Jack Conrad regrets in the CPGB podcast on ‘SWP rebellion and feminism’ that he has “not heard of any feminist movement raising radical demands for working class women”. If that is true, how thorough was his research? There exist socialist and Marxists feminisms, to name but two schools which speak of class almost incessantly. Even the post-Marxist cultural studies variety cannot do without taking into account ‘class’ – or whatever it thinks constitutes class – as a key analytic component.
Now, you may argue this is all unnecessary, that it isn’t going anywhere, even that it’s harmful – and there are some good reasons to do so. But in order to criticise anything you need to at least be aware of its developments since the turn of the 20th century. To dismiss present-day feminism based on what you know about the Suffragettes is a bit like dismissing Lenin based on your knowledge of Fourier.
I do not agree with much of what the various feminisms have to say – least of all the ‘Women always speak the truth (except when they disagree with me)’ variety espoused by regular Weekly Worker letter-writer Heather Downs. Furthermore, I believe that much of what is known as ‘gender studies’ is profoundly hostile to sexual impulse and desire, which it attempts to squeeze into politically correct shapes. Its proponents say that sexuality is of the mind, yet in reality they prove themselves to be as hostile to the mind as they are to sexuality. Their totalising responses to complex questions, not to mention their aggressive moralising, are poison to critical thinking.
Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe that no worthwhile conclusions can be drawn from the women’s lib experience of the 1960s-70s, or that the vast body of literature that emerged on its back is devoid of any useful insights. Jack Conrad says that these days most feminism is restricted to academia. So what? The same was true of psychoanalysis, yet the best Marxists – including Trotsky – did their damnedest to acquaint themselves with the theories of Freud (who was not known as a supporter of the proletarian struggle).
As has been stated elsewhere, second-wave feminism stepped in where the organised left had failed. Where Marxist groups accommodated feminist and other identity-centred groups, they compartmentalised them without attempting as much as a critical exchange. When the left rid itself of these groups, this occurred in a no less shallow fashion. The result is that we really do not have a lot to say about more recent developments in sex and gender relations. Is it absolutely out of the question that we might benefit from some of the knowledge accumulated in these movements?
We need to educate ourselves about all currents of emancipatory as well as pseudo-emancipatory thought – if only, as Lenin would put it, to find the kernel of the truth that the opponent is working with. To merely attack a caricature is to liken ourselves to the caricature our opponents draw of us: that of the historical re-enactment society that is not interested in applying Marxism as a tool to analyse the present.