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In Defense of Proletarian Feminism: a response to Signalfire's critique

Although I have great respect for the Signalfire blog (not only because it spends a lot of time reporting on people's wars and revolutionary movements around the world but because there are often some theoretical interventions that have been extremely excellent), it was with slight annoyance that I read a recent post critiquing proletarian feminism in general and the PCR-RCP's understanding of proletarian feminism in particular.  Obviously, since I posted recently on proletarian feminism, it should be evident to most readers that I am interested in the development of this theory within the revolutionary communist tradition; it should also be evident that, being a supporter of the PCR-RCP, I am also interested in any critique made of its political line.

To be fair, I am actually quite critical of the chapter in the PCR-RCP programme that Signalfire examines ("Women of the Proletariat") and think there are a lot of important critiques to be made––indeed, I've made them in debates with other supporters and am in a group that has debated aspects of this chapter.  Truthfully, I think it's a rather messy chapter that has a lot of gaps, some semantic problems, translation issues, and moments of contradiction that feel as if it has been culled from a debate.  In many ways this is because it is a chapter in a programme that has the difficult task of representing multiple essays, still not available in english, that were published in the currently defunct theoretical journal of the PCR-RCP, The Arsenal.  Similarly, the programme's chapter's on people's war is unsatisfactory but, thankfully, there is at least one essay on the same issue that is available in english that, due to its ability to be larger than a couple pages, sheds light on what seems vague within the medium of a programme.  At the same time, however, the programme chapter on proletarian feminism is probably messy because, as the Signalfire critique indicates in its title, there are indeed "gaps in the discourse of proletarian feminism" because, as I mentioned in the entry linked above, it is still a rather new feminism that is just beginning to make sense of what it would mean to have a communist feminism.

So there is a lot of room to point out the gaps in the theory, demonstrate what still needs work, and then indicate the inadequacies of a specific example like the PCR-RCP chapter.  In some ways the Signalfire critique does give various and useful indications as to how the gaps in this theory can be approached, but these are just indications and they are undermined by the extremely blaise and unfortunate statement at the very outset of the critique––a statement that is more rhetorical than critical––that proletarian feminism is "not a thorough scientific analysis but an objectively chauvinist ideological discourse."  This is a problem for three reasons: a) proletarian feminism (in particular the chapter the critique is addressing) is still trying to figure out a scientific analysis of the issue at hand but, unlike the Signalfire critique, is actually proceeding on the basis of revolutionary science [i.e. it is providing a certain level of explanatory depth, it is developing itself upon a history of continuity and rupture, through social investigation and practice––all of which is absent in the critique]; b) simply because it needs work does not make it "objectively chauvinist" and, indeed, this critique does not in any way prove that it is objectively chauvinist; c) the critique only examines the PCR-RCP chapter, rather than anything by Anuradha Gandhy or Hisila Yami, which is not the best example of proletarian feminism––partially because it is a small chapter in a programme, partially because it is a chapter that needs serious work.

Before looking at the problems with the Signalfire critique in detail, however, it is worth pointing out that, in the context of the PCR-RCP chapter the critique spends its entire time dissecting, there is social-historical problem with rhetorically dismissing this theory as "objectively chauvinist".  We need to recognize that this chapter emerges from a group with a "Feminist Front", that this chapter is due in large part to this front's social investigation, and that the organization that preceded the PCR-RCP, Action Socialiste, partially emerged from women who were involved in some of the significant feminist struggles in Quebec in the 1980s.  In many ways this chapter exists as their critique of the feminist movement in which they had participated and, because they were participating in a very key moment of feminist struggle in Canada (i.e. around access to abortion and reproductive rights for women), the female cadre of the PCR-RCP may have something important to say in light of feminist struggles and feminist theory.

Moreover, feminist theories do not exist simply on a theoretical level but need to communicate to some concrete reality––it is not enough to have a nice looking theory as a feminist but this theory should, within the political context in which it is operating, produce female cadre with revolutionary agency… And the PCR-RCP, as those of us who have interacted with them noticed almost immediately, more women who are active and influential, and in a way that is not tokenized but in a very organic manner, than so many other left organizations in Canada.  None of this is to say that their chapter should not be critiqued, or that critiques should not be made (they should, they always should), but that to simply write off this analysis as "objectively chauvinist" is somewhat asinine and largely rhetorical––especially from a collective that seems to be primarily male.  To be clear: this is not an argument demanding a retreat into identity politics, but simply a reminder of a context and a problematization of a rhetorical rejection––one of the important things we have learned from the history of the feminist movement is that the personal is political [and vice versa] and so we really do need to look at social positions (which I think is in line with historical materialism) in order to give us a larger understanding.

In any case, with this context in mind, I want to examine the critiques the Signalfire blog actually makes about proletarian feminism refracted through a singular engagement with the [flawed] chapter from the PCR-RCP programme.  None of the criticisms demonstrate that proletarian feminism is "objectively chauvinist" because, despite making some good points here and there, none really succeed in rejecting the claims.  In some cases the critiques actually end up affirming the claims by making semantic differentiations that are saying the same thing.

First of all, Signalfire criticizes the claim that women are not homogenous and divided by class.  The point here is that proletarian women do not share the same interests as bourgeois women and that the former, unlike the latter, are the most exploited group under capitalism.  While Signalfire agrees that differentiating women based on class is correct, it argues that this analysis somehow ignores that "gender itself is a class relation".  Of course it never explains, in any significant detail, what this means and then goes on to say that the differentiation between proletarian and bourgeois (and petty-bourgeois) women "is of little relevance."  Shulamith Firestone argued that gender was a class relation, just as a lot of people in the 1960s and 1970s were trying to collapse categories and refract every struggle through some dominant lens, but this was rather inadequate.  Gender has to do with the composition of class and is not, on any material, by itself and itself alone a class relation.  It can be a class relation, obviously, but this changes in different concrete circumstances.  If this is a critique it needs further development.  Moreover, the rest of the critique of this position is simply vague and does not seem to contradict, at any point, the paragraph it is claiming to critique.  And just why is it of little relevance to discuss bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women?  The point of this paragraph is simply to point out the feminism of communists shouldn't begin by assuming that proletarian women share the same class consciousness as bourgeois women––a fact that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, one of the initiators of radical feminism in the 1960s, also realized during the course of her political life––which always needs to be emphasized when communists are differentiating themselves from other struggles.

Secondly, Signalfire misunderstands the distinction that is being made between patriarchy and patriarchal vestiges.  Fair enough: this is one of the messy points in the chapter and one that has been the point of serious debate within my own political circles.  Even still, it seems as if the critique makes too much of this semantic confusion.  Indeed, since I discussed what this distinction means very briefly in my above linked entry on proletarian feminism, it is not as if this has not been explained elsewhere or is so confusing that it cannot be understood.  The distinction here is between patriarchy as an essential part of the mode of production versus the residue of patriarchy that is preserved in the superstructure and then obstructs the development of the base.  The former is essential to pre-capitalist relations of production where a woman's position in society is determined by the fact that she is formally classified as "property", that property is inherited by men instead of women (Signalfire seems to think this fact isn't something that is real, but it was part of a functional mode of production and the way the binary of male/female was reproduced materially), and where the sexual division of labour is, in the last instance, intrinsically part of the material division of labour.  The latter does not deny that there is continuation of patriarchal relations only that they have been transformed by capitalism: capitalism as a mode of production does not require this gendered division of labour in order to persist as capitalism and yet, at the same time, it preserves this gendered division of labour––this is what is meant by patriarchal vestiges.

And so, yes the patriarchal family still exists to some extent but it is also not identical to the patriarchal family that existed prior to capitalism; indeed, in the epoch of capitalism we witness feminist struggles that could not have existed in prior epochs that, to a very limited extent, succeeded in winning some bourgeois rights.  Yes, these rights will always be tenuous, but they can be permitted under capitalism without undermining capitalism; they could not have existed for women under, for example, feudalism without undermining feudalism.  So when Signalfire states that the capitalist mode of production "is indeed destroying traditional feudal patriarchy" but then critiques proletarian feminism by pointing out that patriarchy remains in a more fluid manner, it is actually rearticulating what the PCR-RCP means by patriarchal vestiges.  And yes, the passage about vestiges is messy because it only asserts this concept of vestiges without any thorough theoretical explanation (again, a deficiency of this chapter), it is not merely asserting something that is "formal" but presupposing Mao's theory from On Contradiction about how the preservation of the vestiges/residue of ideologies from previous modes of production can obstruct the material base and become "self-determining concepts."

If the chapter simply simply gives quick examples of what this obstruction means, this is due in part to the limitations of the programme form.  Still, to assume these are merely "formalistic" because they are part of the superstructure is to ignore everything that Maoists say about the superstructure and its importance: the superstructure does not exist on some separate plane annexed from the base––they are not "liquidated" and thus irrelevant––but are indeed self-determining concepts that are preserved and go so far as to deform the development of the material base.  To claim that patriarchy is a constituent element of the economic base of capitalism, though, as Signalfire does, is extremely problematic.  For we can imagine a possible world where capitalism, abstractly, functions without patriarchy.  Indeed, according to the dictates of this abstract capitalism, there is no logical reason as to why patriarchy should still exist since women should be exploited just as men with bourgeois rights.  And yet, obviously, proletarian women are usually double-oppressed despite the logic of this abstract capitalism and so it is necessary to ask why this is the case.  Because the patriarchal relations that were intrinsic to previous modes of production have carried over and have been incorporated in the structure of actually existing capitalism.  This distinction might seem academic but it is important for two reasons: a) it demonstrates that proletarian feminism is not simply dismissing patriarchy as something that no longer exists but, rather, trying to make sense of its meaning in a capitalist mode of production; b) it tells us something about how to organize––for if patriarchy is an originary moment of the mode of production then we could argue that a revolution could be produced by a class struggle of a female class against a male class––precisely the argument of radical feminists critiqued by proletarian feminists (though I should again point out that the tradition of radical feminism has produced a significant body of critical work revolutionaries need to understand and that is necessary for struggle)––when it is clear that women as a social class at this historical juncture cannot be united as a class for the reasons the PCR-RCP gave and that Signalfire claimed was of "little relevance."

Furthermore, what would a class struggle between a female class and male class mean for our trans comrades when, if we are to imagine that patriarchy functions the same way it does under feudalism?  Again, we would have the radical feminist conclusion that––despite all of those significant but minoritarian moments in radical feminism that seem to indicate a pro-trans ethos––can easily be anti-trans.  So if we want, as Signalfire wants, "the abolition of gender and a world without women and men", then we need to pay attention to what would be operationalized by the kind of political praxis that Signalfire seems to be endorsing.

Finally, Signalfire makes some very nebulous critiques about some equally nebulous passages and complains that these passages aren't "drawing the necessary conclusions" or that the claims are not interested in, as aforementioned, "the total abolition of gender."  The necessary conclusions that need to be drawn were never worked out in this critique and, unfortunately, often read like someone who just discovered feminist theory a year ago (though I don't think this is the case, but it does read like that) and is thus unmindful of a lot of presuppositions about debates within this theoretical terrain that are made by an (admittedly messy) few pages.  As for the total abolition of gender––there is no reason to assume, from this programme or from anything the PCR-RCP has claimed––that this is not a goal.

Moreover, the fact that this extremely limited and messy chapter is used as stand-in for all of proletarian feminism is tantamount to using a Cliffs Notes summary of a novel as an example of the novel itself.  While it is true that a lot of the work on proletarian feminism isn't available for an english speaking audience––and so even the Arsenal essays that lurk behind the PCR-RCP chapter are unavailable––there are still more significant works than a programme chapter that necessarily has to be a few pages long.  We must wonder why Signalfire did not choose as the object of its critique the available essays by Anuradha Gandhy––at least one of which that spent a significant amount of time critiquing aspects of the marxist-feminism Signalfire endorses and thus is less of a possible straw-person––or even Hisila Yami's People's War and Women's Liberation.

Clearly there are, indeed, numerous "gaps in the discourse of proletarian feminism" because this is still an emergent feminism.  To focus on the problems of this emergence as "objectively chauvinist" in such a dismissive manner, however, and without any material foundations demonstrating a contrary social investigation or even adequately disagreeing with these problems, is generally spurious.  Again, none of this is to claim that these gaps should not be investigated, that attempts to produce this theory should not be critiqued so they can be corrected, but that such investigation and critique should proceed from an honest and materialist basis.

Signalfire concludes its critique, however, by indicating that the PCR-RCP is "the most advanced manifestation of proletarian politics in their territory."  Obviously this means that, despite my response to this collective's critique, that we need to recognize that, whatever its problems in this instance, Signalfire was not attempting to attack a revolutionary organization but, rather, was only interested in pointing out what it saw as a deficiency.  And in some ways they are correct: the chapter on women in the programme requires work––as do many chapters––and in this we are in agreement.  The problem, however, is that we differ in the terms of our agreement for I am clearly far less inclined to dismiss a chapter that is only messy and that needs work (due to the supposed gaps in a new theory and the form of the programme) as being "objectively chauvinist".  Nor do I think Signalfire has even begun to prove that proletarian feminism is "objectively chauvinist" because it appears to avoid any direct ideological line struggle with proletarian feminism.  If anything, even if it is off-base in its critiques, Signalfire has indicated points that proletarian needs to account for and, in this accounting, develop.

In conclusion I want to emphasize that my complaints with the Signalfire critique are meant in the same manner as Signalfire intended its critique: in comradeship.  For though I am somewhat disappointed at its analysis of proletarian feminism, I still cannot help but admire the ideological struggle it has been waging on behalf of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and the lucid and significant theoretical interventions it has often produced… Now, if only, it would turn its bloody comments on so that people could engage with its valuable essays.


  1. I am very interested in this piece. I'm not sure if you've seen this, but in case you have not, here is the response Signalfire delivered to your critique (And it is annoying that they do not let people comment! I feel like I'm being talked at by some Marxist bro) -

    I am in agreement with a lot of what you say, and my contribution is both in response to your post and the one from the link I just shared (just so you don't think I'm accusing you of saying things you didn't!)

    I'm stuck on the idea of gender being a class relation in itself, versus the idea of the class relation of gender. Specific class relations are informed by gender (as well as other factors), and that an examination of patriarchy must be done in the context of a specific mode of production. So, of course patriarchy existed before capitalism, and will likely exist after a communist revolution (I am a sad skeptic), but looks different in all these cases.

    Signalfire says: "We stated in our original piece that the class relation of gender as the appropriation of women’s unpaid labor in reproduction and the super-exploitation of their waged labor in production is in fact an experience largely exclusive to proletarian and semi-proletarian women especially with the granting of bourgeois rights to women as nominally independent legal subjects."

    Do bourgeois women not have babies? I am not suggesting that bourgeois and proletarian women experience the same level of exploitation and oppression on the basis of gender, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that bourgeois women are not exploited on the basis of their reproductive labour (though certainly to a lesser degree, in some circumstances). The analysis of reproductive labour that emerged with Wages for Housework, for example, looks at all the elements that make up reproduction beyond a narrow view of "housework" - [in fact, one of my favourite pieces they produced is called "Fucking is Work"].

    I'll leave it there for now - I have to get back to writing about all this!

    1. Hi Xtina,

      I'm glad the comments finally worked so that you could reply, and as usual I'm glad your interventions––both generally and on the particular entries that connect with your realm of academic expertise. I did read Signalfire's response but I feel that since it did not present any actual arguments in response to what I was arguing, and basically just repeated its position, it probably wasn't worth continuing the back and forth. Also, since my main problem with the initial critique was that they referred to the PCR-RCP's political line on feminism as "objectively chauvinist" which was a spurious and dangerous charge to make––especially of an organization that has many women in positions of leadership who emerged from actual feminist struggles in Canada. If such an organization was "objectively chauvinist" [that is, chauvinist in practice] then the high participation of women cadre beyond a token level would not exist.

      In any case, I should qualify again that I am not in complete agreement with that chapter in the programme, and think it should be critiqued, but that the critique should be theoretically precise and not all over the place, unfocused, and showing no attention to the history of feminist theory and debate as the Signalfire position seems to be doing.

      You say you're "stuck on the idea of gender being a class relation in itself versus the idea of the class relation of gender" and I think it is significant that you brought this up in light of this exchange because I feel that, unlike you or myself, the Signalfire understanding of things conflates these two categories: on the one hand it says blatantly (in the original piece) that there is a class struggle between men and women as social classes but now, in this piece, it says "class relation of gender" which could be read as something else.

      Yes bourgeois women have babies and thus the analysis of reproductive labour is clearly important, but as you know (because I think we've talked about this before) by itself it is a limited analysis. Proletarian feminism argues that women in the ruling classes will always have better access to birth control and then to paid care-givers (such as Filipino nannies who are exploited exclusively by wealthy families so that rich women at the centres of capitalism do not have to do child care that patriarchal ideology generally forces them to do otherwise), and I think (to be fair to them) Signalfire probably meant this but was being too hasty. Indeed, based on a lot of their initial analysis and previous things written on this issue, they usually spend more time looking only at reproductive labour and in this article [and their response] it seems like they're trying to correct that but in a theoretically imprecise kind of way… I don't know: on reddit I pointed out that their analysis seemed to come from an understanding of Italian Marxist-Feminism as if they were still living in the 1970s and hadn't really researched all of its nuances, and one of their editors complained that their understanding of feminism didn't come from Italian marxism but rather from "French Materialist Feminists". And considering that, aside from exceptions like Simone De Beauvoir and maybe Luce Iragaray, french feminist theory hasn't been very good in general (I'm reminded here of a hilarious paper entitled "What the Fuck is Wrong with French Feminism?" that pointed out the lack of feminist struggle and colonial racism in the french feminist movement) it makes me wonder.

      I really do want to read "Fucking is Work"... Who is it by––one of the leading names or someone lesser known? And is it available in english or do you get to be the translator [hopefully] soon?

    2. Fucking is Work is a collectively written piece, from what I remember. I'll make you a copy once I find it again! I am organizing my archive materials tonight. Fun!

    3. Can you post a link to "What the Fuck is Wrong with French Feminism?" and "Fucking is Work"--if either or both are online?

      Trying to read all I can about the women's question and make more sense of proletarian feminism--which I am most aligned to at the moment. Thanks!

    4. "What the Fuck is Wrong with French Feminism" is not available online––it was a presentation at HM in 2010. Xtina said she would try to find a link for "Fucking is Work" but I have yet to see it.

  2. for future reference comments are now open on the site.

    1. Good to know. This is also good news outside of this exchange since many of the theoretical interventions you post are excellent and demand discussion.

  3. Hello. I am a radical feminist as well as a Marxist-Leninist who has come across your blog, at first from the link from Bolshevik Chick's blog when it still existed (Terri is a friend of mine), and last year encountered your writing on proletarian feminism. I have been engaged in a materialist defence of radical feminism, its overwhelming materialist tendency which is not particularly prevalent amongst present day Neo-Radical-Feminists (who predominate over the internet and are very much anti-intellectual and bourgeois as well reify separatism). That said, I believe I have been formulating a proletarian radical feminism, but wonder whose texts you so happen to refer to?

    I have a Tumblr blog onto which I post a few critiques and quotations ( You can contact me there if you wish, and I'm only comfortable disclosing my e-mail via private message, if you wanted to w-mail.



    1. Hi JC,

      The texts I have cited here and elsewhere are the ones by Anuradha Gandhy and Hisila Yami. I also think some of the programme writing by the PCR and the PCI(Maoist) on this issue are useful. As I've said here and elsewhere, though, this is still a tendency that is being figured out and theorized.

      I'll check out your tumblr soon. You can also email me by finding me in the "followers" menu and sending me a message in that way.



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