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Louis Bayman, 6 October 2013 One of the measures of how progressive the workers' and socialist movements are is their dedication to a people's education, to pushing the boundaries of enquiry in the interests of militant democratic action. There are good reasons why revolutionary socialism and intellectual enquiry should fit well together. Both involve a readiness to overturn what we might otherwise take for granted. The Gramscian idea that all people are philosophers, because everyone works from a certain conception of the world, lays the ground for a bottom-up, anti-authoritarian approach to ideas. This approach holds that life is itself an educator, and can link theory and learning to values of human liberation and practical action. There are points nowadays when it feels like the SWP is adopting a disciplinarian defensiveness which steers us away from this lineage. This tendency is signalled by a short piece for the current issue of the International Socialism Journal, the party's main organ for theory, called 'History without Nature?', written by left-wing blogger and SWP (Ireland) member John Molyneux. It may seem a frivolous article to focus on given that the same issue also contains a systematically dishonest account of an accusation of rape heard within the party, written by two leading members. Worryingly for a journal with claims to intellectual rigour, its tone is by turns pleading and denouncing but never arguing or persuading. But I will however leave it to other people to set the record straight on that one, and simply state that I am on the ISJ editorial board, but neither of these pieces were submitted for comment or criticism. It is the attempt in 'History without Nature?' to write the same evasive and conservative instincts into our theoretical outlook that I will take issue with here. Envisaged as a rejoinder to two recent articles on gender and sexuality the author begins by informing his public that 'Unfortunately I lack the knowledge, particularly in anthropology, needed to offer a comprehensive response to either'. Since his conclusion begins by telling us 'I do not have the empirical evidence to pronounce' on the topic, before making his final pronouncements, one might be forgiven for finding these to be strange start- and end-points for the investigation. But according to Molyneux, not for us are the 'numerous fashionable academic forms' of the 'last 40 years' which might see sexuality or "gender" (it is not explained why this word is put in scare quotes) as socially constructed, and therefore as fluid. Although such an approach might seem dogmatic, his confidence is grounded in the belief that 'Fortunately we have dialectics, and specifically the dialectics of nature, to help us deal with these problems.' We know this is good fortune because dialectics allow us to assert that the basis of the family, and therefore of sexuality and oppression, is a 'natural' biological opposition of man and woman. From this standpoint, the 'rich variety of human sexual practices and attitudes...are irrelevant'. We are instead informed that 'human sexuality... reach[es] back to and develop[s] out of pre-human, ie animal/natural sexuality.' Heterosexual, vaginal penetration is the basis of the family, 'oral and anal sex' are subject to social construction. Going further, he states that 'Race is not a scientifically valid or useful biological category in the way that gender is. The notion of distinct races really is a social/historical construction. The concept of distinct genders or sexes is not.' It would really have helped if Molyneux had taken the time to find out about the theories he believes he is refuting. If he had an inkling of the meaning of the words he uses, he would know that gender is not biology and sexuality is not sex. Sex - anal, oral, or various deviations from these acts - is an activity. Sexuality concerns our feelings and desires, and crucially, our conceptions of ourselves and our relations to others; in short, it is an aspect of our identity. He is similarly ignorant on gender. When Aretha Franklin sings 'You make
me feel like a natural woman', or when in The Godfather Vito Corleone tells a sobbing Sinatra-clone he should 'act like a man', they are privy to something to which Molyneux, unfeasibly large dialectic in hand, remains oblivious: 'acting like a man' or 'feeling like a woman', are not given at birth, not decided by the ability to have children, nor possession of a Y chromosome, nor anything beyond the values and associations of a particular society. Gender is not biology. It is political. That these topics have real effects Molyneux does recognise. Closing with a discussion of pre-class society, he tells us that if it is the case that in non-class, non-alienated primitive societies there was a general tendency to sexual cruelty, bullying, rape, etc, this would raise serious difficulties for our whole argument about oppression... it would suggest that sexual oppression might continue to exist not only “after the revolution” but in the future classless society, which would open the door to patriarchy theory and various forms of identity politics and separatism. One would prefer a revolutionary not to work from a fear of the imagined hordes of identity politicians and separatists (amongst whom are... anyone at all in this day and age??) at the door but rather a desire to overcome oppression. Yet once again an intellectual laziness is at work beneath the fantasy. If we discover that rape, inequality, and sexual abuse had in fact happened in pre-class society, it might indicate not that oppression is in our natures, but that sexual liberation and equality could be things we'd still need to fight for to achieve collectively. Alternatively, if we start believing that the revolution is going to sort everything out then it might have real consequences for the prominence we give to issues of feminism, rape and women's liberation (to choose a few hypothetical examples). If on the other hand we were to give a serious account of the thought of the likes of Foucault and Judith Butler, we might discover ways of developing historically materialist understandings of apparently subjective states like feeling, desire and identity. We might be able to learn more about how they have developed through history, and so how they could be determined not by nature but human actions and political struggles. We might also be able to gain some insight into how our behaviour submits to, replicates, or resists broader systems of control - including in our own organisations. Alternatively, we could just not bother. But this not bothering has consequences, and those consequences shame us publicly. As one quick Facebook reaction had it, I feel like I'm being given basic sex education by John Molyneux, which is just weird. And it comes with the added bonus that other forms of sex are cultural rather than biological. Which is a nice way of spreading a very old heteronormative ideal. Just come out and fucking say it, John: you think my sexuality is 'un-natural'. The first step to not being a homophobic, transphobic misogynist is admitting that you have a problem. Try telling him he just hasn't grasped the dialectic hard enough. The arrogance of our overarching insistence that everyone else is wrong is unfortunately of a piece with the series of mistakes we have been making lately. These mistakes cannot be dealt with if, tetchy and confused, we are simply to decry the last 40 years of intellectual progress as the new-fangled ideas of trendy academics. They cannot be dealt with if we come to believe that the point of theory is not to change the world, but merely to justify ourselves in various ways. They cannot be resolved if intellectual leadership is maintained by a narrowing group guarding a belief system whose steadily decreasing ability to engage with the world leads only to its own further ossification; they cannot be dealt with by people who seem more like they need a good rest rather than further platforms from which to lecture us.
I am not sure at what point our guiding principle changed from 'neither Washington nor Moscow' to 'never explain, never apologise.' The approach to ideas which underlies this journal piece, its closed system of thinking and the deference it aims to encourage of a few increasingly discredited arbiters of a self-justifying official line, must change. To continue with it would make mugs of us all.
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