What’s Wrong With the IS Tradion? Diary of an Incognito Comrade at Marxism 2013, part 2

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.

I will reproduce Bob Cant’s “The IS : A Grim Tale” in a future posting, but first I am producing David Widgery’s review of  Don Milligan’s “The Politics of Homosexuality” from 1975 for two reasons

  1. It’s written by my favourite ever member of IS/SWP
  2. 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.

4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the IS Tradion? Diary of an Incognito Comrade at Marxism 2013, part 2

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong With the IS Tradion? Diary of an Incognito Comrade at Marxism 2013, part 2 | Research Material

  2. I think you should do your Militant homework before making wild accusation.s of a homophobic culture inherit within the tendency. Three posts off Socialist Party members in response to this blog.

    “Comrades also actively intervened in Gay PRIDE in London (as we still do), & as Marc Vallee, 1 of our old LGBT caucus convenors was always quick to point out

    responsible for the 1st sales of Whistles on GAY PRIDE demos.

    events these days are mainly sold by traders, but when I worked as a Fighting Fund full-timer at the national centre, I proposed we sell pink whistles for the FF as well as political stickers. (I also went to buy & string up

    wasn’t just a money making exercise. There was a tradition of using whistles in the LGBT community to raise alarm if faced with homophobia or under attack when leaving gay pubs or clubs. Some LGBT groups used to hand out whistles in clubs & bars for this purpose. I argued we should take this tradition to the national GAY PRIDE demos in London & along with political stickers, leaflets & copies of THE MILITANT we were able to engage with hundreds of people about the party’s ideas, build the party’s LGBT caucus, raise vital funds & have a laugh at the same time.. (who can forget Mike Preston’s “Wear something pink & sticky for PRIDE..!”

    down a storm as people saw them as a new way to show to the world WE’RE HERE & QUEER on the demos.. We have a proud tradition in the party of LGBT work comrades..! NB at the time there was only PRIDE in London. It was a national event & far more political than it is today. It took time for PRIDES to develop around the regions. I remember intervening on the first Manchester PRIDE when our comrades were the ONLY political grouping..! Not an SWP-er in sight. I remember BRIGHTON PRIDE being a tiny parade of a couple of hundred people & again our comrades were the only political grouping intervening for a few yrs. Comrades in Leicester helped set up the first LEICESTER PRIDE. (Ask Steve Score.) I & many other comrades have a wealth of examples.. (Anyhow sorry for the waffling.. )”


    ” We supported Peter Tatchell in his by-election campaign, and played a major role in him being selected as candidate in the first place. It’s basic Marxist analysis to realise that the bourgeois finds ways to divide workers, and that this must be opposed to achieve the maximum possible degree of unity of the working class. This was recognised by Engels and in the Russian revolution, it would have been particularly obvious after the mass anti-homophobic movements of the 60s. A so-called Marxist party that could not recognise this would not have been capable of maintaining a healthy tradition in the way we have today.

    As general advice, I’d take anything you read coming from the SWP, particularly if it is about us, with a shovel full of salt.”


    “Quotes from Militant paper on fighting section 28 (a law that made mentioning homosexuality by schools and councils illegal) — http://socialistunity.com/peter-taaffes-critique-of-the-swp/#comment-105214

    Also last time this was mentioned someone said that in Liverpool council when it was a socialist council that our comrades led that we refused to implement section 28.”

  3. Pingback: Edward Carpenter, British socialist poet | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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