Irrational and brittle


There has been some debate following the Weekly Worker’s series of articles on feminism, including on Labour Representation Committee member Louise Whittle’s blog, Harpymarx. It’s regrettable that a lot of it has been conducted in a less than sober manner, with individuals ranging from the AWL-leaning Shiraz Socialist blogger to a leading member of North London Solidarity Federation opportunistically riding on the wave of thought-terminating hysteria. The latter person, to whom the CPGB apparently represents something like ‘rape denial apologists’ or ‘rape apology deniers’, quite happily engages in infantile Twitter “hate campaigns” against individuals, yet blocks people from his own feed when asked inconvenient questions or challenged to debate.

I responded to the anarchist nothingiseverlost‘s misrepresentations of the CPGB and its organiser, Mark Fischer, which he/she published in several comments below this article by Louise Whittle. Unfortunately, Louise is no longer approving my comments. Therefore, find below the follow-up reply I tried to leave last week.

Mark Fischer’s letter, which prompted this discussion, can be found under the heading ‘Bogey Bowler’ on this page.


Dear nothingseverlost:

Frankly, I do not believe that the AWL member in question had ample reason to feel “not safe” or contemplate calling for the security guards simply because a member of the SWP Disputes Committee happened to be somewhere in the same building. As Fischer himself wrote, “what did the AWLer think comrade Bowler’s presence portended?” I expect the AWL comrade attends protest marches despite the presence of police – arguably no less brutal and unaccountable than the most hardened SWP hack? Does she ever use public transport? Does she ever go out? Does she ever cross the road? Of course, I cannot be sure. But I think it’s safe to say that in view of the dangers that daily life poses to most people – without them being on the brink of tears at all times – Maxine Bowler’s rushing by poses a comparatively negligible threat.

So yes, this is utterly “irrational”,  “brittle” and – running danger of insulting children – “childlike” behaviour, triggered not by the comrade’s gender, but the result of disempowering, infantilising, bureaucracy-aiding ‘safe spaces’ mongering, in this case opportunistically endorsed by the AWL (for reasons too long to go into here). Not only do I think you are doing women a disservice by refusing to acknowledge the ludicrousness of such behaviour, I also think you are being dishonest.

And yes, I do think that feminists – that’s feminists, not women – often have a tendency to positively endorse and perpetuate irrational conduct. This is symptomatic not of their gender (there are plenty of zealous male feminists in and outside of the left), but of a particular political culture – one that has effectively replaced critical thinking with outrage and moral one-upmanship. It is not exclusive to feminism, although it’s particularly pronounced there. But in case you think we attribute terms such as “hysteric” or “screeching” exclusively to (female) feminists, be assured that we have framed our criticisms of the SWP’s brand of anti-fascism, for instance, in precisely the same terms.

It can be a real problem debating feminists because, as Demarty correctly observed in his earlier comment, they tend to elevate feminism to the status of a faith that is beyond criticism and must be adopted unquestioningly – as if the umbrella term for several overwhelmingly non-revolutionary trends of thought somehow had a monopoly over the women’s question (no Holy Programme here, just a Holy Hodgepodge of half-remembered fragments of post-Stalinist and left liberal concepts, see also the latest article by Mike Macnair –“dry as dust” by your standards, but informative).

This feeds into what I have described earlier: if you criticise feminism in any shape or form, you are a “sexist”. If you point out that this logic does not follow, you are a sexist because you are “calling women irrational”. If you try to explain what you meant, you are “patronising to women”. If you stop explaining, you are “arrogant”. If you appeal to calm, constructive debate instead of shouting insults, you are a “man telling a woman to shut up”. And so forth. It’s a no-win situation that makes me wonder whether there exists a feminist manual for how to terminate debate. It’s not that I’m particularly heartbroken over this, but it does make it so much more difficult for either side to arrive at any new conclusions.

In reply to your question whether I would have a problem with individual Jews being described as “money-grabbing” and such depends entirely on the context and whether it’s clear enough that such a description is not intended as racist innuendo. For instance, if you referred to Gene Simmons of Kiss as a cynical, money-grabbing businessman who doesn’t give two shits about art, I don’t think I would suspect underlying anti-Semitism.

Fischer made clear enough – and in more ways than one – that this was not intended as a swipe at supposedly “female” characteristics. He went out of his way to emphasise the connection to a particular kind of politics. You’re quite free to argue that he did not actually mean what he wrote, and that it’s more important to consider whatever can be read into a couple of expressions he used. But then we’re entering the 1990s ‘war of the words’/political correctness/language debate of postmodern academia, which is of little interest to me politically.

I concede that the term feminism is used in a variety of ways today (which is why clarification of its ideas is particularly important). To some, ‘feminism’ is shorthand for a special commitment to achieve gender equality as far as possible under present circumstances, including on the left. I have no problem with that, though this lower-case feminism often reiterates tactics of feminism proper, none of which I find particularly desirable (e.g. ‘safe spaces’ campaigns, autonomous organising of the specially oppressed). In my view, we are better off dropping the core assumptions of second-wave feminism and developing the women’s question in Marxist terms.

As I mentioned in this readers’ letter to the Weekly Worker, this does not mean that one cannot draw on any insights from the women’s movement – though for a fruitful exchange of ideas to take place, feminists would have to stop shielding feminism from criticism.


4 thoughts on “Irrational and brittle

  1. Do you have any idea as to whether there might be any kind of personal history between these two people, or are you just abstractly speculating as to people’s motivations here? Let’s take a moment to think, for example, about that one CPGB member who got thrown out of Marxism by Martin Smith. If they suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves face-to-face with each other, do you think your comrade might get a little bit upset? And if so, would that mean he was brittle, emotional and irrational, and that proves the CPGB’s politics are wrong? Or would it be someone entirely understandably having a negative reaction to encountering someone who they’d had bad experiences with in the past?

    I’m less and less interested in continuing this discussion as it becomes more and more glaringly obvious that you’ve never actually bothered thinking about gender very much at all. Have the CPGB ever written anything about the way that dichotomies such as rational/irrational, emotional/intellectual and so on are constructed, and the way that these gendered dichotomies help to reinforce women’s oppression? Or are these obscure, irrelevant topics less important than pressing, hot-button issues like how the Socialist Party don’t write enough articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party?

    And when it comes to this: “It can be a real problem debating feminists because, as Demarty correctly observed in his earlier comment, they tend to elevate feminism to the status of a faith that is beyond criticism and must be adopted unquestioningly – as if the umbrella term for several overwhelmingly non-revolutionary trends of thought somehow had a monopoly over the women’s question”

    I’m a communist. You could equally well say that I elevate communism to the status of a faith that is beyond criticism and must be adopted unquestioningly, even though it’s used as an umbrella term for several overwhelmingly non-revolutionary trends of thought, ranging from Stalinism through to the pure idealism offered by the CPGB. If you point out that lots and lots of people who call themselves communists say lots of amazingly stupid things, then I have no problem with agreeing with you; but if you airily declare that “communism is wrong” then we have a problem with each other, because the essence of what I understand as communism is absolutely vital to my politics, and I don’t think we can solve “the class problem” other than by completing the communist project of abolishing capital and the state.

    Much the same is true of feminism: being a feminist doesn’t mean you have to defend everything Julie Bindel says any more than being a communist means you have to simultaneously agree with Chairman Mao and Paul Demarty, and telling feminists who don’t believe in cross-class alliances that feminism is bad because it means cross-class alliances is roughly as convincing as saying that communism is bad because it leads to the gulag.

    And as for the thought experiment about coded language and Jews, it does indeed depend on the situation, but try this one on for size: a number of Jewish members of a specific left group make very serious allegations about the way a leading member of that group behaved towards them, and these allegations are then handled incredibly badly, prompting a huge debate about anti-Semitism on the left. A second left group then jump into the debate with an article titled “Anti-Semitism isn’t the problem, Bundism is”, and give over a huge amount of space to critiques of the politics of the Jewish Socialist Group, and the main thinker of that second group writes in to the paper with an anecdote about having met a Jewish member of yet another leftist group who behaved in a manipulative and money-grubbing fashion, ending it with a disclaimer that they’re definitely not anti-Semitic.

    At this point, would any alarm bells be ringing for you, or would you be happy as long as the writer made sure to say that this was not intended as a swipe at supposedly “Jewish” characteristics, and he went out of his way to emphasise the connection to a particular kind of politics?

  2. Your “what if” games are entertaining, but analogies have their limits when you’re talking apples and oranges. Furthermore, as you well know, the Weekly Worker did not note that “feminism is the problem” with regards to the comrade Delta affair, but that feminism is not the solution.

    But ok, I’ll try to fix your hypothetical example to the extent this is possible at all:

    A number of Jewish members of the SWP make hate crime allegations against a leading member of that group, and these allegations are then handled incredibly badly. The Daily Mail, Nick Cohen, and the AWL pounce on the case claiming that the SWP is a cesspit of anti-Semitism and therefore a dangerous place for Jews.

    Allegations are made that the SWP has an entrenched ‘hate crime culture’, and members who beg to differ are dubbed ‘hate crime apologists’. Unison branches pass motions vaguely calling for ‘safe spaces for Jews’. A couple of weeks later, this is translated into blanket calls to ‘no platform’ SWP members – much to the delight of trade union/NUS bureaucrats. A number of anarchists jump on the bandwagon, asserting that the Leninist left is anti-Semitic because it hasn’t sufficiently accommodated Bundism.

    What do we do in this situation? We report as meticulously as possible and leak any internal SWP documents. We denounce the SWP leadership and the Disputes Committee. We encourage rank and file rebellion. We demand for the accused to be expelled and clear their name of any hate crime allegations outside the party’s ranks. Crucially, we emphasise that the leadership’s handling of the case was not engendered by its anti-Semitism, but by its bureaucratic commitment to protect the leadership clique come what may.

    We publish articles that call for radical democratisation of the left as the only way to prevent such outcomes in the future: “Hate crime is not the problem”, we write, attributing the fact that such serious allegations remain unaccounted for to a much broader democratic deficit.

    But we also appeal for calm and reflection. We point out that the SWP is not an anti-Semitic or racist organisation – neither in terms of its political project, nor in terms of its internal culture. To the extent that Jewish nationalism in any shape or form is proposed as a medicine, we publish articles that are critical of it. We may even argue that the SWP’s mealy-mouthed pandering to liberal multiculturalism (instead of a consistently Marxist anti-racism) and its uncritical alliances with ‘community leaders’ in the past contributed to the rightward drift of the internal opposition in the direction of identity politics. And yes, we may even publish a series of articles on this – it is not our aim to be as tolerant and inoffensive as possible, but to help resolving the issue positively.

    This is as far as I can push the analogy, seeing as “money-grabbing behaviour” is not a characteristic typical of Bundist politics and could therefore only be understood as an underhand reference to the comrade’s Jewishness in the context you offered (which is why I cited Gene Simmons as a far less problematic example hailing from the capitalist culture industry).

    The Jewish Socialist Group is very outspoken about its anti-Zionism and working class partisanship.* Socialist feminists, on the other hand, are not so hot at drawing sharp lines of demarcation between themselves and their openly class-collaborationist and rightist ‘sisters’ (a family affair, perchance?), which may be part of the reason why people tend to conflate all kinds of feminisms into one. Nonetheless, I criticised this amalgamation in my letter.

    I am perfectly happy to admit that some of the tone in Demarty’s articles (“idiotic feminists”, etc) was unhelpful in leaving this particular door open: self-described socialist feminists are our potential allies, not our natural enemies. I would very much like them to join our ranks and engage in a critical exchange of ideas rather than see them side with anti-communists as unwitting accomplices in a cleansing operation. Does that make sense?

    I’ll reply to your other points another time.

    *Of course, it is still perfectly valid to argue that neo-Bundism – whatever worthwhile knowledge on Jewish issues it might bring to the table – is not the solution: I’d much rather the Jewish Socialist Group comrades were part of a united Marxist party instead of organising autonomously.

  3. Perhaps this link will help to clarify matters in relation to the characterisation by Mark Fischer of this person’s reactions as ‘brittle, childlike’ etc. and the dialogue here which I’ve just come upon. There is a back story here and a history of unpleasantness towards Ms.Huzzard and as she explains she does have a mental health issue:

    I also sent a response to the WW the following week which was published. It was partial since I also took on some even more ‘bonkers’ letters by a couple of others, part of the feminism/anti-feminism/safe spaces thread at that particular time. For the record I am neither a member, nor a supporter of the AWL. FH

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