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The SWP meltdown, institutional legitimacy and the broader lesson for the left

Laurie Penny thinks the SWP’s handling of rape allegations reflects badly on all of us, and that the SWP are only different because they are more open about their misogynist structures:

Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.

Actually, there’s no “seem” about it.  The leadership being above the law is written into the rules of the SWP.  That’s what makes it a self-declared Leninist revolutionary socialist party.  As SWP head boy Charlie Kimber makes clear in his comments at Harry’s place:

We live in what remains a profoundly sexist society, as is shown by the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups in mainstream institutions such as the BBC and the police. However, the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society but fights for the overthrow of the system. Our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations. Reflecting this tradition, our internal structures seek to promote women to leading roles and deal rigorously with any action by any member that is harmful or disrespectful of women (my emphasis).

That is to say, the SWP is committed, as a point of founding principle, to not engaging with the criminal justice system, but to handling “harmful or disrespectful” actions through its “internal structures”, which it regards as inherently superior to the legal institutions of the capitalist state.   Phil at AVPS makes the point very well:

[T]his crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP’s own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind  provided by their own revolutionary conceit.  If you’re in the business of  prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party’s destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far  as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the  party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of  sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop  universe of the SWP’s particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations.

To be honest, I’ve never quite got how this works in practice, as there seem to be an awful lot of capitalist institutions that the SWP membership does engage with.  Rumour has it that it’s got a large property portfolio, and I’m pretty sure SWP members get around on Virgin Trains and the like.  Which institution it’s legitimate to engage with while organising for its downfall does seem a bit selective.

The key point, though, is that the SWP is not falling apart now because it didn’t call in the police; it’s falling apart because the justice system it used instead of the capitalist one apparently proved to be completely useless, in both senses of the term.  That is, it apparently wasn’t very well run (I won’t repeat the contended details here) but, even if it had been, the problem would still have remained that, in the event of a guilty verdict, there’d have been no way to mete out appropriate justice; the usual sentence for one of rape is one of imprisonment, but as far as I know the SWP don’t have any prisons.

In other words, the SWP has set out its stall as being a kind of state, operating within and against the capitalist state, but lacks most of the things that go to make up a state.

Now you can argue (as Laurie Penny might if she understood a bit more what does make the SWP different from other groups), that it is the very selectivity about what bits of the capitalist state to opt out of which betrays its misogynist heart – and I do wonder whether the party would have the same courage of its own institutions if the accusation had been, say, child abuse rather than rape.  That’s fair enough.

But I also wonder if there’s a wider learning point for the radical left in its anti-capitalist struggle, whether it be via “revolutionary” or “evolutionary” means.

What this sad episode, and the likely fall out shows us clearly enough is that, unless credible institutions which command widespread respect and are therefore seen as legitimate are in place before the borgeous institutions are torn down (or bypassed), then those same bourgeois institutions are likely to return in strengthened form, and with increased popular support.  There’s a glimpse of that in Laurie Penny’s own appeal to the sanctity of the law – not something you’d normally associate with her radical leanings – when it’s juxtaposed to the SWP’s own tawdry process.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  We see fine solidaristic principle, followed by failure of legitimacy, and then mutual recrimination and lessened solidarity, everywhere we look.  The power of financial capitalism has been strengthened-by-scapegoat since the crisis, because there was no alternative system ready to replace it.  The anti-cuts campaigns have failed to date because there is not sufficient legitimacy in an alternative decision-making process to ensure that both elected representatives and officials have both the duty and the backing to deliver an alternative that sticks.  People going to job centres are treated poorly because unions have not yet been able to make their calls for solidarity with the workless more legitimate than the managerial directives imposed on staff.

All of which leads me to conclude that, ultimately, the left will only be any use at the grand scale if it gets over the self-imposed distinction (and accompanying hatreds) between revolution and evolution, and accepts that the quiet building of legitimate socialist institutions* in parallel with capitalist institutions, ready to replace them when the time comes, as just as much part of the struggle, and that the devotees of GDH Cole and RH Tawney are just as revolutionary, in their way, as those of Trotsky and Lenin.

*As a quick personal note: I was a member of the SWP briefly in the mid-1980s, taken in by the convincing rhetoric and (to me) new analysis of some very eloquent speakers and writers. I left when I was told that I needed to move my trade union stewardship focus away from the nitty-gritty of supporting workers in their workplace to defend their terms and conditions, defend them at disciplinaries etc.., in favour of more “revolutionary” activity.  When the time came to strike, the hospital I worked and organized at had a much bigger turnout than other places supposedly more under SWP inflluence.

  1. January 14, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    I’ve been following this a little, and I’d be interested to see a comparison of SWP versus the usual criteria for ‘religious sect’. All these far left groups have their own doctrine, massive loyalty to that doctrine vs others who are slightly different (to the outsider), approved texts, chrismatic leaders, heavy sanctions for disloyalty, suspicion of outsiders etc.

    More directly on the ‘misogynistic structures’ thing, no one (Laurie especially, given she made the point most loudly), seems to have addressed the fact that the “disputes committee” had a large female majority:


    “The seven members who were on that panel, who heard that complaint, were Rhetta M from Manchester, Maxine B from Sheffield, Dave S from Glasgow, Pat S and myself from London. (Candy forgot to name the two CC representatives also on the panel, Esme C and Amy L.) We’re all experienced comrades who are active in the party and a number of us have experience of dealing with people who have experience of rape or abuse.”

    I make that 5 or 6 women out of 7, depending on the sex of Pat S

    Karen R (who reported back)
    Rhetta M
    Maxine B
    Pat S
    Esme C
    Amy L


    Dave S”

    Were they all brainwashed or hamstrung by the structures?

    I’m not going to speculate here, but some commentary from people in the political wing would be interesting.

  2. January 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Pat S is male. Know him well. He’s the only one IMHO who comes out of the affair with a smidgeon of integrity. I’ve blogged on the internal culture of the SWP (I was a member for 10 years) and why it’s led to this mess here –


  3. Jien
    February 3, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    The most intriguing issue raised by the SWP crisis is why so many decent revolutionaries end up in cults that reproduce all the worst aspects of capitalist society. There are no easy answers to this question but the following writings help make some sense of the situation:

    Janja Lalich, ‘Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults’ – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=D1Ayf63SfnwC&printsec=frontcover&source=#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Martha Grace Duncan, ‘Only the Marlboro Man: A Psychological Study of a Political Agitator’, Political Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1987) – http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3791298?uid=3737968&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101623096391

    Daniel Shaw, ‘Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective’ – http://www.danielshawlcsw.com/traumabusecults.pdf

    Simon Pirani, ‘The break-up of the WRP – from the horse’s mouth’ – http://piraniarchive.wordpress.com/home/investigations-campaigns-and-other-stuff/the-break-up-of-the-wrp-from-the-horses-mouth/

    Maurice Brinton, ‘Suicide for socialism?’ – http://libcom.org/library/suicide-for-socialism-jonestown-brinton

    Andy Wilson, ‘Imputed consciousness and left organisations’ – http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/884/imputed-consciousness-and-left-organisations

    Dennis Tourish, Tim Wohlforth, ‘On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left’ – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xXcsNRUuHEUC&printsec=frontcover&source=#v=onepage&q&f=false

    John Sullivan, ‘As Soon As This Pub Closes’ – http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/critiques/sullivan/pub-index.html

  1. January 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm
  2. April 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm
  3. May 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm

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