This is based on a talk originally given at the SCUM Conference in Perth, Australia on 24 September 2011.
I come to the writing of manifestoes with the interests of a poet and political activist. Political activism is obvious. But poetry? An effective manifesto is one in which the language works, the political position is clear – but above all – it has rhythm and metre. A manifesto is a bit like a poem or a song.
Let’s look at Marx and Engels. The first line of the prologue:
A spectre is haunting Europe–
the spectre of Communism (Marx and Engels 1848/1967: 78).
Or the first line a Chapter 1:
The history of all hitherto existing society
is the history of class struggles (Marx and Engels 1848/1967: 79).
The most disappointing aspect of the Communist Manifesto are the last lines:
WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES,
(Marx and Engels 1848/1967: 79; capitals in original).
But even with this disappointing ending, you can still see the poetry in it.
And then consider Valerie Solanas:
Life in this society being at best, an utter bore
and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women,
there remains to civic minded, responsible, thrill seeking females
only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system,
institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.
You can feel the rhythm in the words when you read it this way. In the world of poetry it comes pretty close to being a verse in iambic pentameter. It’s not perfect but if you emphasise roughly every second syllable and read it out loud, you’ll hear it.
Redstockings Manifesto has a similar feel, but I will write this out as prose.
Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labour. We are considered inferior beings whose only purpose is to enhance men’s lives. Our humanity is denied. Our prescribed behaviour is enforced by the threat of physical violence.
Because we have lived so intimately with our oppressors, in isolation from each other, we have been kept from seeing our personal suffering as a political condition. This creates the illusion that a woman’s relationship with her man is a matter of interplay between two unique personalities, and can be worked out individually. In reality, every such relationship is a class relationship, and the conflicts between individual men and women are political conflicts that can be solved collectively (in Tanner 1970: 109; also in Morgan 1970: 533; Crow 2000: 223).
WITCH – Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, took seriously the idea that poetry and manifestoes are intimately connected. They used the following form for a leaflet handed out on November 22, 1969.
Pass the Word, Sister
6 sisters in prison.
3 sisters pregnant.
2 sisters almost in labor.
All have been falsely accused
of conspiracy and murder.
None have been tried
or found guilty.
All 6 are black.
All 6 are Panthers.
All 6 are sisters. (in Tanner 1970: 121-2).
The poem continues for two pages and ends with:
WITCH calls down destruction
The curse of women is on you.
DEATH TO MALE CHAUVINISM (in Tanner 1970: 123; also in Morgan 1970: 551).
In Sisterhood is Powerful (Morgan 1970) the acronym, WITCH is spelt out with this poem as: Women Inspired to Commit History. Other poems include WITCH: Women Interested in Toppling Consumption Holidays and WITCH: Women’s Independent Taxpayers, Consumers and Homemakers (pp. 550-1).
The anthology, Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader also has some fantastic manifestoes.
The Woman-Identified Woman by Radicalesbians has a great opening line:
What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion (in Crow 200 : 233).
The Fourth World Manifesto by Barbara Burris in agreement with Kathy Barry, Terry Moore, Joann DeLor, Joann Parent, and Cate Stadelman puts paid (as do many others) to the notion that radical feminists ignored the issues of race and class. It makes a nod to Marx and Engels in one of its sub-headings “A spectre is Haunting the Left – the Specter of Feminism”. This manifesto comes directly from the activism of women in the left against the war in Vietnam and Indochina and the authors state: But the Women’s Liberation Movement started out from the Civil Rights Movement, Student Movement, and Anti-War Movement” just as in the 21st century there are direct links between the Women’s Movement, the Movement for Land Rights and Indigenous Rights, the Ecology Movement, the Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Globalisation Movement (this list is not exhaustive).
An issue raised by the Fourth World Manifesto is one that has been pushed aside in recent times. You can see it in the Occupy Movement where feminists have felt the need to go in and create Occupy Patriarchy sites. Here is what they say:
A FEMALE CULTURE EXISTS. IT IS A CULTURE THAT IS SUBORDINATED AND UNDER MALE CULTURE’S COLONIAL, IMPERIALIST RULE ALL OVER THE WORLD. UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE OF EVERY NATIONAL, ETHNIC, OR RACIAL CULTURE IS THE SPLIT BETWEEN THE TWO PRIMARY CULTURES OF THE WORLD–THE FEMALE CULTURE AND THE MALE CULTURE (in Crow 2000: 252; capitals in the original).
We have lost this perspective in the push to be all inclusive which results in nothing to say because the atmosphere is, if you can’t agree then remain silent. Sadly it is radical feminists who are pushed mostly into silence, while the men retain their speech!
Valerie Solanas noticed this. She wrote: No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male, as the male on top wants the status quo, and all the male on the bottom wants is the male on top.
The radical feminist manifestoes also have an economic analysis and critiques of colonisation and various kinds of subordination.
Valerie Solanas has an interesting take on subversion: SCUM will become members of the unwork force, the fuck-up force; they will get jobs of various kinds and unwork. For example, SCUM salesgirls will not charge for merchandise; SCUM telephone operators will not charge for calls; SCUM office and factory workers, in addition to fucking up their work, will secretly destroy equipment; SCUM will unwork at a job until fired, then get a new job to unwork at (Solanas 1967: 42).
I can’t agree with everything in the SCUM Manifesto – I don’t share her view that automation is liberating, nor is violence a useful strategy. Nevertheless, it is an inspiring work. She says what many have thought but been too scared to say. I have been inspired by her strength of language, her clarity of thinking, her raw anger at injustice.
I have written several manifestoes. Here are the first three paragraphs of Wild Politics: A Manifesto (1993).
The New Economic World Order is the last of a line of coercive methods of control. Industrialisation has been a process of ever-increasing interference in the lives of people – from structured and alienated work for wages to medicalisation of women’s bodies and souls, now extended to interference with life processes.
Patriarchal capitalism seeks to control the wild elements that have resisted control. We need to develop a wild politics to resist control of these wild elements including: wild seeds, wild land, wild farming, wild peoples, wild women, wild reproduction, wild sexuality and wild markets.
Wild types is a term used in genetics that identifies unregulated genetic structures. Wild types occur in all living organisms and are not the result of human interference through breeding or hybridisation. Wild types are the source of genetic diversity and critical to the continuing biological diversity of the planet.
I have explored writing short manifestoes that touch on other issues.
All that is solid is solid. We should know. We rocks. We have seen it all. From the first hurtlings through space to this relatively settled time when all that’s happening is just a bit of heat.
We are the ground on which you stand. Your artworks were pecked and painted into our flesh well before anything else. We are a peaceful lot, but sometimes we have been dragged into the fray and hurled against the enemy.
We are quiet. Come sit with us on a sunny day and feel the warmth we give off. We like to spread out on the ground, sunbake. But you’ll also find us there on days of icy wind with small plants sheltering in our soft parts, trees taking root and reaching for the sun. And when the rivers break their banks you can watch as some of us jump from bank to bank.
In the old days, people had more quiet time, more time to listen. It was then we shared our secrets. If you look, you might find them. Make a journey to rocky places, you’ll find that we guard all the sacred sites whether it’s Kata Tjuta or Jerusalem, New Grange or Angkor Wat. Put your hand on our surface, smell the scent we leave. Curl into our embrace. We don’t mind. We like to hold you, shelter you, even feed you.
Come dance the slow time jig. (2011)
And I have written poems that are really manifestoes, such as my recent poem, slut, but but.
I’m a slut
but I’m not I’m not
I’m a slot
I’m a slut
what what could it mean
am I a slut?
he said you’re a slut
he said look at your butt
you’re a slut
she said she’s a slut
no buts about it
just a slut
they all said she’s a slut
no doubt about it
but but I said
I said but
I’m no slut
I’m no slit for your bit
I’m not here for you
so fuck off and stop doin me in
he said but but
no slut here
he said but but
she said but but
they said but but
I’m not the butt of your names
your words are not my words
no fuckin way
so shut up
I’m no slut
I’m no slut walker
I’m a walker but bein a walker
don’t make me no slut
so butt out
get outta my mind
I’ll think what I want
I’ll do what I want
I’ll walk at 3 am if I want
I’ll wear big boots and kick butt
I’ll cut my hair short
I’ll leave it long
but I won’t do pussy on the street
because I’m not here for you
you pussy stalker
cos I’m no slut
you say but but
you look like a slut
you must be a slut
if you’re out a 3 am
if you don’t look girlie
you must be a fuckin feminist
they’re all sluts
that’s what they are
and I say
you got it boy
you got it girl
I’m a feminist
now fuck off
I’m no slut
I’m no slut
they all said but but (2011)
I find the manifestoes of the late 1960s and early 1970s wonderfully direct and clear in their political message. I am inspired by them and their authors. I love the way that poetry and politics mixes and creates another form: the manifesto.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto with an Introduction by AJP Taylor. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1967.
Valerie Solanas. SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press, New York. 1967.
Leslie B. Tanner (ed). Voices from Women’s Liberation. Signet, New York. 1970.
Robin Morgan (ed). Sisterhood is Powerful. Vintage, New York. 1970.
Barbara A. Crow (ed). Radical Feminism. New York University Press, New York. 2000.
Websites as indicated.