Marxism, Feminism and #MeToo
The following is an edited version of a talk given by BT supporter Roxanne Baker at Goldsmiths, University of London, 17 February 2018.
There has always been a separation between feminism and Marxism. The fault lines don’t change as much as each new generation of activists tends to assume. The form differs, but the same fundamental patterns reassert themselves because we are still operating within class society – more specifically, within capitalist society.
A hundred years after the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it is worth examining the courageous, ground-breaking feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst (which was also separatist and elitist). It is also worth comparing it to the activity of her communist daughter Sylvia who focused on working class women in the East End. The distance between these two counterposed approaches has varied during the last century, yet the fundamental ideological divergence has remained. The fight for women’s emancipation is inextricably tied up with the fight for human emancipation – that is, the struggle to end class society and all the forms of social oppression it generates. Concrete struggles to address particular aspects of women’s oppression today must be taken up, but the victories won can only be partial and transitory as long as capital rules. The material basis for completely uprooting the cause of women’s suffering requires a revolutionary social transformation. This can only be accomplished by the creation of a mass revolutionary party, based on a Marxist programme and composed of revolutionary women and men together in the same organisation committed to fight for the interests of all the exploited and oppressed.
It is important to try to clarify what the real, as opposed to imagined, differences are between Marxists and feminists [see “Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation”]. Many feminists believe that socialists tend to see women’s rights as something that can all just wait until after the revolution. But the genuinely revolutionary left has always considered the fight for women’s freedom as fundamental to the struggle for a socialist future. The fight against the “special oppression” of women and other oppressed groups (racial, ethnic and sexual minorities) will be crucial to assembling the social forces necessary to effectively challenge the control of a powerfully entrenched ruling class. This is inconceivable without the active participation of the female half of the population. But the converse is also true. To try to end women’s oppression without a class perspective, without a perspective of overturning capitalist tyranny, is not only counterproductive but has also been shown to result in the betrayal of those who most need to be unshackled – the poorest and most oppressed women around the world.
Feminism, even in its “socialist-feminist” manifestation, tends to prioritise female emancipation over all other questions, or at least to approach the problem of class divisions alongside gender divisions – to equate class oppression with “patriarchy”. The advocates of intersectionality do this with so-called “classism” – which they put on a par with other “isms”.
This leads feminists to emphasise the autonomy of women’s organisations. Our organisation, which identifies with the tradition of the Russian Revolution, advocates the creation of a mass communist women’s movement (and organisations of other oppressed layers) as transitional organisations focused on the revolutionary mobilisation of women by actively addressing their particular concerns. To be effective, such organisations must exercise considerable autonomy in the sense of being able to decide how to allocate their forces and what priorities to pursue at a particular moment. But they exercise this autonomy as part of a division of labour in a unified movement adhering to a common revolutionary programme, embodied in a revolutionary party.
Marxists take women’s rights seriously now, not just in a future communist society. IBT comrades – male and female – in Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and elsewhere have a record of active participation in united fronts around specific issues, such as defence of abortion rights, decriminalizing homosexuality and legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Issues such as reproductive rights, childcare, healthcare and housing disproportionately affect women but struggles around them are obviously crucial to the interests of the whole working class [see “The Struggle for Abortion Rights in Ireland”, “Rape and Women’s Rights” and “Thirty Years of Homosexual Law Reform”].
The current #MeToo campaign that began with accusations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, who seems pretty clearly to have been a serial abuser, is a good example of where Marxists and feminists both overlap and diverge. The unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments, judgement on our “morality”, sexual attractiveness, etc, that all women experience have a cumulative effect and comprise a large component of women’s oppression under capitalism. The #MeToo campaign on social media has exposed how widespread this is, how “normal” and how ingrained in our culture. Obviously this needs to change.
Where Marxists diverge from feminists is on how this can be done. The deep structure of social relations that condition all aspects of life – including relations between men and women – cannot be fixed on an individual level, nor by any process that pits women against men. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and inequalities between individual men and women reflect the economic and social oppression generated by the profound inequality of power, status and economic resources. Individual behaviour can be modified, and social pressure can be brought to bear, and is being brought to bear, to reduce the incidence of these abuses. But the root of the problem cannot be addressed simply by re-educating men – only through undoing the power disparities that come with capitalism.
The #MeToo campaign, which aims to empower women, focuses on the sexual indignities and criminal assaults we have suffered. But this can play easily into the hands of those who want to deny us sexual agency and who would present sexual activity as a danger to women. Marxists, and I think most feminists, reject this and instead want to fight for a society where everyone is free to express their own sexuality free of any sort of legal or economic compulsion on a fully consensual basis.
It is important to distinguish sufficiently between a vast spectrum of incidents, ranging from rape to unwanted comments on the street. Neither is acceptable, but these are actions of very different magnitudes which deserve very different responses and consequences for the perpetrator. The bourgeois justice system is notoriously bad at dealing with rape. But to respond to this by asserting that all accusations should be believed and made public fosters a climate of “trial by media” that will not guarantee justice for the victims and can end up destroying the lives and careers of the innocent. Disregarding the principles of “due process” and the presumption of innocence creates dangerous precedents for working women and men – particularly for those who dare challenge the ruling class. For example, employers otherwise uninterested in the well-being of their female employees might be very happy to use unsubstantiated charges against trade union militants as a pretext for firing.
Similar sorts of accusations have historically been used to target leftists and others considered dangerous or inconvenient. In the U.S., lynchings of black men were traditionally motivated by claims that they had somehow encroached on the sexual purity of white women. Men who assault or rape women should of course suffer severe consequences, but the limited safeguards won in the past to protect the innocent against arbitrary and capricious persecution by the state or employers should be vigorously protected.
It is noticeable that the mainstream media only began to take serious notice of sexual harassment in the workplace when it involved high-profile Hollywood celebrities and the like. The constant unrelenting sexual harassment of low paid women in the service industries is of no great interest – presumably because it is not glamorous. Women are at greater risk of sexual harassment and assault when other inequalities are present.
Successful bourgeois politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Theresa May and Angela Merkel have shown how gender is less relevant than political programme – under their watch nothing much changes for ordinary working women. They talk about women’s equality, but their actions are determined by serving and protecting the status quo. Any attempt to build female unity across class lines can only amount to subordinating the interests of poor, black and working-class women to those of the rich, ruling class women who derive substantial benefit from the existing social order, despite whatever prejudices they also experience as women.
The Marxist strategy of uniting all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism is the only way to lay the basis for a world free of social inequality and material want, and thus the possibility for each woman or man to pursue their own path and enjoy fulfilling personal lives. The pathology of sexual violence is, at bottom, a social problem which derives from a society which celebrates and rewards selfishness, possessiveness and the ability to wield power over others. The only way that full human potential can be realised is through the creation of a rationally-planned socialist economy that can provide secure access to the essentials of existence for all. Once the material basis for social egalitarianism is achieved the daily brutalities experienced by women at every social level, but particularly by those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, will gradually become a thing of the past. Until then the best we can do is to struggle against the inequities – both great and small – imposed by capitalism while actively seeking to construct a viable revolutionary movement capable of ending the horrors of class society once and for all.