Trigger warning for content related to rape and domestic violence.
It’s been a bad year for the top-down, hierarchical organisations that dominate the left. First, the attempted cover-up of a rape led the Socialist Workers’ Party into a lengthy, messy, and very public self-destruction. Then, faced with an allegation of domestic violence against a prominent member, the Socialist Party ducked the question. And now, last and very much least, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is going through a damaging internal row about their decision to republish a badly-written article about Islam that used language reminiscent of the racist right.
I haven’t written a great amount about the SWP crisis, and even less about the Hedley case, so it might seem odd to suddenly focus my attention on a much less serious argument in a much smaller group. But I’ve been put off writing about the Martin Smith and Steve Hedley cases precisely because of how serious they are, and because, while there are definitely serious political questions at the heart of both cases, the political questions involved are inseparably bound up with issues of sex, gender and patriarchy, and many of the same faultlines that tore the SWP apart also run through the anarchist movement, as the recent conflict over the presence of Assange supporters at the London anarchist bookfair vividly illustrated. In short, I think the SWP have shit politics, and it would have been very easy to write an article attacking them for their shit politics, but if the effect of that article was to distract attention away from the necessary conversations about patriarchy and rape culture, problems that exist in all sorts of different spaces, including ones that I think of as being characterised by good politics, then it would have been unhelpful.
In contrast, the AWL’s current problems, while not entirely separate from questions of gender (it is notable how rarely you get old women, rather than old men, who’ve been in positions of power on the left for decades) are not based around them in the same way, and since the issue at the heart of the matter is so much less serious, I feel I can write about it without exploiting other people’s suffering to score cheap political points.
It could also be asked whether these small groups are worth so much attention in the first place, and whether it wouldn’t be better to just stay focused on the constant onslaught of attacks on our living standards, but the problem with that is that, as soon as we begin to try and take action, the problem of working with the left tends to pose itself. For instance, this Tuesday sees a national day of action called by the People’s Assembly, an event that’s being heavily backed by the SWP, so with protests against austerity happening up and down the country, decent people everywhere will have to juggle their desire to stand up against zero hours contracts, ATOS and the bedroom tax on one hand with their desire to avoid interacting with rape apologists on the other. Similarly, the AWL have been supportive of the Anti-Fascist Network’s attempts to rebuild an effective anti-fascist movement. If being active in anti-fascism means working alongside the AWL, then it seems reasonable to pay attention to their affairs.
So, having set out my reasons for writing this article, here’s the main point I want to make: a lot of groups on the left share a set of common ideas about how to organise, and these ideas are completely terrible. The issue at the heart of the AWL’s current problems – Sean Matgamna’s decision to write a very bad article about Islam drawing on rhetoric associated with the racist right – is very different to the issue of sexual violence that sparked off the crisis in the SWP, but it’s striking how, when faced with the problem of a leading member doing something that contradicted the group’s principles, the leaders of both groups reacted in much the same way. In particular, the AWL’s decision to write “a sharp retort to critics, particularly those… with a dreadful record of accommodation to political Islam” echoes the SWP leadership’s obsession with unmasking a feminist-autonomist-Labour Party conspiracy behind their opposition. In both cases, concentrating on attacking ideological enemies is easier than dealing with the reasonable, constructive criticism coming from members and friends.
When discussing the fact that some AWL members found it hard to defend Matgamna’s article, a member of the group coined the wonderful expression “It is not a Marxist response to read something on facebook and shit one’s pants”. Taken at face value, this is true enough: I’m not the world’s greatest Marx scholar, but I think it’s probably safe to say that you could read all of the collected works of Marx and Engels and not come across a single passage where either of them suggested reading things on facebook and then shitting yourself. But if you look at what that colourful phrase was actually intended to suggest, then you get a glimpse of why “Marxism” has so often led to disasters: the facebook-reading pants-shitters are essentially being told off for thinking for themselves, when the correct Marxist response would be to read something on facebook, report it to the organisation, and then wait for your leaders to tell you whether or not you have permission to shit yourself.
The SWP, SP and AWL, along with many other lefty groups, share a common theory of organisation, based on the practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Now, the horrors of the USSR are so well-known that I don’t see any point going over them again here, and the role of the Communist Parties under its influence, from the Barcelona May Days to May 1968, is hardly any less famous. The central gamble of Trotskyism is that all these problems have just been a result of Leninism done wrong, and what’s really needed is for the Central Committee of another Bolshevik organisation to get Leninism right. But in practice, all these bureaucracies and microbureacracies tend to create the same power trips and accountability problems, just played out on an ever-decreasing scale. The SWP wasn’t the first Leninist organisation to cover up sexual abuse: as I’ve said, issues around gender and patriarchy can’t just be reduced to organisational problems, but the fact that the SWP, Workers’ Revolutionary Party and Progressive Labor Party – and the American SWP, another rape apologist organisation – all share a common organisational framework can’t just be overlooked. To avoid any confusion, I want to state once again that the AWL’s political problems can’t be compared to the disgusting behaviour of a Martin Smith or a Gerry Healey, but it’s still the case that members criticising the party leadership were “subjected to a sustained campaign of pressure from about a dozen comrades… members were told that is was not even necessary to even read the offending article before springing to its defence. Any critical, or thinking, approach was actually “disloyal” to the group. Moreover, it was even wrong to post their grievances to the internal list. We were asked to show solidarity with poor Sean and told that the Executive Committee’s public response was a defence of us all… In scenes reminiscent of the collapse of the SWP, only on a smaller and sadder scale, comrades who have misgivings about the article are told not to express them publicly. Instead they are asked to lie about what they think and defend the group from the onslaught of criticism. Phone calls and impromptu home visits from full-timers await those who dare to ignore this dictat.” Given this response, it’s hard to feel confident that they’d fare any better when faced with the kind of issues that the SWP so disastrously failed to deal with.
Leninists are very keen on criticising the errors and crimes of other Leninists, but they always promise their group will do things differently. But time and time again, they seem to reproduce the same tyranny and bureaucracy: from the Bolsheviks to the WRP to the SWP, from Lenin to Gerry Healey to Bob Avakian, one set of wannabe dictators hatches out of another like a set of Russian dolls. Alex Callinicos can’t deal with troublesome critics in the same way Stalin did, but it seems safe to say that he’d love to do so if he could; likewise, Sean Matgamna will never be in a position to murder rebellious workers, but that doesn’t stop him from writing odes glorifying the idea of doing so; and, instead of telling him to sod off to an open mic night and come back when he has a useful contribution to make, members of the group he leads agree to publish his doggerel, perhaps afraid that criticising their leader’s writing would mark them out as White Guards in need of a beating.
I don’t claim to know exactly what forms revolutionary organisations should adopt in our current conditions, because that’s an open-ended question that can only be worked out in practice, and is unlikely to ever be fully solved. But experience has shown very clearly what we don’t need. We don’t need “democratic centralism”, we don’t need another central committee, we don’t need another Communist Party, Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party or Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
People join these groups with good intentions, and they always throw up good people ready to criticise their Great Leaders, and so there’s a constant churn of people drifting out of these groups, sick of being told what to think and what to say. This is a plea to them – not an order, but a suggestion: don’t go for another spin on the democratic centralist merry-go-round. Don’t look for a new Great Man to glorify. There are other ways, and better ways, of organising to fight back. There’s no simple, magic bullet that stops these kinds of unhealthy attitudes from developing – the experience of the revolutionary workers who let the CNT disarm them in 1937 stands as proof that just slapping a circle on your A isn’t enough to prevent excessive loyalty to an organisation – but we can start by not doing the same things that cause the same problems to develop, again and again and again.