Headlong into a trap
After Socialist Resistance’s bungled intervention into transgender politics, Paul Demarty calls for serious debate - not trolling and trigger warnings
This is the story of how Socialist Resistance - Britain’s leading ‘Marxist-feminist-ecosocialist’ organisation - attempted to host a debate between two feminists, and ended up starting a flame war. There are, unfortunately, many stories like it nowadays.
In March, Socialist Resistance decided to commission two articles for its next issue, on the rather thorny matter of the relationship between feminism and transgender liberation politics. It would be a straight ‘fight’ - on the one side, a representative of trans-friendly feminism; on the other, a specimen of the phenomenon known best as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ or ‘Terfs’, who do not accept the womanhood of trans women.1
We think of SR as the sort of organisation that is never happier than when it is cobbling together a vacuous fudge between disagreeing parties, rather than hosting a serious barney - we wonder exactly what they wanted to achieve here. Liam Mac Uaid seems to have been the comrade doing the commissioning,2 so we presume it was he who wrote to Victoria Smith, the radical feminist who eventually took the bait and wrote an article:
The idea is that there will be an accompanying article by a trans activist and the context is that we are trying to get our heads around the debates … At some point in the next few months we hope to have a public meeting of some sort on the subject and it’s been quite a revelation how vociferous some people are when expressing their point of view.
Upon reading the delivered copy, however, comrade Mac Uaid was reassured - “Thanks, Victoria. I can’t imagine anyone will find that controversial”, he replied. This does not say much for his imagination.
Comrade Smith’s article came with the headline, ‘Feminists and transgender: why is there a debate?’, and the argument runs thus: while it may seem cruel for “many feminists” to deny that trans women are women, it is not merely a matter of a trivial concession to the latter: “If we cannot talk about how patriarchy arises, how it functions and who benefits from it, then we cannot help ourselves, let alone each other. We might as well go home.” Gender is not, as she quotes journalist Fred McConnell, “one’s innate sense of self”, but “a hierarchical system aimed at enforcing women’s subservience”:
Forced marriage, unpaid wifework, reproductive coercion, sexual slavery, educational exclusion … all of these things continue to be justified by the insistence that women are ‘naturally’ subservient, caring, decorative, etc. Moreover, the women to whom these things happen do not have the opportunity to identify out of their oppression because this oppression remains material in basis.
The feminist agenda is to “abolish gender and accept that both male and female people are human, free to express themselves however they choose, regardless of their sex”. The trans-inclusive alternative tacitly “reinforces traditional masculinity by insisting that any quality that is considered insufficiently manly is shoved into the ‘woman/not man/other’ box”.3
Comrade Smith’s article was delivered on time; that of her opponent was not (and still has not been, so far as we can tell). The decision was made to run with the Smith article on the website anyway, at which point - predictably to anyone who has been on the ‘dark side of the internet’ in the last year or two, but apparently not to Liam Mac Uaid - everything went kablooey.
Facing a storm of criticism for running the piece - including a petition, to which we shall return - SR capitulated. Terry Conway announced that the piece would not be printed; it would remain online, but with a ‘trigger warning’ attached. Trigger warnings purport to be an early heads-up for traumatised individuals before they read something disturbing, but in reality function as a dishonest form of political criticism. Smith, quite justifiably incensed that any future readers of her piece would meet such a weaselly disclaimer at the top, asked for it to be taken down; it is now published on her blog, with a scathing prefatory note.
From Liam Mac Uaid’s initial assurance that “minuscule Trot groups shouldn’t take a line on these issues”, SR beat an undignified retreat. A statement appeared, penned by Terry Conway, declaring unequivocally that SR was a trans-inclusive organisation. This, naturally, only succeeded in enraging the ‘Terfs’. Perhaps they could find common cause with the trans activists in wanting to slaughter Socialist Resistance …
The arguments of those egging them on in their shambolic reverse-ferret deserve some level of scrutiny. We have mentioned a petition, which ended up gathering the signatures of 73 people, including a clutch of leftwing ‘celebs’ (Robert Brenner, Richard Seymour, etc). It consists for the most part of a long and dismal list of the difficulties faced by trans women in contemporary society, alongside bad-faith insinuations that SR has a hidden ‘Terf’ agenda, and a recurring pattern of basically demanding that people shut up and accept that ‘we are right’:
We reject the idea that solidarity with trans women is a legitimate topic for ‘debate’ … Such false ‘debates’ in the sphere of organised socialists only serve to exclude committed revolutionaries from the field of action, the development of theory and what little organisation remains of the left.4
The more substantial part of the argument is in some ways ingenious - whereas Smith argues that women’s oppression is imposed on the basis (or at least the pretext) of childbearing and rearing, on top of which is arbitrarily built the apparatus of patriarchy, our petitioners argue that it is exactly the inability of trans women to bear children that marks them out for ‘special treatment’ at the violent hands of men. On the basis of matters like this, it is argued that the struggle of trans women is - if not exactly the same - at least not in contradiction with women who were born so.
We arrive, then, at a situation where two bitterly opposed political perspectives agree only on two things - that, firstly, one must approach the transgender question in a materialist fashion (disagreeing on the definition), and secondly, that this should not be a matter for debate (again, for different reasons). This is frankly bizarre.
The problem consists, first of all, in that both definitions of ‘materialism’ at work here are deficient. For the radfem side, there is a straightforward contradiction at work: the essence of their discomfort at trans feminism is that it (supposedly) reinforces historically constituted norms of masculinity and femininity, and that these norms are precisely what feminist praxis is to do away with.
Yet, when it comes to the immediately practical question of who is permitted in a women-only space, they fall back to vulgar chromosome-counting. It appears, then, as though the women-only space is powerful enough to somehow pull itself out of the historically constituted structures of patriarchy, yet too weak to deal with fluid gender identities without being corrupted beyond repair.
If the pro-trans side is guilty often of basically foreclosing the more sophisticated arguments of the ‘Terfs’, it is at least partly down to the unavoidable implications of calling trans women men (which are not always merely implicit - Smith talks of the preponderance of men, “however they identify”, among the perpetrators of violent crime, as if that proved anything on its own).
The opposite error is present among the pro-trans side, however. This is pretty sharply obvious with the intersectionalist hard core, whose theoretical underpinnings are not only anti-materialist, but anti-realist in the strict sense (ie, they deny the possibility of an external referent for utterances; hence all the ‘speaking as a woman of colour’ stuff). Thus reference to biology as such is sometimes, in the wilder fringes of Tumblr, deemed oppressive.
Our petitioners - being more strongly intellectually linked to the ‘traditional’ left and Marxism - are not that far gone. Yet they seem to believe that it is enough to prove that trans women suffer from violence and oppression (which many of the most hostile of the ‘Terfs’ would not deny) to establish a strict analogy between their travails and biological women.
A historical-materialist account of transgender politics surely cannot ignore the brute, simple fact that trans liberation grew not out of feminism, but the gay liberation movement. It sits in the most common variant of the gay-lib acronym - LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender). Our petitioners open with a citation from Sylvia Rivera - “I’ve been to prison and I’ve been raped by men - straight men!” - which was, however, not delivered at a second-wave feminist event, but the Christopher Street gay rights march in New York.
It is hardly surprising, from our point of view: peasant families depend directly on family labour for their members to survive, and thus repress homosexuality and gender non-conformity alike all the more effectively. The rise of capitalism and the huge expansion of the urban population created the conditions for those among the toiling masses - if they so choose - either to live at variance with their biological sex, or pursue sexual relations outside the reproductive family.
Trans women get raped in prison by straight men - but straight men also get raped in prison by straight men. Another example from the petition: “heterosexual men who attack trans women can avoid jail through arguing they found themselves ‘panicked’” - is also basically the same phenomenon as homophobia, which got its medical suffix from the fear bigoted straight men feel that they might be used ‘as a woman’ by a gay man. The inhuman environment of prison flips this fear on its head, and weaponises the sexuality of the strong against those perceived to be weak.
It would seem, then, that there are grounds for treating the oppression of trans women differently from biological women. But this is only one of an inordinate number of axes upon which the world of women is divided. The chief pitfall of both sides of this argument is that they expect to proceed from the direct experience of oppression via simple analysis to an agency for its overthrow - yet, starting from different phenomena afflicting different women, they arrive at irreconcilable hostility. For the ‘Terfs’, the Twitter aggression of pro-trans intersectionalists is a matter of male violence; for the pro-trans side, the hostility of the ‘Terfs’ carries its own threat of violence.
The debate, should anyone be found who thinks there is a debate to be had, is thus a trap: to take sides directly is to become imprisoned in identity politics. The real differences of subjective experience among the oppressed become unsurpassable chasms. It is conscious political action alone that can unite, but that means a radical shift in perspective - from the experience of the suffering body to the abstraction of theory, from trench warfare on social media to dispassionate analysis of the grounds of exploitation and oppression.
Above all, it means debate - not trigger warnings.
1. This appellation is unsurprisingly disputed, with one of the more tiresome sub-elements of the arguments between the two sides being over whether or not ‘Terf’ is a slur. Quite apart from political judgements we may make of these radical feminists, it seems pretty plain to me that it is a slur, or at least a loaded and deliberately insulting formulation. For that reason I am using the term in quote marks throughout this article.
2. See http://socialistresistance.org/7323/feminism-and-transgender-why-is-there-a-debate#comment-74097.