A review of Judith Orr, Marxism and Women’s Liberation (Bookmarks, 2015), £9.99
The gains won by the women’s liberation movement during the 1960s and 1970s, such as the right to divorce and increased reproductive rights, are real material gains. Women are told that in Britain we have never had it so good. And on the surface that can appear to be true. But, as Judith Orr points out in Marxism and Women’s Liberation, “much has changed for women, but too much has not”. While “women have never had more freedom in their personal lives” women’s oppression still pervades society, and some aspects of sexism have got worse during the last decade.1 The situation facing women today still falls far short of what women’s liberation could achieve. For example, although most women can now access limited abortion services in Britain, the right to choose is under renewed attack from right-wing bigots; abortion on demand remains illegal.
Orr points out that women own only one percent of the world’s wealth and “those lucky enough to be earning” are paid up to 30 percent less than men.2 But the problem is not just one of economic inequality. The revelations about Jimmy Savile, many of whose victims were young women, the sexual abuse of young women in Rochdale and other cities and the collusion and cover-ups of both by the authorities, highlight the structural nature of oppression.
Furthermore, “raunch culture”, first analysed in the mainstream by the feminist writer Ariel Levy,3 means that the gains for sexual liberation made in the 1960s are now being appropriated to objectify women’s sexuality and bodies in ever-cruder ways. Old-school sexism still persists, but we’re now told that, for instance, pole dancing is a sign of women’s “empowerment” and “liberation”.
Ideas around women’s liberation can be used by those who benefit the most from division—the ruling class. The recent sexual assaults in Cologne during New Year’s Eve celebrations prompted a flurry of racist attacks in the media and in the streets as right-wing politicians blamed refugee men and their culture for sexual assaults. Discussions about Cologne quickly developed a dynamic where integration into “Western culture and values” became the primary focus. The right attempted to capitalise on people’s genuine disgust over sexual violence, partly as a result of the valiant battles fought by previous generations of women’s liberation activists to pose sexual violence as a real problem in society, in order to further their own racist rhetoric against refugees. They showed little regard for solving the wider problem of sexism in society. Rather, it was an attempt to divide the pro-migrant solidarity movement that had developed in Germany, and to shift consensus back to the right. It has since emerged that only three of the 58 men arrested over these attacks were refugees.
David Cameron used the mainstream discourse around the Cologne attacks to launch yet another attack on Muslim women. In the wake of the attacks he branded Muslim women “traditionally submissive” and, singling out women in particular, suggested a policy where migrants must pass an English test or face the prospect of deportation.4 However, any apparent difficulty in learning English as a second language could be located in the government’s vicious cuts to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses, used heavily by migrant women. The assaults in Cologne represent only part of the attacks on women. For example, women are the victims in 60 percent of Islamophobic attacks in Britain. And the ratcheting up of racism by Cameron and others creates a culture where such attacks will increase.5
Cameron’s callous use of the Cologne attacks is part of a long tradition where ideas of women’s liberation have been used as justification for a variety of right wing endeavours—whether as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq or for the policing of a woman’s right to wear a headscarf.
However, over the past decade ideas about women’s liberation have found an audience in a new generation of left wing activists. Partially in response to the “new sexism” or “raunch culture” there has been a resurgence in feminist organisation and ideas. This is feeding into general political radicalisation as a new generation joins the fight against women’s oppression. Feminism remains the first port of call for those angered by sexism, but socialist arguments—about a fight against the system as a whole—are also increasingly finding a hearing. Young women, politicised during a decade of austerity, war and racism, are not just angry about sexism. They are often the same people who marched in solidarity with refugees, cheered Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader, or protested outside parliament against Britain bombing Syria. As the crisis of capitalism shows no sign of abating, many are questioning the logic of the system and want to change the world. As Orr argues, “while many politicians, academics and writers may see no alternative to looking for answers within the system, many newly politicised young activists see no solution within capitalism”.6
The revival of the Reclaim the Night marches in 2004 heralded the latest stage in women organising to end sexism. This comes alongside a renewed pro-choice movement and the emergence of the international student-led Slutwalks (set up in 2011 after a Canadian police officer suggested that women who did not want to be raped should “not dress like sluts”). Earlier this year protests were organised against “neomasculinity activist” and misogynist Roosh V, when he attempted to organise meet-ups for his followers. These meet-ups were later cancelled and he dubbed Glasgow a “convict resettlement zone”.7 The reaction to Roosh V’s pro-rape propaganda show that public consensus has changed over issues of sexual violence but also demonstrates the confidence and vibrancy of the women’s liberation movement today. These initiatives have been accompanied by mass meetings in universities on how to combat sexist comedians or lapdancing ventures on campus. It is clear then, that far from being “dead”,8 feminism is the common sense for those wanting to organise to fight sexism.
This radicalisation has also reopened debates about the origins of oppression and how and if we can organise to end it. The resurgence in ideas around women’s oppression has led to a slew of new books articulating a real desire to challenge sexism within society. Writers such as Cordelia Fine, Natasha Walter and Laurie Penny play an important role in writing in an accessible fashion that anyone interested in fighting sexism will be able to engage with.9 The popularity of these books has shown that fighting sexism is once again back on the mainstream agenda. In Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism Walter makes a valuable contribution in documenting how far women are from equality. She makes passionate arguments about unrealistic beauty standards, disparity in pay and problems with a biologically determinist attitude towards gender. This is something of a departure from her earlier work where, reflecting arguments popular in the mid-1990s, she argued that women were indeed liberated now.10
However, although class is often given lip service in these books, the authors rarely do more than brush over it at best, or worse (and much more common) downplay the fundamental role class plays in shaping oppression. They do little to point a way forward, to where oppression will not be controlled or mitigated under capitalism but will be ended altogether. The Everyday Sexism Project blog and its accompanying book are a good example of this approach to oppression.11 The blog details instances of isolated sexist experiences, but does not look to the underlying causes of oppression. Everyday Sexism and blogs like it are important in validating women’s experiences of oppression. But for Marxists it is important not only to consider the outward facing appearance of sexism but to understand its root causes.
There have also been many classic feminist texts reprinted over the past few years—Sheila Rowbotham, Lise Vogel and Silvia Federici have all enjoyed a renewed interest in their work decades after initial publication.12 In addition to these classic feminist works several others aimed at an academic audience have also been published recently. These tend to be written in a tone that assumes a significant existing level of theoretical understanding. While we must welcome any attempt to contribute to the debates surrounding women’s oppression these books leave a serious gap for anyone wanting a sophisticated understanding of women’s oppression without having a background in obfuscating academic language.
Socialism and the women’s movement
Marxism and Women’s Liberation is a thorough engagement with the new articulation of older ideas surrounding oppression. Socialists often have to swim against the tide of ideas that have gained hegemony in movements. Therefore, it is of absolute necessity that we have a clear understanding of why liberation will not be handed to us by the ruling class, or reformed away by a benevolent state. The liberation of women—and indeed, of humanity—will only occur through the mass organisation of the working class who will take power for themselves. These discussions about oppression do not happen in an ideological vacuum—they are being carried out by people who are already won to the idea that oppression should end. It is the role of Marxists to convince them that it is only through a mass revolutionary process that this is possible. By actively engaging in new (or resurfaced) ideas around oppression, Marxists can shape the terrain upon which these ideological debates take place. We ignore these ideas at the peril of our tradition.
Explanations of oppression for those entering into political activity for the first time often begin and end with that of patriarchy. In reality, although patriarchy is often thrown around as the only way to explain women’s oppression, Orr correctly asserts:
Such responses can even accommodate those that maintain that oppression is a product of natural roles that flow from our biological differences. This is the view that claims women are oppressed because men are naturally competitive and domineering and women more gentle and caring. Patriarchy is a broad and flexible set of ideas and has led some activists to conclude that unity with men in struggle is either not possible or not desirable.13
In one sense, patriarchy can appear to reflect the reality of women’s oppression. Most positions of power and authority are indeed occupied by men. Patriarchy, however, only reflects a common sense approach to oppression and falls short of examining its root causes. As Lindsey German has previously argued in this journal: “What is clear is that concessions to any theory of patriarchy, or to the idea that men are the enemy, are not only inoperable but point to the wrong problem”.14
Another of the key ideas that has shaped the recent women’s liberation movement has been that of “intersectional” feminism, and the related notion of privilege theory. Orr argues that “privilege theory sees oppression as a systemic but unchanging feature of human society with no route out, no possibility of change, except by the ‘privileged’ being made aware of their ‘privilege’”. But the reality is that women’s oppression does not benefit men, even if they believe it does.15 Privilege theory can also be tactically unhelpful because anything that divides our side, whether on the basis of gender or any other form of oppression, weakens us. Although the language of intersectionality and privilege may appear new, it actually reflects much older debates around the beneficiaries of oppression. As Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad explain, privilege theory and intersectionality may reflect a desire for unity but are susceptible to the divisions that have blighted past liberation movements.16 What has often been missing from these debates is an understanding of class, and the relationship between oppression and exploitation.
Older debates around the relationship between biology and identity in regards to gender have also been reignited. Orr devotes a chapter to the very concept of gender, and in particular to debates happening within the women’s liberation movement today. Understanding gender as socially constructed with little basis in biology informs not only her analysis of women’s oppression but also her understanding of LGBT+ oppression.
In recent years transgender people have become much more prominent in society; featuring increasingly in popular culture as well as winning some important gains such as protection by new legislation or being granted rights long ago given to non-transgender people. But political faultlines have continually developed in the women’s liberation movement over the question of transgender oppression. These debates relate to the fundamental question of what constitutes gender: what makes a woman? Is it simply a question of physical biology or self-identity, or is it rooted in one’s experience of oppression? Specifically, radical feminists such as leading activist Finn McKay have mistakenly argued for “women only” (read: trans-exclusionary) spaces. This is on the basis that the experience of suffering from women’s oppression is what makes you a woman. As transgender women often do not experience women’s oppression until much later in life, this is taken to mean they do not understand what it truly means to be a woman.17
Festivals of the oppressed
The relationships between men and women, oppression and exploitation and oppressor and oppressed have been discussed by theorists for centuries. These debates are still raging to this day, with some declaring that Marxism has little to offer the contemporary woman navigating a sexist world. However, Orr argues that it is only with the scientific application of the Marxist method that the totality of oppression can be understood, and eradicated completely. As she points out: “the minority of men at the top of society have no more in common with a male refuse collector than they do a working class woman. This is equally true for the few women that are part of the elites of the ruling class. Ordinary people’s lives are alien to them”.18
Of course, socialists should not ignore individual experiences of oppression, and Orr makes it clear that sexism within society should be fought wherever we encounter it—but it cannot be reduced to individual relationships between men and women. It must be understood in the wider context of how society functions, and for the benefit of whom.
One of the central and most repetitive arguments against using Karl Marx’s ideas as a tool for explaining oppression is that Marxism, with its focus on class, is ill-equipped to explain oppression today. Not only is this a misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas but it ignores how Marxism was always intended to be a framework, not a rulebook, and how it can be adapted to reflect changing conditions. Although transgender oppression for example was not a political issue in Marx’s day in the way it is today, Orr argues that: “A Marxist understanding of oppression allows a deeper appreciation of the burden it imposes. It is impossible to adequately express the suffering oppression produces without reference to class, while at the same time recognising that oppression and class exploitation are different phenomena”.19
One of the key contentious questions separating Marxists from others fighting women’s oppression is an understanding of the origins of oppression. Marxists to this day base much of our understanding of the beginnings of women’s oppression on Frederick Engels’s study of the rise of classes within society. For Marxists, capitalism is a dynamic system. As it shifts and develops, so does oppression. Understanding how societies in the past, which were more egalitarian and where gender was not a divisive factor ended in a situation where oppression of women is an everyday occurrence is not an abstract question, but one that informs our strategy today. It is this analysis that means we can say that there is nothing biological or automatic about the continued oppression of women; that it developed with the rise of class society.
Of all the theorists of oppression Engels has perhaps become the most challenged and chastised for what some claim is a mechanical approach. Orr argues that Engels remains the starting point for those wishing to understand the roots of women’s oppression. Indeed, she shows how, far from being disproved, Engels’s initial theories have been corroborated by scientific techniques unavailable to him at the time of his writing. Orr quotes anthropologist Thomas Patterson as saying “With more than 130 years of hindsight, it appears that ‘Engels got it right!’ The broad outlines of his argument have stood the test of time”.20
Women’s lives have changed dramatically since Engels’s time. He did not predict the exact nature of how women’s oppression would develop. But his scientific work in analysing how women’s oppression developed allows us a better understanding of how to defeat it altogether.
The key argument in Marxism and Women’s Liberation is perfectly encapsulated in the last chapter “Women and Revolution”. Orr argues that it is only through the revolutionary process, and the wholly transformative effect revolution will have on society, that we can get rid of oppression altogether. In this chapter the author deals successive blows against those who argue that oppression will wither away over time with patient arguing and campaigning. Looking to the revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Egypt in 2011—which she reported on for Socialist Worker21—Orr details how the revolutionary process necessarily changes the position of women. Orr explains how “the very experience of rising up and taking control of their lives changes people in a way unimagined in the ordinary conditions of capitalism”.22
Women have never been passive bystanders in class struggle. Every great social uprising has had women at the core of it. This is not to idolise women—of course, they are also subject to the damaging ideas about gender that permeate capitalist society—but to look to their potential as part of the working class.
In Marxism and Women’s Liberation Orr makes a cohesive, vital contribution in defending Marxism as a framework for understanding oppression today. The book is unique among newer titles as it seeks not merely to explain oppression but to demonstrate how to end it. It seriously engages with theoretical frameworks such as privilege theory that have quickly become common sense within liberation movements today but does so in an easily digestible manner, meaning the ideas of Marxism are available to everyone. It is a valuable tool for any activist wanting to challenge the sexism that can appear inherent within humanity and to fight for a better world.
1 Orr, 2015, p9.
2 Orr, 2015, pp9, 11.
3 Levy, 2005.
4 Hughes, 2016.
5 Wright, 2015.
6 Orr, 2015, p13.
7 Amos, 2016.
8 As the Spectator magazine declared in 2015—Hill, 2015.
9 Fine, 2011; Penny, 2014; Walter, 2011.
10 Walter, 1999.
12 See, for example, Rowbotham, Segal and Wainwright, 2013 and Vogel, 2014, originally published in 1979 and 1983 respectively.
13 Orr, 2015, p24.
14 German, 1981, p50.
15 Orr, 2015, p152.
16 Choonara and Prasad, 2014.
17 Mackay, 2015.
18 Orr, 2015, p24.
19 Orr, 2015, p21.
20 Orr, p42. Sheila McGregor has also made a compelling argument in this journal about why Engels is necessary to understanding the changes in women’s oppression—McGregor, 2013.
22 Orr, 2015, p218.