More gems from the socialist feminist archive

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about reading The Bustelo Incident is that Myra Tanner Weiss quotes at length from Carol Hayden’s thesis on the Zhenotdel, which I’d heard of but have never actually got round to obtaining. That’s one for the future, I suppose.

People who’ve read about the Russian Revolution will, I suppose, be vaguely aware that the Zhenotdel existed, but unless you’re a great aficionado of the thought of Alexandra Kollontai you’re unlikely to know much about it. This is a pity, as there’s a story there just dying to be told. A case in point, which is in the quoted sections, is the pioneering work the Zhenotdel did amongst Muslim women in Central Asia in the face of extreme hostility from the local population, often violent and extending to outright murder. If that work is known now it’s for the occasional mass unveilings, which would have been the Zhenotdel’s headline-grabbing manifestations. But behind that was a lot of serious spadework in terms of health provision, community education and organisation that allowed a whole layer of Muslim women to empower themselves and challenge the existing power relations in their communities.

The Zhenotdel, of course, was closed down by Joe Stalin in 1930, simultaneously with the Communist Party’s various national minorities sections such as the Jewish Yevsektsiya. Historically speaking, it can be seen as part of the Stalinist drive to eliminate any actual or potential sources of opposition within the party. What’s interesting is the two arguments deployed by the Stalinists. The first was that the Revolution had got rid of the underlying cause of women’s oppression, and any remaining disadvantages suffered by women were mere epiphenomena that would gradually disappear in the course of socialist construction. The second argument was that the Communist Party was a revolutionary party, and women and minorities had full equality within its ranks. Since women were equal, they had no need to caucus, and if some stubbornly continued to want to caucus, that just proved they were divisive, sectarian, individualistic, petty bourgeois and probably anti-party elements. QED.

If you’ve heard one or both of those arguments from 1930, in more or less the same language, from people who pride themselves on their anti-Stalinism, then you, my friend, have hit the target, rung the bell, and may collect a cigar or cocoa-nut according to choice.

But back to Myra Tanner Weiss. Here she is taking Evelyn Reed to task on the question of developing leaders:

Finally Reed deals with Women Leaders. And here she says:

“The Woman Question is analogous to the Negro Question in this respect: that in the former it is the women, in the latter it is the Negroes, who must take the lead. The party as a whole carries forward our general Marxist positions and program on these as well as all other questions. But the leadership of women and Negroes, in a personal, directional sense, must come from those who are directly involved.”

All very well and good if somewhat obvious. But then Reed goes on to say:

“Since the interests of the party are paramount, however, if this leadership gets off on a wrong course, it must be corrected by the party. [Of course.] The primary duty of women and Negro leaders is first of all to be Marxists, and only after that women and Negroes. Certain failures of Negro leaders in the past [???] were dues, among other things, to the fact that they did not understand this elementary principle of the class struggle and were therefore not genuine Marxists.”

Nature has it the other way around. We are first female and black before we become Marxists. And with the prejudice in society, and we are still a part of that, men and whites rarely let us forget it. Blacks were generally called to speak when black issues were involved. And the same with women. Otherwise don’t interrupt the white male “Marxists” who deal with the “big” social questions.

Reed would not know about that because she was never in that “leadership”, at least in the Fifties, although clearly she should have been. In the Political Committee which had the responsibility of “guiding” the organization between conventions and plenums in the Fifties, I believe I was the only regular member who was a woman, and we had no blacks. A few made alternate status. But that was all. And by the Sixties, Dobbs manipulated the Committee to get rid of me, leaving it all white and male at the time.

And if some Negro leaders failed to be first “Marxist” and then black, and simply walked away, they were only doing what many women did, including the one woman among the 18 who were imprisoned during World War II and our first candidate for Vice President of the United States, the very able leader, Grace Carlson.

Now that’s something of a cautionary tale when it comes to the principle of colour-blind or gender-blind organisation. Sounds great in the abstract…

You know, a few years ago I had a conversation with a veteran female Marxist, who told me that her experience of autonomous organisation was that she felt it to be ghettoising. This was fair enough, but she then devolved to a position of arguing that autonomous organisation was a priori ghettoising. And in fact, even though her group had no women’s caucus, she still found herself being bummed off with “women’s issues”. It wasn’t even constructive work either, more along the lines of writing articles and doing meetings on Madonna. Perhaps she found it a consolation that she was firmly ensconced as one of her group’s two or three experts on gender politics, and if any young women in the ranks had different ideas, they had no mechanism to express them.

Let’s conclude with the immensely engaging figure of Clara Fraser. Clara thought more about these issues than most, and if you’re interested you derive some benefit from looking at her organisation’s publications. But I just want to take a look at Clara’s legendary article on the LaRouche movement. Fair enough, LaRouche himself was probably sui generis, but he wasn’t so sui generis as to be completely beyond parallel.

First Clara sets the context:

By 1970 the women’s movement was in full sail. And the male Left, new and old, didn’t like it. We were demanding that they change their ways and learn to share power with the second sex. They didn’t want to change.

We were denounced: we were divisive, subjective, petty-bourgeois, off-balance, off-side, unable to differentiate between “primary” and “secondary” questions, etcetera and ad infinitum. The campus male charismatics were particularly affronted; they secretly agreed with Stokely Carmichael that the “proper position for women in the struggle is prone” (except for secretarial and organizing duties).

Maybe a little telescoped, but there’s a lot of truth in that. And then Clara explains LaRouche’s right turn in Nietzschean terms:

The Leader must be Superman, Siegfried incarnate, and the Superman must be served by good girlies who appreciate the honor and know how to bow and scrape. Superman is the hope and salvation of the revolution; woman must cast off her intrinsic sinfulness and restore VIRILITY to her Master.

I think Nietzsche gets an undeservedly bad press, due mainly to the appalling would-be followers he’s attracted. But Clara is really onto something in flagging up the way that a certain top-down conception of leadership dovetails very nicely with a fierce attachment to penis privilege.

Just a little observation of my own – there’s a certain type of lefty man who makes a huge rhetorical deal out of being hyper-PC and the sternest critic of sexist thought crimes. Very often, it’s these guys who turn out to be the worst chauvinists in practice. I’m sure you could all name one or two off the top of your head. It really does come down to being able to walk the walk.

10 Comments

  1. Madam Miaow said,

    June 25, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    ‘… mass unveilings …’ How very Islamophobic of her.

    The Leader must be Superman, Siegfried incarnate, and the Superman must be served by good girlies who appreciate the honor and know how to bow and scrape. Superman is the hope and salvation of the revolution; woman must cast off her intrinsic sinfulness and restore VIRILITY to her Master.

    Yes, trolley dolly, Stepford Sister and publicist while the boys do their thang. Got the T-shirt.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 25, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I thought you’d like that… ;)

  3. ejh said,

    June 25, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    The Leader must be Superman, Siegfried incarnate, and the Superman must be served by good girlies who appreciate the honor and know how to bow and scrape. Superman is the hope and salvation of the revolution; woman must cast off her intrinsic sinfulness and restore VIRILITY to her Master.

    Doesn’t this strike you as a little rhetorical?

    One of the problems I have about this stuff is that it is often very rhetorical, that it involves a lot of colourful accusation-throwing without, often, there being any demonstrable substance to show for it.

    Now this is plainly, to a large degree, the fault of the situation and not of the person who seeks to describe it – the whole thing about mind games being that they take place inside the head. You can’t prove things even if they’re true. But at the same time, this situation does often lead to a somewhat prosecutorial approach rather than a discursive one, no? A lot of assumptions are made about people’s motives and outlook that should not, perhaps, be made, in a way that doesn’t leave much scope for a generous-minded discussion.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 25, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    I suspect that Clara may have been a little rhetorical. On the other hand, since she’s discussing LaRouche, she probably isn’t exaggerating very much.

  5. Harpymarx said,

    June 25, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    “and if any young women in the ranks had different ideas, they had no mechanism to express them”.

    Hence the importance of a women’s caucus and self-organisation. My own experience of autonomous organisations have been pretty positive and the excuse thrown about is that they lead to ghettoisation. And muddling up separatism and autonomy. There’s a big political difference.

  6. June 26, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    great article … David Rjazanov (who supported the Zhenotdel wholeheartedly) came to the cynical conclusion, that most male party members were thinking, that there is the Zhenotdel for stuff which is not important and the rest of the party for important stuff

  7. prianikoff said,

    June 27, 2008 at 6:04 am

    Zhenotdel was the Women’s department of the Russian Communist Party and it operated within its overall programme.
    It had a monthly publication called Kommunistka and worked to bring Communist politics to the broad mass of working women in factories and villages.
    This included campaigning on social equality, public childcare and increasing the participation of working women in politics.

  8. Dave said,

    June 27, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Ordinarily I’d be in firm agreement with ejh on the old rhetoric issue, but Fraser had LaRouche to a tee here. On the LaRouche discussion thread over at factnet.org there’s a wealth of recollections about LaRouche’s malign obsessions with women – which were partly political as he moved to adopt a macho line with Operation MopUp (physical attacks on CPUSA and SWP members), and also partly rooted in his own psychological fragilities – he launched his psych gangbanging sessions among the membership after an ex girlfriend of his had an affair with another member, Chris White. I’ve never been able to work out the broader political implications of LaRouche to the rest of the left, and his is clearly an extreme case, but the Chris White affair effectively defined much of that group’s politics up to the present day, including the obsession with Britain.

  9. Mike said,

    June 28, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Odd though it might seem to recommend anything by the Spartacist League the early issues of their, now lapsed, publication do contain sme interesting articles on the work of both the Blsheviks and the Comintern amongst women. Certainly their studies of the question took place at a time when the emerging Fraser group up in Seattle wre in touch with the Sparts.

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    July 14, 2008 at 5:28 am

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    Thank you my dear friend,

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    A Seven-point plan for an Exit Strategy in Iraq

    1) A timetable for the complete withdrawal of American and British forces
    must be announced.
    I envision the following procedure, but suitable fine-tuning can be
    applied by all the people involved.

    A) A ceasefire should be offered by the Occupying side to
    representatives of the Sunni insurgency and the Shiite and Kurdish communities. These
    representatives would be guaranteed safe passage, to any meetings. The
    individual insurgency groups and communities would designate who would attend.
    At this meeting a written document declaring a one-month ceasefire,
    witnessed by a United Nations authority, will be fashioned and eventually
    signed. This document will be released in full, to all Iraqi newspapers, the
    foreign press, and the Internet.

    ( The inclusion of Kurdish communities in this sub-section was added in early September 2006-
    as an attempt to define the goals of parity and fairness and to avoid any sectarian splitting
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    B) US and British command will make public its withdrawal, within
    sixth-months of 80 % of their troops.

    C) Every month, a team of United Nations observers will verify the
    effectiveness of the ceasefire.
    All incidences on both sides will be reported.

    D) Combined representative armed forces of both the Occupying
    nations and the insurgency organizations and major community factions. that agreed to the cease fire will
    protect the Iraqi people from actions by terrorist cells.

    E) Combined representative armed forces from both the Occupying
    nations and the insurgency organizations/community factions will begin creating a new military
    and police force. Those who served, without extenuating circumstances, in
    the previous Iraqi military or police, will be given the first option to
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    F) After the second month of the ceasefire, and thereafter, in
    increments of 10-20% ,a total of 80% will be withdrawn, to enclaves in Qatar
    and Bahrain. The governments of these countries will work out a temporary
    land-lease housing arrangement for these troops. During the time the troops
    will be in these countries they will not stand down, and can be re-activated
    in the theater, if the chain of the command still in Iraq, the newly
    formed Iraqi military, the leaders of the insurgency/community factions, and two international
    ombudsman (one from the Arab League, one from the United Nations), as a
    majority, deem it necessary.

    G) One-half of those troops in enclaves will leave three-months after they
    arrive, for the United States or other locations, not including Iraq.

    H) The other half of the troops in enclaves will leave after
    six-months.

    I) The remaining 20 % of the Occupying troops will, during this six
    month interval, be used as peace-keepers, and will work with all the
    designated organizations, to aid in reconstruction and nation-building.

    J) After four months they will be moved to enclaves in the above
    mentioned countries.
    They will remain, still active, for two month, until their return to
    the States, Britain and the other involved nations.

    2) At the beginning of this period the United States will file a letter with
    the Secretary General of the Security Council of the United Nations, making
    null and void all written and proscribed orders by the CPA, under R. Paul
    Bremer. This will be announced and duly noted.

    3) At the beginning of this period all contracts signed by foreign countries
    will be considered in abeyance until a system of fair bidding, by both
    Iraqi and foreign countries, will be implemented ,by an interim Productivity
    and Investment Board, chosen from pertinent sectors of the Iraqi economy.
    Local representatives of the 18 provinces of Iraq will put this board
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    4) At the beginning of this period, the United Nations will declare that
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    autonomous regions. Each region will, with the help of international
    experts, and local bureaucrats, do a census as a first step toward the
    creation of a municipal government for all 18 provinces. After the census, a
    voting roll will be completed. Any group that gets a list of 15% of the
    names on this census will be able to nominate a slate of representatives.
    When all the parties have chosen their slates, a period of one-month will be
    allowed for campaigning.
    Then in a popular election the group with the most votes will represent that
    province.
    When the voters choose a slate, they will also be asked to choose five
    individual members of any of the slates.
    The individuals who have the five highest vote counts will represent a
    National government.
    This whole process, in every province, will be watched by international
    observers as well as the local bureaucrats.

    During this process of local elections, a central governing board, made up
    of United Nations, election governing experts, insurgency organizations, US
    and British peacekeepers, and Arab league representatives, will assume the
    temporary duties of administering Baghdad, and the central duties of
    governing.

    When the ninety representatives are elected they will assume the legislative
    duties of Iraq for two years.

    Within three months the parties that have at least 15% of the
    representatives will nominate candidates for President and Prime Minister.

    A national wide election for these offices will be held within three months
    from their nomination.

    The President and the Vice President and the Prime Minister will choose
    their cabinet, after the election.

    5) All debts accrued by Iraq will be rescheduled to begin payment, on the
    principal after one year, and on the interest after two years. If Iraq is
    able to handle another loan during this period she should be given a grace
    period of two years, from the taking of the loan, to comply with any
    structural adjustments.

    6) The United States and the United Kingdom shall pay Iraq reparations for
    its invasion in the total of 120 billion dollars over a period of twenty
    years for damages to its infrastructure. This money can be defrayed as
    investment, if the return does not exceed 6.5 %.

    7) During the interim period all those accused of crimes against the Iraqi people,
    or against international law will be given access to a fair trial.
    The extent of the implications of the international nature of the crime, and the
    security standards which exist in Iraq will dictate the place of the trial, and its subsequent procedures.
    All defendants will have the right to present any evidence they want, and to
    choose freely their own lawyers.
    If they are found guilty they will be given all necessary appeals provided for by the jurisdiction
    of their trials, and will be sentenced in Iraq, after all these appeals are exhausted.
    If they are found not guilty they will be released and given protection under international law,
    with the strict adherence to these laws by the judicial organs of a sovereign Iraq.


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