John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

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

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

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

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Intersectionality and the SWP

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Image by Louise W“Struggles against all oppressions including race, sex or class, can be waged simultaneously. Only by doing this can we hope to build a strong, progressive human and civil rights movement. Rather than rights for the few, we must have rights for all." (From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters [1])

I was pondering Angela Davis’s comment about the need to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society in relation to reading the SWP’s pre-conference discussion bulletins. Certainly what I encountered was pages and pages of a defensive, “We are right and everyone else is wrong” and overall blinkered understanding of society and their own political culture. Liberating minds is more about taking that leap as opposed to following a rigid line while telling yourself you are right. But then I don’t believe the SWP leadership want to liberate their democratic/bureaucratic centralist mindset. Why would you? As far as you are concerned, you are right. It’s as simple as that.

 

In the bulletins there are a couple of articles on women’s liberation but what caught my eye were two in particular, one being the Central Committee’s piece on Fighting Women’s Oppression (IB2) and the other being Sally from Walthamstow on Intersectionality (IB1). Both give a rather rapid and vapid tour of their interpretation of feminism and the women’s liberation movement; neither give any clear analysis. To summarise the two pieces, both are dominated by economism, workerism and a distorted view of feminism. In other words, there’s a hierarchy of oppression where class trumps all. Again, and again and again...that spurious argument is used time and time again by revolutionary sects, and not just by the SWP but the CPGB and many on the left overall.

The Central Committee’s piece criticises the updated Beyond the Fragments by arguing, “The republishing of Beyond the Fragments by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainright this year with a new chapter by each of the authors is another sign of this looking back to find ideas to explain the present."

Looking back to find ideas to explain the present? Isn’t that what Marxists do...looking back at the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky et al? You can accuse any Marxist of “looking back”, even the SWP, but these darn feminists...

Beyond the Fragments was influential in raising political consciousness and understanding women’s oppression. It was (and still is) light years ahead of anything published by those revolutionaries who sneer at and distort feminism armed with their own brand of macho workerism. I also think the SWP leadership still can’t quite come to terms with Sheila Rowbotham’s highly critical and honest analysis of Leninism (now and then). The document seethes at the claims the SWP is sexist:

“The party puts the question of women’s liberation as essential to the fight for socialism. Our theory and practice is in direct contradiction to recent accusations that our party is sexist.”

I mean, how can the critics accuse them of sexism when they have a creche! How VERY dare you!

The defining moment for the SWP’s approach to women’s liberation was how the leadership dealt with a rape allegation by showing contempt, collusion and cover-ups resulting in constant political justifications for this shocking behaviour. It also also lifted the lid on a very rigid, cultish and bureaucratic political culture. Not sexist? The left reflects the unequal power relationships between men and women which exist in society overall. It is not hermetically sealed from oppression. Unfortunately, when confronted with oppression in your own organisation there is a tendency to stick your head in the sand and blame everyone else. And the left needs to confront this.

The criticism shown to the authors of Beyond the Fragments come from an organisation whose ideas are pickled in aspic and regimented. Where the treatment and investigation of a rape allegation is more akin to something from the 1950s, where it was all “keep it in the family” and “keep your mouth shut”. The SWP leadership are afraid of feminism and precisely because of its alternative power structure, an alternative source of organisational strength, this will inevitably undermine the culture of political obedience in the SWP which they have been careful to impose on the membership for decades. It’s not creeping feminism that has created the woes in the SWP; it’s a corrupt political culture, where powerful men are/were excused for sexual exploitation and violence towards women.

In her updated chapter, Sheila Rowbotham argues in Beyond the Fragments, “I still think Leninsm inclines towards authoritarian forms of organising and see Marxism as a valuable source for ways of seeing which can be mulled over and put into practice rather than as a fixed dogma.” But she encourages people to read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, feminism, liberation movements because, “I believe it is wise to be conscious of the insights and snags in all radical traditions adopted by people in the past.” [2]

That’s definitely not looking back to find ideas to explain the present...

Both the CC and Sally’s pieces look at “ideas about privilege and identity and the nature of how different inequalities 'intersect' under capitalism, all of which are being revisited”.

Furthermore:

“For example we have fundamental differences with privilege theory. This is based on the premise that if someone is simply a member of a group, say is white or male, then they gain privilege because they are not black or a woman in a racist or sexist society. The logic of such a worldview is that it sees individuals as responsible for oppression and it also implies that all men, or all white people have a common experience and interests.”

And:

“When you are told to 'check your privilege' it both implies that a white person benefits from racism in society, a man benefits from sexism and so on. In contrast as Marxists we see racism and sexism as being built in to the very structures of the system. Racism does not benefit white workers — being racist does not give you privilege, it divides our side. Sexism and racism and homophobia entrench divisions and fragmentation within the working class and weaken us.”

The SWP invert things, get things the wrong way round. You only can create unity by confronting oppression. What actually divides us is ignoring the power relationships what exist between in this society. Of course men benefit from women’s oppression, white people benefit from Black oppression, straight people benefit from LGBT oppression, non-disabled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people. It’s ignoring these forms of oppression that divides the class not the people who raise it. There’s no evaluation from the SWP about how to establish unity other than spouting women and men unite along with Black and white unite. It’s meaningless, general and overall empty slogans rather like the “You can’t have women’s liberation without socialism and you can’t have socialism without women’s liberation.” To me, it always sounds like an add-on, an addendum. Not integral to the class struggle. What does it mean in practice? Taking on board the fight against oppression means looking at and challenging individual behaviour as a form of collective action.

The examination of intersectionality continued with Sally’s piece where she criticised Shanice’s article. I was kinda appalled by the way Sally was shockingly dismissive of what Shanice had to say.

“Shanice in her article on the Revolutionary Socialism blog accuses the SWP of not understanding (as an intersectional approach would) that oppressions don’t simply co-exist but shape each other – for example that a black woman’s experience of gender oppression is different from a white woman’s. She writes that, 'There are times when SWP’s theory of women’s liberation today seems to come solely from a white perspective.' She then argues that our focus on, for example, abortion and contraceptive rights doesn’t take account of the experience of African-American women in the US in the 1970s. I don’t know what the response of revolutionary socialists in the US at the time was, but we have certainly argued that we are 'pro-choice', which means defending for example disabled women’s right to have children as well as every woman’s right to an abortion.”

So Black women aren’t allowed to highlight the complexities of the oppression they face. How very dare they... It’s the SWP way all the way! No rigorous debate. Experiencing different forms of oppression means they are effectively trapped and fighting on multiple fronts. Sally does not understand Shanice’s points, about the experiences of Black women, the specific oppression they face; instead she prefers to celebrate how pro-choice the SWP are and therefore simplistically tries to formulate some explanation for this crass observation.

Gloria Joseph argues about the inadequacies of feminism and Marxism when it comes to race, “A specifically Black feminist approach is called for because the psychological dynamics that function among Black men and Black women in the context of existing economic conditions, are qualitatively and culturally different than whites.” [3]

Sally is doing what society does overall: erase the experiences of Black oppression by arguing class reductionism. bell hooks maintains, “No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women... When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” [4]

Has it occurred to Sally that gains made by one group can be at the expense of another? As Valerie Amos and Pratibha Amos argued, “the gains made by white women have been and still are at the expense of Black women”.

The arguments put forward in these two articles highlight the mechanical Marxists (Barbara Ehrenreich was right about this in the 1970s and still correct about it now) who ignore the totality of society and how patriarchal capitalism invades every sphere of life, the way all forms of oppression intersect and intertwine. Yes, have a class analysis but it should be natural for any socialist to wish to stand firm with any group of people fighting against the oppression they face. Indeed for the working class to ever learn how to free itself as a whole such a response must become the response of broad layers of the class. For instance, how can you understand the development of capitalism since 1945 without an appreciation of the role of women workers and their experience or of globalisation without an appreciation of the way immigration laws divide the class between those in the cheap labour bantustans of the poorer countries and those allowed to exist in the gated communities that are the Western countries?

“Feminists today who use the term or at least the approach of 'intersectionality' do so because they want to fight the whole system but they think you need to be a hyphenated activist to achieve this: a Marxist-feminist-anti-racist against the capitalist-white supremacist-patriarchy.”

Really...hyphenated...I recognise the importance of feminism, autonomy and the intertwining of patriarchy, oppression, class and capitalism. I consider myself a socialist feminist. Simple as that.

References

Please read Angela Davis, as well, on her reaction to Judith Butler’s refusal to accept the Berlin Pride’s Civil Courage Award, arguing, “This notion of intersecting or cross-hatched or overlaying categories of oppression is one that has come to us thanks to the work of women of color feminists,” (http://inhysterics.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/angela-davis-rocks-my-socks-off/) and of course her groundbreaking and powerful book Women, Race and Class.

1.  From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers – Southall Black Sisters, Rahila Gupta Zed Books 2004

2.  Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism – Lynne Segal, Hilary Wainwright, Sheila Rowbotham – Merlin Press 2013

3. 'The Incompatible Menage a Trois: Marxism, Feminism and Racism' – Gloria Joseph in Women and Revolution: A discussion on the unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism (ed) Lydia Sargent South End Press, 1981

4.  Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism – bell hooks – South End Press 1999

5.  'Challenging Imperial Feminism' in Feminist Review: Many Voices One Chant, Autumn 1984