London, 14 July 2015

by correspondancecritique

Dear P-,

Today I attended my first political convention. As I grabbed a seat in the front row of a seminar room in the University College London’s Institute of Education building I became self-conscious about my outfit colour-matching the various red-white-and-black Agitprop posters plastered over the walls. I grew up hearing the word ‘Marxism’ used in hush-hush tones, as the human and economic catastrophe that corrupt Communist governments had produced became a means to forever discredit any critical contribution that this ideology has to offer. On a personal level I have never identified as a politicized person. This I explain in part because I was taught to think of ‘Politics’ in terms of ‘citizenship,’ as emphasis was placed at school on the ‘duty’ to vote. In the economically-privileged and highly-educated country of Switzerland, where the population feels a sense of agency as members of a Direct Democracy, I never felt the sense of political urgency of the systematically oppressed.

The notion of injustice instead came from the forcedly ‘private’ sphere of the home. The first (and female) child of a traditional patriarchal nuclear family, I was fed from a young age that life is ‘unfair’ and to ‘get used to it.’ But whereas in terms of men, the injustice was tied to external events, in terms of women I was to understand that this was ‘Woman’s lot’, in other words inherent. From the youngest age I was aware of concerns over my appearance, as my body became a topic of conversation between my parents interweaved with the idea of ‘finding a good match.’ The chances of this happening would be increased if I acquired the domestic skills which would advertise my ability to be a carer and child-bearer. This was simultaneously paired with a lot of love, attention and support in gaining an education. I was taught to read and write before starting school and always encouraged to engage in self-improving activities such as music or sport. Good school reports were met with praise and encouragement to ‘always do your best, whatever the task.’ This message was particularly enforced in relation to work ethic, as I was recurrently advised to ‘never turn down an opportunity’ and always show willingness towards the teacher/boss. And this is, ultimately, the catch. When I was asked ‘what did I want to do’, this wasn’t as in ‘what is important to me, as a human being/what would make me feel good about being alive.’ Rather, the question was rhetorical, making sure that I’d learnt the lesson that good things (particularly a man) would ensue if I made myself agreeable and available in every way and smiled throughout. Even when I started a PhD over two years ago, there was still the vague hope that I might ‘meet someone’ which would mean I wouldn’t need to complete the programme, as indeed the biological clock is ticking and meanwhile my head is just getting more full of ideas. Somehow the fact that I am pursuing studies, particularly supposedly economically unviable studies in art history, is difficult to view as motivated by passion and professional ambition.

It was precisely the passion and commitment of the Marxist speakers I heard debate about ‘Women’s Liberation’ today which gave me hope. Following a half-hour presentation by an announced speaker, responses were invited with each intervener getting 3 minutes to say her or his piece.  I was impressed by how organised, democratic and mutually respectful the whole discussion was as participants of all backgrounds and ages and gender took the floor. Once the party rhetoric (such as referring to each other as ‘comrade’) was stripped away, I found myself in agreement with a lot of the points raised, with issues such as the role of the family, consent, how to combat verbal and physical abuse, and how to educate your peers and children, particularly in terms of sex and relationships. But as the day wore on and spirits rose with calls of revolution and fists punching the air, I started to notice a problematic repetition. Where were the challenging voices of dissent? The only brave intervener who red-faced posed the prickly question of how to posit a Socialist approach to ending women’s oppression when a member of their own party was being investigated for sexual harassment remained unanswered. The theme of suspicion towards Academia also began to emerge, as speakers criticised those who use the term ‘Marxist’ in relation to theory or ideas which are not simultaneously embodied on the terrain. I was encouraged to act before I had had time to think. I was also identifying a trend of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, as participants seemed to feel the need to assert their working class roots and assure their ‘comrades’ that they were not one of the bad privileged people. I was seeing cracks in the positive message of inclusiveness and unsure how stripping myself of privilege would help advance any cause. We could agree on the slogan ‘Books Are Weapons’ however and so I visited their bookshop before heading off to my ‘Ivory Tower.’ The convention had helped me come to grips with the implications and limitations of the 1970s feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ What I propose instead is that it is crucial that the personal shouldn’t be dismissed as anecdotal.

Bien à toi,