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Breaking up is Hard to Do: Feminism and the Revolutionary Left August 29, 2005

Posted by Winter in socialism.

I’m really glad to see UK feminists discussing problems in the relationship between socialist feminism and male-dominated left wing politics, especially with regard to the so-called “revolutionary left.” Gendergeek have a really good post How Feminist is the Left?, written in response to an article by Louise Whittle on the F Word entitled Left Behind. I’ve been aware of tensions for some time and also aware of my own, slightly guilty, desire to stay well away from the left-wing activist environment, but I didn’t feel I knew enough about socialism to articulate the issues properly. Whittle argues:

“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!”

When feminists try and talk about the fact that oppression is gendered, they are often answered with lectures on class struggle, and Whittle points out that unequal gendered power relations are as pervasive in left-wing groups as they are everywhere else. Yup, but try telling them that!
In my own experience, I have found left-wing groups dominated by straight white men with extremely pushy, sometimes agressive, personalities. You know the type, you get them everywhere: equipped with megaphone and trestle table, enormous chip on his shoulder, thinks he’s Che Gueuvara. For good examples see the comments section on Volsunga, especially her recent post on Playboy and pornography. Ms. B writes excellent socialist feminist posts, and gets a lot of unnecessarily rude, dismissive, “clever clever,” comments from apparently left-wing men. Of course, the problem is not socialism; the problem is some of the people who “do” socialism. Here in Cardiff, for instance, the lefty activist community is dominated by a loose coalition of groups: Cardiff Stop the War, SWP, Socialist Party, Respect, Cardiff Anarchists (sort of on the edges), and Cardiff Social Forum. There are probably more by now. I am very wary of linking Mind the Gap into this particular nexus, because I think we’ll get pushed around and sidelined. The other day, an anarchist friend of mine was telling me about her attempts at a meeting to make a revolutionary man understand why she thinks it’s important to include feminist and queer politics in the discussion. She tried to explain why the slogan the “personal is political” is still important, only to be shouted down with the usual arrogant dismissive epithets. I shared my unwillingness to subject myself to this kind of treatment from men. She said I should “stand up to them.” Fair point. But, you know what? I really can’t be bothered. I’m not sure I have time to waste being shouted at about Marx. As a feminist, I don’t think I should willingly put myself in a situation where I’m going to be marginalised and patronised by men, without a very good reason for doing so. Moreover, think of all the things I could be doing with my time instead: I could be reading about feminism, working for my feminist group. Hell, I could even be learning more about socialism.

Feminists on the left are understandably wary of critiquing the movement because they probably feel to do so is some kind of betrayal, but I think it’s feminism that’s really getting betrayed. We need to demand that these men show more solidarity with women, not the other way around. Poverty does wear a female face. Gender oppression is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental form of oppression. Feminism is a revolutionary movement in its own right and feminists are not dumb enough to think that, if we managed to do away with capitalism, we would automatically do away with the oppression of women. I want to show solidarity but I, personally, am not prepared to devote myself to any movement at the expense of my feminism. And If they won’t listen? Well, I think there’s probably life in socialist feminism yet. Perhaps we need to resuscitate it and ask men to join us. In fact, I’m going to schedule in a discussion on socialism and socialist feminism for the Mind the Gap group as soon as I get a chance.



1. Andygrrl - August 29, 2005

You know, sometimes I think I’d rather deal with conservatives and homophobes in my activism than left-wingers and liberals. At least the conservatives pay attention to you. At my university, we had a very limited population of progressive, political students. They were all involved in environmentalism and human rights, which is great, but they didn’t give a flying fuck about feminism or queer issues. I’d go on till I was blue in the face about how you simply *cannot* have revolutionary change without the feminists. And all I’d get is that “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist” or “I’m a humanitarian” bullshit, which is code for “women’s rights are marginal and unimportant and I’m going to ignore them cause it’s just cooler to wear a Che Guavera shirt and besides feminists are ugly man-haters”. Grr.

2. Winter - August 29, 2005

Yes, at least conservatives are prone to take us rather more seriously, even if that’s because they’re scared of us. Don’t get me started on queer politics and the left! Trying to talk to them about the fact that homophobia matters, and is everywhere, is almost impossible. I really hate their superior, dismissive attitude, as if “humanitarians” have all moved beyond the petty little issues which bother us feminists and queers. But I think it’s a very convenient attitude to take. After all, it lets them off the hook in so many areas.

3. Emma - August 29, 2005

I’m not sure I have time to waste being shouted at about Marx.

This is my favourite line from a blog this week, and soooooooooo true.

4. Winter - August 29, 2005

Heh heh. No offense meant to Marx, but why do they always have to be so shouty?

5. tonypatti - August 30, 2005

I must encourage you to stay aloof from the contentious self-serving time-wasters on the left. It’s so easy to see how futile and useless all the arguing and one-upmanship can be, just look at the track records of the groups.

Most of the feminists I know are of varying degrees of awareness about how insidious and omnipresent gender issues truly are, and these people are far more open to productive discourse that can lead to further enlightenment about how to lead a better life and treat everyone with the due respect that is so hard to achieve without almost endless examination and improvement.

I hate the bossy, argumentative idiots who have ruined left wing politics, and all progressive politics, in the USA. With their heirarchical, holier-than-thou attitudes they have divided themselves and have failed to get a coherent message across to the people who need to know, simply and without rhetoric, how they have been fooled. The feminist struggle should take place constantly, on the personal as well as the political level, and should never stoop to alliances with those who can only serve to destroy them by advancing their own agendas.

6. Naiades - August 30, 2005

Fab post Winter. This post reminds me of the recent peace and solidarity rally that you and i attended recently. just to get people up to speed, a local mosque (appologies for spelling) was desecrated with animal parts and several muslim men werte attacked. there was a rally to show solidarity with the muslim community and support the fight against racism. do you want to have a guess waht happened? well we were greeted with the whole “Brothers, sisters, friends, Comrades” shpeel by a guy with long hair who thinks he che guvera. There were some really good speakers, but the whole event was over shadowed and hi-jacked by the stop the war groupies. This is a particularly bad problem in Cardiff as any rally about any issue almost immediately get assimilated by the SWP. They’re a bit like the borg is star treck. Gerrr.

7. ms. b. - August 30, 2005

For someone like me, who is becoming involved with the revolutionary left, I’m incredibly scathing of them. SWP, RESPECT, CPGB and so on are increasingly losing touch with, as the article states, feminism, and with socialism. Have you come across Workers’ Liberty (AWL, http://www.workersliberty.org)?

8. Winter - August 31, 2005

Thanks for the comments everyone! I’m slightly terrified by the amount of attention this post is getting. I wrote it quickly after reading Emma’s at Gendergeek and thinking about the negative experiences my friends and I have had with revolutionary left groups. I’m glad to say I now feel more, not less, inspired to think about socialism and socialist feminism.

I will look at Workers Liberty Ms. B. The trolls you get on your blog must be trying. Some of them seem far more interested in disrupting the discussion and promoting their own cleverness than in constructive debate.

9. Winter - August 31, 2005

tonypatti I think you’re dead right that people need clear, coherent information and not rhetorical displays of one-up-man-ship. I think the “lets try and put each other down” attitude is absolutely horrible and so counterproductive. Having thought about it a bit more, I think that what we’re talking about here is really good old-fashioned bullying.

10. Louise Whittle - September 1, 2005

I agree with the issues raised by Winter Woods. The reason I wrote the piece for the f word about the revolutionary left and women was because of my own deep frustration and anger at the way women and feminism is perceived. I orginally intended to call the piece “Wait for the revolution, babe” as that does sum up the revolutionary left overall. I am not surprised in the least when Winter Woods describes the experience of her friend when she tried to argue her points. Twenty years in revo politics has taught me not to be surprised by anything.
I am pleased that you are organising a talk on feminism and the fact there are websites and blogs devoted to feminism. There is also a conference planned in Sheffield called “Fem 05” which is open to both men and women and also free.
Unfortunately, there discussions and debates don’t penetrate the revo Left though if they do you get the “line” chucked at you. Independent thinking and open debate is a rare experience. I must admit I found the Labour Party more open to feminist ideas and participation by women (i.e. active women sections and Womens Action Committee) during the 1980s though not the case with “New” Labour.
The other question for me is where are all the women in the revo left? Most of the women I knew and identified with have left/dropped out, which unfortunately has created this rather macho, defensive men’s club who debate Lenin but nothing else. If the revo Left intends to grow and develop then it should stop treating women and feminism with contempt.

BTW: Like your blog

Louise Whittle

11. Winter - September 1, 2005

Thanks Louise. I really like your article. The fact that we’re all reacting to it so strongly must surely prove that you’ve hit a nerve. From the reactions to my post and others I think it’s high time feminists reassessed their relationship with the revolutionary left.

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