Apologies to all those readers who are by now thoroughly bored with the long-running car-crash/soap opera that is the disintegration of the SWP. This will probably be the last post here on the subject for some time; but Dave Renton’s account of his SWP membership and his decison to resign, is exceptionally insightful and at times shocking and moving: well worth a read:
On Sunday evening, after conference had ended, I resigned from the SWP. I will explain why I have left, but before I do that, I first want to explain why for so many years I stayed with the party even while I often criticised it.
I first joined the SWP in 1991; at a meeting in the Sol’s Arms pub near Warren Street. A couple of days before, I had been stopped in the street by a man selling Socialist Worker. After I had bought a paper, the seller, John Walker, invited me to a meeting. “I’m not interested in buying one”, I told him, “I am much more left-wing than you are.” It was not a wise thing to have said. John had come into the SWP after years in the libertarian Marxist group Solidarity and knew his left history far better than I did. After half an hour of standing on the street losing an argument, I agreed to go to the meeting where I eventually filled in a membership form. It was assumed that I would pay by cash and there was a grid on the back of my membership card which could be used to check that I was paying my each month’s subs.
The SWP was the third left-wing party whose meetings I had attended in less than a year. After a few months in Slough Constituency Labour Party, I had resigned in disappointment at Labour’s timid response to the then Iraq War. Before then, I had spent a couple of unhappy months on the edges of the Revolutionary Communist Party (Living Marxism), from whom I had learned habits of ultra-leftism and contrarianism, a combination expressed in my premature, fighting words to John. If it had not been the SWP in 1991 it might have been any one of the left-wing parties.
It was easy to join the SWP, since I already considered myself a socialist, and in fact had done so for more than five years. The real bravery had come much earlier, even before I reached my teens, when I had first begun to identify with the left, a decision which had set me off into a perpetual civil war with my family, my teachers, and almost every one of my contemporaries at my school. My reasons for sticking with the SWP were more significant.
In my first few months, I considered leaving at several stages. I did not have a worked out criticism of the SWP and some of my complaints seem daft to me in retrospect. The group seemed impossibly old to me, with an average age of approximately 27 or 28 (I was just 18). Soon enough, I was selling the paper, but I was genuinely perplexed by the way in my fellow sellers would shout what sounded to me like reformist slogans “stop the war”, “beat the Tories”. Weren’t we supposed to be revolutionaries? I found the meetings dull and the contributions defensive. I tired of the way in which after the speaker had finished, there would be a long pause, and then whoever filled the silence would face 40 minutes of speaker after the speaker from the floor correcting them for some imagined deviation from the party “line”.
Yet one of the things I liked about the SWP was that, despite the branch culture which I have just described, there were also comrades who were self-effacing, articulate and principled. I think of well-known figures such as Duncan Hallas and Paul Foot, but the real strength of the SWP was far below, in the branches, almost every one of which had an autodidact Marxist, a worker who had never gone to university, a person who would quote obscure ideas of Marx or Lenin and use them to relate events happening in the world outside and to the tradition of the workers’ movement.
Over the past 20 years the self-taught workers have almost all left, while the party-liners have multiplied.
I might not have stayed in the group but for a series of events which happened in the course of my third year in the party. I was a student, in a tiny group of just 2-3 people. Through the unusual tactic of going out of our way to book the SWP speakers who would be most likely to interest a wider audience, and booking most of our meetings as debates or in combination with other groups, we were able to pull off weekly meetings of 100+ people. Locally and nationally (this was the time when the SWP was claiming 10,000 members) it seemed possible to envisage a genuinely mass party, something which would be on a scale the British left had not seen in decades.
Our MP John Patten was also the minister responsible for education, and was piloting through Parliament the rapid reduction of the student grant and its replacement with student loans, and had voted against the equalisation of the age of consent. We called demonstrations two or three times a week and found an audience for them. In no time at all the size of our group (its subs-paying membership) increased to 8 and then 25 people. We had an audience large enough so that we could legitimately stand people for office in the University and in the National Union of Students. Then, to coincide with my 21st birthday, the woman who I loved also joined our party. She and I were Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Trotsky and Sedova. Communism was our love story.
That spring there was a racist murder, and our local anti-fascist group met the family, supported them, and organised a demonstration in their support, while others on the left stayed aloof. I would not have had the confidence to support them had it not been for the training I had received in the SWP.
Over the next 20 years there were many other good moments of which I am also proud: the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1994, editing a workplace bulletin with factory workers in Sheffield, organising a student occupation (of sorts) in Oxford in 1997, supporting refugees through hunger strikes in Liverpool in 2000-1, dispersing an emergent anti-immigrant campaign in Brent a year later.
In the most recent years, the best campaigns I have been involved in were ones which the leadership tolerated but did not seek to be part of: a London counterpart to the TUC’s Tolpuddle festival, then last year’s Counter Olympics Network.
I only learned the main details of the party crisis as recently as Christmas 2012. Long-standing comrades who I had known for years and trusted sought to set up a “third” faction, which would campaign within the SWP for the reform of our disputes procedures. I joined them. The leadership banned the faction, refused to publicise our documents or to allow us to speak at conference in January. My initial response to the January conference was to assume that the leadership would be chastened and that would be the end of the matter and spoke optimistically at meetings. But at our North London report back I heard Weyman Bennett promise, in his concluding remarks, “Never again will the SWP allow our student office to take a line independent from the leadership”.
I have been around long enough to have grasped immediately what he meant – that the CC were prepared to restructure the office and tear up the student perspective unanimously agreed at conference just days earlier, and were prepared to sacrifice our students to do so.
In February 2013, outside a meeting of the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, I met the second complainant, the woman who we were being told did not exist (“there is only one complaint”, as Judith Orr had told the Birmingham aggregate). I gathered from the woman that she wished to proceed with her complaint, and I decided to spend some time helping her, in practice by listening to her as we drafted together her statement about what had happened.
My days are given to listening to people in court, asking them questions and listening to their answers, and listening to the questions which other people ask them. I do not believe that someone is telling the truth merely because I want them to succeed at a hearing, or because I am their representative. If I get the opportunity to meet them before a case, I will grill them as intensely as I can. I will look for any flaw in their evidence, test any contradiction no matter how slight. And if they want to run a case which I do not believe, I will tell them my doubts and invite them to reconsider it.
I spent more than 20 hours in the company of the second complainant, read her documents, listened to her intensely. And at the end of our meetings, I was absolutely convinced that in every single thing she said she was telling the truth.
Once it became clear that she was telling the truth, then for me there was no longer any basis on which to doubt the evidence of the first complainant, who the second woman was only corroborating. Both women were describing a similar pattern of repeated unwanted advances by the same man.
I will not go through the details of what happened next; the shoddy attempts of the Disputes Committee (the same committee which of course had already heard the first case) to decline to hear the second complainant, and to put off her case until after January 2014 in the hope that she would leave the party. What I do want to explain is what happened at SWP conference last weekend.
There were approximately 540 delegates at conference; fewer than one in 7 were aged under 40. Of the young people in the room , a large majority were in the faction. The mood was serious, even grim. The conference was conducted throughout with the same degree of procedural propriety as you would expect of the conference of a trade union of about 30-40,000 people. Motions were taken; votes were even on occasion counted. “Delegates” were reminded of the importance of reporting back conference decisions, presumably to the 10 SWP members for whom each delegate is supposed to stand. But here were 500 people, elected from 40 aggregates in many of which there were had been fewer people in the room voting for candidates than there had been places to fill.
A number of the delegates would happily admit to never attending SWP meetings and never selling the paper; they were there solely because they had been asked to stand in order to prevent oppositional members attending. How many members does the SWP really have beyond those who were in the room? If your definition extends to a requirement that a person attend their branch meeting at least once a year, perhaps, at the very most, a further 4-500 people nationally. This is not a mass party; you cannot sustain anything healthy on the basis of the levels of fantasy that could be seen in the room.
On Saturday morning, Alex Callinicos made a supposed “apology”. The statement he read out was based on a CC motion which had been circulated in advance, and offered no specific regret for any specific action by any named individual but blamed merely “structural flaws in our disputes procedures”. Structures of course have to be carried out by people but there was no acknowledgement that any individual had done anything wrong. The motion, for which the CC apology stood as an abbreviation, blamed the faction for politicising the dispute, when it was Callinicos himself whose article in January’s Socialist Review had begun that process by mixing together the defence of the leadership’s handling of the dispute and the defence of “Leninism”. The motion explained the women’s distress in terms of the publicising of their case on the internet. It spoke for women who the CC does not know, has not asked, and about whom some CC members have been lying for a year.
A leadership supporter R- inadvertently captured the half-hearted nature of the CC’s manoeuvre when she explained to delegates in a later session; “I am prepared to say sorry. I am not going to apologise.”
Many important things were said during the course of conference. Two women who used to be on the SWP Disputes Committee explained how the majority of that committee had tried to prevent the second complaint from ever being heard, and the battle they had had to fight to have it heard, resulting eventually in the appointment of a new panel. The room quietened when they spoke; but afterwards, no-one voted differently.
The panel which heard the second complaint explained why they had found that there was a case to answer, and spelled out that they had heard from her and read her evidence, and spent 2 full days considering her case, as well as a further period debating their reasons. Any fair listener would have grasped that the panellists believed that Smith probably had harassed the second complainant. The comrades listened, and some were troubled. But they continued to vote for the leadership.
A member of the same panel explained that the second complainant also made a complaint that her email had been hacked. It was quite possibly hacked, the panel had accepted, by a member of the SWP. But if so, and this was the sole matter that interested them, the hacker had not been instructed beforehand by the Central Committee to hack her email account, and that meant there was nothing for them to investigate.
In this last episode, you can find expressed the degeneration of an entire party. What we were being told was that the DC accepted that a member of the SWP may well have chosen to hack the email account of a woman who had made a serious, sexual complaint against a leading member of the SWP. In fact while the hacker was there, as a comrade from Manchester had explained, he had not just forwarded emails belonging to the complainant, he had also deleted what he presumably thought were the only copies of emails passing between Smith and the complainant, and which subsequently helped to prove her complaint before the second disputes committee. He was doing what now passes for loyalty in the SWP – behaving in secret, destroying potential evidence, doing everything in his power to protect a man accused of rape.
If the individual who did this was not acting on orders, he was nevertheless doing something which he thought the leadership, or at least a section of it, would welcome. And there is no suggestion that he has ever been sanctioned for what he did. This mindset, of trying to think into the mind of a leadership, and of doing more and more grotesque things in the hope of winning their patronage, is associated with dark moments in history. Yet neither the disputes panel, nor it seems conference, found anything remarkable in it.
There were other bad times at conference; as when M- the outgoing chair of the Disputes Committee – sought to smear the second complainant by insinuating that she had spoken to the Daily Mail and encouraged them to doorstep Smith.
R-, who was of course a member of the SWP Disputes Committee which heard the first case, called the second complainant “obscene” for having supported a faction which had named Smith as being accused of “sexual predation” and insinuated that the second complaint had been made only for factional purposes. It was as if she could blank out of her mind the evidence of her comrades on the second panel who had accepted that Smith probably had sexually harassed a woman. She ended her speech with the words, “Honour and Respect democratic centralism! Honour and Respect confidentiality!”
I will never again use the word “socialist” to describe the middle aged trade unionist from my former branch who went round the edges of conference, confronting the youngest delegate at conference, a woman in her gap year before university who had never met him before, with the hostile greeting, “Martin is innocent”.
Conference voted by a majority of 8 to 1 in favour of a CC slate containing Callinicos and Kimber, with only 69 delegates voting for an alternative leadership (11 others abstained). I vainly shouted “count” when the vote on the apology was taken, not because it was close, but because I thought it the numbers should be a matter of record. The chair moved on, having declared the motion heavily defeated.
I believe that about 15 or so more comrades voted for it than for the alternative CC slate; or to put it another way, only 1 in 30 of the non-faction comrades broke from the leadership, even on the most significant – and straightforward – question of whether there should be a genuine apology.
Against the many shameful things I saw, I must also insist that there were many people at conference sitting there with their heads in their hands, some in tears. You could see this most clearly among a section of the middle ground, who seemed visibly in pain at what they were watching.
As well as them, there were people who spoke out against the party’s degeneration. I think of the longstanding member who spoke twice in the debate about the Central Committee, and stated in the most direct of terms that a Central Committee which is united only to cover up a crime of this sort has no legitimacy, and that a leadership which has driven hundreds of socialists out no longer deserves to lead. It is a difficult and lonely thing to tell hundreds of people that they are wrong. You need to be brave to stand up before a room of several hundred people who are hostile to you, knowing that they will be given many more opportunities to attack you than you will be allowed friends to speak in your defence. I am proud to call that man a comrade.
Why did we lose? I looked at conference and I saw a group of ageing and tired people, who have watched their party at war with itself over the past year. Among the SWP majority, a belief is prevalent that nobody can ever really “know” what happens in the privacy of a relationship between a man and a woman. It follows that in the context of multiple allegations of sexual abuse, the party is the only thing that counts. The working class, which is under attack in an epoch of austerity, is best protected by a revolutionary party which is as strong as possible. The party is everything. Without the party, we as individuals, and the working class, are alike nothing. The protection of the party is based on a committed denial of the reality of what happened, and the self-deception that this small party whose active members count only in the hundreds, is in fact many times larger than we know it to be, and represents the whole of the class, the entirety of the movement. To keep the party you have to protect the leadership; no matter how many mistakes they have made. These members of the SWP made it a point of pride that they hadn’t read unwelcome articles in the Internal Bulletins, had not gone online or spoken to people who might disagree with them, had not tried to think for themselves about what had happened or who they believed. The leadership had spoken and that was enough for them.
Such an argument may satisfy my former comrades. But, unlike them, I have heard one of the complainants directly. Indeed, I have listened to her with more care, and over a longer period of time that anyone in the SWP ever will. And she is telling the truth.
The history of socialism is the story of a shifting border between principle and expediency. Edward Bernstein sought to put the former on a coherent basis when he argued that for him the socialist movement (i.e. the SPD, the party) was everything. To which Rosa Luxemburg famously responded that to her the movement was not everything, only the goal, the liberation of all humanity, counted for everything. Too many of my former comrades repeat Bernstein’s error in convincing themselves that the party of their (and my) youth still exists, or that they make themselves “revolutionaries” by giving cover to a leadership which has disgraced the left.
That in short is why I left, because I am a Marxist and revolutionary, because I believe in women’s liberation and will not cover up sexual abuse, and – above all – because I am loyal to the socialists of my youth and the principles they taught me. The decision, in the end, has not anguished me, and I am not in need of anyone’s sympathy. I do convey my best wishes on leaving, my love and my solidarity greetings, to the principled few who remain.
All of my adult life has been spent either as a member of or a close supporter of the SWP. Few of my closest friends are people who I met anywhere but in the SWP. I am not sad though to leave, if anything I am relieved, and the prospect of being part of a new left inspires me.