Monday, March 03, 2014

The crisis in the SWP, part V

About time I completed this series.

The two weeks following the public eruption of the rape scandal were ones in which the central committee and the apparatus was almost totally incapacitated. There were no expulsions. There was no direct communication from Vauxhall. Everything we heard suggested that there was a funereal mood in the headquarters, with leading members breaking down into tears, or weeping into pints of lager.

At a personal level, the short-term relief and catharsis of publicly lancing the boil started to give way to a new fear: they might not actually fucking expel me, and I would actually have to actually stay in and fight as I was urging everyone else to do. Worse, I would be expected to evince 'leadership'. In an organisation where the majority of people already thought I was suspect because of my mildly heretical leanings on Syriza, I would have to persuade people that the organisation was in such a severe crisis that the entire leadership had to be overthrown and replaced with... well, something nicer. I would have to attend branch meetings for the first time in years, that would be fun.

The first sign of an organised backlash was from among more hardcore members of the organisation who started to query whether it was really in our tradition to 'automatically believe' women when they alleged rape. (Rosie Warren's responses to this question are salutary.) They reminded us of the Scottsboro Boys, a comparison that drew spittle-flecked, bulge-eyed incredulity from those of us, still a minority, who understood that Comrade Delta was not an oppressed black man from the Deep South in the 1930s, much as he may have felt he was in his soul. They started to mention that Seymour was some writer who thought he was above the party, who never attended branch meetings, and who was actually heading in a reformist direction. Wasn't it just possible that I was cynically exploiting this crisis in order to build a British Syriza?

Throughout all this, frantic emails and furtive messages were exchanged as we sought to build up an email group, the basis for a new faction of some type. We quickly pulled together a few dozen people and gained a more or less national view of the unfolding situation - we got report backs from meetings, conference report-backs and so on. We heard when suspected oppositionists within the centre were taken aside, interrogated, bollocked, and threatened with being sacked or expelled - indeed, sackings and 'sideways promotions' did take place. It was only, in my view, the scale and publicity of the organised backlash against the leadership that prevented a far more efficacious purge of the centre.

The official reaction to my own denunciation therefore came after a fortnight of breakdown on the part of the apparatus. Now, the usual procedure when I had said something wrong on the internet was for two members of the central committee, known to the faithful as Bishop Brennan and Father Jessup, and to the wider world as Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara, to sit me down in a coffee shop and quiz me about my wrongness. I would be gently bollocked, but also have my ego fluffed. "A lot of people hang on your every word, Richard, you really must watch what you say..." Well, not this time. Although Callinicos, upon phoning me up, appeared to be doing his best to maintain his usual charm - quite bizarrely, given the circumstances - he was obviously rattled. Not as much as I was by his fucking phoning me, mind you, but he seemed not to have his shit together to the normal degree.

There had been... a breach of some sort. They wanted to meet me, and discuss some of the things which I had been saying. They wanted to persuade me that these things were untrue. Could I come down and meet? Just himself and Joseph again? I abandoned the phone call and frantically consulted with fellow factioneers. Why should I go along by myself? This wasn't just about me. This was an attempt on the part of the leadership to isolate the problem by scapegoating one person for a deep, systemic crisis which they had created. And also, what exactly did they want to discuss? I was told I should demand a group meeting in which CC members confronted all of us, and dealt with us as a bloc. I was told that the tactic of isolating individuals was a classic managerial technique, and was intended as intimidation, so I should at least equalise the numbers.

When Callinicos phoned back, his disarray was greatly aggravated. As he tried to explain that the meeting was about why I had been shouting my head off to the whole world that the CC was corrupt and covering up rape allegations and all sorts... his voice choked and he broke into quite audible, mournful sobs. I froze. My stomach froze. He was a sixty year old man, of colonial aristocratic pedigree, and fairly tough I assumed. The last thing I expected or knew how to deal with was him weeping down the phone. He was back to normal quite quickly, and a meeting was eventually negotiated in which I could bring along one other person "as a companion" but that was all. But still, I confessed to comrades that everything about this situation made me sick, and I really didn't want to be doing it.

In preparation for the meeting, we had emailed discussions and caucused beforehand. I was warned that the CC would try to get me to admit some error or other, and that this admission would be used as a weapon with which to bludgeon me, regardless of the significance or veracity of the confession. So, if they produced some fact or other of which I was unsure, I should simply say "I need to discuss it with my comrades". The only question was, what would Choonara's role be? He was supposedly some top secret ninja dissident on the CC, although his main role to date seemed to have been to phone people known to be in the opposition and warn them about 'the radical elements' who were pushing too far, too fast. So, in the meeting would he be anything but a sock puppet of Callinicos? Short answer: no. He sat there, eyes grimly sweeping the floor, saying little, but backing up the boss on everything he did say.

I took with me a comrade who, though quite mild-mannered and unassuming, I knew to be tough and intellectually confident. (I think Callinicos was frightened of him. At one point, when I tried to explain that I wasn't trying to trip him up with my questions, the professor angrily retorted "no, but he is!")

The first thing that Callinicos did was attempt to take the initiative by demanding to know what this cover-up was that I had been talking about.

I said, "you mean you don't know...?"

"DON'T PLAY GAMES WITH ME!" Callinicos retorted, really channelling Bishop Brennan at this point.

I replied, a little uncertainly (because this had to be a ploy) that my understanding was that serious sexual allegations had come to light before the 2011 conference, and that conference was led to believe that essentially 'Comrade Delta' was accused of little worse than mild harassment.

"This is nonsense, absolute nonsense." Callinicos scoffed.

He went on to explain that the charge of any kind of cover-up was false because in fact, there were no allegations to cover-up prior to that conference. "What there was, was a dispute between two people over what they said had happened. And the central committee mediated in that dispute." I considered this legalistic game-playing, but it formed the fulcrum of the central committee's argument. I was then invited to admit, as had been predicted, that I had got this detail wrong. I could have argued, since I didn't believe I had got anything wrong. But the sensible play was to say, as I did, that "I have to discuss this with my comrades."

The discussion moved on to how the party crisis had come about. I suggested that it was patently obvious, given what had happened, how it had been handled, and the nature of the internet and media, that the party would be thrown into crisis as a result of this. Callinicos and Choonara maintained that the crisis was not inevitable, and that the true responsibility for it rested with whoever had leaked the conference transcript, then Tom Walker for what he had said in his resignation statement, and then myself for what I had written on my blog. (I was also blamed for the trouble in the International, as if I had ever been that organised in my life.) They could give no account of any mistake they might have made, although Callinicos did at one point airily permit that of course mistakes are always made without mentioning anything specific.

On the matter of the disputes committee, which was notoriously filled with acquaintances and direct political subordinates of the accused, we were assured that there was in fact no problem. What I had failed to understand, what I plainly did not understand, what I obviously had complete contempt for, was political morality. You see, it is the "political morality" of a revolutionary party which ensures that if members of a disputes committee, long-standing cadres, believe that someone is guilty of rape, they will discipline that person. I suggested, of course, that they would be far less likely to 'think' the person guilty given their relationship to the accused. The comrade who had come with me raised the issue of 'unconscious bias' in the context of such a trial-by-mates. It seemed an obvious point that, even if the best of intentions, individuals who knew Delta and were politically subordinate to him, but knew the complainant not at all, might have some bias. Yet we had to overcome several rhetorical hurdles to even get a vague, shrugging admission that the disputes committee members perhaps knew Delta better than most members. Eventually, Callinicos admitted that unconscious bias was always a potential problem, but asserted that this was why there was a committee, a large panel, not just one person. I said that this wasn't much help if most of the panel was subject to this potential bias.

I sensed that the weakest point for the leadership in the party was that they were asking members to carry the can and defend a position that none of them, in their workplaces, coalitions, union branches or whatever, could practically defend without incinerating their credibility. So, I asked what strategy the central committee had for how to handle this shitstorm going forward, neither Choonara nor Callinicos offered any answers. Callinicos said that the question was whether one accepted the legitimacy of the democratic decisions taken at conference. If those decisions were accepted, then everything follows from that. I said "but where does that lead to, Alex?" No reply. When I suggested that we, the opposition, at least had an answer to dealing with this issue, Callinicos said that our answer was "surrender". When pressed as to what we were surrendering to, he changed the subject.

In general, the central committee gave the impression that they were in denial. When asked if the party was now toxic, or becoming so, Callinicos said 'no' because he had just come back from a UAF demo with Tony Benn, David Lammy, and two leading SWP members, etc etc. (There were so many responses like this from the hacks: I just came from a paper sale, and no one mentioned it. I was just petitioning at a bus garage, and ordinary workers couldn't give a fuck.) Otherwise, when further pressed as to whether he thought this was all just going to blow over, Callinicos said after a long pause, "we'll see". Well, we saw alright.

I was struck by two things in this meeting. Callinicos was bitter, paranoid and insulting, but ultimately running on empty.* Choonara may as well have been furniture. The only point at which the pair of them had any offensive at all was when they challenged: "you are fighting for the leadership of the party, whether you like it or not; what do you intend to do if you win?" I pointed out that I was not there as a delegate but as an individual, and that I therefore had to decline to say. Callinicos argued that we were inciting a very irresponsible rebellion since we had no perspective about how to deal with "little things like fascism and austerity that you don't want to talk about".

This was clearly cynical coming from the central committee, and not terribly convincing given the failure of our anti-austerity strategy, and the quotient and hype and bullshit surrounding our limited successes on the anti-fascism front. Nonetheless, our lack of an alternative would become a serious issue. The crisis had only just opened up a whole series of issues to do with the party's failure on gender politics, oppression, democracy, the internet, the global crisis, the analysis of neoliberalism, the state, and so on. The initial instinct of most of us in the opposition was to try to return to the resources of an untainted Cliffism - a gesture which quickly gives way to pallid sentimentality: "Hallas, there was a comrade! Widgery! Now there was a comrade! Foot! What a comrade!" And so on. But as we thought, the less it was clear that this 'tradition', for all that was good about it, possessed in itself the resources that were needed. This was one reason why, once out of the organisation, the initial wave of leavers quickly began to drift off in different directions.

Callinicos had been angered throughout the meeting by us taking notes. He repeatedly demanded, particularly of my confederate in the meeting, "what are you doing? What are you writing? Stop writing!" At the end of the meeting, he demanded from both of us that we undertake not to publish our notes all over the internet.

"Don't worry," I told him. "This isn't for blogland."

"Get out," he snapped.


* In fairness, to him, his humour hadn't entirely deserted him. At one point, I tried to explain that this wasn't all about me, and I didn't see myself as a leader. He retorted, "you call yourself 'Lenin' on your blog." I said "yes, but with a small 'l'." "Not nearly small enough in my opinion," he rejoined. Suh-nap!