Like an old celebrity charged with sexual abuse, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) keeps repeating that it wants to draw a line under the past and move on, and now we are in 2015 the party hopes we will forget what happened and we will now all be friends. But even though many have left in disgust at the events, the SWP is picking up new members who have no idea what they are walking into, and so now there is a danger that the new recruits will loyally defend their party against what their leaders say is a witch-hunt. What happened over the past two years will not go away, as the attempts to ban them from some university campuses have shown, and we need to patiently repeat the facts and be clear about what we are and what we are not prepared to do with the SWP now.
In January 2013 the SWP conference heard a report from its ‘Disputes Committee’ which had been told to investigate a charge of rape by a young woman comrade against a leading member of the Central Committee referred to as ‘Comrade Delta’ (and very shortly afterwards revealed to have been the National Secretary). The rationale for the internal investigation was that the ‘bourgeois justice system’ should not be allowed to interfere in the workings of the party and that there would be a witch-hunt if the events became public. Predictably, this attempt to cover things up led to an even bigger scandal when the transcript of the conference was quickly leaked onto the internet. At that conference session the Disputes Committee said that the charge of rape was ‘not proven’, a decision which was followed by shouting, crying, accusations, counter-accusations, and pleas to speak to the woman who was apparently just outside the conference hall. Over the next year a series of expulsions took place, and people leaving in their hundreds, some of them forming new organisations, but an opposition group stayed inside the SWP and forced a recall conference, by which time the leadership had refined its line that rumours on the internet were to blame for the disputes. A sizeable enough opposition of respected members of the editorial board of the SWP journal spoke out (and eventually decided they had to get out). The recall conference ratified the decision of the Disputes Committee, ‘Comrade Delta’ left the party as part of a damage limitation strategy in which there was no apology for what had happened, but then it turned out that the links between the party and their old comrade carry on.
Two linked problems lie at the heart of the events; power and sex. In this case the problems took, first, the form of bureaucratic and secretive power in which the male leadership of a small group protects its own, demonising those who try to speak for the powerless, and, second, contempt for sexual politics and feminism so that a woman who takes out a complaint of rape by a leader is subjected to further ordeals and judged to be lying. Those two linked problems are why some of those who left the SWP in several waves to form new organisations (or, sadly, to leave politics altogether demoralised) signed their resignation letters ‘creeping feminist’ to throw back the charge by the party leadership that ‘creeping feminism’ was part of the witch-hunt, and why new organisations set up by ex-SWP activists now take feminist politics seriously. These events are all the more tragic in an organisation that did have a higher proportion of young women than most other far left groups in the UK – the ‘gender’ of an organisation can be stereotypically male even when it permits women to play a role in the structures – and all the more serious because of the level of active discussion so that the participants were not dupes (or in some cases were witting dupes). There is a process of taking stock of what happened which is happening in the new organisations and even still also inside the SWP where their remains a secret opposition that is having to tread carefully, biding its time (though many wonder why they think it is really worth staying in for more of the same). Those events have consequences not only for links between socialism and feminism but for every left organisation and feminist activist. This means four things:
- Those on the right will use this as an opportunity to attack every far left group, and we need to be clear that the lessons will only be learnt if there is active support for every opening of discussion about the connection between socialist and feminist politics. Any kind of ‘no platform’ policy directed against the left, including members of the SWP speaking in a personal capacity or as members of other organisations, is misplaced and will be counterproductive.
- To the SWP ordinary members it should be spelt out that their participation is only tolerated because it is well-known to the rest of the left that there are still opposition forces inside their party, these forces need to be supported, and it is the responsibility of each new member to ask questions about the events and be prepared to support those who are still trying to bring the leadership to account.
- The SWP as an organisation should not be humoured, even when their remaining members go on a charm offensive and pretend that nothing has happened. Other left organisations should not include them when named as speaking for the SWP, and they should be challenged about where they stand on the events, on power and sexual abuse. It is understandable that some organisations will refuse to host their meetings, and those decisions should be treated as a legitimate response.
- There should be clarity about participation in electoral alliances that include the SWP as a named organisation, with discussion with other groups about what statement they make about these issues and on what basis they will work with particular members of the party who, perhaps, have a reputation of support for socialist and feminist politics. The opportunity for sectarianism here needs to be countered while making clear abhorrence at what took place.
This is the recent history of the left that needs to be addressed, and action taken now to build the possibility of alliances aiming for a world without exploitation and oppression. No bans on the left, and no compromise on the question of sexual violence. These measures are at the one moment exceptional and at the same time voicing principles that apply to every group were anything similar to occur. We are determined to move beyond those events, but something has to change for that to be possible, and the left has got to be an active part of that process of change in the way its organisations work.