Socialist Feminists and the Socialist Alliance: An exchange between Louise Walker and Radical Women

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2004 Palm Sunday Refugee rally. Photo by Alison Thorne.

In the last Radical Women Supplement, of Freedom Socialist Bulletin # 30 (Summer/Autumn 2004), Radical Women published its letter to the Socialist Alliance National Executive explaining its decision not to formally affiliate to Socialist Alliance (SA) but to instead remain autonomous while actively supporting SA as a united front. We publish below the subsequent discussion between Radical Women and Socialist Alliance National Co-convener, Louise Walker.

Which Way for Socialist Feminism?

As both a feminist and a socialist, I am very disappointed that Radical Women (RW) has declined an invitation to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance. RW has a lot to contribute and to gain from affiliating to SA. While the decision to affiliate is one for RW itself, the reasons given for rejecting affiliation, when scrutinised politically, are not actual barriers to unity within the SA project.

In its response, RW outlines an organisational separatism that has been a central feature of politically active socialists and feminists in Australia for a very long time. This division has largely been justified through an overemphasis of apparent political difference between various small groups on the socialist Left.

There is no doubt that real political differences exist, and a healthy respect for those differences is an essential component of successful unity. However, a great deal of political commonality can equally be demonstrated between each and every socialist group that I know to be operating in Australia. In fact, most groups clinging to separateness would be challenged to find even 10% programmatic difference with either each other or the Alliance, and RW is no exception. Exaggerated or contrived differences are a recipe for the continued marginalisation and irrelevance of socialism from the broad Australian working class, and are the very antithesis of the revolutionary transformation most are trying to pursue.

The first reason RW offers for its decision to decline affiliation is that Socialist Alliance “is not a feminist organisation and does not claim to be.”

The requirement that Socialist Alliance be, first and foremost, a fully formed feminist organisation before Radical Women would affiliate begs the question of RW’s purpose as an organisation. Requiring every other organisation (and presumably individual) to satisfy, and independently achieve in advance, the very criteria RW sets out as its goal to help create socialism would negate the very rationale for RW’s existence.

This also begs the question (and it is one I would like to pursue with RW in the framework of an Alliance discussion): who decides what is a “feminist” organisation and on what criteria? For most feminists I know, an organisation which aims to advance women’s rights and liberation, and which has both a policy/platform and  practice/activity that does that, could reasonably be called a feminist organisation. By those criteria, Socialist Alliance would certainly qualify.

Another reason RW gives for declining affiliation is that the largest SA affiliate, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP, now the Democratic Socialist Perspective) is opposed to “autonomous organising in the socialist movement.” That may be a sound reason for not affiliating to the DSP, but the invitation came from the Alliance. The SA leadership is well aware of the basis upon which Radical Women exists and does its work. It would not invite affiliation if it meant that Radical Women’s very existence was threatened by the act of affiliation.

Political differences exist between each of the Socialist Alliance affiliates on a number of questions. These are just as important to the distinctive existence of our affiliates as autonomous organising is to Radical Women. Nevertheless, these differences do not preclude the common ground unity connections created within the Alliance by affiliates. My understanding of the DSP’s position on autonomous organising is that it is not in-principle opposed to it in the broader socialist movement. Rather, the DSP’s documents argue that autonomous organising within revolutionary Marxist parties is counterproductive — for women and the party as a whole. But the DSP has consistently made it clear that it does not consider SA such a Marxist party and that it is committed to the building of SA as a broad, multi-tendency socialist party.

But whatever the DSP’s position on autonomous organising, there is no basis for believing that the DSP position would be automatically adopted by Socialist Alliance. Socialist Alliance is not opposed to the creation of platforms and caucuses within it — indeed the Constitution enshrines such activity. I can easily imagine the creation of a socialist feminist caucus within SA that was dedicated to putting forward the case for a socialist feminist analysis of the world, and the principles for organising upon that basis.

Socialist Alliance’s structure is intended to be as broad as possible, to allow for the maximum participation of affiliate groups and individuals. The Alliance as a whole, and this includes the DSP, are for extending measures that facilitate the participation of any group that agreed with SA’s core aims and principles, not for restricting such measures. If RW genuinely feels that there is a serious obstacle here to greater unity, the politically responsible thing to do would be to discuss it with the leadership of the Alliance. By implication, RW are effectively equating the DSP with SA, a myth akin to the idea that the DSP is “trying to take over SA,” or that SA is “a front group for the DSP.” Just as it is both sad and tiresome that RW wishes to perpetuate this nonsense to justify their self-imposed separatist existence, so it is to disregard the non-DSP majority membership, activity and leadership of the Alliance. It contributes nothing constructive to the building of a socialist movement in Australia, or to RW’s own expansion.

The RW letter asserts that, with the adoption of a multi-tendency socialist party framework for SA, the affiliates of Socialist Alliance will ultimately be required to “dissolve.” This is presented as a further threat to the continued existence of Radical Women should it affiliate. But is becoming a tendency within the Alliance the same thing as dissolving? Why should it be? This is the opposite of the stated intention of the national conference document of the non-aligned caucus who initiated this transformation, and it was made quite clear at conference and since. As I understand the concept of dissolution, the politics of the affiliate would have to be disbanded and vanish, and presumably the broad politics of the Alliance would replace them. But this is certainly not what is expected to become an internal tendency or platform within SA, as is presently being demonstrated by the DSP as they go through  this transformation. Certainly, becoming an internal tendency involves, for the affiliate, a rethinking of its relationship to the rest of the organisation, and the broader movements within which it does its political work.

Without doubt it requires placing greater emphasis outside SA upon promoting SA, and looking to recruit to the tendency or platform from within SA. So yes, the affiliate must go through some organisational change to become a purely internal platform or tendency. I would not want to underestimate the real change in orientation that is involved for the group.

However, it is important not to overestimate the change either. Such a reorientation does not amount to obliteration. What should matter most to those adhering to a particular political tendency is increasing the influence of those ideas. I think that the long-term prospects for recruitment to the currents within Socialist Alliance are much greater than from outside it. But for these greater prospects to be realised, the socialist Left must really get behind the Alliance. Those who embrace greater unity, in and through the Socialist Alliance, demonstrate to the rest of us how seriously they take the rebuilding of the socialist movement in Australia, and so the esteem with which they are held within the Alliance will grow. In turn, the other ideas that are important to those tendencies will be taken more seriously.

However, the really crucial point to grasp in this concern about dissolution is that the Alliance is not requiring affiliates to undertake the greater integration that becoming a purely internal tendency involves. It is only being encouraged. Affiliates can join and participate in SA, and draw upon the benefits that a wider milieu and greater resources offers for promoting their specific agendas, without in any way compromising their distinctive political or organisational integrity or, for that matter, their public profile.

Radical Women claims that it “is committed to building a mass women’s movement, capable of providing the leadership needed for socialist revolution.” It seems logical that such a commitment would lead RW to grasp with both hands the greatest opportunity it has to present its ideas to the largest audience available to it in many years by affiliating to SA. For example, SA is currently in the process of developing a women’s charter. If RW were prepared to recognise, at least, that Socialist Alliance is very serious about putting women’s rights and liberation back on the national political agenda, RW could (and should) have made a significant contribution to the charter as part of SA. In the process, it would have strengthened its own organisation and influence, strengthened the left unity embodied in Socialist Alliance, and strengthened both the socialist and women’s liberation movements.

With the political and organisational independence of affiliates respected and safeguarded, there really is no rationale for any left organisation to remain separate from the Alliance. But there are many reasons for them to unite. We must overcome our political enclave culture by sharing and building upon one another’s efforts, experience and connections. There presently exists in Australia a crisis not only for social-democracy but also for socialism, and we all stand at a crossroads. We have an historic opportunity to rebuild the organisation necessary to introduce and advance socialist and feminist ideas to ordinary people on a mass scale. We must not squander it.

I hope RW will reconsider. In the interests of constantly broader left unity, Socialist Alliance’s doors are permanently open to new affiliates and members, and I look forward to the opportunity to commence the serious unity discussions that any such reconsideration by RW might bring.

Louise Walker
Socialist Alliance National Co-Convener

Women need a mass women’s leadership organisation

Thank you for your response to Radical Women’s letter to the National Executive in which we explained why RW decided not to affiliate. Your reply flags disagreement with key principles of RW’s existence: the right of an oppressed group to autonomously organise, and the need to build a mass women’s leadership organisation. We welcome the opportunity to elaborate on this and related issues as well as the basis of RW’s long-standing support for SA.

In your letter, you argue for SA’s transformation from a united front into a multi-tendency party and the idea of uniting around purely organisational, not programmatic, principles. This argument, originally put by what is now the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), is one that our sister organisation and founding SA affiliate, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), opposed from the outset. RW shares the FSP’s position that principled unity works only on the basis of political agreement on key points, not organisational expediency. This debate is well documented, and I won’t repeat it here. But I raise the argument to answer your accusation against RW of “organisational separatism” and a “self-imposed separatist existence” as well as political groups who defend their programs of “clinging to separateness” and “political enclave culture.”

Radical Women is an autonomous women’s organisation with a revolutionary feminist program. You call us separatist on both counts. On both counts, you’re wrong. RW’s political program is based on the theory of Russian Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky that the leadership for revolutionary change comes from the most downtrodden. Like Trotsky, we recognise that because private property-based systems have historically needed sexism to survive, women come into the movements already radicalised, just by being women. Class, sexuality and race sharpen our determination and embolden us even more to be leaders for change. Because of the way oppression, in any form, is so deeply entrenched and brutalising, autonomous organising is the building block for oppressed groups to turn themselves from victims into fighters providing the theoretical, militant and incorruptible leadership that the movements so badly need.

Radical Women was founded in the United States in 1967 by New Left student activists and feminist radicals of the “Old Left” socialist tradition, who refused to be treated as second class by the male leaders of the social movements. Gloria Martin, one of RW’s founders, explains that the group was formed to “demonstrate that women could act politically, learn and teach theory, administer an organisation, develop indigenous leadership, and focus movement and community attention on the sorely neglected matter of women’s rights — and that women could do this on their own.” Program and autonomous organising are the opposite of separatist: they are unifying!

An early example of how Radical Women provided leadership was its involvement in the anti-Vietnam War mobilisation. At the first protest it attended, RW’s contingent arrived dressed as Viet Cong women — complete with guns. In the U.S., this was not only politically poignant, it was gutsy! A lot of male activists of that period believed that because women couldn’t be drafted, they had no place in the movement (except for office work and domestic/sexual services). RW responded that while we opposed the draft, we also opposed the sexism that excluded women from it. We said that the “the second sex” would make the strongest draft resisters. Our members talked to GIs about how sexism, racism and the promotion of violence against women are essential to military indoctrination. By countering the prevalent single-issue perspective of the war, we went beyond the slogan “Out Now” and called for the defeat of imperialism and victory of socialism in North Vietnam. In the anti-war coalitions, we fought for democracy and a voice for Marxist feminist viewpoints, in particular, recognition that women are among the chief victims of war. RW vigorously argued for an end to the slavish devotion to the pro-capitalist Democratic Party. Our history equips us to draw the same connections in today’s anti-war movement — again calling for explicit feminist, anti-capitalist solutions.

When the U.S. State amassed its forces against the Black Panthers (“anti-terror,” 1960s style), RW again stepped in. The Black Panthers called on us to defend them against a threatened police attack on their headquarters. We organised a human shield that blocked the cops from entering the building, and thwarted the attack. The respect that the Panthers had for RW came from the connections we continue to draw between race, sex and capitalism and the fact that we had boldly called them on the sexist treatment of women in the movement.

From those early days, Radical Women has now grown to have branches across the United States and in El Salvador. Our chapter in Australia was established in 1983. We’ve remained deeply involved in all movements — anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, feminist, queer, union, Indigenous, and socialist — persistently fighting for a Marxist, feminist voice.

Right now, RW branches across the United States are preparing a Revolutionary Feminist Contingent to the March for Women’s Lives on April 25. Although the march is organised by the pro-Democrat, femocrat lobbyists within the National Organization of Women, this much-needed mobilisation for abortion rights is inspiring multi-issue militancy — something this historic struggle needs more than ever before.

We’ve had to fight just as hard for reproductive and queer rights in Australia. RW is working toward a vibrant grassroots campaign for childcare and paid maternity leave, with the potential to win these crucial demands rather than see them die a slow death from backroom deals in Parliament and the ACTU. Without RW’s intervention in Melbourne’s IWD Collective this year, the word “sexism” would not have been included in the anti-war, anti-racist theme. This was as part of a collective that was overwhelmingly made up of other Socialist Alliance members!

As the left wing of the feminist movement and feminist wing of the Left, Radical Women differentiates ourselves from radical feminists, whose anti-men separatism leads to a dead end of individual “solutions” for social problems. We just as vigorously differentiate ourselves from liberal lobbyists, who sell out for respectability and preservation of the status quo. We recognise that feminism and socialism are inextricably related as strategic parts of humanity’s struggle to liberate itself from capitalism. They are consistent, interdependent and harmonious at every point. The Radical Women Manifesto says why this is so: “It is by [women’s] involvement that the [union], radical, people of colour, ethnic minority, and sexual freedom movements can be pressured to come to grips with [women’s] issues, which are also their issues. In addition, we must work to radicalise the feminist movement and educate women to the multi-issue nature of our struggle, which means teaching them the need to make common cause with the entire working class and with revolutionary politics.” Hardly a separatist position!

You go on to say that unless RW — or any organisation — affiliates to SA, we won’t be taken seriously: “Those who embrace greater unity in and through the Socialist Alliance demonstrate to the rest of us how seriously they take the rebuilding of the socialist movement in Australia, and so the esteem with which they are held within the Alliance will grow. In turn, the other ideas that are important to those tendencies will be taken more seriously.” This position sounds like the “political enclave culture” you accuse us of — the opposite of what you say should be the “sharing and building upon one another’s efforts, experience and connections.” Does it mean, for example, that SA takes Workers First less seriously simply because it supports, but has not affiliated to, Socialist Alliance? In other words, SA is not going to grow if there is a sectarian attitude that the socialist movement begins and ends within SA.

What if RW were to put this argument to SA and demand that SA affiliate to RW? Although RW wouldn’t take a sectarian position, what if we were to demand that SA affiliate as a condition of RW supporting SA? Of course we wouldn’t, at this point, ask SA to affiliate to RW, because we do not share a socialist feminist perspective nor common program. It’s on the basis of SA’s formation three years ago — ie agreement that the working class needs a socialist electoral alternative — that RW has actively supported SA since Day One. We do not have to affiliate in order to continue supporting this important united front project.

RW has contributed a lot to SA over the past three years. For starters, RW members joined SA. We have committed resources to every election campaign. One of our members, Alison Thorne, was the lead candidate on the Victorian Senate ticket at the last Federal election. RW member and stalwart of SA’s Geelong branch, Brigitte Ellery, was SA’s candidate for Lara, polling nearly 3% of the vote. We motivated our supporters to join and recruited scores of our supporters, workmates and family members to join SA to help achieve electoral registration. We have mobilised our members and supporters on each polling day. In this year’s election, we’ve raised funds for Wills by bringing 16 members and supporters to its April 3 dinner and selling raffle tickets for RW supporter Peter Hannaford’s bold political paintings. We are now gearing up to go door knocking for the upcoming Federal election campaign, and we will again be there on polling day.

Our meeting in April will feature Senate candidate Lalitha Chelliah, Wills branch convener Judy McVey and Brigitte Ellery. With the FSP, we helped to shape SA’s policies on education, housing, health, public transport, opposition to corporate globalisation and privatisation, industrial relations and welfare. We take great pride in SA’s excellent Gender Agenda because of our contribution to giving women’s struggle prominence.

While we support SA as a united front, we are about building a mass women’s movement capable of leading and bringing on a global, socialist revolution. Our priority right now is an international campaign to recruit women to RW.

We also have published stunning new editions of fiery feminist classics, such as Women of Color: Front-Runners for Freedom, Lesbianism: A Socialist Feminist Perspective and Woman as Leader: Double Jeopardy on Account of Sex — and more. Our website is something to see: and anyone wanting to get onto our mailing list to receive our monthly calendars can just contact us. We invite interested Socialist Alliance women to get in touch with us and join.

Through Radical Women, women can build Socialist Alliance into a feminist socialist force which would be strengthened by more revolutionary women leaders. Women join RW on the basis of agreement with the Radical Women Manifesto which explains our socialist feminist theory, program, and organisational structure. Anyone can get a copy for $12, either by visiting Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Rd, Brunswick or ordering by phoning 03-9388-0062 or e-mailing

In Comradeship,
Debbie Brennan
Melbourne Organiser,
Radical Women

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