UPDATED May 2017
This is about trust. It is about ethics. It is about where we are all headed as a society and what sort of a world we wish to build. It is about the men and women who place themselves at the head of the movement, not just the SWP which is less relevant than you'd guess, but the entire culture of the various left groups, what their motives really are and the difference between lip-service and action.
When you treat human beings as disposable objects in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists' labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome.
The rape allegations that sent the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) into freefall and a near fatal crisis are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the organisation. The alleged sex abuse seems to have been of a different order to that of the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s and 80s: Gerry Healy regularly raped women activists and the WRP's internal regime was straightforwardly violent. I was a member of the SWP between 1996 and 2001, and running the press operation for Globalise Resistance (Gr), Socialist Alliance (SA), Stop The War Coalition (STWC) and Media Workers Against the War (MWAW) until 2003. If anything, I found the leading men in the SWP curiously sexless and not half as attractive as the women, and can count the episodes of sex pesting I heard about on the fingers of one hand (without the thumb).
There was the guy who we jokingly named the Lothario of the Left, who seemed all talk and no trousers (he wished!) and who I thought posed no real threat beyond being a bit of a pain in the butt (he wished!). The more serious rumours concerned one senior member of the central committee (now dead) who was said to get so predatory when he was drunk that his close comrades had to keep him away from young women.
However, in 2012, the case of a young SWP woman comrade who accused a senior party member of rape — said to have occurred when she was 17 and he 46 — generated widespread horror when the arrogant, self-serving way they dealt with this case (plus at least one other involving the same party leader) demonstrated how distant from socialist principles they were. Having read the kangaroo court transcript (Jan 2013) and the cryptic comments at SU and seen SWP males up close, I suspect that two odd-looking men (politics being showbiz for ugly people) were so repressed that, when they were in proximity to female activists, the power of their party status went to their heads.
This has its roots not only in the larger society but in the culture of the organisation. It's all very well the SWP flaming their critics, but this has been building for years. They continue to stick their fingers in their ears when they should have been addressing the objectification of their own members.
I can empathise totally with Comrade W, a woman who has struggled to get a fair hearing, sympathy and respect from her comrades, not to mention an overhaul of dodgy practises, over two years or more and then in desperation went for broke and reported it to the party's internal disputes committee. Subsequent events are a clear marker of how far they have degenerated without even knowing it.
The cases of sexual abuse now surfacing are a symptom of a deeper problem inside the left. Whether it's ripping off their activists for wages, thieving their intellectual efforts and claiming credit for their successes, ignoring patterns of abuse has emboldened the abusers and led to a diminishing regard for their members until the logical conclusion of that trajectory — where even someone's body is no longer their own — is reached. And here we are at that particular terminus.
As one former SWP member says in today's Guardian report on the matter:
She added that she was coming forward two years later because she believes the SWP is a dangerous environment for women: "I want people to know it's a systemic thing. They've done this a few times, covered things up in the interests of the party and it's a dangerous environment to be in."
One long violation and shakedown.
In my own case, working full-time for no pay establishing and running the SWP's national press over several years — including Globalise Resistance, Socialist Alliance and Stop the War — while being subjected to their own form of obedience training left me heavily in debt and marvelling at my own stupidity.
When I joined in 1996, the SWP had no active press office yet complained bitterly that the bourgeois press always ignored them. "Did you issue press releases for your events?", I asked. No they didn't, evidently expecting the press to pluck their activities from the ether and report them. Ah, I can help here, I thought. And so began my complicity in my own exploitation for the next few years.
Investigative journalist Paul Foot may have called me "the best press officer in the country" but that hasn't stopped me being Stalinised by the left.
Not one single National Union of Journalists (NUJ) member of the SWP or their affiliates or any journalists on the SWP's Socialist Worker newspaper either initiated or was interested in getting media relations with the "bourgeois" press up and running. It was an uphill struggle from the start but I had no idea how hostile my own comrades would be towards activity that would widen our audience and get our message out.
In my bid to help out and make a difference, I initiated, established and coordinated the national press for their Globalise Resistance, Socialist Alliance (SA) and Stop the War Coalition (STWC) campaigns (I should have been working on my own writing), but however many hours I worked all unpaid, it was never enough for them. You can be behind the computer from 8am to gone midnight on their behalf when everyone else is earning a living, but if the district organiser demands you attend a paper sale at 6am you must do it — even if only she and one other turn up and no-one else in the whole of West London does — and you only sell one paper. There's no sense to it except as obedience-training.
If the SWP Central Committee (CC) head honcho (ex-SWP, now Stop the War, People's Assembly and Counterfire) tells you, f'rinstance, to use the SWP and Socialist Alliance e-lists to character-assassinate SA comrades, friends and sympathisers Paul Mason and Dave Osler (and, later, screw over RMT's Greg Tucker) out of sheer bloodymindedness when they've done an excellent job — or precisely BECAUSE they'd done an excellent job — to refuse to obey their authorit-eye, as I did, is to invite the SWP's collective wrath.
Or as one prominent SWP woman I appealed to around the time of the SA demise told me, "You should have done what he said. He's on the CC and what the CC says, goes." Luckily, I never checked in my brain along with my conscience at the door.
The head honcho I refer to here, (now jockeying for kingmaker role behind the scenes with Jeremy Corbyn as his main man), had offered me patronage when I'd mistakenly assumed his encouragement was appreciation of new blood. If only I'd realised before the sun went down that it was new blood in the way Transylvanian children of the night appreciate new blood, I'd have ridden the first coach outta town. My aim had been to bring any skills I might have into the organisation and leave it in a better shape than I found it — those skills chiefly being the ones I'd learned from the talented arts publicists who'd gained me a stack of press for my performance work. As a result the media were beginning to take notice of the SWP's various projects and a strange glint was appearing in the comrades' eyes.
Happy London Socialist Alliance candidates at the Millbank launch of our People Before Profit manifesto where I got Shaun Ley and a BBC TV camera unit to cover the event.
I think I may even have done some good. When firefighter and SA executive member Steve Godward stood as candidate for the Socialist Alliance in Birmingham Erdington in the 2001 general election, he was targeted by the far right including one particularly dangerous and infamous figure. They harassed Godward and his election group at their campaign stall and made it clear that they knew where he lived. Shockingly, instead of our party — either the leading SWP grouping or the Socialist Alliance — mounting a concerted campaign to support and protect him in solidarity, he was hung out to dry by head honcho, who dismissed him as "not representing anyone". Appalled by this betrayal and abandonment of one of our own the moment he was under attack, I managed, as SA press officer, to get a small mention of the far right threat in the Mirror, as well as writing and issuing press releases for him when his own FBU bureaucracy cut up rough.
Anna Chen — establishing national press officer for Globalise Resistance, the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), the Socialist Alliance (SA), and the establishing press officer for the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that saw it wrest the anti-war brand from CND after 9/11 — with Mike Marqusee, press officer and author of the bulk of our press releases, at the Milbank launch of the LSA manifesto in the 2000 Greater London Assembly elections.
LSA national press officer Anna Chen with our candidate Greg Tucker, a train driver, on board the battle bus.
Senior SWP and SWTC members knew about the right-wing threat to our own SA candidate plus other episodes because I made a point of making sure they were aware what was happening in our name. However, this vanguard of the class clammed up and protected the machine as they would do time and time again. Such as when I saw the membership print-outs in late 1998 and blew the whistle on numbers falling far below the ten thousand claimed at the time by the national secretary. They wouldn't correct the multiple duplicated inclusions on the lists or remove people who'd been pleading to be taken off (I offered to do this) which would have brought it down to a more realistic number well below two thousand. It was quite eerie how everyone I told looked uncomfortable and changed the subject even though we were all aware of the chief commandment regularly delivered by the SWP's leader and political theorist Tony Cliff: never lie to the class.
With a touching faith that the CC would correct what I initially assumed was an innocent mistake on their part (they never did, although they did stop claiming ten thousand), I continued to promote our politics. I arranged media interviews for SA and STWC spokespersons, always declining invitations from producers to speak myself once I'd briefed them, as I didn't want to build a media profile for myself out of my political activity (as it turned out others were effectively doing) — I believed that was what my art was for. The one time I spoke in the media about the SA was when I was invited by BBC Radio 5 Live to appear on Nicky Campbell's programme in my capacity as writer and performer, which I turned into an opportunity to talk about why I felt the SA was necessary.
In addition to unpaid work for the SWP and its left organisations, I was also directing the press (also unpaid) for various disasters visited upon the UK's Chinese community. In early 2001 the Labour government's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) tried to blame a Chinese restaurant for the catastrophic outbreak of the Foot and Mouth Disease which devastated the countryside largely due to government incompetence. With violence brewing against UK Chinese and the first assaults already occurring, I initiated and ran the media campaign and was a member of the delegation led by Jabez Lam (at 1:17:00) that negotiated with the MAFF Minister, Nick Brown. After closing down London and Manchester Chinatowns on Sunday 8th April with an unprecedented strike we won public vindication from Brown in front of the international press.
In February 2004, 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned in Morecambe Bay (only 21 bodies were found). Aware that the 58 Chinese who died in the 2000 Dover lorry disaster were dehumanised as 'illegals' and criminals by swathes of the media, I immediately co-ordinated with Chinese activists on the ground — including The Monitoring Group and their affiliated community organisation Minquan helmed by Jabez Lam of which I was a founder member — to help make sure the victims were humanised and protected from the start. The press angle was that the Chinese had brought it on themselves by coming here illegally; that it was all the fault of the snakehead gangs; and the prevailing atmosphere emboldened Conservative MP Ann Winterton enough to crack a joke about a shark ordering a takeaway of dead Chinese people. All of which let the government's immigration policy off the hook. This had to be challenged and that's what we did. I issued the intitial English language national press releases (drafted by The Monitoring Group and Minquan activists), publicised our press conference at St Ann's Church in Soho, and got writer Hsiao Hung Pai on board whose sterling undercover work ended up as the basis for Nick Broomfield film, Ghosts (2006).
Yet it was only four or five years before the Morecambe Bay tragedy that I'd asked in an SWP Marxism summer school organising meeting led by Rees for us to do more work with UK Chinese. Remembering the district organiser who had told me I was petit bourgeois because I was Chinese and 'all Chinese work in catering', I pointed out that there were Chinese workers such as the Dover 58 in the UK who should be part of the movement. I was told sharply that 'the axis of racism is black and white' and 'the party doesn't work with the Chinese' because 'it's British workers that count, not Chinese' and that was almost the end of the conversation.
In the summer of 2001 I sent Socialist Worker newspaper and SWP HQ a press release about the police prosecution of the New Diamond Restaurant workers in Soho after they had defended themselves from a racist attack. Irony of ironies, Comrade Delta picked it up and got behind the New Diamond Four picket until they won their case, although they trampled over local Chinese activists in the process. This included proposals for a credit-hogging victory rally, a spotlight which was the very last thing that the Chinese strikers wanted, underlined by their vote against in the T and G union meeting on 30th July 2001.
Across the board, the left was neglecting the importance of the media. I stepped into this breach assuming I was among conscientious socialists and comrades. How wrong I was.
Page 1 of my media directory, up to 47 pages by September 1999 when we were still on faxes. Seumas Milne has been receiving my press releases since 1997.
I was pleased to be asked to write for the International Socialism Journal which head honcho edited (pieces on Sergei Eisenstein and George Orwell). I was glad that the Socialist Review magazine — edited by one of his girlfriends — could use my cultural reviews. I was happy to help out proof-reading in the printshop (for this I received £20 per day once in a blue moon). And being the trolley-dolly looking after the outside speakers at their annual Marxism events was fun ... in parts.
However, head honcho's sudden announcement that I was now on the Socialist Review editorial board was an unpaid duty too many (the others were all full-timers on the party payroll or had jobs). I was supposed to acquiesce to this command because of the star-fuckery honour of attending meetings at Paul Foot's house. As magnificent as Paul was (I did his national press when he stood for the SA) it was yet one more time-killer and space-filler. On top of this, head honcho suddenly told me out of the blue that the CC had decided that I was to be the SWP's press officer — "People would kill to have your job" — with no consultation with me when all I wanted to do was train up members to engage with the media (which they refused to allow). You can politely decline all you want but this sort of disobedience drives them several degrees off Sanity Central.
Tony Benn's note asking me to publicise the memorial service for his late wife, Caroline. Other leftists who made use of my unpaid media office services included Ken Loach and Jeremy Hardy who called on me to promote their Palestine projects on screen and stage; Alex Callinicos who needed press for his Committee To Defend South Korean Socialists campaign; and Hilary Wainright who was the only one to offer to pay me to promote her book, Reclaim the State (2003), apart from investigative journalist Greg Palast who over time drilled into me why I should not allow myself to be exploited by the left.
I'd tried to be a principled comrade, helping other members of the left. To name but three examples: I did the PR that broke SWP's China Miéville into the public eye for free when he sought me out, complaining that his publisher wasn't making him famous and that the SWP and their outlet, Bookmarks, were ignoring his brilliance. I was thankful to discover a leftist who was working in the creative industry, who could help us demonstrate that we had some good tunes and that it wasn't all dry theory and hard slog activity: socialism should mean releasing imaginative powers for people normally crushed under the requirements of capitalism. I believed that talent should be given a chance and not buried and so, in the spirit of comradely love and solidarity, I took this writer under my wing and determined to propel him into the public eye with as much vigour as I applied to publicising the left.
As well as lobbying for Miéville inside the party and acting as his champion until they started to feature him in activities, this meant issuing press releases about this fab new cultural find for the Left that went out to all the media that were now paying attention to the Socialist Alliance, and adding info snippets about him to my general press releases. Such as when we held our 6p per head alfresco "dinner" press stunt outside the Grosvenor House Hotel on 10th April 2000. New Labour had announced a £600-a-head centenary dinner at the Park Lane hotel so we set up a table on the pavement outside with big pots of curry and rice selling at 6p per plate — while the perma-tanned big-wigs swanned up in their shiny limos — to illustrate the gap between the values of Tony Blair's government and the people they were supposed to represent.
A day or two before, I'd taken Miéville to a north London hire company round the back of Euston and kitted him out in a dinner suit complete with tails and bow tie to act as the stunt's Maitre D, ushering the public to the dishes we had on offer. He looked great and fitted beautifully with an assortment of other characters played by SA supporters including someone dressed as the Mad Hatter who had a fistful of money from my Monopoly board game stuffed into the band of his top hat. For the 2001 general election we made him the Socialist Alliance candidate for the London constituency of Regents Park and Kensington North for which his partner did his local press and I did his national media, in addition to chairing meetings for him.
Tariq Ali, Anna Chen and China Mieville.
Here's our first press release for his candidacy:
Horror story for New Labour
Critically-acclaimed fantasy and horror writer China Mièville is standing for the Socialist Alliance against New Labour's Karen Buck in the Regent's Park and North Kensington constituency in the general election.
"Millions of people around the country have been let down by New Labour," says Mièville, long-time local resident and activist. "Tony Blair has shown time and again that his agenda is dictated by big business, not by the working people who voted him in.
"On issue after issue Karen Buck has toed Blair's line: she supported the cuts in lone parent benefit and student funding, the attacks on disability benefit, and the bombings of Iraq and Serbia. Now she's the government's mouthpiece for PFI. The voters of this area, like voters everywhere, can show how fed up they are with Blair and his cronies by voting for the Socialist Alliance in the general election."
Mièville is the author of Perdido Street Station (Macmillan 2000) which is currently shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke and the British Science Fiction Association Awards. It was a WH Smith Book of the month selection in its category. His first novel King Rat (Macmillan 1998) was set in and around Westbourne Park and Portobello Road.
Notes for journalists
1) For various reviews of China Mièville books see www.amazon.co.uk
2) To interview China Mièville or for photographs phone: 0207 xxx
Introducing Miéville to my friends included hosting a dinner at my home for him and his partner to meet the investigative reporter Greg Palast and his partner.
But it was persuading (no easy task) my partner, the journalist and author Charles Shaar Murray, to write a stonking 1,400 word feature in the broadsheetIndependent on Sunday titled "Lord of the Earrings", with a big picture of Mieville, that finally cracked him in the mainstream. So his subsequent actions, falling in line with SWP hacks whose approval he so craved, were pretty fugly.
A second example is when I did free publicity for SA chair Liz Davies' book Through the Looking Glass (Verso) as well as promoting her and her partner Mike Marqusee in just about all SA press, and defending her when head honcho's hacks wrote her signature on SA cheques. Their comradely response? Behind my back, while encouraging me to stay on board against my sense of self-preservation, she crushed Steve Godward's attempt to get the bullying dealt with, telling him, "That's personal issues between her and John Rees." Hey, sistah! Thanks for prolonging the misery when I should have walked. That and the rewriting of SA events ...
And in 1999 I paid one skint SWP aristocracy member a fiver an hour that we couldn't afford for 4 hours cleaning per week (her idea and a fiver more per hour than I was getting for my labour for her party — to put it in perspective, the National Minimum Wage introduced the same year was £3.60 per hour), and nearly took out a £600 overdraft to cover her rent arrears before we realised that her SWP parents (with their well-paid full-time jobs) were a lot better off than we were. Quite often I'd feed her a hot meal and we'd talk politics during allotted work hours, her correcting me and explaining why I was petit bourgeois because I was an art worker and we were all atomised. (Art workers take note that the SWP regard you as not of "the Class".) Others were telling me I was petit bourgeois because I was Chinese and we all work in catering — not racist, then.
It should also be noted that every one of my Stop The War Coalition press releases as the establishing and national press officer carried Lindsey German's and then Mike Marqusee's mobile numbers, offering them as spokespersons and raising their profile in the media. Only Marqusee had any sort of mainstream media presence before this.
But no good deed goes unpunished and the blowback from these instances was typical of the irrational spite and fury permeating much of the left. I may have succeeded in breaking Miéville into both the mainstream and the left out of friendship for no payment while his publisher's publicity department floundered, but in Bizzarro World this is exactly the reason I had to be done over. This included an ambush at Mieville's housewarming party by his SWP buddies, one of whom shouted so loudly in my right ear that she nearly burst my eardrum, joined in by Mieville who seemed intent on making his bones in the organisation, witnessed by a room full of his guests.
In addition to further unpleasantness, Miéville never returned my manuscripts of Coolie, my novel about the striking Chinese railworkers, or The Chop House, my "Red Guard, Yellow Submarine" memoir about being born to Chinese communists in 1960s Hackney. It doesn't feel very nice knowing that people who wish you harm have jumped all over your work and your most intimate memories.
All that talk of "comradeship" and yet I realised no-one ever had my back. Maybe it was something I'd done, something I said? But when I asked if I'd done something wrong either politically or personally to deserve the hostility I was getting from leading cadre, Rees merely muttered that I was "exemplary". These are men and women who will shout themselves hoarse to stop you being called a "cunt" but will happily see you treated like one. He expected me to continue working in this environment. When I told him it felt like a rape, all he had to say was that I wasn't allowed to use the word "like that". I felt compelled to explain that I knew what rape felt like. And he still wouldn't tackle the bullying. "I'm not picking a fight with a district organiser," was his courageous response.
The West London district organiser (D.O.s, full-timers paid a salary by the party) was a twiggy blonde teacher whose profound grasp of politics led her, in her former working life, to teach her students about Dunkirk when told to teach them about D-Day. For some unfathomable reason, whenever there was a task to do (the SWP's notorious pointless activities just to keep the grunts busy) she would always demand I was the one who did it. Such as when we were all in the middle of the SA election and I'd been working on the press from waking at 8am to gone midnight, and yet out of the entire West London district, it was me who had to do the 6am paper sale with her and one of the bureaucrats. One paper was sold. Other members couldn't do it apparently because they were otherwise occupied earning a living, paying their NI contributions towards a state pension while I was racking up credit card debt in order to live.
Hostility towards me was clearly signalled. In early 2001, during our general election campaign, the D.O. suddenly demanded that "all LSA (London Socialist Alliance) press work should go through me" because "Anna's up her own arse, she wants to be in the media limelight". The fact that I'd abandoned "media limelight", income and a career in order to contribute to the movement made no odds. And all party presswork? Oh, great. Another level of bureaucracy to take up more time we didn't have. She was the district organiser and not the person I reported to but Central Committee member Rees, courageous as ever, refused to clarify even though you could tell he knew the demand was barking. In one press team meeting in January 2001, attended by Rees, Paul Mason, Clare Fermont, Richard Garside, Will McMahon, Stuart King and Dave Osler, Rees had made it clear: "We've established the LSA steering committee, I and the press team have the right to issue press releases without going to every group and waiting." If following his instructions resulted in my being bashed up by his comrades, then so be it.
In her local clique, another teacher, one of three daughters of mayors and mayoresses I met in the party, barracked me for not doing a Saturday sale even though I was working for the party full time unpaid for 60 hours or more a week; attending all the meetings and being generally all-round useful (yes, the term "useful idiot" does resonate at this point). And the teacher? She'd turn up once in a blue moon.
Another one of the D.O.'s cohort was supposed to be running the local press in Brent for the 2001 Socialist Alliance general election campaign so I could focus on the national press. The SA was fielding candidates in 65 English constituencies with more in Wales and Scotland as the biggest far left challenge in the post-war period. As well as getting me to do the national and London press, Rees had also made me responsible for getting our borough press officers self-sufficient which I was happy to do. However, the Brent SA press officer made her animosity clear when she wrecked our media work. The SA battle bus was in the district for a day so I'd co-ordinated with the mainstream media — BBC South East TV news in this instance — to interview Austin, an amazing activist in his 80s. He looked fantastic with his badge-covered black beret and jacket and red bandanna scarf, and he was full of inspiring stories from his lengthy experience fighting da man. We all loved him — a proper old-school principled socialist. Austin was looking forward to being interviewed on our glorious battle bus and showing how we were real people, characters not caricatures, when the local press officer called him to pull him off the interview with about an hour to go. No excuse, no reason, no explanation. This was the loss of an important bit of positive publicity for our side. And Austin was gutted. It is stunning how these people place personal animosity and sectarianism before the movement.
In May 2001, at the end of the general election campaign, the SA celebrated in the Institute of Education bar in Bloomsbury. When Mike Marqusee said nice things about my work ("flair and imagination"), emphasising that the left had to be professional and take seriously the job of challenging the establishment's propaganda against us, I got a little round of applause. I was a bit embarrassed but pleased that my work had done some good and that my comrades appreciated it. Over to my left, however, seated with her mates, a stormy faced district organiser folded her arms and refused to join in. For isn't it the duty of the revolutionary to ensure that the nail that sticks up is hammered down?
Around the same era (1999?), the Miss World competition made its comeback at Olympia. Because the venue was on her West London turf, the D.O. called for a protest against the "sexist cattle market". About 50 of us duly turned up for a noisy but good-natured demo with the D.O. supposedly acting as the convenor. As always at these events, I wrote phone numbers for duty lawyers in biro on my forearm just in case things went awry. Sure enough, two or three women were arrested and taken to Hammersmith Police Station. We headed off to the cop shop for what I assumed were rescue and solidarity purposes. However, the D.O. spent her time flirting with one of the SWP's posh boys and had no plan of action. It is surely wrong to encourage young women to take the risk of public action only to leave them to their fate when something goes wrong. The D.O. disappeared from the police station shortly afterwards while I contacted lawyers for the detained women and hung around into the early hours until I knew help was on its way.
Lions led by donkeys. There will be little surprise that this particular donkey ended up on the SWP's Central Committee.
On another occasion, Rees told me, "You're an actress, that's why people think you're a flake". This said to one of the unflakiest people in their group, certainly one who knew that you should always take a lawyer's phone number with you on lively protests, especially if you are the organiser.
Things were not getting any better. At an executive committee meeting for the Socialist Alliance in the summer of 2001, I found myself the only woman and the only ethnic minority as the other regular woman member, Terry, was absent. There I sat in a room above a Euston pub, the sole female surrounded by about 30 white middle-class males whose one bone tossed towards diversity was that some of them were proper posh. I would normally sit back and listen at these meetings, make notes and feed back info about our press when asked, under the impression that these veterans of the left were vastly more experienced in politics than myself and I could do with learning from them. On this occasion we reached a point where we had to decide where the next meeting should be held as we were all agreed that the SA shouldn't be London-centric. In a lull I spoke my first words of the meeting, supporting the next one being held in Coventry where our SA chair, Dave Nellist, lived as it was north (meaning north of our current spot in London) and more convenient for a whole lot more people to get to.
There was a collective sharp intake of breath and then one by one these tribunes of the oppressed took it in turns to bark at me in classic "rip-her-to-shreds" mode while Rees, Hoveman and Nellist watched without uttering a word. "Coventry is not in the North and this just shows your total ignorance," raged John N, an NGO and SA independent who I'd previously thought was okay. As the others joined in on this theme like a coiled spring releasing (the word "disgusting" came up a lot) I looked around at the all-white male group in full fury purporting to be socialist and thought, "The accuracy of my geography is the least of your problems."
We held the press launch of the Socialist Alliance manifesto, People Before Profit, at Millbank. A lorry was hired displaying the banner title and the SA candidates turned up for the call. Everyone seemed surprised but delighted that I'd managed to get presenter and journalist Shaun Ley and a BBC TV crew along who were filming the event and interviewing Dave Nellist. However, yet again petty jealousies eclipsed what should have been a joyous occasion. During a lull I started to chat to our Dagenham candidate, Berlyne Hamilton, (my mother was from Dagenham) who was standing alone holding an LSA balloon. Barely half a sentence in, Rees came barreling over and barked at Berlyne to 'get in line' as he grabbed his balloon. Berlyne immediately jumped to it as Rees snapped at me, 'hold this' and whacked the balloon into my face. It was not a pretty sight to see a white guy order a black man to 'get in line'. I was both stunned by his aggression and laughing at the impotence of his gesture. The meaning was clear — he was resentful that I'd pulled this off. It was a signal I should have heeded.
I tried not to buckle under this unremitting hostility from my own side because there was a bigger cause to deal with, but it began to have profound negative effect on my health as well as my bank statements. Succumbing to bronchitis every year – twice in one year — was draining. As was bursting into tears when I was on my own and not understanding what on earth was going on.
Take someone who's marginalised in society, marginalise them some more and then call it socialism.
Capitalism robs us of our humanity. The promise of socialism is that it's supposed to liberate you from capitalism's requirement for you to be a depersonalised cog in the machine serving Mammon, but the left's mindset has ossified to the extent where they can't see the contradiction in turning lively recruits with ideals into unthinking cogs in their own apparatus, with no function other than to service the leadership rather than the cause. The party's texts become holy writ and wholly wrong.
It's like all the water has been drained out, leaving us with a parched desert landscape.
Behind the Potemkin-village presentations of cultural expression at their various events, the pressure to conform is astonishing. No speaking truth to power here. Not only must you follow orders unquestioningly, but you must stay in line and not stand out. The nail that sticks up has to be hammered down. I wondered why they put nearly a year and a half into recruiting a sparky half-Chinese woman from Hackney if they didn't like what they saw.
They promote their Trotskyist brand of socialism as being far superior to the Stalinists and yet there's still the constant pressure to kow-tow and kneel before Zod. The same salivating fantasies about the working class being allowed guns (fair point if the oppressive ruling class has them and uses them against you). The same gleeful spite when the subject of the Red Army suppression of the Kronstadt rising comes up and they imagine how, like the very UN-working class Trotsky, they would "shoot them down like partridges". You're left with the question: if these people did have guns, who would be the first to receive a bullet? I doubt it would be the class enemy.
So why didn't I walk out earlier? This is the promise, the bigger picture, the prize I thought worth fighting for:
"It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."
Those inspiring words were written by Leon Trotsky. The same Trotsky who set about the Kronstaadt sailors, and who wanted the sailors "shot down like partridges". Another case of actions not matching their beautiful words.
* * * * *
There is a tide in the affairs of men, and so on. Instead of riding the wave of my fledgling career as a writer and performer, I'd jumped off it in order to serve, not the revolution, but some fairly unpleasant middle-management types who wouldn't have been looked at twice had they not climbed the greasy pole of the SWP and the outside left.
I'd decided to rent out my flat for a while in order to write my book, Coolie, about the strike by several thousand Chinese workers on the American trans-continental railroad in the 1860s. This was important to me because, in spirit, it was really about my father — a Chinese revolutionary who'd been active in the British workers' movement from the 1920s (he died in 2004). Once fees and expenses were paid, that would allow me to live frugally. Yet here I was in 2001 with nothing written because every minute of time and every inch of psychic space now belonged to The Party, going deeper and deeper into debt for them.
Mike Marqusee stated that, for the SA, I'd done single-handedly the equivalent of the Countryside Alliance's six full-time paid press officers and their support with "flair and imagination".
The Weekly Workercalled my unprecedented press successes "uncanny".
John Rees described my work as being akin to turning a tanker around mid-ocean and like mining for diamonds.
In the media, the Socialist Alliance was described as "Fresh and exciting" said John O'Farrell in the Guardian. "Easily the best performance for the left in post-war Britain," John Curtice told The Independent.
None of that counts when they break out their airbrushes.
A review of the George Monbiot An Activist's Guide to Exploiting the Media — including my appendix — which I got John Rees to have published by Bookmarks with George's blessing. "The appendix, which gives contact details for the key TV stations and newspapers, is alone worth the price of the pamphlet."
The STWC claim in their literature that they'd sprung fully formed from the ether in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001. This is not true. The SWP had actually joined what became, through various changes of name, the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) some time after others (including CND) had set up an anti-intervention coalition against the first Gulf war in 1990/1. Despite Paul Foot and the SWP trying to revive it for the Kosovo conflict in 1999, Stop The War, as it had become by the late 1990s, had never made much of an impact and was clearly moribund by 2001. The initial protests following the 9/11 attacks were organised as a three-way partnership between CND, the Muslim Association of Britain and the now SWP-led STWC.
Everyone dreaded the inevitable attack on Iraq by the US and its allies, which would probably include Britain. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, it was all hands on deck. The SWP began organising their usual meetings and demos; the same tired machinery belting it out for the same dwindling audience, essentially talking to themselves, the same as they'd done for decades. The prospect of war with Iraq, innnocents being killed and maybe even a third world war breaking out was crucial for all of us.
I was determined that the media would take notice this time and set out to wear down UK media resistance to the anti-war argument at national level by assorted means, with Marqusee writing the text of most of the press releases. As the SWP refused to even try working with the bourgeois press, largely confining themselves to coordinating demonstrations, Mike and I had to forge ahead on our own.
Both in the regions and in London, a handful of left activists who engaged with local media would eventually emerge organically. However, at the national level, SWP CC head honcho refused my request to recruit press officers to help, or for me to train some and pass on skills. But by having one person, myself, on the front line on the phone and email, making sure that the media knew the STWC arguments and activities throughout, we managed to wrest the anti-war brand from the CND in favour of STWC. Otherwise, these would have been just more demos, organised by the usual suspects and ignored by the press. Perhaps this anonymity in the shadows was where they were most comfortable. Taking them at their word and shining a light on their activities forced them out of their rut and into the mainstream. It gave them opportunities to get their message out. But being under the spotlight also reveals character and is not character something to do with the moral and ethical choices people make under pressure?
Doing the actual work
I put out the pre-event press releases publicising the first anti-war meeting at Friends House in the Marylebone Road on Friday 21st September 2001 which had George Monbiot, Bruce Kent, Liz Davies, Tariq Ali, Jeremy Corbyn MP, and someone from CND on the platform. Mike Marqusee wrote a statement for the Socialist Alliance (whose branches we notified and asked to attend all anti-war meetings and protests) which I sent out to all the news desk editors, agencies and my press list on the 18th September. It started to catch fire.
This is my press release following that first anti-war meeting on the 21st September 2001:
Anti-war meeting packs out as peace movement builds
More than 2000 people packed the Friends' Meeting House for central London's first major anti-war meeting on Friday night.
Attendance was much higher than expected. A spill-over meeting was organised in an adjacent hall and another in the street outside the meeting house. Hundreds of people remained in the street to hear the speeches.
Speakers - including Bruce Kent, George Monbiot, Liz Davies, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Tariq Ali, Helen John and John Rees - decried both the horror of the attacks on the USA and the horror of the attacks now being prepared by the USA and its allies against people in south west Asia.
"Millions of people in this country are deeply disturbed at the enitrely counter-productive and potentially deeply destructive war of vengeance that George Bush anhd Tony Blair plan to unleash on the world," said Mike Marqusee, Socialist Alliance Executuve member. "At the meeting on Friday night it was clear that there is a huge reserve of determination to stop this unfolding calamity. We are now getting organised, and we will be on the streets if missiles are launched at any civilian population anywhere."
Liz Davies' speech at the meeting is enclosed. Liz is a former member of the Labour party NEC and was speaking at the meeting on behalf of the Socialist Alliance.
This press release also went everywhere.
On Sunday 23rd September, I sent out another:
Sun, 23 Sep 2001 16:47:26 +0100
It is clear that the US and its allies are on the brink of launching an attack on Afghanistan. On Friday, with 5 days notice, 2,000 people attended an anti-war rally in Central London. Around 5,000 people also attended a CND vigil outside Downing Street on Saturday. There is a clear anti-war mood amongst a significant minority of people.
At the CND vigil it was proposed, by Jeremy Corbyn MP amongst others, that on the day the US launches any attack an anti-war demonstration take place in Trafalgar Square at 7 p.m. This is in line with a decision taken by the S.A executive last week.
All London S.A.s should be prepared to rally their members for the demo. Alliances outside of London should ensure that their local anti-war committee hold similar demos in every town and city centre. We must ensure the biggest possible S.A. presence on all anti-war activity.
I issued statements and notifications for another SWP-led organisation, Media Workers Against The War (MWAW). There was a MWAW meeting on Monday 24th September at ULU, according to my press release from a few days earlier, the preliminary list included John Pilger, Paul Foot, Phil Turner, Mike Marqusee and Charles Shaar Murray.
Monday 23 September, 2001
Media Workers Against the War — founding meeting and statement
At a packed meeting in central London this evening, more than 70 workers in the media adopted the following statement on the current global situation and their responsibilities in it:
"We are workers in the media opposed to the current war drive and the plans for a US-led military assault on Afghanistan and possibly other countries.
"We are utterly opposed to all acts of terror against civilian populations, whether committed by governments or groups of individuals.
"We believe that in the current crisis it is more important than ever to protect and promote pluralism in debate, the free flow of information, and the public scrutiny of official pronouncements.
"We therefore resolve to join together as Media Workers Against the War in order to:
"1. Participate in the broad movement now rapidly emerging against the war
2. Collate and disseminate facts and arguments petinent to the war, not only from Britain but from around the world
3. Promote anti-war viewpoints through the media and expose and resist attempts at censorship and disinformation
4. Oppose media coverage that in any way licenses or gives succour to racism or attacks on asylum seekers."
At the meeting, plans were made to set up a Media Workers Against the War website, publish a bulletin, make and distribute anti-war videos, and organise workplace meetings at major media outlets. We will also be holding a major public rally in central London in the coming weeks.
Media Workers Against the War will seek support from media trade union branches and individuals working in the media. Workers at the BBC, ITN and various national newspapers attended.
Initial supporters include: John Pilger, Paul Foot, Hilary Wainwright, Henderson Mullin, Tim Gopsill, Miles Barter, Jack Tan, Rob Steen, Mike Marqusee, Charles Shaar Murray, Anna Chen, Palash Dave, Jonathan Neale, Tariq Ali, Phil Turner, Alan Gibson, Zoe Hardy, Carolyne Culver, Mike Holderness.
I was also fielding speakers (such as Jeremy Hardy), I was fast and accurate in correcting factual errors in the press and disseminating our information to activists, liaising with Ken Loach and trying to make sure the anti-war movement had a voice. This was difficult when I was getting responses from the mainstream media like this one from Nick Pisani, BBC Question Time editor who I was emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org:
'HOW MANY TIMES DO I NEED TO ASK TO BE REMOVED FROM YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS BOOK?'
Seeing how the first anti-war meeting had struck a nerve with the public, the STWC finally shook itself out of its torpor. I sent out the first press release for the STWC in this post-911 guise (effectively a relaunch after inactivity following the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s):
Wed Sep 26 18:07:21 2001
From: Anna Chen
Subject: Stop the War Coalition launched
Stop the War Coalition launched. National campaign formed to stop Bush and Blair's war
Over 400 people crowded into Friends House in central London on Tuesday evening to launch the Stop the War Coalition. The meeting was a working follow-on from the hugely succcesful rally against war held at Friends House on Friday night, attended by more than 2,000 people.
The Stop the War Coalition aims to bring together all those diverse groups and individuals who are united around a single central aim: to campaign to stop the US and UK governments launching revenge attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq or other countries which will lead to yet more innocent people dying.
The Coalition has already begun co-ordinating anti-war meetings, protests and demonstrations across the country. And it will be giving vigorous support to a national demonstration in London on October 13th, called by CND originally to protest against Bush's new Star Wars project, but which will now be prioritise oppostion to the current war drive.
"What is beneath contempt‚" said Tariq Ali at the meeting, "is that a Labour Prime Minister is going so far down this road behind the US. We have an American government determined on revenge and a bloodbath. And it wants to settle lots of accounts. Yet it was the US, backed by its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that armed the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden worked for the CIA. We have to remove the causes which encourage these desperate people to do these acts."
The Coalition has already received sponsorship from, amongst others, George Galloway MP; Jeremy Corbyn MP; Liz Davies, former member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee; George Monbiot, author of Captive State; and journalists Tariq Ali and Paul Foot.
The meeting elected an interim Steering Committee which includes Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali as well as Mike Marqusee, author of Redemption Song, Suresh Grover of the National Civil Rights Movement, Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review, Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper and Helen Salmon from the national executive of the National Union of Students.
The Stop the War Coalition intends to establish an office, email and website and to organise immediate protests across the country as soon as the US and Britain start their military attacks.
For all press enquiries, phone Lindsey German on: 07xxx or 020 8xxx
And so on.
It was a frustratingly slow, grinding process. I eventually got Richard Sambrook, Head of BBC News, on the back foot concerning severe under-reporting of numbers at a series of our anti-war demonstrations. There had been lots of grief on the left about this, with some good commentary from John Pilger, but no-one had battled the issue on the ground. My repeated complaints to Sambrook (with and without big STWC names on my communications) were brushed off until, by appealing directly to BBC Director General Greg Dyke, I managed to get a defensive response from him. This advantage was then wasted when not one of our STWC leaders (mostly SWP and now Stop the War, Counterfire and People's Assembly) and figureheads responded to my communications concerning this development, discussed strategy with me, advised me or instructed me on how we should take this further, let alone took it further themselves.
I was able to innovate this aspect of a left that had buried itself not because I was some sort of a genius but because of a fortuitous confluence of circumstances. I had the progressive objectives of building a fair society, the motivation to get it done, and the 'flair and imagination' to spot the cracks in the system and work at them until they gave way. It's been said that marginalised ethnic minorities are less welded to the railway tracks of habit and can contribute with a fresh perspective and problem-solving abilitites outside the tired mainstream. Not only that, I worked conscientiously, adhering to the very ideals of non-sectarianism and fairness among our allies that our leaders drummed into us, and refused to do our leaders' dirty little jobs when it turned out to be lip-service.
Now, you can write as many long screeds as you like but without someone yelling at the media to pay attention, you may as well send it up the chimney. Not that you'd know that from the sources who are now claiming press credit in the histories while giving me a Stalinesque airbrushing-out — naughty!
Mike Marqusee's subsequent "disappearing" of my work, including monstering me to comedian and activist Mark Thomas at the launch of Mark's Coca-Cola art protest exhibition in London, was particularly upsetting. Not to mention his reaction to his author friend's prolonged touching my breasts in front of him at a party at the house he shared with Liz Davies: "Oh, that's Praful [Bidwai]. He always does that. What do you want me to do about it?" — meaning I'd better not ask him — was traumatising. What he did to my partner, Charles Shaar Murray, for defending me against a gratuitous attack by Marqusee, was little short of malicious.
To have done all that work when no-one wanted to know and then watch Certain Parties fall over themselves to lay claim to it once something was up for grabs is not an edifying sight. No sirree, not by a long chalk. As an exercise in capitalist expropriation, this class (and gender and race) act on the part of the comrades is a wonder to behold. (Read the comments at the New Left Project on Ian Sinclair's The March That Shook Blair. They are all at it.)
The personal is political even on Planet SWP
Surely, Anna, I hear you say, it was worth it for the greater good what you done? Well, no, sadly. SWP's John Rees took an axe to the Socialist Alliance to get into bed with the Birmingham mosque and then Respect. Then he did ... er ... more stupid things in Respect and, several years after I'd pointed out some questionable behaviour and been stuffed for it, he and his mates had to leave the SWP to form Crossfire or Counterfire, whatever the splinter's called. But I get ahead of myself. And the class should never be premature … for then down comes the Big Monty Python Foot.
Even the massive anti-Iraq war demo ten years ago in February 2003 wasn't immune. What a backstabbing palaver that turned out to be. Rees's SWP side running the STWC were alarmed by the magnitude of the anger over the coming war and during one critical period instructed their members in the SWP via Party Notes not to build the demo, leaving it to the Socialist Alliance to mobilise (with the notable help of some/a few/several honourable SWP members in the provinces who effectively blew a big raspberry and carried on regardless).
Then Birmingham, the biggest and strongest STWC branch, was purged. The hippies who put together the amazing Peace Not War CD as a fund-raiser and cultural response to the impending war were screwed over. When a Jewish socialist group requested platform time to speak against the war, they were refused on the grounds that their presence would alienate Muslims. Mike Marqusee, who'd made their case, protested and was told by STWC convenor and SWP CC member Lyndsey German that "you people" were "too sensitive."
It was German who provided the SWP with their Clause 4 moment by dismissing gay rights as "shibboleths", and who, according to Ian Bone, recently described me in a most unsocialist manner as a chippy Chinese actress with a grudge against slave labour — one wonders with horror if chippy black actress would have been acceptable. And slave labour?!
Yet only the weekend before the big demo in 2003 I'd turned a local friendly football match for peace, organised by Islington leftists, into a national media event for STW. Robin from the north London group had sent me info about their contribution to the anti-war effort and asked me to help publicise it. I was in an intensive period building for the February action but what made me sit up and focus was the casual throw-away mention that the football teams would be made up of students living in the UK: American and Iraqi. This was a brilliant chance to drive home the fact these were real people we were about to bomb. At last we could put faces to them. But once more, no-one in the SWP or STW leadership saw the significance. It was another opportunity they were about to fritter away.
The expected war was in some ways theoretical in our heads. Who were these people we'd be bombing? Who were the young Americans who'd be doing the killing and dying for Bush and Blair? I'm sure I wasn't the only one stood watching two groups of young men from opposite sides of the war divide and yet united in their horror of the coming deadly combat, imagining them and their peers being physically and psychologically mashed by monstrous forces. The event was crucial because it would help stop anonymising the victims — it's harder to kill someone with whom you identify. Taking place only the weekend before the big march this was a potent warm-up act that would help gear us up for the main event on 15th February.
I concentrated on Bianca Jagger and Gabriel Furshong, the American team's captain and also spokesperson for Americans Against The War, for interviews (I was never given contact details for any of the Iraqis which was a shame.) Bianca kicked off the match; Tony Blair's sister in-law Lauren Booth took part; Andrew Murray got wind of it and gave a speech. We had lots of press including a camera crew, plus the Independent published a nice big photo of Gabriel.
The funniest moment was when Andrew Burgin (latterly a STW press officer) bounded up to me and asked if I would help run the STW press on the day of the big march on the coming weekend as "We badly need good press officers." No shit, Sherlock, as I thought but didn't say. So I smiled sweetly and said, 'Sure. Just tell John Rees what you've just asked me.'
As expected, I was banned from doing the press on the big day, according to Burgin's burbled response when I phoned him at the end of the week. Presumably, my presence might have blown the gaffe on Rees's girlfriend, Carmel, who was being given the credit for my STW press work. (Lucky I still have all my notes and press releases!) But I went ahead and worked from home anyway, getting Bianca Jagger and Americans Against the War followed on the march by ITN, doing what I'd been doing all along ... Oy veh, it got FUGLY.
Ian Bone on his phone call from Lindsey German.
That huge demo was built on the spine of the SA and yet the SA chair was denied a place on the platform while Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was welcomed with open arms ... and then promptly supported "our boys" once action started. And where's it all gone, anyway? If the SWP, Counterfire and STWC claim 1 to 2 million were on the march, then they have to give a good account of where they've all gone, 'cause it's not into the left movement.
All that energy and good will from the biggest demonstration in modern British history should surely have led to action in the tradition of the Greenham Common cruise missile protests or the Faslane sit-ins. Independently, two train drivers stopped an ammo train and students held a protest, but the STWC's leading SWP Rees/German axis declared direct action and civil disobedience to be elitist. Nothing further bar the usual march came from STW. They just sat on it while many thousands of innocents died, Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed and JP Morgan (which since Blair's retirement as Prime Minister has paid him two or three million per year) led the syphoning off of the Iraqi nation's assets.
Even worse, we now know that the SWP leadership of the STWC took the decision not to mobilise our forces on the most important date — the parliamentary vote on whether to go to war. This happened on 18th March 2003, only weeks after the biggest protest in British history and on the day when there was a real chance we could have stopped the war. Labour MPs had promised to vote against the war but, without a massive protest outside, they were easily whipped into toeing the Blairite line. Let's ask again: who gained?
What a waste. What a monumental dereliction of socialist duty. If only they'd put more energy into achieving our goal instead of acquiring personal power, status and all the capitalist baubles we're supposed to reject, we might not have stopped the war but we'd have made it a harder ride for pro-war forces and come out of this with a strengthened left.
Caveat comrade: love-bombing SWP stylee
In the eighteen months of love-bombing it took to recruit me, they'd regularly turn up on the doorstep unannounced, dump piles of the Socialist Worker newspaper on me and drag me off to their meetings. I was too respectful of what I thought were real socialists to ask them to sling their hook even when they were pestering me and making my partner uncomfortable. My parents were old-fashioned leftists and at the time I thought it would have been a dishonour to them and the best that they'd inculcated into me to have done so, although now I wish I'd been stronger. A large part of me hoped they were the real deal and the rose-tinted spectacles were firmly in place. During this time I received numerous assurances of SWP superiority when it came to human relations. Tony Cliff's partner, a dear sweet but fiery old lady called Chanie Rosenberg, would do her turn on the platform at conferences, making it clear how, perhaps not every sperm, but every member was sacred. "Like gold dust."
More iron pyrites than gold, I'm afraid.
How many SWP staff are employed at below Living Wage rates and with no workplace trade union representation?
When you join a left group, you are having to trust complete strangers who are saying the right things, but of whose behaviour you have no experience. This is where Paul Foot came in. With this icon in its leading ranks, what could possibly go wrong? I signed up.
The ensuing episodes providing a stark warning were glossed over by one genuinely charming and idealistic full-timer as local abberations in a dysfunctional branch. She implored me to have my "eyes on the bigger picture" and the "bigger prize" which, as any socialist knows, is the revolutionary transformation of society into something much better.
So when on an east London Saturday paper sale (one of my first) one woman member stood laughing while a big white bloke had his fist in my face for 20 minutes, yelling at me that the police surveillance of the Stephen Lawrence murder suspects in their home was a breach of their civil rights, I was only stopped from walking out of the party when the full-timer assured me that the "Centre" (SWP HQ) were fully aware that they were "wankers".
Caveat comrade; honeytraps and wishful thinking abound in this distinctly amaterialist, ahistorical milieu.
There's a type of person I occasionally run into — mostly male, usually white, middle-class, clever rather than intelligent, a bit limited and emotionally clenched — who seeks to dominate and control someone like me. Complete strangers try to define me based on prejudice, and put me in my place (wherever that's supposed to be) based on fear. The phrase that comes up again and again when they struggle to pin a tangible crime on me is that I'm a "loose cannon" (rather than a line-toeing hack, I'm pleased to note). An articulate woman of colour from a working-class background, I suspect I represent something wild out of their id, a negative anima who must be ground down, made to capitulate and kow-tow, my very existence representing something castrating to them at the centre of their own Heart of Darkness.
Of course, this is nothing to do with who I am: just someone happily trying to survive and maybe thrive as they help out. However, being somewhat bright, able to work strategically with a sense of fun and still get results, I'm regarded as a threat to be crushed rather than embraced as a comrade the way stronger, more secure males are apt to do with me. So by the time I welcomed a senior SWP member into my tiny workspace under the eaves of my partner's Kilburn flat and he looked round at my third-hand computer and shelves of books and demanded, "How come you've got all this?", I was able to sigh in the knowledge that this man, with his house and private parking in Cricklewood, was only projecting his own neuroses and anxieties onto me in a classic case of "othering". Despite reading all the set political tomes about the way the world out there functions, this tribune of the people had zero knowledge of his own inner workings.
Oh ye of narrow bandwidth.
Unfortunately, the left is filled with such middle-class white men and women who reject self-understanding as an evil bourgeois indulgence, and so have no armoury when bits of their inner selves rear up and bite them on the bum (or, more accurately, are projected out and bite others on the bum). If only I'd actually committed some heinous crime to justify their fury, they'd be off the leash and enjoying the frisson of power the finger-wagging Red Guard (of which they are not too distant cousins) once wielded over their ideological enemies: their teachers, their parents, in some cases their nannies, but always the outsider, and anyone who has abilities above their station. The startled lambs are vaguely aware that I'm "strange" (as they've called me) but can't compute how I got off the leftie conveyor belt in this configuration. Non-conformity is not a thing to be enjoyed and savoured — it must be crushed. A working-class minority woman's struggle to maintain her humanity and grow is of no interest — it is "bourgeois individualistic" and must be destroyed. Where in their rigid hierarchy is someone like me supposed to fit? A permanent two-minute-hate mode kicks in the moment something unknown and "strange" heaves into view, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's hardwired binary, off-on, ones and zeroes. Their psychic survival depends on it.
This is no way to run a revolution.
And so it came to pass that head honcho asked me to do work at East End Offset (their business centre and party HQ near Bow), write for their publications and do the meeting and greeting for the external speakers at the annual Marxism event.
Looking after Christopher Hill following his event at ULU, Marxism.
I looked from pig to man and then man to pig and then back again and already it was impossible to tell who'd look better in a bacon sandwich. Then I looked a bit harder and realised that the senior women had been part of what I once rudely called the "fuck-circuit": two power couples at the top; a complicated nexus of, ahem, "relationships" over the years.
In one of the stranger events, SWP Central Committee member Lindsey German called me into a room at SWP HQ (said to be swept for bugs) and grilled me on my new boyfriend. They are OK if you come already attached to a partner but woe betide you if you change partners and the lucky fella's not from the SWP pool. I had committed the grave sin of rejecting head honcho's "patronage" while they were shopping around for new special friend for him. Sorry, Lindsey. I just wasn't interested in your boyfriend.
Retribution was on its way.
Senior SWP member John Molyneux's partner, Jill (they both knew Rees from when he was at Portsmouth Uni), told me regarding my treatment (and John M did not contradict), "It's because you're not available."
My new boyfriend was author and music journalist Charles Shaar Murray who I'd known since my teens. He was a handsome dude in his sharply razored goatee and black leather, who stood out among the soberly-dressed comrades whenever I managed to drag him to our events. Male comrades of a certain age were friendly and welcoming as they'd grown up reading the NME for whom he used to write, and his byline pic was well known in the SWP printshop where his monthy column in MacUser magazine was popular.
Charles Shaar Murray's MacUser column was popular in the SWP printshop.
Not long after Lindsey German questioned me about him, something strange happened. Her boyfriend, who had been a dull, studious clean-shaven geek given to pale polyester slacks and shirts, grew a sharply-razored goatee and took to wearing black leather.
This was beyond creepy and everyone ignored it. Except for my sweetie who swiftly went clean-shaven.
In 2000, head honcho finally got himself a new special friend. Carmel waltzed over at an SA conference in Birmingham where I'd just reported on the steady progress I'd been making in the press — including getting George Monbiot's permission for us to republish his Media Guide for Activists (featuring my addendum with contacts) — and told me in a most unsisterly fashion that she was now doing my job, so there! Which would have been lovely had she done the work. She didn't, despite my copying her into my press releases as requested by Dear Leader.
When she did eventually write an illiterate press release following the Selby rail crash (28th February 2001), I had to pull it because it damaged our own SA candidate, rail driver and spokesman Greg Tucker. Tucker said he didn't like putting out press releases on the day of a disaster because no-one knows the facts, especially in this case as ten people had been killed and over 80 injured. Despite Tucker's concerns, when I emailed Rees and his girlfriend to let them know I was delaying the release until we knew what had happened and Greg was happy with the quotes attributed to him, I was sent an abusive email from the girlfriend. Rees tried to coerce me to issue her release, not for legitimate political reasons, but on the grounds that "she feels her time's been wasted". That is, years of my time breaking our side into the public eye under tremendous stress, were of no value.
This was an odd priority for people who claim to be socialists.
The cause of the crash turned out to be a metaphor for the left: some idiot had fallen asleep at the wheel and had driven his Range Rover onto the track. And while the fencing should have been more secure, this was not a continuation of the run of rail accidents that could be blamed on privatisation.
The Marxist division of labour in this and other instances was revealing, with head honcho handing to his new girlfriend the status I'd built up from sheer hard unpaid slog over the years but not the work (she had a nice salaried job elsewhere), and me evidently designated the Boxer character in this particular Animal Farm scenario, continuing to build press relations round the clock within the movement: still ratcheting up debt on my credit card to ensure the left had a press office, still working every waking hour, still being effective.
Nepotism, much? Sexism? The same old exploitative power relations?
This, too, was ignored. While there are women prepared to screw over other women for advancement and to please their men, we will never get anywhere except downwards, backwards and inwards. We need more ladders, not snakes. The sectarian left does not look after the movement's assets, which is what our intellectual and physical labour is. Like a dog in the manger, it happily destroys anyone with skills to offer even if it means impeding our struggle.
Et tu, Jeremy Corbyn
The clique is higher than the cause, the movement and the Labour Party. Never forget that. This even means Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn's Director of Strategy and Communications, placing head honcho's intimate in Team Corbyn even though she was finally rumbled as "useless" by Simon Fletcher. I am reliably informed that, while she was able to emulate my methods up to a point, she lacked my creativity and expects to be kicked upstairs to the Times or the Guardian.
Funny how the stereotype is of Chinese being the Xerox copyists and whites being the innovators. Don't expect this to be meaningfully challenged any time soon by either the outside left or Jeremy Corbyn whose set-up rewards anti-socialist behaviour, whatever their diversity rhetoric may be.
It also sheds light on possible reasons behind Corbyn's lacklustre performance for the Remain campaign.
How about their communications? Was that now a well-oiled machine? One vivid example of the inadequate response from Jeremy's team took place in the week leading up to Jeremy's election as leader of the Labour Party in 2016 (for which I'd joined the party to support). Interviewed by Martha Kearney on BBC Radio 4's World At One programme, JC was repeatedly asked about a certain "Muslim radical" speaker with whom, it was claimed, he had shared a platform. In the spotlight of much media hostility, he flatly denied it. Simultaneously, I checked on Twitter to see what his team were saying and was horrified to see a tsunami of photos tweeted of him on the platform with the speaker at the very moment he was denying it on the radio. You can imagine how that looked. There was not one word from Team Corbyn explaining this contradiction that was making him look like a liar. Personally, I would not have encouraged him to lock himself into this position but rather to point out truthfully that he couldn't possibly know every single person his various hosts had invited to speak over the years.
Another failure was the campaign T-shirts which turned out to have been manufactured by child labour and drew a slew of hostile press. Instead of siezing the opportunity to focus on the plight of sweatshop labour and turn the argument around (maybe even donating the profits to the relevant charities), he clammed up, appeared shifty and unprincipled and was pilloried for a situation where the T-shirt organiser had apparently been lied to by the supplier.
This continuing arrogance is one key factor in the loss of support as we can see from the polls. We have to think creatively and on our toes otherwise the best chance we've ever had will be destroyed by the dead hand of the hacks. I have a horrible feeling that we've passed the point of no return. A large party membership is great to have but all that vibrant enthusiasm is in danger of being squandered. Occupy was massive but without theory and solid victories, and without leadership it evaporated.
So, my message to any activists and idealists reading this, especially if you are supporting Jeremy Corbyn, is this: remember that the promotion of the leading clique's' cronies and girlfriends take precedence over the cause and your work even if it risks the political outcome. (Hello, Brexit!) If you are happy with that, then do carry on.
Living in a Stanley Milgram experiment
The dead hand of the bureaucrats had stifled the Socialist Alliance, a political initiative described by John O'Farrell in the Guardian as "fresh and exciting", with nary an objection from the comrades. Respect was torpedoed by the same parties and nearly sunk along with Organising for Fighting Unions (OFFU). The Stop The War Coalition is a stagnant perch with nothing left to offer bar the occasional meeting. It set up a pattern of destruction during a crucial period when the power elite went on the attack.
The left in its current line-up has ceased to be a force for liberation and has become another ruling-class-in-waiting led by people who want power over other human beings with all their privileges and perks intact.
However, they shouldn't be surprised when when genuine opponents of oppression challenge the lip-service. The SWP and its splinters are a smorgasbord for males — whether exploiting labour, status or sex — facilitated by senior women who insist that men do NOT gain from female oppression, and the hacks who turned on a sixpence to protect the machine.
In the Stanley Milgram experiment that is the left, I'm one of the people who refused to press the electrocution button, and that's what some of them will never forgive me for. It has been a salutory lesson to watch some of the worst hacks who protected the party machine, crushed dissent and created the culture that led to the crisis are now restyling themselves as heroes having jumped only when it went public. Nothing has been learnt except how to be a slicker operator.
We need a strong left that is able to counter the coalition's attacks on the working and middle classes that are looking like something out of the Enclosures movement. However, like anyone else who ever looked at the disgusting state of the world and wanted to do something about it, I never signed up for SWP abuse and I certainly never signed up for their omerta that they go around imposing on errant former members on pain of The Treatment. It is important that this stuff gets aired for so many reasons. If they can't, after all this grief, look at themselves honestly, then they deserve everything they're getting. And the working class is better off without them.
So, sister W, I sympathise and feel your pain. You learned the hard way that there is little solidarity or comradeship in that tiny corner of the left. I wish you the best of luck in rebuilding your confidence and your self-esteem. Your new life starts here.
What are we up against?
It's said that one of the tasks of the revolutionary is to make visible the invisible.
Throughout history, people of colour have been exploited and written out of history. We know about the black north African soldiers excluded from the victory parade of the liberation of Paris because British command did not want to see black soldiers rescuing European nations from Nazis; and the black Caribbean RAF squadrons who often performed the first, most dangerous, bombing sorties, making it safe for the following waves of white airmen. Similarly, the Indians who fought for Britain in World War I are only recently being acknowledged, as is the 96,000-strong Chinese Labour Corps who did the dirtiest, most perilous jobs in the European theatre of WWI. The Chinese who built the transcontinental Central Pacific railroad through the Californian Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1860s were denied the the right to attend the Golden Spike ceremony marking the successful conclusion of this massive project. Even today, the Chinese — among other minorities in the West — are culturally excluded and politically targeted.
This process of rendering people invisible and the dominant group taking credit for the labour of others goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks who built on the scientific achievements of the Egyptians, and is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that it continues unabated and unchallenged at every level in society.
I never thought I would find myself in a microcosmic example of this intellectual colonialism, especially from purported socialists. This is not just personal: this is political.
If it happens to one, it can happen to all. And mostly does.
A black pilot in World War II.
Chinese Labour Corps volunteers unloading arms in WWI.
Indian bicycle troops at the Battle of the Somme.
10-14,000 Chinese out of 12-14,000 workers built the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s but were excluded from the Golden Spike ceremony at its completion.
One of Comrade W's friends spoke up for her at the conference:
"The first thing I want to say is that the complainant in this case frequently asked to come to this session, so she could be aware of what’s being said about her, because it is her case after all. She was prepared to speak out so that people could hear about her experiences and learn from what’s happened here, so that it wouldn’t happen again. But she was denied that right by the CC.
She was questioned about why she went for a drink with him, her witnesses were repeatedly asked whether she’d been in a relationship with him, and you know, she was asked about (The chair begins to talk over X to warn about providing details) … she was asked about relationships with other comrades including sexual relationships. All this was irrelevant to the case.
We’ve got a proud tradition in the party of rejecting that line of questioning by the state. This is about consent. To date she hasn’t been told what evidence was presented against her by Comrade Delta and by his witnesses. She felt she was being interrogated and felt they were trying to catch her out in order to make her out to be a liar. She did not accept the line of questioning, saying ‘they think I’m a slut who asked for it’."
"Her treatment afterwards has been worse. She feels completely betrayed. ... The disgusting lies and gossip going round about her has been really distressing and disappointing for her to hear, and the way her own witnesses have been treated in Birmingham hasn’t been much better. ... Is it right that a young woman has to plan her route to work avoiding paper-sellers, or that she comes away from a meeting crying because people refuse to speak to her? Is it right that her witnesses are questioned about their commitment to the party because they missed a branch meeting?"
It's what they do.
Questions for Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and Alan Johnson on the Brexit victory
Anna Chen writes about the state of the party in 2003 in A Bad Case of the Trots.
A Bad Case of the Trots: for the record.
The left's invisibility bomb. How's that liberation thing going for you?
SWP breakaway Counterfire group leads People's Assembly: a public health warning.
The latest insight into how the SWP mindset works (Jan2014)as another CC member resigns. Remember: you never lie to the class.
The SWP opposition supporting the women finally have their say. Makes gruelling reading.
More details of the depravity in the SWP from A Very Public Sociologist.
Soviet Goon Boy on wtf's wrong with these people?!
Fine, measured analysis from Soviet Goon Boy: This is the way the party ends.
I've had several SWP goons going for me on Twitter. This is the way the party ends.
Who is saying what about the SWP Crisis.
Edward Platt in the New Statesman on THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE SWP, the most thorough account in the mainstream.
My Guardian article on Ken Loach's Spirit of '45: Ethnically cleansing working class history.
My review of Ken Loach's Spirit of '45.
CRUCIAL READING: How was anti-Iraq war demo energy frittered away? Demobilising the STWC on the most crucial day of the anti-war movement.
[EDIT 24 Feb 2013: I was just asked this question — "Is it true there are an estimated ninety SWP staff employed at below Living Wage rates and with no workplace trade union representation?" Well, SWP, is it?]
Anna Chen writes about the state of the party in 2003 in A Bad Case of the Trots.
Anna Chen's poem "What is Filth?" inspired by Pat Stack's blogging "filth" comment.
Soviet Goon Boy on wtf's wrong with these people?!
The Guardian on more sex pest allegations inside the SWP.
Cath Elliott on the no-platform for rape deniers vote at the UNISON National Women's Conference last week.
Nick Cohen adds his take to the recent SWP mess — the point I was making, that this was no Workers Revolutionary Party Gerry Healy case, gets missed: Why leftist revolutionaries are not the best feminists.
Some analysis on why this happened and the "logic to the madness": Leninism and the 21st Century.
Tendence Coatsey on the SWP Crisis
Who is saying what about the SWP Crisis.
Sam Leith quotes me in his FT piece about the anti-Iraq war demo ten years on: Protest's last stand?
They don't appreciate criticism.
Don Milligan on the People's Assembly Westminster rally 22nd June.
Nanny or wife and mother? Assumptions about Asian women abound but are not challenged in the Left. Rather, any trangression of the low status stereotype straitjacket is met with hostility.