Building a Feminist Left

JUNE 12, 2008


In 2007, I started giving speeches about the need for a feminist left. (Some of my younger friends have told me this terminology is dated and I need to say feminist progressive movement—so I mean that too.) The version below is a speech I gave at the Flora Tristan Center in Peru in June, 2008, in the middle of the Democratic primary campaign. The situation on the ground has changed since then—somewhat— as a result of the election and the forces built up by the Obama campaign, but the basic analysis remains.


            I am one of a fairly small group of US women who are strongly feminist but also still see themselves as socialists. My study of US women’s history has convinced me that women’s movements do best in periods of general progressive ferment when the left is also strong. This has not been the situation in the US since the seventies. 

US conditions
            Is there still a US left? Barely.  There are some leftwing media: magazines ranging from The Nation and Mother Jones to small sectarian or youth publications, leftwing websites and elists, Pacifica radio and Democracy Now, and innumerable blogs. There is a small antiwar movement led by United for Peace and Justice and some feminist antiwar work being led by Code Pink. There are a few Marxist sects left over from earlier periods. There are small queer groups doing organizing within their communities, some with an important history of militant activism on HIV-Aids. There are many local grassroots groups working on issues like economic justice or education reform, doing community organizing or organizing immigrant workers. A lot of these groups have women in leadership and are doing very interesting work, but they are strapped for funds and can’t reach very far beyond their own networks and communities. They have not yet had much impact on organized labor though there are still some leftists in the labor movement, giving it what backbone and initiative it has.            
            There is also the beginning of a new student movement; it is too soon to say what it will amount to. There is a potentially massive but scared movement for immigrant rights, which brought together impressive national marches three years ago, under the politically ambiguous leadership of the Catholic Church, but it was met by a huge anti-immigrant campaign and punitive raids by the government, and has since receded.  And there is a vast new groundswell of popular energy around electoral politics, particularly activism by young people working for Barack Obama.
            But the two main things that give a leftwing movement authority and cohesion—a national organization and a clear set of ideas people can unite on—are completely absent in the US. The level of discussion is low; what debates there are tend to be academic and unproductive.   In short, the US left has not yet found a way to recover from the twin blows of the Eighties, the collapse of communism and the right wing political offensive.
            At one point the theory was that, even though we had no leftwing multi-issue national organization or party, the new social movements—the women’s movement, queer movement, black movement, Latino movement, Asian American movement, Native American movement, workers movement, etc. etc—would fill in the gap. But all these movements have been affected by the overwhelming conservative climate of the last twenty five years, which pushed them into a defensive posture. They have had to struggle so hard to keep whatever gains they had made, like abortion rights and affirmative action, that they haven’t had the room to think how to move forward. In this climate, left wing people were not able to successfully conduct the internal debates and struggles necessary to build a broad democratic base, a clear unified program, or class conscious leadership within any of the new social movements.
            Such debate is badly needed because most of these organizations are bureaucratic and top-down, shaped by careerism and Washington politics.  Their organizational culture is corporate: they concentrate on fundraising, and think in terms of branding and building their own prestige and market share, not of building a broad movement.  
            The mainstream women’s organizations, for instance, like NOW, the Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Political Caucus have big budgets to meet; they are looking for visibility that will help them raise money, and most have been utterly shaped by interaction with the state, so their perspective is always: what will help with lobbying, what will help in the next election.  Their political allegiance belongs to the Democratic Party rather than to any mass base of women.  
            Of course building a broad, democratic, diverse women’s movement would help with electoral and legislative goals, in the long run. But, even if one could leave aside issues of ego and control, mainstream feminists tend to see efforts to build a broad movement as competing with efforts to build their own organization. These women and their organizations are the public face of feminism in my country; the face is white, old, and corporate. As a result, most young women and women of color say they can’t relate to the feminist movement, even though they may have feminist ideas of their own. 
            But the political climate is now changing. In the last few years, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and now the election have created new conditions for redefining the feminist movement. This is clear in the debates around the Democratic Party nomination, where black and leftwing women have spoken out strongly against the Clinton campaign’s attempt to speak for them. In other words, in the US, the election has brought questions of class and race to the fore and given us the opportunity to ask what kind of women’s movement we need, though we are a long way from asking the question in an organized way.
            I believe, that for the US, the answer to the question, what do we need, is that we need to build a feminist left. That is, can we take all we have learned as feminists in the last forty years and integrate it with things the left used to know, but has largely forgotten? The project of integrating feminism and the left is key in this period, because women are a central focus of the great dynamic conflict of our time, the conflict between globalized capitalist modernization, led by US prophets of the free market, and the nationalist, religious and ethnic rightwing identity movements that burst from the ruins of the Cold War system in 1989. To trace the development of this contradiction, let’s go back to 1989.
The Central Contradiction
            Like 1968, 1989 was one of those years when all the social and economic contradictions that have been building up for a long time come to the surface in a great explosion of popular energy.   The Cold War ended and the peoples of Eastern Europe rejected not only Soviet domination but communism itself. A similar democratic upsurge in China was crushed by tanks but, except in China, 1989 was mainly a year of hopefulness and talk about a “peace dividend.” In South Africa, the government began secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela in prison that would lead to the end of apartheid, giving blacks political leadership though leaving the underlying white controlled economic structure unchanged. In Latin American, the end of the era of dictators was signaled by democratic elections in Chile and Brazil.
            But, rather than initiating an era of peace dividends and democratization, the fall of communism led to a conservative surge across the board as national liberation politics, previously leftwing, began to morph into right wing identity politics. The following events all happened in 1989: The Taliban moved into the vacuum left by departing Soviet troops. The Ayatollah Khomenei proclaimed a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie that led to a global mobilization of Islamic fundamentalists. Slobodan Milosevic consolidated his rise to power with a speech in Kosovo, appealing to Serbian nationalism. The Hindu fundamentalists of Shiv Sena tore down the Ayodha Mosque in India and hundreds died in the Hindu-Muslim riots that followed. In the United States, Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition as the organizational center of a drive by Protestant Evangelicals to transform the Republican Party into the defender of family values against liberal elites and their degenerate cultural practices.
            Without an opponent to hold them in check, the prophets of the free market also went on the offensive. Working through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, they began to push open the markets of the world to Northern capital.   The conflict between these two political forces, free market globalization and right wing identity movements, which came to the surface in 1989, has shaped world politics since.
            I am not going to say very much about globalization because I think people in Peru probably understand it better than I do. Suffice it to say that all the kinds of labor traditionally belonging to women, including childcare and care of the aged, have become commodities to be bought and sold on a global market.  Globalization has increased women’s market value and given them a chance to get away from clan, father, home, just as the capitalism of earlier periods drew women from the countryside into the industrial economy, for better and for worse. For better in that women acquire the means to individual identities and autonomy. For worse in that they are subject to the most violent forms of exploitation, as garment or electronics workers in chained to their machines, as sex workers controlled by criminals, as indentured imported domestics, as migrant farm workers whose health is destroyed by pesticides, as illegals who can be deported at the snap of a finger, leaving their children behind. In all these ways, women have become central to the whole project of global economic integration and modernization. 
            But women are also central to the projects of right wing identity movements.   Whether these movements are nationalist, fundamentalist, or ethnic, they all invoke a dream of homogeneous ancient communities ruled by male elders; they all rally their troops by making war on neighboring ethnic or religious groups; they all use violence as their main tool. Control of women is central to these movements: girls are murdered just for going to school; women are forbidden to work outside the home even if they are the sole support of their families; women are stoned to death if they are accused of adultery; girls are killed by relatives if they go out with the wrong boy. In fact, the furious energy with which many right wing identity movements contest the American empire has a lot to do with fear of losing control over women.  
            Why have right wing identity movements become so strong since 1989? Two reasons are usually given. 1) With the removal of Soviet pressure, nationalist and religious identity movements that had been building up steam for decades blew the lid off the pressure cooker. 2) With globalization, capitalist forms of organization and capitalist values—defined as Western— are now penetrating to the most remote areas, bringing their values, media, and seductions to threaten traditional ways of life and undermine local economies. This upsets traditional male elites. But there is a third reason: 3) the success of the global women’s movement, which, despite setbacks and massive cooptation, has been growing in strength for the last twenty years and reached a peak with the 1994 Cairo conference and the 1995 Beijing conference, which set off alarm bells in traditionalist enclaves from the Vatican to Saudi Arabia to Borough Park, NY.
            The global women’s movement’s impact in the Nineties created rising expectations and increasing assertiveness in women all over the world, and led to real gains. Some countries (India, France, Sweden, most of the countries in Latin America) passed rules mandating quotas for women in their legislatures. Women moved into jobs previously reserved for men and, with increased income, were more able to leave brutal or unsatisfactory marriages. Women even tried to gain access to land ownership, which is still reserved for men in many parts of the world, and succeeded in some places to a limited extent.
            The global women’s movement also insisted that human rights are indivisible and apply in the home as well as in the public square. That means the rule of law must be strong enough to break down the historic divide between public and private and bring matters like genital mutilation, domestic violence, incest, forced marriage, mistreatment of widows, and honor killings into the open. Since the family is the last stronghold of traditional male authority, attempts to give women equal rights and protection under the law are enormously threatening, and rightwing identity movements have fiercely resisted such change in the name of tradition, religious dogma, or defense of the family.
Building A Feminist Left
            Because control of women is so important to both globalization and right wing identity movements, defense of women’s social and economic rights must become central to the left. It is impossible to challenge rightwing identity movements effectively without opposing their view of women, sex, and the family, and embracing a feminist vision of the world that is not structured on the basis of dominance, exploitation, and war. Any leftwing movement that hopes to meet today’s political challenges must grasp that fact and learn from feminism. 
            But US feminists need a stronger left just as much as the left needs us, to give us a base from which to fight tendencies to elitism and conservatism that are so strong in our women’s movement.  We need to build a new kind of movement in the US, one that understands the importance of women’s labor and of social reproduction to this stage of capitalism, and will mobilize to fight both globalization and rightwing attacks on women. Such a movement will have to address three questions: ideology, program, and organization.
1) Ideology
            In the US, it has been almost impossible to use the language of Marxism or socialism, or even to talk about the need for social transformation, since 1989. Even before the end of the Cold War it wasn’t easy to talk about these things, because capitalism is extremely strong in the US, but now we don’t even know what language to use.   This problem is clear in the language of the Obama campaign. I believe that Obama is a genuinely progressive force, and his campaign has given me more hope than anything I have seen in the US since the Seventies. But its language and ideas are very simple—“We want change!” “Yes, we can.” There is some questioning about the place of the US in the world, some talk about the need for government intervention when market forces fail, but no real analysis. Part of that is because US culture is always very pragmatist, and of course his campaign is being very careful because they are already being red-baited and race-baited. But a lot of the problem is the lack of a useable language to describe what we want. The language of Marxist socialism was discredited by decades of Stalinist practice and we have not yet developed any other.
            The most lively discussion of alternative ways of living and seeing politics are coming from environmentalists who are trying to push us to deal with the environmental crisis—a terrifying crisis that it is almost impossible to imagine the world meeting with sufficient urgency. In the synthesis between environmentalism and feminism, a new paradigm is beginning to emerge, one that departs from the politics of binary opposition and transformation through force that have been so central to Western political philosophy, including Marxism. This new paradigm has a different kind of goal of transformation, one that will enable us to keep living on the earth, through methods not of dominance but of equilibrium and sustainability. Different forms of these ideas can be found in the writings of feminist philosophers, historians, and anthropologists, in environmental and ecological analyses by both men and women, and in the science fiction of visionary writers like Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. These ideas are only just beginning to penetrate the more official discourse of politics and policy. Finding ways to explore them and see how they fit in with earlier political paradigms, and with social justice, is part of the task we face.
2) Program
            A feminist left would need a written program saying what it stands for. Beyond that it would need projects that exemplify a commitment to serve the people, to help people deal with their real life problems, address the real contradictions in their lives, and understand that the personal is political. Serving the people is not social work but programs to meet people’s everyday needs, whether these needs be for food, clothing, housing, health insurance, adult education, daycare centers and after school programs, abortion clinics, better public schools, walk-in health services. One reason the churches are doing so much better than the left in my country is that they provide food, clothing and shelter as well as a coherent ideology.  
            A feminist left would have to build alternative spaces, liberated territories, places where people can reorganize their lives, where they can talk through issues of family, sexuality, gender, violence, incest and child abuse, and get support in dealing with those problems. Building such alternative free spaces is also part of a long term strategy of creating sites of dual power in the process of working towards a situation of direct challenge to the system.
            This is a very different model of providing services than the current NGO model of funded programs that act essentially like an arm of the government. It is also different from the state socialist model of demanding that the government provide all the social services we need. In the long run, yes, the government should provide for its citizens’ welfare but in periods like the present, where that idea is laughable, the left has to find ways of providing for some social needs itself: providing the education not available in school, the protection from foreclosure not coming from the government, the health insurance that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In earlier periods of US history, when the left was more organized, we knew how to do these things. 
            1) Before World War I, when the Socialist Party was a mass movement, it placed great emphasis on education. In the days before radio or TV, socialist speakers, many of whom were women, crisscrossed the land, staying at comrades’ houses, giving free speeches and selling literature at every place the train stopped. In the summers, there were socialist encampments in the Kansas and Oklahoma territories; people would come from as far as sixty miles away, many with covered wagons they would stay in for weeks, getting an education, reading, meeting people.
            2) The Farmers’ Holiday movement arose in the depths of the Depression in 1932 when prices fell so low rural people were literally starving and losing their farms. To limit supply and raise the price of their crops, they called strikes and burnt corn in the fields. They blockaded roads to prevent the food from getting to market. When the banks foreclosed on a neighbor’s farm, everyone would show up at the auction but there would be only one bid, say, five cents. The bank had to sell to the highest bidder who would give the farmer back his land.
            3) The International Workers Order was a federation of language groups affiliated with the Communist Party. At its largest, in the 1940s, it reached 200,000 members. The biggest branch was the Yiddish one, based in NY.   They had a large school, with classes on Marxism, literature, English, attended by housewives and workers from the garment industry. They set up IWO health and dental clinics to give their members medical care, ran their own cemeteries, had a summer camp, Camp Kinderland. And they established the first nonprofit health insurance program, which was so successful the for-profit insurance industry got it closed down during the McCarthy Period. 
3) Organization
            For a movement to be able to have this kind of broad program, it needs national organizations. Only with organization can you get a division of labor that allows people to concentrate on one or two issues or projects, and know that they are all working together towards a greater goal. The problem in the US is, our historical experience of organizations has been so deformed by sexism, racism, bureaucracy, sectarianism, and Stalinism that many people—including my generation of feminists—decided it was better to have as little organization as possible. We threw out the baby with the bathwater. 
            The question is not, how to do without organization, but how to build organizations that are democratic, transparent, and as flat in structure as possible and still give us the coordination we need to carry out our program.   What would a feminist left form of organization be like?   I don’t have a blueprint but here are a few thoughts:
            A feminist left organization would have a deep commitment to democracy, to listening, to bringing new and diverse people into leadership. It would have a bottom up style of work, with methods to make sure people in leadership at every level listened to the grassroots.
            It would work on movement principles not NGO principles. It would not depend on funding from major donors or from foundations but would tithe and depend on volunteer work. Its processes would be transparent and its staff would not earn huge amounts at the top and starvation pay at the bottom. The job of staff would be to carry out the mandate from members and motivate and help organize them, not replace them.
            It would value study but consciously draw its theory from practice, and struggle against sectarianism and dogmatism. It would fight to overcome the division between mental and manual work, between speaking and writing and working with ideas, and doing outreach, organizing, and office work. 
            It would be internationalist in theory and practice, with a commitment to fighting racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice against transgender people. It would fight these things in the world and inside its own organizations but fight them by emphasizing program and interaction and education not by fetishizing language.
            I think that, for US feminists, the task is to begin the intellectual work and debate necessary to prepare the groundwork for a feminist left. We have to formulate the basic questions: what do we want? How can we construct a new narrative? What language do we use?
            In most periods, feminists have not seen it as their task to try to work out a strategy for the left as a whole; we have concentrated on the needs of women.  But, even in the US, with all its limitations, the women’s movement achieved a lot in the last thirty years and has shown considerable staying power. Maybe it’s time for us to take responsibility for the left. I believe we can only address the needs of women effectively by doing so.