Women’s liberation: a class question

SWP and women: Countless zigs and zags over women’s oppression

The central committee claims that the SWP has a consistent record of fighting for women’s liberation. Former national committee member Dave Isaacson sheds light on the not so excellent truth

Firstly I must say that I do not think that the massive crisis currently taking hold of the Socialist Workers Party - while clearly triggered by allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of the group’s erstwhile national secretary, Martin Smith (aka comrade Delta), and their catastrophically bungled and downright dishonest handling by the bureaucratic apparatus - is at root about these issues. Fundamentally it is about the failure of the SWP’s perspectives and the inability of the rank-and-file membership to do anything to correct them under the bureaucratic-centralist regime.

While SWP members doubtlessly do much good work as individuals, their group’s perspectives and mode of operation have meant that as an organisation they have done little more than service themselves and their apparatus. As a revolutionary organisation the SWP is not fit for purpose. Many things could have triggered a crisis such as the one before us now. The Respect debacle came close, but in spite of their complicity the rest of the CC were able to use the role of John Rees et al to shield themselves from the worst of members’ anger.

On this occasion the removal of Martin Smith as national secretary and getting him to step down from the CC (while allowing him to retain other positions of responsibility and leadership) was quite rightly not sufficient to quell rebellion. The particular form that the crisis has taken has brought numerous questions relating to women’s oppression and democracy to the fore. The whole fiasco reeks all the more of hypocrisy by virtue of the fact that, while the actions of the SWP’s disputes committee made a mockery of the seriousness of the rape allegations, over the same period the SWP had been calling for Julian Assange to face rape charges in Sweden. So when - in response to the details of their crisis featuring in the press and all over the internet - Charlie Kimber, the SWP’s national secretary, issues a statement on behalf of the CC stating that “our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations”,1 we cannot take this claim at face value.

What is the real record of the SWP when it comes to fighting for women’s liberation? By examining such questions we hope to gain positive lessons, not just for those in and around the SWP, who will now be asking many searching questions of their organisation’s history, but by all of us on the left. After all, it is certainly not just the SWP which has a less than pristine record in this area.

Respect and abortion

It is worth starting with recent history - indeed, the very examples Kimber uses (abortion and ‘standing up to Galloway’) - before delving further back into the past. It seems that barely a sentence can be issued by an SWP hack without some distortion of the truth. It must be said from the outset that it is insufficient to “defend abortion” - as Kimber claims the SWP has been doing - as at present women in the UK do not have the right to choose an abortion as they see fit. Abortion rights need not only defending, but extending too. Women must be free to opt to terminate a pregnancy without needing the say-so of doctors (who we know can let their personal prejudices affect decisions), and that this right must be available to the woman as early as possible and as late as necessary.

The SWP’s record concerning abortion over recent years certainly falls short of consistent. When in 2004-05 we witnessed a rise in activity and press attention given to anti-abortionists, members of the CPGB argued that the left needed to take this threat seriously. Other activists recognised a need for something to be done too and moves to set up a new campaign were made. However, as CPGB member Anne Mc Shane reported at the time, “At a meeting held on September 16 2004 to discuss the launch of a new pro-choice initiative, Candy Udwin told us ‘on behalf of’ the SWP that ‘it would be extremely difficult to encroach on existing rights’ and that there was no reason for a new campaign to be set up. For them it was a non-issue.”2

Of course, this all took place when the SWP was championing the Respect project and did not want its own action to embarrass its partners, such as Respect’s anti-abortionist figurehead, George Galloway, and the Muslim Association of Britain and other Muslim leaders. For insisting that principles around women’s and LGBT rights must be upheld clearly in Respect propaganda, CPGB members were slandered as ‘Islamophobes’ (in much the same way as SWP oppositionists are today labelled ‘autonomists’ and ‘feminists’) - as if individual Muslims could not be won to accept principles such as a woman’s right to choose, a notion which is frankly based upon Islamophobic prejudices itself.

I personally remember SWP members sitting dumbstruck and powerless to object when George Galloway slammed abortion as an “abomination” at a Respect rally at Leeds University. Even the deliberately vague position Respect as an organisation held in relation to “a woman’s right to choose” was too much for Galloway, and the SWP all too willingly conceded more ground. The issue was made a matter of conscience, so that, regardless of any policy Respect had, George could - as Respect’s sole representative in Parliament - do and say as he pleased. The CPGB’s motion calling for accountability of representatives at the 2005 Respect conference was dutifully voted down by SWP comrades.

John Rees summed the SWP’s methodology up very well in his closing speech at Respect’s launch convention in 2004. He said: “We fought for the declaration and voted against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there. We are reaching to the people locked out of politics. We voted for what they want.”3 As if the job of Marxists is to hold a mirror up to society rather than seek to revolutionise it.

Let us not dwell on Respect any longer though. While it illustrates clearly the bankruptcy of Kimber’s claims to consistency in defence of abortion and resolve in standing up to Galloway’s reactionary positions regarding women, it is for many SWP members a period viewed as an aberration. A temporary blip amongst an otherwise wholesome history. Yet, while it is a particularly noxious example, it is actually part of a pattern of opportunism going back much further.

Women’s Voice

This is not to say that SWP members have not done some excellent work campaigning for women’s rights and on numerous other questions - they have. I know this both from my own time in the SWP and from working closely with SWP members since then. All but the most blinkered of sectarians will acknowledge this. The organisation is composed overwhelmingly of sincere revolutionary socialists and if it simply disintegrates as a result of this crisis then the whole left and working class movement will be the weaker for it.

Yet the best way to ensure that is the end result would be for SWP comrades to quell their criticisms and ignore the reality which is staring them in the face. The opposite approach is needed. We must open up the entire history of the SWP, and the rest of left of which it is a part, to a rigorous and searching interrogation. Only then can we achieve the clarity we require to move on to something better. This is not “navel-gazing”, as SWP hacks would have you believe, but a long-overdue health check.

The most notorious aspect of the SWP’s history with a strong bearing on the group’s track record regarding women’s liberation is the period from 1972, in which it ran the Women’s Voice publication/organisation until its closure in 1982. It was the decision to terminate Women’s Voice, combined with the subsequent articles produced over the next few years by way of theorising the SWP’s position on women’s oppression, which has left its mark on the SWP ever since - it is still evident in the way CC loyalists are conducting themselves today.

Tom Walker notes in his resignation statement that “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters”.4 He goes on to explain that “this seems to be a legacy of a sharp political argument conducted decades ago against radical feminism and its separatist methods of organisation, but unfortunately it is being used today against young, militant anti-sexists coming into the party. In fact it is deployed against anyone who seems too concerned about issues of gender.” From my own experience in the SWP I can concur that the same arguments that were used to argue for the closure of Women’s Voice are recapitulated many years after the actual event.

So what actually happened back then in the 1970s and early 1980s? Not having been a participant, and recognising that all the accounts I have heard or read from participants have been heavily partial, it is not easy to see through the factional fog. However, it seems likely that the basic facts that Ian Birchall - a member of the SWP and its International Socialists forerunners - relates, in his history of the IS/SWP up until 1979, give a brief but fairly accurate impression of the development of Women’s Voice up until Tony Cliff moved to have it closed down. This pamphlet was published before that, and its account was soon deemed to be off-message.

Birchall explains that “IS can be criticised for the fact that in the early 1970s the organisation as a whole failed to recognise the importance of the rise of the women’s liberation movement, and to make a serious enough intervention in it. IS women were, of course, involved from the beginning ... However, the work tended to be left to the small group of women who took the initiative, with little guidance or encouragement from the central leadership of the organisation.”5

However, by 1975 those around the Women’s Voice publication, signified their growing importance with a rally of 600 in Manchester and the appointment within IS of a full-time women’s organiser, Sheila McGregor. By 1978 the SWP decided to constitute Women’s Voice as an organisation in its own right, with local branches, etc. A rally of 1,000 women was held in Sheffield. By the end of Birchall’s account, which ends in 1979, it all seemed to be going so well, but it really was not long before the shit hit the fan.

Some within Women’s Voice wanted greater independence from the SWP. Feminist ideas must have had a strong influence. In his autobiography Cliff claims: “I always opposed both ... Women’s Voice and also the black workers’ paper, Flame”; and: “Sadly, although I was in the leadership of the SWP, I was never allowed to be involved in the activity of Women’s Voice.”6 I do not know how true this is, but it seems that Cliff was opportunistic enough to tolerate Women’s Voice as a means to bring potential recruits closer to the SWP until it became significant enough to be a threat, or a viable entity in its own right. Then, Cliff came out in opposition to the group. Significantly he won over the leading women activists, Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German. The latter led the assault in what by all accounts was a bitter fight. Women’s Voice was shut down, as was Flame and the SWP Gay Group. Many members were lost through both expulsions and resignations. But for Cliff this price was certainly worth paying.

A more detailed appreciation of the history of Women’s Voice, and indeed other aspects of the SWP’s work regarding women’s oppression, is beyond the scope of this short article, but some basic conclusions can be drawn. It is important that Marxists intervene in and build movements for women’s liberation, but such work must be carried out with the politics of Marxism, not feminism - which at the end of the day offers a sectional outlook. The project of Marxism is for universal emancipation and this necessarily entails women’s liberation, just as surely as the birth of class society required the oppression of women. Marx’s simple claim, that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”,7 is key. The struggle for communism can only be won by the action of the working class.

Defeating sexism

Consistency in upholding principles is not something the SWP is famed for. In this article we have not even touched upon other examples, such as the apologetics displayed towards the Iranian regime in the Stop the War Coalition - hardly a high point for defenders of women’s rights within the SWP. The group has always emphasised the importance of giving workers the confidence to be militant (irrespective of how this is achieved) over and above seeking to develop a conscious fight for a clear socialist programme.

It is precisely this absence of a political programme - something Tony Cliff prided himself in - which has ensured that the history of the SWP, more than any other far-left group, has been a history of zigzags. Flipping from one opportunist get-rich-quick scheme to another, with occasional bouts of sectarian isolation. Cliff believed he had a nose for judging when the moment was right to bend the stick and felt a political programme would have held him back from doing so. Frankly, if there were no other arguments for the adoption of a programme, then this would be sufficient. It is vastly more difficult to hold a wayward leadership to account without a programme to act as a guide to your organisation’s practice. SWP rebels should remember this, as they begin to grapple with the question, ‘What next?’

Sexism and patriarchy constitute barriers to working class unity - and thus socialist revolution - which must be fought. To do so effectively we need to understand how these features manifest themselves within the working class. One of the unfortunate theoretical dogmas which the SWP adopted in developing justifications for the closure of Women’s Voice was the insistence that working class men do not benefit from women’s oppression. Lindsey German wrote: “I would argue ... that not only do men not benefit from women’s work in the family (rather the capitalist system as a whole benefits), but also that it is not true that men and capital are conspiring to stop women having access to economic production.”8 This has dovetailed with the overwhelmingly economistic approach that the SWP has taken to women’s oppression, focusing mainly on questions of equal pay, rights at work, etc. An insufficient approach, of course. All manifestations of women’s oppression need to be challenged, including sexism within the working class - or the revolutionary party for that matter - if workers are to be united in a conscious fight for communism.

Of course, in the sense that women’s oppression acts as a barrier to communism - universal emancipation - then it does not benefit anyone. However, to leave it at that would simply be foolish. In the world as it existed in 1981 (and today) clearly men did gain benefits as individuals, as opposed to a being part of a class, from the inferior position of women. Women on average still do the bulk of housework and childcare, while men still get better pay and access to work. “The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat,” wrote Engels in his Origins of the family, private property and the state.9 It is not sufficient to seek equality within the family, however. What is required is the complete abolition of the patriarchal family as a privatised sphere of domestic labour.

As for the denial of women’s access to economic production, while there is certainly no conspiracy by all men to achieve such a thing, generations of craft unions did just this and it was not until World War II when women were finally admitted to the Amalgamated Engineering Union. This situation has undoubtedly improved, but sexism still plays a part in the unions and elsewhere in the working class movement. By denying that it has a material basis we do ourselves no favours.

Acceptance of this fact should not, however, lead us to doubt the bankruptcy of separatism. Women’s emancipation is not a question for women alone, but for the whole working class. While autonomous socialist organisations for women and other groups can play some role, the absolute priority must be the winning of unity in action of working class women and men. Without this we will never reverse what Engels famously dubbed the “world-historic defeat of the female sex”.10


1. Socialist Worker January 14.

2. ‘Respect silent on abortion onslaughtWeekly Worker March 17 2005

3. ‘Socialism: the final shibbolethWeekly Worker January 29 2004.

4. ‘Why I am resigningWeekly Worker January 10.

5. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/otherdox/smp/smp3.html.

6. T Cliff A world to win London 2000, p146.

7. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

8. L German, ‘Theories of patriarchy’ International Socialism December 1981.

9. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm.

10. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02c.htm.