation anyway. They weren’t. At least 700 people left, or around a quarter of the SWP’s subs-paying membership. Among those who left were people who had given twenty, thirty, even fifty years of their lives to that organisation. 

In the SWP, you will be told that this incident belongs to history, that the SWP has learnt from its mistakes. It hasn’t, the men and women who attempted to cover up a crime are all still in its leadership.

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12 responses »

  1. Your account of the dispute is, of course correct. If anyone doubts the tremendous damage that the dispute did to the SWP, just have a look at the programme for Marxism 2016 https://www.marxismfestival.org.uk/timetable/thursday It’s about half the size it was a few years back, confined to a few rooms in the Institute, with the Logan Hall only used for the opening and closing rallies when it used to be used almost every session over the weekend.
    And there are good reasons for refusing to buy Socialist Worker. One reason is that it’s very boring. The paper of Roger Protz, Paul Foot and Dave Widgery is now scared to take risks and is very predictable and tedious. The website is pretty useless; it took it thirty-six hours to report Eamonn McCann’s election – it’s hardly worth having a website if you’re going to be that slow. Socialist review and International Socialism are a bit more readable.
    But your heading could be read as a call to boycott SW – and that I think would be a big mistake. True the thugs are still there, but they were only a small if noxious minority. The CC that oversaw the whole disaster is still there. But there are still quite a few good socialist activists there, including some who sided with the opposition in 2013 but decided not to leave. The SWP claims – and your piece seems to confirm – that they are recruiting young people. If so they are getting a Marxist education of sorts, and that can only be a good thing.
    The Marxist far left in Britain now consists of a number of small groups. Whatever their pretentions, all of them are far too small to be the embryo or even the sperm of a future Bolshevik Party. And the Corbyn phenomenon has created new problems. But they at least do the job of presenting and arguing for a Marxist analysis and passing on a tradition to a new generation which, in different circumstances, may develop new forms of organisation.
    This process will be best assisted by our all trying to develop a fraternal spirit in which we can discuss our differences constructively, without denunciations. Boycotts are the last thing we need. Historical Materialism is very foolish to continue excluding Alex Callinicos from its London conferences. The SWP was equally foolish – and ineffective – in boycotting last year’s London Historical Materialism conference – without even making a public statement as to why it was boycotting; very few people noticed its absence.
    Personally I am taking part in a forum at this year’s Marxism; I am also speaking at the Weekly Worker summer school. The horrific events of 2013 should not be forgotten, but they should not be a barrier to dialogue. If we can all speak to each other in a reasonably constructive and fraternal fashion, it would be, in Paul Weller’s words, “a start”.

    • Rubbish. they have never done anything of note. You may point to organising the march against the Iraq war but that was going to happen anyway due to strength of feeling in the country. They have always been a bunch of loons arguing in a biscuit tin thinking the echo of their biscuit tin amplifies their importance. It doesn’t. Its a biscuit tin. Stay away from child politicians.

    • > The SWP claims – and your piece seems to confirm – that they are recruiting young people. If so they are getting a Marxist education of sorts, and that can only be a good thing.

      Except that some of them are also becoming the victims of sexual violence.

    • They do still recruit to some extent, especially in areas that lack any other socialist/communist organising. A member of the SWP (especially a newer or younger member) is not automatically a bad person. Back in ’13 we settled on the following compromise:
      “Individual SWP members (not including paid employees of the SWP) who do not support the actions of their Central Committee are still welcome to attend (without SWP propaganda), however we would question why such an individual would still be in the party. ”

      The original statement we agreed as a group is still online ( https://bristolaf.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/statement-to-the-swp-about-its-rape-apologism/ ) and amusingly still a top google result for ‘Bristol SWP’. It’s far from perfect, and if we wanted to put out a new statement it would probably differ a lot, it does the job however. No SWP banners on any demonstrations, discussions or events we’ve called since and only the occasional attempted paper sale, where as they were common place throughout 2010/2011. Although of course loosing the majority of their active bristol members and their entire student branch is probably the more important factor in that.

    • I agree with Dave as does Ian.
      But Ian has a response that is not coherent.
      It is perfectly logical not to go to Marxism,to cancel the subscription to the 3 party publications and to close the account at Bookmarks.
      Similarly,with Historical materialism.Callinicos was banned from speaking and Lucia Pradella was expelled from the editorial board.Therefore,do not attend the conference and cancel the subscription to the journal.

    • The problem with the SWP as Dave says is that it does not learn from its mistakes.It still demonises and ostracises people who leave its orbit,or criticises them.As in the rape crisis.This is the operation of a small self referential clique,a sect.

  2. Ian, I am grateful to you for the principled position you take. While I would not take part in a debate with people who would close down debate of the subject which most requires discussion, I am glad that you are making your points and wish you well in trying to get your politics heard there

  3. I dont really understand how sub par Wolfie Smith student politics is taken seriously and how such violent, abusive, misogynist, racist, nasty cults are preserved around actual political institutions like trade unions and media. It astonishes me.

  4. The SWP leadership handled the abuse scandal very badly. I would be surprised if they had not learn’t their lesson. Boycotting SW is ceding ground to the resurgent identity politics that has re-labelled itself ‘intersectionality’. It is a retreat from Marxist politics and creating an obstacle to building a revolutionary left.

  5. Ian birchall, You find Socialist Worker boring and afraid to take risks ( obviously forgetting the Infamous ” Rejoice ” front page celebrating Thatcher’s death) and accuse some members of the SWP as thugs. And yet after issuing these insulting remarks you say that we should be able to speak to each other as long as we remaining fraternal and constructive. The fact that you are speaking at the Weekly Wanker summer school says everything I need to know about how much you have degenerated, The CPGB is a vile pit of sectarianism.

  6. The SWP has been a disgrace since it did away with the Squads decades ago. It is a plaything of middle class liberal student reactionaries. Covering up for rapists just proves how un-Socialist the SWP is. They claim to be revolutionaries but couldn’t be any further up the backsides of the Establishment.

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