Wednesday, January 16, 2013

SWP and women's liberation

Guest post by Nora J:


Serious questions have been raised about our party over the matters of the disputes committee, conference, expulsions and internal democracy generally, which have also led to wider reflection on our traditions and theoretical approach.  My experience of conference – during which I was a member of the democratic centralist faction – was extreme frustration and concern.  In light of other discussions which have been taking place, I decided to submit some thoughts on the party’s approach to women’s liberation.

Firstly, despite this crisis, the SWP remains the best potential mechanism through which sexism and oppression of all types can be meaningfully fought in the interests of everyone.  Reading Lindsay German and learning Marxist tradition are sure fire ways of getting a solid grounding in how it is that woman’s oppression came to exist, and continues to be propagated.  But trends in feminist thought have developed in quantity and quality since the development of what continues to be the party’s ‘line’ on women’s liberation, which seems to have become frozen at the time Women’s Voice was dismantled.  What women understood by the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ thirty years ago was considerably different to what is understood by many women engaged in the movement today, and the continual rehashing of an outdated and reductive account of oppression at every meeting, rally and conference is serving to alienate good activists from Marxism and broader campaigns.

This is not to suggest that we need to incorporate aspects of all feminist thought, and it is correct to reject the most bourgeois strains from Naomi Woolf et al.  Trends in post-modernist thought, and the rejection of class-based narratives over the last few decades, have arguably led to the fracturing of the movement against oppression into a competition based on ‘privilege’.  These notions are as much a product and reflection of the divided society in which we live, as the good homemaker/lover/mother/careerist/sex object constructed by a society in which many reforms for women have been achieved.  But by rejecting ideas which do not neatly slot into our tradition (as stated by any number of bashed up old pamphlets to be found on your nearest paper sale) we are missing a wealth of experience and historical lessons which should be incorporated into the struggle.

I recently started a degree, and was stunned to discover a whole new world of intersectionality, gender politics, and critical studies of which I had been unaware.  I felt unequipped by what I had learnt so far during 8 years of membership to meet these new analyses head on.  Now I feel like I exist in two discourses; a classical Marxist tradition - and the language and ideas I have had to develop to be able to continue to apply Marxist ideas in my studies, in talking and activity with other students, and in making sense of new understandings of oppression.  I do not believe the latter conflicts with the former, but there is no space to discover how they interrelate within the party at the moment.

 At first this was very confusing, and I was concerned that I was becoming lost in an abstraction from working class struggle.  But the more I learn, the more I fear it is our tradition which has become abstracted, ossified, and increasingly obstructive.  The impact is not just theoretical; if our backwardness impacts our analysis, it must inevitably affect our activity as well as our ability to function as a revolutionary party.

Arguments for engaging with new ideas are not evidence of ‘creeping feminism’ – this charming epithet stinks of reactionary fear and a desperate to clinging on to ideas which come from the top down.  Engagement should involve hard polemic defence of a historical materialist analysis and the recognition of the limits of reform.  But whilst this isn’t happening, there is a whole world of ideas out there from which the membership is largely excluded.  The aim of our publications has been to bring forward ideas in an accessible manner so that all members can engage with and deepen their understanding of what Marxism has to say about society.  The dearth of good writing - both from and about women - in our publications is shameful.  The removal of Hannah Dee from the central committee – at short notice and with no proper justification – is alarming for members (especially students) who strongly identified with her work.  The recent handling of the disputes case has not only raised serious concerns, but triggered all sorts of damaging rumours.  Members are pitted against members and our common goals risk being forgotten due to the party’s failure to deal with this situation…not due to comrades who express concern or dissent.

The party needs to engage enthusiastically with the ideas which the broader womens’ liberation movement is developing in order to learn from them, to keep our party current, and to try to win them to Marxist ideas.  The party also needs to look seriously at how it reaches out to working class women.  Engagement with academic trends is not sufficient, and the difficulties of the task are no excuse for avoiding genuine consideration of how this can be attempted.