Sexist and misogynistic ridicule is NOT decent class analysis

"Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher" (cartoon by Alan Hardman)

“Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” (cartoon by Alan Hardman)

In their internal document “British Perspectives 1977” (cited in Crick, 1986, page 89), the Militant Tendency (forerunner to the Socialist Party) defined the feminist movement as “petty-bourgeois-dominated” and subject to “hysteria”.

Cartoonist Alan Hardman’s depictions of Margaret Thatcher for the Militant’s publications reflected a deep-seated political problem with the organisation – their dismissal of feminism, and their promotion of and pandering to sexism and misogyny amongst the working class.

"Mad Axe Woman Margaret Thatcher" (cartoon by Alan Hardman)

“Mad Axe Woman Margaret Thatcher” (cartoon by Alan Hardman)

Thatcher was a ruling class fighter, and socialist women then and now should feel no affinity towards her. But the fact that she was a woman was used by Militant to present sexist and misogynistic caricatures which were a reactionary substitute for decent class analysis and class opposition.

The image of Thatcher as an over-sized, flabby action heroine in a bikini presents the idea of her disgusting femininity. While the hook-nosed and fanged Thatcher with an axe shows her (quite explicitly given the caption) as a demented, hysterical woman. Both cartoons primarily denigrate Thatcher as an inadequate woman, rather than satirically mock her as a political leader for the ruling class. The two more recent cartoons below, from the Socialist Party press in 2007, reverberate Militant’s past: with babies Blair and Brown feeding off Thatcher’s breasts; she is revealed as a perversion of a reproductive female and as a predatory and repulsive she-wolf/woman. Blair and Brown get off lightly.

For more, see my previous posts Towards an honest history: the case of the Militant Tendency and Further excavation of the Militant Tendency.

"New face, same pedigree, with apologies to Romulus and Remus and the She-wolf" (by Alan Hardman)

“New face, same pedigree, with apologies to Romulus and Remus and the She-wolf” (cartoon by Alan Hardman)

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Further excavation of the Militant Tendency

On building an honest history of the Left, the academics Diane Frost and Peter North’s book “Militant Liverpool: A City On The Edge” is an excellent insight of the forerunner to the Socialist Party, the Militant Tendency. Their book is a balanced and measured piece of research based on oral history testimonies from several of the key people involved in/around Liverpool City Council at the time of Militant’s reign. Below, I have identified particular themes in which to present extracts from Frost and North’s book.

WERKER VERSUS PB: STYLE NOT SUBSTANCE

Frost and North:

“‘It was the militancy of Militant that impressed, not the deep-laid, apocalyptic strategies’ (Lane 1987: 155).” (Page 41)

Mark Campbell interview, 2012:

“… I also didn’t like some of the tactics that they [Militant] employed. It seemed a bit juvenile at the time … there was a lot of ‘us and them’ within the Labour Party … I remember there was a buzz word of ‘you’re a PB’ – Petty Bourgeois, and that was directed at other sympathisers and supporters …” (Page 38)

Steve Munby interview, 2012:

“I went on the demonstrations. It was very noisy, a bit, if you weren’t part of the fan club, it was a bit unpleasant at times. There were jokes, bit exaggerated by critics but there was a touch of the Nuremburg Rally about some of the stuff outside the town hall and the style of Hatton and other people there I think that is over the top, the real parallel for myself was with the communist take over of Eastern Europe in the late ‘40s.” (Pages 78-79)

Peter Kilfoyle interview, 2012:

“I think there was a load of tosh spoken then as there is now about what Militant were. Militant in its Liverpool manifestation showed many of the features of what had gone before; a sort of protectionism towards their own, placing people in jobs. […] There’s a real sort of small town mentality that was prevalent at the time towards people who came from out of town, unless of course they were Militant. And there were people who were with Militant who started to affect a Liverpool accent. I found this really bizarre … sort of … your authenticity was reflected by how you spoke. […] And it was so, so superficial: a lot of it depended on how you spoke. So if you said, ‘werker’, a la Tony, you’re all right, he’s a worker, working class […] generally, they eschewed anything that would remotely be called an intellectual analysis. It was slogans, not trying to convince people by rational debate, but by clichés more than anything else.” (Pages 126-127)

THE REDUNDANCY ‘TACTIC’… VIA TAXIS

Frost and North:

“On 29 July 1985 a letter from Derek Hatton and John Hamilton to council workers denied what it called ‘mischievous rumours’ that 32,000 redundancy letters had been printed, that vacant posts could not be filled, and spending must stop. The policies of the Labour Council were clear; they argued ‘We will never issue a single redundancy notice. We were elected to protect and create jobs, not to sentence people to a life on the dole.'” (Page 107)

Frost and North:

“However, on 6 September 1985, as the cash crisis deepened the council announced it would issue redundancy notices to all workers and their jobs would cease to exist from December. It saw this as a tactic, as an accounting trick, a way to put pressure on the Labour Party to back them against the government.” (Page 108)

Jerry Spencer interview, 2012:

“It became more and more the sense that, we’d been mobilised, and we’d been marched up the hill to march back down again. I got the idea that we didn’t know what to do in the face of such hostility and such pressure from government. By then I think a lot of the counter voices, the alternative voices, had been stifled or side lined. So, those of us who, in a sense, were part of that hard left, Militant-led movement, we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have the forums in which to discuss it. […] So a lot of us just became foot soldiers who were cannon fodder for this demonstration and that march or whatever.” (Page 112)

Frost and North:

“Sometimes the way things are done can matter more than what is done. On the 27 September 1985, the threatened redundancy letters were issued to all workers with a covering note from John Hamilton and Derek Hatton explaining the situation. The council argued this gave the Government three months to come up with a solution: if this materialised, the letters would be withdrawn. Some notices were given out at work, but some were infamously delivered in taxis. Derek Hatton argued that the use of taxis for important post that could not be given out at work was in fact a regular occurrence.” (Page 114)

MILITANT CLASS UNITY-AT-ALL-COSTS

Frost and North:

“Militant opposed any policy that singled out particular oppressed groups (whether this was around race, gender, disability or sexuality), as they argued it would undermine the working class unity they felt was needed to change society for the better. […] The appointment of Sam Bond to Principal Race Relations Adviser in 1984, laid bare the tensions and disagreements over equal opportunities. Bond’s Militant affiliations resulted in him being offered the job by fellow Militant and Deputy Leader and Chair Derek Hatton, though Bond’s political affiliations had not been disclosed to the rest of the panel. […] As a campaign of opposition to Bond’s appointment intensified, it led to the splitting of the Labour group and the ultimate undermining of Militant’s broader-based support.” (Page 128)

Ian Lowes (Militant) interview, 2012:

“When you take a city like Liverpool with high unemployment and you embark upon positive action or whatever you call it, that fuels [the] fires of fascist organisations like BNP, and NF.” (Page 132)

Sam Semoff interview, 2012:

“According to Militant ideology, discrimination is solely based on class. They simply refused to acknowledge that a person could be discriminated because they were black or female.” (pg 135)

Sam Semoff interview, 2012:

“Militant had what I consider a very fundamentalist view of Marxism. Their idea was simply you defeat capitalism and you solve all the problems.” (Page 137)

Derek Hatton (Militant) interview, 2012:

“The biggest tactical error that we ever made was appointing Sam Bond.” (Page 155)

Frost and North:

“The appointment of Sam Bond was one of a number of controversies that backfired and fed into the undermining of Militant’s leadership in Liverpool during these years. In addition, allegations of bullying and intimidation formed another strand that would damage Militant’s standing in Liverpool in general […].” (Page 155)

Frost and North:

“Tunde Zack-Williams had been involved in the Liverpool 8 community and as an academic and left activist, had written and published on race in Liverpool. For him, Bond’s appointment was ‘an insult to the city’. Firstly, Bond had been given the job of Principal Race Relations Adviser because ‘race was not important’ and was indicative of Militant’s perspective that saw the working class in ‘monolithic’ terms with little understanding of the ‘secondary contradictions of capitalism’ that came out of class oppression (namely race and gender amongst others). Secondly, Bond had little or no training in social issues since he was a surveyor.” (Pages 158-159)

Sam Semoff interview, 2012:

“There’s a classic example of the strength of the opposition, the anger and the hostility. There were a number of rallies and marches in support of a council controlled by Militant and its supporters and against what Thatcher was doing, against the Thatcher regime. There was one march which was made up of feeder marches – these were small marches that started off in different parts of the city and converged as they reached City Centre and there was a feeder march from Liverpool 8 going into the main march and I remember being on that feeder march. The anger to the Labour controlled council here in Liverpool was greater than it was towards Thatcher.” (Pages 157-158)

Frost and North:

“For Zack-Williams (interview, 2012), ‘the back community was the most oppressed group’ in Liverpool and as such the Militant leadership ‘should have carried the black population’ […].” (Page 167)

Steve Munby interview, 2012:

“The most significant point is it [the Sam Bond affair] gave sanction to other people on the left to oppose Militant. People felt afraid they if they opposed Militant they would be accused of being right wing.” (Page 165)

BULLYING? ERR, NO, WERKING CLASS CULTURE APPARENTLY

Frost and North:

“Alleged bullying and intimidatory tactics against those who even remotely dissented or challenged what Militant and others were trying to do have been made by some. Such allegations focus on intimidation from rank and file members as well as increasing centralised control exercised through strong individual leaders.” (Page 170)

Frost and North:

“what was seen and described as intimidatory by some, was perceived and understood by others as a form of ‘no-nonsense straight talking’ working class style of doing business.” (Page 177)

Derek Hatton (Militant) interview, 2012:

“You’re talking about lads who had been dockers, who had been firemen who had been building workers who had been print workers. You’re talking about lads who had been as kids, scrapped every day, you’re talking about lads that had been involved in boxing, in football, lads who had been with lads in every single way in Liverpool. You are talking about ordinary Scousers. There is no way in this world that that gang of people were going to sit down there and argue and discuss [in the same way] that they would in the GLC or Islington. That was not going to happen, that was not the type of people we were and there was no way that we could have changed that. The people who were actually really opposed to that was in the Labour Party [and] who made the comments [of intimidation] in the main were people who were not from Liverpool.” (Page 172)

Frost and North:

“Alex Scott Samuel (interview, 2012) was a socialist and member of the DLP. He explains his relationship with Militant as one in which whilst not disagreeing with their policies, particularly the way Militant were fellow ‘socialists opposing the horrendous stance and strategy of Thacherism’, he did however detest what he terms Militant’s style. He argues: ‘the way they worked was totally unacceptable’ citing intimidation and aggressiveness as a tactic that was used, particularly in the DLP, against those who disagreed or challenged their views. This was not aimed at the right wing elements, but against fellow socialists […] much of this became personalised.” (Pages 172-173)

STALINISED (DEMOCRATIC) CENTRALISM AND ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM

Jerry Spencer interview, 2012:

“What made me never join was the democratic centralism, that line, you know, there was no scope for dissent, there was no scope for exploring new ideas, different ideas and I think this was the worst of it really, there was no scope for exploring why things had gone wrong, why things weren’t working and a denial that things weren’t working. There’s no reflection within the organisation.” (Page 175)

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.