Can the socialist project do without feminism?
By Diane Lamoureux | Amandla! Magazine Issue 60 | 29 October 2018
This is an edited version of a paper presented at The Great Transition: preparing a world beyond capitalism, a conference in Montreal in May 2018.
Our world is structured by three great global systems of domination. By global, I mean not only in terms of geography, but also in their capacity to affect all the dimensions of what is social. These three systems are capitalism, racism and sexism. Admittedly, the social relationships of sex and race have been reconfigured since the period that Marx characterised as one of primitive accumulation of capital. But the fact remains that social relations of race and sex develop according to certain dynamics that are not solely a function of social relations of class.
To grasp the complexity of the social
Sexism is manifested politically, economically, socially and culturally:
• Politically, women everywhere have been denied rights. Even today male-female parity is still a distant objective in the political universe. Furthermore, violence against women is often trivialised, whether in the form of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment or street harassment.
• Economically, women are streamed into unpaid labour (a major handicap in a market society) not only in domestic tasks but also in the care economy. This impacts their place in paid employment. They are too often found in menial, precarious and low-paid jobs. As a result, poverty is largely female, although this “female” is also racialised.
• Socially, the institution of marriage has long kept married women in a subordinate position relative to their husbands.
• Culturally, they have long been denied access to knowledge and even today their cultural productions are largely undervalued.
Some pitfalls to avoid
I would like to warn against four pitfalls into which many leftist movements easily fall when they reason primarily in terms of class relations.
The first of these pitfalls is to think that feminist issues can be integrated by co-opting certain women into positions of leadership or representation. Certainly, it is better to have women as spokespersons in social struggles than not to have them. But it is also necessary to give some thought to how gender relations shape the attitudes of men and women, including in political movements fighting for social justice. And it is also necessary to find ways to integrate feminist issues and organisational practices that promote the effective participation of all participants, male and female alike, in a movement. Too often, women or racialised people are exhibited as “green plants,” decorative elements, without feminist or anti-racist perspectives being truly integrated into social struggles.
The second pitfall is to think that parity is the magic solution. Here again, parity is certainly preferable to inequality. But parity proceeds from a binary vision of social gender relations in which there are only men and women. What about sexualities that do not obey homo / hetero bipartition, or people who define themselves in non-binary ways like trans or queers? Moreover, the group “women”, like the group “men,” is traversed by issues of race and class that make it difficult to think of a generic Woman, or of a generic Man for that matter.
A third pitfall is to think that one can carry out analyses that are supposedly universal but in fact are based solely on the experience of white working-class men. There is no universal point of view; there are only situated, partial and biased points of view. To think that everything can be said from one point of view is to adopt a posture of domination. To simply analyse the experience of white men and then just add those of racialised people or of women —worse still, of racialised women —is to demonstrate a certain intellectual and political laziness. The work of social transformation that awaits us does not allow us to bypass this detailed and comprehensive work of social analysis.
A fourth pitfall is to derive women’s oppression mainly from capitalist relations. Yes, Engels was able to write that the first division of labor is the one that appeared between men and women in the Neolithic era. But the great ancestors may have lacked vision. Sexism predates capitalism. Some of the revolutions inspired by socialism have sought to attack the oppression of women but without providing a satisfactory solution from a feminist point of view. Capitalism has, of course, transformed the social relations of sex (and race) and not only in the so-called period of primitive accumulation. In addition, this posture does not help in understanding the issues related to sexuality, nor those related to domestic labour or care work.
With these caveats in mind, I can now focus on three contributions that feminism can offer to social transformation movements that seek a fairer, less unequal society, maximising the freedom of each and every one. These are:
• The relationship between means and ends;
• The question of situated points of view and their contribution to the understanding of the social; and
• Attention to individuals and individual dimensions in understanding social change.
Relationships between means and ends
It was with the tumultuous relations between the far left and the feminist movements in most Western countries in the 1970s that feminist criticism of the relationship between means and ends became clearer. A great many feminists, even those identifying with socialism, eventually broke with far-left organisations on the basis of a different appreciation of this relationship.
What we have — often inappropriately — described as a “politics of identity” within the feminist movement came from this evaluation of the relationship between the ends pursued and the means taken to achieve them. While for most revolutionaries “the revolution is not a bed of roses,” feminists have paid attention to the social processes involved in the fight against sexism.
This is first apparent when it comes to organisation. The feminist movement remains a largely imagined movement, very unlike a war machine. Instead, it has been characterised by its horizontality, its decentralisation and its closely interwoven mode of organisation — and this, long before some people talked about the “networked society.”
It has also had an impact on other movements, such as the ecology and antiwar movements. More recently, it can be said that many of the modes of structuring of the various movements opposed to capitalist globalisation have adopted this form of structuring.
This relationship between means and ends also includes the question of the process of social change. Many groups inspired by Marxism are still waiting for the “big night” to set in motion the changes that are necessary. So they make a fundamental distinction between reforms and revolution. The feminist movement, like some anarchist currents and many communitarian groups, is now starting to put in place alternatives that make it possible to live in a different way and to experiment with other ways of doing things. Admittedly, no one is so naive as to think that battered women’s shelters are the only solution to domestic violence, but the existence of these homes has allowed some women to escape from violent situations. Setting up women’s centres does not change all sexist social relationships, but it does help women to break their isolation, build self-esteem and bonds of trust and solidarity with other women and to act together to change the world.
Partial and biased perspectives
In the first place, it is important to consider that all points of view are situated in particular realities. My experience as a white woman, belonging to the majority ethnic group in her society, a university professor, lesbian, is not the same as that of all women. This does not mean that I can only think from my own experience, but it is a starting point. And this experience makes me more sensitive to certain aspects of social reality and less to others. I would add that a feminist experience leads us to take into consideration that there are only situated perspectives. There is no universal perspective from which the whole of the social would be visible. On the other hand, sharing among perspectives in feminist consciousness-raising groups helps us to develop a broader way of thinking and empathy for people who experience situations different from ours but which we can perceive as other manifestations of injustices and discrimination.
The metaphor of the quilt, used in particular by Patricia Hill Collins, is attractive to me since no contribution disappears in the whole but each is transformed by virtue of its insertion in the total combination.
The personal and the political
The feminist movement has been confronted from the beginning with a task that may seem contradictory: to allow an individuation of women while undertaking to build a collective movement of struggle against oppression and exploitation. In doing so, it has never been able to sacrifice individuals for the benefit of the collective. And this is consistent with its understanding of the relationship between means and ends.
It is also important to note that the experience of oppression does not reduce the people who experience it to the sole status of victims. Recent experiments in freedom of speech around the #MeToo movement should not be understood from the angle of public lynching and the end of the presumption of innocence. They should rather be seen as movements of indignation over unacceptable situations and also as part of a process of reclaiming subjectivity that denounces injustices and looks for ways to act collectively to put an end to them.
At first, we thought mainly in terms of sisterhood. This notion may have had a unifying effect on women and helped to overcome some divisions that are the product of patriarchal societies. But the fact remains that it quickly became just as problematic as the fraternity of the French revolutionary motto. Indeed, by focusing on what women shared as a result of sexism, sisterhood ignored the internal differences of the women’s group and reproduced other inequalities within feminism. Also, discordant voices were very soon pointing out that being a woman in sexist societies was not just one but many experiences, of racialised women, lesbians, working class women or third world women.
This forced feminist movements that sought to be inclusive to think of themselves more as coalitions than unitary movements and to advocate solidarity among women rather than to postulate their unity as a group. We had to learn how to patiently build solidarity zones in order to be able to act together without being all “the same”. We cannot presume the existence of a single entity, “we” or “us,” even if politically we must work to constitute it while being aware of its partial and provisional character.
How should we envisage the future?
In conclusion, I would like to outline some of the tasks that we must undertake now if we are seriously engaged in the struggle for social justice for all.
First, we must rethink the relationship that modern humanity has forged with nature. Overall, a separation between the human being (the subject) and his or her natural environment (the object of his or her action) has made it possible to consider nature primarily as a pool of resources to be exploited for the improvement of human life. Such a relationship is unthinkable and even suicidal today, if it ever made sense: the rapid depletion of resources and the fragility of planet Earth prompt us to think of human beings as part of nature.
Second, we need to rethink the scale of our struggles and not be satisfied with the state form that has prevailed in modernity. It is important to build what is common, what is collective, but from the bottom up and taking the time to be inclusive. This implies that there are several scales of social life and not just one, that some issues belong more to the neighborhood or village while others are international. The movements that have developed in particular in Spain and Greece in relation to austerity policies give us some clues. Indigenous movements in the south of the American continent are also a reservoir of experiences that must be reflected on and tapped.
Third, it is important to develop an economy based more on use than on exchange. This means introducing the concept of limits, whereas capitalism presents itself essentially as boundless. This represents an improvement from an ecological point of view. But it also makes it possible to integrate into our vision of the economy tasks that are mostly done by women, such as domestic work or work in the care economy.
Fourth, we need to rethink our relationship to vulnerability. Neoliberalism is based not only on competition but also on performance. It requires the human being to devote herself to the development of her social capital in the name of a certain individual autonomy. It seems to me more appropriate to think in terms of the interdependence of people and, therefore, of developing concern for others. We all have areas of vulnerability with which, and not despite which, we have to contend.
These few proposals do not constitute a complete political program, but they do outline some paths that we must explore if we do not want to be content with a socialism that opposes to the exploitation of man by man its mere opposite.
Diane Lamoureux is Professor of Sociology in the Political Science Department of Laval University in Quebec.