Democratic centralist organisations are not rape cults waiting to happen. A response to Nick Cohen’s opportunistic red baiting.
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I am not a member of the SWP. Nor do I have any interest in defending the leadership over its handling of issues surrounding the recently highlighted rape allegation. However, Nick Cohen’s flabby attempt, in today’s Observer, to smear the entirety of the far left – his claim that the far left’s political culture is perculiarly conducive to abuse and cover ups - demands a response.
“The far left cannot face up to rape” writes Cohen. Moreover, the way in which far left parties are structured means that they “always” have “the potential to become a rapist’s playground”. It is his right make such assertions. Yet what is striking is the shabby basis upon which he substantiates such claims. In particular he quotes left wing activist Anna Chen as telling him:
“I was struck by how sexless and ugly the leading men in the SWP were. But they always had women. If you slept with one of them, they promoted you. It was as basic as that.”
In other words: These men had girlfriends, but they didn’t meet my beauty standards, therefore they were probably abusing their position to get laid. This, I am afraid, is low grade speculation masquerading as whistle blowing. “How did HE get with HER?!” is a sentiment that is more appropriate to the secondary school canteen, than it is to serious political journalism. It is also a sentiment that bears little relationship to socialism and feminism.
No reasonable person would deny that the far left has problems with sexism and mysoginy. After all, our organisations do not exist on some immaterial plain, but recruit from, and are embedded within, a sexist, patriarchal society. And these social facts are not simply negated by people reading the works of Karl Marx and Alexandra Kollontai. Yet there is a paucity of evidence to support Cohen’s claim that the far left, as a whole, is perculiarly oriented towards covering up rape. Along with the current controversy in the SWP, the other example he is able to offer us is that of the WRP – whose leader Gerry Healey was shamefully allowed to get away with raping female members. This of course, was a controversy that blew up nearly three decades ago. I say this, not to negate the seriousness of what happened, but simply to draw attention to the fact over the many preceedings decades, there has never been any suggestion or accusation of such cover ups in the vast majority of far left organisations.
This is not to suggest that we on the far left do not need to take a long hard look at ourselves, or that we should be in any way content with the idea that we are no worse than society at large. However we do need to stand up against the pernicious idea that women who make serious political commitments to disciplined political organisations are half way up the road to victimhood – or that organisations organised on the basis of democratic centralism are, by definition, potential rape cults. Yes some organisations are more authoritarian than others. Yet unlike, say, the bosses of private firms – a social institution that the likes of Cohen readily supports – the leaders of left wing parties do not generally possess the capacity to strip lower ranking members of the ability to keep a roof over their head.
Of course we need to engage in a long and self-critical conversation. But tabloidesque red baiters like Nick Cohen have nothing to offer either the men or women in those organisations that are fighting for a socialist society.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org