Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2013
The economy is in free-fall, the government is stumbling from crisis to crisis, Labour is somnambulant … but what has the British left been talking about this past month? Online transsexuals bullying the feminist journalist Suzanne Moore about an article in the New Statesman – and an extraordinary bust-up in the Socialist Workers Party over an allegation of rape against a senior male member.
The storm over the ugly threats to Moore has had more media coverage – in part because Julie Burchill responded to them by accepting a commission to write an incendiary piece for the Observer lampooning what she called “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing”. Her article, which is very funny, was removed from the paper’s website by its editor, John Mulholland, after readers (and his editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger) complained – a quite astonishing failure of editorial nerve. I’m with Suzanne and Julie on this one: however misunderstood and oppressed you are, you don’t Tweet rape threats to the birds.
But the SWP sexual assault scandal has wider ramifications. The story is simple. Some years ago, a woman member of the party complained of sexual harassment by a party bigwig – and last year she accused him of rape. The party referred the case to its disputes committee, the members of which were friends of the accused; and the committee conducted a slapdash inquiry and found the accusation not proven. It then reported its verdict to a closed session of the party’s conference in early January – which voted to accept it, but only by the narrowest of margins.
Then the shit hit the fan. A transcript of the conference debate on the disputes committee report was sent to the Socialist Unity website by a party member disgusted by the leadership’s lack of openness on the case. This in turn was the cue for several resignations and a spate of polemics from suddenly dissident SWPers – prominent among them the writers Richard Seymour and China Miéville – loudly denouncing the party leadership they had supported unswervingly for years. The hypocrisy is breath-taking, but never mind. The SWP is now in what looks like a terminal crisis.
So what, you might think. But although the SWP doesn’t matter much, it does matter. Until this latest scandal, it was the sole survivor of the Leninist far left in Britain that could claim to be more than a website or a network of old comrades in their fifties with salaried positions in the labour movement, academia, the media and various pressure groups (though of course it was that too).
Since the early 1990s the SWP has been the biggest faction on the far left in Britain (which isn't saying much: its membership is almost certainly less than 2,000).
It was a beneficiary of the implosion of its competitors. The Communist Party of Great Britain split during the 1980s. The Eurocommunist majority abandoned Leninism to create Democratic Left (which dwindled to nothing, changed its name twice and handed over what remained of the Moscow gold to a constitutional reform pressure group). The CPGB’s Stalinist minority regrouped in the tiny Communist Party of Britain, most of whose members are now pensioners. A little later, the SWP’s main rival on the Trotskyist left, the Militant Tendency, went into catastrophic decline after it was expelled from the Labour Party (except briefly in Scotland, where it was the core of the Scottish Socialist Party until its charismatic leader Tommy Sheridan fell from grace, though that’s another story).
During the 1990s, the SWP recruited a swathe of leftists left homeless by New Labour, and after Labour won in 1997 made an opening to its rivals, setting up a party to fight elections, the Socialist Alliance, with Militant (by then the Socialist Party of England and Wales), which contested the 2001 general election. The SA won nothing, and meanwhile the brains behind the SWP got old and died: Tony Cliff (2000), Duncan Hallas (2002), Paul Foot (2004).
The SWP terminated the great Trot love-in amid recriminations, but after 9/11, the SWP threw itself into anti-war activism – and found itself new allies in the form of the Muslim Association of Britain and the maverick pro-Saddam Hussein Labour MP George Galloway. The result, after Galloway’s expulsion from Labour in 2003, was the creation of a another new electoral party, Respect, which did very well for Gorgeous George, who won Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, but not so well for the SWP, which got few recruits from the initiative and a lot of ridicule for cosying up to barmy reactionary Islamists.
The SWP left Respect and jettisoned the two leading figures most responsible for the Islamist turn, John Rees and Lindsay German, who now run a website-cum-party called Counterfire. It was obvious when they left that the party was in trouble, but it still dominated the far-left scene: every union branch had a resident SWPer. Now the party is a laughing-stock: no one will even talk to them after all this. I’m not mourning, but it’s worth noting. British Leninism is finished.