Sunday, February 22, 2009

Communism and feminism

The Apostate and her commenters criticize communists' attitudes towards feminism. They hit the nail on the head. Communists, at least the official organs of most communist parties and organizations, rarely display an all-sided and complete view of the dialectical position of feminism and women's issues in politics and economics, and do not give anything near adequate attention to feminist issues.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons why the Revolutionary Communist Party focuses on racial issues is that Bob Avakian, the founder and chairman of the party, was particularly racially aware in his youth and early adulthood, and spent a lot of time with racial activists such as the Black Panthers. He's no misogynist, but he didn't spend a lot of time with feminist activities and activists, and feminism does not seem to "grab" his attention at a deep and personal level. (Furthermore, the RCP's explicit reliance on Avakian limits the party's activities in no small part to those issues that grab Avakian's attention. I don't think Avakian is a bad guy: he's clearly smart, hard-working and completely dedicated to communism. But he's just one person.)

Also, many communists' analysis of the position of women in today's society begins and ends with modes of inheritance: a patriarchal society needs to ensure that male lineage (father to son) is well-determinable, so the obvious physical establishment of lineage (mother to child) has to be closely regulated for the benefit of men. This analysis isn't wrong, and many of our patriarchal social constructions do in fact embody this dialectical force, but inheritance is only a small part of the story.

A much larger part of the story is hyper-exploitation. All ruling/ruled class relations are of course exploitative to some degree, but in all societies some of the the ruled class retains some political power: they can strike, riot, emigrate, and sometimes vote, so their exploitation is tempered by political considerations. Hyper-exploitation occurs when some segment of the ruled class does not have even the small amount of political power enjoyed by other parts of the ruled class.

Exploitation and oppression go hand in hand: to exploit people, you need to oppress them. The greater the exploitation, the greater the oppression. But it's not correct to ask "which comes first": exploitation and oppression have a dialectical relationship, they influence each other. Hyper-exploited people are hyper-oppressed; hyper-oppressed people are hyper-exploited.

And really: to any honest observer, the hyper-exploitation of women — in addition to the hyper-oppression of women — is staggering. The employment of women's labor in child-bearing, child-rearing and housework is the epitome of labor consumed in total but paid for at the minimum cost of subsistence.

Bourgeois feminists are very good at pointing out and working to correct the hyper-oppression of women. Any person concerned with the well-being of others cannot have anything but praise for their efforts, as far as they go. The only critique is that they don't go nearly far enough: bourgeois feminists rarely look at hyper-exploitation (those few that do become communists). If we deconstruct their arguments, they might follow the line: "Rape is not a good way to hyper-oppress women." To contradict this statement would appear an argument in favor of rape. "Gender," they might say, "is not a good way to limit entry into the bourgeoisie." Again, one does not wish to argue in favor of gender discrimination.

But the communist must ask, "What is a good way to hyper-oppress women? What is a good way to limit entry into the bourgeoisie?" Rhetorical questions, of course: there isn't a good way to hyper-oppress and hyper-exploit women, and even a perfectly meritocratic, gender-neutral (and race-neutral) bourgeoisie still fundamentally exploits the working class.

The bourgeois feminist is in a bind. Fundamentally, the hyper-exploitation of child-bearing cannot be equally distributed (at least not until we invent an artificial uterus that can be operated as cheaply as a hyper-exploited woman). The cost of correcting this hyper-exploitation will have to come out of the bourgeois feminist's pocket. Furthermore, if the hyper-exploitation of women is directly and explicitly confronted, then what of rest of the exploitation in capitalism, exploitation that is foundational and ineluctable under capitalism?

I've been astonished and dumbfounded by the erosion of women's reproductive and abortion rights over the last 20 years; it seems the high point for these rights came only a few years after Roe v. Wade and have been declining ever since. What's even more astonishing and dumbfounding is the Democratic party's passivity at protecting these rights. What's even more astonishing is the amount of energy feminist activists seem to put into issues that, while important, seem to me to pale beside the relentless assault on women's — especially poor women and women of color — fundamental bodily autonomy. I'm not a woman, of course, and it's not my place to set the agenda for the women's movement. I can still, however, express my astonishment.

As a communist, though, my astonishment evaporates. So long as abortion and contraception are legal — and there is no indication whatsoever that even the most callous and opportunistic Republican would make abortion and contraception actually illegal — reproductive rights for bourgeois women (and women in the labor aristocracy) are secure. And bourgeois women are in no danger of hyper-exploitation anyway. When abortion and contraception are not subsidized though, poor women's bodily autonomy is as effectively compromised as if abortion and contraception were illegal.

Abortion and contraception must be subsidized by the state in exactly the same sense that police and legal protection must be subsidized by the state: These activities safeguard fundamental, democratic human rights that obtain — to anyone but a dedicated Randian — regardless of individual merit.

Like I said, it's not up to me to set the agenda of the women's movement. But it is up to me to set the communist agenda.

First, communists and socialists have chosen the strategy of exposing and denouncing capitalist oppression, and, more importantly, tying that oppression to relations of exploitation. All well and good. But communists should do more — much much more — at exposing and denouncing specifically the oppression of women and tying that to their exploitation. This is not at all a difficult task: one cannot swing a cat in our patriarchal society without hitting an oppressed, exploited woman. By all rights, at least — at the very least — half the instances of oppression and exploitation exposed by communists should be directly and specifically about women.

Secondly, if we are to make common cause with any movement not specifically communist, we must demand without compromise and as a precondition the absolute ideological equality and full human rights of women — especially and most emphatically regarding their bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. Just as communists will make only the most tentative common cause with bourgeois-friendly Economists (and make clear we will not stop with a "kopek added to a ruble"), we must make only the most tentative common cause — if any at all — with any movement that ideologically condones the oppression of women.

The common cause with both Christian and Islamic leftists here is very directly on point. If the equality and rights of women are not uncompromised a priori communist demands, then communists will appear to accept (or actually accept) the limitations on women's rights that are part of Christian and Islamic ideology. We cannot eliminate oppression and exploitation immediately, but communists should be absolutely unwilling to "move the oppression around" or ideologically justify even the tiniest bit of oppression or exploitation.

I personally am generally suspicious of making common cause with any religious movement. "God loves communism" is just as bad an argument as "God hates fags," and communism is not furthered by justifying it with bad arguments.

But to the extent that Christianity and Islam actually do ideologically support the oppression and exploitation of women, I'm no longer suspicious. I'm actively hostile. Lip service won't do it: I need to see a sincere, dedicated and active commitment to ending the oppression of women. I'll buy (or start to buy) that a Christian supports women's rights when he* comes out unapologetically, uncompromisingly, 100%, no bullshit for abortion and contraception as fundamental human rights. I'll buy that a Muslim supports women's rights when he comes out unapologetically, uncompromisingly, 100%, no bullshit for not only imprisoning for life or executing** men who perpetrate honor killings, but also heaping the most severe dishonor and social and religious contempt for men who do so. Of course, any Christian or Muslim must absolutely support all women's rights; supporting abortion and opposing honor killings would constitute at best only a good start. Without such a start, though, as far as I'm concerned calling almost any Christian or Muslim a communist or even communist-friendly is as ridiculous as calling Paul Krugman (and I like Krugman) a Maoist.

*I use the gendered pronound advisedly.

**I'm typically against the death penalty, but there are some crimes for which my opposition to the death penalty is at best lukewarm.

I'll march next to a Muslim to oppose, for example, the massacre in Gaza: even the most extreme religious fundamentalist misogynists do not deserve to be caged and slaughtered like jackrabbits. But that's as far as I'll go: my opposition to the violation of basic human rights of religious assholes does not extend to supporting or condoning their misogynist ideology.


  1. Do you know of any other bloggers who explicitly integrate communism and feminism?

  2. And this one: Directionless Bones by Alderson Warm-Fork. A communist-feminist. I just discovered it from a comment ze left on my blog. Ze is a regular commenter on Twisty's blog, I believe.

  3. Nice links. Cheers!


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