The Socialist Workers Party is the largest far-left group in Britain and the parent of various left wing groups around the world including the International Socialists in Canada. Over the past few days a major crisis has emerged in the SWP due to the coverup of rape by the party's former leader.
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."
The Socialist Workers Party is in deep crisis - as it has been for several months now. The reason is simple: an allegation of rape against Martin Smith, the then central committee member now referred to on some parts of the internet as comrade Delta, and the way it was handled by the party.
This case, as several speakers at conference noted, was in reality the sole reason for the four expulsions in the run-up to conference, the sole reason for the formation of two factions, and the sole reason for the split in the CC which resulted in an alternative slate being put to the conference, removing two CC members who had attempted to challenge the way the case was handled.
After much reflection, I have decided the immediate aftermath also means that I have no option other than to resign not just from the paper, but from the party, and encourage others to do likewise.
It may shed some light to learn that ‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters. This seems to be a legacy of a sharp political argument conducted decades ago against radical feminism and its separatist methods of organisation, but unfortunately it is being used today against young, militant anti-sexists coming into the party. In fact it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender. A group of women comrades who raised questions over whether the SWP has a sexism problem last year were quietly condemned by the leadership as “feminists”, and the CC has devoted much energy since to fighting this perceived scourge.
Marxist and feminist theory would surely agree, however, that in a sexist society, sexism is a constant danger in any organisation, no matter what its politics. The only way to deal with this is to not only fight hard against sexism at all times, but to accept that if any woman or group of women are not happy with their treatment, then the organisation has a problem, needs to look hard at it (and that is not “navel-gazing”) and needs to change, not claim that the issue does not exist or that the complainants are motivated by political differences.
This leads to an additional issue, which is that the issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked - the lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does. That is surely why people like Paris Thompson, a campaigner for more democracy in the SWP who had just published his own critique in the internal bulletin, were at the forefront of the fight against an attempted cover-up of the case.
Delegates to conference were handed a partial transcript of the Facebook conversation used as evidence to expel Paris and the other three comrades. The CC says it shows evidence of cross-branch coordination and is therefore “secret faction” activity. Yet what the document shows is not at all a group organising in pursuit of political differences - Paris explicitly says he is fighting over those separately - but people trying to make sure that the way the rape case was handled would be discussed properly at conference, not swept under the carpet.
From coordinating motions to party aggregates about the case, to making sure they were elected as delegates, what the four did was not in pursuit of their own agenda, but the agenda of ensuring these serious concerns were heard. Their reward for this, barring a Damascene conversion on appeal by that same disputes committee, is that they have been cast out of the SWP for life.