By Jasmina Brankovich
When I initially embarked on the tumultuous trip into writing about the relationship between Marxism and feminism, little did I realize that I would delve deeply into my political home of decades past in order to make sense of the present political context in which many radical Left organizations are still exploring ways to make constructive connections between the seemingly conflicting strands of their revolutionary politics.
Marxist feminism was, for many years from the age of about 20, my political home. I may not identify as a Marxist today, but I maintain a great deal of respect for this substantial and important theoretical body, as it continues to inform my politics, my life, and my work. So I have been extremely saddened to see the ruptures in many Left organizations, which arose as a direct consequence of their tokenistic engagement with feminism. It is a revisited story, told one time too many, but one also worth repeating, for political, intellectual as well as moral reasons. For me, this is a deeply personal story, but I hold onto the fundamental dictum that the personal is also political.
The radical Left finds itself mired in quicksand, against the backdrop of the prevailing gender order. A number of organizations, some as high-profile as the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK, have seen allegations of sexual assault made only to be dismissed or undermined, and improperly investigated. The impression given by party hierarchies’ responses to such claims discloses fears that the stories of women who are raped, sexually assaulted or harassed by party members disrupt the grandiose and offensively phallocentric idea of the party as a revolutionary vanguard whose fight on behalf of the working-class also includes the struggle for women’s liberation. (In view of the mass hemorrhaging of the SWP membership since the ‘crisis’ broke, this is a fatally erroneous assumption.) Sexual harassment and assault are far from uncommon on the Left, and have been frequently undermined and disbelieved, much to the dismay both of the women who experience them, and the women and men who uphold the Left’s claims supporting women’s liberation and its feminist values.
I suggest in this article that what I call the ‘old-school’ Left can choose to sink into the quicksand. Or it can choose to deal with it differently. It can choose to accept that gender is a category of political analysis as relevant as that of class; it can choose to accept that the best way to show support for survivors of sexual offences is to accept their stories; it can choose to accept that it is the oppressed peoples who define their oppression. It can choose to take gender seriously.
I also suggest, perhaps implicitly, that we (where ‘we’ refers to the whole revolutionary Left, encompassing a broad spectrum of organizations and non-aligned activists) can only construct a unified front when (not if) gender relations and the theoretical undercurrent of ‘women’s liberation’ (that is, feminism) feel at home on the radical Left, at organizational, political and intellectual levels. The ‘we’ includes the ‘old-school’ and any other school willing enough to listen. Revived socialist organizing around the segregational vectors of gender and class requires a mass-membership contribution in shaping the revolutionary platform for a truly transformative future towards full communism.
Marxism, Feminism, and the Issue of Gender
The role of gender in shaping individual and collective realities is frequently misunderstood and occasionally, misguidedly maligned on the radical left. While ‘intersectionality’ may be perceived to be the current buzzword that the ‘old-school’ has some difficulty grappling with, it is by no means a universally validated or accepted theoretical standpoint.
Marxism/socialism and many other radical ‘isms’ have forever promoted ‘women’s liberation’, and have historically supported ‘women’s rights’. But ‘women’ is not a synonym for ‘gender’. Adoption of a gendered analysis is either poorly understood or contemptuously rejected by much of the old left circles as ‘identity politics’. Most writings springing from the current crop of socialist organizations adopt the ‘add-women-and-stir’ approach, and this has only ever resulted in a convoluted analysis of women’s oppression.
There are two specific examples, which illustrate very well the level of misunderstanding widespread on the Left: Socialist Alternative’s Louise O’Shea’s response to the marches organized to protest violence against women, and Solidarity’s Amy Thomas’ more broader, but equally misguided, critique of ‘the myth of male benefits’.
O’Shea argued that the expression of intense emotions around the well-publicized case of Jill Meagher’s death solely ‘undercut class consciousness … exactly why the mainstream media, police, local politicians and businesses got behind the “community” hype, as well as the Peace March and Reclaim the Night’. This article was discussed widely on the Australian Left, including a critical response from a now former member of SAlt.
While I am in agreement with the criticisms that were raised, I also argue that O’Shea’s piece served as an attack on all feminist organizing around gendered street violence, including the Reclaim the Night tradition. It promotes a class-consciousness which implicitly excludes organizing against gendered street violence.
O’Shea is correct in stating that it is ‘not women who are most at risk of being attacked on the street, as the hype around this case would suggest. Men die or are injured in random street violence far more frequently than women are or do …Women are far, far more likely to be attacked or killed by people they know, are related to or are in relationships with, and this most commonly occurs in the home (86 per cent of murders and 93 per cent of sexual assaults).’
All the evidence supports this. However, what O’Shea fails to acknowledge is that gendered street violence, as well as domestic violence against women, entrench a patriarchal gender-order that subordinates women. Class is one hierarchical vector of a capitalist society; gender is another. Gender as a political category and a material means of social stratification functions in an intersectional relationship to class to maintain women’s subordination.
Citing the Northern Territory intervention and the anti-Islamic fear-mongering following gang rapes committed by the Lebanese youths in Sydney, O’Shea notes that ‘moral panics about crime or violence between individuals, in particular the need to protect white women and children from harm, are almost always used by governments to promote reactionary ideas and to justify attacks on people’s rights.’ Her statement conflates feminist organizing with something quite different and erases and marginalizes the history of feminist organizing against gendered violence, including that of Reclaim the Night. While it is useful for the feminist movement to reflect on how protest against women’s oppression can be manipulated and co-opted, it is highly dubious to suggest that spontaneous, mass protest against gendered violence can be simply reduced to a ‘moral panic’.
Thomas’s article deserves an equally strong critique. Thomas defines ‘sexism’ as ‘the institutionalized discrimination against women [that] is reproduced by all the institutions of capitalist society-parliament, police, the courts, religion, the media.’ Crucially, she argues that ‘while many men hold sexist ideas, working class men do not in fact benefit from sexism-it is a weapon used by the capitalist class to get free domestic labor and to keep the working class divided and under control.’ If ‘sexism’ is as institutionalized to the degree suggested, it is unclear as to how working-class men do not accrue its benefits, Although there are elements of sexism and gendered experience that serve to disadvantage both men and women (i.e. dividing the working class), being relatively better off is still a real, tangible benefit that concretely effects people’s lives.
Thomas’s reference to ‘patriarchy theory’ suggests that it is a key concept in contemporary feminism. Yet not only is ‘patriarchy theory’ simplistically described in this article, its use ignores the diversity of definitions of ‘patriarchy’ and ways of theorizing about it in the significantly fulsome body of feminist thought. There are as many theories of patriarchy as there are variants of ‘feminism’ today. Collapsing historical constructions of ‘patriarchy’ and subsuming the diversity of feminist thinking on the matter, is not only inaccurate, but is also intellectually and politically dishonest. But, more importantly, Thomas’ analysis mistakenly universalizes ‘men’ and pays no attention to the concept of masculinity as an essential political category of a patriarchal gender order. In other words, gender in Thomas’ article means ‘men’ and ‘women’ rather than the more sophisticated constructs such as masculinity and femininity, with material basis in their own right, and with highly politicized meanings.
Far more important are the implications of Thomas’ analysis. Thomas attempts to address the concept of ‘male advantage’ but without the requisite rigor. Male privilege is a concept initially coined by feminist theorists like Peggy McIntosh to describe the corollary of ‘women’s disadvantage’, that is the advantage men gain from women’s disadvantage. McIntosh acknowledges that men benefit from sexism in ways that are not always the result of conscious oppression – but benefit nevertheless they do. Laurie Penny’s argument is of relevance here: ‘What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to.’ Or, in other words, it is the dominant masculine culture that subordinates women, and one which constructs oppressive norms demanding the conformity of all genders, in which all men are unavoidably involved as the dominant gender. Denying ‘male privilege’ amounts to a denial of women’s gendered experience of oppression in all classes, including the working class. Invariably, this denial negates the stated purpose of Solidarity’s own goal in forging a ‘unified front’ against capitalism.
Although Thomas acknowledges the horror of domestic violence, she conflates gendered violence with other forms of violence when she states that ‘men are also responsible for the majority of violence against other men.’ This works to conceal the way in which gendered violence keeps women subordinated to men and reinforces the structural, material dimensions of a patriarchal gender order.
None of what I have written diminishes the point Thomas makes about the working-class men’s relative powerlessness and subordination vis-a-vis men of the bourgeois classes. None of this diminishes the fact that a woman happens to be one of the most exploitative capitalists in Australia! But to fail to recognize that the working-class has a gendered dimension will do little to organize more working-class women or undermine the current gender-order, in a joint struggle against patriarchy and capitalism.
Gender and Class: Implications for Radical Organizing
Concealing gendered experiences and the way these should inform radical politics, ultimately only works to the detriment of cementing both sophisticated understandings of class and the collective nature of radical struggle. Radical movements splinter, in part, because of the divisiveness that arises out of the refusal to acknowledge gendered experiences and their material realities. History demonstrates this and it would be prudent to listen to its lessons.
Perhaps most notably, the emergence of the 1960s Women’s Movement was as much a response to misogyny of the male-dominated New Left, as it was a response to the increased educational opportunities opening to many (relatively privileged, white, able-bodied) women. This is not to uncritically extol all of feminist thought. My own view reflects bell hooks’:
Feminist consciousness-raising has not significantly pushed women in the direction of revolutionary politics. For the most part, it has not helped women understand capitalism- how it works as a system that exploits female labor and its interconnections with sexist oppression …. It has not shown women how we benefit from the exploitation and oppression of women and men globally or shown us ways to oppose imperialism. Most importantly, it has not continually confronted women with the understanding that the feminist movement to end sexist oppression can be successful only if we are committed to revolution, to the establishment of a new social order. (bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center)
One effect of such splintering was the failure of the radical left to pose a functional challenge to capitalism. This is evident in the neo-liberal hegemony that emerged as a response to the stifling of 60s’ radicalism.
Class is not the sole determinant in a materialist analysis of the functioning of the wage economy. Just as class is an objective, structural, expression of the capitalist mode of production, with the ownership of the means of production at the centre, so is gender an equally objective, structural expression of patriarchal relations, with the ownership of the means of reproduction at the centre. The ‘means of reproduction’ theory goes beyond the confines of gender, but its key contribution is in feminist analysis exemplified by the work of Silvia Federici. She eloquently notes:
When I speak of reproduction, I don’t speak only in the sense of procreation, although that is part of it, but of all the activities necessary for the reproduction of human life-from housework to subsistence agriculture, to the production of culture and care for the environment.
A Marxist feminist tradition has articulated materialist accounts of the interactions between patriarchy and capitalism. Key works of Marxist and socialist feminists – such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Sylvia Walby’s Theorizing Patriarchy, Silvia Federici’s ‘Caliban and the Witch’, Sheila Rowbotham’s Beyond the Fragments – should be rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ (to borrow from E.P. Thompson).
I would venture even further: the false and unhelpful binary division between materialist accounts, and those interested in subjectivity, is rather unhelpful. As Judith Butler, one of those deplorable ‘identity feminists’ wrote: ‘Something besides theory must take place, such as interventions at social and political levels, sustained labor, and institutionalized practice, which are not quite the same as exercise of theory’. The importance of materialist perspectives lies in encouraging these sorts of interventions, which in turn heighten consciousness and strengthen identity – including working-class identity. In other words, to quote bell hooks once more, ‘there must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.’ This I believe to be our biggest challenge.