Socialism, Feminism and Patriarchy

Photo by chloe s. on Unsplash Soc, Fem and Patriarchy

The #END Sars Movement and especially the horrendous massacre at the Lekoi Toll Gate and the continuing suffering in Nigeria has had me thinking………

Though I gather the protest was not organised or led by any particular socialist or left group per se, many of the protesters were affiliated to them and the left in Nigeria and further afield has lauded the bravery, the determination, the on-the ground organisation and the enormous sacrifices made by these young women and men to say loud and clear: ‘Enough is Enough’. The protest was sustained by the well-organised and highly committed Feminist Coalition which, however, as far as I know was not part of the overall decision-making. Much blood was spilt, promising young lives were snuffed out, the hopes of so many loving parents dashed.

Buhari and his brutal, kleptocratic government and imperialist allies have done what they do best – used their military might and stolen wealth and power to silence quite literally a cry for justice, for jobs, for a living wage, for security… for humanity! Young innocent Nigerian lives have been beaten into submission and utter disbelief that ‘their’ government could assault them so viciously … at least for now. What is the way forward? Greater commitment; more determination; take up arms; make bigger sacrifices ………? And yet history has demonstrated time and again that no conflict has ever been resolved on the battlefield, least of all such an uneven one.

Do we ever ask the mothers of these slain and injured martyrs how they feel about losing  their beloved whom they carried in their wombs for nine months, and sacrificed their own lives in order to raise them, nurture them, educate them and give them their all? Do they approve of this path which is supposed to lead to ‘revolution’ or do they have other suggestions, other ideas, even questions? Are women even in the discussion except for the few token ones who by and large defer to their male comrades?

This article seeks to clarify some misunderstandings and raise some possible alternatives. I would like to start with explaining the terminology being used.

‘Feminism’ is a term that came into vogue in the last century; but feminist thought and action has existed since time immemorial in Africa and globally. Women’s liberation and their rights were exemplified by Lenin in the October 1917 Revolution but International Women’s Day was not adopted in the USA until 1967. The term ‘feminism’ was not adopted in Africa until later. Today it is globally manifested and stands for the ideology of social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. As feminist demands became more political in the USA, various trends developed and today broadly speaking these range mainly from cultural feminism (separatist); liberal feminism (for equality);  radical feminism (anti-men); socialist/Marxist feminism (anti-capitalist/imperialist) and the latest, Afro-feminism; with other variants in-between. Opponents of feminism however, invariably focus on the cultural, bra-burning kind.

‘Socialist’ feminism recognises that women’s oppression began 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (present day West Asia) with the development of agriculture and the accumulation of ‘surplus’ leading to the stratification of human society and ultimately subservience of the female to the male. The capitalist/imperialist system which dominates the world today is the acme of that nascent class structure, and socialist feminists hold that women can never achieve equality in such an unequal society.

‘Patriarchy’ is a social system in which men hold power over women in all important spheres of society. It is a very pivotal pillar of capitalism and so is dominant worldwide; but it was not always so and pockets of rudimentary matriarchal and matrilineal communities still exist in Africa and other parts of the globe. Patriarchy existed even before capitalism, ever since social disparities in human society first evolved. However, capitalism and with it the advent of colonialism with its male-centric outlook served to further entrench these schisms. While many countries around the globe were colonised, African countries were further afflicted as they were unique in having been in addition, the birthplace of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In pre-colonial times, patriarchy was ‘negotiable’. Societies were communally organised and women had their own closely-knit support groups and held positions of power eg Queen Aminatu of the Hausas, Queen Sheba of Ethiopia, Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra of Egypt, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar and Queen Nandi of the Zulus. Women served as ministers and soldiers and wielded power indirectly through their roles as spirit mediums, prophets and diviners and as market authorities and other such groups.  

The colonialists however, with their Euro-centric lens, could only see and understand men’s power. They further consolidated male domination in Africa, totally side-lining women. Male chiefs and religious heads were appointed, and as capitalist exploitation set in; the extended family structure became ‘nuclear’ and in this corporate entity with the husband as head of the household, women became entirely dependent on men for their existence. To the extent that even people-led protests have patriarchal tendencies, one just has to read the emerging stories of women being down-graded and mis-treated in the Black Panthers, Frelimo or Naxalite movements. The USA, generally considered to be the world’s most advanced country, is still agitating to have a woman president!

Engels has proved to us that women are ‘the most oppressed of the oppressed, the first slaves in human society’. It follows then, given the opportunity, they are also potentially the most revolutionary. The vast majority of women, firmly embedded in a communal mind-set and most concerned about their childrens’ future, are more readily accepting of a class-less, less profit-orientated, more equal and more humane society. 

It is therefore a matter of great concern that this half of humanity is denied the opportunity to contribute meaningfully in the struggle to transform it, and to have their leadership abilities recognised and utilised. Global statistics confirm this fact repeatedly, the saga of Kenya’s two-third gender bill is a prime example of this.  I maintain that the major block in this scenario is ‘Patriarchy’.

Like Racism, Patriarchy is a life-sustaining tool of Capitalism and Imperialism. It is the free labour of women ensconced in the capitalist-structured family that makes it possible for each generation of the working class to be reproduced, reared, nurtured and equipped for its exploitation by the bourgeoisie; at no cost to the State. If it was not clear before, Covid-19 has made it patently obvious how critical the working class is to the functioning of human society the world over. Robots are being developed to lessen this dependence on the ‘worker’ but these are just a drop in the ocean of human need, and greed.

Women therefore are indispensable for the capitalist system to exist and must, therefore understandably be controlled, disciplined and regimented. Thus their primary role is firmly established as ‘God-given’ and is that of child producer, home maker and carer, all else is secondary and of little consequence.  So, just as ‘racism’ has been cultivated in order to extract cheap or even free labour from the slave and the ‘Other’; patriarchy is the means whereby women are kept in place for exploitation of the vital free services they provide.

Capitalism and Patriarchy are therefore hand-in-glove; and just as the progressive Trade Unions and anti-racist movements such as the BLM are assaults on the capitalist structure of society, Socialist Feminism threatens the very heart of Capitalism. It goes without saying then that socialist activists have to engage on all three platforms: class, labour and gender. The overall picture, however, is gravely skewed.

Demands by Labour and the protests by people of colour receive widespread recognition, encouragement and funding world-wide; but the same cannot be said about Feminism, including Socialist Feminism. Humanising the language and correcting sexist behaviours, herstory and literature are commendable but only tokens in reality as they do not come close to the root of the problem, which is the capitalist structure of the family. Questioning this ‘time immemorial institution ordained by God’ is for the patriarchs ‘crossing the red line’. And yet these are changes that each and every one of us in our own families can start to make, and requires neither donors nor organisation; and answers the common query: ‘What can I do to help transform society?’

It is self-evident that moves to socialise the family unit i.e. to make it a function of the state as opposed to its capitalist classification as ‘private’ (see below), would both initiate radical change in a bastion of capitalism as well as begin to lay the foundation of a more collective/communal society. It would mean that the heavy burden presently placed on women in their roles of mother, wife and daughter would be greatly decreased making it possible for them to participate actively in the struggle, and fulfil their talents and interests. Economists the world over have asserted that when women are empowered the entire society benefits.

It must be recognised that in socialist as well as labour organisations, male comrades are sensitive to the need to secure women’s participation and many do appoint leftist women in their executive committees. However, until such time that women, especially working and middle class women, are liberated from their family chores and responsibilities, these appointments will remain just token representations. Actions, not just resolutions, are needed if women are to participate fully, especially in taking up leadership positions in the debates regarding politics and ideology.

Not enough attention has been given to left/socialist women having to juggle their time to be able to read, to study, to write, to discuss and to attend meetings. And yet, with a few adjustments in the family and the community for sharing the responsibilities and household tasks, this conundrum could be ameliorated. However as already stated, for the patriarchs this is an unpopular arena for discourse and more so of action.

As it is said, the elephant in the room, is PATRIARCHY. So deeply ingrained has it become amongst the once colonised and enslaved that it is seen as ‘natural’ i.e. inevitable and immutable. This is of course more so for men, but for women too who have internalised it, just as the subordination of women was treated until very recently. Most of our ‘revolutionary’ menfolk, past and present, have a blind spot as far as the woman question is concerned. Just like racism, patriarchy (sexism) has to be struggled against; not just by words and token adjustments but by action in the drive to counter capitalism and imperialism and to build socialism.

To return to the #End Sars Protests and the Massacre at the Lekoi Toll gate in Nigeria, and extending them to the uprisings e.g. in Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Arab Spring; are these ‘bloody’ conflicts and confrontations our only option for struggle? While Marxist analysis is beyond doubt the framework, are the methods of struggle invoking a vanguard party, soviets, proletariat, armed struggle, capture of the state, etc. that led to the successes of the 1917 October Revolution still relevant today? In this age of the internet, robots, satellite surveillance and the rest! Globally socialists are proposing other alternatives.

In the words of Angela Davis, ‘When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence; without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for—not in the way that you reach them.’

The late Samir Amin wrote extensively about delinking from Euro-centricism, Yanis Varoufakis advocates stabilising capitalism and internationalising the struggle, Richard Wolff speaks of democratising the workplace, Jeremy Corbyn has just launched his Project for Peace and Justice, a forthcoming book by South African leftists explores, ‘Distancing from the State’ and the objectives of a National Democratic Movement remain relevant. Notably all these initiatives are being led by men.

Working class people are organising their own independent communities. The Zapatistas of Mexico, The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, the Rojava of Kurdistan, the Abahlali baseMjondolo (residents of the shacks) of Durban, South Africa and many many more lesser known grassroot groups. What is of particular interest is that in almost all such communities women, having strong women support groups, do play a fundamental part as organisers and leaders. The over-riding motto is: Need before profit, justice before success – the seeds for a socialist society are being planted and nurtured. The Abahlali baseMjondolo is situated on the land where ‘Wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo!’ (‘You strike the women, you strike a rock!’) was first sung. And yes! History does repeat itself.

For an inspiring read visit: Abahlali baseMjondolo:

For further information:

Prof. Kristen Ghodsee talks to Richard D Wolff (in the second half) on ‘Why women have better sex under socialism’.

Summary:  Prof. Kristen Ghodsee highlights the findings of empirical studies made in Germany prior to, and after, the break-up of the Soviet Union (1989) and the Unification of Germany (1991). While the GDR can be faulted on many fronts, she urges us that ‘it wasn’t all bad …. and we should learn from them to build a more just and equitable future’. She concludes that women’s lives were much better behind the Iron Curtain and have rapidly regressed post-1989, and goes on to give examples.

In spite of the variations in the Eastern block countries, women reported a much higher level of satisfaction in their personal relationships. In terms of learning be it maths, science, technology or engineering, the gap between boys and girls was much smaller in ‘socialist’ countries. Very early on these countries made a commitment to women’s reproductive rights and to socialize child care and housework. Hence the provision of kindergartens; creches; children’s homes; public cafetarias, laundries and libraries; and even mending cooperatives.

Thus women were mobilised into the labour force and got employment opportunities leading to economic independence. This then was the linchpin to women’s greater participation in the economy and the polity. Furthermore, this reforms package was shared with other countries experimenting with socialism and had a huge impact on women’s rights across the globe during the Cold War. Not surprisingly ‘marriage’ then was much more popular, on the other hand in West Germany [and elsewhere] men are increasingly reluctant to take on what they see as an ‘economic burden’.