A Marxist’s place is in the feminist movement

[See also "Why socialists need feminism". For more discussion of feminism, click HERE.]

By Karen Fletcher

August 6, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Tony Cliff was characteristically blunt when he set out what was to become the International Socialist Tendency’s (IST) position on “the feminist movement” in his 1984 book, Class Struggle and Women's Liberation:

Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism. Both wish to eradicate women’s unequal and oppressed position in present-day society, and to replace it with the full and genuine equality of men and women. However, they explain women’s oppression in very different ways, and pursue strategies which are quite opposed to one another.

Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women. The cause of women’s oppression is men’s urge to dominate and control them. History is the story of the unchanging patriarchal structures through which men have subjugated women. The only way to abolish these structures is for women, of whatever social class, to unite against men, of whatever class.

For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes. For thousands of years a minority of men and women have co-operated to live off the labour of the overwhelming majority of working men and women. The class struggle between exploiter and exploited, whatever their sex, is the driving force of historical change. Women’s oppression can only be understood in the context of the wider relations of class exploitation.

There can be no compromise between these two views… (from the introduction)

Sharon Smith’s and Abbie Bakan’s speeches to the US ISO’s Socialism 2012 and 2013 conferences, in which they identify as Marxist feminists and challenge long-held IST orthodoxy, have been a cause for great celebration among we Marxist feminists whose existence was obliterated by Cliff’s formulation.

Here in Australia Sharon and Abbie’s revelations have been fortuitously timed. The country’s two largest revolutionary socialist parties Socialist Alliance (ex-Fourth International) and Socialist Aternative (ex-IST) are in serious unity discussions and an important point of contention is how a united revolutionary socialist party should orient to the feminist movement.

There is a lot more to come out about the reasons for Cliff’s audacious theoretical invention and its longevity in the IST tradition, against all evidence. Abbie Bakan promised in her Marxism 2013 talk that she would publish some internal debates and there will be a great deal to learn from these. I suspect, though, that the primary reason for Cliff’s “intervention”, and intransigence on it, is already clear. It was a product of the 1980s and the resurgence of feminism, especially on universities. Cliff feared that feminism, like other social movements, would be a “bridge out of the party”, luring young women away from class analysis and into radical- or liberal-feminist politics.

My experience was the opposite. In 1984 I was already a passionate, although theoretically ignorant, feminist and I signed up for gender studies and the University of Queensland student union’s “Women’s Rights Collective” on my first day at uni. I inhaled the WRC’s rad-fem library of Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Mary Daly and others, and found their utopian visions stirring but their strategies sadly fantastical. I sat through an excruciating semester of dry, Euro-communist, proto post-modern gender studies and fell asleep in most classes.

Eventually it was a little introductory pamphlet, Patriarchy or Class by Rose McCann (Resistance Books), that led me to Marxist feminism – Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg and Marxist feminists of the second wave, mainly US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) activists like Mary Alice Waters and Evelyn Reed -- and a strategy for women’s liberation that I thought then, and still think today, is the one that can win.

McCann’s pamphlet, like Cliff’s book, was a party-building tool designed to differentiate the then Australian SWP, and its youth organisation Resistance, from the rad-fems on campus. It summarised and debunked some of the most popular rad-fem treatises, explained capitalism’s attempts to neutralise feminism with liberal and bourgeois variants and, crucially, explained the self-reinforcing links between radical and liberal feminism.

Today that pamphlet is out of print, and I don’t advocate a reprint. It too was a product of its time and it used the word “patriarchy” in a very different way than it is used by feminist activists today. Perhaps we should make it available on the net for historical interest though. I gather from a number of sources that ISO/Socialist Alternative/Solidarity comrades were under the impression, for decades, that the Australian SWP/Democratic Socialist Party/Socialist Alliance had “no class analysis” of women’s oppression. This misunderstanding should be cleared up.

In the late 1990s Resistance produced a T-shirt with the slogan, “I’ll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy”, a way to proudly wear your opposition to post-modernism. By the ‘90s the early Euro-communist droning had developed into a full-blown post-modernist onslaught on campus, atomising activism into a squabbling cesspool of individual “identities”. Resistance and the DSP sided with the part of the feminist movement that agreed that there is, in fact, a “grand narrative” of systemic sexism. In the process perhaps we did blur the distinction between materialist and idealist theories about sexism’s root cause, but we were on a war footing. Post-modernism was decimating feminism.

The post-modernist onslaught has thankfully subsided, theorised up its own fundament and into oblivion. (As an aside, I notice one of its strongest student activist proponents in Melbourne, Patricia Karvelas, is today the Victorian editor and bureau chief of Rupert murdoch’s The Australian, self-proclaimed organ of Australian big business) and there is renewed interest in “materialist” feminism – a formulation that seeks to get around the academic career-limiting word “Marxist”. It seem to me that this is a good time for Marxist feminists to put our case in the broader feminist movement.

Discussions between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative in Australia on our different orientations to feminism have not progressed far yet. It’s a difficult discussion but I think it Sharon Smith’s and Abbie Bakan’s work can advance things, if Socialist Alternative is willing to engage with it openly.

To date Socialist Alternative  has downplayed it as “semantics” and emphasised its strong record campaigning for reproductive rights, child care and equal pay (although not the issues Cliff classified as “issues where women are individual victims of male oppression – rape, violence, pornography” (from the Conclusion to chapter 11 of Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation).

It is true that “feminism” has signified many different things to different people at different times, as has “patriarchy”. But the critical issue is what it means in the living struggle against sexism here and now. I never bought an “I’ll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy” t-shirt because I was deeply attached to the idea that “patriarchy” signified a theory opposed to “class”. But I was wrong and my mistake had a very simple cause: at the time I was not active in feminist politics. I was not immersed in the struggle. I did not understand its currents, trajectories and debates. The comrades in active feminist struggle knew much better than I how to build the movement, and the party, in that context.

The problems with Cliff’s formulations -- and their later elaborations by Lindsey German and others -- are much deeper than semantics because they have led to abstention from the living struggle against women’s oppression in all its forms. They create an internally consistent theoretical construct which, divorced from living struggle, becomes ever more divorced from reality.

The recent mishandling of sexual assault allegations in the British SWP are a stark example. One contribution stood out for me in the leaked transcript from the report of the disputes committee to the party’s 2012 conference. A member of the committee, a comrade who had worked as a rape crisis counsellor, introduced her remarks with this statement:

Everybody who sat on this DC sat as revolutionary socialists but also with our world experience.

Does she see these as two separate perspectives? As a rape crisis counsellor this comrade must have been aware of the long struggle by feminists – of all stripes – to enact laws against sexual violence in all its forms and against all women, procedures to protect complainants and combat sexism in the justice system. Did she feel she had to suspend this “world experience” when dealing with the issue within her own party?

The same problem emerged here in Melbourne when Socialist Alternative abstained from and criticised a rally against sexual violence following a brutal rape and murder, arguing that “… mobilisations around street crime, especially that directed against white women and children, will always tend to lead in a pro-state, pro-authority direction …” [See also "Left debate: Organising women against sexist violence".]

In the heated discussion that ensued on social media, one enthusiastic young Socialist Alternative member blurted that it was “anti-working class” to call for the prosecution of working-class men who commit rape. He did not reply when asked whether he supported laws against sexual assault. (I suspect the discussion ended when wiser heads in his party saw where the discussion was going. A cursory look at Socialist Alternative’s newspaper Red Flag shows the party will campaign for law reform, and even enforcement, on social issues.)

These are extreme examples, but I would argue they are the natural end point of class-reductionist theories about the oppression of women, such as Cliff’s. They isolate party members from the ebb and flow of real struggles by women in the real societies in which we live, love and work. But our parties exist in these same societies. As revolutionaries surely our first task is to understand our material reality – who we are, where we are and how we relate to the world?

I disagree with Lindsey German that Abbie and Sharon’s re-think on feminism ignores her, Cliff’s or others’ writing from the IST tradition or that it fails to put forward a different analysis about where oppression comes from and how it can be ended. They are clearly still of the view, as am I, that women’s oppression originates with class society and will only be overthrown when the working class, as the only class with the power to do so, overthrows capitalism and ends class divisions.

All hope for future unity of revolutionary socialists rests on that shared understanding. But it is not enough. We must also agree on what to do, together, here and now.

[Karen Fletcher is a member of the Socialist Alliance living in Melbourne.]