In Defence of Trotskyism - IS majority documents

Women’s oppression and identity politics – our approach in Ireland and internationally

Hannah Sell for the International Secretariat

November 2018


This brief document is dealing specifically with issues relating to how we take up identity politics in Ireland and internationally, which the IS thinks needs to be discussed. It does not attempt to give an overview of our general position on a Marxist approach to the oppression of women. Most recently this was summarised in the resolution unanimously agreed at the 2016 World Congress, which can be found here:–Women-and-oppression-in-class-society. 

The CWI has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of all oppressed sections of society. In many countries we have intervened, and played a leading role, in movements against racism including via Youth against Racism in Europe in the early 1990s on a continent-wide basis. In Britain we also initiated Panther in the early 1990s, aimed specifically at young black workers. We have also led numerous campaigns against women’s and gender-based oppression including the Campaign Against Domestic Violence in Britain, and now Rosa in Ireland, Libres y Combativas in the Spanish state, any many more. At every stage we have correctly fought to try and make sure the most oppressed in society are fully represented at every level of the CWI.

Today, as we go onto outline, there is an important radicalisation taking place around issues relating to women’s and gender-based oppression on a global basis. In some countries radicalisation has resulted in mass movements. This is particularly where the ruling class, significant sections of it, or individuals like Trump, have a more openly reactionary attitude towards the rights of women, which has inevitably come into sharp conflict with women’s aspirations for equality.

Clearly, where movements relating to women’s oppression are posed it is vital that we turn to them, intervening and, where possible, playing a leading role as the comrades have in Ireland North and South, and in the Spanish state. Such movements can represent the first steps towards collective struggle by previously unorganised layers of women and can be an important step forward. In many cases initially their leadership is dominated by bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feminists who try and divert the movement, for example as a means to win support for big-business Democrats in the US.

Our task is to skilfully link the immediate demands of the struggle to the need for a united struggle of the working class for socialism, as the only means by which genuine liberation can be achieved.  Historically and today, our record on this is second to none. Other Trotskyist organisations have tended either to ignore movements against women’s oppression or, more often, to have acted as uncritical supporters for them, without any attempt to win them to a working-class standpoint. Attempts to find a short cut to winning mass support have resulted in the wrecking of many organisations.

In recent movements against gender-based oppression the weaknesses of the workers’ movement, and a relatively low level of consciousness, has meant identity politics has often had considerable influence. In one sense, identity politics can be an inevitable part of the political awakening of many members of oppressed groups within society. Recognising that you are oppressed, and that you can fight against your oppression through a common struggle with others who share the same oppression, is a vital first step.

However, the identity politics that currently has influence emanated from the capitalists via the universities over recent decades. At bottom these ideas are used by the ruling class to obscure class divisions, and play a divisive role. They have also seeped into the workers’ movement in many countries. They put an overwhelming emphasis on cataloguing and describing different forms of oppression, tending to emphasise differences rather than common interests. The toxic discussion on trans rights currently taking place in the British trade unions, with sections of feminists wrongly arguing that improving trans rights undermines the rights of women, is an example of the consequences of seeing different oppressed groups as in competition with each other rather than campaigning for a united struggle against all oppression. We have consistently intervened in the debate defending trans rights, while fighting for a class approach.

ID politics also tends to lay the blame for oppression on the behaviour of individuals rather than fighting for changes in the structure of society. Whenever we are intervening in a milieu where such alien class ideas are widespread it is inevitable we will come under pressure to make concessions in that direction. The answer, of course, is not to step back from intervening but to guard consciously against the dangers, patiently explaining the central role of the working class in the fight to transform society. We are concerned that the comrades in Ireland have not done this sufficiently.

It is our duty, as the elected leadership of the CWI, to raise our concerns in order to strengthen the work of the whole international, particularly as these issues and pressures are arising in many sections of our international. This has always been the approach of the CWI. We are striving to build the embryo of a world revolutionary international, not a series of national organisations linked together in name only. We should welcome all comrades – including the Irish comrades – feeling free to raise doubts and differences about any aspect of our international’s work.

In order to engage in a discussion on these issues the IS wrote to the Irish IEC comrades on 31 August 2018 proposing a meeting to discuss a series of issues, starting with the question of Identity Politics. Unfortunately, the discussion on this crucial issue has not yet begun although it is now scheduled to do so at an Irish NC meeting on 17+18 November. However, given, in our view, the urgency of starting to discuss these issues – with the aim of reaching principled agreement – the IS has here outlined our central concerns. We would ask that this is circulated to the Irish NC and we also propose to circulate it to the IEC. We propose comrades respond in writing which we will also circulate.

Before we come to outlining our concerns it is necessary that we reiterate our recognition of the tremendous victory that was scored in the Repeal Referendum, the important role the Irish section played in achieving it and, in particular, the section’s role in helping to ensure the referendum resulted not only in the repeal of the eighth amendment, but in the winning of abortion on demand up until twelve weeks. The referendum was an important victory for women and for the Irish working class, and inflicted a serious blow on the Irish state and the Catholic Church. Kevin McLoughlin said at the recent NC that in his opinion we were hesitant about the work the Irish comrades have done among women, giving as an indication that there had only been one article on it on the CWI website between Savita’s death and the end of 2017. As Tony Saunois explained to the October Irish NC we are keen to give prominence to the comrades’ role in this work, as was shown at the CWI school, and would happily have published more articles had they been submitted. In fact, at the time of the Irish NC there were eight articles and videos on the CWI site relating to the comrades in Ireland’s work on women.

How we respond to radicalisation of women

Kevin McLoughlin has argued that the IS has not “engaged in a serious way with the women’s movement as it has emerged over the last two years” and has been “hesitant” about it. We reject this and ask what concrete measures the comrades think we have failed to take. At the last World Congress we had a discussion on women’s oppression and unanimously agreed a document. We have considerably stepped up our coverage on the CWI site of issues relating to women’s oppression, particularly but not only linked to IWD when we have always carried special material.

However, we think there is a difference in how we assess the movements that have and will take place, and how we see them in relation to other struggles which are likely to develop. As part of this we think the comrades could be in danger of overstating the importance of the victory on abortion rights. At the recent CWI school for example, Laura Fitzgerald, replying in the commission on the issue, said, “There will never be an issue like this again which poses so clearly the kind of society we want in people’s minds.” The referendum victory is a real step forward for women, and is very important, but it will nonetheless be dwarfed by the experience of collective action in the class battles that will develop in the coming years, let alone a conscious struggle for socialism.

In our view a tendency has also developed of some leading Irish comrades seeing all struggles through the prism of the women’s movement, rather than seeing how it interconnects with other struggles. It is important that we have a balanced approach, recognising that working-class women can also move into action on many other issues, as well as those directly related to their specific oppression and that moves towards ‘sectional’ struggle are not, always, in all circumstances, a step forward. If, as we are concerned there could be a tendency to do in Ireland, comrades put the issue of a movement against women’s oppression above all other trends, there is a real danger we could miss important opportunities to win the most thinking layers now, but particularly in the future when mass movements develop on other issues.

For example, we understand that the public meeting advertised on the recent very important 10,000-strong housing demo was a ROSA public meeting entitled ‘Why Housing is a Feminist Issue’. We know that party meetings have now been organised but think it was a mistake to make a ROSA public meeting the cutting edge of the intervention in the demonstration and, if you did decide to do so, to have that meeting title. Surely any good young people who had been attracted to ROSA during the referendum campaign would have seen the need to campaign on housing without us highlighting it as ‘a feminist issue’, when in reality it is a much broader issue?

In addition, in 2018, every one of the monthly public meetings advertised on the Socialist Party Ireland Facebook Page has been related to women’s or LGBTQ+ oppression. Clearly these have been important issues over the last period, and should have been give prominence, but we think that is going too far. In Ireland due to our long record of struggle, and the relatively high public profile the party has as a result of the TDs’ positions, we have been able to win a base among important sections of the working class. There is a danger that – as a result of the overwhelming turn that has been made to issues relating to women and gender oppression – we could become perceived by a layer of workers for whom that is not the only or primary concern as ‘not for them’. This can obviously include layers of male workers and older women, but also young women and non-binary people who – while partly radicalised by their specific oppression – do not consider it to be the most central issue for them.

Global radicalisation of women

The radicalisation that has taken place is primarily, but not exclusively, of young women. In Britain, to give one example, only 36% of women would describe themselves as feminist, but among 18-24 year olds a majority (54%) do so and among younger teenage girls and women the figure is even higher – around 70%. We would also agree that the younger generation who are radicalised by women’s oppression tend to reject the rigid gender norms imposed by capitalism.

In our view, while of course there were struggles prior to 2007, this radicalisation flows from the experience of a generation who have grown up in the age of austerity. Prior to then, at least in the economically-advanced countries, capitalist propaganda peddled the ideas of ‘post-feminism’ – suggesting women were on the verge of winning equality. While this was never true, there was a grain of truth in it in many countries. Over the previous decades women had been drawn into the workforce in many countries on an unprecedented scale. This was a central factor in the increased confidence of women and the improvements in social attitudes that resulted.

Under pressure from the workers’ movement, and from women’s struggles, women had taken significant steps to equality in law, although reality lagged far behind. At the same time the hollowing out of manufacturing industry in much of Europe and the US, and the overall driving down of workers’ wages, meant that it was no longer so clearly ‘the norm’ that men had better-paid work than women and, increasingly, it was vital for both parents to work in order to make ends meet. All of these factors meant that – before the economic crisis – young working-class women were, in general, more confident of their prospects than young working-class men.

That confidence then came up sharply against the effects of the economic crisis which, of course, has hit women particularly hard. At the same time, all the problems of sexual harassment and violence remained and were in sharp conflict with the propaganda of women’s equality. It is therefore no surprise to us that young women have been to the fore of the general radicalisation that has taken place, and also feel strongly on issues relating to their own specific oppression. Nor should it be a surprise to us, given the block created by the right-wing trade union leaders, that there is sometimes more confidence to struggle on social questions than on economic issues. In Ireland, for example, the accumulated anger at austerity has had very limited outlets as a result of the role of the trade union leaders but could be expressed via the referendum.

The #metoo phenomenon has, on a global basis, highlighted an increased determination by women to refuse to accept sexual harassment and abuse. While in many countries it has, so far, remained mainly at the level of a social media campaign, in others it has led to movements on the streets. In a whole series of countries, from Ireland to Argentina to Spain and now India, very important movements against different aspects of women’s oppression have taken place and are still taking place.

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).

Varying approaches of the capitalists

We should expect movements to take place wherever significant sections of the capitalist class attack women’s rights or have an openly reactionary approach to gender-related oppression. In the US for example, following the appointment of Kavanaugh, it is very clear that there is the speeding up of the development of a mass movement against the blatant sexism of Trump and his allies, and in defence of abortion rights which face attack. Trump is also attempting to unravel all the gains made by trans people over the last period, which will also inevitably trigger a movement on the streets.

In Spain, the remnants of Francoism, with its brutal repression of women and dominance of the Catholic church, means that the issues of women’s oppression are particularly strongly felt. In that sense there is a similarity with Ireland, where the state has since its inception been intertwined with the Catholic Church, meaning that movements on these issues were inevitable and fuelled by the deep-seated anger with the capitalist establishment. The response to the Pope’s visit, in the wake of the referendum, showed the deep-rooted revolt against the Catholic Church. At this year’s CWI School the comrades vividly described how young people had convinced their families to vote for Repeal. The contrast with the Brexit referendum was striking – there the majority of young people tried to convince their parents to vote for Remain, and largely failed. Clearly there are many differences between the two referendums, but one factor is surely that in Ireland young people were convincing their parents to strike a blow against the Irish ‘establishment’ – which they were happy to do, whereas in Britain, the way to strike a blow against the existing order was to vote for Brexit.

In Britain, by contrast, while clearly there is a radicalisation around women’s oppression – which it is important we respond to – it is not automatic that this mood becomes a movement. If the government was to launch an attack on abortion rights – for example – it would ignite mass struggle. However, at this stage Theresa May continues to pose as a defender of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights – making speeches against domestic violence, wearing ‘I’m a feminist t-shirts’ on IWD, proposing changes to make it easier for trans people to self-identify and so on. All these are cynical – and cheap – ways in which she can try to make the Tory party appear more socially liberal, whilst at the same time slashing expenditure on refuges for women fleeing domestic violence along with other public services. The England and Wales section has initiated a new campaign on this important issue. In the past comrades in Britain led the successful Campaign Against Domestic Violence, which succeeded in winning legal changes, and getting policies in opposition to domestic violence adopted by the trade union movement. Today, however, the economic difficulties facing women fleeing violence are worse than ever. It was the devastating cuts to domestic violence services, often implemented by Labour councils, which pushed even a Labour shadow minister, Dawn Butler, to make positive comments about the record of Militant-led Liverpool City Council at this year’s Labour Women’s conference.

Nonetheless, in Britain and a number of other countries, the lack of a social base at this stage for launching new attacks on women’s or LGBTQ+ rights means that the major capitalist parties are unlikely to move in this direction in the short term. Even the far right in Britain is forced to dress up its reactionary ideas in the clothes of falsely claiming to defend women and LGBTQ+ people against the supposed threat of Islam. In Ireland the capitalist parties have also been forced to bend to the mood in society. Varadkar’s calling of the recent referendum to remove the blasphemy laws from the statute books is part of his pose as socially liberal. Of course, the continued role of the church in education and the health service are real obstacles to Irish capitalist parties’ ability to bend on these issues, but we should still not underestimate how far they can go under pressure. Ultimately, while capitalism can never provide real equality for women or LGBTQ+ people, it can nonetheless be pushed a considerable distance in terms of legal changes while continuing to attack the living conditions of every section of the working class.

What is a transitional approach to the struggle against women’s oppression?

In every struggle in which we intervene, we aim to have a transitional approach, linking current demands to the need for socialist revolution, led by the working class. The decade-long capitalist crisis has led to enormous accumulated anger against the existing order. Nonetheless, the legacy of the preceding period has not yet been fully overcome. Globally the working class entered the era of austerity ill-prepared, with a low level of socialist consciousness and of organisation. While this is changing, under the hammer blows of brutal experience, aided by our intervention, the scissors – the gap between the objective crisis of capitalism and the consciousness of the working class – remains wide. Nonetheless, we have to strive to connect with existing day-to-day struggles in the way we formulate our programme. However, the starting point when deciding what programme to advance is obviously not existing consciousness but objective reality and then how we engage with it. If we were starting programmatically from existing consciousness we would not be putting forward a programme for the socialist transformation of society.

We are concerned that the Socialist Party recruitment leaflet the comrades have produced aimed at those who were involved in the referendum campaign talks about a “grass roots movement from below with young people at its beating heart” and “anti-capitalist struggle” but does not make even the briefest attempt to explain what socialism means or the role of the working class. The final page of that leaflet, which puts the case for joining, entitled “organised for change”, states:

“Repeal was not an isolated event. It was part of a global revolt against sexism and misogyny. This has given rise to the #metoo phenomenon; the thousands who took to the streets of Ireland to say, ‘I believe her’ after the acquittal of Paddy Jackson and other Ulster rugby players in April; the six million-strong feminist strike in the Spanish State on International Women’s Day; the #NiUnaMenos movement against gender-based violence in Latin America.

“This global revolt is a new generation of young people saying ‘enough is enough’, Opposition to sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia is linked to an aspiration for a truly equal society and a growing opposition to a society run in the interests of the super-rich elite.

“We can be truly proud of what we achieved in May, but we should register that if we organise together we can defeat the status quo. We can make real change. We can end all of the injustices and inequality in an anti-capitalist struggle.

“That is why you should be a socialist and this is why you should join us in organising for socialist change.”

Of course there is nothing wrong with referring to important movements that have taken place against gender-related oppression, but it is wrong in a Socialist Party recruitment leaflet to make no attempt to link them with other struggles of the working class or, in fact, to raise the role of the working class at all.

We are concerned that it could be the comrades’ approach to initially limits ourselves, when discussing with this layer, to anti-capitalist propaganda. We recognise that many workers and young people would consider themselves anti-capitalist but have not yet drawn all the conclusions that we have. This is never our goal, however. Our aim is to win workers to the full programme of the CWI. In some cases – particularly on the basis of the experience of struggle – workers who had not previously drawn anti-capitalist conclusions can be drawn very quickly into our ranks.

What measures were necessary, when intervening in the struggle for abortion rights, to win the best layers to the CWI? Clearly, the militant and campaigning stance taken by the comrades – for which they were attacked by a layer of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feminists – was an important positive factor. It was also necessary, however, to combat the ideas of petit-bourgeois feminism. Central to this is arguing that the organised working class could play a potentially decisive role in fighting for the right to abortion and other women’s rights.

An essential part of doing this would be pointing to the significant mass working-class movements that we have led in Ireland – on the bin and water charges. In addition we should point to the potential power of the trade union movement which, despite their overwhelmingly rotten leadership and having being weakened, continue to be the largest working-class organisations in Ireland. Many, probably a big majority, of the young people who became politically active for the first time during the Repeal movement would not have seen the trade unions as relevant to their struggle. Nonetheless, as part of educating them about the role of the organised working class we think it would have been important to have had a concerted campaign to put demands on the trade union leaders to organise campaigns and action for the right to abortion, along with campaigning in the workplaces. We could, for example, have used the positive work on this done by the NIPSA comrades in the North as an example of how to put pressure on the union leaders in the South. This approach could also have helped us reaching a wider layer of working-class women.

Obviously, the comrades in Ireland do not have the valuable political weapon of the students’ union (SE) which the comrades in the Spanish state were able to use so effectively as a lever to force significant sections of the trade unions to take strike action on 8 March 2018. Nonetheless, were measures taken to put demands on the tops of the trade unions, combined with direct appeals to the rank and file? Appeals to anti-capitalism or even socialism in general, if not linked to the role of the working class in achieving it, are of limited value in winning radicalised young people to our approach.

Of course, comrades may argue that they did take this approach and received no response. Either way we think more should have been done to explain our approach in our public material. ROSA, as far as we can see, did not make any demands on the trade union leaders in its #timeforchoice campaign. We fear that this is because such initiatives were not seriously pursued and that this reflects a wrong approach to the trade unions, where the rottenness of the leaders is wrongly used as a reason not to put demands on them, or to sufficiently orientate to the ranks of the trade unions.

When Ruth Coppinger spoke at the England and Wales Socialism 2014 event the comrades who had organised it asked for any comments on the workshop on women she addressed. Ruth responded:

“I thought the session was very trade union focused and probably not aimed enough at young women. I know Britain is different to Ireland but I thought even for England it would be imbalanced. Most women wouldn’t be in unions. Most young women wouldn’t have seen unions doing much for women. I thought a lot of the contributions were from middle-aged women and were economic. Think the social issues, rape culture, sexism are now massive issues in society and could have gotten more coverage.”

As it happens, the workshop that year had a particular trade union focus that had not been the case in many other years. However, in our view Ruth’s comments also reveal a misunderstanding about the necessity of us explaining how economic and social change can be won, and the role of the organised working class in achieving that, as well as an underestimation of the importance of economic issues for working-class women, including young women. This generation of petit-bourgeois feminists put very little focus on winning material gains for women concentrating overwhelmingly on individuals’ experience of sexism. In that sense their ideas are a retreat from at least some of the feminist struggles of the 1970s.

We, however, while of course combating sexist attitudes in society, should continue to put central the issues of equal pay, freedom from sexual harassment at work, the right to free childcare, decent housing and so on. For the big majority of working-class women these are crucial issues around which they can be mobilised into action. This has been graphically demonstrated by the fantastic Glasgow mass strike of women council workers fighting for equal pay, with CWI members playing a leading role. More than 700 women joined the union to take part in the strike, showing the pole of attraction the unions become when they organise action. And what better example of workers’ unity in action than the predominantly male Glasgow bin workers coming out in unofficial solidarity action with them, showing that they understood that the fight for equal pay is in the interest of the whole working class.

Comrades may argue, as Ruth does in her comments, that Ireland is different to England, Scotland and perhaps other countries, with a lower level of trade union participation and struggle. Even if this is the case we don’t think it should alter our basic approach. We would accept that the role of social partnership in Ireland has meant that the trade union leaders have, overall, played a particularly bad role. Nonetheless, we do not think there is a fundamental difference between Southern Ireland and other countries. In recent years Southern Ireland has seen a number of important strikes such as the 2017 transport workers’, Ryanair and the mainly female Lloyd’s Pharmacy workers. The fact that ICTU was forced to back the recent 10,000-strong housing demonstration, at least in name, is also an indication they can be forced to act under pressure from below. And overall trade union density is actually higher in Southern Ireland – at around a third – than it is in Britain – where it is now only a quarter. Union density – in Ireland and Britain – is also actually higher among women workers than among men. Of course, in both countries trade union membership among the young is very low.

However, as a new generation begins to get organised to fight for its rights at work, it is inevitable that they will look to some form of trade union organisation. It is a debatable issue whether, as greater numbers of young people begin to see the possibility of fighting back in their workplace, they will found new unions or join existing ones. In our view, the general trend, at least in Northern Europe, is likely to be that workers first try and use the ready-made tools of the existing unions, only turning to found new ones if they are blocked by the union bureaucracies. This is the dominant trend in Britain, for example, although there are also some small ‘new’ unions, predominantly involving migrant workers. These can start to coalesce with the existing unions on the basis of a struggle for their democratisation. Regardless of what form such developments take, however, we have to explain to the young people we can reach the potential power of the organised working class. The US McDonalds strike against sexual harassment is a graphic illustration of how young women workers can see the unions as a means to fight back against the oppression they face as women. The same is true of the Google strike, which also represents the start of a new section of the working class, tech workers, entering the field of battle. While our approach will be instinctively understood more easily by working-class women, who are our main priority, we can also win some women from middle-class backgrounds, by convincing them that the only road to via which they can win liberation is via the struggles of the working class. We will not do this, however, if we do not put our arguments clearly and firmly.

Of course, we are in no sense suggesting that we should have pulled back from organising independent action in the referendum campaign and instead ‘waited’ for the trade union leaders. This has never been the approach of the CWI. For example, in the poll tax movement in Britain we put demands on the trade union leaders while at the same time organising a mass campaign of non-payment from below. In explaining to the young people we have met in the referendum the potential role of the working class, we should not only use the example of the trade unions but also the magnificent mass campaigns we have led in Ireland. It is surprising, therefore, that so little use is made of the water charges victory, which demonstrates graphically how united working-class struggle can win, and crucially our role in leading it. The pamphlet that comrades have put together on socialist feminism to use as a recruitment tool from the referendum campaign does not, for example, include a single reference to the water charges movement.

In addition to specific demands on the trade unions to take action for abortion rights, in our view, the propaganda of the comrades on the issue would have been strengthened by a greater weight being given to the link between a woman’s right to choose, when and whether to have children, and winning economic improvements for working-class women. These points are included in Rosa’s 15-point programme, but seem to have been given little emphasis in day-to-day campaigning. We should always stress that – unlike the reactionary anti-abortion campaigners who do nothing to improve the lives of women and children – we are fighting for a real right to choose, meaning not only the right to high-quality safe contraception and to abortion but also the right to decent housing, pay, fertility treatment, parental leave and childcare. In this way we can have an effect on sections of working-class women and men who remain unsure about the question of abortion. This is also a way of drawing out that capitalism is increasingly unable to offer any real right to choose because, even when abortion on demand is granted, the economic and social gains made in the past are under relentless attack.

How do we recruit and politically consolidate the layer we have reached in the referendum campaign?

It is absolutely correct that we have turned to, and attempted to win, the layer of young people who have been radicalised by the referendum campaign. It is also correct that in doing so we have an open and welcoming approach, and attempt to use language which does not put up unnecessary barriers to them. We do not agree with the abstract ‘purist’ approach of the small groups like the IMT, for example, who refuse to use the terms ‘Marxist feminist’ or ‘socialist feminist’, both because, “nowadays the concept of feminism has become so broad as to become virtually meaningless” and because “feminists often blame ‘patriarchy’ for most of the problems of society”. We agree that feminism has become such a broad term that Theresa May can adopt it and also that feminist theorists usually consider patriarchy and not class to be the central division in society. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people who consider themselves as feminists see it as meaning simply supporting equal rights for women. It is therefore not incorrect to use the term, provided it is not on its own, but we also give an indication of our class approach with the addition of terms like socialist or Marxist.

However, even here we have to be clear ourselves, and with our periphery, what we mean by the term. There is a certain comparison with the decision in the 1990s of a number of our sections, including Britain and Ireland, to change our name to ‘Socialist Party’ or similar ‘broad’ names. We did so because at that stage the reformist and social-democratic formations which previously would have claimed the word had capitulated wholesale to neo-liberalism leaving us able in some countries to use the world socialist but give it a clear Marxist content. We had to guard, however, against the tendency of some comrades to think that in changing our name we were also ‘blurring’ our ideas. In claiming to be socialist feminists we are not therefore agreeing with the forces collected under that banner in the 1970s and 1980s that represented various strands of reformism. We should be careful about uncritically quoting left feminist academics who, while they may in some cases describe themselves as socialist feminists, do not have a rounded-out position on how to end women’s oppression. Hester Eisenstein, to give one example, an academic who has worked for the government of New South Wales, is quoted uncritically in the ‘Socialist Feminism’ pamphlet.

We think it is a mistake to suggest that young people who are rebelling against the rigid gender norms of capitalism are automatically or generally the most radical section of society, thereby downgrading the role of other sections of the working class and miseducating those young people. Of course, at this point of time, in Ireland, a layer has been radicalised around these issues. However, in general there is no automatic connection between individual rebellion on these issues and drawing conclusions about the need for collective struggle for a new society. To give an example from Britain, it would generally have been true in the 1980s, when the Tory government was implementing specifically anti-gay legislation, that LGBTQ+ campaigners were often anti-Tory and even looked to the workers’ movement for support. Today, however, after capitalism has adapted to pressure from below and all the major capitalist parties formally stand for equal rights, being LGBTQ+ in itself is no indicator of political views. In the 2015 UK general election LGBTQ+ voters supported the Tories and Labour in equal numbers.

At the 2018 CWI School comrades in the leadership of the Irish section emphasised that young women and non-binary people are the most radical in Ireland at this point in time, and that we will cut ourselves off from the most radical young people if we didn’t put issues of bodily-autonomy central. At the same time, they did not, in our view, counter the views put by a young Irish comrade in a commission that a rejection of gender norms is a rejection of the system itself. Nor, when a new young comrade argued that as a Solidarity TD candidate she would be representing “young queer women”, was any attempt made by the three Irish NEC members who spoke afterwards to gently correct her mistaken approach by, at least, pointing out that she would be representing not only young queer women but all sections of the working class. Taken as a whole, we were concerned that a trend could be developing in the leadership of the Irish section of not adequately dealing with the issue of identity politics.

The use of language

If we adopt wholesale the language of petit-bourgeois feminism it will not help us in this vital task. We should use terms like misogyny and patriarchy with care because they do not aid us in a theoretical understanding of the root causes of women’s oppression. Misogyny – meaning hatred or contempt of women and girls – can be an accurate description in some circumstances but it does not point towards the reason such hatred exists or where it stems from, so does not help to raise the level of understanding of the layer we are trying to reach. The term patriarchy also has limited use. We live in a patriarchal society, in the sense that men have more power than women. Nonetheless, as Marxists, we understand that the oppression of women developed alongside and intertwined with the development of class society and it is class, not gender, which is the most fundamental division in society. Our language has to help the radicalised young women we can reach to draw that conclusion, not reinforce wrong ideas. Sometimes material produced by the comrades in Ireland seems to slips into calling for movements of, “young people, of women, of LGBT people, of workers”, which goes too far towards the identity politics approach of listing ‘class’ as one in a series of oppressions without explaining its centrality. It is true comrades often emphasise in speeches that it is poor and working-class women who suffer most from the abortion ban, but this is not the same as explaining the potential power of the working class as an agent of change.

We also have to patiently explain to new members that it would be a mistake to use language in a way that put up unnecessary barriers to reaching out to other sections of the working class and is unnecessarily inaccessible to them. To state the obvious an essential part of the role of a revolutionary party is to aim to unite – via its programme – all the heterogeneous layers of the working class with their different needs and experiences. Of course, at this stage we can only reach a minority of the most thinking layers, but still aim to instil in them an approach which will allow us to reach the mass of the working class in the future.

Clearly, what language we use is not fixed. At every stage we have to attempt to use language which is scientifically correct and which 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 of workers for whom that issue is not central. This is a difficult balance which changes over time. When, for example, in the 1970s we proposed including ‘housewives’ in committees to plan nationalised industries it was a correct attempt to reach out to working-class women who were not in the workplace. But it would obviously not be correct today!

We also recognise that the best language to use will vary between countries. Nonetheless, we are 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’. The first is not understood beyond a narrow audience, and while the second is a description of a narrow, repressive idea of masculinity, which most men reject, to those who don’t know that it can sound like being male is, in and of itself, ‘toxic’. We should also, in our view, have some caution about how we use the term ‘rape culture’ so as not to be seen to be implying that all, or a majority of men are potential rapists.

And while we have to welcome all that is positive in current moods, we should be careful not to uncritically follow them and thereby make mistakes. For example, it is enormously positive that more women are beginning to feel confident to speak out against sexual abuse. We shouldn’t, of course, exaggerate the extent of the progress that has been made. The accusations of sexual harassment and abuse are still far outnumbered by the number of incidents which go unreported because of a justified lack of confidence on the part of women that they will be taken seriously. We have to stand in clear opposition to the sexist character of the capitalist state and in support of the rights of all victims. The turnout of thousands of mainly young women in opposition to the Ulster Rugby rape trial, shows the mood of burning anger that exists amongst an important layer against the blatant sexism of the court proceedings, as does the hundred thousand who marched under the banner of the SE in Spain against the court’s treatment of the victim of the ‘Wolfpack’ rapists.

However, as we have discussed previously, in welcoming these movements, and understanding why slogans like ‘I believe her’ are used, we have to be careful not to go along with the conclusion of many petit-bourgeois feminists that every accusation of sexual assault made by a woman against a man has to be accepted as proven regardless of evidence. Our approach is one of sympathy and solidarity with the person making the accusation, but at the same time we support the right to a fair hearing and the right of the accused to a fair trial. Underlying the conclusion of those feminists who insist that the woman is always right regardless of evidence is a belief that the fundamental division in society is between men and women, with men responsible for all the ills of the world. That is not our starting point. We recognise that sexual abuse of women by men is extremely widespread, and often goes unreported, but we cannot draw a conclusion in each individual case from that. Aside from anything else, were we to do so we would be handing a weapon to the capitalist class, who would only have to make accusations against any effective male leader of the class struggle in order to discredit them. To be clear, that is not in any way to suggest we try to brush sexual abuse in the workers’ movement under the carpet. On the contrary, it is vital we tackle it wherever it occurs if we are to effectively make the case for the workers’ movement being the best vehicle to fight for women’s rights.

Our attitude towards ‘separate’ organisations

In general, the attitude of the CWI towards organisations or parties of particular sections of the oppressed – whether black, women, LGBTQ+ or others – is not fixed but depends on the concrete circumstances. We have to have a flexible approach, basing our position on the political direction of travel. Where a new formation is a step towards raising the consciousness and cohesion of the working class we should support it, but not if it is a step in the opposite direction. In Britain, for example, we did not support the foundation of black sections in the Labour Party in the past, as it mainly represented a section of black careerists furthering their own interests who emphasised separation from the rest of the labour movement. The opposition of Lenin and Trotsky to the Bund, which organised among Jewish workers in Russia, to give another example, was not based on its existence but its programme of ‘cultural autonomy’ which tended to emphasise the divisions in the working class. Of course, there is a difference between our approach to broader organisations and to a revolutionary party where, although sometimes transitional structures are necessary on a temporary basis, we always aim to organise all sections of our membership together in common structures.

Nonetheless, as well as sometimes participating in and supporting ‘sectional’ broader organisations we can in certain circumstances initiate them. The prominence Rosa has achieved during the referendum campaign has been enthusiastically greeted throughout the CWI. Inevitably as a result a number of other sections have launched versions of Rosa as a means to intervene among radicalised young women. Others have used different banners, particularly Libres y Combativas in the Spanish state.

As we said at the start, the CWI has a long history of initiating numerous campaigns, organisations and banners which are aimed at reaching out to a specific section of society that have been radicalised on an issue and winning them to Marxism. Nonetheless, we have to weigh up at each stage ‘what we give’ and ‘what we get’. For example, comrades in Britain were involved in initiating Panther in the early 1990s, with the goal of winning black youth who were attracted to black nationalist ideas. Panther had considerable success, mobilising large numbers on demonstrations and to meetings for a period. Bobby Seale spoke at a Panther meeting in Brixton, London with around 2,000 mainly young black people present. It was the biggest ever meeting of its kind in Britain. He also met with the leaders of Panther and the party. However, for a combination of reasons, primarily the very difficult period, after the collapse of Stalinism, and the weakness of our black and Asian cadre, the end result was that we lost people to black nationalism rather than winning new people from it.

At this stage we do not think there is one international model we can use as a banner for our work against women’s oppression. Rosa, however, can continue to play a useful role in Ireland as can similar banners in other sections. However, we think it is vitally important that comrades adopt a clear, working-class orientated approach, if we are to win people from it.

We would also have questions about whether, during the referendum, the profile of the party lost out too much to the profile of Rosa. For example, we understand that the big majority of posters we produced for the referendum were in the name of Rosa, with a minority in the name of Solidarity, and none by the Socialist Party. Obviously, the TDs were known as Solidarity and/or Socialist Party members and had a high-profile in the referendum campaign, particularly Ruth. Nonetheless, in order to fully capitalise on that, we think it would have been better to have consciously had a higher party profile.

We also believe it is important now to draw a balance sheet of what we have achieved via our Rosa work, and what role we think it is going to play in the future. During the referendum we know that hundreds attended meetings called by Rosa and around 1,000 people gave their details to campaign with Rosa. Inevitably there has been a lull since the referendum result. However, it would be useful to get figures on how many are actively involved in Rosa at the moment. Our understanding is that it is does not have any elected structure and has relatively small numbers – maybe around twenty – attending its all-Dublin fortnightly meetings. We in no way suggest that Rosa therefore has no value, but if that information is accurate it is currently in reality a banner or campaign, rather than a more developed organisation with its own structures and life. Of course Rosa could fill out again, on the basis of the future struggles that will develop over the separation of church and state. However, in our view that is likely to be only one of numerous fields of struggle that will develop in Ireland, and may not be the most central in the immediate period. We therefore think that Rosa should not be the centre of the comrades’ work to the extent it appears to be, and what resources are dedicated to it should be discussed accordingly.


In summary we are concerned that, in their anxiety to recruit as many as possible from a layer who have been radicalised by issues related to gender oppression, comrades in Ireland are in danger of making too many concessions to the consciousness of that layer. To do so would be to attempt to take a short cut which would have negative consequences.

This is a road that many revolutionary organisations have gone down at different times, with disastrous results. Famously the USFI 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’. The US SWP also, in their desperation to give uncritical support to the Black Power movement, ended up lagging behind the most advanced elements within it, even criticising the Black Panthers for arguing it was possible to be black and racist and to be black and a capitalist.

We are not suggesting that 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. We hope by raising our fears openly it will enable an honest and constructive debate from which we can reach principled agreement.