Lindsey German on how the left should confront oppression
I want to raise some issues here about the whole debate on trans rights in Britain. Even to write that sentence contains the risk of immediate denunciation, but it is important that socialists can discuss contentious issues openly and honestly and with mutual respect. At the heart of the matter is the assumption that people can put forward positions that they later change, or that others might profoundly disagree with, without being labelled as pariahs, banned from speaking at events, or even threatened with losing their jobs as the result of saying these things.
To argue ‘there is no debate’ as some trans activists have, is simply a denial of reality – there is a debate, both among trans people and in the wider society. It can only benefit us all to conduct it properly. Such debate has always been a part of past struggles and it is the key to how ideas have been changed in the past. The fight for women’s rights, LGBT rights and race equality have all been major battles in my lifetime and ones in which opinions were changed on a large scale – mainly through the actions of those oppressed sections of society, and people who supported them (including socialists who were involved in these movements from the beginning), but also through systematic campaigning and organising. This is a constant process as we are always faced with new situations which require new responses.
There are also many different analyses of where oppression comes from and how to end it. I am not a biological reductionist and reject some radical feminist views about that; but I do believe there is a material biological element to women’s oppression. I also reject the postmodern idealist views which suggest that there is only gender, and that this gender is a spectrum, rather than based on biological difference. This is what Friedrich Engels meant when he spoke of ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex’. He did not mean gender alone, or sex alone, he meant that what are now called gender roles arise from and are based on, but are not reducible to, differences of sex. This is why women’s oppression is a material experience which cannot be reduced to a change in language, but it is not eternal and unalterable either.
What does this mean concretely? It means that sex is an immutable characteristic of human beings and that various forms of class society construct systems of oppression on these differences. Does this mean that the oppression of women is inevitable and eternal? No, because the abolition of class society means that sex differences are no longer used as a means of constructing forms of oppression. But the real differences still exist, they are just no longer used as raw material of oppression. What this obviously does not mean is that women’s oppression can be abolished before class society is overturned, or that mere gender fluid definitions can abolish either structures of oppression or really existing sex differences.
Many take different views. The important question for me is not whether we agree about this, but whether we oppose women’s oppression and trans oppression. It is quite obviously counterproductive to denounce differing views on the left as transphobic or hate speech. Just as it would be absurd to denounce one or other of the different theories about racism (Marxist, black nationalist, liberal) as racist, or to question the good faith in opposing racism of those that hold them.
There has been a lot of argument about two recent developments. Last month a report commissioned by Essex University found that the advice given to it by the LGBT organisation Stonewall was misleading, describing the law as they wanted it to be, not as it actually was. Then last week an employment appeals tribunal found that Maya Forstater was entitled to her beliefs about biological sex and should not have been discriminated against because of them.
Both these decisions have been branded as transphobic and heralding attacks on LGBT people. They are not. Indeed the Forstater case allows those on all sides of this and other debates to express their views without being sacked, which is an advance for employment rights as I see it. And we should be critical of Stonewall – supposedly expert organisations should not be giving wrong advice about the law. The Equality Act is clear: there are 9 protected characteristics which should not be discriminated against. They include sex (not gender as is often said), gender reassignment (which protects trans people), sexual orientation, and religion and belief (which was the Forstater case).
The trans debate on the left is in danger of turning people who should be potential supporters and allies into enemies. To claim that those who do not agree on questions of gender are transphobes, TERFs, bigots, is not just an insult to those on the left, many with a long history of fighting all forms of oppression and bigotry, but it also weakens the movement as a whole.
Because there are plenty of real bigots out there, in government and media, and we know that they will continue to discriminate around sexuality, sex, gender and race. We on the left should be able to stand up for trans rights but also for women’s rights against discrimination and bigotry. It sometimes seems to me that the reality of women’s oppression gets lost in a lot of this. Women and the working class are the two oppressed majorities, and it’s almost as though this makes them invisible.
Yet if nothing else the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted how women’s oppression remains central to this system of exploitation under which we live. While there is a ruling class and managerial class conceit that this oppression can be smoothed away by girls’ education, gender pay gap reporting and MeToo movements, it is rooted in capitalist society and remains a reality in working and personal lives. It is also closely shaped by class - the experience of oppression is very different depending on which class you come from.
We have to fight for a society where both women’s rights and trans rights are campaigned for and respected. Where there is a conflict then it has to be discussed and debated. And there is often conflict between different groups of the oppressed – there is no natural unity of different oppressed groups, and it has to be fought for. It cannot be done by no platforming (which in my view should be reserved for fascists only, as they want to destroy the very means of debate and expression), and it cannot be done by moralistic diktat.
My first demonstration at the age of eighteen was against apartheid South Africa. I have fought all forms of oppression ever since. The movements when I was young made many mistakes, but they put equality issues on the agenda and demanded that there could be change. From the 80s onwards we have seen many of the ideas formulated then adopted by government and large sections of neoliberal capital into safe forms of identity politics, diversity management and EDI training. Socialists should not confuse the two.
It is a commonplace that social media debate can be toxic, and none more so than around the trans issue. In all this it’s worth remembering that real change only comes from struggle and that there’s no better political atmosphere than when masses of people come together in a common cause. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I went on the Palestine demo in London. We cannot allow genuine and important differences on the left to prevent us from organising together for change and equality.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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