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.