Come again, com­rade

The fe­male sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion un­der Com­mu­nism

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Lynne Se­gal works at Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don. Her lat­est book is Rad­i­cal Hap­pi­ness: Mo­ments of Col­lec­tive Joy. She has also set up a small care col­lec­tive.

Why Women Have Bet­ter Sex Un­der So­cial­ism: And Other Ar­gu­ments for Eco­nomic In­de­pen­dence By Kris­ten R. Gh­od­see Bod­ley Head, 240pp, £12.99 ISBN 9781847925596 Pub­lished 15 Novem­ber 2018

With bad news as­sault­ing us daily, it makes sense to grasp any source of hope. This helps ex­plain why, af­ter a long hia­tus, there is re­newed in­ter­est in so­cial­ism to­day, along with de­nun­ci­a­tions of es­ca­lat­ing in­equal­i­ties. So it is per­haps not so sur­pris­ing to read the open­ing sen­tence of Kris­ten Gh­od­see’s lat­est book, as­sert­ing con­fi­dently: “Un­reg­u­lated cap­i­tal­ism is bad for women.” What is more sur­pris­ing, how­ever, is her ti­tle – Why Women Have Bet­ter Sex Un­der So­cial­ism – re­fer­ring to the ex-Soviet coun­tries.

What­ever the fail­ings of the West, one thing most peo­ple agree upon is that there was noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble to the decade of 1960s lib­er­a­tion in the USSR, or the seven War­saw Pact states, apart from a brief mo­ment dur­ing the Prague Spring in 1968. Sim­i­larly, the rise of the women’s move­ment, as prob­a­bly the sin­gle main ben­e­fi­ciary of 1960s pol­i­tics in the West, had no coun­ter­part un­der state so­cial­ism – the term Gh­od­see uses for the Soviet Union and its spheres of in­flu­ence – within their top­down women’s com­mit­tees. Since the di­verse Com­mu­nist par­ties held firm dis­cur­sive sway in Soviet states, right up un­til the mo­ment of their sud­den col­lapse al­most 30 years ago, it was only no­tions of the col­lec­tive good that could be voiced. Per­sonal lib­er­a­tion, and es­pe­cially sex­ual lib­er­a­tion, was re­garded as lit­tle more than Western deca­dence. Or so we thought. Can this Amer­i­can scholar con­vince us oth­er­wise? The ti­tle of Gh­od­see’s book first ap­peared as the ar­rest­ing head­line of a short ed­i­to­rial in The New York Times in Au­gust 2017, trig­ger­ing de­nun­ci­a­tion as well as in­ter­est, and en­abling Gh­od­see to ac­cept a pub­lisher’s chal­lenge to prove her case.

Her book does in­deed pro­vide some ev­i­dence for her claim, draw­ing on re­search into in­ti­mate life in sev­eral state so­cial­ist coun­tries. The most con­vinc­ing find­ings come from stud­ies com­par­ing East and West Ger­man women, with the for­mer re­port­ing higher lev­els of both sex­ual con­fi­dence and sat­is­fac­tion, in­clud­ing more fre­quent or­gasms. These com­par­isons were un­der­taken be­fore and im­me­di­ately af­ter “the Wall came down”. Gh­od­see backs them up with sex­o­log­i­cal data from a few other War­saw Pact coun­tries, sug­gest­ing that Pol­ish women dur­ing and af­ter state so­cial­ism also reg­is­ter higher lev­els of sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion than women in the United States. She does not ad­dress the pos­si­ble lim­i­ta­tions of this sex­o­log­i­cal data, where the is­sue of age­ing does not fea­ture, and there is lit­tle ref­er­ence to gay, les­bian or queer agen­das. But she does show that sex­ol­o­gists from a range of state so­cial­ist coun­tries were al­ways keen to em­pha­sise that eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence and re­pro­duc­tive choice were im­por­tant is­sues for women, al­low­ing them greater free­dom in their sex­ual re­la­tions. (Gh­od­see ad­mits that Ro­ma­nia and Al­ba­nia, and Rus­sia un­der Stalin, were sig­nif­i­cant ex­cep­tions to any pro­gres­sive sex­ual agenda.)

What this book makes clear is that a lan­guage of women’s equal­ity re­mained an im­por­tant ide­o­log­i­cal in­gre­di­ent in many state so­cial­ist coun­tries, in­form­ing women that they were bet­ter off than their cap­i­tal­ist coun­ter­parts – de­spite the lack of many de­sir­able Western com­modi­ties. As Gh­od­see notes, this em­pha­sis un­doubt­edly re­lated to the need for women in the Soviet work­force, but it also en­tailed cer­tain se­cu­ri­ties in most of the Soviet coun­tries. She also shows that it

was the re­moval of such se­cu­ri­ties af­ter the col­lapse of state so­cial­ism, with sky­rock­et­ing un­em­ploy­ment, clo­sure of pub­lic nurs­eries and with­drawal of other ben­e­fits, that led to the plum­met­ing for­tunes of so many east­ern Euro­pean women post-1989.

In­ter­est­ingly, Gh­od­see sug­gests that women from West Ger­many ended up with rea­son to thank their GDR sis­ters who, forced to seek work in the West, be­gan de­mand­ing crèches and kinder­gartens. “Thank God for those East Ger­man women,” one now prom­i­nent fe­male pub­lisher told Gh­od­see, ex­plain­ing that she would not have had a ca­reer with­out the strug­gles ini­ti­ated by them. There are other books that back up such claims. Gh­od­see’s book fol­lows hard on the heels of Kateřina Lišková’s Sex­ual Lib­er­a­tion, So­cial­ist Style, which ar­gues a sim­i­lar case for com­mu­nist Cze­choslo­vakia as a pi­o­neer of sex­ual free­dom in the 1950s, an era usu­ally por­trayed as sim­ply a “hor­ri­ble, grue­some, dark time” in Cold War pro­pa­ganda.

How­ever, Gh­od­see says she has no de­sire to play down the mur­der­ous hor­rors and ter­ri­ble re­stric­tions in­flicted on cit­i­zens in one-party states, most spec­tac­u­larly, of course, un­der Stalin and Mao. Rather, as a Soviet scholar, she wants to see fuller his­to­ries writ­ten, ones that can move be­yond the fixed nar­ra­tive of speedy shifts from early egal­i­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals to to­tally re­pres­sive post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tions. She is surely right that there is a real need to ex­plore the com­plex­i­ties of the vari­able out­comes of “so­cial­ism” over the decades, in­clud­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of at­tempts at demo­cratic so­cial­ism un­der cap­i­tal­ism, es­pe­cially in the more re­dis­tribu­tive, wel­fare­ori­ented Nordic coun­tries. She is most frus­trated with ar­gu­ments, still dom­i­nant in the US, that any form of so­cial­ism soon ush­ers in to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, if not ter­ror and gu­lags, as if forms of demo­cratic so­cial­ism had never been en­vis­aged or at­tempted.

Read­ers of this book may well wish to see a sharper fo­cus on the di­verse def­i­ni­tions of “so­cial­ism”, “com­mu­nism” and their in­ter­face with the his­tory of “Marx­ism”, although this would re­quire a very dif­fer­ent and more aca­demic text. Gh­od­see does note that it was a so­cial­ist man, Charles Fourier, who first coined the term “fem­i­nism” in 1837, and was a fierce ad­vo­cate of women’s rights and sex­ual free­doms. Sim­i­larly, Au­gust Bebel, one of the founders of the So­cial Demo­cratic Work­ers Party in Ger­many, just over 30 years later, again ar­gued for women’s sex­ual eman­ci­pa­tion, ho­mo­sex­ual rights and other free­doms. These ideas were soon de­vel­oped by Alexan­dra Kol­lan­tai, Rosa Lux­em­burg and other so­cial­ist women ea­ger to com­bine women’s lib­er­a­tion with class strug­gle. Such an­ces­tors lead Gh­od­see to con­clude that if we jet­ti­son so­cial­ism, we also aban­don many of the in­gre­di­ents nec­es­sary for the lib­er­a­tion of women.

While the book’s main agenda is to high­light as­pects of women’s sex­ual eman­ci­pa­tion un­der state so­cial­ism, there is also a cru­cial sub­text that runs through­out, namely that cap­i­tal­ism dis­pro­por­tion­ately harms women. Due to its pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of com­pet­i­tive labour mar­kets, there is a de­valu­ing of all those out­side mar­ket pro­duc­tion, who are do­ing the nec­es­sary, fre­quently un­paid, car­ing work of re­pro­duc­ing and main­tain­ing hu­man­ity. Thus, Gh­od­see’s key mes­sage for us is that, un­less women be­long to the small wealthy elite, they may well “be suf­fer­ing from cap­i­tal­ism”, with poverty, un­em­ploy­ment and stress plagu­ing so many women with heavy do­mes­tic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. As she sees it, the col­lapse of state so­cial­ism helped fa­cil­i­tate the worst ex­cesses of ne­olib­eral ra­tio­nal­ity, with its ever-in­creas­ing re­moval of for­mer safety nets and wel­fare pro­vi­sion, es­pe­cially in Bri­tain and the US. The new mantra of self-help and re­silience has meant that in the US to­day there is still no guar­an­teed ma­ter­nity leave and, es­pe­cially since 2008, the im­po­si­tion of bru­tal aus­ter­ity regimes leaves so many women with lit­tle hope of es­cap­ing poverty, stress and de­pres­sion, which al­ways hit work­ing-class and black women the hard­est. At one point Gh­od­see re­cy­cles a pop­u­lar east­ern Euro­pean joke: “Ev­ery­thing that Com­mu­nists told us about com­mu­nism was wrong, but ev­ery­thing they told us about cap­i­tal­ism was right.”

This is a provoca­tive and use­ful book, but I would have liked Gh­od­see’s in­ter­est in so­cial­ism to ex­tend well be­yond ear­lier state sup­port for women’s fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence and sex­ual free­dom. Once we feed in en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity to any anti-cap­i­tal­ist, egal­i­tar­ian out­look to­day, we head to­wards a vi­sion that is po­ten­tially more rad­i­cal than any hith­erto en­vis­aged, in­clud­ing a to­tal re-eval­u­a­tion of the stead­fast ded­i­ca­tion to eco­nomic growth, al­ways prom­i­nent in East and West alike. This vi­sion is one that be­gins with pri­ori­tis­ing eco­nomic se­cu­rity and wel­fare pro­vi­sion, but the goal would not be sim­ply to en­able women’s greater work­force par­tic­i­pa­tion or more self­di­rected and hence plea­sur­able in­ti­ma­cies. Rather, it would be to re­lease a rad­i­cal prac­tice ad­dress­ing all the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for our care of each other and the well-be­ing of the world we in­habit. Here, too, we may well en­counter ex­cit­ing erotic pos­si­bil­i­ties along the way.

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