राजनीतिक विकल्प: चुनावी या आंदोलनकारी (Political Alternatives: Electoral or Movemental)

Notes on Fetishism, History and Uncertainty: Beyond the Critique of Austerity

Werner Bonefeld

‘What divides these gentlemen [the French socialists] from the bourgeois apologist is, on the one side, their sensitivity to the contradictions included in the system; on the other, the utopian inability to grasp the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, which is the cause of their desire to undertake the superfluous business of realizing the ideal expression again, which is in fact only the inverted projection [Lichtbild] of this reality’ (Marx, 1973, pp. 248-49).


We live at a time that resounds with misery. The headlines have changed from war and terror to what seems like a never-ending global economic crisis. Against the background of debt, default and sluggish rates of economic growth at best, accumulation by dispossession is back en vogue, a whole generation of workers appears redundant, and a whole mass of people have been cut off from the means of subsistence, struggling to survive – and despite appearances to the contrary, war and terror continue unabated. In this context, the notion that capitalism produces deplorable situations is a most optimistic point of view. Deplorable conditions (Zustände) are not the same as deplorable situations (Mißstände). The one says that poverty is a capitalist condition. Challenging it requires a fundamental change in the social relations of production. On the other hand, deplorable situations describe entirely avoidable socio-economic circumstances, be they the result of a chance development, government incompetence, or hard-nosed class-politics. As such it can be rectified by well-meaning political interventions and political programmes that benefit society at large.[1] Instead of capitalist profit, miserable situations require resolution by political means that hold the economy accountable to the democratic aspirations for a freedom from want. Deplorable situations require thus a social activism that challenges This misery and That outrage, seeking to alleviate and rectify This and That. What however are the social preconditions that constitute the necessity of This poverty and That misery? After all, what is needed is a praxis that fights the underlying conditions of misery. Adorno (1972) therefore condemns activism for its own sake, and rejects it as a pseudo-praxis that fights this and that but leaves the conditions that render this and that entirely untouched. In this way, ‘activism’ is not only affirmative of existing society but also regressive – it deludes itself that however bad the situation, it can be rectified by this or that policy, by this or that technical means. The activism of the given situation feels the pain of the world and offers its own programme as the means of salvation. The activism against this or that is delusional in its conception of society. It deceives those whose interests it pretends to represent by making them believe that a resolution to their plight is really just a matter of proper government. In its essence, activism for this cause or that cause is a political advertisement for some alternative party of government. It transforms the protest against a really existing misery that blights the life of a whole class of individuals into a selling point for political gain.

On Society and Economic Nature

Critical thought is none other than the cunning of reason when confronted with a social reality in which the poor and miserable are required to subsidise the financial system for the sake of sustaining the illusion of fictitious wealth. Yet, this subsidy is entirely necessary in existing society, to prevent its implosion. This rational irrationality of a capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction is at the centre of the critique of political economy. Its critique is subversive. It asks why human social reproduction takes this irrational form. Subversion focuses on human conditions and focuses on essentials: ‘Free labour contains the pauper’ (Marx, 1973, p. 604) and capitalist wealth entails the poverty of dispossessed labour in its conception. Its focus on essentials entails intransigence towards the existent patterns of the world. It demands that all relations ‘in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicably being have to be overthrown’ (Marx, 1975, p. 182). Debasement subsists as society unaware of itself; a society that is, in which human sensuous practice exists, say, in the form of a movement of coins that impose themselves with seemingly irresistible force on the acting subjects as if the world of coins were a world apart. The fetishism of commodities makes the human world appear as one that is governed by natural, immutable economic laws. Yet, nature has nothing to do with it. What appears as an objective force of economic nature is and remains a socially constituted force. Society is governed by economic abstractions that appear as forces of nature. Economic nature is a socially constituted nature. Society asserts itself in the form of a relationship between things and thus exists in and through the movement of socially constituted things.

Society is ‘objective’ insofar as and ‘because’ its ‘own subjectivity is not transparent’. Society is subjective ‘in that it refers back to human beings which form it’ (Adorno, 1993a, p. 43). Objectivity ‘realises itself only through individuals’. Society as a mere object comprises the socially necessary delusion that the social structures and social laws are innately natural. ‘The thesis that society is subject to natural laws is ideology’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 355). Social objectivity does not posit itself – it is ‘the posited universal of the social individuals that constitute it’ (1993b, p. 127). What this means is well brought out by Marx (1973, p. 239) when he writes, in the money fetish ‘a social relation, a definite relation between individuals … appears as a metal, a stone, as a purely physical external thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence’. That is, social objectivity ‘does not lead a life of its own’ (Adorno, 1993b, p. 127). It is a socially constituted objectivity – social relations vanish in their appearance as a metal or a stone, and this appearance is real. There is only one world, and that is the world of appearance. What appears in the appearance of society as a ‘stone’, or a ‘coin’, is however a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between ‘coins’. Society appears as some transcendental thing that governs by means of the ‘invisible hand’, which takes ‘care of both the beggar and the king’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 251). Its transcendent character is real: Money makes the world go round; yet, it does so only because, in capitalism, social individuals are governed by the product of their own hand. In short, the world does indeed manifest itself behind the backs of acting individuals, and society is indeed governed by real abstractions; yet, it is their own world (cf. Marcuse, 1988, p. 151).

Marx’s critique of fetishism amounts thus to a judgement on existence. That is, the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualised praxis (begriffenden Praxis) of definite social relations in their appearance as relations, say, between coins (Schmidt, 1974, p. 207). It holds that theoretical mysteries find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice, and argues that this practice exists against itself in the form of relations of economic objectivity. The limit to reification is reified Man, and in the face of reified Man, the critique of fetishism is an attempt at making society conscious of its own ‘monstrous’ world. In short, the meaning of objectivity excludes the possibility that it can also be a subject. However, to be an object is part of the meaning of subjectivity. Subjectivity means objectification. In its capitalist form it appears in the logic of things. Appearance [Schein] “is the enchantment of the subject in its own world” (Adorno 1969: 159). The circumstance that objectification [Gegenständlichkeit] exists in the form of a relationship between coins does thus not imply that there is an as yet undiscovered, and indeed undiscoverable, logic that lies solely within the thing itself. Only as a socially determinate object can the object be an object (see Adorno 1969: 157). Reason exists – but in irrational form. The irrational world is a rational world.

Marx’s work focuses on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion and law), then later on the forms of political economy. This focus on forms entails a critique of social relations that subsist in an inverted form of society– one that is governed not by the social individuals themselves but, rather, one that is governed by ‘product’ of their own hand. That is to say, every social ‘form’, even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, ‘is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things’ (Marx, 1972, p. 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a ‘perverted form’ (Marx, 1979, p. 90)[2]. The critique of economic categories as perverted social forms subverts the economic idea of cash, price and profit by revealing their social constitution. The movement of ‘coins’ does not express some abstractly conceived economic matter. It expresses a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between things and coins. In capitalism individuals are really governed by the movement of coins – they carry their relationship with society, and therewith their access to the means of subsistence, in their pockets. Although coins tend to inflate or become depressed, they are not subjects.  Yet, they impose themselves on, and also in and through, the person to the point of madness and disaster, from the socially necessary consciousness of cash and product, money and profit, to poverty and famine, and bloodshed and war. The bourgeois conception of wealth is money as more money, and this idea of more money objectifies itself in the persons as mere ‘agents of value’ (Adorno, 173, p. 311) who depend for their life on the manner in which the ‘logic of economic things’ unfolds – access to the means of subsistence appears to be governed by fate and fate appears in the form of economic growth, which if money does not posit itself as more money cuts off a whole class of people from the means of subsistence. What a monstrosity! An economic thing, this coin, that in its nature really is nothing more than a piece of metal manifests itself as a power by which ‘the life of all men hangs by’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 320). However, this is not a monstrosity of economic nature nor is it one of reified things. That is, the mythological idea of fate becomes no less mythical when it is demythologised “into a secular ‘logic of things’” (ibid., p. 319) or into an abstract system-logic that structures the economic behaviours by means of price signals, which comprises the freedom to wealth and the freedom to starve. Its economic nature is in its entirety a socially constituted nature.

On Society and Praxis

There is, says Adorno, a need for a ‘practice that fights barbarism’, and yet, he argues rightly, there can be no such practice (Adorno, 1962, p. 30). Barbarism cannot be fought in a direct and immediate manner – what really does it mean to struggle against money, resist the movement of coins, combat the law of value, and fight poverty in a society that contains poverty in its concept of wealth? A ‘practice that fights barbarism’ is about the social preconditions that render barbarism. To put this point in entirely different manner: The struggle for humanisation points the struggle against constituted relations of misery in the right direction; the humanisation of social relations is the purpose and end of the struggle for the human emancipation from reified economic relations, from relations in which an increase in social wealth manifests itself to the class that is tied to work in the form of a constant struggle for access to the means of subsistence. However, the effort of humanising inhuman conditions is confronted by the paradox that it presupposes as eternal those same inhuman conditions that provoke the effort of humanisation in the first place. Inhuman conditions are not just an impediment to humanisation but a premise of its concept. What then does it mean to say ‘no’?

It is not the independence of economic categories of cash and coin, value and money, as forces over and above, and also in and through, the social individuals that require explanation. Rather, what requires explanation is the social relations of production that manifest themselves as a relationship between economic things, which assert themselves behind the backs of those same individuals that comprise and sustain society. Adorno’s notion that the ‘total movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’ (Adorno, 1970, p. 304) entails therefore more than it first seems. Not only does the fetishism of commodities presuppose antagonistic social relations but society exists also by virtue of the class antagonism. That is to say, ‘society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it’ (Adorno, 1973, 320). The struggle against capitalism is therefore not a struggle for the working class. Whichever way one looks at it, to be a member of the working class is a great ‘misfortune’ (Marx, 1983, p. 477). That is to say, class is not a positive category. It is a critical concept of the false society. The critique of class society finds its positive resolution not in better paid workers or conditions of full-employment, etc. It finds its positive resolution only in the classless society, in which mankind has rid itself of ‘all the muck of ages and found itself anew’ (Marx and Engels 1976: 53). – as a commune of ‘communist individuals’ (Marcuse 1958: 127).

In a world governed by the movement of coins, the critique of class society is entirely negative. A constructive critique of class society does not amount to a critical practice. It amounts, argue Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) and Adorno (1970), to ‘ticket thinking’. Such thinking is ‘one-dimensional’. It argues in interests of the wage labourer with a claim to power. That is, rather than understanding capital as a social relationship, it takes capital to be an economic thing that given the right balance of class forces, can be made to work for the benefit of workers. Ticket thinking proclaims ‘falseness’ (Adorno 2008a: 28). Instead of the ‘optimism of the left’ that puts forth a programme of capitalist transformation which does ‘not talk about the devil but looks on the bright side’ (Adorno 1978: 114), there is therefore need to understand the capitalist conceptuality of social labour.

Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intensions, presuppose the working class as productive force that deserves a better, a new deal. What is a fair wage? Marx made the point that ‘”price of labour” is just as irrational as a yellow logarithm’ (Marx, 1966, p. 818). The demand for fair wages and fair labour conditions abstracts from the very conditions of ‘fairness’ in capitalism, which is founded on the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence, and instead of overcoming this divorce which is the foundation of capital and labour, it proclaims that dispossessed workers be paid better. That is, the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence transforms labour into a proletarian who is ‘the slave of other individuals who have made themselves the owners of the means of human existence’ (Marx, 1970, p. 13, translation amended). Why does this content, that is, human social reproduction, take the form of an equivalent exchange between the owners of the means of subsistence and the dispossessed seller of labour power, and how can it be that wealth expands by means of an exchange between equivalent values? The seller of labour power is fundamentally a human factor of surplus labour time, which is the foundation of surplus value and thus profit. The equivalence of an exchange between quantitatively different values has thus to do with the transformation of labour into a surplus value producing labour activity which expands social wealth, allowing money to lay golden eggs. Even on the assumption that when hiring labour, equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, this transaction between the seller and buyer of labour ‘is all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of’ (1983, p. 456). That is to say, theory on behalf of the working class affirms the existence of a class of people tied to surplus value production. Chapter 48 of Volume Three of Capital provides Marx’s critique of the theory of class proposed by classical political economy (and shared by modern social science), according to which class interests are determined by the revenue sources (or, in Weberian terms, market situation) of social groups, rather than being founded in the social relations of production as Marx argues (on this see Clarke, 1992). Political Economy is indeed a scholarly dispute over how the booty pumped out of the labourer may be divided and distributed amongst the component classes of society (Marx, 1983, p. 559) – and clearly, the more the labourer gets, the better. After all, it is her social labour that produces the ‘wealth of nations’.

However, the critique of political economy is not political economy. In distinction to political economy’s focus on the distribution of wealth, it asks about the conceptuality of social wealth, that is wealth in the form of value, and it asks how this wealth if produced, by whom, and for what purpose. According to Marx, wealth is produced by labour for the sake of greater wealth in the form of value, and value is value in exchange that becomes visible in the form of money. Value is wealth as valorised value. Time is money. The critique of political amounts thus to a conceptualised practice of capitalist form of social wealth as one that is founded on the transformation of the workers’ life time into labour time. There is no time to waste and there is always more time to catch. This, then, is the ‘nibbling and cribbling at meal times’ as ‘moments are the elements of profit’ (Marx, 1983, pp, 232, 233). The time of value is the time of socially necessary labour time. Work that is not completed within this time is wasted, valueless, regardless of the labour time that went into it, the sweat and tears of its productive efforts, the usefulness of the material wealth that was created, and the needs that it could satisfy. From the appropriation of unpaid labour time to the endless struggle over the division between necessary labour time and surplus labour time, from the ‘imposition‘ of labour-time by time-theft, this ‘petty pilferings of minutes’, ‘snatching a few minutes’ (ibid., p. 232), to the stealing from the worker of atoms of additional unpaid labour time by means of great labour flexibility and ‘systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the workman’ (Marx, 1983, p. 402), the life-time of the worker is labour-time. The worker then appears as ‘nothing more than personified labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 233) – a ‘time’s carcase’ (on this, see Bonefeld, 2010b).

The notion, then, that the hell of a class ridden society can be reformed for the sake of workers is regressive in that it projects a ‘conformist rebellion’ (Horkheimer 1985), that, say, instead of ending slavery, seeks a new deal for slaves. Although ‘the world contains opportunities enough for success [communism] …everything is bewitched’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2011: 20). That is, there is only one social reality, and this is the reality of the ‘enchanted and perverted’ world of capital (Marx 1966: 830), which reproduces itself not despite the class struggle but rather by virtue of it. Sensuous human activity subsists through the world of economic things, and thus appears ‘as a thing’ (Marx 1973, p. 157).

In capitalism, every progress turns into a calamity

Capitalist social relations have produced a staggering expansion in social wealth and phenomenal increase in labour productivity. Within a miniscule historical period of time, it has transformed human society beyond recognition. Nevertheless, despite this unprecedented expansion of human productive power, the time of labour has not diminished. In capitalism, every social progress turns into a calamity. Every increase in labour productivity shortens the hours of labour but in its capitalist form, it lengthens them. The introduction of sophisticated machinery lightens labour but in its capitalist form, it heightens the intensity of labour. Every increase in the productivity of labour increases the material wealth of the producers but in its capitalist form makes them paupers. Most importantly of all, greater labour productivity sets labour free, makes labour redundant. But rather than shortening the hours of work and thus absorbing all labour into production on the basis of a shorter working day, freeing life-time from the ‘realm of necessity’, those in employment are exploited more intensively, while those made redundant find themselves on the scrap heap of a mode of production that sacrifices ‘“human machines” on the pyramids of accumulation’ (Gambino, 2003, p. 104).[3]

Capitalist wealth is wealth in value. Value is category of constant expansion, on the pain of ruin and by means of ruin. Value is wealth in the form of restless expansion of abstract wealth qua destruction. Concealed in the concept of capital as self-valorising value lies the conceptuality of social labour. The necessity of its affirmation qua destruction – discussed by Marx at times as the dialectic between the forces and the relations of production – belongs to the constituted existence of social labour in the form of capital.

Destruction is the constituted nightmare of the capitalist mode of social reproduction:

‘Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence; too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does bourgeois society get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18–19)

This commentary on globalisation by the 29-year-old Marx is not a brilliant anticipation, which after all turned out to be far too optimistic. Rather, it conceptualises the critical subject and, in doing so, shows what lies within it. What lies within the concept of capitalist wealth are its determinate necessities. These belong to the critical subject of society unaware of itself and constitute its conceptuality. Creation qua destruction is a valid necessity of capitalist social relations – it belongs to its conceptuality [Begrifflichkeit]. “Conceptuality expresses the fact that, no matter how much blame may attach to the subject’s contribution, the conceived world is not its own but a world hostile to the subject” (Adorno 1973: 167). Man vanishes in her own world and exists against herself as a personification of economic categories – an “alienated subject” (see Backhaus 1992) that constitutes the world of things and is invisible, lost and denied in its own world – the expansion of wealth entails the disappearance of wealth as a whole class of people tied to work is cut off from the means of subsistence as if the social metabolism really is governed by the mythical idea of fate.

There is only one human measure that cannot be modified. It can only be lost (Max Frisch)

Marx conceives of communism as the real movement of the working class (Marx and Engels 1976) and argues that history is a history of class struggle (Marx and Engels 1996). This argument recognises that history has been a history of rulers and ruled, and this is the only history that has been – a bad-universality of transition from one mode of domination to another. The universality of history is, however, both real and false. In the history of the victors the victims of history are invisible, and it is their invisibility that makes history appear as a universal history that akin to a sequence of events, records the times of glorious rule, from which the memory of struggle and insubordination is necessarily expunged. The courage, cunning, and suffering of the dead disappears twice, once in a defeat in which ‘even the dead will not be safe’ from an enemy that ‘has not ceased to be victorious’ (Benjamin 1999: 247), and then again in the present, which either denies that the dead ever existed or ritualises their struggles as an heroic act that culminated in the present as the unrivalled manifestation of their bravery (Tischler, 2005). The struggles of the past transform into a monument of history, erected in celebration of the present mode of domination, for which the dead perform the role of legitimising fodder. It is true, says Benjamin, that ‘all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them’. There is thus no ‘document of civilisation’ that is ‘not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). History though universal in its appearance, is not some automatic thing that unfolds on behalf of the masters of the world by force of its own objectively unfolding victorious logic. ‘Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession, in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). Nevertheless, however universal the progress of history might appear, the future has not already been written, class struggles have to be fought, and their outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, and fundamentally open, then and now. What appears linear to us was contested, uncertain and unpredictable at its own time. Its progress towards the present appears logical in its directional dynamic because the time of the present eliminates any doubt in its own historical veracity as a pre-determined outcome of a sequence of recorded events that dated the time of the present in the past.

What alternatives might there have been in the past and how many struggles have been at the knife’s edge and could have led to a course of history that would be unrecognisable to us? There is no inevitability in history, nor is history an irresistible force. It is made by the acting subjects themselves and what is made by Man can be changed by Man. History appears inevitable and irresistible only afterwards, which gives history the appearance of some objective force and directional dynamic, a telos of becoming and achievement, towards which it seemingly strives. For the proponents of present society, history has been concluded. Others say that it is still continuing towards some assumed socialist or communist destiny, at which point it will conclude. History does however not make history. That is to say, ‘[h]istory does nothing, does not “possess vast wealth”, does not “fight battles”! It is Man, rather, the real, living Man who does all that, who does possess and fight, it is not “history” that uses Man [Mensch] as a means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of Man pursuing its ends’ (Marx 1980: 98). Historical materialism is not the dogma indicated by clever opponents and unthinking proponents alike, but a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is to say, the ‘human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’, but not conversely, the anatomy of the ape does not explain the anatomy of Man (Marx 1973: 105). If the anatomy of the ape would really explain the anatomy of Man then the ape would already possess Man as the innate necessity of its evolution – a natural teleology or an already written future.[4] The future, however, has not already been written. Nor will it be the result of some abstractly conceived objective logic of historical development. History does not unfold, as if it were a person apart. History has to be made, and will be made, by Man pursuing her ends. These ends themselves are not theologically determined, naturally founded, or historically active. The purpose of capitalism is the profitable accumulation of abstract wealth. The commune of human purpose is not an existing human purpose. Its reality is a negative one. That is to say, linear conceptions of history do not reveal abstract historical laws. They reveal accommodation of thought and practice to the existing ‘objective conditions’. Linear conceptions of history conceive of it as a continuum of progress of the present into its own future.

The political left claims that history is on the side of the oppressed and that the struggle of the oppressed therefore moving with the current of history’s forward march. This proclamation of progress makes ‘dogmatic claims’ (Benjamin 1999: 252) about a future of freed proletarians. How might one conceive of a liberated future that is not also a future present? Benjamin calls the conception of history that conceives of existing reality as transition towards communism, the ‘bordello’ (ibid.: 253) of historical thought. It criticises capitalism with a claim to power, envisages progress as a matter of party political success, advertises itself as the theory and practice of progress of a history that ‘runs its course…according to its own dialectic’ (Lukacs, in Pinkus 1975: 74). At its best this idea of history as imminent progress represents the sentimentality of the epoch, at worst it believes in itself, asserting a dogmatic claim to power for the sake of power.

On the Critique of Progress

History has no independent reality. It appears as a sequence of events, from one battle to another and from this division of labour to that division of labour. This appearance is real but by itself, devoid of meaning. What does it really mean to say that history is a sequence of events? Events of what and what was so eventful? Its appearance as an objectively unfolding force towards the present conceptuality of social wealth is deceptive. It gives rise to the idea of the coming of the society of human purposes as an ‘event’ of historical becoming towards which history somewhat strives. This view of history makes it appear as if the society of the free and equal derives from existing society, demeaning the very idea of the society of human purposes. The difficulty of conceiving of such a society independently from capitalism, has to do with its very idea. In distinction to the pursuit of profit, seizure of the state, pursuit and preservation of political power, and economic value and human resource, it follows a completely different entelechy of human development – on in which wealth is free time, the purpose of humanity its own purpose, and one in which equality is an equality of individuals human needs. For the sake of human emancipation, the idea of history as a force of relentless progress has to be abandoned – the idea of progress is tied to existing society, which legitimises the existence of poverty as a condition of future wealth. History appears as a transcendent force of progress only when one abstracts from it, leading to its description of a sequence of historical events, for which the terms ‘historicity’ provides the name. That is to say, in order to comprehend history, one needs to ‘crack the continuum of history’.[5] One needs thus to think out of history, out of the battles, out of the struggles of the Levellers and Diggers, slave insurrections, peasant revolts, the struggles of Les Enragés, working class strikes, riots, insurrections, and revolutions, including St. Petersburg (1917) and Kronstadt  (1921), and Barcelona (1936) [6], to appreciate the traditions of the oppressed, recognise the smell of danger and the stench of death, gain a sense of the courage and cunning of struggle, grasp the spirit of sacrifice, comprehend however fleetingly the density of a time at which history almost came to a standstill.[7]  History does not lead anywhere; it has no telos, no objectives, no purpose, and it does not take sides. At its worst, it continues on the path of victorious progress under darkened clouds and smoke filled skies. History is made. At best, its progress will be stopped. Such history has not been made yet, though it has often been attempted. In our time, this attempt is called communism – this attempt at negation that seeks to rid the world of ‘all the muck of ages’.

What is cannot be

The true picture of the past, says Benjamin (1999: 247) ‘flits by’. When? How? It flits by ‘at a moment of danger’, at moments of courageous struggle when the time of the present appears to have come to a hold, a time at which everything seems possible, and where everything is up in the air, a time of great unpredictability and uncertainty, and thus a time at which the ‘bloody grimace’ (Adorno 1975: 43) of progress attains actual force in the experience of struggle. Thus the true picture of the past flits by at a time of greatest uncertainty, a time at which the certainty of tomorrow dissolves and at which the monuments of the past crack to reveal their hidden secret. This is the time of historical comprehension, in which the mass produced view of a glorious history transforms form a historicity of events into an experienced history of death and destruction, pillage and rape, enslavement and dispossession. This then is the time of intense uncertainty that reveals the bloody grimace of the past struggles, which up-to-now had hidden in the seemingly civilised forms of rule and power. This then is the time at which the dead victims of history step off the monument built by the state in its role as memory entrepreneur (see Tischler 2005). There is no redemption. There is only the realisation that history was not what it seemed, and there is a sudden understanding of the earlier sacrifice and deadly struggle. The experience of a time at a standstill is intoxicating, and full of danger. It is this experience that allows a glimpse of the past to take hold in the present, revealing a deadly certainty. That is, redemption is a matter of staying alive at a time when the certainty of tomorrow is no more: for ‘even the dead will not be safe’ if ‘the enemy’ wins (Benjamin 1999: 247).

The time of human emancipation is akin to pulling the emergency-break on a run-away train – here and now so that the continuum of history ‘come[s] to a stop’ (Benjamin 1999: 254). Another way of putting this is to say: the future present is both a present in transition towards its own future and a now-time that explodes this continuum of history. The time for pulling the emergency break is not tomorrow. It is now. Compared with the time of the present, Now-Time appears as a myth. The present is the time of seeming certainty and predictability. Now time says that now is the time of uncertainty.  Now is the time to stop the forward march of the time of the clock, adding units of time to units of time, ticking and tacking according to the rhythm of a world in which time is money and money is wealth. Now time appears as a myth because its acuity is a time that does not add to itself (Bonefeld 2010b). It does not move forward in relentless pursuit of abstract wealth, accumulating living labour on the pyramids of abstract wealth, appropriating additional atoms of unpaid labour time for the sake of an accumulation of abstract wealth alone. In Now time, time is courage and cunning. Now is the time for taking aim ‘at the clocks’ so that their ticking and tacking stops, and time ceases to be money and instead becomes a time ‘for enjoyment’ (Marx 1972, p. 252). Now time is not the time of the present. It is a time against the present, seeking to stop it in its tracks. Conceived as a present time, now time ceases as a time that fights barbarism. Instead it converts the ‘no’ of Now Time into a ‘conformist rebellion’ for existing conditions, which it defends with doctrinaire belief in the progress of the present, according to which all will be well in the future once the communist bead of the rosary of history has slipped through our hands.[8]

Towards a Conclusion without Promise

Only a reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge, political capacity, and technical expertise not only for resolving capitalist crises but, also, to do so in the interests of workers. Its world-view describes capitalist economy as an irrationally organised practice of labour, and proposes socialism as a rationally organised practice of labour by means of conscious planning by public authority. The anti-capitalism of central economic planning is abstract in its negation of the capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction. ‘Abstract negativity’ (Adorno 2008a: 25) barks in perpetuity and without bite. Instead, it sniffs out the miserable world, from the outside as it were, and puts itself forward as having the capacity, ability, insight, and means for resolving the crisis of capitalist economy ‘for the workers’ (see ibid.). Abstract negativity describes the theology of anti-capitalism. Theologically conceived, anti-capitalism is devoid of Now-Time. Instead of rupturing the continuum of history, it promises deliverance from misery amidst ‘a pile of debris’ that ‘grows skyward’ (Benjamin 1999: 249). Benjamin’s thesis on the Angel of History says that the poor and miserable will not be liberated unless they liberate themselves, by their own effort, courage, and cunning. Herbert Marcuse focuses the conundrum of this argument most succinctly when he argues that the workers have to be free for their liberation so that they are able to become free (Marcuse 1964). In his view, workers can free themselves only insofar as they are not workers, on the basis of their non-identity. Marcuse’s argument is to the point: to stop the progress of capitalism requires a non-capitalist identity, and the difficulty of its conception is a simple one: such an identity does not belong to the present, which is a capitalist present. What really does it mean to say ‘no’ to a capitalistically organised mode of human subsistence? To say ‘no’ to capitalism is simple. But to say what the ‘no’ is, is difficult. For one, the ‘no’ is not external to but operates within that same society which it opposes. Like Marx’s summons of class struggle as the motor of history, the ‘no’ drives the negative world forward. It is its dynamic force. Furthermore, to say what the ‘no’ is compromises the ‘no’ insofar as it becomes positive in its affirmative yes to something that has no valid content except the very society that is opposes. The ‘no’ is immanent to bourgeois society and gives it its dynamic.

There is thus need for a realistic conception of the struggle for the society of human purposes. Class struggle has to be rediscovered as the laboratory of human emancipation. This struggle does not follow some abstract idea. It is a struggle for access to ‘crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (Benjamin 1999: 246). What then is the working class ‘in-itself’ struggling for? ‘In-itself’ the working class struggles for better wages and conditions, and defends wage levels and conditions. It struggles against capital’s ‘were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’ and its destructive conquest for additional atoms of labour time, and thus against its reduction to a mere time’s carcass. It struggles against a life constituting solely of labour-time and thus against a reduction of her human life to a mere economic resource. It struggles for respect, education, and recognition of human significance, and above all it struggles for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, love, affection, knowledge, and dignity. It struggles against the reduction of its life-time to labour-time, of its humanity to an economic resource, of its living existence to personified labour-time. Its struggle as a class ‘in-itself’ really is a struggle ‘for-itself’: for life, human distinction, life-time, and above all, satisfaction of basic human needs. It does all of this in conditions (Zustände) in which the increase in material wealth that it has produced, pushes beyond the limits of the capitalist form of wealth. Every so-called trickle-down effect that capitalist accumulation might bring forth presupposes a prior and sustained trickle up in the capitalist accumulation of wealth. And then society ‘suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18-19). For Benjamin and Marx, the experience of being cut off from the means of subsistence makes the oppressed class the depository of historical knowledge. It is the class struggle that ‘supplies a unique experience with the past’, and understanding of the present (Benjamin 1999: 254). Whether this experience ‘turns concrete in the changing forms of repression as resistance to repression’ (Adorno 1973: 265) or whether it turns concrete in forms of repression is a matter of experienced history. Critically understood, and in distinction to the classical tradition, historical materialism is not only a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is, at its best it thinks against the flow of history and, as such, it really ‘brush[es] history against the grain’ (Benjamin 1999: 248) so that the critical reason of human emancipation does not become ‘a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of’ (Adorno 1973: 143).

The existence of human labour as an economic factor of production does not entail reduction of consciousness to economic consciousness. It entails the concept of economy as an experienced concept, and economic consciousness as an experienced consciousness. At the very least, economic consciousness is an unhappy consciousness. It is this consciousness that demands reconciliation. In sum, ‘freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others’ (Roux 1985: 147).


Where is the positive? The society of human purposes can be defined in negation only. History holds no promise at all. History does nothing. It is made. In the struggle against a negative world nothing is certain, except misery itself. Nevertheless, uncertainty is also an experienced concept of struggle (Bonefeld 2004). Historically, it has assumed the form of the ‘council’, the Commune, the Raete, the assemblies: this democracy of the street, which, despite appearance to the contrary, manifests no impasse at all. It is the laboratory of the society of free and equal  – its validity is its own uncertainty.


[1] On the distinction between deplorable situations and deplorable conditions, see Bonefeld (2000).

[2] Adapted from the German original that uses the phrase ‘verrueckte’ Form. In German verrueckt has a double meaning: man and displaced. I translate this as ‘perverted’.

[3] The social calamity of capitalist development is taken from Karl Marx (1983: 416).

[4] On this see Schmidt (1983) and Bonefeld (2010a).

[5] I use this phrase in reference to Holloway’s (2010) negative theory of capitalism.

[6] On the connection between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, see Brendel (2002).

[7] The notion of thinking out of history, rather than about history, derives from Adorno’s (1973) negative dialectics which argues that for thought to decipher capitalist society, it needs to think out of society. For him, thinking about society, or about history, amounts to an argument based on hypothetical judgements that treat the world as an ‘as if’, leaving reality itself untouched and leading to dogmatic claims about its character. Critical theory, at least this is its critical intent, deciphers society from within, seeking its dissolution as a continuum of inevitable and irresistible social forces, political events, economic laws (of scarcity), and empirical data. On this, see Bonefeld (2012).

[8] The ‘rosary that slips through our hands’ refers to Benjamin’s critique of an historical materialism that has slipped into the theoretical method of historicism, which conceives of history as a sequence of events.


Adorno, T. (1962) Einleitung zur Musiksoziologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1969) ‘Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis’, in Stichworte Kritische Modelle 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1970), Ästhetische Theorie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1972), Soziologische Schriften I, in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 8, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1973) Negative Dialectics, Routledge, London.

Adorno, T. (1975) Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1978) Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Verso, London.

Adorno, T. (1993a) ‘Einleitung’, Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (1993b) ‘Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften‘, in Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (2008a) Lectures on History and Freedom, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. (2008b) Lectures on Negative Dialectics, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. and M. Horkheimer (2011) Towards a New Manifesto, Verso, London.

Backhaus, H.G. (1992) ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory’, in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn and K. Psychopedis (eds.) Open Marxism, vol. I, Pluto, London.

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations, Pimlico, London.

Bonefeld, W. (2000) ‘Die Betroffenheit und die Vernunft der Kritik’, in Bruhn J, M Dahlmann, and C Nachmann (eds) Kritik der Politik, Ca Ira, Freiburg.

Bonefeld, W. (2004) ‘Uncertainty and Social Autonomy’, The Commoner no 8, Winter 2004, pp. 1-6.

Bonefeld, W. (2010a) ‘History and Human Emancipation’, Critique, 38/1, pp. 61-73.

Bonefeld, W. (2010b) ‘Abstract Labour: Against its Nature and on its Time’, Capital & Class, vol. 34/2, pp. 257-276.

Bonefeld, W. (2012) ‘Negative Dialectics in Miserable Times: Notes on Adorno and Social Praxis’, in Journal of Classical Sociology 12 (1), pp. 122-34.

Brendel, C. (2002) ‘Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution’, in W. Bonefeld and S. Tischler (eds) What is to be Done?, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Clarke, S. (1992) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 2nd ed., Palgrave, London.

Gambino, F (2003) ‘A Critique of the Fordism of the Regulation School’, in W. Bonefeld (ed.), Revolutionary Writing, Autonomedia, New York, 2003.

Holloway, J. (2010) Crack Capitalism, Pluto, London.

Horkheimer, M. (1985) The Eclipse of Reason, Continuum, New York.

Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1972) Dialectics of Enlightenment, Verso, London.

Marcuse, H. (1958) Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, Roudledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1988), ‘Philosophy and Critical Theory’, in ibid. Negations, Free Association Press, London.

Marx, K. (1970) Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Marx, K. (1972) Theorien des Mehrwerts, MEW 26.3, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K (1973) Grundrisse, Penguin, London.

Marx, K. (1975) Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. Introduction, in Collected Works, vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1966) Capital, vol. III, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1979) Das Kapital, MEW 23, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1980) Die heilige Familie, in MEW 2, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1983) Capital, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1996) The Communist Manifesto, Pluto, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1976) The German Ideology, in Collected Works, vol 5, International Publishers, New York.

Pinkus, T. (ed.) (1975) Conversations with Lukacs, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Roux, J. (1985) ‘Das “Manifest der Enragés”’, in ibid, Freiheit wird die Welt erobern, Reden und Schriften, Röderberg, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1974) ‘Praxis’, Gesellschaft: Beiträge zur Marxschen Theorie 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1983) History and Structure, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Tischler, S. (2005) ‘Time of Reification and Time of Insubordination. Some Notes’ in Bonefeld, W and K Psychopedis (eds) Human Dignity, Ashgate, Aldershot.

Video: Saroj Giri interviews Harry E Vanden

Saroj Giri, a political scientist teaching at Delhi University, interviews Harry Vanden, an expert on Latin American Marxism and Movements, who recently edited and translated writings of Peruvian Communist leader and theoretician Jose Carlos Mariategui (originally published by Monthly Review Press and reissued by Cornerstone Publications in India). Harry was in India on a lecture tour – including to deliver the 5th Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture.

Anti-Rape Movement: A Horizon beyond Legalism and Sociology

Bhumika Chauhan, Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra

The project of systemic transformation does not allow one the liberty to pick and choose battles, points of entry, like commodities in the market place. A premise that is fundamental to such a project is that a single dominant principle structures this system; to us that principle is the labour-capital contradiction. This being our basic assumption, the move to an essentialised, sociologically specified understanding of class, where the “labour” of the “labour-capital” contradiction is embodied, for all times and all spaces, in a group of people (male workers; upper caste workers; white workers) is far from obvious. On the contrary, what follows logically from the assumption is that each moment (social, political, geographical, temporal) necessarily exists in a world structured by this fundamental contradiction. And if ours is to be a working-class intervention, then what is decided a priori, is only the optics that we make use of, not the moment that we choose for our intervention. Certain locations can take strategic precedence over others, but these too are decisions made in history.

Assuming thus, when we approach the “women’s question,” (constituted of a continuum of issues/sites that often seem discrete and unconnected – e.g. production, reproduction, sexuality, sexual violence etc.), the question only indicates the moment of intervention, but our project remains the same – of working-class revolution; so does the structuring principle of this system – the labour-capital contradiction. This moment, at which we intervene (the context being the recent anti-rape struggles), has already been shaped by utterances, interventions that have preceded ours, and even as we at Radical Notes formulate our own position (what we think to be a working class intervention on this question), we will necessarily have to engage with these prior utterances – at least those that we think to be useful, and others that we think to be woefully counterproductive. Later on in this essay, we will respond to recent interventions made by Maya John[1] and Kavita Krishnan[2].

This is not the first time that this question has been taken up in the manner in which we seek to raise it, nor is ours an “original formulation” (none are, to be honest). Roughly forty years ago, Marxist-Feminists like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa among others were faced with the same question and very handy theorisations that they developed are still to be properly registered within the movement in India.

One of the earliest among these theorisations comes in a pamphlet from 1974, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’[3], authored by Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa[4]. The said pamphlet emerged from the Wages for Housework movement (1972) in Italy and the United Kingdom. The movement (and this pamphlet) was an attempt to respond to the women’s question without falling in line with the various varieties of liberal feminisms (which seemed to ignore altogether questions of labour and exploitation). But at the same time, the movement had to ensure that it did not echo another kind of Marxism that functioned with an essentialised understanding of “working class,” was unable to break with forms produced by past experiences, which were now ossified, and had foreclosed altogether many sites from ambit of conscious working-class intervention; these Marxists advised the women of the ‘70s to enter waged labour, which they deemed a precondition for “working-class-ness,” in order to fight for a more advanced capitalism, waiting always for the liberation to come that was socialism. We enact a farce in repeating those Marxist-Feminists, but then we are encountered by a farcical repetition; we find ourselves in a place very similar to the one that the above mentioned movement faced; admittedly Krishnan seems to embody both sides of the problem we just mentioned, and admittedly Maya John has chosen the right direction, though she has begun on the wrong step.


In her critique of John’s position on patriarchy Krishnan emphasises a manner of understanding sexual violence that fails to go beyond continual evocations of notions like “gender power”. Despite invoking the idea of women’s reproductive labour, she makes no concerted attempt to make this concept of power unfold in relation to capitalism, reproductive labour, etc. As was the case with the liberal feminists of yore, “misogyny” and “patriarchal attitudes” do still remain materially ungrounded ideological constructs in her theorisation.

In continuity with this same manner of thinking, which is unable to identify the materiality that unites diverse moments of struggle, diverse ideological forms, Krishnan goes on to argue that there is a need to “enrich our understanding of the intersections of class, caste, and patriarchy”. After ostensibly arguing that the women question is an important part of working class politics, and after accepting the specific division of male and female instituted by capitalism, Krishnan uses the notion of ‘intersection’ as if these identities/issues occupy specific grounds and intersect only at certain moments. In a single sentence the falseness of her welcome-to-Marxist-analysis is revealed, for any such analysis would assume that class does not simply intersect with gender, it structures the very terrain on which the struggles of all these identities (caste, gender, etc.) are played out. Even though Krishnan will evoke modes of production when trying to understand the relation between capitalism and patriarchy, such a manner of approaching the question will never be operative in the political-strategic programme that she envisages. In that programme womanhood is one identity, class another, all to be addressed by the good leftist organisation – nothing is to be excluded. In the words of Laclau, another sophisticated anti-Marxist, she envisages her politics as the attempt to resolve “a variety of partial problems”. Her attempt is not to identify how a fundamental contradiction in the system structures all other moments of struggle, but to form an aggregative alliance of identities.

A working-class organisation necessarily assumes the key role that the labour-capital contradiction plays. Class-struggle structures the very terrain on which historically specific moments of struggle occur; in order to catalyse the self-organisation of the working class the task becomes to try and understand these moments of intervention keeping in mind the relation between the generality of class-struggle and specific historical determinations. It is in this manner that the working class (with the help of its organisations, that are produced and dismantled in the struggle) analyses itself, and the forms of segmentation instituted by capitalism, so as to recompose itself as a conscious collectivity. In such recomposition, segments of the working class, say working class women, necessarily declare their autonomy, but only in order to transcend autonomy. To transcend this autonomy is to overcome the gendered segmentation of the working class, and this is the manner in which the gender relation and its transcendence get played out in the terrain of class-struggle. But Krishnan takes a different standpoint.

Krishnan asks, “Do working class women not seek the freedom to move freely in the public space without fearing rape; the freedom to marry in defiance of caste and community norms; the freedom from domestic violence?”

From the very manner of speaking one can glean that this is the position of an organisation trying to rationalise its interventions to its Leftist interlocutors by asserting: “Don’t’ you see? This is a working-class issue too, not only a middle class issue”. As if their intervention was predicated upon a working-class understanding of the issue, as if their interventions were not made at a moment and in a manner that would facilitate their image construction in front of an evidently “conscious” middle class. A look at Liberation’s track record will bear this out. They jumped into the anti-corruption campaign, probably drawn by its effervescence. As they entered, they appended what they thought to be working-class demands to their agenda, maintaining throughout the form that had already been instituted by the Anna brigade. The same has been their attitude towards the anti-rape struggle. In fact this recent intervention roots out any doubts about the bad faith that governed their intervention in the anti-corruption campaign. The terms of the struggle had already been decided by the middle-class subjectivity of the petty-bourgeoisie and the dominant segments of the working class.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find even a glimmer of whatever one could possibly associate with working-class politics in Krishnan’s now famous speech, or any of her writings. Prior to this last article, in which John forces her to engage with the discourse of working class politics, in all her utterances Krishnan has been absolutely true to her liberal-feminist mould.

An example: The tactics deployed by the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ campaign[5] addresses the bourgeois-democratic state and there is nothing in their articulations to indicate that their demands (e.g. Justice Verma Committee Recommendations, etc.) are formulated as a moment of a larger process that would lead to the dismantling of the system in its totality. Think also of the ‘Take Back the Night’ – like politics that Krishnan is implicitly defending in her recent essay. Can such a tactic be anything but merely symbolic unless it is grounded in the working class struggle for the right to the city, night and day? When we ask almost in the same breath for diverse kinds of legalist measures in the name of generating  a safe city that will allow the state to intrude and monitor the everyday life, for whom are we claiming this night really? Certainly not for those who sleep on these streets. And is not the form of reclamation important? If the working class were to reclaim control over time and space, as we at Radical Notes have asserted repeatedly[6], it could only take the form of an occupation that seeks to dismantle the state, dismantle the very manner in which time and space are structured today. To reclaim the night in the manner in which these campaigners conceive of it, is to affirm the right of the state to adjudicate claims. Is not this always already a compromised form of politics – one that has absolutely no relation with the revolutionary aims of the working class? This really is the question that the “revolutionary-Leftist” defenders of these struggles must answer.

Another example, this time from Krishnan’s article: Charging John of misreading Friedrich Engels, Krishnan suggests that Engels actually argued that ‘…the relationship between the working men and women was more likely to be based on mutual equality and love than those among the bourgeoisie.’

Let us quote something rather out of place here. Kafka once wrote, ‘The belief in progress is not the belief that progress has already happened.’ Krishnan, in her attack on John, seems to deny that the working class is living a dehumanised life. Krishnan could turn around and say that she was merely responding to John’s over-emphasis, and that her utterance had a context. John was arguing that the working class is unable to live a good life (of relationships, community, of socialising, etc.) that the “middle class” (analytically, a rather dubious term that both Krishnan and John deploy) enjoys. Strange for an intervention concerning the women’s question, in her response, Krishnan underplays the gendered segmentation of the working class. If the working class is more likely to form relations of love and be happy in them, it probably has fewer reasons to fight; if the present is good and has greater possibilities (likelihood) of goodness, why raise the question of impossibility – which is revolution? The social democratic underpinnings of Krishnan’s position are never clearer than here. The fact that the working class is internally segmented is the single greatest problem that defers revolution. Like all good social democrats of the past (including CPI(ML)-Liberation’s unacknowledged role model CPI(M)), Krishnan too tries to play down internal segmentation.

It is in her response to Maya John that Krishnan, for the first time, puts forth the claim that the anti-rape movement (presumably in the manner in which it was envisaged by her organisation) had revolutionary aims. Though she may now argue that rape is a working-class issue and while she may even theorise the role of the reproductive labour of women in capitalism, her theory is not a theory for practice. She does not tell us what such a conceptualisation of women’s labour means for the struggle of the working class, nor do the above-mentioned campaigns bear out her claims. This is probably why she and her organisation seem unable to distinguish between raising the issue of sexual violence and rape as a working-class issue, and the populist-opportunist attempt to take the middle-class position on this issue to the working class.


Maya John does try to develop a coherent understanding of what would the shape of a working-class intervention on this question be. Her dismissal of the so-called dual-system theory is an aspect of this attempt. But even John, though she establishes the political-economic grounding of patriarchy in the capitalist mode of production, seems unable to move on to the political-strategic wisdom that can be extracted from this insight. In order to develop what this wisdom may be, we can begin with certain problems in John’s essay.

John seems to imply the “image of subjugation” and the ideology of female inferiority emanate from the materiality of those situations of subjugation in which the working-class woman is placed. The “middle-class” woman, insofar as she does not occupy these moments, is deemed inferior because she too has to carry the burden of this image – she is not actually subjugated. According to John, a working-class man attacks a rich woman because at that moment he finds her in the same position as that of the working-class woman (‘vulnerable’, ‘out in the street’ as opposed to in the protection of her household, etc.), and finds her more attractive, presumably because of having internalised certain norms of beauty, etc.

A simple enough criticism of such a position is that John is unable to comprehend the material moorings that ideology develops. Another equally pertinent criticism is that John fails to see the materiality of the subjugation of that middle-class woman who does perform reproductive labour, and in doing so reproduces her family’s middle-class status.

The problem perhaps begins with the categories deployed. So long as the term ‘middle class’ is used to refer to struggles and subjective positions that attempt to protect privilege, we are fine. But the category becomes dubious once it is used without qualifications, to refer to a group of people, because then the phenomenological appearance of the fact begins to shape theorisation and we end up reducing class merely to a sociological fact, which it is not. Greater complications enter when we deal with gender and the matter of the woman’s reproductive labour. Who is a middle-class woman, first of all? Is she the wife of a petty bourgeois man? Does she not do housework, and does she not rear ‘his’ children? Or, is the middle-class woman a woman in a petty bourgeois occupation? Is she then a small business owner or a subsistence farmer? There surely aren’t many of those around. Is the middle-class woman a woman in a mid-level pay grade with some degree of control over her work process? Even if that were so, she does not escape sexual discrimination and harassment outside and inside the house. Inside the house, she too has to perform her domestic duties or at least sexual ones (‘bad sex’). One must then decide where to draw that line in the quantity of wage and control over work (productive and reproductive) beyond which the difference becomes qualitative. Is it possible that John’s overemphasis on the category of “middle-class-ness” precludes the very possibility of a working-class intervention by not allowing one to recognise the fact the middle-class woman too is, in material fact, a worker?

Even more important is another oversight on Maya John’s part. She asserts again and again that the problem with ‘feminism’ is that it is stuck on the question of male-female equality, whereas at the heart of all battles lies the question of liberation, which is the question of the working class. What John fails to grasp, is the possibility of the question of gender inequality becoming a moment in the struggle of the working class. Unfortunately, in her theorisation the women’s question becomes another question added serially to the list of issues that a working-class organisation raises (in this her theorisation bears an unfortunate likeness to Krishnan’s). Insofar as it is a working-class organisation it will raise the women’s question for working-class women. This John argues by asserting (rightly) the significance of the internal segmentation of women along class lines. While this is an important moment in theorising a working-class perspective on the women’s question, the next important moment is to explore how the working class itself is segmented along gender lines. It is right that the middle-class woman while battling her inferior position as a woman through middle-class or bourgeois struggles (as is the case with most gender-sensitisation campaigns) maintains her class privilege, in that being not only an agent but also an agent of capital. But something more interesting emerges when we look at this from another angle.

More generally, by accumulating the wife’s unpaid (sexual and non-sexual) labour through the husband, capital converts the husband into its agent at that specific moment, and the struggle against such subjection, which is the cause of segmentation of the working class, is the core of the struggle of the working class. In the particular case of sexual violence and rape that forms the context of the current debate: in treating the upper-class women as an object for sex, and for subjugation (when he gets the chance), the working-class man is effectively perpetuating a subjective attitude and an objective relation of social power that extends, even originates with his treatment of working-class women. The working-class woman enters this debate on sexual violence towards an upper-class woman by asserting that this attitude toward women (even when we use the word attitude, let us not forget the materiality of all ideology) keeps the working-class segmented; the working-class man exploits women and, in that, reproduces the capital relation and forms of segmentation capitalism institutes. The reconstitution of the working class into a class-for-itself demands that the “male-ness” of the male-worker be thoroughly deconstructed, and this constitutes the feminist moment of working-class struggle. At each moment in which the working-class man acts assuming the inferiority of women, he acts as an agent of capital, and a working-class women’s struggle questions him at these moments, and attacks his metamorphosis into an agent of capital.


The problems that we have enumerated, mostly follow from misunderstandings, from blocks/limits to thought that are direct results of limits to working-class experience that capitalism institutes. Capitalism, as we pointed out, institutes and reproduces forms of segmentation within the working class. This segments experiences of struggle too, where each segment mistakes its own interests for the interests of the class.

Krishnan’s position is, in a sense, one that emerges from and conceptualises a particular experience of struggle – an experience of those who are more embourgeoised, having greater control over their work, having greater share of value. It is such a class segment that generalises its experience and seeks alliance of other segments, which are lower on the hierarchy created by unequal apportionment of value. This alliance assumes this unequal distribution, and in that assumes/reproduces the capital relation itself, and is futile, if not counter-productive, for the struggle of the working-class in its entirety. It is this class segment that has managed a share in the spoils of battles the working class lost, and asserts repeatedly that the present is not that bad and can be improved – it is this that defines their position even if they use the language of militancy.

John’s problems too emerge from the same fundamental issue of experience. If the social democrat (of the Krishnan variety) asks the lower segments of the working class to ally with those higher up (the middle class), a position that can be drawn from John’s essay is that the working class man and woman have to ally (side-stepping the question of man-woman equality), and wage a struggle against those within the working class who consume a greater share of value. While this struggle is necessary, in seeking such unity (alliance) John does not take into account the materiality of the segmentation that capitalism has instituted through the division of production-reproduction and waged and unwaged.


At the cost of repetition, but for the sake of clarity, we will try once again to establish what we think the working-class position on this question to be.  The project of the working class, in the final analysis, proceeds not through provisional alliances between segments of the working class, but through the intensification of struggle between these segments. For this, we return to the conceptualisations of the Marxist-Feminists we had begun by naming.

What is significant for us in responding to the women’s question from a working-class perspective, or, which is in effect the same thing, to understand gender relations as structured by the labour-capital relation, is the position of the working-class women (in asserting this we agree with John; but we hope to repair some of her oversights). Almost all women play a part in the reproduction of society since almost all do housework (housekeeping, reproduction and socialisation of children) and cater to the sexual needs of men [society]. This sexual subordination cuts across class. But the ‘working-class’ woman becomes even more important for capital since she not only provides her labour-power for waged work, she also reproduces the working-class man’s labour-power, as well as his children. In this hers is ‘the determinant for the position of all other women.’ (James and Dalla Costa, 1975, 21)

‘The very unity in one person [the working women] of the two divided aspects of capitalist production presupposes not only a new scope of struggle but an entirely new evaluation of the weight and cruciality of women in that struggle’. (James 1975, 13)

Hence the need to thoroughly examine the nature of reproduction and reproductive labour of the working-class woman.

Under capitalism, the factory became the locus of the socialisation of production and those who worked in the factory (or office) received a wage. Those who did not work in the factory were excluded from the socialisation of production. Moreover, while the man moved out as ‘free’ wage-labourer and formed bonds with other workers, the woman was confined to the isolation of the home. But let us not be fooled: the social factory too is a centre of production and reproduction. It is capitalism’s separation of production and reproduction that makes the reproductive labour (of women) appear external to the rule of capital. This separation is one of the most fundamental means that capital has for segmenting the working class.

This becomes easier to see when we realise that labour-power and capital are not things but social relations. If the physicality of wage is not over-emphasised it becomes apparent that in the same way in which wage hides the appropriation of surplus value produced by the factory worker, the lack of wage removes from sight the fact that the very same wage that the factory worker receives, also hides the exploitation of the woman who produces labour-power at home. To put it briefly: ‘When women remain…outside the socially organised productive cycle’, they are assumed to be ‘outside social productivity’ (James and Dalla Costa 1975, 32).

Furthermore, it is generally believed that a housewife produces only use-value, and therefore is not exploited per se. Even those who recognise the exploitation of women at the factory, see only the oppression of women at home, not the exploitation. But, as many Feminist-Marxists have argued, when we understand the reproductive sphere of capital as the social factory, the real nature of women’s work is exposed. Unwaged housework done mostly by women produces that most important commodity of all: labour-power. Even though the woman produces it, it gets embodied in the man. The workingman uses its exchange-value to earn his wage, while the capitalist uses it to produce surplus value. Hence, domestic work contributes not just use-value but surplus value as well. And in the process, the woman is reduced to being the slave of the wage slave.

Capitalism positions women in the sphere of reproduction where their labour (and toil) is rendered invisible. In that, women’s labour, as housework is excluded from socialisation, and the individual woman is effectively isolated from her workmates. This is what James and Dalla Costa identified as the reason for the drudgery and unending nature of housework. The work she does is devalued and goes unacknowledged; the cost of labour power that the capitalist has to pay diminishes with the exclusion of the cost of the labour power of women. From here the demand for “wages against housework” begins to seem a powerful one, not so much because it helps labour in the domestic arena to be recognised, rather because it provides a formidable ground to contest the most important hierarchy or segmentation within the working class – between the waged and the unwaged.

An aspect of reproductive labour, which is important for the present discussion, is the woman’s positioning as a passive receptacle for the frustrations and desires of the working-class man. The frustration caused by working in the factory and the ‘hunger for power that the domination of the capitalist organisation of work implants’ finds the woman as an outlet, especially at sexual moments of the man-woman relation (James and Dalla Costa, 42). This ‘passive receptivity’ of the woman is productive for capital because it provides a safety valve for the social tensions it produces in its workers. Rape and sexual violence is an extreme manifestation of this safety function. In addition, capitalism ‘[enlists] the uterus for the production of labour-power’, destroys the ‘physical integrity’ of the woman, reducing her emotional, sexual, creative needs for its own reproduction (James and Dalla Costa, 42-3). All this works to restrict women’s sexuality to procreation and male gratification. Moreover, the passive receptivity of the woman is productive also in the role it plays as the motive force behind household work. Her need for pleasure is repressed, and creativity in work made impossible; all that remains for a woman is to throw herself into her ‘duties’. To put it another way, it is the denial of the woman’s personal autonomy, her needs and frustrations, which forces her to sublimate her energies into housework, or as has already been argued, into the production of labour-power.

So, even ‘bad sex’ and the struggle against it, becomes a moment of class struggle.From the perspective of working-class women, the sexual mutilation of male and female workers is to be seen as means, and a form of exploitation, and by trying to free sexual creativity the women’s movement (for reproductive rights and sexual liberation) is destroying the safety valve available to capitalism, and is thus integral to class struggle. The women of the 1970s envisioned many ways in which their sexual demands become class demands. For the housewives among the Wages For Housework movement, the demand to abolish the nightshift was not just a work demand (made in support of the husbands) but also a sexual demand – for sex is for the night, during day there is housework.

These sexual demands are not merely those of sexual freedom that may play straight into the hands of capitalism (especially its “amoral” neoliberal, consumerist moment). These demands are made with the knowledge that if demands are not integrated within the larger working-class struggle, they are co-opted, that specific demands need to posit a utopian future, through the generalisation, continuous radicalisation of movement. For instance, for the Wages For Housework movement, the problem was not housework per se. The task was not to make housework more efficient or institutionalised and recognised by capital – technological innovation and wages for housework would not in fact end isolation – but to sharpen class contradiction by greater subversiveness in the struggle (ibid 36). The demand was not to simply socialise domestic labour, as in communal canteens, but to integrate this demand into a practice of struggle against the organisation of labour, against labour time, so as to destroy imposed work altogether. Otherwise we only have the ‘possibility at lunchtime of eating shit collectively in the canteen’ (ibid. 40), while women are merely taken out of the kitchen and put in the factory.

The working-class woman must struggle against capital from the specificity of her location. So housewives go out to factory meetings, neighbourhood meetings and student assemblies not as mothers or wives but as women who produce labour-power, who are unwaged workers of capital, as a powerful contingent within the working class which is questioning not just the externalised strategies of capital but also its internalised agencies. Because they work in the sphere of reproduction, they know its workings; these experiences have to articulate with other moments of working class experience. From her specific location the working-class woman struggles against the imposition of capitalist work at home and in the factory. It is only in this manner that the working-class woman will transcend her place as an appendage to the male workers’ struggle.

There is no a priori principle of working-class politics that decrees that women’s autonomous struggle, especially at the moment at which it attacks the conversion of the male worker into an agency of capital, is not as important for the working class as fighting ‘capital’ in its more recognisable forms. It is the task of this autonomous struggle to destroy this line of segmentation in the working class.

‘The working class organizes as a class to transcend itself as a class; within that class we [women] organize autonomously to create the basis to transcend autonomy’ (James and Dalla Costa, 43).


[1] John, M. 2013 May 8. ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’. Radical Notes.  http://radicalnotes.com/2013/05/08/class-societies-and-sexual-violence-towards-a-marxist-understanding-of-rape/ Accessed on May 20, 2013.

[2] Krishnan, K. 2013 May 23.  ‘Capitalism, Sexual Violence, and Sexism’. Kafila.  http://kafila.org/2013/05/23/capitalism-sexual-violence-and-sexism-kavita-krishnan/ Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[3] Dalla Costa, M. and S. James. 1975. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

[4] The authorship has recently come under dispute.

[5] ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ http://bekhaufazadi.blogspot.in/2013/02/peoples-watch-over-parliament.html. Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[6] Ghosh, Pothik. 2012 December 28. ‘Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy’. Radical Notes. http://radicalnotes.com/2012/12/28/delhi-gang-rape-and-the-feminism-of-proletarian-militancy/ Accessed on 25 May 2013.

Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape

Maya John

The movement which emerged post the 16 December 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi was a media sensation.[1] The circumstances leading to the victim’s rape (i.e. a young woman returning from a high-end shopping-cum-cinema complex) touched a chord very quickly, especially with the city’s upward mobile middle-class inhabitants who quite easily read their own experiences into these circumstances. Considering that the resulting public outrage did not emerge from a marginalized section of Indian society, it was not surprising that the media and the country’s ruling elite responded in a comparatively more sensitive manner than is generally the case with other incidents of sexual violence on women.[2] Responding to this particular incident, the media, politicians, as well as the city’s middle-class youth were quick to project women’s oppression as a ‘universal’ issue—something which was easy to do given that women are a part of every class. This particular form in which women’s oppression was projected, gave the anti-rape movement its overt middle-class appeal, and shaped the form and content of its politics.

The given form and scope of the anti-rape movement was such that it provided ample space for a wide spectrum of participants: from funded NGOs to radical feminists; from students of JNU to students from numerous private institutions like management institutes, engineering colleges, coaching centres and schools; from committed activists to people who merely wanted to be captured on camera and wanted to check out the ‘pretty’ girls assembled at protest venues;[3] from Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (which has absolutely no relationship with the progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh, nor any connection with kranti) to Shiv Sena activists; from misogynist ‘babas’, to funded ‘anti’-corruption crusaders; etc. Concealed then behind the battle cry of the anti-rape protests were diverse (and contradictory) voices. Of course, some activists, with leverage from JNU’s students’ union, catapulted to identifiable faces in the otherwise faceless crowd. Nevertheless, the fact that all kinds of people could and were joining the anti-rape front, did not, and cannot mean that women’s liberation has suddenly become everyone’s concern.[4] Even the more recent protests that have broken out in April 2013 in response to the rape of a 5-year old girl in east Delhi are a conglomeration of all kinds of contradictory forces. Many of the participants, like those from the notorious Aam Admi Party (AAP) that has become the new launch pad for local-level politicians and musclemen, are simply allying with the struggle against sexual violence out of sheer opportunism. Their mere presence at protest venues, attempts to bombard the anti-rape agitation with their nationalistic slogans, and their ransacking of ministers’ homes can hardly conceal the fact that the gender-sensitive credentials of AAP cadre (many of whom are conservative to the core) are highly questionable.

Another important fact relating to the nature of the anti-rape movement was that it represented an embodiment of the discontented voice emerging from upward mobile middle-class women. Certain ‘Left’ groups have increasingly come to identify with this voice, making it a rallying point of their mass politics when it comes to the issue of sexual violence. What has emerged in the process is an anti-rape struggle that defines women’s ‘equality’ in a particularist form, and asserts gender equality as the ultimate solution to rape/violence on women, while positing amendments to law, more gender sensitive policing, etc. as the more immediate solutions. Issues of caste, tribe and nationality-based oppression have been raised simply to add on to the list of women who are oppressed. As a result, a form of politics that highlights class stratification, its effect on human sexuality and its role in creating conditions of vulnerability as well as culpability has been pushed aside as residual of the old left. In this regard, it would be correct to point out, just as Clara Zetkin (an early twentieth-century communist leader) did in many of her writings, that every class has its own distinct women question. The dominant view on women’s oppression, identified as feminism, is representative of a blend of different contradictory ideas. It packs together aims and interests that are different—its targets and tasks are vastly dissimilar, and more often than not, it represents the embodiment of the discontent of upper class women—a discontent which is projected as the general interest of all women.

Having said this, one of the most important features of the recent anti-rape movement is the fact that it emerged within a distinctly urban context. Earlier of course, most of the anti-rape movements erupted in villages as part of anti-feudal or anti-dominant caste struggles. For the first time, however, we witnessed an anti-rape movement involving large numbers in an urban context. In this regard, a fact worth noting about this distinctly urban movement is that it evolved separately from larger movements against the axes of power which facilitate rape. It is then best to begin with the specificities involved in cases like the 16 December gang-rape.

The 16 December gang-rape: Understanding the specificities of urban rapes

The discussions that emerged immediately after the horrific details of the Delhi gang-rape became public clearly capture how varied forces (individual activists, Left groups, as well as right-wing organizations) have sought to comprehend the reasons for an increase in the number of rape cases. Many are aware due to past struggles against rapes in villages, that such sexual assaults are the result of caste hierarchy and upper caste domination. In a rural context, it is clearly caste dominance which gives men the power to rape women.[5] This is precisely why when people fought against incidents of rapes in villages, they fought not only against a callous and conniving state, but also against the power exercised by the dominant caste. Similarly, in insurgent areas whenever rapes have occurred, we know that they have been possible due to the power bestowed on armed personnel by the state, i.e. through laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), etc. In such a context, movements have emerged not simply to fight against rape but also to fight against military occupation. Likewise, communal rioters have sexually assaulted women from minority groups in order to instil fear, snatch away local businesses from minorities who are often forced to migrate, and to forge a false sense of unity within the dominant community on the basis of religion, regionalism, etc. In such cases, the nexus between the local police and politicians from the dominant community has helped shield rioters from the law and to cover up the details of rioting. Without a doubt, in all these cases and contexts, it is easy to identify the element of power which is at play, as well as the exact nature or source of this power.

Nevertheless, what confronted us all in the form of the brutal 16 December gang-rape was more complicated. While the term ‘gang-rape’ itself encapsulates an image of an assertion of power, the fact that all 6 rapists were far from being men with power – neither did they have a traditional status to guard/assert, nor an economic position which would protect them from being apprehended for their crime – made it difficult to visualize this rape as a typical case of ‘power rape’. In fact, we are somewhere still grappling to explain rapes that occur in the country’s urban context, i.e. a context in which the most powerless and downtrodden of men have emerged as violent perpetrators of sexual crimes. In many cases of rape across cities involving perpetrators from vulnerable sections of society, what is the axis of power through which we can explain such assaults? Is it correct to use the axis of caste inequalities in an urban context that often conceals indicators of caste (the 6 rapists would hardly have known their victim’s caste when luring her into their bus)? Similarly, would it be right to draw on any axis of power without judging its actual prevalence in and organic link to urban society? Simply put, in a certain context, such as in a rural one, it is easy to pin-point underlying caste hierarchies and resulting inequalities as the axis through which the majority of rural women are raped. We cannot, however, use the same logic to explain rapes in an urban context that brings with it a certain anonymity of position, a certain mobility, etc. With this absence of identifiable axes of power that facilitate rapes, it is not surprising to find certain feminist explanations of rape win favour with activists, intellectuals and the youth. Unable to locate the typical structures of power that make rapes possible such as in villages or insurgent areas, many in their anxious efforts to identify causes for such assaults have resorted to explain the 16 December assault as an expression of male power. Something had to explain the 16 December event and its brutality – if nothing else, it had to be male aggression and the typical male desire to subjugate the sexuality of the woman which empowered the 6 rapists to assault their victim.

This line of argument essentially echoes typical feminist assertions like rape is about power and not about sex, and that rape can be understood through the axis of male power, or basically men-women inequality. Importantly, it is characteristic of feminism to see rape as an expression of brute power which has nothing to do with sexual gratification. This is an informed and consciously defended feminist position since the effort is to comprehend sexual violence from the perspective of victims and not from the perspective of perpetrators. Correspondingly, it has been assumed that all men are in the position to rape, and that all women are in the position to be raped. In order to explain why rape is an expression of power, or basically, why men come to rape women, there is a tendency to draw on ‘patriarchy’—a malaise that is seen to manifest itself in state apparatuses, individual mindsets, societal norms and culture. In the process, patriarchy is quite easily projected as a coherent system against which an intensive struggle is necessary.[6]

Of course, these feminist views have only gradually won favour, and have emerged as a more generalized perspective on rape precisely during moments such as these, where a spate of sexual assaults have shaken the very core of urban society. Notably, this tendency to attribute rape to a (seemingly) ever present men-women inequality is well reflected in current assessments on rape put forward by feminists and activists who participated in the recent anti-rape agitation. Kavita Krishnan, for example, asserted in her January 2013 article, that “rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them…”[7] A little earlier in another article, Krishnan wrote: “…Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power…”[8] In the same article, she also emphasized that: “Rapes are part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women. Fear of sexual violence has a disciplinary effect on women…We need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power.” Taken together, these statements reflect a strong tendency amongst women activists to attribute sexual violence to a game of power initiated by an embedded men-women inequality, which often alone, or together with other “centres of power”, works towards disciplining women’s sexuality and in keeping them in a constant state of fear.

There were at the same time some observers, who attempted to explain urban rapes by drawing on the well-established explanation for rapes that occur in the country’s villages, namely, the prevalence of caste hierarchy and hence casteist backlash by dominant castes. Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his 23 December article,[9] for example, tried to comprehend the 16 December gang-rape through the axis of caste as well as gender inequality when he highlighted that all 6 rapists were upper caste men whose patriarchal conscience was disturbed by the victim’s decision to be out with a man at night. He hinted that migrant upper caste men (like the 6 rapists) were prone to respond in such violent ways as they were unaccustomed to the freedom offered by urban life, especially to women, whom they were used to seeing in an extremely docile and subjugated position. In other words, according to some individuals, such rapes are simply an extension of the rural mentality which informs the conscience of majority of men who migrate to the cities. According to this position, majority of men perceive the loosening of the hierarchy of caste and gender within an urban context as the ‘crossing of boundaries’, which warrants a backlash in terms of sexual assaults aimed at teaching their victims a lesson and instilling fear in everyone to adhere to traditional norms. Of course, by extension of this argument, urban rapes do not have any specificity of their own.[10] This assumption has, in fact, been openly expressed by some who do not consider it important to understand the specific context in which rapes take place, and to account for factors like the social background of rapists and their victims. Instead, in the angst to locate a commonality, the specificities are denied. Hence, arguments which assert that irrespective of whether there is an “urban rape, rural rape, middle class rape, working class rape, modern rape, traditional rape, live-in rape…[r]ape is rape. Everywhere it is an assertion of power and a violent attempt to subjugate.”[11]

Clearly then, despite slight variations, most of the aforementioned assessments are trapped in the problem of not being able to locate any axis of power other than male-female inequality to convincingly explain the substantial increase in urban rapes. It is then brute force emanating from men-women inequality that can supposedly explain why men (like the 6 rapists), despite the poverty and vulnerability of their position, have the ability and intention to rape women. For many feminists and activists, it becomes important to understand rapes as an expression of power and not sex – even if it means working with an abstract notion of power based on an (ever present) men-women inequality – because for them acceptance of the existence of sexual intent is considered as an approach which slips into justification of rape. It is thus to prevent such scope for justification that feminists and several activists deny the element of sexual frustration involved in a large number of rapes. Furthermore, by drawing on such a line of argument, feminists attempt to shield victims from the typical blame game unleashed by society—something that often translates into blaming the victim for dressing well, for moving out of ‘safe’ zones, for encouraging male attention, etc.

However, does such a stance truly help us to understand the source of rapes in urban areas, and to combat the recurrence of rapes such as the one on 16 December? Have we really understood the somewhat concealed factors that played themselves out and made the 16 December assault possible? My contention is that we have not, and will not, until we fail to transcend what feminists have identified as the main fault-line plaguing our society, namely, the prevalence of gender inequality between men and women. By restricting and locking the problem of sexual violence to the question of male-women inequality, there has been an unnecessary downplaying of the (class) inequalities which breed sexual inequities, and hence, sexual frustration amongst a large section of men in our society. In the light of rapes such as the 16 December case where the perpetrators belonged to oppressed, exploited and powerless sections of society, it becomes necessary to rethink given assessments of rape as a mere expression of power. Indeed, can we not develop a sensitive way of approaching the issue of rape while also respecting the specificities related to the rapes occurring in our urban centres? Surely we can, for the increasing trend of rapes and other sexual assaults on women and children in cities is symptomatic of much more than gender inequality. It is indicative of larger inequalities stemming from sharp class divisions in our society—divisions that breed sexual inequalities, that provide little time to nurture human relationships, and that produce phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression, especially amongst men from the toiling masses.

Challenging and uncomfortable though it may be, it is time we account for the role played by the dehumanizing conditions in which a large percentage of our cities’ inhabitants live and work. The city – on one hand with its glitzy malls, air-conditioned offices, bungalows and life in the fast lane, and on the other, its slums, sweatshops, run-down shelters and poverty – has become a haven for barbaric sexual crimes. There is then something specific about the nature of sex crimes in our cities. Here the grid of factors which produce rape is much more complicated – assailants are not necessarily upper caste men or communal rioters. And rather than an expression of power, many such rapes are the outcome of people’s sexual frustration that preys on women and children in vulnerable conditions. The fact that the brutality of city-life is breeding potential rapists and victims in significant proportions is one of the factors contributing to the immense fear that informs the life of the majority of women in cities.[12] While it is an undeniable fact that the larger percentage of such crimes take place within women’s homes and amidst their peer groups, the greater fear that confronts women is rape by strangers – strangers who emerge suddenly, exploit the vulnerability of their victims and the impunity offered by circumstances, and then speedily melt away into the night. It is this fear which makes us think twice before setting out, from venturing out alone, and compels us to take all necessary precautions for our safety.

In this regard, perhaps there is some truth in certain right-wing arguments about rape in contemporary times. The question is whether the Left can rescue the validity of some of these observations about the impact of modern, capitalist development in our country from the usual culturalist, xenophobic clap-trap that right-wing assessments of modern society are usually ridden with.[13] Can the Left direct much-needed attention towards the sexual crisis created by capitalism? Unfortunately, if we fail to step up to the challenge of addressing entrenched class inequalities that prevent the realization of gender equality and make rapes possible; we will be forced to witness the persistence of sexual violence. All efforts to change the law, mindsets, and the bureaucratized and insensitive functioning of the organs of the state, will yield precious little unless we connect these efforts to the struggle which seeks to emancipate all of humankind.

Considering that we are fighting an oppression that is deeply entrenched and entwined with inequalities that go beyond the gender divide, we must consciously delve into the somewhat-concealed underbelly of sexual violence and the general oppression of women. My basic contention is that rape is a historical product of class divisions that emerged in human society—a fact elided or left under-theorized by existing interventions. Rape is then one of the forms of oppression unleashed on those made most vulnerable by class exploitation, as well as on those who are burdened by the images of this vulnerability in spite of being materially distanced from it. In other words, women in present-day society find themselves at the receiving end of sexual violence because most women are reduced to conditions of extreme vulnerability by the given socio-economic system which strives on brutal exploitation of the class workers by the class of capitalists. Trapping working-class women in positions of economic, social, and hence, sexual vulnerability, our given socio-economic structure has created for the female sex, a formidable image of subjugation—an image that returns to haunt even women from non-working class backgrounds.

In addition to this, the paper argues that although from the perspective of the victim there is nothing sexual about rape, from the perspective of the perpetrator rape can still be seen as fulfilling a sexual purpose. It is crucial that we come to terms with this contentious fact since the existing resistance to it has dangerously misdirected public attention from the conditions which produce rape in our society. It is, thus, with this purpose to unpack what makes rape a possibility for some and an everyday reality for the majority of women, that a clear distinction is drawn between the (sexual) intention behind rape and the (non-sexual, traumatic) impact of rape. In order to engage with rape in all its complexities, the paper attempts to trace the history of rape, to contextualize such assault, and hence, to revisit the prevailing feminist assessment of sexual violence and women’s oppression.

A history of rape: an ever present phenomenon?

Since the 1970s and 1980s, intellectual circles influenced by feminist views witnessed a new development, namely, a growing emphasis on the issue of male violence on women. Certain texts that evolved from this particular milieu of debate and discussion became hegemonic when it came to the assessment of sexual violence on women. The reverberations of the debates, movements and campaigns that were stirred up by many such feminist interventions were soon felt in other parts of the world. Influenced by the feminist movement in the United States where several feminist interventions had led to important judicial and policy reform, various autonomous women’s groups emerged within the prevailing women’s movement in India. Indeed, the entire process of the emergence of autonomous women’s groups in India was facilitated by global networks of big NGOs and funding agencies that initiated worldwide campaigns on women’s ‘empowerment’ and legal amendments – campaigns that drew on the views of several American feminists.

In America, amongst the iconic contributions on rape was Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,[14] which was selected in 1995 by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important and influential books of the twentieth century. Her work influenced many activists, students and intellectuals across the world—a fact reflected in the popularity of the view within various feminist circles that sexual violence on women, i.e. rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, is not about sex but about power. In her work, rape came to be defined as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a constant state of fear”. In similar terms, we have assertions like: “man’s discovery that his genitalia would serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries in prehistoric time, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe” (Susan Brownmiller); “in terms of human anatomy the possibility of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists…This single factor may have been sufficient [emphasis added] to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape” (ibid.); and man’s efforts to subjugate the woman is the “longest sustained battle the world has ever known” (ibid.). Importantly, this particular focus and emphasis on rape as an oppression stemming from gender inequality is what distinguishes feminism from other accounts of rape.[15]

Ironically, the aforementioned feminist view comes quite close to the highly controversial perspective known as the ‘natural history of rape’.[16] According to this so-called natural history of rape, men are prone to rape because of the aggressive orientation of their sexuality while women are prone to be raped because of their submissiveness, and because their sexuality is less governed by sexual urges than it is by the urge for a strong, stable partner. The capacity for rape is seen either as a form of human adaptation to hostile life conditions, or as a by-product of adaptive traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness which have evolved since primitive times for reasons that have no direct connection with the ‘benefits’ accrued by rapists or the costs of rape borne by victims. Simply put, according to the theory of sexual selection, copulation and successful reproduction of early humans was only possible in cases where physically strong and sexually aggressive men forced themselves on women. According to this theory, sexual aggression became part of the gradually evolving human male because the early human female evolved in a manner which was based on restrain—a restrain which prevented circumstances of non-aggressive, ‘less fertile’ and ‘less virile’ males from copulating with women.[17]

Be it the ‘natural history of rape’ or views from the feminist camp, both have seen rape in an equally ahistorical manner by detaching it from the kind of society in which it occurred/occurs.[18] Why is this? To explain the problem with such ahistorical approaches to gender differences and human sexuality, let us consider an imaginary survey. Picture a situation where a woman approaches the first ten men she meets in the street and asks them whether they would have sex with her. Similarly, imagine if a man approaches the first ten women he meets on the street and asks them whether they would have sex with him. What would the result be? In the case of the woman, we can easily say that most of the men she approaches would accept her offer. In the case of the latter, most women would take the man’s offer as an affront and complain about his behaviour. The question is if the same man and woman are sent back in time to different periods of human history, would the results of such a situation be the same? Can we assume that the frequency of women saying no to proposals of sex would remain unchanged, or that the man’s overtures of sex would still amount to an affront? Quite naturally, there would be major differences in the responses, for the structure of human society, the nature and form of human relationships, etc. have undergone considerable change from primitive times.

With the evolution from primitive society to agrarian society, and later from pre-capitalist to capitalist society, which witnessed massive demographic changes, urbanization, commercialization etc., it would be incorrect to claim that no subsequent change occurred in the way male and female sexuality developed and expressed itself. These changes in male and female sexuality, as well as in the general position of women would have resulted in a change in the existence, meaning and frequency of incidents of rape. Clearly, rape can present itself as an omnipresent practice throughout the process of continuous social change only if we work with ahistorical notions of gender differences and presume an unchanging human sexuality. There is, unfortunately, a strong tendency towards constituting gender segregation as a system/division that is independent of prevailing historical socio-economic conditions. According to such a reading of social reality, it is easy, if not inevitable, to slip into the assumption that men-women inequality is all pervasive, and is somewhere not entirely attributable to, or explained by the socio-economic structures within which it exists.

Of course, the international communist movement and certain currents in the women’s movement have questioned such an understanding of gender inequality. Due to their intervention, gender inequality has increasingly been historicized in ways that reveal its linkages to the form in which social relations of domination have emerged and evolved in human society. Consequently, it is believed that the gender-based social division leading to a subdued female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality was uncharacteristic of primitive human societies in which such social relations of domination were more or less absent. Years and years of intensive academic research across various disciplines have come to corroborate these claims. Recent research has also shown that even in our ‘contemporary’ society there are some human communities that are free from rape.[19]

Back in the nineteenth century, by studying emerging research on early humans (who lived as hunters and gatherers in small band formations), Friedrich Engels presented one of the first valuable assessments of women’s oppression from the perspective of the international communist movement. His work (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State)[20] showed how the gradual development of surplus production (in the form of agriculture and domestication of animals) created early class societies which, in turn, laid the foundations for the monogamous family unit. According to Engels, when it became possible to produce a surplus of food, society was able to sustain a minority of human beings who freed themselves from the drudgery of daily productive labour. This led to the creation of class societies based on the subjugation of the majority to the minority. The minority could maintain its preeminence only through control over the production of the surplus. This led to emergence of an armed power, the state, as well as inheritance through the family. The question of inheritance emerged alongside surplus production also because those who were involved in the daily grind of productive labour, sought to protect their right and share over the surplus. Children then became important for continuation of elders’ rights over a share of surplus, and thus, became guarantors of this share when their parents aged. However, for a society in which men and women did not practice monogamous pair-bonding, it was difficult to affix the right over the labour of progeny on the basis of who mothered the child as it would have still led to competing claims from all the men who could have possibly fathered the child. To resolve the crisis, early agrarian societies established the ‘father’s right’ instead of the ‘mother’s right’ over progeny—a historical transformation which led to curtailment of the practice of multiple partners, and saw its replacement with monogamous pair bonding.

Prior to the emergence of early class societies, monogamous pair bonding and collective supervision of sexual behavior was not the norm. Instead, early or primitive human groups had less restrictive sexual standards and emphasized sexual pleasure and enjoyment, albeit with some definite rules and constraints to guard the group from possible extinction. In historical conditions, wherein, humans existed in small groups in which everyone performed the same tasks, i.e. hunting and gathering food together, sexual activity was hardly based on preference or choosing one partner over another. For example, there was no choosing between the ‘better hunter’, the ‘better-looking’, ‘the one with the better status’, etc. amongst a small group of equally matched and similar featured persons.[21] Moreover, back then sexual activity was a very common activity which was organically linked to the daily life or routine of early humans and it was unaffected by a sense of hierarchy or proprietorship. A sense of hierarchy was, in fact, absent as social divisions did not exist between early humans. As a result, in early social formations the condition of human females rejecting coital activity from multiple males did not arise. This was all the more plausible considering that unlike other female species that are bound by certain periods of sexual arousal which is linked to their ovulation, the female human has evolved in a manner which enables her to be sexually active and enjoy sexual activity throughout the year. It is, indeed, a fact that unlike other female primates, the female human alone seems to have the capacity to achieve an orgasm.[22]

Here one could wonder whether pregnancy could have acted as a deterrent to unrestrained sexual activity between early men and women. Nonetheless, pregnancy would hardly have deterred women from saying no to sex in a social formation that had not yet comprehended the immediate connection between sexual activity and conception—a fact which was not so easy to grasp considering nine months elapsed before a woman actually gave birth, and that because she was sexually active throughout those nine months, it was difficult for early humans to pinpoint the role of sexual intercourse in conception. Furthermore, in a society in which child care was a collective effort of the group, pregnancy was far from a burden to be borne specifically by the woman who mothered the child. Evidently then, in such a historical context rape would have been a non-existent phenomenon.

However, as human society progressed from primitive times and as the question of ownership over surplus production emerged as a central one, early class societies began to assert the importance of the father’s right over progeny, and hence, promoted the legitimacy of monogamous family units. Engels termed the steady fading away of the mother’s right as the ‘first historical defeat of the female sex’—a process which paved the way for the female sex to be increasingly seen as ‘woman’, and as the property of the family unit/male guardian. In this regard, the female sex’s independent assertion of her sexuality came to be increasingly stigmatized.

While the aforementioned process of curtailing female sexuality in the effort to monopolize women’s reproductive rights unfolded and became increasingly oppressive, it is worth noting how rape came to be gradually identified as a criminal sexual assault on a woman. The generic meaning of the word, rape, is itself indicative of how female sexuality was perceived and shaped over time. The word originates from the Latin verb rapere which means to seize or take by force. It was originally defined as the abduction of a woman against the will of the man under whose authority she lived, and sexual intercourse was not even a necessary element. Viewed less as a type of assault on the woman than a serious property crime against the man to whom she ‘belonged’, ancient law would often demand financial compensation from the rapist (especially in the case where the woman was engaged to someone), which was payable to the woman’s household, whose ‘goods’ were ‘damaged’. Simply put, rape was initially identified as a crime against the concerned woman’s community and family, and not as an assault on a woman’s body without her consent. Not surprisingly then, women too came to be punished for indulging in sexual activity without the permission of their families and communities. As a result, any sexual activity outside set norms such as adultery, elopement with a lover, etc. was also termed as rape. It is only with time (from the late Middle Ages onwards), that in certain parts of the world, rape came to be defined more in its modern sense so as to gradually exclude from its purview practices like elopement without parental consent.

This was a historical development that was closely linked to the emergence of the individual subject position—a creation of the Renaissance period in Europe that witnessed the gradual overtaking of manorial (feudal) law by municipal law which emerged in new towns that prospered due to expanding trade and were controlled by wealthy merchant families. In its contest with community-based manorial law that justified hereditary ownership of resources (even trading profits), as well as rights that were based on one’s membership to an estate, community, etc., the new municipalities (which were the havens of emerging merchant capitalism) began to assert the rights and status of the individual over the community. As a consequence, even rape began to be gradually seen less as an assault on a family or community to whom the woman was associated, but as an assault on a rights-bearing individual.

The birth of the individual subject was not simply a creation of municipal law, but was a product of historic socio-economic transformations through which individuals were weaned away from the community structure as labour and property ownership were no more dependent on an individual’s membership to a community or estate. Amidst this new socio-economic condition, exercising individual choice when it came to seeking a partner became not just feasible but also desirable. The birth of Enlightenment, the gradual decline in the influence of the Orthodox Church, etc. further contributed to the process which necessitated and made it desirable for women to be in a position to exercise individual consent independently of the community and family. As a consequence, a suitable legal paradigm and legal sanctions came forth, albeit with many restraints as the transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist system was fraught with complexities (an issue to which the paper will return). Eventually then, individual choice and consent became important, and rape came to be gradually defined as intercourse without the consent of the individual woman. Importantly, giving such consent clearly represented a ‘voluntarist’ action that, on one hand, asserted an independence of position vis-à-vis the dictates of the community, but on the other hand, also entailed the exclusion of certain individuals from the scope of consent. Basically then, a woman’s consent was accounted for and considered only after it was conditioned to mean a consent given just to certain men and not to others.

With the spread of colonialism to countries in the East and in Africa, the resulting economic transformations and the colonial state’s interventions in the social life of the colonies led to the development of a similar socio-economic structure—a development that culminated in the creation of comparable legal regimes in the colonies, which increasingly established the individual subject position and individual rights.[23] In the Indian context, there are two important points to note about how the category of rape evolved. Firstly, the word rape was (and in general parlance continues to be) referred to as “izzat lootna”. This terminology indicates that, just like in other parts of the world, rape was rarely associated with the question of consent of the individual woman. Instead, the term coined for rape signified an assault on the honour of the woman’s family and community. In this light, rape was regarded and identified more in terms of illegitimate sexual access to a woman, which brought dishonour to her family/community, and hence, would include within its purview even consensual sexual liaisons between a woman and man. The second point to note about the development of the category of rape in India is the gradual and conflict-ridden process through which it evolved to include the element of individual consent of the woman.[24] In nineteenth-century India, debates surrounding colonial legislation, such as in the case of sati, the age of consent for marriage, etc. are an important insight into this entire process through which individual consent and choice became a crucial part of the socio-legal fabric of colonized societies.

Needless to say, the process whereby the individual legal subject position emerged with the development of a capitalist economy was one fraught with complications,[25] and hence, was far from a linear process of development. Nevertheless, this process pressed forth various institutional and legal changes, as well as gradually came to constitute new forms of property rights and labour relations that often challenged the system of traditional rights based on birth. At numerous conjunctures, the colonial state enforced the obligations of contract, as well as the obligations of citizenship based on people facing the state as individuals. It is in this complex process to “prevent the individual from sheltering in the anonymity of his community” and “from assuming aliases to escape individual responsibility for a contractual or other legal obligation”[26] that the first signs of women being assigned an individual subject position are to be found.

Indeed, judicial annals of the colonial period are filled with ‘runaway’ cases (essentially inter-caste liaisons) in which male ‘guardians’ try to retrieve their daughters from men with whom their daughters chose to live. The ‘guardian’ usually charged the other man for kidnapping, abducting and forcefully inducing his daughter into wedlock. What is revealed by some interesting research on ‘runaway’ cases is how the colonial state was caught in the process of identifying and establishing individual rights of women, on the one hand, and on the other, protecting traditional rights of the family/community on individual women.[27] It is, of course, only with time, further economic change which loosened the hold of the restrictions imposed by caste and community, and with the entry of a greater number of women in the workforce, that the individual rights of women saw greater if not full realization.

What is, hence, evident from the above discussion is that as capitalism strengthened and bourgeois law and ethics came to gradually entrench themselves, women for the first time, i.e. since the primitive ages when their sexual being was least restrained, were given the ‘freedom’ to say yes or no to sex. Nevertheless, the right of a woman to exercise her choice remained a structured one—a choice-making in which she was conditioned to say no in most circumstances and yes only in certain ones. Hence, while the notion of consent devolved to the individual woman, the logic of proprietary or protected or exclusive rights on the woman’s sexuality remained embedded in the mindset of majority of women, as well as in society’s gaze, which subsequently, informed/shaped what was experienced as rape. With the stigmatization of a woman’s sexual activity prior to her entering a long-term relationship (like marriage) with a partner; the demonizing of the ‘promiscuous’ woman; and the enforcement of the norm of pair bonding within one’s own class, caste, etc., rape emerged as a recurrent assault borne by women.

Given such social conditioning, rape becomes an active possibility for women whereas such an assault on men exists as a rare experience. This is because the historical trajectory of the development of male sexuality shows that men are not culturally and socially conditioned in a manner which leads them to reject sex with the same frequency and for the same reasons as women do. These obvious distinctions in the development of male and female sexuality are attributable to economic transformations that have gradually eroded the ‘productive’ roles of women and overemphasized their reproductive ones, as well as to structures of domination (the family, the state, dominant social groups, etc.) which emerged within class societies. In other words, rather than being an omnipresent phenomenon, rape as an experience and a legally recognized category is a product of a historical process of class formation, and hence, is a late development in human society.

This brings us to the issue of how transformed social norms, family structure and pair bonding since the development of capitalism have resulted in a change in the way rape has come to be defined. It is a question of much historical significance, for how exactly did the birth of capitalism and its spread across various corners of the world impact male and female sexuality, and how has it created a new foundation on which a changed understanding and categorization of sexual assault emerged?

Capitalism and women’s oppression

The development of modern capitalist society produced massive changes, both, in people’s personal and working lives. Capitalism not only restructured the world of work but also the family. With the development of capitalism, the ‘economic’ emerged as a separate sphere of activity from both the family and the state. In other words, the organization of production under capitalism (separating the means of production from the class of producers) and the process of proletarianization eliminated the corporate aspects of kin-group functioning. Increasingly, people came to face the state as individuals; the socialization of labour came to be accompanied by the privatization of personal (i.e. family) life; productive labour came to be separated from kin relations; and the family unit increasingly became just a unit of social reproduction (reducing in size steadily) and of consumption (as basic necessities like food, clothing, etc. came to be produced by the market, and family labour was, consequently, no longer expended like it was when households were spheres of production). Ultimately, with further and further development of industrial society, capitalism subsumed domestic work within definitions of femininity, stripped it of its labour content and denuded it of its economic value for the household. Activities relating to childcare, for example, came to be identified exclusively with women and such household work was denied economic value with the depressing of working-class wages and lifestyle.[28]

By creating a ‘non-economic’ private sphere in opposition to an ‘economic’ public sphere, capitalism came to unleash new levels and a new form of oppression on women. It is necessary to ascertain this particular form in which this oppression, and basically, a ‘women’s question’ emerged within capitalism. Notably, it was within the context of the capitalist dynamics of production and its misuse of the constraints posed by biological reproduction that the sexual division of labour (which pushes women into subordinate economic and social positions) emerged as a historic possibility. Simply put, biological facts of reproduction—pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—are not compatible with the capitalist system of production, and capitalists are unwilling to make them compatible (i.e. by providing ample maternity leave with pay, nursing and childcare facilities at workplaces, etc.) as it would amount to greater expenditure on variable capital which cuts into profit maximization.

As a consequence, the capitalist system has compelled women to either (i) withdraw into full-time domestic responsibilities that were stripped of their ‘economic’ value and which reduced them to a position of overt dependence on their husbands, or (ii) to bear the burden of both (unpaid) domestic work and wage labour. Since domestic work was made non-negotiable, in the case of the former, women chose to (or were made to) give up wage labour as they could afford to due to higher income-drawing male partners. In the second case, because a large number of women came from working-class families that underwent steady proletarianization, they were compelled to participate in the labour market so as to maintain precarious family budgets, and as a result, never withdrew from wage work for long periods of time. These developments were far from the reality of pre-capitalist society where women played various productive roles along with a reproductive one. This is not to argue that women were less oppressed in the pre-capitalist mode of production, but just that they were not distanced from the actual production process.

Thus, the capitalist system has historically (mis)used certain biological differences between men and women by creating a formidable crisis for the working class as it increasingly took control of workers’ time. With the emergence of an average work-day of 12 hours or more, the capitalist class, in its constant endeavour to squeeze out as much surplus value as it can, came to pose a huge threat for the working class’ survival. Long work hours and low wages, for example, made it impossible for workers to reproduce their labour power, i.e. the bare necessities which enable them to return to work every day. They could not, for example, afford to buy goods and services which took care of domestic needs (i.e. nannies, servants, laundrymen, cooks, etc.). Given these circumstances, working-class families evolved around a distinct division of labour in which one person undertook domestic labour along with supplementary wage work, while another earned wages full time. Basically then, the impermanent or supplementary nature of women’s wage work has allowed capitalists to keep wages of the working-class family low, and to draw on women as one of the cheaper sources of labour in a burgeoning labour market. It is then in the interest of the capitalist class to reduce the presence of women in the workforce to a constant state of flux, and thereby, to keep their participation in the least rewarded and ‘protected’ category.

If we closely examine the nature of women’s employment within capitalism, it is clear that women from working class and poor peasant backgrounds have been pushed into low-paying, often unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In a country like India, a large number of working-class women are slaving away in what is popularly known as the informal sector where they survive on the piece-rate system of wages. Working-class women also constitute a large component of migrant workers who flock to metropolitans in search of employment. It is then only for a small segment of women, i.e. women from middle-class backgrounds, that jobs pay well, and for whom there are (some) opportunities for career advancement and influence in the workplace. Nevertheless, even for women in well-paying professional jobs there is a glass ceiling which very few can break. Disparities in salaries between men and women professionals; limited and delayed promotions; highly sexist (alpha-male) work atmospheres; assignment of ‘woman-centric’ or feminine work profiles; etc., are a concrete part of the life led by women professionals across the board.

Overall, the adverse impact of this precarious and oppressive position of women in the labour market is tremendous. It is particularly so in the case of working-class women whose job-contracts are highly exploitative; whose wage work often requires them to travel during unsafe hours of the night/early morning; whose neighbourhoods are dimly lit, poorly policed and have seen the growing criminalization of (and spread of lumpenism amongst) the youth; whose overt dependence on unregulated public transport compels them to bear with lecherous male commuters day in and day out; etc.

The first striking repercussion of the undervaluing of women’s productive work and the feminization of jobs is the creation of a fertile ground for sexism. With the job market pressing down women’s wages/salaries and pushing them into the least protected category of jobs, what develops is the continuous reassertion of gendered roles and behaviour. Hence, the tendency within male colleagues and employers to work with misogynist attitudes like ‘she’s just a temporary hand’, ‘she’s simply looking for some fun before settling down’, ‘she got the job so she’s probably skrewed the right people’, ‘who does she think she is ordering us around’, etc.

Pushing women into feminine and hyper-femme job profiles creates an additional burden for working women—the repercussions of which are widespread. The tea garden worker with her back bent, picking leaves for hours at a stretch; women embroiderers hurriedly working their nimble fingers through complex designs in order to complete an order and claim a day’s wages; nurses struggling to perform their patient-care duties due to skewed nurse to patient ratios; poorly paid school teachers; etc. are the usual jobs for which women are recruited as they suit the expected (feminine) roles associated with women. Meanwhile, the ‘sexy’ receptionist; the slim, short-skirt attired airhostess; the skimpily-clad dance performers at weddings and other functions; the decked-up, manage-it-all secretary; the emaciated-looking models tottering around in high heels at award functions and fashion shows; the heavily made-up bar dancer; etc. are the typical kinds of jobs in which the physicality of women is used for business profit. In these hyper-femme or hyper-sexualized jobs, women are made to dress and/or conduct themselves in ways which accentuate certain features of their body. This accentuation is least of all in the interest of these women employees (although some women employees may find such roles ‘interesting’), nor is it in the interest of women in general. Such accentuation of women’s body parts ‘for the job’ is purely in the interest of the men who wish to visually (and even physically) consume their sexuality without the element of responsibility that should arise when one links one’s own sexual being with another’s. Moreover, this skewed feminization of job profiles reinforces the stereotype that women’s worth lies more in their body appearance than in their overall personality.

Having said this, perhaps one of the most transformative effects of capitalism worth noting is its impact on human sexuality and pair bonding. With the development of capitalism and the resultant collapse of the family as a productive unit, increasingly men, and eventually even women, stepped out of their homes in search of employment as they no longer inherited occupations and sustenance from their families and community/estate. This historical process created the scope for men and women to interact outside the immediate bounds of traditional community ties. As a consequence, the basis of marriage came to be based on mutual attraction, or as Engels put it, ‘individual sex love’. In modern capitalist society, marriage and other forms of relationships are entered into freely by men and women on the basis of mutual attraction. Even in a country like India where the practice of arranged marriages is still common, tying the knot without seeing one’s future spouse or pursuing a brief courtship prior to the actual wedding, is increasingly uncommon. Moreover, it is mostly in cities, where young people migrate for educational opportunities and employment, that the chance of love/choice marriages, or at least relationships, is possible. This is due to the fact that in cities, young people are removed from the direct surveillance and control of their families and communities. However, although relationships are more freely entered into, pair bonding (between men and women, women and women, men and men) is structured in ways in which inequality and oppression form the basis of such relationships. Thus, even today the mutual attainment of emotional and sexual fulfillment remains an uncommon practice. The question, of course, is why, despite certain social transformations introduced by capitalism, has the emancipation of women (including their sexual liberation) remained a distant dream?

Without a doubt, the 1960s and 1970s heralded a new stage in women’s personal lives due to benefits like the contraceptive pill, abortion rights and greater access to rights of divorce, as well as changes in attitudes towards sex and pregnancy outside marriage. However, what many radical feminists identified as the ‘sexual revolution’ was for a significant number of years limited to the upper echelons of society in First World countries. What is even more important to note is that many such gains were the outcome of a steady growth in the participation of women in the workforce (though not necessarily in the form of well-paying or full-time jobs). Last but not the least, what was heralded as the ‘sexual revolution’ was really misnomer. The reason for this is that capitalism has maintained the structure of family, albeit on the basis of a new form of pair bonding.

This structure of family which evolved under capitalism is what many have identified as the nuclear family. Importantly, in the process of its development, the capitalist mode of production has led to a continuous decline in the size of the family, which has allowed for extreme burdening of women within their homes. Moreover, even today the average woman perceives an active sexual life before or outside the institution of marriage, a taboo and a risk. She also hesitates or finds it difficult, if not ‘unreasonable’, to assert her own choices within the structure of the family.[29] Within this context, how has rape been defined and redefined within capitalism?

Bourgeois law, rape and the importance of intermediate demands

As mentioned earlier, in the process of transition from a pre-capitalist to capitalist socio-economic system, rape came to be defined not by the lack of the community or family’s consent for sexual access to a woman, but by the lack of consent of the individual woman. Nonetheless, the transition from a pre-modern-pre-capitalist to modern-capitalist system has involved multi-faceted complexities driven in process. The result? What arises is the contemporary historical conjuncture: the prevalence of a bourgeois legal paradigm that desists from identifying certain actions (like adultery, elopement, live-in relationships, etc.) as rape, and at the same time, fails to identify many actions (like sexual assaults within marriage or during dating) as rape. This legal paradigm tends to work with an extremely problematic notion of consent, wherein, submission of a certain kind, for example, assent to marriage, accepting a date, etc. is conflated with consent to sex.

Of course, another major limitation of bourgeois law is that even when it accepts and recognizes certain individual experiences as rape, it does so only in a partial form. This means that although notions like harm, hurt and wrong (borne by the individual woman) are now incorporated within the category of rape, they are done so in highly problematic ways, i.e. in ways that  are based on weighing such hurt, harm, etc. mostly in terms of the social loss borne by the victim. To elucidate, the notion of wrong that is now part of the category of rape has been straightjacketed to the position of ultimate violation of the self; the invasion of the individual woman’s innermost, private space; destruction of the self; a form of soul murder since the victim’s body may heal but not her mind or her future; etc. Correspondingly, the harm that is identified with the category of rape has been reduced to losing one’s ‘honour’, and thereby, being exposed to social exclusion. Both these notions are then useful for the category of rape because while they succeed in keeping the sense of individual consent intact, they still succeed in linking individual consent to the question of community or family honour—an honour which is somehow housed only in the woman’s innermost, private space (basically, her genitalia).

In addition to the aforementioned internal problems of the law, is the prevalence of informal ‘legal’ systems (as in ‘law’ dictated by khap panchayas, etc.) that run parallel to the bourgeois legal system, and are based on the ‘moral economy’ and regulative authority of traditional communities. This informal ‘legal’ system is most prevalent in villages where caste hierarchies are sharply drawn, making inter-caste, choice marriages extremely difficult. Here the nexus of the local police and dominant castes makes it nearly impossible for the functioning of institutionalized law that recognizes the rights of adult individuals. Fatwas or diktats of local village bodies which demand annulment of choice marriages, death penalty, social boycott, etc. are more often than not, upheld and implemented. They are overturned only in cases where external pressure brings the local police to its feet and results in subsequent enforcement of state law. It is in urban contexts where bourgeois law has not had to directly compete with a parallel system of informal (community) ‘law’, and where young couples have jobs in the city so as to enable them to reside far away from their family/community, that greater relief for choice marriages has been possible. However, the process whereby the criminal justice system ascertains a woman’s capacity to consent, and adjudicates on whether this consent is acceptable in court, is unwieldy and highly wanting.[30] What all this reflects is that the given form of bourgeois law, i.e. the complete realization of the individual subject position, is yet to fully unfold itself and spread out evenly so as to diminish its internal inconsistencies.

In this light, the restrictive approach of the law— especially in terms of how it has defined the individual consent of the woman, the wrong, the harm and the hurt borne by her— has opened the space for contestation. In countries like America, struggles spearheaded by Brownmiller, Catherine MacKinnon[31] and Andrea Dworkin began to influence the way the law looked at problems like rape, pornography and sexual harassment. Their interventions, for example, paved the way for the removal of significant provisions like the “chastity requirement” within the law. According to this particular provision, the defendants in rape cases were allowed to place their victims’ sexual past on trial—a practice which allowed rapists to easily justify their actions, and which placed the victims under tremendous duress. Due to vocal campaigns and prolific engagements with the legal community, many of these feminists were successful by the early 1980s in facilitating the introduction of a “rape shield law” which came to curtail the ability of defendants to admit the victims’ sexual history in court.

Since then, there has been a growing tendency amongst the women’s movement to challenge the aforementioned (legal-patriarchal) rubric of assessing rape. These challenges have opened up interesting prospects for assessing rape in more woman-friendly terms. For one, there is an increasing tendency to emphasize the physical discomfort, displeasure and pain borne when identifying rape. The emphasis is deliberate as it opens up scope for downplaying the explicit focus on the sexual aspect of the assault when determining the object of punishment. The shift in focus is necessary so as to allow us to rise above the popular belief–which reinforces the tendency to ostracize victims of rape—that sexuality and the sexual organs are ‘sacred’ portions of the self, which must be protected more and differently as compared to other portions of the body and self.

Here it is important to note how some have come to contest the existing legal paradigm by clamouring for a stronger set of laws, which will apparently act as a deterrent to future attempts at rape. Importantly, the demand for iron-fisted laws like death penalty for rape is a highly patriarchal one because it single-mindedly focuses on the sexual aspect of the assault. Instead of emphasizing physical harm and displeasure—something which would facilitate rape to be seen as another form of physical violence which should be punished accordingly—lobbyists for death penalty, castration, etc. end up reinforcing the tendency to view rape as a unique type of assault in which the harm and damage borne is of epic proportions, and thus, should be punished under the severest of laws.[32] The problem, of course, with severe (and hence, unproductive) laws like death penalty, or, corrective measures like solitary confinement is that they reinforce the stigma attached to rape, thereby, closing off any avenue for approaching this problem in a manner which allows victims to move on without feeling scarred for life. Moreover, it is only by questioning the overt emphasis on the sexual nature of the assault that we create the scope for recognition of rape in cases where it is most easily denied. To elucidate, by creating an ambience in which rape is not identified by the notion of violating the innermost, private space of a woman, but by the notion of displeasure and discomfort, we allow for recognition of marital rape, rape of a prostitute, etc. By introducing the notion of violation based on discomfort, displeasure, hurt and pain, we can, for example, be in the position to defend the rights of the prostitute who due to her profession can no longer claim to have an un-invaded, innermost space, but can still experience rape when a client forces himself on her, or, leaves without paying.

In contrast to aforementioned (patriarchal) interventions seeking a ‘strong’ law against rape, feminist demands for legal reform represent noble efforts that press forth the generalization of bourgeois legality, or basically, the further unfolding of the bourgeois legal form so as to incorporate a larger and more varied (dis)content. Indeed, recent efforts within the women’s movement are geared towards expanding the category of rape to include assaults that may ‘start on a note of consent but end in exploitation and feelings of pain, powerlessness, humiliation and violation’. Such interventions from the women’s movement have meant that certain kinds of assault/actions are now increasingly perceived as rape not because sex is taking place in the absence of a patriarchal ‘right’ of sexual access, but that sex is occurring in the absence of complete consent of the woman. What this means is that a lot of ‘bad sex’[33]—in which there is disregard for a woman’s feelings, sexual desire, or even her attainment of sexual fulfilment—can and should be increasingly considered when distinguishing lovemaking from varied kinds of sexual assaults. By extension of this argument (regarding bad vis-à-vis fulfilling sex), even if physical coercion is minimal, and even if consent in some nominal form exists, the experience can still be categorized as rape.

Having said this, we must understand and engage with this feminist position more closely in order to better determine the grey areas surrounding the issue of a woman’s consent. Broadly speaking, feminists have been correct in identifying the prevalence of bad sex as a problem which must be accounted for. It is, of course, precisely because bad sex is rampant in our society that rape and other forms of sexual and emotional exploitation are possible. If we speak of bad sex within marriages, it is obvious that one of its forms of expression is based on the complete lack of consent, i.e. a form of sexual activity usually identified as marital rape. Considering that this form of bad sex (marital rape) is based on the lack of consent, feminists have been able to gradually initiate some debate within the bourgeois legal community, and have thus created some possibilities for older rape laws to be eventually revisited. The process of older rape laws opening up for amendment is, of course, an ongoing process.

However, things get more complicated when another form of bad sex expresses itself within marriages. Typically, bad sex also embodies itself in sexual activity where women have given their consent. Unfortunately, it is in this realm of sexual encounters that feminists actually fail to deliver. Liberal feminists, for example, find it uncomfortable or difficult to accept the wrongness of sexual encounters where women— unlike in cases of rape where a woman’s consent is out rightly violated— have given their consent. Heavily influenced by the (bourgeois) logic of legal transactions to which individuals ‘freely’ consent, liberal feminists have the invariable tendency to beat retreat on the question of bad (consensual) sex. This retreat characteristically articulates itself in these feminists’ undue emphasis on ascertaining whether a woman’s consent existed or not during a sexual encounter. It also articulates itself in their efforts to elide the harm brought on by prostitution, and hence, to press forth with its legalization.[34]

In contrast to the liberals, radical feminists have approached the issue of bad (consensual) sex by arguing that all sex is rape. Such an approach is also ridden with problems. For one, it amounts to the trivializing of rape as a distinct category of sexual assault, wherein, women are exploited through full violation of their ability and right to consent. Secondly, and more importantly, the radical feminist approach unnecessarily conflates the harm involved in non-consensual sex and that which is brought on by (bad) consensual sex. By denying the existence of a different and distinctive kind of harm within consensual sex, radical feminists are failing to expose to their sisters in sexual relations, the dangers of losing an organic right to the ‘autonomy’ over one’s body and mind.[35] By denying that consensual sex can exist in a fulfilling and mutually pleasurable way, radical feminists also fail to expose what pleasurable sex can actually mean for women.

Evidently, as shown by the discussion above, the contestation with the law’s functioning revolves around how the bourgeois legal form is lagging behind the (dis)content created within bourgeois society. Feminists may still be debating the nitty-gritties of consensual bad sex, but it is, nevertheless, an established point within the progressive women’s movement that both rape and consensual bad sex are real problems. In this regard, the women’s movement is right in pressing forth, what I would identify as intermediate demands which aim at ironing out certain inconsistencies within the law.[36] The significance of such intermediate demands is that they serve as grounds for preparation of larger anti-systemic struggles. It is in the process of such preparation that the women’s movement comes to provide relief to the average woman while also exposing the gross limitations of the law and state’s functioning. For example, the demand and subsequent struggle for compulsory filing of women’s complaints (FIRs) in local police stations works towards providing battered, vulnerable women external support, and makes the state accountable for women’s security—a responsibility the bourgeois state is otherwise consciously shunning.

Nonetheless, intermediate demands to combat sexual violence on women have to be substantiated with a politics that is informed by the ultimate vision of liberating human (i.e. both men and women’s) sexuality, and hence, works towards overthrowing capitalism. Unfortunately, the way in which many intermediate demands are being pursued by women’s organizations, such demands are becoming the final demands rather than launch pads for a consistent, long-term transformative politics. Thus, what is often lost in feminist contestation with the law is the simple fact that even if modern society comes to reconcile the form of the law with the burgeoning content (women’s oppression), there will still be a lack of coherence which the law will be incapable of addressing, and hence, women’s oppression will persist unabated. This means that even with the strengthening of the notion of individual consent, bourgeois law will continue to elide the fact that consent is structured by relationalities, and that most women are not in the circumstances to exercise an active individual choice. As often highlighted by communist leaders like Clara Zetkin, Alexandria Kollantai, etc., most women are not in positions to exercise such choice as they are in conditions of overt dependence on male partners. As part of a socio-economic system that thrives on nurturing unemployment in order to acquire as much work possible from fewer people, women are either bound to be unemployed or poorly paid. In such conditions, women’s dependence on the family for economic sustenance is inevitable. What follows are compromises with bad marriages, bad sex, violence, etc.

Clearly then, since the minds and bodies of two people are involved it is important to account for how consent is often structured by the dynamics playing themselves out between the two concerned persons. In this regard, nominal consent may always be present due to feelings of obligation, dependence, etc. The compromises and the forcing (often termed seduction) are clearly made possible by the mind games that play themselves out, as well as the conditions of (emotional, psychological and financial) dependence of women on their partners. Indeed, what we are constantly witnessing are situations where women, due to the fear of being abandoned by partners, and due to their economic dependence, consent to a form of sex in which sexual pleasure is detached from the person-in-the-body, and in which the woman’s body becomes a mere instrument for pleasing only oneself and not her. In fact, such a form of sex never allows for enhancement of gratitude, affection, or the deepening of the relationship between the two persons involved—something which organic sexual encounters should establish.

In this regard, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm resolve this thorny problem of consent as long as the material conditions on which men-women relationships are based are not transformed? After all, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm firmly based on individual consent create the ground for good sex based on intimacy, mutual contentment and commitment? No, definitely not. Bad sex is not an individualized, sexological problem that stems from the lack of a male partner’s understanding of his female partner’s body. In contrast, it is a general social problem for good sex remains a distant dream for the majority in our society. In a socio-economic system where the majority are burdened by long work hours, there is precious little time to nurture human relationships and to understand each other’s bodies. In such a context, most are compromising with bad sex, or pretending to have good sex as is often the case with upward mobile middle-class women.

Interestingly, while it is true that feminists recognize and work with notions of good vis-à-vis bad sex, the larger framework of their understanding is such that these notions are divested of their social complexities. Liberal feminists, for example, perceive the problem more in terms of having bad partners who do not seek the consent of their female partners. And so according to this liberal feminist position, to acquire good sex all one needs is the freedom to choose the (right) partner, the freedom to multiple partners, etc. Lost, of course, is the emphasis on how individual choice is itself compromised by the fact that you choose from what you are given by the modern society. Now radical feminists do accept the presence of a larger problem but do so only in terms of the prevalence of a (broader) male-female inequality in society.

In this context, it is impossible to think that the given legal paradigm is capable of adjudicating on and preventing the harm caused to women in consensual forms of bad sex. In reality, adjudication on bad sex, especially of the consensual variety, is beyond the scope of bourgeois law since its paradigm of legality is based on the notion of ‘free’ individuals in contract. According to its logic, once consent is given, the problem of exploitation within ‘freely’ contracting individuals is effaced/becomes immaterial. This means that the resolution to the question of bad sex and its myriad forms can begin to take place only if society transcends the ideology of free market —a process which can unfold only if human relations are unshackled from all inequalities which breed selfish, dehumanizing sex and feelings of alienation from other human beings. In this light, radical feminist arguments on ‘empowering’ women in order to eradicate male-female inequality, and hence, sexual exploitation of women, are highly misplaced as it is assumed that women can be ‘empowered’ while the other half of humankind remains fettered to the exploitation and oppression created by the larger socio-economic system.

Going beyond feminist contentions: is rape simply about exercising power?

Clearly, feminist contributions have not been holistic in their approach and are ridden with the tendency to misread the complex web of conditions which produce bad sex in general, and rape in particular. For instance, their explanations of rape and visions of eradicating this problem are heavily based on the notion of power discrepancy between (all) men and (all) women—a discrepancy that they believe stems from deep-rooted traditions of overwhelming male dominance and hegemony over all important socio-political and economic activities in society.

What is assumed by this set of views is that all men rape and all women are rape-able due to entrenched gender inequalities. Thus, irrespective of inequalities in terms of class, caste or race, a higher status woman, despite all her power and prestige, can still be raped by a man of a lower status. This perspective comes close to what we know as dual systems theory, according to which upper class women, who are oppressors and exploiters as part of the dominant economic class, can still be oppressed due to the prevalence of patriarchy. According to the same theory, working-class women are oppressed and exploited not just by the dominant economic class but also by patriarchy. In other words, the dual systems theory projects patriarchy as a comprehensive system that co-exists along with capitalism.[37] Nonetheless, the very foundation of such a claim is based on an unsustainable assumption that all men are in the position to exploit all women. Considering this, it is wrong to assume that patriarchy constitutes a system in itself; one which can explain, for example, why women like Christie Hefner (Chairperson and CEO of Playboy Enterprises that produces televised ‘soft’ porn, men’s magazine and owns numerous playboy clubs) and Priyanka Chopra (a famous Bollywood actress) can be raped in certain circumstances. In all likelihood, feminists and adherents of the dual systems theory would explain the possibility of such powerful women being raped by arguing that even the poorest man in the country can overpower them, use brute force and assault them with his sexual organs. What is elided, of course, is the fact that despite the presence of brute force of the male sex, rich and powerful women are less prone to sexual assaults like rape.

Undoubtedly, the feminist understanding of gender inequality does not often gel with the ground reality, for inequalities (like class) play themselves out in more complex ways than feminists are willing to contend with.[38] Indeed, the assumption that men tend to use their physical power in order to subjugate women is a poorly substantiated argument and explains little except how perversely one can use human biology to explain social complexities. Of course, the question is not that men are physically more powerful and tend to misuse this power in the context of gender inequality, but that in spite of this physical power and prevalence of gender inequality, poor men cannot sexually exploit rich women, except in conditions where such women are in positions of vulnerability. A Bollywood actress, a female CEO of a multinational company, or a female entrepreneur can be raped by men of the lower classes only if they happen to be in vulnerable circumstances like being stuck alone on highway because their car broke down, having to manoeuvre through an underground parking all alone, etc. To draw an analogy: lions despite their superior physical strength have not come to rule over humans, and instead the exact opposite is true. It is then only in conditions where humans are in direct confrontation with lions and are in vulnerable circumstances that they are in a position to be overpowered by them.

So rather than invalidating or blurring the role of class stratification in sexual violence, sexual assaults on middle-class and other upper class women by lower class men reveal just how widespread the impact of class divisions can be. As long as the class divided society presses the majority of women (i.e. working-class women) into position of dependence and vulnerability, the image that women are submissive and exploitable will haunt even women from the upper classes. Indeed, it is a fact that the majority of women are highly vulnerable and oppressed within their homes, labour market, etc. As a consequence, middle-class women’s arguments regarding the need to change skewed mindsets about women being weak, fragile and belonging in the kitchen are highly misplaced. This is because they overlook the fact that prevailing mindsets are based on the concrete conditions in which the average woman is positioned—a point explained earlier in the section titled Capitalism and Women’s Oppression. It is then not simply mindsets that need to change, but the conditions which nurture such images and views about women.

Evidently then, by overemphasizing gender divisions, feminists are wrongly glossing over the role of other stratifications produced by capitalism. In fact, many feminist theories collapse with the introduction of such stratifications, in particular, class stratification, within the discourse on women’s oppression and rape. How and why does this happen?

One of the focal points of feminist theory is that rape is not about sex but is a political act of violence and domination in which sex is used as a means to assert male control and power.[39] This argument is articulated in many ways like: (i) rape is motivated by aggression as rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, often not looking for satisfying or good sex; (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control; (iii) rape is commonly motivated by hostility created by conditions like war; (iv) rape is often premeditated; (v) rape is not motivated by sex as many rapists have stable sexual partners; etc. Clearly then, all rapes are regarded not as sexually motivated deeds but as acts of aggression which are attributable to entrenched gender inequality. The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that the higher the level of gender inequality, the higher the rape rate. Concomitantly, the higher the level of gender equality, the lower the rape rate.

Interestingly, when confronted with the fact that rape has persisted despite the development of trends towards gender equality, feminists tend to argue that the short-term effect of such equality—greater visibility of women amidst the workforce, educational institutions, seats of power, etc.—has resulted in a backlash. Distinguishing this period as one of a painful transition in which the hostility between the sexes tends to peak, feminists have pressed that in the long run, equality would produce a social climate that does not foster rape. Clearly, the theory of radical change and gradual stabilization of the changes introduced[40] within the system of gender stratification informs many feminist claims about the importance of eradicating power discrepancies between men and women in order to combat rape. It is argued that with more and more women gaining entrance into the existing workforce, occupational segregation decreases; stereotypes about gender roles weaken; policies are drafted to address new problems (like sexual harassment at the workplace, lack of equal pay for equal work, etc.); women gain decision-making power in relationships and men come to participate more in familial roles as the dynamics of gender-based division of labour within the family undergo gradual change. The net result of all these developments is reduced gender stratification (within respective classes), and hence, rape.

The question is whether this reduced gender stratification is really translating into a decline in sexual violence on women. Unfortunately, statistics reflect no such ebb in sexual violence. Rape rates, in fact, appear not be directly related to gender-stratification or gender disparities in earnings, education, occupation prestige, etc. as is reflected in the shockingly high rape statistics of several advance capitalist countries like the US where higher levels of gender equality (within respective classes) have been achieved compared to other parts of the world (Haryana, for example).[41] Similarly, in metropolitans like Delhi where women have been entering the workforce steadily, rape figures have soared, resulting in city labels like ‘rape capital’. Undoubtedly, while the notion of backlash and the theory of a transition period may appeal at first, they are now inadequate to explain how rape has persisted for decades, despite the continuous entry of women into the labour market and in spite of certain landmark labour legislations. We could talk of a transition period in the 1970s, maybe even in the 1980s and 1990s, but as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea of a backlash loses its relevance. Indeed, does this transition period ever end? It seems not. Obviously then, the theory of backlash and a transition period has lost its analytical edge, and presses us to introspect on the direct correlation being drawn between rape and gender stratification.

Let us look at other feminist arguments about rape. Two arguments, in particular, deserve close attention: (i) that rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, not looking for satisfying or good sex but a window to express aggression, and (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control. Both arguments echo the now dominant, majestic view epitomized in many renowned feminists’ claims that rapes are not about sex but are a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. In her iconic work, Brownmiller has even expressed this view in terms like rapists are merely “the front line masculine shock troops” in the war against women, and are “the terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever seen”. The ground reality, however, includes a more complex picture, especially if we closely examine the profile of rape victims as well as rapists. While it is true that rapists target a varied group of victims, we must also contend with the fact that within the pool of rape victims there is greater representation of victims from the lower strata of society. This reflects that most victims are raped because they are in positions of greater vulnerability. In other words, while there can be no doubt that from a woman’s point of view there is nothing sexual about sexual violence, for the average man involved, the act is often about stealing sex by taking advantage of the vulnerability of the individual woman, or the impunity offered by circumstances.

Moreover, a lot of research on the psyche and profile of rapists shows that rapists do not exercise preference for coercive sex. Furthermore, such research has shown that there are no significant differences between the arousal patterns of male rapists and other males.[42] Indeed, if we look very closely at reported cases of rapes, we will find that rapists are not raping women and children because they seek to assert power over them or teach them a lesson for transgressing (certain) norms. I say this because many cases of rape have involved victims who were in no way transgressing given socio-cultural norms, and so, encouraging the (vigilante) rapists to ‘put them in their place’. After all, where is the ‘power’ dimension or ‘teach her-a-lesson’ factor playing itself out when a 5-year old infant is raped by a family member or neighbour? In this case the rapist rapes not because he believes the infant needs to be subjugated or taught a lesson, but because he sees her (childish) vulnerability as an opportunity to ‘satisfy’ himself.[43] Thus, contrary to assumptions reached by feminists, rapists target a somewhat varied group of victims with a preference for those in positions of most vulnerability.

This brings us to the question of certain kinds of rape (gang-rape, etc.), where the supposedly obvious dimension playing itself out is power, or basically, the desire to teach the victim a lesson. Let us look at the recent gang-rape case itself. In his December 2012 article, Shuddhabrata Sengupta asserted that: ‘Rape is not about sex, it is about humiliation, its intention is precisely to make the raped person think that now that they have been subjected to sexual violence, their life will no longer be worth living”.[44] He also repetitively named the rapists (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) in order to emphasize their higher caste status, implying, thereby, that these upper caste men from rural backgrounds resorted to rape as they were angered by the liberated woman of the city, and hence, sought to teach the ‘adventurous’ woman a lesson. Interestingly, news reports of the initial few days after the gang-rape revealed that the six drunken men were perusing the area for a prostitute—something they often did on other nights. This means that prostitution could possibly have substituted (and did substitute on other such nights) for the brutal rape of the 23 year-old paramedic. The question that’s important to raise here is why a sizeable number of upper caste, middle-class men do not act as insensitively as the six rapists, and do not do the same in circumstances that offer impunity? How come such upper caste men have reconciled with women ‘transgressing’ certain norms, while others (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) from India’s villages (and now part of the lowest rung of urban society, i.e. slum dwellers), are failing to ‘reconcile’ to changes surrounding women’s lifestyles?

The answer lies in closer examination of the concerned act of urban violence. In many cases of such sexual violence on women reported from cities, it is not so much the vestiges of village-based, patriarchal mentality, but something much more complex and terrifying—something—if we are ready to see and recognize it—is a product of the urban context created by capitalism—an urban context filled with depravation and dehumanization of the majority. Indeed, why are we seeing so many working-class men—servants, security guards, factory workers, fruit vendors, rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers, chaiwallahs, bus conductors, school bus drivers, maxi cab drivers, daily-wagers, electricians, cable operators, etc.—become rapists and/or molesters? The frequency with which they are committing sexual violence isn’t simply because crimes committed by them are reported more (many cases, in fact, are not even being reported as a lot of such sexual violence is happening within the structure of working-class families—fathers/brothers raping daughters/sisters over many years is a typical manifestation of this). What then is the cause behind this exploitative sexual behaviour; the brunt of which working-class women (wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female neighbours, prostitutes, etc.) bear?

Is it an imaginary, omnipresent sexual pyramid that renders many bodies ‘agency-less’ by permanently inscribing itself on male psyche? One finds this hard to believe, especially because of this perception’s idealist roots—is this simply about engrained mindsets—the idea of violence which then creates the act itself, or are we looking for a definitive materialist explanation of this worrying tendency in our society. And if we are claiming to draw on a materialist analysis of rape, are we falling back on the fashionable but muddling dual systems theory which postulates an ahistorical form of interaction between our given socio-economic system and patriarchy? If we are, then we will be incapable of developing a more devastating critique of the socio-economic structures or the modes of production that actually create the concrete conditions for prevalence of gender inequality (or patriarchy).

Class and its discontent: The making of rapists and victims

The basic equation-making for which feminists should be critiqued is, namely, that social equality is possible by eradicating gender stratification while doing precious little to eradicate class inequalities. Indeed, rarely affected by poverty, most middle-class women and feminists can really be conscious only of inequality that hits them directly, i.e. unequal relations within their homes and workplaces, between them and men of their class. This is precisely why we find that the tendency to project patriarchy as an overarching, independent system of oppression finds most adherence within the upper echelons of society where women are materially positioned in better terms, like men of their class. In such a position, what confronts them in more accentuated terms is not the materiality of their class position, but the gender difference between them and men of their class. Less affected by class stratification, women from the upper classes are then bound to perceive gender inequalities as a set of behaviours and a mentality that has the independent capacity to breed a system of unequal gender relations and oppression. Not surprisingly, unlike their working-class sisters who are burdened by pauperization, women from the middle class are less likely to comprehend and organize against the material basis on which women’s oppression stands. They are, instead, more prone to organize and speak out against ‘gendered mentalities’, ‘sexist culture’, etc.

Thus, for feminists, the eradication of sexual violence is possible when men and women are equal:

Men = Women

Or basically, men and women are equal within their respective classes

(capitalist) Men = (capitalist) Women

(middle class) Men = (middle class) Women

(working class) Men = (working class) Women

Feminists, thus, envision a world free of sexual violence without concretely addressing the issue of other structuring inequalities. They overlook the fact that sexual violence cannot be eradicated as long as a class divided society exists, and so, end up downplaying or eliding the question of prevailing class inequalities. They can, by ignoring the class stratification assume that:

 (working class) Men = (middle class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (working class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (middle class) Women

(middle class) Men = (working class) Women

What is evident from the above equations is just how fallacious it is to assume that equality between men and women of the same class amounts to equality between men and women of different classes. Of course, sexual violence and oppression of women will persist unabated if class divisions that nurture gender inequality are not eradicated. For example, as long as working-class women are dependent on capitalist or middle-class men for gainful employment, and are discriminated against in the job market, they are in a position to be raped whenever upper class men seek sexual gratification by drawing on the exploitable class position of these women. Similarly, as long as class divisions persist, the working-class family will continue to burden working-class women with the yoke of domestic slavery in order to reduce the costs of its sustenance—a burden which reduces these women to positions of subjugation that can be easily exploited by working-class men in their family. Clearly, until we do not address class divisions, we will not be able to eradicate prevailing gender inequalities. What we, hence, need at this moment is a rigorous critique of class stratification fostered by capitalism. If we do not do this and limit the movement to fighting the mere symptoms of the disease, i.e. patriarchal norms (lakshman rekhas, etc.) rather than the disease itself, sexual violence will continue to persist while we’ll go hoarse shouting ‘let us reclaim the night’.

But why exactly are the peculiar conditions created by the capitalist economy so central to the perpetuation of sexual violence and other forms of oppression of women? For one, the extremely harsh economic conditions imposed on the working class have produced phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression among working-class men. These men do not have access to typical date pools/sites like college/campus circles, social networking sites, pub circles, etc. as they do not have the time or the economic means to be part of them. Returning from long, arduous hours of work; heavily underpaid; and hence, malnourished and poorly dressed, working-class men are hardly in the position to attract women of the upper classes who are in a better position to exercise an active choice when it comes to choosing sex partners. In this regard, the working-class man’s inequality with men and women of upper classes, especially in sexual terms, is constantly creating the scope for potential offenders. With little time for actual coital activity, yet exposed to lots of sex through the capitalist media, working-class men are not merely conditioned to steal sex from unwilling women and children, but are also prone to indulge in unromantic sexual liaisons that are far removed from feelings of love and mutuality, and are basically, embodiments of bad sex. Recall stereotypes regarding youth from working-class and peasant families making out in empty warehouses, fields, desolate buildings and eerie parks. Yes, these are precisely the places where our impoverished youth is experimenting with sex—experiments which, more often than not, involve hurried, uncaring and unfeeling sexual activity.

This, of course, brings us to the question of how the same harsh conditions are producing a ready supply of female victims, who because of their economic deprivation cannot afford a secure life situation which protects them from frustrated and aggressive men from their (working) class, i.e. men who they encounter in their daily life (as husbands, fathers, brothers, colleagues, ‘lovers’, etc.). Unlike higher status women who can afford a better physical and social environment which is more crime free (gated neighbourhoods, personal transport, etc.), working-class women are forced to survive in more hostile conditions (poorly policed neighbourhoods, dimly-lit streets, dependence on public conveniences and crowded public transport, etc.) where they easily fall prey to sexual harassment, sexual violence, etc. Considering their life pattern, these working-class women are not in a position to protect themselves from upper class men who also exploit their vulnerability. It is then apt to say that the majority of rapes represent, on the one hand, the convergence of society’s most frustrated and sexed up men, and on the other, society’s most vulnerable and dependent women and children, i.e. working-class women and children. It is this dismal truth which alone can account for the fact that rape victimization rates are particularly high for poor women.

To elucidate how exactly the brutality of the capitalist production process generates grave sexual inequalities between different classes, it is best trace the average day in the life of working-class men. If employed, most of these men are awake in the early hours of the morning; they commute long distances to work in factories that are located in industrial belts like Faridabad, Gurgaon, Gaziabad, Noida, Okhla, etc. Others amongst them, who are not factory workers, can also be seen in the morning rushing to report for work at malls, sulabs, construction sites, sweatshops located in the heart of Delhi, garages, petrol pumps, etc.—all of which are generally located far away from the slum clusters where these men actually reside. Most of these men are contract workers, temps or daily wagers, who cannot vouch for the fact that they will be employed the next day. As a result, most among them live on a hand to mouth existence, and are often unable to bring their families to settle in the city with them. Earning a pittance for an average work day of 12 hours or more, few can afford to marry as and when they wish, or to bring home their wives and children from the village. Those who do have families in the city are forced to reside with them in small rooms, often with no windows. Indeed, working-class families are typically constituted of family elders, younger brothers, sister-in-laws, unmarried sisters, etc., and hence, entire families end up living in small working-class tenements like packed sardines in a can. Such sub-human living conditions, and the tremendous sense of alienation brought on by dehumanizing work hours, hardly make it possible for egalitarian relationships between men and women, or between human beings in general, to exist.

How does capitalism resolve this emerging crisis of working-class men being unable to have the time to nurture human relationships and to be in the position to cater to theirs and a partner’s sexual needs? It bombards them with portrayals of sex—you may watch, but who cares if you actually have or don’t have the time for the real thing. Indeed, the sexual crisis that emerges within capitalism evolves precisely around the fact that most of the youth spend the greater part of their time thinking about sex, and of course, not doing it. Its actual repression then develops into unhealthy trends in personality. For capitalism, it’s all about the fact that at least these men are watching sex as an entertainment and achieving ‘fulfillment’; an entertainment that happily adds to the billions earned by the porn, prostitution and liquor industries. Thus, the disturbing fact which we mustn’t hide from is that capitalism creates animals on the one hand and victims on the other. In its vicious trap it has ensnared not just hapless working-class women (and occasionally, middle-class women), but also working-class men.

Indeed, all one needs to do is to take a walk through industrial belts to see the filthy B-grade cinema halls showcasing porn films throughout the day. Without a doubt, the actions of male porn stars showcased in these B-grade movies become part of men’s fantasies. So do the actions of mainstream male actors whose ‘stalking’ of female heroines in films and other acts of lumpenism (whistling, staring, grabbing) inspire lumpenism and sexist fantasies about women’s bodies and how they like to be treated. Also lining the circumference of industrial areas are numerous liquor shops that are located strategically at certain transit points, highways, etc. At these transit points and even at the weekly bazars near working-class localities, one is bound to find the scarves, belts and dvd-selling vendor. His collection of dvds is sure to include the famous 5 movies-in-one dvd—a combination of porn, violent action and thriller movies. He is also sure to stock pornographic magazines which serve as nothing but decorative inducements to masturbation. Flipping through newspapers like Punjab Kesari, JagranCity, and supplements of other newspapers, the average reader is sure to feel that in this country, sexuality is shining and unfettered in its expression. At the same time, he cannot help feeling the angst that in real life he is nowhere close to enjoying this show-it-all/free-for-all sexuality.

Of course, to realize the depth of the (civilizational) problem before us, one should observe the average clientele that frequents red light areas like G.B. Road in Delhi. Finally, combine all this with glossy portrayals of actresses/models on almost every billboard in the city—from a billboard advertising a deodorant to one showcasing a bike and men’s underwear. Bombarded with hyper-femme images that objectify women’s bodies and sexuality, it is a miracle if the average (overworked, desensitized) working-class man learns to respect a woman’s body and needs. Ultimately, frustrated with inequalities, especially in sexual terms, many such working-class men seek actualization of their fantasies in any opening/orifice easily available. And that’s when many rapes and cases of molestation happen—when easy/vulnerable targets (burdened housewives, infants, a lone woman returning from work, a prostitute, etc.) become sites for actualizing sexual fantasies and sexual needs of men who are being exposed to nothing else but objectified forms of women’s bodies, while at the same time being denied the time (and other essential conditions) to actually nurture relationships with another.[45]

In such a context, when a sexily dressed middle-class woman happens to be in an exploitable condition, the chances of her being sexually assaulted are large. She is attacked not because her assailants are taken aback by her feminity, but because they are often looking for any vagina, mouth, or for that matter, any orifice in which they can insert their genitals. In reality then, sexual assaults on middle-class women by working-class men are an embodiment of these men’s efforts to gratify their sexual urges, as well as to vent frustrations that arise from social and economic inequalities particular to their class. In such situations, the sexual urge can easily get caught in class hatred, which can enhance the brutality of the assault. However, far from a class act, such sexual assaults represent the expression of this frustration in an individuated form. This means that sexual, economic and social inequalities bred by class stratification have the capacity not merely to elicit a class-conscious, collective and political reaction from the exploited working class, but also have the embedded capacity to provoke individuated, non-political and sexist forms of reaction like brutal assaults through which individual working-class men momentarily overpower women from the upper classes. Of course, by highlighting class divisions and their intricate role, one does not attempt to justify the prevalence of sexual violence in society. But as class stratification is a cause for such violence, the question of fighting it becomes essential for those who genuinely want to eradicate sexual violence from the roots.[46]

Having said this, what about rapes involving middle-class men who force themselves on their wives, girlfriends, an acquaintance at work, etc.? Here too, the acculturation of middle-class men into grabbing sex on their terms cannot be explained by simply drawing on some abstract notion of patriarchy. This, in fact, begs the question as to why notions of sexual hierarchy inform men’s consciousness. Importantly, the substratum of sexual violence perpetrated on middle-class women by men of their class is also shaped by inequalities that are bred by class. This is because many such rapes are occurring in the context of middle-class women joining an extremely insecure job market in order to enhance family budgets and their marriage prospects, dating so as to find partners of their status, adhering to family norms about ‘keeping the family together’, etc.—all of which are historical creations of capitalism. To elucidate, the pressure created by a class-divided society to seek partners from within one’s own class has pushed women into a position of compromise, wherein, they are trapped into adhering to patriarchal feminity and internalizing norms that subjugate their interests to the interests of their partners. In such positions of compromise (like dressing ‘attractively’ for work, going on blind-dates, ignoring sexual innuendos of male colleagues, tolerating ‘overprotective’ partners, etc.), middle-class women become vulnerable to oppression unleashed by men of their class.

Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize the fact that oppression faced by middle-class women cannot be equated with the exploitation and oppression borne by working-class women. Contrary to the popular belief that there is an equivalence in the experiences and interests of women across the board, it is really hard if not impossible, to place Priyanka Chopra and Soni Sori, or for that matter a female bank manager of an ICICI branch and a woman factory worker, on the same platform. It is difficult to assume that such equivalence exists because, although gender is imbricated in the matrix of power, inequalities stemming from it are contingent on the class position to which women belong. Hence, although men have advantages over women of the same class, women from middle-class families, bourgeois families, and women of advanced capitalist countries are far closer in material conditions and opportunities to men in their class than they are to working-class women, tribal women, Dalit women, etc. This class divide is precisely the reason why the average middle-class woman has come to comprehend equality in terms of gaining equality with men of her own class rather than equality between all human beings (including equality between her and a working-class man).

In this light, notions of equivalence are merely ways in which middle-class women can conceal their guilt of belonging to a higher class and still appear radical. In fact, it is the class blind approach of middle-class feminists, which creates (misplaced) notions of equivalence, and which paves the way for a form of politics that is based on women forgetting their class differences. Regrettably, the politics of equivalence has found its most ardent promoters amongst certain ‘Left’ organizations.[47] In reality, demands stemming from notions of equivalence offer no exit for the most vulnerable women in our society. Instead, such misplaced politics reeks of typical middle class oblivion of class-based exploitation and its debilitating effects.

It is, thus, essential to be conscious of the role that class plays in shaping the content of what is identified as freedom and equality. If we turn a blind eye to its role, we will only slip into a form of feminist politics that elides any real criticism of our society. As a society, we can launch a more formidable form of fighting sexual violence from its roots only if we accept the embedded truths about how human sexuality is shaped by capitalism, as well as how human relationships are impacted by class divisions. The fight against sexual violence is then a fight against capitalism; the struggle for sexual liberation based on egalitarianism is then a struggle for the sexual liberation of all women and all men; and the fight for actual equality between the separate genders is then the fight for a classless society.

Internalizing the male gaze and the co-option of feminism

In order to shield rape victims from the hurtful blame game and social ostracism the feminist movement has tended to completely divest rape of a sexual content. Unfortunately, the strategy of wrongfully divesting rape of its sexual content has not only prevented the feminist movement from completely exposing the complex web of socio-economic conditions that lie at the core of sexual violence, but has also led to several troubling developments, in particular, the birth of certain disempowering and elitist trends in the movement.[48] The development of these trends has blunted the radical potential of the feminist movement, and has further reduced feminism to a clique. Meanwhile, women at large remain trapped in various forms of oppression created by the capitalist system.

The most debilitating repercussion of the capitalist system on women’s sexuality is the co-option of women into the biased, sexist envisioning of their sexuality, as well as their growing participation in furthering their own and other women’s oppression. A lot of this co-option is the result of cultural bombardment, wherein, industries like that of advertising; fashion; media; etc. have popularized and made normative the existence of women’s sexuality in an objectified (consumable) form. However, this co-option has also increasingly emerged from quarters of ‘informed’, ‘sensitized’, feminist camps. While one can appreciate the elements of (ideological) diversity within the feminist movement, it cannot be denied that many currents in feminism have internalized patriarchal feminity, i.e. by claiming that the feminine can be made powerful through proud acceptance of things/behaviour/predispositions as intrinsically feminine.

The growing popularity of slut walks; fashionable flash mobs; support for legalization of prostitution; as well as certain strands of feminism which promote hyper-feminine dressing under the misplaced assumption that such dressing should not elicit a sexist gaze from men—are all recent embodiments of just how distant feminism is from the needs and aspirations of working-class women for liberation. Why do I say this? Without being a defender of sexist men, I place before the readers the intrinsic problems with feminism, in particular, the problems associated with some of its aspirations.

My basic contention is that the gravest problem posed by such feminism is the obstacle it has created for the liberation of the majority of women, i.e. working-class women. It is a fact that the feminist movement of the twentieth century and thereon has been a product of gradual absorption of women into the labour market, the growth in female-headed households and the upward mobility of some women in terms of better paying jobs and influential statuses. It is with this growth in middle-class women’s employment in health, educational and social services (developments which were ultimately furthering capitalist accumulation), that there emerged “a new romance of female advancement and gender justice”.[49] Subsequently, the decades following the 1970s saw many successful campaigns led by several feminist organizations and individuals, as well as socialist mass organizations which pressed the state to guarantee women the rights to bodily autonomy. Across the world, many working-class women too have benefitted from such successful campaigns, i.e. in terms of being granted certain legal safeguards against violent relationships, etc. However, feminist mobilizations were and continue to be characterized by a class bias because middle-class women have come to demand ‘freedoms’ which are abstracted from the need to reorganize the given social and economic structure imposed by capitalism. In fact, the undercurrent of feminism remains the positing of equal rights with men within the framework of capitalism. As a result, it ends up concealing class divisions and the necessity of working-class politics by projecting an artificial division between the class of men and class of women—a division which is wrongly projected as the fundamental division (fault-line) within the capitalist system/bourgeois society.[50]

While gender stratification or men-women segregation may appear as a distinct and an overarching form of social division, there is an undeniable peculiarity to it, namely, that this form of segregation tends to blur when other social divisions (or fault-lines) are brought into the picture. In reality, the position of women is ontologically placed within the complex web of social structure in a way that makes it is subsumable within other segregations. For one, women are not a class in themselves but are divided among different classes. Upper class women, for example, tend to live and work where they associate with upper class men, and hence, remain in a social environment that distinguishes them from the mass of working-class men and women. As a consequence of these material conditions they share with men of their class, i.e. higher levels of education and occupational positions/incomes, women of higher classes are in a position to demand more respect not only from men of their class, but from men of lower classes as well. This means that segregation based on gender tends to blur when we consider: (i) the commonality of interests between men and women of a class; (ii) the sharp inequalities borne by working-class men in contrast to upper class women, and (iii) the inequalities borne by impoverished lower caste men in contrast to affluent higher caste women.

Simply put, while a patriarchal or sexist culture which reinforces gender inequalities may prevail, there is also the tendency for patriarchal households and sexist men to share a common interest with their women. We see such convergence of interests when wages or salaries earned by women are encouraged in conditions where women’s wages substantially improve family budgets. The employment of a maidservant in many upper class homes also reflects how sexist upper class men have come to accept that housework is a burden for their partners, which should rather be shared or passed onto a paid help. All such conjunctures that represent a convergence in men and women’s interests reflect the following: (i) that the gender division is not a universal, independently constituted system of segregation, and (ii) that segregation based on class, caste and race ultimately determine how much and in what ways gender divisions will articulate themselves. Importantly, unlike gender segregation which is subsumable within other segregations, these other segregations based on class and caste cannot be subsumed within the men-women social division.

What this means is that the aforementioned complex web of social divisions tends to separate the interests of middle-class and working-class women to the extent that they are often antagonistic to each other. Hence, once middle-class women gain certain rights due to their membership to a particular class, or due to the struggle for such rights, they do not hesitate in unleashing the whip of exploitation on their working-class sisters. Winning the right to work, for example, has been accompanied by employment of the maid—a development which has culminated in the brutal exploitation of working-class women as domestic ‘helps’. Most of these domestic servants are impoverished tribal girls/women who migrate to cities after marriage or in search of employment. The heavy manual work performed by them in most middle and upper class homes clearly shows just how little the feeling of sisterhood tends to exist amongst women of varied classes.

What is then lost in brazen generalizations about the ‘gender-over-class’ experience are the following: (i) that women are sharply divided amongst themselves along the lines of class and so are men separated from women along class lines; (ii) that some women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality; and (iii) that once the demand for women’s autonomy over their bodies is abstracted from the larger social relations which shape current sexual codes, such a demand can only pave the way for half-baked freedoms.[51]

How is it that a section of women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality? Disturbing as it may be, what we are witnessing today in more and more blatant forms is the constant promotion of raunch culture in the name of women’s sexual liberation.[52] Amongst those who indulge in this perversity are female chauvinists, or what I would like to identify as ‘comprador women’—those women who come to employ the strategy of objectifying theirs and other women’s bodies in the attempt to attain the same elevated status and financial gains of the dominant group (in this case, male entrepreneurs and professionals). Through their work these women not only objectify their own bodies but also those of other women, and more often than not, advocate that women should embrace capitalism and get as much power and money for themselves as they can in order to fight oppression.[53]Examples of female chauvinists or comprador women include: the woman entrepreneur who unhesitatingly uses her class power to unleash aggression on both male and female employees; the woman journo at Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Femina magazines who earns a killing by telling women what’s the “in thing”; the woman fashion designer whose fashion line popularizes Size Zero and whose one flick of the hand sends shivers down the chain of garment workers employed in developing and under-developed countries; the Ekta Kapoor-kind of women producers whose showcase-it-all movies have popularized movie plots evolving around sex scandals; the entire pool of bourgeois artists (Kareena Kapoor, Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra and the likes) who adamantly claim their semi-nude bodies on billboards and the silver screen do not encourage a sexist culture; etc. Ultimately then, the interests of women capitalists and some upward mobile women professionals are linked to the perpetuation of a biased, sexist culture and gender oppression of the majority of women.

Another brand of feminist practitioners includes those who have come to seek ‘empowerment’ in the reclamation of patriarchal feminity, and hence, have come to defend and celebrate this feminity as a feminist action. The general misconception amongst them is that women are exercising an active choice/agency when indulging in patriarchal feminity such as by wearing body-hugging clothes, painting nails, getting piercings, going for implants, looking ‘pretty’ in order to feel powerful, participating in ‘slut walks’, and even reclaiming disempowering terms or language like slut/whore/bitch/cunt/behanchod/chutia. Subsequently, the denial of such choice to indulge in patriarchal feminity is read as oppression and is seen as antagonistic to the goal of feminism, let alone any emancipatory politics.

Such behaviour and politics is troubling because of its ridiculous assumption that women who dress in hyper-feminine ways are beating the patriarchal, sexist structuring of society at its own game. Defenders of such positions also tend to argue that sexualized dressing challenges the predominant image of the docile, ‘traditional’ woman imbued with feminine respectability. For this reason the ‘right’ to hyper-femme dressing has emerged almost like a non-negotiable demand within the current feminist movement.[54] However, it is worth remembering that both the commodified woman and the normative woman or bhadramahila are creations of capitalist society. Both are forms of a woman’s sexual being that are used to keep each other alive. While the former is often despised, she is still desired. Similarly, while the latter is often worshipped, she is also shunned. Hence, both the commodified woman and the bhadramahila are feminine roles which should be smashed rather than incorporated and defended.

What then really happens when middle-class women take to hyper-feminine dressing/behaviour? Like it or not, they end up reproducing conditions not only for their own oppression but for the oppression of the more vulnerable section of women, namely, proletarian women.[55] My two questions then to all those who brandish political slogans of ‘free choice’, ‘meri skirt se tujhe kya’, etc. are: (i) when you find yourself choosing what capitalist patriarchy promotes, is it not worth asking if it is really a choice, and (ii) can you guarantee that your indulgence in patriarchal feminity does not create any conditions for another woman’s sexual oppression?

If we take up these questions critically, it is worth noting that the discourse of ‘free choice’ is a product of a heightened sense of bourgeois individualism and egoism. Individual will and freedoms are prioritized with little or no engagement on the actual form and content of these freedoms and individual desires. Blinded by extreme individuality which is fostered by ruling bourgeois ideology, as well as ignorant of the real socio-economic relationships that are needed so as to transform collective human psyche, middle-class women are being swayed to participate in the making of their own oppression. They are slipping further into objectifying their sexuality and relationships due to greater access to cultural capital, money, etc.—an access which enables them to adhere to given codes of feminine sexuality, notions of beauty, and newer forms of personal relationships (‘free unions’, open marriages, etc.) more easily as compared to working-class women who have little or no access to such financial resources, cultural capital, etc.

By asserting ‘individual choice’, these women are happily concealing how their efforts to map down to patriarchal feminity signifies acceptance and normalization of given sexual codes of behaviour for men and women. It is, indeed, difficult to even imagine how wearing high heels, skin-tight jeans, hot pants, see-through tops, miniskirts, huge earrings, anklets, etc., does not automatically elicit certain types of hyper-femme behaviour that are easy to exploit simply because of the way these accessories end up impacting the woman’s gait, her weight, her stamina, etc. In this context, one cannot help but appreciate the significance of warnings such as ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ which indicate that adherence to things which are not in our interest will surely work against us and keep intact the status quo.[56]It is also difficult to support the free-to-be-me feminism in which people (the masses) can hardly tell the difference between a woman who has been duped into indulging in patriarchal feminity and a woman who is purposefully adhering to this feminity in order to circumvent it. If such a difference cannot be maintained nor does such dressing or behaviour change the way women’s sexuality is perceived and consumed, then one would rather propagate a different strategy.

In actual terms, patriarchal feminity is yet another expression of restrained and subjugated female sexuality. Importantly, restrain has been the characterizing feature of female sexuality despite the emergence of effective contraception post the 1960s. Contraception, by freeing women for the ‘first’ time from the fear of unplanned/undesired pregnancies, has had profound repercussions on women’s sexuality. However, despite the emergence of contraception, it is only bourgeois women and a small segment of middle-class women who, on achieving material equality with men of their class, have come to explore their sexuality in certain ways and exercise an active choice in choosing their sex partners. Nevertheless, these women ultimately fall for a form of sexual adventurism which, many a times, provides the space for sexual opportunism of men—an opportunism that frees men of responsibility, care and commitment.[57] This is exactly why many middle-class youth can be seen indulging in sexual acts in which they and/or their partners have divorced sexual gratification from genuine love, mutual commitment and intimacy. Moreover, upper class women’s sexual adventurism exists in a form that actively assists them in finding partners who enable them to remain in their class, or to move up to a higher status. There is then, nothing commendable in upholding this form of sexual adventurism nurtured by capitalism.

In order to prove this, let us explore the issue of seeking partners within one’s own class more closely. Expectedly, in a socio-economic system in which large numbers of women are unemployed and the job market is highly insecure and discriminatory towards them, women are compelled to seek security in male partners belonging to theirs or a class above. Marriage is then the means through which a woman and her family can either sustain an existing lifestyle, or access a better one through the practice of hypergamy, i.e. marrying into a higher social status. This development has to be understood in a larger context. As explained above, community-based regulation has reduced with time, and as a result, modern society has increasingly witnessed the assertion of ‘individual’ choice. Individual men and women, particularly in urban areas, are now progressively opting for marriages outside their communities. Inter-caste marriages are indicative of this trend.

Interestingly, in many parts of India, in particular, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, inter-caste marriages are in the noticeable range of 15 to 20 per cent of marriages recorded. These states represent high levels of prosperity due to a flourishing agricultural economy (the profits of which have been diversified into sectors like transport, real estate, etc.). This prosperity has fuelled greater aspirations of upward-mobility. Importantly then, a bulk of inter-community marriages involve hypergamy. In such cases, women are opting for matches which ensure a similar, if not better lifestyle than the one provided by their parents. Simply put, majority of women do not tend to ‘marry down’ the social ladder, and hence, opt for partners who can offer them a better life and status, even if these partners are not from their community. Meanwhile, men tend to accept partners from a status below them if they look ‘attractive enough’. Ultimately, the practice of hypergamy has put women under tremendous pressure. This pressure manifests itself in the quest to not simply look attractive, but to look ‘better than the rest’. This quest to always look young, attractive, etc. requires some elaboration.

The problem with the pressure to fit into prescribed notions of ‘beauty’ is not simply that it compels so many women (in particular, middle-class women who have greater access to resources) to invest their time, energy and money on looking ‘desirable’ and for inculcating all the expected mannerisms which appeal to men who are likely to be their partners. The graver problem with this particular form of oppression is that it paves the way for a never-ending process of compromises. It’s not just what women end up doing to their own bodies in order to ‘stay young’, ‘feel beautiful’, ‘catch his eye’, etc., but what they end up allowing men to do to their bodies. Not surprisingly, in order to keep things going so many women end up compromising on various fronts: careers, fulfilling sex, self-respect, etc. It is in this process of maintaining ‘respectable’ matches/relationships that so many middle-class women come to tolerate bossy boyfriends, domestic violence, unfaithful husbands, etc.

Clearly, what is then lost in the deafening screeching about ‘it’s my body, it’s my life’, is the simple fact that by indulging in hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, many women are using their body and sexuality to satisfy partners whom they have chosen from within their own class, as well as to move up the social ladder by attracting men of upper classes. Repartees like ‘I’m doing it because it makes me feel good’ and ‘what’s it with you—it was a free country last time I checked’ are hardly convincing when we place them within the context of the kind of men-women relationships that exist in the larger society, as well as in the context of the kind of relationships built by many such self-proclaimed feminists.

Unfortunately for all of us, we are part of a society where the potential for loving is at its lowest. In the context of fragile and selfishly oriented men-women relationships nurtured by capitalism, a woman’s indulgences in the very practices which suit the male gaze and presumptions about women’s sexuality is simply an effort to attract the attention of her partner (and also, willingly or unwillingly, of other men). Such attention is sought in the form in which he (the partner) is used to seeing her and in which he expects to see her so that he can ‘feel the love’. Let us then not be mistaken into reading ‘empowerment’ into actions that are simply our slippages. Of course, women are now increasingly seeking out their own partners as compared to earlier times, but the starting point in the majority of such relationships is looking desirable in ways decided not by the individuals ‘in love’, but by external social forces. Thus, what some women are identifying as an ‘individual choice’ when it comes to exercising their sexuality is actually creating grounds for the substitution of genuine (egalitarian) love/feeling by a dishonest kind of closeness brought on by men and women who have entered physical relationships while objectifying each other’s bodies (and often after checking each other’s bank balances).[58]

Indeed, dressing in hyper-femme ways is a class-informed act/practice. It is a trap that middle-class and bourgeois women are perpetuating in order to tackle oppression unleashed by men of their own class. The class-biased nature of the various strands of feminism which support hyper-femme dressing is, perhaps, best reflected in the fact that these women who demand equality no matter what they wear and what they do, rarely seek partners outside their class. Somehow, the nature of their demand for equality, as well as the form of sexual liberation posited by them, never really allow for expansion of their date/marriage pool. This is why, despite all their claims about sexual liberation, hardly any transgress the sexual codes of their class so as to search for love amongst working-class men (or working-class women, if we talk of lesbian feminists). Hence, their idea of liberation stops at gaining unprecedented rights and privileges that men of their class enjoy—the right to wear what she wants, go where she pleases, date whoever she wants and basically do as she pleases. So sorry, but her idea of liberation says nothing of fighting wage slavery, nor does her idea of liberation accept responsibility for the enhanced oppression unleashed by middle-class notions of ‘freedom’ on working-class women.

In reality, the relevance of rhetoric like ‘my body, my life’ holds little water. Instead, the hyper-feminine images propagated by the capitalist media as well as repetitive and uncritical indulgence in patriarchal feminity by middle-class women, has created huge problems for women across the board. Now Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Sunny Leone, etc. can indulge in patriarchal feminity and earn in lakhs by objectifying their bodies while, at the same time, not be in a position to be raped by the average man who watches their films, posters, etc. Really, which ordinary man can bypass their bouncers, crew, security systems, etc. so as to physically acquire/consume their bodies?! Similarly, the sensuously dressed pub-going university student may only be visually consumed by male pubbers, waiters, security guards and the auto driver who drops her home—but does anyone check how hers, or Sunny Leone or Priyanka Chopra’s bodies become the object of those men’s fantasies? Indeed, the tendency of middle-class hedonism[59] seeks expression in middle-class notions of civility and freedom, which are then imposed on the larger mass of people. Without a doubt, this middle-class ‘civility’ needs artificially created and pacified zones (university campuses, malls, discotheques, etc.) for it to express itself. The creation of these pacified zones is largely possible by drawing on the police, which reluctantly concedes a role in maintaining safe/safer havens for the upper classes to enjoy such ‘azaadi’.

Of course, these women may not be raped or molested (and one hopes they never are) when they do what they do. However, their bodies become fantasies for the average man, such that depending on the vulnerability (of the next woman/child he comes across) and the impunity offered by circumstances, rape of a (more vulnerable) other becomes possible. This takes us back to the oft repeated repartee: skirt mein, burkhe mein, dono mein rape hota hai—we should now really qualify this, and say that women in skirts and revealing tops are somewhere responsible for the rape of women in burkhas and ghunghats.

Feminist defence of hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, thus, makes little sense considering that it has accepted the fact that such dressing and behaviour is mime attention seeking which is supposed to, on the one hand, attract attention of a particular individual, but on the other hand, is supposed to repulse or elicit indifference from others. Quite naturally then, feminist rhetoric on hyper-femme dressing and behaviour does not make sense to the majority of men and women, and although feminists would defend their position by terming all these men and women who critique hyper-femme dressing/behaviour as patriarchal, such a defence is really far too shallow.

Hence, while there is need to critique the treacherous blame game let loose by (the hypocritical) capitalist society when it comes to rape, molestation, etc., there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. At the end of the day, the complete denial of the uncomfortable truth underlying women’s efforts to ‘do as they please’ is preventing the women’s movement from pursuing a more rigorous assessment of what makes sexual violence possible and persistent in capitalist society.

Socialism: Going beyond feminist notions of freedom

A more detailed exploration of the strained relationship between feminists and the working-class movement is currently outside the scope of this piece. However, there are few observations on the issue which must be spelt out. The most important of these is that the international working-class movement has always questioned the feminist assumption that the oppression of women can be eradicated by fighting merely or specifically for gender equality. It is worth recalling Alexandria Kollantai who lucidly articulated that many claims for equality made by feminists were not simply misplaced but also detrimental to the interests of working-class women because such claims did not speak of larger equality. Indeed, for majority of women, i.e. working-class women, equal rights with men would only mean an equal share in inequality. Of course, some feminists would always claim that their assessments of gender inequality have not been oblivious to class, but the truth is that even if, apart from gender, other articulations of inequality (like that of class, caste, race, etc.) are taken into account, they are usually seen as yet another variant of discrimination and simply a greater burden to be borne by women. The question, however, is whether class is just one of a list of discriminations—can it be reduced to another “ism”? The answer is an obvious no for class is a structuring force that cuts into gender, caste, etc., and hence, gives gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc. their particular form of expression.

Given this ontological positioning of gender vis-à-vis class, the working-class movement has always, in contrast to feminism, posited that gender inequality can be eradicated completely only with the demise of class stratification. It is for this reason that the working-class movement has posited equality between men and women, not as a part apart, but as a part of a larger emancipatory project, which connects women’s emancipation to the liberation of the majority, i.e. working-class women and men.

Consequently, with the melting away of class divisions under socialism, various revolutionary possibilities open up for human society as a whole. In a socialist society, all women, for example, would be empowered with gainful employment and education—a facility that would free the majority of women from their current position of overt dependence on male breadwinners. In a similar vein, with the achievement of new levels of socialization of labour (collective childcare, community kitchens, etc.); women would be freed from the yoke of domestic slavery which has burdened and subjugated them since the inception of capitalism. By freeing the majority of women from positions of dependence and (devalued) domesticity, socialism will nurture a new image of women; one that is far removed from the wretched, vulnerable and exploitable image nurtured by capitalism. With no such spectre of vulnerability to haunt women, no woman would have to face the brunt of sexual violence or live a life of fear.

Moreover, the provision of full employment offered by socialism would ensure that no man or woman performs more than his/her share of work—a mandatory provision that will drastically reduce the working hours that now prevail in society. With this much needed decrease in working hours, men and women will be in the position to enjoy greater leisure time. And it is precisely in such a condition of enhanced leisure time that human relations can be nurtured, and that progress towards true love and romantic/fulfilling sex can be made. In other words, unlike the capitalist system which has created more conditions of coercive coitus than of voluntary sex and true love, socialism’s restructuring of human leisure and work time will pave the way for an actual sexual revolution. Undivided by class, unfettered by inhumane work hours and unburdened by artificially accentuated male-female differences, human beings under socialism will find no reason to and have no basis on which to rape, to subjugate, or to use another’s body for selfish gains.

Thus, till the time that gender equality simply manifests itself in equality between men and women of the same class, romantic sex or the sexual revolution is clearly misnomer. It is only when gender equality has come to manifest itself through an equality of a larger kind, wherein, distinct classes, castes and races have been obliterated, that the sexual revolution can be set to begin. Evidently then, if our civilization wants to overcome the conditions that foster sexual violence and oppression, and if we truly desire a sexual revolution, then our efforts should be aimed at building socialism—a transformation which alongside the struggle against oppression stemming from various identities (gender, caste, religion, tribe, etc.) also requires the intensification of the struggle against class stratification.

Maya John is associated with the Centre for Struggling Women (CSW), and is a researcher working on labour law at the Department of History, University of Delhi


[1]The 23-year old victim was studying to be a physiotherapist. She was accompanied by her engineer male-friend and was returning after watching “Life of Pi” in South Delhi’s multiplex/shopping mall, Select Citywalk. After the movie they tried to get an auto-rickshaw, and failing to get one, they waited at the bus-stop for public transport (i.e. the Delhi Transport Corporation/DTC bus service). Since public transport in the city (the bus service in particular) is in shambles, the couple, expectedly, did not get a DTC bus either. They were easily lured into the private bus after waiting for public transport for nearly 45 minutes. The victim was raped by six working-class men on the private bus as it plied through the streets, and succumbed to her injuries 13 days later in a Singapore hospital. The victim was not only raped but brutalized.

[2] For example, the Delhi High Court filed a suo motu case. Meanwhile, the Delhi Police were unusually swift in their investigation and caught the accused within 3 days. The national media provided continuous coverage of the case, as well as of student protesters who poured onto the streets in agitation. Corporate houses started using this issue as part of their ad-campaigns. Many protestors demanded capital punishment for the accused, and were seen occupying Raisina Hill (near the President’s residence and Ministry of Home Affairs under whose authority the Delhi Police functions). Here, generally no protests are allowed. The police remained relatively restrained, and only resorted to force under the pretext of stone pelting started by some agent provocateurs. Sonia Gandhi [head of ruling ‘United Progressive Alliance’ (UPA)], Sheila Dixit (Chief Minister of the Government of National Capital Territory), Manmohan Singh (Prime Minister of Government of India),  Sushilkumar Shinde (Union Home Minster) visited/assured justice to the victim’s family. Just few weeks before this 16 December gang-rape, a 16-year old girl from an oppressed caste was raped on 9 September by 12 men in Haryana. Only some members of the oppressed caste/s and communist organizations agitated for justice to be provided to the victim; media largely ignored the incident. The Haryana High Court did not file suo motu case. The state police did not register a complaint till the victim’s father committed suicide. Sonia Gandhi, Bhupinder Hooda (Chief Minister of Haryana), Manmohan Singh, Shinde, etc. never visited the victim.

[3] Sanik Dutta (2013), “Citizens United”, Frontline, 25 January.

[4] The general male chauvinist response is to protect one’s own womenfolk, but to do the same to others. This is precisely why at various venues of the anti-rape protests, many male ‘agitators’ were seen harassing (ogling, touching inappropriately, etc.) women protestors. Following the incident of gang-rape in the capital, various groups mushroomed at protest venues demanding death penalty for rape. Not to say the least, their participants were misogynist—a fact reflected in the nature of their slogans against rape. To give an example, up till recently there was a dubious group of people sitting at Jantar Mantar (wearing black bands and black stickers that carry slogans of death penalty). This group had placed a memorial stone called ‘Damini’ (a fictitious name given by the media to the 16 December gang-rape victim) at this prominent place of protest. They sat around this without any concrete demands in hand. They claimed they were instigating a ‘kranti’/revolution against rape, and would not move till the accused were hanged. Even the recent rape of a woman factory worker in Welcome area of northeast Delhi by a rapist whose own daughter was raped earlier (19 December 2012, Times Of India) points to the hypocrisy with which male chauvinism functions. Even a rapist can fight against rape, and so the fight against rape is itself not struggle for the liberation for women.

[5] Many a times the victim/s in villages is/are forced to keep her/their mouth shut by her family or village ‘elders’. The police do not register the crime under the influence of the accused party or panchayat, and doctors at times manipulate the medical reports. Instances of rapes in rural India which indicate the prevalence of rampant sexual violence include: Bhanwari Devi in 1992, was raped by upper caste men in a village called Bhateri in Rajasthan; Phoolan Devi was raped in 1979 in a village called Behmai in Madhya Pradesh by upper caste men; two Dalit women (a mother and daughter) were gang-raped in Khairlanji village (Maharashtra) in 2006, and almost their whole family was lynched to death by members of the dominant OBC caste, Kunbi. The outcome of all these cases shows clear presence of police-judiciary connivance, and hence, complete miscarriage of justice.

[6] I refer to patriarchy not as a ‘system’ which exists parallel to the given socio-economic system that envelops us, but rather, I equate it with sexism. For me, sexism or patriarchy is a historically evolved behaviour pattern which differs from era to era, and thus, patriarchy in capitalism is distinct from that which existed during feudalism or slavery. There are also other equally engaging interventions in the ensuing debate on rape, which have delved quite closely on the question of short-term and long-term strategy required for fighting the growing oppression of women in our society. Critiquing the ensemble of demands that erupted from protest venues, some of these interventions have posited the need for impossible demands which, by their very nature, are expected to smash the entrenched conditions that foster gender inequality. It goes without saying that we cannot merely raise slogans that bolster the legitimacy of the bourgeois state, but surely, there can be a Leninist way of raising the ‘intermediate demands’, i.e. demands that have some immediate resonance with the people’s aspirations, and at the same time, pose a challenge to the state. In the process of rallying around these ‘intermediate demands’ we may organize ourselves, strengthen our cadre base, raise the aspirations of the masses and build a lasting influence amongst them, etc. so that when we are ready, we pose the (im)possible demands before the state. Unless we proceed in this way, we are faced with the two-fold danger of either, left wing deviation (a situation in which we are raising slogans that are completely out of sync with the masses, and hence, leading to our isolation), or a right wing deviation (a situation in which by merely raising popular slogans, we fall prey to petty-bourgeois slogans, lose our critical tinge, as well as our independent proletarian will and action).

[7] See, Kavita Krishnan (2013), “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism”, www.kafila.org, 25 January, accessed on 3 February 2013.

[8] Kavita Krishnan (2012), “Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggle Against It”, www.sanhati.org, accessed on 26 December 2012.

[9] Shuddhabrato Sengupta (2012), “To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate”, December 23, www.kafila.org, accessed on 30 December 2012.

[10] Reports from the National Family Household Survey, which arguably provide a more accurate picture of the actual rate of violence than the reported data calculated by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), confirm that city-dwelling women are more likely to face sexual violence/abuse than women living in villages.

[11] Devika Narayan (2012-13), “Some Thoughts on Rape, Sexual Violence and Protest: Responding to Responses”, Critique, vol. 2 (2): 39-40.

[12] Now with the spread of cities into what we would call the ‘suburbs’, many villages bordering large cities have seen a spate of rapes conducted on highways, etc.—a fact which reflects that easy targets are also being sought in the peripheries of cities. Incidents of village women or women factory workers being pulled into cars, empty warehouses or waylaid on such highways are now very common, which goes to show that just as in the city proper, even bordering villages are witnessing rapes that don’t necessarily fit the paradigm of power rapes because of the nature of perpetrators and because the rapists sought to exploit the vulnerability of the victim rather than teach her a lesson. The main point is that people circulating to and fro from urban to rural areas is leading to the gradual spread of the urban pattern of rapes to the rural milieu.

[13] Some right-wing bigwigs have argued that rape is an urban and modern phenomenon, fuelled by the anonymity somewhere offered by the city. The statement of RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat on 4 January 2013, who was addressing a group in Silchar, further complicated the issue by claiming that rape is a phenomenon which ‘takes place in India, not in Bharat’. For Bhagwat’s discourse, India is the substitute for urban areas, and Bharat stands for rural India. For him, it is the ‘Western’ lifestyle adopted by people in urban areas which is leading to an increase in the crime against women. In his address, he stated: “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes”. He further implied that while urban areas are influenced by Western culture, the rural areas are nurturing Indian ethos and glorious Indian traditions. For him, ancient Indian traditions gave great respect to women, and it is due to these values of Indian tradition that the country’s villages are free from crimes against women. Needless to say, India’s ancient traditions are glorified by people like him without going into the core of social relationships. In this light, it is essential to understand the past in the context of its the social milieu, the system of production, the level of education etc. The blind glorification of the past leads to conclusions that are off the mark. It is a fact that during the long span of India’s ancient past, the status of women kept changing. Nevertheless, women as subordinate beings was the running theme. We also know for a fact that Indian villages have seen brutal sexual assaults on women.

[14] Susan Brownmiller (1993), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books).

[15] See, Lee Ellis (1989), Theories of Rape: Inquiries into the Causes of Sexual Aggression (New York: Hemisphere): 10.

[16] See, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer (2001), A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: The MIT Press).

[17] The undeniable problem with the theory of ‘natural history of rape’ is the fact that it is based on many unsubstantiated views, such as rapist men differ genetically from men who do not rape, and that sexually aggressive (rapist) men are more capable of impregnating women than men who do not force themselves on women.

[18] This ahistorical approach to gender inequality is something which informs the views of several renowned feminists. For example, Simone de Beauvoir is known to have argued that women “have no past, no history” (cited by Lerner (1986), Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford University Press: 22). In similar terms, Andrea Dworkin in an interview, stated: “I think that the situation of women is basically ahistorical.” (See, E. Wilson (1982), “Interview with Andrea Dworkin”, Feminist Review, vol. 11: 27).

[19] Christine Helliwell (2000), “It’s only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference,” Signs, vol. 25 (3): 789-816; Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981), “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross Cultural Study,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 37 (4): 5-27. Christine Helliwell and Peggy Sanday have successfully demonstrated that certain contemporaneous communities like the Gerai of Dayak communities (Indonesia) and Minangkabua, are rape-free.

[20] Friedrich Engels (1973), The Origin of Family, Private Property and State (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

[21] The existence of small band formations within which sexual activity took place led to the development of a relatively small genotype, and hence, the reproduction of very similar featured progeny. In addition, the nature of hunting-gathering subsistence was such that individual traits and capabilities were much too entwined with the human collective so as to socially distinguish one individual from another. Hence, variable factors leading to differential preference for pair-bonding, such as status, individual physical traits and capabilities, etc. were not so prevalent.

[22] Just like the male form of the human race, the female has developed certain muscle memory and sensitivity to touch in the pre-natal stage, i.e. during the nine months of existence in the amniotic sac of the mother’s uterus. Protected and fondled by the warm and thick amniotic fluid of the womb, the human specie has inculcated a sensitivity to touch with some body parts developing a more heightened sense of touch, i.e. the erogenous zones which include the genitalia, mammary glands, ear lobes, etc. Engrained with this sense of touch which soothes the nerves, muscles and sensory ends/organs, the human specie seeks to replicate what it has learnt from the pre-natal stage. In this regard, sex amounts to an advanced form of touching and sensation to which the human specie has been conditioned during a long pre-natal stage. Indeed, just as singing is a complex form of speech, sex can be seen as a complex form of human touching. Of course, the consequences and intentionality involved in sexual interaction are determined by the form of the relationship shared between the two individuals. Hence, sex is not simply physiological, but highly mediated and transformed by the social milieu in which humans find themselves. In class stratified societies, our cultural and personal meanings associated with individuals, objects and situations greatly influence our sexual desires.

[23] See Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in Colonial India”, http://www.oslo2000.uio.no/program/papers/s4/s4-singha.pdf, accessed on 12 April 2013.

[24] See Radhika Singha (1998), A Despotism of Law (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[25] The transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist structuring of Indian society and economy was both restrained as well as facilitated by the colonial state, which marked the survival, re-creation and reproduction of older social forms. Further development of this point is, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

[26] Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practice in Colonial India”.

[27] See Prem Chowdhry (2007a), Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[28] By depressing the family wage of the working class (i.e. wages earned by the breadwinner of the family), and by pushing women out of jobs once they gave birth, the work of child bearing and rearing were established as tasks which were to be ‘done for free’, i.e. which had no role in sustaining the economy, and hence, for which the capitalist was to bear no cost.

[29] In India, for example, the tendency of young women to marry even before the completion of their higher education is significantly noticeable. Those who do manage to attain a certain level of education are often given no opportunity to pick up jobs before they enter marital relations. This reflects the fact that women are often made to forfeit education and career interests for the sake of ‘suitable’ marriage offers. Many, of course, are unable to return to their studies, etc. after tying the knot.

[30] In urban contexts, the provisions of the criminal justice system (pertaining to abduction, etc.) are often misused by the families of couples who have gone for choice marriages. The procedures of the court and the connivance of the local police with the family have allowed many male ‘guardians’ to exhaust such couples in months and sometimes years of litigation. On the other hand, informed by a class bias, the local police have also been seen circumventing procedures of the criminal justice system to the extent that they have often refused to file missing person reports of working class girls who have gone missing, or have declined to file FIRs of abduction when these girls’ families name suspects. Clearly, when it comes to women of poorer sections of society, the police generally assumes that they have left their homes willingly—a practice which allows them to waste crucial time in locating these missing girls and ascertaining, under section 164 of the CrPc, whether they wilfully left their homes.

[31] Catherine MacKinnon is a highly cited and influential legal scholar. See, Fred R. Shapiro (1996), “The Most Cited Law Review Article Revisited”, Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 71. Also see, Catherine Mackinnon (1987), Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Interestingly, hers as well as the views of Dworkin, etc. spread across other parts of the world through networks of global NGOs and funding agencies which were part of international level campaigns on women’s rights.

[32] Surprisingly, even progressive intellectuals who were, obviously, moved by the emotional and tense atmosphere emerging post the 16 December gang-rape case, slipped into demanding greater severity of punishment, albeit not in the mould of death penalty and castration. For example, a prominent progressive blogger, Shuddhabrato Sengupta floated the idea of life-long solitary confinement for the rapists. Op. cit., endnote 9.

[33] I use the term bad sex in lieu of any better concept which can be used to explain the lack of mutuality, care, and fulfilment in many sexual encounters. The concept of bad sex hence refers to sexual encounters where someone’s pleasure is another’s pain, discomfort and displeasure.

[34] It is to be noted that in direct opposition to such liberal feminist views, others have argued that prostitution (in cases where consent exists and even in cases where it doesn’t) is sexual violence in itself, and amounts to paid rape as the money given only appeases the men’s guilt. For elucidation see, Trisha Baptie (2009), “”Sex worker” ? Never met one !,” http://sisyphe.org/spip.php?article3290, 26 April, accessed on 28 March 2013.

[35] By loss of autonomy I do not mean individual choice in conflict with other individuals and social interests. For me, both the self and the autonomy that self seems to enjoy are conditioned upon the relations where it is vested. Self is never alone and it can only come on its own by continuously engaging with other human beings. What in real terms the loss of autonomy of sexual choice means is the breakdown of the psychic connection between pleasure, desire, motivation and action. So the real question is not to restore autonomy in la liberal way, but to re-create different form of (social) relations.

[36] See, Appeal to All Concerned with Violence Against Women and Demand Charter (2012), released by Maya John on behalf of Centre for Struggling Women (CSW) and supported by many other organizations, 26 December, www.sanhati.org. Also see press release released by CSW and Nurses Welfare Association, “Nurses and women’s groups demand safety audit of workplaces”, The Hindu, 22 January 2013. Here, the demand for necessary amendments to laws and state regulation in order to create safe workplaces has been discussed in the context of varied concerns of working women. Amongst one of the suggestions pressed forth by nurses as working women is the conducting of regular safety audits of all workplaces by the state.

[37] Kavita Krishnan recently articulated such a position in her 25 January 2013 article, where she said: “…capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job – and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy [emphasis added].” The statement clearly assumes that capitalism is a system which functions in the manner it does because of the prevalence of another system, namely, patriarchy. By this logic, it is patriarchy as a separate system in itself which makes capitalism patriarchal, and not the inner logic of capitalist exploitation which breeds patriarchal functioning of society.

[38] Rejecting the primacy of class, as well as the radical feminists’ attempts to install gender in the same position of categorical privilege, some feminists have propounded the theory of ‘intersectionality’ (of class, gender, caste, race, sexuality and nationality). This is, in fact, a very common route of escape for many feminists when articulations of class, race and many other social positions confront feminist categories of analysis. The problem with the argument of intersectionality is that it works with nothing less than a pluralism of identities. This pluralism ensures a never ending list of identities to be distinguished and accounted for. What is lost in this analysis is, of course, the ontology of social positioning. In other words, the hierarchy prevalent in social positions and the objective interest involved is completely overlooked as constitutive of the social reality. In reality, certain positions and identities are subsumed into others, even though they may not appear to be subsumable, or do not appear to have been subsumed. This is not to argue that everything can be reduced to class and is about class, but to show (as is clearly reflected in the conditions surrounding us) that other experiences, identities, social phenomenon, etc. exist in relation to class/are in negotiation with class for their articulation. One is aware of Laclau’s and Mouffe’s critique of the notion of “objective interests”. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics, p. 76-77. However a convincing defence has been provided by E.M. Wood in “The Autonomization of Ideology and Politics”, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism.

[39] For a fuller critique of this view, see Craig, T. Palmer (1988), “Twelve Reasons Why Rape is Not Sexually Motivated: A Skeptical Examination”, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 25 (4): 512-30.

[40] Chafetz, Janet Saltzman (1990), Gender Equity: An Integrated Theory of Stability and Change (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications).

[41] See ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a 2010 survey by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in USA. It was reported that in America, rape was more common than smoking. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

[42] See, Freund, K., H. Scher and S.J. Hucker (1983), “The Courtship Disorders”, Archives of Sexual Behavior  vol. 12: 769‑779; Michael T. Dreznick (2003),  “Heterosocial Competence of Rapists and Child Molesters: A Meta-analysis”, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 40 (2): 170-08; Marshall, W. L. and Eccles, A. (1991), “Issues in Clinical Practice with Sex Offenders”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 6: 79–79.

[43] Praveen Swami (2013), “The Rapist in the Mirror”, The Hindu, lead article, 11 January. Sexual violence by men is not just unleashed on women but also on children. As a consequence, men also rape boys. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. Of these, 68.99 per cent children, over half of them boys, reported that were victims of physical violence. One in 12 children, a majority being boys, reported that were suffering under sexual violence. It is, indeed, a staggering fact that half of our Indian population has encountered abuse before becoming adults.

[44] Op. cit., endnote 9

[45]  It is necessary to account for rapes that occur on a day to day basis, and thus, constitute what the average or lay people experience as rape. As argued above, these constitute the majority of rapes in our society, and have a definitive sexual content because the average perpetrator of this assault is looking for sexual gratification. But what of rapes which can be easily identified as ‘power rapes’, i.e. rapes which occur in the context of military conquests, forceful occupation, insurgency, counter-insurgency, civil war, racial/casteist backlash, etc.? The first point to note here is that within such contexts, rape is occurring in conditions which are unlike the average conditions prevailing in society, and hence, these rapes constitute only a particular component of total rapes in our society. More importantly, even in such cases, rape is about sex because it is an act which is not merely an expression of hostility and revenge, but is also a product of the extreme vulnerability of the captive/politically and socially subjugated women, as well as of the impunities offered to men during war/conflict.

[46] By failing to present a cultural critique of capitalism and its influence on human behavior, the Left has allowed the space for right-wing forces to consolidate support amongst the masses. The right-wing discourse on ‘westernization’, ‘consumerism’, etc., which is based on a reified notion of modern culture that is detached from prevailing class stratification in society, has successfully touched a raw nerve amongst the majority who are otherwise disoriented by socio-economic inequality and by the hedonism of the rich. In reality, this (oppressed) majority which is easily influenced by the right-wing, stands in opposition to the (protesting) middle class which is influenced by certain feminist views. The challenge for the Left is that it must present a critique of the cultural, sexual and social impact of capitalism so as to, on the one hand, wean away the majority from the clutches of the right-wing, and on the other, prevent the consolidation of feminist politics within the middle class.

[47] Amongst these so-called Left organizations are the “new” socialists who have recently resolved to “change the language of Left”. See the leaflet released by New Socialist Initiative on the occasion of their Founding Conference, 22-24 February, 2013. It is precisely in tune with such visions of (class-eliding, eclectic) politics that some have been recently propagating a “new” (pub)socialism, whereby, pubs are sought to be made affordable for poor people, who can use the space, now and then, to stop feeling poor all the time. See, Amrapali Basumatary (2013), ‘Come Frolic with Me in the Streets of Delhi’, www.kafila.org, 5 January, accessed on 3 February 2013. The piece was republished in ‘Critique’, March 2013 which was released by New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Delhi University. Amrapali Basumatary suggested that massively subsidized pubs to which all classes will have access, can be a truly emancipatory project as it will allow the poor to let down their hair “once in a while without feeling poor”. Her argument was based on eliding, altogether, the issue of class divisions and resulting equalities. To this effect, note her assertion that, “freedom cannot be and is not limited to the issue of ‘national shame/pride’ or class” (emphasis added). Clearly, it is assumed here that by uniting all classes on the issue of fighting the taboo associated with drinking, the sharp contradictions in their interests will resolve themselves and lead to a better life for all. In other words, poor men and women can then stop feeling denied and agitated about their social, sexual and economic inequalities vis-à-vis the upper classes; leading, presumably to less barbaric desires to assault women who enjoy a better lifestyle (!)

[48] Certain writers who have been closely observing the feminist movement have come with certain terms, which according to them encapsulate some of the worrying trends in feminism. See, Melody Hoffman (2010), “Teaching with Feminist Contradictions: The Debate of Dress in Theory and Practice”, http://www.academia.edu/632987/Teaching with_Feminist_Contradictions_The_Debate_of_Dress_in_Theory_and_Practice, accessed on 29 January 2013. Hoffman coins the terms “girlie” feminists for those who resort explicitly to hyper-feminine dressing and behavior as an expression of ‘feminist’ action. Also see Ariel Levy (2005), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and Launch of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press). Levy has coined terms like “female chauvinists” and “raunch” culture to explain the growing trend of ‘power’ feminism.

[49]  Nancy Fraser (2009), “Feminism, Capitalism and The Cunning Of History,” New Left Review, vol. 56: 110.

[50] The feminist movement has been continuously critiqued across the world for such a reading of social reality and its concomitant mobilizations. Much of this criticism has come from marginalized groups of women (Afro-American women, Hispanic women, Dalit women, etc.) or from Marxist organizations that have questioned the predominance of gender as a rallying point. Communists, in particular, point out that the problem with feminism is not that it talks of men-women equality – something which even communists are committed to – but that it particularizes this aspiration which leads to parcelization of society between men and women. See Clara Zetkin (1896), Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, http://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1896/10/women.htm. Also see Alexandria Kollantai (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question, http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm

[51] See, Rachel P. Maines (1989), The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).

[52] Ariel Levy (2005), Op. Cit., endnote 48

[53] See, Naomi Wolf (1993), Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It (New York: Random House). Wolf propagates that “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex-oppression”, but in actual terms her ‘grow rich’ line simply caters to the needs of upward mobile middle-class women.

[54] See, Sreenanti Banerjee (2013), “Sexual Violence, Consumer Culture and Feminist Politics – Rethinking the Critique of Commodification,” 03 FEBRUARY, www.kafila.org, accessed on 11 March 2013.

[55] See, Sheila Jeffreys (2005), Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (New York and India: Routledge). Here Jeffreys argues how a cultural imperialism spearheaded by the international beauty industry has imposed harmful practices which are popular amongst wealthy women of developed and developing countries, on non-elite sections of women across the world.

[56] Audre Lorde (2000), “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Women,” in Wendy Komar and Frances Bartkowski, eds., Feminist Theory: A Reader, p. 292.

[57] See, Lynn Phillips (2000), Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination (New York: NYU Press). Many of the young women interviewed during this research revealed that most of their sexual encounters were for men’s sexual pleasure rather than meeting any desire of their own.

[58] How capitalism is influencing our lives, including the most intimate part of it is well documented in Arlie Hochschild (2003), The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings (Berkeley: University of California Press). Also see A. Hochschild (2003), The Commercialisation of Intimate Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[59] As captured uncensored in many of the slogans which erupted during the anti-rape protests, such as pub jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to pubs), marji ke kapde pehenne ki ya na pehenne ki azaadi (freedom to wear what one wants or not wear anything), disc jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to discos), and piney ki bhi azaadi (freedom to drink whenever, wherever).

Historical Materialism, Delhi: Legal Marxism Redux

M.S. Khan and Madan Singh

The HM conference in New Delhi, India, is the arch-example of sanitising Marxism and academicising it. The purported promotion of the “new cultures of the left” is nothing but an attempt to sanitise Marxism of its dirty old history in India and elsewhere, and present it to the liberal conscience of western academic tourists in Marxism in the manner that suits their taste. Initially, it proposed to base itself on a virulently anti-communist group of postmodern journo-academics in India. The danger of de-legitimation (of course, who would like to lose their brand name and business) and to provide space to radical international tourists and NRIMs (Non-resident Indian Marxists) forced it to tone down such alignment. As a result, we have an eclectic assortment of non-serious social democrats, NGO-secular-civil liberty activists, poor academics and perpetually passive learners ready to line up to welcome international Historical Materialists.

The recent vocalisation of an open dissociation with the Socialist Workers Party of Britain by the organisers of HM, Delhi, further reveals their desperation to satisfy and bridge liberal consensuses of the West and India. And the last straw in this regard was the withdrawal of their invitation to Alex Callinicos, perhaps the only Trotskyist in whom genuine Marxist activists in India find some ‘cultural’ affinity. This was obviously done to appease the disgruntled pocos, who were lately alienated from the organising committee. As they are on the lookout to find opportunity to vent their frustration of not having been included in this gala event, this was done to preclude any disturbance from their side.

If Marxism or historical materialism is able today to find an important place in academia, it means two things – one, that the capitalist apparatuses have conceded to the pressures from below, and two, in this concession they have been able to sanitise it of its anti-systemic roots and have found tools that would help them in reproducing capitalist ideologies and social relations. The ideological Marxism that academia produces is a form of Marxism that is entrenched within the disciplinary divides that help capitalism to control and regulate knowledge production.

The endeavour the HM conference in Delhi signifies has nothing to do with revolutionary politics insofar as theory in revolutionary politics is about being implicated in thinking the strategic orientation of movements in their socio-historical concreteness. This is precisely the modality of operation of theory in revolutionary working-class politics. Even theory in its bare philosophical abstraction, when its practice is internal to such politics, is meant to be in a dialectical articulation with the concrete political methods (tactics if you will) of socio-historically determinate movements, and are thus meant to clarify the strategy of praxis in seeking to be reconstituted with programmatic accuracy in the concrete tactical specificities of those movements. All this, in order to actualise the generality of the principle of revolutionary-proletarian politics.

Practitioners of radical, actually revolutionary, theory should always remember that their kind of theory cannot be a discursive articulation of tactics or the epistemology that frames the programmatic articulation of such tactics. And yet, revolutionary theory is not outside methods whose open constellation is the enactment and expression of that theory. Clearly, only when theory grasps itself as being internal to its constitutive methods does it become revolutionary. Methods that actualise theory while simultaneously interrupting this actualisation, thereby clearing the way for its refoundation. And this exercise in its continuously unfolding entirety is praxis.

This dialectical continuity between theory and practice – or philosophy and epistemology, or strategy and tactics, or concept and subject – if and when it becomes uninterrupted (by sublating its various inevitable punctuations) in practical materiality amounts to the actuality of praxis or actuality of revolution/communism. “Communism as the real movement” (Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) or “revolution in permanence” (Marx in The Class Struggles in France). In Marxism, theory is not – like Kant’s “categorical imperative”– a norm for the governing of practice. Rather, it is, or should be at any rate, the herald of practice to come. One which will abolish theory by realising it and thereby become praxis, which is a higher and radically different ontological level of actuality, positivity and the concrete than the finite empiricism (and positivism) of mere practice.  This is what is often referred to as the “future-anteriority” of Marx’s historical-materialist approach to praxis.

That is, however, not to contend academically-turned Marxism has no analytical connect whatsoever with really-existing movements in their historical concreteness, and is consumed solely by the ethics of theory or, which is pretty much the same thing, conceptual abstractions pertaining only to the internal  architecture of discursive formations. Of course, that has, more or less, been the orientation, if not the methodological protocol, of Critical Theory founded almost as a disciplinary paradigm. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable and ever-growing section of critical theorists who are equally exercised by the question of historically concrete movements. But even for them such historically concrete social and political movements as objects of analysis are meant, at best, to be occasions of inquiring into and demonstrating how those movements constitute the determinate actualisation and thus the limit of proletarian revolutionary praxis. The next step of how that praxis, as an excess of such historical limits, can be reconstituted as a constellation of specific socio-historical subjects — which can be posed only in the shape and register of a concrete programme of action and guidelines for the enforcement of that programme – is clearly beyond the remit of their theoretical practice. And it’s precisely this academicised Marxist modality of reflection and analysis of movements that would arguably be on display at the various panels meant to discuss Kashmir, Nepal, the Maoist-led tribal movements in central and eastern India, the recent workers’ upsurge in the industrial belt of National Capital Region and the like at the Historical Materialism conference here. For, even the best and the most well-intentioned among the panelists — their numbers are few and far between — engage with their objects of analysis as no more than sympathetic ethnographers. Their outside support for such movements eventually shirks the ultimate responsibility of plunging into the practical materiality of movements. A move, which if made through the immersion of their analytical engagement with those movements into the practicality of the latter, would render their analyses and the approach that underpins them to become the sublated constitutivity of programmes of those movements in question. That would not only rid their theory of its academicism but also simultaneously enrich the movements in question with the spirit of revolutionary generalisation, thereby enabling the revolutionary praxis constitutive of those movements to tend towards overcoming the historical limits imposed on them. Limits that inevitably tend to hypostatise the movemental materiality of revolutionary praxis into overgeneralising sectarianism at the level of practice and pragmatic epistemological fetishism at the level of theory.

The remit of critical theory that prevents it from straying beyond its own prettified gardens into the dank and malodorous world of really-existing politics that lie beyond them is, needless to say, imposed on practitioners of such theory by the position that is constitutive of the way they envisage their theoretical practice as an untainted and untaintable outside to the historically concrete social and political movements. Such a conception of theoretical practice and its actual operation – which is constitutive of the academicisation of radical theory in general and Marxism in particular – stems from the purist and puritanical yearning of its practitioners to evade in advance the vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors, which engaging with such really existing movements by being integral to their respective agencies of practice inevitably brings. Clearly, they know, or care to know, nothing about the revolutionary virtue of risking all that taint by going through those vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors of practicality in order to extenuate them in practice. Nor do they remember, drunk as they are on their ephemeral status of being philosopher-kings, that the foundational logic of their academicised theoretical practice is precisely a restoration of the effete Young Hegelian legacy of “critical criticism” or “critical philosophy” that Marx systematically demolished to establish the rigorous scientificity of critique of political economy as practical critique.

However, to explain away academicisation of Marxist theory merely in terms of such motivations of a group or section of intellectuals would be sheer psychologism unbecoming of a complete and rigorous Marxist analysis of the same. We need to understand the structural condition of possibility – structural causality if you will – of such psychological motivations to turn Marxism from a revolutionary theory for revolutionary practice into an accommodated, and impotent ideology. To effectively combat such academicisation, of which HM, Delhi, not unlike Legal Marxism in late 19th century Russia, is a typical exemplar, we must recognise it for what it really is: a symptom of the conjunctural crisis of both Marxist theory and revolutionary working-class movements. This crisis, which is currently manifest as movements without theory and theory without movements, has arisen from the shifting of the conjunctural regime from that of embedded liberalism to that of neoliberalism. Due to this shift, the theoretical recognition of the revolutionary subject lags behind its recomposition, which has devastated the forms of organisation – both political and conceptual. In such circumstances, we are confronted with, to paraphrase Gramsci, a monstrosity: a conceptually elevated theory that has emerged, in lieu of the yet-to-be-born revolutionary subject, by making the cognitive abstraction of negativity and critique into an autonomous ground from where it preaches to the impotent revolutionary subject of the earlier conjuncture and berates it for its expected lapses as if that ground were a transhistorical tribune of revolutionary reason.

So, what we have today by way of Marxism as revolutionary praxis is not a dialectical unity but a duality of two mutually competing ideologies – pragmatism (of movements under the leadership of various shades and sects of the party-left) and subjective-idealism (that goes under the name of critical theory). In such a situation, we have the party-left tendencies rejecting the academicised style of theoretical practice of academic Marxists as a psychological impulse of some individual intellectuals and the groups they comprise while engaging with the theoretical products of those academic Marxists by seeking to instrumentalise them. The party-leftists believe this to be their critical stance vis-à-vis academicised radical theory. But this attitude, in reality, amounts to no more than the playing out of the objective logic of competition and split between the theoretical subjectivity of analysis and the practical objectivity of movement, one in which the domination of the latter by the former is implicitly an established fact. Something that has reinforced and reproduced the capitalist logic of social relations within the twinned-domain of Marxist theory and working-class movements, thereby significantly undermining the radical tenor and orientation of revolutionary proletarian praxis. This hierarchical split between theory and movements has also meant that such academicised Marxism is no longer a constitutive theoretical moment of revolutionary praxis but is a reified analytic that, therefore, is destined to do no more than engage in a competitive war of one-upmanship with other non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist radical-theoretical analytics. That is clearly revealed by the liberal eclecticism that has gone as much into the making of the organisational core of the Delhi edition of the Historical Materialism conference as the conference itself. And the unsavoury controversy that has dogged the organising of the conference, what with a few pocos and semi-pocos, who had initially been part of that eclectically composed core of conference organisers, reportedly walking out of it in a huff, and threatening to boycott and even disrupt the proceedings further substantiates our charge on that score. That a good number of such pocos, semi-pocos, and non- and anti-Marxists are still very much part of both the conference and its organisational core, even as some of their friends who have abandoned it are now attacking the conference from the outside, reveals that the logic of competitive one-upmanship constitutes a marketplace of ideas which commodified academic trends share with each other in order to be part of the process of outcompeting one another. In that sense, the eclectically organised core of the conference, the conference itself and its so-called detractors on the outside are one extended continuum of academic capitalism. So much so that it would not be inaccurate to title this soap opera of a conference the ‘Extended Family of Histo-Mat and its Inner Feuds’.

This competitive co-habitation of academicised Marxism with other non- and anti-Marxist academic trends under the aegis of Historical Materialism, Delhi, is a travesty of critical dialogue the former claims to be engaged in with the latter. The only stake such Marxism has in its engagement with those other theoretical tendencies (read analytics/ideologies) is accommodation in the marketplace of ideas in competitive co-existence with all other kinds of discursive commodities. Need we tell these Marxist industrialists and their non-Marxist academic compatriots that their unctuous and self-important claims of a holding ‘critical dialogue’ among themselves can delude none for long save such sell-outs and hustlers as themselves?  Critical dialogue, they ought to be reminded, is polemical communication, not competition. One that constitutes radical antagonism between the horizons of commodification and the politics of decommodification, effecting radical separation between them.

Marx on Capital Punishment

London, Friday, January 28, 1853

The Times of Jan. 25 contains the following observations under the head of “Amateur Hanging”:

“It has often been remarked that in this country a public execution is generally followed closely by instances of death by hanging, either suicidal or accidental, in consequence of the powerful effect which the execution of a noted criminal produces upon a morbid and unmatured mind.”

Of the several cases which are alleged by The Times in illustration of this remark, one is that of a lunatic at Sheffield, who, after talking with other lunatics respecting the execution of Barbour, put an end to his existence by hanging himself. Another case is that of a boy of 14 years, who also hung himself.

The doctrine to which the enumeration of these facts was intended to give its support, is one which no reasonable man would be likely to guess, it being no less than a direct apotheosis of the hangman, while capital punishment is extolled as the ultima ratio of society. This is done in a leading article of the “leading journal.”

The Morning Advertiser, in some very bitter but just strictures on the hanging predilections and bloody logic of The Times, has the following interesting data on 43 days of the year 1849:

Executions of: Murders and Suicides:
Millan March 20 Hannah Sandles March 22
M. G. Newton March 22
Pulley March 26 J. G. Gleeson — 4 murders at Liverpool March 27
Smith March 27 Murder and suicide at Leicester April 2
Howe March 31 Poisoning at Bath April 7
W. Bailey April 8
Landick April 9 J. Ward murders his mother April 13
Sarah Thomas April 13 Yardley April 14
Doxey, parricide April 14
J. Bailey kills his two children and himself April 17
J. Griffiths April 18 Charles Overton April 18
J. Rush April 21 Daniel Holmsden May 2

This table, as The Times concedes, shows not only suicides, but also murders of the most atrocious kind, following closely upon the execution of criminals. It is astonishing that the article in question does not even produce a single argument or pretext for indulging in the savage theory therein propounded; and it would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to establish any principle upon which the justice or expediency of capital punishment could be founded, in a society glorying in its civilization. Punishment in general has been defended as a means either of ameliorating or of intimidating. Now what right have you to punish me for the amelioration or intimidation of others? And besides, there is history — there is such a thing as statistics — which prove with the most complete evidence that since Cain the world has neither been intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment. Quite the contrary. From the point of view of abstract right, there is only one theory of punishment which recognizes human dignity in the abstract, and that is the theory of Kant, especially in the more rigid formula given to it by Hegel. Hegel says:

“Punishment is the right of the criminal. It is an act of his own will. The violation of right has been proclaimed by the criminal as his own right. His crime is the negation of right. Punishment is the negation of this negation, and consequently an affirmation of right, solicited and forced upon the criminal by himself.” [Hegel, Philosophy of Right]

There is no doubt something specious in this formula, inasmuch as Hegel, instead of looking upon the criminal as the mere object, the slave of justice, elevates him to the position of a free and self-determined being. Looking, however, more closely into the matter, we discover that German idealism here, as in most other instances, has but given a transcendental sanction to the rules of existing society. Is it not a delusion to substitute for the individual with his real motives, with multifarious social circumstances pressing upon him, the abstraction of “free-will” — one among the many qualities of man for man himself! This theory, considering punishment as the result of the criminal’s own will, is only a metaphysical expression for the old “jus talionis” [the right of retaliation by inflicting punishment of the same kind] eye against eye, tooth against tooth, blood against blood. Plainly speaking, and dispensing with all paraphrases, punishment is nothing but a means of society to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions, whatever may be their character. Now, what a state of society is that, which knows of no better Instrument for its own defense than the hangman, and which proclaims through the “leading journal of the world” its own brutality as eternal law?

Mr. A. Quételet, in his excellent and learned work, l’Homme et ses Facultés, says:

“There is a budget which we pay with frightful regularity — it is that of prisons, dungeons and scaffolds…. We might even predict how many individuals will stain their hands with the blood of their fellow men, how many will be forgers, how many will deal in poison, pretty nearly the same way as we may foretell the annual births and deaths.”

And Mr.Quételet, in a calculation of the probabilities of crime published in 1829, actually predicted with astonishing certainty, not only the amount but all the different kinds of crimes committed in France in 1830. That it is not so much the particular political institutions of a country as the fundamental conditions of modern bourgeois society in general, which produce an average amount of crime in a given national fraction of society, may be seen from the following table, communicated by Quételet, for the years 1822-24. We find in a number of one hundred condemned criminals in America and France:

Age Philadelphia France
Under twenty-one years 19 19
Twenty-one to thirty 44 35
Thirty to forty 23 23
Above forty 14 23
Total 100 100

Now, if crimes observed on a great scale thus show, in their amount and their classification, the regularity of physical phenomena — if as Mr. Quételet remarks, “it would be difficult to decide in respect to which of the two” (the physical world and the social system) “the acting causes produce their effect with the utmost regularity” — is there not a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones?

Courtesy: marxists.org

Non-market socialism: Life Without Money – An Interview with Anitra Nelson

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (Pluto Press, London, 2011) that Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman have edited is a remarkable collection on the praxis of non-market socialism. For the contributors of the volume, socialism/communism is not just a state or goal which we have to achieve in some distant future; rather, it is built through immediate practices that reject capitalism and its key institutions – market and money. They regard the manipulation of these institutions for their gradual transcendence to be deceptive, as “the market system, and its quasi-god money, is a strong barrier to the political and cultural reforms needed to establish socialism.” The volume critiques the reduction of socialist revolution to combinatorics of state power and economic reformism.

The following discussion with Anitra Nelson, one of the editors of the volume, tries to bring out the chief tenets of non-market socialism, providing an insight into the politics of diverse experiences in this regard. Prof Nelson teaches at RMIT University in Melbourne (Australia) and has been active in the women’s liberation, peace, disability, environmental and solidarity movements. One of her previous works, Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (Routledge, London, 1999), is considered to be an important contribution in the Marxist critique of political economy. 


Pratyush Chandra (PC): Life Without Money? Isn’t the title itself sufficiently utopian? In fact, the whole collection seems to present an explicit defence of the utopian element in the socialist project. How do you relate this utopianism to the scientificity that the critique of political economy claims? Aren’t we being prescriptive, which Marx tried to avoid all his life?

Anitra Nelson (AN): These are familiar, provocative questions worth a detailed response. Your first three questions imply that being utopian is negative and against the scientific method employed by Marx, while the last one indicates that Marx avoided being prescriptive and so we should as well. Let’s acknowledge that the terms ‘utopian’, ‘scientific’ and ‘prescriptive’ all point to Marxian controversies associated with conflicting interpretations of Marx. I will discuss them in turn as a way of elaborating on our interpretation of Marx and the way we need to address current environmental and political challenges that we face as a global community. But, first, let me briefly describe our book and the position it advocates.

Life Without Money

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies has ten contributors advocating a non-market socialist position to address our current crises, i.e. in order to realise socialism we need to dispense with money and markets as a fundamental strategy and not simply expect money and markets to evaporate eventually as a result. The collection argues why we need to pursue this strategy as well as how we might do it, by offering some practical examples and theoretical visions. I initiated the project. Co-editor Frans Timmerman and I co-wrote two chapters and I was the sole author of a third. Some of the responses in this interview draw on an unpublished paper, ‘Money or socialism’ that we presented at the Historical Materialism Australasia Conference, held 20 July 2012 in Sydney. You can read more about the book and its contributors in the book’s website.

Non-market socialism

We decided that a non-market socialist position needed to be promoted urgently because humans have laid the basis for our extinction using capitalist practices and thinking. The recent rise in intensity, frequency and scope of natural disasters is linked substantially to climate change. Human beings cannot live with even a small rise in their body temperature, and any variation around the average tends to involve debilitating symptoms. Similarly, the earth is changing itself to cope with global warming in ways that will make our environments hostile to our continued existence as a species. We believe that the results of these changes will produce dramatic effects in years, not just decades or by the end of the century.

We see non-market socialism as the only way to address the combined crises we face, which are results of a capitalist system based in production for trade, relying on monetary accounting and exchange. This system contorts and confuses the values, relationships and structures that ideally exist between people and between people and nature. At the heart of the capitalist system is the practice and concept of money as a measure, even a god. The structure and relations of capital are impossible without the practice and concept of money as a general all-purpose means of exchange and unit of account. Capital is money that begets more money.  Thus monetary values come to dominate social and environmental values in more and more intensive and expansionary ways. The modern state arises as a handmaiden to capital. We buy and we vote; we are servants to both.


I always love the questions that pose that we are utopian, using ‘utopian’ pejoratively and referring to Marx to support their position. The irony of this attack is that Marx argued against what he called utopian socialists, such as Proudhon, specifically because they did not appreciate that capital evolves from money as a chicken does from an egg. Invariably those suspicious of a non-market socialist line — because they think money is okay and believe that Marx thought money was okay — call us utopians while Marx would have called them utopians! However, I do not look at Marx as a god. So, I am not appealing to Marx’s words here as evidence of the truth, or as a matter of faith. It just so happens I agree with Marx’s analysis in this instance. Furthermore, I believe his concept of money embodies some of the strongest insights responsible for making his wider analysis relevant to us today.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 126) starts Capital I by examining the ‘cell’ of capitalism, the commodity, which is both a use value and an exchange value. He immediately unpacks the contrast between the qualities or purposes of a good or service, its use value, and its exchange value, which is a ‘quantitative relation’. Use values can be expressed as implicit quantities, such as human beings, who can be weighed in kilograms and measured in centimetres and compared with one another. But commodities are brought into a relationship with one another on the market through their exchange value, their price, with money as the ‘common denominator’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 28). It is clear then that money as a unit of account is not at all a measure but rather some kind of variable standard.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 89–90) considered this introduction would challenge the reader and ‘present the greatest difficulty’ because ‘the commodity-form of the product of labour’ and ‘value-form of the commodity’ took the ‘money-form’. As for money, Marx (1976 [1867]: 90) wrote that ‘the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it’. Thus, amongst others, Althusser (1971) counselled workers/readers to skip the first couple of chapters. I think that this was probably the worst possible advice. Instead the advice should be to dwell on these chapters, which — as autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver ably shows in his 1979 work Reading Capital Politically — provide the building blocks for a revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism.

Careful reading of Part I of Capital I (1976 [1867]) and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) avoid the ridiculous conclusion that money is not a problem, only capital is. Marx opposed those who seemed to think that they could simply redefine money, issue it on different terms, regulate it in new ways, or give goods and services ‘prices’ at a distribution centre or before they reached the market (a contradiction in terms). He started his analysis of capital with money and commodities because he thought many socialists and political economists had underestimated the role of money. Yet, in actual fact, money was both the ‘ultimate product of commodity circulation’ and simultaneously ‘the first form of appearance of capital’ (Marx 1976 [1867]: 247). Proudhon, for instance, thought the social system could be altered by monetary and price reform. Marx said democratization of credit was impossible because capitalists exploit and control workers by using money, credit and debt.

In other words, if Marx were here today, he would be questioning, like we do, those socialists who only see money as a neutral tool or ineffectual form rather than appreciate that money is at the basis of practices that developed and maintain class and private property.


Marx’s dialectical approach not only allows but also demands a holistic appreciation of context, relational dynamics and transparent values. In this approach form and content can be analysed distinctly only within an overarching acknowledgement of their integration. For instance, the ‘money form’ is of, with and by the content of capital. His scientism was a call for boldness and bravery in social and political analysis. He sought the spare, essential patterns that explained economic dynamics and he engaged with the model that evolved, whatever it might imply. As a non-market socialist I would ask other Marxists to be scientific in this sense and consider whether it is simply too much of a challenge, too inconvenient, to contemplate the task of disassembling a world rotating on money.


Both the theory and practice of filmmaking and screenwriting refer constantly to ‘point of view’ (POV). The easiest example of POV is the location, slant and scope of a camera on subjects and scene. As political activists we are often poised like the cinematographer and camera within a POV. Marx positioned himself very firmly within the values of an alternative world to capitalism — whether we call it communism, socialism or anarchism hardly matters — and wrote his analyses from that POV.

Whether Marx was prepared to admit it or not this POV was, in itself, prescriptive and determined his specific dialectical method of being ‘scientific’. Not only that but a major part of his empirical and conceptual analyses, and the constant praxis operating between the two, was determined by the challenges of, and implications for, revolutionary strategies. He made no apologies for prescription here. Indeed this focus was the centre of his political and intellectual life. He and his wider family’s involvement in the rise and fall of the Paris Commune is a prime example. The rudders in his practical and theoretical approaches were essentialism and minimalism, to get to a socialist society as quickly and easily as possible.

It is true that there are points in Marx’s analysis where he gets out of explaining how a principle or criterion of socialism might operate in practice by saying, ‘Don’t you worry about that, they’ll work it out.’ Furthermore, he cautions theorists against creating blueprints which might deprive socialists of making decisions about what they do and how they do it because this act contradicts or undermines the democratic authority socialism embodies as self-governance. He has faith in socialist problem-solving once the structures, relations and values are firmly in place. By implication planned socialism, its centrist organisation and bounded markets would seem at odds with Marx’s perspective.

Marx had no quibbles at all in continuously engaging with contemporary prescriptions. His main points here were to do with breaking with money per se, rather than thinking that all you had to do was to ‘tinker’ with it and achieve large-scale change, let alone revolution. Marx’s analyses of existing experiments, such as workers’ cooperatives and labour money, assessed their (in)capacity to fulfil the principles of decision-making being transparent and just, and production efficiently and effectively satisfying social needs. Today, non-market socialists make the same points about the plethora of half-baked schemes — fair trade, carbon trading, community currencies and so on — that cannot lead to socialism unless they go hand-in-hand with political movements to erode capitalism, private property, and create a global commons focusing on production for everyone’s basic needs. Of course, many of those schemes do not profess to be socialist, mostly claiming to be on the way to either a higher stage of capitalism — developing ‘social capital’ or ‘natural capital’, terms that would drive Marx insane — or the more nebulous ‘postcapitalism’.

In short, we argue that we must unpack the terms of what postcapitalism might be to become conscious and deliberate collaborative managers of our co-existence. If this discussion is unfairly labelled discourses on utopia or prescriptive, so be it.

PC: The pragmatic socialists have always viewed money, exchange and the market important as transitional tools to achieve socialism. But, in your vision, this reduction of money to a mere tool also seems to obstruct any meaningful imagination of sustainable post-capitalism. Do you think the problems of market socialism and the social-democratic vision of socialism lie in their shared basic understanding of the meaning and power of money and market (and thus, capitalism)? What do you mean when you say, ‘the soundest critiques of capitalist developments need to be conducted in terms of use values’?

AN: Money and markets represent capitalist power, not only a vernacular of power, but also, and more importantly, existing material practice of power. We must recover that power over the means of our existence, over the conditions and practice of our existence. You cannot have capital without money. You cannot have abstract labour or labour for wages without money. Especially people who have no money understand that money is not a neutral tool, it’s a form of control. Capitalists are defined by money, their power is monetary power, their logic is a market-based logic. If our strategies for confronting, undermining and overwhelming capital are based in these simple facts, it is not hard to challenge the system. Non-market socialism is pragmatic.

In as much as market socialists and social-democratic socialists support market processes and mechanisms, I think that they share a basic misunderstanding of monetary and market practices and how they constitute capitalism. Twentieth century examples of centrally planned and market-oriented socialism, best described as state capitalism, clearly failed to democratise power and, in many ways their systems of production and distribution mimicked capitalist work and consumption. Socialist managers seemed to use market models as instruments of power to control the masses much as we are contained in capitalism. For me, socialism must mean sharing power, the power to decide what is produced, how it is produced and for whom. Socialism must be state-free and class-free because states and classes represent exclusive power.

Many critiques of capitalism highlight the contradictions between, on the one hand, economic values and dynamics and, on the other hand, the embodied social and environmental use values of resources, workers, goods and services. Many environmental and social activist campaigners appeal to a logic of use values rather than exchange values to advocate their position. For instance, they will argue that an old-growth forest has more use values and reproductive and sustainable potential to the communities that rely on it for all their basic needs, such as food, potable water, shelter, clothing and medicines, than its use for making profits for a multinational conglomerate that plans to clearfell the trees, sell them for timber, let or help the remaining forest ecosystem die, and replace it all with a tree farm. Similarly, anti-nuclear campaigners will argue that the industry is unnecessary to fulfil people’s basic needs and a risk to their wellbeing and livelihoods, while the nuclear industry will argue that it will create ‘clean’ energy to sustain growth, jobs and profits. These examples contrast arguments based in use values and those based on exchange values.

In as much as the Left continues to consciously and conscientiously argue and propose options that are based on a logic of use values we can offer a clear and unequivocal alternative to capitalism. Once we start to try to convince capitalists and the state to be more environmentally and socially sound using arguments based on economic values — ‘You can make more money this way’; ‘Why not trade in environmental values?’ — we are lost.

Again, the first couple of chapters of Capital I (1976 [1867]) — and earlier drafts of similar material in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) and the Grundrisse (1973 [1857–8]) — show how important the concept of use value was to Marx’s concept of work for capital and the importance he gave to the obfuscation of use values through commodity fetishism. On the one hand, labour becomes standardised and interchangeable in the process of the production and exchange of commodities: ‘uniform, homogenous, simple labour’, ‘labour in which the individual characteristics of the workers are obliterated’, in short ‘abstract general labour’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 29 — italics in the original). On the other hand, the quantitative relation ultimately realised in the form of a price not only represents ‘materialised labour’ but also, in the same process, ‘the qualitative difference between their use values is eliminated’. The analytical groundwork for his subsequent analysis is to show us what use values are, despite their obliteration through work and production for money. They are all we need to exist. It is capitalist ideology that mystifies the significance of money and makes us believe in its necessity and efficiency instead of ourselves.

The alienation implicit in commodity production, in capitalism, in a good or service sold for money occurs via market processes, which:

  • obliterate the human agency, which has produced the commodity
  • objectify the socially necessary labour-time as value per se
  • through a price, define the commodity in terms of its social wealth, thereby eliminating any sense of the commodity’s use value.

In one stroke, within the first few pages of all these early works of Marx, we readily understand that workers, the subjects and objects of capital(ists), will experience the world in a market-filtered and dominated way. Capitalists cannot in practice appreciate environmental and social values. The system they employ reduces everything to a market assessment, a monetary value, a price.

Furthermore, Marx’s analysis shows the absurdity and risks of efforts to try to set prices, which today focuses on making prices reflect environmental values, as in carbon and water-trading schemes or pricing forests and other environmental ‘assets’. Similarly, it is pointless to calculate and try to institute wages for housework. In my opinion his painstaking ethnography around commodity production and exchange found at the start of Capital I and his earlier works is Marx at his finest. He reveals the absurdity of market values, alludes to the workings of the market as absolutely distinct from meeting basic human needs and the needs of ecological systems. The political conclusion is:

“The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and natural form.” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 173)

To institute socialism we only need to understand the potential, limitations and needs of a natural and built world held in commons along with the basic needs of humans — and share decision-making based on a discourse of use values and distinct measures appropriate to differing use values (Buick 1987). There is no need for a universal unit of account or means of exchange.

In his chapter on money, markets and ecology in Life Without Money, John O’Neill discusses the non-monetary thrust of Otto Neurath, who, a century ago, argued against Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek for an in natura socialist economy. In short, Neurath envisaged an economy based on use values, ecological and social values, that did not rely on any kind of standard for comparison, any universal measure, such as money. In tandem O’Neill, an ecological economist and political philosopher as well as a political economist, discusses deliberative democracy as a current that he thinks can offer ways for people to decide together what and how they produce and for whom.

Meanwhile, many socialists today fail to acknowledge the revolutionary significance of consciously acting, as well as thinking, on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Acknowledging money as a tool of power, rather than efficiency, and as the organising principle of capitalism points to revolutionary strategies which undermine capitalism non-violently and involve instituting direct democracy in the process. So, I do not reduce money to a ‘mere tool’ at all. Rather, I see it as omnipotent, so powerful in fact that even committed and passionate socialists can complain that they cannot envisage a socialist future without some kind of monetary framework or role for money and markets.  What a dictatorship of the imagination money and its market has wrought, that even its most ardent detractors cannot think outside their prison walls.

PC: The second half of the book discusses various experiences of building a moneyless future. However, don’t you think that the marginal and isolated nature of some of these experiences and their permissibility within capitalism dilutes their capacity to become models for a socialist future? Do you think Marx’s appreciative, yet cautionary, note on cooperatives in his various writings (e.g. The Inaugural Address to the First International) are valid for understanding the scope and limits of these experiences?

AN: Again, as it so happens, my stance is quite close to Marx’s. I too have been a longstanding critic of a range of movements that regard cooperatives and, say, the Parecon (participatory economics) models of Michael Albert and Robert Hahnel as embryonic or, worse still, fully fledged institutions of a socialist future. Specifically either integration within the market, which is the hallmark of many productive cooperatives, or use of quasi-monies — a labour voucher system in the case of Parecon — have problems that Marx pointed to. We do not condone either in Life Without Money and include a brief critique of an alternative exchange/currency LETS (labour exchange or local energy trading system) by Adam Buick.

I find the space-to-exist-within-capitalism argument somewhat self-defeating. Anyway, aren’t we referring more to a forcefully created space within which to resist capitalism? Does the fact that you and I are able to conduct this conversation freely within a capitalist society mean that nothing we say can be valid for a post-capitalist future? Of course not. We conduct this discussion in resistance and defiance of capitalism. We are isolated and marginalised because that is part of the game. It might seem weird for someone like me, who spent years on a painfully detailed and constructive critique of Marx’s concept of money, to say this but I prefer to make a stand in practice than to wax lyrical about pure theory. I prefer activity to text. I prefer creation to criticism. I tolerate — even enjoy — theory, text and criticism but only because they help me live and enable me to change the way I live. I want to do. To do is to be.

The practical examples that we discuss in our book are not offered as ready-made solutions but rather constructive ways to move if we are to realise socialism in the short amount of time we now have left to do so — in decades not centuries. We are already in a process of species suicide. We are already in a process of renewal of what it is to be human. We cannot afford to think in terms of a long-term plan or reformism, if only because of the haste with which we must move. It is fitting that we take the most accurate route. There will be a revolution or, literally, nothing left of our species. We try to identify, then, embryonic and/or hybrid forms, which allow us to begin right now and know that the way we are going is contributing to establishing and maintaining socialist values, socialist production and socialist exchange.

Two well-known examples discussed in our book are Twin Oaks community in Virginia (USA) and the squatting community Can Masdeu in Catalonia (Spain). Neither promote themselves as non-market socialist. In reality both communities are open to diverse philosophical beliefs. However, their practices and approaches are near enough to non-market socialism for us to use them in our analysis. They both eschew money and markets but could not exist without a negotiated existence within capitalism, the prison we all live in. They struggle to impose alternative values and practices within, alongside and usurping capitalism. They are not ghettos. They welcome visitors and attract enough to open spaces for ‘the public’ weekly, have visitors stay and hold workshops and other activities in partnership with local and global environmental and social activist campaigners.

In 2012, I spent three weeks at Twin Oaks, living like a member and six weeks in Barcelona exploring, not only Can Masdeu but also other communal experiments, such as the eco-industrial post-capitalist colony of Ca La Fou. To me they seem less marginal and isolated than many Marxists and anarchists, both those within and those outside their fragmented parties, scholarly academies and other institutions of resistance, which seem to have little impact on mainstream society. All that said, many members of these communities are, of course, socialists and/or anarchists! Twin Oaks community and Can Masdeu exist in the fluid, ad hoc and self-governing networks that made the Occupy movement possible on a global scale. The people who move in and out of them have not waited for agreement on a correct line. They have not waited for a revolution. I see their potential in two integrated spheres — creating productive and democratic structures separate from, and in competition to, capitalism.

PC: You have been involved in the intentional community movement in Australia. Can you give a brief account of your experience in terms of its significance and limitations?

AN: During the 1990s I lived in two communities. Commonground, located in central Victoria refers to itself as an intentional community along the style of a commune. In his From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia (1995: 140), Bill Metcalf referred to it as ‘the smallest, but also the most radical and dramatic, in this book’. Indeed, when I was there, it was self-organising on the basis of anarchist, feminist and socialist values. Twin Oaks had been an inspiration to one of the founders and certain ways that Twin Oaks operated were experimented with and instituted at Commonground. This included a ‘labour credit’ system — distinct from a labour voucher or quasi-money system — in which people elected to work on tasks that the community collectively deemed as work for a set number of hours per week.

Since Commonground had fewer than twenty people living there as members at that time, it was easy to timetable all the tasks that needed doing, then members and working visitors would select and negotiate their personal work schedule for the forthcoming week at a meeting held each Monday morning. Commonground owned almost 40 hectares of rural bush land, which gave it the opportunity to practise a modicum of sufficiency alongside its core mission to serve the social change movement. I relished my time there because it brought me into contact with so many people seeking social and environmental change, and the experience of communal life was overwhelmingly positive.

During my period at Commonground, and while I was completing my PhD on Karl Marx’s theory of money, the concept and practice of a common purse was being hotly contested within the community’s inner core. I witnessed the tensions that compromises with capitalism and a market mentality entailed as some core members argued for the cooperative mission to be fulfilled in a more business-like way, albeit a non-profit business. This was a struggle against principles of what I would later refer to as collective sufficiency — as distinct from individualised self-sufficiency — and environmental justice. The balance had always been in favour of social rather than environmental considerations. I found that hard to understand because, for me, environmental and social justice are — or can be — bound together. As I understand it, this fracture has been institutionalised within the community — as it is within the wider Left in Australia, of which it remains an active part.

After a couple of years’ living at Commonground — where everyone lived and worked under one roof — we sold the land that I owned jointly with them adjacent to their 40 hectare property, and I bought into Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative, located in a peri-urban or semi-rural enclave on the edge of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne. This cooperative was explicitly not an intentional community but rather was developed to preserve 132 hectares of box-ironbark woodlands while providing a site for housing for each of its shareholder-members. The members own the land as a cooperative, which determines the rules under which people build and live there, jointly managing the land for conservation purposes.

Given that you could not borrow money to build on the cooperative, potential membership seemed to be limited to the well-off, though to purchase a share with its house site attached cost less than 20 per cent of comparable land purchases in the area and many had built mud-brick homes using their own labour, making it accessible to DIY activists. Though some of the members had been communists and/or radical activists, this cooperative was more mainstream than Commonground. However, I was attracted by its environmental bent and its singular achievement of spreading many of its environmental practices to a wider landscape of more than 100 private properties in the form of regulations, which became an Environmental Living Zone under the state’s planning code in 1986. Despite its limitations I concluded that it had the potential to act as a transitional form between private property and holding the Earth as a commons. Although not the hothouse that Commonground was, the co-management of land demanded sophisticated skills in communications and decision-making, which was based as much as possible on consensus. However, after a serious car accident, I left mainly because it was not convenient to public transport and I needed to be closer to places I worked and socialised in.

PC: Do you find the question of building a ‘life without money’ emerging from class struggle itself? In contrast to the voluntarist stress on the escape from the logic of capital, is it not true that the central concern in Marxist theory of praxis has been to build upon the solidarity and coordination embedded in the daily ‘guerrilla struggle’ against capital and the increasing political and economic self-capacity of the working class?

AN: In short, yes to both questions. The best reference points here are those writing in the autonomous Marxist tradition. The third chapter in Life Without Money is by autonomous Marxist Harry Cleaver and focuses on working for money.

Cleaver emphasises that Marx had a labour theory not because he saw capitalism as the means to dominate people as workers and consumers. Capitalism redefines life as work: market-oriented production and consumption. Marx’s theory of alienation was a critique of capitalist work; socialism and communism meant freeing work from that perversion. Post-capitalism meant increasing our free time to enable a growth of individuality and humanity replacing labour as the source of value in society. Revolution meant workers’ gaining control of the means of production and making work meaningful through self-organised cooperation and collective self-realisation.

Cleaver attacks the standard socialist position that leads to work under socialism being much the same as under capitalism except that the state, not capitalist, extracts the workers’ surplus value:

“The primary difference is that in ‘socialist development’ government plans and organises most of the investment. From the Soviet Union’s extraction of an agrarian surplus to finance industrialisation to the current Venezuelan Government’s appropriation and reinvestment of oil profits, the process remains approximately the same no matter the rhetoric in which these processes are cloaked.” (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 48)

Moreover, the accumulation characteristic of twentieth century socialism meant that the sense of human diversity ‘implicit in Marx’s notion of the transcendence of labour value by an indeterminate free time has been both ignored and contradicted’ until, over the last few decades, some movements have revealed ‘the possibilities of real multilateralism in post-capitalist society’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 52). Cleaver celebrates our alternative socialist tradition of collective grassroots cooperation; as capitalism intervenes in and shapes people’s lives, they resist. If they resist on the basis of work refusal then ‘the struggles of those of us who are waged and the struggles of those of us who are unwaged are inherently related’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 60). Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically (1979) skilfully deconstructs class and re-elaborates class with capitalist money at the centre, thus embracing non-worker consumers and other structurally marginal people.

A non-market socialist position distances itself from any intense or central emphasis on worker cooperatives and schemes that compromise with the market or mimic capitalism. We prefer hybrid models, such as the temporary autonomous zone discussed by Bey (1985) and elaborated in Terry Leahy’s chapter in our book. Instituting a hybrid is a defiant and forthright challenge. It might focus on: expanding community gardens where there is decision-making on what is grown, how and where, as well as sharing work and produce; or squatting spaces and using ‘trash’ for art activism; or spreading crop and swap meets, holding them more and more frequently based on growing kinds of goods and services. These hybrids are not pure embryonic forms of a new society but rather act as half-way points stepping away from capitalism towards an holistic socialism. Monitoring and revising the operation of hybrids not only develops a clearer critique of capitalism but, more significantly, also enables us to be actively experimenting with being socialist. Such hybrids act as cells conscientiously working to overcome systemic barriers to greater networking between hybrids, with the potential to produce an holistic alternative future of expanding and interrelating hybrids. Developing more confidence in these alternative cells and networks we can withdraw more of our labour from the capitalist economy and polity — work refusal — and instead actively produce a new society.

PC: One of the most remarkable features of this collection is its readiness to traverse through various revolutionary traditions against capitalism. One tradition that finds space throughout the collection is that of anarchism and its various shades. How do you see the divergences and convergences between these two revolutionary traditions — of Marxism and anarchism? Further, you yourself admit that this collection can be seen as a sequel to Rubel and Crump’s volume on non-market socialism. Do you agree with Rubel’s characterisation of Marx as the theoretician of anarchism?

AN: My interpretation of Marx fits very comfortably with Maximilien Rubel’s. Though not in the first instance being conscious of the traditions that my interpretations of everyday life fell into, I too read Marx as if I were an anarcho-communist, non-market socialist or autonomous Marxist. In my twenties, I referred to myself as an anarcho-communist. While I was immediately attracted to anarchism’s open creativity and anti-state position, it always seemed too broad a church to me to support without qualification. Its representatives embraced the whole spectrum, the best and worst of political philosophies. Anyway, I had socialist values, so they came first and anarchism became the qualifier. This, of course, seemed to make me objectionable to most of my friends who neatly and commitedly kept to one camp or the other. That I was first and foremost a women’s liberationist only muddied the waters further. It is only when I chanced on the collection on non-market socialism by Rubel and Crump (1987) that I found my political home.

While they define non-market socialism as a market-free, money-free, class-free and state-free society, we add that non-market socialism needs to be want-free, sustainable and just as well. Yes, our book very much updates and expands on the Rubel and Crump collection. It is current and broad in its scope, whereas Rubel and Crump took a more historical approach, which makes their collection more fragmented and partial. The anarchist Terry Leahy wrote the chapter in Life Without Money on the gift economy, though his discussion is broad-ranging, his analysis drawing on permaculture, patriarchy and feminism.

The somewhat bad name of anarchists amongst socialists has to do with the diffuse nature of anarchist writings, their seemingly undisciplinary and joyfully undoctrinaire philosophies and anarchism’s attraction to charismatic, egotistic loose cannons. The conflict between Bakunin and Marx was to prove typical. However, in my lifetime, several connected pressures have forced a critical rapprochement. For those of us committed to environmental activism, amongst our politically sophisticated and experienced brethren, socialists proved very slow on the uptake and anarchists were more open supporters. Working from the grassroots demands a different style of politicking and creativity that anarchism can inform. Most importantly, the statism of the Marxist Left shackled its development while anarchism had done away with the state as a first principle.

PC: You have devoted considerable space in one of the initial chapters to developing a concise critique of the so-called actually existing socialisms and the debates around market and money during their revolutionary phases. You have endorsed Che Guevara’s attitude in Cuba against statisation, market and money. Can you summarise his vision of the socialist future as you understand it? How do you relate this with the questions of state and political power with which Che was always concerned as an armed revolutionary?

AN: In the early years of Soviet power the party elite seriously discussed instituting a moneyless economy. A debate occurred in Cuba also, in the mid-sixties, around whether and how to diminish the role of money. In neither Russia nor Cuba did the founding revolutionaries come to power with a clear theory or plan for how socialist exchanges might differ from market-based evaluation.

Many of the Russian leaders, such as Trotsky and Stalin, expected money would simply disappear almost of its own accord as communism developed (Bettelheim 1968: 60; Rosdolsky 1977: 130). In Russia they decided to abolish money but not monetary accounting. The debate on replacing a monetary unit of account with one based on labour, measured in time or energy, produced an enormous volume of literature in 1920–1921. It was influenced by the work of Austrian economist Otto Neurath, whose thoughts John O’Neill discusses in depth in his chapter of Life Without Money. Anyway, any advance to a moneyless communism was halted when all state industries were directed to follow principles of precise economic accounting, including demanding money for taxes as well as state-produced goods and services. While Lenin acknowledged that his New Economic Policy would ‘inevitably lead to… a revival of capitalist wage-slavery’, he defended it as a tactical retreat ‘to make better preparations for a new offensive against capitalism’ (Lenin 1976: 184­–5). I regard it a salutary lesson that this retreat solidified into a barrier to the advance of socialism.

I became particularly fascinated with the split that occurred between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, especially around economic matters and the question of ‘money’, in which I sided with Che, though I do not think he went far enough. Is that because he did not believe we had to do away with money completely, as non-market socialists believe, or because he was pushing his point about as far as he could at the time? At least Che appreciated that this was, at base, a political rather than an economic matter, pointing to the development of a substantively political democracy as the organising principle of society. Alas, at least publicly, he believed in a limited usefulness for a unit of account — which is the fundamental function of capitalist money — but his arguments here were practical, associated with international trade, rather than ideal. As it was, he failed in his limited attempt to reorient the revolutionary strategy. It is significant that he broke with the Cuban revolution at this time because it leaves hanging the question of his essential vision of socialism. I do not think that what is left in historical records can clear up some of these key points.

Che embraced Marx’s position that monetary values reflected abstract labour, not wants or available resources. Che said that prices set by state agencies were not market prices, that planning should not mimic market forces and the law of value, but instead consciously account for non-economic factors. Belgian economist and Marxist Ernest Mandel supported Che’s position that socialism negated monetary values and trading relations. However, Che lost the debate with Castro, who agreed with abolishing money ultimately but not immediately. Che’s vision of socialism was rooted in voluntary, passionate work and a new consciousness, free of the discipline of the market.

PC: Recent developments in Latin America have rejuvenated debates on revolutionary strategies everywhere, even among the Left in Australasia. The fabricas recuperadas movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, the barrios movement to establish popular control over urban resources in Venezuela, the rise in Indigenous assertion and power in Mexico and Bolivia and the landless workers’ movement in Brazil — all have redefined much of the older debates on social control, political organisations, state etc. Many Marxists in the autonomist tradition have affirmed and critically articulated the significance of these developments. Do you find any enrichment of the discourse on market and money, as central to socialist imagination, in these experiences?

AN: Yes, experimentation in DIY revolutions, being active in spaces of resistance, is basic to the thrust of non-market socialism. We all live under intensifying capitalism, and resistance can come in unexpected forms. While we are suspicious of state socialism, we must use whatever support we are offered to show that grassroots activity is the backbone of socialism. Joan Martinez-Alier reminded a class — who I spoke with about our book at the Summer School and Workshop on Political Ecology, Environmental Justice and Conflicts in Barcelona in July 2012 — that in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) people experimented with non-monetary exchange as well as collective production. As Allende’s Chile (1970–1973) fell to opposition forces, it was the same. As we take control of the forces of production and produce for a socialist future, then we must use our own values and distribution networks based on the logic of need and use values, not monetary values and the market.

Three contributors to Life Without Money participated in panels at the 2012 Left Forum in New York City: ecofeminist Ariel Salleh, Frans Timmerman and I. Key speakers at the Left Forum included Autonomous Marxist John Holloway, who lives in Mexico, and Marina Sitrin whose work on horizontalism (horizontalidad) in Latin America and the global Occupy movement is particularly relevant. An indication of the significance of the rejuvenation of non-monetary relations in everyday acts by Europeans in defiance of the global financial crisis is the Homage to Catalonia study led by Manuel Castells (Conill et al. 2010), some findings of which appear in his Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis (Castells et al. 2012).

The Occupy movement has been impressive if only because it has been so widespread, demonstrating a broad disenchantment with representative democracy and market economies right across the world. The general-assembly models, endorsement of horizontalism, direct engagement between crowds and speakers, the naming of the ‘1%’ against the ‘99%’ and the word ‘occupy’ identifying their chief demand has put capital in disarray and on alert. More than that, this movement is supported by many of those who are experimenting with production for direct use, alternative and gift exchange, and liberation from trade, consumption and exchange values.

PC: What is a compact society? You talk about collective sufficiency and networks, which connect the local with the global — thus establishing a global compact society. Can you explain the basics of this post-capitalist future, and how it will transform our needs and activities, and counter the negative impact on the environment?

AN: In Life Without Money, we elaborate a local–global compact society, not to lay down a hard and fast plan for a non-market socialist future but to stimulate people’s imaginations and counter those who regard it as impossible. Most significantly, for our activist practice, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going and how our different activities might ultimately constitute a socialist future. We want as many people as possible elaborating ideas of a post-capitalist future so we can argue, experiment and establish this society.

To distinguish ours, we needed to name it somehow. I liked the way that the word ‘compact’ worked in two directions, socio-political and the other environmental and material. The noun ‘compact’ refers to a social agreement and, used as an adjective, ‘compact’ is associated with efficiency and economy, referring to a condensed, small and efficient use of space. The concept of a compact world is one of multiple horizontal cells, which aim for relative collective sufficiency within neighbourhoods and bioregions, connected by networks of various sizes appropriate to their functions, with voluntarily created and agreed to compacts structuring the production and flow of goods and services. ‘Collective sufficiency’ is a term we coined to refer to material, basic-needs sufficiency evolving on the basis of a commons and people working together to ensure their communal sufficiency (in contrast to individuals or singular households developing ‘self-sufficiency’).

My concept of these cells owes much to the principles and design features of permaculture. ‘Permaculture’ — a movement starting in Australia but quickly taking root in various places globally — stands for permanent and sustainable culture, integrating human practices with natural processes to yield security in food and other basic needs (Holmgren 2003, 2012).

I was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA, 1920–1991) from the early 1980s to its dissolution ten years later. I was particularly attracted by the success of green bans led by CPA officials, especially Jack Mundey, and the builders unions’ who refused to work on developments that they deemed environmentally or socially unsound (Burgmann & Burgmann 2011). I had always been — and remain —particularly frustrated with the conservative role of unions in Australia and green union strikes and activism singularly broke that mould. These actions initiated the green bans movement worldwide. My mother was practising permaculture as a gardener in the 1980s. I became more attracted to it as an efficient and sustainable approach through my political activities, drawing on anti-state and anti-capital political discourses, and growing evidence of the accuracy of the analyses of 1970s social and environmental activists who initiated more environmentally sound approaches to life.

As a set of design principles and sustainability practice, and care-and-share values, permaculture readily indicates how productive cells might function. The permaculture movement is weaker in pre-visioning the how, i.e. the relationship base, of a global commons, non-monetary production and exchange. In other words many permaculturists imagine that it is simply a matter of the economic and political structures’ absorbing their values in a higher stage of capitalism. Even if they speak in terms of post-capitalism, there are still money and markets, non-profitable firms and representative government. In contrast, non-market socialism and the concept of a compact world introduce governance and economy as challenges still to be addressed.

We often get asked if a compact society is, in effect, a return to living in the cave. People are particularly mystified that any form of advanced technology could be possible without capitalism, the magic womb. Or, of course, they offer the one other path to the same ends: state socialism, whereby the state, robot-like, dictates the establishment and maintenance of large-scale machinery in its own image. In contrast, my approach to technology is one of minimalism. I support small and appropriate technology that is established and maintained on the basis that it does not cost the Earth too much and is efficient, meaning effective, socially. Examples include some forms of renewable energy and biomimicry. Use of computers and Internet needs to be transformed to end or involve only a miniscule amount of harmful substances, such as rare earth minerals and waste, and the ways they are made need to take account of the conditions and working styles of the people making them. Diversity and resilience are both enhanced by relatively autonomous collectively sufficient neighbourhoods and bioregions.

My political activities have been very personal, grounded in everyday life, mainly in environmental grassroots movements, which are open and exploratory, and my philosophy has evolved experientially. These experiences have given me confidence that: a grassroots revolution is possible; we can ‘take over’ the state by replacing its functions in an almost unrecognisable way because, as such, it functions mainly to support capital and a non-market socialist politics is embedded in people’s direct and immediate control, of the means of production and distribution; socialism must be modest and efficient and effective at a personal and neighbourhood level.

By seeing our basic human needs and the needs of the environment in direct, scientific and practical forms and then advancing to discussing options for just and sustainable futures in terms of such use values would be a real advance. Marx’s clear analysis, based as it was on use values — in contradiction to the political economists’ submersion in economistic terms and approaches — offers a clear way forward for the Left to reassert historical-materialist methods.



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Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

Pothik Ghosh

Demands for harsh and summary punishment for rapists, or for that matter, stringent laws to deal with  rape – fuelled as they are by moral outrage – do little else than reinforce the capitalist structure of patriarchy that thrives on gendered division of labour between waged productive work and unwaged reproductive work. For, any such legal-juridical demand or move is willy-nilly grounded in the assumption that the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations need not be transformed to protect women from sexual violence. In fact, such self-righteous moral outrage underpinned by the lust for inquisitorial-gladiatorial spectacle is, at the systemic-structural level, nothing but an ideology that legitimises the capitalist-patriarchal structure. It tends to reinforce the general consensus – precisely by marshalling the crises of the system it can no longer conceal – that the only matrix capable of protecting women against violence is one that is normatively capable of instituting stringent laws against perpetrators of such sexual and/or gender violence, ensures their strict enforcement and delivers harsh punishment to offenders. The reinforcement of such a consensus does no more or less than preserve and reproduce the structure of gendered division of labour, and sexual inequality.

Moral Outrage and Capitalist Juridicality

The legal-juridical approach to protect women not only denies them autonomous agency, as it serves to interpellate them as unequal subjects of a gendered socio-economic system, but also masks the implication of the agency of all its citizen-subjects in that gender-unequal structure of social power. Meanwhile, those citizen-subjects, who turn agents of such legal-juridical approach to anti-systemic politics, live in the neurotic comfort of condemning rape and baying for the blood of rapists even as they perpetuate the gender-unequal structure of social power through their agency as citizen-subjects of civil society and its constitutive unit: the family. This structure of social power is the very condition of possibility for such gruesome acts of sexual and gendered violence, which are, therefore, its cultural and ideological embodiments or mediations. Hence, such moral outrage of citizen-subjects ties up neatly with the legal-juridical approach that serves to sidestep the fundamental question of socio-economic transformation by sweeping the collective consciousness clean of it, thus enabling the system to manage its structural crisis by transferring it, either fully or partially, from one location to another. As a consequence, the system is not only preserved but it also reproduces itself through the further extension of its panoptic web of biopower and the political-economic logic that inheres in it. Clearly, morally outraged demands for fixing gruesome acts of sexual violence such as rape in their sheer immediacy is the political language constitutive of a subjective agency of opposition that is integral precisely to the extended reproduction of the very system it seeks to oppose in one of its many determinate moments. That, needless to say, reinforces the legal-juridical approach even as it precludes the transformation of the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of socio-economic power through its decimation.

The immediate fight against sexual violence such as rape must grasp such despicable violence not as a problem of sheer lawlessness that, therefore, can be eliminated through the enforcement of the law and the reinforcement of its concomitant system, but as a crisis of the very system and its structure that, therefore, needs to be destroyed in order to abolish such crises integral to it. Rape is not an aberration of the system that the latter can eradicate by asserting – instituting/enforcing – the law that holds the system together as its raison d’ etre. Rather, it is one of the many forms of heinously oppressive violence that is integral to regimes of class domination that is enshrined in and as the systemic rule of law. Hence, the eradication of rape and other such forms of coercive patriarchal oppression, which make for the constitutive exception of the law, is contingent not on extending the remit of the legal. Instead, it lies precisely in the abolition of the law and the capitalist socio-economic structure coeval with the legal and, which to reiterate the earlier point, is the condition of possibility of patriarchy and all its forms of control and coercion.

It is no accident that moral outrage against gruesome acts of rape and sexual violence, which fuel demands for either more stringent anti-rape laws or harsh punishment for rapists, or both, is inseparable from disciplinary control over the vector of women’s bodies and lifeworlds. All for their safety and security. The social, if not the individual, subject that articulates both those discourses is indivisible.

This argument does in no way, however, preclude the question of politically fighting rape in its immediacy. Rather, what it insists on is the inescapable need for such a struggle to figure how the general strategy of fighting capital in order to overcome it should articulate its tactics in their immediacy, and not be conflated with it to be hypostatised. The legal-juridical fight against rape is a tactical position that ought not to be blinded by the affect of moral outrage that animates it to the strategy of decimating the capitalist-patriarchal structure. A strategy that ought to inform, articulate and orientate the social subject waging the immediate, tactical struggle for legal-juridical measures against rape. As for the question about whether or not moral outrage about rape is necessarily inseparable from patriarchy, the need is clearly to deal with it at its two different levels of determination: one of individual subjectivity and the other of social subjecthood. In the first instance, the correlation is not necessary, while in the second case, if the morally outraged social subject is interpellated by the legal-juridical approach and is thus rendered incapable and/or unwilling to pose the fundamental structural (or mediated) question then moral outrage is doubtless coeval with patriarchal power. It is actually no less than the ideology of capital in this, its late conjuncture. Of course, there is no duality between the two subject-positions as they are in a dialectic. And precisely, therefore, there can be no unidirectional determination. That is, an individual subjectivity of moral outrage, even if it is informed by a conception of social subject for structural transformation, cannot, merely by claiming to be informed by such radical subjectivity, stand in as such for the actuality of the radical, system-transforming social subject. That social subject, which is incipiently present in the subjectivity of a radical individual, has to be generalised beyond that incipience for it to be sustained in its actuality. Politics is what politics does. Not what it says it does.

Class Struggle on the Woman Question

Therefore, the woman question should not be reduced to a question of juridical identity and that it should, in its tactical determinateness, articulate the generalised strategy of class antagonism. This is not to say that rape becomes a secondary question from the vantage point of revolutionary working-class politics. And that, therefore, the struggle of the hour is for socialism, whose coming would automatically take care of gender inequality and sexual oppression. Instead, there is an urgent need to stake out a revolutionary working-class position with regard to intervention in gruesome instances of sexual violence where the public consensus is single-mindedly focused on meting out harsh punishments – death by hanging, castration, etc – while remaining incapable of or unwilling to question how gender-insensitive laws and law-enforcement are integral to the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations, or social power.

However, what must at this juncture be openly acknowledged, and admitted – without a shred of ideological sophistry – is that the dominant current of movements, which have based themselves on the conceptual centrality of the class question, have been paradigmatically blind to how, among other things, capital has engendered class. In other words, the working-class movement should recognise that its dominant tendencies have failed to foreground how the structure of capital has divided labour and thus segmented the working class through the political-economic specification, re-inscription and re-articulation of the pre-capitalist gendered power relations. The capitalist structure has specified pre-capitalist patriarchy to effect gendered hierarchisation of the domains of productive and reproductive work to enable transfer of value to preserve and perpetuate a system constitutive of differential rates of exploitation (extraction of surplus value). Not just that. The capitalist-patriarchal ideology of ‘legitimate’ sexual inequality generated by this gendered privileging of productive over reproductive work has been instrumental in the gendered segmentation of labour – through unspoken custom if not enshrined contract – in the productive sphere itself as also the larger sphere of so-called non-work socialisation. The working-class movement would, therefore, do well to realise that the paradigmatic blindness of its dominant tendencies to this dimension of our political-economic reality has yielded a conception of working-class unity that is nothing but the instrumentalisation of the everydayness of working-class women by the politics of the male proletariat. That has rendered the latter the oppressive intermediaries of capital and dominant petty-bourgeois agencies of property-forms vis-à-vis the former. In short, such ‘working-class unity’ has been integral to the restoration of capitalist class power.

The women’s movement would, meanwhile, do well not to repeat such a paradigmatic error. The specification, and rearticulation, of the gendered relations of power by the capitalist structure cuts both ways. Capital does not merely engender class but also, in the same movement, classi-fies gender. It marshals gender inequality to segment the working-class even as the homogeneity of gender is itself subjected to a class-based internal differentiation based on a hierarchically relational gradation of property-form and labour-dimension. In such circumstances, to target only patriarchy as the root of such gender oppression and sexual violence as honour killings, rape and so on is to attack only the ideological form – culture if you will – of gender oppression and violence while leaving the capitalist structure that animates or articulates it intact. A structure that is capable of coopting anti-patriarchal women’s  movements by articulating them in a manner that enables such movements to raise the perfectly just demands for the abolition of various unfreedoms that shackle womankind in its gendered entirety even while bringing emancipation from such gendered unfreedoms to certain locationally select segments and sections of women to the exclusion of the rest, and thereby neutralising the movements by weakening the strength and/or energy of the mass that drives such movements by accentuating the segmentation within it.

Towards the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

The point here is certainly not to join the chorus of status-quoist cynics, who are seeking to diminish the current anti-rape mass upsurge on the streets of Delhi as a middle-class fad. Such cynicism is insidious to say the least. Sexual violence and gender oppression cannot, by any stretch of imagination, qualify as a middle-class or petty-bourgeois concern. Insofar as gender inequality, which is a form of class domination, is co-constitutive of such violent oppression, sexual violence is a working-class question at its core. Rather, the point of the argument really is that the mass upsurge should recognise its objectively incipient working-class character so that it can be generalised. In short, this movement against sexual violence must not only challenge the dominant culture of patriarchy – which it is doing in large measure, thanks to the participation of various communist-left mass organisations and other radical women’s groups – but must also simultaneously become a struggle against segmentations and divisions within the gendered class of women proletarians if its battle against patriarchy has to really succeed. In other words, an effective struggle against patriarchy can only be a revolutionary working-class struggle. One that doesn’t evade the gender question in the name of some larger, beyond-gender working-class unity, but focuses on the gender question in its specificity in terms of rearticulation of the culture (ideology) of patriarchy within and by the materiality of capital. To do merely the former is the path of radical feminism while an approach that dialectically articulates the former with the latter is the feminism of proletarian militancy.

What would the adoption of such an approach mean in the concrete specificity of the current anti-rape mass movement in Delhi, though? For starters, it would not only mean stoutly resisting calls for capital punishment for or emasculation of the perpetrators of sexual violence but even steering clear of such juridical-legal demands as improving the abysmally low rate of conviction  in rape cases, making rape investigations less patriarchally prejudiced and strengthening our frail and ineffectual anti-rape laws. Such demands – which are currently emanating from the more politically progressive tendencies in the movement – presuppose that the current system is capable of delivering on them and that such delivery is contingent merely on some disembodied, spiritualised will of the system. In other words, the socio-political subject that articulates such demands is a subject of reformist politics interpellated by the juridical-legal ideology and the concomitant hope that the system is structurally capable of reform. It is, therefore, unwittingly or not, complicit in the perpetuation of the capitalist systemic structure that is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the generation of cultures of gender oppression and sexual violence. Clearly, the stress of radical politics cannot, for that reason, lie on mobilising the street to berate and condemn the patriarchal mindset of the administrators either. Such an approach to the state of affairs dovetails nicely with the juridical-legal mode of reformist politics because such condemnation implies that it can shake a patriarchally callous and prejudiced administration from its anti-woman mindset by the sheer force of its intensity, and that therefore there is no structural constraint on the latter to transform itself for the better. Nothing, as we have seen, is farther from the truth. Worse, the discourse of such politics, thanks to its reformist modality, is inevitably populist that can (often has) dangerously veer to the right in the course of the mass movement. For, registers and idioms have a way of taking a life of their own, not least because they are inscribed within systemically operational structures.

Radical political intervention should learn to shun the discourse of crime and punishment to relearn its classical language of oppression and resistance. A language that disentangles the question of justice from that of law by freeing the former from the hypostatized prison of the latter. It should pose the very same systemic problems – low conviction rate, weak laws, culturally biased investigation and custom-based, communitarian subjugation of bodies and lives of women – with regard to gender oppression and sexual violence such as rape to expose the structural incapacity of the system to reform itself and remedy the situation. And through such exposure conscientise – orientate if you will – the mass upsurge triggered by perception of such ‘crimes’ to demand the impossible of the system: that its administration, police and, eventually, its private and public corporations, must cede their governmentalised control over and determination of every aspect of the lifeworld of the working masses to the popular subjectivity of the mass movement. A politics based on demanding the impossible is needed in this case not only because the system is structurally incapable of riding itself of gender-inequality and the patriarchal ideology co-constitutive of it but also because the juridical-legal approach legitimizes the politics of demands the system can possibly deliver on and, in the process, articulates a subject that reproduces the logic of duality and determination – which is constitutive of the capitalist law of value and phallocentric patriarchy, both embodied by the state.

Only when the current mass upsurge comes to be animated by this radically (im)possibility will it have begun actualising its revolutionary incipience by struggling to not merely occupy Delhi but seeking to take control of that occupied urban spatio-temporality by re-organising the social relations constitutive of it through the general assembly-driven mode of popular vigilance into a free associational or solidaristic sociality. The actualisation of such a radical subjectivity by the movement in question would enable it to see and envisage its struggle against the system in its dialectical indivisibility with the task of re-organising the given social and production relations. Something the class power constitutive of the system in question tends to render impossible, thus making the deployment of popular force by those who struggle indispensable for their task of generating counter-power through such re-organisation of the given socio-economic relations. That would, inter-alia, put an end to the false and grossly counter-productive binary between violent and peaceful protests that we have seen emanating from within the movement over the past few days. One that threatens to sap the movement of its unity and energy, what with the clear and present danger of the movement being hijacked from within – either by the reformists or the petty-bourgeois right – staring it in the face.

That this is no flight of fancy is more than evident in what the anti-rape mass movement itself has thrown up. Some radical students and youth organisations and individuals of Delhi have imagined into being a campaign, as part of the ongoing protest movement, to “reclaim the nights of the city”. The carnivalesque spontaneity of this reclamation campaign posits – of course, in a rather nascent form – the possibility of an insurrectionary sociality of people’s militias that wrest Delhi and its streets from all oppressors – the rapists, as much as the police and administration that is structurally complicit in such oppression – for popular vigilance and control. That possibility must, however, be recognised if the campaign is not to get caught in its carnivalesque spontaneity and degenerate into another festival of the anarcho-desiring petty-bourgeois youth. Only through such recognition can the politically conscious elements of the revolutionary left that is part of the campaign seriously strive towards building wider solidarity networks with the larger sections of the working people of the city, beyond the student-youth axis of the current campaign. Such wide-ranging solidarity networks are, needless to say, indispensable and integral to the process of occupation of a city and the simultaneous subordination of the socio-economic process constitutive of it to popular vigilance and control. Ironically, it is only by organising the carnivalesque spontaneity of the so-called reclamation campaign into a mode of popular control and vigilance of the sociality that are the nights, as also the days, of Delhi can this carnival preserve itself by obviating its day-after to become, in Ernst Bloch’s words, a “concrete utopia” of uninterrupted insurrection.

Instead, what we have so far  from the radicals in the anti-rape mass movement, the communist left groups included,  is, at best, a version of the juridical-legal approach tinged with the rhetoric of radical feminism. This approach has given their politics, even though they raise precisely the very same set of pertinently concrete questions they ought to have raised in order to radicalize the situation, a disagreeably unradical populist odour. It even risks reversing the good faith of such politics into bad. Such juridical-legal demands, regardless of the nobility of intent of the subject of such politics, can only serve to further securitise and thus governmentalise the political discourse and enable the extension and intensification of repressive state apparatuses and biopolitical instrumentalities such as the police force, and CCTV cameras and global positioning systems in public spaces respectively. And that is because the nobility of its intent does little to change the fact that such politics is wholly geared towards eliciting governmental – executive, legislative and judicial – responses from the system. Those are not merely the only responses the system can possibly come up with but ones it must come up with in order to extend its dominion and thereby reproduce itself.

In a more general sense, the communist left must remember that a revolutionary subjectivity is not one that evades certain immediate questions that history/capital throws at it. Rather, that every such question is a ground for leap against capital and its history, and that such a leap can concretely, as opposed to abstractly, come about only if it is able to understand and plot its interventions with regard to the concreteness of those immediate or determinate questions in terms of two mutually related characteristic features of our responses as subjects situated within and informed by capitalism and its history: one, commonsense is ideological and two, our struggle against any immediate domination must in the same determinate instance also articulate a struggle against the generalised hegemony within whose structure both immediate domination and the struggle against it are situated. A social subject of opposition that is not orientated by such knowledge runs the grave and virtually imminent risk of falling prey to the cunning of capital in precisely the same moment when it puts up its most spirited fight against it.

Thinking/Writing Theoretically about Society

Raju J Das

Changing society presupposes studying it. And, studying society (critically) is not an easy task, although some people may believe that this is an ‘amateurish act’. Studying society is difficult for many reasons, some of which I have briefly discussed in a previous article (‘Why must social science be critical and why must doing social science be difficult?’).

Representing ideas about the world

A study of any aspect of society requires a scholar to critically engage with the existing ideas about that aspect of society. This work is often called a ‘literature review’ or goes in the name of ‘writing theory’. Many younger scholars resist doing it; they want to jump to the field and see what is out there. They also get some encouragement from their professors to do this: that is to jump to the field without prior theoretical preparation. They forget that without concepts one will know nothing by just seeing and hearing, and that developing concepts requires hard intellectual labour, including a critical engagement with existing ideas.

When one reviews the existing literature about a topic, one addresses three questions:

  1. what does the literature say? (this constitutes the review of the literature in a narrow sense);
  2. what is wrong with what the existing literature says? (this will constitute one’s critique: it can be epistemological, ontological and methodological plus theoretical, e.g. political-economic, and empirical); and
  3. how must the topic be (re)examined, including what new questions need to be asked and how these questions must be addressed such that one’s work will be better than the existing literature in certain respects? (here one provides an alternative framework for understanding a given topic).
    These three points are elaborated below.

In terms of 1 (review of the literature in the narrow sense): one needs to think about what the literature says about the following, among other issues:

a)      what the object of analysis is, and how it is different from other things (in other words, how does the existing literature conceptualize the object of analysis?)

b)      why the object of analysis (e.g. non-farm employment; contract farming; food insecurity, GM crops; child labour; strikes in Gurgaon; corruption; class differentiation; state repression; portrayal of violence in Bollywood movies; poverty; rape in Delhi; SEZ, etc.) exists/happens/changes/develops, and

c)      what are its effects (what are the effects of poverty or of non-farm employment or of contract farming on other aspects of society?).

Why is a thorough familiarity with the existing literature necessary? The answer is the social character of knowledge production, the idea that we always build on others’ shoulders. Knowledge production is a social activity. One should know what has been said about a topic so that one does not say exactly what has already been said. One also learns something from what has been said and seeks to go beyond the existing literature. The more we know, the more we do not know. The more we know about the existing literature, the more we find out that there are areas that are still worth exploring (and in new ways).

One could use the three broad categories (a, b, and above) around which to organize the existing views in the literature. Or one can keep these categories in mind and invent other categories around which one may discuss the literature. One may use both these strategies. Often the difficulty is: how will one identify common issues? These are the issues which usually come up again and again, the issues which several scholars emphasize, if differently. In the identification of issues, one’s own tacit/implicit/semi-developed theory (or pre-existing ideas), of course, plays a role.

In doing a thorough literature review on a topic, one should read as much as one can on the topic and on some of the topics that are very closely related to the topic at hand. As just mentioned, one may group the different things one reads about a topic and identify 3-5 issues around which the existing literature can be discussed. Identification/analysis of major issues is one. Their  presentation is different. Discussing the literature author-wise is, in most cases, not that interesting. An author-wise discussion often leads to repetition. However, when a given issue is being discussed, one may turn to an author-wise discussion of the separate aspects of the issue. Let us say that one is writing about poverty and that one has identified three broad aspects of this topic (e.g. how poverty is caused by agrarian differentiation; how it is caused by pro-ruling class government policies, and how poverty has an impact on electoral politics). In this case, one may conduct an author-wise discussion while discussing each aspect of poverty as long as authors’ views are different one from another.

The act of thinking and presenting critique:

In terms of the critique part of theoretical thinking and writing: in ‘Why must social science be critical’, I pose a list of questions. That list does not exhaust all the questions one can ask of the existing literature, but using these may be a small starting point.

Critique is an important productive activity in the sphere of intellectual production. This is in two senses: critique itself produces ideas (criticisms), and these ideas create a space for further production of ideas, both conceptual and empirical.

Criticisms are, at least, of five types. Criticisms are philosophical (ontological and epistemological) and methodological (concerning, for example, the method of collection of information). In making philosophical criticisms, one seeks to undermine the philosophical assumptions which underlie the specific substantive assertions being made in the existing literature. Marxist critics wanting to launch philosophical criticisms can accuse a piece of work as being: idealistic/social-constructionist (reducing what exists to what is thought to exist), empiristic/a-theoretical; relativistic (i.e. failing to assign causal primacy to certain processes); a-historical (considering what is historically specific as universal), a spatial (being blind to the fact that attributes of an object may exhibit spatial unevenness); un-dialectical (this can be in many ways including in terms of the laws of dialectics and theory of relations), and so on.

Criticisms are theoretical (theoretical in the substantive-scientific sense). Theoretical criticisms, above all else, raise the issue of causality. A person says that K causes T. A critic says: does K necessarily cause T?; why must K cause T?; what is the logic of the assertion that K causes T? Here refuting the logic one uses one’s power of theory in political economy (e.g. content of Marx’s discussion in Capital), state theory (see Lenin’s State and Revolution), etc.

Criticisms are also empirical. A person says that y happens in place z, but a critic says that y happens in place p, and provides evidence to this effect. Empirical criticisms are usually weaker, epistemologically speaking. One may say that the state acts in the ruling class interests because ruling class people directly control the state, sitting in the parliaments and controlling the commissions of enquiry. In response, a critic may say that in such and such case, the parliament is not dominated by people belonging to the ruling class and yet the state, more or less, serves the interest of the ruling class.

Then criticisms are practical/political. A Marxist can be critical of reformist political implication of a given assertion. Commenting on the mainstream research, Bertell Ollman says:  ‘the age-old link between knowledge and action has been severed, so that scholars can deny all responsibility for their wares while taking pride in knowing more and more about less and less’ (in his Dance of the Dialectic). One has to be a little careful in making political criticisms though. On the one hand, given an intellectual assertion (e.g., x causes y), more than one political conclusion (i.e. an assertion about what is to be done) can be made. In other words, our view of what happens and why it happens does not entirely determine our view of what can be done. On the other hand, in practice, I have often seen that reformist political conclusions can be traced to certain kinds of faulty theoretical assertions (e.g., those who rubbish the labour theory of value or think about  class as merely income inequality or a matter of attitude tend to be reformists). In practice, also, it is very difficult to separate intellectual criticisms from political criticisms, whether or not the latter are made. Usually, non-Marxists hide their political/normative views and claim that their knowledge-claims are politically neutral when in fact they are not. Marxists are often more candid about their political views. For a Marxist (I am not saying revolutionary Marxist, for the word ‘revolutionary’ is redundant here, and you will just see why): class relations, and most importantly capitalist class relations, are the most fundamental cause of the most fundamental problems of the humanity and therefore the abolition of the class system through independent political mobilization of proletarians and semi-proletarians against the class system and its supporting political-ideological mechanisms (e.g., state) is the most fundamental solution to the problems of the humanity. One sees that one’s theory of class is immediately intellectual and political.

Note that often substantive criticisms – theoretical and empirical criticisms – are the only type of criticisms that are made but these are informed by philosophical and political criticisms. One does not criticize everything one is reading. In developing a critique, one presents a selected number of major criticisms, which may include sub-criticisms (part of a major criticism). Note also that one must try to avoid making the mistakes which one accuses one’s opponents of.

The labour of theorizing?

Often a scholar can stop at the criticisms, and in the light of these criticisms, may carry on her/his own empirical investigation (Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia is almost an example of this). Some make an attempt to offer an alternative theoretical framework, which will inform one’s own empirical study. In the latter case, the framework informing her/his own original research is explicit. In the former case, it is implicit.

One can see that doing conceptual work, including literature review in the narrow sense (in the sense of saying who has said what about a topic) is not easy. Doing conceptual work involves not just reading and thinking but dialectically organizing one’s thinking.

Let us now return to the whole act, the act of theoretical thinking. One way of organizing the theoretical thinking, including the discussion of the existing literature may be as follows:

Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3
X group of writers[1]

X1 X2 X3
Y group of writers who are critical of X group


Y1 Y2 Y3
The author’s critical assessment of the Y group (agreement and


V1 V2 V3
The author’s own views laid out
in the form of an alternative
A1 A2 A3


The above framework suggests that one has at least ‘12 bits of knowledge’, 12 categories of views. This would make one’s conceptual work very thorough, critical and synthetic. An advantage of doing this is that one cannot be accused of painting everything with the same brush because one has split the existing literature into two parts: a thesis and an anti-thesis, which lays the foundation for one’s own critical synthesis (I know this way of saying things is a little clichéd). Following this method, one produces a differentiated view of the existing knowledge, and one tries to create a new way of looking at the things.

Now, what does offering an alternative theoretical framework consist of? It is about theorizing. It is about saying three things:

  1. what an object is?[2]
  2. what are the necessary and contingent conditions for its existence?;
  3. what are its necessary and contingent effects?; and how do conditions and effects reciprocally impact each other?

Here an understanding of the dialectical theory of the multiple relations that exist in the world will be useful (e.g. relations in the world are substantive and formal, relations are necessary and contingent; relations are of similarity vs difference; relations are of contradiction, and so on).

In wanting to offer an alternative way of knowing an object one is offering an alternative way of conceptualizing the object (e.g., what does X mean, socially, subconsciously, emotionally, etc.[3] and how is it different from other objects), and one is offering an alternative way of explaining the object?

How do we explain an object, an event E? One way is to think that: certain structures of relations (S) which give rise to certain mechanisms (M1, M2, etc.), which under certain contingent conditions (C1, C2), will cause an event (E). This is based on critical realist philosophy as popularized by Andrew Collier, Andrew Sayer and others. One’s theory must include all the four elements: structures of relations; mechanisms; contingent conditions, and effects/consequences.

For example, capitalist social relations will cause mechanisms of technological change to exist which in turn will cause low wages, under conditions of strict control over migration and other relevant government policies.

Whether these empirical conditions exist and how effective they are and whether their effectivity varies over space and so on, this is an empirical question which can only be ascertained through a concrete study.

Whether the power of the mechanisms being posited in theory is activated/counteracted is also empirical. We are just saying, given such and such things, x and y will happen. If people are dispossessed of their means of production, they are going to have to work for a wage, other things constant. If a person is working for a wage, one is going to be subjected to domination and exploitation in the work-place. But there is no guarantee that this will happen to a given person or a group of persons: they have to find wage-work in the first place.

One has to think about the entire society of which a given object of analysis (e.g. poverty or non-farm employment or contract farming) is a part. The society is constituted by social relations of class (as well as other relations). These relations give rise to certain other things (mechanisms and processes). One’s object of analysis is connected to, and are rooted in, these.

As mentioned, one begins theorizing by conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing an object in the world, whose image is reflected in our mind, which is interpreted in our mind. An object can exist at different levels, in more or less abstract forms. Consider technology (as used in farming) as an object of analysis. Here are the different levels at which technology can exist (or can be seen as existing):

Productive force of which technology is an example; Technology; capitalist technology; technology used in capitalist agriculture or agrarian capitalism; biological technology in capitalist agriculture; and genetically modified seeds as an example of the latter.

In theorizing, at each level (ideally at each level), technology has to be seen in terms of its necessary and contingent preconditions/causes and necessary and contingent its effects, and in terms of their reciprocal relations (relations between effects and conditions). In theorizing one has to bear in mind the relation between what is technology and other aspects of society.

There are many other aspects of theorizing. It is not possible to write an algorithm for how to theorize. But what is certain is that, theorizing requires familiarity with: philosophy including ontological and epistemological views as well as views about human nature; and general theory of society or social theory (relation between individual and society; view of how a society changes vis changes in contradictory relations between its productive forces and class relations and via struggle; relations between the economic and the non-economic within a system in which the economic has a certain primacy, and so on). One also needs familiarity with more specific theories, theories of the most important ‘parts’/’aspects’ of society (see Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism as well asMarx’s famous Preface to A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy): political economy and class theory, state theory, theory of culture and meaning, and theory of the relation between society and environment/space. One still needs even more specific theory, given stratification of the reality, given that the reality happens and exists at different levels of generality: theory of technology or theory of agrarian change as a part of the theory of political economy, or theory of state bureaucracy as a part of the state theory.

To develop theoretical knowledge, knowledge about necessity in the world, knowledge about how the world really works, one needs to bathe in practice. All Marxists, including Marx (see the Theses on Feuerbach) and Mao (see his On Practice) stress the relation between knowledge and practice. ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question’, says Marx. Mao, whose other views on society and revolution I do not endorse, however, says something that is interesting. This is about the practical character of knowledge. Our social practice, on which our knowledge depends,

‘is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.

Scholars must observe the act of production, including production of ideas (how are ideas produced in the universities and how this is influenced by generalized commodity production and need for order). Then there is the issue of political practice. Marx’s and Engels and Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Luxemburg’s and others’ practical engagement with the world – their involvement in class struggle from the standpoint of proletarians and semi-proletarians – was a source of their theoretical – and not just theoretical – knowledge, which continues to evolve as new developments in the world are constantly reinterpreted and as one’s views at a point in time prove to be less effective than originally thought. It is also the case that over a period of time, one’s actual degree of practical engagement and its form will vary. Sometimes, it may take the form of the creation of ideas to help a developing movement. Just the revolutionary intent, the act of breathing and dreaming revolution, the intent which is rooted in and in turn informs one’s intellectual views of the world, becomes a form of practical activity. This is just as: radical ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses, as Marx asserted. At other times, one’s political practice may be less ‘speculative’.

One also needs to be familiar with empirical trends, with what is going on in the world at different scales, in different areas and in different time-periods, including via government and NGOs reports, social media, online radical and mainstream magazines, newspapers, etc. One needs to find out, for example: is inequality rising or falling; is farming going out of business and to what extent, and how does it vary from place to place, and so on. One’s theoretical ideas must be constantly rubbed against empirical developments which exist independently of one’s contemplation of these developments by a researcher as against ideas produced by other researchers.

Let us turn to Marx’s intellectual practice for a moment. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and writing about Adam Smith, Ricardo, Feuerbach, and so on. See his long footnotes in Capital or discussion in Theories of Surplus Value or his review of Proudhon. He read these scholars, appreciated what was positive and developed his criticisms of these scholars. These criticisms along with his more ‘practical work’ – which included not just his political engagement of different forms but also his deep familiarity with government reports, work of history, etc. – fed into his own alternative way of understanding the society, both at more concrete and more abstract levels.

Like Marx or Lenin, one combines all these different inputs (philosophy, theory at different levels, political practice, and empirical knowledge) in a critical and empirically sensitive way, and one begins the journey of theory-making, without which the project of remaking the world in a revolutionary way is an impossible task.

But ‘Every beginning is difficult’, Marx says. Thinking theoretically and critically is difficult at the beginning, in the middle and in the end! However, Marx hopes that although ‘There is no royal road to science’, it is the case that ‘those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’

The certainty of the joy of theoretical thinking which produces an ‘artistic whole’ and the inevitability of the ‘fatiguing climb’ are dialectically connected.


Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.



Here one says what a group of writers is saying about the different aspects of a given topic represented as Issue 1, 2, 3, etc.

Here one re-conceptualizes an object; one asks: what does the scope of the concept which refers to an object cover? And one changes the boundary/scope of the concept depending on the situation at hand; this is what reconceptualization is.

Note here that the concept, what it refers to, and the word which is used to refer to the concept are different.