Susan Dorazio, a native of Detroit, Michigan, is a retired child care worker and past-convener of the Women’s Commission of the Socialist Party USA. She is a member of the Glasgow North East branch of the Scottish Socialist Party.
For at least the past 100 years, socialists in Europe and the United States have debated and often disagreed on the political implications of the intersection of class and gender. This situation has had a strong impact on the principles, programs, and strategies of our political parties. The way it got played out around the issue of woman’s suffrage is instructive.
At the turn of the 20th Century, socialist activists were caught in a bind. Was the struggle for the right of women to vote part of the broader movement for human liberation and social justice, or was it a diversionary cross-class liberal reform and thus a capitulation to bourgeois democracy?
In 1910, the German revolutionary, Clara Zetkin, and the Socialist International of which the Copenhagen International Women’s Conference was a part, contributed greatly to resolving this quandary. Not only did they call on all member parties to support woman’s suffrage as a socialist project independent of the mainstream middle-class movement. They actually took action to further class solidarity by initiating International Women’s Day as an event that would directly link opposition to ruling class hegemony and imperialist wars with the struggle for full economic, social, political, and civil rights for working class women. This position was rightly viewed as anything but contradictory to the over-riding goal of replacing global capitalism with democratic socialism.
This recognition of the inseparable connection between socialism and feminism needs to be re-examined and re-confirmed by the revolutionary left today if we are not to fall back into a reactionary stance in the guise of class consciousness.
Three recent documents related to the Scottish Socialist Party in this post-Sheridan period support this position. The first is an interview with several current and former women members of the SSP in the January 28th issue of the Guardian newspaper, titled Sexism, not Socialism. The second is a call by one of the party branches for a party-wide discussion of issues that have surfaced over the past 6 years, which include feminism. The third is an article by Roz Paterson in the 11th-24th March 2011 issue of the Scottish Socialist Voice, titled Reds are the Natural Greens.
The most explicitly socialist feminist point of view is contained in the Guardian interview. Like the women of the Second International in 1910, the women in this article have been able to look at their commitment to socialism in the context of their political and personal experiences, values, and goals as feminists. They see how Sheridan’s actions only make sense as misogynistic behavior part-and-parcel of a patriarchal culture and subcultures that not only condone but encourage it. This led some comrades within the party to excuse Sheridan’s actions and to demean those who spoke out against them for betraying basic socialist and feminist principles. Not only did hero-worship become a strategy in the campaign to build the party, women members became “cannon fodder”, in the words of one of the women. By speaking out on this development and its consequences, these strong women took a stand against “the tyranny of sexism”, as another of the women put it.
It is to the enormous credit of the party as a whole that in the weeks after the Sheridan trial and sentencing serious efforts are being made to learn and to change. At first, the prevailing lesson was that setting up party celebrities for the tenuous purpose of electoral success is the wrong route to take.
Lately, however, there are signs that the emphasis is shifting to a systemic analysis that is broader in scope. This can be seen in the resolution being brought by the Glasgow West branch to National Conference— one that places the Sheridan case where it belongs: in the context of left unity, paths forward for the SSP, standing in elections, environmental issues/movements/activists, international links, and feminism.
Feminism isn’t the only movement that requires a resurgence of socialist analysis and program in order to work for, not against, our capacity to create a global society fundamentally different from the capitalist model. As Roz Paterson points out, “We let the Greens and the Zac Goldsmith-type Tories ‘own’ the environmental movement, even though their individualistic, voluntary, pro-capitalist approach will drive us headlong to destruction.” She concludes her article, Reds are the Natural Greens, by saying “We need more than a splash of green on red. We need to step up to the plate and make the case for a de-growth economy based on socialist, not capitalist, principles.” In other words, we stand for socialist environmentalism.
This is exactly the point on which we can and must claim feminism. As Roz says about environmental sustainability, feminism in order to be a means for social change must be predicated on communality, cooperation, and social justice, and based on the tenets of equality and sharing. As the SSP women say, it must demand a collective commitment to feminist consciousness and processes that promote respect and that bring out the best in all of us. As the SSP branch says about continuing the discourse on internal democracy, “We believe that this process of discussion… would enrich our understanding about the process ahead, the challenges the SSP faces and the question of how to build an open, democratic, pluralistic socialist party/movement in Scotland.”
If our task were to confront either capitalism or patriarchy individually, we would be having a much easier time of it. However, history and personal experience show us that we have no choice but to attack them simultaneously, as befits their deeply interrelated nature. This will require such structural provisions as gender balance and feminist process within our socialist organizations; such programmatic demands as affirmative action to ensure that women are truly free to enter every occupational category, and the right of all women to abortion on demand; and ongoing efforts to bring more women into our parties and our movement through personal contacts, electoral campaigns, literature, street actions, public events, radical caucuses within our labor unions, and coalition work.
In short, to act on the ideology of socialist feminism is to be unrelenting in our belief that those who would push the clock back on the discoveries women have made regarding their personal and political lives is to do the international democratic socialist movement a monumental disservice. We can only move forward by building upon the past.