Feminism debate: A useless product of 1970s radicalism
From womens liberation to bureaucratic feminism - Mike Macnair examines the process that produced the witch-hunting of rape deniers
This is a contribution to the discussion on the uses of the word, ‘feminism’, which is currently going on among the left. The discussion has been triggered by the Socialist Workers Party leadership’s use of it as a smear term to attack SWP oppositionists - and, by way of entirely predictable negative dialectical response, has produced a smear campaign against the SWP as a whole as ‘rape deniers’, and so on, and the beginnings of a ‘no platform for SWPers’ campaign. This paper’s sharp criticism of this response has produced a debate ongoing in this paper’s letters column.
This article is an individual contribution to this discussion. It does not express a CPGB ‘party position’. It is also, for the most part, only indirectly related to the immediate debate, and to a considerable extent concerned with ‘forgotten history’: the evolution of the women’s and related movements in the 1970s-80s.
That said, I will start with the current issue. On March 14 we headlined Paul Demarty’s article on the anti-SWP campaign: “Rape is not the problem”. I think this headline was justified, but I am not going to defend all of comrade Demarty’s argument and its expression.
In particular, I think that comrade Demarty’s use of the singular word, ‘feminism’, conflates a number of different ‘feminisms’ to the point of being in danger of amounting to an amalgam. Comrade Demarty’s critics similarly tend to use ‘feminism’ as a singular. But in reality, there are many ‘feminisms’ - not just the now mostly defunct ‘radical feminism’ and ‘revolutionary feminism’ and the once-political, but now mostly academic, ‘Marxist feminism’, and dual-systems-theory ‘socialist feminism’; but also ‘individualist feminism’ (or ‘ifeminism’), and ‘conservative feminism’ or ‘family feminism’. For this reason in what follows I will use scare-quotes round the singular ‘feminism’.
The singular ‘feminism’ creates a real danger: that it pre-emptively commits any alternative to the SWP’s version of ‘Leninism’ to a particular politics: that is to say, what has grown up in the labour movement, out of or mutated from the Eurocommunist wing of the 1970s women’s liberation movement (WLM). This particular version of ‘feminism’ should probably be called ‘bureaucratic feminism’ and is, in a sense, the state and labour movement twin of ‘managerial feminism’ in the corporations. I call this ‘bureaucratic feminism’ because its perspective is very heavily reliant on (a) increased state regulation of behaviour, and (b) positive discrimination in the appointment of women to bureaucratic posts.1
The immediate question this poses is whether bureaucratic or managerial feminism creates ‘safer space’ in the sense of making rape, or other abuse of power for sexual advantage, less likely. Certainly, women bureaucrats or managers are much less likely to commit rape.2 But this does not in itself imply that they are less likely to cover up allegations of rape or abuse of power by their male colleagues or clients. Indeed, the SWP points out that five out of the seven disputes committee members acting in the ‘Delta’ case were female.3 SWP dissidents quite properly responded that the fact that the members of the panel were old friends and colleagues of ‘Delta’ nonetheless denied the process any real credibility.
In other words, by addressing the particular (in this case, issues in the ‘Delta’ case arising from feminist campaigns around rape) in place of the general (in this case, the anti-democratic character of the SWP’s organisational conceptions and structures, as tending to facilitate the abuse of power), the end result is not to deal with the particular. A women-majority committee, of an organisation which quite truthfully says that it has been for years committed to women’s equality (and in fact has parroted ‘feminist’ arguments in the sense which the term is widely understood in the labour movement, though it is opposed to ‘separatism’), nonetheless is plausibly alleged to have fallen back on the old barristers’ dishonest trick of using the complainant’s general conduct as evidence of consent.4
Another and in a sense more fundamental point is also posed. It turns out to be very hard to believe that the fact that the majority of the SWP DC are women is more important to their political conduct than the fact that they are SWP leadership loyalists. This is a rather more general problem. Who would now imagine that the fact that Margaret Thatcher was a woman was more important to her political conduct as prime minister than the fact that she was a Tory?
Equally, the fact that Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean in: women, work and the will to lead (2013), chief operating officer of Facebook, is a woman and - in a sense - a feminist, does not mean she has that much in common with the women who are no doubt employed to do cleaning and other menial work for that corporation. An Institute for Public Policy Research press release on March 31 was headlined: ‘Twentieth century feminism failed working class women’. It turns out that pay gaps between women are now much more substantial than between men and women ...5
How did we get from the high hopes and radical leftism of the 1970s WLM to massively influential managerial and bureaucratic feminism, which, however, has not solved the problem of rape and sexual victimisation of women,6 and is accompanied by sharpening class divisions among them, and the fact that ‘socialist feminism’ is hidden from history?7
The answer is, I think, that this outcome was in a certain sense and in a rather subtle way implicit in the original premises; and that it already became the most likely outcome when Eurocommunist women succeeded in hegemonising the non-separatist wing of the movement under the seemingly innocuous expression, ‘socialist feminism’ (as opposed to earlier versions of ‘Marxist feminism’).
Some of the originators of the term, ‘women’s liberation’, used the expression because they wanted to dissociate themselves from the already existing ‘feminism’, which was a form of single-issue parliamentary lobbying politics.8 But, in doing so, they associated themselves with other models: those of ‘national liberation fronts’ (as in Vietnam, etc9); and in the US in particular, where ‘women’s liberation’ preceded the development in Britain by two or three years, with western ‘soft Maoism’ or ‘Mao-spontaneism,’ influenced by the 1966 ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China. These politics were always weak in Britain (outside the women’s, black and male gay movements) and now only appear in diluted forms, so that it is worth setting out the basic ideas.10
Mao-spontaneism insisted that the immediate communist reorganisation of society was possible through the mobilisation of the will of the oppressed. This voluntarist conception itself came from the ‘Cultural Revolution’.
The proletariat was not at the centre of this project; rather, the ‘core sections’ of the working class were seen as a labour aristocracy corrupted by capital. The revolutionary impulse was to move ‘from the country to the city’, as in China; globally, from the ‘third world’ surrounding the imperialist centres; in the imperialist countries, from the youth, the marginalised poor, blacks, women ... Conversely, the movement to be built was (as in China) a people’s, not a class, front.
The technique for mobilising the will of the oppressed had two strands. The first was the organisation of the oppressed separate from their oppressor. The beginning of this organisation would be the discussion of personal experiences of oppression, ‘speaking bitterness’; this would bring the oppressed to feel their common position and their common anger, to identify their oppressor and move (in the next stage) to direct action against him. This technique, which in the WLM came to be called ‘consciousness-raising’, was used in China to mobilise peasants against the landlords and for some purposes to mobilise women.
The second strand was building examples of the new society - ‘prefigurative institutions’ - which would serve as a pole of attraction. The model here was the ‘liberated zones’ controlled by the Red Army in late 1930s-40s China, and Che Guevara’s foco theory. Today’s language of ‘safe space’ - already pioneered in the 1980s - is a de-gutted version of ‘liberated zones’.
Mao-spontaneism was distinguished from orthodox Beijing-line Maoism (‘Mao-Stalinism’) by the fact that it incorporated elements of the anarchist critique of Leninism; the movement of the masses was all; the party at most a vehicle for coordinating the different movements and ‘generalising experience’.
Activists of the WLM were later to claim these ideas (and in particular the separate organisation of the oppressed and the politics of immediate experience) as the original creation of the movements of the oppressed and proof of their political autonomy. A clear example is the book Beyond the fragments (1979) by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, which is due to be reissued with added essays in May. In fact they were the common currency of the Maoist-influenced part of the new left of the late 60s: its interpretation of the Chinese Revolution. They appeared in the WLM and satellite movements like the Gay Liberation Front and its successors because of the politics of the founders of these movements.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Mao-spontaneist autonomy project? It is necessary to discuss the individual elements of Mao-spontaneism step by step.
First, what is wrong with the project of immediate and complete social reorganisation through mobilising the will of the masses is its voluntarism, its attempt to leap over the problems of the movement of mass consciousness, and its failure to grasp Lenin’s point that revolutions require conditions in which not only broad masses are not prepared to be ruled in the old way, but also the ruling class cannot go on in the old way. Since the middle 1970s the short-term perspective of Maoist voluntarism has, as was inevitable, collapsed into disillusionment and reformism or withdrawal from politics.
Second, the Maoists ‘vulgarised’ the theory of the labour aristocracy, which was already problematic when offered as a theory of social-chauvinism in Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. In times of relatively stable prosperity, skilled and traditionally strongly organised sectors of the working class, which had higher wages, formed the base of US 20th century ‘business unionism’ and of the 19th century British ‘non-political’ (liberal) union leaderships (which Lenin called tred-iunionizm in What is to be done?11). But in Britain (for example), as capital began to take back the concessions which had been made to these strong sectors, they came to be among the most radical elements of the class. In other words, the ‘labour aristocracy’ is a part of the proletariat, not a separate caste. Maoist labour aristocracy theory reduced the political differences in the proletariat to expressions of material interests, conceived in an immediate and unscientific way. This unscientific approach to political differences inevitably produced a particularly virulent sectarianism and a Stalinist approach to dissent, which quite quickly affected the WLM and other ‘autonomous movements of the oppressed’, producing endless splits.
Equally, the ‘periphery to centre’ concept has been shown to be bankrupt in political practice since the 1960s. The USSR has fallen; the People’s Republic of China is in the process of transformation into an imperialist power; the lesser ‘socialist countries’ and ‘left’ nationalist polities have almost universally either been crushed or gone over to neoliberal economics. The WLM was created in part on the basis of arguments about the passivity and ‘embourgeoisement’ of the organised working class - right at the moment when very large mass working class struggles were about to break out in Britain and elsewhere.
The anti-party argument was just a revived form of anarchism. The ‘leaderless’ ‘new forms of organisation’ rapidly proved, like traditional anarchism, not to prevent leaders appearing, but to prevent their being held accountable by the base. The ephemeral attempts at ‘new alliances’ produced by Beyond the fragments, or in which - as in the ‘Chesterfield conferences’ of the 1980s - these or similar thinkers played a leading role, turned out to produce just as much top-table-dominated rallies as the operations of the Labour Party or the left groups and their fronts.
In addition, the course of events in the 1970s and 80s showed that governments, the mass parties and the judiciary could effectively derail movements at the base which lacked a party, not in the ‘Leninist’ sense of a high command, but in that of a political arm dedicated to delegitimising the capitalist constitutional order. The 1974-79 Labour government was able to bring in what Heath had attempted, but failed: judicialisation of labour relations and the effective de-gutting of the shop-stewards’ movement. The process continued with the Thatcher-cum-media offensive against all forms of leftism. By the time of the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike the Eurocommunist version of ‘feminism’ had become an effective ally of the labour right.
Liberated zones in a real sense become a factor in politics when the class struggle has passed over into open civil war (as it had in Russia from the time of the revolution and contemporaneous opening of the civil war, in China from the 1930s). Guevara’s foco concept was a falsification of the history of the Cuban Revolution and was disproved in practice by attempts to replicate it elsewhere in Latin America.
Attempts to construct ‘liberated zones’ in the shape of experiments in communal living in the late 1960s-70s were fairly, though not completely, unsuccessful: there is some material basis for such experiments in the ‘overdevelopment’ of capitalist society, though they have little political significance. Attempts in the same period to make the movement for liberation a ‘liberated zone’ by excluding ‘power relationships’ were productive only of sectarianism and Stalinist witch-hunting of the type practised in the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China.
However, this is by no means to reject altogether the role of ‘prefiguration’ in workers’ and socialist/communist institution-building. It is a true element of Rowbotham’s essay in Beyond the fragments that such ‘prefiguration’ in the form of cooperatives, mutual aid institutions, workers’ education and so on was a normal element of the ‘old left’ workers’ movement. This was, in fact, as true of the parties of the Comintern between the wars as it was of those of the Second International before 1914. The object attacked by Beyond the fragments on this front was not really ‘Leninism’, as the authors thought it was, but Trotskyism as a form of left syndicalism or economism. By insisting on political democracy within our own movement, we are, in fact, seeking to make this movement prefigure - necessarily imperfectly - the future of working class rule. These activities are not ‘liberated zones’, but they are, with all their contradictions and limitations, ‘elements of the new society with which the old collapsing society itself is pregnant’.
The interconnected ideas of separate organisation of the oppressed, consciousness-raising/‘speaking bitterness’ and the ‘politics of experience’ are together the real core of the idea of ‘autonomous movements of the oppressed’. Sometimes the application of this formula has produced militant mobilisations of the oppressed. At others, however, it has reinforced sectarianism, produced demobilisation rather than mobilisation, or generated ideas which are political blind alleys. It is therefore necessary to try to tease out the factors which made this project a dynamic element in the Chinese revolution and episodically in movements of the oppressed since the late 60s, and the factors which have made ‘autonomy’ sometimes a negative project.
The claim that consciousness can be revolutionised out of the experience of oppression in the absence of any perceived political alternative is clearly not supported by these histories. The peasant mobilisations in China were closely directed by the Chinese Communist Party. The dynamic elements in the early WLM and in GLF were the result of the interplay between the political projects of Mao-spontaneism and the immediate experiences of women, including lesbians, and of gay men. Without the overall direction given by the political activists in these movements the specific dynamism and new demands raised would not have appeared.
However, the consciousness of the masses does in part move at the level of day-to-day experience, and can to some extent revolutionise itself through immediate experience. The ‘speaking bitterness’ work of the CCP was always mass work with a view to immediate mobilisation; the dynamism of the early WLM and GLF, and the dynamism of radical feminism as compared to its opponents, grew out of the fact that these projects tried to speak directly to the mass of the oppressed, and to those radicalising for the first time. The ‘politics of experience’ in this sense is a project for mass work with a view to immediate mobilisation; it is not a political basis for a permanent activist organisation, even one as loose as the 1970s WLM.
Revolutionists have to learn from the mobilisation of the masses. In this sense a workers’ party has to learn from movements of the oppressed the concrete demands that they raise for an end to oppression - “demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself”, as Marx put it.12 The process is a two-way one; some demands which are spontaneously raised by the oppressed may be known by the party, on the basis of earlier and wider experience, to be political dead-ends (eg, feminist incomes policy, feminist censorship).
Socialist revolution involves the working class winning the leadership of all layers of the oppressed and exploited; not just the mobilisation of the working class itself. This means that a workers’ party (if we had one!) would have to struggle for the leadership not just of the working class, but of these wider layers of the oppressed and exploited. This is very basic Leninism, from What is to be done?, which was impliedly rejected in the left-syndicalist interpretation of Trotskyism.
Popular-frontism, in contrast, sets up the movements of the oppressed and exploited as a reason for the working class and its party not to fight for the leadership, but instead to subordinate itself in a ‘broad alliance’. The popular-frontism of Mao-spontaneism appeared very radical in the late 1960s on the basis of the relative rightism of the trade union movement in the 1950s; the rightism of the diluted versions which subsequently developed is obvious.
In everyday life the oppressed may be silenced and atomised by their oppression. In this situation it is necessary, in order to mobilise a movement of the oppressed (and to learn from the demands it raises out of the day-to-day experience of oppression), to organise the oppressed separately from those who are the everyday organisers of this silencing and atomisation: peasants from landlords, etc; women from men; and so on. It is important to remember that this is a method of mobilising the mass of the oppressed against everyday permanent oppression and that it is not a sufficient basis for a global programme.
The most successful examples of autonomous movements are those in which there is some existing collective life (eg, the village in the case of the peasantry); the use of the technique among women in China was a good deal less successful, because women were more atomised to start with. Successful autonomous mobilisations of black people have started in local communities, of women in the colleges, among particular groups of women workers, on particular estates, in the pit villages. Outside of these contexts successful mobilisations have been through single-issue campaigns rather than ‘autonomous organisations’.
In the Chinese Revolution it was the peasants themselves who were mobilised to get rid of their oppression by ousting the landlords, usurers, etc. But this cannot be generalised to conclude that in general the mobilisation of the oppressed themselves can end their oppression. The Chinese peasantry was an exploited class who threw off the exploiting classes which were dependent on their exploitation of the peasantry. Neither the bourgeoisie nor white workers/male workers/heterosexual workers are dependent in this sense on the oppression of black people/women/LGBT, etc, people. These oppressions grow, not out of an immediate class relation, but out of the general organisation of imperialism, of capitalist society and, underlying it, of class society as such; and these conditions can only be ended by the mobilisation of the working class at the head of all the oppressed and exploited.
The attempt to make autonomous mobilisation a sufficient basis for victory related back to and reinforced the Mao-spontaneist conceptions of ‘labour aristocracy’ and ‘liberated zones’. It thus had the effect of reinforcing tendencies to sectarianism and internal witch-hunting. It also directed the movements of the oppressed away from a united-front approach to the mass workers’ organisations, reinforcing Maoist popular-frontism.
This - popular frontism as opposed to class politics - was the most fundamental element of Mao-spontaneism, and it is the reason why I said, above, that in a sense the outcome of bureaucratic or managerial feminism was written into the beginning of the movement. The claim of the autonomous movement was precisely that what all women have in common is more important than the class issues which divide them. This was in its origins no more than a variant of the claim that what all members of oppressed nations have in common is more important than the class issues which divide them.
This was a view which had some superficial plausibility in relation to women in cold war conditions in the imperialist countries, when income differentials were relatively held down and the capitalist regimes in Europe and elsewhere were in a bloc with social democratic and trade union leaderships on a basis which included both nationalism and ‘familism’. As capitalism has mutated back towards more ‘classical’ forms with the roll-back counteroffensive from the late 1970s and capitalist victory in the end of the cold war, it has become decreasingly plausible.
The founders of the WLM were largely lefts. But with the WLM there was also born ‘radical feminism’, which argued that gender inequality was more fundamental to social structure than class inequality. The initial ‘icon books’ were Kate Millett’s Sexual politics (1969) and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of sex (1970).
How were the lefts in the movement, for whom class was still an important issue, to respond to this argument? A variety of theoretical work was produced, and this is the context of early ‘Marxist feminism’. It would be seriously desirable to address the arguments again, since they are as ‘hidden from history’ as ‘socialist feminism’, if not more so ...
The outcome, however, came from ‘official’ Communist Party women involved in the WLM. This was ‘dual systems theory’, according to which patriarchy (meaning gender inequality in general) and class were parallel systems.
This line had three political advantages for its proponents. The first was that it provided (as radical feminism also did) a theoretical ground for the political autonomy of the WLM. ‘Official communist’ women were thus not required to confront their party’s allies in the trade union and labour bureaucracy on issues of gender and sex in relation to trade union policy, as Trotskyists urged: the trade union movement and the women’s movement had separate tasks.
Second, while the ‘official’ party massively outweighed the Trotskyists and other far-left trends in general, and even in the student movement where these were strongest, it was decidedly less relatively strong in the WLM; all the more so because of the strong official, patriarchal-familist ideology of the Soviet regime. ‘Dual systems theory’ in this context provided a valuable stick with which to beat the ‘ultra-lefts’ for their ‘class reductionism’.
Thirdly, the CP had for many years already, since the first adoption of The British road to socialism, been committed to popular-frontism in the form of the ‘broad democratic alliance’. After 1968 Eurocommunism began to emerge as a trend which was committed to overthrowing the old orthodoxies of an eventual revolution and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in favour of accepting as democratic the institutional structures of the ‘western’ capitalist states. By the 1974-79 Labour government, the party’s connection with trade union and Labour ‘official’ lefts was tending to lead it also to acceptance of ‘incomes policy’ (ie, controls on wages claims) as an instrument of economic policy. Against this approach, somewhat-left opponents of the party leadership insisted on the continued significance of class. In this context, not only the Trots in the WLM, but also opponents of the new draft of the British road to socialism within the ‘official’ party, could be accused of ‘class reductionism’, being ‘dinosaurs’ and so on.
Through its hegemony in the student union bureaucracy and its links with the ‘official’ lefts, and also because ‘dual systems theory’ both seemed novel and involved less direct confrontation with the ideas of radical feminism, the ‘official’ CP women’s approach attained hegemony for the idea of ‘socialist feminism’. The Trotskyists largely abandoned attempts to theorise the oppression of women in any other way.
It was the Eurocommunists, too, who popularised in Britain Rudi Dutschke’s peculiar, Maoist-reformist tag of the ‘long march through the institutions’ (taking the Chinese revolutionary myth of the ‘long march’ and applying it to justify a reformist policy).
With the ‘long march through the institutions’ we arrived, in the 1980s, at the beginning of ‘bureaucratic feminism’ as it exists today. It is not by any means identical to the classical liberal ‘bourgeois feminism’, which led Marxists like Clara Zetkin to reject altogether the label ‘feminist’.13 It has come out of an evolution in the workers’ movement. But the resulting product is as useless to working class women and to the workers’ movement as the old ‘bourgeois feminism’ was - and also as useless as the ‘official communism’ and ‘soft Maoism’ which are its more immediate ancestors.
1. There is a slightly different sense of ‘bureaucratic feminism’ available in the academic literature, as meaning feminist activism within the state bureaucracy: eg, P Martyr, review of H Eisenstein’s Inside agitators: Australian femocrats and the state (Sydney 1996) in Electronic Journal of Australia and New Zealand History (1999): www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/reviews/lake.htm. The two senses are obviously connected, since the development of ‘bureaucratic feminism’ in the sense in the text is connected with the development of feminist activism within the state bureaucracy, in Britain through the ‘local government left’ of the late 1970s-80s. For the evolution in the US see NA Matthews Confronting rape: the feminist anti-rape movement and the state London 1994.
2. Technically, the definition in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, section 1, requires the offender to have a penis; but a woman who assists in a rape may be convicted (‘Girl, 18, convicted of canal rape’ BBC News March 16 2001: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1225124.stm); and the popular usage of ‘rape’ would also cover ‘assault by penetration’ under section 2, which can be with a hand or object, and can thus be committed by a woman without the presence of a man. Nonetheless, the fundamental point is that, even in relation to child sex abuse, the largest figure quoted for the frequency of female offending is ‘up to 5%’ of all offences in a 2005 NSPCC study (www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/research/findings/femaleswhosexuallyoffend_wda48273.html).
4. Cf R v A No2 (2001), UKHL 25 and the various critical comments on the decision.
5. www.politicshome.com/uk/article/75535/ippr_twentieth_century_feminism_failed_working_class_women.html; also reported in most national newspapers.
6. See, for example, C McGlynn, ‘Feminism, rape and the search for justice’ (2011), 31 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies pp825-42 (arguing for a “restorative justice” approach as a solution); H Reece, ‘Rape myths: is elite opinion right and popular opinion wrong?’: http://ojls.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/03/13/ojls.gqt006.full.pdf+html, reported in a summary way in The Guardian and The Independent March 25 2013 (mainly for the figures rather than the arguments; Reece is a writer for Spiked, and the argument shows some capital-L Libertarian spin).
7. See C Nugent, ‘When women fought for freedom’ Workers’ Liberty No49 (1998): http://archive.workersliberty.org/wlmags/wl49/women.htm; T Conway, ‘Socialist feminism: hidden from history’ (2013): http://socialistresistance.org/4875/socialist-feminism-hidden-from-history.
8. C Hanisch, ‘Women’s liberation: looking back, looking forward’ (2011): www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/2011winter/2011_winter_Hanisch.php.
9. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Liberation_Front) has a convenient list.
10. Something of the flavour can be seen in Lynne Segal’s contribution to Beyond the fragments at pp158-66; the Maoist connection is more apparent in M Dixon, ‘The rise and demise of women’s liberation: a class analysis’ (1977): www.uic.edu/orgs/cwluherstory/CWLUArchive/dixon.html.
11. See LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006, and my review in Weekly Worker August 31 2006.
12. Marx to Sorge, November 5 1880, on the economic section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/letters/80_11_05.htm.
13. Though there is a considerably more complex story behind this: A Lopes and G Roth Men’s feminism: August Bebel and the German socialist movement New York 2000, especially chapter 6 on Zetkin.