Richard Seymour’s decision to break party discipline and speak truth to power about the rape allegation scandal consuming the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) proves that there are honest and upstanding elements in the organization who are doing their best to rectify the litany of outrages committed by its newly re-elected central committee (CC). These elements remain under the illusion that the organization is salvageable, that there is a way out of this self-imposed impasse, that internal reform and open dialogue are possible.
They are in for a rude awakening. Call it the SWP Spring.
Tom Walker, who wrote a powerful and searching resignation letter, is much more advanced in his thinking than the SWP’s critical stalwarts. He notes that the SWP’s indefensible deeds in this scandal are but a Google search away for the prospective recruit and that recreating the SWP in any form will not do. As he put it, “the real problem is that the case ever happened in the first place.”
So how did this case happen in the first place?
Responsibility rests not with the accuser who decided to go to the party rather than the police (such a view would amount to victim-blaming) but with the CC for agreeing to handle the matter internally without involving the police or even an attorney. There are rumors that accuser was told by a party official that going to the police would damage the party and the cause, a claim that corresponds with Walker’s supposition in his resignation letter that she was pressured to not go to the police and that explains why the CC and the Disputes Committee took it upon themselves to create a pseudo-judicial process to investigate and issue a verdict on accusations of criminal behavior.
This CC was re-elected by the SWP’s annual conference and the Disputes Committee’s verdict was accepted by a narrow majority vote. As a result, the whole of the SWP now bears political, moral, and legal responsibility for this travesty.
The CC’s disastrous decisions did not occur in a political or historical vacuum. The lack of transparency is a necessary ingredient for an accountability-free political culture. So much of the SWP’s pseudo-judicial process was kept deliberately opaque. Secret trials, secret evidence, secret procedures, and secret verdicts have proliferated in capitalist states around the world since September 11, 2001, provoking outrage in left and liberal circles, and yet somehow we are supposed to accept that these methods are appropriate for small voluntary political organizations to use on their own members?
A more interesting question is why didn’t the CC simply throw the accused (now former) CC member under the bus as they did John Rees, the convenient scapegoat for the SWP’s mistakes within RESPECT? Surely that would have been the easiest way to preserve peace within the ranks, with the added bonus of being able to posture as “tough on rape,” “taking women’s liberation seriously”? Why go through the trouble of creating an opaque conflict-of-interest-ridden pseudo-judicial process to deliberate and reach a verdict to be presented to the rank and file for a risky up-or-down vote?
The logical (albeit totally speculative) answer is that the accused must have some leverage over the CC that made him impossible to simply toss overboard. Either he has dirt on the CC (perhaps they looked the other way when complaints like this arose in the past – that this was the first time beggars belief) or he holds significant SWP financial assets in his name. Or both.
Either way, “Leninist” groups do not have an open books policy; finances and financial decisions are the purview of top party officials, not the rank-and-file dues payer, book vendor, or paper seller. “Theirs not to reason why,” after all.
Seymour notes what a “sane” leadership would have done in the face of the SWP’s existential crisis but does not examine the materialist foundation of its insane behavior. There is a logic to the madness.
Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party!
This is all par for the “Leninist” course and ends up recreating the alienation of capitalism in the name of anti-capitalism, perpetuating ruling cliques in the name of eradicating 1% rule, and fostering male chauvinism internally while championing anti-sexism in the world at large.
Over the months and years, most recruits vote against this regime with their feet, leaving only the zealous and the resigned who have learned to habitually “keep their heads down” and conditioned themselves to accept that the shortcomings they put up with are for the “greater socialist good” (as Walker put it). It is the underlying reason why groups like the SWP failed to grow appreciably in the previous decade even as they mobilized tens of thousands of people to march and vote.
The history of the international far left is littered with unjust purges, needless splits, and ridiculous show trials, but what has taken place in the SWP is qualitatively different than your typical Trot-on-Trot violence. We are talking here about criminal matters, not ideological heresy, about rape, sexual assault, and physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, not reformism, liquidationism, centrism, pro-imperialism, anti-Leninism, or (heaven forbid) feminism.
In other words, we are not talking about politics and ideology but the behaviors and emotions of real, living people, things “Leninist” groups are ill-equipped to handle.
Seymour’s exhortation to SWP members to fight is right in spirit but mistaken strategically. “Leninism” is a rigged game to begin with, and the reality is that the majority of the SWP is behind the leadership, the CC holds all the cards, and the opposition’s power has peaked as demoralization, resignations, and expulsions take their toll.
Only a conceited sectarian could see the SWP’s abysmal fate as synonymous with the fate of the socialist project in the United Kingom. If anything, the ground for that future is being cleared of all the 20th century left’s rotten leftovers. While the SWP played a critical role in getting important initiatives like the Socialist Alliance, RESPECT, and Stop the War Coalition off the ground, it also crippled them with avoidable missteps and sectarian maneuvering. Without this Jeckyll-and-Hyde dualism, future left efforts will be harder to launch but are more likely to endure and grow into something meaningful.
“Leninism” has long been the graveyard of revolutionary workers’ parties internationally; nowadays, forbidding horizontal communication, insulating party members from “rival” political currents, and insisting on procedural secrecy in accordance with “Leninist” norms is no longer feasible in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Wikileaks, and YouTube. Lenin and his comrades relied on personal correspondence and newspapers because they did not have telephones and radios, much less television, and even those innovations are rapidly becoming anachronistic as the 21st century marches past those who cling to the past.
A successful radical left organizing project must to a large extent be the change it wants to win. That is, it must be a vehicle for an institutionally powerful, self-conscious, and self-organized rank and file to constantly create and shape (rather than merely implement) a “line,” where egos and power trips are minimized by maximum democracy, where disagreements can be mediated properly and publicly instead of degenerating immediately into circular firing squads, and where all officials are elected leader-guides who are sensitive to the moods of the ranks rather than appointed boss-rulers who threaten, cajole, coerce, and manipulate the members they are supposed to serve.
Its watchwords must be horizontalism, plurality, transparency, and results, not centralism, uniformity, discipline, and vanguardism. It must be experimental, a work in progress, rather than a set of fixed answers and structures.
Such a project should be open and open-minded to all modern progressive oppositional trends, be they anarchist or feminist, seeking to engage them, learn from them, and incorporate their insights and yearnings into a common fight for the common end: liberation.
We are a long way from a left that looks, thinks, and lives like this and where SWP-style scandals are unthinkable. Even so, the human material to create such a left undoubtedly exists among the many thousands of militants who tolerate their existing groups and ex-members who continue the class war from their trenches in their union, community organization, or affinity group.
British comrades in and out of the SWP should email tom.walker.statement [at] gmail.com if they are interested in taking action to help foster the healthy, honest, and effective left that all of us would love to see but no single force can will into being overnight.