Thursday, November 21, 2013

Letter: Herland (1994)

Letter in the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

While I would agree wholeheartedly with Kerima Mohideen that the gender roles we are expected to play in property society are injurious to the great majority of men and women, there were several aspects of the article "Herland" (Socialist Standard, March) which I found confusing as a contribution to a class-based analysis of the problems and potential of humanity.

1. Semantically a matriarchy ("form of social organisation in which the mother is the governing head") cannot be egalitarian and I was unable to gather from the context which of these characteristics the writer regarded as more desirable.

2. I was under the impression that, as socialists advocating the abolition of the wages system we were not merely suspicious of "wages for housework" but hostile to such campaigns and had recently debated a group with the precise title.

3. It is, frankly, outrageous to claim that a fable which sidesteps an inconvenient reality by positing a biological impossibility (asexual reproduction) is "firmly rooted in material possibility". Such literary devices are perfectly valid to make a point but the article sheds very little light on what point is being made. It is clearly sterile to argue that if things weren't as they are they'd be different so we must assume some point is being made about female potential: I cannot but suspect that here we have the extremely dubious contention that there is something intrinsically female about the more positive aspects of humanity. In fact in the course of capitalism women have developed their potential for being every bit as destructive as men; real flesh-and-blood women (as opposed to fictional characters) have become active participants in military carnage, fervent spouters of superstitious nonsense from pulpits and avid consumers of pornographic displays - all activities which are not only profoundly negative but were once almost exclusively masculine. In other words, the prospect which is truly "rooted in material possibility" is that of the female of this species becoming as brutalised as the male. To say that "women should always be able to organise as women as well as with men" is to say nothing: unless working class women and men choose to organise together for the overthrow of the system which threatens to dehumanise us both, it seems to me far more likely that the negative trends will continue than that the utopian ideal will be realised.
John Usher, London


Reply:
1. Perhaps "matriarchy" ought logically to be the exact opposite of "patriarchy" and therefore incompatible with an egalitarian society, but this is not the way the concept has been used in anthropology. The 19th century pioneers of anthropology believed that the first human societies had been matriarchal in the sense of tracing descent through the female line. Engels took this up in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State arguing that originally society had been communistic as well as matrilinear and that the switch to descent through the male line (which he described as "the world-historic defeat of the female sex") was part of the same process that led to the replacement of egalitarian "primitive communism" by class-divided, state-rule society. In other words, in the socialist tradition matriarchy has been seen as a feature of the egalitarian, communistic conditions in which humans originally lived while patriarchy was the form the family took in the unequal, class societies which have followed. Although later anthropological research did not bear out a one-to-one link between matrilinear and non-property societies as some unequal property societies were found to be matrilinear, it remains a fact that societies where  women were not oppressed have existed.

2. It was to this past existence of societies where women were not oppressed that the article was referring when it said that the Utopias of writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin were "firmly rooted in material possibility". Obviously, this wasn't a reference to the mode of reproduction (without men) in Gilman's Herland but to the fact that societies in which women were the equals of men had existed and so could exist again. Gilman used the literary fiction of a long-established all-woman society, as a society in which literally every task was performed by women, to make the point that women were just as capable as men of being architects, engineers, scientists, decision-makers and the like. Socialists have never doubted this, but many people used to especially in 1915 when Herland was written.

3. The article did not say that Socialists advocate wages for housework, which is really a demand for bigger payments to be made to women by the capitalist state so as to make them less economically dependent on men, less of "a slave of a slave". Maybe it would be in the unlikely event of it being achieved (where's the capitalist state going to find the money to finance it when it's already cutting back on its existing social security payments?), but this would still leave women economically dependent - on the capitalist state instead of on a wage - or salary-earning man. Socialists want an end to the economic and social dependence of women on men, i.e. women's liberation, but the way to achieve this is to establish Socialism, a society of common ownership and production solely for use, not profit, where everyone - men, women, children - would have free access without money to what they require to satisfy their needs.

4. Nor did the article say that women are somehow better than men. What it did was to re-iterate Gilamn's elementary point that women are just as capable of running society as men, concluding with the additional socialist point that women have an important role to play in the movement to establish socialism and that in fact an all-male or male-dominated socialist revolution is a contradiction in terms. The Socialist Party has always said that the majority class must actively participate in their own emancipation, so, since half are women, how could this happen if women did not participate just as actively and as massively as men, with all that this implies about the relationship between men and women?
EDITORS