Sunday, October 7, 2018

How the left lost the women

I was a Communist for a couple of years, a member of the very conservative leftist CPUSA. We parted ways over gender, mainly. When I cited bell hooks to Jarvis Tyner, he dismissively called her an “ultra-feminist.” When two of the guys came down to Raleigh from New York, I heard them speculate derisively about which of the women didn’t shave their legs. When I wrote an article that emphasized the dynamics of gender I’d seen in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I was called onto the carpet to demand repentance for putting “the woman question” before the “primary contradiction,” which is of course economic class. One of the more astute fellow travelers at the time, Gerald Horne, who was teaching at UNC then, was more internationalist in perspective, and he claimed at a meeting once that “US imperialism is the primary contradiction in the world.”

I left the party and ended up after a fashion with a less “democratically centralized” formation called Freedom Road Socialist Organization (the NY faction after a split). They were more than happy to discuss gender, because they’d already broken from orthodoxy once through a close association with leftist black nationalism. But they embraced a kind of fuzzy postmodern version of feminism, based to some degree on the guys finding that a friendlier version of feminism  . . . for men. I left them, too, though I still have great affection for the people I knew there. They still looked at class as the “principle contradiction,” but that taxonomy had already been eroded by their careful and pretty principled approach to race and nationality.

Then I joined the most radical cult of all: Jesus chasers.

I wrote for Counterpunch quite a bit during the anti-war upsurge of 2001–2008 (ending with Obama’s ascension to Commander-in-Chief). Counterpunch is a leftist zine—kind of a modern-day Iskra with many left perspectives—but I also found a good deal of pushback about my obsession with gender as a system of power and an ideology, this time from people coming out of a more Trotskyist tradition. I was flirting with heresy still; and I even had one fella joke about how the women had taken me hostage and another who called me “pussy whipped.”

The whole radical feminist movement rose directly out of Marxism (they still use a Marxist idiom), because women within Marxism began using the same analytic frameworks as their comrades used for class and applied it to men and women—as classes divided by antagonistic interests based on cultural and political structures or norms. The result was a backlash on the male left (you can still see it, but it fades corresponding to age—older fellas are more sexist for the most part) that attacked the rad-fems on the one hand and embraced postmodern accounts (which they rejected with regard to class) of gender, now redefined, often in ways that erased embodied women as a political collectivity . . . and which was much more tolerant of the kinds of sexual objectification that lefty men had come to cherish as much as their righty counterparts.

The crux of what radical feminism uncovered was that women quite often suffered some of their worst oppressions not in the setting of employee v. employer but in the practice of sex. Andrea Dworkin, a kind of foremother of radical feminism, was demonized by the left because she voiced those concerns with righteous anger (and women are not supposed to do that), and the way she said things discomfited the lefty boys.

She was right, though.

We are seeing women by the thousands confirm exactly what Dworkin described.

Another thing I share with radical feminism is the conviction that if there is such a thing as a “primary contradiction,” sex beats out class every time. Sex relations like class relations are always in flux, always adapting; but both are meta-stable, because the power gradient itself never changes. Capital is always more powerful than labor. Men (as a whole) are always more powerful than women (as a whole).

What is unaccounted for here is the fuel of male domination, which is enculturation from birth into gender norms. When I told people fifteen years ago that masculinity was driving politics with more psychological heat even than accumulation. More than that, however, the sociocultural structures of male-female relations are co-rooted with other relations in such a way that revolutionary change—if it is possible and desirable—presupposes a fundamental change in sex relations. Or those relations, that consciousness, will return society to its former defaults.

I was dismissed by quite a few lefty men.

I was right, though.

We are seeing the masculinist reaction against the illumination of what Dworkin described with the recent judicial coup, yes, but also in the re-ignition of the Trump base, which elected Trump precisely on a narrative of white male victimization (loss of privilege) . . . and what is the call? “It has become a dangerous world for boys.”

At every juncture in the long history of failures on the American left, when the issue of male domination came up, that issue was shelved for the more urgent issues at hand . . . which were anything except gender. And so first the rad-fems, then more and more and more women—put off by our bad habits, our internalization of our own privilege, our own predations, our own macho warspeak, our own mansplaining, and our own open hostility—disengaged with the left, because—from that standpoint—the left is just another boys’ club.

Which brings us to today.

Before we all run for the hills of Other Issues with our hands clapped across our crotches, if the left wants to regain the trust of women, it will stfu for a while, listen to the women who are raising their voices right now, police our own, and figure out how to best support the #MeToo movement.

(PS - Al Franken is not a leftist, but the picture speaks volumes.)


  1. Yeah, the push back you experienced with the left's boy's club gave you a small taste of the sexism women on the left are up against to operate in these spaces. However, the frustrations aren't only ideological. You had parted ways with the political left already, but in 2014-2015 there was a big controversy among the international Trotskyist formations about sexual assault in both the British SWP and the US ISO.

    Socialists will always have a tendency to elevate class over gender, however the concept of solidarity helps to temper that and even be more effective assuming organizations are able to, as you say, "stfu for a while, and listen". However, there's a lot of work that the left has to deal with around both sexism and sexual violence even amongst the left.

  2. I like the idea of stfu and listen.

  3. Stan, you've been on quite a roll lately. As someone who has abjured participation on Facebook, I've never checked in on whatever it is you do over there. But when you write in this blog, I read it.

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