Archive for the ‘New Left’ Category
Excellent article on the International Socialist Network by Kieran Crowe,
I think we need to talk about how we are going to deal with the People’s Assembly.
The piece continues,
I have been trying to locate some good data on the effectiveness of anti-cuts campaigns, and must confess I’ve drawn a bit of a blank. There does not seem to be brilliant data out there to say where cuts have have been successfully blocked. Suffice to say, the movements have not been without successes – though they have not been across the board anywhere, it has been far from impossible to organise against cuts.
The role of the organised left in the anti-cuts movement has, to say the least, been inconsistent and marked at times with gross sectarianism. As mentioned before, the Labour left has taken some time to find any footing at all with opposition to austerity, due to the key role of New Labour and Labour councillors, but they seem to have regained the initiative to a large extent with opposition to the bedroom tax. The smaller centre-left parties have been similarly contradictory: Green and Nationalist councils have pushed cuts through, while their activists in other areas have criticised Labour for exactly the same.
The role of the far left has not been particularly more glorious. The 2008 crisis prompted by the collapse of American hedge funds led us to a big push on anticapitalist rhetoric, but most of the tactical and strategic initiatives we produced were objective failures. Numerous campaigns and front groups were founded, usually as more or less exclusive tools of the founding organisation and with grand goals that they were objectively unable to pull off. The activists (often full-timers) pushing them were highly enthusiastic though, and often so adamant that ‘their united front’ was the one that would deliver victory that they would happily engage in Popular Front of Judea arguments with their counterparts for other groups pushing very similar looking campaigns.
Need we rehearse the disputes around the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and the so-called Unite the Resistance? Not to mention TUSC?
One development we are going to have to discuss is the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (PA). The PA is, in some ways, not really new as a concept – it is an outgrowth of the ‘Coalition of Resistance’ campaign that the was launched when several left groups were founding similar initiatives and that has received significant backing from the leaderships of several trade unions, notably the centre-left leadership of the mass Unite union under Len McCluskey.
The PA has, to say the very least, managed to stand out by being on a considerably larger scale than previous conferences. With a venue for over 2,000 booked, there is already the possibility of spill-over space being hired. This would make the PA four to five times larger than its nearest rival and probably one of the biggest activist conferences for a generation in Britain. The publicity it has generated has similarly been far greater than previous events: it has been plugged in the Guardian and denounced in the Spectator, which is a rare breakthrough into the mainstream, recalling a little the publicity that Stop the War got at its height.
My immediate reaction was to get on board.
There is, inevitably, a layer of the left that will attack the PA this way and make a point of principle out of it: witness the anarcho-miserablist Ian Bone of Class War, a man who famously advised people to stay away from anti-war demos in 2003, who has pledged to stand outside the PA venue, telling attendees how very wrong they are. If we take our activism seriously, we must find a mid-position between nodding along to McCluskey and abstaining on the sidelines with people like Bone who just think they’re smarter than everyone else.
Which will be fun, if nothing else.
My guess is the right approach to the PA would be to intervene through and as part of delegations to it from genuine campaigning groups. Most IS Network members ought to find this easy: we have, most of us, been part of anti-cuts groups at some stage, or can easily join one. Going into an anti-austerity body with the express purpose of getting it to participate in the PA would, in fact, be a useful thing to do and might help reinvigorate groups that have stalled.
This is in tune with what many of us feel.
Something I feel to be worth throwing into the debate is the role of trade union councils – in Barnet the trades council was central to the founding of the anti-cuts group and manages to remain in alliance with it even as it operates with its own autonomy. Anti-cuts groups elsewhere that have become moribund and trades councils that have been conservative for decades could potentially be revitalised in local areas if they get encouragement and support from similar groups that are doing better, giving us a far wider pool of activity to operate.
As a Trades Council activist I could not agree more.
There is also likely to be an interesting debate about regional People’s Assemblies later in the year – which have the potential to be very large and attract further layers of activists. Regional PAs would be quite different from a national one – indeed if you want a version of the event that is less ‘top table’, this may be what you would end up producing. It is still not counterposed to the national event.
One thing I do not believe can be argued is that that the event can be simply abstained from, though if other people do have other ideas for fighting austerity, we should hear about those too.
This analysis is so spot on that I nothing more to add.
Obviously The International Socialist Network is going places.
Obsolete Leninism: the Left-Wing Alternative.
“Corporate bodies are more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amendable to disgrace of punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor good-will.”
William Hazlitt. On Corporate Bodies.
The SWP Special Conference is over. An initial assessment states, it “was extremely disappointing, even for those of us who didn’t expect much by way of surprises. The opposition was weak and scant; the level of debate very low and the CC was hardly pressed at all on any single count.” “The problem is not the numbers, comrades, but the party’s deeply entrenched culture of obedience to a (less and less) “charismatic” leadership.” The Corporate body could do not wrong…..
Others are more dramatic,
And so it is that the rigged conference has taken place, the leadership has secured its victory (though it may well be a Pyrrhic victory) and the opposition has been crushed. Rage and despair will be the natural reactions; however, it’s a good time to pause a moment and take stock.
The leadership is morally bankrupt
Let’s be blunt. The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place? On the face of things, no; on the face of things, the majority of delegates today don’t think that is at all important.
The Party’s underlying difficulties remain. The SWP, culture or not, is the largest left organisation to the left of the Labour Party, and is important within many protest campaigns, and, to a lesser degree, in some trade unions. But it has never come close to offering the ‘leadership’ of the working class and oppressed to which it aspires. In over three decades it has not grown beyond a few thousand members. In recent years it has shrunk.
Weeks of debate on the left have shown that the SWP’s politics and organisational culture are widely challenged. Its inability to deal appropriately with allegations of sexual abuse in its own ranks, its bullying, its ad hoc changes in line, its ‘bureaucratic centralist’ methods to deal with dissent, have been talked over in pages of Web and printed criticism. Many have raised fundamental issues, about the SWP’s Leninism (with, or without, inverted commas), feminism, and the role of political parties in the socialist movement.
Now we are at point where some conclusions can be offered about the causes of this crisis. They indicate, as some have argued, that the Leninist political model that the SWP follows, has serious flaws. The view that an injection of democracy – “true” democratic centralism – can help is, this short piece will argue, not an answer to much deeper difficulties. These come from the impasse of the ‘revolutionary party’ project inspired by Lenin and Trotsky in present day Europe.
- Since the 1980s the conditions in which European left politics operate have been fundamentally changing. The State, the instrument of reform, or something to be ‘overthrown’, has been transformed. The EU fulfils an important regulatory role, and the ‘markets’ shape fiscal demands. In every country the pattern of ‘market states’, in which governments do not just privatise utilities, but hive off a large part of their main functions to private companies, has spread. Political institutions continue to express the electorate’s views by representatives, but a large part of public policy is shaped elsewhere, by financial pressure, and by the organised lobbies of the new state funded bourgeoisie. In these conditions those who promote more markets, more funds for these companies, and more privileges for those with money promote their plans as modernising reforms. Against them left-wing genuine reformers and the revolutionaries who once wished to ‘smash’ the state are often united around the defence of the social democratic institutions of equal public services and welfare provision.
- It is often sweepingly asserted that ‘market societies’, and what was once called ‘post-modernist’ culture, mean that the populations of the West have become politically fragmented, ‘atomised’, and resistant to the ‘grand narratives’ of the left. People turn in on their private lives, their families and friends, and lack the ‘ancient republican’ virtue of dedication to public things. Similar claims go back to the 1920s, if not back to the birth of bourgeoisie society. This may be partly rhetoric. But what has clearly altered nevertheless is the decline in mass participation in political and civil society organisations.
- The disengagement from social and community involvement is harder to explain than a few words about individualism or the spin off from ‘commodification’. In the US one of the longest periods of civic engagement began with the pre-Great War Progressive Age, and even peaked during the 1950s Boom years. (Bowling Alone Robert D. Putnam. 2000) By the 1990s this had weakened, people no longer volunteered, and smaller and smaller numbers of people came along to take up positions in ageing organisations. He looked to change though a new generation of “social capitalists”. We could consider David Cameron’s – failed – experiment in the Big Society to be inspired by this call. Parts of Labour’s One Nation strategy, underpinned by initiatives such as Food Banks for the worthy needy backed by Policy Review chief, Jon Cruddas, are also part of this approach.
- Putnam partly charged television with helping to draw people away from civic responsibility. ‘Social capital’ is now being accumulated in radically different ways, some of which may help re-engage people in more radical directions. Technology has been recast through the Web, (which I am using at this very movement) offering ways of connecting. This can give the impression that “it’s all kicking off” via the Net. This can sometimes be proved through real events (the Arab Spring); sometimes it bolsters less substantial movements, like Occupy! Every single day political initiatives are mobilised, meetings held, demonstrations planned, through this means, and people’s views are broadcast and challenged directly across wide geographical areas.
- How do political parties connect to these developments? It would appear that there are reasons to think they may be obstacles. In Political Parties (1911) Robert Michels claimed that there was an “iron law of oligarchy’. Left parties were groups of a mixture of classes (despite their claims to represent the workers) with “special interests” that tended to form “stable and irremovable” leaders, the “domination of the elected over the electors” He based his judgement on the view that as organisations that aimed to capture state power they would adopt the structures of the public administration, of this.
- More recently John Holloway has claimed that Leninist parties reproduce an oligarchy of knowledge, between the “knowers” in the party and the masses. The Party is equipped with Marxist science and the skills to lead. The rest, even if initially ‘self-organised’ are bidden to follow. This “monological political practice” goes against “non-fetishised, self-determining social relations.” (Change the World Without Taking Power. 2nd Edition. 2005)
- There is nothing inevitable about political organisations operating in this way. The modern dominant paradigm for parties is not state administrative bureaucracy nor an all-seeing Knower but the company ‘flexible’ organigramme. The Parliamentary parties themselves are not US style Caucuses, or, miniature Republics of Barons on the model of the French 4th Republic. They are Leadership-run, subject to rare rebellion. The arms-length (proto-hived off) Civil Service Departments limit the Leader’s power, if only in framing the realm of the “possible”. There are some external democratic constraints. There are figures who would like to base their mass membership operations on a small policy team, alert to political marketing, and a loose, affiliated membership that would operate as their sales-teams and, partly, as collectors of public opinion. In the Labour Party a union and constituency influence persists which defies this trend. It has yet to show much success.
- The SWP has not been able to offer an alternative. The Party’s Central Committee acts both as a semi-permanent oligarchy, and the Knower, determined to tell people what to do. In reality its ambitions over the years have become more modest. Public use of the Marxist phrase the ‘united front’ (now for party inner consumption only) gave way to the American expression ‘coalition’ (an alliance of pressure groups) for its campaigns. Its bizarre hostility to the Internet – evident in the Coherence where dissident Blogs were their major problem – is another indication of an inability to think boldly on the present day political terrain.
- An alternative to the SWP, and other Leninist models on the left, would begin from democratic organisation in the era of the Internet. It would not be a Leadership run body, but a democratic socialist project that drew in the left around a bottom-upward synthesis of people’s experiences and ideas about socialism. Lenin is said to have talked of “practical workers” as the key to a socialist party, but today we can all become practical-theoretical workers. The minimum programme needed to transform the Market States of the world into socialist societies should dominate our political framework. In the absence of a ‘party’ we have our practice.
- A project for a democratic ‘citizens’ revolution’, backed a variety of parties, and small groups. exists. In France. It is called the Front de gauche (left Front). It is not democratic centralist, but a bloc of independent bodies and individuals. We could begin by learning from this not from 1917.
Georges Sorel in La Décomposition du Marxism (1908) described the first ‘Crisis of Marxism’. Before the Great War he talked of the absence of a revolutionary proletariat and the growth of “constructive trade unionism”, that is mass reformism, and the support for “evolutionary socialism” this gave. Against this ‘reformist’ trend Sorel developed his theory of ‘myths’, heroic projections of the future that could not be falsified (L’illusion du poltiique. Shlomo Sand. 1984). Sorel fought against le politique, that is the routine administrative work of government, the compromises of state, for la politique a fundamental change in the world. How this was to come about, was left to action, not plans.
The most famous of Sorel’s myths, the General Strike, still has supporters on the United Kingdom left. Another is the Revolutionary Party. The SWP ISOP opposition declares, “The role of a revolutionary party is to fight for leadership in the class struggle. Democratic centralism is based primarily on conviction rather than discipline. The shared political perspectives required to underpin united political action are not something to be imposed, but are achieved through engagement in debate and argument and informed by experience.”
This is a fundamental flaw in a great deal in the debate about the SWP and Leninism. Lenin’s Party and is ‘Democratic centralism’, figures as a ‘myth’ not a historical reality. Or rather when it is talked about historically it is confined to one ‘good’ period – whose date wavers. Rather than discussing what happened when that party, apparently a model, took power, does not get discussed in the tale of the Good Bolshevik Party. It considered largely a separate issue.
Cut way the fist two sentences comrades. We need shared experience. We need united political action. We have had ample opportunity to verify the mobilising myth of Democratic Centralisation.
It has failed.
This is also worth looking at: Is this the Turning Point for the British Far left?
Feminism is a Dirty Word’. What Would Marx and Engels Think Today?
This is am extremely important guest post by comrade Camilla Power that we have been requested (amongst other leftists) to present (original here).
“The article takes ‘dinosaur marxists’ to task for refusing to treat rape as a political issue. The author looks at events in the SWP, RMT and across the British left in the light of what Marx and Engels – so often invoked by these ‘dinosaurs’ – wrote about sex and its connection with class.”
‘Bursting like a bombshell over this article as first drafted have been accusations of domestic violence by one RMT comrade against another. *The accused man is a prominent class-fighting activist. The woman victim, who took the case to the police, accuses the RMT of failing to support her, and a specific Union officer of ‘victim-blaming’ by proposing that she ‘beat herself up’. On International Women’s Day 2013, she published photographs of her bruised face, while, ironically, the RMT published a model Domestic Violence Policy for the workplace.
This case confronts every revolutionary activist and will be a stern test for the RMT union as to how it implements its own policy. Unlike the SWP, the RMT have some apparatus of women’s conferences, women’s sections and advisory committees. Will they prove equal to the task of resisting the patriarchal institutional bias of disbelieving the woman who dares to come forward? Their document pays all the right lip service. Will the RMT demonstrate zero tolerance of this behaviour? No person can be a class fighter and commit such violent outrages. The very actions are politically divisive and undermine revolutionary class struggle itself.
Feminism has long been a dirty word in the SWP. In his brave account, former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker describes how the male-dominated Central Committee closed ranks with Comrade Delta when a young female comrade was pressured into dropping a rape allegation. When asked what is at the centre of the crisis, what’s the hidden agenda, Walker responds: ‘There isn’t one….It really is about rape, the crisis in the SWP. Specifically the appalling treatment of a young woman who made an allegation of rape against the party’s de facto leader’.(1)
The Guardian online (Mar 9) reports a second alleged rape and cover-up by the SWP, detailing systemic abuse of young women members.(2) The victim claims she was told the alleged rapist was going to be suspended and encouraged to read up on women’s liberation. ‘They said, if you go around calling him a rapist, you’ll be in trouble. If you tell anyone, you’ll be in trouble … They didn’t elaborate. They’re not the kind of people to get on the wrong side of.’
In a March 3 podcast(3) offered by a leading male comrade of the Communist Party of Great Britain, feminism is again identified as the problem. Jack Conrad laments that the issue splitting the SWP appears so ‘trivial’ (listen from around 20 mins in) and the arguments apolitical. He hastily corrects himself that of course ‘rape is not a trivial issue’, but in his view it’s still not a political issue, so hardly worth splitting over.
It would seem that feminism is a dangerous contagion threatening to infect all these Marxist sects with their privileged knowledge of the sacred scripts. Feminists of all hues, bourgeois and revolutionary, will insist that violence and sexual abuse in all circumstances be brought to account. It is the State’s dream to have key organisers of the RMT or even the SWP brought to answer sex charges before a bourgeois court. But the whole of the socialist left currently has no apparatus that remotely provides any means of independent investigation into such serious crimes against the person. It is a matter of revolutionary culture and consciousness to begin to develop alternative systems of justice. Have we got any chance of doing so if rape itself is not considered by marxists a political issue?
As a direct-action, anarcho-marxist, feminist and Darwinian anthropologist – which makes me a pretty weird leftie – I am writing on International Women’s Day, 96th anniversary of the start of Russia’s February revolution. And I’m holding my head in my hands. Do these marxist sectlets seriously imagine they are going to improve their 85 to 15 per cent male/female gender ratio by putting out this message like a broken record? ‘Women comrades, forget you’re female, join your struggle with the workers… Yes, you may be doubly oppressed as mothers and houseworkers – but just put your faith in the revolution, dears, and patriarchy will come out in the wash!’
Isn’t it time these comrades of both sexes stuck their heads out of their caves, scented the air and smelt the decreptitude of late capitalist patriarchy? Haven’t they noticed all these catholic priests, cardinals, BBC apologists for paedophile rings, Lib Dem chief executives, RMT and SWP key organisers accused of violence and sex crimes – exposed because victims increasingly will not shut up to maintain alpha-male offenders in positions to which they have become accustomed? The victims have been women, men and children. But in all these cases, ancient Neolithic hierarchies of gender are being deeply challenged, and not just in Europe but across the world.
But even beyond the headline-grabbing collapse in respect for patriarchy, isn’t it time that marxists apprehended the real crisis in concrete conditions underlying the banker bailout austerity programme? This is undeniably a gendered crisis of working women, who can’t manage any more to pay the rent, find childcare and go to work; while mothers are being pressed onto the job market, under threat of loss of benefits, and deportation wholesale with children to poorer accommodation hundreds of miles from their homes and schools. The crisis in housing itself compels more women to put up with abusive partners as they simply have nowhere else to go.
Even The Guardian’s Seumas Milne writes of the ‘historic shift of women moving left of men’(4) as women pay disproportionately for the banker’s crisis. The lower-paid, part-time and casual workforce of precarious labour is female-dominated; as these working women suffer most from the cuts, so of course do the men and children in their lives. In terms of public sector job losses, women in their fifties are identified as major victims – a generation who are highly experienced and also politicised.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s Paul Mason, in his famous 20 Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off, specifically identified factors of youth and gender as contributory: the typical activist is the graduate with no future, linked up on social media. Women, he says, are the backbone of these new movements: the archetypal protest leader, organizer, facilitator and spokesperson is ‘an educated young woman’.
The more that women come out onto the streets to occupy and organise, the more there will be specifically female experience of protest, including both intense cooperation and revolutionary solidarity, but also, harassment and rape threat, as has been seen to such horrendous effect in Tahrir Square at the cutting edge of the Egyptian revolution. This expresses all the contradictions of a struggle involving islamic patriarchs camped alongside conscious revolutionaries.
Rape not political? Try telling that to a woman in Tahrir Square who faces shaming harassment and threat of rape by thugs bribed by the latest patriarchal hierarchy installed into government. The vanguard of the revolution includes precisely those men who realise the political importance of protecting and helping women comrades to be out there on the street. In other words, the vanguard includes men who understand rape for the political issue it is, and prioritise women’s presence as vital for the conciousness of the revolution.
Rape not political? Try telling Marx. The various Marxist sects, anxious to guard their sacred doctrines for the day they lead the revolution, may not consider women, reproduction and sexuality as important, political topics. But is that true of Marx and Engels originally? Let us take a look at what they say on this.
In 1844 Marx wrote: ‘The immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is found in the relation of man to woman.’ He continues:
‘From this relationship man’s whole level of development can be assessed. It follows from the character of this relationship how far man has become, and has understood himself as, a species-being, a human being. …It also shows how far man’s needs have become human needs, and consequently how far this other person, as a person, has become one of his needs, and to what extent he is in his individual existence at the same time a social being.’(5)
‘Species-life’(6) in its natural form was sexual life, with all that implied in terms of reciprocity, exchange and productiveness. In its distinctively human cultural form, species-life was economically-productive life, i.e. labour – again, with all that implied in terms of exchange and reciprocity. From the beginning, human production was a dual process of species-life: ‘The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship.’(7) Yet, the natural relationship – sex, – was itself social, and the social relationship, labour, was a relationship with nature.
In Marx and Engels’ understanding, the original human situation involved no conflict between the two forms of species-life – between sex and labour, family and industry, woman and man. Both production and procreation were carried on through the clan (the gens, governed by the principle of ‘mother-right’, with females of one clan ‘married’ as a whole group to males of another), and were under the reciprocal and communal control of women and men. Men’s and women’s lives consisted of acts of exchange between individuals as consciously social beings, sexual exchange being as widely socialised as possible and integral to the system of labour exchange:
‘Exchange, both of human activity within production itself and also of human products with each other, is equivalent to species-activity and species-enjoyment whose real, conscious and true being is social activity and social enjoyment. Since human nature is the true communal nature of man, men create and produce their communal nature by their natural action, they produce their social being which is no abstract, universal power over against single individuals, but the nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own enjoyment, his own.’(8)
The motive of exchange was not private gain but the pleasure of giving, reciprocity, since, as in sexual relations, one’s partner’s enjoyment was equally one’s own: ‘In so far as man is human and thus in so far as his feelings and so on are human, the affirmation of the object by another person is equally his own enjoyment.’(9)
Women’s loss of their original equality, clearly associated by Marx and Engels with the rise of agriculture, occurred when, instead of the earlier relations of sexual and economic reciprocity, there arose ‘Property: the nucleus, the first form, of which lies in the family’ (my italics). A man as husband was now able to privatise and exploit a woman’s sexuality, her reproductive power, and her and her children’s economic labour power. Species-life has now been subordinated to its very opposite – the lust for purely private gain. The family has become an institution demarcated from and counterposed to the wider community, society being separated into families ‘opposed to one another’. This is the foundation of the whole consequent structure of class society. Engels quotes Marx:
‘The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitus) but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and the state.’(10)
Engels goes on to describe how, to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, ‘she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her he is only exercising his rights.’ As private property, the wife has yielded control over her sexuality and the products of her sexuality, her children, merely to maintain her own existence. Species-life has become a ‘means of individual life’. Both wife and labourer perform compulsory forms of labour in which ‘life activity, productive life, now appears to man only as means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to maintain physical existence.’(11)
The contradiction is now complete: the very activity in which women and men go beyond themselves and express their human essence – producing for others rather than merely for themselves – has been subordinated to selfish, animal greed. Social production and reproduction, both forms of human species-life, now appear as separate, alien powers opposed to the individuals whose activities have created them. Marx writes of the worker under capital:
‘To say that man alienates himself is the same as to say that the society of this alienated man is a caricature of his real human nature, his true species-life, that therefore his activity appears to him as a suffering, his own creation appears as an alien power, his wealth as poverty, the natural tie that binds him to other men appears as an unnatural tie and the separation from other men as his true being; his life appears as a sacrifice of life, the realization of his essence as a loss of the reality of his life, his production as a production of his own nothingness, his power over the object as the power of the object over him, and he himself, the master of his creation, appears as its slave.’(12)
Replace the word ‘man’ in the above passage with ‘woman’ and it might exactly describe the situation of a woman in a patriarchal family who has lost conscious control over her sexuality, and has been alienated from the products of her sexuality. In her introduction to Engels,(13) marxist-feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock writes: ‘In some ways it is the ultimate alienation in our society that the ability to give birth has been transformed into a liability. The reason is not simply that, since women bear children, they are more limited in their movements and activities… this was not a handicap even under the limited technology of hunter-gathering life; it certainly has no relevance today.’ Marx and Engels clearly rooted their model of the alienation of power inherent in class oppression in the ‘ultimate alienation’ of women from their own reproductive powers.
In these early writings, Marx saw a systematic parallel between, on the one hand, woman (opposed to man) as the materially productive sex, and on the other, labour (opposed to capital) as the materially productive class. The class relation duplicated on a social level the sexual relation: it included that relation and stemmed from it. The system of sexual dominance under which women were treated as mere instruments of production ended up treating men as mere instruments of production, too. Everything followed from and took its model from that initial sexual domination.
Capitalist economic principles themselves amount to prostitution, insists Marx. No capitalist could object ‘if I earn money by the sale of my body, by prostituting it to another person’s lust’. Prostitution is only the logical extrapolation of the system: ‘Even the species-relation itself, the relation between man and woman, becomes an object of commerce.’(14) Or again: ‘Prostitution is only a specific expression of the universal prostitution of the worker.’(15)
The evidence is that Marx and Engels took sexuality very seriously indeed. Marx and Engels’ dialectical vision of the proletarian future was of a return on a higher level to the ancient freedoms of the gentes or clan society, as depicted and argued by anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in ‘Ancient Society’. And that meant, centrally, women’s sexual emancipation through restoration of the old equalities. If the root relationship of oppression was the private oppression of female by male, this private oppressive relation was the first and foremost target for revolutionary political attack. The single greatest failure of the marxist tradition has been its inability to develop Marx and Engels’ analysis of sex and class. Yet development of Marx and Engels’ basic thesis on sex could only be undertaken in an era informed by feminist consciousness and practice.
Marxist feminists most often have aligned themselves with a tradition which effectively ignored Marx’s own discussion of sex, treating Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family’ as embarrassing and indefensible. They tow the line that the class struggle was primary, while the ‘politics of the personal’ was an irrelevant side-issue – and we observe them doing so yet again as those loyal to the SWP leadership pontificate. Women had only to wait for the victory of the workers’ revolution, when their personal difficulties and suffering of sexual oppression would ‘wither away’ as surely as the alienating powers of the capitalist system were dissolved. Women could fight – but only as workers, that is brought into men’s world; women who remained housewives or childcarers – women who maintained and reproduced labour under Capital – had little contribution to make. The struggle for women’s rights encompassed their equality in the workplace rather than their position in the home.
Where marxists assert that the working class becomes revolutionary through collective control of its own labour power, feminists have fallen short of asserting that women become a revolutionary force to the extent they exert collective control over their own sexuality. The notion of collectivity – sisterhood – as fundamental to women’s power has certainly been central to feminist thought, as has the demand for women’s right to control our own bodies. But an explicit linkage of the two ideas, into a concept of women as a collective body, a class exerting class-control over their collective power expressed in sexuality, has not yet emerged. But it is present in Marx and Engels’ concepts of earliest human society.
Today, Darwinian anthropology is validating the essentials of Marx, Engels and Morgan’s position on the communistic, collective and matrilocal nature of our human origins, and the idea that we are product of a Human Revolution.(16) The revolution which made us human was mobilised through a crisis in childcare; to ensure adequate support for their large-brained and very costly offspring, women (with their sons and brothers) used collective ‘strike action’ to organise men’s labour. In this account, the first word was women’s NO! Today, late patriarchal capitalism rapidly arrives at a point of such crisis of childcare and alienation from our humanity. We need once more a great, collective NO!, creative refusal to accept the destruction of health, welfare, education, childcare and housing. That NO! will be spoken loudest by women of the working class.
So, yes the class struggle is primary, but the class itself is gendered. Too often we still hear marxist dinosaurs discussing the ‘woman question’. That is to assume we’re all men. As an anthropologist I have done fieldwork with the Hadza people, a hunting-gathering group in Tanzania. Their collective noun for all the people is female and plural, including within it all women, children – and men. Their assumption is people are all women! It expresses how central women are to camp life, as producers and reproducers, but it includes everybody. For the Hadza, society is unimaginable without women at the core. And women depend entirely on their collectivity, drawing on that to resist any male attempt to exploit or coerce them.
We need to understand our class struggle in that way. How are we to collectivise and socialise modes of production and reproduction? Our humanity was realised through cooperative childcare and labour. Only so can it be restored. From this viewpoint, it is not a matter of which is the more political issue: the abusive behaviour of men in the movement or questions of revolutionary organisation. We can have no revolutionary consciousness without organising as women and men against any such abuses of power.
As Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight argues at the end of Blood Relations:
‘We have been here – at this point on the spiral – before. The revolution’s outcome is not simply in ‘the future’ conceived as something abstracted from the past. As we fight to become free, it is as if we were becoming human for the first time in our lives. But in this sense, because it concerns becoming human, the birth process we have got to win – our survival as a species depends on it – has in the deepest sense been won already. None of us would be here if it had not been. To understand this may be to understand, and thereby make ourselves the instruments of, the real strength of our cause and the inevitability of our emancipation as women, as workers and as a species. The working class is the first materially productive class in the history of the class society to have acquired the power of the strike. It is the first such class to have acquired the power to say ‘no’. When it understands the identity between this ‘no’ and the ‘no’ which women have been trying to say for the past several thousand years – a fusion of forces will take place to generate a power which no force on earth will be able to stop.’(17)
And what the left must take on board is that the first rule, without which there can be no human culture, is the rule against rape.
Camilla Power is a member of the Radical Anthropology Group. @radicalanthro
It should be noted that the Weekly Worker has done a great job in hosting Tom Walker’s article on why he left the SWP, as well as numerous articles on Women in human evolution, the Human revolution and Women and revolution. These comrades have provided space for open debate.
5. Marx, K. 1963  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in T B Bottomore (ed.) Karl Marx: Early Writings. (London: Watts), p.154.
6. Plenty of younger postmodern feminists will be abrasive about this heterosexism dated 1844. For the purpose of this discussion on the analogies of sex and class in Marx, I am using his language, as quoted. In this day and age of Judith Butler’s gender performativity, sex as just culture anyway and aspirations to ‘abolish’ gender, of course such terminology needs reworking. But from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective on human culture, it is hard to avoid some degree of heterosexism in ‘species-life’. An old marxist’s reponse to bourgeois postmodern ideology is to say, well if women’s sections are good enough for the RMT (and evidently very much required in that context) how do young feminists think they will work for the abolition of gender on their terms without being able to organise separately as women?
7. Marx, K and F Engels 1947  The German Ideology. Parts I & III. (New York: International Publishers), p.18.
8. Marx K 1971  The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in D. McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx: Early Texts. (Oxford: Blackwell), pp.193-194.
9. ibid. p.178.
10. Engels, F. 1972  The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. (London: Lawrence & Wishart), p.121-122.
11. Marx, K. 1963  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in T B Bottomore (ed.) Karl Marx: Early Writings. (London: Watts, p.127“0.
12. Marx K 1971  The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in D McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx: Early Texts. (Oxford: Blackwell), p.194.
13. Engels, F. 1972  The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. (London: Lawrence & Wishart), p.40.
14. Marx, K. 1963  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in T B Bottomore (ed.) Karl Marx: Early Writings. (London: Watts), p.37.
15. ibid., p. 156n.
16. See S. B. Hrdy, 2009 Mothers and others. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), on cooperative childcare in human evolution; see C. Knight 1991 Blood Relations, Menstruation and the origins of culture. (Yale UP) for the Human Revolution. Also see J. O’Connell, K Hawkes and N G Blurton-Jones 1999 Grandmothering and the evolution of Homo erectus. Journal of Human Evolution 36: 461-485, for the Grandmother hypothesis; F. Marlowe 2004, Marital residence among foragers. Current Anthropology 45: 277-284 on evolution of matrilocal tendencies; and Beckerman, S. and P. Valentine, 2002. Cultures of Multiple Fathers. Introduction. (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press), for modern updates on ‘group marriage’.
17. Knight, C D 1991 Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), pp. 533-534.