On Marxism and 'male privilege'
In many of the discussions currently underway between Marxists and feminists about the struggle for women's liberation - for a recent useful overview of some of these see this piece by Judith Orr - there is a sense that the debates that took place in the 1970s and 1980s at the time of the mass Women's Liberation Movement itself are so completely outdated as to be irrelevant - and so when someone like Richard Seymour for example now talks of 'male privilege' and the 'ostensible compensations of "maleness" ... an iteration at the level of ideology of various realities – the wage gap, male household dominance, the orientation of mass culture toward encouraging women to be "man-pleasing", and so on' there is a sense that these arguments - fashionable today in the radical left milieu - are all somehow completely new. Certainly Seymour does little to disabuse readers of this idea by mentioning any past writing or theorising on this question.
This is combined with a wider argument - taking place internationally - that somehow 'socialists need feminism' in the twenty-first century to both adequately understand and challenge women's oppression, by incorporating 'patriarchy theory' into Marxist theory (for example, if one wishes, again see Seymour). Again, these are not particularly new arguments, but build on a wider historic theoretical tradition of 'socialist feminism' and 'Marxist feminism' dating back to the 1970s. In the US, for example, one leading Marxist - Sharon Smith of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) has made the case for an adaptation of classical Marxist theory in the direction of 'socialist feminism', arguing that 'some in our own tradition, the International Socialist tradition ... fell into a [class] reductionist approach to women's liberation a few decades ago. And I would also argue that our own organization has borne the stamp of this training on a couple of key theoretical points, which I want to briefly summarize.' It is worth quoting Smith's argument at length:
'First, what is reductionism? In its purest form, reductionism is the notion that the class struggle will resolve the problem of sexism on its own, by revealing true class interests, as opposed to false consciousness. So this approach "reduces" issues of oppression to an issue of class. It's also usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interests of men in doing away with women's oppression - without taking on the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class? Now, obviously this crude approach does not describe the IS tradition, which certainly since the 1960s women's liberation movement has taken women's liberation seriously as central to the struggle for socialism.
However, I would argue that there was an adaptation in the direction of reductionism, and a tendency to minimize the oppression experienced by working-class women, which led to a mistaken theoretical litmus test involving the question of whether working class men "benefit" from women's oppression. I also want to make it clear here that I am not simply finger-pointing here, since, to a lesser degree, we in the ISO adopted a similar approach.
There was a set of articles and a debate in the mid-1980s in a series of articles in the International Socialism Journal involving some of the key leaders of the Socialist Workers Party-Britain, which began to take up the issues I just described. I can't summarize the entire debate, but I can just lay out some of the key points. Let's start with a 1984 article titled 'Women's Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism' by Chris Harman, a leading member of the SWP (I want to make clear that Chris Harman was one of the greatest Marxists of his time, who played a key role in training many of us in the ISO, so the issue I am about to describe represents a small, if significant, detraction from his otherwise enormous contribution to Marxism). In the article, Harman argues:
''In fact, however, the benefits working class men get from the oppression of women are marginal indeed...The benefits really come down to the question of housework. The question becomes the extent to which working class men benefit from women's unpaid labor. What the working class male gains directly in terms of labor from his wife can be roughly measured. It is the amount of labor he would have to exert if he had to clean and cook for himself. This could not be more than an hour or two a day - a burden for a woman who has to do this work for two people after a day's paid labor, but not a huge gain for the male worker.''
It is worth noting that Harman's comments above were describing the "marginal" benefits men experienced without children adding to women's burden within the household. Another British socialist, John Molyneux, responded to Harman's argument, saying that male benefits are more than marginal: "Harman tells us that this is 'a burden for the woman who has to do this work for two people after a day's paid labor,' so why is it not an important gain for the [male] worker not to have to do it?"
Molyneux's arguments drew a sharp response from SWP Central Committee members Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor, and Molyneux replied equally sharply. The debate did not end until 1986. Lindsey German made a point of arguing, "[T]he differences and advantages that men have are by no means massive; nor are they even the substantial benefits that John claims. So there is no material basis for men being 'bought off' by these advantages."
Sheila McGregor argued as if Molyneux was well on the road to abandoning Marxism entirely: "If we are to have an adequate theory of women's oppression and how to fight it, we need to base ourselves on the Marxist tradition. John's position, that working-class men do benefit from women's oppression, is the first step toward departing from that tradition."
Along the way in this debate, the position changed from what Harman had argued - that male benefits were "marginal" - - to the claim that working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all - along with the claim that even the advantages men have over women inside the family are not "substantial."
While it is true that capital is the primary beneficiary of women's oppression in the family and of all the sexist garbage used to reinforce women's second-class citizenship - and also that working-class men have an objective class interest in the liberation of women - I would also argue that posing the argument this way results in a tendency to minimize the severity of women's oppression and underplay the need to combat it inside the working class...
Furthermore, the truth is that feminism is a broad and multifaceted movement, with many different wings and many different theoretical foundations. To set up a straw figure of "feminism," based on its most bourgeois forms, knock it down, and then think our job is done intellectually does a disservice to the fight against women's oppression. There are important debates that have taken place between feminists that we have remained largely ignorant about that can be playing a role in advancing our understanding both of women's oppression and of Marxism itself.'
Of course, there are many strands of feminism - and of course socialists and Marxists should work alongside and indeed can learn much from the very best feminist activists, as well as engaging with theoretical debates among feminists. It is the case that some writings by SWP authors over the years might today look unnecessarily critical of 'feminism' and even possibly partly 'class reductionist'. For example, in 1983 Tony Cliff wrote a book entitled Class Struggle and Women's Liberation, which was a book very much of its time - and written at speed in a highly polemical manner at a time when feminist ideas were in general moving to the right under the defeats of the wider working class movement under Thatcherism, and there was a danger these would pull the revolutionary Left to the right as well. Today, as mentioned above, when many feminists have recently made a turn towards anti-capitalism in the context of the wider ideological crisis in society, the tone of parts of Cliff's argument seem unnecessarily harsh.
However, Smith and others seem to have slightly caricatured the actual debate that took place in the ISJ between Harman, Molyneux, McGregor and German here. In actuality, 'the position' did not in a profound way 'change from what Harman had argued - that male benefits were "marginal" - to the claim that working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all - along with the claim that even the advantages men have over women inside the family are not "substantial."' As Lindsey German put it in 1986, when summing up the debate,
'it is therefore worth stating once again what is really involved in the argument about whether working-class men benefit from women’s oppression. It is not ... about whether working-class men have marginal advantages over their wives. After all, in my article on 'Theories of Patriarchy', I talk about the ‘marginal benefits’ which accrue to working-class men. Chris Harman quoted these comments favourably in his article 'Women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism'. Neither is the argument about whether women’s oppression exists ... Myself, Sheila [McGregor] and Chris Harman have all gone to some lengths to develop a theory of women’s oppression which roots it in class society and not in the individual relations between men and women. Indeed, it is here that we all part company with John [Molyneux]’s analysis, which all too often slips into the error of seeing women’s oppression as caused by the relations between individuals, rather than seeing those relations as in fact a product of the class nature of oppression.
The real issue at debate, therefore, is not at all whether there are marginal advantages, but whether these are the cause of women’s oppression, and what the political consequences are in terms of organising men and women workers. Whatever advantages working-class men might have, their interests, just like those of working-class women, lie in joining the fight against women’s oppression. This is because the roots of women’s oppression lie in class society in general and capitalist society in particular.
The reason the argument between ourselves and John is a serious one is because the great divide between Marxists and patriarchy theorists is over precisely this point. Their ideas explain women’s oppression in terms of male domination – regardless of class or of the class nature of a particular society. We, in contrast, see it caused by the development of exploitation. The capitalist system rests on the exploitation of workers, both men and women. Women workers also suffer a specific oppression which is located in the continuing privatised reproduction of labour power. This points to a solution which involves collective working-class action.
The point of our argument has been to show that patriarchy theorists – especially those who claimed to be materialists like Heidi Hartmann – were wrong. She and others like her claimed that the material benefits which men gained from the oppression of women were such that they wedded men not to fighting this oppressive system, but to its maintenance instead. The argument has been developed, in much less theoretical form, by many feminists inside the women’s movement. The argument, as I argued then, is complete nonsense. Even a cursory look at working-class history, or the pattern of class struggle, showed that. It was, however, this argument that led me to argue that you cannot talk about the ‘benefits’ accruing to men unless you talk about the system as a whole. Once you take the system as a whole it is much clearer that the real beneficiary of women’s oppression is the capitalist system itself... It is still the central point of the argument...
The appeal of the argument that men benefit from women’s oppression is a real one, and highly understandable. It appears to reflect reality. Most of the time under capitalism people only see fragmentary and superficial aspects of the system. As a result, if you only go by immediate, empirical impressions, you get quite a confused idea about what the system as a whole is about. When it comes to the problem of locating the source of women’s oppression, it is all too easy simply to take surface appearances and mistake them for reality. So people who take a superficial view only notice that working-class women suffer disadvantages compared with men, and therefore conclude it is the working-class man’s ‘benefits’ which maintain oppression. This is what patriarchy theory does. That is why its talk about ‘male benefits’ can be so popular. It fits with the ‘common sense’ of those who live in capitalist society at a time when it is not being shaken to its root by massive class struggle. But that is precisely why Marxists have to disagree fundamentally with it. That is also why it is very important to argue strongly with those like John who are excellent Marxists when it comes to other issues, but who fall into the trap of feeling it is ‘unreasonable’ to dismiss such common sense arguments out of hand.
It is also worth noting German's point in 1986 that 'the argument about men benefiting continues to have some resonance precisely because we live in the sort of period that we do. It is a reflection of a low level of class struggle; of twelve years of deep recession throughout the world; and of the hold of deeply reactionary ideas about women which still exist. However, to explain why the argument is current now (in a way that it certainly wasn’t fifteen years ago) is not to justify or to concede to it. It does lead to reactionary conclusions, in the sense that it takes at least part of the blame away from the class enemy, and puts it at the door of individual men.'
Overall, then, discussion of 'patriarchy', 'male privilege' and 'maleness' (to use Seymour's term - in his writings on this question, he is essentially borrowing from critical race theory and discussions of 'whiteness' and mixing them with gender theory) does begin to take us away from revolutionary Marxism - both theoretically and practically - and therefore can be seen as a kind of 'theoretical litmus test'. Moreover, I am not convinced when Sharon Smith suggests that defending a classical Marxist understanding of women's oppression and so challenging the arguments about 'male benefits' in the manner Chris Harman, Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German did in the ISJ 'results in a tendency to minimize the severity of women's oppression and underplay the need to combat it inside the working class'. As McGregor noted, if taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument becomes one that suggests 'that revolutionary men are not capable of fighting for women’s liberation as they cannot be trusted to understand that the revolutionary struggle requires combating sexist divisions inside the working class. If men cannot be trusted to fight women’s oppression, then whites cannot be trusted to fight racial oppression, in fact no one can be trusted to fight oppression unless they themselves are oppressed. The only logical conclusion to such a position is that it is impossible to build a revolutionary party within the working class which will lead a systematic struggle against all oppression and further that the working class itself is incapable of transcending its own internal divisions.'
This is not to say that Smith is going as far as that - she is not - though by making a theoretical shift towards 'socialist feminism' and in the process unfairly accusing the British SWP of a historic tendency towards 'class reductionism', she is in danger of playing down the absolute centrality of class struggle to the fight for women's liberation. To quote Lindsey German in 1986 again:
'All the evidence suggests, when one looks at society in the process of upheaval, that as the level of class struggle rises the tendency is for the differences between men and women to diminish ... the essence of class struggle is change – men and women changing the world and in the process changing themselves. This is the overwhelming factor which can lead to women’s liberation – not individual consciousness-raising or getting a slightly bigger share of the reformist cake for women. Nor is it just a pipe dream. Where the divisions of society are laid bare, we begin to see a very different picture from the present ‘common sense’ that men are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression. That was why the Russian revolution did more for the liberation of women than any other event in world history ... Nor is class unity merely a long-term factor. Even in the short term, men don’t benefit from nurseries being shut down, or from women getting lower pay or any of the other features of women’s oppression – because these are attacks not just on individual women but on the living standards of the whole working class. Given women’s role in social production over the last forty or fifty years, the role of class struggle, of collective class action in fighting women’s oppression, becomes even more central. The fight against women’s oppression cannot be divorced from the fight to end class society; therefore the fight against oppression and the fight against capitalist exploitation become one and the same.'
Edited to add: Judith Orr discusses 'privilege theory' and women's liberation in this weeks Socialist Worker