Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, March 04, 2013

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that took place in the 1970s and 1980s at the time of the mass Women's Liberation Movement itself are so completely outdated as to be irrelevant - and so when someone like Richard Seymour for example now talks of 'male privilege' and the 'ostensible compensations of "maleness" ...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

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At 12:02 pm, Anonymous David Renton said...

Sonwball, is it possible to refute the reality that women and men contribute vastly different amounts to the upbringing of a child, by simply saying that it would be politically more helpful if men and women united against capitalism? Whether we speak of male privilege or not, we can hardly miss the reality that women are paid less than men doing the same work: c40% less over a career in higher education, for example, judging by pension settlements. In a relationship where two people are both lecturers in HE, and both contribute unequally to childcare, and the man earns 40% career pay more than the woman, in what meaningful sense has he not benefited from women's oppression?

At 1:28 pm, Anonymous oskarsdrum said...

absolutely David! unfortunately I don't have time to add a full response to this article, i'd love to since it's an incredibly important debate - partly as it is symptomatic of a number of the revolutionary left's problems.

in general though, the 'IS tradition' theory is only adequate if you stick to an irrelevantly high level of analytic abstraction. as soon as you start looking in more detail - is it really the case that none of the diverse set of phenomena caused by sexism have an immediate benefit for working class men; why is it that attitudes to gender have changed so markedly for the better over recent decades of low class struggle; although men don't benefit from most domestic violence why is it so prevalent; doesn't it seem that feminist campaigns have achieved huge (though incomplete) improvements in services such as police/courts/welfare responses to violence against women.......? ? ? what about other capitalist countries with much more severe women's oppression than in W Europe? and many others.

the airy dismissal of socialist feminism effectively closes off the discussion just at the point where it should start - and this makes us look ridiculous to most socialists and other w. class activists (who don't cling to a taboo on the F word). finally. I think a lot of the difficulties stem from a tendency to reduce all discussions of popular ideology-practice to "the prevailing ideas of society are those of the ruling class" - which again, is a start, but a terrible functionalist conclusion. the material processes that produce & reproduce attitudes and behaviour need far closer analysis.

ok that's quite long so you might think, well what the hell is this guy's response in full, ah well!

At 4:26 pm, Anonymous David Renton said...

Hi Oskarsdrum (and Snowy); couldn't agree more. The danger is of pinching the theoretical insight at such a general level that in fact you're not offering a real explanation of anything. EG one problem the left in the UK could desperately do with getting our heads around just now is the issue of predatory male sexual conduct. (A topic which revealingly this week's SW skips altogether, despite having a lengthy post on women's oppression http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30740). Just saying "it's the family" or "male economic privilege" or even "men and women should unite to fight capitalism" can't explain either why DV is so prevalent, or (as you rightly point out) why there is more social stigma about it than there used to be. Without having some mid-level theories which join the big Marxist concepts to the matters you're actually explaining, you end up giving the impression of not having the intellectual confidence to dare explain them. Really, why is it that 40 years after the Ruskin conference, and 30 years after Women's Voice, we can't point to a single IS author who has ever even tried to write anything distinctive about rape? This is one moment in particular where that collective lack of nerve could hardly fail to be spotted outside our ranks.

At 4:37 pm, Anonymous Kate said...

Snowball, I don't know who you are, but you are channelling my thoughts.

Thanks for the post.

At 5:10 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks people for comments - I am aware my argument is a bit abstract - I was really just trying to highlight mainly the fact that the contributions to this important ISJ debate are now online on the Marxist Internet Archive now so people can read (or, as seems to be necessary with some comrades, re-read them again).

Dave - your argument once again starts with the individual case not society as a totality, and can therefore point to marginal benefits to the man, but this misses out the overwhelming material class interest at stake here. The working class is, as Marx put it, a 'universal class' - its emancipation can only be won through challenging the oppression facing all sections of that class, whether racism or sexism or whatever. In turn, the working class has a direct material interest in the liberation of not only itself from exploitation but the whole of society from oppression. This is of course 'abstract' - but it is only by starting with abstractions like 'class' that one can move towards analysis of eg the concrete role of the family (and so 'domestic slavery' etc) under the latest phase of capitalism. Incidentally on rape and domestic violence, what about say Sheila McGregor on 'rape, pornography and capitalism' from 1989, itself building on pioneering Marxist analyses on rape in Socialist Review and Socialist Worker Review by Julie Waterson in the 1980s?

Oskarsdrum - of course one must not be sectarian to 'socialist feminism' - and because this piece was a cut and paste job it may well have read too much like that - if so apologies - but that said, there is a reformist logic to socialist feminism that comes out in your argument (eg 'doesn't it seem that feminist campaigns have achieved huge (though incomplete) improvements in services such as police/courts/welfare responses to violence against women?') that should at least be acknowledged by revolutionary Marxists as problematic. Is the socialist solution to women's liberation really to work to reform the police under capitalism and make them more 'caring' and 'sensitive' to women and black people? Is that really what you think a revolutionary paper like Socialist Worker should be demanding with respect to women's liberation and black liberation?

At 5:31 pm, Anonymous Criticallythinking said...

That is quite the most ludicrous straw man caricature of what Oskarsdrum actually said. Pointing conceretely to limited and incomplete reforms achieved is "reformist"? It matters not one jot what feminists have managed to do in terms of raising the question of how the bourgeois authorities deal with questions of rape and domestic abuse - because that's just reformist? Sorry comrade, but this is the reasoning of an idiot.

At 5:44 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the contributions to this important ISJ debate are now online on the Marxist Internet Archive now so people can read (or, as seems to be necessary with some comrades, re-read them again).

You know, if people don't agree with you, it ain't because of insufficient reading. It's because they disagree with what they have read.

At 5:55 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

I am not having a go at the important but limited reforms themselves - merely pointing out there is a potentially problematic reformist logic to both his and your argument here, that might strengthen for example the idea that the police and bourgeois authorities have some kind of automatic moral high ground now to make them the place for women to go to deal with questions of rape and domestic abuse. Revolutionaries traditionally have always been careful to try and avoid doing anything which can give the state more powers to intervene in the lives of ordinary people than is strictly necessary. For more discussion of why, see for example this piece by Julie Waterson.

At 5:55 pm, Anonymous David Renton said...

Thanks for making me re-read Sheila's article. Which, in fairness, is better than I had remembered, more about why rape actually happens and less (than I had recalled) of a straw-woman denunciation of an earlier cohort of radical feminists.

In particular there are some useful ideas in it about uncompleted rapes, male egoism and lack of acknowledgment of rape, and women's retrospective analysis of consent, which might be helpful things for comrades to be reflecting on just now ...

You have also (rightly) put up a link to Judith's newly-published piece. One thing you criticised Smith for is mischaracterising the SWP's position as "working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all". But, when you re-read Judith's piece, isn't that the position she takes?

Lindsey of course acknowledged marginal benefits but said they weren't the point. Judith doesn't acknowledge that even marginal benefits exists. Rereading Judith, hasn't she reverted to the position the ISO says we have?

On "benefits": of course, I accept that compared to the world historic expropriation of all humanity by class society, an extra £200,000 per lifetime is too little to constitute any meaningful "benefit". But £200k isn't worth sneering at, it's rather more than (for example) the difference between Protestant and Catholic in 1970s N Ireland.

Wouldn't we do better to say something like "of course there are benefits", but there is no mechanism by which a man chooses this benefit, class society chooses it for him and the more that people are conscious of it, he more that they, both men and women, reject it.

(I'm thinking here of Cliff's point in his old Labour Aristocracy article, against Lenin's notion of the superexploitation of the third world: from memory, he made a point along the lines of - without a mechanism attaching this benefit to first world workers, there is no meaningful sense in which you can describe them as having chosen to be complicit in global inequality... in truth I've probably misremembered Cliff, like I misremembered McGregor!)

Finally, I don't see the need for Marxists to distinguish their politics from "socialist feminism"; to what? Pure "Socialism"? Many writers in the IS tradition - possibly a majority of those who have written about feminism - have used shorthand to describe their positions like "Women's Liberation", "Socialist Feminism", etc.

I can see an argument for criticising "bourgeois feminism" as a non-Marxist position to be rejected, but "socialist feminism"?

At 6:00 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Anonymous - yes, of course - many people will disagree with whatever Marxists write on any question - but if they are not Marxists themselves, on one level, this is not surprising.

What I guess I was hoping to provoke - and indeed have apparently succeeded in provoking - is an argument among Marxists about this question. That old ISJ articles are now up on the internet does not in itself of course settle any argument - but they might help to inform and clarify the debate among Marxists that is taking place today - that is all. If people (Marxists or non Marxists) disagree with the argument - then they are perfectly free to put their own arguments - indeed I am sure the pages of the ISJ itself would welcome such debates and arguments should people want to revisit and write longer contributions on this question.

At 6:09 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Dave you are too soft - it is true that for example Lindsey German now calls herself a 'socialist feminist', but historically Marxists in the IS tradition (including I suspect Lindsey German in the 1980s but would have to find the exact quote to be sure) have tried to make the argument that 'socialist feminism' is something of a theoretical contradiction in terms - and we therefore need to try and win people from even the best forms of 'socialist feminism' to revolutionary Marxism.

Of course, it depends a bit on the context - if you are at a meeting and someone right wing / sexist denounces feminism I am sure any Marxist might well challenge them by saying well, they were a feminist out of solidarity. I certainly would in that circumstance - it depends a bit on the circumstances I think though.

At 6:26 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really good article, and thanks for putting all this stuff together here, Snowball

Criticallythinking -i don't see the response to Oskarsdrum as the caracature you see it as - and i don't think i'm being an idiot here.

You can tell me i'm conflating issues or misconstruing what i'm reading (yes indeed it's all a bit abstract!) but I think there is no way a male teacher at my work benefits from me a female one having worse conditions; gender-linked or whatever. It's not his fault and i don't blame him as a man (even if he was a bit of an old-fashioned sexist nobhead - be happy to argue with him on a picket line). But i would DEFINITELY feel betrayed if he scabbed on a strike.
I would strike for improvements to all our conditions his *and* mine. Solidarity is the key in these times, surely.
Of course i want o take every opportunity to reveal the systemic sexism and racism, whatever - and winning campaigns to demolish bits of it is brilliant when it can be done- victory is always a great filip.
Over-emphasising the importance of fighting this front is probably due to realising that we women sufferinequality on a daily basis - but that in itself is a moral observation, not a political consciousness, surely.
Anyway, i just thought i'd add my thoughts.
-I'm not a member of any party or anything, but i have spoken to a lot who are at my work and outside, and it seems these ideas need discussing, understanding (better than i can), cos it would be a shame to see some very good activists lose their way & even get bitter.

At 6:32 pm, Anonymous David Renton said...

Let me leave aside the question of whether socialists in the IS (not least the several hundred who contributed to Women's Voice over the best part of a decade, i.e. several more people than just Lindsey) were retrospectively wrong to see themselves as taking part in a Women's Liberation or socialist feminist project...

You've not answered my points about privilege. So let me restate them more directly:

i) In what meaningful sense is a pay boost of £200k per career not a "benefit" to men?

ii) Given the position of Judith's article's on male privilege (ie it doesn't happen) how is Sharon Smith wrong to characterise the denial of male benefits as the SWP's present position?

Answers please this time

At 10:14 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Dave - in reply to your questions

i) yes, a small 'benefit' but in the scheme of things arguably not a critical one at a time when both your hypothetical lecturers will be having their pay cut in real terms and their pensions raided - and so there is no material benefit in the sense that it becomes in the interests of the male lecturer to not fight alongside female lecturers to resist these attacks.

ii) Judith's piece was a short polemical piece in Socialist Worker - she did not explicitly say that there was not a possible marginal benefit to individual men - but rather than get into this argument - which would be better situated in a longer more analytical piece - she chose to focus on the main issue - which is how class struggles can transform people's perspectives about women's liberation and its potential.

Also - it is interesting to note the shifts in language - what was once called 'the Women's Liberation Movement' of the 1970s and 1980s by all involved (socialists and feminists), after its decline as a movement, became retrospectively increasingly seen as the 'women's movement' and then 'second wave feminism' by feminists - a narrowing down of how the women's liberation movement originally saw itself in dialogue and solidarity with other movements for liberation - eg national liberation, black liberation, gay liberation etc etc.

Incidentally, a final aside on Richard Seymour - it is interesting that while Seymour does acknowledge class as a factor in a discussion of 'male privilege', he rarely if ever gives any hint of the need to concretely examine class relations and class struggles to see how they shape the extent and nature of possible 'psychological' and other material privileges. Then again, perhaps talk of the centrality of class struggle is too reminiscent for him of what he once termed the 'old polemics against "feminism", always somewhat dogmatic, from the 1980s'...

At 3:00 pm, Anonymous oskarsdrum said...

Many excellent points there in my view David.

Snowball, you’re right that we need a more extended debate on this and ISJ would be a useful means for this. Some kind of regular bulletin style format would probably be best of all, for wider participation, but that’s a separate issue….

There is a significant danger in a position that disregards the reformist gains that have been hard won by feminists in recent decades, especially when combined with a simplistic ‘join the party – unite the struggle’ alternative. Why would working class feminists believe that we’re fighting on their side, if we treat big improvements such as in services countering sexist violence as of little importance? I think the ‘reformist logic’ suggestion is misplaced, most working class feminists are well aware that organisation and struggle is the way to change society for the better. After all none of the counter-sexist reforms were gifted by the benevolence of the state. But this isn’t by any means to say that feminists on the left are right about everything, I’d say that an inadequate understanding of class politics and a tendency to overstate the role of men-as-such in reproducing oppression, for example, are quite prevalent amongst non-Marxist left-feminists. But just as pretending we agree with them on everything can only lead to trouble, an inverse dishonesty about the difficulties and gaps in our own theory makes impossible a meaningful engagement with them.

On the benefits accruing to the male in the lecturer couple. It would be plainly ludicrous to suggest that this situation prevents men and women from joining together in class struggle! That’s not at issue. But if we take seriously the male benefit here, we need to consider the effect that it might have in a non-superficial way. Is it not likely to have an ever-present effect on the consciousness of both men and women where this occurs? Is it really inconceivable that women may gain politically from some forms of organisation as women, to help understand and resist the aspects of oppression that are manifested in relationships with working-class men? And it is surely the duty of socialist men to be extraordinarily vigilant against the tendencies towards perpetrating oppressive behaviour themselves. This is made much more difficult in a context where a casual reading of Harman/McGregor/German/Cliff can be deployed in dismissal of concerns raised by women about individual relationships – which only exist as part of a structure, of course (I should say, this is a general point about a longstanding problem).

As for concrete analysis of class struggle on gender practice. Yes, that’s an interesting subject, although not unreasonably outside the purview of Richard’s couple of blog posts. The usual miners anecdotes aside, do you have any references to serious attempts to do this? There’s a tremendous fusion of the concrete and the theoretical in Phillipe Bourgois’ fine (if not avowedly Marxist) study “In Search of Respect”, tracing the gender effects of the neoliberal deindustrialisation that effectively sub-proletarianised whole communities of inner city New Yorkers. Combined with the standard of living destruction, the loss of traditionally male status around ‘breadwinning’ and physical industrial labour brought about a serious increase in oppression for the women in this community, as replacement statuses/identities emerged based on sexist violence. Not much struggle though, in this gloomy story!

At 5:07 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hold on: the lesser pay of a female lecturer in a relationship and raising children with a male lecturer benefits him in what way exactly? because together they have 20% less pay than they would have if she were being paid an equal amount? or because a higher proportion of his income goes to covering what they pay out every month to keep a roof over their heads? it does not seem to me to require too high a level of abstraction to see how working class men pay a price for women's oppression, and that's even leaving aside the non-material end of things.

At 1:48 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with feminist theories of hierarchies of privilege is that this ignores the very real class distinctions between women. If, as patriarchy theorists claim, men benefit from women's oppression then how do they explain Margaret Thatcher and Condoleezza Rice?

Are these women simply dupes of patriarchy or do they materially benefit from exploiting workers including women's low wages and all the other benefits the nuclear family provides capitalism with?

Of course the evidence shows that as part of the ruling class both men and women benefit from the exploitation of workers. Once we apply a class analysis to exploitation it is clear in whose interests the perpetuation of exploitation and oppression lies and patriarchy theory falls apart like a house of cards.

Another problem for contemporary patriarchy theorists is their reluctance to acknowledge, out of ignorance or opportunism, the importance of the historical roots of their own theories. Not only do these revisionists attempt to legitimise their rehash of feminism by playing down or denying a link with their theoretical past but they seek to deny or minimise the significant role that marxists have had in popularising the struggle against women's oppression as well as fighting for reforms.

At its worst this strategy has led to the personalisation of the debate to the extent that those in disagreement with patriarchy theory are characterised as tools of oppression and enemies of women's liberation. This type of moralism has led to the most opportunistic red baiting and the adoption of Cold War canards to try to discredit a class analysis and the revolutionary left. The fact that former revolutionaries have indulged in this or given their tacit support for these tactics says a lot about the demoralisation among the left and the opportunism of this recent strategy.

Despite certain limited reforms, sexism has become entrenched and commodified to an extent that capitalists could only dream of 40 years ago. The gap between rich and poor is even wider while the cuts will ensure the burden of rearing the next generation of workers falls even harder on both male and female workers.

The perpetuation of women's oppression is not the result of a class analysis but the continuation of class society and all the structural forms such as the nuclear family that ensures its perpetuation.

On a more positive note these debates will encourage a new layer of workers to question what is at the root not only of women's oppression but the perpetuation of this oppressive system. Patriarchy theorists have no coherent answer to this question as is evident from Richard Seymour's analysis. And as he is one of the few among the current revisionists to have attempted to offer a political analysis the opportunity for socialists to offer a class analysis as an alternative is even more important than ever.


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