By Zak Brown
Unlike the stiff and boring Marxism which exist primarily on campus and the internet, feminism is actually becoming cool again.
Now, feminism itself invokes all sorts of imagery from every conceivable position on the Left and all manner of terrible outcry from the Right. However, when I say Feminism I am not referring to any particular school or framework – any easily associated theoretical system or theorist – as this renewed interest in women’s struggles varies as far as it transcends any limited scope of thought on the subject.
It’s the exciting new world of charismatic YouTube vloggers and commentators, social activists and educators; a ‘digital democracy’ of unrestrained input with unlimited potential for growth, both in synthesis and awareness.
For this reason, we understand our feminism today as being simply what it is: a rekindling interest in the plight of women, at every level of existence. A reflection upon the false promises of neoliberalism (the sex-gender inclusive development of nations etc.) and the left-wing politics of the past which ultimately failed to deliver. And this reflection is making waves politically. Women on college campuses, in the business community, and online are getting involved and aligning with similar-minded progressive coalitions to actualize their demands and make their plight public.
“Patriarchy” is being reintroduced into common vocabulary like never before. Teenagers are confronted with the social realities of sex and gender in a politicized tone. People are beginning to discuss action against sexual violence and harassment more openly. Feminism is cool.
However, as one would expect, such a politicizing discussion of sex and gender has not gone unchallenged. A renewed interest in the plight of women (as well as people of color and the queer communities) has meant a renewed passion in the vicious defense of the status quo. The community of Men’s Rights Activists (MRA’s) could be seen as a response to the progressive demands of feminists – in particular – and all those associated with any sort of “social justice” movement. These MRA’s and their (usually white cisheterosexual middle class) allies maintain that our current social system favors the feminine at the expense of the masculine and therefore well-deserving men are oppressed in some sense (the narrative varies). The MRA would argue that feminism is just ‘those with more demanding everything‘ and criticize feminism for supposedly neglecting the plight of men in our gendered system.
Obviously, such claims are born out of privilege and fear rather than reason or fact. However, they hold a clear weight in the everyday judgments of a patriarchal society which decide the course of our progressive future (including those judgements made by nominal “socialists”).
Feminism and Marxism
So how does this relate to the relationship between Marxism and feminism today?
To describe this complex relationship in such a tiny space would be impossible. Instead, we will merely examine the relevant features of their relationship especially those antagonisms at the most organic level of practice/theory.
To put it very simply, the presence of male chauvinism is not limited to Reddit.
These sorts of individuals and ideas are well-entrenched within many socialist and Marxist groups. In fact, the radical left has a long history of male chauvinism and violence against all marginalized communities. It seems that until recently – until the rekindling of popular feminism – this sort of behavior has gone essentially unchallenged. Parties, student groups, local organizations, etc. have all turned a blind-eye to the overwhelming masculinity and androcentrism which plagues their formations. Now, confronted with the growing irrelevancy of traditional party structures and politics relative to social justice movements, Marxists (as well as anarchists) have begun their own endeavors into the immanent nature of patriarchy and gender oppression.
What has come of this renewed interest on behalf of Marxists?
Well, not much.
In fairness, some organizations have genuinely attempted to root out male chauvinism, adopting new internal policies and establishing permanent positions for women’s power. The efficacy of their attempts is questionable but their intentions seem genuine. Still, the overall conclusion has not changed and as such there’s no reason to think any differently of Marxism in North America.
In other words, women, people of color, queer persons, or anyone who identifies with a marginalized group has no reason to trust Marxists or be open to the inclusion of Marxism in their own strategies.
Marxism as it exists in North America is still a boys club. The Marxist student group at any given campus is the place for (generally) white cisheteromales, often from the middle class, to gather and reflect rather piously on their own efforts and the historical accomplishments of Marxism toward the emancipation of humanity. Even outside of the college campus, the groupings are generally composed of white males with an exceeding interest or knowledge in relevant socialist history and a need to “feel important”. Essentially, Marxism, as it most commonly exists, is the ideology of the self-righteous sociologist or history nerd.
We could argue why that is the case, how this developed, how intrinsic is this to Marxism etc. although a few facts remain true; it’s not organic; it doesn’t represent the interests of the oppressed; it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Patriarchy as Secondary
So what’s the problem?
Well, there are many. First, there is a theoretical deficit with regard to sex and gender which has been mostly abdicated to the research of liberal sociologists and philosophers, thanks to the general incompetence of uninterested Marxists. Second, there is the overwhelming masculinity which is characterized by “communist” nostalgists and “anti-imperialists” with a strong fetish for weapons and war. Third, there is the alienating and chauvinistic behavior exercised by males in the same spaces as their non-male and queer comrades which far too often culminates in sexual violence or harassment. All of these, and many others not listed, surface from a fundamental disregard for the experiences of anyone but the white cisheteromale subject. The apathy is so pronounced that often when prompted to correct their sexist or otherwise chauvinistic behavior, these persons will reply with complete ignorance: “how was that sexist”, “it was just a joke”, “what does this have to do with socialism”.
It’s important to note that this ignorance, while obviously “fixable”, does not usually proceed from a mere lack of knowledge; as if those prompted to correct themselves truly do not understand why they were wrong or wish to improve. It proceeds from a presupposition of male domination; not, “what did I do wrong” but “what makes you think you can question me”.
We live in a patriarchy. There is no doubt about it. Understandably then, we cannot expect to correct the socialized chauvinism of every male we encounter. Some who continue to act and think in ways which are violent towards marginalized groups must simply be excluded until further notice.
However, we can take very simple measures to battle gender oppression as it moves through otherwise progressive groupings.
The first measure we can take is to correct a theoretical problem in how we understand patriarchy. The theoretical problem which makes self-righteous dude-bros think the experience of marginalized groups is simply “not as important” as the enlightened discourse of a proletarian intellectual.
Patriarchy, identified by Engels as the dominance of males and their lineage, owing itself to the development of private property in capitalism, has taken a conceptual ‘backseat’ within the analysis offered by Marxists. Patriarchy and the gender roles it entails has thus been concluded by Marxists to be a superstructural feature of capitalism; fundamentally and uniquely “sourced” in the dominance of private property.
It follows from this reasoning that if we are to abolish capitalism, then patriarchy would necessarily be abolished. Therefore, the primary contradiction emerges between capital and labor; the capitalist class and the working class.
[note: the primary contradiction (“principal contradiction” in Mao’s On Contradiction) is the contradiction which precedes all others and by its primacy others are made secondary]
In this line of reasoning, all that fundamentally matters is the defeat of capitalism. Everything else can be granted a very distant “secondary” status. Some will argue that this interpretation of social contradiction is wrong and rather unfair to the theory itself. However, even if this interpretation is unfair to the theory, what matters is how this interpretation has affected the course of socialist development and history.
In other words, if this was not the active determination being made (that gender oppression was secondary or worse), then how can one genuinely explain the atrocious history of socialist developments with regard to gender?
How can one explain Engel’s exploitation of French sex workers? How can one explain the Red Army’s sexual crimes in Germany? How can one explain Stalin’s open disregard for the fact? How can one explain Castro policing against homosexuality?
The quickest answer is “consider the historical circumstances” which is in itself an abysmal display of privilege and intellectual neglect. The second answer is “personal failures” which is an open abdication of the question. Even today, these instances of gender oppression occur within nominally socialist nations and very little is done to even highlight their existence; however, we can explain this neglect very comprehensively and simply without rendering ourselves to mental gymnastics.
The idea that gender oppression (or any oppression of a marginalized group) is a secondary contradiction reproduces the white cisheteromale experience as dominant and knowledge par excellence.
That is the great theoretical beast lurking in the corner of Marxism. This poorly substantiated and flimsy idea that we can relegate these “merely superstructural” instances of oppression to a foundational oppression in the base e.g. exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. The idea that some experiences are more valuable than others and some are not valuable at all.
In the words of Stalin, can’t we understand if a soldier has “fun with some woman or takes a trifle?” After all, shouldn’t the defeat of capitalism outweigh such infractions? This is, unfortunately, the terrible reasoning entertained by so many Soviets at the time.
No doubt, many well-read Marxists will be surprised or even offended by my conclusion here (if they haven’t been in the past). However, I am not suggesting, not for a moment, that capitalist exploitation as a dominant relation of production does not discipline and act upon male dominance in society, or that the systemic subjugation of women does not take on an economic character (unpaid domestic labor etc.). I am arguing that the relationship between these forms of domination is being compartmentalized in a way which is detrimental to a progressive understanding. Furthermore, these arguments for a social “source” and “origin” are always flimsy things themselves.
Not that there is no “origin” for such domination’s – one cannot suggest that phenomena arrives and exists rather ambiguously – but instead that our common conception is oversimplifying a dreadfully complicated event: an origin.
In addition, the relationship between what we generally refer to as “exploitation” (the extraction of surplus value from workers) and other forms of domination (gender oppression, national oppression, etc.) is far more dynamic than we often lend credit. The very mechanism of exploitation can be explained in ways such that the purely economic nature is exploded into a realm of desire, sex, and gender. Perhaps exploitation is simply a manifestation of male violence against the female body, the way in which the female must make herself “open” to men so must the working class make itself forever vulnerable and subordinate to the prying eyes of enterprising capital. Perhaps exploitation is the predominant expression of a culture obsessed with the heteronormative body, with “production for the sake of production”, with the necessary exclusion of anything deviant from production, anything inclusive to the queer experience. Perhaps exploitation is an internalization of the racial caste system where society is largely organized around the inherent superiority of some peoples over others, the subjugation of the inferior to the superior, each marked by the appearance of their bodies and distinctive cultures parallel to their land of origin. Perhaps it is all of these together.
What is being demonstrated is that the relationship between the base and superstructure – the “foundation” of economic relations and the supposedly consequential cultural norms – should not be considered so mechanical. Arguably, the dualistic model itself makes any critical application needlessly difficult; perhaps we should set out to develop a new model that is neither dualistic nor a crude unity of diverse notions. However, we will refrain from such a discussion as such a subject demands a space of its own.
What can be concluded from our brief exploration?
First and foremost, our position was wrong. Conceiving of patriarchy and gender oppression as being secondary struggles, subordinated to a mediating notion of class struggle, is wrong. Not only because of its inherent exclusion and ordering of domination’s that we touched on earlier, but also because of its complete insufficiency as an explanatory model; incapable of explaining the dynamic relationship that the intersecting planes of oppression hold, the notion of ordering contradictions as such becomes both abhorrent and useless.
Second, gender oppression, like national oppression, is intimately caught up in the matrix of capitalist productive relations. Not only are these oppression’s “caught up” within capitalism, they effectively reproduce the status quo including those relations of production we give so much theoretical independence. Gender oppression structures the division of labor, disciplines the labor process, graduates a social division between “productive and unproductive labor”. Masculinity models the expansion of capital, defines what is “enterprising”, denotes the productivity of a “hard man’s labor”, provides reference to the imperialist super-exploitation of the Global South. We should not loft back into our armchairs and attempt to separate the individual instances of capitalism from gender oppression, like pulling fibers from a rug. It’s far more reasonable to simply treat the rug as a rug; as a cohesive whole which provides meaning and consistency through its coherence.
How should we respond to all of this?
Let’s stop pretending there is a dilemma when clearly there is none.
Let’s stop acting as though queer and women’s struggles are not “proletarian”.
Let’s stop saying Patriarchy is a “secondary contradiction”.
Let’s act like this matters.
If your anti-capitalist struggle does nothing to abolish gender and national oppression, then it has done nothing to address the very strongholds of exploitation. Fighting for trans liberation is fighting against capitalism-imperialism; fighting for national liberation is fighting against capitalism-imperialism. The self-actualization of an oppressed group is socialism by spirit and an undeniable source of solidarity.
This is not to say there are no opposing interests between marginalized groups. The question is whether or not these interests are organic compositions drawing from distinct experiences and histories of oppression, or inherent to these marginalized categories themselves. I would certainly argue the former against the latter. Different interests will always exist, what is important is developing a synthesis which makes these diverging interests matters of deliberation rather than matters of antagonism; a synthesis which preserves authenticity while not creating any “other” among interests.
Our theoretical endeavor does little to actually address the practical question of reforming our groupings to reflect a radical consciousness of gender oppression among others.
Without providing any false universal or general approach to be taken, we would suggest coalition building as a necessary and progressive step in that direction. As expected, the Marxist “boys clubs” also tend to be esoteric in nature, unwilling to branch out theoretically and actively within the space of their community. Simply forming connections between distinctly interested yet progressive groupings can be a great step towards refining a greater consciousness as well as attracting new and capable membership. A diversity of minds is never a bad thing.
Obviously, more concrete measures can be adopted to ensure any organization follows an inclusive line of development; one which expresses the leadership of all marginalized groups. The Maoists in India have done so by establishing separate political groupings for women to exercise power over the males in the Party. Kurdish revolutionary fighters in the PKK have experimented with similar arrangements.
There is no universal line of action to be taken, although besides learning from other comrades, there are very simple tools to be employed for personal cultivation: education, self-criticism, and collective reflection.
If you feel like you lack knowledge in an important subject, what do you do? You educate yourself. Read about the importance of queer and women’s struggles. Learn from the experiences of your marginalized friends and associates. Ask questions if you do not understand and be respectful to the significance these issues hold.
Think about your daily actions. Think about your daily thoughts. These micro-powers can be reactionary spaces where your consciousness may fail. Be critical of yourself and honest in your criticism so that your cultivation is authentic and not simply for the approval of another comrade.
Discuss these issues with your comrades in your grouping, chances are they struggle in the same capacities. Share this struggle with friends and ask for advice from those more experienced in these issues than yourself. Group reflection is not only the most constructive and accessible route but also that which generates the most accountability for yourself and others.
Without such cultivation, without such transformation, Marxism will remain irrelevant and rightly so. No seemingly radical organization deserves relevance if it will only befuddle those it claims to represent. Marxism isn’t cool. In the way it’s often presented, it’s flat out wrong.
However, learning from the success of popular feminism and the platform of social justice, we can reorient ourselves in a way which is both authentic and approachable. Not just Marxism which is academically sharp, but also sensible to strategy and sensitive to struggles everywhere. Marxism that isn’t just “correct”, but Marxism that is cool.