Central Committee article on women's oppression, for Internal Bulletin, February 2013
The fight for women's liberation is central to the struggle for socialism. But how do we win that liberation?
The record of the SWP on the question of women’s oppression has been put into question by the inclusion in the faction document of a section on feminism.
The SWP leadership is accused of seeing “feminists as our enemies”. The faction has included in their statement an appeal for us to engage in debate with feminists and not to let disagreements with feminists about how we can change society “prevent us taking united action against women's oppression”.
What is the record of the party on these questions? Let’s look at the facts.
Involved in the Struggle
First on united action.
In the IB document on women’s liberation before this year’s national conference the CC wrote, “We have argued before in these bulletins the importance of engaging and working with such activists who are getting politicised by the experience of sexism. These are people who are angry about capitalism, inequality and oppression. They are a part of our audience and are often open to socialist ideas.
“We should use every opportunity to work alongside such people while fighting to win them to a socialist analysis of the roots of oppression and how to fight it. If we don’t attempt to shape these new forces we will miseducate an emerging generation of activists.”
This approach of working alongside the new generation of feminist activists while debating how to tackle women’s oppression is hardly a new one.
Back in 2010 Judith Orr wrote in the ISJ, in a piece entitled “Marxism and Feminism”, “Socialists need to start from what unites us with newly politicised women identifying with feminism—their rejection of sexism and anger at injustice and discrimination, and a willingness to fight. We can win a new generation to revolutionary socialism, but not by shrilly denouncing feminism…
“Many of the young women who declare themselves feminists, who sticker over sexist ads or set up new websites and feminist groups, are far from hostile to socialist ideas.
“We need to join together with such women in the struggles we face, whether it’s against cuts in education or the Tories’ potential attempts to attack abortion rights.”
As in any campaign we have a united front approach where we fight for unity in struggle but maintain our independent political views.
We have done this whether it in the Abortion Rights campaign, fighting raunch culture on college campuses or working alongside women workers in the trade unions. This is why we got it right when it came to the Slutwalks.
Much of the left didn’t get the importance of the Slutwalks and some feminists dismissed them because of the attempt to reclaim a sexist term. But we recognised that the mood of anger over establishment figures seeking to blame rape on women had tapped into the mood of revulsion against sexism, and we threw ourselves into them. When we attended the demonstrations our publications, the paper and the placards we produced for the marches went down well.
Marxism and Feminism
Debates between people who have some form of feminist ideas and Marxists go back to the 19th century. The German revolutionary Clara Zetkin wrote eloquently about the political differences between feminist ideas and the politics of revolutionary socialism and class.
She saw feminists at the time as fighting solely for “equality with the men of their class”, because they saw gender as the most significant divide in society.
In contrast Zetkin argued that the burden of women’s oppression fell heaviest on working class women—“she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production”. This meant a unity of interests across all women, including rich and ruling class women was impossible.
For a woman worker, “The end goal of her struggle is not free competition with men, but bringing about the political rule of the proletariat.”
But we have argued for some time that it is not enough to recycle the arguments from the past, even from the recent past of the 1970s and 80s. We have been developing a theory of “new sexism” and the “new feminism” since 2007.
As Judith Orr wrote in the article cited above, “Although the problem may appear familiar, it takes place in a different context to the debates of the 1970s and 1980s and so needs a different political response…
“It is vital that we engage with the new debates. Some may think we can simply rehash arguments we had decades ago. That would be a mistake. Activists coming to these ideas have had a very different experience than women in the 1960s. There are women in many areas of life that were barred to them 40 years ago. Today’s generation have lived through a period when they have been spun the lie that they have it all.”
But while the context of the debates are new, sometimes a false and mechanical view of the feminism in the 1980s is presented. This depicts the feminism of that period as solely a turn away from struggle and a bridge out of class politics.
Feminism has always been a broad church. You could be a Labour councillor on a women's committee with a budget of tens of thousands, you could be a manager or you could be marching against bigoted Tory anti-abortion bills and spray-painting sexist billboards.
In fact many leading women SWP members who joined in the 1980s became revolutionaries having been politicised by feminist activism.
Of course, winning women to the party in the 1980s was not an automatic development. The key was that they they were won to revolutionary socialism by a process of argument and experience, a process that led all involved to a sharper and more profound understanding of the issues at stake. We should reject the patronising notion that the women who engaged in these arguments have nothing to offer those seeking to understand women’s oppression today. We want to all those in the party—whether long established members or new—to be involved in a common effort to develop and apply the Marxist method to the current situation faced by women.
The Situation Today
Today there is still no single feminist movement or theoretical perspective. Instead there are a variety of feminist groups, on both college campuses and in towns, there are writers and bloggers and numerous websites.
There are growing numbers of femsocs and women’s groups in the universities, there are women’s committees within unions. In the past four years several large feminist conferences have taken place.
Many of those involved will be people we can win to our politics. Certainly, because the general period is one of growing political generalisation and increasing radicalism, many will be open to what we have to say. But again feminism today is not automatically a bridge into revolutionary politics.
Women’s oppression cuts across class divisions. This means socialists can face arguments that because our theory is based on the centrality of class that it is not capable of fully understanding oppression. The impact of postmodernism and poststructuralism means that the notion that the classical Marxist tradition is “reductionist” continues to have a strong resonance. The implication of these arguments is that we reduce oppression to a question of class. But this is not the case;what we argue is that oppression can’t be understood without reference to class—the systematic discrimination against women is rooted in the rise of class societies.
So class is not just another identity, it’s not a category we allocate because of economic inequality. It is both the fundamental division in society, a social relationship between exploiter and exploited and the place where we can find the power to resist.
But this Marxist approach is held by a minority of those who are involved in the struggle against women’s oppression. The assumption is often that Marxism can be a useful tool to explain the economy and exploitation, surplus values profits etc but that oppression acts in a different and separate sphere.
So feminism is often the first stop for newly politicised activists, but serious and patient discussion over these kinds of issues, along with common activity, is vital if we are going to win wider layers of those involved in fighting against oppression to our politics.
Of course, many of those who call themselves “feminists” are simply asserting that they are against sexism.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that people adhere to or are even familiar with established feminist theory. As the CC wrote in an IB in 2011, “In many cases young women angry at the way they are treated see feminism as being the obvious political response. In fact they are open to socialist ideas and do not come with ideological baggage of separatism and radical feminism.”
So the call for the party to change course in terms of working alongside and engaging in debates with feminists is entirely based on the false premise that this is not what we are doing already.
What is new about current debates around issues of women’s oppression?
We must address the new expressions of sexism in a world that is very different to that of the 1970s. But that doesn’t change the core theoretical bedrock of our theory of women’s oppression.
One reoccurring argument is that men benefit from women’s oppression.
This view asserts that women’s work in the home is servicing men. So even if in the long term unity between men and women is desirable, so the argument goes, men have, at the very least, a short-term interest in women’s oppression. This is because the women’s role in the family means she is expected to take responsibility for cleaning, cooking and child-rearing in the home, relieving men of this burden.
This feeds into an argument that women’s oppression is due to the imposition of male power, a power that all men hold over all women.
This view, commonly referred to as patriarchy, reflects the way society appears but it does not help us understand the true roots and nature of oppression.
Is it really the case that all men have a common interest in the domination of all women? Is that enough to explain the situation in modern capitalism?
It can seem to fit how society appears. After all, the commonsense view is that it is not the system that buys porn or commits domestic violence, but men.
But the commonsense view of how things work in the world cannot be the whole story. As Marx wrote in Capital, “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”
Do men benefit from the fact that child rearing and domestic labour takes place inside the privatised family? Or that men’s role is still seen as the main provider or that the family is eulogised as the place where all our aspirations of love, happiness and security will be met?
The answer is no. The family as an institution serves the interests of capital not individual men.
This is a role that is increasingly being laid bare by the imposition of austerity measures. The burden of cuts in welfare provision, subsidised childcare, benefits, etc, will fall on the nuclear family.
This goes to the heart of explaining why women’s oppression is shaped by women’s role within the family. Even though the actual families people grow up and live in are very different to 50 or 100 years ago, the ideology is still potent and the economic burden still critical.
David Cameron put openly how important the economic role of the family was when he said, "You know the best welfare system of all; it's called the family."
During the debate about equal marriage, Maria Miller, the equalities minister, referred to heterosexual marriage as the gold standard. Why? Because for the ruling class the role of the family both ideologically and economically is about reproducing the workforce.
This is not about how to deliver benefits to men; it is about minimising the cost to the ruling class of reproducing the next generation of workers. The family is about ensuring we take responsibility for the next generation (and the elderly, the sick and others who cannot work) in our atomised nuclear families, rather than the burden being carried by society as a whole.
This burden falls disproportionately on women because of their role in the family but it also increases pressure on men to provide for their family. Men have no interest in increasing this burden, either in the short or long term.
Furthermore, the extent to which the government can get away with their attacks will depend on the balance of class forces, not the attitudes or the assumed power of men as a gender.
If the long-term interest of working class men is to have the maximum unity with women in the organised working class then there is no benefit to them in maintaining or supporting oppressive structures or policies that divide men from women.
It is not possible for male workers or any other section of the working class to have short-term interest that directly contradict the long-term interest in unity. This is not about the consciousness of male workers; this is about their objective interest.
Privilege and Identity
To understand oppression it is necessary to see society as a totality and understand the material basis for oppression. This means avoiding the dangers of seeing the roots of oppression in interpersonal relationships rather than those relationships as being the expression of oppression.
This is the mistake that those that argue for a form of privilege theory make.
Privilege theory is not new but is gaining an audience as a way of explaining discrimination and prejudice.
It relies on the idea that if you are white or male, for example, you gain privilege simply by being perceived as being part of a “dominant” section of society. So a working class white man supposedly benefits from the privilege of being white in a racist society. This approach reduces questions of structural inequality and oppression to relationships between individuals. It is disarming in terms of a strategy for resistance as it designates those who are seen as having more privilege – white people, men, straight people – as inherently part of the problem and not potentially part of the solution. The best they can do, as the popular blog puts it is to “check their privilege” and admit their supposed advantage over others.
The logic of this emphasis on identity is that it implies a unity of interest across gender and race where none exists. It entrenches divisions and fragmentation within the working class. It sees oppression as being an unchanging feature of human society with no route out, no possibility of change.
If you follow the logic to its conclusion then a unity of interest of all white men, for example, means that all women should organise separately. It also means that all black women should be separate from them and so on.
Revolutionaries should always point to ways of fighting back that maximise our strength. Separating into ever diminishing circles around specific forms of oppression leads us into a cul de sac and diminishes our collective power.
The experience of oppression does not automatically lead to unity among the oppressed or with other oppressed sections of society. Suffering sexism or racism does not by definition mean you feel unity with LGBT people or with recent migrants, for example.
That is not to say that oppression isn’t experienced in different ways by different people. As a product of class society the burden of oppression is greatly affected by your class position in the system. For instance, ruling class women may be able to hire someone (usually a working class woman) to help with the burden of childcare. Nonetheless, socialists should oppose sexism regardless of where it happens to be directed.
As Lenin put it, over questions of oppression, a socialist should model themselves not on the trade union secretary but “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to any manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”. This is both to demonstrate to the oppressed that socialists take their liberation seriously and because any form of oppression can be used by our rulers to divide the working class.
But in these struggles we also have to, as Lenin went on to say, “generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…take advantage of every event, however small, to set forth before all his socialist convictions”. When we talk about class we don’t mean a box that someone is allocated into because of their income or job description. It is a social relationship between those that have to sell their ability to labour and those that profit from the surplus that the labour of others creates.
Exploitation is another burden faced by women in the workplace, but being exploited also means you are essential to the system. That is why the social force that offers the hope not just of fighting for reforms within the system but also challenging the very system itself is the collective power of workers.
The contradictions intrinsic to the system ensure struggle in some form is a permanent feature of capitalism. This means workers are forced into struggle whatever their level of class consciousness and ideas. Workers objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side in order to take the struggle forward. This means workers are forced by their objective circumstances to unite across the many divisions in the working class, the division of gender being the oldest and most deeply rooted. This is a process: prejudice doesn’t get swept away in a one-day strike. But the very act of struggle changes people and this is what offers the possibility of creating a society free from oppression.
Historically the fate of women is tied to the fate of the working class. This is not about the working class leading a struggle on behalf of women or other oppressed sections of society. Instead it is within the organised working class that the mass of women find their power.
The struggle to abolish class society and fight for socialism is intrinsically linked to the fight to destroy the material basis of women’s oppression.
We need to win a new generation of all those angry about sexism to revolutionary politics and our proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation.