The Best Thing Going? A Feminist Critique of the ISG

Guest Post by Laura McKeon

Article also available in French

The current schism in the Socialist Workers Party(SWP) has nothing to do with sexism. At times of crisis, sexism is merely a useful political tool. Like every time things blow  up at conference, a scandal is unearthed, or notable members leave the party in outrage, there is no way for any of us to know what the real reasons are. As outsiders, we do not have recourse to that information. We can speculate that this crisis will bring cultural problems like sexism and the lack of democracy to light, creating an openness of dialogue an an opportunity for change. it is hard to imagine meaningful change of this kind without the total collapse of the party, which is what those watching from the sidelines have been hoping and waiting for.

Those sympathetic to the SWP can be forgiven for thinking that it is undergoing a period of introspection, that it has woken up to some of its systemic problems in the wake of recent splits and schisms.  We want to think that the big issues are up for discussion: democracy, transparency, sexism.   It is commendable to assume that it is these glaring problems which cause rifts in the party: that having an effective, professional, accountable organisation is a vision shared by all party members. It is a vision that I believed in, and the greatest ambition of my political involvement for many years. For the vast majority of the membership of any socialist organisation, I believe this is the case. We all want professionalism. At the heart of the party, among CC members and professional organisers, the reasons for schisms, resignations and periodic shuffles are the least professional. If someone ceases to be politically useful to their comrades and colleagues within the party, it is at that point that they become targets for criticism, and never before.

For years, Martin Smith bullied members, read secret ballots, manipulated and silenced his comrades, but had he been prepared to share the level of control that he gained with certain individuals, an issue would never have been made of it. To speak openly about the extent of his indiscretions, even now, would be to admit to the huge failure of the party to uphold democracy. This particular scandal has been well known to party members for a very long time, and has been the subject of great controversy. Why has it taken until now for the information to reach other sections of the left?  When Counterfire was formed, where were the articles which dealt which issues of sexism, which laid out alternative modes of organisation? Where were the theoretical discussions relating incidents of bullying and sexual assault to the wider social position of women? Where was the self criticism? Where was the feminism? I left my party because of sexism (among other things) but it’s not news unless important people do it,  and important people are important enough to have their own political reasons for doing something. I wonder how many disappointed female activists leave radical groups because of sexism every year. I imagine the annual figure would far exceed the combined membership of Counterfire and the ISG. Thing is, they don’t have a charismatic leader to tie them all together (and many of them are so damaged by their experience that they turn their anger on each other).

So it seems that to be a party member, you must always follow. Under Bambery’s wise and humble guidance, we left the party, for reasons that most of us believed had everything to do with bullying, sexism, and frustration at a lack of democracy, and formed the ISG. we were united by our desire to work free from orders given from london, as equals in a new environment of openness and progressiveness, that finally the glaring issues we had all had with the party could be discussed openly. we assumed these discussions would lead to a new way of working. but We were wrong. The ISG wasn’t formed for those reasons. The International Socialist Group (ISG) was formed because a small number of organisers and party members, mostly male, saw an opportunity to seize control, to cut out the influence of older comrades on the young anti-cuts movement, and form a party with themselves at the center.

Everything about it was controlled from the start; a group of individuals with access to information they had happily kept hidden from their comrades for years orchestrated our exit, selected the group’s membership and appointed a paid organiser before most of us had time to properly consider what was happening. we also agreed to pay Bambery for articles, a sort of surrogate redundancy from the SWP, who still owe him a large amount of money. I wrote to Bambery about a year ago, having left the ISG, remembering a conversation at the day-school when I expressed annoyance that the editor of our magazine didn’t see fit to turn up to any meetings, while heavily editing peoples contributions. It was Bambery who told me I had to continually question the authority of people in positions of resposibility to act in this way, that groups develop through self-criticism. I wrote to tell him that I had tried and failed and that my efforts had left me disillusioned and frustrated. What were, in his view, the main reasons that democracy can break down within a party? He must have realised I wasn’t being entirely genuine because he never wrote back.It’s just as well; I don’t think I could bear to be lectured on self-criticism by Chris Bambery.

My confidence in the ISG was hugely enthusiastic at the start. Like most, I saw a long-awaited opportunity for increased participation and openness. It is true that it became possible at that time to have discussions that had not seemed possible before. Suddenly, it was OK to talk about sexism, and it did become apparent that this had been a burning issue for many activists in the party. But these discussions happened in pubs and in people’s flats for the large part, and still do.

In the initial meeting of what was to become the ISG, many grievances were aired that were never to arise again. I remember a comrade who made a contribution to say that there were individuals in the room who had been in positions of accountability when some of the most disgraceful cover-ups and manipulations were happening in the party, and that those people would have to face up to the roles they had played. there were murmurs of agreement throughout the room, most fervently expressed by those individuals to whom he was referring. That was the last time I remember this being discussed. The outcome of that meeting, and every subsequent meeting I attended, had the same grim predictability that SWP organising meetings have, where you get the impression that a small group of your comrades have caucused in private beforehand, in order to direct the discussion. Sexism was not on the agenda.

The discussion on the women’s movement was poorly attended at the initial day-school and a hard-fought attempt to set up a one-off women-only day school was boycotted by much of the membership. While the ISG has produced a few inspiring articles on feminist issues, and the ‘Women on the Left‘ series is brilliant, the ISG website contains very little feminist analysis, and it is never applied to the writings of the male comrades. Add to this the disgracefully high incidence of sexual assault that occurs in activist circles. Of course I don’t blame the ISG for this but I do feel that it is happening on their watch. The ISG should be providing a leading example of how to tackle this issue if they are to
leave the murkiness of the SWP in the past and live up to their newfound reputation.

For me this is unthinkable without the creation and collaborative maintenance and support of a women’s committee, which was once standard practice for Trotskyist organisations. If women who are continually undermined and exposed to abuse have no space in which to speak freely about the problems they face and to discuss organising together against
sexism, it is tantamount to silencing women on these issues. The group loses any claim to being democratic because it
has already placed a limit on the involvement of its female membership. People like Martin Smith are not unique monstrous individuals with a pathological need for power; they are the product of our own broken systems of organising. they bully us and exploit us because we not only allow them to, but actively engage in a culture which encourages them to do so.

Aside from hoping that improved communication between disparate radical communities in Glasgow and increased exposure to queer theory leads to a rise of political lesbianism, weakening the social power that men have in these groups, my biggest hope for the ISG is that its strong female membership will realise the direct link between sexism and lack of democracy in the party, and develop support networks and ways of working that ensure them against the controlling influence of megalomaniac men. That is after all, what the left needs most.

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