Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

Pothik Ghosh

Demands for harsh and summary punishment for rapists, or for that matter, stringent laws to deal with  rape – fuelled as they are by moral outrage – do little else than reinforce the capitalist structure of patriarchy that thrives on gendered division of labour between waged productive work and unwaged reproductive work. For, any such legal-juridical demand or move is willy-nilly grounded in the assumption that the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations need not be transformed to protect women from sexual violence. In fact, such self-righteous moral outrage underpinned by the lust for inquisitorial-gladiatorial spectacle is, at the systemic-structural level, nothing but an ideology that legitimises the capitalist-patriarchal structure. It tends to reinforce the general consensus – precisely by marshalling the crises of the system it can no longer conceal – that the only matrix capable of protecting women against violence is one that is normatively capable of instituting stringent laws against perpetrators of such sexual and/or gender violence, ensures their strict enforcement and delivers harsh punishment to offenders. The reinforcement of such a consensus does no more or less than preserve and reproduce the structure of gendered division of labour, and sexual inequality.

Moral Outrage and Capitalist Juridicality

The legal-juridical approach to protect women not only denies them autonomous agency, as it serves to interpellate them as unequal subjects of a gendered socio-economic system, but also masks the implication of the agency of all its citizen-subjects in that gender-unequal structure of social power. Meanwhile, those citizen-subjects, who turn agents of such legal-juridical approach to anti-systemic politics, live in the neurotic comfort of condemning rape and baying for the blood of rapists even as they perpetuate the gender-unequal structure of social power through their agency as citizen-subjects of civil society and its constitutive unit: the family. This structure of social power is the very condition of possibility for such gruesome acts of sexual and gendered violence, which are, therefore, its cultural and ideological embodiments or mediations. Hence, such moral outrage of citizen-subjects ties up neatly with the legal-juridical approach that serves to sidestep the fundamental question of socio-economic transformation by sweeping the collective consciousness clean of it, thus enabling the system to manage its structural crisis by transferring it, either fully or partially, from one location to another. As a consequence, the system is not only preserved but it also reproduces itself through the further extension of its panoptic web of biopower and the political-economic logic that inheres in it. Clearly, morally outraged demands for fixing gruesome acts of sexual violence such as rape in their sheer immediacy is the political language constitutive of a subjective agency of opposition that is integral precisely to the extended reproduction of the very system it seeks to oppose in one of its many determinate moments. That, needless to say, reinforces the legal-juridical approach even as it precludes the transformation of the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of socio-economic power through its decimation.

The immediate fight against sexual violence such as rape must grasp such despicable violence not as a problem of sheer lawlessness that, therefore, can be eliminated through the enforcement of the law and the reinforcement of its concomitant system, but as a crisis of the very system and its structure that, therefore, needs to be destroyed in order to abolish such crises integral to it. Rape is not an aberration of the system that the latter can eradicate by asserting – instituting/enforcing – the law that holds the system together as its raison d’ etre. Rather, it is one of the many forms of heinously oppressive violence that is integral to regimes of class domination that is enshrined in and as the systemic rule of law. Hence, the eradication of rape and other such forms of coercive patriarchal oppression, which make for the constitutive exception of the law, is contingent not on extending the remit of the legal. Instead, it lies precisely in the abolition of the law and the capitalist socio-economic structure coeval with the legal and, which to reiterate the earlier point, is the condition of possibility of patriarchy and all its forms of control and coercion.

It is no accident that moral outrage against gruesome acts of rape and sexual violence, which fuel demands for either more stringent anti-rape laws or harsh punishment for rapists, or both, is inseparable from disciplinary control over the vector of women’s bodies and lifeworlds. All for their safety and security. The social, if not the individual, subject that articulates both those discourses is indivisible.

This argument does in no way, however, preclude the question of politically fighting rape in its immediacy. Rather, what it insists on is the inescapable need for such a struggle to figure how the general strategy of fighting capital in order to overcome it should articulate its tactics in their immediacy, and not be conflated with it to be hypostatised. The legal-juridical fight against rape is a tactical position that ought not to be blinded by the affect of moral outrage that animates it to the strategy of decimating the capitalist-patriarchal structure. A strategy that ought to inform, articulate and orientate the social subject waging the immediate, tactical struggle for legal-juridical measures against rape. As for the question about whether or not moral outrage about rape is necessarily inseparable from patriarchy, the need is clearly to deal with it at its two different levels of determination: one of individual subjectivity and the other of social subjecthood. In the first instance, the correlation is not necessary, while in the second case, if the morally outraged social subject is interpellated by the legal-juridical approach and is thus rendered incapable and/or unwilling to pose the fundamental structural (or mediated) question then moral outrage is doubtless coeval with patriarchal power. It is actually no less than the ideology of capital in this, its late conjuncture. Of course, there is no duality between the two subject-positions as they are in a dialectic. And precisely, therefore, there can be no unidirectional determination. That is, an individual subjectivity of moral outrage, even if it is informed by a conception of social subject for structural transformation, cannot, merely by claiming to be informed by such radical subjectivity, stand in as such for the actuality of the radical, system-transforming social subject. That social subject, which is incipiently present in the subjectivity of a radical individual, has to be generalised beyond that incipience for it to be sustained in its actuality. Politics is what politics does. Not what it says it does.

Class Struggle on the Woman Question

Therefore, the woman question should not be reduced to a question of juridical identity and that it should, in its tactical determinateness, articulate the generalised strategy of class antagonism. This is not to say that rape becomes a secondary question from the vantage point of revolutionary working-class politics. And that, therefore, the struggle of the hour is for socialism, whose coming would automatically take care of gender inequality and sexual oppression. Instead, there is an urgent need to stake out a revolutionary working-class position with regard to intervention in gruesome instances of sexual violence where the public consensus is single-mindedly focused on meting out harsh punishments – death by hanging, castration, etc – while remaining incapable of or unwilling to question how gender-insensitive laws and law-enforcement are integral to the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations, or social power.

However, what must at this juncture be openly acknowledged, and admitted – without a shred of ideological sophistry – is that the dominant current of movements, which have based themselves on the conceptual centrality of the class question, have been paradigmatically blind to how, among other things, capital has engendered class. In other words, the working-class movement should recognise that its dominant tendencies have failed to foreground how the structure of capital has divided labour and thus segmented the working class through the political-economic specification, re-inscription and re-articulation of the pre-capitalist gendered power relations. The capitalist structure has specified pre-capitalist patriarchy to effect gendered hierarchisation of the domains of productive and reproductive work to enable transfer of value to preserve and perpetuate a system constitutive of differential rates of exploitation (extraction of surplus value). Not just that. The capitalist-patriarchal ideology of ‘legitimate’ sexual inequality generated by this gendered privileging of productive over reproductive work has been instrumental in the gendered segmentation of labour – through unspoken custom if not enshrined contract – in the productive sphere itself as also the larger sphere of so-called non-work socialisation. The working-class movement would, therefore, do well to realise that the paradigmatic blindness of its dominant tendencies to this dimension of our political-economic reality has yielded a conception of working-class unity that is nothing but the instrumentalisation of the everydayness of working-class women by the politics of the male proletariat. That has rendered the latter the oppressive intermediaries of capital and dominant petty-bourgeois agencies of property-forms vis-à-vis the former. In short, such ‘working-class unity’ has been integral to the restoration of capitalist class power.

The women’s movement would, meanwhile, do well not to repeat such a paradigmatic error. The specification, and rearticulation, of the gendered relations of power by the capitalist structure cuts both ways. Capital does not merely engender class but also, in the same movement, classi-fies gender. It marshals gender inequality to segment the working-class even as the homogeneity of gender is itself subjected to a class-based internal differentiation based on a hierarchically relational gradation of property-form and labour-dimension. In such circumstances, to target only patriarchy as the root of such gender oppression and sexual violence as honour killings, rape and so on is to attack only the ideological form – culture if you will – of gender oppression and violence while leaving the capitalist structure that animates or articulates it intact. A structure that is capable of coopting anti-patriarchal women’s  movements by articulating them in a manner that enables such movements to raise the perfectly just demands for the abolition of various unfreedoms that shackle womankind in its gendered entirety even while bringing emancipation from such gendered unfreedoms to certain locationally select segments and sections of women to the exclusion of the rest, and thereby neutralising the movements by weakening the strength and/or energy of the mass that drives such movements by accentuating the segmentation within it.

Towards the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

The point here is certainly not to join the chorus of status-quoist cynics, who are seeking to diminish the current anti-rape mass upsurge on the streets of Delhi as a middle-class fad. Such cynicism is insidious to say the least. Sexual violence and gender oppression cannot, by any stretch of imagination, qualify as a middle-class or petty-bourgeois concern. Insofar as gender inequality, which is a form of class domination, is co-constitutive of such violent oppression, sexual violence is a working-class question at its core. Rather, the point of the argument really is that the mass upsurge should recognise its objectively incipient working-class character so that it can be generalised. In short, this movement against sexual violence must not only challenge the dominant culture of patriarchy – which it is doing in large measure, thanks to the participation of various communist-left mass organisations and other radical women’s groups – but must also simultaneously become a struggle against segmentations and divisions within the gendered class of women proletarians if its battle against patriarchy has to really succeed. In other words, an effective struggle against patriarchy can only be a revolutionary working-class struggle. One that doesn’t evade the gender question in the name of some larger, beyond-gender working-class unity, but focuses on the gender question in its specificity in terms of rearticulation of the culture (ideology) of patriarchy within and by the materiality of capital. To do merely the former is the path of radical feminism while an approach that dialectically articulates the former with the latter is the feminism of proletarian militancy.

What would the adoption of such an approach mean in the concrete specificity of the current anti-rape mass movement in Delhi, though? For starters, it would not only mean stoutly resisting calls for capital punishment for or emasculation of the perpetrators of sexual violence but even steering clear of such juridical-legal demands as improving the abysmally low rate of conviction  in rape cases, making rape investigations less patriarchally prejudiced and strengthening our frail and ineffectual anti-rape laws. Such demands – which are currently emanating from the more politically progressive tendencies in the movement – presuppose that the current system is capable of delivering on them and that such delivery is contingent merely on some disembodied, spiritualised will of the system. In other words, the socio-political subject that articulates such demands is a subject of reformist politics interpellated by the juridical-legal ideology and the concomitant hope that the system is structurally capable of reform. It is, therefore, unwittingly or not, complicit in the perpetuation of the capitalist systemic structure that is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the generation of cultures of gender oppression and sexual violence. Clearly, the stress of radical politics cannot, for that reason, lie on mobilising the street to berate and condemn the patriarchal mindset of the administrators either. Such an approach to the state of affairs dovetails nicely with the juridical-legal mode of reformist politics because such condemnation implies that it can shake a patriarchally callous and prejudiced administration from its anti-woman mindset by the sheer force of its intensity, and that therefore there is no structural constraint on the latter to transform itself for the better. Nothing, as we have seen, is farther from the truth. Worse, the discourse of such politics, thanks to its reformist modality, is inevitably populist that can (often has) dangerously veer to the right in the course of the mass movement. For, registers and idioms have a way of taking a life of their own, not least because they are inscribed within systemically operational structures.

Radical political intervention should learn to shun the discourse of crime and punishment to relearn its classical language of oppression and resistance. A language that disentangles the question of justice from that of law by freeing the former from the hypostatized prison of the latter. It should pose the very same systemic problems – low conviction rate, weak laws, culturally biased investigation and custom-based, communitarian subjugation of bodies and lives of women – with regard to gender oppression and sexual violence such as rape to expose the structural incapacity of the system to reform itself and remedy the situation. And through such exposure conscientise – orientate if you will – the mass upsurge triggered by perception of such ‘crimes’ to demand the impossible of the system: that its administration, police and, eventually, its private and public corporations, must cede their governmentalised control over and determination of every aspect of the lifeworld of the working masses to the popular subjectivity of the mass movement. A politics based on demanding the impossible is needed in this case not only because the system is structurally incapable of riding itself of gender-inequality and the patriarchal ideology co-constitutive of it but also because the juridical-legal approach legitimizes the politics of demands the system can possibly deliver on and, in the process, articulates a subject that reproduces the logic of duality and determination – which is constitutive of the capitalist law of value and phallocentric patriarchy, both embodied by the state.

Only when the current mass upsurge comes to be animated by this radically (im)possibility will it have begun actualising its revolutionary incipience by struggling to not merely occupy Delhi but seeking to take control of that occupied urban spatio-temporality by re-organising the social relations constitutive of it through the general assembly-driven mode of popular vigilance into a free associational or solidaristic sociality. The actualisation of such a radical subjectivity by the movement in question would enable it to see and envisage its struggle against the system in its dialectical indivisibility with the task of re-organising the given social and production relations. Something the class power constitutive of the system in question tends to render impossible, thus making the deployment of popular force by those who struggle indispensable for their task of generating counter-power through such re-organisation of the given socio-economic relations. That would, inter-alia, put an end to the false and grossly counter-productive binary between violent and peaceful protests that we have seen emanating from within the movement over the past few days. One that threatens to sap the movement of its unity and energy, what with the clear and present danger of the movement being hijacked from within – either by the reformists or the petty-bourgeois right – staring it in the face.

That this is no flight of fancy is more than evident in what the anti-rape mass movement itself has thrown up. Some radical students and youth organisations and individuals of Delhi have imagined into being a campaign, as part of the ongoing protest movement, to “reclaim the nights of the city”. The carnivalesque spontaneity of this reclamation campaign posits – of course, in a rather nascent form – the possibility of an insurrectionary sociality of people’s militias that wrest Delhi and its streets from all oppressors – the rapists, as much as the police and administration that is structurally complicit in such oppression – for popular vigilance and control. That possibility must, however, be recognised if the campaign is not to get caught in its carnivalesque spontaneity and degenerate into another festival of the anarcho-desiring petty-bourgeois youth. Only through such recognition can the politically conscious elements of the revolutionary left that is part of the campaign seriously strive towards building wider solidarity networks with the larger sections of the working people of the city, beyond the student-youth axis of the current campaign. Such wide-ranging solidarity networks are, needless to say, indispensable and integral to the process of occupation of a city and the simultaneous subordination of the socio-economic process constitutive of it to popular vigilance and control. Ironically, it is only by organising the carnivalesque spontaneity of the so-called reclamation campaign into a mode of popular control and vigilance of the sociality that are the nights, as also the days, of Delhi can this carnival preserve itself by obviating its day-after to become, in Ernst Bloch’s words, a “concrete utopia” of uninterrupted insurrection.

Instead, what we have so far  from the radicals in the anti-rape mass movement, the communist left groups included,  is, at best, a version of the juridical-legal approach tinged with the rhetoric of radical feminism. This approach has given their politics, even though they raise precisely the very same set of pertinently concrete questions they ought to have raised in order to radicalize the situation, a disagreeably unradical populist odour. It even risks reversing the good faith of such politics into bad. Such juridical-legal demands, regardless of the nobility of intent of the subject of such politics, can only serve to further securitise and thus governmentalise the political discourse and enable the extension and intensification of repressive state apparatuses and biopolitical instrumentalities such as the police force, and CCTV cameras and global positioning systems in public spaces respectively. And that is because the nobility of its intent does little to change the fact that such politics is wholly geared towards eliciting governmental – executive, legislative and judicial – responses from the system. Those are not merely the only responses the system can possibly come up with but ones it must come up with in order to extend its dominion and thereby reproduce itself.

In a more general sense, the communist left must remember that a revolutionary subjectivity is not one that evades certain immediate questions that history/capital throws at it. Rather, that every such question is a ground for leap against capital and its history, and that such a leap can concretely, as opposed to abstractly, come about only if it is able to understand and plot its interventions with regard to the concreteness of those immediate or determinate questions in terms of two mutually related characteristic features of our responses as subjects situated within and informed by capitalism and its history: one, commonsense is ideological and two, our struggle against any immediate domination must in the same determinate instance also articulate a struggle against the generalised hegemony within whose structure both immediate domination and the struggle against it are situated. A social subject of opposition that is not orientated by such knowledge runs the grave and virtually imminent risk of falling prey to the cunning of capital in precisely the same moment when it puts up its most spirited fight against it.


  1. 17 Apr 2011 – Gender distinction, programmatism and communisation – Roland Simon. A discussion of gender distinction within capitalism by Roland Simon …

  2. Gilbert Sebastian, ‘Patriarchy and the Rise in Sexual Assaults in India: An Explanation’,
    Mainstream , VOL LI, No 13, March 16, 2013 at:

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