The young Eleanor Marx persuaded her whole family to join her in attending the huge and enthusiastic demo in London in support of the Fenians. ‘Disobedience to tyrants is a duty to God’ said one of the placards. The Marx family sang the Marseillaise. They all ‘danced with joy’ when they heard of the election of the imprisoned Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa as member for Tipperary.
Eleanor Marx’s biographer Rachel Holmes reports that ‘“Marx optimistically identified the salient point: “The main feature of the demonstration … was that at least a part of the English working class had lost their prejudice against the Irish.”’
Bringing people together
It put me in mind of Ian Sinclair’s book, The March that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003. On the face of it, that was a book about the day vast numbers of people went to London and did their very best to stop Blair’s efforts to join the US attack on Iraq. But reading the book, I learned something else. The introduction is a fascinating document in itself, discussing the nature and development of ‘public opinion’, and what gets in the history books and what doesn’t, and what Sinclair learned, collecting opinions and memories from people who went on that march.
The overwhelming impression the book leaves is that the most important thing about a mass demonstration is that both the organising of and attendance at such events leads to people who would never normally encounter each other having conversations, and learning about each other. In other words, it develops solidarity.
I remember the same phenomenon over and over again, when acting as part of the Corbyn movement, and then the women’s sex-based rights movement. The people you meet, the lessons you learn from them. Just before the establishment blew Corbyn’s Labour out of the water, you could detect a conscious effort to harness this force. I remember an event in Hastings at which Corbyn’s community organisers were doing workshops encouraging people to tell their personal stories, to build activism by building relationships. It is the only way. Are all your friends and comrades ‘just like you’? If they are, go to some big rallies, and meet some other kinds of people – urgently.
I find broadening your range of contacts is naturally knitted in to most women’s actions and women’s conferences. It is thanks to FiLiA that I have met Palestinian women, refugee women, women whose families were struggling with the Windrush scandal, women in entertainment and the media, wealthy, land-owning women and women on the edge of destitution, women who were escapees from the sex industry or from wars in other countries… the list is endless. It’s political education at its finest.
Pushing people into boxes
The opposite of that is activism that is militantly engaged in identity politics. The reason I do most of my politics now within the women’s movement is that I got fed up of having to ‘fight our own people’ for the right to be feminist in any meaningful way, and to express the feminist view of what the left were calling, and still usually do call, the ‘trans rights’ situation. In socialism, ‘rights’ are expectations that people have because a mass movement have successfully won those conditions. They are not supposed to be something you present as ‘we must want this’, then freeze out anyone with ‘yes but’s – but that is how identity politics splinters the left.
I am a socialist and a feminist. I’ve been feministing more or less full time since I started stepping down from socialist activities to try and prevent a depression of activity when certain people said ‘I can’t go if she is’, or ‘we don’t want terfs’. I have decided it’s time to step back in. I have never, and would never do what they did. I don’t require everyone on the left to be exactly like me. I also know, however, that I’m one of those who will push back against bullies, and I know a lot of women find it harder than I do to face down conflict, so I thought I’d better tell you just how much I don’t fancy it, so that you can see the harm it has done, and that I’m going to do it anyway, because that’s how you undo that harm.
The problem, and the solution
We make our case for women’s rights as clearly and reasonably as we can, for as long as it is necessary. This is what we get by way of counter-argument…
Meanwhile, out of the public gaze, my blog posts continue to get interesting messages from trans people who don’t like the war Stonewall have dragged them into, and from women of the left, telling me when, where and how they have managed to speak up against the odds. Well done, and thank you to all those senders of messages! You are why I am now saying this…
Back in 2018, I decided not to stand for a second term as Vice Chair in my CLP because it was clear Stonewall’s lieutenants would attack and attack, and my choice was to become a ‘silent feminist’ or be the focus of a damaging split. I have since stood down from the remainder of my roles in my union and other organisations for the same reason. Comrades seemed to want me to stay, but also to stay silent on the feminism. Gradually, that wore me down and I got fed up of sitting there feeling my blood pressure rise. That ain’t going to happen again, because despite large numbers of women like me falling silent or backing off, the left does not seem to be thriving.
I am going to go and hear the admirable Dave Ward, and other TU speakers, and see what we can do to stand up for Hastings. If you, like me, are a feminist who’s got into the habit of avoiding lefties in order to avoid blood pressure problems, please come along and join the push-back. Most people do not abuse. Most people stand whistling on the margins and hope everyone sees them not noticing the abuse. They can’t keep that up. We will be comradely, we will be supportive. If we are challenged, we will continue to speak our truth and, if we see women who have been bullied or slandered, we will stand with them.
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