Thursday, February 01, 2007

Two Parts of a Whole. October 1977

Mike Pearn’s blog has recently been publishing historical documents from the history of the International Socialists, (precursor of today's SWP) - for example the important statement on Industrial Work from 1971, and Duncan Hallas’s article from 1977 on electoral work, that is very relevent to today’s debates.

It is a very good idea, and as a contribution to that process here is an article from “Womens Voice” #10, from October 1977.

(by the way, the picture credit for the front cover reads: ""The determination that has kept Grunwick pickets going for over a year. Are the powerful trade unions now ready to help them?" - Grunwick was a long running union recognition dispute, led by Asian women. )

Two Parts of a Whole.

On 1 October women members of the Socialist Workers Party held a conference in Birmingham. Margaret Renn, the womens organiser of the Party, opened the conference. The following is a summary of her speech.

Socialism without womens liberation is a contradiction in words. Socialism would simply not be socialism if women were still oppressed.

It is also true that women cannot be liberated outside of a socialist society. It is not possible to achieve any liberation in a society like ours which depends on the oppression and exploitation of men and women.

Socialism and womens liberation are two parts of a whole. We can’t separate them in the way we work.

Work amongst women is essential to our work as socialists, it’s not an optional extra, something we do when we have time left over from all the other things we do. On the contrary, it’s the most important work we can undertake, because we understand the issues and events that effect women in a way that our male comrades cannot.

Where do we begin? Women at work are ones with power to change society. Look around at all the disputes that women have been involved in the last few weeks: Beechams, Batchelors, Kilwinning, the school cleaners and dinner ladies, women in hospitals. They are the ones fighting to change society. They are the women we are talking to.

But whilst most women work and organise at work, it is also true that most women have families, and are interested in the things that affect them most as mothers. When the woman jumped out of her high rise block there must have been thousands of women living at the top of thousands of high rise tower blocks thinking – that’s me, that could happen here.

Neither group of women are exclusive, but in our party you can count the number of industrial women members we have on the fingers of two hands. That’s the problem we have to face. Our magazine “Womens Voice” brings together al the issues that interest women. Sales are goin very well, and this month we expect to be printing 10000 copies. But it’s not enough on its own. How we use it to organise is what matters.

Womens committees within our branches and districts are a good idea, but we can’t involve the women who read the magazine in them. We need “Womens Voice” groups. Groups that will meet regularly and be ready to respond when things need organising. We should produce “Womens Voice” supporters cards for al those women who want to get involved in our activities. Then we will have the numbers so that next time a woman jumps out of her high rise block we can be putting a local bulletin into all the tower blocks in the area.

We have to be quick off the mark. On abortion, rape, lack of nurseries, we have to be able to stir womens imagination. That’s why our “Womens Voice” organisation is so important. Without it we won’t do anything.

We need to have the same sort of imaginative approach to women who work in factories. Selling “Womens Voice outside factories that employ large number of women, producing special “Womens Voice” bulletins can be deadly – if we see it as a ritual.

But if we are going down to the factories knowing that there will be women there interested in what we have to say, whether its about abortion of £15; if we go prepared to talk, prepared to involve women as quickly as possible in the production of the bulletins then it won’t become a routine.

It’s really very exciting. Think of all the womens factories that have been on strike this year. Then imagine the numbers that weren’t able to strike because they simply didn’t know what to do and no one, certainly not the union officials, was prepared to help them. They’re the women we want to be organising with.

The majority of women at this conference work. How many of you sell “Womens Voice” in your workplace? Do you know how good your maternity leave agreement is? What about the other things that the women you work with are always complaining about?

We are preparing a pamphlet on maternity leave for women in NALGO. We are also writing a pamphlet about women in the TGWU. Using these, and “Womens Voice” will help us build the rank and file movement amongst women workers. They need it most. Womens strikes are always being sold down the river by trade union officials. Unions take least interest in issues that affect their women members the most.

There is a lot for us to do, because we are trying to build something new: a socialist womens organisation that fights at once for womens liberation and socialism.


Louisefeminista said...

Interesting. Though it has a workerist feel to it it shows consideration around women's autonomy. Funny how the SWP flipped overon this (wrongly, in my opinion).

I knew a couple of women who were active in Women's Voice but left when it was shut down and they joined the LP and became active in LP women's sections. I always think it was a pity that it was shut down as I am sure Women's Voice would have made an impact on Greenham Common and Women Against Pit Closures.

This piece was written in the seventies but the politics and the necessity for women's autonomy is integral to fighting oppression and for liberation. When I first became active in politics there was still the remnants of the women's liberation movement and the importance of feminism. Women's autonomy was on the agenda but with a very weak and fragmented feminist movement, these issues have fallen off the agenda now. Also the Left in general have a duty to support women's autonomy and building a socialist feminist current.

I still would heartily recommend "Beyond the Fragments" by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. It may have been written in 1979 but it is still relevant today.

AN said...


I think what you describe as "workerism" is related to the SWP's perspectives of the time, which I discuss here: (

The new born "party" was a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand there was till a formal understanding that the trade union rank and file could grow over into a revolutionary force, but the industrial practice ad shifted from the established militants to young radical workers (this was a contradiction, because it meant that the relationship between the “party” and the R&F was contradictory.

In any event, everyone expected there would be a shift up in industrial struggle, and this would radicalise workers. Given that Grunwicks had been led by rank and file Asian women and had been very militant, this was not unreasonable. At the time it is easy to concentrate on the mass pickets and scale of mobilisation, and overlook the fact that it was a historic defeat.

The other complication was that the party was starting to work much more about anti-facsist and pro-choice work (the Benyon Bill, from memory??), and elections - away from the workplace which had been more traditional for the IS. So what you describe as “workerism” is both a nod to the past, to make the change seem familiar to the established activists, and also an attempt to pull the women activists away from the (very big at the time) networks of womens groups, consciousness raising, etc, that were basically middle class, and focus them onto working class women.

In my experience WV was a very positive development. It did act however as a conveyor belt of women out of the SWP, and I think the opposition of Cliff and Harman (which they bit their lip over for a while) was partly pragmatic about the damage it was having on the party.

In truth, the SWP really struggled in those first couple of years 1977 to 1979, because the perspectives were so so wrong, and it is rarely acknowledged, but Thatcher’s election victory precipitated a collapse of much of the organisation, especially when it meant we basically stopped anti-fascist work, and for a lot of the younger comrades, that was all we had been doing!

I think WV was a convenient scapegoat, and probably unconsciously, the issue of the SWP’s women and black sections (Flame), became the deflected focus of a debate that was really about the incorrect industrial perspectives, and the inherent contradiction between the R&F strategy and the new concept of the SWP as a “party”.

AN said...

also, the actuual content of WV as a magazine was much more balanced.

For the first year or so of WV it was a brilliant magazine, covering a range of womens issues, including looking at other issues like immigration and trade union activism from the point of view of women.

It also had a livley letters page, where there was some real debate about aitonomous organisation, the diffeences between activity with middle closs and working class women, etc

The magazine did deteriorate later into banging the party drum.

Louisefeminista said...

AN: Yeah, I agree re: workerism and the historical period Women's Voice was around and the industrial struggles and militancy by women such as Grunwicks etc. But looking at it now I suppose that's what I first noticed. I have seen back copies of WV and was impressed with the content.
It was (correct me if I am wrong) the only revo group to have a women's mag. The IMG didn't have one.

Like mentioned before if the mag had been allowed to develop and evolve then it could have played a vital role in Greenham and Women Against Pit Closures.

From what I also gather is that the SWP did play a role in the women's liberation conferences in the mid-late 1970s.

AN said...

WV wasn't the only revocultionary socialist magazine, The Bolseviks published "Rabotnitsa" from 1913 onwards (interupted between 1914 & 1917 due to the war) - later they had an autonomus womens organisation - zhenotdel.

But I think you mean was it the only one on the British far left, and I think yes.

I think comrades today who have only read about the WV debate as history would be suprised how good it was as a magazine.

The SWP black section paper, "Flame" was however god-awful! And therefore (Unfortunataly) I haven't kept any copies of it.

With regard to WV, it is typiecl of the rit far left to not have the pateince to see a project thorugh the long haul, moving froom one get rich quick scheme to another. But an even greater trajedy than closing WV was stoping "The Collier" in the erly 1980s, when it had a paid sale of 4000.

Mark P said...

It's interesting to see how the two biggest groups on the British left have moved in opposite directions on these sorts of questions. The SWP, which had a strong women's organisation in the 1970s, closed its women's and black groups and now forbids them from existing. Militant opposed seperate groups vociferously in the 1970s and 1980s, but its successor the Socialist Party has quite strong women's, black and asian and lgbt groups. Anyone who was politically active on the far left in the late 1970s, dropped out and was now getting involved again could be forgiven for being a bit confused!

Louise's comments about the splintered state of the feminist movement has me wondering about the state of "womens sections" in the socialist movement more generally. What specifically socialist feminist or socialist women's groups actually exist now?

I can't think of many:

1) Socialist Women. This is the aforementioned women's caucus within the Socialist Party.

2) ENS Women. This is the women's caucus within the Education Not for Sale campaign. It's a student group rather than a general group for women but it definitely describes itself as a "socialist feminist" group.

Presumably there must be something affiliated to Socialist Action somewhere?

AN said...

Probaly the most effective is the Socialist Womens network in Scotland, succesful in the sense that by winning the 50:50 rule in the SSP, they guaranteed getting women into parliament.

Louisefeminista said...

Firstly, I think the SSP take women's liberation seriously (tho' I do have disagreements with them on some issues) but they have some exceptionally strong leading socialist women and that should be commended. And the 50:50 was an important win as well. And like I said, I have read some back issues of WV and have spoken to women who wrote for WV and listening to their experiences (they were utterly pissed off when it was closed down!).

And yes, I did mean the only feminist mag on the revo left.

Mark: Yes, that's kinda interesting about the SWP and The Militant. When I first got involved in politics in the mid-80s I became involved in autonomous women's campaigns and there were some SWP women involved so there was remnants of some ideas around self-organisation.

The Militant weren't active (as far as I can remember) in LP Women's Sections for example but then all of a sudden they flipped over and embraced feminism tho' the radical feminist kind. I don't know what Socialist Action is up to. I know about the ENS socialist feminist campaign. And the SP cacus...

But this really does reflect the weakened state of the Left overall. One area which is supportive to self-organisation is the TU movement.

I have worked with many active women (and some very involved in women's groups)obv. TU work has its limitations and the bureaucracy but on a grass roots level there are some excellent women out there and that's one area to tap into.

Andrew Coates said...

There as, around the same time, a controversy around the IMG's Women's magazine, edited by Leorna Lloyd. I wonder if anyone remembers that?

On another topic Socialist Unity Blog may be interested to know that it is read with close attention by members/supporters of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire - who have posted material on Birmingham and 'Grrr' on the discussion forum:

'Grrr' still has one supporter - in France naturally - and he's pretty lonesome. So why not log on and give him the kind of backing I know you'd love to offer. Your spelling will probably be better than mine in any case.

Louisefeminista said...

Andrew: Well, that's the first time I have heard the IMG had a women's magazine edited by Leonora Lloyd. Amazing, you learn something new everyday!! What was the controversy btw?

Andrew Coates said...

Louise, it was called (I think, but you know us old codgers' memory sometimes plays tricks) Socialist Woman. The controversy was between Leonora and John Ross, on 'the personal is political' (guess which side Ross, living a very conventional married life in a pleasant gaff in Muswell Hill, took..). Had some copies but they got lost somewhere long ago. I did actually ask Leonora about it, years later, and she seemed to have retained a pretty visceral hatred of Ross and all of his works - not that that's unusual of course.

I think the journal was mentioned in some of her obituaries. A sad loss.

Louisefeminista said...

Andrew: Yep, Socialist Woman (1969-1978). Funny thing I have heard of it but never connected it to the IMG

And yeah, Leonora LLoyd was an exceptional woman and I remember her mainly (not just in the ISG) but setting NAC.

Maybe it would be useful for somebody to a history of the IMG etc.

neprimerimye said...

Andy is correct in writing that in its early incarnation Womens Voice was an interesting publication. He is also correct in saying that it acted as something of a conveyor belt out of the group. Where we may differ is in answering the question why this was the case.

It is my proposition that many of those who left via Womens Voice did so because the perspective embodied in the publication, that of building a working class womens liberation movement, failed due to the beginning of the downturn in class struggle. This left many of the activists concerned perilously open to being influenced by feminist ideologies such as that developed in Beyond the Fragments. It is no mistake that such elements as those who touted socialist-feminism liquidated into the Labour Party in order to tail Wedgewood Benn.

Of course in the degenerating SWP of the late 1970's Womens Voice was a bit of factional football but there was a very intense debate that ran up to 1981 as i recall. In the end we were, I believe, correct to close the magazine down. Although it has to be said that the closure took place on the pragmatic grounds that the magazine was not finding an audience not because of turn away from doing work among working women.

Ironically the SWP ended up with a position which the Jim Higgins and those other comrades who were expelled from IS in 1976 might well have been abale to live with. that is to say the SWP adopted a Marxist position of opposition to feminism as an ideology that is divisive of the working class and not in the interests of womens liberation. Despite which the Cliff faction had happily allowed it to be claimed that Higgins and friends were not interested in womens liberation. Curiously that opposition had written of the Cliff faction in 1975 that:

"Women’s Voice is unlikely to be used constructively as a monthly paper while the group lacks leadership in women’s work. The paper has changed its whole orientation without discussion with the areas that use it most. IS women have different experiences of whether Women’s Voice is more successful with its main emphasis on trade union matters (as at present) or more of a balance between work and the issues that affect women as wives and mothers (as was the case until the end of 1974). The paper needs more time to be tried as a monthly organiser and more discussion is needed with members, but whatever emphasis proves most successful, there should be a shift back to a paper written by working class women rather than being produced mainly by teachers, journalists and full-timers at Cottons Gardens. The appointment of Sheila MacGregor as the women’s full-timer is also unsatisfactory. The woman appointed to this job should be someone with experience of and sympathy for work with working class women. Cde MacGregor has argued on the NC for the past two years, and in her branch, against a separate women’s paper, and until recently she also argued against the need for any kind of women’s work in IS."

As I wrote above Womens Voice was something of a factional football chiefly for Cliff and his co-factionalists such as MacGregor. In exactly the same way that the rank and fle papers were used as factional footballs as that method of building a revolutionary alternative in the working class was abandoned by Cliff and company. With the result, as And has pointed out,that by the time of the Miners Strike the paper relevant to that industry was no longer being produced.

It should be pointed out that while the closure of the reman=ining rank and file papers around 1981 was correct as they no longer had any kind of echo or readership that in part this was due to the temporary disruption of many of the papers in 1975/6 during the faction fight in IS. For example The Collier ceased production for a period and Hspital Worker was abandoned a national paper at the same time. One can only assume that these closures took place in order to undermine the IS Opposition by removing opportunities for IS members to debate concrete tactics in the related fractional bodies.

Which destruction of internal democracy and opportunities for conrete political discussion brings us back to the debacle this last year in the PCS and the disgraceful behaviour of Martin John. As it is simply inconcievable that the IS of say could have possibly acted as did the SWP of 2006 if healthy fractional organisations been functioning as they did back in the day.

Thanks by the way for the mention of my blog. All the documents I post there will in the course of time find a more permanent home at the MIA/ETOL. I'm also in the process of constructing a collection of materials published by IS and associated groups. If anybody reading this has any rank and file papers, copies of Flame, Chingari or Womens Voice they no longer need feel free to contact me.

AN said...


Thanks for that, I am slightly suprised to see you using the word "downturn", as I beleive that while there was a shift in balance in the industrial struggle, the concept of the "downturn", and the tendentious idea of Cliff that this was partly related to incorporation of a layer of convenors into the bureuctacy was also parlt a factioanl device of Cliff's. Cliff's aricle "The class struggle today" in ISJ6 (1979), was a very poor piece of work, and enormously damaging.

On tyhe suubject of PCS - it is as nothing compared to the shameful behaviour in the CWU, where managament are ramming through efficiency savings linked to productivity, and "postworker" has not opposed it, as they do not want to break with left members on the exec who support the deal. What is mre Jane Loftuc mysterioulsy dissappreaed and did not attend the key exec meeting.

Truly they have become the CP!

AN said...


That discussion form link didn't work for me.

Andrew Coates said...

An, I put one dash wrong:


If doesn't work try and google it: Forum Marxistes Revolutionnaires.

Look under SWP file (L'actualite ...)

neprimerimye said...


Indeed the idea of 'The Downturn' was to some degree a matter of Cliff developing an idea for factional reasons. But regardless of that it did have more than a little validity as any review of the period from 1975 to now cannot but show. As for the idea of a layer of convenors becoming incorporated into the union bureaucracy I'm afraid that too is a fact of life.

Lets not forget however that the idea of a Downturn was more nuanced than is often portrayed y opponents of the SWP. Foir exampkle in the early 1980's we talked of an Industrial Downturn combined with a Political Upturn in CND and the Labour Party. Of course the latter fact of life should have indivcated to us that fractional entry work was mandated but we, or at least the leadership, prefered to keep us pure and isolated from that struggle. I can't claimto have developed ideas dissenting from the the leadership on that question until after leaving the ranks of the group however much i wish the contrary were true.

As for the Cliff piece it is a long time since I read it and cannot comment. He was never at his best writing on the workers movement in Britain it must be said.

And as far as the CWU is concerned you might well be right I'mm unable to say being forced to rely on the reports of others. Anythjing you post on the topic would then be appreciated by me if nobody else.

AN said...

I in fact did leave the SWp to join the Labour party in 1980, and only rejoined the SWP in 1986, so on that issue at least I can claim to have opposed the leadership at the time - although throughout that period i would probably have agreed with most of the SWP's politics.

The devil is in the detail with the "downturn" theory. Yes, there was a tendency for convenors to be bureucratised, but it was only a tendency and not an iron law. For exmaple Bob Fryer at Cowley was not the same as Derek Robinson at Longbridge.

But Cliff's fetishisation of the dangers of incorportation caused the SWp to change who they conceived of as the rank and file, wheres previoulsy it had meant that part of trade union organisation under lay control, and the existing established militants, by 1983 R&F came to mean just the members.

So we read the amazing statement in the 1983 IB: "holding a stewards card can draw you away from the rank and file"

BTW Mike, do you have a copy of Roger Cox's article on building in the workplaces from the July 1983 Soicialist review?? I would be very interetsed in having a copy.

With regard to the CWU, I will find out mre and post something about it .

AN said...


I have regsitered with the forum, but having trouble getting permission to post. I will persevere a bit more and then give up!

neprimerimye said...

Sure I agree that by 1983 things had got quite mad, even ultra left if you like. Although as a student at the time I can't say I paid too much heed to be truthful.

Interstingly that line was exported abroad causing a split in OZ. Today all sides in that dispute are outside the official IST section. Indeed most of the old leaders of the IS group there are now in SALT regardless of the side they took in the 1980's.

What is for certain is that they cannot and will not work under the direction of the Rees-German cabal. That dubious joy being left to my old friend Dave Glanz poor soul.

I've probably got that Cox article contact me by e mail OK?