I don’t actually want to be an anti-feminist. I’m uncomfortable being against things. I’d rather share and share alike, live and let live. Besides, I have always liked women and even sympathised with them over some of the difficulties they have, such as period pains and childbirth, and having to put up with guys pursuing them when they want to be left alone. Now I find of have lost that sympathy. It’s not a pleasant state to be in. I’d prefer to be well-disposed toward people.
Of course, it isn’t the people; it’s the movement, right? I could dismiss the drivellings of female journalists moaning about things like how women are expected to wear high heels that damage the feet because “society is still sexist” as just another middle-class peeve. We all like a good moan now and then. I used to moan about having to travel every day in the rush hour, getting shoved about like cattle and catching everybody else’s colds.
But then along came Charlotte Proudman. I caught the story a day before it went front-page. They quoted her silly response to a senior colleague’s attempt at flattery in full, and very silly it was, too. And then a female cyber-friend asked me if I was a feminist and told me about the wage gap, which in my innocence I hadn’t actually heard about. So I looked it up. And went on looking. I found Sargon of Akkad and Thunderf00t, and one thing led to another and all of a sudden I was falling down the rabbit hole and there I was, swallowing the “eat me” cake, signing up to fight feminism because I’d finally understood what was really going on.
But I came with baggage. I’m a baby boomer, now half-retired. I spent some of my life being academic, some of it being a left-wing activist, and some of it just doing my own stuff. I come from a family of Labour Party supporters, a working-class family of origin, whose members benefited from the National Health Service and the welfare state which the Labour Party had brought in after the war. My grandfather suffered badly from unemployment and low paid, temporary work; his father was a labourer in a timber yard and died young, as did others in my family. Being left-wing was just a natural consequence of who you were.
So I was put out to find that all the anti-feminist sites I came across blamed the Left for feminism. How could that be? Was I not a leftie? Was I not against feminism? Reading further into this material I found straw men and false assertions, but also uncomfortable truths that needed to be faced. Most of all, though, I found a silence where the voice of the anti-feminist Left should be. So here it is, as far as I can make it. One man’s story of how an old Leftie joined the resistance.
Human, way too human
I once spent a year living in an all-male compound in the Middle East. Away from women for a whole year, we had to develop our own way of working together, as men. We were a disparate bunch: from left-leaning Brits to ex-military Americans and South African racists, New York Jewish academics to semi-educated car salesmen from Colorado, born-again Christians to out-and-out atheists. We had our arguments, for sure, but we mostly talked, discussed, shared ideas. We occasionally got heated but we were never outright rude, and at no time was there any threat of violence. Quite the contrary, we developed noticeably domestic behaviours and opened up to one another in ways men rarely do when there are women about.
But for all that, there were two things I noticed that remained constant across the board: no one ever talked about their families, and everyone had their ‘intellectual territory’, their one area of supposed world knowledge or expertise which they defended as if their very selves depended on it. So men are: not quite anchored in family, not quite complete without something they can identify with beyond themselves. Or so it seemed to me.
So this is my territory, and I’d better lay out my stall. My first political recollections are of my father, busy with an election campaign, helping to bring out the Labour vote on the big day. My mother was an observer, checking that all the votes were correctly counted. They were both ‘war recruits’, those who joined the Labour Party at the end of the war and who helped it to power and the new social policies into effect.
Soon after that, my older brother got into more radical campaigns. He was now rubbing shoulders with bearded university students who talked earnestly about Civil Rights, Apartheid and nuclear disarmament, and who championed the new national independence movements in Africa. This new breed looked down on the remnants of the ‘Old Guard’, the Communists, still making their excuses for the failure of the USSR, as relics from the past. The Soviet Union was a joke. A revolution in the wrong place, where barely any industrial working-class existed. No real democracy, only military force and the lies of Pravda.
I went to university in the 70s. “We are all socialists now,” remarked one of the history students, meaning everyone now had access to housing, jobs, health care and so on. ‘Women’s Lib’ came on the scene. The Labour Party developed its ‘socialist feminist’ groups, which met separately to discuss policy matters without, they said, the men dominating and expecting them just to bring the sandwiches, which, from my observations, was an accurate assessment. My father left the Labour Party. My mother stayed for the friendships she’d made. I withdrew into academia, thinking cleverness, rather than politics, would solve the world’s problems. The young women at university proved themselves just as clever as the men and were regarded as equals. ‘Women’s Lib’ seemed to fade away in favour of gay liberation.
Thus Spake Marx, Morris and Fenner Brockway
I moved on to post-grad level in the 80s. It was a busy time for politics. Margaret Thatcher was closing industries in the UK and President Reagan was placing cruise missile sites in the English countryside. I sympathised with the steel workers and the coal miners who were losing their jobs and communities. I was against cruise missiles, but then nobody likes nuclear weapons. Mainly, though, I concentrated on my research.
I was in the library one day looking for a book that wasn’t there when I pulled a random volume off the shelf because the subject intrigued me: William Morris. I had always pegged him as a ‘wallpaper socialist’, a rich man who designed arty interior décor and who wanted to ‘prettify’ the drab lives of working people with nice furniture and fancy patterns. So it was a shock to find that he spent the last thirteen years of his life preaching socialist revolution from every soapbox in the country on the grounds that capitalism separated the worker from his work, destroying his soul and producing soulless work: ‘mere’ commodities. Why did they never tell us this about him, I thought. And what else don’t they want us to know?
Students in the 80s were into ‘revolution’ and protestations of radicalism, but there was also a resurgence of Marxist-inspired political activity. You couldn’t avoid it. It came knocking on my door one day when I was asked for my skills in promoting a campaign for public access to publically owned land.
So I went to the source and read Marx. I found that Capital was a reworking of the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo, but placing the human being in the centre. It was densely argued but in places shone with righteous indignation at the sufferings of wage-earners obliged to work over twelve hours a day, while factory owners opposed the Factory Acts that would limit the hours children could be employed. It struck me as a very humane work. Marx’s idea of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” seemed a fair, moral principle, affirming everybody’s worth while acknowledging natural inequalities, but a remote ideal. In any case, did we not have our Enlightenment values? Did not English socialism already have its roots in Christian morality? Marx seemed superfluous.
Soon after this, Fenner Brockway came to give a talk to the Student Union, and I went along to hear what the old left-winger had to say. Here was a man I had heard about and admired. He had been a member of the Independent Labour Party, the first parliamentary party dedicated to representing working people, founded at a time when around one-third of working men did not even have the vote. Brockway opposed conscription in World War One and went to prison for his convictions. When a member of the audience asked him what he meant by ‘socialism’, he replied, “Democracy, democracy, democracy – not just for Parliament every five years, but democracy at all levels of society”. This chimed with my family roots and with my sense of fairness. I was on the Left, and if this was socialism, then I was a socialist.
Twilight of an icon
You can’t escape the Soviet Union. Not just from the inside: from the outside, too. Even the libertarian Left lived under its shadow. A common left-wing meme from the early 60s was, “Hitler killed 6 million but Stalin killed 8 million. So who was worse?” How could a movement that was essentially about democracy and freedom from poverty have been so wrong?
It should never have happened in Russia in the first place. The war and Tsarist repression had brought about the 1917 revolutions, and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party fed off them. But without a significant industrial working class, how could his Marxist ideals be realised? Simple. Lenin created the ‘vanguard party,’ a body of professional revolutionaries who would do what the working classes would have done had they existed. Most of the European Marxists opposed this “opportunism”, as can be seen in the so-called Lenin-Kautsky debates of 1917-18. But it was a fait accompli, and the USSR became the only example of ‘socialism’ in reality. An icon was born.
But then famously (on the left), the Red Army betrayed the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Stalin surprised everyone by forming an alliance with Germany after dithering for years over signing up to an alliance with Britain and France. The Left was shocked but made excuses (as did the Conservatives, who were ready to welcome the USSR into an anti-German pact) to the effect that he needed to buy time.
Then in 1948, a duplicated book was circulated under the title of The Nature of Stalinist Russia, by a Marxist by the name of Tony Cliff, and eventually published in 1955. It was a devastating attack on the Soviet Union, with copious facts and figures that revealed an appalling situation: gross departures from founding principles, the (presumed) annihilation of whole peoples (the secrecy was so great it was almost impossible to tell), and virtual dictatorship by a bloated bureaucratic class. This book, as much as the invasion of Hungary in 1956, put an end to the British Left’s – my Left’s – love affair with the USSR.
Beyond Left and Right
My Left is the Left of liberation: of freedom from colonial rule and escape from poverty, of openness, debate and the value of individuals no matter what level of society they are from. But above all, of democracy. I do not recognise this either in today’s PC/feminist movement nor the political Right’s characterization of it. My Left has become invisible.
I noticed it first in the 80s. Suddenly, there were all these feminists around, out of place amongst the old ‘socialist feminists’ and at odds with our old Left activism. Suddenly it was all gendered pronouns and men failing to acknowledge that they were oppressors. ‘New Labour’ arrived and was all about “minorities” (which bizarrely included women), “equality” (which seemed to have no measure), and lots of “rights”, which appeared to mean whatever a designated minority or the ever-oppressed women happened to want. The old concerns about social welfare were either swept out of sight (the ‘private sector’ would apparently now accommodate) or were twisted into this new landscape of minority and women’s “rights”, which now assumed the aspect of something incontestable. The debate was no longer an option.
I don’t believe that this new kind of Left has anything of my old politics about it. Neither am I convinced that it is a re-emergence of Marxist-Leninism in a new guise. I have heard the arguments, read the feminist biographies, seen the “down with capitalism and the patriarchy” posters carried by students. But what I see is a deliberate appropriation of those political forms, borrowed from their European context, emptied of Marxist content, and filled instead with the new feminist ‘group’ ideology. The structure looks similar, maybe acts in a similar way, but it isn’t what I understand by Marxism. There again, perhaps it doesn’t matter what it is: power is power, whatever rationale it espouses.
Milo Yiannopoulos has suggested that the left-right distinction is becoming obsolete and that what matters now is the libertarian-authoritarian dimension. I agree. The libertarian socialists who took issue with Lenin are still around, as are the old Leftists who care about social welfare, housing, jobs, and so on, especially for the poorer end of society. But the nature of politics has changed. Instead of the old Left, we now have powerful, government-backed ‘campaigns’ to enforce what a self-appointed clique of activists consider acceptable. By any measure, this is a thoroughly authoritarian way of doing things.
I want to make this quite clear: all of this is utterly against anything the old Left stood for. Feminists oppose equality of opportunity; they seek to deny individuals their democratic right to stand for election on the ground of their sex; they conduct overtly discriminatory campaigns, they reject rational argument and care nothing for working families. More than anything, they want special privileges for themselves and themselves alone.
Understandably, the Right have been the first to recognise the danger of a state-backed feminist movement, but I believe there are many on the Left – the old Left, my Left – who would join the anti-feminist cause but who see their politics derided alongside that of the feminists whom they detest. I believe there is no conflict between anti-feminism and the values of that Left of which I am a part. Indeed, there is something of the social conservative about those values – we believe in strong families and a healthy, well-ordered society. Just as in past times when son expected to follow father into the steel yards and whole communities thrived, so today the forgotten Left remains proud of its heritage of a sober work ethic, self-reliance and insistence on social responsibility.
We have moved beyond the old Left-Right politics. We who believe in individual freedom must accept past differences and recognise the new situation. We cannot usefully be chained to the old politics however much it may appeal to some because it is no longer the key issue. We face a power bloc that threatens all our freedoms, and unless all those on the side of freedom stand together the anti-feminist/PC movement will remain fatally vulnerable to the divide and rule of that old politics. To misquote an old German, we have nothing to win by chaining ourselves to the past; we have the world to lose.