The Socialist Workers Party and the Rape Committee: When organisations become cults

[As the title suggests, this post contains possible triggers for rape]

Part of my interest in the (lack of) regulation of psychotherapy is to do with what happens when organisations and ideologies can accountable only to themselves. When the only idea of “correct” and “proper” conduct is that which a closed organisation says it is, then that organisation becomes, for want of a better word, a cult.

A pretty shocking example of an organisation behaving as a cult emerged on the blogosphere in the past couple of days. The Socialist Workers Party has always been a rather strange little organisation, albeit one that has at times punched above its weight politically. If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of protest march or rally, chances are you’ll have spotted them turning up, handing out placards, trying to sell copies of their magazine, the indescribably-boring Socialist Worker, and generally trying to convert the whole shebang into their event. If you were unlucky to have a conversation with any of them, you’d have no doubt been regaled with a Citizen Smith view of the world followed by a look of, “This is what you think, don’t you?”

Yesterday a transcript of an SWP conference was leaked onto the internet. A senior member of their party (referred to only as “Comrade Delta”) had been accused of rape by a female member. Unbelievably, the party’s Central Committee didn’t call the police, but referred it to their “disputes committee”. As the transcript freely admits, several members of this committee were friends of Comrade Delta.

The committee found Comrade Delta not guilty of rape. Admittedly rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prove, often coming down to one person’s word against another, it’s incredible that they set up some kind of kangaroo court to attempt to deal with what is, after all, a very serious crime. One conference attendee even stated, “Comrades, we have to welcome the fact that we have a disputes committee. We have no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice.” And an ad hoc tribunal of his mates could deliver justice? And what exactly did they plan to do if the allegation had been found proven? Build a proletarian prison?

There’s all kinds of allegations in the transcript about the way the complainant (as well as a second woman who made further allegations) were treated by the committee. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the truth or otherwise of these allegations, but their nature is deeply concerning.

While the left has usually allied itself with feminism, this isn’t the first time a far-left group has been the subject of claims of sexual abuse. The Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1980s is a notorious example. It attracted celebrities such as Vanessa Redgrave until their leader Gerry Healey was accused of sexually assaulting up to 26 female members. The allegations blew the party apart.

This contemporary version of that infamous case is currently being hotly debated among the various Trotskyist groupuscules. I notice people are already making statements such as, “As you’re well aware, there’s a serious possibility that such a case could be used by the state to damage the whole organisation.” I suspect that in practice “the state” won’t have to do a thing. They’re already doing a more effective job of destroying themselves than MI5 ever could.

Arguably this case isn’t so much about the far-left as about what happens when a group thinks it is definable by and accountable to only itself. It paves the way for the abuse of power – which ironically is what cults like the SWP claim to be against.




26 Responses to “The Socialist Workers Party and the Rape Committee: When organisations become cults”

  1. If, as is the case for many revolutionary socialist organisations, cooperating with the police over matters like this would be a violation of deeply held political principles – not least on account of the possibility that state officials would use any litigation to damage them – then what other option is there but an internal investigation, however inadequate that might be?

    • Oh codswallop. The SWP didn’t adhere to principles. They failed to report a crime. I don’t care about their entirely imaginary revolution. Such acts are not punishable by expulsion from a party. They’re punishable with prison.

  2. Surely rape should go against their ‘deeply held principles’ as well.

  3. Of course rape should (and does) go against their deeply held principles. But it does not follow that the organisation should overturn its founding principles and invite state officials to deal with the matter. Was it actually the place of the SWP to report an alleged crime that it didn’t witness? Isn’t that the prerogative of the victims? What if the victims want no truck with the police and the courts either, because they share the SWP’s views about the state – as seems likely given they were or are party members?

    Of course, you can say ‘well they ought to trust the system’, or ‘at least the system is better than they are’, but that involves a political argument about how socialists should relate to the state and under what circumstances. From a socialist perspective, it isn’t as blindingly obvious as you suggest.

    • Was it actually the place of the SWP to report an alleged crime that it didn’t witness?

      Possibly, or possibly not. But it certainly wasn’t their place to set up some kangaroo court committee, stuffed to the gills with mates of the accused, to conduct an amateur investigation.

      And after all, what were they going to do if they found him guilty? It’s not as if they can build a prison for him.

      Of course, you can say ‘well they ought to trust the system’, or ‘at least the system is better than they are’, but that involves a political argument about how socialists should relate to the state and under what circumstances.

      Sorry if I’m getting confused, but are you suggesting that rape allegations against socialists should be treated differently to allegations against non-socialists?

      From a socialist perspective, it isn’t as blindingly obvious as you suggest.

      From reading through the various debates taking place on socialist blogs, it seems that there are plenty of socialists out there who think it is indeed blindingly obvious that this should have been treated as a police matter.

    • Christ

      *shakes head*

      It’s hard to work out what’s more repellent – the actions of the SWP or apologia for their actions.

  4. Sounds like he ‘seized her means of production’, amirite?

    That’s not a rape joke, by the way, it’s a Marx joke.

  5. And I’m making that joke because this situation is so ridiculous and obviously wrong that no serious criticism would do it justice.

  6. “Sorry if I’m getting confused, but are you suggesting that rape allegations against socialists should be treated differently to allegations against non-socialists”?

    Of course I’m not saying the state should treat socialists and non-socialists differently. I’m saying socialists take a different view about the nature of state agencies than non-socialists – especially the police. You know the arguments: institutionally racist, sexist anti-working class and so-on. The alleged victims are SWP members and didn’t report the matter, so obviously (and unsurprisingly) they share its perspective on the police and judicial system – unlike the socialist blogosphere, which seems to have lost all its critical faculties in the clamour to get X before the courts.

    Isn’t the implication of what you are saying that the SWP should have referred the case to the police over the heads and against the wishes of the alleged victims – i.e. by betraying their trust? That doesn’t sound right to me – partly because it must surely be their decision and partly because if they refused to cooperate, as seems highly likely, there would be nothing the police could do anyway. So, it comes down to the question of whether the alleged victims should be compelled to cooperate with the police. That sounds like double-victimisation to me.

    To be clear, I’m not condoning or condemning the outcome of the disputes committee hearing – I am in no position to judge. Perhaps you are right that the SWP should have refused to hear the case, but remember that the only reason the disputes committee (appointed by last year’s conference) did so is because it was asked by the alleged victims.

    • The SWP should have encouraged the victims to take their accusations to the cops. It would then have been up to the victims as to whether they wanted to do that or not. The party should not have held a kangaroo court to decide the veracity or otherwise of the allegations. Simple as that.

  7. “Arguably this case isn’t so much about the far-left as about what happens when a group thinks it is definable by and accountable to only itself. It paves the way for the abuse of power – which ironically is what cults like…”

    Spot on and so the world keeps turning with this same old pattern, it is a practised art. Thanks very much for this post.

  8. It’s funny how the SWP thinks “the bourgeois court system” is good enough for Julian Assange: Maybe if Wikileaks had a “Disputes Committee” composed of his mates?

    The whole thing is appalling, particularly when you consider that this farce will have ruined any chance of the case coming before a genuine court.

    I saw Lindsey German (then) of the SWP giving a talk on women and rape many moons ago. Her message was that (due to some mysterious dialectical process she was unable to explain to me, at any rate) male sexual violence will cease to exist after the Revolution. Women should therefore get involved in the SWP and help “build the Party” for the Glorious Day.

    Now we see what “building the Party” actually means for women….

  9. Setting up their own court is the free market at work.

  10. As a brief update, it looks like Richard Seymour, one of their most prominent bloggers, is now in open rebellion against the SWP leadership.

    From browsing various far-left blogs, some seem to be speculating that this will eventually develop into a turf war over the SWP’s financial resources (which apparently are more than you might think, due to various properties and legacies).

    I suspect this saga will rumble on and on.

    • This is not a new problem. Back in the early 70s, when the noxious fumes of Mr Savile’s cigar were wafting over Top of the Flops, a certain ‘industrial organiser’-cum-regional secretary of the International Socialists, as the SWP was then called, used to tell female members wherever he went that it was their “comradely duty” to go to bed with him. I was covering a major strike for the Socialist W*nker and a crucial shop stewards’ vote was to take place about the same time the paper was going to press. He told me to write two different stories, drawing opposite conclusions, and to phone in saying which to use once the vote had happened. The last I heard of him he’d joined the SDP and was making a lot of money as a management consultant, so add hypocrisy to the list.

  11. I have been following this discussion since the first blog by Zarathustra. I find it an odd blog. There is no surprise that rape occurs within SWP or any other organisation or place of work. The victim herself needs to make the decision about what to do. Having witnessed rape victims making statements to the police, I can understand anyone not wanting to go through that- it is re-traumatising. What the SWP have done is not surprising either- most revolutionary groups and marginal communities respond in the same way. I do remember a child protection case in London involving the Orthodox Jewish community; social services were brought in and the person who reported the issue was severely criticised and verbally attacked within their community for doing so- it is when groups feel (and are) under attack that this defensive response is generated. Given Zarathustra’s interest in psychotherapy I thought she might get that. Why she brings Gilead Atzmon into it is beyond me- I read his blog and I didn’t read it as a defence of rape. He is a fine musician and is very brave in his criticism of Israel (even if you don’t agree with all of it).
    The SWP is not a cult- having worked with victims of cults, I would say that the defining criteria of a cult is the ability to leave. The ex membership of the SWP must be a very large band- many manyhave left. The swipe about money is underhand and reads as a bit of rabble rousing; every left group has accusations about being paid; either by the state, or outside bodies- it used to be said that Ghadaffi was funding the WRP, when I was a teenage trotskyist, we were accused of taking “Moscow Gold” (I’m that old). I also remeber accusations against Gerry Healy (WRP) after he died;and these seemed credible to me. The “left “(whatever is is, didn’t think it existed any more) still needs to learn from feminism- George Galloways recent comments being an example.I am unclear why the mention in the blog of famous people who wer/are in the SWP. Just for the record, I very much doubt that Julie Burchill was ever in the SWP- as the late Dave Widgery said at the time: she is the sole founder and member of the Julie Burchill appreciation society (thats papraphrasing it).
    This is not a defence of the SWP, far from it and I am not and never have been and never will be a member, and they have adopted some strange positions over the years, however blogs like Zarathustra’s really do not help anyone.

    • I think what’s been startling about the SWP case is that it exposes the control-freakery that their Central Committee has displayed over the matter. The motions being debated today at their national conference puts it into sharp relief. Also from reading the various blogs going about, it appears that this is by no means the first allegation of sexual harassment or even of rape within their party. That’s what I mean when I say they’re behaving like a cult.

      Julie Burchill was indeed a member of the SWP, albeit briefly, after meeting Paul Foot.

      I never actually said Gilad Atzmon was defending rape. I said he was attacking Jews. I’m not sure that’s in any way better.

      Also I’m not a she.

      • No offence intended- but in absence of knowledge about a persons gender, I was assume female.
        You seem to know and care a lot about all this and I think you should decalre that interest. Yes there has been these allegations for a long time- and not just SWP.
        The control freakery comes froma Leninist tradition and also years of oppression, informers, and surveillance by the state. Doesn’t excuse it and I am not doing so.
        You don’t explain why it is important that famous people were or are members.
        For myself the whole celebrity culture is odious and belongs with Murdoch et al, not a so
        soccialist group.What is your interest?
        Seems to me blogging about left groups may be the new celebrity?

      • I don’t think I have any kind of vested interest in the matter. My politics are broadly centre-left, and I’m a member of the National Health Action Party, and I was briefly involved in the Stop the War Coalition around the time of the Iraq War, but other than that I’m pretty neutral.

        Mostly I’m just interested in group dynamics and the power structures within, which may well explain why I’m currently doing family therapy training.


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