Crisis in the SWP, or: Weiningerism in the UK
“There isn’t enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day out.”
Lenin’s Tomb blog, “Crisis in the SWP,” Jan 11, 2013
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is – or was until recently – widely considered to be Britain’s “largest revolutionary organization”. The party has been rocked by internal dissent and has lost many members. This development was triggered by allegations of sexual abuse against a leading cadre by a young female comrade. The person in question was the national organiser, Martin Smith, who was nicknamed “Comrade Delta” in the communications of the SWP. The party tried to brush the scandal under the carpet. They set up a commission consisting essentially of friends of the accused, who then proceeded to “exonerate” him. After asking the victim questions about her sexual past and her drinking habits, they predictably decided that the rape allegations were unproven. The pretext to handle this mockery of justice by a kangaroo court was that the “bourgeois court system” could not be trusted “to deliver justice.”
Perhaps in a previous age this sham could have worked. But when details of the case were “leaked” online it forced many to take a stand. Numerous blogs were set up and a number of members started to breach party discipline.
The SWP has a peculiar understanding of party democracy. In the three months running up to the yearly conference, members are allowed to form factions, but these must be dissolved after the conference, and all members have to parrot the party line for the following nine months, whether they agree with it or not. The usual punishment for breaking these rules (and indeed for lesser “crimes”) is expulsion. Over the last years, however, there has been a groundswell of dissatisfaction with where the party was going in the rank and file. The “Delta” case and the way the party handled it, was a scandal in itself. But for many it was also the last straw in connection to other misgivings they had with the party.
Let’s try to situate the Socialist Workers Party briefly in their milieu and history. The SWP has officially existed since January 1977, when the previous organisation – the International Socialists – renamed themselves, significantly adding the word “Party” to their name. The history of the IS goes back to 1950, when Tony Cliff and about seven other comrades were expelled from the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and formed the Socialist Review Group.
What set them apart and distinguished them from the mainstream of the British (and International) Trotskyist movement, was mainly that they saw the Soviet Union (and the other “socialist” countries) no longer as “degenerated worker’s states” (as Trotsky would have it), but as “state capitalist.” This was regarded as an original take on the Soviet Union, which is quite odd considering that some on the communist left had analysed the SU as state capitalist as early as the mid-20’s.
The Socialist Review Group worked inside the Labour Party practising entryism. In 1962, the group renamed itself International Socialists and moved away from this strategy. It was growing through an influx of young militants politicised by the Vietnam war towards the end of the decade, and became a more prominent grouping on the far left in Britain.
Before turning into the current SWP, the IS was a more open and pluralistic grouping that rejected orthodox Trotskyism in favour of including other theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in their heritage. Despite growing in size, they became only the third largest group in the British Trotskyist context by the 80’s. By far the largest group until 1985 was the Workers Revolutionary Party, which itself had evolved out of the Socialist Labour League, led by Gerry Healy.
Like Left Communists, Trotskyists have, through the decades after the 1917 Russian revolution and the ensuing Stalinisation of the world communist movement (from the mid-20’s), often put up a heroic fight for what they believed were the essentials of communism against its dictatorial and authoritarian perversions. Unlike the Left Communists, Trotsky himself of course had been at the core of the new Soviet government in the early days and was one of the leaders responsible for crushing the Kronstadt rebellion. Left communist author Willy Huhn not without reason denounced as him as a “failed Stalin.”Nevertheless, many militants of his movement fought against Stalinism and were fought, if not hunted down and killed, by the Stalinists. This included Trotsky himself, who was murdered in 1940.
Before his death, Trotsky tried to set up a new revolutionary world party under the helm of a “Fourth International”. Rather than being able to create a solid movement to confront the Stalinist counter-revolution, the Trotskyist movement was prone to innumerable splits and infighting from early on. Often the various organizations would group around a more or less charismatic leader and would engage in merciless feuding with the other organisations claiming the same heritage and program. All too often they would degenerate into some kind of cult.
The Workers Revolutionary Party under Gerry Healy was a particularly wretched example of a cult-like group which practised the most extreme anti-imperialism. This went as far as accepting money from the dictatorships of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and supplying those regimes with material about exiled dissidents. The party managed to maintain a daily paper called News Line which still exists to this day. This is strange considering that the current WRP is a tiny group compared to it’s early 80’s incarnation! Healy was convinced in the 70’s that the revolution was just about to happen and already saw himself at the helm of a revolutionary workers government in Britain. The membership figures of the WRP were inflated to 10,000 when in reality the organization probably had about 1,000 active members. Healy was also a specialist in spouting gobbledygook pseudo-dialectics masquerading as philosophy.
Finally the whole thing collapsed when it turned out that Healy had been abusing and raping numerous female comrades over many years. The party split – for a short while there were even two separate daily News Line newspapers coming out. But more than anything, members left it in droves. Even then, Healy retained some of his supporters, including the most “prominent” members of the WRP, actress Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin.
The SWP claims to have over 7’000 members. However – as in the case of the WRP – this figure seems to be largely inflated because it includes people who signed up for membership online or at stalls without ever paying dues, let alone becoming active militants. A figure of about 2’000 active members seems to be more realistic estimate for 2012. This still would still be a relatively large number – at least compared to the rest of the organised far left. By 2013, this number would have shrunk, as we shall see.
The number of people organised in (or sympathetic to) the SWP only represent a fraction of people in Britain who would favour a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. In fact there was and continues to be a strong resentment towards the party in the wider radical milieu. By the 90’s, there was already an uneasy relationship between the party and the wider, more diffuse milieu as the SWP would effectively try to hijack larger demonstrations by handing out placards advertising their brand. Usually, as was the case with the anti-CJB demos and many other events, the party would use the events to advertise the brand “Socialist Worker”, stay only as long the bourgeois legality of the event would allow, and then leave swiftly when the unavoidable riots ensued. This course of action was understandable in the sense that the party would possibly jeopardise its position or even existence if it would take part in direct street fighting. But it also defined its legalistic position, and not only that – it was well clear at the time that the rallies would only make it into the news if they turned into riots – which would only provide the mass-replication of “Socialist Worker” placards in the media.
This was widely regarded as a parasitic approach, trying to co-opt any autonomous resistance movement, a prime example being the emerging “anti-globalisation” movement, which they tried to co-opt with their “Globalise Resistance” front, just as they had previously tried to use grass-roots anti-Fascism as a recruiting ground with the “Anti-Nazi-League” in the late 70’s. All these fronts are usually temporary endevours and are given up once they no longer serve the purpose of recruiting as many members as possible.
One could argue that the peak of the SWP’s public influence in Britain was when such a front organisation – the Stop the War Coalition – was instrumental in setting up the huge “peace” demonstrations against the Iraq war in 2003. It must have given the party the feeling that they finally had a grasp on the masses, something they needed to capitalise on. For this purpose, the electoral alliance Respect was formed. This new Party included the Muslim Association of Britain, the former Labour MP George Galloway, the Stalinist “Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)” and others next to the SWP. Needless to say, this reactionary bunch had no pretense of any kind of revolutionary program, and swiftly abandoned basic left wing essentials such as gay or abortion rights. Unsurprisingly, Respect broke up again, but Galloway still managed to get re-elected to parliament.
There were indications earlier on that the SWP increasingly seemed to follow the wretched path of the WRP. Rather than pandering to the Arab nationalist leaders in Libya and Iraq – as the WRP did – the SWP started siding with the Islamic Republic of Iran. While in Iran countless left wing revolutionaries were tortured and murdered by the regime, the SWP gave this advice to Iranian workers: “There will be instances where it is wrong to strike,” and: “Socialists should not call for the disruption of military supplies to the front… they should not support actions which could lead to the collapse of the military effort” (quoted in “SWP – The Party of God”, leaflet by Wildcat, 1988). In this way they supported the war effort of the Islamic Republic during the first Gulf war.
Chris Harman, a major “theoretician” of the SWP developed the party’s twisted way of supporting Islamism in his book “The Prophet and the Proletariat” (1994). His great insight was “Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the State”, which led to various instances of united fronts with Islamic fascism. It should be stressed in this context that historically for the far left in Egypt, Islamism was and continues to be equated with fascism. In contrast, the “Revolutionary Socialists” – the SWP’s sister organisation in Egypt – made common cause with the Muslim Brotherhood, at least until it came to power.
It went from “Kill the Bill” in 1994 to “We Are All Hizbullah – Boycott Israel” in 2004. Though not itself an SWP slogan, the party still took part in the demonstrations on “Al-Quds-day”, a world-wide event of anti-semitic rallies promoting a “Jew-free” Middle East.
With the second intifada and 9/11, observers of the scene were wondering if the standard “anti-Zionism” would soon be replaced by an open anti-Semitism from this section of the “left.”
Indeed one has to wonder why these people bother with anti-fascism, when British National Party leader Nick Griffin is praising Hezbollah in recent tweets. He visited Syria in June 2013 on a “fact finding mission” along with other far right politicians, invited by Assad and probably aided by the “Party of God”.
But who cares? A zig zag course can have a straight goal: The secret of power in these SWP-type “revolutionary” organisations: If you can get your underlings to hail and applaud things diametrically opposed to the aims of the revolution, then you are really in control of them.
It appears, however that the Central Committee this time overestimated the degree of control they still had. So let’s get back to the starting point: It is true that sexual abuse and rape happens in all layers of society. That it “unfortunately” also happens in revolutionary organizations cannot be an excuse. On the contrary, it should mean that it should not happen in such organisations, and if it does, there should be swift and decisive action to dealing with the crimes. At the very least the positions held by the alleged perpetrators should be suspended immediately. In the absence of any mechanisms and structure to adequately deal with a serious crime such as rape, however reluctantly, the “bourgeois court system” would have to be engaged.
Instead, when the first rumours and allegations about Martin Smith’s sexual misconduct emerged, the SWP held what one observer later called a “Delta love-in” at the party conference 2011 where he was receiving standing ovations. But the issue didn’t go away. “Comrade W”, who was 17 when the relationship with “Delta” started and who says she was raped several times when 19, filed her complaint with the party. As we have seen, some old friends (including several female party officials) “exonerated” the alleged rapist, and the party thought that would be the end of the story. How could they? Probably because they had done it before, as was revealed in the press. But this time the situation worked out differently.
Not only were these events a scandal in their own right, issues of sexual harassment and rape were international news in various constellations around the same time. In Britain the scandal about Jimmy Savile broke. Savile was a TV personality, among other things, and a presenter of the music chart show “Top of the Pops” who, it turned out, was a pedophile. Savile abused scores of under-age girls not only on the premises of the BBC, but also in various fundraisers he was involved in. This included the abuse of imprisoned and even handicapped young women. In India there was an instance of a young couple boarding a bus after seeing a movie, which ended with the female getting gang-raped by several males on the bus, abused and mutilated to the point where she died from the injuries inflicted on December 29, 2012 – only a couple of weeks before the SWP 2013 conference. In Egypt there were increasing instances of female protesters surrounded by men at demonstrations, harassed, stripped and abused, even raped. These cases were not “spontaneous” outbursts (which wouldn’t be any better for the women concerned), but part of an organised campaign by Islamists, the erstwhile allies of the SWP’s sister organization. Back in Britain Mr. Galloway declared in defense of Julian Assange that his behavior could not be rape but at worst “bad sexual etiquette”.
None of these particular cases had anything directly to do with the SWP. Some lay closer – as in the case of rape-apologist (and anti-abortionist) Galloway – some lay seemingly further away. But proximity of these events to the party is not the point. The point is that in the context of public discussion of issues of harassment and rape the SWP didn’t show very much sensitivity to the urgency to resolutely deal with the subject. On the contrar, they apparently decided they were outside of the public discourse about the subject.
While the party just tried to make the story go away, one friend actually stood up for Martin Smith, a.k.a. “Delta”: Gilad Atzmon. Atzmon is a jazz musician who closely collaborated with the SWP from 2005-2010. Despite his Israeli origin, he has been widely criticised for his anti-Semitism. Thus it comes as no surprise that he saw “Jewish gate-keepers and tribal operators” behind a campaign against Martin Smith. On his blog he wrote: (They chase) “Smith because he is a jazz lover and an enthusiastic fan of my music. They harass him because he gave me a platform in spite of the Jewish demand to ban me. They want to bring Martin Smith down simply because he didn’t obey his tribal masters. So if anything, it is Martin who is the rape victim in this saga – he is punished because he refused to bow down to the tribal junta.” Furthermore, he states that it was “clear that Secretary Smith is being chased for his affiliation with Atzmon who dared to use the platform given to him by the SWP to spread the thoughts of Otto Weininger.”
So who was Otto Weininger? He is the author of the book “Sex and Character”, and as Atzmon says: “a racist, an anti Semite and a radical misogynist.” Hitler said about Weininger: “there was one decent Jew but even he killed himself.” Atzmon is clearly an admirer of Weininger. He thinks he is “one of the most influential intellectual figures in the first four decades of the 20th century”, but the “PC guards” banned his books from the shelves. Indeed, Atzmon was invited to hold a talk in Bookmarks, the SWP’s bookshop in central London about Weininger in 2005.
Without going much further into the Weininger topic here, it appears that the above events – which we consider scandalous – would make a lot more sense if the SWP would rename itself the Socialist Weiningerist Party. Everything would fall into place and it would also relieve the party’s International Secretary Mr. Alex Callinicos from having to write tedious pseudo-theory such as “Is Leninism Finished?” and pretend to have something to do with communism.
But what about the dissidents that have left the party in disgust? We remain suspicious. Why would they have joined such a reactionary operation in the first place? On the one hand it is understandable: Young people attracted by the prospect of revolutionary action may well be cajoled into joining such an organisation promising an actual fighting collective. This is essentially the function of such a “party” within capitalist society: suck in potential revolutionaries and spit them out again as disillusioned monads. Or keep splitting.
One of the SWP’s most prominent dissidents, Richard Seymour, who runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog, published a book about Christopher Hitchens around the time the “Delta” scandal broke. Hitchens was a former member of the International Socialists who later was accused of having adopted “neoconservative” opinions. “It is written in the spirit of a trial,” said Seymour. “I do attempt to get a sense of the complexity and gifts of the man, but it is very clearly a prosecution, and you can guess my conclusion.” This statement very much suggests that the opposition in the SWP and the people who left it since the scandal broke are just as concerned as the Central Committee is with being judge, jury and executioner when it comes to dissenting views.
What now for the SWP? Many can’t see a future different from the rump-WRP which still publishes the daily News Line but has no real influence or impact anymore. Since January the party tried to reign in the dissenters, but hundreds of activists have left it, including most of its student branches. When Martin Smith finally resigned in July it was clearly too late. The party concedes: “the numbers we lost would seem to be high,” but they tried to relativize this by saying: “the proportion of these who could be described as active members even in the broadest sense was in fact small.” Writing about the group around Seymour, they said: “The politics of the group that left with Richard Seymour and who now form the International Socialist Network represent an abandonment of Leninism.” (Internal Bulletin, Oct. 2013)
If this was true, it would be a good thing. As we have seen, the way the SWP and other similar groups are organized lead to an undemocratic structure and power relations that can easily be abused. The final result is not an effective force of intervention in the class struggles, but rather a machine that leads to the systematic disillusionment of young revolutionaries. To stop this fatal mechanism a complete break with all forms of Leninism and “Weiningerism” is necessary.
(Originally published on 12 October 2013)
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