Lucio Magri’s article on the European Left, in nlr 189,footnote＊ presents an unusually positive and encouraging perspective for radical politics in the coming years, discussing with welcome realism the most disastrous aspects of recent history. It is a valuable aid in what for some of us is a hard fight against despair, and for that we must all be grateful. Nevertheless, the article almost completely disregards a point which is not only important but probably essential to any decisive forward movement in the future: the role of women.
On page 12 Magri lists four ‘defective notions’ which have held back the struggle against capitalism: Economism, Statism, Jacobinism and Eurocentrism. I certainly agree with all that (though I am not quite sure what he means by ‘Jacobinism’). But he leaves out the most destructive ‘notion’ of all—if such a lightweight term can stand for something so gross. If we must have another ‘ism’, it would have to be called ‘sexism’, but that word, too, in its normal usage, is far too narrow to express the pervasive and deeply destructive implications of this attitude.
Magri defines Eurocentrism as ‘the idea that the Western model could be extended worldwide, defining the social subjects and cultures of other peoples in terms of underdevelopment and reducing them to the rank of mere allies.’ Sexism, in the sense required here, performs exactly the same conjuring trick with regard to women—indeed Magri explicitly reduces feminists to the rank of mere allies at the bottom of the same page.
The ideology of the Left has always been and still is a fundamentally male ideology, based on the economics of production and waged work. For a whole complex of biological, cultural and historical reasons the work of reproducing the labouring population, socially as well as physically, falls mainly on women. Without the labour of social reproduction—which is the real significance of ‘housework’—nobody could go out to work, and the capitalist system would collapse tomorrow. Because it is for the most part unwaged work, the issue cannot be dealt with theoretically in terms of wages versus profit. The process of social reproduction not only goes on daily in the home but calls upon all social institutions including the state; its beneficiaries
The basic interests of women as unwaged reproducers of people—their primary motivations—are structurally opposed to those of the capitalist system. In social reproduction the well-being of people is the primary goal, whereas for capitalism human beings are accessory to the production of commodities and the accumulation of capital. Here, obviously, is one of the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism—indeed the most profound and definitive one.
Leftist theoreticians fail to deal with the crucial implications of this division of labour between the sexes. They take women’s work of social reproduction for granted as something marginal or external to the functional structure of the economic system, rather than as a central part of it.
Of course the political identity of women (and not only of women) is blurred and compromised in all sorts of ways. I am talking here about the essential issue that underlies everything. The fact that this issue has been ignored for generations, and is ignored now by a writer of Magri’s acuteness, is something I would rather not try to explain. Maybe it is just too big—they could not see the wood for the trees. At any rate, now, when the Left is trying to regroup to save the earth and the human race from rampant capitalism, it is high time for women to take their rightful place as major political and economic subjects.