After having been accused in Sweden of several counts of sexual assault, the editor of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, contested his extradition from the United Kingdom where he was residing. He lost his case in the trial court, in the High Court, and in the Supreme Court of England and Wales; but upon this decision, he fled into the London embassy of Ecuador, where he is now in hiding. The UK government has warned that embassies are not to be used for this purpose under the Vienna Convention, and threatens to remove him, while the Ecuadorian government (whose President, Correa, has been interviewed by Assange and knows him personally) accuses the British of imperialist threats. Behind all this is the spectre of the United States. It has not yet indicted Assange, but is plausibly suspected by many of seeking his extradition in turn in order to imprison or ‘disappear’ him, as has happened with Manning and other such cases. In other words, a perfect storm for the left.
A situation which would look very unfavorable for the imperialists, the initial blatant persecution of Wikileaks and its associates in order to cover up the ‘diplomacy’ that underwrites wars and tyrants everywhere, has turned into a source of acrimony and division among the left. In outline, a pro- and an anti-Assange camp has developed, and the situation is reaching levels of heated outrage about an individual that almost put to mind the days of Dreyfus. Contrary to that famous case, however, the individual in question does not come off so well. In order to shield the left from further division and from the strategic pitfalls confronting them, I think it is worthwhile to outline clearly my view on the Assange case, mindful of the fact that one can only judge individual cases to a limited extent and that doing so while events are ongoing can often appear foolish and unwise in retrospect.
The salient points are as follows. It is, or should be, a familiar fact that sexual assault and rape of women is common in our societies to a degree that is unsettling to anyone of good will. The actual quoted figures vary, and due to the nature of the crime it may never be possible to establish the rate at which it is committed with any certainty, but it is very clear that sexual assault or attempts thereto happen to a great number of women; that they are vastly underreported officially compared to their prevalence; that the impact of sexual assault on the individual in terms of loss of dignity, confidence, and feelings of safety is immeasurable; and finally, that the frequent occurrence and lack of seriousness with which rape and sexual assault are treated act, consciously or otherwise, as underwriting the system of patriarchy and the subjection of women. Patriarchy is itself as nefarious, as pervasive, and as totally opposed to human emancipation as the imperialism of the Western powers is in our current world-system, and is therefore to be taken as no less significant as a political phenomenon.
When, therefore, the two women – whose identity is and ought to be concealed for reasons of privacy as victims, but who are known to be supporters of Wikileaks as an organization – accuse Assange of sexual assault, it is incumbent on the left (indeed, all people of good will) to take such an accusation very seriously indeed. The legal salient facts of the case are, fortunately, fairly clearly established, although multi-layered and therefore liable to confusion. Fortunately, David Allen Green, the legal editor of the New Statesman and one of the UK’s prominent human rights laywers, has summarized them in a tidy overview. To sum them up: the Swedish government seeks Assange’s extradition as a preparation for charging him in this case, as under Swedish law it is not possible to prosecute unless the suspect is present in person. As the Swedish prosecutor presented in the High Court:
“7. According to Swedish law, a formal decision to indict may not be taken at the stage that the criminal process is currently at. Julian Assange’s case is currently at the stage of “preliminary investigation”. It will only be concluded when Julian Assange is surrendered to Sweden and has been interrogated.
Assange has contested this by claiming, as some of his supporters have, that his actions would not constitute rape under the laws of England and Wales. This has been rejected both by the High Court and by the Supreme Court of England and Wales, and it is clearly established that the accusations against Assange (i.e., that he had sex with a woman while she was sleeping, which she also upon waking did not consent to, among other things) do in fact constitute rape. Finally, there is no legal basis to believe that Assange is more likely to fall to the clutches of American imperial designs in Sweden than in the UK. Not only is the UK a much more willing and enthusiastic ally in the so-called “War on Terror” and all that it entails, but the UK has also cooperated with the ‘disappearing’ and torture of suspects abroad to a much greater degree than Sweden has. Moreover, as David Allen Green has pointed out, any extradition outside the EU on the basis of the European Arrest Warrant would require the permission of the extraditing country (the UK) as well as the charging country (Sweden), and therefore cannot logically be easier after such extradition. In any case it makes politically little sense either – the UK is by far the Americans’ most reliable ally and foothold worldwide for projecting its power, and has never shown any political objections to extraditions to the United States.
We may also quickly do away with the nonsense about a ‘temporary surrender’ by Sweden being more likely there than in the UK. The temporary surrender protocol states:
If the extradition request is granted for a person who is being proceeded against or is serving a sentence in the Requested State, the Requested State may temporarily surrender
the person sought to the Requesting State for the purpose of prosecution. If the Requested State requests, the Requesting State shall keep the person so surrendered in custody and shall return that person to the Requested State after the conclusion of the proceedings against that person, in accordance with conditions to be determined by mutual agreement of the States.
(1) This being the text of the British extradition treaty with the United States. This is a common clause of any country with special extradition treaties, i.e. any country politically likely to render up Assange on the wishes of the American state, the UK no less so than Sweden. It may well be that Sweden ends up doing so, but this is an exigency of his own making by his behavior in Sweden, and is of no particular political significance to us.
It is a galling fact to note that in their haste to defend Assange, some leftists are willing to deny the seriousness of the accusation, or to pretend to knowing the law better. But while Green and many of the other commentators on the legal aspects of the case have taken the law for granted in a manner one would not as a socialist be likely to do, we cannot be opportunistic in this. The technical aspects of the law, what the letter of the law is, is something better known by the Supreme Court than by Assange’s fans in Occupy, however one may analyze the political side of the case. That is not to say that political side is not significant. On the contrary, for us that must always be the first priority of analysis. But it is exactly there that the Assange case shows its true dimensions.
Assange is not a socialist; in fact, he is a right-wing libertarian, who has stated he sees WikiLeaks as “designed to make capitalism more free and ethical”(2). He had also previously planned to run for the Australian Senate as a libertarian.(3) Of course, this does not mean he should not be defended against the imperialist designs of the American state, which seeks to crush all effective opposition and sabotage of their efforts to enforce their power, protected by secrecy and screened by hypocrisy, on every corner of the globe. We would defend any citizen against the depredations of states that murder, disappear, imprison and torture people with impunity on purely political charges or even the arbitrary decisions of remotely stationed military officers. Assange can be no exception to this. This is analogous to the duty of all socialists to defend particular religions against discrimination compared to other religions, or to defend the freedom of expression of liberal law codes against the repressive power of the capitalist states, which ideologically claim to support them but always seek to abrogate them in practice.
But we should not thereby mistake his individual case for a defence of an actual movement towards socialist aims. Firstly, because the charismatic leadership of an individual like Julian Assange is itself a reactionary concept, and a strategic error. It is precisely because Wikileaks has become entangled, whether through the media or its own doing, with the person of Assange that the failings and crimes of this Assange have an immediately negative impact on its ability to function. This plays into the hands not just of the popular press, which always seek leader figures as individuals make for easier stories, but more importantly into the hands of the imperialists, who seek to make leader figures out of their opponents so they can quickly decapitate their movements. Whenever the cause of Wikileaks, beyond doubt a worthy one, is identified with the individual cause of Assange, the state powers win, and Wikileaks loses. This is true for socialist organizations generally. This is the first important lesson the pro-Assange camp have failed to learn.
The second important lesson is that by his own actions, Assange has become a liability. Wikileaks is better off without him, as his leadership has only caused the organization harm, and he can neither politically nor practically add anything useful to the movement against the state power of the United States and other countries. In fact, by his personal moral responsibility for his sexual assault, and his unwillingness to allow for this, he is more generally doing active harm to socialist causes. His depictions of Sweden as “the Saudi Arabia of feminism” and “a hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminism”(4) not only disparage and hold in contempt the fight against patriarchy, which is part and parcel of any revolution worth the name, but it also invites opportunistic broadsides against feminism on the part of his supporters. This pathetic behavior further confuses and divides newcomers to radical politics who may not be aware of all the circumstances of the case, and unnecessarily and harmfully counterposes the cause of anti-imperialism to the cause of feminism. This is not just a matter of the Assange cause being one of individualism, which is always strategically wrong as an approach to socialism, but it is a matter of him actively propagandizing against feminism and feminist principles, which we cannot allow and cannot support. Whether this follows from his ‘libertarian’ political views is difficult to establish. However it may be, Assange must be properly understood as not just personally liable for his behavior, but also by the manner of his evasion of responsibility for it, actively an enemy of the socialist cause.
It is important that those on the left recall the case of Gerry Healy, the leader of a once somewhat influential Trotskyist organization. It is widely believed that he abused his position of charismatic leadership to sexually harrass, intimidate, and abuse young women members of the organization, and to retaliate against those who confronted him with his behavior. It took a concentrated offensive of many victims and the willingness of other members to believe and support them against the so respected Healy to finally oust him from his position.(5) This case showed in essence the two problems that recur in the case of Assange: first, the individualism of individual charismatic leadership, which opens up every possible opportunity of the flaws of the individual becoming a destructive force for the organization; and then the actual abuses by this individual being made manifest, the unwillingness to take them seriously precisely because their entanglement with ‘the cause’ has made their reality a political problem. The only right solution in such a case, if one were a supporter of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (for the sake of argument), would be to continue the organization precisely by destroying the position of the charismatic individual, because the health of the one is not compatible with the position of the other. This was done in the case of Healy, and it was done rightly. (Although by my knowledge Healy was never prosecuted.)
This then is also the right approach with Assange. We must treat him as the liability he has become, and not only force him to take personal responsibility for his actions – as we all must in our private lives, knowing our many failures – but also use the occasion to actively disown and oppose the principle of individualism that made the situation possible in the first place. For this reason, not only should Assange go to Sweden, but even if the consequence of this would be a hypothetical extradition to the United States, this will be on the US’ moral account, not on our political account. The revolutionary left, if it is to be taken seriously, cannot operate as the cheer-leading assembly of one individual whose very words and actions are contrary to our aims. We will defend any citizen against the capitalist state if he is oppressed because of his opposition to it, its apparatus of secrecy, or its imperialist endeavours; but we cannot go further than that, and will not do so at any cost. We will not pretend not to see the opportunism of legal systems which only take the prevalence of rape seriously when it suits them, and we will not pretend we don’t know that the US may well seek Assange for purely political reasons. But to let these political facts overrule all our aims and principles would reduce us to mere fans of celebrity leader figures, mere stooges of this or that charismatic person who is thrown up by the news cycle as the straw opponent du jour. If we pursue the idea of ‘whatever the US government is against, we are for’, we may well abandon any pretense at strategy and movement altogether, and liquidate our organizations. Whatever the hypocrisy of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, they are no more significant to us than our own hypocrisy would be if we were to give individual figures a carte blanche to commit sexual assault, to question the political importance and integrity of feminism, and to make all anti-imperialist organization depend on his personality. And that is the essence of the case.
1) Extradition Treaty, Clause 14.1. See: http://www.statewatch.org/news/2003/jul/UK_USA_extradition.pdf
5) See, inter alia, http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Healy/Chap11.html