For discussion, debate and argument to challenge the SWP politically: statement on “Marxism 2013” and University of London Union
By Daniel Cooper, ULU Vice President, and Rosie Huzzard, NUS National Executive, on behalf of AWL Students
(Warning: this article refers to rape and to domestic violence.)
This year a large part of the SWP's “Marxism 2013” event is taking place at University of London Union. This has led to controversy among ULU activists concerned and angry about the SWP's handling of recent rape allegations against one of its leading members, including on the ULU executive. ULU has issued a statement.
The AWL is involved in ULU; Daniel is one of its four sabbatical officers, sitting on the executive as Vice President. Most of the rest of the ULU leadership is made up of comrades we work with closely, and whose anger at the SWP leadership's recent conduct we entirely share. We therefore want to make our position clear. It is particularly important we do so as it has become evident that our thinking on this issue represents a minority position within the ULU executive.
The booking for “Marxism 2013” was made commercially through ULU's booking department, which does not require prior authorisation from ULU's political leadership to take bookings. We were the first ULU activists to notice this, about a month ago, and Daniel proposed to the ULU executive a) that the booking should not be cancelled and b) that ULU should issue a statement explaining this decision while also criticising the SWP's record.
We did not argue against cancelling the booking on the grounds that it would be impossible or difficult to do so. We argued explicitly on the grounds that, while cancellation was possible, it was not the right thing to do. While there was eventually a majority against cancellation, most exec members did not share our broader thinking.
Our draft for the ULU statement linked the SWP leadership's behaviour in the rape case to the organisation's more general political trajectory - what the AWL has elsewhere called “apparatus Marxism”, ie putting perceived organisational advantage and organisational self-defence above assessing things in the world clearly and above political principles, in this case the principles of transparent and democratic functioning, accountability of leaders and women's rights.
It does not follow we should want to shut down the SWP's event. Generally we want a student movement and labour movement where rooms, facilities etc are easily available for events, particularly political events, so that association, organising and debate can flourish. Naturally that has to mean facilities available to all (except fascists and the like), not just those who the leadership of the union in question agrees with. That is why we have consistently pushed to make access to ULU rooms and facilities easier, and will continue to do so.
And more specifically, we think the SWP's behaviour and the politics which produced it can only be confronted and dealt with by creating a culture on the left where democracy and debate are the norm - just as bad politics in general can only be dealt with through argument and discussion. The cause of challenging the SWP's culture and those who support it, and the cause of relating with dissident and critical elements inside the SWP, would not have been served by cancelling the booking. We also oppose cancelling the booking for the Socialist Party's “Socialism” event in November - despite the domestic abuse incident the SP has been involved in, in many ways just as bad as the SWP rape case.
Moreover, the crisis in the SWP is intensifying, with the emergence of new opposition groups. We should do everything we can to encourage and politically develop these antagonisms, by discussing, debating and arguing with SWP members and attendees at “Marxism 2013”. That does not rule out a militant, angry intervention - we are certainly not insisting that people be polite to SWP central committee members! - but that intervention should be designed to promote debate, not prevent it.
We think calls for “no platform for rape apologists” do not get to grips with the issues. While in general we say "no platform for fascists", it may be that some virulent rape apologists should be driven out of our movement in the same way that some violent racists who are not strictly fascists should. However, the SWP is self-evidently not that kind of violently reactionary organisation.
It is very unlikely that most of the attendees at “Marxism” believe that Martin Smith is guilty of rape and are trying to cover it up. It may not even be that all the SWP leadership believe it. We don't know. A very substantial minority at the event may not even have heard of the case - "Marxism" has always attracted many new people, mainly young, without much knowledge of the SWP, and seems to be doing so even in its diminished state this year. Those people are there because they want to be left-wing and change the world, not because they want to apologise for rape.
The problem of the SWP is not simply an issue of an individual who has been found guilty in some manner of rape, or a small number of other individuals covering up for that. In terms of an event like "Marxism 2013", the problem is that an organisation with a significant following in the movement has an approach to politics and organising, degenerating over the years, which has made this shocking incident possible and led to it. That can only and must be challenged politically, in part through debating with SWP members and people at its events.
Cancelling the booking would have made the SWP leadership martyrs and stifled the possibility of debate. It would also have pushed the student movement and the left further towards a culture where problems are dealt with not by argument and political struggle but by censorship and shutting down. (This is why we opposed people tearing down posters for “Marxism” too.) Ironically, such an approach would bring us closer to being a mirror image of the SWP, with its silencing, exclusion from meetings, bureaucratic manoeuvring, etc. If the SWP ran ULU, we have no doubt they would not allow a booking for the AWL summerschool, or even for an NCAFC conference.
This debate will undoubtedly have significance beyond this weekend, and for the movement beyond ULU. Beyond issues like fighting for easier access to rooms and facilities, this is a question of fighting for a left where political debate and dissent can burgeon - which is, at the end of the day, the only way of seriously challenging the likes of the SWP leadership and sorting out the rottenness of much of the left.
We repeat, we too are outraged at the SWP's behaviour. Our record on criticising and fighting the SWP leadership, both in the recent controversy and going back many years, speaks for itself. We are not arguing for comrades to be less angry, but for that anger to be organised and channelled in a way that can be effective, and that can improve rather than degrade the culture of our movement.
Many different left activists showed up at "Marxism 2013" to challenge the SWP on the issues raised here.
As usual a number of other socialist groups were there; this year that included the SWP split International Socialist Network, which held a fringe meeting on Marxism and feminism.
Workers' Liberty held a meeting on "The SWP and the idea of a revolutionary party". We also helped organise a University of London Union-sponsored fringe meeting on fighting sexism on the left.
ULU activists put up posters critical of the SWP around the building, having arguments with SWPers and discussions with non-SWPers as a result. These posters were not what we would have produced (we made proposals for slogans but most were not used - perhaps we didn't try hard enough), but we think the fact that ULU people were drawn into discussion and debate at "Marxism" is good.
During the course of the weekend, AWL members discussed with and sold literature to a wide variety of people, many of them not SWP members. Some of them said they knew about the Martin Smith affair, and would never join the SWP, but were attending because they knew others who were and because some of the discussions were interesting.
We think all this vindicates what we argued in our statement. Far better that SWPers and "Marxism" attenders were present at ULU where they could be challenged and informed than having "Marxism" effectively shut down, driven to a remote location, or boycotting the event.