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Clinging Onto Patriarchy

Roy Ratcliffe | 25.01.2013 14:07 | Analysis | Gender | Workers' Movements

Having a sectarian dig at the SWP’s recent problems - as some have done - is not the best way to deal with the serious issues involved. For this reason the article below is entitled ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’ and considers how the whole of society - including the left - is dominated by patriarchal forms which result in various forms of marginalisation and exploitation of women - and not just in the SWP.


A) The global reach of Patriarchy.

The title of this article came to me after watching several seemingly unrelated news items. These were followed by reading several anti-capitalist discussion documents concerning the importance of Lenin to the anti-capitalist struggle. Then came an additional flurry of revelations from within the SWP. The link between all these items was the unconcealed determination of men - past and present - to dominate. The first news item involved the killing of several female health workers in Pakistan by the Taliban. They were continuing to defend the right to continue strict patriarchal religious rule among their respective communities. The news of these executions came shortly after the shooting of Malala Yousafzia - by the same 'brand' of Islamic fundamentalists. And then there was the report on the rape of an Indian woman by a group of men,

These sources and the later bulletin on the Saudi beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a young female housemaid, demonstrated how strongly the patriarchal mentality was still variously embedded in human societies throughout the world. But that wasn’t all. Yet another revealing news item striking a similar chord, had been the show of sheer anguish by numerous citizens of Venezuela at the plight of Hugo Chavez. During televised interviews, almost existential despair was manifest by some poor urban citizen’s of Venezuela, at the thought that the current support coming via the state headed by Hugo, might disappear. The anxiety in their words and faces was palpable.

Now I am not against expressing sympathy or even support for someone suffering from cancer and fighting for their lives. It is a common enough daily situation, among many, for thousands of men and women throughout the world, for whom such sympathy is a natural expression. However, what struck me most about this emotional display was that once again, as previously with Lenin, millions of people, men and women, had come to view a particular kind of male 'socialist' politician as absolutely essential to their continued wellbeing.

Such are the conditions that after 12 years of power by the United Socialist Party, led by Chavez, working people in Venezuela cannot successfully provide for themselves. Instead they have become visibly and vocally dependent upon the benevolence of a ‘left’ political party led by a well-meaning charismatic male leader. The economic system which dominates their country is still such that despite there being a 'socialist' party in power for over a decade, they are still alienated, not only from active participation in frequent decision-making but are also alienated from control of their collective means of production.

As with Cuba and Castro, it demonstrated the continued absence of economic self-activity of workers and their almost absolute dependence upon a party dominated by males and led by a single male leader. What else is this addiction to 'left' male leaders but another form of patriarchy, albeit of a non-religious type? Patriarchy is constructed around a father figure, (benign or not) who guides and provides for his people and who they cannot and should not be without. Is this whole ideology not a corruption of the idea and practice of equality and self-activity? Are the above examples not merely the ’left-wing’ softer political sides of the patriarchal coin to the more authoritarian ‘right-wing’ leader? And this is where the recent documents leaning on Lenin, came most forcefully to mind.

But before that; an obvious question arises. When did patriarchy come to dominate societies? The equally obvious answer of course is when women were subordinated! For this has not always been the case. There were periods in ancient and relatively modern history, when societies were matrifocal and matrilineal. In such societies women's position was at least equal to that of men. In the early 19th century Kung San and Hazda women in central Africa still produced up to 80% of the communal food supply and were certainly not under the control of men. In ancient Greece women deities were as common as male gods.

And when did formal politics emerge? Answer: After women were subordinated. I am not necessarily proposing a causal link here but does this relegation of women to a subordinate position not explain why for thousands of years politics as well as governance has been an exclusive male preserve? And does it not go some way to explain why politics in general is characterised by a competitive, discriminatory, abusive, aggressive, deceitful, and one-sided culture - even on the left? Is it not true that it is impossible to find a form of economics, finance and politics at any point in time or in any part of the globe - which is devoid of numerous levels of deviousness and corruption?

B) The mainstream sources of patriarchy.

It is clearly the case that the gender basis of the three Abrahamic religions, is a male God, as father-figure, who Muslims, Jews and Christians should submit to. Male Rabbi’s, Priests and Imams as exclusive intermediaries, complete the patriarchal line up. Is it not striking that this ancient cultural habit continually reappears in modern secular forms of society? Venezuela is clearly not the first example in history, where people have been trained to abandon collective self-reliance and follow (even revere) a male leader on whom they consequently came to depend.

Indeed, I suggest, such social programming is hard wired into the cultural DNA of all societies in which patriarchy, in one form or another, has existed and continues unchallenged - or only partially challenged. And does this not explain why after two thousand years, this pattern of deference to male-stream thinking and leadership is reflected in the education of 20th century children and young adults? In researching the teaching of girls, one UK female school teacher summed up this problem as follows;

"The very knowledge transmitted to schoolchildren is essentially male knowledge, and of necessity, one-sided and distorted...... If women's education is ever to become truly subversive, as Dale Spender recommends, it would inevitably assume a revolutionary form and would challenge the male study of male society; it would critically analyse male interpretations of history, literature, language and anthropology, which are at present unchallenged." (Elaine Cross. 'Swimming against the tide of male mythology'. In 'School Organisation Volume 5 Number 1.)

With a few exceptions, not only are most of the senior positions in every sector of global society, government, finance, industry, health, education, military still dominated by men, but so too is politics. In the modern, capitalist dominated world, women continue to be marginalised, objectified, trivialised, exploited, oppressed, beaten, sexually harassed, raped, and brutally murdered - as statistics and the examples noted above indicate. Savits Halappanavar! Did patriarchal Catholic ideology in Ireland not play a role in her death when she was denied a possible life-saving abortion?

Taking a more extreme example, did not the 19th century example of Fascism, not recreate this very dependence and reverence for the a male leader (Fuehrer in Germany) as well as secure the total domination of men over women? And for that matter, what motivates the Zionists in Israel if not a patriarchal form of ideology in its pursuit of secular and religious governance - at the expense of the Palestinians? Parallel to this what drives the fundamentalists and Islamists in Iran and now Egypt if not their own version of a patriarchal form of governance?

C) Patriarchal tendencies on the revolutionary left.

Back to Lenin. It is also a fact that millions of 20th century Soviet Citizens, filed past the figure of embalmed Lenin in reverential awe and worship, grieving the loss of ‘the’ male guide and inspiration of all of suffering humanity in Soviet Russia! And in such cases, is not the cultural indoctrination and dependence on male leadership so strong that often if one such leader dies, the system needs to quickly find another to replace them? Or if that is not immediately possible do not the guardians of the system of patriarchy point to the inspiration of his words - and/or erect a statue as avatar substitute?

In the case of Russia, all three in fact occurred. After Lenin died, Stalin was given the mantle of the good father of mankind (Uncle Joe) and he too - despite the most brutal atrocities - was mourned when he eventually died. Both had their avatar statues and iconic portraits installed in squares, offices and homes. Their 'complete works' diligently published to be poured over by future adoring patriphobe acolytes, who more often than not just uncritically ‘borrowed‘ their ideas.

So despite the inhumanity emanating from this patriarchal ideology and the historic need for its eradication, in a modified form it has been systemically replicated amongst the European and North American 20th and 21st century revolutionary left. Despite rare exceptions, every revolutionary left group in existence is primarily ‘led’ by men. In addition to male members dominating the numbers of all left groups including all anti-capitalist groups. Certain of them assume it is ‘natural’ that they routinely dominate all the time allocated for discussion at meetings.

However, the virulence of patriarchal symptoms within the left, doesn’t just end with membership numbers and the gender bias of figureheads. As we know it extends to the use and abuse of females where they do exist within the movement. For too long the left has clung onto the patriarchal form of politics and the consequent exploitative treatment of 'members', particularly females. Ask yourself: How revolutionary can the left really be if it does not do everything possible to overthrow this outmoded, deformed ideology parked up in its own backyard?

The women’s movement which developed out of the left movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, in the USA, analysed and mapped out in considerable detail how ‘left’ men used women as dogs-bodies and for sexual satisfaction/conquest, within left movements and groups. However, because the Women’s Liberation Movement at the time comprised of many strands (conservative, liberal, radical, lesbian, socialist, Marxist) it was easy for ’left’ men to disparage (as bourgeois), many of the ideas emanating from the movement. Worse still, there was also the almost universal failure to recognise that without a resolute struggle against patriarchy and patrifocality any formal or informal support for women's liberation (well-meaning or not) would be little more than hot air, and dissipate just as fast.

The scandal of sexual exploitation, of female members emanating from within the Socialist Labour League/WRP indicated that this cancerous and parasitic symptom was alive and endemic among this group of anti-capitalists in the mid to late 20th century. But its alleged emergence within the SWP in the 21st century indicates that some left activists are still perhaps clinging onto the advantages accruing from the continuance of patriarchal cultural and organisational forms. Which begs the question; where else has it been covered up and/or is still lurking? Even the extremely rare cases of ‘allowing’ women’s caucuses, often merely avoids male responsibility to confront patriarchy themselves within and without their organisations.

D) Letting go of Patriarchy.

But exactly what is it that the left needs to let go of? Of course, the cruder forms of this patriarchal culture, such as sexual harassment, abuse of power for sexual favours, using female labour for mundane office work, paper sales, making the tea etc., should have been expunged from the repertoire of left organisation, long ago. Sadly, this inherited, stock-piled inventory still needs to be written off. But so too does letting go of patrifocality (ie male opinion and protected 'leader' status being the default organisational position.). This practice forms an integral sub-section of the patriarchal mode of production, circulation and distribution among the left. It manifests itself in an automatic assumption that what the leading male/s say and write is more important than anyone else's opinion or evidence, not because its content is better, but simply because it comes from this source.

Another belated thought! Was this not one of the difficulties Rosa Luxemburg encountered in the late 19th century in her tussles with the male leadership of the German SPD, who suggested she stick to women‘s affairs? This leader and led attitude, then, now (and in between), breeds an uncritical acceptance of ideas and practices which may not be as ‘sound’ as they are made to sound. This assumption of male superiority and a consequent required deference is a particularly virulent form of the patriarchal tendencies within the anti-capitalist left. It manifests itself also with regard to the frequent uncritical regard for revolutionary 'men' who went before. For there is among some on the left an almost semi-religious status reserved for Lenin and Trotsky, two middle-class men, who were undoubtedly talented, but also undoubtedly seriously flawed.

It took substantial evidence of brutality and bloodshed to depose the ‘left’ patriarch Stalin from a universally exalted position, but the comrade who promoted and protected him (Lenin) and the comrade who agreed with many of his ideas and actions, (Trotsky) are still protected, by an almost mystical reverence. Which brings me back to the recent documents on Lenin. Some on the left just seem to regurgitate what Lenin (and Trotsky) said in various writings without seriously examining any negative aspects of their intellectual output and practical actions. Anyone within the revolutionary left who challenges the superstitious regard for these two men or any aspect of the inherited interpretation of their role is written off as a heretic and treated as such. And heresy in this sense is the correct classification, because much of it represents that tradition of direct critical challenges to the orthodoxy of patriarchal assumptions.

Further, patrifocality and patriarchy is so embedded in the cultural practices of the left that the general meetings, conferences, aggregates, of groups are based upon a platform dominated by male ’authority’ figures, who deliver their thoughts and observations to the overwhelmingly passive listener members, (ie the workers), who - if they are lucky - get to compete with others so assembled - to ask a short question or make a brief comment. The knowledge and experience, let alone the needs of the overwhelming number of those assembled, does not get an airing, let alone a verification or validation - apart from perhaps a patronising nod of thanks for their dutiful attendance.

E) Patriarchy and leadership.

The concept of ‘leadership’ in such cases is more often than not a transmuted expression of mainstream patriarchal ideology, and within this vanguardist model of organisation there is a strong connective tissue between the exercise of ‘leadership’ and that of organisational 'command' - particularly in crisis moments. The facets displayed by leadership roles are many; 'visionary'; 'democratic'; 'demagogic' 'authoritative' but the final one turned to face the rank and file if all else fails is - command! And there is often another rarely mentioned factor at play. Can we avoid the suspicion that some people on the left, as they do outside of the left, just get off on being a leader?

Is there an undisclosed secret pleasure at being admired and looked up to that helps perpetuate patrifocality and patriarchal ideology and the aspiration to be, or become, the recognised leader of a party and a class? And of course forms of corruption - other than morally based corruption - flow directly from the hierarchical leadership model of organisation. As a consequence the bourgeois world at all levels is awash with corrupt leadership - a symptom from which the left is certainly not immune.

And of course leaders must have followers. In this model, the latter are thus spared the task of thinking too much for themselves. So instead of collective education, we have at best biased, party-training; instead of self-critical reflection and evaluation we get self-serving regurgitation and congratulation. Instead of collegiate collaboration we arrive at a division between organisers and dogsbodies; instead of equality becoming actualised, inequality becomes institutionalised. A permanent division of labour opens up in which the leadership sees itself as the 'true' embodiment of the 'cause' and group loyalty is used to trump allegiance to egalitarian principles.

And revealingly - because it has been a consistent pattern on the left over the last 100 years - if such leaderships are challenged (for whatever reason) by any of the rank and file, the leader/s invariably close ranks and silence, expel, or otherwise try to destroy this opposition. In other words, they automatically swing into the ‘command’ mode as a result of their ideological commitment and leadership position. As one recent commentator remarked with regard to the recent SWP implosion;

"And if any reader who's a member of another far left group is feeling particularly smug about this, ask yourself. Would your own revolutionary leadership submit to being bumped down to rank-and-file status after an open and democratic political struggle?" ((Phil at;

Make no mistake! This particular public debacle will badly effect, not just the SWP, but all those who are committed to this form of organisation. Male domination and sectarianism will be seen by working people, correctly in my view, as general characteristics of vanguardism, not an obnoxious failing specific to just one particular group. If patriarchy in all its manifestations, was not seriously challenged and superseded, by either the Mensheviks or Bolsheviks, in the 20th century, then is it surprising that they ended up with a hierarchical, male-dominated political organisation and a male-led bureaucracy? In this regard, did soviet economics not mirror soviet politics with a division between those who were forced to work the ’means of production’ and those with special privileges (!) who bureaucratically organised and controlled them? And crucially; wasn't it Bolshevik male leaders who went on to kill rival male leaders, their wives and their children, even before Stalin took power?

Finally! If it isn’t seriously challenged and superseded in the 21st century, then the exploitation of male and female membership labour by the ‘leadership’ within the anti-capitalist movement will continue - with all that entails with regard to the females within it. Patronising agreement to a few ‘feminist’ inspired ‘reforms’ will therefore be woefully insufficient. It will be impossible for anti-capitalism to represent the whole of the oppressed and exploited members of society if it does not reject - in its own forms of organisation - this one-sided, elitist, distorted form of male authority. Male-centeredness and hierarchy is so systemically entwined within the concept of (and mythical view of) the vanguardist leadership party that the whole form of anti-capitalist organisation needs to be radically re-considered. I suggest it is time for anti-capitalists to become consistently revolutionary and do all they can to be rid of this ’muck of ages’.

Roy Ratcliffe (January 2013.)

Roy Ratcliffe
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Display the following 6 comments

  1. if we live in a patriarchal society — X
  2. Oh wow... — Anarchist
  3. @x — u-vw
  4. Clinging Onto Foreign Territories — A
  5. a different future is possible — r
  6. Role model — Adrian
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