Published in 1984, Tony Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation set out the SWP’s theory on women’s oppression and how to fight it.
This was a couple of years after the SWP had shut down its inconveniently independent ‘Women’s Voice’ paper and organisation, and Cliff’s cliched tale of “good” revolutionaries putting the class struggle first and “bad” bourgeois/radical feminists was clearly aimed at members of his own party.
The book begins: ‘Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism.’ Feminism, he writes, ‘sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women’, where as for Marxism, ‘the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes’. There can, he states baldly, ‘be no compromise between these two views, even though some “socialist feminists” have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them’. While obliged to acknowledge that socialist feminists exist, however, Cliff’s narrative of women’s history goes out of its way to ignore them.
The first few chapters, on the role of women in revolutions – the English, the French, the Paris Commune and the Russian – are uncontroversial, though the idea that the English revolution marked ‘the dawn of women’s liberation’ is Anglocentric: you could certainly make similar arguments for the German Reformation and its associated class struggles. There’s a good discussion of the IWW’s organisation of sex workers in early 20th century America.
But once Cliff gets on to the battle for the vote, his analysis goes downhill. He introduces the American labour organiser Mother Jones (1837-1930, a founder of the IWW) as ‘an opponent of bourgeois feminism. Once she told a meeting of suffragettes in New York: “You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice! ... The women of Colorado have had the vote for two generations and the working men and women are in slavery.” In her view women’s suffrage was a trick of the rich to divert women from the real issues and keep them busy with “suffrage and prohibition and charity.”’ Cliff says this with no criticism whatsoever, as if Jones’ view was quite correct. Yes, many leaders of the US women’s suffrage movement had appalling politics (as they did in the UK). But votes are hardly ‘a trick of the rich’! For Cliff, however, Jones’ comments fit neatly into a theory that says the ‘real issues’ are class issues, and women’s rights are secondary.
He has, however, great trouble trying to make history fit his analysis. The German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), he writes, ‘argued that socialist women should not confine themselves to the demand for the vote, as the bourgeois feminists did, but should fight for the right to work, equal pay, paid maternity leave, free child-care facilities, and education for women’. What this is, in fact, is a socialist-feminist programme, a fight both for democratic reforms and on the immediate issues for working-class women. Does Cliff acknowledge that? No. Instead he makes a big deal of the fact that Zetkin disliked the term ‘feminist’, seemingly oblivious to the idea that one might have a socialist-feminist programme without labelling it as such.
The existence of a Bolshevik women’s paper, Rabotnitsa, proves awkward for Cliff too. If the interests of women workers were so directly aligned with those of the class struggle as a whole, why did Lenin think they needed a separate paper? It’s a question Cliff does not answer directly. Elsewhere in his discussion of the Russian Revolution we get a clue to his perspective in the sentence: ‘With workers’ control over production, the question of women workers’ control over the conditions of reproduction entered the arena.’ The implication is clear: the proper place for women’s liberation is after the revolution.
The Chartists are also a historical nuisance. Cliff recounts that women had a significant role in the Chartist movement of the 1840s, and notes that they ‘formed a number of Women’s Charter Associations’. What he fails to point out is that they did so because the demand for women’s suffrage had been excluded from the Charter and women had to organise separately within this working-class movement to fight to have it included!
Accounts of more recent events are little better. Cliff manages just three sentences on the strike of women workers at Ford Dagenham that kicked off the women’s movement of the 1970s. And while he has to concede that the initial charter of that movement – focused on issues that directly concerned working-class women – was good, he quickly moves on the lambast the movement for subsequently becoming irrelevant to working-class women. While the ‘socialist feminist’ strand of the 70s movement had initially been revolutionary in its demand for equality, ‘that “socialist” strand of the women’s movement has faded away as the downturn has deepened. We are left with the two extremes [radical and bourgeois feminism].’ The SWP’s perspectives in 1984 were centred on the idea of a ‘downturn’ in class struggle – Cliff’s view of the possibilities for socialist feminism clearly fit into that narrative.
Cliff has plenty to say about the irrelevance of later 70s feminism to working-class women, and quotes some interesting research about working-class women’s responses to feminist ‘consciousness-raising’ groups and the like. Much of this is fair enough: there’s no question that the increasing focus of the women’s movement on the detail of personal relationships alienated many. The problem, however, is that there’s no parallel consideration of what these same working-class women thought about trade unions or the labour movement. There’s absolutely no space in this analysis for the idea that the existing labour movement might not be perfectly hospitable for women. Instead there’s just criticism of radical feminists for seeing ‘themselves and others as victims of male supremacy, not as fighting members of the working class’. That a woman might at once be a fighting member of the working class and a victim of male supremacy is, apparently, imposssible. Reading Cliff’s analysis, you’d think no woman ever experienced sexism in the labour movement.
As for domestic violence, well, here things get even worse. Refuges are, writes Cliff, ‘an important social service’ and should be defended. ‘But in no way can they be seen as more than palliatives, of marginal impact on the human wreckage caused by capitalism.’ You see, for Cliff, capitalism is the problem. That’s what causes the ‘actual oppression’ of women – not individual men. Individual acts of violence ‘are small compared to the way the capitalist system structures and perpetuates women’s oppression through its institutions’.
He goes on, and it’s worth quoting this section at length:
‘This is not to deny, however, that men behave in certain ways which are oppressive to women. To pretend otherwise is to fall into the idealist error of denying that social relations are always relations between real people. But the blame should be placed squarely on class society, not on its individual agents [my italics]. Women’s oppression damages the interests of both working women and men. It is a situation from which only the ruling class benefits.
‘While the working class is divided by prejudices such as sexism and racism, the revolutionary socialist party, which can see beyond these divisions to the potential of the working class for self-emancipation, must not concede to any pressure from backward workers influenced by the bourgeois prejudices of the society around them. The party must struggle relentlessly against all those divisions in the working class – of race, of nationality, between men and women, skilled and unskilled, employed and unemployed – which are systematically fostered by the ruling class. Hence for Lenin the struggle against anti-Semitism was the task of the revolutionary socialist party as a whole, and not only of its Jewish members. Likewise for us today, the struggle against women’s oppression is the task of the whole party, not just of women.’
In short, individual men are not responsible for their actions, and we can blame the capitalist system; women who organise independently to combat sexism in the class or party are fomenting division.
This is how, in 1984, Cliff traduced the history of women’s struggle – both against capital and within the working-class movement – to tell a convenient story for the purposes of the SWP leadership. It’s a method that those familiar with the SWP’s internal manoeuvrings will recognise. And it’s a story that’s still told all too often on the left today.