The fight for equality and an end to oppression is too important for confused ideas and fashionable posturing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo 1,152 women are raped every day – equivalent to 48 every hour (American Journal of Public Health), and 40% of women in the east of the country have suffered sexual violence during their lifetime (American Medical Association). In Mexico seven women are murdered every day (National Citizen Femicide Observatory). In Britain thousands of women are believed to be victims of sex trafficking (Unseen UK), and violent crime against women increased by 10% to 117,568 cases last year, a record high (Crown Prosecution Service). Even at UK universities 68% of women will experience sexual assault during their studies (NUS Hidden Marks).
This kind of oppression, faced by women all over the world, is barbarism in its most concentrated form. To fight it requires a determined, implacable, and ruthless struggle against its every manifestation. Above all, we must tear it out of society by its roots.
For this we need a serious and scientific approach to eradicating oppression. This means understanding the underlying causes of oppression, and learning the lessons from how it has been fought historically. From Engels to Trotsky to modern revolutionaries, Marxists have always dedicated themselves to studying oppression and how to fight it. It has been their battles which have delivered real steps forward in the fight for liberation.
Unfortunately, this serious approach to ending oppression is rejected by the dominant trend in the National Union of Students (NUS). Instead, what tends to be offered by these student politicians are ineffective stunts, single-issue campaigns, and virtue-signalling gimmicks. They try to justify all this with a multiplicity of jumbled ideas and indefinable concepts under the broad heading of ‘feminism’ or ‘identity politics’.
The result of the NUS’ capitulation to fashionable feminism and trendy identity politics is several policies and practices which do nothing to advance the fight against oppression. In fact, such policies hold the movement back, but are vigorously defended by those who have built reputations and activist niches upon them.
The first example is gender quotas. The NUS insists that affiliated student unions must send a delegation that is at least 50% female to its national conference, justified on the grounds that otherwise the needs and aims of female students will be underrepresented. Unfortunately, this is a superficial, knee-jerk reaction designed to cover up a problem instead of solving it.
Society under capitalism is hardwired to oppress women, that’s why there are fewer women involved in politics and activism. Until we launch a serious assault against this social system that relies on sexism, racism and every other kind of oppression, we will never be able to eradicate it. Cosmetic changes like gender quotas might resolve the problem of oppression for those particular women who become delegates on the basis of the quota system, but it doesn’t make any difference to the millions of women those individuals are supposed to be representing.
In fact, gender quotas can hold back the struggle against oppression because they trample over the principle that voters should be able to choose someone to represent them who they trust to make decisions on their behalf. It’s a system which allows a right-wing woman to be elected ahead of a left-wing man, even if the left-winger wins more votes. Agreeing or disagreeing with a person’s political views has nothing at all to do with gender. Just because I see a woman on the ballot does not mean that I’ll vote for her because I believe she will best represent my views. In the first Labour leadership election in 2015 it was not preferable for women to vote for Liz Kendall over Jeremy Corbyn just because she’s a woman. Her views are right-wing and would not achieve equality and an end to oppression, whereas Corbyn, a male candidate, has policies that would be far better for improving the position of women in society.
To improve the involvement of women in student politics and beyond, the NUS must take the question seriously and replace gender quotas with bold campaigning. For example, the NUS should campaign for free and universal childcare to be provided for anyone who wants to use it. The NUS must also campaign for the complete socialisation of domestic labour throughout society. Domestic tasks shouldn’t be private labour carried out in the home, but labour that is carried out by a public, socialised body. Success on these questions would enormously improve the lives of everyone, including women, not least by giving them more time to participate in politics if they so wished.
But even before success is achieved, just the act of building campaigns like this would inspire women to get involved in NUS politics – women would be active, not because of top-down, artificial gender quotas, but because they see the NUS as capable of genuinely improving the position of millions of women. Instead of women’s representation on the basis of sterile tokenism, you would have representation on the basis of genuine enthusiasm for radical policies.
Speaking rights and identity politics
At the NUS conference and in some student meetings, it’s not uncommon to hear the person chairing the session say, “we’ve not had a woman speak in a while, are there any women who want to speak?” As if women would not have raised their hands to speak, uninvited, should they wish to speak! There really is no more patronising or belittling way to try to get women to participate in politics.
And why does the gender of an individual matter anyway? If someone is speaking they are doing so in defence of their own ideas, not those of all people who happen to share some feature of their identity (unless they have been elected by, for example, all women, to speak on their behalf – which of course they haven’t).
In any case, why put so much emphasis on the question of gender? Why do we never hear the phrase, “we’ve not had any working class people from the most deprived areas of the country speak yet, where are the Northerners?” It seems like an arbitrary selection of which characteristics give you priority when it comes to speaking or being elected in student politics. There are plenty of people who are oppressed in different ways, so who decides who gets priority speaking rights out of a transsexual victim of abuse, a bisexual man with hidden disabilities, and a black single mother from a deprived area? Surely the most democratic way to run a meeting or a conference is just to let those who wish to speak, speak?
All-too-common phenomena today are campaigns that aim to “raise awareness” of certain problems. A well-known example is the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’, which does not go much beyond a website for cataloguing instances of sexism. And the United Nations ‘HeForShe’ campaign is, in practice, nothing more than a Twitter hashtag, a glossy website, and a few speeches by Harry Potter star Emma Watson. Meanwhile, as everyone involved in these ‘campaigns’ is patting themselves on the back, the rape, violence, and oppression experienced by women around the world continues unabated.
As far as the NUS is concerned, we must insist that campaigns that stop short of tackling the real problems faced by students aren’t good enough. We must not limit ourselves to “raising awareness” of the issue, or dealing with its consequences rather than its causes. Women are aware that they’re oppressed. Students are aware that their rent is too high. Workers are aware that zero hours contracts are bad. We don’t need the NUS leaders to spend lots of time and money commissioning reports on, or raising awareness about, things we already know. We need militant campaigns to tackle the roots of the problems, ones that use bold action and radical political arguments.
For example, the media and fashion/beauty industries perpetuate the objectification of women and encourage sexist attitudes in society all for the sake of profit. To tackle this the NUS should campaign for democratic public ownership of the media, so that everyone can have a say over the material that is being published. And the same should be done with these industries, so that clothing and beauty products can be produced and marketed in the best interests of the consumers, not those of the shareholders.
Something else the NUS should consider is the question of violence against women, not least because 68% of female students will experience sexual assault during their time at university (NUS Hidden Marks). By placing the enormous burdens of domestic labour, financial worries, the raising of children, and so on, on the shoulders of individuals, capitalism forces people into relationships in which economic considerations play a decisive factor, and the same considerations can force them to remain in relationships when they otherwise would not want to. The resulting pressure can lead to physical and emotional violence which becomes normalised as a mode of behaviour in society.
One way to tackle violence against women is to eradicate these pressures. The NUS needs to campaign for the socialisation of domestic labour, a decent living wage for all, guaranteed lifelong secure housing, free childcare for all, and so on, with the aim of allowing people to freely relate to each other without the distortions and alienation that many people suffer today.
The NUS needs to put aside any hint of a self-satisfied, low-impact “awareness raising” mentality in its campaigning, and instead look to raising students’ sights to a fundamental transformation of society.
Learning from history
We are serious about ending all forms of oppression, so it is necessary to call out the petty posturing that passes for feminism today, and counterpose a genuinely radical alternative. Not all those who might describe themselves as feminists necessarily limit themselves to the current methods of the NUS, but the muddled plethora of ideas that make up the ‘feminist movement’ are so varied that, in terms of concrete campaigns and policies that everyone can agree on, they are always reduced to the lowest common denominator.
Historically, steps forward in the fight against oppression have been made, above all, by working class organisations. It was the organisation of women workers in East London by the communist Sylvia Pankhurst that played a decisive role in the suffragette movement. And it was the Soviet government of the working class, established by the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which legalised divorce, abortion, gave women the right to vote, and began to free women from the slavery of domestic labour.
This relationship between working class struggle and steps forward in the fight against oppression is because oppression of all kinds finds its roots in class exploitation. Today the economic exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class is made much easier by dividing the workers amongst themselves along gender, race, and other lines. Malcolm X once said that you can’t have capitalism without racism. We could say the same thing about every type of oppression.
If we want a struggle that aims high – at the eradication of oppression in all its forms – we need to adopt the methods of Sylvia Pankhurst and the Russian Bolshevik party. That’s why we need clarity of ideas, revolutionary methods and radical aims. That’s why we’re Marxists, not feminists.
The contradiction of “Marxist-feminism”
Some people like to cover all their bases by describing themselves as a “Marxist-feminist”, to emphasise how committed they are to the emancipation of women. But this is not a very useful term. It implies that the fight to overthrow capitalism does not encompass the fight for women’s emancipation. If we were to view these two fights as separate, one conclusion to be drawn would be that gender equality and women’s emancipation are achievable within the confines of capitalism. This is entirely incorrect.
If it were true that gender equality is possible within capitalism, the only possible reason for the existence of things like the gender wage gap would be that, in the final analysis, it is simply a consequence of men’s choices, and all that’s required to resolve the problem therefore is to convince or force men to change their minds and pay women more.
But the pay gap does not exist just because men choose to pay women less, (although this does still occur). It exists because women do more precarious and part time work due to the burden of domestic tasks, which, as a hangover of tradition, more often fall to women. And it exists because women are more likely to take time off to give birth to and raise children – the next generation of workers – meaning employers are unwilling to invest as much money in them. In short, the pay gap exists because capitalism is a system which depends upon the unpaid labour of women to maximise profits.
When we understand how capitalism benefits from oppressing women, we can understand the origins of gender oppression. The subjugation of women to men did not begin because men are nasty, its origins lie directly within the origins of class society. It’s an objective, systemic problem, not just a question of attitudes. Thus it is class society itself that is the enemy, it is capitalism itself that must be overthrown in order to free people from oppression. Our fight must be the fight for socialism, and the struggles for individual demands on individual campuses must be combined into a wider fight against our common enemy.
We need a revolutionary struggle against oppression
We don’t just want to discuss individual issues that focus on the symptoms of oppression rather than ending oppression entirely. And we don’t want a campaign that splits, divides and atomises all of us on the basis of particular parts of our identity. Divided, we condemn ourselves to endlessly fighting one symptom after another without tackling the root of the problem – the class nature of society. Although some individual battles can be won and reforms can be achieved, and we should fight hard for these things, capitalism as a system, and all the oppression that goes with it, cannot be reformed out of existence – it must be overthrown.
Our fight against sexism on campus and beyond must be vigorous. As well as fighting for reforms we should aim to highlight how, even if we defeat the tampon tax, or Trump’s sanitisation of sexual assault, or we win the right to abortions for all women, we do not end the pay gap, we do not end violence against women, we do not end sexism until we can free women (and men) from economic exploitation.
Our task is clear; we must put forward revolutionary socialist ideas within the NUS, argue for the necessity of uniting all our struggles into a single fight to end capitalism and thereby rip out the roots of oppression once and for all.
by Natasha Sorrell, Sheffield