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Cuba-Canada relations: A look at diplomacy from below

A review by Barry Weisleder of Other Diplomacies, Other Ties: Cuba and Canada in the Shadow of the U.S., Luis Rene Fernandez Tabio, Cynthia Wright, and Lana Wylie, ed., 363 pages, University of Toronto Press, 2018.

In the wake of Ottawa’s vocal support for the latest U.S.-backed attempt at a coup d’état in Venezuela, studies on foreign relations take on a profound sense of urgency.

Setting aside the cumbersome title, this book’s 12 chapters, produced by historians based both in Canada and Cuba, cover the subject of relations with Cuba thoroughly, even with some duplication. Convenient summaries conclude every segment.

For me, the chapter on Cuba’s pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal was particularly riveting. I remember visiting that World’s Fair, titled “Man and His World – Terre des Hommes”, and that unique pavilion. I and dozens of my fellow junior high school students were chaperoned from Toronto by our teachers. I recall the building’s futuristic cube structure, the huge, austere black and white photos, and the evocative, radical slogans on the walls: a combination that blew my then-apolitical mind.

The book puts in context a moment of world social upheaval, shaped by the revolutions in Cuba and Algeria; the example of Che Guevara, soon to be assassinated; and the multiple revolts of 1968, from France to Italy to Prague to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

“Other Diplomacies” reminds us that defending a revolution is harder than making one. Exploiting the contradictions, however relative and small, between the imperialist powers is a high priority. Its examination of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s differences with Washington over Cuba, not to mention whether to accept nuclear weapons on Canada’s territory, shows an autonomy that arises from a different relationship of class forces.

The fact that Canada and Mexico did not break diplomatic relations with revolutionary Cuba, unlike all the other countries of the western hemisphere in the 1960s, provided an important lifeline to the first workers’ republic west of Europe. The impact endures. Canada remains Cuba’s fourth biggest partner in trade. 1.3 million Canadian tourists visit Cuba every year. Sherritt International, the Canadian-based nickel extractor, is still the largest corporate investor in the island.

These and other features of the relationship are at least partly a product of a relatively more class-independent workers’ movement in the Canadian state, including Quebec, and the efforts of at least three generations of socialists and Cuba solidarity activists north of the U.S. border.  The Fair Play for Cuba Committees, on both sides of the divide, well deserve the recognition afforded by the book.

Diplomats as spies, and mass media scribes as shameless propagandists for a corporate agenda, continue to ply their trades. Educational and cultural exchanges continue to make inroads against anti-communist bias. Cuba is embraced by a world that has received its generous gifts of top-notch medical care and disaster relief aid. Washington remains powerful, but more politically isolated than ever, its economy in decline, its military apparatus strained by chronic overreach.

Following the 60th anniversary of the overthrow of the made-in-USA Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, Cuba’s leadership and people are wrestling with choices, the need to strike a balance of economic development, social equality and Poder Popular (people’s power), yearning for, anticipating, the next revolutions that will quicken the pace to world socialist transformation.

Not by conventional diplomacy, such transformations will certainly be informed by the “Other Diplomacies” that animate working class solidarity.

A version of this article originally appeared at https://johnriddell.wordpress.com

The Marxist analysis of women’s oppression

First published in Socialist Action newspaper, August 14, 2014.

By CHRISTINE MARIE

Review of Lise Vogel, “Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory” (Leiden: Brill Academic Books, 2013; Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).

In the late 1960s, more feminist theorists than not assumed that Marxism offered the main analytical tools necessary to understand women’s oppression and, in turn, to chart the strategic course to its elimination.

At the center of their theoretical efforts was the “domestic labor debate.” This debate opened with the publication of a 1969 article by Margaret Benston, titled, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation.” The work that women performed within the household became a subject of analysis; this work was understood as “productive,” necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society as a whole.

For the next 10 years, feminists who were socialists began studies to fully theorize domestic labor as an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. As Susan Ferguson and David McNally write in their introduction to the new publication of Lise Vogel’s 1983 text, “Marxism and Oppression of Women,” in dozens of journals they “probed Marxist concepts of use value and exchange value, labour-power, and class for what these might reveal about the political-economic significance” of household work.

In the main, the debate hung up on a few central questions: What kind of value does domestic labor produce? Is it the kind of value produced by workers in capitalist production, i.e. surplus value? If not, and if, according to Marxist theory, domestic labor is not central to the workings of capital in the same way that the work in an auto plant or steel mill is, does this mean that Marxism by its very nature is incapable of providing the central framework for understanding the oppression of women?

There were three main responses to this question. By far the most influential one was “yes.” The most famous articulation of that position in the United States was Heidi Hartmann’s “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” which launched what became known as the dual systems approach, a thesis that posited that capitalism and patriarchy merely functioned alongside each other. Over time, patriarchy began to be treated primarily as the realm of ideology, creating space for non-materialist post-structuralist approaches to women’s oppression.

Other debate participants like Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Sylvia James responded by questioning the weight that Marxist theory placed on surplus value and the strategic approach that flowed from this weight. Contemporary autonomist Marxists who work within this general theoretical approach charted by Dalla Costa and James, such as Sylvia Federici, elevate the social power of unwaged labor and see it as central to the overthrow of capitalist society.

The third major grouping of responses was expressed by individual Marxist feminists who insisted on the strategic importance of waged labor, and remained optimistic about the possibility of Marxist theoretical advances that would more adequately explain women’s oppression. These voices, however, were generally lost in the great void created by the waning of the mass feminist movement that nurtured previous such theoretical work, and a corresponding lack of attention from within the socialist movement.

One of those voices, that of Lise Vogel, has recently been given the attention she deserves. A new version of “Marxism and Women’s Oppression,” updated with essays by Vogel from the 1990s, has recently been issued in hardcover by the academic publishing house of Brill and in paperback by Haymarket Press. The re-publication of Vogel’s book is both reaction and stimulus. The current crisis of capitalism—characterized by the most extreme attacks on the social wage, an increasing awareness of the role of women in global capitalist production, and an ever more obvious shift in the way that the reproduction of labor is organized in the United States—has created a new sense of urgency regarding such theoretical work. The rediscovery of Vogel by sections of the socialist movement, in turn, has provided a basic foundation on which Marxist feminist theoretical work can more easily begin again.

Vogel’s book is divided into four sections. Part One reviews the theoretical debates that took place during the second wave of feminism (ca. the 1970s) in a kind of chronological and thematic organization, summarizing critiques of Juliet Mitchell’s iconic work “Women: The Longest Revolution,” Margaret Benston’s “What Defines Women?,” Peggy Morton’s “Women’s Work is Never Done, or: The Production, Maintenance and Reproduction of Labor Power,” Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” and the work of Nancy Holstrom and Maxine Molyneux.

She also notes the contributions and weaknesses of radical feminists such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millet. She argues that the work of this period accomplished several important things. It firmly established the project of analyzing women’s oppression as having a material, and not just political or ideological root. Secondly, they exposed how inadequate were economic determinist approaches by highlighting the psychological and ideological factors enacted in the family.

In the end, while most were certain that the concept of “reproduction” linked women’s oppression to the Marxist analysis of production, a truly unitary theory that embedded women’s oppression in Marxist theory of capitalist production remained undeveloped.

Part Two focuses on the views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels over time and in their historical context. She easily dismisses facile or dishonest mis-readings of the two giants of socialist thought and traces the development of their thought on this question, but does not hesitate to pinpoint moments when the thoughts of Marx and Engels on the place of woman in class society is incomplete or contradictory.

Vogel reviews the theoretical importance of both Marx’s “Capital” and Engels’ “Origin of the Family Private Property and the State,” but devotes a considerable amount of space to some of the inconsistencies of the latter owing to Engels’ rush to get out a materialist rebuttal to August Bebel’s “Women and Socialism.” Marx’s work in “Capital” on social reproduction, which becomes the anchor of her own theoretical work, she finds especially suggestive and useful for the coming effort construct unitary theory.

In Part Three, Vogel shows how the weaknesses of Bebel’s 1879 work, stemming from his incorporation of some of the ideas of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier and liberal individualism, led to great confusion in the era of the Second International. Then, as in the 1970s, the “woman question” and the class question were treated more often than not as parallel rather than intertwined phenomenon in capitalist society. The Bolsheviks attempted to correct these reformist tendencies, as they did other errors of the German social democracy, but their theoretical work was shaped by the crisis and challenges of their specific historical moment.

Vogel concludes this section by stating, “In the long run, the experience of the Russian Revolution raised at least as many questions about the relation of women’s oppression to socialist transformation as it answered. … history had posed a specific woman-question, distinct from those thrust forward by capitalist relations of production.” Unfortunately, Vogel suggests, the more advanced positions of Clara Zetkin and Lenin on the root of women’s oppression failed to make a lasting impression on the Left as a whole, and the weak legacy of the Second International remained dominant.

The basis for continuing to advance Marxist theoretical work on women’s oppression, Vogel argues, is stepping beyond the bounds of the domestic labor debate as it unfolded during the 1960s and 1970s. To begin, she says, we first have to look at Marx’s Capital and the notions of labor-power and the reproduction of labor power. From the theoretical point of view, the reproduction of labor power is not invariably associated with private kin-based households, as the old domestic labor debate assumed.

Child rearing and the private care of workers in families is only one way that capitalism organizes the reproduction of labor power. At certain moments, for example, capitalism can choose to import immigrant labor, enslave them, house them in barracks, work them to death and import more, etc.

The system of using a kin-based unit to reproduce labor power is clearly advantageous as it has been normative at moments of capitalist stability. At the same time, the countervailing tendency of capitalism to reduce necessary labor in favor of surplus labor is always at play. In our own time, the reduction of domestic labor through technological means offers capitalists the hope that profit-making can increase.

If these theoretical assertions about capitalism provide at least some of the tools with which we begin to do concrete historical investigation and contemporary economic exploration, Vogel argues, we will be back on the route toward a unitary theory of Marxism and women’s oppression. All people who are striving for social change should take advantage of the road map created by this pioneer of Marxist feminist thought.

The facts on Climate Change Demand A Radical Solution

by Evan Engering

The latest book of Naomi Klein, the influential Toronto-based journalist, author and activist, may live up to its ambitious title “This Changes Everything”. In it, Klein turns her thorough, eye-opening brand of investigative journalism to the topic of climate change. The book is a surprising achievement for a mainstream author. Her call for a new grassroots movement to rise up and defeat neo-liberalism and halt climate change has been publicized on television and in book stores across Canada and around the world.

Continue reading The facts on Climate Change Demand A Radical Solution