The Gender Debate: A Marxist Feminist Perspective

This article is written in response to an article entitled Are All Marxist Feminists TERFs?’. The article can be found here.

The author of the above article argues that Marxist feminists (or ‘Red TERFs’) deny the ‘actual lived experiences’ of transwomen. Not only is this ironic, as gender identity theorists regularly dismiss women’s extensive lived experiences of male violence and female oppression, but it is a wholly untrue and unfair accusation. Criticism of gender has been integral to feminist criticism for centuries and feminists have continually outlined the oppression faced by those who do not conform to sex stereotypes — particularly lesbians. Transwomen are males who do not conform to traditional masculinity and so often face abuse and even violence as a result of this gender nonconformity. Marxists feminists (and other women who are slurred as ‘TERFs’) do not deny that gender non-conforming males face prejudice but we vehemently disagree with the categorisation of this prejudice as ‘misogynistic oppression’.

Misogyny is a product of the systemic form of oppression suffered by females. Whilst Marxist feminists do not wish to reduce women to their reproductive systems and genitalia, it is precisely these aspects of female anatomy which have been exploited and commodified in protocapitalist and capitalist states the world over for millennia. Therefore, within a social, economic and political context, the importance of recognising women as the biological class of female humans cannot be overstated. Women are oppressed under capitalism due to their reproductive value which, by virtue of material biological fact, is disproportionately greater than that of men. It is in the interests of capitalists to control the source of the workforce and women are, quite literally, the source of the next generation of exploitable workers. Since the advent of private property, it has also been in the interest of males to enforce monogamy upon females in order to ensure paternal lineage for the purposes of inheritance. When Engels asserts that ‘woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children’ in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, it is very clear that he is referring to the reproductive labour of female humans. As transwomen do not – by any material, scientific measure — belong to the biological class of humans who give birth, they are simply not victims of this systemic sex oppression. Though progressives attempt to bastardise language, the fact remains that the birth-giving sex formerly known as ‘women’ suffer a specific form of oppression which transwomen will never know, and it is from this sex-based oppression that all other forms of misogyny stem.

Sex and gender are different; but they are inextricably linked. Once the economic need to control the reproductive labour of women was identified, it was reinforced by socially constructed gender roles to ensure future compliance. As such, the oppression of women can be roughly divided into two categories: material sex oppression which directly controls female reproductive labour (forced marriage, female genital mutilation, abortion etc); and ideological sex oppression which controls females more generally through gender roles (relegation to the domestic sphere, poorer job prospects due to perceived inferiority etc). Female oppression is based on sex and enforced by gender — and, as gender roles were designed to subjugate the female sex specifically, femininity is only oppressive to them. Gender cannot be divorced from the sex it was designed to oppress — it can only be abolished.

If transwomen conform to female gender roles convincingly enough that others perceive them to be female, they may experience some more superficial forms of sexism such as catcalling, mansplaining, etc. However, they are not the intended victim of such sexism. Unpleasant though it may be, it is misdirected. When gender non-conforming males mistakenly receive misogynistic prejudice, they do not inherit the history of sex-based oppression that women share, and to suggest that these experiences are the same, or even similar, trivialises female sex oppression. Instead, the abuse faced by gender non-conforming men is likely to be homophobic in nature and/or as a result of also belonging to another oppressed or marginalised group (black, latino, a victim of the sex trade, etc). Traditional notions of masculinity centre heterosexuality and so deviations from male gender roles often evoke homophobic responses. Eradicating homophobia and other prejudice associated with policing masculinity is clearly an important cause; but feminism is solely concerned with female sex oppression. Had gender identity theorists acknowledged that male gender non-conformity and its associated prejudices are connected to — but distinct from — the historic and enduring oppression of women, it is likely that they would have found a sympathetic ear amongst feminists. As it stands, their insistence on appropriating the struggle of women is thoroughly incompatible with feminist thought and is insulting to females who know that they are oppressed on the basis of sex.

Postmodernist notions of ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ indulge the individual’s perception of self. Such navel-gazing is only able to thrive in Western consumerist societies where narcissism is king. The rampant individualism associated with the abstract notion of subjective gender is in direct opposition to the collectivism and materialism of Marxism. Marxists must acknowledge gender as the socially constructed mode of oppression which positions the female sex as lowly caregivers and the male sex as dominant leaders, rather than a fantastical, personal, spiritual experience devoid of social and historical context.

The author asserts that Marxists need to ‘update our theories to match the needs and conditions of oppressed sections of the working class’. This is revisionism at best. Marx’s method, in its scientific objectivity, transcends time. One of the great virtues of Marxism is that it has maintained its relevance throughout the centuries and the fact that Marx’s analysis carries weight in modern political discourse is testament to its timelessness. It is true that we must apply Marxist methodology to present and changing circumstances which Marx himself may not have foreseen, but this certainly does not mean that adherence to solid materialist analysis can be compromised. The analysis may change but the method does not. Just as science cannot bend to accommodate societal trends, nor can historical materialism be distorted to appease identity politics.

The author also asserts that ‘the idea that there is something inherently non-female about the body of a trans women is reinforcing the binary gender categories that we ought to be seeking to dismantle’. Male bodies are inherently non-female. This is not an idea; it is a material reality. Although trans activists persist with the bogus ‘sex is a spectrum’ narrative, 99.98% of humans are unambiguously male or female. Biological sex is observable in every cell and every organ of our bodies. It is not assigned. It is a physical, material, and biological fact. As the author of the original article has done here, many trans activists conflate sex and gender in order to negate the importance of the former. Material reality (biological sex) cannot be ‘dismantled’ and to suggest that the physical should be reimagined as the metaphysical is fundamentally anti-Marxist. Marx went to great lengths to condemn this idealist manner of thinking in The German Ideology, stating that the materialist method ‘starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation or abstract definition, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions’. He goes on to say that ‘viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever’, making it plain that attempts to abstract gender from the history of sex-based female oppression has no place within Marxist analysis. One phrase from The German Ideology encapsulates the materialist method so completely that it would be remiss not to include it in relation to the contemporary gender identity debate: ‘life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’. Currently, working class unity is impeded by the vast social chasm between the sexes and efforts must be made to bridge this gap in order to organise effectively. It is vital that, as Marxists, we apply rigorous historical materialism to understand the origin and development of sex oppression over time in order to combat its present-day incarnations.

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