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Rape apologism and the far left

Radical communities are in a unique position when it comes to governing personal conduct, writes Rafi Alam.

Radical left-wing groups aim to reflect the structures and values they want to see in the world within their groups. Trotskyist groups, for example, maintain democratic caucuses and links to trade unions; anarchist groups, on the other hand, operate through collective decision-making, autonomy, and sensitivity to sexuality, gender, and ethnicity. Both, in line with a far left ideology, also hold the state in contempt.

However, situations arise in which it becomes difficult to reconcile this anti-statist agenda with the overwhelming presence of violence in daily life. In particular, far left communities have dealt differently – and often poorly – with cases of rape within their networks. The utopian ideals of these groups clash with the harsh reality of rape, and often lead to cases of rape apologism when the consequences of reporting rape contradict the agenda of the political organisation.

A well-known recent case of this was in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United Kingdom. A young female member of the party brought grievances regarding sexual assault against a senior member of the party executive, someone with an alleged history of sexual harassment. The grievance was dismissed, members of the party organised against this decision, senior dissident members were expelled, and the party was forced to bind on the decision that “no rape had occurred.” Along with allegations that the victim was asked questions about her sexual history, this entire process disgusted many on the outside of the party.

The Australian National Committee of Solidarity (SWP’s sister organisation), penned an internal response to the criticism of SWP, stating that it believed the process was “scrupulously fair” and “entirely consistent with the understanding of and record of fighting sexism which revolutionary socialists and the SWP  itself embody”, a position that was met with some – but not close to a majority – dissent.

But this situation is hardly unique, and barely surprising. The hard Trotskyist line of the party fosters these forms and processes. The SWP rightly argues that mainstream society regularly mismanages rape cases, with a brutal adversarial legal system that often coerces victims into reliving their victimhood throughout the trial. But is this necessarily a reason to hide cases of rape within one’s organisation?

This is not unique to Trotskyist organisations. Even in the anarchist community, rape cases are often silenced indirectly through community pressure. Sometimes victims are urged to not collaborate with the police and deal with the problem within the community; sometimes this is welcomed, sometimes it is not. For instance, in the Melbourne anarchist scene – in particular within the Melbourne Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – accusations of rape and sexual harassment against two people became contentious. The victims spoke out against particular people within the community who they accuse of victim blaming and bullying. Worst of all, as some of the survivors mentioned, is the silence that these tight-knit communities encouraged around these crimes.

Some radical victims and allies to victims argue that the anarchist tendency to shame people who work with police is misplaced, although they shy away from urging reporting as a moral imperative and instead regard it as a personal choice. The writers of the zine Betrayal: a critical analysis of rape culture in anarchist subcultures point out that many anarchists and anarchist groups fail to see the similarities in repression from the police with rapists in anarchist communities because police are ‘faceless’, insofar as anarchists do not form prior relationships, don’t go out drinking with, and don’t have conversations with police as they may do with ‘comrades’ who sexually assault others. They argue that oppressive state structures are reproduced through rape cultures, in the sense that they silence and victimise survivors who attempt to dissent against their abuse.

Ultimately, it is difficult to enforce measures against rape in radical spaces. In the Melbourne case, the IWW in Portland was asked to mediate this matter. Although the Committee found in favour of the victims, this meant little to the autonomous organizing of the Melbourne IWW; in fact, the victims of sexual abuse ultimately left.

Other alternatives to involving the police include the strategies of a woman in Newtown, who was date-raped by a former partner, an employee of Polymorph: these include warning his future partners of his past if he fails to reveal it – including his hidden HPV infection – telling radical spaces about the rape, and placing posters around the community in order to coerce him into reforming. However, some argue that this denies the accused of their rights, and is a form of vigilantism that eschews due process.

Radical groups are left to grapple with the complexities of these situations. Creating safe spaces is not easy, particularly when it’s a task left to the few who do not rely on the fragile legal system for protection. But in the end, rape is a cruel reminder that challenging oppression must begin within the community, and that it’s an unforgiving struggle.

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