Socialists debate identity politics

Featured article from February 2020 Socialism Today (Monthly journal of the Socialist PArty- CWI England & Wales.

The relationship between fighting women’s oppression, identity politics, and the struggle for socialism is a feature of many debates in the workers’ movement internationally. Mistakes made on this question by the Irish Socialist Party were central to the division that took place in the Committee for a Workers’ International in 2019. In the wake of the Irish general election HANNAH SELL draws up a balance sheet.


In 2019 a major debate took place in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated. The debate resulted in a split in the CWI with some of its former supporters moving in a rightward opportunist direction.

One of the main triggers for the debate was the mistaken approach of the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party (then the CWI’s affiliate in Ireland) towards the fight against women’s oppression, and its relationship to the struggle for socialism. The debate on these issues has important lessons for the workers’ movement internationally, particularly in this period where identity, rather than class, is frequently put forward as the central divide in society by individuals and forces who claim to be on the left.

Issues relating to this will come up in different forms again and again in future struggles. Just as Lenin and the Bolshevik Party would have been unable to successfully lead the Russian working class to power in 1917 without a correct approach to the right of nations to self-determination, it will be essential to future struggles to change society that a correct approach is taken to all the many forms of special oppression.


Unity is strength

Our starting point is to be the hardest fighters against every kind of oppression suffered under capitalism, campaigning for the workers’ movement to take seriously fighting for the rights of all of the oppressed. In doing so, however, we should attempt to avoid exacerbating or deepening divisions between different sections of the working class. While how best to take up particular issues can be complex, our basic approach is very simple. One of the founding principles of the workers’ movement – ‘unity is strength’ – remains as vital today as ever. For the capitalist class, a tiny minority of society, an essential means by which it can maintain power, cutting across movements which threaten its rule, is by encouraging division and conflict between different sections of the oppressed. The way the capitalist class can use identity politics to sow division in the workers’ movement, especially where it is not effectively combatted, is shown by the successful attempts to use false accusations of anti-Semitism to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, both over the last four years and in the current leadership contest, where the ground is being prepared for further attacks on the left in its aftermath.

Marxists have the opposite goal to the capitalist class. At each stage we strive to unite all those who suffer oppression around a movement led by the working class, which fights to end all the ills suffered under capitalism via the socialist transformation of society. Our programme – bringing together and summing up the demands of different sections of the working class – points the way towards achieving this. It will never be achieved by failing to support movements of the oppressed or by downplaying or ignoring the legitimate demands of any oppressed group, but at every stage we have to point towards united struggle by the whole working class as the best means to meet those demands on a lasting basis.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party retreated from this approach. This blunted their effectiveness in the fight for abortion rights, but also in other struggles – and was one factor in the subsequent electoral setbacks they have suffered. It is unfortunate that the Irish Socialist Party member Ruth Coppinger lost her TD (MP) seat in the recent general election. We want to see the maximum number of socialists winning elections and we would far rather be raising criticisms of campaigns that led to electoral success than retreat.

Nonetheless, it is important to draw out the necessary lessons for future struggles, not least those that are coming in Ireland. The huge surge for Sinn Féin in the election, achieved by claiming to be anti-establishment and harnessing anger over housing, health and low pay, is an indication of ferment in Irish society. Numerous other harbingers of the coming class storms that will shake Ireland have been present in recent years. They include the successful mass anti-water charges movement that the Irish Socialist Party led in 2015-16, the movement for abortion rights culminating in the 2018 referendum victory, but also a number of very important strikes, particularly the 2019 nurses and midwives strike.


Central and primary?

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party has not prepared for the mass movements that are to come. In the aftermath of the abortion referendum the leadership of the CWI raised concerns that the Irish Socialist Party was in danger of “seeing all struggles through the prism of the women’s movement, rather than seeing how it interconnects with other struggles”[i] and therefore risking facing in the wrong direction when other movements developed. We explained that, “in our view it is not the case that movements relating to women’s oppression will be central to struggle in every country in the next period. In addition in many countries where such movements occur the working-class elements within them can quite quickly become part of broader struggles of the working class (although of course the demands specifically relating to women’s oppression would remain an important aspect of those movements)”.[ii]

The response of the Irish Socialist Party’s leadership was to ask what our rationale was for “raising that women’s movements won’t be central or primary”[iii]. In reality, this reflected an opportunist search for a seeming short cut or easier road to building support, looking towards those radicalised around gender oppression rather than the working class as the key force for change. They argued they had “identified that the questions of oppression were very radicalising for young people, young women and LGBTQ young people in particular, and that in fact there was a large openness to anti-capitalist and socialist analysis and programme in relation to questions of oppression, and in fact that this was an international and deep-seated phenomenon”.[iv]

Clearly a whole series of movements against women’s and gender oppression have taken place over recent years. The movement for abortion rights in Ireland was one of these. While it did not have the degree of active mass participation seen in the massive demonstrations in India, Argentina or Spain, for example, it nonetheless did mobilise significant layers of women onto the streets and, of course, resulted in an important step forward for the Irish working class.

Are any of the recent women’s movements in themselves ‘central’ or ‘primary’ to the struggle for socialism, however? No. To argue that they might be is an adaption to the outlook of the radical middle class layer that dominates the leadership of most women’s movements at this stage. The force that is ‘central’ or ‘primary’ to the struggle for socialism is the working class of all genders. This is not for moral reasons. The working class experiences both the economic exploitation of capitalism and its divisive ideology. It therefore inevitably reflects within it what Marx called ‘the muck’ of capitalism including sexism, racism and other prejudices. Nonetheless, it is potentially by far the most powerful force for social change because of its role in the capitalist production process and its potential collective consciousness.


The referendum campaign

Very quickly after the conclusion of the CWI’s debate on these issues a wave of gigantic predominantly working class movements has swept the world – including Latin America, swathes of the Middle East and France – dwarfing any struggles since the defeat of the Arab spring. In country after country these movements have cut across ethnic, religious, gender and other divisions as workers and young people fight against the economic misery and undemocratic regimes capitalism offers them. The majority of these movements have not yet been able to win clear victories, pointing to the need for mass parties of the working class with a clear programme to break with capitalism and build a new socialist order. Nonetheless, they are a huge step forward.

No women’s movement, unless it becomes a movement of the working class as whole, can play the role these movements have in uniting the oppressed in a common struggle. However, movements of working-class women can play a crucial role in triggering broader movements and have done so many times, not least when the women textile workers began the Russian revolution in February 1917. And women have played a prominent role in the broader class struggles that have emerged, both because of a general radicalisation and their growing specific weight in the workplaces and trade unions in many countries.

The recent movement in Chile, to give one example, was preceded by marches against sexism in education of tens of thousands. These were dwarfed by the gigantic one million plus demonstrations that took place at the end of last year against austerity and the undemocratic regime. Nonetheless, marches for women’s rights remained an important part of the broader movement which engulfed the country and women played a major part in that broader movement.

All women, even those from the ruling elite, suffer oppression on the basis of their gender. Nonetheless, cross-class women’s movements have limited common interests. The fight for women’s right to vote, for example, was for working class women part of a struggle to fight for better conditions for the working class, while for the wives and daughters of the capitalist class, it was mainly a fight for their right to play an independent role within the ruling elite. Women’s movements therefore tend to fracture on class lines, although – of course – this does not preclude individual women breaking from the elite joining in the struggle for socialism as the only means by which the oppression of their gender can be wholly overcome.

The struggle for socialism is also the only means by which the basis can be laid for the oppression of women and minorities to be completely and permanently overcome. Women’s oppression is an intrinsic part of all class societies including that which dominates the world today: capitalism. The job of Marxists taking part in movements against women’s oppression is to skilfully link the immediate demands of the movement to a programme which points towards the necessity of the socialist transformation of society.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party did not adopt this approach in the abortion referendum campaign, and afterwards argued it would have been wrong to do so. They opposed, for example, during the referendum linking the demand for abortion rights to other demands aimed at achieving a real right to choose when and whether to have children, such as secure affordable housing, decent pay, the right to family leave, and so on. Yet for socialists such demands are vital to pointing to capitalism’s failure to offer the majority of women any real right to choose. They also act to expose the capitalist and middle class leaders of the movement who acquiesce to legal changes to improve women’s lives but oppose economic ones.

Fighting for such demands would, for example, have helped to expose the pro-capitalist Fine Gael Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar who was claiming to stand for women’s rights while presiding over public sector cuts and poverty.  They point towards the need for class struggle to fight for real equality for women. Yet incredibly alongside this the Irish Socialist Party leadership argued that it would have been wrong to put demands on the trade unions to take up the struggle for abortion rights.


The reality of the movement

They justified their approach by exaggerating the radical character of the abortion referendum in Ireland, and arguing it was part of a worldwide women’s movement, that in their view was “more universal, global and interconnected” than previous feminist waves and represented “a more fundamental shift in consciousness”[v].

This is partially true. The anger at the existing order, and low levels of trust in any of the institutions of capitalism that characterise the generation which has grown up in the age of austerity, has fuelled movements against women’s oppression. Young women are also often more radical in general. This is for a number of reasons, particularly the drawing of women into the workforce in large numbers and the gap between the propaganda of capitalism having achieved equality for women and the reality of women’s lives. In Britain and the US, for example, support for Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders has been highest among young women.  It would be wrong to conclude from this, however, that the majority of those fighting for abortion rights in Ireland, or in other movements against women’s oppression, necessarily saw their fight as part of a struggle against capitalism.

Given the character of this period, with still relatively low levels of working class organisation, and linked to that a limited understanding of the possibility of socialist change, it is unsurprising that the leadership of many women’s movements are middle class or even members of the ruling elite. In the Irish abortion movement the class lines were bound to be particularly blurred as, under pressure from below, the majority of the Irish capitalist class had drawn the conclusion that they would have to at least acquiesce to abortion rights. Unfortunately, the Socialist Party in Ireland did not play the role they could have done in drawing the lines more clearly, but instead prettified the reality of the movement.


Deepening the mistakes

All organisations make mistakes. Provided these are recognised and corrected nothing serious need be lost. Far from reassessing however, the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party went further down the same path. First they put their central campaigning focus on trying to organise mass strike action on International Women’s Day 2019, without any serious preparation, something that they demanded the CWI try to repeat on an international scale. In the event less than 200 people took part in Dublin, a useful protest, but far from the mass action that had been predicted.

Then in the 2019 European elections the Irish Socialist Party stood a candidate, Rita Harrold, for the Dublin seat under the main slogans “a socialist feminist voice for Europe” and “a socialist feminist voice for workers, women and the planet”. This was linked to their wrong analysis that gender oppression was the primary source of radicalisation at this stage in Ireland. The election result did not bear this out. Surely, if the referendum had led to the radicalisation they described and if, as they claimed, abortion had been won “in large measure” by their actions, this would have had a positive electoral effect if a correct approach had been taken?

In previous examples of mass movements where we have played a leading role, we have made electoral gains afterwards. In Scotland, for example, after the poll tax victory our then organisation Scottish Militant Labour (SML) won four seats on Glasgow council in their first electoral outing in May 1992. In all, from May 1992 to February 1994, SML polled 33.3% of the total votes cast in 17 contests with, winning six. This was followed by Tommy Sheridan polling 7.6% (12,113 votes) for the city of Glasgow seat in the 1994 European elections. This was under a far more disadvantageous first-past-the-post system than the proportional representation system in Ireland and with a very limited previous electoral record. Similarly, the comrades in Ireland made electoral breakthroughs on the back of having led the water charges movement to victory.

Yet Rita got 4,967 (1.4%) votes compared to almost 30,000 that the Socialist Party candidate – sitting MEP Paul Murphy – had received in the same seat in 2014. Overall in the local and European elections taking place on the same day the Socialist Party (standing under the Solidarity banner) suffered the biggest fall in votes of any party represented in the Irish Dail (parliament). In the European elections it suffered its worse vote in twenty years.

However, even if the campaign had been electorally successful, it would not have been a correct approach. There is a certain comparison to be made with the mistakes of Respect, the short-lived left party in Britain involving George Galloway and the Socialist Workers’ Party which scored some electoral victories between 2004 and 2007. Its temporary electoral success was as a result of the anti-war movement, with its main electoral breakthroughs being in predominantly Muslim areas.

The majority of Muslims in Britain are part of the most exploited sections of the working class and were radicalised by the Labour government’s participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Potentially, winning Muslim votes could have been an important step towards a new mass party of the working class but only if it was done on a class-based appeal that reached out to other sections of the working class on a fighting programme. Instead, by frequently describing itself as ‘the party for Muslims’, Respect tended to deepen not overcome divisions in the working class. By standing in an election not on broad slogans to appeal to the whole working class, but instead running as a ‘socialist feminist’ when only around one third of the Irish population identify themselves as feminist when asked, the European election campaign put up an unnecessary barrier to the majority of workers of all genders, who would not have seen such a campaign as being aimed at them.


The February election

Unfortunately, the European election was not the end of the Irish Socialist Party’s wrong trajectory being demonstrated in election results. The February general election showed a similar trend. All three sitting Solidarity MPs (two of whom – Mick Barry and Ruth Coppinger – remain in the Irish Socialist Party) suffered a large fall in their vote. Ruth Coppinger’s first preference votes fell by 33% compared to 2016, resulting in her losing the seat. Mick Barry and Paul Murphy were re-elected but suffered a 54% and a 50% fall in first preferences respectively. Other Socialist Party members suffered between a 67-85% loss. Of course, there can be circumstances where, despite running a model campaign, objective conditions result in losing large numbers of votes.

On this occasion the dramatically increased vote for Sinn Féin, successfully winning the votes of large sections of the working class and young people, demonstrates a thirst for a radical alternative. Incidentally Sinn Féin does not have a good record on fighting for abortion rights. It was only in June 2018 that its conference voted to support abortion up until twelve weeks. Prior to that it had only supported abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or sexual abuse. No doubt if it had not altered its position under the pressure of the movement for abortion, it would not have been able to make the breakthrough it did in February. Nonetheless, despite its poor record, Sinn Féin led among young women. According to the Irish Times exit polling, housing was the overwhelmingly most important issue to young voters, followed by jobs, followed by climate change.

Of course, for a smaller socialist force, Sinn Féin’s rise – seeming to many workers to be a viable governmental alternative – was an objective difficulty, although qualified by a single transferable voting system that gave an opportunity to voters to support a ‘small party’ alongside a ‘governmental’ alternative. Other left forces – People Before Profit, for example – at least managed to broadly maintain their, still modest, core support.

But what is more important is that the Socialist Party had not effectively used the valuable platform they had gained via their TDs in the previous period. Had they done so they could have made gains rather than being forced back. They clearly underestimated the enormous accumulated anger at the contradiction between reports of economic growth and the complete lack of a recovery in the living standards of the majority. They tended to echo the consciousness of a layer who were radicalised around gender oppression at that point in time, while not doing the patient work to prepare for the more general class battles on the horizon. They were, in fact, facing in the wrong direction.


New opportunities

While they had led important struggles, notably on the water charges, during the previous decade the leadership of the Irish Socialist Party turned away from systematic work to build in the trade unions. They refused to pursue suggestions by the leadership of the CWI that they use the platform provided by the TDs to call for the launch of a campaign to transform the trade unions into fighting democratic bodies. They did not consistently fight for a serious programme for trade unions to act in defence of the working class, and insufficiently orientated to leading struggles and building roots in workplaces and working class communities, something the Irish Socialist Party had a proud record of doing in the past. Overall, their emphasis was not on the need for the strengthening of working-class organisation and cohesion, but rather on supporting different ‘movements’ against oppression.

The general election campaign was an extension of those mistakes. Both Mick Barry and Ruth Coppinger had ‘re-elect fighters for workers, women and the planet’ as their major election slogans. Many of the leaflets featured good demands on housing and healthcare, for example. Nonetheless, much of Ruth Coppinger’s campaign material in particular was clearly aimed at that section of women who are primarily radicalised around gender oppression. A ‘bus for Ruth’ was organised, for example, under the slogans ‘Women have unfinished BUSiness’ and ‘Make women’s rights an election issue vote Ruth #1’. While the material for the bus did reference important issues such as violence, childcare, the pay gap, housing and healthcare, it was done in such a way as to suggest Ruth Coppinger was a candidate for women, rather than the working class as a whole. Other material, such as a leaflet ‘Keep a strong voice for women in the Dail’, were in a similar vein.

The general drift of the material was clearly to orientate towards women rather than to the working class as a whole. This is not a Marxist approach. Even to list ‘women’ and ‘workers’ as separate categories is unnecessarily divisive, particularly in a country where almost 70% of women participate in the workforce. We fight against the discrimination that all women face as a result of their gender, but women who are part of the capitalist class have diametrically opposed class interests to the working class of all genders. Only if they break with their class can they play a positive role in the struggle for a new society.

The political situation in the aftermath of the Irish election is not yet clear, with the possibility of another general election in the short term. What is clear, however, is the deep-rooted rage of the Irish working class at the huge levels of inequality created by Irish capitalism and the opportunities that will exist to build a base for socialist and Marxist ideas. Unfortunately, the Irish Socialist Party’s leadership may have gone too far on a mistaken trajectory to correct it now. The forces still committed to the CWI in Ireland, however, are building energetically. Internationally, the negative lessons of the recent Irish experience can help arm socialists about how to fight against oppression without succumbing to identity politics.


[i] Women’s oppression and identity politics – the CWI’s approach

[ii] Ibid

[iii] A Response to the IS document, “Women’s Oppression and Identity Politics – Our Approach in Ireland and Internationally” from the NEC in Ireland

[iv] CWI International Bulletin article May 2018

[v] Ibid

The major debate documents from both sides, including all those quoted in this article, are available at

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February 2020