Laurie Penny: utterly wrong

SWP and feminism: Rape is not the problem

Red-baiting and feminist attacks on the SWP must be resisted, in spite of everything, argues Paul Demarty

“The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this - is it a safe place?” asked the anonymous author of the Soviet Goon Boy blog, who has been writing on the organisation’s crisis over the last few weeks.1

He (if indeed it is a ‘he’) is one of the more sympathetic commentators on the affair, either a member or a relatively recent ex-member, but posing the issue in this way is now drearily de rigueur for anyone at all, it seems, who is not a loyal pet of the victorious central committee. Many have attempted to dig into the roots of the crisis, working back from the explosion - ‘How did we end up covering up a rape allegation?’ - which is, generally, a good place to start.

It is not so great a place to end up, but unfortunately, at some point the method seems to invert itself; the history of the Socialist Workers Party is viewed teleologically as leading to comrade Delta’s alleged assaults on other SWP members - no longer a particular, but an inevitable, result. The problem is thus that these crimes happened - and the primary task is stopping them from happening in the future.

For those sympathetic to the SWP oppositionist hard core - like Soviet Goon Boy - the solution is (or rather, now that Sunday’s pseudo-conference has produced its inevitable result, was) a thoroughgoing transformation of the SWP’s internal norms, along with a drastic change in leadership, which is at least part of the right answer. “The fish starts to rot from the head,” our unknown blogger said. “But if there is anything a real revolutionary should be able to do, it is cutting off heads.”2

There are other, less savoury, forces lurking around. They want the left destroyed (well, more destroyed than it already is). They smell blood. Chief among them these days is Nick Cohen, who has managed to boil liberal imperialism down to its pure essence of gibbering lunacy. When the revelations first hit, he put out an op-ed in The Observer that frankly makes ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail look like the very model of rational thought. Richard Seymour is described as a “puffed-up political hack, who is just as totalitarian as the apparatchiks he seeks to replace”; but fortunately the SWP’s death is inevitable, and will take the whole “foul Leninist tradition” down with it.3

Now, he is back at it again; on the eve of conference, he and Shiv Malik reported on another rape allegation, which had ended with the alleged perpetrator being expelled from the SWP for two years. (That’ll teach him!) Its impact was hardly explosive, mostly because the timing was all wrong (the conference result was a foregone conclusion).4

Keeping safe

Another embittered ex-lefty has been at it in a different context. The recent Unison women’s conference saw a motion passed applying a ‘no platform’ policy to ‘rape deniers’; it was from the pen of one Cath Viner, once a teenage member of the SWP and now a feminist union hack. The SWP is not named in the motion, but was explicitly attacked when it was being moved, and again on Viner’s blog after the fact. The SWP and the left more generally can expect a lot more of this.5

Before going any further, it must be stated baldly - the notion that the SWP is ‘unsafe’ for women is almost entirely balderdash. Almost, because in a degraded capitalist society, where a worrying proportion of women (and, indeed, not a few men) are sexually assaulted in the course of their lives, nowhere is completely ‘safe’ for women - the SWP is no exception. Its bureaucratic regime has also made things worse, as we shall see.

Look at the bare facts. The CC’s claim that it had dealt with nine complaints of sexual assault was greeted widely with horror. Yet, even taking into account the appalling reporting rate that obtains generally with rape and sexual assault, we are left with the basic (and disturbing) statistical truth that this is - all told - a pretty good hit rate.

And why wouldn’t it be? In spite of its utter political disorientation on the matter, the SWP teaches all its recruits to despise sexual violence (in a shallow, feminist way, very much of a piece with those who now claim, ludicrously, that the SWP is effectively some kind of grooming operation). Even the CC and its supporters do not claim that rape is a trivial offence - only that Delta did not commit it.

No doubt a few more horror stories are waiting to emerge. But let us compare like with like. Let us see how many sexual assaults there are per capita in Unison, and see how the numbers stack up. Only in the last week, we have heard truly horrifying allegations of sustained and brutal domestic abuse by a senior RMT officer against his partner - and claims that this, too, was covered up. It’s a grim world.

What of the accusers themselves? Well, the ‘safe spaces’ beloved by idiotic feminists may not, in themselves, be hotbeds of sexual violence. Yet they are also profoundly useless politically, and thus offer an incomparably smaller threat to the actual social relations that make men into rapists and women into their victims than even the rudderless SWP.

Meanwhile, we all know what the repugnant Nick Cohen really dislikes about the SWP: its troubling habit of vigorously opposing imperialism. This is a man who blathers on about liberty, while families are torn limb from limb by drone strikes, while US client rulers in Afghanistan enshrine marital rape in law and US-funded sectarian militias in Iraq conduct torture (some of it almost certainly sexual torture, if the ‘interrogators’ were competent) for their paymasters.6 That such a creature should dare to criticise a revolutionary socialist organisation on these matters is an insult to the intelligence of the world.

Any organisation in this fallen world, whether it is a business or a party, a union or a think-tank, should enough members pass through its ranks, is going to throw up cases of sexual assault by one member against another. Short of subjecting every potential recruit to rigorous psychometric tests, this is quite inevitable. There are only two things we have any control over: minimising the risk, and maximising our ability to deal with such offences as and when they occur. The SWP could have done better at the first, and failed so catastrophically at the second that words fail.

Rape culture

The million-dollar question, then, is: why? It is here that the practice of looking at the world through rape-tinted spectacles hits its limits. Take a piece from The Guardian, not overly hostile in tone, by Laurie Penny - the left-feminist journalist who was the first to comment on the scandal in the bourgeois media, and indeed first made a splash coruscating the SWP during the student revolts for their terribly old-fashioned ‘placards, papers, and pasting tables’ approach (opinions she later, sensibly, drew back from - when it became clear that organising a demonstration was work).

“Why should we care about the implosion of a Marxist-Leninist party with a few thousand members?” she asks. “Here’s why. The SWP is small, but it has been a significant organising force on the British left for more than 30 years ... I’ve never been a member, but it matters that it is disintegrating because its leadership cannot confront its own misogyny.”7

Er, really? This is the problem - that Judith Orr cannot confront her own misogyny? It would be a justifiable diagnosis if the battle in the SWP was over whether leaders should be able to rape women with impunity as a matter of droit du seigneur. It wasn’t. It was over whether the ruling clique of the organisation was competent to investigate rape allegations against its own members (or, indeed, competent to investigate rape allegations at all).

By way of comparison, some people could be found in the Workers Revolutionary Party, in its dying days, arguing that Gerry Healy’s crimes could be justified by the ‘successes’ of his leadership. “If this is the work of a rapist,” said Corin Redgrave, “let’s recruit more rapists.” A lot of SWPers have said a lot of stupid, malicious things over the last month or two - but nothing remotely as toxic as that. Nobody defends comrade Delta other than on the basis that they are satisfied that he didn’t do it.

What would it mean for the leadership to “confront its own misogyny”? Should they make a bland statement reaffirming that rape is a bad thing and there should be less of it? Should they promise that ‘it won’t happen again’? Penny has a response that is at once too vague and utterly wrong - “Socialism without feminism, after all, is no socialism worth having.”

It is too vague because feminism is at this point so utterly fragmented that, beyond the minimal commitment to women’s liberation, one can find utterly divergent positions on almost any aspect of the women’s question, all billed as ‘feminist’. It is wrong because there is an unmistakable drift - set in motion during the ‘second wave’, and hardly halted since - to variants on the position that ‘the personal is political’, and therefore that any political position that does not attempt to fulfil women’s liberation immediately is in defence of sexism, and increasingly a myopic obsession with ‘violence against women’ as the ultimate ground of oppression.

Following on from that are the frankly fatuous crusades against ‘rape culture’ - outraged articles about crass slogan T-shirts that make a joke out of domestic violence (for example, “Keep calm and hit her!”); and, indeed, this most curious phrase, ‘rape denier’. The words are chosen to remind us of more infamous ‘denials’ - of the holocaust, most especially. But what the hell is a rape denier? Are the SWP leadership ‘rape deniers’ because they deny that a particular man raped a particular woman? Is every jury who has ever acquitted someone of rape composed of ‘rape deniers’?

If we narrow down feminism to this (many self-described feminists, of course, would not find a home here), and we narrow down socialism to the socialism the SWP claims to espouse - Marxism - then it is straightforwardly the case that they are utterly incompatible.

Marxists explain women’s oppression and exploitation in terms of determinate historical forces - economic, political, ideological - in which it is materially rooted. It is neither an inevitable consequence of the division of humanity into sexes nor possible to wish away by fiat; it is necessary both to fight most energetically for women’s liberation, and to accept that the fight will not be won, not even in our own ranks, until our whole project is complete.

Feminists of this type, on the other hand, regard women’s oppression as rooted in a rag-bag of cultural ephemera, from an idiot’s T-shirt to George Galloway’s failure to demand Assange be extradited post-haste, all of which add up to a culture in which rapists feel able to rape. (‘Porn is the theory,’ the old slogan runs. ‘Rape is the practice.’) The two explanations are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Mistakes and regrets

The SWP has exploded so spectacularly, then, not (as many recent ex-members imagine) because it has failed to ‘take feminism on board’, or has treated it as a threat. Feminism is a threat (not, ultimately, a very great one), because it is wrong, and Marxists should be rigorously critical of it (which is not the same as being paranoid and hostile towards individual feminists).

It exploded because of the most toxic combination at all - an intolerant and increasingly cultish internal life, and sustained political disorientation. It is impossible to say ‘which came first’, and fundamentally the two reinforce each other. The more absolute the control of the apparatus, the more depoliticised become the rank and file. Depoliticisation diminishes the possibility of positively displacing the apparatus. In the end, the apparatus has to justify its self-perpetuation - what is it all for? - which leads to delusional estimates of influence in the wider world.

The organisation ends up in a sealed bubble: a micro-realm in which all sorts of odd and unpleasant things can occur. Deformed power relations between leaders and followers find all kinds of expressions, and - given its fundamental importance to the human condition - sex is certainly one of them. When sexual violence does occur, it becomes perfectly plausible that a victim would be dissuaded from going to the police to ‘protect the party’; and equally that it would seem a good idea to handle the matter internally (on pain of expulsion!), and that the revolutionary virtue of a ‘jury of mates’ should exclude the possibility of bias.

Eventually - one way or another - the suspension of disbelief falls away; and there is chaos. In this case, it was especially painful - because the SWP’s moralistic approach to politics (which is also depoliticising) has led it periodically to lift, wholesale, the grievances of mainstream feminism. Far from being insufficiently feminist, the SWP has been too soft on feminism - an admittedly small part of its organisational-political death spiral.



1. http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/order-prevails-in-vauxhall.

2. http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/lord-acton-and-the-guillotine-our-tendency-after-cliff.

3. The Observer February 3.

4. The Guardian March 9.

5. http://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2013/02/22/unison-women-the-swp-and-the-vote-to-support-rape-victims.

6. www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/mar/06/james-steele-america-iraq-video.

7. Emphasis added - www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/12/swp-rape-implosion-why-i-care.