This is the second installment of a two-part article by Guy Rundle on the Socialist Workers Party. Read the first here.
Until the late 1970s, the present possibility of a socialist revolution — or sudden working-class radical upsurge — survived in the UK, and social struggles could be put in that context. Through the 80s and 90s the imminence of such a moment faded — faded so far that, for the wider culture, it effectively disappeared.
The deindustrialisation of the UK had removed whatever vestigial "classical" worker base existed — the country was a place of services, administrative professions and benefits. Gender, race and cultural struggles came to seem more "real", more bound up with the substance of life — as did the broader anti-war struggles, defined by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as anti-imperialist, but widely constructed as a general humanitarian one.
By the 2000s, any residual caution as to such non-Marxist politics had been reversed — the SWP gained a notoriety for its opportunism. The starkest example of this was its involvement in RESPECT, which was formed in conjunction with East London and Birmingham Muslim community groups, and the more-or-less onetime Stalinist George Galloway. Galloway brought the group into ridicule by appearing on Celebrity Big Brother without telling RESPECT itself — leaving SWP supremo John Rees, an academic expert on Georg Lukacs, to appear on TV defending footage of the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow appearing in a red lycra cat suit.
More seriously, it meant involvement with traditionalist Muslim community groups who opposed gender equality, and much more, and the accusation that the SWP had withdrawn from gay rights struggles in order to further the RESPECT agenda. RESPECT split spectacularly a couple of years later, down SWP and non-SWP lines.
Those SWP-ers most involved in its establishment, and in the Stop the War Campaign were later forced out of the SWP, to form a new group Counterfire. Many of these people had been members for more than 30 years, joining in the heady 1970s, giving their life to the party.
There were accusations that the splits and expulsions had less to do with the usual political divisions than with a sustained campaign of bullying and powerplay by national secretary Martin Smith and those around him. The departure of the Counterfire group and of a section of the Scottish party had been prompted by dismay over the party’s instruction to high-profile members to pull back from social movement organisations and reconsolidate the party — and an alleged consequent failure to really take the fight to the right in an anti-austerity campaign.
The current Comrade Delta crisis is thus being seen, in the house lingo, as overdetermined — a combination of insularity, disregard for forms of power other than class, and a failure to renovate the institutions of democratic centralism, the idea of a hierarchised party with institutions for constructive debate and dissent. That may well be true, but most internal — that is, Marxist — critics of the process have missed one glaring cause of the crisis, and that was the utterly inadequate manner in which the party’s disciplinary committee applied a theoretical framework to the thorny issue of handling a rape accusation through internal processes. Crucially, this turns on its simplistic notion of institutions, as seen through the prism of a vulgar Marxist account of base and superstructure.
Superstructure — the idea that non-economic institutions bear the stamp of the mode of production they’re built on, and are, in the last instance, wholly determined by them, was an approximation by Marx and Engels, put in place while they dealt with the economic base of capitalism (Marx famously intended to write six books, of which Capital would be the first — others being Law and The State). Under Leninism and Trotskyism it hardened into dogma, even as its manifest inadequacy as a description of social processes became ever more apparent.
The work of classical and post-classical sociology — Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, Merton and others — made almost no impact on Trotskyism. Nor did the Marxist-sociologist syntheses of the Frankfurt School, Lefebvre, Habermas or others. The distinct reconstructions of Marxist architecture by Sohn-Rethel, Althusser and Habermas passed them by. State and social processes continued to be seen as monolithic, rather than multiple and contested. Thus the disciplinary committee (DC) could report to the party that:
"We also discussed how difficult it is for women in capitalist society to be heard if they make a complaint of rape or harassment. We know how the courts and the police make women, you know, try to blame women, how few rapes are reported and how few of them are successfully prosecuted."
Another DC member noted:
"RHETTA M: Everybody who sat on this DC sat as revolutionary socialists but also with our world experience."
"Obviously there are instances where people may come forward with malicious intent, so it’s right to investigate claims. However in our tradition we argue that women do not come forward lightly in cases like these. We should start from that belief and attempt to substantiate the woman’s complaint. I don’t believe that the DC in my case shows this to have happened."
This is all simply asinine.
That police and courts are still frequently sexist and misogynistic, but the characterisation is more typical of 1980, rather than 2013 — for the simple reasons that such institutions have been a site of struggle since second-wave feminism began, and a whole series of reforms have been put in place. In the end, for all their self-congratulation, the DC came to the same difficulty any court did: that with no witnesses to a disputed accusation of sex crime, the case came down to oath-against-oath, and only a vanishingly low standard of proof would record a positive judgement in such a case.
But in other respects, standard bourgeois courts have a whole series of procedures that the DC lacked — explicit support and advocacy for complainant/victims, a separation of adjudicator, inquisitor and jury, rules of evidence and avenues for appeal. The explicit denigration of social process institutions as "superstructure", meant that all these innovations — spaces in which residual patriachy could be repeatedly challenged — are disregarded.
Instead, members of the DC, in the words of one member, congratulated themselves on superior insight:
"We do that [make judgement]according to the politics of a revolutionary party. So, you know, we’re not just opposed to sexism and the abuse of women, we understand where it comes from and we’re actively involved in campaigning and challenging and fighting that, and understand how important it is to do that if we are going to change the system that we live under."
In fact, far from submitting the complainant to a bourgeois system of justice, the DC essentially exposed her to a pre-Magna Carta process, in which the high-ranking accused was judged by a group of people he had worked with closely for more than a decade. The belief, sincere or otherwise, that this could be overcome, is pre-Freudian, pre-Weberian, a nineteenth century one-dimensional rationalism, blind to contradictory proceses among an elite.
Given the extraordinary circumstances — an accusation of rape against the party’s national secretary — it would have seemed obvious that a whole series of one-off provisions, such as the drafting in of less involved adjudicators, a formal process of evidence discovery/exchange, etc would have gone a long way towards putting the process on a proper footing. But this seems exactly what the party would not accept, in part because it lays bare the unanswered questions of social structure at the heart of Marxism, indeed of the near-anarchism at the heart of Leninism. Thus Lenin’s oft-quoted observation in The State and Revolution that courts would be unnecessary in a communist society:
"We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this: this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilised people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted"
Yet the problem for the SWP goes further than simple naivete — it is a contradiction with itself that is tearing it apart, the Comrade Delta case being merely the centre of the rip. For in 1917 it was quite possible to believe in such a social conspectus, and to be steered by it. Now, it is utterly unbelievable. Indeed even the most modest idea of a communism future has been, in a manner largely unspoken, retired.
Trotskyism, contrary to the instincts of its titular founder, doesn’t go in for forecasts of a post-capitalist future, but the idea of a radically transformed human order lies at the base of its political project, and underwrites daily struggles that would otherwise feel petty and nugatory. It is also, as the transcript demonstrates, a manner in which such groups conceive of their own operations, as partial models of the future, however compromised.
But when that transformed new order has become so compromised, distant and hard to believe, then the politics of such groups become a McGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object of pursuit in a thriller — jewels or whatever — that have no meaning in themselves, but keep the show on the road.
In practice, groups like the SWP have become warriors of an indefinite resistance. In such circumstances, the party becomes not merely a closed organisation, but a subculture, offering a framework of meaning to existence. The more dependent people become on that subculture to supply them with a meaningful world, the more hostile they become to challenges to it.
Thus the SWP’s style towards critics and those departing it has always been vigorous, but in recent years has become utterly toxic, with scorn and calumny poured on longtime former comrades. The treatment of the Comrade Delta case has hallmarks of that — a party that felt itself to be more oriented to power and its possibilities would have taken more care to deal with the matter in a less-shoddy process. And no matter how badly handled, such an event would not genuinely threaten a party that did not have a deep level of internal dissatisfaction— much of it arising from a failure to capitalise on the 2008 crash, when the much-vaunted collapse of capitalism actually hove into view.
The current party crisis has given many the opportunity to suggest that the day of such a party is done. Those suggestions prompted a reply from party grandee Alex Callinicos, defending the idea of a Leninist party. He focused on the power of a Leninist organisational structure, noting that even the party’s critics note that the party "punches above its weight".
True enough, but it is the decayed aspects of the Leninist process that people object to — the rigid theoretical model, the sectarianism and opportunism within broader left struggles, all of which contributed to the Comrade Delta crisis. The idea that the party would collapse completely is highly unlikely — even with mass departures there would be a hard core of people to carry on with the particular vision of the left. But it is possible that the SWP could fall below a critical mass, and become one of the other half-dozen or so barely far-left existent sects on the landscape. That would be a transformation of the left in the UK, and across the English-speaking world. Whether it would be for better or worse remains to be seen.
This is the second installment of a two-part article by Guy Rundle on the Socialist Workers Party. Read the first installment here.
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