Crisis in the Socialist Workers Party reveals a crisis of the left By William Bowles

17 January 2013 —

Hmmm… I’ve been watching the ‘left’ here in the UK tear itself apart literally for decades, and it had been going on for decades prior to my arrival on the scene. What’s difficult to swallow is the attitude expressed below (which I’m reprinting in its entirety), where the writer reacts to the events that are currently tearing the SWP apart, as if it’s something new on the ‘left’.

What has changed is the catalyst for the latest crisis, allegations of rape by one of the (now ex) high-ups in the SWP (below, Paul Kellogg presents us with yet another analysis of what ‘really’ happened, in his blow-by-blow account of shenanigans in the hierarchy of the SWP).

See here for the essay that started it all and predictably, published on a rival party’s website. Written by Tom Walker, a journalist working on the SWP’s newspaper decided to go public when he discovered what was allegedly going on.

The Socialist Workers Party is in deep crisis – as it has been for several months now. The reason is simple: an allegation of rape against Martin Smith, the then central committee member now referred to on some parts of the internet as comrade Delta, and the way it was handled by the party. — Tom Walker (ibid)

Kellogg tells us it’s a ‘crisis of the Socialist Workers Party’, but in reality it’s a crisis of the left in general, that appears not to know its arse from its elbow. First it feints left, then it feints right, then it does nothing, of any substance. Finally, it eats itself alive, in an endless succession of divisions (factions we call it), the net result: a myriad of small parties, each claiming to be the home of the ‘real socialists’. So now those disaffected former ‘leading’ SWP members have formed a rival party (website?) calling itself, Counterfire.

Counterfire is an organisation of revolutionary socialists. We work in the trade unions, student movement, and protest campaigns to link together different struggles, push them forwards, and build resistance to the system. — From their ‘About Us’ page

Interestingly, there is not a single reference on the page to the S-word aside from the one above. It’s mostly against but very little about what it’s for aside from vague generalisations and a lot about how bad capitalism is for trade unions, students and, you guessed it, themselves, the protestors. I can do without this kind of dishonesty thanks very much. And surely, John Rees[1] and Lindsay German, that is to say, Counterfire and both former high-ups in the SWP and Respect, should have stayed to fight the fight and wrest back the SWP for its members?

Under other circumstances it would be merely pathetic but we face a crisis that makes the one my folks faced in the 1930s almost local by comparison. What it does reveal is a ‘left’ which for the most part, is self-absorbed, parochial and totally out of touch with reality. Fighting battles it started with itself decades ago and apparently battles that have never been won or lost, let alone resolved.

Thus, at the heart of the SWP crisis is the idea that allegedly motivated what has been called a ‘kangaroo court’ (that found the accused innocent of the charges of rape, though it’s alleged the accuser withdrew her accusations under pressure from the aforementioned high-ups), under the pretext that calling in the cops would be resorting to ‘bourgeois justice’. So instead it dishes out its own ‘justice’. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

It was a pathetic excuse for corrupt behaviour of the people involved, who were clearly motivated by more down-to-earth reasons than the validity or otherwise of ‘bourgeois’ law.

This is the ‘left’. In a nutshell: ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say’, with a small coterie of alleged intellectual leaders calling the shots, not merely over ‘bourgeois law’ but over pretty much everything else. As with much on the ‘left’ much of it it smacks of rank opportunism, a view reinforced when I attended the founding meeting of the (now defunct?) Respect Party (itself an ‘offshoot’, if not a front, of the SWP). Decisions made solely by the platform of ‘elders’ (the Central Committee), essentially pursuing policies that they hoped (thought?) would gain them the most votes in an election. And when the ‘rank and file’ (read the rest of us packed into that hall) didn’t like it, the ‘elders’ simply ignored the cries of ‘au contraire’ from the comrades). I’ve seen it all before, and on three continents and with almost identical justifications.

Is it any wonder the left is a joke in this country? We like to blame the former Soviet Union for giving socialism a bad name, but the truth is, it’s we ourselves who are largely to blame by letting a bunch of fake revolutionaries make decisions for us, not only about our ethics but also because they control the way we as individual socialists and other progressives come together to try and bring about real change.

But according to Kellogg “There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organising” (he means democracy, or the lack of it).  Is that all? Surely not? Surely, it goes to the very heart of the ideology that pervades the left, itself a faded and much modified memory of times gone by. Thus Kellogg gives us a potted history of Bolshevik ‘democracy’ circa 1917 as if to disprove the SWP’s version which claims to be some kind of ‘Leninist inheritance’.

Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb (unfortunate choice of names under the circumstances) has this to say on the subject:

This is the thing that all [SWP] party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn’t the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible. Not only this, but in acting in this way, they have – for their own bureaucratic reasons – broken with a crucial component of the politics of the International Socialist tradition that undergirds the SWP. The future of the party is at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms, and don’t simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled at conference. You must fight now. — Crisis in the SWP

No strategy to deal with the coverup of an alleged rape, cynical or otherwise? Do you need a strategy to deal with an alleged rape by a member of the SWP’s central committee? Elsewhere, he expresses amazement at the behaviour of the Central Committee of the SWP, who, after deliberation decided that the ‘affair was resolved and hence closed’, or words to that effect. Anybody who objected in public was kicked out or asked to leave the SWP (some left of their own accord). 

But what else does Seymour expect? Why should he be surprised, nay outraged by the subsequent behaviour of the people who have tried to cover up an alleged rape by one of their own? The problem lies not only in the way the SWP is structured. It purports to operate a variant of democratic centralism, that is to say, decisions are arrived at collectively i.e. via free and open discussion, followed by a vote at which point, all members are meant to ‘follow the party line’, or else. Thus minority opinions have no voice except via a majoritarian vote. Hence the pressure is on to conform and relegate decision-making to the ubiquitous and all powerful ‘elected’ ‘Central Committee’ (though the process by which who gets to stand for an election is often far from democratic, with selections by the CC itself taking preference).

Well, that’s the theory. In reality it leads to a passivity on the part of the rank and file members. Debates and discussions devolve down to the same minority elites, mostly ensconced in the Central Committee with a few ‘loose cannons’ rolling around, largely for show. It becomes a self-perpetuating system, for to gain entrance to the inner sanctum you have first to toe the line.

Without inner party democracy, it’s pointless talking about democracy for everybody else but making it work means working at it, getting involved, being critical. The words are empty. Those criticising the SWP’s response to the crisis seem to think it reveals a sexist core at the heart of the SWP. Duh?

Has it escaped the notice of those involved that in spite of everything, we live in a patriarchy, where men run everything. What percentage of the SWP’s CC are female I wonder? And what percentage of the intellectuals on the left are women? This is why I call the left self-absorbed, fine words don’t translate into fine deeds. It’s just wishful thinking, a self-delusion about just how important the left is, unfortunately.

It reveals that those who lead the left, regardless of which flavour they claim to represent, are no different in their thinking than those they attack as representing capitalist values, greed, racism, sexism etc. And why should they be different? We are all products of imperialism. We shelter admittedly under its increasingly threadbare wing. The intellectual caste, mostly middle class, male and white, and all products of a bourgeois university system, who make up the leadership of the left, are divided over their allegiances. Is it to be Empire or campesino? Judging by the confusion over Libya and now Syria, as to what should be the correct view of events in those two unfortunate countries, the choice made is clear; it’s Empire.

I mean, how can a real leftie go along with the notion of there being a humanitarian capitalism? Whatever humanity we possess exists in spite of capitalism, not because of it. Perhaps this crisis will make those of us on the left wake from our slumbers and get rid of the fakers. As Bob Marley so aptly put it, “The preacher man is lying…”.


1. To his credit, John Rees in a very long-winded piece, finally opposes foreign intervention in Syria.

See also the piece in the New Statesman by Laurie Penny, an SWP member on the subject of Martin Smith, the alleged rapist and the SWP’s leadership.

Addendum: Jim Jepps, another on the left has aggregated many of the various essays and analysis of l’affaire de Comrade Delta, here.

Britain: Reflections on the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party By Paul Kellogg

“As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organising, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.” 

[For more on the British SWP, click HERE. For more on revolutionary organisation, click HERE.]

January 13, 2013 –

1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, Lenin’s Tomb, and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group to left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6, 2013, annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake.” Speaking of the party’s central committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight.” Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a). [Not true, it was Tom Walker’s piece referred to above. WB]

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “one of simple, visceral disgust. I was shaking. I still am. I did not know what to do. I walked out of the building in a daze” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organisation in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organisation in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” (“SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST”, 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.


1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a central committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the central committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (disputes committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the central committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the disputes committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organising “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The central committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake?

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organising. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalisation – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against ‘feminism’ from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism… There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012). [Sharon Smith’s talk is also available HERE.]


In terms of left organising:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organising, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


Bakan, A. (2012) “Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance“, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) ‘Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition”, Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) “Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor”, Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) “Letter To Bolshevik Party Members” [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) “What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?” [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online].

SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST” [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) “Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation” [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.