Announcing the First Annual Victor Berger Award for Socialist Sexism
Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate the occasion, this blog is inaugurating the annual Victor Berger Prize for Socialist Sexism! Hurrah!
The award is named in honor of one of the founders of the US Socialist Party, the first socialist to be elected to the House of Representatives, and from my own home town, Milwaukee, at that. Victor Berger had his heroic side; along with other party leaders, he opposed US entry into World War I, for which he was indicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 20 years. Milwaukee re-elected him when he was under indictment and, when the Senate would not let him be seated and called a special election, elected him again. But he was not so good on what they called “the woman question.”
This was in the period of a massive and increasingly cross-class movement for woman suffrage, supported by the Socialist Party, which had many active suffragists within its ranks. Victor Berger was not among them; he thought giving women the vote would retard the great working class victory to be brought about by voting for socialist politicians like himself. Even though the party platform supported women suffrage, he said in 1910:
“...nobody will deny that the great majority of women of the present day...are illiberal, unprogressive and reactionary to a greater extent than the men of the same strata of society....it is asking a great deal of the proletariat when we are requested to delay the efficiency of our movement for generations on that account. And we surely ought not to lay such stress on this one point as to injure the progress of the general political and economic movement, which is bound to help the women as much as the men.” [Rising of the Women, p. 194]
His point was seconded by Algie Simons, a fellow party leader, who warned that the US had “The meanest, shrewdest, sharpest, cleverest capitalist class the world had ever known. They know what they are doing when they organize the Woman’s Suffrage organization.”
In other words, feminism is a capitalist plot meant to divide the working class and hold back the revolution.
Now that the Occupy movement has revived the spirit of the US left, I am pleased to announce that the spirit of Victor Berger and Algie Simons has also been revived and was manifest on Feb. 23 at an event on “The Future of the Occupation,” organized by Mark Crispin Miller of the NYU media studies department. Laurie Penny, a UK blogger who attended the event, wrote about it in the New Statesman
, describing her dismay at seeing the Occupy movement represented only by white males over forty. She and other women raised this point from the floor and the ensuing discussion was captured on video:
The video is a treat, though I suspect you had to be there to really appreciate the dynamics and I wasn’t. I have, however, been at hundreds of meetings with a similar lineup and heard all the usual excuses like “we asked a woman but she couldn’t make it;” and “No women are authorities on this subject.” Not to mention the old Victor Berger stuff about feminism being a capitalist tool to divide the working class—or the black masses, or the anti-imperialist struggle, or you name it—over and over and so on into the night.
Mark Crispin Miller gives the old song a new twist. When asked why he hadn’t invited any speakers who were young, female or people of color, he at first said it was because he was sick—and indeed on the video his voice sounds scratchy; this must account for the body language of the other panelists; they were afraid they might be infected. Then, however, he goes on the offensive:
“It's interesting to note that Ford and Rockefeller and the other foundations with strong CIA connections started giving grants in the early 70s to study race and gender. It was a sudden move towards identity politics by these organizations and the theory is that the reason they did this was to balkanise the left and to prevent it from pursuing any kind of a class or economic analysis. Without denying the justice of what you're saying, this is not an irrelevant theory. I don't think, anyway.”
He later responded to Laurie Penny via email, citing an essay by one David Brandt, who a bit of digging reveals is chiefly famous for counter-spy research and also for trying repeatedly (and apparently successfully) to get his bio removed from Wikipedia. In a downloadable article called “The CIA and Cointelpro: In Defense of Paranoia,”
Brandt says: “One yearns for the good old days, when issues were big, women didn't want to be imperial spies, and idealism and ethical indignation were accepted from nonvictims.” No, he isn’t being ironic. That’s how he writes.
Miller promotes a similar analysis on his own website
: “the idea that the state would use race/gender issues as a way to neutralize the left will seem uncontroversial to those who’ve studied how the CIA dealt with the left in country after country from the Fifties through the Seventies and beyond. It’s not unlike their covert funding of innumerable socialists and liberals throughout Europe, South America and Africa in the Cold War’s heyday, or, more recently, their covert backing of Islamist groups to weaken leftist and pan-Arab forces in the Muslim world.”
It is for this reason that he has been awarded the first annual Victor Berger Prize for Socialist Sexism. Nominations are now open for next year’s award and can be made by posting a comment on this website.