I want to write a few practical points about how I think revolutionary socialists should organise when dealing with oppression – however these extend to political criticisms of certain ‘common-sense’ attitudes that I have experienced whilst organising on the left. These are just a few ideas, but I hope that this might open up a discussion.
We live in a society in which oppression permeates every aspect of our existence, whether it be how we are treated in work or on the street, in our homes and in the media, in accessing public services and healthcare.
Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and disableism permeate the material world, and our consciousness – it doesn’t take a “bad” person to regurgitate these ideas when they are slapped across our media, education system and popular culture, and the capitalist hegemony has the power to allow these ideas to prevail, silencing opposition in the process.
So when it comes to organising a revolutionary party, one which can throw open its doors to the masses, how can we create a party that is fit for the whole of the working class, one which understands and fights against oppression in all of its forms?
One fundamental thing I would like to see in a revolutionary party is the ability for oppressed groups to hold caucuses that can guide the party’s theory and practice around that particular strand of oppression (sexism, racism, transphobia, etc). In practice, it is clear that when women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, and disabled people are allowed the room within the party’s mechanisms to self-organise, we are able to speak more openly. We can speak without fear of having our experiences undermined, without fear of not being understood or having our ideas side-lined. Self-organisation should not have to be something we need to do, however if you live with the day to day experiences of oppression and the division capitalism creates, the process of getting oppressed groups to throw their ideas and experiences into the mass of the party takes time, and it’s something that some people just need to get used to.
I have heard comments before along the lines of “well that’s just separatism” or “men can fight against sexism too” – comments which fail to recognise why self-organisation is important. To say that self-organisation is tantamount to separatism lacks political insight and is offensive. If you deem self-organisation an attempt to shy away from class struggle, you are silencing voices from oppressed groups. You are also saying “if you can’t say it to us, in a way we are going to understand, don’t say it at all” – it actively holds back struggle. Saying that men can fight sexism is self-evident, but it does not serve as an adequate criticism of self-organisation. The purpose of self-organisation is not to set that oppressed group charging off without the rest of the party, it is there to feed into the mass of the party and for us to win the mass of the party to the politics of liberation, including making the mass of the party aware of new developments and opportunities to widen the class struggle.
Another thing that self-organised groups would bring to the party is a greater theoretical contribution to Marxism and its ability to trace the roots of oppression within class society. Often there are sharp political debates going on amongst other political currents that are drawing a wider audience – such as those currently going on within the feminist movement.
Self-organisation would build networks within the revolutionary party that could sharpen our politics. For example, a common problem I face as an LGBTQ comrade is that I often struggle to find other LGBTQ comrades with whom I can discuss ideas or share resources. We should encourage discussion and debate within party literature (in the paper or zine, in our journals or internal bulletins) – something that a self-organised group could take responsibility for maintaining. My experience of the LGBTQ movement – though grassroots LGBTQ struggle still remains at a low level in the UK – is that when new questions are being raised by a movement re-orientating itself, the party’s analyses are drawn out from archives, which are often inapplicable to the current political climate or new developments. Self-organisation would ensure that when there is a lull in a particular liberation movement, the party’s theoretical clarity would not suffer.
Allowing self-organisation can only help to build the party. It is true that many people first become conscious of their oppression as a result of their identity as a woman, an LGBTQ person, a person of colour, or a disabled person. We know this because our daily political struggle is to raise class consciousness; many of us came from other political currents or movements, and were won in time to revolutionary socialism. By giving time and space within the party for self-organisation, we give working class people who identify with one strand of oppression, or the politics of identity, to come and hear socialist arguments – a chance to illustrate how oppression is rooted in the capitalist system and win them to the struggle of the working class.
Various groups on the left have used safe-space policy in a variety of different ways – some more successfully than others. Fundamentally, a safe space policy is a clear set of rules that is given to all members, that sets a baseline for behaviour when we are in meetings, conferences, or even on demonstrations. It gives a clear warning that sexual harassment and violence toward other comrades will not be tolerated, and that oppressive behaviour will not be tolerated. It gives a clear indication both to those who may be tempted to act in such a way, and more crucially, a point of contact for those who experience this behaviour. It shows an outward commitment to welcoming and protecting oppressed groups, it gives us a mechanism to deal instantly with complaints, and ultimately it will show the revolutionary party for what it is – a tribune of the oppressed.
The specifics of any safe space policy need to be hammered out, but in essence we just need to make it clear what we will not tolerate in our meetings, aggregates, conferences or united front work – we will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism – along with any other things we deem unfit for good political practice. Often groups will operate a one or two strikes policy toward things like offensive language used in meetings, so that there is the opportunity to challenge the ideas politically from the floor. Types of behaviour that often don’t carry a warning are things like violence (or the threat of), sexual violence and sexual harassment – I don’t think anyone wants to be in a meeting where these things are deemed acceptable ways to behave toward your comrades. Laying these ground rules might seem like extra work, but if advertised can pull in sections of the class that revolutionary organisations often miss out on. It is one thing to claim a proud tradition of fighting for liberation, but if we fail to deliver a safe space policy to oppressed groups, we are failing to prove our ideas in practice.
Some have argued that a revolutionary organisation does not require these sorts of mechanisms because all members are revolutionary socialists – they are against oppression in all of its forms. However this does not take into account a historical materialist analysis of how our ideas informed by the material conditions of the society we live in, nor how the dominant ideas of the current epoch are those of the ruling class. As revolutionaries we wish to challenge and tear away the social order that creates oppression, however we are not immune to oppressive ideas and behaviour – the ‘muck of ages’. Saying so would be claiming a moral and political superiority that says we are somehow protected from capitalism, its pervasive hegemony and its alienation – something that lies in contradiction with a historical materialist analysis of the world.
You may also say that a sizeable section of the class does not fit into any of these oppressed groups, but they are still oppressed. I agree – we will all be oppressed whilst class society exists, and without socialism I don’t believe it is possible to end oppression. The working class will be oppressed until the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and the construction of a socialist society. However, if we do not take the liberation of the working class seriously – by adapting the party’s mechanisms in order to raise our political level – we risk losing sections of the class from the struggle. If revolutionary socialists remain complacent on liberation, we risk losing sections of the class to cross-class alliances, and the politics of reformism. Oppressed groups should see the revolutionary party as their home – let's fight to make it that way.
Feel free to share your ideas, suggestions, criticisms, comments in the comments box below.