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“The 1930s in slow motion”: origins and (mis)uses

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One of the things I’ve discussed in this blog is my 1999 book Fascism: Theory and Practice (FTP) and in particular the metaphor I used there of the 1990s as being like the 1930s albeit in slow motion. Now this idea was not mine alone but was happily plagiarised – as any reader at the time would have spotted – from the Socialist Workers Party of which I was then a member. For within that part between about 1994 and 2001 that was one of the group’s verbal tics.

The words suggested that the world would see quite quickly (i.e. possibly by the end of the decade) the emergence of mass fascist and mass Communist parties, or their apparent successors, and that these two camps would then face off in an ideological civil war akin to the conflict at Spain in 1936, etc.

Those auditioning for that part on the right were the Euro-fascist parties (FN, MSI/AN, Freedom Party, here the BNP) while on the left there was the SWP which had grown in recent times to a claimed 10,000 members (a figure which was not a fantasy in 1993-4, although the group began to shrink again soon after). The SWP’s international affiliates in the US, Germany, Turkey etc, were also cast to play huge roles in history.

This perspective was not quite as inflated as I’ve made it sound. Depending on who you spoke to, and what was in the news that day, the emphasis might be put either on “the 1930s” or the “slow motion”. By about 1996, for example, it had become apparent that in Britain Tony Blair was popular. And would remain so for some years to come. (I remember SWP conferences where we used to debate how long the honeymoon would last: some thought there would be none, pessimists suggested perhaps as long as a year). But, as soon as Blair started to lose ground with voters, we predicted, everyone to his left would grow. And the SWP with its Marxism conference, its members in the unions, its credibility arising from involvement in student, anti-war and anti-fascist campaigns, was as well placed as anyone to win over disappointed Labour supporters.

My sole tweak to that perspective in FTP was a literary one, to speak of the 1930s as a mediated experience – one captured on newsreel: “the film winds, but for the moment at a slower speed”.

Here what I want to do is explain where that perspective came from – and what it meant for the SWP and the way we thought about the far right. In a second piece I’ll then try to explore it in its own terms, asking how much value there is or was in drawing that analogy between the 1930s and our own times.

The 1930s and Trotskyism

Plainly, the distant origins of the term lie in a particular reading of world history, and in the Trotskyist tradition to which the SWP increasingly obviously belonged.

If you go back to the 1938 founding congress of Trotsky’s Fourth International, the programme published by its founding congress was titled, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.

Here, Trotsky argued that the victory of fascism in Germany, and the collapse represented by the failure of the German Communists, hundreds of thousands strong, to organise any resistance to Hitler represented a break in Socialist history.

1933 and the events which followed it were “the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history.” They were the fault of international Stalinism which now lay utterly discredited: “The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership.”

At any moment, there was available only one party of the working class: “The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption.” Therefore it was legitimate to launch a new party, indeed a series of parties, which would soon take over from the Communists as the most significant forces of the global far left. “Workers – men and women – of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!”

The SWP had previously had quite a conflicted relationship to this passage in Trotskyist history. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the predecessors of the SWP had argued that this programme offered hardly any useful guidance at all.

For the Trotskyists of the 1930s had been in no position to lead the global working class. They were too few, too weakly rooted. What they built (in 1938-9) were discussion groups, factions without armies. Then, the SWP argued, between 1945 and 1968, the world had gone into an extended boom. Thus, a perspective which saw the world as being on the verge of revolution had been invalidated by events. Rather the 1950 and 1960s had been an epoch of reformism, the peaceful growth of trade unions, etc.

Here is one SWP leader Duncan Hallas writing in 1971, on the difference between the 1930s and the situation of the postwar left:

“When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.”

“In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.”

“Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.”

A first lurch to catastrophism

The perspective of the 1930s in slow motion was drawn up in sight of what was plainly going to be a coming Labour government.

This wasn’t the first time that the SWP (or, at least enlarged post-1968 IS/SWP) had had to respond to a Labour government.

In 1974-9, the group had gone into a previous Labour government with an unspoken perspective of expecting strikes to break out and the stewards’ movement to continue. That perspective had smashed against the actual experience of Labour government, the mass increase in unemployment, the demobilisation of the trade unions, etc.

But rather than dial down expectations, the 1974-9 International Socialists (as the group was then called) and then SWP (the name was changed in winter 1976-7) had ramped them up.

So that in 1974-9 the group had already swung towards an over-inflated sense of what it could do (save that this was seriously moderated by the group’s involvement in the mass movement of the Anti-Nazi League). Rank and file groups withered, emphasis was placed instead on a nascent unemployed workers’ campaign (Right to Work).

Socialist Worker was changed into a “punk paper” with a sports column and soaps and a perspective of winning thousands of new readers.

Candidates stood in elections, often winning derisory votes.

The name SWP, and its underlying perspective that the group was capable of being transformed into a mass party was adopted with a minimum of discussion, save only for the notable dissent of one former long-time member Peter Sedgwick:

“Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus. it does not form the basis for a democratic workers party but for a bureaucratic charade, sanctioned by plebiscite without discussion.”

Sedgwick blamed the shift on the founder of the SWP Tony Cliff, and his still-recent shift to a model of organisation which Cliff termed Leninism:

“How easy it is in these circumstances to shoot off-course, trusting to the ‘intuition’ which Comrade Cliff has celebrated in the life of Lenin but which is, at its worst, impressionism mingled with emotion.”

1990s

Tony Cliff was also the most important (but not the only) person advocating for the adoption of the “slow motion” phrase, and the thinking which underpinned it.

I recall attending a student event in February 1995 at which he spoke, suggesting that fascism was on the rise, and that the people in the room had only a few years left. Either Marxism or fascism would triumph, and we should apply ever sinew to make sure it was the former.

I recall the speech, and my surprise at it, for its vision of soon-coming millennial transformation was at odds with anything I had heard in the group until then.

Even when the idea of the 1930s in slow motion became more pervasive, which it did over the next few months, the way most people argued it was as kind of structuring idea, a warning an ambition, rather than a prediction of imminent catastrophe.

“Sometimes,” writes Cliff’s biographer Ian Birchall, “Cliff seemed torn between two timescales.” In this period, he was still capable of pointing out that the transition from feudalism to capitalism had taken several centuries.

But alongside these moments, you could also see Cliff writing (as in one late book, Trotskyism After Trotsky) that Trotsky’s 1938 programme “fits reality again”.

I want to focus on what this strategy told us about the fascist groups. For in 1922 and 1933, Mussolini and then Hitler had come into power alongside other parties and capable of governing (it seemed) only with the support of parties closer to the centre: conservatives, nationalists and representatives of the army.

For half a year between spring 1994 and early 1995, a party of fascist origin the National Alliance held several seats in Berlusconi’s Cabinet. Again between 2000 and 2005 a second party of fascist origin the Freedom Party was a minority within an Austrian government.

Was this history repeating itself? If not, why not?

Fascist in government: Italy and Austria

“Fascists are in government for the first time since the end of the Second World War,” Dave Beecham warned in May 1994, on the announcement of the first Berlusconi government.

“Anyone who doubts the true nature of the MSI merely has to open their eyes and unblock their ears. Before the election the MSI leader Gianfranco Fini made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the graves of murdered partisans to demonstrate his repudiation of the past. Directly the results were announced, Fini appeared in Rome surrounded by 1,000 goose stepping thugs. He then gave an interview to the newspaper La Stampa in which he declared that Mussolini was ‘the greatest statesman of the 20th century’ and that Berlusconi would have great difficulty in living up to him.”

So should we expect concentration camps to be built, and the Italian left jailed?

Well, yes it seemed, “These are critical days for Italian socialists.”

And then straight away no: “The new government is riddled with contradictions. Berlusconi is attempting to ride three horses moving in different directions. There are clear signs that many of those who voted for the League want nothing to do with the MSI.”

We predicted the worst. But then, when it failed to materialise, we had no explanation for why it had not come.

Lindsey German wrote, in the aftermath of Berlusconi’s fall: “The danger in this situation is that the fascists can grow from the weakness and divisions of the other right wing parties. While Berlusconi himself could not create a stable government, he could pave the way for the much greater threat of Gianfranco Fini’s MSI.”

Thus we lived in a present where fascism was always coming, but it never quite arrived.

We were like Atalanta in Zeno’s paradox, who can walk from place to place only by covering half the distance between where she is now and her final destination. She covers a half the ground in one stride, and then in her next step a quarter, then an eighth, with the result that she never quite arrives at the point she was aiming.

So it was with us when we thought about fascism. It could be a small minority party in government, an equal partner. Its ministers could have responsibility for the army and the police. But still we were warning about the prospect of fascism in the future.

And this, I want to suggest in my next piece was not a unique position to one small group on the British left. It is also the main way in which much larger numbers of people have been thinking about the far -right in the US and Europe since 2016.

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.

To my comrades, of any party or none

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On Sunday evening, after conference had ended, I resigned from the SWP. I will explain why I have left, but before I do that, I first want to explain why for so many years I stayed with the party even while I often criticised it.

I first joined the SWP in 1991; at a meeting in the Sol’s Arms pub near Warren Street. A couple of days before, I had been stopped in the street by a man selling Socialist Worker. After I had bought a paper, the seller, John Walker, invited me to a meeting. “I’m not interested in buying one”, I told him, “I am much more left-wing than you are.” It was not a wise thing to have said. John had come into the SWP after years in the libertarian Marxist group Solidarity and knew his left history far better than I did. After half an hour of standing on the street losing an argument, I agreed to go to the meeting where I eventually filled in a membership form. It was assumed that I would pay by cash and there was a grid on the back of my membership card which could be used to check that I was paying my each month’s subs.

The SWP was the third left-wing party whose meetings I had attended in less than a year. After a few months in Slough Constituency Labour Party, I had resigned in disappointment at Labour’s timid response to the then Iraq War. Before then, I had spent a couple of unhappy months on the edges of the Revolutionary Communist Party (Living Marxism), from whom I had learned habits of ultra-leftism and contrarianism, a combination expressed in my premature, fighting words to John. If it had not been the SWP in 1991 it might have been any one of the left-wing parties.

It was easy to join the SWP, since I already considered myself a socialist, and in fact had done so for more than five years. The real bravery had come much earlier, even before I reached my teens, when I had first begun to identify with the left, a decision which had set me off into a perpetual civil war with my family, my teachers, and almost every one of my contemporaries at my school. My reasons for sticking with the SWP were more significant.

In my first few months, I considered leaving at several stages. I did not have a worked out criticism of the SWP and some of my complaints seem daft to me in retrospect. The group seemed impossibly old to me, with an average age of approximately 27 or 28 (I was just 18). Soon enough, I was selling the paper, but I was genuinely perplexed by the way in my fellow sellers would shout what sounded to me like reformist slogans “stop the war”, “beat the Tories”. Weren’t we supposed to be revolutionaries? I found the meetings dull and the contributions defensive. I tired of the way in which after the speaker had finished, there would be a long pause, and then whoever filled the silence would face 40 minutes of speaker after the speaker from the floor correcting them for some imagined deviation from the party “line”.

Yet one of the things I liked about the SWP was that, despite the branch culture which I have just described, there were also comrades who were self-effacing, articulate and principled. I think of well-known figures such as Duncan Hallas and Paul Foot, but the real strength of the SWP was far below, in the branches, almost every one of which had an autodidact Marxist, a worker who had never gone to university, a person who would quote obscure ideas of Marx or Lenin and use them to relate events happening in the world outside and to the tradition of the workers’ movement.

Over the past 20 years the self-taught workers have almost all left, while the party-liners have multiplied.

I might not have stayed in the group but for a series of events which happened in the course of my third year in the party. I was a student, in a tiny group of just 2-3 people. Through the unusual tactic of going out of our way to book the SWP speakers who would be most likely to interest a wider audience, and booking most of our meetings as debates or in combination with other groups, we were able to pull off weekly meetings of 100+ people. Locally and nationally (this was the time when the SWP was claiming 10,000 members) it seemed possible to envisage a genuinely mass party, something which would be on a scale the British left had not seen in decades.

Our MP John Patten was also the minister responsible for education, and was piloting through Parliament the rapid reduction of the student grant and its replacement with student loans, and had voted against the equalisation of the age of consent. We called demonstrations two or three times a week and found an audience for them. In no time at all the size of our group (its subs-paying membership) increased to 8 and then 25 people. We had an audience large enough so that we could legitimately stand people for office in the University and in the National Union of Students. Then, to coincide with my 21st birthday, the woman who I loved also joined our party. She and I were Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Trotsky and Sedova. Communism was our love story.

That spring there was a racist murder, and our local anti-fascist group met the family, supported them, and organised a demonstration in their support, while others on the left stayed aloof. I would not have had the confidence to support them had it not been for the training I had received in the SWP.

Over the next 20 years there were many other good moments of which I am also proud: the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1994, editing a workplace bulletin with factory workers in Sheffield, organising a student occupation (of sorts) in Oxford in 1997, supporting refugees through hunger strikes in Liverpool in 2000-1, dispersing an emergent anti-immigrant campaign in Brent a year later.

In the most recent years, the best campaigns I have been involved in were ones which the leadership tolerated but did not seek to be part of: a London counterpart to the TUC’s Tolpuddle festival, then last year’s Counter Olympics Network.

I only learned the main details of the party crisis as recently as Christmas 2012. Long-standing comrades who I had known for years and trusted sought to set up a “third” faction, which would campaign within the SWP for the reform of our disputes procedures. I joined them. The leadership banned the faction, refused to publicise our documents or to allow us to speak at conference in January. My initial response to the January conference was to assume that the leadership would be chastened and that would be the end of the matter and spoke optimistically at meetings. But at our North London report back I heard Weyman Bennett promise, in his concluding remarks, “Never again will the SWP allow our student office to take a line independent from the leadership”.

I have been around long enough to have grasped immediately what he meant – that the CC were prepared to restructure the office and tear up the student perspective unanimously agreed at conference just days earlier, and were prepared to sacrifice our students to do so.

In February 2013, outside a meeting of the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, I met the second complainant, the woman who we were being told did not exist (“there is only one complaint”, as Judith Orr had told the Birmingham aggregate). I gathered from the woman that she wished to proceed with her complaint, and I decided to spend some time helping her, in practice by listening to her as we drafted together her statement about what had happened.

My days are given to listening to people in court, asking them questions and listening to their answers, and listening to the questions which other people ask them. I do not believe that someone is telling the truth merely because I want them to succeed at a hearing, or because I am their representative. If I get the opportunity to meet them before a case, I will grill them as intensely as I can. I will look for any flaw in their evidence, test any contradiction no matter how slight. And if they want to run a case which I do not believe, I will tell them my doubts and invite them to reconsider it.

I spent more than 20 hours in the company of the second complainant, read her documents, listened to her intensely. And at the end of our meetings, I was absolutely convinced that in every single thing she said she was telling the truth.

Once it became clear that she was telling the truth, then for me there was no longer any basis on which to doubt the evidence of the first complainant, who the second woman was only corroborating. Both women were describing a similar pattern of repeated unwanted advances by the same man.

I will not go through the details of what happened next; the shoddy attempts of the Disputes Committee (the same committee which of course had already heard the first case) to decline to hear the second complainant, and to put off her case until after January 2014 in the hope that she would leave the party. What I do want to explain is what happened at SWP conference last weekend.

There were approximately 540 delegates at conference; fewer than one in 7 were aged under 40. Of the young people in the room , a large majority were in the faction. The mood was serious, even grim. The conference was conducted throughout with the same degree of procedural propriety as you would expect of the conference of a trade union of about 30-40,000 people. Motions were taken; votes were even on occasion counted. “Delegates” were reminded of the importance of reporting back conference decisions, presumably to the 10 SWP members for whom each delegate is supposed to stand. But here were 500 people, elected from 40 aggregates in many of which there were had been fewer people in the room voting for candidates than there had been places to fill.

A number of the delegates would happily admit to never attending SWP meetings and never selling the paper; they were there solely because they had been asked to stand in order to prevent oppositional members attending. How many members does the SWP really have beyond those who were in the room? If your definition extends to a requirement that a person attend their branch meeting at least once a year, perhaps, at the very most, a further 4-500 people nationally. This is not a mass party; you cannot sustain anything healthy on the basis of the levels of fantasy that could be seen in the room.

On Saturday morning, Alex Callinicos made a supposed “apology”. The statement he read out was based on a CC motion which had been circulated in advance, and offered no specific regret for any specific action by any named individual but blamed merely “structural flaws in our disputes procedures”. Structures of course have to be carried out by people but there was no acknowledgement that any individual had done anything wrong. The motion, for which the CC apology stood as an abbreviation, blamed the faction for politicising the dispute, when it was Callinicos himself whose article in January’s Socialist Review had begun that process by mixing together the defence of the leadership’s handling of the dispute and the defence of “Leninism”. The motion explained the women’s distress in terms of the publicising of their case on the internet. It spoke for women who the CC does not know, has not asked, and about whom some CC members have been lying for a year.

A leadership supporter R- inadvertently captured the half-hearted nature of the CC’s manoeuvre when she explained to delegates in a later session; “I am prepared to say sorry. I am not going to apologise.”

Many important things were said during the course of conference. Two women who used to be on the SWP Disputes Committee explained how the majority of that committee had tried to prevent the second complaint from ever being heard, and the battle they had had to fight to have it heard, resulting eventually in the appointment of a new panel. The room quietened when they spoke; but afterwards, no-one voted differently.

The panel which heard the second complaint explained why they had found that there was a case to answer, and spelled out that they had heard from her and read her evidence, and spent 2 full days considering her case, as well as a further period debating their reasons. Any fair listener would have grasped that the panellists believed that Smith probably had harassed the second complainant. The comrades listened, and some were troubled. But they continued to vote for the leadership.

A member of the same panel explained that the second complainant also made a complaint that her email had been hacked. It was quite possibly hacked, the panel had accepted, by a member of the SWP. But if so, and this was the sole matter that interested them, the hacker had not been instructed beforehand by the Central Committee to hack her email account, and that meant there was nothing for them to investigate.

In this last episode, you can find expressed the degeneration of an entire party. What we were being told was that the DC accepted that a member of the SWP may well have chosen to hack the email account of a woman who had made a serious, sexual complaint against a leading member of the SWP. In fact while the hacker was there, as a comrade from Manchester had explained, he had not just forwarded emails belonging to the complainant, he had also deleted what he presumably thought were the only copies of emails passing between Smith and the complainant, and which subsequently helped to prove her complaint before the second disputes committee. He was doing what now passes for loyalty in the SWP – behaving in secret, destroying potential evidence, doing everything in his power to protect a man accused of rape.

If the individual who did this was not acting on orders, he was nevertheless doing something which he thought the leadership, or at least a section of it, would welcome. And there is no suggestion that he has ever been sanctioned for what he did. This mindset, of trying to think into the mind of a leadership, and of doing more and more grotesque things in the hope of winning their patronage, is associated with dark moments in history. Yet neither the disputes panel, nor it seems conference, found anything remarkable in it.

There were other bad times at conference; as when M- the outgoing chair of the Disputes Committee – sought to smear the second complainant by insinuating that she had spoken to the Daily Mail and encouraged them to doorstep Smith.

R-, who was of course a member of the SWP Disputes Committee which heard the first case, called the second complainant “obscene” for having supported a faction which had named Smith as being accused of “sexual predation” and insinuated that the second complaint had been made only for factional purposes. It was as if she could blank out of her mind the evidence of her comrades on the second panel who had accepted that Smith probably had sexually harassed a woman. She ended her speech with the words, “Honour and Respect democratic centralism! Honour and Respect confidentiality!”

I will never again use the word “socialist” to describe the middle aged trade unionist from my former branch who went round the edges of conference, confronting the youngest delegate at conference, a woman in her gap year before university who had never met him before, with the hostile greeting, “Martin is innocent”.

Conference voted by a majority of 8 to 1 in favour of a CC slate containing Callinicos and Kimber, with only 69 delegates voting for an alternative leadership (11 others abstained). I vainly shouted “count” when the vote on the apology was taken, not because it was close, but because I thought it the numbers should be a matter of record. The chair moved on, having declared the motion heavily defeated.

I believe that about 15 or so more comrades voted for it than for the alternative CC slate; or to put it another way, only 1 in 30 of the non-faction comrades broke from the leadership, even on the most significant – and straightforward – question of whether there should be a genuine apology.

Against the many shameful things I saw, I must also insist that there were many people at conference sitting there with their heads in their hands, some in tears. You could see this most clearly among a section of the middle ground, who seemed visibly in pain at what they were watching.

As well as them, there were people who spoke out against the party’s degeneration. I think of the longstanding member who spoke twice in the debate about the Central Committee, and stated in the most direct of terms that a Central Committee which is united only to cover up a crime of this sort has no legitimacy, and that a leadership which has driven hundreds of socialists out no longer deserves to lead. It is a difficult and lonely thing to tell hundreds of people that they are wrong. You need to be brave to stand up before a room of several hundred people who are hostile to you, knowing that they will be given many more opportunities to attack you than you will be allowed friends to speak in your defence. I am proud to call that man a comrade.

Why did we lose? I looked at conference and I saw a group of ageing and tired people, who have watched their party at war with itself over the past year. Among the SWP majority, a belief is prevalent that nobody can ever really “know” what happens in the privacy of a relationship between a man and a woman. It follows that in the context of multiple allegations of sexual abuse, the party is the only thing that counts. The working class, which is under attack in an epoch of austerity, is best protected by a revolutionary party which is as strong as possible. The party is everything. Without the party, we as individuals, and the working class, are alike nothing. The protection of the party is based on a committed denial of the reality of what happened, and the self-deception that this small party whose active members count only in the hundreds, is in fact many times larger than we know it to be, and represents the whole of the class, the entirety of the movement. To keep the party you have to protect the leadership; no matter how many mistakes they have made. These members of the SWP made it a point of pride that they hadn’t read unwelcome articles in the Internal Bulletins, had not gone online or spoken to people who might disagree with them, had not tried to think for themselves about what had happened or who they believed. The leadership had spoken and that was enough for them.

Such an argument may satisfy my former comrades. But, unlike them, I have heard one of the complainants directly. Indeed, I have listened to her with more care, and over a longer period of time that anyone in the SWP ever will. And she is telling the truth.

The history of socialism is the story of a shifting border between principle and expediency. Edward Bernstein sought to put the former on a coherent basis when he argued that for him the socialist movement (i.e. the SPD, the party) was everything. To which Rosa Luxemburg famously responded that to her the movement was not everything, only the goal, the liberation of all humanity, counted for everything. Too many of my former comrades repeat Bernstein’s error in convincing themselves that the party of their (and my) youth still exists, or that they make themselves “revolutionaries” by giving cover to a leadership which has disgraced the left.

That in short is why I left, because I am a Marxist and revolutionary, because I believe in women’s liberation and will not cover up sexual abuse, and – above all – because I am loyal to the socialists of my youth and the principles they taught me. The decision, in the end, has not anguished me, and I am not in need of anyone’s sympathy. I do convey my best wishes on leaving, my love and my solidarity greetings, to the principled few who remain.

All of my adult life has been spent either as a member of or a close supporter of the SWP. Few of my closest friends are people who I met anywhere but in the SWP. I am not sad though to leave, if anything I am relieved, and the prospect of being part of a new left inspires me.

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What would a democratic party look like?

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Marxists ought to have a great deal to say about democracy. After all, we are extreme democrats. We grasp that under this stage of capitalism, many of the superficial processes which are normally associated with democracy (electoral parties, decision-making by representatives and the secret ballot) have lost their appeal. In the protests and the revolutions of our time, in Turkey, Egypt and in the Occupy campaigns, people call for democracy but few protesters demand the constitutional separation of powers. Marxists have a developed theory that political democracy begins to breaks down as soon it loses its social content. Without reforms, people turn their anger on politicians and democracy becomes a debased idea. We are too shy in developing this argument and using it to explain what is happening to the world. We are too shy also in thinking about what democracy means for our party.

The Classical Marxists had a number of ideas about the process of democracy: if there must be representatives, you should keep their period of office short and make them subject to recall, and take steps (eg limiting their salary to a workers’ wage) to ensure that the roles are filled by workers.

These sorts of insights might usefully be applied to a Marxist party. In general, it should try not to rely on full-time employees, or, where necessary, their terms should be short and they should be subject to recall.

The model that a large proportion of the membership of a group will do no more for it than pay subs, which are then used to employ around 1 in 40 of the group’s members as full-time employees is one way to run a charity (although even there the formula is usually more like 1 in 400) but, as happens in charities, it reinforces the passivity of everyone who is not on the payroll.

A Marxist party which selects its leadership from a cohort of full-time employees is, in practice, going to be run by its staff not its activists.

The idea of a permanent leadership of people whose primary right to their position is that they have been there a long time might be appropriate in all sorts of other places in society (it seems to work well enough for the House of Lords), it is not an attractive proposition in a revolutionary party.

A slate system, where the leadership gets to nominate its replacements, gives the leadership a control over the organisation, and takes decision-making power away from the membership. It rewards loyalty and silence when the leadership errs. It looks offensive outside the ranks of those already persuaded by it. It is an obstacle towards any party ever holding in its ranks the generations of young members who join the left in hope and depart with their eyes wide as to the actual operation of power inside our groups.

Democracy is not just about electing a leadership, it is also about breaking down the gap within any organisation between those who take decisions at one moment, and those who need to come forward in the next.

You can have a undemocratic organisation and it will survive for a while, maybe even a few years, just as you could hold a revolutionary party together through a crisis of a few weeks on the basis of repeated threats of disciplinary action, but do it any longer than that and the group will die.

Democracy and activism need to be integrated otherwise the democracy has no purchase: it does not result in a group actually doing things differently.

Democracy is also about what happens in the smallest unit of a party. If its branches have no purpose other than to distribute a series of tasks, which have been drawn up centrally (build a meeting or a demonstration, or sell a publication), then the content of the discussion in that branch will wither.

Rather than working out what your local priorities are, rather than working out who the branch knows, rather than working out what your audience have told you and what you can learn from them, the branch will have purely instrumental discussions: how do we get three people together on Saturday for a stall? Who is going to the next meeting? If you don’t give people a chance to express their initiative and take control of planning their own activity, then fewer people will be involved in decisions, and the decisions you take will be worse for most members’ lack of involvement in them.

In a healthy group, people are accountable to one another; members who say they will do things, do them, and report back on them, and then the group takes decisions about what is working and what to do next.

In most healthy revolutionary parties there are defined tasks (without them how can anyone be accountable?) and some circulation of roles. A party in which anyone is in the leadership for more than decade is doomed.

Finally, there is a story about Rosa Luxemburg, that during one of the debates of the 1890s, she found herself arguing with a Polish reformist. As it happened, she was also the only person in the hall who spoke her opponent’s language, so before disagreeing with him, she first made a point of translating his words into the German of most delegates. She did so with scrupulous care and accuracy, and only then did she go on to explain her disagreements.

Democracy is also about a kind of process: a willingness to tolerate a range of dissenting views, the protection of the rights of minorities. It is about something as simple as being able to fairly represent the views of those you disagree with, rather than relying on selective quotation and insults.

Originally published in IB2

On DC reform

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Again this is a piece which has appeared previously – this time in IB2; I am reposting it now for the benefit of comrades who will shortly be discussing the strengths and the weakness of the proposals for our Disputes Committee reform.  While I welcome the reform group’s findings, the relative absence of comment on our Central Committee should not be taken to accept a central problem with their proposals. It’s all very well saying that where we have hearings we will try to do them better than we did in 2012. But the central problem in 2010-2013 has not been the DC, rather it has been the Central Committee itself which has governed the procedure, decided whether or how far complaints could be heard, and led us further and further from the politics of women’s liberation. The DC reform report, welcome as it is, does nothing to separate the Central Committee from the determination of disputes complaints. 

The report of the Disputes Committee Review Body is careful and well-considered. Generally, if there are problems with its proposals, those are more to do with the things which its authors did not think through, rather than those that they did. That said, there are still gaps in it.

The first two should be uncontroversial; they just take further ideas which are already in the report:

1) Exchange of information: Until 2013 our position was that a man accused of a sexual crime was told the case against them, but the person bringing the claim was told nothing about how it was opposed. That imbalance between the women making complaints and the men being investigated was indefensible and the Review Body are right to say that it should end.

The weakness of the Review Body’s proposals is that they suggest that when a person is accused of anything, including serious sexual misconduct, they are entitled to know the case against them, and they are only “invited” (i.e. asked, with no sanction if they refuse) to state in advance how they defend the case. This should be put on a more robust footing, when it comes to sexual allegations. If the case is defended, the person resisting it must state the basis of their defence a fixed time in advance (eg 6 weeks before the hearing), and if not it will be presumed that the complaint is well-founded and disciplinary action will be taken.

Only a strict rule of this kind will make the people who are subject to complaints disclose their position in good time, and therefore give complainants a fair opportunity to develop their case properly once they know how it is actually being resisted.

2) A proper decision: Until now our position has been that the person accused is told the outcome of the case against them, although the explanation is generally very brief, rarely amounting to more than a page of A4 paper. In the last 12 months, the party has grudgingly begun to send the complainants the outcome as well, although this was a reform conceded under protest, and the DC still usually provides explanations only in brief.

Not giving full reasons invites everybody to fill that gap with whatever explanation suits them. For example, during the first complaint about the National Secretary, it may be that the reason he was believed by the panel hearing the case was that he was very convincing in answers to their questions, or because he had documents which backed up his version of events. I am sceptical that there ever was such an explanation, but I concede that it is possible. If no-one in the party knows why he (or anyone else) was believed, how could we have a compelling explanation to account for the panel’s decision? How can we justify it to anyone else?

Whoever is believed, both parties are entitled to reasons: the person who is believed so that they can explain to other people why they were believed, and the person who is disbelieved, so that they can understand and see for themselves that a fair procedure was followed (if it was indeed fair).

The next two problems force us to think more deeply about the process itself:

3) Confidentiality: the party needs to work out what confidentiality is for, and whose reputation we are defending. For the last two years, the overriding impression is that we have fought far harder to protect the reputation of the men who are subject to complaints than of the women who bring them, and we have fought hardest of all to protect the reputation of people at the head of the organisation, whenever they were involved in a dispute. Everywhere else but in the SWP, people are allowed to know who is subject to the complaint and their outcome. In unions, in workplaces and in the courts, the rules may well extend to protecting privacy while a complaint is ongoing, but there is no automatic rule that once a complaint has been determined, its outcome and the reasons behind it must still be kept secret for ever.

If we maintain our present practice of “defendant’s confidentiality” and “CC secrecy”, we will look like we have something to hide. This is linked to providing the reason for decisions. No-one in the party has anything to fear from an allegation which is fairly investigated and disbelieved, and they have a plausible explanation for their vindication which they can give to the world.

What is killing our organisation is the culture that “no-one is allowed to know why we reached the decision we did, you just have to take it on trust that we did the best we could”. A dynamic which assumes we can all be ordered to trust the leadership in a matter of this seriousness, has produced a climate of generalised distrust throughout the party.

4) The discretion as to whether to investigate. The DC Review Body proposes an initial stage during which “the DC may consider the nature of the allegation or complaint to be serious enough that a formal hearing will be necessary”. We could have the best rules in the world, but there would be worth nothing if there remained in place the situation we have had for several years where the decision about whether to investigate and on what basis to investigate remained the prerogative of the leadership, or the DC, each of which has had an effective veto over an investigation.

We have seen this problem in a number of recent cases: in the first complaint against our National Secretary, where it was the CC who decided in 2010 not to refer the matter for proper investigation (i.e. it simply never went before the DC’s predecessor, the Control Commission), and in the most recent rape allegation which came to light this month in which (it is said) that the DC used the initial informal stage to discourage the complaint from proceeding and to prevent her complaint from proceeding. If it is true that the DC acted in this way, the practice is indefensible. It shames the entire party.

There needs to be a much simpler rule: if the complaint is made, and it is serious, then it will be investigated. We are revolutionaries and too much is at stake: no-one will stop us from trying to find out the truth.

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.

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.

The view from the top table

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2013

On an occasion in the last couple of months, I was speaking at a public meeting alongside a senior official of the trade union movement. His tone was folksy, with deliberate and repetitive swearing, declarations that he could speak openly “among friends”, and a loudly-announced disinterest in the detail of the latest government attacks on unions (“I don’t need to tell you, you all know how much they hate us”). These were of course details which his audience, almost entirely made up of  trade union reps rooted in local workplaces, needed to know if they were ever going to successfully resist them.

He made a passionate appeal to his listeners not to put too much pressure on the TUC to call co-ordinated strikes or even prepare the ground for them (it will, he said, be a decision for affiliated unions not for the TUC which has no members to call out), and he criticised those from the rank and file who were making demands of their leaders.

“Everyone in the room is a leader”, he insisted – not that he was going to lead us anywhere – “it is up to you to deliver the change, in education, in collective bargaining, in voters’ minds about the economy, which alone will improve workers’ lives.”

I am intrigued by this concept of leadership, not because of the  individual who expressed it but because it feels so familiar from the group of which I have been a member these past 20 years.

I will be writing more, over the next weeks, about the years I have spent in the SWP. I will save for another, longer piece the great moments, the times and the people that so inspired me of the possibility for revolutionary ideas to become the common sense of hundreds of thousands of people that I chose to remain a member, even though even at the age of 20 I could see, as we all could, that the leaders had clay feet

But here I wanted to convey how proud I have been to be a member of a group in which for long periods of time I was only slightly active – when I would go to meetings I had not organised, and I watched new people coming through.

When I rejoined the SWP in 2008, I did not become a branch secretary, I was not a full-timer nor was I a regular contributor to the group’s publications.

For two years, my main contribution was to book speakers for a North London branch, which had not met, in any sustained way, for more than five years.

My comrades seemed to appreciate that by the radical innovation of actually booking speakers for meetings every week, and thinking about different topics we could have, we were able to “grow” a small branch so that at one time it had around 3 people at meetings every week, and at another time, the number was more like 15.

This was a mundane task, not the sort of anything that anyone will put on their imaginary “activist CV”. But when we combined it with asking people at sales if they wanted to come to meetings, the dual effect was to bring a few people into contact with socialist ideas, who had never heard of them. Bringing new people and longstanding comrades together was not “the revolution” but it felt good.

I say all of this only to express my regret for those people in the SWP who form our national leadership, and who in several cases have not been part of that process, sometimes for decades. For them, the SWP is an office in Vauxhall where those who hang on long enough through every bureaucratic intrigue are guaranteed, eventually a senior position. And it is a series of meeting rooms (of admittedly, declining numbers) where a permanently revolving set of grey-bearded comrades listen quietly to their talks, laugh at some of their jokes (although there are many fewer even of them than there used to be), and then let the speaker depart, whereupon thode audience members presumably clear all the chairs away. If you only interact with people as an audience, you can have a very bad sense of what people think – even the people who continue to vote for you.

You can become frustrated with them, and (as we have seen repeatedly in the last ten years) bored of their activities. You can start to wish – frankly – that they would all go away and leave you to the more important task of meeting the General Secretary who is in the news, or recording an interview with Russia Today, or finishing the article that you’ve never written which would prove once and for all how much more you know about a topic than Owen Jones

There is a kind of leadership which says “every one of you is powerful, if only you can find the right opportunity you could be part of changing history, and I will give all my energy to try and inspire every one of you in the hope that individually, you, could be the person who at that key moment, makes the contribution which moves everything”. And there is a kind of leadership which says “I’ll go through the motions but don’t bother me, don’t you see I’ve got something more important to do.”

Each style can satisfy itself with the slogan “we are all leaders; you are leaders too”, but the two types of speaker mean different things by it.

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.

An organisation with integrity

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[The following piece was published today by Exchange magazine]

The main motion for discussion at the SWP conference in December will say, “Conference recognises … That all the comrades involved in the DC hearings sought to apply our politics in a principled way at all times and tried honestly to do the best they could in the circumstances. All DC hearings have been conducted with integrity”. That last word, integrity, is the important one.

I don’t want to make familiar points going back over what happened at that DC hearing; or whether it is possible to transform an investigation from scandalous to principled merely through a conference vote. Here, I want to ask: what does the left need to do, if we are ever going to have again a reputation for integrity?

The word “integrity” means at least two different things. In a first sense, it just means being principled and living by what you believe.

For a very long time, in so far as the SWP has thought about “principles”, we have assumed that they could be subordinated to the interests of the party, which stood in our understanding as a proxy for the class, which stood for all of humanity. “Anarchists”, we have explained, may see a revolutionary group as the harbringer of a new society, but “Marxists” don’t agree with them: it is not possible to wash off what Marx once called “the muck of ages” (i.e. oppression and its effects on both oppressor and oppressor) merely by wanting to be better, without a social revolution. But in the last year we have found that we are being judged, not for the formal content of our ideas but the mismatch between our ideas and what we have done.

A socialist party cannot pretend to be the growing embryo of a potential future society. But behaving repeatedly in an unprincipled manner is enough to kill any organisation and especially one which aspires to carry the dreams of millions.

One way to reorient the left is through adopting detailed codes which formulate basic rules as to what behaviour so obviously “crosses the line” that it is incompatible with membership of a socialist group. This winter, for example, the International Socialist Organisation (which was for many years until 2003 the SWP’s American affiliate) is preparing for its own annual conference. One of the documents being circulated by its leadership is a Code of Conduct for the ISO’s members.

The Code commits them to conducting debate rigorously, but with civility and respect. Members are made accountable for actions that bring serious harm to other members or to the organization. Discrimination and harassment are prohibited. All sexual encounters must be consensual, whether with another ISO member or not.

Elsewhere, in the main body of the ISO’s rules, the group prohibits members from making false statements to obtain membership or engaging in financial improprieties, or acting as a strike-breaker, a provocateur, or an informer

I like the document and I support the ideas behind it but I won’t pretend that it, alone, could cure the problem. For one thing, the behaviours prohibited by it seem to have been selected quite arbitrary. I accept I wouldn’t want to be in a party with a police informer or an agent provocateur, or indeed a former informer. How about a police officer? (I assume not) Or a prison officer? Or a serving soldier? Someone who owns their own business? What if the business has a left-wing content? In the SWP, we tried to prohibit for a time our members having jobs in the union bureaucracy or even on 100% facility time. Unfortunately our former National Secretary had a number of friends in these positions, so we maintained the rule, but applied it arbitrarily. In some cases, through the party’s ignorance of what its members were up to; we didn’t apply it at all. Should we have kept the comrade who serves in the bureaucracy, as a very senior manager (i.e. with a power to hire and fire), and who has an OBE for his services to trade unionism? Does it make a difference that he is one of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet, as well as a committed revolutionary?

It is quite obvious, after the Delta rape scandal, that any left-wing organisation with any survival instinct will respond better than the SWP has done to complaints of rape. But any Code isn’t made useful by its ability to recognise last year’s errors, you want it to guide you through next year’s crises, whatever they may be.

The definitions of discrimination in ISO’s document mirror American law, but US law is relatively underdeveloped compared to various international counterparts. European law (and therefore even UK law) prohibits a much wider set of behaviours directed against wider sets of disadvantaged groups. This isn’t to praise UK law, by the way, which is itself the product of certain kind of social compromises and has all sorts of limitations, but only to say that any list will always be incomplete. The trick is to work out what the principles are behind our prohibition of certain behaviours, and to hope that those principles will guide you right even in unfamiliar situations.

Integrity has a second meaning; consistency. We in the SWP often say that women’s liberation is “integral” to our politics, if this is going to be more than hot air, it would have to mean that every aspect of our socialism was shaped by our commitment to ending women’s oppression: that we could not think about trade unions, universities, anti-fascism or anything else without thinking about women’s oppression.

One story about the old SWP illustrates nicely what integrity can mean. The revolutionary journalist Paul Foot had been educated at Shrewsbury public school, and his friends there, including Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker later worked with him on the magazine Private Eye. Unlike them, Foot was a socialist, joining the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists, in 1961 after leaving Oxford and remaining with IS/SWP until his death in 2004. A few years before he died he suffered a heart attack and was recovering in hospital, mute and seriously unwell. Friends from Private Eye visited him, and, as lay in bed, said that they had raised enough money for him to swap his NHS bed for one in a private hospital. Unable to speak, Foot lifted his fingers at them in a V-sign. Ill as he may have been, he was the same Paul Foot he had always been.

How do parties show integrity? Socialist Alternative, the largest IS group in Australia, published five years ago an Anti-Sexism Manifesto, setting out how to enable women to take part in a group as equals with men.

The pamphlet describes, in ways which any socialist should recognise, how men can dominate in social relationships, how women still tend to do the majority of housework and certainly childcare (even in socialist relationships). It notes the persistence of old, stereotypical ideas about how men will be the ones who work and women the ones who do most of the caring. It accepts that there is a limit to how far sexism can be overcome under capitalism, but makes a comparison with workers’ subordination: “Socialists do not passively accept that workers will always submit to their bosses’ authority, or that they will automatically adopt racist or other divisive ideas … We fight these ideas vigorously when we can. And so it is with sexism.”

Much of the pamphlet is about consent, and why socialist men should never chivvy a woman for sex, get her drunk in order to sleep with her, pretend that a “No”was playful rather than serious, etc. “No means no at any time”, its author writes. It talks in practical ways about what is wrong with men controlling women. Socialist Alternative encourage their members to practice safe sex, and to see this as something which is the man’s primary responsibility. Last of all, the authors of the pamphlet insist that no-one should use the group as a pick-up joint.

Some of the ideas in their pamphlet are things which people on the left have done intuitively for years. Even in the SWP, we don’t normally ask men to speak at Marxism on women’s oppression. Generally, we do try to have a number of women either speaking, or at least chairing, our national events. And any comrade who has been in the SWP more than a few years will remember a time when we tried much harder to challenge sexism than we do now. In the past, for example, we did try to provide childcare to enable parents to attend our meetings. The problem is that all these things we do, or did, feel partial. We never explain properly why we do them. They are not followed through in our campaigns or our publications.

A theme of the SWP opposition has been that if we want people to believe that we actually have a theory which makes women’s liberation “essential” to our project, then we need to demonstrate that our internal practice matches up to the way we like to present ourselves to the world. You can’t say one thing and do another …

[the piece continues here, at page 18]