Posted in Book Reviews

Marxism and Feminism, by Shahrzad Mojab (ed)

As a man I usually get uncomfortable with asking myself the question, “Am I a feminist?”. Certainly in relation to my political activism I have no real right to call myself one – I simply haven’t done enough to earn that title. On the other hand, I do try to be as supportive as I possibly can of comrades who are pushing to further feminist goals, and I do take part in many discussions on the subject where I try to support and spread feminist ideas. So I guess it really depends on how the question is interpreted.

A related issue, one which arises when I take part in these discussions, is which feminist ideas should I try to support and spread? Feminism after all is not some sort of hive mind, there are many different schools of thought represented under the umbrella term “feminism”. I attended a feminist convention in Russia recently, for example, where there were speakers representing liberal feminism, anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism and so on. With such a diverse range of views within the subject, and often mutually exclusive views, which views should I take away with me as the ones to spread within my community of peers? And how do I, as a man, avoid simply picking and choosing the bits that sit most comfortably with me?

Marxism with its emphasis on the scientific method, and therefore objectivity, allows for those of us who are epistemically barred from the relevant lived experience to nevertheless gain insight. Putting any problem under a Marxists microscope will always illuminate more than it will hide. Now of course Marxism and Feminism have had a somewhat rocky relationship. Marxists haven’t always given enough focus to issues of sex or gender within the class struggle – but likewise feminists have often failed to acknowledge the class dimension to instances of oppression based on sex or gender. It is primarily for this reason that Mojab’s Marxism and Feminism is such an important addition to the literature of both Marxists and Feminists; Mojab is here offering a point of departure from the current way of doing Marxism and Feminism (separately) in favour of a unified Marxist Feminism or Feminist Marxism.

This will no doubt sound like blasphemy to many of today’s activists who promote a very middle class version of feminism – one more concerned with the balance of female CEOs to male CEOs and how much each is paid. But such a feminism fails to represent the vast majority of women, it only cares for the few women who are complicit with their male counterparts in the oppression of the vast majority of other women. Mojab is not afraid to say that today’s feminism is inadequate, and critiques Women’s and Gender Studies programmes in academia for failing to see the patriarchy as a political system that is firmly connected to capitalist social relations by seeing gender-inequality as only a ‘cultural’ issue.

The book itself is a step towards a revolution, a form of resistance written and practiced by Shahrzad Mojab and her allies, and a sound example of dialectical-materialism in action. It is split into three parts, the first of which serves as both an introduction to Marxism and Feminism and a sort of autobiography-cum-history of revolutionary leftism. It tracks Mojab’s own history through social and political movements in her native Iran through to her academic career in the USA. This introduction sets a challenge for the remainder of the book: to explain how and why Marxism and Feminism as two emancipatory projects and two political affinities should be converged despite all political and ideological projects that are committed to diverge them.

The book is ultimately successful in this endeavor, not least because in the second part of the book (which comprises three chapters) Mojab’s co-authors, in particular Bannerji in the third of these chapters, take some time to respond to these “political and ideological projects”. Being critiqued here are the likes of identity politics and intersectionality. Intersectional approaches to issues such as race or gender seem to be largely unquestioned outside of academia (where they are far from universally accepted). In a sense this is understandable, as intersectional approaches are very attractive to those who want to explain the oppression of white homosexual males or rich African-American females, for example. Intersectional approaches, by explaining people in terms of the social identities or where these identities “intersect” (their race “identity”, their gender “identity” etc) is able to make sense of homosexual white men or rich African-American women being oppressed: they are oppressed in some ways while being privileged in others. This just looks intuitively correct to most people.

After reading this section of Marxism and Feminism (especially the chapter by Himani Bannerji) I couldn’t help but feel that a convincing argument had been made against intersectional theories. They didn’t reject the conclusion that people can be privileged in one way but oppressed in others; they demonstrated that we don’t need to invoke intersectionality to arrive at that conclusion, a properly understood marxist feminism / feminist marxism can also account for this intuitively correct observation. Moreover, a feminist marxism avoids some of the problems that intersectional theory is plagued by, such as its almost “Lego” or “Mechano” explanation of human psychology as a mere construction of different social identities. It’s not that we shouldn’t de-construct into separate “social identities”, it’s that we can’t. An individual’s component social “identities” do not exist independently of each other, they are intertwined within that individual’s lived experience. To treat them as separable simply paints a false  and misleading picture.

The final section of the book applies a marxist feminism / feminist marxism to a range of issues which are normally discussed by feminists. Readers will decide for themselves which of these discussions of feminists key words resonates most strongly with themselves; I particularly enjoyed reading Sara Carpenter’s chapter on democracy. Other keywords which receive attention in this section include patriarchy, reproduction and revolution.

Overall, this is a book that deserves to be read. It strikes a good balance between established respected experts and exciting new voices. Shortly the Scottish Socialist Party will seek to put into place conference’s decision to create a political education for the party. I encourage those who will take responsibility for actualising this conference’s decision to consider this book as part of that political education. The ideas advanced in this book have the potential to lead both Feminism and Marxism into a (in this reader’s humble opinion) much needed revival; a revival that I hope the SSP can play a part in.  

 

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