This is the final post in the series of the previous 3, on the historic connection between radical feminism (the abolition of gender) and communism/socialism.
In my last post I talked about how a weakening of gender identification would enable socialist revolution to progress without being prevented or deflected by the preference for domination (power over others) relative to freedom (power over personal circumstances) that is engendered by the masculine identity (and the ineffective passivity engendered by the feminine identity). I summarised this by saying that communists and other socialists should look not merely to ‘the proletariat’ as a revolutionary agent, but to ‘the genderqueer proletariat’.
But the creation of this genderqueer proletariat was left unexplained.
Is it something simply ‘to be created’ by going around telling people not to identify strongly with gender identities? That seems to place too much weight on voluntary decisions, as if social change can just be willed into existence by a few dedicated agitators.
Or is it something that will just happen, as an inevitable consequence of impersonal social evolution? That seems to place too little weight on voluntary decisions, as if social change is something that happens independently of the actual people who make up society.
In my view, the great merit of class analysis in Marx’s tradition is that it manages to get between these two extreme options, to reconcile the undirected nature of social change with the need for individual effort – by making that effort, specifically in the form of class struggle and class agency, a key part of social change.
So what I want to do today is to locate the weakening of gender identification as the consequence of a class struggle. In doing so, I will draw heavily on previous posts about the idea of ‘sex classes’, male and female groups defined by their relationships to sex(ual access to women) which becomes a resource in sexist society.
Recall that we started with a ‘revolutionary equation’ concerning the proletariat. That is, according to traditional class-struggle socialism, the proletariat has 1) the capacity to revolutionise society, 2) the incentive to revolutionise society, and 3) a class definition which means that if it takes power, the result will be a socialist society without class divisions or exploitation, rather than a new sort of class society.
Is there a ‘sex class’ which displays these same features – if a ‘masculinised proletariat’ is economically revolutionary but sexually conservative, what group is sexually revolutionary ? Unsurprisingly, I’m going to argue that the answer is, primarily, ‘women’.
Starting with point 3, what sex-class definition would be such as to make a class unfit to rule over a sex-class system, and capable only, when dominant, of presiding over the dissolution of such a system?
The natural answer is that it is a definition which excludes the very idea of rule, which defines that class as fit by nature to be submissive, to be objectified, to be ‘the second sex’. Which defines it, in more ‘economic terms’, as the resource to be owned, not the owners.
This description, I think, applies in various ways to three general classes: women, children, and deviants (e.g. homosexuals, etc). Obviously these can all be analysed into component classes, and all overlap each other – but they are, I think, very much parts of the same system of definitions.
Looking next at points 1. and 2., do any of these classes have the capacity and incentive to revolutionise society? I would suggest that only one really has the weight to do this.
‘Children’ don’t because they are naturally very weak because of their inexperience and immaturity. We have, certainly, seen a historic shift over the last century of so, in the balance of power between old and young. But I don’t think it can really be pushed to the point where the very young become a determining social power – the most would be for ‘young adults’ to become ascendant relative both to the younger (who they have much more material power than) and to the older (who they increasingly have social and cultural advantages over). In essence the point is that the social disempowerment here is superimposed onto a pre-existing natural disempowerment.
What about deviants? I think the problem here is precisely that this group, though it is liable to be on the revolutionary side and no doubt fighting hard, is ‘outside’ the sex-class system by definition. It plays no integral role in that situation. In this sense it is analogous to communities of persistently unemployed slum dwellers and beggars, rather than the working class which has a decisive position within the economy. They can erode the system from the outside, but not explode it from within.
What about women? Here things are more complicated. Women certainly have the sort of decisive internal position within the sexual system that might equip them to destroy it. And they also have the kind of incentive to revolution based in class struggle – because even the fact of struggling carries hints of revolution (struggle being, y’know, a masculine attribute). To put it another way – as long as sexist society continues, women are compelled to struggle for their collective interests against the collective interests of men as a class (over sexual violence, over beauty standards, over reproductive freedom, etc.) and every step they take towards more effectively asserting their interests is a step away from and out of the feminine gender identity.
There are however two problems. Once, potentially, might be that as with children, their social disempowerment is superimposed on a natural disempowerment, namely the difficulties and impediments associated with pregnancy and childbirth. I’m actually very sceptical of how true this was even in the past – but we can set it aside, because it is clear that now, with our reproductive technology, we can overcome any such problems.
The other is more important. It is that in the traditional sort of society, women are effectively inhibited from struggling as a class by their isolation. Class struggle means collective struggle, and so it requires organisation, and that requires access to ‘the public sphere’. Historically, in various ways, women have been excluded from this sphere, or permitted access to it only in limited ways and subject to conditions. Their relationship to society has thus been skewed towards relationships to certain individuals of opposed classes (parents, husband, children) to whom emotional connections have been cultivated.
But the current and ascendent society has exploded this. No longer, in modern Western societies, are women so isolated, so privatised, so bound to a single man. Female employment, serial monogamy, and the general culture of ‘choice’ have brought women into the public sphere as a mass of self-directing individuals.
This is not the end of gender – their presence in that sphere is still not the same as that of men, and most of the structures of sexism remain. But this change has transformed the position of women in the same way that the industrial-and-capitalist revolution transformed peasants into proletarians. This enables them to organise as a class and articulate, advocate and advance their class interests.
So in conclusion, we can say this: the class which is capable of revolutionising the sexual system (and not replacing it with another) is what we might call ‘modern women’ as opposed to ‘traditional women’: women as a whole, but able to organise due to the position in which they find themselves in modern society, moving more-or-less independently, with access to the public sphere, not tied too tightly to a single man.
Another term which might be used for this class, this relatively new class, is ‘proletarianised women’.
But of course the two classes we’ve been considering in this series of posts – the genderqueer proletariat and proletarianised women – are liable to overlap a great deal. A big part of women going from traditional family-bound isolation to free-moving ‘independence’ is their being able to get (underpaid, overworked) jobs, i.e to enter the proletariat. And this entry is liable to be a big push to weakening the gender-identification of the proletariat in general – not, of course, because such a thing can simply be read off from how many men and how many women you’ve got around, but because that is one of the variables that is relevant.
Thus the goals of sexual feminist revolution and economic socialist revolution are approached as part of a single process of class struggle, but the class agent of that dual revolution is still being formed by the coalescing of ‘women’ as a sex class and ‘workers’ as an economic class. Through a connected series of social transformations over the last few centuries, the conditions for this combined class have been created. This at least is what I have come to believe.