Ruby Dhalla, the International Marxist Tendency, and Liberal, Socialist, or Radical Feminism

Wandered across this article. Rubbed me slightly the wrong way.

Stage 1 is that Ruby Dhalla, the daughter of a Pubjabi immigrant family in Ontario gets elected as a Liberal MP in the Canadian parliament. She campaigns for immigrants’ rights and generally politicises as one would expect a politician to do.

Stage 2 is that she is accused of abuse by three female Filipina workers who she had hired to do domestic work. In particular, she’s accused of confiscating their passports, and using the control this gave her to force them to perform additional work. This practice, which amounts to a sort of forced labour, i.e. slavery, is quite common, with a substantial percentage of immigrant domestic workers likely to face it at some point (indeed, in some countries *cough*UAE*cough* it’s basically the national labour-control policy).

Now this may be true or it may be false, I don’t know. If it’s true, then it’s not only shocking, but obviously got great irony: the daughter of immigrants, speaking out in support of immigrants, hyper-exploiting immigrants.

Stage 3 then is that an article is written about this by some Marxists (the International Marxist Tendency*, to be precise, who British readers may know for their involvement in Venezuela solidarity work, HOV, etc.) and put up on their website. The article’s goal is to use the case of Ruby Dhalla as an argument against liberal feminism and in favour of socialist feminism.

In particular, it uses it to argue against the claim, attributed to ‘feminism’, that “in order to get ahead in life, we need to unite with other women[…]that men are the ultimate oppressor, and that all women have the same interests at heart.”

It does this through the simple expedient of observing that women are divided by class, and that ruling-class women often have opposed interests to working-class women. Thus, unity on the basis simply of shared womanhood is insufficient – class unity is the real way forward.

Now this argument against liberal feminism (i.e. taking gender-oppression as the sole or principal form of oppression and assuming most other matters are fairly ok) is a perfectly cogent one, but what the article doesn’t say at any point is that it’s an equally good argument to point out that some interests are shared among women across class lines, and that some interests are clearly not shared between working class men and working class women (e.g., sexual harassment impacts on women of all classes, though often in different ways).

Of course, the article never denies this, but it seems to do everything it can to quietly push it to the side. In particular, consider this passage

Women are divided by class, just like racialized minorities are divided by class, and people of different sexual orientation are divided by class.”

In each case, class is used to relativise other fissures, but nothing is used to relativise class (e.g. “working class people are divided by sexual orientation”). And then at the end there’s

And therefore the solution to female inequality (because we cannot deny that female inequality exists) is unity of the working class to overthrow our common oppressor, the capitalist class!”

Now that looks very much like keeping the style of the rejected ‘liberal feminist’ analysis, but replacing ‘gender’ with ‘class’. Which isn’t the logical implication of the other things the article says. The logical implication of the other things the article says is that working class women will only be fully emancipated by the overthrow both of capitalism and of patriarchy (and other things will be important as well, for the disabled ones or whoever else)

Now there are more arguments to be had; Marxists often give arguments for why class is the ‘fundamental’ form of oppression, and those arguments should be looked at carefully. But the article as written is an exercise in sloppy reasoning, setting up a one-dimensional theory, knocking it down by pointing out another dimension, and then replacing it with another one-dimensional theory.

For what it’s worth, I also partly disagree with, and partly agree with, those Marxist/class-focused arguments. But I do think (as the presence of the ‘Shulamith Firestone’ category on the blog might suggest) that gender is a dimension irreducible to, though also inextricable from, class – and, indeed, one with a longer history, since the germs of gender-division can be seen in non-human animals well prior to the emergence of property-based class systems.

This, as I read it in very simplified terms, is what is meant by ‘radical’ as opposed to ‘socialist’ and ‘liberal’ feminism. Socialist feminism recognises gender-oppression but treats it as a secondary phenomenon compared to the basic importance of class structure, while liberal feminism takes gender-oppression as autonomous but does so by neglecting the obvious need for global anarchist communist revolution*, which in turn means that its analysis of gender-oppression tends to be quite shallow.

*This means that they’re Marxists who tend to be international, but are sometimes not.

**This is so obvious it should hardly need saying, really.

7 Responses to “Ruby Dhalla, the International Marxist Tendency, and Liberal, Socialist, or Radical Feminism”

  1. spgreenlaw Says:

    “But I do think… gender is a dimension irreducible to, though also inextricable from, class – and, indeed, one with a longer history, since the germs of gender-division can be seen in non-human animals well prior to the emergence of property-based class systems.”

    Exactly. Well, I actually tend to reserve “gender” for presentation and roles, ie: masculine, feminine, androgynous etc. (which, in a more perfect world, would be separate and unrelated to male/female) but assuming you’re just using it as synonymous with sex, then, yeah, exactly! Economic class and sex class obviously influence each other, the same way orientation and economic class, or race and sex intersect, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessarily a result of the other.

  2. rumblegumption Says:

    In my head, the way class oppression is ‘fundamental’ is in the weak sense in which it is the near-paradigmatic instance of its kind, showing all of the features of oppression in general, exemplified to a degree such that it is useful to think of other kinds of oppression in terms borrowed from class analysis. Which is not to reduce, say, gender oppression into class terms, or to subordinate its importance in strategic terms (overthrow capitalism and the patriarchy will vanish), or even to posit some kind of causal/explanatory relationship between one and the other (the patriarchy is an aspect of capitalism). On the contrary, it’s just that thinking about an instance of gender oppression using terms that get their significance from class analysis can draw your attention to features of gender oppression you had not thought about. And vice versa, of course (hence a ‘weak’ sense).

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hmmm. Rumble, my first thought is whether this really counts as a way of being ‘fundamental’ if it’s a symmetrical relationship. But that’s just semantics(?). The other one is that I’m not sure it’s true that class oppression does show all the features of oppression in general. For example, with something like the oppression of sexual minorities, there’s a strong desire for them to just not exist, to erase them entirely. This is linked to the symbolic dimension, in that part of why they’re hated is that their existence challenges certain ideas about what’s normal or possible. But class oppression usually doesn’t aim for the subordinate classes to just disappear – though perhaps with some it does.

  4. Graeme Says:

    “but what the article doesn’t say at any point is that it’s an equally good argument to point out that some interests are shared among women across class lines, and that some interests are clearly not shared between working class men and working class women (e.g., sexual harassment impacts on women of all classes, though often in different ways).”

    That’s true, but it isn’t an equally good argument. Class trumps identity issues. For example, Oprah Winfrey has no doubt faced discrimination due to her race and gender, but because she is obscenely rich, she has much more societal power than, say, a homeless white male. She has much more recourse to fight sexual harassment, or whatever, than a working class woman would. That’s assuming that she would even face such issues anymore, given her societal status (which, again, is directly because of her economic being).

  5. Graeme Says:

    Oops, I forgot to mention I’m part of the IMT. So I’m admittedly biased. 🙂

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well one thing that’s certainly true is that class is spread out across a much broader range than ‘identity issues’: one person may be a hundred times as rich as another, but it’s hard to be a hundred times as male as someone.

    Now, we have to factor that out of evaluating the overall significance of such things – i.e. pick not a homeless person and Oprah Winfrey, but the people whose place in the wealth-ordering would put them at the two modes if that distribution kept the same mean and standard deviation but turned from a skewed normal into a bimodal distribution (I think, that may make no mathematical sense).

    Those people I think would be not too far away from average – one moderately well-off, one moderately poor. Now, is the gap in social power between such people obviously greater than the average gap in social power across various gender or race divides (‘various’ as in, in different countries, different particular races)? I don’t think it’s obviously greater; nor is it obviously lesser.


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