Female revolutionaries and alienation

I just read Selma James’ pamphlet “Marx and Feminism.” It is helping me untangle a pressing question that has affected my political life almost constantly in the last three years.  I believe in building multi-racial and multi-gender organizations. I also believe in the importance of having all women, poc or queer groups and spaces. Is this a contradiction? Is it impossible to have both? I dont think so, but sometimes it feels like it in my political work.

My first flirtations with revolutionary politics highlight important things about the experience of race and gender. When I first went to college, I wanted to organize. The Iraq war had just started and I went to some meetings. But I never really got involved. I blamed myself for being too shy to speak at meetings, too scared to take the initiative and become friends with the organizers. I was intimidated by them. Many years later, I could look back and realize that most of those organizers were lifestyle anarchists, who dressed a certain way, had certain interests, and I didnt feel like I would be accepted by them. Most of them were also white, male and straight. I had a lifetime of experiences which had taught me to run away from social experiences like that.

Instead I got involved in student government. It pulled me to the center a little, so I probably identified as progressive, although if you asked me, I would have said I was anti-state and anti-capitalism. I was probably a social democrat, someone who would have supported a benign social welfare state. Of course, now I believe that there is no benign state, and being a social democrat and being anti-state are contradictory, but I knew of no alternatives. But I got involved in student government, (not the elections type, but the type where they pay you to organize but you have to follow their rules) because it was well organized. There were clear entries to those organizations that did not require dressing a certain way or being friends with someone to get in (although it helped if you did have those friends.)

Its an important lesson to me in my organizing now. Organizers have to be persistent and ORGANIZED. I remember a woman that I still have a lot of respect for saying “you should come organize with us” when I was at this period in my life. I would have needed so much more than that. I wanted to, but I didnt even know what organization she was talking about, and I was too shy to ask when their meetings were and how I could connect with them. I needed it to be spelled out and a lot of damn encouragement.

I am a million miles away from that person I used to be, due to a million different crazy experiences. And though now I play the role of mentoring and introducing people to new forms of organizing, I still experience doubts. I doubt myself as an intellectual. Especially around young, usually white, men who love to talk about “theory” (and are probably wrestling with insecurities themselves). I become resentful when two men stand aside and start to talk about Marxist texts. I know others do, too. It feels pretentious and exclusive. When I was the only woman in a study group on left communism, I never spoke, even though the group had “good” gender politics. Good politics werent enough. On the other hand, I feel empowered when myself and a bunch of women and gender queer people get together and talk politics. I thrive in a majority non-male organization. The way we talk politics is usually through our organizing and experiences. This is where the pamphlet starts to come in handy.

Selma starts off by saying that she is trying to wrest the interpretation of Marx from the hands of academics. She says that he was writing as a tool for class struggle. Immediately she connects women’s struggles with hands-on organizing, and detaches it from the ivory tower. She explains key Marxian concepts in terms that are easy to understand! This pamphlet is the clearest, most concise explication of Marx that I have ever read. Its beautiful. It speaks to my experiences. Its rooted in concrete terms that everyone can understand and has experienced. She makes a jab at the verbose, obtuse Marxist Left when she says, “Luckily the truth can usually be expressed simply.” And she is successful. It is so much harder to communicate revolutionary politics in normal language, using everyday experiences, then go on at length in terms that others dont understand. It is also the duty of a revolutionary to learn how to do that. And that requires organizing and talking to people outside of the Left!

She also talks about the experience of trying to define the working class. The white male Left was very hostile to this challenge. Anyone who didnt work outside a factory was not considered a worker. And yet it was these masses of “non-workers” during the 60s, Black folks, students, third world peoples, who were involved in urban rebellions and occupations and general strikes, and not the working class as the Left traditionally conceived of it. Selma says the point of organizing is to UNITE people, not to exclude them from the working class. This is the basis of why I believe in multi-gender and multiracial organizing.

Selma shows how revolutionary she and her comrades really are. And the importance of reading Marx directly for yourself. She says, “In 1969 and 1970, reading in Volume I of Capital all about this uniquely capitalist commodity labor power [she explains this so well from pages 9-12 that you should just read it directly from her instead of me trying to explain it and screwing up], I realized that this was the special commodity which housework produced. Being ignorant, I thought everybody knew and I was angry that they had neglected to tell us. It was a surprise to find that the obvious view- that women were the producers of everyone’s labor power, everyone’s ability to work and be exploited- was new.” (Page 12.)

This unwaged labor that is done in the home- making breakfast, cleaning, doing laundry- makes it possible for others to go to work and receive a wage. And therefore “the wage relation is not only a power relation between waged worker and employer but between those workers who do and those workers who do not have wages. This is the material basis of the social antagonism between the sexes. Whether or not we are in a relationship with men, let alone a dependent relationship, women’s dependence in society generally sets the terms of the relationship between all men and all women.” (Page 13, my emphasis.)

This helps me understand why even though I am not in a dependent relationship, and in my organizing we try to be conscious of who is doing the reproductive labor, I still live with the experiences of women’s isolation and alienation. Its idealistic to think that I could just get over it. I need concrete experiences of equality between male and non-male people. (I use the term non-male to indicate that I am including gender queer people, transpeople where normally people would just use the category “women.”) And when I am the one to offer refreshments to people who attend a study group at my house while men stand aside, I notice it and get annoyed. Why am I doing this? Why arent they? Even though its in our politics because we discuss how women used to do most of the carework, and now we try to be organized enough to spread the responsibilities around, it still happens informally. Not all the time, but once in a while. This points to the importance of avoiding the tyranny of structurelessness, a subject on which there is an awesome pamphlet of the same name. Basically, we are informally highly organized into a division of labor, which Selma says is really a division of laborers. The division used to be based on natural abilities and acquired skills, but after the age of large scale industry in which most work is unskilled, the division has become based on sex, race and age. This is another of Marx’s ideas that Selma explains so well.

Historically, women and feminist movements have been accused of dividing the “larger” movement. This happened in Algeria’s struggle for independence, in the Black Power movement, and countless other times. We are not supposed to criticize working class men! That is detrimental to the movement. Selma has the best response to this I have ever read.

“There are many things that I like about Marx. One of them is that he is so confident of our case, and he has grounded it so well, that he did not hesitate to spell out our weaknesses. He was not worried about being critical of workers. He speaks at one point of how, in addition to the man selling his own labor power for a wage, when his wife and children are also introduced into the factory he sells them as well. The man, he says, becomes a slave dealer. For Marx, our case does not depend on working class superiority, or anyone’s moral virtues or lack of them. Our case is just and necessary because our struggle against capitalism makes freedom possible. Despite our weaknesses, ignorance, superstitions and prejudices, what we struggle for as a class is the abolition of exploitation.

“There is therefore no need to glorify “the worker” as a heroic and blameless victim; no need to hide or excuse the violence which is the framework of working class life; no need to mythologize the working class as the fount of humanism.” (Page 14.)

Selma goes on to talk about the tensions between men and women. She says, “It is important to see that once men are identified as those who have the wage (or should have if they don’t), and women as those who don’t have a wage (and dont need to even if they do) almost any man can get women to reproduce him, to cook his eggs, make his bed, comfort him and sleep with him. In very crucial respects, women are part of the male wage. We come with the male pay packet because we traditionally lack our own.” (Page 15, my emphasis.)

Unfortunately, Marx talks about the hierarchy of laborers, but does not draw any organizational conclusions from it and did not really focus on it as a key part of his work. (Page 18.) And so the left continues to reproduce the hierarchy. And so even though we are all part of the working class, we find ourselves coming into conflict with the parts that are above us. Women find themselves coming directly into conflict with men, even though we are comrades. This was a powerful thing to read. It is something I have been feeling a lot. I love my male comrades. I am lucky enough that my true male friends come through for me on most occasions. I know this rare and many women experience something a lot shittier than I have among the Left. But I still feel that tension, that sense of competition, of needing to measure up and never succeeding.

Unlike Marx, Selma does draw organizational conclusions from the hierarchy of laborers. “It is a very complicated hierarchy and demands a very complicated network of organizations to destroy it, which millions of us have been forming.

“That is the vital point. Not only do we face an enormous and complicated task, but also we have tackled it. That is why we now know so much about the hierarchy. We did not invent these divisions (though we were accused of splitting the working class when we formed autonomous organizations to deal with them). They were invented, and continue to be reinvented, along with the rest of the mode of production. But now that we massively confront these divisions in an increasingly organized way, the hierarchy can no longer be denied- a giant step in the process of its destruction.” (Page 20.)

The organization of separate groups for different sectors of the working class makes the movement as a whole stronger. 

Selma also starts to talk about who unites with who, meaning do women unite with men on men’s terms, or do men unite with women on women’s terms? This is a super important distinction that I have never thought about in this way. When I think about my current situation, I think it is a little bit of both. I cant concretize it more than that just yet. It helps to have a lot of non-male folk around me, all of us building relationships with each other, talking and making connections between our lives and our politics, and theorizing from everyday experience. I think that it what is so alienating about conversations that center on difficult-to-read texts that most of us have not read and are intimidated by. Where is the social relationship in that kind of conversation? And social relationships are the basis of Marx’s understanding of capitalism, and the world in general, and also the key to class struggle. The women and gender queer people and I know, and many men, have political conversations all the time that do not invoke a single text. Instead, we talk about what happened at work that day, a memory from our family in childhood, or our feelings about a recent event we organized. And that makes us better revolutionaries.

I didnt address the question of Marxism in general in this post, mostly because Selma takes on Marx the thinker, rather than Marxism, which is contested territory. I do not identify as a Marxist or an anarchist, or even really a radical feminist, even though all of these things influence me and give me tools. I think this post shows clearly how Marx is a tool for women’s and queer liberation. Selma herself emphasizes that Marxism is foremost a tool for her organizing. She hammers home from the beginning that it is meant to help us fight capital, and understanding capital is part of that fight, but only one part. And so I read Marx and I read people like Selma writing about Marx, and the concepts I learn are expressed through those conversations about our shitty bosses, and how unappreciated our mothers were, and how I might not be pulling my weight around the house.


  1. Im intimidated about posting a comment, im not the best at writing down my thoughts so right now I couldnt formulate in words what i feel about this post except that I feel you 100% on my introduction to politics, wanting to participate in a multi-gendered, multi-racial organization, and dealing with conflict with male comrades (it inevitable but dificult to go through), valuing irriplacable social relationships…..

    I want to read marx and feminism then ill try to work on my writing skills….

  2. Hey chiqui, I hear you on the feeling intimidated to write publicly about these questions. I have tried to make my posts as accessible as possible, not just for other folks, but for myself. Its too easy to get so psyched out by the fact that you are making yourself vulnerable to haters (or even well-intentioned constructive criticism) that you never write anything. This post was definitely the one I felt more vulnerable in and I hope that helps you and others in sharing your thoughts.

    That said, it was and is a work in progress. I wrote it pretty much in stream of consciousness, with very little editing, because I didnt want to get psyched out. But for that reason, its not quite as polished as it would be if I posted it somewhere else. In conversation with a comrade, I realized that several points that I do believe firmly in were implicit in the post, but perhaps not explicitly expressed.

    I dont think I made super clear what the alienating behavior is that I am talking about. I am not opposed to people mentioning Marxist texts in informal conversations. I dont think thats snobby. I hope to post reflections on my readings of different texts by Marx and other revolutionary thinkers (which includes women!). Obviously I do mention the importance of reading things for yourself and not taking other peoples’ word for it. What I do think is problematic is when people talk about it in an unaccessible way for others, or they just assume the level of knowledge of others, or especially when they wave it around as a badge of pride for how down and smart they are. These behaviors are often associated with broader gender dynamics, like men only looking at and talking to each other in these conversations when there is a multi-gendered group present.

    The other thing is I think some of my experiences in college around the anarchist milieu is complicated by race, which I did not take up in this post because I didnt want it to become too broad. So part of my problem in college was that I felt like to be a revolutionary anarchist, I would only be organizing with white people, and to organize with people of color I would have to turn to more liberal, middle class expressions of politics. Its not purely the body politics of the milieus that is at stake here , though. It was the lived experience of the kinds of communities I was able to access. To be totally transparent though, at that time in my life I did ascribe to “privilege politics” basically meaning that I automatically assumed a white or male or hetero person would be more “oppressive” in social interactions than someone else. Now I know that this is not true, myself and other women of color were sometimes allowed to get away with murder (being rude, domineering, etc) in organizing circle because of this type of politics, and the role of class was rarely examined. Anyways now I understand that its not about your identity but about what you do- Obama is the president, and was a really important symbol to a lot of black folks, but he’s also involved in the heinous crimes of US capitalist imperialism.

    Anyways, see how that became a huge tangent?! Thats why I think I didnt go there in the post, but its important that body politics, the way things look when you walk into a room, dont become the entire content of your politics. But then we have so many important experiences based on our identities. This is the contradiction that this post is trying to explore.

    The final thing is that while Selma is accessible, she doesnt dumb down the theory. We do need to make leaps, challenge ourselves intellectually, and combat anti-intellectualism in organizing. There are so many instances when people of all genders focus so much on the need to do something that they forget to study, or they only read things directly related to their organizing. A mentor that I respect a lot likened reading theory to how a boxer trains for fights in the ring. You will never need to jump rope in the ring, but you do it to train your muscles. In that way, reading theory/history, and discussing it, and using your experiences to further theorize, is all part of organizing. I think Selma is implicitly making that point.

    As a final tangent, I hate it when people talk about “theory” in an abstract way. Any “theory” worth its salt takes real concrete experiences, talks about them, and then tries to draw lessons from them. And thats what I mean about Selma being accessible. Its me saying that she is a damn good theorist.

  3. Fatima, this is a good post.

    I recognize your feelings, coming from a different angle, and the critique you’re bringing no doubt speaks for a lot of people, each in their own way.

    I had a few thoughts after reading your notes.

    Your post reminded me of a point you and others were recently making elsewhere : the approach to patriarchy cannot be individual but social. An example you all gave was talking about ideas of how to promote women’s leadership. Since women are socialized to do reproductive work (or caring work–a phrase I don’t like) their time to do “political work” is less than men. The remedy is for men to take up more reproductive work, allowing women to develop themselves politically.

    As you all point out there are some problems with this formulation. It has a tendency to make too strong a distinction between two spheres of activity. It also has a distributive focus that assumes that there are individuals who exchange products/services. Further, it follows that this actually reinforces gendered roles. In this case, the woman takes up a man’s role and the man takes up a woman’s role.

    Rather than looking at the production of gendered social relations this whole approach starts after the fact, so to speak–after those relations have already been produced. This approach attempts to deal with the effects of gendered relations by redistributing the outcomes.

    As I see it, a similar thought process could be used to think about the issues you are bringing up.

    Part of the problem with studying those “difficult-to-read” works from the revolutionary tradition is that too often it is highly individualized: lone individuals go off and read a lot of books and encourage others to do the same. We have not yet developed a consistently collective approach to study.

    It seems to me that there is a historical basis to this phenomenon. There is a break in historical continuity between generations in terms of ideas, political organization and organizing experiences. The reason for this is the immense changes in American society, the restructuring of capitalism and the decomposition of the working class. In a sense, as revolutionaries we are learning everything again, but more importantly we have had no institutions (I use that terms broadly) with which to rely on to facilitate our own development. We are trying to build those institutions while doing our own learning. However, too often we find that we have no institutions in which to think and learn. We do it on our own.

    The tendency toward individualized learning is, while sometimes a necessity in this historical moment, can and does become its own logic to our own detriment. I think this goes well beyond pedagogy. The discussion among revolutionaries seems to remain at a low level compared to other periods. We haven’t yet acquired traditions of thought and be able to think and argue through them in new ways appropriate to our historical moment.

    I also think, therefore, that this situation produces not simply individualized approaches, but as you point out, one-dimensional socialization (around ideas) and nothing else. This seems connected to a whole other set of variables usually associated with ideas of “leninism” that I think partially flow from the form of revolutionary organizations: mystification of leadership, productivism, etc. But that is another conversation.

    The relationship between individualization and our historical moment also relates, it seems to me, to another issue you raised.

    The historical situation we are facing helps explain the often inaccessible nature of the (typically male) discussion around those “difficult-to-read” works. Those discussions are at times abstract, often obscuring more than they reveal is because they haven’t yet been internalized. They haven’t been made concrete–a problem you point out. You also point out that there is a problem here in making these discussions accessible to great numbers of people. Once again, this is a question of historical development. At this moment the relationship between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries is fairly tenuous and often has no distinct social or political form. Revolutionaries will only be able to do the kinds of things you are correctly calling for as these spaces develop.

    There was also a methodological issue I was thinking about in connection with how you pose the concrete (discussion of our organizing, our lives) against the use of abstract concepts and historical traditions that seem remote. Could you say a little more about this if you get a chance? I kind of ran out of time for now, but I was thinking about how these shouldn’t be counterposed and that abstraction, as part of a method, is necessary and helpful. For example, Marx’s Capital is a hard book at times: it uses obscure language and concepts that take time to grasp.

  4. I clicked the link thinking I was about to read the pamphlet, but how nice to find this. I’ve been some version of activist for more than half my life at this point and had always sought a niche. What I didn’t realize was that I’d been creating one all along.

    I want to share an open letter I recently posted on my blog. Perhaps you’ll find it appropriate. Cheers.

    —–“So, I’ve been calling for a national movement to recognize all workers as valuable contributors to our economy. It sounds simple enough, but it is one of the most difficult things I’ve tried to achieve. Perhaps it sounds as though I think I’m doing something new, but common knowledge dictates that the struggle of working class citizens is centuries old.

    What I want to change is the context in which people frame the idea of work and worker recognition. If a logical approach to the way we think about work, value, economy, and class can be established or infused in the contemporary mind set, then we can begin to construct benevolent labor situations that will flourish despite the state of capitalism and the far reaching implications of globalism.

    For a moment, suspend reactionary thoughts and focus on the following: Working class women hold the balance in their hands. I know I’m not the only one who realizes that, and I’ll say it again, working class women hold the balance in their hands. I’m quite serious. We are the demographic perfectly positioned to be mobilized to confront class structure transnationally. While that is a big picture view, it is also the heart of the workers’ struggle.

    Therefore, rational modes of thought toward domestic workers, household workers, unpaid elder-care workers and sex workers, for example, need to be cultivated and promoted. It’s of critical importance to instill self worth, free from the binds of individualism, in the minds of the workers.

    Understand, this movement has a better chance of succeeding if it is kept out of the confines of arguments pertaining to gender disparity. Were it to be perceived as a feminist movement, it would be squashed in its infancy. The working class must not be polarized by succumbing to the ubiquitous social pressure to identify with factions of gender politics.

    At this time, I’ve yet to find an organizing body capable of supporting this call to action as I’ve no interest in subscribing to superfluous politics, nor will I engage in unintelligible power struggles. What I think I have found; however, is an opportunity to actualize my own need for worker recognition and fellowship within the construct of the IWW. This slight shift in my perception of my situation has benefited me tremendously. I look forward to applying for membership. Thanks, IWW, for being a light in the shadows.”

  5. […] “Female Revolutionaries and Alienation” by fatima […]

  6. […] of my friends and I have been discussing a recent blog post by my homie fatima over at bird caged. door cracked. about female revolutionaries and the alienation women experience. fatima draws heavily from Marxist […]

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