Revisiting Dunayevskaya on Women’s Liberation for Women’s History Month: Marx’s Philosophy and Queer Struggle

Damian Algabre

Summary: A reflection on Chapter 8 of Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and the lessons it holds for today’s revolutionaries – Editors

In light of Women’s History Month last month, I wanted to recap the turmoil wrought and progress made in the realm of gender and sex equality. As far-right politics have advanced throughout the world in the last couple of years, gender equality is just one of the fronts that have been under consistent attack. For those in the United States, the last four years have been spent living under an unabashed icon of misogyny whose regime has not only shifted the cultural boundaries for gender violence and misogynistic rhetoric but has also presented a legislative threat to those oppressed on account of gender. Former vice president Pence’s continued efforts to restrict birth control and abortion access and to defund Planned Parenthood have united reproductive rights advocates.[1] Meanwhile, the Trump administration has systematically undone LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination policies at the federal level.[2] Finally, without a responsible governmental response to COVID-19, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting working women,[3] an effect which is especially pronounced for women of color.[4]

While these particular attacks are new, they are only aggravated examples of systemic injustices with deep roots and long histories. What is enlightening about these histories, though, is the push towards liberation that has steadily run alongside such injustice. In the US, Trump’s presidency brought the #metoo movement to the fore and brought women out in record numbers for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Black Lives Matter, founded by queer black women, also grew its chapters, reaching out into more neighborhoods not just throughout the US, but worldwide. For many, it is becoming clear that the crises this generation faces is bringing the idea of revolution back into a shared focus, towards the crux of the kind of overarching fight so well remembered and romanticized in the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s.

However, there is no era that ever goes without struggle, even those in which it seems largely latent. This is the type of careful scholarship, the sort that acknowledges the thread of human action throughout history without ignoring the theoretical bindings around such action, that Raya Dunayevskaya accomplishes in her book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Chapter eight of her book is a focused study of Women’s Liberation from the 60s and 70s. More than a historical memoir, she brings into focus the theoretical questions that arose from the Women’s Liberation movement with acuity—questions that the Left still grapples with today.

 

The Call is Coming from Inside the House

What struck Dunayevskaya about the Women’s Liberation movement of her time was that it was, for the first time, a movement that stood for itself. It wasn’t just a movement that worked outside of orthodox leftist organizations but that critiqued the standards of a Left that was not equipped to tackle and, oftentimes, seemed actively invested in downplaying Women’s oppression outside of and (especially) inside of leftist spaces. Embodying the voice of the Women’s Liberation movement she saw firsthand, Dunayevskaya quotes from Doris Wright this towards the patriarchal Left:

[We women] know how great the circulation of Gleichheit was, and that we have nothing comparable to it… We demand, nevertheless, to be heard, not only because your implication seems to be that we had better hold our tongues, but because [Clara Zetkin’s] superiority in organizing women on class lines left hidden many aspects of the ‘Woman Question,’ most of all how very deep the uprooting of the old must be.[5]

Gleichheit was, of course, the magazine of the German socialist women’s movement, run by Clara Zetkin during the time of the Second International. And though this magazine focused on women’s issues, the publication nevertheless fell short of addressing gender oppression in its totality precisely because women were organized primarily “on class lines.” This is why the rallying cry of “the personal is political” and the task of consciousness raising in the Women’s Liberation movement of the 60s was so refreshing and so desperately needed; by coming together to make a social critique of sex and gender without making these secondary to the class issue, they were able to confirm and voice issues that had been so pervasively silenced and relegated to the personal realm.

While many lessons from the Women’s Liberation movement have since been largely accepted by the Left (a majority promote LGBTQ+ rights and bodily autonomy, e.g., right to abortion and sexual consent), the issue of the hostility of leftist spaces towards women still pervades organizational practice. One well-articulated example, though certainly not the only one, can be seen in The Thistle Collective’s parting reflections on the anarchist collective Black Rose/Rosa Negra (BRRN).[6] The collective wrote this article after witnessing 59 people resigning from BRRN in late 2019 through 2020, those resigning being “disproportionally women, queer, trans, non-binary, and/or POC.” In it, they thoroughly outlined the ways in which those of marginalized identities, (specifically those who were not cisgender, heterosexual white males) were systematically devalued and dismissed. Tactics included the tokenization of “women’s issues,” in which the BRRN vocally supported feminist stances, all the while relegating theoretical work around and engagement with issues of gender oppression to those being oppressed. Conflict surrounding issues of gender were also systematically ignored through manipulation of bureaucratic procedures. Conflict involving white male leaders, especially, were pushed into the personal sphere of “interpersonal misunderstanding” rather than political disagreement worthy of an open forum. Despite the lip service given to gender oppression in leftist organizations, it is clear from these types of actions that those in positions of power still all-too-often consider feminism to be a secondary issue which can wait until some ambiguous time “after the revolution.” I would like to emphasize that such grievances are not unique to just this one organization. Simply because an organization considers itself radical does not mean that it is immune from the grips of societal forces. It is a moral responsibility for leftists to acknowledge just how firmly rooted they are in cis-heteropatriarchy, just as much as capitalism. Certainly, to grapple with societal forces such as sexism is to grapple with the influence of capitalism within these ideologies.

 

Organization and Philosophy are not Separate Issues

It is increasingly clear that the Left today is facing a crisis of organization and that, moreover, that organization is completely inextricable from the task of identifying the kind of values progressives ought to work from. A 2019 poll of US respondents showed only half of Millennial and Gen Z respondents to have a positive opinion of capitalism, with 64% of Gen Z and 70% of Millennials likely to vote for socialist candidates.[7] With capitalism’s erosion becoming increasingly obvious and with discontent with the status quo rising in the younger generations, it’s vital to take stock of the kind of Left movement we ought to aspire to build.

Dunayevskaya saw women through the ‘60s to ‘80s come to the conclusion that political organization was too hierarchal and that an alternative to these rigid systems was direly needed. In the US context, especially, this realization was linked to the ways that hierarchical structures tended to work against women. She wrote that the question of “form of organization permeated the whole Women’s Liberation Movement as the question of ‘decentralization’.”[8] Although the practical application of decentralized organization was, and continues to be, constantly worked out, Dunayevskaya provided insight into two theoretical questions that must be solved and underpin any organizational efforts towards a successful revolution:

They are, first, the totality and the depth of the necessary uprooting of this exploitative, sexist, racist society. Second, the dual rhythm of revolution: not just the overthrow of the old, but the creation of the new; not just the reorganization of the objective, material foundations but the release of subjective personal freedom, creativity, and talents. In a word, there must be such appreciation of the movement from below, from practice, that we never again let theory and practice get separated.[9]

Her insight here is dangerous. Far from the pragmatism that established leftist organizations so often appeal to when compromising in their tactics, she points out that ideals are not as dispensable as they are treated. Theory is both foundational to and lives through action. No individual or organization is free from the pressures of oppressive systems, so any radical organization is obligated to recognize and actively address them both inside and outside of themselves. However, we are just as obligated to counter harmful systems and ideologies as we are to conceptualize and practice better ones; ones that cease to repress human potential and instead “release subjective personal freedom, creativity, and talents.”

While the latter endeavor, the challenge to build up something better, can often seem daunting, Dunayevskaya believes that the humanist element is entirely necessary for future movement building. Citing the failure of the 1919 German Revolution and the eventual degeneration of the USSR, the “first workers’ state into its opposite, the state-capitalist monstrosity we know today,” she claims that “to repeat the same 1902 answer (as both Stalinists and Trotskyists do) – ‘the party, the party, the party’” is to insist upon a failing method.[10] She credits the Women’s Liberationists for raising the question of non-centralized organization and “new forms of organization which are not elitist and which do not separate practice from theory,” and their legacy extends into efforts to create forms that do this successfully today.[11]

 

Intersectionality is Not Optional

Although the last two decades have seen a greater turn towards decentralized organization in efforts to curb the injustices of hierarchy, these practices have rarely succeeded to be as egalitarian in practice as they are in theory. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, had no formal leaders, although white males took over as de facto leaders.[12] Organized pushes towards revolution not only have to be formally democratic, but also actually create space for oppressed people to speak and be heard. Dunayevskaya saw that the voices of the oppressed shaped Women’s Liberation as a broad movement throughout the world, these activists drawing from the histories and experiences of previous freedom struggles and also finding the specific ways in which their gender oppression was shaped by the different places they lived in. Indeed, she produces a list of Congolese, Timorese, and Zulu women’s organizations which demonstrates that “Color [was] that exciting dimension which signaled a new Third World not only in the United States but throughout the world.”[13] To emphasize this within the US context (and to rebuff the white middle-class notion of a limited Women’s Liberation Movement), Dunayevskaya quotes, “Our movement didn’t begin with The Feminine Mystique in 1963. In 1961 we were on the Freedom Ride buses with you,” emphasizing the long enduring Black dimension as a vanguard of revolutionary consciousness in the US.[14]

At the same time as women around the world continued to raise dialogue about the concrete oppression they faced, they were also able to articulate with acuity the broad systems of oppression and how they operate under capitalism. Dunayevskaya even goes so far as to emphasize the power of women’s standpoint and the insight it allows them to the intersections of oppression, by quoting:

…we must all learn to hear the voices of the Third World. The real Afro-Asian, Latin American struggles – especially of women – are not heard in the rhetoric at the Tri-Continental Congresses, but in the simple words of people like the Black woman who spelled out what freedom meant to her: ‘I’m not thoroughly convinced that Black Liberation, the way it’s being spelled out, will really and truly mean my liberation. I’m not so sure when it comes time “to put down my gun” that I won’t have a broom shoved in my hands, as so many of my Cuban sisters have.’[15]

Though the Tri-Continental Congress is a monumental historical event, even it was not free of the pressures of patriarchy, nor could the rhetoric at the conference resonate with women as readily as the quote Dunayevskaya provides. Women are just as able to understand issues of class and race as men, but far too many parties or self-proclaimed vanguards fail to truly grapple with the issue of gender, and their analysis of the cruelty of capitalism is incomplete because of it.

 

Marx’s Philosophy and Queer Struggle

Though the Women’s Liberation Movement of Dunayevskaya’s time might have missed the bus on Marx’s philosophy, the good thing about Marx’s philosophy is that it is still entirely applicable today. Long documented issues of feminism, like divisions of labor and women’s self-sovereignty, are still incredibly relevant today, but the burgeoning Gay and Lesbian Liberation of 60s and 70s has since flourished into a broader LGBTQ+ struggle. As a transgender Marxist, I see the recent debates surrounding the lives of transgender people are a historical extension of these long-documented issues. I also believe that theorizing about gender in this gender-expansive era requires more analyses that aren’t mired in the kind of postmodern disposition that so often paints transgender life as everyday rebellion or flattens all “transgressive” gender performance to acts of situational (and, often, quite limited) resistance. To be more direct, transgender activism and theory need Marx’s philosophy.

There is no overarching “victory” for women without intersectional approaches, and some recent examples of this are the Women’s March on Washington and the critiques it garnered for being a prime example of white, middle class feminism. The march was also originally organized by Black women, then coopted to give a platform to marchers who supported police during a national outcry of police brutality against Black folks.[16] An effective feminist framework should also be inconsistent with the representative progressivism of liberal feminists that essentializes women as inherently more progressive or disruptive within the realm of electoral politics. In summary, feminism cannot just rehabilitate the capitalist, white supremacist project. Feminism, though it works primarily through the lens of gender, needs to always incorporate understandings of different oppressive mechanisms in order to remain truly liberatory. That’s why we must think about the issues of gender the way that Marx and Dunayevskaya do: concretely, and without excising the issues from the social realities that inform and work alongside patriarchy.

The troubling crux of more recent iterations of “trans exclusionary radical feminism” or “gender critical feminism,” which are based in the belief that sex difference is the ultimate root of sex and gender oppression, is that they fall into the same trap that Dunayevskaya describes when talking about the Women’s Liberation Movement in her time: these gender-critical feminists see the female sex as an essential Other, counterposed against an inherently inhospitable world withoutengaging with the social element of gender in all its mutability throughout history. Failing to engage with gender in a dialectical way, they fail to see the potential that gender has for revolutionary development and are thus happy to dispose with it altogether. This featureless sort of equality proposed by gender abolitionists is entirely too abstract to work towards, at least for now. In fact, the issue with gender abolition as an answer to gender inequality is similar to the critique that Hegel makes in his Phenomenology of Spirit against the concept of the Absolute as something totally featureless or free of distinctions. A world free of gender inequality only because it is free of gender is a “night in which all cows are black.” Gender abolitionists draw an untroubled line between the physical realm of sex and the social realm of gender, but in a social world so inundated with gender, this line is entirely too simplistic to convey just how broadly issues of misogyny and patriarchy impact everyone. Meanwhile, trans and gender non-conforming people acutely understand through their lived experience that their ability or willingness to conform to gender expectations shape the way that misogyny and patriarchy inform the structural and interpersonal violence they face.

I won’t detail the manifold ways that transmisogyny and patriarchal standards affect trans lives, since that is a little outside the scope of this article, but I must emphasize that LGBTQ+ rights are radical issues that come out of a tradition of feminism. They aren’t simply a matter left to bourgeois, liberal identity politics, as they are so often cast. Despite the often cloying, individualist language that LGBTQ+ slogans can often take (i.e., living your best life and discovering your “true self”), at its core, these personal freedoms share the struggles for self-determination and free association that the Women’s Liberation Movement has always been invested in. Dunayevskaya implicitly acknowledges that the Gay Liberation Movement of her time shares the same need for freedom with other liberation movements here:

You can’t make your right to your own kind of love-making as if that is the answer for everyone. People want to have a conclusion on the question of love—what is love, whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s total, and all that sort of thing. But I don’t think we’ll really have those choices until we get rid of capitalism.[17]

Thankfully, Dunayevskaya also explicitly links this freedom to the necessity of getting rid of capitalism, which permeates and even gives contour to all forms of oppression.

 

Arguing for Marx – A Dialectical View of Identity

Although Dunayevskaya wrote with enthusiasm about the accomplishments of the Women’s Liberation Movement in her time, she had her criticisms of it as well. In particular, she claims that, “The Women’s Liberation Movement has made mistakes as its participants have moved away from the vanguardist organizations […] Like the rest of the other post-World War II generation they fell into the trap of the existential Other and considered Man the enemy.”[18] In other words, she observed the movement codify Woman as essentially and irreconcilably different in a patriarchal world, at the same time while holding up Man as a monolith standing only to benefit from the world as it is. This stance is dangerously uncritical – by placing such an emphasis on difference without also looking at the social conditions which continuously shift and shape gender relations, this position discourages deeper questioning about the historical and social elements of gender inequality. The dichotomy of Man/Woman as being innately in opposition mystifies the huge amount of social construction that pits women against the patriarchy, encouraging a sort of defeatism toward the difficult but still incredibly necessary task of unraveling systems of oppression. After all, if Man truly is incapable of achieving a sufficient understanding of patriarchy, then trying to get men to oppose (or much less destroy) it is a useless endeavor. A more direct point, though one still worth bringing up, is that patriarchy doesn’t only hurt women, though they experience a large portion of its harm. Patriarchy also hurts queer people and even corrals the actions and beliefs of the straightest, most archetypically masculine men into what is deemed appropriate for them.

Dunayevskaya argues that the theoretical trap that the Women’s Liberation Movement fell into is because it shied away from Marx’s philosophy.[19] She noticed that both academics and activists in her time fell into the trap of pigeonholing Marx’s theory as useful only among a single axis (seeing him as solely an economist, anthropologist, etc.), when “Marx, at all times – in theory as in practice, and in practice as in theory – was a revolutionary.”[20] She also notes that despite Engels’ Origin of the Family being too-often cited when people search for Marx’s views on gender, the book is much more indicative of Engels’ conclusions on the topic than Marx’s own.[21] The mistakes that Engels makes are so egregious and so detrimental to a nuanced understanding of gender struggles that Dunayevskaya makes the effort to debunk two especially pernicious “Engelsianisms” and illustrate Marx’s differing stances on them.

Firstly, she critiques Engels’ idea of their being a singular “‘world historic defeat of the female sex’ which Engels grounds in a transition from matriarchy (or at least matrilineal descent) to patriarchy, [which] is no expression of Marx’s. Marx rejected biologism.”[22] The idea that there was one overarching female loss in history is entirely too linear and abstract, giving no room to understand the oppressed woman as a potentially revolutionary subject in her own right.

Secondly, Dunayevskaya notes that the notion of “‘The world historic defeat’ is related, in turn, to the so-called ‘primordial division of labor between the sexes’ […] Again, it is not Marx’s concept; even where Marx said that the first division of labor was sexual (in 1845 in The German Ideology, which he and Engels wrote together), it was perceived as not just personal but social social.”[23] This is, perhaps, the thornier point of the two – without even tackling the more contemporary arguments over gender/sex binaries, Marx’s stance is that the sex-based division of labor is not something primordial! Marx actually observed, in his Ethnological Notebooks, that “elements of oppression in general, and of woman in particular, arose from within primitive communism […] beginning with the establishment of ranks– relationship of chief to mass – and the economic interests that accompanied it,” thus acknowledging divisions of sex as parallel to other societal divisions that sprout under the beginnings of hierarchy.

In overturning these “Engelsianisms,” Dunayevskaya highlights some strengths of Marx’s philosophy. At his best, Marx’s dialectical approach prevented him from both making overgeneralizing claims about humanity and from divorcing his studies from their greater social context. His humanism shines through in his writings through the respect and space he gives to the human subject as capable actors and resistors of oppressive forces. His dialectical view of human nature is also at the core of his philosophy; he insists on there being a human nature which is dynamic throughout history and yet not without fundamental needs and desires. Many progressives understand such a view of human nature with some skepticism -the claim that there are universal aspects of human nature is so broad that I understand why some may be hesitant to agree with any attempt to characterize these shared aspects as truly representative of all humanity. Nonetheless, I believe that this challenge is a worthwhile endeavor. Having a working understanding of human nature, of what every person needs and what it means to live a good life, is what can give liberation a positive trajectory towards a future that makes it possible for people to not just live without today’s intricate webs of oppression, but to truly flourish.

While anti-capitalist sentiment is growing along with desperation for an alternative to it, it’s so important to resist that all too common phrase: “…after the revolution.” Populist and fascist leaders around the world today wield misogyny and bigotry to engender people to their actions – We need to rid these and other oppressive forces of their power, and part of that is in undoing patriarchy, which has its grips in society just as capitalism does. I also hope that more people become feminists not just in word, but in action, with the courage and diligence to navigate the contradictions and problems that arise (even within the ‘Left’) in the pursuit of a better future.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/tracking-trump/player/mike-pence

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/08/trump-administration-again-weakens-lgbt-protections

[3] https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-has-covid-19-been-especially-harmful-for-working-women/

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/naomicahn/2020/05/10/mothers-day-and-covid-19s-impact-on-women-of-color/?sh=748e29a41ac9

[5] Raya Dunayevskaya. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. (Humanities Press, 1982), p. 100.

[6] https://medium.com/@thistlewritingcollective/every-rose-has-its-thorn-74fe04ba04ed

[7] https://www.axios.com/millennials-vote-socialism-capitalism-decline-60c8a6aa-5353-45c4-9191-2de1808dc661.html

[8] Dunayevskaya (1982), p. 108.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dunayevskaya (1982), p. 109.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003122416681031

[13] Dunayevskaya (1982), pp. 103-4

[14] Dunayevskaya (1982), pp. 109-10.

[15] Dunayevskaya (1982), pp. 100-1.

[16] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tanyachen/cops-highfived-womens-marchers

[17] Raya Dunayevskaya, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution. (Humanities Press, 1985), p. 180.

[18] Dunayevskaya (1982), p. 102.

[19] Dunayevskaya (1982), p. 104.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Marx’s views on gender, as well as on issues of slavery in the US and colonialism within Ireland and India, can be found in letters and articles written throughout the years as well as his later Ethnological Notebooks.

[22] Dunayevskaya (1982), p. 105.

[23] Ibid.

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