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Not for herself alone: beyond the limits of Marxist Feminism
By Nat Winn
The liberation of humanity, the aim of our communist goal and vision is impossible without the liberation of women. Millions and ultimately billions of women must emerge as fierce fighters against male supremacy and for a radical egalitarian society. Communists, both women and men, need to investigate where the cracks are in society that may lead to the eruption of a powerful women's movement with its eyes set on emancipation for all women and all humanity.
I recently had a chance to read through a blog exchange between Zora and Ba Jin on the Fire Next Time blog and Eve Mitchell on the Unity & Struggle blog over debates within a trend called Marxist Feminism, including such figures as Selma James and Sylvia Federici. I felt the discussion was suffocated in its scope because of its confinement within in a certain “workerist” conception of how to look at women, sexuality, reproduction, and liberation. I found the discussion confined to questions placed narrowly at the relations of production in the society, reducing the oppression of women to relations of work that is waged or unwaged, while ignoring the question of the superstructure and how the oppression of women has actually broken into the realm of politics.
I thought to myself that women’s liberation has to do with radically transforming the social relations of all spheres of society and that this went far beyond a discussion about waged and unwaged labor and an economic struggle for wages for housework.
Let me try to spell this out a bit.
What is liberation?
Mitchell builds on the criticism that the Wages for Work school made of second wave feminism, rejecting its demands for access to the workplace and out of confinement within the home. The criticism holds that this would not do anything to change the capital/labor relation within capital and would turn women into wage laborers, effectively expanding the labor reserve army and making things harder for workers.
As an alternative Mitchell laid out the role women played in the functioning of society under capitalism through the work done domestically. This was vital work for the life of society and women should demand to be given a wage.
It was argued that this demand for wages for formally unwaged work would upset the ordinary functioning of capitalism and in that sense it was not a reformist demand (and much of the debate that has taken place over these questions has been fixed on this red herring of whether or not this demand is reformist).
Furthermore, the Wages for Housework campaign existed at the height of the women’s liberation movement, which demanded “Equal Wages for Equal Work,” and an opportunity to enter into the workforce. This was a purely economic demand that the Marxist-Feminism tendency (including James) fiercely argued against. According to the Marxist-Feminists, such a strategy would allow capital to absorb the feminist movement by creating additional labour power. The alternative, Wages for Housework, would have caused increased devastation to capital by forcing profit concessions for unwaged domestic labour.
Zora is critical of Mitchell's position but stills sees value in the analysis done particularly by Federici in the analysis of how women are exploited as a vital source for both reproducing the labor force and producing the relations that allow it to go to work in the first place, while in the case of most poor women (who are predominantly non-White on an international level) being forced to do wage labor at the same time.
Zora is critical of the wages for housework strategy arguing that it still confined within capitalist relations. She is much more concerned with the way Federici's analysis applies to poor Black women in the United States and other non-white women in the developing world. She and Ba Jin make some interesting points about the reproductive power of Black women being stifled and controlled through higher incarceration rates and welfare reform. Zora states:
Then she raises the question of strategy based on a Marxist Feminist informed analysis. For example she states:
To the larger question of how this is relevant to black feminism in the U.S, I think it’s that black women and black feminists need to strategize as to how their reproductive labor is being capitalized upon, whether it’s the reproduction of workers or students going back into institutions, or the calculated way that communities are being robbed of their reproductive power, and being funneled into the capitalist system to keep it running.
I would have liked to see her build on the strategic question more.
Both articles deal with the way that women are oppressed, and this is very important. However there is little engagement with the question of how women liberate themselves. There is a lack of real talk about what we are fighting for, and what liberation means.
Ultimately I think that women's liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common.
To do that there needs to be a break away from the traditional role of women, namely traditional roles of giving birth to and raising children and other domestic roles.
Now due to the development of global capitalism since the 1970s, but also due to the fight of women at that time against traditional relations, there has been a break away from tradition.
The Wages for Housework tendency was correct in stating that a break from the home in and of itself would not liberate women or destroy capitalism. However, it was wrong politically to not unite with what was correct. We need to recognize the necessity of such a demand when placed within an overall communist vision of women’s liberation.
Again we are fighting to break out of tradition’s chains and create new egalitarian relations between people. This is impossible without real freedom for women, without the ability to contribute in all the different spheres of a liberating society.
Liberation is achieved through politics
The discussion between Zora, Ba Jin, and Eve fails to demonstrate how Marxist Feminism can be applied to actual struggle. In fact, the ideas of Marxist Feminism have never caught on among large sections of women outside activist circles.
In the meantime, there are real political faultlines that have historically created the basis and continue to create the potential for the emergence of a bursting forth of women’s anger and resistance at conditions of patriarchy under capitalism.
I am talking about the struggle over reproductive freedom and abortion.
This continues to be a powder keg in our society and new communists have not looked enough to this realm as a space for political intervention even while I might say that the self-activity of women that many in the new communist left seek to “push forward” has been readily apparent in this particular struggle.
There are constant threats to abortion rights, both legislative and from physical threat by zealots.
In response to this women have mobilized to keep open abortion clinics.
There was the dreadful law in Virginia, declaring actual war on a women’s body through vaginal inspection that literally mobilized thousands of women.
There is the constant threat to Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court. This has increased the vote for the Democrats.
Why has there not been more communist agitation concentrated around these things? Why are we not engaging real politics, politics where there are people in motion and there is the potential to win them over to a communist vision?
There has been an aversion to this struggle in Marxist Feminism, perhaps because it is not a strictly “working class” struggle. But this to me is a rigid type of Marxism which narrows everything down to the relation between labor and capital. To me this is a mistake. A revolution isn't a narrow economic act, it is a complex struggle involving real world alignments, consciousness, and political struggles. When we ignore real politics we stay isolated.