“What’s Wrong with the I.S. Tradition?” I asked in a previous post. Quite a lot when it comes to sexuality, feminism and so-called personal politics. At the time, the wonderful, and sadly departed David Widgery prophetically wrote in 1975 “a modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble for itself.”
Forty years on, as the SWP still have trouble getting their head round this, I’m using this blog to make public an old article from Gay Left previously only available in pdf form. With the ISN reproducing old IS documents I hope people find this interesting too. It’s certainly grim!
The whole Gay Left archive is worth reading as it went on to massively influence all Marxists who tried to understand how capitalism linked to gay oppression. (Warning : The archive also contains some appalling articles on “intergenerational sex”, which was very “swinging-sixties” but would now be seen as ignorant at best – though the SWP’s recent talk of “bourgeois morality” regarding age differences indicates they still have a lot to learn).
This “Grim Tale” article was legendary amongst those of us in the SWP who read people like Jeffrey Weeks in the early 1980s,. But only since the internet have we been able to read it. As well as demonstrating that the IS tradition on LGBTQ issues hasn’t always been perfect, as some members of organisations like to believe. It also demonstrates a carefree attitude to internal democracy that many SWP members and former members will recognise from the recent shit.
Why concentrate on the IS/SWP? Because its what I know best, but the IS was far from alone in grim tales. The Fourth International in the USA for example had a policy of expelling gay members because they were a “security risk”. (This was in the era of the FBI assassinating Black Panthers). And despite the “my party’s always been perfect” knee-jerk response from SP member Jaime Davies in this blogs comments ,which includes outright lies,the Militant Tendency didn’t really get their heads around LGBTQ issues until the 1990s. And their recent failures to deal with sexual harassment issues adequately indicates they retain some of the old mentality as the SWP and recently part of Solidarity in the US have.
Enough of me – here’s Bob Cant’s original article – a long but worthwhile, if upsetting read.
A Grim Tale – The I.S. Gay Group 1972-75
One of the major problems facing all gay revolutionaries is the relationship between sexual politics and working class politics.
This journal is just one of many attempts made over the last few years to fuse these two traditions. In 1972 after the hey-day of the Gay Liberation Front many of us who had been active in G.L.F. joined revolutionary groups such as the International Socialists or the International Marxist Group in the belief that we could open a debate around the question of sexuality in them. I joined I.S. in 1973 hoping that I could do this and left earlier this year (1976) no longer believing this was possible.
When I joined I.S. what most impressed me about them was their approach to the real organisation of the working class. They were not interested simply in winning elections to parliament and trade union posts. They saw that the level at which workers were really mobilized, after all these years of social democracy, was on the shop floor. In that situation the real leaders of the working class were not the union bureaucrats but the shop stewards and convenors. This must, therefore be the starting point for any movement of the working class towards revolutionary socialism. No other body could emancipate the working class — whether it was the Labour Party or the Red Army. The emancipation of the working class was the task of that class itself. It was a clear, honest approach to class politics which seemed to me to epitomize all that was best in the tradition of Marxism.
I.S. did not have as good a position on the gay question as the I.M.G. appeared to, but they were the only group that put a correct Marxist emphasis on the role of the working class and therefore, they seemed to be the only group in which it was worth raising the gay question. The traditions of the group seemed questioning and undoctrinaire and I was hopeful that these traditions of open, lively debate would be applied to the question of sexuality.
Homosexuality had first been raised in the group in 1957, following the publication of the Wolfenden Report, in an article in Socialist Review in December 1957. In this article
C. Dallas [Chanie Rosenberg, Cliff’s partner. F.R.] adopted a fairly patronising position towards homosexuality which saw homosexuality itself rather than homosexual oppression as a symptom of a class society. She argued: “it is only when there is complete equality between the sexes
in all respects, beginning with economic equality and extending throughout all aspects of life; when psychological development will be more balanced through freedom from the struggle for existence we fight today, and people more tolerant; when submission for gain is unnecessary because the poisoning effect of the money cancer is absent, that homosexuality would disappear naturally. If nature then produced an abnormality which it might do in a small number of cases, medical treatment would take good care of it.” Such a position is of course, totally un-Marxist but nonetheless it was one held
by many Marxists prior to the rise of women’s and gay move ments in the late 60s. What became clear to me when I joined I.S. however was that it was a position still held by many of my worthy comrades.
The Question Raised
The gay question was next raised in 1972 by Don Milligan, a long time member of I.S., then a student in Lancaster. He submitted a review of the London G.L.F. manifesto to
Socialist Worker, I.S.’s weekly newspaper, in February 1972. Months passed and only after he circulated copies of his correspondence with Socialist Worker was the article published in Socialist Worker No.271, 13th May 1972. He concluded the article by saying, “The labour movement must be won over to support of the G.L.F.’s basic demand – for total acceptance of homosexuality in women and men as a good and natural way of loving.”
But perhaps the most important thing about the article was it was written in the first person. Could there be a queer I.S.? Would the workers be scared off? They did not appear to be scared off but the party hacks certainly were.
At the 1973 Annual Conference in March, Milligan proposed a motion on the gay question. It was opposed by the Executive Committee. They assured the conference that they were opposed to all homosexual oppression but they could not accept the Lancaster motion — something to do with the ancient Greeks being homosexual. And so bedazzled by this argument about a society 3000 years ago, the Conference agreed to entrust the matter to the E.C. I had just recently joined I.S. and this seemed to me to be a reasonable way of handling the question.
Months passed however and the E.C. never seemed to find the time to deal with the gay question. So in June of that year a number of gay comrades met in Lancaster to decide what to do. For two weeks an advertisement appeared in S.W. for this meeting of the I.S. Gay Discussion Group. But then, lo and behold, the National Secretary of the day decided it was unconstitutional for us to advertise. In future, we had to advertise on the Classified page as the Socialist Gay Group — thereby giving the impression that we had nothing to do with I.S. Strangely enough, this constitutional rule did not seem to apply to the I.S. History Group, the I.S. Science Group and even the I.S. Brass Band.
Enter the Middle Class
There were over a dozen comrades, both women and men, at the meeting from a wide variety of branches scattered all over the country, some of whom felt unable to come out in their branches. But it was a happy, constructive weekend and we came away from it full of great hopes. Undeterred by the indifference shown by I.S., we laboriously and democratically produced a document which we submitted to the Internal Bulletin for publication, in the autumn of 1973. This document attempted to begin to discuss gay oppression in a Marxist framework. It also raised a number of demands concerned with discrimination, police harassment, custody of children, medical treatment, sex education and age of consent. It was a very modest beginning to a debate on sexual politics.
We waited and waited for it to appear — or even for an acknowledgement — but still we waited. Meanwhile Don Milligan [who sadly ended up in the RCP! – F.R.]had moved to Bradford where he began to set up a G.L.F. group. The I.S. branch committee there instructed him not to. It was difficult for us in London to know what was really going on but it became clear that there were some people in I.S. who wanted to stamp out gay work altogether. This should have come as no surprise to us, given I.S.’s then current position on women which totally ignored questions relating to the family, housework and sexuality and was only concerned with women at work. Nonetheless, we were surprised at the underhand repressive way in which these people did act.
The E.C., having ignored our document on gay work, eventually drew up a hasty, ill-informed statement on the gay question. This document stated I.S.’s opposition to gay oppression but made not even an attempt to analyse the politics of sexuality. It fell into the old Stalinist trap of assuming that all gays are middle-class, and, therefore, a bit perverted. It was based on prejudice and gossip and, although it made an attack on G.L.F. – for its political mish-mash of ideas – it did not mention the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, presumably because it had never heard of it. It included statements such as “Socialists who make ‘gay work’ the main arena of their political activity tend quickly to exclude any other considerations and elevate the interests of the G.L.F. above that of the political organisation of which they are nominal members.” What abusive rubbish.
This statement was presented to the October meeting of the National Committee; one amendment was made; there was no further discussion and the Document was approved. It instructed I.S. members to withdraw from work in G.L.F . So much for the open informed debate I had expected in I.S.
We were not consulted about this although we had submitted a document to the Internal Bulletin. We actually heard about the decision at a meeting of the Women’s Sub-Committee. Siri Lowe and Sue Bruley, who were both members of the I.S. Gay Group, had been asked by the convenor of the sub-committee to write an article on lesbianism for the I.S. women’s paper, Women’s Voice. The three of us went with copies of the article to the October meeting. It was, of course rejected — too middle-class, although the writers were a printworker and a student from a working-class family. This
was always to be a favourite line – attacking whatever disagreed with the hack line as being middle-class. The kind of article they would have been prepared to accept would have been about a victimized lesbian shop steward. The kind of courage and support needed for a lesbian to become a shop steward, let alone join a trade union, was not an issue that interested these tough cadres.
Siri Lowe then arranged for some of us to meet the F.C.on October 19 for them to clarity their position. It may seem facetious to some, but I can still recall the feeling of walking into that meeting and thinking I had walked into a Hollywood set of a film about the Russian Revolution. A hunch of hard faced men dressed in black, sitting round a table pretending to be Bolsheviks while a woman took notes in shorthand. Or perhaps I had entered a time-warp and found myself in 1917. I did not feel as if I was in London in 1973. We got nowhere at this meeting – one comrade accused us of wanting gay branches and fractions, an absurd idea (given that gays, as gays, have no social power) but one which was much used to discredit us. Another spoke of homosexuality as a ‘cancerous growth’.
The Queers Fight Back
So we organised our comrades throughout the country and seven local branches submitted motions to the N.C. opposing the document. At the December meeting of the N.C. there was no change in their position. However, Tony Cliff said that it was alright for us to be in G.L.F. as long as it was not regarded as political activity. Presumably, sex with someone of the same sex was fine as long as you did not talk politics. For a revolutionary, particularly one of Cliff’s experience, to talk as though one area of your life could be separated from politics is a nonsense – and a dangerous, conservative nonsense at that.
It may surprise many people that we continued to work in I .S. Some, however, such as Milligan, did drop out, increasingly disillusioned with the Leninist concept of the party. Its insistence on party discipline and concepts of leadership seemed as oppressive as many of the things we were fighting against.
Those of us who did stay in were greatly encouraged by the response of rank and file members. Although the leadership was not listening to us, we seemed to be making an impact in other places. We spoke at meetings at a number of I.S. branches and student groups and, generally, we had a very good response. People did want to know about sexual politics and they did try to grapple with its difficulties. It was also encouraging to receive so many replies to our Socialist Gay Group advert. They came from all over the country, mostly from very isolated people and at one time amounted to as many as
three a week. Most of all this was a very important period politically – what with the miners’ strike, the three day week and the collapse of the Heath Government. I became branch secretary for a few weeks at this time. I was surprised that another comrade had not been elected but I was told by the district organizer that his name had not been put forward because he did not have a girl-friend at the time and was feeling rather unhappy. When I remarked on the fact that I was not exactly in a stable emotional position myself, the organizer seemed to find this strange and changed the topic.
The Gay Group’s next plan was to widen the issue and hold a conference on sexism in Birmingham in March 1974. The aim of this conference was to raise the questions connected with socialism and the struggle for sexual liberation. We saw it as our contribution to the process of political education going on within I.S. Steve Smith who was organizing this was instructed by the National Secretary to cancel it. He did, however, suggest that the idea of such a conference could be put to the Women’s Sub-Committee or the Publications and Training Committee.
The W.S.C. was unwilling to sponsor a national conference of this type. The convenor said she thought regional conferences on such were more useful than national ones which “tend to attract mainly middle-class audiences and not the people who are actually building the branches”. Why she imagined that an activist group like I.S. tolerated lazy, middle-class members, I am not sure. She went on to suggest that we raise the issue at branches – not realizing, or ignoring, how difficult that was when we were not allowed to advertise.
But the reply of the Publications and Training Committee was particularly interesting. It said that “I.S. does not take a position on what you describe as ‘sexism’, and also contrary to your opinion we have not found the issue to cause any concern amongst the working class members of I.S.” The ramifications of these statements arc enormous but, of course, they were in the same mould as Cliff’s remarks about gay sex. Sexuality was not a political issue to them. Their politics seemed to be economics and militancy, full stop. We were furious at their mindless bigotry but we knew, without any doubt, that they were wrong. Their mistake was a hangover from the Stalinist past which in time would be corrected.
The next plan was to get official recognition for the subterranean I.S: Gay Group. Such an officially recognized group, we felt, would provide some solidarity for the gay comrades, most of whom remained very isolated. It would be a starting point for discussion on gay politics in I.S. in the way that the West Indian Group was for West Indian politics in I.S. It was not to be a ghetto and it is in this aspect of a starting point that its importance lay. After all, sexual politics should be of concern to all I.S. members.
The July 1974 meeting of the National Committee was faced with five resolutions from branches calling for the setting up of such a group. True to form, it rejected them. At this point, our strength began to diminish. Morale was low. One comrade in East Anglia resigned because of the treatment he had received after he made a pass at another male comrade at a party. I.S. branches are not renowned for concerning themselves with the way women are treated at their parties. Many comrades disappeared at this time – either not replying to letters or leaving the organization or deciding not to make an issue of their sexuality.
Steve Smith and I decided to write something for the Internal Bulletin but because our morale was low it was never completed. In retrospect, this was a great error because there were many branches which had heard nothing of our dispute at all. The whole dispute had been conducted much too much on the leadership’s terms and on the leadership’s territory.
By publishing an article in the Internal Bulletin we would have opened things out much more and perhaps conducted the debate on a political level, and got rid of the smears and whispers which had characterized the whole thing. A great deal of the responsibility for this is mine. I wrote an article for Socialist Worker in July 1974 and allowed myself to become obsessed with its publication. Little wonder that I was obsessed since five months elapsed before it was published.
Over these five months I phoned S.W. on average three times a week. In the end an article appeared by Laurie Flynn and myself on the legal oppression of gays. This was fine so far as it went but because it dealt with the law it totally ignored lesbianism, and thereby the much deeper questions about the historical oppression of all sexuality.
Despite my insistence, the word ‘gay’ was not used once in the entire article. The fact that that article was not part of a series dealing with questions of sexuality is an indication of I.S.’s civil rights approach to this question. In my despair, however, I welcomed a civil rights approach rather than the heavy-handed techniques of distortion and silence to which I had become accustomed.
Two motions on the gay question were submitted to the 1974 Annual Conference by Lancaster and Tottenham branches – but these were defeated without any discussion. The one motion* to the 1975 Conference was likewise defeated without any discussion. When we were selecting delegates in the North London district for the 1975 Conference a comrade asked if these delegates would be prepared to speak to the motion on sexuality. They refused.
For much of 1975 I believed I was the only gay person prepared to raise questions of sexual politics. Three things really kept me in the organization – the first that I.S. seemed the only group capable of organizing the British working class on revolutionary lines; the changing position of I.S. on abortion; and my belief that the organization was still democratic enough to enable a real debate to take place sometime in the future. But the personal strain was terrific – I was often moody, irritable and ill. I left when I lost faith in the organization’s ability to function democratically.
Looking back I feel that our greatest mistake was not to involve the whole membership of I.S. more. We should have made use of the Internal Bulletin more than we ever did. That way, the membership throughout the country would have known what was going on and the leadership would have found it more difficult to isolate us as they did. But more significantly, I feel we made a great mistake in concentrating on the gay question as such rather than sexuality as a whole.
Our strategy made it more difficult for people who were in the process of coining out since people were identified as either gay or not gay. It made it easier for people to opt out arguing that it was up to gays themselves. It also made it easier for a limited civil rights approach to be adopted.
What we ought to have done was raise the question of everyone’s gender role. Sexual oppression is not something of concern only to gays. Everyone is conditioned to follow a particular role. But these roles are created by historical circumstances and need very serious consideration by Marxists. The approach taken recently by the London Gay Workers’ Group in drawing up a Sexual Rights Charter for debate in the labour movement is probably the correct one. I understand that a new Gay Group has formed since I left I.S. and has successfully put forward demands to the 1976 Annual Conference.
I wish them luck but I will be very surprised if the organization has changed so much that it will support any real gay work.
There are things which I.S. can be criticized for. The most basic one was their denial of our right to meet. They would of course assert that they had never done this and that would be formally correct. But in real terms they made no allowance for the fact that most gay comrades were isolated and could only meet each other through the agency of S.W. I honestly believe they thought we could spot each other on sight or by some secret sign. That they were not prepared to consider the importance of gay comrades meeting together is not surprising given the developments in their politics in the
early 1970s. In correctly putting the central emphasis of their activity on the working class they often saw workers only as workers and ignored other aspects of their lives.
This is why they ignored the oppression of women and the role of domestic labour and only struggled around their exploitation as workers; it is also why for so long they failed to treat seriously the racist oppression of black workers. Reality for them seemed to have become contained on the shop-floor. The ideological divisions within the working class were treated as though they were so trivial as to be irrelevant. The refusal to allow us to set up a gay group created difficulties of a kind that did not exist for women and blacks – because no-one could tell if a person was gay or not some gay comrades hid their sexuality and added to their own oppression, courtesy of I.S. They never recognised any of the problems that a gay person might have in coming out at work, with his family or in a political organization. They never recognized any of the problems that this isolation might create in terms of relating to people and becoming a socialist.
My second criticism of I.S. is for their failure to acknowledge the validity of sexual politics. Some people claimed that Engels’ Origin of the Family said all that needed to be said.
Apart from the fact that it treated homosexuality as a perversion, it had been written before most developments in scientific birth control. Women now had, for the first time,
the possibility of a real choice about whether they became pregnant, about when they became mothers, about whom they related to. Although the State has denied this choice to so many women, the possibilities now facing women can totally transform all their expectations. The spin-off on men has been enormous and many men, for the first time, are faced with a whole series of problems about relationships, housework and childcare that never existed while women were dependent on them. Women of the Russian Revolution such as Alexandra Kollantai could not begin to contemplate
the possibilities that face women, today. These technological changes are given real political importance because of the existence of a women’s movement. One would have thought that all this might have been worthy of some consideration by I.S.
The whole concept of a private life has become very important in these hundred years since Engels wrote. This concept has played an important part in the development of a whole number of industries – house-building, women’s magazines, films, cosmetics, household goods and so on. But it seemed that these links between ideology and developments in the bourgeois economy were not that important as far as I.S. was concerned. ‘Come the revolution, it’ll be alright on the night’ sums up the level of I.S.’s approach to sexual politics.
The strength of the National Abortion Campaign made I.S. alter this position somewhat in 1975. Suddenly, Cliff was talking about a woman’s right to control her own body being analogous with the workers’ right to control the means of production. This was, beyond doubt, a great leap forward but it was not accompanied by any wider questioning of sexual politics. However, had it come earlier some of us would still perhaps be in I.S. By the time it came the weariness and isolation was too far advanced.
The third criticism of I.S. is the one that has made me most bitter – and that is the way our political arguments were distorted. We were accused of being concerned only with homosexuality — but if that had been true why would we have bothered to join a revolutionary working class organization? We demanded a gay group and the rumour went out that we wanted branches and a fraction. We mentioned housework and were said to support the reactionary ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign. I could not have believed that such ignorance, bigotry, prejudice and cowardice were possible in a revolutionary organization.
I feel very sad to have to write these things about I.S. because despite all this they are still the only group in this country that is even beginning to organize the working class
on revolutionary lines. They revived the Marxist tradition in this country at a time when Marxism seemed to he either Stalinist manoeuvring or sectarian Trotskyist splitting. And
these factors are, of course, what make their treatment of sexual politics so tragic. Were they a bunch of nut-cases or Stalinist ogres it would matter less. The fact that they embody much of the best of the working class tradition in this country does not make one hopeful.
The dilemma I was faced with in 1972 still remains. How does one raise sexual politics and take part in the organization of the working class along revolutionary lines? To my knowledge, all the groups that I would regard as revolutionary have, at best, only taken up a civil rights approach to sexuality. Membership of these groups for any gay person – – particularly one without a gay support group – becomes very oppressive and warps all of one’s political behaviour. On the other hand, leaving these groups has enormous dangers. One can develop one’s sexual politics but the possibilities of becoming isolated from the mainstream of left politics are great. Where do we go from here, comrades?*
* This motion was passed, overwhelmingly, by North London District.
Finally, here’s a LINK to an article by long standing gay IS/SWP member John Lindsay, remembering a slightly later period. What I’d really be interested to read is more of the memories of people like Ian Birchall of these issues in the early 1970s, as Bob Cant’s account will not be the whole picture.