Still in denial
It is all very well for the SWP to condemn Weinstein, writes Paul Demarty, but what about the legacy of its own rape scandal?
The conviction of Harvey Weinstein on one count each of sexual assault and rape has given rise to no end of punditry on the question of sexual harassment and violence, unsurprisingly.
Among those mining the crimes of the disgraced film baron are the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party, and not for the first time the sexism of the haute bourgeoisie has made the front page of Socialist Worker. ‘After Weinstein guilty verdict - fight sexism everywhere’, ran the headline over an article by one Sarah Bates.
The first half of her article could have appeared in The Guardian, politically speaking, although the deliberately dumbed-down prose of the Socialist Worker house style would have stuck out. We read that this is a “watershed moment for the #MeToo movement”; there is praise for the courage of the women who spoke out against Weinstein. No less a r-r-revolutionary source than Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, is quoted approvingly to the effect that “this is the new landscape for survivors of sexual assault in America and this is a new day”.
Towards the end, the politics of the SWP starts to tell a little more:
Although this week’s court ruling was important, the battle against sexist oppression has to continue on the streets, in the trade unions, in the staff room - everywhere. Every sexist has to be made to feel uncomfortable. This lies in challenging each individual instance of oppressive language or behaviour. But it also means coming together - men and women - to robustly take on women’s oppression. The Women’s Marches and protests against rape in Chile are important collective responses to sexual harassment.
So, although the Weinstein verdict is important, it is also essential to remember that
sexual violence flows from our violent class society, where women are treated as sexual objects ... Women’s oppression is structured into capitalism and class society - so the battle also needs to be waged for revolutionary transformation.
Bates’s article - which is not even credited to her on the web version, appearing under the editorial ‘What we think’ by-line - has almost nothing remarkable in it, at least for regular readers of the paper. What is remarkable is what is left out. The absence is most marked in one of the sentences we quoted. “The battle against sexist oppression has to continue on the streets, in the trade unions, in the staff room” - indeed so. But what about our political parties and organisations? Such places are discreetly filed under the catch-all ‘everywhere’, along with takeaway queues, football terraces and bothies in the outer Hebrides - which seems rather to understate the relative importance of political organisations to what is a political fight.
Few enough will be the readers who think this an accidental oversight. For it was not that long ago that the SWP itself was thrown into crisis by rape allegations it catastrophically mishandled.
It is worth revisiting this territory once more for a couple of reasons. One is merely a matter of setting the record straight. Dozens of #MeToo themed articles have appeared in Socialist Worker, without so much as a passing mention of the SWP’s own vulnerability to similar charges. This exposes either a contempt for its readers, too stupid to notice that the fifth Google search result for ‘socialist workers party’ is, to this day, a Guardian article covering the rape scandal; or an even more disturbing level of self-delusion that it has all blown over and nobody will ever challenge them on it. The second is to expose the wider left’s failure to adequately respond to the question, for all the energy the SWP’s crisis generated.
The story of that crisis in brief: at the end of 2012, four SWP members were expelled for daring to caucus together in a Facebook chat (this was the sin of ‘secret factionalism’). Their cause: bringing to the attention of the upcoming 2013 SWP conference the fact that rape allegations against Martin Smith - a central committee member who had for a time been the group’s de facto leader - had been dismissed by some ludicrous proceedings of the SWP’s disputes committee. In the end, the issue did come to conference floor, with the DC’s report accepted on a knife-edge vote after a bitter debate. Someone present recorded the arguments, transcribed them, and leaked them to various outlets, including the Weekly Worker and ex-SWPer Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog.
At this point, the situation exploded. The ‘comrade Delta’ scandal, as many participants in the debate warned, rapidly spread from the likes of little old us to the mainstream press. Prominent SWP intellectuals - most notably the author China Miéville and his long-time factional ally, Richard Seymour - broke cover to denounce publicly the actions of the SWP leadership. The latter, for its part, resolved to crush the rebellion at any cost, declaring that the sin of leaking internal materials to the press and openly factionalising far outweighed that of asking a small group of no doubt well-meaning but totally incompetent comrades, many of whom were personally close to the accused, to decide on an allegation of rape. The series of conferences and factional battles that ensued lost the SWP the majority of its student cohort and half or so of its active membership (the group’s total mendacity as regards its membership rolls makes this hard to judge accurately).
It is now a couple of years since the SWP was again in the news over this - as late as 2017, certainly, various student unions would bring motions to ban its student group and suchlike. (There is little doubt that they would still be vulnerable today on any given campus that considered such a proposal.) The fact that the wounds have scarred over does not mean that the damage has been repaired, however. The concrete effect of the SWP’s crisis was to reduce it to near total sterility and risk-aversion. It also gave further momentum to the shift in the political centre of gravity of the far left to the ‘radical’ wing of identity politics, by giving - apparently - the clearest possible evidence for the notion that the old-school Marxist left groups were too ‘pale, male and stale’ to be any use any more; indeed to be anything other than a threat that needed to be dealt with.
In reality, that critique only really stuck because it was congruent with the wider shift from class to identity politics. On the basis of the bare facts of the case, male domination seems not to be the main cause of the SWP’s failings. The disputes committee that acquitted Smith was majority-female; the two comrades on it who had the courage and decency to protest at the decision reached were both men. The leading defender of Smith turned out to be the not-at-all-male Amy Leather. SWP leaders repeatedly pointed out how seriously they took sexism, with their historic campaigns against ‘raunch culture’ and the like; and all of that stuff is true up to a point.
On the other side, it is hardly clear that the identitarians really offered an alternative to SWP politics. A flurry of attempts to found explicitly intersectionalite left organisations have tended to devolve into rather academic affairs, with the notable exception of the International Socialist Network, which regrouped the more militant wing of the SWP opposition, and notoriously suffered a split over a postmodern sculpture on its way to the gentle embrace of oblivion. In practice, intersectionality turned out to be a sectional ideology that lives within other organisations, and tended to reinforce bureaucratic control, as evidenced by the alliance of Blairite creeps and supposedly radical intersectional feminists in banning the SWP on various university campuses, witch-hunting SWPers in unions and so on. It manufactured excuses for the arbitrary exercise of power.
Which, oddly, brings us back to Harvey Weinstein. His repellent treatment of the women over whom he had direct power - a Hollywood version of droit de seigneur - was tolerated for decades by an immediate surrounding culture that would have considered itself liberal and indeed feminist. Weinstein’s defence of Roman Polanski, fugitive from American justice since he was charged with sodomising an inebriated 13-year-old, stands out as off-message in a career which saw him cultivate close links with the liberal wing of the political elite. His appetites were well-known, and even satirised (a character in 30 Rock boasts that she resisted his advances “on three out of five occasions”), but he was not seriously challenged, and he continued to enjoy impeccable liberal credentials - until, suddenly, he did not.
Weinstein’s need to exploit and humiliate women certainly exemplifies some unsavoury features of male sexual socialisation. It does not very well explain how so many young and beautiful women came to be in his power: for that, we certainly do need, as comrade Bates says, class analysis. Capitalism’s tendency towards centralisation gives us the centralisation of cultural production in a few hands, and consequently the hyper-fame of a few stars, and in turn the willingness of people to do almost anything to be stars - even being talked into keeping quiet about having been raped. All that plus the corresponding ideology of the heroic entrepreneur gives us Weinstein.
That is no doubt too crude an account of the issues at play here; but cruder still are accounts of the affair that ignore the class dimension altogether. But feminist accounts tend to, because feminist accounts tend to subordinate the concerns of working class women to middle class professional women. Though there is no moral equivalence between middle class feminism and old-fashioned male chauvinism and ‘old boy’s clubs’, they do compete in the same space, as rubrics to control access to the professions. That leaves feminists peculiarly prone to drastic disappointments - not only surrounded by clay-footed male ‘allies’, but also women compromised by their economic entanglements with the latter. Weinstein, an especially powerful ‘liberal’ predator, is an extreme example of allegations and grievances piling up until the dam bursts.
The trouble for the SWP is that the same is quite true of bureaucratic sects like itself. Its obsession with spontaneous mass action, and its insistence on viewing political argument within organisations as demoralising and demobilising, means that it must set itself up as an unaccountable influence on the wider movement (the habit of trade union militants who are SWP members to simply never mention the fact that this is what they are is a case in point).
But that also applies within the group. The SWP long ago devolved into a permanent and fixed separation between thinkers and doers; though the capital under SWP control is obviously trivial, compared to Weinstein’s slice of the Disney empire, access to leadership roles is the property of a nearly unchanging caste (there has been no meaningful shake-up since the 2013-14 crisis, and only one other since the death of founding leader Tony Cliff 20 years ago). The relationship between leaders and led must become coercive eventually, if there is no meaningful possibility of challenging the leadership; in times of scandal, it is all but unavoidable that the leadership will close ranks and the membership will either drink the Kool-aid or be alienated entirely. Given the wider social context of women’s oppression, it is surely also unavoidable that scandals will sometimes involve the maltreatment of women comrades by men.
So, if feminism, intersectionality and friends do not add up to a viable alternative to SWP politics, exactly the reverse is also true. For the SWP to respond adequately in the face of revived identity politics to the Weinstein revelations and all that came to light subsequently would mean learning the lessons of 2013-14, which in turn would mean a wholesale transformation of its basic political and organisational methods. It does not look terribly likely at the moment.