Jul 26 2002

Women’s Liberation and Socialism

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 02RCN @ 7:48 pm

Mary Ward reviews Women’s Liberation and Socialism by Gill Hubbard and Angela McCormick published by the Socialist Workers’ Platform, part of the Scottish Socialist Party. £1.50

I started reading the above pamphlet with some trepidation. It was produced in the midst of a heated, divisive and misleading debate on whether or not to adopt a mechanism for the party list section of the Scottish parliament elections, which would ensure that women and men were equally represented on the lists. It was therefore, I suppose, inevitable, that a pamphlet written at this time by two women in favour of the proposal should seek to find theoretical, historical and Marxist backing for their position. My concern was that in order to substantiate their position, these comrades would set out to bend the stick. Unfortunately, this pamphlet lived up to my fears.

It starts out with a dishonest description of the nature of the debate itself:

Debate is taking place within the Scottish Socialist Party about whether to have equal numbers of men and women on parliamentary candidate lists

This was not the debate. The SSP has always supported the position of complete gender equality. How this is achieved was the issue. The disagreement was over whether or not the SSP puts in place a mechanism, which determines the gender of the comrade most likely to be elected to the Scottish parliament, at the top of the list in each region.

(The RCN opposed the tokenistic proposal for a mechanism and fully backed the amendment from Dundee West and Kilmarnock branches that looked at ways of involving women in all levels of party work. The amendment rooted the cause of women’s double oppression under capitalism and sought to change the male dominance of the
SSP.)

The pamphlet goes on to claim that it, seeks to address these arguments, and explain why fighting sexism and ending women’s oppression are central to the struggle for socialism. It succeeds in achieving none of these aims.

As an opponent of the proposed change, I did expect the pamphlet to deal with the main arguments being aired up and down the country over the question of how gender equality can be achieved under capitalism. I had the right to expect that the many genuine questions raised by comrades in opposition would be answered: How do we attract more women to the ideas of socialism? How do we bring them into the structures of the SSP? How do we change the SSP to allow this to happen? How do we relieve women of their double oppression so they can fully participate? Does such a mechanism leave democracy in tatters? Does it not simply benefit a few ambitious women while doing nothing to change women’s position in society? And how will this mechanism help in fighting sexism, and ending women’s oppression?

Gesture politics

Instead of serious polemic, these questions are swept aside in the best tradition of gesture politics,

But these arguments do not take into consideration the long standing oppression of women which means that many women do not always put themselves forward to play a leading role. Many working class women lack confidence in their own abilities and don’t see themselves as political leaders in the workplace, community or within socialist organisations.

Tell us something we didn’t know like how this mechanism will change any of the above! Furthermore, reassure us that this imposed schema can be justified in terms of the questions posed by the opposition. There is little further direct reference to the debate but there is a strong suggestion that the proposal is the direct political manifestation of Marxism as applied by every great thinker of our Marxist tradition. Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Luxemberg and John MacLean are used in manner that suggests they would have had no possible quibble with this proposal!

As a history of the struggle for women’s liberation, it is a complete mish mash. It fails to develop any particular strand of the struggle to any depth nor does it make the reader feel identification with the women cited. It falls into the traditionally male trap of presenting political argument devoid of emotion. Consequently, the struggles of the suffragettes and the fight for legal safe abortions are depicted in a clinical matter of fact way that fails to move or inspire. And for any women who live outwith Glasgow, their struggles are completely invisible. Glasgow-centric-ism (I know that is not the right word but you know what I mean) debilitates the SSP in many spheres of its work but you always hope that new writers would recognise and try to deal with it. A mention of the women who have fought and sacrificed in factories, mills, fishing villages and on the land all throughout Scotland would at least have acknowledged that heroic battles have taken place outside the auspices of the Red Clydeside.

More than just a mechanism

No socialist could fail to agree with the main premise of each chapter:

  • Fighting sexism and women’s oppression is central to the struggle for socialism
  • Women are doubly oppressed under capitalism
  • Women have led tremendous struggles for the liberation of themselves and others
  • The Women’s Liberation Movement failed because of a lack of class politics
  • Capitalism is the enemy not men
  • Marxists fight for the liberation of all of humanity
  • The struggle for women’s liberation goes on today

But we need more than such bald statements in order to take us forward. We need the combination of Marxist theory and practice. We need to develop fresh ways of thinking and acting towards each other. All of this means more than just passing a motion to put in place a mechanism.

The proposal for 50-50, had the backing of the SSP executive, SSP Women’s Nework and the Socialist Worker Platform. Given such prestigious backing, winning this mechanism should have been a walkover for the party leadership. Instead, it resulted in a massive split within the party, a split within the leadership ISM platform and a group of comrades walking out of the conference when their amendments were not voted on. The Executive/Women’s Network won, but the victory was pyrrhic. The conference debate was marred by the destructive nature of the arguments used by the movers. Telling comrades they should find another party if they disagreed with the motion, that their arguments were cretinous, and the attempts to bully a woman into not speaking against the motion left a very nasty taste in the mouth, and swayed votes, not to the proposers but, against them.

A couple of weeks after the conference I walked up to join my comrades setting up a Saturday stall, the only woman amongst a fairly macho looking bunch. I could not help wondering when the 50-50 proposal would make a difference to me as a woman in the SSP, or to the hundreds of working class women walking past us.

This pamphlet was, I think, quite a brave attempt to add some theory into a debate, which at times verged on the farcical. Sadly, the haste with which it was produced, and its failure to address the central elements of the argument mean that it reflects the state of gender politics in the SSP. Like the conference resolution itself, this pamphlet lacks the vision to provide real solutions.

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