TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

An Unhappy Marriage

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at Joan Landes’s “Feminism and the Internationals” from Telos 49 (Fall 1981).

Although 2012 is being hailed as the new Year of the Woman and women’s votes were solicited and cited as pivotal to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Joan Landes’s 1981 article “Feminism and the Internationals” provides a timely reminder about the strategic ways that women’s and feminist movements have been deployed in service of political agendas in body politics past. Landes illustrates the historical subordination of women’s and feminist concerns in socialist paradigms and states, shows that the personal was treated as apolitical, and alludes to male epistemic authority as begetting these developments. From the vantage point of Marxist socialism, the problem with feminism is that it undermines the unified class struggle by introducing a competing concern—gender—that threatens the cohesion of the socialist movement.

In a perspectival reversal, Landes interrogates the problems that socialism poses for feminism and implicitly for “gender struggle” and gender justice. From the vantage point of feminism, the problem with Marxism is that gender is always and necessarily the secondary institution under analysis or consideration. Not only are women perceived to be the second sex, but sex comes second. Yet Landes argues that “feminism cannot be reduced to a movement to restructure the workplace or reorganize the state” (117). However, many dynamics of contemporary realpolitik mirror those observed in Marxist socialist governments and movements in the 1980s and earlier. For instance, that Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, declared her critics sexist and misogynistic was billed by the popular media as pertaining to anything but gender issues; that internationally, cabinet ministers and their offices that deal with gender affairs are either absent or deprioritized in terms of prestige and funding—these examples give rise to one conclusion: gender is still moot.

Landes grants that in some ways Marxist socialism included or embraced women and women’s movements. Marx acknowledged in a letter that “social transformations were impossible without ferment from women,” and this idea was widespread among early nineteenth-century socialists (117). In addition, the legislative resolution regarding suffrage at Gotha was amended to refer to citizens, rather than males, as eligible (118). Landes shows, however, that these developments may have been driven by strategic concerns rather than feminist ones. Surely women’s votes were instrumental in fulfilling political agendas. Landes then examines Marxist socialist priorities in earnest: “Like Marx, Engels endorses the notion that the economic struggle should be awarded priority over the social and sexual struggle. In Marx’s words, ‘. . . with the abolition of class distinctions, all social and political inequalities from them would disappear of itself'” (119). Numerous examples of the subordination of gender as political concern follow in Landes’s work. Under the Social Democratic Party of Germany, women’s commissions and auxiliaries were relegated to functions that were either inconsequential or in service of the established agenda (126). Reproductive issues were deemed personal while utopian challenges to prevailing family and household norms were deemphasized. According to Lenin, there was no room for gender liberation in the socialist movement as class-consciousness was the proper foundation from which all other reforms may flow (121). Landes writes: “To the extent that women’s interests conflicted directly with men’s interests, autonomy [of socialist women’s groups] was sacrificed to unity: a unity never defined in terms of women” (125). The promise of autonomous women’s groups was used as a political tactic—to be granted or withdrawn to motivate behaviors in support of the party’s main, male-defined political agenda.

Lenin chastised Clara Zetkin, a prominent German Communist Party leader, for allowing the focus of women’s groups to drift to sex and family topics, and she assented to a reorientation that rendered class concerns central (122). Zetkin also considered liberal feminism completely incompatible with the socialist women’s movement (123). Zetkin’s refusal to collaborate with radical feminists, whose agenda most closely resembled that of the socialist women’s movement, shows either her own belief in the cardinal status of class struggle or her acquiescence to the party’s demand that class struggle be of central concern. This stance was a strategic one, adopted to secure the support of a party that did not wish its primary agenda derailed. On the other hand, Alexandra Kollontai, an important Russian Communist, acknowledged that a fully autonomous women’s movement, one that placed gender as the central concern and that was inclusive of all women regardless of class status or political affiliation, was a threat to the cohesion of the workers’ movement (124). That Zetkin finally acquiesced to Lenin’s criticisms while Kollontai’s political career was sidelined due to her criticism of the Communist Party reflects the priorities of the socialist agenda.

Landes identifies a seemingly axiomatic legacy of political movements, organizations, and bodies that trails our civil steps to this day as today’s gender issues reflect those of yesteryear. Feminist analysis is perhaps one of the most underused methods of examination, a method as yet not fully explored or exhausted. And certainly the gender struggle has not yet reached its pinnacle, since gender justice has yet to be achieved, as evidenced by the adhesive (albeit slowly shrinking) gender pay gap, the disproportionate burden of care work on women, and the limited legal rights of women in several countries. Understanding the commonalities between present and historical maneuverings of women as an interest group or the feminist agenda may untangle the repeating, insidious social and psychological patterns that have carved the well-worn paths of political inequality. In reference to two bents of Marxist thought on family, one that promotes the socialization of household work and the other which staunchly defends working class culture—gender roles and all, Landes argues that neither position has “confronted the logic” of feminism (126). It appears that no political party, movement, or tradition has comprehensively done so since. Thus Landes’s observations not only concern socialism’s stance toward women and feminism, but they also illuminate a dynamic that clings to modern politics.

Read the full version of Joan Landes’s “Feminism and the Internationals” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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