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Socialist Workers Party: Rape and Democracy Crisis: What now?

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The Socialist Workers Party, the largest revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain, and one of the largest in the world, is presently convulsed by the most serious crisis in its history. This crisis is entirely the result of the scandalously disloyal actions of its own leadership, the 12-person Central Committee, before, during and after the annual conference held on January 5th and 6th.

The immediate issue at the heart of the crisis is an accusation of rape against the former CC member and national secretary and present full timer, Martin Smith, brought by a woman comrade several months ago. Conference received a report from the Disputes Committee, appointed by the CC to look into the allegation, which concluded that the charge was “not proven”. This report was only narrowly approved by conference.

Since a conference participant recorded the entire debate on the issue and transcribed it for the Socialist Unity blog - - it has become public knowledge and indeed a matter of national and international debate.

Any leadership – which had not completely lost its head – should have realised that it would prove impossible to close down debate on these issues by threats of further expulsions. However, the CC and its full-time bureaucracy, having gone so far, obviously felt they had to go the whole hog and crush all dissent. After the conference, it instructed the membership to cease all discussion of the issue and threatened any comrade who ignored this instruction with disciplinary measures.

This immediately led to an enormous explosion of anger and disagreement and left members with no alternative but to take up the issues outside the party. Highly respected members publicly called on the membership to overturn the decisions of the CC, the Disputes Committee and the conference, which, it seems, was grossly misled. These included Richard Seymour (of the Lenin's Tomb blog) Tom Walker, a prominent journalist on Socialist Worker, and the novelist and legal theorist China Miéville, who have all condemned the CC in the most devastating fashion.

During the pre-conference period, a number of SWP members discussed the possibility of forming a faction to take up the issue of the CC’s handling of the case against Martin Smith, relating it to the wider issues of party democracy or, rather, the lack of it, that were highlighted by this affair. In early December, although no faction had in fact been formed, four of the initiators of the discussion were summarily expelled by the Central Committee, without a hearing, on the ridiculous charge of “secret or permanent factionalism”. Far from being given any chance to defend themselves against the charge, the first they heard of it was the email expelling them.

There is only a limited right to form factions within the SWP. It is generally accepted that they are allowed in the three-month pre-conference discussion period but are required to dissolve immediately after conference. The discussions referred to took place well within the allotted time. As news of the expulsions spread, those who had initially rejected forming a faction decided that now they had to and they were joined by many more to form the “Democratic Opposition” whose principal purpose was to overturn the expulsions. The four members were denied the right to appeal in person to conference. The DO motion rejecting the CC's actions and re-instating the four was defeated but over 100 delegates voted for it and a significant number abstained.

Once the membership as a whole, not to mention the wider public now, knew about the leadership's actions in dealing with the disputed issues, silence did indeed become impossible. On the streets and in their workplaces, SWP comrades are being asked by non-party members what all this means; especially because it comes at a time when the issue of rape and the oppression of women is being discussed worldwide.

From the conference transcript, a number of shocking facts emerge. Although a member of the CC was accused of rape, the “trial” of the issue was left to a committee dominated by close comrades of the accused, indeed with two current, and three former, members of the CC on it. Only one person appears to have recognised the need for impartiality and that was someone who stood down because they knew the complainant.

The accused was given two weeks to prepare his case whereas the woman member who complained was given no notice of his claims in his own defence. Worse, she was asked precisely the highly sexist questions, such as about her previous sexual activity, for which rape campaigners have rightly condemned the police and the courts.

When the committee found the case “not proven”, the woman was not allowed to appeal to conference, despite requesting to do so. Indeed, the conference was only allowed to hear a motion to reject the committee report on grounds of its procedure not to address the substantive issue. The leadership insisted that another complaint of gross sexist behaviour, also against Martin Smith, be postponed till after conference.

No organisation is entirely immune from the reactionary ideas and forms of behaviour in society as a whole. What a revolutionary organisation, committed to overcoming those social norms, can do is establish its own codes of conduct and procedures by which to deal with unacceptable behaviour in any form. Such methods include the right to form factions and tendencies, open and democratic procedures for electing leaderships, the right of socially oppressed groups to caucus and a system to ensure the circulation of internal discussion.

Without such measures, the leadership is not accountable to the members and this can allow the development of a culture of leadership impunity. Outside periods of severe repression, there are no good reasons for limiting these safeguards. Certainly, the reported opposition to women's caucuses on the grounds that they are a concession to feminism has to be rejected. On the contrary, the right to caucus is a recognition of the pervasiveness of sexist culture and that male revolutionaries are by no means automatically immune from it. The present case appears to confirm that all too clearly, despite the undoubted fact that most SWP members are principled fighters against sexism and for women’s liberation. It is these members, too, who have been abused by the CC’s behaviour and find their own reputations put in question amongst fellow workers and even the general public.

Some on the Left have argued that a political organisation has neither the right nor the capacity to investigate or punish its members for sexist behaviour that clearly involves serious breaches of the law including assault, domestic violence, mental and physical cruelty etc. Instead, they argue that, in this case, the woman comrade involved should have gone straight to the police or should now do so.

Certainly, any victim of crime has the right to go to the police but that does not mean that on all occasions that right has to be acted upon. In this case, the woman c'de preferred to raise the issue within her party, no doubt aware of the implications of inviting the state to investigate an organisation committed to its overthrow. Providing this was the case and she was not under pressure, we believe she was right, indeed we applaud her decision. She had every right to expect her own comrades to take the matter seriously and to investigate it thoroughly and sympathetically. All the more must we condemn what actually took place. She herself has been terribly let down, betrayed is not too strong a word, by those she should have been able to trust. Given the importance of the SWP, the whole of the Left can expect to be damaged by its leadership's disgraceful hypocrisy – already the racist press is referring to “Sharia courts”.

Even if the c'de had decided to call in the police, as she was, and is, entitled to, her party would still have a duty to investigate and, if it concluded that wrong had been done, to punish those responsible with the only real sanctions available to it, suspension or expulsion. To suggest that a party cannot, or should not, investigate and judge the case itself, because it does not have the resources available to the police, ignores the fact that a political organisation works with different criteria. These should be more strict with regard to the alleged offender and more sympathetic and understanding to the complainant than the police, the crown prosecution service and the courts, can be expected to be. Given the mass of evidence as to how badly women always have been treated by these institutions and (despite reforms) still are, and given, too, the prejudice to be expected from them against members of a revolutionary organisation, such expressions of confidence are misplaced, to put it mildly.

The party should indeed have created an investigating body but one that could be seen to be as impartial and independent as possible. It should not have contained any friends of the accused, any members of the CC, or any full timers, and it should have had a majority of women on it. Nor should there have been any suggestion that the party investigation and disciplinary action precluded the woman comrade’s right to take the case to the police. That way the party and its members could not have been accused of violating the rights of the alleged victim, if she wished to exercise them.

By failing to act in this way, the CC has opened up the organisation and its membership to a flood of hostile attacks on it by the bourgeois media and potentially by the police, too. It is necessary for all socialists to defend its members against any media-state witch-hunt but the best way for SWP members themselves to do this is to speak out against the CC’s undemocratic and sexist misconduct and set about putting it right. This means fighting for an emergency conference to restore the basic norms of democratic centralism in their party.

These include, most urgently, putting right its woefully inadequate system for dealing with such cases, including creating the right for women, and other socially oppressed groups, to caucus, and investigating all outstanding accusations of harassment or abuse. On a broader level, the whole issue has underlined the need to make major changes in the constitution, particularly restoring the rights of factions without any time limit. Inevitably, any recalled conference would also have to reconsider the composition of the existing leadership that was elected by such a flawed set of procedures.

Finally, as Marxists, all the many SWP members who have been appalled at their leaders' conduct will need to consider how that conduct and the lack of internal democracy that has been revealed are related to the politics of their organisation. In the end, a democratic internal regime can only be based on correct political foundations and the members have to know what they are. The organisation's analysis of the class struggle, its strategy, tactics and priorities, in a word, its programme, have to be clearly defined and adjusted year by year. Without that, the leadership is unaccountable, it can chop and change the organisation's line and tactics, enforcing its latest innovation bureaucratically rather than through a democratic internal discussion.

We believe that this is what lies behind the SWP's current crisis, which has been developing for several years. But crises can be opportunities. Against the background of the deepest capitalist crisis in generations, the abject failure of the established organisations and leaders of the working class movement to lead any effective defence of the class, the self-imposed crisis of the SWP could yet have a positive outcome - if its members use it to re-orient their organisation and engage with other revolutionaries to build a party worthy of the name. We do, sincerely, hope that they can – for the sake of the entire Left, in Britain and internationally.