It’s Dark But It’s Promising, This Marxist Feminist Ground

After an anti-budget-cut organizing meeting last spring, I told a Marxist party militant that I’d heard he argued “feminism is bourgeois.”  He explained that it’s bourgeois because it seeks to end oppressive social relations without overthrowing capitalism, and that of course he’s for equal rights for women but the school of thought known as “feminism” is not going to be helpful in making that happen.  Sadly enough this incorrect (and I might add patriarchal) perspective is not new to “marxists.” Not only does this class-reductionist claim ignore the way capitalist social relations effect gender social relations (which feminism addresses), but it also erases the long history of Marxist, radical or materialist feminists that actively critique capitalism.  Since the ’70s lots of feminists have left Marxism behind, many seeing the work of Marx and his various successors as unhelpful to liberation from patriarchy or even supportive of gendered hierarchies; this strangely parallels the way this Marxist party militant failed to see the vital necessity of feminism in our struggle today.  Are these dynamics changing?  Are revolutionaries less patriarchal today?  Are feminists becoming more interested in revolutionary anti-capitalism?

Kloncke, a feminist blogger and friend of AS, has been guest-blogging at Feministe recently and doing some honest exploration of her experiences with feminism, Marxism and the recent Marxist Feminist group started by an AS militant.  There are a lot of interesting responses in the comments at Feministe, including some Marxists who take up a  lot of space debating where we should really be “patiently explaining.”  Kloncke’s post is a good example of the sort of humble questioning and careful pedagogy that we’re all going to need if we hope to bring revolutionary theory to the current and coming self-organization of the class.  Check it out, and share some thoughts on feminism and Marxism in this time of crisis!

[To commenters: Kloncke laid out a Buddhist-influenced comment guide here that asks us in summary to " (1) Abstain from snark; (2) Prioritize the positive; (3) Honor our bodies; (4) Be honest(ly); and (5) Get friendly with silence."  While this may seem hippy-dippy to some of our more hard-boiled economic determinists, I think it's both wise and helpful for getting into these complex subjects together.  Try it out compas!]

It’s Dark But It’s Promising, This Marxist Feminist Ground

by Kloncke

Among the searchlights of critical thinking, feminism is one heck of a beam, right?

For a while there, my Women’s Studies classes served up mind-fuck after delicious mind-fuck: teaching me how to pick apart and expose the essencelessness, the cultural and historical contingencies, of so many “natural” or “obvious” patterns. Feminism also gave me a keen eye for harm: especially the kind of harm that results from apparent ‘progress.’ Those invisible, or supposedly inevitable ‘externalities’: one group getting saved while another gets screwed. Feminism was like this twin engine for understanding reality: extreme possibility and extreme constraint. Exciting, for sure. Made me feel like I had a good grip on the truth.

But after a while my feminism hit a block. I just didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Jessica Valenti describes the same sense of dissatisfaction with the academic side of things in Full Frontal Feminism:

When I started coming home from grad school with ideas and theories I couldn’t talk to [my mom] about, academic feminism ceased to be truly useful for me.

…[A]cademic feminism isn’t for me. I like activism.

But in activism, too, I ran into trouble. Shining my own critical beam on myself, I found that my activist feminisms tended to screw over some people (especially poor people): either by engendering more harms or creating the mere illusion of material gains where none really existed. (Too many examples to name, but see, for instance, the ongoing history of womanism, or “The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance” by Rickke Mananzala and Dean Spade, and a related analysis of nonprofit work as gendered by yours truly.)

I’m still wrasslin’ with these problems, and certainly don’t claim knowledge of some sort of pure, perfect, correct feminist activism. But the reason I keep on searching, as thankful as I am for all my experiences, is that I strongly disagree with the idea, also offered in FFF, that

“At the end of the day, no matter what the form, any feminist activism is all good by me.”

I hear this a lot, directly and indirectly, and it’s probably the one idea that’s brought me closest to giving up on my feminism.

Without demonizing each other, I think it’s absolutely vital for us to examine and account for the consequences of our actions. To set aside, without judgment, forms that do not work. To keep on assessing which kinds of action are effective and useful in eradicating patriarchy (especially on a structural level) without trammeling or trampling other groups besides the one to which we-our-own-sweet-self happen to belong! [Interestingly, my dhammic practice has reinforced this idea of examining the "wholesomeness" of my actions: before (what they're likely to be; the intention), during (how they're coming out; the implementation), and afterward (what they've been; the effects).]

Now, despite what this gigantic lead-in might suggest, my point in this post isn’t to say: Aha! I’ve found the answer! Follow me, winsome feminists, and I’ll lead you into the glorious light of…….Marxism!!!!! :)

Nope. I’m only trying to paint a picture of what’s led me to my present ground. Maybe some of you will identify with that path. That’s the bigger point. Because none of us stays in the exact same place forever.

Besides, the truth is, I don’t feel like I’m ascending into the light. It’s pretty dark in here.

More on that darkness in a minute, but first, what is this Marxist feminist group, anyway? And what do I dig about it?

In brief: it’s an unaffiliated, popular education gig initiated by a dope, talented, 25-year-old Black queer womyn Marxist revolutionary and Oakland substitute history teacher. She theorizes and organizes with a Bay Area group of Marxists called Advance The Struggle. (Awesome blog, that one is.) We’ve had anywhere from fifty to five people in attendance (with an optimal size on the smaller side, for purposes of intimacy and genuine action-capacity), and while it started out as all-genders, these days it’s evolved into a space specifically for self-identifying women and trans folks. Really fabulous people — teachers and child-rearers and mothers and bike messengers and artists and organizers. We laugh a lot and sometimes cry. There’s always food. (Did I mention this is a study group?)

So far we’ve read “Sex, Race, and Class” by Selma James, selections from Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, Angela Davis, and Bolivian organizer Domitila, and we’ve screened and discussed the classic film Salt Of The Earth. Next up: Marx’s Wage, Labor and Capital and Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation.

We’ve got three main goals. (1) Engage and understand the texts. (2) Create and theorize a nurturing, feminist pedagogical space; share these pedagogical theories and insights with other Marxist and Leftist popular education groups in the area (i.e. a couple of male-dominated Capital study groups going on now in SF and the East Bay). And (3) Translate the theoretical understandings to working-class actions (i.e. flyering and talking to women in working-class neighborhoods; supporting each other in our organizing work, from reproductive rights actions to low-income tenants’ issues). We’re a committed work-in-progress.

But wait a second. Reading, thinking, and doing some stuff. How is that different from the reading, thinking, and doing of stuff that was already happening in my feminist life before?

It’s a subtle shift, for sure — one that has mostly to do, I would say, with a sense that I am on to something. I’m “getting warmer.” I agree with the Marxism I’ve read so far, here and elsewhere. It seems largely true and useful. The kind of method I was missing. Our organic syllabus prioritizes working-class and poor women; our action is being done by, with, and for working-class women and trans folk. The targets are other than pundits, politicians, or pop culture.

Still, it’s new for me. And that’s what I mean by “dark.” Not un-hopeful; just unfamiliar.

Like in that old story:

Walking home at night, a woman finds her neighbor scouring his front yard on his hands and knees.
“Lost something?” she asks.
“My keys,” says her neighbor. “Help me look?”
For half an hour, they poke through every inch of grass and garden. No keys.
“Are you sure you dropped them here?” the woman asks, frustrated.
“Oh no,” the neighbor replies, “I definitely dropped them in the backyard.”
“Well then what’n the world are we doing out front for?!”
“Because the light here is better.”

I might be feeling my way in the dark — a new, at times intimidating area for me. But I think it’s my best chance of finding those keys.

—————————
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Relatedly: For a gorgeous piece on a similar question (striking out into unfamiliar territory, looking for a genuine fit), read this piece by Sady Doyle if you haven’t already. The way I interpret it, Sady’s reflecting on looking for her feminism where the light is good — in an online performance of bad-ass, good-side feminist — even when she’s realized she’ll never find it there.

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9 responses to “It’s Dark But It’s Promising, This Marxist Feminist Ground

  1. Charlie Post

    You should also check out Lise Vogel’s MARXISM AND WOMEN’S OPPRESSION: TOWARD A UNITARY THEORY and Johanna Brenner’s WOMEN AND THE POWER OF CLASS–both good examples of attempts to develop a “unitary” theory of gender oppression under capitalism.

  2. Pingback: more reading « The Fourth Dimension

  3. bazuca

    Klonke finishes with, “It’s a subtle shift, for sure — one that has mostly to do, I would say, with and elsewhere. It seems largely true and useful. The kind of method I was missing. Our organic syllabus prioritizes working-class and poor women; our action is being done by, with, and for working-class women and trans folk. The targets are other than pundits, politicians, or pop culture.”

    What is this method you speak of? How does one develop it? By emulating the group your describing? This is a very interesting ending for a new beginning.

  4. Hey bazuca, thanks for the good questions. When I mentioned a Marxist feminist method as opposed to a postmodern feminism or an activist-ic feminism, I meant that the Marxist materialism was giving me a new lease on the power that we as feminists have to best resist oppression.

    In my experience, postmodern feminism (which was popular in my college) argues for art, expression, fragmented motions, psychoanalytical work, and ideological inroads as the main method(s) for social transformation. Rather than being something natural and coherent, gender is socially constructed and center-less (“a stylized repetition of acts sedimented on the body over time,” is a central quote from scholar Judith Butler), and we have to understand this in order to subvert oppressive gender constructions with our own liberatory feminist images, renderings, writings, vocabularies, performances, etc, which will help to shift conscious and subconscious attitudes about gender, race, life, etc. Of the three “P-” targets I mentioned, this one is mostly about pop (or hegemonic, or dominant) culture, broadly defined. And maybe a fourth “P-”: publishing; as in, academia.

    Distinct but not totally separate from this type of feminist method is an activist or social justice method, which (again, in my experience) includes legalistic reform, community organizing, NGO/non-profitism, electoral politics, and international movement building along these lines, with the general goal of improving conditions for people. This covers the other two “P-’s” of pundits and politicians. If you’ve been reading A/S for a while (?) I probly don’t need to say much more about this method.

    So, you know, I think both postmodern and activistic feminisms have their serious strengths, and I’m very much indebted to and informed by both of them, even as I’m moving toward studying and working more along the lines of Marxist feminism, which (to finally respond to your question, haha), as I understand it, means using dialectical materialist analysis to locate power (and transformative potential) in the material –> ideological formations of class and class struggle, and act upon those formations at the point of production in order to transform the point of production into a locus of proletarian power.

    I’m trying to think of an example. So here in SF the bus drivers are getting screwed with threatened pensions, and the bus riders (many of whom are poor and working class women with children, trans folks, immigrants, and generally marginalized people) are also getting screwed with rising fares and slashed services.

    I’m honestly not sure how the postmodern feminism would deal with this situation… (can anybody help me out?)

    The activist feminist tact would organize the bus drivers and maybe the riders, tying the problem in to racism, ablism, sexism, environmental concerns, gentrification and job loss, and other issues. Which would look similar to a Marxist feminist method, I think. The key difference is that the activist feminist action would be focused on the immediate campaign win, with a general sense that the more wins we have, the bigger the movement will grow, and through this growth mechanism we will build a better world. I’m not trying to straw-man here; this is honestly how I conceived of things as an activistic feminist, so if someone has a more sophisticated or fairer characterization, please add it in and correct me!

    In contrast, with the Marxist feminism we would try to support the resistance work of riders and drivers with the big-picture understanding that we want people to control and direct their own lives and activity, and this is impossible while classes persist. Even if this particular campaign succeeds, because of ruling class power the pendulum will inevitably swing back the other way, and wins will be rolled back some way or another.

    So the purpose of organizing the buses is to help build class power that can be generalized and spread to all workers as a group (people with direct access to the point of production), which is a critical step on the path to eliminating classes altogether, thereby creating a superior large-scale material basis for social equality.

    So where does the feminism come into this example? Partly in the campaign issue itself: trans people and women (as well as the people women are charged with caring for and accompanying, i.e. women, elders, and people with disabilities) are disproportionately poor/working-class, and in urban centers rely disproportionately on buses for transportation. So working-class issues and feminist issues are in some ways synonymous.

    But not wholly synonymous! Patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia persist within working-class struggle, weakening it from the inside out. Without serious intra-group work on these oppressions, a campaign for transit worker power will almost inevitably replicate them and undermine its own long-term efficacy. So part of the job of Marxist feminists, I think, is to articulate what that intra-group feminist work looks like; to theorize it. (My own ideas on this are informed by womanism/Black feminism and dharma…)

    Man, I feel like I am rambling! And also I have to get going (to the Marxist-Feminist study group!).

    Oh, and I just searched “feminism” on the A/S blog, and this post about what Marxists should learn from Black feminists succinctly explains what I’m trying to say in that “not-wholly-synonymous” paragraph:

    Many in the marxist movement absolutely miss what these black feminists hit squarely on the head – that the revolution is about one class against another, but that this revolution is meaningless if oppressions & contradictions within the class (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc) are not dealt with.

    It also deals well with the different strains of feminism in non-profitism and academia (postmodern feminists) that I talked about.

    In conclusion, the A/S blog is dope. :)

    And to leave with a question, something I’ve been grappling with in the Marxist feminism is what role survival and healing work (like organizing rape crisis centers, practicing medicine, teaching/caretaking, supporting reproductive self-determination) has in supporting and furthering “the revolution,” given its removal from the “point of production,” as I understand it, at least. Marxist feminists have pointed out that wage labor is made possible by unwaged labor (unpaid family work/reproductive work by women). But I’m unclear how we put this understanding into practice, other than encouraging gender balance in the unwaged labor and “caring work,” as another comrade puts it. What’s your take on this?

    hugs,

    katie

  5. Jacque

    Thanks for posting this. I am a working-class Marxist-feminist with an activist background who is now in the academy working toward a PhD. This type of popular education is exactly what I would like to be working on as I have often felt frustrated not only by US academic women’s studies (most of the two-thirds world women have continued to base their praxis in the dialectics of race, class, gender and other important material experience-determining identities) obsession with extreme cultural feminism (e.g., and its supporting dominant methodologies such as discourse analysis), but also by its blatant rejection of hard structural analyses (this kind of post-structuralist ideology–as if being post-structure is possible in this era of global economic systems).
    I am, I suppose, an orthodox Marxist in that I don’t think it is possible to change the superstructure (culture or social relations of production) without changing the base (modes of production) and having done my time in many feminist non-profits and in two academic women’s studies programs, I have never seen anything that brings the kind of qualitative change in people’s lives that for example, union organizing, does (my family has a long history of union membership).
    Anyway this is all to ask a question and to make a suggestion.
    1. Why have you decided to turn your Marxist-feminist explorations into spaces only for trans and female-identified people? I am not against identity-based separate spaces in all cases, but I am curious to know why you have implemented the approach here and how you thin it enhances your expereinces in this context? I am asking, not out of critique, but out of curiosity based in interest in starting my own such group that I have always imagined as being mixed gender.
    2. Please allow me to suggest a few other pieces to add to the ones you have (which I think are excellent selections too–for what it is worth):
    –primary works by Marx and Engels (and don’t just stop with Originis of the Family as most feminists do)–especially read Marx’s German Philosophy, as well as his political economy work such as Wage-Labor and Capital, and volume 1 of Capital (although I admit this text is pretty daunting but in a group, you could probably make shorter work of it) . Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be an economist to understand his primary work and it is not my belief that he neglected the “woman-question” as many feminists claim.
    –The following Marxist-feminists:
    –Rosemary Hennessy (she edited a great text called Material FEminism that gives good history on the issues with Marxist-feminism but calls for its continuance , not its abandonment–she also writes some cool stuff on sexuality that blows many of the trendy cultural feminist sexuality work out of the water)
    –Teresa Ebert
    –Leith Mullings
    –Andrea Smith (I don’t know that she would consider herself a Marxist-feminist, but she was Angela Davis’s advisee and her stuff is pretty kick-ass and certainly structurally-based and she is an activist too as a co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence–you probably already know her since she is out your way now)
    –Martha Giminez (she is one of my favorites)
    –Sandinista women have written some pretty interesting things on the subject based in their own experiences–I can’t remember any names offhand, but also very based in practice (and gets into the good and the bad)
    –Rosalind Petchesky

    I hope you find this useful and please email me to let me know if you have answered the question I posed above as I don’t normally check this blog, but just stumbled onto it one day.
    Thanks again for letting us know what this kind of work looks like–I will keep in touch as well about any developments here in Ohio.

    Peace, Jacque

  6. Jacque

    Correction: The German Ideology not the German Philosophy (I was triple tasking as I wrote this : ) )

  7. Jacque

    Okay one more I forgot:
    –Raya Dunayevskaya –Marxist-Humanist philosopher and feminist (News and Letters is a chicago-based newspaper that is founded on her analysis to contemporary issues)

  8. Rev

    One of the Marxist Feminist groups that we are involved in started out as multi gender and then the group democratically decided to become a space just for women. I personally wasn’t involved in that decision or group, so I can’t speak to the reasons behind that decision. Recently, I started up another Marxists Feminist through the Experimental College at the university that is a multi gender space. Currently there are only 2 men in that space. I think that if the ratio got to be overwhelmingly male, then I might try to prevent more men from coming into the space, because I think its important that a space where we are discussing feminism is a place where women feel comfortable discussing feminism with other women. Not to say that discussing it with men is not important, but by discussing feminism with only men, women would be missing out on the full benefit of a Marxist Feminist study group, in my opinion.

    Thank you for the recommendations! We are reading Wage Labor and Capital, Sex Race and Class by Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community by Dallacosta, the last chapter of Women Race and Class by Angela Davis, Part VII of Capital Vol1 On Primitive Accumulation, Caliban and the Witch by Federici, and Let Me Speak by Domitila Barrios. I might be forgetting something. I want to read the Engels on Origins of the Family. Some folks are pretty critical of it, some without having read it, but I want to read it and see what I think. Thanks again for your post!

  9. Giselda

    Appreciated this – I’m part of a small, new socialist-feminist reading group in Texas (right now we’re reading a classic – reform or revolution). I’m happy to see there’s something going on in the Bay Area and possibly Ohio. I know as well of possibly a new formation in LA and a longer, existing one in Portland. If anybody would like to e-mail me or reply here (glrendon@gmail.com) it’d be great on some level to communicate with different people doing this. We’ve also had the all women/queer/or open to everyone discussion, so I found that interesting.

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