Marxist Theory or Misconceived Tradition? On Comrade Merkenich's View On Who Can and Who Cannot Be A Feminist
The Activist - Volume 9, Number 7, October 1999
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney West branch)
In her discussion article "Can Men Be Feminists?" (Activist Vol. 9. No. 6, October 1999), Comrade Mary Merkenich poses the question, "Why is it such a big deal for men to be called feminists?", without even seeming to realise that the reason is because she herself has made the claim that men cannot be feminists and therefore they cannot be members of the independent women's liberation movement. Furthermore, she claims that her view is, or has been, the party's policy.
Women-only organisations and the women's liberation movement
Responding to the accusation (made by comrades Margaret Allan and Wendy Robertson in their Green Left letter) that she "advocates an autonomous women's liberation movement in which men cannot be members", Comrade Merkenich states that "the party also advocated this". She cites as "proof" of this claim, the following comments from a paper submitted by the party to the 1974 National Women's Conference on Feminism and Socialism (the emphasis is Comrade Merkenich's):
"Nearly all landmarks in the struggle for women's emancipation resulted from a concerted campaign on the part of an organised movement of women."
"An independent mass movement of women will be necessary even after a socialist revolution..."
"Women are learning to rely on no-one but themselves in the struggle for their liberation and are seeing through the many attempts that are being made by the capitalist system to co-opt and defuse their struggle..."
While Comrade Merkenich interprets these statements as supporting her view that the party advocates/advocated "an autonomous women's liberation movement in which men cannot be members", in and of themselves, the quoted passages only affirm that the liberation of women from sexist oppression will require the building of an organised movement of women fighting for women's emancipation from sexism, both before and after the socialist revolution. They do not state that it is the DSP's view that the independent women's liberation movement consists exclusively of women-only organisations.
Comrade Merkenich argues that "if you are talking about a movement for women's liberation in a general way then you can say that men can be part of the movement for women's liberation". However, she then seeks to draw a distinction between the "Women's Liberation Movement" (the capitalisation is her's) and a movement for women's liberation.
According to Comrade Merkenich, "if you are referring to the specific Women's Liberation Organisation (in the party always referred to as the Women's Liberation Movement) then men can not be part of it, because as some of the quotes state, women will free women".
However, if there were to exist an organisation with the formal title Women's Liberation Movement, we would not regard it as the entirety of the independent women's liberation movement.
Since Comrade Merkenich makes appeals to what "old timers" think to bolster her interpretation of what the party's "traditional" views are/have been, I should point out that, as an "old timer", I can personally recall a time – in Adelaide, in 1971-72 – when there was only one independent women's liberation group in the city (which called itself "Women's Liberation"). Furthermore, male supporters of women's liberation (in particular, male members of Resistance) were invited to participate in its meetings. That's because, in those "old times", everyone in the independent women's liberation movement regarded it as a movement for women's liberation, for ending the sexist oppression of women. All that changed when the "old-time" feminism was swamped by bourgeois-feminist separatism – "radical feminism", as it misleadingly called itself.
A special Marxist definition of feminism?
Comrade Merkenich presents a number of arguments against the idea that men can be feminists.
The first is that, just because the commonly accepted definition of feminism (as presented in the major English-language dictionaries) does not exclude this idea, this does not mean that Marxists should agree with such a definition.
Methodologically this is an entirely valid argument. Definitions of social phenomena are a battleground between Marxists and bourgeois ideologists. Thus, while Marxists define the state as a special, centralised organisation of coercion that defends the interests of a ruling class over the inhabitants of a definite territory, bourgeois ideologists define it as a "body of people occupying a definite territory and organised under one government, esp. sovereign government" (Macquarie Dictionary, 1989) or as an "organised political community under one government, commonwealth, nation" (Oxford Concise Dictionary, 1976). Through their definitions of the state, bourgeois ideologists seek to obscure the class origins and class character of the state.
Both of the above-cited dictionaries give similar definitions for the word "feminism" – i.e., "advocacy of equal rights and opportunities for women" (Macquarie) and "advocacy of women's rights on the ground of equality of the sexes" (OCD) – with the word "feminist" simply being defined as someone who "advocates" equal rights and opportunities for women.
Is there an ideological/political reason why Marxists should adopt, and seek to win public acceptance for, substantially different definitions of the words "feminism" and "feminist", particularly a definition that excludes consciously anti-sexist men from being considered feminists?
Comrade Merkenich evidently believes there is. According to her men "can not fully understand the oppression that women face", and therefore they can't be feminists. She appears to be arguing that the defining quality of the word feminist is someone who fully understands the oppression that women face.
But what exactly does Comrade Merkenich mean by the phrase "fully understand the oppression that women face"? According to Comrade Merkenich:
From the time we [i.e., women – DL] are born our socialisation and oppression begins. There are so many psychological, consequent emotional factors at work which shape us, but also work to put and keep us in our 'place', which only those who experience them directly can fully appreciate."
Her argument, then, is that since men cannot have direct personal experience from the time they are born of the oppression that women face they consequently "can not fully understand the oppression that women face" and therefore they cannot be feminists. (This is the underlying assumption with regard to every form of social oppression that fundamentally informs all variants of what has come to be termed "identity" politics.)
If we were to accept this argument then we'd have to change our party's position in favour of the right of transgender women to participate in the feminist movement. We'd have to agree with the exclusionary position advocated by bourgeois-feminist separatists such as Patricia Karvelas that, since transgender women were not born women, they are not "real" women and therefore cannot be feminists.
Against this biological-determinist argument, our party has argued that (as comrades Sarah Lantz and Emma Murphy put it last year in their PCD article "Against the Politics of Exclusion: Reflections on Our Melbourne Women's Liberation Work" in Activist Vol. 8, No. 8, December 1998), "gender is something which is socially constructed... women are 'made' not born."
However, let us assume that Comrade Merkenich's argument that only those who have direct personal experience of the oppression that female human beings face from birth can be feminists, is a polemical exaggeration and that she does not disgree with the idea that transgender women can be feminists. Her argument would then, presumably, be that men who do not relate to society as women cannot be feminists because, lacking direct personal experience of the day- to-day oppression that women face, they cannot "fully understand/fully appreciate" the "emotional factors" which "shape" the psychological attitudes of women. A feminist would then be someone who advocates the abolition of sexism and who, because they have direct personal experience of the oppression that women face, "fully appreciates" the emotions (psychological feelings) that this oppression generates in the minds of those who are subjected to it.
Comrade Merkenich, however, fails to provide any ideological/political reason for Marxists to hold such a definition. Instead, she changes tack and appeals to "tradition":
I have been an activist in the Women's Liberation Movement and the DSP since 1972 and the traditional definition of a feminist is "a woman aware of her oppression and fighting for her liberation".
Unfortunately, she does not cite any authoritative source – such as a major Marxist theoretical work, party resolution, etc. – that comrades can check to verify her claim that this is in fact the party's "traditional definition of a feminist".
Inferences from 'old documents'
Comrade Merkenich cites a number of passages from "the party's old documents" which she asserts "show that the party has traditionally used the term feminist to refer to women only". But do they?
The first is from the party's theoretical journal, Socialist Worker No. 1, March 1977. It says: "There is no other resolution circulating on the left today that deals with this important question with such rigor and clarity and which can provide satisfactory answers to the many questions that arise for women who want to be both serious Marxists and committed feminists" (the emphasis in the passage is Comrade Merkenich's). She presumably wants us to infer that the phrase "women who want to be serious Marxists and committed feminists" proves that "the party has traditionally used the term feminist to refer to women only".
Why should we draw this particular inference? Is it because the passage says that women who want to be committed feminists should read the recommended resolution on women's liberation? But it also says that women who want to be serious Marxists should read the resolution. If comrades are meant to validly infer from the passage that the party has traditionally used the term "feminists" to refer to women only, wouldn't it be equally valid to infer from it that the party has traditionally used the term "Marxists" to refer to women only?
Clearly, any comrade who made such a claim would be told that they were being ridiculous and should learn some elementary logic. But where is the logic in drawing from this same passage the inference that Comrade Merkenich favours regarding who can and who can't be a feminist?
The next quote is from Socialist Worker No. 2, May-June 1977 and is from an article by US SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters (again the emphasis is Comrade Merkenich's):
Unlike the Stalinists and social democrats, the SWP does not believe that the working class will 'give' women their liberation. Women will liberate women... A mass, independent feminist movement is not simply desirable; it is a precondition for a victorious socialist revolution in the US... The women's movement has in turn helped strengthen the consciousness and combative force of Blacks and other oppressed minorities. The obvious parallels and interconnection between racism and sexism, and between women's liberation and national [sic] liberation, have the effect of deepening our understanding of both... The feminist movement has aided socialist women in developing confidence and coming forward as leaders."
Again, we are supposed to infer from this passage, or rather, from the phrases emphasised by Comrade Merkenich, that our party has traditionally regarded the term feminist as referring to women only.
Comrade Merkenich appears to want us to infer from her juxtaposition of the phrase "Women will liberate women" and the words "independent feminist movement", that an independent feminist movement can consist only of women. Men, she tells us, "can not be part of it, because as some of the quotes state, women will free women".
Waters' phrase, "Women will liberate women", does not mean that women on their own can liberate women from sexist oppression. That is a bourgeois-feminist separatist view. What Waters' meant by this phrase is that, as she herself put it elsewhere in the article (the emphasis is in the original): "... it is impossible for the working class to carry through the social revolution and the socialist reconstruction unless masses of women are mobilised to play a conscious and leading role... We will liberate ourselves fighting as a component of, and an ally of, the working class, which is the only progressive class that exists and the only social force capable of knocking the capitalist minority out of the driver's seat". The same idea is expressed in our party program as follows:
Like all progressive movements, such an independent women's liberation movement will not be able to win its struggle alone. Only by fusing the objectives and demands of the women's liberation movement with the struggle of the working class and other progressive movements will the necessary forces be assembled to achieve the liberation of women...
Without the socialist revolution, women will not be able to establish the material preconditions for their liberation. Without the conscious and equal participation of broad masses of women, the working class will not be able to carry though the socialist revolution and build socialism. The party [therefore] seeks to convince the working class of the centrality of the struggle for women's rights to its own struggle for social liberation. [Program of the Democratic Socialist Party, New Course Publications, 1994, p. 96, 97]
A mass, independent feminist movement will be necessary to mobilise masses of women as part of the revolutionary movement of the working class for the socialist revolution and the organisation of socialist society. Such a movement will need to be predominantly made up of women, and organised and led by women. But saying this is not the same as saying, as Comrade Merkenich argues, that all the organised components of such an independent feminist movement must consist exclusively of women, or that men cannot be feminists. Nowhere in Waters' article is the latter conclusion drawn.
The next passage which Comrade Merkenich highlights from the Waters' article states that, "The feminist movement has aided socialist women in developing confidence and coming forward as leaders". From this we are presumably supposed to conclude that our party has traditionally used the term feminist to refer to women only.
But why should we draw this conclusion from the sentence? Is it because the sentence doesn't say that the feminist movement has aided any particular group of men (e.g., working-class men, black men, etc.) in developing confidence and coming forward as political leaders. But the middle sentence in the selection from Waters' article that Comrade Merkenich cites, says that the feminist movement has "helped strengthen the consciousness and combative force of Blacks and other oppressed minorities". Doesn't the category "Blacks and other oppressed minorities" include both racially oppressed women and men?
The third "document" that Comrade Merkenich cites to make her case that it has been the party's traditional view that men can't be feminists is a book review in the same issue of Socialist Worker containing the Waters article. Comrade Merkenich strings together the following passsages from this review (again all the emphases have been added by Comrade Merkenich):
Male elitists find it easy to trivialise books written by feminists on the grounds that... The ideas it raises merit attention, because the women's liberation movement has in recent years attracted a growing number of women whose experience of the discussion of the major theoretical questions facing the movement has been very slight... 'The Family of Woman' section probably charters the evolution of many feminists' development for it deals with the kinds of issues that a woman faces in her development as a conscious feminist.
But as with the earlier "documents" cited, the reader will only reach the conclusion that these passages "prove" that men cannot be feminsts if he/she already accepts Comrade Merkenich's definition of who can be a feminist. For example, Comrade Merkenich appears to have interpreted the first sentence cited to mean: "All males find it easy to trivialise books written by feminists...", and the last sentence to mean: "'The Family of Woman' section probably charters the evolution of every feminists' development for it deals with the kinds of issues that a woman faces in her political development as a conscious feminist". But, again, this not what these sentences actually say.
The fourth of the "old documents" that Comrade Merkenich cites to make her case that it has been the party's view that men cannot be feminists is a paper which Comrade Merkenich prepared (under party direction) for the 1974 National Women's Conference on Feminism and Socialism, and from which she cites the following sentence: "The feminist movement helps in ultimately bringing women to a socialist consciousness''.
Comrade Merkenich interprets this passage to mean that the feminist movement helps ultimately in bringing women only to a socialist consciousness. But wouldn't the same sentence be equally true if had read: "The feminist movement helps in ultimately bringing women and men to a socialist consciousness"? Indeed, Comrade Merkenich herself made precisely this argument in her 1974 paper:
The women's liberation movement, as it grows and spreads, will have a profound impact on the working class as a whole [.e., not just working-class women – DL]. It will play a vital role in educating and raising the political consciousness of the mass of workers and it will add powerful new forces to the anti-capitalist struggle. [see p. 4 of the eight-page Feminism and Socialism broadsheet in Direct Action No. 76, December 13, 1974 – DL]
Rad-fem 'tradition' or Marxist policy?
While Comrade Merkenich has failed to provide documentary proof that it has been the party's traditional position that the term "feminists" refers to women only, as a fellow "old timer" I can affirm that she is correct in her claim that this was how the term was used in the party in the 1970s. Most party members recruited in the 1970s did interpret the term feminist to mean "a woman aware of her oppression as a woman and fighting for her liberation", or words to that effect.
If, as Comrade Merkenich tells us, there are comrades in the Melbourne branches (including "current leading comrades") who hold this view, they do not do so as a result of studying the party's program and Feminism and Socialism resolution, or any other contemporary party document, but as a result precisely of tradition, i.e., the oral passing on of the opinion of their political "ancestors" – the "old timers" recruited in the '70s.
Why did this use become "traditional" among the "old timers"? There are two reasons, in my judgment. One is that it flowed from our conjunctural political needs in the early '70s, when we were the only socialist group in Australia that defended the need for women-only feminist groups. We exaggerated this to the virtual exclusion of the need for mixed-gender feminist groups.
The other reason is that by the late '70s the recognition of the need for women-only feminist groups had not only become generally accepted throughout the labour and radical movements, but had become the "received wisdom" as the only way to organise feminist groups and activities. This was a result of the growth in the ideological dominance within the women's liberation movement of bourgeois feminism (in both its cliquish Laborite "sisters-in-suits" careerist form and in its "rad fem" separatist form).
Bourgeois feminists have always regarded the struggle for women's rights as a reform movement made up, and working in the interests, of women alone – particularly the women of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes. But for a long time now our party has been actively combating this bourgeois-feminist "tradition", both on the broader ideological front and within what still exists of the independent, organised women's liberation movement.
This has been reflected in our party documents for at least a decade. Thus the resolution on Feminism and Socialism adopted by our 14th party congress in 1992 points out that the women's liberation movement "is characterised by its heterogeneity, its penetration into all layers of society, and the fact that it is not tied to any particular political organisation, even though various currents are active within it. Moreover, some groups and action coalitions, though led and sustained by women, are open to men as well, such as the National Organisation for Women in the United States and the National Abortion Campaign in Britain" (Feminism and Socialism – putting the pieces together, Resistance Books, 1997, p. 89).
Furthermore, the resolution notes that the "dominant [i.e., not exclusive – DL] organisational form of the women's movement has been all-female groups" (p. 90).
Comrade Merkenich should therefore not be so taken aback if younger comrades, who have learned the Marxist approach to feminism from the party's main document on feminism, react with incredulity when she puts forward her "traditional" view of who can be a feminist as the party's view.
Comrade Merkenich seeks to defend this "traditional" definition of who can and who can't be a feminist by extending her method of defence to the issue of who can and who can't be regarded as a "Black Liberationist", writing:
In her article, Zanny Begg writes that not all women are feminists and that this indicates feminist consciousness is not inherently female. Not all blacks are conscious of their oppression as blacks. Does this mean whites who see and fight against black oppression are black liberationists?
She writes "But how can men be feminists when they don't suffer sexism? In the same way that people who don't suffer racism can become anti-racists". Comrade Begg doesn't assert that whites can be Black Liberationists so why mix up the definitions? Be consistent and say men can be anti-sexists.
Contrary to Comrade Merkenich's argument here, Comrade Begg was not being inconsistent or mixing up her definitions. Or does Comrade Merkenich think that there is something more to the oppression of women as women than sexism? That there is something more to the oppression of black people as black people than racism?
Doesn't the liberation of black people as black people require precisely the destruction of the oppression particular to their condition, i.e., racism (though the struggle against racism has a broader meaning than this because it means the ending of the racial oppression of all racially oppressed people, not just black people)? Similarly, doesn't the liberation of women as women require the destruction of the oppression particular to their condition, i.e., sexism?
The idea that white people who are conscious anti-racists cannot be considered "black liberationists" is an accommodation to the white-liberal conception of the struggle against black oppression as the exclusive responsibility of black people. It is a conception that transforms the struggle against black oppression into a latter-day Roman spectacle in which black people are the gladiators and white anti-racists are "supportive" spectators.
By translating the special interest black people have in destroying racism into a special task reserved for black people, it relieves those white people who have a class interest in the destruction of racism (the non-black section of the working class) of the difficult and unpopular task of taking up the struggle against black oppression as their own struggle, thereby promoting the worst kind of bourgeois moralism, liberal racism and hollow anti-racist posturing.
And isn't is precisely white liberals (as well as black separatists who pander to white liberalism) who claim that because white people (i.e., members of the oppressor white racial group) cannot have direct personal experience of the oppression that blacks face, they cannot possibly "understand fully the oppression that blacks face" and, therefore, they cannot become fully conscious and consistent anti-racists?
Marxists, however, dispute this. We argue that it is possible for whites to "understand fully the oppression blacks face" and to therefore become fully conscious and consistent anti-racists. They can do so by assimilating the Marxist (i.e., the scientific) theory of racism and acting in accordance with the practical program Marxism formulates for how to destroy racism.
Similarly, we argue that men can "fully understand the oppression that women face" – by assimilating the Marxist theory of sexism. This, of course, does not mean that men can have direct personal experience of the oppression that women face (any more than whites can have direct personal experience of the oppression that blacks face). But no-one has to have direct personal experience of any natural or social phenomenon to fully understand it (within the inevitable objective limits that are imposed upon the ability of human thought to fully comprehend an infinitely complex and eternally changing objective reality). For example, no human being can have direct personal experience of the interactions of electrons that give rise to the chemical bonding of atoms, but it is entirely possible for any human being alive today to fully understand these interactions. All they have to do is assimilate the scientific theory of these interactions, i.e., quantum electrodynamics.
Feminism and personal feelings
Comrade Merkenich's argument that men cannot be feminists, however, appears to be based on the idea that for men to "fully understand the oppression that women face" they would have to personally experience the "psychological, consequently emotional factors at work that shape" women. She apparently believes that this is not possible. But are the psychological effects on women of sexist oppression impervious to human reason, and therefore not able to be communicated to men?
Perhaps what Comrade Merkenich is trying to say is that because men do not have direct personal experience of sexist oppression they cannot have direct personal experience of the emotions that sexist oppression generates in women's minds, and therefore men cannot be feminists because to be a feminist you must have direct personal experience of these personal feelings.
This argument would be logical if we were to accept the connecting premise, i.e., to be a feminist you must have direct personal experience of the emotions evoked in a woman's mind by the oppression that she faces. However, if we were to accept this view, we'd also have to accept the proposition that a feminist movement, even one made up solely of women, cannot be built.
An organised movement that defines who can and who can't be participants in it on the basis of commonly experienced inner feelings would be objectively impossible. How, for example, will Comrade Merkenich determine, on the purely subjective basis of direct personal experience of inner feelings, that the emotions evoked in her mind by sexist oppression are the same as those evoked in the mind of any other woman? A "Vulcan mind meld" perhaps?
Comrade Merkenich, of course, like the rest of us, is a mere "humon" and, like the rest of us, she therefore can only appreciate what emotions (and thoughts in general) exist in the minds of other people through the means that humans have developed over millenia of social practice for communicating them to each other, i.e., through the material manifestation of human emotions and thoughts in practical social interaction, i.e., by what people say and do.
Each of us can only appreciate what other people feel emotionally about any natural or social phenomenon by how they emotionally respond (in words and deeds) to it. We may suspect that because of the social conditions people live in, they have thoughts that are in contradiction to what they say and do. But if they do not act on these thoughts then these thoughts are irrelevant to how we relate in practice to the person.
Comrade Merkenich's argument that "no man is free of sexism" – by which I assume she means that, living in a sexist society and being objectively a member of the privileged, oppressor sex, no man can completely free his mind of sexist thoughts – is therefore irrelevant to the issue of whether or not men can be feminists. As the report on "The Party, the Political and the Personal" adopted by the party's 14th congress in January 1992 points out: "The important thing is not what a comrade thinks or whether their mind is 'pure' (which in a society based on oppression and permeated by oppressive ideas is an idealist fantasy), but how they act" (Organisational Principles and Methods of the Democratic Socialist Party, Resistance Books, 1998, p. 77).
The feminist movement (like all socio-political movements, i.e., movements of large numbers of people who come together on the basis of commonly perceived aims to effect changes in social relations and state policy), is not defined by what each individual feminist thinks about sexism, but by how they seek to act in relation to it. Certainly, everyone's actions are determined by their thoughts, but it is not the thoughts in themselves that determine their actions, but only those thoughts that they act on that result in attempts to associate with others to take practical action to effect changes in social relations and in state policy.
A socio-political movement is brought into being by large numbers of people having a common mental response to a particular social problem that stimulates them to associate with each other take common actions in regard to it.
What defines the feminist movement, however, is not a common ideological response toward sexism. Like all the other spontaneous socio-political movements (the anti-racist movement, trade union movement, the environmental protection movement, etc.), it contains antagonistic ideological trends reflecting the antagonistic interests of the two basic classes in capitalist society – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The feminist movement is ideologically polarised between various bourgeois-feminist ideological trends (i.e., all those trends that hold to the view that the oppression of women can be eradicated without the eradication of capitalism) and the proletarian ideological trend, i.e., Marxist-feminists. There are also petty-bourgeois ideological trends, i.e., those that vacillate between bourgeois feminism and Marxism, and that attempt to eclectically combine the theories of the two consistent ideological trends. Patricia Karvelas is a prime example of petty-bourgeois feminism, attempting to combine "revolutionary socialist" politics with bourgeois-feminist separatism (as well as liberal bourgeois anti-racist posturing).
What is it then that unites the feminist movement? It is not the existence of sexism, of the social oppression of women per se. That has existed for thousands of years without giving rise to a mass movement for the liberation of women. It is a common emotional response to the oppression of women, i.e., moral indignation, the commonly perceived sense that the social practice of sexism, the social oppression of women, is morally unjust.
The feeling that the oppression of women is morally unjust, i.e., that it conflicts with how people feel society should be organised, has been generated by a contradiction within capitalist society between the objective development of its social productive forces and its social relations of production. The material-social source of this sense of moral injustice regarding the oppression of women, which impels large numbers of people to take socio-political action against this oppression, is summed up as follows in the DSP program:
Before capitalist industrialisation, women had few rights and almost no identity or life outside their functions within the family. The rise of industrial capitalism began to end this domestic isolation by giving women an independent productive role outside the home. Brutal and exploitative as this work was, large numbers of women began to achieve some degree of economic independence for the first time since the rise of class society.
The involvement of large numbers of women in industry generates a contradiction between the increasing economic independence of women and their domestic subjugation within the family unit, propelling women to fight against their oppression and the ideology that props it up. [ibid., p. 96]
Feminism and Marxism
As Comrade Merkenich herself acknowledges, men can have the same emotional response to the oppression of women as women themselves. "Lots of men are... outraged by our oppression", she writes.
Indeed, long before the contradiction between the involvement of large numbers of women in industry and their domestic subjugation within the family unit had an impact on the social psychology of large numbers of women, impelling them to come together to fight against sexism, this contradiction had generated a sense of moral outrage among some men. Two of them – Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – not only expressed their moral outrage at sexism, but provided a scientific explanation for the cause of sexism and a practical program for its destruction.
In the first programmatic document of our ideological-practical movement, Marx and Engels summarised the impact of capitalist industrialisation on the family system:
The less skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex...
On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution. [The Communist Manifesto and its relevance today, Pathfinder Books, 1998, pp. 48, 59-60]
In Capital Marx showed that the development of socialised productive forces based on machine production not only undermines the family system, but also creates the material basis for a new relationship between the sexes:
However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large- scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organized processes of production, outside the sphere of domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes. It is of course just as absurd to regard the Christian-Germanic form of the family as absolute and final as it would have been in the case of the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek or the Oriental forms, which, moreover, form a series in historical development. It is also obvious that the fact that the collective working group is composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages must under the appropriate conditions turn into a source of humane development, although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalist for, the system works in the opposite direction, and becomes a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery, since here the worker exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the worker. [Capital, Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 620-21.]
And with utter scorn, Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto countered the lies cast by the bourgeois ideologists of the time upon the new relations between the sexes that the proletarian-socialist revolution promised to usher in:
The bourgeois sees in 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 than 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.
Later, on the basis of Marx's unpublished notes on the subject, Engels provided the first truly scientific study of the origin and causes of the oppression of women, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
In a 1903 article, "What the Women Owe to Karl Marx", Klara Zetkin, the initiator in 1910 of International Women's Day, observed that:
The women's movement, however, owes much more to Marx than just the fact that he, as no other person before him, shed bright light upon the painful path of the development that leads the female sex from social servitude to freedom and from atrophy to a strong, harmonious existence. By his profound, penetrating analysis of the class contradictions in today's society and its roots, he opened up our eyes to the differences of interest that separate the women of the different classes. In the atmosphere of the materialist conception of history, the "love drivel" about a "sisterhood" which supposedly wraps a unifying ribbon around bourgeois ladies and female proletarians, burst like so many scintillating soap bubbles. Marx has forged and taught us to use the sword which has severed the connection between the proletarian and the bourgeois women's movement. But he has also forged the chain of discernment by which the former is inextricably tied to the socialist labour movement and the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. Thus he has given our struggle the clarity, grandeur and sublimity of its final goal.
Das Kapital is filled with an immeasurable wealth of facts, perceptions and stimuli concerning women's work, the situation of the female workers and the legal protection of women. It is an inexhaustible spiritual armory for the struggle of our immediate demands as well as the exalted future socialist goal. Marx teaches us to recognize the small, everyday tasks which are so necessary in raising the fighting ability of the female proletarians. At the same time, he lifts us up to the firm, farseeing recognition of the great revolutionary struggle by the proletariat to conquer political power without the attainment of which, a socialist society and the liberation of the female sex will remain empty dreams. Above all, he fills us with the conviction that it is this exalted aim that lends value and significance to our daily work. Thus he saves us from losing sight of the great fundamental meaning of our movement when we are beset by a plethora of individual phenomena, tasks and successes and stand in danger of losing our ability, during the enervating daily toil, to view the wide historical horizon which reflects the dawn of a new age. Just as he is the master of revolutionary thought, so he remains the leader of the revolutionary struggle in whose battles it is the duty and the glory of the proletarian women's movement to fight. [Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, International Publishers, New York, 1984, pp. 96-97.]
The independent feminist movement and the Marxist party
Bourgeois "radical" feminists allege that Marxist feminists cannot be "genuine" feminists because Marxist feminists are guided in their approach to the struggle for the liberation of women from sexism by the Marxist theory (and practical program for the destruction) of the oppression of women– a theory and practical program developed by two dead, white, European men.
The Marxist response to this allegation is that the development of a theoretical explanation and a practical political program for dealing with any social phenomenon does not require direct personal experience of the effects of that phenomenon.
The proof of this is demonstrated by the fact that long before the social oppression of women led to the rise of the mass feminist movement in the late 19th century, Marx and Engels discerned and explained the essential characteristics of the oppression of women. In fact, Marx and Engels had a fuller understanding of the oppression of women than all the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feminists, past and present.
Bourgeois-feminist separatists also assert that there is a contradiction between Marxist feminists being participants in the independent feminist movement and being members of a Marxist party – a party which not only has male members but in which men usually make up the majority of the party's membership and decision-making bodies, to which all members are obliged to subordinate their political activity, including their political activity in the independent feminist movement.
The "traditional" response of Marxist feminists to such an allegation has been the one presented by Comrade Merkenich in her 1974 paper on "The Marxist movement and the struggle for women's liberation":
The struggle for socialism requires both a mass women's liberation movement and a mass revolutionary Marxist party.
There is no contradiction between their functions. One plays the role of mobilising and leading women in the struggle for their liberation and the other provides the leadership, through program and action, for the working class and all its allies in the struggle for socialism.
The unstated assumption behind this response is that the socialist revolution is necessary to create the material preconditions for the eradication of the oppression of women.
This argument is entirely correct. However, implicit in it is a conception about the relationship between the independent feminist movement and the Marxist party which refutes Comrade Merkenich's argument that the feminist movement cannot include men: the Marxist party provides leadership, through program and action, for the working class and all its allies in the struggle for socialism and, therefore, also in the struggle for the liberation of women from sexist oppression.
It is not only the women members of the Marxist party who provide this leadership, but also its male members. That's because the Marxist party is a feminist organisation – an organisation that advocates and struggles for the liberation of women. More than this: it is the feminist organisation whose theory provides the fullest understanding of the origin and nature of the oppression of women and, therefore, of how to bring an end to this oppression.
As a consequence of this fact, the Marxist party is the only feminist organisation that can provide the scientifically-guided, practical political leadership, through its program and the action of its cadres, that the independent feminist movement needs if it is to achieve its ultimate objective.
Of course, the male members of the party cannot directly participate in those feminist organisations that decide to exclude men from membership. But it is not our conception of the independent women's liberation movement to regard only those feminist organisations that exclude men from membership as constituting the sum-total of this movement. As our resolution on feminism explains:
By independent we mean that the movement is organised and led by women; that it takes the fight for women's rights and needs as its first priority, refusing to subordinate that fight to any other interests; that it is not subordinate to the decisions or policy of any political party or any other social group since the movement must be open to all women who wish to fight against their oppression; and that it is willing to carry through the fight by whatever means and together with whatever forces prove necessary. [Feminism and Socialism, Resistance Books, 1997, pp. 89-90]
It should be noted that this is not a definition of the feminist movement in its entirety, but a description of the sort of independent feminist movement we advocate and seek to build. As the resolution observes: "Clearly, not every group within the movement measures up to those criteria fully or equally but that is the direction in which the movement will evolve if it is to be successful."
In its entirety, the feminist movement includes unorganised feminists, feminist organisations that exclude men from membership as well as those non-party feminist organisations (like NOW in the USA) that do allow men to be members, and the consciously anti-sexist cadres – both women and men – of the Marxist party.
The idea that men cannot be feminists has no foundation in Marxist theory. It is an accommodation to the biological-determinist conceptions that underlie bourgeois-feminist separatism, i.e., "radical-feminism". As the report on "Perspectives for the DSP's Women's Liberation Work" adopted by the 18th party congress in January of this year correctly observed:
"They argue that male domination of women – what they call patriarchy – stems from the biological differences between the sexes, in particular women's role in reproduction. This essential difference, they argue, is the material basis upon which women have always been viewed and treated by men as walking wombs and as sexual objects.
"Because men don't experience sex oppression, they cannot possibly understand or consistently fight for the liberation of women, they say. In fact, argue the most consistent radical feminists, in so far as all men benefit from women's material and psychological enslavement, men's primary interest lies in maintaining the sexist status quo. They are, therefore, women's principal enemy.
"Patriarchy theory gives little if any weight to the existence of classes and class oppression. Radical feminists therefore fail to see that working-class men's objective class interests cut across their interests as men to create the material basis for alliances with women who's struggle for social equality is also, ultimately, anti-capitalist.
"Patriarchy theory therefore leads to a separatist political practice, in which neither men nor women who were born as men have more than a token role to play in women's struggle for liberation" (The Activist Vol. 9, No. 1, February 1999).