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"Capitalism Is Still Women's Enemy"

Although I believe that all communists should be feminists, in the communist camp there tends to some confusion over the concept of feminism.  First of all, there are those communists who will still argue that any endorsement of feminism is some sort of "petty-bourgeois" deviation that splits a supposedly united working-class: they might agree that a communist project can and should include the emancipation of women, but feel that all talk of feminism ignores the fact that only the working-class can emancipate the working-class and that, since working-class emancipation is the prime duty of the communist, to speak of feminism is to lose our focus.  Then, there are those communists who, by correctly recognizing the persistence of patriarchy, uncritically endorse an anything-goes feminism that ends up being little more than a cherry-picking from multiple feminist traditions.

I've addressed the first confusion, the rejection of feminism, at various points in this blog and so do not feel the need to reiterate my thoughts on this problem in any substantial manner.  Let it be said again that, while the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie should be the revolutionary focus in the last instance, we need to recognize that this last instance is mediated by co-extensive sites of oppression and that, in the words of Butch Lee, sex and gender are often "class in drag".  That is, class composition is affected by actually existing oppressions such as misogyny––the proletariat is often feminized as much as it is also and often racialized––and to imagine some ideal working-class that is not co-determined by the pressure of sex and gender (or other sites of oppression) is often to erroneously presuppose, without realizing it, that the working-class is primarily white and male.  There is a reason that the significant communists from Marx, through Lenin, to Mao recognized that any revolution was intrinsically tied to the self-determination of the so-called "second sex".

In this entry, though, I want to focus on the second communist confusion regarding feminism: the inability to articulate a feminism that is communist.  Instead what often happens is an uncritical adoption of a mish-mash of multiple non-communist (and sometimes anti-communist) feminist theories and a practice that separates the feminist struggle from the communist struggle as if they are on two different tracks.  To declare ourselves feminists as communists should mean something different than if we were liberals or even radical feminists.  None of this is to say that we cannot learn from the entire feminist tradition––that we as communists cannot adapt the crucial insights of, for example, radical feminists (as I think is worthwhile, and have argued so here and here)––but that we also need to understand the difference between a feminism of the communist-type and a general and nebulous feminism.  Just as we need to struggle against the position that feminism is somehow anti-communist, and that the entire feminist tradition is "petty-bourgeois", we also need to struggle against an uncritical anything-goes feminism that might, at the end of the day, lead to revolutionary paralysis.

The title of this entry comes from a slogan the Feminist Front of the PCR-RCP raised at an International Women's Day March.  In response to the slogan "patriarchy is still women's enemy", the Feminist Front proclaimed that "capitalism is still women's enemy."  They saw this distinction as a crucial dividing line between communist feminists and feminists of all other types because they held that a feminist project that was defined primarily as feminist, regardless of how radical it appeared, was incapable of producing the revolutionary unity that could only be found in a vital communist project.  In a short document called "100 Years Later, Capitalism Is Still Women's Enemy: for a proletarian and revolutionary feminist front" the PCR-RCP's Feminist Front argued that "[i]t is a fact that today women can vote.  And bourgeois laws in Canada do include equality between men and women.  But still, what if single mothers or unemployed women don't have any property to defend or to keep?  When your only possession is your own labor force, the only things that belong to you are the rent for housing, a tiny and insufficient salary to survive… So, bourgeois laws, but for what?  It does not mean anything except for the ruling class."

What this Feminist Front has been trying to articulate, in line with an often badly translated chapter from the PCR-RCP's programme, is what is now being called proletarian feminism––a feminism of the communist-type that has been gaining some popularity in maoist circles following the theoretical coining of the term by Anuradha Gandhy, late central committee member of the Communist Party India (Maoist).  The precedent for proletarian feminism, of course, can be found in the marxist tradition, as well as in this tradition's more recent revolutionary movements that attempted to actually apply a communist version of feminism in action rather than only play lip service to women's emancipation (i.e. the mobilization and empowerment of women cadre by the Communist Party of Peru); it received further articulation in Hisila Yami's very important People's War and Women's Liberation.  This is an attempt to systematize a feminism for revolutionary communism that is not toothless, that is not simply a lazy adoption of other feminist traditions without any thought to what feminism should mean in the context of a communist project.

After all, if liberals can have their feminism, and have succeeded in systemizing various liberal feminisms rather than lazily picking and choosing concepts from competing feminist traditions, communists need to do the same.  It is not sufficient to simply assume that the radical feminist tradition, despite its importance (and I think it is important), or even the vague socialist-feminisms of yesteryear, are enough.  For if we already have a tradition that has spoken powerfully for the end of patriarchy and the self-determination of all genders and sexes––a tradition that demonstrated this worth by literally producing the grounds for the emancipation of women for the first time in history (i.e. when the term "feminism" did not even exist, and women in North America and Europe had barely any political rights, both the Russian and Chinese Revolutions were giving women full political and economic rights, legalizing birth control and abortion, crushing the trafficking of women, etc.)––then we should learn to systematize this tradition and, in this systematization, discover a type of feminism that is not only theoretically succinct but that is also our feminism.

Clearly, there are extremely significant attempts on the part of marxists to engage, in a historical materialist manner, with feminist concerns.  The Italian marxist-feminists, for example, have provided crucial interventions in both marxism and feminism––especially in their theorization of "reproductive labour".  But these were generally marxist engagements with feminism rather than an attempt to produce a systematic feminist marxism; the former is important as a step towards a communist type of feminism but it cannot be confused with the latter.  Nor is the theory of "reproductive labour" enough, in a global sense, for the emancipation of proletarian women.  As Gandhy has argued "[s]ocialist feminists by emphasizing reproduction are underplaying the importance of the role of women in social production… the crucial question [for communists who are feminist] is that without women having control over the means of production [rather than simply the means of reproduction, i.e. just their bodies or the private sphere] and over the means of producing necessities and wealth how can the subordination of women ever end?"

Indeed, one of Gandhy's significant essays [written under her party name "Avanti"], Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement, attempts to build a proletarian feminism by distinguishing itself from other feminist currents.  And in this essay she argues that, despite the importance of these various feminist trends, they are all, by themselves, dead-ends for a revolutionary project.  One of the main problems, in her opinion, was the emphasis of patriarchy over capitalism and the revolutionary praxis this emphasis would promote: would society as a whole be able to liberate itself if the fundamental division between social classes was seen as a division between male and female, and would a revolutionary project based on this division be properly revolutionary when many women, despite the preponderance of patriarchal oppression, because of their class position, have interests opposed to the proletariat––in other words, was it enough to be a woman to be revolutionary?  Her answer, of course, was that sex/gender identity was not enough to unify a revolutionary project while, at the same time, some crude understanding of class that did not understand the history of patriarchy and the persistence of misogyny was also insufficient to mobilize the oppressed masses.

Following this insight, Hisila Yami [Comrade Parvati] would write "[w]omen being not only the most oppressed amongst their [own] oppressed groups, but also the last group to be liberated, are the most reliable, stable and basic force which needs to be tapped not only in winning the revolution but also in waging continuous revolution."  Here, her argument was that women from the proletarian and oppressed masses had even less to lose in entering a revolution than their male counterparts of the same class and so their empowerment would be the key to sustaining any revolution.  Indeed, she would also argue that revolutions will fail because of the failure to raise women to positions of leadership (the fault, of course, of patriarchal social relations) because if they were provided with ideological and political empowerment, and since they have less to lose than the men, they would be more inclined to safe-guard the revolution than male cadre.  The sexist failure to raise women to positions of ideological and political leadership, then, produces women in the revolutionary ranks (for, she argues, there will always be women in the ranks of revolution in mass numbers) who are unable to theoretically grasp revolutionary failure, unable to make concrete analyses of concrete situations, because they have been forced to rely on the analysis of male intellectuals who might not have anything to lose if the revolution enters a period of failure.

But Yami's critique, since it emerges from Gandhy's understanding of feminism, is premised on the belief that a communist feminist project has nothing to do with uniting proletarian women with bourgeois women; she holds that revolutionary proletarian women have more in common with revolutionary proletarian men, even if the chauvinism of these men must be combatted, than with bourgeois women whose material interests are directly opposed to a revolutionary project.  There can be no revolutionary unity, according to proletarian feminists, between proletarian women and bourgeois women; there can only be a temporary unity aimed at bourgeois rights, a unity that has led to gains within this context, but nothing more.

The fact that, according to proletarian feminism, there can be no revolutionary unity between communist and non-communists on the basis of a general feminism that only treats patriarchy as its enemy should be obvious when we examine attempts to force this unity.  For example, this post was inspired by an ideological struggle on /r/communism with, after a [proper] declaration that this communist space was also feminist, a bunch of misogynists.  In celebration of this struggle, there was a well-meaning attempt at a united front with a well-known feminist subreddit.  And yet the population of this subreddit, though willing to unite against misogynists, did not want to identify with communism for a variety of anti-communist reasons.  Here we see the failure of a general feminist ideology to merge with communism, but this failure is preordained because the object of struggle, and the class unity presupposed in struggle, is different.

Returning to the title of this entry, the slogan taken from the feminist front, the reason to speak of capitalism as women's enemy rather than patriarchy is because a capitalist mode of production is not, by itself, a patriarchal mode of production.  Whereas we can speak of patriarchy as being an intrinsic part of the material base in semi-feudal social formations (i.e. where women are legally considered property), at the centres of capitalism this is not the case.  Even so, we cannot say (as some will) that patriarchy has just vanished.  Rather, the vestiges of patriarchy remain and they remain in a very specific way: they are preserved in the superstructure, inherited from past modes of production, and in turn obstruct/deform the development of the base.  Capitalism, as a mode of production, does not need patriarchy to function as capitalism––and in the last instance is not defined by patriarchy––but it is clear that its logic is mediated by patriarchy, that its social classes inherit the clothing of patriarchy, and that only a possible world capitalism (that is, an imaginary capitalism) would ever function smoothly without these patriarchal vestiges.

The reason this insight is important is because it should demonstrate, according to proletarian feminism, the ultimate target.  For if we focus on patriarchy as women's enemy we are focusing solely on the ideological superstructure and not on the material base that is deformed and mediated by patriarchy and upon which patriarchy is now dependent.  We must fight patriarchy, but we must do so as part of the primary struggle against capitalism… And this struggle requires a revolutionary unity that a non-communist feminism is incapable of producing.


  1. What, then, of the prevalence of transphobic attitudes in radical feminism, and particularly contemporary applications thereof? Should not any revolutionary movement be especially mindful of those trans* members who have been dehumanised by past feminisms? For any trans* person with experience dealing with "radical feminism" and its exponents, this is a fundamental issue. I don't mean this as an general criticism of this piece (which I agree with!), just that the mention of "radical feminism", and what it has come to mean to the trans* community, is something I almost instinctively balk at.

    1. Good point; thanks for making it. Since this piece wasn't a critique of other feminisms aside from why they were not communist feminisms, I didn't get into why they some species of feminisms (i.e. radical feminism) might or might not carry other problems such as transphobia. But then again, communism as a whole has also had problems with heterosexism and transphobia and this doesn't mean that communism is inherently transphobic/heterosexist. For the same reason I don't think that a tradition that is as heterogeneous as radical feminism is inherently transphobic, though I do agree that there are radfems who *are* transphobic (and I did purge a couple from by blogroll a while back because of this).

      I mentioned radical feminism as an example of a tradition that had some insights that were worth adapting, and I have trans comrades who actually would read the radical feminist tradition differently from you––who are mindful of those radfems who take the complete bio-determinist and separatist line, but who also think there are important insights in this tradition that are worth preserving. Even still, your point here is salient in the context of my overall argument: in the Gandhy piece I linked, she argues that radical feminism, do to the way it understands and focuses on patriarchy, the praxis, even where radical feminists do not specifically say this, is a "class" struggle between [cis] men and [cis] women––which clearly is something that does not take trans determination into account.

  2. Any chance you could expand a bit on a materialist basis for a trans-inclusive feminism? I've been thinking the issue through of late, and I just can't get quite get there. Instinctively, I want to support trans people, but as we all well know, my instinct/common sense developed as I was socialised in a capitalist society.

    Sorry if its a stupid question but I really can't get past the comment that a sociology lecturer I had at Paris-Diderot made: 'What makes you a woman is the fact that you're the one who has to clean the floors.' I suppose that's just a paraphrasing of de Beauvoir's "one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one." I always understood in de Beauvoir that that becoming is forced upon you, rather than something you choose.

    As I say, sorry if it's a stupid question, but I would really appreciate any thoughts you have on this. All my marxist friends aren't particularly hot on feminist theory, and all my feminist friends aren't Marxists, so I don't really have anyone to think it through with!

    1. I can't really expand on this because I think it's an area that requires a lot of work on and, since I'm not trans and as well-versed in the debates as much as my trans comrades, I'm not going to try to declare the correct analysis in this area. I really do try to keep with what I know and I can't read everything.

      But I will say this… In the face of a bunch of TERFy nonsense, and according to the education I did take in this area that forced me to face my transphobia, I definitely do think it's something that has to be incorporated in a radical analysis and I would also argue, because of what I've read about gender dysphoria, that trans persons do not "choose" their gender but it is in fact something they concretely experience as forced upon them as well. While it is the case that the way to discuss this often ends up articulating itself in problematic bio categories, this is also because the language of biology is so insidious.

      Point being, I feel that a materialist understanding of the identity category of "trans" is like the identity category of "gay" or "homosexual" was in the 1970s for Marxists, and many Marxists failed to apprehend it properly. Or what about feminism in the 1960s that a bunch of asshole Marxists dismissed (and some continue to) but we now know was important. There are people who are experiencing oppression because of this social position, and are struggling against this oppression, and Marxism needs to account for this. Non-Marxist theories are already doing so, and we can learn from them, but I believe we can definitely make them better because, due to their lack of materialist analysis they are just going to come to partial understandings that cannot take into account class struggle.

      Instead of asking me, who is a cis-het man, you should probably aim this question at those Marxist feminist groupings that have thought through this question in a progressive way. For example, the PCR-RCP's Proletarian Feminist Front, which has a pretty pro-trans line and has members who are trans women and trans men, might be worth contacting if you want answers.

      But otherwise my answer is pretty simply: trans people are oppressed on the basis of being trans and I side with the oppressed. But if their class positions are bourgeois, I don't side with them – not because they're trans but because they're bourgeois. Same thing I would say for any site of oppression.


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