This is the first of a series of notes that will be relatively short, and by no means exhaustive, but are put forth as both a summation and intervention of the theoretical and practical context of gender liberation in general and proletarian feminist struggle in the particular, both within the context of the United States, and the global context – taking on the particularities of gender formation, as well the universal aspects of patriarchy.
Let us take opportunity in the annual remembrance on the International Working Women’s Day to raise a necessary definition in the ongoing development towards a Proletarian Feminist conception of gender liberation.
First, a necessary comment: while we do not mention trans women as separate subjects, when we say women in this article, we are including trans women as the issues we touch upon are common to all proletarian women, whether trans or cis, and while we recognize that cis women and trans women have differences, for example cis women and reproductive health choices, and trans women’s exclusion from women’s spaces or lack of access to hormones – we understand these differences as within the umbrella of women, as the subjects of oppression by patriarchy. We also recognize that the struggle against patriarchy is not solely a women’s issue, or a sexual or gender issue, and that gender is not a binary, nor is sex free of social and cultural construction. However, we will address this in subsequent notes and a series on Queer Maoism that has been almost two years in the making. Non-men, people who are neither women nor men, but still suffer patriarchal oppression, and thus for the purpose of this discussion are treated the same as women – both cis and trans – however, we want to keep the discussion centered on feminism as an expression of women’s politics whether cis or trans, not genderqueer struggle – which includes besides trans women and non-binary people, men, like trans men, whose experience of patriarchy is different from that of cis or trans women, and which has its own separate history from feminism, even if indeed proletarian feminism is queer struggle. This article has a narrower focus, but we feel these overlaps needed addressing for the sake of clarity and to make clear that we speak firmly for trans and genderqueer inclusion in feminism, and that trans women are women.
Proletarian feminism: more than just proletarian and feminist together
Proletarian feminism is the theoretical and practical development of the struggle against patriarchy from the perspective of the proletariat and revolutionary communist politics.
It was first put forth by Indian revolutionary and communist Anuradha Ghandy. Like other trends within feminism, proletarian feminism sees the existence of patriarchy and the need for its overthrow – the difference lies in how proletarian feminism views patriarchy theoretically, and how it mobilizes in practice for its overthrow. Ghandy’s seminal article “Philosophical trends in the Feminist movement“, is perhaps the first coherent proletarian feminist text to lay out the differences with other feminisms. From this article’s criticism of the weaknesses of other feminist trends we can draw what are the dialectical strengths of a proletarian feminism, or at least the areas it has to tackle and the direction that Ghandy argues it should take. This is our summation of her argument for a proletarian feminism:
- Adherence to a Marxist, historical materialist, and dialectical materialist framework of analysis. Proletarian feminism makes a criticism, however, of Socialist and Marxist feminism as philosophical trends that make the same claim. The main difference is on how to approach the question of emancipatory practice and the rejection of a commonality between women regardless of class, nationality, race, etc, while at the same time upholding the centrality of the class struggle for the destruction of patriarchy. Patriarchal oppression is part of class oppression, not a separate or complementary oppression, and has its root in class society as a historical materialist fact, neither born with capitalism as a mode of production, nor merely a residual or vestigial feudal remain, but rather an intrinsic part of any class society regardless of mode of production. As such, only communism can destroy patriarchy once and for all. Any attempts to separate patriarchy from class society as whole ultimately lead to strategic dead-ends for feminism.
- Rejection of biological determinism in defining women, sex/gender roles, and of the implications of the sex/gender system for all people. This includes a rejection of sex/gender differences existing as a biological fact in any degree of independence from social, economic, and political relations. It doesn’t deny biological difference among people – these are obvious – it just rejects the claim that sex/gender ordering is principally related to biological differences, or the view that sex and gender stem from some biological essence. Not all women can or do get pregnant, for example, and yet they remain women. Not all women are assigned womanhood at birth, yet they are still women. This is not to say the gender binary is beyond criticism, just that the criticism of this binary based on biology is wrong. There is no female and male brain, but there is indeed a female and male social existence into which people fall – either forced into it, or because of identity.
- A social and economic understanding of the role of the family as an economic unit that doesn’t seek to abolish the family as some sort of heterosexual invention, but to transform its internal relations, as well as its wider role in society. Emphasis is on the centrality of political power and society-wide transformation of economic relations as a way to transform the family, rather than privatizing family relations as a matter of individual will. By implication, it doesn’t see the family as the primary trench of combat against patriarchy. The primary trench of combat is society at large. This doesn’t mean the family is immune – families are part of society at large and thus are part of the wider societal combat against patriarchy. It does mean the special role given by many feminist trends to the family beyond it being a unit of production and reproduction is incorrect. One can abolish the family and as long as class society exists, so will patriarchy, it will just find some other way to organize the production and reproduction of gender oppression and patriarchal domination. The focus on the family of many trends, in particular when this focus ignores the rest of society, is challenged by proletarian social struggle.
- Emphasis on the non-antagonistic aspects of the contradiction between proletarian men and proletarian women, rather than posing the contradiction as mainly antagonistic. Emphasis is placed on struggling against systemic oppression along with microaggressions and oppressions generated at the level of individual interactions, rather than only on the individual oppressions. Instead of men in general being the enemy, it is patriarchy, as part of class society and capitalism-imperialism, who is the enemy. Likewise, women are not simply the revolutionary subject: many women are defenders of the class system and thus are in the reactionary camp, even when they purport to seek to emancipate women.
- An embrace of large-scale, mass mobilization of society as a whole, and proletarian masses specifically, as the method of struggle for liberation, as opposed to separatism, small group, “safe space” emphasis in other trends – as well as a rejection of the underlying theoretical frameworks that these separatist trends represent. While not hostile to trade unionist frameworks, it does advocate the formation of cadre and mass formations of a proletarian feminist nature as an exercise of self-determination within a wider proletarian and revolutionary movement.
- Anti-imperialism and a global focus on patriarchy, rather than a focus solely on the needs of white, affluent, Euro-American women. This includes inserting into the conversation on sexuality the consequences of the sex trade, sex tourism, and pornography for poor, non-white, and oppressed nationality women, specially in the internal colonies, neo-colonial, semi-colonial, and colonial world. It also includes a rejection of unproblematized support for women’s emancipation for the purpose of supporting imperialist plunder, such as the advocacy by some feminists of equal opportunities in imperialist armed forces. The only army we fight for gender equality in is the People’s Army.
- Advocacy of revolutionary organization and mass political activity and a rejection of reformist organizing and affinity-based activity – but not reforms themselves – and of the belief that organizational hierarchy is inherently patriarchal, masculine, and otherwise alien to women and thus opposed to feminism. A revolutionary party that contains people of all genders as cadre and leaders is not only seen as necessary, but advocated centrally as part of proletarian feminism. And this Party leading a People’s Army in which patriarchy is struggled against at any level, in which women develop as leaders and soldiers is also central to proletarian feminism.
- Advocacy of all means of struggle, nonviolent and violent, in advancing the struggle against patriarchy from a proletarian and revolutionary perspective. This rejects all claims of violence being patriarchal as biological essentialism. This also recognizes the capacity of women to be as ruthless as men when it comes to being oppressors – the fact that men dominate society is not an issue of biological capacity or inherent nature of women. Cultural feminist claims of women being less violent or more loving are in fact based on patriarchal notions of sex/gender roles, which mirror male chauvinist arguments about the incapacity of women compared to men.
- A historical materialist recognition and embrace of the experiences in the struggle against patriarchy and women’s oppression in the socialist movements and socialist revolutions in Russia, China, and others, as well as within movements exercising dual power today. This stands against the rejection by many feminists of proletarian and socialist contributions to feminism, either because of anti-communist propaganda or sectarian denialism. A very relevant example of this erasure by bourgeois feminism is the capture and erasure of proletarian women of the International Working Women’s Day into the International Women’s Day. Another example is the ignorance of the advanced nature of the practices and rules within existing people’s armies, such as the New People’s Army having marriage between people of all genders since the late 1990s.
Unfortunately, Ghandy’s “Trends” article – and subsequent ones by Ghandy, who died prematurely at age 54 – failed to fully flesh out the theoretical and practical universalities of a universal proletarian feminism – mostly those as they applied to Indian conditions only. This summation seeks to create the space for this development of a certain universal insight – in particular the struggle against cultural feminism, radical feminism, and liberal feminism, as well as the negative influence the frameworks these forms have had at times on proletarian feminist themselves. This important as practice develops in which proletarian feminists, rather than engaging in a break and continuity with previous trends, fall back into notions that represent a step back in the theoretical and practical struggle against patriarchy and capitalism-imperialism.
On the other hand, we are not idly standing by waiting to be completely correct and thorough to understand in what we are correct: a rejection of capitalism and class society, a rejection of bourgeois feminisms as not liberating but simply managing oppression and of biological essentialism as a breach on the necessary solidarity of people as people, and protracted people’s war needed for the proletariat to take power, and begin the task of not merely surviving patriarchy, but abolishing it altogether. Proletarian feminism responds to patriarchal fire with the water of socialist revolution, to bourgeois feminist peace of the graveyard with the violence of proletarian dictatorship.
As the Revolutionary Students Coordinating Committee put it in their recent call to celebrate International Working Women’s Day:
“[…] it is important for us to remember that only through militantly struggling against the oppressive capitalist-imperialist system we can achieve our full potential in serving the masses of the people. Part and parcel of that struggle for people’s liberation is women’s liberation.”
People’s liberation is impossible without women’s liberation, so fighting for women’s liberation, against patriarchy and patriarchal dominance, is critical for the liberation of all people. At the same time, this liberation is not merely an exercise of moralism or legalistic change, but a revolutionary transformation of the whole world and society – not just of patriarchy, but of class society and all that entails. That is where we as proletarian feminists and communists stand, and that is what we mean when we say we are proletarian feminists.