The Dialectic of Sex
In 1920 the German communist Clara Zetkin had a long talk with Lenin on the subject of women. Lenin railed against what now would be called the “consciousness-raising” groups radical women in Germany were then conducting: “The first state of proletarian dictatorship is battling with the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world,” he told her, “…but active Communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage.” Zetkin stood her ground. These discussions were necessary, she argued, to clear away the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Lenin and Zetkin talked and talked, they seemed close to an understanding, Lenin took her arguments seriously. Then, ushering her out at the end of the interview, “You should dress more warmly,” he suggested. “Moscow is not Stuttgart. You need someone to look after you.”
His suggestion would now be called “sexist,” and yet Lenin tried to abolish the nuclear family in Russia, open the way to easy divorce, and provide abortion on demand. All his efforts were overthrown by men who were more “realistic” about the needs of the proletarian dictatorship. Does it really matter that Lenin treated Zetkin as a frail creature in need of a protector?
It does matter, to people who are now engaging in radical politics of a very different kind from Lenin’s. The only protest groups that have survived the 1960s and the era of Mao-Nixon tea parties are those that are challenging sexual mores. In addition to women’s groups, the movements for male liberation and for gay liberation, male and female, all began as intimate discussions; the people involved felt their sexual identities oppressive and needed the insights and comfort of others with the same feelings. Few of these groups intended to form political cadres when they began—indeed, for many women it was the contempt they suffered in organized groups like SDS that prompted them to start the discussions.
To find a politics that is organized and has ideological coherence has nonetheless become a problem. A gay woman sleeps with girls, but society, titillated, calls it morally repulsive and may put her in jail. As therapy, consciousness-raising groups soon reach a dead end because the people in them are not the authors of their own distress; the oppression or shame comes from outside the individual. Women and men who share their wounds are not, by meeting and talking together, put in a position to erase the sources of their injuries.
Lenin was acting for the masses whom he believed could not spontaneously organize themselves. But what kind of ideological position is appropriate for people who, acting for themselves, have explored themselves and their sexual identities in intimate groups and then found they have to deal with more general and impersonal social forces? How are the lessons of experience, the “raised consciousness” of sexual identity to be made a part of an analysis of society? These are the questions raised by Juliet Mitchell and Shulamith Firestone in their quite different books about the oppression of women.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.