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Not for herself alone: beyond the limits of Marxist Feminism

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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).

Mitchell explains:

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.  

Nat Winn has not set their biography yet

Achievements

  • In revolutionary China during the civil war between the Nationalists and the communists, radical Women's Associations were created as a way for women to, in an organized manner, break the grip of paternalism/patriarchy over women in village society. Women heroically stood up to their (male) oppressors, sometimes in the home and other times in union with other women during the meetings.

    Women were also given the right to own housing and their own plots of land. Sections of housing, taking from the landowners and rich peasantry, were divided up for women (and their families) to own while land was set aside for planting. A great cornucopia of goods-everyday items and valuables-were distributed to villagers on as equal a basis as humanly possible.

    Such was the women's struggle in 1940's China for liberation.

    I agree that communists here, in the U.S., should seek to build support around what amount to very real and very pressing issues. Abortion rights movements may not necessarily be akin to a 'workers' struggle,' but it's something tangible and real that will inevitably affect workers in the long run.

    It is wholly necessary for communists to work amongst the people-especially women-to serve them and to guide them down the arduous path of liberation.

    My two cents. Great essay, Nat.

  • Where's a good place to begin learning about Marxist Feminism? I mean like what book would be a good intro to that subject. I don't know anything about it but I'm really, really curious after reading this.

  • Andy-
    In terms of the particular version of Marxist-Feminism (rooted in some ways in autonomist marxism and the Johnson Forrest Tendency) that I think Nat is referring to I can suggest a couple of works:
    Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class[i]
    Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero
    Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
    Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subersion of Community
    Also of note is the journal Lies: A Journal of Materialist Feminism which seems influenced by both this tradition of Marxist-Feminism as well as insurrectionism and communization politics.

  • Thank's Geoff, that's a big help to me.

  • Want to thank Nat W. for putting women’s oppression and liberation squarely on the table and for some revealing insights into a few different forms of so-called feminism. I’m not just saying that as a woman, but as someone who continues to believe in the liberation of humankind, a future with substantial ruptures and a vision of the revolutionizing of society as a whole.

    It becomes difficult at best to discuss many of the high ideals that communism embraces if the emancipation—in every sphere--of over half the population on this planet is pretty much ignored. In referring to some “Marxist feminist” analysis, Nat reminded people: “There is a lack of real talk about what we are fighting for, and what liberation means.”

    Furthermore, “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.”

    And perhaps more significant is the fact that while every struggle seems to have its bursts and lulls, fact is, in recent years, especially under new(er) draconian attacks, thousands of women, ranging across class and national (gay and straight) lines, have mounted the political stage in big and militant ways with real and significant impact. The war on women (which has existed since time and memoriam) is real, and the war against the war on women is just as real.

    Concretely, Nat brought up some very pivotal points, e.g. abortion and reproductive rights—la lucha continua, but the lines of demarcation are much clearer, and if any of us are paying attention to a wider, widening and diverse spectrum of public opinion, we can see that more and more forces – even among traditionally religious folk—have aligned themselves with women’s basic rights. (The changing attitudes, of course, didn’t fall from the sky.)

    What I don’t understand (seriously) is – why a so-called Marxist feminist would categorize or separate, or put some emphasis on a woman receiving wages for her unpaid labor at home, and not put more emphasis on a woman’s right to choose, access to contraception (healthcare and safe/legalized abortion), change in social relations, etc. including in the home. Don’t these things very much dovetail? What comes first—the chicken or the egg? In this case I’d have to say, “the egg.”

    (Think I’m tripping too much on some chicken/fowl metaphors.)

    As far as abortion goes—I’m from the generation pre-Roe vs. Wade. And I can tell you that the repercussions from some clandestine, back-alley, unsafe abortions are devastating and deadly. IMO, the forces that would have women thrown back in time are the ones committing potential murder and crimes against humanity. (Is “pro-life” not one of the grossest misnomers ever?)

    I want to mention something about rape and violence against women. Recently there was a post: “More U.S. Rape on Okinawa—Enough!” with some revelatory comments (below) in terms of an underlying ideological mindset…something that all of us, including women, have to break with.

    Also, rape pretty much got swept aside in lieu of talking about the U.S.’s position and role, in holy shit, post-WWII Japan. But…besides ignoring volumes written on “rape as a weapon of war,” I don’t see much difference between some commentators not believing that a girl in Okinawa was actually raped by U.S. soldiers, insinuating that many victims of sexual assault are “not credible”, etc., and those who blame rape victims (or victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, ad nauseum) as the perpetrators of the crime. It gets down to how you view women in the first place, doesn’t it? even if you’re doing your fair share of housework.

    Think Nat is right—if the lunatics on the right and center have their way, they will annihilate all providers of abortion—state by state, or make it such a rigmarole to obtain a safe abortion, including in the case of rape or incest, that the powder keg will undoubtedly explode sooner rather than later. (We’re already seeing signs of the backlash.)

    Here are the comments that had me either ready to explode or implode:

    “Yup, this woman was never raped, she made it up after being pressured by the police. She was still molested but it's funny how up in arms people get over an alleged rape over there in Okinawa but then when it turns out to be something else everyone suddenly gets quite [sic].”

    “The amount of crimes committed by American Servicemen is significantly smaller then the amount caused by Okinawa's own population,

    “It’s important to remain unbiased in discussions of this nature and understand that American forces in Japan and Okinawa provide essential military defense against historically the soviet union and presently the at times aggressive regimes of China and North Korea. To ignore these power houses and their threat to Japan, Taiwan and other Asian allied nations would be foolhardy.”

    One last thing. Nat said, “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.”

    I – maybe wrongly so – don’t tend to look at these (important) political struggles as “a space for political intervention.” But even if that was a valid premise, seems fairly basic that one has to unite, be involved and work with all those who are engaged in “self” or group activity to thwart women’s oppression on a whole lot of levels, etc. right? Shouldn’t be an academic question, especially since women’s oppression (and potential liberation) permeates just about every single aspect of society.

  • I'd like to join Miles Ahead and Nat in identifying the question of abortion and control over reproduction as a profoundly decisive and defining struggle. That is not just true in comparison to "wages for housework," but also the New Communist Movement's centering on objectification even over the question of commodification, which is probably a discussion for another time. But, I mention this because I'm struck by how distant so much of the analysis that communists have produced has been from the lives and struggles of the women of this society. As a comrade in Greece once said to me, "you've got to love the people. if you don't love the people, it is hopeless."

    While the right in the United States has launched a new all out assault on abortion, they've also, much to the celebration of the Democratic Party, launched an all out assault on birth control. For the Democratic Party, they are over joyed that this has relieved them from waging the battle to defend abortion. Instead, they cede that ground and allow the conversation to be shifted to one about contraception. My suspicion is that this underlines the great potential for a radical independent politics to wage the struggle for the defense of abortion outside the apparatuses of the Democratic Party, who really have consciously de-mobilized that struggle.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by eric ribellarsi
  • I do want to say that I think rape and violence against women is an important issue, too. I've been seeing a lot of discussion around it by young women on fb so its on people's minds. Particularly what is being called 'rape culture'.

  • Eric,

    I am not disputing what you said about the Dems. (mainly the politicians) hiding behind the outright reactionary assault by the overt reactionaries – which includes the majority of the Republicans (and their party platform)—in order to avert and not have to confront the “issue” of abortion. But I think there are other angles to explore and unveil; one of those being, why would liberal-sounding Dems. even be concerned in the first place.

    I don’t think, for instance, that Obama came out in favor of same sex marriage because he felt some moral obligation to do so, or that Joe Biden, in a seemingly spontaneous moment, tipped the scales. They, along with their fellow travelers, were forced to take a “stand”, not so much in opposition to the reactionary pole, but because of the people’s struggle (sparked initially by a minority, and in this case the LGBT community), that forced their hand.

    I think this is an important point, both historically and currently, to keep in mind, even while trying to better understand, expose and fight the people’s shared enemies. The old adage—nothing is won (even if temporarily) without struggle.

    Although abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973, over the course of those 40 years, the forces to reverse that decision have been relentless—even committing murder and assault throughout the years, upon not just Dr. Geo. Tiller, but scads of abortion, contraception, women’s healthcare providers (e.g. Planned Parenthood) and in doing so, have helped create an atmosphere of out and out war and blatant intimidation. Thus, it is not hard to fathom why say Patrick Leahy (D-VT) would appear as a champion for women’s rights, when compared to others of his bourgeois political ilk.

    Over the years, have gains been won and battles been fought with victorious outcomes? Yeah…no denying that. But obviously the people need to stay vigilant, on the road to a lot more.

    But on the people’s side of things—I think a phenomenon that we need to deal with is that with new generations, some of these “questions” appear settled. E.g., the right to a safe/legal abortion, access to contraception, even equal pay for equal work. Clearly they are not settled and never will be—not just with the more obvious--under capitalism/imperialism—but as long as social relations and the ideological sphere are dominated or bolstered by an underlying patriarchy. (The Dems. were all excited that the most women ever were elected to Congress in 2012; their sop to the advancement (or emancipation) of women in general. No matter if Imelda Marcos was a write-in in some state.)

    And I also see an interconnection between the people’s struggles—not something in isolation to each other. Por ejemplo- the Violence Against Women’s Act , whose renewal was supposedly a given. The latest hoopla in Congress was over the inclusion of Native American women’s rights, undocumented immigrants and LGBT…”no, no, no…that’s going too far.” Really?!” This recent foray was ultimately fought on the battlefield of public opinion, and in no small part due to tireless efforts of organizations and communities on the side of progress.

    So, while the majority of those people are not revolutionary communists, IMO they are our allies even if we have disagreements, both strategically and tactically, and they should be treated with some respect in our mutual struggle. Nat said, “When we ignore real politics we stay isolated.” Maybe I misinterpreted what he said, but felt he was addressing that final sentence to all of us.

    Along with that—I truly believe we have to get better at choosing our battles. Certainly we have enuf to choose from, but what becomes primary, secondary, or tertiary in the scheme of things? And not only in the scheme of things, but what is most relevant to the people, even if that relevance isn’t immediately apparent? It should be imperative to keep our collective fingers on the pulse of what’s important and happening, what’s in motion…both more readily on the surface as well as some subterraneous rumblings. BTW, IMO, this m.o. is not ambulance chasing…au contriare.

    A N.B. to Rosa: What is heartening is--thousands upon thousands of women (and men), various political and rights organizations opposed to violence against women, rape culture, etc. have become evident, and are becoming an even stronger force, all across the globe.

  • Thanks so much for writing this, Nat.

    I think that this is a good initial, if partial critique, of Marxist feminism. I think that it should (of course) be developed as well as we should elaborate on what is a political and communist way to approach women's oppression/liberation which isn't mainly characterized by rightist-economism. I appreciate the discourse over potential fault lines - and the bringing up of birth control and abortion in this. But I always found that the limitation of the women's liberation struggle to this (at least in practical terms) by other groups was always wanting. Though let me stress that I think that is an important point of struggle.

    There have been important protest movements and even uprisings around women's liberation in the last several years (slutwalk, free pussy riots, etc) which are against the rape, abuse, subordination, and domination against women. This shows something about the way that women and other non-male people are collectively experiencing and recognizing their oppression and feel compelled to take action in the recent period which we should also sum up (class forces, direction, political pulls, etc).

    Rape, sexual assault, and the culture which treats women as things to be tricked and used is an important component for judging how to create a political movement for women's liberation. One could also envision creative forms of organization of women to militantly oppose and stop such a rape culture which could be a component having a cultural and organizational dual power when that becomes possible. I think that in the future - in building such a political movement for women's liberation concretely, there is a possible link between the opposition against rape/domination, commodification, and fighting for the right to be full and equal members of society in the realm of politics, civil society, and work.

  • Liam:

    I have some questions about your comment, and on the surface, probably some disagreements. But only have time to ask you about one small part. You wrote:

    “I appreciate the discourse over potential fault lines - and the bringing up of birth control and abortion in this. But I always found that the limitation of the women's liberation struggle to this (at least in practical terms) by other groups was always wanting. Though let me stress that I think that is an important point of struggle.”

    What do you mean by “wanting”? or “limitation”? Wanting and limited to whom?

    While I assume many of us don’t want to get stuck in the past, I would have to say that in a much broader sense, movements, social and political consciousness are pretty much predicated on former developments. E.g., Take Back the Night had more of a sweeping impact than slutwalk, free pussy riots, etc.

    But IMO, these days, what has been a very important development is say, in India, where thousands of people were in the streets at first demonstrating against a “heinous rape” (kind of an oxymoron?) of a teenage girl, that segued into demonstrations against the embedded patriarchy in Indian society. And both phases were picked up and popularized by different women’s organizations throughout the U.S.—why? Because one leap in the so-called women’s movement is that women are identifying their struggle against oppression and for liberation internationally, not just in “their own” backyard.

  • Miles Ahead and Liam,

    I think the new protest movements that have emerged against rape culture are very important and exciting as well and I should have included that in what I wrote.

    My main point is basically that our analysis and political projects should emerge out of the actual struggles of women fused with our communist goals and objectives. I'm don't see that a wages for housework politics does either.

    I also like Miles Ahead's point that many young women are now seeing the struggle against patriarchy from and internationalist standpoint.

    Finally Liam says,

    One could also envision creative forms of organization of women to militantly oppose and stop such a rape culture which could be a component having a cultural and organizational dual power when that becomes possible.


    This seems to already be emerging in Egypt and the squares movement in Southern Europe as Women are forming organizations (like you say) to defend themselves against rape and sexual assault in the midst of real revolutionary surges. Women here are drawing inspiration from this both politically and organizationally judging from things I have read and also from some of the organizing I've been involved in. This is wonderful and needs to be promoted and expanded. It also reinforces the points that are being made both by Miles Ahead and Liam regarding internationalism and new forms of struggle emerging.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Nat Winn
  • First, I see a major misunderstanding in many of the comments above, including Nat's:

    I think we should make clear: Wages for Housework was an historical project, founded by Selma James and supported later by Federici in two-three articles she published in the 70s. It is NOT a current argument of ANY Marxist-feminist that I know of. The article above does not make this very clear, and many of the comments above seem to directly confuse this, pretending that Federici or others actually propose wages for housework as a radical project for today. In fact, Federici, at least, has said the exact opposite of that in later articles after the rise of the service economy--there has been a critique/debriefing within the Marxist-Feminist current of the "wages for housework" movement, and I am, again, not aware of anyone who is advocating that as the locus or feminism today.

    Secondly, I think that the claims of "economism" are just dead wrong, and are based largely in a pretty obvious unfamiliarity with the material at hand -- particularly Federici's, but also Selma James' (though they do not agree). What's being stated in Marxist Feminism is, first and foremost just an obvious fact: people exist in capitalism and capitalism has traditionally created this particular gender distinction ("woman") to accomodate the need for uncounted labor that is reproductive of labor itself. That's a basic fact of the terrain we are operating on, and it is NOT a tactical suggestion that we only think of women in their relation to labor-power or that we only organize at the point-of-reproduction.

    To emphasize this: What Nat suggests (about abortion/reproductive rights and the war on women being a significant faultline) is not at all against Marxist-Feminism -- it, in fact, aligns directly with it. The war on women is very much about capitalism--not only at the cultural/ideological level of moralist conservatism, but also at the structural level of reproductive labor being in demand and in shorter supply in the US domestically, with most labor influx coming from recent immigrants rather than domestic "reproduction of labor power." The demand that abortion be outlawed and "family values" upheld is directly related to the protectionist logic of the new far-right, which acknowledges that one of the "weaknesses" of the US is that less "American" (their implicit assumption is: white) families remain intact and they generally produce fewer children--an ideology very complementary with the economic logic of anti-immigrant racist protectionism. Much of Federici's later work, for instance, directly confronts this interrelation between immigration, globalization and ecological destruction--all as instances of enclosing a different reproductive "commons." Not to mention the fact that she herself has brought up precisely these issues as important faultlines for contemporary feminists to leverage.

    If the real problem is that these Marxist-Feminists aren't giving contemporary suggestions for organizing--well then that may be fair, but I think it's silly to demand that theory in every instance give a direct suggestion for organizing (I'd also point out that this same critique would work for someone like Karl Marx, who wrote far more "pure theory" that gave no organizational suggestions than actual tactical advice--and when he did write tactical advice this was often wrong, with the demands at the end of the Communist Manifesto, for instance, basically all being met by capitalism--in short I'd contest the idea that the theoretician is the best person to tell us how to put their theory into practice). But that critique would also ignore the fact that many organizers are influenced by this theory (including Fire Next Time, of course, and here in Seattle both some in Red Spark and Black Orchid). In fact, many of the projects that Liam cites above are organized here by people who are also engaged in the materialist-feminist circles on the West Coast.

    So is the critique really that these organizers are NOT engaged in leveraging the faultlines made apparent by the war on women? If that is the critique then let's have an earnest discussion of that, shedding the very unhealthy, very loaded critiques of "rightism" and "economism." How, for instance, might one engage in a communist fashion with the (today largely reformist) "reproductive rights" movement when there is so much danger of reducing everything to a petty activism? And how can we build robust communist networks and organizations that themselves operate in an anti-patriarchal fashion (internally and externally)?--the importance of this ought to be glaringly illustrated by the SWP right now. And how can we advance the organizing against rape culture beyond simple awareness raising, making it more about challenging the material basis of rape culture in the first place? There are a million tactical, practical questions to be laid out and worked through--but none of these seem to me to be at all related to whether or not one points out the role of gender in capitalist production or not--and should we seriously argue that we shouldn't acknowledge this role, as the Marxist-Feminists do?

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by NPC
  • I found NPC’s meaty comment fascinating, and it gives one pause and lots to think about. However…

    While I confess I have never read Selma James or Federici, and am sorry to be a nit-picker, there is one paragraph that I find confusing; hopefully NPC can clarify it further. (Another confession—maybe all these “confessions” due to the Nazi Pope trying to fade into the woodwork--I had a similar reaction with what Liam wrote when he said, “wanting” and/or “limitation.” I find some of the approach to unraveling these questions posed in a somewhat academic way.)

    NPC said, in part:

    “So is the critique really that these organizers are NOT engaged in leveraging the faultlines made apparent by the war on women? If that is the critique then let's have an earnest discussion of that, shedding the very unhealthy, very loaded critiques of "rightism" and "economism." How, for instance, might one engage in a communist fashion with the (today largely reformist) "reproductive rights" movement when there is so much danger of reducing everything to a petty activism?”


    Why is the “movement for reproductive rights” today (or any day for that matter) viewed as “largely reformist”? Why is something as basic as reproductive rights reduced to “so much danger of reducing everything to “petty activism” and what’s petty about this pivotal struggle? Is it petty to fight for women’s access to contraception, safe abortion, or healthcare (especially for those most affected, like the poor, oppressed nationalities, or working women) even in the face of death threats, murder, bombings, or assault? Are we simply talking about so-called Marxist feminists, or talking about something a lot bigger and fundamental?

    What I think we can do in both an immediate and continuing sense, and as part of our activism, is to bring forth and emphasize the underlying contradictions that affect women in society on lots of layers.

    I agree with NPC that basically wages for housework was more of an historical project, so to speak. I’d have to say, more than “a project” it was a focus among certain forces at a certain time and place. And while today it sounds somewhat passé, during that time it sounded pretty radical. But with the advent of (legalized) birth control, the “sexual revolution,” and legalized abortion—the beginnings of a huge influx of women into the workforce became something tangible and real. Albeit, what still exists today are enormous discriminatory hurdles and stratification practices—women on the lower rungs of the capitalist ladder (e.g., “domestic” and agricultural workers, sweatshops) suffering the most, including their access to education, childcare, healthcare, etc. Interesting statistic—globally the highest percentage of employed women, outweighing men, is in the so-called “service” industry--which is a pretty broad category.

    So, during WWII, in the U.S. we went from Rosie the Riveter, to the ‘50s with some “ideal” (and thought to be normal) back to the home-fires woman shining her new Frigidaire, to the 60s…and so forth. All the while, most women returning home after work to further polish the fridge, et al. “A woman’s work is never done….” No fucking kidding.

    There are so many tugs and pulls aimed against women—for one thing, hampering their ability to reach their full potential and to further contribute to society as a whole. And the tugs, pulls, and outlook is so closely woven into the fabric of society—sometimes they become a given. An example, I was always a working mother and the bread winner—over half my paycheck went to childcare, and after my kids were in public school for part of the day, still paid about 1/3 of my pay toward after school care. Along with kazillions of other working women (who didn’t have some important help from some unpaid relative, most commonly, a grandmother)—if one of my kids got sick I was a wreck. Holy shit…should I leave work to care for my child (even though you know that should be your priority), or what? Are you really that sick? Do I risk not getting paid, or even termination…then what the hell are we gonna do? Is some fight for decent and subsidized childcare just another band-aid, and reformist? Well, strategically it probably is…but it’s a part of a larger problem that affects millions of women so I’m not convinced it should simply be ignored.

    Certainly there are gradations within overall oppression. And it seems important to hone in on more important or catalytic aspects. At the same time, I think it is important to try and understand how the many aspects of oppression manifest themselves in order to fundamentally revolutionize society…not simply dismiss something as reformist.

  • Yes, I think it's fair to say that right now the struggle over "reproductive rights" is largely reformist, in the sense that it's conceived in the liberal terminology of "rights" over one's own individual body and aimed largely at resisting cuts to social welfare programs and attacks on the legal basis of these rights, such as Roe V. Wade. It thus takes the form of most of your activism, whether it be anti-war, anti-cuts, anti-environmental destruction, etc. etc. -- this brings with it the risk of degenerating into a bland populism precisely in order to win your demand (that the cuts be stopped).

    I'm certainly NOT saying that we ought not engage in these movements. But the problem is engaging with them in a way that pushes them OUTSIDE of activism. I think that Federici and other Materialist/Marxist-Feminists emphasize certain aspects (such as the "commoning" of reproduction, the collective aspects of gender repression) which are precisely those aspects lacking in the popular, largely reformist struggle that exists right now under the banner of "progressivism."

    The point is that we're not trying to say Federici et. al. have written the best outreach materials to just hand out to people--no, they're writing marxist analysis, using specialized language, etc. etc. But the question is whether or not that analysis is valid for what it is (and I think it largely is, even if some of the tactical conclusions are wrong) -- and then how best to apply it in struggles exactly like this.

  • NPC,

    Thanks for your comment.

    What I basically want to raise a question is about is the politics that have come out of the wages for housework trend within Marxist Feminism both historically and today. I accept your criticism that my comment leads to a misunderstanding.

    I think that in terms of its analysis this trend including up until today stays rooted in the economic base of society and this may be the reason that its politics have not dug roots outside of radical and academic circles. Maybe you can correct me if there is something I am missing.

    The development of Federici's work in theory and practice is the linking up of Marxist feminism with the movement of the commons and prefigurative politics.

    There is very interesting analysis of the responses of women in developing countries to dispossession and displacement (a new form of the enclosures). There is fascinating of the collective forms such women create in order to survive themselves and also for the survival of their communities.

    Like you say there is the tying of the oppression of women to immigration, globalization, and ecological destruction.

    This analysis is all encapsulated within the dynamics of capitalist production and the role of gender within this dynamic. You ask if we should acknowledge this. Of course we should.

    My question, or I suppose you can say criticism, is that this analysis doesn't breakout of the realm of production and neither does it politics.

    Thus there is a call to begin transforming the dynamics of reproduction along the lines of a radical commoning. We should transform the the nature of domestic work (through collectivizing it) right now. And we should begin transforming the reproductive proccess through a project of the commons in other spheres of society as well.

    And revolutionary minded people have been influenced by this and began various commoning projects. But none of these commoning projects have taken root among broader sections of society.

    Even the examples of commoning she researches in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are not linked to broad based movements with the stated aim of getting rid of capitalism.

    My hunch is that part of the reason for this, is that it is impossible to really get such projects off the ground in a mass way without a living revolutionary movement involving significant sections of society (people in their millions). Thus Federici cites things like urban gardening as examples of commoning in the West as things with real political potential.

    In the meantime, the war on women has taken specific forms here in terms of attacks on the right to abortion and birth control , and has brought women into motion in many different ways. Federici, in what I have read speaks to these attacks as a site of political struggle, but usually (in what I have read) only in passing.

    In other words really linking up to a struggle that millions of women are thinking about, many of whom being already engaged in actual struggle can lay the basis to develop dual forms of power or commoning projects.

    I also have a hunch that some of the problem with the politics that Marxist feminists have produced has to do with an underestimation of the state.

    Thus there is the initiation of prefigurative forms of organizing social and production relations but these projects have not dealt in theoretical terms with how to struggle against state hegemony or repression.

    Prefigurative politics can become viable, I think, only if it is rooted in a real social base and if it can simultaneously discover ways to fight suppression.

    Thus the political projects that Marxist feminism have been drawn to have not taken root because they don't really acknowledge the struggle within society's superstructure (mass politics and state repression). Up to now they have argued for developing new reproductive relations at the point of capitalist production and reproduction, but they have done so without engaging ordinary (non-radical) people and without a broader strategy for linking this up to a struggle for power.

  • In reply to: Nat Winn

    Yes, I think what you get to toward the bottom is much more where I would take issue with Federici as well. She comes not just out of the materialist/marxist-feminist tradition but also explicitly out of an autonomist tradition, yet has no critique (that I have seen) of what went wrong with the Italian autonomia or how a new semi-prefigurative alternative might be different. This is not to say that prefiguration/autonomy are always bad -- they are often excellent, but only when tied pretty strongly to something broader. As islands they are always swallowed by the sea.

    At the same time, of those who I know that are influenced strongly by Federici, I would characterize few as autonomists of that stripe, and this hardly seems to be the elements of her work that are emphasized. So I'd again distinguish between what the theorist is saying and what organizers may or may not be doing with that theory--or what could be done potentially.

  • NPC--Yes, I think it's fair to say that right now the struggle over "reproductive rights" is largely reformist, in the sense that it's conceived in the liberal terminology of "rights" over one's own individual body and aimed largely at resisting cuts to social welfare programs and attacks on the legal basis of these rights, such as Roe V. Wade. It thus takes the form of most of your activism, whether it be anti-war, anti-cuts, anti-environmental destruction, etc. etc. -- this brings with it the risk of degenerating into a bland populism precisely in order to win your demand (that the cuts be stopped).

    I'm certainly NOT saying that we ought not engage in these movements. But the problem is engaging with them in a way that pushes them OUTSIDE of activism.


    As hard as I try, I do not understand what you are saying. Am I taking what you said out of context? “Rights” – liberal terminology over one’s own individual body?? “Reproductive rights” largely reformist? Etc.

    What kind of society do you envision for the future? Do you think that if the people are successful in making socialist revolution, that the contradictions (both among the people and within the revolutionary communist forces) around women’s oppression, exploitation, liberation and “rights”will automatically be settled? What is “communing of reproduction”? “Resisting cuts to social welfare programs and attacks on the legal basis of these rights,” –is that what this boils down to? etc.?

    Let me just offer up a couple of recorded statistics that might help explain how the continuing battle for reproductive rights, and against women’s oppression, is not simply limited to some legal battle—nor simply limited to the good ol’ U.S. of A:

    Unsafe abortions result in approximately 70,000 maternal deaths per year globally; there are approximately 5 million hospital admissions per year globally; there has been a decline in abortions since women have had access to and education about contraception; unsafe abortion has been a major cause of injury or death of women worldwide and it is estimated that 20 million unsafe abortions are performed, with 97% of those being in underdeveloped countries.

    (Side note: in 1970 the IUD Dalkon Shield, came on the market and was made available to women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico with an aggressive marketing campaign.. Except the Dalkon Shield had not been properly tested, and its use by close to 3 million women resulted in severe injury, permanent infertility, etc. – and close to 500,000 class action suits were filed—most awarded punitive damages. However, thousands of women never recovered from physical devastation—e.g. sepsis, uterine injury, miscarriage and even death. But no matter for the manufacturer…’cause guess what? While they took the Dalkon Shield off the U.S./Puerto Rican market, they just bundled and boxed the surplus and shipped them to places like India—where “life is cheap.”.)

    “Control over OUR own bodies,” was and remains a cornerstone demand of women (not just some individual woman), the women’s movement, and has come to mean in many parts of the world, an opposition to patriarchal domination. In referring to the first birth control clinic (contraception given under medical supervision) opened in Britain in the 1920s by M. Stopes, it was said and repeated that the clinic, “‘opened up a new period in the history of the movement aimed at the emancipation of women from their slavery to the reproductive function’.”

    Any gains righteously won remain under gruesome attack. Sure there are attempts to reverse these gains via the courts—but since that hasn’t been all that successful for those whose purpose is to further and continue the enslavement of women, other measures have been taken-- e.g. in the U.S. state by state, (il)legally and otherwise-- including invasive and unnecessary procedures, the closure of 100s of women’s healthcare clinics by intimidation and threats, bullshit loopholes, etc.

    Also, all of this is happening under some additional provisos like the “Personhood Amendment”-- that pregnancy, as a result of rape or incest, doesn’t warrant an abortion, and if one is performed on a rape or incest victim, the victim could be charged with a felony and imprisoned. Hey, “it’s god’s will…” right?

    And if the forces of reaction have their way, women can look forward to simply regressing to “pressing an aspirin between their knees” to “prevent” pregnancy.

    In opposition and overwhelmingly, the majority of women are developing a new and revitalized sense of (collective) empowerment—IMO, an extremely important and powerful outlook for all those who are oppressed. And I am continually struck and heartened by how many of the women’s groups’ and organizations’ are involved, supportive and in unity on an international scale.

    Margaret Atwood published “A Handmaid’s Tale” in 1985 and it is still relevant today. “Our Bodies Ourselves” is in its 9th edition since the 1970s, revised to include and incorporate LGBT and sexual orientation. Surely things have developed and progressed since Betty Frieden wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” or Simone de Beauvoir’s tome “The Second Sex.” But the point is—Even with ebbs and flows, these gains, struggles, and battles of the oppressed, covering spheres which include ideological and legal ones, have real impact and import in the real world.

    [moderator note: this comment wasn't displaying properly. fixed.]

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by eric ribellarsi
  • For some reason it's not letting me sign into my account, so I"ll just respond like this.

    I of course acknowledge all of your statistics -- that's not what's being contested. I'm just pointing out that the struggle right now has been largely pushed into a reformist terrain of opposing cuts (or political candidates such as Romney who were hinting at deeper cuts) and justifying itself in the terms of rights to individual, rather than collective, choice. I'm not saying that those revolutionary potentials are not there. But I hardly see it as some automatically revolutionary thing, and I fear that the style of thinking you present is too similar to the style that has just pulled us into the mire of activism again and again, whether that be anti-war activism, environmental activism, immigration activism or gender activism. The problem isn't the ISSUE at hand -- the issues are real and *of course* do not disappear overnight -- the problem is the whole strategy of tailing a reformist struggle, using the framework set up by the reformists when we discuss it, and then acting like promoting "communist consciousness" means simply reminding people that communism also means gender equality.

    I'm (again, again, again) not saying that we shouldn't engage with these sorts of struggles. You say:

    "What kind of society do you envision for the future? Do you think that if the people are successful in making socialist revolution, that the contradictions (both among the people and within the revolutionary communist forces) around women’s oppression, exploitation, liberation and “rights”will automatically be settled?"

    I'm not sure where you see me saying this? Why do you infer it from anything I have said? Nothing is automatically settled. I'm not saying what you say I am saying, if you need a clearer denunciation of it.

    But I AM saying that *maybe* tailing reformists (who again, supported Obama for ALL the reasons you just laid out above, because Romney was seen to be worse on all those points!) isn't the best way to engage with these existing struggles -- and the crucial question is what IS a better way to leverage these struggles in a communist direction.

    You also ask:
    "What is “communing of reproduction”?"

    It's actually "commoning" of reproduction -- a familiar term in Federici's work. I was referencing it. In the context of an article which was a critique of Federici's school of thought, I presume a basic familiarity with the work, so I was just referencing that. This term in particular has a lot of layered meanings -- referring both to pre-capitalist forms of commons and a sort of autonomist approach to future struggle (this latter aspect I do not agree with as much). The pre-capitalist aspect is laid out in detail in Federici's book Caliban and the Witch.

  • Guest - R. S.

    Interesting discussion. While I hate to say it, but I think Nat's analysis and several of the subsequent comments seem to miss much of the original point of Mitchell's piece, which was intended to insert some historical context around the wages for housework campaign. Admittedly, I have not read Zora's piece, but even so, I don't see Mitchell in any way suggesting that wages for housework should define the parameters of any current struggle. Rather, her point seems to be that there are resonances and lessons that can still be learned from that period as we move forward. I bristle at some of what seems to be an all out rejection of that fairly modest premise in some of these comments...but we can leave that be for now.

    What concerns me most is that Nat's piece seems to want to enter into this historical discussion while, at the same time, drastically changing the subject and then accusing those who were having the discussion of bringing up the wrong topics. This is what happens when there is a general reluctance to approach an argument (or a whole body of criticism for that matter) on its own terms. This has a couple of implications.

    First, there is little I can identify in Mitchell's piece that wouldn't be perfectly compatible with the suggestion that has been laid out here as an apparent alternative -- namely, the struggle to keep abortion accessible and legal to all women. Sure, the abortion struggle is hugely important -- who would deny that? Nonetheless, I think it is rather dubious to suggest this as a "fault line." To do so is to miss some crucial historical context. While control over our bodies is (of course) essential, it seems that some of the members here who are endorsing the abortion fight have a pretty short-sighted or limited understanding of what that struggle has entailed. First of all, abortion is not the sole issue -- it's the big ticket item that triggers immediate heated debate, but the true danger is the fact that most women in this country have historically not had access to affordable forms of healthcare across the board -- abortion included. This has been the case for some time, as it has never been necessary to overturn Roe v. Wade in order to limit poor women's access to health services.

    What deserves a closer examination is the extent to which poor women have been engaged in this struggle since before and after Roe v. Wade. This is due to a long, slow cultural process of devalorizing and dehumanizing the poorest sectors of the female population. One of the main contributions of the wages for housework campaign was the way it was able to tie the cultural dehumanization of women to the material conditions of their everyday lives -- systematically devaluing the work they do is part of that.

    So, wages for housework doesn't just have implications for women in their own homes. It has implications for all forms of hidden, domestic labor -- the labor that is done by undocumented migrants in homes with employers where they have no ground to stand on when it comes to haggling over their wages, the care labor done by housekeepers and maids that is coded as familial intimacy, but is nonetheless instrumental in taking that housekeeper out of her own child's daily life. That emotional work does not get compensated -- it is naturalized as "women's work." Indeed, these instances of devaluation do not mean it is time to resurrect the wages for housework campaign, but can we see a general connection between this situation and the disenfranchisement experienced by women through the abortion debacle? Of course we can. Why, then, unnecessarily turn the question into an "either, or"?

  • 8 de marzo, hoy, International Women's Day.

    Back to NPC--when you're talking about "But the problem is engaging with them in a way that pushes them OUTSIDE of activism," how do you see that coming down in practice. Are rev. communists doing the pushing? In another comment you seemed to refer to not just a struggle around reproductive rights but it was implied (and excuse me if I am putting words in your mouth)--that the oppression of women was a "faultline." What is your idea of a faultline? Would we say the same if we were talking about national oppression per se?

    There is a relatively new post by Mike Ely "Mao's Block of 4 classes: Lessons about Revolutionary Alliance that I found to be very informative and helpful in thinking strategically...and I think it is applicable to the subject of this particular post, as well as many, many others and gives a better framework for further discussion...in this case the women's movement, women's opp-ression and liberation.

  • Just wanted to say thanks for the critical engagement on the Marxist-Feminism debate. A comrade and I wrote another response which we think will clarify some of the differences in theory, method, and practice between Nat Winn (and some members of Kasama) and Unity and Struggle: http://gatheringforces.org/2013/03/11/for-herself/

    We welcome your thoughts.

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