Bhumika Chauhan, Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra
The project of systemic transformation does not allow one the liberty to pick and choose battles, points of entry, like commodities in the market place. A premise that is fundamental to such a project is that a single dominant principle structures this system; to us that principle is the labour-capital contradiction. This being our basic assumption, the move to an essentialised, sociologically specified understanding of class, where the “labour” of the “labour-capital” contradiction is embodied, for all times and all spaces, in a group of people (male workers; upper caste workers; white workers) is far from obvious. On the contrary, what follows logically from the assumption is that each moment (social, political, geographical, temporal) necessarily exists in a world structured by this fundamental contradiction. And if ours is to be a working-class intervention, then what is decided a priori, is only the optics that we make use of, not the moment that we choose for our intervention. Certain locations can take strategic precedence over others, but these too are decisions made in history.
Assuming thus, when we approach the “women’s question,” (constituted of a continuum of issues/sites that often seem discrete and unconnected – e.g. production, reproduction, sexuality, sexual violence etc.), the question only indicates the moment of intervention, but our project remains the same – of working-class revolution; so does the structuring principle of this system – the labour-capital contradiction. This moment, at which we intervene (the context being the recent anti-rape struggles), has already been shaped by utterances, interventions that have preceded ours, and even as we at Radical Notes formulate our own position (what we think to be a working class intervention on this question), we will necessarily have to engage with these prior utterances – at least those that we think to be useful, and others that we think to be woefully counterproductive. Later on in this essay, we will respond to recent interventions made by Maya John and Kavita Krishnan.
This is not the first time that this question has been taken up in the manner in which we seek to raise it, nor is ours an “original formulation” (none are, to be honest). Roughly forty years ago, Marxist-Feminists like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa among others were faced with the same question and very handy theorisations that they developed are still to be properly registered within the movement in India.
One of the earliest among these theorisations comes in a pamphlet from 1974, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’, authored by Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. The said pamphlet emerged from the Wages for Housework movement (1972) in Italy and the United Kingdom. The movement (and this pamphlet) was an attempt to respond to the women’s question without falling in line with the various varieties of liberal feminisms (which seemed to ignore altogether questions of labour and exploitation). But at the same time, the movement had to ensure that it did not echo another kind of Marxism that functioned with an essentialised understanding of “working class,” was unable to break with forms produced by past experiences, which were now ossified, and had foreclosed altogether many sites from ambit of conscious working-class intervention; these Marxists advised the women of the ‘70s to enter waged labour, which they deemed a precondition for “working-class-ness,” in order to fight for a more advanced capitalism, waiting always for the liberation to come that was socialism. We enact a farce in repeating those Marxist-Feminists, but then we are encountered by a farcical repetition; we find ourselves in a place very similar to the one that the above mentioned movement faced; admittedly Krishnan seems to embody both sides of the problem we just mentioned, and admittedly Maya John has chosen the right direction, though she has begun on the wrong step.
In her critique of John’s position on patriarchy Krishnan emphasises a manner of understanding sexual violence that fails to go beyond continual evocations of notions like “gender power”. Despite invoking the idea of women’s reproductive labour, she makes no concerted attempt to make this concept of power unfold in relation to capitalism, reproductive labour, etc. As was the case with the liberal feminists of yore, “misogyny” and “patriarchal attitudes” do still remain materially ungrounded ideological constructs in her theorisation.
In continuity with this same manner of thinking, which is unable to identify the materiality that unites diverse moments of struggle, diverse ideological forms, Krishnan goes on to argue that there is a need to “enrich our understanding of the intersections of class, caste, and patriarchy”. After ostensibly arguing that the women question is an important part of working class politics, and after accepting the specific division of male and female instituted by capitalism, Krishnan uses the notion of ‘intersection’ as if these identities/issues occupy specific grounds and intersect only at certain moments. In a single sentence the falseness of her welcome-to-Marxist-analysis is revealed, for any such analysis would assume that class does not simply intersect with gender, it structures the very terrain on which the struggles of all these identities (caste, gender, etc.) are played out. Even though Krishnan will evoke modes of production when trying to understand the relation between capitalism and patriarchy, such a manner of approaching the question will never be operative in the political-strategic programme that she envisages. In that programme womanhood is one identity, class another, all to be addressed by the good leftist organisation – nothing is to be excluded. In the words of Laclau, another sophisticated anti-Marxist, she envisages her politics as the attempt to resolve “a variety of partial problems”. Her attempt is not to identify how a fundamental contradiction in the system structures all other moments of struggle, but to form an aggregative alliance of identities.
A working-class organisation necessarily assumes the key role that the labour-capital contradiction plays. Class-struggle structures the very terrain on which historically specific moments of struggle occur; in order to catalyse the self-organisation of the working class the task becomes to try and understand these moments of intervention keeping in mind the relation between the generality of class-struggle and specific historical determinations. It is in this manner that the working class (with the help of its organisations, that are produced and dismantled in the struggle) analyses itself, and the forms of segmentation instituted by capitalism, so as to recompose itself as a conscious collectivity. In such recomposition, segments of the working class, say working class women, necessarily declare their autonomy, but only in order to transcend autonomy. To transcend this autonomy is to overcome the gendered segmentation of the working class, and this is the manner in which the gender relation and its transcendence get played out in the terrain of class-struggle. But Krishnan takes a different standpoint.
Krishnan asks, “Do working class women not seek the freedom to move freely in the public space without fearing rape; the freedom to marry in defiance of caste and community norms; the freedom from domestic violence?”
From the very manner of speaking one can glean that this is the position of an organisation trying to rationalise its interventions to its Leftist interlocutors by asserting: “Don’t’ you see? This is a working-class issue too, not only a middle class issue”. As if their intervention was predicated upon a working-class understanding of the issue, as if their interventions were not made at a moment and in a manner that would facilitate their image construction in front of an evidently “conscious” middle class. A look at Liberation’s track record will bear this out. They jumped into the anti-corruption campaign, probably drawn by its effervescence. As they entered, they appended what they thought to be working-class demands to their agenda, maintaining throughout the form that had already been instituted by the Anna brigade. The same has been their attitude towards the anti-rape struggle. In fact this recent intervention roots out any doubts about the bad faith that governed their intervention in the anti-corruption campaign. The terms of the struggle had already been decided by the middle-class subjectivity of the petty-bourgeoisie and the dominant segments of the working class.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to find even a glimmer of whatever one could possibly associate with working-class politics in Krishnan’s now famous speech, or any of her writings. Prior to this last article, in which John forces her to engage with the discourse of working class politics, in all her utterances Krishnan has been absolutely true to her liberal-feminist mould.
An example: The tactics deployed by the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ campaign addresses the bourgeois-democratic state and there is nothing in their articulations to indicate that their demands (e.g. Justice Verma Committee Recommendations, etc.) are formulated as a moment of a larger process that would lead to the dismantling of the system in its totality. Think also of the ‘Take Back the Night’ – like politics that Krishnan is implicitly defending in her recent essay. Can such a tactic be anything but merely symbolic unless it is grounded in the working class struggle for the right to the city, night and day? When we ask almost in the same breath for diverse kinds of legalist measures in the name of generating a safe city that will allow the state to intrude and monitor the everyday life, for whom are we claiming this night really? Certainly not for those who sleep on these streets. And is not the form of reclamation important? If the working class were to reclaim control over time and space, as we at Radical Notes have asserted repeatedly, it could only take the form of an occupation that seeks to dismantle the state, dismantle the very manner in which time and space are structured today. To reclaim the night in the manner in which these campaigners conceive of it, is to affirm the right of the state to adjudicate claims. Is not this always already a compromised form of politics – one that has absolutely no relation with the revolutionary aims of the working class? This really is the question that the “revolutionary-Leftist” defenders of these struggles must answer.
Another example, this time from Krishnan’s article: Charging John of misreading Friedrich Engels, Krishnan suggests that Engels actually argued that ‘…the relationship between the working men and women was more likely to be based on mutual equality and love than those among the bourgeoisie.’
Let us quote something rather out of place here. Kafka once wrote, ‘The belief in progress is not the belief that progress has already happened.’ Krishnan, in her attack on John, seems to deny that the working class is living a dehumanised life. Krishnan could turn around and say that she was merely responding to John’s over-emphasis, and that her utterance had a context. John was arguing that the working class is unable to live a good life (of relationships, community, of socialising, etc.) that the “middle class” (analytically, a rather dubious term that both Krishnan and John deploy) enjoys. Strange for an intervention concerning the women’s question, in her response, Krishnan underplays the gendered segmentation of the working class. If the working class is more likely to form relations of love and be happy in them, it probably has fewer reasons to fight; if the present is good and has greater possibilities (likelihood) of goodness, why raise the question of impossibility – which is revolution? The social democratic underpinnings of Krishnan’s position are never clearer than here. The fact that the working class is internally segmented is the single greatest problem that defers revolution. Like all good social democrats of the past (including CPI(ML)-Liberation’s unacknowledged role model CPI(M)), Krishnan too tries to play down internal segmentation.
It is in her response to Maya John that Krishnan, for the first time, puts forth the claim that the anti-rape movement (presumably in the manner in which it was envisaged by her organisation) had revolutionary aims. Though she may now argue that rape is a working-class issue and while she may even theorise the role of the reproductive labour of women in capitalism, her theory is not a theory for practice. She does not tell us what such a conceptualisation of women’s labour means for the struggle of the working class, nor do the above-mentioned campaigns bear out her claims. This is probably why she and her organisation seem unable to distinguish between raising the issue of sexual violence and rape as a working-class issue, and the populist-opportunist attempt to take the middle-class position on this issue to the working class.
Maya John does try to develop a coherent understanding of what would the shape of a working-class intervention on this question be. Her dismissal of the so-called dual-system theory is an aspect of this attempt. But even John, though she establishes the political-economic grounding of patriarchy in the capitalist mode of production, seems unable to move on to the political-strategic wisdom that can be extracted from this insight. In order to develop what this wisdom may be, we can begin with certain problems in John’s essay.
John seems to imply the “image of subjugation” and the ideology of female inferiority emanate from the materiality of those situations of subjugation in which the working-class woman is placed. The “middle-class” woman, insofar as she does not occupy these moments, is deemed inferior because she too has to carry the burden of this image – she is not actually subjugated. According to John, a working-class man attacks a rich woman because at that moment he finds her in the same position as that of the working-class woman (‘vulnerable’, ‘out in the street’ as opposed to in the protection of her household, etc.), and finds her more attractive, presumably because of having internalised certain norms of beauty, etc.
A simple enough criticism of such a position is that John is unable to comprehend the material moorings that ideology develops. Another equally pertinent criticism is that John fails to see the materiality of the subjugation of that middle-class woman who does perform reproductive labour, and in doing so reproduces her family’s middle-class status.
The problem perhaps begins with the categories deployed. So long as the term ‘middle class’ is used to refer to struggles and subjective positions that attempt to protect privilege, we are fine. But the category becomes dubious once it is used without qualifications, to refer to a group of people, because then the phenomenological appearance of the fact begins to shape theorisation and we end up reducing class merely to a sociological fact, which it is not. Greater complications enter when we deal with gender and the matter of the woman’s reproductive labour. Who is a middle-class woman, first of all? Is she the wife of a petty bourgeois man? Does she not do housework, and does she not rear ‘his’ children? Or, is the middle-class woman a woman in a petty bourgeois occupation? Is she then a small business owner or a subsistence farmer? There surely aren’t many of those around. Is the middle-class woman a woman in a mid-level pay grade with some degree of control over her work process? Even if that were so, she does not escape sexual discrimination and harassment outside and inside the house. Inside the house, she too has to perform her domestic duties or at least sexual ones (‘bad sex’). One must then decide where to draw that line in the quantity of wage and control over work (productive and reproductive) beyond which the difference becomes qualitative. Is it possible that John’s overemphasis on the category of “middle-class-ness” precludes the very possibility of a working-class intervention by not allowing one to recognise the fact the middle-class woman too is, in material fact, a worker?
Even more important is another oversight on Maya John’s part. She asserts again and again that the problem with ‘feminism’ is that it is stuck on the question of male-female equality, whereas at the heart of all battles lies the question of liberation, which is the question of the working class. What John fails to grasp, is the possibility of the question of gender inequality becoming a moment in the struggle of the working class. Unfortunately, in her theorisation the women’s question becomes another question added serially to the list of issues that a working-class organisation raises (in this her theorisation bears an unfortunate likeness to Krishnan’s). Insofar as it is a working-class organisation it will raise the women’s question for working-class women. This John argues by asserting (rightly) the significance of the internal segmentation of women along class lines. While this is an important moment in theorising a working-class perspective on the women’s question, the next important moment is to explore how the working class itself is segmented along gender lines. It is right that the middle-class woman while battling her inferior position as a woman through middle-class or bourgeois struggles (as is the case with most gender-sensitisation campaigns) maintains her class privilege, in that being not only an agent but also an agent of capital. But something more interesting emerges when we look at this from another angle.
More generally, by accumulating the wife’s unpaid (sexual and non-sexual) labour through the husband, capital converts the husband into its agent at that specific moment, and the struggle against such subjection, which is the cause of segmentation of the working class, is the core of the struggle of the working class. In the particular case of sexual violence and rape that forms the context of the current debate: in treating the upper-class women as an object for sex, and for subjugation (when he gets the chance), the working-class man is effectively perpetuating a subjective attitude and an objective relation of social power that extends, even originates with his treatment of working-class women. The working-class woman enters this debate on sexual violence towards an upper-class woman by asserting that this attitude toward women (even when we use the word attitude, let us not forget the materiality of all ideology) keeps the working-class segmented; the working-class man exploits women and, in that, reproduces the capital relation and forms of segmentation capitalism institutes. The reconstitution of the working class into a class-for-itself demands that the “male-ness” of the male-worker be thoroughly deconstructed, and this constitutes the feminist moment of working-class struggle. At each moment in which the working-class man acts assuming the inferiority of women, he acts as an agent of capital, and a working-class women’s struggle questions him at these moments, and attacks his metamorphosis into an agent of capital.
The problems that we have enumerated, mostly follow from misunderstandings, from blocks/limits to thought that are direct results of limits to working-class experience that capitalism institutes. Capitalism, as we pointed out, institutes and reproduces forms of segmentation within the working class. This segments experiences of struggle too, where each segment mistakes its own interests for the interests of the class.
Krishnan’s position is, in a sense, one that emerges from and conceptualises a particular experience of struggle – an experience of those who are more embourgeoised, having greater control over their work, having greater share of value. It is such a class segment that generalises its experience and seeks alliance of other segments, which are lower on the hierarchy created by unequal apportionment of value. This alliance assumes this unequal distribution, and in that assumes/reproduces the capital relation itself, and is futile, if not counter-productive, for the struggle of the working-class in its entirety. It is this class segment that has managed a share in the spoils of battles the working class lost, and asserts repeatedly that the present is not that bad and can be improved – it is this that defines their position even if they use the language of militancy.
John’s problems too emerge from the same fundamental issue of experience. If the social democrat (of the Krishnan variety) asks the lower segments of the working class to ally with those higher up (the middle class), a position that can be drawn from John’s essay is that the working class man and woman have to ally (side-stepping the question of man-woman equality), and wage a struggle against those within the working class who consume a greater share of value. While this struggle is necessary, in seeking such unity (alliance) John does not take into account the materiality of the segmentation that capitalism has instituted through the division of production-reproduction and waged and unwaged.
At the cost of repetition, but for the sake of clarity, we will try once again to establish what we think the working-class position on this question to be. The project of the working class, in the final analysis, proceeds not through provisional alliances between segments of the working class, but through the intensification of struggle between these segments. For this, we return to the conceptualisations of the Marxist-Feminists we had begun by naming.
What is significant for us in responding to the women’s question from a working-class perspective, or, which is in effect the same thing, to understand gender relations as structured by the labour-capital relation, is the position of the working-class women (in asserting this we agree with John; but we hope to repair some of her oversights). Almost all women play a part in the reproduction of society since almost all do housework (housekeeping, reproduction and socialisation of children) and cater to the sexual needs of men [society]. This sexual subordination cuts across class. But the ‘working-class’ woman becomes even more important for capital since she not only provides her labour-power for waged work, she also reproduces the working-class man’s labour-power, as well as his children. In this hers is ‘the determinant for the position of all other women.’ (James and Dalla Costa, 1975, 21)
‘The very unity in one person [the working women] of the two divided aspects of capitalist production presupposes not only a new scope of struggle but an entirely new evaluation of the weight and cruciality of women in that struggle’. (James 1975, 13)
Hence the need to thoroughly examine the nature of reproduction and reproductive labour of the working-class woman.
Under capitalism, the factory became the locus of the socialisation of production and those who worked in the factory (or office) received a wage. Those who did not work in the factory were excluded from the socialisation of production. Moreover, while the man moved out as ‘free’ wage-labourer and formed bonds with other workers, the woman was confined to the isolation of the home. But let us not be fooled: the social factory too is a centre of production and reproduction. It is capitalism’s separation of production and reproduction that makes the reproductive labour (of women) appear external to the rule of capital. This separation is one of the most fundamental means that capital has for segmenting the working class.
This becomes easier to see when we realise that labour-power and capital are not things but social relations. If the physicality of wage is not over-emphasised it becomes apparent that in the same way in which wage hides the appropriation of surplus value produced by the factory worker, the lack of wage removes from sight the fact that the very same wage that the factory worker receives, also hides the exploitation of the woman who produces labour-power at home. To put it briefly: ‘When women remain…outside the socially organised productive cycle’, they are assumed to be ‘outside social productivity’ (James and Dalla Costa 1975, 32).
Furthermore, it is generally believed that a housewife produces only use-value, and therefore is not exploited per se. Even those who recognise the exploitation of women at the factory, see only the oppression of women at home, not the exploitation. But, as many Feminist-Marxists have argued, when we understand the reproductive sphere of capital as the social factory, the real nature of women’s work is exposed. Unwaged housework done mostly by women produces that most important commodity of all: labour-power. Even though the woman produces it, it gets embodied in the man. The workingman uses its exchange-value to earn his wage, while the capitalist uses it to produce surplus value. Hence, domestic work contributes not just use-value but surplus value as well. And in the process, the woman is reduced to being the slave of the wage slave.
Capitalism positions women in the sphere of reproduction where their labour (and toil) is rendered invisible. In that, women’s labour, as housework is excluded from socialisation, and the individual woman is effectively isolated from her workmates. This is what James and Dalla Costa identified as the reason for the drudgery and unending nature of housework. The work she does is devalued and goes unacknowledged; the cost of labour power that the capitalist has to pay diminishes with the exclusion of the cost of the labour power of women. From here the demand for “wages against housework” begins to seem a powerful one, not so much because it helps labour in the domestic arena to be recognised, rather because it provides a formidable ground to contest the most important hierarchy or segmentation within the working class – between the waged and the unwaged.
An aspect of reproductive labour, which is important for the present discussion, is the woman’s positioning as a passive receptacle for the frustrations and desires of the working-class man. The frustration caused by working in the factory and the ‘hunger for power that the domination of the capitalist organisation of work implants’ finds the woman as an outlet, especially at sexual moments of the man-woman relation (James and Dalla Costa, 42). This ‘passive receptivity’ of the woman is productive for capital because it provides a safety valve for the social tensions it produces in its workers. Rape and sexual violence is an extreme manifestation of this safety function. In addition, capitalism ‘[enlists] the uterus for the production of labour-power’, destroys the ‘physical integrity’ of the woman, reducing her emotional, sexual, creative needs for its own reproduction (James and Dalla Costa, 42-3). All this works to restrict women’s sexuality to procreation and male gratification. Moreover, the passive receptivity of the woman is productive also in the role it plays as the motive force behind household work. Her need for pleasure is repressed, and creativity in work made impossible; all that remains for a woman is to throw herself into her ‘duties’. To put it another way, it is the denial of the woman’s personal autonomy, her needs and frustrations, which forces her to sublimate her energies into housework, or as has already been argued, into the production of labour-power.
So, even ‘bad sex’ and the struggle against it, becomes a moment of class struggle.From the perspective of working-class women, the sexual mutilation of male and female workers is to be seen as means, and a form of exploitation, and by trying to free sexual creativity the women’s movement (for reproductive rights and sexual liberation) is destroying the safety valve available to capitalism, and is thus integral to class struggle. The women of the 1970s envisioned many ways in which their sexual demands become class demands. For the housewives among the Wages For Housework movement, the demand to abolish the nightshift was not just a work demand (made in support of the husbands) but also a sexual demand – for sex is for the night, during day there is housework.
These sexual demands are not merely those of sexual freedom that may play straight into the hands of capitalism (especially its “amoral” neoliberal, consumerist moment). These demands are made with the knowledge that if demands are not integrated within the larger working-class struggle, they are co-opted, that specific demands need to posit a utopian future, through the generalisation, continuous radicalisation of movement. For instance, for the Wages For Housework movement, the problem was not housework per se. The task was not to make housework more efficient or institutionalised and recognised by capital – technological innovation and wages for housework would not in fact end isolation – but to sharpen class contradiction by greater subversiveness in the struggle (ibid 36). The demand was not to simply socialise domestic labour, as in communal canteens, but to integrate this demand into a practice of struggle against the organisation of labour, against labour time, so as to destroy imposed work altogether. Otherwise we only have the ‘possibility at lunchtime of eating shit collectively in the canteen’ (ibid. 40), while women are merely taken out of the kitchen and put in the factory.
The working-class woman must struggle against capital from the specificity of her location. So housewives go out to factory meetings, neighbourhood meetings and student assemblies not as mothers or wives but as women who produce labour-power, who are unwaged workers of capital, as a powerful contingent within the working class which is questioning not just the externalised strategies of capital but also its internalised agencies. Because they work in the sphere of reproduction, they know its workings; these experiences have to articulate with other moments of working class experience. From her specific location the working-class woman struggles against the imposition of capitalist work at home and in the factory. It is only in this manner that the working-class woman will transcend her place as an appendage to the male workers’ struggle.
There is no a priori principle of working-class politics that decrees that women’s autonomous struggle, especially at the moment at which it attacks the conversion of the male worker into an agency of capital, is not as important for the working class as fighting ‘capital’ in its more recognisable forms. It is the task of this autonomous struggle to destroy this line of segmentation in the working class.
‘The working class organizes as a class to transcend itself as a class; within that class we [women] organize autonomously to create the basis to transcend autonomy’ (James and Dalla Costa, 43).
 John, M. 2013 May 8. ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’. Radical Notes. https://radicalnotes.com/2013/05/08/class-societies-and-sexual-violence-towards-a-marxist-understanding-of-rape/ Accessed on May 20, 2013.
 Krishnan, K. 2013 May 23. ‘Capitalism, Sexual Violence, and Sexism’. Kafila. http://kafila.org/2013/05/23/capitalism-sexual-violence-and-sexism-kavita-krishnan/ Accessed on 23 May 2013.
 Dalla Costa, M. and S. James. 1975. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.
 The authorship has recently come under dispute.
 ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ http://bekhaufazadi.blogspot.in/2013/02/peoples-watch-over-parliament.html. Accessed on 23 May 2013.
 Ghosh, Pothik. 2012 December 28. ‘Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy’. Radical Notes. https://radicalnotes.com/2012/12/28/delhi-gang-rape-and-the-feminism-of-proletarian-militancy/ Accessed on 25 May 2013.