By Daniel Pitt
The patriarchal oppression of women shapes every civilisation in our modern world, although there are pivotal differences in what form this oppression takes because gender relations are always interwoven with class, race, sexuality and other social relations. Women taking action globally to challenge sexism often identify themselves as feminists. If the definition of feminism in its widest sense is opposition to sexism – which is what the term is defined as in popular use today – it should be obvious why socialists must identify with feminist principles.
There are however exceptions to this common rule, as exemplified by the presence of socialists who, although appreciative of struggles to end gender-based oppression, do not personally consider themselves to be feminists. Sharon Smith of the International Socialist Organization recently noted that some Marxists, including some in her own political current, haven’t “understood the need to defend feminism, and to appreciate the enormous accomplishments of the women’s movement, even after the 1960s era gave way to the backlash” against feminism and other movements of oppressed people.
For the last few decades there has been a sectarian momentum within the socialist movement which has sought to undermine feminist stances held by their comrades, arguing that revolutionary socialist politics are already committed to liberation from all forms of oppression, including gender oppression, and therefore feminism is extraneous to their cause. This is often accompanied with the misconception that socialist feminism is flawed because it advocates both united working-class struggle against exploitation and all forms of oppression (seen as the correct orientation) and autonomous organising against patriarchy led by females. Gender-based organising is wrongly perceived as undermining working-class politics because it allegedly means cross-class politics which fail to recognise that the interests of working-class women aren’t the same as those of middle-class or ruling-class women.
Realistically this “socialist, not feminist” approach is illogical and misleading. Its claim that “because socialism is about universal human emancipation, it doesn’t need feminism” evades a pressing issue; existing socialist organizing and politics aren’t the ideal that these socialists talk about because they mainly exist within patriarchal societies. Consequently, the actions and thinking of socialists will inevitably be limited and deformed by the patriarchal gender relations that socialist feminists are committed to uprooting. So socialists need to develop our politics by learning from the actually-existing struggle against patriarchy, in addition to learning from history. This can only be achieved through adopting and embracing feminist principles.
Feminists are at the forefront of shedding light on how women are oppressed, and consistently grapple with how to challenge various manifestations of oppression, from violence against women including sexual assault to eating disorders to how families, workplaces, schools and other institutions pressure women to conduct themselves in particular ways to sexism in contemporary science and many more. This does not apply to all feminists equally, of course; feminist politics range from revolutionary socialist-feminism all the way to pro-imperialist liberalism, and there are constant lively debates within feminism. Feminists are at the cutting edge of whatever progress is being made in understanding and fighting patriarchy – and socialists need to partake in that action or risk getting left behind. Socialists need to learn from the best feminisms of varied ideologies to deepen our understanding of oppression and how to fight for liberation. The “socialist, not feminist” approach is a barrier not only to women’s liberation but to the continued evolution of socialist thought. It allows socialist men to avoid the commitment of asking difficult questions about sexism and such insulation from feminist thought allows sexism to breed within any given socialist movement. If we, as socialists, truly wish to prove our dedication to global emancipation, it should be an imperative of leftists to vigorously defend feminism as an integral part of our movement.