There was a discussion at Workers' Liberty's 'Ideas for Freedom' discussion weekend in 2006 about 'The Left and Cultural Relativism'. The two speakers were Janine Booth and Peter Tatchell. These are the notes from Janine's contribution.
AWL is a socialist organisation. We are part of ‘the left’. For us, that means we unequivocally support women’s rights, freedom and equality. Similarly, we unequivocally oppose racism and homophobia.
For us, it is quite straightforward – no socialism without liberation, no liberation without socialism. We oppose oppression and bigotry wherever it comes from.
For some others on the ‘left’, though, it is not so straightforward. They argue that we should equivocate on these issues when the oppression comes from ‘other cultures’.
eg.1 A Sikh woman wrote a play, Behzti (‘Dishonour’) addressing issues of rape and ‘honour’ within her community. Protesters demanded that it be banned on grounds of religious offence – the Birmingham Rep theatre agreed. A local Labour councillor condemned the play for showing lack of respect.
eg.2 Bob Pitt wrote in the Weekly Worker in 2001, from what claimed to be a socialist point of view, that socialists who refused to defend the Taliban because it fell short on progressive politics were guilty of “racist arrogance”.
eg.3. The same Bob Pitt runs the astonishingly awful Islamophobia Watch website, which lists/quotes any criticism of Islam or of any Muslim leader – including evidence of explicit sexism, homophobia, or antisemitism – as ‘Islamophobia’ – without explanation or any engagement with the argument.
- AWL and Peter Tatchell share the honour of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ by this website.
eg.4. Ken Livingstone invited Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi as a guest to London in July 2004. Dr al-Qaradawi:
- personally supports ‘female circumcision’ aka. female genital mutilation
- supports husbands hitting wives to “admonish” them for “disobedience” if other measures fail
- says that husbands must compel wives to veil.
Outrage! has compiled a dossier which details this and other information.
Those who objected to Qaradawi’s red-carpet welcome were denounced as ‘Islamophobes’.
eg.5. The Respect coalition asks us to vote for candidates who are anti-abortion and have sexist views on women’s role in society.
At the same time – and linked – we no longer have a women’s movement to speak of in this country.
Not because there is no need!
- there is a big gap between men’s and women’s pay
- gender division of labour
- domestic violence
- abortion rights again under attack
- burden of housework/childcare/caring
- discrimination against pregnant women and mothers
- women exploited in sweatshops
- women disproportionately suffer effects of attacks on workers’ rights eg. low pay, contracting-out, privatisation, attacks on pensions.
In the face of this, you might expect the left and the labour movement to try to rebuild a women’s movement. They are not doing. Instead, some sections are telling people to shut up when we oppose sexism in the “wrong places”.
Where has this come from?
It has a history going back 20+ years – wouldn’t credit SWP etc with inventing it.
1st – 1970s women’s movement – big movement, won advances, politicised a lot of women, changed a lot of men.
– politically divided – socialist feminists / radical feminists – the rad fems ‘won’ – their politics came to dominate
–> (a) movement became irrelevant to working-class women and fizzled out
(b) a form of politics came to the fore that said: only people who directly experience a particular form of oppression have the right to an opinion about it –> took us down a road that made some people/politics beyond criticism.
2nd – early 80s, Labour lefties elected to local Councils –> confrontation with the Tory government which was cutting their funding
–> first, said would defy the Tories, then backed down
–> tried to maintain ‘left’ image by bigging up equality issues – good initiatives (mostly), but were used as alternative to militant working-class politics, not as a complement
–> set up bureaucracy, Town Hall ‘equalities industry’, appointed ‘experts’, again set up as beyond criticism
- advocated a ‘rainbow coalition’ of separate oppressed communities, rather than a labour movement that opposes oppression and unites those who suffer it.
3rd – meanwhile, in academic world, rise of ‘post-modernism’ – argued against the idea of universal rights or theories, and supported the idea of different cultures being so different that same values could not apply across them
- also, ‘Political Correctness’ movement in US universities – emphasised language rather than structures of oppression and (again) denied the right to critically analyse points of view originating in oppressed communities
4th – the rise of religion. 80s was the era of Thatcher and Reagan, both claimed God’s endorsement and the support of the Christian right. Fundamentalism rose in various religions, often in parts of the world where people felt failed by secular capitalism.
- Of course, there are difference between religions, and differences within religions – more or less liberal, conservative etc.
But fundamentalism was on the rise, along with political movements to impose religion on politics and public affairs.
Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) was founded in 1989 by feminists who recognised the danger to women’s rights.
As WAF state: “By fundamentalism we do not mean religious observance, which we see as a matter of individual choice, but rather modern political movements which see religion as a basis for their attempt to win or consolidate power and extend social control … at the heart of all fundamentalist agendas is the control of women’s minds and bodies.”
- One early WAF campaign – against non-religious state school ‘opting out’, becoming grant-maintained (under recent Tory law) and becoming a Sikh school – one element of (successful) campaign against this was schoolgirls opposed to restrictions of the freedoms and opportunities that they knew would come with religious status. These girls, and WAF, were condemned as ‘racist’ by some Sikh community leaders.
5th – ‘multiculturalism’ – to most working-class people, is a positive idea of unity and mixing of people of different racial/cultural backgrounds.
But, as WAF and others identified, there is a more pernicious form of ‘multi-culturalism’, taken up by mainstream politics
- emphasises difference, not unity
- presents communities as internally homogenous
- emphasises ‘tradition’ and religion
- allows unelected ‘community leaders to speak for whole community – usually conservatives, patriarchs
- boosts these patriarchs by giving them power, authority, resources, increases their power against those within their community who are feminists, secularists – or just ordinary people who want their own individual freedom. eg. to choose what they wear or who they marry.
1994: Taslima Nasrin, Bangladeshi feminist, received death threats and a fatwa for criticising Islam. AWL brought her to Britain for a speaking tour – interviewed in our mag, said:
“Women continue to be persecuted in the name of tradition. One thing that feminists in Western countries should learn is to be critical about the traditions of Asia and Africa. I have heard Western women saying we should follow our traditions. Well, I like my food and I like my dress. these are the things I will keep. But why should I accept the tradition of oppression, too? Why should I accept a society that puts women in veils and allows men to dominate them?”
6th – development of politics on international issues that sees the basic divide not as class, but as imperialism/anti-imperialism
–> anyone fighting against US/UK is therefore good, to be supported – even regimes or movements eg. the Taliban, which abuse women’s rights (or workers’ rights, or democracy, or national/ethnic/religious minorities, or …)
7th – finally, add to all that, the SWP’s particular brand of ‘party building’ whereby attracting people is more important than politics
- their perception: more potential recruits among political Muslims than among feminists
What do all these seven things have in common? – not only an abandonment of women’s rights and of universal human rights, but also retreat from class politics
- no coincidence that these politics have developed in the shadow of defeats of the labour movement.
Why is this politics wrong?
It is not racist to oppose sexism from within ethnic minority communities.
Quite the opposite – it’s racist to suggest that women and girls in those communities should put up with sexism or should fight it alone.
This is not about feminism vs anti-racism, prioritising women or ethnic minorities
- it is primarily about ethnic minority women
The message from the ‘cultural relativists’ to those women is “do not object to sexist practices – or you will be betraying your community’s unity and/or anti-imperialist struggle.”
Said by Western lefties who would not accept that for themselves.
British culture has sexism – do we accept that because it’s “our culture”? No!
- “low pay? – ah well, it’s the British way of life”
- “domestic violence? – it’s traditional”
- “housework – God said that’s the way it is”
- “Yorkie: it’s not for girls – that’s just culture!”
No – white British women won’t accept that for us, so we shouldn’t ask other women to accept it either.
But – so the argument goes – we are not talking about Biritsh culture, we are talking about oppressed groups.
Socialist Worker says “There is no room for confusion in our defence of Muslims”. So how come there is so much room for confusion in our defence of women’s rights?
Shouldn’t we show solidarity with communities oppressed because of their religion or race? Yes, but that does not mean we have to ignore the fact that those communities are not homogenous. There are conflicts within those communities.
- eg. between traditionalists and progressives
- conservatives and socialists
- bosses and workers
- religious authoritarians and secularists
We can choose to show solidarity with eg. women refusing veil rather than with patriarchs imposing it.
But there is racism, there is eg. anti-Muslim bigotry – if we criticise cultural practices then we are chiming in with the racists.
Yes, there is vicious anti-Muslim prejudice – eg. rise in physical assaults following terror attacks. But this is not from people who oppose sexism and racism – it’s from groups/people who oppose women’s rights as well as being bigoted on race/religious grounds.
Actually, it is failing to oppose what is unacceptable within these communities that feeds the racists and bigots.
But – so the argument goes – these things are a reaction to imperialist oppression.
No, they are not! Sexism is actually very old, and we are talking about oppressive customs that predate the War on Terror, imperialism, even capitalism.
To some degree, people are turning back to them eg. more Muslim women are veiling, in response to imperialism/oppression, but does that make it right? No.
People ‘react to oppression’ in all sorts of ways – some good, some awful. Even as we recognise that people are responding to oppression, we should not abstain from opinion about how they do it.
The left has got into a bad habit – know what we are against, less so what we are for – stop this, smash that
- so if a movement (says that it) is against imperialism/capitalism/racism/Blair, then some sections of the left say that is good enough for them – what does it matter what you are for?
Irony – forgotten that we are supposed by be against sexism!
White working-class people voting BNP is a reaction to oppression – happens in areas with poverty, unemployment, crap services, unemployment etc. We can understand that and still condemn it.
But the ‘cultural relativist’ left is a lot less understanding of the white working-class than of, say, Muslim communities.
Also – big overlap between what this left says and what Blair and the establishment say.
They would be outraged at that suggestion because of differences over war, imperialism, immigration & asylum etc, but there is a lot in common eg. softness on religious authoritarianism.
+ acceptance of bourgeois ‘multi-culturalist’ agenda
– In some ways, the left’s anti-racism is simply bourgeois multi-culturalism shouted through megaphones.
What should we do about it?
Call things by their proper names – that’s not culture, that’s sexism!
Taslima Nasrin again: “In parts of Africa there is the ‘tradition’ of mutilating female genitalia. Is this tradition? Call it by its proper name: it is torture!”
Turn back to class politics
As outlined before, cultural relativism has risen as an alternative to politics of working-class struggle.
Our fights against oppression, bigtory, discrimination should be part for fight for self-emancipation of working class, of fight for socialism.
To win socialism, the working class needs to be united – there is a powerful drive towards unity and against bigotry.
Of course, that is not to say there is no bigotry within the working class or even within the organised, political working-class movement – there is, plenty of it. But it is in the interest of working-class solidarity to overcome those divisions.
Communalism, on the other hand, pulls in the opposite direction – separating, dividing people. The idea that different rights and different standards apply in different communities or countries is an obstacle to building the multi-racial, internationalist, anti-sexist labour movement that we need.
Understand and condemn
John Major on crime: “Understand a little less, condemn a little more”. Understand less?! How can that help?! The cultural relativist left has double standards:
- white working-class people voting BNP – condemn, don’t understand
- religious groups supporting sexist practices – understand, don’t condemn
Oppose the proposed new ‘incitement to religious hatred’ law.
Of course we oppose hatred/discrimination against individuals/groups because of their religious beliefs/identity.
- But this law will, whatever its supporters say, encourage religious groups which want to silence their critics and dissenters within their communities. The protesters against Behzti would go to the courts – that’s if the theatre had had the nerve to put it on in the first place.
We need a new women’s movement – learn the lessons of past ones
- start with defence of abortion rights – soon to be attacked - + fighting for women workers’ rights eg. pay gap
Most of all - Hold the line! No compromise on women’s rights.