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.