Despite formal equality in law, we are still far from having achieved equality in practice. Many young people and workers are radicalized by this and are joining the fight against the oppression of women. However, for this struggle to be successful, we must have the right ideas and methods. In this text, we will contrast identity politics with Marxist ideas in order to demonstrate that the latter offers better methods in order to achieve genuine emancipation for women.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the living conditions of women is just one example of how we are far from genuine equality. Among 25 to 54 year olds, 70 per cent of lost jobs in Canada were lost to women. In addition, another 1.2 million women have seen their work hours cut in half. These figures reflect only the economic impact of the pandemic. Domestic violence against women has also been increasing.
Currently, the left is dominated by identity politics. Most of the time, the focus is on the identity of the people instead of the ideas they represent. Instead of fighting for a revolutionary transformation of society, efforts are placed on changing discourse, undoing cultural constructs of power, increasing representation or challenging norms by relying on tokenism, language and symbolism.
But more and more people are questioning identity politics and looking for alternative ways to fight oppression. These seemingly progressive ideas have revealed themselves to be the opposite. The concrete results of applying these ideas in the movement turned out to be performative at best and often counterproductive and even harmful.
However, while the usefulness of identity politics is being questioned by more and more people, its critics rarely offer an alternative to these ideas. That is why this discussion on which ideas are needed to fight oppression could not be more relevant.
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Where ideas come from
Ideas are often perceived as something completely abstract, as if they come out of nowhere. When there is a debate, there is this illusion that there is one set of ideas and another set of ideas and that they are all treated as equally relevant, but this is mistaken. Ideas do not exist in the abstract but represent social pressures in society.
On the origins of ideas, there are mainly two opposing philosophical currents: materialism and idealism. Marxism is a materialist philosophy. This means that we believe that there is only one material world and that all thought ultimately has its origins in the material world. Marx explained that ideas do not fall from the sky, but are a reflection of the objective conditions, social pressures and contradictions that exist in people’s lives.
Ultimately, for ideas to become a dominant trend in society, they must reflect some form of pressure from a social class—or at least, a certain layer of a social class. There is not a precise and direct cause-and-effect relationship, but it is a general rule that allows us to better understand different ideas so that we can differentiate between them.
On the other hand, the various idealist philosophies ultimately claim that ideas are primary and that the material world is in fact a reflection of ideas. Therefore, humanity and society, including the ideas that dominate it, did not develop through material processes, but through the development of ideas and thought. The various academic theories we describe as identity politics generally treat ideas as primary—almost independent of the material world. We will return to the impact of this philosophy in practice.
Women’s struggle and class struggle in history
The struggle for women’s emancipation has been a cornerstone of the international socialist movement since its inception. Marx and Engels wrote about the oppression of women in the Communist Manifesto and in the book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. While a revolutionary wave was sweeping through Europe, they had explained the oppressive role of the bourgeois family as an economic unit as early as 1848. They had put forward the demand for its abolition and the need to overthrow the capitalist system to achieve it. Since then, Marxism has always been at the forefront of the cause for the emancipation of women, but it was not the only method that existed in the movement.
After the defeat of the Paris Commune, there was a period of economic growth. That’s when we saw the rise of the first wave of feminism in the capitalist countries of the West, but especially in Britain. This is what is commonly referred to as the suffragette movement. This feminism focused on the issue of gender identity and tried to unite women of all classes in the struggle to win reforms and rights. This movement was largely dominated by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who in reality were only fighting to gain the same rights as the men of their own social class. For example, the demand for the right to vote was put forward only for women property owners, while there were still millions of working class men and women who did not have the right to vote.
In contrast to bourgeois feminism, Marxist women of the time explained that the interests of bourgeois women and working women were different. Clara Zetkin said, “We demand political rights equal to those of men so that we can, with them, free ourselves all together from the chains that hold us back, and so that we can overthrow and destroy this society.”
In order to link the class struggle and the struggle for women’s emancipation, nearly 100 Marxist women from 17 different countries held a Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910. They voted for the creation of the International Working Women’s Day, which was intended to be a day of mobilization of both working class men and women to put forward demands for women’s rights and link these demands to the need to overthrow capitalism.
In 1917, it was a demonstration on International Working Women’s Day which gave impetus to the Russian Revolution. Following the seizure of power by the soviets in October 1917, huge advances were made for women. They now had the right to vote, access to divorce and abortion. Measures had been taken to socialize domestic tasks to free them from the confines of the home. This was truly inspiring for the working class and oppressed women everywhere. Under the growing pressure of the labor movement and the threat of revolution, some advanced capitalist countries followed suit by granting some rights to women workers. At that time, the struggle for women’s emancipation was clearly linked to the struggle against capitalism.
However, this link between Marxism and women’s emancipation was tainted by the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. All of the rights that Russian women had won as a result of the revolution were taken away one by one. Under Stalin’s influence, this chauvinistic attitude towards the status of women infected communist parties all around the world.
In addition to this setback, the women’s movement was further distanced from the class struggle by the post-war boom. In the advanced capitalist countries, because of the enormous economic growth, the bourgeoisie was able to concede reforms to the working class and there was a period of peace between the classes. It seemed that the working class would no longer rise up and any prospect of socialism was lost for a while.
During this period, there was a new wave of feminism, what is generally known as the second wave, which grew in popularity. This feminism once again focused the struggle on identity. The movement’s demands were limited to small reforms within the capitalist system. We can already see that a certain trend is emerging. Identity politics generally gains in popularity and spreads not in times of revolution—but in times of lull in the class struggle.
However, this lull could not last indefinitely. Towards the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, great revolutionary movements arose. In the space of a few years, the world capitalist system was shaken by big events such as the May 1968 general strike in France and the civil rights movement in the United States. In Quebec, we had the Common Front general strike of 1972.
In these revolutionary movements, the general mood was that society had to be transformed and the capitalist system overthrown. During May 68, the Paris stock exchange, the symbol of French capitalism, was the target of attacks. In Quebec, the unions published revolutionary texts. In the Confederation of National Trade Union’s 1971 manifesto “Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens” (Let’s rely only on our own means), where we can read “Capitalism and foreign domination of our economy are the direct causes of unemployment and the impoverishment of an ever-growing number of workers. Quebec workers now know that they can count neither on the national capitalists nor on a government at the service of the capitalists or the imperialists.”
Unfortunately, despite the courage and determination of the militants at the time, these movements did not lead to a revolutionary transformation of society for a variety of reasons. These defeats of the working class and the subsequent ebb in the class struggle paved the way for an ideological reaction.
Repercussions of the revolutionary defeats
Following the defeats of these movements, more and more intellectuals in Western universities drew pessimistic conclusions. It is in this context that philosophical critiques against materialism, and Marxism in particular, developed and that postmodern philosophy gained in popularity.
Postmodernism is a philosophy that reflects the demoralization that was widespread at the time among petty bourgeois academics. It completely rejects the possibility of progress in history. Postmodernism also rejects what are called metanarratives, which means a unified method of explaining the world, the development of history and the origins of oppression. Marxism, liberalism, or any unified theory is called modern and thus rejected.
Postmodernism as a philosophical trend represents an attack in particular against Marxism, which it labels as “dogmatic” and “deterministic”. Instead of offering an objective way of understanding the functioning of society, the emphasis is increasingly on subjective experience based on identity. The capitalist system is not recognized as an objective, material reality, instead the idea that language is an objective reality is put forward. The system we live in is described as being based on a “systems of ideas”. In the words of poststructuralist feminist Chris Weedon: “Language, far from reflecting an already given social reality, constitutes for us a social reality. There is no meaning beyond language.” So with the rise of this kind of ideological reaction, the focus of the struggle against oppression has shifted from a revolutionary transformation of society to symbolism, identity, and words.
Instead of objectively analyzing the reasons for the failure of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the intelligentsia completely sunk into pessimism. By abandoning a class analysis of oppression, they began to condemn the behavior and language used by people. In the leftwing organizations and trade unions, the working class was in retreat, which left the field open for the reformist and careerist elements which flourished in this context.
This general demoralization and distancing from the methods of class struggle also affected the movement for women’s emancipation. The perspective that the women’s struggle must be waged separately from the class struggle was reinforced. More and more, Marxism was criticized for being outdated and “classist”, for apparently reducing everything to class. This is completely false and we will come back to this point later in the article.
It was at this time that identity politics began to become more prominent in the movement against the oppression of women. According to these ideas, a person should be defined primarily by their identity instead of the ideas they stand for. All people with the same identity are believed to have the same interests, since their oppression is based on that shared identity. For example, to fight the oppression of women, it is argued that having more women in positions of power represents progress for the cause as they can use their position to defend the interests of all women.
One application of this idea was demonstrated by the support many people gave to the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential elections as it led to the first racialized woman in the position of Vice President of the United States. But Kamala Harris is far from having progressive political positions. She opposes a universal public healthcare plan. She has served as California’s Attorney General in a racist justice system and implemented policies which negatively affected racialized people.
Increasingly, identity politics puts forth the idea that the fight against oppression must be fought only by those who suffer directly from that specific oppression—again, regardless of their ideas. Thus, it is up to women alone to fight against patriarchy. Struggles against different forms of oppression are presented as separate struggles. Women’s oppression is often explained by blaming patriarchy—a structure of male domination over women that they claim is an ideological system separate from the capitalist system.
The idea that women, as victims of sexism, are more knowledgeable about what it feels like is certainly true. However, based on this, it is argued by identity politics activists that we are also therefore best positioned to offer a solution. This is a completely unscientific way of looking at it. A patient inflicted by a physical illness is surely the best positioned to explain its symptoms, but it is health professionals, due to their years of education and training, that are best placed to explain the root cause of the illness and the best cure for it, even if the doctor has never experienced that particular disease. In the same way, the individual experience of men and women for that matter should not be the criteria by which the validity of their ideas are judged in the struggle against oppression.
The main problem with this approach is that by elevating identity as the basis for unity in struggle, it assumes that all people of the same identity have the same interests. This opens the door to inviting all women regardless of their social class to join the movement and excluding men.
Concretely, the harmful impact of this method can be seen in the events of the national council of Québec solidaire (QS) in 2019. There was a debate on the party’s position on whether or not to support the ban on wearing of religious symbols by public employees as recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor report. The Islamophobic and oppressive nature of this ban is already clear, but what is interesting about this debate is the identity of the people on both sides.
On one side, we had QS MNA, Ruba Ghazal, a racialized woman, born in Lebanon to a Palestinian and Muslim family. Identity politics advocates would tell us that there is no better person to know about the oppression of Muslim women and therefore we should support the position she puts forward. The problem is that she supported the Bouchard-Taylor compromise despite the fact that, in her words, “The prohibition of religious symbols may prevent a small number of people from accessing certain positions or cause them to give up wearing religious symbols in order to access these posts. Immigrants accept that the Quebec nation can define life in society as it sees fit, even if this may sometimes go against certain individual rights.” So, not only was she supporting the loss of jobs for Muslim women, but she was using the fact that she is racialized to speak for “immigrants.”
On the other side of the debate was Sol Zanetti, a white man. Already, on this basis, many identity politics adherents would have told him that it was not his place to intervene in this debate and to leave room to amplify the voices of racialized women like Ruba Ghazal, but in fact, Zanetti had a better position in this debate. He explained that the CAQ is “using the wearing of religious symbols to distract us from the real power, the one that keeps hijacking our democracies: the power of money.” Correctly, Sol Zanetti denounced the debate as serving only to divide Quebec society.
As this example demonstrates, the idea of supporting someone on the basis of their identity can lead to supporting positions that do not represent progress for the movement. On the contrary, it can even turn into a useful tool for the right to co-opt the struggle. One example is when Madeleine Albright introduced Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Another method of identity politics is segregation, which consists of establishing spaces, events, even demonstrations where men are excluded. Political scientist and feminist Françoise Vergès explains this tactic by saying that “the oppressed cannot put words to things if the oppressors are present.” As Marxists, we completely agree that it is important for people who are oppressed to have access to a safe space, such as shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence. However, extending this to the entire movement only serves to divide us and reinforce the idea that all men are oppressors, which ultimately only weakens the struggle.
To use a concrete example, this tactic was put forward on International Women’s Day in 2018 in Spain. Several unions and feminist organizations had called for a 24-hour general strike and some leaders of this strike were saying that men should not participate, but their role should have been to replace the striking women at work. So essentially they were asking men to act as scabs, which in practice weakens the struggle. This example shows how these ideas can be harmful to the movement when applied in practice.
This is linked to the idea of dismantling stereotypes to increase the participation of women in leading positions and certain jobs. It is a fact that less women are enrolled in STEM programs and in science-related jobs. In the business world, the need to break the glass ceiling is often put forward. Marxists fight for women to have the same opportunities as men in society, but the truth is that more women in high-paying jobs or sitting on the board of directors of a big company doesn’t lead to increased living standards for all women. For example, Beyonce is often praised as an inspiration for being a strong successful woman of color who is also a business woman with her own clothing brand, Ivy Park. She had made the headlines a few years ago when it became known that the women working in the factories producing her clothing line were only earning 64 cents a day. I think this is a good example that when women do challenge stereotypes and rise to a position often reserved for men, they still have to play by the rules of the capitalist system. Any gain made from their position is a personal one while the general living conditions of women remains unchanged.
For Marxists, the best way to combat prejudices and stereotypes is to incorporate everyone, including men, into the struggle for the emancipation of women. It is by fighting side by side that prejudices are overcome and that working class men and women realize that they are stronger if they unite.
Class politics is alien to identity politics since class is interpreted as just another form of identity. The term “classism” is used to refer to this. But for Marxists, the working class is not just a category of oppressed people. Wage workers are objectively exploited because of their relationship to the means of production. It is the working class that through its labor creates all wealth. The capitalists keep most of this wealth under the form of profits and throw crumbs to the workers who often find themselves in competition with other workers for those crumbs. The bourgeoisie has a material interest in maintaining oppression and pitting sections of the working class against each other so they don’t unite against them.
To come back to the historical context, the labor movement suffered some big defeats in the 1980s which further demoralized the left. There was the defeat of the miners strike in the UK and of the air traffic controllers’ in the US to name only two of the most obvious setbacks for the movement. This period was marked by the reign of reactionary leaders like Brian Mulroney, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. On top of this, there was eventually the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism. It was said that this marked “the end of history”, meaning that communism had failed and capitalism had won. Revolutions were said to have become a thing of the past.
This context really added to the pessimism of left-wing academics who went further down the road of identity politics and therefore, further away from Marxism and the class struggle. Since identity politics was not a threat to the ruling class, it was institutionalized in the state apparatus with the creation of women’s ministries and the opening of women’s research centers. We saw the creation of cultural circles focused on individual experiences, language and single-issue campaigns. These circles were largely dominated by petty-bourgeois white women who were disconnected with the reality and needs of working class women of colour.
It was as a reaction to this that the intersectional school of thought emerged. The term intersectionality itself was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an African American law professor, in response to the U.S. criminal justice system’s refusal to acknowledge that Black women experience discrimination on multiple grounds, not just as women or as Black people, but as Black women.
This idea that Black women and even other groups are discriminated against on multiple levels is correct, and Marxists have no disagreement with the fact that there are multiple forms of oppression and that some people experience multiple forms of oppression simultaneously. However, this idea is only the tip of the iceberg of intersectional theory. What is important is not this observation per se, but the explanation behind it.
To explain the various forms of oppression, intersectional feminist Bell hooks says that “it’s like a house, they share the foundation, but the foundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions of domination are constructed.” What this means concretely is that because people believe in oppressive ideas, those oppressions persist. Therefore, that oppression is maintained and reproduced primarily in the world of ideas. It follows that the task to fight women’s oppression is to convince people to change the way they think instead of blaming the system which needs sexist ideas.
Since intersectionality completely ignores the material basis of sexist ideas and no real explanation is given as to why people have these ideas, it becomes impossible to really fight against these ideas in practice. So the target is not the economic system that needs oppression to sustain itself, but instead, the target of the struggle becomes individuals who do not suffer from the particular form of oppression. These people are referred to as being “privileged”. According to the concept of privilege, those who are not victims of a form of oppression have an interest in perpetuating and maintaining that oppression. In the words of Frances Kendall, a proponent of intersectionality, “All of us who have racial privilege, which all white people have, and therefore have the power to translate our prejudices into law, are racist by definition, because we benefit from a racist system.”
Instead of finding a basis of unity for a common struggle of all the oppressed, intersectionality divides the movement and contributes to spread the lie that it is in the interest of some layers of the working class to maintain the oppression of others. The truth is that the only ones who really benefit from oppression are the capitalists.
For example, it is true that in general, men have higher wages than women, but it would be wrong to say that this discrimination is in the interest of male workers. This is because if one layer of the working class is oppressed, it weakens the common struggle for better wages. If part of the working class, like women or immigrants, receives lower wages and poorer working conditions, this places a downward pressure on the working conditions for all workers.
This exclusionary attitude towards the so-called “privileged” is also related to the concept of allyship. Basically, this is the idea that since men are “privileged,” they must limit themselves to the role of ally to the women who are to lead the movement. What is the role of an ally? To support and listen to women, to do introspection to change their oppressive nature, to not take up space in the movement and to amplify the voice of women. Again, we find ourselves in a position that assumes all women have the same interests. As allies of women’s emancipation, should men in France support Marine Le Pen and amplify her voice? Obviously not.
Not only are men relegated to being allies and censored, intersectionality also divides the movement into endless identity categories according to a hierarchy of privileges. A trans woman of color is more oppressed than a white lesbian. A woman of color is more oppressed than a white woman. Not only do these “observations” not offer any concrete solutions, they are often used to denounce the so-called privileged position of people who genuinely want to fight sexism.
According to Patricia Hill Collins, “the overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives… No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute ‘truth’.” This quote really demonstrates the postmodern influence on intersectionality since it claims that it is impossible to have an objective, unified method to fight oppression. This is really a sterilizing idea which disarms us in the face of oppression. If there is no objective truth, how do we organize our fight for emancipation?
Marxism & The Emancipation of Women
Quite contrary to the pessimistic philosophy which forms the basis of intersectionality, Marxism is a body of ideas imbued with optimism. Marxists do believe that it is possible to objectively analyze society. Based on an objective study of society, we can study the origins of oppression and ascertain how to do away with the oppression of women. Based on a scientific study of the history of humanity, we can be optimistic and confident about our methods.
A dominant view in society is that women have always been oppressed. However, for 99 per cent of human existence, humans lived in a form of society Marxists call primitive communism. It was a hunter/gatherer society that was not divided in classes and women were not oppressed. It is true that there was some division of labour between the sexes but this division of labor was voluntary and did not mean that women were considered inferior to men—quite the contrary. As the reproducers of our species, they were held in high regards.
It wasn’t until the neolithic revolution that this changed. Through the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, humans were able for the first time to create a surplus product beyond their immediate consumption. This meant that it was now possible for some to live off the labour of others. This triggered a process which permanently altered the way society was organized.
It led to the emergence of differentiation between members of society, the division of society into classes and also to the emergence of private property, which led to a transformation of the social position of women. Marriage was established as an institution to control women’s sexuality in order to ensure the paternity of children to whom the inheritance was passed on.
Engels saw the birth of the nuclear family as “the historic defeat of the female sex.” He wrote, “Man has taken command in the home as well; woman has been degraded and reduced to servitude; she has been transformed into a slave to his lust and into a mere instrument for the production of children.”
The oppression of women finds its origins in the division of society into classes and therefore, in order to eradicate this oppression, one must also fight to eradicate class society which can only be accomplished through a revolution that overthrows the capitalist system.
For Marxists, the emancipation of women is an important issue. The struggle against the oppression of women is linked to the struggle against capitalism and cannot be separated from it. However, this does not mean that we will wait for the abolition of class society to improve the living conditions of women.
Marxists fight against all forms of oppression and discrimination in the here and now at every opportunity. We participate in daily struggles and put forward concrete demands: against discrimination in society and in the workplace; for equal pay for work of equal value; for access to abortion; a home and a job for everyone; free, high-quality child care, and so on.
Marxists don’t just have a list of demands but we also have an idea of how we can fight to win them. If you look at the history of women’s rights, no concessions were granted by the goodwill of the capitalists and their lackeys in government. It is under the pressure of the class struggle and the fear of revolution that politicians have granted the reforms won in the past.
For example, the right to vote for women was granted in most Western countries in the period following World War I and the Russian Revolution. Mass movements and revolutions were coming in like a wave all over the world and seriously threatening the capitalist system. The strength of these movements and the reason for their success consisted in their size and strength as they swept the entire working class in their wake.
To be victorious, the struggle against oppression and for reforms should not rest solely on the shoulders of the group experiencing that particular oppression or discrimination, but must involve the entire working class and all oppressed groups. We must actively fight against any attempt to divide the working class since our strength lies in our unity and a gain for one part of the working class is a gain for the entire working class.
Even if reforms have been won, Marxists have no confidence in the capitalist system, which can take away past gains at any time. This can be seen in the renewed attacks on the access to abortion in some countries. To end the oppression of women once and for all, we must abolish the capitalist system that not only profits from this oppression, but depends on it to survive. This does not mean that we can get there without the struggle for reforms. It is precisely through this struggle for partial gains and reforms that the working class as a whole develops its consciousness and realizes its own power to change society.
The way forward
This ideological debate is more relevant today than it has ever been. Capitalism is going through the worst crisis in history and bourgeois economists have no solution except to print more money and inject trillions of dollars to try to save the markets. While money is being thrown at the capitalists, the working class is left to fend for itself. In 2020, 225 million jobs were lost worldwide because of the crisis. The Economist reported that “one-third or more of all job losses during the pandemic will be permanent.” According to the World Bank, global extreme poverty has risen for the first time in 20 years.
This situation leads to mass social explosions and revolts all around the world. We can see examples of this simply by listening to the news. Hardly a week goes by without a country being shaken by a mass movement or a revolution. We have seen the inspiring mass movement in Britain to end violence against women. In the past month alone, there have been mass protests in Greece, Myanmar, Paraguay and Russia to name a few.
In this context, the bourgeoisie needs a scapegoat for the misery in which the workers find themselves. So they use one of the oldest tricks in the book: divide and rule. With their monopoly on the media, the state, the education system, the ruling class foments divisions based on gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.
And in this regard identity politics play a useful role for the ruling class since it contributes to these divisions by splitting the movement into individual struggles and therefore weakening the fight against oppression. On the other hand, since identity politics doesn’t challenge the capitalist system, political representatives of the bourgeoisie can use identity politics phraseology to give themselves a progressive cover. For example, Justin Trudeau promised “a feminist and intersectional response” to the COVID-19 pandemic. This promise doesn’t stop him from being one of the biggest arms providers for Saudi Arabia, a country renowned for its sexist views on women.
This is the result of a struggle focused on ideas and language. One can claim to adhere to those ideas and use its language, without concretely doing anything to put those ideas in practice.
Marxists do not seek to be perceived as feminists or intersectionalists, but we denounce and fight discrimination and oppression with class struggle methods. We explain that in order to fight against the oppression of women, we must connect this struggle to the general class struggle against the capitalist system and for a revolutionary transformation of society at large. A socialist transformation of society would abolish social classes which is the rotten material basis on which oppression festers.
Through a democratic socialist plan of production, the full potential of humanity would be able to be unleashed. We could then provide good living conditions for all and ultimately rid society of of oppression and discrimination. For this struggle to be victorious, we need the fullest unity of the working class, not just for the emancipation of women, but for the emancipation of all humanity. Please join us in this endeavor!