Saturday, March 26, 2011

Can the Lenin-figure ever be a woman?

 Lenin statue in Fremont, Seattle, in drag during Pride

In processing my past experiences in the group I used to be a part of, one thing that stood out to me was the differential treatment I got as an outspoken woman leader, as opposed to the other outspoken male leaders.

I speak of 2 male comrades whom I love dearly and respect immensely, but the different treatment they received from their aggressive interventions in the organization, was vastly different from what I received.

For them, they were Lenin figures -- professional, perceptive, sharp, willing to make the necessary sharp interventions/breaks at their own personal expenses.
People may not LIKE their interventions, but they respected the directness, the firmness and engaged in the ideas and debated organization and politics.

When I had made those same interventions, what was read into it was instead was that the forthrightness and firmness I exhibited, was simply an extension of my personality. That I just wanted things a *certain* way. I was always up for debate -- I love it! But people read my desire to debate out the ideas as me wanting to bully them with my personality (note: not with my knowledge, but with my personality.)

Myself and the male comrades I reference, we were all part of an organization that did have an aggressive culture, for good and for bad. I do think some aspects of it ARE important! It was very empowering for me to learn how to debate firmly and strongly, but there were certain aspects of this culture that did also shut others down. We needed a re-evaluation of this culture, but what happened instead, was that I, my personality, was targeted, rather than a systematic, professional conversation about organizational culture.

I feel another layer of betrayal because the kind of woman political person I was when I first joined the organization, was not seen as empowering, was not seen as "leadership" material (explicitly I was told this) but in my desire for revolutionary politics, rather than leaving, I stuck it out to develop, to push myself to speak up, to push harder, to be louder, to study, to read, to practice public speaking etc etc. At times I got frustrated w this process and debated with other comrades how Malcolm X was not the only model of leadership, and we needed others! But I feel resentment now, because I was practising what us as an organization believed in, and in the absence of other woman revolutionaries in our organization in Seattle, I pushed myself super hard and now, am blamed for it. My individual personality was instead targetted.

These are the nuances of the patriarchy that I feel like women leaders have to go through. No, I dont hate my male comrades (in case some people are trying to box me into that male-hating feminist category to discredit my words). I love my male comrades dearly but this pain, this dilemma, this struggle, is mine to bear. They didnt have to experience this, maybe they did but I am sure not to the same extent.

How the fuck did woman militants like Lucy Parsons, Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn  etc etc, deal with this?

I want to move forward from this. To heal and to think more deeply about, what is feminist practice in revolutionary organization that is rooted in libertarian marxist principles and values -- celebrating creativity, joy, passion (also in the form of debate!!!:) )

Last note is, I want to be humble and vulnerable and open to critiques. But I cant help noticing this double standard, which then makes it hard for me to know where the critiques are coming from!!! It is very confusing!!


  1. This is a great reflection, and so is your longer theoretical piece on gender and organization. It's hard for me to comment on this because we have spoken so much about it in person so I don't have much more to say, but I just wanted to affirm what you're saying here.

    As one of those male comrades you mentioned, I recognize this double standard and it's something we all need to work to overcome.

    I agree there were healthy and unhealthy aspects of that debating culture. It was good the group had an emphasis on oppressed people "taking up space" instead of waiting for folks with more privilege to defer to them. Noone can give a person freedom or power, you just gotta take it. The main problem in the group is that a few people in the group punished for doing exactly that! They talked so much about how you should just step up and assert yourself as a woman leader, and how that is the only way we can overcome privelge politics. But then when you did step up and assert yourself, people couldn't handle it, and they called you authoritarian. I mean, you were too harsh to comrades at certain points, which you've owned up to. But so was I, and so were other men, and we were not attacked nearly as aggressively as you were. Also, its worth pointing out that some of the attacks on you were just as aggressive if not more so than your own interventions.

  2. While I like the emphasis on oppressed people stepping up and leading, I don't think we had enough of a framework in the group to make sure that folks who were not already sharp debaters and outspoken leaders could participate or could learn to take up more space. Since patriarchy affects who has these skills more than others before they join the group, I think our lack of consistent pedagogy around this had gendered impacts, especially early in the life of the group. We tried to overcome this in recent years but did not fully succeed. I think white liberal feminists often assume patriarchy and white supremacy = women of color are quiet in meetings. We used to joke in the group that the only people who could say something like that is a white person living in segregation because there are plenty of women of color who have no problem taking up space. But, taking up space is not the same thing as having the political skills, precise focus, and confidence to win debates. The theoretical knowledge needed to do that IS dominated by white men, and if we want to challenge that we need to build groups in which women can develop to the theoretical caliber of Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Raya Dunayevskaya, or CLR James.

  3. Also, while I think aspects of that "Lenin" or "Leninista" persona are crucial to revolutionary politics, I agree it is not the only thing that goes into leadership. As a leader in the group it frustrates me that my aggressive interventions and theoretical work were the main things I got credit for. That is actually what I spent maybe 25% of my time doing. The other 75% was nurturing, caring work, being a chaplain or mentor figure for the organization, helping folks deal with identity crises, crises of confidence, relationship drama, etc. I feel that a lot of this work was not recognized, appreciated, or supported by some members of the group (others of course recognized it). We had a general feminist theory approach to this where we "celebrated" caring labor in the abstract but didn't always recognize when leaders of whatever gender in the group actually did this work. And not everyone took it up evenly, leaving too much of it on you, myself, and other comrades who were good at it. Folks didn't always push themselves to develop their skills in how to do this, and this was not systematically encouraged as something you need to learn if you want to be a leader. I was not always good at this myself - I had to push myself over time to be less socially awkward, less shy, a better listener, more patient, etc. We should have encouraged this kind of character development more evenly throughout the group.

    I suspect that Lenin himself might have spent quite a bit of his time doing this kind of caring work. Some biographies say that when workers visited him in exile they would love to spend time with him. Unlike other Marxist leaders (Plekhanov), Lenin had a knack for relating to where rank and file Bolshevik worker militants were coming from, to hear their stories and to give good advice based on empathy with the concrete situation they were in. Many of his letters are passionate - they remind me of St. Paul's kind of tender but firm letters to the churches he had founded, where intense personal relationships intertwine with political aspirations. Lenin was eager to put himself out there, to constantly meet new militants and to put his skills and his intelligence at their disposal. These are qualities that are often written out of the bios that glorify Lenin as a man of iron will who bossed people around. It think to develop feminist leadership we need to attack those macho and authoritarian cults of personality around Lenin, and recognize the caring side of leadership, including his own leadership. We need to do this WITHOUT throwing out the need for willpower, debating skills, and the need for revolutionaries to assert ourselves against those who try to tear us down - oppressed people especially. Women, men, people of all genders should learn to be leaders who are tough and caring, assertive and nurturing. I appreciate your writings on here because they help sketch a way towards that.