Gendering Socialism

Ann Ferguson

Gathering Rage:
The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda
by Margaret Randall
New York-Monthly Review, 1992, paper $12.

THIS BOOK BY Margaret Randall, a well-known author of more than fifty works of oral history, political theory, poetry and photography, theorizes about the relation between the ideals of socialism and feminism from her experiential base of a United Statesian who has lived in Cuba and Nicaragua for many years.

It is always a pleasure reading Margaret’s books because she is a gifted writer who has the invaluable capacity to entrance the reader with her wealth of lived experiences in socialist-oriented countries. Unlike many academic writers, the theoretical lessons that she draws never seem pretentious or forced.

Randall’s central line of argument in this book is that socialist revolutions of the twentieth century have not only failed to make feminism an integral part of their revolutionary agenda, but that this has been one of the reasons for their ultimate failure to succeed in bringing about the truly egalitarian societies they were aiming for. As she says,

“I do not say social revolution needs feminism as simply one more component, something to be added on or factored in. No. If revolution incorporates feminism it will transform itself.

“I believe that only through such a transformation will revolutionary change be capable of meeting the broadest range of people’s needs. And I believe it is only through such a transformation that those affected will truly defend the revolution.” (21-22)

I first met Margaret Randall in 1976 when I went with the Venceremos Brigade to Cuba to do construction work in solidarity with the Cuban revolution and to learn about the revolution firsthand. As a leftist feminist I had chafed under the CP’s line on Northamerican feminism at the time: that it was “cultural imperialism” for us to mount any feminist criticisms of the Cuban revolution since they stemmed from our Northamerican bourgeois feminist perspective.

At the time I was a member of the Valley Women’s Union, a Northampton, Mass-based community women’s group that was socialist-feminist and modeled itself after the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. We believed in the necessity of an autonomous women’s liberation movement in coalition with a mixed left movement, and were critical of marxist-leninist groups which saw the idea of autonomy as merely divisive “bourgeois individualism.”

Margaret was a strong supporter of the “unite and fight” marxist-leninist line, so we had friendly disagreements about the Cuban Communist Party’s theory and practice relating to the Woman Question on this visit, as well as on my second trip in 1980 with a cultural workers’ group. Nonetheless, I was rooting for the Cubans, hoping that maybe they would evolve toward a more autonomous feminism and impressed by Margaret’s discussion of the practical struggles and ongoing consciousness raising instigated by the 1974 Cuban family code, which prescribed that men and women should share housework and childcare.

Maybe, I thought, the FMC (Cuban’s Women’s Movement) could become autonomous in time from the party and find a way to build independent women’s leadership. With this history in mind, I find it both ironic and instructive that more than fifteen years later Margaret has come to adopt the autonomous women’s movement critique of marxist-leninism. What has led her to change her mind?

When it became dear to her, as she says in the book, was the 1991 Managua FSLN meeting with solidarity activists from Northamerica to analyze its current situation after the electoral loss to Chamorro in 1990. At that point Margaret, who had lived in Nicaragua from 1980-84 writing books (most notably Sandino’s Daughters) supporting the Nicaraguan revolution, had been living back in the United States for several years. She had recently won her case to get back her U.S. citizenship in a battle with the INS, a battle in which she had been heavily supported by left sections of the U.S. women’s movement.

Perhaps it was the experience of the U.S. women’s oppositional community, with its current interest in feminist therapy as a way to connect the personal with the political, that began to change her consciousness. Margaret mentions that gender power relations were never politically confronted by woman revolutionaries in Nicaragua and Cuba, perhaps, she conjectures, because of the mind/body split and the attitude that they should be “tough” and ignore such issues. She also mentions her coming out as a lesbian within a year of returning to the United States and the deepening of her personal understanding of the depths of sexism as revealed in her uncovering of her own history of incest (in the moving book This is About Incest).

But whatever changes began her re-evaluation of her years of fellow traveling of the marxist-leninist party lines in Nicaragua and Cuba, it all congealed in a new critical understanding when she saw many of the male leaders of the FSLN at this October 1991 meeting refuse to take seriously her questioning and that of another Northamerican solidarity activist, as to whether the FSLN had erred in its practice concerning women, both by its authoritarian, womanizing leadership style and its marxist-leninist denial of autonomy to its mass woman’s organization, AMNLAE.

During the rest of her stay in Nicaragua in 1991, Margaret Interviewed a number of women who had been Sandinista supporters in an effort to find out whether the “woman issue” had been one of the reasons why the FSLN had lost the election. She found that it was. What she reports is also supported by a long representative survey completed just before the 1990 election by Cenzontle, a Nicaraguan popular education nongovernmental organization that focuses on issues of gender and democratic popular participation.

Cenzontles interviewed Nicaraguan women from all sectors and provinces in December and January 1989 and 1990; it found that the FSLN’s insistence on the draft as a way to continue the war against the contras had deeply alienated peasant women. AMNLAE was not trusted to have the interests of women at heart, since it was perceived to push the Sandinista Party line. For example, though illegal abortion was and still is the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age, the FS LN never permitted AMNLAE to wage a campaign to legalize abortion because it feared the power of the conservative Catholic church.

Randall’s interviewees pointed out to her that in 1988 AMNLAE had started a process meant to develop the ability to elect its own leadership independently of the FSLN, but this process was aborted when the FSLN male leadership simply appointed Doris Tijerino to head AMNLAE, a woman who was Managua’s Chief of Police and who had shown no interest in feminist issues.

Randall leads us up to the present through artful summaries of her informants’ different responses to questions about divisions within Sandinista women around AMNLAE, the post-election development of an autonomous feminist movement and the role of lesbian-feminist groups in this process. She critiques the AMNLAE leadership for refusing to accept such diverse tendencies and argues that their emphasis on unity at any cost with the FSLN has been a dangerous principle for socialist leaderships. It has led to a suppression of injustices within socialist movements, which have undermined the movements’ legitimacy.

In her general history chapter, Margaret Randall attempts to theorize why all known socialist revolutions have begun but not consolidated the process of women’s liberation. She advances several explanations for this.

The first is that although Lenin particularly warned against economism and reductionism in his advocacy of a vanguard party as a strategy for radical change, in practice his male followers in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua did succumb to economism and failed to develop communist parties that were truly representative of women and minorities of color.

Second, she ruminates that perhaps the marxist concept of “taking power” was itself too authoritarian and hierarchical, and needed to be supplemented by a more participatory egalitarian model of the sort stressed not only by feminism but by other grassroots social movements such as the Christian base communities of Liberation Theology and radical popular educators such as Pablo Freire. She also wonders whether the failure to take seriously the contemporary feminist maxim “the personal is political” meant that many of the male leaders who were practicing womanizers could not adequately put theories of women’s liberation into practice.

Perhaps the key failure, Randall speculates, was a reduction of the radical humanist and historicist implications of Marx’s thought. Raya Dunayevskaya, who had been one of Trotsky’s secretaries during his Mexican exile in the late 1930s, later drew on these aspects of Marx’s writings to argue against the vanguard party practice of the communist parties, which stressed democratic centralism and ignored the need to develop a vision and practice that would meet people’s needs for spiritual, sexual, critical and creative freedoms (as well as what Dunayevskaya omits—-political democracy and civil liberties).

A feminist concern with process was absent, replaced in the Soviet Union by Stalin’s repeals of feminist Alexandra Kollontai’s instituted laws on marriage, divorce, guardianship and reproductive rights (e.g. abortion become illegal in 1936 and remained so until 1955).

Expanding The Critique

Although I agree with Randall’s critiques of the theory and practice of marxist-leninist parties, I would argue that Randall herself does not go far enough in her critique. Randall doesn’t forcefully enough critique the idea of one and only one vanguard party as a model for socialist revolutionary leadership.

Without the possibility of other political parties, women’s movements will never have the space to develop their own autonomous analyses of women’s strategic needs as opposed to their immediate needs, to use an important distinction made by Maxine Molyneux.(1)

Since Randall was absent from the United States during twenty key years of socialist-feminist development, she still relies on critiques from within marxism itself, not fully acknowledging the new insights of what has been called “dual systems” and later “multi-systems” theory that I and other thinkers like Gayle Rubin, Batya Weinbaum, Heidi Hartmann and Nancy FoIbre and more recently racial formations theorists such as Michael Omi and Howard Wmant have developed.(2)

Randall’s continuing reliance on economistic marxist categories is seen in the way she applies the concept of base/superstructure. Thus, I believe that if authoritarianism is a key problem, it is not because it is a neglected “superstructural” element (103), but because there are other basic and historically specific systems of organizing parenting, sexuality and human bonding I call “sex/affective production.”

As I see it, a patriarchal mode of sex/affective production is another base of social domination systems that creates authoritarian structures and gendered divisions of labor every bit as important as, and interlaced with, historically various modes of economic production. In Sexual Democracy, I argue that socialist revolutions have failed women not only due to the “objective” problems such as feudalism, natural disasters and competition with much wealthier capitalist countries, but also because of a failure to theorize the base of patriarchy in the production of sexuality; familial relations and the sexual division of labor.(3)

In her last chapter Randall does wonder whether we need to reconceptualize what are the bases of social domination, and provides moving testimony from her own personal experience about the connections between patriarchy, authority and women’s acceptance of abuse. But I remain dissatisfied as a feminist theorist with her argument for her conclusions, in part because she neglects the whole socialist-feminist theoretical tendency mentioned above.

If she had acknowledged its existence, she could not have blithely concluded that there was a vacuum created between radical feminism and socialist thought in which neither side could learn from the other, in part because radical feminists failed to understand that class and race must be taken into account in any revolutionary process (136-7). What this ignores is socialist-feminist thought, which tries to combine the insights of radical feminism and marxism to create a “feminist materialist” approach to understanding the connections between race and gender domination.

The problem is not that many feminists didn’t try to communicate, but that neither radical feminists nor the male socialist left wanted to listen or learn from socialist-feminist women, since such thought suggested that revolutionary changes were much more complex than either of the other groups wanted to acknowledge!

Worsening Conditions

In spite of these theoretical quibbles with Randall’s critique of socialist and feminist theory and practice, I am in complete accord with her observations about the worsening situation of women in the former state socialist countries of Russia and Eastern Europe as they rush to develop capitalist markets and in the process dismantle rights to abortion, maternity leave, state-supported child care and even proportional representation for women in state governments. it is too easy for those living in the West to tout the death of socialism and its incomplete solutions for women without also noting how capitalism has failed to equalize women or bring about our liberation.

When Randall reflects on her years of living in Cuba and supporting the Cuban revolution, I am drawn also to reflect on my years of solidarity work for the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and the contradictory nature of that work and consciousness. On the one hand, U.S. leftists were impressed at the emphasis on the substantial material rights to health care, housing, jobs, child care and quality education that the Cuban revolution emphasized. On the other, many of us were concerned at gaps in social equality for gays and Black Cubans as well as the lack of powerful women leaders in the Cuban Communist Party.

Lesbian and gay supporters of Cuba could not be mollified when we were told that Cuban heterosexism had a historical base in the Mafia-supported homosexual prostitution rings in pre-Castro Cuba, which led many gay men to become CIA counter-revolutionaries after the Revolution. Though Randall is hopeful that gays will receive better treatment through the progressive work of the National Commission on Sex Education (CNES), on my recent trips to Cuba in 1992 and 1993, my lesbian informants still confirm that lesbians and gays are not permitted to organize politically for gay liberation since this would constitute a “faction,” by definition counterrevolutionary in marxist-leninist terms.

Having also recently visited Nicaragua where lesbians and gays are making great strides in self-organization, I have to respectfully disagree with Margaret about progress on the gay question in Cuba, which appears to me in comparison to have been very little indeed.

With respect to racism, though U.S. antiracists noted the impressive institutional attack on racism through the free health care and education system and housing, on my recent trips in 1992 and this year, members of our delegations continued to note prejudices. Black Cubans were regularly put to the back of the line for popular restaurants and entertainments, or stopped by the police in the company of foreigners as suspected traffickers in the black market for dollars and goods.

Professional and government positions as well as Communist Party leadership still do not appear to have proportional representation of darker Cubans, and the poorer areas of Havana are still disproportionately black. Is this institutional or merely residual racism?

With respect to the so-called “bourgeois freedoms” of thought, press and discussion, many of us have been concerned that the Castro-led CCP has been particularly harsh on any attempts to develop organized points of view outside the party, stigmatizing all of them as “counterrevolutionary” even though some of them have insisted that they were socialist alternatives. Is this not marxist-leninist centralized authoritarianism, whether or not it can be rationalized as an effect of the ongoing 30+ years of repressive U.S. economic blockade and CIA attacks on Cuba?

I admire Randall’s self-criticism with respect to this issue. She points out that in Cuba there was an oscillation between periods of openness to criticism and periods of closing down of such criticism, of which she was not critical when she lived through it but now sees as the Cuban leadership’s lack of concern for process and for creating the institutional space for public critical abilities and dialogue to be developed.

I maintain that the theoretical problem here, which is part of the negative legacy of marxist-leninist parties, involves labeling demands for civil liberties as “bourgeois” civil liberties and contrasting them with positive socialist material rights, e.g. to food, education, health. The problem with liberal or so-called “bourgeois” feminism, in my opinion, is not that the demand for equal civil rights under the law with men is mistaken—-we need to demand these as a condition for our autonomous self-organization—-but that liberal feminism does not go far enough and see that women’s liberation cannot be completed without eliminating the capitalist search for profits, which denies material rights for all people.

The marxist-leninist Cuban leadership has posed the issues of rights as either/or: either socialist positive rights OR bourgeois negative rights, where I would argue that this is a false dichotomy.(4)

With regard to sexism, racism and authoritarianism, then, I agree strongly with Randall’s conclusion that in marxist-leninist led revolutions in Nicaragua, Vietnam, China, the USSR and Cuba, the lives of oppressed groups such as women and racial or ethnic minorities “were changed to better the goals of the revolution, not for their own self-realization” (133).

And I am struck by her question as to whether Cuba’s impressive international solidarity with other nationalist and socialist revolutions may have involved a sacrifice with respect to dealing with internal divisions around gender, race and ethnicity. I strongly agree with her answer to her question: “Does an emphasis on internationalism as an essential revolutionary practice limit socialism’s ability to focus adequately on the needs of different social groups? If so, we must begin to develop an internationalism that also values difference” (144).

This is not merely a priority for global feminism, but should be a priority for socialists concerned to understand how national and ethnic divisions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could have been better understood if marxist-leninist parties and practice had not treated demands for ethnic and national self-determination in an opportunistic manner, at times supporting national self-determination and at times condemning it as bourgeois deviationism.(5)

Moving Ahead

I can add my own observations from trips of 1992 and this year as an afterthought to Margaret’s comments on women’s liberation in Nicaragua and Cuba. Margaret refers to the first Central American Women’s Encuentro, which took place in Nicaragua in March 1992, as evidence of the strong development of an autonomous women’s movement in Nicaragua. What she does not mention is the way that the importance of a gender analysis of social domination, done for the strategic interests of women and not merely as a means to a class-based popular revolution, has become a pressing issue for all the Latin American women’s movements.

The Cuban women’s movement, too, has been influenced by the series of Latin American women’s encuentros that have taken place in the last ten or more years. As a result, there is a new Cathedra de la Mujer (Women’s Studies Center) at the University of Havana that joins feminist academics with members of the FMC in doing research on women. The FMC no longer refers to Northamerican feminism dismissively as “bourgeois.” Indeed it now has begun to consider whether it should model itself after the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus in terms of its degree of autonomy from the Cuban CP.

I attended the first Women’s Studies Conference of Northamerican feminist academics with the Havana Cathedra de la Mujer in Havana in March 1993. We traded ideas about how to organize academic women’s studies, compared the status of Cuban women to Northamerican women, and debated feminist theories of male domination. The Cuban women were very anxious to continue our interaction by future conferences.

I remembered my hopes in 1976 that the Cuban women’s movement would become more autonomous to carry farther the women’s liberation already begun by Cuba’s socialist revolution. As the eternal optimist,I also found myself wondering if the socialist-feminist theories that many of us developed in Northamerica in a practical vacuum (given the weakness of the American left from the 1970s forward) might find a new social base in Central America and the Caribbean as the new feminist movements there develop out of strongly established mixed left popular liberation movements.

Those who hope to understand the possible future of women’s liberation and socialism, particularly in our hemisphere, owe it to themselves to read Margaret Randall’s important introduction to the subject. I recommend her book highly because of the important questions it raises and because of the insights she has to offer both socialists and feminists who wish to improve our analysis and struggles for radical social change based on an understanding of the past successes and failures.

If she has been mistaken in some of her political and theoretical positions in the past, so have we all, and in her case, one can only admire her dedication and willingness to sacrifice her material comfort by living and working for so many years in Cuba and Nicaragua in solidarity with those revolutions. She has much to teach us in this book that reflects not merely her political conclusions but an exemplary revolutionary life.


  1. Maxine Molyneaux, “Mobilization without Emancipation? Interests of Women, the State and the Revolution: The Case of Nicargua,” Feminist Studies, vol.11, #2 (Summer 1985): 46-51.
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  2. C. Rubin “The Traffic in Women,” in R. Reiter, ed. Toward a New Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review, 1975); C. Delphy, Close to Home (Amherst, Ma: U. Mass Press, 1980); B. Weinbaum, The Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism (Boston: South End Press, 1978); H. Hartmann, “The Unhappy Mamage of Marxism and Feminism,” in L. Sargent, ed. Women and Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1981); A. Ferguson and N. Folbre, “The Unhappy Marriage of Capitalism and Patriarchy,” Ibid.; N. Folbre, Patriarchy as a Model of Production, forthcoming; Omi and H. Winant, Racial Formations in the United States (New Yor.k: Routledge, 1986).
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  3. A. Ferguson, 1989, Blood at the Root: Mothethood: Sexuality and Male Domination (London: Pandora/HarperCollins); A. Ferguson, 1991, Sexual Democtucy: Women, Oppression and Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview).
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  4. Ferguson, 1991, Ibid.
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  5. R. Munck, The Difftult Dialogue: Marxism and Nationalism (Loudon: Zed, 1986).
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November-December 1993, ATC 47