Monday, 25 March 2013

Creeping Sexism

Guest post by Naomi Jones

One of the things which has pissed people – and especially women – off about the Socialist Workers Party is the determination to attribute a meaning to the word ‘feminism’ which fits with a simplistic class instrumentalist account of women’s oppression considered suitable for consumption by the membership.

Let’s take a trip in the mind of Judith Orr, the party’s oracle on what ‘feminism’ is really all about. On 9 March, Socialist Worker ran an article for consumption prior to the special conference, apparently to arm those who may have forgotten what the line is with some crap arguments against anyone who has got ‘confused’. Consider the following:

“Socialists stand with all those fighting sexism. We help build campaigns for abortion rights, equal pay and against discrimination. But we also argue that, while oppression can’t be reduced to class, it is rooted in the rise of class societies and the family.”
There are a number of issues with this:
1. It is a classic specimen of SWP argument which begins “socialists believe” and continues with “we argue that” – a little rhetorical trick to persuade the reader that the opinion you are being asked to hold is an objective truth. It’s like an advert with the voiceover “all mums want nice white sheets… we mums know that Persil is best”. The time for this kind of propaganda has passed. Even if it were a proper way to win an argument rather than sell a product (which it isn’t), the general population has moved on, especially younger people to whom the party aims to appeal.

2. “We help build campaigns” – really? Of course a lot of members of the SWP are committed activists when it comes to women’s liberation. But a lot of members have faced pressure for their involvement with, for example, feminist societies on campus. When the Slutwalk protests were called, the party was left scrabbling around for a position which could make SWP sense of the use of the word ‘slut’ while being an active part of the campaign – and in some areas, SWP members weren’t that welcome on Slutwalks at all. The purpose of this is not to slate the activity of the SWP, but to point out the circular logic: “we are the best campaigners because we have a proud tradition on womens lib”, and “we have a proud tradition on women’s lib because we are the best campaigners”. The SWP is not the best campaigning force on women’s liberation, and it’s time to admit it.

3. So the SWP argues that the oppression of women is rooted in the role of the family and the development of class society. Wow! I actually thought the SWP had a monopoly on this novel idea for quite a while. It turns out that the SWP hasn’t copyrighted Engels – but it is one of the few organisations with a clear position on women’s lib which basically stops at Engels. All sorts of other people have an understanding of sexism which is rooted in historical materialism. There are even whole schools of thought called materialist and Marxist feminism. Just fancy!

The SWP’s attitude to those who raise these questions has made leaving the party a sad but pretty straightforward decision…

Here is what other women’s lib campaigners are saying:

This kind of statement would get you sneers and a talking-to in the SWP. It has all the evils in it.

FEMINIST – means women who think all men are tied into rape culture, and a rejection of historical materialism, right? No, it can just mean:

A general theme of the SWP’s argument is this: why get all attached to the notion of ‘feminism’ when we have an analysis of why women are oppressed which locates the most meaningful struggles within the working class fightback? No need to waste time navel gazing in a safe space about your experiences with other self-defining feminists, just build Unite the Resistance and it’ll all come out in the wash.

This kind of rejection of feminism as a movement is offensive when so many women (and men) have risked so much and put so much energy and time into arguing for women’s rights. We should be proud to call ourselves feminists, and to be part of a rich and varied tradition which unites on campaigning for the social, economic and political equality of women. There’s another good reason to not reject feminism:

PATRIARCHY – this means that you think all men are innately evil, women should live in communes for their own safety and working class organisation won’t change this, right? No. It means you have noticed that men tend to be represented disproportionately over women in various ways, and that this contributes to the perpetuation of the oppression of women.

It means that is sexism which is ‘creeping’, not feminism. Sexism can seep into all institutions, organisations, friendships – even into the SWP.

The SWP knows this really, as it tries (in its miserable way) to compensate. But because it has developed such an awful tendency towards bureaucratic organisation and favours unquestioning obedience, it ended up with women on the disputes committee asking the worst kinds of questions of a member complaining of sexual misconduct.

That they posed those questions does not mean that those women have shit politics, or that they are evil, or that the SWP is a ‘rape cult’. It reflects a structural issue which, for many reasons now coming to the forefront of debate, the SWP has decided to completely deny. It is an institution which has failed to counteract the patriarchal tendencies of capitalist society – easily done, hard to acknowledge.

Sexism and other forms of oppression creep along on the back of our divided society, driving in further wedges to alienate us from each other and the real forces of oppression. Along the way, sexism gathers its own momentum and has an impact which can be analysed in its own right without abandoning the Marxist tradition. The methodology of intersectionality demonstrates this. Privilege can be understood within a historical materialist framework.

Patriarchy exists, you can see it in front of your face – we need to discuss the reasons why. Now let’s try and join in with all the others who are already thinking and doing things about this in the real world.


  1. That is one SUPERB article! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Good, common sense writing!

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  4. Good article, but I think that when you fill in the details, for example, over this comment (about 'patriarchy'):

    "No. It means you have noticed that men tend to be represented disproportionately over women in various ways, and that this contributes to the perpetuation of the oppression of women."

    and you try to explain why there is this 'tendency' you will either end up (1) blaming men or (2) blaming class society. I am sure that (1) is out of the question, but when you go into details about (2), you might find you end up agreeing (reluctantly or not) with much that the SWP has been arguing for years -- suitably updated, of course.

    A 'tendency' is no explanation. Tendencies aren't causal, they are the result of other factors. When, for example, we argue that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, we don't just leave it at that. That tendency is the result of other factors at work in capitalism. So, we look for these causes.

    Same here.

    Now, calling something 'patriarchy' is merely to label the problem -- it is an abstraction in won't of material/social roots.

    This is where a class analysis comes in, and once that is introduced, we can dispense with 'patriarchy' (except as a mere 'façon de parler', an abbreviative device, a 'useful fiction' -- a bit like 'force' in relativistic physics), which, when looked at in more detail traces the causes of women's oppression back to the exigencies of the class war.

    Unless, that is, we are to suppose that all men (at birth? at four years old?) are schooled in the ideology of 'patriarchy' (by whom?), and all take a secret oath to maintain it at all costs.

    That approach, of course, would make us idealists, and not historical materialists.

    So, while I agree with much that you say, I'm not sure 'patriarchy' is a useful concept for us to adopt -- and, quite possibly, it's the opposite.

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  6. excellent naomi-we must make time to discuss it ian

  7. Absolutely brilliant article. Many thanks.

    I've been pondering 2 questions - I'd appreciate your thoughts:

    1. I was very interested to read that the SWP's long-term position has been that working-class men don't benefit from gender oppression/patriarchy/sexism. As a working-class woman this has certainly not been my experience. What are your thoughts on this?

    2. I have a major dilemma: as a trade unionist who campaigns on gender issues I've worked closely with folk from the SWP and while I don't buy into trotskyism, I've found my SWP comrades in my union (UCU) to be very good trade unionists who work their guts out for our membership. I've always liked and respected them. But now I find myself struggling to know how best to fit this rape-denialism and contempt for "creeping feminism" into some kind of framework in which I can continue to work with SWP comrades. Is it possible to set all this aside and continue as before? I respected Galloway a great deal before he made his appalling rape-denialist defense of Assange, but I couldn't work with him now. In the same way, I find it really hard to see how anyone who really cares about gender equality can work with the SWP. This is a very real problem for me - I'm on the UCU Left Steering Committee!


    1. The idea is that if women suffer oppression then their male relatives and/or partners (if they have any) also suffer indirectly. So, if NN lives with her partner MN, and she is paid 70% of what men in the same job earn, then both NN and NM suffer. Of course, that is a very simple example, but if women as a sub-group suffer, then their oppression affects their lives and that cannot but impact on the lives of those around them, including any men in their lives.

      This makes the oppression of women as much a male as it is a female issue -- i.e., a class issue, not a gender issue.

      Men will not be free unless women are. The secret to our oppression is the freedom from all oppression (racial, sexual, national, etc., etc.). Hence all working class men have an interest in fighting against all forms of oppression.

      If we argue that men benefit, it cuts the above off at the knees, since working class men would now have nothing to gain from freeing their wives, daughters, mothers, sisters from this form of oppression, as a class issue, never mind what their personal feelings are about any one issue (such as rape, or poor pay).

      It's a bit like the argument we used to have about the Northern Ireland working class. While it might seem to some that Protestant workers benefitted from the oppression of Catholic workers and their families, the minor advantage the former had over the latter merely strengthened the grip of the local capitalists, and the British State, on them both. It was in the end no benefit to the former (in the above sense -- not in a superficial sense of 'benefit', which it might seem to some to be) that they supported Unionism.

      So, in a superficial sense it might seem that men benefit from women's oppression, but in that this form of oppression strengthens the grip of capital on us all, it benefits not one single working class man.

    2. On the other question: you'd need to talk to whoever you had a problem with and see exactly what they now believed. If you find their opinions offensive still, then you might want to have an argument with them. If the problem can't be resolved, then you'd have to decide whether or not you could still work with them.

      And it would depend on the issue at hand. If it is over say, Stop the War, the problem area might not be relevant. If, on the other hand, it is over say, rape, then that might be a deal killer.

  8. Naomi, thanks for your piece, I agree.

    To put it another way, the failure of an organization like the SWP to appreciate the importance of feminism programmatically creates a fertile soil for the sort of sexist culture in a left party that perpetuates and defends itself just as does any patriarchal and bureaucratic institution of capitalism.

    What has happened to the SWP over the last several months shows conclusively that a revolutionary party will rise or fall to the degree that it addresses the key political issues of its time. In this case, the issue is the right of all women to be free of sexual violence and harassment. The inability of SWP leaders to deal with this issue compassionately, democratically, and with an understanding of the corrupting qualities of male privilege is a leadership failure of profound proportions.

    to read the rest of this FSP statement:

  9. Dear Naomi,
    thanks for your article ; we wonder about the same questions - here is your piece in french : if you don't mind.

  10. This article clears all the doubts and confusions that will have issues while pretending & not getting there where they want to. Excellent Article!!!
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