The End Of An Era For The Left?


Twelve months ago the UK erupted with a scandal around the supermarket giant Tesco. The omnipresent retailer had been caught exploiting the long-term unemployed, some of whom had been assigned to "training programmes" — as a condition of continuing to receive their dole — which turned out to be nothing more than virtually free labour for the corporation.

The "trainees" were assigned to basic repetitious storage work, for which they would have been paid a full, if basic, wage of around six to seven times the miserable cash amount the dole paid.

The scandal, which spread to other corporations, caught the public mood; it came at a time when it becoming clear to many that the Cameron Government was little more than a racket favouring major corporations. The matter had been brought to public attention by a small group of picketers — Right To Work — who had formed from a couple of such "trainees" who weren’t willing to cop it sweet, and they gained a measure of public approval — until it was discovered that several of them were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which gave the political right a point of attack after several desperate days.

Suddenly, this wasn’t a legitimate grievance, but a sinister conspiracy by radical left-wingers. In an ultimate demonstration of vice paying tribute to virtue, David Cameron name-checked the party in parliamentary question time, as Labour leader Ed Miliband went after him for creating Dickensian conditions for the unemployed. "Far-Left groups behind drive to sabotage work experience for young" screamed the right-wing Telegraph, and employment minister Chris Grayling made (and later retracted) the accusation that the SWP had hacked his emails.

The backbone of Right to Work was unquestionably SWP members — why that invalidated the accusation was never made clear — and it’s a measure of the unique role the party plays in UK life that it could not only spark a winning campaign so quickly, but that its opponents could see a name-check of it as their best political comeback.

For nearly half a century, the party has been a part of hundreds of social struggles in the UK, often fomenting them, and providing the backbone for groups that would otherwise be amorphous and unfocused. It has also been accused of hijacking groups for the purpose of recruitment. It has survived numerous splits and expulsions, but now it appears to be facing its greatest challenge for many years: a scandal over the mishandling of accusations made by a rank-and-file member of sexual assault by a prominent leader in the party.

The scandal has caused a torrent of resignations, many of them high-profile public figures, splits by student sub-groups from the main group, and forecasts that it will have a disastrous impact on their capacity for recruitment. Should the party falter severely, it will mark the closing of a chapter in the history of the British — and, English-speaking world — left.

What’s become known as the "Comrade Delta" scandal emerged into full public view in January 2013, when the report of the disputes committee to conference was leaked anonymously to a broad left blog called Socialist

The accused member, known as "Comrade Delta" had been in a relationship with the complainant before an incident occurred that formed the basis of the complaint. Initially most people assumed that it was a relationship turned sour; only a year or so later, the complainant accused "Delta" of sexual assault, and, rather than going to the police, agreed to a hearing process internal to the SWP. This caused raised eyebrows when the story became public, but it is not unusual in left parties, who have always used tribunals to bypass a courts-and-justice system that Marxist base-superstructure theory saw as compromised, and a political enemy.

However, it’s rare that such groups have to consider sexual assault charges, which require great judiciousness. The SWP’s disputes committee handled it about as badly as possible. The complainant was asked about her sexual history and how much she drank. She was expected to respond to "Delta’s" counterclaims immediately and without notice, whereas he had had time to prepare a defence against hers. All of these provoked widespread protest within the party when the details were released.

But above all, it was the fact that all the members of the dispute committee — who voted six-to-one that the accusation of rape was "not proven" — knew "Comrade Delta" personally, and that "Delta" was none other than Martin Smith, the party’s national secretary, and one of the highest profile figures in the party.

The disputes committee presented its findings to the party conference in January, after which all hell broke loose. There were accusations that the woman complainant, and a second woman who came forward with separate accusations, had been bullied and harassed by figures in power. Four members who discussed the case on Facebook were expelled, the central committee essentially conflating social media with full and open dissenting publication.

With the transcript of the disputes committee’s presentation leaked via several blogs, including Lenin’s Tomb and Socialist Unity, condemnations and then open opposition began. With the central committee reluctantly calling a special conference, the organisation of factions began (the SWP permits temporary factions organised for three months before any national conference) — the most prominent being Democratic Opposition. They charged that the crisis represented a wider crisis in the SWP, around issues of internal democracy, analysis and theory.

By this time the mainstream media had taken interest, with reports in most of the national papers. Some of them were surprisingly even-handed; the most bilious attacks came from those who described themselves as Left, but had supported the Iraq war, and much of the subsequent neocon adventures of the succeeding decade. Even those sympathetic to a radical left vision such as Owen Jones argued that the crisis demonstrated that the time of the SWP had passed.

That may be so, but the demise of the SWP has been predicted oft-before, but it is a remarkably resilient creature. Since its formation in the 1950s as the Socialist Review Group, through two decades as the International Socialists, to its full formation as a party in the early 1970s, the SWP has had far more capacity to reshape itself through reflection and criticism than just about any other Marxist party.

It was born in dissent — its founder Tony Cliff created the SRG around the notion that the USSR was a "state capitalist" entity, rather than, as Trotskyist parties theorised at the time, a "degenerated workers’ state". The "state capitalist" thesis (the term had originally been Lenin’s for the USSR during the pre-1925 "new economic policy" years) set the SRG/IS/SWP as the purest of all major groups for decades — not one regime, from Russia to China to Cuba, satisfied the conditions of being a workers’ state.

The group stood against guerilla-ism and "third worldism", and initially kept at a distance from the student and youth upheavals that began in the mid-60s. But such people were attracted by the purity of Cliff’s vision, and from the late 60s onwards, a tour of duty in the IS/SWP became a rite of passage for literally hundreds of prominent people, and for thousands of less celebrated ones, who nevertheless went on to try and "make a difference" in more reformist milieux.

Whereas the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) attracted those more willing to compromise with state power, the larger Trotskyist groups, such as the Workers Revolutionary Party and Militant, attracted those buoyed by its promises of global socialism in ten years. The SWP, by contrast, was more capable of managing expectations — it was the only of such parties to bud off original theoretical framings of the post-war world within the Marxist tradition, doing important work on the notion of a "deflected permanent revolution", and a "permanent arms economy" among others.

In the years of political upheaval in the UK — the early 1970s, viewed retroactively through Thatcherite spectacles as torpor, in fact the acme of left-wing contestation and class struggle in Britain — the SWP was creative, creating separate publications for social movement struggles (Woman’s Voice and the black-community-focused Flame), and making its greatest contribution in the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, which ensured that the British National Front never gained the foothold that its sibling organisation did in France.

By the 1980s, after some waning and a series of splits — the most prominent being that of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who would eventually become the Spiked group, their purist Leninism transforming into a libertarian post-Marxism which saw their leaders featured in the op-ed pages of The Australian — the SWP was catapaulted to prominence by the double collapse of the mainstream Trotskyist groups.

Militant was expelled from the Labour Party where it had tried to take over the entire northern apparatus, and fissured thereafter. And the WRP collapsed when leader Gerry Healy was revealed to be a serial predatory rapist who had used his charismatic leadership role to cover up his crimes. In the 2000s the party became the prime mover in creating the Stop the War Coalition, and the RESPECT coalition, which saw ex-Labour MP George Galloway win an inner-London seat from Labour.

But by that period the party had accumulated a series of contradictions. Throughout its early decades its theoretical innovations had been directed towards the "base" processes of capital accumulation — it retained, unquestioned, the Marxist architecture of economic class, base and superstructure, and gender and race struggles as subordinate to core class struggle. Nascent feminist and student struggles were initially constructed as bourgeois.

But as middle-class youth flocked to the party, ready to take on its discipline (after experience with the chaos of more spontaneous process), the party shifted its methods. As it became involved in social movement groups, it developed an organisational theory about how to interact with such movements – and how its members assigned to such groups might "go native", and require discipline, and ultimately, expulsion if they did.

The core aim, as two generations of wearied leftists and protestors recognise, was recruitment, to build up a party that would be well-organised and working in lock-step when a full-scale crisis occurred. In pursuit of that the SWP has often been as destructive as constructive among social movements, forcing division and strategic detours in the pursuit of harvesting recruits to a more systemic commitment.

But such a process has brought its own problems, both practical and theoretical.

Read the next installment of Guy Rundle on the Socialist Workers Party in New Matilda tomorrow.

**Correction: Originally I said that blogger and SWP member Richard Seymour had released the record of discussion of the disputes committee concerning the "Comrade Delta" case. This was incorrect. The leaked document was the report of the disputes committee to conference, and Seymour didn’t leak it. It was leaked anonymously to a broad left blog called Socialist Unity, which is rather critical of the SWP. Seymour became an early public critic of the handling of the issue. Apologies to all concerned. – GR

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.