The Point
Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Ultra Leftism and Crime


 by Gary Fraser


Readers will be aware of the ongoing crisis engulfing the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For me, as someone with a background in criminology, the SWPs crisis raises interesting questions into how the far left thinks about crime. I will come to the SWP in a moment, but before doing so I want to explore why I think the far left has never been strong on the subject of crime. The reasons are complex. Yet, broadly speaking I want to argue that it comes down to this – the left has emphasised a purely sociological approach to the exclusion of all else, an approach known in the academy as ‘social constructivism’. Of course sociological analysis is a useful conceptual tool in understanding crime and why people commit crime, and few would dispute this; but a successful political project, which aims to win the consent of the people, cannot rely on sociology alone.


In the discourse put forward by social constructivists, society is reified as a super-organism that can be blamed for sins as if it were a person. This narrative denies human subjectivity and fails to recognise that human behaviour is also informed by agency. Therefore, any political project about crime must contain a moral dimension. There is an old joke about social workers, which I will reprint here, which makes the point in another way:


Two social workers were walking through a rough part of the city in the evening. They heard moans and muted cries for help from a back lane. Upon investigation, they found a semi-conscious man in a pool of blood. “Help me, I've been mugged and viciously beaten,” he pleaded. The two social workers turned and walked away. One remarked to her colleague: “You know the person that did this really needs help.”


The joke plays on the caricature that left leaning people sometimes give the impression that they care more about the welfare of criminals than they do the victims of crime. The extent to which this is true hardly matters, because in politics perception is everything. Instead of developing its own analysis, the left worries far too much about what the right is saying. Perfectly reasonable sentiments such as feeling innate sympathy with the victims of crime, or the belief that a lack of discipline creates behavioural problems, or the view that there ought to be more respect for law and order, are problematic sentiments for the left to utter publicly, because in the minds of leftists these arguments belong to the political right. The end result is a shady moral relativism.


In a comment concerning the London Riots of 2011, one SWP member boldly (and ludicrously) argued that the anarchy of the street is nothing compared to the anarchy of the market. In a strictly philosophical sense this contains a degree of truth, but reading it in a comment piece written whilst the riots were taking place it struck me as morally dubious, and quite what it meant to someone whose house had been burned to the ground by out of control youths, I’m not sure. Again, we are back to the old social worker joke.


That the right has always been stronger on crime is surprising because crime is a class issue and we know that for the far left class matters. Criminologists will tell you that around 40% of all recorded crime takes place in just 10% of areas, the majority of which are poor. In addition, more than half of the people who are victims of crime are repeat victims. The data reveals that a small proportion of people experience a disproportionate amount of crime. Whilst the proximate causes of crime, certainly economic crime, may well be what the far left calls the ‘system’, working class communities will nonetheless want real solutions in the here and now. These solutions should involve jobs or investment in youth facilities, etc but they also require effective policing, swift punishment, and respect for the law, especially if any political programme put forward by the left is to gain majority support.


Yet, when working class people talk about policing, or express a belief in punishment, one of the most natural of the emotions felt by human beings, they are all too often dismissed by the left intelligentsia as ‘reactionary’ or ‘right wing’ even though calls for law and order are at base informed by the socialistic sentiments of having respect for one’s neighbour and wider community. The best slogan that I have heard on crime, although we should forget who said it, so much so that I won’t even print his name, is this: ‘we should be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.


Ultra-leftism not only results in bad politics on crime, it leads to sections of the left thinking that the norms of what they call ‘bourgeois justice’ do not apply to them. When put into practice this type of mindset can leads to disaster. The SWP is a case in point, although there are other examples that spring to mind. We all know the SWP story by now. They set up what they called a Disputes Committee (more akin to an internal court) to investigate a rape allegation against another party member, in which SWP members played judge, jury and executioner. That a political party, which proclaims to be progressive, and in this case a strong supporter of women’s rights, can behave in this way is incredulous to most people; even those on the left. However, when one reads the literature on what the SWP actually believes about the criminal justice system, understanding its organisational behaviour becomes easier.  


To frame it simply, the SWP believes that the criminal justice system is incorrigible from top to bottom, that it exists solely to perpetuate the dominance of one class ruling over another. They typify the ultra-left position on crime. What follows is an extract from a Socialist Worker editorial, written in 2011, concerning the subject of policing; 

We don’t want more police on the streets. More “effective” policing means more deaths, more harassment, and more anger. The last thing we need is a state with more ways of attacking ordinary people. The police are the enemy of everyone who want to see a more just, fair society. It is the actions of the police that marginalise and criminalise so many. We should drive the police out of our estates and off our streets.

My first reading of this was that it was a wind up, someone trying to caricature the overblown rhetoric of socialist revolutionaries. Or maybe it was segments of a historical piece, maybe an extract from a Black Panther speech from the late 60s. Or perhaps Socialist Worker is offering advice to the persecuted citizens of a totalitarian police state on the verge of civil war. But no, this paragraph actually constitutes serious editorial comment regarding policing in Britain in the 21st century. Of course, the fact that working class people support a police presence on the streets is omitted from the argument, hence the reason why arguments about driving the police off ‘our estates’ is deluded. In fact the only people likely to join the SWP editor would be organised criminal gangs, drug dealers and perhaps the tiny percentage of persistent offenders responsible for the vast majority of recorded crimes in most neighbourhoods.


That the SWP do not understand the true nature of routine police work is obvious. In reality, most police work is monotonous and uninspiring. The British criminologist David Bayley writing in 1994 made the following observation regarding his direct experiences of policing:


The police ‘sort out’ situations by listening patiently to endless stories about fancied slights, old grievances, new insults and mismatched expectations…they hear about all the petty, mundane, tedious, hapless, sordid details of individual lives. None of it is earthshaking…not the stuff government policy can address; just the begrimed reality of the lives of people who no one else to take their problems to.


The drunken punch ups or drunken domestic arguments that all too easily get out of hand, the quieting down a crowd of youths standing outside the local shop who people rightly or wrongly find intimidating, or the road traffic accidents, or the drink drivers, none of this is not mentioned here, yet when combined with Bayley’s description, we get a fairly accurate picture of routine police work today. Seldom does it involve busting picket lines or harassing ethnic minorities, or putting innocents behind bars. Yes, these things sometimes happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule.


Criminal justice systems and the agencies that work within them are complex and contradictory. Social work for example can be enabling, especially for children rescued from a life time of abuse, yet it can also be controlling and authoritarian, especially for those who do not have the financial or intellectual resources to protect themselves from state interference. The same argument could be applied to policing. The courts can get it wrong and sometimes innocent people go to jail and we cannot protest loudly enough when this happens. However, more often that not, the courts get it right. Prisons tend to be full of guilty people many of whom are life persistent offenders and what psychologists call functioning psychopaths. According to the latest research published in the book Forensic Psychology, 20% of incarcerated criminals are psychopaths and 80% of them will re-offend when released from prison. Yet, from a cursory reading of ultra-left literature, a narrative is constructed in which criminal justice systems are nothing but organised shams designed to protect the rule of one class over another. When delusion and paranoia is applied to politics and history the result is conspiracy theory.


‘We have no faith in the bourgeois system of justice’, wrote one SWP member, and this was from a member critical of the party’s decision to create internal courts. Meanwhile, the party’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, has produced various editorials condemning the ‘bourgeois system of justice’. In one piece the Worker states that the entire criminal justice system is ‘notorious for its systemic failure to defend women’ adding that the majority of women in Britain are, ‘systemically degraded and oppressed’ by both society and the criminal justice system’. In another editorial, ‘the whole criminal justice system is stocked against women who experience rape’ and ‘draws on ideas from a time where women were owned by men’.


Quite often the SWPs bold claims are based on something that did happen, an extreme case of injustice perhaps, which Socialist Worker then magnifies a thousand fold and presents as a general truth about ‘systemic failure’. Of course it goes without saying that when the system gets it right no comment is ever made. This is the art of political propaganda. Socialist Worker is offering a distorted and one dimensional view of the world. Heavily loaded ideological statements, written in arcane jargon, incredibly problematic and highly debateable, get repeated as though they were universal objective truths. ‘Discourse constructs the topic’, wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault. How true.


In actual fact, ultra-left narratives about modern criminal justice systems are historically backwards. When viewed on a long enough scale the true story of modern criminal justice systems is a story of progression. The societies where you definitely would not want to live, where inter gang warfare, murder, and rape are commonplace, are typically societies where the state has failed. Societies with strong states and modern criminal justice systems tend to be safer and their systems of justice more humane. Whilst there’s always room for improvement, the criminal justice system is less racist, sexist or homophobic now than at any other time in our history, which surely ranks as one of the great achievements of progressive politics.


The empowerment of women is one of the reasons why this qualitative change occurred. Since the 1960s, nothing short of a revolution has occurred in how we think about issues such as rape, domestic violence and the abuse of children. It is hard for the modern brain to comprehend that there once was a time when domestic violence and rape was accepted in law. Far from society ‘glorifying rapists’ as radical feminists claim, being a rapist is the ultimate form of social stigma, to such an extent that when some communities discover that a rapist is living amongst them, the result is social unrest and vigilantism. Here we find the opposite of bourgeois justice. This is proletarian justice and anyone who has witnessed it firsthand will know that its face is ugly, although interestingly this DIY approach to justice tends to be associated more with the hard right than SWP types. Meanwhile, the rights of LGBT people are protected in law and again this is one of the great achievements of our time. It was not that long ago that a majority of people considered same sex relations as constituting a crime. Today, it is homophobia that is likely to get you prosecuted. And so it should be.


Failure to acknowledge the widespread changes that have taken place in society result in people believing the opposite of what is true, and when organisations behave like this the result is disaster. This is where the SWP now finds itself. No modern employer would conduct an internal investigation into rape and neither would any trades union for that matter. Most people would intuitively grasp the nettle that rape is a matter for the police and the criminal justice system. But when your organisation goes around editorialising that the ‘police are the enemy of everyone who want to see a more just, fair society’, this can subtly pervert the minds of the naïve and the gullible. Moreover it leads to an organisational culture where women are scared to report something as serious as rape to the police. In fact one reading of the SWP narrative on rape is that it could actively discourage women from reporting rape. The end result is ‘Disputes Committees’ investigating matters that are way beyond their remit or expertise, where the basic rules of proper criminal investigation are violated.


It struck me whilst writing this piece that a lot of people will think that none of this matters. Why focus on a group on the fringes of politics? Then there are those who specialise in deflecting the argument. There is a long history on the left of associating criticism with treachery. Yet this matters. Whilst the majority of socialists tend to hold more ‘moderate’ views, the public face of socialism is often Leninist groups like the SWP. Consequently, how they behave impacts on all socialists. It has been pointed out that there are many good people in the SWP. Undoubtedly so, and it would be unfair to suggest otherwise. Owen Jones, writing in The Independent, notes that the SWP punches above is weight and highlights the role it played in Britain’s anti-war movement, a movement which came pretty close to bringing down the most venal Labour government in history. Furthermore, there is open rebellion occurring in the SWP as a result of recent events. The author, Guardian columnist and blogger, Richard Seymour is a prominent SWP member who it might be said is leading the rebellion. He writes that there is ‘not enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this’. Strong words, but words conjured up after the SWP were publicly exposed. It is easy to blame the leadership, curiously ignoring the fact a majority of the party approved of its behaviour. What we have here is more than just a couple or rotten apples. At root it is an institutional problem caused by a political discourse that leads to ultra-leftism. Focusing solely on the leadership allows that discourse to go unchallenged. The discourse, to give it a name, is Leninism.


An organisation which derives its entire political philosophy from a revolution that occurred in a backward country nearly a century ago is always likely to find itself out of step with the modern age. If the SWP debacle tells us anything, it’s that Leninism is surely no longer a useful organisational principle in an age of the Internet, political pluralism, and scepticism towards authority. In regards to crime, the dialectical method is substituted for conspiracy theory. We should remember that society, or capitalism, or modern criminal justice systems are not ‘things’; they are complex and contradictory social processes that do not possess one defining motive. A single ideology or meta-narrative cannot explain the ‘true’ nature of the world. Capitalism, even in its current distorted form, has proved more stubborn and enduring than any of its historical opponents could have ever imagined.


However, where there is capitalism there will always be a need for emancipatory politics, but new forms of emancipatory politics cannot be based on the imagined potential of the working class alone. Leninists claim that the working classes are the gravediggers of capitalism. In a cruel twist of irony, it might be the case that today’s working classes, whose material conditions in the west long ago negated the necessity for revolution, may well turn out to be the gravediggers of Leninism. 


Other articles by Gary Fraser in The Point can be found here

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