Back in the day during the first Gulf War there was a discussion in my anti-war group about setting up a Women Against War in the Gulf. Usually the arguments were between everyone else versus the Stalinists. When this was suggested, the SWP vehemently opposed the idea and accused the proposers of “separatism”… One of the Stalinists whispered in my ear, “I thought we would get unanimity on this subject”… My reply was: “You’d think that, wouldn’t you”!
The result was a much fuller discussion on the subject which unfortunately was reduced to separatism versus autonomy. Suffice to say, the SWP totally alienated a whole layer of women activists who were part of various women’s groups. And inevitably they lost the vote. The debate pretty much can be summed up as “autonomy…separatism… what’s the difference”… Well, there is a big difference! Throw in some sneering and contempt and voilà… you have a sum total of a debate on women’s self-organisation…
I have had the same discussions with SWPers over the years and a re-hash of the same old arguments. It becomes groundhog day …. another day…another “you’re a separatist” jibe. Combined with discrediting, dismissing and devaluing feminism as something steeped in academia and petit-bourgeois. Workerist, reductionist and economistic arguments just got so predictable; bland, boring, banal and bullshit…
Twenty-odd years on and I am still having these basic arguments. What has brought this into focus again lately is the implosion in the SWP. And why do the SWP fear feminism?
The past few months have outraged and disgusted me as the entrenched workerism and closed off intellectual system of the SWP becomes even more apparent. Though the leadership blames that “creeping feminism” for its woes.
Feminism is a dirty word. But why? Along the way I have met women who were active in the SWP’s Women’s Voice, all of the ones I spoke to about it especially the closure shocked them and they left. Funny thing, all of them joined the Labour Party. SWP’s loss Labour Party’s gain.
SWP claim to be so sophisticated in their analysis of the class struggle yet the same cannot be said of their understanding of oppression. The question for me is why organisations like the SWP can’t for instance, admit that patriarchy exists and that it is not just about the means of production? Shelia Rowbotham in the book ‘Beyond the fragments’ she talks about the hostility towards feminism by the SWP during 1970s.
‘The IS (precursor to the SWP) ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organisation’.
The SWP still wallows in this limited and simplistic dogma.
I think the SWP are afraid of feminism precisely because it’s alternative power structure, an alternative source of organisational strength, this will inevitably undermine the culture of political obedience in the SWP which they have been careful to impose on the membership for decades. It’s not creeping feminism what has created the woes in the SWP, it’s a corrupt political culture, where powerful men are/were excused for sexual exploitation and violence towards women.
The SWP leadership and loyalists may indulge in distracting people from the bleeding obvious but the reality is about abuse of power and of power dynamics between men and women (let’s throw in some understanding of patriarchy too). If you stifle debate within your organisation and only use a top-down method of education then isn’t it any wonder sexism, exploitation, violence and unequal relationships between men and women exist within the SWP. And let’s be clear this isn’t an internal matter for the SWP this has impacted on the whole of the Left.