Left behind?

Louise Whittle explains why she is disillusioned with the revolutionary left and its attitude towards feminism. She argues that the revolutionary left only pays lip-service to feminism, and sexism and machismo are as pervasive in these organisations as in mainstream society. When women are exhorted to "wait for the revolution", what's a socialist feminist to do?

Louise Whittle, 1 August 2005

I was quite young when I joined a socialist group; I was 16 and had just left school. My experience of the revolutionary left is that I spent 10 years in this group (let out on 'good behaviour') and the issue of women's liberation and feminism did play a part in the development of the organisation but there were times when that could be accused of being opportunistic, contradictory and mindlessly 'following the line'. The more I look inside these organisations from a safe distance the more I feel depressed and disenchanted.

The revolutionary left as a whole pays lip-service to women's oppression and treats feminism with contempt. My criticisms are with all the revolutionary groups which either 'pretend' to take oppression seriously or who are downright opportunistic because at the end of the day for them it seems to be all about how many people you can recruit - quantity as opposed to quality!

there was the outward 'right-on' behaviour but sometimes the mask slipped

As the women's liberation movement stated, 'the personal is the political' and the revolutionary left is no different. In my involvement with various Trotskyist men, whether personal relationships and/or political activity, I noticed that there was always the outward 'right-on' behaviour (tutting at sexist behaviour) but there were times when the mask slipped and out came the unreconstructed sexist man in all his glory. There was and still seems to be a real macho air to the revolutionary left, it reflects a white straight geeky man's club who engage themselves in what can be considered a talking shop about Lenin.

Even in personal relationships I felt I couldn't compete. Many of these men slept, ate, and drank Marxism (one ex of mine liked to quote from the Marxist Greats while we were having sex!). If you are wondering who the Greats are just think of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.

I found women easier to talk to and discuss political ideas with unlike with the men, who I felt were in competition with each other, like reciting obscure quotes from one of the Greats that nobody has heard of. I was part of this political milieu but at the same time didn't feel confident, and as intelligent or equal to these potential 'great men'. I do see a comparison between religious sects and revolutionary organisations such as the male leaders who get to screw women because of their powerful position. Oh leader, let it be me! Is this liberation? I don't think so!

The Left is not hermetically sealed from oppression

The revolutionary Left reflects the unequal power relationships between men and women which exist in society overall. The Left is not hermetically sealed from oppression. Unfortunately, when confronted with oppression in its own organisation there is a tendency to dismiss it or to 'sweep it under the carpet and hope it goes away'. I know of incidences of violence against women, and I include myself where the organisation is flailing around as nobody knows what to do. Nobody wants to admit that vile behaviour can and does exist in a revolutionary organisation.

I dropped out of politics for a couple of years to 'recharge my political batteries' and when I got back involved I was surprised at the lack of interest towards women's oppression. I didn't think it could get any worse but it has.

I was recently reading a piece written by the Socialist Workers Party member, Lindsey German 'Women's liberation today' (Issue 101 of International Socialism Journal, winter 2003). The whole basis of this article is reduced to economics and at the same time totally caricatures feminist ideas by maintaining that overall feminism is only concerned with getting more women in academia.

German distorts feminism by stating that we are only interested in patriarchy and nothing else. In fact, I believe that patriarchy and capitalism are interconnected and not separate. To sum up, German contends that liberation can only be achieved when the working class takes control thus ending exploitation.

So once the revolution happens we will all wake up liberated and free? Eh.... no!

I have many problems with the revolutionary Left and their interpretation of women's liberation. Marxists claim to be so sophisticated in their analysis of the class struggle yet the same cannot be said of their understanding of oppression. The way these organisations operate means they usually educating the membership in a top-down process as opposed to a bottom-up one.

power relationships can not be reduced to just the means of production

For me, as a socialist feminist I believe that power relationships within society are complex and can not be reduced to just the means of production. What about the sexual division of labour and unequal relationships between men and women in society? To restrict your arguments to basic economics is futile and crude and to educate your membership by denying a free flow of debate is short-sighted because, as they see it the Party is always right.

I have been having ongoing arguments with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) during the past year or so regarding feminism. They accuse of me of 'repudiating genuine socialism, the healthy trends in the history of the revolutionary movement and a strategy that can actually deliver real liberation for women'.

Well, how is that gonna happen, comrade?

For me feminism and socialism are bound together. You really can't have one without the other. Feminism isn't 'sectional' (another argument lobbed at me) but a way of highlighting and combating the oppression of women. Oppression is interwoven in the whole fabric of society. There was another thread to these arguments which was around the issue of women's autonomy and how that is 'anti-working class'. Again, as a feminist I argued that women-only spaces are something which should be encouraged not discouraged.

For me feminism and socialism are bound together

This debate with the CPGB has gone on now for some time (if you want to spend an evening other than watching paint dry, check out the website at www.cpgb.org.uk) and I am still amazed at the level of crassness and unintelligent debate. Part of me hopes that these debates may actually have an impact on the way their members (or indeed anyone else) think about women's liberation. But I won't hold my breath.

Even though we may disagree, I'd at least expect a basic level of understanding of feminism. I assumed I would be 'teaching my grandma to suck eggs', but no, it is case of educating so-called Marxists with the feminist basics. It does feel like Groundhog Day, having to constantly argue your case and draw the battle lines. Feminism isn't 'class divisive' nor is it 'anti-sex' (whatever that means). I do find it perversely humorous when listening to the stereotypes trotted out by right-on Marxists who are using the same arguments as an average editorial in The Sun

On a personal level I am depressed at the low level of political insight and awareness around liberation politics from the revolutionary Left. If you stifle debate within your organisation and only use a top-down method of education then isn't it any wonder sexism and unequal relationships between men and women exist on the Left. I used to feel shocked at some of the sexist behaviour. I believed 'they should know better' but nothing really shocks me any more whether it is crass sexist jokes to abusive violent behaviour. Again, if you treat the membership with contempt then it is not surprising they are sexist as hell! The Left talks about collective responsibility but what about individual responsibility? We all have a duty to treat people with respect.

I used to feel shocked at the sexism but nothing really shocks me any more

We need to challenge and fight oppression NOW and not wait for the revolution. We need to listen and support women and not pay lip-service. If we are to have any chance of living in an equal and free society then we need to act now. A strong and dynamic women's organisation is what the Left needs and engaging in. Educating the members is a start. Autonomous groups should be supported and not criticised as 'separatist'. I also think that consciousness raising groups for women are important as they let women discuss things which they believe is important to them and it gives women a chance to talk with other women. The whole process is empowering as women can control things on their own terms.

The revolutionary Left needs a massive wake-up call and if it is ignored it will carry on being the white straight men's club. Why would any women be interested in joining something like that? I still, after all these years describe myself as a Marxist and a feminist. I still believe in the overthrow of capitalism and fighting for an equitable society where people are treated with respect and as valued human beings. Something which the revolutionary left should bear in mind.

About the author

Louise Whittle

Louise Whittle is 35 and lives in London. She is an active trade unionist and a lazy politico. She believes that Emma Goldman was right and that dancing is an integral part of the revolutionary process along with Green and Blacks (chocolate/ice cream), a good bottle of Shiraz or Russian Vodka and a rousing rendition of the Internationale.

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