Everyone in the SWP and most who’ve recently left venerate the glorious “IS Tradition”. But of course it left a lot to be desired in some areas, as my Diary of an Incognito Comrade at Marxism 2013 part 2 explains.
Before I continue my diary, I need to apologise to my readers. Since being leaked to this blog, I see many readers have assumed that I am “You Know Who/He Who Should Not Be Named”. In fact, despite nearly 30 years in the SWP I have never been on a disrict committee, never mind the CC or NC, and I have never spoken,or played records, at Marxism or had anything published by the SWP.
My discreet presence at Marxism 2013 merely allowed me to hear some of the best debates without having to face some of the more difficult and acrimonious discussions with the many people I know.
Having said that I have huge respect for those in the ISN and the opposition who did speak up, and I can also understand the many who simply felt unable to attend.
That Skegness incident, bourgeois morality and the IS Tradition
While I must confess that there was no overheard conversation in the toilets of ULU on Saturday, the mock-cottaging at Skegness SWP Easter weekend in the late 1980s, the leaderships reaction – including the regret over having Julian Cleary a.k.a. Jane Collins Fan Club perform for us were all too real. It might not be word for word but those of us at the Lesbian and Gay caucuses, held in ULU and which were quite big in the late 1980s, will recall this.
It is true that our party had taken a decent position on “gay rights” back in 1976.And we’d had Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be gay” at the ANL Carnival.Yet even in the late 80s Labour Party leaders like Kinnock was calling Peter Tatchell a fairy, and Patricia Hewitt declared that “the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners”. Meanwhile,the Militant refused to discuss lesbian and gay issues and there were even stories about non-tendency gays having their tent trashed at LPYS summer camp.(in fact they didn’t really get to grips with the issue until the 1990s).
Of course, life wasn’t perfect for us in the SWP. It was certainly not going to lead to an exciting love life as you probably were the only gay in the branch. But I certainly never encountered any homophobia during the 80s or 90s, even if some people did think cottaging was merely a reflection of gay oppression. If anything SWP jumped at the chance to defend lesbians and gays, raise money for Pride in the unions etc and joined me at gay clubs & pubs.
The only problem was hearing well meaning but ignorant comrades explain how the Russian Revolution had brought about gay liberation and how the SWP/IS had a fantastic record on gay liberation, with stories about whole gay squats joining the IS en masse.
The Skeleton in the IS Closet
But of course, just as the Russian Revolution was no panacea for queers, neither was being gay in the IS in the early 1970s. In the Section 28 campaign, I would hear tales of the IS Gay Group and the difficult time that they had. Of course, before the days of the internet, this was all stories. But now,the whole Gay Left Archive is on line, allbeit in pdf form.
- It’s written by my favourite ever member of IS/SWP
- It’s extremely pertinent to some of the debates that are still going on in the SWP and the left generally 38 years later.
I will also post this as a separate piece as they are not on line except as pdf and I can’t imagine many will want to read all my ramblings before they get to Widgery’s stylish polemic.
Much of the Gay Left’s articles are well worth a look. Despite the IS’s initial suspicion of Gay Left, and its errors, it did admit its failures, or at least change its line, within 3 years. More interesting,the theories attempting to use Marxism to analyse gay oppression that Gay Left developed informed the IS’s own development in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Much of it was wonderfully groundbreaking. The only pieces that make the reader sit up in fright are the debates around intergenerational sex, something that people like Tatchell have subsequently criticised themselves for. And despite talk of “bourgeois morality” recently, it seem to be something that the SWP hasn’t moved far enough away from.
David Widgery writes:
The following review was written, on request, for the theoretical journal of the International Socialists’ International Socialism in Autumn 1973.. It was rejected by Chris Harman, then editor, because ‘he had not read the pamphlet’ and supposedly was not in a position to tell me if I’d got the line wrong. He presumably never did because the review ‘got lost’, a euphemism I have experienced several times on socialist papers when the editor wants to reject something but has not the courage to say so. At the time the leadership of I.S. were conducting a political campaign against Don Milligan and the I.S. Gay Group which was by and large successful. For the record, one of the leading lights in that campaign was responsible for the classic line “I.S. does not have a line on what you call sexism and has not found it a phenomenon which exists in the working class.”
I am glad of this chance to eventually publish this article: not because of any grand idea of the review’s worth, but because of what the suppression of its fairly tentative contents reveals about the political context in which Don Milligan wrote his pamphlet.
“The Politics of Homosexuality”
Don Milligan 20p Pluto Press
Homosexuality has been a taboo subject on the Left for 100 years.
It’s always been somebody else’s problem something to do with bourgeois degenerates or Stalinist spies. Socialists who wanted to go to bed with lovers of their own sex have done so in great secrecy or simply become celibate and submerged their sexual longings in political activity.
Although homosexual writers like Edward for itself. Carpenter, active in the Sheffield labour movement early this century, were very widely read in the movement (Love’s Coming of Age went through twelve editions), their analysis could never advance beyond a desperate pleading for their form of love to be tolerated.
Radical homosexual writers who were drawn towards socialist ideas because of their own experience of the heterosexual hypocrisy of capitalism were seldom welcomed. Oscar Wilde, openly prosecuted in an atmosphere of pre-Boer War patriotic hysteria was unmentioned by the socialist press of the day. Walt Whitman, the American left-wing poet, whose proleterian following in Yorkshire corresponded and sent money to their hero, was never able to openly link his homosexuality to his political feelings, although privately they were inseparable.
Of female homosexuals we know only sneers and silence. The Left has occasionally included homosexuals somewhere in its list of oppressed minorities but the perspective has been reformist and legislative. For example a warm-hearted article in Socialist Review, commenting on the Wolfenden Report which made homosexuality legal between consenting adults, still saw homosexuality as an evil and perverted form of love, a product of capitalist society which would be cleansed after-the-Revolution. In the meantime queers are supposed to keep their heads well down and wait for more tolerant laws to be passed from above. And although the Bolsheviks acted to legalize homosexuality, since 1934 in Russia and in most of the state-capitalist regimes, especially Cuba, homosexuals have been singled out for the most vigorous prosecution.
The emergence, out of the political Pandora’s Box of 1968, of the Gay Liberation Movement has altered the whole terms of the discussion. A movement of homosexuals of an entirely new kind was born in collective struggle (literally in a fist fight with New York cops attempting to make arrests in a New York homosexual bar). They asked not for integration and tolerance but shouted defiance and challenged heterosexual society to examine the seamy side of its own ‘normality’. A sexual minority, apparently contained in their own guilt-ridden ghettoised sub-society, suddenly in the late sixties began to organize politically and look for radical explanations of their own situation. Seldom has Engel’s remark that ‘in the fore of every great revolution the question of free loveis bound to arise’ proved truer. The reaction of socialists has been embarrassed and uncertain. At one extreme the freak left by giving uncritical support to every whim of
Gay Liberation (and they have been many) in fact took a liberal and also a rather patronizing
At the other extreme those socialists who denied that were a ‘genuine’ minority, and suspect it’s all a class problem anyhow, ended up utilising revolutionary phrases to cloak straightforward prejudice (at the World Youth Festival 1973, for example, socialist homosexuals were beaten up when they attempted to raise a G.L.F. banner).
Milligan’s pamphlet documents clearly how homosexuals are oppressed by law prejudice, specific physical attacks made by psychiatrists and queer bashers and, most importantly, the personal self-denial of a life of furtiveness and enforced secrecy. In
reply to those who argue that this oppression has no relation to the class struggle he quotes the words of the Bolshevik Central Committee member Alexandra Kollontai who wrote in 1919 ‘the problems of sex concern the largest section of society—they concern the working class in its daily life.
It is hard to understand why this vital and urgent subject is treated with such indifference. The indifference is unforgivable. Milligan argues that homosexuals are an
affront to capitalism because they challenge the system’s division of people into small competitive family units of obedient producers and cons umers house-trained in obedience and rigid sex-roles. For, like the Women’s Question, any adequate Marxist analysis of homosexuality is bound to deal with sexuality, child-rearing and psychology, topics not raised within the Marxist movement since the late 1920s. These questions are not being raised again in the working class movement by accident ; it is inevitable they will be asked once again in new guises as we transform our revolutionary socialism from the dogma of the few into the faith of the multitude. Indeed a modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble for itself.
Thestruggle for a Marxist theory of homosexuality will continue and will only finally be made by working class homosexuals themselves. As Connolly says it is those who wear the chains who are most qualified to begin throwing them off. In the meantime socialist homosexuals are entitled to expect the active support of their heterosexual comrades. Socialists who are weak on this question will undoubtedly show themselves weak on other perhaps more important questions of principle. For it is not a question of moralism but one of class solidarity. For a male worker who sneers at queers, just like one who talks of niggers and slags, is finally only sneering at himself and his class.