Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Class Politics, Identity Politics and Gender Politics.

with 5 comments

A group of masked demonstrators at the University of Sussex staged a protest on campus demanding lecturer Kathleen Stock lose her job

‘New Social Movement’?

In 1985, as Margaret Thatcher was consolidating her rule. Ralph Miliband wrote an influential article, the New Revisionism in Britain (New Left Review 1/150). “One of Miliband’s main aims was to refute the argument that conflicts over gender, ethnicity, the environment and so on were as fundamental as those concerned with class” wrote his biographer, Michael Newman (Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left. 2002).

In the NLR piece the author of Parliamentary Socialism stated, “‘Class politics’ has become the shorthand for much which the new revisionism most strongly repudiates: above all, it has come to stand for the insistence on the ‘primacy’ of organized labour in the challenge to capitalist power and the task of creating a radically different social order.” He noted, “Opposition to new revisionist writings has since then come from journals of the Labour Left such as Labour Herald and London Labour Briefing, from Labour Left figures such as Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, and from Trotskyist journals such as Socialist Worker and Socialist Action. But the main resistance has come from within the Communist Party, notably from a very traditionalist Morning Star, and also from individual party members.” This call to defend class struggle and the unions was a major factor in the eventual break up of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

This approach was developed in his study of class struggle, Divided Societies, written a few years later in 1989, Miliband argued that “without labour movements organised as political forces no fundamental challenge to the existing political order can ever be mounted.” In the chapter on New Social Movements he asserted that class-based motor was central, “whatever feminists, or black people, or gay and lesbians, or environmentalists or peace activists, or any other group may choose to do, even though their actions may well produce advances and reforms.” He added that “a great deal of oppression, discrimination, agression and violence exercised by white men, whether workers or bourgeois against women black people, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, cannot be traced back in any plausible way to direct or indirect economic pressures.”

On liberal and other types of non-socialist feminism Miliband commented that “This is not deny that women do have certain common interests – for instance, the right to reproductive choice, or the struggle against male violence. But lass, in relation to women, is nevertheless major dividing factor…(and) as a class, wage-earners have the potential for a degree of unity, at least, which women, as such, cannot hope to achieve.” This thought is not developed far but a moment’s reflection indicates that Roman and religious ‘laws’ alone ,sanctioning male supremacy in property and the family, are hard to untangle from history, ideology and custom to reveal a common economic basis across thousands of years. They do not rest on anything as clear as the ruling class appropriation of the social surplus.

The themes of the New Revisionism inspired many articles and books on the ‘retreat from class’ and defences of what became Marxism Today’s New Times project. Divided Societies had a tepid reception from those who were enthusiastic about ‘new social movements’ and is probably unread today. How it could help make sense of ‘intersectionality’, “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups”? The answer is that Miliband was not concerned with American political concepts/ strategies of legal and political voice but with the goals of socialist democracy based on a unifying social force, the labour movement. It could be argued that political disagreements within the left, which equally cannot be traced to “economic pressures”, from ideology to organisational differences, have played a bigger role in thwarting the forward march of labour than socially and culturally rooted divisons.

The present row over ‘critical feminism’, gender theory, and transgender rights could be seen in this light. Here is a summary of Kathleen Stock’s views that have, in effect, consolidated divides in the gay and feminist movements:

Kathleen Stock explained her views on trans issues in written evidence to Parliament in November 2020 here:

  • Womanhood and manhood reflect biological sex, not gender or gender identity;
  • The claim ‘transwomen are women’ is a fiction, not literally true
  • Sexual orientation (being gay, being lesbian) is determined by same-sex attraction, not attraction to gender identity
  • Spaces where women undress and sleep should remain genuinely single-sex, in order to protect them;
  • Children with gender identity disorders should not be given puberty blockers as minors.

Will this result in the same kind of decade long debate, rows, and sometimes bitter splits as the New Revisionist decade?

Mary Davis, who has announced her colours, is a veteran of that epoch.

This can be seen in yesterday’s post and here where Mary Davis writes for the Red-Brown Full Brexit site which brought together supporters of the Brexit Party, Spiked, sovereigntists and nationalists with members of the Communist Party of Britain, Blue Labour, sovereigntists, and self-identifying left-wingers. The fact that she feels that this is a sympathetic audience indicates that at least some Gender Critical people feel happy with the Family Faith and Flag brigade and the Brexit Party, Spiked/RCP national populist identity politics. Some might argue that the kind of class politics that appeal to them are pictures of idealised traditional working class identity.

Class Politics vs Identity Politics: The Choice for Labour 2020.

Mary Davis

The epithet “woke” is often incorrectly used to describe this phenomenon. However, such a term fails to do justice to the gravity of the political and cultural shift now infecting society. Class politics is based on an understanding that there is a conflict between labour and capital in which those who sell their labour power for a wage are exploited by those who buy it. This is central to the capitalist mode of production. But this is not the concern of identity politics. The version of identity politics which is most damaging steps beyond the collective identity of historically-marginalised sections of the population and which has, in the twentieth century, given rise to important liberation movements, chiefly of women, black people, gays and lesbians. But identity politics turns its back on such collective movements for social change. It renounces class and collectivism in favour of individual self-identity. It has traversed the boundaries of wacky theories to become a mainstream narrative which has permeated all aspects of civil society including the labour movement and especially the Labour Party.

She continues,

Labour has accepted this mantra is evidenced by the recent leadership campaign in which the candidates were urged to accept the twelve pledges produced by the newly formed Labour campaign for trans rights. These pledges include committing the Labour Party to accepting “Trans people as their self-declared gender”, and that “trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary”. Supporters of these pledges argue that the Labour Party must “Organise and fight against transphobic organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, LGB Alliance and other trans-exclusionist hate groups… [and] Support the expulsion from the Labour Party of those who express bigoted, transphobic views”. Most of the leadership candidates accepted the pledges or a variant of them – hardly surprising given that most of them, reflecting mainstream ideology, are Labour policy anyway.[1] However, the demand to expel those who campaign for women’s rights through their support of such organisations as Women’s Place UK or the LGB Alliance, breaks new ground. By effectively turning its back on women, half of the population, the Labour Party will be propelled into an uncharted and potentially disastrous course.

This should be a cause for concern. The fact that it is not is alarming for two reasons. Firstly, identity politics is the antithesis of class politics and its theory and practice should induce great anxiety in the labour movement, whose very foundation was rooted in working-class struggle. Secondly, the gender identity issue is of particular concern for women because it conflates biological sex and gender, and wilfully and errantly fails to understand women’s oppression. Trans people (and many other groups) experience intolerance and discrimination but this is not same as oppression. Discrimination itself is not a function of class society even though it is an almost inevitable by-product of the inherent inequalities within it. Women, however, are oppressed, and the basis of such oppression is class exploitation. Oppression, although it may take the form of discriminating against the oppressed, occupies a unique relationship within class society. It is the most important means of maintaining the class relations which support class exploitation and, as such, oppression is a function of class society as well as being a product of it. This is because oppression, unlike discrimination, is linked materially to the process of class exploitation as well as operating at a “superstructural” level through oppressive ideologies which serve to maintain class rule by dividing the exploited. This is why it is impossible to understand women’s oppression without understanding varying forms of exploitation in class society – capitalism in particular. In this way, Labour’s betrayal of women is linked to the betrayal of the working class. This is what Labour needs to understand before it’s too late.

Book review – ‘Women and Class’ by Mary Davis

Lynette Cawthra

Mary Davis’s Women and Class was first published in 1990 by the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and has been republished in an updated and revised form in 2020 as part of the CPB’s centenary celebration. Its main aim is to argue for a Marxist feminist perspective of the way in which women are marginalised and exploited. What this perspective means in practice is that the major determinant of women’s marginalisation is the way in which capitalist economies are based on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. Women are doubly exploited both as workers and as those who create the conditions for the system to reproduce itself.

The pamphlet is especially critical of approaches to the marginalisation of women which regard class as just one of a number of subjective factors which make up individual identity. It argues that this denies the fact that the economic system creates objective class divisions and the marginalisation of women cannot be effectively opposed unless this is recognised. It regards as particularly dangerous the growth of a ‘self-identity politics’ which questions ‘the commonly understood categories of male and female…hence doubting the fact of biological sex itself.’ Mary Davis states that this has created a situation where ‘the ideological construct of gender has usurped the material reality of biological sex and has become a ruling ideology…[which] has stealthily penetrated all aspects of civil society, including the labour movement.’

Cawthra continues,

The pamphlet expresses concern about the proposal to amend the Gender Recognition Act to allow for gender self-declaration. The concern arises on the basis that it would lead to the possible removal of women-only spaces and effectively end the protected characteristic of being a biologically defined woman. Obviously, this proposal has now been dropped by the current Government in a statement issued in September 2020. The statement by the Minister for Women and Equalities can certainly be seen to implicitly vindicate the argument in Women and Class that identity politics conflates gender and biological sex: ‘Our philosophy is that a person’s character, your ideas, and your work ethic trumps the colour of your skin or your biological sex. We firmly believe that neither biology nor gender is destiny.’ Equally, the individualism within the statement can be seen as evidence for the argument that ‘identity politics is the antithesis of class politics’.

Note this clear alignment with recent critics of Stonewall:

The pamphlet also criticises the state-sanctioned encouragement of non-binary gender classification, e.g. official Government advice to avoid gendered pronouns like he or she. From a Marxist perspective, it regards state advocacy of this as an expression of the ruling ideology and is concerned that non-binary gender classification and the consequent downgrading of the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ has been accepted even within the labour movement.

Women and Class recognises that ‘there are vital areas of social reality which Marxists (including Marx) have simply not addressed.’ It may possible to examine the acceptance of a range of gender identities from a Marxist perspective while recognising the central oppression of biologically defined women. Current evidence seems to show a steady increase in the number of countries accepting as legitimate range of gender classifications including non-binary and transgender. That fact clearly doesn’t indicate that this is necessarily a progressive move from a Marxist perspective and the pamphlet regards it as ‘pseudo-egalitarianism’. From the point of view of the Marxist feminism set out in Women and Class, the question is whether it could be possible that this could contain transgressive challenges to the ruling ideology which sanctions the oppression and marginalisation of women.

She concludes,

As an alternative to the form of Marxist feminism advocated by Women and Class, I’ll end with a quote from Heidi Hartman: ‘Many Marxists typically argue that feminism is at best less important than class conflict and at worst divisive of the working class. This political stance produces an analysis that absorbs feminism into the class struggle. Moreover, the analytic power of Marxism with respect to capital has obscured its limitations with respect to sexism. We will argue here that while Marxist analysis provides essential insight into the laws of historical development, and those of capital in particular, the categories of Marxism are sex-blind. Only a specifically feminist analysis reveals the systemic character of relations between men and women. Yet feminist analysis by itself is inadequate because it has been blind to history and insufficiently materialist.’

Miliband, as can be seen, recognised these points, which puts his 1980s writing ahead of the Communist Party of Britain..

Update.

Kenan Malik writes in the Observer today (Whether freedom of speech or fairness to migrants, some principles are sacred) – a view this Blog endorses:

“It’s a complex debate, with important arguments on both sides. For many trans activists, however, it’s not a debate that should be taking place. Anyone who believes that sex is more important than gender in defining what it is to be a woman – or who would exclude trans women from women-only spaces – is, they argue, “transphobic” by definition and their arguments bigoted. Yet, condemning figures such as Selina Todd, one of Britain’s most distinguished historians of working-class and women’s lives, or the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as if they were feminist versions of Tommy Robinson, strains credulity. Trying to strangle a debate, or mislabelling one’s opponents, is no response to complexity. It also makes harassment and intimidation more acceptable. After all, many argue, if they are bigots, who want to “eliminate” trans people, why shouldn’t they be harassed? The result is to leave female academics such as Stock needing police protection from those who identify as women.”

Written by Andrew Coates

October 17, 2021 at 12:14 pm

5 Responses

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  1. An excellent post, Andrew.

    Richard Harris

    October 17, 2021 at 12:52 pm

  2. I concur with Richard Harris. Worth circulating wider.

    David Walsh

    October 17, 2021 at 1:02 pm

  3. Challenging and important issues are raised here. Orthodox Marxism brings a sort of focus and rigour but has faced wave after wave of challenges and adaptations- not a bad thing in my view. Even a dual-systems approach to theorizing capitalism and patriarchy is only a beginning. There is also the role of racialized capitalism in fostering hierarchies fundamental to Capitalism’s workings. This is only the beginning.

    The iconic Stonewall Uprising- now memorialized by a legion of mainstream Lesbian/Gay advocacy groups- was quite literally sparked by black and brown transgender street revolutionaries- Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, in particular. There’s something there.

    Transgender people are known to me as great comrades in many struggles and this should be our starting point. Patriarchy affects us all, though in unique ways, just as does Capitalism, White Supremacy and the rest. More of the transgender people around me were raised as (cis) women, some as (cis) men. I treat them with respect and humanity. This is an excellent starting point, as where I live it is mostly divisive and reactionary forces that seek to stoke the flames of hatred against Transwomen: “Radical Feminists” aligned with a resurgent Right. I seek to foster a true solidarity instead, one which very much includes the struggle against Patriarchy, against Transphobia, against Capitalism and for a more expansive definition of Human Liberation.

    American Dream

    October 17, 2021 at 1:41 pm

  4. Good post, Andrew! The Kenan Malik piece in today’s Observer pretty well sums up my own view.

    Jim Denham

    October 17, 2021 at 4:24 pm

  5. I feel like Anglophone North America had the chance to take this in a really stupid direction after the birth of Camp Trans at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival back in the 90’s. The subsequent rise of a shrill fraction of transphobic gender essentialist feminists and their counterparts in an equally shrill and polarized fraction of transgender partisans has to a good degree worked itself out and as far as I am concerned this is nothing but a side show at this point. Admittedly I am not on social media, if I were I am sure I could amuse myself to my heart’s content with conflict that generates great heat but little light. I am glad that the militants around me have much better things to work on. This stuff is the concern of a marginal fraction here (e.g. WOLF), although the fact that elements of the far Right like the Proud Boys wants to latch onto it is indeed troubling…

    American Dream

    October 17, 2021 at 11:38 pm


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