Women: the Longest Revolution (Frankfurt)
Cornelia Möser, Lucy Parker, Ursula Jensen, Joy McReady
Platypus Review #84 | March 2016
On November 7, 2015, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion at its 2nd European Conference in Frankfurt entitled “Women: The Longest Revolution?” The panelists were Cornelia Möser, who earned her PhD in gender studies and political science and is a researcher for the CNRS at the CRESPPA-GTM in Paris; Lucy Parker, a member of Platypus based in London; Joy McReady, a journalist and revolutionary social activist who writes a monthly column on women’s liberation for Workers’ Power, the British section of the League for the Fifth International; and Ursula Jensen, a founding member of the International Bolshevik Tendency and a longterm member of the works council within the IG Metall. What follows is a heavily edited transcript of their conversation. The full audio recording of the event can be found online at: /2015/12/18/11-07-2015- women-longest-revolution/.
Cornelia Möser: Juliet Mitchell says that women’s liberation has a “totalistic quality,” meaning that it is necessary in order to reach human freedom in general. Yet the struggle for women’s liberation did not sign up as such for liberating the working class from capitalism. It signed up for liberating women—all women, so also working class women—from patriarchy, male domination, male chauvinism, heterosexism, gender oppression. I know this question very well from socialist and Marxist contexts, and it is almost always expressed in order to reduce feminist struggles to the place of the less important struggle. If you’re asking, “What has feminism done for class struggle?” I suggest you also ask, “What has socialism and Marxism done against sexism and male dominance, even if only in their own groups?”
If we understand human freedom to be the freedom of all humans, not only of white worker male humans, we have to take into account a number of struggles, and feminism is one of them. Even Juliet Mitchell brings up the history of how radical feminism can also partly be seen as being the result of white sexism in Marxism and socialism. So I agree with Mitchell when she argues that there have always been feminists who saw feminism as the struggle for human emancipation. Feminists read their Marx, their Engels, their Adorno, and their Foucault, but at the same time, unfortunately that cannot be said of male socialists interested in feminist theory. I feel that feminist theory has remained an accessory to the dominant left until today. So until this situation stops, human freedom is not possible, at least not with left-wing politics.
Women’s liberation has been successful in the last decade, and I guess the same cannot be said about man’s emancipation. As humans, men, women, and non-conformist genders obviously also need general social change concerning the mode of production, but this is very much linked to feminist struggles as the economy is always already gendered, and this needs to be taken into account. Is revolution needed for women’s liberation? That really depends on what you understand by “revolution.” This term can imply warlike scenes or riot scenes and some prefer to think of revolution as a radical change that can also happen through persistent politics like reforms or collective mobilizations.
I have heard very often in Marxist circles that feminism is kind of like the result also of changes of capitalism, that it’s just the way that society adapted to capitalist change. And then, if that is what you are trying to say, I am always surprised how Marxists forget all about their Marx when it comes to feminism. Because he already has told us that history is the history of class struggle, and that there is no teleological or God-given prescribed forces or nature that forms history. So he insists that societies change because people’s struggle over power and influence over rights and over the distribution of living conditions, and that also applies for feminism. So obviously feminists have been part of this historical process. If by that you wanted to say that feminism profited from the failure of socialism, my answer would be absolutely not. Especially in Germany, I feel like there is East German socialism, women have lost many things, along with them the right to abortion that we don’t have any more since the fall of socialism.
So, can feminism and Marxism be combined? I have to ask back, how can they not be combined? There is a tendency in Marxism to forget that women are also workers and that workers are also women. So obviously it cannot not be combined.
It is true, the so-called second-wave feminism was kind of detached from the first wave of feminism. When they talk about their starting point, they explain it as kind of like starting from scratch. So they were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., and in Europe often they described their consciousness-raising as being part of the general movement of the New Left in the 1960s, where Marxist frameworks of thought were very popular. But in fact, though they have integrated these frameworks of thought into their own theoretical productions, they have also experienced their limitedness: These Marxist theories could not explain gender oppression the way that feminists were experiencing it. And this is why they not only turned to what people call structuralist and poststructuralist theory, but I would go so far as to say that they even formed the broad part of these theories. For example, Foucault’s rethinking of power was also in reaction to the failure of the ’68 revolts. The feminists also experienced the same frustration with Marxist explanations of how power works in society. This is what unites them with what is called postmodernist thought, and why there was this strong exchange.
Lastly, has the situation of women in the world changed since the 1960s? Of course it has, with and without feminism, and especially in the dominant rich countries. I am not a demographer and not in any way qualified to tell you the details about the many changes in gender and sexual politics worldwide. Within feminism, there are ongoing debates on how even to quantify or objectify freedom or equality—a question that remains complicated way beyond feminism. From personal political experience, I have to say that in most places in the world, we cannot afford to let go of politics of equality even though we have to bear in mind their limitedness. A feminist revolution obviously is on a symbolic level and also on a cultural and interpersonal level. The feminist struggle has always simultaneously played on all these different levels, and that is good.
Ursula Jensen: Marxists know very well that a worker, about whom we speak when we say “working class,” can very well be a black female gay handicapped single mother. So a worker in our view is not necessarily a man.
While Marxists and feminists often find themselves on the same side in struggles for women’s rights, they hold two fundamentally incompatible worldviews. Feminism is an ideology premised on the idea that the fundamental division in human society is between the sexes rather than between social classes. Feminist ideologues consequently see the struggle for female equality as separate from the fight for socialism, which many dismiss as merely an alternative form of patriarchal rule. In the past several decades, feminist writers and academics have drawn attention to the variety and extent of male supremacist practices in contemporary society. Feminists have taken the lead in exposing many of the pathological manifestations of sexism in private life—from sexual harassment to rape and domestic violence. Prior to the resurgence of the women’s movement in the late 1960s, these issues received little attention from either liberal or leftist social critics. Feminists have also been active in international campaigns against female genital mutilation in Africa, female infanticide in Asia, and the imposition of the veil in the Islamic world. Feminist analysis is often useful in raising awareness of sexism in capitalist society. But it typically fails to make a connection between male supremacy and the system of class domination which underlies it.
Marxists maintain that class conflict is the motor force of history and reject the notion that there are irreconcilable differences between the interests of men and women. We do not deny that men are the agents of women’s oppression, or that men benefit from it, both in material and psychological terms. Yet the benefits that most men derive from women’s inequality are petty, hollow, and transitory, and the costs that accompany them are substantial. Undervaluation of traditionally so-called “female work,” while appearing to benefit the men, who are better paid and have more job security, in fact exerts downward pressure on wages generally. The same applies to wage discrimination against any other sector of the work force. In addition to lowering wage rates, male chauvinism, like racism, nationalism, homophobia, and other backward ideologies, obscures the mechanisms of social control and divides those at the bottom against each other, thereby providing a bulwark for hierarchical and intrinsically oppressive social systems.
It is true that female oppression is a trans-class phenomenon that affects all women, not merely those who are poor or working class. The degree of oppression and its consequences, however, are qualitatively different for members of different social classes. The privilege and material benefit enjoyed by ruling class women give them a powerful interest in preserving the existing social order.
The notion that women’s oppression would continue to be a feature of life under socialism seemed obvious to those New Left radicals who viewed the economically backward, nationally isolated deformed worker states of Cuba, China, North Vietnam, North Korea, and Albania as functioning socialist societies. While women made very important gains everywhere capitalist rule had been overthrown, the parasitic and overwhelmingly male ruling bureaucracy in these Stalinist police states promoted women’s roles as breeder, mother, and homemaker. Leon Trotsky pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed that the Stalinist apparatus was an obstacle to the development of socialism and criticized “the social interest of the ruling stratum in the deepening of bourgeois law,” in connection with its attempt to prop up the socialist family. Feminist pessimism regarding the prospects for women under socialism, as opposed to under Stalinism, reflects an inability to comprehend the historical origins of women’s oppression. It also reveals a failure to appreciate the immense possibilities that socialism would open up through the elimination of material scarcity. The revolutionary expropriation of the productive forces and the establishment of a global planned economy would ensure that the most basic conditions for existence—food, shelter, employment, basic healthcare, and education—could be guaranteed for every person on the planet.
Lucy Parker: What is key about Juliet Mitchell's essay is not that she critiques bourgeois feminism's demands, but that she provides a critique of the history of the Left, through various attempts that have arisen to address the problem of women's emancipation. This is perhaps is what makes a good critique: to help clarify the possibilities presented as well as the limitations in any particular idea or moment of political action. The socialist idea was that women's unfreedom is an index of the unfreedom of society as a whole. The suggestion is that capitalism is a social problem, not just an economic problem. The development of modern society, and of capitalism (whether or not necessarily) arising out of it, has posed society and its social relations as the problem. The woman's question only really becomes a question through the development of modern society and later, in capitalism. Marx attempted to add specificity to the socialist project, through critiquing it from within. So Marx and Engels’s understanding remains key for her in the essay in terms of addressing a woman's position within the production process. But the other constitutive elements that have produced her relatively marginal position, which they suggested through problem of the “family,” are for her still not sufficiently elaborated.
In one sense, these appeared as new aspects of social crisis and new concurrent demands regarding reproduction, sexuality, identity, relationships, kinship groups, and child rearing in the 1960s and 1970s. Mitchell is able to therefore address and critique the possibilities and limitations of such demands as they too only address the problem in a partial manner, failing to consider how these aspects are in turn constituted by social relations of production which women also participate in or are excluded from.
Mitchell uses this moment where the questions are being posed, including by feminists, questions which express a real social crisis occurring, as an opportunity, perhaps against the dominant trend, to return to Marx and Engels. She aimed to underscore how they had already recognized that the ways we live our lives in capitalism are in crisis, meaning that these critical questions of sexuality, identity, kinship relations are all there. What it really means to be human is also a question that becomes increasingly contradictory in capitalism. Marx and Engels characterize humanity as unique in its ability to give itself its own species being, not predetermined. But in capitalism it appears that it may have freely created the conditions of its own unfreedom.
The Bolsheviks, within the first few years after the Russian Revolution, made considerable efforts towards women's emancipation and sexual liberation through the immediate legalization of homosexuality, the right to free divorce, and the socialization of housework and childcare. Trotsky describes how these new attempts to transform society came up against the economic limits of the new society and state that had been forged but was still under pressure from all sides as socialist revolution had failed to spread elsewhere. The return of the ideology of the traditional family as the only means to meet the reproduction of this society expressed a continuing unmet need as capitalism was still to be overcome, but the idea presented a new form of an old unfreedom.
Discontents continue to play out in different ways: sometimes experienced as desire for greater sexual emancipation, sometimes as the freedom to sustain a family life being curtailed, sometimes as the question of women in the job market, or the right to abortion, sometimes as the demand for societal recognition of one's individual differing or changed gender identity, or for one's personal relationships to be recognized as legitimate by the state.
Whether the existing “Left” is able to address these meaningfully is a real question. Marxism itself is often understood merely as a theory of oppression. Class is reduced to an identity category to be “intersected” with others in a hierarchy of oppression and/or privilege, where once, according to Marxism, it meant something a little different: It expressed the historical necessity for society to overcome itself through and beyond capitalism. How we try to understand or grasp demands made in the present on behalf of women's emancipation as a whole is unclear, when the memory of what socialism was trying to achieve becomes increasingly obscure.
Joy McReady: Juliet Mitchell’s essay has a very appropriate title, “Women: The Longest Revolution,” because man’s dominance over women existed before capitalism. It originated in the development of class society and also class antagonisms. Capitalism has entrenched the subservience of women in society, and it rests on private property, which is owning the means of production, and also the family unit, where the new class of workers reproduce themselves and their labor power for free. And although the capitalist mode of production draws an increasing number of women into the labor force, giving them greater economic independence, the family unit has been maintained and keeps women in domestic bondage. So, we talk about the double burden of working outside the home but also doing the majority of the housework within the home and looking after the children.
But at the same time, it also provides an opportunity for women to overthrow these chains. As Engels said, the emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are able to take part in production on a large scale and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree. While this doesn’t guarantee women’s liberation in and of itself, it takes women out of the private and isolated experience and pulls them into a socialized working environment where they can begin to organize with other working women and men in trade unions with wildcat strikes, as part of the working class. It was great to come into Frankfurt and to see the whole way along, “flight cancelled, cancelled...” That’s the power of the working class.
Women, like men, are divided into classes. Women of the ruling class can offload a lot of their oppression onto working class women, whether they be nannies or housekeepers or personal assistants. Their privileges will always tie them to a defense of their class before their sex. The idea of the “all class” women’s movement promoted by feminists obscures the different class interests, in the fact that they seek solutions within the capitalist system. The working class itself is the class with the chains that can’t be broken except by uprooting capitalism. The revolutionary communist position on women’s liberation takes as its starting point that working class women are the central agents in the struggle against their own oppression, aided at every step by class-conscious, working-class men. So we won’t be “liberated.” We liberate ourselves.
Many may be thinking that this is just Marxism 101, but the theoretical starting point becomes crucial when you start to talk about how to organize women within the revolutionary movement. Juliet Mitchell was very correct when she writes that the second wave of feminism was a reaction to the failure of the Left and other revolutionary movements in the 60s to really challenge sexism within their own ranks and to treat women fighters within the struggle as equals.
Of course, this was even worse in the late 1800s when Clara Zetkin of the German SPD and Alexandra Kollontai of the RSDLP, and later of the Bolsheviks, were organizing. In many countries women weren’t allowed to join trade unions or political parties, or to vote, and revolutionary women were fighting for these rights. But they also fought within their political parties to create special organizations and movements of the oppressed within and outside the revolutionary party. They recognized that prejudices and oppressive behavior exist among workers and revolutionary communists and have to be fought. Clara Zetkin argued that women need to be organized and their rights defended. She built up a massive organization of working class women within the SPD. There were about 140,000. She also produced a specific newspaper with a print run of over 100,000. The Bolsheviks also set up their own women’s section.
But in the absence of a mass revolutionary party today, what we should argue for is the right of women and other oppressed groups to caucus. In trade unions and all the different working class organizations, it’s really important that they are allowed to meet to discuss any issue related to their oppression and the struggle against sexism or oppressive behavior and should be able to submit proposals for dealing with these issues directly to the membership and the leadership of the organizations. We also need to raise the call for a working class women’s movement. This would take up the whole spectrum of women’s oppression: domestic violence, rape, discrimination at work, inequalities in pay, and cuts in childcare and healthcare. It would also combat the sexist culture of capitalist society. Really, the historic crisis of capitalism that we are living through right now has impacted working class women very severely. They have been impacted as workers, especially in the public sector where they’re often the majority who have seen their jobs, wages, and pensions completely cut and their whole workload increased. They have also been impacted by all the cuts to services and healthcare as well.
No organization is entirely immune from the reactionary ideas and forms of behavior in the society as a whole. Working class organizations, trade unions, and reformist parties don’t automatically or spontaneously oppose women’s oppression just as they do not spontaneously become socialist. It requires a conscious struggle by a revolutionary party with the right policies and program to fight against sexism, racism, and reformism.
CM: I kind of feel that Juliet Mitchell is a really nice writer, but this work you are citing from is from 1971, when feminism started. There have been decades of feminist theory ever since. When I say there is so much feminist theory that is not read in leftist circles, I am very sad about that. I feel it’s not the same the other way around.
Women have profited from alliances with bourgeois women. For example, to get the right to abortion, the vote, or access to universities. All of this is reformist, but I’m kind of happy about it. Working class women have profited from the social, economic, and political capital of bourgeois feminists in these struggles. When you are criticizing feminists who put gender oppression first, I feel that you’ve used the words “feminists state that…” Precisely what feminists are you talking about?
We also could use a term from gender studies called “intersectionality” of forms of oppression that can help to try and understand what’s going on here, and that, for example, gender oppression will not go away with socialism. We see that in history. It’s important for me to see that socialism as such will not abolish gender oppression.
Lastly, it’s not only about being exploited as women; it’s also the oppression of having to be a man or a women.
UJ: What feminists am I talking about? All the ones I know, basically. You might be the exception, but I don’t know you that well yet. No, gender oppression is not something that goes away after the revolution immediately. But we will not get real women’s liberation without it. Not in this society. Now, you said reforms are not bad. No, they are not. We will certainly defend them. But if you fight only for reforms than you have put a limit to your fight. We will fight for a socialist revolution.
JM: We can unite bourgeois feminists, radical feminists, etc., on certain issues, but as revolutionary socialists we want to take it to the next level. So let’s take the fight for abortion rights that’s happening right now. There’s a big campaign happening in Ireland, which is huge, and we would definitely participate in that because that is fundamental for women, for their struggle. The problem with the idea that we’ll win one reform or another reform is that the capitalists can always roll them back. That’s why these two struggles go hand in hand: the class struggle with the women’s liberation struggle. It’s not that one is subordinate to the other or anything like that but they go hand in hand because the ultimate goal is liberation.
In terms of intersectionality, to me as a socialist, we should not use this theory. As revolutionary socialists, we should really champion any struggle of the oppressed. The thing is that when you use the theory of intersectionality, it focuses on the oppression and not on the agency for change, which is the working class and the class struggle and the socialist struggle. To me that is the crux of the argument. It’s not just about checking the box for who is the most oppressed, but it’s about the agency for social change.
Q & A:
Since the fantastic victories of the 1970s, when radical feminism and the reform movement rights that were achieved: the right to abortion, the right to access proper healthcare, birth control. These kinds of reforms have been receiving a backlash in the U.S., but with the continuation of the current direction of the European Union we will probably see the cutting back of benefits for women. So we have the pressure of these rollbacks in particular in the U.S., I think very much pushed by Hillary Clinton: Funding of single mothers to raise children has been one of the major slashes of funding that Clinton supported. Though we have to defend and push against those backlashes, I also want to talk about more radical directions and opportunities. I read a Shulamith Firestone book and was completely absorbed because it proposed the idea that in a futuristic society, women wouldn’t have to carry a child themselves. The society could instead somehow use a fantastical machine. What are some radical demands that we want for women? Is equality all that we want?
LP: I don’t know if anyone has seen or remembers this movie from the 90s, Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s horrible in terms of its representation of traditional gender, but in terms of reproduction, why not demand that men actually have the right to bear a child? Yes, it could be done by machines too, but why not?
UJ: I’m not sure how many women are here that have given birth. But I certainly won’t have that right taken away from me, because that was a great experience and I wish it to a lot of you.
JM: Equality under this system won’t really come into play because capitalism uses divisions—whether it’s sexism, or racism, or homophobia—to undermine working class solidarity. It also undermines wages and all sorts of other things. Even when there are gains on one level, there are always the reactionary bits on the other. I don’t know if anyone has heard about the Hobby Lobby ruling that came through that more or less gave this boss the rights over the contraception that he would provide for his women workers. “His right” as an employer trumps the rights of his women workers. These are some of the issues that the trade unions should be fighting for. That’s why it’s really important within trade unions, within political parties, within revolutionary parties, to have structures where women are organizing themselves and fighting for their fights within the organization. Because unless we raise our voices, we wait. Unless we organize together and we fight against the sexism that pervades society, then we’ll always just be doing these two-bit little things. When we talk about transforming society, that’s the way we’re going to do it.
One issue where certain strains of feminism conflict with other tendencies on the Left is not so much economic demands for equality or reproductive rights or things like that, but the very complicated question of sexual liberation in general—what that means. I was thinking about the scandal of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK. Also, there’s the issue that’s very big on American college campuses now: the whole discussion about rape culture. Or even the pornography wars of the 1980s. How do all of you see these issues and how they play out?
LP: It was a real crisis for the SWP, but it became understood in very peculiar ways. It became understood that it somehow also related to the problem of democratic centralism. Actually, many anarchist movements and other leftist organizations have had problems of exploitation taking place. But the failure of the SWP to address that question has probably ruined Marxism for many young women. However, there are many young women also still working within the SWP, and I’m not prepared to call the SWP “rape apologists” for continuing to think that their organization has some value for raising issues about socialism. But still, there’s this problem of where the Left is at. These kinds of crises seem to tear these small organizations apart, even though the organizations themselves have such little impact on society.
CM: I’m stuck with what was just said, that the groups are torn apart by these scandals, because that really sounds like this old “feminists dividing the working class” idea—that’s not the way you wanted to go right?
LP: No it’s also a problem with leftism in this period of the Left’s death or decline. They’re real controversies, I don’t want to deny that is the case. But these groups are so small that when these controversies occur the organization is unable to work through it and it just furthers disintegration.
JM: Workers Power in Britain wrote a number of articles about the SWP crisis. It is a terrible situation that also was compounded with the undemocratic nature of the SWP itself. And that doesn't mean its democratic centralism, or its ideal of democratic centralism. But also it was the economism and tailism of the SWP that was really the root of the problem. What do I mean by that? The SWP has never acknowledged the material benefits that men derive from sexism within society, so they argue that it is an ideology that comes down from the top, the capitalists, and that it is somehow taken up within the working class. And that is not the case actually. This does not mean that men conspire with capitalists and oppress women, but they do have material benefit.
Also, the way the SWP actually handled it was a problem. They have this idea that women don’t need to have a special structure within the organization. They refuse to allow women to caucus and to actually have this discussion out, so the structure of the organization is very undemocratic. We were arguing that the women in the SWP should caucus together. At that conference where they actually discussed it, right after the vote was taken—in which it was very narrowly decided that there was no case to be found—they shut down all discussion about it, completely. That is what led to the splits and everything. It is very important that different groups of oppressed within organizations should have the right to caucus. It is not as if it is going to completely eradicate all sexist behavior, but it will give the people that are affected the agency to actually change the culture within an organization. Especially at this time of the crisis of capitalism women are being hit hard, their voices are not being heard loud enough. That is what I mean with agencies of change.
UJ: Feminism has a bad name in Germany. Their role within the Third Reich was certainly bad. They were all for “Küche, Kirche, Kinder”—Kitchen, Church, Children—one of the fascist slogans. The feminist organizations dissolved themselves into fascist organizations here in Germany. Feminism is not something that you would call yourself if you have a little bit of an idea about history in this country. So if you want to be in an organization that is not a feminist organization, but is one that works for women’s rights, I might even join you. But just like I don’t call the Soviet Union a workers’ state, which we did in 1917—we had to find a new name, we called it a degenerated workers’ state—I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. I wouldn’t be caught dead calling myself a feminist.
What about Jewish feminists? Don’t they exist for you?
CM: They called themselves women's rights activists; they didn’t use the term feminist.
UJ: Good. I notice that you call yourself a feminist and I wouldn't call myself that. But assuming that we are now talking about a women's organization, then the question would be: What kind of women’s organization is that? Is it a women's organization that is across class lines? Would I have to be with Hillary Clinton in one organization? I don't know a good example from the other countries.
UJ: Angela Merkel. Yeah, I wouldn't want to be with her in one organization. I don't think that she will apply to the IBT, but that makes me feel good actually.
I find it weird as an argument to say that most feminists went over to fascism. Because, at least in Austria, where I am from, a lot of the women who fought for their rights were communists and Jewish, and they had to leave the country. So obviously there was no women's movement afterwards because they were all gone. They certainly did not go over to fascism. And secondly, Ursula, you said that Marxism always fought for women's rights. I have a couple of examples of sexism in leftist, socialist, and Marxists groups. The first one is male domination in groups and organizations—the dominance of speech or hierarchies. It is that the pseudo-feminist men, who try to explain to woman how feminism works. And then there are groups where men dominate the group and decide the gendered language of every piece that is published by that group. This also concerns trans-persons. Also, a lot of the time I notice that woman in leftist groups do all the productive work—the workload for women is much higher. Also a lot of men just don’t deal with feminism. They call themselves feminists, they call themselves communists, and they say that they want the emancipation and freedom and equality for everyone, but they just don't deal with feminism. And also a lot of leftist groups don’t accept women’s spaces. So I wouldn't necessarily say that Marxism always fought for women's rights.
CM: For me it’s important to really raise the question why these groups are so small and unimportant, and so unattractive for everybody. I have heard before, “Oh, we are only men in this group, on this panel. Let’s find women. But they’re so hard to find.” The same goes with the question of social relations of race, and unless there’s some serious consideration of sexism going on in these groups, people should stop to wonder why.
You’ve been saying that intersectionality would only speak about oppression and would not sufficiently address agency. I don’t agree with this. There has been intersection thinking about relations of oppression and exploitation in feminism before—the Combahee River Collective for example. There’s an entire tradition. I mean Angela Davis, right? We’ve been trying to think that together.
LP: From a gender studies perspective, how do you approach the question of history? How does gender arise in history, and what do we do about it?
CM: Obviously at least since the 60s and the 70s, there has been a huge research field opened up by feminist historians. They first wanted to look back because history had, up to that point, been written by men about men. This is in part due to the exclusion of women from universities all together, so there has been a long and very complicated enterprise to write history with regards to women. Now they are starting to try and understand that there is not just one history of women, and they are trying to understand women also as an intersectional category. So there’s different history if you’re writing history about women in slavery, if you’re writing in colonialism, if you’re writing history of bourgeois women. They’re trying to understand this in an intersectional framework, which I would still try to hold up.
I appreciated Cornelia's reference about the oppression of being born male or female, but what about Marx saying that humanity produces its own species-being, that it's nature is that it has no nature? True, Marxists may have forgotten this aspect, but people also forget that this issue of freedom was raised by Marx and Marxism. Also, do the panelists adopt any specific demands about polygamy vs. monogamy, or opposition to nuclear family, etc.?
UJ: The IBT doesn't particularly care what people do in their bedrooms, or, if you want to say, in the fields, when the weather is good. We don't really care about that as long as everybody involved is doing so of their own free will.
How would you define reformism? What do you think about the mainstream media excitement with gender quotas? Is that progress?
UJ: There is a big difference between reformism and Marxism. Reformism is the enemy of Marxism. If the reformists win a reform, that is fine with us. But that is not what we stand for. If reforms fall off the tree, we really wanted not the leaf but the tree. It is a different thing. We will also take the leaf. We will even defend it if somebody wants to take it away from us. But reformism is an obstacle to the revolution. And that obstacle needs to be politically fought against. Let’s say a good reform is abortion rights. But that is not where it should stand. It should be much more.
Quotas are always a bit of a problem. I recognize that certain quotas have helped women to get more jobs and hierarchically higher jobs, in certain places. But if it wouldn't have been Lenin’s turn but instead the turn of a woman in 1917, I would find that very sad.
JM: Having more women bosses actually won´t make much difference for women workers, right? That isn’t going to actually make a difference whatsoever.
Can it be that the emancipation of women is not possible under the conditions of capitalism? And still that the transformation of capitalism to what was called “socialism“ by Marxism would not be possible without taking the women's question seriously and pushing this to its own limits? And even understanding the contradiction that traditional Marxism had? And isn't this brought up by Mitchell and still seems to be unanswered by Marxism today?
LP: I find it quite compelling the idea that somehow the class struggle is the motor of history, but also I am still trying to understand what that means. And especially what that means in neoliberalism, which also has this character of being post-historical or no longer concerned with the understanding of history. For Marx, capitalism is historically specific. This means questions of freedom and women's freedom have been posed in a particular way in modern society, that they have not been in previous, traditional forms of society. So it is a peculiar problem to modernism.
More concretely, I wanted also to say something about quotas, especially within leftist organizations. I have a lot of ambivalence about talking on a panel discussion like this because I am a woman, and I would like to be in a situation where we could have had a man on the panel as well.
Sometimes I am not sure if I am being selected on part of the quota, and if so, what I am representing. I was briefly being voted into a branch position in Left Unity in the UK. I was elected to represent a branch from only going to two meetings. How am I supposed to be qualified to represent the interests of everyone within the branch meeting, when I am still kind of getting to know what people in the organization are talking about? And also, on the flipside, how could I represent women in general within this organization? This is a real problem.
CM: Modernity is a really, really problematic project. There have been many critical writings also on the project of modernity as a colonialist project, and obviously there are feminist writings that have shown that the way we understand gender as a binary concept has actually only evolved as a bourgeois project—in and of modernity. So modernity is not a very positive term I guess for anti-colonialist and feminist struggles.
If I go outside this room and talk to some normal people, people that I would meet in daily life—and particularly in the United States—terms like racism, sexism, and homophobia mean a lot to them. They can relate to all of those three terms. However, thinking about class struggle? That’s extremely alien to people. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case in the past. Sometimes I feel that the language of specific oppression has rendered class struggle or Marxism a foreign language that is no longer understandable to people. So, there’s a lot of talk of talk about how Obama’s the first black president, or Hillary Clinton, or gay rights. But not especially the questions of broader economic organization. Even when we’re talking about “How would you separate feminism and Marxism?” it seems to me that in mainstream society that’s what’s done all the time. I wonder how you would see that development? We can say that Marxism must pay attention to these specificities. But in general society, those specificities are what people see as “the struggle” for the Left.
UJ: Certainly most people who work have heard a little bit about Marx even if they might not understand Marxism. Let's not forget that with the bank crisis, all kinds of bourgeois newspapers suddenly came out saying things like “Marx is right.” And people understood it, though they might never have heard or read a word of what Marx wrote.
CM: It is really crucial to understand why Marxism seems like a jargon not understandable to anybody else, although the other struggles were more successful in trying to make their points to a broader society. It is because they have evolved and have exchanged with different parts of society. For example, is anyone familiar with the recent Care Revolution initiative? So, feminists have tried to contribute to social critique and have tried to react to the crisis from the standpoint of reproduction by building networks like these. Some Marxist groups just don't want to know about feminism. So, you can´t do anything about it.
JM: Marxism isn't a magical theory. It is a materialist analysis, an understanding of how capitalism works. Within that it sees the centrality of the fight between the two historic classes: the bourgeoisie and the working class. Who owns the means of production and how we are going to transform society—how would you do that?
I am not quite sure how successful feminism is. It is in the sense that it is working within the system and it is fighting for the reforms, but at the end of the day that system of oppression still exists. And so to me that is what we should be aiming at. Our target is to actually smash capitalism, smash the systems of oppression, and unfold a whole new world. That is my goal. |P
Transcribed by Divya Menon Kohn, Matthew von Moss, and Jan Schroeder.