Trigger warning for trauma survivors
With a political backdrop of horrific rapes in India and Ohio, and the unfolding coverup of British entertainer Jimmy Savile’s decades of raping and molesting minors, Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity blog published the 27-page transcript of the British Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) internal debate surrounding its Disputes Committee report that found that rape, harassment, and abuse charges against ousted Central Committee (CC) member Martin Smith to be “not proven.” This report was accepted by a razor-thin margin of 231 votes for, 209 votes against, and 18 abstentions.
Of course, you won’t find a hint of this in the Socialist Worker report on the annual party conference, the SWP’s highest decision-making body. Instead, we find a glowing report about the SWP’s role in fighting women’s oppression and news that the expulsion of four members for the crime of having “a closed Facebook conversation” (as the CC described it) has been ratified.
However, it is impossible for “Leninist” groups to conduct trials, purges, and expulsions in secret in the age of the internet. The way this scandal has unfolded in the SWP over the past few months bears an uncanny resemblance to the events in Steubenville, Ohio, in the following ways: conflicts of interest seriously undermined due process, leaks by anonymous (both lower case and upper case A) undermined attempts to keep things hush-hush and swept under the rug, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) has created new evidentiary and political battlegrounds.
The Disputes Committee debate transcript deserves to be read in its entirety by anyone who considers themselves a socialist or a feminist. Whether or not Smith (referred to as “Comrade Delta” in the documents) is guilty as charged is not the key issue, and the debate transcript reveals that both opponents and supporters of the “not proven” verdict sincerely believe that they are upholding their party’s commitment to fighting women’s oppression. However, as Marx explained: “We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh.”
In other words, the subjective sincerity of the parties involved has nothing to do with the fatally flawed pseudo-judicial processes, practices, and methods applied by the SWP in this instance.
The following flaws and errors stand out:
1. The first and biggest problem was the following admission by “Candy” of the Disputes Committee:
“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.”
Investigating and taking action against criminal or violent behavior by a member of any organization is best left to the actually existing bourgeois state, at least from the point of view of the victim or alleged victim, the admonition from “Sara B” that “[w]e have no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice” notwithstanding. Anything less guarantees that due process will be denied thanks to “amateur hour,” as inexperienced and unprofessional would-be revolutionaries mimic the bourgeois state’s mechanisms of judge and jury but without the power to detain, arrest, subpoena, and thoroughly investigate forensic evidence. Worse yet, incidents like this open the party up to criminal investigation by the capitalist state which does not take a positive view of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and tainting witnesses and evidence.
Anyone guilty of rape should be behind bars, not simply removed from the CC or the party.
Occupy Wall Street tried to handle similar issues internally without involving the New York Police Department and failed miserably, eventually adopting an admittedly flawed approach once they realized dealing with rapes and sexual assaults requires rape kits, counseling, and legal authority to protect victims and/or apprehend suspects.
Victims of sexual assault, burglary, and similar offenses are not betraying any revolutionary principle by calling the cops. That the female who made these allegations chose to handle it internally rather than going to the proper place — a law court — is testament to the powerful, unhealthy emotional attachment of members to their party, an attachment that gives rise to such profound groupthink that those outside the ranks view it as cult-like.
2. The second problem was the Disputes Committee’s inherent bias. Despite their loud and frequent declamations that they truly, honestly, and really were not biased towards Smith whom they “had worked incredibly closely with” and against a woman they practically never heard of, these comrades are apparently unfamiliar with unconscious bias. Again, the sincerity of these statements and reassurances is beyond a doubt, but that does not necessarily make them true.
The reason lawyers in the U.S. can eliminate jurors from a jury pool in criminal cases is precisely to guard against the problem of unconscious or hidden biases. Hardly any potential juror will say “I hate Blacks” or “all criminals deserve to be executed,” so lawyers have to eliminate jurors who privately think and feel this way but would never be so stupid as to admit it publicly.
Candy of the Disputes Committee even admitted that it was impossible to create a truly unbiased body in this situation:
“To be honest comrades, I don’t believe you could have another panel of people who didn’t know Comrade Delta better than they knew that woman.”
3. The Disputes Committee’s bias became exposed in practice when they asked the woman who brought the complaint “about past and subsequent sexual relationships” according to “Viv.” These comrades threw hypocritical and patriarchal bourgeois morality towards alleged rape victims out the door only to have it re-enter through the window. “Sadia” elaborated:
“She was questioned about why she went for a drink with him, her witnesses were repeatedly asked whether she’d been in a relationship with him, and you know, she was asked about (Karen begins to talk over Sadia to warn about providing details) [sic] … she was asked about relationships with other comrades including sexual relationships.”
Worse yet according to “Viv”:
[O]ne of the most distressing things for her was that she was expected to respond immediately to the evidence that Comrade Delta was able to bring – she never got to see it in advance. He had her statement for weeks before she appeared in front of the panel. Some of the issues that were raised were things she had blocked out, and it was an incredibly traumatic experience for her.
The Disputes Committee’s response to this complaint was, “he didn’t actually provide evidence in advance and that’s why they didn’t, why W didn’t see it.” So the accused knew weeks in advance how to prepare himself and his defense from his accuser but his accuser was expected to respond immediately to that defense.
How is that for revolutionary justice?
When a second woman (“X”, a former district organizer) brought forth a similar complaint against the accused, it was treated in much the same way (he saw the evidence in advance, she was questioned about her drinking habits, and she was removed from her job in the party’s office). The Disputes Committee excused its inexcusable behavior under the following pretext:
we’d asked her whether she wanted to make a formal complaint, and we’d made it clear to her that she had every right to do so. And at that point in time she did not want to make a formal complaint. Therefore we only listened to her testimony in regard to whether it changed our point of view on the original investigation.
The fact that similar incidents happened with two different women strongly indicates a pattern, an underlying systemic problem with the way the SWP is set up internally to deal with these issues.
4. The Disputes Committee in its entirety, including Pat Stack who was the lone dissident who felt “uneasy” about the question of sexual harassment, never denied the substance of the complaints about how the investigation was handled. Instead, they justified their actions using subjective and flimsy excuses based on their good intentions and revolutionary morality.
5. A proposal by 30 members that “included some very very basic things” like “comrades who bring a complaint of serious sexual misconduct should be supported, should be kept informed and not be questioned on their sexual history” were barred (presumably by the CC) from distributing this proposal.
So in the SWP, you can expect to be expelled for comments on Facebook while rape/sexual harassment charges against someone who is high up in the party will not be investigated with anything remotely approaching impartiality or due process, much less empathy.