Over five-hundred reports of abuse and harassment were made to the police in Cologne on New Year's Eve. What exactly happened remains unclear. Whether we will ever get a clear picture of events is highly unlikely, given the way the Cologne events have already been incorporated into right-wing racist propaganda.
However, what is clear is that the assaults in Cologne only became a story in the media because the perpetrators were reportedly refugees or immigrants. Therefore, any debate about violence against women has been completely drowned out by the noise of racist propaganda.
The right wing is cynically using the pain and suffering of the victims to sow divisions within the working class. All their hypocrisy is revealed by the fact that rape and sexual abuse is normally hushed up when it doesn’t involve non-immigrants. That there had been sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne appears to be without doubt. We absolutely condemn the sexual attacks in Cologne, just as we condemn all sexual assaults. The Cologne assaults, however, are in no way an isolated case, but are a constant feature of present-day life across Europe.
Those who gain from this story are the most reactionary layers of society: extreme right-wing organisations like Pegida and the German right-wing populist party AfD, and - of course - the German and European ruling class and political elite. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalists will be fishing for more recruits among a layer of young Muslims frustrated by yet another wave of racist propaganda against them.
In Calais, on Lesbos, on the border with Hungary: people are herded together under the most inhumane conditions. In European cities Muslims are attacked in the streets and the police act as unconscionable racists. By treating humans as animals, the system brutalises people and create conditions that can provoke actions unworthy of human beings.
As long as these conditions exist, no doubt there will be more stories about crimes committed by refugees. It will be a test for the Left to put forward a class perspective against both racism and sexism.
Reject right-wing demagogy
The events in Cologne were a propaganda gift for a layer of the capitalists in Europe, who are trying to divert the attention of the working class from the crisis and their unpopular austerity policies by scapegoating refugees. They use stories like the one in Cologne to justify their brutal policies on refugees and the closure of borders.
The media immediately seized on the story. The right wing raised demands for even greater attacks on refugees. That there were women who had been assaulted was reduced to a side note, completely submerged in anti-immigrant hysteria.
The Left has been unable to speak clearly about Cologne with a class perspective, since they are paralysed by petit-bourgeois feminism. As a consequence, they completely ignore the question of class, instead reproducing the reactionary idea of a "clash of cultures". A picture is painted of sexist and culturally backward men from the Middle East; that is, a picture that the refugees who come here are "dangerous".
In Denmark, one section of the Left jumps on the right-wing bandwagon and demands tighter asylum policies. The other part, exemplified by the Red-Green Alliance, suggests that the refugees should be taught about “Danish” culture: “broad-mindedness and equality”...by the Danish government (!). Both sides end up being the errand boys of the right wing.
Working class women in Europe do not benefit from such hypocritical talk of “broad-mindedness and equality” by the ruling class. Even if we leave the question of unequal pay, parental leave regulations, etc., to one side, sexism remains a major problem. Sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and at home, are a part of women’s daily life, and to speak up about it is considered taboo.
An example to illustrate the problems that still exist: shortly after New Year, a few days before the Cologne story really began to dominate the media, the Danish Broadcasting company (DR) showed the documentary "I was raped." The documentary is about a twenty-five year-old woman, who tells how she was raped by three men in a car following a Christmas party. All three were later acquitted because it was a case of one word against another. The three men claimed that the woman consented. The story did not get much of an echo in the media. Since the perpetrators' ethnicity is not referenced, it must be assumed they were Danish.
In connection with the documentary, it emerged that an estimated 4,000 cases of rape or attempted rape occur each year in Denmark. Out of them only about 400 are reported to the police, according to official figures. Such figures, incidentally, are low because the police, according to the Attorney General, have registered the cases incorrectly.
Then there are the countless stories about how women who report a rape are treated by the police. Only about 145 of the cases reported to the police produce an indictment. Of these, only about fifty end in a conviction, i.e. only 1.25 percent (!) of alleged rapes. That story did not become big news.
It is obvious that women's conditions are much better in Denmark and Europe than in countries like Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia. The percentage of women who report violence is highest in Africa (45.6%), second highest in South East Asia (40.2%) and lowest in Europe (27.2%). Globally, more than a third - 35.6% - of all women over 15 years experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their partner or by a non-partner, according to a WHO report from 2013. In addition to this, of course, there are all the unreported cases.
In recent years feminism has had somewhat of a renaissance. Many of those who regard themselves as feminists want a world of equality - a goal we fully agree with. But as events in Cologne show once again, the problem with petit-bourgeois feminism is that it is separated from the class struggle, and thus can be used for reactionary purposes. Problems in society become a question of culture and morality rather than a matter of social conditions and the working class movement.
Feminism was harnessed at the head of the right-wing bandwagon when Afghanistan and Iraq needed to be invaded - exactly as feminism is harnessed to the right-wing wagon today in order to demonize refugees and immigrants.
Women's oppression is not a condition of Middle Eastern men. Marx and Engels referred to the French utopian socialist and philosopher Charles Fourier, who said that "human progress can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom." As long as oppression and classes have existed, oppression of women has existed. That the situation of women is still so horrible and backward in parts of the world is because of capitalist and imperialist oppression; particularly where failed social revolutions have ended in reactionary dictatorships and miserable social conditions.
In Afghanistan, the barbaric conditions for women are a direct result of the interference of Western Imperialism to defeat the Saur Revolution, supporting Islamist groups such as the mujahedeen.
The Saur Revolution in 1978 introduced, among other things, “decree no. 7” to "ensure equal rights for women and men in the civil domain and eliminate unjust patriarchal feudal relationships between wife and husband". The revolution criminalised girls being married-off in exchange for money and goods, as well as forced marriage. It fixed the age for engagement and marriage to 16 years for women and 18 for men, effectively banning child marriage.
From this one can see that women's oppression was not built into Afghan "culture". The reactionary and barbaric conditions in Afghanistan today are a direct result of Western intervention to overthrow the regime created by the Saur revolution, replacing it with the barbaric Taliban regime.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring brought men and women into battle against Mubarak. Through common struggle the barriers between the sexes broke down in a country where more than four out of five women have been sexually assaulted during their lives.
“In the square [Tahrir], you had people from different classes, both men and women, mixing, talking and debating. They [the men] were seeing that women are strong, that they can look after themselves. They were seeing women work hard for the revolution, leading protests, and their response [not groping] is their way of saying, 'I respect you',” explained Ms. Hassan director of the Nasra Feminist Studies Centre in Cairo. That situation changed again as soon as reaction set in with the divide-and-rule tactic of organized attacks against women and religious minorities.
Racism and sexism are tools of the ruling class, to divide the working class. The Left must fight these divisions of gender and race, but that also means a struggle against reactionary ideas about the "clash of civilisations". The struggle against the system that creates and sustains oppression, racism and sexism, is a fight for the working class throughout the world, regardless of their nationality and religion.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky describes in the quote below what separates revolutionary Bolsheviks from “well-meaning” liberal "humanists". He describes it as the difference between standing on the sidelines of the class struggle talking about the rights and duties of the oppressed, while Bolsheviks do what they can to organise the working class across borders and "cultures" in a relentless struggle against the system itself.
“What characterizes Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude toward oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognizing their ‘right’ to self-determination and to parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of this right. Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in capitalist countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus, or Arabs in the art of insurrection and it assumes full responsibility for this work in the face of civilized executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over this boundary remains centrism.” (Trotsky, What Next, Vital Questions for the German proletariat, 1932)
It is not culture that creates oppression of women and sexual assault, it is social conditions. A world where the majority of humanity is treated inhumanly results in racism and sexism. The fight against oppression and for the emancipation of women cannot be fought under the banner of feminism, which separates oppression and abuse from the social and class struggle.
The struggle against sexual violence, as in Cologne, cannot be separated from the struggle against capitalism. All talk of culture and teaching about Western "broad-mindedness" helps legitimate capitalism in its "Western" form.
What is required is to expose the Western capitalist governments that are responsible for the system and policies that create inhuman, barbaric conditions around the world. Capitalism is in a blind alley. That the largest number of people since World War II are being forced to flee under the most barbaric conditions is symptomatic of this.
Refugees and immigrants, men and women of the Middle East, are neither enemies nor victims. They are comrades in the struggle against capitalism. For the working class in the advanced capitalist countries the struggle must be against their own reactionary forces, beginning with their respective bourgeoisie.
The struggle must be against all reactionary forces that advocate policies which result in the oppression of women and force people to flee from their homelands. That includes feminism, when it is harnessed to the bandwagon of reaction. Sexism and sexual abuse must be fought tooth and nail - not by supporting the system that creates it, but by waging a relentless struggle against it.