What role for socialists in the fight against sexist violence?

Direct Action, December 4, 2012

By Kim Bullimore — On September 21, ABC employee Jill Meagher was abducted as she walked home along Sydney Road in Melbourne after a night out with friends. Meagher was brutally raped and murdered, and her body was dumped in a shallow grave. In response to the abduction, rape and murder, more than 30,000 people marched on Sydney Road on October 1 as part of a loosely organised “peace march”. Three weeks later, on October 20, in a separately organised event, more than 7000 women and men joined a Sydney Road Reclaim the Night march, which called for an end to all violence against women and sought to counter victim blaming and the reactionary calls by politicians, the police and the media to undermine civil liberties in the wake of Meagher’s death.

In recent weeks, a debate has emerged around how socialists and the left should have reacted to these mobilisations. In an article published in Socialist Alternative magazine on November 22, Louise O’Shea examined the political, media and community responses. As a member of the collective that organised the Sydney Road Reclaim the Night march and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is currently in a merger process with Socialist Alternative, I have both agreements and disagreements with the arguments in O’Shea’s article.

O’Shea noted the ruling-class hypocrisy and opportunism in relation to Jill Meagher’s rape and murder. O’Shea went on to argue that socialists need to oppose such reactionary agendas and win people to a world view that puts working class interests and struggle at the centre. On both of these points, I am in total agreement.

I also agree with O’Shea’s arguments as to why this case received such extensive media coverage, when violence against refugees, workers, Aboriginal Australians and others receives very little coverage. As Helen Jarvis noted in an article published in Direct Action on October 12, the bourgeois media’s coverage of Meagher was in stark contrast to the attention given to other victims of violence, including other women who were similarly raped and murdered. Of course I agree with O’Shea that it is a responsibility of socialists to argue against such blatant racism and sexism.

Oppression under capitalism

However, O’Shea’s article seems to regard campaigning against some specific forms of violence and oppression as inherently more important than campaigning against other forms. She also argues that organising against sexist violence, especially street violence, is necessarily and nearly always right wing. But while it is true that it is harder for working-class women to escape the effects of women’s oppression and that the ruling class and their media were thoroughly hypocritical and opportunistic in relation to Meagher’s death, this does not change the reality that violence against women, whether random acts of street violence or violence committed by a person known to the woman or violence in a class context, is part of the systemic oppression that women as a sex experience under capitalism.

As with racist violence against people of colour, sexist violence against women is maintained by capitalism but crosses class lines. This means that women within capitalist society, regardless of their class, can and do experience sexist violence and oppression as a sex.

Capitalism cannot survive by only oppressing and exploiting workers in the workplace. It needs and preserves as much as it can of oppressions and conflicts inherited from previous class societies, and it tries to create new ones when it sees the possibility. In different socio-political circumstances, these various oppressions have changing importance for the capitalists. In some circumstances, capitalists will argue in favour of women’s rights if, for example, it aids their exploitation of a neo-colonial country. In other circumstances, capitalists will defend “national traditions” that objectively oppress women if the dictatorship of that country assists the imperialist agenda of the ruling class.

Marxists have an equally firm determination to eliminate all of the oppressions of capitalism. We don't consider any of these oppressions as inherently more important than others. And because these oppressions all serve the interests of the capitalists, every struggle against oppression is objectively an ally of every other such struggle. A central task for socialists is to spread an understanding of this objective reality.

This is not a new attitude for the Marxist movement. V.I. Lenin in 1902, writing about how to develop a socialist consciousness in the working-class in What Is To Be Done? argued: “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected ...”. Lenin continued: “The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population” (emphasis in original).

Ruling-class agenda

O’Shea’s article goes astray when it argues that organising against sexist violence is inherently reactionary, class collaborationist and undermining of class consciousness because the ruling class attempts to use such campaigns to advance class-collaborationist ideas. The ruling class does this with just about every progressive struggle. For example, when forced to increase the social wage through improved social welfare measures, the capitalist media invariably present this as an example of class peace or the importance of relying on “labour’s friends” in parliament. The capitalists try to do the same with the movements for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, civil rights, refugee rights and many national liberation movements, including the Palestine solidarity movement.

Moreover, O’Shea’s argument ignores the historical fact that the fight against the oppression of women as a sex has often been the basis for the progressive mobilisation of masses of both women and men. To cite just one notable example, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 began with resistance to an attack by tsarist police on an International Women’s Day demonstration.

Developing class-consciousness

There is no one single path, or superior path, to revolutionary consciousness. People can and do enter the path because of any of capitalism’s oppressions and exploitations, which includes violence against women.

Of course we understand that a consciousness of oppression as a woman is only a beginning, not a full consciousness — just as it is possible for workers to radicalise around job issues and gain a “trade union consciousness” but go no further. It is only through participation in struggles that this limited consciousness develops into full class consciousness. This is why it is important for socialists not to abstain from such mobilisations and movements but to take part in them and seek to win leadership, arguing for demands and actions that will advance the struggle, while also seeking to win the most advanced sections to socialism.

The public reaction to the abduction, rape and murder of Jill Meagher, while primarily a manifestation of a liberal humanitarian sentiment and solidarity with the victim, was also a protest against the sexism, misogyny and sexual violence that are inescapable in capitalist society. As O’Shea notes, this response was for most participants not class based, but that is more or less equally true in Australia of support for refugees or opposition to war. Today, as in 1902, a central task of socialists is to help the working class learn “to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse” because that is the only way in which the working class can become conscious of its historic role of overthrowing capitalism.

If socialists were to abstain from campaigns opposing sexist violence against women because of the liberal illusions that exist within such campaigns, we would do the working class a disservice by ceding ground to the ruling class and its conscious or unconscious agents. The importance of taking socialist ideas into such campaigns can be seen in relation to the two mass mobilisations around Meagher’s death. O’Shea’s article conflates these two mobilisations, but there were substantial political differences between them.

Reclaim the Night marches

While the amorphous “peace march”, which mobilised 30,000 people, failed to challenge attempts by the police and ruling class to push their agenda for more police powers and CCTV, the collective that organised the October 20 Reclaim the Night march, which involved both non-socialists and socialists (including members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party), argued against such measures. As Jessica Lenehan and Jasmine Curcio noted in an article published in Direct Action on October 23, the Reclaim the Night collective opposed an increase in police powers and any erosion of civil liberties. Instead, the collective and march “called for an end to violence against women, support for survivors, an end to victim blaming and adequate funding for crisis services”. In addition, speakers at the march addressed broader issues including Islamophobia, Indigenous rights and anti-imperialist struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other Reclaim the Night events around Australia also not only challenged sexist violence (whether on the street or in the home) but also sought to address broader issues that challenged the agenda of the ruling class. The Perth Reclaim the Night march (held in Fremantle) campaigned against the de-funding of Warrawee, Australia's first purpose-built women’s refuge. The marches in Fremantle and Sydney publicly defended refugees and Indigenous rights.

The Fremantle Reclaim the Night collective sought and obtained endorsements from several unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which both made substantial donations, the Australian Services Union, which placed an ad in two local papers to encourage attendance, and the National Tertiary Education Union. The support of these unions, each of which mobilised its members for the rally, indicates that they recognise that violence against women is not only a “women’s issue”, but an issue for both working-class women and men.

Far from giving “left cover” to a ruling-class agenda, socialist intervention in the Reclaim the Night marches helped to partially disrupt what the ruling class hoped to make of the public reaction to Meagher’s rape and murder.

O’Shea is too pessimistic when she writes that “it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change” the reactionary character that the ruling class sought to give to the mobilisations. While I don’t want to exaggerate the effect that a small socialist group can have in the present political situation, socialist intervention in a movement like this, created by revulsion at one of the objective effects of capitalism, can help to spur the further radicalisation of some of the participants, who otherwise would hear no voices but those of liberals and conservatives. This is a central reason that it is necessary to be part of a revolutionary socialist organisation today, even when its numbers are small.