On Marxism & Feminism

On Marxism & Feminism

March 30 2009

Originally published as “On Femininsm & ‘Feminism'”

Introduction to the 3/31/13 repost: Many of our readers are aware of the recent crisis that has rocked the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. Along with allegations of rape against a member of the top leadership and the ensuing bureaucratic cover-up, protests against the traditional SWP hostility towards feminism have also surfaced internally. In response, the leadership of the International Socialist Organization in the US, (also with historic roots in Tony Cliff’s anti-Soviet split from the Trotskyist movement) in a rather transparent act of bureaucratic panic, have chosen to renounce their similar previous hostility towards feminism out of fear of the crisis reaching their own organization. In light of this, our March 2009 polemic against the hostility of ostensibly Trotskyist groups coming from other traditions towards feminism titled “On Feminism & ‘Feminism'” has gained some timely relevance. We are therefore directing our readers’ attention to it on International Women’s Day 2013.

In the course of adding material dealing with female oppression to the Historic Documents section of our web site this month, we have found it necessary to write an introduction to clarify the confusion many readers of these documents have historically come away with due to their attacks on “feminism.” The documents were produced not by us but by the Spartacist League and the International Bolshevik Tendency at a time when these organizations, while not without faults, were still capable of helping advance the Marxist program. While overall the documents put forward a revolutionary analysis of women’s oppression, we would write them differently today at least in that respect. 

The documents (and the groups that produced them) sought to champion the cause of women’s liberation, yet much confusion was and still is unnecessarily caused by their rigid insistence on defining “feminism” in a manner that is different from a majority of their audience. While a majority of their audience defined feminism as a simple affirmation of female equality without necessarily attaching the term to a more elaborated program or analysis of how to achieve it (“the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” as described the Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary), they rigidly insisted the term necessarily meant a much more specific program and analysis that was counterposed to the struggle for socialism. A document produced by an IBT supporter in 1997 which clumsily tried to address the issue thus explained:

“Feminism and socialism are different things. Feminism cannot simply be equated with the fight for women‘s rights. It puts forward the damaging ideology that women of different classes can fight oppression on the same basis – thereby automatically confining the fight within the boundaries of capitalism.”

“Sex, Censorship & Women’s Rights”

Marxist Bulletin #4, October 1997

Marxist Tradition 

The historical development of the Marxist movement’s use of a sometimes highly specialized terminology when addressing itself has not always been in sync with the general development of the rest of society and it’s understanding of these words. But while seeking to advance (and develop) the political conceptions and understanding of those who came before, each generation of revolutionaries have of necessity frequently been forced to adjust their terminological conventions (while maintaining the original underlying thrust) when addressing a broader contemporary audience for the purpose of keeping up to date with the popular understanding behind these terms.

In the U.S., Marxists frequently run up against confusion over the difference between the terms “socialist” and “communist” when talking to many people. While Trotskyists generally tend to use the terms interchangeably, the confusion usually arises from the fact that there is a vague understanding amongst our audience that in some contexts a “Socialist” (particularly with a capitalized S) implies a social democratic reformist while a “Communist” (particularly with a capitalized C) implies a Stalinist.

A similar dilemma also confronted Marx and Engels, even before the rise of contemporary Social-Democratic reformism and Stalinism. In his 1890 introduction to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels commented: 

“Yet by 1887 continental socialism was almost exclusively the theory heralded in the Manifesto. Thus, to a certain extent, the history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working-class movement since 1848. At present, it is doubtless the most widely circulated the most international product of all socialist literature, the common programme of many millions of workers of all countries from Siberia to California.”

“Nevertheless, when it appeared, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto. In 1847, two kinds of people were considered socialists. On the one hand were the adherents of the various utopian systems, notably the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France, both of whom, at that date, had already dwindled to mere sects gradually dying out. On the other, the manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit in the least. In both cases, people who stood outside the labor movement and who looked for support rather to the “educated” classes. The section of the working class, however, which demanded a radical reconstruction of society, convinced that mere political revolutions were not enough, then called itself Communist. It was still a rough-hewn, only instinctive and frequently somewhat crude communism. Yet, it was powerful enough to bring into being two systems of utopian communism — in France, the “Icarian” communists of Cabet, and in Germany that of Weitling. Socialism in 1847 signified a bourgeois movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, quite respectable, whereas communism was the very opposite. And since we were very decidedly of the opinion as early as then that “the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the working class itself,” [from the General Rules of the International] we could have no hesitation as to which of the two names we should choose. Nor has it ever occurred to us to repudiate it.” 

In the 1922 footnotes to what is seen by many as the definitive edition of the Communist Manifesto, D. Ryazanoff also discussed the historical evolution of much of the other terminology used in Marx’s and Engels’ writings, for example: 

“Proletarian’ now means one whose only means of livelihood is the sale of his labour power. Its original significance, in the Latin form proletraius signified one whose sole wealth consisted of his descendants, his offspring (proles)… There is little in common between these Roman proletarians and the landless and homeless European proletarians of our own day, save only the name…. The word proletariat to describe the class of wage workers did not come into general use until the first half of the nineteenth century….” 

It is clear that Marx and Engels main concern was to have their ideas properly understood by others. Understanding that they could not arbitrarily dictate the changing popular understanding of words, they were not prone (outside sometimes their more narrowly theoretical and scientific writings, where exact precision was necessary for clarity) to stubbornly engage in fruitless arguments over definitions or original dictionary meaning if it wasn’t necessary to convey their ideas.

In a somewhat different vein, when black members of the of the Socialist Workers Party during the 1940’s protested the use of the word “niggardly” in party literature, rather than stubbornly pointing to the dictionary and insist that formally the word had no relation to the racial epithet, the Trotskyist movement dropped the use of the word in order to stop causing any unnecessary misunderstanding or confusion.

The Origins and Consequences of anti-”Feminism” 

An early Spartacist text we have previously posted argues:

“The existing women‘s liberation movement, both liberal and radical, seems to see sex as the basic “class division” in society. This low level of theoretical development means an opportunity for Marxists to intervene with a working-class line. However, we will render our intervention useless if we cling to an oversimplified analysis that the only form of oppression is class oppression and confine our interest to the economic superexploitation of women workers.”

“The class question is the decisive issue in class society. However, other additional types of oppression do exist as well —e.g., racial oppression, national oppression, women‘s oppression. To deny that Marxist revolutionaries must concern themselves with these issues is sectarian and blatantly anti-Leninist. It is vital that revolutionaries participate in these struggles. The basis of such participation must be the realization that the class question is decisive and thus any movement which fails to identify itself with the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class is doomed to be beset by utopianism, crackpotism, liberal illusions and—ultimately—irrelevance‖

The Fight for Women’s Liberation (1969)

While advancing this correct political understanding the piece carries no attacks against or even makes mention of “feminism.” An explanation for the subsequent change in policy on this is given in an early issue of Women and Revolution:

“The SWP -YSA [Socialist Workers Party – Young Socialist Alliance] defense against the feminist’s attempts to kick them out has been poor. They try to minimize their political differences with the feminists by claiming to be both feminists and socialists. Feminist was once the term socialists used to describe women’s liberationists. But over a period of 50 years the term has come to mean one who believes the fundamental division in society is between men and women, and who strive for the supremacy of women…”

“The socialist and feminist views are clearly counterposed. Just as Lenin, who had once proudly called himself a Social-Democrat, would have recoiled from the being called that after the betrayals of ‘Social-Democracy,’ so Clara Zetkin would not call herself a feminist today.”

“SWP-YSA MOVE IN, same tricks, new territory”

Women and Revolution #2, September/October 1971

Spartacist leader Jim Robertson affirmed this explanation a few years later at an August 27, 1974 speech given on James P. Cannon:

“By the way, Rose [Karsner, Cannon’s partner] was a militant socialist feminist of the 1910’s and 1920s. ‘Feminist’ meant something else then – among other things was that marriage was an abomination: it was bowing down and putting on chains before a man and before the state.”

“James P. Cannon”

Reprinted in Spartacist, Summer 1986

If, theoretically, at that time the popular meaning of “feminism” really did evolve in the direction it was argued (and we are at the moment not convinced it did), then the changed attitude was one that made sense. Leaving aside this question of historical appreciation though, it is quite apparent that today what amounts to shouting “Down with Feminism!” is obviously a poor approach, given that the Spartacist League and the International Bolshevik Tendency are using one definition of “feminism”, and most of the left and the general population see the word as having a different (more general and vague) meaning. Rather than making any clear point, such an approach just creates noise and leaves those groups open to unnecessary suspicions that they may be hostile or indifferent to women’s liberation (in some ways similar to many black SWP members reaction to the use of “niggardly”), rather than that they are arguing that it can only be achieved in a socialist society.

It was also sometimes disorienting to those groups themselves, both in their historical understanding as well as their take on contemporary reality. Thus, an (otherwise fine) early Bolshevik Tendency leaflet we have previously posted argues:

“Whether it goes by the name of feminism or ‘socialist-feminism’ the logic of this analysis is sex war just as surely as the logic of Marxism is class war.”

No More Wire Hangers! (undated, late 1980‘s)

Outside a minority on the fringe, most people who would refer to themselves as “feminists” (much less most who’d refer to themselves as “socialist-feminists”) clearly did not then and do not now advocate “sex war”.

An early Women and Revolution historical article noted that:

“Contrary to an opinion still subscribed to in certain circles, modern feminism did not emerge full-grown from the fertile womb of the New Left, but is in fact an ideological offspring of the utopian egalitarianism of the early twentieth century, which was in turn a product of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

“Feminism vs. Marxism: Origins of the Conflict”

WR #5, Spring 1974

True, but Marxists do not renounce some of the still progressive ideals of the Enlightenment, but rather argue their realization for the majority of the human race can only be achieved through ending class society. Therefore, while generally not referring to ourselves as democrats, humanists, or feminists, we do not denounce democracy, humanism or “feminism” as such. Rather we oppose bourgeois democracy, liberal humanism, liberal feminism and all cross-class, separatist and sectoralist ideologies in general. 

In the same vein Leon Trotsky was quite angry that his book Terrorism and Communism was given the confusing titleDictatorship versus Democracy in its English translation, since it could only lead to confusion amongst many readers and distorted the relationship between socialism and democracy.

Sectarian Indifference 

Such developing indifference to being clearly understood is usually a mark that a group is being transformed into a depoliticized sect, dominated by a geriatric leadership and increasingly out of touch with contemporary social and political reality. Being mostly office/computer desk bound in their political lives for too many years, engaging in primarily internal administrative and literary political work, such permanent “leaders” have few qualms sending off their ranks to make fools of themselves at public political events by defending stupid formulations. Rank and file passivity to such things can reflect insecurity, fear, political indifference, and, for those engaged in leader worship, a genuine unthinking agreement with such sclerotic thinking.

In contrast to such practices, writing on the need to differentiate the Marxist from the Stalinist position on defending the USSR, Trotsky commented:

“In order that these two varieties of ‘Defense of the USSR’ do not become confused in the consciousness of the masses it is necessary to know clearly and precisely how to formulate slogans which correspond to the concrete situation.”

In Defence of Marxism (1942) 

In their better periods, the SL and IBT showed a similar attitude, at least in relation to other questions. In a discussion of “Sectarian Formalism”, an IBT publication noted:

“For example, we believe the slogan ‘Free All Political Prisoners!’ to be a very bad formulation. We don’t want fascist thugs or concentration-camp mass murderers to be freed. But it would often be silly to exclude ourselves from a campaign fought ostensibly to ‘Free All Political Prisoners!’ It often turns out that the real content of the campaign is in fact to free the victims of capitalism. We would wish to join such a campaign, while making our criticism of the inadequacy of this slogan clear. We would split, of course, if the campaign actually did try to mobilise support for freeing Rudolph Hess. It is a matter of what the real content of the bloc is.”

Building the Revolutionary Party and United-front Tactics (1992)

A similar appreciation of the “real content” of “feminism” for most people would seem to be called for. The IBT’s position, which it unthinkingly inherited from the SL, very neatly fits the definition of “sectarian formalism”.

In a speech given on Nov. 11, 1972, Spartacist leader Jim Robertson explained part of the motivation behind calling for a “Workers Government” as a popular slogan:

“We are for a workers government, in the unions, in the plants and in our general education and approaching students with the conception of proletarian power. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a formulation which suffers certain problems. A popular understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is that the workers are going to be put into concentration camps, you know, like in Russia. If you talk of some kind of socialism, you get an image of happy Sweden maintaining its high alcoholism and suicide rates through victoriously staying out of two world wars. [Laughter] But what should be clear in every way, over every kind of issue, is that the working people need their own government….”

“A Talk on the Labor Party Question”

Young Communist Bulletin #3 

Similarly, commenting in the same speech on the reasoning behind reformulating the traditional Trotskyist advocacy of a “Labor Party” in the US to one of a “Workers Party”:

“If one says a labor movement or a Labor Party right now—there is very good reason to see it right now in the most encrusted, aristocratic, racist, chauvinist George Meany-like fashion. It‘s extremely important, and one of the reasons for the formulation ‘Dump the bureaucrats! For a Workers‘ Party.’ There‘s no difference in conception between a ‘Workers‘ Party based on the trade unions’ and a ‘Labor Party based on the trade unions’, except that the terminology projects a somewhat different conception.”

If revolutionaries rightly do not want to confuse people by incorrectly projecting ourselves as advocates for creating Britain’s Labour Party for US workers, we are also concerned not to confuse people by incorrectly projecting ourselves as Archie Bunker socialists who are hostile to women’s liberation.

Revolutionary Regroupment still stands on the political content of the documents we posted and will be posting on this question in the Historic Documents section of our site. We have distanced ourselves from a flawed policy, we are not changing the fundamental program or principles on women’s oppression. This is a necessary change in policy nonetheless. We will henceforth criticize specific feminist political currents, as opposed to denouncing the term as such.

More broadly, as we note in our introduction to Historic Documents as a whole: 

“While we seek to continue the work and build on the contributions of those who came before us, we do not dogmatically defend past mistakes that may inevitably have been committed. Therefore our posting these documents reflects broad agreement, not an uncritical adherence to every secondary argument and formulation.”

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