Writing in Socialist Worker (5 March), timed for the SWP special conference, Judith Orr, with not-so-beautiful simplicity, explains how women’s oppression is rooted in class society.
We agree with that, and with Orr’s subsequent argument that gender should not get in the way of a united fight against capitalism.
But Orr’s basic picture leaves unexplained many complexities about capitalist exploitation and oppression worldwide: how the exact form of female oppression varies across geography and history; how human beings are “socialised” and gender and sexuality are constructed primarily, but not exclusively, through “the family”; about the role of women’s labour — once the source of cheap labour, but, with mass migration, now not the only source. And last, but not least, how gender oppression intersects with other forms of oppression. Orr does not even mention these complexities.
In the Second Wave women’s movement of the 70s and 80s, feminists influenced by Marxist ideas — socialist feminists — spent years debating and discussing complexities, with varying degrees of productiveness. These debates have never piqued the genuine interest of the Socialist Workers Party. For the SWP, “feminism” is of interest only in relation to itself.
In March 2013 Orr lectures us about feminism because she wants to bash “creeping feminism” in the SWP, those pissed off by the blatant abuse of power displayed by party committees over the handling of a rape allegation.
Would Orr be so crudely describing how feminism “does not see the fundamental divide in society as between classes”, etc., if she was sharing platforms with feminists who want to ban lap dancing clubs (thus making more vulnerable and precarious the lives of some working-class women), as she and other SWPers have in the past? Probably not.
To borrow a phrase from a participant in the recent anti-capitalist and consciously feminist occupation of the Women’s Library, there are today “many feminisms”. The sometime friends of Orr — the anti-porn and anti-sex work radical feminists — and also liberal feminists, anarcha-feminists, anti-capitalist feminists, others influenced by varieties of post-modernism, others still by Marxist ideas.
If Orr was seriously interested in analysing this “movement” of blogs, academia, activism and networks, that would be legitimate. Orr mentions the discourse around “hierarchies of oppression”, something that does need criticism. But that is the extent of her “critique” because this is not the game here.
Finally, Orr gets down to the oldest SWP anti-feminist line in their book: “So, some feminists .... say that men benefit from women’s oppression.... they argue that men have a short term interest in women’s oppression with benefits such as women’s work in the home.”
I first heard this argument in the middle of the miners’ strike when the SWP decided to be “difficult” about many aspects of that strike. They called the solidarity committees “left-wing Oxfam”. In York they took the piss out of feminists for visiting pit communities to make lentil soup (it was cheap and nutritious!). The deliberate sectarianism divided people. Some joined the SWP, others it infuriated. The intention is the same here, but to divide people inside the SWP.
In 1984-5 the line was a disgrace. This was a time when hundreds of working-class women were both building the fight to save communities built around the mines and uniting with men to do that and simultaneously challenging the way the men in those communities took for granted the tangible “benefits” they gained from the hundred and one domestic tasks women did. In the short-term such challenges disunited men and women. But this was an intrinsic, necessary part of the bigger battle; women needed to break through the barriers of sexism and reorganise their lives, structured as they were around their oppression, in order to find a political voice. It was a “disunity” worth going through.
The AWL is socialist feminist. We draw on Marxist socialism to understand oppressions and how they are interwoven with capitalist exploitation and continually reconfigured by historical development. We take inspiration from much of the work of the Second Wave socialist feminists. Unfortunately, for many reasons, socialist feminism was only able to take theoretical understanding so far.
The AWL will not have a monopoly on reviving socialist feminism. All we can do is be open minded about the “many feminisms” of today, and critical where necessary. We work with other feminists in concrete campaigns and try to learn from experience. We think we have a lot of work to do to “update” our socialist feminism.
The SWP on the other hand does not even recognise what is at stake here, they think only about self-preservation. That is why they will play no part in reviving interest in or developing socialist understandings of oppression.