Here’s something you won’t often read at Shiraz or hear from me: I recommend you to buy this week’s New Statesman.
Perhaps intended to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, the current issue carries two articles on anti-Semitism: Anthony Clavane on anti-Semitism and the left, and Andrew Hussey on Dieudonné and the re-emergence of the “negationist” tradition in French politics. Both are very informative and well-argued pieces, but their real significance is that they appear in the New Statesman at all. In recent years the magazine’s anti-Zionism has often taken on a strident tone and in the case of regular contributor John Pilger, veered dangerously close to outright anti-Semitism. And, of course, back in 2002, under then-editor Peter Wilby, the magazine brought out its infamous “A kosher conspiracy” edition. An apology was eventually extracted from an initially defiant Wilby, but the wretched man continues to contribute a regular column.
The present issue is not yet available online, so I’m reproducing an excerpt from Clavane’s piece, including a reference to the “A kosher conspiracy” row:
Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist … a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood-libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.
“The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and…have now taken over the country.”
As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “this is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory that believes Jews pull all the strings.”
“We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “we have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”
As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column in the Guardian and a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.
“On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism
“The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”
Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus £6.99)
The present issue of the New Statesman carries a quite extraordinary example of special pleading and exaggerated claims of victimhood from the Catholic journalist and apologist Cristina Odone.
The starting-point for her long-winded whinge is the fact that a Christian organisation had difficulty finding a venue in London willing to accept a booking for a conference entitled “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society.” Both the Law Society and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre cited their respective diversity policies as the reason for their refusals. Annoying for the organisers, undoubtedly. Excessive? Perhaps. But evidence of persecution (Odone doesn’t use that word, by the way, but it’s quite clearly what she means)? Don’t make me laugh.
If you can’t be arsed to follow the link above, here’s a representative taste of Odone’s pathetic bleating:
“Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.
“Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence.
“I believe that religious liberty is meaningless if religious subcultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs. These views – for example, on abortion, adoption, divorce, marriage, promiscuity and euthanasia – may be unfashionable. They certainly will strike many liberal-minded outsiders as harsh, impractical, outmoded, and irrelevant.
“But that is not the point. Adherents of these beliefs should not face life-ruining disadvantages. They should not have to close their businesses, as happened to the Christian couple who said only married heterosexual couples could stay at their bed and breakfast. They should not lose their jobs, which was the case of the registrar who refused to marry gays. When Britain was fighting for its life in the Second World War, it never forced pacifists to bear arms. So why force the closure of a Catholic adoption agency that for almost 150 years has placed some of society’s most vulnerable children with loving parents?”
You’d never guess, would you, that religious belief is given special protection under UK law (Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, and the Employment Equality [Religion and Belief] Regulations 2003) in a way that, for instance, atheism is not. In fact, Zoe Williams, writing in today’s Graun, makes the point that atheists in Britain (and elsewhere) tend to lack the status and advantages taken for granted by the religious. She suggests an explanation that might help explain Odone’s shrill and self-righteous exercise in self-pity: “This systematic civil exclusion, I think, has rather shallow roots – not in a prejudice against the faithless, but in the loam of human politeness, where groups are accorded attention, respect and sensitivity in proportion to how much they will complain if they don’t get it. Something to think about heathens: maybe we are simply not complaining enough.”
Of course, there are many places in the world where religious people do suffer persecution - often by adherents of other religions. But nothing remotely like that happens in the UK, and anyone who suggests it does is either living in a paranoid fantasy world, or conducting a cynical exercise in bare-faced cheek. I’m not sure which category applies to Odone, but I’m damn sure one or the other does. Or maybe both.
Having watched, pondered and re-watched Paxman’s interview with comedian Russell Brand on last night’s Newsnight, I’m still not sure what to make of it. My initial response was that Brand is a pretentious, incoherent idiot, spouting a lot of pseudo-revolutionary hot air and half-digested anarchistic platitudes. But several people I’ve spoken to today told me they were impressed by him. So I’ve watched it again and have to admit that, after a facetious start, he becomes more sympathetic as he gets angrier. But I still think he’s a prat – and a banal prat at that – and wonder what the hell the New Statesman is playing at, hiring him as a guest editor this week.
Judge for yourself…
…and feel free to let us know what you think.
This Daily Mail on Milliband business has certainly brought people together. From Tariq Ali to David Cameron they all agree that the Daily Mail was obnoxious, hateful, wrong, and every other derogatory adjective in its attack on Ed Milliband’s father.
Mehdi Hasan’s diatribe against the Daily Mail on Question Time has gone viral.
I’m no great fan of Mehdi Hasan and have wondered why such an ultra-religious bloke got the Senior Editor (Politics) gig at the New Statesman, but I was applauding this:-
Let’s have the debate about who hates Britain more, it isn’t a dead Jewish refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy, it’s the immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting Daily Mail.
Good for him.
The Daily Mail has fought back very dirty. It has now leaked a letter from Mehdi Hasan to the editor of the Daily Mail requesting a column, and presenting himself as being in tune with the Mail’s ethos:-
- that the “Mail had a vitally important part to play in national debate” [I suppose all forms of bigotry should appear in national debate - it's only fair]:
- that he admires Paul Dacre’s relentless focus on the need for morality and integrity in public life;
- that he was more in tune with the Mail than the left on “social and moral issues”;
- that he will make the left wing case against abortions;
- that he admires the Mail’s social conservatism on marriage, the family, abortion and teenage pregnancy;
It’s no surprise that a religious fellow like Hasan should be socially conservative. It’s easy enough to imagine a socially conservative Catholic with leftish views on economics and foreign policy. Hasan didn’t say that he’d write about cellulite, women getting fat and dodgy foreigners, and if hired, might have given the Mail’s readership a more positive spin on immigration. But what the hell was he doing at the New Statesman?
(Yuk, this link is to the repulsive Guy Fawkes, but Mehdi praises Dacre’s “outspoken defence of faith, and Christian culture, in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists.”
Militant – for atheists like Richard Dawkins – means outspoken and rude.
Militant – for theocrats – means mowing down children in a shopping centre.
Above: Charles Lindbergh puts the Stop The War case for non-intervention in WW2
BBC Radio 4′s ‘Any Questions’ is a pretty reliable barometer of middle-England, middle class opinion. These days, anyone on the panel who denounces intervention of any kind in overseas conflicts, can be guaranteed a big round of applause, regardless of whether the speaker is from the isolationist right or the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.
This week’s programme, inevitably, included a question about Syria, and the panel was unanimous in opposing the idea of arming the opposition, to the obvious approval of the audience. Right wing Tory isolationist Daniel Hannan put the non-intervention case most succinctly when he said “It’s not our business… in Syria we have no connections …we have no particular interest.”
Smug, shallow leftist commentator Mehdi Hasan (New Statesman and Huffington Post) chimed in with his familiar, sanctimonious riff along the lines of one sides’s as bad as the other … both sides have been accused of using chemical weapons … sending the rebels weapons or imposing a no-fly zone will just make matters worse…etc. etc…
Hannon, who made it clear that he agreed with Hasan’s isolationist conclusions, was honest enough to chip in with the following:
“A one-sided arms embargo is a form of intervention, as it was in Bosnia, as it was in the Spanish Civil War. If you’re allowing one side free access to global weaponry and denying the other [weapons] then you are in practice intervening.”
An important point, that the isolationist movement of both left and right rarely acknowledge. The assumption, all too often, is that only military intervention costs lives, while staying out of it saves lives. Patent nonsense, once you think about it, but that’s the presumption upon which people like the so-called Stop The War Coalition and their media stooges, expect us to accept their case.
Hopi Sen puts the contrary view very well in a recent piece on the cost of non-intervention in Syria:
The last decade has been a steady retreat from intervention.
We know why. We saw the terrible costs of intervention first hand, while the deaths of the Marsh Arabs, the repression of the Kurds, the brutality of Saddam’s regime (and yes, our real-politik driven complicity in that regime) were somehow forgotten. We even managed to forget that the cost of containment was a society trapped by sanctions, a price worth paying for the containment of a regime we did not wish to overthrow.
Yet now, in Syria, we also see the price of inaction.
I make the following comparison not to compare the loss, or the war, or the justice of either, but to compare our reaction to each.
The rate of violent death in Syria is already more than double that in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. Around 170,000 have died in Iraq in the decade since the war. More than half that are dead in Syria already, and the violent deaths are increasing rapidly. Where is the outrage of the humanitarian left? Where are the marches and the vigils? The petitions and the disbelief? Where are the Anti-War Marches?
Further, doing nothing has increased regional instability. Already Hizbollah are killing Syrian rebels, with who knows what consequences for Lebanon. Israel is both nervous of Islamism and of an unstable Syrian government. Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan are having to cope with some one and a half million refugees.
These are the results of the policy we chose.
Would things have been better if we had intervened directly? Would the slaughter have been less with a No Fly zone, or airstrikes on Syrian forces mounting aggression, or if we had supported secular, moderate rebels early? Would things have been better if we had even made it clear to Russia that there was some action that we would not tolerate?
That I can’t know, just as I cannot know what would have happened in Iraq this past decade if Saddam had been left to imprison and murder his people under a sanctions regime that killed innocent civilians in order to constrain their torturers.
No-one can really know “what if“.
The awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs, and those who decide between them cannot ever truly know what will result. Some forgot that in the last decade, choosing to believe that only intervention could have a terrible price. I don’t forget the reverse now.
Just because the policy we have pursued has become a catastrophe does not mean the policy was undoubtedly and obviously wrong.
But by God, I wish we felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria.
(Read the full article here)
Those fearless, insightful people who dare break with the establishment consensus and put forward the only real explanation for terrorism – ‘blowback’ – are rarely heard, such is the conspiracy of silence and denial they’re up against. Very occasionally, the wall of silence is breached and their profound thoughts on the subject get published . Here, here, here here and here for instance.
But even at the New Statesman, which published Mehdi Hasan’s courageous and groundbreaking article ‘Extremists point to western foreign policy to explain their acts, Why do we ignore them? the carping voices of denial are to be heard. On the letters page this week, one Simon Jarrett of Harrow, writes:
If Mehdi Hasan were to follow his own logic, he would now be poring through the 180,000-word rant against multiculturalism written by Anders Behring Breivik, trying to find points of compromise on immigration and cultural mixing that would reduce the future possibility of such acts as the killing of 77 Norwegians. Breivik, like the two murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, was a fascist “performing” terrorist murder as “political communication by other means.”
Meanwhile at the New Statesman blog, even someone who agrees with Mehdi about foreign policy, thinks there might just be a little bit more to it all…
Matt Hill, writing at the New Statesman website, makes some very interesting comments on the Hawking “boycott” and the BDS movement in general. It’s well worth reading the entire article, but this section is especially telling:
The problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear – and, as a result, it risks being counterproductive. In his letter to the conference’s organisers, Hawking wrote about his concerns about “prospects for a peace settlement”, saying that “the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster”. But Israel’s supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state’s right to exist.
It’s true that Israel’s supporters throw the word ‘delegitimisation‘ around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn’t have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel’s existence. Don’t take my word for it. Norman Finkelstein, the heroic pro-Palestinian author and activist, recently launched a blistering attack on the BDS movement, telling an interviewer: “[The Israelis] say ‘They’re not talking about rights. They want to destroy Israel.’ And in fact, I think they’re right. . . . There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.”
And just in case any readers haven’t yet seen the clip of Finkelstein (someone this blog would not describe as “heroic”) accusing the BDS movement of fundamental dishonesty about Israel, here it is:
Like many readers of this blog, I was there on 15 February 2003, and I’ve never had cause to regret it. But I don’t share the self-righteous preening of tyrant-lovers like Andrew Murray, nor the slightly more forgivable solipsism of Laurie Penny (who at least has -or had- the excuse of youth). Even at the time, I was sickened by the refusal of the SWP, Galloway, Murray, etc to address the human rights issues and their systematic, deliberate, whitewashing of Saddam (Galloway, of course, being the most grovelling and egregious Saddam fan). A little later, their support for the fascistic gangs who were murdering Iraqi trade unionists alienated me once and for all. The subsequent degeneration of the Stop The War Coalition into a shrivelled Westphalian excuse-machine for vicious dictators and tyrants everywhere has only served to confirm my worst expectations.
Ian Taylor, an unrepentant marcher and anti-war campaigner, puts his finger (in the present issue of the New Statesman – no link presently available) on the central weakness of the ‘line’ of the SWP/Galloway leadership at the time, though he naively puts it down to a lack of political imagination rather than a lack of political will:
“In my opinion, what we needed more than anything else was an answer to the dilemma of what should have been done about Saddam Hussein and the appalling human rights abuses that were undoubtably that were undoubtably going on inside Iraq. Questions about this came up a great deal at public meetings, when leafletting the high street and in letters to local and national newspapers from supporters of the war. When asked about Iraq now, Blair always plays this card because he knows that opponents of the war don’t have an answer to it. If being on the left means anything, it ought to mean standing up for the oppressed. It shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of those speaking for the movement to have woven an answer to the problems of human rights abuses by non-western regimes into the fabric of their anti-imperialist principles. My view is that, just as we had weapons inspectors in Iraq, we should also have had human rights inspectors there. That would have done a lot to wrong-foot Blair et al.”
I can remember stumbling across the following searingly honest ’Letter to an unknown Iraqi’ that pretty much summed up my own feelings at the time. I circulated it on the local Stop The War email list, where it didn’t go down terribly well as I recall:
The Urge to Help; The Obligation Not To
By Ariel Dorfman (February 28, 2003)
I do not know your name, and that is already significant. Are you one of the thousands upon thousands who survived Saddam Hussein’s chambers of torture, did you see the genitals of one of your sons crushed to punish you, to make you cooperate? Are you a member of a family that has to live with the father who returned, silent and broken, from that inferno, the mother who must remember each morning the daughter taken one night by security forces, and who may or may not still be alive? Are you one of the Kurds gassed in the north of Iraq, an Arab from the south displaced from his home, a Shiite clergyman ruthlessly persecuted by the Baath Party, a communist who has been fighting the dictatorship for long decades?
Whoever you are, faceless and suffering, you have been waiting many years for the reign of terror to end. And now, at last, you can see fast approaching the moment you have been praying for, even if you oppose and fear the American invasion that will inevitably kill so many Iraqis and devastate your land: the moment when the dictator who has built himself lavish palaces, the man who praises Hitler and Stalin and promises to emulate them, may well be forced out of power.
What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Can those countless human rights activists who, a few years ago, celebrated the trial in London of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet as a victory for all the victims on this Earth, now deny the world the joy of seeing the strongman of Iraq indicted and tried for crimes against humanity?
It is not fortuitous that I have brought the redoubtable Pinochet into the picture.
As a Chilean who fought against the general’s pervasive terror for 17 years, I can understand the needs, the anguish, the urgency, of those Iraqis inside and outside their homeland who cannot wait, cannot accept any further delay, silently howl for deliverance. I have seen how Chile still suffers from Pinochet’s legacy, 13 years after he left power, and can therefore comprehend how every week that passes with the despot in power poisons your collective fate.
Such sympathy for your cause does not exempt me, however, from asking a crucial question: Is that suffering sufficient to justify intervention from an outside power, a suffering that has been cited as a secondary but compelling reason for an invasion?
Despite having spent most of my life as a firm anti-interventionist, protesting American aggression in Latin America and Asia, and Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, during the 1990s I gradually came to believe that there might be occasions when incursions by a foreign power could indeed be warranted. I reluctantly agreed with the 1994 American expedition to Haiti to return to power the legally elected president of that republic; I was appalled at the lack of response from the international community to the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda; I applauded the Australian intervention to stop the massacres in East Timor; and, regarding Kosovo, though I would have preferred the military action to have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations, I eventually came to the agonizing conclusion that ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale could not be tolerated.
I am afraid that none of these cases applies to Iraq. For starters, there is no guarantee that this military adventure will, in fact, lead to a “regime change,” or peace and stability for your region.
Unfortunately, also, the present affliction of your men and women and children must be horribly, perversely, weighed against the impending casualties and enormous losses that the American campaign will surely cause. In the balance are not only the dead and mutilated of Iraq (and who knows how many from the invading force), but the very real possibility that such an act of preemptive, world-destabilizing aggression could spin out of control and lead to other despots preemptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon. Not to mention how such an action seems destined to recruit even more fanatics for the terrorist groups who are salivating at the prospect of an American invasion. And if we add to this that I am unconvinced that your dictator has sufficient weapons of mass destruction to truly pose a threat to other countries (or ties to criminal groups who could use them for terror), I have to say no to war.
It is not easy for me to write these words.
I write, after all, from the comfort and safety of my own life. I write to you in the knowledge that I never did very much for the Iraqi resistance, hardly registered you and your needs, sent a couple of free books to libraries and academics in Baghdad who asked for them, answered one, maybe two, letters from Iraqi women who had been tortured and had found some solace in my plays. I write to you harboring the suspicion that if I had cared more, if we all had, there might not be a tyrant today in Iraq. I write to you knowing that there is no chance that the American government might redirect to a flood of people like you the $200 billion, $300 billion this war would initially cost, no real interest from those who would supposedly liberate you to instead spend that enormous amount of money helping to build a democratic alternative inside your country.
But I also write to you knowing this: If I had been approached, say in the year 1975, when Pinochet was at the height of his murderous spree in Chile, by an emissary of the American government proposing that the United States, the very country which had put our strongman in power, use military force to overthrow the dictatorship, I believe that my answer would have been, I hope it would have been: No, thank you. We must deal with this monster by ourselves.
I was never given that chance, of course: The Americans would never have wanted to rid themselves, in the midst of the Cold War, of such an obsequious client, just as they did not try to eject Saddam Hussein 20 years ago, when he was even more repressive. Rather, they supported him as a bulwark against militant Iran.
But this exercise in political science fiction (invade Chile to depose Pinochet?) at least allows me to share in the agony created by my own opposition to this war, forces me to recognize the pain that is being endured at this very moment in some house in Basra, some basement in Baghdad, some school in Tarmiyah. Even if I can do nothing to stop those government thugs in Iraq coming to arrest you again today, coming for you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, knocking once more at your door.
Heaven help me, I am saying that if I had been given a chance years ago to spare the lives of so many of my dearest friends, given the chance to end my exile and alleviate the grief of millions of my fellow citizens, I would have rejected it if the price we would have had to pay was clusters of bombs killing the innocent, if the price was years of foreign occupation, if the price was the loss of control over our own destiny.
Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children.
We have deliberately refrained from commenting on this most serious matter until now, mainly because of lack of first-hand information and a reluctance (unlike, for instance, Socialist Unity) to engage in tittle-tattle. However, journalist Laurie Penny, on the New Statesman website, has now placed the matter very much in the public domain. By republishing her article we do not mean to endorse everything she (or ‘celebrity member’ China Mieville) say/write: here’s what she’s written:
What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?
When it comes to sexual violence, why should progressive organisations be held to different standards?
How do we deal with sexual violence on the left? Here’s a case study.
The Socialist Workers’ Party, for those who aren’t familiar with it already, is a political organisation of several thousand members which has been a prominent force on the British left for more than 30 years. They are at the forefront of the fight against street fascism in Britain, were a large organising presence in the student and trade union movement over the past several years, and are affiliated with large, active parties in other countries, like Germany’s Die Linke. Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members.
Like many others on the left in Britain, I’ve had my disagreements with the SWP, but I’ve also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter. And it matters that right now, the party is exploding in messy shards because of a debate about sexism, sexual violence and wider issues of accountability.
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker – a party member who walked out this week in disgust – explained that feminism “is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters…. it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender.”
In a brave and principled resignation statement published yesterday, Walker said that:
“. . . there is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’. Socialist Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted cover-up, making abusers feel protected.”
Members are now leaving the organisation, or being expelled, in large numbers after the case came to light at the party’s conference and transcripts of the discussions were leaked online.
The writer China Mieville, a longstanding member of the SWP, told me that, like many members, he is “aghast”:
“The way such allegations were dealt with – complete with questions about accusers’ past relationships and drinking habits that we would instantly, rightly denounce as sexist in any other context – was appalling. It’s a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism.”
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me. “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It’s up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”
The British Socialist Worker’s Party is hardly atypical among political parties, among left-wing groups, among organisations of committed people or, indeed, among groups of friends and colleagues in having structures in place that might allow sexual abuse and misogyny by men in positions of power to continue unchecked. One could point, in the past 12 months alone, to the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile case, or to those Wikileaks supporters who believe that Julian Assange should not be compelled to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden.
I could point, personally, to at least two instances involving respected men that have sundered painfully and forever friendship groups which lacked the courage to acknowledge the incidents. The only difference is that the SWP actually talk openly about the unspoken rules by which this sort of intimidation usually goes on. Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.
To say that the left has a problem with handling sexual violence is not to imply that everyone else doesn’t. There is, however, a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly. It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
That unwillingness to analyse our own behaviour can quickly become dogma. The image is one of petty, nitpicking women attempting to derail the good work of decent men on the left by insisting in their whiny little women’s way that progressive spaces should also be spaces where we don’t expect to get raped and assaulted and slut-shamed and victimised for speaking out, and the emotions are rage and resentment: why should our pure and perfect struggle for class war, for transparency, for freedom from censorship be polluted by – it’s pronounced with a curl of the upper lip over the teeth, as if the very word is distasteful – ‘identity politics’? Why should we be held more accountable than common-or-garden bigots? Why should we be held to higher standards?
Because if we’re not, then we have no business calling ourselves progressive. Because if we don’t acknowledge issues of assault, abuse and gender hierarchy within our own institutions we have no business speaking of justice, much less fighting for it.
“The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked,” writes Walker. “Lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does.” He’s talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.
Equality isn’t an optional add-on, a side-issue to be dealt with after the revolution’s over. There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women’s rights. The sooner the left accepts that and starts working the enormous stick of priggishness and prejudice out of its collective backside, the sooner we can get on with the job at hand.