Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright Socialist Review


Moral panic

Beth Armstrong (Letters, December SR) suggests socialists should 'defend the pill politically', but at the same time highlight the fact it is 'rammed down women's throats'.
But the main problem with the contraceptive pill is not that it's rammed down our throats. On the contrary not enough women, especially teenagers, have reliable information and easy access to the pill.
Beth is right that we should be more informed about the pill's side effects. But the recent scare was not based on giving us such information, but rather deliberately misinformed women about the dangers.
It was whipped up by a Tory government which has attacked sex education and closed down half the country's family planning clinics. The evidence about the increased risk of thrombosis was unpublished and unproven. Even if the research is proved to be true the numbers affected are small.
The mortality rates would work out at less than two per million who take established combined brands and four per million on the newer brands. This is not to minimise any harmful effects on the women involved, but to put the risks in perspective. In fact any drug, particularly with long term use, carries health risks. A drug like aspirin, which can cause intestinal bleeding, is far more harmful than the pill.
The recent panic could only have one effect--to scare some women off the pill. This carries a far greater potential health risk to women, both physically and psychologically. Whether we like it or not, most of these women will not be immediately persuaded, or be able to persuade their lovers, that condom use is a good alternative.
The reality, particularly for young women, is more likely to be unprotected sex--and the prospect of unwanted pregnancy and/or abortion.
The pill has come under attack from right and left in recent years. Many feminists have echoed the right wing by arguing the pill was another way men were able to control women, enabling men to sleep around more easily. This ignores the real impact of the pill in transforming the lives of millions of women, freeing them to have sex without fear of pregnancy.
Of course the pill is not and cannot be a palliative to sexism. That needs a much more fundamental change in the structures which create women's oppression.
Beth's other point--that sex and contraception should never be mentioned without talking about safe sex--seems to imply that by not doing so, socialists encourage misinformation about the heterosexual spread of HIV.
I think this is pure moralism. It is the Tories and the right wing bigots who prevent frank discussion about sex, contraception and the risks of HIV.
Articles in Socialist Review are there to enable us to tackle the arguments of the right head on--and in this instance the main issue was not safe sex but our right to control our fertility.
Hazel Croft
East London

On the right track?

Brian Roberson (Letters, December SR) is wrong to criticise Sharon Smith's article about the Million Man March held on 16 October. This march was not called as a protest against racism: rather it was an endorsement of 'blame the victim' politics that is being pushed by every right wing politician. Farrakhan has just hitched his wagon to them.
Farrakhan believes that blacks 'don't have the mentality of a free people to go do [sic] for ourselves'. Instead he blames working class blacks for their predicament. There were no demands put on the government, no argument against the police--Farrakhan patrols working class blacks with the police whereas the Black Panthers defended black workers against the police. 'Black men are to repent for their laziness', as Farrakhan says. This type of racist stereotyping has meant that even Clinton could endorse the message, if not the messenger.
Sharon is right on a second count. Farrakhan's reactionary politics dominated the march--he rambled on for two hours, thus making it absolutely clear that it was his march. Farrakhan did not build this march alone. He had the endorsement of every black politician. Cornel West and Manning Marable endorsed the march, albeit with reservations. In calling for 'black unity' Brian Roberson fails to recognise class distinctions among blacks in America.
Let us understand what is at stake. The civil rights movement and the uprisings in the black ghettos broke the right wing stranglehold over US politics. Farrakhan and the right wing want to bury those traditions--to support the march is to help him.
It was not the Nation of Islam that fought in the 1960s--they stood on the sidelines. Farrakhan even welcomed the death of Malcolm X. This is not a radical but a reactionary who wants to lead those who want to fight racism into a dead end.
The real tragedy is that, far from being few in number as Brian says, millions could have marched against racism--blacks, women, gays, straights, organised trade unionists--which would have knocked the right wing out, and struck a blow against Clinton as well. Let us put the blame on those who really deserve it--the bosses and the bigots.
Weyman Bennett

Not my sisters

I can't understand why your editor had to spoil her article (December SR) about the nature of the family under capitalism and the current public debates/social changes, by dressing it up in slurs against feminism. Her main argument is not about feminism at all.
Melanie Phillips and Anna Coote are just two people out of literally hundreds Lindsey German could have chosen to quote for daft ideas about the family. Why choose those two? They are now, whatever they used to be in the past, privileged people with money and with access to public hearing through the media. This doesn't tell us which other women, feminists or nonfeminists, agree with their current ideas. it just tells us that the media must have some reason (and we can all guess it) to want their ideas to be given a hearing. Personally I think Melanie Phillips for one has moved into bizarrely obsessive and reactionary ideological territory. I wouldn't want to be associated with her current ideas in any way whatsoever.
Loads of people change their ideas during their lives. You can't assume that because a person takes one position at age 25 they will still believe the same at age 40. You have to enquire. In the case of feminism, Lindsey German has herself moved a long way in the past few years--from indiscriminate dismissal to begrudging acknowledgement. I have been reading Socialist Review for years and am pleased that it is again feeling able to debate ideas which have been developed by other movements. The debate goes on. And after all, surely it is the debate, the ideas, and not who says them that are the more important?
Feminism? What is it? There are women all over the globe who choose to call themselves feminists. They mean by this label a whole range of different things, some of which conflict with each other. It's ignorant to assume it has one meaning. You wouldn't assume socialism has. There are feminists and feminists. If you use the word as a general term of abuse it doesn't illuminate the truth.
So let's have less of this sideways sniping. I have been involved in feminism for over 20 years and all the feminists I know would agree that the family doesn't work--for women, for children or for men. The problem is, no one seems to have worked out yet what we could replace it with as the bedrock for our personal succour. The sooner we all do this, the sooner we'll be able to defeat not only the Melanie Phillipses, Anna Cootes and Tony Blairs of this world, but also all the gross ideas being bandied about and turned into increasingly destructive 'family' policies nowadays by droves of Tories and other establishment nutters busy trying to shore up late 20th century capitalism.
Fi Frances

Top of the class

In his review of Tony Blair's biography, Kevin Ovenden pours cold water on the idea of the Labour leader as a thinker dedicated to reinvigorating the left (November SR). I have some personal experience of his apparent lack of ideas. In 1994, I was working for a London University library with a large politics collection. We often lent books to the House of Commons library to pass on to MPs. During the Labour leadership contest Blair was sometimes denigrated as 'Bambi', a lightweight with few ideas.
Then on Friday 17 June I took a rush request from the House of Commons for two books--Tawney's Equality and English Ethical Socialism: Thomas More to R H Tawney by Norman Dennis and A H Halsey. They were picked up by courier on the same day. On Saturday 18 June Blair gave a keynote speech to The Guardian sponsored 'Whatever Next' conference. It seemed he did have ideas after all, as he stood up and roundly declared that he believed in ethical socialism in the tradition of Tawney!
It is bad enough that Blair uses an 'ethical' or 'Christian' figleaf to cover his move to the right (his son's opted out school is 'Christian', the unemployed have a moral responsibility to work for benefit etc). It is even more extraordinary to think that someone who claims to believe in 'ethical socialism' should need to borrow a primer in the subject from the library 24 hours before a vital speech, as appears to be the case with Blair.
Solomon Hughes
North London

Alive and kicking

I am always inspired by all the SWP's publications. However, I have one small worry. If you have not attended an SWP meeting, or if you are a foreign socialist not in a position to travel to Britain, you don't get a feeling for the brilliant democracy and internal debate that exists in the SWP.
If you only read what the SWP says you could be forgiven (with the notable exception of the excellent debate on Bosnia) for thinking that clever SWP members argue about jazz in the pages of the International Socialism journal, whilst the rest of us argue about films in Socialist Review!
The recent conference report in Socialist Worker read like everybody agreed with each other all the time. Now I'm not calling for argument for argument's sake, but the SWP has a responsibility to show that real Bolshevik type democratic centralism is alive and kicking within the SWP.
Many socialists throughout the world have only come across the terrible 'follow the leader' type organisations of Stalinists or orthodox Trotskyists.
So please somehow think of some way to give us more of the real flavour of the SWP. Perhaps it just calls for more members to start writing.
Stephen Arthur

PS. If there is any member or supporter of our tendency anywhere in the world who has the ability to translate English into written Japanese, please contact me via the SWP.

Unusual suspect

I agree entirely with Martin John's obituary of Gwyn A Williams (December SR). Whatever his political concessions to Stalinism and Welsh nationalism, he remained a fighter and a socialist to the end.
There is, however, a major puzzle about Williams's life. When he wrote The Making of the English Working Class, E P Thompson left out Wales which, he argued, had a separate history.
In reality the history of the Welsh working class is inextricably linked with that of the English. Gwyn Williams wrote much of the history that Thompson did not, and he did so brilliantly.
He is, however, never talked of as one of the 'British Marxist Historians'. Primarily I suspect this is because his lifelong political commitment was viewed with suspicion even by other left wing academics who had grown cynical of political action or retired from active political life.
Readers of Socialist Review of course need have no such reservations.
Keith Flett
North London

Defence of the realm

Andy Player's description of Richard Thurlow's book, The Secret State (December SR), was a very fair and generous review. But it did miss out some important points. Thurlow's book is written with the point of view of a 'liberal' that identifies with M15 and M16. The state is described as 'an impartial arbiter between capital and labour'. Strikes are portrayed as unpatriotic and dangerous--they 'threaten public order.' When not dangerous, the left is portrayed as irrelevant. The huge strikes in Britain at the end of the First World War are described as 'froth on the surface of political life'. Similarly, in a book of over 450 pages, purporting to be a complete account of 100 years of the British secret state's work against 'political extremists', there are only two pages on M15's work against the post-1945 left. And these are devoted to dismissing the left: Thurlow doesn't talk about the miners' strike, the ANL, CND or the campaign against the poll tax. Considering what we now know of how the Tories tried to use M15 during the miners' strike of 1984-85, there is a need for a thorough history of M15 and M16. Also, as Andy says, we need a history without the paranoid mythology that dominates too much of the left. Unfortunately Thurlow's book spends too long dismissing the left and too long defending the British state. We do need a thorough history of M15--but this book isn't it.
David Kurt

We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
Send to: Socialist Review, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page