This Ain't Your Grandpa's Communism: Presentation 1 - "Bombard Stereotyped Politics" [guest post by BD]
In a previous post I promoted an event that I was involved in organizing, the first instalment of a reading series we've called "This Ain't Your Grandpa's Communism." This first instalment concentrated on how to understand a communist class politics in the context of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other oppressions. We chose this as our launch topic because we felt it was important, due to the people with whom we are engaged, to define ourselves against the eurocentric communism that is normative where we live and work––a communism that produces crude theory that cannot really, aside from a few token nods, account for the material grounds of other sites of oppression. (Enaemaehkiw Túpac Keshena, on his blog Speed of Dreams, recently touched on the problems with these stereotypical communist approaches in his discussion of "the white left"––definitely worth a read.)
Since there was definite interest over what was presented at the event, I thought it would be worthwhile to reproduce two of the panel presentations: the short presentations by BD and myself. Unfortunately, I can't reproduce the third because the presenter, RG, who is a very good public speaker, creatively spoke from her notes and so there is no copy of what she said. Generally, her presentation concentrated on asking the questions: "what is class" and "what is class consciousness" in relation to racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, etc. (One of the many important points she made was a rejection of a simplistic marxist analysis of "the proletariat = industrial factory worker" by pointing out that this comes from a misunderstanding of what Marx meant by productive labour and briefly demonstrating that in Capital vol. 3, Marx argues for a larger understanding of what constitutes "productive labour.")
Anyhow, I am going to reproduce the two presentations that possess copies in this post and the next, beginning with the opening talk.
Bombard Stereotyped Politics!
So why is the PRAC, a collective of Communists and sympathizers of Communism, today delving into “Identity Politics”—in other words feminism, anti-racism, queer politics, etc. I will cite a line from Butch Lee and Red Rover’s Night-Vision, a quote that inspired our event today:
“The hold of race & nation & gender on political affairs is because they have a dual power: of their surface identity, physically & biologically, and of their deeper power as indirect forms of class, as how class manifests itself through these building blocks of human culture and identity. In class society what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, or the Holy. What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag.”
In connecting race, gender, and sexuality to a class politics, we want to set in confrontation identity politics on the one hand and a crude class reductionism of the more dogmatic and outdated communist politics on the other hand. (This class essentialist politics only sees a monolithic industrial proletariat as the agent of revolution.) I leave it to comrade Josh to discuss the pitfalls of both political approaches in more detail. I will just say that the trouble with identity politics, which finds its expression in the language and framework of anti-oppression, including calls for more “intersectional” analyses in academic and activist spaces, and class essentialism, which complains that identity based struggles against oppression divide the unity of the working class is that neither side is sufficiently grounded in a concrete analysis of contemporary imperialism and what this fact means for the contemporary struggle. As a result, these politics are unable to form a coherent strategy to combat gender and racial oppression on the political, ideological, and economic fronts simultaneously.
What motivates our discussion today is the fact that imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, is truly turning this world into a living hell. In its drive to squeeze out more and more surplus-value from workers and other oppressed groups, its prioritizing of profits over the health and well being of people and nature, we are today witnessing more deadly economic warfare against the poor, catastrophic environmental degradation, more brutal and more intensified wars waged by the imperialist countries of the First World in order to exploit the impoverished countries of the Third World. These wars are necessary in order to secure the natural resources and exploitation of cheap labour so that the ruling classes can maintain their wasteful standard of living.
We here live in the belly of the beast, in an imperialist center. Generally speaking, the material standard of living in the advanced imperialist countries has dramatically increased, especially after the first World War, thanks to monopoly capitalism. But beneath these discrete family houses with the white picket fences, the flashy condos, the designer clothing, the infernal consumerist culture and a media industry that aims to deceive and stupefy the masses, there exist vast pockets of poverty and misery which expose the lie and betrays the reality—these vast pockets are the growing ghettos, the inner suburbs where the most exploited and impoverished are pushed, the development of what some call the Fourth World: that of migrant labour who grow and pick our food and care for our households in abominable working conditions, the aboriginal reservations and the continuing genocide of First Nations people, this latter being a principal contradiction of Canadian society.
In putting together this talk today, we drew on several unconventional texts outside of the classical Marxist canon, works by revolutionaries engaged in actual and concrete political and revolutionary struggles. We drew upon Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial psychiatrist who stretched Marxism in order to tackle the colonial question and racism, on James Yaki Sayles, a political prisoner involved in the Black Liberation struggles in the US who came to reject cultural nationalism via Mao, on the anarcho-Maoist analysis of Butch Lee and Red Rover who wanted to get to the heart of why the oppressed keep losing and why they can’t make things work, on the Maoist revolutionary, Comrade Parvati, aka Hisila Yami and her important book People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal.
A Communist movement which considers the oppression of women, and the racist structures of neo-colonialism, as side issues to the class struggle is not simply Eurocentric, but is fundamentally unable to offer much in terms of revolutionary strategy, and worse, would perpetuate these oppressions in the new ‘socialist’ society. In the rest of my brief presentation, I will focus specifically on the women’s struggle. According to Yami, the oppression of women is a fundamental contradiction in class society, as fundamental as the class struggle itself. She references Lenin, who argued that one could judge how far a society advances by the state of women in that society. Therefore the liberation of women, but especially proletarian women (who are the first to be enslaved and last to be liberated), must be a strategic question in the class struggle. Engels, who first developed a communist perspective on the women’s struggle, argued the oppression of women arose with class society itself; in order to liberate women, therefore, it is necessary to abolish class society.
To bring a class analysis to the women’s struggle is to move beyond the framework of equality on the level of political rights, which makes no distinction between bourgeois women and proletarian women, between First World women or Third World women. We need to recognize that capitalism thrives on gender exploitation by looking at the day-to-day toil of proletarian and oppressed women who suffer a dual oppression. A proletarian woman will labour outside the home to produce things and services to be sold on the market. At home, she is responsible not only for her own reproduction as a wage-labourer (reproduction means ensuring that you get enough food, sleep, rest and recreation in order to work the next day) but also that of her entire family. So most of the UNPAID, UNDER-VALUED and UNRECOGNIZED domestic chores and responsibilities fall to the women by default. Bourgeois women have the means, i.e. the money, to hire other women to look after the care work and housework so they can focus on gaining equality with their male counterparts in the market, at their work places. This is not to say this drive to equality is unimportant, it is, but we also have to incorporate a class analysis. The proletarian women who bourgeois women hire are often “foreign” and racialized. In Canada and the world over, proletarianized women from the Philippines and the Caribbean are imported to perform this labour. Poor women on the whole work in informal sectors and contribute to an underground economy whereby they are exploited on the basis of their gender. According to Lee and Rover, “The key is not that Third World women are super-exploited but they are themselves a commodity, property. The invisible commodity that, like the African slavery before them, defines the entire system above them.” Therefore, they insist that: “The paradox of how capitalism produces a trend of equal rights for some women in the metropolis and a trend of increasing lack of rights and degradation of other women in the periphery, is something we should go to the heart of.”