Images of feminism, 1974 to 2018

Opéra San Carlo

The Blast & Meor site has recently put on line Feminism Illustrated, an English translation of a French pamphlet published in 2015, made of a critique of feminism which appeared in Le Fléau Social in 1974 under the alias “Constance Chatterley”, plus a 2015 interview with the author, completed by a short historical account of the radical wing of the homosexual movement in France in general, and the part then played by Le Fléau Social in particular.

Looking back on the time of the first publication of Feminism Illustrated in French (1974) and comparing it to the early 21st century, it might appear we have experienced a complete change of scene.  “Women’s lib” fought patriarchal habits and standards that nowadays are questioned openly, and feminists faced family patterns that have had to adapt since or break up. In North America, Australia and Western Europe (the rest of the world is another matter), we live in an age of woman CEOs and heads of State, stepfamilies, same-sex marriages, homo-parenting, gender being taught in the classroom, LGBT groups in most towns, yearly Gay Prides in capital cities, in other words a sex life quite at variance with former beliefs, attitudes, and laws. “Women’s rights” have been integrated in the political, intellectual, media and cultural consensus, and have become part and parcel of 21st century democratic values : the venerable “one man, one vote” principle is now complemented by “woman = man”.

However, we live in a basically very unequal society, therefore sex equality is as real and unreal as democracy in general can be. There is a world of difference between discourse and reality.  Women are at least 40% of the world labour force (official figures, more if informal labour is factored in), and they globally earn a quarter less than men for the same types of work. If we  consider one of the major feminist issues, abortion, Feminism Illustrated appeared a year after it had just been decriminalised in the US (1973). It is now legal on request, but the legislation in many States makes it extremely difficult to obtain. In Mississippi, only one public hospital and one private clinic perform abortions, and only one in Kentucky. (1) It makes you wonder whether movements like the “Me Too” campaign, whatever merits they may have, really get their feminist priorities right.

What has definitely changed since “Constance” wrote in 1974 is the downfall of then-called “socialist countries”, and the simultaneous evolution of the far left towards more and more elastic redistributive programmes (“Share Our Wealth”). In France, for example, this enables ex-Trotskyists to hold joint meetings with the ex-Stalinist CP.  “Revolution” is now an advertising slogan, part of video lyrics heard on YouTube or, if it happens to be taken seriously, dismissed as “old school” Marxism.

Most contemporary radicals have given up on “the working class” as meant by Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Bordiga or Debord. They usually show an interest in Asian factories but write off western workers as either vanishing, or passive, or reactionary “white trash”, or a combination of all three. Work/labour is currently theorised as inessential or increasingly marginal in a neo- or post-capitalist economy. Productive manual workers used to be described as the salt of the earth, the meek bound to inherit and remould the world. No longer: production is passé, and the future is supposed to belong to those who reproduce society, meaning something close to 99% of society. At the same time as “the end of work” theme prevails, the concepts of “sex work” and “erotic labour” are strangely gaining wide currency, and female “reproductive labour” in the home is presented as a major cause of capitalist ascent and perpetuation. (2)

No point in being judgmental. There’s nothing to blame but the shortcomings of the social movement, ourselves included. If we believe that “mankind sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (3), the historical truth is that so far no proletarian effort has come deeply to grips with the fundamentals of capitalism: hence the limitations of critical theory, reflected in today’s motley intellectual deficiencies and stumbling blocks.

In the (diverse and contradictory, admittedly) Marxist tradition, “class analysis” had often been – and still frequently is - downsized to contrived and formulaic writings where everything boils down to the bourgeoisie vs. proletariat contradiction: in that scheme of things, women only matter inasmuch as they are bourgeois or working class.  

But this reductive vision has been replaced (and in more subtle versions, complemented) by a  mindset which juxtaposes contradictions. Regarding “gender”, the bourgeois/proletarian divide is not denied, it is supplemented by the man/woman contradiction. Marxists used to reinterpret the last few centuries in the light of the surge and intensification of class antagonism. New critical thinking construes the past as an addition of anti-domination struggles, particularly women’s struggles against their subordination to men. 

Against dominant male-focused and mainly Eurocentric history, counter-narratives have appeared in the last decades, looking for more inclusive approaches. Dislodging conservative visions from their hegemonic position is highly positive. Except this has also given birth to another misleading consensus. Giving equal predominance or parallel status to class and gender is undocumented by historical facts. (4)

There have been and still are conflicts between what are called (for want of better words) clans, ethnic groups, races, nations, States, religions… indeed often intermixed with class antagonisms. And there have been a lot of women’s struggles, but, literally speaking, women’s movements as such have never made history in the sense that clans, ethnic groups, races, nations, States or religions for better or worse altered and alter the course of things. Women’s action and impact depend on other factors and are never a prime historical mover.

No doubt this will be dismissed by feminists as typical of male sexism, so let’s take two quick looks at history.

First, a political example. Compared to the mass mobilisations in the 19th and early 20th centuries for universal (male, as we know) suffrage, or the wide campaign for Civil Rights in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, the suffragettes always remained an active but fringe endeavour. Whether we like it or not, what socially mattered was the “people’s” right to vote; for a long time only a minority minded about the “people” being only male, and no significant  political women’s force emerged to put the issue on the table. Women finally won the vote as a consequence of larger and broader movements.

Secondly, a more directly social question. The gender pay gap has always been a regular feature of capitalism, in covert oblique ways in “modern” economies, more openly in most of the world. Yet, compared to the huge multiform past and present struggles for wage rises, the demand for wage sex equality only spurs into action a very limited number of female workers. Fortunately, exceptions are many, in the West as portrayed in the film We Want Sex Equality, and in Asian factories as well. Nevertheless, the fight against sex pay discrimination remains on the margins of labour struggles. Though female workers’ strikes and riots sometimes achieve successful results on their own, on the whole the betterment (or downgrading) of their condition depends on the general – male and female – proletarian movement (or lack thereof). 

These examples point out that “class” is a constant, “gender” a variable. This is enough to make us think twice about theories that depict history as driven by class AND gender. (5)

As contemporary feminism cannot deny these basic facts, either it sets itself clearly reformist objectives (gender parity especially), or, if it wishes to be radical, it looks for a solution by association with small or large minorities oppressed because of race, sexual orientation, etc. Unfortunately, the intersecting of groups hardly helps them converge: in the best of cases, they merely interact when targeting limited goals, only to diverge afterwards, every “section” going back to its own identity. Then radical feminism masks its failure by taking the high moral ground, accusing others (dissenting women included) of being sexist : “You criticise feminism, therefore you’re sexist”. (In the old days, CP activists would say: “You criticise the Communist Party because you’re in the pay of the bourgeois.”)

What we could not foresee in 1974 is how much feminism was to become  part and parcel of identity politics. Since the 1970s, an underlying feature of both mainstream and radical feminism has been a withdrawal into identity (often, paradoxically, in the name of a critique of identity, with the endlessly repeated argument that the “woman” does not exist, it is a “social construct”).

In a nutshell, 44 years after Le Fléau Social published “Feminism Illustrated”, not a particularly bright picture. De-politisation of the general (what society is based on) comes together with ultra-politisation of the particular (the various separate constituents of the whole). Capitalism is currently addressed as an addition of dominations.

Well, best to take stock of the situation as it is. And as Constance says near the end of her interview, history has some surprises in store for us, and not all of them unpleasant.

Postscript : The importance of being Constance.

A few words on the text and context. 

“Feminism Illustrated” first appeared as an article in the last issue of Le Fléau Social (1974), and was signed Constance Chatterley. Le Fléau Social (The Social Plague) was born out of the post-68 rebellion. Turning shame into pride, the title was derived from a phrase by a right-wing French MP, who on July 18, 1961, had declared in Parliament that homosexuality was one of the most dangerous “social plagues” on par with tuberculosis and alcoholism. 

Originally, the magazine was first published in June 1972 by one of the Paris groups of the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire: the FHAR had been founded a year before by -for lack of better words - we can call feminists, lesbians and gays (the word “gay” being hardly ever used in France in those days). Within a few months, however, most lesbians distanced themselves from what they had reason to believe had become male-dominated and at times misogynist. (6)

In fact, 1972 was a critical year both for the social movement as a whole and for its most extreme components. For its part, the FHAR came to adopt the idea that there was something inherently subversive in homosexuality, a theory disapproved of by a number of FHAR participants, who left the group, and by Le Fléau Social. The magazine drifted towards a situationist rejection of activism (“militantisme” in French) and of political organisations. (7) Its third issue (1973) declared : “The FHAR has recreated a new ghetto.” So, what had started as an expression of the radical wing of the homosexual movement turned into a critique of the homosexual question itself, i.e. of all sexual identities. In its last two issues, the magazine only dealt with homosex in relation to sexuality and society in general. A dissidence had turned into a completely different perspective. Alain Fleig, by then The Fléau Social editor and main writer, showed an interest in ideas and people inspired by libertarian communism and the (mainly German-Dutch) “Communist Left”. Among other things, it reproduced the OJTR leaflet “Down with work !”

This was how we met, and how I came to contribute to the magazine with an article on feminism, or rather on sexual identities.

By contemporary standards, Fleig published a non-politically correct magazine, with deliberately provocative content, language and graphics. This resulted in the most famous leftist Paris bookshop refusing to distribute the last issue on the grounds that it contained objectionable statements. (8) Fleig enjoyed being offensive, and engaged in no-holds-barred polemics against counter-culture followers as well as self-management supporters, Zionists and pro-Palestinian State third-worldists, priests and sex educators, Leninists, union activists and even “Marxist scum” (with “Marxist” between brackets). But he also wanted his mag to be fun, and articles were signed under a mix of fanciful aliases: Wladimir Oulianov, Jules Verne, Léon Blum, “Traitor Lin Piao”… and a few often disreputable others. On a lighter touch, because I had just read the book, I decided for “Constance Chatterley”. In the small radical milieu, everybody knew who “Constance” was, but these were carefree days: no man or woman in the circle of friends around the magazine had any objection to a male impersonating a female, even for a critique of feminism.  

Alain Fleig chose the title and subtitle (“Diana’s Complex”), which he inserted between two pictures. One portrayed two arm-in-arm women, not necessarily lovers yet obviously romantically involved. The second picture showed straight-faced marching Red Army women, probably from Russian civil war times. He said these two utterly opposed visions typified two diametrically and equally misleading ways to women’s emancipation: the illusion of the subversive power of love/sex, and the trapping of women as soldiers for a cause they had no control over.

Le Fléau Social was not a theoretical journal meant to last for ages, but rather an agitation mag born out of a time of social struggles, desire and anger, inevitably washed away by the ebbing of the rebellious wave.  Number 5/6 was to be the last issue.

In 2015, when a friend wished to publish a pamphlet containing the 1974 article plus an interview with the writer, we thought the texts would have more impact if they came out of the past and out of the blue, so only “Constance Chatterley” (an alias I had never used again) was named as the author, and we created an ad hoc publishing house, Blast & Meor. We wished our 2015 pamphlet to be judged on its merits, not on what the reader could know about the author’s other writings. The idea was not to mystify and play games as the Situationists sometimes did (and overdid) in the 70’s, so we did not wait long before making public who “Constance” really was. The pamphlet came out in May, the author came out early August.

G.D., 2018

Notes :

(1) At the time of writing, the Argentinian senate is still blocking the bill that would at last legalise abortion.

(2) For a critique of this concept: On the “woman question”, note 3


(3) Marx, preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859

(4) On the use and misuse of the “gender” word and notion: On the “woman question”, note 12.

(5) For a critique of the double/dual contradiction (class + gender) theory as expounded by  the French group Théorie Communiste: On the “woman question”, note 7.

(6) A forthcoming text will on the (same)sex question from the 19th to the 21st centuries will deal with the rise of gay and lesbian movements in the 1960s and 70s, and the FHAR in particular.

All issues of Le Fléau Social are accessible (in French) on an excellent site

(7) Le Fléau Social had long quotes from the OJRT’s now classic Militancy: Highest stage of alienation (1972). Available here.

Also readable on Libcom, the second and less known part (1974), which is a critique of some shortcomings of the first part, notably its “councilist” bias.

(8) Alain Fleig mocked journalist A. Jobert’s  Guide de la France des luttes (Guide of Struggles in France), and called his book a “Red Who’s Who”, a travel guide for left-wingers, but he also scoffed at an author who had recently been victimised by the police. The same issue saw no difference between right and left – which might have been thought excessive but still acceptable – nor between the far-right and the far-left : this was deliberately going beyond the politically admissible. Alain Fleig did not mind being excessive and unpleasant, and was so with considerable success when he put his mind to it.

The bookstore was La Joie de Lire (in the Latin Quarter, closed in 1974) connected to the Maspéro publishing house, one of the main leftist publishers of the 1960s and post-68 period. To protest against this form of censorship, a number of people gathered one afternoon and sold Le Fléau Social in the street in front of the bookshop.