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.

4 responses »

  1. The central flaw in Cliff’s Women’s Liberation and Class Struggle was the same one that the whole organisation suffered from. It had no concept of oppression, because it was a workerist party that down-graded the political struggle for women’s rights. Cliff argues that through workplace struggle sex divisions will fall away – which is his way of saying that fighting oppression was not an important part of the struggle for working class unity.
    (Of course the party did join demonstrations over abortion where these had already gathered momentum, but that was an adaptation to circumstances, not a strategic decision.)
    Most of the Cliff book is given over to a denunciation of the anti-working class views of middle-class feminists. That is not wrong except that Cliff had already made clear that he had nothing to offer to deal with the specificity of women’s oppression. That made his criticisms of ‘middle class feminism’ particularly hollow – because he had already conceded the ground of fighting oppression to those whose faults he high-lighted.
    Lastly, the point on which you criticise Cliff, that he wanted to avoid questions like rape because they emphasized the differences between men and women is the question that he got more nearly right than the SWP in its later incarnation. Interpersonal violence is not something you can make good politics around.
    The real failing of Class Struggle and Women’s Oppression was not that it gave to little ground to feminism, but that it gave too much ground. Cliff was saying to women, we have nothing to say about the specific problems you have as women, we just hope that the class struggle will deal with them.

    • James, it is a joy having you as a friend and occasional correspondent. Any time I forget the historic positions of the RCP, I know you’ll be there to remind me …

  2. Can’t resist sharing my memory of a meeting at Marxism (probably 1978 or 1979) in which an RCP member attacked Women’s Voice at considerable length for the concessions it made to feminism by talking about issues like women’s health, her denunciation concluding “And what we have to remember is that cystitis is not a burning issue!”

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