Ray Filar, journalist, editor and performance artist, gives us the rundown of the best and the worst of Valerie Solanas' controversial SCUM Manifesto. Listen to Ray discuss the manifesto and its legacy with Juliet Jacques and Sophie Mayer on the Verso podcast.
1. It advocates the death of all humans
SCUM Manifesto is a deeply offensive, violent book. It's author, Valerie Solanas, hates men. Really hates them. In fact, the first sentence argues that “thrill-seeking females” should “destroy the male sex”.
But Solanas hates men in a way that at the same time minimizes their importance and de-centres them from her political vision.
Originally self-published in 1968, the SCUM Manifesto's central argument is that men have created a false reality in which everyone believes that women are men and men are women. So while people often believe that women are inferior, passive, and less intelligent, the reality is that these characteristics belong to men. Men are superior to women only in their PR skills: they've persuaded us to believe that gender is quite the opposite to what it actually is.
Her answer to this problem is that all men should die.
What many people overlook is that later on, having outlined the ways in which capitalist society will be destroyed by her favoured, imaginary group of SCUM – witty, bitchy, contemptful women – Solanas takes it one step further. She argues against reproducing future generations, writing: “Why should we care what happens when we're dead?”
2. Valerie Solanas’ writing is both funny and fearless
Solanas' annihilationist project is at times totally anti-social, at times prefigurative. On the one hand, she wants “groovy, arrogant females” to ditch men, “acquire complete control over everything within a few weeks” and love each other, but at the same time she doesn't care if everyone dies.
Theoretically, SCUM Manifesto is both prescient and incoherent: there are early strains of later thought around both utopianism and anti-futurity, but her attempt to expound on both leads to conflict. You could interpret into this some ambivalence over her own life.
Solanas says what women still aren't allowed to say. And she does it in a totally crass and irreverent way: “To call a man an animal is to flatter him...he's a walking dildo”. It’s controversial status to this day speaks to just how shocking it is for a woman to advocate violence against men in a world where male violence against women is taken as a given. Society remains premised on a deep belief in white male superiority, so just as when any oppressed group speaks back to power, her vision of women taking control comes across as truly threatening.
3. But Solanas isn't so hot on intersectional politics
Solanas' outlook is paralysed, however, by her binary take on gender. She's stuck in an anti-intersectional space that essentialises men and women as homogenous blocks, and while she attempts to account for some crossover between femininity and femaleness, she fails. You get the sense, in her insistence that men are really women and women are really men, that she's trying to make some sense of queerness and the contingency of gender, but she doesn't know how.
This leads her to both hate on feminine gay men and drag queens as “nothing but a bunch of stilted mannerisms”, while also saying both are better than other men, “the farthest-out male is the drag queen”.
Solanas was friendly with trans women, including Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. So in some ways it's surprising that she seems to mention trans people explicitly only once: “If men were wise they would seek to become really female”. When she slates drag queens it's likely that she means all trans femme people; while there were people self-defining as transsexual in the late '60s, it was before today's distinct emergence of trans as a lived category.
So binarism, essentialism, transphobia and transmisogyny, homophobia, and femmephobia are embedded deeply within the text. It is also misogynist – towards the end Solanas starts to hate on 'male-females' or 'Daddy's girls': heterosexual women who don't hate men enough – a form of women-hatred that prefaces radfem writing of the decade that followed.
Within today's familiar landscape of anti-trans and anti-sex work crossover positions, surprisingly for a text that can be read as transmisogynistic,the SCUM Manifesto is pro-sex work, perhaps related to Solanas’ own experiences of working as a prostitute to fund her education:
Many females would, even assuming complete economic equality between the sexes, prefer living with males or peddling their asses on the street, thus having most of their time for themselves, to spending many hours of their days doing boring, stultifying, non-creative work for someone else, functioning as less than animals, as machines, or, at best – if able to get a “good” job – co-managing the shitpile. What will liberate women, therefore, from male control is the total elimination of the money-work system, not the attainment of economic equality with men within it.
She only mentions race under the heading, ‘Prejudice (Racial, ethnic, religious, etc.)
The male needs scapegoats onto whom he can project his failings and inadequacies and upon whom he can vent his frustration at not being female. And the vicarious discriminations have the practical advantage of substantially increasing the pussy pool available to the men on top.
Mapped onto today’s debates, Solanas’ position seems to support the idea that #killallwhitemen is a less problematic statement of intersectional feminist anger than #killallmen, given a past and present in which white supremacist violence receives impunity for the murder of black men.
4. The SCUM Manifesto’s feminism is anarchist
The tract is not straightforwardly radical feminist. It’s an explicitly anarcha-feminist vision of the elimination of capitalism and the institution of full automation, the overcoming of disease and death, and the destruction of “government, laws and leaders”: “What will liberate women...from male control, is the total elimination of the money-work system, not the attainment of economic equality within it.”
How does Solanas think we'll achieve this? She says that SCUM will start with 'unworking', withdrawing from the labour force, fucking up jobs, destroying useless objects, taking over the airwaves: “the police force, National Guard, Army, Navy and Marines combined couldn't squash a rebellion of over half the population.”
Solanas' views on automation preceded The Dialectic of Sex (1970) by two years, and today's discussion around Fully Automated Luxury Communism by nearly 50 years. There is no excuse for feminists who still believe that what we really need is a suffragette statue.
5. It advocates insurrectionary violence in ways that foreground later queer works
The book is an expression of violent rage, of years of being on the receiving end of male violence, of frustration, of minor annoyances. One of the best paragraphs is a list of all the men she particularly hates, which includes clear candidates like policemen and rapists, alongside “litterbugs” and “owners of greasy spoons and restaurants that play Muzak”.
It's a great take down of respectability politics and liberal activism. Solanas is scathing about “nice, genteel ladies who scrupulously only take such action as is guaranteed to be ineffective.” Instead, she argues, SCUM will rise up, strike, and kill: “if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.”
In this sense, the Manifesto foregrounds later queer activism: similar to the Bash Back! groups that emerged in the late-2000s, as detailed in the collection Queer UltraViolence. Its also given rise to a few notable spin offs, including Michael Smith's 1987 Gay Revolutionary with the immortal line “tremble, hetero swine”, and the more recent Cis Scum Manifesto.
6. It's got better aphorisms than the works of Jesus, George Orwell and Oscar Wilde put together
Here are three:
“Love can't flourish in a society based upon money and meaningless work: it requires complete economic as well as personal freedom, leisure time and the opportunity to engage in intensely absorbing, emotionally satisfying activities which, when shared with those you respect, lead to deep friendship.”
“Every man, deep down, knows he's a worthless piece of shit.”
“The male likes death – it excites him sexually and, already dead inside, he wants to die.”
7. It's a self-published book that, through sheer bravado and a bit of attempted murder, has become a cult classic.
As Sophie Mayer points out in Verso's SCUM Manifesto Revisited podcast, the book’s profile was boosted by Solanas putting her ideas into practice and shooting Andy Warhol. The shooting made her, and subsequently her writing, famous. While she went to prison and later died homeless, her voice continues to read as brutally provocative, necessary and shocking.
I believe it's worth celebrating – with a highly critical eye – the bravery and dynamism of what is still the most unabashedly misandrist text I've read. If you know others send them my way.
To mark the new paperback edition, SCUM Manifesto, along with all our feminist reading, is 50% off on our site until June 6th. Full details here.
Verso is launching the new paperback edition of Valeria Solanas' SCUM Manifesto with a competition where you could win a limited edition Rosa Luxemburg tote bag containing the SCUM Manifesto, Dialectic of Sex AND some special SCUM badges emblazoned with three of Solanas' key demands, ‘Overthrow the government’, ‘Eliminate the money system’ and, of course, ‘Destroy the male sex.’
To win this bundle, all you need to do is to share Verso's Scum Revisited podcast on Twitter mentioning @VersoBooks with the hashtag #ScumRevisited, or reblog the podcast on Tumblr using the hashtag #ScumRevisited. The competition will finish Monday 6th June, 4pm GMT and winners will be picked at random. Good luck!