Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The SWP and all that

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.


Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics. He tweets @LabourPaul


Photo: Walt Jabsco

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Paul Richards


  • Yes I think it is worth an article. I know of a friend of mine who eschewed the labour party but was active in SWP and Respect. It is exactly people like him who are dividing opinion on left wing politics and diverting the vote from the labour party into fringe parties. He is also right about the worthies who stand outside and sell papers. On the TUC March on 20th October the SWP were the most organised political organisation present. They had a well stocked, well manned stall at each point and were clearly passionate if ‘misguided’. We could take a leaf out of their organising and recruiting strategy..

  • Debra, many of us know people who political contribution has been wasted in the cul de sac of far left organisations but look at some of the comments on Twitter re the SWP – bonkers, dangerous, unpleasant and above all do not matter. I don’t object to people becoming enlightened about the anti democratic Leninist politics of Trotskyist or Stalinist organisations, but I do question where our energies go. The far left is and has remained tiny throughout its entire history. Yes, it has damaged the mainstream left at times, particularly parasitic Militant inside the Labour Party, but it has never spoken to the broad coalition of people that social democracy needs to bring together to win elections.

  • Why is supporting the Iraqi resistance against an illegal and imperialist invasion so terrible?

  • Alot of time and effort could have been saved in this article by simply stating that the SWP is merely a collection of dangerously deluded intellectuals and socially disenchated individuals who attempt to cramb the complications and contradictions of common reality into an outdated theory that provides simple and appeasing answers.
    The very fact that the SWP exists with its 6,000 members or so, poses a problem Labour only so far as the people associated with it feel that society has little to offer them. Intellectuals crave power, while ordinary individuals simple desire belonging. It Labour desires to eradicate the SWP, it would be best to ameliorate the tensions that caused its creation in the first place.

  • It is the failure of social democracy to tackle capitalism radically and seriously that gives marginal groups credibility, especially among young activists. Labour needs to rediscover its original radicalism if it wants to win these energetic young people to the cause.

  • This article trivialises a serious case of alleged rape to go in for student union level trot bashing. You say “The rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was considered a bourgeois
    distraction from the class struggle by all of the Trotskyist groups.”. Thats just not true. The International Marxist Group (IMG), Workers Fight (later called Socialist Organisor and now called the Alliance for Workers Liberty) and even the SWP when it was the IS take the womens movement seriously and interevened in it. Have you never heard of the Grunwick dispute, Women Against Pit Closures or Greenham Common. Trots played roles in all these campaigns There were trot groups in that period who did denounce feminism as a distraction- Militant, WRP, SWP from the late 70s onwards.

    Organisations of any political stripe can fall victim to a leading member exploiting their position. Its how they handle it that matters. The SWP failed the test because there leadership was so full of hubris they thought their internal party discipline could deal with such a serious case. Now many of their members are horryfied at this, the vote on the issue just squeezed through and just look at statements from Richard Seymour and China Mieville-
    Lets not kid ouselves about the police and the chance of prosecution for rape. However the comrade making the accusation should have been advised to go to the police.

  • Plus the trot bashing has a faint whiff of some of the origins
    of Blairism, New Labour and Progress in the Trendy faction inside the
    Communist Party of Great Britain, a pretty noxious organisation that
    mangled the left much more then any of the trot groups mentioned. Only
    the commitment to stalinist slander, obssession with words like,
    “progress”, “peoples government”, “New” and the obssesion with forming a
    coalition with Lib Dems and progressive tories remains (what the
    stalinists call a Popular Front).

  • Yes, it is odd, isn’t it Paul? How come such a ragtag bunch of losers continue on from decade to decade? They don’t win elections. They know nothing of voter-id and demographic databases. They are deluded and dangerous people who – unlike us who are the real thing – imagine they’re Socialists. When really they are more like people who believe in white witches.

    Apparently, the SWP’s class claims are completely spurious. Unlike the vast majority of Labour MPs and candidates, the SWP aren’t real “workers” but suspect groups of students and intellectuals. (Who knows, some of them may even be closet lawyers and TV personalities?)

    Worse still. Their membership didn’t go to Oxbridge but to “red brick universities”. Now there’s a term I haven’t heard for thirty(?) years. Although weren’t those redbrick arrivistes long ago welcomed into something posh called the Russell Group?

    You think the SWP “don’t matter in the sense that they influence any part of British national life, because they don’t”. But at the same time, you watch them: “sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel”. These wrungsters are eventually “turned off progressive politics for life.” But in the meantime: “They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground”.

    To me that sounds like the SWP do matter – negatively and rather a lot.

    But perhaps this tiny, dangerously wrong, stuck-in-the-past, white witch, flat earth sect, poses you a central problem you haven’t named: its mysterious and unexplained success. Apart from simply surviving, that is.

    Because it seems to have no problem raising funds (from its members?) and printing a regular newspaper. It continues not just to “hoodwink” new generations of idealistic young people who want to change the world, but it gets them out on the street selling the paper.

    Perhaps you are also dismayed by its lively website. Also, as you mention, the SWP’s Marxism event which taps into the major debates on the left. Why, it even has the cheek to invite you to speak! And while it can take the reactionary positions you list, it also campaigns against climate change. And against Michael Gove’s Neocon policies on academies and privatised education.

    I’ve been a Labour member for some forty years, and represent a Tottenham ward in one of the poorest parts of London – and where the riot began in 2011. If we didn’t have enough to worry about we are one of the Government’s guinea pigs for its Welfare Deforms. (Which means residents here are going to lose money earlier and faster than the rest of the UK.)

    Of course, our problems wouldn’t be helped by an opportunistic intervention from the SWP. But they might be better understood and tackled if the Labour Party took seriously some of the left-wing ideas now current and which the SWP does engage with. (A key example is the work of David Harvey.)

    Alan Stanton
    Tottenham Hale ward councillor

  • Important SWP members? Surely Paul Foot counts as someone who had some influence in his day. And Roger Protz has been influential since he left them and worked with CAMRA. Also Michael Rosen, while not a member, has always seemed to go along with their way of thinking and attitude.

    But I suspect what is happening now wil be, to coin a phrase, the Death Agony of the SWP. The Friends of Laurie Penny will have to fight the CC (for their cred) before being expelled or leaving. Their supporters will follow.

    As for the rest. Let’s wait and see. Can the CC really expect their Rank and File to organise events for International Women’s Day without a huge stinking row breaking out within their ranks?

  • “We could take a leaf out of their [the SWP] organising and recruiting strategy.. ”

    Goodness me! Their organising strategy amounts to keeping a self-replicating unaccountable elite – the Central Committee – at arms length from a powerless membership. Dissent is rewarded with smears and expulsions.

    And their recruiting strategy targets a continual churn of undergraduates – who soon become disillusioned. The active membership must now be fewer than 2000 even though one might assume the current economic crisis to be their greatest opportunity.

    Is this the way to go? Only if your ambition is irrelevance.

  • Because the ‘Iraqi resistance’ is simply your name for a bunch of Islamist fascists trying to bomb their fellow Iraqis into a fundamentalist tyranny (including by indiscriminately murdering thousands of innocent Iraqis. I for one am proud of the British and other troops who fought to try to prevent this fascist menace. Your support for these fascist thugs tells me everything I need to know about you.

  • “They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel.”

    Hahaha yep, that’s exactly what they did to me last year. Started uni and thought it would it be neat to get into socialist politics. It was not very neat at all. ¬¬

  • ah! memories from 40 years ago when I was young and idealistic and thought SWP and WRP were the answers to the question,until I realised that the far left and the far right actually join up just like a circle and meet each other like looking in a mirror. No wonder the likes of Peter Hitchen went from far left to far right as they are in reality, the same.

  • Hi Alan, also a Labour Party member for thirty years (in Tottenham as it happens and previously in Hackney and Croydon) and someone who never joined the SWP but did spend some time in a Trot group (I am sure you can guess which one) I agree with you nit only up to a point. The SWP does get out on the streets, does attract young people into politics and can sometimes make effective campaigners as long as they are running the campaign. But as someone who worked for a major UK public service union for ten years under a Labour Government I can testify that the SWP central Ctte has no desire to see improvements for working people, attacks union leaders as much as it does employers and frequently substitutes its own view for that of the workers. Its opportunistic and ultra leftist antics are actually destructive to union organisation. It has probably created more ex activists than any other party and I think its overall legacy is not a positive one. For example. whilst rejecting pragmatism in industrial relations it went into alliance with reactionary elements in the Muslim community in 2003-2009 including ditching socialist principle such as defending gay rights and taken a very dubious line on the so called “Iraqi resistance” . AS a anti BNP campaigner I saw at first hard its sectarian tactical blundering often backfired. Finally as a Tottenham councillor I am sure you are aware that it denounces Labour and in particular our local Labour MP. In August 2011 its paper came pretty close to endorsing the actions of those who destroyed large parts of our community and by using revolutionary rhetoric that inflamed feelings was irresponsible in the extreme. Its recent response to the rape allegation is reprehensible by any standard of morality and it has reaped the result. Its best elements have left and gone into other groups. Hopefully its absence will help lead more people that want to fight for real progress into Labour.
    ps btw the SWP is actually pretty dismissive of David Harvey marxist sociologist and I am not that convinced by him either. Manuel Castells I think is a bette sociologist but I would recommend David Lammy’s MP for Totteham book Out of the Ashes for more insightful analysis of the issues behind the events of August 2011 and suggestions on a way forward.

    Yours in Solidarity as I used to say when I was s teenage Trotskyist and believed I would live to see the the death agonies of capitalism rather than those of the SWP.

    Comrade W ( the SWP only ever use initials so will I)

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