No to sectionalism!
The NUS women’s officer campaigns have been marked by their economism. By Anne McShane
The election of a women’s officer has importance in a period when women’s rights are under attack. Chief among these is the threat to abortion rights. Now women can have an abortion up to the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, with the written consent of two doctors. They do not have the right to choose. But even the present limited rights are under threat from MPs, who are attempting to reduce the time limit by amending the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently before parliament. Clearly there is a need for mass organisation to oppose this attack.
Sofie Buckland, a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, came within four votes of being elected NUS women’s officer: she received 29 votes against 33 for Labour Students’ Katie Curtis. In her campaign, Sofie was out to challenge the domination of Labour Students within the women’s campaign in NUS. She argued that, while their policies might look good on paper, they have done precious little to put them into action. In particular, previous women’s officer Kat Stark “voted down a proposal to organise a demonstration for abortion rights”1.
Certainly Sofie is to the left of the other two candidates, Katie Curtis of Labour Students and Cat Smith, supported by the Socialist Action-dominated Student Broad Left. They are both mainstream feminists, committed to legislative forums and piecemeal reforms. Cat Smith promised to work with the mayor of London to lobby for the Single Equalities Bill, while Katie Curtis will now openly collude with New Labour.
Sofie Buckland instead calls herself a “socialist feminist” – a highly contradictory term. She states that capitalism cannot provide the answers and for women to be liberated we need socialism. She is involved in Feminist Fightback, which also describes itself as “socialist feminist” (despite being set up and run by the Marxists from the AWL). She argues that capitalism cannot afford to liberate women: “Capital does not want to pay for the free, top-quality nurseries, laundry services, hospitals, canteens and food deliveries that women need to escape domestic drudgery and give us real equality”; and if we win social provision “we continuously have to defend it from cuts and privatisations”.
But the one factor that is missing in her manifesto is the political role of the working class. In her universe, it seems, the working class is to change economic conditions to allow the liberation of women to take place. But if the working class does not take the emancipation of women up as its own struggle, we will never win socialism or women’s liberation.
No form of feminism, ‘socialist’ or otherwise, can take on that task. Feminism is extremely limited, in that it deals with the women’s question as a sectional one. And it is divisive. Both men and women must be involved in the struggle for women’s emancipation, and the struggle must be one that places the working class, not feminists, in the leadership of the struggle to achieve liberation.
Abortion important after all
The treatment of class as a purely economic issue is reflected also in a recent pamphlet on abortion produced by the SWP2. It has now decided – after its falling out with George Galloway – that this is an important question after all! In Respect, the SWP bowed to pressure from Galloway and actually voted down a number of motions, sponsored by the CPGB, which would have committed the organisation to campaign for the real right to choose. Instead, the SWP restricted itself to opposing any attack on existing rights.
During the last general election there was not a peep out of Respect candidate (and leading SWP member) Lindsey German when similar threats to cut time limits were being made by Michael Howard, then Tory leader – and supported by a wide range of Labour and Tory politicians, as well as religious leaders. Specific mention of abortion was consciously omitted from Respect’s manifesto.
But now that the SWP has ‘rediscovered’ the importance of this question, what answers does it have to offer? The writer of the pamphlet, Goretti Horgan, argues quite rightly that it must be a woman’s right to choose. She then later goes on to state that it is a class issue. Again, quite right. Unfortunately however, her argument on class is simply that, while working class women suffer, rich women have it all their own way – “they simply hop on their private jets and fly off to somewhere they can get a legal, or at least safe, abortion”. There is no defence of the right to choose for women who are not working class.
It is precisely this narrow, economistic approach to the question of class that has led to illusions in so-called ‘socialist feminism’. It is to completely misrepresent Marxism and the politics of universal human freedom. Our class must take up the liberation of women as a whole. We must therefore take up the question of abortion rights on the basis of defending all women, not just the working class. Linking this struggle to the fight for working class power raises it from the sectional to the universal.
2. Goretti Horgan: Abortion: a woman’s right to choose