A letter to Alex Callinicos

Tithi Bhattacharya, a Marxist writer and activist based at Purdue University in Indiana, has written the following letter to Alex Callinicos. It was prompted by his and Charlie Kimber’s response to the reply by 18 ISJ board members to their original article on the SWP crisis.

Tithi was an SWP member for many years before moving the US. She is now active in the International Socialist Organisation and has written extensively about women’s liberation, including a useful primer on the Marxist theory of social reproduction and how it relates to sexual oppression.

In her letter Tithi charges Alex and Charlie with using “blatantly sleight-of-hand arguments” over the date of the first dispute complaint and over the issue of confidentiality. We reproduce the letter here with her permission.

SWP posters and leaflets at an election rally at George Square, Glasgow

Dear Alex,

I address this letter to you because amongst the current members of the SWP CC I have known you the longest. For very long I have restrained myself from saying anything about the dispute in the SWP. Your recent response to the 18 comrades on the ISJ editorial board has forced me to change my mind. I will not waste your time here by filling paragraphs about how your book Making History was one of the key conceptual scaffoldings for my PhD thesis and later my first book. Although I could. What I will state, briefly, are three things:

  1. How much your work, over the years, has animated my understanding of Marxism.
  2. How inspired I was to meet the SWP as a student in London in the mid 1990s and what attracted me most to the party was its members’ open derision for all aspects of bourgeois sexuality/morality – I came from three generations of Stalinism, such attitudes only existed in early Bolshevik writings for me!
  3. How distressed I am about the public stance you have taken regarding the current crisis in the SWP in your most recent response to the other comrades on the ISJ editorial board.

Let me state at the outset: I have no knowledge of the specific ins and outs of the dispute. I do not know the women who have made the complaints very well. I am not going to make an argument that all women should be believed when they make a complaint about sexual assault (that is an argument of a vastly complex and dense nature that I am not about to take up here).

I am concerned here about two examples of blatantly sleight-of-hand arguments that you and your co-author employ in your recent response to the other ISJ editors. I am sure you do this consciously, because to assume ignorance of the social context of these particular arguments on your part would be insulting to both your politics and your mind.

1. You and Charlie Kimber begin the article (second paragraph) with this assertion:

“We italicise the date, because contrary to some of the falsehoods currently circulating, this was the first time that rape had been alleged against this comrade.”

This is your first disingenuous argument. You make this claim knowing perfectly well the very long history of complaints by women under capitalism where women’s consciousness of the assault is often fragmented, delayed and very often pieced together only through a process of supportive dialogue with friends, family and loved ones. You of all people cannot be unaware of the vast literature that exists about the “unhappy consciousness” that diminishes rape/sexual assault in its first approximation in the survivor’s own mind in order to make the unimaginable, tolerable. It is only through support, discussion, sometimes long years of therapy with professionals that survivors give themselves permission to identify and acknowledge what really happened.

Did this happen with comrade W? I have no way of knowing for certain. But for you, as a revolutionary socialist, to write of the woman changing her narrative from harassment to rape without providing this fundamental context of how or why a complainant “changes” her complaint under capitalism is, to me, horrifying. You write of this delayed and “changed” rape complaint the way the bourgeois press would write about, say, poverty. As a “fact” – rather than as the outcome of a series of complex and dense historical processes. That you assert this “fact” in service of an organ of the party that came up with, to say the least, a disputed verdict only makes this more distressing.

2. You and Charlie Kimber repeatedly use “confidentiality” regarding the dispute cases as something which stops you from discussing such things in public. This is your second sleight of hand. To an outsider it appears that if you were unethical and broke confidentiality you would have an even more damning case against the opposition comrades.

Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. Again, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is the word confidentiality is used here in a highly charged way: to disingenuously invoke a long history of real struggle against sexist handling of cases of sexual assault in order to protect the identity, welfare and integrity of the female complainant. What you, Alex, and Charlie Kimber are doing is using your reader’s perception of that history to call into question the integrity and testimony of the female complainants and their supporters. Are the survivors of sexual assault in your organisation really more concerned about the “confidentiality” of process than the resolution of this crisis in an open democratic manner in front of the full membership of the SWP? Having met and spoken with one of the complainants, it is hard for me to believe that the women concerned would put the survival of the party’s current leadership over the survival of the party itself and its long history.

What I have stated above are essentially the ways in which you have, by omission and by rhetorical sleight of hand, disregarded or recrafted particular aspects of the historical experience of women under capitalism to state your case at a specific dispute within your organisation. The SWP used to be my organisation for many years. I will continue – in many many ways – to think of it as my own, as long as I know that there are comrades within it fighting for a set of revolutionary Marxist politics, and not merely for a set of organisational procedures that have been called to question. Perhaps this is the tragedy of my own unhappy consciousness that still refuses to accept the enormity of disappointment.


Tithi Bhattacharya

PS Although this letter is meant to state my disagreement with Alex, I hope the 18 comrades who signed the recent ISJ document will use my voice as one more raised to rebuild the SWP. They may share/use this letter as they collectively see fit.


Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.


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