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

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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.

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2 responses »

  1. Interesting Dave and there is much a I agree with. It has become abundantly clear that there is a major, and dangerous, problem in the way in which the leading cadre of the SWP understand rape and sexual harassment. But, as one of those who has been able to recognise rape and harassment for what it was, and left the SWP in 2010 over it, I do not agree that the reason for the problem is Cliff’s weakness.

    Covering up sexual harassment which is what refusing to recognise it or to listen to those who bring complaints about it, is not the inevitable end product of Cliff’s crude way of arguing that women;s oppression arises from class society or the mistaken emphasis on alienation as more distorting in working class relationships. Many of us who learned our politics entirely from within the SWP have been quite capable of recognising abuse and standing against it.

    The shame of collusion in abuse from all those who have participated in that collusion whether by actively covering it up and lying/smearing those of us who spoke up about it or by distorting the politics of the IST by arguing the filthy scabby line that any concern with abuse is unmarxist or a break with class politics, belongs only to those people who have participated in it.

    Not writing a lot on the subject, didn’t necessarily mean the party was bound to tolerate abuse–that it did is rooted in other processes in my view.

    I did lots and lots of meetings on violence agianst women and I held, and still hold, the standard SWP line on the roots of opression and violence. I and many many others (like yourself) also expected a high standard of solidarity and anti-oppressive practice in a revolutionary party and could recognise and refuse to go along with what has occured and the idea that women should simply sacrifice themselves (again) for the sake of not damaging the only revolutionary party with any potential to organise and lead.

    It is the argument that SWP women are class fighters and so can, be an act of will and individual characteristic, bat aside any attempt to oppress them that has done the harm and needs to be deconstructed more than anything else. That is why so many SWP members fell into the trap laid by those who wanted to cover up abuse–they fell for the argument that the women could not have suffered abuse because they would have resisted anything abusive happening to them and thefore the complaints must be serving a nefarious political purpose. And I dont think it is fair to blame Cliff or the SWPs basic political line on the origins of women’s oppression for that.

    Having said that however, I agree that the lack of real analysis is lamantable and has added to the problem.

  2. Despite a lot of the old formulaic language (and the obligatory bit of ‘scabby’ abuse!) Elane hits one nail completely on the head, ‘the argument that SWP women are class fighters and so can, by an act of will, bat aside any attempt to oppress them’. Too sadly right there, Elane – it’s what I now feel I did in my personal life for far too many years.

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