Who’s the Materialist Here?
by Kathy Scarbrough and Carol Hanisch
Nearly fifty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement exploded in the U.S., much of the male-dominated Left (including female members) is still claiming economic class and capitalism as the primary “enemy” from which all oppression flows.
In article after article, Left publications inveigh against “identity politics”, which we strongly agree needs such critique. At the same time, we strongly object to the sidelining of females and Black people as “identities”. Being female and/or Black is objective reality. While one may be able to remake oneself to “pass” on the outside, one cannot really “identify” away one’s race or sex. There is almost a mass sigh of relief at shoving those pesky women’s liberationists and Black power people into a secondary Left movement status with a blanket accusation of practicing “identity politics.”
To get away with this, they ignore the historical fact that the 1960s WLM at the root of the female upsurge was full of radical feminists who denounced capitalism/imperialism and racism as well as male supremacy and who acknowledged their liberation depended on the abolition all three. In dismissing women’s oppression as “identity politics”, the Left betrays the material basis of women’s oppression: our reproductive capacity and as the unpaid and underpaid laborers of the world. Women are treated like nothing more than commodities when they are bought and sold by human traffickers and pimps and porn kings or when female bodies are used in a titillating way by advertisers to sell products.
Of course the problem isn’t quite that simple or one-sided. We acknowledge that liberal feminists and many women calling themselves radical feminists are oblivious to, or actively hostile to, the fight against capitalism. They even resist fighting male supremacy in its totality, remaining blindly embedded in their own narrow (though admittedly important) issues, mostly of various forms of violence against women, such as woman battering, rape, pornography and prostitution. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, at the other extreme, tried to bait women into voting for her just because she is female.
The Women’s Liberation Movement obviously has its own battles to take on. The male supremacy of the Left just adds to this challenge. If socialists want a universal struggle for political and economic liberation they must become allies to women’s liberation.
Another problem is that much of the Left (as well as much of the feminist movement) go beyond support for basic human rights for transgender people and side with the anti-materialist trans ideology that eliminates the category of “woman” by claiming anyone can “self-identify” as a woman. We have to ask if the Left is cowering before the tantrums of those trans activists or whether obliterating women’s liberation is also the goal of the Left.
A recent example of this is the publication by Jacobin of a fairly ignorant discussion of radical feminism that includes outright anti-feminist arguments and several anti-materialist paragraphs about gender. We sent in a rebuttal, but it was rejected out of hand. MR Online (Monthly Review) reprinted the Jacobin article in its entirety and they too rejected our response, saying that they didn’t want to take sides. However, it’s clear that both publications did indeed take a side by printing the article and then denying our response – and it wasn’t the side of women’s liberation that they took!
Here is our critique of anti-materialism and anti-feminism on the Left sent in response to the Jacobin article:
The Pitfalls of Lacking Radical Feminist History
Socialism is necessary for women’s full liberation but it isn’t sufficient. Erica West (The Pitfalls of Radical Feminism) shouldn’t speak so categorically about a branch of feminism she doesn’t support, and apparently knows little about.
In her article, West does exactly what Kathie Sarachild, one of the founders of the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement, describes in the Redstockings book, Feminist Revolution:
[E]ven though the actual, living people who began the movement are treated as unascertainable, unidentifiable and irrelevant, history itself is not treated as irrelevant. Instead, a new false “feminist” history is blithely created out of mistaken secondary sources to support political strategies long ago discredited by real history (as traced through the original sources).
Our sector of the movement of the so-called Second Wave (a correction to West: it began in the 1960s, not the 1970s) always intended to be independent of what many then called the “male-dominated Left.” Of course the radical feminism most readers are familiar with today differs in significant ways. Radical feminists, like socialists, do not speak in one voice. We, however, defined radical feminism “to suggest a politics that socialists would embrace” long before the work of Andrea Dworkin and others was used to redirect and narrow our movement in the 1980s to focus almost exclusively on pornography and other forms of violence against women. The breadth of the original radical feminism was described by Carol Hanisch in a paper called “An Experience with Worker Consciousness Raising:”
We called ourselves radicals from the very beginning of the women’s liberation movement because we opposed all forms of oppression and exploitation, economic and political. We called ourselves radical women because we saw the liberation of women as a necessary priority. The goal was to abolish all classes, all oppression, all exploitation through the equal distribution of political, economic and social power. We wanted to build a mass women’s liberation movement because it was clear from history and from our own experiences that only women organized as an independent political force could guarantee that in the society we envisioned the oppression of women would no longer exist. Equally important was to begin immediately to get rid of male supremacy as rapidly and thoroughly as possible, changing general economic conditions in the process.
Has Erica West, ever read the Redstockings Manifesto written in 1969? It clearly echoes the opening of the Communist Manifesto, something that should warm the cockles of many a socialist heart. Although we identified men as beneficiaries of the oppression of women, we never believed men were the ONLY oppressors of women, and we rarely, if ever, used the term “patriarchy.” Many of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement – Black women as well as white – came out of the Civil Rights Movement and they included critiques of race and class in radical feminist work from the start. The correct relationship of sex or race class to economic class is an ongoing area of study and struggle, and we don’t believe any analysis has yet gotten it quite right.
West brings out an argument as old as the struggle between radical feminists and socialists when she says, “Women’s oppression persists not simply because men hate us, but because of the role we’ve played historically in the nuclear family.” But as Communist Party member Mary Inman pointed out in her 1940 book, In Women’s Defense, “roles” don’t cut the mustard as an explanation:
We hear a great deal about how tradition binds woman to inequality. We hear about woman’s “traditional” method of work, and her traditional this and traditional that, until one might conclude that the only pressure on her to conform are past practices of having conformed. The subjugation of women has a long evolutionary background and a great many aspects of the problem are clear only when this background is taken into account. However, her subjugation does not exist because of this background, but because it has a very practical use right now, today.” [Emphasis ours]
Ellen Willis presented a radical feminist argument regarding the nuclear family back in 1969 when she wrote,
The mistake many radicals make is to assume that the family is simply part of the cultural superstructure of capitalism, while actually both capitalism and the family system make up the material substructure of society. …[I]t is important for women to recognize and deal with their exploited position in the family system, for it is primarily in terms of the family system that we are oppressed as women. Of course capitalism also exploits us, but the way in which it exploits us is primarily by taking advantage of, turning to its own purposes, our subordinate position in the family system and our historical domination by man….
The economic determinism exhibited by West and other socialists envisions a post-capitalist world that would certainly ease women’s burden but cannot alone lead to an equal sharing of the burden. Women will never be free if we don’t redefine “women’s work” as work that benefits all of society, and thus must be shared by all, including men – both in the home and outside it. Socialism alone is incapable of winning women’s liberation simply because male supremacy, white supremacy, and the capitalist class, while certainly deeply connected, inflict oppressions having a good deal of independence from one another. The women of color fighting for the $15 minimum wage will get no relief from the racial and sexual harassment they face daily when that economic objective is won. Even Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are often debased sexually in spite of their ruling class status. They have been treated as cunts, just like the rest of us.
This short critique of Erica West’s piece would be left wanting without commenting on the hot issue of our time: West writes, “For many radical feminists, it doesn’t matter what gender someone identifies and presents as – it only matters what gender they were assigned at birth.”
First of all, gender isn’t “assigned” at birth. The male human exhibits easily observed testes, a primary sex organ defining “maleness.” Ovaries are not visible but if one had any doubt, a simple non-invasive sonogram could produce evidence of their presence and therefore the sex of the newborn. Sex is objective reality; the meeting of egg and sperm is necessary for the continuation of the human species. Gender is not much more than adherence to stereotypes that most radical feminists want to destroy. It is puzzling if not shocking that those who claim a Marxist heritage and apply a materialist approach when discussing the working class can be so captured by anti-materialism when it comes to this issue, accepting “feelings” and “identity” rather than science.
West’s mischaracterization of the censored panel at the 2017 Left Forum is truly egregious. That panel was called “Misery for Profit / Who Is Funding the Transgender Movement and the Impact on LGB”. Though we are uncomfortable with some of the wording of the panel description, the title makes clear that it was intended to make an anti-capitalist critique of the immense funding supporting transgenderism coming from Big Pharma. Women are particularly aware of this exploitation given the fight feminists had to make against Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), a major money-maker that was pushed on women despite its dangers to our health. The panel was also going to make an argument that the powers encouraging transitioning are profoundly homophobic. What’s more, one doesn’t have to agree with an analysis to stand up for the right to present it. The Left Forum screwed up.
We are feminists who hold the position that women need to be able to meet separately from men and separately from transwomen. Just as we understand the need for workers to meet out of earshot of the boss and for Blacks to meet in groups that exclude whites, we recognize women must be able to define the boundaries of our political gatherings. Interestingly, trans advocates like West never seem to acknowledge that many transgender people understand and support this position. Although the oppression of women and transwomen arise from the system of male supremacy, the interests of women and transwomen are not exactly the same and the fight is not the same.
We believe that transgender people have the right to live free from violence but what are we to do with the information West reports, that transwomen “suffer from disproportionately high rates of sexual and physical violence (particularly trans women of color)”? Since it has been observed that many transwomen work as prostitutes, can this violence be separated from the heightened risk of violence that all prostitutes experience? Some 1,500 (female) women are killed each year by male intimate partners in the U.S. alone and two million or more are beaten. Are transwomen deaths different or more significant than those of these women? Importantly, who is doing the killing? We can assure you it isn’t radical feminists.
We often appreciate of the work presented in Left publications, including their criticism of the post-modernist theory that is now savaging the entire Left. That this piece by West, so ignorant of radical feminist history and so much in line with post-modernism in its uncritical presentation of transgender ideology, appeared in two major Left publication sites is a real disappointment. Radical feminism is a body of materialist theory and practice and cannot be reduced to a simple anti-sexist identity politic. Indeed, women are an indispensable part of the class struggle and the Left ignores the demand for the liberation of half the human population at all our peril.
Shortly after we submitted the above response to Jacobin and MR Online, CounterPunch, another major Left site, published yet another atrocious article, this time by a male writer. It reads in part:
Earlier progressive movements including the 1890s populists, the 1930s New Dealers and 1960s student activists all developed universalizing anti-system agendas. But after the sixties, the Left fragmented and “de-universalized,” breaking into silos organized into cultural identity movements of race and gender, and separate peace, labor and environmental movements. …
“Mostly white males, especially on college campuses, led universalizing 1960s movements, but they marginalized women, people of color and other oppressed groups, leading them to form their own identity movements. …
“The new identity politics achieved major gains for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and others. But as silo movements, they lost the universalizing spirit and the focus on the capitalist glue linking capitalism with racism, sexism and other social crises.
So women’s liberation and Black liberation are just another “cultural identity movement” formed in response to being marginalized by the “white male, mostly student Left” that was leading a “universalizing movement” in the 1960s! Can’t this writer see the contradiction in claiming that the male-led movement was “universalizing” while at the same time “marginalizing” women and Black people? And surely these Left writers know male supremacy is also a problem that is society-wide and doesn’t just exist in the Left. We’re all for “universalizing” but not within this kind of “marginalizing” framework which “mostly white males” employ to maintain their domination of the Left by dissing two political and economic movements as merely “cultural”.
Similar articles calling radical feminism an “identity” movement have been appearing for sometime, but there seems to be a bombardment of them recently, which are often worded more bluntly and accusingly.
Just today, MR Online showed again which side they are on – and it surely isn’t ours – or Marx’s! In a post that must have Monthly Review’s original editors, Paul Sweezey and Leo Huberman, spinning in their graves, the Online crew published an article by a transwoman, trying to use Marx to explain and approve the development of transgender ideology. The article is obtuse and many times longer than most MR Online posts and we haven’t read every word yet. However, its main thrust seems to be concern with the “social reproduction of trans women” (with no apparent concern for transmen even) using “communism” to resolve any existing contradictions in its favor.
We recommend this recent piece on Medium as an antidote. The Left’s seemingly “solid Red wall” in support of transgender theory against women’s liberation apparently is heating up and developing some cracks. Thank goodness, because radicals need to be able to depend on each other to carry our share of the struggle (sort of like sharing the housework!), which most of the Left (radical Marxist or merely progressive) is not doing when it comes to defending materialism. Failing to take a stand against the post-modernist ideology devastating the movement for women’s liberation (or even aiding it as in such cases as in the Jacobin and MR Online article) enables the spread of the same anti-materialism that has been ruining the entire radical Left. If they can’t recognize that this is their struggle too, how can they expect to take on the real enemy, which is infinitely stronger?