Tag Archives: sexism

An organisation with integrity

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[The following piece was published today by Exchange magazine]

The main motion for discussion at the SWP conference in December will say, “Conference recognises … That all the comrades involved in the DC hearings sought to apply our politics in a principled way at all times and tried honestly to do the best they could in the circumstances. All DC hearings have been conducted with integrity”. That last word, integrity, is the important one.

I don’t want to make familiar points going back over what happened at that DC hearing; or whether it is possible to transform an investigation from scandalous to principled merely through a conference vote. Here, I want to ask: what does the left need to do, if we are ever going to have again a reputation for integrity?

The word “integrity” means at least two different things. In a first sense, it just means being principled and living by what you believe.

For a very long time, in so far as the SWP has thought about “principles”, we have assumed that they could be subordinated to the interests of the party, which stood in our understanding as a proxy for the class, which stood for all of humanity. “Anarchists”, we have explained, may see a revolutionary group as the harbringer of a new society, but “Marxists” don’t agree with them: it is not possible to wash off what Marx once called “the muck of ages” (i.e. oppression and its effects on both oppressor and oppressor) merely by wanting to be better, without a social revolution. But in the last year we have found that we are being judged, not for the formal content of our ideas but the mismatch between our ideas and what we have done.

A socialist party cannot pretend to be the growing embryo of a potential future society. But behaving repeatedly in an unprincipled manner is enough to kill any organisation and especially one which aspires to carry the dreams of millions.

One way to reorient the left is through adopting detailed codes which formulate basic rules as to what behaviour so obviously “crosses the line” that it is incompatible with membership of a socialist group. This winter, for example, the International Socialist Organisation (which was for many years until 2003 the SWP’s American affiliate) is preparing for its own annual conference. One of the documents being circulated by its leadership is a Code of Conduct for the ISO’s members.

The Code commits them to conducting debate rigorously, but with civility and respect. Members are made accountable for actions that bring serious harm to other members or to the organization. Discrimination and harassment are prohibited. All sexual encounters must be consensual, whether with another ISO member or not.

Elsewhere, in the main body of the ISO’s rules, the group prohibits members from making false statements to obtain membership or engaging in financial improprieties, or acting as a strike-breaker, a provocateur, or an informer

I like the document and I support the ideas behind it but I won’t pretend that it, alone, could cure the problem. For one thing, the behaviours prohibited by it seem to have been selected quite arbitrary. I accept I wouldn’t want to be in a party with a police informer or an agent provocateur, or indeed a former informer. How about a police officer? (I assume not) Or a prison officer? Or a serving soldier? Someone who owns their own business? What if the business has a left-wing content? In the SWP, we tried to prohibit for a time our members having jobs in the union bureaucracy or even on 100% facility time. Unfortunately our former National Secretary had a number of friends in these positions, so we maintained the rule, but applied it arbitrarily. In some cases, through the party’s ignorance of what its members were up to; we didn’t apply it at all. Should we have kept the comrade who serves in the bureaucracy, as a very senior manager (i.e. with a power to hire and fire), and who has an OBE for his services to trade unionism? Does it make a difference that he is one of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet, as well as a committed revolutionary?

It is quite obvious, after the Delta rape scandal, that any left-wing organisation with any survival instinct will respond better than the SWP has done to complaints of rape. But any Code isn’t made useful by its ability to recognise last year’s errors, you want it to guide you through next year’s crises, whatever they may be.

The definitions of discrimination in ISO’s document mirror American law, but US law is relatively underdeveloped compared to various international counterparts. European law (and therefore even UK law) prohibits a much wider set of behaviours directed against wider sets of disadvantaged groups. This isn’t to praise UK law, by the way, which is itself the product of certain kind of social compromises and has all sorts of limitations, but only to say that any list will always be incomplete. The trick is to work out what the principles are behind our prohibition of certain behaviours, and to hope that those principles will guide you right even in unfamiliar situations.

Integrity has a second meaning; consistency. We in the SWP often say that women’s liberation is “integral” to our politics, if this is going to be more than hot air, it would have to mean that every aspect of our socialism was shaped by our commitment to ending women’s oppression: that we could not think about trade unions, universities, anti-fascism or anything else without thinking about women’s oppression.

One story about the old SWP illustrates nicely what integrity can mean. The revolutionary journalist Paul Foot had been educated at Shrewsbury public school, and his friends there, including Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker later worked with him on the magazine Private Eye. Unlike them, Foot was a socialist, joining the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists, in 1961 after leaving Oxford and remaining with IS/SWP until his death in 2004. A few years before he died he suffered a heart attack and was recovering in hospital, mute and seriously unwell. Friends from Private Eye visited him, and, as lay in bed, said that they had raised enough money for him to swap his NHS bed for one in a private hospital. Unable to speak, Foot lifted his fingers at them in a V-sign. Ill as he may have been, he was the same Paul Foot he had always been.

How do parties show integrity? Socialist Alternative, the largest IS group in Australia, published five years ago an Anti-Sexism Manifesto, setting out how to enable women to take part in a group as equals with men.

The pamphlet describes, in ways which any socialist should recognise, how men can dominate in social relationships, how women still tend to do the majority of housework and certainly childcare (even in socialist relationships). It notes the persistence of old, stereotypical ideas about how men will be the ones who work and women the ones who do most of the caring. It accepts that there is a limit to how far sexism can be overcome under capitalism, but makes a comparison with workers’ subordination: “Socialists do not passively accept that workers will always submit to their bosses’ authority, or that they will automatically adopt racist or other divisive ideas … We fight these ideas vigorously when we can. And so it is with sexism.”

Much of the pamphlet is about consent, and why socialist men should never chivvy a woman for sex, get her drunk in order to sleep with her, pretend that a “No”was playful rather than serious, etc. “No means no at any time”, its author writes. It talks in practical ways about what is wrong with men controlling women. Socialist Alternative encourage their members to practice safe sex, and to see this as something which is the man’s primary responsibility. Last of all, the authors of the pamphlet insist that no-one should use the group as a pick-up joint.

Some of the ideas in their pamphlet are things which people on the left have done intuitively for years. Even in the SWP, we don’t normally ask men to speak at Marxism on women’s oppression. Generally, we do try to have a number of women either speaking, or at least chairing, our national events. And any comrade who has been in the SWP more than a few years will remember a time when we tried much harder to challenge sexism than we do now. In the past, for example, we did try to provide childcare to enable parents to attend our meetings. The problem is that all these things we do, or did, feel partial. We never explain properly why we do them. They are not followed through in our campaigns or our publications.

A theme of the SWP opposition has been that if we want people to believe that we actually have a theory which makes women’s liberation “essential” to our project, then we need to demonstrate that our internal practice matches up to the way we like to present ourselves to the world. You can’t say one thing and do another …

[the piece continues here, at page 18]

Judges Attack (Women’s Voice, 1977)

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Since fewer people are marrying and more living together permanently the 1966 Domestic Violence Act extended protection to the unmarried woman living with a man as husband and wife in the same household.

LAST month three Lord Justices decided in their anti-feminist bigotry o drive a coach and horses through the recent legal gains won for battered women.

The case concerned an unmarried woman who was battered by the man she has lived with for ten years, the father of her two children. They are joint tenants of their council house. A County Court ordered him to vacate their council house and stop molesting her, in line with the new Domestic Violence Act.

But the man appealed against the court decision, won the appeal, so that now the woman and kids have nowhere to live, except with him!

How the hell is it possible that women’s legal rights are so blatantly ripped up before the ink has barely dried on the statute book?

In Women’s Voice (August issue) we warned that precisely because this legislation was an important gain for women, the Judges would try and over-rule some sections of the Act.

The explanation of the judges is a technical one. This new legislation which recognises the rights of the unmarried ‘wife’ clashes with existing matrimonial law (relating to properly married people) and their Lordships decided that elaborate legislative code couldn’t be undermined.

The battle for battered women’s rights on paper was won… but the war goes on.

Nina Gosling

Women’s Voice 11, November 1977

What’s the point of a plan for challenging sexism?

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It is an open secret that there is an intense discussion taking place within the SWP about what our party’s perspective should be for advancing women’s liberation. Others have begun writing; I look forward to seeing what they come up with. What I want to do here is not so much establish a perspective (for some pretty obvious reasons, other people will have to do that, not me), so much as to ask what the point is of even having a perspective? The test of our ideas is not whether we match the university regulation standard for referencing (of 50 notes or so per 6000 word article), nor is it even whether our writing is crisp or exciting. What counts for us is to whether we actually inspire activists with practical ideas that might in turn encourage others to resist.

I’ll start with something Julie Sherry wrote in the Guardian a couple of months ago: “SWP members, women and men, have always been leading in battles for equal pay, for abortion rights, against sexism on university campuses, and against the monstrous way the police and courts treat women…” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/21/challenging-sexism-heart-swp-work).

But if we’re honest with ourselves, the party hasn’t led these battles, not for the last thirty years. One of the reasons why we haven’t is that the assumption behind the piece – of heroic activists in the union and women’s movements, repeatedly and valiantly fighting against institutional pressures on all fronts – isn’t always how it has happened.

In terms of equal pay, the reality is that there have been hardly any equal pay strikes in Britain since Thatcher came in to power. Where councils and hospitals have tried to introduce equal pay, it has been a chaotic mess; with the unions often on the side of men facing pay cuts. In the worst cases, as in Middlesbrough five years ago, women workers have ended up suing their unions for lethargy (http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/gmbv.html).

Middlesbrough is not an isolated example. In Brighton at this very moment, there is a Green council trying to introduce equal pay, not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it has to. Its proposals have caused male refuse workers, facing paycuts, to occupy their workplace in protest (http://union-news.co.uk/2013/05/brighton-pay-cuts-occupation-votes-to-continue-strike/). Most on the left have taken up their cause, including the local Green MP (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/05/08/caroline-lucas-says-shell-join-picket-against-her-own-party/), and for understandable reasons. Unless people fight, the chances of any better solution are near zero. But hardly anyone has worked out how to reconnect the protest to the politics of equal pay.

We would by lying also if we pretended that the battle against the institutional sexism of the courts has been led by members of the SWP. There has been a struggle, but the leading role has been played by groups such as women’s refuges, who have taken on themselves to encourage women to bring rape complaints, and then criticised the police and the courts when they have let these same women down. In fifty years of the party’s publications, as far as I can tell, we have only ever published one article longer than 3000 words on the subject of rape. The piece itself is largely a polemic against those who made a political strategy of campaigning about rape (http://www.marxists.de/gender/mcgregor/rapeporn.htm). This campaign has not been a priority for us; we cannot be surprised if others have led it.

In terms of abortion rights; there is an Abortion Rights Campaign, which has had positive coverage in Socialist Worker from 2007 until last autumn. But has the SWP really been “leading” the campaign? Some of our members have been active in the campaign and I am proud they have. But no-one could say that we launched the campaign, or that we lead it, or that it is dominated by our politics. We have been a participant, that is all.

As for fighting sexism on campuses: there were Slutwalks. Our members have supported them. We did not initiate the campaign. At best we have been part of its rank and file.

Leadership does not mean only praising from the sidelines someone else’s campaign. It also means (at the right times) choosing for yourself the issues on which to fight, winning other people to a plan, spotting a new trend in how sexism works, and inspiring others to fight it. Readers will no doubt tell me about local campaigns about sexism – in Sheffield and Cambridge, and elsewhere – which were initiated by comrades. They happened. Another positive I can think of was the party’s International Women’s Day event in 2012, which worked precisely by inviting in many, many other activists from different campaigns. It was just the sort of thing that we used to do well.

Even if every success was acknowledged, I’m also sure that even the fullest account would still leave a disparity between the significance we have accorded to women’s liberation, and the hours we have all spent campaigning against the EDL. (Don’t get me wrong; now, of all times, I’m not denigrating anti-fascism. I’m just making the obvious point that liberation from oppression needs to take place on more than one axis).

Of course, it was a lot easier during the abortion battles of the 1970s; where women in the International Socialists often were the local leaderships of that campaign. We had more women members; we had a designated women’s magazine (later a newspaper) and a network of women members which naturally invited comrades to think “what interventions are we trying; what has worked and, what hasn’t?”

You don’t need to have a separate women’s organisation, excluding men (indeed, as far as I am aware, Women’s Voice existed for about 10 years, and there were separate women’s-only WV groups only from about June 1978 to October 1979). But if you don’t have a women’s network, there have to be other mechanisms by which your members might be encouraged to play a leading role in the women’s movement.

Going back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is a fact that several of the leading figures in early Women’s Liberation came into it from IS. The best known is Sheila Rowbotham. There was no women’s IS group when she wrote ‘Hidden from History’. The point is rather that in 1968-1972 the International Socialists were the liveliest and most exciting group on the far left. Lots of young people joined them – both men and women. So that when the women’s movement started, IS women just organically found themselves in local leadership roles.

This to my mind is the real reason why we need to have a perspective for fighting sexism. We want the best activists – in the battles against capitalism, and against oppression in all its forms – to identify with the Marxist left. We want the sorts of people who set up local Slutwalks to think that a party like ours could be a home for them. Recent events have made it much harder for us – of course. But this is our recent past, we cannot live outside of it or pretend it didn’t happen. We need to renew our politics. Either we will give up on Marxism and on women’s liberation and on everything we used to think we believed. Or we won’t. Assuming we don’t, we will have to be honest about our mistakes, change tack, and start to learn to do things differently.

The Man or the Woman: who are we supposed to believe?

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I recently wrote an article for the SWP’s Internal Bulletin with 3 other lawyers (it’s starting at page 89, seeing as you asked…), arguing that the party should apply a civil and not a criminal “standard of proof”, with a burden on the person defending the complaint. In the criminal system, you have to have a presumption of innocence, because it balances what would otherwise be the unjustifiable imbalance between the information-gathering powers of the state, which has access to police, telephone records, medical data, etc, and of the accused, who has none of this. This burden make no sense outside the criminal system, outside which it would create injustice, because it makes it intolerably unlikely that any complaint would ever be accepted.

The point of a reversed burden of proof would be to give “some” weight (not necessarily a decisive one, but some weight) to the undoubted fact that women make very few false complaints of rape or sexual harassment. It is enormously difficult to come forward with a complaint of this sort: still more so against a man who is many years your senior, who is your employer or the de facto leader of your party.

In reply, one misconception that I’ve heard repeatedly is that anything other than a criminal standard of proof would weigh the process unfairly against the person defending a serious complaint. Only a “radical feminist”, it is said, would automatically believe a woman just because she made a serious complaint.

There are lots of fallacies with that argument. Here I want to focus on one, which is the idea that deciding who to believe is only or primarily about what standard of proof you operate. Yes, standards and burden of proof matter, for the reasons I’ve just given, but they are not the heart of the decision-making process. I have represented people in both criminal and family courts accused of rape or domestic violence. The former operates the criminal standard of proof, the latter the civil standard. Logically, a person accused of an offence is more likely to be believed in the civil as opposed to the criminal courts (That is the whole point of the burden). But whichever court system you describe, some people will be believed and some will not.

Essentially, what makes a compelling case is much the same in either a civil or a court system. What you want from a witness is much the same in either. You want someone who will give a detailed and plausible account. You want someone whose story is backed up by such documents as there are.

In the criminal system, this process is codified into what are called “adverse inferences”. For example, if a person is asked about their guilt, and they provide one version of events, but they then change their story, a jury is told that they are entitled to use that as evidence that the person is lying.

A jury is entitled to draw adverse inferences from previous convictions. That does not mean that all previous convictions are relevant. If a person is accused of income tax evasion and they have a previous conviction for assault, the conviction is probably not relevant. But as well as the fact of previous convictions it is also worth looking at the manner in which those convictions were obtained. If a person has loudly maintained their innocence, pleaded not guilty, and yet been convicted, that means that another decision maker has listen to them carefully and decided that they lied. You could draw an inference from that person’s past denials not merely that they were untruthful to others but that were not truthful to themselves.

There is a degree of technique involved. People who have been judges for 20 years tend to make better decisions than judges in their second week. The most basic skill is a simple human one of empathy, the willingness to listen, to start your starting assumptions and to watch and see if a case develops along the lines you thought. Losing independent-minded people from these sorts of roles, and replacing them with others of less empathy, is a recipe for poor decisions in future.

Obviously: you should not believe a person bringing, or defending a complaint, solely because they are a leader of your party. And you should not believe the person defending a complaint just because you have been told they did good once in a different job, or because they are your friend.

Some defenders of the Disputes Committee process will tell you candidly: “I don’t necessarily defend the DC. But they are in a hopeless position. These cases invariably pit one woman against one man, her word against his, and in those circumstances who should you believe?”

Courts of all sorts are put in this position most days of an average week. They do their best, they apply these and other simple rules of evidence, and they make a clear decision. You cannot rely on the authority of a court or a quasi-court, or whatever you want to call it, which lacks the confidence to make clear decisions. And if its verdict was “we believe the woman, but we are not going to make the findings she asked us to make” then its decision was less than no decision at all.

(Originally published, with thread here)

The missing letter

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“We have read with mounting horror the press coverage of the crisis in the SWP, including the coverage in your newspaper. It has been the most painful reading for us because while we could quibble about this or that detail, we know that your essential criticisms are true. Sometimes in life, you can do no better than to hold up your hands and apologise. This is one of those occasions.”

“It is true that several women have forward with complaints of rape or sexual harassment by leading members of our party, and that we investigated them, and it is true that afterwards, when they describe their experiences, the complainants said they felt they had been let down badly. We did not adopt those procedures with the intention of covering up sexual abuse, but it has since become obvious, as we have listened to the criticisms of our disputes procedures, that our procedures were simply and utterly unfit for the tasks we gave them.”

“There has been an intense period of discussion within our party about what we should do. For a long time, we thought that if we tried hard enough to pretend that there was no problem, it would go away. It has not. We now realise that this stain will not be removed unless the party undergoes a serious, and systematic, period of reform. For this reason we have decided to:”

“Apologise to the women who put in complaints. We have written to all of them inviting them to resubmit their complaints to a fresh investigation. We have approached individuals outside the SWP, from the women’s movement, the trade unions, and others with practical expertise in investigating serious sexual complaints. I am proud to say that nine independent figures, of high authority within the movement, have agreed to participate in a fresh panel of inquiry. Its sole remit will be to establish whether there was conduct inappropriate of a socialist party. If the panel finds that there was misconduct, we will accept that decision. I am glad to be able to confirm that on receiving guarantees as to the independent of this process, the principal complainants have all agreed to come forward as witness to it.”

“Suspend from membership of the party all individuals subject to serious, sexual complaints. We are not prejudging the outcome of the new investigation, but we recognise that there is no confidence in our old procedures, and it is not appropriate for a situation to continue where those accused of serious misconduct can use their positions within the organisation to lobby for their own positions.”

“Release those members of the organisation from full-time roles who have been exhausted by the experience of defending the indefensible.”

“Elect a new Central Committee, Disputes Committee and National Committee. They will be individually elected by a secret, postal ballot of all members.”

“Begin a discussion within and outside the organisation as to what it was about our procedures that enabled us to continue on such a destructive path for so long. We have begun discussions with individuals in the movement (Liz Davies, Mike Marqusee, Kevin Ovenden, Rob Hoveman, Nick Wrack and Salma Yacoob) who were formerly members of the organisation or our close allies, and whose treatment we now acknowledge echoes our treatment of the recent complainants. We will restore to full membership the “Facebook Four” and anyone who has left the Socialist Workers Party in the past 12 months but now wishes to rejoin.”

“Begin a second discussion within and outside the organisation as to how we can learn from the contemporary women’s movements. It has become obvious in recent weeks that when we refer to the party’s history of fighting women’s oppression, the proudest moments we can point to now all belong to the relatively distant past. For ten years and more, our best activity has been limited to responding positively to initiatives begun by others. We will be co-odinating open, public discussions with activists from SlutWalk, the F Word, Abortion Rights UK, the women’s organisations of the trade union and student movements, to establish bases for joint work with these campaigns on a far greater scale than we have done.”

“Make the party transparent by publishing in future a public note of all meetings of all our elected committees, including our National Committee and Central Committee. The transcripts of the proceedings of our old Disputes Committee will be published, as will transcripts of the independent panel of inquiry.”

“Finally, I am grateful to you newspaper for its giving us the space to put our version of events. One of the obstacles which the far left has to surmount is the common belief that socialists have no interest in engaging with the millions of people who share some of our beliefs but are outside our ranks. I hope your readers can now see for themselves that this is untrue. We want a dialogue with people who are not our members. We are champions of democracy, openness and honesty. We do not merely say that these are our politics, we try to live them in everything we do. Where we fail to match the standards we have set ourselves, we are confident enough in ourselves to admit that we were wrong. Thanks you for giving us a chance to put our own house in order.”

(Originally published, with thread, here).

On “Male Benefit”

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In terms of male benefit and what it says about the IS tradition. I am increasingly exasperated by comrades talking about men “not benefiting” from women’s oppression. This is for a number of reasons. As Tom Walker has pointed out, we are the only people in Britain using this language of “benefit”. That means that our discussions have a weird, “straw woman” character. It would be like if we suddenly started chiding unnamed “African nationalists” for saying that black people in Britain should emigrate to Africa. If we said that, we would look weird. Everyone in our periphery would know that we were “refuting” an argument that no-one was making outside our very own fevered imagination. The same logic applies; by banging on repeatedly about the non-existence of male benefits, we make ourselves look weird.

This weirdness is accentuated by looking at the basis upon which we say that there is no such thing as male benefit. Up to the mid-80s, IS authors were willing to acknowledge that men might receive “marginal” benefits from women’s oppression. Somewhere around the mid-80s, for a reason which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with women’s oppression, but to do with some shift in IS politics, we suddenly decided that was wrong to even acknowledge the possibility that men might benefit.

If you read SW’s most recent article, it argues that “Our rulers … encourage the idea that men benefit from the system”. It says in effect that men don’t really benefit from women’s oppression, because if we accepted that they benefited from women’s oppression this would make a united struggle against capitalism harder to win. But in this context, “non-benefit” is not an empirical analysis (eg are men paid more than women? Is pay equality getting further or nearer? These are things we could count), but a restatement of a circular truth that by definition could never be disproven. We have morphed into saying that oppression never benefits anyone save for the capitalist class.

Compare Marx: when he talked about the oppression of the Irish in Britain, he said that the English saw themselves as oppressors in relation to the Irish, and would only be free if they rejected their oppressor consciousness.

We have decided to reject that approach when it comes to women’s oppression, but not on an analysis of what the actual power relations are or where “male” or “female” consciousness is, we reject it rather on the basis of the logic that stories of liberation are more likely to end happier if they have as a middle section “and then the oppressed realised that they were in no worse position than those who were not oppressed”. That method, of prioritising in principle the desired outcome of eventual unity over a practical analysis of whether disunity has any real basis or not – is not impressive.

I don’t have a fixed view on whether men benefit from women’s oppression. But my best guess is that if anyone wanted to talk analytically about whether men benefitted from a) the inequality of contribution to childcare under the conditions of the privatised family, b) pay inequality, and c) sexual violence, probably, there would be a different answer to each of these questions. I want people to systematically analyse the problem rather than to engage in apolitical straw-womanery.

If you’re going to say “some socialist feminists” believe that “men benefit from women’s oppression”, then you have to say – who, and on what basis. If you can’t do that, then you drift into a kind of intellectual assassination by ignorance (I never liked X’s politics, so I’m sure that she shared this heresy, even if she always said very loudly that she didn’t) or a kind of “false flag” argument (I don’t like Y so I’ll accept that Y didn’t agree with Z, but I’ll say that she is almost as bad as Z because her arguments open the way to Z’s). This is always risky when you ascribe to a political tradition a set of views which most of its holders didn’t think they had. And it is particularly uninspiring when you recall that the whole point of socialist feminism as a tradition is that it navigates against other feminist traditions, which it rejects because it rejects the very positions that IST authors now ascribe to it.

Finally, when people write that feminists (socialists or otherwise) had an ambition of “emancipating themselves from working class men”, I have to ask in this context, what does “emancipation” mean? In Tony Cliff’s book on Women, he at least had a negative “other” against which he could frame the negative project of feminism. His “other” was political lesbianism (mentioned more than 12 times in his book): under which women could emancipate themselves from men by determinedly living without men. In 2013, however, there are no longer any “political lesbians”. There are barely even any “radical feminists” any more. So what is this ambition of emancipation from men, which my comrades in the IST, insist on repeatedly ascribing to the very different tradition of socialist feminism? And which you keep on ascribing to them, without being able to name a socialist writer who argues for it?

(Originally published on Facebook, with thread, here)