[Marxism] Class and race and gender

LouPaulsen at comcast.net LouPaulsen at comcast.net
Wed Jun 23 10:45:43 MDT 2004

In response to my query,

> > What do you really think are the points at issue here?

Ian wrote,

> there are many [liberal feminists] out there outside of our enlightened circles, and they frequently monopolise the debate (especially in the US, it would seem


> At heart, how we shouldn't let liberal feminism, liberal anti-racism, etc,
> take the place of a genuine left opposition.  In the Anglo-Saxon countries
> in particular this process seems alas to be quite far advanced.  We need to
> tackle such ruling-class complicit ideologies head on, not shrink in fear of
> them.

And then added:
To add to what I typed before, I've found on a whole that Marxists are much
less willing to challenge liberal feminists than they are to challenge other
types of liberals - that's one of the primary reasons I bring the subject up
here.  Anything that can attach itself to the label 'feminism' seems to have
a certain fireproof quality, that's why it can become a primary weapon for
the forces of reaction.  I'm truly surprised that you think this is a
trivial issue.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Well, at least now I see what we're arguing about, and I agree that it's not a trivial issue.

To begin with, Ian, let me point out that there is quite a bit of tension here among what you and Phil and the author of the MR article, whose name is not accessible to me here and which I have inexcusably forgotten, are saying.  On the one hand, the MR author contends that the women's movement has largely disappeared; Phil contends that in NZ it has -completely- disappeared.  On the other hand, you then turn around and ascribe to "liberal feminism" great power: it monopolizes the debate, terrifies Marxists, and becomes "a primary weapon" for the forces of reaction!  You then go on and quote as evidence some horrible right-wing article, and urge us as Marxists to "tackle [liberal feminism] head on." 

Louis Proyect then cites "feminist" justifications for the wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and for that matter you might add Iraq, which my sister-in-law supported because she vaguely thought, contrary to all the evidence, that it would be "good for the women".   Am I aware of this?  Of course I am.  In a "left" debate on the Yugoslavia war, standing on the podium, I was asked "What do you say to the 50,000 Bosnian women who were raped by the Serbs whom you defend?"  I think I replied that "imperialist war is not a feminist solution" or something.

Well, here are my responses.

First, I don't know where you get the idea that "liberal feminism monopolizes the debate" in the United States, unless you are reading too many right-wing commentators who ascribe to "feminists" "such as Hillary Rodham Clinton" [*choke*] the same kind of pervasive mystical control of the world that Hitler ascribed to the Jews.  Liberal feminists do not monopolize the debate in the United States.  It would be more correct to say that right-wingers who hate liberal feminists, and falsely accuse them of monopolizing the debate, and condemn any opponent of racism and sexism as the Politically Correct Gestapo, actually monopolize the debate.  But it would be MOST correct to say that the ruling class itself monopolizes the debate, and that in its recent wars it is using women's-rights RHETORIC in self-justification, just as it has used liberal rhetoric of one sort or another to cover its every foreign war since 1898.

Second, and in conjunction with the above, I think you have to carefully distinguish between -actual- feminists, of whatever variation, that is, women who are actually involved in opposing sexist practices*, on the one hand, and right-wingers, Clinton/Bush/Blair administration flacks, media toadies, etc., who are just using whatever words come to hand.  Of course we have to tackle the latter head on, but that isn't taking on "liberal feminism" - it's taking on liars who are using a certain kind of rhetoric without scruple.

Third, this idea that "liberal feminism" is a particularly dangerous opponent on the left, which has us Marxists (US Marxists) cringing and stifling our words, strikes me as completely unrealistic.  For one thing, do you believe that female US Marxists are as terrified as you apparently believe I am?  Do you believe that terrified male Marxists are setting the agenda of our parties on the question of women?  I assure you that the women in my party leadership at any rate are not afraid of liberal feminists or anyone else.

Who is complaining that they can't say what they please because issues of gender and race are "fireproof"?  Anything that needs to be said can be said in a sensitive way without sacrificing meaning or arousing unnecessary antagonisms.  People who forever complain that women, people of oppressed nationalities, etc., are depriving them of free speech remind me of my boss, frankly, who is always going around making off-colour remarks, referring to woman as "the girls", etc., and when people remind him of the company's policies against sexual harassment and not having an oppressive workplace, remarks huffily, "Well, you can't say ANYTHING any more!"  

Fourth, but perhaps most importantly, "liberal feminism" has a dual character, and the chief aspect of it is that it actually does involve fighting the oppression of women, such as in the organization of the large demonstration this spring in D.C. in defense of reproductive rights.  Surely on such an occasion we would be "striking together" with all feminists.  For every instance of liberal feminists favoring imperialist war, stronger police power, racist "anti-crime" legislation, etc., I bet I could find 20 instances of liberal feminists opposing some aspect of the oppression of women which we as Marxists ought to be opposing in a bloc with them.  I think we are making a profound strategic mistake if we forget this, just as we would be if, for example, we decided that the trade unions were ruling-class organizations because of the failings of particular unions or union leaders at one time or another.  (Again, I am assuming that we are talking about actual feminists and feminist organizations, not imperialist politicians like Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Fifthly, in my view the WAY to forestall the possibility of any sort of "liberal" ideology "taking the place of a genuine left opposition" is to go out and BE the genuine left opposition.  In this sense I think that "tackling liberal feminism head on" is indeed very much the wrong way to go.  I believe in "tackling the oppressors of women head on", and, yes, of poor, working-class, and oppressed women foremost; but this does not necessitate arguing that there is no such thing as the oppression of women as women.  We are going to win women over to the socialist struggle not by arguing them out of liberal feminism - and, in fact, not many working-class and oppressed women are actually in "liberal feminist" organizations today - but by showing that we are serious about fighting the ruling class on the battlegrounds that mean most to them.  

There have been important strikes in New York in recent days of child care and home care workers, overwhelmingly women of color.  It is necessary to support that kind of struggle.   There are no "liberal feminists" in the way of our doing that.  

Let's be clear - the thing that hinders us as socialists from creating a "left opposition" and taking the lead in all struggles of this type is NOT the presence on the field of "liberals" who are "monopolizing debate" and confusing potential recruits who would otherwise flock to us.  It is the weakness of the socialist movement, which is a product of the period and of the social conditions we face.  In the absence of particular circumstances forcing other conclusions, I view "tackling liberal feminism head on" as, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, an occasion to convince women that we are opponents of their just struggles, which is to say an occasion to commit political suicide or self-mutilation.

So, yes, we apparently disagree -

Lou Paulsen
member, WWP, Chicago

* In the 1960's the term "feminism" was more likely to be applied to women who believed that the oppression of women by men at all times and places has been pretty much a historical absolute, and that organizing on any other basis was a dead-end or diversion for women; thus, one could not be both a feminist and a Marxist.  By the 1980's, a broader usage was more common (in the US anyway) in which just about any person who fought against women's oppression could be called feminist or (in the case of men) pro-feminist.

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