QR Code

A crisis has exploded in International Socialist Alternative (ISA). For some time, the organisation has been riddled with differences on the burning questions of the day — imperialism, Gaza, Ukraine and much more. However, it is not because of any of these questions that the ISA finds itself on the verge of a split. Rather, all political questions are now subsumed under a dispute over the handling of a case of sexual misconduct by one of its former leaders.

A substantial minority of the ISA’s international leadership has declared a “Faction to Defend Safeguarding, Socialist Feminism and Internal Democracy”. While this is already bizarre, it turns out that both the minority and majority agree that the handling of the investigation did not follow the ISA’s Code of Conduct (CoC), which states:

“The basis for a leadership body taking action at the conclusion of an investigation is not on whether or not ‘proof of guilt’ has been acquired, which bourgeois courts use to systematically discredit survivors of harassment and abuse every day, but on the basis of our commitment to the safeguarding of individuals and the organisation.”

Without knowing the details of the case, it is impossible to pronounce on the accusations. However, what is clear is that both sides agree that it was wrong for the investigation to try to find facts and “proof of guilt” (!) instead of abiding by the feminist principle that an accuser must be believed no matter what.

So, if both sides agree that the ISA should conduct its investigations in the manner of the Spanish Inquisition, what are they fighting over exactly? In the eyes of the minority, the crime of the majority is that they have not shown sufficient remorse for how the investigation was handled. The minority demands more repentance, the removal of all those involved from leading positions and a more stringent CoC. To make sense of this, we must exit the real world and dive into the twisted and moralist universe of modern-day feminism.

Socialist feminism and moralism

At the heart of the ISA’s current crisis is the issue of socialist feminism. Much of the ISA’s existence is defined by being the left pole of the feminist movement. They are critical of liberal feminism for seeking to resolve women’s oppression within capitalism. They write about winning working-class men to women’s emancipation; they can denounce Hillary Clinton and quote Engels, Marx and Zetkin. However, as their current crisis shows, they fully imbibe the moralist and counterproductive means by which feminists seek to fight women’s oppression.

Women’s oppression and the antagonism between men and women in capitalist society are rooted in the institution of the family. Like every form of oppression, this divide cannot be overcome (as some on the left advocate) by simply uniting around economic demands. Working-class men must be won to the understanding that their own emancipation depends on actively championing the cause of women’s liberation. This is not a moral argument but a materialist one. For example, while the burden of care, education and domestic chores falls overwhelmingly on women, working men have a direct material interest in socialising these. Advances for women — better health and social care, education and services — also benefit working-class men.

But for feminists, the problem of women’s oppression can only be tackled by fighting men and their backward ideas. Men must do more chores at home. Men must stop “mansplaining”. Men must behave better. In the case of violence against women, which is everywhere a burning question, the feminist approach seeks to solve the problem by policing men’s behaviour through shaming, repression and ideological education. On all these counts, feminists avoid the root of the problem — the economic organisation of society and its level of social and cultural development — thus perpetuating the antagonism between men and women.

The rise in violence against women and trans people is directly linked to the degradation of the social conditions of the working class. In the context of general social decline, an ideological campaign telling men not to be violent towards women not only has no tangible effect but also fosters a backlash among men who know such behaviour is wrong and legitimately resent being patronised by arrogant liberals. The inevitable backlash is then directed against feminism and against women generally. Violence against women and social reaction must be fought in a way that strengthens the position of the entire working class, from promoting armed self-defence to defending the right of trans kids to choose (see article, page 12) to the struggle for better social and living conditions. All these struggles require methods and aims completely opposed to those of the feminist movement.

The ISA rejects such a class-struggle approach by embracing feminist moralism, as most clearly seen in their cheerleading of the #MeToo movement. Against a real social ill — the impunity with which powerful men abuse women — the #MeToo movement offered only a dead end. Shaming campaigns, sensitivity training and rejecting the presumption of innocence, once again, did not tackle any of the fundamental problems (the capitalist justice system, the abuse of power, social hierarchies) and predictably fostered a backlash.

Furthermore, it is simply a fact that sometimes women do lie about being abused. There can be all kinds of motivations and material incentives to fabricate or exaggerate allegations of sexual assault, not least to attack the left. The case of Julian Assange is a notorious example. To simply believe every allegation without question is not only absurd but suicidal for the workers movement. But it is precisely such moralism that the ISA has enshrined in its CoC, creating the mess we see today.

Sex and the CoC

Needless to say, an organisation which claims to be socialist and yet conciliates acts of violence against women in its ranks betrays its fundamental purpose. It is not difficult to believe that an organisation like the ISA, which comes from the CWI’s long tradition of social-democratic reformism, would have conciliated such acts. However, the ISA has responded to this problem in a typically feminist manner, adopting a Code of Conduct to police the behaviour of its membership — a document which is scary and downright bonkers.

The ISA’s CoC says more about the organisation than all their writings about socialism. Not only does it insist that “proof of guilt” is not the criteria for determining disciplinary measures, but it also lists in detail all the things that could constitute harassment, from serious crimes such as rape and sexual battery to “jokes or innuendo of a sexually suggestive nature”, unwanted hugging or even yelling and swearing.

The problem with the CoC is that it does not judge the actions of ISA members according to whether they are consistent with the revolutionary aims of the organisation. Instead, the CoC is written according to the moral principles of the liberal feminist petty bourgeoisie, whereby male members are considered a threat to women members, who are victims needing “safeguarding”. Instead of having as its starting point that ISA members are united in the fight against oppression, the CoC creates a climate of suspicion in which flirting and sex are considered dangerous activities, one wrong move away from assault and rape.

The CoC’s definition of harassment is totally subjective, based on hurt feelings rather than betrayal of the socialist cause. A member on the receiving end of a heated political argument can claim to be a victim of abuse just as one who has really been assaulted. For a party that aims to fight for revolution — a business which necessarily entails stepping on liberal sensitivities — this is insane.

In sex, as in everything else under capitalism, there are all kinds of oppressive and unequal relations. Faced with this reality, the task of Marxists is not to pronounce moral judgement or determine what is acceptable or not but to defend the fundamental principle that whatever happens between two consenting individuals is nobody else’s business. Ultimately, Marxists fight for a world where individuals can make their own choices as freely as possible. Fortunately, the establishment of socialism only requires convincing the working class of the need for a revolution, and not that looking at a woman’s breasts is a sin.

But the feminist approach to the problem of sex and “imbalances of power” is precisely to dictate who people should have sex with and how. The ISA’s CoC is a prime example of this. The CoC of their Irish section pushes things even further by explicitly discouraging sex between members with significant age gaps, banning all sexual intercourse with anyone under 18 and giving detailed instructions on how to behave in the bedroom:

“The party advocates ‘enthusiastic consent’…. Enthusiastic consent can look like this: Asking permission before you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like ‘Is this OK?’…. Periodically checking in with your partner, such as asking ‘Is this still okay?’”

For all their radical verbiage, the feminists of the ISA are not so different from priests. Whether it is the Church or the ISA’s CoC, both tell consenting individuals what they can and cannot do with their bodies and in the bedroom. In both cases, women and young people are treated as victims threatened by men’s corrupt sexual appetites. In both cases, this puritan preaching is totally destructive to working-class consciousness.

Since no one can ever be pure enough, and since anyone questioning this madness is immediately suspected as a defender of abuse, the ISA’s CoC and everything it stands for can only lead to endless internal strife and splits. Moreover, it breeds hypocrisy. Do ISA members watch porn only if it promotes “enthusiastic consent”?

Joking aside, if ISA members are to have any chance at reorienting themselves towards a revolutionary path, they must break with the bourgeois moralism of feminism and approach the struggle for women’s liberation from the standpoint of Marxism. Instead of socialists chewing themselves up in the never-ending task of purging themselves (and each other) of their presumed unconscious bias and other sins, they should direct their energies towards purging the working class and the movements for LGBTQ+ and women’s emancipation of their liberal and Labourite leaders, who are the living embodiment of timid and cringing submission to the exploiters.