Tag Archives: Sheila McGregor

Love (Women’s Voice, 1980)



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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Show some emotion’

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

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

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

And she’s right.

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

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

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

Love is emotional.

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

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

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

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

Love is subversive.  Love is powerful.

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

Anna Pacuska

Let there be love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie McFadyean

Romantic love

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

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

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

Carole Barrett

What is this thing called love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Balfour

Train without rails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Maclean

The cross we bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheila McGregor

(Women’s Voice 38, February 1980)

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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