A Letter from France


The following is from a response from a Meeting Ground reader in France. Much of what she writes about the situation there is similar to what we have been experiencing in the United States with the feminist movement, the Left, academia, and the governmental elections. We think it’s important to keep in mind that many of these issues and problems are not limited to the U.S. situation. The writer also formulates her observations in ways that clarify what’s really going on, like “Left groups have a feminist wing so they can tick it off the list and get on with business as usual. Inclusion is a form of dismissal.”

— The Editors


by Jen


I’ve grown somewhat disillusioned with the Left in France, in that it’s very static and inward-looking. Over here we have a bunch of small parties that define themselves against each other, and against the bigger parties: they seem more interested in attacking the rest of the Left than getting anything done. I couldn’t stay in the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (who are roughly equivalent to the SWP or the ISO) because the feminism they deal in, despite its superficial sheen of materialism, consists in building a giant ‘woke’ lamp, in the belief that women are a bit like moths. Generally speaking, it’s what I’d call preventative feminism, first because it prevents them from getting into trouble, and then because it pre-empts any actual feminism from taking place.

I joined the Communists, who don’t seem to have this problem. But the usefulness of what we do sometimes escapes me. It seems the Left has become confined to academia, the media, or else these really old political parties that just go through the motions. Without a popular base, there aren’t too many ways for us to live up to the Marxist politics of many members, leaving us painting over the fact that we’re basically the Left wing of the Parti Socialiste with some hammers and sickles for good measure. When we talk about “action”, it means leafleting, taking part in demonstrations. Without a popular base, this is just a handful of the usual suspects standing around with red flags saying “we don’t like this kind of stuff”, which is news to no one – and a lot of busywork.

We also end up having to take these ultimately self-destructive decisions: Do we divide the Left further by putting forward our own presidential candidate? Or do we support the ego-driven populist who wants to be the entire Left? Because of the way French cities are increasingly ghettoized between run-down banlieues and ultra-gentrified city centres that are barely even public spaces anymore, canvassing feels a bit like a field trip. We’re supposed to be a party of the working class, instead of which we have to take a tram for ten minutes to go and find the working class and ask them to vote for a candidate we half-heartedly support, who doesn’t support us.

This isn’t to say that everyone in the party is wallowing in indecent amounts of privilege, far from it. We also have ties to the local Turkish and Kurdish communities. But, many working people don’t even have the time or means to come to our headquarters, even if they knew what we were about – and Left-wing politics simply isn’t the force that it used to be.

In terms of the Left, most notably in the smaller parties, I think the situation is much like that described in that Barbara Leon article [“Separate to Integrate”from 1975 you published a while ago: smaller Left groups have a feminist wing so they can tick it off the list and get on with business as usual. Inclusion is a form of dismissal. Once women aren’t problematizing Karl Marx for being altogether too male, German, beardy and communist, they’re essentially not women anymore, so only anti-Marxist women are given the time of day.

The main difference in 2017 is that we can’t really go away and start consciousness-raising groups, because everyone from corporate CEOs to the neighbour’s cat already identifies as a feminist and sees the matrix of oppressions, social constructions and societal injunctions. There’s this assumption that a feminist has nothing Left to learn about women’s condition and, instead, should be teaching others to identify as feminists. This makes consciousness-raising difficult, especially as, at the heart of it, it’s an attempt to know things, to approach, collectively, the nebulous, hard-to-reach, inarticulate parts of life that you can’t reach individually. But, in 2017, the idea that you can know anything beyond your own lived experience, for a woman especially, is quite taboo.

What’s really crazy about postmodernism is that the thinkers it bases itself on, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, are thoroughly anti-identitarian. For Foucault, identity is something that’s always imposed to pin people down. There are many things you can say about Judith Butler’s work, not all of them complimentary. She alludes to her sources rather than citing them, and she heavily paraphrases them in her own terminology, often completely changing what they said. A lot of her work basically boils down to heavily stylized autobiography. But she’s definitely not an identitarian. I think the entire Parisian electrical supply could probably be powered just by Deleuze and Foucault whirring around in their graves at what is done with their work.

At the same time, what has happened to it was already present in their work: in postmodern Left circles, you often see the word “epistemology” in the title of a piece, only to find that the piece is actually about power relations, and not about knowledge at all, which can be traced back to Foucault. This carries implications in terms of how an “oppressed person”, defined according to a precise list of “oppressed identities”, can acquire knowledge.

First, it implies that someone can be individually “oppressed”, “exploited” or “precarious”, when these things only make sense collectively. Secondly, it implies that people are oppressed because of identities: so material situations, cultural backgrounds, sexual preferences, human behaviours, even illnesses, become individually-owned tokens that can be exchanged on a market. And thirdly, it implies that you know how things really are, if you’re oppressed. Or, to rephrase, you’d stop being a Marxist or a communist and alleviate it with some Foucault, had you ever been truly oppressed. In the end, this boils down to a polite way of saying that the only way to educate a woman is to beat her.     

I sometimes take part in feminist discussion or reading groups, and they’re good as far as they go, but it can get very frustrating in that everything you say in such a group gets translated into postmodernese. I always try to keep my reasoning very materialist, and I never use terms like “discourse” or “societal injunctions” or whatever. My position for feminist theory is to go back to Beauvoir and work from there and, importantly, build on the basis of her theoretical sources. Sometimes I’ll try to formulate ideas that are very concrete and direct, only to be met with surprised stares. I think it’s partly because, if you’re talking about Beauvoir’s theoretical sources, you’re talking about very concrete, everyday things: equipment, tools, and so forth, things to do with a human being’s direct interaction with the world.

It’s hard to overstate how incongruous it feels to bring them up in a feminist setting, where the expectation is to talk about things like periods, sexist adverts, representation, and so forth. Then I’ll read the reports and find out I’ve apparently said a bunch of stuff about discourse and social construction, instead of what I actually said. I’ve heard similar things from friends. Until you put everything in proper, good, plain Butlerian, you might as well be speaking in tongues. And it’s not just a difference in terminology: changing the concepts totally changes the argument.    

This brings me, via postmodernism, to your recent post on “The Personal is Political” and the accusations that it’s racist. I agree with you that there are attacks specifically on second-wave feminism, which is useful to people in academia only insofar as they owe it their careers. But it’s also the case that, if you’re in the humanities, after a while, you start to notice that everyone asks the same two or three questions about just about everything: Is this sexist? Is this racist? How is it problematic? It’s simply because that’s where the money is.

Taking second-wave feminism on face value–I wasn’t there obviously–but when I read the writing in the Redstockings archives or catch bits of speeches or tracts in documentaries, I’m struck by how universal the scope was. It really was a movement for all women, which is what feminism has to be to be meaningful. It really was happening all around the world: feminist magazines in the 70s have articles about feminism in Japan, in India, in Brazil, in Nigeria and so on. In fact we lose out on this universalism, often, by only focusing on books rather than footage from the time or tracts. In postmodernist theory, though, which considers that we can each only speak from our own perspectives, this translates as racism, by default.

I don’t know if you ever saw the article Spare Rib put out when Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986, because it’s not up on the Spare Rib archive (the text is blacked out), but I have a paper copy, and it’s all about how problematic and outdated she is, because she didn’t know about race and class. It seems all the more ridiculous because the article is illustrated with pictures of Beauvoir distributing Maoist newspapers, and it mentions her engagement for Algerian independence. Whatever she might have done in her life is cancelled out, even damned, by her perspective as a middle-class French woman.   

I looked into the author of the article, and it seems that she had a book on Beauvoir coming out that year. On closer inspection, it was mostly about her own guilt at having enjoyed The Second Sex as a student, wondering how much of that was down to her own privilege, conveniently ignoring the impact of the book on women all over the world. Apparently, the infighting at Spare Rib was pretty horrific around that time, as I can well imagine, having also been in a feminist group in the 2000s that suddenly discovered identity and privilege politics. This theory causes everyone to turn on each other, gossip about who claims which identity but really is a different identity, who hasn’t checked which privilege, and generally tear each other to shreds until the whole group implodes. 

So, in short, I’d avoid lending too much credence to charges that The Personal is Political is racist. The other thing about these kinds of attacks is that they always try and hit you where it hurts. You were in the civil rights movement, so they’ll call you a racist. It’s basically playground logic. As for charges that the second wave was racist, one thing I notice when I see documentaries about it is that sometimes the camera pans over and they’ll mention everyone’s names, but they always seem to pass over Florynce Kennedy. It’s not like she’s exactly invisible. 

Anyway, I hope things are OK with you, in spite of the situation in the States. I’m sure being a federal State makes it that much more of a nightmare to safeguard women’s rights. Though I’m hoping we don’t end up with too much of a horrific situation in France come May. Chances of a Le Pen presidency are being greatly exaggerated by English-speaking media (though I hope I don’t eat those words in a couple of months’ time) but, really, a François Fillon presidency would also be disastrous, if not quite on the same scale. I’m pretty annoyed with the Left, because we have two prominent anti-austerity Left candidates (Mélenchon and Hamon), which makes me want to bang their heads together to make one half-decent candidate, though Mélenchon seems to be catching up to Fillon in the polls. At least we can’t complain about this election being business as usual.

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