Paramita Banerjee interrogates the limits of political correctness and the adaptability of Marxist feminism to situations that are paradoxical and multifarious …
The English word ‘radical’ can be used both as an adjective and as a noun. Derived from the Latin word ‘radix’, meaning ‘root’ – this English word can imply either something, like a view, which is extreme, or someone who holds such a view, i.e. an extremist. But whatever the part of speech, if all the assigned meanings of the word are considered, one thing becomes evident: to be radical is to be challenging the prevalent, the status quo. In political discourse, radicalism refers to political principles aimed at fundamental changes in social structures and value systems with thorough and far-reaching effects. Radicalism, therefore, signifies a departure from tradition; from what is usually accepted; as also an advocacy for the new and the untried.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica credits the British Whig Party parliamentarian Charles James Fox with the first political usage of the term ‘radical’ in 1797, when he urged for the ‘radical reform’ of the electoral system franchise to accommodate universal manhood (in this case, ‘man’ not including ‘woman’) suffrage. This may well be the reason behind ‘radical’ being taken to denote supporters of the reformation of the British Parliament. Throughout the nineteenth century, the term continued to be used in combination with political ideas and isms. Interestingly enough, in most countries across the globe – political radicalism has historically been associated with far left politics, with the exception of the United States, where some have included both the ‘far left’ and the ‘far right’ within the term ‘radical’ in its political connotation. Mostly, though, the term used for the ‘far right’ in political discourse has been ‘reactionary’, considered to be an antonym to ‘radical’ – signifying the sharp opposition that exists between extreme leftist and extreme rightist positions. The reactionary is as strongly status quoist, as the radical is opposed to it.
Now, are there limits to radicalism? This is a question that offers no simple answer that can be accepted as self-evidently true. It stands to reason that to be an advocate of radicalism is to critique all prevalent structures and systems that facilitate the status quo to be maintained. But it stands equally to reason that human beings are finite and human life situations often need prioritisations of what needs to be done right now, and what may be tackled later. Within that context of human limitations – would/ could a radical activist also, therefore, prioritise some systems and structures to change at first and others later – or would any such comparative decision for temporal asymmetry mean a departure from one’s radical stance?
It is in the context of this not-so-simple question that the juxtaposition of radicalism in the form of extreme leftist political theory and practice with Marxist feminism becomes singularly interesting. It needs to be stated right at the outset that Marx and Engels, on whose thoughts leftist politics is based – whether moderate or extreme – did address issues of gender as it is understood within feminist discourse, though – admittedly – the understanding of gender as a social construct and a form of oppression has been developed both in depth and width since their times. The most elaborate explanation of the sex-gender question (without the use of the term ‘gender’, though) can be found in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published by Friedrich Engels in 1884 – a treatise partially based on Karl Marx’s notes on the Ancient Society by Lewis H Morgan, one of the earliest anthropological books on family economics. Sowing the seeds of what would later develop into the full-fledged discipline of Gender Studies, Engels clearly states in this tome some very crucial points:
a) In a situation of private ownership of land and other means of production, a division is created between private and public spheres.
b) Women remain subordinate in this situation since men have disproportionate access to waged labour.
c) Such subordination has nothing to do with women’s biological disposition, but with social relations determined by their limited access to waged labour, and therefore to income earning.
d) Such a situation, in turn, facilitates men’s control over women’s labour and sexual faculties (oh yes, Engels does mention this explicitly)
e) It is to maintain, reinforce and perpetrate this control that the widespread social phenomena associated with women’s sexual morality were (and continue to be) generated, exemplified through the fixation with female virginity and sexual purity; strictures for women to remain submissive to their husbands; condemnation and violent punishment for women who commit adultery and so on.
f) Using Marx’s materialistic analysis of history, Engels traces the emergence of this complex network of socio-cultural and religious phenomena to control female sexuality and labour (for which we now use the term ‘gender’) to the emergence of private property and its associate desire to pass that on to one’s own offspring. Chastity and fidelity in women are rewarded since that and only that can guarantee one man’s exclusive control over a woman’s sexual and reproductive faculties.
Marxist feminism took its cue from Engels’ writings and developed as a theoretical discourse that examines, explains and critiques the ways through which capitalism and private property perpetrate women’s oppression. Marxist feminists like Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton argue that the capitalist system divides labour into two categories: productive and reproductive. The first comprises goods and services that have monetary value; their production is, therefore, paid for in the form of wages. Reproductive labour, on the other hand, consists of everything that people have to do for themselves: household chores and care-giving to children and adults, in real terms, which are not done for receiving a wage but are indispensible for the act of living. Women are assigned to this domestic sphere of reproductive labour, whose value remains hidden and unrecognised in the capitalist system. This exclusion of women from productive labour allows men to control both private and public domains since they are in charge of the purse strings. This system of subordination of women is maintained and reinforced since it serves the interest of capital and the class that controls capital. It posits men against women by offering them relative privileges to obtain their support and legitimises unpaid labour by women in the domestic sphere.
Later Marxist feminists like Nancy Folbre, Silvia Federici and Selma James have gone on to explain fresher ways of women’s oppression after they gained into the productive labour force. They argue that women now have to work ‘double shifts’ since they are engaged in productive labour without their reproductive labour related responsibilities being redistributed. With the emergence of Intersectionality as a theoretical approach, Marxist feminists have expanded their focus to include other marginalised people who are at risk of facing greater exploitation within the capitalist system. It would be relevant here to mention that Radical Women, a socialist feminist organisation active in USA and Australia, has successfully integrated Marxist feminist goals without excluding other marginalised population groups. They argue that the elimination of the profit-driven capitalist economy would not just liberate women, but would also remove other forms of oppression like sexism, racism, and homophobia.
This is where the complexities begin and when studied in the Indian context, the way the women’s rights movement has been practised here leaves plenty of room to wonder the extent to which departures from radicalism have been legitimised. Marxist feminists like Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin have argued that women cannot unite for a joint struggle against sex-gender based oppression without respecting the class relations that determine their life experiences. In other words, bourgeois women and women workers (i.e. proletarian women) would not gain liberation through a joint struggle since capitalist economy offers privileges to the former that are completely denied to the latter. In a caste-ridden society like India’s, this issue of a possible joint struggle becomes even more multidimensional and complex since economic class and social caste both play a significant role.
If that be so, can a women’s rights organisation predominantly consisting of middle class, upper caste women question a dalit (designating lower caste) man’s control over his wife? Political correctness needs us to be careful not to speak or behave in a manner that might offend another population group, especially a less privileged / more disadvantaged one. So, could it ever be within my rights – as a middle class, upper caste, English educated urban woman – to be stern with the husband of my lower class domestic help, say, for his alcoholism induced abuse and violence against his wife? Or, would I be labelled politically incorrect to have behaved in a manner that offended a man less privileged than me in both economic class and caste position?
The magnitude of this paradox becomes clearer if we set it within an organisational context: If a Marxist feminist organisation in India, founded on the principles of economic class-based oppression on one hand, and sex-gender based subjugation on the other, organises dalit women to fight the discrimination and exploitation they face within their communities – would that be politically correct? Or, would that serve the purpose of the upper caste, upper class people in power by dividing dalit women and men and thereby weakening their united struggle against economic oppression? One possible response to this is to argue that economic exploitation of the dalits need to be addressed first through a joint struggle of women and men of these communities and address gender related injustice practised by them later. If that be so, wouldn’t that be a departure from radicalism insofar as such a stance would allow the system of gender-based oppression to continue?
Let us look at it from another angle. Would it be politically correct for a Marxist feminist outfit to organise women across class barriers for a policy change to bring marital rape within the purview of ‘rape’ as a punishable offence? (Incidentally, even in the Criminal Law [Amendment] Act, 2013, within which provisions relating to rape as a crime punishable by law are contained – marital rape has not been included as an offence in this country.) Or, would all the middle to upper class and upper caste women in such a situation be condemned for political incorrectness insofar as their stand might offend men less advantaged from a socio-economic perspective? Would it always be politically incorrect for economically privileged upper class women to seek redress against crimes committed against them by men from a lower socio-economic strata, for the women’s actions would surely offend those men?
If the readers by now are feeling somewhat annoyed that I am deliberately problematising both the issue of political correctness and the Marxist feminist standpoint, let me quickly end with a recent incident shared by an agitated friend who was fuming to find a way out of what she considered to be utter injustice. This friend of mine works in a fairly reputed media house in the city of Kolkata, West Bengal, India. In her office, a young receptionist was being consistently harassed by a Grade D staff and it reached a level where this young woman felt compelled to submit a written complaint to the management. The only action taken in response was a verbal warning to the male employee. When my friend, a senior employee in this agency, questioned the management’s lack of disciplinary action against the offender, they explained that the man was married with a family and he was the only earning member. Anything like a suspension would cause his wife and children to starve. So, that has been avoided on humanitarian grounds. When her arguments failed to sway the management, my friend sought the help of the employees’ union – of which both the man and the young receptionist are members. The unanimous response of the union leaders was that they cannot support a higher paid employee against a lower paid one. My friend is desperately seeking legal help now to facilitate the young receptionist, incidentally a single woman also dependent on her own income, to get justice against this case of continued sexual harassment at workplace – against which this country has a law. Her actions, I assure you, are offending both the offender and the management. Is my friend, a committed Marxist feminist, being too radical? Is she politically incorrect for trying to stand against a lower paid employee in support of a higher paid one? Is my friend, a committed Marxist feminist, politically wrong for trying to stand against a lower paid employee in support of a higher paid one? Maybe at times limits to political correctness need to be drawn in order to achieve a higher level of justice.