“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
And so it is that the rigged conference has taken place, the leadership has secured its victory (though it may well be a Pyrrhic victory) and the opposition has been crushed. Rage and despair will be the natural reactions; however, it’s a good time to pause a moment and take stock.
The leadership is morally bankrupt
Let’s be blunt. The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place? On the face of things, no; on the face of things, the majority of delegates today don’t think that is at all important.
To recap, this starts off with the allegation of sexual harassment made against “Delta”, the then national secretary of the party, in 2010. Comrade W took her complaint to the Central Committee, the result of which was Delta having to accept a demotion. Although the SWP grapevine is quite efficient, this was all that most comrades knew – that Delta had had an affair which ended badly, and he had behaved inappropriately. At the time the talk wasn’t of rape; at the time, people outside the district didn’t know just how young Comrade W was – that this case involved someone who was effectively a schoolgirl. However, the very fact that Delta – basically the leader of the party at that point – was forced to take a demotion indicated that those people in the leadership who knew the details knew that things weren’t right. They knew Delta had misbehaved badly. They can hardly deny it now, though that won’t stop them trying.
And then there was the 2011 conference. Where Delta – demoted, but still on the CC – gave a cringeworthy ten-minute speech in his own justification, followed by a (highly orchestrated) standing ovation, complete with clapping and chanting. A lot of comrades didn’t like that. Equally, and even without knowing all the details, they didn’t like the hectoring of Comrade W’s supporters that took place that year. This is important background – things were bad before we knew this was a rape complaint.
Which brings us to the Disputes Committee. With the best will in the world, and even assuming that DC members could put aside any unconscious bias (not necessarily an assumption that outsiders would be willing to make), the DC is simply not competent to hold a quasi-criminal hearing into an allegation of rape. It doesn’t dispose of any forensic resources, isn’t composed of legal professionals… and, perhaps more importantly, can’t impose any sanctions beyond expulsion. The Chinese Communist Party can lock up Bo Xilai; the SWP Disputes Committee doesn’t have any such powers at its disposal, thankfully. If a woman comrade makes an allegation of rape, the DC should gently explain that they aren’t in a position to hold a rape investigation, and should encourage her to go to a rape crisis centre and/or the police. The DC, as something analogous to a professional ethics body, is only competent to rule on whether or not an individual is fit to be a member of the party, or at least to hold a leading role in it.
One further point: it isn’t a punishment to not be a member of the leadership. The party chooses who is an appropriate individual to represent it. This needs restating for the benefit of those comrades who seem to believe in a Divine Right of Delta.
Well, the DC made its decision, and this was accepted (just) by conference. Two things, though, are important. The first is that Comrade W, who had expressed a desire to speak to conference, not only was not allowed to do so, but was not even allowed to enter the hall and listen. This is a pretty appalling way to treat a vulnerable young woman who has already been bullied for making a complaint against a leader of the party. The second point is that the vote was incredibly close – roughly 51% yes to 45% no, with 4% indicating an abstention and many delegates simply sitting on their hands in shock. The “majority” for accepting the DC report was actually one of less than two in five delegates. And this was in a context where no amendments or supplementary motions were accepted – delegates were simply allowed a straight up-and-down vote where they could either accept or reject the DC report in its entirety. Not very impressive.
And that’s before taking into account this weekend’s revelations about a further case involving a woman comrade who was beaten and raped by her district organiser. If anything, the news report understates how bad that case was. What is true is that the organiser, having been found guilty by the DC, was expelled for two years. Two years. That’s the same penalty that was handed out to the Facebook Four for an online discussion about how inadequately the party was handling the Delta case; a discussion where they decided not to form a faction and, in a Kafkaesque twist, were expelled for “factionalism”. Hell, Andy Wilson was expelled for life for proposing to set up a cultural magazine. What sort of organisation has such skewed priorities?
The obvious answer is, an organisation which feels that the ends justify the means absolutely; that in the cause of the socialist revolution (or at least maintaining the current leadership in their positions of power; the CC doesn’t distinguish the two) the only thing that matters is the preservation of authority. If Delta is a good organiser who is crucial to the perspective, he must be protected – nay, even restored to the CC as soon as they can get away with it. Most of the doubts about his behaviour – say, whether it is appropriate for the leader of the party to use his position to try it on with teenage girls – are ruled out of court as “bourgeois morality”. And the victims in all this are simply collateral damage.
It’s the logical end of a process of dehumanisation, of chewing people up and spitting them out. I once remonstrated – quite mildly in retrospect – with a senior CC member about the party’s habit of losing good people by way of the apparat’s casual use of bullying and slander to get their way. “You have to understand,” he explained, “it’s unfortunate, but some people just couldn’t carry the perspective.” I wish I’d had the nerve at the time to tell him what an utter [redacted] he was. But then, we didn’t know then what we know now.
The leadership is politically weak
This is the context for the rebellion in the ranks, and it’s been heartening to see so many comrades saying that this is something they can’t possibly defend. Indeed, the fact that the mishandling of the rape complaint is indefensible is itself demonstrated by the fact that the leadership and their proxies haven’t even tried to defend it. The most “substantial” justification from the CC is Professor Callinicos’ Socialist Review article, which merely refers, opaquely and in passing, to a “difficult disciplinary case”, before going on to discuss how the SWP’s Leninism is being threatened by reformist and movementist currents, the former represented by TV’s Owen Jones (here Alex reveals the little-known fact that young master Jones is a member of the Labour Party) and the latter by former SWP CC member “Donny Mayo”, who has since thrown in his lot with Counterfire and is therefore a proxy target for John Rees, the party’s current numero uno Emmanuel Goldstein figure. (Paul D’Amato has a good response here, perhaps a better one than the article deserves.)
None of this is particularly germane to the issue in hand – the party’s disastrous mishandling of the disciplinary case Alex wants to gloss over – but it has provided a useful script for the CC’s supporters. If you read through the monstrous pre-conference bulletin, the contributions of CC supporters are notable for completely avoiding the issue and banging on instead about Leninism!!!, and how the opposition have deviated from it. This is our 1903 moment, they declare, when the Bolsheviks have to split with the Mensheviks. Quite what the Delta case has to do with Leninism is anyone’s guess, but the obvious conclusion is that this is a way of dignifying a fairly insubstantial argument. There’s also the unintentionally hilarious argument that the opposition want to exchange the SWP’s tried-and-tested way of doing things for the model of Syriza, which of course is so much less successful than the SWP.
Indeed, there is a pronounced tone of brittle defensiveness all the way through the discussion. The same has been true in party meetings. The 1980s generation, the backbone of the CC’s support, have dusted off their polemics about building our ideological defences to keep us from sinking into the swamp. In particular, this means acting as if thirty-year-old arguments over Women’s Voice are the last word on feminism; the idea that if you don’t agree with Sharon Smith’s articles it’s at least worth engaging with them seems to have completely passed them by. Better to deploy the bell, book and candle.
But actually, most of this is really sub-political. It amounts to the CC yelling “Respect our authoritah!” and then deploying every trick in the book to win the vote.
It begins with CC members – Callinicos, Kimber, Bradley et al – touring the branches and lying through their teeth to the members. This, sad to say, is not unexpected. We’ve also seen Party Notes turned into a factional publication, without of course offering any sort of right of reply.
There has been the punishment of party workers – Hannah Dee, one of the few leading members to command genuine respect and affection from the rank and file, was unceremoniously dumped from the CC purely for disagreeing with how the rape allegation was handled, and then found that her employment with the party had been terminated. There have been reports of bullying at the centre; the student office either is not communicating with SWSS groups or has ceased to function altogether.
We’ve seen, in the pre-conference discussion, CC supporters openly referring to the opposition as scabs and narks. As for Donny Gluckstein’s ramblings about MI5, it pains me to get Yiddish on his ass, but he’s a shonda to his father.
There’s been the practice of winner-takes-all delegate selection, where if the CC loyalists had a bare majority in a district, they scooped 100% of the delegates from that district. Particular Stakhanovite exertions were observed in Glasgow and Sheffield, and one hopes the CC appreciates the efforts of Dave “The Hatchet” Sherry and Mad Maxine Bowler. Dave and Maxine, incidentally, sit on the Disputes Committee, which is supposed to protect party members from the arbitrary use of power by leading comrades.
And then there was that little stunt at the faction caucus, when a posse of CC members and hangers-on appeared to demand entrance. It was, apparently, unheard of for a faction to have a closed meeting. Let’s leave aside the fact that at the January conference, the CC held a “supporters’ meeting” which excluded oppositionists, and even one member of the CC’s own election slate. Let’s leave aside the likelihood that they intended to disrupt the caucus. The shocking thing was the appearance of Chanie Rosenberg and Anna Gluckstein, the founder of the party’s nonagenarian widow and his daughter:
It’s hard to think of a tactic more apolitical than this. The only possible reason for bringing Chanie along was to dare the opposition to close the door on the Mother of the Party. One is inevitably driven to think of Stalin wheeling out the elderly Krupskaya to lend himself moral authority; and it does a tremendous disservice to the memory of Cliff, who really despised the whole idea of personality cults, let alone a cult of his family.
A leadership that deploys tactics like this is a leadership that has no confidence in its ability to win an actual argument. It is hard to disagree with Ian B’s assessment that:
I have the impression of a very weak leadership panicking but unable to break out of a purely defensive stance… The CC fought like cats at conference to retain the leadership, but do not seem to be offering any way forward.
Eppur si muove
If there’s been one thing that’s characterised the CC’s response over recent weeks, it’s been the reversion to technophobia. From Callinicos talking about the “dark side of the internet” – as if socialists who disagree with Alex Callinicos are on a moral level with 411 scammers – to the repeated insistence in pre-conference aggregates that “the blog” was the source of the party crisis. The latter is a clear case of shooting the messenger, and is more than a little reminiscent of Cardinal Law declaring a fatwa against the Boston Globe. It’s also rather funny in that the opposition have been very disciplined online in the pre-conference period, while CC loyalists have been extremely prolific (if not very convincing) in their online appearances.
It strikes me, again, that the SWP leadership don’t get the digital revolution at all. They still have a commandist model based on a not very accurate apprehension of what the Bolsheviks were doing a century ago, with an omniscient Central Committee and a paper that pronounces “the line”. On the contrary, the internet is corrosive of all hierarchies; it points the way towards a style of organising that is much less vertical and much more horizontal (and not in the Skegness rally sense); that we now live in a world where activists are both hyperconnected and can share information instantaneously. Above all, it means the party can’t keep its dirty little secrets to itself the way it used to.
The positive side of this – and the thing that drove the CC absolutely nuts – was that a very large element of the party membership (a) exercised its critical faculties and (b) self-organised. The comrades of the IDOOP faction didn’t wait for the CC to graciously grant them permission to organise; they did it. This is still a way of thinking that is alien to the SWP leadership, and probably has been since the late Pete Sedgwick departed.
It’s also true that the rape case – awful as that has been – has become a lightning rod for all sorts of other submerged issues. There are many people in the SWP who are sick of being lied to, being bullied, being treated as cannon fodder for the permanent leadership’s Ponzi schemes. The older ones remember when the party was better – hell, they remember that the IS of forty years ago was a good deal larger and more influential than the SWP of today. They also realise how toxic this situation is, and how it’s tarnishing Cliff’s legacy. The younger ones are of a generation that doesn’t accept authority without question.
What next? I certainly don’t have any quick and easy answers. If the good comrades aren’t to be lost to politics entirely, we will need to go through a long process of thinking, writing and discussing. What is clear, though, is that the SWP’s discredited leadership has no way forward. Even if it maintains control of the apparatus, its future will be that of Sheila Torrance’s rump WRP, which inherited enough assets from Healy to still have a sort of zombie existence nearly thirty years later. But Alex – remember your glory days, for you will never fly so high again.
You foolish lackeys, your order is built on sand…
 To be scrupulously fair, Mark Bergfeld’s resignation may have caused some disruption to the student office, and someone will have to be co-opted to the CC to take his place. Perhaps Martin Smith would be available.