June 24, 2021 | 15 minutes read | Tags: The British Left

Patriarchal Violence in British ‘Marxist’ Parties

The acceptance of (trans)misogynistic abuse and violence serves to alienate women from Communist organising - weakening our movement, and ultimately benefiting the same white supremacist patriarchal capitalist state that we are fighting to abolish!

CW: sexual violence, (trans)misogyny, misogynoir

“Revolutionary organizations, if they are genuine, must automatically expel any member who engages in anti-women violence and abuse. Organizations that fail to do this cannot be taken seriously and must be publicly exposed for their liberalism in failing to oppose male chauvinism. (…) For Marxist-Leninists, “rectification” and “criticism/self-criticism,” without a policy of expulsion, often becomes the same liberal process with a different name. In contrast, zero tolerance for male chauvinist violence and abuse must be the principle, meaning automatic expulsion and, depending on the circumstances, public exposure. This is the only way to forge organizations that are developing the actuality of women’s emancipation, not just talking about it as an appealing idea."

- On Standard of Feminist Conduct, The Center for Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Studies

In their statement, the CMLMS identifies the plague of patriarchal violence in the Communist movement, tracing some of its political origins. They note organisations such as SWP — with the 'Comrade Delta' scandal. To this list, we can also add the YCL and the RCG — whose cover up of sexual abuse resulted in the resignation of a number of people who went on to become some of Red Fightback's founding members.

We are specifically concerned with these parties because they proclaim to adhere to the principles of democratic centralism.

Our own organisation has not been spared from incidents of patriarchal violence. We publicised our expulsion of abuser Jordan, and several subsequent incidents have also resulted in expulsions. Indeed, there has never been an incident of patriarchal abuse brought to the attention of the Central Committee or raised through our Welfare & Complaints process that has not resulted in the expulsion or resignation of the accused member. This remains true whether the complaint originated internally or externally.

Other parties simply had to apologise, remove those involved, and actually work and make plans to combat the problem of patriarchal violence. Instead they back down and partake in a culture of denial — “counter-organising."

Well-documented by the Salvage Research Collective, the problem of abuse amongst various organisations in Britain is rarely handled correctly. It is time we all start paying attention to the trend.

The British ‘left’ has a problem: it fails to understand and combat patriarchal violence.

Misogyny, transmisogyny, misogynoir — and all variations of such — inevitably lead to abusive cultures and structures when left unchecked. This is the case for members and especially leadership of 'left-wing' organisations, no matter how Marxist such organisations claim to be.

An outsider looking in at Britain’s Communist landscape would see that it is in a sorry state of affairs. Many allegations of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and sexual violence have been brought to light in the past few years, although this is surely not a recent phenomena.

Whilst these are frequent occurrences in British society, Red Fightback expect all Communist parties to be actively preventing and confronting these problems — by developing anti-abusive principles of conduct, thoroughly investigating complaints, and properly applying democratic centralism.

If an organisation is to truly fight for the liberation of women and gender-nonconforming people, structures must be in place to ensure their utmost safety. Parties must adopt a zero-tolerance policy that guarantees the automatic expulsion of abusers.

Communist parties must be actively fighting against patriarchy.

The Basics

Patriarchy is a social system which primarily places power in the hands of men. Men will prevail in roles of political leadership, social privilege, and control of property. In British society (and in the imperial core more broadly), patriarchy is also shaped by cisnormativity and heteronormativity — the placement of cisgender, heterosexual men as the ideal and the default. Opposition to patriarchy must include opposition to the gender binary and its oppression of LGBT+ people and women.

Patriarchy’s presence is felt in absolutely all parts of British society, and intersects with other oppressive ideologies such as white supremacy and ableism.

Marxist feminism is a helpful framework to understand the development of gender as a social structure. The classification of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ isn’t something that occurred naturally, but because of economic and material conditions. Gender is a tool which capitalism uses to extract value.

“Gender relations are not natural but historical — tied to cycles of accumulation and crisis and the political struggle against them," Pinko explain.

Silvia Federici traces an origin of patriarchal violence to the witch-hunts endemic to early capitalism. Abortion and ‘deviant’ sexualities were deemed to be ‘witchcraft’, serving as justification for an array of violent repercussions.

By subordinating women to a lower and more exploitable class, their work was devalued, with this devaluation being justified as ‘natural’! This in turn conjured up the idea of all women as ‘naturally’ caring and sensitive — and therefore less worthy of payment. Devaluation was seen as a necessity by the capitalist class for the primary accumulation of value they needed to develop industry.

With reproductive work — or, domestic work — now essentially devalued and unpaid, the only work of value (which would receive pay) was that which would produce value for the bourgeoisie. The gender ‘woman’ was now, ‘naturally’, the people who would cook, clean, feed and raise children — unpaid for — whilst the gendered ‘man’ was the paid worker.

The job of a ‘woman’ was to support a ‘man’ in his role, so that all his labour-power could be used by the capitalist to produce greater value and profit.

This gender binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is inherently oppressive. Those who do not neatly fit into the binary are subject to particular violence — such as the medically unnecessary (though, for the patriarchal system, ideologically and culturally necessary) surgeries performed on babies identified as intersex in order to force them into the dichotomous sexual classification of ‘male’ or ‘female’.

The existence of LGBT+ communities who, not only in theory but in material practice, reject the gender binary and its associated compulsory heterosexuality, is punished with homophobia and transphobia.

As Monique Wittig wrote, we must take a materialist feminist approach to women’s oppression, to destroy the idea that ‘women’ are a “natural group.”

Whilst the material conditions of women and gender-nonconforming people today differ from those at the advent of capitalism, the deep-rooted problem of patriarchy is still prevalent.

Capitalism strengthened and reinforced this system. A socially and economically reinforced gender binary makes gender-based oppression possible.

Pinko explain in their manifesto:

“The current gender regime is the index of a particular configuration of class power (…) partially liberated (…) while nonetheless maintaining the entire coercive social infrastructure required to ensure it takes place no matter what. The sexual or gender freedom we possess is nothing but the freedom to reproduce the current social order.”

Globally, people of all genders perform both reproductive and productive labour. Colonised and working-class women are often productive workers and wage-earners.

It’s important to note the way that gender is raced and classed, especially because today’s ‘freedom’ is mostly afforded to white cisgender women. Bourgeois white men and women are viewed as the ideals of 'real' or 'correctly' gendered existence, with everyone else falling short (in varying ways and to varying degrees).

The expansion of patriarchy has racist colonial roots. Maria Lugones explains that “(c)olonized females got the inferior status of gendering as women, without any of the privileges accompanying that status for white bourgeois women.” Maria continues, “white women constitute a subordinated but privileged class under the control ("protection") of white men.” White women have had the opportunities to gain privileges by appealing to “reactionary white manhood,” which “is ultimately defined in terms of control of women.”

This forced gendering was in many cases accompanied with extreme violence. With womanhood being reserved for white women, women of colour are excluded, and still subject to a particular violence.

Reproductive labour today is often outsourced to working class women of colour, which is both a consequence of, and a cause of, reproductive labour’s further devaluation. Angela Davis explains that “household work is considered degrading because it has been disproportionately performed by Black women,” but also, in a “catch-22 situation,” the degrading stereotypes of Black women are “repeatedly confirmed by the degrading work they are compelled to do.”

Structures of oppression intersect and compound, as we see from the consistently high numbers of trans women of colour murdered each year — with a significant percentage of recorded victims being Black/Indigenous/colonised people, engaged in sex work, and/or resident in the Global South.

The YCL frequently takes the position that nothing can be done about patriarchy or other forms of oppression until 'after the revolution'. This line treats patriarchal revolutionaries as essential, and feminist revolutionaries as disposable. Effectively, it says that the revolution requires rapists and abusers and murderers; that existing contradictions among the people must be sustained in order to concentrate all forces against the 'primary' contradiction.

With regards to the SWP, the CMLMS notes "the causal link between the British Trotskyist's class reductionist line and male chauvinist practice."

Any line like this will fail to struggle against a capitalism that is racial capitalism; that is patriarchal; that is anti-Black; that is ableist, homophobic and transphobic. This line will therefore fail to struggle against actually-existing capitalism at all.

Red Fightback understand that, as explained by Ashley J. Bohrer, “capitalism requires multiple kinds of exploitation, multiple forms of dispossession, and multiple kinds of subjects in order to gain global hegemony.”

Whilst some ‘Communists’ seem to prioritise liberation for a small portion of people, namely white heterosexual cisgender men, we understand the duty of the vanguard to be to fight for the liberation of all oppressed people.

We believe that the way to prevent patriarchal violence is to have anti-patriarchal organising.

As part of the work of Red Fightback’s Anti-Patriarchy Caucus, we wanted to explore what is going wrong: why there is little investigation into, and such a tolerance of, abuse in Communist parties. We spoke to comrades who have experienced these incidents firsthand.

From these conversations, we noticed particular themes emerging:

Lack of education around party structure

In our work towards the formation of the vanguard, it's our duty as a Communist party to be at the forefront of combating oppressive behaviour.

Red Fightback’s Code of Conduct states how "opposition to oppression must be both in Red Fightback spaces and outside of them. Members cannot claim to oppose oppression in Party contexts whilst operating oppressively outside; consistency and authenticity is needed. Members must perpetuate liberatory practices in every area of their lives to the best of their ability."

There must be education around the conduct principles of any party. The act of writing down and communicating those principles is in itself valuable, and helps to reinforce and reproduce them. A Code of Conduct, and transparency in the party structures which enforce this conduct, is vital to our organising.

In order for a party to be truly democratic and for there to be a way to hold members to account, the workings of that party must be documented, open and understandable by all members.

Comrades we spoke to mentioned that, when joining other parties, they were not told about complaints processes at all — and that there was no education about party structures. One comrade told us how when they joined YCL last year, ‘Britain’s Road to Socialism’ was the only ‘educational’ material provided. No mention of their complaints process.

With no real education on how a party functions, and what their core beliefs are — who should members contact if they encounter abusive or otherwise unacceptable behaviour? Could they have confidence that their complaint would be handled thoroughly? This is an uncertainty that can be, and has been, taken advantage of.

For example, a comrade told us about an incident of sexual abuse within one party. Without clearly communicated expectations of conduct principles, and without documented processes for handling complaints, newer members to that party couldn’t raise the issues that they witnessed, and could not point to an agreed-upon standard of conduct on which to base their criticisms.

The lack of transparency of party structures strongly contributed to both the initial cover-up of the abuse, and also to the mishandling of the fallout. Any potential abuses of power within the organisation could be obscured. New members to that party wouldn’t be sure how to raise issues with other members’ conduct from day one! And, even when issues are raised, structures aren’t in place to hold abusers accountable.

How can these problems be addressed, when manifestations of patriarchy aren’t even recognised as a problem?

For a decision to be democratic it must be clear who is making the decision and what process they went through to make it. Unclear party structures will inevitably lead to a failure of democracy. Therefore, transparency of party structure is vital.

Members of any organisation must be well-informed on how to complain about unprincipled conduct, and be confident that the issue will be resolved. A party’s conduct must be clear-cut, with clear actions to be taken when members do not uphold this.

Instead of putting energy into avoiding and covering up abuse, everything must be done to mitigate the chances of any abuse of power occuring in the first place.

As we take action to mitigate these issues, Red Fightback has developed a Code of Conduct. This is available to all members as soon as they apply to join the party, and is being published, publicly, alongside this article. We ensure that all members, however new, understand where to go for help, and what principles our party is built upon.

Though we haven't perfected anything — and our entry process has changed, grown, and developed along with the party itself — we are continually trying to improve on this front. We strive to ensure that applicants to the party have the opportunity to get to know their fellow branch members, as well as working alongside them and comrades in other branches. We also create opportunities to discuss with new members our lines on patriarchy, gender, and what it means to be in solidarity with marginalised people – putting liberation into practice.

This is just one preventative measure to tackle not only patriarchal abuse, but all unacceptable and oppressive behaviour. Our practices develop as we build.

It is essential to connect the political line of an organisation to its organisational practice. Mao writes that "[c]adres are a decisive factor, once the political line is determined."

Organisations will surely encounter 'bad apples', regardless of their political line. Identifying and dealing with them is an organisational task, one that can be made easier by effective training and discipline. Without a good political line, good cadre, training and discipline become completely ineffective.

With unclear party structures and an incorrect political line, YCL’s attempt to pass off as 'Marxist feminism' needs to be exposed in order for it to be effectively treated.

Lack of open criticism

Criticism and self-criticism should be expected of all party cadre, and there should be no position within a party that absolves a comrade of criticism.

Our comrades who witnessed the mishandling of sexual abuse cases in other parties reported that, far from this being an opportunity for open criticism and discussion, any dissent was shut down. When the incident mentioned in the last section occurred, members were told — by other party members — to simply resign if they had a problem with their party’s reaction to sexual abuse.

Instead of having a clear reporting structure, ‘dissenting’ members were asked to speak to leadership about incidents in private. The alternative was to raise criticisms at large meetings. With a leadership and membership that clearly do not recognise the problem of misogyny, it is understandable that this would be incredibly uncomfortable. This ultimately led members of that party to leave.

With the only avenues for raising criticisms of conduct or theory being unsatisfactory, in practice only those who agreed with the party line were likely to speak. A large meeting of many party members, the majority of whom would not be receptive to the criticisms offered, is not a welcoming space to raise concerns.

The purpose of criticism is to grow as an organisation and as individuals. To stifle criticism is reckless, and will allow cultures of abuse to thrive.

To show how Red Fightback handles criticism, we can give the example of our Anti-Patriarchy Caucus. The caucus was previously formed as an LGBT+ Caucus – allowing in and focusing on a private identity-based group. That structure was criticised for replicating bourgeois divisions of people, and perpetuating marginalisation within each Caucus group. This comrade’s criticism led to the caucus' transformation.

Whereas previously this work would fall primarily on those experiencing this marginalisation, this caucus structure is now centred on a commitment to struggling against particular areas of material oppression – an intersectional material struggle. No longer being identity-specific, this formation removes the internal party dynamic where straight cisgender men would not involve themselves in women’s and LGBT+ people’s struggle. The caucus’ purpose is to theorise and educate around patriarchy, and how patriarchy manifests.

Our goal is to develop a critical culture, so that every part of the organisation is always up for discussion. Constant criticism is how a party should grow, avoiding cesspits of reactionary thought. In preparation for our next congress, party members have been tasked with critiquing, tearing down, and rewriting our constitution, line by line. Although just one manifestation, this allows comrades an opportunity to criticise any part of the organisation, down to its own skeleton.

“A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses.”

– Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder

Acceptance of transphobia and transmisogyny

“Violence is enacted against trans women to oppress them, to keep them in a position from which reproductive labor is easily extracted, to use them as an example to cis women of what they don't want to experience, and to provide an underclass below cis women. With trans women in this position, cis women have an example of what not to be, a floor they cannot sink beneath, and a reason to be ‘acceptable’ or participate in gender structures in a way that supports cis men (and by extension capital)” – Reclamation and Survival, Introduction to Material Feminism

Biology and gender are conceptualised and linked in such a way as to justify and naturalise the system of unpaid reproductive labour. To cement it further requires pathologising and oppressing those who breach the bounds of sex or gender categories. Organisations that foster transmisogyny fail to support all women, by failing to understand how gender and patriarchy work. Without an adequate understanding of reproductive labour, they fail to challenge the way patriarchy works under capitalism.

All of our comrades with experience in other parties pointed to an open culture of transmisogyny. YCL (with their ‘Women’s Commission’) and the CPB (along with their newspaper Morning Star) both seem to agree that trans women deserve to be subject to sexual violence, specifically in bathrooms.

A ‘Women's Commission’ that is so preoccupied with transmisogyny as to spend a bulk of its energy pushing more marginal subjects of patriarchal violence as acceptable sexual sacrifices, needs to consider the relationship between its own complicity in legitimating sexual violence and the culture of patriarchal exploitation that plagues the wider organisation.

Our comrades were shocked by the amount of time spent on belittling and dismissing trans struggles, and on repeating lies that would more commonly be found in the right-wing press. Such a culture of exploitation surely cannot be trusted to dismantle this patriarchal capitalist system.

RAS explain that the liberation of trans women and so-called “girls you can hit” would “invert the gendered class structure of the empire and strike a critical blow to the control of ‘protected’ women that reactionary men depend on” for social reproduction.

Instead, backwards British parties reproduce classist falsehoods, such as the belief that the working class are ‘inherently transphobic’. This is textbook TERF ideology — like the inexplicable claim that trans rights are supposedly ‘in opposition with women’s rights’.

One of our comrades mentioned that, in one British Communist party, cisgender women had been tokenised by the majority cisgender male membership; with their presence being used to confirm that the party was ‘female-friendly’. This tokenisation exists in the absence of any theoretical or conduct position that would actually result in the liberation of women.

Comrades also mentioned that as well as having anti-abortion views, parties had specifically anti-trans policies. This comes as no surprise, especially from a party like the CPGB-ML. As of May 2021, the most popular article on their website is a speech from a member of their central committee mentally somersaulting in an attempt to explain that gender fluidity is reactionary.

Another comrade mentioned how, at a CPGB-ML meeting, all of the people preparing the food and cleaning up were women of colour. Clearly the structural issues that push women of colour into the role of domestic workers isn’t being considered.

In line with their plan to wait until 'after the revolution' to solve other contradictions, the YCL oppose unionisation of sex workers.

Some parties also seem to rush to defend the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Soviet Union.

For all these reactionary ideologies to be so normalised is a testament to a party’s inability to tackle the systems of oppression which create this division of labour and undervalue the work of specifically trans women and women of colour.

You cannot eliminate the need for struggle by opposing the struggle.

Comrades, especially our trans comrades, were deeply traumatised by both the experience of being forced to listen and engage with these parties’ bigoted, reactionary and harmful opinions. On top of that, they had to experience leaving the party on such grounds. Rather than engaging seriously with comrades’ concerns, the parties in question shut down criticism, denied comrades’ experiences and, ultimately, pushed their own members into a corner — where they had to either accept this oppression or leave.

“Trans justice must form part of any programme for socialist emancipation. The oppression of trans people is rooted in capitalism’s reliance on a ‘natural’ gender binary to ensure the social reproduction of the total wage-labour system.”

– Red Fightback, Marxism and Transgender Liberation

Trans women must be able to participate fully, safely, and comfortably in democracy. If transmisogyny isn’t even recognised as a problem, how can it be addressed?

Final Thoughts

Is this British Communism? The bar is low.

Tackling patriarchal culture must be central to our work — alongside the struggle against all forms of intersecting oppressions within this capitalist matrix.

For Red Fightback, it is important to call out gender-based oppression when we see it. The acceptance of (trans)misogynistic abuse and violence will only serve to alienate women from Communist organising — weakening our movement, and ultimately benefiting the same white supremacist patriarchal capitalist state that we are fighting to abolish!

As Mao says: “to let things drift if they do not affect one personally; to say as little as possible while knowing perfectly well what is wrong” is mere liberalism.

The struggle against contradictions among the people unites the masses and destabilises capitalism.

Red Fightback will always challenge oppression, whether within our organisation or elsewhere in society. A culture of good-faith criticism is essential for us to work towards liberation.

Red Fightback reject any and all acceptance of misogynistic and transphobic abuse that exists in Britain.

In working towards the formation of the class vanguard, it is our duty to build the society of tomorrow. The society of tomorrow will be free of all gender-based oppression. To end gender-based oppression and violence, we must end the white supremacist capitalist colonial system that creates, upholds and supports it.

For to truly be a revolutionary vanguard, we must fight back for our freedom!