Before I discovered Marxism, I discovered feminism. And before I discovered feminism, I used to be a chauvinistic liberal. As I grow older I sometimes like to look back and examine how this particular trajectory — of arriving at Marxism from a standard petty-bourgeois background via feminism — continues to play a central and reverberating role in how I develop politically.

Across my various social spheres “feminazi” was rarely but consistently deployed as a “witty” way to attack any woman who took herself seriously (“Relax!”). When FeministFrequency launched a series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” in 2013, the term became a staple of the sexist backlash articulated by Gamer-Americans online, with interesting consequences. Up until that moment the nerd community seemed to have bullied most feminists away and made sure whatever feminists remained kept their mouths shut out of a healthy instinct for self-preservation, and so the term referred to a type of individual that was more-or-less completely unreal among us. The thing is, the way trolls relentlessly trash-talked Anita Sarkeesian and her videos clashed very poorly with the fact that what she was saying was true. And so, rather suddenly, the drama surrounding said videos gave way to a startling outcome: self-declared feminists were everywhere, and now represented a significant and intransigent portion of these communities. In order to push back on these developments, the heretofore thought-terminating charge of “feminazism” had to be fleshed out with some substance. Sure, women deserve some dignity, but do you agree with what Andrea Dworkin says here? What about Valerie Solanas over here? And, thus, no-girls-allowed nerd-treehouses online became awash with feminist theory and namedropping.

It was in this environment that I discovered Shulamith Firestone. She was in a very real sense my introduction to Marxism, and in more ways than one. It’s worth quoting her writing at some length for the sake of illustrating why she had this impact on me:

Socialist thinkers prior to Marx and Engels, such as Fourier, Owen, and Bebel, had been able to do no more than moralize about existing social inequalities, positing an ideal world where class privilege and exploitation should not exist — in the same way that early feminist thinkers posited a world where male privilege and exploitation ought not exist — by mere virtue of good will. In both cases, because the early thinkers did not really understand how the social injustice had evolved, maintained itself, or could be eliminated, their ideas existed in a cultural vacuum, utopian. Marx and Engels, on the other hand, attempted a scientific approach to history.

The class analysis is a beautiful piece of work, but limited: although correct in a linear sense, it does not go deep enough. There is a whole sexual substratum of the historical dialectic that Engels at times dimly perceives, but because he can see sexuality only through an economic filter, reducing everything to that, he is unable to evaluate in its own right.

[W]e must enlarge historical materialism to include the strictly Marxian, in the same way that the physics of relativity did not invalidate Newtonian physics so much as it drew a circle around it, limiting its application — but only through comparison — to a smaller sphere. For an economic diagnosis traced to ownership of the means of production, even of the means of reproduction, does not explain everything. There is a level of reality that does not stem directly from economics. [1]

Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex taught me several important lessons all at once. She battered open the door to the science of Marxism with her brilliant summary, an entire field that I had until then dismissed with a condescending and ill-bred incuriosity befitting my petty-bourgeois background. She then went on to criticize that same brilliant summary, compellingly arguing there were shortcomings in Marx and Engels’ work as a result of them not identifying the central role of re-productive labour at the very heart of history, as a foundational dialectic relation that predates and shapes man-to-man relations from the very beginning (and, rather than posture as more enlightened by virtue of her superior intellect, she charged their blindness to their material condition of being men). And then, as if the single novel-length stroke had not left a sufficiently indelible mark, her wrongheaded indulgence in Freudianism to justify homophobic [2] and racist [3] positions — in spite of being otherwise impressed, I felt very comfortable dismissing those three — was a powerful reminder that even the purveyors of brilliant political insights are profoundly fallible. Her discussion of cybernetics and arguing for ex-utero reproduction technology as prerequisite for the full emancipation of women sealed the deal: it felt both outlandish and far more serious than the pleading reformism I was used to, all at once.

Shulamith Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex at the age of 25, went on to struggle with family tragedy and serious mental illness, and died reclusive and alone. She was a Canadian-American Jewish feminist who dissolved her ties with her family upon learning they were planning a move to Israel. [4] She was, in the eyes of reactionaries of all stripes, a “feminazi.” [5] [6]

It’s not hard to see how being forced to grapple with contradiction from the start of my journey, alongside a well-nurtured hostility to cheap name-calling, rendered Stalin and post-reform China accessible as subjects of study much later on. I was not burdened with the common tendency to approach new evidence by seeing if I could tally enough sins to justify dismissing it and retreating into whatever prejudiced view about it I happened to possess upon first contact.

A recurring lesson from all of my experiences is that, when assaulted for one’s beliefs, generally speaking, people tend react in one of three ways:

  1. Deny the viability of the charge (“There are no such thing as feminazis, that is a vile misogynist stereotype.”), or
  2. Embrace the charge (“Yes, I guess I am a so-called ‘feminazi.’ What of it?”), or
  3. Concede the existence of such a right-wing stereotype, and desperately plea that you are not “it” (“Lord no! I’m reasonable, I’m not one of those crazy feminazis!”).

The third strategy is sadly the most common by far, across all subjects, among the “left” in the West. It’s the longstanding practice of desperate pleading for respectability, of defining oneself as sane and rational by way of conceding to reactionaries an irrational, toxic stereotype and then thoughtlessly throwing smarter and more principled people under the bus in a failed bid to preserve one’s own credibility. Slowly but surely, with the eradication of communist organizations, figures like the arch-liberals Obama and Trudeau ended up being seen as the “left” side of the political spectrum, even getting called communist and the like.

The way I see it, the first two strategies need to be insisted on at the near-complete exclusion of the third. Even a charge like “utopian” takes on a completely different character when launched from a Marxist perspective opposed to its methods, as opposed to a Libertarian one opposed to its goals. In fact, in such cases extra effort should be undertaken to stop the reactionary interpretation from growing roots. The second strategy is particularly important: it can be very disarming, since it puts someone in the position of needing to explain exactly what is wrong with “social justice” or “Stalinism,” robbing liberal critics of a rhetorical confidence that always derives almost exclusively from adherence to unquestioned ideological hegemony (we could say perhaps “there’s strength in numbers”).

In true dialectical fashion, rather than mourn this sad state of affairs, we should take note of its counterpart: when the levee breaks, when the ideological curtain is shredded, we’ll discover that many radical ideas actually already possess varying — sometimes ample! — vigor and popularity, among all sorts of people.

Indeed, this is exactly what we are observing today with the revival of Marxism-Leninism. Beleaguered and curious people, exhausted by liberalism, defy their indoctrination and decide to read first-hand material written by Stalin and others in the tradition. Rather than slowly warm up to communism, many discover that they were in fact communists all along. Either way, decades of shameless “Black Book of Communism” propaganda are suddenly being challenged ruthlessly. Canned right-wing strategies like throwing up a giant unsourced death-toll number begin to fail, and so anticommunists double-down on more specific accusations (“What about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?”), which generates more controversy and occasion for research, which inevitably leads to more propaganda being challenged, which exacerbates the process. Battle-lines get redrawn, and suddenly the unthinkable is mainstream.

As we embrace new allies, we should guard against opportunism, while at the same time keeping in mind the wise words of the Chairman:

Comrades who have made mistakes have learned their lessons and may be better at this than those who have not made mistakes. Comrades who have never made a mistake may make a mistake in the future. [7]

  1. Shulamith Firestone, October 1970. The Dialectic of Sex. 

  2. “Homosexuality is only what happens when these repressions … remain on the surface, seriously crippling that individual’s sexual relationships, or even his total psyche.” 

  3. She essentially argues Black women were wooed away from women’s struggle by Black men, using some choice excerpts from Edith R. Hambrick’s Black Woman to Black Woman to charge them thus: “She then assuages his pricked ego by assuring him of her undying loyalty to his balls.” 

  4. Obituary by liberal propagandist Susan Faludi in April 2013, “Death of a Revolutionary” at The New Yorker. [] 

  5. Commentary on free-market rag by user Hyperion on September 2012: “…the recently departed feminazi, Shulamith Firestone…” [] 

  6. Listed as one of the “3 Feminists Who Caused The Most Harm To The World” (alongside Dworkin and Solanas) on March 2017 in the alt-right rapist hangout Return of Kings. [] 

  7. Mao Zedong, April 1956. We must unite all the forces that can be united. [web]