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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

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Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

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Financial Appeal

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Financial Appeal

Can liberation politics be 'vulgarised'?

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Steering Committee Note: The steering committee is aware of a lot of discussion in the organisation about an article called 'The politics of anathema in the IS Network'. We will be publishing further responses shortly and would encourage members to submit pieces, either for the website or for our external bulletin, regarding these issues.

This is a response to a recent article from several members of the International Socialist Network. I've generally got a lot of time for this group, who made a concerted effort to transform their former organisation (the SWP). But this piece's gender politics were quite troubling. Specifically, its only footnote: 


'[1]We note, for example, the peculiar way in which forms of anti-oppression politics have been mobilised in this cause. One of us was publicly denounced for ‘alienating’ women comrades by ‘shouting’ during a speech; the use of the word ‘trauma’ in a pre-conference document was deemed ‘ableist’. Such tactics seem not only to vulgarise important arguments, but actually diminish the anti-oppression politics being invoked.'

The 'anti-oppression politics being invoked' are more positively known as 'liberation politics', and have come to play quite a prominent role in the revival of feminist actions/organisation. The simple premise of this practice is that the oppressed cannot have their conditions overturned in a top-down, from-on-high fashion. Women, UK ethnic minorities, queers, people with disabilites, or whatever groups will tend to know the basic contours of their conditions first hand. Their perspectives will be much better than even the most theoretically-informed member of a respectively oppressive group.

(That is, you will learn most about racism in this country from non-whites, most about sex work from sex workers, etc. Any socially disadvantaged group has lived their oppression, and can be relied on better than those who've merely read about it.) 

As such, the claim that an application of liberation politics has 'vulgarised' itself is the real peculiarity, here. Exactly which aristocracy is this practice assumed to belong to?

The 'male voice', and those it speaks over

To move from the general to the specific, I am not a member of the International Socialist Network. In fact, I no longer live in the UK. While I did, however, I saw each and every left wing group I was involved in (including those which were explicitly feminist or queer) fall into the pitfalls of mixed-gender discussions becoming dominated by men. In some cases this was noted, resisted, and fruitfully overturned. In others, it was not.

I reject wholly any unified account of gendered socialisation. Like any political project, it's an uneven process, which is rejected and internalised by people in a huge range of ways. But trends can be quite readily identified. Men are more prone to being assertive, confident and forceful in discussions. As such, conversations in contexts which prize the polemical will usually prove more welcoming to men, and therefore more dominated by them. I've often encountered women (and non-binary defined people) with some of the most sophisticated politics I've ever met falling entirely silent in these kind of environments, often passing comment only later, among a 'safer', smaller crowd. (Usually perspectives with considerably more nuance and utility than the noisy bluster which earlier stifled it.)

Conversations where all points seem to exist at an abstraction from the suffering and priorities of people from oppressed groups can seem not only intimidating, but also simply not worth the effort and time required to engage with. Many people have only so much energy to expend on politics, and battling through macho framing is simply not a worthwhile activity to risk expending it on.

This is by no means limited to women, and is also true of people of whatever gender who suffer from anxiety conditions, or similar. But the first thing those in a socially advantaged position can do is not to pick out exceptional cases, but to practise self-reflection, and self-reflexivity.

Escaping left masculinism

It might be helpful to consider the following primer by Lisa Millbank, intended as a guide for men engaging in mixed-gender conversations:

Especially the following: '6.Consider volume. Men often actually SHOUT in discussions. I’ve seen conversations - not pub conversations, or even emotive conversations, just normal conversations - in which the men are bellowing loudly and the women are occasionally saying something quiet.'

There are, of course, manifold exceptions. But to reject out of hand an effort to raise this as an issue staged by women is extremely concerning.

What should be emphasised is that misogyny, racism, ableism, etc. are inevitable features of interaction in the left, as the left does not exist externally to the society it wishes to upend. What groups should be judged by is their response to these tendencies being brought to their attention.


A link to the original article:

PS It's completely unclear what they mean by 'meta-discourse'. The term 'discourse' is best known for its use by Foucault, whose original definition was quite simple: everything expressed, by whatever means, on a particular topic (including, for example, a single statement which had been repeated). The exact intention of this term is that it covers the entirety, so introducing a "meta" seems to muddle things. Perhaps the word "context" would have served better.