This is an edited transcript of a November 2022 podcast by Victor’s Children, hosted by David Camfield. The podcast is produced in Canada, but included reflections from rs21 member Hazel, who is based in Britain. The other guests were Jamie, who is an ex-member of the Canadian group Fightback, and Sheila, who is a survivor who experienced sexual violence in an activist context in the late 1980s.
Listen to the original podcast episode here:
David: We live in societies in which sexual harassment and sexual assault are common. Why? Not because of male biology, but because of gender inequality. Its roots go much deeper than sexist ideas. Our lives are materially organised in part by gender relations, that are still, in spite of all the legal equality gains that have been won, patriarchal, cis-supremacist (in other words oppressive to trans people) and hetero-sexist. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that sexual harassment and sexual assault happen among leftists, including among people who are committed to liberation from gender oppression. What may be more surprising is that in spite of so much hard work by feminists, parts of the left are still so bad at challenging sexual harassment and sexual assault. In 2022, we’ve seen in Canada high profile cases in two of the largest of the small socialist groups in Canada, Fightback and the Communist Party. So why that is, and how socialists can do better, are two of the things we’re going to discuss.
I’m going to start with the observation that feminism in a very shallow liberal form, the kind that maybe [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau exemplifies, has never been more high profile. And, more importantly, there’s been a welcome resurgence of serious feminism in the last decade, although a lot of feminist activity is what Nora Loreto, in her book Take Back the Fight, called decentralised activism, including hashtag feminism (those are her phrases). This feminist upsurge has had a positive impact on the left broadly speaking, but at the same time, there’s also a current of left politics that tends to reduce feminism and other anti-oppression politics to liberal ‘identity politics’, and to dismiss it. And I think this dovetails with a much older tradition of what we could call ‘Marxist anti-feminism’, to use the term of Abbie Bakan. So just to start, do you have any thoughts about where left politics are in general today around gender oppression?
Jamie: I think there is an interesting dynamic with what some academics call the feminist state, where that state really only provides benefits to middle class citizens who really have their foot in the door of capitalism. Largely, the policies that the Trudeau government has put forward are really isolated in who they benefit, and you can contrast that with, say, the women who are viewed as acceptable collateral damage to the resource extraction projects that Justin Trudeau’s government pushes through. There is, I think, a sharp divide along class lines in Canada, certainly, in terms of the treatment of women and other gender oppressed people and our access to services, and, at least I’ve found, there isn’t really a political movement there to catch people who are radicalised by those issues. Which is why when I got involved in the socialist movement when I was in my late teens, the anti-identity politics stance was something that I just sort of had to go along with, at least in the milieu that I was in.
Hazel: My involvement and interest in these issues stems from the fact I was for many years a member of the SWP in Britain, which notoriously in 2013 had a scandal about rape committed by a leading member of the organisation, and I left the organisation due to that issue. It made me reassess both practicalities about how the organisation responded, but also more theoretical and political issues surrounding rape and sexual violence and how it manifests in left-wing organisations. That’s something I’ve given a great deal of thought to since leaving that organisation.
If we go back to the original question about feminism, and so-called hashtag feminism, I do think it’s important to say that I think that the #MeToo campaign, whatever its limitations, generally had a very positive effect on people feeling that these issues are serious and can be raised. And it also had effects in some workplaces. And I say this very guardedly, because I’m only talking in Britain of some public sector workplaces, or where I work as an administrator at a university, for example. But in some workplaces, [#MeToo has] meant that these issues are taken up, albeit in a very ‘we must tick the right box to say we’ve done that’ kind of way. But I do think it has made a difference in terms of people’s confidence to come forward and to talk about these things, and that in itself affects how the left is responding to these issues.
In Britain, we also have a lot of other issues. We have so-called gender critical feminists who are essentially transphobic. They’re coming from what they would call a feminist left position. It’s often people in trade union bureaucracies, often influenced by the Communist Party. [In this context,] you have some left groups that carry on in the old way, seeing sexual violence very much as a secondary issue, not the main issue that they’re fighting about. That position is still predominant in Communist Party-influenced organisations, still in some Labour Party connected organisations, and to some extent in organisations like the SWP. However, a lot of younger and newer organisations that have developed in recent years take a very different and much more proactive view in terms of what we do about tackling sexual violence. We’ve also got small activist groups [that specifically fight against sexual violence] – the one I’m thinking of is one called Sisters Uncut, which is a very active, young, vibrant, anti-racist group [that takes on the issue of sexual violence], which I think gets quite a lot of support. It’s been very important in changing the left atmosphere in terms of how we tackle and how we confront sexual violence. Still, I think certainly in a lot of the old Trotskyist or radical left groups, there’s a view that it’s not the main issue.
Jamie: I think my personal experience is very much within the context that I was organising in, which was very much the anti-identity politics stance that I think a lot of older sects have taken, which I found practically meant that they sort of bury their heads in the sand in terms of any theoretical developments around sexual violence that have happened since the 1950s.
If we’re really just taking an orthodox Marxist approach, which the group that I was a part of [did], to the extent where we were sort of discouraged from reading anything outside the Marxist canon, we were missing any theoretical developments in terms of how we understand sexual violence; for example, understanding that violence is not some sort of a fluke, or something that happens just within the private sphere and should be dealt with as such, but something that is systemic in a very meaningful sense of the word, something that is created by the culture that it exists in. And I definitely found that within these groups, because of the absence of that analysis, it was a culture that produced and enabled sexual violence.
I think the Marxist anti-feminist or anti-identity politics slant comes with an opposition towards the self organisation of the oppressed within these groups, where it’s even considered identity politics to have, say, a women’s caucus or a queer trans caucus or anything like that. And when marginalised people are prevented from organising together in solidarity, the solidarity between the men who commit and enable [violence remains in tact]. This creates an atmosphere where the deck is stacked against you as a victim or a complainant.
David: There have been two high profile cases in Canada this year of the leaders of socialist groups handling sexual violence very badly. And while there are many differences between the Communist Party of Canada and Fightback, one thing they have in common is that they’re both groups that organise on what I think we could call micro-party lines, as if they were genuine socialist parties; in other words, as if they were much larger organisations rooted in a section of the working class, which they’re not, regardless of what names they might call themselves. And this is not a new thing. This is a long standing practice on parts of the socialist left.
There’s often a connection between the micro-party approach and inadequate responses by a socialist group to oppressive actions by members. This approach tends to inflate the importance of the group in the minds of its members, and then preserving the group often becomes an end in itself. When people make the stability of preservation of the leadership and its ‘Leninist’ authority their top concern, they may avoid suspending or expelling members, especially so-called leaders, for oppressive behaviour. Organising on micro-party lines with a fetish of leadership can fuel an abusive group culture, that kind of culture reproduces rather than challenges our society’s oppressive forms of behaviour. Socialist groups who treat their own expansion as what matters most are usually resistant to opening themselves up to struggles against oppression, learning from them and changing.
Hazel and Jamie, since you’ve both been members of this kind of organisation, I wonder if you have any specific thoughts you’d like to share about the connection between the micro-party model and sexual violence?
Hazel: Although I agree that sexual violence is bound to arise within socialist organisations to an extent because we all exist within this society, I do think we have to be very careful in saying that, to be honest, because I think there is a real problem that it is actually used as an excuse. Certainly, when I was in the SWP in Britain, that was an excuse that came up straight away that, ‘oh, well, you know, this was bound to happen’. I think we have to be quite careful about pointing to that, because actually, my immediate reaction myself was that I expect better from a socialist organisation.
One of the things that was very true around that crisis was it became clear that the organisation put the [perpetrator] above the interests of the survivor, and so put him above the principles and everything that that organisation was purportedly supposed to be upholding. It’s also true that the leadership of these types of organisation is venerated. That reflects in a lot of ways the idea that the organisation is above its members, and that was certainly the culture that had developed within the SWP.
I was a member of that organisation for several years, and wrote for its publications and so on, and certainly when the crisis happened, it made me reexamine all my behaviour. I found a lot of cases where things were excused, where you may have thought [certain behaviour was] sexist or you felt uncomfortable with it, but you didn’t want to take it too far, because the interest of the party came above whatever these individuals were experiencing. And that I think was a completely wrong way of looking at things.
One of the things that maybe we haven’t talked about is about how the culture of those organisations actually prevents people from speaking out, or prevents people from coming forward, [and] allows a certain level of sexist behaviour to continue. And I think one of the things in rs21 we’ve tried to do is to create a different culture. We’ve also created what I call ‘survivor-centred’ guidelines on on sexual violence, where we don’t try and act as the arbiters and judges or as if we’re some little arm of the state. We try to have a survivor-centred approach that’s supportive and that puts real anti-oppression and liberation politics at the centre of trying to deal with [anything that arises], and that always gives voice to the survivors of that violence and abuse.
I’m not saying it’s perfect. I think our guidelines are good, but I think they could be developed and made much better. We’ve discussed things like: should we have more support in place? Should there be some lessons learned from restorative justice type models? So we’ve tried to look in other directions as well. But it’s definitely an ongoing debate. And it’s one that you can’t leave to just sit there. You have to think about it at all times.
Jamie: There’s this idea that these groups can actually deal with sexual violence internally, as if they are like a mini state almost – play-acting a bourgeois court system. In my experience, [if you do this], you get all of the trauma of going through everything bad that happened to you that comes with the bourgeois court system, but without any of the meagre protection that comes with involvement in the bourgeois court system. So really the worst of both worlds.
I think [this approach] does very much come with this unrealistic group mythology, that the group is this entity that we need to be dedicated to first and foremost. I think this leads to sort of an ‘ends justify the means’ atmosphere. Because really, if you truly believe that whatever small socialist organisation is the only path forward for humanity, there is a certain level of justification of interpersonal harm and violence that goes with that. So I think having a more healthy and realistic perspective as to what organisations look like, and the role that they can play in the movement, creates more healthy interpersonal dynamics within them.
I would say as well, that some groups are centred around their own self promotion, and the creation of an internal bureaucracy almost for bureaucracy’s sake. I think this attracts, in some cases, self-serving people. This isn’t to say that interpersonal harm doesn’t happen in, like, mutual aid groups or anarchist organising, for example, because it very much does. But I think when you’re creating sort of a party for a party’s sake, it’s just a power structure being created for a hypothetical future situation in which that power structure will be larger. I think it can [attract] people who want to be in a position of power over others.
I think there’s also an issue where because of the sort of parasitic nature of like a micro sect there is the elevation of anybody who can dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to the organisation. And within our current society, a lot of people are alienated, or socially disintegrated for various reasons. I think in a healthy organisation, if we saw someone who was making involvement in the party their whole life to the detriment of their health and wellbeing, we would intervene and say, ‘hey, you know, are you doing okay, is everything going right for you life-wise?’ But within the microsects, someone whose whole life is wrapped up in the party becomes a very important cadre who is doing so much work for the party that they are beyond reproach. That was something I witnessed a number of times. I’m not really sure what the answers are other than that elevating anyone who can get a few undergrads to sell a newspaper to the level of an organising superstar is a recipe for disaster. And I think in a more healthy organising context, that would happen less.
David: The next thing I was hoping we could talk about kind of going forward, about how we on the left can do better when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual violence.
Sheila: When I was thinking about organisational culture, in general, consent and dissent is everything. We think everything is fine in our organisation except for occasional problems with bad apples. But are we allowed to disagree about anything? Do we have an environment that really embraces and encourages political debate with differences of opinion? Or must we toe the line of formal and, even worse, informal leaders? If we can’t [have healthy disagreement] about all kinds of topics, we’re not bloody likely to do well around sexual violence, right?
Hazel: I think the so-called Leninist party model is really an outdated model and needs to completely change. We need to really rethink. We’ve got so much to do, but actually just making any change will make it better than it is, because I think the left has been so terribly bad on dealing with issues of sexual violence so far.
I think the left always shy away from it, because it’s been my experience that people think, ‘Oh, well, we’re not social workers. We’re not trained, we can’t do this.’ But it’s also used as an excuse not to do anything or not to deal with these issues. And I think we have to start thinking: how can we support people that are going through these things? How can we have some general education where we can sit and talk about these issues? And I don’t think we do it enough. I think the same is true on disability, on mental health, when people find it very hard to get to grips with the personal and the political and how they interrelate. [People prefer to think] it’s not really political, or something that should concern us. Whereas in fact, it’s at the heart of what we’re doing as socialists.
And I think we need to do more theoretically, in terms of not just running off the off-pat things about where oppression comes from, but actually delving into it a bit more. I think, for example, the left can do a lot more about violence in general, about understanding violence, understanding the connections between state violence and interpersonal violence.
Jamie: That’s very true. Actually, something that Hazel just said really struck me: the refrain of ‘well, we’re not social workers, we’re not trained to deal with this’. I’m currently being trained to be a social worker, so I think about this sort of thing a lot. The history of social work as a profession is very interesting, in that social care used to be a communal task that was shared by everybody in a community before the rise of class society. And then, within early industrial capitalism, care was something that was very much a private task that happened within the family unit. And then social work kind of emerges to ‘care for’ (and I use ‘care for’ here in quotes, because early social work was very coercive, and often hurt people more than it helped) people who had sort of fallen through the cracks of the family unit, who were on their own in big industrial cities and needed help.
So the idea of social care being something that is the isolated task of trained professionals is a strange, alienating mutation of class society. And as much as I don’t think that groups on the left should be filling the role of social workers, in whatever society we’re trying to build that would be better than our current one, I don’t think social care would be this professionalised task that is the exclusive job of a few professionals.
I don’t really have all the answers about how we can fix that problem as it is. But I think it is very much something that we need all hands on deck to figure out, because this problem is going to keep rearing its head again and again, until we solve it or at least learn how to deal with it better. If we look at the history, especially recently on the left, of why organisations fall apart, there’s a pretty consistent [pattern]. So it seems to me to be a very pressing concern that is really under-theorised and not as big a part of our political education as it really should be.
If we’re trying to sort of socially reintegrate people into any sort of movement or organisation, we need to learn how to build healthy and functional communities, which is something that we’re not really tooled to do in capitalist society, [where instead] we’re told how to exploit other people for our own benefit. Even if we can’t build something perfect, we do have the opportunity to build something better. And I think that’s very much worth fighting for.
David: It becomes ever more important to talk about how we win more cis men on the left to struggle actively against gender oppression, and then to move from that to recognising that [opposing oppression is] not just a general political affirmation, but there are all sorts of practical implications for how people act and how they live. And so I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how we can do that better?
Sheila: There seems to be a bit of a dissing around training now on the far left. But if we just reframe training as political education, and [value it] in the topics that we’re all discussing and centre that in the organisation, I think that gets at it, because then then men have to participate in that those conversations, and they have to deal with the content of it, because it’s a central part of the work of the group.
Hazel: I don’t think our focus should be on cis men at all to be honest. I think, as anyone will know, cis men tend to dominate the discussion in all sorts of ways, both in terms of theory, practice, in meetings, in terms of who speaks, in terms of whose voices are dominating, and so on. And I think the best thing that we can do in terms of changing this whole culture and changing the conversation around sexual violence is not so much to think about how can we get cis men to understand these issues, but more to think about how we can make our spaces comfortable for survivors of domestic or sexual violence, to make our spaces places where women, trans people and non binary people feel they’ve got an equal right to speak, and feel that their voices are to be heard and he central to all the ways that those groups both organise and theorise.
Jamie: [Another important thing is] having these conversations and having these topics brought up before you really get to a crisis point, right? If talking about sexual violence, and the oppression of women and trans people is something that is part of the regular life of being involved in left politics, we won’t get to these points where people that I had worked with for years, who I considered comrades and respected, all of a sudden [reveal that] they believed these really outdated rape myths the entire time, and it just never came up before. There’s a very deep sense of betrayal that comes with that, right? And then you have to ask yourself, oh, God, why didn’t that come up until now?
And I would say, in general, in terms of how we respond to these things, that I think a big issue that it’s a big test to overcome is that we’re raised in a culture that really detaches us from our own empathy. So I think participation in the socialist movement needs to sort of restore that empathy across various lines of social division through political education, and also through direct interpersonal solidarity. We need to understand [sexual violence and sexism] as being poisonous to the movement in the way that they demonstrably are.
A revolutionary social culture needs to include a strong stance against oppression that really runs throughout the movement. And we can’t just leave people where we meet them. In terms of gender, I think there’s this fear on the organised left that, you know, getting someone to switch from just being apolitical to being a socialist is already a big ask, so we can’t throw anything else into the mix. They might get scared. And I think that actually dovetails with what we’re saying about this assumption of the cis man as the default political subject, right? If we think that feminism or queer liberation or anti-racism are alienating and scary, well, who are we assuming is the political subject that’s going to get scared and run away?
I would argue that, because becoming a socialist is already a significant shift in understanding the world, we can actually make participation in revolutionary politics socially transformative.
This piece was transcribed and edited by rs21 members Úna OS and Kate B. You can listen to the full podcast, which goes into much more depth on these issues and the speakers’ experiences, here.