Our Critique of the Revolutionary Movement’s Perspective on Gender and Patriarchy (Part 2)
Marx identified class struggle as the moving force of history. His extensive study of the capitalist mode of production, led him to believe that contrary to other revolutions in human history (for instance, the bourgeois democratic revolution) the socialist revolution led by the proletariat, who have nothing to lose but their chains, would emancipate not only the proletariat but the humanity as a whole. But Marx also demonstrated that class struggle is a highly complex process, which has manifested itself differently in different social formations over the course of history. Every concrete situation thereby demands a concrete analysis of class struggle.
In Western Europe, the development of capitalism played a progressive role in dismantling feudal social relations and in establishing bourgeois democracy based on the principles of formal equality and freedom. While acknowledging its progressive character Marx exposed the limitations of bourgeois freedom and equality. He explained how the inherent contradiction of the system would in turn create conditions for proletariat to lead the socialist revolution to end all kinds of exploitation and establish real freedom and democracy. But when capital entered the Indian subcontinent during colonialism it did not play the same progressive role, which it had played in Western Europe. Instead of dismantling feudalism, capital rather collaborated with it, reinventing it as semi-feudal relations. Although colonialism formally ended in 1947, the masses continued to be oppressed by feudal forces, imperialism & comprador big bourgeoisie such as Ambani, Tata and Birla.
In this complex semi-feudal semi-colonial context, any mechanical understanding and application of class struggle is bound to fail as the fate of revisionist parliamentary Left has made it amply clear. The revolutionary movement in India, over the years, has challenged the mechanical and crude understanding of class struggle championed by the revisionist left. It reflects in revolutionary movement’s understanding on working class struggles, role of peasantry in new democratic revolution, anti-caste struggle, the minority question or the struggle for national self-determination.
But, when it comes to the equally crucial question of struggle against patriarchy, we see an instrumentalist crude class analysis overpowers the revolutionary movement’s understanding, which confines the fight against patriarchy to the domain of “participation” of women for the “larger” revolutionary task. While glorifying the role of women in anti-liquor movement, anti-displacement, anti-Salwa-Judum or anti-AFSPA struggles, the revolutionary movement’s theoretical understanding relegates the gender question to the backdrop. And not only that, it in fact treats (conspiratorially) the various questions brought to the fore by women’s movements over the decades to be diversionary from the “real” revolutionary class struggle.
In Indian sub-continent, the fight against patriarchy and caste system is internal to class struggle. The semi-feudal social relation, which, in collaboration with big capital, oppresses and exploits the vast majority of people, is constitutive of, just as it is simultaneously being constituted by, caste system and patriarchy. Historicizing the institutions of family and marriage, Engels demonstrated that the control over women as sexual body through monogamous marriage was a decisive historical moment in institutionalizing private property and male domination.
In our context, however, the control over women’s sexuality is pivotal not only for ensuring control over resources but also for maintaining and perpetuating caste system. In other words, the perpetuation of caste system and the semi-feudal control of land and labour are heavily dependent on patriarchal control over women and their sexuality through the social arrangement of endogamy. The appropriation of labour of women and of oppressed castes through extra-economic coercion and control over women’s sexuality is thereby central to the reproduction of semi-feudal relation in the Indian subcontinent.
And therefore if the fight against semi-feudal land relations is rightly considered to be part of class struggle, then similarly, the fight for the liberation of women and the fight for the annihilation of caste, must be considered very much internal to class struggle. Instead of addressing, engaging or radicalizing the issues of sexual violence, marriage, divorce and intimacy emerging out of the women’s movement, the revolutionary movement dismisses these questions as concerns of ‘elite’ women, emerging under the influence of imperialist culture.
One of the worst manifestations of this is the branding of feminists and women activists, who have raised concerns regarding sexual violence, marriage, divorce and intimacy, as advocates of “free sex theory”. The movement accuses feminists of promoting “free sex theory” as a part of imperialist onslaught. What is most worrying is that it has been stated as a matter of fact without any explanation. We would want to ask – what exactly does the revolutionary movement mean by “free sex theory”? By using such bogus terms, is the revolutionary movement, here not behaving akin to reactionary forces who also attack feminists and women activists for raising the issues of sexual violence and patriarchal control and for being critical of the institutions of family and marriage in very much the same language? (read Subramaniam Swamy’s comment describing JNU as the hub of “free sex naxalites and jihadis”).
Several of these concerns have been raised for decades by the women’s movement and feminists of all hues. It is indeed true that many of them have a limited agenda, and feminism itself is a very heterogeneous camp. But in a semi-feudal semi colonial context, when the stage of the revolution is still new democratic, every such strand of struggle that targets or challenges the oppressive social relations and institutions are to be considered as allies rather than as enemies.
The role of a revolutionary party or the revolutionary movement is to pick these questions up in a holistic manner and expand their frontiers by connecting it with other anti-feudal, anti-imperialist struggles. However, on this count, what we find in both the documented positions as well as in practice is that the questions themselves are projected as diversionary, reflective of elite concerns determined by the class positions of those raising them and worse still part of an ‘imperialist conspiracy’! Such an approach of rejection and branding reeks of nothing but self-righteousness and arrogance. It is true that the ruling classes always try to co-opt all kinds of democratic movements and their leaders. It may also be true that the women’s movement too got partially co-opted by the ruling classes. Does that mean the issues and concerns raised by the movement become irrelevant or less important? There have been several instances of co-option of communist movements/parties by the ruling classes – be it in the former Soviet Union or China; the latest example being the Maoist party of Nepal. But it would be ironical to conclude that the struggle for socialist revolution or the new democratic revolution has become irrelevant. So, the point is, whether co-opted or not, the revolutionary movement must take issues and concerns raised by the women’s movement or for that matter anti-caste struggle seriously, for they are internal to the revolutionary social transformation of our society.
Let’s take a look into the revolutionary movement’s documented positions on the questions of marriage, divorce and intimacy. The progressive sections of our society including the revolutionary movement stand in support of the individuals’ democratic right to freely choose their marriage partner. The recognition and acceptance of this right as well as the right to divorce are results of various progressive & democratic struggles, particularly women’s movement and anti-caste struggles. But the moment two persons consciously decide to live together without marriage it is immediately criminalized.
The stated position of the revolutionary movement is: “To live together when they wish to get married and to separate when that need is felt no more amounts to irresponsibility and anarchy. …Therefore when members who like each other want to live together they will have to inform the concerned unit and obtain its permission for marriage. Pre-marital sex relations should be viewed seriously.” And “serious” they are. The seriousness on this front is so immense that any deviation from this, or any instance of pre-marital sex or live in relations, is considered an “alien class tendency”, “non-proletarian trend” and a “serious” breach. As far as the larger society is concerned, it opposes and criminalizes both these forms of conjugality because of their potential to disrupt the dominant semi-feudal social relation and morality.
But why is the revolutionary movement standing on the wrong side of history? When an individual freely chooses her/his marriage partner, the revolutionary movement considers it individual’s democratic right; but when a person decides to live with someone without marriage, it criminalizes this relationship branding it as anarchist behavior, which is influenced by “poisonous imperialist culture” and alien class tendencies. This is not just an a-historical approach, but also one that is steeped in feudal morality about sex and sexuality. It only reeks of male protectionism and control over women and is built on the premise of an over-sexualized man and a passive woman who always fall prey. It is emanating from a deep seated anxiety regarding sexuality (particularly woman’s sexuality) and sexual intimacy that is looked as some kind of a natural urge which if not controlled might lead to “sexual anarchy”, chaos and “sexual weakness”. Sex is viewed as a tool (just like “religion, drugs and intoxicating drinks”) used by the exploitative classes to “divert” the youth away from revolution.
Divorce though being recognized, yet is not favourably looked at. The disgust to even recognize this democratic right goes to the extent of warning that women may “degenerate into prostitution” if they separate and remarry too many times! By this it reduces marriage only to sex, yet stripping the woman of any desire, emotion or will. At another place, it is argued in one of the most-commonsensical ways, that over-emphasis on sex is leading to a rise in sexual violence and divorce rates in the west!
Once again, it is forgotten that the right to separation and divorce is a battle hard fought and won by women against exploitative relationships and marriages. It seems, for the revolutionary movement, the root of all problems lies in sex, the “úninhibtedness” of which once fought against, will lead to a ‘healthy’ society (Marx must be turning in his grave, and Gandhi would be really proud!). Even when spouses of martyrs are allowed to re-marry, it is only after a lonesome exile from companionship in for a year of recovering from the bereavement. And it is argued that otherwise, they will become a “laughing stock before the people and before fellow comrades.”
Is it because there is a judgment involved regarding such a woman who might begin to like someone in say shorter than a year? Point being in six months or four years, it should be up to the woman. If one says such a restriction is imposed actually on behalf of the woman, to protect her from men, even then such protectionist understanding is certainly male dominated as the woman’s feelings and emotions do not find an iota of space in such a discourse. If there are improper ways and means in which she is being harassed, then the men responsible should be taken to task. But by restricting the woman, it ultimately amounts to nothing but controlling her which also amounts to a moral judgment on her if she does not comply. Are we not in progressive garb actually controlling women to preserve a certain “order” in the rank and file or in the society at large instead of politicizing them and taking any violation seriously?
When a revolutionary movement takes it up to be its moral responsibility to witch-hunt, brand or slander against those who might be living together without marriage, it comes from nowhere but a feudal moralist vantage point which the movement is propagating in the name of “communist values”. Our point here is not to discuss (or “hotly debate”) future forms of marriage, or its retention or eradication. No one can be in a position to comment or predict future forms and the holistic changes to be brought about class struggle (which must necessarily include the fight against patriarchy and caste – at both the material and ideological levels) are bound to open up possibilities hitherto unforeseen. When we argue for or enforce the retention of any institution as it is today, we’ll always end up doing so, not by keeping history as our vantage point, but with a moral frown of today’s morality.
So, instead of wearing the moral lenses of what ought to be and what not, we should rather as Marxists believe that the only thing constant over history is change. The only thing expected of us as conscious political subjects is to move towards a change for the better by being more and more democratic today in every sphere including gender relations. It may even be the case, that a communist party working in areas where the democratization process has not advanced may adopt certain tactical positions on these questions (for instance, advising its cadres who might be living together to tactically project themselves as married). But when our tactical positions themselves become our strategic positions and become the corner stone of our political understanding, it shows the internalization of the very same feudal values that we claim to be fighting against.
When we speak of Communist Values, it is important for us to understand that it cannot be a metaphysical concept that is over and above history. Such values do not drop from the sky and certainly they have not remained constant over the last two centuries. It has evolved through various struggles and a revolutionary party,equipped with Marxist-Leninist understanding, is expected to represent the most advanced consciousness in the society. It can’t afford to be behind the masses, at the same time it shouldn’t be ahead of them. It organizes working class and works among the most oppressed people striving to raise their consciousness to higher levels during struggles for radical social transformation.
However, it’s not a one way process—from top to bottom—movement also learns from the people. It analyses its experiences gained during struggles in the light of the principles of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and arrives at better understanding—an ongoing process of from the masses to the masses. The day it ceases to do that, it runs the risk of getting fossilized in its understanding. It is important to politically educate people and activists against false and seductive notions of freedom and choice propagated by moribund capital in the stage of imperialism. But it is equally crucially important for the revolutionary movement to evolve a thorough analysis of how semi-feudal relations in nexus with moribund capital is sustaining and perpetuating unequal gender relations and patriarchal oppression.
But a short cut or instrumentalist approach to such complex questions will only lead to simplistic conclusions wherein all the gains, aspirations or demands emanating out of democratic struggles against patriarchy will in one stroke be painted as products of “poisonous” “vulgar” “imperialist culture”. And in doing so, we will end up falling back upon the dominant feudal-moralist commonsense and project them as “Communist Values” as is apparent in the documented positions of the revolutionary movement.
In Revolutionary Solidarity
– Anirban, Anubhav, Aswathi, Banojyotsna, Gogol, Priya Dharshini, Reyazul, Rubina, Srirupa, Ufaque, Umar