Can we move forward? a reply to Wolfreys and others

Issue: 140

Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos

This journal is committed to acting as a forum for the debates that have developed within the Socialist Workers Party over the past year. The reply that Jim Wolfreys and other members of the International Socialism editorial board have written to our article on the politics of this crisis is a contribution to that debate. These comrades are all members of the faction that has existed-in defiance of the constitution and traditions of the SWP-since February this year. They are motivated by extreme hostility to the SWP leadership, which they seek to justify by an interpretation of the charges of serious sexual misconduct laid against a leading party member (who resigned from the SWP in July).

This comrade, then on the Central Committee (the party’s leading body), was accused of rape by a woman comrade, W, in September 2012. We italicise the date, because contrary to some of the falsehoods currently circulating, this was the first time that rape had been alleged against this comrade. The Disputes Committee, which was charged with investigating the case, eventually concluded that he had not committed rape (something the comrades glide over) and that sexual harassment was not proven.

But there was a prehistory to the accusation, as a result of which conflicts developed from the start. This prehistory involved comrades now on both sides of the factional divide trying to mediate the conflict between W and the comrade she later accused of rape. These efforts were made in good faith, but they took place outside the party’s formal structures. This was a recipe for distrust and misunderstanding, and helped to ensure that sides were rapidly taken over the September 2012 complaint.

The comrades accuse us of being “selective” in our account of the conflict over the DC case itself. They themselves focus on the questions supposedly asked of W and a witness at the hearings of the case and on remarks allegedly made by some SWP members about these two women.

The allegations made about the questions asked by the DC are strongly disputed; the comrades also ignore some of the other things that happened: in particular, details of the case had reached figures outside of and hostile to the SWP before the DC had finished its hearings; and a concerted internet campaign against the party was conducted after the January 2013 conference by some SWP members, working with elements in the mainstream media and with other far left tendencies hoping to profit from our demise.

In truth, all these things deserve condemnation. It is essential that women complaining of sexual misconduct should receive proper support, and if some comrades failed to respect this when discussing the DC cases they behaved wrongly. This is a lesson we need to learn for the future. But anyone familiar with how such complaints are handled in workplaces, trade unions, and the like will know that respecting the confidentiality of the parties is also an essential prerequisite.

Equally, one reason why the atmosphere within the party was so bitter and polarised in the lead up to the special conference in March 2013 was the anger that attacks on the party caused among the majority of members. SWP members were indignant at this attempt to nullify decisions democratically taken at the January conference. But of course the comrades can’t acknowledge this because the faction at the time embraced the worst of the internet campaigners. Indeed, despite the subsequent departure of most of the latter to form the International Socialist Network (ISN), the faction continues to harbour some who publish slanders without fellow faction members-who know them to be lying-uttering a word of criticism. This is not the way to foster the open debate the comrades affirm they are looking for.

They furthermore refuse to acknowledge the steps the CC subsequently took to reunify the party. They complain that we ignore in our article a second allegation against the comrade who had been accused of rape. We did refer indirectly to how it was dealt with, but we were trying to maintain confidentiality about a case that will be discussed at our conference. The CC took the initiative in ensuring that it was heard. Achieving this wasn’t easy because the legitimacy of the DC process has been badly damaged as a result of the row over the first complaint. It took some effort and ingenuity to overcome this obstacle, but we managed it. We are aware of no criticism of how the panel that investigated the second complaint was conducted.

Even more disappointing is the comrades’ attitude to the report of the body reviewing our disciplinary procedures. When it was established by the special conference in March, the faction dismissed it as a whitewash. Now that it has come up with such substantial and wide-ranging proposals they proclaim that these all originated with them. There wouldn’t be much harm to this attitude if it expressed a recognition that the majority of the party has moved towards them in a way that could begin to reunify the party. But, as their demands for an “accounting” indicate, this is not what the faction are after.

Sometimes this is appropriate. John Rees destroyed himself with the SWP because he wouldn’t take any responsibility for the collapse of Respect. Contrary to the comrades’ insinuations, we do not deny any responsibility for what has happened. As we write in our article: “no one in the SWP leadership thinks that, with the benefit of hindsight, we would address the issue in exactly the same way”.1 We are ready to face the party and acknowledge this, and if the party conference in December chooses to remove us from the leadership, we will of course accept this.

But we won’t accept the false narrative being peddled by the faction. Plainly things went wrong in the W case. They went wrong partly because of the absence of any procedure for dealing with serious accusations against members of the leadership and partly because of the factional polarisation that developed around the rape allegation, which became supercharged by the issue itself and by the larger tensions in the party. We remain convinced that the comrades on the DC behaved with integrity. But, given the politicisation of the case, the presence of CC or ex-CC members among them made them easy targets for those who wanted to contest their decision (even though no one challenged this before they had reached this decision).

How to remedy this? The path taken by the review body is radically to reform and to strengthen our procedures by, for example, laying down strict rules for handling accusations of sexual misconduct by leading members, barring CC or ex-CC members from hearing cases against current CC members, and making wider use of the DC’s power of cooption to create panels acceptable to both parties. There is much to be said for these proposals. They involve a much higher degree of formality in handling disputes, but arguably it was the very absence of such formality that allowed things to go wrong in the prehistory of the W case.

Michael Rosen has canvassed from outside the SWP an alternative approach- namely that we acknowledge that we are incapable of dealing with cases as complex and open to dispute as those involving accusations of sexual misconduct and in future support anyone making such an accusation in going to the police. There are major objections to this alternative that led the review body to reject it, but maybe it deserves consideration as well.

We had hoped that the review’s report would offer an opportunity to have a serious discussion of how to ensure that we never experience a crisis of this kind again. From this perspective, the faction’s attitude has been very disappointing. This is true also of the comrades’ response to our article. What attracts their especial scorn is its basic objective, which was, while addressing the case itself, to try and explore the larger politics of the crisis. The comrades are particularly contemptuous of our attempt to invoke “the spectre of movementism” as an explanation of the severity of the crisis. The trouble is that sarcasm is no substitute for political argument.

As the comrades acknowledge, the SWP has suffered a “cycle of splits” since 2007-Respect, Counterfire, the International Socialist Group, and the ISN. Of the Central Committee elected at the beginning of 2008, during the first of these crises, no less than five are no longer members of the SWP. This is completely unprecedented in the party’s history. There is a pattern here. How to explain it?

The comrades have two answers to this question. The first is simply the malevolence and incompetence of the CC. This is implausible given that, as the departures mentioned above indicate, there has been quite a lot of turnover on the Central Committee. The second is structural-the absence of “structures and a daily functioning that develop conscious and effective means of confronting the various challenges this period presents for a revolutionary organisation”.

Again, this explanation lacks credibility. The Respect crisis led, in 2009, to a thorough review of party structures reflecting a strong desire to strengthen the SWP’s democratic culture. In some ways the organisational changes were less important than what they expressed. The inner-party struggle that developed in 2007-9 around the demand for an accounting for the Respect debacle involved a shift in power away from the CC and the full-time apparatus that it controls towards the membership and the lay National Committee.

This change has been permanent. Thus the January 2013 conference was marked by a vigorous series of debates involving the CC and its supporters and no less than two factions, including very lively fringe meetings. Far from concealing its differences, the outgoing CC supported two rival slates. The faction tends not to dwell on all this, partly because the positions they supported were defeated.

The March 2013 conference was a much grimmer and more polarised affair because of the internet attacks on the party. But its decisions were positive-to pursue a series of debates in the party and to review our disciplinary procedures. Despite all the difficulties we face, the outgoing Central Committee is making determined efforts to improve how the debates in the lead up to our forthcoming conference are held.

So it’s not so easy to explain away the pattern of crisis by appealing to the wickedness of the leadership or the lack of democracy in the party. That’s why it’s necessary to consider the wider political situation:

  • The biggest economic crisis that capitalism has suffered for nearly 80 years-as Michael Roberts underlines in the current issue of International Socialism, another “Long Depression” comparable to those at the end of the 19th century and during the 1930s;
  • As yet no upsurge of workers’ struggles comparable, say, to those that swept American basic industry in 1934-6;
  • Plenty of resistance nonetheless, but even in the most important case, that of Egypt, taking the form primarily of street movements.

Then take into account some broader features in the background-the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement in the advanced capitalist economies since the 1980s; the decline of the reformist and revolutionary left over the same period; the development of a new, predominantly non-Marxist form of anti-capitalist radicalisation since Seattle. And finally add the role that the SWP played in the biggest mass movement Britain has seen in many decades, the Stop the War Coalition (StW).

Of course all this has found expression in very strong pressure towards movementism on the SWP. This is reflected in the splits we have suffered. The first involved a few comrades rallying to George Galloway and his wing of Respect, expressing vehement hostility to Leninism. The second-Counterfire-was led by comrades from the CC who had been at the heart of StW and who generalised from this experience: they haven’t formally broken with Leninism, but in effect they are a Marxist appendage to Len McCluskey’s version of reclaiming Labour. The ISG again have expressed a strongly movementist politics, effectively liquidating itself into the Radical Independence Campaign.

The ISN is a much less politically coherent enterprise, united mainly by hostility to the SWP, and its most dynamic elements have made straight for the world of the sects. But its most prominent member, Richard Seymour, prides himself for the starkness with which he describes the triumph of neoliberalism, the irrelevance of attempts to develop rank and file organisation within the trade unions, and the necessity of the kind of broad anti-austerity movement long advocated by the leaders of Counterfire.

So the logic of the situation drives those breaking with the SWP in a movementist direction. Recognising the existence of this pressure is, in our view, a necessary starting point for addressing the condition of the party. The conflict over the DC acted as a detonator, ripping open fractures that were already developing inside the SWP.

At least two of the signatories to the reply acknowledged this as recently as March 2013. Mike Gonzalez and Megan Trudell wrote in an internal bulletin at that time:

At a time of the lowest ever levels of working class struggle in Britain, we insist on the centrality of the working class. It’s an argument that has fallen away, just at a moment when social movements-the indignados, the Occupy movement, and the student movement here, for example-have arisen and taken the central role in the resistance. The problem is that these movements are characteristically hostile to politics and form around specific issues. All this takes place against a background of a generalised suspicion of political parties and of Leninism in particular since the fall of Stalinism. The current internal debate in the party reflects at least in part a frustration born of this “down like a stick” trajectory of the student movement and the relative passivity, or perceived passivity, of the working class.

The underlying objective situation requires analysis: what is the relationship between neoliberalism as an ideology and as a policy regime and the crisis tendencies of capitalism that have been so much on display for the past five years? How much is the relatively low level of economic class struggle, not just in Britain, but elsewhere, to be explained by changes in class structure? What are the appropriate forms of left political organisation in the present period? These are some of the questions that we tried to address in our article, and that more generally have been under discussion in this journal.

But the comrades are having none of this. They accuse us of “sift[ing] through the internet for evidence of heresies committed by the opposition”. In truth, it hasn’t been very difficult to find plenty, not of heresies, but of disagreements with the party’s theory and perspectives expressed by members of the faction.

Just one example-two more signatories, Amy Gilligan and Dan Swain, also signed a piece in our most recent internal bulletin calling for us to be less hostile to…movementism: “Since the crisis in the party broke publicly…an increasingly one-sided hostility to left reformism and movementism has developed…As revolutionaries, we…have to engage with and attempt to win people from reformism by being the most committed to developing and strengthening the movement on the ground.”

There’s nothing particularly terrible about these arguments. But we think recognising them is important if we are to have the political discussion that can achieve a higher degree of clarity among us and help to reunify the party. But the faction have set their faces against having this discussion. Their strategy has been to avoid broader political arguments in order to focus single-mindedly on the issue of the DC cases, in the process escalating their demands around this issue.

The closest the comrades come to a political argument in their article is when they accuse the CC of “leading the party into further retrenchment and isolation from the broader movement” without offering any evidence-not surprisingly, since there is none, as our work in building Unite against Fascism, the People’s Assembly, the movement against the Bedroom Tax, and the 29 September demonstration in Manchester shows.

But in narrow factional terms, this approach makes some sense. It finesses the problem that there is no agreement on broader political questions within the faction. It is a coalition of grievances united by hostility to the leadership and indignation over the DC cases. Focusing on the latter maximises their own unity and forces their opponents onto the back foot. Hence the unrelenting focus on the DC in the comrades’ piece-no matter that the party leadership is committed to solving the underlying problems that led to the crisis and has already achieved some results.

At an SWP meeting in Central London in July, Jim Wolfreys said it was necessary to “neutralise the dispute”. This is precisely what the CC has been trying to do, first by ensuring the second complaint was heard, and second through the reform of disciplinary procedures. This offers a way forward for the entire party, an escape from the trap of destructive, personalised debates. And this is what we tried to convey in our article.

But the faction are spurning this opportunity: rather than neutralise the dispute, they are hyper-politicising it. It is this strategy that creates the danger of another split. Endlessly repeating a false narrative of our crisis may strengthen the faction, but it isolates them from the rest of the party, who (whatever the other disagreements that may exist among them) reject this narrative and are fed up with the faction’s behaviour.

It also allows them to evade the reality that they are a minority within the SWP and are unlikely to win their positions at the conference. As we have asked them repeatedly, what will they do then? Answer comes there none. This state of mind runs the risk-not that the rest of us will drive the faction out-but that they will talk themselves out of the SWP. That would be a tragedy.


1: Kimber and Callinicos, 2013, p62.


Kimber, Charlie, and Alex Callinicos, 2013 “The Politics of the SWP Crisis”, International Socialism 140 (autumn),