The previous post on Freer Lives hailed the leadership shown by union officials and leftists in Britain who signed an open letter in the Morning Star condemning violence, and other measures to stifle debate, used by some trans activists against feminist critics. The immediate context was the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Those signing the letter made it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. Prominent among those signing the letter was Mark Serwotka, leftist leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
As also discussed last post, the letter was attacked by three members of the Socialist Party who hold lead leadership positions in the PCS. The SP members could not very well oppose the principle of free discussion and debate within the workers’ movement, but neither did they want to do or say anything to offend trans activists. They squirmed out of this tricky place by conflating the issue of violence as a tool against left wing opponents with the issue of violence as experienced by transgender people within the general population – ignoring the fact that women, black people and other groups also regularly experience violence and belittlement without using this as a manipulative device to stifle debate among progressives.
The SP and the Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is a long-standing and sometimes bitter rival to the SP on the British Left, but on gender politics, alas, they seem to see eye to eye. An article in the SWP paper Socialist Worker 19/8/18 backed up the SP. Commenting on politics inside the PCS, it stated:
We do not agree with Mark [Serwotka] over the Gender Recognition Act over which we have taken a consistent position, with one of our members seconding Motion A18 at PCS conference this year [supporting changes to the Act]. We believe that Mark was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.
If the SWP’s support for gender ideology is seriously wrong, its opposition to the Morning Star letter is disgraceful.
By supporting gender ideology the SWP is supporting women’s oppression – even while the party continues to fight that oppression in other fields. This is of course very much a class issue. The sexism of trans activists is massively amplified by the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism (including right wing tabloids that regularly promote born-into-the-wrong-body mysticism). Gender ideology is now being pumped into schoolgirls en masse (see eg here and here): they are being told that females have “pink brains” and/or an inner essence that forms their “gender identity”, and that for the vast majority this mysterious essence aligns with the sex stereotypes foisted on females from birth. In other words, when girls love girly things and accept second rate status it is not because they have internalised messages from a sexist society, but because of their mystical inner “identity” as feminine females. Only in the case of trans people does biology diverge from one’s feminine or masculine essence. In this way a new generation of young women is being primed for roles as unpaid carers in the home, one of the underpinnings of capitalism. Gender ideology is therefore allowing the bosses to make real headway against working class women, and this overshadows the secondary, progressive element of transgenderism that brings it into conflict with social conservatives.
Debate and no-platforming
The Morning Star letter, however, was not an attack on gender ideology, but a defense of free and open debate within the workers’ movement. It was directed at certain trans activists because they were undermining that free and open debate, not because of their positions on gender or the GRA. The only sense in which the letter implicitly challenges gender ideology is in the extent to which this ideology in itself opposes free and open debate in the workers’ movement: only to the extent that the suffering of trans people is used manipulatively to assign trans activists the right to suppress questioning. And as mentioned above, this entitlement is not demanded for women, black people, Muslim immigrants, Palestinians or any other group whose members suffer or die due to discrimination and persecution.
In principle the SWP opposes no-platforming. For example in a theoretical article late last year they stated (rather apologetically): “No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.” (See earlier discussion on this blog.) The Morning Star letter provided a chance to commit to this principle clearly in front of the workers’ movement, under the spotlight of a hot issue. The letter was signed by their former comrade Lindsey German, now in Counterfire. It is terrible to see that the SWP failed to sign, or support, the letter.
The SWP tradition
Terrible, and rather alarming, because the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency are not just one more faction competing on the far Left. They offer the best spearhead available to advance the struggle for a better world. For the SWP places the working class at the centre of its politics in a way that is now rare. For most of the last century the Left has been littered with groups who talk about the working class but in reality look to police states, romantic guerrillas or left-wing union officials and parliamentarians. The SWP by contrast has always focused on actual workers in offices, factories, mines, transport systems and so on. In this sense they follow the politics of Marx and Engels in a way almost all other groups have not. This approach allowed them to go on developing their ideas as world events unfolded, escaping the ossified dogmatism of some Trotskyist sects. It meant they gave zero support to Stalinist regimes that crushed their own working classes. The SWP sees the “vanguard party” not as some detached all-knowing elite but as a section of the working class itself, which must continuously prove its claim to leadership (and it realises that such a party has not really existed since the 1920s, but must be recreated). In this sense the SWP is following the politics of Lenin and Trotsky in a way most other claimants do not.
The SWP has worked tirelessly, during the difficult and demoralising decades on neoliberalism, to nurture every spark of working class resistance they can. This approach remains evident in the article on the PCS quoted above, which offers a sober assessment of workplace organisation and carefully thought-out, concrete steps for how the rank and file can advance.
Is there any dissent within the SWP membership on gender ideology? I know of at least one current member of the IS Tendency who has submitted critical letters to SWP publications that were not published. Socialist Worker has published three letters supporting the current party line on the Morning Star letter, and none opposing it, that I am aware of. It is time for the SWP to reconsider this issue, and acknowledge and debate with left-wing critics.