The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 27 (Winter 1987).
After spending a year collecting garbage, Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography released its final report in July and was applauded by reactionary forces throughout the country – as well as by an influential wing of feminist activists. Predictably, the report demands tougher laws against pornography, the supposed cause of violence against women.
Despite a patina of pro-woman rhetoric borrowed from the feminist anti-porn campaign of recent years, the Commission report is thoroughly anti-woman. It defends the sexist ideology and social relations of capitalism, above all the male-dominated bourgeois family. Chairman Henry Hudson, assigned the task because of his success as a Virginia prosecutor in shutting down “adult” bookstores, stated: “In the final analysis [pornography] appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.”
In reality, the oppression of women is inseparable from the bourgeois family as an economic unit. “Strengthening the family” has nothing to do with improving personal relationships; it means reinforcing the capitalist division of labor that condemns women to domestic labor and thereby denies their equality at home and on the job.
What the government’s great solicitude for women really means is shown by its deeds. In the summer of 1985 when the Commission was beginning its dirty work, Meese withheld a financial grant from the Justice Department to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This decision was inspired by a letter from 24 congressmen calling the Coalition a “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion, anti-family, anti-Reagan, radical feminist group.” While the Commission spent a year scapegoating pornography as the root of all evil, funding for battered women’s shelters and rape counseling went from little to nothing, and legal protection for women against domestic violence remains a nightmare.
Moreover, strengthening the family today requires a national effort. Commissioner James Dobson moaned that “latchkey kids by the millions are watching pornography on cable TV.” Since mothers aren’t tending hearth and home like in the good old days, the strong arm of the bourgeois state has to intervene. To boost the repressive power of the state, the Commission has already wielded its authority to intimidate 17,000 commercial outlets from selling sex magazines.
The standard liberal argument that pornography cannot be defined and therefore should not be censored is weak; there is of course a grey area, but most people have no trouble recognizing porn when they see it. Pornography is mass manufactured by an industry that has no more trouble “defining” its product than do the producers of romantic novels, soap operas or any other formula genre. And in this society pornography is generally as reactionary as are the stereotypes of women in the romances and soaps.
The Meese Commission report has to be viewed in the context of the generalized attack on the working class that the capitalists have been waging since the early 1970s. Women are among the leading casualties; the trendy notion of the “feminization of poverty” reflects this fact but it also disguises the reality that poverty is a class question. Working-class women are doubly oppressed because they are forced to provide both domestic slave labor and cheap wage labor. As well, capitalism has always used women to rob the working class: their lower wages today replace higher wages paid to men workers, and their domestic labor reduces the social wage paid to the working class.
Specifically, women’s earnings still average less that 60 percent of men’s. With one out of three marriages ending in divorce, the average ex-wife’s standard of living falls 73 percent during the first year after divorce while her ex-husband’s rises by 42 percent. No wonder 39 percent of all households headed by women live below the poverty line. In this context the renewed ideological stress on the family is meant to justify both the cutbacks in social services (child care, health care, educational funding, etc.), which dump more of the social burden onto working-class women; and continued lower wages for women, at a time when their wages are not “auxiliary” but necessary for the working-class family’s survival.
Oppression is never limited to economic hardship. Reinforcement of the family is crucial for social control. Hence the right wing’s defeat of even such a seriously flawed demand as the Equal Rights Amendment (see our analysis in the November 1978 Socialist Action). Terrorist attacks on abortion centers meet with government acquiescence.
As well, defense of the “family” inevitably means increased attacks on homosexuality. Hence both the efforts to quarantine AIDS victims and the Supreme Court decision upholding sodomy as a criminal offense was a vicious attack on gays. As well, the anti-sodomy laws will inevitably be used to attack all “free” sexual relations, virtually granting the state the right to enter the bedroom.
Behind all this is the deepening crisis of world capitalism and of U.S. hegemony within it. The gains made by working people during the long-gone prosperity period must be sacrificed, and even deeper inroads will be demanded in the interest of profits. The American ruling class needs to raise high the banner of God, country and family in order to shore up mass support for a failing system.
As the attacks on the working class intensify, the bourgeoisie steps up its rhetoric of “outside enemies” in order to undermine working-class consciousness and unity. The sacrifices demanded of workers must be seen not as an attack by one class on another but instead as a question of “national interest,” so that all line up behind our bourgeois leaders. We must unite to win the war against inflation, said Gerald Ford. Some of us must suffer austerity, added Jimmy Carter, explaining that “life” – not of course capitalism – “is unfair.” Ronald Reagan smashes unions and slashes social services further so that “we” will stop being suckered by “them.”
For patriotism’s sake, the threat to American jobs must be seen to come from foreign workers, not profit-hungry U.S. imperialists. And “foreign” is taken to mean anyone who is not a “real” American: blacks, Hispanics, working women and other oppressed groups, who are portrayed as the problem, not the victims of capitalism.
The cumulative impact of such campaigns weakens all working-class struggles. Divisions within the masses are exacerbated; one group is whipped up and set against another in a fight for crumbs. And while once the crumbs could be material, now they are increasingly “spiritual” and ideological. The system stirs up racism, chauvinism and sexism, it nurtures every reactionary force in society. This is not a plot, it is just the way the system operates. Now the operation is going into high gear.
Capitalism needs the family, but as Marx pointed out long ago, it destroys family life. The economic expansion and contraction since the 1960s has undermined the traditional male-dominated family. On the one hand, working-class women have been forced into factories and offices. Both opportunity and necessity allowed middle-class women to move into professional jobs; for them especially, the achievement of equality and wider aspirations seemed very real. Women’s liberation flourished; tangible gains were made.
On the other hand, the enormous social changes in America had a threatening effect on women of the traditional petty bourgeoisie and the labor-aristocratic layers of the blue-collar working class. Ethnic patterns broke up, old neighborhoods were destabilized, suburbia grew. Churches were no longer bastions of changelessness giving solace and purpose to housewives. The women’s movement and the very idea of independence, self-direction and choices seemed to destroy everything that had given many women a sense of worth. Were lives devoted to serving a husband and raising children wasted? Profound social anxiety awaited a resolution.
The collapse of prosperity brought renewed vigor to the anti-feminist forces. As possibilities for women in society shrink, the reassertion of their “true” role grows louder. Rather than targeting the crisis of capitalism, reactionaries point in horror to destruction of the family, rampant abortion and open homosexuality. The socially distraught petty bourgeoisie, caught up now in the woes of an economic crunch, provides ready pawns for the reactionary rollback. Wiping out pornography seems an important way to restore the role of motherhood to its previous mythical stature.
But with family values decaying, the current reactionary drive requires more than just an attempt to reconstitute individual patriarchal authority. The “anti-government” Reagan administration is perfectly willing to nationalize the paternal function when the family can’t do the job. State power is brought to bear against women and young people whom traditional family values can no longer control. That is the aim of the legislative anti-abortion crusade, the sodomy decision, the Rehnquist appointment, the demand for “creationism” in schools, etc. Anti-porn is an ideal ideological cornerstone, because reinforcement of the family pushes women back into the conservative socializing role once played by the domesticated housewife.
A wing of middle-class feminism also sees pornography as a menace to its hopes. Women’s gains are being eroded, and inequality, degradation and the alienation of bourgeois life worsen. Man, not capitalism, is seen as the enemy, and porn is his weapon.
The Meese Commission not only borrowed rhetoric from the anti-porn feminists – it owes them a greater debt. Without them it might not have existed. In 1980 feminist Judith Bat-Ada had called for a coalition across political and class lines:
“A coalition of all women needs to be established, regardless of race, color, creed, religion or political persuasion.... Women have been divided; we must reunite throughout the nation on this one basic issue.... Disagreements on other issues can be dealt with when fewer of us are being murdered, beaten, tortured, and raped.” (In the collection Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer.)
The far right was enthusiastic about such a bloc. For example, North Carolina State Representative Coy Privette, a director of the anti-liquor and anti-pornography Christian Action League, commented, “When you’ve got this kind of coalition, that is a politician’s dream.” (Off Our Backs, June 1985.)
The Pornography Commission was the fruit of a common effort. As leading anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin and her ally, law professor Catherine MacKinnon, said in a statement approving the Commission report, “For the first time in history, women have succeeded in convincing a national governmental body of a truth women have long known: pornography harms women and children.” Likewise Dorchen Leidhold of the organization Women Against Pornography (WAP):
“We commend the Commission for being the first federal government body to report on the systematic campaign of abuse, terror and discrimination being waged against over half the citizens of this country.... We also endorse the Commission’s publication of the names and descriptions of pornographic publications and films. A simple reading of the list of titles it compiled says more about the sexualized bigotry that is pornography than the most impassioned speech any feminist could make.”
Indeed it does. For one thing, among the many titles is the gay magazine The Advocate. That a significant sector within radical feminist circles would endorse censorship of left-wing gay material by a conservative administration illustrates a serious problem with the ideology of radical feminism. Of course, the conception that “women” have turned the government around or brought it into the fight against sexual bigotry is ridiculous.
The campaign against pornography gained strength within the feminist current in the mid-’70s, a period of retreat for the women’s movement when abortion rights were being eroded by the Hyde Amendment and the ERA was on the way to defeat. In the beginning the campaign used direct action. In 1976 mass protests were staged against billboards in Los Angeles which showed a bruised and chained woman saying, “I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it”; the sponsors were forced to take down the ad. Actions against the movie Snuff, where a woman was purportedly actually killed during the climactic sex scene, also met with some success.
The increasing “sexiness” of violence in the media was alarming. The outrage that women felt at seeing themselves displayed as pieces of meat signified that a rebellion against the objectification of women was called for. The problem was that the protests focused attention on particularly horrible images, not the underlying reality that women are treated as commodities by capitalism itself.
The campaign took a decisive move to the right with the introduction of an ordinance against pornography in 1983, first in Minneapolis and later in Indianapolis. Co-authored by Dworkin and MacKinnon, the proposed laws attacked pornography as a civil rights violation. Women could sue the makers, sellers, distributors or exhibitors of pornography much as they would sue a company for discriminatory hiring practices. Ordinances modelled on the Dworkin-MacKinnon legislation were introduced by both feminists and right-wingers in Los Angeles, Suffolk County NY, Cambridge MA, and other places. WAP, with over 10,000 members nationwide, backs the campaign.
Dworkin and MacKinnon were hired by city officials in Minneapolis who were worried that zoning regulations against porn shops weren’t holding up. The city council, lobbied jointly by liberals, feminists and right-wing religious and political groups, approved the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance, but it was vetoed by the mayor. In Indianapolis support for the bill came almost entirely from the right. New Right Mayor William Hudnut III backed it, and Beulah Coughenour, a Stop-ERA activist who introduced the bill, hired MacKinnon as a consultant to the city. (It was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which recently declared it unconstitutional.)
Dworkin both denied and welcomed her right-wing support:
“There hasn’t been any institutional support from the right wing, no money, no political support and no intervention in litigation. On the other hand, when Jerry Falwell starts saying there’s real harm in pornography, then that is valuable to me.” (New York Times, August 26, 1985.)
The feminists involved have always championed their civil rights approach as a way to empower women and have generally denied that they were asking the bourgeois state to impose censorship. They stress that their ordinances give individual women the right to press civil suits, and that pornographers wouldn’t be subject to criminal penalties or lose their rights to due process. But Dworkin’s approach, even if adopted, would still empower the courts to issue injunctions against the distribution of pornography, and its censoring impact would be severe.
Dworkin and MacKinnon also pointed to the male bias of existing law to deny the importance of defending First Amendment rights. At the March 1985 National Conference on Women and the Law, MacKinnon said:
“Pornography is historically defended in the name of freedom of speech. I am here to speak for those, particularly women and children, upon whose silence the law, including the law of the First Amendment, is built. Their inequality ... has never been taken into account in the First Amendment. The First Amendment was written by those who already had the speech....”
Dworkin too justifies reliance on the repressive forces of the state:
“The Bill of Rights was never intended to protect the civil or sexual rights of women and it has not, except occasionally by accident. The Equal Rights Amendment, which would, as a polite afterthought, extend equal protection under the law such as it is to women, is not yet part of the Constitution. There is good reason to doubt that it will be in the foreseeable future.” (Take Back the Night)
According to Dworkin and MacKinnon, the civil rights approach heralded a new dawn in the fight against sexism, supposedly totally counterposed to traditional obscenity laws. This claim gained their bills a lot of support among feminists bred in the anti-censorship milieu of liberal and left circles. Dworkin argued that pornography can be defined objectively as material discriminating against women – in contrast to obscenity, which required a value judgment and which traditionally identified sexuality itself with filth.
The fact that the Meese Commission endorsed the civil-rights approach gave feminists an excuse to back it. Dworkin and MacKinnon, after enthusing over the report’s endorsement of their formula, admitted, “The Commission’s report is flawed, however, by recommending extension and escalated enforcement of obscenity laws.” But when over half of the report’s 92 recommendations involve stricter obscenity laws, there’s more than a “flaw” at stake. Such criticism is a fig leaf designed to cover their evident support.
The slogan coined by feminist Robin Morgan, “Pornography is the Theory, Rape is the Practice,” is the weightiest argument for a legal ban; appropriately enough, it was quoted by Meese’s Commission. It sums up the reductionist illogic that pornography causes rape and other violence against women.
Violent pornography is more than symbolic, since there are real victims used and abused by the pornography makers. As well, it adds to the general social atmosphere that accepts violence against women. But to recognize this is the opposite of labeling pornography as the cause of male abuse of women. Rather than seeing that the link is connecting all forms of such abuse is capitalism, these feminists have created a domino theory that views the male/female sexual relationship as the source of danger. Their first step is to condemn all pornography, not just that which demonstrates or advocates violence against women. In the writings of Dworkin and others the trauma of viewing pornography is equated with experiencing a physical attack. Laura Lederer or Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media said:
“Not all pornography is violent but even the most banal pornography objectifies women’s bodies. An essential ingredient of much rape and other forms of violence to women is the ‘objectification’ of the woman. This is not just rhetoric. It means that women are not seen as human beings but as things. Men are reared to view females in this way, pornography thrives off this and feeds it, and rape is one of the consequences.” (Take Back The Night)
But why focus only on sexually explicit material? What about the earlier feminist opposition to the more pervasive sexism of media like advertising? The anti-porn feminists claim that because women are oppressed at root on the basis of their sex, the way that women are depicted as sexual beings is fundamental. Pornography is held to determine the male view of women. And because it is sexual, misogyny is said to become embedded in the man’s deepest psychology. MacKinnon says of pornography:
“It is [a] specific and compelling behavioral stimulus, conditioner and reinforcer. In this way it is unique; in particular it makes orgasm a response to bigotry.... Pornography is a social force in making sexism sexy.” (National Conference on Women and the Law)
This simplistic behaviorism isn’t the end. The domino theory goes on to condemn practically any expression of sexual activity, not just pornography. Dworkin, for example, recognizes no distinction between pornography and erotica: “Feminists have made honorable efforts to define the difference.... But in the male sexual lexicon, which is the vocabulary of power, erotica is simply high-class pornography...” (Pornography: Men Possessing Women)
In a society which insists that sex is a male domain, ruling out erotica means denying women the possibility of expressing or publicly admitting to enjoying their sexuality. The indictment of sex itself continues with Robin Morgan:
“I claim that rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the women out of her own genuine affection and desire.... It must be clear that, under this definition, most of the decently married bedrooms across America are settings for nightly rape.” (Take Back The Night)
If this cynical view of men were really true, could legal restraints on pornography really change them? The anti-porn feminists generally concede that restrictive laws would just push porn underground. Their writings imply that all that can be hoped for is control of man’s inherent violence, not real change. Dworkin, for example, insists that men’s nature is unchanging:
“In the intimate world of men and women there is no mid-twentieth century distinct from any other century.... It is ancient and it is modern; it is feudal, capitalist, socialist; it is caveman and astronaut, agricultural and industrial, urban and rural. For men their right to abuse women is elemental, the first principle, with no beginning unless one is willing to trace origins back to God and with no end plausibly in sight.” (Pornography: Men Possessing Women)
This “all men are beasts” argument is the mirror image of the reactionary religious view of woman as the eternal temptress. Yes, all relationships under capitalism are affected by male chauvinism. But the chauvinist males who are sexist in their behavior, in bed and out, are not the same as Jack the Ripper – although all degrade women. Dworkin’s history and Morgan’s theory abandon all perspective; by equating all acts by all men in all societies, they let what is horrendously criminal off the hook.
There are many feminists who have been actively opposed to the anti-porn campaign. FACT (Feminists Against Censorship Taskforce) filed a brief against the Indianapolis ordinance and has consistently opposed the Meese Commission as well. Repressive laws will be used against women, they point out accurately, since in general censorship is used against the oppressed. The definition of pornography will be determined by those in power.
On the theoretical level, FACT opposes the idea that pornography is central to the oppression of women and even says it can be useful in breaking the link between women and domesticity. This is spelled out by three leaders, Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter and Carole Vance in the book Women Against Censorship:
“Not only does pornography not cause the kind and degree of harm that can justify the restraint of speech, but its existence serves some social functions, which benefit women. Pornographic speech has many, often anomalous, characteristics. Once is certainly that it magnifies the misogyny present in the culture and exaggerates the fantasy of male power. Another, however, is that the existence of pornography has served to flout conventional sexual mores, to ridicule sexual hypocrisy and to underscore the importance of sexual needs. Pornography carries many messages other than woman-hating: it advocates sexual adventure, sex outside of marriage, sex for no reason other than pleasure, casual sex, anonymous sex, group sex, voyeuristic sex, illegal sex, public sex.”
However, in the context of capitalist culture the attitudes portrayed in pornography are overwhelmingly sexist.
The FACT theorists do make a contribution in pointing out that the basis for the anti-porn campaign is biological determinism, the notion that the behavior of men and women is dictated by biological differences. Because this is the ideological justification for sexism in the first place, even when feminists glorify the peaceful Woman and denigrate the aggressive violence-prone Man they are treading in dangerous waters.
Feminists like those in FACT hope to resurrect the earlier radical feminist thought of the 1960s which they believe showed the opposite: that sexism is rooted in gender roles imposed by a sexist society, not in the biology of sex. Thus Ann Snitow praises “other theorists such as Shulamith Firestone [who] were saying the opposite, that gender and sexuality were separable, that sex could be set free from the old gender boundaries, that birth control and the chance of economic independence outside the family were going to make a tremendous difference, were going to change what being a woman is.” (Women Against Censorship)
But these writers are on shaky ground too, because the theorists they champion never really broke with biological determinism in the first place. Hester Eisenstein observes that the rightward drift in radical feminism had its seeds in the ’60s; the “classical” authors emphasized sex differences as the source of women’s oppression. Firestone, for example, pointed to the childbearing function and said that only technology for producing test tube babies could free women from their unequal status – although she claimed to have a materialist, not biologically determined, theory.
Later the concept of “woman-identified woman” became prevalent within radical feminism, meaning that the distinct characteristics identified with women (warm, nurturing, understanding, peace-loving, etc.) should be accepted as a source of pride. By the late ’70s, biological determinism (or essentialism – the notion that women are spiritually, not just biologically, superior) had become the dominant current. Eisenstein, herself a woman-identified feminist, notes “three elements of continuity” throughout two decades of radical feminism: “a divorce from Marxism and the political left; a consistent emphasis on psychology at the expense of economic factors and a false universalism that addresses itself to all women, with insufficient regard for differences of race, class, and culture.” (Contemporary Feminist Thought)
Eisenstein’s three points really amount to one: feminism’s intrinsic hostility to Marxism. Radical feminism didn’t “divorce” itself from Marxism because feminism was always counterposed to the Marxist view that women’s liberation could only be realized through the class struggle to overthrow capitalism. While definitions of the various strands within feminism can be debated, feminism as a whole calls for an alliance of women based on their common oppression across the class line. Radical feminism. implying an analysis that women’s oppression is at the root of all oppression, sees all women as oppressed by a universal system of male domination – “patriarchy” – of which capitalism is only one form. Liberal feminists tend to view women’s oppression as rooted in the denial of bourgeois democratic rights, and they believe these can be achieved under capitalism. Socialist feminists hold that women’s oppression comes from both capitalism and patriarchy; they attempt to reconcile socialist and radical feminist thought.
Eisenstein is one of several critical feminist theorists who see the problem with rightward-moving feminism but do not recognize its source in feminist theory as a whole. Therein lies the paradox. Once one starts with the notion that the root of woman’s oppression is male domination – that patriarchy is a trans-historical fact embracing every form of society – it is virtually impossible to break with the reactionary biological determinist ideas that underpin chauvinism and the oppression of women. If men have always oppressed women, and if that oppression doesn’t change qualitatively with the introduction of class society or its eradication (feminists point to “communist” societies as equally oppressive), then it is either an immutable fact of biology or an act of God. The attempt to disavow biological determinism cannot succeed when it is based on sheer willpower.
Feminist theory is not just flawed thinking; it is the product of a middle-class view of the world. In the prosperity of the 1960s, radical feminism was marked by its extreme utopian nature. Demands like “smash sexism” and “abolish the family” abounded – with absolutely no program that could win them. Since feminists rejected Marxism and with it the one class that actually has the power to revolutionize society, their utopian maximalist rhetoric dissolved inevitably into the most pragmatic minimalism. In fact, because the reformist strategies of the ’60s – above all the overwhelming support of feminists for the Democratic Party – failed to bear ample fruit, a fertile ground for cynicism was laid. The root of the current feminist support for the thoroughly capitulatory Dworkin is the cynicism born of defeat.
Likewise sexual liberation, a goal closely linked to the women’s movement, has been a disappointment for most women: it could not mean liberation from oppressive sex roles. Yet the anti-censorship feminists generally refuse to acknowledge that the women’s liberation movement has really failed. Thus Ann Snitow writes:
“In spite of backlash and our own failures, the women’s movement has made enduring changes in how everyone thinks about women. Instead of recognizing that the new visibility of women’s sexual victimization is a great leap forward, some feminists are drawing energy from the assertion that women’s situation is fast deteriorating. They have, I believe, lost sight of the larger historical truth: the women of the nineteenth century belonged to their husbands or fathers. Under such conditions, wife-beating and marital rape could barely be conceived of as crimes. Our situation is profoundly different. Women are flooding into public space....” (Women Against Censorship)
If everything is pretty dandy for women despite a little nasty “backlash,” there is no need to reassess fundamental strategy. No wonder these women are able to look on the bright side of pornography, weighing evenly its sexist content against its facade of rebellion against traditional mores. This attitude sounds like the standard lecture by union hacks about all the “progress” the unions have made since the bad old times of 14-hour days. It doesn’t wash with workers who know they’re going downhill now. In response to the demagoguery of the Dworkins, such words of reassurance – generally accompanied by calls to relaunch the fights for abortion rights, day care centers, equal pay, etc. – don’t wash either.
There’s nothing wrong with such demands. But the capitalist ruling class with its Pornography Commission and a myriad of other acts has sent the masses of women a message which these feminists refuse to heed: the system can no longer afford the democratic reforms (never mind serious economic and social gains) that would help the great majority of women. If capitalism survives, the victories fought for so bitterly in the past will continue to be overturned. Remember that abortion rights were first won in 1973, and only four years later came the Hyde Amendment to bar public funding for poor women. The joy of coming out for gays – and of open assertion by women that they were sexual beings of whatever preference – lasted but an historical instant.
However, the failure of the movement to win true liberation should not blind us to the fact that the struggle did bring about real accomplishments. That shows that struggle against oppression is worthwhile, that women can fight and win victories. But it is another thing to use those victories to conceal, as does Snitow, the fact that “women’s situation is fast deteriorating.” If the struggle does not transcend the system all gains will be lost.
The main split over the pornography question has been within radical feminist circles. Liberal and socialist feminists, like the left, generally oppose censorship. But because socialist feminists have the added burden of trying to reconcile socialist and radical feminist thought, their position is particularly problematic. In the end, socialist feminists inevitably capitulate to feminism, and their “socialism” goes out the window.
A case in point is Radical Women (RW), a socialist feminist organization affiliated with the Freedom Socialist Party. RW rightly attacks the porn industry for promoting misogyny. But it accepts the radical feminist notion that porn is somehow more dangerous than other cultural images propagating anti-woman beliefs and behavior.
“Porn appeals to the growing number of men already dehumanized by capitalism and deepens the divisions between men and women, and between races, through the use of stereotypes. The porn industry leads the assault. The mainstream media and advertising follow with their own slightly watered-down images of anti-female violence.” (Guardian, March 21, 1984)
The singling out of sexually explicit expression as opposed to all anti-woman material is a dangerous aspect of the anti-porn campaign. It feeds directly into the repressive ideology of the right. In fact, there is no reason on earth to believe that “the porn industry leads the assault.” Yes, those who reap profits from arranging to have women beaten in order to sell photos are the scum of the earth. But whatever happened to the other hateful institutions of capitalism? Religion and the family are all the more insidious because they don’t just reflect or accept women’s oppression, they sanctify it.
As well, the anti-porn campaign conducted by the feminist leadership attempts to divert women from understanding the role of the capitalist state in keeping women down. By calling for court intervention against pornography, it fosters dangerous illusions that the bourgeois authorities can be allies of women fighting oppression. RW ends up doing the same thing:
“Another not-so-legitimate objection to the ordinance is the lack of positive proof establishing pornography as a cause of sexual violence. Women know there is an intrinsic relationship between pornography and sexual violence. (For instance, last year’s rape of a woman on a New Bedford pool table was preceded by a Hustler magazine photo spread of a gang rape on a bar pool table.) Proving this in a court of law, however, is another thing.
“The Minneapolis ordinance’s civil rights approach to pornography, as distinguished from older obscenity and zoning laws, is a new one and may well have some legal potential.”
Women are justifiably outraged by misogynist pornography, but that doesn’t prove that it is the real cause of sexual violence. The absence of proof is no argument, and RW’s arbitrary and subjective assertion is hardly the scientific method of Marxism. If pornography as a whole engenders violence as RW “knows,” then it is hard to resist enlisting the bourgeois state to crush it. And that is precisely what they do in approving the civil rights approach, circumventing the need to prove the connection.
Radical Women testified before the Meese Commission last fall. While it called the Commission a “tool of the Reagan Administration” and denounced the use of feminist concern to cut back women’s gains and impose censorship, they also advocated anti-pornography legislation that would “guard against the attacks on feminist gains, and guard the free speech so necessary to protect and extend those gains.” RW proposed an amended version of the Dworkin approach that would target only violent porn, protect the material of gays and other sexual minorities and incorporate other safeguards. “Radical Women, quite clearly, is proposing legislation that would specifically prevent rightwing abuse,” they say.
Really? This supposedly socialist organization capitulates totally to the legalist fantasy of bourgeois feminism, whereby a law simply does what it says it will do, independent of social forces. Worse, it succumbs to the deadly illusion that the “right wing” is some entity separate from the bourgeois state, the latter being a neutral body to which women and other oppressed groups can go for protection.
For all its concern over right-wing reaction, RW can’t hide the fact that it holds the same position on pornography as the right: fight it through censorship by the capitalist state. The very fact that RW and other feminists call for censorship only against porn is also a concession to right-wing forces. Why not demand censorship of fundamentalist and Catholic propaganda against abortion and birth control? That suggestion would help show that they have nothing in common with the right. But that kind of censorship the bourgeois state will never impose. RW’s Guardian article concludes that “Porn, a fitting expression of the decay of U.S. society, must be obliterated along with its socioeconomic roots.” But it will not be obliterated by censorship. In this regard, it is similar to those bastions of sexist oppression, religion and the family. The family is one of the few hopes for economic security and, together with the church, the only place for love, intimacy, and pleasure that the masses have under capitalism – women especially, who are doubly oppressed by them. People in general will not give up on these things unless a real alternative exists.
A workers’ state can begin to lay the material basis for an alternative but it requires time. Religion and the bourgeois family will wither away; they cannot be “smashed” or obliterated through legislation or fiat. Likewise, pornography is reactionary and sexist, but men will not stop using it, or change sexist behavior, because of moral dictates. As class society disappears under the revolutionary workers’ state and as the division of labor becomes transformed, the cultural sexism rife among the masses can be successfully fought and will disappear into the garbage pail of history where it belongs.
Any failure to stress the need to overthrow capitalism in order to achieve liberation is also a capitulation to backwardness. As communists we align ourselves with the most oppressed sectors of society and join in united actions with feminists and other reformers for defense against attacks on women and gays. But we state as well that only the socialist revolution can provide a lasting defense and genuine human liberation.
Feminists reject the centrality of the class struggle and the fight against capitalism. The cross-class alliance of all women they call for would inevitably result in the domination by middle-class interests. Having rejected the working class, the one class that has the power to bring about necessary, fundamental changes, even the best-intentioned feminist must capitulate in one way or another to the powers-that-be. That is why the “second wave” of feminism has repeated the history of the first, increasingly calling on the state for protection. The 19th century feminists, in fact, took much longer to collapse into the reactionary “social purity” campaigns; the early movement’s longer span reflected an ascending capitalism that could offer a lot more.
While working-class men do not suffer the special oppression of women, they too are exploited by capitalism. Therein lies the basis for a common struggle against this system, the only way out for the working class as a whole. Many men involved in revolutionary struggle will recognize that their material interest lies in the fight against the oppression of women. The real “privileges” that capitalism affords working class men are small compared to the value of the sexual division of labor and sexual oppression for stepping up exploitation and lowering the social wage.
No genuine communist, however, waits until after the revolution to attack male chauvinism, nor do we treat it as some quaint habit of the unenlightened. To do so would keep politically conscious women from the revolutionary cause. If communism did not mean the triumph and liberation of all the oppressed it would be a lie. To laugh off or to accept sexism means to adapt to backward bourgeois consciousness. The fact that sexism cannot be eliminated overnight is no reason to postpone the struggle against it, a crucial aspect of the fight for socialism.
If particular imagery is used to whip up violence against women, blacks or other oppressed groups under capitalism, communist fight side by side with all allied forces to halt such efforts instead of relying on the bourgeois state. Of course, smashing any particularly heinous material must be done under tactical considerations as to the balance of forces, who is aided, etc. Trashing even the most obnoxious porn stores in the context of today’s growing reaction could have reactionary consequences; the same act in a period of rising workers’ or women’s struggles could be a progressive blow.
Although there are feminists who oppose the analysis that porn is central to women’s oppression, only the communists explain the source of this oppression and how to get rid of it. One of the chief tasks of a workers’ state is to free women from domestic labor through the collectivization of kitchen, laundry, child care and other oppressive tasks and to eradicate the sexual division of labor. The short-lived Bolshevik revolution in backward Russia made more changes in women’s lives than the entire history of feminism. The reversal of these gains under Stalinism was an essential part of its counterrevolutionary restoration of capitalism.
The experience of socialist revolution would already represent an enormous advance in consciousness. The great resources of the workers’ state would be used in the struggle against sexism in culture and politics. For the first time women would have the resources through their state to make their free speech a reality. In contrast, the bourgeois-democratic right of free speech is largely a myth under capitalism. Oppressed groups such as women do not have the power and money to counter the “free speech” of the capitalist media, which maligns and degrades them daily.
A workers’ state would have the weapon of censorship at its disposal – although it would generally be a defensive weapon of last resort. If the same sort of offensive imagery were being used against the oppressed or to threaten the workers’ state, the workers could well use their state to ban it as a stopgap measure. In that case the imagery is viewed for its political content; whether it is “art,” “erotica,” or “pornography” neither protects nor condemns it. The question of censorship would have to be weighted in each case from the point of view of the defense of the working class and the oppressed, unlike now.
Free speech is maintained by capitalism as a disposable luxury, to be cast aside when property is endangered. It must therefore be defended, but not to create illusions that women and other oppressed sectors can really have a say over the bourgeois media.
The revolutionary workers’ state can empower women; capitalism can only enslave them. It would be utopian to ponder what genuine sexual liberation will look like; we don’t know. But we do know that when people have the material basis for really free, non-oppressive relations, they will begin to have them. Feminism, starting with promises that are impossible under capitalism, can only end in despair.