Read Anna Chen’s collection of poetry, Reaching for My Gnu, now an eBook.
It’s International Women’s weekend, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are having their special crisis conference tomorrow and more allegations of the crummy way the SWP treats their women members are coming to light. I’m reposting an updated version of my SWP Sex Implosion piece from last month.
[UPDATED VERSION OCTOBER 2013 HERE]
When you treat human beings as disposable things in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome.
The recent rape allegations that have sent the SWP into freefall and a near fatal crisis are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the organisation. The alleged sex abuse seems to have been of a different order to that of the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s and 80s: Gerry Healy regularly raped women activists and the WRP’s internal regime was straightforwardly violent. I was a member of the SWP between 1996 and 2001, and running the press operation for Globalise Resistance (Gr), Socialist Alliance (SA), Stop The War Coalition (STWC) and Media Workers Against the War (MWAW) until 2003. If anything, I found the leading men in the SWP curiously sexless and not half as attractive as the women, and can count the episodes of sex pesting I heard about on the fingers of one hand (without the thumb).
There was the guy who we jokingly named the Lothario of the Left, who seemed all talk and no trousers (he wished!) and who I thought posed no real threat beyond being a bit of a pain in the butt (he wished!). The more serious rumours concerned one senior member of the central committee (now dead) who was said to be so predatory when he was drunk that his close comrades had to keep him away from young women.
Now there’s the case of an SWP woman comrade who has accused a senior party member of rape when she was 17 and he 46 — and the widespread horror at the way they dealt with it. I’ve only read the kangaroo court transcript and the cryptic comments at SU and seen SWP males up close. What I suspect was happening was that two odd-looking men (politics being showbiz for ugly people) were so repressed that, when they were in proximity to female activists, the power of their party status went to their heads.
This has its roots not only in society but in the culture of the organisation. It’s all very well the SWP flaming their critics, but this has been building for years. They continue to stick their fingers in their ears when they should have been addressing the objectification of their own members.
I can empathise totally with Comrade W, a woman who has struggled to get a fair hearing, sympathy and respect from her comrades, not to mention an overhaul of dodgy practises, over two years or more and then in desperation went for broke and reported it to the party’s internal disputes committee. Subsequent events are a clear marker of how far they have degenerated and they don’t even know it.
The cases of sexual abuse now surfacing are a symptom of a deeper problem inside the left. Whether it’s ripping off their activists for wages, thieving their intellectual efforts and claiming credit for their successes, ignoring patterns of abuse has emboldened the abusers and led to a diminishing regard for their members until the logical conclusion of that trajectory — where even someone’s body is no longer their own — is reached. And here we are at that particular terminus.
As one former SWP member says in today’s Guardian report on the matter:
She added that she was coming forward two years later because she believes the SWP is a dangerous environment for women: “I want people to know it’s a systemic thing. They’ve done this a few times, covered things up in the interests of the party and it’s a dangerous environment to be in.”
One long violation and shakedown.
In my own case, working full-time for no pay on the SWP’s press over several years while being subjected to their own form of obedience training left me heavily in debt and marvelling at my own stupidity.
When I joined in 1996, the SWP had no active press office yet complained bitterly that the bourgeois press always ignored them. “Did you issue press releases for your events?”, I asked. No they didn’t, evidently expecting the press to pluck their activities from the ether and report them. Ah, I can help here, I thought. And so began my complicity in my own exploitation for the next few years.
Paul Foot may have called me “the best press officer in the country” but that hasn’t stopped me being Stalinised by the left.
In my bid to help out and make a difference, I established and ran the press for their Globalise Resistance, Socialist Alliance (SA) and Stop the War Coalition (STWC) campaigns (I should have been working on my own writing), but however many hours I worked (all unpaid), it was never enough for them. You can be behind the computer from 8am to gone midnight on their behalf when everyone else is earning a living, but if the district organiser demands you attend a paper sale at 6am you must do it — even if only she and one other turn up and no-one else in the whole of West London does — and you only sell one paper. There’s no sense to it except as obedience-training. If the central committee head honcho tells you, f’rinstance, to screw over friends and sympathisers Paul Mason and Dave Osler (and, later, RMT’s Greg Tucker) out of bloody mindedness when they’ve done an excellent job, to refuse to obey their authorit-eye, as I did, is to invite the SWP’s collective wrath.
The head honcho I refer to here had offered me patronage when I’d mistakenly assumed his encouragement was appreciation of new blood. If only I’d realised before the sun went down that it was new blood in the way Transylvanian children of the night appreciate new blood, I’d have ridden the first coach outta town. My aim had been to bring any skills I might have into the organisation and leave it in a better shape than I found it — those skills chiefly being the ones I’d learned from the talented arts publicists who’d gained me a stack of press for my performance work. As a result the media were beginning to take notice and a strange glint was appearing in the comrades’ eyes.
I think I even did some good. When Steve Godward, firefighter, and SA executive member and candidate for Birmingham Erdington in the 2001 general election, was targeted by the far right, he was hung out to dry by head honcho who dismissed him as “not representing anyone”. Shocked by this betrayal of one of our own, I refused to abandon him and managed to get a small mention of the far right threat in the Mirror, as well as writing and issuing press releases for him when his own FBU cut up rough. I got SA and STWC spokespersons media interviews, always declining invitations from producers to speak once I’d briefed them, as I didn’t want even a suspicion that I might be using this to build a media profile for myself (as it turned out others were effectively doing) — that’s what my art is for. I was rigorous about that. The only time I spoke in the media about the SA was when I was invited by BBC Radio 5 Live to be on Nicky Campbell’s programme in the capacity as writer and performer, which I turned into an opportunity to talk about why I felt the SA was necessary.
I was pleased to be asked to write for the International Socialism Journal which head honcho edited (pieces on Sergei Eisenstein and George Orwell). I was glad that the Socialist Review magazine — edited by one of his girlfriends — could use my cultural reviews. I was happy to help out proof-reading in the printshop (for this I received £20 per day once in a blue moon). And being trolley-dolly looking after the outside speakers at their annual Marxism events was fun, in parts.
However, head honcho’s sudden announcement that I was now on the Socialist Review editorial board was an unpaid duty too much (the others were all full-timers on the party payroll or had jobs). I was supposed to acquiesce to this command because of the star-fuckery honour of attending meetings at Paul Foot’s house. As magnificent as Paul was (I did his national press when he stood for the SA) it was yet one more time-killer and space-filler. On top of this, I was told I was to be the party’s press officer — with no consultation with me — when all I wanted to do was train up members to engage with the media (which they refused to allow). You can politely decline all you want but this sort of disobedience drives them several degrees off Sanity Central.
I’d tried to be a principled comrade, helping other members of the left. To name but three examples: doing the PR that broke SWP’s China Miéville into the public eye for free when he sought me out, complaining that his publisher wasn’t making him famous and that the SWP and their Bloomsbury shop Bookmarks were ignoring his brilliance — also lobbying for him inside the party until they started to feature him in activities; free publicity for SA chair Liz Davies’ book Through the Looking Glass; and in 1999 paying one skint SWP aristocracy member a fiver an hour we couldn’t afford for 4 hours cleaning per week (her idea and a fiver more per hour than I was getting for my labour for her party), and nearly taking out a £600 overdraft for her rent arrears before we realised her SWP parents were a lot better off than we were with well-paid full-time jobs. Quite often I’d feed her a hot meal and we’d talk politics during allotted work hours, her correcting me and explaining why I was petit bourgeois because I was an art worker and we were all atomised. (Art workers take note that the SWP regard you as not of “the Class”.) Others were telling me I was petit bourgeois because I was Chinese and we all work in catering — not racist, then.
But no good turn goes unpunished and the blowback from these instances was typical of the irrational spite and fury permeating much of the left. All that talk of “comradeship” and yet I realised no-one ever had my back. Maybe it was something I’d done, something I said? But when I asked if I’d done something wrong either politically or personally to deserve the hostility I was getting, head honcho merely muttered that I was “exemplary”. He still wouldn’t tackle the bullying, though.
You take someone who’s marginalised in society, marginalise them some more and then call it socialism.
There is a tide in the affairs of men, and so on. Instead of riding the wave of my fledgling career as a writer and performer, I’d jumped off it in order to service, not the revolution, but some fairly unpleasant middle-management types who wouldn’t have been looked at twice had they not climbed the greasy pole of the SWP.
I’d decided to rent out my flat for a year and move in with my boyfriend in order to write my book, Coolie, about the strike by several thousand Chinese workers on the American trans-continental railroad in the 1860s. Once fees and expenses were paid, that would allow me to live frugally. Yet here I was in 2001, four years later with nothing written because every minute of time and every inch of psychic space now belonged to The Party, going deeper and deeper into debt for them.
Mike Marqusee stated that, for the SA, I’d done single-handedly the equivalent of the Countryside Alliance’s 6 full-time paid press officers and their support with “flair and imagination”.
The Weekly Worker called my unprecedented press successes “uncanny”.
John Rees described my work as being akin to turning a tanker around mid-ocean and like mining for diamonds.
The SWP had joined the STWC shortly after it had been co-founded by CND around 1991 during the first Gulf war. However, despite Paul Foot and the SWP trying to revive it for the Kosovo conflict in 1999, STWC had never made much of an impact and was clearly moribund by 2001. The initial protests following the 9/11 attacks were organised as a three-way partnership between CND, the Muslim Association of Britain and the now SWP-led STWC.
Everyone dreaded the inevitable attack on Iraq by the US and its allies, which would probably include Britain. Immediately after the attacks, I set out to wear down UK media resistance to the anti-war argument at national level by assorted means. I did this on my own with Marqusee writing most of the press releases because the SWP refused to even try working with the media, largely confining themselves to coordinating demonstrations. “We don’t work with the bourgeois press. They never take any notice of what we do.” Both in the regions and in London, a handful of left activists who engaged with local media would eventually emerge organically, but at the national level, the STW/SWP leaders refused my request to recruit press officers to help, or for me to train some. However, by having one person on the front line on the phone and email, making sure that the media knew the STWC arguments and activities throughout, we managed to wrest the anti-war brand from the CND in favour of STWC. Otherwise, these would have been just more demos and meetings organised by the usual suspects and ignored by the press.
It was a slow process. I eventually got Richard Sambrook, Head of BBC News, on the back foot concerning severe under-reporting of numbers at a series of our anti-war demonstrations. There had been lots of grief on the left about this, with some good commentary from John Pilger, but no-one had battled the issue on the ground. My repeated complaints to Sambrook (with and without big STWC names on my communications) were brushed off until, by appealing directly to BBC Director General Greg Dyke, I managed to get a defensive response from him. This advantage was then wasted when none of our STWC leaders (mostly SWP and now Counterfire) and figureheads responded to my communications concerning this development, discussed strategy with me, advised me or instructed me on how we should take this further, let alone took it further themselves.
Now, you can write as many long screeds as you like but without someone yelling at the media to pay attention, you may as well send it up the chimney. Not that you’d know that from the sources who are now claiming press credit in the histories while giving me a Stalinesque airbrushing-out — naughty!
To have done all that work when no-one wanted to know and then watch Certain Parties fall over themselves to lay claim to it once something was up for grabs is not an edifying sight. No sirree, not by a long chalk. As an exercise in capitalist expropriation, this class (and gender and race) act on the part of the comrades is a wonder to behold.
The personal is political even on Planet SWP
Surely, Anna, I hear you say, it was worth it for the greater good what you done? Well, no, sadly. Head honcho took an axe to the Socialist Alliance to get into bed with the Birmingham mosque and then Respect. Then he did … er … more stupid things in Respect and, several years after I’d pointed out some questionable behaviour and been stuffed for it, he and his mates had to leave the SWP to form Crossfire or Counterfire, whatever the splinter’s called. But I get ahead of myself. And the class should never be premature for then down comes the big Monty Python foot.
Even the big anti-Iraq war demo ten years ago in February 2003 wasn’t immune. What a backstabbing palaver that turned out to be. Head honcho’s SWP side running the STWC were alarmed by the magnitude of the anger over the coming war and during one critical period instructed their members in the SWP via Party Notes not to build the demo, leaving it to the Socialist Alliance to mobilise (with the notable help of some/a few/several honourable SWP members in the provinces who effectively blew a big raspberry and carried on regardless).
Then Birmingham, the biggest and strongest STWC branch, was purged. The hippies who put together the amazing Peace Not War CD as a fund-raiser and cultural response to the impending war were screwed over. When a Jewish socialist group requested platform time to speak against the war, they were refused on the grounds that their presence would alienate Muslims. The guy who’d made their case protested and was told that “you people” were “too sensitive.” I was banned from doing the press on the day but went ahead and worked from home anyway, getting Bianca Jagger and Americans Against the War followed on the march by ITN, doing what I’d been doing all along … Oy veh, it got FUGLY.
That huge demo was built on the spine of the SA and yet the SA chair was denied a place on the platform while Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was welcomed with open arms … and then promptly supported “our boys” once action started. And where’s it all gone, anyway? If the SWP, Counterfire and STWC claim 1 to 2 million were on the march, then they have to give a good account of where they’ve all gone, ’cause it’s not into the left movement.
All that energy and good will from the biggest demonstration in modern British history should surely have led to action in the tradition of the Greenham Common cruise missile protests or the Faslane sit-ins. Independently, two train drivers stopped an ammo train and students held a protest, but the STWC’s leading SWP Rees/German axis declared direct action and civil disobedience to be elitist. Nothing further bar the usual march came from STW. They just sat on it while many thousands of innocents died, Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed and JP Morgan led the syphoning off of the nation’s assets.
Even worse. We now know that the SWP leadership of the STWC took the decision not to mobilise our forces on the most important date — the parliamentary vote on whether to go to war. This happened in March 2003, only weeks after the biggest protest in British history and on the day when there was a real chance we could have stopped the war. Labour MPs had promised to vote against the war but, without a massive protest outside, they were easily whipped into toeing the Blairite line. Let’s ask again: who gains?
What a waste. What a monumental dereliction of socialist duty. If only they’d put more energy into achieving our goal instead of acquiring personal power, status and all the capitalist baubles we’re supposed to reject, we might not have stopped the war but we’d have made it a harder ride for pro-war forces and come out of this with a strengthened left.
Love-bombing SWP stylee
In the eighteen months of love-bombing it took to recruit me, I received numerous assurances of SWP superiority when it came to human relations. Tony Cliff’s partner, a dear sweet but fiery old lady called Chanie Rosenberg, would do her turn on the platform at conferences, making it clear how, perhaps not every sperm, but every member was sacred. “Like gold dust.”
More iron pyrites than gold, I’m afraid.
How many SWP staff are employed at below Living Wage rates and with no workplace trade union representation?
I looked from pig to man and then man to pig and then back again and already it was impossible to tell who’d look better in a bacon sandwich. Then I looked a bit harder and realised that the senior women had been part of what I once rudely called the “fuck-circuit”: two power couples at the top; a complicated nexus of, ahem, “relationships” over the years; Lindsey calling me into a room at SWP HQ (said to be swept for bugs) to grill me on my new boyfriend. They are OK if you come already attached to a partner but woe betide you if you change partners and the lucky fella’s not from the SWP pool. As the sympathetic partner of a senior member told me regarding my treatment, “It’s because you’re not available.” Mostly, it’s less about sexual coercion and more about idiotic ego.
Once head honcho finally got himself a new special friend, she waltzed over and told me in a most unsisterly fashion that she was doing my job so there! Which would have been lovely had she done the work. That would have been difficult, however, as she was allowed to make a living at a paying job, but the status I’d built up from sheer hard slog over the years made the sweetest love token when handed over on a plate by her beau.
Still, if that’s how the SWP and their spin-offs like it — it’s their party and their choice. However, they shouldn’t be surprised when opponents of women’s oppression challenge the lip-service.
We need a strong left that is able to counter the coalition’s attacks on the working and middle classes that are looking like something out of the Enclosures movement. However, like anyone else who ever looked at the disgusting state of the world and wanted to do something about it, I never signed up for SWP abuse and I certainly never signed up for their omerta that they go around imposing on errant former members on pain of The Treatment. It is important that this stuff gets aired for so many reasons. If they can’t, after all this grief, look at themselves honestly, then they deserve everything they’re getting. And the working class is better off without them.
So, sister W, I sympathise and feel your pain. You learned the hard way that there is little solidarity or comradeship in that tiny corner of the left. I wish you the best of luck in rebuilding your confidence and your self-esteem. Your new life starts here.
What are we up against?
One of Comrade W’s friends spoke up for her at the conference:
“The first thing I want to say is that the complainant in this case frequently asked to come to this session, so she could be aware of what’s being said about her, because it is her case after all. She was prepared to speak out so that people could hear about her experiences and learn from what’s happened here, so that it wouldn’t happen again. But she was denied that right by the CC.
She was questioned about why she went for a drink with him, her witnesses were repeatedly asked whether she’d been in a relationship with him, and you know, she was asked about (The chair begins to talk over X to warn about providing details) … she was asked about relationships with other comrades including sexual relationships. All this was irrelevant to the case.
We’ve got a proud tradition in the party of rejecting that line of questioning by the state. This is about consent. To date she hasn’t been told what evidence was presented against her by Comrade Delta and by his witnesses. She felt she was being interrogated and felt they were trying to catch her out in order to make her out to be a liar. She did not accept the line of questioning, saying ‘they think I’m a slut who asked for it’.”
“Her treatment afterwards has been worse. She feels completely betrayed. … The disgusting lies and gossip going round about her has been really distressing and disappointing for her to hear, and the way her own witnesses have been treated in Birmingham hasn’t been much better. … Is it right that a young woman has to plan her route to work avoiding paper-sellers, or that she comes away from a meeting crying because people refuse to speak to her? Is it right that her witnesses are questioned about their commitment to the party because they missed a branch meeting?”
It’s what they do.
Anna Chen writes about the state of the party in 2003 in A Bad Case of the Trots.
The left’s invisibility bomb. How’s that liberation thing going for you?
Anna Chen’s poem “What is Filth?” inspired by Pat Stack’s blogging “filth” comment.
SWP breakaway Counterfire group leads People’s Assembly: a public health warning.
Soviet Goon Boy on wtf’s wrong with these people?!
I’ve had several SWP goons going for me on Twitter. Here’s the latest. Hilarious.
The Guardian on more sex pest allegations inside the SWP.
Nick Cohen adds his take to the recent SWP mess — the point I was making, that this was no Workers Revolutionary Party Gerry Healy case, gets missed: Why leftist revolutionaries are not the best feminists.
Some analysis on why this happened and the “logic to the madness”: Leninism and the 21st Century.
Tendence Coatsey on the SWP Crisis
A Marxist perspective in “Feminism is a dirty word”
My Guardian article on Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45: Ethnically cleansing working class history.
My review of Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45.
How was anti-Iraq war demo energy frittered away? Demobilising the STWC on the most crucial day of the anti-war movement.
Anna’s food blog here: