Laurie Penny: What does the SWP's way of dealing with sexual assault allegations tell us about the left?
When it comes to sexual violence, progressive organisations should not be held to different standards.
How do we deal with sexual violence on the left? Here's a case study.
The Socialist Workers' Party, for those who aren't familiar with it already, is a political organisation of several thousand members which has been a prominent force on the British left for more than 30 years. They are at the forefront of the fight against street fascism in Britain, were a large organising presence in the student and trade union movement over the past several years, and are affiliated with large, active parties in other countries, like Germany's Die Linke. Many of the UK's most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members.
Like many others on the left in Britain, I've had my disagreements with the SWP, but I've also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter. And it matters that right now, the party is exploding in messy shards because of a debate about sexism, sexual violence and wider issues of accountability.
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with 'internally' before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party's annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker - a party member who walked out this week in disgust - explained that feminism "is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters ... it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender."
In a brave and principled resignation statement published yesterday, Walker said that:
". . . there is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’. Socialist Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted cover-up, making abusers feel protected."
Members are now leaving the organisation, or being expelled, in large numbers after the case came to light at the party's conference and transcripts of the discussions were leaked online.
The writer China Mieville, a longstanding member of the SWP, told me that, like many members, he is "aghast":
"The way such allegations were dealt with - complete with questions about accusers' past relationships and drinking habits that we would instantly, rightly denounce as sexist in any other context - was appalling. It's a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for 'secret factionalism."
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
"Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called 'dissent', and their refusal to admit mistakes ," he told me. "Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It's up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet."
The British Socialist Worker's Party is hardly atypical among political parties, among left-wing groups, among organisations of committed people or, indeed, among groups of friends and colleagues in having structures in place that might allow sexual abuse and misogyny by men in positions of power to continue unchecked. One could point, in the past 12 months alone, to the BBC's handling of the Jimmy Savile case, or to those Wikileaks supporters who believe that Julian Assange should not be compelled to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden.
I could point, personally, to at least two instances involving respected men that have sundered painfully and forever friendship groups which lacked the courage to acknowledge the incidents. The only difference is that the SWP actually talk openly about the unspoken rules by which this sort of intimidation usually goes on. Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that's what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP's leadership seem to have written it into their rules.
To say that the left has a problem with handling sexual violence is not to imply that everyone else doesn't. There is, however, a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly. It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
That unwillingness to analyse our own behaviour can quickly become dogma. The image is one of petty, nitpicking women attempting to derail the good work of decent men on the left by insisting in their whiny little women's way that progressive spaces should also be spaces where we don't expect to get raped and assaulted and slut-shamed and victimised for speaking out, and the emotions are rage and resentment: why should our pure and perfect struggle for class war, for transparency, for freedom from censorship be polluted by - it's pronounced with a curl of the upper lip over the teeth, as if the very word is distasteful - 'identity politics'? Why should we be held more accountable than common-or-garden bigots? Why should we be held to higher standards?
Because if we're not, then we have no business calling ourselves progressive. Because if we don't acknowledge issues of assault, abuse and gender hierarchy within our own institutions we have no business speaking of justice, much less fighting for it.
"The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked," writes Walker. "Lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does." He's talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.
Equality isn't an optional add-on, a side-issue to be dealt with after the revolution's over. There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women's rights. The sooner the left accepts that and starts working the enormous stick of priggishness and prejudice out of its collective backside, the sooner we can get on with the job at hand.