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.
In 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.)
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.