James Bloodworth (writing at Obliged to Offend in December 2011):
Instead of celebrating … the left should reflect on what a
pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
Ever since Margaret Thatcher stopped appearing in public due to poor health, the
fit and proper reaction to her eventual exit from the earthly realm has been
discussed with increasing regularity by the left.
That rolling news will gloss over her legacy with the empty platitudes of the obsequious is entirely predictable. Nor will it surprise many to see the leading lights of the Labour
Party queuing up to shower the former Prime Minister with praise.
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the
dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her
particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many
formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites
now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’
what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never
will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that
there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so
unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters
in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so
emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be
greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she
inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the
Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she
trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it
again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even
if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking
things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however,
is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone
killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the
forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor
Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it
has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher
that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not
particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with
clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do
better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any
political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who
popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our
own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the
psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying
us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly
don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
Julie Bindel, a socialist feminist [or should that be "radical feminist" ? - see comments below], writes in the generally right-of-centre magazine Standpoint. It should go without saying that us Shiraz’ers don’t necessarily agree with all of what she argues:
Disrespect for women: Tommy Sheridan (left) and George Galloway (right) share anti-feminist attitudes with the Occupy movement
Feminism’s natural home is the political Left. The struggle for equal pay, kick-started by the female workers at the Ford Dagenham car plant who went on strike in 1968, was supported by male-led unions. Socialists are assumed to be in favour of total equality between men and women and castigate the Right for considering women to be only worthy of childrearing and housekeeping.
In 2012 the Trades Union Congress appointed a female general secretary, Frances O’Grady, for the first time in its 145-year history. Yet the Tories managed to vote in a woman as party leader as far back as 1975. Who says sexism is the domain of right-wing traditionalists?
The leading contemporary socialist feminist thinkers such as Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal are well known in the academy but will never become as prominent publicly as their male counterparts. The reason for this is straightforward. When women work with leftist men to achieve a common aim, any issues specific to women are often seen as a “bourgeois deviation” and counter to the wider cause.
In 1964 Stokely Carmichael, the prominent US Black Power activist, was asked about the role of women in the civil rights movement. He replied, “The only position for women in the movement is prone.” Carmichael’s remarks caused outrage among many women and are still considered emblematic of the entrenched misogyny of 1960s activist movements. Sexism on the Left on both sides of the Atlantic has a long and shameful history. One Berkeley anti-war leader said of feminists in 1969, “Let them eat cock.” At Students for a Democratic Society meetings, “brothers” reported their unique dreams for utopia which included, “Free grass, free food, free women and free clothes.” If and when women tried to criticise male chauvinism within the movement, their actions were mocked. Such sexism prompted the feminist critiques of the New Left that would later develop into the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
Despite more than four decades of feminism, sexism on the Left has barely abated. As recently as 2004 former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone warmly welcomed to City Hall Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who advocated domestic violence and the stoning of adulterous women, and justified doing so when challenged. Al-Qaradawi was a speaker at a conference, hosted by Livingstone, defending the “right” of Muslim women to wear the hijab. Although the conference claimed to promote “choice”, al-Qaradawi has ruled that wearing the hijab is not a matter of choice but of religious obligation. There were no feminists of Muslim origin invited to speak at the conference or any Muslims critical of religious doctrine. Feminist critics of Livingstone’s friendly relationship with al-Qaradawi described the conference as a one-sided presentation of religious fundamentalism masquerading as a human rights debate.
George Galloway is a fine example of a man on the Left who appears to consider women as inferior. Galloway, along with left-wing heroes Ken Loach, John Pilger and Michael Moore, is a supporter of Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face questioning on allegations of sexual assault and rape.
Galloway implied that once a woman had agreed to sex with a man her ongoing consent was implicit, even if she were asleep. His remarks were deemed to be so offensive to women that the then leader of the Respect party, Salma Yaqoob, resigned in protest. “It might be really bad manners not to have tapped her on the shoulder,” Galloway pontificated in a YouTube video, “and said: ‘Do you mind if I do it again?’ It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning.”
Suggestions by a number of men on the Left that Assange’s two accusers are part of a CIA-inspired honeytrap and that the great man himself is the only victim are in themselves indicative of a culture of “bros before hos”, a term some left-wing women have heard male counterparts use.
Nowhere is sexism and hypocrisy on the Left more evident than in relation to the abuse of women. The late Stieg Larsson, heralded as a left-wing anti-sexist hero for his portrayal of women’s resistance to male violence in his Dragon Tattoo trilogy, once said that those who campaigned for the rights of women in immigrant communities wanted only to “portray all male immigrants as representatives of a single homogeneous attitude towards women” and that such people “only talked about honour crime because they wanted to divert attention from how white men raised in the ‘patriarchal structures of Swedish society’ abused and murdered women as a matter of course”.
It was recently revealed that some male “leaders” of the Socialist Workers Party attempted to hold a sharia-type court hearing as a response to an accusation of rape. Tom Walker, a journalist on the party’s paper, Socialist Worker, resigned in disgust at the blatant anti-women stance taken by the central committee. “There is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the Left,” he said. “It may shed some light to learn that ‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters. In fact it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender.”
Similar tales of sexism and downright misogyny came to light in Scotland during the Tommy Sheridan debacle. Sheridan, a charismatic working-class activist and convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party, stepped down from his post in 2004, citing his wife’s pregnancy. But it later came to light that the News of the World had got hold of explosive evidence of Sheridan’s extramarital affairs and trips to a Manchester swingers’ club. Sheridan admitted his indiscretions at a party meeting but demanded that members cover for him for the good of the SSP. The feminists refused on a matter of principle.
Catriona Grant, equality spokesperson at the time, says that Sheridan decided his best form of attack was to pretend that a political plot by feminists was afoot. “Seemingly the women in the party wanted to get rid of him by means of a matriarchal coup. Sheridan found himself talking publicly about witches and dark arts,” Grant told me.
Sheridan went on to sue the News of the World in 2006 for defamation and won £200,000 damages. But following a subsequent police investigation he was convicted of perjury, and sentenced to three years in prison, of which he served one. (Andy Coulson, formerly News of the World editor and David Cameron’s communications director, and two other journalists have since been charged with perjury and other offences in connection with the Sheridan case.) Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire, is author of a book on Sheridan. I asked if he considered the male party members who covered up for Sheridan to be sexist. “There were concerns about his behaviour when he was in Militant [before setting up the SSP] and complaints were made, but the leadership in London chose not to act on it. I suppose they didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
The Occupy movement appears to be yet another left-wing movement dominated by sexist men. One female member, who asked not to be named for fear of being classed as a “splitter” or “scab”, explains that the movement is a perfect example of “mostly young, almost exclusively white, almost all middle-class men, who thought that the revolution was finally here. But don’t bother mentioning the oppression of women in society, sexual harassment on site, or how we end up doing all the dirty jobs in the camp, as they’ll talk over you, or shout at you to stop monopolising the conversation.”
She added: “There’s no point questioning the objectification of women, or the way we’re talked down to and not listened to by men on the site despite often having many years of campaigning for social justice behind us.”
Women in the workplace suffer sexism from men of all political persuasions, but the reality is that the very unions that can potentially support them against discrimination and sexual harassment, for example, are themselves often bastions of male privilege. Cath Elliott is a union activist and freelance writer who finds herself battling sexism almost on a daily basis. “Having been involved in left politics since I was a teenager I thought I might have got used to sexist left-wing men by now,” says Elliott. “But no, it is always disappointing when men on the Left sell women out.”
Brendan O’Neill, an extreme libertarian formerly associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party and its magazine Living Marxism, is one of many men on the Left who defendspornography despite a long battle by feminists to show how it degrades women. In a recent article, “A Marxist defence of Page 3 girls”, on the LeftCentre website O’Neill quoted Marx on press freedom before wading into the feminists who gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry about sexist media representation of women. O’Neill called them a “bevy of feminists”, “a shrill chorus”, and “boob blockers”.
Male Labour MPs are not exempt from uttering the odd sexist rant. Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, tweeted to Louise Mensch when she resigned as a Conservative MP, “Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics.” Although his comment was probably intended to be tongue in cheek, it still showed a blatant disrespect for women. When David Cameron told Angela Eagle, an openly lesbian Labour MP, to “calm down, dear” in the Commons it attracted widespread criticism. Somehow men on the Left seem to get away with it more easily, perhaps because of the patronising view that the working classes treat their women rough and ready (despite the fact that successful leftwingers are rarely working-class these days).
Vera Baird QC, Solicitor-General in the last Labour government and now Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, says that she gets tired of some left-wing men sidelining women and disregarding crucial issues such as sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. “Feminists have long challenged men’s sexism, whether in trade unions or political groups, but unfortunately the same old stories keep being told. It is high time those particular men recognised that we are not going to wait for the so-called ‘revolution’, meanwhile standing there, cap in hand, waiting for our turn to speak out about what matters to women.”
Sucheta Chatterjee, a lawyer and feminist activist, recently posted on a social networking site what she imagines to be in the heads of her male comrades. “Just stop bitching about feminism and race issues. Stop being divisive and undermining the class war. How many times have I told you that after the revolution, life will be paradise? Women will be treated like full-fledged humans and blacks will be taken seriously. Till then, shut the fuck up. And bitch, go make me a sandwich. Only fair trade wheat please.”
As much as I loathed the Thatcher government I have always felt deeply perturbed by the misogyny directed towards Baroness Thatcher by men on the Left. When I hear young male socialists today shout “Burn the witch” and other such grotesque slogans I realise that the vitriol towards her goes beyond a robust dislike of her political legacy. It comes also from a woman-hating resentment that she climbed to the top of the political tree. I will not be dancing on Thatcher’s grave or holding a street party when she dies unlike many of my male comrades. I would sooner celebrate the end of the left-wing dinosaur and the beginning of true political equality.
We have deliberately refrained from commenting on this most serious matter until now, mainly because of lack of first-hand information and a reluctance (unlike, for instance, Socialist Unity) to engage in tittle-tattle. However, journalist Laurie Penny, on the New Statesman website, has now placed the matter very much in the public domain. By republishing her article we do not mean to endorse everything she (or ‘celebrity member’ China Mieville) say/write: here’s what she’s written:
What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?
When it comes to sexual violence, why should progressive organisations be held to different standards?
How do we deal with sexual violence on the left? Here’s a case study.
The Socialist Workers’ Party, for those who aren’t familiar with it already, is a political organisation of several thousand members which has been a prominent force on the British left for more than 30 years. They are at the forefront of the fight against street fascism in Britain, were a large organising presence in the student and trade union movement over the past several years, and are affiliated with large, active parties in other countries, like Germany’s Die Linke. Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members.
Like many others on the left in Britain, I’ve had my disagreements with the SWP, but I’ve also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter. And it matters that right now, the party is exploding in messy shards because of a debate about sexism, sexual violence and wider issues of accountability.
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker – a party member who walked out this week in disgust – explained that feminism “is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters…. it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender.”
In a brave and principled resignation statement published yesterday, Walker said that:
“. . . there is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’. Socialist Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted cover-up, making abusers feel protected.”
Members are now leaving the organisation, or being expelled, in large numbers after the case came to light at the party’s conference and transcripts of the discussions were leaked online.
The writer China Mieville, a longstanding member of the SWP, told me that, like many members, he is “aghast”:
“The way such allegations were dealt with – complete with questions about accusers’ past relationships and drinking habits that we would instantly, rightly denounce as sexist in any other context – was appalling. It’s a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism.”
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me. “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It’s up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”
The British Socialist Worker’s Party is hardly atypical among political parties, among left-wing groups, among organisations of committed people or, indeed, among groups of friends and colleagues in having structures in place that might allow sexual abuse and misogyny by men in positions of power to continue unchecked. One could point, in the past 12 months alone, to the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile case, or to those Wikileaks supporters who believe that Julian Assange should not be compelled to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden.
I could point, personally, to at least two instances involving respected men that have sundered painfully and forever friendship groups which lacked the courage to acknowledge the incidents. The only difference is that the SWP actually talk openly about the unspoken rules by which this sort of intimidation usually goes on. Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.
To say that the left has a problem with handling sexual violence is not to imply that everyone else doesn’t. There is, however, a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly. It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
That unwillingness to analyse our own behaviour can quickly become dogma. The image is one of petty, nitpicking women attempting to derail the good work of decent men on the left by insisting in their whiny little women’s way that progressive spaces should also be spaces where we don’t expect to get raped and assaulted and slut-shamed and victimised for speaking out, and the emotions are rage and resentment: why should our pure and perfect struggle for class war, for transparency, for freedom from censorship be polluted by – it’s pronounced with a curl of the upper lip over the teeth, as if the very word is distasteful – ‘identity politics’? Why should we be held more accountable than common-or-garden bigots? Why should we be held to higher standards?
Because if we’re not, then we have no business calling ourselves progressive. Because if we don’t acknowledge issues of assault, abuse and gender hierarchy within our own institutions we have no business speaking of justice, much less fighting for it.
“The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked,” writes Walker. “Lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does.” He’s talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.
Equality isn’t an optional add-on, a side-issue to be dealt with after the revolution’s over. There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women’s rights. The sooner the left accepts that and starts working the enormous stick of priggishness and prejudice out of its collective backside, the sooner we can get on with the job at hand.
Tendance Coatsey opines on “The Cairo Conferences – or how some on the left have got the Muslim Botherhood so wrong”:
Above: John Rees speaking at a Cairo Conference
One major factor that explains the inability of some on the British left to support, clearly, Egyptian democrats is their [the British "leftists"] long-standing links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is not just a matter of domestic alliances with the (then) Muslim Association of Britain in the Stop the War Coalition (StWC).
On the principle of being ‘with’ the MB – indeed anybody – when ‘fighting’ ‘imperialism’ and its allied states: this reached its highest point in the Cairo Conferences, from 2002 to 2009.
Wikipedia is the most convenient source of the history of this alliance,
The first conference was held on the 17–19 December 2002, at the Conrad Hotel on the banks of the Nile . Four hundred attended. Speakers included former United Nations (UN) humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Dr Hans von Sponeck. Former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella (TC Note- who had become an Islamist) chaired the conference. One outcome of the conference was the production of the ‘Cairo Declaration’, which took a stance against the then looming Iraq war; it also noted the negative effects of capitalist globalisation and U.S. hegemony on the peoples of the world (including European and American citizens). In addition, it noted that “In the absence of democracy , and with widespread corruption and oppression constituting significant obstacles along the path of the Arab peoples’ movement towards economic, social, and intellectual progress, adverse consequences are further aggravated within the framework of the existing world order of neoliberal globalisation”, while firmly rejecting the ‘advance of democracy’ justification for attacking Iraq.
The UK Stop the War Coalition, in particular John Rees then of the SWP, initiated the signing of the declaration by European leftists, including: Jeremy Corbyn MP, George Galloway MP, Tony Benn, Susan George (scholar/activist based in France), Bob Crow, Mick Rix (general secretary, UK train drivers’ Aslef union), Julie Christie, George Monbiot, Harold Pinter, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui (Muslim Parliament), Tommy Sheridan (Scottish socialist), Dr Ghada Karmi (research fellow, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter), Tariq Ali. attended.
I shall miss out the specific references to Iraq and concentrate on what the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty highlighted of the original ‘Cairo Declaration’.
Selective and misleading extracts from the ‘Cairo Declaration’ have been published in “Socialist Worker” (18th January 2003). The carefully edited extracts refer to the internationalist struggle against neo-liberal globalisation, the growth of poverty and unemployment as a result of capitalist globalisation and US hegemony, and the need for total opposition to war on Iraq. Such worthy sentiments, however, are not representative of the politics encapsulated in the ‘Cairo Declaration’. The ‘Cairo Declaration’ criticises the US for ‘maintaining the existing uni-polar world order’ and blocking a shift in the balance of power ‘towards multi-polarity.’ This is not an obscure and coded call for working-class struggle against capitalist inequality. It is a complaint that the domination of international markets by large-scale US capital (uni-polarity) is squeezing out the local capitalist classes and elites (multi-polarity).
It would be tedious to go through all these ‘conferences’ declarations but this one indicates the truth of this analysis (from the 3rd Conference 2003),
• The U.S. monopolizes political, economic and military power within the framework of capitalist globalization, to the detriment of the lives of the majority of the world’s people.
• The U.S. imposes control through naked aggression and militarized globalization in pursuit of its rulers’ interests, all while reinstating the characteristic direct occupation of classical colonialism.
• The U.S. global strategy, which was formulated prior to September 11 2001, aims to maintain the existing unipolar world order, and to prevent the emergence of forces that would shift the balance of power towards multi-polarity. The U.S. administration has exploited the tragic events of September 11, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, to implement the pre-existing strategy. Attention to this global context helps explain current world developments:
• Prioritize the interest of monopolistic capitalist circles above those of the people, including Europeans and U.S. citizens.
• Integrate the economies of different countries into a single global capitalist economic system under conditions which undermine social development and adversely affect the situation of women, child health, education, and social services for the elderly. In addition, unemployment and poverty increase.
The last conference in 2009 was under the banner of ”The International Campaign Against Universal Imperialism and Zionism”. Its main slogan was “Pro-Resistance and Anti-Occupation with its crimes”, will be discussing a number of issues such as supporting the resistance, developing the struggle against the occupation of Iraq, confronting the racist policies of imperialist governments and issues against dictatorship and globalization in Egypt and the Arab world.
Workers’ Liberty’s comments on the 2003 Cairo Declaration, are relevant,
The Cairo Conference was convened by an organisation committed to the defence of the national security of Egypt. At best, the conference was financed by local businessmen. (At worst, the Iraqi government had a hand in funding it.) Those attending the conference including representatives of the Iraqi Baath regime, members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a delegation from the Cuban Castroite regime, and various veteran Stalinists lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I will not go into the issue of Israel, or Stalinism.
The most important point is that they [the "left" supporters of the Cairo Conference/Declaration] aligned themselves with a section of the pious Egyptian bourgeoisie – with all its own financial and capitalist links with Gulf States.
The MB’s anti-globalisation and ‘anti-imperialism’ now stand as a cover for their promotion of their own religious-political national interests.
These interests are increasingly anti-democratic and anti-working class.
But will those in Britain who have worked with them draw a balance sheet?
It seems highly unlikely.