Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Defend the Sussex Occupation

Sign the statement in defence of the Sussex occupation
A petition has been launched to express our solidarity with the struggle against the privatisation of 235 jobs and express our opposition to the decision of Sussex university management to impose an injunction which bans both protest and occupations on campus until September, thus effectively also criminalising the ongoing Bramber house occupation. 
Please sign and pass on…
More info from Defend the Right to Protest here

Edited to add: The Occupation has been smashed in a brutal manner by police - see this report by Jelena Timotijevic and oppose the trumped up charges against student protesters - see here for more.

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On David Miliband's departure from British politics

From the BBC report

Labour leader Ed Miliband says his brother David's decision to quit as an MP and move to a US-based charity leaves UK politics "a poorer place".

Certainly does - David Miliband has been one of the richer UK politicians having made so much money over the last few years while moon-lighting on the side as an MP he had to set up his own company, 'The Office of David Miliband Limited'.

David Miliband announced he was to accept the "new challenge and new start" of running the International Rescue Committee in New York... In his letter to his constituency party chairman, David Miliband said the International Rescue Committee was founded in the 1930s at Albert Einstein's suggestion to help people fleeing the Nazis. And his own family history - his parents both fled Germany in the 1930s - meant "I feel that in doing this job I will be repaying a personal debt".  "This job brings together my personal story and political life - it represents a new challenge and a new start," he said.

David - any chance before you go of having a quiet word with your brother Ed Miliband, reminding him of your family history, and trying and stop New Labour joining the Tories in playing the race card and attacking migrant workers today?

The former foreign secretary, 47, was beaten by a narrow margin by brother Ed in the 2010 Labour leadership contest.

Yep, I remember it well - one of the funniest moments in recent British politics.  David Miliband could have won that election easily if he had dared to deviate just one milimetre to the left from Blairism. 

David said it was "very difficult" to leave Parliament and UK politics.

I bet it was - like his brother, David Miliband was always a careerist first and foremost.

But after serving as an MP for 12 years, he said: "I now have to make a choice about how to give full vent to my ideas and ideals."

Ideas? Ideals? Well David's dad certainly had some ideas and ideals, but if David ever had some,  I agree they didn't get any vent - let alone 'full vent' - while he was an MP, so there is at least some logic to this argument. 

Tony Blair, former Labour leader and prime minister, said: "I congratulate David on his appointment to a major international position. It shows the huge regard in which David is held worldwide. I'm sure he will do a great job. He is obviously a massive loss to UK politics.
"He was the head of my policy unit and then a truly distinguished minister in the government and remains one of the most capable progressive thinkers and leaders globally. I hope and believe this is time out, not time over."

Such praise from a mass murdering war-criminal like Tony Blair says everything you need to know about David Miliband's 'contribution' to UK politics - lets hope David Miliband's departure is not only 'time over' for this complete and utter Blairite standard-bearer, but for Blairism in general. 

David Miliband's former cabinet colleagues, Lord Mandelson and Jack Straw, said they did not think it was the end of his political career.... Mr Straw said he would be "welcomed back into the Labour movement".

The Labour movement?  I guess with a capital 'L', it is reasonable to talk of the 'Labour movement' in this manner - as in a 'movement' devoted to the Labour Party getting power.  But Labour movement with a small 'l'?  As far as the labour movement in the sense of trade unions and working class people collectively organising to change society goes, surely both Jack Straw and David Miliband - sorry the 'The Office of David Miliband Limited' -  left that a very long time ago...

Anyway, lets hope the British Left can unite in order to give the voters of South Shields a socialist alternative  to the austerity politics and racism on offer from the main three parties in the forthcoming by-election...

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Friday, March 15, 2013

John Molyneux on revolutionary politics today

The liberal media (The Independent, The Guardian etc), the left blogs and so on have been awash, recently, with claims that Leninism is over, that vanguard parties have had their day, that broad left unity is the only way forward and so on... Moreover all this comes after the summer and autumn of 2011 which saw the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement, in both of which a generalized anti-partyism was prevalent, and in a context of widespread disillusionment with mainstream political parties among the general public and vaguely autonomist movementism among students. Then came the spectacular rise of Syriza in Greece, accompanied by widespread enthusiasm for Syriza across the European left (including Tariq Ali and Richard Seymour), when it became apparent that Syriza had a real chance of winning the election.

Here it should be noted that an anarchist/autonomist type strategy which downplays the role of the state (Hardt and Negri) or rejects the taking of state power altogether (see John Holloway’s ‘How to Change the World without Taking Power’) can more easily coexist with a strategy of a reformist government of the left than either of these strategies can coexist with a revolutionary Marxist perspective of building a revolutionary party and smashing the capitalist state. They, the anarchist/autonomists, do their thing at the base, in the localities etc., while the reformists do their thing at the level of government.  Two interesting historic precedents for this are: 1) the early 20th century ‘economist’ tendency in Russian Social Democracy who argued that the job of Social Democrats was to restrict themselves to supporting the economic struggles of the working class and not get involved in political struggle which, as Lenin explained at the time, meant leaving politics to the liberal bourgeoisie; 2) the Spanish Revolution where the anarcho-syndicalists refusal to take state power (on the grounds of being opposed to any kind of dictatorship) morphed into support for the bourgeois liberal/ Communist/reformist Popular Front government.

History ... shows that revolutions do happen and that the 20th century witnessed a large number of revolutionary challenges by the working class. To this must be added the facts of the present deep global economic crisis of capitalism combined with the rapid onset of climate change (demanding an international solution beyond the reach of any national left government) and the need for the overthrow of capitalism, rather than its reform, becomes compelling. In my opinion the likelihood of revolutionary outbreaks and attempts by the working class in the next twenty years or so is extremely high. The real problem will be winning – and that will need a revolutionary party not an alliance of ‘interstitial’ and ‘symbiotic’ strategies or a broad left party a la Syriza or Kautsky's SPD.

From John Molyneux, 'Erik [Olin Wright] and the Zeitgeist' - see also Molyneux on Marxism and the Party

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alexis Tsipras speaking in London


SYRIZA London invites you to attend a public talk by the Leader of the Greek Opposition and head of the SYRIZA-USF parliamentary group, Alexis Tsipras, on Friday 15 March 2013, from 18:30 to 20:30 at Friends’ House, 173-177 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BJ.

Further details for the event and SYRIZA London:

We kindly ask for a voluntary contribution of £3 towards the costs of hiring the hall.

Edited to add: For more background on SYRIZA, see this recent piece on 'Greece, Politics and Marxist Strategy' by Thanasis Kampagiannis, who notes of SYRIZA 'it is now widely accepted that the Left of the party has little influence on its political trajectory, while it would be accurate to say that in SYRIZA’s economic think-tank the Left’s influence is nil. The main task of the party is now to prove its “ability to govern”, a strategy that has been pursued through trips by Tsipras to Latin America to meet with Lula (Brazil) and Kirchner (Argentina), a meeting with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and most recently a trip to the USA to court the IMF and liberal think-tanks (including the Brookings Institution)...

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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Spirit of `45 - Ken Loach talks about his new film

Well worth checking out by the sounds of things

Edited to add: See also this interview with Loach

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Friday, March 08, 2013

International Women's Day Greetings


What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.
Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) 

Edited to add: Sally Campbell on Engels's path-breaking writings on women's liberation

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Mike Gonzalez on Hugo Chavez

In 2005, speaking at the World Social Forum, Chavez announced that Venezuela was constructing “21st century socialism”. While it was received joyfully, it remained unclear what it meant. It was clearly different from Stalinism, emphasising democracy and popular participation, and it was radically anti-imperialist. Chavez scourged Bush and the US invasion of Iraq at the UN, and began to build organisations of Latin American unity linking other “new left” governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. 

And in a series of electoral tests it became clear that Chavez’s support was growing. In 2006 he won the presidency again with over 60 percent of the national vote. Some weeks later he announced the formation of a new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Had the revolutionary nationalist become a revolutionary socialist? Chavez and others frequently referred to Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci—as well as Simon Bolivar, and God. If the transformation was real, then the PSUV would be an expression of power passing directly into the hands of the mass organisations, which was the brief expectation of many on the left. Nearly six million joined the new party, a testimony to Chavez’s enormous popularity. 

 But the model of the party adopted by the PSUV appeared to be the Cuban Communist Party, not noted for its democratic character. The irony of the Bolivarian revolution is that its undoubted social advances were made possible by the rising price of oil. This funded the social programmes and oil remains the country’s main export earner. Chavez diversified Venezuela’s international dependencies. China, Russia and Iran came to play an increasingly central role. Yet, despite the hysteria of the anti-Chavez camp, there was no policy of redistribution. Some firms were nationalised and compensated at market rates, but for the most part only when they were abandoned or guilty of the most barefaced manipulations. 

The year 2006 was in many ways a crossroads. The creation of Latin American blocs such as ALBA and CELAC were expressions of Chavez’s Bolivarianism, his Panamerican vision. Yet this was not the 21st century socialism, the democratic revolution, that had been promised... 
 Read the full obituary here

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Song for Hugo Chavez - David Rovics

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Joseph Stalin - The Gravedigger

'[Michal] Reiman’s argument is that, far from being a logical consequence of socialism, the methods Stalin employed were “a complete break with the meaning and essence of the social doctrine of socialism”. But this break did not occur because of the programme of 1917 or even because of some thought out ideology on Stalin’s part.  Rather, Reiman argues, in 1927 the USSR faced an immense economic and political crisis, to which Stalin and his supporters responded “pragmatically”.
It was out of these pragmatic responses that the Stalinist system grew – and in turn shaped the mentality of those who ruled over it, Stalin included, so that “Stalin in 1929” was very different to “Stalin in 1926” in “the general nature of his politics” and the “type of practical solutions he proposed”...'
  From Chris Harman's review of The Birth of Stalinism, the USSR on the Eve of the “Second Revolution” by Michal Reiman

Edited to add: Ian Birchall on Stalin's River of Blood

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Monday, March 04, 2013

On Marxism and 'male privilege'

In many of the discussions currently underway between Marxists and feminists about the struggle for women's liberation - for a recent useful overview of some of these see this piece by Judith Orr - there is a sense that the debates that took place in the 1970s and 1980s at the time of the mass Women's Liberation Movement itself are so completely outdated as to be irrelevant - and so when someone like Richard Seymour for example now talks of 'male privilege' and the 'ostensible compensations of "maleness" ... an iteration at the level of ideology of various realities – the wage gap, male household dominance, the orientation of mass culture toward encouraging women to be "man-pleasing", and so on' there is a sense that these arguments - fashionable today in the radical left milieu - are all somehow completely new. Certainly Seymour does little to disabuse readers of this idea by mentioning any past writing or theorising on this question.

This is combined with a wider argument - taking place internationally - that somehow 'socialists need feminism' in the twenty-first century to both adequately understand and challenge women's oppression, by incorporating 'patriarchy theory' into Marxist theory (for example, if one wishes, again see Seymour). Again, these are not particularly new arguments, but build on a wider historic theoretical tradition of 'socialist feminism' and 'Marxist feminism' dating back to the 1970s. In the US, for example, one leading Marxist - Sharon Smith of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) has made the case for an adaptation of classical Marxist theory in the direction of 'socialist feminism', arguing that 'some in our own tradition, the International Socialist tradition ... fell into a [class] reductionist approach to women's liberation a few decades ago. And I would also argue that our own organization has borne the stamp of this training on a couple of key theoretical points, which I want to briefly summarize.' It is worth quoting Smith's argument at length:

 'First, what is reductionism? In its purest form, reductionism is the notion that the class struggle will resolve the problem of sexism on its own, by revealing true class interests, as opposed to false consciousness. So this approach "reduces" issues of oppression to an issue of class. It's also usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interests of men in doing away with women's oppression - without taking on the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class? Now, obviously this crude approach does not describe the IS tradition, which certainly since the 1960s women's liberation movement has taken women's liberation seriously as central to the struggle for socialism. 

 However, I would argue that there was an adaptation in the direction of reductionism, and a tendency to minimize the oppression experienced by working-class women, which led to a mistaken theoretical litmus test involving the question of whether working class men "benefit" from women's oppression. I also want to make it clear here that I am not simply finger-pointing here, since, to a lesser degree, we in the ISO adopted a similar approach.

There was a set of articles and a debate in the mid-1980s in a series of articles in the International Socialism Journal involving some of the key leaders of the Socialist Workers Party-Britain, which began to take up the issues I just described. I can't summarize the entire debate, but I can just lay out some of the key points. Let's start with a 1984 article titled 'Women's Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism' by Chris Harman, a leading member of the SWP (I want to make clear that Chris Harman was one of the greatest Marxists of his time, who played a key role in training many of us in the ISO, so the issue I am about to describe represents a small, if significant, detraction from his otherwise enormous contribution to Marxism). In the article, Harman argues:

''In fact, however, the benefits working class men get from the oppression of women are marginal indeed...The benefits really come down to the question of housework. The question becomes the extent to which working class men benefit from women's unpaid labor. What the working class male gains directly in terms of labor from his wife can be roughly measured. It is the amount of labor he would have to exert if he had to clean and cook for himself. This could not be more than an hour or two a day - a burden for a woman who has to do this work for two people after a day's paid labor, but not a huge gain for the male worker.''

 It is worth noting that Harman's comments above were describing the "marginal" benefits men experienced without children adding to women's burden within the household. Another British socialist, John Molyneux, responded to Harman's argument, saying that male benefits are more than marginal: "Harman tells us that this is 'a burden for the woman who has to do this work for two people after a day's paid labor,' so why is it not an important gain for the [male] worker not to have to do it?" 

Molyneux's arguments drew a sharp response from SWP Central Committee members Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor, and Molyneux replied equally sharply. The debate did not end until 1986. Lindsey German made a point of arguing, "[T]he differences and advantages that men have are by no means massive; nor are they even the substantial benefits that John claims. So there is no material basis for men being 'bought off' by these advantages." 

Sheila McGregor argued as if Molyneux was well on the road to abandoning Marxism entirely: "If we are to have an adequate theory of women's oppression and how to fight it, we need to base ourselves on the Marxist tradition. John's position, that working-class men do benefit from women's oppression, is the first step toward departing from that tradition." 

Along the way in this debate, the position changed from what Harman had argued - that male benefits were "marginal" - - to the claim that working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all - along with the claim that even the advantages men have over women inside the family are not "substantial." 

While it is true that capital is the primary beneficiary of women's oppression in the family and of all the sexist garbage used to reinforce women's second-class citizenship - and also that working-class men have an objective class interest in the liberation of women - I would also argue that posing the argument this way results in a tendency to minimize the severity of women's oppression and underplay the need to combat it inside the working class...

Furthermore, the truth is that feminism is a broad and multifaceted movement, with many different wings and many different theoretical foundations. To set up a straw figure of "feminism," based on its most bourgeois forms, knock it down, and then think our job is done intellectually does a disservice to the fight against women's oppression. There are important debates that have taken place between feminists that we have remained largely ignorant about that can be playing a role in advancing our understanding both of women's oppression and of Marxism itself.'

Of course, there are many strands of feminism - and of course socialists and Marxists should work alongside and indeed can learn much from the very best feminist activists, as well as engaging with theoretical debates among feminists.  It is the case that some writings by SWP authors over the years might today look unnecessarily critical of 'feminism' and even possibly partly 'class reductionist'. For example, in 1983 Tony Cliff wrote a book entitled Class Struggle and Women's Liberation, which was a book very much of its time - and written at speed in a highly polemical manner at a time when feminist ideas were in general moving to the right under the defeats of the wider working class movement under Thatcherism, and there was a danger these would pull the revolutionary Left to the right as well. Today, as mentioned above, when many feminists have recently made a turn towards anti-capitalism in the context of the wider ideological crisis in society, the tone of parts of Cliff's argument seem unnecessarily harsh.

However, Smith and others seem to have slightly caricatured the actual debate that took place in the ISJ between Harman, Molyneux, McGregor and German here. In actuality, 'the position' did not in a profound way 'change from what Harman had argued - that male benefits were "marginal" - to the claim that working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all - along with the claim that even the advantages men have over women inside the family are not "substantial."' As Lindsey German put it in 1986, when summing up the debate,

 'it is therefore worth stating once again what is really involved in the argument about whether working-class men benefit from women’s oppression. It is not ... about whether working-class men have marginal advantages over their wives. After all, in my article on 'Theories of Patriarchy', I talk about the ‘marginal benefits’ which accrue to working-class men. Chris Harman quoted these comments favourably in his article 'Women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism'. Neither is the argument about whether women’s oppression exists ... Myself, Sheila [McGregor] and Chris Harman have all gone to some lengths to develop a theory of women’s oppression which roots it in class society and not in the individual relations between men and women. Indeed, it is here that we all part company with John [Molyneux]’s analysis, which all too often slips into the error of seeing women’s oppression as caused by the relations between individuals, rather than seeing those relations as in fact a product of the class nature of oppression. 

The real issue at debate, therefore, is not at all whether there are marginal advantages, but whether these are the cause of women’s oppression, and what the political consequences are in terms of organising men and women workers. Whatever advantages working-class men might have, their interests, just like those of working-class women, lie in joining the fight against women’s oppression. This is because the roots of women’s oppression lie in class society in general and capitalist society in particular. 

 The reason the argument between ourselves and John is a serious one is because the great divide between Marxists and patriarchy theorists is over precisely this point. Their ideas explain women’s oppression in terms of male domination – regardless of class or of the class nature of a particular society. We, in contrast, see it caused by the development of exploitation. The capitalist system rests on the exploitation of workers, both men and women. Women workers also suffer a specific oppression which is located in the continuing privatised reproduction of labour power. This points to a solution which involves collective working-class action. 

The point of our argument has been to show that patriarchy theorists – especially those who claimed to be materialists like Heidi Hartmann – were wrong. She and others like her claimed that the material benefits which men gained from the oppression of women were such that they wedded men not to fighting this oppressive system, but to its maintenance instead. The argument has been developed, in much less theoretical form, by many feminists inside the women’s movement. The argument, as I argued then, is complete nonsense. Even a cursory look at working-class history, or the pattern of class struggle, showed that. It was, however, this argument that led me to argue that you cannot talk about the ‘benefits’ accruing to men unless you talk about the system as a whole. Once you take the system as a whole it is much clearer that the real beneficiary of women’s oppression is the capitalist system itself... It is still the central point of the argument... 

The appeal of the argument that men benefit from women’s oppression is a real one, and highly understandable. It appears to reflect reality. Most of the time under capitalism people only see fragmentary and superficial aspects of the system. As a result, if you only go by immediate, empirical impressions, you get quite a confused idea about what the system as a whole is about. When it comes to the problem of locating the source of women’s oppression, it is all too easy simply to take surface appearances and mistake them for reality. So people who take a superficial view only notice that working-class women suffer disadvantages compared with men, and therefore conclude it is the working-class man’s ‘benefits’ which maintain oppression. This is what patriarchy theory does. That is why its talk about ‘male benefits’ can be so popular. It fits with the ‘common sense’ of those who live in capitalist society at a time when it is not being shaken to its root by massive class struggle. But that is precisely why Marxists have to disagree fundamentally with it. That is also why it is very important to argue strongly with those like John who are excellent Marxists when it comes to other issues, but who fall into the trap of feeling it is ‘unreasonable’ to dismiss such common sense arguments out of hand.

It is also worth noting German's point in 1986 that 'the argument about men benefiting continues to have some resonance precisely because we live in the sort of period that we do. It is a reflection of a low level of class struggle; of twelve years of deep recession throughout the world; and of the hold of deeply reactionary ideas about women which still exist. However, to explain why the argument is current now (in a way that it certainly wasn’t fifteen years ago) is not to justify or to concede to it. It does lead to reactionary conclusions, in the sense that it takes at least part of the blame away from the class enemy, and puts it at the door of individual men.'

Overall, then, discussion of 'patriarchy', 'male privilege' and 'maleness' (to use Seymour's term - in his writings on this question, he is essentially borrowing from critical race theory and discussions of 'whiteness' and mixing them with gender theory) does begin to take us away from revolutionary Marxism - both theoretically and practically - and therefore can be seen as a kind of 'theoretical litmus test'. Moreover, I am not convinced when Sharon Smith suggests that defending a classical Marxist understanding of women's oppression and so challenging the arguments about 'male benefits' in the manner Chris Harman, Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German did in the ISJ 'results in a tendency to minimize the severity of women's oppression and underplay the need to combat it inside the working class'. As McGregor noted, if taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument becomes one that suggests 'that revolutionary men are not capable of fighting for women’s liberation as they cannot be trusted to understand that the revolutionary struggle requires combating sexist divisions inside the working class. If men cannot be trusted to fight women’s oppression, then whites cannot be trusted to fight racial oppression, in fact no one can be trusted to fight oppression unless they themselves are oppressed. The only logical conclusion to such a position is that it is impossible to build a revolutionary party within the working class which will lead a systematic struggle against all oppression and further that the working class itself is incapable of transcending its own internal divisions.'

This is not to say that Smith is going as far as that - she is not - though by making a theoretical shift towards 'socialist feminism' and in the process unfairly accusing the British SWP of a historic tendency towards 'class reductionism', she is in danger of playing down the absolute centrality of class struggle to the fight for women's liberation. To quote Lindsey German in 1986 again:

 'All the evidence suggests, when one looks at society in the process of upheaval, that as the level of class struggle rises the tendency is for the differences between men and women to diminish ... the essence of class struggle is change – men and women changing the world and in the process changing themselves. This is the overwhelming factor which can lead to women’s liberation – not individual consciousness-raising or getting a slightly bigger share of the reformist cake for women. Nor is it just a pipe dream. Where the divisions of society are laid bare, we begin to see a very different picture from the present ‘common sense’ that men are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression. That was why the Russian revolution did more for the liberation of women than any other event in world history ... Nor is class unity merely a long-term factor. Even in the short term, men don’t benefit from nurseries being shut down, or from women getting lower pay or any of the other features of women’s oppression – because these are attacks not just on individual women but on the living standards of the whole working class. Given women’s role in social production over the last forty or fifty years, the role of class struggle, of collective class action in fighting women’s oppression, becomes even more central. The fight against women’s oppression cannot be divorced from the fight to end class society; therefore the fight against oppression and the fight against capitalist exploitation become one and the same.'

Edited to add: Judith Orr discusses 'privilege theory' and women's liberation in this weeks Socialist Worker

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Suffragette Centenary - remembering Emily Wilding Davison

One hundred years ago, 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stepped on to the Epsom Racecourse to stop the Derby. An heroic, yet fatal, action, this was the single most important protest in a mass, and militant, campaign by the Suffragettes. Her cause, Votes for Women. A demand that would finally be met five years later in Britain in 1918. Today in the week of International Women's Day, Philosophy Football have marked the approaching anniversary of Emily's protest with a range of tailored centenary shirts - see for example here and here