A guest post from Terry Moon–her presentation at the 2011 Left Forum:
Revolution, Counter-Revolution, and Solidarity
Terry Moon, Chicago
Talk for the Left Forum, NY, March 19, 2011
I. Where is Solidarity on Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Justice?
There is so much to say this afternoon because there is so much going on in the world, some of it incredibly exciting, hopeful and revolutionary; some of it reactionary and deadly. I want to begin with one of those deadly things, the attack on women right here in the U.S.
I’m speaking of the retrogressive legislation—proposed and passed—taking place across the U.S. on the question of women’s right to control our own bodies, our right to an abortion. You can read more of the details, in the latest issue of News & Letters on page 2. This legislation will not only lead to a tremendous amount of suffering, but to women dying and being maimed and back-alley and butcher abortions once more taking hold in the U.S. The reinstatement of the global gag rule will make certain that more women in countries where abortion is illegal also die, as they did in the past when the global gag rule was enforced.
What is evident in all this legislation is a blatant sexist attitude to women: that we are backwards, we don’t know our own minds. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg caught this attitude in the Supreme Court, when, in her dissent from the Court’s decision outlawing DX abortions, she said the decision wallows in anti-abortion ideology as it “invokes an anti-abortion shibboleth”: that women who have abortions “regret their choices,” and suffer from “severe depression and loss of esteem.” The new legislation would make it legal to lie to women, to force us to view a sonogram, force doctors to tell patients blatant lies, force women to report their miscarriages and have them investigated as if they are a crime. These laws savage women’s human rights. They make us less than human, reducing us to beings whose emotions are manufactured for us or imposed upon us. Truth is denied to women, which means reality is denied to them—to us!
When I saw the theme for this year’s Left Forum, what I thought of immediately was how there is so little real solidarity around the question of abortion rights when the ramifications of what is happening to women is at least as important as what is happening to labor. I’m not saying the two are in separate compartments but the labor unions are. Where are they when it comes to abortion rights? Where are the calls for a big demonstration around that? Just what has to happen to women before that solidarity makes a real appearance since, as it stands now, many human rights have already been stripped from any woman who happens to be pregnant.
II. International Women’s Day in Egypt 2011 and in Iran 1979
I want to turn to Egypt. There, women were not involved in calling for the right to abortion as their struggle against their own sexist culture is for equality, the right to exist without the most base kinds of sexual harassment. They want the right to walk the streets in peace and security. But the bigger reason to turn to Egypt in a talk to the Left From, is that women’s role in the revolutionary events leading to Mubarak’s fall, along with what is happening to U.S. women around abortion rights, reveals that the problem of lack of solidarity for women is a philosophic one.
All the left can agree, and I do too, that labor is key if we want a social revolution that can transform capitalism. Karl Marx discovered that workers are the subject needed for that overthrow because they are fighting the heart of capitalism’s contradiction—the dehumanization that takes place right at the point of production. But history has shown that is not all that is needed. Not only must the struggle continue, that is, work out in life Karl Marx’s concept of Revolution in Permanence, but it must as well involve all those struggling for freedom. So let’s turn to what it is Egyptian women bring to this question of solidarity.
In Egypt, many of the women who had protested against Mubarak in Tahrir Square had called for a women’s demonstration on March 8, IWD. The first shocker was how few turned out. Instead of the thousands that some expected, a few hundred women came to the Square and struggled to find each other to mount an effective demonstration.
The second shocker was the hostile, dangerous reception they received from mobs of men who yelled at them, ripped posters and signs from the women’s hands and trashed them, pushed the women, grabbed and kicked them, chased some of them down and beat them, and made the women actually run for their lives and abandon Tahrir Square, that symbol of the Egyptian Revolution. As one demonstrator, Jumanah Younis, described it:
“The women chanted slogans that had been used in the revolution itself, calling for freedom, justice and equality.” But the women’s chants “were drowned out by retaliations [yelled by the mob of men] such as ‘No to freedom!’…The men charged the female protestors…and shouted ‘Get out of here.’
“Many women were dragged away individually by small groups of men who attacked them. I remained on the platform with five other women. A small circle of sympathetic men held hands around us to protect us from the crowd, which swelled on all sides….
“As I struggled to stay upright, a hand grabbed my behind and others pulled at my clothes.”
While the men shouted down the women, yelling “Not now!” or “This is not the time,” they did not use the exact phrase Iranian men used in 1979 to try to discredit the women’s march. On March 8, IWD 1979, at the height of the Iranian Revolution when the women marched against Khomeini’s order for women to wear the chador, the Iranian men yelled that the women were “agents of imperialism.” In 2011, the men in Egypt’s Tahrir Square used the same concept, yelling at the women that they were under “western influences.”
I’m making the comparison, not to say that they are the same—because they are not and we can talk about the difference during the discussion if people want to. But what was the same was that like the women in Iran over 30 years ago, what the Egyptian woman demonstrators wanted was a continuation and a deepening of the new human relations that were established in Tahrir Square where women lived for the first time in their lives, those 18 days, without fear of being in the streets, without harassment, without rape, without degradation. They participated equally in the revolutionary events and were treated as comrades.
What is the most worrisome about the attack on Egyptian women on IWD is that those who attacked them, who refused to come out and join them, and who have yet to offer solidarity, seem to have learned nothing by what happened in Iran when the women tried to deepen that revolution and the Left, for the most part, refused to join them and indeed some of them attacked the women. That stopping short of the Iranian Revolution, the giving over of the revolution—albeit not without a prolonged struggle—to reactionary religious forces, has shown the world what it can mean when a revolution is stopped in its tracks, when Marx’s concept of Revolution in Permanence is not what wins the hearts and minds of those in revolt.
Iran is the example of religious fundamentalism in power, and Iranian women have been the most militant, deepest and most persistent critics of that reactionary, deadly, fascistic regime. That Iran’s counter-revolution did not influence events in Tahrir Square on March 8 is a frightening and serious event for all those who value genuine revolution and want to solidarize with the brave youth and women who made the beginnings of a revolution in Egypt.
III. Marxist-Humanism’s Unique Concept of Solidarity
One aspect of solidarity is of course the coming into the streets. The need for just that kind of solidarity can be seen in the lack of solidarity demonstrations for the women in Tahrir Square and those fighting against the deadly ruthlessness of Qaddafi in Libya.
Here in the U.S., women fighting the destruction of abortion rights are mostly fighting alone. It’s not that at least a small portion of the Left doesn’t show up in opportunistic ways and/or give some lip service to this struggle. Others will print an article now and again, the lip service part. But my experience is that most want to avoid the issue as too divisive. We’ve experienced that in environmental groups, we had a fight about it with the Peace and Justice Center in Memphis which we lost, and even supposedly feminist groups like Code Pink, stay clear of the question of reproductive rights so as to concentrate on being anti-war. Left groups in coalitions about jobs, or in support for Palestinians or any number of causes, never bring up abortion rights as one of the points to be included in their list of demands. It’s one thing to support women’s right to control our bodies because you hope to recruit some of those feisty women to your organization; it’s another thing to be there because you know that this struggle is about freedom and self-determination and if women don’t control their own bodies, then freedom can’t be actually experienced.
But more is involved than even appreciating how deep a struggle really is. Marxist-Humanism as practiced in News and Letters Committees has a unique concept of solidarity that flows from the breakthrough the founder of the philosophy, Raya Dunayevskaya, made on Hegel’s Absolute Idea. In returning to Hegel, as Marx also did time and again, Dunayevskaya saw that there were two movements within the Absolute. Not only is there a movement from theory to a philosophy of revolution, there is also a movement from practice and, most importantly, that movement from practice is itself a form of theory—and further, these two are a unity.
This philosophy changes the way one relates to the objective situation, to revolts and movements for freedom. If one sees that the movement from practice is itself a form of theory, then your relationship to any movement can’t be reduced to a recruitment mentality, or a vanguard one where you need to get yourself in the position to tell that movement what to do and what to think. Rather, your solidarity begins with actually hearing what is emerging from that movement, what people are saying that is new, what they are saying that is a contribution and deepening of the very idea of freedom. It is why we have such an emphasis on people speaking for themselves in our paper News & Letters, why we try so hard to know what people involved in these uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are saying, thinking, and doing. We are trying to discern the theory that can be implicit in the movements from practice and make that theory explicit, make a category of it so that it comes into the world in a way that it can be seen, acted on, and developed.
This lack of solidarity that we see around women’s issues, be they here or in Egypt, show a lack of understanding dialectics. Briefly, dialectics is the movement of actual history because it is the self-development of human beings that takes place in the struggle for freedom. It therefore does not stop with only the self-development of the individual, but the very idea of freedom undergoes a self-development as well. It becomes deeper, it encompasses more.
Marx, in his explication of capitalism, looked for the subject who could overthrow it and named the proletariat. At one and the same time, according the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., Raya Dunayevskaya,
“…the Dialectics of Revolution is characteristic of all the four forces we singled out in the U.S.—Labor, Black, Youth, as well as Women. All are moments of revolution, and nobody can know before the event itself who will be the one in the concrete, particular revolution…. the whole truth is in the dual rhythm of any revolution: the overthrow of the old society and the creation of the new human relations. It requires the spelling out of that dialectic in its totality with every individual subject” (“Dialectics of revolution: American roots and world Humanist concepts,” RD, News & Letters Nov.-Dec. 2010).
Those women struggling for the right to abortion are not only saying that they want to choose when to have babies and when not to—although they are saying that. But they are also telling us that freedom has to mean that women have the right and ability to control their own bodies, that no one can tell a woman when to have children and when not to, that, as many signs at abortion rights rallies have proclaimed, “My womb belongs to me.” That’s not about women’s rights, that’s about freedom; and it’s also about just how total and how deep a revolution has to be to actually transform society to create new human relationships.
What was telling on this question of solidarity internationally is how little discussion, how little shock has been expressed beyond what I have seen women expressing, about what happened in Tahrir Square.
What March 8 Cairo brings forward is the other side of that philosophic breakthrough on Hegel’s Absolutes, that is, that the movement from practice and the movement from theory are a unity.
That the Left is nowhere on the scene when it comes to abortion or to the IWD events in Cairo shows that they do not see women as Subject, as agents for change, or, to use more Marxian terms, as the Particular needed to make real the universal of freedom. Hegel, to whom Marx returned again and again, characterized the dialectics as the movement of the Universal through Particular, to the Individual, or the other way around. These are the three main categories of Hegel’s Doctrine of the Notion. What I’m saying philosophically is that the Left does not understand that it is not only the proletariat that can be the Particular, but also women. You can not “fix” a Particular, that is, mistake it for the Universal as some separatist feminists have done, but what is key to see is that when the Particular is not fixed, it is the way to get to second negativity, to revolution, and as Dunayevskaya said, “there is no other way to get to it.”
Dunayevskaya put it this way in an essay she wrote towards the end of her life, “Not By Practice Alone: The Movement From Theory”:
“In a word, principles of revolution do not change, be it directly against the enemy at home—U.S. capitalism—or in critical solidarity work with Left groups.
“These political principles of revolution must under no circumstances be separated from the philosophical principles…These must never be reduced either to a mere abstraction or to the so immediate concrete [so] that we hardly become distinguishable from some sort of ‘popular front’ in the solidarity committee…We…have used precisely Marx’s theory of the philosophy of revolution in permanence, not as an abstraction but as the actual concrete needed in order both to be armed against being pulled into the world market of the whirlpool of capitalism, state as well as private, and as requiring a decentralized organization whose ground is that continuing ‘revolution in permanence’” (The Power of Negativity, by Raya Dunayevskaya, p. 276).
What this means concretely is that our solidarity work around Egypt, will not ignore what happened on March 8, but make a point of it. It points to the importance that the very first paragraph of our lead in the new issue of News & Letters proclaims, “The new human relations manifest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square became central, within weeks to discussions of youth, labor, and other movements around the world.” And then points out a few paragraphs later, “Indeed, something new was being created in Tahrir Square. It was a form of direct democracy, that reached beyond merely formal freedom to genuinely new human relationships.”
The attack on the women was an attack on that vision of a new society that was actually lived—by men and women together—for a few days in February. That is why a Marxist-Humanist concept of Solidarity is always also critical, because it is in the critique that a direction can be found for creating the truly new. Our solidarity consists, at least in part, of trying to make this vision of the future that was articulated expressly as that by those protesting in Tahrir Square, a reality. It means that women’s struggle to control their own bodies will never be just lip service to us, because we view it and support it as a freedom struggle, as a struggle that tells us a lot about what the new society has to become and how to fight for it. Neither of these can be done without a critique that flows from a total philosophy of revolution.