Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP

JANUARY 13, 2013 – 1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, “Lenin’s Tomb,” and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6 annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake”. Speaking of the party’s Central Committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight”. Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a).

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “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” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organization in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organization in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” (SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST, 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.

1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a Central Committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the Central Committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (Disputes Committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the Central Committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the Dispute Committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organizing “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The Central Committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organizing. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalization – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right-wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against ‘feminism’ from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012).

In terms of left organizing:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organizing, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


Bakan, A. (2012) ‘Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance’, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) ‘Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition’, Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) ‘Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor’, Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) ‘Letter To Bolshevik Party Members’ [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) ‘What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?’ [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online].

SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST’ [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) ‘Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation’ [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.

The impact of feminism – or songs you thought you knew

Sometimes it is hard to credit progress when it happens incrementally over decades. Watching “Mad Men” (whose long anticipated Season 5 is scheduled to begin in March, 2012) provides a jolt of noxious memories from the 1960s – the restrictions on abortion, and the casual sexism which dominated gender relations, to name just two. It provides a useful reminder that between the 1960s and today, there have been several waves of feminism which have profoundly improved modern society. Popular music provides another interesting marker of these changes. Here’s a little story about two songs which indicate the impact of several decades of feminism and the women’s movement.

Start with the great anthem “Respect.” Aretha Franklin made it famous when she released her version in 1967, a 1960’s woman singing to a 1960’s man. “All I’m askin’, is for a little respect when you come home.” Watch “Mad Men,” any episode, any season, and you’ll know why some respect was demanded. Watch Franklin singing this song in 1990, and enjoy one of the great political songs of the 20th century, from one of that century’s greatest voices.

But what will surprise some, is that hers was a cover. The original “Respect” was released two years earlier by Otis Redding, possessor of another of the great voices of the 20th century. His version, the original, ends: “Respect is what I want; Respect is what I need.” As an African American man living in the United States in the 1960s, it should not be surprising that Redding might pen lyrics demanding respect. But listen to all the words of both versions. Franklin’s anthem is about a woman demanding respect from a man in a sexist society. Redding’s original has a whole different angle – it is a man singing to a woman.

Compare the lyrics. Redding sings: “What you want, honey you got it; And what you need, baby you got it.” In Redding’s version, the man is providing for “his” woman, her needs and her wants. And in return: “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home.” Franklin turns this on its head. The woman sings to the man: “What you want, Baby, I got; What you need, Do you know I got it?” In Franklin’s version, it’s the woman demanding respect from “her” man. “All I’m askin’; Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit).” A song which originated in a framework of the patriarchal male-female relations which dominated the 1960s, was transformed into a demand for women’s equality, a demand for respect. It was also a demand which implied agency. “I ain’t lyin’” sings Franklin. If there’s no respect: “When you come home … you might walk in … and find out I’m gone.”[1]

But changes in gender relations do not happen quickly. In 1969 – two years after the release of Franklin’s version of “Respect” – Led Zeppelin’s debut album contained a hugely popular hit song, “Babe I’m gonna leave you,” where the agency is all with the man. “Baby, you know I’m gonna leave you” sings the young Robert Plant. He has itchy feet: “I ain’t jokin’ woman, I got to ramble.” The rock and roll is fantastic, the message, not so much. This iconoclastic band is painting a very conservative image – the ramblin’ youth (male of course) sowing his wild oats; the woman a passing and passive moment in those travels.

But again, this is not the original. Seven years earlier, the radical folk singer Joan Baez released the first recorded version of the song – and its effect is extremely different from the Zeppelin version. First, and most importantly, it’s a woman’s voice. “Babe, the highway is a-callin’; the old highway’s a-calllin’; callin’ me to travel on, … callin’ me to travel on alone.” The lyrics don’t say that this is about a woman leaving a man. There are no gender references in the entire song. But when these words are delivered by Baez’ beautiful voice, the implication is pretty strong that this is about a woman, not a man, moving on. And in fact, the song was written by a woman, Anne Bredon.[2]

Many of us grew up on the Zeppelin version – a hymn to agentic men and passive women. The earlier Baez version, with its very different emphasis, was much less well-known. That is starting to change. A contemporary rock and roll star has definitively put this song into the camp of agentic women. Pink’s 2009 cover is a 21st century challenge to the gender-role stereotypes of the 1960s.

It’s a woman’s voice. It’s a rock and roll voice. And with a powerful band and her own incredible performance, she retains the gendered references from the Zeppelin version, and gives them a same-sex twist. “I ain’t jokin’, woman, I’ve got to ramble;” a woman’s farewell song to her girlfriend. It’s a great performance. And like Franklin’s decades-earlier “Respect,” her version asserts the equality of women in a world still steeped in sexism.

There’s a whole lot more work to get done before we get real equality in this world, a world which now houses seven billion souls. In the 21st century, in Canada, “women working full-time for the full year earned an average of $39,200, or 70.5% as much as comparable men.”[3] Stephen Harper’s now majority Tory government has a “no abortion overseas” policy when it comes to funding development projects.[4] Except in Quebec, childcare remains exorbitantly expensive for the vast majority of parents.[5] In the Global South, there has been a disastrous feminization of poverty, women accounting “for a growing proportion of those people who are considered poor … not only in industrial countries such as the United States, but also in the developing world.”[6]

But listen to these songs, listen to the lyrics – and you’ll realize that the organizing, demonstrating, agitating and movement building of the 1960s, 1970s and into this century have had an impact. We have a foundation from those years of activism on which to construct the gains of this century. So hats off to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – and hats off to this generation, occupying everything from Wall Street to Bay Street.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg

[1] There is an unfortunate mistake on lyrics’ web sites, as it concerns “Respect”. Franklin is often credited as saying, “And all I’m askin’ in return, honey; Is to give me my profits” – which doesn’t make any sense. Instead of “profits” it should read “propers.”
[2] Turn me on, Dead Man. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”
[3] Canadian Labour Congress. “Women in the Workforce: Still a Long Way from Equality.” Ottawa: 2008, p. 1.
[4] Tonda MacCharles. “Planned Parenthood left in Tory funding limbo.” Toronto Star. Sept. 21, 2011.
[5] For a quick overview of the situation in Quebec – a product of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and a magnificent organized women’s movement – see Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care. “Quebec’s Universal Child Care System.”
[6] Mayra Buvinic. “Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass.” Washington, D.C.: July 1998, p. 3

Lois Dowson Bédard – a life for the struggle

Lois Bédard Dowson died December 14 2007, just shy of her 84th birthday. She was, for all her adult life, a committed revolutionary socialist in the tradition of Leon Trotsky. In the context of the Great Depression of her growing years, the rise of fascism and Stalinism in her teens, the horror of World War in her young adulthood – living a life as a revolutionary was not the easiest of choices. But Lois unlike many others, never wavered from her commitment to the left, to the working class, and to the women workers to whose future she was so completely dedicated.

For those in Lois’ era who dedicated themselves to revolutionary socialism, theirs were often lives lived in obscurity. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, the then unified Trotskyist movement in Canada went from a small group of a few dozen, to an organization of hundreds, and played an indispensable role in the movement against the war in Vietnam. However, as the war went into its end game from 1973 to 1975, the political terrain became very complex. After a bitter faction fight, the Trotskyist organization split, and Lois ended up in one of the smaller fragments – the Socialist League, which would later become the Forward Group.

“Life is what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.”[1] John Lennon wrote those words in a different context – but it is a way to think about Lois Bédard’s life and struggles in the years that followed. Lois – often literally arm in arm with her sister, Joyce Rosenthal – was one of those group of activists who were able to rise above the difficult internal life of the left, and keep the struggles of the working class at the centre of their activities.

One of the big issues confronting workers throughout Lois’ life, was the oppression of women workers. In a 2001 study of women workers, Meg Luxton wrote that: “The labour movement in the early 1960s, based mainly in male-dominated occupations, was organizationally overwhelmingly male.”[2] The situation had improved somewhat by the 1970s, but there remained major problems. In March 1976, Bédard was in at the ground level of the founding of Organized Working Women (OWW).[3] OWW played a key role in some of the key class battles of the day. According to Luxton:

After two organizers from the Retail and Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU) attended an OWW conference in early 1985, union women and women’s liberation activists formed a Women’s Strike Support Coalition which met regularly throughout the rest of the strike, organizing strike support … The striking Eatons’ workers were cheered when they spoke at the Toronto International Women’s Day rally on 9 March 1985 and the march itself detoured through the flagship store at the Eatons’ Centre, plastering “Boycott Eatons” throughout the store. The striking women and the women organizers from RWDSU were clear that the support from the women’s movement was very important in helping them stick out the long strike through the winter.[4]

Bédard was also centrally involved in another key struggle of the 1970s and 1980s – the fight for abortion rights. The year, 2008, marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision which overturned the old abortion law, effectively decriminalizing abortion in Canada. Whipped into a rage by this, the anti-choice right wing began organizing assaults on abortion clinics in the late 1980s, and the front lines of the struggle for women’s rights were in front of those clinics – linking arms to keep the bigots out, and to allow women to enter. Long-time socialist and feminist, Judy Rebick, gave a moving tribute to Lois at her funeral, saying that Lois Bédard and Joyce Rosenthal, were always at the centre of this struggle – an inspiration to the younger women who were moving into activism.

This rich period of political engagement was cut short in 1988 when Lois’ brother – Ross Dowson – suffered a debilitating stroke. Ross had been a leader of the Trotskyist movement since the 1930s, and Lois devoted the next 14 years to his care, until his death in 2002. But in spite of this difficult personal burden, Lois kept a keen interest in politics. In 1998, at a packed Toronto meeting marking the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, Lois was there, pushing Ross in a wheelchair. And after his death, she was a regular participant in the annual Marxism conference in Toronto. She would of course pay attention to the sessions on women’s liberation – her commitment to feminism never wavered. But she was also opposed to women being ghettoized into just talking about women. I can still hear her pulling one woman speaker aside and saying “don’t just speak about women – do the other important stuff, do the economy”.

Lois was pre-deceased by not just Ross, but by her sister Ruth and her other brothers Murray, Hugh and Jerry. Murray and Hugh were also lifelong socialist activists. Her sister Joyce is alive, but now unfortunately politically inactive due to illness. We have to know that the work of our generation would have been far harder without the work done for decades by fighters like Lois Dowson Bédard. There will be a meeting to honour her life in Toronto January 20, 5 p.m. at the Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil Street.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” Double Fantasy (Santa Monica: Geffen Records, 1980)
[2] Meg Luxton, “Feminism as a Class Act: Working-Class Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Canada,” Labour/Le Travail, 48, Fall 2001, p. 69,
[3] Luxton, p. 71
[4] Luxton, pp. 86-7.