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.