This is the third in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Nietzsche provides many of the ideas that are now identified with postmodernism. “I am simply a Nitzschean,” Foucault said. Derrida “not only fosters Nietzsche’s work but evolves it within the sphere of language”. Deleuze evangelised about him to Paris intellectuals in the early 1960s, via his book Nietzsche and Philosophy, while Irigaray “undertakes to interrogate Nietzsche, the grandfather of poststructuralist philosophy, from the point of view of water”.
Nietzsche’s key works cover wide areas of culture and philosophy. His lasting influence derives partly from his scholarship and exciting style; partly from his ability to discern from afar the period of wars and revolutions to come, and the issues they have continued to pose for modern society; and partly from the very general, symbolic way in which he himself posed those issues: this vagueness allows his writings to be applied fairly readily to new situations. While Nietzsche was deeply affected by the events of his times, he responded to them indirectly, through subtle word-play, irony and paradox, and above all by using pseudo-mythic imagery.
Georg Lukács provides the best overview of Nietzsche’s politics and philosophy that I know of, and it forms the basis of this post.*
The historical context
Nietzsche wrote during a time of transition for world capitalism. On the one hand, the system was still expanding, through colonialism and the growing concentration and centralisation of large corporations. Reflecting this, the dominant ideology was one of progress, reason, and science, brought by the superior white races to the primitive Africans, sly Asiatics, and idle, hot-headed Arabs. The world was a good place and steadily getting better. On the other hand there were shadows. One was the gradual intensification of imperialist rivalries. Another was the menace of the working class. In 1871 Germany defeated France in war, but during that war the workers and National Guard of Paris rose in revolution, briefly setting up the worker’s city-state of the Paris Commune. A minority of intellectuals and artists sensed and expressed these shadows, and darker times to come. Among them were philosophers who justified the status quo not as a glorious place, but on the grounds that its evils were permanent features of the human condition.
Nietzsche was part of this latter current. What distinguished him within it was his extreme political agenda. He called for an assault of unbridled savagery against everything progressive and forward-looking, most particularly socialism and the workers’ movement.
When the Paris Commune was put down, with the slaughter of 20,000 working people, Nietzsche wrote:
Hope is possible again! Our German mission isn’t over yet! I’m in better spirit than ever, for not yet everything has capitulated to Franco-Jewish levelling… Over and above the war between nations, that international hydra which suddenly raised its fearsome heads has alarmed us by heralding quite different battles to come. (quoted in Lukács, Destruction of Reason p327)
For Nietzsche, society divides naturally into masters and slaves. Societies that attempt to conceal or deny this fundamental truth have been infected and corrupted by the slave class, and are sickly as a result.
Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour are the shabby products of a slave mentality hiding from its own nature… Wretched the seducers who have deprived the slave of his innocence by means of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge! (quoted in Lukács Destruction of Reason p325)
With its admonitions against rank, acquisitiveness and militarism, Christianity
is no more than the typical teaching of socialists… Behind all this there is the outburst, the explosion of a concentrated loathing of the “masters” – the instinct which discerns the happiness of freedom after such long oppression… (Mostly a symptom of the fact that the inferior classes have been treated too humanely.) (The Will to Power epigram 209 – **see footnote)
Nietzsche fantasised about a Europe ruled by a true-blooded nobility of refined sensibilities and manners, generators and patrons of fine art and literature. Indeed, he thought, if the capitalists had been able to “share the hereditary nobility’s distinction in glance and gesture, then perhaps there would be no socialism of the masses”:
A higher civilization can only come about when there are two distinct social castes: that of the working people and that of the leisured, those capable of true leisure; or, to put it more strongly, the caste of forced labour and the caste of free labour. (quoted in Lukács)
The ideal aristocratic leaders were
the kind of exuberant monsters that might quit a horrible scene of murder, arson, rape and torture with the high humour and equanimity appropriate to a student prank. They would do so in the conviction that the poets would have plenty to celebrate again. Behind all these noble breeds there is no mistaking the beast of prey, the magnificent blond beast in greedy search of spoils and conquest … It is the noble races that have left the word ‘barbarian’ in their tracks wherever they prowled; even their highest culture betrays this awareness and their pride in the fact. (quoted in Lukács)
One quality of this elite, he thought, was to be removed from the understanding of their social inferiors, since “comprendre c’est egaler” – to comprehend is to equalise (Will to Power 943). This might have contributed to his deliberately opaque and misleading language. He also appropriated the concepts, traditions and names of ideological opponents. For example he seeks to transform the meaning of The Enlightenment: in its old form it represented “the spirit of the democratic herd: a universal levelling. The new Enlightenment aims at showing dominant natures the way; inasmuch as to these (as to the State), everything is permitted that is barred to the herd mentality.” (quoted in Lukács)
For a few years, when Germany’s rulers began experimenting with limited parliamentary democracy in the hope of containing worker unrest in the English fashion, Nietzsche steered toward more moderate formulations, without ever losing his underlying commitment to the master/slave dichotomy. As working class struggle intensified in the second half of the 1870s he returned to more openly brutal formulations.
Nietzsche became an inspiration to the Nazis. But he himself was not particularly interested in ethnicity or Aryanism; in this sense he may have been no more racist than the average bourgeois of his day. What singles him out, and provided grounds for fascists to build on, is the vicious notion, emphasised again and again, that humanity is naturally and permanently divided into masters, to whom all is permitted, and a subhuman caste, to whom anything might legitimately be done.
Nietzsche on women
Given all this, it is no surprise to read that
One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant – woman needs strength in order to cleave to it… she makes the strong weak – she rules when she succeeds in overcoming the strong… (The Will to Power 864)
We take pleasure in women as in a perhaps daintier, more delicate and more ethereal kind of creature. What a treat it is to encounter creatures who have only dancing, nonsense and finery in their minds! They have always been the delight of every tense and profound male soul… (The Will to Power 943)
For more of the same see the relevant Wikipedia entry.
Jacques Derrida defends Nietzsche’s position on this score. Derrida’s case is summed up by his admirer Christopher Norris:
If woman is indeed the antithesis of truth, the very principle of unreason, then she can only be counted as an ally in Nietzsche’s crusade against the great system-building male philosophers, from Plato to Kant to Hegel… Thus Derrida can claim – “perversely” one might think, but as the upshot of a close exegesis – that Nietzsche is not only ambivalent in his attitude to woman but can even be read as a crypto-feminist resisting all attempts to bypass or sublimate the question of sexual difference. (Christopher Norris, Derrida, Fontana London 1987, p202, 203)
Nietzsche and postmodernism
Nietzsche’s politics are not, of course, shared by the postmodernists, who have tended toward liberal stances when dabbling in concrete issues. Foucault, for example, supported prison reform, while Derrida opposed apartheid in South Africa. They seek to explain away Nietzsche’s bestial political agenda, using pitiful rationales of the kind supplied by Norris. In doing so they are helped by the fact, already mentioned, that Nietzsche’s political program comes down to us softened and partially disguised by word-play, paradox and ambiguity, like a fist seen through mottled glass.
What the postmodernists really take from Nietzsche is not his political program but his philosophy, which offers a point-by-point attack on the underpinning ideas of Marxism. This is why they are willing to draw so heavily on someone who was also a forerunner of the Nazis. Nietzsche’s philosophy will be the topic of the next post in this series.
*Lukács published The Destruction of Reason in 1952. The book traces the history of the major irrationalist currents of thought over the preceding two centuries,up to the rise of Nazism. In the early 1920s Lukacs made important contributions to Marxist theory through books such as History and Class Consciousness. Afterwards he bent the knee to Stalin. The Destruction of Reason is nonetheless one of the most useful I have come across for understanding the background to postmodernism. Fortunately the chapter on Nietzsche is available free online.
**The Will to Power is a long list of numbered epigrams. Since these stay the same between different editions of the book, they are handier to use than page numbers. The exact wording changes, of course, between different translations. The epigrams quoted above were taken from an old edition, TN Foulis London 1910. The Will to Power was published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister, leading to allegations that she meddled with the text to advance her more explicit racism and more focused commitment to German imperialism. The text of The Will to Power is however completely consistent with the rest of Nietzsche’s works on the issues of class and the nature of women.
This is the second in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Postmodernism arose from the intersection of two trends. One was the onset of hard times economically as the long post-world war 2 boom finally came to an end. Profits were increasingly being made not by expanding production but by sackings, by welfare cuts, by intensifying the work process, and by cannibalising the system itself, running down and/or selling off public infrastructure. In this climate personal life and relationships became harsher.
It came at the end of the social protest era of the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather than boosting those protests, it played a key role in snuffing them out. Unemployment lowered workers’ bargaining power and confidence to act; the union officials were won to the need to defend the “national interest” instead of their members’ living standards. So just as things were getting worse, the vision of something qualitatively better, of revolution or liberation, faded. Horizons narrowed. The new neoliberal world of austerity might be rotten, it might be going nowhere, but it was the world, nothing could exist beyond it.
It was not so rotten for everyone. A new middle class did rather well out of it, including former student activists who moved into well paid jobs. Neoliberalism was empty, visionless; we were plainly steering toward ecological disaster, with no-one at the wheel; “reform” was now double-speak for regression; but for some, the money rolled in. The cynicism of former activists resonated with much wider sections of the new middle class, particularly in the public sector most exposed to cost-cutting and privatisation .
Success in the new middle class, the middle layers within public and corporate bureaucracies meant cultivating and maintaining connections within professional networks and negotiating more complex corporate hierarchies. In this world, personal appeal was increasingly useful as a tool of trade; it had a growing cash value. One of the effects of this was to produce a “narcissistic obsession with the body, both male and female”. Self-cultivation, “forming oneself into a particular kind of person”, became an art form. (Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, pages 162-172; the quotes are from page 169).
Postmodernism was the worldview that emerged from this social layer. The core ideas of this worldview are a point-by-point challenge to the central ideas of Marxism, the great enemy that must be brought down. But in the process it also cut across core elements of any theory of liberation, including that of radical feminism.
Antihumanism and the “death of the subject”
Marxism shares with liberalism a belief in the dignity of the human personality, the sense that there is a universe within every mind, which deserves freedom to flourish. For Marxism, this humanist vision can only be achieved by the collective class struggle and workers’ revolution, but once real communism is attained each personality will have vast potential for further development. Postmodernism denies this.
Like Marxism, it emphasises the role of external social forces in shaping people’s interior lives, but in the case of postmodernism this takes the extreme form of removing the human personality entirely as a point of focus. People are not twisted by an alienated society. There is nothing to be twisted. Working people’s inner lives are not cramped and contorted by class oppression, nor are women’s inner lives cramped by sexual oppression. There is nothing there to be cramped, stunted or distorted.
This denial of personal depth is concurrent with the seemingly contradictory theme of self-cultivation. In reality, self-cultivation is a for the new middle class, depersonalisation is for the swinish multitude.
Humans have no agency
Closely related to this “death of the subject” is people’s lack of agency, lack of capacity to change the world. Liberalism says individuals are active agents who can change their personal situation and sometimes society as a whole. Marxism says working people can change the world when they act together as a class. Postmodernism says people are inert chess pieces moved about by objective forces (language in the case of Derrida, power-knowledge for Foucault) which they can never bring under collective human control.
Surface not depth
The superficiality of people is mirrored in society. While Marxism says the appearance of society conceals the fundamental struggle of workers and capitalists, postmodernism says that society has no hidden depths. Everything exists on the surface.
Postmodernism is idealist in the philosophical sense of asserting the primacy of ideas over the material world. The factory, stock exchange and police truncheon fade from view: power is only about language – “discourse”. Within discourse lurks something that plays the role of God: it shapes what people think and do, but is not, in turn, shaped in any decisive way by human action. Discourse shapes us but we don’t shape it: we are forever imprisoned within it.
Postmodernism says that the world cannot be understood via reason. In fact it can’t really be understood at all, so we can’t change it in any significant way. Ideas are playthings for academic presentations, popular books and dinner party chat. The deliberately confusing language common in academia, that pretends to profound wisdom you are just too stupid to grasp, is celebrated and taken further here.
The old slogan one struggle, one fight – the notion that only in unity do we have the power to overthrow capitalism, is seen by postmodernists like Foucault as a sinister move to “theorise the totality” – to capture and control people’s entire way of thinking for your own gain. By proposing a comprehensive worldview, the postmodernists say, Marxists only reveal their lust for total domination, as evidenced in Stalinist Russia.
The groundwork for transgender ideology
Postmodernism feeds into the most conservative aspects of trans ideology. Women’s cumulative personal experience, that constitutes such an important aspect of their oppression under current society, is dispensed with. The body matters, not the personality. Sexuality is simply about bodies and pleasures. And the body, like the rest of the material world, is what we choose to make it.
The next posts will look at two ideological currents that the postmodernists draw on – the ideas of Nietzsche and the structuralism of the 1960s.
If you identify as a girl, assigned female at birth, and you like the colour pink, you like wearing dresses and sparkly things, that’s awesome. But if you are a boy who likes pink sparkly things that’s also awesome.
It’s not a case of saying, let’s break everything down so that there’s nothing, so there’s no meaning in anything. It’s a case of opening it up so everybody can have access to everything.
These are comments from CJ Atkinson, author of the new book Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? They are quoted in a promotional article in the The Guardian , which explains that the book is “being introduced into some [British] primary schools as a resource for children, parents and teachers, and claims to be the first book to explain ‘medical transitioning’ to children as young as seven.” The article comfortably notes criticisms of the book from right wing sources. It adds:
The 60-page booklet is the latest in the Can I Tell You About …? series of books published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers which are designed to offer a simple introduction to sometimes complex and challenging issues, including adoption, autism, depression, eating disorders and ME/chronic fatigue syndrome.
The book is therefore part of a continuing push to normalise transgender identity and conceal its elite-driven origins and its ideological underpinnings.
Like many if not most people viewing this article, I do not expect to read the book. The article itself is of interest, though, as a stand-alone item, particularly the comments quoted above from Atkinson. They could be read as progressive in intent: the first sentence designed just to soothe traditional-minded parents, and the rest a call to free both girls and boys from any kind of sex-stereotypic pressures. Or they could be read as articulating the conservatism of trans ideology: pinkification is a free choice females make, and something to celebrate; “access to everything” only means access to the alternative stereotype; females remain forever handcuffed to femininity, and males to masculinity.
So, is the message in these quoted comments progressive or conservative? How about “progressive” and conservative. Rather than wonder what exactly Atkinson had in mind, it is more useful to see the article as continuing the mass media tradition of appealing simultaneously to multiple audiences around the issue of transgender, to offer something for everyone. Left-liberals who still feel some uneasiness about the stereotyping inherent in trans ideology are soothed with vague suggestions that all is well. More traditionalist readers are assured that this strange new trend does not really threaten their core values.
There are two ways of justifying the status quo. On one hand, you say how great our society is, apart from a few temporary hiccups and/or malcontents on the margins. Or you can go on about how rotten everything is, adding at once that this rottenness is not caused by class, oppression etc, but is an inevitable part of every society. Georg Lukacs put it this way:
Whereas direct apologetics was at pains to depict capitalism as the best of all orders, as the last, outstanding peak in mankind’s (sic) evolution, indirect apologetics crudely elaborated the bad sides, the atrocities of capitalism, but explained them as attributes not of capitalism but of all human existence and of existence in general. (The Destruction of Reason pages 202-203. Merlin Press 1980)
The first approach flourishes when things are going well for the system, and is the stock-in-trade of mainstream right wing politicians. The second approach gathers strength during times when social and economic problems are pressing, and hard to explain away. Postmodernism is in this latter tradition. Its sneering quality sets politicians’ teeth on edge, but its main social impact has been to engage with people deeply discontented by the current social order, only to pull them toward cynicism and passivity. Postmodernist ideas have had a powerful impact over the neoliberal era, fitting well with a time when people have usually felt powerless to change a hateful world. But it has in turn helped to entrench that era by making it seem unchallengeable.
Today a new era of protest is unfolding, and the central political task is to throw ourselves into support for the new movement rising to its feet against Trump and his ilk. But postmodernism’s legacy of cynicism and passivity is one force holding back the new movement, and needs to be confronted.
This is the first in a series of posts about postmodernism. This post looks briefly at the social conditions from which postmodernism emerged.
The historical background
The postwar boom culminated in the heady years of the late 1960s and early 70s. Sustained economic expansion and high employment had brought confidence in the future; it had also brought more complex jobs that required greater education. This education made the rising generation more aware of social and political evils; they applied concepts of liberty more widely than capitalist ideologists even intended; they were impatient with the economic anxieties of their parents which seemed out of date. Women entered the workforce and learned that they were just as good as men, while the pill gave them greater, if sometimes exaggerated, freedom. Campaigns against racism, the Vietnam War, and conscription, and campaigns to support national liberation struggles, coincided with a period of strong bargaining power for workers. When western governments tried to crush unions through state-wide political attacks, they responded with mass, political strikes that politicised vast numbers of workers, including countless individual women and gays. The Women’s and Gay Liberation movements arose from this background, as activists applied the concept of liberation to challenge their own oppression. A popular slogan was “one struggle, one fight” – against the System, against the Establishment and for Revolution: whatever that word meant exactly, it was attainable. At the same time, carried on these deeper currents, there was cultural change. Phoniness and superficiality were despised. Long hair on men, absurdist humour and irony could all be seen as political challenges to a stiff, straitlaced society.
The cultural relaxation lasted, and women continued to enter the workforce. But in most ways things started going backwards in early 1970s. The campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription came to an end. The long boom ended in 1974-5: union leaders turned on their memberships, closing down industrial action “in the national interest”. As workers lost confidence bosses pressed their new advantage, making ever more aggressive demands. Rank and file organisation withered as unions became more centralised and bureaucratic. Strike levels collapsed: millions upon millions of working people ceased to experience collective struggle. Protest movements pulled apart; the slogan of unity lost its resonance. The Women’s Liberation Movement became the women’s movement, and fractured. Everywhere the vision of liberation faded: the word was jeered at, kept alive only among tiny groups of dissidents.
The world was plainly getting worse not better, but its evils turned out to be deep seated. Former student activists were comforted by cushy jobs. They applied their absurdist humour to advertising campaigns; they used irony to excuse sexism. Ageing Left activists moved into union bureaucracies, academia, reformist party machines, local councils. They moved to the right, and further right. And for the handful that refused to move right they reserved a particular kind of malice.
Another change was also occurring. As jobs became ever more stressful and insecure for the unskilled, the world of work also changed for managers and professionals – the new middle class, and those who aspired to its ranks. Corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies became more flexible and subtle. Networking flourished. Work still meant giving and taking orders, but there was more scope for discretion about just how much you helped your colleagues and contacts. In this world, personal appeal acquired greater cash value. Personal appeal partly meant charm, guarded exuberance, extroversion that constantly read signals about what was and was not acceptable. It meant persona not personality, surface not depth. But personal appeal also meant the body beautiful, looking young at pretty at all costs. This made life worse for the fat and the old; it introduced new, unfamiliar anxieties for men; for women it massively reinforced traditional stereotypic pressures, alongside the talk of empowerment. The body beautiful trend also normalised Botox, plastic surgery, body modification.
Postmodernism interpreted and, in crucial ways, justified this new world, for many academics, writers, intellectuals who were discontented with neoliberalism yet scorned talk of liberation. It gave this new world a philosophical polish, and thereby reinforced it.
Future posts will address the key ideas of postmodernism; the influence of Nietzsche and the 1960s structuralists; and the writings of two key figures, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
The Women’s March: three million in the USA, 100,000 in London, countless smaller rallies elsewhere. It was flooded with first-timers, carrying homemade placards, a rallying point for people concerned about education, climate change, corruption, the US Supreme Court, health care, nuclear power and racism. But front and centre was Trump’s war on women, particularly around sexual harassment and abortion rights.
For millions of women it’s a first step towards a deeper, more political awareness of women’s oppression, but also the power of mass action to shake the establishment and actually change things. Raising loud and clear the issues of harassment and abortion also have the potential to draw in a much larger number of working class women who relate to both issues but are so far still on the sidelines. The fledgling movement has a forward momentum and huge potential.
All this talk of pussy hats and abortion has affronted transgender activists and supporters (eg here and here) since they exclude transwomen. These objections to “cis” issues dominating the marches are a break on the forward momentum of the movement, even while trans individuals may support other demands raised in the protests. This conservatism may turn out to be a growing embarrassment to those leftists who have given the trans trend unqualified support.
Such complaints from the trans community will jar with many women invigorated by the march who identify so strongly with its central pro-woman slogans. This creates the possibility for trans-critical progressives to break out of their isolation on the issue. But this will not happen automatically. Women inspired by the slogans of the march will be made to feel guilty about the “exclusionary nature” of their demands, which may even be watered down to accommodate trans sensitivities, setting back the political and numerical growth of future protests.
The way this contradiction plays out will depend in part on the actions of trans-critical feminists. Vast numbers of women and men are more receptive to new ideas than they were even a few weeks ago, and many will be open to ideas on how women’s rights and transgender demands interrelate.
The worst response to this is passivity and pessimism. Get out there and write on any platform you can!
Wider issues for the new movement
On all sides forces are work pulling down the forward momentum of the new movement. The religious Right is in overdrive: a twitter search on #womensmarch will show how much filth is being flung at feminism, most of the tweets using more or less identical wording (a reminder, if any were needed, that these people are no allies to us on the trans issue). Liberals are supporting future action, which is not surprising since it has not yet gone beyond liberal demands and slogans, and they need ground troops again Trump. All the same, much of their message aims to direct future action into electoral channels. The identity politics brigade are wagging their fingers at the marchers’ ideological imperfections. Against all this there is only the zest for further action at the ground level, and miniscule numbers of people on the Left.
Here is an immensely valuable article on strategies and tactics for leftists following the Women’s March. The writer, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and assistant professor in the department of African American studies at Princeton. Some excerpts:
The scale of the attack is as deep as it is wide, and this means that we will need a mass movement to confront it. To organize such a movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated–those who are new to activism and organizing. We have to welcome those people and stop the arrogant and moralistic chastising of anyone who is not as “woke.”
The women’s marches in Washington, D.C., and around the country were stunning, inspiring and the first of a million steps that will be needed to build the resistance to Trump.
But look around social media, and you can read critiques and even denunciations of the marchers: Where were all of these people before? Why are they only getting involved now? Why doesn’t the march have more radical demands? Why did march organizers, who are politically liberal, allow only…liberals to speak?…
SHOULD THE marches have been more multiracial and working class? Yes! But you are not a serious organizer if that’s where your answer to the question ends. The issue for the left is how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in terms of making our marches Blacker, Browner and more working class. Simply complaining about it changes nothing…
The women’s marches were the beginning, not the end. What happens next will be decided by what we do. Movements do not come to us from heaven, fully formed and organized. They are built by actual people, with all their political questions, weaknesses and strengths.
If the left doesn’t engage with the aim of contending for leadership and influence, we just concede these forces to the Democrats and liberals, who will certainly try to confine the new upsurge of opposition to the political limits they want to define.
The point isn’t to bury our arguments, but to learn how to make them while operating in political arenas that aren’t just our own if we want to win people to more radical politics.
The order is rapidly fadin’
As I write protests have erupted against Trump’s monstrous bans against Muslims entering or re-entering the USA. Worldwide the leaders of capitalism are divided and reeling, opening space for action from below. Events on the ground are moving very fast. The time to get involved is now.
An article in the Socialist Review magazine (January 2017), put out by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), discusses the debate between trans-critical feminists and supporters of transgender people, and the issue of access to women-only areas. It also describes the author’s workplace experiences as a lecturer, dealing with discrimination and fighting for safe spaces for transgender people.
The piece acknowledges a “massive difference” between right wing bigots, who treat traditional gender roles as god-given, and Germaine Greer (used in the article to represent all trans-critical feminists) who challenges gender roles. The piece is less helpful in its explanation as to why feminists might criticise the trans trend.
Some comments could be read as a dogwhistle hint that trans-critical feminists are now just old and past it, whatever their previous achievements. On one hand we have the “veteran” Greer, on the other “a new generation” that “is growing up with more open attitudes to non-binary gender identities”. Online there is certainly an undercurrent of ageism in attacks on trans critics (eg the slagging off of Elinor Burkett in Jezebel as previously described). Ageism would be entirely out of keeping for the Socialist Review, but the wording of the article might have been better.
Beyond that, the article passes off trans-critical feminists as deterministic, something disputed by these feminists themselves. Greer’s argument “is underpinned by the pessimistic belief that all men are unbreakably wedded to sexism”, implying that deterministic views of males and females are standard among trans-critical feminists, and unknown among feminists friendly to trans ideology.
The most striking thing is what the article doesn’t say. As the SWP well knows, trans-critical feminists oppose the way trans ideology presents girlhood and womanhood in terms of stereotypical appearance and behaviour (apologies in advance for the number of links to other parts of my blog in this post).
Trans-critical feminists and Marxists actually agree that womanhood in our society is shaped by an oppressive socialisation that is inescapable for those born with female biology. For example, Marxists would endorse Germaine Greer’s 2013 article Guilt poisons women when Greer says that socialisation has been “relentlessly loading female humans with responsibility for other people’s behavior from their earliest childhood… Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people’s behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.” The difference is that these feminists apply such political ideas when considering the trans trend, while most Marxists just look the other way.
The sexist definition of womanhood, in terms of appearance not experience, is affirmed in practice when transwomen have access to female-only spaces. You might imagine trans spokespeople separating the two issues: demanding the right to be accepted as women in some sense, and have access to women’s spaces, while at the same time saying loud and clear that they do not wish to define femaleness in terms of stereotypes, or deny or conceal the oppressive socialisation that natal females go through. But I’ve never seen this done, even by leftist trans people/sympathisers, probably because it would run too deeply against trans ideology.
The article’s only reference to socialisation is via a caricature of trans-critical feminism: “a trans woman who has been socialised as a male is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and as such a danger to women-only spaces.”
The unity of working people is a cornerstone of Marxism, but one of the ways to achieve it is to acknowledge the oppression of particular parts of the working class. Marxists like the SWP urge oppressed groups to participate fully in the whole working class movement but they also support oppressed groups’ right to organise independently, and to take their own measures to protect themselves.
Supporting women’s right to their own physical spaces is one expression of this. For decades the Left has acknowledged women’s right to women’s rooms on campuses. It was taken for granted that this would also apply to washrooms, toilets, prisons, changing areas and so on. Supporting separate spaces for females acknowledges female oppression in concrete terms. It recognises, for example, that women are brought up in a way that gives them less confidence and sense of entitlement than men, and that they are often seen as irrational and over-emotional, givers of untrustworthy evidence. Above all oppression presents women and girls in dehumanised terms, as contemptible and/or fascinating objects. Capitalist alienation and women’s oppression distort male sexuality so that some men like to scare, humiliate or harm women and girls. Due to their musculature, males tend to be stronger and run faster than females, which in a sexist world can quickly become threatening.
In the odd thinking that currently dominates the Left, all the above issues are swept aside as entirely irrelevant to transwomen’s bathroom access. The issue is well summed up in this anonymous online comment (March 10, 2015):
Here’s the thing. I wouldn’t mind sharing a restroom with every transwoman I know. Heck, if you came to my gym and introduced yourself to me and tried to help me get to know you I might even go to bat for you with the other ladies in the locker room. But for all the fear you say you feel when entering the men’s, imagine how women feel when we [see] a non-passable male looking/bodied person WE DON’T KNOW in our most intimate and vulnerable places. Do you know how many of us are sexually assaulted, beaten murdered every year? Including in restrooms and other private facilities? Look it up. The numbers will astonish you… So please, stop thinking like an entitled man and consider that we don’t know the difference between you and any other person we perceive as male, and the seconds it takes to figure out could cost our lives. Men actually DO cross dress to commit crimes against women. It’s NOT a myth. Giving carte blanche access puts me at risk.
And why aren’t single user spaces ok? Unisex stalls don’t say TR*NNY in big bold letters. They say UNISEX. ANYONE.
As feminist blogger donesoverydone states, “Restroom predation is a small part of the trans problem – but it’s not nothing”. Her blog includes a list of links to cases where cross-dressing men have attacked women in women’s spaces.
Who are we with, and who are we against?
The issue of bathroom access needs to be dealt with as part of the wider issue of transgender politics, and that means coming to grips with the intensely contradictory nature of the trans trend. On the one hand, it became a mass phenomenon only when the corporate mass media and other neoliberal institutions began propagandising for it, realising that the sexist elements in its ideology make a new cool contribution to maintaining women’s oppression, and hence profitability. (“Last April Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina, in an act of solidarity with trans activists who were campaigning against the state’s law banning trans people from using the public toilet of their choice,” the article says. It does not say the trans campaign was largely carried by a strike from supportive bosses, and that the bathroom issue has divided the Republicans’ social-conservative and pro-business wings.)
On the other hand, trans people challenge the most traditional sex stereotyping. This gives an oppositional side to the trend, which has attracted many left wing people, who support many different struggles against discrimination. It also means trans individuals face serious dangers, from which the bosses will do little to protect them. (The article describes how one trans person did not report a brutal attack, fearing that self-defence might result in charges, and further dangers in a male jail.) Emotional turmoil, past and present, sometimes adds to their personal vulnerability.
The SWP, like most of the Left, has put on a pair of blinkers. It allows itself to see only one side of this contradiction: the left-leaning trans people who support a range of progressive causes including aspects of women’s rights. It does not allow itself to see how or why the the capitalist class has given huge backing to the trans trend.
The article states: “Socialists reject the idea that individual workers are eternally tied to particular systems of oppression, in the belief that the tendency towards solidarity within the working class can only be realised through challenging oppression.” This seems to be making the correct point that prejudices of individual workers – including sexism among male workers – can be overcome during the experience of common struggle. But the demand to give transwomen access to women’s spaces splits the working class, by failing to recognise it as an attack on working women.
Socialists, feminists, and working people generally, need to defend trans people from harassment and support safe spaces for them, eg through the provision of single-person unisex toilets. We should work with trans people whenever possible. But we must oppose the sexist elements in trans ideology and point out how they are used by capitalism.
Needless to say, I can’t speak on behalf of trans-critical feminists and I’m not trying to, but I am calling on other Marxists to open a more constructive dialogue with them.
The International Socialist Tendency
The SWP is a leading section of the International Socialist Tendency. The IST would not want any kind of endorsement from a trans-critical miscreant, but it will get one anyway.
The IST’s politics have always remained centred around the core Marxist ideas of workers’ revolution and socialism from the ground up. It does not tail “left wing” dictators, trade union bureaucrats, hip academics, it is free from the dogmatism of orthodox Trotskyists. The IST’s politics have steered it through very difficult times, allowing to grasp the nature of state capitalism in Stalinist Russia, and the nature of Russia today as part of world imperialism. It sees the strategies needed to get from the here and now to a free world. It has done all it can to support working class struggle again and again during decades of desperately low industrial activity. Again and again it has supported the struggle for women’s liberation in both theory and action.
The line of the IST on transgender, like that of the rest of the Left, reflects the damage dealt by 40 years of neoliberalism. It is likely to be corrected when a sustained rise in working class struggle finally throws off that legacy, and a new layer of activists, inside and outside the IST, look more critically at the sexism inherent in trans politics. That process will take time, but the worldwide anti-Trump protests are a great first step in that direction.