Guest Post by Cat Boyd, ISG Activist
I welcome the comments on sexism in Laura McKeon’s article “The Best Thing Going? A Feminist Critique of the ISG“, as I’m sure the majority of women in the International Socialist Group (ISG) – and women on the left- do. Being in an organisation means that sometimes we can lose perspective, become inward looking and fail to engage with the wider movements and views: what’s the point in believing in left renewal if you can’t listen, evaluate and analyse the organisation in the context of the moment? (which incidentally, I think is an aspect of the broader crisis in the SWP) Engaging with those outside our organisation gives a more comprehensive outlook and context. This response is written with that in mind.
I have never been a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and it would be disingenuous of me to comment on any member’s experience as a party member. However, of course I have sympathies with Laura McKeon, who has written this piece. Sexism is replicated in all aspects of society. That includes left-wing organisations. The point is that left-wing organisations should have ways of challenging this. I was not one of the original members of the ISG, and joined after working with them for a while, on other projects. Part of the reason I’d never joined a left-wing organisation before is because I was genuinely concerned by the exact issues the blog post brings up: lack of democracy and sexism. I remember being on demonstrations with a variety of left groups, where we were led by, and followed the chants and ideas of male activists. At the risk of sounding painfully optimistic, I see a shift in this in some respects- regardless of my ISG membership.
My first encounter with the activists in the ISG was at the first women-only, women’s day school. From this point onwards, there has been a constant drive by women in the organisation to develop feminism, and challenge sexism in every aspect of left movements and organisations. The demonstration by Coalition of Resistance on International Women’s Day last year was the first time I’ve been able to participate in a militant, feminist demo, led by and organised by women. The women I have met both inside and out with the ISG have been crucial in changing the male-mask of radical politics. This isn’t to say one demonstration itself can change the age-old practices and problems of left-wing organisations- but it is a step forward.
There is some imprecision in the writer’s critique on the ISG, which I’d like to address. I will talk about sexism- not in hushed corners or in small caucuses- but I will talk about sexism openly in both the ISG, and other groups (including trade unions) I’m involved in. I am not alone either. It was for this reason that, at the ISG annual conference on the 5th and 6th of January this year, that women in the ISG proposed a motion on feminism and on women’s involvement, which I’ll briefly detail in this piece.
The ISG has tried to develop its feminist politics since it was established, but we undoubtedly need to continue to grow in this area. There remains a tendency in the ISG, reinforced by many outside of the group, to artificially divide people into class theorists or identity theorists. Our aim is to be non-dogmatic and non-reductionist in our praxis- we must move beyond this divide and pull these “sides” towards a unitary theory. This is our theoretical task inside the organisation; it also cannot be a sectional issue. We have moved towards a new committee structure, which involves for the first time, a Women’s Committee, and a designated women’s editor. There has been little development of Marxist-Feminism for the last 40 years and this attempt at developing theoretically, in my mind, is another step forward. The key here is that as an organisation defining itself as Marxist-Feminist; we need to develop theoretically and practically. That is, developing a deliberate strategy of promoting and developing women in the organisation. It has been noted that the “theory” section of the ISG website has a majority of articles by men in the organisation, and we wish to redress this balance. This will take time and effort from all members of the organisation.
There is still a lot of work to be done, of course. Women’s participation can’t be tokenistic- this is exactly the kind of “papering-the-cracks” I’d like to move away from. There needs to be a continual strategy of engagement through less-hierarchical structures, development of theoretical feminist perspectives, and this starts with creating women-only space and space for women to lead the organisation. The original organiser stood down after less than a year, in order to facilitate this type of change which has lead to the election of two female National Secretaries at conference.
The entire Left needs to address the problems and concomitant failures of various organisations which have rendered some women on the outside of the struggle. We see changing this as being a priority for the ISG. It is not an easy road, and I think it would be disingenuous to claim it to be. However, addressing these problems can’t just be an internal matter for the ISG, and that’s why women in the organisation also proposed to conference that, through the women’s committee, we attempt to develop a broad, cross-party, non-party women’s network- so that regardless of any party membership, we can come together as women and as socialists to meet, to take actions and to learn to work together to challenge sexism wherever is arises.