Revolution #196, March 28, 2010



Challenging Traditional Gender Roles and Sexuality

One of the most important things that emerged in the upheaval of the 1960s (and into the early 1970s), particularly through the more radical currents within the women's movement, was the challenging of traditional gender roles in many different ways. And this, again, owing significantly to economist influences, was not thoroughly taken up and pursued by the emerging communist forces, including the RU (Revolutionary Union) at that time. Even while we did learn some things from this movement and did take up aspects of this, it was not taken up in the kind of central and thorough way it should have been. (This was interconnected with influences of the communist movement internationally and historically, which I will also discuss further through the remaining part of this talk.)

At the same time, and along with this challenging of traditional gender roles, there were many questions of sexuality and sexual liberation that were being brought up by the women's movement: a lot of experimentation, some of which led to dead ends, some resulting in bad ends, as is spoken to in our party's Declaration.1 Nonetheless, very important questions were being raised and answers were being sought in this sphere too. The whole question of emancipating women's sexuality—and that sexuality not being reduced to a "duty" to fulfill men sexually—was a very important dimension of what was being brought forward. But this didn't fit neatly into the views and the tendencies of the communist movement internationally and historically—it was something that, to significantly understate it, was at odds with a lot of the prevailing tradition within the communist movement, which significantly influenced the RU at that time.

And, along with this, in this whole context of throwing into the air and challenging traditional notions and oppressive conventions and mores with regard to sexuality, homosexuality also became a major social question and focus of struggle. And this, as we know, was way outside the pale of what the communist movement historically and internationally was prepared to engage in any kind of way other than to just reject it outright—and this included the RU, and then, for much too long a period, the RCP.

Now, it is true that, while there were, as our Declaration points out, many positive aspects to the sexual exploration and the challenging of tradition with regard to sexuality, and in particular the sexuality of women, which emerged through the upsurge of that time, there were ways, as that Declaration also emphasizes, in which the traditional roles and the traditional domination by men over women reasserted themselves and took advantage of, and turned into their opposite, these attempts to liberate women's sexuality. Notwithstanding these negative aspects, the questions that were being thrown up and the answers that were being sought were extremely important, as we can recognize more clearly now, particularly as we now view things not through a reified and economist understanding of what the proletarian revolution is all about, but understanding it in its fullest expression as (in the words of the Communist Manifesto) the most radical rupture with all traditional ideas, as well as with all traditional property relations. If, at the time of that powerful upsurge, in the 1960s and into the 1970s, we had really understood that fully, and proceeded from that understanding, we would have welcomed and embraced, and scientifically synthesized, what was being brought forward and thrown into the air and wrangled over in the realm of sexuality.

The Communist Movement, Socialist Society and Women's Emancipation—A Critical Overview

This brings me to some important points concerning the history and historical influence of the communist movement on this question—not just the question of sexuality but of gender relations and the woman question more broadly speaking. Here again, I want to emphasize that more definitely needs to be learned about this. But the following are some observations which may, in turn, serve as a part of the framework for further investigation, analysis and synthesis.

Now, not only to be "fair" in some abstract sense, but to be objective and scientific and to recognize what has in fact been the principal aspect of things, some very important fundamental analysis was made by the communist movement with regard to the oppression and the struggle for the liberation of women. Historically new breakthroughs were made, with Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State seminal in this regard. But, at the same time, intermixed with this, within the communist movement, there was from the beginning and there increasingly developed strong currents of economism, nationalism, patriarchy and traditional views and values with regard to women. This took very sharp expression in the Soviet Union over the period in which it was actually a socialist country.

To briefly touch on some important aspects of this, which, again, require further investigation, analysis and synthesis: In the Soviet Union during the period of socialism (from the time of the October 1917 revolution up through the mid-1950s, when capitalism was restored) transformations of a truly major and in some ways quite profound nature were carried out which did qualitatively change the position of women in a positive way and significantly strike at deep-seated inequalities between men and women. We should not ignore or underestimate this.

As part of this, there was some challenging of traditional gender roles in the popular culture as well as in official policy, especially in the 1920s. But there were significant limitations and shortcomings in this, and especially after the 1920s there was not only a lack of continuing to challenge and transform traditional gender relations and roles, but there was, in some aspects, a retreat from this. This is part of a larger phenomenon that we've noted, which was manifested in a number of different dimensions. For example, in the sphere of art and culture there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of throwing things up into the air, particularly in the early years of the Soviet Republic. But then at a certain point, after Stalin's leadership was firmly consolidated, things changed. However, it is necessary to look through a broader lens and not attribute this simply to a single individual. The larger context was set by the view—which did have a basis in reality—that, in the 1930s, and especially as that decade went on, there was a growing danger of imperialist attack on the Soviet Union, and that in any case it was necessary to rapidly industrialize and transform the economy, including in the countryside, or else, as Stalin put it, "we will perish." As this approach was applied, everything tended to get reduced to and funneled into the drive for rapid development of the economy. And to a significant degree, different forms of experimentation in different spheres—whether it was art and culture or the sphere of sexuality and gender relations—tended to be hemmed in and "compressed" within this framework, wherein it was held that the transformation of the economy, viewed essentially as a matter of technology and technological development and transformation, would lay the basis for, if not itself bring about, the elimination of the social relations that remained from the old society.

And then, particularly in the periods more or less directly leading into and during, and then after, World War 2, there were a number of statements from official sources in the Soviet Union that emphasized not only that it was "natural" for women to have a "maternal instinct" and to want to have and rear children, but also that it was their patriotic duty to do so—their duty to the Motherland, as it was formulated.

Now, we should not in this context ignore the objective factors of first the impending and then the actual massive attack on the Soviet Union, with the tremendous loss of life that occurred as a result of the Soviet Union's involvement in World War 2. In various studies I've seen, the estimate of 20 million (which we all sort of grew up with as the standard estimate of the number of Soviet lives lost during World War 2) has actually been challenged from the standpoint of saying that the number was probably even higher; some estimates of 25, 30 or even 40 million are offered, and not by people who are totally out of touch with reality. To emphasize the enormity of this, 20 million, the low estimate, would represent at least 10% of the Soviet population at that time, while 40 million would amount to about 20%—1 out of every 5 Soviet citizens! So it's understandable, on one level, why, in the aftermath of that war, there would be an emphasis on the need to increase the population, and that along with this tendencies to view this as the essential role and contribution of women would be strengthened. This is understandable, but it is not legitimate, justified or acceptable for communists to be putting this forward as their answer to this very real and acute contradiction—the tremendous loss of population as a result of the war.2

Obviously, in the history of the socialist and communist movements up through the experience of the Soviet Union during the period of Stalin's leadership, while again many truly profound changes and great achievements were brought about in relation to the status of women, as well as in other spheres, there remained a salient need for a further radical rupture with regard to the conception of women's role in society and its transformation, including a thorough break with the "motherhood cult" and with traditional gender roles.

As some observers of the Soviet experience (and not only the most overtly anti-communist) have pointed out, with some justification, while there was an advocacy of equality for women—and, it is important to emphasize, very important steps were taken in that direction, in the Soviet Union when it was socialist—there was no fundamental nor consistent effort to educate and mobilize masses to challenge and transform traditional gender roles in any kind of thorough way as part of fully uprooting tradition's chains. And, as one expression of this, increasingly after the early years of the Soviet Republic, the idea of the abolition of the family receded and then all but disappeared and was to a significant degree replaced by glorification of the family as it existed in the Soviet Union—and it was proclaimed that this was a different kind of family, and therefore women's role as mother had a different meaning. This went along with increasingly extolling motherhood in particular, even while this coexisted with significant steps that were being taken to overcome inequality and ways in which women's role had been limited—particularly as this applied to their role in work and the economy—including by removing barriers to women in traditionally male occupations.

In other words, as some have formulated it, there was a conception and even policies moving in the direction of equality for women, but there was no fundamental and consistent challenge to, or effort to transform, traditional gender roles, at least not after the beginning experimentation in the 1920s.3

All this does illustrate the basic point I have been emphasizing: In the Soviet Union, when it was socialist, there were, both in conception and in practice, not only important breakthroughs in terms of overcoming inequality for women in many different spheres, but also, especially in the early years, some challenging of traditional gender roles; but this latter aspect in particular was also in conflict with, and was increasingly giving way to, the assertion of traditional patriarchal views and conventions, along with economist and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union and the international communist movement overall, in which the Soviet Union exerted a great influence.

Now, in China, there were definitely significant advances beyond the Soviet experience, including with regard to the role of women in many different spheres of society. One of the ways this was powerfully expressed was in the sphere of culture, particularly through the course of the Cultural Revolution—with the model opera works and ballets, and so on. And this included a definite element of challenging traditional gender roles in many different spheres.

But still there were significant influences of economism, nationalism, patriarchy and traditional views and values, with regard to gender roles, and especially with regard to sexuality. Let us put it this way: What I referred to earlier, regarding the questions that were being raised and the answers that were being sought in terms of sexuality and, in particular women's sexuality, through the women's liberation movement, and especially its more radical sections, during the 1960s and into the 1970s—that would not have met with great welcome, nor was it embraced at the time, by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. This is something we have to squarely recognize. And, for the most part, this was not welcomed and embraced by new communist forces looking to the Chinese Communist Party at that time, including specifically the RU and then the RCP. I will say that in visiting China in the early 1970s, along with the many tremendously positive things that I took note of and was inspired by, you did get this feeling of a certain heavy atmosphere and some sense of repression with regard to sexuality. And, looking at this in larger perspective, it does seem to have been part of an historical trend in the communist movement with which the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese revolution did not really rupture. This was not something that was unique to, or a specific weakness of, the Chinese revolution in contrast with the communist movement overall.

While, again, there is certainly more to be learned about this, it can be said that, with regard to the sphere of sexuality, in some significant ways for the communist movement overall, and specifically for our party and the RU before it, the question of homosexuality has been emblematic of the weakness of the communist movement and socialist states historically—from the time of Engels, with his unfortunate remarks denigrating homosexuality, up through the Chinese revolution. This, in a significant way, has concentrated a weakness of the communist movement on the question of sexuality more generally, including specifically how this relates to the status, and the struggle for the complete liberation, of women.

The Need and the Basis for a Further Leap and Radical Rupture

So, while again there is definitely more to be learned through further investigation, study, analysis and synthesis, all this does, I believe, establish that there is a need for a further radical rupture, to lay a firmer foundation for really achieving the "4 Alls"4 in their fullest dimension. This has not been given full expression or been fully recognized in the history of the communist movement, including in the history of our party, until very recently when we have begun to seriously address questions from a different and much more radical standpoint.

The change in the position of our party on the question of homosexuality5 is, in very significant measure, a result of what has developed into the New Synthesis, and specifically the method and approach embodied in that New Synthesis. It represents a breaking with trends and tendencies within the communist movement which, to no small degree, have been suffocating of the kind of radical theory and radical movement that communism actually should be and must be. But, in a real sense, this constitutes a beginning, which we need to build on and go much further with—on the basis of a scientific approach and the scientific synthesis of what I referred to earlier as the visceral and the theoretical.

At the same time, the struggle against the oppression of women, aiming at nothing less than the complete and final abolition of this oppression in every form, is also a crucial part of making revolution in the first place, without which there can be no revolution, certainly not one aiming for communism. Building a movement for revolution as powerfully as possible toward the first great leap of the seizure of power and the creation of a new, revolutionary state, empowering people to actually build a new society free of exploitation and oppression—when the conditions for that have been brought into being through the unfolding of the contradictions of the system itself and the conscious, consistent and determined ideological, political and organizational work of the growing ranks of the revolutionary communists—this is what we have to be taking up and proceeding from. Viewed in this light, there is a present and pressing need for further grappling in the realm of theory, analysis and synthesis to deepen our understanding concerning the oppression and the liberation of women—building on and advancing from the work that has been done, in order to learn still more about the origins of the oppression of women, but also about the specific forms this oppression is assuming in today's world as well as the actual material underpinnings and dynamics underlying this—all focused toward a deepened grasp of the necessary conditions for the complete emancipation of women and the role of the struggle around this contradiction as a pivotal and decisive front of the overall struggle for a communist world and the emancipation of humanity as a whole from all oppressive divisions.

1. A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, Revolution #158, March 8, 2009. [back]

2. It should be stressed here that this view, of women's contribution to the country through childbearing, was not unique to Stalin and the Soviet leadership in the time of Stalin. Take, for example, the following statement by German socialist August Bebel in the early part of the 20th century: "A woman who gives birth to children renders, at least, the same service to the commonwealth as the man who defends his country and his hearth with his life against a foe in search of conquest." (From Woman Under Socialism) It is important to stress that this statement by Bebel is made in the context of emphasizing the dangers women face in childbirth, as part of a polemic on behalf of equality for women and in opposition to attempts to limit their role in public life and in contributing to society overall. And this statement by Bebel is not in the same category as the following, made during the same period, by the aggressive champion of American imperialism, Theodore Roosevelt: "But ... the woman who, whether from cowardice, from selfishness, from having a false and vacuous ideal shirks her duty as a wife and mother, earns the right to our contempt just as does the man who, from any motive, fears to do his duty in battle when the country calls him." (Cited in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Second Anchor Books Edition, 2005, p. 209.) Nonetheless, Bebel, like Stalin and other prominent socialist and communist leaders who advocated for and led struggle on behalf of equality for women, was not free of the influence of paternalistic and even patriarchal views toward women. [back]

3. Footnote by author: In this connection, as part of research on this question, I came across a reference to a book which I haven't yet read—and therefore I can't evaluate the book overall—but the passage referred to did seem to be making an important point. This book is Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender and Propaganda During World War II, by Maureen Honey (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1984). It appears to be comparing the experience in the U.S. (as attested to by the reference to Rosie the Riveter) and in the Soviet Union in the context of the second world war, and it identifies some significant similarities, it seems, between the two: the situation where (although estimates are that in the Soviet Union nearly a million women did take part in guerrilla warfare and other forms of military activity in fighting the Nazis, which is different than the U.S.) with large numbers of men in the military, women increasingly, in the Soviet Union—and in a new way, in some senses, in the U.S.—were fulfilling roles in the economy which men had traditionally occupied and from which women had generally been barred. But there was a way in which—even in the Soviet Union, and not just in the U.S.—this role of women in production, along with their role as mothers, was presented not only (and in the U.S. particularly, not so much) as a matter of rights and equality but also as a matter of duty, and more specifically patriotic duty to the country. This is something which is worth pursuing further. [back]

4. Earlier in the talk, Avakian describes the "4 Alls": "This is the goal around which people must be brought forward: the advance to communism, the achievement of what we refer to as the '4 Alls,' as they were popularized in China at the time of Mao: the abolition of all class distinctions, the abolition of all the production (or economic) relations on which these class distinctions rest, the abolition of all the social relations corresponding to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations." [back]

5. For a discussion of the RCP's position on homosexuality, and the development of that position, involving a major, qualitative change in its views on this question, see "On the Position on Homosexuality in the New Draft Programme," RCP Publications, 2001. See also Bob Avakian and Bill Martin, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Open Court, 2005), especially chapter 21, "Sexuality and Homosexuality." [back]

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