Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sex Pol Debate (Women’s Voice, 1978)



THE SEXUAL Politics Conference organised by the Socialist Workers Party drew 120 people at the beginning of December.

Although the term ‘sexual politics’ covers a very wide area, discussion centred around four main topics: the family and its future; sexism and how to fight it; the relationship between the gay movement and the revolutionary party; and the importance of sexual politics within the SWP.

The debates on sexism and male chauvinism revealed a divergence of views on how to fight it, and who should fight it. Should women and gays take the lead, or can groups like Men against Sexism play a useful part?

Some delegates advocated consciousness-raising groups to help individuals overcome their internalised oppression and prejudices, while others insisted that individuals only change through collective action, by helping an equal pay strike for instance.

Sexism is important to fascist parties like the National Front, and to their religious hangers-on like the Festival of Light, though they don’t stress this side of their programme for fear of losing women supporters. The fight against fascism is also a fight against the most vicious forms of sexism.

The workshop on Sexism in the Media discussed the way in which the media and advertisers degrade women by using their bodies to boost profits. We also discussed the way women in the news were trivialised. That morning the BBC had a news item about ‘The Grandmother who Sailed Round the World’.

Women could do something to counter this kind of sexism by writing letters to offending newspapers, taking part in local radio phone-in programmes (it would make a change from all the right-wingers on them!), and guerrilla actions such as putting ‘This Degrades Women’ stickers to good use and organising more ‘reclaiming the night’ marches in male chauvinist heartlands.

At the end of the conference the delegates agreed that we should defend gay organisation like CHE and papers like Gay News from the present right-wing backlash, despite their bourgeois base and lack of Marxist politics.

The debate should be continued in every city and in the pages of Womens Voice, Socialist Worker, and IS Journal. The conference should become an annual event.

  • Look out for a Socialist Worker pamphlet on Sexual Politics, out early in 1978.
  • Contact the Socialist Workers Party Gay Group on the following numbers: [xxx] Penny, [xxx] Richard

Sara Morgan

Women’s World: Contraception (Women’s Voice, 1978)



SOMETIMES it may be hard to remember that contraception was once taboo… that the early pioneers had to risk jail to bring women the most basic and necessary information about their own bodies.

Marie Stopes was one such pioneer. She made a film – a silent film – about the benefits of birth control when it was still and extremely daring subject.

But the censors went to work. They placed so many limitations and restrictions on the film that it finished up being incomprehensible.

This is what happens.

A poor girl, Maisie, is courting. Her young man wants her to marry him. But she looks at her mother, and sees all the poverty and misery that go with marrying young and having a baby every year. So she turns him down and he goes off broken-hearted.

Maisie gets a job as a maid in a big house in town. She wears the black and white uniform maids were always decked out in, to make them look brisk and efficient, and unattractive to the young men of the family. But far from looking brisk, Maisie is downcast.

One day the lady of the house asks her why she’s so sad, and Maisie’s story comes spilling out. She couldn’t marry because she feared to have a multitude of children.

Ah, says the lady. But it needn’t always be so.

Right. This is the bit where you’re going to get the message. The good news about contraception.

But what happens? The picture goes misty. There’s a rose bush, and beautiful roses with dew on them. It’s like a garden, says the lady. The gardener doesn’t let the roses grow wild. He prunes them. That’s it. That’s the message. So now you know all about contraception. Or are you still in the dark, still as baffled as before? And maybe even more so. Pruning! God forbid!

But that’s all Marie Stopes was allowed to say. The censors made sure of it. Any woman who saw the film was still no better off.

Immediately after the roses bit, there’s a fire in the house. Maisie is being carried down a ladder by… a good-looking fireman. Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s her old flame, so they marry and live happily ever after.

Last July we reported on the fact that adverts relating to contraceptives were banned on London Transport, as well as on ITV. It wasn’t long after Thames Television had refused to screen their documentary on changing sexual attitudes in Britain because it might offend some people.

Since then, London transport has relented. Adverts for Durex have appeared on the London underground, as elsewhere throughout the country. They comprise a picture of a racing care with DUREX written on its side, and the slogan, ‘The small family car’.

It was a similar car, racing at Brand’s Hatch which recently caused the BBC to threaten to cancel one of its outside broadcasts. But the BBC regularly screens other sponsored advertising including cigarette adverts which appear around football fields and the like.

No sooner were the Durex ads pasted than people like those who tried to thwart Marie Stopes went into action.

Dr Rhodes Boyson, education spokesman for the Tory shadow cabinet, led the field. People, he says, determined to advertise contraceptives in areas exposed to children are members of the semi-perverted groups of our society.

This is the kind of argument you often hear from those who are perfectly happy to bring their seven-year-olds bearing photographs of aborted foetuses on demonstrations organised by the Society for the Protection of the unborn child.

In reality the offended are few. A National Opinion Poll survey in 1972 found that 60 per cent of their sample thought that the government should spend money on national education and publicity campaigns about birth control.

And the Advertising Standards Authority has found no evidence that the Durex adverts caused widespread offence and had not upheld the handful of complaints it received.

Yet one such complainer in a position of power can do untold damage. One such person can prevent information reaching women who need it… Just one such person is a certain Miss Butler, who works in the Post Office’s telephone directory division. Recently the Family Planning Association, a thoroughly respectable body with government support, asked whether a section called ‘contraception’ could be listed in the yellow pages. Back came Miss Butler’s reply.

‘We consider there is still a substantial sector of the population which is opposed to contraception.’

Over Christmas I’ve been reading a new book called ‘Dutiful Daughters’ by Jean McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham. It’s a collection of the recorded memories of a group of middle-aged and elderly women, most of them working class. Although their memories are recorded individually, there are themes which recur again and again. One of the most harrowing is the almost universally suffered ignorance; ignorance of menstruation and horror at their first period; ignorance of sex and a lifelong inability to overcome their fear and revulsion of it; ignorance of birth, even when they are already in labour.

Ignorance for these women meant suffering, and they ended up hating the mothers who had left them in ignorance. But ignorance is bliss for Rhodes Boyson, and those others like Mary Whitehouse who oppose sex education in schools so long as it is other people’s ignorance. It’s the premium that keeps their power insured.

by Judith Condon

Women’s Voice 13, January 1978

Battered women: who cares? (Women’s Voice 1980)



‘You’re punished for being homeless.  They try to make you feel inadequate.  You get no support, just hassle.  From the minute you walk through the door it’s subtle pressure to get back to your husband.’

This is one woman’s account of the attitude she met in a council hostel for battered women.  Women’s Voice spoke to three women in the hostel about conditions there, and how they had been fighting to get themselves and their children decently rehoused.

The most striking thing was the lack of any emotional or practical support for women entering the hostel.  This isn’t due to individual members of staff but rather the general attitude that if you’ve been battered and find yourself on the streets with your kids, it’s your fault.  You’re just seen as a housing problem.

Helen told us about the reception she had when she arrived at the hostel with her ten month old baby.

‘I’d been walking around the streets all night.  The first thing I asked for was a cup of tea and they wouldn’t give me one.

I was upset, and the biggest mistake you can make is to cry in front of them

When I arrived I had no money.  They sent me to the Social Security but I couldn’t get a giro.  (The women are charged about £9 a week for a room).  We can’t help you they said.  We can’t give you anything.  I started to cry.

I’ve grown up a bit since; you have to in a place like this.  I’m still learning, but you learn fast.’

There are no communal facilities at all – a deliberate attempt to discourage women from getting together.  Some women have been asked to spy on others – a clear case of divide and rule!

But the women we spoke to had managed to get together and were in a much stronger position as a result.  They had spread the word that you don’t have to accept the first offer of accommodation that the council make you.  One woman had been told by a housing official: ‘You’ve got to take what we offer you even if it’s a slum.’

Staff make weekly reports to the housing officer on whether the women make their beds, leave washing in the bath, have a drink in the flat etc.

There’s the underlying attitude all the time that battered women should really go back to their husbands.  Perhaps these women are seeking the ‘excitement of life as a single parent’ – (councilor Edwina Currie talking about single parent families in Birmingham).

Some of the women do go back in desperation when accommodation isn’t offered soon enough.  Accommodation isn’t offered at all until they’ve ‘proved’ they’re battered, and don’t intend to return to their husbands, by starting legal proceedings.

As Barbara said, ‘What do they suspect us of?  Coming here just for a holiday?

They want to know not only if you’ve got any savings bonds, gratuities, etc, but if your children have.  Well, if they have, it’s in their names and you can’t touch it.  I couldn’t tell them about that million pounds I’ve saved out of the housekeeping, could I?’

The women often don’t know their rights, and because it’s hard to get together they are unable to stick up for themselves.

Anne described the experience of one woman: ‘A woman downstairs went back to her husband.  As she walked through that door I felt like crying.  She didn’t want to go back but she’d been offered a slum.

I felt like smashing someone that night.  We had to help take her things down.  Three times she’s been here.  She told me they don’t offer her decent places because they know she’ll go back to her husband.  I said stick it out, but she went.  She was made weak – beaten by the system.’

So what’s the answer?  It’s not individual staff who are to blame – they’re working under pressure, expected to go by ‘the rules’, perhaps afraid of losing their jobs if they don’t.

A lot of problems could be solved by more money.  The cuts in spending mean nowhere near enough council houses are available for rehousing – but this won’t get better with the Tories in charge.

Battered women just aren’t seen as a priority.  The attitude is that they got themselves into this mess in the first place, and if only they’d go back to their husbands then of course the problem would go away.

Helen, Barbara and Anne provide part of the answer – through sticking together you can make some headway, even against near impossible odds.

Jenny Austin

from Women’s Voice 38, February 1980

Rape – hatred and contempt for women (Women’s Voice, 1979)



I have a friend who was raped. This is the story as she told it:

‘I was attacked by three men in a park at night. I didn’t try to get away because  I had no confidence in my own strength. I tried to talk my way out of it.

‘At first it wasn’t like sex. It was so violent. They tried to humiliate me. They were talking to each other, keeping each other going. They were talking to each other, keeping each other. They called me names, they said ‘We’re going to kill you, baby’. One had his knee on my throat, the other ripped my jeans off. One had a black hood over his face. They stuck a bottle up me, and one of them put his prick and tried to strangle me.

‘Suddenly they got off me and started kicking me really hard in the head, in the eyes…they’d seen three people c oming. They were ran away.

‘I was stunned. It’s weird you mind splits off-I was thinking how silly I must look my jeans on. I banged on peoples doors, nobody answered. I was terrified. I phoned the police. It took them 25 minutes to arrive.

‘I told the police they probably catch them if they went to the heath.  They weren’t interested.  They were more interested in what I’d been doing and being derogatory to men.

‘I asked for a police woman. She was very contemptuous, treated me as if I had done something wrong. They took me to a police doctor who took a smear from my vagina. It hurt it was all torn. They took of tampon I had to wear and some pubic hair. They put them in jars and I had to carry them   and all the police could see what I was carrying. At one point I misunderstood something  that the policewoman said and I asked her if she had ever been raped. She said, ‘of course I haven’t!’

‘I had nightmares about being in a tube train and meeting the three guys again. I went to a psychiatrist and she assumed I encouraged the rapists.

‘I think men rape women for different reasons. For  them I think it was a real hatred and contempt for all women, but contempt stems from fear and it was a real fear of women as well. It was as if they were trying to get their own back on me.

‘Women can’t fight back, and men exploit their relative weakness, they trade on physical inequality. The experience has made me aware of the basic need for survival. When it was happening, one part of my mind was almost detached, your mind as a way of protecting you. I searched desperately for things to say to them. But it was the horrible realisation that I was totally alone.

‘It’s crucially important to learn to defend yourself. There’s something about knowing you can fight that makes you equal to them – I was just passive and yelling and telling them to stop. I’ll never get rid of what happened to me but I’ll be better when I know how to defend myself.

‘I started learning Kung Fu. It’s very male. I’m not interested in being aggressive, and I resent that I have to learn to be aggressive. But I have to do it.

‘There’s no easy answer to dealing with rapists in our society. Prison is punishment that reinforces violence, people come out and do the same things again.’

About a year after this, my friend and I were walking on the heath. It was a dull February afternoon. Three men were coming up the hill towards us. Instinctively I took her arm.

As they came level they one leaned over and said to her, ’Hey baby, baby, baby, baby,’ and then walked on. They stood on the brow of the hill and they were very threatening. ‘She was very tense. ’It’s them she said.

I have never experienced such confusion and turmoil. I wanted to kill them to run into the open space of the heath and yell to everyone there that should help me lynch these men.  I didn’t want to let go of her. It flashed through my mind that they’d attack us again and that nobody would help us.

We stood rooted and watched the men disappear. The only revenge we had was to be free of them and as far away as possible.

Is self-defence the only answer for women. Here and now it may be, but rape can only happen in a world where strength means violent, negative, aggressive superiority where our lives are rooted in inequality.

Women’s Voice 31, 1979

Love (Women’s Voice, 1980)



Valentines Day is here again.  The shops are full of cards decorated with pink hearts and fluffy doggies.  Inside there are syrupy lyrics, sweet nothings.

Imagine a different kind of card being sent to you by your secret admirer.  It has a photograph of a great feminist on it.  Alexandra Kollontai for example.  Inside, your admirer has written a very serious message, a quotation from Kollontai.  “We should try to find in the problems of and the attitude to sexual relationships, and in the psychology of love, the embryo of a new developing and inevitably victorious ‘proletarian’ culture.”

You’d maybe think he’d gone off his head, trying to be a better feminist that you who had sent him a pink heart and a sugared rhyme.

Whatever happened you’d almost certainly be amazed because we’re used to symbols of romance, the love songs, the hearts, the poems, the flowers, and why not?

Arguments rage about love, it’s a source of endless conflict

That’s why we’ve chosen to print some thoughts about love this month.


‘Show some emotion’

Pop songs burst ‘love’ into our lives every minute.  But if you tell someone you love them, they are more likely to be frightened than flattered.  Our whole language bends away from such heady concepts as love.

You have to be ‘cool’, ‘groovey’, ‘together’, – be anything, but not spontaneous, passionate, wild or impulsive.  Convention suffocates our most dynamic feelings.

Show some emotion’ pleased Joan Armatrading urging us to be big enough to laugh and show the world when our souls are dancing with happiness.

And she’s right.

Those who shy away from emotions like love and call for self control assume that passion is something that is weak enough to be controlled.

But love’s not like that.  Love is not merely a poem, or a song or a photograph.

Love is living, present and vital, changing and motivating human beings.  Love is energy and laughter and joy.  It is emotions spinning like Catherine heels.  It is selfish and it is generous.

Love is emotional.

Emotions are creative.  Love is creative.  Robots calculate, animals lust.  The human ability to love distinguishes us from both.  Love is a driving emotion.

Yet the language we use to describe emotion is somehow condemnatory.  People who show anger, pleasure or pain are called ‘heavy’ and pressured to supress their emotions and to protect other people from them.

There is nothing wrong with putting your heart where your hormones are – and enjoying it.  And there is nothing wrong with yielding to your wildest fantasies.  Any fantasy you didn’t yield to was probably not worth having anyway.

Love doesn’t last forever.  And it never lasts as long as you want it to.  That is maybe as well because it is exhausting as well as exhilarating.  But the outrageous joy of love should never be denied or supressed.

Love is subversive.  Love is powerful.

With it we can change ourselves, change the world and build socialism for each other.  Without it we are just lumps of mobile protoplasm fighting for the biggest slice of the cake.

Anna Pacuska

Let there be love

‘Modern man has no time to “love”.  In a society based on competition where the battle for existence is fierce and everyone is involved in a race for profit, for a career, or just for a crust of bread, there is no room left for the cult of demanding and fragile Eros.’

Alexandra Kollontai wrote this in 1919.  She saw the problems of erotic and romantic love as being rooted in the social and economic relations of men and woman.  It was through socialism that she envisaged the possibility of love becoming not a matter of pain but ‘a great creative force…which develops and enriches the psyche…’

It simply isn’t wise to say that love doesn’t exist.  It clearly does, is alive but not very well.  It is bankrupt.  We question it and rage at it and say it doesn’t exist because hideous crimes are committed in the name of love, crimes of possession, of jealousy, the man spirited emprisonment of one ‘lover’ by another.  Simone de Beauvoir wrote that ‘One can never possess the spring in which one’s thirst is quenched.’  Maybe if we can internalise the idea, then we can begin to relinquish our self destructive urge to possess and begin to reclaim love not as swoon, possession or mainia but a conscious act, ‘indeed the only way to grasp the innermost core of personality.’ (Germaine Greer)

To say that love doesn’t exist, is to turn our backs on the struggle to create ‘a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit’ (Kate Millet).  To accept that it exists and has the potential to be beautiful and not lethal, is to be a militant in the struggle for a love that allows lovers to give each other freedom within love, not captivity.

‘Assuredly there are certain forms of the sexual adventure which will be lost in the world of tomorrow.  But this does not mean that love, happiness, poetry, dreams, will be banished from it.’

Simoe de Beauvoir is one of love’s most acute critics, she recognises its power to mutilate women, but she at no point undercuts its potential.

Socialists, feminists, all radical thinkers are in danger of killing anything which Is old and traditional in crude anger.  They are the losers.

‘Christianity gave eroticism its savour of sin when it endowed the human female with a soul: if society restores her sovereign individuality to woman, it will not thereby destroy the power of love’s embrace to move the heart…In sexuality will always be materialised the tension the joy, the frustration and the triumph of existence.  To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her.’ (Simone de Beauvoir)

‘It is time to teach woman to treat love as a step, as a way of finding her true ‘I’, her true self and not as her whole existence.  Let her learn to come through an emotional conflict as a man does, with a stronger spirit and not broken wings…here is already hope, the new woman is emerging for whom love is not the only thing in her life.’ (Alexandra Kollontai)

Whatever havoc love may have wreaked the point is not to kill it, not to see it as a lethal weapon, but to give it a future by understanding it and celebrating it.

Melanie McFadyean

Romantic love

I believe in romantic love, why?  I have experienced it, and enjoyed every moment of it.  I once looked into blue eyes and fell madly in love.  Fortunately the feeling was mutual  HOW was it romantic?  How different from say, just fancying each other?  Maybe it wasn’t.  Only it transformed us, we were beautiful, never tired, everything was easy, we were alive, funny, strong.  We used to walk around the city all night, talking, or close and quiet.

Fried egg sandwiches at the all night coffee stall, listening to the same LP for hours, going out at dawn.  Making love on a convertible couch that tipped up and rolled us onto the floor.  Taking days off, loving, eating, his vain attempts to show me how to fence.  Meeting at lunchtime, not going back to work.  At parties, cheating in postmans knock.  Sitting in the car in winter, until we got so cold we would have to leave each other.  Rushing through each day, towards each other.  The weekend on the Isle of Wight, the weather was foul, we hired a rowboat and it sank.

Hurrying back to our lodgings, drying each other, going to bed.  Our romantic love stayed for two years, there is no time limit on love, so for me those two years of romantic love were enough.

Carole Barrett

What is this thing called love?

You might as well say ‘what is this thing called god’ and the answer to both questions is – nothing, neither exist but most people believe they do.

We are encouraged in this belief by an intricate web of ideology, literature and mustic which mentio love all the time (just start thinking of pop songs…) but keen them removed from our normal lives, perpetuate a mystique and encourage us to believe in the inexplicable.

As Marxists, we should be keen to provide explanations; we believe there is an explanation for everything (even if it is not obvious) and this includes relationships between people, which under capitalism are pretty limited.

People cannot explain what they mean by love when asked – which is just as well for them, as it seems to mean all things to all women, in which case it’s a pretty useless expression if you never know what the other person means, you know they don’t know what they mean and you don’t know what you mean yourself.

To me, all concepts of love are romanticised – applied to humans and inaminate objects alike.  Is love of one’s country the same as love of one’s children the same as love of one’s sexual partner (“lover” – you’d think it had nothing to do with sex!)  They are also possessive, whether applied to food, clothes, books, music or other possessions, including people.

In order to begin to relate to people properly (which is basically why we’re in the business as socialists) we have to unlearn set responses with which we are imbued, and the concept of love serves only to cloud how people do relate to each other by perpetuating the idea of an irresistible force which takes over our feelings.

Love between human brings, whether between consenting adults or in families (where you can’t even chooise – you’re presented with people supposed to love) is exclusive and anti-social – if others are included, it’s not so intense, not so real.

Fortunately human being are still very much social animals, and although society is organised to restrict our caring to a claustrophobically small number of people we are still capable of identifying with and caring for people who have little to do with us.

In socialism, we will be able to express these wider feelings of concern, with other people in a more practical way.  We will have far more honest, open relationships, we will relate in ways we cannot imagine now, but most important we will know what we are doing.

Love has nothing to do with it – it is a mystifying buffer against the nasty world of now – we wont need it when we’re changed for the better in society as a whole.

Liz Balfour

Train without rails

Della and her girlfriend Kim, talked for hours about what love means in a lesbian relationship.  They had spent eight hours trying to write down what they felt and ended up in tears in a kebab house in the middle of the night.

‘We talked about it so much went in so many circles, that in the end we decided we didn’t even love each other after all.’

Della looked as if she was going to start crying again.

‘But I think we couldn’t talk about it because we are in love.  We couldn’t define it and we thought we had to’ rejoined Kim, putting her arm round Della.  They laughed ruefully.  Kim said,

‘I wrote down a list of differences between heterosexual and homosexual love and came to the conclusion that there aren’t that many differences.’

‘I came to the conclusion that there are differences,’ said Della.

‘When I first met Kim and fell in love with her, I wasn’t in any doubt about it being love, that wasn’t the problem.  But I felt like I was on a train without any rails, there were no rules, no precedents.  I felt that I wasn’t allowed to kiss her in public, you know, no necking in corners at parties and I couldn’t tell my mum at first.  My Dad thinks lesbians are filthy and he’s out of the picture anyway so I never told him.  My mum doesn’t like it but she likes Kim very much now.  She confronts the conflict and works through it.  At first I felt I needed men to fancy me, but now I don’t.’  Della looked at Kim who continued:

‘This is my first serious relationship, and what I like about it is that there isn’t any competition, and like Della says, there are no rules.  No one is the breadwinner, no one is the wife, no one is the husband there’s no family.  So we can be more economically equal.  That’s a big difference.’

‘The thing about having a family is perhaps the most difficult, the most painful.  We can’t have babies, I don’t want us to have anyone else’s babies, and yet we are powerless because we can’t make babies.’  Kim looked at Della and smiled.  ‘Think of the good things, Della.

We don’t feel we are in any kind of ghetto, we have lots of heterosexual  friends and what’s nice is that we don’t pose a threat to them, people seem to like being with us.’

The more they talked, the more they began to laugh and they ended up with their arms around each other right there in the kebab house breaking all the rules.

Marilyn Maclean

The cross we bear

‘I am not the wife you need.  I am a person before I am a woman’ Alexander Kollontai, 1922.

All too often, being in love, far from making the sun shine warmer and more brightly in our lives, is a painful,l restrictive process.  There are rules for loving which we learn as we grow up.

They are not explicitly taught, we pick them up as we go along.  And just as we learn the rules in a very personal way, the punishments for breaking the rules are of a very personal kind.  Jealousy, possessiveness, feeling hurt and betrayed are all very individual punishments.

There is a pattern for loving to which we fail to conform at our peril.  It is a pattern bounded by legal rules, unlike friendship.  The pattern of loving in our society, is best summed up in the image of a cross.  The cross bar is made up of a man and a woman (very important)  This man and woman are allowed, indeed expected, to have a sexual relationship.  At the top are the parents who are supposed to be loved and respected and down below are the children who also supposed to be loved, cared for and brought up in the image of the parents.  We are not to love anyone else.  The cross (otherwise known as the nuclear family) is a static, unbending structure.

Why do we build these crosses?  The reason is not that we all need personal and sexual companionship.  If it were simply a question of fulfilling those important needs, there is no reason why the cross would have to have a heterosexual cross bar, nor why it should be a permanent fixture.

No, the reason for the particular formation of the cross is the social and economic function of the nuclear family, which is to assume the responsibility of reproduction under capitalism.  The man and woman are expected not only to conceive children, but to look after them and take responsibility for them until the children are old enough to make their own crosses.  This economic function of the family is the basis for many of the problems we encounter in the process of ‘loving’ in our lives.

Most people go through the process known as ‘falling in love’, shivers and tingles, sexual attraction and all sorts of emotions which make you feel as if you can’t be without someone.  It can be delightful and thoroughly enjoyable.  But there are problems and pitfalls – all connected with the cross you are really supposed to be building.  That is what ‘falling in love’ is for – to entice each of us into building that damn cross.

As Suzanne Broger pointed out, love is the only equation where 1 + 1 = 1 because the woman equals naught.  Women’s lives are totally dominated by the process of reproduction, that’s why love is a woman’s life whereas it is only an episode in a man’s, his role is to function in the outside world of production.

The historic development of sexuality itself has been unequal for men and women.  With the rise of private property and inheritance it was necessary for a man to know which children were his, and the only way to do that is to restrict the woman to sex with one man.  As a result women are seen as either virgins or prostitutes and female sexual needs are traditionally much less developed than those of men.

We all learn how to satisfy a man, but few of us learn how to satisfy ourselves or how to teach men to.  It took the Women’s Liberation Movement to bring the whole question of women’s sexual satisfaction to the fore as a practical requirement of satisfactory sexual relationships.

The inequality of women in relation to men not only affects sexuality, but the whole nature of relationships.  Marriage is founded on the woman as a slave to her husband’s and children’s needs.  A woman belongs to a man, body and soul.

Your thoughts are not your own even if you get as far as thinking for yourself.

And if a woman’s mind is not her own, still less is her body.

‘Over and over again, the man always tried to impose his ego upon us and adapt us fully to his purposes’. (Kollontai).

Divorce is the way out of an unbearable relationship if you can afford to live apart, but all too often it simply leads to a repetition of the same kind of thing with a man with a different name.  To be a single parent or stay single is a tough and lonely road in a society built on the cross.

The right to choose who we love and how we love and the freedom to develop loving relationships is fundamental to our humanity.  But to be able to do that, we have to destroy the cross and the society which requires it.  After all, who really needs a cross to bear?

Sheila McGregor

(Women’s Voice 38, February 1980)

Women’s Voice: in retrospect



In my last two posts, I’ve criticised the gender politics of Tony Cliff and of the comrades who came after him. Now I want to look a little deeper and focus on the more positive side of the story, because one irony of history is that within the SWP and in the SWP’s immediate predecessor the International Socialists (IS),  there had been a tradition of thinking about women’s politics which was much broader, and in which there was no obstacle to writing or campaigning even about “divisive” issues such as sexual violence. And nor is just the matter of praising a single individual such as Sheila Rowbotham; there were in fact a group of comrades who thought passionately, and deeply, about women’s oppression.

Women’s Voice was IS’ and then the SWP women’s newspaper and then magazine. It started in summer 1972 and continued until summer 1982, when the SWP’s annual conference voted to closed it down. There are accounts of the group and the magazine’s history in Tony Cliff’s A World to Win, where Women’s Voice is characterised as “a bridge out of the party”, and in Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, which records that “Cliff did not show any great enthusiam” for Women’s Voice from the outset, and quotes Cliff terming the paper’s launch “a disaster”.

My own reading is that irrespective of the reservations Cliff may have had the project gathered momentum, especially under the Labour government, and between 1974 and 1978 the magazine flourished. There were 600 people at Women’s Voice rally in Manchester in 1975, and 1000 people attended a rally in Sheffield three years later.

In 1978 a decision was taken to establish women-only Women’s Voice groups, which were also open to women outside the SWP. Sherrl Yanowitz was an active member of the SWP and Women’s Voice during this period, “I have never been ashamed of it. Every morning during the Grunwicks Strike at Dollis Hill, I went with my Kilburn Women’s Voice group to the picket line. We fought the police along side Arthur Scargill and the miners who came all the way from Yorkshire in solidarity.”

The move to establish Women’s Voice groups, at an arm’s length from the rest of the SWP, was controversial, and its groups were closed down in 1980 with the magazine being closed down two years later. Birchall quotes extensively from Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German, who were successively the SWP’s women organisers during this time and who are said to have argued with Cliff for the magazine to continue, but neither woman, it must be said, had written much for Women’s Voice, which had a different core of writers, very few of whom were still in the SWP within a couple of years of the magazine’s closure.

The magazine was lively and iconoclastic. It had a strategy for turning readers into writers by describing, very practically, how to write for the magazine, how to write industrial bulletins, how to duplicate the bulletins using the available technology of the time, how to set up Women’s Voice groups, and even how to set up women’s refuges. International coverage was sustained (especially over Ireland, South Africa and Palestine) without becoming the sole focus of the coverage.

Much of the content is similar to articles which you might have found in Socialist Review in the last 20 years (eg columns titled “Why I became a socialist”), and the two magazines even shared the same font, save that the biographies of inspiring women socialists from history which accompanied them (Louise Michel, Flora Tristran) is a little wider than anything Socialist Review has ever published.

The more interesting thing is what Women’s Voice did differently from other left-wing monthly magazines. It tried to make itself open to women competing on the same terrain as the women’s magazines with their focus on sex, diets, marriage, etc. It deliberately approached many of the same issues. There were half a dozen different articles about the utility of different kinds of contraception, the advisability or not of having children in your thirties.

There were articles about the slimming industry (years before Susie Orbach’s famous book Fat is a Feminist Issue), about the safety of children’s playgroups, a two-page spread on books for children, and an interview with Ramilla Patel the woman who disrupted Martin Webster’s march through Hyde by holding up behind him the entire way an anti-fascist placard (only the latter of these could as easily have appeared in the SWP’s main monthly magazine, Socialist Review). There were articles about what was wrong with Miss World and on the gender politics of Mary-worship in Catholicism.

The magazine ran a number of reviews of various of Kollontai’s books, critical reviews of books by Beatrix Campbell, and an interview with Marge Piercy. A lifestyle-type piece looked at the lives of female fire control operators during the firefighters’ strike. The magazine defended the left from the argument that people should look up to Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman. There were pieces on lesbian mums, the gendering of children’s clothes at Mothercare, the rip-off prices of children’s toys at Christmas.

Beside them, you could read practical advice on how to limit the pain of pre-menstrual tension, pieces on sexual harassment, the stigma of illegitimacy, and even a series of articles on the politics of women’s sport (chiefly, rowing; there was not much on running I’m sad to report).

Abortion was a regular topic; which is not surprising because this had been the largest women’s campaign of the 1970s and the one best supported by the union movement. And there were of course several pieces on rape and domestic violence, and on women’s organising to support the victims of both of these.

The starting point of Women’s Voice coverage was always to accept that rape was pervasive and genuinely a crime, and to support anyone fighting back against it.

You can see some of the differences between Women’s Voice and the more recent politics of the SWP if you take a very straightforward example – the way in which the magazine reviewed Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, the first big book in which 1970s feminism confronted the reality of rape. This was in the context of a two-page retrospective devoted to important books of the 1970s women’s movement.

In recent years, the conventional SWP approach has been to preface any analysis of Brownmiller with significant “health warnings” suggesting that its arguments are best avoided. So in Sheila Mcgregor’s 1989 piece on rape, there are a series of criticial mentions of Brownmiller who is attacked for having a “belief in the eternal existence of male violence“, for seeing all man as rapists, etc.

Compare the short review of the same book which Anna Sullivan wrote for Women’s Voice: “Susan Brownmiller’s book is an extremely objective and intense document on rape. The book is not just a set of case histories of rape but a close examination of every historical, social and racial situation in which rape has occurred: the way in which rape is used in times of war to oppress the defeated nation or group, the way prison system gives rise to rape and the way in which rape is used to impose racial oppression.”

“These reasons aside why do seemingly ordinary individuals rape? The question cannot be answered simply but Brownmiller does go a long way to explaining. However, she spoils the book by coming to some very strange conclusions. The strangest of all is that a revolutionary step forward in the liberation of women would be to have 50 per cent women in the police force!”

“In spite of this it is a compelling book to read and should leave us with the conclusion that however liberated women become in capitalist society the threat of violence will always be there and used unless we achieve socialism. Without books like these the question of rape would have stayed locked in the cupboard and women everywhere would have continued to accept violence as their lot.”

It is not a long review, but it is revealing. Sullivan criticised Brownmiller, but she placed her criticisms within what was essentially a positive review. She saw through the surface “edge” of Brownmiller’s book and grasped what was right with it.

The first SWP publication that Hazel Croft came across was Women’s Voice in the very early 80s, “I really loved it because it was a more dynamic/socialist version of feminist magazines like Spare Rib etc which I also read. There seemed to me at the time a wonderful sense of activism, and engagement with a whole range of issues that interested me as a young ‘socialist/anarchist/feminist’ at the time (I called myself all three) – maybe it was off-beam on some issues, but so what? It seems to me now that it really didn’t matter that much if it managed to reach and excite someone like me and connect me to a movement I later got so involved in.”

I know that some readers of this piece will think that Women’s Voice was “eclectic” to apply the politics of Marxism systematically to women’s lives. In truth it was nothing of the sort. Women are half of the world (indeed in Britain. America and Europe slightly more than half). If you want your socialism to be silent about women’s specific oppression (and in particular about male sexual violence) then you have to give up these parts of the struggle for women’s liberation to others. Your women’s politics are made vaguer and more general. And you should not be surprised if people angered by by rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence choose to express their anger by adopting politics other than yours.

Or, if you tried to have a Marxism which stated that it was, out of principle, uninterested in childcare, housework, the segregation of women into certain kinds of employment, key Marxist concepts such as the distinction between production and social reproduction would be lost and your Marxism diminished. Above all, you would lose the idea, central to what Marx himself thought his socialism was about, that socialism is the liberation of the whole of humanity from oppression and exploitation, and even the working class is merely the agent of change. It is all oppressed humanity who is supposed to benefit from workers’ revolution.

A healthy organisation could have integrated its socialism and its feminism; indeed, for ten of the best  years of the SWP’s existence the party had no difficulty at all in  being simultaneously both Marxist and anti-sexist. It kept a range of voices within, and the party was more interesting, and more effective as a result.

The last issue of Women’s Voice had on its back cover a full-page advert for the SWP’s monthly magazine Socialist Review, the not-so-subtle message being that in future the politics of Women’s Voice would continue to appear save in a new home.

Some members were fearful that women’s oppression would cease to be a priority for the SWP on Women’s Voice’s closure, but genuine efforts appear to have been made – for a couple of years anyway – to compensate by raising the profile within the ordinary routine of SWP activity, by writing about women’s issues in Socialist Worker and by having a range of meeting in branches or at the SWP’s annual summer conference Marxism which revolved around women’s oppression.  Charlie Hore was a member of the SWP in Leeds. He and most of his district had supported the continuation of Women’s Voice magazine: “In hindsight, I would [accept] that its abolition helped to integrate such work better into the SWP. I came away from [the SWP] conference [in 1982 which voted for the magazine to be closed down] thinking I would watch like a hawk for signs of the SWP getting soft on the issues, and I came round as I didn’t see it.”

In Cliff’s memoirs, he accepts his distance from Women’s Voice, but blames that gap on unnamed others; “Sadly, although I was in the leadership of the SWP, I was never allowed to be involved in the activity of Women’s Voice. I never spoke at a Women’s Voice meeting, I never wrote a line for the magazine. I did speak to women, and often, but did so in the context of their being engineers, hospital workers, teachers, students, and so on.” (Without being unkind to him, this may help to explain why Cliff’s book on women conceives of women in exactly those terms, i.e. as workers, teachers, students – far more clearly than as women).

In those memoirs, it is Lindsey German who is given the task of defending Women’s Voice‘s closure, saying that the magazine had accommodated “to autonomous [i.e. separate women’s] organisation … This was reflected in a whole number of campaigns taken up by Women’s Voice, for example, Reclaim the Night or against toxic tampons. In practice the move was away from class wide demands or demands which united women and men.” The reference to campaigns against toxic tampons seems unfair and even dismissive (although the magazine talked openly and sensibly about contraception, I have not seen that “campaign” in the 40 issues or so of the magazine that I have read). It is the reference to Reclaim the Night though which is telling. Those who have read my critique of Cliff’s book will spot that German is repeating of an argument which he had made in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, namely that campaigning against sexual violence should in principle be avoided, because it is always likely to divide women from men. I don’t need to repat the points I have made previously about the futility of that approach.

In Ian Birchall’s Tony Cliff: a Marxist for His Time, there is a much more sophisticated history of Women’s Voice (at pp 464-66) than there is in Cliff’s own memoirs. Birchall emphasises the slow speed at which Cliff moved in taking the decision to close the magazine, and the assent, by the end, of a number of women comrades. Now, of course it is better if bad decisions are handled sympathetically; all of us have seen the damage which is done when a line is taken brutally through an organisationally causing hundreds to leave.

But to my mind, even Birchall’s account underestimates the damage done by the magazine’s closure:

First, there was a group of people who had been sympathetic to the SWP who were permanently separated from it. They felt the loss keenly. Unlike other groups who were pushed out at much the same time (eg the people who went into Red Action), they never found an alternative political home. Very few, as far as I can see, became active in the briefly re-energised feminist movement that had followed the publication of Rowbotham and Segal’s book Beyond the Fragments. Most contributors to Women’s Voice who I have met saw themselves as more “socialist” and less “feminist” than the supporters of Beyond the Fragments, and they were equally isolated from the Women’s Liberation movement which was then at a different point from the old socialist-feminist consensus of the early 1970s. (Women’s Voice, I should add, had published a number of articles critical of aspects of late 70s and early 80s feminism, and was viewed relatively suspiciously by many feminists; another reason why it is a canard to portray the magazine as radical feminism’s home inside the SWP). The skills of the people who had contributed to Women’s Voice, their ideas and their enthusiasm for socialism were lost to the organised left without any compensating benefit to anybody.

Second, the early 80s was an important period in the slow degeneration of the old IS into the more top-down, controlled party that the SWP has slowly become – it saw the displacement of local cadres, the replacement of a culture of local activism with one of central direction, the loss of democracy, and the institutionalisation of a supposedly super-talented leadership who were always the best placed people to initiate new SWP policies whether on abortion, industry or the dialectics of nature. The closure of Women’s Voice coincided with the parallel purges of the SWP’s black activists around the magazine Flame, and the removal of the squaddists. There had been similar possibilities of decay within IS; what restrained them was the existence of a local cadre within the organisation who had been through different stages of the group’s politics and were irreverent towards the leadership and restrained it. Women’s Voice‘s closure was a part of that loss, a step towards the more command-ist party that the SWP is now. It scattered a small but distinct group of people who could have been limited the lurches of our recent leaderships.

Third, despite the intention that Women’s Voice contributors would be given a space in Socialist Review, which would then continue to run the same sort of articles as the ones which had been staples of Women’s Voice this did not happen in reality. Socialist Review did not show any lasting interest in women’s politics, which had as much priority in the magazine after 1982 as it had before. Its contents did not noticeably broaden after Women’s Voice was closed down, and that meant that the articles about contraception, dieting, etc, did not appear in the publications either of the SWP or of its any counterparts and rivals elsewhere on the Marxist left. An activist way of thinking about women’s oppression was lost, and if that thinking or campaigning continued afterwards, it was in the women’s movement , not within the socialist left. A move that was supposedly about integrating women’s oppression within the politics of the SWP, turned out over time to have the effect of raising the barrier between two parts of the left which should properly be allied.

I’ll be posting a number of articles from Women’s Voice over subsequent days and weeks, some to illustrate its broader politics of sex, love and sexual violence, others because they are well-written or inspiring.

A team of 17 friends have typed these pieces, which will then be offered, with the magazines, to the Marxist Internet Archive (my thanks and love to each of them).

I hope you enjoy the pieces as they are published;  they go beyond anything in any comparable left-wing publication today.

Johnson, Maradona, Tyson: defiance through sport



Guest post by Sam Grove

Today is the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s run of 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics; a race in many ways more glorious and shocking than Usain Bolt’s 100m in Beijing or his 9.58 run a year later in Berlin. If Bolt had both races won within 50 meters, Johnson had destroyed the field within 10 meters. Caught up in the exhilaration of the race I took a look at the splits for Johnson and Bolt’s respective records


Reaction Time 0.146_0.132

0-10m                1.89_1.83

10-20m              0.99_1.04

20-30m              0.90_0.93

30-40m              0.86_0.86

40-50m              0.83_0.84

50-60m              0.82_0.83

60-70m              0.81_0.84

70-80m              0.82_0.85

80-90m              0.83_0.87

90-100m            0.83_0.90

=                          9.58_9.79

There are a number of things to note from these splits:

– Johnson would have had a lead of 0.07 seconds translating to approximately 0.7m after just 10metres. It was the greatest start in the history of the 100m.

– However Johnson’s lead was down to 0.02 seconds at the 20m mark, approximately 0.2m. That is Bolt pulled back half a meter on Johnson in just 10 meters.

– From 10m mark onwards Bolt took 3 meters off of Johnson.

– Johnson’s pick up was what won him the race in Seoul. From 30-60m he was almost stride for stride with Bolt. He left his rivals, Carl Lewis among them, completely behind in those 30m.

– Bolt’s 60-70m is the fasted 10meters anyone has ever run (0.81). By quite a margin. The fastest anyone else has ever gone is 0.83.

Of course the statistics don’t tell the whole story; or at least not in Johnson’s case. The story of Bolt’s race really did last less than ten seconds. Johnson’s run in Seoul had a prologue and postscript which prolonged its narrative for many years. The story arguably began back in the 1984 Olympics when the rivalry with Lewis started (Johnson was run into third place by Lewis), and continued to build over the next four years culminating in their last ever race together. The story then obviously continued when Johnson failed a drugs test a couple of days later. Arguably the story continues today as the shadow cast over the sport has not gone away. If anyone ever runs faster than 9.58 Bolt’s legend will be tarnished. Johnson’s notoriety is timeless.

If I was ever to write a book about sport it would be to draw upon the elective affinity between Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, and Ben Johnson. All three were short explosive men that would literally tear through much larger taller men. Watching Johnson run, Tyson fight, and Maradona play football is unlike anything else their respective sport has ever seen. Before or since. It isn’t beautiful, its obscene.

Their sporting peaks were as shocking as much as beautiful, as outrageous as they were dominant. Maradona’s finest hour was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In the quarter final against England the first goal was brazen, the second majestic. England were left cheated and humiliated. Tyson’s destruction of Michael Spinks a couple of months before Johnson’s run in Seoul lasted for about as much time. Within twenty seconds the referee, Frank Capuccino, was already warning Tyson for throwing elbows. A minute later Spinks was down for the first time in his career. Seconds later he was down for the second time and lying through the ropes. If Johnson in hindsight had the race won in 10m, that wasn’t the expectation. Everyone knew Johnson had a great start, but Lewis was the fastest finisher in the world. For Johnson to have extended his lead over Lewis from 30-70m was impertinent.

Their performances were as much defined by the manner of their opponents defeat. The two moments that stand out in the England/Argentina quarter final were the wretched look on the England manager Bobby Robson’s face when the referee awarded the first goal, and Peter Reid’s somnambulation for Maradona’s second goal. If many experts had picked Spinks to win before the fight, they weren’t by the time the fighters touched gloves. Spinks had the look of a man condemned giving the iconic end picture a sense of inevitability. Lewis was so flustered by Johnson’s start that he twice ran out of his lane. If the defining moment of Johnson’s career was his raising his hand in victory with 10meters to go, what made it so emphatic was the anguish on Lewis’s face as he looked across to witness Johnson’s celebration.

All three performances were within a two year period of each other. It was the latter half of the 1980s when the commercialisation of sport was really taking off. All three represented huge commercial prospects, but none of them were equipped to handle what this entailed. These were basically young troubled kids from very poor backgrounds. Tyson grew up in the notorious district of Brownsville in Brooklyn New York where from a young age he had got into trouble with gangs. Johnson was a Jamaican immigrant living in Canada who had turned to sprinting as a defence against being bullied. Maradona was from a shanty town in Lanus, with an indigenous heritage. All three had their problems with drugs. Johnson infamously so. Maradona was also on steroids from an early age and then was a cocaine addict for most of his career. He was sent home from the ’94 World Cup in similar circumstances to Johnson. Tyson was a drug addict for his whole career (although there isn’t any evidence he used performance enhancing drugs).

All three saw themselves as outsiders to the sports that wanted to make them their public face. And of course they were outsiders. Despite being money making machines the authorities quickly became highly ambivalent about them; an ambivalence that climaxed with their peak performances. They had provided the defining moments of their respective sports for a generation, but the authorities were not prepared to accept them. Tyson had originally been marketed as the troubled kid come good. By the time he fought Spinks and with a host of tabloid scandals behind him he was ‘the baddest man on the planet’. Maradona had only recently left Barcelona having fallen out with the president. This was his last game for the club. The scandal surrounding Johnson began at the 1987 World Championships. Upset at the manner of his defeat, Lewis, the biggest name in the sport, initially claimed that Johnson had false-started, then complained of a stomach virus, before finally making this famous allegation—‘There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.’ It later transpired that Lewis himself had failed a drugs test the following Olympic year. The golden boy of athletics kept his gold medal.

Johnson, Tyson and Maradona were far more comfortable playing the roles of rebels. Tyson and Maradona embraced this status in a much more overt political way than Johnson ever did. Both sport Che Guevara tattoos and have spoken out harshly against racism and imperialism respectively. Johnson kept to the micropolitics of his sport – claiming, with some justification, that he was a scapegoat for a problem that is endemic.

The Seoul Olympics spelled the end for Johnson as a competitive sprinter. He made a forlorn attempt to make a comeback in 1992 only to stumble in the heats. Maradona enjoyed a few more successful years with Napoli before being effectively chased out of Italy and then Spain. Tyson defended his title a couple of times, before succumbing to the greatest upset in boxing history when he was knocked out by a 40-1 underdog. In the same year that Johnson retired and Maradona left Napoli, Tyson was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington, an 18 year old beauty contestant from Rhode Island. She was just 18 years old. Her treatment, both by Tyson and subsequently by the media (who having spent years character assassinating Tyson were suddenly hellbent on closing ranks behind him) casts light on some of the contradictions within the concept of “defiance” presented here and serves as a reminder that the roles of victim and victimizer aren’t invariable. By the time he came out of prison he was a shadow of his former self.

Of course Maradona, Johnson and Tyson defeated themselves. No one made them take drugs or commit rape. However the drug addictions they were afflicted by and the violence at least Tyson inflicted were symptoms of a larger system of exploitation they were born into. When they became athletes they encountered this same system only more intimately. Their sports chewed them up and spat them out. What is more, all three of them understood this. This meant that even at their peak, when they had the appearance of being unstoppable, their display of power and domination had an element of defiance and rebellion to it. For one summer’s day in Seoul, Mexico City and New Jersey the tables had been turned—‘three small men tearing through much larger opponents’ is both graphic depiction and political metaphor. It is this that makes them and their performances so compelling.

Lindsey German, Sheila McGregor and sexual violence: the SWP after Cliff



Following from my last piece, arguing that Tony Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation has had a negative effect on the SWP’s and our allies’ thinking about women, discouraging us from taking a sustained interest in sexual violence (i.e. rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment), if I am right, then you would expect to see this omission not so much in Cliff’s book (although it does neglect all three topics) but also in the writing of other Marxists in the SWP who have written about women’s equality.

Lindsey German has already anticipated and responded to this criticism, arguing on the website of her new party Counterfire that “whatever the differences exist between socialists and socialist feminists on questions of theory or practice, the mistakes that have been made cannot be explained by adherence to one particular analysis.” She goes on to defend Cliff’s book and the IS tradition on women. She provides links to pieces by Kathy Ennis, Irene Breugel, Chris Harman, John Molyneux and Sheila McGregor. Her article is in general is a useful starting summary of the articles written about women by leading members of the SWP. To that extent, I would encourage everyone who has seen this and my previous piece to also read hers.

In a second article, for the Australian website Links, German criticises Sharmon Smith and Abbie Bakan, accepting in principle that Marxists should see feminists as allies, but saying that this insight is useless unless it is also accompanied by a deepening of the analysis of women’s oppression. If she is right, then I hope I have already begun this process by pointing out what I think was the key omission in Cliff’s analysis – an inability to theorise what he saw as the divisive areas (or, in his words, “the areas where men and women are at odds”) of working-class women’s oppression, i.e. their oppression through rape, violence, and an unequal burden of childcare, in all of which the agents of division (if not its beneficiaries), he assumed, were working-class men. She’s right; we need to state a new, positive theory. In due course, I’ll be posting on this site relatively lengthy pieces setting out my own attempts at a Marxist theory of sexual violence. First thought, I think we need to pause a bit longer on the SWP’s record.

Of course, if I am right that the key weakness has been an inadequate theory of sexual violence, then this potentially answers German’s first article. Because if it is true that for years our leading members encouraged us not to think deeply about rape, domestic violence or the allied phenomenon of sexual harassment – then you could expect this omission to have been significant in the three years since the party was first obliged to consider complaints of rape and harassment.

So, going back to the (several) pieces named by German, how many consider rape? The word does not appear once in Kathy’s Ennis original 1974 article on women’s consciousness, nor in Irene Breugel’s 1978 analysis of the family, nor in German’s Theories of Patriarchy, not the pieces German cites by Molyneux or McGregor on whether men benefit from women’s oppression.

Chris Harman’s 1984 piece on women’s liberation cites once in passing the “radical feminist” position that rapes are carried out by men rather than capitalism, but only in the “divisive” sense in which Cliff refers to rape – using it as an instance of the sorts of politics that bad people (feminists) talk about, and against which good comrades (male or female) should steel themselves.

None of these pieces refers at any point either to sexual harassment or domestic violence.

They do cover one of the areas which Cliff sought to remove from discussion – the question of whether men benefit from childcare – where there was a heated debate with McGregor and Molyneux taking opposed sides. But all of these writers treated the capacity of some men to behave in an aggressive or in a humiliating way to some women as theoretically off limits.

In her recent piece for Counterfire, German explains that she wrote her 1989 book Sex, Class and Socialism “to develop our theories further and in different directions from the ones in which Cliff had taken them. The book dealt extensively with different contemporary and historical aspects of the family, and with various socialist and feminist theories of oppression, as well as looking historically at a range of topics from the suffragettes to women in trade unions to the women’s movement of the 1960s.”

I suspect there is more to this notion of developing Cliff than German will say directly. Sarah Cox, an SWP member of 50 years’ standing, has written elsewhere that many of the leading women in the SWP were very critical of Cliff’s book. And few women played a more leading tole in the SWP than Lindsey German. But if German thought Cliff needed correcting, does her book make good the absences in his? It is true that her book is more contemporary than Cliff’s and less historical, more political and less of an narrative of inspiring episodes in past struggles. But in an 256 page book her analysis of rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence is limited to the following two paragraphs only:

Violence against women first became an issue inside the movement in 1974, when Women’s Aid came into being. By 1975 there were 90 women’s refuges across the country. These were mainly funded and run by volunteers. Women’s Aid served to highlight a major scandal: that many women lived in fear of physical beating from the men they lived with, and that the capitalist state itself colluded in this situation. The police would not normally interfere in domestic disputes, and local councils would not normally rehouse women made homeless through violence. The idea of the refuges was that women would at least have somewhere safe to go where they could be safe from battering. They quickly became accepted, even be some Tory councils”.

Similar arguments arose over issues such as rape and pornography. There were a number of controversial rape cases at the time, and in 1975, the first Rape Crisis Centre was set up. The following year saw the establishment of Women Against Rape. WAR was influenced by the same people who had set up the Wages for Housework campaign two years previously. Is therefore combined a strong radical feminism, a theory which located women’s oppression in the home with a level of activism which ensured that it gained some support.”  (1989 edition, at page 189, emphasis added).

In a 75,000 or so word book, that is by my reckoning just 32 words on rape and 20 on domestic violence, and they don’t tell you  very much. These passages could not plausibly represent a developed theory of rape or sexual violence. This is an important omission. German’s book was taken for years as the complete statement of the SWP’s position on women’s oppression, one of the best-sellers on party book stalls, routinely recommended as the definitive work. I recall German herself telling me that it had sold around 10,000 copies altogether; that is, about the same number as the maximum membership which the SWP claimed at its mid-1990s height. No doubt some readers will tell me that this gap in her argument was accidental. But, I would see it rather as part of a pattern of “unseeing” which had been equally evident in Cliff’s book and was typical of the post Women’s Voice SWP.

(For completeness’ sake, I should add that German has written several further books since Sex, Class and Socialism; Material girls has a richer discussion of sexual violence; and her most recent book How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women has a complex and original section on rape during warfare. As these were written in one case after German had left the SWP, and, in the other, after she had adopted a different role in the organisation, working primarily for Stop the War – I won’t do more here than urge people to read them. They are important and interesting books).

German’s list of IS writing about women in her recent Counterfire article is incomplete. She doesn’t mention anything published from the 10 years of Women’s Voice magazine (1972-1982), which sadly no-one has ever published online, and even its paper copies are now rare. On this website, over successive weeks, I’ll post a number of articles from Women’s Voice, which did take sexual violence seriously, and wrote about it repeatedly, always from a perspective of justice for women. Between about 1976 and 1982 in there were a cohort of women who tried to write systematically about women’s politics in general and male sexual violence in particular, and they did so in varied and imaginative ways. Unfortunately, of course their magazine was closed down, and the majority of them found themselves outside the organisation. Cliff’s book, as I’ve pointed out, was written in this context, to justify Women’s Voice’s closure, and it is the dual effect of his book and that decision which has left our theory struggling.

There are a few pieces from the Socialist Review of the 1980s which did look at inter-personal violence – a Lindi Gonzalez book review, and a piece by Julie Waterson (one of the relatively few remaining people in the SWP who had written for Women’s Voice) in Socialist Review in 1986 in which Waterson calls for socialists to be part of the movement dispelling rape myths. Rather than taking Cliff’s position – that a class analysis and the need for male-female unity overrides the need to talk about rape at all – Waterson argues there that it is possible to oppose rape and take a class position on it. It is a short article but reading it, it is hard not to feel regret that in the next 25 years we have never thought fit to publish anything this angry on this topic since.

Norah Carlin’s 1986 pamphlet Women and the Struggle for Socialism contains passing references to rape (“a kind of violence which men don’t face, perhaps the most humiliating of all”) and domestic violence (“25 per cent of all violent crime reported to the police”, the product of “the small family household … a boiling cauldron of intense emotions focussed on a few people”). Again, while these ideas are simply too brief to constitute a developed theory of sexual violence, there is at least an awareness of the issues, and more politics than in either Cliff or even German’s books.

Judith Orr published a piece in the ISJ in 2010 which mentions each of rape, harassment and violence against women, although each is problem name-checked at breakneck speed, and she says very little more than that rape is still happening.

Some friends who I’ve discussed this piece with have pointed out that beneath the level of high theory (i.e. books, articles in Socialist Review and International Socialism) it was possible to discuss domestic violence and rape, in Socialist Worker and at branch meetings. Here is Hazel Cox for example,: “I gave at least 20 branch meetings on violence against women and rape in the 1990s … I also remember around the Sara Thornton case (in 1996) giving branch meetings entitled ‘women, domestic violence and the law’.”

I too recall articles about Sara Thornton in Socialist Worker, although they stand out as relatively exceptional within my 20 years of reading the paper since I first joined the SWP in 1990. The few pieces which have been solely about domestic violence against women and have been more than simple news pieces have tended to have been written by non-members of the SWP – eg a good piece in 2005 by Ann Henderson of the Women’s National Commission in Scotland.

As for the branch meetings, my sense is that on the closure of Women’s Voice, there was for several years an attempt to integrate women’s politics within the SWP and prove the sceptics about the decision wrong, by taking the more overtly “political” topics the magazine had raised and adding them to the list of regular branch topics. With many of the most passionate Women’s Voice identifiers leaving after the decision to close the magazine, the number of people remaining in the party who saw the need to maintain this practice three or four years later must have been relatively few. In the eight or so SWP branches I was in during the 1990s, I only once heard a discussion of women and socialism which was less general than just the SWP’s perspectives for women’s work (it was a meeting by Jonathon Neale on the politics of abortion), and while I may have been unlucky in my choice of branches (including Sheffield, Nottingham, Oxford and Liverpool, i.e. away from London where the “national” speakers are congregated), the pattern has been repeated in the last 10 years, with women’s liberation meetings becoming successively more general.

Another friend, Josh Clarke, tells me that in Ireland the SWP which is in general no less “Cliffite” than the London-based party has campaigned regularly against the closure of women’s refuges. I can well believe it. Of course, there have been the long-running culture wars in Ireland around abortion, divorce, and the role of the Catholic church and the Irish SWP has been active around all these campaigns. It would be remarkable if that activity hadn’t caused people, to some extent, to move away from positions which in London are treated as immutable truths. It is the difference, if you like, between Eamon McCann and John Molyneux. Much the same could also be said about the Socialist Alternative group in Australia, and the International Socialist Organisation in the US: orthodox Cliffite or not, both have actively campaigned about women’s issues, and  as ever on the left, theory tails activity.

Returning to Britain, I have left to last the two major pieces in which the SWP has acknowledged (after a fashion) sexual violence, Sheila McGregor’s two pieces Marxism and women’s oppression today (2013) which has a single paragraph about rape, and an older, more analytical piece by her in the same journal, Rape pornography and capitalism (1989).

(McGregor has already been subject to one critique, by Ruth Lorimer and Shanice McBean; keen readers will see that the analysis which follows is derived, substantially, from points these comrades have made before me).

Rape, pornography and capitalism is summarised on the SWP’s “theory” website as “an intervention in debates about some of the aspects of women’s oppression from 1989”. The word “intervention” is accurate; the piece criticises various “radical feminists” (Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin) who, it complains, had a “single dimension” explanation of rape, reducing it to a recurring form of “male behaviour”. The article’s polemical purpose is well set out in the final sentence where McGregor concludes “Marxism is far superior to radical feminist theory as a guide to changing the world.”

In so far as she explains rape, McGregor writes that it is an act of late capitalist society. She illustrates this by leaping in a single bound from pre-class societies in which there were no structural divisions of labour between men and women (and therefore, she implies, there was no rape) to the early twentieth century while missing out everything that happened in between (i.e. the vast majority of human history).

The idea that there was no rape in pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies is at best a guess. It assumes, for no reason at all, that the most distant past shared the same sexual customs as post-1968 Europe and the US, when we know that people’s sex lives have changed dramatically even between the 1940s or the 1970s and today.  As Colin Wilson has pointed out, historic hunter-gatherer societies had limited technology, and their lives were often bleak. The equality they practised was rough, and consistent with the limited means people possessed. Societies within this group practiced (at different times and to different extents) torture, war, slavery and infanticide and it makes no sense to base a whole theory on the assumption that there could have been no rape.

The history “in between” is far from trivial. There very clearly was rape in pre-capitalist societies and under early capitalism: almost every society with a law code has had a prohibition on something like rape. (In another piece, I’ll set out what these prohibitions were, and some of the subtle ways in which they varied over time and between different modes of production).

A far more compelling argument would have been that capitalism understands rape in different ways from slave or feudal societies (for example by focussing on the consent of women themselves rather than husbands or fathers), i.e. it actually opens the way towards our present broadly-drawn criminalisation of any non-consensual sex as rape, an opening which required the agency of the women liberation movement for its completion. (Again, I’ll make this point in detail in that future piece)

McGregor portrays rape in 1980s Britain as the act of three types of men; primarily young men (ie those dating young women, before they have formed long-term relationships), but also some husbands, and strangers. McGregor cites different figures, but all of them suggest that the first of her three categories is the key one, and one estimate she cites approvingly suggests that dating teens account for 90% of all rapes. McGregor concludes that most rapes are significantly like most other youthful sex, “Given that premarital sex is fairly common and that young men are supposed to go out and get sex from young women, it is hardly surprising that there is some incidence of breakdown, i.e. rape.”

McGregor looked to blame rape (which was, in her words, a “minority occurrence”) on untypical men, the young, career criminals, or (in an echoing of Freudian categories) men incapable or sex, in order to buttress the argument that not all men rape. The problem is that when rape did become a universal criminal offence, i.e. one which even married men could commit, which was only in 1991, the whole meaning of the crime changed. The police stopped disregarding the  majority of rapes (i.e. rapes committed in long-term relationships) and for the first time treated even “typical men” as potential rapists.

While the studies used by McGregor suggested that only one in ten rapes took place in long-term relationships, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the true figure is 56%. Her entire evidence base, in other words, was made up of a number of sources which all shared the same common mistake of ignoring the majority of all rapes.

Now statistics change, and of course people can get things wrong – it is no disgrace. The problem is that the exact terrain on which McGregor had chosen to rebut supposedly “separatist feminism” was the claim of writers such as Brownmiller that rape was a crime of ordinary men, and that if properly investigated there would be many more male protagonists than were then admitted by the police, the courts, and the state. In so far as she thought this, Brownmiller was right. McGregor made the criticism of this position central to her argument and she was wrong. Far from refuting radical feminism, she showed only the limitations of her politics.

In conclusion, the route joining Tony Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor’s mistakes was not altogether straight. Cliff taught the members of the SWP to think that rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence were actually taboo: topics which socialists should preferably not raise at all for fear of giving succor to separatist feminism. German may well have improved other parts of Cliff’s analysis, but she left this silence about sexual violence substantially unchallenged.

McGregor wrote about rape, and was until recently the only member of the SWP since the demise of Women’s Voice to have done so at any length. Her failure, when seeming to move beyond Cliff’s prohibition, was that she did not go beyond its underlying assumptions. She continued to see rape as an issue which was the natural property of radical feminists. She used the same starting assumption, that if you admit that hundreds of thousand of men rape women every year you are somehow making solidarity between male and female workers harder to acheive. This false premises guided her choice of the ground on which to fight.

In choosing to fight Brownmiller where she was correct – at the point of her insight that rape was much more pervasive than anyone had then admitted – McGregor left socialists ill-equipped to deal with an actual rape inside or outside our ranks. We were made to seem like people who minimised its extent and had no solidarity to offer to its victims.

She inadvertantly gave ammunition to all those members of the SWP who have been so quick in the last year to insist that women exaggerate the incidence of rape or that women who complain of rape should not be believed any more than the police spies who harassed “Parnell, Lenin, Joe Hill, Scargill” (and, by implication, the SWP’s recent National Secretary).

The key weakness – an unwillingness to give solidarity to the victims of sexual violence – continues to haunt the SWP.

Women’s Liberation: what Cliff got right and where he went wrong



Two articles in July’s Socialist Worker (US), one by Sharon Smith and one by Abbie Bakan, ask whether it is helpful for socialists to adopt a position towards women’s oppression which Bakan characterises as “Marxist Anti-Feminism” (MAF)? The question is hardly neutral; Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US, and one of its leading authorities on what used to be called “the women’s question”. Bakan has in the past played the same role within the International Socialists in Canada, which (although she has now left it) is within the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency (IST).

Behind both articles lies the shadow of the rape and sexual harassment complaints against a member of the Central Committee of the SWP which have been hanging over the SWP since summer 2010.

Bakan and Smith could be read as suggesting, by implication, that a root of our present difficulties can be traced back to the theoretical positions taken by the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff, who maintained that Marxism and Feminism were incompatible. The grotesque mishanding of the complaints, it follows, occurred at least in part because the SWP had long trained its members into a deep-rooted and sustained blindness to all aspects of feminism and women’s oppression.

The first thing to note in response is that the argument mixes together different kinds of evidence, and that at times this method makes their case unpersuasive. For example, Bakan alludes to Cliff’s autobiography on gender politics, cites a talk Cliff gave after his interest in women’s liberation had lapsed, and quotes a sexist joke which his biographer Ian Birchall recalls Cliff telling about political expectations, “I’d like to sleep with Gina Lolabrigida, but I have to put up with what I’ve got.”

It was indeed a sexist joke, but Cliff made a number of jokes in his life, and this was not the only one to have backfired. One particularly destructive example was his joke, in the middle of the Anti-Nazi League campaign of the 1970s, that “If i saw a bunch of skinheads beating up a rabbi, I’d beat up the skinheads, then I’d beat up the rabbi”. This remark was used against the ANL as a sign of the left’s incipient anti-Semitism, and quoted by the League’s critics on the left at countless meetings. But anyone who ever heard Cliff speak and was capable of recognising his actual strengths as well as his real flaws would have recognised immediately both how Jewish he was, and how comfortable he was with this part of his personality. Far from desiring to beat up rabbis, a young Cliff would have lost a thumb-wrestling contest to Woody Allen. The joke was ill-judged, and destructive. It was not the essence of Cliff.

Bakan cites against Cliff the passages of his autobiography, but, as she admits, these weren’t written by Cliff himself but by Lindsey German. In doing so, I think she misses a more obvious thought. Tony Cliff clearly saw women’s liberation as something that was important to Marxism (he did, after all, dedicate a chapter of his memoirs to it). Yet, having decided that it mattered, he also decided that someone else was needed to write the chapter, not him. Why not? Cliff was never someone to admit his weaknesses readily, nor did he ever happily allow others to carry out intellectual work for him, and I don’t think he would have asked German to write the chapter if he had felt able to do it himself.

What I take from the poverty of the examples that Bakan quotes against Cliff is a different, and potentially more troubling thought, that except for his 1984 book, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, Cliff said or did very little about either feminism or women’s liberation, and what he said was (especially when compared to his ideas about unions or socialism) shallow and unimpressive. Despite recognising the need to integrate women’s liberty into any satisfactory theory of socialism, for most of his life he did little to assist that project. Despite giving 65 years of his life to the struggle against capitalism, with one exception, he thought little about equal pay, domestic violence, homework or childcare. For the most of the time he acted as if he thought socialism needed no sexual dimension.

Now of course Tony Cliff did write an entire book on women, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, and this is the place where Cliff made good that otherwise omission.

Published by Bookmarks two years after the SWP had closed down our women’s magazine Women’s Voice (1974-1982), the first two-thirds of the book collected some impressive moments in history when socialist or working-class women have raised demands which were recognisably those of or for working-class women, or played a part in great historical movements of the left which are often and lazily assumed to have been primarily “men’s campaigns” (the Levellers, the Diggers, the French and Russian Revolutions). The second two-thirds is a contemporary, sociological analysis of the problems of working-class women in the family and the workplace.

Bakan quotes from the introduction to Class Struggle: “Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women … For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist-feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap.”

If Cliff had argued, consistently, that no compromise was possible between those who believed in socialism and those who opposed the oppression of women, then his book would indeed deserve criticism. But it is not unusual for an author to include in their book a polemical statement of aims which its contents do not deliver. A good example is Susan Browmiller’s anti-rape classic Against Our Will (1974) which has a similarly polemical opening, analysing rape as a crime of “all men”: “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Various IST writers have quoted this opening ever since as proof of Brownmiller’s exaggerated militancy and her misplaced distrust of working-class men. But read as a whole, Brownmiller’s message is more nuanced, and at the end of her book she calls for a collective anti-rape consciousness among both women and men – something that would be impossible if she really did think that all men were rapists. There is something similar about Cliff’s book which far from proving the incompatibility of Marxism and feminism, barely considers either as theories at all.

Another difficulty with Cliff’s history is that there was already a book in print and well known to older members of the SWP which followed the same historical method as his book did, even looking at many of the same examples of women’s struggle. This was Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History, published by the SWP’s then in-house publishers Pluto just eleven years previously. Cliff “corrects” Rowbotham much as his biography of Trotsky “corrected” Isaac Deutscher’s earlier, greater biography of the Russian Marxist: i.e. it disregards the literary and the character-establishing digression in favour of a narrower, more concentrated focus on the political.

So, for example, while Rowbotham only spoke very generally about Puritan attitudes to women and sexuality, Cliff’s more political account finds women who took part in the Leveller and Digger campaigns. While Rowbotham takes a passing interest in family structure and the historical apparatus of inequality, as well as the arguments of anti-feminists, Cliff primarily raids socialist literature for  inspiring examples of women organising alongside men.

The focus of the final third of Class Struggle is on the potential for women to take part in workers’ struggles alongside working-class men. In a key passage, Cliff writes,

“Many women in the women’s liberation movement have consistently focussed on the areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the areas of struggle where women are more likely to win the support of men – such as opposition to the cuts in hospitals and schools, the right to abortion, and battles at work for equal pay or the right to join a trade union.”

The word “rape” appears in the book five times, but not once does Cliff ask how rape is possible, or what could be done to end it. Sexual harassment at work, which had been part of the vocabulary of the women’s movement in the Britain and US for a decade by the time Class Struggle was published, Cliff does not even mention once.

Cliff criticised supporters of women’s liberation for focusing on these three areas – in contemporary language, rape, domestic violence and childcare – accepting that they pitted men against women. One purpose of his book (albeit only one, among several) was to invite socialists not to dwell on these matters, but focus our limited campaigning energies on the more uplifting topics of union rights and anti-cuts campaigns.

The section I have just italicised is worth thinking about carefully. In general, there is nothing unusual about people trying to take certain questions “off limits”. Anyone who has debated with an opponent of reproductive rights will know that the discussion takes place in just this way, on both sides. The “pro-life” activist asks repeatedly, “when does a foetus’ life begin?” The pro-choice activist responds, “I’m not interested in that, what about the mother’s rights?” Both tries to take the discussion to where they feel their arguments are strongest. During the Iraq war, anti-war activists would confront our opponents by asking them rhetorically, “So where are the WMDs then?” I doubt we will be doing that over Syria.

The usual justification for Cliff’s position is that within the women’s liberation movement of the mid-1980s there were voices which emphasised the division between men and women, which exaggerated the similarity of women’s experiences at the expense of class, and which were prescriptive about who people could have sex with and how they could have sex with them. And the closer you were in the movement to the people who were most passionate about these ideas, the more damage they could have done.

Cliff’s book appeared in print just two years after the SWP had closed down its women’s magazine Women’s Voice. These days, most people outside the party see that as just another one of the bureaucratic exercises by which the SWP’s leadership has routinely purged the party of potential critics. But it is also arguable that Cliff genuinely believed that the combination of closing down the magazine and the publication of his book, would prevent some women members of the SWP from being pulled towards ideas which would actually make solidarity between the genders harder to acheive.

(Whether the official SWP narrative that Women’s Voice was a bridge out of Marxist politics is true is a larger topic than I can address in this post – suffice to say here that I’ll be coming back to it, in several articles, over my next few postings).

Whenever you try to make a subject off-limits, there is always a risk. And here, there were at least three. First, Cliff seemed to be saying that in the areas of rape, domestic violence and childcare, women and men were “at odds”, had different interests and different priorities. Given that the unequal, gendered allocation of childcare in the privatised capitalist family was right at the heart of what Cliff took to the the Marxist explanation of women’s oppression, it is a strange admission. Without an analysis of the changing nature of the family, there is no recognisably Marxist explanation of women’s oppression. The topic of childcare is simply too important to the socialist argument about women’s liberation to be left indefinitely unexplored. (And in fairness to the people who have written and done IS’s women’s politics since Cliff, I don’t think that they have followed him in treating this subject as off-limits).

Second, it is not obviously right that all of these areas do in fact “just” pit men against women. Most sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is between a more senior man and a more junior woman. (Of course, some also takes places between people in equal roles; but almost never do you find a more junior person sexually harassing their manager). In a sense, it is a male-female struggle. But for most people, including most working-class men, it is more obviously a problem which pits workers against managers. Workers more often identify with the co-worker than they do with the harassing manager. In other words, Cliff’s voluntary disinterest to subjects such as sexual harassment closed off the possibility of arguments which would actually support the message of class struggle which he was trying to win in his book.

Third, if you say to your fellow socialists (as Cliff was doing) that rape and domestic violence are politically off-limits, then it follows that you should not write about them or take part in campaigns about them, as this will distract you from more important tasks and involve you in politics which actively divides men and women workers. You will be contributing to the antagonism between Marxists and feminists, and (worst of all) you will be supporting the latter at the expense of the former. But every women who has been raped, every women sexually harassed or beaten by her husband or her partner, has suffered a grotesque failure of human solidarity. Her mistreatment has made the possibility of universal liberation more remote. To say “I am a Marxist; I shall not campaign  about rape” is to diminish the moral status of your Marxism and to reinforce the suffering of the oppressed.

As the book reaches the contemporary world, there are some direct polemical exchanges between “Marxism” (disembodied in the form of an idea, and perfect) and “feminists” (grounded in real people’s lives and writing and therefore prone to error). The social basis of the latter, Cliff maintains is the “new middle class”, “graduates of … universities and polytechnics … In Marxist terms they belong to the petty bourgeoisie, located between the basic classes of capitalist society, the bourgeoisie or ruling class, and the proletariat”. (In fairness to Cliff, there are also passages in which he suggests that university educated women – school teachers, for example, were a part of the working class, albeit very close to the middle class).

Cliff would have grasped more keenly than anyone the difference between strands kinds of Marxism. But his analysis of feminism lumps together all sorts of different strands of thought. Here Sharon Smith’s criticisms hits the mark: “Over the last few decades in the IST, feminism became a straw figure–even a caricature of a straw figure, made up of the unlikely mish-mash of separatists who simply hate all men and bourgeois feminists who selfishly care only about gaining access to corporate boardrooms – against whom we Marxists steadfastly defended the “interests” of working-class women and men.”

An enormous amount is made to rest in Cliff’s account on the figure of the “working-class woman, financially dependent on husband, carrying the double burden of housework and holding down a boring, low-paid job”. These women are portrayed as the carriers of a particular virtue, to which male workers can approach but from which middle class women are excluded.

I don’t believe we should treat this figure as mythical – which I suppose would be one reading of Smith and Bakan’s criticism – that Cliff’s “anti-feminist Marxism” invokes working-class women against middle-class women, but this is an artificial, pure rhetorical strategy on its part, for such gender-blind socialism will not even focus on working class women.

Anyone who had seen the SWP of the 1980s – in which a number of working-class women were pushed into leadership roles – would know that the party Cliff built was better than this criticism.

Cliff insists that middle-class women benefit from the oppression of working class women (who work for them as nannies, etc); and uses the higher proportion of women from grammar rather than comprehensive schools attending universities (16.9% and 2.9% in 1975-6) as proof that “bourgeois women have far more in common with their own class than with women of the working class.”

Cliff nowhere says directly that middle- or ruling-class women are entirely liberated from gender oppression, but his analysis of women’s oppression implies that its objective pain is lessened for people with property. The problem, as Cliff would have admitted in other contexts, is that oppression is a relationship, and therefore its pain always relative. Workers in Britain did not cease to be oppressed between 1850 and 1950, although the workers of the twentieth century had higher incomes than their predecessors.

Marx himself may have begun by thinking that the working-class were revolutionary because they were the most dispossessed group in society; by the time of the Communist Manifesto he had grasped that it was not their relative oppression that made one class or another more worth caring about but their capacity to change the world (and to change themselves in so doing).

Nowhere in Cliff’s book would you see an answer to a point which is made in Sharon Smith’s article that “There is … an important distinction … between ruling-class and middle-class women. By and large, ruling-class women support the capitalist system with all its injustices, whereas middle-class women, like all members of the middle class, tend to get pulled in different directions – some gravitating toward the bourgeoisie and others toward the working class.”

There is a problem with the book which, like so much other SWP writing, skips as if without noticing between two conceptions of class, one, ostensibly derived from Marx’s relations of production, in which almost everyone who works and everyone in their families is working class (the 99% model), and a different use, in which class excludes anyone who is a political opponent, who is then dismissed in “common sense” class categories with education often used as a proxy for class.

If a leading socialist today was to insist that only sceptical co-operation was allowed with university-educated people, as Cliff’s dismissal of 1980s feminism does, they would find themselves without allies. Should they look too closely at their own party, they might find themselves having to ditch most of its members too.

Here I think Smith and Bakan are right to fault Cliff for his “sectarianism” – he sociologises feminism and he makes himself blind to its nuances and different trajectories.

When my comrades in the SWP today try to “apply Cliff” today, they tend to do it by assuming that every feminist they would meet combines the very worst bits of Catharine Mackinnon, Andrea Dworkin or Sheila Jeffreys (and not the better sides of either, still less the politics of a Lynne Segal, a Laurie Penny or a Nina Power), in other words that – just as Cliff wrote – there can be no compromise between feminism and Marxism. They blank out the possibility that when feminists look back at us, they see the opportunism of Respect, the self-boosterism of John Rees, the basic lack of human empathy that has informed our old, morally-corrupted leadership throughout the Delta scandal… And they miss the way in which among contemporary feminists, the mainstream opinion is an activist common sense, closer in mood and intent to the feminism (and the Marxism) of the 1960s than it is to the feminism of the early 1980s. Sort ourselves out first, and there could be sensible alliances we could make.

I do think however that there is another, connected, fault, which Smith and Bakan do not adequately explore. Throughout his book Cliff is constantly alive to the occasions when working-class women suffer oppression as workers, he says little of help about the oppression they suffer as women – i.e. the issues of rape, domestic violence and housework (childcare) – which he had voluntarily left to “the feminists” leaving them permanently outside the possibility of creative Marxist analysis.

Prior to Cliff’s book, there had been writers in the SWP and IS  who did grasp that love, relationships, and the imbalances in relationships were all things which were of real importance to millions. Dave Widgery was one, Sheila Rowbotham another. But since Cliff’s book (and since the closure of Women’s Voice which preceded it), the SWP has written much less than we used to about these “female” concerns and campaigned relatively little about them. How many SWP members do you know who have organised a coach to an anti-racist demonstration; and how many do you know who have volunteered for a rape line or at a women’s refuge?

This blindness is the lasting gap in Cliff’s book, the part which cannot be rescued. It is not that Cliff’s focus on working class women was misplaced. Contrary to Bakan and Smith, the problem is not that he was blind to women’s oppression, although his writing does show a steady drift from gender oppression to class.  If people want to understand why it is that the book has never had the independent following that, for example, State Capitalism had, the error is not his focus on working-class women as the revolutionary subject of a Marxism conscious of oppression (“women’s liberation”), but his failure to say anything meaningful about the gender half of the dual oppression that working-class women face.

The result of Cliff’s approach to women’s liberation is that an SWP which has at times cared a great deal about the politics of different industrial or international struggles has not thought deeply enough about matters as important as domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. For thirty years, and save for very brief exceptions (eg at the time of the Sara Thornon campaign in 1996) we have barely written or campaigned about these subjects; and we have not had anything distinctive to say about them. In general, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of male sexual violence, and this weakness has not been purely theoretical – breathless activists in so many other respects, we have done very little in campaigns which revolved around sex. Treating divisions as if they were fixed and immutable, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of equality in all of our lives.

When we most needed to have a literature of our own – during our recent crisis – we found that IST authors had written almost nothing on sexual harassment or rape, and the little we had written was derivative or seriously out of date. This gap has only been a small part of our recent difficulties, but it has been some of it.

Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Liberation and the International Socialists


Through the 1960s a determined reader might have had access to much of the best of today’s social history. C. L. R. James and Eric Williams had shown the contested history of slavery, from its creation in Europe to the opposition to the trade from the people of Africa and the Caribbean. The British Marxist historians, including Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson, had pioneered the concept of ‘history from below’, the idea that the past should be witnessed from the perspective not of the rulers but of the masses. In France and Germany, the major forms of social history had been defined as ‘histoire totale‘ or ‘Gesellschaftsgeschichte‘. Through studying the total set of human behaviour, including protests of subaltern groups, social history could provide a total account of human history. The most important institution behind this trend was the French journal Annales, while the British journal Past and Present and the German Geschicte und Gesellschaft showed a similar ambition.

Yet for all the undoubted qualities of the new social history, it also suffered from certain, major weaknesses. In 1970 Eric Hobsbawm was invited to present a paper to a conference in Rome on ‘Historical Studies Today’. Hobsbawm was then at the left edge of the discipline and the most prominent intellectual within the Communist Party of Great Britain. Twenty-five years later, Hobsbawm was invited to include this same paper, ‘From Social History to the History of Society’, in a collection of his articles. The paper duly appeared, but it had to be published with an awkward preface, ‘The author cannot but note with embarrassed astonishment that it contained no reference at all to women’s history. Admittedly, this field had scarcely begun to develop before the end of the 1960s, but neither I nor any of the other contributors to this volume, among the most distinguished in the profession – all males – appear to have been aware of the gap.’

Had Hobsbawm taken a closer interest, in 1970, he might have noticed that the first signs of a growing women’s consciousness were already about. While the Communist Party showed little interest in the new politics, there were other traditions that were less resistant to it. The American women’s movement, which had been strong in the 1880 and the 1920s, had been reborn in the early 1960s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique asked why so many of her friends felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’. They were articulate, well-educated women who played by the rules, so why were their lives incomplete? In 1963, Friedan launched the National Organisation for Women (NOW). Two years before Hobsbawm’s paper, American women had protested against the Miss America contest. There was a women’s liberation movement in the US and in Britain. Women’s history followed it.

One key figure was Sheila Rowbotham. Born in 1943 to a Methodist family in Leeds, Rowbotham’s mother was an office clerk and her father an engineering salesman. Even as a schoolgirl, she claimed that the story of kings and queens ‘left her cold’. Educated at St. Hilda’s, an all-women college at Oxford University, Rowbotham gravitated towards left-wing politics. In the mid-1960s she sided with the left inside the Labour’s Young Socialists. ‘I spent a long time watching how people reacted to each other and I became slowly versed in the intense if narrow rigours of Trotskyism, between the collapse of CND and the rise of the student movement.’

She briefly joined one particular group, the International Socialists or “IS”. According to Rowbotham, ‘In the sixties they seemed to be able to assimilate and learn from new movements while retaining an understanding of exploitation. This was important both for the student movement and locally for me in the Vietnam Solidarity Committee in Hackney. But before these, IS had supported various kinds of community action, a campaign about racialism in Islington and the organization of private tenants in Hackney which contributed to their involvement in the council tenants’ movement in the late sixties.’ For Rowbotham, the group’s combination of coherent theory and tactical flexibility continued at least until the end of sixties.

Another important influence was Rowbotham’s friendship with Edward (“E.P.”) and Dorothy Thompson, two socialist historians of the previous generation. Through their support, Rowbotham became an active participant at the annual History Workshop conferences. ‘I wanted to understand how people formed their ideas through action, collective action, and again, History Workshop, as well as its interest in subjective experience, personal experience, of education and things like that, was always more interested in a wider concept of collective struggle than existed within Marxist ways of thinking, because in Marxism there had always been this emphasis on production.’

It is hard to separate the history and political activism of this generation. At the 1969 History Workshop conference, there was a long discussion of women’s work. Men in the audience responded critically, with at least one insisting that women did not want to work. Afterwards Sheila Rowbotham, Anna Davin, Barbara Winslow and Sally Alexander met together and decided to hold a women’s liberation conference in Ruskin. This became the first such conference in Britain. Five hundred people took part, including some forty men, who justified their presence by running the crèche, and around 50 members of IS. Not just women’s history, but the modern British movement for women’s liberation begins with the History Workshop movement.

In the ten years from 1969, Rowbotham produced an extraordinary series of books. Her first pamphlet, Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (published in 1969) was an early statement of the case for women’s liberation. Next came Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), a history of women’s struggles to achieve equality. Hidden from History (1973) provided a short guide to women’s history from the seventeenth century onwards, covering not just the feminist movement itself but now such diverse topics as religion, birth control, rescue work, sexuality, motherhood and anti-feminism. Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973) was more of a personal memoir, mapping the path of her own development towards revolutionary feminism, and indeed of her generation. Another book, A New World for Women (1977) rescued the life of an early Communist and champion of birth control. Written with Jean McCrindle, Dutiful Daughters (1977) was an oral history of fourteen working-class and lower-middle-class women. Some were activists, others just chose to talk about their own private lives. It is useful to see this book as an expression of the Thompsonian belief that human stories are always valuable. Another co-publication, Socialism and the New Life (1977) told the story of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, two pioneers of sexual reform. The second author was Jeffrey Weeks, one of the first British writers to publish lesbian or gay history. This creative period culminated in Rowbotham’s contribution to Beyond the Fragments, this was not an attempt to tell the story of the movement, but a challenge to remake it, arguing that socialist organisation should build on the democratic power-relationships of women’s liberation at its best. These books constitute an early zenith of women’s history, to the left of the 1970s what the British Marxist historians had been a decade earlier.

Rowbotham’s writing was influenced by politics of socialism and human liberation – the politics which also caused Rowbotham to join IS. At points she acknowledged this directly. Like all writers, Rowbotham was influenced by the friends she made, and by her milieu of colleagues and comrades. The preface to her book Hidden from History thanks socialist activists including Joan Smith, Richard Kuper and David Widgery (all from IS); comrades from the women’s movement, namely Anna Davin and Barbara Winslow; social historians from an earlier generation, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Keith Thomas, Christopher Hill and Bill Fishman. Finally, it mentions women in struggle, whose activism ‘directed many of the questions I was asking about the past’. They included ‘the Fakenham women who occupied their factory, the London cleaners who went on strike, and the women in the claimants union who in campaigning against the cohabitation clause are confronting patriarchy and the state.’ For Rowbotham, it would have been laughable to think that feminism was essentially a ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle-class movement’, her heroes were revolutionaries and working class women. Now, it has to be admitted that the length of her acknowledgments indicates that this was not a “party line” book; the politics of International Socialism was among her influences and (this is important) it was not the only one. But it was there, a part of the whole.

Rowbotham’s biographies of Edward Carpenter and Stella Browne were both published by Pluto Press, then the in-house publisher of the IS, as was Hidden from History itself. In another book, Threads Through Time, she names women from IS in Coventry as among the constituents of the first Women’s Liberation Conference. In a further book, The Past is Before Us, Rowbotham quotes approvingly from a speech by Anna Paczuska of IS to the second, 1971 Women’s liberation conference: “For us in women’s liberation, the right of women to work is an important demand. We do not necessarily think that working women are liberation but we understand that the right to work brings many women immense social gain…”

Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World contains some of Rowbotham’s first published passages of autobiography. She described being on the left in the mid-1960s in Hackney and encountering types of left-ism which left her cold, “Like the man form Militant who solemnly told everyone that drugs, drink and women were a capitalist plot to seduce the workers from Marxism.”

Here she describes being in an IS-dominated branch of the Young Socialists: ‘I made some friends; the implications of my class background were drummed into me; my political perceptions grew out of a working-class-based local organization which was integrally bound to Marxism. Most important I encountered a Marxism in practice in which there was no single orthodoxy but much disputation.’ This was the style of the group which Tony Cliff had nurtured, young, argumentative and hopeful.

Rowbotham continues: ‘I learned from older Marxist friends that alternative Marxisms existed beyond and behind my world of the YS. They talked to me about the Communist Party, about Hungary, Algeria, about the Social Democratic Federation in Leeds. They connected politics to the way you lived.’ There was no idea then that the politics of the group might be separated from the moral failings of its leadership; this was a Marxism which had an argument for everything.

‘It seemed I was just part of a great ebbing and flowing mass of people, who fell in love, suffered, activated, died, but who all took conscious if tortured decisions which had a small but not insignificant effect. Most important, some of these people were women. The socialism I discovered from them was one which was explicitly committed to human dignity and which assumed that women should be as proud and as responsible as men.’

Why did IS attract a young activist like Rowbotham? Part of the group’s success was that it navigated successfully between two false approaches to Marxism; one, in which the problems of politics had been solved by the early passages of the Communist Manifesto, and in which all human suffering was reducible to the problems of class, and a second in which exploitation was relegated altogether and became just another one of several, undifferentiated sufferings.

The point which Marx himself had grasped (not in his 20s, it must be acknowledged, but somewhere between the Manifesto and Capital) is that the workers are not the most downtrodden, dispossessed group in society. Their claim to primacy rests not from their greater suffering but from their better implantation at the heart of capitalism and their greater capacity to take over the workplaces and production.

IS did not consider itself ‘the party’; and would have laughed at the pretensions to ‘leadership’ of the modern-day self-declared ‘working-class vanguard’ in which educators outnumber fire-fighters by 150 to 1. It was modest; its members were not afraid to laugh at themselves. But what they understood best, and more creatively than their rivals on the left, was that any socialism worthy of the name must somehow join up the struggles of the oppressed and the exploited. More than this, IS grasped that ‘joining up’ does not mean ‘dissolving one into the other’. A perspective for women’s liberation, if you wanted to have one, should grasp both the specific suffering of women in society, and recognise and analyse its specific forms (equal pay, domestic violence, unequal resposibilities for childcare, etc) while at the same time championing a world run by the workers.

Like socialism, IS always had two souls. Rowbotham’s eventual reckoning with the group came at the start of the 1980s in her autobiographical contribution to Beyond the Fragments. In effect, she blamed Cliff’s Leninist turn for her departure:

‘I joined for about eighteen months, following a drive to recruit people who agreed very generally with their aims after Powell’s racist speech in 1968. A debate about organization was just coming to an end. I puzzled over various position papers in bewilderment. In a sense I’m still reeling, for ideas take years to sink in and grow out of me. Anyway in retrospect this argument seems to me to have been crucial. It involved discussion about the degree of autonomy local branches should have. The case for a centralized structure was eventually accepted. This debate came to be referred to as a closed issue – as if it had been settled. But its implications were critical for the course which IS was to take as an organization. Closing up on these issues was a mistake. It was implied there was no time for further discussion.’

IS, she argued, had not sustained in its initial interest in the politics of Women’s Liberation – despite the fact that several of the WL groups outside London had been established by IS members. There were other examples of sectarianism, she complained, including the group’s long hostility to gay liberation: ‘Why should a group which had rejected dogma hold its ideas as moralistic defences?’ she asked. ‘Ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, IS baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organization. Even the commitment to workers’ rank and file struggles and experience came to be narrowly defined in terms of recruitment.’

‘In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left.’

All this was written, of course, before the closure of the SWP’s women’s magazine Women’s Voice, a yet further crime which could have been added to Rowbotham’s indictment

We can see this hardening in our own time, as well as its potential antidote: a left which can grasp the politics of the intimate and the everyday; a left which is serious about democracy within; a left which is comfortable in the world of the present (rather than being chained to the repetition of ideas which have not been reconsidered in 30 years).

Wouldn’t this be a better place to begin?