The Socialist Workers Party and the Collapse of Cults

This post is rather off-topic for this blog. However, I’ve recently been doing some family therapy training, which involves a lot of discussion about how systems change. Although I’ve kept the theorising to a bare minimum here, this post is fairly heavily influenced by the thinking I’ve been doing about systemic theory.

I’ve just come back from a short break in Prague. While there, I took the time to visit the Museum of Communism (handily situated between a McDonalds and casino, and opposite a Benetton!) and educate myself about the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the downtrodden masses of Czechoslovakia finally seized enough momentum to overthrow the Communist dictatorship. The museum contained heartbreaking footage of peaceful protesters being bloodied and battered by police thugs. All the brutality didn’t change the outcome though. The game was up, the regime had lost its authority and quickly fell. The name of Vaclav Havel, the revolution’s de facto leader (and the country’s first democratic president) now graces the airport I flew in and out of.

Arguably, the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia could be seen as just another form of cult. A self-serving clique that operates according to its own internal logic and values. As is so often the case with cults, it was no secret that the emperor had no clothes, but it took a certain set of circumstances and critical mass to bring about a collapse.

The topic of cults interests me, and as it happens we’re currently seeing an ongoing collapse of a cult, in the form of the Socialist Workers Party. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the party is in deep crisis after a female party member accused a senior figure, “Comrade Delta”, of raping her. Rather than reporting it to the police and entrusting the matter to the “bourgeois court system”, they formed a committee of Comrade Delta’s colleagues, who promptly found him not guilty. A large section of the membership, including many who were previously slavishly loyal, are now in open revolt over the matter.

The SWP have always had a reputation for being a somewhat strange and at times unpleasant organisation. Anyone who’s been involved in protest events will have had experience of them turning up, handing out placards and leaflets, and generally trying to take over. Their communication style has always been rather didactic and top-down with supposed wisdom handed down from the party leadership. The membership has always been small and often transient. People have a habit of joining in a fit of idealism, and then leaving somewhere down the line out of disillusionment with the control-freakery and intellectual stultification. The result is that those who stick it out long-term tend to be the worst kind of groupthink drones.

As is so often the case with cults, it can produce some amusingly bizarre group dynamics. In among the various online discussions about the crisis, I came across this comment by a former member.

At its most extreme, the sycophancy appears cult-like.  A number of [Central Committee] members are big fans of jazz music. Under their leadership over the past few years, the party has organised a number of (mostly loss-making) jazz gigs as fundraising events.  Regardless of their own musical tastes, comrades were told they were disloyal if they didn’t purchase tickets.  This elevates the cultural tastes of the official leadership to a point of political principle; and clearly is not in any way a healthy state of affairs.
Incidentally, the SWP’s favourite jazz musician Gilad Atzmon has published a blog post in defence of Comrade Delta and the SWP. His response to the rape allegation is – I kid you not – that it’s all the fault of the Jews. If I haven’t critiqued his argument here, it’s because it’s so obviously contemptible.

In spite of the authoritarianism, the bizarreness and the jazz, the SWP has attracted a surprising quantity of celebrity alumni over the years, like a low-rent Scientology. One wonders what current and former members such as China Mieville, Mark Steel,  Laurie Taylor and Paul Foot, all obviously-thoughtful and creative individuals, saw in such an intellectual cul-de-sac. Then again, they also have alumni such as Garry Bushell, Peter Hitchens, Julie Burchill and Rod Liddle, who simply seem to have swapped one set of thuggish certainties for another.

As is usually the case with cults, and was certainly the case in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, the rottenness was in plain view for all with eyes to see. Indeed, the rape allegation seems to have been rumbling along for years. The collapse of the cult is not due to a revelation of truth, but a systemic collapse due to a loss of internal cohesion. As in the Czech revolution, the SWP hierarchy made its attempts to restore cohesion, in one instance expelling four members who had a Facebook discussion about the allegations. Whereas previously the system was sufficiently robust that this would be sufficient to return it to its previous state, there was now enough chaos in the system that this only added fuel to the fire, giving impetus to change. Again, a similar effect happened in the run-up to the Velvet Revolution, with police brutality driving more outraged citizens to take to the streets.

If you wanted to get into systems theory about it, you could say that this was a case of a negative feedback loop turning into a positive one, thereby producing what’s referred to as a second-order change. The change will not be of individuals within the system, but change of the system itself.

Insiders on the British left seem to think that the SWP is likely to survive in some form or another, for the simple reason that they have a surprising amount of financial resources for such a small organisation. They suspect that the endgame is likely to involve a battle over who controls the cash. Even so, the party is likely to be fundamentally changed. Their own miniature Velvet Revolution now seems unstoppable.

9 thoughts on “The Socialist Workers Party and the Collapse of Cults

  1. I was under the impression that one joins the SWP to have sex. Perhaps it’s was just me (and most of 20-somethings of Derby).

  2. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps

  3. There are three issues here – there has I gather been an allegation of rape – and this is a very serious allegation. The alleged victim should make her allegation to the police, it should not be circulated on the internet or indeed the press.

    Idealogically the Socialist Workers Party has been consistent. It like many political organisations, such as Sin Fein, as the political wing of the Provisional IRA, or Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts, or indeed both the Menshiviks and Bolshiviks in Russia in 1917, are ‘open conspiracies’, that is they make no bones about the fact that they will use the democratic process to further their cause, but that democracy is expendible once their objective has been obtained. In my conversations with members and former members of the Socialist Worker’s Party, once Socialism is achieved, then capitalist law, capitalist parties, capitalist institutions will be scraped, and there is no need for elections, because Socialism has been achieved. Socialism might be achieved through elections, by syndicalist use of trade union power, by rioting and civil unrest, and by revolution, or any combination of these weapons. The SWP might use the courts to further its political aims, namely the undermining of capitalism, but it would see no value in using the courts for any other reason, after all they are capitalist courts.

    Finally to compare the SWP or any other Socialist group to a cult is wishful thinking. It is linked to the argument that Lenin, Stalin, Mao etc were not true Socialists, but somehow deviated from the true Socialist path. As I have pointed out elsewhere on this site, and it is a point that everyone who claims to be left of centre should remember every minute of their waking life, that Socialist regimes in the 20th century exterminated, tortured, and imprisoned more people than all of the right wing regimes, including Hitler, all of the religious maniacs, the Mongols and the Black Death – the figure of the murdered is in the region of 100,000,000 between 1917 and the present. No one kills tens of millions because they are misguided, or because they are insincere, they do it because they ‘know’ they are right, and are therefore justified to do whatever it takes to further their cause.. In addition however there would have been many rapes and murders by members of the party in the Soviet Union, and the other eastern European socialist regimes. No party member, no member of a family of a party member, no commisar, no member of the KGB would have been put on trial for rape, or any other serious criminal act. If what has been claimed is true, and I have an open mind upon the the truth of the allegations made, the SWP is simply repeating the innevitable pattern of an organisation that polarises society between good and evil, whether for racial, religious or class reasons. If the SWP was to achieve power, it would innevitably and inexorably repeat what happened in the Soviet Union, and is still happening in China. The crimes committed would not be committed because of the odd dynamic of a few weird people, which is what the word cult implies. The crimes would be committed because the SWP would want to change the class structure of society, to achieve whatever it construes to be equality. What they would do, however extreme would be done for a perfectly rational purpose, in accordance with a clear plan, with stated objectives. Now some leaders are crazier than others, Stalin and Mao were utterly murderous, Lenin and Krushev moderately murderous, but a change of leadership would not result in a change of policy, only in the speed and force with which the policy would be carried through.

    In addition, what evidence do you have for saying that Christopher Hitchens, or Littlejohn or Gary Bushell are thugs? Have you seen them beat people up in the street? Do they go rioting down the Tottenham Court Road? Did they burn and loot Ealing? Perhaps you should present your evidence of their thuggery to the police. The fact that you disagree with them does not make them thugs.

    • Hi Bookworm

      I’ll have to be brief as I have to get to work, but a few points in response.

      Your first two paragraphs I agree with entirely.

      Regarding use of the word cult, this is more a reference to the bizarre organisational dynamics of the SWP. It’s not a suggestion that they’ve somehow deviated from a “true” or “better” communism. I am and always have been anticommunist. My view is not that communist regimes have failed to produce paradise on earth simply because they failed to reach a pure state of communism; they turned into murderous hellholes because a “dictatorship of the proletariat” inevitably turns into just plain dictatorship, for the simple reason that power corrupts.

      Regarding Peter Hitchens, Littlejohn and Bushell, I didn’t didn’t say they were thugs. I said they’ve embraced “thuggish certainties”. It was a suggestion that their statements tend to have a simplistic, aggressive nature to them, not an accusation that they’ve assaulted anyone.

    • Well, releasing an album called “Strength Thru Oi!” and putting a picture of an infamous neo-nazi on the cover looking like he wants to kill you as well as going to dinner’s in honour of Lady Moseley, that’s fairly thuggish.
      As for Littlejohn, writing distorted truths and plain lies week in and out that foster the hatred of those who can’t hit back – that’s very thuggish.

  4. What a strange piece, you simply can’t paint everyone with the brush like this – political sympathy apart, it came across as a gleeful rant against the largest most active left alternative. While I’m affiliated with another smaller left group I’ve had plenty of opportunity to watch the swp, through the trade union movement and elsewhere, I’ve never found their organization cult like to be sure. Thank goodness they have the discipline to contribute and mobilize the way they do.

    • Well, I’m certainly not gleeful that a 19 year old girl may or may not have been raped.

      I’m also not gleeful that, whatever the truth of the rape allegation, their 46 year old national secretary was having sex with a teenage volunteer barely old enough to be out of school, with with all that means in terms of power dynamics.

      I’m not gleeful that the SWP thought any concerns about such a relationship would be mere “bourgeios morality”.

      I’m not gleeful that when the girl made the allegation, they set up an internal “disputes committee” rather than call the police.

      I’m not gleeful that the committee was packed with the accused’s mates, who promptly exonerated him.

      I’m not gleeful that the girl’s young age didn’t stop them from quizzing her on her sexual history and her drinking habits.

      I’m not gleeful that when party members reacted with horror to all of this, they were vilified, bullied and threatened with expulsion.

      But am I gleeful all this is causing such a nasty little cult to implode? Oh yes I am.

  5. Excellent piece. I was raised in- a cult, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and after I left – being an agnostic, queer I moved to the Left of the political spectrum, where I have seen the exact same typological formations!

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