Marxism, feminism and the fight for liberation

July 10, 2013

From Karl Marx and Frederick Engels onward, the revolutionary socialist tradition has been committed to the struggle against women's oppression and for liberation. But there is a long history of discussion and debate among Marxists about theories of women's oppression and how to organize to struggle against it.

Abbie Bakan and Sharon Smith spoke at the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago at a session on "Marxism and Women's Liberation," where they critically examined approaches to these issues--focusing in particular on the theory and practice developed by organizations in the International Socialist Tendency (IST) led by the Socialist Workers Party-Britain (SWP). The following are edited versions of their talks. Bakan is the head of the Department of Gender Studies at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, and a professor of Political Studies. Smith is the author of several books, including Women and Socialism, soon to be released in an updated edition, and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization and author of the forthcoming book Marxism, Feminism and Women's Liberation.

Abbie Bakan

MARXISM IS, of course, an extremely useful frame for explaining the nature and limits of present-day global capitalism and imperialism. At its best, creative Marxism offers a realistic strategy for envisioning a new world of human freedom.

But there is a strand of Marxism that, in its relationship to feminism, is troubling, and merits close analysis and theorization. I want to suggest a very simple argument--that the theoretical claim that there is grounds for a coherent Marxist approach that is for "women's liberation," while against "feminism," makes no sense. It is unclear and unhelpful.

A strand of Marxism, what could be termed Marxist Anti-Feminism (or MAF), has diminished the contributions of feminism in such a way that distorts, rather than advances, historical materialist analysis. In so doing, MAF hampers our understanding of both women's liberation and Marxism.

Alternatively, as Marxists, we would be better served to start from a position that looks at feminism as a positive--if diverse--contribution to an emancipatory project. From this perspective, we can build a constructive and creative dialogue between and within Marxism (or, more accurately, Marxisms), and feminism (or, again more accurately, feminisms).

Demonstrators confront sexual assault on their campus

At best, a Marxist theoretical starting point that rejects feminism is confusing. The risks of confusion are paralysis and divisiveness, creating an unnecessary chasm among like-minded activists and scholars.

But at worst, a Marxist rejection of feminism can open the door to a much more profound anti-feminism that defines an identifiable backlash. Sexist ideas and practices--including passive or active acceptance of historic discrimination against women--are clearly widespread. And the left is hardly immune from the impact. If feminism is rejected, it cannot be assumed that Marxist women's liberation will fill the vacuum. Commonly, instead--overtly or covertly--the ideas that serve best to reject feminism are gender discrimination, sexism and misogyny.

As Marxists, we would do better, I want to suggest, to embrace feminism and understand its various and contradictory components. Feminism has many definitions. It is reasonable, for the purposes of this discussion, to consider it to mean the theory and practice associated with the struggle for women's equality, rights and emancipation, or liberation. Marxists have unique insights to bring to feminism, of course, as we do to all approaches and ideologies. But we also have much to learn.

Feminism includes, centrally, an inherent cross-class tension, where socialist-feminism has been a key element, as has anti-racist feminism. A critique of bourgeois or liberal feminism, which works within and for capitalism, is part of, and not contrary to, a feminist approach. Feminist theory is a work in progress, and increasingly is referred to as "feminisms" because of the many strands and elements.

In the comments that follow, I focus on the dominant perspective advanced by the leading intellectuals and specific publications associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), UK, which serve as strong advocates for the MAF position. But this is not a unique or exceptional position in the Marxist movement.

Others adopt the view, in various ways. Take, for example, Paul Piccone (1940-2004), the founder and longtime editor of the journal Telos. Piccone is considered one of the most influential Marxist thinkers of the 20th century. He maintained that an effort to advance women's equality was not a way to challenge capitalism. He wrote in 1982 that "far from being the vanguard of human emancipation, the women's liberation movement is the rearguard of capitalist rationalization." Piccone maintained that feminism was not only unnecessary to Marxism, it was actually a part of capitalism, simply expressing the logical extension of the system.

But the SWP's mentorship regarding MAF is "the devil I know." And as the SWP version of MAF also signifies a sophisticated perspective that is not ambiguous in its rejection of feminism, it is reasonable to focus on these works as a case study.

Cliff and German: On Marxism, Feminism and Women's Liberation

The SWP endorsement of MAF is documented in a series of substantive texts. Tony Cliff wrote about this in a book titled Class Struggle and Women's Liberation: 1640 to the Present, published in 1984 by Bookmarks. The Bookmarks imprint is identified in this and other volumes to be "linked to the Socialist Workers Party, one of a group of international socialist organizations."

Lindsey German, now of Counterfire, was for many years a leading member of the SWP and worked as a full-time organizer, writer and editor, actively publishing on the subject of women's liberation. Her books include two editions of Sex, Class and Socialism, published in 1989 and 2004, and Material Girls, published in 2007, all with the Bookmarks imprint.

The close association of Lindsey German and Tony Cliff on this issue is indicated, not least, by Cliff's adoption of German's contribution to the history of debates on feminism in the SWP as part of his own memoirs, in his autobiography, A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary, published in 2000. In a section of this work entitled "Setbacks," Cliff explains how he came to understand the women's movement in the 1980s as one of "retreat." Cliff explains a period of intense debate within the SWP over this time as a battle to resist a rightward pressure from the movements, particularly from the conservative pull of the women's movement.

The method articulated by Cliff is taken as a standard approach. The most conservative wing of the women's movement, or a particularly reactionary feminist theorist or concept, was taken to be universal of the entire movement. It is then challenged from a singular Marxist perspective, so as to reject feminism generally.

The critique of what Cliff dismissively refers to as the "so-called movements" was comprehensive, applied to anti-racist and gay rights movements as well as the women's movement. In Cliff's autobiography, he extends the analysis to a critique of what he terms "Black separatism" and the SWP's short-lived anti-racist publication Flame.

Earlier, in Class Struggle and Women's Liberation, Cliff had this to say about gay oppression: "It is tragic but true that the great majority of homosexuals never overcome the internalized guilt they are condemned to in present-day society." Cliff articulated an understanding of the links between the gay liberation and women's liberation movements, but this was a negative relationship: "The gay liberation movement, child of the women's movement, had an even weaker constitution than its mother."

The overall approach is claimed to be grounded in a linear continuity with the positions of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Comintern experience, and not least the views of Clara Zetkin. Cliff, to his credit, was particularly sharp in his formulations. The argument was presented without nuance. As Cliff put the case in Class Struggle and Women's Liberation: "Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women...For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes...There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some 'socialist-feminists' have in recent years tried to bridge the gap."

The analysis was not only theoretical, but organizational. The SWP, and under its earlier name, the International Socialists (IS), included for a period of time a distinct publication written by and for socialist women, Women's Voice. It was first published in 1972, and in 1977, Women's Voice groups were formed. Cliff opposed these initiatives, but was initially in a minority.

The publication and the Women's Voice groups linked the SWP and the women's movement in Britain. But this was increasingly seen by the SWP leadership to be a negative relationship, with Women's Voice, as German put it, "itself becoming a bridge out of the party."

It should be stressed that this view was specifically associated with the SWP Central Committee theorists and leadership, and was highly contested among sections of the SWP membership over a period of years. These debates can be traced in part in the pages of the party's principal journal, International Socialism, through the 1980s.

But this approach was a core element of the training that many of us in International Socialist Tendency (IST) groups took very seriously. The argument was central to a series of discussions at IST meetings held in London over the 1980s and 1990s. Led by a unified argument from the SWP's Central Committee, of which Cliff was a part, we would often hear about what was termed the "problem of adaptation"; here, feminism was seen as a serious danger.

I kept copious notes, struggling to learn and to remember the central tenets of successful revolutionary organizing. Tony Cliff introduced an IST International Meeting in July 1989 as follows:

The Second and Third Internationals had not only, numbers, but also cadre.
- Quantitative and qualitative losses for us
-Every idea of past, rev socist tradition, were all eliminated, not just distorted, by Stalinism
-eg.: "dictatorship of the proletariat"--very difficult to talk about because of model of Stalinist and st. capist. dictatorship
...rev politics is about polemic
-same ideas re: lack of centrality of working class exist in other forms than Stalinism today: feminism, greenism
...feminism: easiest thing in the world to make concessions on
-academic Marxism: Michael Kidron, Eric Hobsbawm--they are disgusting...

Marxism had to be defended against the threat of feminism, so went the argument, with the same uncompromising fortitude that previous generations of socialists demonstrated in challenging Stalinism.

Limits of Marxist Anti-Feminism

Regardless of the specifics of debates on the left, the conditions that generate women's oppression under capitalism continue.

The sweeping analysis of MAF is, in fact, inaccurate and cannot be sustained consistently. Certainly, the insistence on being for women's liberation while against feminism does allow for strong support for selected feminist initiatives in practice. But the basic tenets of an anti-feminist Marxism have left a trail of unclarity.

The linear reading of socialist history that ostensibly supports MAF is only one interpretation; it is unsupported by other studies, including those of Raya Dunayevskaya, and by more recent work, such as the translations of the congresses of the Communist International by John Riddell.

These inconsistencies are also embedded in the ideological critique of "patriarchy theory." Lindsey German, in her argument against feminism, draws heavily on the work of Johanna Brenner. However, Johanna Brenner supports a unitary Marxist and socialist feminism. The case for a Marxist opposition to feminism is presented by German in large measure by reliance precisely on a Marxist feminist perspective.

The inconsistencies of MAF can also influence the daily life and personal relations of its advocates. For example, Ian Birchall, Cliff's biographer, notes that Cliff "was not naturally conservative on questions of sexual equality. The father of four children with a working wife, he had taken on many responsibilities and could be considered a pioneer 'househusband.'" Cliff is also noted for the charm and persuasiveness of his humor. But here we are informed: "When asked a question he could not answer, [Cliff] would often comment, 'The most beautiful woman in Paris can only give what she has got.'"

Later in the biography, Birchall notes explicitly Cliff's sexism, but appears to excuse this as apparently characteristic of working class politics and culture. "He could sometimes make sexist remarks, reflecting the male-dominated culture of the traditional labor movement. For example, Cliff would explain the need for realistic expectations by saying, 'I'd like to sleep with Gina Lolabrigida, but I have to put up with what I've got.'"

Clearly, there is another way to go.

Extending the Dialogue

There is much to be gained from a serious revisiting of the relationship between Marxism and feminism, and there are encouraging signs that this discussion is emerging in a creative and constructive way, and from a variety of sources.

The current Socialism conference and previous ones, particularly Sharon Smith's important talk last year at Socialism 2012, have explicitly advanced a renewed dialogue with socialist feminism. This is an exciting indication of a renewal of creative political theory and practice for the left. This conversation is part of a much wider dialogue internationally, including the Historical Materialism (HM) conferences.

John Riddell's new translations of the Comintern proceedings (with the fourth congress now published and the third congress in progress) are helping bring to life the rich debates and discussions among socialists of the early part of the 20th century. Not least among these are the important contributions of the Marxist feminist Clara Zetkin.

New translations of Rosa Luxemburg's letters and writings are being produced. Rosa Luxemburg was not only a pivotal Marxist theorist in her lifetime, but a close friend and collaborator with Clara Zetkin and a committed feminist.

The HM book series, with Haymarket Books, has included an important work by Heather Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family. Also in the HM series, a new edition of Lise Vogel's Marxism and the Oppression of Women, originally published in the early 1980s, with a new introduction by Susan Ferguson and David McNally, is forthcoming.

And new ideas are of course linked to new moments of resistance. Young women are actively leading in various anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, from Idle No More, to Occupy, to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid.

And risings against sexism in all its forms--including the SlutWalks that were started in Toronto, the movement against rape in India, and numerous blogs and social media organizing efforts--indicate that the commodification of women's bodies that is embedded in neoliberalism is being actively challenged.

Surely Marxists and feminists need to be on the same side of these struggles, and we need to resist sectarian divisions in both theory and practice. This is an exciting time to open new conversations with a view to learning and listening about how to change the world. It is also a good time to pause and reflect on previous debates, and to shake up and break down old "orthodoxies". I hope all of us will find our way into this conversation to help advance and extend the dialogue.

Sharon Smith

I WOULD like to address the question of whether Marxism and feminism are compatible theories--that is, are Marxists for or against feminism? Posing the question in this way must seem absurd to anyone who has not been trained in the International Socialist Tendency (IST) over the last few decades.

For most people, feminism is a straightforward concept, representing a movement and school of thought in favor of winning political and social equality for women; likewise, those who are anti-feminists represent right-wing reactionaries such as Rush Limbaugh and the Christian Right, who want to undo all the progress made by the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s.

I received the same political training as Abbie Bakan in the International Socialist tradition via the Socialist Workers Party-Britain, which holds the contradictory view that in order for socialists to fight for women's liberation, it is necessary to be strongly critical of feminism as a body of theory---thus counterposing Marxism to feminism as if it is not possible to be committed to both.

Although we in the ISO from our founding in the late 1970s have been committed as activists to fighting at a grassroots level for women's liberation alongside feminists--marching and organizing side by side in the fight for reproductive rights, against rape and violence against women, and for a broad range of other struggles for women's rights--we also regarded ourselves not only as outside the feminist tradition but, in many respects, hostile to it.

But the truth is, just as there are different strands of Marxism, some with fundamental political differences, so too there are different strands of feminism--and some of them are self-consciously left wing (including Black feminism, that of other women of color, socialist-feminism and Marxist-feminism), who are as critical of feminism's political mainstream as we are.

Unless we acknowledge these political distinctions between feminists, it is impossible to engage with feminism in any serious theoretical way. In many respects, over the last few decades in the IST, feminism became a straw figure--even a caricature of a straw figure, made up of the unlikely mish-mash of separatists who simply hate all men and bourgeois feminists who selfishly care only about gaining access to corporate boardrooms--against whom we Marxists steadfastly defended the "interests" of working-class women and men.

ONE OF the most glaring consequences of approaching feminism as such a caricature, which is very obvious in hindsight, is that our own theoretical development suffered--not simply from ignorance of evolving left-wing feminist theory over a period of decades, but also because our own conception of Marxist theory became wooden and mechanical, rather than dialectical and materialist, and crude rather than sophisticated.

Marxism was never intended as a theory that sits and gathers dust, or as a set of phrases to be repeated endlessly regardless of the changes in material conditions, but rather as one that is constantly in the process of development and change according to changes in the material world.

There is no question that the classical Marxism of the 19th and early 20th centuries--of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Zetkin and Trotsky--provides a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the root of women's oppression. Above all, the Marxist method provides the tools for further developing all political theory.

What I'd like to argue here is that: 1) Even a number of the classical Marxists were more nuanced in their approach toward women's oppression than the IST assumes; and 2) Classical Marxists, however far-sighted they often were in both theory and practice, at the same time were also constrained by the limits of their own historical circumstances. It took the women's liberation and gay liberation movements of the 1960s and '70s to broaden the scope of the struggle against women's oppression and advance the theory of women's liberation--and that means, feminist theory.

As to the first point: The IST has explained its approach to "feminism" as modeled on the hostility of classical Marxists to bourgeois feminism, and by extrapolation, feminism in general, in the 19th and early 20th century. This is not quite the case. Marx and Engels were extremely conscious of the oppression of ruling-class women, stating, for example, in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at [by communists] is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

Likewise, Clara Zetkin is one of the classical Marxists who Tony Cliff uses to demonstrate their allegedly blanket hostility to feminism. But the facts are much more nuanced.

Cliff writes of Zetkin: "She was contemptuous of the bourgeois feminists, and repeatedly, in hundreds of speeches and articles, she scorned the label 'feminist.'" In reality, while Zetkin sought rightfully to build a working-class women's movement, she expressed empathy with middle-class and even bourgeois women. As she wrote, family law dictates to all married women regardless of class that their husband "shall be your master." Writing specifically about women of the ruling class, she argues:

The bourgeois woman not only demands her own bread, but she also requests spiritual nourishment and wants to develop her individuality. It is exactly among these strata that we find these tragic, yet psychologically interesting Nora figures, women who are tired of living like dolls in doll houses and who want to share in the development of modern culture. The economic as well as the intellectual and moral endeavors of bourgeois women's rights advocates are completely justified. [Emphasis added.]

As to the middle class, including the intellectual class, she argues that middle-class women:

are not equal to men in the form of possessors of private property as they are in the upper circles. The women of these circles have yet to achieve their economic equality with men and they can only do so by making two demands: The demand for equal professional training and the demand for equal job opportunities for both sexes. This battle of competition pushes the women of these social strata towards demanding their political rights so that they may, by fighting politically, tear down all barriers which have been created against their economic activity.

ZETKIN, LIKE all of the classical Marxists--and actually all Marxists and socialist feminists since that time--emphasizes the plight of working-class women. This is not only because working-class women suffer both greater oppression and also exploitation at the point of production, but also because the root of all women's oppression under capitalism lies in the role played by the working-class nuclear family (and women's role within it) in reproducing labor power for the system.

Perhaps most importantly, the emphasis on working-class women is also due to recognizing the revolutionary agency of the entire working class--which is the only social class with the potential power to transform society in the interests of all those who are exploited and oppressed.

This is not at all the same as completely disregarding the oppression faced by women of the middle and upper classes or, worse still, holding unbridled "contempt" toward middle- or upper-class women seeking to address their own oppression. Yet this approach formed the theoretical basis for the IS tradition's hostility toward modern-day middle-class liberal feminism--and by extension, so-called "cross-class feminism."

This strongly implies that the many demands of the women's liberation movement--including abortion rights, legal equality for women, awareness about rape and violence against women--all those demands that have advanced the rights of all women across classes--do not also benefit working-class women.

There is, in fact, an important distinction, noted by Zetkin above, between ruling-class and middle-class women. By and large, ruling-class women support the capitalist system with all its injustices, whereas middle-class women, like all members of the middle class, tend to get pulled in different directions--some gravitating toward the bourgeoisie and others toward the working class. Generalized and sweeping hostility to all "middle-class" feminism is unwarranted and inaccurate.

In fact, Zetkin, writing in 1896 with tremendous foresight, remarked on the increasing tendency toward the proletarianization of "mental labor" affecting academics and many of the professions--a factor that is far more relevant today than in Zetkin's time.

Secondly, while the classical Marxists laid a strong foundation for analyzing women's oppression a century and more ago, they also believed, along with their contemporaries, both that humans are innately heterosexual and that women are biologically suited for their nurturing and childrearing role in the family. Fundamental challenges to these naturalist assumptions did not materialize until the rise of the women's and gay liberation movements, amid a mass radicalization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These movements were not only far away from the point of production, but also, again, cross-class movements. Yet they propelled the struggles for both women's and LGBTQ liberation far forward.

The women's liberation movement also produced Marxist feminists like Lise Vogel and Martha Gimenez, socialist feminists like Nancy Holstrom, Stephanie Coontz, Johanna Brenner and Abbie Bakan--a few among many--who all have advanced Marxist as well as feminist theory using the Marxist method in various ways.

Lise Vogel's book Marxism and the Oppression of Women is recently experiencing a resurgence in influence in examining the role of women's domestic labor under capitalism, using the Marxist concept of social reproduction in the kind of depth that Marx did not. It has just been reprinted in hardcover by Historical Materialism and will next year be reprinted in paperback by Haymarket Books.

Yet Vogel's book was dismissed out of hand in a review in 1984 in Socialist Worker Review (UK). In that article, the reviewer, Ann Rogers, states, "In trying to analyze the economic roots of women's oppression, [Vogel] ends up merely juggling with Marx's concept of necessary labor and surplus labor, and stretching them out of all shape in order to fit women's domestic labor in."

Comments like that make one wonder if it is the reviewer, and not Vogel, who is having trouble comprehending these sometimes complex Marxist concepts.

AFTER DISMISSING the tremendous contributions of left-wing "feminist" thinkers such as Vogel and insisting on viewing feminism as a whole with hostility--,which by the way, is the height of sectarianism--the IST has, to a remarkable extent, also remained largely ignorant of the enormous contributions of feminism's various other political wings. These wings include a broad variety of opinion and debates that have taken place over the last decades about Marxism among socialist feminists and Marxist feminists; as well as the intersection of race, class and sexuality among Black feminists and other feminists of color.

This approach of the IST was wrong enough at a time when Marxism was marginalized by postmodernism, but it would be catastrophic today, when we need to be seeking out every possibility for collaboration and building alliances with other liberal and left-wing forces, wherever and whenever we possibly can. This kind of collaboration cannot be possible with feminists if we are hostile to feminism out of hand, any more than Marxists would be able to collaborate with anyone who is hostile to Marxism.

That might seem like a fairly obvious point to make, and I can't fully explain why it's taken me (or any of us in the ISO) so long to fully appreciate this fact. But it is absolutely crucial that we break from this sectarian method now that we are facing a level of class inequality not seen since the Gilded Era, against the background of an outbreak of outright misogyny and racist hysteria that so often accompanies economic crisis.

One of the central tenets of Marxism, of course, is that we do not look to theory just for sake of discussion but to inform our practice. For this reason, I would like to end by pointing out that the People's Filibuster that just took place in Austin, Texas--which involved an alliance between Planned Parenthood and other mainstream feminist organizations alongside Equal Marriage forces, radicals from the Occupy movement and the Austin ISO--has given us a glimpse of what is possible in the immediate future in the struggle for women's liberation.

This alliance was not based on the ISO and other radicals in the 3,000-strong crowd of protesters at the Austin capitol uncritically following the lead of Planned Parenthood, whose leaders periodically turned and "shushed" the angry protesters in fear that the unruly crowd might be thrown out of the Senate chambers. What actually happened, as the clock neared the midnight deadline, is that Planned Parenthood leaders joined the radicals and endorsed roaring as loud as everyone could to drown out the proceedings--leading to victory for our side in this battle for abortion rights!

Just a glimpse of what is possible in the struggle for women's liberation that lies ahead of us.

Further Reading

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