Recent debates in Britain and Ireland have seen a sharp division in the socialist movement on the issue of gender identity. These divisions have reached new heights following the harassment and subsequent resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock of Sussex University. Socialist parties have justified the campaign against her and threats against feminists in other demonstrations. The University and college Union responded by condemning transphobia.
That case is summed up by Grant Butters of the UCU, who is also associated with the socialist group RS21.
A comrade involved with feminist defenders of women’s rights responds below (ed).
Let’s see what is at the bottom of this rabbit hole
04 November 2021
Some socialists sincerely believe that a person can change their sex because they self-identify as different from their biological body. Others believe that you can choose whatever gender identity you want but you have no choice over your biological sex. These differences of opinion are frequently not expressed in the most comradely terms, but one would have assumed that some common ground remained. For example, a worker should not face calls for dismissal for saying what most people believe.
God help any woman who works in Scottish higher education who says that sex is immutable and is relying on University and College Union (UCU) Scotland Executive member and Branch President (UCU Edinburgh) Grant Buttars to defend her if some students demand she should be sacked.
In the post-Trotskyist version of a witch trial Buttars produces some of the most appalling arguments ever adduced by a man to justify the sacking of a woman. After a long set up referencing a case of a racist advocate of paedophilia in “When is it right for a union to support dismissal?”, Buttars explains it is OK when the target is a racist, an advocate of paedophilia or a feminist who doesn’t agree with him on sex and gender.
He tries to justify the ousting of Kathleen Stock from her job at Sussex University following a sustained campaign of intimidation and harassment by students which was supported by the UCU branch there. His core argument is that women who openly question the effects of gender ideology on women's lives are comparable to Nazis and should be treated as such.
He doesn’t go as far as saying that she was seen flying on a broomstick, but he does say that her views on the differences between sex and gender were known outside the university. As Stock is a published author that is hardly surprising.
His next killer argument is that some students had complained about her views in the past. Any education worth the name must make students question their assumptions and interrogate evidence. Too bad if that’s uncomfortable for some. That’s how you learn to think.
Stock’s senior management were quite supportive of her when a group of masked protestors were on her campus and putting up stickers demanding she be sacked. What sort of union activist has a problem with a management protecting a worker facing unprecedented harassment? Grant Buttars is breaking new ground for trade unionism and 21st century revolutionary socialism. All the more so since RS21 only exist because they correctly identified the sexism in the Socialist Workers Party and left because of it. Now they are supporting the hounding of women for being feminists.
Anyone lacking the imagination or empathy appreciate the impact of a hate campaign like on its target this should watch or listen to Stock’s interview with BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
A political regression
Buttars’ line of argument will have consequences in the real world if anyone is unlucky enough to be in a union branch where people who hold his views are reps.
Dr Shereen Benjamin is Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at the University of Edinburgh. By writing for Woman’s Place UK she was effectively making herself a potential defendant in a witch trial. She said:
“UCU (and others on the political left who purportedly care about academic freedom and freedom of speech) are selective in their defence of such freedoms, and themselves join in with misrepresentations and smear campaigns against feminists, they play into the government’s hands.”For people like Buttars this power of prophecy which allowed her to foresee what would happen to Stock is only further proof of her guilt.
The only thing he gets right in his apologia for harassing women out of jobs is:
“As socialists and trade unionists we must side with the oppressed – always. That is solidarity.”Stock is on record as saying that trans people should have respect, safety and the right to live their lives as they please. Those are not the views of a bigot and neither Buttars nor the protestors who posted memes saying “ding dong the witch is dead” when they heard of her forced resignation can point to a single prejudiced word.
Solidarity with the oppressed also includes solidarity with women who know sex is real and say so in public. The RS21 piece is the latest and most extreme development in a prioritising of identity politics over material reality and class solidarity. It’s a political regression which is placing sections of socialists in direct conflict with feminists and is leading to an abandonment of a basic trade union principle.