Our Critique of the Revolutionary Movement’s Perspective of Gender and Patriarchy (Part 3)
In 2004, during a dialogue, organised in Hyderabad, between women’s organizations and the representatives of the revolutionary movement, the issue of lack of women’s representation at the level of political and intellectual leadership in the revolutionary movement was raised by many activists (EPW November 6, 2004). They argued that although the participation of women in the movement had increased significantly over the last several decades their representation in the leadership was alarmingly insignificant. In response, the representatives of the movement candidly accepted the presence of ‘patriarchal orientations’ within the party, largely because the consciousness of members is shaped by the backgrounds from which they come.
The other problem which they identified was women’s inability to transcend ‘family ideology’ preventing them from taking up the roles of political and intellectual leadership. They also stated that “it is easier to eliminate imperialism and feudalism than to eliminate patriarchy”. (EPW November 6, 2004) But why? Is patriarchy a spectre in our mind, which can only be exorcised but cannot be fought and defeated? Isn’t patriarchy a product of history, which, currently in our context, has been constituted by, just as it has simultaneously been constitutive of, imperialist and feudal forces? Assumption here is that women cannot be independent political agents capable of leading the revolutionary movement because the patriarchal ideology does not allow them to come out of their own immediacy. Let’s first discuss the contentious and complex question of human agency, particularly of women’s agency, before coming back to the issue of women’s representation in the leadership
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx writes, “people make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” History could not have progressed without people having agency. But the agency of people is always constrained and mediated by the ideological, political and material circumstances in which they live. Throughout history, people, collectively as well as in their individual capacity, have always resisted and fought against the exploitation and oppression of the ruling classes. These struggles, however, have always been complex and multi-layered because the ruling classes in every era have controlled not only the means of material production but also the means of ideological production.
Thus, in every social formation, the dominant ideas, values and morality serve the interests of ruling classes by legitimizing existing oppressive and exploitative social relations by representing them as natural and therefore inevitable. Although violence or threat of violence constitute the ultimate means in the hands of ruling classes to maintain their control and domination, the stability and continuity of any social formation also depend on the internalization of dominant ideas, values and morality by the oppressed classes. Class struggles are always fought at both material and ideological level giving rise to a different set of values and morality which are always in contradiction with the ruling class ideology. Human agency is shaped not only by existing material circumstances but also by the conflicting ideas, values and morality of the contending classes. Human agency, therefore, is always a product of class struggles, or in other words of history.
In Indian sub-continent , the consciousness of people is shaped not only by the cocktail of feudal and imperialist values but also by the democratic values emerging out of various struggles such as Tebhaga, Telangana, Naxalbari movement, working class struggles, Dalit movement, women’s movement, struggles of oppressed nationalities, the LGBTIQ movements and numerous other quotidian struggles and movements. But in reality these conflicting sets of values and morality exist simultaneously in people influencing their actions and practices in significant ways. Moreover, the dominant values and morality exert powerful influence on the consciousness of the oppressed people, who somewhere also internalize the very logic of their own exploitation and oppression. The system of brahminical feudal patriarchy in India, which exists in active collaboration with big capital, is not different. In our context then how do we look at women’s agency? Do they really have any agency? Yes, women do have agency. They have different kinds of agencies, which are determined by the ideological, political and material circumstances in which they live. For the purpose of this pamphlet let’s conceptually divide women’s agencies into two different categories although in reality they do not exist separately.
First, the ‘status quoist agency’, which, consciously or unconsciously, tends to accept the dominant feudal patriarchal structure. Although this kind of agency remains oppressed and exploited, it receives various kinds of token ‘reward’ by the patriarchal system and enjoys limited power & status such as “good or virtuous woman”, “sacrificing mother”, “devoted wife” etc. Second, the ‘progressive agency’, which consciously questions and fights against unequal gender relations and patriarchy. It invariably faces backlash from the dominant feudal and patriarchal forces. Violence or threat of violence against this kind of agency constitutes the overt manifestation of this backlash. However, the other covert and subtle, but equally violent manifestations of this backlash are often wilfully ignored or not taken seriously by left democratic and revolutionary movements.
Women who raise their voice against patriarchy and demand equality and freedom or assert themselves are often branded as “loose” and “immoral” women facing worst kind of slander and gossip. It is important to understand that branding, slander and gossip against women and other oppressed genders, which vitiate their social space and affect their mobility and psychological well-being, are serious forms of sexual violence/harassment. However, what is most disconcerting is that these forms of violence are not the sole preserve of right wing forces, but it’s equally rampant in left democratic and revolutionary circles.
There is a tendency in the revolutionary movement to brand women, who raise questions against patriarchy, unequal gender relations, sexual violence, institutions of marriage and family, as ‘free sex theorists’ or ‘bourgeois feminists’, who by promoting imperialist culture consciously blunt class struggle. The bogus and obnoxious usage of the term ‘free sex theory’ in the documented perspectives of the movement, equips leaders (invariably male) and cadres to brand, slander and gossip against women activists who raise difficult questions. The responses that have come so far (by DSU-Bihar, Inquilabi Chatra Morcha-Allahabad University and Bhagat Singh Chatra Morcha-BHU) to our resignation aptly demonstrate this. Rather than even once quaintly attempting to engage with the questions that have been raised by us, we have been in turn branded of promoting ‘uninhibited love’, and ‘uninhibited sex’ that would lead to ‘sexual anarchy’.
In our campus, the right wing unable to come to terms with the relative democratization because of the students’ movement often resorts to such branding, slander and gossip against progressive-democratic organisations, especially women activists. But why are DSU-Bihar, ICM and BCM prisoners of the same feudal-moralist anxieties? Consider, for example the following lines in ICM-BCM’s response – “Boys and girls who are not even allowed to look at each other in their homes, here they can roam around as well as live together. One of the consequences of this, amongst other things, is coming in the form of uninhibited sexual relations. And in many places this has become a big problem for organisations.” (https://web.facebook.com/inqalabichhatra.morchaicm/posts/1701916596760293) And this monster, i.e., the possibility of two comrades being together, is condemned as unacceptable in more than one place!
Our attempt to locate sexual violence in the unequal power relations between different genders rooted in feudal patriarchal structure and not in the false binary of pre-marital/marital relationship has made them accuse us of promoting ‘capitalist brothels’ (i.e. live in relations!) where women inevitably get exploited. They label ‘elite’ women as victims of their false consciousness, because according to ICM-BCM unlike women from middle and toiling classes ‘elite women’ do not see consensual pre-marital relationships as the exploitation of their “natural sexual desire by men”! All the questions that we have raised – of violence, control, moral policing and domination – have been branded as emanating from “our class positions” and “problems of our personal relationships” with “no relevance for the vast masses of toiling women” (unlike their male protectionist “proletarian/communist values”).
It so often happens that any attempt to question the deeply entrenched patriarchy and the power relations behind gender oppression stokes up amongst conservative forces such apocalyptic fears of ‘sexual anarchy’. Feminists, for raising questions regarding violence, marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc., have often faced such backlash and branding from reactionary forces. But the irony becomes far too blatant when those calling themselves progressive and even revolutionary resort to the same tactics. In the usage of these terms by DSU-Bihar, ICM and BCM, the insinuations and the misogynist and patriarchal branding of those raising these questions are not too difficult to ignore. This branding has the effect of not only side-tracking difficult questions, but also simultaneously isolating those raising them, especially women activists by portraying them as depraved, degenerate, loose women and “bourgeois feminists promoting free sex theory”!
Activists in any organisation come with several societal baggages, but the revolutionary movement is supposed to make them shed and unlearn these problematic traits. But on this question, the movement not only fortifies commonsensical notions but actively emboldens leaders and cadres to slander, brand, gossip and resort to character-assassination or moral policing and thereby isolate those who raise these questions. Such a patriarchal undemocratic understanding in theory can only spawn a male protectionist & anti-woman approach in practice. And particularly when this understanding masquerades as MLM with Marxist jargons & rhetoric, then such blatant & obnoxious instances of branding and slander far from being even identified as anti-woman are much rather in fact encouraged.
In 2004, the leadership of the revolutionary movement accepted that patriarchal orientation also exists in the movement. Although the participation of women in the revolutionary movement has increased phenomenally in the last few decades, their representation in political and intellectual leadership still remains very insignificant. In that case, isn’t it possible that the manner in which the larger society tries to control and patronize women might also exist in the revolutionary movement? Isn’t it possible that the revolutionary movement, due to its commonsensical/feudal moralist understanding of patriarchy, provides space to only those women who agree with this perspective and accept subordinate positions? Isn’t it possible that the trickle that might make it to middle-rank or some level of prominence is made possible only at the cost of the fight against the deeply entrenched patriarchy?
The leadership in communist movements, in the initial period, has always come from the petty bourgeois section. And we understand the historical necessity of it. However, in the last few decades thousands of women from petty bourgeois background have actively participated in the revolutionary movement. Why then they have not been able to rise up to the leadership position barring one or two exceptions? Is it because men form petty bourgeois background immediately ‘de-class’ themselves and become true communist revolutionaries while women are unable to transcend their ‘family ideology’? Or is it because most of these women become ‘free sex theorists’ and thereby ‘imperialist agents’? Or is it because the misogynist, feudal and patriarchal elements within the movement vitiates the space for those women, who raise questions against patriarchy and male domination, by indulging in worst kinds of branding, slander and gossip against them? Whether through the “purging” of those who raise questions or through the promotion of only those who remain silent,the ultimate casualty is the battle against patriarchy.
Justice is central to the process of real democratization. Patronization and control can never ensure real political participation of women and other oppressed genders in the revolutionary movement. The movement must treat women and other oppressed genders as political agents. The democratization of the revolutionary movement is a process, which is integrally linked with the larger struggles to democratize society in general. But then democratization does not happen on its own. Conscious efforts have to be made in this direction. In the context of fight against patriarchy within and outside, the revolutionary movement must first of all recognize branding, slander and gossip against women and other oppressed genders as serious forms of sexual violence/harassment for which those responsible should be taken to task. The real democratization of the revolutionary movement cannot be achieved simply through political education; justice should also be integral to this process. When women and other oppressed genders face sexual harassment/violence, blame should not simply be placed on imperialist culture, which can be rectified by political (read moral) education. Sexual harassment/violence is a crime of power embedded in exploitative and oppressive social relations and it should be addressed as such by ensuring justice.
So, what could be the correct approach towards fighting patriarchy and democratizing gender relations? We, over the last three pamphlets have largely provided a critique of a serious lacuna in the revolutionary movement’s understanding of the same. In other words we have largely concentrated upon what is certainly not the correct approach. We have also stated why. We have emphasized for any meaningful engagement, it is imperative that we consider the fight against patriarchy not in isolation but as internal to class struggle. We have not, neither is it feasible for us to provide a comprehensive alternative perspective sitting in one university space. Rather, a recognition of the political differences and a democratic space for debate based on politics could have been a good beginning.
But, far from engaging in any such debate, far from providing any space for difference of opinions, what we witnessed was a steady shrinking of that space and a virulent spate of slander, branding and witch-hunting which finally forced us to resign from DSU. Even in the responses till now that have attempted to respond to our questions, rather than any self-reflection or even an attempt at engagement, there has only been a hardening of the same feudal-moralist positions and a branding of the questions as well as those raising them. We have and we will continue to raise our political differences with the conviction that these are extremely important questions, which the revolutionary movement must sincerely deliberate upon. It must, because, with such a patriarchal, feudal-moralist, male-protectionist and patronizing understanding on the crucial question of gender and patrarichy, there can no democratization or revolutionary social transformation.
In Revolutionary Solidarity
—-Anirban, Aswathi, Anubhav, Banojyotsna, Gogol, Priya Dharshini, Srirupa, Reyazul, Rubina, Ufaque, Umar.