Sunday, 13 January 2013

Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP

JANUARY 13, 2013 – 1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, “Lenin’s Tomb,” and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6 annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake”. Speaking of the party’s Central Committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight”. Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don't simply drift away, don't simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a).

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for 'secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “one of simple, visceral disgust. I was shaking. I still am. I did not know what to do. I walked out of the building in a daze” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organization in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organization in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” (SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST, 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.

1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a Central Committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the Central Committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (Disputes Committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the Central Committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the Dispute Committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organizing “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The Central Committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organizing. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalization – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right-wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against 'feminism' from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012).

In terms of left organizing:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organizing, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg

References

Bakan, A. (2012) ‘Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance’, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) ‘Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition’, Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) ‘Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor’, Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) ‘Letter To Bolshevik Party Members’ [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) ‘What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?’ [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online]. wearemany.org.

SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST’ [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) ‘Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation’ [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.

10 comments:

Brian Donnelly said...

Thanks for getting this online so quickly, Paul, another example of how democracy (and Leninism, if it is to represent actually-existing democracy) needs tools like the blogosphere. And thanks to Richard Seymour for his ongoing role and his blog. If the IST, SWP and IS were actually-living organizations, I suppose I would have already been discussing this in my weekly branch meeting...in another world. Thanks for the bibliography, I'll be clicking on through to AB's article and Sue Ferguson's, too.

louisproyect said...

An excellent summary, Paul. I plan to write something up this week and will rely on this.

mpkellogg said...

Brian - these are all living organizations, because they all have within them serious, engaged people. The issue is how to navigate the transition to the new conditions of the 21st century, something that we've all had difficulty doing. So - we are confronted with some new facts – the Internet, Facebook, Twitter exist and are massively expanding communication, discussion, debate, access to information, etc. It means that serious controversies, like the one's I tried to cover here, hit us in the face in a matter of hours, as opposed to the weeks and months it used to take in the newsprint era. In principle, it means, we can get the necessary discussion going more quickly, and in a more open fashion than previously. So, we'll see ... And the bibliography ... there are some really excellent analyses being developed, that I've only started to read. Abbie's and Sue's contributions are really helpful - and Sharon's talk makes me really look forward to her book, which is, I think, coming out this year.

John Mullen said...

Although it has more footnotes, paul, I'm afraid that your piece adds nothing substantive. The conference was split on the issue of the disputes commitee. One side felt that the five women and two men did not or could not do their job correctly. The other side (and me) thought they did. After conference, criticism came for many widely varying reasons. plenty of schadenfreude from sectarians, and incomprehension from people who think that partie sin any case ar enot necessary or good. But also plenty of serious activists inside and outside the party who had widely differing objections. Some thought such accusations are always true. Some thought the five women and two men were dishonest or hopelessly sexist. Some thought that a different set of democratic procedures would help tremendously. There are a number of problems though. I have the impression that any committee which concluded that delta didn't do it would have caused the same uproar. More seriously, no alternative disputes committee was proposed at conference (I don't know the rules but wouldn't this have been possible?) and apparently (I don't have the figures) the present disputes committee was easily re-elected. And now it is not at all clear to me what course of action would satisfy those critics who are inside the party (I'm not worried about those criticx who want the party to disappear).

Dr_Tad said...

Hi Paul

I don’t really want to comment on the SWP’s troubles in any detail. I live in Australia and have not been a member of an IST group for many years, but I also don’t share the schadenfreude some (not yourself) seem to have in reporting the party’s problems, which I think colours sober reflection on what is a worrying further fragmentation and weakening of the radical Left.

Rather, I want to suggest that I think it’s unfair for you to link any use (or misuse) of anti-feminist tropes in internal SWP debates today to “old polemics [that] were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism” in the way you suggest. At one level it is too easy to slip into the assumption that we must find the old theoretical scratch (or original sin) that leads directly to today’s political gangrene. Having been through an ugly IST group meltdown (in which I played a less than angelic part) it has struck me in retrospect how much certain arguments take on a life of their own when the origins of the problems lie elsewhere (in our case in a fatally wrong perspective).

As it happens, because of local debates over recent protests against sexual violence — in which a group that split from the IST in the 1990s has run a hostile abstentionist line — I have been going through old SWP literature and debates from the late 1970s and early 80s. I have also investigated other Marxist discussions on the material roots of women’s oppression in class society and under capitalism from the period, which Sue Ferguson’s article provides an excellent overview of. I have found Lise Vogel’s Marxism And The Oppression of Women (1983, also forthcoming as an HM book with Sue co-writing the introduction) especially compelling, as its theoretical method dovetails very well with the rediscovery of Capital that some of us are participating in here.

What strikes me from comparing these two intellectual trends is that the position the SWP eventually reached, most clearly spelled out in Lindsey German’s important book Sex, Class And Socialism (1989), is one that largely overcomes crude counterpositions of the sort that some of the writings of Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Sheila McGregor, and even German herself, exhibited earlier in the debate. That debate was part of a process of clarification due to sharp disagreements rooted in real-life party activity in the women’s movement, just as British workers started to experience major industrial and political defeats.

This is not to say that German’s book is perfect. For example, it provides only part of a theoretical account of how women’s oppression is rooted in class society’s need to socially reproduce itself, especially in the way that child-bearing is a biological function that each ruling class has to struggle (against resistance) to bring under its control. German also papers over the real ambiguities in Engels’ writings, which leads (in my view) to occasional confusion between the vastly different material bases for the ruling class and working class families. In the speech you cite, Sharon Smith rightly notes some of the cruder formulations in the SWP’s “men’s benefits” debate. But in fairness to German, the latter provides a more nuanced account that looks at capitalist society as a totality rather than reducing the question to individual relations within the family (although here I think there is an occasional defensiveness that avoids the bigger issue — of benefits versus losses for working class men in a world where male supremacy is dominant). Finally, I think that German (following Harman) uses the base and superstructure metaphor too rigidly, and really gets into an unnecessary discussion over whether the family is located in one or the other, which leaves some formulations hostage to fortune.

[cont'd]

Dr_Tad said...

[cont'd]

But for these (and other) criticisms, it is worth recalling that — as Vogel, writing in 1983, makes clear — nobody had really worked this stuff out because of the ambiguous and incomplete tools earlier generations of Marxists had left behind. What I like about Sue’s piece is how she situates the decline in serious work in this area in the defeats the Left suffered in the 1980s and onwards. German’s book remains a classic attempt to develop Marxist theory in combination with wide-ranging and very concrete historical analysis, bringing the changing face of women’s oppression right up to date. This includes a pioneering review of the strengths and weaknesses of various women’s movements that, while polemical, goes well beyond Cliff’s more limited version.

Indeed, German’s subsequent work in sympathetically engaging with emerging new strains of feminist thinking should really dispel the idea that the theory automatically led to problems of crude sectarianism. Similarly, the SWP has erred on the side of throwing itself into new struggles against oppression. If there is one area that I think that later SWP work was weak was in how it failed to re-examine the Marxist-theoretical “finished product” that emerged in 1989, and so I am not aware if German ever seriously engaged with the best of the “social reproduction” theorists Sue refers to. This is not to diminish the strength of her (and the SWP’s) accomplishment in working out an analysis that accounted for the social centrality of women’s oppression without having to collapse into a dual systems approach. I think that achievement is worth defending, not in a “Maginot Marxism” way, but as part of developing a more soundly based theory on the basis of which we can intervene politically.

Best
Tad Tietze

Jay Blackwood said...

I've posted a number of articles relating to this matter on my blog, including posts by Alan Gibbons (children's author, ex-SWP), the SWSS statement, the Serbian IS statement etc. You can find them here -
http://grumpyoldtrot.wordpress.com/

Haroon said...

An excellent overview, Paul, and very well written.

Benoit Renaud said...

Thank you Paul for taking the time to write this very thoughtful and well informed piece. Let us hope the radical left in England and Wales recovers quickly from this terrible situation.

Chris said...

This is great!