For the last few years, the term “radical feminism” has become a lazy shorthand for a collection of ideas and attitudes that are simultaneously feminist, liberal, fringe and mainstream. The public discourse is so bewildering, you will see a ludicrous assortment of feminist campaigners, internet celebrities, neoliberal politicians, trade union organisers, religious conservatives, and even Communists, branded as adherents of “radical feminism”. It’s easy to forget that this iteration of feminism, whilst often fallaciously identified, is in fact a coherent philosophical and political ideology.
Radical feminism emerged as a distinct set of beliefs in the 1960s. It postulates that: 1. The biological difference between men and women is the source of female oppression, and 2. The oppression of women by men is the ultimate source of legitimacy for all other forms of inequality, be they economic, racial, etc. Therefore, the radical feminists reject any socio-economic cause for female oppression. They believe the sexual difference will perpetually cause men to seek to oppress women. (see ‘Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement‘ by Anuradha Ghandy)
In this article, we will explain why Marxism-Leninism and radical feminism, despite some areas of agreement, come from different places and, as movements, travel in very different directions.
Given the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and Young Communist League (YCL) stance on the question of gender and our opposition to the ‘legal’ self-identification of transgender people, there has been some debate over whether the CPB and therefore the YCL (made up of most CPB members under 30) is a place for those who are primarily feminist activists – radical feminist or otherwise – to organise. This is not the first time that this has been discussed in our organisation, nor in the hundreds of other Marxist-Leninist organisations across the world.
As the feminist movement grew, developed, and mutated over the decades (see ‘Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement’ by Anuradha Ghandy), the typical stance of the communists had been to say: Yes, socialism is everyone’s liberation, therefore those fighting for liberation of any kind should belong in a Marxist organisation.
However, experience has taught us that, whilst Marxists may share sympathies with feminist activists, we remain fundamentally distinct as movements. It is only forthright for us to make that distinction clear, and instead say: No, unless you accept the following three principles: socialism is your primary goal, the class struggle your primary vehicle, and Marxism-Leninism is your primary understanding of oppression and liberation.
Certainly, most people will join a revolutionary party half-formed. Huge developments will be made in their political understanding through study, debate and above all, revolutionary activity. But they must join with an acceptance to the above principles, or else they aren’t being truly honest in their newly professed convictions. If people from other liberation struggles are warming towards this position, that is excellent. However, until they are willing to accept those three basic principles, we sincerely believe they should not join the CPB, the YCL or any other ML organisation.
Using the tool of historical materialism, Marxist-Leninists understand that women’s oppression (and indeed, their freedom) at different times in history, is based on the material conditions of each era. We also use this tool to look at how nations and ethnicities have been subjugated by others; no group is not subject to this analysis.
Marxism argues that the primary decline in the status of women as equals to men came about with the creation of property at the end of the hunter-gatherer era. This obviously occurred at a time of a general decline in status for all sexes: the creation of subject groups or classes – the slave, the serf, the peasant, the labourer.
This second-class status for women developed, and in many cases deepened, over the centuries. Only over the last 200 years has it been addressed and opposed, as capitalist societies made the calculations that they had little to lose and lots to gain by giving women the same legal rights as men. We stress that this historic turnaround is not unique to women: in the face of serious mass struggle, both sexes secured the right to vote, basic education, and in some cases a welfare state. Over roughly the same period and in response to similar mass opposition, the capitalist class dismantled the lingering systems of racial hierarchy like apartheid and segregation – dropping old and unneeded systems of oppression and allowing the market run smoothly, provided with new profit opportunities.
Full legal rights under capitalism will not address the legacy of millennia of human society where women were subjugated; only through the destruction of the capitalist system and radical change that socialism brings in our attitudes to property, will women be free of this legacy.
Understanding the above should explain why Marxists do not view the central question of any struggle as the struggle between men and women and why we do not view the central division in society as being between men and women; we believe the central division is between the class that lives off of property and the class that creates it. This is why our priorities are very different to those of someone who is primarily a feminist activist. Our priority is the class struggle, and our justification, if questioned by feminists, is that socialism has always delivered the most liberation for all of us, including – but especially – women.
Democratic Centralism, the Leninist party structure, requires that all members of Marxist-Leninist organisations, having given their input, carry out the decisions of the Central Committee (CC). This discipline is what makes Leninism so uniquely dangerous to capitalism. It is why only ML organisations have successfully overthrown capitalism and then held power to create socialist states.
Opposing misogynist behaviour and ideas has been central to the growth of ML organisations globally. Working women turn to them, often to specific women-only organising within the Party, to seek safety, justice, and comradeship on equal terms. This opposition to anti-women behaviour is placed on a level with other anti-social behaviour; the ML party must gain the people’s trust by showing its members will be exemplary in their behaviour, and strictly materialist in their application of justice, both within and outside their organisation.
Women-only and women-led organisations are important and have been a central part of Marxist politics across the globe. However, they never supersede the Marxist organisation itself. For example, if the minutes of a women’s organisation were needed, they would be handed over to the CC or relevant body immediately; there would be no case where a women’s organisation could refuse a request from a mixed-sex section of the party.
Under the discipline of the party structure, all members are equal: whether a request or order is made by a female comrade of a male comrade, or a male comrade of a female comrade, is irrelevant in a Marxist organisation. No one has the right not to carry out their duties or answer requests based on the sex of the person or group these originate from.
A Marxist organisation will not fold, pause, or interrupt its overall campaign while a matter of anti-women activity is being addressed. It must always maintain the trust people have in it that the Marxist organisation is a permanent body that can administer justice. The masses must believe that the Marxist organisation is not a collection of individuals motivated by their personal feelings, but an institution of the class struggle that will last indefinitely; in many cases, Marxist organisations are now over 100 years old.
Priorities and attitudes
This final section is necessarily vaguer, as we do not have the time or the means to fully analyse where certain attitudes and priorities that will be outlined have emerged from. All we can say is that we do not share them.
Marxist-Leninists understand the slogan “the personal is political” but we certainly do not follow the conclusions that are made from it by the modern feminist movement on both sides of the transgender debate. We believe that we are shaped by our material reality, primarily our class position (like our job, whether we own much property etc.). We believe that “your feelings” are therefore some order of magnitude inferior to your reality when it comes to finding out what and who is oppressing you and what your path to liberation will be.
To put it as bluntly as possible: by all means, channel your outrage at injustice or inequality into the class struggle, but if those emotions come before following the discipline of not just a Marxist party but say, a trade union or community group, we oppose you and will be forced to isolate you until you change, for the safety of all.
Similarly, we would have to do the same with anyone who said their loyalty to their sex came before all else. Class struggle organisations cannot function with a concept so fundamentally opposed to the primacy of class within them. Where they have attempted to do so the results have been at best, painful, at worst, extremely destructive.
Marxist-Leninists believe in trans rights and the existence of trans people; we do not believe they are a misogynist plot or inherently a threat to women. We respect pronoun requests, recognise preferred identities and so on, despite being opposed to gender overall; although contradictory, is it really that strange, given Marxism’s history of working with or around anti-materialist ideas of national identity etc. that are found among the masses?
A good comparison would be Marxists accept that Christians exist, and accept that they believe in an eternal afterlife, without making any compromise in advocating a scientific socialist worldview that finds no evidence of a god or life after death. It can be important to carry out campaigns against immaterialist beliefs at times; at others, it could not be more pointless, a lazy distraction from the class struggle.
We oppose gender roles as illogical and a barrier to organising against the propertied class; we recognise sex as a reality. So, both sexes are equal in our organisations and expected to do almost identical work, with acknowledgement of the biological differences. This egalitarian approach to organising is our liberation from gender, in the day-to-day. We see no behaviour traits or ideas as inherently male or female and we assess human characteristics based on whether they are useful for building a socialist society or not. Where some anti-social behaviours are overwhelmingly carried out by males only, even then, we refuse to lay the blame at feet of the male sex itself. We seek solutions based on eradicating that behaviour instead.
In contrast, a lot of supposedly ‘progressive’ ideas around gender only go to reaffirm the gender construct of female and male behaviour. For example, many non-Marxists believe that violence is inherently male and that male children simply need to be taught tolerance and pacifism to end war and many of the major inequalities in society. In contrast, we think any gendering-away of important tools such as violence is backwards. Yes, in some cases, men must rightfully be castigated for outbursts of rage or intolerance. But equally in some cases, women must be taught to be violent and fight alongside men – after all, they have: in every successful Leninist revolution and in several that are not yet successful but are raging today.
Whether it was the first time we gave a speech, learned to debate, used Marxism to analyse the world and our place in it, to grasp our first-ever scraps of class power, we know – for a fact – that political work in a genuinely revolutionary Marxist organisation will liberate us from gender roles, just as it liberates all oppressed workers, not in the future but right now, from a life of meaningless drudgery.
In a capitalist society that seeks to destroy our humanity and sense of society, and spit us out as broken worker-consumers, Leninism, as an ideology and practice, gives us validity, purpose, pride and certainty. This is especially true when it comes to the specific oppressions faced by women in modern Western class society, for example, “beauty industry” propaganda created by the marketing firms to profit from anxiety and misery; perhaps non-Marxist organisations talk about these oppressions more than we do– but only our organisations have the proven record of smashing these structures entirely.
Challenge Editorial Team