Wednesday 9 January 2013

SWP, Rape, and Revolutionary Justice

It takes a lot for me to feel sorry for the Socialist Workers' Party, but I genuinely do over the predicament they've brought upon themselves. What appeared to be another farcical frame-up in a history of farcical frame-ups later twisted into tragedy as it was revealed that the SWP's Disputes Committee had been investigating a rape complaint against a leading activist and Central Committee member. Cue leak. Cue mayhem.

In the first instance, this crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP's own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind provided by their own revolutionary conceit. If you're in the business of prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party's destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop universe of the SWP's particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations. And I am sure that other organisations who locate themselves in the Leninist tradition would have done more or less the same thing. In short, the SWP were in a difficult position. They were damned if they had investigated. And damned for covering up a possible crime if they didn't.

However, as is usually the case when something extremely contentious flare ups on the far left, it was handled in the most cack-handed manner possible. Anyone reading the transcript will be struck by how genuine the people sitting on the disputes committee appeared, how scrupulously fair and transparent they tried to be within the form their investigation took. I'd heard of most of them too. All of them have served their party for years, and those I knew of had contributed to the wider labour movement in a number of ways. But it is absolutely incredible that they are all noted hardcore party loyalists and who, as "Candy U" acknowledged, "five of the people hearing the case were either current or former CC members, and that all of the people had worked incredibly closely with Comrade Delta [the accused]". I was around the far left long enough to know this certainly was not consistent with any form of "revolutionary justice" I'm familiar with. They may have been voted in by 2012's conference, but from the outset the glaring conflict of interest ruled it out of order as a body fit to preside over a case involving someone they had close ties to.

There are other problems too. In the transcript, the complaint is made that "Delta" had access to "W's" statement against him, while she and her advocate/support were not afforded the same courtesy regarding his statements. Even in "bourgeois law", that set of privilege-riddled codified prescriptions the SWP seek to positively transcend, the advocates arguing serious charges of sexual assault and rape against a defendant are afforded that right. There is also serious disquiet over the lines of questioning pursued by the disputes committee. Despite what were no doubt earnest and sincere attempts to keep the questions focused directly on the allegations, apparently they meandered into inappropriate lines of questioning around her relationship history.

Candy U's opening statement to conference says "We’re not a law court. We are here to protect the interests of the party, and to make sure that any inappropriate behaviour of any kind by comrades is dealt with, and we do that according to the politics of a revolutionary party.[my emphasis]". But incredibly, the SWP have singly failed to do just that.

As a party supposedly steeped in an understanding of materialist dialectics, it should be aware there is a world outside of it. What it and its members do falls under the jurisdiction of the English and Scottish legal systems, whether they recognise the legitimacy of them or not. And clearly they are aware they operate in a particular legal environment. The SWP's industrial department can provide briefings to its activists on workplace law, and it has certainly given advice on what happens if you're arrested to members participating in demonstrations. If it can attempt to provide this kind of elementary legal advice, why didn't anyone on the disputes committee or the central committee seek a professional opinion before investigating allegations of an extremely serious crime? It's not as if the SWP have no lawyers as members. According to what a former full-timer told me a while ago, there was at one point a small law firm based somewhere in Nottinghamshire staffed by SWP lawyers. As the subsequent discussion on the Socialist Unity thread reveals, their failure to notify the police in any way could in fact invite a police investigation and possible charges over the pursuit and obstruction of justice. Hardly what I would describe as keeping the SWP's best interests at heart.

I can understand the SWP's basic starting point. But it was a massive mistake. Contrary to the ultra-left rantings of some swappybots and other ra-ra-revolutionaries, there is no such rarefied thing as "bourgeois law". Codified and reified it may be. Providing legal justification for the inequitable distribution of property it surely does. However, despite this the attitude of the police and the laws around rape and sexual assault have changed over the last 40 years. Conviction rates are disproportionately low and underreporting is a serious problem, but nevertheless what we have now is a gain won by the harrowing struggle of victims for justice, and their allies in the feminist and labour movement. By the efforts of generations of activists the apparatus the police possess and the counselling system they can call upon is the most appropriate, specially trained and competent means available for making and investigating a complaint.

If the SWP understood this they might have avoided the biggest crisis in the 60 year history of its organisation.


Phil said...

Or rather, there is such a thing as bourgeois law, and rape is at the very limits of the kind of things it can easily deal with - see recent posts on my blog. But over the last 40 years it has been forced to deal with it - and deal with it properly - by sustained pressure from below, which has secured substantial reform in the interests of working-class people.

This is pure speculation, but I do wonder if the DC, knowing "Delta" personally, slipped into using the old "honest belief" model (if the defendant sincerely believed the victim consented - even if he was plainly wrong - he couldn't be found guilty of rape). Under current legislation, Comrade Delta would have been asked whether he had a reasonable belief that W had consented - and what steps he had taken to verify that belief.

What a mess. It would take a lot to make me feel sorry for anonymous comrades such as the mysterious "Charlie K", but this comes close.

Jon Rogers said...

Yes. Thanks for a sensible and considered overview.

Phil said...

By 'bourgeois law', I was trying to get at the view that is surprisingly pervasive across the far left that the law is some monolithic thing that works against the interests of working people at all times. There is absolutely no understanding that it is a fluid thing.

Kitty said...

It is a sorry thing to watch, unfortunately the SWP sort of walked in to this. All their pontifications about "bourgeois courts" and "bourgeois law" and not working with the police etc aloowed them to believe they are above society and can do a better job.

Violence against women activists have complained for years about women not being believed, offered support, questioned about their behaviour and hence why the conviction rate is so low from the bourgeois courts, sadly the SWP have found themselves instead of being above the "bourgeois law" all they have done is emulate it!

They have been extremely niave to believe that a Disputes Committee set up in the way that it has would deliver justice, all it has delivered is a big big mess.

The unfortunate thing is violence and exploition of women exists amongst socialists - it is a moral question, despite comrades not wanting to discuss morality. Trotsky does not address these issues In Their Morals and Ours enough to allow comrades to put forward a new moral code.

There has to be a line about rape, domestic abuse, dating violence, sexual coercion, pornography, prostitution, sexual exploitation, if not then socialists are saying that women can be exploited and abused as long as she is being exploited and abused by a comrade - is it seen as an act of solidarity?

I believe the comrade should have been encouraged and supported to go to the police or rape crisis and Comrade Delta suspended pending an investigation, however most women who have been abused and raped do not want to go to the police (for all the reasons we know about). So what then? Is the issue ignored? No but a Disputes Committee cannot then be made up of the direct peers of the person who the allegations are made against and anyone investigating the allegations have to go over and above to be seen as fair and to be supportive to the person making the allegations not about "protecting the party".

Alex Dawson said...

Like you Phil, I understand the basic starting point which is basically that "the party" is the single most important thing in the mindset of all activists and can NEVER be wrong, so therefore is appropriately positioned to mete out justice and organise its own affairs.

If the party has NEVER be wrong, and indeed CAN NEVER be wrong, then the logical endgame is the party deciding on crime and punishment, acceptable social norms etc etc...

In other words, the same sort of approach to life taken by religious cults or organised crime gangs.

We all know the law is largely shit, but ultimately our job is to test it, expose it and through this seek to change it. It is not our job to attempt to detach ourselves from it and behave as if it does not apply to us. This simply makes us even more detached from mainstream society.

As you rightly point out, this sort of behaviour is damaging and will end up turning many idealistic new and young activists well off the SWP and probably left politics altogether. (It's important to point out not only the SWP engage in this sort of thing.)

Phil said...

Phil 1 - I think the law is bourgeois law; I don't have a problem with that. However, I also think that even bourgeois law brings with it a lot of protections which we would be idiots to throw away. Also, more importantly, the bourgeois law we have actually got has been modified over time in lots of different ways, most of them bad but some of them good - and the law on rape is one area where the law as it is written is pretty sound. It's certainly a lot more liberal than the common sense view of rape ("one person's word against another's, who knows what goes on, maybe he did it but she might have led him on", and so on). Just saying "yeah well basically it's bourgeois law innit" is deeply unhistorical & ultimately un-materialistic.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me, as a woman with a lot of knowledge and experience of these issues, that you should not assume women should go to the police or be made to go to the police. It is an awful experienceto go through all of that. It is not for anyone to tell a victim that they have to go to the police.

The key issue is why dont the SWP investigators accept the word of the woman? There were two people present and the young woman says she did not consent. Surely no one but her is able to know if she consented?

If they dont think she was raped, are they saying she "cried rape?". that certainly is how I read it.

Surely that goes against everything the SWP have ever said on the issue of rape. Do they think women often cry rape? (or that she is somekind of a police spy? mentally ill? what?)

I don't care what the law says, the honest belief defence is crap. Consent is an active process. If she didnt want to, then it is rape. How we have have got to the 21st Century and have socialist men that dont understand what consent looks like is beyond me,

If the SWP thinks that their investiagtion can know better than a young woman whether or not she consented then they have just put the clock back a very, very long way on women's rights.

In reality I think these are the questions that are hiding behind "process"

Anonymous said...

Mess of their own making is right. Whilst trying to hang onto one of their leaders, have trampled on rights of one of their young members. Not clear if she was persuaded to rely on internal process rather than bourgeois courts. Will now split their party into pieces as many will not stomach bureaucratic centralism. Only one I feel sorry for is the abused young woman at the centre of all of this. Delta should of been demoted to ranks or expelled if the complainant genuinely refused to go to Police.

Anonymous said...

When someone claims rape, it shouldn't be left to the SWP central committe, or whatever they are called, to decide who to believe. After all we have had numerous instances of false rape claims. Recently a female police officer falsely accused a prisoner of rape to get themselves off a disciplnary. Yes shock and horror, women are not all sugar and spice and men are not always puppy dogs tails. Can we all get a grip please?

This should be taken straight to the police, by covering up these issues you are just creating the next victim.

Phil said...

First anonymous, like many others who've observed the SWP at close quarters and know about how they operate, their bullying culture, etc., there is no doubt in my mind she was pressured into not going to the police.

But as has been noted elsewhere, this isn't an individual matter - it is an issue of public safety. We basically have an alleged rapist free to go about his business by the SWP, because a jury of his mates think he didn't do it. It's not good enough.

If the woman concerned didn't want to report a crime to the police, it doesn't mean the SWP should therefore become judge and jury.

Phil said...

"Numerous instances"? You are aware that an incredibly low number of rape complaints are deemed malicious? Don't believe everything you read in the media.

Anonymous said...

"You are aware that an incredibly low number of rape complaints are deemed malicious?"

I am aware that a number of false accusations have been made and in the law you need due process, rather than whipping up hysteria based on no factual evidence whatsoever.

The left are starting to look very much like the right these days.

Anonymous said...

I was a member of the SWP till last week. There was a culture of men getting their "girlfrinds" into positions of power.
There was also a culture that made it hard to voice a different opinion. People who did that were sent to Coventry(not literally), made to look stupid in public, smeared, excluded. It was like working for a big company where the boss demands respect for their stupid actions.
Carlie K(imber) says thatassorted bloggers are causinf the mayhem within the SWP. Nah! He is afraid that that this whole thing could unravel thw SWP. If it does, good. Selma Yaqoob made a principled stand against twatface Galloway. It is time for all SWP comrades to make a stand.

Steve G

Anonymous said...

It is so not acceptable to talk about women in the SWP as "girlfriend" put into power by men. THhat is a disgustingly sexist notion. They are political activists in their own right and are entirely responsible in their own right for this filthy mess.

Your idea Phil that the woman at the centre isn't a capable person who can make her own decisions about the police is also sexist. Like 85% of women she chose not to put herself through that process. Unfortunatley for her she got exactly the same treatment in regard to questions about previous sexual contact etc etc,

An honest discussion of what needs to change on the left is needed without all this sexist bullshit and macho in fighting between different groups scoring sectarian points of eachother

Tony Greenstein said...

There is such a thing as bourgeois law, just as there was feudal law. Law reflects the property relations of a particular society. That is why rape is deprioritised by the Police compared to public order. That is why the Protection from Eviction Act is never enforced. The decision as to whether or not to enforce an Act (e.g. hunting) is related to the society we live in.

The law on rape has obviously changed for the better. Until the decision of Lord Lane and the Court of Appeal and then House of Lords in 1991, rape within marriage didn't exist. I'm not convinced there is any real difference between an honest and a reasonable belief. An honest belief must still be reasonable to be honest!

I have posted on this on my own blog but the question is, if the woman didn't want to go to court and did want the SWP to investigate and take action then that is what should have been done. Persons with no knowledge of any of the parties should have privately interviewed not only the women and Martin Smith but other women working at their HQ or who worked with him on the CC, with a guarantee of confidentiality. The Disputes Committee should have been chosen, if necessarily randomly and with 50% women at least, from people who knew none of the parties concerned.

Their decision should not have included the Scottish 'not proven'. That usually means probably guilty but we can't prove it. Of course they couldn't prove it, is there an SWP forensics department? They should have had an investigation report, interviewed and allowed cross-examination of all parties and reached a decision on Martin Smith's guilty on the civil law basis, ie. on the basis of the balance of probability. If another woman also complained of sexual harassment/violence that is pretty strong evidence to me that Smith should have been given his marching orders.

Phil said...

First anonymous, are you seriously arguing that the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator went through "due process"? This is what the whole crisis is about - the fact they didn't, and the central committee has tried to cover it up.

Phil said...

Anon above Tony Greenstein, I'm afraid you're talking out of your backside. I do not know whether the woman was or wasn't capable. Judging by the commentary by people that has appeared who are closer to the details of the case, it would appear she has been leaned on by the SWP's higher ups. Whether this is true or not I don't know, but I am inclined to believe it simply because of how familiar I am with their culture and ways of operating.

It is not sexist to make such an observation, nor is it to recognise that there is an issue of public safety at stake, and that the SWP have not only failed this woman by supporting her to make a complaint to the proper authorities, but all women everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I've just come across this blog and as an ex SWP member (although not hostile generally to the politics of the SWP) I would just like to comment that in my experience the SWP like to pick and choose when to rely on the legal system and the police force. I have been involved in many instances (e.g. demos and protests) where party members (including myself!) have been very glad to see police officers keeping for instance EDL thugs away from us - indeed many flippant comments are made by comrades regarding how glad they are that the police turn up in such situations. It is therefore hypocritical of them to bluster that they do not recognise the legitimacy of 'the law'. As well as this I would like to support comments about how the legal system is most certainly the most appropriate channel for victims of sexual crime to access - other contributors have already alluded to this in detail. Hopefully the woman making the allegations has friends around her who will support her and advise her appropriately. I speak from personal experience and that is why I am writing under the identity of 'anonymous'. I'm afraid some comrades seem to deliberately refuse to publicly acknowledge the advances that have been fought for and won in such matters as it suits their political analysis. This is the behaviour of an elitist and isolated clique. Such a pity. In the absence of any real alternative for activists on the left, it would be a tragedy if the SWP were to implode over this.