Content Note: Sexual Violence, Rape Apologism, SWP
‘Some non-SWP organisers may argue that calls for a boycott are divisive, we must be clear that perpetuating political spaces that put survivors at risk is divisive.’
We live in a time when it’s quite fashionable to attack ‘call out culture’. Those who do wilfully ignore that ‘call-out culture’ has enabled oppressed people to hold institutions, and individuals within them, to account. Recently, Ed Miliband was called out for his double standards on borders. Stansted Airport and Kensington Holiday Inn were called out for their complicity in racial violence. The act of halting violence by shaming those with power is a vital form of political protest. This tactic has deep roots which takes many forms including boycotts and open letters. We could go as far as arguing that Amnesty International and the Anti-Apartheid movements were founded on call out culture – seeking accountability for abusive state power.
That said, admonishing or exhorting institutional actors to stop perpetrating violence doesn’t always work, so further reflection is necessary. Richard Seymour attempts this in a recent blog post. Seymour details his history in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and contends that, for organisers, a policy of boycotting protests organised by or involving the SWP is counterproductive. Seymour was one of the first to publicly reveal the SWP rape scandal: Weyman Bennett, co-convenor of Stand Up To Racism, led the SWP leadership to cover up Comrade Delta’s (aka Martin Smith) rape and sexual assault of two volunteer women members. They initiated a mock trial in which one of the victims was asked if they “liked to have a drink” and other victim-blaming tactics were employed to undermine their allegations. Seymour left the party after a special conference voted to endorse the leadership’s handling of the allegations. We believe his analysis is sincere in its attempt to discuss how to develop a stronger movement towards liberation. However, his conclusions hinder building a principled movement that centres the protection of survivors.
Let us consider strategies against sexual violence by using the SWP as a point of reference – not as an attempt to exceptionalise the problem, but to examine how a challenge to this violence across our movement could be articulated. The SWP is not simply a sect on the Left, but an encapsulation of how unchecked power within institutions can coalesce to harm and undermine survivors of sexual violence. Violent, institutional misogyny must be stopped and doing so is necessary for developing effective liberatory politics. But how? We need clear aims and effective tactics to realise them. Seymour’s blog post provides scant advice for challenging institutional misogyny within Stand up to Racism (a front organisation of the SWP as explained here by Abi Wilkinson and by the SWP themselves) and wider Left spaces.
The SWP leadership and all those who protect rapists within our movement are not our comrades. If we agree that they are counter to liberation politics then we cannot simply “ignore” them, as Seymour suggests. To do so denotes an alarming disregard for sexual violence survivors of all genders. Overthrowing structures that protect abusers must be central to an effective liberatory Left movement. Some of us, as women or survivors of sexual violence, are not safe if we simply attempt to ignore those elements of the Left. How does giving enemies of rape survivors unopposed space to organise help to combat systemic sexual violence? This reasoning empowers perpetrators of sexual violence and represents an abandonment, rather than the centring, of the political agency and safety of rape survivors.
The rot in the SWP quickly worsened from 2013; they collaborated with the Labour Party in Newcastle to direct the police to arrest rival Trotskyist group members. They declined to support the Tower Hamlets 286 and recently hijacked Black Lives Matter UK protests to claim the political actions of others as their own. Their membership numbers are eclipsed by the uncritical support they enjoy in the Labour Movement and Labour Party HQ. The SWP must not be allowed to continue to destroy Left politics at a juncture where a principled movement against right wing violence is essential. They, particularly the leadership, must be opposed – not just in terms of boycotts, but in the streets. As one of Seymour’s peers at Salvage magazine recently suggested: disrupt them at their own protests loudly and without pity. We cannot effectively counter perpetrators of rape and their colluders with respectability, the only principled response necessitates resistance and refusal.
We understand that Left organisers based outside of big cities have little option but to organise alongside individual members of political groups with history of harming survivors, due to lack of alternatives. We are acutely aware of the danger of boycotts descending into performances of moralistic self-satisfaction. This is not a call for “total boycott” of the SWP and similar groups, but for those who can to take a principled stand and help to build an inclusive and radical alternative. A boycott is not the sole measure for tackling this violence, there is also no binary here between supporting these groups and doing nothing. Other protests can, and should, be organised. One such boycott was called at the Stand Up To Racism conference, in October 2016. A brave cohort of anti-rape activists spent the day stood outside the conference distributing leaflets informing attendees about the explicit links between Stand up to Racism and the SWP, and explaining their institutional misogyny – despite SWP members trying to physically intimidate them into leaving. Those who disagreed with the boycott were not ostracised; those who declined the calls led by Ash Sarkar and others not to attend the Stand Up To Racism conference maintained working relationships with the boycotters, including leading figures in the National Union of Students and the National Union of Teachers.
Let us be careful in our appraisal of effective strategies against violence in our movements. The act of opposing SWP-organised rallies does not forever isolate us from all who attended. People unwittingly attending protests organised by SWP and its front groups are not eternally wedded to those groups, even if they belong to organisations whose leaders have undeterred faith in Bennett. We must reach out to others who wish to organise against fascism whilst centring the safety of survivors of sexual violence. The most inspiring work on the Left has usually been led by women of colour, from Sisters Uncut and London Latinx, through to Movement for Justice. The recent Stop Trump demo was called by a broad-church alternative to the SWP and allied front groups. Contrary to Seymour’s descriptions of “the Left,” these groups are neither despondent, nor directionless. To characterise the entire Left as such does grave disservice to the vital organising that women, people of colour and migrants have always led in the face of fascist violence, with little acknowledgement.
To effectively challenge perpetrators and those that excuse sexual violence in Left spaces, they must be publicly questioned by many, as often as possible, to warn others of their violence. As Seymour indicates, backchannel diplomacy has usually failed. Some non-SWP organisers may argue that calls for a boycott are divisive, we must be clear that perpetuating political spaces that put survivors at risk is even more divisive. Some union members and mosque secretaries will question whether it is right to continue to fund/support a political campaign led by someone directly involved in rape cover-up and misogyny. We should support these initiatives and stand in solidarity when they face attack. The leading figures may choose to ignore these dissenters, but that too is a political act.
The problem is systemic, so we should look within our own existing groups and consider what more we can do to protect survivors. We can only effectively challenge sexual violence if entire communities hold abusers to account. If we are to collectively take a stand against structures of violence, we must also train a critical eye on all our political spaces and ensure that survivors are not silenced or harmed within them. This will involve difficult conversations with our comrades, but our politics will never succeed without rigorous self-critique.
Members within Stand Up To Racism have also done vital and important work across the country which makes Weyman Bennett’s involvement all the more harmful. We can, and must, build effective anti-racist movements whilst ferociously denying abusers a chance to organise and lead. There are positive, inclusive anti-racist campaigns across the country against deportations and in defence of migrants, such as Movement For Justice and the Anti-Raids Network. There are specific campaigns to protect migrant rights in schools, healthcare, at work and in housing. We must be resolute in our opposition to abusers, but open to those who previously supported their groups. Prevailing misogyny may still undermine our efforts; the gendered and racial hierarchies of our times may continue to frustrate a movement that seeks to overthrow structures of misogyny and rape apology. Perhaps, but we are willing to risk the fight to make that currently utopian dream a reality. If we are sceptical of defeating systemic violence within the Left then why the fuck would anyone have confidence that we can succeed in changing the world?