I don’t quite know where to start unpacking the claim that socialist feminists who feel that Julian Assange has a case to answer are really “liberals” who “don’t mind being raped by imperialist ideology”.
Yet such a contention — which would have been inexcusably offensive even if there were any indications that it was meant sardonically — was recently advanced in all seriousness by a Trotskyist bloke on an AWL woman member’s Facebook page.
Although I have to confess that a shameful lack of knowledge of feminist theory leaves me open to much gentle ribbing from female comrades, even I was taken aback by the obvious sheer odious sexism inherent in such a sentiment.
If nothing else, there’s more than a nod here to the disgusting stereotype that “girls”, to use the term the interlocutor deployed, all secretly harbour rape fantasies.
That AWL women elected to continue the debate, rather than simply clicking the “defriend” button, is a credit to their patience.
But while most Assange supporters thankfully have the tact not to express themselves quite so clumsily, the belief that anti-imperialism represents a get out of jail free card is frighteningly widespread on the left.
For instance, one Trotskyist group in the US is holding a series of student meetings under the title “imperialist diplomacy exposed: behind the witch-hunt of WikiLeaks”, while leftist blogs freely pronounce that “WikiLeaks faces persecution for exposing US imperialism”.
Even the Guardian, while arguing that Assange must indeed face his accusers in Sweden, argues with implicit approval that in offering him asylum, “Ecuador has found a way to tweak the tail of the imperialist lion”.
In other words, US complicity at the highest level is taken as read. The chance that this might be a legitimate accusation of serious crime rather than a circuitous plot to get Assange banged up in a US military base is ruled out a priori.
At first sight, any connection between the Assange affair and the civil war in Syria would seem tenuous. But inevitably it again raises the same question of relevant prism.
A number of prominent leftwing figures — including George Galloway, Tariq Ali and John Rees — are withholding support from all or part of the Syrian opposition, on the grounds that their victory would work to the advantage of imperialism in the Middle East.
In an online article titled “Syria, the left and a revolution divided”, Rees even raises the matter to the level of philosophy, appealing to what is known in the work of Lukacs as “the standpoint of the totality”.
Just as the disembodied notion of imperialism is for some the primary consideration in deciding whether Assange should face trial for rape, so the prospect of imperialist intervention decides whether any given set of insurgents taking on the Assad regime can be considered progressive forces.
I don’t quite buy the logic here. For starters, Assad’s anti-imperialist credentials are pretty dubious. He was entirely ready to line up behind Washington in the 1991 war on Iraq, for instance.
Prior to the uprising, Syria was just another readily-compliant petro-tyranny, happily pumping crude to anyone prepared to pay for it, and no special irritant to the global hegemon.
Assad is a brutal dictator, and socialists should be entirely happy with the prospect of his overthrow. Rees, to give him his due, states that he feels that way too. The trouble is, he is somewhat picky about who can be entrusted with the task.
The Syrian opposition is deeply divided, of course. Most reports indicate that Islamism is the dominant strand, although other currents are Kurdish nationalist, liberal-secularist or ostensibly socialist in orientation.
How some people can consider the Muslim Brotherhood as a manifestation of anti-imperialism in the Egyptian context, and quite the opposite when it comes to Syria, I am not quite sure.
What seems to differentiate these currents in Rees’ mind — although he is careful not to specify which ones he likes and which ones he doesn’t — is not ideology as such but whether or not any given group is being armed by the West.
That Rees describes as imperialist intervention, defined here not as boots on the ground, or even the imposition of no fly zones as cover for rebel actions, but the supply of weaponry.
Not only is Britain putting up £5 million-worth of what is officially described as non-lethal aid to opposition forces, but the rebels are being openly equipped by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, presumably with the State Department giving the nod.
Yet the reality is that fighters locked in life or death combat are going to take arms from wherever they can source them. They would be mad not to; it really is ludicrous to make support conditional on them turning down guns tainted by imperialist provenance.
It does increasingly look like Assad is doomed. At this stage, no one can say for certain what will emerge from the wreckage. It won’t be socialist, and it may well be some form of government that neither the international left nor the White House will find congenial.
On the other hand, the demonstration effect of how a murderous regime can be taken on and beaten will prove inspirational at a global level. Conversely, defeat will demoralise many other struggles.
Meanwhile, the Assange case has brought to the fore numerous arguments concerning the niceties of the Swedish legal system; are the offences of which he has been accused rape within the meaning of that term under English law? Has he actually been charged with rape or not? Hey, maybe this was all a CIA honeytrap?
Much of the quibbling is by way of obfuscation. Even those of us entirely without legal qualification can grasp the basic point that forced penetrative sex without consent is rape in any moral or common sense meaning of the term. None of this is to presume Assange’s guilt; it is merely to state that what he is said to have done cannot be shrugged off as irrelevant.
The mistake in both instances is to imagine there is a simple read-off from a macro level analysis of imperialism to reaching conclusions on a practical course of political action, leaving every other consideration out of the equation.
The left should simultaneously oppose imperialism, extend critical backing to the Syrian revolution and uphold a woman’s right to say no. The three are in no way contradictory.