Contribution to class/gender debate

delhi bus stop

A response to Maya John’s ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’


The text below has come out of various discussions in London, Berlin and Delhi about a text by Maya John (hereafter referred to as MJ), ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’. We also met her and her co-author, both members of a neo-Maoist youth group ‘Revolutionary Youth Organisation’ (KYS), which is a public youth organisation of a faction of the Communist League of India (CLI). They believe in a ‘communist’ party leading the working class. They have a Marxist-Leninist understanding of class (which will be explained more in the paper) and a formal assumption of ‘class unity’ at all costs. They see the struggle around hierarchies within the working class as a threat to the ‘class unity’, which they suppose to be necessary to overcome capitalism, while we would think that this class unity can only come out of a process of tackling inner-class hierarchies and privileges during struggle itself.

She thinks feminism (as a separable and homogenous movement) undermines the class struggle rather than seeing it as, amongst other things, a response to the failings of the formal labour and social movements of the time. Working class movements were failing to meet and reflect the needs of women entering the labour force or engaging with their various roles within the capitalist mode of production.

While we hope that this paper reflects an appreciation of her attempt at a historical materialist analysis of gender relations leading to situations where sexual violence arises, the main disagreements are with her readings of the history of the feminist movement and different understandings of what class struggle is and should involve. We also question the link between rape and a sexual crisis of working class men.

Another important point to note that came up after this paper was finished, was the statistics around rape in Delhi. We couldn’t actually find any reliable data to show that a) rapes were increasingly perpetrated by working class men; b) that stranger rapes were actually increasing, let alone that they were being committed by working class men c) that the number of rapes in general are increasing, only that women are starting to report them more. Of these, most are reported by higher income women. This obviously throws quite a big question mark on the central tenet of MJ’s thesis, namely that there is an increase in rapes committed by working class men in urban areas. Nevertheless, we still maintain a political position that material conditions are important to analyse because they undoubtedly affect the type of sex people engage in, as well as obviously, all other aspects of their lives.

Comments and further discussions on the text welcome!

*Why sexual violence?

How can we theorise sexual violence in a way that doesn’t just fall back on gender ideology and an independent system of patriarchy? We need to analyse the material bases of sexual violence in order to develop organisational responses that tackle the root of the problem, rather than just its effects. We think violence against women is definitely under theorised amongst the left (including socialist feminists), which leaves it open to right wingers who call for the death penalty for perpetrators, those who lazily blame ‘lumpen’ elements, and those who respond by calling for more state surveillance and control.

We think this focus on violence is also a fruitful, if challenging way into thinking about broader questions about how we analyse class and gender together, as a dynamic and stubbornly re-constituting set of social relations.

*Men and Women, Sex and Power, Social conditions

We will not attempt to summarise the main points of the debate held amongst the media, politicians, mainstream left, revolutionary left and feminists after the horrific attack on a young student on a bus by 6 men in Delhi late last year. Instead we focus on the essays written by Maya John [1] that were published in the aftermath because we think they seemed the most engaging and provocative in terms of challenging long-standing feminist assertions about the nature of violence against women, namely that violence cuts equally across boundaries of class, race, and even history, which in turn supports the idea that violence against women is primarily based on the exertion and dominance of men over women. A lot of much-needed work was done by (mainly radical) feminists into this in the 70s and 80s, and as a result, it was generally accepted that attempts to distinguish between different types of violence against women amongst different groups of people would not see the bigger picture i.e. a system of patriarchy. It would also have legitimised a right wing agenda that saw the ‘lower’ classes and non-white groups as more backwards, less civilised, sexually predatory and prone to violence and criminality. A focus on the conditions that gave rise to violence against women was also seen as justifying or sympathising with the perpetrators.

MJ challenges this cardinal principle by differentiating between urban and rural rapes in order to highlight the social and material conditions that produce people who are vulnerable to rape and sexual violence and those who perpetrate it. She says that rural rapes in the Indian context are mainly committed against lower caste Dalit women by upper caste men. Caste power allows this situation to happen with impunity, which is supported by a state structure and institutions such as the police and army engaged in state ‘protection’ and civil warfare. She understands these kinds of rapes as different in terms of the forces of power and social situation to urban rapes, where caste is not so much of an issue as everyone is more anonymous and instead, working class men, with little social power, are the main perpetrators. Her point is that rape can’t then just be about power (another foundational feminist principle that described rape from the point of view of the victim) because urban working class men have so little of it within a capitalist system of exploitation.

She then brings in a sexual crisis (of working class men) who are hyper-exploited, work long hours, are bombarded with sexual images and live in social conditions where there is no time or opportunities to fulfil their sexual desires. This provides fertile ground, especially in a society where women already have less social and material power, in which more cases of sexual violence occur. She wants to highlight the sexual frustration element on the part of the perpetrator as part of the motivation for rape, alongside power – without this, she thinks a proper analysis, and therefore strategy of response, will be lacking. Such an inclusion also opens the door to discuss what kind of sex and relationships we actually want as part of what we are fighting for in the class struggle. The sexual component within rape has, to some extent, been confirmed in other studies e.g. interviews with rapists in South Africa highlighted the sexual component as one of the motivations for rape, alongside feelings of anger. [2]

We agree with this approach to a certain extent. We think the sexual crisis within capitalism is an important aspect to consider, especially within the framework of the different trajectories of male and female sexuality throughout different historical periods, modes of production and social relations. To not consider the prevalent social conditions, in South Africa or the US for example, places which record some of the highest rates of rape in the world, would be a rather obvious blind spot. MJ throws a similar spotlight on Delhi. [3]

However, we are worried about the implications of explicitly linking incidences of rape with a ‘sexual crisis within capitalism’. Firstly because it focuses on the sexual frustrations of men as if their need for sex is greater and more uncontrollable than women’s, rather than focusing on the fact that they have the power (social space, little chance of facing any consequences, strength and status as men) to exercise means to meet that need – means that women do not have, even though they are equally, if not more, sexually frustrated. We would rather term it a social crisis that impacts upon sex. This would then more explicitly point to the social conditions that influence the type of sex men and women both have (casual, alienated, quick, none at all, forced etc.)

There have been cases throughout history where there has been a spike in sexual violence against women. One such case was at the end of the 15th century in Western Europe, where a counter revolution took place in response to a high level of workers wages and standard of living, together with a drastic reduction in the difference between men and women’s wages after the Black Death, which drastically reduced the numbers of workers, thus increasing their bargaining power with landowners. Authorities attempted to co-opt the most rebellious male workers by giving them access to free sex: they institutionalised prostitution by opening municipal brothels and they effectively decriminalised rape of lower class women. Gang rapes became commonplace, took place openly and loudly. Historians have analysed this as a form of class protest, a means by which proletarian men could take out their anger on the rich and get back “their own”. This was in the context of having to postpone marriage for several years because of the economic conditions (similar to the situation of many working class men in Delhi). The social disturbance was a small price to pay for the authorities who turned working class men against working class women and saw it as a release of social tensions to guard against insurrections. [4] We think existing social tensions towards the end of feudalism could be exploited by the authorities, made easier by the brutal conditions of war and decomposition of former communal structures.

Similarly the Indian state (as well as most states in general) ‘sanction’ rape (e.g. in terms of impunity for institutions like the police and army to commit rapes and a judicial system that models itself under an illusion of neutrality), at the same time that it reinforces capitalist social relations and male privilege within that as a necessary instrument of class rule and division. We would not call this a ‘sexual crisis of working class men’ particularly (even though sexual frustration may be a motivation), rather a society where the majority of working class people are under enormous material pressures, which then impacts upon their sexual relations.

Migration to the city, living in shared, cramped rooms, long work hours and repressive gendered norms all create a lack of opportunity for both women and men to have sex. But linking sexual frustration to an increase in rapes by working class men misses the step in-between – the thing that actually makes someone cross the line into rape. Namely, that men can act on their sexual frustration. This is not to say that men rape because they want dominance over women, rather that they rape because , as well as the reasons that MJ points out such as the social/sexual division of labour, women’s economic dependence on men within the family, urban anonymity, hostility and alienation as a result of migration and yes, the lack of sex , another important factor is the collective masculine environment (by which we mean in a gendered sense as so something socially created, not something natural or inherent), which provides a space in which such behaviour can be acted out with relative impunity. This is because it is within the norms of masculine behaviour (men act out by grabbing sex or being violent). The urban environment is a space where larger groups of men can congregate and where, in Delhi especially, the public spaces are dominated by men. This environment of ‘men together’ provides an opportunity to perform certain ‘masculine’ behaviours. We don’t think this is primarily to do with being bombarded with sexual images, as MJ says. After all, there are no huge billboards with half naked women in working class areas in Delhi. Nor do many working class men have TVs or access to pornography on the internet. We think that, as in previous historical periods where towns became cities, the urban space itself offers more opportunity to have sex because of the fact that more women are generally around (not more in a quantitative sense but more so than the village), compounded by the existence of these collective masculine spaces where desire can be more easily expressed and bought.

Urban spaces opening up sexual possibilities is a good thing. The problem comes when this cannot be realised because men and women cannot become friends and socialise together and sex outside marriage is socially unacceptable, for women especially. But linking rape to this sexual crisis is misleading because men can alleviate their sexual crisis somewhat by going out and buying sex. It is not the sexual (frustration) element that therefore should be emphasised in rape, (although it may be a motivation), but the (structurally enforced and reproduced) social power to be able to enact it. (We think that ‘power’ in the sense that MJ uses it, defined as male power over women, is a limited description, which we are broadening out here.) This social power has not yet been adequately challenged by women because of their more pronounced secondary role in capitalist production and lack of larger, more collective forms of organisation.

*Questions of strategy and what constitutes ‘class struggle’

Although working class men are exploited by capital, they have certain power over all women in given situations: generally always against their wives and daughters and over ‘middle class’ women when these women are in more vulnerable/exposed situations. Whilst acknowledging the material differences that create power imbalances in men’s favour within the working class home that make women more vulnerable to violence, MJ advocates for a strategy of response that is not about challenging personal relationships with men in the home or working class men in general, but rather ‘outwards’ against capitalism. And to effectively overturn capitalism you need a ‘class unity’ that does not pit (working class) women against working class men. Here we would like to make two points.

Firstly, as we said, working class men wield and accept some power over their wives and daughters, power which has been passed on by capital and state in the form of the wage or certain laws. As long as social relations are not questioned at large, men seek to maintain the benefit they get from an uneven distribution of (domestic) labour and social privileges, within a broader system of capitalist exploitation. And secondly, we think that the existing material divisions within the working class have to be overcome within and as part of class struggle in order to pose a revolutionary threat to capitalism as a whole. While we would agree that the state and capital uses the gender distinction and the separation of spheres to keep the working class divided, the answer is not to advocate for a ‘class unity’ that ignores the very real material differences between working class men and women. These include: working class women’s increased role in childrearing and household work so that they are seen as a ‘burden’ that need to be supported by a single male wage; normalised and pathologised gender roles that justify women’s ‘low skilled’ jobs and subsequent worse pay; the fact that they are cheaper ‘competitors’ on the job market, undercutting working class men’s pay etc. Struggles against this are part and parcel of challenging the social divisions of labour which makes a capitalist mode of production capitalist: the division of mental and manual labour, of town and countryside and, last but not least, the division of domestic/private and ‘productive’/public labour.

These ‘internal’ working class struggles threaten a rhetorical ‘class unity’, which is what MJ espouses, coming as she does from a Marxist-Leninist tradition that promotes such a concept. Papering over the very real material differences between different segments of the working class, which capital has created and continues to create, will not ultimately make the working class stronger. It actually tends to limit the numbers involved in struggle as people recognise that they won’t actually benefit from participating in a particular struggle. Historically, with proletarianisation, there was a similar emergence of inner-class conflicts concerning lower-caste workers in India or Afro-American workers in the US; not all of their struggles against casteism or racism within the working class were ‘identitarian’. We think there should be space within the working class and its’ organisations to defend the space of ‘struggle within class struggle’ to develop a full critique of class and gender, while at the same time trace all possible lines of power which stretch from the (female) collective space of the immediate production process to the household. From there, female proletarians have to challenge gender hierarchies in struggle here and now.

*Every class having its own women’s question

Following on from this Marxist- Leninist understanding of class unity, underlying MJ’s work is the assumption that ‘each class has its own women question’ and that there is no structural relation between the gender relations within different classes – something that Clara Zetkin also said in 1896. As well as using this to explain why there can never be any real cross-class alliance between women based on a shared experience (and therefore the ultimate redundancy of the feminist movement), she also uses this to explain why any struggle against women’s oppression must be led by working class women, because middle class women, who currently lead the mainstream feminist (mainly) academic, will never dismantle capitalism as the root of all oppressions as they have conflicting collective and material interests to the working class. We would agree that working class women will be the force that is able to ultimately realise this. However, not for all the same reasons.

*How is ‘class’ defined?

Firstly we would question MJ’s definition of class. MJ would define class as those with a collective interest in destroying capitalism because they produce more value than they get in return for their subsistence. It fails to see how different sections of the working class are actually composed, in other words, how they are situated at different points in the social production process and what this means in terms of differing interests, experiences and needs. We think that these have to be addressed directly as part of the revolutionary process by which the working class are brought together, rather than just through an externally imposed ‘political education’ that tells us we all ultimately have the same interests.

According to MJ, struggles within the working class (such as struggles between working class me and women) or feminism (which is seen as a whole rather than being made up of many differing strands) undermines class struggle because it seeks to divide rather than unify. These ‘separated struggles’ are seen as a distraction from the ‘politics’ of overthrowing capitalism. The idea that women across classes can have some level of common experience (e.g. if they are raped or experience sexual violence) or structural commonality and that this then could lead to some front of common struggle (feminism) complicates MJ’s concept of class and collectivity and what the process of revolutionary struggle involves.

*Class determining your concerns

To further undermine feminist struggle as part of class struggle, MJ states that middle class women are overly concerned with ‘sexist behaviour’ and ‘personal/individualised’ issues and working class women are more concerned about more relevant issues like wages, work conditions, food prices etc. This is historically inaccurate. During the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s in Western Europe and the US, proletarian women raised the issues of housing, rent, food prices, (sexual and reproductive) health issues. During these struggles, a lot of seemingly ‘private issues’ became collective and political. How does our husband or comrade act once we are at home or in bed? How do we see ourselves, our sexuality? What kind of gender hierarchies exist within the struggle and its’ political organizations? Who talks and how? The discoveries that these gender hierarchies are not private issues led to a ‘scientific’ analysis of the history of gender relations in capitalism and pre-capitalist periods. These were blind spots within the class struggle and communist movement and the struggle over these hierarchies and blind-spots has to be fought out in order to come to a communist position. While ‘middle-class feminism’ tends to detach the gender questions from the collectivity of proletarian struggle from which they arose, we see that MJ’s position runs the danger of doing the opposite: sweeping back under the carpet the potentially conflictual and embarrassing politicisation of gender-based hierarchies within the working class and working class organisations and detaching them from the struggle around seemingly more class-based ‘issues’ (employment, reproductive consumption) from which they emerged.

In summary, this distinction of what is ‘class based’ can only be made if you see ‘class’ mainly as everyone who receives only the value of their reproduction costs, rather than as composed through their position in the social production process. Here the question arises of how to define ‘working class women’. Does it include, as MJ thinks, housewives, who mainly depend on their husbands’ wages and good will? This would not acknowledge their dependency on the male wage and subsequent different positions within the social production process. To assume that they automatically have a common interest displays a rather idyllic picture of a familial/marriage bond. Does their understanding of working class include home-based female wage workers who earn independently, but have little collective social interaction? Or rather, are they waged workers who work ‘outside’, who can actually experience ‘being part of a class’, but who still receive less of the ‘common’ household wage and still do more additional domestic labour than their ‘male class husbands?’

If these sorts of internal divisions sketched out above are not overcome as part of the class struggle, then a ‘formal unity’ as such would always require an external force which holds the class together, which in the end will require a state apparatus developing separate interests from the class it claims to represent. Revolution is thus seen as a process where, through the capturing of state power, the social produce is evenly distributed. We would rather say that the precondition of ‘abolishing power’ of state and capital is a revolutionary process of getting rid of division-of-labour-based hierarchies within the class during the struggle itself. The communist revolution has to develop alternatives to nuclear family-based reproduction as part of struggle’s organisation.

One reason that mainstream feminist struggles have been led by the smaller number of largely academic, middle class women could be because the numbers of women that we think can be deemed working class subjects in their own right (i.e. wage earners who are able to build class collectivity outside of the isolation of the home) are only now increasing to the extent where social spaces are opening up, making it easier for them to speak out and organise on a mass scale. But it is not a quantitative problem as such (there are obviously more women waged workers than women academics, even in India). Rather it may be more the case that middle-class women who first enter a labour market, be it in middle-class positions, are more able to express discontent of gender oppression (obviously from a position of higher income and often accepting the social privilege which it entails).

In the meantime, we do not think it is productive to silence middle-class women, although admittedly we wouldn’t want anyone to listen to those in the NGO sector who bang on about ‘empowering poor women through microcredit schemes’ and such-like. But not all middle class feminists necessarily have a middle class position, and some raise important issues that affect not just their narrow interests, but the lives of working class women. They can, and do, also raise questions around a structural commonality of gender relations within the different classes that have important implications for our political understanding and activity. On what basis can we talk about a structural commonality?

*Housework and the structural relation between gender relations within different classes

The issue of housework came up in the post-December 16th debate in an attempt by the group ‘radical notes’ to forge a structural link between working class and middle class women, as an attempt to counteract MJ’s idea that each class has its own specific women’s question. They said that because all women have to do domestic work, or are at least expected to, this provides a common material basis of experience and possibly struggle for all women. However, MJ problematised this by tracing the changing nature of housework for different classes of women and at different phases of capitalism and the mode of production. She rightly pointed out that domestic work is not the same for middle class women who can afford to pay someone else to do this work for them and working class women who have more of a ‘double burden’ of work. These class differences obviously exist, especially so in India where the difference in income levels is so vast, and where it is commonplace for middle class women to use the labour of working class women in their homes. In the sense that domestic work is generally done by working class women, for themselves and their families, as well as the middle class, either unwaged or at the lowest wages, it forms a material basis for their continuing subjugated position, as well as being an expression of their worse position on the labour market.

But ‘middle class’ women experience rape and sexual violence at the hands of their male friends and husbands too. MJ attempts to explain this as a ‘projected victimhood’ of working class women sticking to middle-class women. This explanation is not convincing and we think instead it points to a structural intra-class commonality of gender relations instead which we trace back to: the gendered split between the reproductive and productive spheres that is present within all classes; gendered institutions and women’s particular role as labour within capitalism.

*Gendered institutions

The emergence of capitalism was contradictory: it undermined the previous patriarchal (feudal) institutions, but at the same time, alongside the development of an idea of a bourgeois subject, it largely universalized gender roles across classes. The welfare and medical system to a certain extent generalized both a ‘scientific view of women’s social biology’ and reproductive norms. And certain institutions emerged where, despite major class differences within, lower and upper class males converged. (And if there is a dynamic which projects the victimhood of working class women onto middle-class women, then there exists a similar dynamic which binds working-class men to the ‘masculinity’ of upper-class men). These became schools of masculinity, such as large armies, settler economies, the prison system, religious organisations, certain industries. These institutions worked as buffer-zones during times of labour market contraction: working class men migrated, were drawn into the army, got material relief by entering cross-class religious organisations etc.; working men enter them (they are forced to enter them) and come together with men of other classes in a hierarchical masculine separate sphere, which both discipline the male working class, maintain hierarchical structures and train them to discipline ‘their women’. The sexist consciousness within the working class therefore cannot be treated as mere ‘false consciousness’, as remnants or ‘release valves’, but its fundaments have to be attacked materially. These general capitalist institutions, mainly lead by men, also increasingly shaped the conflict around the uneven distribution of (domestic) labour and power within the working class, mainly the access to the labour market. Iran is an example where the state/religious forces was able to push back female employment; it is partly based on ‘masculine institutions’, defending the access right of working class men to a shrinking labour market through conservative ideology. But we can also see that nowadays it requires a police state in order to reproduce this separation; ‘women’ can be one of the first who can crack the shell of this police state. All in all, the sexist ideology of the upper-class seemed not as unrelated to the conditions of the working class as it was during feudal times, when these ‘civic’ institutions did not exist to such an extent.

These, often state-backed institutions, are also one way in which gender differences are constantly reproduced despite capitalism undermining the biological reasons for the division of labour between men and women (e.g. through automisation that means physical strength cannot be used as a reason for employing men over women). Male institutions such as the army, prison system, some parts of the organised labour and left movements for example perpetuate gender and class hierarchies and privileges, so an essential part of class struggle is attacking these institutions, including crucially, the family. In this case, we believe it is naïve for MJ to think this will not involve some ‘direct’ challenging of working class male power by (working class) women at particular moments.

*Escaping the kitchen, home and family

The question of where the material basis for women’s oppression lies is the crucial one. We have mentioned the fact that one view that came out in the debate is that women’s subjugated position is situated mainly in their role as unwaged domestic or reproductive workers. MJ discusses two strategies that have developed in response to the fact that women have been trapped in the home: (1) the ‘wages for housework’ campaign in the 70s, which she is highly critical of in terms of its status as an unrealistic demand and cementing women’s position in the home- which we would agree with and (2) the entry of women en mass into the labour force, which provides the material basis to challenge sexism and gender hierarchies. While this is true, we would also say this alone is not enough as waged work participation is equal to men’s in countries in Europe but sexual violence against women stubbornly persists at high rates. This is because, within capitalism, women are always the reserve army of labour because they bear children and so will always be less attractive to employers, embodying (whether in reality or potentially) a social cost to capital. And if they are not waged workers, they will be a burden on the male wage, causing resentment, or if they are waged, as competitors undercutting the wages of working class men (or middle class men if we are talking about middle class women). This better explains to us the material basis of sexual violence against women within each class.

While the abolition of the capitalist system is obviously where to channel our energies, the question of how to be in a better position to be able to do this becomes pressing. MJ sees full employment as both a precondition and demand for women’s equality. But this is not achievable under current social conditions. In a crisis, women are either pushed back into the home or into poorer paid jobs, which will not necessarily improve their material and collective positions. So what other strategies are there? Women’s experiences as waged workers and within the home need to be shared and heard amongst the working class and their organisations; more struggles will need to be generalised outside of the factory-to other workplaces and the home; current ‘working class’ forms of organisation will need to be challenged and re/newly-organised to meet the needs of women as workers and the primary caregivers; current formal organising structures such as unions that separate different workers will need to be broken free of; women will need to get into a position to have more free time to collectivise their struggles; autonomous forms of collective childcare will need to be organised; other reproductive tasks will need to be socialised and the separation of work and home/public and private need to be questioned; sexism by working class men and ‘revolutionary left’ organisations needs to be challenged. This is not meant to sound voluntaristic, but we pose some suggestions and questions that will undoubtedly arise as the social churning in the current phase continues.

Finally, we conclude with the ultimate question: how do we envisage a mode of production after capitalism that does not reproduce a gendered division of labour and ‘gender’ even as a concept, given the fact that women bear children? If capitalist ‘social productivity’ is the material basis not only to think about ‘gender’, but also how to overcome the social division of labour which gender is based on, how can we at the same time criticise the means which form essential parts of it, from milk-powder to caesareans, from the pill to all the ‘labour saving technologies’ whose production at the same time have enslaved us and destroyed our environment? Where can we see the seeds of a social alternative within the present? These are the questions we are currently grappling with. Please let me know your thoughts so we can continue the discussion and maybe write another paper together. Hopefully, to be continued…


[1] May 2013, and October 2013,
[3] However, total overall recorded rapes are low (1,330 reported in 2013 with a population of 17.5 million.) don’t think there is any data to indicate that Delhi is much more dangerous for women than other large, sprawling urban metropolises.
[4] Federici, S. 2004 ‘Caliban and the Witch’ p.47-8