Over the course of the last twelve months, due to developments in the small Australian, British and Indonesian lefts, the issue of the Marxist orientation to feminism has become higher up in the current discussion agenda. Over the last 30 years, I have been part of a tradition that has tried to explain the origins of the society wide systematic oppression of women, throughout several periods of history, within a Marxist analytical explanation. This has involved – to summarize super succinctly – identifying processes of subjugation of women as connected to the evolution of various production practices as they in turn produce antagonistic class relationships in which various forms of property emerge and where women, historically, become property. This always also fulfills some function to make it easier for the system’s mechanisms of exploitation of a tiny minority over the mass of people to function effectively. Under capitalism, the oppression of women, for example, allows for the very cheap reproduction of the labour power needed for capitalist production by ensuring that the majority of women’s time and energy is provided free to maintain the daily operation of the family. From age to age (social formation to social formation) specific ideologies evolve justifying treating women as less than fully human.
In this analysis, the primary agency of the oppression of women is the ruling (capitalist) class which ensures the maintenance of a myriad of mechanisms and structures in which the oppression is embedded, and which also ensures the hegemony of the ideology which is used to justify the oppression and discrimination against women. This analysis also concludes that it is the capitalist class that is the main beneficiary. This is an analysis of the oppression of women that contrasts with other attempts at analysis which propose that, in one form or another, men are the main agency of oppression and that men are the main beneficiary of this state of affairs.
These two analyses clearly stand in contradiction to each other. They do so as explanations as well as guides to action. They identify different power structures that need to be overturned. Out of that difference will emerge different strategies for action and for education.
Adherents of both of these conflicting perspectives share an outlook that is feminist: that is, which recognizes the existence of society wide systematic oppression of women, rejects this, and seeks to end that oppression. Adherents of both these perspectives also oppose the various sexist ideologies that are used to justify this state of affairs.
One element in the current contemporary ‘debate’ around these topics is influenced by an approach that is framed by a for-or-against ‘Marxist anti-Feminism’ (MAF) line of argument. This picks up on the current sexual harassment scandals inside the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and primarily relates them to the International Socialist Tradition’s tradition, apparently pioneered by Tony Cliff (I have not read much of Cliff), that explicitly counter-poses Marxism against Feminism. This counter-position, as it appears to me, reflects the conflicting perspectives I have noted above. The analytical tradition that I am more familiar with, connected to the earlier writings out of the US Socialist Workers Party (e.g. Evelyn Reed) and the Australian Democratic Socialist Party (e.g. the earlier Pat Brewer) counter-posed a Marxist Feminism against Liberal, Radical and even, I think, strands of “Socialist Feminism”.
In 2013, there is need for a collective re-discussion of how to relate to these counter-positions. Socialist Alternative is the largest organisation in Australia originating out of the International Socialist tradition and is a tradition which I am only just becoming familiar with. While strongly defending its tradition in this area, today it also recognizes that the term ‘feminism’ is not used in society to refer only to one kind of thinking on the issues of women’s oppression and liberation but to support for anti-sexist and women’s rights in a more general way. At that level, it is inappropriate to counter pose a Marxist politics to feminism, when the term is being used in that general way.
So when and how are the two perspectives to be seen as are counter-posed, and explained as such?
First, of course, it might be noted that the counter-positions involved at the level of understanding both the origins of women’s oppression and the conditions necessary to be achieved for women’s liberation (and therefore basic strategies) do not mean that Marxists (marxist feminists) will never be in the same campaigns, demanding the same things, as others. All can agree on equal pay for women, the right to abortion and the ending of many other of the specific forms of discrimination and oppression that women suffer. But, in any case, that is not at issue in most of these current discussions.
There is one area where perhaps there is contention on the question of demands on the state. Should the Left demand that the state intervene to punish sexist behavior, including violence, among the working class, i.e. from working class men? This is part of the debate that emerged at the time of the Reclaim the Night demonstration in Melbourne earlier in 2013. This does relate to the question of the conflicting perspectives insofar as sexist behavior, including dominating and exploitative behavior by working class men, is seen as either an integral part of the male oppression of women or, instead, a manifestation of ruling class ideological hegemony, however it is buttressed with carrots as well as sticks, on this question within the working class. In the latter case, the challenge becomes primarily a pedagogical challenge within the class. This debate is also complicated by issues relating to the role of punishment, prisons and police in capitalist society.
However: back to the general discussion. The reason for the need for a re-discussion is also not primarily due to the situation that has developed around the British SWP. It is more because of the changed circumstances caused by the long period of defeats and retreats by the working class, and by movements for social progress in general. Between the 1960s and 1980s, I think there was probably a clearer basis for intervening in what were relatively okay levels of activity and discussion around women’s liberation counter-posing Marxist feminism to the other feminisms, rather than counter-posing Marxism against Feminism.
In 2013, not only has organized progressive political and social movement receded, but the various variants of anti-revolutionary thinking on all issues, including women’s liberation, have won an even stronger hegemony than before. I agree with Socialist Alternative’s approach that it is inappropriate to counter-pose a Marxist approach to feminism, in the general sense. But I also think that those of us who come from a different tradition have to recognize that liberal and radical feminism (in its various forms) now hegemonise what remains of the organized women’s liberation movement. In milieus where they dominate, ‘feminism’ inevitably means their feminist ideology. There is not enough activity and ferment to provide the fluidity where competing interventions can occur in a meaningful way.
In a period of increased ideological hegemony of every form of reactionary and elitist nonsense, especially within the institutions and arenas of the intelligentsia, and therefore among students, there is a need for an uncompromising prioritization of struggling for the most sharply focused theoretical understanding of all these questions. This means making a target of liberal, radical and some socialist feminism, but without becoming alienated from those many ordinary people who identify with feminism in the sense of being opposed to sexist behavior and the oppression of and discrimination against women. The discussion that, I think, perhaps, might be useful is a discussion about the tactics of how to do this.