Transcript of a meeting. 
Transcribed by Ramsey Margolis.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Well, comrades, you can imagine that of all the topics that speakers have to speak on, this is the one that makes speakers’ hearts sink the fastest. As well as containing two of the most interesting words in the English language, it also covers a really impossible range of which it would take eighty speakers eighty days with eighty seminar groups to do justice to.
It was Engels who said “it’s a curious fact that at the beginning of every great revolutionary movement the question of free love comes to the fore” and over the last fifty years, since the break up of the post war stability really, there has been immense discussion by women, by gays, by men, by everyone you want to mention has had their ... and this is not a subject like the kind like China, at which you can say “what an interesting speaker, he must know a lot about China” or something. This is a subject that everyone is their own expert on. As Tony Cliff once told me, “no one has epaulettes in bed, and we’ve all got some experience to contribute on this subject”.
I would only start by saying that by becoming aware of the problem, the complexity of the problem, I and a dear friend decided to stop all the discussion a bit short by starting a theoretical journal on the subject which would abolish all of the debate because we were getting fed up with all the different tendencies and so on and so forth. So we started Red Wank, the journal of rank and file masturbation, and I would just like to briefly read an editorial that we wrote which was going to solve the whole problem of sexism on the left. We began:
“The entire Trotskyist and libertarian movement is infected with sexism, i.e. the ideology and mystification of having sex. We believed the solution was stopping to have sex. Down with close relationships! Such must be the slogan for the future. Yet gays and hets, monogamous and promiscuous types of the Marxist groups, insist on the bourgeois romantic ideal of fulfilment through human relationships. The capitalist system is structured on the basis of bourgeois couplings, temporary or long term. Red Wank will attack this capitulation of consumer values of institutions. Only by the uprooting of feminism, machismo, polygamy, prostitution, one night stands, open marriages, bickering, depression, ecstasy, romance, and sexism generally will provide the proletariat with the correct perspective and, most important, peace of mind.”
The next issue would contain the three following articles:
Now that is meant to be a joke, but it was a sort of serious joke in as far as we were trying to say how something as simple as sex was getting incredibly complicated theoretically. And so what I want to do, instead of trying to go over ground with which you will be familiar, and talk about what the Russian revolution did, or what happened in China, or what the history of gay liberation is, is try and establish a few principles about how socialists, going back two or three centuries, have tried to look at sexual and erotic relationships, and how they affect politics, and then take three particular examples of socialist radicals.
I’m choosing these three examples because they illustrate what I want to talk about, which is the exact relationship between sexual radicalism on the one hand and political organisation and political parties on the other hand. I aim to persuade you that sexual radicalism on its own ends in tears unless it’s linked to political organisation which can take on the system on a much broader spectrum. But I also want to argue that that political organisation has got to be very sensitive to the sexual and political issues that started it.
So if I can make a few general points about what socialists have traditionally said.
Going back to the utopian and the pre-Marxist tradition, almost all radical writers who have criticised society have said the imbalance between the man and the woman in society is the most striking index of its general unfairness. They have said that that imbalance is an artificial one, that the old fifteenth century thing was “when Adam dug and Eve spun, who was then the gentleman”, that’s saying both sexes worked for a living, why should one be the boss.
But in Shelley, and in all the Romantics, you keep on getting how can man be free if woman is a slave, how woman is continually turned into imitating a silly, simpering, meaningless creature who nevertheless has to do the work that makes the man’s life possible to be lived, and man on the other hand, becomes this sort of monster who has to deny that he’s got any other feelings except going out and working and drinking and so on, that there is this [??] written about this terrible division, this amputation of feelings into two halves, who are ultimately called men and women, who don’t really have any relation to any men or women’s real feelings – and the grovelling and the viciousness that the whole thing ends up in. The awful way that men have to pretend to be without warmth and women have to become a parody of being sentimental.
Marxists particularly have gone on to look at marriage, the legal institution which binds men and women together in this unequal relationship, and shown how it used to be controlled by the church, how it’s about property and handing on property values, not about human emotions, and that it’s (particularly the passport) becomes a method of man’s control over women and social control generally.
That the man who is the working man, who is at work, made a slave, who is made a slave of the machine and the boss, comes home and redresses the balance by being his little own boss at home and taking it out on his woman, his bit of property and his children. Because Marxists have always also talked about children and Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, where he says the bourgeoisie accuse us of wanting to abolish the family – right, he says, we want to abolish the servility of the wife, also we want to abolish the dependency of children. And there has been a strong feeling in early Socialist writings particularly about the importance of the feeling for children to have an identity out of their parents’ strict orthodoxy.
Now, the writing of socialists on what used to be called abnormal types, that’s gay and lesbians, is only changed at the end of the nineteenth century. But it’s important to realise that it was predominantly socialists, particularly German socialists, who organised with gay people, who at that time almost always had to lie about their sexual identity, to first in Germany try and alter the legal statutes, but also trying to assert that far from this being abnormal type or somehow deformed or vicious or whatever, the language is horrific about alternative to heterosexual couplings, the socialists have always tried to say that how one expresses oneself sexually and the type of sexual choice you make, the kind of partners you want, with whom, for how long, ought to be a matter of individual choice and not be governed by conventional morality or state laws, or as it was until really very recently if you look at world history, the most terrible persecution for anyone who was found having the wrong kind of sex in the wrong place.
I think other socialists’ themes have been that censorship about sexual facts, the hiding of information about birth control in particular, which was as you know liable to prison sentences until quite recently, and the way that the medical and legal and clerical professions made use of their state-based authority to control sexual lives has always been a thing that socialists have fiercely criticised.
Having said that, one has to be very careful about looking at socialists. If you look at some very good socialists in the nineteenth century they were fantastically against abortion. August Bebel who wrote Socialism and Women, the bible really of nineteenth century socialism, was very anti-abortion. Many socialists on the grounds of being anti-Malthus (I’ll talk about that later) had a real hostility to birth control which has really missed the point, this often happens in socialist history. You know, Marx said it was a good idea for Germans to, at one point, in one sentence, for Germans to attack the Russian tsardom and you find that quote being taken out of context and used fifty years later to justify the invasion of Russia by a completely different context.
So what I want to look at is these people completely in context, and the first one I want to look at is this very amiable, rather contemporary, figure called Edward Carpenter whom you may have seen a photograph of. He is an early partisan of sandals and vegetarianism so this is probably an appropriate public house to discuss him in. He was, I think, a very interesting man, a middle class man who trained as a cleric and went to posh universities and was all set to be brought up into the Victorian establishment as someone who would be a brigadier like his father, or administer industry or the empire. And yet he rebelled – he was homosexual, although it took him a long time to really discover, and then be open about – but he became increasingly revolted by what manhood particularly (and he writes a lot about men) meant in Victorian society. It began in a series of stages to take him away from that imperialist upper class background and towards Sheffield, towards a socialist organisation in Sheffield (which I want to talk about in some detail because it is both a very good and a very bad example of how to organise).
Some quotes of Edward Carpenter. This book is called Love’s Coming of Age. If you talk to an older generation of socialists they will almost without question have a copy on their bookshelves. It was the sort of – sold many – it’s been through – this is the forty-sixth edition – this is my little copy, which is fifty years old. In the period between the 1890s and the 1930s it was very very widely read, translated into enormous numbers of languages and in this book he argues continually that the kind of man that is created and the kind of woman that’s created is not a natural thing, it’s a very artificial thing that fits into capitalism very well.
He talks first about prostitution, I think, and what’s interesting about Carpenter is he tries to relate, although he’s not a Marxist, that things of sex and prostitution and the sale of love is a social organisation – and obviously prostitution was enormously widespread in the late nineteenth century – I mean in the streets of East London they used to say without much exaggeration that one in three of the women you would find were a street walker. Venereal disease was epidemic as well. This was all quite happily used and sanctioned by the bourgeoisie. Carpenter writes:
“The commercial prostitution of love is the last outcome of our whole social system, and it is our most clear condemnation. It flaunts in our streets, it hides itself under the garb of respectability under the name of matrimony. [He is using prostitution as a metaphor for all sexual (?).] It eats as an actual physical disease [he talks of syphilis there] and death right through our midst. It is fed by the oppression and the ignorance of women, by their poverty and denied means of livelihood and by the hypocritical Puritanism which forbids them by millions not only to gratify, but even to speak of their own natural desires.”
Then he makes an interesting point that part of prostitution is “normal women not being able to have a sex life” and it’s encouraged by the callousness of an age which has accustomed men to buy and sell for money even the most precious things, even the lifelong labour of their brothers, so therefore why not the bodies of their sisters. He links the commercial slavery of industrialism with the slavery of prostitution.
He also writes, I think all the time, about how men are curiously misformed by capitalism – he doesn’t talk about women, he describes how emotionally inept a lot of men are. A man pelts along on his hobby, his business or his career or his invention or whatnot, forgetting that there is such a thing in the world as the human heart, and then all of a sudden he “falls in love” and tumbles headlong in the most ludicrous way, fills the air with his cries, struggles frantically like a fly in treacle, and all the time he hasn’t got the faintest idea why he got involved in the situation or whether he’ll get [??] or what he wants now he is there – suicides, broken hearts, lamentations, and suddenly a whole panorama, a marvellous [??] of very badly written lyric poetry and art mark the experience of love’s distress in man.
I quite enjoy his asides – he writes a wonderful thing about the disgrace, the act of sexual intercourse – the disgrace which has largely overtaken the sexual act and rendered it the deed of darkness. Which is no doubt responsible for the fact that the chief time for its consummation among modern, civilised people is in the darkness of early night in stuffy bedrooms where the fatigue of the day’s labours is struggling with the artificial stimulation produced by heavy meals and alcoholic drinks. Ring a bell?
This habit is largely responsible for the indifference, or even disgust, with which women sometimes view sex. It is an interesting idea. He went around lecturing to the radical societies of Leeds and Sheffield, and he would talk – there are lovely descriptions of the kind of meetings, which I don’t expect were very different from this meeting here this evening, talking to artisans and working men in Sheffield, there was a dozen people there, this was in a radical club in Sheffield in the 1890s, mostly working men waiting on bare forms or chairs.
“In front was a table covered with papers and pamphlets of a socialist character for sale and distribution. There wasn’t a rush for seats, one by one the members increased but the choice and respectable elements seemed conspicuous by its absence” and he goes on about how their main aim, the Socialist Society that Carpenter was part of, was to talk to the workers, but they had a very peculiar way of doing this.
They would go to villages and stand on chairs and make long speeches about free love and the virtues thereof, and how good sandals were for your feet and how vegetarian food and so on ... and the workers tended to turn their backs on them, and there were some harrowing little scenes of these workers standing around with their backs to them and ostentatiously not listening. I say that not to get a cheap rise out of Carpenter and his group and the utopian tradition, because in many ways they were very brave and honourable people, but they really had no idea, although they could sense that sexual oppression was vaguely to do with commercial exploitation and imperialism and they could write very poetically about that but there was no sense that there was any organised relationship between trade unionism, which in the 1890s was developing apace in this area, and their ideas. They became a part in a sense of an abstract utopianism which was discussed in small meetings, which was increasingly the work of individuals who would sunbathe or wear their sandals – there’s nothing wrong with sandals at all – but it would become a matter of life style, like it is still nowadays for older people.
A hundred years ago people would live a worthy life and have wonderful conversations and try and talk to workers but there was no real sense that there was any real connection and in some sense the workers who turned their backs on them in the pit villages had some justice that really these kind of high-flown, poetic things, although they might move the heart privately didn’t have much to do with it. And it’s awfully interesting that although Carpenter was involved with the Bloody Sunday demonstrations in London and involved with the socialist movement, when the great strikes happened only two or three years after the Sheffield Socialist Club had packed up, a familiar story for people who run socialist clubs, you know, someone ran off with the money and the catering went to the dogs and so on and so forth. Yet only two or three years later those very workers who had turned their back on Carpenter were fighting a most tremendous battle which required the militia to be sent in to the whole of the Derbyshire coalfields and were suddenly acting in a far more revolutionary way all of a sudden than these very enlightened folk in Sheffield, and that’s the sort of point that occurs often, and I want to come back to it.
The second group of radicals I want to talk about are the women really of the early post-first war period and their political life has been dominated by two factors. The First World War, that most ghastly carnage, which was kept – I mean we talk about what we suffer in this generation, the suffering one can imagine of the mothers of Germany and England who sent and brought up their sons through a period where perinatal mortality was very high, where a very large number of their own children would die, to see them driven into the trenches in this most sordid, pointless war and quietly shot to bits and then consoled by prostitutes who were kept by the authorities in little villages back from the front lines to keep the soldiers’ sexual romantic eye going for the war and in the process give them syphillis, the agony of having seen that.
And then the sharp contrast with Soviet Russia which suddenly was turning its back on all those sort of things, was in a series of decrees which would make the most exciting reading. If you read the first decrees of the Soviet government, suddenly men and women are declared equal. Marriage is declared a civil, not a religious ceremony, and something that you can go into voluntarily and get out of voluntarily without a great deal of stuff. Prostitution and the causes underlying it are dealt with, and a great campaign of health education among prostitutes takes place, energetically led by the leaders of the Bolshevik party.
And you think of somewhere like Russia in 1920, the most tremendously backward place, they take propaganda trains with films about abortion and contraception right out into the rural, peasant parts of Eastern Russia. That is happening in the most allegedly backward country in Europe. Of course all the sexual radicals in the West become extremely interested in this. They’ve seen the reality of what the happy, patriotic family means in the West. It meant the war, it meant venereal disease, rampant in London, it meant the suppression of homosexuals, many of the conscientious objectors in the First World War were gay, although they obviously couldn’t reveal that, and their suppression was absolutely brutal in the First World War and they drew a very sharp and dramatic contrast.
There were a group of women, which I want to talk to you about, four or five. Dora Russell is a very important figure, a very vigorous campaigner, who was married to Bertrand Russell and who is still alive in fact, a very remarkable woman. Janet Chance, an early campaigner for homosexual rights and for the reform of the divorce law. People don’t realise how many people were trapped in dead and unhappy marriages for their lives, just because of those laws – and against the harsh proscription of homosexuality.
And the difference between these people and the old Romantics of the 19th century was that they had a very clear example, they had the Russian revolution which had made change and they had much more idea that social change, social change from below, would be the key to sexual advance and they were very explicit on that.
They didn’t want abortion or contraception for the convenience of the state. They wanted it because it changed women’s control over themselves. They used almost a sexual syndicalist argument. We argue about the power of the rank and file, the way that trade unions are changed from below, that enormous power which is only occasionally glimpsed and when unleashed can change the world. They started using the same type of language and applying it to the problems of sex.
I’d like to read you a few quotes from Stella Brown, who was the first woman who said on a public platform “as a communist and as a feminist, [and that’s sixty years ago] I stand for the right to free abortion”. She is terrific about insisting that the thing is about social change, and insisting to the left, because the left wasn’t very keen on these subjects, it didn’t like discussing them, she contrasted the private attitude of many socialists:
“My most effective and able comrades under the red flag practice birth control as intelligently and conscientiously of any of the critical orthodox, but I wish revolutionary women would more boldly and explicitly incorporate birth control and the philosophy which it implies in their public standing and not keep quiet and use it as an alternative solution.”
And then she later goes on about the need for complete social change, and she is clearly influenced by the self-determining significance of contraception and also the fact that sex is not in the old days [??] amative and procreative function of sex, that is to have babies or to enjoy yourself, and it was generally considered that the enjoyment bit was just the sugar on the pill to get you to have the babies. She started talking more about the right to sexual pleasure and she says in this famous statement in 1922, talking about the moral rights of abortion:
“In my opinion as a feminist and a communist, the fundamental importance and value of birth control lies in its widening of the scope of human freedom of choice, its self-determining significance for women.”
She’s saying that applies to women’s control over when and why and how they will have children and if not, that’s for them. And that’s an enormous technical leap that’s been made by the medical discoverers which she realised the political significance of. Birth control means freedom for women, social and sexual freedom and that is why it is so feared and disliked in many circles today. It is the beginning of the end of an old social order and a moral code and the beginning of a new life.
She saw abortion and birth control for exactly the opposite reasons: they wanted contraception among the poor to keep the numbers of the poor down. She wanted to free women from compulsory pregnancies, endless going on being pregnant and losing the child often, and enforced monogamy to enable women as she put them to have the children they desired with the men they desired. And there’s no doubt at all that Stella Brown, who joined in the Communist party in 1922, had a fantastic following among working class women.
I’d like to read to you an account of a speaking tour she took in Wales, and it’s quite clear that she touched on a very deep core in ordinary proletarian women who were not allowed to really talk about these matters, even in the socialist movement, although often, informally, it was through the socialist movement that they might find some help about abortion and contraception, I think information was often passed through the socialist movement about how to get hold of these things. Certainly when I was young if you wanted to get an abortion it was probably a place you found out was through the Communist party. I don’t know if anyone else found this true but a lot of informal sort of sexual radicalism on the left that’s never acknowledged.
But she talks of speaking in Wales at the Plebs League and going around and talking to these very large meetings of miners’ wives where they would have to bring their children and she would be talking for two hours, and they would be asking her very practical questions about how do you stop yourself getting pregnant, telling the most harrowing stories of repeated unwanted pregnancies. We don’t realise now how much things have changed, but the old days, when people were prepared to almost kill themselves to bring up their seventh or eighth child, and I’ll give you some examples of, you know, of factory women who talk about working women having extensive abortions because they couldn’t [??]. I’ll read you some examples to give you a flavour of what it was like.
I hope that one day a woman can demand to have this operation and not have to prove she’s half ill or mental or something before she can have an abortion. Just tell the plain truth that [??]. That she doesn’t want another baby because she can’t afford to feed and clothe one. Another woman of forty-nine who got accidentally pregnant and the truth is if you work in an abortion unit it’s women who think they’ve entered the menopause, it’s holidays, it’s Christmas parties, it’s those sort of things that’s accidental pregnancies and she says that
“... at 49 the noise is driving me nearly mental and I feel like committing suicide, we can’t afford to go through another child at our time of life and I feel too tired to go through with it. Please take pity on me and see if anything can’t be done for me. I feel like a rat that’s caught in a trap and there’s just no escape. I would have gone to a birth control clinic a long time ago but I was too ashamed of my clothes. When people find out you’re not married and have a baby they just walk away.”
“For eighty pounds a man in a cheap rubber shop promised me an illegal operation but I can’t raise eighty shillings. I can’t sleep at night. I must keep my windows shut. I have a terrible urge to jump out of them. I fight off all the time against thoughts of my own destruction.”
And yet although it was obviously an economic injustice, these women campaigned, they said no, it’s more than this, it’s something about giving women control, and taking that control away from the authorities, the legal, and the state and the medical authorities. I could test Stella Brown against the medical monopoly under the pretence of safeguards:
“The knowledge is the right of every adult human being, male and female, married or single and for any assembly of the well-to-do, educated, leisured men of the world to boggle over this point and say it is their business is simply cant. It is ours and we must decide.”
And again and again these voices are coming, and I think there is a parallel to the voices of the workers in the factories and the offices who are beginning in that [??] of production say: it’s us, it’s our experience you must take notice of, you can’t listen to our elected, so-called leaders, you must talk to us and come to terms with our experience. It makes it not a liberal campaign but makes it a most inspiring.
Stella Brown is a sad woman in many ways. She was forced to leave the Communist Party because when the position of the Communist Party changed, and therein lies the tragedy of many of these women, that they were radical in the most profound sense, they identified strongly with Soviet Russia, they could see the possibility of adding the dimension of sexual politics to the revolutionary case for the economic overthrow of society and yet, by and large, they were very unsuccessful in the Communist party.
Sylvia Pankhurst is another example. Again and again, they found that the way that the Communist Party changed in the late twenties and thirties to having to justify everything that happened in Russia, meant that sexual policy was changing really head over heels and so the party that had been at least okay about abortion suddenly was changing its mind and saying no, the family’s alright, working women must have children to build up production, homosexuality is taboo, we must produce, we must produce children to produce to create capital, to build Russia, and the way the ideology split across was very destructive.
The third person I want to briefly talk about who, to my mind, is the most interesting. That’s a journalist guy [??] called Wilhelm Reich. Reich was a Freudian. He was caught between Marxist theory, which he understood, and the Freudian emphasis on all the unconscious, all the things that contribute in our growth, in our learning, to be unknown background that makes us what we are, I suppose, and which is sometimes expressed in dreams or [??] or whatever, was the way Freud saw it.
Reich took a different path than Freud. Reich was an Austrian. He joined the Communist Party in 1919 after seeing a workers’ demonstration gunned down. He very quickly quarrelled with Freud and he quarrelled on the central issue, which is coming up for a third time: is society to be changed or are individuals to change? Increasingly, Freud and his group became conservative. They said that there must be an individual resolution to neurosis, to sexual unhappiness, to distress, and that that resolution takes place on a couch, where a highly-paid analyst listens increasingly unravelling this bit behind your head that’s got itself in a knot.
Reich took an opposite direction and through the Communist Party worked in Berlin in the early twenties, continually in working class clinics, health clinics, sex clinics, and with a youth organisation called SexPol. It was sort of a mixture of socialist reform groupings, including some of the homosexual reform groupings, and as a result of that experience he increasingly said no, no Freud. First of all, repression is not necessary to civilisation, and secondly these problems have some very practical origins in – you know – he says devastatingly of Freud, or talking about the failures of sexual education, most people have their sex education because they are in the same bedroom as their parents. He talks about the education in the schools in Germany and Poland, he takes again and again a material type of explanation to what’s going wrong. And so he clashes violently with Freud, and the Freudians.
But at the same time he is critical of the left and of the Stalin influence over the German Communist Party. And he’s saying
“... just wait a minute now, why is it that people are voting and working for Hitler? Why is it that working people, men and women, crave authority? Why is it than in a crisis people don’t automatically obey their natural instincts and say forget this society, we’ve got no stake in it, we’re coming out and trying to create something else? Why instead do people remain obedient to old ideas and old traditions?”
And it’s important, and it’s the critical question that I think that socialists have to understand. We like to think we live in the present tense, but actually we live nine tenths in the past because all our ideas, all our language, all our identity comes from what’s happened before. And Reich increasingly said he wanted to look at what made people stop being revolutionaries. Was it that the revolutionary argument wasn’t good enough? Well, that’s possibly true, but he drew attention to the fact that the way sex education, the way the family life was structured in Germany with a very brutal, rigid father in charge of the family, with a wife deeply subordinate, with the children at times violently suppressed. He took a famous case, for example, for Freud’s, and found that the child had been prevented from masturbating by being encased in an enormous machine which were quite popular, were quite recommended by general paediatric doctors at the time which strap you down, and arms, legs and so on, suspended in your cot in mid-air and, you know, you wonder why people got a bit peculiar!
There’s a simple example, there’s a case of a doctor, Doctor Schroeder. It’s been studied in detail. It’s a case of a man that got very paranoid. Freud analysed him for three years and didn’t even notice this fact, that he’d been strapped up in this cage all his life, all his youth, and ... a very obvious sort of juxtaposition, so he writes continually saying, now we have to look at what underlies conservatism a bit more deeply, and we have to say that people’s consciousness does not start when they walk through a factory door. We have already lived for seventeen years. We’ve been brought up as a child, we’ve been given certain ideas.
Now, the doctors in the old days used to call this brain-fixing, but I think we have to recognise in modern society there are all sorts of ways in which our expectations, our desire for leaders, people’s feeling that the best know best, that the great really know, they wouldn’t be up there unless they were clever in the first place, nothing ever changes, you’ll grow up – you’ve all heard these arguments a thousand times, but rightly saying a lot of those are sexually based arguments, they are about people’s fear of freedom, and a lot of them depend on people’s sexual unhappiness and Reich said, and this is his argument, that one of the crucial things that makes people bitter and unable to face revolutionary change is their own sexual frustration. And he said, and this is basically not an analysis of patients, but he said that when people are forced into unloving relationships, when those relationships are prolonged in a dead form, year in, year out – the family grows up – believe it, I work as a doctor in East London and I have done for fifteen years, there are lots of people sitting embedded in those tower blocks, stuck frozen in relationships which may have meant something once, but don’t mean anything now, but are consumed with bitterness and resentment and sadness and unexpressed sort of thing. What Reich was talking about was that kind of effect and that is the kind of person who then reads the Sun and says “right, get the blacks, get the nignogs, get the AIDS queers”, that kind of resentment, that kind of frustration becomes turned out into a very nasty reactionary force. And he talked about Nazism. Now if you read the Nazi – and we sort of have, we were taught this idea that there wasn’t, the Germans, there was something wrong with the Germans, they are pretty odd people, you know. They get to the front of the queue first, and so on. Now they are prone to Nazism, I mean, I loathe British patriotism about Germany, you know, Britain invented the idea of racial superiority, let’s be quite clear. Victorian Britain invented the idea of imperialism and we would have made the best Nazis in the world if ever they’d got there first. Alright, the Germans – I suppose they have a weak character so they’re prone to Nazism – in fact, it’s not true because those kind of resentments, those kind of ways that people are – I don’t know – bad frustrations are harmless, people’s sphere is made an imprisoning force, is very, very important in the way people don’t fight, because, we used to have long arguments about pin-ups in Honey, you know, everyone was, what is a social attitude to pin-ups, what is a social attitude to homosexuality? I mean, a worker once solved it for me by saying:
“Well, I’ll tell you something, it’s the loud-mouthed worker who goes on and on about the queers, and he’s got his little cubby-hole with thousands of pin-ups and so on, and the one who’s always got a quick joke about AIDS, that is the worker who you worry about on a picket line.”
That is the worker who is actually weak, that is the man, the macho man, who has actually got no real strength, he’s got no idea of his own desires, he’s sort of like that character that Edward Carpenter was talking about, the show of male belligerence, the idea ... the cocky know-it-all, the guy with the speeded-up Cortina with “I Love Virgins” in the back and all that sort of business. He’s a terribly weak person and you all know this, I mean anyone knows this as a socialist, but the kind of ... what we need to do, this is where the discussion starts, is find a way, I think, of getting ... you see, we’ve been ruined by the Soviet experience, the whole of the left in the 20th century, the strange accident by which a revolution happened to take place in Russia which most people, most sensible people would have thought the most unlikely place for it to ever happen in the 20th century happened to Russia. And it stayed in Russia. And it got imprisoned and stifled and strangled in Russia, but we had inherited the Russian images of socialism. At the back of your mind you are still thinking of combine harvesters, and that woman in the James Bond film, Bertha Krebbs, the sort of harsh commissar and so on.
The image of socialism is about austerity. It’s about self-sacrifice. It’s about middle class guilt, it’s about working class sacrifice, it’s about denying any idea of pleasure or love or anything like that, that’s got to be completely smashed down in order that we can build – mow the cornfields so that we can build this, so that we can actually build state capitalism in Russia. An incredibly heroic thing to do.
What we need, I think, to look back on, and why these other characters are interesting, is that they didn’t say that. They saw socialism as something different. They saw socialism as expressing a whole lot of possibilities – imaginative, creative, sexual – because that would be part of it, and sex would not be sort of strictly about fucking all the time, especially at midnight after too much alcohol, but would be sort of more erotically dispersed, I think most of the socialist pioneers thought – and they would see socialism as enhancing one’s pleasure and enjoyment and rewards in life.
There’s a very nice quote from William Morris who, I think, is a great socialist, and who we should probably look back to more. He says:
“I demand of socialism a free and unfettered animal life for people. First of all I demand the utter extinction of asceticism. If we feel the least degradation in being amorous or merry or sleepy or hungry we must answer [??] bad animals and therefore very miserable people.”
And I’m cutting a lot of corners here, but there’s a kind of analysis that flows right back to Morris, that frustrated people will make bad socialists. They will make bitter socialists, their kind of appeal for socialism will be envy and revenge and a sort of greed. I think we want to really put that in the past, and our case for socialism is that there is a phenomenal human potential which is being squandered every single day this wretched system persists and that what we are talking about is not revenging the people, although that would be quite pleasant, but I mean we are talking about enormous human potential that is being at the moment wasted and these sexual pioneers are trying to talk about that.
Look at the problems. William Morris and that generation of romantics, and particularly Edward Carpenter. They became very locked in improvement in their own life style. They became almost like, I mean vegetarianism is a mass movement now, so you shouldn’t knock it, but they became incredibly involved in self-improvement and they became incredibly nice, fussy people who wrote wonderful poetry that didn’t change the world and the important fact to remember is that the Socialist Club, which was a brilliant, sort of beyond-the-fragments type organisation, terribly poetically, packed up three years before the workers, the much abused workers, very nearly seized power in Derbyshire, in the great strike. They didn’t try to relate the one to t’other, and if the army of the women, as he keeps on saying, if the army of women can stand beside the rank and file of labour we have a force that can change the world. But unfortunately they didn’t link it up.
It happens again in the 1920s. The most radical women identified with Soviet Russia, and again that connection is forced apart, and increasingly the women went back into the Labour Party where they didn’t really do much except some rather devious constitutional reforms. Reich is again talking about the problem of how is a modern western revolutionary party both change economics, both organise practically, but also have alive the psychological aspects to power and see how you counteract someone like Hitler’s appeal to personalism and greed and selfishness and so on: i.e. how does socialism have a morality and a feeling to it that when people come to the socialist movement they go for something different from all this, different values, people aren’t just in it for themselves, that there is some comradeship, some cause that means something. Now all these words are embarrassing, but I mean if that’s not there, then socialism now will not take off again.
And so I – just in conclusion, that marriage – it seems to me absolutely essential between the imaginative and the sexual, as it were, part of the prospectus, and it has to be tackled to some extent now. You can’t have a socialist movement where men behave like pigs or people are, you know, racist or whatever, you’ve got to deal with that problem in the here and now.
But how does it effectively link with a much more powerful movement which feeds into the much wider discontents of society, particularly around the point of production. I think we now have the experience, the rather painful, bruising experience of the last ten, fifteen, years to see how powerful and inspiring sexual politics can be. But also how quickly they wilt on their own, out of context with the other types of politics: international politics, workplace politics, organised politics. On the other hand the socialist movement has to face backwards as well. But I believe that if the two marry, we have a really powerful course and we should not neglect either side of the equation.
I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this subject, if that’s the right thing to say, and I’ll sum up very succinctly. In reply to the final challenge, how do you change yourself, I mean this is the oldest question in the world, and one can only really talk about one’s own experience.
It seems to me that how one changes oneself is in the process of changing the world. One doesn’t change very much as an individual. You can read poems and meditate and think that I’m going to be better and so on, but that’s a very negligible ... I mean in my experience people who do that end up in the Bhagwan’s organisation, or on ineffectual farms, or driving Volvos, you know, running social services departments. I mean individual change doesn’t take you anywhere. It’s in the process – but I don’t also think you can only change in a gang of at least fifteen people. I think that would be a mad thing for a socialist to say. I mean we’ve all been changed by reading books, by talking to people, by going to meetings, about arguing – the microscopic process, the individual change suddenly clicks when you’re in a social situation, and you’re doing something with other people – it certainly did with me and I come – you know you read all these wonderful beat poems or something and you’re actually suddenly in a situation where you see the police, or in my case it was in the CND or something and suddenly a lot that you’ve read makes sense and there’s people sending [??] – that’s a tiny, little, silly demonstration in Trafalgar Square twenty years ago, it happens more and more I think as you get involved in bigger things and suddenly your individual change suddenly starts leaping on and connecting when you’re in a mass movement, and suddenly the whole thing goes on a great deal with – the momentum is accelerated and I have never been in a revolutionary situation, nowhere vaguely near it I don’t think, unfortunately and we can see that process happening so fast.
When you think of the Soviet Union, and I’m sorry to go back to this, but I have to: barely literate peasants starving, eating black bread out of one hand, typing on rotten old typewriters, people who were never told they were fit to clean the bosses boots and they’re suddenly administering the biggest empire in the world, and abolishing this and changing that in a very hard-headed radical way, doing things that would have been impossible, and you’ve also got on your own level the people who’ve said “oh I can’t do anything on the committee, I can’t speak in public, I’m only a miner’s wife, oh I’m shy, I can’t write a leaflet” and that person, put in a situation where things are moving, suddenly towers, suddenly develops skills they didn’t know they possessed. And that takes me really on to – that’s linked to the other argument.
That our case about socialism is that there’s a whole – we can’t know what it is – but there’s a whole big bit of us as people which isn’t beginning to being used, to be expressed. We could be giants and we’re really just little, silly people – playing computer space invader games and watching American ... you know, the potential of what we could be as people, what we could be doing in East London right here and now isn’t beginning to be tapped, and that’s because we’re in a society which systematically divides us from each other, takes power away from us and prevents us from being organised.
So socialism is not about rules and entering a new school code, about what you can and what you can’t do and about how tall you should be. In fact all that post feminist stuff, I think, is just Fabian moralism without, you know, from the top down, telling people what they ought to think and it won’t work, people will probably think. We’re rather saying people have the most enormous potentiality, stop pouring salt on them, stop wounding them, stop beating them, stop telling them they’re stupid and they will grow into something wonderful. No need to put extra ingredients in the pot, the ingredients are there, just stop beating them, stop hitting them, let that come up. That’s our case.
1. This is a transcript of a talk by David Widgery to Hackney North Socialist Workers Party branch at the Rose & Crown pub, corner of Stoke Newington Church Street and Albion Road (probably in 1987). Some words and phrases are inaudible on the cassette – these are indicated by [??].
Last updated on 14.10.2006