Towards an honest history: the case of the Militant Tendency

Over the past months, the SWP has received much high-profile criticism for its kangaroo court dealing of allegations of rape by a leading party member. Curiously, there has been much less scrutiny of the response by the Socialist Party – formerly the Militant Tendency – to a complaint of domestic abuse made against one of their (then) senior members.*

Schadenfreude seems to be the order of the day when it comes to discussing Marxist parties and sexism. That’s unhelpful. But an open and honest reflection is absolutely critical, as is the ongoing struggle to challenge such sexism and the lack of democratic space to engender a healthy, dynamic Marxist feminism. Part of that open and honest reflection is a necessary excavation of history, since the past shapes the present and future possibilities.

Over the years, when I have spoken to a range of people who were politically active in the 1980s about Militant, one unsettling observation lingers: “Militant were the boot-boys of the Left, that was no secret.”

The history of much of the revolutionary socialist Left is poor on the question of women’s liberation. The Militant Tendency in the 1980s was particularly bad: in general terms, fetishising and elevating ‘the class’, posing a simplistic formula of ‘socialism is the answer’, insisting certain issues are a ‘distraction from the real enemy of capitalism’, and (all in all) pandering to sexist and homophobic attitudes amongst layers of the working class.

In many respects, the Socialist Party today is a far cry from its Militant days, but it has neither admitted to this past nor fully shed the inadequacy of its past politics – and the two are surely connected.

HOW DID ORGANISATIONS LIKE MILITANT RESPOND TO SOCIALIST FEMINISM?

Extract from Women In The Past:

Radical and cultural feminism failed the women’s movement because their ‘men versus women’ outlook could not explain the range of oppression and conflict that exists. Neither could they provide strategies that inspired, involved – or even seemed relevant to – the big majority of women. Socialist feminism could have done both. … However, socialist feminism as an independent political force was not strong enough to fulfil this task, and not all socialist groups rose to the challenge. Some socialist groups worked constructively in the women’s movement, but others refused to identify as feminist or to get involved in the movement. Organisations such as Militant (now Socialist Party) and the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers’ Party) argued that because they believed in unity, they could not support women’s self-organisation, and that because they were socialists, they could not be feminists. The IS set up a women’s organisation, Women’s Voice, but closed it when it showed signs of initiative and independence. Other, smaller factions behaved in a sectarian, heavy-handed way towards the women’s movement. Those left groups tended to lecture the movement from the outside, telling activists they were doing it all wrong, rather than being involved and offering their ideas as a constructive way forward. These experiences left many feminists – even many socialist feminists – hostile to socialist organisations.

WHAT WAS MILITANT LIKE ON THE QUESTION OF GAY RIGHTS?

Professor Stephen Brooke, in his book “Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning, and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day”, writes:

… the Trotskyite Militant Tendency … proved, at best, dilatory and sometimes unreliable allies to the cause of gay rights and, at worst, violent opponents. As late as 1983, for example, members of Militant Tendency kicked and spat upon gay Young Socialists when the latter dared to raise the issue of gay and lesbian rights.

Ian Donovan comments:

And on the subject of homophobia, I am old enough to remember the vicious ‘queer’ and ‘lezzie’ baiting that was once the lot of activists [of] other left tendencies that fought for gay rights at Labour Party Young Socialists events in the 1970s and 80s, when Militant dominated that movement. In truth, Militant were among the last ‘left’ Neanderthals to be forced to recognise the justice of gay rights.

IN WHAT WAYS DID SECTIONS OF THE LEFT, MOST NOTABLY, MILITANT PANDER TO SEXISM? THE EXAMPLE OF “DITCH THE BITCH”.

Extract from Thatcher was a class-fighter, not a bitch:

The mainstream media did not know how to portray Thatcher but the fact of her femaleness, her womanliness usually influenced how she was depicted. … The satirical puppet show Spitting Image was unable to come up with anything more imaginative than making Thatcher wear a suit, more male than any man in her cabinet, playing the dominatrix with highly sexual undertones to the pathetic drooling men around her. Perhaps this is all that can be expected from mainstream society where sexism and misogyny go unchallenged. But surely the labour movement and, the left in particular, fared better? Not so. The broad labour movement used slogans such as “Ditch the Bitch” as comfortably as “Coal not Dole”. … “Evil cow” was another often used description for Thatcher, usually followed by a rhetorical question such as “what sort of woman could do…”, followed by quips such as “If Denis (Thatcher) was a real man…” On the revolutionary left, things were no better, maybe even worse. The Militant tendency (forerunner to the Socialist Party) was notoriously bad on the question of fighting women’s oppression and sexism. Leading Militant local organisers in Stoke introduced a song to a miners’ support march: “Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Ian MacGregor is one! Nah, nah, nah!” When challenged by women on the march, they laughed dismissively, playing to the more backward ideas of some striking miners present. Socialist Organiser (forerunner to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) and Women’s Fightback were lone voices at the time arguing Thatcher should be taken on as a politician, as serious ruling class fighter, and not reduced to sexist abuse and caricatures. Thatcher wasn’t evil. She wasn’t mad. She wasn’t a cow. She was a woman who fought hard for her class. … Socialist women have nothing in common with the likes of Margaret Thatcher. We should feel no sense of feminist solidarity with her and women like her. But we have to be concerned that women who take part in politics, whether we agree with them or not, cannot and should not be reduced to sexist and misogynist ridicule.

Jill Mountford recollects (after an exchange with Peter Taaffe in which he calls her “hysterical”):

Hysterical? I recalled the stock cartoon image of a flabby-bodied Margaret Thatcher in a “wonder Woman” bathing costume, in Militant and on their placards, and the slogan “Ditch the Bitch!” with which Taaffe tried to “raise the consciousness” of the labour movement in the mid 1980s.

* For a critique of the present-day Socialist Party and its dealing of sexism in the labour movement, see: Not the way to tackle sexism in the labour movement and Not the way to tackle violence against women.

4 thoughts on “Towards an honest history: the case of the Militant Tendency

  1. I have recentlly attended several socialist party meetings . I found just the opposite of the above description infact positive reports on sheffield pride where many members attended . Also the next meetings subject is entitled violence against women and the womens struggle against oppression , maybe you could attend old queens head 1/7/13 19.30 or would facts cloud a good story .

    • Would facts cloud a good story, Ian Whitehouse asks. No, since my story includes the observation that the Socialist Party today is – in many respects – a far cry from its Militant Tendency past. I was on a stall ten feet from the SP stall at Sheffield Pride this year, which they focused around the demand for gay marriage equality (a revolutionary socialist demand?) In my years on the Left, 18 years in fact, the SP hasn’t struck me as reactionary on the question of liberation, but neither has it struck me as especially good. What does Ian think of their handling of the Steve Hedley case and their position on the Unison statement for women’s safe space? In sum, my piece is about the Militant Tendency of the 1980s, and calls for some nuanced thinking about the relationship between past, present, and future.

  2. Pingback: Sexist and misogynistic ridicule was NOT decent class analysis | Anaemic On A Bike

  3. Pingback: Wahhhh! | Why did Stephen Jolly defriend me?

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