"Gender Debates: Heroic Masculinity, Gender Performativity and the Revolutionary Marxist Left in Britain." – first chapter of my MPhil thesis

I’ve been far too busy to write anything decent for this blog of late, but at the request of a few people here is the opening chapter of my MPhil thesis. It’s a work in progress, so rough as hell, but it might be of interest. I promise my next thing will be less self promotional…

(Bibliography and later chapters forthcoming).

In 2013, the British far-left Socialist Workers Party essentially exploded. The controversy that would be the party’s downfall had been brewing for several years prior to its appearance in the public domain. In January 2013, the left-wing blog Socialist Unity published a “near verbatim transcript” of a meeting of the SWP’s disputes committee (Newman, 7th Jan 2013). The transcript made for sobering reading for many of us on the left. It detailed the accusation of a member of the SWP’s Central Committee (hereafter, CC) of rape by a teenage female activist in the party. The transcript provoked outrage at the manner with which the SWP had chosen to deal with the issue. In the weeks and months following, more troubling accusations emerged. The accused party member, popularly referred to as “Comrade Delta,” has had other complaints made about his sexual conduct by a number of women in the party (Kellogg, n.d.); claims of a cover-up of serious sexual abuse began to emerge. Owen Hatherley notes in a comment piece for The Guardian that the disputes committee “consisted of the accused’s friends,” and that the party had claimed that its manner of dealing with the rape claim was superior to what it branded “bourgeois justice” (Hatherley, 2013) (in the leaked Socialist Unity transcript, the Disputes Committee defines its purposes as being “to protect the interests of the party, and to make sure that any inappropriate behaviour of any kind by comrades is dealt with, and we do that according to the politics of a revolutionary party.”) (Newman, ibid).


As the crisis unfolded, many followed the story via the blogs of former party activists. Most notable of these is Richard Seymour, a blogger and journalist, who along with the science fiction writer China Mieville, established the opposition within the SWP. In a piece written about the early days of the crisis for his blog Lenin’s Tomb, Seymour describes the flailing tactics used by the SWP to ward off accusations of sexism, malpractice, and cover up: “But the members who raise this issue, many of them students, are yelled at in meetings, denounced for ‘creeping feminism’, or for carrying the germ of autonomism into the party. Old polemics against ‘feminism’ from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with,” (Seymour, 2013). Seymour presents us with an gendered divide, brought about by the SWP in its deepest crisis: an ‘us versus them’ paradigm, on the one hand the “revolutionary party,” on the other “creeping feminism,”; the former implied to undermine the latter, the issue of women’s liberation, freedom and sexual rights cast at odds with a Marxian revolutionary project. The final straw, and for many the conformation of this attitude, was an article by Alex Callinicos (de facto head of the SWP) defending the party (Callinicos, 2013). The article contains no reference to rape, sexual assault, and simply dismisses the matter as a “difficult disciplinary case,” (ibid). At time of writing, the SWP’s numbers have shrunk dramatically, with the entire Socialist Workers Student Society (SWSS) disaffiliation from the party (Muir, 2013), among hundreds if not thousands of others. Former SWP member, the comedian Mark Steel, estimated in April 2013 that only around 600 were left in the SWP (Steel, 2013). It did not seem an overstatement when socialist blogger Owen Jones declared that “the era of the SWP and its kind is over.” (Jones, 2013)


Writing in The New Statesman, feminist journalist Laurie Penny wrote that:


There is…a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly.  It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
(Penny, 2013)


Penny is by no means exaggerating. The SWP is not the only leftist party to suffer a political demise due to allegations of sexual violence and abuse. The far left of the 1980s was rocked by revelations that Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), the largest Trotskyist group in Britain at the time, had been responsible for sexual abuse of female party members and activists, with some suggesting that it was almost as many as thirty women (Anon, 1988).   When Marx wrote that “history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce,” he could easily have been describing the sexual ethics of movements that took on his political thought. Even if we step away from the extremes of sexual violence, abuse and rape, it is clear that there is a problem with the gender politics of the left. Terms like “Brosocialist” and “Manarchist” are now commonplace on feminist blogs critical of the established Marxist movement (anon, 2013); such terms clearly link the role of Marxist or anarchist activist with a gendered performance, but at the same time imply that these individuals are not true “Marxists” or “anarchists” but a kind of machismo bastardisation. Feminists criticise “the predominantly white male dominated Socialist and Anarchist organizations generally…all manner of sexist group and meeting dynamics…the actual theoretical justification given by some brocialists for the dismissing of women’s oppression issues as “identity politics”, “middle class politics” and “divisive”.” (ibid).


The aim of this thesis is to explore the myriad of issues raised by the example of the rape crisis in the SWP. In what follows, I will try to explore the relationship between feminism and the left which has largely gone un-analysed by established feminist scholars. I will explore the extent to which the left is still masculinist, and how much it engenders a certain kind of gendered performance which silences and stigmatises certain kinds of voices and bodies. For the purpose of my study I shall limit my analysis of the “left” to groups that fall under the umbrella of “Marxist” organisations. This is not to say that the anarchist movement does not have gender issues of its own, but simply a reflection that it is too vast a topic to fully do justice to within the confines of an MPhil thesis. Hopefully, others will continue this line of enquiry.

In what follows, I will argue that Marxist organisations have inherited a male-orientated kind of political praxis. I will suggest that this comes from two key areas: firstly, the gendered nature of much of the left’s intellectual heritage, with a particular emphasis on the revolutionary party structure advocated by Lenin. Secondly, I will suggest that is is possible to understand gendered actions of left wing activists as a kind of homage to a heroic masculinity – the revolutionary hero, the desire to be an effective, intelligent and subversive agent whose combination of Marxian analysis and radical political action undermines capitalism. To that end, I shall explore the extent to which the left is, in its heroising of revolutionary figures, engaging in a kind of gendered nostalgia which codifies the performances of its current agents. The aim of this thesis will be to try and develop an understanding of what a “Marxist” performance of gender entails, and how the left can try to overcome the limitations imposed by this if it is to achieve real, lasting change.
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