Our struggle is for the liberation of all

November 21, 2013

British socialist Kevin Ovenden comments on some of the recent discussions about oppression and the socialist tradition's commitment to women's liberation.

MY DAD went to sea much of his life. My mum worked, struggled against some bad circumstances and brought up five kids--mostly alone. 

They were Labour people. I remember handing out election leaflets first in 1979. No one else in the family was remotely active. They just voted. But that meant they were of the left, in any serious social/political sense which is other than an essentially lifestyle proclamation by those of us who think we know better than the poor benighted souls living next door.

This all sprang to mind in the course of recent debates about the use of the term "brocialism," part of a cluster of conversations, such as over privilege and oppression, sexism and socialism, and the nature of socialist organization, which are animating sections of the Anglo-American left. If that debate seems dense, it's only because packed into it are some big and broad issues confronting the socialist movement. I hope those debates continue and raise us all to higher levels of clarity.

Mum and dad were far from perfect, including over women's liberation--especially over that, in fact. 

Family friends included seamen from around the world and dockers. Many more male visitors than women. They were disproportionately of the left, in the sense above. Some were even Communists: some from Chile, who were at sea when the coup happened; others from Spain with more scars than the average seaman. Some were from Iran. Most of the family friends were from within a few streets in Hull, East Yorkshire. Those were all white. And all their families were white.

Member the UK union Unison march against budget cuts
Member the UK union Unison march against budget cuts

All were in any meaningful sense on the left--that is, they made some political choices, often only through voting (politics for most people, most of the time is not of the order it is for political activists). They were against the right and had some nice pearls of common people's common sense against the rich, and all that goes with them.

They were also, naturally, far from the new man under socialism. There were a lot of attitudes we all object to. There were others, however, which many would find surprisingly forward-looking from a bunch of men who worked on docks, in timber yards, on ships or trawlers, or just made ends meet, legally or "on the side" in quite a rough part of a northern English port city.

Those people, those men, were--in general--over most things, most of the time, including over notions of women's advancement, rights and equality (though they might not have used that language) better than the average. They were better certainly than the right. They were better than the men who weren't in the union, voted Tory, never lent the neighbors a cup of sugar or 50p for the electricity meter when you were short, and all that--"the selfish bastards" was the Marxist term we used in our family.

If we extend this to "the left" in the sense of people who identify as socialists and Communists around the world today and in history, then everything I have read, heard firsthand or secondhand, or seen depicted tells me they are and were better than the average.

WHY IS this relevant to whether it is a good idea to deploy a sarcastic term, brocialism, specifically for sexist left-wing men?

First, it goes without saying that for those of us seeking the greatest transformation in the history of our species since it emerged as a species, "not being as bad as the average" is not good enough.

That is, however, missing the point. 

The point is how are we to achieve such a transformation, and does the growth of the left and of socialists' weight in society assist in that or merely reproduce forms of oppression--perhaps in specifically left-wing ways. The idea that socialism creates its own forms of oppression, a new tyranny, is not restricted to a few right-wing ideologues; it remains a large part of the "common sense" of capitalist society.

Second, the struggle of the oppressed against their oppression is critical, and not some epiphenomenon. The movements of the 1960s did have immense political effect. The effect would not have happened without them. Where did they have most effect in terms of changing attitudes? On the left--narrowly defined (self-identified socialists) and more broadly (and more significantly, if we base our politics on the potential movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority).

For sure, there were many arguments--not least over entrenched attitudes about women's oppression. But the left advanced those arguments and positions, even if there were elements resistant to 1968. The right did not. The right sought to throw back all, even if it later embraced attenuated notions of empowerment while promoting social counterrevolution.

So third: Left and right matters. And that central distinction risks being obscured, as I see it, in this debate: both by abstracting from that determining feature of political life, and by regarding "the left" as some kind of club of activists, rather than, in its political sense, something that is part of and arises from the social--from the "better part" of the working class and oppressed sections of society through their lived struggles.

As Marx and Engels, in the language of their time, put it in their foundational Communist Manifesto:

The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:

1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."

NOW, A sense of absolute scale, proportion and perspective is crucial to politics. It would be terribly destructive to escalate every local disagreement to some clash of high principles. But often, people appeal to more general positions in the course of a particular argument--such as whether it's a good idea for socialists to start talking about "brocialism."

Additionally, I think there's a general philosophical principle which it would be useful for us on the left to adopt, not over everything, but definitely when debating with one another in what are quite fractious times: the principle of charity or of charitable interpretation. Put simply, it means, certainly in this context, placing the best possible construction on an opposing argument and on the intentions of those advancing it. Seeking the most charitable interpretation of opposing views on the left would go a long way towards better, more accessible and more clarifying debates.

The right is different: we should be attuned to every coded meaning and barely muted malevolence buried in everything they think, do and say--right down to the punctuation. In terms of style, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once beautifully made the point that sarcasm and mockery directed against our rulers is a wonderful weapon, but when turned on one another, it represents a negative narcissism bordering on the elitist.

What are the arguments put forward for popularizing the use of the term "brocialism"? Ben Silverman, who coined the term, says at one point, "[I]t's just a silly little meme-like joke and insult designed to be hurled at sexists who falsely claim they are acting in the interest of socialism."

In online discussions, those objecting to the term have then been said to be either getting hot and bothered about nothing more than a frippery, or being defensive/denialist about a real problem in our own ranks.

At the same time, the other common justification for using the term is that it is a helpful and necessary new word to describe a specific and serious problem of sexism among socialist men (those of us objecting are then also and again denying the problem). Ben, indeed, goes on to say that this kind of behavior on the left is "a trend," and that there must be a struggle to free ourselves from "brocialist influences." 

Richard Seymour is one of the contributors to the debate who wants to have his cake and eat it by bolting the two arguments together.


Richard says that we need look no further to what "brocialism" means than the explanation of its author--i.e., that it was a throwaway with no deeper meaning.

Now, we all, I think, know how words and terms have meanings and associations, or develop them, way beyond the intentions of those who originally coined them. They have histories--and a word's meaning cannot simply be determined by its etymology, its origin. It is determined socially.

 The claim that "brocialism" is not saying that sexism on the left is egregious or greater than in society as a whole suffers from the casuistry which Richard says is evident in those of us who oppose using it.

Two things are happening in creating a new term, rather than, say, referring to "sexism" or "sexism on the left" or something similar (and there is a big difference, sometimes associated with a wider political difference, between talking of a general sexism that may find expression on the left, and a specific form of sexism that marks the left and is characteristic of it in a way it is not of others):

a) It connotes/implies/suggests (all of those are part of "meaning") that there is a problem specific/serious/big enough to warrant it. It does so while separating that problem from the wider social problem of sexism (the word "sexism" is not used directly or with qualification--indeed it is the word "socialism" that is sampled in the new term). It does that in a context of;

b) Detaching the left, and its organized socialist component, from the society at large. Thus, with no comparator and a focus on a problem that is specific and great (if not, why a new term?), the implication is that there is a unique and really big problem.

When the left is seen as an island entirely unto itself, rather than a piece of a continent, then all those layers of meaning above are thickened into a deep crust. 

Richard says that I and others are being circular in our reasoning--assuming that "brocialism" means there is a unique and big(gest) problem, and then setting out to argue that using the word creates an impression which we have in fact already assumed.

But you have only to look at the most common justification in the debates so far for using the term to see that there is no such assumption or circularity: many people (relatively, of course) are saying that there is a unique and big problem necessitating a term which refers to it, and that that is what "brocialism" means.

(Richard places great store in a Facebook response to my original comment which gave rise to this piece on claiming that I play fast and loose with language--while saying I'm doing the opposite--by using the word "specific" at one point and "unique" at another. Looking back at what I wrote, I don't think that holds up--especially as I am referring largely to what others in many comments are saying, rather than to some abstract, natural language logic. And what is being said--widely--is that there is a "specific" problem of a particular sexism on the left and that, perfectly consistently, this problem is "unique" to the left in the sense that its specific features are not found on the "non-left." So there is no sleight of hand. People who are promoting the term are pretty clear what they mean.)

ARGUMENT TWO: That meaning is also the thrust of Richard's second argument. He commends to us an explication by a British socialist, Mark Harvey, that there is a particular form of sexism in socialist organizations which "brocialism" captures as a word and concept--non-trivially.

But the features which Mark's definition says "brocialism" grasps uniquely and usefully are, in fact, the highly specific aspects of an atypical and abominable case in one organization of the British left. Later Mark adds further definitional features in order to extend the scope to other cases.

Now, apart from anything else, this sort of exhaustive process is not a good way to come up with concepts and definitions which are to have any explanatory power or use. It's as if a guest asked you for directions from your home to the city center, and you gave them an album of photographs you'd taken every meter along the route, then pointed them to the door and told them to get on with it--worse the album would be incomplete, with more and more new photos having to be taken further down the route to complete the picture.

More importantly, the features which Mark cites are not constitutive of the left, socialism or socialist organization. So he says there is a problem with excusing or covering up the sexist behavior of socialist men on account of their prominent role in "trade union" or "anti-fascist" campaigning.

 But that would be an issue of hierarchy and bureaucracy (and, of course, the social phenomenon of the oppression of women). It has nothing to do with trade union struggle, anti-fascist campaigning, or the politics and activity of the left.

Those are incidental, inessential. Or are we to say that excusing sexism of prominent men is utterly different, unique in its most germane aspects, in different hierarchies and bureaucracies? So the covering up of sexism among Wall Street traders, for example, is best described as "forexism" or some such, because the locale is different and the particular language of exculpation also? If the problem is sexism and undemocratic, bureaucratic hierarchy, then why not say that that is the problem? Naming something accurately is a part of challenging it.

Instead, the term "brocialism" points towards there being something enabling of the oppression of women in socialist organization or the arguments socialists make. That, indeed, is the claim made several times in this debate. And undergirding that is the suggestion that socialist organizations, in focusing on, say, trade union and anti-fascist campaigning (or some other focus at some other time), tend to downplay and marginalize the question of women's emancipation.

Paradoxically, however, isn't the wholly justified anger at any manifestation of sexism among socialists precisely because the left is expected, on very good experiential grounds, to be a bastion of liberation?

That brings us back to the wider political debate this has kicked off. But before we do, it should be clear that while each of Arguments One and Two is internally consistent, maintaining both is singularly incoherent.

THE MOST widespread interpretation of the thinking of Michel Foucault (who has been referenced elsewhere in this debate) is that it identifies power relations as permeating the whole of society in manifold ways and expressed centrally through interpersonal relations rather than as a result of depersonalized structures. (This is not the place to go into a more subtle discussion of Foucault, whose historical writings I find, notwithstanding fundamental disagreements, contain many rich insights.) 

Politically, it and interpretations of other thinkers often bracketed with him in the late 1970s and 1980s have been taken as support for the view that social struggles are radically different, have different logics and are not ultimately bound together by the overarching exploitative structure of capitalist society or, relatedly for Marxists, by a particular social agency which that structure gives rise to: the working class.

It's not just that there is a range of social struggles--from local campaigns to transnational movements, from abortion rights to health and safety at work. That is trivially true. Nor is it that each struggle poses concrete problems and is not immediately conjoined to others, still less "reducible" to another. That is also a truism in important respects.

It's that any attempt to prioritize or focus on a particular struggle leads to neglecting others to the point where, in the name of fighting against one oppression, others who are oppressed are marginalized, and suffer from a new hierarchy arising perversely out of challenging the old.

Marxism's strategic focus on the working class as an agent of change is a particular target of this critique. The popularized claim is that in so doing, it trivializes, ignores or silences the struggle against specific oppressions--such as sexism.

Further, the argument extends to any prioritization at any time. Now it is true--morally and in other important respects--that socialists (and some who do not call themselves that) are at all times opposed to all injustices and to all oppression. It is also very importantly true that fighting against, or being conscious of, one oppression does not automatically mean the same overall or any of the others. This is a point made forcefully by many in the socialist tradition, no one more so than Lenin.

But that does not help us identify how to most effectively fight against oppression and change society, root and branch. Unless we are content to say that we are personally against all oppression--as if we, too, were islands, and our own was a just and happy Aegean idyll--which no reader here, I take it, thinks, then the question of how to fight and win confronts us all.

THE ANSWER to that is necessarily strategic--whether or not people believe that talk of "strategy and tactics" is merely a veneer for unprincipled lefty maneuvering. That's because there are vast concentrations of power on the other side: the 1 Percent capitalist class, their corporations, media control, police forces, armies and other state structures.

Additionally, there is their purposive intervention into fields of oppression that, though not created through some kind of plot by those above, are ripe for utilization by them, usually through specific political initiatives or projects.

What is striking about racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe today, for example, is not simply that they are frighteningly on the rise--becoming more widespread in society and more radicalized--it's that they are becoming more politicized. They are more a basis for the right in various forms consciously to construct blocs of forces with the aim of entrenching their rule, and behind it, the domination of the corporations, banks and capital. 

The strategic question has been central to the socialist movement. And for the Marxist tradition, it means the exact opposite of relegating one struggle in favor of another, or creating a hierarchy of issues in which something called class trumps, say, fighting for women's liberation or against racism.

Rather, it is about how, at each time, to maximize the potential and advance of a particular front in a way that weakens the central concentration of power on the other side, strengthens every struggle and the capacity of the working class to act as a liberatory force (Marx and Engels' "interests of the movement as a whole"), and creates a deeper understanding among a wider layer of people of the need fundamentally to transform the society as a whole: i.e., more socialists and more effective socialist organization.

A particular struggle can be of such pivotal importance at a particular moment in a way that others aren't, not because socialists have dogmatically privileged it so, but because of a combination of the actions of the other side, the uneven preparedness of our side to resist, and the overall balance of social and political forces.

The centrality of the fight against fascism and racism in Greece today, for example, does not spring from the heads of socialists. It arises from the growth of the neo-Nazis, the sudden eruption of the popular mood against them and the crisis of the governmental parties. All of that means that a successful battle against the fascists has the strategic possibility of shifting the balance dramatically in favor of all fronts of the struggle against exploitation and oppression, and for social transformation.

The urgent priority of winning arguments, and mounting united actions, inside the base of Greek society against racism and fascism does not mean that arguments against women's oppression, for example, are belittled or sidelined. It means engaging those arguments, but crucially seizing the moment to create the conditions in which those arguments will have a wider hearing and greater traction--by throwing huge effort into building an effective movement against fascism.

One reason why socialists do create an environment amenable to challenging all oppressive ideas is that we seek constantly to advance and unify struggles. Another is the general level of education and debates which raise consciousness.

That does not mean immunity from reactionary ideas. And that reasoned understanding, in turn, is no excuse for tolerating oppressive ideas or behavior on the left. On the contrary, they should be argued against, challenged and, if necessary, excluded. But in so far as those ideas and oppressive behaviors are present, they indicate a distance from socialist ideals and practice, not a result of them.

POLITICS--left and right--matters. It's a travesty to say that recognizing there is a fundamental political conflict between left and right is equivalent to or leads to saying we cannot or should not raise a matter of principle because the right might take advantage of it.

I and others objecting to popularizing the term "brocialism" are saying no such thing. The point is how we raise all issues and confront all questions in a way that--in so far as we can--systematically confronts the right and reaction, deals effectively with the issue (in this instance, something "on our side") and strengthens the movement to transform society.

Given a moment's thought, anyone serious on the left would recognize that that is how we seek to respond (and it's one reason why responding is not as simple as saying you are against everything bad).

To give an extreme example--not by way of any kind of analogy, but precisely because it is so stark that it makes the general point that we calibrate how to respond, and what language/terms we deploy, all the time.

There has been a number of high-profile cases splashed over the media in Britain over the last two years about "pedophile gangs." Overwhelmingly--indeed almost exclusively--the media have focused on "Asian [meaning South Asian in Britain] pedophile gangs" or "Pakistani pedophile gangs" or even "Muslim pedophile gangs."

There are Pakistani men, in groups, who have abused girls and young women. Refusing to confront that or denying it would be morally reprehensible, as well as politically stupid.

But would any thinking socialist use the term "Pakistani pedophile gang"? Would we not, as we did in Britain, point out the social causes and ubiquity across ethnic groups of child sexual abuse? Wouldn't we challenge the attempt to scapegoat Pakistanis, while not for one minute apologizing for or minimizing the impact of that abuse? Wouldn't we draw on and popularize the cogent progressive research that locates child abuse socially, instantiated in particular structures, exacerbated by certain oppressive relations--none of which has an ethnic or racial component, though socializing groups of men may well often be more or less ethnically homogeneous?

We did all of that. In other words, we focused what we had to say in a way that was both principled and also recognized that the terrain was highly contested by the right. Indeed, in this instance, we were fighting on terrain largely occupied by the right, with a section of the liberal left wilting under a barrage claiming that the left was in denial about a particular "Pakistani problem," on account of our supposed moral relativism, resulting from "multiculturalism."

A further illustration is when Barbara Bush and Cherie Blair fronted the spurious argument that the U.S.-British war on Afghanistan launched in 2001 was about the liberation of Afghan women.

Were socialists and the antiwar movement right to oppose that argument and instead frame our solidarity with the struggle against appalling women's oppression in Afghanistan within the building of a movement against the war, thus cogently arguing for a genuine path towards the liberation of women and society as a whole in Afghanistan?

Or did the liberal warmongers (they were more relevant over this than the right) have a point: socialists are hypocrites, prepared to sacrifice a terribly oppressed group--women--in the name of a dogma that at best puts off fighting oppression to some unfeasible revolution in the future and at worst re-founds oppression anew?

These examples are not drawn as parallels to an instance of serious sexism in a socialist organization or the development of a repressive political culture therein. The point is general--if we are serious about politics, we take political reality seriously, and we choose our language and emphases accordingly.

SO DOESN'T the above amount to little other than a wordy exercise in making a simple strategic point?

Others can judge how wordy it is. But it is decidedly about socialist strategy. And that entails making judgments resting on a sense of absolute scale, proportion and perspective. Associated with this and related debates are two broadly divergent judgments.

The left is, in most countries, not in the best of shape. In some areas, there is a sense of malaise. In one organization of substance on the far left in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, there is a crisis. It is felt, naturally, particularly acutely by those who have left as a result or who have been, like myself and this website, associated with the tradition of socialist ideas and practice which that organization was central to sustaining and developing.

Now only a fool would seek to close their eyes to that and imagine that intoning various verities will dispel real, objective difficulties, as reciting mantra is supposed to change reality itself.

But one response has been to locate that malaise--more precisely, that particular organization's crisis--deep within the socialist tradition, as it is embodied today, and to conclude that a thoroughgoing critique of that tradition is necessary. The tendency, in my view, is toward a lack of proportion, a conflation of problems and difficulties, which both exaggerates how widespread and rooted those problems are on the left, and fails to explain or offer clearly how to deal with those that do exist, including atypical instances of highly oppressive behavior. It doesn't encourage a process of assessment and renewal, but a negative debate that effaces the good in the name of dealing with the bad.

So, for example, the debate over Ben's word has involved a fair number of people bracketing together serious sexist behavior with people (men, really) on the left arguing crudely that women's oppression will be "solved through socialist revolution." Now, as it stands, that is crude. And because of that, it is wrong. It may even conceal a lack of interest in fighting women's oppression, a here-and-now fight that is central to socialists' vision of revolutionary change. It may certainly, if held for some time and its conclusion drawn out, lead to such indifference or even to (tolerating) sexist interpersonal behavior.

But to treat it as in any way characteristic of socialists, or as of a continuum with sexual assault, or as something that should simply be "called out," as you would call out a colleague, activist or fellow socialist for using sexist language, is mistaken. It is a political argument--a bad and wrong one. It should be dealt with as such--with vigorous argument linked to practical intervention. And in my experience, that is the norm among socialists I have worked with over the years.

That leads to an alternative path resting on a different assessment of where we are. Socialism, the Marxist tradition, is not a closed book. It certainly does not have a way of being in an oppressive society that can prefigure what it would be like to live in a society free of all oppression, though we strive to behave like that as much as we do to achieve it.

So the history of the socialist movement is one of development, through systematic engagement with in at least two other areas. First, with ideas and understandings thrown up by all sorts of people, who provide insights into how the world works and how we can change it for the better, irrespective of whether they are socialists or not.

Only a doctrinaire would say they have nothing to learn from serious thinkers, even if they strongly disagree with the socialist case and central ideas. But it would be naïve to imagine that the socialists have a particular political goal and partisan point of view, but that others do not. To enrich a tradition means standing on that tradition in order fruitfully to engage with others. It also means seeking to defend that tradition, open-mindedly and through constant renewal, rather than pretending you can float free above it all.

There are two ways, not one, of making socialism sound like a religion--one is to act as if it is a closed book, with all the answers contained therein, and you quote it in the face of others and the world itself. The other, apparently conversely, is to refer a lot to a "tradition" as you discuss and engage creatively all sorts of intellectual and political currents, without actually acting on and developing it through those engagements. Such a "tradition" ends up existing, likewise, in dusty texts, like some long lost early Christian church.

Above all, the socialist tradition develops through its active, practical engagement in the struggle for human emancipation--at all levels.

ONE OF the most revolutionary steps of Marx and Engels was to re-found socialist values, aspirations and politics on the actual struggles of the exploited and oppressed. That's not something that needed to happen once, back in the 1840s, and that's it. It has to happen weekly, daily, all the time. It is this, more than anything else, that gives socialism a relevance, an effectiveness--a truth.

Marx famously said that a revolution was necessary not only because it was the only way for the old order to be changed, but also "because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and becomes fitted to found society anew."

Socialists and their organizations are a part of that overthrowing class (unless they are wholly detached--one quality of a sect in the technical, not abusive, sense). Of course, we are, or seek to be, a more conscious part of that class. So general levels of awareness of oppression cannot be alibis for socialists' failure to confront it. Organization means structure and norms of behavior.

But the sense in which we transform ourselves in the course of a transformative struggle has a particular as well as a general meaning for socialists. That is, that we seek to advance our own understanding and socialist "character" (and, therefore, that of the organizations we build) not simply through discussion among ourselves, but through, wherever we can, the practical struggle to transform the world, with all the strategic and political considerations discussed above.

And while it would be a parody of Marxism to say that some organizational issue or issue of behavior with a socialist organization or between its members was really all about "intervention in the class struggle," it is the rooted-ness in and permanent orientation on that struggle and the socialist objective that sets a direction and healthy tone for dealing with all kinds of matters.

This broad choice about where the left goes from here, I believe, informs a lot of the debates we are having now (which is not the same as saying those debates are answered by asserting that dichotomy and choosing one side over the other).

Far from being some incubator of oppressive ideas and practices, or a host for a new species of sexism, which draws on the larger body's proteins and DNA, I believe the socialist tradition has immense resources (by no means all of them and exclusively) in the struggle against women's oppression and for human liberation as a whole. It is something to build on.

That means addressing the flaws and bad accretions to the building, for sure--seriously and honestly. But it does mean standing on the building to add further floors, not knocking it down and ripping up what are solid foundations.

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