It is an open secret that there is an intense discussion taking place within the SWP about what our party’s perspective should be for advancing women’s liberation. Others have begun writing; I look forward to seeing what they come up with. What I want to do here is not so much establish a perspective (for some pretty obvious reasons, other people will have to do that, not me), so much as to ask what the point is of even having a perspective? The test of our ideas is not whether we match the university regulation standard for referencing (of 50 notes or so per 6000 word article), nor is it even whether our writing is crisp or exciting. What counts for us is to whether we actually inspire activists with practical ideas that might in turn encourage others to resist.
I’ll start with something Julie Sherry wrote in the Guardian a couple of months ago: “SWP members, women and men, have always been leading in battles for equal pay, for abortion rights, against sexism on university campuses, and against the monstrous way the police and courts treat women…” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/21/challenging-sexism-heart-swp-work).
But if we’re honest with ourselves, the party hasn’t led these battles, not for the last thirty years. One of the reasons why we haven’t is that the assumption behind the piece – of heroic activists in the union and women’s movements, repeatedly and valiantly fighting against institutional pressures on all fronts – isn’t always how it has happened.
In terms of equal pay, the reality is that there have been hardly any equal pay strikes in Britain since Thatcher came in to power. Where councils and hospitals have tried to introduce equal pay, it has been a chaotic mess; with the unions often on the side of men facing pay cuts. In the worst cases, as in Middlesbrough five years ago, women workers have ended up suing their unions for lethargy (http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/gmbv.html).
Middlesbrough is not an isolated example. In Brighton at this very moment, there is a Green council trying to introduce equal pay, not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it has to. Its proposals have caused male refuse workers, facing paycuts, to occupy their workplace in protest (http://union-news.co.uk/2013/05/brighton-pay-cuts-occupation-votes-to-continue-strike/). Most on the left have taken up their cause, including the local Green MP (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/05/08/caroline-lucas-says-shell-join-picket-against-her-own-party/), and for understandable reasons. Unless people fight, the chances of any better solution are near zero. But hardly anyone has worked out how to reconnect the protest to the politics of equal pay.
We would by lying also if we pretended that the battle against the institutional sexism of the courts has been led by members of the SWP. There has been a struggle, but the leading role has been played by groups such as women’s refuges, who have taken on themselves to encourage women to bring rape complaints, and then criticised the police and the courts when they have let these same women down. In fifty years of the party’s publications, as far as I can tell, we have only ever published one article longer than 3000 words on the subject of rape. The piece itself is largely a polemic against those who made a political strategy of campaigning about rape (http://www.marxists.de/gender/mcgregor/rapeporn.htm). This campaign has not been a priority for us; we cannot be surprised if others have led it.
In terms of abortion rights; there is an Abortion Rights Campaign, which has had positive coverage in Socialist Worker from 2007 until last autumn. But has the SWP really been “leading” the campaign? Some of our members have been active in the campaign and I am proud they have. But no-one could say that we launched the campaign, or that we lead it, or that it is dominated by our politics. We have been a participant, that is all.
As for fighting sexism on campuses: there were Slutwalks. Our members have supported them. We did not initiate the campaign. At best we have been part of its rank and file.
Leadership does not mean only praising from the sidelines someone else’s campaign. It also means (at the right times) choosing for yourself the issues on which to fight, winning other people to a plan, spotting a new trend in how sexism works, and inspiring others to fight it. Readers will no doubt tell me about local campaigns about sexism – in Sheffield and Cambridge, and elsewhere – which were initiated by comrades. They happened. Another positive I can think of was the party’s International Women’s Day event in 2012, which worked precisely by inviting in many, many other activists from different campaigns. It was just the sort of thing that we used to do well.
Even if every success was acknowledged, I’m also sure that even the fullest account would still leave a disparity between the significance we have accorded to women’s liberation, and the hours we have all spent campaigning against the EDL. (Don’t get me wrong; now, of all times, I’m not denigrating anti-fascism. I’m just making the obvious point that liberation from oppression needs to take place on more than one axis).
Of course, it was a lot easier during the abortion battles of the 1970s; where women in the International Socialists often were the local leaderships of that campaign. We had more women members; we had a designated women’s magazine (later a newspaper) and a network of women members which naturally invited comrades to think “what interventions are we trying; what has worked and, what hasn’t?”
You don’t need to have a separate women’s organisation, excluding men (indeed, as far as I am aware, Women’s Voice existed for about 10 years, and there were separate women’s-only WV groups only from about June 1978 to October 1979). But if you don’t have a women’s network, there have to be other mechanisms by which your members might be encouraged to play a leading role in the women’s movement.
Going back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is a fact that several of the leading figures in early Women’s Liberation came into it from IS. The best known is Sheila Rowbotham. There was no women’s IS group when she wrote ‘Hidden from History’. The point is rather that in 1968-1972 the International Socialists were the liveliest and most exciting group on the far left. Lots of young people joined them – both men and women. So that when the women’s movement started, IS women just organically found themselves in local leadership roles.
This to my mind is the real reason why we need to have a perspective for fighting sexism. We want the best activists – in the battles against capitalism, and against oppression in all its forms – to identify with the Marxist left. We want the sorts of people who set up local Slutwalks to think that a party like ours could be a home for them. Recent events have made it much harder for us – of course. But this is our recent past, we cannot live outside of it or pretend it didn’t happen. We need to renew our politics. Either we will give up on Marxism and on women’s liberation and on everything we used to think we believed. Or we won’t. Assuming we don’t, we will have to be honest about our mistakes, change tack, and start to learn to do things differently.