Understanding women’s oppression (SWP take note!)


I must confess that the latest offering from Judith Orr on women’s liberation seems like it was quickly written on the back of a cigarette packet. Rather like the offering from Sheffield SWP here.

The Sheffield document (and some of their pre-conference bulletin on women’s liberation) read like they were put together without any thought mustered. Not inspiring in the least for anyone wanting to understand the roots of women’s oppression.

Sheffield SWP document …. 

Firstly, the Sheffield document (Sheffield Against Sexism) makes no attempt to understand or critique feminism rather it’s caricatured and distorted. Sorry but the authors don’t know their socialist feminism from their radical feminism not their separatism from their autonomous organisation.

“..was a political pull towards the separatism of Reclaim the Night and other feminist ideology and discussion, epitomised by the “slutwalks” internationally and the repulsion of the treatment of the woman involved in the Strauss- Khan case.”

Why is it “separatism” to confront your own oppression? Slutwalk demos had men on there (the big one in London did).

“After discussion with the District Committee we organised a caucus with the students to discuss our approach to fighting sexism and oppression. We agreed that we would argue for open meetings and activity, to link the issues they had raised to the Council cuts which had recently been announced, particularly those in caring services and grants to voluntary sector organisations, which would have a disproportionate effect on women in the city.”

What was the content of this discussion? The start of the document talks about lap dancing clubs and now it swings around to council cuts. What was the political project? What were the demands? What were the political dynamics? What was the point?

“We found some of the women at these meetings, who described themselves as feminists,”

Oh the humanity! Feminists! FEMINISTS! Quick get on the phone… comrades, we have found a new specie!

“It was clear that there was some confusion around feminist politics, understandably, as we have seen little campaigning and activity in the last few years around these issues.”

Really? What issues may these be as the authors aren’t clear themselves? Actually there has been feminist activity on many issues around the country that’s if the SWP had looked around.

“But what was also clear was that ‘third wave feminism’ meant something different to each comrade, many calling themselves ‘feminists’ (men and women) and arguing that patriarchy could embody a socialist method of fighting oppression. Whilst some had read feminist arguments, few had read any of our writings in this area, which we actively encouraged.”

Don’t think the SWP are clear as to what feminism actually is themselves, they usually have a distorted and rather caricatured understanding. I mean, how dare these activists be reading feminist texts, thinking for themselves and holding ideas different to the SWP… Yeah, I bet they did encourage them to read their…erm… pamphlets.

“Within a couple of days, after some criticism on Facebook of the demo route not being accessible and men shouting too loudly and being too prominent, an internalised and personalised argument developed, showing their lack of confidence in arguing our politics.”

Well… Duh! If you don’t put forward a clear and concise project, demands and ideas then people will be pissed off. It looks more and more like a “front” campaign.

“We have continued to argue for our tradition of fighting for women’s liberation since then, e.g. holding a women’s liberation day school in Sheffield last year, a regional one in Leeds and annual international women’s day meetings. We discussed Marxism and oppression at a recent educational attended by nearly 30 members. Unfortunately many of the students haven’t come along to these events and continue to be pulled by “socialist feminist” and identity politics, privilege theory, and argue that all men benefit from women’s oppression.”

People thinking for themselves! Perish the thought! How dare these people hold ideas contrary to the SWP… And …. if these ideas are not curtailed then feminism will be creeping into the movement! Comrades… inoculate yourselves against this creeping feminism by repeating the mantra of “workerism”

There’s no actual critique of socialist feminism (why the commas?) nor privilege theory, identity politics or whether men benefit. Instead there’s this sneery contempt in the tone towards people who hold these views. Hey comrades, the only way is the SWP…. You are empty vessels waiting to be filled with workerist goodness and the line from the leadership!

“It is still important that we argue for our tradition of fighting oppression both inside the party and whilst working with people with often very different politics, in united front work. We have showed on Sheffield that our ideas are received well amongst feminists who invariably willing to work alongside us, as long as our members understand and are confident to put these arguments forward.”

In other words, piss off a lot of feminists and alienate a whole layer of people. Brilliant! How NOT to build a campaign!

How Can Women Win Liberation – Judith Orr

Again, rather like the Sheffield document it caricatures, simplifies and distorts feminism along with fundamentally and deliberately misunderstanding the nature of patriarchy.

“Feminism has always been a broad church with many different political currents. But it does not see the fundamental divide in society as between classes. Many feminists see the most important divide in society as between men and women”.

Obviously the comrade has never heard of socialist feminism. To reiterate the point, she doesn’t see any fundamental difference radical and socialist feminism, she conflates it all. For a Marxist, she uses static categories as opposed to exploring the dynamics between patriarchy, women and capitalist exploitation. Orr poses an essentialist argument. In some ways, I see a parallel between Orr’s position and radical feminism, both are essentialist and both are static.

“some feminists argue that oppression is rooted in individual relationships with men. They say that men benefit from women’s oppression”.

Well, men do benefit from women’s oppression, including working class men, to deny this is to deny the plain facts of oppression. The man who bullies his female partner to cook the meals, housework and childcare is gaining a direct benefit from her oppression. Yes, the man is exploited by capitalism but that does not mean he cannot benefit from the oppression of a woman.

“Concentrating on individual men instead of the system feeds an argument that the imposition of male power causes women’s oppression. It assumes that all men hold power over all women.This view, commonly referred to as patriarchy, can reflect the way society appears. But it doesn’t help us understand the roots and nature of oppression, or its useful function for capital.”

But that argument negates personal responsibility, men make political choices (Rape? domestic violence?). You cannot explain away oppression by putting forward reductionist and workerist arguments. There are specific social processes including specific ideological and political processes that do operate at both individual and societal levels. Patriarchy is a whole set of social processes that lead men to make those choices when it comes to the oppression of women.

“Those who are seen as having more privilege are seen as part of the problem, not potentially part of the solution. White people, men and straight people are written off from being able to play any role in struggle.

The logic of this is that, if all white men have the same interests, then all women should organise separately, all black women should be separate from them, and so on. But dividing ourselves into ever diminishing circles around specific forms of oppression diminishes our collective power.”

No, that is not argued at all. Firstly, it is about raising consciousness about power dynamics in this society. People can benefit from oppression and that includes the working class. Capitalism feeds off patriarchal norms and that includes the family unit. Reducing oppression reduce to workerism and economism fails to understand the contradictions, and complexities of patriarchal capitalism. Patriarchy is the power relationships that exist in this society between men and women. These relationships are alienated as the result of both commodification and the alienating effects of the patriarchial nature of the relationship between men and women.

“But class is the critical divide in society. For socialists class isn’t a category you fall into because of your income or job description. It’s a social relationship between those who have to sell their ability to labour and those who profit from the surplus that labour creates.”

You cannot subordinate any form of oppression. Once you have a hierarchy of oppression you undermine the class struggle. My own political belief is that you use a class analysis to explain oppression, but that class isn’t a ‘superior’ form of oppression that garners any more solidarity than confronting and fighting other forms of oppression. If you feel that sexism isn’t being taken seriously then you must challenge that along with trying to make the invisible visible. That’s how you fight women’s oppression!

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2 thoughts on “Understanding women’s oppression (SWP take note!)

  1. Agree with nearly everything you say but on this bit:

    “Within a couple of days, after some criticism on Facebook of the demo route not being accessible and men shouting too loudly and being too prominent, an internalised and personalised argument developed, showing their lack of confidence in arguing our politics.”

    Well… Duh! If you don’t put forward a clear and concise project, demands and ideas then people will be pissed off. It looks more and more like a “front” campaign

    I was on the march (I’m a man), i got told by one of the women leading it to tell everyone behind where to go so that the march was accessible, so i did and got people having a go at me like “men telling us what to do, great”. which is obviously an insignificant annoyance but yeah.

    Also i think the reclaim the nights are women-only which i think is a good idea and not separatist but can see why some SWPers do

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