How masculinity undermines left politics.
Probably the most profound insight of the post-1960s women’s movement has been its recognition that “the personal is political”. In a clear challenge to the traditional Left, feminists have argued that our personal and political lives are not separate and autonomous, but deeply interactive.
Despite nearly three decades of modern feminism, this understanding of the critical relationship between personal life and politics is something which most socialists have still barely begun to acknowledge, let alone understand. Indeed, the theory and practice of socialism remains indelibly stamped with the personalities of the unreconstructed male-dominated Left and the consequent destructive imposition of masculinity on socialist ideas and action.
The fact that masculine modes of thought and behaviour deeply disfigure the politics of the Left is, perhaps, only to be expected. After all, we live in a patriarchal society where male domination is pervasive and even socialist individuals and organisations are therefore subject to its baleful impact and influences.
Masculine ways of thinking and acting are not, of course, biologically ordained and immutable. They are primarily the socially-determined product of a specific set of culturally-constructed institutions and ideologies.
In our society, these institutions and ideologies result in male children being reared and socialised quite differently from female ones. They tend to be conditioned to see rivalry, toughness, domination and even violence as acceptable and normal attributes for young boys and real men.
During childhood these harsh masculine values generally become internalised as desirable modes of male behaviour. Whereas emotion, sensitivity, gentleness, persuasion and conciliation tend to be looked upon with relative disfavour amongst men, these latter values are generally negatively depicted within our culture as signs of weakness typically associated with women and with male homosexuals who are disparaged for failing to conform to the masculine ideal.
Thus, from a very early age, most male children learn to be competitive, strong, aggressive and unyielding. The idea that problems can ultimately be resolved – and often legitimately resolved – by threats and violence becomes deeply etched into their inner psyche.
When these same male children grow up and get involved in Left politics (or the politics of the Right) they bring their harsh masculine values with them. In many cases, often quite unwittingly, these values profoundly influence their political thought and action.
We see this disturbing masculine influence most obviously in the domineering, strident and hectoring political style of many left-wing men (and of some left-wing women who apparently feel that the only way they can compete with their male comrades is by responding with equal levels of political machismo).
It is also evident in the way much of the self-proclaimed vanguardist Left makes a particular virtue of its commitment to tough policies, no compromises, confrontation tactics and the glorification of the armed struggle. To them, being tolerant or conciliatory is an inherent sign of weakness and can never be countenanced. Those who deviate from the correct line – however slightly or sincerely are ferociously denounced as traitors and sell-outs.
Even worse, some on the revolutionary Left extol this masculinisation of socialism as a litmus test to distinguish themselves as true socialists from others whom they dismiss as mere liberals and reformists. For these people, toughness has been elevated into a tenet of socialist commitment.
Within the Labour Party, the use of the terminology “soft Left” and “hard Left” embodies an aggressive masculine definition of socialism with its implication that to be soft is betrayal and a sign of weakness, whereas to be hard is to show strength and socialist virtue.
It’s true, of course, that in certain circumstances – such as fascist dictatorship or imperialist occupation – armed resistance and insurrectionary violence may be the only possible solution to remedy unbearable injustice and oppression. Surely, however, these should not be the methods of first resort – as many in the revolutionary Left advocate – but only used as a last available option when all the avenues for peaceful and democratic change are thwarted. For violence and suffering, even in the name of noble causes and high ideals, are always horrendous and must be rejected whenever alternative tactics are possible.
Within contemporary Britain, the ultra-Left’s idolisation of “the armed struggle” – with its archetypal hero of the “street-fighting man” – is not only undesirable and reactionary in principle. On a purely practical level, while it may provide a useful outlet for pent-up masculine aggression, it is usually politically ineffective and counter-productive. It tends to alienate rather than attract popular support; and it deflects public attention away from discussion of the political goals onto criticism of the political methods. When the public focus becomes the means rather than the end – the forms of protest instead of the reasons – then the struggle is already half lost.
On the other hand, peaceful and dignified forms of’non-masculine’ protest (especially the non-violent civil disobedience which has been closely associated with the women’s peace movement) can make emotionally powerful political statements in a gentle and non-threatening way which encourages sympathy and support, and persuades rather than deters.
Such tactics of personal courage and sacrifice are more likely to win respect and admiration from the uncommitted who need to be won over if the Left is to secure a popular majority for socialism.
Additionally, by enduring hardship for the sake of one’s beliefs and by appealing to people’s conscience, these tactics also have the potential to psychologically and morally disarm political adversaries and put them on the defensive.
A tragic example of ill-judged macho political tactics occurred during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Following the conventional pattern of traditional left-wing industrial militancy, the almost-sole form of miners’ protest during the strike was an often highly belligerent form of mass picketing which sometimes included acts of violence. Regardless of the undoubtedly outrageous provocation frequently faced by the striking miners, these acts of violence quickly became the central issue of political debate. This put the National Union of Mineworkers on the defensive and distracted public attention from the real and righteous issue which was the fight to save mining jobs and communities. British Coal was effectively let off the hook. Even more alarming, the police were able to manipulate what was, relatively speaking, a handful of acts of picket-line violence to justify a massive suppression of civil liberties throughout the mining areas. The end result was that efforts to mobilise public opinion behind the NUM were severely hampered and proved to be much less effective than they otherwise might have been.
There was, however, an alternative strategy which the miners could have pursued. If they had opted for Greenham Common-style tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, the NUM would have almost certainly found it much easier to win public support for their cause throughout the country. With public opinion decisively on the miner’s side, the government would have been forced on the defensive and the NUM would have been in a better position to win the strike, or at least exact substantial concessions from British Coal.
In contrast to the rough and tumble of mass picketing, which had such an adverse impact on the unconvinced and uncommitted, the NUM might have been able to produce a very different public perception of the strike if it had concentrated instead on gigantic peaceful protests in the major city centres (rather than focusing so exclusively on picketing at isolated pit-heads well out of public view) and on the mobilisation of the women’s support groups to engage in mass acts of non-violent civil disobedience in the full glare of the world’s media.
In such circumstances, large-scale arrests would have been inevitable and it would have been the police, and the government at whose behest the police were acting, who would have been seen as the aggressors. The non-violent commitment, dignity and sacrifice of the arrested miners and women’s support group members would have, in contrast, provoked widespread public sympathy and compassion.
The fact that so much of the Left has refused to learn these lessons and break with the failed masculine-based politics of the past, cannot be explained on a purely conscious and rational level. Indeed, given its demonstrable counter-productiveness, it defies logic and rationality and requires other mediums of explanation.
All political thought and behaviour is influenced by inner – often unconscious – psychological needs and desires, as well as by conscious and rational motivations. People involved in Left politics who have aggressive masculine personalities will therefore – just as much as their counterparts on the Right – express their aggressive feelings in their political ideas and actions. Indeed, in some cases, their politics become the primary outlet for their inner feelings of anger and violence and the principle means by which they effect their deep-seated personal longing for domination and power.