SOCIALISM | The feminist challenge
The Labour Party meetings in the decrepit inner-city area of London where I used to live were held in an obscure-looking church-cum-school next to the Thames. You could hear the commerce of the river all the time you were talking - the Thames might once have been the life-line of a great trading nation, but now it ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of the disco boats.
Those who attended the Party meetings were divided into two camps: the old-style Machine Politicians, flat-cap working-class Bosses who could have walked straight out of an Al Capone movie (‘This Party has served this ward for fifty years in this way, and it will change over my dead body’). On the other side, pitted against these dreadnoughts, were the radical earnest and angry-young-men who styled themselves as working-class heroes: John Lennons with Degrees. They clearly wanted to break down the old Boy’s Club, but their views on anything more positive were never very clear.
The two sides tangled with each other in a maze of trip-wires; bickering about the tiniest details of procedure, inventing obstructive interpretations of the formal rules and resolutions, and blocking each other with the most petty of Party regulations. Each set of players was as locked into this game as the other. Both camps would go on like this to the end of time: it was a perfect impasse. By spending all that energy denying the importance of the others’ position, they bolstered up their opponents’ sense of self-importance. (And vice-versa).
I picked my way home through the tumble-down warehouses contemplating the ‘Babel’ style of Labour Party politics. If this was socialism they could keep it. Socialism for me means listening to the needs of the unprivileged: not filling the air with the sound of your own voice. This is an idea I have borrowed from feminism.
I have a history of flirting with political Parties; I once fell into the thrall of a set of revolutionary marxists. I did not seriously think all their talk of the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie would come to anything, mind you. I really went to their meetings because my best friend had signed on the dotted line and become a member.
The Party’s visionary purple prose was called - with breath-taking honesty - ‘propaganda’. Their faith in the revolution was unquestioning. The argument was that if the working-class seized control of workplaces (‘the means of production’) then all else would be hunky-dory. But I was a bit suspicious about this revolution. The bloody, sweaty and corpse-strewn barricades were, it seemed, to be organized by the men while women would still be stuck at home, wrestling with broken-down tumble-dryers and bored out of their skulls. My affair (with the friend and the revolution) ended in tears: I was not gullible enough to fight for a revolution that left me (and other women) out.
Seek for food and clothing first, then the
Unfortunately, human history shows that creating an ideal society is not this simple. Food and clothing are a good start, but the Kingdom of God and its blessings - the abolition of mindless work, breaking down the isolation that women experience in raising their children and restoring the respect for the old in the community - do not automatically follow from bread alone. wish they did.
Take people’s need to control their own familiar surroundings - to paint their houses even. Those who live in the drab houses owned by the local councils in the United Kingdom are not usually allowed to redecorate them: the council reserves the right to paint the interiors and exteriors. One day, a tenant (who was a painter by trade) was given paint left over from a job he was working on. It was identical to that on his own house - the same colour and shade to that on his own house, so he used it to repaint his front door and windows. Two days later council workmen turned up and used a blow torch to remove the paint he had put on. replacing it with the identical colour and shade. They wanted to prove to him that tenants had no right to repaint council houses without official permission.
Yet if people want to own their houses so that (among other things) they can paint them this is condemned by socialists as ‘bourgeois’. Questions of dignity seem beyond the ken of conventional socialism - another example of its blind-spots: it has not listened to those who have to live with housing policies. It accepts only ‘rational’ arguments and ignores emotions. This is a mistake that feminism tries to rectify.
Whilst brooding on the 564,000 question (can socialism and feminism be bed-fellows?), I read about the Igbo Women’s War in Nigeria - in which women fought against the British attempts to tax them. Thousands of women materialised at the Native Administration centres in Nigeria dressed in a way that signified female powers. Their faces were smeared with ashes and their heads were bound with young ferns and they wore short loincloths and carried sticks wreathed with palm fronds. They were particularly incensed about the tax proposals since these would have the effect of driving them out of the economy and into economic dependence on men, The demonstration was organised through a sophisticated communications network that the British, for all their investigations, never managed to fathom.
The old female spirits were clearly alive and well. And they showed that economics - the differences in wages and work that are usually taken to create class divisions - are irreversibly mixed up with men’s and women s roles. The refusal to separate them is a feminist challenge to any socialism which sees class without seeing gender.
I grew up in London’s East End. At school I was made to realise that I and my friends were working-class by the patronising attitudes of teachers who thought that our origins made us inferior. The brightest kids hated school and most left as soon as they could - before the legal school-leaving age.
One such enterprising school-mate wrote an essay describing a love affair between Bonny Prince Charlie and Flora McDonald, the woman who rescued him from the island of Skye. The teacher read it out as an example of what not to do in history. Barbara Cartland might become a millionairess by pouring out several dozen volumes of the same sort of dreams but this girl was ridiculed and made to feel sub-literate. This incident (and others like it) made me aware of the injustice meted out because we were working class. Incensed, I became - at the tender age of 16 - a committed (raving) communist.
Looking back, I realise with a shock that my objections to being treated as sub-human are closer to the feminist concerns of how relationships are handled than to the usual socialist aims - seizure of the citadels of power, the government, the army, the factories and banks. I think I must have been a socialist feminist long before I realised that such a strange hybrid could exist - and even thrive
Walter Benjamin once said that ‘when the socialist millennium is reached, the human race will be able to recall every moment of its past: from the most important events to the tiniest ones. Nothing will need to be obscured’ - Benjamin. a socialist, understood a truth that has, until now, belonged to feminists: namely that in any future utopia small things thoughts, feelings, dreams must count)
A friend calls and says the looting after the recent disturbances in Handsworth. Birmingham, was carried out by middle-aged women. Not only did these women (should I call them housewives? should I describe them as black? It does matter) have the nerve to get their groceries in this opportune way. When Police Officers came along they hid their spoils and tut-tutted with the officers about the terrible lawlessness that surrounded them. I am amused and delighted: not because of the riots - because they will not solve Handsworth’s problems - but because of the courage, humour, cunning and fortitude these women displayed. These are spiritual qualities, and - I realise it suddenly - they are what I think of as socialist feminism. By which I mean (and I cringe at the pretentiousness of the vocabulary) the powerless empowering themselves.
A quote from the feminist writer/poet/ mother/lesbian/feminist Adrienne Rich:
‘When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious, the shock of human possibility has ceased to reverberate through them’.
This sense of possibility is crucial if things are to change for the better, Future possibilities can only be ensured if we try and put them into practice today. Only in this way does utopia stop being utopian.
A woman who is active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Manchester told me that a young Labour party activist had come to one of their meetings, eager to make sure that his views were adopted in a formal resolution. He had argued his point, and then insisted that the matter was put to a vote. One of the CND women was scandalised. ‘But what if we don’t agree?’ she asked. But of course the vote was precisely his method of evading the need to make his case convincing to the others.
To her, having a vote was divisive and counter-productive unless a consensus had been reached beforehand. A vote involves squashing and excluding others: stopping them from airing their points of view, and denying the reality of what they feel or think.
Thoughts and feelings are mutually interdependent. The nurturing of a fully human complexity in politics is a feminist attitude. it restores the ‘shock of human possibility’ to politics.
These are fragmentary observations. Individually they might have been labelled in many ways - community, politics, sexism, class and memory, hope or desire. Recalling them makes me realise that I cannot conceive of a helpful class politics without a feminist input. In a similar way I distrust a feminism that assumes that all women (or all men) share the same interests: one that turns a blind eye to the tangled mass of diverse needs and desires that arise from differences in class, in race and in age (amongst other diversities). Politics ignores these needs as its peril. ‘The truth,’ as Oscar Wilde said ‘is rarely plain and never simple.’
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