by Nat Winn

 

An important debate has developed that began with questions around women, liberation, and capitalism. It has landed us in the field of methodology, dialectics, and revolutionary strategy. What a great start and what a great destination!

Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman have written a response to my thoughts on a discussion around Marxist feminism which was started on the Fire Next Time blog by Zora B’Al Sk’a and Ba Jin. They have cited my criticisms regarding the lack of their discussion to engage politics (or better said: my criticism that they conflate all political potentials as developing rigidly from the point of production or capitalist reproduction). They argue that the criticisms which I extended to the larger body of Marxist feminist thought are indicative of a major difference in method.

I think that they are correct.

There is a real difference in method and understanding of dialectics. I appreciate the chance to delve into that further.

So let’s dig in.

 

Communist Stand

 

In our epoch, the oppression of women is being challenged globally and in fundamental ways that have never before been seen in history. Arranged marriage is being defied and politically targeted all over the world. Wife beating (and all similar forms of partner abuse, including date rape) are no longer considered acceptable or tolerable by hundreds of millions of people. In a truly world historic way, the female sex is claiming the right and means to reproductive freedom (birth control, abortion, and the right to say “no”).

We communists do not stand aside from this. We are not just nodding in verbal agreement. We see these profound changes (and more) as integral to what we call “the communist road” — which is not just the resolution of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction (socialized production and private ownership), but the ending of all oppression.

We communists are against all oppression. We are (as Lenin said) tribunes of the people — active militant opponents of all the ways that oppression appears. We are seeking to make a giant torrent of revolution out of the many rivulets that arise against oppression.

The struggle over the oppression of women is not a distraction from the resolution of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction. It is not some side issue. It is not even some “special” oppression (which implies it is subordinate and subsidiary, or off-in-a-corner). In this sense we agree with Eve and Tyler.

To put it another way: the great conflict of the fundamental contradiction drives socialist revolution to the fore. But what the socialist revolution accomplishes (and takes as its goals) are far more than just resolving that fundamental contradiction. We want to liberate humanity and end all the intolerable oppressions that have marked class society itself and the lives of the vast majority suffering in class society.

 

On the Claim of Dualism

 

Eve and Tyler criticize my claim of the failure of Marxist Feminism on the following basis:

In Nat’s comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of “reproduction” here which we’ll expound further down). The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object. This is done through a dualistic reading of ”economics” and “politics,” or, to use the terms Marx employed in the “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, “base” and “superstructure.” But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories. The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.

This criticism goes deeper into questions of dialectics when it is posited:

The base/superstructure concept adapted by orthodox Marxism has reified the subject-object split. It sees the “base,” or economy, in a structuralist/sociological manner that exists independently of human initiative and which determines all activity and thinking. So capital, wages, and money are mere objects. On the other hand, “superstructure,” or politics, is understood as subjective and confined to ideas or an abstract kind of activity that isn’t metabolic with nature but divorced from it and determined by the base.

Marx never had a dualistic understanding of these categories and posited quite conversely that “economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production.” (Poverty of Philosophy, MECW 6, 165)

When Eve and Tyler say I am creating an abstract duality between reproductive labor and reproductive freedom or between base and superstructure, I understand them to be saying that I am creating a sort of absolute division between them and neglecting their relationship to one another.

This criticism is a misinterpretation, though it does reflect real differences in how we look at reality in motion (or dialectics).

The notion of dialectics being put forward by Eve and Tyler is a closed dialectic. It emphasizes the unity of a process while failing to speak to the most important aspect of dialectics, which is contradiction and struggle. For example Eve and Tyler say:

For Marx, capital, wages and money are the various phenomenological forms of alienated labor; they are subjective and objective social relations in disguise, not ahistoric things as political economy conceives.  The economy and politics, or capital, wages and money can only be separated logically because concretely and in the real world they exist as a social and dialectical whole…

The splitting of the intrinsic unity of the subject-object and the dualistic reading of base/superstructure creates a dynamic where struggles around work are seen as narrow and economistic.

This approach fails to grasp the central role of contradiction within dialectics and the many-sidedness of complex phenomena and thus attempts to combine things that are necessarily in the process of division and thus resolution and transformation.

In arguing that I am placing an unnecessary or abstract division between the political and economic or between base and superstructure Eve and Tyler assert:

The base/superstructure concept adapted by orthodox Marxism has reified the subject-object split.  It sees the “base,” or economy, in a structuralist/sociological manner that exists independently of human initiative and which determines all activity and thinking.  So capital, wages, and money are mere objects.  On the other hand, “superstructure,” or politics, is understood as subjective and confined to ideas or an abstract kind of activity that isn’t metabolic with nature but divorced from it and determined by the base.

This division is not the “dualism” that Eve and Tyler make it out to be and I think it is very different from orthodox notions of dialectics within Marxism.

It is not true that the superstructure as such is not metabolic with nature. Who says this? The superstructure develops out of the human interaction with nature. Superstructural institutions develop on the basis of the mode of production and reproduction of the societies people live in. These institutions include courts, schools, armies, police, art, etc.

Of course these things form a unity with the production relations (the economic base), and the base ultimately determines their historical development as Eve and Tyler correctly assert to this understanding. There are times, however, when the changes in the superstructure become decisive in social transformation. Revolutions and wars are not played out at the level of economics, at the point of production or reproduction. This is not to say that struggles at the point of production and reproduction can never be political. It does mean that until there is transformation in the superstructure, in the institutions of the old ruling class, that no revolution, no change of power has actually taken place. History has shown that it is usually war and revolution which precipitate rapid changes within the base and not vice versa. Examples would be the French Revolution, the US Civil War, and the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

In this sense, even struggles that begin at the point of production or reproduction (and this not always nor even normally the case) must develop into organization that can develop their own capacity to militarily defeat the ruling class, and can then run society and set out on a communist road. This is why the Bolsheviks, for example, always sought to connect the struggle in the industrial factories to the political struggle to defeat czarism.

There is a unity between base and superstructure, but this unity is temporary and relative. It is the contradiction between base and superstructure, their interaction with one another, their antagonism, that leads to transformation, that can create the openings for transformations including revolution.

To stress unity or totality in dialectics is ultimately to think of change in a linear fashion, fathoming the notion that struggle itself (self-activity) will transform consciousness and lead to revolution. This understanding of politics was put into practice in places like Italy in the 1970s and led to huge blunders that I will touch on below.

 

 

More on Dialectics, Patriarchy and the Emergence of a Powerful Women’s Movement

 

The dialectics of Eve and Tyler also misses the uneveness within complex processes. Such processes contain multiple contradictions within them. They overlap and interconnect with each other. For example, patriarchy and white supremacy exist within the capital relation but they are not immediately reducible to the contradiction between capital and labor and contain their own relative autonomy in relation to other contradictions within that relation.

Patriarchy has its own internal contradictions that are distinct from the capital and labor contradiction, and the relative autonomy of this contradiction and its aspects must be understood. Sexual relations, the absence of political rights for women, and cultural and ideological expressions of male dominance express themselves in a myriad of ways in different historical epochs and geographical places. These expressions of patriarchy thus, cannot be reduced even to the totality or “dialectical whole” of the capital relation. To claim otherwise would seem to be ahistorical, no?

Instead of a closed and rigid totality, dialectics (reality) develops in a motion where different contradictions within a process act out their own internal antagonisms even while they interact and connect and affect the other processes going on around them.

Communists must grasp and investigate what contradictions are determining and principal in relationship to the whole at a given moment.

Within a complex process like capitalism there are primary contradictions and secondary contradictions and these contradictions may change status and transform into their opposites. That is, at certain moments questions of patriarchy or national oppression may become primary in our immediate struggle and the contradictions between socialized production and private ownership and that contradiction’s reproduction, for instance, may become secondary.

This form of motion within complex things with multiple contradictions playing themselves out while simultaneously in relation with other contradictions is an open dialectic in contrast to the closed dialectic with its emphasis on unity and the whole.

What does this mean in relation to how communists build a powerful women’s movement?

There is not an antagonistic relation between struggles over reproductive labor and struggles over reproductive freedom (abortion). The former is not economic and the latter is not political in any inherent sense.

On the other hand, the two forms of struggle are not equal either. Under certain circumstances one form of struggle or the other will have greater strategic potential or significance for mobilizing people toward a revolutionary orientation and politics.

Marxist feminism has historically tried to intervene in women’s struggles by tying them back toward its preoccupations with capitalist reproduction and recognition of gendered labor (which is important to understand), without a clear sense of how doing so was strategic in terms of our revolutionary aims and objectives. The idea that wages for housework, for example, will play a role in wrecking the capitalist economy is simple, yet simply not true. The development of a movement for the commons will fail if it is not connected to a strategy to overthrow the state.

There is not a direct relationship between our analysis of production or reproductive relations, and our revolutionary political program. Despite the fallacious assumptions of many Marxists, revolutions do not break out when the sharpest contradiction in society is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism (private appropriation vs. socialized production), or when the “implicit [workings of capital] becomes explicit” (Raya Dunayavksaya).

Virtually every revolution in history emerged around complex political crises and contradictions: the Russian revolution exploding around WWI and “peace, land, and bread,” or the Chinese revolution emerging through the anti-Japanese war. Or the Black liberation struggle in the United States. Or the new constitutional crises of Nepal. Or any other revolution we can imagine. This is why a revolutionary program cannot somehow be pulled out of a careful read of Das Kapital (or Caliban and the Witch), as profound as those works are.

 

Splitting of Subject and Object and “Totality”

 

Eve and Tyler say that:

While the subject-object dialectic is universal–meaning it exists in all modes of production–under capitalism, this process is interrupted.  Our self-activity is no longer unified with our conscious will, and the subjectivity of our self-activity is turned against us.  We do not produce for use, and do not have access to our multi-sided needs and corresponding activity; the world we have created is not our own but alien to us, or estranged from us.  In contrast, communism is the movement toward uniting the subject and object, or the completely free state of conscious self-activity in which we produce for use; as Marx states in “Estranged Labour,” we make our life-activity itself the object of our will and consciousness (76).  A lot more can be said about this.  For more elaboration, see the Unity and Struggle post, “The Communist Theory of Marx.”

This notion of capital as it is expressed here has strong limitations. The idea of the splitting of object and subject under capitalism and the idea that the goal of communism is to unite object and subject seems to place all things under the rubric of re/productive relations. Part of the goal of communism is abolishing the law of value (production for use), however are there not other aspects of oppression with their own particularity that we must abolish in their own rights? Must we not abolish patriarchy, national oppression, environmental destruction, and…? Can this all be reduced down to abolishing the law of value? Or put another way, does the abolition of the law of value automatically resolve these other contradictions?

So what does this tell us about strategy?

Again, the point is not that reproductive labor is economic and the struggle for abortion is political. To the contrary, the point is that there is not a one to one relationship between any critique of political economy and how the relations of production being analyzed generate struggle,  or especially what forms of struggle will have the most potential in terms of that struggle’s strategic implications for revolution.

Marxist feminism and the autonomous Marxism it derives from, attempt to combine economics and politics into a totality without recognizing their relative autonomy in relation to one another and I would argue (see below) that this has hurt it in its conception of revolutionary strategy. The notion of dialectical totality that Eve and Tyler assert has much to do with this.

We must understand both sides of a contradiction. Subject may be related to object. Base may related to superstructure. All this is true. However each side of the contradiction contains a relative autonomy from its opposite and the particularity of each aspect must be understood in its own right. There is a contradiction between what is universal and what is particular. The universal resides in the particular. The totality resides in each of its particular contradictions. We must understand each particular aspect of a struggle or a thing in order to transform it. In the process the whole itself will be transformed. 

Contradiction is permanent and absolute and will continue to exist even under communism, while unity is temporary and relative and must give way to the resolution of contradiction and the emergence of new things. This means that the unity of subject and object are necessarily relative.

 

The autonomous movement in Italy at its height in the 1970s serves as a negative example of closed dialectics in relation to political practice.

 

In Italy during the late 60s and the 1970s there were great experiments being pursued in both revolutionary theory and practice. The Communist Party of Italy had become a parliamentary party, not worth its name. It controlled the nation’s major labor union and neither party nor union were being organized with revolution in its sights. At the same time the economy was being transformed and social relations among workers were being fragmented. Production was no longer marked by the big factory but by many smaller factories each responsible for assembling the parts of a final product.

Within this climate theorists were reading the early Marx (Grundrisse, specifically) and looking again at Hegel. Young students and young workers tried to develop a praxis that fit the changing conditions. Workers began to organize themselves against their unions and against the old left parties who sold their souls to the ruling class. New forms of resistance took shape. Resistance to work, workplace sabotage, new relations between migrant workers and those from the North of the country, experimentation with new relations between men and women all were new inventions that developed in the struggle against the The Great Compromise proposed by the Euro-communists.

But there was a problem that was not dealt with.

All these struggles were centered around relations in re/production and struggles around work. These struggles failed to approach the question of political power. There were new relations between people that were being developed and their was resistance in the work place. As this occurred, the state (including the old communist sell outs) began to come down hard on the new movements. The question of how to consolidate the revolution was posed. How were the autonomous workers going to get rid of the state?

This raise two important questions.

Why is it that there was a huge autonomous workers movement involving thousands and millions of workers but when there were attempts made at overthrowing the state, these attempts were carried out by small self-isolated urban guerrilla groups? How come the workers, who were mobilized against their bosses and unions in such great numbers, were not involved in the struggle to get rid of the state?

I pose these questions without a clear answer, but I am inclined to think that this failure has to do with the failure to think of the relative autonomy of the superstructure, of the state, of revolutionary war. Instead the struggles against the bosses and unions were seen as part of a dialectical whole or “totality” through which the old relations were being done away with and through which the revolution would be victorious. This strikes me as a flawed approach in revolutionary praxis.

(For those interested in the theory and politics that were developed in Italy during the 1970s, I would recommend the book Storming Heaven by Steve Wright as a good place to start.)

 

A Counter-Example or Open Dialectics Being Put Into Practice

 

It seems misplaced that I am accused of “gutting the subjectivity of the working class” when clearly the employment of this theory in political practice in Italy (and elsewhere) had found no way of including the people in its attempts at revolution.

On the other hand, the dialectics I am explaining were developed in the midst of great successes in mobilizing millions of Chinese peasants and workers to lead a revolution to overthrow feudalism and imperialism and begin on a road to building socialism. (I would suggest for more on this notion of dialectics readers look at On Contradiction by Mao Tse-tung.) This doesn’t mean that everything the Maoists in China developed in politics or philosophy was absolutely correct, but I do think that it is telling that they were able to get as far as they did with their praxis.

Let me briefly explain how the open dialectics of Mao were used in developing strategy in China. This revolution is a strong example of how communist politics and theory (deriving from Marx) can be developed in diverse historical and cultural situations.

For many years in China revolutionaries tried and were ordered by the Comintern to attempt to make revolution by repeating the Soviet model. The workers would thus lead the revolution through urban insurrection and unite with and lead the peasantry in taking over the rest of the country. This was tried again and again and many communists and workers were slaughtered in the process.

China was not like Russia in a number of ways. It was a semi-colonial country, not an imperialist country like Russia at the time of the revolution. It also had a larger peasantry and a smaller working class than Russia. On top of this, China was being invaded by Japan.

What did this mean for revolution in China?

On a world scale, the fundamental contradiction of our epoch has been between socialized production and private property. But when you examined specific places and moments, you discover that the operative contradictions (at the level of politics) are not everywhere simply that fundamental contradiction. Operative contradictions have forms of manifestation (at the level of politics) which have their own life. In China, the principal contradiction changed at various times (with events). In a profound way it took the form of a contradiction between the masses of people and the feudal lords. And with the invasion by Japan, it took the form of a national liberation struggle of an oppressed nation against a great imperialist power. Mao summed this up by saying there were “three mountains” on the backs of the people: Feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism (of the Chinese state) and foreign imperialism. All of these (in term) were deeply rooted in production relations (at the base), but there was never a moment when the fundamental contradiction of our epoch simply stood up, on its own legs, and with its own voice proclaimed its arrival: it operated through mediations and other contradictions (as it does everywhere).

On the basis of this analysis, they were able to develop a strategy of uniting all the forces they could to defeat the Japanese and those in the country that would serve as their lackeys. While waging a peoples’ war they carried out a moderate land reform in the places they controlled so as not to antagonize the middle peasants. They even allied with certain sections of the bourgeoisie who were hurt by the imperialists and thus saw a need to struggle against them. All the while they maintained publicly that their ultimate objective was to build socialism.

This strategy made on the basis of an understanding of the principle contradictions they faced helped them to defeat the Japanese and then the nationalist Koumintang.

In the 1950s when it was assessed that the principal contradictions had changed (ie. that the struggle for socialism had become the order of the day), so did the alliances that marked the united front period. (Check out Mike Ely’s recent article on this topic.)

There is much more to say about this, including on the relation between internal contradictions and external contradictions which get us into a conversation about internationalism and China’s relationship to the rest of the world through the course of its revolutionary development.

On Contradiction touches on all these aspects of reality in motion in their relation to the Chinese revolution.

 

Engaging at the Level of Real Politics

 

Eve and Tyler ask if I am suggesting that we just “engage people where they are at”? Just because there is a visible abortion rights movement, does this mean we should just jump in and participate, tailing whatever seems to be popular?

This is a fair question.

The answer is both yes and no.

On a certain level of course we “engage people where they are at” — what is subjective for the people is objective for us. As the Maoists say “We raise the bucket from the ground.” And we can’t invent a different people.

But we also do several things:

1)We pay attention to different groups among the people, and don’t simply orient ourselves toward the intermediate and backward (the average worker etc.)

2) We apply a mass line — we don’t tail, but find the ways to promote communist politics.

3) We identify fracture lines, and differentiate among phenomena.

There is a need to understand not just political economy or patriarchy as such, but also the thinking of the people. Why is it that the question of abortion weighs so heavy on the minds of millions of women? How are women thinking about what the struggle for abortion means for control of their own lives? Are women in large numbers fed up with the Democratic Party and the non-profits in ceding so much ground to those who would trample on the gains they have won? Can communists put forward powerful messaging and political action that tie the struggle over abortion to the goal for the full emancipation of women from gender oppression and capitalism and ultimately the emancipation of all humanity?

This struggle is a potential faultline in society with the real potential to radicalize large sections of people.

What is being argued for is communist engagement and politics being directed into this struggle, with an eye toward winning significant sections of people involved to communist politics. This is not an argument to tail the Democrats or the non-profits. It is an argument to engage the arena of real politics. By real politics I simply mean politics that go beyond the confines of the currently tiny left, and involve large sections of people in struggles with the potential for direct confrontation with the state.

I agree with Eve and Tyler that it is not clear which struggle’s will ultimately prove to provide the best openings for revolutionary politics. We should have our eyes open to many possibilities. I single out abortion and reproductive freedom because of recent news, but we are already seeing the struggle against rape burst open new sites of struggle, with atrocious acts of violence against women in India and Steubenville to name a couple.

I would argue though that wherever struggle breaks out, we need to grasp the particularity of politics, we need to turn these struggles into political struggles and win over large sections of militants to the communist idea.

Understanding the primacy of contradiction in dialectics is an important part of being able to do this.

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