Like a kind of Miranda (from the Tempest, not the woman who falls over on BBC1) in reverse, Laurie Penny has decided the Socialist Workers’ Party is a Bad Thing.
She has looked at the comrades who hitherto she admired as part of a giant, mythological, heroic brave new world of leftwing activism, and decided they are a bunch of deluded misogynists. Actually, deluded misogynists is my term, not hers. Penny still seems to think the SWP was a Good Thing, spoiled by one or two bad apples, and rapists. She breathlessly tells her New Statesman readers:
‘Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members. Like many others on the left in Britain, I’ve had my disagreements with the SWP, but I’ve also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter.’
There are two statements that stand out from that piece of prose. The first is that ‘many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members’. So many, in fact, I’m surprised you can’t name a single one of the important thinkers and writers who are members of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Now, once upon a time, one or two people with controversial or interesting things to say had brief dalliances with the SWP: I think of great revolutionaries like Peter Hitchens, for example. Or Julie Burchill. Or Garry Bushell, who used to write for the Sun. Or Rod Liddle. There are even some people I admire who were briefly in the SWP: Christopher Hitchens, Laurie Taylor and Jim Fitzpatrick. But I can’t think of any current member of the SWP who has anything ‘important’ to say, unless you count that bloke off the News Quiz on Radio 4.
The other statement that stands out is ‘they matter’. Matter to what, to whom? The SWP matters in the sense that it must be constantly guarded against. They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel. They turn people off progressive politics for life. They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground. In these ways, they are among the most reactionary and cynical forces in politics, more than the tabloid press or rightwing blogs. But they don’t matter in the sense that they influence any part of British national life, because they don’t.
Penny’s disillusionment with the SWP stems from the recent scandal involving a woman SWP member who alleged assault and rape against a senior party official codenamed Comrade Delta. Had this occurred inside the National Trust or the Rotarians, the police would have become involved, and Britain’s criminal justice system would have creaked into action. But the SWP is a revolutionary organisation; for them the police and courts are agents of state oppression. Revolutionary justice prevailed. The alleged rapist’s mates were judge and jury, and the poor woman’s allegations were dismissed. Why are we surprised? When Marxist-Leninists have wielded actual power in other places, men have continued to control women’s lives and dismiss the politics of rape.
The rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was considered a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle by all of the Trotskyist groups. Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party was a serial rapist and abuser of young women. Aileen Jenkins, his secretary of 19 years, wrote to the WRP’s political committee with the names of 26 women Healy had raped and abused at his Clapham flat. They resolved to ask him to stop it.
In the 1970s the SWP thought that:
‘because of its politics, its structure and its middle-class orientation the women’s liberation movement can have little left to contribute in practice…our emphasis has to be on women workers.’ (International Socialism Journal April 1974)
You might say, well that was the 1970s. We all know what went on back then. But the SWP is not an organisation whose culture and politics shapes and matures in the light of events and changing attitudes. The point about the SWP is that it believes the same things it believed in the 1960s, based on a version of the things Leon Trotsky believed in the 1930s.
I debated a leading member of the SWP central committee once at the SWP’s annual Marxism event. It was not long after the war in Iraq had started. The comrade kept referring to Vietnam when he meant Iraq. He was making the same speech he’d been making since the Tet Offensive.
So of course the SWP is packed with nasty people who dismiss a woman’s allegation of rape. These are the same people who unequivocally backed the IRA when they were putting bombs into crowded pubs and shops; who sided with the anti-gay, anti-women Islamists in the Muslim Association of Britain; who support the views of Alex Callinicos, one of the SWP ‘writers and thinkers’ that Penny so admires, who wrote in 2004 in Socialist Worker that ‘a victory for the Iraqi resistance would also be a victory for all those fighting capitalism and imperialism around the world.’
The SWP are not socialist. Their only powerbase, in the redbrick universities, suggests the term ‘workers’ is a little suspect too. They are dangerously wrong about everything, from the Middle East to gay rights. They could be easily dismissed, like people who think they’re white witches, if not for their capacity to hoodwink young people who genuinely want to change the world, and instead send them out to sell papers outside Tescos.
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