by Ian Anderson
On March 12th 2013, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK split, over a crisis triggered when the Central Committee defended a member accused of rape. The Disputes Committee, comprised of colleagues and friends of the accused, had found the case “not proven.” While leading members of the SWP challenged this decision, a Special Conference in March reaffirmed it, leading to around 100 members leaving and forming a new International Socialist Network (http://tinyurl.com/bafj5ya).
This is not an isolated case. In recent years, rape allegations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have divided progressives. Whenever nominally progressive men are accused of sexual violence, it reveals divisions in the groups and communities they’re a part of.
When men are accused of rape, “where’s the evidence?” is a common refrain – as seen in the SWP Disputes Committee verdict of “not proven.” But what evidence or proof should we look for? Forensic, psychological, case-by-case? What is an evidence-based approach to rape and sexual violence?
Our method: From general to particular
In terms of evidence (as a philosophical or epistemological category rather than a judicial term) Marxists proceed from the general to the particular; from knowledge of how society as a whole operates, to a particular problem. We do not ask each worker to prove they are being exploited, because we know how work is organised under capitalism, how profit is taken from the mass of workers. While we seek information on the specifics of a workplace situation, we do that on the basis of a broader analysis. Similarly, our analysis must proceed from knowledge about how gender oppression works.
In order to approach accusations of sexual violence, we must start from the general. We start from analysis of society, how it produces sexual violence, and crucially where we are located in this process. Rather than starting with each case, we should proceed from a general understanding of sexual violence, to particular cases.
In early January 2013, an infographic circulated online concerning rape accusations (Fig 1). Produced by US sexual violence campaign the Enliven Project, the graphic draws on data from the National Crime Victimisation Survey. This graphic implies that most rape claims go unreported, that very few rapists are jailed, and that false accusations are incredibly rare – about 2%.
An article in Slate (http://tinyurl.com/ahn87sm) notes some inaccuracies in the graphic, while agreeing with the core arguments. The graphic actually overestimates false accusations. In a report by the National Centre for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, researchers note that “a perpetrator who is either a stranger or a vaguely described acquaintance” is one realistic indicator of a false report. Therefore false accusations – where a specific perpetrator is named – are even rarer than false reports in general. UK and other studies have shown similar trends (http://tinyurl.com/cjt3v9x).
When women report rape, they face serious consequences. If their case goes to court, they face a re-traumatising process in which they are often blamed for the attack. The SWP Disputes Committee reproduced this shaming in its internal trial process, asking the survivor about her drinking habits.
This is called “rape culture.” Rape culture blames survivors, rather than perpetrators. Rape culture is part of a system which doubly oppresses women; which assumes women’s consent, and relies on women’s unpaid labour (http://tinyurl.com/b6mkzqwz). Women’s oppression and class society are inextricably linked, and you cannot fight one without the other.
Confronted with these realities, SWP Central Committee hacks accuse members of bringing in an alien ideology, “creeping feminism.” However, historical materialist approaches cannot be so ideologically narrow. We draw on the sciences, on climatology and earth sciences, even on pro-capitalist economics. We cannot simply reject observations because they do not fit our current understanding, or come from people we otherwise disagree with.
Socialists and sexual violence claims
Socialists cannot start by questioning the testimony of the oppressed; we understand it in the context of a wider system that demands their silence. An evidence-based, historical materialist approach to sexual violence starts not by questioning the words of survivors, but by questioning the assumption that survivors are lying, when false accusations make up less than 2% of cases.
The SWP has argued for listening to survivors in the past. An article in their paper Socialist Worker argued that Julian Assange should face his charges (http://tinyurl.com/a7b8gh2). Notably, the author of that article resigned when the SWP Central Committee protected the accused in their own ranks (http://tinyurl.com/axh4ln8). Ultimately, the Central Committee prioritised self-preservation over anti-sexist principles.
Rape culture affects every group in class society; socialists, anarchists, students, workers. Fightback is committed to building a revolutionary socialist organisation in Aotearoa/NZ. Rather than pretending we are immune from the problems of class society, we must build structures that counter oppressive ideology. This involves democratic accountability, educating cadre on the challenges of women’s liberation, and listening to survivors.
SWP: Sexism on the left, Daphne Lawless