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International Socialism, Winter 1980


Lin James

Women and the revolutionary party:
a reply to Joan Smith

(Winter 1980)


From International Socialism, 2:7, Winter 1980, pp. 95–99.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It seems that a spectre is once again haunting Europe: the spectre of the clockwork bolshevik. Mechanical Leninists have, it seems, been completely unable to come to terms with the resurgence of the women’s movement since 1968. This alleged failure is the starting point of socialist feminists like Lyn Segal, Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright, who argue the case for a non-Leninist regroupment in their pamphlet Beyond the Fragments; and it is the underlying theme of Joan Smith’s contribution to the debate within the SWP on women and the party. This article is a contribution to the debate and an attempt to lay the ghost.

To start by clearing the ground: I should be the last person to deny that there have been serious errors of omission and commission by the Left when confronted with the issues raised by feminists. Indeed, in the case of LC in Italy it seems that these errors – intransigence followed by capitulation – have been fatal. [1] However, one cannot base a general argument on extremes; I shall argue that in general, the response of the Leninist Left in Britain to the challenge of the women’s movement has not been as bad as it is often represented, and that the mistakes that have been made are by no means ‘necessary’ mistakes, reflecting some critical absence at the heart of Leninist theory.

Anna Paczuska wrote in Socialist Worker of the effect that the first National Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College Oxford in 1969 had on women members of the International Socialists, and described how it prompted the production of a women’s newsletter, Women’s Voice. Originally a duplicated sheet, it is now a monthly magazine with a print run of 20,000, the focus of a women’s organisation ‘based on the politics of, but organisationally independent from’ the SWP.

This position is the outcome of a prolonged debate within the SWP as to the nature of Women’s Voice. Joan’s theories were important within this debate as a basis for those who argued that it should be completely independent, ‘an organisation of revolutionary feminist women’. It’s unfortunate that there has tended to be a split between theory and practice, with the articles on women and the family in International Socialism containing only the most general conclusions about organisation: this is a good opportunity to draw the scattered threads together. Elsewhere in this issue Bob Lloyd takes up the issues raised by Joan in her work on the family: here I want to deal with her organisational conclusions.

Joan’s use of the concept of ‘two modes of production’ has the effect of raising the struggle around the home to the same level as that of the workplace. Organisation around domestic issues is thus crucial to the fight against capitalism: and as she made clear in the internal debate, a new organisational form is necessary to take up the struggle, to mediate ‘the qualitative difference in the nature of the oppression of men and women workers under capitalism’. To some extent this was fighting with a paper tiger: none of the contributors to the debate about Women’s Voice denied that some form of special organisation for women was necessary. The lessons of the women’s liberation movement’s emphasis on the importance of self-activity for women had not gone unheeded: in fact, they had prompted the rediscovery of a lost tradition of socialist women’s organisations and publications (Gleichheit and the women’s section of the SPD under Clara Zetkin, Kollontai and the Zhenodtl, being of particular importance in raising the consciousness of women on the Left). The point at issue was the relationship of such an organisation to the revolutionary party. Joan counterposed building an organisationally independent but politically linked Women’s Voice to building an independent revolutionary organisation of women and argued in favour of the latter: ‘the whole of women’s lives are completely transformed by their role in the family as mothers in a capitalist society ... the oppression of women is like the exploitation of the working class at the heart of the capitalist system. It is therefore possible to build a small revolutionary feminist organisation.’ Despite her warnings elsewhere against erecting a ‘Chinese Wall’ between oppression and exploitation, Joan here seems to be doing precisely that: and having built the wall, she determinedly pitches her tent on the oppression side.

At this point it’s useful to look back at Joan’s articles in this journal and remember her correct stress upon the fact that ‘the essential character of our role is that we are both mothers and workers’ [2] . Bearing this dual role in mind, I think it’s possible to stand Joan’s later argument on its head and see the whole of women’s lives as mothers transformed by their role as workers in a capitalist society, and to shape organisational forms accordingly. But first, why is the ‘myth of woman as housewife’, which Joan herself detected and denounced in Ann Foreman [3] so pervasive that she herself ends up arguing in its terms? There is the possibility of confusion here. The term ‘revolutionary feminism’ is used within the WLM to denote ‘radical feminists’ – those who argue that sex and not class is the most fundamental divide in society. As I understand her, Joan uses ‘revolutionary feminism’ in counter-position to ‘bourgeois feminism’ to denote women who are not content with an equal rights strategy, who want to see a revolutionary change in society, without necessarily being revolutionary socialists.

In 1971, 42% of married women went out to work: in 1978, 50% did so. Of those who stayed at home, many were there only temporarily, caring for small children; a growing majority of married women work, and continue to work after they have had children. Male unemployment rose by 9% between January 1976 and January 1978, female unemployment by 53% over the same period. The dramatic difference is partly explained by changes in the national insurance regulations which entitle married women to unemployment benefit. [4] It’s no longer enough to say simply that women are ‘the last to be hired but the first to be fired’. In fact, growing numbers of women are going out to work and even so female unemployment is increasing – the latter is evidence that they regard themselves not simply as housewives, but also as workers. Capitalism in crisis is sloughing off expendable men in shipbuilding, mining and heavy engineering, while ‘flexible’ women workers, with their twilight shifts and low rates of pay are increasingly useful. As inflation eats into the family wage, the woman’s ‘pin-money’ earnings are more important to the household: the days of one breadwinner per family are numbered as the price of bread shoots through the roof. Indeed, given this background, it is arguable that the effects of the Corrie Amendment and Tory attacks on maternity rights, childcare provision etc, will not simply have the effect of driving women back to the home – though this will undoubtedly happen in some cases – but also of driving larger numbers of women to the shifts and expedients of desperation in their attempt to keep their jobs. There are boom times ahead for unregistered childminders as well as for backstreet abortionists.

This in itself has obvious advantages for the capitalist, for what workforce could be more docile than one made up of women who are workers in fact but housewives in their heads. Women can manage to overcome the numerous obstacles which are placed in their way in order to go out to work: what is not so easily overcome is the feeling of guilt when they do so. The guilt can only be increased by the resurgence of theories of maternal deprivation – currently being pushed with a superficial ‘feminist’ gloss by Penelope Leach [5] – coupled with the incongruous spectacle of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister urging us all not to overlook the importance of the housewife’s role. It seems to me that this is precisely where Ann Foreman’s analysis of femininity comes in useful, to explain how it is that even women at work can continue to regard themselves as primarily housewives. The significance of her work goes further in that she shows how men’s alienation as husbands is an important factor in ‘their acceptance of the permanence of capitalism and their adaptation to working within it’ [6] because of the way in which their short-term, material interests are bound up in the continuance of the family. This stress on the reciprocity of home and workplace through the role of husbands and fathers as well as the dual role of women, is extremely valuable as a way of breaking through the deadlock which results from seeing home and workplace as effectively separate systems. The masculine element is significantly absent from Joan’s analysis of family life.

Joan lays great stress on the revolutionary potential of women’s anger at their oppression. The problem is, how to harness this potential in a revolutionary socialist direction. Her answer is to build an independent revolutionary feminist organisation as a sort of half way house. Such an organisation would acknowledge the fact that women’s spontaneous anger has no automatic socialist content, but would point them in the right direction by acknowledging in its programme the necessary role of the revolutionary party of the working class in the overthrow of capitalism, but despite this abstract acknowledgement it would have no practical reciprocal links with such a party. Instead, its ‘politics would be guaranteed by its programme.’ It seems to me that there are several problems with this approach.

As Marxists, as Leninists, we do not organise simply around the most oppressive or morally repugnant aspects of capitalist social relations – if we did we would probably gear all our efforts towards female old age pensioners – but instead we organise where there is the potential power to smash through these relations: at the workplace, where workers experience their collective strength as well as their alienation. Of course we recognise that there are reserves of anger built up outside the workplace but we can’t be content to rest with that congratulatory recognition. Countless women isolated in the four walls of their homes are driven to screaming rage, to a desire to tear the whole system down. The only outlet within those walls is to batter their children or dull their rage with Valium. That anger can be harnessed in a revolutionary socialist direction, but only by hitching it firmly to a movement which is capable of moving forward. To limit these women simply to what they can achieve for themselves is to do them a great disservice: their anger is after all a recognition of their own real impotence. As Lenin cautioned: ‘Use fewer platitudes about the development of the independent activity of the workers, but see to it rather that you do not demoralise undeveloped workers by your own tailism.’ [7]

What is particularly worrying in Joan’s analysis is the continual assumption that to relate to women as workers is to relate to them only as men in drag. Her corrective stress on the dual role of women as exploited and oppressed leads her to base all her arguments as to organisation on the latter: I think we have to bear the dual role in mind when we set out to organise women to break through both their exploitation and their oppression as part of the class.

After all, there’s no particular reason to hope for success by any other strategy. The autonomous women’s movement is undergoing its own crisis. There has been no national WLM Conference since the debacle of Birmingham in early April 1978, when revolutionary feminists finally made it clear exactly how tyrannical structurelessness could be – taking over the plenary session by shouting down all opposition. This left its own legacy of bitterness: one woman wrote to Spare Rib about her own disillusionment to criticise:

’(the) deliberate policy of non-organisation and structure, which obviously results in those with the loudest voices dominating the proceedings; all in the name of some naive . .. attempt to preserve something they dupe themselves into believing is democracy, but in fact effectively ensures that the movement doesn’t expand;’ [8]

In the absence of a national conference there have been sectional conferences of both revolutionary and socialist feminists in the attempt to organise some kind of national network, but all things considered, the picture is not a cheerful one at a time of the most determined onslaught, both ideological and legislative, ever made upon women’s rights. This is not to deny the important contribution made by the WLM over the last 10 years in encouraging women to articulate their discontent, a contribution summed up by a woman on strike for equal pay at Goodmans Loudspeakers in Havant in 1972:

Q. Do you think that the fuss about women’s liberation during the last 2 years has affected the women at Goodmans?

A. Definitely. They read about it in the papers and you hear it discussed in the factory all the time. It boosts their morale to hear about women fighting for their rights, especially working women like at Fakenham. But working-class women are not taken in by the gimmicks. You have to lay it on the line – give them the facts and leave out the frills. [9]

It seems clear that the women-only perspective is a confined one: there comes a point at which women either move on, to make the connections between their oppression and the struggles of the class or retreat into the lifestyle politics of the autonomous collectives. Marnie Holborow, in the Socialist Review article referred to earlier, made the point that women’s collectives have failed to relate to the struggle of other women when they fight as women and as workers, against the fascist gangs, ‘unemployment, rising prices and all the rest’. The current offensive against women and the class is giving us an historic opportunity to break down once and for all that Chinese wall between oppression and exploitation: there is no contradiction between fighting back as women and as workers against the Corrie Amendment, the attack on the maternity provisions of the Employment Protection Act, the cut in social services. In fact it’s the only way to fight, the only way to win! This does not mean organising women as ‘workers in skirts’, but as workers who have two sets of chains to break in winning a new world.


1. Marnie Holborow, Women in Italy, Socialist Review 13, pp. 24–26.

2. Joan Smith, Women’s Oppression & Male Alienation, International Socialism 2:3, p. 43.

3. Ibid.

4. Ann Oakley, Why Women Can’t Win, New Society, Vol. 49 No. 881, 23 August 1979.

5. Penelope Leach, Who Cares?, Penguin 1979. (There is an excellent critical review in Spare Rib 86, Sept. 1979, by Denise Riley.)

6. Joan Smith, op. cit., p. 43.

7. V.I. Lenin Collected Works, Vol. VIII, p. 159, quoted by C. Harman, Party & Class, p.57.

8. See Spare Rib, 70 (May) & 71 (June) 1978.

9. Interview with June Marriner, Equal Pay Victory at Havant, Women’s Voice, Sept/Oct 1972.

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