Eve unbound

For a few strange weeks, at the end of 2012 and the start of 2013, the left in Britain was discussed more widely than it had been for years. Our organisations were the subjects of articles published in literally dozens of countries right across the world. Especially in Britain, people who never normally follow the left were taking a fresh interest in us. The reason for our sudden fame, or really notoriety, was not that we had got something right but that we had got something terribly wrong.

Britain’s largest far-left party found itself having to address a serious complaint of rape and sexual harassment, made against our former “National Secretary”, i.e. the person who had held the closest role in the organisation to anything like a “leader”. It was said that this person had, while in that post, abused a sexual relationship with a teenager thirty years his junior. Members of the party were suddenly forced to confront the most difficult of questions. Could anyone who considered themselves a revolutionary, be capable of sexual violence? If they could (and if so, it followed, some investigation was necessary), how could that process be conducted fairly?

Many members answered of the party the first question with a resounding No, and the second by telling themselves that any process our party had organised, no matter how bad it looked to the outside world, must have been fair, by the mere presumed operation of our socialist politics on the minds of the decision makers. Tens of thousands of people outside the organisation concluded that even though we were ready to declare ourselves opposed to sexism in all its forms, there was a limit to our solidarity. We would support a woman complainant, so long as her complaint was not about us.

My fellow socialists will be delighted to hear that the name of my party, and the details of that complaint, will not appear on this blog. For what became obvious to all those who were watching the story closely, was that this failure was not restricted to just one party on the extra-Parliamentary left. Our case was simply the best-known. Trade unions have recently faced Tribunal cases alleging sexual harassment by senior officials. Activists described sexual harassment investigations which had been botched by activists in libertarian groups in Britain and in the US. Almost the entire left, whether “red” (socialist), “black” (anarchist), or in between, has at times displayed the same reactions of disbelief and inertia in response to women’s complaints.

The left’s shared comprehension of gender inequality, sexual violence, and fair process has been similarly incomplete. Bereft of ideas, we have responded to the crisis without moral authority. If we cannot address something this straightforward, how could we be expected to lead in any other area of life: in trade unions, in campaigns, or indeed after a revolution?

In that context, the purpose of this blog is to sketch out a different way of thinking about sexual harassment. Drawing on insights from politics, history, Marxist and feminist theory, its starting point is to reject the cliche that sexual violence is an act committed by strangers. Its roots rather are in “ordinary” human relationships – in the dynamic by which a system of commodity production tames the wildness and unpredictability of love, turning it into first “romance”, and then into “marriage”. This blog will describe sexual violence not as a relationship of patriarchs sharing some invisible fraternity of power, but as the act of ordinary men.

Much of the focus will be on the UK legal system and the way it deals with complaints of sexual harassment, whether they arise in the context of criminal, family or employment proceedings. Each system is different; no single part (a definition of rape, for example) could be extracted from the whole and simply copied, without causing injustice. This blog will describe the hidden checks and balances of black letter law, and their integration into legal systems (police, courts, social workers, etc).

Not all the law is wrong. When the state prosecutes criminals for domestic violence, justice is contaminated by institutional pressures – the unwillingness of the police, for example, to prosecute within relationships. But, in other areas of the law, the institutional pressures are far weaker. Within the family courts, for example, there is no institutional weight either towards or against the women who make complaints of rape or violence. In consequence, concepts developed in this area of the law (its wide definition of violence, its rejection of differential burdens of proof depending on the seriousness of the complaint) point towards a genuine process of fair investigation.

There are lessons which might be of use to all of us, Marxists, feminists, of any political persuasion or none, but especially to those who imagine a future without law, profit, or the state.