Women and Power Differences Within Revolutionary Groups

womens voice_1537

“Creeping Feminism”?

During 2013 the British left has been put under the microscope regarding what many would describe as institutionalised sexism. The appalling stories about the Maoist cult all over the press [Link, tariq Ali] followed the SWP being exposed as covering up a rape allegation against its National Secretary, the Socialist Party seeming to trivialise violence against women within its own ranks, within anarchist groups and rapes at Occupy in the U.S.,. It is perhaps more important than ever that all left wing groups, “Leninist”, autonmist, syndicalist or whatever act now if they are to have a hope of including the female half of the working class in transforming society.

Many on the “organised left” are currently trying to seriously grapple with what they see as a failure of both democratic functioning within left groups and an inability to understand how sexism in society occurs within and ought to be challenged within a revolutionary organisation.

Beyond the Fragments and Democratic Centralism

None of this is new of course. Women who’d been involved in revolutionary organisations during the late 60s and early 70s launched the “Beyond the Fragments” debate as Margaret Thatcher became Britains first woman Prime Minister. The SWP’s response  to Beyond the Fragments warned of similar “dangers” of “reformism” and “movementism” currently been thrown at those who’ve recently left the SWP over the rape allegation cover-up/mis-handling . The same year the self-proclaimed “Fourth International” World Congress grappled with placing women at the centre of the struggle for socialism and whether the autonomous organisation of women within a revolutionary organisation was compatable with “democratic-centralism”.

(Ironically, at the time a thirty-something Alex Callinicos used the International Socialist Journal  1to lecture the FI on the need for women to organise separately within a Leninist Party!! He wrote “we can do no better than to agree with comrade Marlene of the United Secretariat when…she says……‘On women’s caucuses. They are neither good or normal. But neither is the situation of women in the organisation……women’s caucuses are an abnormal affair, but result from the inequality that exists in practice between men and women, even in a revolutionary organisation.’” Tariq Ali et al reply LINK] “On sexism within the party we would urge the comrades to remove the beam in their own eye before helping us with our mote”. )

A Not So Grim Tale – Dealing with sexism within the Revolutioanry Party : My Experience

My own involvement in the organised left began a couple of years later. By now, for most of the British left, feminism was at best an incorrect ideology and at worse, a term of abuse. [Link flickr pic, Leninist]. However, in my subsequent three decades of experience of the SWP, there was an awareness of many of the problems described below. Many issues were dealt with well, including encouraging women members to speak out, dealing with unequal power-relationships or stereotyped behaviour in relationships, disciplining a member involved in violence and challenging any sexist language or attitudes. At one point our entire branch committee were young women, who despite a hostility to the label “feminist” would be seen as such by most who knew them. I’m not aware that any of us men in the branch had any problems with being led by women. Issues of childcare were taken seriously, even though it was more likely to be parents, usually mothers, who’d raise problems. My branch was also a place where members felt able to be open about any queer sexuality in an era where same-sex relationships were shamed or invisible.

It wasn’t utopia of course. Some men were unaware of the effect of shouty/angry/arrogant contributions at meetings. Theoretically, far too many members, especially male comrades, confined their study around womens opression to just key articles, meetings, pamphlets and books by other SWP members. Meetings on womens opression were far too often on the struggle for a womans right to choose or Engels and rarely on sexual violence, personal politics, the effects of a sexist society on men, or the politics of child abuse. Into the nineties the Left became older, branches became more top heavy with middle aged men – my age continued to be the average age of SWP members for the last two decades, something I can’t imagine Cliff being happy about with his 1970s dream of the London workers being led by a young black lesbian.

Contradictory Attitudes to Sexism

On top of this was a completely contradictory attitude to sexist behaviour within the organisation. On the one hand it was stated that revolutionaries had no grains or traces of sexism or racism. Yet on the other, I’d hear stories of complaints about some member’s sexism being dismissed because after all, “we’re all fucked up and alienated by capitalism”. Cliff‘s wariness of these issues that could supposedly “divide the movement”, his “fear of feminism” as one reviewer of his book called it, were a problem that I believe hindered the SWP’s ability to deal with the recent rape allegation.

These problems were widespread across the Left at the time, some groups giving themselves a far worse reputation than the SWP. They were also far more widespread across the official Labour Movement. But the unions and the Labour Party never proclaimed themselves to be the tribune of the opressed or be the “moral voice of the left”.

Thirty years on and these issues are rightly in the spotlight more than ever. I don’t have the time or abiliity to deal with these issues. And perhaps as a man, I need to listen to what women say more, or write about men and male sexuality in a way that socialist feminists like Lynn Segal have.

In the meantime, I would urge everyone to read the document I have reproduced below, as I did with Sandra Bloodworths excellent pamphlet Anti-Sexism – The Responsibilities of Socialist Men. All the debates about male behaviour and sexism in movements for radical change are still going on. Whatever happens to the SWP may be irrelevent now, but the same lessons will need to be learnt by anybody who believes that any radical change in society can only be achieved with the active involvement of the majority.

The Feminist Challenge to Traditional Political Organizing”

This document originally came out of a Working Paper originating as a report by Penny Duggan to the first IIRE Women’s School in 1991. ( The International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE) describes itself as providing “activists and scholars worldwide with opportunities for research and education in three locations: Amsterdam, Islamabad and Manila. “, and as far as I can tell is linked to or is part of the Trotskyist Fourth International.)

Firstly, the author recognises how women are excluded from mainstream political processes.Then she examines how the reality of many womens lives combines with dominance of sexist attitudes and womens feelings about themselves can lead to the best revolutionary parties replicating exclusions of women .

She then goes on to talk about how men and talk and listen in meetings, the power differences between the genders, and how men see women as equal, or not, intellectually.

In the second part of this Penny Duggan discusses what a revolutionary party needs to do to challenge these problems. This includes serious and consistent organising around issues specific to women, how the organisation presents its image to women, how democratic centralism and autonomous rights for women can go together, how to prevent a certain type of factionalising and polemicism exclude women, hand what positive steps can be taken to include excluded groups in the leadership.

In the thrid part, the document deals with how a revolutionary group needs to deal with sexism within the personal relationships of its members, sexual harassment by group members, and dealing with deifferent cultures’ views of gender.

Finally, this is only the final third part of the whole document “The Feminist Challenge to Traditional Political Organizing”, linked here , which warrants serious reading. As with so many articles intended mainly for group members, it is very long with big blocks of type. Its also from an age of printed documents, so I’ve broken up the spacing and added a load of subheadings and space simply to make it easier to read in the age of the computer screen – apologies to the author. And thanks!

1 Why is it so difficult for revolutionary parties to recruit and integrate women?

If we say that revolutionary parties are fighting for the interests of all the exploited and the oppressed, we would expect to see the exploited and the oppressed if anything over-represented in their ranks. Women for example have a particular interest in this fight, so that’s where we should be.

Historical exclusion of women from Politics

The first thing we have to be clear on is the general dynamic in this society, which is a dynamic of exclusion of women from the political process. The political process is something that takes place in the public arena, outside the home; and the sexual division of labour in society makes the home and the family women’s concerns and work and politics men’s affairs. This is something that continues to exist even where majority of women work, are educated and have equal political rights. There are only five percent women in the French National Assembly despite the high level of participation of women in the workforce. This is so widely true today that even many bourgeois forces are becoming preoccupied about it. The United Nations produces reports on women’s situations which tell us that women are discriminated against and only earn two-thirds of the male average wage. Also increasingly underlined is the lack of women in public affairs and in the decision-making process of societies in general.
This general process of political exclusion is reinforced because politics was traditionally organized in the place where class consciousness was seen to develop, and we have seen the classical understanding of that process. Politics was organized through the workplace and the relationship between the workplace and the outside, so women were not involved in that. In terms of women’s involvement in revolutionary politics we should also take into account the time needed to study in order to become a revolutionary militant. It’s necessary to make a conscious effort to understand in a systematic way. This is something that’s difficult for women, not just because of exclusion from the formal education system but because women, either for reasons of family responsibility or for other, more internalized psychological reasons, often individually give less time to study. They feel that they should be doing something rather than taking the time to study.
This may seem an extraordinary generalization. But I know of at least one revolutionary party in a Third-World country where a few years ago there were no women among the party’s formal members. There were women in the broad layer of sympathizers, but the comrades demanded a level of political education in order to be a party member which they felt that none of the women comrades had attained. There was a problem in the way that they presented this—I think they had a mistaken idea of what level of education one should demand from somebody who’s joining the organization—but there was also a problem in the fact that women spontaneously didn’t feel it was important to spend their time studying the Marxist classics. It was important for this party to discuss how the question of education should be posed, and how education should be organized so that the women comrades would feel that they were able to participate.

Sexist division of labour within revolutionary organisations
A second question is the The sexual division of labour is reflected in our organizations, with women tending to take on more administrative and technical tasks. It is relatively easy to say: this is absolutely unacceptable, the women comrades are doing all the typing, so we should make an effort and women should be given political responsibilities. But you should also see what happens when women are given political responsibilities. All of a sudden the post of (let’s say) trade-union organizer, which when it was a post held by a male comrade required analyzing what was going on in the working class, in the trade-union movement, elaborating political perspectives—a very important political role—is no longer that when it becomes a role held by a woman. All at once the important thing is to make sure that this woman has sent out the letters that call people to the meetings and that the documents have all been reproduced in advance so people will have them, and that everything is well-organized.
Both the women and the men tend to have that conception of what is the important part of any particular responsibility, depending on whether it’s undertaken by a man or a woman—obviously for different reasons. Why do women internalize that aspect? Because it’s safer. You know that you can send out the letters on time and do the photocopying. It’s a much more difficult thing to write an analysis of what’s going on in the working-class movement in your country and therefore how you should propose that the trade unions recompose and fuse. It is surprising how many men do really think that they’re capable of doing that. That’s one way in which the division of labour also affects what happens in left organizations in a less obvious way than simply who’s doing the typing.

How women can be devalued in Revolutionary organisations
There’s also the political process among women and the way in which that is devalued. It is astonishing that leaders of women’s movement work who have led mass movements fighting for women’s rights, mass movements that have been able to create alliances with the trade union movement, with political parties, with a whole range of people; leaders of women’s work who are engaged in educational work where they explain and make a critical balance sheet of Marx and Engels and place them in their context and explain historical materialism, what it really means and how you can use it to understand women’s oppression, are consistently seen and treated asjust specialists of women’s work. You may understand historical materialism sufficiently to be able to make a critical balance sheet of how Engels applied it to the family, but nonetheless you’re just a specialist of women’s work. No one suggests that these skills could be applied to any other sector.
On the other hand, the young male comrade who has just been a leader of a student struggle and has shown his capacities to be a leader of the mass movement, is a leader; now he’s stopped being a student he must immediately be put somewhere else so that he can lead some other area of work and use those leadership capacities he developed in two or three years of student politics.
I hope that this is a caricature; but I have seen all these things happen. We could go on.
Many women have noticed this, for example: you’re in a discussion, and you say something—you give an opinion or you make a proposal—and the discussion goes on, and then somebody else makes more or less the same proposal, gives the same opinion. From that moment on, all we hear is everybody saying: Oh yes, he was right, he was right, I agree with him. Of course, you never said it.

There’s a Greek legend about a certain King Midas: everything he touched turned to gold. Sometimes women think that it’s the reverse for us: everything we touch turns to something much less important than it used to be when a man was doing it.

Unequal personal power between male and female revolutionaries
Another problem that exists in left organizations is at the level of the individual relationships between men and women comrades. Because there is an unequal power relationship in what sometimes we call the real world, and because we are affected by the society that we’re in, that unequal power relationship exists also within our organizations, and at the level of individual relations between one male comrade and one female comrade. I’m not talking about acts of violence which can happen, but just the way that people relate to each other in a normal way: the assumptions with which a woman goes into a political discussion and a man goes into a political discussion; the way in which what might be exactly the same behaviour takes on a totally different meaning when it’s between two men or between a man and a woman.
When you have one of those passionate political discussions that we all love so much and everybody gets excited and raises their voice, it’s one thing when it’s between two men. But it is another thing when it’s between a man and a woman, because it takes on an aspect of power and authoritarianism, which isn’t meant but is there because of what we’ve all internalized from the society that we live in. And it can seem totally unbearable to be the object of that. There is the other alternative, which is that women in order to survive learn to give as good as we get. I can shout and bang my fist on the table too. But it’s not a very pleasant way to have to discuss.
It’s astonishing to what extent this can even be true of young comrades—I’m no longer very young and I do have a certain amount of experience —with their, I’m sure quite unconscious, arrogance. A few years ago at a youth camp, I did a report on the origins of women’s oppression, in which I put forward the opinion that men derive certain privileges from women’s oppression. A young comrade with a particular point of view came up to me and said, “You said that men have these privileges, well, I think you expressed yourself badly.” I replied, “Well no, that’s what I meant to say. I meant to say men have privileges, because that’s what I think.” And he said, “But you’re wrong. You haven’t understood.” So I said, “Excuse me, but I have been discussing these questions for twenty years. You may disagree, but it’s not I haven’t understood.” This unconscious arrogance came from somebody who must have been practically young enough to be my son. I heard: You expressed yourself badly, and then, You haven’t understood about women’s oppression: rather than, “I disagree”, which is what he really meant.

Revolutionary men not treating women comrades as political indivuals
Another problem that we face in left organizations is the difficulties that men have in looking at women as political individuals. For example, if there’s a very lively discussion about something in a meeting, when you leave the room normally everybody continues the discussion. But it is extraordinary: at least 50 percent of the time, if as we go out of the meeting a male comrade speaks to a female comrade, the discussion will almost immediately turn to something quite different, not political, something more personal. They’ll either begin to tell you about the latest exploits of their children or their new job. But to continue to treat you, once you’re outside the meeting, as a political being is quite rare. This is something that women have noticed sufficiently in our different countries to feel that once again it’s a sign that women as political beings still, even in revolutionary movements, are under-valued because our opinion isn’t given the same importance. When people want to know, Oh, you didn’t speak in the meeting, what do you think?, the question is very rarely addressed to a woman comrade.

2 Changing the power relations

So the question is now, What do we do about it?

First, this is not going to be some sort of natural process. The fact that we discuss the problems of women’s oppression and how to fight for women’s liberation does not mean that we can easily and naturally solve all these problems. As Mandel said, living in bourgeois society cannot be a school for how to be a proletarian revolutionary, that is to absorb and assimilate into our own consciousness a different way of behaving. We need counter-tendencies, counterweights to the prevailing division of labour and power relationships. Obviously there are no precise remedies that are going to be applicable in all places, at all times, and in all different forms of organizations. The answers will depend on the general evolution and political history, on the different periods and circumstances in which we are active. Many different ideas have been developed and tried, and we can learn from them, both from what has worked and what hasn’t.
We can have some general ideas.

Organising around feminism seriously

The first one is that we should have organized feminist work. This is not easy in a period like today, when in many countries the feminist movement is either at its first stages of development or is in some sort of retreat. But we don’t give up our other areas of political work because there aren’t big struggles going on. We wouldn’t dream of doing that for trade-union work, or work in the peasant movement, or any other form of movement.
We also have to have consistent education on these questions, and it should always be part of the education that we give in our organizations. In particular we have to pay attention to the demands of women comrades for organized education. That has to be seen as a party task, because of the internalized feeling that so many women have that we should be always doing something practical. Women are less ready to say, No, I am going to take the time to do it for myself. So we have to organize it.
We also have to pay great attention to our organizations’ image and profile.

What symbols do we use? Who are our spokespersons? Who do we send to meet other organizations? Comrades from some Third-World countries in particular say that this is a real problem. Sometimes when an organization wants to send a delegation to meet representatives of another party or of a social movement, there’s a pressure to send men because otherwise the delegation may not be taken seriously. We have to make a conscious effort to combat that, and say, We think that our women comrades can speak for us, and that they are just as capable as male comrades of doing so.
This question of party image and profile may seem only to have a symbolic value. But symbolism is important. It can seem that it’s most natural to put male comrades forward as spokespersons andrepresentatives. But the more we fall into that “natural” way of acting, the less our organizations will be attractive to women, and we won’t have the conditions for changing our organizations because we won’t be attracting and recruiting women.

Democratic Centralism : We also have to change our inner-party functioning.

We should rethink what democratic centralism means. When we talk about democratic centralism, we want on the one hand the expression of different points of view and experiences, and we want to be effective when we act. But if we want to ensure expression of points of view, then we have to ensure that women’s voices, which are so often not heard, are heard. This is not a natural process. We will have to do what may seem to be artificial things, because the “natural” is the exclusion of women: not to hear women’s voices, not to give the space to women to express themselves.
To take an illustration from the history of the Fourth International: in 1979, when we discussed and adopted in our World Congress a very important document on the struggle for women’s liberation and socialist revolution, as an appendix to that document we took a position, which I disagreed with at the time and still disagree with, that meetings of women within the party were anti-Leninist. The argument was that women’s-only meetings were meetings of a biological sector of the organization, not on a political basis or on the basis of involvement in an area of work but on the basis of the fact that women were women. The argument was in my opinion totally mistaken, even from the point of view of wanting to be a functioning democratic-centralist organization, precisely because it didn’t understand the need for special measures to ensure that women’s experience is heard.
True, left organizations are not federations of the different sectors of the exploited and oppressed; women in our organizations are not representative of all women. But overcoming the obstacles to women’s expression and participation is an important question for democracy in our organizations; and if this requires a special measure such as having women’s meetings within the organization, then we should do it. At the same time, because we also want to be politically centralized, that experience has to come back into the organization as a whole. Such questions should not only be discussed among women, nor should women decide without them. Organizations have to decide collectively how to solve the problems that have been pointed out.

Problems of polemics and factionalism for women members
One of the problems that’s often raised by women is precisely the way in which discussions often take place. Often people are expected to come into a discussion with a set position; you have to go in and defend that position in a very polemical way. Not all organizations necessarily have the same tradition, but often there is a tendency to have tendencies and have discussions that are posed in that way. This means that you have to have a complete alternative in order to contribute to a discussion. It even seems as if you have to be absolutely convinced that what you’re saying is right and that what everybody else is saying is wrong, and fight for it in that way. If we just look at some of the vocabulary that is often used in organizational discussions, we can see this.
To tell another story, I was once discussing with a male comrade and asked, But why do you always have to attack when you want to give your point of view? Why can’t we just put forward a point of view and have an exchange? He said to me, But you have to understand, when I’m convinced that I’m right, then I think that if the position I disagree with is adopted, it’s going to destroy the organization. So I have to smash my opponents, because I don’t want this organization to be destroyed. This is a conception that every political position can make or break an organization. That is a way that men are in general more likely to act than women are.
When women begin to discuss the questions of inner-party functioning, they raise the problem of how we can work in a more collective way. This can go from very basic practical questions—such as, if everybody had the documents in advance, and everybody had a chance to read them, then you would be able to have a discussion where everybody could contribute—to styles of speaking. Women more easily talk about themselves and raise their own feelings of personal inadequacy. They are more ready to say, I’m not sure, or I don’t know much about this. Anybody who has looked at the actual functioning inside an organization will see that. So it does have an effect to change the composition of for example leadership bodies and to have more women in them.
This is not an automatic process, because a certain amount of informal discussion—the discussions that take place after the meeting, outside in the corridors—tends still to go on among the men. But putting more women in leadership creates a pressure to change things in a way that can make the functioning more democratic and more collective. Of course this doesn’t mean, and we have to be careful about this, that women are naturally better and more collective. Anybody who has been active in a women’s group knows that women can also have bad ways of functioning. For one thing, many of the women who have spent some time already as political militants have had to learn to become aggressive in self-defense. So an organization cannot resolve all its problems simply by putting a lot of women in its leadership.

The same old faces : extending the leadership beyond the initial core
These problems of functioning are not just something that affects women. There is a whole problem of the relationship between those who are seen as leaders and those who are seen as rank-and-file militants, including among male comrades. Younger comrades feel this also, in the way that discussions are carried out with them. It’s not just a problem for women: we very often have a problem in organizations of extending the leadership beyond the initial core.

Many of the organizations that I know best were essentially rebuilt through the 1968 period, that experience and that political generation. What’s incredible is that so many of the people who were formed through that experience, and therefore were very young at the time, are still there twenty-five years later. The core of the leaderships of a whole series of left organizations are still the same people. Now there’s an objective reason for that, which is that the 1968 generation was formed through a very important political experience, at least for the Europeans. It was a period when revolutions seemed on the horizon, when there were whole new vistas opening up, and a generation was formed that had the self-confidence that they were going to make the revolution; and they came and they took the leadership. No generation since then has had a sufficiently strong experience to form a strong enough generation to say, OK, you lot, you’re all now over forty, get out of the way and make room for us.
But we’re not interested in just seeing what the objective or the natural process is. We want to do something consciously to change our organizations to make them as adequate as possible. We have to extend that initial core of our leadership. We have to extend it to women, to younger generations, to immigrants and so forth. We have to have to have a conscious plan for changing our leaderships, and have to have a conscious look at how we select leaders, what criteria we use. Do we use an individual star system? Does each and every individual person have to be brilliant at everything—very few people are brilliant at anything at all—or is our goal to build a collective team that within it combines all the different strengths that we have and that are necessary for the leadership of an organization?

Quotas and “Positive Discrimination”
Once we try to develop a conscious plan, the much-discussed question of quotas for women or other forms of positive action comes up. If we go with the flow, if we go with what’s natural, then we’re going to continue reproducing what is such a heavy burden on us: the ideology and the division of labour that exist in society as a whole. Many left organizations have discussed this. There’s been a very strong contribution for example from the Brazilian PT. These things are difficult, because we have to be prepared to take measures that might seem to be “artificial”.

3 The Revolutionary Party & responsibility for private life and individual behaviour

But this is not half as difficult as the question of the “private life” of comrades. We have another responsibility in revolutionary organizations, when we consider that we can contribute to taking struggles in a good direction. We have to have militants who have credibility, who have prestige in their political work. This means that they have to act at all times, if such a thing is possible, in a way that’s in keeping with our programme. So a party has a responsibility for the behaviour and also for the well-being of comrades.
We have to create the best conditions we can for comrades to carry out the tasks that we give them, and ensure that there is no discrimination on the basis of material factors when we ask comrades to take different tasks and different responsibilities. For example, in a situation of clandestinity and repression an organization has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure its members’ protection. If an organization asks comrades to work full-time, we have to guarantee that they are able to do that without materially suffering from it.

Taking Responsibility for Childcare
Another question is very often raised when women discuss the obstacles to participation in an organization: organizations have to take responsibility for childcare. If comrades are asked to do party tasks, they have to be able to do so in relation to their family responsibilities. Of course, there are just as many fathers if not more in left organizations than there are mothers. But because of the way the sexual division of labour works, it’s very much more frequent that women comrades when they have children begin to drop out of political activity because it is so difficult. This is something that we have to take seriously.
Two points should be made about this.

  1. The first is that very often when we discuss the position of women and the obstacles to their participation, childcare becomes the major question that is discussed. But it is not having children that makes women oppressed or makes difficulties for women participating in political organizations. There is a general dynamic that applies to all women whether or not they have children that tends to exclude them. The question of childcare is important. We have to apply to it the same criteria, making it possible for women comrades to carry out party tasks. But we also have to take into account what burden can be put on other comrades in terms of their time or the financial responsibility if the organization has to finance childcare.
  2. Second, we need to ask: Are we putting our comrades in a privileged situation compared to other women with whom they are active in the mass movements? Do we fight for collective childcare organized in the case of meetings of the mass movements, or do we simply deal with our own comrades? Are we substituting for what should be state or local government or something provision? The question of childcare is not something that we can simply resolve for our own comrades within our own situation without looking at it also in relation to what do we do to help all women who have the problem of childcare responsibilities.

This general statement is of little help with the very difficult problems of when you’re a woman in the underground, in clandestinity, and you have responsibility for children. That is a particularly difficult question because it also involves the feelings of women (and men) as parents and the difficulties of being separated from their children for a long period of time.
All these things will of course depend on what our organizations are able to do. They depends on the size and resources of our organizations.
Left organizations also have a responsibility for their members’ behaviour, because organizations will be ineffective if our comrades’ behaviour is in contradiction with what we say we stand for. We cannot allow comrades to have behaviour that puts the organization in danger in any irresponsible way.

Opposing sexism in different cultures
Once again, this is a very difficult problem of different cultures. To take just one example, a revolutionary organization in India has a code of conduct in which they state that religious belief is in contradiction with their programme and therefore incompatible with membership. This issue is posed in a different way in countries or regions where there is a very strong progressive, radical religious movement like liberation theology, as is the case in parts of Latin America. It may well be that in those countries comrades feel that it is perfectly natural and logical that people who do have a professed religious belief should be part of revolutionary organizations, once there is agreement with them on the tasks and the programme. That’s just one example of how this question is posed differently in different countries

However there is one aspect of behaviour about which in my opinion we certainly cannot say: This is a cultural difference. Our programme commits us to fighting all forms of women’s oppression. Therefore we have to say that sexist behaviour is in contradiction with that programme. Here I agree with what the PRT (Revolutionary Workers’ Party) decided in Mexico: [5] we have to take sanctions against sexual violence and sexist harassment, not because we’re going to be able to solve the problem of oppression within our organization, but because we have to have that as a minimum for collective functioning in our organization. How could our women comrades participate in an organization where there are not sanctions against such behaviour?

Dealing with Sexual Harassment
Now, although we can’t accept that some cultures have more machismo than others and therefore it’s all a cultural question and we don’t have to apply the same standards, there are difficulties. Violence and sexual violence are clear: it’s clear when a case of violence has taken place, and there have to be sanctions for that. The question of what constitutes sexist harassment is more difficult to determine. It’s more difficult for women to raise, and it may be more difficult for other people to understand. But the point of view that we have developed in terms of for example the workplace is that when women say that there has been a case of sexist harassment, then we take her word for it, because she’s the one who is suffering and who feels her ability to function is harmed. I don’t think that there can be a different criterion inside left parties.
If we want to have democratic parties, if we want to have politically effective parties where women participate, then we have to ensure that women can act politically in confidence and work with male comrades without feeling that they are going to be treated in a sexist way that makes them feel uncomfortable, excluded, or devalued.
In at least one left organization that I know of, there have been cases of extreme sexual harassment: women comrades felt that they were obliged to have sexual relations with certain of the male leaders, because these male leaders used their authority in a way that made it impossible to refuse, without there necessarily being an actual violent act. When this was finally raised in this particular organization, the men concerned either resigned or were in fact expelled.

But the women comrades still didn’t feel that enough had been done. The attitude taken was that this was an individual problem of some men who were perhaps drunk at the time. The women didn’t feel that the organization had recognized that there was such a situation of inequality, of unequal power, in the organization, that had made it possible for this to happen and had made it so difficult for the women comrades to raise it. There was no collective responsibility taken by the organization that said: We allowed a situation to exist in this organization that meant that male comrades felt that they could use their authority as leaders in this way.
We have a collective responsibility to take sanctions; at the same time there is an individual responsibility as well, to understand what your behaviour is and how it affects others. This in no way means creating some sort of anti-sexist police force, or resorting to the sort of revolutionary-puritanical tradition that has existed in some movements, for example in clandestinity when people were involved in guerrilla fighting, where the camps were separated between women and men. That is not solving the problem, it’s just trying to avoid it.

It’s not confronting the reality that we are not liberated human beings even if we belong to revolutionary, feminist organizations. We do suffer from our conditioning, all of us, and male comrades have a special responsibility because of their position of power in relation to women, which can be reflected in their individual behaviour.
In our fight for a new and better society, where the whole relationship between the two genders are revolutionized, it’s going to be difficult and probably painful. It’s certainly going to require a big effort. Certainly no one is protected from being sexist, having (to put it mildly) inappropriate not to say incorrect behaviour, by joining a revolutionary organization that has the fight for women’s liberation in its programme. But no one ever said that making a revolution was going to be easy, so that shouldn’t be any surprise.


1Incidentally, as well as making Callinicos appear as a “Creeping Feminist”, its probably the only ISJ article to mention “Facing Reality”, though the authors confuse Grace Boggs (the picture in this blog and Facebook page) with Raya Dunayevska.


2 thoughts on “Women and Power Differences Within Revolutionary Groups

  1. I have already left this comment once so i don’t know if there is a problem or comments are just not visible. In any case it was to say that this was a direct transcript of a long talk at the IIRE (which is indeed the Fourth International’s educational Institute) which explains the unweildy style and that a much shorter paper based on this can be found here http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3186 and the full FI resolution on these questions “Positive Action” can be found here here http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article143.

    • Thanks for that Penny. And sorry for the delay. I can’t see the first comment anywhere, and I don’t get the chance to check for comments for a few days sometimes. I hope its not too weird, or upsetting, having your stuff dug up again after so many years.I’d like to think that “we” on the left will finally get it right now – but of course what you wrote seemed like common sense twenty years ago, but……….

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