The Socialist Workers Party: Sex, Power and the Abuse of Trust

[Trigger warnings for rape and sexual exploitation]

I’ve blogged a couple of times about the scandal engulfing the Socialist Workers Party, an organisation I regard as closer to a cult than a political party. Just to recap, a senior figure in the SWP was accused of rape by a female party member. Rather than call the police, the SWP held an internal inquiry by a “Disputes Committee” made up of the accused’s friends, who completely exonerated him. Details have been published on the internet, prompting an internal revolt.

There’s been intense discussion of this on various left-wing blogs. This has resulted in details emerging that paint the whole affair in an even more disturbing light, bringing to bear issues over possible abuse of power dynamics.

To summarise these details, here’s a post by former SWP member Anna Chen. She replied to an exhortation by one of the SWP leadership not to listen to “filth” on the internet.


“Filth” is an alleged rape taking place when a woman is nineteen, 2 years after she and her party leader meet, at which time he is forty-six and she seventeen.

“Filth” is an appeal to the party’s internal disciplinary body being met with a kangaroo court run by several of the party leader’s friends, who then exonerate him.

“Filth” is the woman denied access to his evidence while he sees hers: the game is surely “I’ll show you mine IF you show me yours.”

“Filth” is a woman ostracised, cast out as unclean with a scarlet letter “A” carved into her forehead.

“Filth” is her friends put under heavy manners by the party’s attack dogs, fresh from their two-minute hate.

What particularly concerns me here – quite aside from what sounds like allegations of disgraceful treatment of the woman by her party – is the age difference between the two people involved. When they met he was 46, and a party leader, and she was only 17?

Given the widespread discussion of the case on various blogs, I don’t think it’s breaching any secrets to say that the accused is Martin Smith, former SWP secretary, and currently the national organiser of Unite Against Fascism. My understanding is that he denies rape – not that the truth can now be established either way. The SWP’s kangaroo court will have massively prejudiced any attempt at a criminal prosecution. However, he admits to having had a consensual sexual relationship with the girl in question.

There’s references to this in the transcript of the Disputes Committee report, which was leaked onto the Internet.

We also however thought it was important to be clear that the disputes committee doesn’t exist to police moral, er, bourgeois morality, so we agreed that issues that weren’t relevant to us were whether the comrade was monogamous, whether they were having an affair, whether the age differences in their relationahip, because as revolutionaries we didn’t consider that should be our remit to consider issues such as those.

Trouble is, this isn’t just about “bourgeois morality” but power relations. Let me draw an analogy. Normally, the age of consent for sex is 16. However, if the older person is classed as being in a “position of trust” over a younger person, then the age of consent runs up to the 18th birthday, for the simple reason that trust can be abused. Teachers are an example of this, and I previously made this point while discussing the Jeremy Forrest Case. As a nurse in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, I too would be classed as being in a position of trust. Hence if I slept with a 17 year old patient I wouldn’t only be committing gross professional misconduct. I’d also be committing a crime under the Sexual Offences Act.

Obviously, leaders of Trotskyist sects are not subject to the same legal obligations as teachers and nurses. Even so, the power relation still exists. When considering the power relation, remember that the SWP is absolutely notorious for authoritarianism, control-freakery and groupthink.

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.

This is an organisation that claims to speak truth to power. Yet they seem incapable of understanding the potential for abuse of power when a middle-aged party leader is having sex with a teenage volunteer barely old enough to be out of school.

Then again, maybe their relationship had nothing to do with power relations, and Mr Smith cuts a dashing Robert Redford-style figure?


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.

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.