Update: The same day that I wrote this, Comrade X (one of the sexual assault survivors) resigned from the SWP and wrote about it here. It sheds more light on the horrendous activities of the SWP.
The take-home message of the recent anti-privatisation protests at Sussex and the #copsoffcampus demos in London has been “solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” “Solidarity” is an action, not an empty utterance. It means you stand with me, even when it is easier not to. It means those who stand against us will have to put up a fight. It means you see my anger and don’t turn away, but listen and learn.
The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have in recent months been revealed to be a pit of misogyny, rape cover-ups and apologism. You can find a summary of events here (content note: sexual violence, victim-blaming) and a testimony from one of the survivors here (content note applies here too).
It’s important to note that the survivor’s express wishes are that we no longer organise with the SWP, a request that decent people should respect. Rape and the silencing of rape survivors has been a central concern of the feminist movements for decades; we live in a society which condemns rape in theory, but in practice blames the victim, makes it traumatic to report assault, denies rape’s position as a form of gender-based violence and, as we’ve seen in the SWP’s case, has more concerns about the alleged rapist than the victim.
This must also be put in context of misogyny and sexism within the Left; the second-wave of feminism started in the 196os partly because women were sick of being involved in lefty organising and being treated like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, this legacy of ignoring feminist issues has continued in many activists circles (I and some other members of the Brighton Feminist Collective ran a workshop only this year on sexism on the Left; you should have heard some of the women’s stories).
Creeps off campus
The upshot of the revelations about the SWP has created some division. Members have left in droves, and many have vowed never to orgnaise with the SWP again. Others have decided to stay in the party, and try to change the culture from the inside. Some have decided they don’t give a shit about it and are happily defending their rape apologist mates.
And so we return to events on Sussex campus. At the most recent protests against privatisation (and against the suspension of 5 students involved in the campaign), the SWP presence was very visible. The group’s modus operandi has always been to arrive at any lefty protest with hundreds of SWP-stamped placards, their ubiquitous newspapers and usually a stall; you’ll see their signs in photographs of any protest from the student marches of 2010 to Slutwalks in cities across the UK.
This used to be merely annoying; now, it is utterly sickening. The presence of SWP members is one thing – you can’t tell who’s a swuppie just by looking at them. I have my opinions about people who have stayed in the party, but realise some are genuinely trying to change the culture from within. However, the visible presence of the signs and stalls, the merchandise being hawked around and literally shoved in your face is un-fucking-acceptable. If you’re still an SWP member, you answer to your conscience, but at least have the decency to be slightly embarrassed and not proudly display your allegiance to rape apologists. 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 12 men. Rape survivors are at these protests, and they deserve to feel safe, believed and able to take part in the campaign.
Arriving at the most recent protest, I felt punched in the stomach when I saw the SWP stall outside the library. My heart was beating double-time, I felt sick, I could barely concentrate on the speeches. I felt like crying, because I knew I couldn’t stand there without confronting someone, and I felt scared. Then, there was an almighty crash from behind me; someone had knocked the SWP stall over, ripped up their placards, and splashed their papers with water. The people who were brave enough to do this have tweeted and blogged about it; my contribution was to shout in response to an SWP member who called them sectarian, “it’s not sectarian to stand against fucking rape apologists.” It’s the small things.
The politics of trashing stalls
Is it OK to upturn a stall, rip up placards, aggressively confront people in this way? I know that many in the anti-privatisation campaign think not. I would remind them of the techniques their own campaign has employed. Remember the people who said occupying a building was too far? Who said ‘why don’t you just talk to management instead’? Who could only focus on a smashed-in door rather than your message? If you can, you should also remember your reply. When democratic channels break down, when people refuse to listen to the people being fucked over, it’s not only right but necessary for direct action. It’s absurd to focus on a smashed-in door, a burnt-out bin or a knocked over stall rather than the angry and righteous message being conveyed.
I have heard people try to talk about the necessity of chucking the SWP off campus, and I have heard them being ignored and shut down. A woman behind me at a recent Sussex protest defended the SWP by saying, ‘it was only one member’ who was raped. How many rapes, cover-ups and angry confrontations will it take?
A final consideration: the sexual violence and cover-up is not only the actions of a few people who happen to be in the SWP. This is an institutional problem. A large group of people ostensibly in charge of resolving ‘disputes’ within the party put a rape survivor on trial in a kangeroo court. The SWP recently had their annual conference; the pre-conference bulletin contained a long rape-apologist screed (pp. 5-11) and instructions to recruit young students who are less likely to be aware of the recent rape cover-ups (p. 81). There are also reports that during the conference, a member expressed the view that because women lie about rape, the SWP’s actions were completely justified.
What we should do
We need to keep the pressure up. The more voices are raised against the SWP’s visible presence on campus and at protests, the quicker we can shut them down.
If you feel you can, verbally confront those giving out SWP merchandise, and those accepting it. This shouldn’t be our job, and goodness knows I rarely have the mental energy or courage to do it alone, but if you can, do.
If you see someone confronting SWP members, back them up. Even if it’s only shouting encouragement, or talking to them afterwards and letting them know you’re on their side.
Write, tweet and blog about it.
For those of you involved in the anti-privatisation campaign or Occupy Sussex, hear your own words. “Solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” When the word “solidarity” slips out of the mouth of an SWP supporter, it’s like a knife in the back of women, feminists, and rape survivors. It tells us you don’t understand what solidarity means. It shows us you’ll let us have some justice, but only after your revolution.
You have an SWP problem in your ranks. And we’re going to do something about it.
Kill the SWP inside your head – Another Angry Woman
Rape Culture – Geek Feminism Wiki
“The politics of the SWP crisis – a response – International Socialism
SWP off campus – Autonomous Student Network Sussex
An infestation of SWP leeches – Revolting Pleb
UPDATE: Socialist Feminist in the comments noted that the Socialist Party are also having a misogyny problem, revolving around a domestic violence case. You can read about it here: The left and women’s rights: Why the cases of Steve Hedley is as serious as the case of Martin Smith – Women’s Fightback