All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls

Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism

While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:

“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”

“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”

In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls

Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:

“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.

A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.

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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)


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.


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.


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.


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.