Daphne Lawless of the Workers Party in New Zealand (previously editor of the NZ Socialist Worker), has published details of private communications that she has had with a former SWP organiser, explaining that the recent controversy about rape allegations is not the first time that the SWP has been involved in an internal cover up.
Sexism on the left The SWP of course has a line on women’s issues, but of a moralistic bent. Recent campaigns against “raunch culture” – that is, commodified sexuality – centred not around defending women’s right to free expression of sexuality, but, in the words of one blogger “ridiculing working-class women for wearing push-up bras” (5). As a former SWP member told The Spark, this political attitude:
was moralistic, reactionary and oppressive. It demanded an eternal vigilance about “sexism” on the part of male comrades which actually enforced a humourless respectability and became a front for hypocrisy. (6)
On the subject of hypocrisy, it is clear that comrade Delta’s behaviour is not something new in the British SWP. The blogger mentioned above made these pointed remarks directed at that party in 2007:
…there is a very senior cadre who is notorious for his wandering hands, at least when he’s had one too many. … [N]ot one but several young female comrades feel uncomfortable around a longstanding cadre because of his persistent habit of talking to their cleavages.
[T]he group has a culture of institutional bullying, where women are not given more consideration, but generally speaking less… (5)
Another former SWP member told The Spark about an incident which happened in the early 1990s:
an SWP Central Committee member sexually assaulted one of my friends (this was not a matter of an ‘unproven allegation’, since the person admitted his guilt at great length to me, putting it down to his heavy drinking). … She fought back, and eventually stopped him in his tracks … The woman didn’t want to pursue the matter in any way and, not surprisingly, dropped out of the SWP shortly afterwards. As an SWP district organiser I raised this with the CC, asking that the person be disciplined even though there was no complaint as such, but it was explained to me that “this sort of thing happens under capitalism”, and nothing could be done about it.
These are only the most shocking examples. Relationships like the one between Delta (an older male leader) and W (a younger female ordinary member) have been allowed to flourish within the SWP. If Delta was W’s employer in a capitalist workplace, even a liberal feminist would be able to recognize sexual harassment, or at least a very unhealthy power dynamic.
Daphne provides the useful service of reminding people that the descriptions of sexism in the SWP have been in the public domain since 2007, not only from myself, but also from the Irish blogger Splintered Sunrise, who provided an excoriating picture of sexism in the SWP.
Imagine, if you will, a far-left organisation that sets great store by its sensitivity to matters of oppression, and is especially gung-ho about its opposition to sexism. Now imagine that this perfectly decent stance is constantly being undermined by aspects of the group’s internal culture.
Let’s say there is a very senior cadre who is notorious for his wandering hands, at least when he’s had one too many. This is an open secret, to the point where, if he visits your branch, comrades crack jokes about locking up the women. Has this ever been the subject of an internal inquiry, even by the notoriously supine control commission? Dream on.
Let’s say that you have been approached by not one but several young female comrades who feel uncomfortable around a longstanding cadre because of his persistent habit of talking to their cleavages. (This, by the way, is something I make a conscious effort to never do. I was brought up to believe that it’s only good manners to look a woman in the eye when you’re talking to her.) Since you take this kind of thing seriously, and are worried about the group’s failure to retain young female recruits, you would love to support them. So imagine how you feel when you have to tell them that nothing can be done, and they would be best advised to stay quiet and try to avoid this comrade.
It is worth looking at the comments on those old threads directed to both myself and Splintered Sunrise, seeking to both minimise the sexism, and to intimidate us into silence. Much is being made of the alleged principle and bravery of the current opposition in the SWP, but back in 2007, one of the leading current oppositionists, sought to pooh pooh the behaviour described above as just an “individual who is thought to have wandering eyes“, and to mock those who objected to sexism in the SWP:
some of us don’t really take very seriously a bunch of embittered middle aged men … going on about their inability to get their leg over as the basis for political critique.
No objection to people indulging in melencholy bitter sweet nostalgia about their faded youth, but its really a bit much when this is counterposed to actual contemporary issues. Reading the above we have references to an individual who is thought to have wandering eyes, uberfeminists holding back the tides of sexual liberation…, allegations about women of ‘hiliarious incompetance’ etc and now demands for ‘freshness’ (well two can play at the game of misattribution).
None of which is particularly WRP in any case. I for one am not getting involved in a commitee to determine who women are allowed to sleep with…
The reference to “hilarious incompetence” relates to this observation about the SWP from Splintered Sunrise
Let’s say that you are aware of a number of cases where ambitious female comrades have achieved positions in the hierarchy, due not to what talents for the job they may possess but due to who they are fucking. Meanwhile, talented women are passed over when it becomes known they are unavailable.
… In fact I think, and have thought for a very long time, that more young women in responsible leadership positions would be a very good thing. Provided that they were competent, it would bring a degree of much needed freshness. On the other hand, young women of sometimes hilarious ineptitude getting promotion on the basis of who they’ve slept with… if a capitalist employer did that sort of thing, he’d be spending years in front of industrial tribunals.
The SWP supporter (and now brave oppositionist) dismisses the allegation of sexism of powerful men advancing their lovers, by this disingenuous sleight of hand:
incidently it is probably worth stating that being embittered about young women in prominant positions in the party and accusing them of being there simply because of who they’ve had sexual relations with, is not, generally speaking, a completely undodgy discourse.
His complacency is ill-placed, as the phenomenon was well described by the feminist website Second Council House of Virgo :
Where men hold power within an organisation, power can be conferred to women through engaging in sexual relationships with them. When a prominent activist starts a relationship with a lesser known female activist, responsibilities and political favours can flow as a consequence. This leads to a consolidation of power, whereby indirect control is exercised over areas of work through the relationship, situating her activism within his own power base. This can be used as a lever to continue a relationship that woman wishes to leave. The end of the relationship mean the end of the female activist’s prominence as their former lover seeks to marginalise them within the organisation, while resentment at the perceived or real favours which have been granted lead people to overlook their political work.
Within such an environment, the lovers of senior male members become promoted as the womens representatives of the organisation. Any suggestion of male domination is countered by pointing to such female activists. Yet the access that senior male party member have to their time through their relationship can be utilised to ensure that they do not challenge that male domination. Personal and political loyalties become entwined, and with both it is always the men who hold the upper hand.
This completely correctly locates the current crisis in the SWP onto the issue of sexism and abuse of unequal power relationships. (Indeed another woman SWP member has now come forwards alledging that she was raped by an SWP male colleague.)
The reason that it is worth raking over the coals of how SWP members reacted to allegations that their organisation is institutionaly sexist five years ago, is because it reveals that their current opposition takes an instrumental view of sexism. That is, they seem to see the importance of combatting sexism as subordinate to the urgency of defending the reputation of their political organisation, and its stated aims.
To take one example, in his recent resignation statement, a former leading member wrote:
Many have also focused on the question of patriarchy within the left. This is an important question. Clearly nothing like this would ever have happened with gender roles reversed. Clearly, as much as people can be intellectually aware of the arguments for women’s liberation they can still act in the ways socially ingrained in them by a patriarchal capitalist system. In this particular case there is also the question of power. But the question of power again raises deeper ideological questions: how could many thousands of good comrades, who are usually so suspicious of power and the powerful be so in awe of power on this occasion as to let this happen?
Here I want to focus on some of those deeper questions. … …
What follows is not about “deeper questions” after all, but an exercise in regurgitating relatively comfortable leftist tropes about “democratic centralism”.
This neatly sidesteps the real issue of how sexism flourished, and was effectivelly colluded in, within the unequal power structures of the SWP. It is particularly disingenuous as this particular former SWP leader has decided to join Counterfire, a splinter group from the SWP whose leading members have been associated in the past with the so-called “fuck circuit“, where patronage has been exercised by charismatic male leaders in favour of their sexual partners, at the expense of talented women who were known to be sexually unavailable to them; closely resembling the process described by Dr Elizabeth Puttick in her chapter “Women in New Religious Movements”, in Wilson and Cresswell’s “New Religious Movements” . It is revealing that Counterfire’s own response to the SWP rape crisis fails to address at all the issue of institutional sexism. Puttick makes the important point that the abuse of women in self-referential sub-cultures does not necessarily mean that the women are unwilling to participate; but sexual relationships where there is unequal power are regarded by most organisations as problematic and inherently susceptible to abuse, and they often contravene ethical and professional codes.
The argument “ I for one am not getting involved in a commitee to determine who women are allowed to sleep with…” seeks to shift responsibility for abuse in relationships based upon unequal power to the women themselves, instead of either the powerful man, or the organisation that provides the structures and context of unequal power.
The SWP opposition who are seeking a recall conference, also sidestep the issue of institu tional sexism, as if the mishandling of the rape allegations against Comrade Delta just fell from the sky, rather than being inherent in the nature of the type of organisation that the SWP is . Although the testimony from Jules about the 2011 conference is refreshingly direct, and is a credit to the author.
Indeed, Richard Seymour’s instrumental view to the issue can be seen from the timing of his outrage
Before the issue reached the mainstream media, Richard wrote:
“I should say upfront that I cannot and will not broach the details of the case you are referring to. It is natural that people will want to discuss what is already in the public sphere, but I am not able to add anything – even if it was appropriate for me to do so.All that I can say is that which is already known – there was a debate about the handling of a case involving an extremely serious matter at this year’s conference of the SWP; there were factions formed which seriously criticised the handling of that case and rejected the resultant report, and I was a member of one of those factions; the report was narrowly endorsed at conference. Those arguing the same position as me did not win the vote. Obviously, I am disappointed by this. I can’t go any further than that.”
Just days later, and after it reached the mainstream media:
“There isn’t enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day out.”
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Richard Seymour was happy to continue with a veil of silence about sexism and abuse of power in the SWP, until I pulled the temple down on his head.
So why have people been prepared to stay silent in the face of sexism, and to denigrate those who challenge it. Even today deliberate falsehoods have been heaped upon me for it, not least by Seymour himself, outrageously implying that I am a racist. The anathematization of political opponents is a political lesson that Richard learned well in the SWP.
Let us return to Daphne Lawless, who comments
Socialists and the police Some comment on the case has suggested that the SWP did the right thing by dealing with the case “in-house”, since socialists should never go to the police.
It’s certainly true that the police under capitalism cannot be trusted to treat accusations of sexual violence towards women sensitively or even seriously. But the report from the Disputes Committee makes it clear that, in that regard, the SWP also has a terrible record.
A bourgeois court will be a retraumatising and victim-blaming space for survivors of sexual assault. But even a bourgeois court wouldn’t dare have the case judged by colleagues of the accused. In a police investigation, we could expect that trained professionals would be available to help the complainant. The SWP does have at least one comrade trained in rape crisis – but, far from helping W, she was on the panel judging her.
It’s argued that going to the police would give the forces of the State an excuse to destroy our organisations and frame our members. But the attitude that we shouldn’t talk about our problems in front of outsiders is deeply problematic. Secrecy promotes abuse. The police protect the powerful against the powerless – but the SWP Disputes Committee seems to have done the same thing, only less professionally than the police would.
Again this correctly locates the problematic aspects of police and broader criminal justice system handling of rape within the context of patriarchal attitudes, and inequalities of power. Within the cult world of the SWP’s leadership, surrounded by a sectarian milieu and vainglorious understanding that their “party” has an historical and messianic destiny, then some men have abused the charismatic power that their position has given them; and a self-important and self-referential culture has led SWP members and supporters to fail to see what was in plain sight, to abuse those who challenged sexism, and to effectively collude in institutional sexism. That is why their internal investigation into rape was a farcical parody of a real police inquiry and criminal trial, not only reproducing but actually exaggerating the worst aspects: the SWP has actually created their own mini replica of the patriarchy and abuse of unequal power that exists in wider society.
The very othogonality of the SWP’s political practice to the mainstream means that they have not internalised advances in process and advancement of womens’ rights that are regarded as obvious by – for example – the Labour Party or the trade unions.
SWP Sexism and the Left, Daphne Lawless
5.Splintered Sunrise blog, 17 December 2007. “I am not a number!” http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2007/12/17/i-am-not-a-number/