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Deconstructing ‘Categorisation & Construction’

Marxist historian MARY DAVIS responds to recent articles on science and society, and counters the idea that ‘facts are the product of human minds’

MANY women will welcome the fact that a sensible discussion has opened on the sex/gender issue in the wake of the two latest Science & Society articles. 

In the spirit of respectful debate, I now express my disagreement with the authors.

Underlying my substantive criticism is my contention that the authors, Middleton, Shaw and Hellewell, reject the basic precepts of Marxist theory; namely dialectical and historical materialism. 

In philosophical terms this theory developed by Marx and Engels represented a full-scale attack on idealism and its chief proponents in the 19th century, the Hegelians. 

The Categorisation and Construction article is, however, (whether consciously or not) rooted in a bizarre 21st-century revival of subjective idealism which finds its current expression in queer theory.

Marxists do not take the view, espoused by Middleton, Shaw and Hellewell that “facts, especially in science, are the product of human minds.” 

This a prime example of subjective idealism expounded by the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, who asserted that “all those bodies that compose the mighty structure of the world, have no existence outside a mind; for them to exist is for them to be perceived or known.” 

His philosophy is summed up in the aphorism “to be is to be perceived.” 

This is the philosophy of “immaterialism” and is diametrically opposed to Marxist materialism which argues that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit and that human consciousness is determined by social being and not the other way round. 

The implication behind the authors’ assertion that two sexes are identified as a result of the “human tendency for categorising” is that two sexes would not exist had not humans invented such “facts.” 

While they say that sex categories should not be rejected altogether, they undo this by arguing that such categories “could be rejected in a better society in favour of a more utopian construction.”

Thus, in a weird paradigm shift, they appear to be saying that biological sex can be reimagined as the product of our minds. This is akin to the belief that the material world does not exist outside our imagination and again runs counter to Marx’s materialism. 

Although the authors correctly argue that gender is a human construction and that it has a deleterious impact on women, it is unclear whether we are to presume that “womanhood” is the result of gender ideology and that “political womanhood” is the antidote. 

However, it is not true to say that societal divisions are the product of different lived experiences. Apart from the obvious division between capital and labour and thus between rulers and ruled, divisions among the ruled are due to the penetration of divisive ideologies (sexism and racism in particular) which serve to maintain class rule by dividing the exploited. 

The ideology of self-identity is a current example of a highly divisive ideology which serves to fracture collective and unified struggle to challenge the exploitation and oppression which is central to the maintenance of capitalist class society.

The sexist gender stereotype imposed on the ideological construct of “womanhood” should not blind ourselves to the lived experience of being a woman in class society. 

It is the fact of biological sex which, subjugated by various forms of patriarchy, explains women’s oppression and super-exploitation in class society. 

Of course we must engage in critical thinking on gender. It is an oppressive ideological construct which has forced upon us stereotypical conceptions of masculinity and femininity, the lived reality of which has impeded class consciousness and hence progressive social change. 

However, biological sex is not an ideological construct. Socialist feminists fight to unshackle our sex from the ideological prison of sexism and misogyny which constrains women and facilitates our oppression and super-exploitation. Understanding this is central to winning unity in the struggle for socialism. 

To assert that “men and women are concepts and hence the products of the human mind” is redolent of linguistic sophistry. 

In philosophical terms it is akin to the deeply unmaterialistic notion of the “linguistic turn” which began to be significant in the early 20th century and has challenged the tenets of historical objectivity. 

Thus, by implication, it seeks to refute the historically objective starting point of historical materialism, cogently expressed by Engels: “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. 

“This again, is of twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, of clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. 

“The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.” 

Class consciousness is not a product of “empathy” nor is it “the imaginative construction of solidarity.” Rather, it is the product of understanding that class struggle is the motor of history and that human beings do not live “outside” class, ie outside society.  

We don’t need to embrace intersectionality to realise that people are composed of multiple identities which include race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability etc. 

Such identities, its proponents claim, intersect to create a whole which is different and far more complex than each of its component parts — so far so good. 

But the problem is that intersectionality relegates class to a mere aspect of identity — thus defining it as a subjective choice rather than a material reality, and hence undermining the possibility of collective struggle against the very system which fosters discrimination, division and exploitation — capitalism. 

The declassed confusion of the current version of intersectionality theory has morphed into a variant of identity politics, which today has taken on a new guise in the form of its reductionist conclusion: self-identity — a major barrier to class consciousness. 

The history of the labour movement in this country and elsewhere has shown that the level of class consciousness at any given moment is a crucial factor in determining the extent to which the oppression of women and black people is challenged. 

Thus the building of a non-sectarian, broad-based women’s movement and a strengthened labour movement which rejects racist and sexist capitalist ideology must go hand in hand. 

However, without a robust renewal of Marxist-feminist theory, which challenges the now dominant subjective ideology of self-identity, such a project will remain a distant vision.

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