Misogyny is Revisionism Part 1: On the Left’s “Woman” Problem

Image for post
Image for post
The dialectics of idealism masquerading as dialectical materialism.

The Marxist left finds itself confronted by three insidious big lies that threaten the revolutionary and emancipatory foundation of the Marxist project, all related to undermining women’s liberation; they are:

1. Transwomen are women.

2. Sex work is work.

3. Feminism is bourgeois.

Misogyny in its many forms has long been a challenge for the left; not just the misogyny of the reactionary right, but misogyny coming from within the left itself. But it has not been until recently that this leftist misogyny has sought to portray itself as being inherently progressive. By engaging in revisionism of the most blatant kind, reactionary elements within the left have managed to posit themselves as the agents of progress. Much has already been written about the harms caused by these three lies, but no attempt has yet to be made to debunk them from a solidly Marxist standpoint. That is what we are out to accomplish here; to demonstrate definitively that these big lies are not just regressive, but inherently revisionist and anti-Marxist to the core.

The first of these three big lies, “Transwomen are women”, might well be the most damaging, because it directly contradicts the heart of the Marxist method: dialectical materialism. There are two main definitions used by proponents of transgenderism to explain their narrative. The first is that gender is an identity; the state of being a man or a woman (or any one of the other numerous “gender identities”) stems not from biological sex (to the extent that transactivists acknowledge the existence of biological sex), but from an internal identity, i.e. personal feelings, personal consciousness. The second definition says that transpeople are not really the sex they physically are, but the sex they say they are, because they really have “male” or “female” brains. Both of these definitions are rooted in the personal, not the material. One of the patron saints of queer theory, Judith Butler, says:

“It’s one thing to say that gender is performed and that is a little different from saying gender is performative. When we say gender is performed we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role or we’re acting in some way and that our acting or our role-playing is crucial to the gender that we are and the gender that we present to the world. To say that gender is performative is a little different because for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.”[1]

Though queer theory is a postmodernist philosophy, its roots go far deeper than just postmodernism; rather, this statement of Butler’s is an example of the dialectics of idealism. Marxism, as a philosophy, was formed in reaction to the idealist dialectics of the Young Hegelians. The dialects of idealism posit that reality flows from consciousness. Marx, on the other hand, argued “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[2] That is, it is not our thoughts that shape material reality, but material reality that shapes our thoughts. In fact, Marx’s first major work, The German Ideology, is exclusively dedicated to explaining this.

So what is the materialist definition of gender? And how does the embrace of the idealist definition under the guise of Marxism harm the Marxist aim of women’s liberation? The foundational Marxist text dealing with the oppression of women is Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. According to Engels, while there has always existed a sexual division of labor in human society, it is not until the rise of private property that this division becomes hierarchical. Before the rise of private property, society was organized under what was called “mother right”, i.e. a person’s family is traced through their mother, given the difficulty of identifying with certainty the father in primitive communist society. But because private property grew out of male labor, and became concentrated in male hands, mother right gave way to “father right”. In order to bequeath his property to his son, the father needed to know with certainty who his sons were. This meant controlling the reproductive labor of the female sex, and its subordination to male supremacy; thus the advent of patriarchy. In Chapter II of Origin of Family Engels calls the overthrow of mother-right “…the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”[3] Note that Engels here is dealing with sex, with biology. Women are not oppressed because of some abstract gender identity, but because of their sex. Class society and patriarchy, the two of which exist in a symbiosis, need to control women’s reproductive labor to sustain themselves. To put it more bluntly, they need to control the means of reproduction. Thus, women’s oppression has its origin in material reality.

But we have not yet dealt with the concept of gender. In the current queer theory dominated discourse, sex and gender are increasingly become conflated to the point that they are being used as synonyms for one another. Engels analysis of patriarchy is in many ways incomplete, but it forms the basis of future materialist explorations of sex and gender. The second-wave feminists who developed much of the thought around gender did not revise these fundamentals, but expanded on them, the opposite of what today’s revisionists are doing. Gender, according to the radical feminist Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, is “the value system that prescribes and proscribes forms of behaviour and appearance for members of the different sex classes, and that assigns superior value to one sex class at the expense of the other.”[4] Gender is therefore not the same thing as biological sex, but a kind of parasite grafted on top of biological sex to maintain the current sexual hierarchy, and ensure continued male control over reproductive labor. Gender non-conforming, as well as homosexual, men and women are therefore “exiled” from their gender community not because of some abstract identity, but because they do not fulfill their proscribed functions as members of their sex class; they are essentially class traitors. Intersex people, which form a distinct material category, are also lumped into this community of “exiles” because they too are unable to fulfill the goals of the patriarchal sexual hierarchy. Such communities of exiles have existed throughout history, and continue to exist to this day in all parts of the world, from the hijra in India to the two-spirited people of the Native Americans to the contemporary shunning and violence directed at gender non-conforming individuals. But to reiterate, none of this has to do with identity, but with the material structuring of class society.

While transactivists have started to turn against the biomedical explanation for transgenderism, it is very much alive and well in the medical and psychological community. Victorian-era theories about “brain sex” that would have earned the ire of Marx and Engels are now making a comeback. At best, these theories are chimerical pseudoscience which have not even come close to being conclusively proven in any legitimate scientific study. The standards by which gender dysphoria is diagnosed falls back on the constructed tropes of masculinity and femininity already discussed. Such theories risk misconstruing gender roles as being rooted in nature as opposed to constructions that reinforce ruling class control. Rather than being seen as the disease, dysphoria should be seen as the symptom of the sexual hierarchy. The pressures of gendered socialization are ubiquitous, and begin at birth. Very often we are not aware of the subtle forms socialization exerts upon us. For those who reject this socialization, it follows that they would experience levels of extreme discomfort and anguish. Gendered socialization is not just some abstract phenomena, but is, again, literally grafted onto us. Under this system of socialization, the penis becomes more than just the male sex organ, but the symbol of male aggression and supremacy, in the same way the vagina becomes the symbol of female inferiority and subjugation. Sensitive individuals who struggle against this socialization often hate their bodies, but not because their bodies are somehow “wrong”, but because of what they are drilled into believing their bodies are. What they suffer from is the inability to tear away the curtain that has been placed in front of material reality and to see reality in an objective manner. The fields of medical and psychological science are not immune from the influence of the ruling class. This is especially the case in the world of psychology, where a method of analysis is employed that isolates the individual from the wider society around them, preferring to view internal struggle as the result of some defect as opposed to the result of material and social forces exerted on the individual.

While capitalism has broken down certain elements of patriarchy, and allowed for women to make some gains, it has not dismantled patriarchy completely. Capitalism, being a class system, still needs to retain control of the means of reproduction. For example, laws that restrict access to abortion and contraceptives, while having negative repercussions for all women, have the most negative impact on poor, working-class women. These laws may be cloaked in the terminology of moralism, but have a far more base logic; they ensure the continued production of future proletarians for the benefit of the capitalist machine.

By shifting the definition of “woman” away from a materialist one to an idealistic one, we lose the ability to define and fight the causes of women’s oppression. In its most extreme form it erases women as a class, and makes it impossible to talk about patriarchy as an existing force. Why, then, are Marxists, who are supposed to be dialectical materialists embracing a set of ideas the very opposite of dialectical materialism? To answer this, we need to look at the nature of patriarchy; it is a system that predates capitalism. As already stated above, patriarchy and class exist in a symbiosis with one another. The one cannot be eliminated without the elimination of the other. Overthrowing capitalism is not the same as overthrowing class. As Mao pointed out, class dynamics still exist in the socialist society, and require continuous vigilance and combat on the part of revolutionaries. This is why many socialist states still restricted women’s rights to certain degrees, such as the draconian anti-abortion laws of Ceausescu’s Romania. All males benefit in some way from patriarchy, even males in a socialist society. It therefore follows that socialist males fighting capitalism also benefit from patriarchy. While men and women may be in solidarity with one another as workers, working class men also belong to the male sex class, a class that predates the existence of the modern working class. Class allegiances run deep. This is why so many socialist and “feminist” men are quick to defend and even endorse the violent language and actions perpetrated by some gender non-conforming men against the female sex class, regardless of how these gender non-conforming men identify themselves. This is not to deny that gender non-conforming men are discriminated against, and face harassment and violence themselves, but even as exiles from the male sex-class, they still benefit from some of the privileges awarded to this sex class. Note that I do not use privilege in the manner it’s currently used by the regressive left, i.e. as some abstract notion that needs to be “checked”. Rather, it is an actually existing force that must be combated, just as white revolutionaries must actively combat white supremacy, and first world revolutionaries must actively combat “their” state’s imperialism.

Opportunism and the “fear” of being on the “wrong side of history” are also driving forces behind this embrace of revisionism. The Anglophone left, especially in the United States, given its weakness in the overall political arena, has long sought to be seen as “acceptable” and “polite”, and is often eager to jump on any bandwagon it believes can advance it. This desire to be accepted also drives the fear. It is true that communists have made serious errors in judgment in the past, but that is not an excuse to rebel against core philosophies and hastily embrace ideas and movements without fully analyzing their beliefs and goals. This is not to say that communists should not be on the forefront in defending gender non-conforming individuals. A thoroughgoing socialist revolution requires that these existing oppressive structures be cast aside. But it is possible to defend gender non-conforming people without embracing misogynistic pseudoscience and revisionism.

Women are not just oppressed, but thoroughly exploited. Working class women make up what is possibly the most thoroughly exploited section of human society. By embracing philosophies that not only erase their ability to define and explain their exploitation, but also deny them the agency to organize as a revolutionary class, these “Marxists” have proven that they are in direct contradiction to Marxist philosophy and ideas. They are engaging in revisionism.

In the next part, we will examine the second big lie plaguing the left today, the notion that “sex work is work”.

[1] “Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender.” YouTube. Big Think, 06 June 2011. Web. 29 June 2017.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Economic Manuscripts: Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” Marxists Internet Archive. Progress Publishers, n.d. Web. 29 June 2017.

[3] Engels, Frederick. “Origins of the Family — Chapter 2 (III).” Marxists Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2017.

[4] Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca. “Gender.” Sex and Gender. N.p., 06 Sept. 2015. Web. 29 June 2017. Emphases present in original text.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store