I'm sure by now you've read the criticism that my comrades have produced about the Progressive Labor Party's gender politics and their response to the reminder that Seth Miller is a rapist. Through all of our organizing on this issue, our position has been that PLP must administer a systemic solution to the problem of a rapist in their midst, and we've advocated this on behalf of our comrade at every level of leadership to which PLP will grant a non-member access.
To this point I've been able to compartmentalize my feelings by seeing the accountability process as another realm of organizing, but I felt personally betrayed when I learned that PLP implemented a process independently of the process we had been discussing for months. It was a harsh reminder that within the constellation of sexual violence, the political can be very personal.
In the few days since our collective released the original statement calling out Miller and PLP, I've been told by one PLP member that the information I have needs to “be corrected,” but they were not willing to tell me what we have wrong. Moreover, I've been very disappointed in my comrades' efforts to help. People seem afraid to cut out friendships at the expense of dealing with something as difficult as rape, but the pain of cutting those ties is nothing compared to the profound and dehumanizing pain of being raped.
This essay will read to many of you like personal narrative, but you must not dismiss it because it isn't explicitly political analysis. What I describe here reflects real friendships and real communities— relationships that are completely destroyed now because the party decided it was better to let Miller remain than to expel him and support his victim. Maybe there's a political lesson in here somewhere. I just hope I can show how we are all deeply destroyed by rape.
Finally, a disclaimer. A few people from the party have told me to stop gossiping about this to my friends. This is not gossip. Calling this gossip renders a very serious political problem into meaningless social fodder, and it turns fighting patriarchy into labor that is gendered and dismissed as idle and childish. To those members of the party: you will not silence me like that.
This is not a love letter.
I sat on a rickety chair at a recreation center somewhere in Los Angles, and every few minutes a toddler stepped on my foot while amused adults tried to corral the kids back to a play area in the next room. On either side of me people were packed elbow-to-elbow at long folding tables eating homemade food from paper plates. The crowd of 150 or so overflowed into the alley behind the recreation center, and folks took turns at the tables while comrades performed revolutionary songs, poems, and speeches.
At the end of the night everyone huddled back en masse to sing “The Internationale.” Everywhere I looked fists were aloft. It was like home.
This was the annual Progressive Labor Party May Day dinner. I was invited by a man I knew from organizing on my campus. I'll call him Jay. We started out as distant colleagues working for different unions, but over time we developed a close friendship that, at least for me, transcended our divergent politics. The emergence of that friendship is how last spring I found myself meeting more and more members of PLP, and how I found myself thinking seriously that this was the kind of fulfilling, communal life I wanted to be part of. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. It felt as though this whole world had unfurled before me and I was just supposed to step into it and belong. Maybe I exaggerate, but even in retrospect my reflection feels true to my experience, and it's important to establish that real bonds have been broken throughout all of this.
If any of them knew who I counted among my comrades, they didn't show it. No one ever asked me to identify my politics or defend my positions. No one even explicitly asked me if I was thinking about joining the party. No one until Miller. He sat next to me in front of the stage during the May Day general assembly at Pershing Square. The moment Jay got up to speak to another friend, Miller started in on me aggressively asking questions about my politics.
“So tell me again why you haven't joined the party yet,” he opened. I explained that I don't identify as a statist and I disagree with the premise of democratic centralism. “We'll have to work on that,” he countered. Nearby another PLP member sat watching the stage. He had been really kind to me a few weeks before when I attended a party at his house with Jay. When I tried to make eye contact for an intervention though, he would not look my way.
Maybe Miller sensed my distaste for his questions, because he started pointing out reasons why I would make a good comrade. I laugh at the right jokes. I seemed to fit in with his friends. I was evidently down for antagonizing the cops. I evaded eye contact because I felt uncomfortable from the attention and because the comments seemed to simultaneously mock and flatter me—a strategy known as “negging” to another misogynistic group, self-styled “pick-up-artists.”
This anecdote might seem incidental, but I see it as a symptom of larger problems regarding the ways PLP recruits and retains members and especially women. There's a really telling line in Criticism and Self-Criticism: “But anyone who divides his political comrades from his friends, who keeps one set of ideas for one and another for the other and never the twain shall even overlap, is just as useless as the person with no friends outside the Party.”
This directive to make your friends your comrades at all costs devalues genuine relationships that people build outside the party. But more importantly, it renders those relationships mere recruitment grounds. Ultimately, it's a predatory position. According to the party, a member is useless if he cannot bring his outside friends in. So he must bring them in by any means necessary.
As I write this I am thinking about three moments with Jay—three moments that define the trajectory of our friendship:
First. We are in his truck and I'm looking at a copy of Challenge, at an article he has written. He tells me I don't have to read it; that he is embarrassed by his writing because it can't compare to what I do; that I am a word architect and the way I write, the way I talk about writing, is beyond him. I read the article and I tell him which parts I like. I worry that I didn't praise him enough, that I should have told him that I like how earnest he is when he writes about politics.
Second. We are on the patio of a coffee shop talking about many things, but I am avoiding saying the words I need to because I'm afraid he will disappoint me. I tell him his friend is a rapist. His jaw drops. I start to cry. He rubs his face, takes off his cap and rubs his shorn hair. He does not know what to say or how to act, so we go dinner and when he drops me off at home we sit in front of my house for a very long time. He says he will help however I need him to. He says he'll burn bridges if it's for a good reason. Later he sends me a text message that says, “WTF. We'll figure it out. Sorry for not knowing, which is messed up on so many levels, not least of which resulted in ur exposure to a bad person. Thanks for being principled and bringing it to light.”
Last. We are in his truck again, but this time I am sobbing because his friend, a leader in his club, suggested that my comrade's rape was adultery and told me that she would have to prove rape happened if we wanted PLP to do anything about it. I tell him through gasps, in the shakiest voice, that this is the logic of cops. I tell him that I started hating cops when they wouldn't protect me from the man who stalked and assaulted me years before. I tell him that this world isn't safe for women. I turn and look at his face as we're stopped at a light in Beverly Hills. He is wiping something from his eyes. When we drive past the La Brea tar pits I ask him to pull over and we walk around the grounds. He tells me that the smell of tar reminds him of his grandfather and playing in the countryside as a child. It's comforting to him in a way that I cannot understand, but his candor comforts me.
As I write this I think about those three moments and I cannot help but compare them to a present in which I have been utterly abandoned. More importantly, I must compare them to a present in which any solidarity between our circles of comrades is impossible. It is a present in which we will never march together against the capitalist state—a present in which we will never be able to work toward revolution because supporting rapists is counter-revolutionary.
And as I think about these moments, I experience profound senses of rage and grief: rage for my comrade who has suffered untold physical and emotional torture on account of what Miller did; grief for losing Jay, who I still love despite this all. I have to believe that PLP is earnest in their decision. The failure to remove Miller from the party and from the organizing spaces we share must be to them a genuine and realistic move in support of revolution as they see it. It must be a kind of religious fervor to think a rapist can be reformed. It must be a twisted kind of faith. That is the only way I can understand things anymore.
What is to be done?
The solution is simple. Eject Miller from the party. Keep ejecting rapists from the party. It isn't difficult. It isn't, as Jay suggested early on, something that must be struggled with for a positive outcome. Just make the decision that the revolution will be feminist and do it.
Radical men theoretically are opposed to structures that enact violence against certain classes of people, whether those classes are workers, people of color, or women. When women* are attacked, it is the responsibility of all radicals to demonstrate solidarity with victims, but in this case, PLP would only consider a process that fit within their parameters. They were uninterested in hearing what our collective wanted to accomplish, and instead insisted that the victim be forced to relive her experience in front of an audience which would judge her truthfulness; if this tribunal decided that she was telling the truth, then they would be willing to give her an audience with Miller where she could confront him and he could apologize and they could both heal.
There will no resolution in this instance if PLP thinks the solution to systemic sexism is individual reform. Rape is political. The writers of an anti-rape zine I admire put it best: “Sexual assault and rape are not things that just happen. They are not merely individual transgressions. These are political— intentional perspectives of a system of domination; a system which is always violent, hostile, and manipulative; a system which cannot be addressed by “fixing” individual perpetrators on an individual level and then welcoming them back into the arms of the community they attacked” (Dangerous Spaces
17). Though the party outwardly appeared invested in an accountability process that at least included the person Miller raped, what they actually did was laughable at best. In a meeting in New York last summer, the party decided that we have not provided conclusive proof that Miller is a rapist, and therefore he only needed to start drinking with a buddy and write a self-criticism about his relationship to patriarchy. Steps like this, the party hopes, will ensure Miller is safe to be around.
Both of these processes, however, set up a system of male-supremacist jurisprudence that provides gendered parameters for what can and cannot be discussed about the rape and the rapist. Just as rape comes to be defined by what men as sexual violation distinguished from their image of “normal” sex, justice in this case becomes defined entirely by the rapist and his apologists. I'm drawing on Catherine MacKinnon here, and what she says about rape between acquaintances seems relevant. MacKinnon points out that women “often feel as or more traumatized from being raped by someone known or trusted, someone with whom at least an illusion of mutuality has been shared, than by some stranger” (177), but PLP seems to operate under the assumption that because Miller and my comrade were close friends his violation of my comrade must not have been so bad. For them, it's only a little misunderstanding to be resolved through a heart to heart talk. That would be justice, according to PLP.
But I am inclined to believe that there is no such thing as justice for someone who has been raped. It is not an act of violence that can be taken back. It is not something for which a person can apologize. A rapist rapes and must not be forgiven because in that forgiveness we accept that rape is the unfortunate choice of a single bad individual. To forgive the rapist is to affirm that he is “an almost metaphysically different creature than the normal man, either a monster or, for liberals, simply very sick” (CE 36). Forgiving our rapists denies that rape is entirely commonplace—an every day exercise of power against which all other sexuality becomes consensual. I want to quote at length from an article recently published in the journal of materialist-feminism, Lies:
Put bluntly, rape is a function of social death. To be raped is not unlike torture in that the raped is placed beyond the bounds of law, norm, or simple caring. To be raped is to be at a point of absolute objectification, boundaries not just violated but uprooted entirely, made meaningless. No help arrives, no language exists to communicate or reconcile one's pain because one is at the point where normalcy produces, contains, and makes operative excess, silence, and the incommunicable...It is only sometimes that one's rape even bears the name or meaning of rape, and where it is nameless it is institutionalized—as in prisons where it is made into a joke, or in the many private hells where one is always 'asking for it.' (CE 37-38)
Rape is embedded into the very fiber of our existence. It is so much a part of our communities and our institutions—our social relations, our material conditions, our discursive practices—that it is practically invisible. But the mundane quality of rape does not mean we are left without pain. The rapist tears our bodies, turns us into meat, and those around us are forced to watch, forced to become, in their own way or another, a kind of rapist themselves. Everyone betrays someone eventually. That's what rape does to us all. And that's why every single rapist has to go.
* I use the term women here, though I recognize that the use of these terms is inherently problematic. I intend to use the term not as a means of oversimplifying dynamics but of providing shorthand for the structural relationship between individuals gendered male and individuals gendered female, as well as the structural relationships between individuals who are not gendered in these ways.
C.E. “Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism.” Lies 1 (2012): 15-44. Web. http://www.liesjournal.info/files/lies-final-for-online-download-done.pdf
Criticism and Self-Criticism. http://archive.org/stream/CriticismAndSelf-criticism/CSC_djvu.txt
MacKinnon, Catherine A. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
Dangerous Spaces: Violent Resistance, Self-Defence, and Insurrectional Struggle Against Gender.