SWP: the case isn't closed

Submitted by Matthew on 16 January, 2013 - 12:15

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) should arrange a further investigation into the charges brought by a woman member of rape by its former national secretary, and still leading organiser, Martin Smith.

New SWP opposition blog: http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/.
It should do that in the interests of justice, of justice being seen to be done, and of restoring the credibility of the left.

The SWP should tell her, and another SWP woman who has raised lesser complaints, that the SWP will cooperate with them taking the case to bourgeois justice; or, if they don’t want to do that, as they may not, set up an inquiry run according to the best standards of bourgeois justice, done by legally-trained people outside the SWP and without personal connections to either party in the case.

The SWP Central Committee (CC) protests that the charges were investigated by its Disputes Committee; the Disputes Committee found Smith innocent; the SWP conference on 4-6 January accepted the Disputes Committee report; and so the matter is closed.

However, visibly it hasn’t been closed for a large chunk of the SWP’s active membership. The 50.4% vote at the SWP conference, after a very hurried debate chaired by a member of the Disputes Committee, does not carry authority.

Some prominent SWPers have quit, notably Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker. Other well-known SWPers, notably writers Richard Seymour and China Miéville, are defying the CC’s instruction to members to shut down debate on the issue and polemicising on the web against the CC.

In the broader labour movement, outside the SWP, the matter is even further from being closed. There, the Disputes Committee carries no authority at all. Since Smith is not only a backroom official for the SWP, but also a public figure for it, dealing with non-SWP anti-fascist activists in Unite Against Fascism and non-SWP trade unionists as a trade-union organiser, the SWP needs an investigation which carries wider authority.

So does the broader left. Newspapers like the Independent and the Daily Mail are using this case to discredit the whole of the left, although there is no reason to believe that similar trouble in the Independent’s or the Mail’s office would be dealt with better than in the SWP office.

The rest of the left needs to persuade the SWP to drop its untenable “case closed” stance; or at least we need to go on public record as advocating a different stance.

We do not know whether all the criticisms of the Disputes Committee investigation made inside the SWP are right. The Disputes Committee may have tried sincerely to reach the truth. We don’t assume it didn’t. Smith should, like all accused people, be considered innocent until proven guilty. We have contempt for the Independent’s and the Mail’s sneering description of the Disputes Committee as a “socialist sharia court”.

All that still leaves the Disputes Committee without authority. The SWP leadership has blustered about the impossibility of justice in the bourgeois courts. But the SWP did not, and could not, construct at will an island of superior proletarian justice. In fact the Disputes Committee fell short of the better criteria of bourgeois justice. There may be a lesson here for the whole of the left: our AWL Disputes Committee, too, would have lacked the resources and expertise for such a case.

All the members of the Disputes Committee (inevitably, since all were longstanding SWPers) knew Smith well. Two of the members of the Disputes Committee were also members of the CC. The CC was implicated in the case since the complainant had brought less serious complaints against Smith two years ago, and the CC sidelined them without formal procedure.

According to Richard Seymour, at the SWP conference two years ago:

“Members were told that the accused [Smith] was exonerated, that the verdict had been accepted by the complainant, and that he had been at most a bit foolish. Some members heard that there had been a witch hunt against the poor fellow. And all were reminded of his great achievements as an organiser, which — irrespective of how true or false the allegations are — are considerable. The accused, it has to be said, played up to this. An ovation was orchestrated, with some stamping their feet”.

The CC now concedes that it made a mistake two years ago, and prides itself on its decision for a formal Disputes Committee investigation this time. Somehow it couldn’t see that the new investigation would have to be completely independent of the CC.

Over the course of the two years and a bit in which complaints have emerged against Smith (not only from the woman who now charges rape), the CC has removed Smith from being national secretary, and now from the CC altogether; or it has accepted his resignation from those positions without advertising that it wants him to return to them. Why, if the case is “closed” on all charges against Smith, and he has been found blameless?

The CC’s response at every turn has been to make the most limited sidestep it can, and as soon as possible to declare the matter closed. Now it has instructed members to cease debate on it. The instruction is obviously unenforceable.

The CC’s approach here is not an aberration generated by anxiety. It is the SWP CC’s standard method.

The SWP has a rule binding all CC members to pretend unanimity on every CC decision. SWP full-time organisers outside the CC are also obliged, as a condition of employment, always to argue the latest CC line.

There is no regular forum of internal debate. Tendencies and factions are permitted only for a short period before each SWP annual conference, and must shut down afterwards. They are strictly regulated: four SWP members were expelled in the run-up to the latest SWP conference for no greater sin that some dissident talk among themselves on Facebook.

SWP members can grumble — and do. They can probably dissent and discuss in the confines of their local branch meeting. Political initiative within the SWP at large, independent of the CC, is almost impossible.

Discussion becomes largely a monologue from the CC, with only reservations, quibbles, and strictly-limited single-issue dissent audible from the ranks. Even where almost everyone in the SWP knows that the CC majority made a blunder — as on the SWP’s alliance with George Galloway in Respect, in 2004-7 — there is no mechanism for discussing the lessons to be learned. Discussion is drowned out by bellowed invocation of the latest campaign or initiative or stunt, and warnings that only sectarian quibblers analyse the past. “If the bicycle wobbles”, so the SWP adage runs, “then pedal faster”.

The method derives from poor politics, and leads to even poorer politics, as we argued in Solidarity 269. The CC has become used to getting away with that: enough people have been willing to shrug at a foolish slogan or ploy. Not this time.

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