Monday 27 January 2014

Sex, Power Play, and Trotskyism

It's one that has had seasoned left watchers stumped in bemusement. Back in the day, it was so different. As a general rule, most people exiting revolutionary outfits either returned to private life, or continued being active inside the labour movement. A small minority of comrades, however, would stick with the far left. The ultra-correct posturing of ultra-left "fighting" propaganda groups like the Spartacists and Workers Power occasionally attracted a few by exposing the centrism or *gasp* reformism of the IS/SWP or Militant/SP. Or some waltzed off and formed their own outfit after their parent group adopted an opportunist stance/betrayed the heritage of October by supporting/not supporting the strike of Ruritanian basket weavers. No one seriously entertained the idea that Facebook spats would prise apart tiny revolutionary groupings. Could the split in the International Socialist Network, the ragtag and bobtail collective of ex-swuppies be a world first?

As Facebook is the medium, one might be tempted to sneer away (just like I've done). Yet there's more to it than that. Coming back from Saturday's Fabian conference, I was amazed to read the ISN was in turmoil. The weighty issue tearing the groupuscule asunder was a series of sex fantasies and role play known as ... race play. This kink, for that is what it is, is a master/slave relationship in which the subordinate partner is black. Yes, that's right. And no, I didn't know this was 'a thing' either. Okay, you don't need me to tell you that most people, never mind most lefties would be uncomfortable with sex play of this character. But so what? We're talking consenting adults here. While it is true there is a long and inglorious history of white nations colonising, enslaving, exploiting, and oppressing black people and that, sadly, that history still has some way to run both here in Britain and elsewhere, that doesn't mean someone from a black African or Afro-Caribbean background cannot decide for themselves whether 'race play' is for them. To suggest otherwise is just patronising, really. And I'm sure most people would agree.

Richard 'Lenin' Seymour, hitherto the public face of choice for the ISNetwork more or less has this position too. Rightly, he defended this and other forms of sexual behaviour some might find unpalatable as something that's up to the people involved. Reasonable, but too reasonable for many on the ISN's steering committee. Such behaviour is racist, perpetuates white privilege, demeans black people. disrespects the experience of slaves held in the colonies or transported/raised on American plantations. Well, no. For those involved, it doesn't. Sexual role play is about fantasy, about fun, having a laugh and, of course, getting off. In much the same way as the millions of couples who dress up as school boys and school girls do not alibi or condone child sex abuse, so race play does not trample on a troubled and deeply sad history. Ridiculously, the ISN's view effectively means sub/dom relationships are only open to couples of the same ethnicity. And how would the ISN ever enforce their brand of sexual political hygiene? By sending in the coitus commissars?

This is no one off. As you can see from Team Seymour's resignation note from the ISN below, this particular cohort of ex-SWP have serious issues when it comes to the public discussion of sex - particularly with regards to the comrade with a political interest in sex and sexuality. I suppose in one respect you can understand a certain reluctance among a group of activists who resigned from the SWP after allegations of serious sexual assault were seriously mishandled, and the young women involved were harassed for raising complaints. When the former national secretary's alleged behaviour was written off by members in the know as a "private matter", you might find here the germ of an explanation for the ISN's attitude to sexual practices that are simultaneously power plays. The difference, however, is that sub/dom and bdsm relationships are enacted fantasies based on consent and trust. The allegations at the centre of the SWP's scandal was that a powerful man used his position to force unwanted sexual attentions on junior women - one a party employee, one a young student. If a clapped out ex-Trot like me can discern that and the Marxist masterbrains of the ISN vanguard can't, what does that say about them?

Well, what it says about them, I'm afraid to say, is that politics has ceased being about progressive social change and more about the narcissistic cultivation of revolutionary identity. You can take some folk out of the SWP ...

Needless to say, I think Richard and his comrades are badly wrong on many things, not least their enthusiasm for Left Unity. But here he's made the right call. A habit I hope he develops with regard to the rest of his politics.

That's enough from me. Here's the resignation note:
With great regrets, we are resigning from the ISNetwork. Many of us were involved in the setting up of the network, and we are very sad that it has come to this. We remain in full solidarity with ISN comrades, and look forward to working with them on campaigns.

Despite the repeated characterisation of us as a 'right bloc', we do not represent any unified political position beyond our concerns about both the political direction and internal culture of the ISNetwork. It has been clear for some time that our critiques put us in a minority: contrary to a common smear, we have always been willing to argue from this position, and welcomed this political debate. However, there has been an increasing breakdown of trust between us and various leading members of the organisation. It is now clear that we are not welcome in the ISN.

One of us is a woman sex-worker and bdsm practitioner. After many years of self imposed isolation from politics, she believed she had finally found a space where even those comrades who disagreed with her positions would discuss controversial topics of sexuality and desire in respect and comradeship. Instead she has been browbeaten, patronised, marginalised and moralised against, and the topics she wishes to discuss with her comrades dismissed as, in the words of one SC member, self-evidently 'sordid.' She has been made to feel so unwelcome that she feels forced to leave the SC and ISN.

The SC has put out a statement strongly implying racism and claiming 'inappropriate' argumentative techniques against three of our members. We entirely reject these insinuations and urge anyone interested to examine the threads in question & and judge for themselves. That they are over a controversial and charged topic -and one on which the signatories to this letter do not necessarily agree- is not in doubt: however, if there is a single statement made by any comrade that can reasonably be judged 'inappropriate', let alone racist, we urge their accusers to state it.

It is claimed, on the basis of a leaked email thread of a private conversation, that we have been politically dishonest, and set out to split or even destroy the network. This is wholly untrue. As has been made clear in this week's bulletin, we had intended to launch a platform within the ISNetwork in order to argue for our position. However, recent events had given us an increasing sense that we might not be able to remain members, due both to legitimate political differences and to the personalised politics of vituperation at the brunt of which we have felt. Accordingly - as is explicitly allowed in the ISN constitution – we have been discussing among ourselves to work out how best to argue our position within the network, our chances, and our contingency strategies if we felt unable to continue.

At issue here is not just the conduct or content of recent discussions or even the political direction of the ISN, but the question of making a habitable culture of discussion on the Left. When some of us recently wrote an article criticising a politics of anathema within the ISN, we were derided by opponents who denied any such thing exists. Unfortunately, it does. One SC member has recently publicly insisted that 'no one is being targeted personally'. The very same SC member recently seconded a denouncement on Facebook, by another SC member, of several of us as 'arrogant fucks' and 'bad rubbish' to whom 'good riddance'. One leading member expressed a desire on Facebook to strangle one of us - referring to her as a 'nauseating tosser' - and not one of the SC members to whom she said this suggested it was an inappropriate comment to make. Several SC members openly expressed their agreement with a status referring to us as 'parasites'. Another SC member wrote 'they should count themselves lucky they haven't been expelled' – particularly galling to two of the 'Facebook Four' involved in our thread. There are further examples, but this culture is one in which we can no longer work: we also would like comrades to consider whether left organisations can hope to attract a new generation of members if they treat each other in this way.

We look forward to working in a left culture that has ended certain practices inherited from the SWP. These include moralistic browbeating; the implicit claim that various controversial topics are inappropriate for discussion; that certain comrades can not be argued with on them; and that dissenters from these nostrums deserve to be attacked in personalised terms. We know many ISN members look forward to this with similar enthusiasm.

Jamie A
Magpie C
Kieran C
A. M.
China M
Richard S
Len T
Rosie W


Roger McCarthy said...

Well if China Mieville has jumped ship that has reduced the average IQ of the ISN by several points.

Anonymous said...

perhaps mr. seymour and his chums no longer do politics, they merely perform it. in fact, maybe they've simply become performance artists (or, alternatively, a bunch of clowns) and this whole little incident is just one more life-imitating-art in a distorted mirror sort of way. one more performance whose pointlessness, nastiness, and general lack of anything original to say is matched only by our eagerness to go on looking at it.


John Edwards said...

I suppose this BDSM stuff is more interesting than selling papers and giving out leaflets

Vinyl Miner said...

I suppose this BDSM stuff is more interesting than selling papers

I immediately googled newspaper fetish, it exists, now I understand.

Anonymous said...

Bonkers. They seem to be finding stuff to fall out over now. I do recall discussions, when I was briefly a member of a Trot group 25 years ago, about how practices like S&M were 'degenerate', 'bourgeois deviations' and the products of alienation produced by wider capitalist society - they would wither away and not exist under socialism. You would encounter people who were very open-minded about sex but others who were incredibly puritanical - there seemed to be no happy medium.

Anyhow, they have just turned into 'Judea Peoples Front' parodies of themselves now - a sad fall from what, in the mid seventies, was a fairly decent and dynamic set-up.

Chris said...

I think Richard Seymour is learning that if you live by identity politics you will probably die by identity politics too.