Feminism: The world of women, like the world of men, is divided
Paul Demarty calls for the unity of men and women in the fight for the self-liberation of the working class
"So this is the little lady who started this great war,” Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have quipped to Mary Beecher Stowe. I seem to have started a rather lesser war all of my own and frankly I see every reason to continue the fight. Hence, in this article, I shall reply to my critics and in passing make a stab at answering a highly controversial question, a question that has tortured the far left since at least the 1970s: what is to be the relationship between Marxism and feminism? Is it to be a happy and equal union, a no-holds-barred battle of irreconcilable enemies, or perhaps a group marriage with ideological representatives of all other oppressed groups?
Of course, the truth is rather more complicated than any of that - but it is perhaps clearer now than it has been for a while that the answer lies firmly within the orbit of the second option. The left is currently the victim of a clean-up operation in the movement and in society at large, and it is being conducted under the flag of feminism and women’s rights. Leftwing feminists who have signed various statements surrounding this are at best naive dupes and at worst active participants. The naive will have to pick a side. The others already have.
It is clear, to put it mildly, that not all readers of the Weekly Worker share this view. Responses to the arguments raised in my two recent articles1 on the Socialist Workers Party and the women’s question have ranged from supportive to mildly irked, to downright hostile.
The lion’s share of the hostility seems to have been provoked by the idea that the ‘safe space for women’ is an infantilising tool of the bureaucracy and should be rejected out of hand. This is perhaps unsurprising, as ‘safe space’ policies are apparently the one thing that unites mainstream ‘liberal’ (in fact, generally strikingly illiberal) feminism and its more politically healthy (but pretty marginal) opponent, ‘socialist feminism’.
Such is the bugbear of Frances, Gwendolen and Josephine Grahl,2 who accuse me of a number of things: “the most childish form of name-calling”; producing “an article which is as meandering and poorly written as it is wrong”; “vile and misogynist claims”; and all the rest. I’m wounded, truly.
Alas, all these criticisms are barely justified in the text of the letter. Quality of writing is a matter of taste, but I notice that the comrades Grahl can only find one formulation sufficiently inelegant to quote directly (more of which later), out of 2,000-odd meandering words. The “childish” “name-calling” turns out to be a matter of punctuation. “Putting the expression ‘safe space’ into inverted commas does not make this reasonable concept ridiculous,” I am chided, immediately after that charge.
I could point out that the comrades have done the same themselves and are presumably thus guilty of childish name-calling ... against themselves. But I am more interested to see how exactly the ‘safe space’ (whoops! there I go again) is a “reasonable concept”. “[Safe] spaces may not of themselves be political,” they concede, “but comrade Demarty might usefully ask himself how political any space is likely to be in which participants have a real fear of rape or other violence.”
Their real problem with my article, however, is that I do not believe that such a “fear of rape” in the SWP milieu is “real”, inasmuch as it implies that you are at greater risk of sexual violence within its ranks than outside. My arithmetic judgment that nine alleged rapes in a long period of time - in an organisation with an infamously high membership turnover - is a low figure, and thus “a pretty good hit rate” in a society where something like a third to a half of women suffer some form of sexual violence in their lives, is condemned as “vile and misogynist”. Readers may judge for themselves whether saying that less women being raped is a good thing is an involuntary expression of a deep-seated and malicious hatred of women.
(As for “other violence”, the comrades Grahl ought to try selling the Weekly Worker outside the Marxism festival, especially when things are generally tense, as they will be this July. It increases your chances of intimidation and assault a great deal more effectively than merely having a vagina.)
It would be easy to dismiss this baseless, absurd and offensive charge as “the most childish form of name-calling”. Unfortunately, it is of a piece with rather more alarming trends, in which the bureaucratic ineptitude of the SWP is transmuted into a matter of violent hatred of women. This is the line of the Daily Mail, Nick Cohen, the Unison women’s conference, the Unite bureaucrats who accused Jerry Hicks of “condoning violence against women” simply for having the support of the SWP, and numerous other undesirables.
The method is the same across all of them - a determinate political problem (the SWP’s bureaucratic organisational norms) with a painfully obvious solution (thorough democratisation) becomes an almost existential one (the SWP, for reasons unknown, hates women) with, alas, an equally obvious solution (they should be anathematised and driven out of the movement, or else used to smear the whole labour and progressive movement).
It is thus removed from the purview of reason, and placed in the same epistemological box as, for instance, the gutter press’s habit of portraying the perpetrators of appalling crimes as incomprehensibly, demoniacally evil. It serves the same ideological purpose - achieving a grubby political aim by presenting the issue as beyond politics, a dispute which pitches the community against a bestial interloper.
I would suspect - and hope - that the comrades Grahl, and not a few others to have objected to my articles, would protest that they are all for democracy in the movement. Good: but it is impossible to argue this on the basis of what has gone before: that is, the assessment that contra my “deliberately provocative and entirely crass”3 headline, ‘Rape is not the problem’, rape is the problem in the SWP.
Because, if violent misogyny is the problem in the SWP, then it must equally be the problem with any other section of the movement in which members ever get away with sexually assaulting other members (no other evidence is offered for the SWP’s misogyny, except that it is not officially feminist). I would suspect that there is not a union or political organisation in the country without such skeletons in the closet. If this means that they are misogynist as such, then democratisation is a laughable notion. It would be as absurd as calling for the democratisation of the Catholic church.
So advocates of the ‘safe space’ are reduced either to demanding nothing or reciting increasingly bizarre irrationalisms. For the former, we may return to the ‘Women in the labour movement’ statement by Cath Elliott and Marsha-Jane Thompson - and signed, as it happens, by two of the three comrades Grahl (Gwendolen is the honourable exception). It is a statement which is unable to come up with anything in the way of proposals, barring the notion “when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of believing women”.4
As formulated, there is a legitimate discussion here on whether internal investigations should use the criminal (beyond all reasonable doubt) or civil (balance of probabilities) standard of proof (most non-state bodies use the latter for complaints procedures; the former was infamously deployed by the SWP disputes committee in the Delta case).5 Beyond that, there is only the assertion that the labour movement should be a “safe space” for women. I argued that the “believing women” argument is inadequate to prevent cover-ups by bureaucratic cliques, because it does not attack the bureaucracy (why should they not end by not “believing women”?).
As for the ‘safe space’ argument, it is simply not clear on this basis what it means. If it is just a matter of all getting together and reaffirming that rape and domestic violence are deplorable, then it is utterly pointless, because, as I previously wrote, “rape - and domestic violence - are not conducted, by and large, by people who explicitly hold women in contempt, but are rather symptoms of an underlying social psychopathology, a deformed consciousness that does not manifest itself in a way that it can, as the writers of the statement imagine, be ‘confronted’ or ‘challenged’ in a direct way”.
“Huh? Say what?” writes left-feminist Louise Whittle in response.6 “I signed [the statement] because I agreed with it.” I believe she is playing dumb, but this paragraph is a little needlessly jargon-heavy, so I will spell it out. Rapists in the movement do not brag about their crimes. Wife-beaters do not go around boasting about their southpaw stance. They are all perfectly capable of mouthing the required pieties about stamping out misogynistic violence, just as the good ‘family men’ who conduct the vast majority of child molestation are perfectly capable of shrieking along with the Daily Mail about malevolent sexual predators - and perhaps even believing it. So what is the point of the pieties?
(Comrade Whittle also asks: “Where’s the empirical and rational basis for this?” It is pretty difficult to prove a negative, but my statement could be disproven very easily, by finding examples of leftwing position papers arguing that rape is progressive, or a private affair between a man and his victim, or some such. As a keen leftwing coprologist, I await her findings with genuine interest. Until they come, I will continue to believe that perpetrators of misogynistic violence in the movement do not make it known to the brothers and sisters at large.)
Left at this, the ‘safe space’ is a pretty empty space. Given that gatherings of leftwingers are not generally scenes of mass rape or violent affray against women, the concept must be given some other content for it to be necessary - let alone “reasonable”. And so we arrive at the ‘no platform for rape deniers’ business. Taken with another latter-day feminist trope - the crusade against ‘rape culture’ - the inevitable result of the ‘safe space’ policy is the exclusion of voices which are, with wildly varying degrees of plausibility, deemed to be ‘enabling’ rape. Thus it is the tool of the bureaucracy.
Exactly who these voices are is a matter of personal prejudice. George Galloway is a popular choice, for his crass comments on the Assange affair. Yet there is no rational reason why he should be excluded that would not justify the following patently ludicrous claim, which emanates inevitably from the nest of vipers that is the Scottish far left, post-Scottish Socialist Party split: “When you make or laugh at a rape joke, you are enabling rapists to continue by sending the message that what they do to people won’t be taken seriously.”7
Of course, comrade Whittle opposes the Unison ‘no platform’ call - but “I do understand the sentiments and reasoning behind this motion. Politically wrongheaded, but totally understandable. In the current climate of devaluing, demeaning and denigrating rape, it’s been shocking and damaging to the left.” No, comrade - George Galloway saying something silly is not “shocking”, nor particularly “damaging”.
What is damaging is the suffocating bureaucracy that hampers progress and political clarification on the left. The SWP disputes committee and the Unison women’s conference are both representatives of this petty caste (and the former, let us remember, was composed of a majority of women and has claimed throughout that it takes rape very seriously indeed). A thousand statements from the likes of Galloway is less damaging than one motion that gives the bureaucracy more weapons against us. Splitting the difference is simply not good enough.
I have ended up, here, discussing one or two very precise theses - ‘safe spaces’ and ‘rape culture/denial’ - which can hardly be said satisfactorily to substitute for feminism as a whole. This ties into other complaints made of me.
Nick Rogers, a supporter of the CPGB, for a start, complains that “the trouble with the Weekly Worker’s attempt in its last two issues to draw a line in the sand between Marxism and feminism is that the debate has produced more heat than light ... I am none the wiser as to what Paul Demarty and Jack Conrad mean by the ‘feminism’ they so vehemently oppose”. He fills in the gap himself: “I have always thought of feminism as simply the belief that the liberation of women from oppression is a priority, that this oppression seeps into all the pores of our society and finds expression in multitudinous ways, and that those at the sharp end of that oppression should play a leading role in combating it.”8
There are two problems with this definition. The first is that it is at a very high level of generality, which fails to tell us anything useful about what feminism does. A definition of Christianity might be offered - the belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. No more precise formulation would avoid excluding one group or another of Christians. Not all believe Jesus was the son of God. Not all accept the biblical accounts. There are Trinitarians, Unitarians and all the rest.
Yet there is nothing about the idea that a particular Jewish man in Roman-occupied Palestine was not of this Earth which should lead, inevitably, to the behaviour of the Catholic church as a global institution; to the particular problems of the relationship between piety and liturgy, exegesis and ritual around which Christian ideology turns and transforms itself.
So I am suspicious of defining feminism in this manner, because it is less a doctrine than an ideology. It is true that there are self-identified feminists that are a little embarrassed by the endless heresy-hunting, campaigns against lads’ mags and sundry ‘rape culture’, who attempt a materialist analysis of sexual oppression and so on. It is equally true that these forces are not and, so far as I know, have never been hegemonic within what has been called feminism at a particular time.
The kicker is in Nick’s final phrase: “those at the sharp end of that oppression should play a leading role in combating it”. There is an assumption in feminism that there is an underlying objective basis for solidarity among women as such: that is, a solidarity which stems from the fact of sexual oppression against the oppressors. On the basis of the actual history of feminism as a movement, more fissile than Trotskyism and Maoism put together, this claim is transparently false, but it is still a serious motive force.
The basis for this claim is the assumption of a partially or completely unified experience of oppression on the part of women, which can provide the ground for this. The basic claim of Marxism, on the other hand, is that it is in the material interests of the working class as a class to act collectively, and to fight for the radical democracy which enables truly collective action, which stands or falls independently of the particular experience of oppression.
The consequence is that the workers’ movement must stand up for the collective interests of the class as a whole, and fight all sectionalism (sexism and oppression of women very much included), or it will fail. We know all too well the philistinism of mainstream far-left forces - ‘official’ communism and the likes of Militant - when it came to the women’s question at the time that second-wave feminism emerged. This philistinism led to disaster. In healthier times, on the other hand, the workers’ movement and class solidarity were pivotal in fighting for women’s suffrage, for the end of slavery in America, and other grotesque inequalities which were not directly connected to the individual experience of class society.
The contention of a unified experience of sexual exploitation and oppression, however, tends to reduce itself to those crimes which are equally oppressive to all - mainly rape and violence against women in general. There is thus a trend towards a myopic focus on this problem,9 which occludes the material basis for women’s oppression, of which rape and so forth are symptoms. The state is a natural ally for such politics, since it has the requisite means of coercion to fight the symptoms. (That is not to say that no progressive positions are ever taken - on abortion, for instance.)
So here is the “line in the sand”. It is necessary for Marxists to fight for the class solidarity of women and men, to oppose all oppression of women and all expressions of sexist ideology, be they religious or secular, explicit or implicit. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty. Feminists, on the other hand, fight for the unity of women as women. The Weekly Worker is unequivocally on the former side of the line. The two positions are not compatible. There are no doubt many self-described ‘Marxist feminists’ who are also on our side of the line. That is all well and good, but in that case their feminism is adding nothing to their Marxism, and they may as well drop it, for clarity’s sake.
Radical Anthropology Group’s Camilla Power10 does not like such dichotomies, which she calls “dinosaur Marxism”: “Jack Conrad says we need to make an either-or choice between Marxism and anarchism. Ditto with sexual politics versus class politics - we’re supposed to choose one or the other. To me, such wooden dichotomies are baggage from our movement’s splintered, tragic past.”
She continues: “If Marx is right to insist on workers’ self-emancipation, then it is only working class women who can lead the struggle against both thousands of years of patriarchy and hundreds of years of capitalism.” This is a dubious quotation with a dubious inference. It is the self-emancipation of the working class, which “is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”;11 and this formulation is based on the aforementioned analytical distinction between class material interests and phenomenal experiences of oppression alluded to above.
We are left with no necessary reason for women to “lead the struggle”; the struggle will be led by those who win the class as a whole to a correct and adequate revolutionary policy, be they male, female, animal, vegetable or mineral (to be as clear as possible: shunting the fight for women’s liberation back to some indeterminate point in the future is not a correct or adequate policy). To pursue the line advocated by comrades Nick and Camilla is actually to take the royal road to further splintering. If women must take the lead on women’s issues, then blacks must take the lead on racial oppression, and black women must take the lead on black women’s issues ... until we arrive at the amusing bickering between different micro-‘privileges’ that so enhances the Twitter experience these days.
There is one thing that comes up again and again in this barrage, which is less directly political, but deserves comment. It is the portrayal of me, personally, and the paper I write for, as overly aggressive in tone. Nick Rogers says I generate “more heat than light”. The comrades Grahl suggest I exhibit “a dangerous aversion to any degree of constructive debate”. Comrade Whittle objects that I “[reduce] the criticism to insults and stereotypes” and avoid “a real discussion”.
Yet look at their contributions. I am “provocative and entirely crass” (Rogers, who is otherwise generally civil); “vile and misogynist”, a bad writer, “the Marxist Melanie Phillips”, and so forth (the particularly energetic Grahls); “incoherent”, “misogynist” (again), “utterly reactionary” (Whittle). Crikey!
Alas, I have got off lightly; a marked feature of contributions from left feminists to relevant internet comment threads is the blind rage. An organisation like the SWP, which dramatically mishandled rape allegations, is depicted almost as if there was a Sade-esque slave-pit under its HQ. People on the wrong side (I stress: the wrong side) of the recent SWP crisis are depicted as more or less rapists themselves.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s cabin, suffered a peculiar fate - from being an abolitionist rallying cry, it became a symbol of all the patronising stereotypes under which blacks were to suffer for the next century. I note that Pam Woods worries that she risks being cast as “a latter-day Uncle Tom” for not buying into this great collective shriek, and she is not the only comrade, or indeed woman comrade, who has expressed to me her unease at the Manichean manner in which these debates are conducted. This approach has four distinctive features: it is repugnant, laughable, paranoid and hypocritical.
Given that this all started with a provocative headline, let me end with another provocation: this is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The trolls scream only because they have nothing to say .
1. ‘Rape is not the problem’, March 14; ‘Meanwhile, in the real world ...’, March 21.
2. Letters, March 21.
3. Nick Rogers, Letters, March 28. On that point, guilty as charged.
5. SWP dissident and barrister Dave Renton has some interesting points on this: http://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/the-man-or-the-woman-who-are-we-supposed-to-believe.
8. Letters, March 28.
9. Indeed, I have noticed as long as I have been writing on these matters an odd Freudian slip on the part of rape-obsessed feminism. Comrade Whittle complains of the “devaluing, demeaning and denigrating [of] rape”; fittingly enough, the Socialist Worker Student Society has previously declared that “it is never acceptable to make statements that undermine rape”. Phrased as such, it rather looks like rape is getting a raw deal, what with all this demeaning and devaluing and undermining that goes on! Well, I suppose it is: from the perspective of a certain feminism, where rape is a uniquely jealous god, the master key to the understanding of society as a whole. Whittle and SWSS alike have bought into this nonsense - whether or not they know it.
10. Letters, March 28.
11. Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (emphasis added): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.