Feminism and Nationalism


For years I and those with Kaypakkaya-ish views on the Kurdish national question have been accused of “Kurdish nationalism”, mostly by people who are unaware of their own unacknowledged Turkish or Arab nationalism sublated into their purportedly humanitarian, socialist, or otherwise “progressive” ideology. The answer to this, not only from us, but from many Kurds who are not Marxist-Leninists, is that they are not nationalists, but supporters of Kurdish national rights, of Kurdish national liberation as a meaningful struggle, etc.

This distinction is important, as the nationalist places at the centre of their world a nation, ignoring its internal contradictions, an error we must be very careful not to fall into. Although I am often accused of ignoring, for example, class contradictions among nations whose bourgeoisies are not hegemonic within a given state, I do consider this quite frequently, it’s simply that, in many contexts, a more powerful nation’s bourgeoisie has forced some sections of certain nation’s bourgeoisies into a progressive historical position, however temporarily.

What does this have to do with feminism?

Marxist-Leninists I know often likewise state that they are “not feminists, but support women’s rights”, or “not feminists, but support women’s liberation”. I must state that I first learned these formulas from women comrades, some of whom are quite fierce on women’s issues and work with bourgeois feminists on all manner of important issues. Thus, I do not claim that there is something anti-woman about these formulas.

However, I claim that there is a difference in how denials of “feminism” and denials of “nationalism” are employed in practice, even when a Marxist-Leninist who is both a man and a member of the oppressor nation is talking. The difference takes two forms, one is subjective, and the other objective.

Firstly, speaking on behalf of men Marxist-Leninists, I believe we are harsher on feminists than nationalists. I think as men we have a tendency to be less conscious of chauvinistic language employed against women than chauvinistic language employed against oppressed nations. I think we are quicker to call any manifestation of women’s struggle for liberation “bourgeois feminism” than we are to call manifestations of the struggle against national oppression “bourgeois nationalism”. I think we are more conscious of the need to recruit proportionately or (even better) disproportionately many oppressed nationals to our organisations than we are to recruit women.

Worst of all, of course, when women are recruited in an appropriate number to an organisation, all too often it is because some are being groomed for sex by abusive, charismatic men cadres. Relatedly, we are quicker to form national sections of a party in a multi-national state than women’s sections, even though strong women’s sections are crucial to keeping abusive men cadres in line, as they too are products of the patriarchal social order which has been with humans since the formation of class society.

This is all quite ironic, because, objectively, feminism is less dangerous than nationalism. One can easily imagine a currently oppressed nation will be liberated from the national oppression, will gain their national rights, etc., but the struggle will end there and this new national state might have very weak dynamics of social struggle, as happened with so many countries around the world. Some nation’s proletariats, consequently, become deradicalised by the release of pressure brought about by the end of a particularly violent national oppression, and although they remain exploited and oppressed in many ways unrelated to their specific national belonging, accept the propaganda of their “own” triumphant bourgeoisie, which seeks class peace so it may dominate its “own” market.

However, there has never been a bourgeois matriarchal state. The “woman-state” is an impossibility under capitalism, and indeed, feminists in general do not seek it, but seek an impossible total equality (impossible because capitalism is founded on inequality and exploitation). Therefore, it would seem obvious that just as we position ourselves on the frontlines of national liberation in spite of this meaning we find ourselves allied with bourgeois nationalists, we must be unafraid to position ourselves in contexts where bourgeois feminists hold sway, and be able to recruit from within those millieus.

If we are “too hard on feminists”, and need to not keep them “at arm’s length”, as I claim we do, why not simply follow the lead of various “Marxist” groups who proudly proclaim their organisations to be “feminist” (although often these declarations are quite hollow, as these groups have no meaningful contribution to progress on women’s liberation for women outside the movement to see, whether quantitative or qualitative, whether on bourgeois evolutionary or proletarian revolutionary terms)? As I said, precisely for the same reasons I gave for not referring to ourselves as “nationalists” of oppressed nations: There is a meaningful distinction between supporting “kinds of liberation [that we advocate as revolutionary socialists]” and centralising the identity of a particular site of oppression [in a narcissistic way that might deserve to be scornfully called “identity politics”].

We should not claim to be “against” feminists, but this label, like “nationalist” should be reserved for general currents in which our organisations can take part. One can claim that “the Kurdish movement” in Turkey is “nationalist”, and we, as supporters of national liberation, should not attack them on these grounds, but it is a meaningful distinction between us and them that for us, Kurdistan is a particularity, while national liberation is a universal, part of our conception of our stage of history, etc. etc.

Likewise, women’s rights movements, even of oppressor nations in imperialist countries can and should be worked with in some contexts, and in the case where the general trend is “bourgeois” and “oppressive” (as with the sort of “feminism” that lauds Theresa May), one can still build a counter-hegemony that will include some university “feminists”. We need to be able to operate within their struggle, both to advance women’s rights on principle in the particular social context, and pragmatically to articulate our views and intervene in that context on behalf of our understanding of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as a basis for struggling for human liberation as a concept. This is as true when women are struggling “as feminists” as when Palestinians are struggling “as Palestinians”, and in all the areas where the totality of capitalist society’s underlying contradictions rise to the surface in myriad ways: In the final instance, we are not for the oppressed and the exploited because of the specific form of their identity, but in the first instance, they experience their oppression and exploitation through the lens of manifold identities.

What felt odd to me about writing this rant is, thankfully, I see a trend of establishing stronger women’s sections, of pushing women more and more into leadership by “positive discrimination”, of “decent” men remaining less silent in the face of abuses of women comrades by men comrades. While writing, I had a premonition of young Marxist-Leninists reading it, and saying “so what? we knew all this”, or even interpreting me as trying to prove my “pro-woman” credentials while finding a more insidious way to call feminism “bourgeois” (this is not my position and I think it would be a bad faith reading to understand what I wrote that way, even if one is not a convinced communist).

And yet, both in Turkey and in the UK, and I suspect in the US although I have not born witness to it as concretely, there is a trend of Marxists pushing a “feminist” line, neither in the traditional “right deviationist” sense of simply becoming indistinguishable from bourgeois feminists, nor as a mere cover for agitation and propaganda among women, but rather as a means of defending other positions which do much to reinforce the stereotype of the conservative Brezhnevite “Communist Party” with a condescending tone towards minority groups who dare to fall out of step with the ideological majority identity in “proletarian” costume.

Yes, apparently Marxists are dedicating considerable time to articulating the claim that there is a “problem” with trans people, that they are some “obstacle” to everyone else’s (!) liberation. Therefore, as I had intended to do ever since the publication of the above-linked Morning Star piece, I will be writing a rant on my observations of the dialectics of gender in capitalist society. If nothing else seems more pressing, that will be my next blog post.

Until next time…


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