The SWP and women’s oppression: a brief history of failure

The Socialist Workers Party UK is imploding due to the alleged rape and cover up of a woman in the party by one of their own leaders. Astonishingly, a number of their members seem perfectly willing to look the other way while a large minority–possibly close to half–of the SWP are intent on addressing this problem rather than sweeping it under the rug.

As the opposition reviews their overall approach to fighting women’s oppression, a common refrain goes something like this:

Regardless of our position on the current arguments in the party, most comrades are in agreement that the party’s record on fighting for women’s liberation is exceptional.

In fact, the SWP and the International Socialist Tradition (the name given to the set of politics and groups associated with the SWP) has a weak record in the fight for women’s liberation and “feminism,” which is now a slur apparently thrown at members concerned with the mishandling of the rape accusation.

The fact that “feminism” is a slur ought to speak for itself. No revolutionary would ever call somebody an “anti-racist” or “anti-homophobe” as a slur, but somehow the concept of “feminism” has been lifted up out of reasonable discourse and transformed into a very specific set of ideas held by some feminists, such as separatism or mainstream liberal advocacy for ruling class women. The same treatment is given to “patriarchy,” as though there is a single theory of patriarchy which is fundamentally opposed to a materialist and class struggle approach to fighting women’s oppression.

But these are not simply linguistic problems of mistaking a political identification. On the contrary, the problem goes to the heart of the class reductionist approach to sexism that has been held by the SWP and the IST for decades. This has led to the SWP dismissing and downplaying the personal and individual ways in which sexism is inflicted upon women and counterposing these with more “class oriented” workplace issues.

Rape as “divisive” to class politics

Lindsey German was long the leading female comrade in the SWP and the most significant voice around the issue of women’s oppression from the 1980s until she left the SWP a few years ago. Her book Sex, Class and Socialism was long considered required reading by SWP/IST comrades and includes a lengthy discussion of how women’s oppression has evolved under capitalism as well as a critique of contending theories. German also includes a discussion of Women’s Voice, a journal and grouping within the SWP in the 1970s and 1980s dedicated to women’s issues.

A full analysis of Women’s Voice is beyond the scope of this article, although one analysis can be found here. However, German’s own analysis of the situation exposes a fundamental–and frankly shocking–problem with the SWP’s approach to sexism. In the 1989 edition of the book she writes:

In particular there was a subtle but marked move in Women’s Voice away from issues such as strikes and towards specific ‘women’s issues’ such as violence, Reclaim the Night–and even toxic tampons! . . . individual issues were stressed. (German, p. 223)

She repeats this argument almost verbatim a decade later in Tony Cliff’s autobiography A World To Win, including the comments about tampons (this time sans exclamation point) adding, “In practice the move was away from class wide demands, or demands which unified women with men.” (Cliff, p. 149)

And there we have it, a textbook example of class reductionism–contained in the SWP textbook on women’s liberation itself! Efforts to campaign around sexual violence and–gasp!–toxic tampons are dismissed as demands which do not unify women and men. No mention of arguing with men to support women fighting for the right to not poison themselves.

German goes on to describe how there were multiple positions in Women’s Voice and the position of the leadership was essentially enforced by diktat from above “through party discipline on those members who did not agree with it.” (Cliff, p. 149) Finally, “At the 1981 conference a clear majority voted to close down [Women’s Voice].” (Cliff, p. 150)

With this in mind, it is worth asking whether any feminist has ever learned anything about women’s oppression from the SWP and the IS tradition. It would be hard to identify a single one, barring those who have rejected “feminism” on their way to becoming members. Having an “exceptional record” on women’s oppression would presumably have been noticed by somebody outside their ranks.

An aversion to engaging with an explicitly feminist analysis–not to mention engaging other feminists on their analyses–is at the heart of the current crisis. Certainly, the SWP leadership have used the full force of the top-down bureaucracy to keep their comrades in line, but the root of the problem is an utter misunderstanding and–as we have seen with Women’s Voice–dismissiveness toward understanding rape as a political issue.

The problem is not just that the SWP Central Committee are a bunch of self important bureaucrats–though they are–rather the problem is one of not taking women’s oppression seriously. Some comrades saw how horrifying the rape apologetics were from the leadership, but many, maybe even the majority, did not. This has to be to blamed on the political tradition that trained them, not simply a lemming-like quality imposed on them by Alex Callinicos. Their lack of interest in feminism has left far too many members incapable of seeing through their own bullshit.

Unsurprisingly, SWP members and their supporters have few options but to engage in rape apologetics and sexist commentary in defense of their position. It is not just the position itself which results in these arguments but the lack of an analysis that teaches their members to know better than to repeat this nonsense, as though claiming there is no evidence of a rape–beyond the word of a woman and her friends–is somehow convincing.

A pattern of sexual abuse

This is not the first such crisis in the IS Tendency. In fact, the German IST group Linksruck was torn apart by a similar crisis, which also saw the leadership accused of sexual abuse. A similar incident occurred in the SWP/IST section inside the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in France, though apparently the LCR as a whole dealt with the abusive comrade where the IST section refused. These could all be dismissed as personal failings of the participants, rather than gross violations of revolutionary principles, if you do not have an analysis of rape as a political issue in your theory of women’s oppression.

When you consider rape to be divisive, it should be no surprise when you go around covering it up in your own party.

In fact, we do not need to look as far as France and Germany to see this play out as there have been stories of the sexually abusive and manipulative tendencies in the SWP for many years preceding the Comrade Delta scandal.

Former SWP member Andy Newman* has commented on this:

The long term editor of Socialist Worker used to have a reputation that “no means yes”, and when he visited some districts, experienced comrades in the know sought to ensure he was not left alone with young women.

When women who had been assaulted complained, they were diminished and hounded out of the SWP. I know of one occasion when a victim of sexual assault was sat down with a senior woman CC SWP member who told her to keep quiet for the good of “the party”, excusing the behavior because “capitalism fucks everyone up”, and then warning if she didn’t keep quiet then no-one would believe her, and the SWP would destroy her reputation.

Anna Chen commented similarly about her experience in the SWP:

I spoke to a number of the CC and senior members about the sexism and discrimination I’d experienced for several years in “The Party”, and wrote to several, but none of them would take it further. One senior member laughed when I said I wanted to take it to the Control Commission and he, not unsympathetically, explained to me the practical purpose of that body. That is: to instill discipline for the lower orders, not to see justice done.

I did ask [former SWP leader John] Rees more than once what I’d done to deserve the dehumanising treatment they were meting out. Had I done anything personally or politically to offend anyone? All he could blurt was that my behaviour on all counts was “exemplary”.

Was it because I wasn’t on the “fuck circuit”? Senior members, including one senior woman of long standing who was close to Cliff, seemed to think this was a distinct possibility. They know it happens but they won’t deal with it.

The comrades in the SWP have been trained for years to look the other way on these issues and their theory has made this all too easy.

Of course, this is not to say that nobody in the IS tradition cares about or take these issues at all, but caring is not enough. When you put a stop to women organizing around rape in your own organization, you might want to look beyond how against rape you think you are and start to think about how your political principles are failing you.

The point of political principles is to avoid these sorts of debacles in practice. By having firm principles, whatever other mistakes you might make, you can always fall back on a fundamental attitude and worldview. Yes, there will be a tactical error here and there but there are lines you simply do not cross. But when you find your party on the wrong side of a rape, comrades, you need to do some soul searching, not just of yourself and your leaders but also of your political tradition.

Rather than continue with the charade of saying that the IST has been in the forefront of fighting against women’s oppression, it needs to be recognized that they have trailed far behind for many decades. It is not (merely) a personal failing of the comrades. However, it is a failing of the tradition and the theories it has advocated.

This is not a tradition that needs to be held up and saved, rather it is one that needs to be rejected outright in favor of something better.

* Newman has been dismissed as a purveyor of “filth” by many around the SWP. Yet, for the last several years his web site has provided details about the inner workings of the party better than any other. In fact, during the RESPECT/Galloway crisis, I watched SWP members insist on his web site that he must be pushing lies about their party–only to discover that he was correct all along. In this and other instances, SWP members have learned about issues in their party from his web site before they learned them from their own leaders. The embarrassing situation of SWP members having to denounce his assertions about their leaders as lies and then defend these actions when they are found to be true is reminiscent of Stalinism. Some of these denouncers-cum-defenders are now in the SWP opposition, presumably having learned something from the mess they helped create. These allegations of sexual harassment from Newman and Chen originated from that period and were surely dismissed by many, yet now one cannot help but think they may also be true. The period of post-SWP mea culpas has not even begun and we will see what becomes of these stories. I was suspicious of them at the time but I suspect now they are quite close to the truth.

References

Cliff, Tony, A World To Win, London, 1999.

German, Lindsey, Sex, Class And Socialism, London, 1989.

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4 Responses to The SWP and women’s oppression: a brief history of failure

  1. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps

  2. Pingback: Resisting Oppression Sexism in Activism: ROSA Statement: Oppose Violence Against Women in the Labour Movement | sakollantai

  3. Pingback: ROSA (Resisting Sexism and Oppression in Activism: Oppose violence against women in the labour movement | Resisting Sexism Oppression in Activism (ROSA)

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