People’s Army or Women’s Army? Men’s Communism and its Dissidents
What Use Is An Empty Weapon?
An Amazon theorist once said that “women need a world view.” As I exit the dogmatic so-called “Maoist” movement in the United States and grapple with a clear eyed feeling of disillusionment, I’ve never been more convinced of the truth of those words. The last several years of my life have been spent, to one extent or another, in men’s communist organizing, culminating in my involvement in a small but well known amerikkkan Maoist party building project. In this movement I met some of the most militant women I’ve ever known, and I watched as, one by one, they were slowly ostracized from the organization and disappeared from my radar.
The problem I have consistently run into in this and other organizing projects is the immense pervasiveness of patriarchy. Somehow, contrary to every Maoist people’s army we were drawing inspiration from, we never developed a women’s department and never consciously developed women’s leadership and participation, the bare minimum required to be politically relevant. The question of women and other gender oppressed people’s leadership and involvement was brushed off in much the same way the question of colonized people’s leadership was (even by colonized cadre): politics, not identity, must be in command. To these paper Maoists (to borrow a phrase from Sakai), who was in charge didn’t really matter so long as they had the right politics. There is a wiff of legitimacy to this, but it is only a fraction of the picture, and ultimately this line has allowed men to creatively use proletarian feminist language to normalize their domination. I coined the now popular slogan “proletarian feminism is the weapon” during my time with this wannabe party and I would like to say once and for all that I consider the term, in amerikkka at least, completely co-opted by pigs and their apologists and politically worthless.
What those sycophants representing Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (which is definitely the highest stage of men’s revolutionary thought) in the first world fail to realize is that if they had their heads on straight politically, if politics was really in command, then they would have at least developed colonized, gender oppressed leadership in their organizations. Not as token leaders (as the dead-eyed men’s vanguard in Nepal did with Parvati) but as the systematized building of oppressed people’s power. Maoists in amerikkka can’t see this though, because at the end of the day, for all their proclaimed militancy, they’re working from an incorrect class map. There is an unstated assumption amongst Maoist men that classes are evenly divided by gender, but this is not only not true now but never has been. Butch Lee and Red Rover state in their groundbreaking work, Night Vision:
“Our primary question is, who is the modern proletariat and what role does it play as a class? The answer is simple: it is primarily women, children, and alien labor. Those who are colonized. The modern proletariat or industrial working class, which is both among the most oppressed and the most productive class that supports the structure of capitalist society by its labor, is not and has never been gender-neutral or nationally self-contained. No matter how indignantly some men may scream at these words, this is a matter of historical record, of fact.
In its infancy, the first English factory system of the 18th century was like a chain of prison workhouses, whose semi-slave laborers were primarily women and enslaved children. English men, no matter how poor, resisted giving up what independence they had to become ‘like women.’ A class attitude using gender, race, and nation in a way that the dominant values of the British ruling class encouraged. British historian Christopher Hill reminds his reader that being a factory worker was so disrespectable a position back then that it virtually placed her outside society, as an alien, a non-citizen (the word ‘worker’ today is supposed to make us think ‘him,’ the blue collar unionized man in heavy industry, so we misunderstand economics and class).”
Bringing this analysis up from 1993, Bromma says in a 2020 interview:
“But the really key underlying question I’m always trying to clarify is: on a global scale, what is the social base for socialist revolution today? I think that a transformed, modernized proletariat, centered around women, is beginning to take the stage as capitalism’s direct antagonist. This is partly a result of the destruction of traditional rural patriarchy by neoliberal capitalism. Large numbers of women are being pushed and busted out of private family life, and channeled by the tens of millions into very large scale, highly exploitative global industries, including globalized manufacturing, transnational service industries and factory farming. They are crossing borders, meeting lots of other proletarian women, becoming skilled with technology and participating in cosmopolitan world culture. I think we should orient our politics to this reality. Which requires decisively breaking with both worker elite mythology and male leftism.”
To the young men fashioning themselves as revolutionaries these words mean nothing, likely because Chairman Mao or Gonzalo didn’t say them. To them proletarian women and other gender oppressed people belong to their class, that is to say the men of their class (to paraphrase Monique Wittig), when in reality it’s entirely the opposite. The red boys’ club will happily quote their favorite patriarch on the need to unleash women’s fury for revolution (only to inevitably re-leash women again later on) but turn away from any analysis of how class is gendered on a global scale. Like parodies of actual revolutionaries they’ll robotically repeat that “women are not a class,” pointing to the class differences between the masses of settler women and the masses of the oppressed nations. We do not claim such a simplistic view, as any class analysis that puts settler women in with gender oppressed New Afrikans is miles off the mark. What we do claim is that, on a global scale, the proletariat has always been made up primarily of gender oppressed and nationally oppressed people. On top of this we see that gendered oppressions are racialized and vice versa, keeping colonized (primarily Black) men from achieving the status of “true men” and relegating colonized women (also primarily Black) to neither man nor woman in the eyes of the settler colony. As such gender oppressed people do not “belong” to the proletariat, but the proletariat belongs to gender oppressed people in a very literal sense, as they make up the vast majority of the proletariat and other oppressed classes. It is the relatively few proletarian men who will have to follow along, have to see their interests as inseparable from those of the gender oppressed proletariat, not the other way around. Maoist men ignore this, contenting themselves with building a strawman and tearing it down in one line so as to maintain settler and neocolonial domination of their patriarchal vanguard.
As an organization we accepted the settler-colonial contradiction as primary in amerikkka, putting us miles ahead of the most dogmatic US Maoists and miles behind anyone in revolutionary nationalist circles when J. Sakai’s Settlers was published in 1984. We failed to put any of the lessons from Settlers into practice and never even considered the theoretical line that Settlers inspired that has been further developed by authors like Butch Lee, Bromma, Sanyika Shakur, and numerous others. We did not consider the way that the settler-colonial contradiction is a gendered contradiction, and we frequently relegated patriarchy to the ignorable status of “secondary contradiction.” Aside from one collective in Portland who founded a short-lived revolutionary women’s group, there was no national effort to organize gender oppressed and colonized people at all. Instead, our Neocolonial Feminist leaders insisted that imperialism was in crisis, and tacitly claimed that a politics that acknowledged national and gendered contradictions but did not act against them could replace actually organizing the most oppressed in favor of organizing settler men.
Even when the organization did give mind to organizing women, the women to be organized were assumed to be white and cis, even when so many of us were trans women. No analysis of transmisogyny or misogynoir was synthesized or even worked on, despite many of our assertions that trans women were among the most oppressed within their specific nations and that New Afrikan trans women were the most oppressed of all. One man suggested that the org contain a “proletarian feminist” committee and a colonized committee that would then debate and compromise over issues. He was baffled that anyone would suggest that women and other gender oppressed people also have different national and class interests. To this comrade gendered oppression and national oppression were two distinct issues rather than inseparable aspects of one oppressive system. This was simply a more insidious way of looking to the settler nation for political answers, just without saying so. If this is the content of proletarian feminism in amerikkka (and it is) then I’m not surprised that so many of my sisters dropped out unceremoniously, I’m only embarrassed it took me so long.
There Is No Gender Neutral Politics
Amongst revolutionary-minded men things like Marxism-Leninism-Maoism don’t represent any one gender. If a sister questions why a supposedly revolutionary movement is named after three men the wannabe patriarchs dressed as revolutionaries will dismiss her as a shallow identitarian (I once published a piece criticizing a misogynistic line in the Gonzaloite wing of amerikkkan Maoism and was lambasted as an “identitarian bitch” by the exact men I was criticizing, a badge I wear with pride). This question is important though and deserves actual attention. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, as communists, we would oppose great man worship and maintain a materialist analysis of individuals. Marx would certainly not be who he was without his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, who aside from discussing his work with him was also the one who pawned the family’s belongings between support checks from Engels. Neither would Lenin, nor the entire Soviet education system, be what they were without Nadezhda Krupskaya, frequently referred to simply as “Lenin’s widow.” Augusta La Torre, more commonly known as Comrade Norah and better known as Chairman Gonzalo’s first wife, is known for being the one who pushed Gonzalo out of the armchair and into the people’s war. She’s also credited with pushing for the involvement of women in the Peruvian revolution, and it was women guerrillas who took Sendero Luminoso nearly to the seat of power. But she hanged herself under mysterious circumstances in 1988, so she doesn’t get a thought named after her.
So why do the local Maoists insist on naming their thought after the Great Men in these historic movements? If we’re honest with ourselves, like really, brutally honest, we’ll find that it’s because these movements wound up serving neocolonial men as a gender-class. Alexandra Kollontai was one of the brightest and most clear-eyed Bolsheviks of her day, and she’s often acknowledged as such, but all her intellect and revolutionary experience was eventually brought to heel by Stalin’s patriarchal order and she was forced to give up her views on women’s liberation, going from anti-marriage revolutionary to repeating the misogynistic party line that proletarian women’s role was to support her proletarian husband (I can’t tell you how many misogynistic leaders have shut me down for noting that Stalin regularly preyed on women and girls many years his junior). Women’s advances in China were the first to be reversed by the counter-revolutionaries after 1976, but why were they so fragile to begin with? Because the Chinese revolution, like the Russian revolution before it and subsequent Marxist-Leninist (Men’s) revolutions, maintained a bourgeois feminist line of simple gender “equality” (despite denouncing all feminism as bourgeois, how’s that for irony). They didn’t pick up a true revolutionary feminist line that, as Butch Lee put it, demands the overthrow of capitalist property relations and its attendant sexist, racist, and colonialist oppressions. Communist men, mostly settlers and neocolonial tokens as they are, can’t get anywhere close to that line because to do so would mean abandoning their class power, committing class suicide as revs used to say.
The barbed, poisonous point in all this is that there is no gender-neutral politics. Just as politics serve specific nation-classes they also serve specific gendered classes. Marx, Lenin and Mao etc were all impressive thinkers to be sure, and there’s much we as revolutionary feminists can take from their work and experience, but we cannot ignore that their politics have, with two important exceptions in India and the Philippines, ended in shipwreck after shipwreck (the Indian and Filipino communists are more and more dominated by women and will have to contend with the history of betrayal of communist women by communist men). There’s no shame in this and the revs who fought and died in those revolutions weren’t wrong, as Butch Lee would say, but we would be wrong to try to follow their paths without avoiding the rocks where they met their end. As women we can’t afford to keep fighting and dying for men’s parties and revolutions and nations. We know how it ends: with women disarmed and crushed again under the boot heels of the men we fought and died to lift into power.
Anarchists too refuse to shirk their patriarchal origins in Bakunin and Proudhon. Let’s take an example from recent history. Anarchists were broadly involved in the 2020 uprising, and in majority white cities represented the most militant edge of the uprising (nationally the bleeding edge of the uprising was Black proletarian youth). That’s all well and good, but we’re interested in what happened after the uprising. Anarchists and other radicals were inundated with fresh blood, people who were radicalized by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor who were looking for something, anything they could do to help. The anarchists, the most visible revs around, as well as us Maoists so desperate for relevance, pushed them into so-called mutual aid work, and thus radical charity flourished.
Little attention was paid to the class background of the new recruits, even less was paid to their political development. Petty bourgeois settlers were tossed into collectives alongside lumpen/proletarians of the oppressed nations. No emphasis was placed on political education, no attention was paid to the positions of people of different genders and nations, no discussion of class suicide was had at all. On top of this, the anarcho collectives were frequently dominated by men, but the actual mutual aid workers who were doing the cooking and distribution were predominately women and other gender oppressed people. This too was ignored, prompting one such woman to tell a sister-comrade of mine that the collective they were cooking for was “proof that anarchy doesn’t work.” No influence was taken from important but defeated anarcha-feminist groups through history and nothing was learned. So on the Left women and other gender oppressed people really are rootless, to repurpose that old term that the Soviets used to mean “traitor” and “Jew.”
This is not as simple as picking up the empty weapon of lesbian separatism or second wave feminism. Though those movements began as movements for women’s liberation, they too turned into their opposite and served the interests of settler men (just as their heirs in amerikkka today, AF3IRM, have used the fight against the sex industry and the language of proletarian feminism to increase the Hawaiian police budget). Things were never as simple as “men bad women good,” and we can find women — settler women especially — crawling all over the amerikkkan genocide machine. This is why we distinguish between new classes of neocolonial men and queer men of the oppressed nations who do experience gendered oppression. The big thing we missed entirely in our little party building attempt is that settler-colonialism and patriarchy are not and have never been separate contradictions. The entire patriarchal gender system was imported with euro-settlers. Settler women, as such, are more like settler men than we are like New Afrikan or Indigenous women, women who have kept genocide at bay for generations. We’re nothing like those women, not right now anyway. Women’s liberation could have split settler women from settler men, could have transformed us through protracted armed struggle against our bourgeois nation, but instead our foremothers bought into the lie of their own innocence and demanded a seat at the table of genocide, becoming even more just-like-settler-men than we were before.
In this new period where revolutionary sentiment is sparking up all over again (led now by New Afrikan trans women) we must be wary of those who would have us repeat the mistakes women made 50 years ago. The answer isn’t in any of neocolonial men’s old decayed movements and organizations, however new they may seem. We settler women have to commit to the long and difficult process of building our own politics, a women-centered politics, that fractures the settler nation through armed struggle and a new revolutionary outlaw culture.
Gender Outlaws in the Wilderness
If settler women and gender outlaws were set loose of patriarchal and capitalist restrictions today we’d just rebuild them again. They’re all we know, all we’ve known since our independent peasant leaders were crushed during the centuries long euro witch hunt. No, we have to actively overthrow them through protracted, revolutionary armed struggle, our 40 years in the wilderness. In the old bible story when Moses and the Hebrews came to the promised land and found it full of giants, many of the former slaves panicked and wanted to return to Egypt, return to bondage. As such Moses proclaimed that they were not fit to enter the promised land and must spend 40 years in the wilderness becoming a new people. Same with us. If we don’t want to reproduce settler-colonial patriarchy then we have to break with settler men and build our own culture and political-military theory.
But what about taking leadership from colonized comrades, I hear some of my sister-comrades saying. I was in this boat as well until recently, it’s why I became a Maoist in the first place and it’s an understandable place to be, but as Tani and Sera say in False Nationalism, False Internationalism, we cannot hitch a ride on Black liberation. Referring to the Revolutionary Armed Task Force and the May 19th Communist Organization they specifically say:
“The grassroots of the New Afrikan Nation has never asked for and has never supported these alliances of New Afrikan men and settler women. No matter how well-intentioned, such distorted alliances have both sexist and neo-colonial aspects. The May 19th Communist Organization, which was primarily women, recreated the customary male-dominated movement only with New Afrikan Men instead of white men. There was a pattern of such alliances in the 1960s and 1970s, in many solidarity committees and anti-imperialist groups, as radical white women broke with white men but not with patriarchal ways of seeing the world.”
It’s not on the New Afrikan or Indigenous or any other nations to hold our hands through our revolutionary development, and revs of the oppressed nations have been telling us to organize our own people for decades. We must build our own political-military leadership and wage war against our own nation. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to everyone subjugated and genocided by our nation to leave the table and build our own women’s theory, women’s culture, and women’s army. We must build a revolutionary autonomous feminism, autonomous in the literal sense of autonomy from settler men and their politics, not in the 70s Autonomist sense, and we must do it without hesitation or fear of mistakes (mistakes are, after all, how we learn).
The old political modes are dead and it seems like everyone has moved on except us. Neocolonialism and modern revisionism have hollowed them out and left them by the side of the road. We can’t keep trying to pick them up and insist that this time we’ll use them correctly. The problem wasn’t that last generation’s revolutionary men did it wrong; the problem is that when crisis time came those theories could only serve new classes of men. Consider revolutionary Vietnam, that brave nation who defeated both French and amerikkkan imperialism by mobilizing the entire country, women and men, against them. What happened when the war ended though? Vietnamese women were told to return home, go back to their old lives where their revolutionary leaders said they belonged. This isn’t simply because those revolutionary men didn’t have the right politics, and gender outlaws cannot wait idly for men with the right politics to come along. Everyone from New Afrikan revolutionary nationalists and Black anarchists to gender oppressed Mayan revs in Chiapas to Dalit women in Chhattisgarh is adapting to the new neocolonial world (which has been “new” for over 35 years), it’s time for us to finally catch up.
We have to start by going to the lowest and deepest members of our diseased nation, to the ones with the least to lose by splitting away. This means lumpen/proletarian trans women and other transmisogyny affected people. The US is ramping up its attempts to systematically annihilate trans women, with Texas as a testing ground for this neocolonial genocide. We as settler trans women have a historic obligation to begin the process of breaking the settler nation apart. No more debating our status as oppressed women with those who want us dead, we need to find each other and begin building a new revolutionary outlaw culture, begin waging war on settler-colonial patriarchy and all its attendant evils. Our existence proves once and for all that gender isn’t about biology but about class, is class in drag as Night Vision says.
As trans women we know deep in our guts that settler-colonial patriarchy is poison to us. Many of us deny it, push the feeling down, worm our way into little niches in white world, but instinctively we know they’re coming for us eventually, we can see it in the dead eyes of our sellout sisters. Even still we’re caught up in it. Black genocide’s most pointed and obvious form is the near-constant murder of New Afrikan trans women. It’s so obvious that even settler news needs to report on it. We settler trans women get killed too, of course, but dialectically we are also responsible for the deaths of our New Afrikan sisters. Until we break from settler-colonial patriarchy that’s on us as much as it is the famous transmisogynist author or homophobe down the street. Our culture is built on it, is a form of genocide culture, and we badly need to detox.
There are landmines to avoid here. Historically in amerikkka white revs working on their own or in neocolonial formations have allowed their lines to degenerate into settler opportunism. In order to prevent this two things must be done. First we cannot claim that our specific fight is the universal fight for liberation. Rather we are one small but important aspect of the coming revolution. Second we must avoid the hoarding of resources beyond those necessary for our organizational reproduction. To do so would simply reproduce settler parasitism within the revolutionary movement. If the pinnacle of white third worldist praxis during the last revolutionary wave was the Danish Blekingegade Group, that group of communists who for years anonymously expropriated banks and armories and sent the money and weapons to third world revs (primarily the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) then our praxis must necessarily contain a fourth worldist element (the fourth world referring to migrants and internal colonies in amerikkka). This is to say that the bulk of the resources we acquire in hypothetical future expropriations must be funneled to New Afrikan and Indigenous trans women and their revolutionary formations. In this way we connect two struggles while remaining autonomous and without recreating settler parasitism.
If it feels like I’m hammering the military point home especially hard it’s because I am. Frequently revolutionary women’s observations are used but our praxis and military theory is ignored. Whether it’s Monique Wittig, Butch Lee, Silvia Federici or Bo Brown, men will happily either ignore our contributions or try to jam them into their narrow patriarchal frameworks. Our material reality doesn’t conform to their old theories, and those theories certainly aren’t doing anything for us. It’s still taboo to talk about women’s war, but every woman followed home by a strange man or abusive ex, every trans child under investigation in Texas, every houseless sister hiding out in a shelter has keenly felt the need for a women’s army. Armies aren’t built by words alone, but the harder we hit this point the more seriously women looking for political answers will take it, and until we take it seriously we remain tools of settler amerikkka and its genocidal men.
“Socialism or barbarism” was an apt call in 1919, but we’ve been enduring barbarism for a generation now. Now the call must be autonomy or death, communism or extinction, and settler and neocolonial men can only give us the latter.
Towards 40 years in the wilderness.
I began writing this before learning of Butch Lee’s passing near the end of 2021. What began as an attempt to write out my feelings of disillusionment with amerikkkan maoism now reads more like a eulogy for her via her work. Her influence is all over this piece, unhidden and completely obvious. I never got the opportunity to meet or correspond with Butch, but I hope my sister-comrades and I do her justice in our work and struggle going forward. Her preferred slogan, “which will you be, hammer or anvil” is still an important guidepost for aspiring Amazons and I’m certain that her work will continue to help light the way forward for us. Rest easy, Butch, thanks for everything.
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