Is the Party Over?
Over the past month the British Socialist Workers Party has been convulsed over the revelation that a central leader of the party might not only have been guilty of sexual assault but that the central committee covered up for him.
Before the days of the Internet, this incident might have remained beneath the radar. But after an internal report was leaked to the Socialist Unity blog in Britain, it was picked up by the mainstream media including The New Statesman,where well-known leftist and feminist Laurie Penny offered these thoughts on January 11th:
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker – a party member who walked out this week in disgust – explained that feminism “is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters…. it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender.”
This is not the first time that a British revolutionary socialist organization has been torn apart by such a scandal. In 1985 the Workers Revolutionary Party, a sizable group that included Vanessa Redgrave in its ranks, expelled its founder Gerry Healy for serial rape, including that of many underage women. He took advantage of his power to impose his will on the unwilling, such as is often the case in religious cults. One look at Gerry Healy would have left the conclusion that mutual attraction was out of the question.
After this incident, the WRP fell apart and ceased to be a factor in British politics. Many long-time observers of the SWP are openly entertaining the possibility that it faces the same outcome.
In the first public statement on the affair, Alex Callinicos, a longtime party leader and professor of European Studies at Kings College in London, took the position that it was all about defending “Leninism” rather than the right of a woman not to be raped. The article, which appeared in the party’s monthly Socialist Review, was a kind of warmed-over polemic that has been around the “Bolshevik” left since the early 1920s, with Owen Jones—the young author of the highly acclaimed “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class”—serving as a punching bag. Jones wrote an article in The Independent that described the era of Leninist party-building as having ended a long time ago, something that makes eminent good sense to those fortunate enough to exist outside the sectarian universe.
Although it occupies a marginal space in British politics overall, the SWP has been a major player on the far left for decades. It recent years it was best known for spearheading the Stop the War Coalition in Britain that mounted massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq. It was also a leading force in George Galloway’s RESPECT party up until it antagonized Galloway and other party leaders over a number of charges, the primary being RESPECT’s supposed adaptation to Islamic communalism. I interpreted the split as the inevitable result of a “Leninist” party making its own decisions behind closed doors and then presenting them to RESPECT as a fait accompli.
Just as importantly, if not more so, the SWP has been heavily represented on the blue-chip editorial boards of left journals, invited to speak at posh conferences, and responsible for the publication of hundreds of articles in the sorts of journals that the late Aaron Swartz was trying to liberate. Alex Callinicos is the author of 27 books, while Sebastian Budgen, another long-time member, occupies perches at Verso Press, the New Left Review, and Historical Materialism. Despite their celebrity, some equally well-known talents have declared their unwillingness to collaborate with Callinicos and company until justice is served and the democratic rights of the membership respected.
We have all previously participated in events and initiatives promoted by the SWP, including the annual Marxism festival, or written for its publications. We continue to value the commitment and work of many SWP members as trades unionists, activists and comrades. Nonetheless, we can no longer in good conscience participate in SWP publications and platforms until the party recognises and seriously addresses the legitimate criticisms of its handling of this case and the ensuing crisis.
Among others, Greg Albo, the editor of Socialist Register, well-known Israeli anti-Zionist Ilan Pappé, and Jairus Banaji, the recipient of the 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, signed the above open letter. It should be noted that Alex Callinicos is a member of the jury that awarded the prize to Banaji.
As someone who has been monitoring the SWP for some years now, I never would have guessed that it would suffer such a crisis. I belonged to the American SWP that had the same name but a different ideology. In 1977 Tony Cliff launched the British SWP on the basis of opposition to “state capitalism”, a theory that described the USSR as being ruled by a new class of exploiters. My own organization not only considered the USSR to be ruled by a bureaucracy rather than a class, but resting on socioeconomic relationships more advanced than under capitalism.
The collapse of the USSR relegated such ideological distinctions to the world of Marxist-Talmudic studies, with efforts toward demarking the exact point when things went wrong in Russia having all the urgency of determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. More to the point, there was never much use in organizing a socialist organization around “the Russian questions”. If Lenin had insisted on getting Robespierre correct, there never would have been a revolution in 1917.
Much of Callinicos’s pique is directed at the Internet:
One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated – unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I can’t find much difference between this and a Hollywood studio complaining about bootlegged copies of “The Life of Pi” showing up in Ecuador. Callinicos’s problem is that he has not adjusted to the fact that the Internet has supplanted the printing press. It might have been possible to keep “Leninist” party affairs internal when print reigned supreme but those days are gone forever.
Indeed, one of the first victims of the SWP’s drive to keep its secrets secret were a group of women having a Facebook discussion of the injustice done to their female comrade. Although it is virtually impossible that the SWP will ever exercise state power in Britain, it is not hard to imagine it regulating the Internet in as ham-fisted fashion as the Chinese government.
I don’t know what Lenin would make of this kind of resistance to the Internet and the oppressive “verticalism” of the SWP but I have a feeling that he would not only be on Facebook but raising hell, just like the youth in the Arab Spring or the hactivist group Anonymous. When Lenin launched Iskra, it was not to define a “party line” but to allow socialists living across the vast expanse of Czarist Russia to exchange ideas and to debate. This is exactly how the left uses the Internet today even if the SWP implicitly regards it as a threat to its existence.
Today’s Iskra is not a single newspaper but a constellation of blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and—most especially—publications like Counterpunch that allow the left to express itself without having some preordained priesthood decide what conforms to the “party line” or not. As the left develops ties internationally in a period of deepening crisis, electronic communications will be as essential to our struggle as the Gutenberg press was to the earliest rebels against feudal despotism. Not only will we build solidarity out of mutual respect for our political differences, but figure out ways to strike together against injustice as the need arises whatever our differences. There will be genuine democracy as we debate out our ideas and there will be centralized action when a strike or demonstration has been scheduled. That is the reality of 21st century socialism.