Saturday, 12 January 2013

Conduct and Party membership

The recent allegations of misconduct within the Socialist Workers Party (UK) raise a number of questions of what is unacceptable/acceptable behaviour for members of a socialist organisation. How do parties deal with the actions of its members? Do such organisations have obligations to the courts and the State, if its members are alleged to have transgressed the law? Are socialist organisations equipped to rule on legality, or only obliged to enforce it norms and rules?

Below is an extract from a report given to a delegated conference of the SWP(US) in August 1977, as a contribution to such a discussion.


Excerpt from “Political Committee report on Control Commission recommendations” report adopted by SWP National Convention, August 13, 1977

During the last year, the Political Committee has taken action on three recommendations from the Control Commission. Two of these recommendations involved cases of violence in the movement and the third involved a review of our security policy on the use of illegal drugs…

This report is not a report from the Control Commission. It is a report from the Political Committee to the convention on some general conclusions on membership norms the party must enforce. These are conclusions we came to in the course of discussing these specific cases….

Comrades have in their delegate kits the reports from the Control Commission on its investigation involving two cases of violence by one comrade against another. The individuals in both cases have resigned from the party and there are no formal proposals for discipline or appeals before us. The purpose of this report is not to review these cases, but to summarize the conclusions on membership norms reached by the Political Committee as a result of the cases.

The conclusions we are presenting here are not new. They do not deal with acts that were previously condoned by our movement and that we now condemn. Rather they represent a more explicit and more clearly defined explanation of what we mean when we say that violence within the movement is incompatible with membership of the Socialist Workers Party.

In investigating the two cases of violence, the Control Commission found that some comrades, who had not had to deal with .and think out this question before, had too narrow a view of what is included. It was in helping these comrades think out that question that the Political Committee divided the question of unacceptable violence in the movement into 4 categories….
(The first category was undisciplined free lancing in combat situations in the class struggle –MA)

The second category is the use of violence to settle differences or disagreements in the party. Any kind of violence between comrades totally cuts across democratic discussion and the frank and open exchange of ideas- the bedrock of party discipline. We are a democratic-centralist organization, meaning democracy within the party in reaching decisions and centralism and discipline in action. If physical intimidation is introduced among comrades, democracy becomes meaningless. You can’t have a democratic discussion if you think someone is going to punch you if you disagree with them. Intimidation, not an encouragement to discuss, becomes a creeping cancer. It ultimately destroys confidence in each other and in the party, and decisions are not arrived at democratically…

There is seldom any confusion about the use of violence to settle political differences, but what happens when we are dealing with personal situations between comrades? This is the third category- the use of violence between comrades in a personal or ‘family’ framework.

The Control Commission reported to the Political Committee that some comrades thought violence ‘within the family’- say, between two comrades who live together- was an exception to our policy against violence within the movement. Maybe, some comrades thought, that’s just a personal matter, a private affair, and not the business of the party.

In the discussions we had in the Political Committee about this, it became clear to us that violence between comrades was never a ‘personal matter’. Any violence between comrades, whether personal or political, introduces physical intimidation and undermines party democracy. If you feel safe on the branch floor, but think that under the guise of a ‘personal or private matter’ you might get the stuffing beat out of you at home- your democratic rights are not exactly being protected.

But, is violence between comrades at home, in private, beyond the pale of party concern? We have a long established norm in our party that the party does not snoop or pry into the personal lives of comrades. The party doesn’t try to dictate the hobbies, forms of relaxation, or dress of comrades. It doesn’t tell people who to be friends with, or who to live with or not live with. This is a norm jealously protected, I’m sure, by the entire membership.

The Political Committee thought it important to make it crystal clear that enforcing proscription against violence between comrades in ‘personal’ or ‘private’ matters as incompatible with membership is not a step back from our norm of not interfering in the personal lives of comrades.

In fact, over the past decade, if anything, the party has moved in the opposite direction. Because of the youth radicalization, the rise of Black Nationalism, the women’s liberation movement, and the gay liberation movement, there has been an acceleration of changing attitudes in the working class as a whole. The party, too, has been affected. There’s never been less than today to stick its nose in comrades’ private and personal affairs.

Of course, joining the party in and of itself affects your whole life. To belong to the party, for instance, you have to pay dues- that affects the amount of money you have for your personal life. You have to actively build the party- that affects the amount of time you have for your personal life. Loyalty to the party means you can’t violate party decisions- like our security policy (on illegal drugs- MA)- even in the privacy of your own home.

The rule against violence- in the same way- has nothing to do with snooping into comrades’ personal lives. It is about protecting the democratic rights of party members.

The fourth category examined by the Political Committee is the use of violence by men against women, including wife beating, which has almost epidemic proportions in capitalist society as a whole.

Beating up on women- whether the woman is a wife, companion, whether she is in the party or not, whether in public or in private, is incompatible with membership in the Socialist Workers Party.

The increasing consciousness of women about this issue, a product of the women’s movement, has, in the last few years, brought this issue into public prominence. And there’s growing consciousness that wife-beating is one of the most brutal, and yet widespread, forms of the sexist treatment of women…

How would it look in the women’s movement if the party said “comrade x is a fine comrade, a party builder, and a supporter of our program- the fact that he goes home and beats his wife up is no concern of ours”?

The principle is simple and obvious if we think about it. The actions of our members cannot be so at variance with our program and what we are fighting for that it would make the party look hypocritical or cynical to the class whose confidence we must have in the titanic battles ahead. We cannot say one thing and do another and expect to win the confidence of our class…

As I said earlier, these positions are not new. These acts were never condoned by the party. But real experience in the party this year made us think through and clarify this question. It seemed clear to the Political Committee that this would have an educational value the party would appreciate; and this we wanted to put before the delegates for their approval our codification of the fact that:

1)     undisciplined free-lancing in combat situations;
2)     the use of violence to settle any kind of disagreements in the movement;
3)     the use of violence between comrades, even in a personal of ‘family’ situation; and
4)     any use of violence by men against women-

are all incompatible with membership in our party.

-Linda Jenness (Political Cttee)

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