By: Comrade Val
A communist I respect once said that “the left puts the petty in petty bourgeoisie.” If we’re being honest, what communist hasn’t at some point made an incredibly petty argument that amounts to little else but splitting hairs for the sake of striking an intimidating pose? Far from being rightfully stamped out, the editorial board of Struggle Sessions just shot the petty leftist trend full of adrenaline. Their recent article, Proletarian Feminism or the Marxist Theory of the Emancipation of Women, amounts to little more than a handful of male chauvinists explaining that the innumerable women who have attempted to theorize and reach liberation while calling themselves feminists of some kind are wrong because these specific six men (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Chairman Gonzalo, oh my!) did it better, and they didn’t use that word. Perhaps I am uniquely fed up with men on the left, but I would lose little sleep disregarding such a condescending argument entirely. For the sake of my more patient sisters however, I will do my best to respond to and dismantle these criticisms brick by brick.
For an article that is supposedly about women’s emancipation, the article only names two, Clara Zetkin and Anuradha Ghandy. Rather than quote these women in their very strong criticisms of various strains of feminism, the Struggle Sessions EB contents themselves with quoting Engels, Lenin, and José Carlos Mariátegui in an attempt to prove that feminism is bourgeois. This argument, though reductive and incorrect, could be more convincingly made by quoting Zetkin and Ghandy themselves. After all, the Struggle Sessions EB are technically correct to say that Zetkin was an opponent of the feminism of the time, as was Lenin. The “great teachers” of the communist movement didn’t develop their ideas in a vacuum. Marx and Engels developed scientific socialism after participating in revolutionary upsurges in 1848, the same is true of Lenin, Mao, and the other guys Struggle Sessions seems so eager to uphold, whatever that means. If you’re going to quote men on the issue of women’s emancipation, why not quote the women they organized and fought with who helped them develop those positions? Perhaps the toxic mixture of dogma and male chauvinism that pervades much of the communist left is to blame.
This is not merely an issue of what Struggle Sessions might call “identity opportunism.” We are revolutionaries, we understand that in issues of oppression there are no neutral zones to hide out in, you either take the revolutionary position or the counter revolutionary one. Refusing to quote a single woman in an article about women’s liberation betrays a tremendous lack of confidence in women themselves by the Struggle Sessions editorial board, and subtly takes the side of patriarchy on the issue of the emancipation of women. By solely quoting men, even revolutionary men, and not the women who they struggled with in order to develop their positions, Struggle Sessions has implicitly proclaimed that men are better equipped to theorize women’s liberation than women are. Do not mistake this for bourgeois identity politics or standpoint epistemology, it is baked into Maoism that one who has not done the necessary investigation has no right to speak. No one has done more investigation into the oppression of women than women have. Whether it’s the Combahee River Collective studying black women’s oppression, Silvia Federici digging into the witch hunts, or Anuradha Ghandy studying Adivasi and Dalit women, it is always revolutionary women who bring issues of women’s liberation to the fore. This is not feminist ideology, it is just historic fact, and it is outright insulting and naked male chauvinism to pretend otherwise.
When Clara Zetkin died in 1933, the revolutionary women’s movement, thankfully, didn’t die with her. It grew and developed according to different material conditions in each country. One thing that the Struggle Sessions EB seems to forget, not know, or deliberately obfuscate, is that many strains of feminism developed in this country in direct confrontation with the absolutely disgusting levels of misogyny amongst men in the new left and new communist movement, men who were more than happy to reduce their theoretical input to the “five great teachers.” Women who demanded equal treatment from the men who were supposedly their comrades were frequently threatened with rape, and sexual liberation was turned into a vehicle to make their bodies available for any man in the group (this was common amongst groups like the Weather Underground and other armed struggle groups). While there were many bourgeois and incorrect feminist trends and organizations at this time, they still taught the communist left important lessons through their work.
The Maoist Internationalist Movement, for example, took extensive influence from the radical feminist Redstockings and from Catherine McKinnon, but also didn’t spare these feminists’ incorrect views and praxis from their incredibly sharp criticism. Taking what was useful from the radical feminists and discarding the rest, they insisted that any honest feminist has to look to Maoist revolutionaries for the best concrete examples of women’s liberation. They didn’t throw feminism out, they strategically adapted it. That the MIM went on to adopt an erroneous line (Maoism-Third-Worldism) doesn’t negate the work they did to establish a Maoist line on feminism, especially on gay and trans issues. They referred to their feminist line as revolutionary feminism, not proletarian feminism, but much of the content is the same (there is no patriarchy separate from capitalism-imperialism, the feminist struggle can’t be separated from the struggle against capitalism-imperialism etc.), and to refuse to learn from this work is either male chauvinism, dogmatism, or both.
For the dogmatist, nothing can shake them from the correctness of their line, even quotes from the people they claim to base that line on. For instance, the Struggle Sessions EB quotes Mariátegui to prove that feminism is wholly bourgeois, despite that the quote explicitly says otherwise. He says:
“Feminism has, necessarily, several colors, different tendencies. One can distinguish in feminism three fundamental tendencies, three substantive colors: bourgeois feminism, petty-bourgeois feminism and proletarian feminism. Each of these feminisms formulates their demands in a different way. Bourgeois women sympathize their feminism with the interests of the conservative class. The proletarian woman equalizes in essence [consustancia] her feminism with the faith of the revolutionary multitudes in the future society.”
When faced with this contradiction of their position from Mariátegui, despite their eagerness to use him to prove it, the Struggle Sessions EB splits hairs, saying,
“We point out the meaning of the word ‘tendency’: an inclination toward, and its use here as an inclination toward something by sections of people within feminism itself; as such it is undeniable that there is a tendency within feminism, a tendency represented by feminists who are proletarians which allows them to equalize in essence their feminism with the revolutionary multitudes of a future society.”
You can practically hear the author panic. This attempt to use the wording of a quote to contradict its essence reads like someone dropping their lunch without stopping their conversation. The ingrained male chauvinism of the dogmatists at Struggle Sessions requires this kind of intellectual acrobatics to survive, pin it down long enough to put it under even a little bit of scrutiny and it falls apart.
Perhaps the greatest sin of the Struggle Sessions article is the way they ever so briefly lift up Anuradha Ghandy only to toss her aside. They claim that Ghandy’s Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement is a criticism of feminism, not an articulation of a proletarian feminism. If they had actually read Philosophical Trends, however, they would find this to be wholly inaccurate, as what proletarian feminism is is developed through Ghandy’s critiques of the other feminist trends. Struggle Sessions is correct when they claim that proletarian feminism is not thoroughly articulated. After all, Philosophical Trends was compiled posthumously from Ghandy’s notes and should not be viewed as a completed work. Therefore, what exactly proletarian feminism is is still somewhat up for debate, being hashed out by women in the struggle against capitalism-imperialism across the world at this very moment. The communist movement did not cease to develop after Chairman Gonzalo was captured in 1992, and though it is ultimately premature and incorrect to declare a post-Maoist ideology as Bob Avakian attempted to do, we can still meaningfully add to Maoism in the course of struggle. Otherwise it would not be a science, it would merely be a dead dogma. Early in the article, the Struggle Sessions editorial board states,
“Marxism has already provided the proletarian position on the women’s movement; this much is undeniable. This position has not been construed by the most advanced Marxist theorists, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao or Chairman Gonzalo as ‘proletarian feminism.’ “
These comrades seem baffled that a contribution to Marxism might come from someone other than these six men, that if these men never referred to something as “proletarian feminism”, then there can be no proletarian feminism. Never mind that Marx never called himself a Marxist, Lenin never called himself a Leninist, or that Mao never called himself a Maoist. These terms and ideologies were developed through class struggle and revolution, often after the named theorist was dead. Struggle Sessions can accept that Gonzalo was foundational to advancing Marxism-Leninism into Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, but they seem to hit a block when confronted by theoretical developments not introduced by their favorite chairman. We as women don’t have to reject the importance of these revolutionary figures to be exhausted by the constant demands that we uphold them. One does not have to reject Mao or Maoism to accept that women’s oppression, struggle, and liberation is still under theorized, under addressed, and underestimated.
The people’s wars led by Maoists across the globe certainly give us plenty of inspiring examples to work with on the issue of women’s liberation. That’s people’s wars, plural. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism may have begun with the Communist Party of Peru, but it certainly doesn’t end with them. Proletarian feminism has developed and is developing as a result of all the people’s wars of the last 40 years, Peruvian, Indian, Filipino, Nepalese, Turkish etc. To confine Maoist science to six men and six men alone is to reduce it to a parody of itself. This dogmatism is to Maoism what a mounted deer head is to deer. The head only briefly resembles a deer and was created by gutting the deer of everything that made it a living, breathing animal. Maoism has to live and breathe and grow, not rot away in a Peruvian prison cell.
The future of the communist movement lays with proletarian women, that is for sure. There was never a time when an all male leadership was acceptable, and it is especially unacceptable now. The revolutionary leadership of women, particularly women of the oppressed nations, in the communist movement, the essence of what proletarian feminism promotes, is an absolute necessity for the victory of communism. Not because of some essential aspect of these identities, but because of the class positions inhabited and the deep oppression faced by those women. If we must quote Lenin in a conversation about women, we must remember that he said the only way combat opportunism was to go to the lowest and deepest masses, and you will always find women there, progressive women who have positive feelings towards the broad feminist movement and reactionary women who don’t. To use the language of feminism in this case is to use the language of the masses, a vital task should we ever want to actually organize a revolution and not just post about it.
For every bourgeois white feminist there are revolutionary queer feminists, black feminists and womanists, indigenous feminists, and feminisms representative of all oppressed women. Rejecting these movements wholesale ensures isolation from the masses of women in this country, a position Struggle Sessions already occupies quite comfortably. Only by struggling towards a proletarian feminism that can unite women of all the oppressed classes under women’s revolutionary leadership can we begin the trek towards revolution.
Proletarian feminism is the weapon.