An interesting discussion on transgender issues recently took place at the annual conference of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party. It was described in the party’s weekly Socialist Worker, at the end of a report on the conference.
The SWP restated its support for gender self-id in the Gender Recognition Act. During the discussion Sally Campbell, editor of the party’s magazine Socialist Review, said “The starting point is we stand in solidarity with trans people. Being inclusive doesn’t erase anyone.” Feminist opponents of self-id, she said, see “biology as the roots of women’s oppression”. She also implied that the corporate media was hostile to the trans cause. Freer Lives has previously discussed the politics of sexual biology, the emptiness of gender identity theory, and the corporate media’s fulsome support for this theory. Most interesting in the current context is that the party line came under challenge from two directions, and that these challenges were both given space in Socialist Worker.
One member, Moyra, suggested that “socialists should adopt a broadly gender critical approach as the best way to support both trans’ rights and women’s rights.”
She said the SWP should oppose tactics such as no-platforming “gender-critical voices” and using the term “Terf”. She said belligerence around the debate was unhelpful in “trying to understand the complexities of the arguments around biology and gender”. She said, “There is an objective basis to build a unity of the oppressed between women and trans people because both groups are oppressed by the ideology of gender stereotypes.”
Moyra might reflect a wider current within the SWP, which it feels the need to acknowledge. But the party might also want to publicise her views as a way to help it balance and push back against its most hardline gender ideologists, who want to picket meetings of the women’s liberationist group Women’s Place UK.
Sally [Campbell] argued against going to the protests. “Going along to WPUK is not where we should be putting our energy,” she said. A commission laying out the SWP’s support for trans rights and backing the right to self-declare gender said “neither should we organise or encourage participation in protests outside Women’s Place UK meetings.”
Traditionally the SWP saw the picketing of progressive groups as a marker of nutty sectarian outfits. Even today, the notion of picketing a conference called Women’s Liberation 2020 must embarrass its leadership. Trying to overcome this healthy tradition, the party’s hardline gender ideologists have sought to put WPUK beyond the pale, presenting it not as a progressive group with some wrong ideas but as a bunch of bigots masquerading as progressives.
Another delegate, Kate, said groups such as Women’s Place UK (WPUK) were “giving a left face to transphobia.” She said that the group had spread “misinformation about the Gender Recognition Act” and that it only offered “criticism of trans people,” not criticism of gender. She also said it was right to join protests outside of WPUK meetings…. Laura Miles said there’s a difference between people raising legitimate questions about trans rights and “where people retail what are clearly transphobic positions”.
To see the fraudulence of the “left face” position you only have to glance through the WPUK website, carrying articles such as this denunciation of alliances with the right, written by one of the group’s founders. The WPUK approach trans activists’ demands and ideas on the basis of their impact on women, and sometimes children. They never attack trans people as such, or challenge the right of people to live by the cultural conventions of the other sex. The SWP’s hardline gender ideologists are straining to present WPUK as something it is not.
The contradictions of the SWP’s gender ideologists
Presumably, the hardline gender ideologists in the party still think of themselves working in the SWP tradition, but in practice they have broken with it. The tradition of the SWP calls for unity in action with other progressive groups, and dealing with differences through clear, consistent, sharp arguments. The politics of gender ideology calls for silencing progressive opponents through physical pressure and organizational manoeuvres and through pragmatic, manipulative arguments where ideas are picked up or abandoned case by case, according to whatever works at any given moment. The tradition of the SWP calls for a commitment to women’s liberation, expressed, for example, in Judith Orr’s Marxism and Women’s Liberation. Gender ideology redefines women in terms of what they can share with transwomen, that is, in terms of stereotypes – eroding women’s safety, dignity, and public participation, and creating a roadblock to women’s understanding of their sexual oppression.
The contradiction in the SWP as a whole
This alien presence has gained a hold in the party through the impact of neoliberalism. The SWP does not look for guidance to left wing MPs, nor to left union officials and their machines, nor to radical dictators. Nor is it caught up in ossified dogmas of Trotskyist sects. It looks to the real live working class as the way forward for the world, and to the potential of the working to class to cohere into a force that draws all the oppressed behind it for the overthrow of capitalism. But its very adherence to this tradition has exposed it more than most left groups to damage from the deep and sustained ebb in western workers’ self-activity over the last four decades. One of the ways it has tried to survive is by looking to the identity-politics milieu for influence, members, and cadre. But this has brought serious new problems.
At times this contradiction in the SWP produces feeble compromises. It is notable, for example, that Sally Campbell presented her opposition to the picketing of WPUK as a mere tactical decision: “not where we should be putting our energy”. At other times the contradiction produces vacillations.
So the SWP sometimes holds to its traditions, as in this statement in the party’s theoretical journal, condemning the no-platforming of feminists (Marxism, feminism and transgender politics December 2017):
For example, when [Julie] Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.
At other times, the party has capitulated. The following year the SWP opposed an open letter in The Morning Star that denounced trans activists’ attempts to silence gender critical feminists. Signatories to the letter included union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and Kiri Tunks, Nation Union of Teachers Vice-President. It was also signed by Lindsey German, a leading member of the Marxist group Counterfire. Those signing it made it clear that they had “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” (discussed in a previous post). The letter describes the beating of 60-year-old woman Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park; “an incident… on a Bectu picket line in which trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting”; “masked activists blocking entrances” at a venue in Bristol and “deliberately intimidating those wishing to go inside”; and a “meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK targeted with a bomb threat which Hastings Police are investigating as a serious incident”.
These cases are part of systematic attempts to shut down meetings organised by women at which they can discuss potential legislative changes and the impact these may have on any sex-based rights already enshrined in law.
They draw the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute.
Some trans rights activists even continue to justify the use of violence, meaning that many women are simply too frightened to attend meetings that are both public and lawful in order that they may discuss their own rights.
Other women, including ordinary women concerned for their rights, as well as those active within the trade union movement and other political campaigns, are also now anxious and fearful that they will be subjected to such attacks when engaging in any political activity, meetings, or protests.
Disgracefully, Socialist Worker stated “We believe that Mark [Serwotka] was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.”
This contradiction within the SWP was more or less buried during the first huge wave of support for gender ideology, which swamped both liberal and radical politics. But the Trojan-horse nature of gender ideology is increasingly exposed now, as women’s liberationists have slowly pulled together an opposition to it. They are supported by some Marxist groups and individuals, but the spearhead for the resistance is Women’s Place UK.
WPUK sent a letter to Socialist Worker responding to its conference report. This response was published in SW’s Letters section in the online version of the paper. It reads in part:
We note that the only reference to women’s rights is in the session on defending trans rights – a glaring omission such as this is precisely why Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) was set up, to make sure that women’s voices will be heard.
Your report refers to WPUK “spreading misinformation about the GRA” and “only offering criticisms of trans people”. Both these allegations are false, as the thousands of people who have attended our meetings or who have endorsed our five demands could tell you. We have never “criticised” trans people and are pleased to have had trans people attend our meetings and speak on our platforms…
We welcome the fact that you will not organise or support protests outside our meetings, but you should go further and condemn attempts to stop us meeting as having no place in our movement.
The WPUK letter notes that tickets for its upcoming London conference have already sold out: “Anyone on the left who ignores this is isolating themselves from a growing movement.”
Where next for the SWP
I think the SWP can go one of two ways. It can continue to let gender ideology eat away at its politics and traditions, and leave Britain’s new flourishing women’s movement to feminists guided by patriarchy theory, and to other Marxist groups, mainly from the Communist Party tradition. Or it can oppose the sexism of gender identity theory and the erosion of women’s rights that flows from it, and at the same time support the right of trans people to live according to the cultural conventions of the opposite sex, and defend them against the real bigots on the right, who think sex-stereotypical behaviour emerges naturally from our biology of birth. This would mean giving unconditional but critical support: defending trans people as an oppressed group without endorsing anti-woman ideas and demands that currently dominate trans thinking. I think that is the real basis for unity between women and trans people, and the way forward for the left.