Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sexism and the Left: Crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party

Colombo – 28 January 2013

The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is undergoing the latest and possibly most serious internal crisis since its foundation in the late 1970s, as loyal members warn of its “inevitable demise” or “terminal decline” unless there are urgent reforms.
One of the largest far-left organisations in Europe, and the leader of an international trotskyist current – the International Socialist Tendency – that has or once had important members in countries such as Canada, Greece, the USA and Zimbabwe – the implosion of the SWP is not, on the surface, to do with ideological disputes or differences of political perspective.
Instead, it revolves around a more awkward question for radical organisations: issues of patriarchy and women’s oppression -- including its reproduction within the working class movement -- as well as the “interior reality of socialist organisation” (Sheila Rowbotham).
The present unhappiness among members and supporters of the SWP began with the manner in which its leadership handled allegations of rape made by one of its women cadre against a central member of its leadership. These acts and omissions have, in the view of many, caused “significant and irreversible damage” to the reputation of the SWP.
As always, one issue soon leads to another: the stubbornness of the SWP leadership in recognising its fault; the undemocratic internal regime of the SWP; and the dawning realisation that for the leadership and older members of the party, “feminism” is a term of abuse.

Internal Processes

It all began when an internal inquiry into the rape allegation exonerated the male leader concerned. The only sanction he faced was to be dropped from the slate for the incoming central committee after the January 2013 party conference; but he continues to be a member ‘in good standing’ and indeed, full-timer of the SWP.
The matter is now “closed”, according to the leadership; but many members, especially younger women and men in its university student societies disagree.
When the transcript of the inquiry was leaked, it revealed that the process had been biased and unfair to the woman involved, inflaming disgruntled cadre. Their outrage, also shared by many other Leftists, feminists, and trade unionists, is that a socialist organisation that supports women’s liberation should be so insensitive to the crime of rape, and appear to protect one of its leadership against whom there are earlier allegations of sexual misconduct.
As critics observe, revolutionary organisations need to continuously combat within its own structures and among its own members, ideologies and practices that are oppressive, such as violence against women. For this reason, two decades ago, the Mexican Fourth Internationalists adopted a remarkable text on the need to defend women comrades from physical violence; sexual violence; and verbal violence, by other members.

Internal Regime

The SWP does not tolerate organised currents of its members on internal questions, outside of the right to form a faction for its three-month pre-conference period. Any such faction must be dissolved at the end of the conference. The leadership is composed only of the majority current and is a semi-permanent homogenous bloc; renewing itself only with those acceptable to it. Political minorities are not included on the leadership.
The SWP appears to offer its members less, rather than more, democracy when compared to many social and political institutions in contemporary western capitalist societies, (or even the Bolshevik Party during conditions of Tsarist repression in Russia)!
The SWP has favourably contrasted its version of ‘democratic centralism’ with that of organisations of the Fourth International, where there are full rights to have short or long-term tendencies and factions, and where representatives of minority tendencies and factions are included (in proportion to the support received at delegate conferences) in all leadership bodies.
There is no doubt that long-lasting factions within organisations reflect serious divergences, and is no cause for celebration! However, any ban on factions is a bureaucratic means of suppressing genuine political differences. These differences cannot be resolved by preventing their open discussion; rather, only the freedom to publicly discuss, and even apply different tactics, allows for the possibility of their narrowing within a common organisational framework.
Where internal dissent is not permitted by rules, it does not stop. Instead, it continues outside of the formal structures through informal individual interactions – after formal meetings, or by telephone and email, and through social media. In fact, the SWP expelled four of its party workers just before its recent conference, for the ‘offence’ of airing organisational and political issues on their Facebook pages! Where there is no space for open and respectful discussion of differences, dissenting individuals drift away; while those who remain become paralysed politically and cynical about their own organisation.
What’s worse, according to its external critics, is that the SWP transplants the same bureaucratic centralist regime within non-party organisations, structures and campaigns that it leads or participates. The lack of democracy, pluralism, and respect for the opinions of numerical and political minorities repels Leftists not organised by the SWP and is an obstacle to building unitary initiatives, whether in trade union or community struggles or in creating a political force (at once extra-parliamentary and electoral) to represent those unrepresented by the pro-capitalist parties.

Feminism and Socialism

Another aspect of the SWP’s troubles common to the Sri Lankan Left is the reduction of women’s oppression to capitalism and class society. Although women were founders and leaders of the first Left party in Sri Lanka; and were influenced by the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century; the Left in Sri Lanka has generally been antagonistic towards feminism, denouncing it as an ideology of middle-class women.
Women on the Left shaped by the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s were not able or willing to stay within their anti-feminist organisations. Some became leaders of non-governmental organisations in the 1980s, but in the absence of an autonomous women’s liberation movement in Sri Lanka, and the retreat of the Left everywhere, were unable or disinterested to sustain and develop socialist feminist ideas and practices.
This failure meant that Left parties and trade unions were never challenged to admit and discard their backwardness on women’s oppression; whereas the Tamil national liberation struggle in the 1970s forced some Left and labour organisations to recognise that national oppression could not be dismissed as secondary to the struggle for socialism.
Back in Britain, militants of the Socialist Workers Party are leaving in disgust believing it to be irredeemably “tainted by a toxic combination of sexism, unaccountability, [and] anti-democratic manoeuvring”, (to borrow from China Miéville).
The Serbian affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) has withdrawn in protest; and leading Left intellectuals in other countries have signed an open letter breaking all links with the British SWP.
More resignations and possibly expulsions will follow, as the leadership dismisses appeals for a special party conference to review the case that sparked this chain of events; especially as its critics also demand a change in leadership and greater internal democracy.
The crisis in the SWP holds a mirror to the Left everywhere to draw appropriate lessons about the internalisation of patriarchy and authoritarian and male-dominated organisational cultures; or to be cast aside by those who realise that to change the world also includes to change ourselves. The personal is political.

A Sinhala-language version was (finally!) published on p. 6 of the May 2013 edition of Haraya

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