Details of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a leading member of the SWP (Martin Smith, aka ‘Comrade Delta’, until recently the National Secretary of the SWP – basically, in day-to-day charge of the apparatus), and the controversy over the handling of the home-brewed investigation into those allegations by the SWP Disputes Committee (DC) have already been widely documented and discussed.1
This blog was the first to publish news of the emerging controversy, in our post about the SWP Pre-Conference Discussion at the beginning of December. At least we were the first to indicate the scale of the looming crisis. At that point it was becoming clear that the SWP leadership wouldn’t be able to contain the dissent brewing among its rank and file, yet the argument had still to break out in public. Still, from the scale of the opposition that was building – but even more judging by the extent of the anger of those involved in the opposition – it was clear then that something quite unprecedented was stirring in the SWP.
The handling of the complaint by the CC caused fury in the ranks of the SWP and beyond, but also raised the question of party democracy in a way that will not allow it to be put off any longer. The SWP rank and file – if they are to be able to work alongside the rest of the left in future, in order to to ensure justice is done for the women involved, and to undo the otherwise fatal damage that has been inflicted on the SWP’s credibility as ‘tribunes of the oppressed’ – will have to reject the entire process by which these allegations were handled. But in attempting to do that they run straight into the party’s structures, which have evolved over the years to guarantee the unqualified control of the CC.
The handling of the issue by the CC from the very beginning has consisted of nothing but the usual crock of intimidation, misdirection, evasion and lies. To undo the damage means undoing the mechanisms that allow the leadership to get away with inflicting it to start with. Without addressing the lack of accountability that allowed the CC to do this, nothing will have changed, and the party would remain open to the same abuses in future.
The handling of the dispute by the CC has been woeful even from their own point of view, culminating in their current position – a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ stance, in which they provide no leadership at all to those members who are expected to face down the crisis, but throw their energies instead into planning how to undo the opposition . They have resolved, if necessary, to lose a generation of students and a wider layer of the party itself, all in the defense of a single CC member’s position.
To overcome all this will require restoring democracy to the SWP. This cannot be achieved by patiently working through whatever provisions exist in the party constitution, hoping the CC don’t suddenly just expel everyone whose face no longer fits, but only by open revolt. There is a chance that the CC can be brought to heel, and the party reformed, but that chance exists only because of the revolt by members that took off after conference failed to resolve the issue. The CC and their supporters do not have tanks, they have no physical resources that could prevent the membership from seizing control of their own party. The only thing that keeps everything in its place now is decades of routine in which the members have simply become used to bending the knee as required. If the membership throw off all that old muck, they can win.
For party loyalists the fact that the opposition are fighting to overturn the decisions made at conference means that the opposition reject democratic centralism. In reality, it is the opposition who are defending democratic centralism against the abuses of it that produced the fixed conference results. But anyway, the loyalist argument misses the point of democratic centralism. As Richard Seymour has argued against those who say the issue has already been decided, and that there is no going back on it:
I think this sort of response indicates a problem with how people understand democratic centralism. It is not a recipe for deference, or the ruthless crushing of minority opinion. That is not what it is for. The point is that perspectives are voted on, and tested in the real world. This perspective was voted on, narrowly passed without the support of the majority of delegates, on the basis of a seriously gerrymandered conference and a suppressed preconference debate. It has been tested. It has led to catastrophe. It has led to the party being denounced as the Sexist Workers Party and worse. It has led to attacks in the press with bizarre Islamophobic undertones. It has led to activists being furious with us. It has led to members being ready to walk out. Some already have. So, the perspective has failed, very badly, and it has to be revisited. This is what a recall conference is for.
It seems to me that this gets to the heart of what the current dispute is about. On the one hand are those who interpret Leninism, democratic centralism, and the like merely in terms of what serves their organisational or personal advantage. On the other side are those who want to interpret this heritage of socialist theory and practice in order to create a larger and more effective socialist organisation.
Supporters of the AMM were writing about the SWP’s democratic deficit almost twenty years ago, when some of us were part of the IS Group2 (in these documents by Andy Wilson and Ian Land, for example), so it should come as no surprise to anyone that we fully supported the Democratic Opposition in the run-up to conference, and that we support the united opposition that is emerging in the SWP in the wake of conference. The precise platform of this opposition grouping remains to be seen, but at a minimum it will be calling for a recall SWP conference to be held to reject the DC report and review the treatment of the allegations against Smith. Beyond that it will doubtless call for the disciplining and/or removal of some or all of the CC that have led them to into this mess. The AMM supports the following demands;
- immediately remove Martin Smith from all positions of responsibility until further notice
- overturn the DC report and instigate a full inquiry into the handling of the previous investigation
- restructure the DC and processes associated with it to reflect best practice in the labour movement
- censure the entire Central Committee and move to replace them all
- reinstate those members expelled for opposing the DC report(the ‘Facebook Four’)
- abolish the slate system for electing the CC
- institute the elective principle throughout the entire party – all full-timers to be recallable and fully accountable
- full rights to factions, including the right to publish and to organise
- full rights for members to communicate directly with one another
1) The main documents can be found here:
- SWP Conference Transcript: Disputes Committee Report, Socialist Unity, 7 Jan
- Why I am Resigning, statement by SW journalist Tom Walker, Weekly Worker, 10 Jan
- SWP in Crisis: What Do Socialists Say?, by Keith Watermelon, 16 Jan
- Letter to the Central Committee, by Richard Seymour, Lenin’s Tomb, 17 Jan
- Letter to the Central Committee, by Linda Rogers, Lenin’s Tomb, 17 Jan
- The Stakes, statement by China Mieville, Lenin’s Tomb, 17 Jan
- Sussex SWSS open letter to the Central Committee, Lenin’s Tomb, 19 Jan
- Sexism and Bureaucratic Centralism on the Left, Daphne Lawless, Workers Party, 21 Jan
2) That is, the group formed when Andy Wilson was expelled from the SWP, and certainly not that launched more recently by Chris Bambery.