SWERF and TERF: The Red-Brown alliance in Policing Gender

Trans communism
Transcommunist flag by NinjaDrawsDBZ

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, from Fightback magazine’s upcoming issue on Socialist Feminism. Subscribe here.

Late last year, a veteran of communist politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand decided to contribute to a march for the traditional working-class demand for reproductive rights by standing outside it with a sign bearing only the words “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” – a dogwhistle for anti-trans feminists (or “trans-excluding radical feminists”, TERFs). Another veteran from the same organisation now has the same phrase at the head of her Twitter biography – displacing all mention of her record as a socialist and a union organiser. And they’re not the only ones. How has the motivation to punch down on trans people – and defend the “free speech” of fascists and others who do so – come to substitute for the fight for workers’ power and a post-capitalist world in the minds of veteran activists?

Freeze peach

Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks are veteran socialists and union organisers, who were founding authors of the blog Redline when it was set up in 20121. Whitmore’s Twitter account identifies her as part of the “Left Network for Free Speech” (LNFS). The Redline post in which this “Network” was announced says:

As partisans of the working class, we know that the working class has historically been denied democratic rights, including free speech. Even after hundreds of years of struggle, workers today face being fired for expressing, in their own time and on their own computers, views which their employers disapprove of.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of employers and the state disempowers workers and oppressed sections of society such as women, Maori, gay people and migrant workers… Free speech is necessary to expose racism, sexism and bigotry. In contrast, ‘hate speech’ restrictions don’t challenge these ideas. ‘Hate speech’ laws in practice are an arbitrary tool that are used to impose social regulation. They can be used to silence progressives on a range of issues.2

Given their defence of free speech as a weapon in defence of the interests of workers and gay people, it is strange that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau – the millionaire athlete who was released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after violating his contract by making religiously-based homophobic social media posts – or of “gender-critical” (i.e. transphobic) commentators and academics. The link between these and working-class activism seems thin, to say the least.

Free-speech absolutism on the Left has had a historical record of degenerating, first into tolerance for Right-wing ideas, then actual sympathy with them. The classic historical example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain, originally a split from the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation – always somewhat of an outlier on the British far-left – began to be distinguished in the mid-1980s by opposing the consensus that fascist movements such as the British National Party should not be given platforms on campus. This clearly prefigures the LNFS’ insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse, as well as its concern about “academic mobbing” of professors who promote transphobia.

The subsequent transformation of the RCP into an outright Right-wing libertarian outfit is quite notorious. Opposing the liberal consensus had become for them an end in itself, detached from socialist principle. The organisation itself wound up in the 1990s, as their Living Marxism magazine was sued out of existence for denial of the horrors of attempted genocide during the Yugoslav civil wars. They cropped up later in the form of the “Institute of Ideas”, promoting climate-change denial through documentaries such as The Great Global Warming Swindle. They continue to exist as Spiked, a libertarian Right-wing website funded by American billionaires the Koch brothers, some of whose writers have recently been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party.3

It is interesting to note that the place where this degeneration began – minimising the threat of fascism in favour of the supposed greater threat of liberal “thought policing” – is a very common trope on the anti-liberal Left, the kind of people whom Fightback has criticised in our previous articles on Conservative Left and Red-Brown tendencies. As we have previously stated, this kind of underestimation of the fascist threat – or even seeing fascist movements as having a positive side, in mobilising opposition to a centrist/liberal consensus – was the kind of thinking from Communists which led to the victory of Hitler in Germany.

The most shocking and disturbing thing on the LNFS Facebook page, however, is the un-ironic posting of this image4:

This is an extremely common meme in online “free speech” circles (and was recently quoted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter). But this is not a quote from the 18th century French writer Voltaire at all. It is in fact a quote from Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi writing in 1993. The clue to whom he was really referring is given in the following, full version of the meme:

There is no reason to believe that Whitmore, Franks et al. were aware of the true nasty nature of this meme. But in a way, that makes it even worse. Fightback has previously characterised the spread of “Red-Brown” ideas as like a “zombie plague”, in that socialists or others on the Left who start descending into Right-populist or even fascist politics don’t even realise that they’re doing so. It is a case of losing one’s political (or even moral) compass.

“Progressive” transphobia

Unfortunately, trans-exclusive ideas are not confined to the comrades of Redline/LFNS. TERF politics are very strong on the British left, and one union activist recently arrived from Britain tried earlier this year to defend the free speech of transphobes on the “Unions NZ” Facebook group.6 Prominent veterans of the socialist movement in New Zealand – such as Unite Union stalwart Mike Treen and retired academic David Bedggood7 – have also made social media or blog posts opposing “transactivism” or defending local anti-trans activists such as Renee Gerlich. Such comrades often try to justify themselves by arguing that they are against discrimination against trans people, but that “transactivism/the transgender movement” goes too far. These are not dissimilar in form from the arguments against Gay Liberation from 1970s Communists, which are still used by fringe Stalinist groups like the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”.

This is particularly ironic in an era where some of the staunchest young communists in Aotearoa/New Zealand identify as trans, non-binary or in some other way “genderqueer”.9 As we noted in “Against Conservative Leftism”, incomprehension of new ways of living which have become common among young people in the era of neoliberal globalisation is a common feature among many veteran activists.

Beyond that, many activists have pointed to an extremely strong link between anti-sex-worker (sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism, or SWERF) and anti-trans politics. English sociology professor Sally Hines put it like this on Twitter:

If someone is a trans exclusionary feminist they will almost certainly have anti-sex work and anti-porn politics – and vice versa. The constant is a denial of body autonomy and a feminism that insists it knows what is best for other women (even when told otherwise).11

It is no coincidence that, due to social exclusion from other work, trans women have been disproportionately represented among sex workers. It is rumoured that several prominent TERFs in New Zealand developed their hostility to trans people after getting a hostile response to their anti-sex worker activism.

English trans musician “DeadBitBabe” also comments:

SWERF’N’TERFS can’t acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers because to them power only comes from maintaining the integrity of their fantasy construction of a female body… Are the cries of Lesbian erasure not strangely reminiscent of the fascist’s cries of white genocide?

The “lesbian erasure” trope is an interesting one. The AfterEllen website recently published an article entitled “A Butch Eradication, Served With a Progressive Smile”, claiming that the network of lesbian spaces and business which had been built up since the 1980s had collapsed due to an increasing tendency of “butch” (masculine-appearing) lesbians to identify as trans men. The author laments:

Our lesbian spaces are already dead. Our bookstores, our dances. Everything we built is dead and taken over by the trans nightmare.

If nothing else, this is a change from the usual TERF narrative, which tends to ignore the existence of trans men and non-binary people altogether, and instead to whip up moral panic about trans women “colonizing” or even “raping” cis women’s spaces. What should really make people stop and think about both these TERF narratives is how similarly they resemble fascist narratives about “The Great Replacement”, as made notorious by the manifesto of the terrorist who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch earlier this year.

Following the analysis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Fightback has previously argued that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them. The AfterEllen article quoted above mourns for the death of a network of lesbian/woman-identified small businesses. In most cases TERFs tend to be older, whiter feminists who have had some success in academia, writing, or in the bourgeois lesbian community (the most globally prominent example being Germaine Greer).

Analysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology might seem shocking or over-the-top; particularly because to do so would require us to categorize many veteran socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand to have slipped over into the “Red-Brown” camp. But defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable. As does the habit of TERF ideologues of suggesting that trans people are part of some kind of conspiracy of “elites”, as in the tweet reproduced below:

TERF conspiracy theories on Twitter about "elites backing the trans movement" are not dissimilar to fascist ones.

The full antisemitic force of that term “elites” can be grasped when you read a transphobic academic explicitly name George Soros, the Jewish liberal billionaire who has become a common bad guy in fascist conspiracy theory, as a guilty party. “Deadbitbabe” on Twitter again:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties.

The anarchist-communist website LibCom puts it more bluntly: “Transphobic feminists are, for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right.” Given this, the support given by the fascist and religious-fundamentalist Right for TERFs, described in other articles reprinted in this issue, begins to look less like an “enemy’s enemy” situation and more like a meeting of ideological bedfellows.

Perhaps the final word can be left to the author of the blog nothingiseverlost, in a criticism of the similar descent of the socialist-feminist academic Nina Power into TERF and other forms of right-wing politics: “you never seem to get people becoming less sympathetic to the far-right at the same time as getting into “gender critical”/trans-exclusionary versions of feminism.” It is extremely interesting that Power’s main move in defending her dabbling with transphobic and fascistic memes is an invocation of … free speech.

What is to be done?

Fightback has previously discussed what we see as another irruption of Right-wing ideology into socialist circles, here and elsewhere in the Western world – the demonization of the Syrian revolution. The repetitive argument from such people is that the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime and its Russian allies are not “real” subjects of liberation (such as, to take a more popular example, the Palestinian people), but instead pawns of some Zionist-jihadi-US State Department conspiracy against Syria’s “national sovereignty”. The really perverse issue is that some of the TERF-adjacent leftists we have quoted– and we might name David Bedggood here – have agreed with us in staunchly rejecting this dehumanizing rhetoric when used against the Syrian people in struggle… only to use similar rhetoric against trans people in struggle.20

At the very least, what this can tell us is that “it’s difficult to be right about everything”. But it also warns us against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment. We all live under a suffocating blanket of capitalist ideology, in which it becomes “natural” for different groups of the oppressed to be suspicious or hostile towards each other. Even with the best intentions, it can be very hard to consistently hold to a materialist analysis which can clearly identify patterns of oppression, exploitation and privilege, and not be confused by the “DARVO” (“Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”) tactics habitually used by fascist movements and domestic abusers.

Fightback believes that to effectively fight capitalism today means to fight fascism, the most dangerous form of capitalist ideology, which is currently on the rise. To fight fascism, we must have a united front of working and oppressed people. To have a united front we cannot tolerate racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, state-worship or any other ideology which suggests that some oppressed people are “deserving targets” within our united front, because that is literally the thin edge of the Fascist wedge.

The Left has had far too much opportunism recently – refusal to face Right-populist or even fascist ideas within the movements for fear of alienating people, of breaking up the mass movement. We need to hold to a practice of honest, sharp criticism of SWERF and TERF ideas where-ever they are raised, even by “comrades” or “good Leftists”, as contrary to the unity of all the oppressed we need to build a better world. We also need to centre the experiences of trans people and sex workers within our movement in such debates – nothing should be “about them, without them”.

At the same time, it is crucial to build the biggest possible anti-fascist, anti-capitalist united front – which will mean sometimes linking arms with SWERFs, TERFs and even partisans of Bashar al-Assad against a common enemy. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Special thanks to Sage Anastasi, Lisandru Grigorut and Anne Russell for their help with this article.

1 The founders of Redline were former members of the Workers Party of New Zealand – the organisation from which Fightback is also descended. We are aware of the historical ironies involved.

2 For refutations from the Left of the case against hate-speech restrictions, see Max Rashbrooke at Overland (liberal) and R. Totale at LibCom (anarcho-communist).

3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spiked, and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/us-billionaires-hard-right-britain-spiked-magazine-charles-david-koch-foundation

4 If this image is taken down before then, it was accessed July 13, 2019.

6 This post raised strong negative feedback and has since been deleted by the group administrators.

7 Treen has republished several anti-“transactivist” articles on social media, including those from Redline. Bedggood is the author of this blog post.

9 Not to even mention the contribution to the Communist movement over decades by “transactivists” such as the late Les Feinberg.

11 Hines even suggests that SWERFs and TERFs might be brought together under the label “Genital-Obsessed Feminists”.

20 An excellent article on LibCom shows how a Red-Brown conference in Sweden brought together transphobic speakers with some of the most notorious defenders of Assad, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley.

Comments

  1. Paul Hopkinson says:

    I read this article hoping to find a good analysis from one side of a political debate I have not really engaged in to increase my understanding of the issues. Unfortunately, it is basically a rant posing as analysis to justify calling anyone who disagrees with you a fascist.

    After reading this article I’m none the wiser on any issues in this debate but I am depressed by the continued sectarianism on the Left and the inability to engage in the ideas. There are many are real issues that need to be debated to help end discrimination against trans-people. At what age should people be allowed to transition? Where do parental rights sit within this? Trans-people in sport? These a just a few issues that come to mind.
    What are the ideas that ‘veteran of communist politics’ are propagating? How and why are these trans-phobic? If it’s encapsulated in the sign that was being held up “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” I’m still in dark. I’ve held up many signs at protests that are far from perfected.

    Does Daphne really think such a definition could be applied to someone like Don Franks?
    that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural
    It does not matter if you agree with Don’s politics now or not but it does not wipe out his history as one of NZ’s staunchest working class activists and artists.
    I’ve thought about commenting more on this article but it would be a waste of time to as it would just engaging in sectarian dribble. I have respect for some of the comrades involved in Fightback but not for this.

    Paul Hopkinson

  2. Byron Clark says:

    If the group who split from the Workers Party and formed Redline had adopted a position of left-nationalism that favoured restrictions on migration workers, I don’t think any of use would call critiquing that position “continued sectarianism on the Left and the inability to engage in the ideas”

    In fact, critiquing that position would would considered an example of engaging in the ideas. Just as socialist critiques of the left-nationalism of some social democrats has been, people who we could work along side in many cases, but who were wrong on that issue.

    Rather than become left-nationalists, a position which is wrong because it furthers the oppression of migrants (especially undocumented migrants), Redline has adopted a position of trans-exclusive radical feminism. This position furthers the oppression of transgender people. Daphne has given examples of how transgender people are oppressed in this article, as well as examples of how left groups that adopt this position have ended up lining up with conservative forces.

    “At what age should people be allowed to transition? Where do parental rights sit within this? Trans-people in sport?”

    I’m not sure a socialist publication is the place to look for answers to these questions. What this article has done is highlighted how marginalising transgender people has served conservative and arguably far-right interests. Because I’ve been following the local far-right closely, I attended a recent public meeting held by the New Conservative Party (I wrote a report that’s also been published on Fightback) the New Conservatives have been dogwhistling to the far-right by campaigning against the U.N migration compact, and promoting the likes of Douglas Murray (author of the “The Strange Death of Europe” which alleges European civilisation is under threat from Muslim immigration) at their meeting, the main theme was trans panic, the co-leader literally yelled “they are coming for your children!”

    New Conservative are trying to build an electoral alliance made up of far-right nationalists, Christian conservatives, anti-“political correctness” types and firearms owners, whipping up fear about transgender people is one of their main tactics, and when groups on the left contribute to that fear it plays into their hands.

  3. On the pervasiveness of the Soros thing, I’m not sure I’ve ever publically shared this screenshot before, but a year or two back, when a UK-based anarcho-syndicalist page started sharing anti-trans material, I was amazed by how quickly commenters (again, just to stress, people in the comments *of an anarcho-syndicalist page*) moved to posting links to an article from The Federalist, which predictably enough named Soros as being one of the “rich white men behind the transgender movement”: https://nothingiseverlost.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/solfed-soros.png – on sharing that, I should make it very clear that SolFed as a whole don’t endorse that kind of material, and the “Norwich SolFed” page is apparently run by a single person who’s been expelled.

  4. oh, and on a minor proof-reading note the numbering on the footnotes could do with sorting out. – Yours, A. Pedant

  5. The discontinuous footnote numbering is that several footnotes from the print version have been converted to hyperlinks in the text, and I couldn’t be bothering renumbering from there!

  6. Paul Hopkinson says:

    Byron sorry about my delayed reply but I have been trying to catch up on some of this debate.
    Firstly, I don’t agree with the definition and use of the term fascism. To me it is a historically specific and I don’t see it applying to much of the Alt-right. Most of the alt-right is bigoted and often racist, the worst of them may be able to be called neo-fascist.

    So the use of term fascist against long term socialist activists that disagree with you on a gender issue is naming calling and immediately withdraws you from the debating the ideas. If this article had been debating the ideas I wouldn’t have had to go elsewhere to understand what concepts Daphne opposed of these veteran activists.

    I went to Redline to see ‘that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau’ I assume by all Daphne meant the 2 articles I found there, both of which were written by Daphna Whitmore. The first, directly about Folua is hardly controversial it simple states he has the right to say bigoted shit under the freedom of expression pretty much. Then points out what hypocrites the big corporates are that were upset by what he said but are happy to work with governments that kill homosexual and trans-people. https://rdln.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/folau-diversity-and-the-almighty-dollar/ . I may have missed something but unless freedom of expression is no longer something that is supported by the socialist left I can find nothing wrong with this article.

    The 2nd article does mention transgender and this seems to contain the issue that Daphne might have a problem with, but I’m not sure if I do. https://rdln.wordpress.com/2019/03/25/counter-hate-speech-with-free-speech/ . Towards the bottom of the article it does talk about how some transgender activists demand access to women’s spaces. Just to clarify here I’m taking it the below definition is ok for transgender?
    Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex. Some transgender people who desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another identify as transsexual.

    So I think I’m now getting to the core of the issue here, there is disagreement I take it on if people who still have the genitalia of one sex but identify as the other should be able to access women only spaces.

    In some post-capitist, post-patriarchal society where high numbers of women aren’t subject to sexual assault and rape by males in the society there may be no need for gender specific spaces at all. I’m thinking of the gender neutral shower scene in ‘Starship Troopers (I’m and just referencing that scene not the whole movie). Unfortunately, this is not a reality in which we live.

    If this is the issue Daphne has a problem with she should of made an argument putting forward why it is more important in today’s society for transgender people to be able to access women only spaces, than it is for women to have access to spaces where there are only people with female genitalia.

    At this point as she never made that case I’m siding with Daphna, in the historical specific context we are in, women have a right to be able to get undressed in a space free of male sexual organs regardless of the orientation of those with those organs. I’m being this specific as I don’t see an issue with transgender in other women’s spaces, except sport.

    I don’t see an easy answer to the sport question as the other main difference I see between the genders is size, strength and speed. The question here seems to be do the rights of transgender to compete in women’s sporting events out weight the rights of women to have a level playing field?

    If this isn’t what Daphne has an issue with then the issues need to be made clear in the article and how these issues impact transgender people’s lives. No reference to fascism needs to be made if it is a real attempt to engage in ideas and not abuse to try shut debate down.
    Byron where I asked the questions “At what age should people be allowed to transition? Where do parental rights sit within this? Trans-people in sport?” I apologise for not being clearer, you’re right it is not for the far left to determine these things. What I was trying to get at was the attacks you mention in your last paragraph.

    The moral panics that the Alt-Right is using to attack the rights of transgender people are based around these issues. By debate I mean the Left should of debated responses to these things to counter Alt-Right attacks on transgender rights.

    Sorry again for taking a while to respond.

    Paul

  7. John Edmundson says:

    There is a real issue here which, as Paul writes, cannot be reduced to playing the Fascist card. That some people on the left have not adopted uncritically, the entire trans-activist position that trans women should have full access to previously women only spaces is not a sign of a new Red-Brown alliance in the making. This is a real issue, not one that can be made a litmus test without room for debate. Cases like the now notorious Jessica Yaniv case demonstrate that this issue is not clear cut black and white and needs mature and respectful debate.

    Does someone in a changing room and dealing with rinsing out stained underwear during a heavy period really need someone else’s penis being exposed during that time? If a penis-possessing self identifying “lesbian” pressures a vagina-possessor for sex and is turned down, is that transphobia? These are not bizarre hypotheticals. They are real and cannot be ideologically wished away. Being aware of them does not make me or anyone else a fascist or a transphobe. I absolutely support the rights of transgender people but I also support the right of those born with female genitalia to have refuge from those with male genitalia during private moments, such as undressing. If that produces a clash of rights, then there is a genuine issue to be resolved. The logical way seems to me a combination of male only, female only and gender-neutral/unisex facilities, combined with good education around the rights of transgender people to live without discrimination and fear of the sort of violence that is so often present in their lives. This seems to me a better way forward than alienating the vast majority of women who, right now, feel more comfortable with access to penis-free changing rooms and toilets.
    Comradely,
    John

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