Tag Archives: women’s liberation

Three essays on violence: When did rape begin?



Having previously criticised my comrades in the leadership of the IS/SWP for not having done enough to think politically about sexual violence over many years, the three pieces that will follow are an attempt to set out an alternative historical and materialist approach to it. Trainspotters of the left will be able to detect the influence of various women, and men, in the IS tradition, especially in the next two pieces, which will be about domestic violence and sexual harassment. This is not “mansplaining”. I am not explaining feminism or plug to solve imaginary gaps in feminist theory. The point of these pieces is rather to address a significant omission in Marxism

The crime of rape as we think of it today, is an offence against the person being raped, not her father or husband. It is a crime against the victim’s autonomy. Everywhere it is seen as a serious crime. The average sentence in England and Wales is around 8 years, longer than even manslaughter (Travis, 2011).

Previous societies had an idea that it was wrong for a man to abduct and have sex with a woman, but their understanding of “rape” was not the same as ours and their reasons for thinking that rape was wrong were different to our own. It follows that in order to understand rape you have to ask when the transition happened to something like our modern rape consciousness and our contemporary rape laws.

The relative absence of a crime or even of a political consciousness of rape does not mean that women did not suffer, did not have their dignity and selfhood stripped away, were not invaded or defamed or left powerless or afraid over hundreds of years. Of course, in this sense, rape began when the first woman’s body was breached through penetration against her will, when she could not fight back, when she was too scared to say no, when her body was occupied. But from the perspective of the state, or even of most of civil society, the women who survived this, which we now call “rape” had no remedy. Indeed, in so far as there was a process by which some rape survivors might seek some justice it was a desperately narrow minority of those affected by what we now consider rape who even asked for justice, and for those who asked their prospects were in general derisory.

The legal recognition of rape, this piece will argue, was recent. It was made possible by the new ideas associated with the rise of capitalism from the sixteenth century onwards which gave a vastly greater place to human individuality, and by the campaigns of the “second wave” of women’s liberation from the 1960s onwards.

Our present understanding of rape, including the acceptance of the possibility of rape in marriage, which has transformed rape’s meaning, is barely 20 years old.

It follows that if you want to understand why there is still such resistance to the idea of rape, and such an extraordinary willingness to recycle old rape myths some of which have been misused for centuries, part of the answer may be precisely the longevity of this older, oppressive consciousness, and the relatively short period of time in which the contemporary understanding of rape has been established.

Rape in history

Every literate society with a law code has criminalised certain kinds of male and female sexual behaviour. The oldest slave societies distinguished only haphazardly between rape and adultery. In the Code of Hammurabi of third millennia BCE Sumeria, there was a single crime of rape but its punishment depended on the status of the victim. If she was a married or betrothed woman (i.e. the property of a man), the ordinary punishment for raping her was death. If she was unmarried, the punishment was a ransom in money. On occasion, the rapist might be required to marry his victim (Gadotti, 2009, p80). The literature of Pharonic Egypt has no real consciousness of rape, nor a prohibition on sex between two unmarried adults; it was an offence for either men or women to have sex with someone who was already married, the punishment for adultery was death (Capel and Markoe, 1996, p216).

In the Jewish legal code recorded in the Old Testament, rape is portrayed as a crime against the male ownership of women. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, addresses rape through a discussion of adultery. If a man sleeps with a married women, and the woman does not protest (i.e. is not raped) both should be put to death. But if the man forces a married woman to have sex with him, only the man should die. The reason to punish the man was his crime against other men: “there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter” (Deuteronomy, n. d., 22: 25-27).

Our modern word “rape” derives from the Latin raptus, meaning kidnapping or abduction. Two Roman myths about rape give a sense of how the crime was understood in the slave societies of the ancient world. Shortly after the foundation of the city of Rome by Romulus in the eight century BC, it is said that there were an abundance of men in the city. The Romans attempted to negotiate with the neighbouring Sabines, for the collective purchase of their women, but the Sabines would not agree. During a feast with their neighbours, Romulus’s men took large numbers of Sabine women who they later married. This mass abduction was not portrayed as a neutral but rather as a necessary act. The abduction disgraced the Sabine men, who then attempted to invade Rome in response. In the historian Livy’s account, the war with Rome ended as a result of the Sabine women interceding with their fathers not to fight Rome but to make peace with the new state (Livy, n. d., 1 12-13).

At the end of the sixth century BC, Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings. Sextus, the son of the King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is said to have visited the home of a Roman Prefect Collatinus. There he came into the bedchamber of Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife, at first offering to marry her and make her Queen, but then threatening to kill her and a manservant and falsely claim that the two of them had been having an adulterous relationship. Eventually, he forced her to have sex with him. The next day Lucretia called on Collatinus and her other relatives to avenge her, killing herself before them. They rose against the Tarquins and established the Republican government that lasted for centuries until the rise of Caesar (Livy, n. d., 1 58)

From these two stories we can see that the people living in slave societies understood rape in some ways similarly but in many ways differently from us. What they shared with us was the idea that rape was a crime of very great significance. It was important enough to cause the rise or fall of entire dynasties. But, in other ways, their understanding was not the same as ours. First, heterosexual rape was understood as a crime directed against men. Now even the Romans grasped that women were the immediate targets of a sexual assault, and that women could be harmed emotionally by it (in Livy’s story Lucretia was made so distraught by it that she killed herself), but the chief effect of the assault was to dishonour the father or the husband who had failed to prevent it, on whom the duty of revenge fell. Second, while consent was a defence to the crime of abduction, the only person who was capable of giving their consent was the father or the husband of the woman. So, where an unmarried man abducted an unmarried woman, the woman’s father might consent by authorising their subsequent marriage (as Sextus asked Lucretia to demand of Collatinus). It was irrelevant whether the woman herself consented. Third, if the relevant father or husband was not a Roman citizen, his consent was unnecessary (had the Sabines not possessed an army, the abduction would have gone unpunished; it was no crime under Roman law). A Roman citizen might have sex with a non-citizen or with a slave. No-one’s consent was needed.

The courts of the Middle Ages were no more interested than their predecessors in masters’ sexual harassment of their servants: “Prosecutions for rape are rare enough in the Middle Ages, but prosecutions of a man for the rape of his own servant are practically non-existent” (Karras, 2002, p163).

In the thirteenth century Anglo-Norman legal treatise, The Mirrour of Justice, rape is listed as one of several crimes associated with sex and marriage, alongside fornication, adultery and invest. “Rape”, the author explains, “is properly the taking away of a woman for the desire of marriage” (Horne, 1290, pp51-2). The author does not explain from where a woman was assumed to be taken from, but it was from the family, i.e. from a husband or from a father but in any event, from a man.

Where women brought rape allegations they faced even greater barriers than today. Writing in the thirteenth century, Henry de Bracton describes how a rape case had to be brought: a woman “must go at once and while the deed is newly done, with the hue and cry, to the neighbouring townships and there show the injury done to her to men of good repute, the blood and her clothing stained with blood, and her torn garments.” This was but the first stage of a lengthy series of preliminaries. Next, she was required to explain the crime to local officials of justice, the coroners and the sheriff. Then she had to take her case to the nearest county court. Her appeal then had to be copied word for word on the coroners’ rolls. Finally, she had to repeat her case before the justice (in contemporary language, magistrates), “in the same words as she made it in the county court from which she is not permitted to depart, lest the appeal [i.e. case] fall because of the variance”. Among the defences which Bracton acknowledged to rape (deficiencies in the pleadings, consent) is one which appears especially troubling today, that the accused “had had her as his concubine and amica before the day”, the assumption being that if a woman had consented to having sex with a man once, than she had consented for all time, whatever else he did or whether their relationship continued or not (Carter, 1985, p85).

Rape convictions were rare in early modern England – seemingly none at all during the reigns of Richard I and King John (1189-1216), followed by increasing numbers during the remainder of the thirteenth century, and in the fourteenth century, followed by relative decline again thereafter (Dunn, 2003, p74).

The Rape Act 1275 outlawed rape in a seemingly more familiar sense as ravishing (ravisez, i.e. sex) or taking away by force (i.e. by abduction) of either a child or “any other woman against her will”. “Any” person (i.e. the victim or a relative) had 40 days to sue the attacker. If the action succeeded, the possible punishments included, in the worst cases, blinding or castration (Pollock and Maitland, 1968, vii, p491). The Statute of Westminster of 1285 set the punishment, in cases brought by the King, at execution. Although the potential punishments were very severe, it has been suggested that a lesser punishment was almost always found, and that actual executions for rape took place at a frequency of only around 1 in every 50 years. In pre-revolutionary France, there was a similar frequency, save that execution was more common where the victims were children (Vigarello, 2000, p15)

Although these Acts seem to emphasise the woman’s consent, it is clear from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century records that the crucial lack of consent remained that of the victim’s family rather than of the victim herself. Records of fourteenth century court sessions record men being indicted for abducting women “against the will of Maud the mother [of the victim], and against the peace”, or of rape “against the will of the husband and against the peace of the lord King” (Goldberg, 1995, p252).

The majority of all trials in mediaeval and early modern England ended in acquittal, but the conviction rates for rape were derisory by any standard. One study of 280 rape indictments in the midlands between 1400 and 1429 found that not a single one of them resulted in a conviction of the accused (Dunn, 2003, p74). Between 1540 and 1692, there were just 49 rape prosecutions in Paris; ultimately only one in seven of those accused were punished (Vigarello, 2000, p28). It is not fanciful to assume to assume that there must have been thousands of occasions of unwanted or forced sex for every one of these convictions.

One of the reasons for the very low conviction rates is that the accused would normally try to negotiate with the complainant; and where the payment was deemed appropriate the state would not expect more. We can see multiple examples of this dynamic in court records from ancient regime France: as in the case of four soldiers who gang-raped a woman in Auxerre in 1733, killing one man who attempted to defend her and wounding another. On the payment of ten thousand livres to her family, the King agreed to grant the men a royal pardon (Vigarello, 2000, p10).

The shared mindset of pre-capitalist Europe distinguished radically between different categories of rape. There were extreme cases: as when an adult raped a child, or a servant raped a member of his or her master’s family. Under the customs of Bordeaux, “When anyone, whether agent or other servant being with his lord and master or mistress in service, or other people of whatever condition they may be, has stolen or taken away his lord’s wife, his daughter or a girl under his protection, either under colour of marriage or otherwise, he, being false and disloyal to his master, ought to lose his head without mercy” (Vigarello, 2000, p49).

The need to defend class hierarchies was an overriding consideration. Only in the most extraordinary case would a court investigate a servant’s complaint of rape by her master; and even in these cases, no court would require the master to do more than pay the servant a dowry to enable her to marry (Vigarello, 2000, pp18-20).

Pre-capitalist Europe saw very few complaints of male rape. One reason was that the common sense of the day held that it was impossible for an adult or a child to be raped without there having been at least a minimum level of consent. The victim of rape must to some extent have allowed the penetration to take place, whether by force or fraud or whatever. This meant, logically, that the male victims of male rape must themselves be sinners who in turn required punishment, usually (if the victim was over 12) death. The courts were often asked to be lenient, as in the case of a thirteen year old boy raped in Bar-sur-Seine in 1667, who by converting from Protestantism to the state religion of Catholicism was able to reduce his sentence from death to two months’ imprisonment (Vigarello, 2000, p33).

Save for these extreme forms, “ordinary” sexual ravishment was seen as a relatively minor sexual crime. The testimony of various accused attests to their bafflement that they were on trial at all; as in the case of a man who attempted to rape a shop assistant in Geneva, “Let me do it, it’s only from affection”, he had shouted when he was stopped. Or a married tailor who attempted to rape his servant, “How the devil, you scream, you bitch!”, he accepted saying, “it’s only a moment of pleasure I want to enjoy with you” (Vigarello, 2000, p24).

Similar dynamics could be found elsewhere in the world. A typical rape trial in eighteenth century Egypt involved a Christian man who was said to have raped a Muslim girl. The complaint was brought by the woman’s father. Two midwives were asked to testify, they confirmed that the woman had recently lost her virginity. The man then agreed to pay an amount in to the court to compensate for the woman’s loss of virginity. On his agreeing to pay to her father that sum, the man was let go and the authorities had took no further interest in him (Zilfi, 1997, p221).

Rape and capitalism

The emergence of the modern crime of rape is part of a series of measures under which capitalism, to a far greater extent than any previous modes of production, acknowledges a space for individuals to live and does not reduce all of a person’s significance to their caste, status group, or even their gender. In one of his earliest books, On the Jewish Question, Marx described the legacy of the French revolution (“the rights of man”) as being a language of freedom and individual expression. Marx, notably, did not treat this advance as an unambiguous good. It protected only “egoistic man … an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community” (Marx, 1844, I).

The space that individuals have been allowed under capitalism is only partial, for some people and in certain circumstances and at some times. Marx captured its limitations nicely when he spoke of the worker, under capitalism, as “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power” (Marx, 1867, chapter 6).

Even for workers the space is not trivial. Compared to the autonomy that individuals were allowed under feudalism or slave societies, the potential has been very great indeed. And the space has grown with every successful social movement.

At the same time, this “freedom” was based on dispossession on an epic scale: the processes of slavery, war, enclosure and colonialism, which Marx termed primitive accumulation. For women in particular, it involved the violent destruction of the old, feudal family which whatever else its faults was in part a unit of production, and its replacement by market production. Silvia Federici describes how the disciplining of “rebel bodies” was a precondition for capitalist development; a process which encompassed widespread capital punishment of vagabonds and outlaws, and attacks on primitive religion and witchcraft, the latter’s animistic conception of nature being antithetical to the rationalistic, calculating ethos of capitalism (Federici, 2005).

The individuals who were first allowed autonomy under capitalism were the (usually male) owners of production, and then other (usually male) members of the middle classes, and only latterly workers and women. Here is Theodore Zeldin’s description of women’s rights at the dawn of the nineteenth century in France:

“The law still required the wife to obey the husband, in return for which the husband owed her ‘protection’. She had to reside wherever he chose and he was entitled to use force to compel her to do so. If she committed adultery, she was liable to imprisonment for a period of between three and twenty-four months, but he could engage in it with impunity. He committed a crime only if he actually maintained a concubine in the conjugal home, and then he was punished only by a fine of 100 to 2,000 francs. If he chanced to discover her committing adultery and killed her, he would not be guilty of murder – but she was not allowed to attack him in similar circumstances. She could not go to law without his permission, even if she had her own business and she could not sell or buy without his approval…” (Zeldin, 1993, p343)

Married women were allowed to hold property in the United Kingdom only from 1870, and only in part (for example, the first £200 only of any money inherited from a legacy); as recently as 1970 a shopkeeper could sue a husband where a wife had promised payment for goods taken on credit (Cornish and Clark, 1989, pp400-1). In America, married women’s property rights had to be won a state-by-state basis between 1839 and 1889 (Bourke, 2007, p327). In France, women acquired the right to be guardian of children in 1917, to join a union in 1927, the legal capacity to hold property only in 1938 and the vote only in 1944 (Zeldin, 1993, p357).

The history of rape is closely bound up with the history of the family. Under the first mini-epochs of mercantile and the early industrial capitalism, there was a sharp division, which has since been largely eroded, between the way in which the law treated working class and middle class families. The latter were closely governed by legal relationships, beginning with the marriage contract itself, which was a device by which two groups of property holders agreed to share their resources (incarnated in the woman’s dowry). After marriage, the law “treated the husband and father as a dominant, patriarchal figure, who would expect submissive obedience alike from wife, children and servants” (Cornish and Clark, 1989, p358).

The law in general took far less interest in working-class families, at a time when most workers lived in large family units in tiny homes, when the family was disrupted by childhood working, and widespread working in domestic service. Working-class marriage often took place informally without any religious service. Living apart following relationship breakdown was much more common than it was among the middle classes. The relative toleration of the breakdown of the nuclear family began to change only from around 1850, when pressures began to shape working-class families into the same mould as the families of the propertied. There were campaigns in the 1860s and 1870s to allow corporal punishment of working-class men who beat their wives. A different approach was followed in an 1878 Act allowing women to obtain a separation order and potentially maintenance from the criminal courts after their husband had been convicted of aggravated assault (Cornish and Clark, 1989, p358).

The relative lack of interest shown by the state in policing working-class sexual relationships before 1850 is reflected in the low number of prosecution for rape between 1805 and 1818. During that time, there were about a third as many rape convictions as there were murder convictions (76 to 229); whereas today rape convictions outnumber murder convictions by 5 to 1 (Harvey, 1991, p1). The motivation was not just that workers were beneath the law but also a pervasive sense that rape was not a serious crime or one that could be proved. The punishments for rape also reflected the general view that not merely workers, but women were of little interest to the law. A man convicted of rape at the Old Bailey in 1811 offered six witnesses to his good character; the judge recommended him for a pardon. Henry St George Tucker, Accountant General of Bengal was sentenced to six months in 1806 for attempting to rape the wife of one of his closest friends. She, a ruling class woman, required protection. On his release however the sentence did nothing to harm Tucker’s future career, and he ended up Chair of the East India Company (Harvey, 1991, p2)

Over time, the state tended to take an increasingly close interest in working class sexual relationships. But this change was slow; and for many years the shift could be seen more clearly in private institutions, such as charities, which were at least as important as the state in imposing middle-class values onto working-class lives. “Charitable discourses about the seduced woman”, Clark writes, “like legal discourses about the rape victim, centred more abound determining her character for chastity than whether or not she had been the victim of violence.” Clark illustrates this mentality with an extract from the proposals of the Victorian initiators of a Foundling (i.e. Orphans’) Hospital to describe the mother of their ideal orphan:

“A young woman having no means of subsistence, except those derived from her own labour, and having no opulent relations, previous to committing the offense bore an irreproachable character, but yielded to artful and long continued seduction, and an express promise of marriage; whose delivery took place in secret, and whose shame was known only to one or two persons, as for example, the medical attendant and a single matron, and lastly, whose employers or other persons were able and desirous to take her into their service, if enabled to earn her livelihood by the reception of the child” (Clark, 1987, pp76-7)

Subtle ideologies of working-class immorality were at work in the minds of the people who founded the Victorian charities, and by whom it was assumed that a woman’s “shame” was always something ultimately of her own choosing, which could be mitigated only by a spirit of deference to the benevolent rich. Had a woman stated unequivocally that she had been the victim of male sexual violence (i.e. rape) and that she was not entirely to blame for her downfall this would have offended the assumption of charitable benefactors that sex was always by consent, and would have diminished her chances of successfully placing her child in the Orphanage and of therefore being able to work and of to eat.

(Re-)Writing the law

We can see rape law developing in tandem with these changes in women’s place in society. As we have seen, in Britain, the criminal offence of rape begins with the statutes of the Middle Ages with their emphasis on abduction. In 1486, this was extended by a further Act making it unlawful to abduct a woman for “lucre” and to marry or ravish her as a consequence of the abduction. The Offences Against the Person Acts of 1828 and 1861 made changes to the punishment for rape (which was first made a capital offence, and then reduced to a maximum sentence of 3 years). There was however no attempt to define rape through statute. As late as the Sexual Offences Act 1956 statute provided only that “it is a felony for a man to rape a woman.” The definition of rape in common law (i.e. by the cumulative decisions of senior judges) was “unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman, without her consent, by force, fear or fraud”, a definition which went to go back to a seventeenth century judge Matthew Hale. Rape was given a statutory definition only in 1976; and its present definition is as recent as section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003:

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and

(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

Similar patterns have been repeated elsewhere. Sixteenth and seventeenth century America took over from the English court system an idea of rape as a serious (capital) crime. Local laws were passed outlawing rape by state legislatures in Rhode Island (1647), Massachusetts Bay (1648), Connecticut (1672), South Carolina (1712) and Delaware (1719). Of the 73 known convictions in eighteenth century colonial rape cases, 68 resulted in a death sentence (Block, 2006, p142). Sir Matthew Hale was as much an authority in an American courtroom as he was in England. If there was a significant difference between England and America it was primarily in the different way in which the colonial courts treated rape as an act of rebellion by black and enslaved men: fourth-fifths of those convicted to death for rape between 1700 and 1820 were of African descent (Block, 2006, 128-9, 163).

In France, the Revolution resulted in a rapid acceptance of the autonomy of individual rights. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man held that “Every man is the sole owner of his person and this ownership is inalienable”. Article 29 of the Penal Code of 1791 outlawed rape and removed the pre-capitalist requirement of abduction. The following year, divorce was legalised. Yet the continuing subordination of the woman in the family shaped rape law. In France, just as in Britain and the US, rape in marriage remained impossible (Vigarello, 2000, p88).

The pre-capitalist crime of abduction did not disappear. Under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 it remains an offence to abduct a woman against her will for sex or for marriage. More importantly, we retain the idea that it is a criminal offence to abduct a child without her parent’s consent, as in the widely-reported case of the 30-year old teacher Jeremy Forrest who was convicted in June 2013 for abducting a 15-year old pupil with whom he had fled to France, and was sentenced to five and a half years imprisonment. Two days after his conviction, the victim involved was quoted in the tabloids saying that she still loved him. This notion of wrongful abduction, a crime irrespective of the victim’s consent, is essentially the same offence as the one under which most pre-capitalist criminal codes considered rape. Sex without consent was once a rare prosecution, now it is the essence of the crime.

Three issues have been central to the development of the modern law of rape: first, can a married woman be raped, second who else is capable of being raped, and third, what must a woman prove to indicate her lack of consent?

First, in most countries until the 1990s, it was lawful for a man to have sex with his wife even in the absence of her consent. The justification for this doctrine lay in the notion of marriage which had emerged in middle years of the seventeenth century, that is, at the time of the partial victory and partial defeat of the bourgeois revolution in England. The figure who played the key part in developing this idea was a Puritan judge, Matthew Hale. A lawyer of ostensibly no political views, Hale played very little part in the revolution of the 1640s, remaining in London, and seeking to keep in with both Parliament and the King. He developed a successful legal practice during the Commonwealth years, often defending Royalists. He became a judge in 1653 (with considerable regret, for fear that he would be seen as a Parliamentarian), and (by now an MP) played a part in brokering Charles II’s return to England.

In 1662 Hale sat in the trial of two witches, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, accused of having bewitched girls to vomit pins. He punished them with zeal, causing one historian Gilbert Geis to accuse him of misogyny (Geis, 1978). If this is right, Hale’s contempt for women was not merely of a sexual character but founded in a general hostility to human liberation. Hale was also the Judge who oversaw the execution of the regicides who had killed Charles I, treating those revolutionaries with an equal lack of pity. Sylvia Federici detects a relationship between class revolt and belief in witches, whose “claim to magical powers undermined the power of the authorities and the state, giving confidence to the poor in their ability to manipulate the natural and social environment and possibly subvert the constituted order” (Federici, 2005, p174). Hale’s role in the development of a legal theory of rape seems to show this same relationship in reverse; the simultaneous defeat of popular revolution and of women’s freedom.

Hale saw marriage as a contract merging the legal entities of husband and wife into one body, the body of the man. As such, the woman could neither hold property nor have any other rights in her own name. This caused him to hold, in a manuscript published decades after his death, but repeatedly cited thereafter by judges in Britain and America as an authoritative statement that rape in marriage was an impossibility, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract” (Hale, 1736).

Shocking as it now seems, the judicial ban on marital rape continued in Britain until as recently as 1991 (R v R [1992] 1 AC 599), and in the US and in Australia until the same decade (Bourke, 2007, p307). Even in France, with its entirely separate legal tradition, and its different legal philosophy (i.e. a constitutional “civil law” system, as opposed to the “common law” in Britain and America), marriage rape was criminalised only in 1992 (Vigarello, 2000, p221).

In R v R itself, the case where the ban was overturned, Lord Lane in seeking to explain why Hale’s doctrine had continued to be seen as authoritative and binding for such a long time afterwards, drew on eighteenth century cases in the marriage courts which had emphasised the importance of presumed sexual consent as a defining feature of marriage itself, saying, “These concepts of the relationship between husband and wife appear to have persisted for a long time and may help to explain why Hale’s statement that a husband could not be guilty of rape on his wife was accepted as an enduring principle of the common law.”

The relationship between rape and marriage was and is key. Most rapes happen in long-term relationships; and even now the large majority of long-term sexual relationships are marriages (in Britain, the number of unmarried adults including single people surpassed the number of married adults for the first time as recently as 2011: Ramesh, 2012). The judicial hostility to the idea of rape in marriage (and therefore, to a significant extent, to the idea of rape itself) derived from a certain understanding of the family which now seems anachronistic, but was the idea of the family which dominated under capitalism until recently.

Once society started to see long-term relationships as being capable of resulting in rape, the policing of rape and its judicial punishment were utterly transformed. One place you can see this is in the academic study of rape. In the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists would attempt to study the incidence or motivation of rape. In so far as they attempted to estimate how many rapes there were each year, they focussed almost entirely on dysfunctional sexual relationships between teenagers. This was where there was the greatest turnover in relationships, and the greatest likelihood for them to go wrong. For example, one US study concluded in 1984 that 89% of rapes were caused by boyfriends, dates, lovers, etc, 8% by husbands and 3% by strangers (Russell, 1984; quoted without criticism in McGregor, 1989). The idea that only 8% of rapes were caused by people in long-term relationships was sustainable in the different world of the near-past, where a woman who had been raped by her husband could not complain to the police (it would be pointless to complain, he had committed no crime against her) and could expect only equivocal support from professionals such as social workers or housing officers. Rape was, in this approach, “stealing sex”, akin to burglary or robbery, an idea which “made sense” when most convicted rapists had convictions for other crimes (Pepper and Schwartz, 1977, p209).

By comparison, now that rape in marriage is a recognised crime, and now that the UK government has begun publishing annual reports on the incidence of rape and other sexual crimes, which it did for the first time in 2013, women’s self-reporting indicates that (in England and Wales) 56% of rapes are committed by partners, 10% by strangers, and the remainder by dates, boyfriends, family members, etc (ONS, 2013, p15). It is very unlikely than in 30 years the incidence of rape in long-term relationships has increased sevenfold. What has happened, rather, is that the vast majority of crimes which were by present-day standards rape (i.e. sex without consent) and were until 20 years ago outside the reach of the law have been taken back within it. As this transformation in our collective understanding continues to work its way through the generations, the proportion of women in long-term relationships (whether married or unmarried) reporting rape will, in all likelihood, continue to rise.

Second, the law has widened to encompass whole categories of people who, it is now accepted, are capable of being raped.  Hale’s definition of rape excluded more people than just married women. The definition “unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman” excluded any kind of homosexual rape, as indeed any rape of a man by a woman. Meanwhile there have been many other groups of people, beyond married women, who have been excluded from the reach of the law. In Florida as recently as 1918, the Supreme Court declared that black women were “largely immoral”. It followed that there must be at least a starting assumption that a black woman complainant could not have been raped (Bourke, 2007, p75). It was impossible for the law to conceive of homosexual rape until first of all homosexual sex had been legalised, which it was (at first, only tentatively) in 1967. Hale’s definition also left unclear whether oral or anal heterosexual sex could be rape. The law tilted towards excluding the former from “sex” while treating the latter as always a criminal offence. Even consensual heterosexual anal sex remained a serious criminal offence (potentially carrying a life sentence) until 1994; oral sex without consent was only comprised within the definition of rape from 2003.

Third, Hale’s definition of rape, while formally ascribing a considerable importance to consent, limited a lack of consent to circumstances where sex had been obtained by “force, fear or fraud”,. One assumption which these terms reveal is the belief that there could be no sex without an element of submission on the part of the victim. When you look at these categories closely they are explanations for why a woman has submitted to sex (i.e. because she was forced into it, or because she was afraid, or because she was tricked). They concede, before there has been any analysis of consent, that there was some (admittedly, diminished) consent. They exclude from the outset the possibility that a woman did not submit, never consented, not to any extent at all.

The historian Joanna Bourke shows that this assumption, in the words of one mid-Victorian medical authority that “it is impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard”, remained a staple of legal and medical theory until long after 1945. To cite just one of her sources, the book Crimes of Violence, published in 1973 by the Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Company: the “average woman” was “equipped to interpose effective obstacles to penetration by means of the hand, limbs, and pelvic muscles. Indeed many medical writers insist that these practical obstacles are practically insurmountable…” (Bourke, 2007, pp25-6). Into the mid-1970s, the California police manual Patrol Procedure advised officers that “forcible rape is one of the most falsely reported crimes … The majority of ‘second day reported’ rapes are not legitimate” (Brownmiller, 1975, p364).

How was a woman to prove that she had not consented? Taking Hale’s definition at face value, we would assume the typical form of rape to be violent rape, and therefore for a women’s resistance to be marked by the signs of an unsuccessful struggle on her part. For many years, doctors, lawyers and others were unwilling to take women’s refusal, without evidence of a fight, as proof of missing consent. As the Vice-President of the American Medical Association Horatio Robinson Stores wrote in 1868, women “coquet and dally”, giving an “appearance of refusal”, so that they might “add still greater value to the favors finally granted” (Bourke, 2007, p67).

Another problem of Hale’s definition of rape was that it left the burden on the woman to prove not merely that she had not consented to sex, but that the man knew she did not. The statutory definition of rape in 1976 became necessary as a result of extensive public outcry following the decision of the House of Lords (including former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham) in DPP v Morgan [1976] AC 182 that there was no rape unless a man actively intended to have sex with a woman who he knew not to consent. The circumstances of the case were that a man (Morgan) invited three friends to house, telling them to have sexual intercourse with his wife. He said that she would struggle but that they should ignore her as she had agreed to this ritual. The four men violently raped her; the three accomplices being acquitted because they said they believed her screams and protests were not genuine, and her husband because martial rape was not a crime.

Finally, until very recently the courts applied the notion that Hale had formulated that proving rape was an almost impossibly difficult task, because in the final analysis it concerned women’s complaints about men, which were difficult to investigate. Rape was “an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, though never so innocent.” As late as 1973, Hale’s words remained part of California’s standard set of jury instructions for rape cases, followed by the warning, “Therefore the law requires that you examine the testimony of the female person named in the information with caution” (Brownmiller, 1975, p369). In 1975 Judge Sutcliff explained the underlying idea to a British jury: “it is well known that women in particular and small boys are likely to be untruthful and invent stories” (Kennedy, 2005, p124). Since then, the law has shifted towards asking whether it was reasonable for a man to have believed that a woman consented to sex.

What made rape a crime: capitalism or campaigning?

Judge Sutcliff’s remarks became notorious; one reason why they did and why the decision in Morgan was so controversial was that this was just the moment when society as a whole was no longer willing to accept old ideas about rape. The idea of rape as synonymous with abduction persisted after the transition to capitalism, but was anachronistic as soon as society began to treat women as fully equally human beings. At that stage, the insistence on a father or husband’s consent became unjustifiable.

Reform in 1976 was the consequence of lobbying by activists. In the US, key campaign included Speak Outs against rape organised by New York Radical Feminists and the National Black Feminist Organization in 1971 and 1974, the formation of a campaigning organisation Women Against Rape in 1971, the setting up of a Women’s Liberation Conference on Rape in 1972, and the launch of the country’s first Rape Crisis Centre in Washington DC in the same year.

By 1976, Estelle Freedman notes, there were over 400 rape crisis centres across America, providing counseling, social services, and legal support for women who had experienced sexual violence (Freedman, 2013, p278).

Susan Browmiller’s book Against Our Will appeared in 1975, and remains the most important attempt to cohere the nascent anti-rape movement. It is a diffuse book, its most famous statement “rape … is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear, is preceded seven pages earlier by an implied autobiographical disavowal in advance: “I have always considered myself a strong woman, although I understand that the strength I possess is a matter of style and, secretly, of theatrical bravura. I am combative, wary and verbally aggressive…” (Brownmiller, 1975, pp8-15).

Against Our Will employs historical and literary sources (the prison novels of Jean Genet, Last Exit to Brooklyn, the fiction of Ayn Rand of the New Right) to show the pressure on women to accept the conceit that there was not really any such thing as rape, and that women must always have consented. Brownmiller has often been described by Marxists as a “radical feminist” (e.g. McGregor, 1989; although compare the more sympathetic reviews that appeared in Barker, 1977 and Sullivan 1980), i.e. as someone who would see no useful role for men in the struggle against sexism, and therefore as politically wrong. Certainly her description of rape as a crime of all men gives this impression. But the message of the book as a whole is more nuanced. There are passages in which she suggests that the typical rapist was young and poor. And yet, she goes on, “it remains difficult to assess the true percentage of rapes committed by strangers. As the women’s movement continues to press a greater understanding of the crime of rape on the general public, women who have been assaulted by men they know will feel freer to report the crime and these reports will begin to be treated with the seriousness they deserve” (Brownmiller, 1975, p352). This is her book’s consistent message: that rape is a much more frequent crime than anyone had acknowledged. In this, her most important argument, she was right, and her critics wrong.

In Britain, the National Women’s Aid Federation was founded in 1975 and there were 200 women’s refuges within two years. The first Rape Crisis Centre was opened in London in 1976 (Rowbotham, 1997 p407).

Meanwhile this same period also saw a dramatic rise in campaigns against other forms of sexual violence against women, including sexual harassment. The latter term was first used by activists in 1975, and the first two books about sexual harassment were published in 1978 and 1979. These changes coincided with a legal discovery of sexual harassment. In Canada, the first successful trial for sexual harassment was a criminal trial for attempted rape (or in the Canadian legal vernacular, “sexual assault”). The 1974 case of Angione ended with the employer convicted and ordered to pay his victim 1000 Canadian Dollars (Backhouse, 2008, pp263-286). In the US, the first was a 1978 civil (tort) case for discrimination contrary to the Civil Rights Act, Williams v Saxbe-Bell (Mackinnon, 1979, pp 63-65)

Capitalism has allowed a space for the emergence of an idea of the rights of the individual. This relative autonomy could be achieved because of ideas of bourgeois equality and liberty, but while these were necessary conditions for the emergence of the modern concept of rape, they were far from sufficient for this revolution to take place. There also need to be active  campaigns by political women and their male allies to change the meaning of consent and to put pressure on politicians, on judges and on the police. Until the rise of the postwar women’s movement, the crime of rape was different from what it is today; and in particular most rapes (i.e. rapes in long-term relationships) were excluded.


The defining moment in the emergence of the contemporary criminal law of rape was the judicial acceptance of the possibility of marital rape. This was the delayed product of the slow breaking down of a kind of marriage contract characterised by male ownership of property, by married women’s restriction to a role in the reproduction of children rather than in autonomous labour, and by the purpose of sexual relationships being procreation rather than pleasure. It is only since these habits have become outmoded that the modern understanding of rape has fully emerged, and, even then, the law lagged behind.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of the old marriage contract with its iron-fastened presumption of consent was not merely the consequence of social changes (the affordability of contraception, increase female participation in the workplace), but also a result of political campaigns: for access to divorce and abortion, against the criminalisation of homosexuality, and against the refusal of judges, the police and politicians of all stripes to treat rape with the seriousness it deserves.

Once women had access to cheap contraception, inevitably two things changed. Women’s work became more valuable, and the purpose of sex changed. The legalisation of homosexuality had exactly the same effect, increasing our idea that sex might be a pleasurable activity which need not result in children. The more that sex became a defining part of our personality, the less justifiable was it to say that a wife should always voluntarily submit to her husband. Finally, specific campaigns around battered and raped wives, against the police mistreatment of rape victims, etc, reinforced our shared sense of the enormity of the crime of rape.

Focussing on how recent rape law is makes possible an explanation of why it is that those over 40 in particular seem most resistant to understanding rape’s hurt. Here, as perhaps elsewhere in life, decades of concentrated social experience combined with a natural, human nostalgia for the decade in which you reached adulthood, is the wrong starting-point. It closes your mind to what is new, deadens your sensitivity to a revolution in human consciousness, and causes you to miss the revolutionary part played by others in acheiving a dramatic reform.

Rape (as we presently understand it) began only in 1991; the emergence of an idea of rape as an assault on women’s autonomy and therefore on women’s essential humanity reflects the broader establishment of women’s rights both under and against capitalism and in particular the struggles of activists (“feminists”) to achieve a degree of equality for women under the law.


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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.

Women’s Liberation: what Cliff got right and where he went wrong



Two articles in July’s Socialist Worker (US), one by Sharon Smith and one by Abbie Bakan, ask whether it is helpful for socialists to adopt a position towards women’s oppression which Bakan characterises as “Marxist Anti-Feminism” (MAF)? The question is hardly neutral; Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US, and one of its leading authorities on what used to be called “the women’s question”. Bakan has in the past played the same role within the International Socialists in Canada, which (although she has now left it) is within the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency (IST).

Behind both articles lies the shadow of the rape and sexual harassment complaints against a member of the Central Committee of the SWP which have been hanging over the SWP since summer 2010.

Bakan and Smith could be read as suggesting, by implication, that a root of our present difficulties can be traced back to the theoretical positions taken by the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff, who maintained that Marxism and Feminism were incompatible. The grotesque mishanding of the complaints, it follows, occurred at least in part because the SWP had long trained its members into a deep-rooted and sustained blindness to all aspects of feminism and women’s oppression.

The first thing to note in response is that the argument mixes together different kinds of evidence, and that at times this method makes their case unpersuasive. For example, Bakan alludes to Cliff’s autobiography on gender politics, cites a talk Cliff gave after his interest in women’s liberation had lapsed, and quotes a sexist joke which his biographer Ian Birchall recalls Cliff telling about political expectations, “I’d like to sleep with Gina Lolabrigida, but I have to put up with what I’ve got.”

It was indeed a sexist joke, but Cliff made a number of jokes in his life, and this was not the only one to have backfired. One particularly destructive example was his joke, in the middle of the Anti-Nazi League campaign of the 1970s, that “If i saw a bunch of skinheads beating up a rabbi, I’d beat up the skinheads, then I’d beat up the rabbi”. This remark was used against the ANL as a sign of the left’s incipient anti-Semitism, and quoted by the League’s critics on the left at countless meetings. But anyone who ever heard Cliff speak and was capable of recognising his actual strengths as well as his real flaws would have recognised immediately both how Jewish he was, and how comfortable he was with this part of his personality. Far from desiring to beat up rabbis, a young Cliff would have lost a thumb-wrestling contest to Woody Allen. The joke was ill-judged, and destructive. It was not the essence of Cliff.

Bakan cites against Cliff the passages of his autobiography, but, as she admits, these weren’t written by Cliff himself but by Lindsey German. In doing so, I think she misses a more obvious thought. Tony Cliff clearly saw women’s liberation as something that was important to Marxism (he did, after all, dedicate a chapter of his memoirs to it). Yet, having decided that it mattered, he also decided that someone else was needed to write the chapter, not him. Why not? Cliff was never someone to admit his weaknesses readily, nor did he ever happily allow others to carry out intellectual work for him, and I don’t think he would have asked German to write the chapter if he had felt able to do it himself.

What I take from the poverty of the examples that Bakan quotes against Cliff is a different, and potentially more troubling thought, that except for his 1984 book, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, Cliff said or did very little about either feminism or women’s liberation, and what he said was (especially when compared to his ideas about unions or socialism) shallow and unimpressive. Despite recognising the need to integrate women’s liberty into any satisfactory theory of socialism, for most of his life he did little to assist that project. Despite giving 65 years of his life to the struggle against capitalism, with one exception, he thought little about equal pay, domestic violence, homework or childcare. For the most of the time he acted as if he thought socialism needed no sexual dimension.

Now of course Tony Cliff did write an entire book on women, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, and this is the place where Cliff made good that otherwise omission.

Published by Bookmarks two years after the SWP had closed down our women’s magazine Women’s Voice (1974-1982), the first two-thirds of the book collected some impressive moments in history when socialist or working-class women have raised demands which were recognisably those of or for working-class women, or played a part in great historical movements of the left which are often and lazily assumed to have been primarily “men’s campaigns” (the Levellers, the Diggers, the French and Russian Revolutions). The second two-thirds is a contemporary, sociological analysis of the problems of working-class women in the family and the workplace.

Bakan quotes from the introduction to Class Struggle: “Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women … For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist-feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap.”

If Cliff had argued, consistently, that no compromise was possible between those who believed in socialism and those who opposed the oppression of women, then his book would indeed deserve criticism. But it is not unusual for an author to include in their book a polemical statement of aims which its contents do not deliver. A good example is Susan Browmiller’s anti-rape classic Against Our Will (1974) which has a similarly polemical opening, analysing rape as a crime of “all men”: “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Various IST writers have quoted this opening ever since as proof of Brownmiller’s exaggerated militancy and her misplaced distrust of working-class men. But read as a whole, Brownmiller’s message is more nuanced, and at the end of her book she calls for a collective anti-rape consciousness among both women and men – something that would be impossible if she really did think that all men were rapists. There is something similar about Cliff’s book which far from proving the incompatibility of Marxism and feminism, barely considers either as theories at all.

Another difficulty with Cliff’s history is that there was already a book in print and well known to older members of the SWP which followed the same historical method as his book did, even looking at many of the same examples of women’s struggle. This was Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History, published by the SWP’s then in-house publishers Pluto just eleven years previously. Cliff “corrects” Rowbotham much as his biography of Trotsky “corrected” Isaac Deutscher’s earlier, greater biography of the Russian Marxist: i.e. it disregards the literary and the character-establishing digression in favour of a narrower, more concentrated focus on the political.

So, for example, while Rowbotham only spoke very generally about Puritan attitudes to women and sexuality, Cliff’s more political account finds women who took part in the Leveller and Digger campaigns. While Rowbotham takes a passing interest in family structure and the historical apparatus of inequality, as well as the arguments of anti-feminists, Cliff primarily raids socialist literature for  inspiring examples of women organising alongside men.

The focus of the final third of Class Struggle is on the potential for women to take part in workers’ struggles alongside working-class men. In a key passage, Cliff writes,

“Many women in the women’s liberation movement have consistently focussed on the areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the areas of struggle where women are more likely to win the support of men – such as opposition to the cuts in hospitals and schools, the right to abortion, and battles at work for equal pay or the right to join a trade union.”

The word “rape” appears in the book five times, but not once does Cliff ask how rape is possible, or what could be done to end it. Sexual harassment at work, which had been part of the vocabulary of the women’s movement in the Britain and US for a decade by the time Class Struggle was published, Cliff does not even mention once.

Cliff criticised supporters of women’s liberation for focusing on these three areas – in contemporary language, rape, domestic violence and childcare – accepting that they pitted men against women. One purpose of his book (albeit only one, among several) was to invite socialists not to dwell on these matters, but focus our limited campaigning energies on the more uplifting topics of union rights and anti-cuts campaigns.

The section I have just italicised is worth thinking about carefully. In general, there is nothing unusual about people trying to take certain questions “off limits”. Anyone who has debated with an opponent of reproductive rights will know that the discussion takes place in just this way, on both sides. The “pro-life” activist asks repeatedly, “when does a foetus’ life begin?” The pro-choice activist responds, “I’m not interested in that, what about the mother’s rights?” Both tries to take the discussion to where they feel their arguments are strongest. During the Iraq war, anti-war activists would confront our opponents by asking them rhetorically, “So where are the WMDs then?” I doubt we will be doing that over Syria.

The usual justification for Cliff’s position is that within the women’s liberation movement of the mid-1980s there were voices which emphasised the division between men and women, which exaggerated the similarity of women’s experiences at the expense of class, and which were prescriptive about who people could have sex with and how they could have sex with them. And the closer you were in the movement to the people who were most passionate about these ideas, the more damage they could have done.

Cliff’s book appeared in print just two years after the SWP had closed down its women’s magazine Women’s Voice. These days, most people outside the party see that as just another one of the bureaucratic exercises by which the SWP’s leadership has routinely purged the party of potential critics. But it is also arguable that Cliff genuinely believed that the combination of closing down the magazine and the publication of his book, would prevent some women members of the SWP from being pulled towards ideas which would actually make solidarity between the genders harder to acheive.

(Whether the official SWP narrative that Women’s Voice was a bridge out of Marxist politics is true is a larger topic than I can address in this post – suffice to say here that I’ll be coming back to it, in several articles, over my next few postings).

Whenever you try to make a subject off-limits, there is always a risk. And here, there were at least three. First, Cliff seemed to be saying that in the areas of rape, domestic violence and childcare, women and men were “at odds”, had different interests and different priorities. Given that the unequal, gendered allocation of childcare in the privatised capitalist family was right at the heart of what Cliff took to the the Marxist explanation of women’s oppression, it is a strange admission. Without an analysis of the changing nature of the family, there is no recognisably Marxist explanation of women’s oppression. The topic of childcare is simply too important to the socialist argument about women’s liberation to be left indefinitely unexplored. (And in fairness to the people who have written and done IS’s women’s politics since Cliff, I don’t think that they have followed him in treating this subject as off-limits).

Second, it is not obviously right that all of these areas do in fact “just” pit men against women. Most sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is between a more senior man and a more junior woman. (Of course, some also takes places between people in equal roles; but almost never do you find a more junior person sexually harassing their manager). In a sense, it is a male-female struggle. But for most people, including most working-class men, it is more obviously a problem which pits workers against managers. Workers more often identify with the co-worker than they do with the harassing manager. In other words, Cliff’s voluntary disinterest to subjects such as sexual harassment closed off the possibility of arguments which would actually support the message of class struggle which he was trying to win in his book.

Third, if you say to your fellow socialists (as Cliff was doing) that rape and domestic violence are politically off-limits, then it follows that you should not write about them or take part in campaigns about them, as this will distract you from more important tasks and involve you in politics which actively divides men and women workers. You will be contributing to the antagonism between Marxists and feminists, and (worst of all) you will be supporting the latter at the expense of the former. But every women who has been raped, every women sexually harassed or beaten by her husband or her partner, has suffered a grotesque failure of human solidarity. Her mistreatment has made the possibility of universal liberation more remote. To say “I am a Marxist; I shall not campaign  about rape” is to diminish the moral status of your Marxism and to reinforce the suffering of the oppressed.

As the book reaches the contemporary world, there are some direct polemical exchanges between “Marxism” (disembodied in the form of an idea, and perfect) and “feminists” (grounded in real people’s lives and writing and therefore prone to error). The social basis of the latter, Cliff maintains is the “new middle class”, “graduates of … universities and polytechnics … In Marxist terms they belong to the petty bourgeoisie, located between the basic classes of capitalist society, the bourgeoisie or ruling class, and the proletariat”. (In fairness to Cliff, there are also passages in which he suggests that university educated women – school teachers, for example, were a part of the working class, albeit very close to the middle class).

Cliff would have grasped more keenly than anyone the difference between strands kinds of Marxism. But his analysis of feminism lumps together all sorts of different strands of thought. Here Sharon Smith’s criticisms hits the mark: “Over the last few decades in the IST, feminism became a straw figure–even a caricature of a straw figure, made up of the unlikely mish-mash of separatists who simply hate all men and bourgeois feminists who selfishly care only about gaining access to corporate boardrooms – against whom we Marxists steadfastly defended the “interests” of working-class women and men.”

An enormous amount is made to rest in Cliff’s account on the figure of the “working-class woman, financially dependent on husband, carrying the double burden of housework and holding down a boring, low-paid job”. These women are portrayed as the carriers of a particular virtue, to which male workers can approach but from which middle class women are excluded.

I don’t believe we should treat this figure as mythical – which I suppose would be one reading of Smith and Bakan’s criticism – that Cliff’s “anti-feminist Marxism” invokes working-class women against middle-class women, but this is an artificial, pure rhetorical strategy on its part, for such gender-blind socialism will not even focus on working class women.

Anyone who had seen the SWP of the 1980s – in which a number of working-class women were pushed into leadership roles – would know that the party Cliff built was better than this criticism.

Cliff insists that middle-class women benefit from the oppression of working class women (who work for them as nannies, etc); and uses the higher proportion of women from grammar rather than comprehensive schools attending universities (16.9% and 2.9% in 1975-6) as proof that “bourgeois women have far more in common with their own class than with women of the working class.”

Cliff nowhere says directly that middle- or ruling-class women are entirely liberated from gender oppression, but his analysis of women’s oppression implies that its objective pain is lessened for people with property. The problem, as Cliff would have admitted in other contexts, is that oppression is a relationship, and therefore its pain always relative. Workers in Britain did not cease to be oppressed between 1850 and 1950, although the workers of the twentieth century had higher incomes than their predecessors.

Marx himself may have begun by thinking that the working-class were revolutionary because they were the most dispossessed group in society; by the time of the Communist Manifesto he had grasped that it was not their relative oppression that made one class or another more worth caring about but their capacity to change the world (and to change themselves in so doing).

Nowhere in Cliff’s book would you see an answer to a point which is made in Sharon Smith’s article that “There is … an important distinction … between ruling-class and middle-class women. By and large, ruling-class women support the capitalist system with all its injustices, whereas middle-class women, like all members of the middle class, tend to get pulled in different directions – some gravitating toward the bourgeoisie and others toward the working class.”

There is a problem with the book which, like so much other SWP writing, skips as if without noticing between two conceptions of class, one, ostensibly derived from Marx’s relations of production, in which almost everyone who works and everyone in their families is working class (the 99% model), and a different use, in which class excludes anyone who is a political opponent, who is then dismissed in “common sense” class categories with education often used as a proxy for class.

If a leading socialist today was to insist that only sceptical co-operation was allowed with university-educated people, as Cliff’s dismissal of 1980s feminism does, they would find themselves without allies. Should they look too closely at their own party, they might find themselves having to ditch most of its members too.

Here I think Smith and Bakan are right to fault Cliff for his “sectarianism” – he sociologises feminism and he makes himself blind to its nuances and different trajectories.

When my comrades in the SWP today try to “apply Cliff” today, they tend to do it by assuming that every feminist they would meet combines the very worst bits of Catharine Mackinnon, Andrea Dworkin or Sheila Jeffreys (and not the better sides of either, still less the politics of a Lynne Segal, a Laurie Penny or a Nina Power), in other words that – just as Cliff wrote – there can be no compromise between feminism and Marxism. They blank out the possibility that when feminists look back at us, they see the opportunism of Respect, the self-boosterism of John Rees, the basic lack of human empathy that has informed our old, morally-corrupted leadership throughout the Delta scandal… And they miss the way in which among contemporary feminists, the mainstream opinion is an activist common sense, closer in mood and intent to the feminism (and the Marxism) of the 1960s than it is to the feminism of the early 1980s. Sort ourselves out first, and there could be sensible alliances we could make.

I do think however that there is another, connected, fault, which Smith and Bakan do not adequately explore. Throughout his book Cliff is constantly alive to the occasions when working-class women suffer oppression as workers, he says little of help about the oppression they suffer as women – i.e. the issues of rape, domestic violence and housework (childcare) – which he had voluntarily left to “the feminists” leaving them permanently outside the possibility of creative Marxist analysis.

Prior to Cliff’s book, there had been writers in the SWP and IS  who did grasp that love, relationships, and the imbalances in relationships were all things which were of real importance to millions. Dave Widgery was one, Sheila Rowbotham another. But since Cliff’s book (and since the closure of Women’s Voice which preceded it), the SWP has written much less than we used to about these “female” concerns and campaigned relatively little about them. How many SWP members do you know who have organised a coach to an anti-racist demonstration; and how many do you know who have volunteered for a rape line or at a women’s refuge?

This blindness is the lasting gap in Cliff’s book, the part which cannot be rescued. It is not that Cliff’s focus on working class women was misplaced. Contrary to Bakan and Smith, the problem is not that he was blind to women’s oppression, although his writing does show a steady drift from gender oppression to class.  If people want to understand why it is that the book has never had the independent following that, for example, State Capitalism had, the error is not his focus on working-class women as the revolutionary subject of a Marxism conscious of oppression (“women’s liberation”), but his failure to say anything meaningful about the gender half of the dual oppression that working-class women face.

The result of Cliff’s approach to women’s liberation is that an SWP which has at times cared a great deal about the politics of different industrial or international struggles has not thought deeply enough about matters as important as domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. For thirty years, and save for very brief exceptions (eg at the time of the Sara Thornon campaign in 1996) we have barely written or campaigned about these subjects; and we have not had anything distinctive to say about them. In general, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of male sexual violence, and this weakness has not been purely theoretical – breathless activists in so many other respects, we have done very little in campaigns which revolved around sex. Treating divisions as if they were fixed and immutable, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of equality in all of our lives.

When we most needed to have a literature of our own – during our recent crisis – we found that IST authors had written almost nothing on sexual harassment or rape, and the little we had written was derivative or seriously out of date. This gap has only been a small part of our recent difficulties, but it has been some of it.

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


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.

What would I like to see in Marxist writing about women’s liberation?


1 I’d like to see a proper treatment of Engels. I don’t believe that there is any purpose to reading him “defensively”, i.e. using him as a timeless authority, who is by definition correct just because of his close working relationship with Marx. Ultimately, the test of Engels’ brilliance as a historian of pre-class societies h…as to be what anthropologists and archaeologists find in the evidence (once we have stripped out any biases in their interpretation), rather than what Engels guessed from the best pre-historical evidence of more than 100 years ago. If I was going to list the characteristics which made early people “human” I would focus on tool-making rather than meat-eating which was crucial for the most right-wing, and dated, archaeologists of the 1960s. Any discussion of Vogel should try to acknowledge that she is matching the best bits of Engels to the method of Marx’s Capital. Vogel was not trying to depoliticise and diminish Engels, she was doing the opposite.

2 For over a century, Marxists have portrayed the family as key to women’s oppression. Here again we can learn from Vogel, who is very clear (the key is the differential expectation of women’s work in childrearing, which structures occupational segregation, unequal pay, different expectations as to who will initiate sex, sexual stereotyping, sexual imagery, etc etc). Marxists need to do more than merely acknowledge that the family is changing, we need to grasp how it is changing under “neo-liberal austerity capitalism”. In the same way that Soviet-era state capitalism resulted in lots of marriage, little divorce and medals for motherhood, our present mini-epoch of capitalism produces a different kind of family: a relative separation of sex and child-rearing (which goes arm in arm with sexual choice, including the vast increase in the number of people publicly identifying themselves as LGBT), a rapid increase in the number of both the people in relationships outside marriage and (fewer people spot this) the number of people outside relationships at all, the use of benefits to subsidise working class families (the budget for benefits to working people, of greatest value to those with children, outspends benefits to the unemployed by something like 20 to 1), and the removal of benefits (eg the housing tax cap) being of greatest threat to people living in families with children.

3 It’s not enough to say that the solution to women’s oppression is for women to join the workplace and go on strike. This misses out the continuing capacity for men and women to be divided in the workplace. A single episode illustrates this: the equal pay crisis and the local government and health union’s mishandling of it over the last decade – resulting in tens of thousands of tribunal equal pay cases a year, many of them brought (and this should shock any of us out of any political complacency) … against unions, for signing off discriminatory pay deals. It also misses out the problems of trade unionism in an epoch of (relatively) low strikes. We’re not talking about the “schools of socialism” that Marx and Engels hoped for. Not at the moment, not until they move – and any useful Marxist contribution need to start thinking honestly about how we can get them to. Right now, unions are much more defensive organisations, with low participation rates (especially among women), at several stages from revolution. Suggesting that strikes will solve everything also misses out the capacity for women (and men) to organise as workers outside the workplace – eg in fighting the bedroom tax. IE in contrast to those whose short answer to women’s oppression is “syndicalism”, when what we really need is “political class struggle” (i.e. both of political trade unionism -and- working-class struggle outside work).

[Original thread on Facebook here and here]