Originally published in International Socialism 2:32, Summer 1986, pp. 121–36.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The central theoretical argument in Sheila McGregor’s enthusiastic polemic against me (A reply to John Molyneux on women’s oppression, International Socialism 2:30) is contained in the following lines:
If it is the case that oppression divides the working class internally against itself, it can never be in the interests of any workers anywhere at any time to maintain that oppression. To argue that it is in the immediate interests of male workers to maintain women’s oppression, is the same as arguing that it is in the immediate interests of male workers to maintain the rule of capital. In which case it follows that workers should defer building for the socialist revolution and co-operate with capital in their immediate interests. (p. 91)
In other words Sheila rejects, on principle, the idea that working-class men might in any way benefit from women’s oppression on the grounds that to entertain such a notion is ‘logically’ to break with revolutionary socialism and Marxism or, as she puts it later ‘the first step towards departing from that tradition’. (p. 95)
In support of this position Sheila cites the famous quotation from Marx on the antagonism between English and Irish workers being ‘the secret of the impotence of the English working class’, and quotations from Lukacs’ Lenin to the effect that ‘the actuality of the proletarian revolution’ provides the criterion by which ‘all questions can be judged’ (pp. 90-93).
Let us begin by noting what, for Marxists, is indisputably correct and true in this argument: namely that all divisions in the working class weaken the revolutionary struggle of the working class and are therefore against the class interests of the proletariat as a whole. Let us also note that this is not an argument against my position. On the contrary my whole argument both in my article and in my debate with Sheila at the 1985 Socialist Worker Skegness Rally, was that the oppression of women divides the working class and that male sexism constitutes an obstacle to workers’ unity which must be fought in the interests of the class as a whole.
In fact this basic Marxist position can only be turned into an argument against me if it ‘follows’ from the fact that oppression and disunity weakens the class as a whole that no section or part of the class can ever receive any immediate ‘benefit’ from, or have an immediate or short-term interest in, such oppression or disunity. To ‘prove’ this requires a rather more extensive look at the Marxist tradition than two brief quotations. Or rather I should say that once we take a more extensive look we find that Marxists have repeatedly recognised the existence of such immediate ‘benefits’ and immediate interests, and repeatedly contrasted them to the historical interests of the class as a whole.
The first example I shall give of a Marxist who recognises that a section of the working class can benefit from the oppression of other workers and indeed recognises that male workers benefit from the oppression of women, is none other than Chris Harman. It was Chris’s argument, in the article that started this particular controversy, that:
... the benefits working-class men get from the oppression of women are marginal indeed ... The benefits really come down to the question of housework. The question becomes the extent to which working-class men benefit from women’s unpaid labour ... What the working-class male gains directly in terms of labour from his wife can be roughly measured. It is the amount of labour he would have to exert if he had to clean and cook for himself. This could not be more than an hour or two a day. 
As can be seen Chris accepts that benefits do exist and even attempts to measure them. My difference with Chris was not one of principle but an empirical difference as to ‘the significance of these benefits’. Chris says they are marginal. I maintained: a) that the benefits were greater than he suggested ; b) that even though these benefits were indeed marginal compared with those of the ruling class and compared to those both sexes would get from socialism, they were nonetheless sufficient to have a significant effect on the behaviour and consciousness of working-class men and thus constitute an obstacle (though not an insuperable one) to class unity.
It was in this context that I introduced the analogy with the situation of Protestant and Catholic workers in Northern Ireland: my point being that although the privileges of the Protestant workers were marginal they had nonetheless had a significant impact on their behaviour and consciousness over the last sixty years. Here I shall call up my second Marxist ‘witness’ on the question of ‘short-term benefits’ for one section of the working class – Eamonn McCann. But first let’s recall what Sheila makes of my argument.
If, however, you separate the immediate from the long-term interest of Protestant workers, as John does in his article, then you end up arguing not only that it is in the immediate interests of Protestant workers to preserve their privileges over Catholics, but that unity is not in the immediate interests of the Protestant working class and therefore that Protestant workers realising their revolutionary potential is not in their immediate interests. If that is the case, then we would have to abandon any perspective for socialist revolution in Ireland which involved the Protestant working class. (p. 92)
Now compare McCann writing on this question in 1972:
Half a century ago the Protestants had to choose between the Union and bourgeois rule from Dublin ... On a short-term economic basis home rule from Dublin would not have been in the interests of the Protestant masses.
It is not true that the Protestants, blinded by propaganda, made a crazy choice. They made a perfectly rational economic decision between the alternatives offered. Which is not to say that their conscious decision was based on cold economic calculation. It is to say that there was a curious economic instability underpinning all the quasi-religious jingoism with which the Unionist case was expressed, a rationality which was not being challenged in the existing working-class movement.
It is academic to argue that there was a third alternative – the socialist Ireland of Connolly – which would have better represented the interests of all workers. This is an attractive truism. But the socialist Ireland was not really on offer. 
What remains is for Sheila to explain how Eamonn, thirteen years later, has not yet ‘abandoned any perspective for socialist revolution in Ireland’. I must say that when I made the analogy with the Northern Ireland situation I did so in the knowledge that I had frequently heard this argument put forward by SWP speakers, particularly in debate with Militant supporters who denied that Protestant workers received any privileges and therefore refused to support the national struggle of Catholic workers or the IRA in any way.
However, Chris Harman and Eamonn McCann might not be considered decisive for the Marxist tradition and so let us return to the classics. In a letter to Marx in 1858 Engels wrote: ‘The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois ... For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.’  In a letter to Kautsky in 1882 he wrote:
You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here ... and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies. 
In other words, Engels is saying, the real material advantages, benefits , privileges – call them what you will – received by the English working class as a result of imperialism form the material basis for its susceptibility to bourgeois ideology.
And what was Lenin’s reaction to these lines? Did he denounce Engels for breaking with Marxism? Not at all, he used them as a basis for his theory of the labour aristocracy. According to his theory reformism, or opportunism, as Lenin called it, had gained the hold it did on the European labour movement because of the ability of imperialism to use the superprofits gained from its exploitation of the colonies to ‘benefit’ or ‘bribe’ a thin upper crust of workers and workers’ leaders. ‘Why’, asks Lenin:
... is this opportunism stronger in Western Europe than in our country? It is because the culture of the advanced countries has been, and still is, the result of being able to live at the expense of a thousand million oppressed people. It is these thousands of millions in superprofits that form the economic basis of opportunism in the working-class movement. 
Lukacs, in the same work that Sheila quotes from, makes the same point: ‘Revisionism ... always sacrifices the genuine interests of the class as a whole ... so as to represent the immediate interests of specific groups ... Revisionism could only become a real current within the labour movement because the new development of capitalism made it temporarily possible for certain groups among the workers to gain economic advantages from it.’ 
Of course, it might be objected that we in the SWP have always been critical of this particular theory of Lenin’s. However this criticism has been empirical, it has been that the mechanisms of ‘bribery’ were not as Lenin suggested and that the recipients of benefits were not who he suggested – not that Lenin was taking the first step away from Marxism in even contemplating the idea. The major article on this question in the SWP tradition is The Economic Roots of Reformism by Tony Cliff. Cliff argues, against Lenin, that the benefits of imperialism, and hence the influence of reformism, were not limited to a thin upper crust but permeated the working class of Britain and the advanced capitalist countries as a whole. A rather lengthy quotation from Cliff is very instructive here.
The expansion of capitalism through imperialism made it possible for the trade unions and Labour Parties to wrest concessions for the workers from capitalism without overthrowing it. This gives rise to a large reformist bureaucracy which in turn becomes a brake in the revolutionary development of the working class.
But the trade union and Labour Party bureaucracy are effective in disciplining the working class in the long run only to the extent that the economic conditions of the workers themselves are tolerable. In the final analysis the Base of Reformism is in the capitalist prosperity ... If Reformism is rooted in imperialism, it becomes also an important shield for it, supporting its ‘own’ national imperialism, against its imperialist competitors and against the rising colonial movements. Reformism reflects the immediate day-to-day, narrow national interests of the whole of the working class in Western capitalist countries under conditions of general economic prosperity. These immediate interests are in contradiction with the historical and international interests of the working class and socialism. 
What is really striking here is how close Cliff’s formulations, especially in the final sentence (as well as the formulation of Lukacs) are to my position that
One reason why sexist ideology is so powerful is because it connects with the immediate (though not long term) interests of male workers. The immediate interest of male workers in male dominance stands in contradiction to their historical interest in the unification of the class and constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of that unification. 
Clearly it is still open to Sheila to argue empirically, as Chris Harman does, that male workers’ benefits are minimal, but equally clearly she cannot argue that to talk of one section of workers benefiting (immediately) from the oppression of other workers is, on principle, anti-Marxist. Unless of course, she wants to convict Engels, Lenin, Lukacs, Cliff, McCann and Harman of the same heinous crime.
The root of Sheila’s confusion on this question lies in her failure to understand that contradictions between the immediate day-to-day interests of individual workers, or of sections of workers arise from the very structure of capitalism. Capitalism both unites workers in factories, towns, nations, and as a class which is commonly exploited and, at the same time, divides them by making them into competitors one against the other, or one group against the other groups, on the labour market. To overcome this competition amongst themselves workers require conscious organisation (union, party, International, etc.). Thus Marx writes: ‘Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. This combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist.’ 
Sheila’s failure to grasp this and her belief that the immediate interests of every section of workers are always identical to their overall class interest leads her into an important mistake as to the basis of the Marxist standpoint. She repeatedly argues as though the Marxist standpoint should be based on representing the immediate interests of sections of workers (male workers, Protestant workers in Northern Ireland, etc.). In fact, of course, the starting point for Marxists is always the interests of the class as a whole. As Marx puts it:
The Communists are distinguished from other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality; (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
Of course if there were not and could not be, any other interests than ‘the common interests of the entire proletariat’ and there was no possibility of immediate interests apart from ‘the interests of the movement as a whole’ then Marx’s historic declaration would be a pointless tautology. But what of the Marxist standpoint in relation to these various immediate or special interests. The answer is that we call on workers to subordinate their immediate (local, sectional, gender or national) interests to the interests of the class as a whole (and therefore to their own long-term interests). An exceptionally clear formulation of this point is to be found in Lenin’s definition of internationalism:
Proletarian internationalism on the other hand demands: (1) subordination of the interests of the proletarian struggle in one country to the interests of the struggle on a world scale; (2) that the nation which achieves victory over the bourgeoisie shall display the capacity and readiness to make the greatest national sacrifices in order to overthrow international capitalism. 
It therefore does not at all ‘follow’ from arguing that male workers have a certain immediate day-to-day interest in maintaining women’s oppression, ‘that workers should defer building for the socialist revolution and co-operate with capital in their immediate interests’, as Sheila alleges, any more than it ‘follows’ from recognising that Protestant workers gain certain immediate marginal benefits from the oppression of Catholic workers that we have to ‘abandon any perspective for socialist revolution in Ireland which involved the Protestant working class’.
Once we are clear on this general point it is possible to deal with the particularly emotive, but also particularly illogical, argument which Sheila seems to consider a trump card – the case of the Notts miners. She writes:
The majority of miners in Nottinghamshire thought it was in their immediate interests not to join the national miners’ strike but scab instead. Do we therefore postulate that their deeply-held backward views somehow coincided with their immediate interests? Is it true they got 52 wage packets striking miners did not receive, so did they immediately benefit from working? Does that mean it was in their immediate interest to scab? (p. 98)
Sadly the answers to these rhetorical questions are not at all what Sheila imagines them to be. First is most certainly is true, as a matter of simple fact, that the Notts scabs did get 52 wage packets striking miners did not receive, and so immediately benefited from working. Yes, in this sense, their backward views did coincide with their immediate interests. Or, to put it another way, only a minority of Notts miners had sufficient class consciousness to place the interests of miners (and the working class) as a whole, and their own long-term interests, over their immediate interests and thus made the sacrifice of a long strike. And no, Sheila, this does not mean, for reasons already explained, that it ‘follows’ from this that we should support them scabbing. But then what else is a scab but someone who puts their immediate interest in a wage packet before the interests of their class and what else is a picket line but a means of forcibly making the collective interests of the class more ‘immediate’ to the would-be strikebreaker?
How then does all this relate back to relations between men and women workers? Capitalism both unites them and divides them. It unites them in a common class situation with a common interest in fighting the ruling class and overthrowing it. It divides them by making them into competitors in the labour market and competitors for free time in the home. Moreover it establishes a division of labour which gives to the male worker certain important advantages in this competition from which he receives certain immediate benefits. 
And the Marxist standpoint? The Marxist standpoint is that we are for bringing to the fore the common interests of men and women workers to achieve unity in the struggle and that we call on male workers to subordinate their immediate interests in women’s oppression to their class interests which demand a fight against that oppression.
The consequence of Sheila’s confusion in this whole area is that her formulations deprive Marxism of an important tool of analysis for understanding the grip and persistent hold of certain reactionary ideas on sections of the working class. Sheila, by her position, is forced to explain this grip and persistence purely by ruling class indoctrination. She is forced to deny that bourgeois ideology has any point of contact with the immediate interests of sections of workers. Now ruling-class indoctrination is important of course but where it is successful on a mass scale and over a long period of time it is almost invariably precisely because it has such a connecting point in real life, i.e. because it has a certain material basis.
This, as we have seen, was the whole point of the labour aristocracy theory and Cliff’s amendment of it, but it applies to many other situations as well. It applies, as McCann demonstrated, to Northern Ireland, or does Sheila imagine that the persistent and stubborn loyalism of Protestant workers can be explained purely by the force of Orange ideology without reference to the slight but real privileges of Protestant workers? If so she is attributing astonishing powers to ideology and what is more she would need to explain why the ruling class has granted and maintained these privileges in the first place. It applies to the hold of racism on white workers, of Zionism on Jewish workers in Israel and, the extreme case, of apartheid on what remains of a white working class in South Africa.  But this is hardly some amazing new discovery by John Molyneux. It is simply the result of the strategy of divide and rule by granting small privileges that has long been consciously practised by ruling classes throughout the world and long recognised by Marxists.
To refuse to recognise it, as Sheila does, is to be forced back into the classic split between crude mechanical materialist economism (’the working class is automatically united by its immediate economic interests’) and crude idealism (’the working class is brainwashed by the ruling class’). It is also to underestimate the level, nature and centrality of the struggle involved within the working class to break the hold of reactionary ideas. A good example of this is the Militant Tendency which takes a similar starting point to Sheila’s and applies it consistently to women, positive discrimination, black sections in the Labour Party, Ireland, Israel and even the white working class in South Africa.
I have now answered Sheila’s theoretical argument. There are innumerable other points in Sheila’s article to which I would like to reply but for reasons of space I shall restrict myself to the three most important of them: working-class men as enforcers of women’s oppression, the role of the party, patriarchy and the women’s liberation movement.
It would have been open to Sheila to argue empirically that most male workers do not enforce women’s oppression: that they do not expect or demand their dinner to be cooked for them or their washing done, that they do not regularly take themselves off down the pub (leaving the wife stuck at home babysitting), that they don’t refuse or ‘fail to learn how’ to change nappies, that they don’t take advantage of their wife’s economic dependence, that they don’t on some occasions (on all too many occasions I’m sorry to say) employ physical violence against their wives. But Sheila does not do this, instead she presents a ‘logical’ argument:
To argue that men ‘enforce’ women’s oppression is to suggest that women themselves reject that oppression. The truth in society is somewhat different; both men and women by and large accept their respective roles in society and in the process women themselves accept their own role as wife and mother. (p. 96)
To see how unconvincing and mechanical this argument is, simply substitute ‘foremen’ or ‘police’ for ‘men’ and ‘workers’ for women:
To suggest that foremen/police ‘enforce’ workers’ oppression is to suggest that workers themselves reject that oppression.
The ‘truth in society’ is indeed somewhat different: it is that working-class women, like workers as a whole, do not generally either accept or reject their oppression in toto, rather they tend to rebel against concrete partial manifestations of it (this particular speed up of the line, this wage cut, or having to do the dishes all the time, etc) and that when they do the first ‘enforcer’ that they come up against is not the capitalist, who is safely out of reach, but the foreman, the cop, or in the case of the woman, her husband.
The rest of Sheila’s arguments on this point reveal the same mechanical either/or way of thinking.
Single women and married women without children participate equally in the workforce. Either husbands must agree with their wives not sticking to their traditional roles in the home or have failed to see the benefit which would occur to them if they did. (pp. 96–97)
Not at all. Husbands accept their wives working (partly because of shifts in ideology, mainly because of the financial gain to the family) and expect them to continue to take the main responsibility for the home.
To argue in this context that men are the enforcers of women’s oppression is to fail to see that women’s role is shaped by the needs of capital not by working-class men. (p. 97)
Once again the false, mechanical counterposition. My argument is not (of course!) that women’s role is shaped by men but that capital shapes the roles of both men and women and shapes them in such a way that working-class men are to some extent involved in enforcing women’s oppression. To argue otherwise is precisely ‘to fall into the idealist error of denying that social relations are always relations between real people’ (Cliff quoted in McGregor, p. 96). Engels, Eleanor Marx, and many others used to say that ‘within the family the man is the bourgeois, the woman the proletarian’. Obviously the analogy is not, and was not meant to be, exact, but to Sheila it would clearly be incomprehensible or else ‘the first step in departing from the Marxist tradition’.
Sheila says that I did not, in my article, state clearly what form our intervention to overcome sexist divisions should take beyond calling for ‘special efforts and special methods of agitation and propaganda’. In fact I was clearer than Sheila gives me credit for because I added a footnote to the passage she quotes. Sheila fails to mention it so, for clarity, I reproduce it here.
See for example, Clara Zetkin’s speech to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern on Organising Working Women. (International Socialism 1:96) In this speech Zetkin asserts: ‘One thing has become apparent: we require special organs to carry on the Communist work of organisation and education among women and make it part of the life of the Party ... To accomplish our purpose it is necessary to set up party organisers, Women’s Secretariats, Women’s Departments or whatever we may call them to carry on this work.’ Zetkin then goes on to contrast the situation on the Bulgarian and German CP, ‘where our Women’s Secretariats and the Communist Women’s Movement has become one of the strong points of the general life of the party’, to that in Poland and Britain where the CPs have ‘refused or postponed the setting up of a special body for systematic agitation among women. ‘ 
To clarify matters further let me state that I do not propose the setting up of such a Women’s Department in the SWP at present – the level of working-class women’s struggle and the nature of the period are not such as to justify it – but I do believe that such measures will be necessary in the future when the level of struggle is higher. Likewise I am not in favour of a special women’s paper at present but I do think that sooner or later we will need one. I repeat, this is perfectly in accord with the Marxist, indeed the Bolshevik tradition.
Sheila then goes on to draw out the ‘logic’ of my assertion that it cannot be assumed, or taken for granted, that the revolutionary party will automatically highlight the interests of women workers.
Put bluntly it means that revolutionary men are not capable of fighting for women’s liberation as they cannot be trusted to understand that the revolutionary struggle requires combating sexist divisions inside the working class. (p. 99)
It means nothing of the kind. To say that a person or a party cannot be ‘trusted’ to do something ‘automatically’ is not to say that they are incapable of doing it. Could we ‘trust’ miners automatically not to be sexist? Of course not! Could miners be won to an anti-sexist position in the course of the struggle (especially when the question was argued with them)? Of course they could! Can we ‘trust’ white workers not to be racist? No. Can they be won to anti-racism? Yes.
In fact I find that Sheila’s whole use of the concept of ‘trust’ in relation to the party rather bemusing. Surely none of us should simply leave the correctness of party policy to trust, whether it is on women or anything else. Surely there has to be a continual struggle by means of debate, argument and sometimes organisational means to assure this correctness is achieved?  Surely Sheila is continually engaged in such efforts herself or does she take the correct activity of party members purely ‘on trust’?
But what of ‘the doubts’ Sheila says I cast on the Marxist tradition? To have a critical attitude to our tradition, to recognise some of its weaknesses, is not to cast doubt on its overall validity. Nevertheless I did say that ‘the history of the Marxist movement shows that Marxists too have an unfortunate tendency to “forget” the woman question’. This is indeed a one-sided statement but I am a Marxist and I was arguing with other Marxists and rather took it for granted that we were aware of our positive achievements. Also I did cite some examples. Sheila notes, but makes no attempt to deal with these examples except in that which refers to our own organisation. She writes:
With regard to our own history, I would argue that the problem we suffered from was not that we forgot the question of women’s liberation but that we forgot the Marxist tradition. We suffered in fact from absorbing petty bourgeois feminism into our ideas and our practice in the period when we were engaged in building Women’s Voice groups. (p. 96)
The second sentence here is undoubtedly true but what about the long period – twenty years or more – before Women’s Voice? Does Sheila mean we didn’t forget the questions of women’s liberation at that time? If so she is simply wrong. I can remember when the question of women’s liberation was first raised in IS around 1970 (as well as some of the reactions to it) and when the simple statement that ‘We are for the real, social, economic and political equality of women’ was first inserted in Where We Stand. Or does Sheila mean we forgot the Marxist tradition on women including Marxist support women’s liberation?
This is true, but the question is why did we forget it and what reminded us of it? The answer is we forgot it because there was no women’s movement outside the party and we were reminded of it because, as I said in my first article, ‘the self-activity of women outside the party followed by that of women inside the party compelled the Trotskyist movement to confront its own theory and practice’.  I stand by this assertion because I vividly remember the process happening, but my memory is confirmed by Lindsey German who in 1978 observed:
The major positive aspect of the Women’s Movement in the last few years has undoubtedly been on the reintroduction of feminism into the socialist – and to some extent the trade union movements ... The changing ideas about women have meant that very few women inside the organisation accept the old subservient role [my emphasis – JM] that was prevalent up until three or four years ago. 
Indeed one of the reasons why we absorbed a considerable amount of petty bourgeois feminism is precisely that neither our membership nor our leadersip had a well worked-out Marxist position on the question. You will search in vain for any substantial article on women’s liberation in the issues of International Socialism before the early 1970s and it was not until 1981 that Lindsey German’s Theories of Patriarchy appeared and until 1984 (fifteen years after the birth of the women’s movement in Britain) that Cliff’s book and Harman’s major article came out. Hence it is the case that ‘even the most revolutionary men are not exempt from the short-term benefit men derive from women’s oppression’ and that ‘just as women workers will have to take the initiative to bring to the fore the women’s aspect of the class struggle so women revolutionaries will have to take the initiative within the revolutionary party.’ 
Sheila’s final argument is that my position is the thin end of a wedge leading to patriarchy theory, feminism, separatism et al. To establish this she moves step by step from an assertion that the idea that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression ‘is associated with the theory of patriarchy’, through the arguments of Sheila Rowbotham (early and late) to the horrors of ‘feminist incomes policy’ and ‘glorification of motherhood at Greenham Common’. These are said somehow to be ‘the consequences’ of holding my position.
Let me therefore state for the record (again!) (i) that I believe that Marxism is the only theory capable of explaining and consistently combating women’s oppression, (ii) that women’s liberation can come only through socialist revolution, (iii) that the class struggle demands unity between men and women workers, (iv) that this in turn requires a unified revolutionary party.
Naturally this will not satisfy Sheila. She will say this may be what I intend but will not be where my ideas lead. What she fails to see is the fundamental difference between my position and that of all the various patriarchy theorists she tries to associate me with. The latter all pose the division between men and women as either transcending class divisions, or as equally important as class divisions, or as parallel to class divisions. I, on the other hand, state unequivocally that class divisions are the fundamental divisions in society and treat the division between men and women as strictly subordinate to the class struggle. I approach the question of ‘men benefiting’ exclusively as an obstacle to be overcome in the fight for class unity against the bourgeoisie (both male and female). Nothing I have said even gives a hint of suggesting a cross-class alliance of all women against all men.
But Sheila will continue – ‘You say working-class men benefit, they say working-class men benefit’. Of course by this method of argument you can ‘prove’ that anything leads to anything. Doesn’t just mentioning the question of women’s oppression ‘lead’ to separatism? Doesn’t pointing out racism and the special oppression of blacks ‘lead’ to the danger of black nationalism? Didn’t Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and the right of nations to self-determination create an opening for third world nationalism, and so on? But then as Lenin pointed out, ‘Any truth ... if exaggerated, or if extended beyond the limits of its actual applicability can be reduced to an absurdity.’ 
It seems to me that with equal logic one could argue that the ‘logic’ of Sheila’s position is to minimise, or even deny altogether, the reality of women’s oppression. Of course Sheila’s commitment to women’s liberation is far too serious to permit that to happen. Nevertheless I would argue that the consequence of Sheila’s arguments, that is of denying the reality of something experienced by working-class women in their daily lives, is actually to repel radicalised women from the SWP and strengthen petty bourgeois feminism, not so much inside but outside the party.
But in the last analysis none of these arguments about consequences relieves us of the duty to state what is. And ‘what is’ in this case is that working-class women do suffer an extra or special oppression over and above that suffered by working-class men and working-class men do gain a certain limited, immediate benefit from this in terms of their greater freedom from the burden of housework and child care.
Which is not to say that this is the whole story, for against the stake which male workers have in perpetuating women’s oppression there is also a powerful, in the long run more powerful, factor working to unite men and women workers in opposition to women’s oppression, and that is their own common class interest. However this side of socialism there will always be a tension between this immediate divisive factor (reinforced by bourgeois sexism) and the unifying class factor (fought for by socialists). It is a tension which can be overcome only in the course of struggle – struggle against capital and struggle within the working class against sexism.  These are not two separate struggles but two aspects of the same struggle, neither of which can ultimately be won without the victory of the other.
I would like to thank Jonathan Neale for a number of very helpful discussions in the preparation of this article.
1. Chris Harman, Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism, in International Socialism 2:23, pp. 26–27. In this Chris follows the earlier argument of Lindsey German that ‘even in these situations (where women do full-time paid labour and also run the home) it is doubtful that the husbands benefit more then marginally. Theories of Patriarchy, International Socialism 2:12.
2. The crucial question here was whether (as Chris argued) ‘the labour devoted to children was something the wife provides to the system and not to the husband’ (Harman, op. cit., p. 27) or whether (as I argued) ‘she is both producing the next generation of labour power for the system and doing something for her husband by relieving him of the necessity of doing his share of the work.’ (Molyneux, International Socialism 2:25, p. 119). On this point Sheila does not answer my arguments but merely reasserts that ‘John mistakes the appearance of a wife’s role within the family through a personal service for the husband, for the reality that wives perform their duties on behalf of capital’. But how can this dual character of women’s labour be divided into ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’? When a wife cooks a meal for her husband she does indeed refresh his labour power for the capitalist to exploit but she also keeps him alive. Or is Sheila suggesting that it is only a capitalist con-trick that workers need to eat? Marx in Capital explains that under capitalism all commodities (and the the labour that produces them) have a dual character: they possess both exchange value and use value. He does not, of course, male the absurd suggestion that the exchange value of commodities is ‘real’ while their use value is only a matter of ‘appearance’.
3. Eamonn McCann, After 5 October 1968, International Socialism 1:51, pp. 10 & 11.
4. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, p. 110. Sheila, given the interpretations she puts on some of my arguments, might wonder at the word ‘justifiable’. What! Is Engels supporting the proletariat becoming bourgeoisie! It would follow that the working class would have to abandon the aim of the socialist revolution, etc. etc. Clearly what Engels means is that the phenomenon of the proletariat accepting bourgeois ideas is materially determined.
5. Ibid., p. 351.
6. In his Preface to The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 (London 1968) Engels actually uses the dreaded word ‘benefit’, stating that ‘a small privileged protected minority [of the working class] was permanently benefited’ by the industrial expansion from 1848 to 1886.
7. Lenin, Speeches at the Congresses of the Communist International, Moscow 1972, pp. 45–6.
8. Lukacs, Lenin, London 1970 (emphasis in the original).
9. T. Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, London 1982, p. 116.
10. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 120.
11. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, Oxford 1978, pp. 213–4. Marx returns to this idea in The Communist Manifesto, writing ‘This organisation of the proletarians into a class ... is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves’, and it should be noted, in the passage on English and Irish workers quoted by Sheila, ‘The ordinary English worker takes the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life’.
12. Lenin, Speech to Second Congress of the Comintern, in J. Degras, The Communist International 1919–1943, London 1971, Vol. I, p. 43.
13. I disagree with Sheila’s assertion that ‘women’s oppression does not consist in an unequal division of labour in the home but in a division of labour between the point of production and home’. (p. 94) This division has never been absolute and was ‘typical’ only in one phase of capitalist development. Moreover there has always been also an (oppressive) division of labour in paid employment with men being recruited to certain better-paid jobs and women being recruited to other, worse-paid jobs, and an (again oppressive) division of labour in the home. In my first article I concentrated on the benefits men get from the latter but it is also the case that male workers gain a certain (short-term, immediate etc.) benefit from the fact that women are discriminated against in the competition on the labour market for the better-paid jobs.
14. I must stress that I am not saying that the relationship between men and women is the same as that between Jewish and Arab workers or white and black in South Africa (clearly the factors for unity are much greater) merely that the methodological point is the same.
15. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 122.
16. In Party and Class Chris Harman went so far as to suggest ‘a limitation on (party) membership to those willing to seriously and scientifically appraise their own activity and those of the party generally.’
17. Molyneux, op. cit., p 123.
18. L. German, The Women’s Movement and the Left, SWP International Discussion Bulletin, No. 9. Lindsey would now, rightly, disown much of this article but the facts she records here remain facts.
19. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 121.
20. Cited in Lukacs, Lenin, op. cit., p. 96.
21. It was precisely such a dual struggle that was waged in the miners’ strike. The strike created favourable conditions for the overcoming of sexism but there still had to be a political fight on the question. Comrades will remember, for example, the rampant sexism in evidence on the Mansfield demonstration and the many arguments that followed it.
Last updated: 28.2.2013