“The Woman is the Proletarian of the Proletariat” – Flora Tristan


The purpose of this essay is to summarize a key text on the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, written by a socialist feminist organization Advance the Struggle is politically close to, Pan y Rosas. In their book, Pan y Rosas: Gender and Class Antagonism under Capitalism, the author Andrea D’Atri wages political war against the various strains of liberal and postmodernist feminism, boldly upholding the mantle of revolutionary feminism from the beginnings of the capitalist era in Europe to the modern struggle against the brutal conditions women face in Latin America and worldwide.

Pan y Rosas, a women’s socialist organization under a larger Marxist-Trotskyist formation in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, and other Latin American nations,  takes its namesake from the 1912 Bread and Roses strike by women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They synthesized the strike for higher wages and for better living conditions, thus the title “bread and roses”, signifying their desire for a higher standard of living that would afford them the ability to enjoy the knowledge, culture, and freedom every human beings deserves but is largely denied, particularly for most women, who are forced to work for a paid wage and perform unpaid domestic and caring labor.

Sex against sex or class against class?

All women are oppressed by patriarchy, but the majority are also under the tutelage of waged work and dispossession. For example: are Ivanna Trump (billionaire clown Donald Trump’s wife) and Hillary Clinton closer to the majority of working and poor women, or to the bourgeois class they belong to? Although patriarchy precedes capitalism by thousands of years, the former takes a specific form under the latter. Under this system, the reproductive labor, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, having babies, raising children, etc., necessary to maintain our species and reproduce new generations is primarily performed by working-class women. Patriarchal ideology socially constructs women’s domestic labor as a natural function extending from their biology. Even though this labor is crucial in reproducing workers’ needs to eat, sleep, procreate, etc., in order to work day in and day out for the boss, this ideology allows for capitalists to maintain it as unpaid and therefore keep wages down and profits high. Working women’s role as waged and domestic workers has been dubbed the “double-shift,” since the end of the 9-5 simply means the end of the first shift for women, after which they return home to perform their other, albeit unpaid, shift. Because under capitalism women are primarily viewed as baby-making machines, struggles around bodily autonomy and reproduction rights can challenge  capital’s narrow framing of sexuality in a heteronormative manner. Part of the reason the typical nuclear family is upheld as the ideal under bourgeois society is because it assures a constant replenishing of the labor force with young workers who can work faster, longer, and will feel less entitled to the benefits older workers demand. Homosexuality is therefore seen as a break in this relationship because it removes procreation as the main goal or desire of romantic/sexual relationships.

The 20th century was the century of the miniskirt, jeans, the right to vote, contraceptives, legal abortion, etc., all achievements through a century of struggle, but what does it mean to talk about progress when so many women around the world die from hunger, preventive disease, abortions, pregnancy, unemployment, etc? Capitalism’s growth has been contradictory; for while it lays the basis for ending thousands of years of patriarchy by reducing the grip of the family and the male patriarch  through forcing women into the public workforce, it has also deepened the misery poor and working-class women encounter through the ideological and violent enforcement of women’s gender role in society. According to our comrades in Pan y Rosas, and the defining element of our feminist framework, the central subject of women’s liberation is the class relation, the axis that can unite proletarian, poor, and all oppressed women in the war against capitalist-patriarchy.

Proletarian women at the head of the European bourgeois revolutions

In the 18th and 19th century bourgeois revolutions in Europe, women workers, peasants, artisans, etc., led armed rebellions against merchants and shop owners who charged exorbitant rates for basic staples in times of crisis. Women chastised the male-centric conception of political freedom from the English and French  bourgeois revolutions, i.e. “Declarations of the Rights of Man.” Women’s clubs sprang up in response to the fraternal associations – Revolutionary Women’s Citizen’s Club occupied the French National Assembly to demand full employment. French women named themselves “the third estate of the Third Estate,” pointing to their subordinate status within the political ranks of the masses. Poor women warred for bread and jobs, while middle and bourgeois class women organized for political rights through leaflets and clubs. The French Revolution was a cross-class effort between the nascent bourgeoisie, working-class, and peasantry and this is reflected in the way class position determined the demands women fought for. The bourgeois men who led the revolution negated the very freedoms they highly upheld to their very wives, daughters, and mothers. Even though this affected all women, working-class and poor women had more pressing daily demands to fight for. The rising bourgeoisie’s framing of working women as domestic workers pushed these women into the frontlines of battle,  fighting for decent living standards in addition to political and social rights. However, Napoleon’s political reaction and coup smashed the political rights gained through the revolution.

Bourgeois and Proletarian Women

The Industrial Revolution , beginning in the later 18th century created a cleavage between “home” and work as farmers were dispossessed of their land and forced to work in factoriesa, challenging traditional notions of women’ social position. It created an antagonistic relationship between the home and the factory and between maternity and productivity. Domestic labor, seen as the natural space of women’s labor, was not seen as productive, as the (mostly) male work in the factory was. This hides the relation between paid and unpaid labor described above. The introduction of heavy machinery into the process of capitalist production made irrelevant the need for a muscular,masculine, labor force, and allowed for the incorporation of women and children, who simply had to pull a lever or do low-skilled work for a lower wage than a male would accept. It was also a method of disciplining the working-class, for women and children are still seen as a weaker and docile labor force that capital can tap into if male workers decide to wage a campaign.

This section explains how capital connects, by force, all the aspects of daily life to its needs of reproduction and accumulation – play, domestic work, school, love, etc. No spheres of human life fully escape the laws of commodification and alienation. In those times, unions vehemently fought against the incorporation of women into their ranks, under the assumption that doing so would lower wages and even displace male workers and because women didn’t “follow the rules.”  Here we can plainly see how male workers’ relative privileges worked to obstruct any sense of class unity, choosing instead to hedge their bets on their maleness as opposed to a common struggle with their sisters against the common enemy. However, because of the stratified and hierarchical organization of the working-class, male workers looking from the standpoint of labor-power in the market might actually lose out in an immediate sense if women compete with them. These divisions and their corresponding forms of consciousness come from this material basis. What sort of communist program could make the argument that the only effective struggle against capital unites sectorally divided parts of the working-class in a common offensive, much like the situation between male mine workers and their stay-at-home wives in their conflict with the company in the movie Salt of the Earth? In this situation, explains D’Atri, women organized their own extra-union organizations and rebelled against the conditions of work through general strikes, insurrections, walk-outs, and other militant methods. The self-organization of women workers did not wait or patiently ask for their male counterparts to join them; these women had a struggle to wage and decided to do so even if their male companions stood in their way. Selma James, in Sex, Race, and Class, talks about how lower sections of the class move and force more privileged sectors to either join them or fight against them and thus reinforce the subordinate status of the class as a whole.

In 1871, the infamous Paris Commune sprung up in the French capital in response to the war with Prussia and the French government’s humiliating “peace” accord. The Parisian masses organized the first example of socialist society in action; workers seized and reorganized their workplaces, delegates to the commune were to be elected via universal suffrage (women’s right to vote was immediately implemented), payed no more than the average worker’s wage, subject to immediate recall, and thus directly accountable to their base. Proletarian and middle-class women played a central role as militants in the Paris Commune and organized in their autonomous organizations within the movement to push forward their particular demands. Louise Michel, a fiery and tireless French anarchist and 1st  International member, helped create the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris.

If there ever was a point of unity between the working masses and the bourgeoisie during the bourgeois revolutions against the feudal classes, the bourgeoisie uniting with the defeated aristocracy in crushing the militant resistance by workers and peasants who wanted to advance the revolutionary movement in their own interests clearly proved that the bourgeoisie was not willing or even capable of putting up a fight to thoroughly destroy the old feudal system. The bourgeoisie chose its survival as a class as opposed to its complete domination over society by leaning on the shoulders of reactionary forces to suppress the basic demands of workers, who toiled up to 15 hours a day and lived in squalid slums, and the peasants, who starved as a result of famine. In this context of class warfare, where the divide between labor and capital was coming to the fore in all its contradiction and brutality, what sort of unity could bourgeois women hold with poor women? Were they fighting in the barricades with the peasant, working class, unemployed, or artisan, women, organizing for better work conditions, lower food prices, and democratic rights? In fact, they schemed and plotted with their class, the bourgeoisie, to make a bloodshed of the mass movements and the Paris Commune is its most important culmination.

Different Trends in the Feminist movement

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, the feminist movement began to take form in its fight for democratic rights. In the first feminist movement, bourgeois women sought formal equality with men, such as the right to vote, own property, obtain education, etc. Women from the popular classes drove forward their political struggles for their class, not only democratic rights but also the right to work, housing, low food prices, and other basic demands of the working-class and in this manner vindicated their rights as women. One of the most important moments in this struggle was the Seneca Falls 1848 conference, in which women’s suffrage, right to own property, and equally participate in religious ceremonies were brought up. Frederick Douglass, escaped former slave, abolitionist, and powerful orator, joined in this conference and pushed for suffrage to be a central point of the gathering. In this time, radical abolitionist movements like those of William Lloyd Garrison organized themselves to include the full participation of women, an act which alienated many liberal anti-slavery whites. In bourgeois feminist circles, however, the opposite sentiment predominated. White feminists defended their struggle for their right to vote on the racist basis that if black men did not have the right to it, then denying it to white women amounted to denigrating them to the status of blackness. Thus, in no way did white middle-class and bourgeois women betray their class or racial interests with the exception of those who tied the democratic struggle for women’s suffrage to the revolutionary abolitionist cause. In Europe and the United States, women’s organizations also upheld the pacifist banner.

We thus see a diversity of tendencies within the feminist movement reflective of the class and racial backgrounds they emerged from. Two broad schools of liberal feminist thought came to the fore: what Andrea D’Atri terms“individualist” and “relational.” The former seeks formal equality and a break from traditional norms through political struggle all the way to complete equality with men. The latter is based on  sexual dimorphism, with the goal of recuperating the physical, psychological, and cultural attributes of  femininity to win struggles based on what they see as their “natural” biological roles. Even though this perspective can hardly be called “feminist” in a political sense since it didn’t seek social equality, it did help win important gains in education, social services, health, and other areas directly impacting women’s maternal roles. The division between “individualist” (i.e. liberal) and “relational” feminism began a clear contradiction which extended to the feminist wave of the 1960s and 1970s.

On a whole other level, we can identify a socialist feminism with two schools during this time: a reformist one that attempts to reconcile the capital/labor contradiction, and a revolutionary one, that sees women’s liberation and all forms of oppression as fundamental aspects of a socialist revolution without which there can be no type of liberation from anything. Utopian socialists, such as Saint Simon and Fourier, attempted to create communal societies, egalitarian sexual relations in particular, without challenging the capitalist power structure. They were among the first socialists to denounce the hypocritical ways in which women were really treated in contrast to bourgeois society’s hollow frames about gender equality and women’s important social roles. Fourier digs into the sexual relations of Victorian Europe, where male seduction and infidelity are treated as virtues and signs of power, but where the women on the other side of the equation are treated as prostitutes who, upon their “illegitimate” pregnancy are forced to commit infanticide and thus receive further abuse and dehumanization.

Historically, anti-communists have attempted to discredit our agitation for liberating and egalitarian sexual relations by saying that the introduction of this “community of women” will be akin to socialized prostitution. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, replies:

“The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour. But you communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus. The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production. “ – (Marx and Engels)

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were two main founders of the First International, a European collective of various radicals, ranging from utopians, anarchists, reformists, and communists. Within the First International, Elizabeth Dimitrieff was leader of the women’s section as well as the International’s delegate to the Paris Commune. Clara Zetkin, key revolutionary in the German Social-Democratic Party, for decades the world’s largest and most respected communist organization (until the rise of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution), organized its women’s section and published Equality, which turned out to be a popular publication in the women’s socialist movement.

The book then tells us the story of Flora Tristan, daughter of a Peruvian-Spanish diplomat in Paris and product of an “illegitimate” marriage, which denied her the class privileges a “legitimate” marriage would have bestowed upon her. This forced her to labor as a domestic worker in bourgeois homes. After escaping with her kids from an abusive and drunk husband, she becomes a key figure in the socialist feminist movement. Her politics, though somewhat eclectic in their combination of utopian and scientific socialism, were nonetheless powerful in their exposition of the unity between women’s cause and the cause of the entire proletariat for its emancipation. In her most famous work, Union Obrera  (Worker’s Unity), she espouses socialist ideals, in particular the need for international proletarian organization to coordinate the global struggle against capital. Written in 1843, her work precedes the creation of Marx’s First International and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. In Union Obrera, Flora Tristan proclaims,

“Workers, during two hundred years or more, the bourgeois have fought valiantly and starkly against the nobility’s privileges and for their own rights. But, upon their victory, even though they recognized the equality of the rights of all, in fact took for themselves all the benefits and advantages of this conquest.”

Imperialism, War, and Gender

Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, both members of the German Social-Democratic Party, collaborated on the feminist journal Equality and worked together in the Socialist Women’s International and the women’s section of the German SPD, which boasted 175,000 communist women in its ranks. In this period when many socialist organizations in Europe tragically betrayed their cause by supporting their respective national governments in the first imperialist war, the role of women like Luxemburg and Zetkin in holding a firm revolutionary line, even though they were in the minority, is monumental. Like most socialists, most feminists in Europe also voted in favor of the war, putting a break on the rising militancy of the women’s movement as bourgeois women lined up behind their governments in the fight against other bourgeois women to decide who would reap the spoils of colonial conquest, while at the same time censoring and repressing the pacifist and militant feminist strains that kept on during the time.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the suffrage movement in Europe greatly developed. Women utilized street marches, rebellions, and other forms of direct action to fight for peace and the right to vote. In London in 1908, 400,000 women marched onto the streets and rioted, destroying businesses, breaking windows, and creating havoc. The onset of World War 1, however, split the women’s movement. The Pankhurst family women, famous for their women’s rights activism, split on the question of the war. Sylvia Pankhurst was against it and broke with the Women’s Social and Political Union she shared with her other sister and her mother. The logic of the former was that they had a patriotic duty to “their” British government and would not risk losing what little legitimacy they had in the state’s eyes by fighting for peace. Sylvia’s sister, Christabel, and her mother, Emmeline, organized marches around women’s “right to serve” in the colonial war and tried to transform the feminist suffrage movement to one about the right to vote for women and men who served in the colonial war. They chose to become the loyal cheerleaders of imperialist war, not too dissimilar from the white American women who supported slavery in their struggle for the vote. On the other hand, Sylvia stood alongside the wave of militant strikes in England, fighting for equal pay for women, pacifism, and suffrage. After visiting Soviet Russia, Sylvia Pankhurst became inspired and created the publication Women’s Dreadnought. In 1918, Sylvia denounced the suffrage bill passed by the British government for its exclusionary character towards working-class, unemployed, and poor women. A founding member of the British Communist Party, Sylvia abandoned the revolutionary cause in the 1930s, horrified by the terror of the Stalinist purges.

Even though women joined the factory labor force in large numbers due to the men leaving for the front, they faced the constant stress and worry of losing their loved ones in addition to degrading factory conditions, worsening their material and psychological well-being. In response, proletarian women organized violent rebellions against inflation, looted stores, and placed themselves as human obstacles to the freight trains carrying military hardware in cities like Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg.

In 1915, Clara Zetkin helped organize the International Socialist Women’s Conference, where delegates united around the political line of turning the imperialist war waged by their nations into a revolutionary war against their “own” capitalist classes. This position, known as “revolutionary defeatism”, is attributed to V.I. Lenin, who counterposed it to the opportunist manner in which European socialist parties, in particular the German SPD, voted in favor of supporting Germany’s role in World War 1. In this conference, the revolutionary women encapsulated their analysis of the capitalist mode of production as the source of war and death; the world war, like all wars for profit and empire, was not an historical “accident” caused by political “mistakes”, but a logical outcome of capitalism’s internal contradictions. Based on their correct analysis, they explicitly put forward a feminist, socialist revolution as the only progressive outcome to the horrors of the system. March 8th in 1910, the date of this conference, was designated as International Women’s Day. Clara Zetkin, who was later to be expelled from the German SPD for her revolutionary politics, declared the Second International, made up the socialist parties who went over to the side of the bourgeoisie in the world war, as forever dead. She joined the new Third International headed by Lenin and the victorious Bolsheviks on a new communist basis.

Women joined the industrial labor force during the war and saw it as progressive because it helped them break from traditional domestic roles.  The end of the war saw governments and factories giving those jobs back to the men. During the war, it was these women who were the first to critique the slaughter and lead rebellions, steal food, work the black market, and create other disturbances to resist exploitation and find creative ways to continue sustaining themselves and their families. Nonetheless, women were forced back into domestic unpaid laborer, as mothers, and as consumers as the war came to a close.  A backlash against feminism and women’s liberation began as the ruling classes recuperated their balance. Mother’s Day was created by European governments fetishizing the maternal role of women to justify women’s re-enslavement in the domestic sphere.

The post-war instability and discontent in Europe led to its liberal governments conceding suffrage to women in order to avoid full-scale revolution. D’Atri quotes Trotsky:

“The defeat of the 1848 revolution had weakened the British workers but the Russian Revolution of 1905 immediately strengthened them. As a result of the 1906 General Election the Labour Party formed for the first time a strong parliamentary group of 42 members. In this the influence of the 1905 revolution was clear! In 1918, even before the end of the war, a new electoral reform was passed in Britain which considerably enlarged the ranks of working class voters, and allowed women to participate in elections for the first time. Even Mr. Baldwin would probably not begin to deny that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was an important stimulus to this reform. The British bourgeois considered that a revolution could be avoided in this way. It follows that even for passing reforms, the principle of gradualness is insufficient and a real threat of revolution is necessary.” (Where Is Britain Going? 1925)

In early to mid-1930s Spain, an intense period of class struggle began. Large strike waves, land occupations and seizures, urban insurrections, along with the electoral victory of the Popular Front against the Spanish monarchy created the conditions for women’s right to vote and to abortion. This demonstrates the such democratic freedoms are only achieved through militant activity of people in their workplaces, neighborhoods, and streets. In certain pockets in Spain, worker’s committees and militias ruled the land. Women’s communist and anarchist publications flourish and women join the front against the fascists as equals and as leaders. The Republican government, made up of the Socialist Party, the Stalinist Communist Party, and other forces, decided to create a regular standing army to halt the expansion of autonomous and armed proletarian power. Anarchists, Trotskyists, and other left-wing radicals suffered repression under this new “progressive” regime.  As a result, women were relegated to the rearguard of battle in the official Republican armies.

Mike Etchebehere emigrated from Argentina to Europe at the beginning of the Spanish Revolution, joined the POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) and commanded one of its battalions. Author of Mi guerra de españa, she crushed her male comrades’ prejudices and won her respect through the skill and fire she displayed in revolutionary warfare. Carlota Durany, in high demand by anarchists and other radical groups for her personality and politics, and sought after by the CP secret Stalinist police for her Trotskyism, was  a POUM leader and writer for Emancipacion!, the publication of the POUM’s Women’s Secretariat. During the war, she writes:

“ July 19th the women took to the streets with a powerful enthusiasm to struggle alongside their comrades, tend to the wounded, to donate their blood. But one cannot live for months and months with that kind of tension. Little by little we accustomed ourselves to what used to flame our enthusiasm and the daily routine, with its needs and worries, mines our revolutionary ardor…This is precisely women’s task! To constantly create the new, the revolutionary spirit. The woman creates the revolutionary atmosphere…And the woman has another task of ultimate importance: to construct the revolutionary edifice with the new generation…At a young age the child must learn that everyone else does not exclusively live for them. Later on, class consciousness emerges from this communal sentiment.”

As Andrea D’Atri explains, fascism was more than a Spanish phenomenon. It was an expression of monopoly capital’s reorganization into dictatorial forms for the sake of preserving its rule. It sought to institute conservative patriarchal standards in their overall project of national construction and racial purging. In Germany, women who did not fit into the prototypical “aryan” mold held “protest pregnancies” before they were to face forced sterilization, as so happened to countless men and women because of being gay, Black, Jewish, communist, disabled, or any other “undesirable” identity. As with the first world war, World War II pushed women into the industrial labor force, particularly arms and munitions, only to be pulled back into the domestic sphere through a cult of domesticity when the male soldiers returned. Women fought their marginalization as housewives, consumers, and mothers. This experience was to have important effects on the women’s mass movements to emerge in the coming decades.

Women in History’s First Socialist State

In 1917 Russia, revolutionary ferment bubbled all throughout the country. The war effort was killing off many young men, mainly from the peasantry, thus leaving families behind to fend for themselves through the poverty. In the cities, bread lines stretched for blocks. State repression was at a high point as the autocracy felt its power waning. The February 1917 revolution in Russia that toppled the Czar, seen as the precursor to the October Revolution, began with a women textile worker’s strike held on International Women’s Day. No radicals had expected or planned for this. Even the Bolsheviks, thought of as the most audacious and left-wing, had only organized for marches and speakers on this day and cautioned against such spontaneity. Regardless, the women workers’ audacity and leadership led to 90,000 proletarians walking off their jobs and joining the resistance for bread and democracy. They inaugurated the movement that was to bring the workers and peasants to power a few months later.

As with the rest of Europe, Russian women joined the agricultural and industrial labor force en masse. By 1917, women represented 72% of rural workers and 50% industrial laborers! It was these women who spearheaded the assault on the autocracy. In July of that year, due to their bravery and spirit of struggle, Russian women won the right to vote and run for office, before women in England or the United States did so. The victorious proletarian revolution of October 1917 led to women’s right to vote, equality between marital and non-marital relationships, the right to divorce, etc., before any of the “advanced” capitalist nations implemented them. Alexandra Kollontai became the first female member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, the first female member of government as head of the Health Department, and the world’s first female ambassador as a part of the soviet government. However important, formal and legal challenges to women’s oppression are not principal because they do not deal with the material basis of patriarchy. In other words, what good would it do for women to have the right to vote and divorce if they remained “domestic slaves,” to quote Lenin? This called for socializing the tasks of societal reproduction to liberate women from the domestic sphere such as communal kitchens, childcare, laundromats, hospitals, etc.

However, this process didn’t achieve its potential. Why is that? Pan y Rosas quotes Trotsky who explains that the material basis to create an expanded socialized reproductive sector did not exist. As long as “socialized misery” predominated, due to objective conditions exacerbated by the effects of invasion, civil war, and sabotage, the bourgeois nuclear family could not be abolished and replaced by a radically new form of sexual relationship.

Due to the bureaucratization of soviet society, the curtailing of working-class power over the  factories, and the break on women’s progress, class divisions reasserted themselves in soviet society. Women in the bureaucracy and management levels of society fared better lives with access to better food, housing, education, and political influence than those outside of it. In the mid-1920s, the Stalinist bureaucracy voted to have civil marriage be the only legally recognized union. Later on, they prohibited abortion, criminalized homosexuality and prostitution in 1934, and did away with the women’s sections of the Communist Party Central Committee and other party organizations. In 1936, Stalin states,

“ The life-destroying abortion is inadmissible in our country. The soviet woman has the same rights as the man, but this does not relieve her of her grand and noble duty with nature has assigned her: as a mother, she gives life.”

Thousands of dissident soviet women, trotskyist and non-trotskyist alike, were exiled, jailed, and executed by the Stalinist reign of terror. Tatiana Miagkova, freed from Czarist prisons in 1917 due to the 1917 February uprising, joined the Bolsheviks in 1919. She fought the counterrevolutionary reaction of the Czarist forces in Ukraine as an underground militant. In 1926, she joined the Left Opposition and one year later is purged from the party for her “trotskyism.” She is exiled to Astrakhan, over the Caspian Sea, where she distributes Oppositionist propaganda and organizes clandestinely against the Soviet bureaucracy. Her husband, a top Soviet functionary, convinces her to give up her dissident activities for the sake of their lives and names, and moves to Moscow. Tatiana however, does not cease to express her views and is once more arrested and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the concentration camp of Magadan in the far east corner of Russia, known as the “white crematorium.” After being sent to another camp further north, she one day notices a fellow trotskyist, reaches for the prison fence to address him, and, after she is pushed away by a guard exclaims,

“ Fascist! Mercenary fascist! I know your violence will not spare women nor children, but soon your arbitrariness will end!” Due to this protest, she is carried away to her execution.

However brutal the Stalinist regime was, this by no means justifies capitalist restoration or the greater horrors it unleashed for women and all people. The return of capitalism brought back a poverty, unemployment, hunger, prostitution, homelessness,  drug trade, and misery unknown under the Soviet Union.

Between Vietnam and Paris

With the end of WWII, the American empire ascended to the imperialist throne after France and England were shattered. The decrease in the organic composition of capital, or the ratio between constant capital (machinery, buildings, trucks, tractors, etc) and variable capital (living labor) through warfare, along with the disciplining of proletarian rebellious impulses laid the groundwork for unchallenged American domination. In Europe, Soviet collaboration sanctified through the Yalta and Potsdam accord aided in this. America’s post-war reconstruction of Germany and Japan was as much about preventing socialist revolution as it was about increasing its economic power. This post-war boom opened up the space for an important round of state-sponsored pro-natalist laws, such as maternity leave, healthcare, labor rights, etc,. In conjunction with the economic expansion, this led to an increase of women in the workforce, with a corresponding rise in women’s participation in the political and cultural fields.

The legalization, expansion, and wider acceptance for birth control in the post-war era increased women’s control over their own reproduction. Along with other structural changes in the domestic sphere, such as fully-equipped kitchens and bathrooms fully-equipped with its basic needs like gas, water, and electricity, lifted some of the heaviest burdens from women, once again allowing women to enter into factory, service, or office work. These changes decentered the family as a primary economic unit, destabilized its functional role, and shook up marital relations, leading to a transformation in women’s subjectivity known as the “feminine mystique,” characterized by housewives’ widespread discontent  despite good material living standards.

However, this “boom” and the class stability the bourgeoisie hoped to foster could not last forever. In Eastern Europe, rebellions challenged bureaucratic Soviet rule, in the Western ‘democracies’ people rose up against their imperialist governments, and in the Global South the wretched of the earth challenged the rule of semi-colonial, pro-imperialist, ruling regimes. In this new wave of mass struggle, feminism came to the fore. In the United States, student, anti-war, worker, civil rights, and anti-imperialist movements provided the context for this resurgence. Feminists demanded complete equality in the dichotomized ‘private’ and ‘public’ realms, including the right to abortion and childcare, equal pay for equal work, an end to the ‘double shift,’ and domestic violence. In this environment, two key women’s movement arose: the middle-class based National Organization of Women (NOW) by Betty Friedan and the radicalized and younger Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). Through a joint campaign, they forced telegraph and telephone companies to give their women workers millions of dollars in back pay to make up for the inequality in pay between women and male workers who performed the same labor.

In the academic sphere, progressive and radical movements forced universities and colleges to create women’s, gender, feminist studies in which to question and overcome the basest biases about women found in sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. Women sought to create a herstory.

In Latin America, feminist activism expressed in small group “consciousness-raising” circles never took root outside of its middle-class origins. The sharp and brutal class struggle in the continent, expressed in the cordones industriales in Chile where workers took advantage of the political space the Allende regime afforded them and self-organized to take over and run production without the bosses, the bloody student uprising in Tlatelolco, Mexico, and the various urban and rural guerrilla movements, forced feminist circles to self-reflect and redefine their politics. Leonor Calvera says in her history of Argentine feminism:

“In a confrontational sense, the wave of party politics in our midst didn’t stop battering against the interior of our group: we reproduced old traditional antagonisms and created new ones. The developing analyses less and less placed the woman at its axis and shifted towards class struggle frameworks.”

The wave of counterrevolution in the 1970s, largely orchestrated by American imperialism with the help of its faithful dictatorial regimes, crushed popular movements and the incipient women’s struggle. The new right-wing governments attempted to reconstruct a traditional, patriarchal image of family life and mercilessly crushed opposition. One of its hurtful effects was that after the fall of these regimes in the 1980s, the women’s movement had to start from the beginning because of the discontinuity caused by the reaction.

The feminist movement in the 60s and 70s, like Paris 1968, the Prague Spring, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Italian Hot Autumn were all defined by their anti-state/institutional viewpoint. The 1980s saw the feminist movement shift away from grassroots, radical struggle towards fusion with the state, bourgeois political parties, and academia, resulting from the demise of the previous revolutionary wave and giving birth to diverse interpretations of it and gender oppression. The most radical tendencies began by creating autonomous women’s movements to make sense of and struggle against the discrimination they had faced in radical organizations, political parties, and guerrilla movements. Among the various tendencies, liberal, socialist, and radical feminists all sought a fight for gender equality. The liberals sought it through formal changes in law and the assimilation of women into bourgeois power structures; the socialists sought to incorporate working women’s demands into a socialist program for the overthrow of capitalism; and the radical feminists developed their theory around gender as the fundamental contradiction in human society.

Two pioneers of radical feminist theory, Kate Millet and Shulamith Firestone, claimed that patriarchy is a power structure exercised by men as a whole over women as a whole, making any relationship to class, race, nation, tangential to that fundamental antagonism. In The Sexual Dialectic, Shulamith Firestone breaks down her position:

“historical materialism is that conception of history which seeks the root cause and driving force of events in the sexual dialectic: in society’s division into two biological classes differentiated through reproductive ends and in the class struggle itself; in the existing variations in marriage systems, reproduction and children’s socialization created by distinct conflicts; in the combined development of other classes that are physically different from one another (castes); and in the pristine sexual division of labor that evolved through a class system (economic-cultural).

Based on this analysis, Firestone fell into the trap of seeing technology itself as a driving progressive force. She believed it would liberate women from the attacks on bodily autonomy thanks to the development of birth control. However, by seeing women’s oppression based on a biological division of labor, she normalized/naturalized patriarchy and and saw it as an ahistorical, generalized power structure. On the other hand, socialist/materialist feminists demonstrate why women are not a separate biological class, but a social group with common interests based on their relationship to the capitalist class and to their oppression as women; that is, as actors in an economic relationship under the ideological constructions which reinforce that relationship. What makes socialist feminists unique is in their combination of marxist class analysis with that of gender oppression and its particular form that oppression takes under specific modes of production. As opposed to radical feminists, socialists view gender oppression as wholly social; we give priority to the gendered division of labor (which implies social inequality between the genders) and defines patriarchy as the ensemble of social relations in human reproduction structures constructed in a way that the relations between the sexes are based on subordination and domination. For this tendency, women’s subordination in the reproductive sphere translates to the productive sphere, forcing women’s participation the productive process to take place from a position of inferiority.

Whereas radical feminists view the above division as original and a model for the rest of oppressive divisions, including class, the socialist tendencies take to Engels’ view that humans used to practice matriarchy prior to the division of society into economic classes and that women’s oppression only appears with the appearance of the fundamental class relation. Sharp differences in social analysis gave way to sharp differences in political strategy for ending gender inequality. However, a common thread wove itself through the reformist and revolutionary trends: the desire to wage political struggle to end women’s oppression. This commonality was countered by a new feminist trend to emerge in the 1980s, known as feminism of difference.

Feminism of Difference

The 1990s, symbolized by the American imperialist assault against Iraq and the destruction of the Central American revolutions and social movements, inaugurated the neoliberal form of capitalist domination. At this stage, imperialism chose democratic bourgeois rule in Latin American countries as the form best suited to maintain imperialism – the former military dictatorships had been so thoroughly discredited by mass social movements that imperialism needed to react with a different strategy. These years also represent the vastest transfer of wealth from Latin America to the centers of capitalist accumulation in the form profit, debt payments, royalties, etc. In this context, where the ideologues of capitalism declared the “end of history” and the supremacy of their system, the feminist movement undertook a period of reflection and debate between tendencies, beginning its transformation into a co-opted, institutionalized phenomenon, particularly with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

In the 1980s, feminist conferences saw the mistake in assuming a romanticized unity among women simply as women – their political differences and ideological canons became marked. In 1987, at the IV Encuentro, a feminist conference set in Mexico, a group of women presented a document critical of these spaces, the myths they helped perpetuate, and how they held back a real advance for the movement. It began,

“feminism has a long road ahead because what it really aspires to is a radical transformation of society, politics, and culture. The feminist movement’s development leads us to rethink certain analytical categories and politics practices we’ve been employing.”

They presented a list of myths to be destroyed:

  1. feminists are not interested in political power

  2. feminists conduct politics in a unique manner

  3. all feminists are the same

  4. a natural unity exists between women just for being women

  5. feminism only exists as a politic by women towards women

  6. the small group is the movement

  7. women’s spaces in themselves guarantee a positive political process

  8. because I, a woman, feel it, it is true and valid

  9. the personal is automatically political

  10. consensus is democracy

Feminism of difference emerges to argue against the struggle for gender equality; patriarchy places the male body in a superior plane in relation to the female body so any struggle for political recognition merely seeks to assimilate to a male-centric structure, thereby devaluing femininity, according to this theory.. This feminist tendency focuses on sexual differences from a philosophical perspective, critiquing philosophy itself ,psychoanalysis, and other studies for phallocentrism. Their goal is to exalt this primordial sexual difference as opposed to seeking a “sameness” that obscures this difference and places the feminine in an inferior position. Feminism of difference creates an idealized version of womanhood with an intrinsic and natural feminine quality with positive characters like non-violence and care, in contrast to the dominant male culture. Its political program is essentially separatist – it understands women’s liberation as the creation of a feminine counterculture unadulterated by the corrosive forces of masculinity.

The problem lies, as it lies in the earlier strains of radical feminism from the 70s, with ascribing a biological analyses to social constructions in both understanding patriarchy and “fighting” against it. By correctly problematizing bourgeois universality as male-centric, it denies any human universality, even one based on a common relationship to the means of production and a common revolutionary destiny. By doing so, it marginalizes women into subcultural “ghettoes” where they re-enact what it means to be “essentially” feminine: reproductive labor like cooking, sewing, hanging out with other women, etc – it ironically marginalizes women into the very roles capitalist patriarchy assigns to them. Bourgeois feminism and this version of radical feminism are two sides of the same coin; the former does seek assimilation into a patriarchal system with its male-centric norms and standards and is an illusion for most women; the latter denies any struggle for equality as assimilationist and retreats into a countercultural sphere. Both fail to understand the need for an overall assault against capitalist patriarchy with the goal of creating a new society that establishes equality between the sexes and overcomes the gendered of division of labor which imprisons women in a certain line of work (reinforced through a millenia of patriarchal ideology)

The limits of these tendencies point to their illusions in the capitalist state with its formal, legal equality that masks the underlying exploitative and oppressive divisions. It is only by abstracting from the lives of real human beings under capitalism that the capitalist state can proclaim “equality” and “fraternity” for all under its law. While attempting to create a counterhegemonic feminine lifestyle, feminism of difference provides no alternative to patriarchy and merely turns its back to the state, abandoning the millions of women exploited and oppressed in their daily lives and the ones involved in anti-systemic struggle. It depoliticizes the war against sexism.

In the theoretical realm, multiculturalism, very closely related to intersectionality theory, emerges in academia. Its maximum program is the abstract recognition and respect for difference. Class identity is viewed as merely another alienation along a list of other oppressions, removing the class struggle and its economic basis as a central and overarching analytic and political framework. It is also apolitical in the sense that it merely seeks to “give voice” to the laundry list of oppressed identities any person can have, as opposed to understanding those identities in their material economic basis and developing a program for breaking down oppressive differences among the oppressed class to wage total war against the oppressor.  Multiculturalism and intersectionality theory correspond to the age of neoliberalism where, because capitalism is taken for granted as a social system,  revolutionary or anti-capitalist critique plays no role in its analysis. As Marxists, however, we seek to understand social identities in their concrete experience, particularly their relationship to the economic base/the means of producing and reproducing life. Without these underlying material factors, society appears as a random amalgam of individuals and identities with no connected meaning.

The main reason class is not simply another individual experience or identity as are race or sexual orientation is because as opposed to the two latter ones, class is inherently antagonistic and interdependent. Dark skin is not inherently antagonistic to light skin nor is having dark skin dependent on another having light skin or vice versa. The class relation between worker and boss is the central and defining contradiction because it holds together and molds other forms of oppression into serving its system by dividing the oppressed into a hierarchy of gendered and racialized castes. The goal is to create a society where people of different sexes and skin colors coexist in equality. The master/slave (or worker/boss, peasant/landowner) dialectic can never be a harmonious one; calling for the “recognition” and “tolerance” of the oppressor means accepting our condition as the exploited and oppressed. Understanding this central contradiction leads us view the root of all oppression and a complete social revolution as its necessary antithesis.

Postmodernism, Postmarxism, Postfeminism

As is well known, the onset of neoliberalism in Latin America and the semicolonial world ushered in a new stage of global capitalism. This process is marked by a deeper and intensified penetration of foreign capital into the global peripheries by shattering obstacles to accumulation such as nationalized industries, tariffs, public education, healthcare, and a host of other elements of the social safety net, plunging millions into poverty, unemployment, and illegal/extralegal means of subsistence like the drug trade and prostitution. With the inevitable resistance against neoliberal reforms from the masses, the bourgeoisie’s favorite new term became “governability”: how they could best control and pacify the rebellious urges of the exploited to the facilitate the implementation of their agenda.

With the state in retreat leaving a huge void in the services poor and working-class people received, NGOs, funded by the the World Bank and other global financial institutions, stepped into provide social programs under the language of “transparency” and “participation.” Postmarxists who had at one time been leftists antagonistic to the system now lauded these NGOs as the new way of doing politics and joined in their leadership, effectively coopted by capital’s strategy for global political and economic restructuring. In several occasions, leftist feminists critiqued this process due to the way in which the professional women at the head of NGO projects acted as intermediaries between grant providers and social movements, developing the program and demands for the latter while providing much needed social services like food distribution, family planning, workshops, etc. This implies a tense relationship of power and hierarchy of professional NGO women over working-class women, in addition to competitive relationship between the professional women over access to grants and financing for their organizations.

Here, the poststructuralist feminism of Judith Butler emerged as another tendency seeking a new way to redefine the struggle for freedom not too dissimilar from the feminists of difference. Whereas multiculturalism sought inclusion and tolerance for all identities, Butlerian philosophy viewed identities and the normative practices that upheld them as inherently limiting and oppressive. The goal therefore was not politically correct recognition of identities into one “melting pot” but their “deconstruction” through new discursive and performative practices. The terminology of heterosexual-homosexual was ultimately a false binary that repressed human potential and could only be countered by a lifestyle that mocked and blurred these divisions in order to destabilize them, such as the butch and femme identities. In their postmodernist world, it isn’t men, capitalism, patriarchy, unemployment, or sexual violence that is oppressive towards women, but rather the identity of ‘woman’ that represses women’s potential! Their stated goal is not to do away with power (!) but to create a “radical and plural democracy” by creating democratic spaces in bourgeois society through challenging the normative discourses that chain us to particular identities. Their politics stems from the idea that no identity is fixed; because it is in motion and can never be fully defined this opens up territory for new definitions and articulations of power. However new and “revolutionary” Butlerian philosophy claims to be with its analysis of the “postsocialist condition” as the basis for a new type of “plural democracy”, capitalism treats identities as new potential sites for marketing and exploitation. Rather than a new non-normative “performance” destabilizing established norms, they are subsumed into the logic of capital accumulation by being marketed to and commodified like any other social practice under this system.

In essence, Butler’s prescription for identity is to simply pretend it doesnt exist. It only questions the abstract bourgeois male universalism and the metaphysical citizen under the all-encompassing state apparatus. These, however, are capitalist political abstractions rooted in a material economic basis. When the English Marxist Terry Eagleton reveals postmodernist feminism as “politically oppositionist, economically complicit,” it is because while postmodernism pretends to struggle against essentialist and generalizing bourgeois abstractions, it ignores the material social relations they are based on, i.e. the social relations of modern capitalism, and seeks only a niche within this system. Their politics excludes the possibility of collective human emancipation as this would require a new universality that represents the common interests of the world’s oppressed, including working-class women, men, queers, students, in addition to peasants, the unemployed, radical intellectuals, the multiplicity of identities that however personally defined or enacted share a common class relationship to one another and antagonism to the capitalist system as a whole. Postmodernist feminism simply seeks more “recognition” through expanding, rather than smashing, bourgeois norms.

In conclusion, I hope this reflection and summary of Pan y Rosas: pertenencia de genero y antagonismo de clase en el capitalismo by Andrea D’Atri serves as useful tool in outlining the basic principles of a socialist, or marxist, feminism. A key element in the reemergence of the revolutionary left in the U.S. is such a framework to deal politically but ruthlessly against patriarchy and further conceptualize the manner in which communist revolution can transcend the gender binary. Pan y Rosas’ explicit role is the reproduction of female communist militants, some of whom are also members of the umbrella organization Partido de Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS). They play roles in organizing women workers in their workplaces and neighborhoods, agitating around reproductive rights, against the scourge of femicide and drug violence, and for revolutionary socialist thought and practice. If there is one critique I feel needs to be made of this book, it is its almost complete lack of information outside of Europe and the United States. In some ways, it makes sense to do so given the weight radical theory developed in Europe has had on the rest of the world, part of the contradictory, i.e., both destructive, brutal yet also potentially liberating, influence its philosophical and material achievements have on the semi-colonial capitalist world. Yet I believe the writers could have dug deeper into Latin American history to bring to life our Rosa Luxemburgs, Louise Michels, Sylvia Pankhursts, and Clara Zetkins. Like our Assata Shakurs, Angela Davis’, Frida Kahlos, and Rigoberta Menchus and the struggles they waged. A postmodernist critique of Marxism would say this is Eurocentric, but that is nothing but a superficial look at a phenomenon , Marxism, which doesn’t need radical intellectuals to vindicate its applicability to non-European dynamics because it is through the very practice of organizations like PTS and PyR, in addition to the 20th century history of Marxists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, that Marxism takes on its universal character. Where capital, class, gender, race, and nation form the contours of oppressed people’s lives, Marxism is applicable and vitally necessary to form creative theoretical applications to concrete situations of practice and strategy aimed towards revolution.

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