The shock revelation that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has not only investigated one rape, but also nine others in the past via its internal Disputes Committee, changes the terms of the debate. It reveals beyond refutation that the handling of the Comrade Delta case was not an isolated aberration of misjudgement, but only one incident among a series of incidents reflecting institutionaized sexism. Indeed, while Delta himself is entitled to a presumption of innocence, the SWP as a organization is clearly guilty.
The record of “revolutionary socialist” groups over the years has been terrible. The following account is not given to seek to smear the SWP by association, but to see if we can deduce reasons for the pattern.
Most famously, Gerry Healy, the leader of the former Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) raped dozens of women before he was exposed in 1985. As Simon Paredi wrote:
“[An] investigation by the WRP control commission, having taken written and verbal statements, showed that Healy had systematically taken advantage of his position of authority in the party to sexually abuse female comrades against their will.” A redacted version of the control commission’s report appears in the memoirs of my friend and comrade Norman Harding (who was a member of the commission); these are published on line. None of Healy’s victims complained to the police, and the old bastard died in 1989, without his crimes having been properly measured against legal criteria.
Reading Harding’s report about Healy’s behaviour is not for the faint hearted. For example:
“That night he called me into his flat again. He was undressed wearing just a dressing gown, which was open. He told me to sit on the bed again which I did. He then started to tell me that I was an opportunist because I expected to be trained without going through the training.
“He said that I showed real idealism and backwardness and wasn’t sure if he could continue training me. He said that I only thought of superficial considerations, young boyfriends and not the politics of the man. He said that I was an individualist and told me that to be trained I had to subordinate myself to the leadership of the party and he was the party. He kept stressing this point of subordination. [ ... ]
“He then became very angry and said if I told anyone about this he would denounce me as a police provocateur and have me thrown out of the party. He said that if I refused to subordinate myself I would be expelled for backwardness. He said: ‘Do not try to raise this on the Political Committee, because I am the Political Committee and they won’t believe you.’
“By this time I was in a complete state. I did not want to go through with it, but I knew that he was capable of having me thrown out and that would not only have meant breaking with the party, but with [friends] as well. I knew that if I left the Centre he would say that I was backward and in political retreat. [ ... ] ‘I was still crying when he told me to take off my clothes. I eventually did this.’
In some ways even more shocking was the reaction of some of Healy’s supporters. Pirani again:
One of my abiding memories of 1985 is of a members’ meeting in Scotland, where I lived, held in the week when Healy’s supporters comprised a faction, i.e. after the charges had been tabled but before they had been heard. The meeting was addressed by the late Corin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), for the CC minority, and myself for the CC majority. Redgrave opposed charging Healy, on the grounds that it would damage the revolutionary leadership. In discussion, a veteran member of the Scottish organisation asked Redgrave whether he could “look me in the eye and tell me, honestly, that these charges are to your knowledge utterly without foundation”, i.e. should not be brought because they were false. Redgrave replied by citing the WRP’s achievements (publication of a daily Trotskyist newspaper, building of a big youth movement, influence in trade unions, etc) and concluded: “If this is the work of a rapist, let’s recruit more rapists.”
Harding confirms that this was Redgrave’s position at the time:
Corin Redgrave said that what Healy did in his spare time was his affair and was to be separated from his politics. Corin went on to say that he was “neither for nor against rape” but “for the social revolution” . He went on to say that Aileen’s letter [exposing the rapes] was a provocation orchestrated by the state machine in order to smash up and destroy the WRP.
The conceit of a state conspiracy is a common theme among so called “revolutionary socialist” groups. The American SWP (a group with no organisational, and minimal political affinity with the British SWP) organised an enormous and aggressive hoax solidarity campaign in support of a member of theirs, a white 29 year old Mark Curtis, who raped a 15 year old African American girl in 1988 in her own home while her 11 year old brother witnessed it. Curtis was convicted, and the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming.
As the feminist writer Fred Pelka writes
Mark Curtis was literally caught with his pants down, minutes after a 911 call, in the home of a half-nude and bleeding adolescent who insisted that he had just raped her. There was an eyewitness to the assault, and other corraborating evidence: His keychain and wallet, his car parked out front, … ,” together with his proven duplicity under oath.
Despite this the Trotskyist group sprung into action and even went so far as to harrass the victim:
The attacks on rape victims by the Curtis Defense Committee have been specific as well as general. According to [the victim] Demetria’s father, these have included the leafletting of Demetria’s high school with flyers denouncing her as a liar (Demetria was personally handed a leaflet as she stepped off her bus the morning before the trial); the posting of handbills up and down their street; and the use of money collected through the Curtis Defense Fund to hire a private detective to have the chidren and their family investigated.
Terry Schock, Demetria’s rape crisis counselor, recalls how the SWP packed the courtroom while Demetria was on the stand, moving people in and out during the most difficult part of her testimony, telling jokes and carrying on conversations. Schock saw this as “an attempt to intimidate” Demetria. The commotion became so distracting that Judge Perkins stopped the proceedings to ask the bailiff to restore some order.
The SWP simply refused to accept his guilt, and claimed completely implausibly that he had been framed, despite being convicted by a jury on overwhelming evidence (including testimony from the victim which the SWP claimed was too good to be “from a black girl”, and must have been coached).
When he was released from prison, in 1996, their paper, “The Militant” proclaimed him as a great revolutionary inspiration, and repeated his innocence.
Curtis was joined at the celebration by several other speakers. “Tonight, we celebrate Mark’s release because now he can join in the struggle along with a new generation of dangerous young men and women,” said Tom Alter, a leader of the Young Socialists in Chicago and member of the YS national steering committee. “Most of the young fighters in our organization never met Mark, but learned more about the class struggle by learning about his case.”
Alter pointed to how a previous defense case helped forge an earlier generation of young revolutionists. In 1963, three members of the Young Socialist Alliance in Bloomington, Indiana, were charged with sedition under the state laws for attending a speech on the fight for Black rights by Leroy McRae, the YSA national organizational secretary. The previous fall, the young socialists had also been active in defense of the Cuban revolution during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Cases like these help us learn that the state takes us more seriously than we sometimes take ourselves,” Alter said. “It’s a lesson that you are dangerous to this system if you stand up in defense of the Cuban revolution, for Black rights, for immigrant rights.”
In fact, Curtis was an entirely marginal figure in his home town of Des Moines, Iowa; and there was no reason that he would be framed.
Of course, at various points in history far left groups may be of interest to the police or secret services due to influence in the unions, in anti-war campaigns, of where the activity of the far left brings them into contact with other groups that the state does have an interest in, or where the activities of a particular left group involves activities involving criminality; but this is a far leap from the idea that the state feels the compulsion to frame individuals, or systematically infiltrate and disrupt what are effectively small propaganda groups
Only this week, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) the American co-thinkers of the British SWP (though they are currently organizationally divorced) explicitly counseled women rape victims in left organizations against going to the police.
We know that women who go to the justice system with complaints about sexual assault are very often disbelieved and humiliated by police and prosecutors. That is why only a minority of such incidents is ever formally reported. Moreover, the police investigating such allegations within a revolutionary organization would care not a bit about justice for the woman making the charges. Instead, they would seize the opportunity to harass and persecute the left … [A] revolutionary socialist organization should have the capacity–and indeed the responsibility–to establish the means to handle such allegations … … in a way that is impartial and respects the rights of any person raising such charges. We believe that a socialist organization built around principles of democracy must be capable of this… to uphold the principles of revolutionary socialism.
However, the prospect of political groups even positing the idea of running their own rape inquiries has a number of obvious problems. Firstly, the idea that members should not go to the police is predicated upon a Messianic view of the group’s social importance which actually accentuates the charismatic authority of the leadership figures, and therefore potentially makes the abuse of unequal power relation more possible; secondly the identification of group membership as an in-group under external threat could potentially render victims voiceless, as if they complain of abuse they can be regarded by other group insiders as personifying the external threat. Thirdly of course, these groups have no competance to investigate, nor any capacity to adequately judge or punish a rapist. They are failing in their wider social duty to assist the police and criminal justice system in protecting the public from potential rapists.
In the Curtis case, the defence of a brutal child rapist who had been convicted on overwhelming evidene required group insiders to accept what was actually a preposterous alternative theory of how Curtis happened to be at the crime scene, and also reinforce this with an absurd conspiracy theory which not only relied upon a paranoid view of the Ohio Police Department, but also exaggerated Curtis’s importance by inventing false anecdotes of his prominence in the local labour movement . It also required SWP members to mimimise and reject the voices of black, Latino and womens’ advocacy groups in Des Moines that offered alternative testimony.
There is no contradiction between observing that a state may occasionally and in exceptional circumstances be prepared to frame individuals for political reasons while also recognising that most prosecutions are not frame ups; and that most groups of idealists who believe themselves to be “revolutionaries” neither pose any real threat to the state or public order, nor outside their own self-referential group does anyone think that they do.
The delusion that the American SWP had of their own importance, combined with categorising the police and criminal justice system as inherently hostile and posing an existential threat, meant that they were prepared to invest considerable emotional and political capital in the absurd confection that Curtis was innocent and being framed.
But more than this, the very closeness of bonds within a self-referential sub-culture means that members might be very reluctant to believe that their friend and colleague could be guilty. Luis A. Cordón’s “Popular Psychology: an Encyclopedia”, [Greenwood Press, 2005, pp 46 - 47] argues that one of the characteristics of “coercive persuasion” in a cult is unconditional acceptance within the group, provided any transgressions do not cross the boundary of group loyalty.
Group loyalty, and a real or perceived impression that the group is disapproved of by outsiders can lead to errors of judgement, or lack or precaution.
Let us take an example; ten years ago, in the lead up to the war on Iraq, our local anti-war group was invigorated by scores of new activists; many of them young, in the age range 14 to 17. One member of a socialist organization, himself in his late twenties spent all his time talking to these youngsters; to the point where their parents approached me, as secretary of the group, to express their concerns. The local Stop the War Coalition (StWC) group therefore decided that we should encourage the young people to meet on their own and autonomously make their own decisions without adults present. The parents were horrified when the 28 year old continued to attend the group for under 18s, and the young people defended his presence because “he is young like us”. As a result the parents didn’t allow the young people to continue attending, or ensured they were chaperoned.
I have no reason to believe that anything else was going on except over-enthusiastic proselytizing of the Marxist creed to the “youth”. But out of prudence, and because of our duty of care, the StWC had to intervene. But what was remarkable to me is that when I broached the issue with the local branch of his organisation, they castigated me with being sectarian for stopping the young people meetings; and when I communicated concerns to a full timer, the response I had was simply “Well that is a bizarre thing to say”.
It was as if the fact the individual was a “revolutionary socialist”, and therefore presuamably ideologically opposed to oppression and abuse, then they couldn’t be susceptible to doing anything wrong. Linda Rogers demolishes this line of reasoning in the context of the Comrade Delta case:
The leadership has also claimed that for the [SWP's Disputes Committee (DC) ] to investigating Delta was not a problem despite the fact that they knew him well and some were friends of his. The crux of this argument seems to be they were all long standing and well respected party members and because the party is against women’s oppression the DC would somehow automatically investigate the allegations fairly and objectively.
This is a circular argument. Both W and Delta are also SWP members. By this logic Delta could not possibly commit rape (presumably if by virtue of being in the party we are immune to sexist ideas we must also by extension be incapable of sexist acts); but then would it not also mean by extension that W would be incapable of experiencing rape at the hands of a party member? How can that recursive logic resolve itself? Do all of our relationships with other party members exist without the trappings of historic oppression?
One of the remarkable things about the current crisis in the British SWP, is that it has been rumbling on so long, and so many people have known without speaking out. Keeping quiet “for the sake of the party”. But it is also remarkable how many people still defend the idea that a small left wing propaganda group have the capability and authority to investigate and decide upon rape allegations.
What I have tried to show here is that there is a pattern, across several “revolutionary socialist” organizations, which suggests that despite their protestations of opposing womens’ oppressions; the structures of unequal power and charismatic authority, the loyalty to the group, and the perception of the police as an hostile force representing an existential threat to their organization, are all factors which can combine to create a culture where women are raped or assaulted, and the abusers are protected by silence and the victims rendered voiceless.