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

Posted by Winter in socialism.
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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.