Left still can’t fathom Women’s Liberation

March 30, 2013

Woman as Reason

by Terry Moon

Women’s struggle for freedom has continued to develop into a worldwide movement with revolutionary content (see page 1). Unfortunately, much of the Left seems unable to hear this radical dimension of women’s struggles. A recent example is Sharon Smith’s essay, “Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation” (http:// links.org.au/node/3210). Smith, a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) (USA), has to at last and at least give lip service to an undeniable fact: women’s liberation has changed the world.


Rather than giving us anything new, however, Smith just walks the worn path of post-Marx Marxism: treating Marx and Engels as practically the same person; praising Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State over anything Marx wrote; reducing Marx’s concept of reproduction to bearing children; reducing women’s oppression to working-class women’s oppression within the working-class family.

She writes as if “understanding the role of the family” takes centuries of struggle, and when we master that we will understand “women’s second-class citizenship in society.”

Then there is Smith’s ludicrous fabrication that “this crude approach” of “reductionism” “does not describe the IS (International Socialist) tradition, which certainly since the 1960s women’s liberation movement has taken women’s liberation seriously as central to the struggle for socialism.” To refresh her memory: in the mid-1960s the sexism in the Left was so extreme—including in “the IS tradition”—that women started leaving the Left in droves, breaking up groups and flooding into, or starting their own, women’s groups.

Women in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were ordered to join women’s liberation groups to take them over. They did not identify themselves as SWPers. When I confronted them—they weren’t that hard to figure out—they accused me of “redbaiting” because I demanded that they be as open about their politics as I was about mine. From the 1960s to today, most of the Left has tried to belittle, destroy, take over and divert the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Smith gives us nothing but reductionism, like asserting that all of women’s oppression “starts with the family.” There is nothing new here. Poor Lenin is trotted out so that Smith can put women’s oppression where she thinks it belongs. Despite acknowledging the transformative effect of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Smith’s theoretical approach confines the women’s movement’s significance to being one of the “specific forms of oppression to maintain the system” of capitalism. Ah, finally the reason for women’s oppression—rape, acid attacks, anti-abortion fanatics, female infanticide—it’s all to prop up capitalism.

Smith never gets to the inadequacy of the principle that compelled her tendency’s accommodation to “reductionism.” She doesn’t get to it because, like post-Marx Marxism in general, her attempt to assimilate Women’s Liberation doesn’t involve any real rethinking of the “IS tradition’s” theoretical bases.


She is still practicing and preaching that accommodation: the elitism and vanguard partyism that led her tendency to a decades-long opportunistic relationship to women in struggle and deafness of the SWP and ISO to the revolutionary dimension of the women’s liberation movement from the mid-1960s onward.

To Smith it is the so-called “revolutionary party” that has the theory and will lead the masses. In her article’s summation she reduces Marxist feminist theory and practice to the party: “That practice must involve the building of a revolutionary party, because without a revolutionary socialist party, there can be no successful socialist revolution.”

Tellingly, except in the most general terms, Smith’s essay does not take up what women are doing and saying today or in the last 50 years. She quotes a few women theorists to make her points, but nothing from actual women fighting for their freedom, or even fighting for better human relationships in that “working-class family.”

Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, had a different view. She was opposed “to [the] attempt to reduce Women’s Liberation to ‘an organizing idea’…” To her, “Social revolution does come first, provided [Dunayevskaya’s emphasis] it is not—indeed revolution cannot be—without Women’s Liberation or behind women’s backs, or by using them only as helpmates….It is precisely because,” she wrote, “Women’s Liberationists are both revolutionary force and Reason that they are crucial. If we are to achieve success in the new revolutions, we have to see that the uprooting of the old is total from the start.”

It is that total uprooting that women are reaching for from the streets of New Delhi to the squares in Egypt and Tunisia, including women in the U.S. demanding reproductive justice. Will the Left help, or see us only as fodder for their vanguard parties? It is high time the movement from practice was comprehended as itself a form of theory. It is our task to meet that movement from practice with a total philosophy of revolution.

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