Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

SWP Crisis: Anna Chen, Nick Cohen, Women, Jews and the Legacy of Beyond the Fragments.

with 9 comments


Relevant Reading for Today.

In the Observer Nick Cohen writes,

The far left cannot face up to rape and its ignorance is killing it. The willingness to excuse the humiliation of women has already destroyed the reputations of Julian Assange and George Galloway. Now it is destroying the Socialist Workers party, which is not only Britain’s largest Marxist-Leninist group but the most unscrupulous gang of hypocrites I have ever met.

Cohen cites comrade Anna Chen,

Anna Chen saw the misogyny up close. She stopped working as a comic and poet in the early 2000s to devote every waking hour slaving for the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War and other SWP front organisations. “Because the revolution comes first, human beings are just disposable,” she told me. “I was struck by how sexless and ugly the leading men in the SWP were. But they always had women. If you slept with one of them, they promoted you. It was as basic as that.”

He then launches into a no-holds barred attack on the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ left.

This term is usually reserved for Maoists, or at a pinch, orthodox Communists.

Cohen implies that the ‘M-L’ model is held by a very diverse collection of groups and individuals to the left of the Labour Party.

This is not only false, but ‘Marxist-Leninists’ are today the fringe of the fringe of the fringe.

Commenting on those in the SWP who have had the bottle to stand up and be counted, he says,

But for all its naivety, the assault on left misogyny remains an optimistic moment and not only because you should always listen to people who stand on principle, however belatedly. The far left isn’t a separate entity. It is a fairground mirror that reflects the faults of the liberal mainstream in grotesque forms. If even the brainwashed minions of the SWP can rebel, maybe one day timid liberals will find the courage to condemn a “liberal” legal system that, for reasons of political correctness, has failed to prosecute a single case of female genital mutilation.

Attacking – rightly – George Galloway and Julien Assange is on thing.

But the assumption that the SWP Central Committee “is misogynist and anti-Democratic” and that this is  representative of  the rest of the ‘far-left’ is false.

And what ‘distorted mirror’ of liberalism is that?

The kind that shows a thin man fat, that is its opposite?

This charge – flatly – just not apply to many members of the SWP.

It is, to say the least, completely wrong about the left as a whole.

If there is something we share with liberalism it is democracy, which we claim to support more consistently than many of them.

Democracy is in our blood and our blood is up!

Anna Chen: Things not Treasured by the SWP.

Anna Chen’s assesment  of the SWP (essential reading) shows exactly how democratic socialists think and act,

When you treat human beings as disposable things in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome.

She offers an insight into how the SWP operates.

On the most important initiative of the Socialist Alliance Anna notes,

When a Jewish socialist group requested platform time to speak against the war, they were refused on the grounds that their presence would alienate Muslims. The guy who’d made their case protested and was told that “you people” were “too sensitive.” I was banned from doing the press on the day but went ahead and worked from home, getting Bianca Jagger and Americans Against the War followed on the march by ITN, doing what I’d been doing all along … Oy veh, it got FUGLY.

That huge demo was built on the spine of the SA and yet the SA chair was denied a place on the platform while Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was welcomed with open arms … and then promptly supported “our boys” once action started. And where’s it all gone, anyway? If the SWP, Counterfire and STWC claim 1 to 2 million were on the march, then they have to give a good account of where they’ve all gone, ’cause it’s not into the left movement.

Who needs this crap?

I know the comrade who made the suggestion to invite the Jewish Socialist Group (and the partner of the then Chair of the Socialist Alliance).

He also described to me  how hard it had been to get a condemnation of the 9/11 murders out of the STWC – it was like wrenching a tooth out.

Anna describes the formation of Respect,

Head honcho took an axe to the Socialist Alliance to get into bed with the Birmingham mosque and then Respect. Then he did … er … more stupid things in Respect and, several years after I’d pointed out some questionable behaviour and been stuffed for it, he and his mates had to leave the SWP to form Crossfire or Counterfire, whatever the splinter’s called. But I get ahead of myself. And the class should never be premature for then down comes the big Monty Python foot.

Head Honcho, John Rees, and the SWP’s  strategy has been described by Tendance Coatesy in Chartist Magazine in 2008.

Detractors were not slow to point out the faults of Respect, or Galloway’s sulfurous and erratic reputation. The SWP’s political culture – described as permanent hysteria and disregard for democracy – particularly irked. Complaints rested on the conflict between the SWP’s version of Leninism, and democratic practice. The Party claimed it was in a ‘united front’: it, the ‘revolutionary’ element, allied on equal terms with those who opposed racism, exploitation and war. In reality the leadership took decisions with other notables, Galloway to the fore, above the membership’s heads.  On a range of issues, from calling feminism a ‘shibboleth’ to downgrading LGTB rights, to opposition to secularism, Respect alienated the left.

I went onto make this observation.

A real bone of contention was Respect’s description of itself as ‘the party of Muslims’. In their dash for electoral gain the party had compromised with the Islamicist bullies described by Ed Husain in The Islamicist (2007). De facto alliances, now admitted by the SWP, had been forged with right-wing Islamicists, such as supporters of the reactionary Jamaat-i-Islami party present in the East London Mosque. Secular Bangladeshis were not slow to point to the bloody role the Jamaat played in opposing independence and suppressing the left in their country. Communalist appeals led to a growing electoral rival amongst Afro-Caribbean voters in the East End, the Christian People’s Alliance. Salma Yacoob associated with Birmingham mosques that played host to ultra-conservative preachers.

Any attempt to oppose this approach was met with cries of ‘Islamophobia’. In municipal politics Respect increasingly relied on ‘community leaders’ (including wealthy businessmen) of a Muslim background (Bangladeshi in East London, Pakistani in Birmingham) rather than socialists or trade unionists. Nor was this the only difficulty. Their councillors often operated as councillors frequently do: vying for position, and standing up for ‘their people’ first, squabbling, switching sides, and puffing themselves up, regardless of their party’s instructions.

Anna concludes,

We need a strong left that is able to counter the coalition’s attacks on the working and middle classes that are looking like something out of the Enclosures. However, like anyone else who ever looked at the disgusting state of the world and wanted to do something about it, I never signed up for SWP abuse and I certainly never signed up for their omerta that they go around imposing on errant former members on pain of The Treatment. It is important that this stuff gets aired for so many reasons. If they can’t, after all this grief, look at themselves honestly, then they deserve everything they’re getting. And the working class is better off without them.

More on this (2003) by Anna here.

Feminism: Leading the Fight for Democracy.

Which brings me to  Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism. Sheila Rowbotham  Lynne Segal and  Hilary Wainwright (1979,  reprinted in book form in 1980).

This book had an immense influence on the left (my close comrades were deeply affected, amongst thousands of others) during the late 1970s.

In my circles I, and others, were involved in,  from the International Marxist Group (not least because Hilary had been a member)  to Big Flame and other libertarian Marxist and – also- anarchist, groups, its impact was immense. The SWP even had, briefly, its own women’s paper, Women’s Voice. This extended right to the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Women’s movement had already become extremely important, campaigns on abortion rights and gay rights were only amongst many grass-roots based activities that corresponded to a flourishing network of women’s groups.

But Beyond the Fragments was perhaps the most directly political contribution to the left-wing politics.

It brought, or rather helped bring,  feminism ideas into the heart of  left, not without resistance from old established left group’s leaderships.

Sheila Rowbotham  began by saying,

I want to begin to explore the challenge I think the women’s movement is making to the prevailing assumptions of how revolutionary socialists should organize. These involve how theory is conceived, how the· political organization sees its relationship to other movements, how consciousness is assumed to change, how the scope of politics is defined, how individual socialists see themselves and their relationship to other people, now and in the past.

She described the  feminist movement as follows,

Our politics have tried to allow expression of vulnerability and openness to every woman’s feelings which consciousness raising at its best implies. We have rejected central organization, hierarchical structures and a leadership. This has not meant that we have no organization, for example, regional networks, women’s centres, conferences, publishing groups, theatre groups, folk and rock bands, film collectives, trade union caucuses, food co-ops are aspects of the women’s movement. The structures which have arisen have been seen as serving particular needs. The making and communication of ideas have been an extraordinary collective process in which thousands of women have contributed. The organizational initiatives which have been spread through the movement have been extremely diverse, involving women in quite different ways. The women’s movement has touched many areas of politics socialists have neglected and its hold goes deeper. It absorbs more of your being.

Her comments  on the International Socialists (IS – forerunner of the SWP) seem relevant today.

My real involvement was with the emerging Women’ Liberation Movement but this closeness to IS meant I was forced to try and understand the leadership’s resistance in the early 1970s to discussing aspects of oppression which were not directly related to class exploitation. I went to the first IS women’s conference as an observer and identified strongly with the women arguing for women’s liberation. It was a particularly confusing situation because many of the first women’s groups outside London were started by women in or close to IS.

At first it seemed enough to put resistance to women’s liberation down to the bias of a male-dominated leadership – though the picture was never that simple as some women in IS opposed women’s liberation and some men supported it from the beginning. The effort to change the direction of IS and orientate towards working-class economic struggles also certainly contributed towards a dismissal of women’s liberation as middle class – the pot being disposed to call the kettle black. But by the mid seventies neither of these seemed adequate explanations for the greater overt sectarianism shown by IS than by the Communist Party or the International Marxist-Group to the women’s movement.

The reader of this can see: the SWP’s sexism has long-standing roots .

When we look at the anti-democratic  way the Central Committee  functions, this is also not new.

Rowbotham says,

In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left. Martin Shaw has described how IS members came to feel they were above sectarianism. But the refusal to deal with dogma meant that in trying to go outwards they dismissed other socialists. In rejecting some of the obvious pretentions of orthodox Trotskyism, righteousness grew within.

It was as if they had a special calling which was never stated and was somehow invisible. Their politics became those of a chosen elect. They could never do everything themselves hut felt no one else could be relied upon to do anything worthwhile. Under this strain their ideas were held in abeyance. There was no time to learn from new developments. Increasingly their theories did not fit new realities outside IS so they stiffened into dogma and became defensive. Ideas and open debate became almost suspect as inherently middle class. They seemed to be regarded as a waste of time with ‘the Crisis’ upon us. The instinct towards criticism was to attack the opponents for their class or lack of activity. Paranoia mounted as secret internal documents inevitably leaked. If the circumstances of the mid seventies could produce this change, the mind boggles at what a civil war and famine would have done – Uncle Joe apart.

The SWP are Bourbon Socialists.

As  Talleyrand is said to have remarked of Bourbon dynasty: ls n’ont rien appris, ni rien oublié  (They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing).

It may be that some things have indeed been forgotten.

But what have the SWP  learnt from the 1970s and 1980s debates on feminism and democracy?

Absolutely nothing.

Update: This, The SWP crisis: some reflections is very much worth reading.

Written by Andrew Coates

February 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm

9 Responses

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  1. So Anna was “slaving away” to make a difference to the world, when she could have been “working on her own writing”, developing her talent in order to have that huge effect we all know she has today. You couldn’t make it up.

    John Mullen

    February 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm

  2. I also thought Beyond the Fragments was wonderful when it came out. Later I realized that it wasn’t, because it came to nothing at all, except making the same criticisms of centralized structure year after year, decade after decade, in the pages of The Guardian if you’r e lucky.

    John Mullen

    February 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    • I would not think attacking Anna Chen’s art and person is probably the best way of answering accusations of sexism against the SWP.

      As for Beyond the Fragments, I am well aware of these problems John, after all I was on the Steering Committee of the Socialist Society for some years.

      However, I have been immersing myself in the literature of the time – mostly re-reading.

      Some of the comments Sheila Rowbotham made are relevant, or are they not?

      Next in immediate line is Martin Shaw on the SWP.

      Andrew Coates

      February 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm

  3. UK journalist and b/caster Bidisha has writted an absolutely shocking (and raw) takedown of leftist sexism, including almost-naming some SWP golden boys:


    Marcus Battel

    February 5, 2013 at 8:20 am

  4. Did my last comment gets stuck in the moderation queue?

    modernity's ghost

    February 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    • I can’t see a comment Modernity.

      Anway just an update, the Jewish group cited was,

      “Jews For Justice For Palestine.”

      Andrew Coates

      February 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm

  5. John,

    I was surprised at your inability to address the responses of how you confused these issues at the Red Plebeian:


    For once I agree with Seymour:

    “You might wish to reflect on the fact that you don’t know the details of what happened between the complainant and the accused, or even the specifics what is alleged. None of us do. You have no right to post such speculations, and it is irresponsible to do so.”

    By chance, are you are friend or ex-friend of comrade delta?

    modernity's ghost

    February 5, 2013 at 2:07 pm

  6. […] example of the feeble and febrile thinking such groups are led into, review some of the links here, amidst the author’s own attempt to cast out the negative implications of the affair from the […]

  7. […] example of the feeble and febrile thinking such groups are led into, review some of the links here, amidst the author’s own attempt to cast out the negative implications of the affair from the […]

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