Feminism and Nationalism

by Muhsin Yorulmaz

In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the remaining “socialist states” have been those which came into being through the explicit form of a national liberation struggle: Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, China, and Korea, all are united by the fact that a (at the time) Marxist-Leninist party led a popular front to victory against the forces of imperialism and fascism, and continue to stand as the de facto engineers of “socialist statehood”. Because of this, many people, particularly young people without any particular theoretical training, over-identify with national liberation as the defining feature of Marxism-Leninism.

From the other side, there are those, particularly left communists and Trotskyites, who accuse our entire ideology of being nothing more than a series of nationalist commitments. If one defends the national rights of the Kurdish people, one has fallen victim to “Kurdish nationalism”. In the United States, those who continue to uphold Afro-American liberation are accused of being nothing more than “Black nationalists”. The most troubling form of this comes, not from armchair critics of “nationalism” who would never say anything that could be accused of some sort of “nationalism”, but from members of the aforementioned first group, who imagine their perspective to be broadly “anti-imperialist”, but in fact use their own, unacknowledged, uninvestigated, uncriticized nationalism to attack the basic demands for rights by other nations.

In other words, the crux of our problem, as I have stated before, is how to distinguish between being a “nationalist” for oppressed peoples and simply defending oppressed nationalities.

This distinction is important, as the nationalist places at the centre of their world a nation, ignoring its internal contradictions, an error we must be very careful not to fall into. Although I am often accused of ignoring, for example, class contradictions among nations whose bourgeoisies are not hegemonic within a given state, I do consider this quite frequently, it’s simply that, in many contexts, a more powerful nation’s bourgeoisie has forced some sections of certain nation’s bourgeoisies into a progressive historical position, however temporarily.

So, given that I have spoken about this before, and noting the title at the top, the reader may wonder: what does this have to do with feminism?

Well, to begin with, feminism is a far more powerful ideology for women than nationalism is, given the extreme machismo of nationalist ideology in general: nationalism tends to laud great men at the centre of its historical imaginary. As a bourgeois modernist ideology, nationalism tends to identify with the normative form of the nation-state, which in turn places great importance on the patriarchal family: symbolically, in “ruling families” (in the US, one can think of the President and the “First Lady” and their ideological role), and practically, in terms of how society is organized (with families as an economic unit, the household, the division of labor predicated on the market, etc.).

In capitalist society, women are generally taught to think about nations and their interrelations in terms that have been taught to them by nationalist ideologues, but they do not tend to dominate as nationalist ideologues. Men may be subject to the same ideological indoctrination as women, but they tend to identify more readily with the violent defense of “the nation”, and subordinate women as a collective national “honor” to be (sexually and physically) defended from men of other nationalities.

Most brands of feminist one encounters, however, will be quick to criticize nationalist ideology for many of these same reasons as communists might. They tend to employ a rhetoric which alienates precisely those men who are still the most indoctrinated with nationalist ideology, and yet are able to more quickly cut through nationalist ideology with women, because they ask a question so many women don’t realize they were dying to be asked: isn’t this whole society run “for men”?

A great number of Marxist-Leninists I know, including many women, often explicitly state that their approach to feminism is akin to their approach to the nationalism of oppressed nationalities: “we are not feminists, but we support women’s rights,” or “we are not feminists, but we support women’s liberation.” In fact, I personally first learned these formulas from women comrades and not from men. Many of these women make a point of proving their point in material practice by being among the fiercest strugglers for their own rights, and do so working with “bourgeois feminists”. Thus, I do not claim that there is something anti-woman about these formulas, in the abstract.

However, I claim that there is a difference in how denials of “feminism” and denials of “nationalism” are employed in practice. I claim this is the case even when the Marxist-Leninist in question is both a man and a member of an oppressor nation, and thus, theoretically, should have an equal “stake” (or lack thereof) in both questions. Why might this be?

First of all, speaking on behalf of Marxist-Leninist men, I believe we are harsher on feminists than nationalists. I think as men we have a tendency to be less conscious of chauvinistic language employed against women than chauvinistic language employed against oppressed nations. I think we are quicker to call any manifestation of women’s struggle for liberation “bourgeois feminism” than we are to call manifestations of the struggle against national oppression “bourgeois nationalism”. I think we are more conscious of the need to recruit proportionately or (even better) disproportionately many oppressed nationals to our organizations than we are to recruit women at even the most modest rates.

Worst of all, of course, when women are recruited in an appropriate number to an organization, all too often it is because some are being groomed for sex by abusive, charismatic men cadres. Relatedly, we are quicker to form national sections of a party in a multi-national state than women’s sections, even though strong women’s sections are crucial to keeping abusive men cadres in line, whereas, as I have said, I think even without oppressed nationalities sections many organizations trend more towards a reflexive opposition to direct abuse of oppressed nationalities.

This is all quite ironic, because, objectively, feminism is less dangerous to the subjectivity we are trying to build from the masses than nationalism. One can easily imagine a currently oppressed nation will be liberated from the national oppression, will gain their national rights, etc., but the struggle will end there and this new national state might have very weak dynamics of social struggle, as happened with so many countries around the world. Some nation’s proletariats, consequently, become deradicalized by the release of pressure brought about by the end of a particularly violent national oppression, and although they remain exploited and oppressed in many ways unrelated to their specific national belonging, accept the propaganda of their “own” triumphant bourgeoisie, which seeks class peace so it may dominate its “own” market.

At the risk of redirecting to the piece I published too often, I wrote about this in some detail and it was published on this website.

However, there has never been a bourgeois matriarchal state. There has never been a country whose women’s conscious subjectivity as women could be “satisfied” with a “woman-state”, because the “woman-state” is seemingly impossible under capitalism. Part of the reason for this lies in how feminism understands itself, which is indeed, not a “woman-dominated” equivalent to patriarchy (just as socialists do not imagine “the dictatorship of the proletariat” equivalent to the bourgeois state, save for “who’s in charge”), but to overcome what the patriarchy has defined gender as and create a total equality. The idea itself is quite anti-capitalist in potential, and positions most feminists firmly within “the radical left”, because capitalism itself does not allow for any kind of real equality, but only diverse layers of inequality and exploitation maintained through the force of the state itself.

The only sort of “feminists” who can imagine “their own” state are the Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Tansu Çiller brand of “feminists” who make absolutely no demands of the patriarchy save for token (and, as we have seen in Turkey since the end of the Çiller era, extremely temporary) representation of women at “the commanding heights” of symbolic state power. Just as I caution Marxist-Leninists from seeing in the most internally despised brands of “anarchist” a representative form, I would caution men from seeing in this brand of “feminism” the feminism of actually existing feminists, who number in their thousands at least in every country, and are fully capable of articulating a theoretical defense of their positions which we ought to approach much as we approach the national liberation movement.

To me, it seems obvious that just as we position ourselves on the front lines of national liberation in spite of this meaning we find ourselves allied with revolutionary nationalists, we must be unafraid to position ourselves in contexts where radical feminists dominate, and be able to recruit from within those milieus and build our own structures which strengthen and draw strength from them.

To this, some may ask, if we are “too hard on feminists”, and need to not keep them “at arm’s length” (and this is indeed my claim), why not simply follow the lead of various communist groups who proudly proclaim their organizations to be “feminist” (noting of course that many of these groups are quite insincere about both feminism and communism in practice)? As I said, precisely for the same reasons I gave for not referring to ourselves as “nationalists” of oppressed nations: There is a meaningful distinction between supporting “kinds of liberation [that we advocate as revolutionary socialists]” and centralizing the identity of a particular site of oppression as if it actually expressed the universal ideology we uphold.

We should not claim to be “against” feminists, but this label, like “nationalist” should be reserved for general currents in which our organizations can take part, can work with, can run parallel to. One can claim that “the Kurdish movement” in Turkey is “nationalist”, and we, as supporters of national liberation, should not attack them on these grounds, but it is a meaningful distinction between us: for us, Kurdistan is a particular site of the universal struggle, and not our self-definition and the limitation of our vision.

But again, it is of the utmost importance to note that because radical feminists do not in general advocate for “the woman-state”. In fact, it would make a great deal of sense to advocate a sort of “matriarchal” ideology for a future society, as a means of beating back the ideological holdover of our current patriarchal existence. But the struggle of women is generally articulated in international terms, and thanks to the universalizing power of hegemonic capitalism, it seems far more universal than any particular “left-nationalist” ideology.

When US communists (rightly) seek ties with Kurdish or Palestinian student groups or civil society organizations, they are generally overcoming to a certain extent a national division between peoples, and are accordingly doing subjective work to build an international and internationalist consciousness. But is this any less true when it comes to communists reaching out to and working with groups of women struggling “as feminists”? On the contrary, for the reasons stated, it is only more true of the radical feminists.

As it says in the Manifesto:

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

We must struggle in all the particular sites which reveal the totality of capitalist society’s underlying contradictions. In the final instance, we are not for the oppressed and the exploited because of the particular form of their identity, but in the first instance, they experience their oppression and exploitation through the lens of manifold identities. This mediation is where the vanguard proves itself first.

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