Lindsey German responds to Abbie Bakan and Sharon Smith on ‘Marxist Anti-Feminism’

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Lindsey German.

By Lindsey German

July 25, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- I would like to respond to the articles by Abbie Bakan and Sharon Smith concerning Marxism and feminism today. Abbie’s article refers to me as a proponent of “Marxist Anti-Feminism”. I was a member of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for 37 years until I left in 2010 because I was unhappy with the direction away from the wider movements in which the party was going. I am now a member of Counterfire, a socialist organisation in Britain. I wrote a number of books and articles on the subject of women’s oppression during that time.

Like most people on the left, I have been horrified by the accusations of rape against a leading SWP comrade, and with the way in which the party has handled the issue. I therefore welcome the discussions on issues of women’s oppression that have been, in part at least, triggered by these revelations. Whatever disagreements we might have, those of us on the left have a responsibility to further develop our theories in order to deal with current questions. I feel, however, that some of the arguments relied on here are partial and in some cases distorted.

Let me run through a few points.

Abbie’s article relies on writings from myself and Tony Cliff from many years ago. Both Abbie and Sharon were involved in discussions and comments on various writing by us both, when we were part of the same international tendency [the International Socialist Tendency, IST]. Cliff wrote little on women later in life and has been dead for 13 years now, but I have tried to engage with these questions right up to the present. This has not always been possible, especially because of my role in the anti-war movement from 2001 onwards. However, I wrote Material Girls in 2007, which I do not think can be characterised as “Marxist Anti-Feminist” (a dubious term which I’ll return to below). It tries to engage with a series of feminist arguments and critiques but also acknowledges the role of many feminists in fighting the system. Recently I wrote an article on some aspects of the “IS tradition” that you can find here and I also wrote a Feminist Manifesto (note the term) with Nina Power back in 2010 that was published by the Guardian.

We have all developed our ideas since the 1970s. Abbie and Sharon criticise Cliff and my positions but agreed with them at the time, and both played an important role in North America in the 1980s putting these arguments across. They now don’t agree with them on the basis that they are too critical of feminism. However, they don’t really put forward a critique that seriously engages with them, nor put forward their own alternative analysis. What it seems to come down to is that we should regard feminists as our allies (I agree), that there are different sorts of feminisms (yes) that we should be open to new ideas (agree again), and that we should be proud to call ourselves feminists (depends on context – I’d still rather call myself a women’s liberationist but a number of women in the organisation of which I am part call themselves feminists and I’m totally cool with that). But any analysis has to go further than this.

There are some very good critiques of bourgeois and imperialist feminism (for example Hester Eisenstein, Johanna Brenner, Nina Power) precisely because there has been a schism in feminism and after the experience of Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice et al. we all know what the problems are. Surely from any Marxist or socialist feminist viewpoint, these have to be a major part of the critique, precisely because they partly define the terrain on which we have to engage with women’s issues. Yet any differentiation between feminisms is missing from these articles, except in the most generalised terms.

There is also a question of class here, which seems to be largely missing. It is absolutely true that we can’t reduce oppression to class, but surely the relations of production do allow us to explain oppression, in this case seeing the oppression of women being rooted in the contradiction between social production and privatised reproduction in the family. As we are no doubt all aware, the growth in inequality in the period of neoliberalism has not been between men and women, but between different classes (with women and blacks bearing the brunt inside the working class). Cliff’s argument in his book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation was about the class differences between women and the limits of feminism in that context. His aim was to reinforce this single point. Some of his formulations are no doubt unfortunate, and some people may disagree with his emphasis on class. But it was a serious attempt to analyse ideas of women’s liberation and equality from the English revolution of the 17th century onwards, and the political expression that these ideas found. It also contains some very good description of the family and alienation.

I haven’t yet had the chance to read John Riddell’s book and will be interested in the aspects mentioned, but that there was division among women on class and socialist issues at various periods in history is clear. Both Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai were sharply critical of aspects of feminism in the period before the First World War, criticisms echoed by Clara Lemlich, the young New York garment worker who led heroic strikes, and the Industrial Workers of the World leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

However their approaches, as ours, had to change at certain times to deal with real problems in society and the class struggle. Polemics that are appropriate at a certain period can be politically damaging at others. If, for example, abortion rights are under serious attack, then any serious socialist or Marxist will unite with anyone, and especially with a range of feminists, in order to defeat these attacks. If, on the other hand, the bombing of Afghanistan is justified by some feminists as helping women’s rights, then any serious socialist or Marxist should be extremely critical of such approaches, since they provide a feminist cover for imperialist intervention.

The articles talk about inconsistencies in our approach because we draw on socialist feminist writings but don’t call ourselves feminists. But is this really so inconsistent? For example, I draw very heavily on Johanna Brenner in my arguments against patriarchy theory as expressed by Heidi Hartmann. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything she says but that we have a similar analysis of what happened in working-class history. Cliff had great respect for some of the writers he discussed, for example, Sara Evans and Lillian B. Rubin, even though he had a different political view.

More importantly, our theory has not, as is somehow insinuated, stopped us from playing leading roles in the fight against women’s oppression. In practice, I have both in the IS/SWP and Counterfire, always taken these issues seriously and campaigned alongside feminists on equal pay, abortion, childcare, sexist representations of women and much more. Counterfire was involved in Slutwalk from the beginning, and has campaigned around abortion, rape, the right of Muslim women to dress as they choose, and a whole number of other questions that affect women across different classes.

The term “Marxist Anti-Feminism”, used by Abbie, is a strange and not helpful formulation in this context. Would she call us Marxist anti-reformists? Marxist anti Black nationalists? Marxist anti-Greens? I suggest not. A critique of theory doesn’t mean you’re against the people who espouse it. Indeed the whole basis of, I think, all our politics is that socialists have to work with others who want, however partially, to change the system in order to bring about our aims. Surely if we do so, we should be able to work with and at the same time take issue with the politics of those alongside us? The only other example used of “Marxist Anti-Feminism” is Piccone, who it seems to me has an explicitly anti-women agenda. That is not the case with me or indeed anyone else I know on the left, and to throw it in as the other strand of “Marxist Anti-Feminism” is bizarre and misleading.

I worked with Tony Cliff very closely for nearly 30 years, and I think it’s fair to say that I was the person closest to him, apart from his family, for much of that time, including in the years before his death in 2000. I had the greatest respect and affection for him, but I knew his faults. He expressed himself directly and forcefully and sometimes said things that look odd now. He was also sometimes wrong, or said things that were stupid, as do we all. But he tried to analyse what was happening seriously. That is why he wrote the book on women. He wanted to theorise a phenomenon and felt that the only way he could do so was by going to a library and researching the history. He found some feminist theory too mystical, but other feminist theory he respected and learnt from. On gays, the point you quote about internalisation of oppression may be badly formulated but it isn’t wrong. A key aspect of oppression is the way in which some of the oppressed internalise that oppression. One of the major achievements of the historic movements of the 1960s was the way in which they challenged that internalisation and taught all of us the importance of fighting oppression. Whatever setbacks we have had since then, we are all living with their legacy today and the world is a better place for it. Cliff was a product of his time (born in Palestine in 1917) but he wrote an introduction to an SWP pamphlet on gays in 1979 because he wanted to be identified with the issue, in which he said that the leader of the London workers’ council would be a 19-year-old black lesbian. So he learnt from the movements too.

What’s in a name? Maybe this is about terminology, in which case fine, maybe about more. However, it seems to me wrong that the articles ignore the bulk of writing from the people who they now seek to criticise. Sharon asks whether people might wonder whether it is strange that the US International Socialist Organization held this position for 30 years before developing a critique. It is certainly an interesting question. More pertinent, however, might be to ask why in doing so, there is no different analysis put forward about where oppression comes from, and how it can be ended. This surely is the question we all have to attempt to answer.

[Lindsey German is the convenor of the British anti-war organisation Stop the War Coalition and a former member of the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party. She is now a leading member of the British socialist organisation Counterfire.]