A guest post by Bolshie Elane
The decisions that the SWP makes this weekend do indeed matter— as the war on terror continues to rage, and the era of Austerity marks the most determined war on our class. Here in the UK the Coalition is dismantling the welfare state, in the process hitting hard women, whose most secure job prospects have been in the public sector, and making war on migrants.
We desperately need a dynamic, open, revolutionary left that can build on the best things the SWP has done in the past; that can take the tradition of socialism from below and carry the flame of historical experiences of our class into current debates on strategy. We need a left that can respond to new challenges and understand the changes in how capital is organising, that can take initiatives, push struggles forward, unite strands of resistance and always, that can fight in solidarity with everyone trying to fight capitalism.
Everyone who has stayed in the SWP in its current crisis-and everyone who has left in disgust and despair, sometimes after decades of membership, agrees on that.
So how can the SWP find its way back from this crisis over the abuse of young women? How can the lost generation-denounced as creeping feminists and driven from the branches be won back?
It cannot be done by pretending that a scandal over rape and sexual harassment in which hundreds have been driven out and the complaints speak of intimidation, bullying and harassment is simply a matter for robust debate and has no impact on the party’s political position on women’s liberation.
In a brief period several women have brought complaints about a CC member who resigned rather than answer the second complaint, while concerns that a jury of his friends and colleagues began with the interests of “the party” and not of the well-being of a young comrade have been widespread. There has also been criticism of another rape allegation against an organiser being dealt with only by time limited suspension and finally yet another rape complainant writes that she was harassed by members of the DC earlier this year and warned off bringing a complaint.
There have been many examples of good politics and good practice over the years that the SWP has organised when it comes to dealing with sexism and harassment. There have been countless little and big examples of challenging sexism, many times when oppressive behavior and especially harassment was driven out by expulsion and the political implications discussed. But to misquote Cliff, “don’t tell me all the good things you have done, you are only as good as your last case”.
Over the years alongside all that good stuff, there have also been times, even before this crisis when sexual harassment and rape have gone by, never even referred to the disputes committee, because it was inconvenient to raise it, admit it, and talk about it. Because the man doing it was important in some way. Or because the woman complaining was not. Because the culture has frowned upon, but not taken seriously, those men who have time and again treated young women around them as if all might be sexual conquests. Because somewhere along the line a debate with a particular brand of “feminism” in the 1970s and 1980s has become an assault on all struggle for reforms for women that address anything other than directly economic issues. Because an idea has grown up that SWP women are strong and confident class fighters and therefore, they just won’t be hurt or bothered, by sexual harassment.
There is no way out of the crisis in the SWP that does not openly state a clear apology to the women who have suffered abuse and then been attacked for complaining. That needs to be a proper apology in which the leadership explain clearly what the women suffered.
A public apology won’t make it okay. But it will mark recognition that what has happened was wrong and a determination to put it right. There is no way out that does not admit that the party has been tainted by the contradictory attitudes of the 1970s and 80s in regard to sexual harassment and rape and needs to take urgent action to change the culture in which young women complaining of rape and sexual harassment can be accused of “reimagining the experience by viewing it through a feminist prisim”; or of being police spies; or jealous and bitter.
There has to be a reckoning with what has gone so wrong that the party allows men who engage in such crude sexism as to treat their young sisters as sex objects can rise to the top and then mobilise the party machine and cadre to defend them from the young women who don’t accept it. There needs to be a clear rejection of the rape myths the political confusion that has been spread—for example the argument that the accused CC member (a white middle-aged man accused by young women in subordinate positions) is in the same place as the Scottsboro boys.
The appeal to members to unite and just move on is what Cliff used to call, a fudge. This is a fudge in which those who have been pushing rape myths and bullying members are holding to ransom everyone who feels something very wrong has happened but desperately wants to keep the party they have worked so hard to build together.
The appeal will not work. The party cannot go on expecting its young new women members to accept harassment and abuse and stay quiet because the left in Britain so desperately needs an organised, hardworking party of revolutionaries. The fudge cannot do because unless what is wrong is understood; then it is going to happen again. It happened to me.
There can be no real comradeship in which every aspect of the party—its ideas, its rules and disputes procedures, the example set by the leadership—are not mobilised against sexual harassment and abuse of members by the leadership. Appeals for unity without that are nothing more than an appeal to the victims of abuse to let it pass.
The unity of our class does not rest on the oppressed accepting oppression and staying quiet in the face of injustice. It does not wait for socialism—we fight for it every day in our workplaces, in our estates and our society. The only unity possible in a revolutionary socialist organisation is the unity against exploitation and oppression because unity rests on solidarity. A revolutionary party that cannot offer equality to its women members is on a road away from the traditions of the IST.
It is indeed a few seconds to midnight—and the responsibility to save the party rests with those who have been so busy destroying it. Admit you are wrong, apologise and begin to think seriously about what a commitment to women’s liberation means in the 21st century, to a generation of young women who expect their right to genuine consent to be respected and will not silently tolerate anything less.