Tag Archives: Comrade Delta

The first complaint: what the SWP should have done

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1. We should have encouraged the complainant to speak to the police

On learning in July 2010 that a member of the SWP believed that she had been made to have sex with our National Secretary, without her consent, the Central Committee of our party should have strongly encouraged the complainant to make her complaint directly to the police. You cannot compel someone to go the police and she might have refused. But it should have been explained to her that the police have the relevant expertise and the resources and it would be better for her, and the party, if the job of investigating it was given to them. One reason the complaint should have been investigated there is because of its seriousness. No-one would suggest that a union or an employer would be incapable of investigating if an employee was said to have done something criminal but minor (eg stealing £100 from the accounts). Unions and employers and political parties investigate that sort of lesser criminal behaviour all the time. But rape is a much more serious accusations. Where people are found guilty of rape, in court, the average sentence is 8 years. It is far too serious a matter investigate internally.

Another reason why the complaint should have been investigated externally is that police investigations generate large amounts of evidence which other people can then review. Had she gone to the police, it may well be that the complaint would not have been investigated properly, that the police would have done little more than take statements from her and the person who was subject to the complaint, collect all relevant emails and texts, and refuse to proceed. Or there might have been a trial which might have been inconclusive. It may well be that even after a trial, the complainant would have come to the party and asked for action to be taken against our former National Secretary. If she had, the investigating comrades would have been able to read all the material generated by the police investigation and would have much more material to from which to make a serious assessment than they had in this case.

Where a political party investigates its own members, there will always be a suggestion that we are dealing with them more leniently than an outside investigator would. When we collect evidence of a crime, but do not pass it on the police, our members commit a series of crimes for which they, ultimately, could face serious punishment. No-one could have predicted even a year ago how the crisis would continue to debilitate the SWP; but everyone with the least sense of reality knew that it would eventually become public knowledge, and that it would make the party look contemptible before the rest of the left.

2. We should not have tried to negotiate between the parties

After a member of the Central Committee had met the rape complainant in summer 2010, the party put in process the negotiations between her and our National Secretary which resulted in his stepping down as our National Secretary several months later. This was inadequate. Every employer and every union with a written complaints procedure recognises a distinction between the sorts of complaints than can be resolved by an informal conversation between the two people and the sorts of complaints that require proper investigation.

Negotiations are not necessarily the wrong approach; they can work for example if someone has done something wrong, and they acknowledge it, and the only remaining discussion is about what they should do to apologise.  But negotiations without an agreement about what happened are always likely to break down, as they did in 2010-2011. As far as our National Secretary was concerned he had done nothing wrong, so why should he be punished?

If you try to get the parties to negotiate before there has been a proper investigation, the process will not work. One party will say that something serious has happened, the other will admit to only the most trivial wrongdoing. If anyone comes in from the outside and tried to put pressure on the parties to settle, they will have no way of telling which of the two sides is being unreasonable. The tendency therefore is to put pressure on an arbitrary basis, on the person who seems weaker in negotiations rather than the person who has been wronged. In sexual investigations in particular, where domestic or sexual violence is alleged but disputed, putting pressure on both sides to settle means in practice putting pressure on the woman to accept that less happened than she said.

3. We should have reconsidered our processes before or during, not after, the complaint

The people who sat on the original Disputes Committee were, by any independent standard an inexperienced group of people without relevant skills. Two out of nine were long-standing trade unionists who may have sat in on workplace disciplinary cases, which albeit probably not of a sexual nature, would at least have given them some inkling of what an unfair process involves. There is no suggestion that any had had an experience of dispute resolution beyond watching employers internal procedures. One had sat on the Disputes Committee for many years. The remainder were members of the party’s Central Committee without any relevant experience and every apparent reason to support their fellow CC member with whom they had worked over many years. One  was an academic who researches asylum seekers. Another was there only because she was a former CC member.

In a party with several dozen lawyers, and perhaps several hundred other trade union members more experienced than these comrades, this was a remarkably weak panel to burden with such a responsible job. The politest thing that could be said about the questions asked by Maxine Bowler and Amy Leather is that they reflect this inexperience rather than (as they suggest, on the face of things) the wilful sexism of people determined to defeat an unwelcome complaint.

One member of the DC (its chair) did grasp that a sexual complaint against a CC member is a complaint out of all proportion to anything that the DC had dealt with before, and attempted to improvise rules appropriate to it – eg taking questions through him, to reduce sense that the complainant was being “cross-examined”. But there were all sorts of other rules which the DC had adopted over the years which were stacked in one direction only: eg refusing to let the complainant know the CC member’s defence but letting him know the charge against him; not allowing the complainant or their representative to be present or ask questions during the CC members’ evidence; and a complete confusion about what standard of proof applied.

The DC would have done better to reflect on each of these flaws, and change them before the hearing, rather than maintain the main parts of a flawed procedure.

4. We should have provided proper reasons

After the first complaint, the DC issued a two word judgment “Not proven”; it was followed (after lengthy protests) with a one-side decision which said as little as the members of the disputes committee could get away with. This was another mistake. An ordinary, competent decision maker (a judge, a manager at a grievance hearing, a trade unionist investigating a complaint about a fellow member of the union) will be happy to explain why they reached the decision they did. It is a matter of professional pride to them that their decision bears a close relationship to what they were told about the case. If two witnesses disagreed on something important, they will explain which one they found more truthful or more persuasive.

Keeping reasons secret does not give a decision extra authority; instead it enables everyone’s worst supposition to fill the gap. The most critical people tell themselves, “Obviously they found for Smith; they were Smith’s mates.” The most loyalist tell you, “It was just an affair that went wrong.” Those who have thought hardest about the decision (whatever else we disagree on) can see its central incongruity. The members of the DC have said repeatedly that they believed the two women complainants. In Dave Sherry’s words, “we never felt anyone was lying”. But the first complainant said she had been raped and her corroborative witness that she had been sexually harassed. The panel found that our National Secretary’s behaviour was not inappropriate of someone in his position. But how can two woman be simultaneously both “believed” and “not believed”? Clearly there might be all sorts of explanations for this contradiction, but until it is explained, the party is left with a decision that just makes no sense. And it is natural to go on to think that we’re not being told the whole truth.

Some of this would have been averted if the panelists had had the experience, and the politics, to grasp that they needed to properly explain their decision.

5. All the documents of the investigation should have been published

The complaint has brought to centre stage the defensiveness of the organisation, meaning not just of the leadership (which always concentrates on protecting itself) but more troublingly of the large number of comrades who see it as their job to protect the party even (especially?) when it has got something wrong.

One of the many problems with this instinct is that it can be spectacularly self-defeating. Every step the leadership has taken to keep the story secret, every partial admission they have made which has then been shown to be more than half false has accentuated the impression of a group of people desperate to hide from the truth. For a year we have been the living expression of the proverb, “What a tangled web you weave, when first you try to deceive.”

If people were trying to defend the party politically, rather than administratively, they would take the opposite approach, putting everything in the public domain. It might be that this or that small decision would be criticised. But if it became clear that everything was public, that there were no more secrets waiting to come out, the story would soon die. It is the CC’s ongoing refusal to publish all the documents or to the let the party or anyone else know what really happened which keeps alive the memory of our National Secretary and the way that the structures of the party were mobilised to protect him.

6. The CC should have been kept out of the process from the start

The central “design flaw” with the SWP is that ever since the mid-1970s the organisation has developed (not all in one go but incrementally) a form of political practice in which all significant decisions are centralised, all initiative flows from the centre, and the role of the members in local branches is reduced to that of a passive transmission belt: i.e. handing out leaflets (produced at the centre) for a meeting (at which a person from the centre speaks), in support of a campaign (which was dreamed up by someone working full-time at the centre) and at which newspapers (produced by the centre) are distributed in order to be sold, and with them a leaflet handed out, inviting people to the next meeting…

The members of the SWP have a thousand different skills, we include novelists, musicians, artists, runners, boxers, nurses and doctors; if we were actually asked, we have so much frustrated creativity waiting to be expressed. And yet, rather than give us a chance to speak freely and shape our party, the organisation faces us constantly with the stern face of a classroom teacher (Mr Chips, or thereabouts) whose lecture (“Be Quiet!”) has been interrupted by his unruly class.

The dispute shows the same disease of control from the centre: with CC members keeping the DC out of  the original decision in 2010, and then shaping the DC verdict of 2012, making all the decisions about whether, when and on what basis the second complaint would be heard.

The CC, in general, likes to keep out of the public eye. But the decisions they have taken in 2010-3 have shown them to be unprincipled, indifferent to the politics of women’s liberation, and concerned essentially with the survival of their own positions at the head of the organisation.

If the members of the SWP were serious about learning from the dispute and making sure it couldn’t happen again, one of the first things we would be tackling is the culture of institutional deference to the leadership. We would constrain them, keep them out of our disputes procedure, and leave it people with the freedom to listen to a complaint genuinely, on its merits.

7. Don’t hide from the risk of institutional sexism – but confront it head on

The idea of institutional discrimination was developed many years ago to explain how an organisation could simultaneously believe at an official, “corporate” level that it did not discriminate, but actually in its behaviour treat people in a discriminatory fashion.

It is not much an analysis as a description of how groups of people can take decisions which point in a particular and discriminatory direction, precisely because they are focussing on considerations which seem to be gender-neutral.

In this case, no one with their eyes open would deny that a series of people in the SWP have been motivated by an overwhelming desire to protect a popular, and in his own mind “charismatic”, leader of our party, who had just guided us through a messy and unpleasant split.

Without some sense that – the CC, his friends, the DC panelists and much of the party’s rank and file membership – had all hoped that Smith would be vindicated, it is impossible to understand why for example the punishment chosen in 2010 had been so inadequate, why there was a standing ovation in his support in 2011, why the women complainants were asked such hostile questions in 2012, why in January and February 2013 the CC attempted to mobilise the disciplinary structures of the SWP around the pretence that Smith had been vindicated by our conference, and so on.

Under class society, everyone is shaped by what Marx called the muck of ages: subtle habits of stereotyping are absolutely general (along of course with ideas which point in favour of human equality). Anyone is capable of acting in a discriminatory fashion. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, whoever you like could be raided for moments when their ideas pointed against human equality. Their failures do not invalidate them; they are part of what it means to be human. The only shield against discrimination is the very recognition of its possibility.

This is why those comrades who are writing that they “believe any charge that the party is a sexist organisation or has abandoned its tradition of fighting women’s oppression has no basis” are so misguided. They are simply repeating the method that has already led us so far from principle. You don’t make sexist behaviour go away by simply wishing it hadn’t happened.

You don’t equip people to fight sexism by saying that as a revolutionary party we could never be sexist.

You only defeat it by thinking hard about its possibility, and adopting a new mind-set which says, “it’s a risk, so to make sure that we avoid it, we will confront that danger, and never make these mistakes again.” And to do that, you have to start admitting what the mistakes were.

Two minutes to midnight comrades? By my reckoning the last second is already sounding.

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We need to talk about secrecy

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I have been criticised for writing openly about the crisis in the SWP, the man who began it, and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t it be better, my comrades have asked, if I had kept quiet? Isn’t silent what any responsible socialist keeps, when faced with a crisis in their own organisation? But the reason why the party’s name is mud is precisely because the leaders of the party have tried to keep hidden what they have known and what they have done.

When it comes to disputes, the party has adopted a culture in which secrecy is treated as an overwhelming priority. An example of this at work is the rape complaint, reported on the ISN website in October. According to the woman who wrote the article, on approaching the SWP Disputes Committee, the DC’s principal concern was not to investigate but to ensure that the complainant told no-one about the complaint.

The woman quoted correspondence from the DC in which she was accused of breaching confidentiality (and I understand that the DC does not dispute sending her those emails), and concluded:  “Throughout the whole of this process the need for confidentiality was constantly repeated to me. I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades”.

The same concern with secrecy has characterised our handling of the two original complaints.

There are I think three main explanations given for the weight that the SWP DC gives to keeping complaints secret.

First, the desire for secrecy comes from the complainants concerned. Not in the “ISN” case, clearly. And neither was this the pattern in the cases of X or W. Comrades have been told repeatedly that the complainants were asking us all to protect their anonymity and the secrecy was only there for their sake. But the first complainant attempted to address our January 2013 conference directly (she was stopped by the CC). Had she spoken, in public, she could not have kept her identity wholly secret thereafter. She wanted her accuser’s name to be identified and his crimes publicly known. The second complainant spoken at the same conference, and would have spoken again in March, if our former National Secretary’s supporters had not mobilised to prevent her attending conference.

Second, it has been suggested that the SWP’s emphasis on secrecy merely mirrors that of the courts. But the courts don’t work in secret at all. Our civil and our criminal trials are heard in public. Indeed hearing them in public is something to be defended. It operates as a shield to both parties. For the complainant, it means their case is properly heard; and (often enough) it is publicised in the press. Reporters will notice details such as that the woman complainant was in tears when giving her evidence.

Allowing the women to speak in court and, indirectly, through the reporting of the case, means that they cannot be defamed by the sorts of cold slanders which have been circulated through the SWP by Idoom supporters including some on the CC. It’s much easier to portray a woman as a police agent or a feminist who hates the SWP if you are talking about someone who’s name is not known and who no-one has seen setting out some basic facts about their own case with dignity.

The person subject to the complaint also has a degree of protection if their case is in public – because their explanation of what happened is also publicly available. And if they are cleared, they can tell the world what the court decided and why. They have an explanation for why the Jury or the Judge reached the decision they did. That explanation is more than our former National Secretary has ever had.

When lawyers get things wrong in court, because there are journalists present, the story reaches the world. If people are asked sexist questions, or their representatives make sexist arguments in court; the people making these arguments will be held accountable in public. The presence of journalists and the reporting of rape trials has been one dynamic tending to reduce a little the extraordinary institutional sexism that rape complainants have to endure.

If any rape trial in any court Britain had been handled as badly as our investigation, it would have been national news. If any other employer (and of course, in relation to the second complainant, the SWP was the employer) had handled a complaint of sexual harassment as badly and victimised a witness as wilfully as we did, that employer would be a public disgrace.

Third, there is an idea that by not telling the world what we have done wrong, we will be protected, because the information will never surface. The problem here is that it just doesn’t work. It is not a coincidence that Edward Snowden has just been voted the Guardian’s person of the year. We are in an age where information surfaces and those who try to curtail it look ridiculous.

Thousands of people on the left in Britain and internationally now know at least some of the worst facts about our rape investigation: the failure to investigate in 2010, despite what the woman told our CC her complaint involved; the sexist questions that were asked in 2012; the refusal to allow comrades to seek reform of the DC at our conference in January 2013; the attempts by the chair  at the January conference to restrict speakers from raising any of the detail of what had happened during the investigation; the CC’s failure at that conference to allow any open discussion of the future role in the SWP of our former National Secretary; the CC’s attempt in January and February to restrict any DC reform to the sole question of increasing secrecy; the attempts after March to frustrate the hearing of the second complaint …

The person subject to the complaint has an obvious interest in secrecy; the current CC also thinks it has an interest in keeping its handling of the dispute as quiet as possible – both from the members of the SWP and from the rest of the left, including all the people who are usually our audience.

But you can’t sustain an organisation by constantly pretending to its members that you haven’t mucked up the most important decision of your political life – when you have and everyone can see it. You can’t pretend to be Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky or Bert Ramelson or whoever our  leaders fancy themselves to be if you look in the mirror of public opinion, and find David Brent staring back at you.

Even now, I don’t believe that Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber grasp the enormity of the harm they have done, to their own reputations, to the SWP’s reputation, and to the cause of the left.

The government recently introduced secret courts for certain National Security cases. Socialist Worker‘s report was brief and to the point: “Secret courts deny justice”. Yes, of course they do.

We haven’t had secret courts in Britain on any scale since the defeat of King Charles in the revolution of the 1640s. They were removed not only because there was a tremendous popular movement against them (although, there was a struggle). They died also because even the powerful grasped that they do their side no favours. People who are not told the full truth assume that everything they hear is a lie.

And they assume that there are further embarrassing details, which are also being kept hidden from them.

Martin Smith: a retrospective

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The CC staked the party’s future on Martin Smith. When he was first accused of sexual misconduct, in 2010, the response should have been to suspend him, properly investigate and expel if any hint of misbehavior was found. Instead there have been years of attempts to hide the complaints.

When our leaders have been asked in private why they gambled so heavily on protecting Smith they have had a stock answer: that without him, the party would not be able to do industrial or anti-fascist work in future. How could the leadership get to a point where they believed this was true?

Smith joined the SWP in the 1980s, and was an activist in the CPSA (fore-runner of today’s PCS trade union) before first taking a high-profile role working for the SWP in 1993. He was asked to be the SWP’s East London organiser after the BNP’s Derek Beackon won a council election to a council seat at Millwall. The Anti-Nazi League campaign was helped immensely by the presence of a number of SWP members in key jobs (eg among the council workers who walked out after Beackon was elected) and living in the council estates where the BNP was trying to build.

Smith was still the SWP district organiser for East London in 1994, when Beackon lost his seat. He was not slow to claim the credit for that victory.

In the early 2000s, Smith was promoted to work for the SWP’s industrial office, and for a couple of years brought real vigour to the job. He worked with the party’s carworkers, postal workers and railworkers, encouraging them produce rank and file newspapers. At their peak, according to Smith, they were selling between 2,000 and 5,000 copies per issue. (What we would give to still possess networks with that sort of audience…)

From 2004, when he became National Secretary of the SWP, Smith retained overall responsibility for two key areas of the party’s work, our industrial politics and our anti-fascism.

This was a heavy responsibility; the tasks take time, require different skills. The other leaders of the party took a gamble that Smith would have the vigour to play both roles well. At least at the start, he did apply himself with energy. But his tactics always involved top-down maneuvering and the longer he was in post the less success he had.

In 2006, the party initiated an “Organising for Fighting Unions” (OFFU) event, also intended to build the party’s then electoral initiative Respect. The conference was built around a mix of left union leaders on the platform in front of an audience of 700 or so, heavily leaning on party members.

“OFFU” did not survive the collapse of Respect. It was replaced by a new campaign “Right to Work”, which responded to the election of the Coalition government in 2010 with a conference attended again by about 600-700 people. Right to Work was eventually mothballed, without any adequate public explanation of why, in around spring 2012.

Unite the Resistance then took over, having its first conference in November 2012, again with 700 or so attendees. The same formula – a conference of left-ish union leaders and audience of largely SWP members – obtained, perhaps unsurprisingly, more or less the same results each time it was tried.

There was one change: UTR differed from its predecessors in that it sold itself to SWP members  as a temporary alliance with the trade union bureaucracy, who would agree to grace SWP platforms in return for something. Quite what we would give them was never spelled out.

Smith’s supporters have pointed to his key contacts in the unions – Mark Serwotka of PCS and Kevin Courtney of the NUT – as the source of his importance. However, when our much smaller rival Counterfire employed more or less used the same formula for their People’s Assembly, both Mark Serwotka and Kevin Courtney assumed positions on the platform.

UtR does rally the party’s trade union members in the few unions where we have still any base. But it has not done more than that. And it is not a strategy that requires Smith’s personal input.

Smith seems to have recognised that the drift to cheering for the union leaders has its problems, and occasionally led a balancing lurch to the left.

At the end of the 2010 Right to Work conference, Smith led a couple of hundred SWP members to occupy the nearby headquarters of ACAS where Unite leaders were negotiating with British Airways over the Cabin Crew strike. The occupation was national news. But the Cabin Crew workers thesmelves did not support the stunt, leading to an embarrassed apology in “Party Notes” two days later “We are trying to bring together a serious coalition that can resist the cuts … That means when we hold stunts and protests we need to point all our fire at the Con-Dems and the bosses, and should try and avoid at all costs protests that embroil Labour and trade union leaders in them”.

Smith’s anti-fascism showed the same problems. Julie Waterson was removed from the Anti Nazi League leadership in 2003. Shortly after, the Anti Nazi League merged with the organisation to its immediate right, the National Assembly Against Racism. The new group, Unite Against Fascism, had good relations with the TUC race relations committee and other union grandees.

Unite Against Fascism mobilised opposition to the threat of the BNP. The press were haranguing us all with endless stories of “bogus asylum seekers”, New Labour were conciliating the racists, and the fascists were winning more council seats. The party, under John Rees and Lindsey German’s leadership, was in the ropiest of conditions, with barely half the branches outside London that we had had five years before. The party lacked the activist base to fight a campaign on the scale of the heroic anti-fascism of the 1970s.

In these unfavourable conditions, UAF did well to keep anti-racist campaigning alive. But there was always something discordant about the campaign: in the way that one month’s success was never used to build the next month’s activity, in the drop-dead dull format of UAF annual conferences, in the lack of transparency or accountability about the campaign’s tactics and finances.

This was also true of UAF’s ally Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). Smith used to claim that LMHR had “adopted the punk DIY ethic.” However, while LMHR successfully recruited many musicians and swathes of volunteers, LMHR events always felt top-down. There was never a democratic relationship between the organising core and the young activists who would be courted for a particular event and then, often as not, dropped suddenly.

One nadir was the 30th anniversary festival in 2008; at which the gap between the celebrity status of the performers and the lack of an LMHR organisation was made good by privatising the event; giving security, refreshments, etc, to the private outfits who run all the “normal”, corporate festivals.

In his capacity as head of LMHR Smith also embarrassed the party by forging a relationship between our organisation and the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon. Smith invited him to speak at Marxism in 2004, when Atzmon began spouting some of the anti-Semitic rubbish he now specialises in. Despite SWP members challenging Atzmon from the floor, Smith continued inviting him to SWP events, and to perform with him at concerts as late as 2007.

Unite Against Fascism faced a new challenge after 2009 with the rise of the English Defence League. Smith took the decision that the party (with or without UAF) would confront each and every EDL demonstration. This was a tough demand and hard to deliver. UAF’s top-down approach hadn’t built anything like as strong local groups that we needed.

The pressures of the campaign led UAF to swing between either “broad” demonstrations quite separate from EDL mobilisations on one hand, or small numbers directly confronting the EDL on the other. Several of the demonstrations, including Bradford in 2010, became Popular Front-ish mobilisations away from the local EDL, while local youths unassisted by SWP members fought Tommy Robinson in the streets. Others were almost the exact opposite with small groups of young comrades being treated like “cannon fodder” in small, stunt-ish confrontations. Anti-fascist work is vital but Smith’s leadership was not perfect and he is not irreplaceable.

Any activist can test their own success in whatever role they have found for themselves by seeing what happens when they finish and someone else has to take over from them. If the organisation they leave behind is strong, if more people are involved then, they can be proud of themselves.

The CC will tell us that UAF and UtR have been glowing successes. They will never tell us how few members either campaign actually has than it used to, what funds they have raised, how many people are involved compared to 5 years ago.

All of us can see with our own eyes that UtR is less than it was, while UAF is decreasingly capable of mobilising anyone outside the SWP’s ranks. Even the number of comrades willing to turn out for either campaign is fewer than it was as recently as 12 months ago. These “united fronts” have taken more and more of the party’s resources to get less and less impressive results. It was on Smith’s watch that they suffered their decline. Progress will not involve simply repeating the same models, again and again, until nothing is left.

You can also see the measure of Smith in the way he has tried to defend himself since the complaints were made: encouraging his friends to speculate about the complainants and smear them, minimising what he did, and lying to the party at our 2011 conference with his “I am no angel” speech.

When it finally became clear this summer that the party would properly investigate the second complaint, Smith resigned rather than face a second enquiry into his behaviour. No-one who was accused of crimes on this seriousness would keep quiet; they would use every opportunity to clear their name. Smith did not because there was nothing he could have said.

Smith’s friends in the leadership will no doubt to continue to plead his innocence. Something like a hundred people from his faction met at a central London pub in June, with Smith  himself trying to duck away and pretend he had not been seen.

I do not doubt that his faction continues to meet, and co-ordinate its response to his critics. But loud as Smith’s friends continue to protest his innocence; his actions speak louder than their words.

This leaves the party with the worst of both worlds: Those who thought Smith played an essential role have lost him. But nor has the party appeased those of us of who grasped that the first disputes procedure was “mate’s justice”.

The party has lost hundreds of members and has a terrible stain on its reputation in the wider movement – a stain that won’t wear away with time, or be removed by expelling or suspending more members.

To move forward, the SWP needs to do two things. Firstly, we need to admit to the terrible mistakes made by not handling the allegations against Smith properly from the moment the first complaint became tolerably clear – summer 2010. And we need to apologise unequivocally for his treatment of the two women.

Second, we need to admit that his role in the party was in any case mixed. When other members of the leadership suggested he was irreplaceable, they were describing their own weakness, not his strengths.

What his case exposes more brightly than anything is the fallacy that you can build a healthy socialist party by restricting  all decision-making to a group of a dozen or so people. Were they geniuses of the highest calibre, this would still be an error. With the CC we’ve had, it has been a disaster.

The two women are still owed a proper apology

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This piece was originally published in the SWP’s pre-conference bulletin 1. It was of course heavily edited by the CC. Even with those changes, I think it is appropriate to republish it now, at a time when the detail of the cases is much more widely known within the party. On a second reading, some of the details here may take on added significance. In particular, I think it is important for comrades to be aware of the gracelessness and hostility with which the CC acted on the DC’s advice that it should make a (limited) apology to the second complainant

The SWP has suffered the worst year in the party’s history. We have had to have three conferences in one year, the numbers attending Marxism have fallen by half, and the party has suffered hundreds of resignations. Everywhere in the organisation, we see ageing and decay. If the SWP is to survive, we desperately need to change course.

The basis of survival is at least clear. First, there will need to be a significant change in our leadership: at the minimum it will need to involve the removal of the minority of our old CC who voted against the adoption of the second DC report and of Alex Callinicos, whose intervention at our January conference (“this is war”) set the party up for our last eight months of continuous internal conflict. A new set of comrades needs to emerge, not selected on the basis of how they voted in the last 8 months, but on whether they are capable of moral leadership and of playing a consensus role.

Second, at every level of the organisation, we need to break the culture of “following orders”. It was this mentality, that the next rank up of leadership is perfect, which led the first DC into repeated errors. How can you properly investigate a leadership you have been trained to think infallible? The purges which members of our outgoing CC have authorised in North London, Walthamstow, and Manchester must stop. The relationship between the CC and NC, and between each of them and the branches, needs to be reversed. Initiative has to be allowed to come from below.

Third, there needs to be a public and meaningful apology to the two women at the centre of the complaint. After our conference in January 2013, Charlie Kimber wrote to all members of the SWP saying, “We believe that both parties to the case should have their right to confidentiality and their right as members in good standing respected.”

Eight months later, no-one can pretend that the situation is still the same. The person about whom the first complaint was made (until 2013 a member of our Central Committee) has resigned from the party, and following a second complaint our disputes committee has found that he has a case to answer on a complaint of sexual harassment.  He is no longer a mere non-member of the SWP, and if he wanted to join the party, he would have to apply to join.

The phrase “case to answer” is itself curious. The former CC member resigned from the party in July 2013, just weeks before the DC that was due to hear complaints against him. A decision was taken, even before the DC investigation had begun, that the disputes procedure investigating the second complaint would be limited to the two options only of “case to answer” or “no case to answer”.

Where an employer investigates a complaint against a worker, or a grievance against a manager, or where a union investigates misconduct, or where a professional body investigates allegations of misconduct casting doubt on a worker’s fitness to conduct their profession, in the employment tribunal, or in the family or criminal courts – all of which investigate complaints of sexual harassment – an investigation is not halted halfway merely because the person subject to the complaint says “sorry, I won’t attend a hearing”. In all these other bodies, a decision maker investigates, and makes a decision as to what probably happened. In all of them, a wilful refusal to attend is taken as a small but significant sign of guilt.

Only in the police, where senior figures are allowed routinely to resign to forestall misconduct investigations, is there a culture of protecting senior figures by refusing to investigate fully when the senior figure resigns, and stopping a decision short of saying robustly, “yes, on the evidence before us, he did it”.

The DC recommended that the party apologise to the second complainant because her move to another place of work and to a more mundane job with less political content, caused her “unintended but nonetheless real hurt and distress”. Our outgoing CC waited a month before belatedly accepting the need to apologise in these terms. Its apology was partial and expressed its reservations with the DC report.

If the party wants to remove the terrible stain that has accumulated over the last three years, we will have to go further, and apologise properly and publicly to each of the two women.

In terms of the second complaint, the DC did not go far enough in suggesting that the party only needed to apologise for moving her but not for the sexual harassment which was what her complaint was about.

Following the most exhaustive investigation of which the party is capable, a two-day hearing in which a number of witnesses were heard and documents read, it was found that the former CC member had a case to answer for sexually harassing the complainant.

The period of time her complaint relates to is one when she worked for the party and he was our National Secretary, the person who appoints everyone else who works for the SWP. Part of her complaint was that it was his role as her employer which meant that she was required to keep on seeing him.

There could be no logic to justify saying: “We accept the complaint of sexual harassment has enough merit so that we can decide to place an obstacle on the former CC member rejoining the party, but we do not believe it has enough merit to oblige us to apologise to the woman concerned.”

In terms of the first complaint, the reasons for an apology are slightly different. Part of the need relates to our process of disputes procedure reform. In drawing up new procedures the party has accepted that our old rules were not good enough. But those were the rules under which her complaint was heard. If our old procedures need change; it must follow that the complainant has not had what we now consider a fair hearing.

There is another reason. In both complaints the women wanted an investigation of what they said was sexual conduct involving the same man. If the decisions had been heard in the reverse order, with the first complaint determined after the second, then by the time the first complaint had been heard we would have already decided that there was a case to answer on a complaint of sexual misconduct.

Anyone who has ever been involved in even the simplest kind of workplace investigation will know what this means. Where a company investigate a worker for two thefts or two assaults, and finds on one of them “case to answer”, the second hearing is inevitably more robust. The worker has to do so much more to be heard and believed where at first sight there appears to be a pattern of similar behaviour by him.

The same point applies with even more force in the courts, where what is called “similar fact” evidence is allowed in sexual cases – the similarity of the behaviour justifies placing an extra burden on a person to disprove the case against them.

For all these reasons, the part has a choice. The CC could say now to the first complainant, “We don’t know whether all your complaint was true, and in truth we will never have the complete answer. But we are serious about our politics, and if there is any possibility at all he did it, that is enough for us, we will apologise to you.”

Or, if that is a step that our outgoing CC will not take, the new report into the future of the DC recommends there should be an appeal process against the DC’s decisions. If this is the only way in which the party will allow proper findings about our former National Secretary, then so be it. To reclaim any scrap of authority, the party must revisit the first complaint – and, this time, investigate it fairly and properly.

You cannot re-build a party around an injustice. As part of the steps needed to bring the party’s crisis to a conclusion which we can explain to the outside world, the two women who made complaints each require a full, public apology.

The Trial of Paris Thompson

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Imagine the scene: two weeks before SWP conference, the Central Committee is due to meet. The leadership is not yet divided between two blocks: one which sees the conduct of Martin Smith as unacceptable, and a second which rests bureaucratically on the findings of a Disputes Committee to pretend that he has been “exonerated”. The former have until now remained coded in their criticisms. They have hesitated for two months before stating openly that they think Smith should be removed from all positions, and have only just decided to bring their case to the CC. Before they can speak, Alex Callinicos has in his hand a file of papers. He throws them on the table. They are a Facebook conversation between half a dozen members of the SWP mostly in their late 20s. “Look”, Callinicos shouts, “you are allying with people who want to smash the party!” In this way, he disorients the CC minority, and buys for Smith another few weeks on the payroll.

The leadership of our party has done so many stupid and destructive things over the course of this past year that it is easy to forget that only 12 months ago they used the fact of a closed Facebook conversation as an excuse to expel four people from the SWP. Re-reading that conversation, what is extraordinary is how timid the “Facebook Four” were. For example, asked to explain what the group stood for, Paris Thompson wrote, “1) Martin Smith’s position within the party, or at the very least within the leadership, to be completely untenable”. Didn’t even the “loyalist” faction in our leadership accept that his conduct was so bad that he could not remain on our CC? Hasn’t Martin himself, by resigning not just from the leadership but from the party, gone rather further even than the Facebook Four were demanding?

Paris’ next demand was hardly more threatening to our organisation: “2) The whole [dispute] process is reviewed; [X – the second complainant] is reinstated within her position within the industrial office.” Since conference in January 2013, the leadership has accepted the necessity of a complete review of our dispute procedures. With Martin having been finally removed from the industrial office in March 2013, the explanation for having demoted a woman who had complained about him (i.e. it would be bad for morale at the centre to have the two of them working together), which was always thin, no longer has no longer has any basis at all. This is something we could have conceded at any time after March; only the stubbornness of Martin’s supporters in the leadership held us back from a necessary step.

This was Paris’ third proposal: “3) The party comes out with a re-affirmation of its commitment to fighting sexism and condemns the appalling way this case has been dealt with”. Again, you do not need to be a member of any faction to grasp that these would be good and necessary steps, going any barely further that the general and unspecific concession of “mistakes” which Callinicos has been making for months.

Of course, while our CC finds itself increasingly taking the very same public positions that once it fought, when they were suggested by the Facebook Four, the official justification for taking action against those comrades was not “political” but bureaucratic. The main crime they were accused of was “secret” factionalism.

Now this accusation of secrecy has a certain sort of sense in that the Four did discuss forming themselves into a faction, but decided against it. If you assume that by making this decision they were lying to themselves, and that they had “secretly” decided to be a faction in reality, then secrecy is just about right. They were doing something so secret that even they did not realise they were doing it. In the paranoid mindset of Stalin’s Prosecutors this could just about make sense. To anyone else who had been allowed to read their conversation, it would be ridiculous.

The real charge against the Facebook Four was that they had flouted the party’s rules by meeting (if only, at that stage, online) and by being “factional” (i.e. disaffected) and by saying so privately during the conference period.

Everyone reading this will know the damage that was done by Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s crackdown on the Four (and by the other measures which accompanied it). Hundreds of people left the organisation – on the leadership’s figures around 40% of the people who had attended a pre-conference aggregate between January and March 2013 had gone by June; on the opposition’s figures “only” 33%, but by either figure, a significant proportion of our active membership was lost without any corresponding benefit.

A leadership spooked by the results of its own aggression has since attempted to be more cautious. In July, the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century blog was set up, to which dozens of comrades have contributed by name, and a group of comrades were organising “factionally” (i.e. in a disaffected way) and doing far more than the Facebook 4, meeting, planning, and intervening together in the talks at Marxism. The CC has limited itself to calling, passively, for the blog to come down.

In the unintended way in which things so often just happen, the effect of the repression of the Facebook Four has been to legitimise dissent: not in private but in public, not during the conference period but long outside it. The permanent factionalism of which the Facebook Four were wrongly accused has become an everyday reality of life in the SWP. A reform faction has organised openly, inviting those outside to its meetings. A secret faction continues to control the apparatus, relying for its survival on the willingness of  passive members who turn out once a year at aggregates, and are nostalgic for the bolder SWP of 30 years ago, to tolerate the lie that the leadership “is” the party.

The CC have had to concede, but have fought against every concession. They have learned nothing except an ever-lengthening list of names against whom they would “take action” if only they were strong enough to carry them through.

A modest proposal. If you are serious when you say that you want to bring the crisis to an end; why not begin by reinstating the comrades who should never have been expelled

Dreyfus

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Those unfamiliar with the basic story of the Dreyfus affair could do worse than begin with this short book review by Gareth Jenkins published in Socialist Review back in 2010. A Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was accused in 1894 of spying for Germany, convicted by a military tribunal of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. In 1896, an internal French Army investigation revealed that the original trial had been flawed and named the true spy as a Major Esterhazy. Yet Dreyfus was not released, and the author of the investigation was forced to leave France. In January 1898, the novelist Emile Zola published J’accuse, a brilliant deconstruction of the case against Dreyfus. But the army held firm. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel just one month later. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England. At an 1899 retrial, Dreyfus was again convicted. He received a Presidential Pardon but this deliberately left open the question of his guilt or innocence. Only in 1906 did a further military tribunal finally clear his name.

The most basic facts about the Dreyfus affair are the weakness of the prosecution case and the extraordinary way in which the French army and politicians conspired to maintain Dreyfus’ guilt. One prominent anti-Dreyfusard, Maurice Barrès wrote, “That Dreyfus is guilty, I deduce not from the facts themselves, but from his race.” For the Right, his guilt was a point of principle: that a Jew could never be believed; and that by contrast a gentile officer of the French Army must always be telling the truth.

For another leading anti-Dreyfusard Charles Maurras what mattered was not whether Dreyfus was guilty, but the interests of the nation which always had to come first: “the specific interests of the condemned man cannot be weighed against those of the French Army.” Maurras was adamant, the army was being witch-hunted in the press. His friends, his party, the causes he supported all were more important to Maurras than a proper investigation. Indeed a fair investigation was the opposite of what he wanted; for its outcome would almost certainly have been to reveal Esterhazy and others for the rogues they were.

Those maintaining Dreyfus’ guilt did so through repeated set-backs, holding desperately to the fiction that there had been a fair investigation. For twelve whole years they maintained this lie, becoming ever less convincing the longer they argued it. The counter-argument was compelling: the proceedings were in secret, no-one was allowed to read the documents that had been put to it or to know what was said. In the last resort there was nothing more to the anti-Dreyfusard case than this: “we are people of authority, we would have no reason to get a decision wrong, you must trust us to have got it right.” It took twelve years to win the argument that it is not enough to take justice “on trust”. A fair investigation must be done and must be seen to be done.

It is hard to grasp at this distance what a wretched, unending business Dreyfus must have been for all concerned. Relationships split over it; at times the key participants must have been disgusted with their own impotence to bring it to any sort of conclusion. And all the while it was working to readjust the political landscape; bringing low those associated with deceit, replacing them with new people who had met the challenge.

After the 1906 election, Zola’s publisher Georges Clemenceau became Prime Minister of France. The French Socialists, led by another Dreyfusard, Jean Jaurès, increased their representation in Parliament from 9 to 54 seats. The attitude – of putting a cause before the truth – had caused and would continue to cause the Right immense harm. A generation of politicians staked decades of hard-won authority on establishing that Dreyfus was guilty. Afterwards, they were humbled, appeared liars, and were disgraced. For twelve years, they undermined their own supporters, tarnished their own cause.

Yet while the Dreyfus affair is usually held up as a simple victory of the French left in its capacity as principled seekers of truth; a more honest reflection would be that the issue split the French left in two. Among the Socialists, there were two substantial blocks of opinion. The “impossiblists” led by Jules Guesde took a seemingly principled position of revolutionary intransigence. At every occasion, Guesde warned of the present danger posed by the reformist route to socialism. Seeing the campaign between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards only as a split within bourgeois liberal opinion, he concentrated his fire on those among the socialist camp who wanted to use their party’s increasing popularity to form a left’ government. Socialists can’t be neutral however when principles are tested on this scale. Merely parroting empty slogans about the need for revolution when an actual battle was underway was a vacuous and dishonest approach to a real conflict. In the language of one recent source it was “deliberate obfuscation”. Guesde’s “neutrality” was the first sign of the extraordinary passivity of even the supposed revolutionaries among French and German socialism; the first betrayal in a long series that would end with a failure to oppose the carnage of 1914.

As for the “possibilists”, although Jean Jaurès rightly campaigned for Dreyfus’ innocence; his supporters would not push the politics of Dreyfus’ truth to its logical conclusion, but constantly sought to use it as a bargaining chip, hoping to accommodate the politicians of the French Right. This included in 1899 sanctioning a supposedly “Dreyfusard” ministry in which socialist ministers (chiefly Alexandre Millerand, the Minister of Labour) would be a small minority. The Minister of War in this government (i.e. the man charged with pardoning Dreyfus) was one General Gallifet, who three decades earlier had been a chief butcher of the Paris Commune. As Chris Harman has written, the compromise which was supposed to clear Dreyfus fell short of doing even that:

“By the time the government was formed, it was clear not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but also that leading army officers were guilty of lying to keep him in prison and of victimising those who spoke out in his favour. The rationale of Millerand joining the government was to ensure that those in the military who had conspired against Dreyfus were brought to justice, while his name was completely cleared. Instead the government simply pardoned Dreyfus (implying that he might have been guilty but was being let off) and by trying to draw a line under the whole affair let the military conspirators go. In other words, Jaurés’s socialist was prepared to drop the demand of full justice for Dreyfus if that was the price of staying in the government. It was not until four years later that further revelations forced a different government finally to admit the truth about the whole Dreyfus business.”

What the Left should have done is straightforward: tolerate no compromises with those who had lied on an epic scale; campaign for the most thorough investigation until the full truth was revealed; and use the history of deceit relentlessly to expose the Right.

I don’t often use this website advice to give advice to the Right, in history or the present, but they were too human and Dreyfus was (as far as they were concerned; they were a self-pitying bunch) their tragedy too. They had but one route to salvation: stop lying, tell the truth quickly, and admit everything.