Moving Forward, Slowly but Surely

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.

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3 comments
C
C

I'm glad to see that there has been some ISG engagement with the feminist critique. I would love to see a response or some evidence of engagement with Laura's post by ISG men though. I think it's worrying that there has been none. I had every intention of joining the ISG last year, but I've become more and more disillusioned with what I've seen. As an outsider looking in, I think the ISG does have a big problem with feminism. I'll give some examples. 1. This article about Jimmy Saville contained some incredibly offensive content, and a complete lack of feminist analysis. http://internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2012/10/savile/ I left a comment on the article saying so. The most offensive remarks (which claimed that Janet Street Porter used her own childhood sexual abuse as an "excuse" as to why she didn't single handedly prevent Jimmy Saville's actions) were removed. But my comment was never approved, and my points never engaged with. 2. The Savita Halappanavar demonstration in Edinburgh, which took place the same day as a Palestine demo which ISG members were involved in organising. Edinburgh ISG members (and Glasgow members staying through to socialise) could have attended this demo, not to mention the possibility that the free bus to and from Glasgow could have waited a little longer to allow people to attend this demo. As it happened, the group of activists who walked from the Palestine demo to the Savita demo came upon a group of ISG members on the way, who lied to our faces and told us that they too were on the way to the Irish Consulate. 3. ISG men in online displays of misogyny and anti-feminism, including denial of any need for men to consider or alter their behaviour in any way, and denial of the existence of male privilege. I have seen countless instances of this. I have never seen any other ISG member challenge it, or stand up for those women who do and are met with abuse. These are just a few examples, (there are many more, and the seeming total lack of engagement by ISG men with Laura's article is just another example) of a worrying trend of the ISG and particularly the men in it either denying or just not caring about women's oppression. I hope it's not too late for the ISG to combat these problems. For good or bad, you are pretty much the only show in town at the moment, and I find it so deeply sad to see you just as mired in the same machismo and misogyny as the SWP and every other sect on the left.

Paul
Paul

As a male member of the ISG (who joined some months after its formation), I'd like to engage with specifically with some of the points made In 'C's post. On the specifics of the Savita Halapannavar demo. I may have been one of the group of ISG members who told you that I was going to the demo, but never actually made it to the Irish Consulate. After leaving the front of the parliament I recall heading up the Royal Mile in a group that ended up in a pub. I thought we were killing half an hour before heading to the demo. But it transpired no-one in the group was going. and not knowing how to get the Irish Consulate I left to met a friend in Edinburgh that I had planned to catch up with that weekend. I didn't personally lie to anyone's face! I wanted to make that demo and I was annoyed that I didn't make it because I felt by not attending I was ignoring and downgrading women's issues. Prior to a previous Palestine demo earlier that year I went along with two women (not in ISG) along to lend support to an anti-abortion counter demo. I personally support the struggle against women's oppression, which is as important than any other issue the left campaigns on. As for other male members of the ISG, I can't speak for them! As for Laura's article. I've only met Laura once, at a demo waiting at the back of the Hilton Hotel for George Osborne. She was discussing the ISG, said she had been a founder member and had quickly become disillusioned and left soon after. So I'm not surprised at the article she has written. As I spoke to her I regretted that she wasn't still in the ISG, being a very articulate and politically intelligent person. On Laura's main point the women members of ISG over the last few months have played more of a leading role in the organisation, both the national secretaries are women. Whether the 'machismo and misogyny' that 'C' refers to in the ISG was a false impression or was indeed real I do not know. But either way I hope January's conference will have gone a long way to dealing with it.

George Mackin
George Mackin

The SWP have many decent people but as an organisation it is deeply flawed. (Over the years the same could be said for Militant and the like). As I said before to MM there is something deeply cultic and toxic about these organisations, former and present - with the shabby man sitting at the apex of purveying his smelly little orthodoxies as the totality of knowledge and brooking no dissent. Talking of which has not this recent scandal got echoes of Gerry Healey of the WRP in their heyday. I like people in the ISG - what's not to like but I am wary always of the institution that they have come from. People can change and learn from their mistakes. So let's be open. One most impressive and possibly most impressive campaigns of the last century was the Glasgow Rent Strike consisting of working class women.. In particular, if women are not involved in the revolutionary transformation of society then there will be no revolution at all or at worst a revolution not worth defending. The same could be said for Scottish working people and their involvement or lack of in the political process. Cat, the unified theory of class and identity I imagine will never be wholly reconciled. The radical left is a group of people with fundamental differences and best all we can do is wrestle these contradictions whilst seeking common cause as best we can. (edited by admin on request from poster to remove typos)

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