Debate: how to fight sexism and change the world

Continuing a debate with Woman’s Place UK that started in the pages of The Socialist, the weekly sister paper of Socialism Today, on whether the fight for trans rights conflicts with women’s rights, we print below a further contribution from WPUK and a response by the Socialist Party executive committee member, SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE.

We think that Michael Johnson’s reply to Woman’s Place UK (United struggle for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights is integral to the wider struggle to change society, The Socialist, No.1166) clarifies two fundamental, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences in approach between us and the Socialist Party.

Every major advance in women’s rights – from suffrage, access to abortion and a legal entitlement to equal pay – has been won not because women waited “for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle”. They happened because women identified the problem, organised and struggled without waiting for male union bureaucrats or politicians to decide that the time was right and maximum unity (whatever that might mean) had been achieved. These things were often done despite opposition from some working-class men.

There are direct comparisons to be made with lesbians, gay men and black people. These minorities often faced immense hostility from bigots and racists inside the working class and if they’d waited for “maximum unity” they’d still be waiting. They organised and fought, changing both laws and social attitudes through their struggles.

That’s an essential difference between our way of doing politics and what Michael Johnson is advocating. Women are an oppressed sex and we need to organise as a sex, rather than waiting for small vanguard parties, MPs, union leaders or “maximum unity”. If it’s divisive to challenge people who want to erode women’s rights then we are divisive.  We think of it as enabling women to confront political parties like Labour which can’t even say what a woman actually is.

It is now clear that our other fundamental disagreement is over the definition of “woman”.

We think that women and girls are female people. In sexist societies, all women and girls are oppressed, from birth, on the basis of our sex. Gender has a variety of current definitions but in materialist thinking has referred to the social norms overlaid on sex, which restrict everyone and particularly disadvantage women. In any case, sex and gender are clearly different things.

At the same time we maintain that everyone should be free to present in whatever socially constructed gender role they choose. All our activists have rebelled against society’s expectation of what it is to be a girl or woman. If biological males want to behave in a way which actively rejects typical ideas of masculinity, then we fully support them. We just don’t think that makes them women, despite what Starmer or the Socialist Party say.

As a group which prides itself on its close links to the working class, we’d like to think that the Socialist Party also contains many members who have no problem defining “woman” and we encourage them to raise the issue in their discussion. Most working-class people don’t find it a complicated thing to explain.

We won’t rise to the absurd claim that we think “some cuts have to be made”. Our core activists work every day in jobs where they see the effects of austerity on working class girls and women.

That might be a third difference between our approaches. We don’t deal in caricatures of our opponents’ positions.

Women’s Place UK

Reply by the Socialist Party

The Socialist Party welcomes the opportunity to continue the debate around fighting for the rights of women and trans and non-binary people. Debate can help prepare for the struggles that will develop. However, a reply to the latest contribution from the Women’s Place UK (WPUK) leadership board must firstly point out a misrepresentation. Rather than saying that women should “wait”, Michael Johnson’s article says: “Our approach, fighting for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle around a programme for the liberation of all from the oppression and exploitation of capitalism, makes us effective”. The ending of gender oppression that WPUK supporters seek is predicated on this approach.

For the Socialist Party, as our material and our record make clear, there is no question of saying women must ‘wait’ for anything. Women can’t wait. It’s often women who are the first to go hungry in families pressed by the cost of living crisis. The problem of enduring low pay amid soaring prices hits women workers. Research into gynaecological health is one of the areas at the sharp end of funding cuts. Police failings are among the most acute in areas like rape and domestic violence. Cuts to jobs and services have hit women hardest because they make up a big section of public sector workers. The burden of taking up the slack arising from the destruction of services is more likely to fall on women who have majority responsibility for unpaid caring in the home, saving capitalism billions. There is a sexual harassment pandemic with 97% of women experiencing it, so-called ‘honour’ killings, and the rape and exploitation that accompany war. No amount of telling women to ‘wait’ could stop them trying to fight back – and no one should!

Far from ‘waiting’, there is historical precedent for women initiating significant movements. The French revolution in 1789 was kicked off by women marching on Versailles. When life becomes unbearable for the majority and recognition of the need to change it widespread, pre-existing inequality means it is women, especially working-class women, who are often at the fore of the fightback. Action by women workers launched the 1917 Russian revolution. Taking power into the hands of the working class in Russia didn’t end women’s oppression but it laid the basis for doing so, although that was tragically unrealised as the revolution remained isolated and the counter-revolution of Stalinism consolidated. As women move into action, it is inevitable that the questions of what is needed to win their struggle and to end gender oppression arise.

It can also be the case that oppression and pressure are obstacles to women’s participation in struggle, limiting women’s time and undermining their confidence. Clear perspectives, demands and a programme of action can help overcome this and show participation is necessary and worthwhile. But that is a matter of both ideas and leadership – and why this debate is important.

However, the questions that the reply from the WPUK board doesn’t answer include, if “all women and girls are oppressed” in “sexist societies”, is a non-sexist society possible? What would make it so – and how do we achieve it? When you say “we need to organise as a sex”, how do you then oppose the Priti Patels or Margaret Thatchers who defend capitalist class interests? Does the WPUK board think that “lesbians, gay men and black people”, who you rightly say “faced immense hostility from bigots and racists inside the working class”, no longer face bigotry and discrimination? And, how will “defining woman” contribute to ending the oppression of women? 

Human societies have not always been sexist. Therefore they don’t always have to be. The oppression which women experience today has its origins in the rise of societies based on private property and divided into classes. It is the structures and inequalities of class exploitation from which male dominance derives, and that make a society sexist. A fundamental restructuring of society in every sphere – economic, social, domestic – is necessary to end all inequality and oppression. Democratic socialist planning replacing capitalism is the basis for that.

But the capitalist class has developed many ways and means of maintaining its position and its exploitative system – including the many institutions through which its rule is maintained, and how it is reinforced ideologically. Capitalism will not be easily removed. However, for the working class, capitalism means economic exploitation and workers therefore have a collective interest in ending capitalism. The working class also has the collective power to do that flowing from the collective role it plays in the production process under capitalism. This shared experience also contributes to building solidarity, cutting across the ideologies of capitalist division. 

The WPUK reply mentions “materialist thinking”. This is the materialist basis for understanding the role of the working class in changing society. What is the material basis for organising on the basis of sex, and what power do women alone wield to bring down capitalism in order to end the oppression of women?

Instead, the struggle for women’s liberation, of fighting for a non-sexist society, is part and parcel of building mass working class struggle to end the capitalist system and replace it with socialism. Fighting for maximum unity of the working class in struggle around a socialist programme is central to ending gender oppression.

Are we claiming that the working class is free of prejudice and bigotry? Of course not. Sexism, LGBTQ+phobia, and racism are widespread among all classes including the working class. Living in a capitalist system reinforces these poisonous ideas – women’s unequal pay, for example, backs up the sexist idea of women’s lower status. Fighting for maximum unity therefore includes organising to fight discrimination and expose the role these ideas play for capitalism. The capitalist class will always attempt to divide the working class, including along gender, race, religious and sexual orientation lines. Basically, dividing us makes it easier to maintain capitalism.

It is certainly not the case that women won every major advance through separate organisation. Yes, it is naturally the case that those at the sharp end of oppression are the first to identify it and oppose it. It has been their fightback reaching and inspiring wider layers into action that has generally been key to the successes. 

The legal improvements mentioned by WPUK were won against a backdrop of wider class struggle. This is also no accident. The women workers who played significant roles in those struggles had gained confidence from their participation in the workforce and the unions, and awareness of the working class’s strength and their role within it. Women workers who were key to the fight for universal women’s suffrage gained confidence in and from the struggles in the workplaces against the bosses. New unionism, the development of the Labour Party, and the mass working-class battles then, as well as the inspiration workers internationally drew from the 1917 Russian revolution, were factors in the fight for women’s suffrage. Major reforms are mostly granted when the capitalist class perceives a threat to its right to rule. 

Women’s movements also often open the door to wider struggles. Any oppressed or exploited group getting organised against the oppressors and exploiters can challenge backward ideas and impact wider layers. By its nature, struggle exposes the lie that nothing can be done to change things. It isn’t a question of the Socialist Party or WPUK saying that should or shouldn’t happen. What we can do though, is put forward a programme that helps to speed up that process by offering explanation of whose interests the maintenance of oppression ultimately serves – the capitalist class – and what kind of movement is needed to end it; a mass working-class movement for socialism. 

Mass working-class organisation is a key ingredient to building struggle that can change the world. However, it is wrong to therefore infer that we oppose every struggle that is not mass! Selective action can win results. Half a billion pounds was won through the historic two-day, 8,000-strong strike of council workers in UNISON and the GMB in Glasgow in 2018. The mainly women workforce recognises the contribution to their victory made by refuse workers, mainly men, taking unofficial action in solidarity who were inspired by the strike to oppose the injustice of unequal pay. But these lessons must be applied in mass struggle to win major advances.

Mass struggles always start small. The 18-million strong movement of organised non-payment that brought down the poll tax and Thatcher was not born fully formed. Far from it. It started with the relatively small number of Militant members having the perspective that millions of workers would see that the poll tax was unfair, unaffordable and must be fought. Militant, the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party, was able to act as a lever on that movement because we had confidence that mass struggle could defeat Thatcher. That allowed Militant to develop successful tactics based on building maximum unity.

The WPUK reply says that “minorities often faced immense hostility from bigots and racists inside the working class and if they’d waited for ‘maximum unity’ they’d still be waiting”. It then says that lesbians, gay men and black people “organised and fought, changing both laws and social attitudes through their struggles”. If the WPUK board thinks that there is no longer any discrimination against these ‘minorities’, they are unfortunately totally wrong. A new report by the childbirth charity Birthrights found that: “Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women; Asian and mixed race women are twice as likely”. The failure of the right-wing trade union leaders to mobilise workers to defend the NHS for all and the absence of a mass working-class political voice to oppose Tory and Blairite privatisation and cuts are also major factors. But, as Malcolm X rightly said, you can’t have capitalism without racism. The fight against discrimination is a fight to end class oppression.

Maximum unity is logical if you are setting out to maximise the effectiveness of any struggle. Does that mean watering down what is demanded in order to win those workers who don’t yet support you? Not at all. Does it mean showing how your demands are in the interests of all sections of the working class? Yes. Separate organisation can be a step towards this – but not automatically so. It has to be fought for.

In Socialism Today’s first article on the debate around reform of the Gender Recognition Act in May 2018, we wrote: “Separate organisations can be a bridge to greater workers’ unity. However, that is dependent on the leadership, make-up and programme of those organisations. A socialist programme of demands and action that makes it clear that, fundamentally, the interests of a specially oppressed group are not separate from those of other sections of the working class is necessary. But any attempts to rigidly and permanently separate the working class along the lines of nationality, gender, sexuality or ethnicity must be opposed”. 

“That does not exclude the need for separate meetings or organisations to discuss the issues of those who face specific oppressions. In fact, organising with people who face the same oppression can be the first stage of political activity for many. It is necessary for the wider labour movement to stand against all oppression and prejudice, to win these sections of the working class and youth to its banner – and to show it will fight”.

But the idea that the needs of one oppressed section of the population are served by denying the rights of another is a barrier to building successful movements. The argument of the WPUK leadership, as it appears to be, that the right to self-identification of trans people is an obstacle to women’s rights being realised, is wrong. The legal changes demanded – basically for people to not have a name and gender imposed on them – pose no threat whatsoever to women or anyone.

Limited resources do pose a threat though. Access to domestic violence refuges, toilets, prisons, etc have been presented by those who oppose self-identification as a conflict of rights between women on one side, and trans and non-binary people on the other. This presentation of the situation, where no oppressed group has sufficient rights and resources, does nothing to help build a fight to defend, expand and improve services. For example, many domestic violence refuges have been bundled into general homeless hostels, losing the specialised services the victims need. This is a cut, often made by Labour-led councils carrying through Tory policies, not by trans people. And who benefits? Not trans or non-binary people. These cuts are part of the transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class, which austerity is also part of.

The WPUK leadership board fails to explain the need for mass struggle to fight for the resources needed by everyone. If an alternative to capitalist austerity is not put forward, the logic is the acceptance of cuts. Instead, the cause of ending women’s oppression is best served by building powerful mass united working-class organisations including new workers’ parties, through which women can fight cuts and have control over the running of our services. A mass workers’ party could also provide the space for negotiations between different sections of the working class to be had – discussion and debate are essential to build genuine unity, and fight for a new world.