Why socialist feminism?
As revolutionary socialists, fighting for a society based on human need not profit, Workers’ Liberty has always been serious about being class struggle socialists and feminists. Whether through our own socialist feminist work; being active trade unionists or student activists; or through getting involved in broader feminist campaigns.
Whilst we fight for the politics of women’s liberation within the labour and student movements in the here and now, we recognise that women’s oppression is rooted in class society. We believe that the emancipation of women can only happen with the emancipation of humanity as a whole, through the socialist transformation of society through class struggle.
In capitalism the means of producing wealth exist on a huge scale, but they are owned by, and in the interests of, a small minority. Socialism means the people who produce the wealth, the working class, taking power and taking control of these means of production, making them collective property and allowing society's wealth to be used for the good of all.
The working class is the vast majority, a very broad group of people, immensely diverse, but united by their dependency on waged labour to survive. Millions of working-class people, both men and women, cannot find sufficient waged labour, even though they depend on it. Some are too old, or too young, or too sick, or disabled by society, to work. Workers may rely on informal trading, the resources of the household and domestic labour, on plots of land, informal work, kinship groups, or public welfare.
Men and women both have this dependent relationship to waged labour, but it is differentiated, by women's historic and current role in childbearing, the ability to stitch together childcare, and the gendered division of labour that structures the availability, price and type of wage labour men and women do.
A politically conscious working-class could overthrow the bosses and start a process of abolishing classes. Advanced science and technology can finally combine with conscious, democratic planning to meet rational human goals.
Overthrowing class exploitation is a necessary building block, but not enough in itself to abolish oppression. Socialism will not immediately end all oppression but the roots of oppression lie in class society.
The family has been a key instrument for capitalist accumulation (helping to depress wages and ensure the reproduction of workers' labour power), a means by which working-class families can survive (pooling resources and providing emotional sustenance), and the origins of a lot of oppression (the gendered division of labour, gender stereotypes, domestic violence). Women's oppression is complex – bound up in both class, and cultural and ideological realities. We also see women’s oppression as providing the grist for some other oppressions: rigid ideas about gender presentation, gender roles in the nuclear family, and ideas about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ fuel some homophobia and transphobia, though these often have separate religious or political ideological roots too. We restate our ‘Support trans rights’ motion from last year’s conference.
We therefore don't see women's oppression as separate from, or subordinate to, class oppression. Our concept that women's oppression is complex, and integrated with class relations, means we avoid “dual systems” theories, which see women's oppression as existing in parallel with capitalism or any other economic system. We don’t generally use the term “patriarchy” to describe the structure of women’s oppression.
This explains why we say that socialism will not immediately end all oppression, but that the roots of oppression lie in class society. By overthrowing class society, and cutting the roots of oppression, we can create the conditions for liberation. In a society based on democracy and solidarity it will be possible to work to end all forms of oppression and exploitation, and “pluck the living flower”.
What we fight for
What could such a society offer women? It’s impossible to work out an exact blueprint for a socialist future – a revolution would release forces, tendencies and human potential in ways we can’t predict. We get glimpses of how society could work in big struggles under capitalism – for example, during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, women who began organising kitchens and food distribution soon proved themselves to be formidable public speakers and inspirational campaigners. A lot of the old sexist attitudes were pushed back.
One idea would be to reorganise domestic work on a collective basis – communal kitchens, housekeeping services, flexible and free childcare and so on. This would not only remove the burden of housework for women, but free personal relationships from economic ties and end domestic dependency.
Women’s vulnerability would reduce, and their status would rise. Using science and technology to make life better, rather than to make profits, would also give us more free time to pursue our interests and develop ourselves. In the course of all these processes, people would change.
We could raise a new generation of human beings free from at least the worst of “the old crap” allowing new relations between men and women and even the challenging of the gender structures inherited from capitalism. To do this, means fighting for our ideas in the labour movement.
Working class women cannot opt out of class struggle – so feminists cannot ignore the labour movement. It’s what we used to win the rights we have now (from equal pay legislation, to maternity leave, to even the right to vote) and will be fundamental to ensuring they are defended and extended. Aside from needing defences against our bosses, women are half the workers’ movement and we’re entitled to demand that it fights for our rights and interests. As socialist feminists, we see our job as reorienting the labour movement towards a fight for women’s rights, and the women’s movement towards class struggle.
The legacy of Stalinism, the conservative inclinations of union bureaucracies and the gender inequality within the labour market itself, are some of the factors which have meant that a concept of class struggle divorced from women’s liberation has persisted in the labour movement. Although there have been significant advances in the unions, and in social attitudes more widely, (most major unions have equalities structures and comprehensive formal equality policy), sexism in the labour movement has continued to thrive in this environment. Women trade union activists taking a strong stance often face sexism from both bosses and co-workers (including within their union), especially in industries which remain male-dominated.
Some sections of the labour movement are dominated by a particular concept of class struggle and militancy which is expressed as (and reduced to) machoistic posturing. It denigrates feminist struggle. Instead of the militancy of class-conscious confrontation with our bosses, including militant struggle over women's oppression, this is simply shallow bravado: an outburst in a battle which will only end in tactical withdrawal. This approach masquerades as sharp politics but in fact lacks a revolutionary concept of class conflict.
Recently, the way in which sections of the revolutionary left relate to liberation and equality has also come under the spotlight. There have long been problems with some on the left either side-lining liberation struggles, or using them opportunistically. This was brought into sharper focus by the mishandling and minimising of serious allegations of sexism and violence against women by the two biggest groups on the British left — the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party.
Both class struggle and the fight for women’s liberation were subordinated to something that is, for them, more important: self-preservation. These failings link to what we have previously described as “apparatus Marxism”, i.e. putting perceived organisational advantage above political principles. In these cases, the principles of transparent and democratic functioning, accountability of leaders, and women’s rights. In the case of the Socialist Party, the influence of the machoistic culture of the labour movement also played a role.
We have, as a result of these incidents, and a complaint raised about our own organisation’s handling of an allegation of assault, taken steps to ensure that we have a robust Complaints Procedure, a dedicated Safeguarding Officer, hold safeguarding briefings for our big public events, and have ensured that branches have discussed how these structures work, and held some training for branch organisers. This work is ongoing and will require regular monitoring and updating.
For a revolutionary concept of struggle, one which does manage to integrate both class politics and women’s liberation, Lise Vogel, author of ‘Marxism and the Oppression of Women’, suggests we look at Lenin. Vogel praises Lenin for what she describes as his insistence that there is a “material core embedded in all social relations, even those involving women, the family, and sexuality”. She says he saw the structures of women's oppression as part of the reality that revolutionary politics must address. Vogel quotes Lenin: “No matter how much democracy there is under capitalism, the woman remains a domestic slave...The right of divorce, as all other democratic rights ...is conditional, restricted, formal, narrow”. He acknowledged that the situation for women in Russia was integral to the structures of Russian class society, for example, their 'domestic slavery'. But he did not advocate postponing struggles for equality until a revolutionary overthrow of those class structures. He campaigned for women's divorce rights, for example. Nor did he assume that women's situation would necessarily improve after 1917 without deliberate, conscious effort. The practical measures implemented after 1917 were an attempt to address this situation within a process of revolutionary transformation of society.
Workers’ Liberty stands in, and tries to develop, a set of political principles and a tradition of socialists who see the fight for equality and liberation as an inseparable part of our socialism. Some elements of the labour movement and the left, infected by Stalinism, invoke the imagery of Lenin as a badge of class militancy. But their economistic conception of class struggle (and often only a pseudo-militancy even on these issues) could not be further from Lenin's nuanced attempts to grapple with struggles for equality of oppressed groups within a revolutionary perspective.
Capitalists care about the divisions of ethnicity, gender, culture, nation etc., among workers because, on the one hand they provide the basis for extra exploitation of some groups, and on the other they undermine working-class solidarity and resistance. However, despite this there remains a real basis for solidarity — the common experience of capitalist exploitation. Class exploitation is not necessarily worse or more fundamental than other oppressions, but because the class structure is bound up with nature, technology and how society’s wealth is produced, it is a powerful force in shaping oppression.
But we do not tell women – or any oppressed group – to wait for the revolution. Without the abolition of class exploitation, there can be no end to women's oppression. But without a mass movement of organised, mobilised women fighting against sexism and oppression and for liberation, there can be no socialist revolution. We recognise that a key task for socialist feminists today is challenging sexism within our movement – this remains fundamental to transforming the labour movement and to supporting the struggles of working-class women on other issues.
What demands could we raise in the movement today?
• Tax the rich, expropriate the banks! Rebuild the welfare state and NHS: cuts, closures and privatisations often affect women most acutely.
• A living wage for all workers, decent, affordable housing, and a comprehensive benefits and welfare system.
• Against sexism in the labour movement: the demands of women workers should be central to trade union struggles.
• Against religious fundamentalisms. No repression and persecution of women in the name of religion!
• For free movement worldwide — no borders! An internationalist movement which promotes solidarity with women fighting for their rights, across borders.
• For solidarity with women workers worldwide; against sweatshop labour
• For sexual freedom and liberation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.
• Against sexism in our schools, colleges, universities and workplaces.
• Against all forms of violence against women: sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence. Increase public funds to provide adequate support services for women.
• For safe, legal and free abortion on demand and an end to the social pressures and stigmatisation around women's reproductive choices.
• For free, flexible and good quality childcare.
• For democratic rights: to organise, to strike, to demonstrate, to publish our ideas. We need democracy if we are to change the systems that discriminate against and oppress us. That also means democracy in our movements too.
• For a movement which debates its differences, and seeks clarity through discussion. Whilst we vigorously fight the transphobic ideas of so-called ‘Gender-Critical Feminists’ or ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists’, we don’t think believe in the blanket use of ‘no platforming’.
Assessment of the movement today
The #MeToo movement, a campaign highlighting sexual harassment, went viral in the wake of revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein, and a number of celebrities went on to detail sexual harassment and sexual abuse they had experienced in the film and music industries. This had a much smaller, but significant, reflection in the trade union movement: McDonald’s workers in ten US states went on strike in October 2018 against the company not taking complaints of lewd comments and groping at work seriously.
Highlighting that half of all women surveyed have experienced sexual harassment at work, the TUC has launched, with others, a campaign called ‘This Is Not Working’. However, the campaign seems to be little more than a petition, and focuses on things like anonymous reporting, and compulsory guidance to employers. These things are necessary, and there should be a union drive to establish firm codes and procedures in all workplaces, with clear processes to be followed. However, the TUC’s campaign misses the two most important features that lead to workplace sexual harassment, particularly in fast food and other service industries: chronic low pay and job insecurity, and low levels of union power at work, leading to women feeling like they can’t raise complaints, and the absence of a mass working-class feminist movement that challenges sexist ideas and behaviours in society.
In Mexico there has been the revolucion diamantine (glitter revolution). The protests were challenging violence against women, particularly the large number of kidnaps, rapes, and murders, some of which have been committed by the police. The #EleNão (‘Not Him’) protests by women in Brazil against the sexist comments of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro saw mass protests in all major cities in Brazil. We should continue to work with Brazilian Women Against Fascism, and highlight their struggles.
A global 2017 Women’s March took place against the election of Donald Trump, and saw major protests around the world, highlighting his comments bragging about sexual assault. Up to 100,000 marched in London, though subsequent anti-Trump protests, and other women’s marches, such as SlutWalk and Reclaim The Night, have not seen such large numbers. Women in Saudi Arabia have been protesting against the abaya, by wearing them inside out, and have won some freedoms, such as the right to apply for official documents and to travel, without the permission of a male guardian.
Women in Poland organised successfully to stop attempts in 2016, and again in 2017, by the far-right Law and Order Party, to ban all abortions. (Poland already has very restrictive abortion laws, only allowing them in cases of rape, foetal abnormalities, or when the woman’s life is at risk – the government sought to ban even these limited exceptions). In 2016, more than 150,000 rallied in over 100 cities and towns in Poland. The campaign inspired the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ movement in Ireland.
A referendum on abortion in Ireland in May 2018 saw a huge campaign around women’s rights. In 2002, a similar referendum was narrowly lost, but the campaign in 2018 won with a two-thirds majority. (However, the new law is still limited: abortion is permitted only where it threatens the life of the mother, there is a fatal abnormality, or with a 12 week term limit.) The 1967 Abortion Act still does not apply in Northern Ireland, though if the Executive is not restored by October 2019, it may be forced to change its laws. And of course, even the Abortion Act does not allow for abortion on demand.
The referendum has also led to a split in the CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International). Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, and leading figure in the CWI, was critical of the Irish section’s involvement in the campaigns around the referendum, such as ROSA, accusing them of “capitulating to petit bourgeois identity politics”. The pro-feminism wing formed a faction, the NFF (the Non-Faction Faction), and its supporters Sarah Wrack and Claire Laker-Mansfield were removed as (successive) editors of the SP’s weekly paper and from the SP’s Executive Committee. In response to this, and the general bureaucratism of the group, a majority of sections internationally have split from the CWI.
In the UK, the NFF has refounded itself as Socialist Alternative, and it seems unclear whether Taaffe retains a majority in terms of absolute numbers, though SA claims to have taken a majority of branches outside of London, and Taaffe has kept possession of the SP’s resources and money. We should seek discussions with these SA members, talking about the historic opposition to feminism within the SP and its predecessor organisation Militant, and about other issues too – they seem to have retained the same industrial strategy as the SP, and have not reconsidered other areas of their politics – and hold public debates, and propose joint initiatives, with them.
Despite these international developments, it is clear that the feminist movement has receded since 2017 in the UK, with Brexit and the environment rising to the fore. The AWL has tried to imbue feminist politics into our workplace organising. In 2017 we pushed unsuccessfully for the Picturehouse strikes to coincide with International Women’s Day. This happened the following year, and a lively picket line outside Picturehouse Central was organised, linking up with the Women’s Strike, and a march of hundreds of sex workers, feminists and trans activists joined the picket line. We should think more about how to imbue our trade union work with feminist politics, as we have tried to do this year with environmental politics.
In 2019, the AWL published its first Women’s Fightback for some time, and we should seek more regular publication. This requires comrades to be willing to write for it. We said at last conference that we would continue to discuss our ideas around gender, which has not happened, but making Women’s Fightback more regular, and having more people writing for it, could make it the forum to discuss these ideas.
We stated in 2016 that we should use openings in the Labour Party to intervene into Women’s Conference, despite its diminished state. We resolve to increase attention to Labour Party Women’s Conference, which, while still not as lively as in the 80s, has become more so in the last few years. We should re-investigate Labour Party Women’s Forum, and pass motions in CLPs to inform the next party manifesto, though this may be difficult in the event of an early general election.
Ideas for Freedom and Summer Camp have continued to showcase our feminist politics, and we should also consider organising another big feminist event. We organised the successful ‘All the Rage: a celebration of women in class struggle’ day conference in February 2015, with 130 in attendance. We organised a follow-up reading group around Lise Vogel's Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. In 2018 Lambeth Branch organised a successful socialist-feminist reading group, which has covered history, contemporary debates, and high-level discussions, for example, around social reproduction. This could be replicated in other branches. To make these things happen we will require more regularity from our women’s fraction, though our feminist work should be taken on by all our members.
We have an urgent need to make the AWL accessible on campuses in order to draw in more women students. Women are now a 60:40 majority among university students. We should however be mindful of the condescending idea that the only way to draw in more women students is to have special meetings aimed at them on feminist issues, or to circle round often small or non-existent Feminist Societies. Regular public meetings, including ones on socialist feminism, but also on a wide array of topics, should be organised, in line with our student report.
We should also consider how we as an organisation make our events more accessible to women, particularly women with young children. Women take on the majority of housework and child-caring in society, and even an organisation like ours, which aspires to greater equality, is not immune from these pressures. The majority of comrades who have left in the last two years, or who have stepped down from regular activity, have been women. We should think about ways we can accommodate child-care more readily, for all of our members.
We have creches at Ideas for Freedom, but we should think about them at other events. The demonstrations against the closure of children’s centres in Lambeth were static, and advertised that they were running a dedicated children’s play area, which greatly encouraged the number of parents who turned up. This is not feasible at all demonstrations – some of the anti-Coup protests were very mobile, running from police, with fascist presence on the fringes – but other demonstrations, say static ones outside of government departments, or picket lines, could certainly incorporate more child-friendly features.
And whilst evening meetings tend to be necessary, due to most people working a standard 9-5, we should consider other meeting times, particularly at weekends, that allow for parents of young children (as well as shift workers, and those with caring responsibilities, and those with older children too) to participate. However, an administrative solution (moving meeting times), is not the prime answer to a political problem, which is signalling to our comrades with young children that we consider them totally incapacitated, and unable to be politically active. This also requires consistency from other members in the group. All adjustments will fall flat if the comrades with care duties find that, when they turn up to meetings or activities, the others who should be there are late, absent, or unprepared.