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From the Archive: Women’s Liberation and the CPGB

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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 8th December, 2020 12 min read

From the Archive: Women’s Liberation and the CPGB

From the Archive: Women’s Liberation and the CPGB

In the 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was facing heavy membership losses and an ever enigmatic class revolution that had failed to materialise after half a century of toil. New left-wing social movements were emerging that threatened to outflank the CPGB on a number of social issues. One such movement was the women’s liberation movement during the 1970s, which aimed to dislodge male hegemony and further women’s rights in both the public and private sphere. In this climate, the CPGB had to walk the line between their theoretical commitment to progressive feminist principles and their distaste for elements of the women’s liberation movement they saw as frivolous and unruly. Through an exploration of documents from our revamped ‘Gender, Feminism, and the British Left, 1944-1991’ collection, I hope to illuminate this balancing act and demonstrate how the CPGB tried to simultaneously harness the energy of the women’s liberation movement, whilst criticising it’s worst perceived excesses. 

 A front cover of Red Rag, "A magazine of Womens Liberation".

The Right Side of History? 

Communists across the world had long championed the liberation of women. It was Marx and Engels who first theorised that women faced a special type of oppression in capitalist society. This was an oppression based on the gendered division of labour, in which women were relegated to unpaid domestic labour, destined to grind away over a stove or washbowl. This was a crucial type of labour which acted as a crutch for the whole wage-labour system of exploitation of men in work. Despite this groundbreaking analysis, dating all the way back to the 19th century, communist figures like Lenin were less keen to engage in what they saw as frivolous feminist issues. In the 1910s he asserted that "free love" represented a "bourgeois decay", a distracting "narcotic" from the real issues of class struggle and revolution. Indeed, early feminist movements like Western suffragette activities were seen as having a bourgeois flavour behind their political demands. We see this first hand in another of our collections, ‘Debate and Division on the British Left, 1917-1964’, in which papers from Molly Murphy recall how she joined the CPGB after becoming disillusioned with the "bourgeois sensibilities" and culture of the women’s suffrage movements.

An extract on women's rights. At the bottom it reads "The Communist Party Demands Equal Rights For Women".

Due to the lack of radical feminist movements, for the first few decades of the CPGB, the party held a monopoly on women’s issues and successfully engaged in gatekeeping of feminist issues to economic considerations that neatly linked to Marxist theory. This is highlighted by the example image above. As mentioned, we see a classic CPGB poster that directly addresses female exploitation in the domestic sphere. It’s worth noting here just how ahead of the curve the CPGB were in relation to women’s issues, making arguments about the gender wage gap as early as the 1920s. This is a socio-economic issue that still holds pertinence in contemporary society, demonstrating how the CPGB did hold the beacon for women’s issue’s long before it was fashionable. However, after decades of stagnation and membership loss, partly fueled by the CPGB’s refusal to distance itself from the ailing and increasingly controversial policy of the Soviet Union, the CPGB experienced pressure from radical feminists to expand the type of women’s issues that those organisations on the left championed.  

New Kids on the Block 

In the mid-1960s an emergent group of young radicals found a strong protest voice across the Western world. Changes to technology, including the invention of new mass media like the television, the towering nuclear threat of the Cold War, and a fatigue with the old generations conservative values created an insecurity and resentment which young people used as a springboard to challenge the status quo. Seizing on the momentum of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, young people protested and campaigned for societal change on a number of levels. One facet of this was the women’s liberation movement, which aimed in numerous different ways to dislodge the patriarchal legal, social and moral systems that dominated society and kept women subordinated. Towards the more radical end of this group were Marxist-feminists, who wanted to both end capitalist exploitation of women, as well as free women from the sexually repressive confines of mainstream Western thought. This encompassed destigmatising such things as recreational sex, homosexuality, public nudity, and female masturbation. With these new counter-cultural movements, traditional titans of the left, including the CPGB, started to lose their rhetorical monopoly on women’s issues.

An extract from the Red Rag, "A magazine of Womens Liberation".

This position was perfectly encapsulated by the curators and contributors of the 1970s Red Rag magazine, which was a radical Marxist-feminist magazine created by a handful of women from within the CPGB. In this unique position, these women represented a crossover between the two groups, and embodied the emerging contested space on the left. In the above file, we see a mission statement from the editorial team of Red Rag, asserting that “it is important that Marxism is given an identity outside the traditional (predominantly male) left… we want to break their monopoly; they have vulgarised and dogmatised it”. Here we immediately see hostile language from radical feminists, who were disillusioned with the traditional gatekeepers of the left, the very communist party that they themselves were members of. The implication of this quote is that male dominated Marxist organisations cannot speak authentically for women on women’s issues. In trying to do so they have created a perverse disconnect between women’s experience and abstract Marxist politics.  

It was from this point that the women of Red Rag devised the contents of their magazines, with a view of shaking up the left through unapologetic discussions of women’s sexuality and other issues. In the file below, part of an article written by Irene Fick, it is asserted that “we can safely say that there is no biological difference between the sexuality of the human female and the human male”. This is a perspective that would be an explosive thing to say in contemporary society, given the ongoing debate around transgender issues, nevermind almost fifty years ago when pre-marital sex was still considered dubious by large swathes of society. Fick goes on to talk frankly about sex toys, female orgasms and the importance of sensuality in sex. 

An extract of an article by Irene Fick, with the title "Wot No Orgasm?".

It is instantly obvious as to why the elderly, white, male old guard of the CPGB, who for most of their career had taken orders from another set of elite white men based in Moscow, would be uncomfortable with this. Beyond the theoretical Marxist position they were working from, in everyday life these were taboo subjects that most from the older generation had been actively socialised to repress and ignore. In many ways, the countercultural movements were intergenerational contests, with new radicals seeking to dislodge the old attitudes that maintained a type of social control of civil society. This created a tricky balancing act for the CPGB old guard, who were instinctively uncomfortable with the politics of the sexual revolution, but who had prided their whole lives on being progressive and allies of fighting all types of oppression. Such was the culture of the CPGB, and indeed communist revolutionaries across the globe, that party members saw themselves as the vanguard of social struggle, and it was a matter of their very soul to make themselves relevant to a movement that fought oppression. 

This resulted in the CPGB allying and appropriating the themes and issues of the women’s liberation movement, whilst trying to reign in what they perceived to be the worst excesses of these new radicals. Link, the CPGB’s own official women’s journal, which can also be viewed as part of this collection, did start to foray into more radical women’s issues like sexuality, but did not match the heights of Red Rag. As a crude but useful indication, if you scan the copies of both Red Rag and Link from our own archive, the word ‘sexual’ is mentioned 186 times across 318 images in Red Rag, compared to being mentioned 201 times across 743 images in Link. Thus, writers and editors of Red Rag mention sexual liberation almost as much as the official CPGB journal, despite having less than half as many pages of content. When you assess the publication dates, these stats are exacerbated more - the Link copies in our archive start in 1974, three years after the first volume of Red Rag was published and considerably after the counter-cultural movements had pushed such issues onto the socio-political landscape of acceptability.  

The mere fact that the discussion of sexuality does increase in official party literature shows the two way flow between both social movements and the CPGB, who did successfully ally with some the aims of the women’s liberation movement. The CPGB wanted to capitalise on the energy of the women’s liberation movement, but at the same time shift women’s issues, where possible, back to more comfortable territory. As such, if we view the file below, we can see a file on CPGB-led ‘Women’s Liberation Workshops’ from the early 1970s. The manifesto outlines the aims of these groups and foregrounds three types of oppression which they aim to deal with. These are listed as economic oppression, relating to unpaid labour at home, commercial exploitation in the media and press, and unequal education compared to men. These three issues are very much traditional women’s issues that the CPGB had a long history of campaigning for, and there is a deafening silence on the issue of sexual liberation, despite the initiative borrowing its name directly from the social movement that prioritised a sexual revolution.

Manifesto from the Women's Liberation Workshop.

As well as trying to capitalise on the energy of the movement, the CPGB also engaged in more explicit criticism of it. For example, in the file below, we see a written article from 1972 titled ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. In this article, it is claimed that the structurelessness of the women’s liberation movement is allowing personal relationships to dominate and therefore leading to elitism within the movement. It is quite unsurprising that this was one such line of attack that the CPGB employed. The CPGB, in line with communist parties across the world, had long been a stickler for rigid organisation and well defined hierarchy. This dated all the way back to Lenin’s principle of democratic centralism, which was a sort of collective responsibility that bound all members to the official communist party line. The pluralistic nature of the women’s liberation movement, which actively sought to limit its organisational structure and relied heavily on local initiative, was at complete odds with this. Moreover, Red Rag was never officially sanctioned by the CPGB leadership, and as such broke the party's rules on media publications. It was partially for this reason that the editors of Red Rag were expelled from the CPGB. 

An extract from Female Liberation, called "The Tyranny of Structurelessness".

Student becomes Master

Going forward, the CPGB had limited success in co-opting the women’s liberation movement and reigning in its most disagreeable elements. On the contrary, the emergence of social movements like the women’s liberation movement only indicated the waning influence of the CPGB on the left of British politics. It was the young radicals of these counter-cultural movements which would assume control of the CPGB in the 1970s and start to enact a revisionist agenda, in an attempt to try to modernise the party and adapt Marxist ideas to the contemporary political situation. This came to be known as eurocommunism. A deep and irreconcilable chasm opened up between the young eurocommunists and CPGB traditionalists, who resented the fact that these young radicals were taking the CPGB into a new direction unfamiliar to them and, as they perceived it, away from true Marxism. Eventually, the troubled co-habitation could not hold and a chasm turned into an abyss. The CPGB and British communist movement would splinter several times in the late 1970s and 1980s, foreshadowing the dissolution of the party in 1991. The conflict explored in this article should be seen as a precursor for the bitter split that was on the horizon for the CPGB.

Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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