Better Understanding the Oppression of Women with Selections from Anuradha Ghandy

Tribune of the People has pointed out attempts to revise the work of Comrade Anuradha Ghandy through poor study and deliberate manipulation, so we reproduce the following sections of the booklet Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement, which was published in People’s March in 2006, while Ghandy was working underground as a leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

In contrast to the idealism of feminist trends, Ghandy approached the matter with the scientific precision of a Marxist. Her short booklet is rich in criticism, and this is why it is revised by those who oppose revolutionary clarity. The selected chapters cover two points: the first is her criticism of postmodernist influenced feminism, a trend which dominates much of the US left today, and the second section is her concluding summary of the entire booklet.

By reproducing these sections and adding emphasis to certain selected parts, our readers can easily see for themselves that Ghandy was not defending what can only be understood as gender metaphysics and was, in fact, entirely opposed to the cultural relativism and the bourgeois class character of the feminist movement. In the following reproduced text the bold emphasis is added by Tribune and the italics are original.

-Editorial Board, Tribune of the People


Excerpts from
Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement

By Anuradha Ghandy

POST-MODERNISM AND FEMINISM

The criticism of feminists from non-white women led a section of feminists to move in the direction of multi-culturalism and postmodernism.

Taking off from the existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir they consider that woman is the “other” (opposed to the dominant culture prevailing, e.g. dalits. adivadis, women, etc). Post-modernist feminists are glorifying the position of the “Other” because it is supposed to give insights into the dominant culture of which she is not a part. Women can therefore be critical of the norms, values and practices imposed on everyone by the dominant culture. They believe that studies should be oriented from the values of those who are being studied, the subalterns, who have been dominated. Post-modernism has been popular among academics. They believe that no fixed category exists, in this case, woman. The self is fragmented by various identities – by sex, class, caste, ethnic community, race. These various identities have a value in themselves. Thus this becomes one form of cultural relativism.

Hence, for example, in reality no category of only woman exists. Woman can be one of the identities of the self there are others too. There will be a dalit woman, a dalit woman prostitute, an upper caste woman, and such like. Since each identity has a value in itself, no significance is given to values towards which all can strive. Looked at in this way there is no scope to find common ground for collective political activity. The concept woman, helped to bring women together and act collectively. But this kind of identity politics divides more than it unites. The unity is on the most narrow basis.

Post-modernists celebrate difference and identity and they criticize Marxism for focusing on one ‘totality’ – class—and for being ‘essentialist.’

Further post-modernism does not believe that language (western languages at least) reflects reality. They believe that identities are ‘constructed’ through ‘discourse.’ Thus, in their understanding, language constructs reality. Therefore many of them have focused on ‘deconstruction’ of language,. In effect, this leaves a person with nothing – there is no material reality about which we can be certain. This is a form of extreme subjectivism. Postmodernist feminists have focused on psychology and language. Postmodernism, in agreement with the famous French philosopher Foucault, are against what they call “relations of power”. But this concept of power is diffused and it is not clearly defined.

Who wields the power? According to Foucault it is only at the local level, so resistance to power can only be local. Is this not the basis of NGO functioning which unites people against some local corrupt power and make adjustments with the power above, the central and state governments? After all postmodernism is skeptical of any ideology or ‘large projects’ or ‘grand narratives’ like humanism, enlightenment, and Marxism and see the reality as fragmented ‘little narratives.’

In effect postmodernism is extremely divisive because it promotes fragmentation between people and gives relative importance to identities without any theoretical framework to understand the historical reasons for identity formation and to link the various identities. So we can have a gathering of NGOs like World Social Forum where everyone celebrates their identity – women, prostitutes, gays, lesbians, tribals, dalits etc etc., but there is no theory bringing them under an overall understanding, a common strategy. Each group will resist its own oppressors, as it perceives them. With such an argument, logically, there can be no organization, at best it can be spontaneous organization at the local level and temporary coalitions. To advocate organization according to their understanding means to reproduce power – hierarchy, oppression. Essentially they leave the individual to resist for himself or herself, and are against consistent organized resistance and armed resistance.

Carole Stabile, a Marxist feminist has put it well when she says,

 “Anti-organizational bias is part and parcel of the post – modernist package . To organize any but the most provisional and spontaneous coalitions is, for post- modernist social theorists and feminists alike , to reproduce oppression, hierarchies, and forms of intractable dominance. The fact that capitalism is extremely organized makes little difference, because one resists against a multivalent diffuse form of power. Nor, as Joreen pointed out over two decades ago, does it seem to matter that structurelessness produces its own forms of tyranny. Thus, in place of any organized politics, postmodernist social theory offers us variations on pluralism, individualism, individualized agency, and ultimately individualized solutions that have never – and will never – be capable of resolving structural problems.”

It is not surprising that for the postmodernists, capitalism, imperialism etc do not mean anything more than one more form of power. While post-modernism in its developed form may not to be found in a semi-colonial society like India, yet many bourgeois feminists have been influenced by it. Their vehement criticism of revolutionary and revisionist organizations on grounds of bureaucracy and hierarchy also reflects the influence of postmodernism in recent times.


SUMMING UP

We have presented in brief, the main theoretical trends in the feminist movements as they have developed in the West in the contemporary period. While the debate with Marxism and within Marxism dominated the 1970s, in the 1980s cultural feminism with its separatist agenda and focus on the cultural aspects of women’s oppression came to the fore. Issues of sexual choice and reproductive role of women came to dominate the debate and discussions in feminist circles. Many socialist feminists too have given significance to these questions though not in the extreme form that cultural feminists have. Transformation of the heterosexual family became the main call of the bourgeois feminist movement and the more active sections among them tried to bring it into practice as well. Though many of them may have envisaged a change in the entire social system in this way in fact it became a reformist approach which they have tried to theorize. Postmodernism made its influence felt in the 1990s. Yet in the late 1990s Marxism is again becoming an important theory within feminist analysis.

This critical overview of the way the feminist movement (particularly the radical feminist and socialist feminist trends) theoretically analyzed women’s oppression, the solutions they have offered and strategies they evolved to take the movement forward we can say that flaws in their theory have led to advocating solutions which have taken the movement into a dead end. In spite of the tremendous interest generated by the movement and wide support from women who were seeking to understand their own dissatisfactions and problems the movement could not develop into a consistent broad based movement including not only the middle classes but also women from the working class and ethnically oppressed sections.

The main weaknesses in their theory and strategies were:

Seeking roots of women’s oppression in her reproductive role. Since women’s role in reproduction is determined by biology, it is something that cannot be changed. Instead of determining the material, social causes for origin of women’s oppression they focused on a biologically given factor thereby falling into the trap of biological determinism.

In relation with her biological role focusing on the patriarchal nuclear family as the basic structure in society in which her oppression is rooted. Thus their emphasis was on opposing the heterosexual family as the main basis of women’s oppression. As a result the wider socioeconomic structure in which the family exists and which shapes the family was ignored.

Making the contradiction between men and women as the main contradiction. Concentrating their attention on changing the sex/gender system – the gender roles that men and women are trained to play. This meant concentrating on the cultural, psychological aspects of social life ignoring the wider political and economic forces that give rise to and defend patriarchal culture.

Emphasizing the psychological/personality differences between men and women as biological and advocating separatism for women. Overemphasis on sexual liberation for women Separate groups, separate live-in arrangements and lesbianism. Essentially this meant that this section of the women’s movement confined itself to small groups and could not appeal to or mobilize the mass of women.

Falling into the trap of imperialism and its promotion of pornography, sex-tourism etc by emphasizing the need for liberating women from sexual repression. Or in the name of equal opportunities supporting women’s recruitment into the US Army before the Iraq War (2003).

Organizational emphasis on opposition to hierarchy and domination and focus on small consciousness raising groups and alternative activity, which is self-determined. Opposing the mobilization and organizing of large mass of oppressed women.

Ignoring or being biased against the contributions made by the socialist movements and socialist revolutions in Russia, China etc in bringing about a change in the condition of large sections of women.

How incorrect theoretical analysis and wrong strategies can affect a movement can be clearly seen in the case of the feminist movement. Not understanding women’s oppression as linked to the wider exploitative socioeconomic and political structure, to imperialism, they have sought solutions within the imperialist system itself. These solutions have at best benefited a section of middle class women but left the vast mass of oppressed and exploited women far from liberation. The struggle for women’s liberation cannot be successful in isolation from the struggle to overthrow the imperialist system itself.

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