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Socialist Workers Party: Rape, sexist behaviour and the working class movement

The following is a shortened version of an online statement (see)

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is presently undergoing its most serious crisis since the 1970s. This is entirely the direct result of the disloyal actions of its own leadership, the 12-person Central Committee (CC), before, during and after the annual conference held on 5 and 6 January 2013.

The immediate issue of the crisis is an accusation of rape made by a woman party member against the former national secretary and current party full timer, Martin Smith. The conference received a report from the party disputes committee, which concluded that the charge was “not proven”. This report was approved by only the narrowest of margins.

Since conference the debate, transcribed and leaked by someone present, has become public knowledge, indeed a matter of national and international debate. And the CC has tried to close down this debate by threatening any comrade who ignored this instruction with disciplinary measures.

This immediately led to an explosion of dissent, and left members with no alternative but to take up the issues outside the party. Well known SWP figures like Richard Seymour (of the Lenin’s Tomb blog), Tom Walker, a prominent journalist on Socialist Worker, the novelist and legal theorist China Miéville, and a number of Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) groups have all publicly condemned the CC.

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 complaints of gross sexist behavior, but also relating it to wider issues such as the lack of party democracy. In early December, four of the participants in the discussion were summarily expelled by the Central Committee on a charge of “forming and taking part in a secret faction”.

The right to form factions within the SWP is strictly limited to the period just before a conference, and after this they must be dissolved (as “secret” and “permanent” factions are banned). The discussions referred to in the charge took place within the allotted time. However, the four comrades expelled had decided not to form a faction, and from this comes the charge of “secret” factionalism.

As news of the four expulsions spread, those who had initially rejected forming a faction decided that now they had to, and 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 Democratic Opposition 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 events became public, on the streets and in their workplaces, SWP members found themselves interrogated about them by non-party members, unsurprising given that it comes at a time when the issues of rape and the oppression of women are 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 CC members on it. 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 some of those highly sexist questions about her previous sexual history that rape campaigners have rightly condemned the police and the courts for.

When the committee found the case “not proven”, the woman was not allowed to appeal to conference, despite requesting to do so. The leadership insisted that another complaint of gross sexist behavior, also against Martin Smith, be postponed till after conference.

No organisation is entirely immune from the reactionary ideas and forms of behavior prevalent in society as a whole. Lenin once remarked: “scratch a Bolshevik and you will find a Great Russian chauvinist”. This applies also to the issue of sexist behaviour in its many forms. What a revolutionary organisation committed to fighting sexism can do is to establish procedures to deal with it. Such methods include the right the right of socially oppressed groups to caucus, and to raise complaints in front of the entire membership if need be. But without a more general democratic right to form groups, tendencies and, if need be, factions, a leadership will always be at an overwhelming advantage against individual members.

Without such measures, the development of a culture of leadership impunity is more than likely. It is certain. 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 is outrageous.

The debate over this issue has raised a number of other issues. Some on the left have argued that a political organisation does not have the capacity to investigate or punish its members for sexist behaviour when this 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, every victim of such crimes has the right to go to the police. In this case, the woman comrade 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. To demand and expect that her own organisation deal with these issues was in our view correct, providing that she was not put under any pressure not to report the case. This is of course a big “if,” given the leadership’s later behaviour. But the police and the courts are infamous for their mishandling of rape accusations, and she should have been able to rely on the response of an organisation pledged to fighting sexism. In fact she was cruelly let down, and betrayed is not too strong a word.

To suggest that a party cannot, or should not, investigate and act on the case itself, because it does not have the resources available to the police, ignores the fact that a socialist political organisation works with different criteria as regards such an investigation, and is not intended to act as a substitute for the state. Moreover it has not only a right but also an imperative duty to investigate. Its standards should be stricter 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 some reforms) still are, and given, too, the prejudice to be expected from them against members of a revolutionary organisation, such expressions of confidence in the state 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 recall 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.

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