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by Jocelyn Cohn and Eve Mitchell

This is the second part of a four part series that attempts to understand patriarchy in our current society.  The first part, “No Lamps, No Candles, No More Light” explored the relationship between gender, patriarchy, and sexism broadly in capitalist society.  This section will explore the expressions of patriarchy specifically in the “left” subculture.  Parts three and four will look more specifically at recent attempts to deal with patriarchy on the left, some critiques and potential solutions.

Image Credit:  Minhee Bae
Image Credit:  Minhee Bae

Patriarchy is a total social relation that takes particular forms of expression in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production.  There are no “safehouses” or “patriarchy-free zones,” because patriarchy is defined in its deeply personal and bodily expressions.  We carry its effects with us everywhere.  However, as also discussed in the last section, patriarchy finds different forms of expression in different areas of life.  Individual expressions of gendered and patriarchal relations within the working class can be known as “sexism.”  In this section we will explore the ways that we have seen and understood sexism in “left” organizing spaces and subcultures specifically.  This is meant as a broad sketch of what we find most prevalent.  Not all people will have the same experiences, and we are not able to discuss every person’s individual conditions, but we do hope others will find resonance here.

Who is The Left?

By “the left” we mean radical/activist/progressive/socialist/anarchist/communist political and social milieus.  While we recognize that all people have political experiences and the ability to comprehend and articulate extremely complicated aspects of capital, there is a material difference between those who make up the organized and subcultural left and those who make up the broader working class. When we discuss “sexism on the left,” we are talking about a relatively small group of people who see themselves consciously as activists, leftists, theoreticians or revolutionaries and who, in this moment, are objectively isolated from the working class itself.  This is despite the fact that most individuals on the left are proletarians, in that they do not own the means of production and therefore must sell their labor power to survive under capitalism. This is the result of historical and objective factors such as the murder, incarceration, and institutionalization of revolutionaries; neoliberalism; the capitalist subsumption of much activism; the absence of a generalized movement that blurs the line between activists and proletarians; etc.  There are also revolutionaries’ subjective failures such as an inability or refusal to develop lasting roots in organizing projects that build contacts and trust among working class communities.

Concretely, “the left” can take the shape of formal parties, organizations and groups such as the International Socialist Organization, Anarchist People of Color, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence affiliate groups, etc.  Formal groupings are characterized by a developed and agreed upon structure.  “The left” can also mean groupings lacking structure altogether.  Informal groupings are often brought together based on shared political ideas or methods in moments of struggle or through community potluck spaces, identity-based spaces, and friendship, romantic and sexual relationships.  Obviously there is much overlap between formal and informal forms of social organization, and we believe militants should work to build both types of groupings.  However, as we will discuss further in part 3 of this project, conflating the two can have negative gendered effects.

Expressions of Sexism on the Left.

We share some agreement with the various descriptions of sexism on the left that many militants from a wide range of political tendencies have put forward.  Barucha Peller’s “Patriarchy in Radical Movements, and a Call to Men” (unpublished) contains rich and painful descriptions of gendered violence within left milieus:

“Being a woman or gender queer is a life long sentence to living in patriarchy with no parole.  Its not just a lack of certain privileges that you have and we don’t, we don’t even dream about privileges, because what we suffer everyday is a matter of physical and psychological and social and political survival, and it is inescapable.  We are not free for one moment from the threat of violence, from dehumanizing sexism, from manipulation, from our agency being undermined; we are constantly fighting for our very humanness.”

These experiences are often mixed with other expressions of a gendered division of labor.  There is of course a history of class reductionism within the left, its main characteristic being the fetishism of the male, white, unionized, heterosexual waged worker as the vanguard of the working class.  In addition, we have seen historically that many nationalist movements and white working class struggles have relegated women to male militants’ “supporters.”  These traditions argue that men are stronger and can therefore directly take on the police and the state, while women are vulnerable but valuable mothers and caretakers.

We face challenges in organizing that male comrades often do not immediately understand—everything from being treated as second-rate militants by political contacts, to straight up getting harassed every time we go to a demo or to agitate in the street or workplaces.  We often have family obligations that most men don’t have, whether it is taking care of our parents, friends, children, or partners.  These obligations can keep us from political work and make us seem “distracted” or “undisciplined” when really we are working to balance immediate social reproduction with the reproduction of struggle.  From extremely young ages we are socialized as caregivers, which greatly stunts our abilities and desires to do mental labor.

Over the years, there have been countless examples of sexism on the left.  Like everywhere in society, people (mostly, but not only, women and queers) on the left have experienced everything from rape and sexual assault to less explicit forms of sexism such as refusal to develop women and non-male militants, and cultural expressions like developing a milieu that comes together around typically male-gendered interests (i.e. bro-ism, “manarchy,” etc.), or forms of engagement (competition, mean-spiritism, insults, etc.).  Although most of us can say what these forms of expression are, we would like to briefly outline how they play out particularly within the left.  The descriptions below are in no way meant to describe all of the forms of sexism that people have experienced and we also understand that these expressions are not distinct from one another.  These are merely the most common.  Also, we do think that there are real qualitative differences between different situations.  We do not equate rape with cursing at someone, or physical abuse with neglecting to provide emotional support, or catcalling with not having read very much feminist theory.  Despite all being expressions of patriarchy, these behaviors have very different material impacts on people’s lives; every situation needs to both be understood in its particularity, while simultaneously understood in relation to patriarchy as a whole.  

Rape and Sexual Assault.

We differentiate rape and sexual assault from other forms of gendered behavior and sexism.  In the left, sexual assault rarely happens in the kind of spectacular way often depicted in movies and television.  More often, sexual assault takes place in the confines of a relationship, after a party, at home with a partner or friend.  Defining sexual assault is messy, because the experience itself is messy.  Rape has historically been defined from the perpetrator’s perspective: the motivation behind the attack, who the person is and what he has done with his body.  Second wave feminism, in an effort to center women’s subjectivity, dramatically changed this perspective nationally, resulting in state policy changes and the number of women’s rape crisis centers blossoming from zero to over 500 within the span of a few years in the 1970s.  

Today’s definitions of sexual assault center consent.  Consider, for example, the popularization of the slogan “yes means yes,” the developments of Slutwalk and the rise of consent trainings and workshops in liberal and radical spaces.  Admittedly, there are problems with consent as a framework, considering we consent to a great many of things under capitalism from wage slavery to increased immiseration.  The overall structure of society conditions what our individual choices can be in the first place. Similarly, many women, and in particular women in heterosexual relationships, consent to a myriad of forms of sex work based on power imbalances in their relationship.  Robin West describes this compulsion:

“A woman might consent to sex she does not want because she or her children are dependent upon her male partner for economic sustenance, and she must accordingly remain in his good graces … because she rightly fears that if she does not her partner will be put into a foul humour, and she simply decides that tolerating the undesired sex is less burdensome than tolerating the foul humor … because she has been taught and has come to believe that it is her lot in life to do so, and that has no reasonable expectation of attaining her own pleasure through sex … because she rightly fears that her refusal to do so will lead to an outburst of violent behavior some time following – only if the violence or overt threat of violence is very close to the sexual act will this arguably constitute a rape … or because she is uncomfortable with the prospect of the argument that might ensue, should she refuse.”

Using consent as a definition for sexual assault and rape is problematic indeed; however, lacking an alternative, we must piece together some interpretation that emphasizes the survivor’s experience and draw out an objective description that generally encompasses commonalities among rape and sexual assault experiences.  To articulate it as clearly as possible, we define sexual assault as any sexual experience that is coerced and/or forced, which can be expressed in a myriad of dynamic ways based on various relationships and social dynamics.

More concretely, people often experience coercion, regret and guilt.  There are always power dynamics.  Sexual assault often leaves us feeling traumatized, worthless, ashamed and guilty—exactly the kinds of emotions necessary for our continued exploitation under capitalism.  Sexual assault furthermore has meaning that goes beyond someone’s real time experience.  Sexual assault carries a lot of weight from other social relations with them because of the way rape has been used on a systemic scale to control and harm women.  When we experience sexual assault and rape, we do not have the same experience as every other person has, but we do not experience it as our own individual situation either.  We need to understand the emotional impacts of this kind of violence beyond just “how bad the attack” was.

Rape Apology.

Many contemporary feminists have begun using the term “rape apology/apologist” in discussing gendered behavior on the left.  According to RationalWiki:  “Rape apology is an umbrella term for any arguments suggesting that rape is infrequent, misreported, over-reported, not that big a deal, or that it is even excusable in some circumstances, such as within a marriage or if the victim was ‘provocatively dressed.’”  We find this definition helpful.  Note that the definition here does not include associating or being friends with someone accused of sexual assault.  As we will discuss in parts 3 and 4 of this series, there is oftentimes a tendency to evoke the term “rape apologist” against people who have some form of a relationship with someone accused of sexual assault.  Many times, there are other factors at play, including questionable circumstances and/or a lack of agreement around, or different methods in, dealing with the perpetrator.

Physical Abuse and Physical Assault.


Image Credit:  Beth Punches via Flickr Creative Commons
Image Credit:  Beth Punches via Flickr Creative Commons

Second wave feminism championed bringing physical abuse to mainstream American consciousness.  More recently, groups like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have explored methods for identifying and dealing with physical abuse within radical communities.  Physical abuse is characterized by an ongoing pattern of physically attacking someone or neglect in cases involving people with disabilities.  This can be standard forms of attack such as hitting, kicking, biting, choking, etc., but can also include pushing, squeezing, holding someone down or restricting their movements, etc. As with sexual assault, we hold the bar at coercion and force and not consent.  

Physical assault can include the same kinds of acts but on a singular basis, meaning it is not an established pattern.  We believe it is important to distinguish between patterned abuse and singular expressions of interpersonal violence because we believe the two activities may require different interventions.  However, we should emphasize that any form of physical attack should be taken seriously.

Emotional Abuse.

While there are thousands of zines, articles and resources aimed at left milieus relating to physical and sexual abuse and consent, emotional abuse theory is sorely underdeveloped.  We must therefore borrow our ideas from medical, liberal and nonprofit resources.  According to, emotional abuse tends to compound over time and is usually unclear to the survivor.  There are many common characteristics of emotional abuse including a sustained pattern of gaslighting, manipulation, isolation, domination and control, and other tactics intended to break the survivor’s sense of self-love and self-worth such as put downs, guilt, blame, shame, etc.  Some other areas of emotional abuse more common in organizing spaces include a person using their masculinity, size, or other (unfulfilled) threat of violence; or sexual harassment (persistently asking women out, commenting on their bodies, etc.).  Similar to physical abuse frameworks, an act that occurs once and is not a pattern cannot be considered emotional abuse, but could be considered something more like “emotional assault” and would need to be taken seriously.

We believe emotional abuse is far more common among left milieus than rape and sexual assault and it deserves far more attention than it currently receives.  Furthermore, it is worth noting that emotional abuse often occurs between comrades who are not in romantic or sexual relationships, and can turn into behaviors that support the work of the state in disrupting our political work.

Gendered Issues in Romantic and Sexual Relationships.

In exploring gendered contradictions relating to romantic and sexual relationships within left milieus, many have turned to Clémence X. Clementine’s “Against the Couple-Form” published in the Lies Journal I.  Clementine correctly identifies the ways in which feminized people are oftentimes mediated by their male partners when they choose to date their comrades.  They write:

“Men grant women access to the action and the discourse by developing sexual relations with men from this circle.  Un-coupled women, those loose dogs, remain on the periphery, always at a distance from the space where debates, projects, and events are played out.  The couple acts as a social form that requires women, in order to participate in whatever practice or domain they desire, to attach themselves to men via the couple mechanism.  The couple-form often constitutes the single device that protects a woman from the misogyny of a group of men.  Who’s that?  Oh, I think it’s Zach’s girlfriend, Ben’s ex.  Women become known for their relationships to men, not for their contributions or intellectual or political life.  Women’s lives diminish to their roles as the wife of R or the mistress of J, not poets, theorists, or revolutionaries in their own right” (47).

While we disagree with the conclusions Clementine draws in this piece (to be discussed in parts 3 and 4 of this project), we agree with their description of our objective conditions. Women and feminized people who date comrades very often end up being mediated by the men they date.  This dynamic is further complicated as breakups occur and women, who often have secondary relationships to a political project, are pushed out.  This dynamic repeats itself in non-hetero relationships if one person in a breakup has more intellectual or social credibility than the other.  These contradictions are compounded in polyamorous relationships.  Essentially, none of the many various forms of romantic and sexual relationships are able to simply absolve themselves of the objective gendered contradictions of society.

Image Credit: AK Rockafeller via Flickr Creative Commons
Image Credit: AK Rockafeller via Flickr Creative Commons

Informal Misogynistic Group Culture.

These more subtle forms of expression of sexism typically affect all feminized militants.  In particular, certain forms of engagement that value only intellectual knowledge, misogynistically dismiss or overlook women’s contributions, or rely on a kind of “one-upping” that usually only manages to attract already developed militants of certain cultural backgrounds.  Because of the historical social division of labor based on gender and race, it tends to be white men who are able to engage in these forms of discourse.  There are, of course some women, queers, and black and brown people who either fight their way through these dynamics or are themselves at home in it.  However, generally we have seen these dynamics silently build milieus that are homogenous, largely male, and largely straight and white.  This dynamic is reproduced by feminized people themselves, who are socialized to put the needs of others before their own, resulting in their own lack of intellectual and political development.  The left generally lacks methods for dealing with this objective situation and ends up informally reproducing these dynamics.

Challenges for Dealing with Sexism on the Left.

We want to be real—we have never heard a story of a happy ending with regards to addressing sexism on the left.  We do not think this is because everyone has failed in a subjective way.  Besides the overarching impossibility of eradicating patriarchy, here are some of the more specific conditions that have proven challenging.

The Failure of Feminism.

Struggles to defeat patriarchy on the left aren’t new.  There are written accounts, since before the First International, from women who struggled to show their male comrades why “women’s issues” were important for the workers’ movement.  More recently in the last round of mass struggle in the U.S., women broke from groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to form autonomous women’s groups that developed a variety of ways for dealing with patriarchy from consciousness-raising rap groups to separatist communes.  Reflecting those forms of activity, there was intense debate among the white women’s movement about whether to orient to the (male) left or simply break away from men completely.  Similarly, it is well documented that sexism existed within majority people of color groups like the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Many women of color chose to stay in those organizations and reform them from within, pushing for increased awareness of women’s issues and sexism within their respective groups.  Notably, groups like the multiracial Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) attempted to incorporate lessons from the failures of the 1960s and developed protocols and systems for dealing with “male chauvinism,” including instituting a Women’s Commission that would investigate gendered issues as they arose.  Similarly, groups like the Combahee River Collective attempted to synthesize the lessons of the 60s/70s at the tail end of the movement, building on the autonomism of the moment by developing a black lesbian-specific politics that provided the practical basis for today’s identity politics.  Unfortunately, none of these models were able to truly deal with patriarchy on the left, though some were able to mitigate its effects to some extent.

We will look closer at the different methods in parts 3 and 4 of this project.  However, for now, it is safe to say that part of the reason these methods failed is simply that the working class as a whole did not move in that direction.  While feminism made many gains in the 1960s and 70s and qualitatively shifted gender relations, it failed to produce a new revolutionary Subject that would become the vanguard of class struggle.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 70s, black power remained the vanguard, and in many ways, women’s liberation tailed black power.  The same could be said for black feminism and gay liberation.  Furthermore, these movements were absorbed by capitalist accumulation strategies via “equality” politics.  We agree with Endnotes’ formulation that “[women] were caught between demanding freedom as the ideal, equal human, and freedom as different.  This is because their ‘real difference’ under capitalism is not ideal or ideological but embodied, and structurally reproduced through practices which define women as different.”  To place this idea in our context, the failure of 1960s and 70s feminism was its lack of class analysis, and therefore its inability to move beyond reformist claims toward equality within the labor market.  This left feminism unable to deal with the totality of patriarchal relations, leaving it trapped in singular, individual expressions of patriarchy and sexism.  In that sense, today’s problematic of gender, patriarchy, and sexism within the left is merely a reflection of these relations within the working class and the class’s own inability to transcend them.

Image Credit: Shelly via Flickr Creative Commons
Image Credit: Shelly via Flickr Creative Commons

The Legacy of the Left.

We have written elsewhere about the limits of identity politics and intersectionality theory.  In sum, intersectionality theory is a one-sided expression of the totality of gendered and racialized social relations under capitalism, viewing race and gender as autonomous systems of oppression that intersect with capitalism, instead of as existing as part of the historical and logical development of capitalism itself;  Cinzia Arruzza names this framework “Dual or Triple Systems Theory.”  Furthermore, identity politics and its expression in intersectionality theory precludes the possibility of transcending or abolishing gender and race through a process of transcending or abolishing capitalist relations themselves.  

Much more could be said about these debates; however, for the purposes of this article, we believe identity politics and its expression in intersectionality theory frustrates our ability to deal with sexism on the left.  As identity politics tends to flatten social relations into individual expressions, it seeks to unite entire groups of people, with a wide range of experiences under one “identity” category.  One example of this would be the argument that all women should give up their careers for their families (this ignores the fact that many women do not have careers, do not want careers, do not have families, etc.).  Another example is the argument for quantitative representation in bourgeois politics or in a political space, regardless of the actual politics being put forward:  if a woman isn’t present, if a transwoman isn’t on the nonprofit’s Board, if a black woman isn’t on the panel, the work and political arguments being made are irrelevant and inherently patriarchal.  Again, this overemphasizes one side of a total social relation.  These are the conditions which bear the rampant identity politics that seeks to categorize and divide people, remaining in the realm of a one-sidedness, and refusing to move toward objective universality (gender and race liberation).

Furthermore, the slogan “the personal is political” is contradictory and reflects both the positive content of identity politics and its imminent limitations.  The slogan attempts to call attention to the material conditions women face in society as isolated, natural/non-existent humans; it is a call to socialize the individual gendered experiences we all face as a generalized aspect of gendered relations under capitalism.  Many women militants are excluded from political spaces, or are treated as sexual accessories to men’s political work.  Most are told that they cannot make personal interventions based on experience or emotion, only political ones.  By telling women repeatedly that they have to make their claims “political,” they end up using political language to describe deeply personal events.  The limitations of “the personal is political” are well documented, including the slogan’s interpretation as an individualistic cultural intervention.  Many women in the early 1970s built rigid, sectarian groupings with membership requirements that extended deep into the personal lives of its members, including rules around sexuality (for example strict lesbianism or celibacy), appearances (for example uniforms and short hairstyles), families (for example women-only living arrangements or bans against married women), etc.  This tension exemplified in “the personal is political” illuminates a contradictory relationship between what is materially two separate spheres under capitalism.  Yet, there lingers a tendency among the left to forcefully overlap the two spheres.  However, as we will discuss further in part three of this project, we find a danger in completely conflating personal and political categories in this moment.

Similarly, the 1960s-1970s New Left was overwhelmingly rooted in an understanding that they were pre-figuring the new society.  There were moments when many people believed a second American revolution was right around the corner and there was therefore a great need to build new institutions, infrastructures and relationships; it was believed necessary to create whole new ways of being.  A fundamental flaw in this logic is the idea that a revolutionary left can actually build anything new, separate from a mass movement.  The cadre organizations built by second wave separatist feminists, for example, did not reflect new relationships built through a mass movement but structures developed ideologically and legislated from above.  This tendency is carried over into today’s left, who believes it is possible to build organizations and scenes that are free from racism, patriarchy, homophobia, etc., isolated from mass struggle.

The Low Movement Time We Find Ourselves In.

Finally, the left is extremely limited by the current low movement time.  When the working class is not moving, we lack new theoretical and practical tools for working out the contradictions of capital.  Endnotes discusses this phenomenon in their reflection on the 2010-2013 international “squares” movements: “Without the capacity to move out of the squares and into society—without beginning to dismantle society—there is no possibility for undoing the working class relation on which the proletariat’s internal divisions are based.”  Simply put, we are small, we are isolated, we are limited.  We must keep this in mind when we attempt to solve any problem of our current moment.  

Furthermore, political people and organizations are limited by the praxis (or lack thereof) developed by the working class.  Praxis is not detached from the movement of the working class.  In fact, it is just the opposite: the social moment determines what we are able to do and understand.  The working class moves and creates collective possibilities for us all.  We are not above the working class and we do not have special skills or theories that the working class is divorced from.  If we consider ourselves separate and special, we are only replicating the worst traditions of Marxism from the utopian socialists to the Stalinists.  As communists pulling from libertarian traditions, we agree with Raya Dunayevskaya when she writes, “the actions of the proletariat create the possibility for the intellectual to work out theory.”  In other words, the left cannot possibly make leaps without sections of the working class making those leaps socially possible.  This idea holds for dealing with issues like sexism and patriarchy.

In the next two parts of this series, we will look further at how the left currently attempts to deal with problems of sexism within the left, some critiques and possible solutions.

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