Robin Blackburn writes: Branka Magas’ article touches on two themes to be found in much writing on the oppression of women. One is the very common rejection of Freud because of the blatant sexism which he frequently expressed, the other is a rejection of violence in the name of supposedly feminine values. It seems very likely that the presence of these commonly encountered positions is linked to a complementary absence.

The frequency with which Freud is rejected wholesale is matched by the frequency with which the problem of the oppression of children and minors within the family is ignored in writing on women’s oppression and women’s liberation. Of course it is true that the concept of patriarchy is often invoked—and in its colloquial rather than its strictly anthropological sense. But although this term might seem to draw attention to parental domination of children a discussion of this aspect of the problem rarely follows. Perhaps the term ‘patriarchal’ in any case carries with it the unnecessary assumption that it is only men who exercise such domination. It is more likely to be the case that women are somewhat more responsible than men for parental authoritarianism since the familial socialization of children is a part of their bondage. The fact that the attitudes of working-class ‘housewifes’ and ‘mothers’ are, in conventional political terms, more reactionary than those of working-class men could well relate to this socialization nexus.

The work of the housewife and mother is not in essence less oppressive than that of her husband, but it is less evidently so. The power of the mother over the children furnishes a false compensation for this oppression which is very difficult to refuse, especially since it is inextricably bound up with a copious stock of traditional sentiments on the joys of motherhood. Whereas the worker is unlikely to have the illusion that he controls or owns the fruit of his labour, both parents, and perhaps especially the mother, are culturally encouraged to feel that in some sense they have special rights of possession over their biological product. footnote1

Stated baldly such ideas amount to little more than speculation. But it is most unlikely that any scientific understanding of this complex of problems can be achieved by an outright rejection of Freud on the grounds of his reactionary remarks on women, even if these are taken in a prescriptive rather than descriptive sense. Clearly psychoanalysis places the parent/child relationship right at the centre of its investigations and renders impossible any simple neglect of the subject. This can lead either to ideologies of motherhood (Melanie Klein) and love (Fromm) but also to a potentially liberating examination of the mechanism of repression and manipulation (Reich/Laing, etc). This thesis is confirmed a contrario by the one recent book on women’s oppression which tackles the problem of the oppression of children (Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex) since the author also seeks to extract the revolutionary kernel of Freudian psychoanalysis.

An overhasty rejection of Freud and all his works is not only liable to be accompanied by insensitivity towards the oppression of children, but, given the symbiosis of the oppression of children and women, it must also lead to an inadequate account of the oppression of women themselves. The difficult task of developing a theory which gets to the root of the oppression of women in its specificity is replaced by an explicit or implicit resort to the analogy of some other form of oppression. The ‘radical’ solution is often to assimilate the exploitation of women to class exploitation or national oppression. But with surprising frequency this apparently radical solution at the theoretical level is accompanied by pacificism at the political level.

The logic underlying this seems to be roughly as follows. The contradiction men/women is similar to the contradiction bourgeoisie/proletariat or the contradiction imperialism/national liberation. But only a very few will assert that the contradiction between men and women is antagonistic in the sense that it must be resolved by the violent suppression of the former in favour of the latter: for the rest the contradiction is ultimately non-antagonistic (even in Mao’s sense, ‘within the people’) and thus not to be resolved primarily by force (though, of course, some forms of physical confrontation are by no means excluded). But as at the theoretical level it has been maintained that women’s oppression is fundamentally similar to that of an oppressed nation or class then the resolution of these contradictions must also be accomplished without resort to real violence. In this way the absence of a theory of the specificity of women’s oppression (which would probably have to draw on both psychoanalysis and Marxism), and a blindness to the violence that parents practise on children, leads to a rejection of the emancipatory role that violence can have in politics. Ideology quite spontaneously fills the vacuum left by theory and force is consigned to the rubbish heap of ‘male politics’, in the name of a female stereotype which is an integral part of the culture of male domination. The failure of Marxists themselves to produce an adequate theory of this field is, of course, equally to be blamed for all this. Until they do, unscientific analogies and erroneous political conclusions drawn from them are likely to flourish. And just as ideology fills the vacuum left by theory, so liberalism or pacifism will fill the vacuum left by revolutionary politics.