Elaine Morgan’s insights contributed much more to human anthropology than just ‘seeing off’ the ‘savanna hypothesis’, as I’m sure Chris Knight would agree. Anthropology was just one of her many interests - she is best described as a talented, ‘creative’ writer with a multitude of interests.
I remember purchasing The descent of woman in 1972, the year it appeared - not a ‘scholarly’ work; rather an intelligent drawing together of the discoveries and speculations of others, injected with important, original suggestions and implications arising from current fieldwork. It’s a book I’ve always remembered positively, appearing when one of the ‘great issues’ under discussion concerned locating and defining the ‘female orgasm’; Ann Koedt’s seminal Myth of the vaginal orgasm arrived roughly at the same time.
There was a final break with Victorian morality, which viewed sex as essentially a male activity, displeasing to ‘respectable’ women, who were required to endure it, in marriage, from a sense of duty. Among alleged so-called ‘progressive’ theories challenging ‘traditional’ attitudes was that of Sigmund Freud, whose ideas carried much weight; Freud did recognise women actually enjoyed sex, but insisted, for the female, there were two distinct ‘types’ of orgasm - the first centred on the clitoris (perceived as the young girl’s erotic zone). However, according to Freud, if the adult female still found the clitoris the focus of sexual excitement, it was a symptom of her “immaturity, neuroticism, masculinity and frigidity”. The second type of female orgasm, according to Freudian theory, centred on the vagina - the erotic zone of the mature female; Freud insisted a woman ‘matured’ sexually by successfully transferring her erotic drive from clitoris to vagina.
Freud’s ideas were first seriously challenged in the early 1950s, when Alfred Kinsey deduced, from a large study, there was “no such thing as a vaginal orgasm”; a decade later, Masters and Johnson carried out a series of laboratory studies, arriving at the same conclusion, neatly summarised by Ann Koedt, who pronounced the vaginal orgasm an a priori impossibility: “Women need no anaesthesia inside the vagina during surgery … the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and incapable of producing the sensations required for climax.” Koedt concluded the ‘myth’ of the vaginal orgasm is perpetuated by men who depend on penile penetration for maximum pre-orgasmic excitement, and who fear their own obsolescence (ie, the obsolescence of their penises), should clitoral orgasm receive recognition.
Needless to say, this remained an area of contentious debate for several years, culminating in Shere Hite’s The Hite report (1976). For women, these were crucial questions; it was widely recognised only a minority of women achieved orgasm during intercourse; understandably, those females who accepted the ‘official’ view, regarded themselves as failures, routinely attempting to hide their perceived inadequacies by faking orgasms to satisfy the egos of their partners. Women’s confusions were, of course, in marked contrast to the equanimity among men, for whom orgasm is easily achieved - its physiological locality never questioned, its biological function and purpose assumed.
In his Origin of the family, private property and the state, Engels makes his famous imaginative guess that “the overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument in the production of children.” The historical accuracy of Engels’ account remains unproven - but in a general sense, few would dispute that womankind, per se, is reduced in modern society to ‘an objectivity’, created by and for man - to which, Elaine Morgan adds, even to the extent that her sexuality is denied her. Traditionally, sexual social behaviour, defined by men, not only knows nothing of female sexuality, but, as Ann Koedt suggested, regards it as a threat to themselves.
Overviewing the world’s species (Morgan carried out no primary research), she concluded human sexual behaviour does not conform with most other species; among mammals, for example, the primate female is never coerced (an exception, I might suggest, being the orangutan, where rape is the order of the day!). This is a major theme explored in The descent of woman; Morgan’s hypothesis on this question was to me, back in the 1970s, an essential contribution. (I’ve not seen it, nor the conclusions she draws, elsewhere - no doubt if it’s my ignorance being displayed, Chris Knight will oblige!)
Morgan suggested that, following the females’ “world-historic defeat”, males restructured not only society as a whole, but even the manner in which the sex act was performed. As she had reported, considering species overall, the female sexual desire was the determining one (she initiates intercourse), but for the female mammal, (although Morgan hadn’t quite realised it yet), it’s the clitoris that must receive the stimulation, which is more naturally achievable when both participants face the same direction - the usual scenario in the natural world. Position, of course, is of secondary importance to the male; the vagina provides his frictional stimulation. Hence, the crucial ‘turning the woman over’ for the benefit of the dominant male that occurred in human society resulted in tragic consequences for the female.
Recognising the importance of this event, as Elaine Morgan did, is of tremendous importance (even though she seemed reluctant to abandon theories of a vaginal orgasm); arguably the vaginal orgasm debate was itself a reflection of Engels’ “world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Elaine Morgan writes: “When he turned her over, she was not only frightened and uncomfortable; she was robbed of her behavioural reward. However lustily he exerted himself … From the female’s point of view, the whole exercise was a dead loss. Of course, the ape had no idea what had gone wrong. As far as he could make out, all the females of his species had gone cantankerous and completely frigid in a surprisingly short space of time and for no earthly reason.”
Elaine Morgan - an insightful writer! Even the amateur bystander (aren’t we all in that category?) can make meaningful contributions to human knowledge.
For a good part of his 33 years in power, Robert Mugabe has presided over a ruthless dictatorship. Yet in the July 31 elections the 89-year-old ruler annihilated the hitherto iconic working class leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his Movement for Democratic Change. What happened?
The working class is deeply pained by this tsunami, and many are tempted to go for the easy answer that the MDC merely lost because of rigging. That there was intimidation, an uneven terrain and some manipulation or rigging may be true, but the massive scale of the MDC’s defeat points to other and deeper reasons. To recover and move forward working people need to have an honest analysis to understand such factors.
Unlike 2008, Zanu-PF came into this election as a cohesive unit. It had its most democratic primary elections ever, resulting in popular local candidates running, many of whom are small capitalists, who had been on the ground sponsoring local projects. Tsvangirai blundered by protecting unpopular incumbents of up to three terms who had been hardly visible in their constituencies. The MDC wrongly assumed that the 2008 protest vote, which was driven by economic melt-down, would be repeated. Tsvangirai’s own sex scandals and the corruption of MDC-run councils did not help.
But there were deeper reasons for the defeat, reasons for which the MDC leadership must assume prime responsibility. Firstly, with total economic collapse in 2008, the MDC saved Zanu-PF from certain oblivion by agreeing to join a ‘government of national unity’ (GNU), in which the security apparatus of the dictatorship was left intact, whilst the MDC was landed with the burden of recovering the economy. The main mistake though was not just in joining such an ill-balanced GNU, but rather what the MDC did once it got into government. In charge of the economic and social ministries, the MDC launched a fanatic, International Monetary Fund-inspired neoliberal offensive to kick-start the collapsed economy. Its central elements included: slashing of all quasi-fiscal subsidies to the poor; wage freezes for civil servants and starvation wages for other workers; cash-budgeting and attacking unions. Whilst the MDC’s Tendai Biti was being lauded by the west as “the best finance minister in Africa”, the austerity knife was piercing deep into the hearts of the rural poor.
Even as Biti pleaded lack of money, the truth was that state monthly revenue shot up from $60 million in 2009 to $250 million by 2013 and he had received a special IMF bonus of half a billion dollars. Whilst berating civil servants that money does not grow on trees, Biti showered MPs with $15,000 bonuses, luxury cars and endless foreign trips for ministers.
Whilst benefiting from these policies, Mugabe strategically repositioned his party leftward, around land, indigenisation, economic empowerment and African nationalism. Such reorientation had also saved him from the 1990s revolts. Mugabe and his ministers dished out seeds, fertiliser and food to rural farmers, recognised the informal sector, and gave out urban housing stands and projects to youths and women. They vigorously courted the independent African churches and ran an anti-west, anti-sanctions campaign. On the eve of the elections minister Ignatius Chombo announced a hugely popular cancellation of council debts, which was denounced by the MDC. As agriculture recovered, Zanu-PF’s rural base soared nationwide, just as that of Tsvangirai and the MDC massively shrunk.
It is therefore not surprising that the defining character of these elections is that the rural voters across the country have rejected and abandoned Tsvangirai and the MDC. Zanu-PF’s 40% strong showing in the towns shows that many urban poor are following. As in Kenya and Zambia, where rising African nationalism triumphed, and the anti-neoliberal revolts across the world, the rural poor rejected the MDC as the party most closely identified with austerity and western puppetry. In the absence of a major left radical alternative, this has meant voting for an odious repressive regime, but one that was forced to make radical nationalist concessions to the masses to survive.
In our February 2001 document to the MDC national council, we had warned that unless the party embraced land reform, renounced the neoliberal ideology foisted on it by its new western friends, and returned to its working class base, it faced annihilation from a leftward-moving regime. We were booted out. The main reasons for this disaster cannot be intimidation or rigging. It becomes difficult to sustain rigging as the main reason when the pro-opposition, western-funded local elections monitoring body, ZESN, that had 7,000 observers nationwide, tells us that “in 98% of polling stations
there were no incidents of intimidation … nor did anyone attempt to disrupt the counting process”.
The message from the elections is clear. For working people there is no future with the MDC and Tsvangirai. Lacking a pro-poor ideology and strategy, it will not resurrect from this disaster. Yesterday’s workers’ leaders have become today’s poodles of the capitalists and bosses.
However, unless there is global recession, economic meltdown is unlikely. Whilst probably expecting a Mugabe victory, the west are stunned by his landslide, and for now withhold recognition to send a message to Mugabe not to dare pursue the aggressive nationalist agenda he promised in the elections. With survival guaranteed, Mugabe will still pursue his vote-catching nationalist agenda, but will likely moderate it and strike some compromise with banks, big business and the west to avert an open strike by the capitalists and west that may bring down the economy. He is likely to pursue an agriculture-mining-tourism-anchored economic growth agenda geared towards China, India, Russia and Brazil.
Without the necessary ideological, strategic and leadership overhaul, the MDC will suffer gradual, terminal decline. Without the emergence of a radical left alternative, the danger deepens of the working classes continuing to fall into the hands of a repressive, bourgeois nationalist dictatorship that opportunistically sings their song, but, with its survival guaranteed, will sooner or later, as it has done in the past, attack the poor, rural and urban, in the service of the system that it ultimately serves: that is, capitalism.
The way forward for working people is to break from the MDC and lay now the foundations for a new working people’s movement to continue the struggle against the regime. A movement that does not replicate the MDC’s rightwing ideological bankruptcy, but positions itself to the left of Zanu-PF on an anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist basis. Such a movement has to be built slowly and organically from the struggles of workers and the poor, from the bottom to the top and anchored around the newly radicalising trade unions and social movements. It cannot be built or decreed from boardrooms or mere anti-Mugabe sentiment or the same ideology as the MDC. It will not only fight for political democracy, but also the full expropriation of the mines, banks, big businesses and big farms now under new black exploiters, placing these under the democratic control of workers and rural farmers for the benefit of all, as part of a regional and international struggle to smash capitalism and build socialism.
The elections have generally been described by all observers, the parties and the western nations as peaceful but by some as not being free and fair due to instances of bussing, a shambolic voting roll, massive disenfranchisement, double-voting, suspicious voting slips, among other things. In an initial statement the MDC rejected the election as a huge farce and met to offer a way forward to their members who were becoming restless, with some calling for a boycott of parliament and street protests.
What is clear is that the MDC is now desperate to regain confidence from its western imperialist handlers and has resolved to boycott parliament and other state institutions, demanding a rerun. But, most tellingly, the MDC states it will achieve all its aims through peaceful means. It would have been foolhardy for anyone to expect the MDC to go beyond this and call for the mobilisation of the masses onto the streets, as this would be very difficult to control.
The mood across the country is one of shock for the masses who had put so much faith in the MDC. They are more shocked by its resolution to pursue a useless route. It is true that to a large extent Zanu-PF manipulated the voting system in order to defend itself against western imperialism and on behalf of Chinese-led imperialism, but also, critically, over the years the MDC lost its original appeal because of its record in office, as well as its initial limited radical tactics. The key observer bodies, SADC and AU, have endorsed the elections and the outcome, effectively ending their mediation role of over five years and setting the tone for inevitable, albeit grudging, acceptance of the results by western countries and the USA, which are eager to participate in the diamond industry and tone down the Zanu-PF indigenisation drive, despite their condemnation of the outcome. That observers known to be funded directly by western states have castigated the manner in which the poll was run will do little to sway the western states’ resolve to end this disastrous episode that has not boded well for them in terms of regaining dominance ahead of Chinese imperialism.
The key lesson for workers, youths and the poor masses is the inability of reformism to resolve even the basic democratic issues. Firstly, that a hated regime can steal its way to power and yet get away with it shows that real democracy is not compatible with a capitalist system, where economic and geopolitical interests ride above people’s wishes and interests. Secondly, and more importantly, this election has and will expose the reformist MDC as a degenerated part in the imperialist game with no intention and capacity to move beyond electoral, diplomatic, judicial, religious and legal routes in fighting for the rights and interests of the poor masses it claims to represent.
We call on the workers and the poor masses to reject the call for passive resistance and symbolic protests and instead mobilise for a general strike as a key element of revolutionary protests led by independent local organs to avoid betrayal and the hijacking of the struggle by reformist groups bent on squandering the fight of the poor.
The Socialist Workers Party really does seem to be in disarray. National secretary Charlie Kimber this week sent a circular to all members announcing that the SWP annual conference is to be brought forward from its usual time, the first weekend in January.
The reason he gives is that “There are significant issues of politics, perspective and organisation which need to be debated and decided on in the SWP. It is best that we do this sooner rather than later.” So why, in that case, is the conference now to be held over the weekend of December 13-15 - in other words, just three weeks earlier than scheduled? What is the point?
We know that the central committee is behaving in a totally impotent manner. It has acknowledged that an opposition faction is now operating openly, publishing statements and discussion on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century blog. A week ago the opposition held a meeting of its supporters in London.
In any democratic organisation all this would be regarded as perfectly normal - but not in the SWP. Factions are only permitted in the three-month pre-conference period and even then all their material must be circulated via the SWP central office. If factional meetings are held, they must be open to all SWP members (not least CC spies!).
Several sessions of the SWP’s Marxism summer school featured open debate between the leadership and the opposition, and afterwards the CC was effectively forced to admit that it could do nothing, even though this year’s March special conference clearly backed the factional ban. But never mind: the next conference will definitely ‘draw a line’ under this business. As the latest circular states, “… we have to be really clear that if we’re to continue to have a real influence in the movement, both in Britain and internationally, the next SWP conference must return the party to its normal functioning. The CC is determined that the next SWP conference will do this and bring an end to permanent factions for good.”
What the CC is doing, then, is attempting to bring its unheeded commands into line with the reality. Once the three-month pre-discussion period starts, the faction will be ‘legitimate’, so let’s get it started as soon as possible! Yes, September 13, the day that period begins, is still some way off, but in August not much happens, does it?
By the way, just in case you were thinking of discussing what conference motions you ought to move, comrade Kimber warns: “Obviously motions cannot be discussed outside the pre-conference period.” Obviously!
As a Left Unity supporter, I was very pleased to see that the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee is critically supporting the Socialist Platform of Left Unity (‘Rules for flirting’, August 1).
Since 2006 I have felt that revolutionary unity can best be achieved within broad socialist organisations. Even if your idea of a unified ‘Marxist party’ was theoretically the best way forward, sectarianism on the left was guaranteed to ensure that it never took off (if a larger organisation, particularly the SWP, proposed it, there may have been a different outcome). The failure of the Campaign for a Marxist Party illustrated problems with that strategy. Besides, I don’t think the level of mass support required to lead a revolution can be achieved by a party solely consisting of Marxists.
There is nothing in the Socialist Platform statement that I disagree with enough to prevent me from endorsing that statement. Nevertheless, I have decided that the time is ripe to try to launch the Revolutionary Platform of Left Unity. I have posted the text in various places online, including the Left Unity website, Facebook and my blog.
The idea is to unite as many genuine revolutionary socialists as possible within LU in a single platform, to try to overcome the problem which occurred with other broad socialist organisations (including the Scottish Socialist Party) of rival revolutionary organisations competing with each other within it rather than cooperating around shared goals.
If you want to sign this statement, please email me with your name and location. We need 10 members to become an official platform with the ability to put forward motions at the November conference.
The launch each week of three new food banks across Britain is a sign of our times. There are now more than eight million people whose income from benefits, self-employment and part-time jobs is precarious.The working week needs to be reduced to 30 hours with no loss of pay and the minimum wage raised to £10 an hour. This would create secure, full-time jobs for the ‘precariat’ and the one million young people not in education, employment or training.It’s the only way to avoid food banks becoming a permanent feature of Britain’s social landscape.