SWP's Tom Walker: Why I am resigning
Tom Walker, (now former) Socialist Worker journalist, argues that the time has come to leave the SWP
Martin Smith: cause of much controversy
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
case, as several speakers at conference noted, was in reality the
sole reason for the four expulsions in the run-up to conference, the
sole reason for the formation of two factions, and the sole reason
for the split in the CC which resulted in an alternative slate being
put to the conference, removing two CC members who had attempted to
challenge the way the case was handled.
much reflection, I have decided the immediate aftermath also means
that I have no option other than to resign not just from the paper,
but from the party, and encourage others to do likewise.
I go any further, I want to say that I will not be discussing any
details of the case itself whatsoever, either here or privately.
Indeed, I do not know them. I know little more than what was reported
to SWP conference, which later unfortunately appeared on the
internet. I will not be quoting from that document.
I believe that what I know is more than enough to come to some
unavoidable conclusions, and the fact that the transcript has been so
widely circulated - to the point where every member is facing friends
outside the party, in their workplaces and campaigns, asking them
about it - makes it impossible to remain silent any longer about what
will, as the conference session did, refer to some of the awful
processes used to hear the case, but - and this is absolutely vital -
only the processes. The CC will likely issue a response saying that
this violates confidentiality and is a disgrace, but surely the real
problem is that the case ever happened in the first place and that it
has been allowed by the leadership to develop into a crisis in this
way. I believe that what delegates on all sides said within the
conference was scrupulous about respecting the confidentiality of the
case itself and not for a moment prying into the details of the
woman’s testimony, otherwise I would never write something like
will argue four main things:
The disputes committee should never have been allowed to investigate
and rule on a rape accusation, under any circumstances, period. The
case should have been investigated by authorities competent to do so.
The disputes committee’s extra-legal nature means its finding that
this comrade is innocent is meaningless. One person, even on this
committee stacked in his favour, believes sexual harassment at least
Leftwing parties are institutions that exist within our current
society, and they need to put an analysis of gender and power
relations at the absolute heart of their structures to avoid
replicating that society’s problems. Moreover, a lack of democracy
inside left organisations is not just a big political issue, but
plays a role in enabling abusive behaviour. Having a good record and
theory on women’s liberation turns out to be little defence against
The CC’s determination to ‘draw a line’ under the discussion,
to the extent of banning all further mention of it on pain of
expulsion, I believe makes it nigh-on impossible to ‘stay and
fight’ within the organisation for any sensible interpretation of
these events or concrete reforms to the structures to make sure it
does not happen again. To stay in the party now means to keep your
head down and try to live with yourself.
For this reason, and because of the incredibly damaging publicity
around the case, the party has become no longer fit for its stated
purpose. It will surely be unable to attract or hold new recruits. I
do not believe anyone sensible will ever join it again. We must think
again about our methods of organisation on the left. I propose a few
outlines of my thinking, but I am very open to others’ views.
will now explore these points in more detail.
disputes committee hearing - and by extension the entire mess that
followed - should simply never have happened. To be honest, it is
nothing short of incredible that it was allowed to go ahead. What
right does the party have to organise its very own ‘kangaroo court’
investigation and judgment over such serious allegations against a
leading member? None whatsoever.
course, I am dead set against the capitalist police and courts, and
the way they treat people. That doesn’t mean we can go off and set
up our own. The SWP itself called for Julian Assange to face rape
charges in Sweden, in a Socialist
article I am proud to have written.1
do not see why what is good enough for Assange is not good enough for
the party’s leaders.
is stated that the accuser did not want to go to the police, as is
her absolute right if that was truly her decision. However, knowing
the culture of the SWP, I doubt that was a decision she made entirely
free from pressure.
not underestimate the pressure the SWP can bring to bear on members
by telling them to do or not do things for the ultimate cause of the
socialist society the party’s members are all fighting for. Against
the prospect of the liberation of the whole of humanity, they will
attempt to make even the most serious issue seem less important than
the party’s survival. I do not think the CC are cynical cultists,
by the way - I think they believe this themselves.
way, respecting that wish not to involve the police does not excuse
what the party did next. The disputes committee’s project of
amateur justice was doomed from the start, with the questions asked
unintentionally reflecting the worst practices of the police and
courts. The people involved have spoken about the immense distress
and traumatisation caused.
would add that I worry about conference delegates as well after that
session. As more than one comrade said, they had never seen so many
people in tears as there were in that room.
many it will have come as a real bolt from the blue. Despite working
at the party centre myself, I was under the impression that, yes, we
were in for a challenge to the disputes committee, but that we were
facing a row primarily about expulsions and democracy. Though some
other party workers were getting involved in a faction, I felt it
best to maintain a sort of journalistic distance.
the session itself, my reaction was 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. It is over the last few days of reflecting,
and seeing the strong responses to the case from people inside and
outside the organisation, that I have come to my conclusions.
the fact that the disputes committee is not a court flows the fact
that, while it found the comrade not guilty of rape and that sexual
harassment was “not proven”, those verdicts are utterly
meaningless. Sitting in the hall, that was too easy to forget.
disputes committee says we have not heard the evidence or details.
That is true, and nor should we. Yet they admit that the only
evidence they themselves heard was two straightforwardly conflicting
accounts of what happened - one from the accuser and one from the
accused. We do not know why they believed the accused.
those who raised criticisms pointed out, the disputes committee
included five current or former CC members, and all have known comrade
Smith for many years. Though I believe they took the case deeply
seriously, this was not a jury of his peers, but a jury of his mates.
If we were talking about any other organisation we would all consider
it obvious that allowing it to investigate itself is unlikely to
produce damning conclusions. It seems unlikely that a Wikileaks
disputes committee, if it existed, would find Assange guilty.
should also remember that even this committee had a minority of one,
who has faced some very real abuse for his position that it is likely
there was sexual harassment. It is not my place to argue one way or
the other about either allegation, but one thing that cannot be
argued with is that both allegations have not yet been investigated
by anyone competent to do so.
also wonder what on earth the disputes committee thought it was going
to do if it found comrade Smith guilty. Expel him and send him on his
others have noted, this DIY investigation will have corrupted the
evidence, as well as traumatised the accuser too far for her to want
to pursue the case by other means. I am absolutely convinced this
traumatisation is very real, as I cannot believe that the issue would
have played out the way it has otherwise. The internet may have read
the transcript of what the woman comrade’s friends and allies said,
but only those who were in the room will have heard the sheer anger
with which the words were spoken. If we believe that she was
traumatised, then logic dictates that it is very unlikely that the
allegations are of no substance.
really hope both the accusers are not further affected by my writing
this, which is fundamentally about attempting to draw lessons from
the disastrous process they were subjected to, to make sure it never
happens again. From the moment this case became the subject of a
faction fight and the leadership refused to row back, I believe the
CC must shoulder the responsibility for a series of disastrous
decisions that spawned all that has followed and will follow.
sexism and the left
want to move away for a moment from the process of this case and talk
about some of the wider issues it raises. The allegations inside the
SWP fit a bigger pattern which should lead us to question the left’s
long-term theory and practice in this area.
might consider a spectrum of misogynist behaviour by leaders of
leftwing organisations, with George Galloway’s comments about rape
at one end and the horrors of Gerry Healy at the other. You can argue
about who else should be included on it - unfortunately it isn’t
too hard to think of candidates.
course, as nothing is proven either way, we do not know if or where
comrade Smith fits on that spectrum. Nevertheless, there is clearly a
question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful
positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether
through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are
often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing
have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the
idea of a ‘culture of impunity’.
Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to
protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that
the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for
self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in
its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted
cover-up, making abusers feel protected. Also, leaders are put into
positions of power within an organisation with open recruitment but
quite a closed culture, and this has a dramatic effect on any
relationships that take place. Older male party leader with younger
female party member is a triply unequal power relationship, and
should be considered so.
still does not account for how on earth an organisation that has such
a good analysis of the way the police and courts effectively put the
woman on trial in rape cases managed to replicate the state’s
reactionary lines of questioning. How did it fail so badly to put its
own politics into practice?
may shed some light to learn that ‘feminism’ is used effectively
as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters. This seems to be a
legacy of a sharp political argument conducted decades ago against
radical feminism and its separatist methods of organisation, but
unfortunately it is being used today against young, militant
anti-sexists coming into the party. In fact it is deployed against
anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender. A group
of women comrades who raised questions over whether the SWP has a
sexism problem last year were quietly condemned by the leadership as
“feminists”, and the CC has devoted much energy since to fighting
this perceived scourge.
and feminist theory would surely agree, however, that in a sexist
society, sexism is a constant danger in any organisation, no matter
what its politics. The only way to deal with this is to not only
fight hard against sexism at all times, but to accept that if any
woman or group of women are not happy with their treatment, then the
organisation has a problem, needs to look hard at it (and that is not
“navel-gazing”) and needs to change, not claim that the issue
does not exist or that the complainants are motivated by political
leads to an additional issue, which is that the issues of democracy
and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked - the lack of
the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the
more difficult to root it out when it does. That is surely why people
like Paris Thompson, a campaigner for more democracy in the SWP who
had just published his own critique in the internal bulletin, were at
the forefront of the fight against an attempted cover-up of the case.
to conference were handed a partial transcript of the Facebook
conversation used as evidence to expel Paris and the other three
comrades. The CC says it shows evidence of cross-branch coordination
and is therefore “secret faction” activity. Yet what the document
shows is not at all a group organising in pursuit of political
differences - Paris explicitly says he is fighting over those
separately - but people trying to make sure that the way the rape
case was handled would be discussed properly at conference, not swept
under the carpet.
coordinating motions to party aggregates about the case, to making
sure they were elected as delegates, what the four did was not in
pursuit of their own agenda, but the agenda of ensuring these serious
concerns were heard. Their reward for this, barring a Damascene
conversion on appeal by that same disputes committee, is that they
have been cast out of the SWP for life.
you can’t draw a line
has happened since the SWP conference at the weekend? Despite
everything, the CC position is ‘draw a line under it and move on’.
The opposition were also told to sign up to this or face expulsion.
That applied as of the minute conference ended - and the leadership
intends to enforce it.
CC is shutting down all debate, on the pretext that it is about the
rule that factions must dissolve after conference. Party workers are
being spoken to individually, and if they refuse to give a guarantee
that they will never so much as mention the case again, they are
being told they must leave their party jobs. Some have already gone,
others may be going as I write.
branches are being told that the criticisms of the disputes committee
raised in conference will not be reported to them and cannot be
discussed by any member, even in outline. At the behest of the CC,
the Socialist Worker report of the conference does not even
mention the disputes committee session. For one, this means that the
reason behind the alternative CC slate is not explained at all.
comrade Smith turned up in Hackney on the evening of Tuesday January
8, representing the party at a Unite Against Fascism meeting as if
nothing had happened. Next week he is off to Athens, again as part of
the party’s work. He may have been booted off the CC, but he
lingers on, rubbing it in our faces. Frankly it is sick.
the leadership is allowed to get away with this, it means the problem
just sits there and festers. It means it could all happen again. It
means the party cannot further examine just how this went so utterly
wrong, or do anything about it, as the official position is that the
vote means none of the criticisms made were accepted. A similar
accusation tomorrow would be dealt with in the exact same way.
believe that not dealing with the issue ultimately makes the party’s
destruction inevitable. I am not its destroyer - it has already
destroyed itself. Maybe it will be days, months or years, but it is
now a permanent time bomb. I cannot imagine how it will hold on to
any recruit who knows how to use Google. Sooner or later the whole
thing will be used against the party in the unions. In the absence at
the very least of the most grovelling public apology and a massive
process of internal reform, I am afraid I think the SWP is broken for
know there will be many who will want to stay in the party and keep
fighting until the bitter end. If they can do that without simply
‘keeping their heads down’ then I absolutely respect it. I hope
they, and in particular those who were involved in the opposition to
the disputes committee vote, will understand why I felt I had to go
now and argue that others should do the same.
might ask what right I have to jump now. You might say that this is
not about us; it is about the people affected. All true. But how can
we be expected to just turn off our horror at the whole thing? We are
not robots. That is why I cannot stay another second.
problem with staying is the likelihood that individuals who opposed
the CC at conference will be picked off gradually, one by one. That
is not only unpleasant and isolating, but risks diverting a large
amount of activist energy into an ongoing internal struggle against
victimisations. I hope people will get in touch and discuss it when
they feel ready to (or when they find themselves expelled). I will
also 100% keep the confidence of any current member who contacts me
to discuss this.
those who will say I should have raised these issues openly before
resigning, the CC has made it abundantly clear that to do so means
instant self-expulsion. It would also be unfair on others at
Socialist Worker to launch some tirade in an editorial meeting
and make them choose between walking or ritually condemning me. I
hope that they especially - people who have been my friends and
workmates over several years - will look at their consciences and
decide their own way forward.
all comrades, I say: it is a wrench, it really is, but the first step
is to admit to yourself that it is time to go. I do not know how it
will turn out, but at least that way we have a chance to try to
create something better. The alternative - for thousands of committed
socialists to sit on their hands and keep quiet, wondering if the
person next to them is thinking what they are thinking - is too awful
strongly believe that if everyone who reads this is able to take
courage to follow their heart and their principles, then, instead of
members slowly drifting off into the wilderness or being gradually
drummed out of the party, the SWP can be left on the shelf of history
alongside the Workers Revolutionary Party, and something a thousand
times healthier built in its place.
is hope yet. The CC talks with dread about young and student cadre
who are “influenced by the movement” bringing such ideas into the
party, but on the evidence of conference the ideas coming in are
militant anti-sexism and a desire for democracy. The substantial
opposition votes show that many members’ politics remain excellent,
even while they also frustratingly show that the leadership simply
cannot be defeated through the party’s democratic structures, even
on this most grave of issues. If it could be, despite everything I
would have stayed.
my part, I am certainly not planning some new ‘Workers Socialist
Surely we can do better than that? I intend to discuss, think and
write further about how we can take a step back from the specifics of
the SWP and learn some wider lessons about sexism, democracy and
organisation. I believe that for the good of the whole left, and the
class struggle whose course we hope to influence, we ought to be able
to find a way to create something that can be a hospitable and
enduring home for militant workers, radical students and activists.
want a left where a case like this simply cannot happen, where no-one
will ever have to suppress their unease or disgust thinking it is for
the greater socialist good, and where no-one will have to resign
because whole areas of discussion have been banned. In that future
left, I hope, we will be able to organise together again,
democratically, as comrades in the struggle against our real enemies.
Where we rearrange the name, but keep most other things the same.