Peter Taaffe, Hannah Sell, Judy Beishon England and Wales IEC members
This document briefly summarises the CWI’s analysis of and approach to movements against women’s oppression. Unfortunately, the dispute that erupted at the 2018 IEC meeting revealed a retreat from this approach, which is based on the need to build a revolutionary party with a programme centred on the role of the working class as the key agent for the socialist transformation of society as the only means to lay the basis for the ending of gender oppression. The clearest and most developed example of this retreat is in Ireland, where, as we will explain, the majority of the leadership of the section have moved towards seeing struggles around gender oppression as central to the struggle for the transformation of society. Linked to this their interventions into concrete struggles for women’s rights – in particular the abortion referendum – have not used the transitional method, raised a socialist programme or pointed to the role of the working class in fighting for women’s rights. At the IEC and since, however, a number of IEC members have uncritically defended the erroneous stance taken by the Irish majority to movements on women’s oppression.
If the IS was to allow this retreat from a class approach to develop unchallenged it would threaten the political foundations of the CWI, leaving us unprepared for the mighty class struggles ahead. This alone, aside from the other vital issues that arose at the IEC, necessitated the formation of a faction.
The IS’s approach to movements against women’s oppression
At the recent IEC meeting, and since, the theme of those who oppose the approach of our faction has been to argue that we have underestimated the scale and importance of the women’s movements that have taken place internationally. The Irish NEC majority’s reply to the IS on the issue sums it up saying: “A tendency to understate the significance of this development inevitably had an impact on concrete initiatives and interventions or lack thereof.” This is also suggested in the document by IEC members Andros Payiatsos, Vincent Kolo and Bryan Koulouris on why the disagree with our faction where they say: “The position of the IS, in putting its main emphasis on ‘future class battles’ in contrast to this historic battle taking place today, runs a certain risk of overlooking important opportunities round newly radicalized layers present or developing into today’s situation.” We will deal with the crucial issue of our approach to ‘future class battles’, later in this reply but we entirely refute the allegation that we underestimate the importance of the many struggles against women’s oppression that have developed internationally. At the last World Congress we had a special document and discussion on the struggle against women’s oppression, rather than on youth work, trade union work or any of the other vital issues we might have discussed, exactly because we recognised the importance of the struggles that have and will develop. For IWD 2018 we had a special drive for the socialist world website, with twelve special articles on the site, again because we saw the importance of orientating towards the growing radicalisation on women’s oppression.
Linked to this we also refute the argument in the Irish document that: “The IS seem to imply a rigid distinction between those who are radicalised on economic questions and those who are radicalised on social questions.” This has been repeated ad-infinitum – that we believe there is a ‘Chinese wall’ between economic and social issues, is only interested in battles on economic issues and so on. Our international has a long history of campaigning on social questions, including against violence against women. Of course, in doing so, we have linked them with economic issues, with which they are intertwined, especially for the working class and poor.
In their document the Irish NEC majority comrades belittle our reference to the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV), on the grounds that it is “from a quarter of a century ago”. The point, however, is that the CADV is an illustration of the long and proud history of the CWI on these issues and of a correct method of orientation. In Britain, the CADV successfully fought for the trade union movement to take up the issue of domestic violence, at a time when many – including supposed Marxists – were arguing that it was divisive to take the issue up in the workplaces. It also successfully fought for changes in the law particularly relating to women who had killed their violent partners. In a very difficult period after the collapse of Stalinism, we were nonetheless able to use CADV to raise the level of the workers’ movement about how the oppression of women is an intrinsic part of class society. We explained that it affects all women, including those from the ruling class, but that the working class were the only possible agency of overthrowing capitalism and therefore laying the basis for the ending of women’s oppression. At the same time the CADV always linked the campaign against domestic violence to ‘economic demands’ such as the provision of refuges, grants for women fleeing violence, and mass council housebuilding, which for working class women were and are vital to successfully leaving violent relationships.
We ask the comrades do you think the CADV showed an international that puts a ‘rigid distinction’ between those who are radicalised on ‘economic’ and ‘social’ questions? Or is that you think we have since abandoned that stance? Why then does the document on women put by the IS to the 2016 World Congress, which the comrades voted for and raise no criticism of, put a central emphasis on issues relating to violence against women, saying for example: “Even then sexism remains ingrained into the fabric of capitalism. It is now less socially acceptable in many countries to openly state that women are the possessions of men, but this idea – and that it is acceptable to enforce it with violence or the threat of violence – remains deeply embedded and was enshrined in law until relatively recently. Marital rape only became illegal in Britain in 1991, Spain in 1992, and Germany in 1997. While no longer legal or openly acceptable, marital rape is still widespread and rarely punished. Nor is rape in general. It is estimated that in Britain only 15% of all rapes are reported to the police, and only 7% of those result in conviction. According to the UN, of all the women killed globally in 2012 almost half were killed by their partners or family members. In contrast, only 6% of killings with male victims were committed by intimate partners or family members.”
In many sections the CWI has intervened in, and some cases led, campaigns relating to ‘social’ questions on the specific oppression of women. Prominent among these is, of course, the tremendous role that the comrades in Ireland played in fighting for abortion rights, a historic blow against the Catholic establishment and victory for the working class. (Incidentally, the document by AP, VK and BK claims that we challenged the use of the term ‘historic’ in reference to the referendum victory. This is nonsense. The Irish majority tried to suggest that there was some meaning behind our document using the adjective ‘tremendous’ rather than ‘historic’. There was no such meaning.) The comrades in the Spanish state, supporters of the faction, have been able to use the lever of the student union (SE) to organise magnificent student action, across all states with two hundred thousand on the streets in more than 50 towns and cities, on IWD and against the Spanish courts shameful light sentencing of the ‘wolfpack’ rapists. We are wholly in favour of playing this role in movements on these vital questions wherever possible.
CWI’s proud traditions on analysing women’s oppression
The CWI has developed a worked-out Marxist approach to women’s oppression over many decades, as outlined in Christine Thomas’ book, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this’ and numerous other materials. Violence against women, gender stereotyping and all the discrimination suffered by women are all rooted in the existence of class society. As part of the formation of the first class societies – based on private property relations – women became the property of individual men within the family unit. Today, thousands of years later, capitalism has created a contradictory situation. It has inherited the institution of the family from previous societies and fashioned it to suit its own interests. At the same time, capitalism itself, particularly in the recent period in the economically developed countries, has tended to undermine the traditional family unit as a result of women being drawn into the workforce. In many countries, women have won large elements of legal equality, and violence against women is no longer openly tolerated. While huge prejudice and discrimination still exists there is nonetheless greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights. Nonetheless, capitalism is incapable of ending the oppression of women or rigid gender norms. Violence against women remains endemic, reflecting deeply ingrained attitudes that women are the possessions of men. In general women remain concentrated in the lowest paying sectors of the economy and take the majority of the burden of caring for children, the elderly and the sick – a burden that is increasing considerably as a result of austerity.
Of course, it is vital that – at each stage – we analyse new developments relating to women’s oppression, and the struggle against it. Nonetheless, we do not accept that there is something fundamentally new in the current wave of radicalisation which invalidates our previous analysis. The reply to the IS by the Irish majority makes repeated and general assertions about the scale and depth of what they describe as ‘the global women’s movement’ which they describe as a ‘fundamental shift in consciousness’. However, they give no coherent explanation of what has caused this fundamental shift in consciousness. Points are raised about ‘an unwillingness to accept inequality or any further vestiges of sexism’ and ‘a new generation of young women are being radicalised by continued women’s and LGBTQ oppression’. Women’s oppression has, of course, existed in different forms since the dawn of class society, but that does not explain why movements are taking place now.
There is a danger in the Irish majority’s approach of idealism, with no serious attempt to draw out the material basis for the current radicalisation. On the contrary, when the IS pointed to, among other factors, the undermining of all the institutions of capitalism as a result of the capitalist crisis, we were ridiculed. Incredibly Kevin McLoughlin, Irish IEC member, said to the Irish NC regarding the referendum that, “when comrades say surely there is an anti-austerity anti-establishment element to the vote in Ireland it really wasn’t the case.” This spurious argument is partially backed up by AP, VK and BK when they say: “IS speakers stressed austerity as a main factor behind the victory in the Irish referendum. While this was an important factor, movements for political change and revolution do not only stem from economic issues. Most that voted for the change did so for the issue itself, the right to abortion.”
This completely misunderstands the point we were making. As we explained at the IEC, of course, people voted for abortion rights in the referendum because they supported the right to abortion. We were attempting to discuss why social attitudes have changed so dramatically on the issue. In 1983 when the vicious anti-abortion eighth amendment was introduced in Southern Ireland almost 67% of voters voted in favour of it. Today a sea change has taken place. Clearly, there are many reasons behind this. This is the case with all movements against women’s oppression. In reality there is not one global women’s movement, but a worldwide radicalisation, with different movements – all with their own features – taking place in different countries.
Nonetheless, in our view it is indisputable – both in Ireland and globally – that an important aspect of radicalisation of young women is the crisis of capitalism, which has undermined the hopes that existed in the previous generation that capitalism offered young working and middle class women better prospects than their mothers and grandmothers – with improved education, jobs and opportunities. Today they are more likely to have higher education, but face harder lives in other respects. This has profoundly undermined the authority of all institutions of capitalism – including the media, the church and capitalist parties – leaving them less able to influence social attitudes and events.
The reality of life for working class women in this era contrasts sharply with their expectations. Improved educational opportunities and the large increase in the number of women in the workforce in many countries – a particularly steep increase in Ireland – have given women more confidence. At the same time, the gains won by the workers’ and women’s movement in the previous era have raised women’s expectations of equality. The fact that, under the pressure of those movements, large sections of the capitalist classes worldwide proclaim that they stand for equality also gives more confidence to challenge the very different reality.
The Irish reply to the IS asserts that we argue: “there could be more movements of women, but particularly where existing rights are attacked or in countries with a particular legacy of oppression. In conversation IS comrades have indicated that the movements seem to have mainly been in Catholic countries.” It is clear in Ireland that the openly reactionary backward character of the Irish capitalist state, intertwined with the Catholic Church is an important factor. The deep felt accumulated anger at the Catholic Church for its crimes against working class women and children in particular is undoubtedly a major radicalising factor in Irish society. The IS does not, however suggest, that movements on women’s oppression are likely only in Catholic countries. On the contrary, in the many countries where regimes implement openly reactionary politics towards women, often on religious grounds, mass movements of women are on the cards. So too will we see movements in countries where new attacks on women are being launched as capitalist politicians try to increase their social base, as with Trump’s attacks on abortion in the US. And, of course, significant movements can also develop in other countries around aspects of women’s oppression, as indicated, for example, by the google walkouts.
The Irish majority argues that the current women’s movement has ‘deeper roots than previous women’s/feminist movements’. In some senses – particularly the depth of anger against the existing order – it could be argued that this is deeper than previous ‘feminist waves’. However, the general difficulties of the period, the still low level of working-class consciousness and organisation, obviously also effect movements against women’s oppression. The Russian revolution came within the time frame of the first wave of feminism and France 1968 in the second. We do not accept the argument of petit-bourgeois left feminists like Hester Eisenstein who is uncritically quoted in the Irish comrades ‘Socialist Feminism’ pamphlet as saying that: “it took the nineteenth and twentieth century’s women’s movements to claim the rights of women as full citizens”. The women’s movements, which while predominantly from the upper layers of society did also involve working class women, played a role but so did the workers’ movements, war and revolutions.
Moreover while the huge, accumulated anger against the existing order is reflecting in movements against women’s oppression it is not the case that a majority of those participating put the blame for their oppression at capitalism’s door. This is bound to the case when a section of the capitalist class claims to be fighters for women’s equality. Even among the most radical layers of such movements, who see themselves as anti-capitalist, the need to overthrow capitalism, never mind the central role of the working class in achieving that, is not generally understood. This is inevitable given, at this stage, the still low level of independent working class organisation and struggle.
Our role, in intervening in these struggles, is to support the fight against gender oppression, but to skilfully link that to demands which point towards the necessity of the socialist transformation of society and the central role of the working class in achieving that. Unfortunately, rather than do that the Irish majority have made serious mistaken concessions to existing consciousness.
Differences not on whether to intervene – but how
Our differences with the Irish majority lie not in whether it is correct to instigate, to intervene in, and to fight for the leadership of movements against gender oppression, but in how we intervene in them, particularly how we use a transitional approach to raise the consciousness of those we can reach. In addition we believe, on the basis of the Irish NEC majority’s reply to us, and the discussion that took place at the IEC, that we have a different estimation of the role of women’s movements in the transformation of society. As we explain later this, is a crucial issue from which other issues flow.
At every stage the IS majority has attempted to pursue discussion on these issues with the Irish leadership. This proved difficult prior to the IEC, as they have repeatedly prioritised the discussion on the confidential issue, to the exclusion of starting the debate on women and identity politics. The IS first wrote to the comrades asking for a meeting that included discussion on women and identity politics on 31 August, 2018. The IS majority finally had an initial discussion at the Irish NC on 17 November, 2018, just one week before the IEC.
In our view it is not only the Irish majority who have tried to avoid a serious discussion on these issues, but also the comrades who have organised in their support. Within the IS the dispute with DB on these issues began with his reluctance that the IS write to the Irish NEC to ask for discussion on their approach. In AP, VK, and BK’s document disagreeing with the faction they say of the IEC that regarding movements against women’s oppression, “The need for a bold working class, socialist approach in our work in these movements, distinguishing our class struggle feminism from the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois leadership of these movements, and emphasising the united struggle of the working class for socialist change, was not questioned by any comrade in the discussion.” This, to put it mildly, is not accurate.
The Irish NEC majority reply shows that this is not the approach the comrades took to the referendum campaign or are defending in its aftermath. In part one of their reply ‘The Irish Section and Identity Politics’ the comrades described how they clashed with supporters of identity politics in the abortion referendum campaign, but they can only give one single example of this: the clashes that took place over our tactics on the abortion pill. We accept that those tactics played a role in the campaign. However, tactics of this kind do not in themselves do anything to politically challenge the ideas of the petit-bourgeois feminists.
Nor does this type of militant tactic, which inevitably is only carried out by a small minority, act to encourage mass participation in the struggle for abortion rights. A referendum, which is an electoral campaign, is inevitably quite a low level of struggle compared, for example, to mass strikes, or even demonstrations. This does not make it less important for us to participate in referendum campaigns, but it does make it vital that we raise demands that go beyond voting and point towards the need for mass working-class action. The abortion pill tactic does nothing to encourage this. Such a tactic can be a useful adjunct to our central tasks, but not more than that. It certainly did not – and how could it? – ‘emphasise the united struggle of the working class for socialist change’.
Nor did the comrades do this in the material they produced during the referendum campaign, particularly in the mass produced material that was used to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. In their reply to the IS the comrades explain that: “Substantial resources and the party itself was only directed into ROSA in the first six months of 2018, in the run up to the referendum itself” but it is particularly what the comrades did and didn’t do during this period, in the run up to and during the referendum campaign, which alarmed the IS and led to it asking for discussion with the comrades on the issues.
In their reply to the IS the comrades give quotes from material they have produced from as far back as 2013, but only one from a 2018 leaflet, which is not related to the abortion referendum. They do not quote from any of the ROSA material produced for the referendum campaign because it would not have backed up their assertion that they raised socialist ideas during the campaign. There may have been individual Socialist Party leaflets produced at local level during the campaign. However, it is indisputable that all of the mass produced material during the campaign was in the name of ROSA. Prior to the referendum there were also mass produced Solidarity newsletters, delivered to households in our constituencies, which dealt with the referendum but this went no further, programmatically, than the ROSA material.
The point we are making is that huge layers of workers and young people were politicised around the issue of abortion during the referendum campaign and we – particularly as a result of the TD’s profile but also to some extent ROSA’s – had an opportunity to intervene, using a transitional approach, to raise the class consciousness of those we could reach. In our view the comrades failed to do that. It does not answer our charge that a major opportunity was missed in the mass work done around the referendum campaign to point out that some longer, more rounded, material was produced in pamphlets or websites, because this was only aimed at a much smaller layer. We would argue that at least some of the mass material should have been produced in the name of the Socialist Party, but the central question for us is the programmatic weakness of the material that was produced. We attach the main ROSA leaflet that was used during the referendum to the end of this document for information. As you will see it talks about how ‘young people, in particular, have the power to determine the outcome of this referendum and really make history’ and it talks about how winning abortion rights ‘will empower all those who are fighting economic and social inequality’. It does not, however, make any reference to the working class, to socialism (other than in the name of ROSA), or link the right to abortion to any economic demands. This was the case in all of the mass material. ROSA is a banner which we initiated and lead, with a limited layer consistently active beyond our ranks. There was nothing to prevent us putting a fuller programme in ROSA material.
The Greek EC resolution on the crisis says that, “ROSA’s 15 point programme is a clear class-oriented programme”. In fact, it falls far short of this. It is quite limited, talking of how “people power movements are key to social change”. The furthest it goes is in the final demand which concludes, “For a mass movement of women, workers and all the oppressed to challenge capitalism’s rule of the 1% super-rich”. However, even this limited programme was not included in the mass-produced ROSA material during the referendum.
In paragraph 127 of their reply, the comrades justify their approach in not raising economic demands, not even guaranteed free healthcare for all, linked to giving women a real choice when and whether to have children, saying:
“We’ve consistently raised the need for public childcare, housing etc, to ensure working-class families can make the choice to have children and not subsist in poverty, in relation to abortion. The comrades’ assessment that this would have been helpful in convincing people unsure of abortion, misses the main point. Once we were in the actual referendum campaign, it was necessary to focus and openly deal with abortion, and not to be seen to avoid it. The real situation people face and why this right is a necessity – these questions and the points of the pro-lifers, needed to be answered directly and this was our focus.”
Verbally in debate at the Irish NC Laura Fitzgerald was more explicit, arguing it would have been wrong to raise those demands during the referendum.
It is clear that it was essential to argue for the right to abortion as the central point in our referendum propaganda. However, we think it is completely wrong to refuse to link this to demands on pay, housing, childcare, family leave etc. Not only could this have helped to win some who were unsure on abortion, demonstrating that it is us – and not the reactionary anti-abortion campaigners – who actually fight to give children a decent life, it would also have played a vital role in exposing the pro-capitalist politicians who had cynically come behind the call for abortion rights, but were and are presiding over a devastating housing crisis, low pay and astronomical childcare costs (an average of over €1000 a month in Dublin for example). By limiting themselves to issues directly related to abortion alone, the comrades were tending to reflect the existing mood of a radicalised layer, rather than connecting with it but then – via our programme – going further. Of course, we understand that during a referendum campaign for a measure that could make a real difference to millions of women’s lives there was bound to be considerable pressure to limit ourselves just to the immediate question on the ballot paper. Our role, however, is not to concede to that but to explain how, by raising broader demands, we could not only improve the prospects of winning the referendum, but prepare the ground for future struggles.
Anti-capitalist propaganda and a transitional approach
In the Belgian IEC members document, written to defend the Irish majority, they suggest that the IS has no evidence that the Irish comrades are not sufficiently using a transitional approach in their work, arguing that one leaflet is not evidence of this. That of course is true but, unfortunately, it is clear from the Irish comrades reply, from their argumentation in the debates, and from numerous material, that our concerns were fully justified. We agree that every section will have produced poor leaflets and articles at different points which they would not wish to stand over. The problem is when it is not a question of this or that individual mistake, but when individual mistakes cohere into a trend, which the comrades are not prepared to honestly assess and correct but instead defend. This is the approach taken in the Irish comrades’ reply. In paragraph 81, for example, the Irish majority say: “We engage in a lot of anti-capitalist argumentation consciously as a key way to raise the need for socialist change and the centrality of class. The more convincing an argument is made as to why it will be impossible to deal with the issues people face, the more the material necessity of each person getting involved in a collective struggle is clarified. This not only exposes reformist ideas, but raises the urgent need for an organised working-class movement.”
In fact, the mass produced material for the referendum campaign certainly did not include ‘a lot of anti-capitalist argumentation’. The most that was included was in the ROSA leaflet produced prior to the referendum campaign saying that there needed to be “a socialist feminist challenge to the capitalist establishment and this inherently unjust system”. This reflects a tendency to limit even anti-capitalist agitation to leaflets aimed more at the activist layer, rather than the mass. In addition, even in the comrades anti-capitalist agitation there is a worrying tendency to pose issues in a diffuse way which does not sufficiently point in the direction of the socialist transformation of society. In the quotes the comrades give in their reply as positive examples of their material, for example, they four times refer to ‘challenging’ the capitalist system, a phrase that is open to the interpretation of ‘standing up to’ or ‘reforming’ capitalism rather than replacing it. There is also a tendency to talk about neo-liberal capitalism, or even just neo-liberalism (although this is not evident in the quotes given in the comrades’ reply) which again can be interpreted to mean that it is only neo-liberal capitalism we are opposed to.
However, even if the anti-capitalist argumentation of the comrades had been more extensive and better, it is simply not true that it would constitute, “a key way to raise the need for socialist change and the centrality of class”. Many of those involved in the anti-abortion struggle, including some petit-bourgeois feminists, would consider themselves ‘anti-capitalist’ in a broad sense but would either have no conception of, or would disagree with, “the need for socialist change and the centrality of class”.
What is a transitional approach?
The CWI has an excellent record of adopting a transitional approach unlike many other supposedly Trotskyist forces. Such forces have either continued to repeat, as if by rote, demands from the programme put forward by Trotsky in 1938, without taking into account the concrete situation we face today, or – in the case of the SWP/IST, in particular – arguing that it is not relevant today and instead putting forward a ‘minimum and maximum’ approach – with minimum day to day demands reflecting today’s consciousness and then, separately – when appealing to a narrow audience – calls for revolution: with no link between the two. Unfortunately, in the Irish comrades’ material there seems to be a drift, perhaps not consciously, towards the latter approach. They put forward a very limited programme, as our platform explains, in the 2016 election campaign, and in much of the Solidarity material produced since. It is significant that the Southern Irish paper has no ‘what we stand for’ section, or similar list of demands.
In this reply, however, we want to deal in particular with the comrades’ failure to apply a transitional method in the abortion referendum and in other work relating to gender oppression. We recognise that on social issues relating to women’s and other oppressions this can be a difficult task, not only because of the generally low level of consciousness, but also because while the inability of capitalism to deliver the material interests of working-class women – decent pay, housing etc – can be seen clearly in the current era of capitalist crisis, the responsibility of class society for other aspects of women’s oppression can be less obvious to those we are trying to reach. On issues including violence, but also the lack of reproductive and abortion rights, blame can tend to be limited to a vague ‘backward culture’ or specific backward institutions, such as the Catholic church, particularly when a section of the capitalist class claim to be fighting for women’s rights in these fields. Of course this does not make it less vital to take these important issues up, but it does mean we have to work out demands that help those who are listening to us to draw conclusions about capitalism’s responsibility for these ills, and the need for socialism. Vague statements about anti-capitalism or socialism, with no programmatic link to the immediate issues, do not in themselves achieve this.
For example, in November 2018 the Irish comrades received widespread publicity following Ruth Coppinger’s underwear protest in the Dail (Irish parliament) against victim blaming in the courts. This was an important opportunity to raise aspects of our programme on the capitalist state. However, in the article published on the issue on the Irish party website (15 November, 2018) only one demand relating to the justice system was raised: “This movement must absolutely demand and fight for changes such as compulsory training for judges and juries in cases of sexual violence and education about consent in schools.” We are, of course, not opposed to training or education but do we think any amount of training would change the class character of the legal system, or the role of judges in representing the interests of the ruling elite? And training by whom? More representatives of the ruling class? There is nothing in this demand to clearly differentiate our approach from that of the Blairite Labour MPs in Britain, for example, who are also campaigning against victim blaming in the courts but whose solution is to abolish juries because they are ‘prejudiced’. Far better to raise demands about the election of judges, and democratic working class control of the legal system (and the education system) to at least point towards what social force offers a solution. The article does have a general sentence concluding it: “We need to build a movement of women, young and LGBTQ people and all sections of the working class around an anti-capitalist and socialist-feminist programme which challenges this system and all the injustices it perpetuates.” This in no way, however, compensates for the lack of transitional demands on the concrete issues posed.
Some comrades have suggested there is no difference between the approach taken on this issue by comrades in the Spanish state and in Ireland. This is not the case. For example Libras y Combativas’ (LyC) website article on the Wolfpack judgement: “This case is not an isolated case of the guilt of a judge or judge who does not have enough gender training as they pretend to make us believe. It is one more example of how justice is contingent on the interests of the capitalists.” And LyC demands call for the dismissal of all judges and police officers responsible for such victim blaming judgements.
This links to the questions the IS raised in our initial statement on language and terminology. Of course we fully support trying to reach young people who are radicalised by their anger against sexism and sexist violence, but in doing so our role is to point them towards the responsibility of class society and the central role of the working class in ending it. To support the essence of a movement does not mean we have to take up and repeat all of its slogans. That is why we argued that, “We should use terms like misogyny and patriarchy with care because they do not aid us in a theoretical understanding of the roots of women’s oppression” and went on to say that, in general, we recognise that what language we use is not fixed but that, “at every stage we have to use language which is scientifically correct and takes the consciousness of our audience forward, which reaches out to a layer who are radicalised on a particular issue, but does not exclude sections for whom that issue is not central.” Clearly this is a difficult task and, as we explained, is bound to vary from country to country. What is central for us is not what specific phrases we use but that we do not simply reflect the demands of those currently radicalised but developing them further.
Regarding Ireland we explained that we were concerned that, “it seems to have become commonplace to use terms which, while they might be understood among young feminist activists, can be off-putting or easily misinterpreted by broader sections of the working class such as ‘cis-normative’, ‘toxic masculinity’ and even ‘rape culture’. On the latter we did not say it should not be used in any circumstances, but made the point that we should be careful how we use it “so as not to be seen to be implying that all, or a majority of men are potential rapists” or putting the blame for sexual violence on a vague ‘culture’ rather than capitalism. There is a danger of this, for example, in the ROSA leaflet the comrades produced for intervening in the March 2018 rape trial protests which says: “new generation of women and young people will not stand for victim blaming or a toxic macho culture that perpetuates sexism and gender based violence.” Our job is to draw out how ‘macho culture’ is a reflection of class society. At the IEC the comrades played down the degree they use the kind of language we criticised. However, the experience of the IS comrades who attended the Irish NC, which discussed identity politics, was of leading NC members defending the need to use language like ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘hetero-normative’. When one NC member argued that anyone who was put off by the language should not be considered a potential party member no one disagreed. However, if we commonly use language of this kind which is not used or accepted by large sections of the working class we will certainly alienate potential members, not necessarily because they disagree, but because our organisation feels like it is ‘not for them’.
Transitional demands, the abortion movement and the trade unions
In the comrades reply they show a total lack of understanding of the points the IS made relating to the need to raise demands on the organised working class. It is incredible that AP, VK and BK can state in their document that the, “Irish comrades replied to these specific points, showing the work that had been done in these respects in the campaign”. The Irish comrades give some, limited examples of trade union work done, including moving some resolutions, during the referendum campaign, but their reply to the IS tries to put a political case against orientation to the trade unions.
The faction has already made the central points on the trade unions in our platform, and will write further material on it elsewhere. In this document we think it is necessary to highlight the response the comrades gave to our raising the potential role of the organised working class. They said:
“Such a campaign would have gotten bogged down in bureaucracy, and opposition by some to a Yes stance and in demands to tone down discussion on the use of abortion pills and the demand for full abortion rights. Both of these were crucial if we were to force acceptance of 12 weeks on request and in winning the Yes vote in the referendum. Put simply, the unions were not a mechanism to have a broad impact around a strong pro-choice position as they were behind the general population on the issue. Such an approach would have used up a lot of energy and resources needed for the main lines of battle.”
What does this mean? The IS was not suggesting that we retreat one iota from our programme on abortion rights, but that we put demands on the union leaders to also fight for full abortion rights. As the IS explained, this was our approach in Britain in the anti-poll tax movement, where we combined building an 18 million strong non-payment campaign completely outside of the official structures, with putting demands on the trade unions to take a fighting stance. The comrades say that “the unions” were “way behind the general population on the issue” of abortion rights. We assume they mean the union leaders rather than their members. We understand that the trade union federation ICTU, and many trade unions, did have a position in favour of repealing the eighth amendment, but were not clear on standing for, and certainly not on campaigning for, full abortion rights. Surely then this was an important opportunity to expose the rottenness of the union leaders and to exert pressure on them. This would have allowed us to raise a programme which pointed the way towards the working class playing a greater and more collective role than voting, as individuals, in the referendum. It would have educated the radical youth we have around us on the potential role of the working class. This was the approach of the comrades in the Spanish state, who were able to use their role in the SE to call strike action on IWD, and then use it as a lever to demand union leaders to do the same. This could have been done by raising demands on the unions, and then taking them to the workers. The lack of union structures would not have prevented workplace petitions and meetings, for example.
The Irish majority criticise the IS, saying our implication is that putting demands on the trade unions, “should have been an important part of the campaign”. How much time is spent doing such work is primarily a tactical question, which we had formed no definite judgement on. We did, however, think it should have been a politically important part of the campaign. For Marxists the central role of the working class in changing society is fundamental. Central to the role, and the outlook, of the working class is its relationship to the means of production. It is in the workplace – first and foremost – that the working class comes into conflict with the capitalists. This does not mean that other forms of protest – including elections and community struggles are not also very important – but it is vital that a revolutionary party has an orientation towards the workplaces. It is essential that even small CWI sections, that are assembling the initial cadre by concentrating almost entirely on youth work, still put demands on the trade unions to educate the youth we are winning, as well as beginning to give those youth a vital practical education in intervening in workers’ struggles and building in the workplaces.
Even where the unions appear completely empty we have to attempt work to bring around us the most fighting elements in a struggle to transform the unions. This can, in this period, involve all kinds of flexible tactics. Our general approach is to fight to transform the existing unions because, despite the huge obstacle at the top, they remain in most countries the biggest mass workers’ organisations and are based in workplaces. As part of that general approach, however, there can be circumstances where we – along with others – fight to found new unions. What is excluded is that we have no serious or consistent orientation towards the workplaces. This, however, has been the approach of the leadership in Southern Ireland over a whole period. What they have described as an element of an ‘open turn’ away from the unions at this stage is a serious mistake.
However rotten the leaders of the unions, in Ireland as in many countries, the unions can be forced to organise action – as is being shown by the nurses’ and midwives’ strike due to take place in Ireland. Previous to that there have also been important strikes in transport, retail and other sectors. We cannot stand aside and wait for a change to take place in the unions, but have to work to organise the most militant and determined elements in the workplaces in order to prepare for future battles. We believe the failure to do this systematically, particularly in Southern Ireland where we have no organised union caucuses, with, at most, occasional limited meetings of comrades in the unions, is miseducating our younger cadre, not least about their role in their own workplaces. The call for lunchtime walkouts on IWD this year could play a useful role, but only if it is combined with a serious orientation towards the workplaces.
The obstacle created by the trade union leaders, and the relative absence of democratic structures and activists, are not peculiar to Ireland but exist to one degree or another in many countries. The unions in the Spanish state, for example, are among the worst in Europe but the comrades still put demands on them, without the advantage of three TDs whose authority could be used to aid this task. Even if in Ireland there are very limited numbers of workers active in the union structures, there are clearly larger numbers who get active during strikes. Not only is union density in Southern Ireland slightly higher than Britain, but over the last five years around twice as many workers (per head of population) have been involved in strike action.
What was the character of the movement for abortion rights?
AP, VK and BK’s statement in defence of the Irish majority says that the IS, “described the struggle for abortion rights as a “cross-class” movement in contrast to a working class movement which formally speaking is correct. However, other comrades replied showing similarities with other movements and phenomena: climate, anti-war, opposition to the European Union, LGBT+, democracy, anti-racism, refugees and more.” There is an implication here that, by making the very obvious point that the movement for abortion rights was a cross-class movement, we were diminishing its importance. This was not at all the case. Speaking for the IS Hannah Sell made the point that no movement under capitalism is a chemically-pure working class movement, there are always, to a greater or lesser extent, different class pressures exerted on a movement. Nonetheless, she argued, whereas the anti-poll tax movement in Britain, or the anti-water charges movement in Ireland, were predominantly working class movements, other movements like the abortion rights movement in Ireland, or the global anti-war movement in 2003, are very clearly cross class movements, with sections of the bourgeois attempting to put themselves in the leadership of them. A number of the self-appointed leaders of the abortion movement, for example, are now standing as candidates for Fine Gael, and Varadkar is attempting to pose as a champion of women’s rights. By the time of the referendum, even Fianna Fail was forced to formally support Repeal, although a majority of its TDs did not. The Irish comrades own initial balance sheet of the referendum campaign, “The 8th repealed-how yes was won”, pointed out that: “The vote was very high among the middle class and working class. The figures point to it being higher among the former, though in the campaign it was clear that the depth of feeling on the issue was strongest in the working class.”
We raised the cross-class character of the movement not to lessen its importance but to emphasise the need to put a clear class programme and to attempt to expose the role of the capitalist elements of the leadership. It was necessary for us to make these self-evident points because the Irish majority reply to the IS stated: “The abortion rights struggle in Ireland also took place outside the union structures, but that doesn’t mean it was not a working class struggle.” Clearly it was a struggle which was of vital importance to working class people who voted for abortion rights, but it was a struggle which involved sections of all classes. An objective and realistic assessment of the character of a movement is a vital prerequisite for intervening in it effectively. The Irish majority comrades repeatedly talk about the working class being the ‘beating heart of the referendum campaign’ but have not put forward demands which raise the level of that ‘beating heart’ about their role or the character of others involved in the movement.
Will women’s movements be ‘central’?
In the concluding section of the Irish comrades reply, under the heading, ‘conclusions and some questions for the IS’ they say that our view on women’s movements that it, “tends to pose them as secondary or support acts to greater events. Women’s rights or struggles can be seen as sectional issues, but we must remind ourselves that women are half the population and a huge proportion of the overall working class”. They then quote part of paragraph 22 from our document. The whole of the paragraph stated:
“However, in our view it is not the case that movements relating to women’s oppression will be central to struggle in every country in the next period. In addition in many countries where such movements occur the working-class elements within them can quite quickly become part of broader struggles of the working class (although of course the demands specifically relating to women’s oppression would remain an important aspect of those movements).”
The Irish majority responded by saying:
“It is difficult to know what is being said here. Generally the paragraph seems to be cautioning, raising that women’s movements won’t be central or primary. If that is the main point we’d like to ask the IS to outline its rationale for such an assessment? Given the reality of recent events; wouldn’t a more open attitude to the potential be more appropriate?”
In the following paragraph they then conclude that, “the radicalisation among women seems to be more universal, global and interconnected. It is not a temporary phase, but a more fundamental shift in consciousness and is deeper, in that it is not the preserve of middle class layers, but is also reflective of a change amongst working class women”. They then go on to say that “more discussion is needed on these issues including about the possibility that these issues of equality could be quite central”.
This is alarming. It confirms the concern originally raised by the IS that there could be a tendency in Ireland, “to put the issue of a movement against women’s oppression above all other trends”.
In our view it was clear what we meant when we said that working class elements within women’s movements can quite quickly become part of broader movements of the working class. An important radicalisation of women has taken place on a worldwide scale, which has and will result in mass movements in numerous countries. At this stage, there is a low level of general class struggle in many of the countries where movements against women’s oppression are taking place. However, this will not remain the case. That is what we meant by saying the movements against women’s oppression will become part of broader movements of the working class, not that movements against women’s oppression will cease but they will be joined by other struggles and that, particularly as mass workers’ struggles develop, there will be a tendency for women’s movements to polarise on class lines. Implicit in the argument of the Irish majority that, “issues of equality could be quite central” is that there will not be mass struggles on other issues in the next period. Of course, we have to intervene in movements taking place today, not sit and wait for ‘future class battles’ as AP, VK and BK suggest we are proposing. However, our intervention in today’s battles is always attempting to prepare for the future, by raising the consciousness of those we can reach and winning the best layers to our party.
Our international is preparing for the mass workers’ struggles and revolutionary movements of the future, in which the working class will have opportunities to take power. Could such movements be ‘sectional’ rather than more general? We don’t believe that a Marxist analysis can lead to the conclusion that is how events will develop. In the revolutionary movements of the future, struggles against women’s oppression will not be ‘central’ or ‘primary’ unless comrades are arguing that it is women or LGBTQ+ who are the social force that can overthrow capitalism. Doubtless comrades will express outrage at the suggestion they could think such a thing – but it is the logical conclusion of some of their arguments. Of course, women and LGBTQ+ people will play an important part in overthrowing capitalism but as part of the working class as a whole. To achieve this requires a party with a programme that can unite the different layers of the working class in a common struggle. It is vital to fight to ensure demands against women’s and gender oppression are emblazoned on its banner but alongside all the other issues that affect different layers of the working class.
In the IS’s original document on these issues we raised the
danger of repeating the mistakes made by the Mandelites who, prior to May 1968,
“wrote off for decades the prospect of mass working-class struggle in the
advanced capitalist countries and instead focused on ‘liberation movements’. At
the time we argued that, “we are not suggesting the Irish comrades have taken
this profoundly mistaken path but we are worried that some errors could have
been made in that direction which need to be corrected.” Unfortunately, in the
period since, far from openly discussing and attempting to correct those
errors, the comrades are standing over them and attempting to justify them. The
fact that a number of IEC members – as typified by AP, VK and BK’s document –
are acting to defend the stance the
Irish majority have taken is a fundamental political error, which, if had not
been challenged by the IS majority and the faction, would have endangered the
political foundations of the CWI.