- Lisbeth Latham
Trigger Warning: description of rape apologism, victim blaming, bullying survivors and a detailed outline of the handling of rape allegations in the British SWP
For those not aware, over the past two years a scandal has been unfolding within the British Socialist Workers Party. SWP is the mother organisation of Solidarity and the founding organisation within the International Socialist Tendency from which Socialist Alternative traces itself, and is the largest far-left organisation in Britain. This scandal has resulted in hundreds of members resigning from the SWP (including 90% of its student members) over the handling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against former SWP National Secretary Martin Smith dating back to 2010. In this piece I argue that the SWP’s experience has important lessons for the left in general dealing with problems of misogyny and particularly sexual predators within the left.
Based on the harassment she experienced W resigned from the SWP in late 2010. However, based on these allegations the SWP’s Central Committee moved to remove Smith from the position of national secretary. At the 2011 national conference, where this decision was formally endorsed, Smith and the central leadership acted to downplay and trivialise the allegations, suggesting that hostile forces outside the organisation were using the allegations to damage the SWP. Smith’s speech announcing his stepping down was met with a standing ovation including footstamping from the audience and chants of “workers united will never be defeated”. Although removed from the national secretary position, Smith continued as a member of the CC and was heading up the SWP’s union and anti-fascist work, which as central activities of the SWP meant that Smith continued to play an extremely prominent public role in the party.
In Autumn 2011, W rejoined the SWP. As a consequence of the SWP’s condemnation of George Galloway’s rape apologist remarks re: Assange in mid-2012, she became more confident that the SWP would handle her case properly and an approach was made by W to take a dispute against Smith further, and that her allegation was rape. The Disputes Committee hearing was highly problematic:
- W was made to wait for four hours prior to being heard by the DC – without being told what was going on;
- The DC read out a “legal definition” of rape and said that this would be the benchmark;
- While Smith was given W’s allegations and statement in advance to prepare his response, W was not given Smith’s material in order to be able prepare;
- The DC’s questioning of W was inappropriate, asking why she had gone for a drink with Smith, detailing the nature of her relationship with him, and her other relationships and sexual history.
At the same time a second member (X) came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Smith. X had a meeting with the DC following which she was told her evidence was not relevant. During the hearing X was asked questions about her drinking habits and whether she could have misconstrued Smith’s behaviour as he was a “friendly man who often bought her coffees”.
Under the SWP’s disputes process any DC decision goes to the national conference and supporters of W began organising to challenge the DC report. In the lead up to the conference, which was in January 2013, four SWP members were expelled for “factionalism” based on a Facebook chat where a discussion occurred over whether to form a faction – and it was the decision to not form a faction that was used as a basis to expel these members. In the end, a small faction was formed with the intention of articulating a statement calling for changes in how the SWP handles rape allegations. The CC and supporters of Smith organised to limit the ability for the faction members to be elected as delegates (in the British SWP delegate elections are based on a winner-takes-all scenario, with different sides putting forward slates of delegates).
In the DC session at the Conference the report presented a very sketchy outline of the proceedings: that W had made an allegation against a CC member “Delta”, and that they had concluded that the allegations were not proven. In the discussion, members were barred from discussing the detail of the allegations or the hearing and W was barred from attending the session, despite requesting that they be able to attend. One DC member informed members present at the session that the case was very difficult because Smith and W presented very different stories and none of the witnesses saw what had happened. Despite this, the report was passed by a thin margin of 239 for accepting, 209 voting to reject and 18 abstentions.
Following the conference, the CC moved to close down discussion. Paid full-timers were told to toe the line or they would lose their jobs. Despite this, and the SWP’s bans on factions outside of the pre-conference discussion period, members started organising for a new conference. Ultimately, while this push was successful in forcing an emergency conference, opposition forces were heavily defeated and a wave of resignations began. Another wave has just occurred, after oppositionists who remained in the party were unsuccessful in trying to force the most recent national conference to adopt an apology from the party to both W and X and to block Smith’s supporters along with Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber, the party’s current national secretary, from being re-elected to the CC.
In the meantime, X and her supporters continued to push for X’s case to be heard, which the CC resisted and wanted to put off until 2014. X was removed from their full-time position in the SWP centre on the basis that it would improve office dynamics. Despite the efforts of the CC to protect Smith, however, pressure mounted from within the organisation and also from outside, with more and more people becoming aware of what of had happened as a consequence of a range of leaks. Not only did the right-wing media attack the party, but a large number of prominent left-wing activists publicly distanced themselves from the SWP. Under this pressure and with X’s allegations still looming, Smith resigned from the SWP in July 2013. It has emerged that a range of prominent SWP members had been seeking to find ways to help Smith, and he had secured a funded PhD place in Social Work at Liverpool Hope University, where a SWP member is a senior academic. Following Smith’s resignation the CC agreed to have a DC hearing into X’s allegations, where it was found that Smith had a case to answer, but no action would be taken unless he rejoined the organisation – which hardline supporters are now rumoured to be pushing for. Despite Smith’s resignation his supporters still accused X of being an MI5 agent (British domestic intelligence) and argued “we aren’t rape apologists unless we believe that women always tell the truth – and guess what, some women and children lie”, which received a round of applause during a session at the conference.
This case brings together a number of threads that get tangled together and encourages a view that the problems were specific to the SWP – particularly how it interprets and applies the concept of democratic centralism and the specific problems associated with how the SWP handled the allegations. This tends to result in a view that the problems in the SWP are a consequence of either the political regime in the SWP, the SWP’s hostility to feminism or a necessary consequence of handling a rape allegation internally.
It couldn’t happen to us
There has been a common refrain from a section of the left that this could not happen to us. To anyone who thinks this, my response is that it probably has and if it hasn’t, it definitely could. Any conceit that it couldn’t will only make it harder for people who have been assaulted in your organisation to raise their experiences because you are already in a mindset of denial.
The SWP undoubtedly has an extremely problematic internal life and structure. These include a large apparatus with considerable authority, which is detached from the lived experiences of the rest of the membership, with access to information which the majority of members don’t have, along with the time to think about the work of the organisation in a way in which most people who are working full-time and do the bulk of their political work in their spare time do not. However, this is the reality in all political organisations that have some form of apparatus – it has been recognised as a key feature of the tendency towards bureaucracy identified by social theorists such as Weber, Michels and Gramsci more than 100 years ago.
The SWP's regime
The SWP’s approach to internal democracy is also problematic, as there are a number of features that make communication between members and fights for organisational change difficult. These include: limits to the forming of factions outside of pre-conference discussion periods; the limited number of preconference discussion bulletins produced – normally three – which particularly limits the ability of the oppositionists to respond to criticisms of their position from the leadership. The leadership is not limited in this way as they receive contributions as they come in and so can respond in the same bulletin as the original statement, which undermines the impact of any statement or rebuttal by an opposition member, being immediately countered in the readers mind, while creating the impression of the leadership as almost omniscient. The leadership also has the added advantage of being able to legitimately communicate its views to the membership almost at will through the medium of the organisation’s Party Notes bulletin.
However, most far-left organisations have similar organisational rules, although there may be some differences regarding how and when factions can be organised, how many pre-conference bulletins will be produced and who is able to contribute to and what is able to be included in the organisation’s regular membership newsletter.
More generally the SWP, like much of the far-left, values bullying and non-consensual behaviour. Such behaviour is central to much of the political activity, discourse and interactions both within the organisation and with the external world. Most people who have had their names on a contact list from a left political organisation will be able to tell stories of receiving unwanted phone calls which continue well after they made it clear they weren’t interested in participating in the organisation – often the person won’t have even known they were putting their name on a contact list having simply signed a petition (which was a contact list masquerading as a petition). Bullying behaviour only becomes a problem when there is a falling out between the leadership and the bullies. At which point the leadership will either suddenly “discover the bullying” or produce the dirt file they have already been keeping on the individual/s in question, depending on the particular internal culture of cynicism in that organisation.
Feminism and the SWP
While much of the far-left does not necessarily share the SWP’s public hostility to feminism, autonomous organising and intersectionality, they do share elements of it particularly when you scratch the surface. The old Australian Democratic Socialist Party (which I was a member of), for instance, while supporting the right for people sharing oppressed identities to organise autonomously in the movement did not support the idea of such organising within the DSP. This was based on the idea, shared with the SWP, that the organisation is “opposed to fighting against the oppression of women and is democratically organised” – so it’s not necessary to have such separate organising – however, as a number of oppositionists in the SWP pointed out, this ignores the constant impact on an organisation’s membership of living a deeply sexist society. Moreover, a number of organisations that were “shocked” by what happened in the SWP wanted to keep criticism focused on the SWP regime rather than get distracted by “side issues” such as rape and sexism. The Communist Party of Great Britain, publishers of the Weekly Worker, the socialist equivalent of the News of the World, ran a number of charming articles aimed at combating this feminist error, the most prominent being one entitled ‘SWP and feminism: Rape is not the problem’ which attacked feminist writer Laurie Penny for her criticisms of the SWP.
Case should have been taken to the police
A number of commentators have argued that the complaint should simply have been taken to the police and no effort made to handle the matter internally. This response is problematic on a number of levels. First, many of those making these statements refuse to accept that W had agency in making a decision to not go to the police. I have no problem with people talking about how the SWP’s attitude to the police and their desire to protect the organisation ¬– attitudes shared with much of the left – would create a difficult environment in which to go to the police, however, there are very good reasons why an individual might decide to not report a rape to the police:
- Previous negative interactions with the police;
- Knowledge or experience of how women who report rape are treated by the criminal justice system
- Knowledge or experience of poor outcomes of rape cases taken to the police
The discourse around the case and the need to go to the police reflect some problematic attitudes to police in general, and specifically around the investigation of the rape. Implicit in the idea that people have to report a crime and the suggestion that an internal investigation would contaminate the police investigation is the idea that rape investigations are like episodes of CSI, where the case is dependent on forensic evidence, when in fact, with cases where consent is central, the case turns on what people say and who is believed. While it is very true that discussions about events can contaminate people’s memories, a lot of things will do this – that’s why it is important when something happens to someone, if they want a clear record of it, to write it down at the time.
These arguments demonstrate significant levels of both delusions of and reliance on the criminal justice system to not only deliver justice to survivors but to take responsibility for the question of disciplining members. Anyone who knows anything about the way rape is handled by the police and the courts should know that this confidence is not well placed. Even if you don’t, you would expect that revolutionary socialists with a Marxist analysis of society and an understanding of how women’s oppression is central to capitalist domination should also know that the ideas legitimising this domination are central to bourgeois hegemony. Thus, ideas normalising rape and violence again women are wide spread and will act to undermine the ability to obtain justice.
This Marxist analysis of society and understanding of the relations between women’s oppression and capitalist domination should also make it clear that the question of whether an accused perpetrator should be in a left organisation should not simply be based on whether there is a “guilty” verdict. We must take into account, if the “not guilty” verdict is based on being “innocent”, often such a verdict could occur due to lack of evidence or the accused creating sufficient doubt as a consequence of rape apologism or victim blaming. If this is how a person was found “not guilty” then should that person still remain a member of a left organisation? I would think not. In addition, what happens, as in so many complaints made to the police about rape and domestic violence, the party chooses not to proceed with the allegations?
In both the SWP internal discussion and some of the broader discussions there has been easy and confident mobilisation of rape myths, victim blaming and anti-women stereotypes. Dave Renton, in a critique of the SWP’s handling of the allegations against Smith, indicates that at the conference (when Smith stepped down as national secretary), a number of the delegates formed the view that the allegations were based on a jilted lover being unhappy. Renton blames this on the way the leadership characterised the allegations. While there is no doubt that the leadership’s framing of the allegations was disgusting and disingenuous, that these members could so readily dismiss the allegations based on the idea that “it must have been a jilted lover”, speaks volumes about the attitude of a section of the SWP’s membership to women.
What way forward?
The left has to attempt to create safer spaces for women and anyone who experiences rape. An important part of this is to adopt a zero tolerance to rape and to empower all members to raise concerns about rape and sexual violence and for such concerns to be pursued in whichever jurisdiction the survivor chooses.
This requires the establishment of robust and transparent mechanisms for handling allegations of violence. We know that a major problem with the way in which rape is handled in the courts is the extent to which survivors are put on trial. If we think of the refrain “people accused of rape are innocent until proven guilty” then the opposing logic also at play is that those marking allegations of rape “are guilty of lying about the allegation until proven innocent”. Defendants and their supporters (both legal and extra-legal) focus their energy not on proving innocence, but on undermining the credibility of the survivor. This not only has an awful impact on the individual survivor, but on all survivors, both past and future, and their ability to feel supported or like they belong. On the flipside, it sends clear signals to predators and potential predators that predatory behaviour will be explained away and provides strategies for getting away with it.
Far-left party members don’t want to find that rape has occurred in their party, as it may be possible that the predator would have to leave when predators are often seen as valuable to the party (many predatory attributes are valued on the left). Such a finding would also damage the organisation’s reputation. This problem is magnified if the person has played a prominent role and/or the organisation has defended them against allegations. Importantly, it also demonstrates the extent to which the participation of survivors is both not valued and taken for granted.
We need mechanisms that fundamentally turn these dynamics on their head.
How should this be done?
First, be clear that internal processes are not legal or quasi-legal processes. Second, prioritise the creation of left organisations and social movements as safer spaces and limit the space within which predators can operate. This means not just starting from the framework of believing survivors, but also acting against members who attempt to build support for predators, particularly if this support is based on perpetuating rape myths, victim blaming, or negative stereotypes of women. It is also important to act against any member, particularly leading members who discourage members from bringing complaints, in whichever jurisdiction that they choose.
As a general pattern, the left needs to adopt an approach which makes it clear that they are consistent opponents of violence against women and not simply when opposition to said violence lends itself to anti-system arguments. The exclusion of predators and would-be predators (which is what most enablers and apologists are) is not a loss for the left – it will make the left and the social movements a stronger, safer and better place for building a new world.
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