Revolution #194, March 7, 2010



[Editors' note: The following is the eleventh in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first ten excerpts appeared in Revolution #184-193. The entire talk can be found online at]

Crucial Experience of the 1960s and '70s

In light of the situation and the stakes, it is very important to critically review the historical experience and views of the revolutionary and communist movements on this question, and to grasp more firmly the need for yet a further radical leap and rupture. There is definitely a need for further investigation, study, analysis and synthesis in regard to all this, but the following speaks to some important aspects of this and can, in part at least, help provide a framework and guidelines for that further investigation, study, analysis and synthesis.

I want to begin by touching briefly on the movement of the 1960s and into the 1970s, and its legacy and aftermath.

Even as there were different trends ideologically and politically among the more radical forces in that period, these radical forces increasingly gained the initiative within the movements and struggles and the overall upheaval of those days. They were going up against, and seeking in various ways to pose radical alternatives to, the dominant forces in the world, in particular U.S. imperialism. But also, at least objectively and to no small degree consciously, they were rebelling against the revisionist parties and forces which were not only stodgy and conservative, in some general and abstract sense, but had themselves become defenders and advocates of the existing oppressive order, seeking at most some kind of adjustments or realignments within that order.

The women's movement coming out of the 1960s, and specifically the contributions as well as some shortcomings both in what it brought forward and how that was responded to by the broader movement, as well as the broader society, is the next point I want to speak to.

Extremely important questions were being raised and grappled with, particularly by the more radical forces within the women's movement that emerged out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, even though this was not on the basis of, and in some significant ways was objectively in opposition to, a consistently scientific approach. But economist influences and related tendencies within the new communist movement that emerged in that period, including the RU (Revolutionary Union) and then the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party), worked against the correct scientific assimilation and synthesis of very important things that were being raised by the women's movement. Valuable insights and important elements of a more advanced understanding were squandered by the communist movement at that time, as a result of economist and other erroneous influences.

So this emphasizes the importance of a more dialectical as well as materialist approach to what came out of that women's movement, even if we can say, as objectively we should, that this movement was largely characterized by a petit bourgeois orientation, not only, or even essentially, in terms of the class position of most of the women who took part in it, but more fundamentally in terms of its outlook and orientation. Nonetheless, on the part of that women's movement, and particularly its more radical sections, extremely important questions were being grappled with, and criticisms were being raised of the communist movement and its approach to the woman question at that time which had some validity and which should have been embraced in an overall sense and sifted through and synthesized in a way that they were not.

All this needed then, and definitely needs now, to be approached with the understanding that the status of women and the struggle for the emancipation of women will continue to have a tremendously important role, not only in the struggle for revolution but also in the transition toward communism once a new socialist society has been brought into being. Twenty years ago now, in "The End of a Stage—The Beginning of a New Stage" (Revolution magazine #60, Fall 1990), I grappled with the question of unresolved contradictions under socialism and how this can be a propelling and driving force to continue the socialist revolution toward the goal of communism and to combat and defeat revisionist influences and forces which would turn the revolution back. As spoken to earlier, unevenness and contradiction hold the basis and potential for change. The unresolved contradictions under socialism and their potential to be a driving and propelling force for continuing the revolution is another expression of this role of unevenness, in terms of its posing the potential for radical transformation. Among the most important of those unresolved contradictions which were spoken to in "End/Beginning" was precisely the aspects of the oppression of women that would persist in socialist society and the importance of the struggle for the complete liberation of women not only in its own right but as a driving force for continuing the revolution overall in socialist society.

The Visceral and the Theoretical

In this context, and in regard to the opportunities that were lost, or squandered, on the part of the communist movement to learn from and to correctly, scientifically assimilate many crucial things that were being raised by the women's movement at that time, there is a dimension that I want to touch on here, which might be captured in the formulation: the relation between the visceral and the theoretical. In the 1960s and into the '70s, there was, as a very vibrant, vital and crucial part—not just a legitimate part but a very vibrant, vital and crucial part—of the women's movement, the bursting forth of visceral feelings of outrage, of pent-up outrage over decades (and, in a larger sense, centuries and millennia) of the oppression of women. At times, this came forward in ways that were not thoroughly scientific, although it must be stressed that there has been, on the part of many forces within the women's liberation movement, serious work done and struggle waged in the theoretical sphere, with the aim of making scientific analysis of the oppression of women and the road to their liberation. Even where that fell short, there were important theoretical contributions that were made and important theoretical questions that were focused on and wrangled over, including by way of criticism of some of the stereotypical thinking and economist influences within the communist movement.

But the dynamic synergy between the visceral and theoretical, and the correct understanding and handling of this dialectical relation, is very important in regard to the oppression and the liberation of women, as it is in general in the development of the revolutionary struggle toward a whole new world. Just as in other dimensions of this, it is impossible to conceive of a correct understanding and the waging of the necessary struggle without the element of visceral hatred for the oppression, and without the correct approach to—the correct scientific assimilation and synthesis of—what is brought forward through the visceral expression of outrage at this oppression.

To put it another way, as is true with every important aspect of the revolutionary movement, it will be impossible to proceed on the right basis, with the right foundation, in struggling to uproot the oppression of women with only a theoretical understanding, though that is important and should in no way be underestimated. It is also indispensable to proceed, in a real sense, from a visceral feeling of all that it means to be female in this world. Our party's Declaration1 on the woman question speaks to this very powerfully, particularly in its opening sections, and it is worth reviewing that and continually returning to it, to reground ourselves in both the sweep of this and also the acuity of it, and the outrage of it.

There are the very egregious things that stand out in terms of the oppression of women in more "medieval" forms, particularly in the Third World, which people like Goldberg and Kristof and WuDunn2 are able to point to (and let us allow that they do speak to this out of a sense of genuine outrage). There is the whole phenomenon of "honor killings," where members of her own family will murder a woman, or young girl, if she "dishonors" the patriarchal family by being involved in sex outside of "approved" (and often arranged) marriage, even if this is a result of being raped! There is the whole way in which, in countries where the Islamic religion is dominant, a girl at a certain age suddenly is shrouded in a hejab or in a veil or a chador or a burkha, with everything that this concentrates in terms of the subordination of women. There are the wife burnings or widow burnings in a country like India. The selling of women on the international sex market in the millions and millions. The outright brutality at the hands of husbands (recalling the old saying in China, which expresses a viewpoint, and relations, that are deeply entrenched in societies throughout the world: "a woman married is like a pony bought, I'll ride her and whip her as I please"). The ongoing practice of female genital mutilation to which literally millions of girls are subjected every year—cutting out the clitoris, which deprives women of sexual satisfaction, and/or sewing shut the vagina to ensure "chastity" until marriage. The generalized acceptability of marital rape. The killing of girls at birth—which has re-emerged in China, for example, as a result of the reversal of the revolution and the restoration of capitalism, and the patriarchy and male domination which is an integral part of this—as well as the misuse and abuse of the right to abortion to carry out the abortion of specifically female fetuses, because females are deemed to be less valuable than males.

At the same time, while all this is very widespread in countries throughout the Third World, in the so-called "modern" imperialist countries there are no less egregious ways in which woman are demeaned and degraded, and yes brutalized through sexual and other violence on a massive scale.

In the "Revolution" talk (Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About), there is a section where it is said: Look at all these beautiful children out here—speaking specifically of the children in the inner cities of the U.S.—and the point is made that these children's fate is sealed, a life of oppression and degradation is set out for them, even before they are born, and soon the smiles and laughter and the carefree play that you can see among these children when they are very young will be turned into horror upon horror. All this is very true and very important, and again a visceral feeling about this, combined with a scientific theoretical understanding of its basis and of the basis for overthrowing and eliminating it, is indispensable for what we're all about.

But it's also very important to focus on the question: What does it mean to be born female in this world? Look at all these beautiful children who are female in the world. And in addition to all the other outrages which I have referred to, in terms of children throughout the slums and shantytowns of the Third World, in addition to all the horrors that will be heaped on them—the actual living in garbage and human waste in the hundreds of millions as their fate, laid out before them, yes, even before they are born—there is, on top of this, for those children who are born female, the horror of everything that this will bring simply because they are female in a world of male domination. And this is true not only in the Third World. In "modern" countries like the U.S. as well, the statistics barely capture it: the millions who will be raped; the millions more who will be routinely demeaned, deceived, degraded, and all too often brutalized by those who are supposed to be their most intimate lovers; the way in which so many women will be shamed, hounded and harassed if they seek to exercise reproductive rights through abortion, or even birth control; the many who will be forced into prostitution and pornography; and all those who—if they do not have that particular fate, and even if they achieve some success in this "new world" where supposedly there are no barriers for women—will be surrounded on every side, and insulted at every moment, by a society and a culture which degrades women, on the streets, in the schools and workplaces, in the home, on a daily basis and in countless ways.

How long does it take before the carefree play of female children—yes, in countries like the U.S.—gets turned into cutting themselves, in response to an unbearable feeling of worthlessness and despair, and often as a result of abuse; or starving themselves in an attempt to conform to the dominant and incessantly propagated notions of female beauty, with which their worth as a human being is equated and to which it is reduced? How long does it take before many girls who show intellectual curiosity and the spark of wanting to know about the world, and of learning about the world, learn instead to stifle that, to "play dumb" and stop speaking up, because it becomes all too clear to them that boys and men feel "threatened" by strong, competent and intelligent women? Or girls who, once having been actively involved in the joy of playing sports, give that up in order to be perceived as more "feminine." Girls in general who, whatever else may happen in their lives, will be insulted and assaulted by pornography and other degradation of women, soft core and hard core, from mainstream advertising to the most extreme and grotesque and perverse. Who will learn to accommodate themselves in various ways—or will be encouraged, and in many ways coerced, into accommodating themselves—to the oppressive relations that prevail and predominate in society, particularly as regards women; or, on the other hand, will be encouraged and will learn to become hardened and cynical, to treat everyone and everything, including themselves and their own bodies, as commodities, and will be further degraded and debased in the process; will learn to lower their sights and not to dream and think of fully taking part in every sphere of society nor dare to rise up and change society, including in the way that it treats women? All this too, is laid out for female children, including in countries like the U.S., even before they are born.

We could go on and on and on, detailing the further dimensions of this. Learning every day, and having to be mindful every day, of going through the world constantly seeking to guard against being assaulted, physically and/or sexually, all the way down to the smallest details of how you walk down the street, or enter and leave a building, whether or not and how you get on an elevator—having to carry these burdens every day through your life. Having normal and natural bodily and sexual functions—when girls' breasts develop or they begin to menstruate and go through other hormonal and physical changes—having all that portrayed in a thousand ways as an object of others' gratification and/or as something that's unclean and shameful (that's not just an old biblical injunction, it still has force and exerts its influence and force in ways that devalue and demean the human beings, the half of humanity, who are oppressed in this way).

As our party's Declaration very rightly insists, in the world today and where humanity now stands, all of this should, and could, be swept from the earth—and the fact that it is perpetuated and enforced by outmoded systems, and above all the dominant system of capitalism-imperialism, makes it all more outrageous.

More "postcards of the hanging"

It is a striking fact—which is starkly evident in the U.S. now—that, in comparison to what is done to women, there is no other group in society that is so systematically reviled and defiled in a way that has become acceptable (or widely accepted in any case) as a significant part of "mainstream" life and culture, as happens in a concentrated way through pornography and the extremely demeaning and degrading images and messages about women it massively and pervasively purveys (with the Internet a major focus and vehicle for this), including pornography's extensive portrayal of sadistic and violent sexual domination of women. (In this regard see, for example, Pamela Paul's book, Pornified, How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, Holt Paperbacks, 2005.)

I began the "Revolution" talk with "They're Selling Postcards of the Hanging," reviewing the ugly history of the lynching of Black people in America and the way in which celebration of this became a cultural phenomenon in the U.S., with the selling of picture postcards of these lynchings a major expression of this—often including smiling and leering crowds of white people surrounding the murdered and mutilated body of a Black man. In a recent exchange, a comrade emphasized this profoundly important and compelling point: Today, the way in which pornography depicts women—the displaying of women in a degraded state for the titillation of viewers—including the grotesque brutality and violence against women which is involved in much of this, is the equivalent of those "Postcards of the Hanging." It is a means through which all women are demeaned and degraded.

All this while pornography is an accepted part of Internet and other mainstream culture and is in fact a highly profitable business, through which billions of dollars are made each year and in which many "pillars" of the capitalist economy are heavily involved. And this "mainstreaming" of pornography is facilitated and furthered by the fact that the degradation of women is a regular feature of TV programs and other forms of "popular culture," which routinely use the term "bitch" and other demeaning words to refer to women, crassly discuss the physical attributes and commodity value of female body parts, and often extol the sexual conquest and domination of women by men.

As has been noted by Pamela Paul, and a number of other authors who have examined this phenomenon, the great increase in the dissemination and consumption of pornography in recent decades, along with its increasingly extreme forms of humiliating and degrading women, is unquestionably related to the inroads women have made in a number of previously "male only" spheres of society and the challenges that have been posed to male domination overall. This is occurring, however, within the confines of a system in which patriarchy and male domination have not been, and cannot be, eliminated or uprooted—but are, in fact, essential and indispensable components of capitalism, and indeed all systems marked by class division and exploitation and oppressive social relations. In such circumstances, and given the prevailing ideology that corresponds to continuing male domination, despite—and in significant ways because of—real challenges to it, pornography serves as a vehicle of crude and vicious revanchism, a forceful reassertion of relations and traditions in which women are subjugated by and subservient to men. In all this pornography has, in a real sense, a "mirror opposite identity" with fundamentalist religion in today's world, in its Christian as well as Islamic, and other, forms: they have in common a dark misogyny and determination to slam, and chain, women in a position of enforced subordination.

So when we say, "look at all these beautiful children," and then we confront the question of what does it mean to be born into this world?—this has profound meaning for the masses of oppressed people and it has a double meaning for the female half of humanity, not only among the most oppressed and exploited sections of society, but among all strata of women. Back in the days when the women's movement first emerged as a radical force in the late 1960s, focusing on the oppression of women as a crucial social question, some of the men who purported to be radical would come back with "quips" like: "Is Jackie Kennedy oppressed?" That was supposed to somehow be an answer to the fact, the very real fact, that the masses of women of all strata are treated as less than men, and in many ways as less than human. Yes, women of the ruling class take part in the exploitation of the masses of people. But that does not eliminate even their subordinate status within the ruling class, and it certainly does not eliminate the many and horrendous forms of the oppression of women of all strata throughout the world. We could go on and on and still not do justice to this, and still not give anything like full expression to what this means.

1. A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, Revolution #158, March 8, 2009. [back]

2. Michelle Goldberg, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin Press, 2009) and Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). [back]

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