Saturday 23 March 2013

We Must Embrace Women’s Gains on Responding to Sexual Assault

On My Resignation from the International Socialists of Canada

The crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party raises an important issue of principle for socialists throughout the world. A serious accusation of rape was made by a teenage member of the SWP against a Central Committee leading member of the party in his 40s. How socialists respond to allegations of rape is not a tactical question nor is it the internal affair of a single organization. Internal organizational practices are reflections of principles. Although internal organizational mechanisms may vary, when mechanisms to address violations of principle fail, credibility and capacity to participate in movements against oppression are damaged.
As a nurse working in the emergency department, I regularly have patients who are victims of violence. Furthermore, I have loved ones who were the victims of sexual assault and abuse. I cannot reconcile my fervent wish to build a party for socialism with being associated to a political tendency that has as its most dominant constituent a party that has grossly violated its opposition to the oppression of women. As of March 19, 2013 I have resigned from the Canadian International Socialists for its continued association with the SWP through the International Socialist Tendency.
Rape is a crime that is equivalent to or worse than violent assault. It is a crime that not only has the potential to cause life threatening physical illness; it leaves many emotionally and psychologically damaged. With 90% of rapes unreported in the UK, any allegation should be investigated as a serious crime. Furthermore, according to one SWP member, at the 2011 SWP national convention, after the accused spoke to the meeting, “There had been an attempt by his allies to rally supporters, resulting in some comrades giving him a standing, foot-stamping ovation.” This reaction to accusations of sexual abuse, regardless of guilt, represents gross misogyny and creates a threatening oppressive atmosphere.
The capitalist courts have failed many people. Sexism and racism in our society is systematic and police often brutalize the oppressed. In Vancouver,  where I live, the police failed over sixty women murdered or missing since the 1980's. Many of these women were the victims of racism, sexism and other prejudices that grip our society. I have heard personal testimony of police arresting a young woman who had called 911 accusing her father of beating her.
Historically raped women were often forced into marriage. For hundreds of years it was believed that a pregnant woman could not have been raped because pregnancy required consent. In 1841 the Canadian civil code put the onus on the woman to prove she actively resisted rape. For most of history suspicion was put on the woman and investigation was done into her moral worth and credibility. In Canada, it wasn't until 1983 that spousal immunity to accusations of rape was eliminated. In 1984 a Judge of the Provincial Court of Manitoba said. “Unless you have no worldly experience at all, you'll agree that women occasionally resist at first but later give in to either persuasion or their own instincts”
In North American history, false rape accusations were a major tool of social control used against blacks and other oppressed minorities. “The accusations against persons lynched, according to the Tuskegee Institute records for the years 1882 to 1951, were: 19.2 per cent for rape, 6.1 per cent for attempted rape”. Men using rape as a tool of racist oppression stripped the legitimate right of women for justice against rape by creating a culture of terror. The civil rights movement mobilized millions in the fight against racism. Alex Callinicos raising the specter of “lynch mobs” of angry members if the debate continued after the special convention of the SWP is a violently sexist statement.
Injustices happen to this day, however through the struggle of the feminist movements of the sixties and seventies to those of today some of the grossest injustice has been defeated. the police and courts in many instances protect the vulnerable and bring justice to victims of crime. Bourgeois democracy is a system of contradictions. While recognizing the role of police and courts in enforcing hegemony of the ruling class, it also must be recognized that the mechanisms of society, often fought hard for by activists, can protect individuals against acts of violence and crime.
The reality is, for all the flaws of British law, in 60% of rape cases that go to court the defendant is convicted. This proportion is higher than for some other violent crimes. In many places women have fought hard to change sexist and racist laws and won.  Evidence that consent is absent is no longer defined simply by a statement of “no.” Self-induced intoxication is no longer regarded as consent. In 1991 legislation was passed in Canada in which “complainant's sexual history is rarely relevant to the issues properly to be determined. The focus should be on the event which is the subject matter of the charge.”
Of course there are real limitations to the court system in contemporary society. That is why it is so important that in many cities feminists have fought for and created rape crisis centers. These centers can advocate for women and help mitigate the negative effects of individual police prejudice and reduce difficulties and feelings of isolation when approaching the legal system. Were I work in an emergency department there are specially trained nurses to deal with sexual assault. These nurses are some of the most caring human beings I have met.
The mentality fostered by revolutionary groups of extreme hostility to the police and courts, often resulting from historic police harassment of socialist organizations, creates conditions where victims of abuse by party members are alienated from mechanisms society has created, under intense pressure from the women’s movement, to bring a measure of justice. As socialists we must fight to make the mechanisms of society better, not substitute our organizations for society.
The utopian concept of building organizations that attempt to substitute for society inevitably leads to the formation of cults. I saw this as a member of the Vancouver socialist cult Fire This Time. When those with authority in an organization are only accountable to that organization for criminal behavior, rampant abuse can occur. After a politically motivated assault by one member on another, I witnessed what results when a criminal matter is dealt with as an “internal” issue. At first denial. Next “this is an internal issue” and a refusal to discuss. Then bullying and marginalization of those opposed within the organization. Those outside the organization who expressed criticism of the assault were labeled as slanderers and enemies. Finally an inward turn occurred in which the “line” was parroted so many times it became gospel and critical thought was crushed. The parallels between my brief experience in a cult and the behavior of the SWP leadership are striking.
The only appropriate response of any organization to an accusation of rape is to fully support the woman in accessing services and professional counsel. Furthermore the SWP should have offered full financial and moral support should the woman take the case to court. It should have been made clear, without a shade of gray, that by going to court for such a serious accusation she was honoring the struggle of justice for women and that it would be in the best interests of the SWP.
The fact that friends of the accused were allowed to sit on the dispute committee that held the investigation is completely unacceptable. Moralizing about revolutionary credentials is a sad failure on the part of the SWP to recognize biases. Being a revolutionary does not obviate the responsibility to respect impartiality. Furthermore, the Central Committee of the SWP stated that a trade union would deal with rape accusations in a similar manner. This is false. No trade union would conduct a rape trial.
In recognizing the right for party members to form factions, it is implicit that conversations must be permitted between individuals of similar mind. The SWP central committee's decision to expel four members of the SWP for Facebook conversations is an absurd affront to democracy. Furthermore, the woman making the accusation was refused the right to speak at the 2013 SWP conference.
It would be hard to imagine the SWP having an internal investigation had one member stabbed another. This fact alone shows the organization’s misogyny.
The SWP’s decision to handle the rape accusation through an internal investigation has proven disastrous. Not only has the party trial failed the woman making the accusation; it has led to a split in the organization. There have been mass resignations from the SWP over the handling of rape allegations, in one letter alone over seventy people resigned. Many student sections of the SWP have left the organization. Mainstream media is able to discredit socialism in public opinion because of the act of a small number of socialists. Had the case gone to court, a scandal might have brewed in the tabloids, but the party would have remained defensible. 
 - Ian Beeching
Ian Beeching is a former member of International Socialists–Canada. He lives in Vancouver.


  1. Er..., you might want to rethink that title, comrades.

  2. Ian, I think you present a reasonable analysis of how revolutionary organizations have and should deal with incidents of sexual violence inside an organization. I am also of the belief that the SWP handled this incredibly badly, and your criticisms are pertinent to how we move away from problematic practices.

    That said, I have no idea what this has to do with the Canadian International Socialists whatsoever. The most leading members of the organization are some of the most prominent voices and activists inside the women's movement, people who were at the heart of the movement that won abortion rights in Canada in the 1980s. Ironically, two of your co-signatories were sectarian to that movement and if not for more level and open voices in the organization, the IS would not have played such a prominent role in advancing women's rights in Canada.

    Is it because no letter was written to the SWP expressing concern about what happened? That is fair, and maybe something more vocal should have been expressed. However, I must say one of the worst habits in the International Socialist Tendency (and the SWP is the biggest culprit) is of every organization writing to each other criticizing this and that and not respecting the fact that organizations are entitled to determine their own fate. In the SWP there was and probably still is a large opposition to the decision of the leadership and will hopefully continue to try to win the organization away from its worst habits and expanding the democratic culture of the SWP. That is their struggle and I respect and support them in their efforts. Maybe a letter from the Canadian IS would have helped the opposition, maybe not. That is a debatable point, but we also, as socialists, hold up a principle of self-determination and being interventionist into others affairs is always a questionable practice and I have doubts how productive it would have been.

    At the end of the day, the IS in Canada is not the same organization as the SWP. The IS is not the face of the SWP in Canada. Sister organizations are still autonomous and have different internal practices, analyses of how to intervene in things, and approaches to the movements. If you were a more active member of the IS, which as far as I know you were a member on paper only and never participated in any national convention or attended the Marxism conference (correct me if I am wrong) maybe you would have seen that and realized that sometimes things are not as horrible as others tells you they are.

  3. I have been to two national conventions and two Marxisms. I was one of the leading members in Vancouver, have spoken at numerous IS events and organized the second branch in Vancouver. I have also written numerous articles for canadas Socialist Worker. I agree the IS in Canada is not the SWP, and is a much healthier organization. Many of the members are fabulous activists. I was one of the two that voted for a motion at the national convention for a letter of concern. After the British SWP's special convention I felt the silence of the organization was a violation of principle for me. I still plan to work closely with the IS but I cannot reconcile being a member of an organization that distributes the ISJ, invites SWP speakers to its events and is a member of the IST. The reality of the IST is that the SWP being the most dominant member runs the organization. If it were true that groups were fully autonomous the SWP would not have tried to intervene in the ISO and then expel them from the IST. I did not believe a factional struggle in the IS would have been productive. My hope is that my letter will Influence people in the SWP and move the Canadian IS CC out of silence.

  4. I don't disagree that the SWP has played a role that is overbearing on other groups at times, but two of your signatories benefited from such intervention when they were in a minority position in the IS in the 1980s. They were enthusiastic pushers for the ISO's expulsion from the IST. They only became critical of these practices once they were out and in fact the IS started to make decisions that probably went against the SWPs own perspectives after they were off the leadership. Your portrayal also doesn't fit the whole complexity of the ISO expulsion. The ISO also intervened aggressively in another organization (the Greeks), which was the direct cause of the expulsion. This was not just an instance of the SWP getting its way and having the ISO kicked out of the tendency. A lot of organizations were upset and worried of the precedence that the ISO was setting. I certainly won't claim the SWP was innocent on all this but this was not just an example of one group bullying the other.

    The IST is a pretty loose group and there are all sorts of disagreements between organizations. Sure the SWP probably pushes its weight around but it isn't like they give dictates to the operations of the other groups. To suggest otherwise I think feeds into a caricature that I am sure Paul and Abbie try to portray today (and ironically one they helped make a reality when they were on the steering committee). And as I have suggested elsewhere, if negative organizational practices from the SWP carried down to the IS in Canada, your two co-signatories were large reasons of that happening.

    Questions sense is that many of the debates that need to happen inside the SWP are going to appear in the pages of the ISJ in the next two years (one hopes). Shouldn't we be encouraging exposure to these debates and maybe even participating in them? In that sense I hope the IS continues to distribute the ISJ.

    Question 2: Since this incident has happened, has the IS invited SWP speakers to its events? Obviously we can go to the past examples of such a thing, but I don't think we can look back at these instances and judge them by what we know now. I have a sense that such invitations may not be happening in the near future until the SWP gets its own house in order, but either way to make that one of your reasons of concern doesn't really make sense until it happens.

    Question 3: you think breaking off from the IST would really be helpful? The SWP is only one group. Maybe the strongest and loudest but I also have a feeling their moral leadership inside the tendency has probably suffered after this last incident. If anything the IST may be a more level playing field now and maybe there is opportunities for IS Canada to try to push back through internal structures of the tendency.

    I think this would be much more helpful than resigning from the IS. While I believe that you are being sincere in your reasons to leave (although I still think it is a mistake) I don't share that evaluation for the others who have signed on. They wanted to leave for a long time and have used the shit happening in the UK to make their motives much more pristine than they actually are.

  5. Revolutionary organizations need not conduct formal rape trials. All they can do is determine if a member has violated fundamental socialist principles---one of which is never contributing to the oppression of women and other oppressed groups. Such a violation occurs far before a legally defined rape has taken place. Once it is clear that a violation has occurred, the organization must take it extremely seriously and deal with it appropriately--from education if naïve ignorance was the problem, to warning, to censure to suspension to expulsion. Too many people in this debate have taken the position that if " no rape was proven" then all is well and the accused comrade should be allowed to continue to represent the Party in coalition work. Even if no rape occurred ( and even the disputes committee only said it was "unproven"), this should only be the beginning of the inquiry. Especially in the case of a national leader , a much higher standard should be applied than just resting at " allegation unproven". The fact that this was not the case, shows a fundamental problem with the SWP's approach to women's oppression. It is always easier to fight oppression externally than inside the organization itself. A real test is whether it is confronted and dealt with appropriately internally. It is clear that the SWP failed that test.

    1. Steve,
      Is this the same Steve Leigh from Seattle ISO who posted on an antiwar listserve in 2008 that “We are Marxists and therefore Women’s Liberationists, but since we are not separatists, we are not ‘Feminists.’ ”
      “The goal should be to form integrated struggles for women’s liberation, not to glorify separatism.”
      If you've since changed your attitude towards feminism I'd love to hear it. If not, I wouldn't have much confidence in you having a clue if a woman in your organization was sexually mistreated.
      Such neanderthal attitudes towards feminists/feminism are a big part of the problem facing the SWP in Britain as well.

      Doug Barnes
      Freedom Socialist Party

    2. don't insult Neanderthals by labeling them misogynist!

    3. point well taken, insert "backwards attitudes" instead.

    4. Insults don't advance the debate. In DB's opinion it seems anyone who uses the term " women's liberationist" rather than "Feminist" is someone with " backwards attitudes". Seems like point scoring on semantics. If all Feminism means is " for women's equality or liberation" then of course all real Marxists are Feminists. However , there are various strands of Feminism, some of which Marxists will agree with more than others. " The goal should be to form integrated struggles for women's liberation..." is still true today. It is just as much the responsibility of men as of women to fight for women's liberation---though of course women will be in the lead on this fight. It is the responsibility of Marxists to win as many as possible to the fight for women's liberation and to convince working class men that the liberation of women is a CLASS question, not just a question for women to be concerned with. It is only when the working class as a whole takes up questions of oppression as CENTRAL to the advancement of the working class that we begin to build the unity necessary to overthrow capitalism

    5. Steve, I objected to you equating separatism with feminism. ISO in the past defined feminism as intrinsically reformist and separatist. My question stands, do you believe feminism equals separatism?
      Why is it important? Maybe you were not aware that British SWP leaders called feminists all sorts of names?

      "When a political party fails to engage with, and embrace, a central democratic struggle such as the rise of women on a world scale, the consequences are disastrous, as is shown by what has happened in the SWP. It is especially egregious when the party is Trotskyist, since one of Trotskyism’s core principles is seeking to understand the relationship between the unfinished democratic tasks of our time and the socialist revolution.

      But when it comes to feminism, the top leadership of the SWP has apparently been asleep at the wheel. They seem not to have grasped that the feminist struggles of women and men have shaken the longstanding assumptions of male domination in both domestic and public life. Everything we have seen points to the fact that this failure went hand-in-hand with the emergence of an organizational structure characterized by a bureaucratic method that served to perpetuate a male-dominated internal culture. This insulated the party from the changes that were taking place in the world—in this case the rising of women through three successive waves of the feminist movement rooted in the entrance of women into the world workforce.

      To put it another way, the failure of an organization like the SWP to appreciate the importance of feminism programmatically creates a fertile soil for the sort of sexist culture in a left party that perpetuates and defends itself just as does any patriarchal and bureaucratic institution of capitalism.

      What has happened to the SWP over the last several months shows conclusively that a revolutionary party will rise or fall to the degree that it addresses the key political issues of its time. In this case, the issue is the right of all women to be free of sexual violence and harassment. The inability of SWP leaders to deal with this issue compassionately, democratically, and with an understanding of the corrupting qualities of male privilege is a leadership failure of profound proportions."
      (excerpt from Freedom Socialist party statement: Feminism and the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party.)

  6. What if "Comrade Delta" is innocent of the charges? Has anybody thought about that?

    1. The point is that the SWP was not competent to decide, and now any evidence there might have been has been corrupted. You certainly don't get a bunch of the accused mates to decide. Not even the bourgeois 'justice' system is that stupid.

      But, as has been pointed out many times, as socialists we begin by believing the woman, and work from there.

      That is the line taken even in Socialist Worker -- but, in every case other than this.

    2. For the rape allegation even to get to the DC, one of three things must have happened:

      1 - rape was committed
      2 - some dodgy and abusive conduct took place, none of which could ultimately be strictly defined as rape
      3 - nothing untoward went on and W completely made the whole thing up

      None of us know whether what happened was 1, but for Delta to be exonerated as the CC would apparently like we'd have to believe it was 3. I don't find that remotely credible, particularly given the obvious inappropriateness of the procedure used to determine Delta's innocence.

    3. Yeah I think a lot of people thought about that.

      Speaking for myself, as I know comrades' opinions vary on this point, whether or not W was innocent had sweet FA to do with my decision to leave the party; the utterly abysmal response of the CC to a serious allegation of rape was PLENTY to be going on with.

    4. I am sure the SWP CC did. I assume this is why they put in place a process that would ensure their preferred verdict.