Another day on social media, another friend writes: “A crowd of nasty jeering bigots showed up at the library in Lincolnwood IL tonight to try to ban LGBTQ books. One ‘concerned dad’ told a library defender that being gay was a mental illness.”
Let’s put the story in some context. 2021 was the worst year for freedom of opinion in America since the days of Joe McCarthy and the House un-American Activities Committee. 2,532 books were banned. (A roughly 15-fold increase compared to 2000). The people pushing for bans were the very people who go on social media calling themselves the “free speech” right. Of the banned books, the main thing they had in common (41% of titles) was the presence of pro-LGBT themes.
This year, first in America and then in Britain, a main focus of far-right campaigning has been the attempt to ban drag queen story hours: event in which adults take over a library for an hour and read stories to children.
Some points which are worth noting: these events aren’t new. While they have only been going under the name Drag Queen Story Hour since 2015, drag readings were common in London libraries a decade ago. And if you wanted to know how far back pantomime dames go, as a form of children’s entertainment – the answer’s more than 200 years.
In Britain, the main group who have been pushing this campaign over the summer have been the neo-Nazis of Patriotic Alternative – PA called or joined protests in Crewe, Cheshire, Bexleyheath and Norwich, where their banner dominated the square (until anti-fascist and trans people surrounded it). In August, they were joined by the far-right anti-vax campaigner, Piers Corbyn, for an anti-drag event in Brighton. And by far-right campaigner Posie Parker.
At least initially, the involvement of far-right campaigners was welcome by a surprising number of people in the mainstream, centre-left, “gender critical” campaign against trans rights. Helen Joyce for example said that if the far-right were allying with the gender criticals well, then, obviously, that was the fault of the left for disagreeing with her. (This is my best summary of what she wrote, if you can make more sense of it, then good luck to you).
Anti-trans artist Claudia Clare wrote that any drag queens “with an ounce of sense of decency” would accept “they are NOT for young children.”
The same newspapers, which have amplified gender critical activists spent the summer whitewashing the far right campaign. In the Telegraph, what was going on was not a political campaign by far-right activists here emulating their US counterparts but a mere “backlash from parents“. The Daily Mail’s approach was the same.
In fairness, some people pushed back: Harvey Jeni wrote that she was fed up with the far right live streaming anti-trans events: “I can never, ever be part of any movement that sits on the same side of a police line with fascists”. Even Julie Bindel was willing to notice that neo-Nazis shouting anti-LGBT slogans might be a problem: “I wonder if it is laziness, or if some of the anti-drag queen protesters are actually anti lesbian/gay. As I say, I am no fan of drag, and I REALLY hate the sexualised version, but have a think about what you are saying and how you are saying it?”
But what no-one seemed willing to admit was that the three previous months wasn’t something new but the culmination of a longer process in which anti-trans activists have been pushing back at all the myriad forms of trans and allied experience. Helen Joyce first started calling drag queens “an open door to paedophiles” as long ago as spring 2021.
Moreover, key gender critical activists have long been open to an alliance with the far right (just so long as they weren’t seen to be in alliance): from Julie Burchill agreeing to a publishing deal with publishing house Stirling Press which was run by a member of Patriotic Alternative (in fairness to her, she cancelled the deal after opinions of her publisher were pointed out), to Julie Bindel attacking Mermaids using the exact same language of child safety as the library protesters.
The gender critical feminists play a role within the women’s movement in which they pull their supporters towards right-wing positions. But it is essential to their self-presentation that they are of the left not the right, champions of women’s equality, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual causes if only the latter could somehow be purged of all gender non-conforming behaviour except for a tiny narrow sliver of non-confirming behaviour that confirms to patterns worked out in the 1980s and repeated ever since. Gender critical feminists keep on telling anyone who will listen that they want the Equality Act to survive, and they obtain prestige and profile from their association with the left.
But this is just the moment that we’re in. Whether it’s in Boris Johnson’s choice of advisors, or who he nominated for life peers, or the identity of the people working or Liz Truss’s favourite thinktank, quite large parts of the present right-wing advance depend on people who started off on the left and can give you the most plausible explanations for why they’re now somewhere else.
Alongside the other piece I’ve reposted on here today (on exclusionary radical feminism and its 1980s targets), I thought I’d reshare this, a version of an article which originally appeared in Socialist History (back in 2000), a review of Martin Durham’s book ‘Women and Fascism’. The seeming alliance between a group of left-wing anti-trans feminists in Britain and sections of the electoral and street right, including in demands to cancel drag hour events in librairies, has produced a number of articles, asking whether that alliance between feminism and fascism is new. Eg pieces by Jude Doyle and Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur. A number of writers this year appear to be revisiting books such as Martin Durham’s ‘Women and Fascism’ or Julie Gottlieb’s ‘Women and Fascism’. This piece below was a long review article of the former, criticising Durham for over-empahasising women’s agency in fascism, and under-emphasising the extent to which fascism offered only reactionary answers to the “women’s question”.On the points which are considered by Bassi and LaFleur – is it meaningful to say that a feminism shouldn’t be given that name, if it is in alliance with fascists? – they say No. These days, unlike then, I’d probably agree with them. In other words, my own politics have more space for layers and contradiction than they did 20 years ago.That said, I’m proud of this piece, if for nothing else for the way it gathers together a set of feminist anti-fascist sources from the 1970s and 1980s.
Women and Fascism: a Critique
Elsewhere I have criticised fascism studies, a way of looking at the history of fascism which focuses on the ideas of the far-right, to the exclusion of its practice. The pressure to come up with new approaches to the subject is intense. Yet the impact of new theories is not always positive. The love of controversy has given a spur towards new approaches, some of which assert the originality of their argument at the expense of the material which would be needed to defend their case. This paper will criticise one strand of fascism studies, namely the recent study of the relationship between gender and fascism. The authors I have in mind are mostly writing in Britain, and several chose British fascism for the object of their historical study. This paper will first discuss and criticise the work of these recent authors, and then offer an alternative theoretical model of how the relationship could be understood. That counter-theory will be based on the work of a generation of anti-fascist activists from the 1970s, historians who were part of a large anti-racist milieu, and whose theories offered more vivid insights than the approach of these more recent authors.
The literature which I criticise is one that challenges the older argument that fascism and women’s interests were incompatible. I do not suggest that merely writing about women and fascism should be problematic. The study only becomes controversial when the authors have accepted fascist claims that their movement represented women’s interests. One good example of the problematic literature is Martin Durham’s recent book, Women and Fascism. This study addresses the nature of women’s support for fascism. As its author points out, millions of women voted for the fascist parties or supported the fascist regimes. Indeed women often represented Mussolini or Hitler’s greatest admirers. For evidence, we only need to see the pictures of the huge fascist rallies – with teenage girls screaming with a gusto that puts contemporary teen-band-groupies to shame.
What is Durham’s distinctive argument? The first general claim is that for too long historians have written gender out of the picture. ‘Fascism has much to say about women, and discussions of the extreme right are woefully incomplete of they do not make this crystal clear.’ The second claim is that the traditional historical assumption that fascism was anti-female is too simple, ‘It is hard now (although, unfortunately not impossible) to envisage an account of the extreme right that does not take the importance of gender seriously. Instead the great danger may now be that studies will recognise the importance of the relationship between the extreme right and women but in such a way as to obscure its complexity.’ The traditional approach is regarded as over-simplistic, historians ‘can no longer believe that fascism is to be seen by definition as a masculine movement pursuing a misogynist agenda.’ The purpose of Women and Fascism, is summed by a sentence from its introduction, ‘Conventional accounts see fascism as, by definition, an anti-feminist movement devoted to the removal of domestic servitude and the unceasing production of children… In important ways, this study is intended to subvert that supposition.’
Martin Durham establishes that fascism was a feminist issue, but he has more difficulty in making the case that fascism was itself a feminist movement. His difficulties might be compared to those of a comparable historian of Islamic fundamentalism. It is agreed that many Islamist parties have received their strongest support from women, but how far does that make these organisations objectively women’s parties? The most persuasive test would lie in the practice of the ideology, in the extent to which women were involved in the actual running of the organisation, in the ideas which were promulgated, and in the nature of the laws which were introduced when the movement achieved state power.
Tested in these ways, Durham’s own research makes it clear that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology. In Italy, Benito Mussolini campaigned to return women into the family, insisting that Italian birth-rates were too low. Contraception was banned and feminism described as a ‘Jewish’ invention. Within Adolf Hitler’s party, women made up just six to eight percent of the membership. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) may have been more sympathetic to women than its sister parties, and a minority of its writers did accept that women might have a right to work. Yet even in this Martin Durham’s home case, the party as a whole was eugenicist, fixated with increased birth-rates, and opposed to women’s independence. Indeed the third chapter of Women and Fascism demonstrates that the few recognisable feminists within fascism (including Mary Richardson and Mrs. Carrington) left the BUF precisely because it would not meet their demands.
All these examples are taken from Durham’s book, although it would be possible to add further evidence of fascism’s hostility to women’s independence which has been discovered by other historians over the past twenty years. The obvious starting point is Weimar Germany. According to Anne Alexander, this was a relatively liberal and female-friendly society, a positive example of women’s relative equality, ‘Liberation meant more than the chance to vote. Weimar Germany witnessed a cultural flowering which seemed to promise both sexual and artistic fulfillment. More than 150,000 Germans subscribed to the journals of sex reformers such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Helene Stöcker, the leading figure in the radical Bund für Mutterschutz. Music hall songs celebrated women’s sexual and political confidence: “Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag” was one popular chorus.’ The contrast with what was to follow could not have been more striking. In power, the NSDAP attempted to ban women from professional employment. The measures introduced fitted with Nazi ideology, while also increasing opportunities for men seeking work. The state introduced marriage loans, dependent both on the political loyalty of the family, and the woman’s consent to give up paid employment. Nazi racism had a particular impact on women. It was mothers who would breed the new race of fit Germans, free from racial and political taint. The implementation of eugenic policy meant an unprecedented increase in the state supervision of the birth process. Older women were surplus to requirements. Younger women could only hope that their child would not be one of the 100,000 German children killed in cold blood for their inherited disability.
Richard Evans has described how after Hitler’s victory in 1933, even Nazi women’s organisations felt a need to condemn the independent status of women. So Gertrud Bäumer, the leading figure in the BDF supported women who resigned from political office in the early 1930s and retreated into the home, on the grounds that the rough and tumble of politics was ‘foreign to women’s natures’. In a similar vein, Stefan Berger points to the failure of the German government to mobilise women workers, even during the war. ‘In January 1943 the regime finally decreed that all women between the ages of 17 and 45 had to register with the unemployment office. Yet out of 3.1 million women, only 1.2 million were regarded as fit to work.’ Democratic Britain and Stalinist Russia, neither of them exactly havens for women workers, did not make the same mistake as Adolf Hitler.
Meanwhile, similar notions of eugenics and natalism reinforced the unequal status of women in Mussolini’s Italy. A National Agency was established to regulate maternity and infancy. Family loans and allowances were granted to the most productive women, their production being measured in childbirth. A demographic campaign was established to push up the birthrate (it largely failed). Women were instructed to leave employment, both in order to ‘return’ their jobs to men, but also to resume their natural role as the keeper of the home. With the expansion of the Italian empire into Africa, and the copying of anti-Semitism from Hitler’s Nazis, anti-feminism and racism were mixed together. White women were instructed to breed. If they failed to carry out this instruction, their failure was blamed on the memory of ‘Jewish’ feminism. One difference, though, in the Italian experience, was the residual legacy of the Catholic Church, which reinforced the misogyny of the regime, while drawing on the values of traditional Italy to justify its role.
So there is a considerable body of established scholarship, which is rejected by the new writers, because its analysis of women’s roles lacks ‘complexity’, and because any crude account of women’s lives will write real people out of history. But how do you argue against the experience of the majority, what can you say when so much of women’s experience was so negative? The author of Women and Fascism is aware of many of the points made here, and skates over the contradiction in his book between the argument and the evidence by invoking a series of yes-buts. ‘Italian Fascism was not ascribed with anti-feminism from its beginnings… The party was not uniformly misogynist… A closer examination suggests a more complex picture… Nazism is not to be understood as the uncomplicated expression of patriarchal power… There is more fluidity than we might have thought in fascist notions of the feminine.’ The tone of the argument is uncertain.
There are other ways to write about fascism and its impact on women. Twenty-five years ago, there was a large milieu of socialist and feminist historians in Britain, organised in the History Workshop and other Socialist History networks. Members of this movement did write about fascism, but in a more critical way. One reason for the greater hostility to fascism expressed in their work is that many writers were actively involved in the large anti-racist campaign that was so important in Britain at the end of the 1970s. This campaign gave birth to an array of organisations, including Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, and Women Against Racism and Fascism. The contention of this paper is that the activist history produced by writers sympathetic to the anti-racist movement offered a more compelling explanation of the relationship between women and fascism, than that offered in Durham’s book. So what did these historians argue?
One important collective was the ‘Women and Fascism Study Group’, based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. This group contributed to a Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF) conference held in Birmingham in early 1978, and then published a pamphlet of their own, the following year. Their argument was that fascism should not be seen primarily as a racist movement, but rather as a party which was sexist and homophobic as well. In their words, ‘Fascism does address women as women – or rather, as wives and mothers, breeders for race and nation – and it aims to win support on that basis. Fascism also addresses men – it sees itself as virility personified, and regards liberalism as “feminine”.’ Members of the group saw the phrase ‘breeders for race and nation’ as central to their argument, and this became the title of their pamphlet. Having criticised mainstream writers for neglecting the distorted masculine politics at the heart of fascism, the Women and Fascism Study Group did not replace the existing one-sided theories with a further one-sided approach of their own. Instead they sought to integrate their analysis of fascism and sexism into a total argument which also emphasised the racist and nationalistic character of fascism as well. Sections of their pamphlet addressed racism, eugenics, and also the impact of the demand for women’s liberation.
A further aspect of the Women and Fascism Study group pamphlet is worthy of mention. In order to sustain a consistently anti-sexist understanding of fascism in inter-war Italy and Germany and post-war Britain, the authors drew on an earlier generation of witnesses to fascism, including Wilhelm Reich, Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby. I will mention only one of these earlier writers here. Virginia Woolf’s 1938 essay ‘Three Guineas’, asked how to prevent the collapse into fascism and European war. Her conclusion described the fascist invocation of a cult of muscularity:
Another picture has imposed itself upon the foreground. It is the figure of a man; some say, others deny that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly, His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in a uniform. Upon the breast of that uniform are sewn medals and other mystical symbols. His hand is upon a sword. He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies men, women and children.
The importance of this symbol to Woolf was that it raised clearly the connection between ‘the public and the private worlds’. A public dictatorship could only become a private dictatorship, a society in which women would be dependent and at home. Yet if fascism made a claim to understand the universal status of Man, so did anti-fascism. ‘The human figure even in a photograph suggests other and more complex emotions. It suggests that we cannot disassociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure.’ This discussion provided Woolf’s conclusion, the need was to challenge the fascist image of universal man, ‘we can prevent war not by repeating your worlds and following your methods but by finding new worlds and creating new methods.’ It was a message endorsed by the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation.
Another group which attempted to study the gender dynamics of fascism was the Liverpool socialist group, Big Flame, in a pamphlet, Sexuality and Fascism. This was typical of the literature of the 1970s, in that it began by stressing the sexist character of fascism, ‘Discussions of the ideology of National Socialism has often underestimated, or ignored, the vast importance of their anti-feminist ideas.’ What made fascism sexist? First, fascism’s anti-liberalism demanded an assault on women’s organisation. Second, fascism’s racism required control of the birth process, which justified a draconian supervision of the private sphere. Third, fascism’s alliance with conservatism reinvigorated the traditional Christian dominance over women’s lives. The authors of this pamphlet were motivated by the rise of fascism in 1970s Britain, the threat of the National Front (NF). Big Flame observed that the NF did recruit some women to its organisation. Yet this fact was connected to the contemporary crisis in the family, the rise in divorce and abortion, the emergence of alternative lifestyles and gay sexuality. One of the Front’s appeals to women was that it claimed to defend the family. This call may have represented a defence of the subordination of women, but this was not the first time in history that people have supported a demand which was opposed to their own objective interests.
Still in 1970s Britain, the socialist writer Jane Hardy wrote an important article for the magazine Women’s Voice on ‘Women and Fascism’. Her piece argued for anti-fascism from an explicitly socialist feminist perspective. First of all, she described how Hitler’s Germany had forced women back into the home. Next she gave examples of how fascist speakers, Hitler and Goebbels had defended their vision of women’s role in society. Then Hardy showed that these right-wing ideas had come back to haunt in more recent times, ‘What is so sickening is that it is not so very different from what we hear every day; women should give up their jobs, the 1967 Abortion Act should be tightened or restricted or abolished; Gay News is threatening our moral fibre. These are not attacks by fascists, but it is a thin line that divides conservative ideas from those of the extreme right.’ Women’s Voice operated around this time as the main publishing vehicle for another woman’s anti-fascist organisation, Women Against the Nazis. For the editors of this magazine, the question of women’s relationship to fascism was a consistent theme. In February 1978, Women’s Voice ran an interview with Miriam Karlin. She was a prominent member of the ANL, responsible for recruiting several fellow actresses, including Mia Farrow, Janet Suzman, Peggy Ashcroft, Glenda Jackson and Dorothy Tutin. Karlin’s felt that too many men were thinking about their career, ‘Women are far more prepared to stand up and be counted on their gut reaction to something.’
Another organisation to mention was Rock Against Sexism, again part of this general, anti-racist and anti-sexist milieu. In an article for the magazine Temporary Hoarding on Wilhelm Reich, a radical psychologist anti-fascist from Weimar Germany, Lucy Toothpaste the founder of Rock Against Sexism attempted to demonstrate that fascism (and indeed all political authoritarianism) represented an onslaught against sex, not just in the 1930s, but forty years later as well: ‘In case all that lot seems a bit far-fetched to you, we couldn’t resist giving you some living proof of the connection between authoritarianism in the home and in the state. “Love and discipline went together. My father sometimes took his pit belt off and leathered me. I shed tears, but I knew he was right and I was wrong.” That’s what James Anderton said in an interview in the Observer in February. It was a belief that right and wrong were as distinct as black and white that reinforced his one and only ambition “to be a policeman and if possible the biggest policeman of all.” Sadly by 1979 James Anderton’s goal had been achieved, as Lucy Toothpaste went on to record, ‘Well, he grew up to be a policeman alright, the chief constable of Greater Manchester to be exact, the second most powerful cop in the country.’
The interest in Reich was common across the writers in this milieu, but why did he exert such influence? Half of the answer lies outside the question of the relationship between fascism and gender. A Dialectics of Liberation Conference was held in 1968 at the London School of Economics. The speakers present at this conference included R. D. Laing, David Cooper, Lucien Goldmann and Paul Sweezy. The glue binding together this disparate range of economists, psychologists and cultural studies writers was (as one participant David Widgery observes) ‘neither Sartre nor Fanon, but the Marxist Reich of the inter-war years’. Taking place at such pivotal time and location for the counter-culture, this Conference had a symbolic appeal and remained a point of reference for the British left for at least the next ten years to come. The other reason for Wilhelm Reich’s appeal has more to do with the subject under discussion. Reich’s theories appealed to anti-fascist writers in the late 1970s because of his interest in questions of gender, sexuality and the fascist mass movement. So Wilhelm Reich was a key reference-point for the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation. For them, the significance of Reich lay in his interest in the mass psychology of fascism, ‘Reich was one of the few in the 30s to pose the question of why fascism appeals to the mass of men and women. Why did so many join the Nazi movement. What anxieties and fears was fascism addressing? These questions are still central to a feminist and socialist analysis of right wing and fascist movements.’
In order to explain the appeal of fascism, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), combined insights from Marxist economics and Freudian psychology. For Reich, the crisis of the 1930s was a crisis of sexuality. Capitalism was in crisis, and disrupting the traditional structures of family and sexual life. As a consequence, sexual desires were repressed, both for men and women. Yet fascism appeared to celebrate the sexual unfreedom of women in particular. Political reaction consciously exploited ‘the sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of the rhythmically executed goose-stepping’. The classic example of this process was the swastika. Reich believed that this symbol had been chosen deliberately for its historic, sexual connotations. Not only did fascism exploit sexuality, but it did so in a way understood by its audience, ‘The exhibitionistic nature of militaristic procedures have been more practically comprehended by a sales girl or an average secretary than by our most erudite politicians.’ The rise of fascism, the adversary of sexual freedom, represented a failure of human creativity, it was an extended sado-masochistic response to the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilisation and its mechanistic-mythical conception of life.’
In the 1970s, a number of writers attempted to develop and extend the insights of Reich’s work. Beyond those already mentioned, Reich was also cited by David Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism (RAR), the anti-racist organisation which acted as the inspiration for the later Anti-Nazi League. This for example is his description of the Carol Grimes concert at which RAR was effectively launched:
It was a success, not just packed out and a great atmosphere but highly political in quite a new way. There was one East End racist in the audience who happened to like Carol Grimes. There he was enjoying himself but there was a big banner up there saying ‘Black and White Unite’ and stickers and leaflets asking ‘What are we going to do about the NF?’ He was up to the neck in left-wing ideas but having a good time. Wilhelm Reich, the avant-garde German psychiatrist who diagnosed as a fatal weakness in the German Left’s opposition to Hitler its refusal to take seriously the cultural and sexual tensions of fascism’s appeal, would have loved it.
Here Reich was used as a symbol of resistance to fascism, rather than as a detailed critic of how fascism’s sexual mysticism worked.
One author who mined Reich’s work most deeply was the Italian leftist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, whose ‘Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology’ was translated by Jane Caplan for the first issue of the socialist-feminist journal, Feminist Review. Macciocchi went out of her way to criticise those anti-fascist writers who romanticised the relationship between women and fascism, exaggerating the extent of resistance, and thus writing women out of history. She described this process as the ‘new female metaphysics which risks making the women’s movement digress into a childish creed: Women the Supreme Being, Women the Absolute Good.’ From Reich, Macciocchi borrowed an emphasis on sex, and the manipulation of an ideology of sex, as one foundation of the regime. In her words, ‘The characteristic of fascist and nazi genius is their challenge to women on their own ground: they make women both the reproducers of life and the guardians of death, without the two terms being contradictory.’ Perhaps one difference which separated Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi from Wilhelm Reich was her greater emphasis on death, ‘The body of fascist discourse id rigorously chaste, pure, virginal. Its central aim is the death of sexuality: women are always called to the cemetery to honour the war dead, to come bearing crowns and they are exhorted to offer their sons to the fatherland.’ So fascism was about the denial of sexual pleasure – procreation combined with ‘a violent rejection of all sex’. Did that mean that fascism appealed to a general condition, in which women would always oppose the implications of ‘femininity’ (feminism)? Macciocchi was less confident about the past, more so about the present. ‘We are in the presence of the opening up of a new continent of history’, she argued, ‘If all the feminist movements, if all the revolutionaries could understand this, one day we can do away forever with fascism.’
These Reichian insights have not been restricted to feminists and activists of the left. Since the 1970s, several working historians have attempted to integrate them into more conventional histories of fascism. One such is George Mosse, whose account of fascist sexuality in Hitler’s Germany makes much of the relative invisibility of women’s bodies in fascist art – compared to the abundance of men’s bodies, especially in fascist sculpture. As Mosse documents, even female fascists observed the contradiction implied in the Nazi party’s rhetorical support for procreation when this was combined with an ideological hostility to sex. One female Nazi affected by this conflict was Lydia Gottschewski, the organiser of the League of German Girls (BDM). Although Gottschewski was an extreme anti-feminist, she observed that the Nazi denial of bodily love could only reduce the status of women. Similar perspectives inform Klaus Theweleit’s two-volume Male Fantasies, a compelling reading of the books and letters produced first by members of the Freikorps, and then by male Nazis. His interest like Reich’s is in the overlap between fascism as a form of class-rule and fascism as a form of gender-domination. In his words, ‘along with capitalist relations of production, a specific male-female (patriarchal) relation might belong at the centre of our examination of fascism, as a producer of life-destroying realities.’
This analysis of fascism has also spread beyond the confines of academic history. The Canadian author Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale represents an attempt to translate this understanding of fascism into the sphere of literature. In her book, a contemporary clerico-fascism conquers North America, leaving Japanese tourists in their knee-length skirts to photograph the surviving and fully-veiled women, divided into a complex hierarchy of wives, cooks, and biological mothers. Older women disappear, to work in conditions of extreme manual labour in the Republic’s colonies. The novel’s heroine Offred is a Handmaid, which means that she is trained to produce the children of her Commander. Outside the bedroom, her day is spent wandering veiled head-to-toe, bored and desperate for amusement. Women are also denied the freedom to read and write. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a historically-accurate account of what fascism was like, indeed its targets includes American fundamentalism Christianity, as well as fascism. The truths of literature are different. Instead the book points in an exaggerated way to one real aspect of historic fascism – namely its intense restriction of the lives of women.
From the literature which has been described here, four key points emerge. First, in power fascism represented a attack on women. Considerable attempts were made to remove women from the public sphere of work and politics, and to place women instead in the private sphere of home life. Second, such misogyny was connected to other themes in fascist ideology. For example, fascism’s concern with race was part of a general concern with the help of the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’, or national community. Both in Germany and Italy, fascist parties attempted to supervise the birth process, increasing the number of births and decreasing women’s control over their own bodies. Third, as Wilhelm Reich pointed out, fascism was a sexualised movement. A large part of its appeal (to both men and women) relied on a visual imagery, which glorified the human body, while remaining resolutely hostile to the representation of sex. Fourth, fascism’s hostile attitude towards women’s rights was not merely a matter of past history. Neo-nazi and fascist parties in post-war Europe have been equally hostile towards the goals of Women’s Liberation.
In all fairness, Martin Durham could argue that these potential criticisms are tangential to his central argument, which is that at times women did join the fascist parties. If fascism was so hostile to women, then how could any woman ever join a fascist party? To answer this point, however, requires going beyond the recent literature. In so far as its authors have a consistent theory to explain women’s occasional support for fascism, it is simply to repeat (with some distance) the claims of fascists themselves, that there was something objectively pro-female about fascism. Hence the quote cited earlier, ‘fascism was not uniformly misogynist’. The alternative explanation is to indicate that (in general terms) people are capable of supporting a movement which is hostile to their interests.
The best known (but not the only) theory of ‘false consciousness’ is the Marxist theory of ideology. This maintains that at certain times, people are quite capable of supporting a party or a trend which is hostile to their interests. In the work of Karl Marx himself, the classic example of such an observation, was his analysis of the role of Christianity, ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ This claim is a dual observation: religion is believed by ordinary people and engages with the alienation that millions feel in their lives; but this belief is partial, and needs to be renewed if it is to be sustained. A parallel claim could be made to explain the position of that minority of women who supported the fascist parties. Although fascism was not in their interests, fascism raise enough important questions for at least some women to find its answers appealing. Fascism could not be a women’s movement – but it could do enough to recruit some women. In contrast to the recent work criticised here, such an argument would be neither controversial nor new.
For the anti-fascists of the 1970s, it was not enough merely to announce that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology (in this sense of the term). Instead, this generation of writers progressed from a general theory of ideology to a much more specific and historical theory of fascism, rooted in Wilhelm Reich’s work on sexuality. As such, an explanation was offered for the success of fascism, namely that this movement had a sexualised appeal to women which co-existed with the anti-feminist imperative to drive women back into their homes. The total impression of fascism which emerges then is of a contradictory movement, which offered young women the chance to worship their leaders, while simultaneously denying them the chance to lead fulfilling lives inside and outside domestic sphere. This emphasis on the contradictory character of fascism co-existed with an emphasis on the ultimately sexist nature of the movement. To borrow from one of the most common fascist images, under Mussolini and Hitler, women could play a role in the crowd, but they were not allowed to appear on the platform. One of the motives of fascism was always to deny women a role as real agents in shaping their own lives.
The argument of this paper should be clear. To explain the paradox of female support for Hitler and Mussolini, arguments are required which the recent literature does not supply. Here, the anti-fascist literature of the 1930s and 1970s becomes especially valuable. These writers attempt to explain fascism’s gendered appeal to women, without in any way suggesting that fascism was in women’s interests. Their theories offer a more compelling insight into the contradictory relationships of the past.
I’ve been digging out old articles from twenty years ago, and wanted to reshare this which appeared in a collection edited by Paul Reynolds (M. Cowling and P. Reynolds (eds), Making Sense of Sexual Consent (London: Ashgate, 2004)). There are, I’m sure, typos, mistakes, imprecisions in the paper that follows, but rather than confront them, I’ve left it as it is.The piece is so old that it is in itself a historical document, the product of a conference which brought together sex-positive and sex-negative feminists, to discuss sex work, the trans contribution to feminism, etc.Positions weren’t as divided as they are now, and my piece reflects that: it points out the destructiveness of one theoretical intervention (Sontag’s attempt to portray all porn as fascist) and another practical intervention that seems to have been forgotten since then (1980s-era feminism’s attempt to police the boundaries of acceptable lesbian sex, and to say that anyone who was into BDSM was a fascist). If I was to write the piece now, I think I’d be less guarded in insisting that Sheila Jeffreys and her allies shared much more with historical fascism than they did with any recognisable anti-fascist tradition of thinking about sex, fascism and liberation (Reich, Hirschfeld…).I have cited the image above to show that the same debates about BDSM were happening in the United States at much the same time in the 1980s that they were happening here. it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that (in the above image) a gathering of US radical Jews found a greater natural affinity with advocates of sexual freedom than they did (or, we do) with a part of the left which promises to do away with sexual deviance.
Sex is Violence: A Critique of Susan Sontag’s ‘Fascinating Fascism’
Although I will be critical of Sontag’s work, it worth emphasising that Susan Sontag was a leading activist within a generation of feminist writers that rightly condemned the sexual mores of post-war Europe and America. In discussing the issue of sexual violence, it is always necessary to remember their point that sexual behavio ur takes place in a society marked by structural division and relationships of inequality. As Sontag’s contemporary, the libertarian sexologist Alex Comfort wrote, ‘Both women and men have always run the risk of violence from a sexual partner. For evident reasons, women are overwhelmingly the more vulnerable – in our society, intensely so, since injury by a husband or lover is one of the commonest medical problems they experience. Society offers them remarkably little support. The police are traditionally uninterested in “domestic” violence, and folklore treats it as a sign of passion’ (Comfort, 1973: 212-3). Thirty years on, the relationships within the family remain unequal, and the behaviour of the police unhelpful. If this paper appears to give a partial affirmation of some forms of sexual ‘violence’, it does not in any way defend the many oppressive practices that have been justified by violent men in the name of ‘fun’.
This is a paper about sexual violence and consent. The question of whether violent sex can ever be consensual has already generated much discussion. Several authors have written about one-form of violent sex, S/M sex, and its treatment in law (Thompson, 1994; Reynolds, 1997; Archard, 1998). This paper adds to the debate through an extended critique of one previous essay in particular, namely Susan Sontag’s article, ‘Fascinating Fascism’, which was first published in 1975 in the New York Review of Books (Sontag, 1980: 73-108). Ostensibly a critique of the art of the Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl, Sontag’s essay rapidly became an attack on the sexualisation of violence in all its forms. At its simplest, Sontag’s argument claimed that all sado-masochism was ‘fascistic’ and hence illegitimate. Susan Sontag could be criticised for its misunderstanding of fascism, but here my target is Sontag’s understanding of violence. I simply do not agree with her identification of fascism and sexual violence. The relationship is more complex than Sontag suggests.
The occasion of Susan Sontag’s article was an exhibition of the art of Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag argued that there had been a tendency since 1945 for liberal writers to discuss Riefenstahl’s work apart from its political context. Leni Riefenstahl’s most famous film, Triumph of the Will, was an open work of Nazi propaganda, a celebration of the 1934 Nuremberg congress, and it is hard to reinterpret this film as pure art. Instead, the focus of revisionism was on Riefenstahl’s recent book, The Last of the Nuba, a series of erotically-charge photographs of this perfect, muscular, noble tribe. Although the images here of wrestling Africans seem a distant from the Nazi preoccupation with uniforms, Sontag observed that Riefenstahl pictures contained many familiar themes of Nazi art, including a glorification of the masculine, a love of violence, and a contempt for thought. ‘Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorises death’ (Sontag: 91; Renton, 2000) For Sontag, fascist art was fascism, and art which plays with fascist imagery was the same.
Having criticised the reception of Riefenstahl’s art, Susan Sontag went on to criticise what she saw as a process in which properly-fascist aesthetics had intruded into every-day art and culture. This is how she described the general themes of fascist imagery, ‘Fascist aesthetics’, she wrote, ‘flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.’ Because fascism had thrived on this aesthetic, so any use of this imagery threatened to recreate the social conditions of fascism. To demonstrate the point that fascism was a deviant sexuality, Sontag examined the many picture books of the Third Reich. Of one publication Sontag wrote, ‘One knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika of an SS armband is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads “Over 100 Brilliant Four-Color Photographs Only $2.95”, exactly as a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed – part tease, part defence to censorship – on the cover of pornographic magazines, over the model’s genitalia’ (Sontag: 98). In such histories, the depiction of aggressive masculine crimes have become something else, the glamorisation of brutality. Sontag’s argument was a telling critique of an entire way of writing history, and one which continues today.
Having described the role of dominance and submission in Nazi art and the commodification of fascist imagery as a form of violent pornography, Susan Sontag went on to identify fascism with all forms of violent sexuality, ‘Between sadomasochism and fascism’, she wrote, ‘there is a natural link’. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism, ‘Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism.’ Between fascism and sexual violence, one common theme was the glamorisation of military clothing, ‘There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity, competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.’ Another constant was the glorification of slavery. Thus for Sontag fascism can best be understood as the political sexualisation of violence, and if fascism was wrong – then so was any other practice which turned the processes of consent and domination into a sexual game (Sontag: 99, 102, 108).
Susan Sontag argued that there was a strong link between the sexualisation of violence (sado-masochistic sex) and the imagery of fascism. It followed that violent sex could never be legitimate or properly consensual. Although this paper will criticise Sontag’s argument for this point, it should not be assumed that the argument here is a total rejection of Susan Sontag’s case. There are many aspects of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ which should be endorsed. For example, Sontag’s criticism of Riefenstahl’s art was timely and well-observed. Also, Susan Sontag was not the only writer to have observed some overlap between violent sexuality and reactionary politics. ‘Fascinating Fascism’ could be compared to Klaus Theweleit’s work on the culture of the German Freikorps, the pre-Nazi student bands and officer corps who opposed the German revolution of 1918-23. One difference is that Theweleit located fascism in the denial of sexuality, ‘the core of all fascist propaganda is a battle against anything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure.’ Partly because Theweleit’s work is based on a sustained study of primary materials (250 Freikorps novels and memoirs from the 1920s) it seems to capture the dynamic interplay between political and sexual reaction far more vividly than Sontag’s essay (Theweleit, 1989: xii-xiii; Theweleit, 1987; Mosse, 1985: 153-81). Indeed Theweleit’s theories have gained in popularity over the past few years, and several writers have attempted to apply them, not always successfully, to other forms of male aggression (King, 1997; Smith, 1999). So there is space for a comparison of fascism and violent sexuality – but Sontag missed the key dynamics, and is simplistic in her claim that all forms of violent sex were the same.
One of the several interesting aspects of Sontag’s article is that it seems to pre-empt a certain radical feminist argument which would be expressed on several occasion through the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely that all violent sexual was male, aggressive and therefore non-consensual. Sontag’s work could be seen as an early counterpart to the notion of ‘gendered consent’ defended by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. For these later authors, all heterosexual sex takes place under conditions of domination (MacKinnon, 1989a; MacKinnon, 1989b; Dworkin, 1988). According to Dworkin all men oppress all women through the terror of rape, ‘Men develop a strong loyalty to violence. Men must come to terms with violence because it is the prime component of male identity.’ Or, to quote Dworkin more succinctly, ‘Force … [is] the essential purpose of the penis’ (Dworkin: 55; Segal, 1987: 177). It follows that all heterosexual sex is rape, and that consensual heterosexual sex is a contradiction in terms. One key argument in this literature is that women can never enjoy heterosexual sex – a claim fiercely contested by Alison Assiter, among others (Assiter and Carold, 1993: 14). As this chapter will argue, the debate over violence and male sexuality has not been restricted to radical feminist lecturers, and nor has their discussion been restricted to the norms of polite, academic discussion.
One of the problems with the rejection of violent sex as a ‘male’ phenomenon has been how to understand this sex, when no men were involved. Across both sides of the Atlantic, through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a repeated debate between feminist opponents of all forms of violence and female supporters of sado-masochist sex. One controversy involved the San Francisco S/M group, Samois. In the early 1980s, they were practically the only visible lesbian S/M group in the US. To their surprise, the members of Samois were banned from renting rooms in the San Francisco Women’s Building. This took place at a time when the building’s owners were desperate for income, and rented space to virtually anyone else. The ban was overturned, but only in 1989 (Rubin, 1996). In the same year, another conflict involved the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was closed to sadomasochist women. Lesbian separatists accused sadomasochists of being ‘heteropatriarchal’, that is, behaving like men. One exasperated activist, who found herself thrown out of the concert by female guards, described how she saw the debates,
In the context of dyke S/M debates, heteropatriarchal is being used the same way young boys use the word faggot: it’s thrown back and forth as a synonym for bad. Thus, debates consist of some women insisting, ‘You are oppressive, heteropatriarchal, and trying to control other women’s bodies and restrict women’s sexual freedom,’ while others respond, ‘No you are heteropatriarchal and brainwashed, imitating male patterns of violence’. And somehow, in the course of those debates, the real heteropatriarchal gets forgotten and is no longer a target for resistance – a resistance that’s vitally necessary (Kaplan, 1996).
The key phrase here is ‘male patterns of violence’. Some of the radical feminist critics of sado-masochism criticised by Rebecca Dawn Kaplan seem to have possessed a remarkably deterministic way of looking at the world, in which the bad was male and anyone they disagreed with could be placed in this category. But if women could become ‘heteropatriarchal’ like men – then what limits or meaning could be given to the term?
In Britain, the conflict between lesbian sado-masochists and radical feminists was expressed most clearly in the equally heated debate over whether sado-masochistic groups should be allowed to meet at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) which dragged on for six months from 1985 to early 1986 (Ardill and O’Sullivan, 1986). Despite any numbers of protests, the centre’s management committee not only refused to allow S/M groups to meet on their premises, they also refused to debate the issue, declaring any vote unconstitutional. The management committee received the backing of a group which went under the name of Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM). A typical LASM leaflet from this period expressed the same formula that was there in Sontag’s piece, namely that violent sex is non-consensual sex, and non-consensual sex is fascism:
Q. But isn’t Lesbian and Gay Liberation about freedom, not more limitations?
A. Total freedom is the freedom of the powerful to oppress – do you condone racism, anti-semitism, heterosexism?
Q. But I like wearing long spiked belts and dog collars – and I’m not into S/M.
A. So what. If you don’t care that others see them as racist, anti-Semitic etc then you are being racist anti-Semitic, fascist (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).
Lesbian sadomasochists responded to this criticism from their opponents by asking ‘Who are the Real Fascists?’. In their words, ‘To label SM fascist is to trivialise the real fight against fascism. To throw the word fascism about with no reference to what it means is to make the real fight more difficult. To use people’s sexual revulsion as a scare tactic against sexual freedom is a real insult to fascism’s victims’ (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).
This debate became one of the key influences behind Sheila Jeffreys’ important book, The Lesbian Heresy (Jeffreys, 1994; Walker, 1982). In an appendix, Jeffreys gave her own response to the GLC debate. A former activist in LASM, Jeffreys maintained that S/M represents ‘the erotic cult of fascism’. As evidence of the link, Jeffreys’ cited the presence of gay men among fascist circles in 1930s Berlin; she gave a graphic description of fisting from a 1980s S/M primer; she mentioned the wearing of the swastika; and the sadism of German fascism; Jeffreys also described a scene witnessed on American television in which one white (Hispanic) and one black women acted out a ritual of racial domination. Jeffreys concluded in terms resonant of Sontag’s earlier argument:
Are S/M proponents fascist? Probably they are not members of fascist organisations and do not care for any aspects of fascism apart from the erotic one … Most are not fascists, even though experiencing pleasure from the terrorising of other lesbians by wearing fascist regalia comes pretty close, but promoters of fascist values. The eroticising of dominance and submission, the glamourising of violence and of the oppression of gays, Jews and women, is the stuff of fascism (Jeffreys: 218).
The claim that S/M supporters promotes fascism seems to rely on two misleading elisions, between fascism and fascists, and between violence and oppression. As to the first, fascism was not merely an accumulation of individual choices, it was a program for government. To reduce the phenomenon to the sexual choice of individuals is to reduce and misunderstand fascism. Indeed Jeffreys seems to recognise this point, admitting in her words the distinction between fascist parties and ‘the stuff of fascism’. As to the second point, it seems odd that ‘the eroticising of dominance’ should be confused with dominance itself. Those who make a theatre of power, are not generally the powerful. Often it is the worst victims of power who repeat the forms of their oppression, but when they do so the content is changed. Whether this notion of theatre as a means to revisit and overcome pain is accepted, the relationship is more complex than Jeffreys would suggest (Renton, 1999).
To return to the original GLC debate which sparked Jeffreys’ intervention, it appears that the language on both sides grew sharper – but the tone of the radical feminist LASM was far more pointed, and even became intimidatory towards fellow activists. Indeed the naive claim that only men can be aggressive could not explain the sheer hostility of the debate. The similarity with events in America is striking.
More recently Linda Wayne has challenged the identification of fascism and sexual violence from the perspective of an activist within the lesbian S/M scene. Wayne’s argument is with what she sees as a general tendency among feminists to treat all forms of violent imagery as if they were the same. In reply, she suggests that ‘subgroup symbolism’ can take symbols from the ‘dominant imagery’ of capitalism and subvert them. By removing them from their original historical context, these symbols lose their old meaning, and take on a different message, ‘through group agreement’. Although there is much to be said for this approach, it does seem that the process which Linda Wayne describes is actually more complex than she suggests. The meaning of words can be challenged, but only to a certain historically-determined limit. The desire to use old signs differently does not determine the effect of these symbols on an audience which receives them in the light of its own understanding of the past. Interestingly, Wayne strongly defends the use of particular symbols of sexual domination which can be stripped of their older meaning (the belts and dog collars criticised by LASM above), while challenging the use of others (the swastika) which continue to be associated today with the far-right. For Wayne, one crucial question to ask is how great a ‘distance’ can be placed between meanings of the past and the meanings of the same symbols used in a different context today? Susan Sontag’s simple equation, which identifies all forms of violence as being fundamentally the same, cannot provide any useful answer (Wayne, 1996: 242-51).
Fascist Violence And Legitimate Violence
Before coming on to the key theme of this article – the claim that violent sex can never be legitimate, it is worth saying a something more about the relationship between fascism and violence. As this chapter has shown, one of the main rhetorical strategies of those who regard all violence as identical has been to label all violence as fascist. Yet there have been writers who have attempted to elaborate a non-fascist understanding of violence. One example of a non-fascist defence of violence is Gorge Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (Sorel: 1950). The best way to make sense of Sorel’s philosophy is to follow his own distinction between force, which he believed was illegitimate, and violence, which he described as potentially just. ‘Force’ meant any attempt by a governing minority to impose the organisation of the established social order. ‘Violence’, for Sorel, referred to any form of collective activity which tended to undermine the capitalist order. Georges Sorel argued that violence was capable of providing a better world which could be created by no other means. New laws and new ways of living would result, based on what Sorel called ‘free producers working in a factory without masters’ (Sorel: 241). Although Sorel has been criticised for placing too much trust in the advocates of elite theory (Sternhell, 1984; Payne, 1995), the ‘free’ is not accidental, Sorel’s belief in free association and self-determination was genuine. Georges Sorel distinguished between violence for its own sake, and violence against violence. Expressed this way, the point is not to ask whether all violence is fascistic, but rather how realistic it is to see violence as a means by which power can be opposed?
One of Georges Sorel’s claims was that violence does not emerge in the minds of warped individuals, but rather in the structures of capitalism, which give violence a spur. Recently Penny Green has drawn our attention to the role of the capitalist state in creating violence. Her claim is that violence is an ‘ideologically imbued concept’, whose meaning is determined by the society we live in. When we think of violence, most of us do not think of the 400 people killed each year in Britain through violent ‘accidents’ at work, but rather of the violence of individuals, which is used to justify police and state supervision of society. Penny Green argues that ‘Individual acts of violence are widespread in our society but rape, assault, and other forms of interpersonal aggression cannot be explained in any useful sense at the level of the individual. Like the violence systematically conducted by states and corporations against citizens and consumers, violence between individuals has its roots in the organisation of power in society.’ Class, gender and racial divisions ‘create a climate in which social violence is readily generated’, while unemployment and poverty also make violence such an endemic part of our lives (Green, 1994: 20-9).
The importance of Green’s argument is that it reminds us that sexual consent takes place in a social context. The law treats the sexual decision as the prerogative of two independent adults, alternating between judgements based on intention (hence the importance of consent) and judgements based on effect (hence the distrust of S/M). In law, the missing consideration is equality and power. Despite my criticisms of ‘Fascinating Fascism’, I recognise this as a strength of Sontag’s argument. Her distrust of S/M springs from a desire to take questions of power seriously. Sontag failure is to equate the playing out of games based on power – with the functioning of real power in society.
Vanilla Sex And Violence
Perhaps the debate between radical feminists and sado-masochists was misplaced. The overwhelming majority of violent sexual acts takes place in the form of ‘vanilla sex’, that is heterosexual sex between socially-defined couples, and when intercourse is a consequence, it takes place usually in the missionary position. You could also argue that Sontag’s assault on the sexualisation of violence was misplaced. Rather than discriminating between different forms of violent behaviour, Sontag tended to lump all violence in together. This begs the question of what constitutes ‘violence’? It is a wide term, referring to different and often contradictory patterns of behaviour. Most societies are not based on a glorification of violence, but in all societies violence is endemic, ‘an ordinary part of life’ (Fawcett, 1996; Hall, 1978; Newburn and Stanko, 1994; Stanko, 1985; Witte, 1996; Stanko, 1990: 5). There is no society in which people have yet lived without war and violent rebellion, without crime, without private acts of violence, without street attacks, without police aggression and domestic violence. Surely it is not useful to treat violence as one and the same thing, irrespective of who committed these acts and why.
Instead, the best way to make sense of violence is to contextualise it, separating out different forms of violence according to the consequences of these acts. Two distinctions have already been made, between offensive and defensive violence, and also between the violence of private individuals and of corporations or the state. The differentiation between acts of aggression and self-defence should be familiar, as this distinction is entrenched in most moral and legal codes. As for the contrast between the violence of the state and the violence of the individual, this distinction reminds us just how violent most states actually are. Indeed our every-day definition of the state depends on its monopoly of armed power, and our use of language reflects these concerns. The government provides healthcare and education. By contrast, it is the state which jails and declares war (Malmo, 1998).
In the context of sexual violence, the English language already makes several useful distinctions. In addition to the two examples already discussed, one further distinction is the decisive contrast between consensual and non-consensual sex. The primary indicator of non-consensual sex is the absence of a clear spoken affirmation of consent. Several writers have discussed the status of the sexual contract, and the ‘principle of communication’ – the claim that communication is the sine qua non of legitimate sex – is the major theme of David Archard’s book Sexual Consent, which has already been mentioned in this chapter (Archard: 136-47). An acceptance of the overriding importance of consent raises further dilemmas, can consent be withdrawn? Can consent be degraded? Can anyone consent to ‘bad’ or unpleasant sex? To raise these dilemmas does not detract from the overriding importance of communication. The ultimate form of non-consensual sex is rape; and any rape is in some senses an act of sexual violence. Yet if the test of rape is the absence of consent, then it by no means follows that all sexual violence equals rape.
A fourth division exists between physical and emotional violence. When people commit acts of brutality on each other, these injuries very often take the form of emotional hostility. Here is Alex Comfort again, ‘Both sexes need to realise that there is a healthy streak of hostility in all lasting adult love (where it’s a defence being too taken-over by another person) and that some sexual approaches are wholly hostile: notch-cutting by either sex, for example seduce-and-abandon operations by males, husband-hunting by females. Adults can often – but not always – recognise the state of play, but in adolescence once can far more easily get hurt or trapped’ (Comfort: 57). The language in this quotation is ambiguous. At one level Comfort regrets the importation into sex of confrontational behaviour which has emerged outside the sexual sphere. In another sense, the author acknowledges the damaging impossibility of a sexual behaviour solely dominated by romantic notions of monogamous love. In Alex Comfort’s opinion, occasional hostility is better than the disappearance of either self. Whatever the origins of such emotional violence – it is often the most destructive form of violent sexual behaviour.
A fifth useful differentiation can be made between passion and cruelty. The point which this contrast highlights is a distinction according to intention. It is perfectly possible that violent sexual activity could occur in a context in which both or either partners saw themselves as continuing their passionate activity. Many people would view such sexual ‘violence’ rather differently from similar acts which came about because one individual had the specific intention of doing harm to another. Here, the traditional doubt should be mentioned which applies to all notions of morality based on intent. How can any third person truly know what was the intention of the participants at that time?
A sixth distinction exists between vigour, force and might. This is not a matter of intention, but of the level of physical pressure implied in the sexual process itself. Sex is a vigorous physical activity. It relies on heat, friction and rapid motion. Almost all sex involves some low level of ‘vigour’, and many consensual sex acts imply a greater energy, or ‘force’. In Rex v. Donovan (a discussion heavily cited in the later case of Regina v. Brown), the degree of bodily harm was defined as that which while it need not be permanent, should ‘be more than merely transient and trifling’ (Archard: 112). To cause such harm, overbearing physical ‘might’ would need to have occurred.
From these six distinctions, it should be clear that any blanket criticism of sexual ‘violence’ runs the risk of conflating questions of communication, process, motive and outcome. In any lived situation, discord in one sphere is likely to imply discord in another. For example, a moment of violent and unwanted sex could easily take a form which combined every one of the aspects of violence listed above. Yet if this overlap of categories is a possibility at any one moment in time, it is not an a priori certainty.
Sado-masochism is one context in which the violence of outcome is often directly proportional to the level of prior communication. The more violence, the greater the prior discussion. This link is especially close when these acts involve active participants on the S/M ‘scene’. Indeed this observation would suggest a further paradox, that pleasurable sado-masochist sex depends on the most obvious forms of sexual communication. Such are the levels of agreement required that conscious efforts must continuously be made to create and renew trust. Yet several writers have made the point that the high levels of scene communication can conceal a smaller number of individuals who do not conform to the necessary rules (Califia, 1996: 264-77). It would be ridiculous to claim that all sado-masochists are necessarily better than all heterosexuals at sexual communication. But some are better, and maybe the rest of us have something to learn.
While sado-masochistic sex would constitute one example of violence with communication, it is equally possible to imagine non-communication without violence, or certainly non-communication without the physical intensity of ‘force’ or ‘might’ (given the meanings of these terms suggested above). Degraded consent can take place without requiring overt physical violence. Indeed, this is probably the condition of most sexual acts which take place in the societies we live in. In most steady relationships, whether gay, lesbian or heterosexual, there is not a high level of verbal communication prior to sexual behaviour. Such communication as exists is often non-verbal, when it is not merely assumed in the sense of ‘I thought you’d like it, we tried this position last week’.
The consistent argument of this paper has been that violence should not be used as the only indicator of non-consensual sex. Susan Sontag’s claim that sexual violence is fascistic and hence illegitimate, has been rejected for two reasons. First, her argument is not a convincing account of the sexual dynamics of fascism. Second, Sontag also seems to misunderstand violent sex. The claim has been made here that it is wrong to see all violence as possessing one unitary set of properties. Violence is a broad term, whose common meaning is hard to pin down. Non-oppressive forms of violence can be envisaged, including the libertarian syndicalist violence defended as a principle by Georges Sorel. In the context of sexual activity, violence can be said to have taken place when there acts which were non-consensual, ill-intentioned or rough. Yet each of these instances is analytically distinct. The key question to ask of all sexual activity is ‘did consent take place?’ If this is the key issue, then the presence of violence is only a secondary question. Much violent sex is non-consensual or illegitimate – but some violent sex is based on consent.
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Next Thursday evening, I’ll be speaking with Shanice McBean and Dave Smith at a seminar at SOAS on The Rule of Law.
Here’s some of what we’ll be discussing:
There’s a famous speech by Margaret Thatcher, which was played in the recent BBC TV series, Sherwood. It was delivered in 1984, the aftermath of the Battle of Orgreave, and this was her chance to explain why the miners must lose. She said: “What we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed.” For socialists of my generation, this is what Conservatism was; a movement to destroy the organisations of working-class people, which created a majority by binding together all the people who believed in the rule of law.
Yet, scroll on thirty-five years, and what’s striking is how contemptuous this generation of Conservatives are for that same rule of law. Think of Johnson and his breaches of Covid, or Brandon Lewis and his idea that the Northern Ireland protocol would “break international law in a very specific and limited way.” That shift by the Conservatives reflects a bigger transformation in out politics – it imitiates Trump, and Bolsonaro and Modi.
The main approach on the left has been to try and make our side the movement of law-keepers. Hence Keir Starmer at Rishi Sunak’s first Question Time, reminding everyone that, under Blair, he was Director of Public Prosecutions, “I know first-hand how important it is that we have a home secretary whose integrity and professionalism are beyond question.”
Or, again this week, that’s why Keir Starmer was insisting that the Labour Party would go further than the Conservatives in jailing anyone who stood up to Big Oil. “What we were pushing for in that was longer sentences for those who were gluing themselves to roads and motorways, because that’s where you are putting lives at risk. We didn’t get that through, but that’s what I wanted.”
After a period in which they were trying to move cultural politics hard to the right, with Sunak, the Conservatives have gone back to a period of stabilisation: they are now going to present the Rwanda scheme, attacks on trans people, etc, as normal. After all, if no less than three different Prime Ministers (Johnson, Truss, Sunak) have all shared the same position of deporting refugees to Rwanda, then it’s nothing new, it’s what we’ve always done, haven’t we?
But each authoritarian law only becomes permanent at the moment when Labour accepts it. Which, under Keir Starmer, has been increasingly often. Thus, we end up at a point, as Tom Gann has been arguing, where what’s wrong isn’t even the Tories any more but a Labour-Tory double act, in which the two parties co-operate to destroy any remaining hopes for change, politics becomes a centrist dad dance, the suppression of disageement, a one-party state, except with “typical British politeness” we have two of them.
The event at SOAS is free, but you will need to register in advance. The chair will be Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck, and the two other two speakers will be:
Shanice McBean, activist in Sisters Uncut, and author of the new Pluto book, Abolition Revolution, which Silvia Federici has called a “superlative book, expertly dismantl[ing] the dogmas of liberal anti-racism and carceral feminism”.
And Dave Smith, Chair of the Blacklist Support Group, and someone who has plenty of activist experience of the law, having fought his own blacklisting as far as the Court of Appeal and the ECHR, and in the Undercover Policing Inquiry, exposing how the secret services spied on trade unionists.
Thirty years ago today, Dave Widgery died. I was then a young colt, just getting involved for the first time with the British left. It soon became clear to me that of all the exciting writers that had gone through my small part of that movement, Alasdair Macintyre, Mike Kidron, Sheila Rowbotham, Tony Cliff…, Widgery was “mine” – the smartest and funniest of them, the one who kept on returning to the topics which interested me the most: race, class, music.
I never met him, but I was bowled over by the obituaries published on his behalf. Yes by the obvious ones (Paul Foot, Chris Harman, Bob Light) but the subtler ones too – like Raph Samuel’s for History Workshop – and Raph I knew and there was something joyful about twisting together the red threads of the history: Raph and Peter Sedgwick, Dave and Sedgwick…
Five years ago I helped put together a collection of Widgery’s writings – with his widow Juliet Ash, and his good friend Nigel Fountain. (A very large number of facebook friends helped with it). For people who don’t know Widgery’s writing, I’ve stuck below this the last paragraph of one piece he wrote, “Meeting Molly”, about the death of his young daughter. I’ve chosen it because it’s a piece about loss, and how even in grief we can see a fairer world:
Nor is it easy to express the sadness. ‘There aren’t words really,’ wrote one friend, rightly. Words are not enough and an attempt like this to externalise a private grief is infuriatingly unable to convey more than the surfaces of the experience. Nor is it possible to obtain the comfort of ‘accepting’ Molly’s death as ordained or inevitable or after all for the best; she wanted to live too much. And I hope I will always feel about any such death like a close colleague who wrote, in condolence, but also defiance, ‘Thirty years of practising medicine have still not reconciled me to these tragedies.’ But within the misery there is something politically inspiring.
Molly was born and so nearly lived only because of a chain of organised and unselfish human beings which stretched from the unknown blood donors whose gift sustained her in the womb to the nurses who got Molly and us through so many nights and still spared a thought to tuck a white carnation in her death wraps. In the 1980s, politically dominated by the philosophy of possessive individualism, the NHS still allows a different set of values to flourish. And it makes manifest the spirit of human solidarity which is at the core of socialism, and which our present rulers are so concerned to eradicate. While Molly’s death is a tragedy, her life was something brave and marvellous.
On the Johnson concession: it’s true, but not the whole truth, to say that he lied about having the votes. Johnson needed 100 nominations, and was short of that figure, at about 74. (61 publicly declared plus 13 Tory vice chairs, chairs of the 1922 committee etc.) The number effectively increased by just one all Sunday. He was struggling to reach the threshold and running out of time before the deadline of 2pm today.
There was, however, a clear route by which he could have reached that figure – ie. more than 26 people in the ERG, which was due to meet this morning, and were in principle willing to nominate him in return for senior ministerial posts. The reason Johnson caved was not that 100 was absolutely beyond him, but his own laziness: reaching 100 would have been hard work. Winning, and then forming a Cabinet when 2/3 of Tory MPs were against him, and then remaining in power when he due to be investigated again by the Commons committee… all that was more trouble than he cared for.
Sunak’s leadership will see a return to Cameron-era Conservatism. In particular on the Brexit dividing line, of the 161 MPs who vote for Sunak, 97 represent constituencies which voted for Remain in the referendum (or very narrowly for Leave), only 62 represent constituencies where 52% of the population or more voted Leave. As always happens in Conservative elections: those who nominate the new leader early tend to be rewarded with jobs. Just as Jeremy Hunt’s advisory team now contains Rupert Harrison who was Chief of Staff to George Osborne, we should expect to see a third or so of his new Cabinet going to MPs who represent Remain-voting constituencies. Sunak’s Conservatives will be more socially liberal than the people who backed Liz Truss or Boris Johnson. But they will also be much more ardent cutters – and this at a time when inflation is at 10%, interest rates are rising, and fuel bills are rocketing… Neither faction of the Conservatives is nicer. But, for the moment, Trumpian Conservatism is dead. It’s back to food banks and dole queues and cuts to services.
As for who whether they have a mandate for cuts, this isn’t what the public voted for in 2019 – which was “levelling up”. Among the Conservatives’ promises were laws to end no fault evictions, to stop bosses from taking workers’ tips. etc. Johnson was never serious about that agenda, was never willing to spend even the money to keep the public sector in the state it had recently been. But he also knew how little public desire there was for cuts to benefits, etc. A Sunak leadership would probably not even have won within that tiny sliver of the UK that is the Conservative party. It’s going to be brutal for us, but it’s also going to be hard for them.
I’ve been reading Yulia Yakovleva’s children’s novel, The Raven’s Children. For people who don’t know it, the novel has recently been published in English in 2022 having been published in Russia 6 years ago. It tells the story of a young protagonist living in 1930s Leningrad and caught up in the Terror, building up to a strange and terrifying conclusion – realist and magical, a Bulgakov for younger readers – in which the hero faces far more terrifying jeopardy than you ever find in books written here for readers aged 8-10 or so. If you have children of that age who read actively, or if you want a book to read to children at night the novel is complex and strange and will spark lots of conversations about history.
Part of what I found interesting about the book is that it is about 40% left-wing and 60% right-wing. Let me explain what I mean: The book has a strong left-wing message that freedom is more important than anything, that interwar Russia was a dictatorship against which any individual would rebel. And that such rebellion was difficult, so powerful was the state.
The book also has an even stronger right-wing message that personal freedom is unachievable, that the most you can win is a temporary escape from tyranny, that any rebellion must necessarily be private and individual. And that the essential problem with the post-1917 state was that it was ruled by workers who were naturally prey to support dictatorship, and that if there is any hope it is with the aristocrats, who were the natural moral leadership of Russia and its righteous internal exiles still in the 1930s. The book therefore takes no interest for example in old Bolshevik victims of terror although, in reality, Stalin killed Communists in greater proportions than in any of his other victims. Just as it takes no interest in working-class people, the sick, the old, women, Russians outside Leningrad, etc. The book has an antagonist (essentially the Stalinist secret police) but that force emerges magically out of nothing, and has no relationship to all the other forms of power in Russia, not even the power adults have over children.
The right-wing message doesn’t overwhelm the book (it’s still a satisfying read) but that it’s there, and it set me thinking. This takes me to the point of this post. Can anyone think of any other right-wing novels published in Britain in the last 10 years?
Here’s my own list:
• Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
• Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles
(and that’s about it…)
On a longer timescale, I’m open to discussions about McEwan, or the Amises, or Celine. Or if you look outside Britain the yes, it’s different (Ayn Rand for a start).
Even if you add Yakoleva (and that’s a judgment call), I would guess that I’ve read in excess of 200 novels published in the last 10 years and if I can’t come up with more than a handful published in Britain that earn the designation “right-wing” what does that tell us?
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon either: one of my future projects will be a book summarising and collecting every anti-fascist novel written in Britain since 1930. There are *a lot* of them: the last time I counted, at least 50, including Booker winners, books that have been turned into films, conservative novels with their own criticisms of fascism (including some of the precursors of James Bond) etc etc…
On the other hand, has anyone published a fascist novel in Britain since 1930s? Has anyone read a novel in which a left-wing protagonist comes to see the error of their ways and becomes a conservative or a nationalist, etc?
People did write that novel – a lot – in the 1920s. There were dozens of them. Yet, as far as I can tell, no-one in Britain has written a book like that in 90 years.
If it’s right then very few novels in Britain are unbalanced and actively right-wing what does that tells us about books, literature, publishing or politics?
Either of the following might be true:
1 Perhaps the real story here isn’t the paucity of right-wing novels, it’s the paucity at the same time (actually) of left-wing novels, or of books that experiment with political ideas at all. In comparison to Italy in the 50s or 60s (or, indeed, France today). Yes, I can name more left-wing novels than right-wing novels. But, if I’m honest, I can’t name many more left-wing than right-wing books. Maybe the answer is that, most of the time, most novelists deliberately tone down the politics, and know that if they are going to find an audience, they have to do it. The audience for literature in Britain doesn’t want too much politics of any sort.
And that’s ok. One of the problems of left-wing social media is that we spend so much time talking about idea and so little about character, personality, form… We have a very weak sense of how narrow the potential audience is for the conversations we like having.
2 Or maybe what this tell us is that, over a long period of time the imaginative space for conservative thinking is just much less than it used to be.
You probably could sustain an audience around stories about country houses, the wisdom of the ages, monarchy, aristocracy, etc. (But here the problem is political, not literary – for about 45 years, these *haven’t been* the myths which sustain our centre-right). There is a popular conservatism, expressed in cultural forms other than the novel, think Downton Abbey or the crowd queuing for the Queen, but it’s out of kilter with both the novelists and the politicians.
There really are just about 1,000 people in Britain or less who get excited by the thought of neoliberal economics – the Ayn Rand approach to literature – and there are many, many, less of them here than there are in the United States. This is a much smaller number than the people who get excited about stopping global warming, or even about unions. It’s not enough to make an accessible mass literature.
Between these two possibilities, I’ll leave friends to choose.