SWP and no platform: Meanwhile, in the real world ...
The intensifying feminist offensive against the far left is the bitter fruit of our collective political mistakes, argues Paul Demarty
In the Daily Mail’s offices, the knives are out for the Socialist Workers Party.
The third in its series of hypocritical, hysterical and incompetently researched pieces on the SWP’s enduring troubles has now been published. “Did Socialist Workers Party cover up nine rapes?” shrieks the headline.1 For the most part, it consists of cobbling together everything Google has to offer a Daily Mail hack on the subject, and littering the resulting mish-mash with pictures of SWP women comrades and caustic asides.
Intellectually, of course, this is drivel; it consists of the Mail, which must surely have opposed 99% of all social advances achieved by women over the course of the last century and continues to be the mouthpiece for the most vile reactionary politics on the topic, crying crocodile tears over rape, and patronising ‘comrade Delta’s’ alleged victim (“the young woman, who we will call Miss X”), in order to attack the left. It is a feeble toe-poke into the most open goal in recent history.
There could, nevertheless, be consequences. The more fuel the likes of the Mail throw onto the fire, the more likely it is (for example) that the police will be called in to investigate this supposed nest of sexual abusers. The first statement from the SWP central committee after the scandal hit the bourgeois media claimed explicitly that there had been no cover-up. Few believed it at the time. Charlie Kimber will have a harder time still convincing judge and jury, should it come to that.
This would be a terrible outcome; just as the collapse of Lehman Brothers stripped the appearance of indomitability from its competitors as much as itself, it would not be the SWP CC on trial, but the whole organisation, and its dissidents, and those who split from it recently, and indeed the rest of us too. Yet it is a hole it has dug for itself. This ominous prospect is thus a metaphor for the difficulties the SWP (and the rest of the far left, more or less) faces in the broader workers’ movement and progressive milieu in the wake of this fiasco - self-inflicted wounds, beginning to seep with pus. The far left’s complete loss of traction on the women’s question - and the latter’s domination by decreasingly rational forms of feminism - is a particularly clear example.
Road to hell
One of the many charges levelled at the SWP opposition over the course of the factional battle was ‘creeping feminism’. It was an unsubstantiated ad hominem attack, of course (and we will return to its stupidity later), but it is a good image. We have slowly ‘crept’ towards a situation where the revolutionary left not merely treats the women’s question as a serious issue (however hamfistedly), but considers itself feminist.
Yet feminists do not look terribly much like allies just now. As I briefly noted last week,2 the Unison women’s conference overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for a ‘no platform’ policy towards rape deniers. It is a tissue of hoary feminist clichés: “rape culture is endemic in the UK”, apparently - “yet some men on the left continue to reinforce negative attitudes about rape survivors, and to prop up sexism and misogyny by contributing to a blame culture that holds women responsible for the crimes of rape and sexual violence committed against them”.3
The issue at hand is the Julian Assange rape allegations, and infamous comments made about them by George Galloway and the like. What is the logic here? Galloway denies that Assange raped two women; therefore he “reinforces negative attitudes about rape survivors”; therefore he indirectly reinforces this “blame culture”; therefore he (presumably) emboldens rapists; and therefore, finally, giving him a platform “contribute[s] to rape culture”.
The wording, in fact, is so vague that a good deal of people could come under this purview. Which is why the motion - though no doubt well-intentioned, as most disastrous errors are - is a gift to the Unison bureaucracy. This is the same union, remember, that witch-hunted four Socialist Party in England and Wales comrades for distributing a leaflet with a ‘three wise monkeys’ picture on the front, which was ludicrously deemed to be racist. They are going to have all kinds of fun with this policy - and no mistake.
This is the context in which we have to view a statement being circulated widely around the left on the internet and social media, written by Cath Elliott (who also wrote the Unison motion) and Marsha-Jane Thompson, hosted on a blog entitled Women in the labour movement.4 On the face of it, the statement is hardly objectionable: on a straightforward ‘surface reading’, it argues more or less that men in the movement should not subject women to violence; that the movement should hold itself to higher standards on this score than the rest of society manages to produce; and so on.
There is something politically dubious, which - as is often the case - lies in what is not said. In the first instance, the question arises: why write the statement at all? The left and workers’ movement is not dominated by people who consider domestic violence to be a healthy part of a relationship, or rape to be in any way acceptable. In fact, very few people at all hold to these views in this country (elsewhere, as we shall see, things are not looking so rosy).
Rape - and domestic violence - are not conducted, by and large, by people who explicitly hold women in contempt, but are rather symptoms of an underlying social psychopathology, a deformed consciousness that does not manifest itself in a way that it can, as the writers of the statement imagine, be “confronted” or “challenged” in a direct way.
So the problem comes down to this: how we do challenge sexual or other violence against women? And on this front the statement is useless - and, indeed, implicitly counterproductive. The most concrete demand in this short text is that “when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of believing women.” Very well: but we can believe them all day long, without it changing how officials in the movement actually respond. (After a certain point in the SWP fracas, for example, is seems absurd to imagine that whether or not the CC thought comrade Delta to be guilty or innocent would have made any difference whatsoever to its conduct.)
The second, most concrete proposal is that the movement should become “a safe space for women”. Safe spaces, however, are in the eye of the beholder. If it means that women should not be physically assaulted in union and left meetings, then it is fair enough - but not worth even saying. This is almost invariably not what it means at all: rather it comes to mean restrictions on what can and cannot be said at a meeting. I do not know if either of the authors of this statement consider the presence of ‘rape deniers’ at left meetings a violation of the ‘safe space’; but such arguments have been raised before.5 Other controversies have arisen about particularly ‘abusive’ behaviour, equally, amounting to a violation of a safe space. Who decides? The bureaucracy.
As such, the statement is implicitly counterproductive (it is too banal to be explicitly anything much at all). We do not have the power, as a movement, to cast violence against women completely and reliably out of our ranks. We can fight for democracy in our movement, redressing the power imbalances that provide a cloak for all abuses, rape included. Handing more power to the bureaucracy - which is the net effect of loosely worded ‘no platform’ policies and ‘safe spaces’ alike - is antithetical to this project.
‘No platform’ raises additional issues. Of course it is legitimate to employ it as a tactic - if you can kill for the revolution, you can tell somebody, with as much force as is required, to pipe down. That said, we are not out for a bloodbath, and we are equally not out to silence people whose views we do not share.
Quite apart from anything else, it patronises the audience you are thereby ‘protecting’. Are women in the trade union movement so stupid that they will not be able to make a misogynist look like the prat he (or she) is in open debate? Are they such delicate little flowers that being in a room with a big bad rape denier like George Galloway will give them a fit of the vapours? Not the ones I’ve met, at any rate, but that is the implication here; it is a demented approach to politics. If you want to defeat an idea, expose it to the light. Give Galloway enough rope, and he will hang himself (he has more or less made a career out of doing so).
It is not just about gaffe-prone celebrities. The trade union movement can only succeed if it can contain all the shades of opinion in that part of the working class prepared to fight the bosses at all, and make sure that fight comes off in a united fashion. It is the only weapon unions have. As a matter of course, many brothers and sisters will have reactionary views.
Take the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Recently, it railed against a right-on UN motion on women’s rights partly on the basis that it condemned marital rape, which they do not accept is a meaningful concept. (As dubious as I find the term ‘rape denial’, it fits well enough here.) Should Muslims (or, indeed, anyone else - the world’s holy books and religious doctrines are littered with equivalent notions) who have a similar theology be thereby excluded en masse from Unison, and transformed wholesale into potential scabs? Will that convince them of the error of their ways better than - now here’s a radical notion - arguing with them?
The truth, unfortunately, is that this is a bitterly ironic outcome. The SWP has always been the most overwrought advocates of ‘no platform’ policies; its only quibble with the Unison motion (apart from the small matter that the SWP itself was suddenly counted among the ‘rape deniers’) was that ‘no platform’ is only for fascists. Why? Because the SWP says so.
The very style of politics practised by the SWP - being the ‘best fighters’ and builders of the movements, which in reality means repeating the movements’ slogans back to them, only louder - encourages such irrationalism, which they now find turned against themselves.
Most of all, we can now see why the charge of ‘creeping feminism’ was so pathetic. In its utterly moralistic approach to politics, the SWP encouraged its members to become feminists. It fostered illusions in campus campaigns to ban lads’ mags, in local campaigns to close down strip clubs, in all the censorious and oppressive nonsense to have come out of that movement (the carnivalesque and gleefully perverse side of feminism seems hardly to have appealed to the SWP at all, alas).
Now the curtain-twitcher’s finger is being wagged at the SWP - and it has no answers at all.
1. Daily Mail March 15.
2. ‘Rape is not the problem’ Weekly Worker March 14.
3. Motion 30: www.unison.org.uk/file/B6173.pdf.
5. For example, by student left bureaucrat Michael Chessum: http://anticapitalists.