Feminism and the Socialist Workers Party

by Brandy Baker on February 28, 2013

On March 10, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) will hold a much-anticipated emergency meeting. The aim will be to discuss the disaster that is eroding the organization as a result of its mostly female Disputes Committee’s (DC) handling of horrific rape accusations within the organization. Considering that there is no call for pre-convention documents, many close to and in the SWP expect its Central Committee (CC) to force the membership to accept the findings of accused rapist Martin Smith’s buddies on the DC and dole out expulsions to those who have formed factions in order to make the party more democratic and accountable. Or, as leading SWP CC member Alex Callinicos said over Twitter, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.”

Attempts to democratize the party are laudable, albeit idealistic; as The North Star’s Pham Binh has pointed out, “‘Leninism’ is a rigged game.” The CCs of these groups are elected by closed slates, a show of hands (no secret ballots), and in many cases, these pie cards have fossilized themselves in their leadership positions, some having been at the helm almost as long, or in some instances, even longer than many of us Gen Xers and Yers have been alive. They pass down what the line will be on any given political topic, and that is what the organization follows in its publications and recruitment practices even though the Bolsheviks never mandated adherence to a “line.”

Leaders in undemocratic organizations are entrenched such that they cannot be overthrown, although they sure need to be, because these organizations needlessly suffer when leaders are not regularly rotated. In such organizations, ideas are passed down and never up, as the SWP’s past and present has shown, especially in the party’s position on women’s liberation. Groupthink is too imprinted, and when some break from it and start to try making changes, they are usually voted down or just thrown out. This bureaucratic-centralist mode of operation is a tragedy, given that most people in “Leninist” organizations represent some of the most well-read, big-hearted, and hardest-working activists on the left, and they could make even greater contributions to movement work if their organizations were not beset with a heartless, sectarian siege mentality stemming from top-down rigidity.

Is there sexism in the SWP? The party and its former sister organization in the United States, the International Socialist Organization, have done great work around abortion rights, and as Charlie Kimber of the SWP rightfully pointed out, the SWP rejected left-wing British MP George Galloway’s recent sexist comments about the women who have accused Julian Assange of rape, and the SWP also called for Assange to be questioned in Sweden.

However, according to former SWP National Committee member David Isaacson, writing in an article I found very useful, there were times when the SWP was mum on abortion rights in its work years back with Galloway and the Respect Party:

“I personally remember SWP members sitting dumbstruck and powerless to object when George Galloway slammed abortion as an ‘abomination’ at a Respect rally at Leeds University. Even the deliberately vague position Respect as an organisation held in relation to ‘a woman’s right to choose’ was too much for Galloway, and the SWP all too willingly conceded more ground. The issue was made a matter of conscience, so that, regardless of any policy Respect had, George could—as Respect’s sole representative in Parliament—do and say as he pleased.”

Even more clarity may be found by looking further back at some of the history of the SWP and the ISO on the issue of women’s rights.

In 1969, 24-year-old American student Barbara Winslow was spending a year in England. While there, she joined the British International Socialists (IS-UK, the organization that we now know as the SWP; the name change would occur a few years down the road). Winslow was no activist newbie. She had already been involved in Students for a Democratic Society, the Peace and Freedom Party, and Seattle’s Radical Women, and once shared the stage with renowned civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. While a member, she introduced the IS-UK’s first ever motion of support for women’s liberation.

Back in the States in 1970, Winslow became heavily involved with the U.S. International Socialists (IS-US) and was its women’s organizer while emerging as a socialist feminist scholar. She was very active in women’s trade union work, especially the Coalition of Labor Union Women. She traveled extensively in the Midwest, speaking in union halls and to women’s union caucuses and groups like the Harlan County Women’s Club.

The IS-US bought into the whole “turn to industry” movement—in which members were sent into industry with aim of organizing the working class—yet, according to Winslow, the group was interested only in organizing workers in largely male-dominated occupations. This led her to advocate women building independent organizations. Winslow and her husband Cal, along with others, soon rejected the idea of socialists working in industry in order to recruit and formed the Left Faction with about 60 members (out of a membership of 280–300). The Left Faction was expelled by the IS-US as the first order of business at a special convention in Detroit on March 12, 1977. The expelled faction and others, totaling about 85, met up at the city’s War Memorial, and it was there that the International Socialist Organization (ISO) was born and held its first convention. Winslow would go on to write the basic position paper on reproductive rights in an ISO pamphlet, Revolutionary Feminism. She was instrumental in leading the ISO’s organizing around the issue of abortion rights.

visual2In the UK, the SWP would soon go on to start sponsoring an autonomous paper for its women members, Women’s Voice (WV). The first issue was published in 1972. It was a small group of female SWPers who did the heavy lifting to get copies of WV out on a regular basis with very little help or support from the SWP leadership. In 1978, WV evolved into an autonomous organization with chapters, and the SWP appointed a full-time women’s organizer, Sheila McGregor.

There were other women in both the SWP and ISO writing great commentary in the International Socialism journal on the questions of Marxism, capitalism, feminism, and patriarchy. Writers like Joan Smith, Irene Bruegel, and Anna Paczuska, among others, were exploring the works of other socialist feminists outside the party and sorting through these ideas to try to figure out how to relate to feminism as socialists. Looking at both the public and private spheres of female life as well as the dual oppressions of capitalism and patriarchy, they saw no set rigid “line,” which is exactly what makes these essays so interesting and exciting to read. These women were not afraid to criticize traditional Marxist interpretations on women’s liberation and they were not parroting a rigid response set by top party bureaucrats, so they were free to explore ideas, both their own and others’, and come to their own various conclusions, agree, disagree, add, and further analyze. This mode of scholarship operated in the fluid and cooperative spirit of socialist feminism as an ongoing dialogue.

“We [revolutionary socialists] have to decide how useful the feminist analysis is and how far it can stand alone,” wrote Paczuska in the May 1973 issue.

And that was just what the female members on both sides of the pond were doing. In 1979, Winslow’s book review “Women’s Alienation and Revolutionary Politics” for the spring edition of the International Socialism journal explored Anne Foreman’s Femininity as Alienation: Women and the Family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis. Winslow commented:

“[The Marxist movement] has tended to reduce the question of women’s oppression to that of a special part of the working class. This also means that little is known of the struggle of working women, including the lives and writings of revolutionary socialist women.”

She went on to cite Trotsky’s chastising of “male egoism,” his call to see the world “through the eyes of women,” and his advocacy of autonomous organizing:

“Women who are interested in fighting to end women’s oppression must build organizations of women in the work place, in communities, in schools—wherever and on a variety of issues. But because of the special oppression that all women face under capitalism, we believe that only women can organize and lead the fight for women’s liberation.”

In 1981, Lindsay German, a prominent female SWP member who was parked on the CC from 1970 to 2009, started to parrot IS-UK co-founder Tony Cliff’s class-reductionist line that sexism stems solely from capitalism:

“[T]hat male domination or sexism is something which exists not just as a product of capitalism but as something quite separate from the capitalist mode of production and which will endure beyond capitalism— are accepted so widely that a wholesale rejection of the theory is greeted with complete and genuine amazement.”

By this point, Cliff was showing his hostility to WV as well as to the ideology of socialist feminism. Interestingly enough, in this same article, German still advocated the idea of a women’s paper. However, the historical record shows that she didn’t hold this position for long after this article was printed, as Cliff was able to get her support and that of Sheila McGregor to snuff out the WV organization along with its paper in 1982. The Black worker paper, The Flame, was also shut down. Most unfortunately, I was unable to obtain any copies of WV or The Flame to preview for this article. Having access to these publications would have greatly added to our view of this exciting time in the SWP. Even though I wasn’t born when these publications started and they were wiped out when I was a small child growing up in the States, I mourn the destruction of these publications and the energies around them, as well as the potential that they had to lead to greater things in the UK, here in the US, as well as the rest of the English-speaking socialist Left.

The issue of autonomous organizing is a question that has continued to rear its head in parts of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), usually ending in expulsions (such as the 2010 expulsions from the ISO’s Washington, D.C. branch. Members of color wanted to discuss recruiting more nonwhite members into the group, and as the documents showed, the response from above was to label their concerns “liberal,” “non-Marxist,” and “identity politics” in the spirit of Cliff-ite class reductionism).

According to Isaacson:

“I do not know how true this is, but it seems that Cliff was opportunistic enough to tolerate Women’s Voice as a means to bring potential recruits closer to the SWP until it became significant enough to be a threat, or a viable entity in its own right. Then, Cliff came out in opposition to the group.”

In order to solidify their line on women’s liberation, Cliff and the mostly male SWP leadership interfered in the ISO’s internal workings, as they did in the IS-US before the Left Faction was expelled, and as they continue to do in IST chapters all over the world. Winslow recalls:

“I supported the idea of independent women’s organizations to the exclusion of building the ISO and I was going, ‘What’s the difference? You can do both.’ But their point of view was that you have to build the ISO and the only reason for women’s groups was to recruit people out to the ISO and I thought that was just crazy and sectarian. Even at one point, the ISO would say things like, ‘Only socialists can build the pro-choice movement or the reproductive rights movement.’ And I have to say that is one thing that socialists did, but they did it as socialist feminist women and not in socialist groups.”

Solidarity’s Peter Drucker echoes this, noting that in the early 1980s, the SWP “turned away from learning from broad social movements and towards a more self-promoting version of Leninist party building. It dissolved the autonomous women’s paper it had sponsored, Women’s Voice, declared that Friedrich Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was still a sound basic text on women’s emancipation, and essentially purged Winslow when she protested.”

Technically, Winslow was never expelled. She and her husband, then national secretary Cal Winslow, were removed from leadership with no formal process, temporarily suspended for one year, and ordered in that year to have no contact with any ISO member by phone, letter, or in person, nor to have any contact with any ISO potential recruit or “contact.” A few months later, the Winslows and a bunch of other ISO members just up and quit.

Instead of allowing open discussion and debate, the largely male leadership of the SWP does what it always does when members start to challenge the leadership: order expulsions. What Cliff, who unapologetically denounced socialist feminism, said was law. In 1917, Lenin wanted “the woman question” to be dealt with within the party, so to hell with current cultural realities and conditions in the late 20th century. Forget about the feminist movement’s having come onto the scene a decade before, changing societies in a big way and raising many questions and, fortunately, demands and expectations. The SWP rejected feminism but supported women’s liberation, a position it still holds today. But this position is puzzling, considering that the definitions of feminism and women’s liberation are exactly the same! The SWP also conflated the idea of women’s forming their own groups to fight sexism with separatism, a very small minority current in the feminist movement that barely exists today.

In the spring 1984 edition of the International Socialism journal, one year after the Winslows departed, an article by Chris Harman appeared presenting the then-new class-reductionist line of the SWP-UK and ISO on Marxism and feminism. It wholly rejected the idea of patriarchy, that men benefit from the oppression of women, and rejected the idea of autonomous organizing. Harman, like Cliff before him, does not hesitate to wheel out the old bogeyman of separatism:

“And the separatist objection to collaboration with men meant, in practice, keeping well clear of rank and file workers’ struggles—and this in turn, meant rejecting involvement in the only struggles that could gain more than the most marginal things from the system. … The division of labour between separatism and reformism found its ultimate expression in calls for an alliance between bourgeois or reformist politicians, the trade union bureaucracy, ‘women’ and ‘blacks’ (the ‘broad democratic alliance’ of Eurocommunism, the ‘rainbow coalition’ in the US, the electoralist strategy of people like Benn and Livingstone in Britain).”

What is separatism? According to one blog, it is the following:

“Separatist feminism is a stream of feminism that is against heterosexual relationships of any kind. They believe that the political and sexual inequalities between men and women cannot be resolved. Separatist feminists basically feel that males do not make any positive contributions to the feminist movement and even men that mean well, still replicate the dynamics of patriarchy. These women focus on directing their energies and allegiances towards other women. Such activities include working with other women towards political and social goals, choosing living and family arrangements that are female-only, and avoiding hiring or working for and with men. In order to escape, what they see the world as, a patriarchal society, these women choose to live in celibacy or lesbian relationships.”

Feminist separatism was never very successful as a movement because most women, regardless of their sexual orientation, do not want to live separately from men. A seed of homophobia dwells in the core of most accusations of separatism even in 2013, as much of mainstream society automatically assume that separatists are lesbians and “man haters,” and that if a woman is sexually separated from men, that she must not want anything to do with men in all other aspects of her life. There were some heterosexual feminist separatists, the short-lived Cell 16 probably being the most well-known group.

The frustration that has led some women to attempt to live separatist lives is understandable, but separatism was never a viable solution because no one can truly separate from capitalist society or the patriarchy that intertwines with it. A woman can stay away from men, but as a female, she is still part of an oppressed group, and while separatism may offer personal comfort to a small minority of women, it is no political solution.

A disproportionate amount of writing and energy have been expended on condemning the separatist current of feminism, which, even in its heyday, barely existed. An accusation of separatism is usually employed for an individual or group to run its own agenda and to destroy a project or idea within an organization. Sadly, “men’s rights” groups and other political reactionaries are not the only ones guilty of making such accusations. In the 1996 issue of International Socialism, Gill Hubbard states in an article titled “Why Has Feminism Failed Women”:

“Some women by the late 1960s drew the conclusion that men could not be part of the solution to women’s oppression. These separatist feminists, also known as radical feminists, demanded a separate movement dedicated to women’s liberation. Some of their actions have achieved lasting notoriety.”

Hubbard not only conflates radical feminism with separatist feminism (most radical feminists were not separatists, but why bother learning the true arguments and positions of those you criticize?), he goes on to paint the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City as a demonstration of only separatist feminists. The problem is that in his, and seemingly the SWP’s, continual rush to paint feminists as separatists, he fails to mention that this protest of 2-400 organized by New York Radical Women was attended by women who possessed various radical feminist ideologies. While New York Radical Women may have made a good scapegoat, in fact, NYRC leader Carol Hanish later criticized the group’s lack of a unifying message at the protest and its, “egoist individualism”. Unfortunately, there were a few signs at the protest criticizing and mocking the contestants themselves, but a few that would be more in-line with a socialist message as they targeted the corporate sponsors.

But not all “New York Radical Women” were the same: a New York City chapter of Radical Women (RW), was part of the national organization, Radical Women, an organization that was started by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), a Trotskyist organization. The FSP is not a separatist organization, but it unapologetically identifies as socialist feminist and recognizes the need for having an autonomous group specifically to take on the role of feminist organizing, just as the once SWP did. The only difference is that RW is a group for female FSPers to organize with other women who may be interested in working on women’s rights but do not want to join the FSP. RW are not separatists, and at the US Social Forum in 2010, RW organizer Margaret Viggian stated, “There are feminists out there who feel that men are the problem. We do not see men as the problem. The problem is the capitalist system.” RW and the FSP are usually side by side at events and forums, and RW members who are in the FSP fully participate in the party’s activities.

What is also striking about the Harman piece, “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism,” is that its title eerily resembles the title of Winslow’s article from five years before, “Women’s Alienation and Revolutionary Politics.” Considering the ugly circumstances in which the Winslows departed the organization, this was likely an act of passive aggression, fulfilling a need to rigidly install the line and take an additional swipe at the ISO’s ex-women’s organizer. What is even sadder is that there are socialists, both male and female, who still hold male chauvinists like Harman and Cliff in high esteem for their contributions, who may argue that maybe they did not know that snuffing out the WV was a horrific act of sexism. Cliff’s actions to kill Voice and The Flame seemingly stemmed from his feeling threatened by the idea of women and Black people determining their own courses for liberation. Misapplying Marxism and painting autonomous publishing and organizing with the polarizing brush of “separatism” caused him to win the membership over to the idea of killing these vehicles for women and Black workers. He may not have known that barring women and black members from deciding the fate of their publications was sexist and racist. I seriously doubt that he did; after all, most “Leninist” leaders are such control freaks and creativity killers that their tunnel vision to force conformity makes them oblivious to all but their own immediate agendas. And Cliff et al. would have just as quickly and enthusiastically killed any single-issue group composed of white men if recruiting into the SWP was not its highest (and let’s be honest, only true) goal. Regardless, all of that does not let them off the hook to the point that socialists can revere them without acknowledging this very ugly past.

The SWP still holds the anti-feminist, class-reductionist line today and sadly it has been reported that some of its older members use the word “feminism” to insult one another in the wake of the rape accusation scandal. The ISO has slightly softened its line recently and called for socialists to defend feminists and feminism as our allies and seems to be moving away from the SWP’s class reductionist arguments on the issue of women’s liberation. Seemingly, it is still not using the word “feminists” to describe itself, but their changes so far are a good start. The ISO has some good writers who regularly pen articles on women’s liberation, and so the prognosis for more openness looks promising. Hopefully, the discussion will start coming from the rank and file, bottom-up instead of top-down as it has always done since Cliff, Harman, et al. closed down discussion and autonomous women’s organizing and installed their line. (Radical Women/FSP and the ISO have debated the issue of feminism on more than one occasion, although I was unable to find any reference to RW or FSP in any ISO publication. See here, here, here, and here.)

The Case for Autonomous Organizing and Self-Determination for Oppressed Groups

Some of the ideas ingrained into us by capitalism are that women must be passive, they have to be nice, and that men are more authoritative on pretty much everything and that we should defer to them. This conditioning, which we acknowledge and fight but is still with us, usually leads to any co-ed discussion group’s being dominated by men when men are the majority. Just ask most women’s studies professors. Or better than anecdotal evidence, we now have a study: In September 2012, Brigham-Young and Princeton released a results showing that women are less likely to speak up when they are in the minority in a mixed-gender group (as if any consciousness-raising sessions would have ever taken place with a bunch of men hanging around). Those sessions did not usually include Marxism, but they were a start. People getting together and talking about what is wrong is how we get the battle going, and many women would not have shown up if men were present. Having anti-capitalist organizations or caucuses solely for women, LGBTQ communities, or people of color does not mean that these groups will separate from the rest of working people and live every aspect of their lives by themselves. Why would we assume that they even have the power to do this? One cannot get away from white, male, heteronormative society because the ruling class is largely white, male, with enforced heterosexist standards. And let’s give our comrades some credit: Organizing in an autonomous group does not mean that they do not have any interest in organizing with white, male, and heterosexual workers. They just may not do all of their organizing with whites and males. If more working people come to anti-capitalist organizations because they are more comfortable in autonomous groups, then we should not feel so threatened by their existence. Likely, they will do most of their organizing with others who do not share their specific identities because we are all being hit by the ruling class and most realize that working people have to pull together.

The SWP and the ISO positions are not wrong, just incomplete. Economics cannot explain all. It’s like trying to pack a sleeping bag into a matchbox. What about possible rape inside a revolutionary party? Jail time for self-induced abortions? What about pornography? Why does the kind of porn that shows women in pain and degradation now the most popular of all porn genres? They shoot all day, every day in Los Angeles with numerous actors coming in trying to get a chance to star in one of these films, women working for a little as $100 per scene, and these films sell through the roof. The porn industry cannot make enough gonzo porn fast enough to feed the appetites of men who get off on seeing women subjugated and disrespected in some of the worst possible ways. How does Marxism, without invoking patriarchy, explain these bottomless appetites that some men have to see women, and even more so, non-white women, treated this way? There is no profitable market share of women who seek to buy porn of men who are being abused and degraded. Capitalism explains the supply, the rush of pornographers to meet the demand, but it damn sure doesn’t explain the source of the demand.

These are very complex subjects that would each require its own essay, if not its own book, and many books have been written, and many more will follow. To view sexism without Marxism is to have an incomplete picture, which is what most feminists possess. But that is not a reason to reject socialist feminism. And sexism is indeed built into capitalism, but to view sexism solely in class terms is not any better. We can do better than dogma. A socialist feminist critique marries capitalism and patriarchy and acknowledges that they are intertwined; viewing the public and private spheres of the woman question is the way to answer these questions. And they won’t all be answered by any one person, group, position paper, or book. The dialogue will have to be ongoing, which is why the flexibility and cooperative spirit of socialist feminism is needed.

One can only speculate what would have occurred if the SWP did not eradicate Women’s Voice and snuff out socialist feminism, and if the ISO did not follow lockstep on a position they claim was forced upon them. It is possible that more women would have joined this more attractive option in both sections, US and Britain, and both sections could have been in a better position to fight the political Right that was emerging in the 1980s. We all pen articles rightfully calling out the inside-the-Beltway, mainstream feminist movement for playing the game every four years and supporting the Democrats, but if autonomous organizations were allowed in the IST, then maybe the SWP and the ISO, two of the hardest-working socialist groups in each of their respective countries, could have formed socialist-feminist alternatives to NOW and Feminist Majority and attracted more feminists, most of whom currently do not even think to consider adopting socialism because that alternative almost never comes their way.

And maybe both sections would not have come up with such an asinine idea that they are qualified in any way to try a rape case. Of course, we all oppose the police and courts, but we cannot replace or provide alternatives to institutions in the capitalist state. As if socialist groups could afford to provide forensic scientists and attorneys for both sides. As if socialist groups can ascertain the psychological state of possible victims and provide counseling. And any volunteer member who is a psychologist or mental-health professional would be committing a pretty severe breach of ethics if he or she were to counsel a rape victim as a member of a political organization rather than as a victim of a crime.

When a rape occurs, the organizational affiliations of the accuser and the accused are irrelevant. It is not about the organization. In fact, it is none of the organization’s business except for the question of the accuser’s guilt in order to determine the need for expulsion. Any group, entity, or institution that puts its own needs above that of a possible rape victim (“we are here to protect the interests of the party,” “the police could come after us”) is an organization that does not deserve to exist. Many people quit these groups because they are tired of being treated as a means to an end, an extra pair of hands in the struggle, by a leadership that does not give a damn about them as individuals and will discard them at a moment’s notice. Prioritizing the interests of an organization over that of a rape victim is probably the worst possible manifestation of this heartless mind-set.

Laying out the history with analysis is important to try and gain some insight into how the SWP came to the point that it did in this rape accusation case, its current stubborn right-fighting and arrogance, as well as moving forward from top-down rigidity to the bigger questions of socialist feminism: what types of organizations we should have, how to run them, how to respect oppressed peoples in our groups, and how to treat all members in a fair and just manner.

Edit: An earlier version of this article mistakenly associated New York Radical Women with the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). New York Radical Women was independent from the FSP.

Brandy Baker was a socialist candidate for U.S. Senate in 2012 (Maryland) and is a writer, artist, and member of Revolutionary Unity. She can be reached at info [at] socialistfeminism [dot] org.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera, PhD February 28, 2013 at 1:10 pm

What an excellent start on this central question to the fight for socialism and an end to capitalism. It should go without saying that the tasks of women’s liberation will not end with the end to capitalism nor did they start with the fight for socialism. As long as patriarchy exists, patriarchal thinking will live in the living generations that may follow. The role of women fighting as women to end the current institutions of sexism and its vestigial effects across time will remain central to the eradication of capitalist and patriarchal thinking as a framework for the new socialized relationships among societies and their members. It is my view that, just as with its relationship with non-proletarian societies and the nature of national/racial oppression, Marxist thought must dialectically recast and reworked–within its materialist roots–to become something much different than what too many of us have learned about the struggle for the emancipation of the working class. The working class has changed, the oppressed masses have changed, but what has not changed is the historical battle of men to overcome women even within our battle for freedom and democracy. Hence, the fight to end women’s oppression is the fight to win socialism; and then on into the fight to make socialism a reality once the first step of ending capitalism has occurred.

On past this post, I do wonder if we can discuss some important programmatic and political questions regarding the current battles for women’s liberation. Brandy observes here how some ways that sectarian socialists have sought to mitigate feminist issues by “democratizing” certain demands. In particular, is the issue of abortion, the call for such demands as “free abortion on demand”, contraception supports to be free and available to all, and such demands as “a woman’s right to choose”. Brandy made the allusion that the right to choose was used as a way to downplay the issue of abortion on demand and mitigate socialist programs like in the UKSWP and their offshoots, which, of course, resulted in further turns to the right. I wonder, however, what comrades, especially Brandy and other women socialists, would consider how to approach such an issue. The argument is that the right to choose is a better slogan because it points to democracy and is a way to win support for abortion rights (named “popularly” as “reproductive rights”) for women and men who are inculcated against abortion as an aberration of the “right to life”.

In the history of the U.S. SWP, this issue was involved in our initially grand support for women’s liberation, which then became, well, I’m not sure what it became and I was there when we were in the middle of it! My memories of those issues and times are unfortunately intermixed with my own perceptions, which were that I had no difficulty with women’s liberation, feminism (even understanding “man-hating” much as I understood anti-“Whitey” views among people of color), or the issues of patriarchy overshadowing the fight against capitalism and the future development of socialism. I followed with great interest the views of Evelyn Reed and others (one whose name escapes me now, but I am sure others will recount). Frankly, it never dawned on me that all the “opposition” to feminism was actually so viable as to prevent our involvement and misdirection within it; at least not until much later after I had left. The difficulty with feminist ideas, frankly, still baffle me as opposing it or trying to corral it into some all too-confining “Marxist” (which is to say, pseudo-Marxist) framework seems untenable and indefensible. One has to ask how having major truly feminist organizations and revolutionary socialist women’s voices organized into a multitude of revolutionary-minded formations would somehow detract from either building mass movement or revolutionary organizing? Wouldn’t it make the tasks of revolutionary socialists the world over that much more effective? Why would coming to feminism reduce the popularity of socialism if indeed a socialist perspective is one not only of democracy but of human liberation?

I am hoping we will have long and fruitful discussion and debate (I know there are quite a few here and elsewhere who largely disagree with the above; unfortunate, but still an important opportunity). Brandy has made a great start. Let’s do it!


Richard Estes February 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm

The SWP approach to feminism is nothing less than a generational catastrophe. With its insistence upon emphasizing a false characterization of feminism as separatist and inherently bourgeois, it forfeited an opportunity to reach millions of women in the last 30 years.

Radical feminists like Silvia Frederici and Selma James, among others, have revealed how women are exploited within a specific capitalist context, and, sadly, how the left has been incapable of incorporating into it within their political praxis. They raise numerous questions that provide an opportunity for the left to reestablish contact with the lived experiences of women and reenergize itself. For example, why is it that women are disproportionately responsible for the reproduction of labor? Why is that women are disproportionately responsible for elder care? Is the requirement that women retain responsibility for the reproduction of labor without compensation while simultaneously facilitating the accumulation of capital through participation in the workforce one of the significant contradictions of contemporary capitalism? If so, does it help explain the intensification of religious fundamentalism in recent decades? To what extent do patriarchy and capitalism intersect and to what extent do they not? Why is it that patriarchy has been so useful in the development of capitalism, and how does capitalism regulate patriarchy to its advantage, such as, for example, expanding rights and liberties to women in some circumstances and not others? Why is it that some on the left fail to recognize the role of sexual violence and sexual harassment as an essential means of imposing specific social controls upon women?

Unfortunately, in terms of the last question, we get a sterile discourse on “male privilege”, a discourse that places the male instead of the female at the center of the discussion (apparently, it is still hard to move beyond history to herstory), and individualizes the problem by highlighting the limited liberal concept of “rape culture” instead of recognizing the collective suppression of women by means of a range of forms of sexual intimidation:


Sadly, the post was written by a SWP dissident that I otherwise highly respect, and this fact, plus the overall tentativeness of the SWP dissidents to situate the party crisis within the context of feminism, suggests that the SWP has a long way to go before it can emerge from this theoretical prison, if it can at all. Consider, for example, my exchange on a related threat about the inadequacy of a recent CC statement about feminism and Marxism:


The striking thing there was not so much the hostility shown by Ray in response, but the lack of any engagement by others who should have been more supportive (the only one who did, Henry Munro, is an ex-SWP member). One gets the impression that the dissidents believe that they can only prevail in their fight over the party by highlighting administrative deficiencies instead of confronting the ideological mistakes, especially in relation to feminism, that have made this crisis inevitable.

Of course, the tragedy is that the SWP is correct, the elimination of patriarchy and related exploitations of women require the destruction of the capitalist system, but the only way to get rid of capitalism is to dismantle them in the here and now, and organize social movements to this effect, instead of considering sexism, patriarchy and sexual abuses of women secondary contradictions. Of course, some on the left are already doing this, and it is there that we should look for future success. As for as the SWP and similarly inclined Marxists, they are facing an existential crisis that requires more than just changing the by-laws and electing a new CC.


Pham Binh March 1, 2013 at 2:08 am

Tony Cliff and the International Socialist Tendency (IST) by and large took over the hostility of Lenin and his contemporaries to bourgeois feminism without much thought about or critical examination of the actual experiences of working women in the Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war.

Yes, abortion was decriminalized, marriage became a civil matter, and a lot was done to abolish the shame surrounding unwed mothers and their bastard offspring after 1917; yes, Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin (a criminally underappreciated figure, a German Lenin or Trotsky in her own right), and even Trotsky had some good things to say about the question of women’s oppression. And that is pretty much all you learn from the IST about the Russian experience. What we don’t hear about is the frustration of Kollontai and fellow women Bolsheviks both with getting the overwhelming male-dominated Bolshevik party and Soviet state to take seriously their share of the housework and childcare and with the seeming political conservativsm of Russia’s working women (efforts to recruit more women into the party in 1917-1918 went nowhere despite repeated and valiant efforts by Kollontai). They couldn’t understand why the women who led the charge against the Tsar demanding bread and the return of their husbands from the front in February didn’t act according to Marxist theory and jump to the helm of the proletarian state once the root of all sexist evil — capitalism — had been done away with. Alexander Rabinowitch shed light on these issues in his masterful Bolsheviks in Power, a book studiously ignored by the 1917 eulogists precisely for that reason.

Perhaps if the party had been open to women’s caucuses, more women would have joined. Why join the party if is run by the same boyfriends, husbands, and fathers who rule the roost outside the rostrum of the meeting and behind closed doors?

Barbara Winslow and Brandy Baker have challenged the wisdom of these handed-down orthodoxies and practices that, in the case of the SWP, made it impossible for women members to organize themselves to get justice when they were abused by their male “comrades.” They also had the courage to broach openly realities that many acknowledge privately but not publicly for fear of embarrassing or “undermining” the organization. I’m very glad this piece was written; if there’s any good that can come of the SWP’s deserved implosion, it is in frankly and fearlessly exploring feminism as a very necessary anti-dote to chauvinism, sexism, and blind/invisible privilege.


David Berger March 1, 2013 at 10:54 am

This is an important discussion. And, as such, should be based on historical facts. There are serious problems with the following paragraph, with regard to the history of the IS-US of which I was a very active member.


Brandy Baker: The IS-US bought into the whole “turn to industry” movement

Davif Berger: We did not buy in to the “turn to industry” movement. It was one of the basic principles of the IS, practiced as early as 1967. I know because I was part of it.

Brandy Baker: —in which members were sent into industry

David Berger: No one was “sent into industryl” The was not the SWP-US. Comrades were urged to go into industry, but many did not.

Brandy Baker: with aim of organizing the working class

David Berger: The phrase we used was, more-or-less “working within the working class.”

Brandy Baker: —yet, according to Winslow, the group was interested only in organizing workers in largely male-dominated occupations.

David Berger: This is a half truth at best. We definitely concentrated on “heavy industry” as this was felt to be the key to organizing. However, even in these areas, we had women in Auto, Telephone and UPS. Also, the IS organized in the Post Office and in teaching, where there was a concentration of women.

Brandy Baker: This led her to advocate women building independent organizations.

David Berger: Maybe, but I don’t recall that being an issue. Also, women and minorities always had the right of independent organizing. And factions had full rights and did not have to dissolve after conventions or any crap like that.

As to the details of the 1977 split, I remember it very differently. I also recall that the SWP-UK had a big role in precipitating that split. In the summer of 1978, I met with a leading member of the SWP-UK (Duncan Hallas) to try to make some moves to heal the split. I was rebuffed.


Brandy Baker March 1, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Most of your complaints are nit-picking over semantics. Spend your time as you wish.

I pulled from the accounts of Barbara Winslow and Milton Fiske. Have a problem with it? Go talk to them.


Brandy Baker March 1, 2013 at 7:55 pm

David, I am curious, what happened to the IS? I couldn’t find info on it, did they become Labor Notes and/or Solidarity?


Brandy Baker March 1, 2013 at 8:14 pm
Richard Estes March 1, 2013 at 11:38 am
Christian March 1, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The development of hardcore pornography that this article raises is an interesting point. I remember being 9 or 10 and finding my friend’s dad’s playboys in a secret stash and checking them out. Women seemed to be positioned as something alluring and romantic. There was even pubic hair in most of the pictures. Today, we’ve got kink.com , which is quite different.

Surely part of that trajectory is related to the status of women in our society. I also think there is merit to a “post modern” explanation. In our alienating society, alone and hooked up to the internet, the brain is freed from the language and posture of conventional interaction between the sexes. Its most primal, animalistic urges are allowed to come out. Left in this state, like a lab rat gorging itself on a drug until it dies, the brain’s receptors of sexual pleasure are repeatedly triggered and worn, requiring further and further extremes to stimulate the same reaction.

There’s also a sex-positive aspect to BDSM which deserves recognition. For most of modern history people have been sexually repressed in a way our primordial ancestors never were. The equation of sex with marriage and children and the isolation of individual nuclear families to provide for them turned sex into a thing of dread, a curse to be avoided, lest it come with children one is unable to care for.

Adventurous, free, and exploratory sex with different partners was something only the richest and most well connected could explore. We have an abundance of historical evidence to show that the ruling classes of Roman, medieval, renaissance, and modern societies have taken advantage of their privileged sexual freedom and enjoyed it to the limit. Yet even then, the “freedom” was not universal. Different members of the same elevated social status enjoying one’s sex-freedom existed side by side with the exploitation of sex from poorer classes by the rich, by of dependent women by financially independent men.

What condoms, birth control, increasingly liberal attitudes about hitherto “divergent” sexual practices and the anonymity of the internet have allowed ordinary people to do is to explore their sexuality in ways never before possible. Do we consider it “liberation” if a gay couple is allowed to indulge in sadomasochistic or fetishistic activities in the privacy of their own home, yet at the same time we recoil in horror if a heterosexual couple practices the same activities?

My own thoughts on these matters is that everyone should have the freedom to explore the sex we want. Many women derive pleasure from dramatic sexual submission, just as many derive pleasure from exerting themselves in dominant sexual roles- whether with male or female partners.

What we need to fight for politically is that no one should be so economically dependent on a partner that they can be sexually exploited by them. We also need to replace the current sexist culture with one that respects women and treats them first and foremost like human beings rather than a sexual object.

In 50, 100, or 200 years we will know whether the rise of BDSM pornography in the early 21st century was a passing fad, endemic of a sexist and exploitative economic system, or whether it represented a popular reconnection of millions of people with forms of sexuality that have been long repressed by class society.


Arthur March 6, 2013 at 6:02 am

Some of the sharpest critiques of feminism have come from the SM leather dykes like Samois – along the lines of “we didn’t join the women’s movement to be told to be good little girls”. They had a good analysis of the shift from progressive and radical politics in the initial women’s liberation movement to the thoroughly conservative “Women’s Temperance League” style politics that wanted men to be weaker rather than women to be stronger that went together with the general decline of the left.


Pham Binh March 28, 2013 at 2:24 pm
Richard Estes March 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm

the SF anarchist bookfair was held a few weeks ago at a kink.com community center at its Mission District armoury location, engendering, as you would expect, quite a bit of controversy


the conjunctiure of BDSM sexuality (and its libertarian undercurrents), feminism and corporate pornography is combustible mix, well worth writing about

the willingness of some anarchists to accept Acworth as some kind of sexual outlaw, instead of the corporate commercializer of bondage sex that he is, is pretty remarkable

unfortunately, it is not my area of expertise


Duen De March 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm

In 2012 the FSP’s male presidential candidate received 117 votes nationwide. “RW is a group for female FSPers to organize with other women who may be interested in working on women’s rights but do not want to join the FSP.” In other words, RW is a ‘build the FSP’ front, where male dominated branch meetings decide ahead of time what is best for RW and the women’s movement.

“the SWP also called for Assange to be questioned in Sweden”. After OBL’s assassination, Julian Assange became America’s #1 most wanted. SWP support for his rendition to Guantanamo Bay via Sweden because of a broken condom is a betrayal of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” I support feminism and women’s liberation. During the ’70s I read every issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms Magazine from cover to cover because it educated me and because it allowed me, as a man, to be part of the movement.

Julian’s broken condom reminded me of a job I once had at a sewage pumping station. The sewage passed through an agitator that would inflate the condoms and make them dance on top of the water. You sure didn’t want the flies to land on your sandwich.


Brandy Baker March 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm

“RW is a group for female FSPers to organize with other women who may be interested in working on women’s rights but do not want to join the FSP.” In other words, RW is a ‘build the FSP’ front, where male dominated branch meetings decide ahead of time what is best for RW and the women’s movement.”

Actually, that is *not* the case, front group, to a degree, yes, but the point was not to uphold the FSP as a model for perfection (they have their share of problems, but the are commendably non-sectarian when it comes to working with other socialists in electoral campaigns and do not run from the word feminism like other socialists), but to point out that Gil Hubbard was painting a Trot group as separatists, showing that he did not even know what he was talking about. Decided by men? Nope. I know because I almost joined the FSP and started to build a branch. Theirs is not a gender problem, but a generational issue: very few young people. Also, inwardly focused.


Charles March 2, 2013 at 11:08 am

A clarification on the question of the IS going into “male-dominated industries” is needed. Both men and women IS cadre went into industry with the perspective of combating sexism (and racism) both on the shop floor and within the official channels of the union. This may or may not be the exact strategy which the author would endorse, but I think we should be careful before citing it as evidence of the group’s sexism.

My understanding is that the IS built women’s caucuses in many of the unions in which they were active, just as they fought for their unions to take up issues of racism. The latter case included support of the anti-apartheid movement, support for the Black Panthers, etc.

Sadly, much of this history is missing from Milton Fisk’s extremely one-sided, factional account. I’m in the processing of digitizing Workers Power, which when it gets on the Marxist Internet Archive can give comrades a better and more balanced sense of the groups’ activities and priorities: I’m certain socialists of all tendencies will be interested to learn that WP was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the feminist movement, and regularly covered it in its pages.


Brandy Baker March 2, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I cited it as one of Barbara’s Winslow’s reason for forming the Left Faction, which led to their eventual expulsion, “according to Winslow, the group was interested only in organizing workers in largely male-dominated occupations.” I never asserted that the group was or was not sexist, see my above comment.


David Berger March 2, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Several quick points:

(1) The IS was not only interested in male-dominated occupations per se. We expected, wrongly it turned out, that a major labor upsurge was imminent. This led to concentration in heavy industry, which was male-dominated.

(2) The IS was also involved in industries that were not male-dominated, such as Post Office (my balliwick) and teaching (which I was also involved in, a little later). Also, in telephone in New York, we had two woman comrades, one of who was an operator and one of who was a technician.

(3) It was my impression that the expulsion of the Left Faction (I was on a leave of absence at the time due to personal matters) was provoked. They wanted to be expelled, with the backing of the SWP-UK.

(4) Charles’s account, above is correct and corresponds to my memories of the IS as a whole and of NY IS, of which I was a very active member from the time it was founded till 1977.

(5) Frankly, Kate Weigland’s account comes across as extremely self-serving, especially as she was a member of the Left Faction. As I have said, there were good reasons (wrong ones it turned out) for the concentration. (I myself was opposed to it.) If there were any dynamic organizing drives and situations going on, I think the IS would have noticed it.

If there was a “group of people who are having the successful organizing drives are actually in the public sector, and very much inspired by the civil rights and black struggle and the women’s movement,” I don’t remember it. I do remember cuts in the civil service in New York, due to the fiscal bankruptcy.


Brandy Baker March 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

David, I appreciate your knowledge and first hand accounts, but as I said below, I never said that the IS was sexist or that it wasn’t. Even if WP had every single issue published on-line, which would be good, so we could have more information, that doesn’t change the fact that your women’s organizer *thought* that male-dominated occupations were the top priority, and that women were left out, which is one factor to lead her to be a part of the Left Faction, that would still be in my piece. We cannot contest what Barbara Winslow felt, what motivated her to help form the Left Faction.

And if you read further in the Weigland account, she states, ‘I didn’t like who I was when I was in the IS/ISO,” (not exact quote) acknowledging that sect life bring the worst out in the very best people, something else that I point out in my article.

As you state above, the British helped to engineer the faction and split. In my article, the IS-US’s specific history is not really a factor, but the SWPs actions, including their constant interference in IS groups in many countries, including the US via Left Faction and their ousting the Winslows with no formal process and the SWP selecting the Winslow’s replacement, who is still at the helm today.


David Berger March 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Yeah, let’s let the IS element here go. (Good for another discussion, another time.) Your point about “the SWPs actions, including their constant interference in IS groups in many countries” and its sexism is well taken.

On a personal note, I only wish that some of you could have experience the IS-UK (and the IS-US for that matter) in the early days in the 60s and early 70s, when everything seemed possible.


Brandy Baker March 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm

How hypocritical that the SWP is complaining about the ISO weighing in on the rape allegations with the SWP’s history of interference, talk about chutzpah.


Pham Binh March 2, 2013 at 12:21 pm

How could the author do better when, as you say, “ew if any reliable accounts of either the 1976-77 faction fight in the International Socialists, which led to the formation of the ISO, or the 1983 internal struggle within the ISO over Cal and Barbara’s leadership”?

If you want to understand the testy response, do a Google search on “Dave Berger” site:www.thenorthstar.info. He has a long history of nit-picking, creating strawmen, moving the goalposts, and other un-comradely behavior in these threads. If you look up “Brandy Baker,” you’ll see for yourself whether she is open to engaging people productively.


Brandy Baker March 2, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I actually did not go into much detail on the Left Faction forming precisely because there is not much info out there: but we do know that the British interfered in the split, which was the point of even bringing it up. And we do know that the British killed WV and The Flame and out went the Winslows in ’83 and Barbara was its Women’s leader and in came the SWP/ISO’s class-reductionist view of women’s rights, which the ISO is slowly starting to shed this year.

Page 47 of the interview with Kate Weigland: http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Winslow.pdf

“Yes. When I was in the International Socialists, I was what was called the
women’s organizer, and the group had this theory about sending people
into industry. It was, in particular, automobile, steel, the teamsters,
coalmining, and telephone. And in particular, in the telephone industry, it
was among plant workers. It was not among operators, who were slowly
being phased out. And the theory was that these were the groups of people
who were going to be the leaders of a revolutionary party. Well, I
subscribed to that for about a year and then, when clearly it meant that
women were excluded, I mean, the teamsters are all white men, the skilled
automobile workers are white men, the steel workers, you do have a lot of
blacks but it’s mainly men, and that it meant that the most important work,
the work that was valued by the group was only involving men. And
basically the theory said that only men are gonna be leaders, and it took
me a while to figure out because one of my not good qualities, when I join
a group, I really become loyal to that group. [I’m loyal] sometimes to the extent that I don’t critically think a lot of
things through. Once I started thinking it through, I said, this is crazy.
Number one, you’re excluding women and, two, this isn’t where the most
exciting, dynamic stuff is going on even in the labor movement. By the
mid-’70s the group of people who are having the successful organizing
drives are actually in the public sector, and very much inspired by the civil
rights and black struggle and the women’s movement. So we had a big
fight to change that and as a result, we all got expelled and we formed
another group called the Internationalist Socialist Organization [ISO],
which still exists. There was always, you know, there always was a
women’s caucus. The leadership was always overwhelmingly male.”

It is not my job, nor would I ever care to, to pick sides in any of the splits, but it is my job document the actions of the British and if your women’s organizer (this was not a woman who joined a week, then quit and is saying this, she was a key player) says what she says above, maybe there was sexism that others could not see?


Brandy Baker March 5, 2013 at 3:39 am

Relevant to the discussion:

the SWP Shellfield document gives more insight on their views on feminism, the call “Reclaim the Night” (what we call, ‘Take Back the Night’) and Slutwalk actions, “separatist” (dammit).


Sheffield doc came from here: http://socialistunity.com/swp-special-conference-internal-pre-conference-documents/#.UTWuio71vMn


Doug Barnes April 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Hi Brandy,
Thanks for your piece on feminism and the British SWP, the Freedom Socialist Party also thinks feminism is a key issue for the left to understand, as well as the critical importance of women’s leadership. Readers might be interested in our statement Feminism and the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party.


Pham Binh May 31, 2013 at 10:19 am

Compare and contrast the response to alleged rapes and the use of the word “tits”:

Good God…


Richard Estes May 31, 2013 at 12:19 pm

St. Clair reveals himself as a worthy heir to Cockburn with this piece, as well as his recent one about “The Silent Death of the American Left”:


In the article that you post, St. Clair also recalls Cockburn’s exposure of the fraudulent McMartin child molestation case. Cockburn also publicized another one in North Carolina. It was among the bravest things that Cockburn ever did in the US.


http://www.orgoneaustralia.com.au/cp/Scripts/h-Moncler-Field-Jacket-11-ei.html December 7, 2014 at 2:22 am
http://www.solarmadesimple.co.za/cp/Scripts/tParajumpers-Kodiak-Down-190.html December 7, 2014 at 5:28 pm
http://www.directnetballsupplies.com.au/images/Links/tMoncler-Clairy-Jacket-00.html December 8, 2014 at 1:13 am
Georgetta July 29, 2015 at 11:29 am

Thanks for any other informative web site. Where else may I get that type of information written in such an ideal way?
I have a challenge that I am just now operating on, and I have been at the glance out for such information.


Nigel Singh December 1, 2017 at 2:14 pm

I have copies of Flame that D.Renton sent me !
He has the original copies



Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: