Feminism and the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party
Toward the end of 2012, two members of the British Socialist Workers Party charged a national leader with rape and sexual assault. The manner in which these allegations were handled by the party leadership has shaken the organization to the core and opened up a public discussion about the SWP’s positions on feminism and democratic centralism and about whether cases of rape within a revolutionary party are matters for the police. (Similar stories of abuse and mishandling of charges have surfaced since.)
These are extremely important questions which the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), as a socialist feminist party, believes are critical to the whole revolutionary movement. Without a clear program and practice in dealing with sexism and the oppression of women — within our organizations and in the larger world — there is absolutely no hope of making socialist revolutions.
What follows are our opinions and recommendations based on the facts of this crisis as we understand them.
Recap of events
The SWP held a national conference in January 2013. At it, a seven-member Disputes Committee (DC) responsible for addressing internal problems reported on their investigation of the charges by the first woman, who had gone all the way through the disputes procedure.
Five of the people on this committee were either current or former SWP Central Committee (CC) members. The man against whom the woman brought charges, saying that she had been repeatedly assaulted over a six-month period between 2008 and 2009, was at that time a CC member. Her supporters, some of whom gave evidence at the inquiry, charge that the committee aped treatment women expect in bourgeois courts by delving into her sexual relationship history. The second woman to make accusations against the same party leader said she was asked a question implying that she drinks too much.
After four days spent investigating the first woman’s charges, the Disputes Committee majority — six of seven members — decided that her allegations were “not proven.”
At the conference, after hearing from supporters of and dissenters with the DC’s findings — but not from the woman involved who had been banned from attendance— party members voted to uphold the commission’s results by a narrow margin of 231 to 209. Immediately some delegates walked out in protest.
Before the conference, at least four SWP members were expelled for supporting the women and discussing how the issue should be confronted at the upcoming meeting. Apparently, before and after the gathering, party leaders leveled accusations of “cross-branch coordination” and “secret factionalizing” against those who criticized their handling of the allegations.
Within the party, supporters of the DC expressed the opinion that feminism, “autonomism,” and identity politics were corrupting the organization and destroying democratic centralism. In response, the opposition accused the party leadership of a cover-up. Others charged that a culture of impunity existed within the organization when it came to evaluating the misdeeds of male leaders and that “feminist” was used as a swear word in political debate.
Post-conference, SWP leaders attempted to stifle any further discussion of the issue of sexual abuse. Party employees were ordered never to mention the case again and, if they could not agree to this, they were instructed to resign their jobs.
Resting on the narrow margin of 22 votes in support of the Disputes Committee, SWP leaders tried to ignore the fact that eight local branches called for an emergency conference to deal with the issue, that eight more branches passed motions critical of the way the DC dealt with things, and that 13 Socialist Worker Student Societies issued statements condemning the leadership’s bureaucratic role in the rape case. However, pressure continued to mount, and SWP leaders called a special conference on March 10th where their supporters quashed a vote of no confidence in their leadership by a vote of 483 to 133. Dozens more resigned from the party, including the student group at Sussex University, stating they “cannot reconcile those experiences with the fundamental tenets of women's liberation (feminism).”
A failure of program and leadership
More than anything else, the upheaval in the British SWP over these allegations is a failure of those at the helm of a revolutionary socialist organization to absorb the importance of the global rise of feminism: the struggle for the full social, political, economic and cultural rights of women in every sphere of life. Having labeled feminism bourgeois and separatist (as opposed to women’s liberation), the SWP neatly sidestepped the practice of feminist conduct and relations within the organization and by the leadership.
When a political party fails to engage with, and embrace, a central democratic struggle such as the rise of women on a world scale, the consequences are disastrous, as is shown by what has happened in the SWP. It is especially egregious when the party is Trotskyist, since one of Trotskyism’s core principles is seeking to understand the relationship between the unfinished democratic tasks of our time and the socialist revolution.
But when it comes to feminism, the top leadership of the SWP has apparently been asleep at the wheel. They seem not to have grasped that the feminist struggles of women and men have shaken the longstanding assumptions of male domination in both domestic and public life. Everything we have seen points to the fact that this failure went hand-in-hand with the emergence of an organizational structure characterized by a bureaucratic method that served to perpetuate a male-dominated internal culture. This insulated the party from the changes that were taking place in the world—in this case the rising of women through three successive waves of the feminist movement rooted in the entrance of women into the world workforce.
To put it another way, the failure of an organization like the SWP to appreciate the importance of feminism programmatically creates a fertile soil for the sort of sexist culture in a left party that perpetuates and defends itself just as does any patriarchal and bureaucratic institution of capitalism.
What has happened to the SWP over the last several months shows conclusively that a revolutionary party will rise or fall to the degree that it addresses the key political issues of its time. In this case, the issue is the right of all women to be free of sexual violence and harassment. The inability of SWP leaders to deal with this issue compassionately, democratically, and with an understanding of the corrupting qualities of male privilege is a leadership failure of profound proportions.
The question of the police
Not surprisingly in light of the Catholic Church scandal surrounding the cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests, and similar attempted cover-up of other institutions, some SWP members have taken the position that the party had no place considering charges of rape and the party’s leaders should have sent the women directly to the police. We do not agree.
We do not know if the women wanted to go to the police; what we know is that they took their charges to their party. They may have chosen not to go to the police for reasons that have to do with police attitudes toward rape victims, and/or out of a belief that the party was the better forum for their charges, especially given the long history of police repression and sabotage of organizations and movements challenging the status quo.
While all victims of sexual abuse have the right to take their cases to the police, it is quite understandable that some would prefer to go to their party first.
Radicals know that the intervention of agents of the capitalist state in the affairs of a revolutionary organization is never productive. The fact that the call to go to the cops has been raised by members and former members of the SWP shows just how much the leadership of this party neglected to deal with this crisis in a way that protected women’s right to be free of sexual assault, in the first place, and, secondly, to be heard when they felt transgressions had occurred.
Democracy and democratic centralism
Alex Callinicos, SWP International Secretary, defended the January conference vote as the end of discussion and demanded that the sizeable minority abide by democratic centralism or else. Under normal circumstances the FSP operates by democratic centralism: i.e., democracy in arriving at a position and, once a vote is taken, unity in action around the majority position, followed by a democratic evaluation post-action. However, the circumstances surrounding this entire event in the SWP strike us as anything but normal: a Central Committee member is accused of rape; a committee of his co-leaders and friends investigates; a party conference votes on the results of the inquiry and the majority and minority are narrowly separated; what follows is resignations and expulsions of leading members and general uproar.
Doesn’t this seem like a good time to step back and review the process and politics that brought the organization to this place rather than to lower the boom on the opposition?
Given the seriousness of the split and the fact that women certainly are key to holding the SWP together (women play this role in every movement), it seems it would be a matter of respect and good sense to rethink the insistence on the rigid application of democratic centralism at this particular moment. That’s one reason the leadership should back down. But there is a more important one: the demand to end women’s oppression is central to forging the leadership and ties of solidarity necessary to make socialist revolutions in the 21st century. A narrow majority on a problem at the very heart of making social revolutions should not be arbitrarily enforced in order to squelch discussion and prevent correction.
For a Women’s Commission to hear cases of sexual misconduct
On a concrete level, there are lessons to be learned from the failures of the SWP tops. Every anti-establishment organization, but especially revolutionary parties, are subject to disruption at the hands of agents of the state and provocateurs. Hypothetically, all kinds of false accusations could be raised, including allegations of rape and sexual abuse, to undermine an organization that is working to achieve something as fundamental as changing class relations and putting the working class in power. Here, the question arises: What is the best way to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct within an organization, regardless of their origin?
The first consideration is to take any such charges seriously; the second is to not jump to the conclusion that party leadership is the best agent to carry out an inquiry, especially if someone in that leadership is being accused.
Leadership, even if democratically elected and accountable to membership, is not the repository of democracy in a revolutionary party. It is the membership that embodies democracy in the party. The membership fulfills this function by electing leadership and expressing its views openly and without intimidation or censorship.
Given this, we think that allegations of sexual misconduct in a revolutionary organization should be heard by an elected commission composed of women, mainly from the rank and file, whose job is to conduct an inquiry and recommend action to address the problem. All party members need to be informed of the right of members to take complaints of sexual misconduct to such a commission. The knowledge of this right in and of itself, showing as it would the commitment of the party to uphold women’s rights within it at the same time it fights for them in the larger society, should have a beneficial impact on sexual relations within the party.
Freedom Socialist Party, US
March 26, 2013
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