Butch Lee: “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”
[This substantial essay and appendix by the Amazonian feminist theorist Butch Lee were first published in 2006 in a pamphlet titled People’s War… Women’s War?: Two Texts by Comrade Parvati of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) with Commentary by Butch Lee. At present this text is out-of-print and only available to purchase second-hand, and it has been available online only as part of an incomplete, disorganized pamphlet scan. Lee’s essay is framed as a response to two works by Hisila Yami (“Parvati”): “The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal” and a subsequent 2004 interview with People’s March.
A handful or two of typos that are not part of Butch Lee’s literary style have been corrected. Special thanks in preparing this essay goes to j_nada17 for their invaluable assistance in cleaning up the source PDF file of this essay.]
“Where Do Correct Ideas Come From: A Review of Parvati’s Interview & Writing”
As usual, the squad of local guerrillas were all women. They were armed with only handmade, single-shot muskets of the kind last used by Western armies in the mid-19th century, but were dressed in their green Communist militia uniforms. The squad arrived at a shack and quickly dragged a man outside. Well-known for beating his wife every night, the husband was given a beating himself by the women guerrillas in front of neighbors. Then was warned that any further violence against women or continued alcohol abuse would be bad for him. Women onlookers were invited to reinforce the lesson by contributing punches at him, which some enthusiastically did. For most it was the first time they had ever had a chance to strike back at the violent men who had terrorized their lives. Then the village squad dispersed, another mission completed for the revolutionaries who are the only anti-patriarchal violence police in Nepal.
As usual, when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Nepal government held unsuccessful but highly publicized peace talks in 2003, all the negotiators in the room were men. That year comrade Parvati, the senior woman leader in the party and head of the Women’s Department, wrote about the progress of women advancing in the party’s leadership: “/n the United Revolutionary Peoples Council, which is an embryonic central people’s government organizing committee, there are four women out of 37 members.” So, as usual, a leadership of men has been preparing a new government of men. Parvati added then that as a new goal, the party had ordered that all leadership bodies in their party, army, and mass civilian organizations have at least 10% women. The party has at least advanced from the stage of exclusion to the stage of tokenism.
There is an obvious tension between these two realities. And straight up exploring this contradictory terrain inside her own revolution and in past Communism itself, comrade Parvati raises questions that are vital. These two documents that we have — The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal and the Interview with Com. Parvati — are a gift, then. A sharing of thought between women who want to be free of capitalism and slavery.
The question i am centered on is the contradiction of women’s liberation within the revolutions of men. Revolutions that have led women not to freedom but back to domesticity.
i am not an expert about Nepal and their Communist movement, and i certainly do not have advice for Nepali women. But this Parvati has particular revolutionary ideas interesting to women like me who believe in armed struggle as the means of ending mass rape and killings. Suits and their pets have wishfully consigned armed revolutionary women to the dumpster of the departed 20th century. Still, we are growing, advancing. Not willing to just leave it on that self-congratulatory note, we are also at the same time shrinking and retreating. Check out Darfur and child pom or tv shows about serial killings of women. Daily entertainment in our world. The dead-on contradiction between learning our skills from men & having our own.
Whether men like it or not — and there are many men of both male right and male left who do not — millions of our sisters have found training camps for themselves within the Maoist revolutions of the capitalist periphery.
J. Sakai has written recently on this: ’’Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels challenged capitalism to class war with their opening words in the Communist Manifesto: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe. It is the spectre of Communism.’ Well, today we could say that a spectre is haunting Globalization. Surprising to many, it is the spectre of Maoism.
“Maoism may seem like an anachronism if you’re sitting in a Starbucks accessing your 401(k) account online over here, but in the post-modern world there are many more people living in desperately poor, feudalistic rural societies ruled by landlord capitalist classes who keep their traditional positions with armies of gunthugs.
“In that situation, Maoism is like an old but reliable weapon. Like a do-it-yourself kit crafted for precisely that situation. That has all the concepts and strategies and tactics even down to the details of organization and the slogans, that a handful of revs can use to build a mass revolutionary power and overthrow the old order. If you were a debt slave child condemned to labor until early death in the plantations of Western Nepal, Mao is like a flash of the freshest thing you ever heard of. ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.’
“That’s why there is a “Red belt” of Maoist guerrilla insurgencies and liberated zones involving millions of people stretching thousands of miles across India and Nepal. We’ve all learned that political weapons like Maoism can unfortunately be used against the oppressed as well as for the oppressed, but the point is to always remember how effective these weapons can be. That’s the reality in this post-modern 21st century.”
Ever since the underground Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) began Peoples War on February 13, 1996, women have been joining the armed struggle both as soldiers and as activists. As of 2003, the CPN(M) said that their revolutionary women’s association had 600,000 active members in 1,500 local units just in Nepal’s Western region alone. Comrade Parvati wrote then: “In the Peoples Liberation Army there are many women commanders, vice commanders in different sections within the brigade, platoons, squads and militia. There are separate women’s sections in brigade: women platoons, women squad teams, women’s militia teams functioning in the field. ”
At a 2003 peace meeting of women from different political viewpoints, including the royal government, comrade Parvati said that nearly 33 percent of the Maoist army were female, and that two had risen up the ranks to become brigade commanders, “In some cases men have abandoned weapons and run from encounters, but women have never done so. We won all the battles that involved a large number of women guerillas,” she said.
While that is a shocking breakthrough in terms of an old feudal culture, and an acceptable record by the standards of the male-owned left, that’s all it is. As strongly as our Nepali sisters are rising, it is still within the boundaries of the old male world. Where women contribute their intelligence and energy to a male party commanded by men. And this is the real contradiction that Parvati seems to be wrestling with. Let’s break it down.
In critical ways Nepal’s women are the heart of the revolution, because they are the heart of society. As she points out, because many men in the countryside must emigrate away in search of work, households headed by women and virtual villages of women are normal in Nepal. “The women in Nepal are in fact like de facto women-headed households. They are married but literally living on their alone most of the years taking care of children and parents. So you can virtually say that women are running the peasant economy in Nepal.” Rural women spend their entire lives at hard labor. Raising crops and raising children and taking care of the elderly and doing most of the work to sustain villages. With nothing for themselves except bare survival. Of Nepali women in the labor force, only 7% receive wages (and even here, in agriculture, women’s wages average only a third of men’s wages). Another 29% are self-employed, usually as marginal vendors and home craftswomen. But 64% of Nepali women do unwaged labor for family farm or small business.
Oppressed by all the social mechanisms of being a semi-slave proletariat of their own, Nepali women are often forced into marriage. Marriage between men and women is always a cover for legalized rape and ownership of women’s bodies and reproduction as men’s property. This doesn’t mean sex between men and women, but marriage as a legal institution. In Nepal violence of all kinds against women is endemic. Polygamy and child sexual slavery is as legal as abortion has always been illegal. Although new laws passed a few years ago in theory legalized abortion, women are still being prosecuted for it. Women are still serving long sentences for this in Nepal’s prisons. Divorce or remarriage for women is often not permitted according to the dominant Hindu religion. Property is held by men and inherited by men.
Young teenage girls from Nepal are a major source of new bodies for the brothels of India, either sold by their male relatives or kidnapped in the extensive cross-border sex trafficking that all the region’s patriarchal capitalist governments support. There are believed to be 200,000 or more Nepali women enslaved in Indian brothels. This is just what is general. Not even taking into account all the special oppression faced by the “untouchable” Dalit caste women and the women of the many non-Hindu ethnic peoples who are a third or more of Nepal. Women are joining the revolution not for men’s reasons but for slave revolt reasons, often becoming guerrillas to counter landlord violence or to escape marriage (carrying a rifle with a women’s unit does a lot for that man problem).
It is for similar reasons that Amazons are being created worldwide. One-third of all unit commanders in the Sandinista army in Nicaragua in the 1970s were women. Even capitalist armies or warlord armies, such as the u.s. army or the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, are discovering their pragmatic need for arming women. Even the Royal Nepal Army began recruiting women soldiers in 2004. As comrade Parvati said in a commentary for the Nepal Times on that step by the enemy, there is a “global practice of having women in the army.”
What is so unusual in Nepal is not so much the women guerrillas, but the outspoken mix of ideas that comrade Parvati represents. She is pushing towards the borders of women-centered politics from within the old framework of men’s national liberation movements and parties. Parvati is known internationally within the left for her view that the continued oppression of women within new Marxist-Leninist societies has been the virus from which the capitalist infection regrew to capture first the Communist party and then the entire society in both Russia and China. Thus, patriarchy is not a side question to class but the central class question in modern revolutionary politics. Makes sense to me.
Men’s Marxist-Leninist parties are modernist by nature, so a certain style of lip-service towards women’s liberation goes along with this. Eventual far-off equality between genders is their official male goal. Usually along with a denunciation of feminism as a “bourgeois democratic” politics. Comrade Parvati seems to march ideologically along with all this, but she also carries an angry eye on women’s realities that would set the dullest textbook afire.
Parvati is the name of a Hindu goddess of love and marriage, especially ironic for the party name of a woman with her anti-patriarchal views. Her birth name is Hisila Yami. She was educated as an architect in India at New Delhi’s elite School of Planning and Architecture. Yami was a lecturer in city planning at Nepal’s Pulchowk Campus of Engineering. She is married to Baburam Bhattarai, who is generally considered the CPN (M)’s second ranking leader and its major theoretician. Three years after the start of the guerrilla insurgency, Yami went underground. So her life has changed a lot since her youth in a “rich middle-class background.” Now she only sees her daughter, who is 20, about once a year under careful circumstances. Since the guerrilla war began Parvati has worked as a leader of the party Women’s Department and in the party’s International Department, building relationships with other revolutionaries and supporters in other countries. As well as serving as one of the few women in the CPN(M) politburo and central committee. Writings on women’s issues under Hisila Yami’s name, both alone and coauthored with Bhattarai, have appeared in Nepal and India for some years. Comrade Parvati also works with the party annual journal, The Worker.
She was suspended in March 2005 from the party along with Bhattarai because their faction went public with its opposition to the politburo’s “one-man leadership” and “Stalinism”. The public split in the party resulted in a face-saving compromise, and both Parvati and Bhattarai were reinstated in July 2005.
Her politics personally embody, then, the unity and contradiction between men’s revolutions and our own liberation. Don’t be misled by the language in her writing. Which is not only in old Marxist-Leninist style and jargonistic, but is in what we could call “Asian-British english”. For example, in one section about village fairs, Parvati writes about women “running the mess”, which is about a commissary or vendor stalls. The word “band” is used a number of times, which is not a rock group but “bandh” or a general strike. The style and vocabulary are sometimes different but the thinking isn’t
In Parvati’s herstoric, The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal, she goes right for the jugular. Starting by locating the question. It isn’t about whether women participate to one degree or another in armed revolution. It’s about women communally taking leadership. Ensuring that revolution, after all of women’s sacrifices and invaluable contributions, really works for the oppressed and not for some new capitalist state bureaucracy. Especially for women, “… revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women’s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties… ” It’s always nice when a sister can say that the king has no clothes & the queen is only half dressed, too.
Parvati is proud that Nepali women are being empowered by joining the armed struggle. Gaining self-confidence, knowledge, leadership, and the Amazon abilities of physical self-defense. These aren’t small things to a gender of semi-slaves. No matter how much the slick capitalist world wants to condemn revolutionary armed women, everyone who wants to can see the night-and-day difference between these Nepali Communist women fighters and women in Darfur, who are disarmed politically and militarily. Compare and contrast. Can we admit to ourselves what that difference means?
An entire social revolution has been going on with women in the countryside. Uneven, bitterly contested even within the party, but real. There are now model “women’s villages” where women’s rights and activities are for the first time the law. New projects like child daycare centers, literacy classes, and women’s farming co-ops are combined there. Across Nepal the Maoist women’s association has conducted antialcoholism drives in the villages. As their armed militias have ended the sex trafficking in girl-children in zones that they control.
The point is that even activities as simple as these all assume women’s political violence as their foundation. During his own guerrilla revolution, Mao Zedong said that among the masses political organizing and armed struggle were not opposite activities but interdependent.That without the gun to protect themselves those trying political organizing in the peasant countryside would simply be wiped out by the police and the local gangs that work for the capitalists. If it is true for women in Black housing projects in Chicago, if it is true for women who have to run and hide in battered women’s shelters in New York, then you know it is true in rural Nepal where capitalist men have always done whatever they wished to the oppressed.
But even within this People’s War, even in the guerrilla Communist Party (Maoist), women trying to free themselves are being undermined again and again. Parvati is not telling us this lightly. The main problem to her is marriage and the patriarchal culture within the party. M-L (Male) doctrine has always stressed how oppressive bourgeois marriage is versus how wonderfully liberating revolutionary marriage is. Parvati seems to barely pay lip service to this standard (truth in lending: myself, i think that “revolutionary marriage” is an oxymoron like “anti-racist nazi”). Particular after particular, she hurls scorn at marriage as it is being practiced by her movement. She defines marriage as “an alliance of convenience for men to perpetuate their hegemony in property relations. For women the same alliance in fact marginalizes them to domestic slavery. Sadly this holds true among the communists too, although to a lesser degree.” Parvati points out that often women are forced to drop out of being fighters or even activists after “communist marriage” and child-raising responsibilities. Women are seldom seen in the Communist military ranks after age 25. Unlike men.
There is a connection between guerrilla war and the seismic shift inside the Nepalese movement that led to the entrance of women onto the main political stage. While most of Nepal is a chain of semi-feudal rural societies, the major urban areas have long had a sizable political left of the pro-Moscow or pro-Indian social-democracy type. In this subculture, women were present in name but not in practice. That was visible on ABC or CBS television news this past Spring, as the nightly coverage of Kathmandu’s pro-democracy struggle showed us… endless crowds of men filling the streets, with only an occasional woman here or there. As Parvati says of her own left subculture:
“So there was a big gap between theory and practice, so as a result what happened was that the women in their young age were very active, but once they became married they eventually became either the wives of leaders or vanished into oblivion. Thus marriage became a patriarchal left institution for producing good efficient wives for the male communist leaders at the cost of losing women cadres in the communist movement. But because the left movement was active, you would get fresh group of women coming and again vanishing. This cycle of vicious circle got asundered with the initiative of People’s War in the year 1996. It unleashed the fury of women so far locked up in legal and trivial struggle.”
Parvati says point-blank: “The most radical rupture the Peoples War was able to bring in women’s lives was that it broke women away from the family shackle.”
It’s the family not the landlord or the government or the factory boss that is the first and most important target of struggle. Since the family is the slave plantation, the factory, the prison as far as women are concerned. That it is also the site of possible affection and support makes it all the more insidious. She is not fooling around with domestic reform here. Over and over this Nepali woman leader says that women must break with having children and raising children in order to become communist fighters and leaders. (Which was exactly the general kind of view that Elizabeth Cady Stanton urged on u.s. feminist activists a century ago).
This raises a lot of long-range questions about how society should be structured. Parvati, in her best Marxist-Leninist form, roasts those socialists who — like Mussolini, Hitler, Bush and other euro-fascists — promote motherhood as the important role for women: “The dogmato-revisionist tendency is seen by romanticizing the bearing of children as yet another front where women can prove their mettle in class struggle. But in practice, all this revolutionary romanticism loses its heat when the practical problems of bearing and bringing up children start hindering the combat life of the cadres amidst fierce class struggle. This eventually results in women to take back seat in the revolutionary movement.”
Along this line, it is telling that comrade Parvati repeatedly holds up “fine women communist leaders like Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Inessa Armand, Krupskaya, etc.” To those not familiar with Marxist-Leninist (Male) culture, this lineup is highly unlikely. Two of these, Kollontai and Armand, are rarely held up as models or praised as leaders. Both Russian Old Bolsheviks, both are also known as leading advocates of “free love” and opponents of marriage. In addition, Kollontai was a leader of the Workers Opposition in the early 1920s. Which opposed the party leadership of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, etc. as building a new state bureaucracy over the working class. Armand led in the Communist relief efforts during the famine of their civil war and died doing that. She put her beliefs about “free love” into practice by becoming Lenin’s lover. Scandalizing the Bolshevik leadership. To knowingly praise them as leaders, as Parvati does, is to make a point that pushes at the boundaries of women’s role within men’s revolutions.
The obvious conclusion is that the liberation of women demands an end to marriage in any form that we’ve known, just as a start. Of course, Parvati does not say this. It would fly in the face of her party’s line and perhaps her own beliefs. Parvati does speak to the press about reading books together and otherwise enjoying her relationship to Bhattarai. So at a later point in her article she adds a balancing discussion of “good” Communist marriages. Her examples of correct marriages almost all involve one or both partners as “martyrs” dying in battle. (There is a lot of discussion of death in Parvati’s writings because the number of Nepali women being killed in combat has been very high. The great breakthroughs against the enslavement of women have not been without cost, since patriarchal capitalism concedes nothing without struggle).
And then there is the real “Gritting Your Teeth Award” paragraph near the end of her article, where Parvati writes how important it is for the movement to produce “women communist companions” providing “comfort and companionship ” for male Communists. This wonderful phrase “women communist companions” is one i’ve never heard before out loud. Although Marxism-Leninism (Male) subculture has always given this an unacknowledged priority in practice.
Again, what comrade Parvati is contributing here is her insistence on an honest discussion on everything to do with the condition of women, especially within the revolution. Is she being a small part tongue in cheek here? i don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Parvati continues by reminding everyone of the need for women to “sustain and preserve revolutionary communist men leaders.” Which seems to be a higher category of providing “comfort and companionship” to men. This whole discussion is hilarious in a totally awful way. (That certainly has been the practice of male lefts. Lenin, who was a brilliant revolutionary for men, was supported financially by his mother his adult life until they seized state power, and at home was personally taken care of by his wife, Krupskaya. Nice. How are you supposed to carry out a working class social revolution if you haven’t lived a working class communal life yourself?). Women are still being used as accessories to energize even revolutionary men’s lives. To preserve a private space that is the ownership of human beings. But then the next day after the guerrillas seize state power, everyone is supposed to set up a new non-authoritarian culture that they’ve never lived themselves? This isn’t like lego where you just push the pieces into place.
Oddly enough (here i am being sarcastic) the Chinese Red Army managed to make the world’s largest revolution in 1927-1949 without many “women communist companions’’ among them. During the long guerrilla years in the countryside, very, very few Red male soldiers (and they were almost all male, most Red women staying to make the mass peasant revolution in the villages ) had women to “comfort” them. When someone needed to be freed up to concentrate on their job better, it had nothing to do with gender roles. They were assigned a recovering wounded soldier or a “little Red devil”, one of the many orphans taken up by the Red Army. To make tea and keep track of papers and carry bags. And the Chinese male guerrilla revolutionaries seemed to find the “comfort” of other men to be quite adequate (although it is true that Mao had wives during that time).
Needless to say, comrade Parvati has no discussion of how important it is for their movement to equally produce young male companions and comforters for women leaders. This is a funny blank. Behind the surface of romance or caring or equality is something quite different. To say nothing of the fact that women don’t need men for “comfort” because we have us, ourselves. What is so useful is that Parvati says out loud the rotting patriarchal assumptions barely hidden behind the curtain.
All this brings us to the edge of the biggest contradiction and question mark implicit in comrade Parvati’s writings, it is summed up in Mao’s famous question, “Where do correct ideas come from?” Over and over, comrade Parvati says that the existing Marxist-Leninist (Male) party is the only doorway women can go through to liberate ourselves. Because, in her words, “women are late arrivals in the political arena”, men like Marx and Mao have already discovered the basic revolutionary theory and politics that women have to learn from. “Let us not forget that it was also revolutionary men like Karl Marx, Engels, August Bebel, Lenin, Mao etc. who provided deep analysis of women’s oppression and have shown the path of women’s emancipation.”
When women are permitted into rebellions started by men, and permitted into organizations that men have created, then such ideas as the ones comrade Parvati expresses are understandable ideologies or systems of false consciousness. Certainly they are not true. What deep analysis of women did Mao provide, for example? Or how exactly did Karl Marx show women “the path” for our self-emancipation? These men were great revolutionaries in men’s world, but their thinking for and about women was crude or even backward. Not in any way leading. (When male revolutionary leaders did accidentally make any breakthrough in theory about women, it went without notice in men’s world and was immediately forgotten).
According to this false consciousness that comrade Parvati carries, the M-L (Male) ideology and party is a neutral instrument, that can be driven in any direction depending on who is behind the steering wheel. Today men, tomorrow women. Just like General Motors is now telling us that their gigantic SUVs and pickup trucks are environmentally neutral and can be “Green” or “Yellow” or any consumer choice we will pay for. This is a bourgeois ideology, the false view that social creations can ever be neutral and abstracted from the “sensuous” human world. Without inner class character. Like believing that if the party central committee might someday in the distant future be 51% women, then the party is no longer patriarchal.
Women did not enter the house of male politics “late”. We have always been there, as its most necessary foundation. It could not ever exist without us. Comrade Parvati notes that “the most blatant manifestation seen among women due to deprivation of political and ideological education is their silence in the meetings. They seldom participate in the political discussions.” While our sister lays this on a lack of education, we have often seen radical meetings in the u.s. (even of anarchists) where it is just the same. Where everyone in the room has college education, but women are mostly silent and 90% of the discussion or more is taken by men. Because that is our role. Because men’s framework is naturally not ours.
Parvati forgets to say this, but throughout the world women’s struggles and women’s political breakthroughs long predate the Marx and Maos. Where do you think they learned about women from? Books? The revolutionary terrorist women of Russia’s Narodnaya Volya were poets and intellectuals. Who renounced motherhood and took part in conspiracies to destroy serfdom by assassinating Czarist officials and the Czar himself. These sisters were the generation before Lenin, and didn’t need his encouragement to participate in armed politics. They taught him by example about the liberation of women, not the other way around. That a Lenin “stood on their shoulders”, tried to build on their breakthroughs by keeping the useful and discarding what failed doesn’t mean that he was wiser, just that he was one of their many political heirs. We should never forget our very many foremothers in the struggle.
Mao is often hailed by Marxists as having pointed out that “Women hold up half the sky”. Which is a statement not of communist truth (women actually hold up all the sky) but of bourgeois ideology, preaching the deceptive goal of “equality” as the answer to the problems of the oppressed. Yet even here Mao was not the leader in regards to women but only a follower. The great and fanatical Taiping Rebellion, which was the precursor to Mao’s Communist revolution, controlled much of Southern China from 1851 to 1864. It preached the Christian uplifting of women by banning foot-binding, prostitution and polygamy. Millions of poor Chinese women joined this movement. The anti-colonial Nationalist movement of the early 20th century, that called Mao himself into politics, witnessed women forming their own armed rebel groups. Such as National Women’s Army, the Amazon Corps of the Dare To Die Soldiers, or the Women’s Murder Squad (got to love that name). Rebel women in the cities cut their hair short and wore military dress or men’s clothing as a public sign that they were refusing to submit to the old patriarchal culture. And sang their popular feminist socialist song with its pointed words, “Down With Love.”
In those very same years, in Mao’s first major theoretical writing, his 1926 Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society, the word “women” does not appear a single time. Chinese women as a whole were completely missing from his analysis of society.
Wait, there’s more. The next year, 1927, Mao Zedong was under attack from the party leadership for the idea that their revolution should be based in the rural peasantry not the cities. He wrote a now famous explanation of how rich politically the revolt among the desperate peasantry was: Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan. In this historic revolutionary essay, Mao lists “fourteen great achievements” of the rebel peasant associations. He describes these fourteen achievements one by one. In number seven he tells of peasants freeing themselves from the four traditional “systems of authority”. One of these four “authorities” in the “whole feudal-patriarchal system and ideology” is “women… dominated by men (the authority of the husband).” So in a section of his essay, under one of the fourteen points, and within that point in only one of four listed subpoints, Mao finally tells us about peasant women for only a few sentences (like three or four). Literally. It turns out that women are rebelling, the apparently not that important half of all China’s population.
Mao wrote that the old authorities of state and clan and superstition and “the authority of the husband all begin to totter.” That was it for Mao on this subject. So even here Mao Zedong marginalized women completely out of his discussion on the political struggle that they were fighting in. And at the end of this document, in his list of the goals of the Communist-led peasant struggle, not one demand is mentioned on the condition of women. Mass rape, forced marriage, foot-binding, semi-slavery within the patriarchal family, state repression of women, no right to own farms, were all injustices that revolutionary women were already fighting in 1920s China. All not in Mao’s report. Mao was definitely following cautiously behind the growing rebellion of Chinese women.
So who was leading who about women?
And when we think of the anti-capitalist Beguine women’s communities of feudal Europe or the indigenous matriarchies of the Seneca and other peoples here or the working class women revolutionaries of the 1871 Paris Commune, we know that communism or communalism didn’t begin with some important men writing theory, however good it is. Parvati says it backwards. “Where do correct ideas come from?” They come from practice, from perceiving actual life. Then from struggle to change the world and then learning from what we have done or not done. And so on in an endless dialectical chain of changing the world and changing ourselves.
While it may look on the surface as though men have developed military science exclusively with women being only the ignorant bystanders, this science like all others has its beginnings from people’s need to struggle with nature. The first struggle peoples have is always with nature. From hunting and trapping animals, hiding, using camouflage and deception, taking advantage of terrain, using tools in a wider and wider way, mapping and charting weather. Only then to managing social conflicts. So women have done it from time immemorial. Among the 19th century Ibo women in what is called Nigeria, women going to market in other villages would always travel in at least pairs. Armed for defense against male attackers with their heavy wooden pestles used for grinding grains. Which were functionally the same as long clubs. To say nothing of the Amazons who have been present in the herstories of all peoples. Nepal and its predecessor kingdoms have been ruled in their long past by queens as well as kings, while modern peasant protests have seen landlords physically attacked by angry Nepali women.
Two different things are mashed confusingly together here in Parvati’s writing. One is the question of being “expert”. This is the traditional Marxist-Leninist phrase for mastering knowledge needed by society, used by Parvati and her party. If a woman wants to become a construction carpenter in the u.s., she usually has to learn through a male trade union apprenticeship program. Since women were historically kept out of this field. Like an Afrikan woman physics student would naturally learn the ideas of a science that developed at a certain time as European and male, from Newton to Planck, Einstein and Heisenberg. And as a revolutionary feminist i have the insights of male revolutionaries like Marx and Mao as well as women like ThurmerRohr as parts of my basic thinking. We need to learn from the whole world’s experience while keeping centered in who we are. Or as Mao once said in response to Chinese comrades fearful of studying Western innovations: “Let the past serve the present, let the foreign serve China.”
All over the world now, as a part of our latest rising, women are learning formerly forbidden knowledge in men’s institutions. Kayla Williams, a liberal arts college graduate, writes in the well named Love My Rifle More Than You about her experiences as an enlisted Arabic translator in the u.s. army Airborne infantry in Iraq. She is more than a little skeptical about the war. This book is mostly a stream of true-life incidents of either military stupidity or crude sexist harassment. Her favorite army male stupidity was when she translated for a unit searching an unexpectedly friendly neighborhood. Turned out that it was a Christian neighborhood, whose people expected Americans as fellow Christians to be sympathetic to them. Wrong. When they came to a monastery the monk spoke English and tried to talk to the army officer. The officer refused to “understand” him since the monk was an Arab, and demanded that the monk speak in English to Kayla who would then “translate” by repeating his English words to the army officer! Heavy sexist harassment was the norm. Such as the time camped next to the Syrian border, when the men dealt with the numbing boredom of 110 degree days sitting in the sand waiting by inventing the “game” of seeing who could most accurately throw stones to hit Kayla’s breasts (she was the only woman in the unit). Yet & again, she says she will always be proud of being “Airborne”, feeling empowered by her military skills and of being tested by violence and pressure and being able to handle it. She writes that the tentativeness that used to be in her voice is gone now.
No, i’m not saying that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is like the u.s. Army Airborne. What i’m saying is that worldwide women are flooding men’s institutions as temporary training camps, and this is necessary and inevitable as a stage of our herstory. But while women have always been able to become skillful at men’s leftism when permitted, taking on their vocabulary and viewpoint, that is not the same as learning women-centered politics. You can be skilled at one but ignorant of the other. Ignorant of yourself. Indeed, comrade Parvati observes:
“Yes women are often themselves the victims of patriarchal ideology that is deeply ingrained within them. 1 have seen females who get scared when one talks of women’s oppression and label one as being a feminist. They often try to suppress the fight against women’s oppression in the name of fighting against class oppression.”
Parvati, of course, also implies that being a feminist is wrong since feminism is bourgeois. She doesn’t explain it all, but in M-L (Male) politics feminism is only a viewpoint which mistakenly believes women’s goal to be equality with men within capitalism. Rather than overthrowing the whole system of capitalist property relations and its attendant sexist, racist and colonialist oppressions. For all its armed mobilization of Nepali women in the fight for socialism, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) actually has bourgeois feminist politics. Since its vision of women’s struggle is sharply limited to a far-off future equality with men within male-created institutions. i say, no, equality with men is nowhere a revolutionary program. It isn’t even real.
In one of the flashes of his genius, Lenin once wrote about this debate: “What nation is equal to what nation? What sex is equal to what sex? And what class is equal to what class?” What Lenin was pointing out with such sarcasm is that within the capitalist system, nations, genders, and classes cannot ever be equal in reality since they were created to be oppressors and oppressed. How can a capitalist and an undocumented Mexican worker ever be equal since the capitalists cannot even exist as a class without exploiting workers? Or men and women, since the definition of a man is someone who is of the gender class that owns women and children? How can the united states and Panama ever be equal except in capitalist diplomatic fictions (founded by the u.s. empire to serve its own interests, Panama is largely owned by the u.s., its national currency is the u.s. dollar, and its former president is a lifer in a u.s. prison). There is no equality in the world of men. Rather there is difference between oppressor and oppressed. It is the recognition of this difference that women’s liberation is rooted in.
Keep in mind that every question being fought out in Nepali society is also being fought out inside the Maoist party and army. Not only the emerging world of women breaking the old world of men, but nationalism, neo-colonialism, self-determination for non-Hindu peoples, Hindu fascist-religious laws, rights of children and everything else. The Communist movement is not above or separate from the unsettled state of men’s world. The Nepali Press has said that Parvati herself has “confirmed the recruitment of homosexuals”. Yet and again, the party has been so quiet on this issue that friendly Western radical visitors have come and left admitting that they had no idea what the CPN (M) position on gay rights was*. And the fact that this entire movement is indelibly a male institution keeps coming up over and over. Like, the party’s “Chairman” and “Supreme Commander” Prachanda has modestly named their dual rural-urban strategy after himself — the “Prachanda Path”. Men do have this annoying habit of naming things after themselves to mark their possessions, like wolves piss on trees to mark their territory. So men piss their names over wives, children, businesses, ideas. Not a good sign.
For all the sharp questioning of some of comrade Parvati’s ideology, so many of us are joyful that the people of Nepal are overthrowing their semifeudal rulers (and thumbing their noses at the empty threats of the u.s. empire). And moved that many thousands of women there are picking up the rifle, to empower themselves if even temporarily in the armed struggle. Comrade Parvati is someone who we have to thank for sharing her hard won thoughts with other women everywhere in the world. Her words are radical and refreshing. It is a milestone every time women put out truths about our own movements.
(the end for now)
* While queers are not mentioned once in radical journalist Li Onesto’s book Dispatches From the People’s War in Nepal, members of the First International Road Building Brigade to Rolpa District were told by CPN(M) members that the party “opposes homosexuality” — the extent and consequences of this homophobia remain unclear.
Appendix: Prostitution Controversy in Nepal Revolution
As i was finishing this review up the news came of the International Nepal Solidarity Network report of a May 10th incident where 16 women of a migrant Badi ethnic group in a village were publicly beaten with clubs by the local CPN (M) team for engaging in prostitution. Which isjust what we were talking about, fighting out within the party all the attitudes and issues of the disintegrating old society. In her interview, comrade Parvati said: “In our country we have a particular community called the Badi community. They are basically dalit class*, within dalits also they are the most oppressed community. They were traditionally entertainers for the feudal society. But now with feudalism eroding they have switched to prostitution. Many of them are joining the People’s War.” In this case, the women victims had refused orders to cease their means of livelihood or leave the area. So the local Communist men and women in the area conducted a public beating. According to that report the Maoists aimed their clubs and kicks especially at the Dalit women’s genitals and their arms where they had their Norplant contraceptive implants inserted.
Under what circumstances should any men have the right to conduct public torture and humiliation of women? None. Should all the male customers have been beaten up by armed women? Yes. For us it is a form of institutionalized rape. Pimps and johns in the prostitution business are no better than rapists to me. For these young revolutionaries to put all the weight on women and not on the men involved is fucked up patriarchal thinking. That is obvious. But women hearing about this should understand that there are reasons why those Maoist women were dragged along into the shit.
There have been many other similar incidents reported in Nepal of Maoist guerrillas enforcing their brand of rural law and order. Schoolteachers accused of molesting students being disappeared, is just another example. Some of this is probably the confused fallout of giving guns to young people and telling them to go out and do good (the Peoples Liberation Army is very decentralized).
There is more than one political issue in this. There is no party policy in Nepal that anyone’s heard of about attacking prostitutes, and doubtlessly many revolutionary women in Nepal were more than a little upset when they heard about that incident. But starting in the 1920s the Communist revolution among the peasant villages in Asia has defended their right to drive off what Mao called “tramps and vagabonds”. And, yes, i know that this doesn’t sound so good to liberal Western ears today (women like myself, for that matter, explicitly consider ourselves vagabonds in the world that men are destroying). But the whole meaning was radically different in that context. Desperately poor villagers ate only what they could save out of their own crops, and were often more than hungry. Dying of starvation and disease was common (just as it is in rural Nepal today). Those who did not produce themselves but wanted a share of production were parasitic. Defending your own food and space was a right to the oppressed. For the same reason that poor working class communities here in the u.s. want beggars, street alcoholics, drug sellers, as well as prostitutes, driven out. Because they are parasitic on the community, which is already hard pressed. It is middle-class intellectuals who are most comfortable with maintaining other peoples’ “street culture” and want to romanticize it, because they aren’t paying the very real price. And in the age of the global AIDS plague, when prostitution in Africa for example has already led to millions of deaths, we no longer think that these are “victimless crimes”.
Does that mean that those Maoists who attacked the prostitutes (or the one’s dragging off suspect schoolteachers) did the right thing from a Communist point of view? Nowhere even close to right. Not only were the guerrillas disoriented about protecting the male perps while beating the women victims, but they are doing the opposite of what Mao urged in these situations. Mao Zedong in the 1920-30s, whatever his mistakes, was trying to empower peasants who had lived beaten down and terrorized for their entire lives. Mao wanted them to make revolution, “which is not as gentle a thing as a tea party” as he often scolded well-behaved socialist intellectuals. The oppressed need the right to be angry, to smash everything they’ve had to endure. To come together and take power into their own hands. That’s what Mao was trying to get across to Communist cadres.
In his list of all the evils and harassments they’ve had to endure, nowhere did Mao write that Communist should be the armed enforcers or new cops with whatever rules for peasant villages. Rather the opposite. He wrote that they must argue their own politics but stand back and let the villagers themselves go through the process of discussing and thinking these issues through. And then collectively acting themselves as a politicalized community on their decisions. Mao even thought that the many armed criminal gangs about should be taken care of by the organized peasants themselves — if you can’t handle some crimies how can you overthrow the government? Mao had tough thinking, in 3-D, on this.
To me there’s a poisonous connection between a party leadership which flirts with a patriarchal cult of the individual, which on some days thinks that “one-man leadership” is a good thing, and miseducated peasant guerrillas who have gotten the macho idea that because they have guns they should be a new state police. Instead of letting the oppressed take over society and helping them remake it in their own image.
Prostitution is neither victimless nor a crime by the women and children involved. For Mao prostitution was “a contradiction among the people”, to be resolved peacefully with new socialist culture. Easier to say than do, especially when any male culture no matter how “new” or “revolutionary” its wrapping can only be old. Like forcing women to obey orders by beating them. While any truly new culture can only be women, communally by us and for us.
(the end for now)
* The Dalit are the “Untouchables of India”, the very lowest caste-class in Hindu society who are homeless laborers, etc. and long ago also taken by their Hindu masters into Nepal where they traditionally are not considered citizens and have no recognized rights.