Materialism Against Reductionism: On David Camfield’s We Can Do Better

We Can Do Better

Ideas for Changing Society

by David Camfield  

From anti-austerity strikes in the UK and Canada, to anti-Trump protests in the US, within the past five years a number of catalyzing events and resultant social movements have served as a radicalizing force for young leftists in the English-speaking world. This new wave of recruits has no doubt been a boon for leftist organizations and movements; the challenge, however, is making sure that individuals new to different currents on the left are equipped with the foundational knowledge needed to inform their analysis and enable strategic action. Similarly, while social movements on the ground have been engaged in a number of debates surrounding the relationship between class struggle and so-called “identity politics”, much of the social theory underlying these debates has remained highly abstract and academic in nature. In We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society, published in 2017, David Camfield sets out to resolve this tension by presenting the core elements of historical materialism in an accessible manner, and connecting them to contemporary struggles around race, gender, and sexuality. Camfield is a professor of labor studies at the University of Manitoba, and the majority of his published research is focused on public sector unionism and the labor movement in Canada. Since 2014, however, Camfield has been publishing on a framework of anti-racist queer feminist historical materialism, which he presents most fully and accessibly in this book.

By presenting this framework for a popular audience, Camfield provides a much-needed intervention into left discussions around identity and class. While commonly used today as a derisive, the term “identity politics” was originally proposed by the Combahee River Collective, a radical organization of black lesbian feminists who sought to identify the particularities of their oppression as black lesbians, rather than “sexless, raceless workers.” This analysis was centered around a militant, liberatory politics from its inception, but criticized the supposed universalism of socialist political strategy.

The debate between universal solutions and interventions targeted at specific modes of oppression continues today, and while it extends far beyond one US organization, has been particularly prominent as a subject of factional fights within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In a recent article titled “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?”, Miguel Salazar outlines some of the terms of this debate. DSA members, he writes, are rightfully critical of liberal politicians’ cynical weaponization of race to maintain the status quo. At the same time, however, some of DSA’s leadership– particularly those involved in the Momentum Caucus– refuse to reckon with race, prescribing programs such as Medicare-for-All canvassing which, while likely disproportionately beneficial to communities of color if successful, nonetheless do not account for the need to organize with and for working class PoC around issues specific to their experiences. The analysis provided in We Can Do Better challenges both reductionist frameworks which dismiss oppression along the lines of “identity” as less real or important than class exploitation, and wholehearted embraces of identity politics which fail to consider the material underpinnings of oppressive social relations.

Notably, however, Camfield’s intervention is not targeted at explicit socialists; instead, it presents socialist theory for a broader activist audience. In doing so, he presumes more familiarity with issues of gender, sexuality, and race on the part of his readership than with “class” per se, and thus puts more energy into explaining how those structures are part of the class system than into explaining their importance in and of themselves. This distinguishes his work from most socialist writing on these subjects; while many writers have provided valuable integrations of gender, sexuality, and/or race politics with Marxist theory, fewer have attempted to move more mainstream interpretations of identity politics towards a class-struggle view. It is, in and of itself, a sign of discursive and political progress that Camfield is able to target his work at activists in struggles around identity, rather than justifying analysis of special oppressions to a Marxist audience once again.

In presenting his analysis of oppression, Camfield identifies gender, sexuality, and class as a unified social relation developed through production and reproduction– his analysis of race proceeds along similar lines, but is presented separately and is less integrated into the book’s main thesis. This treatment of gender and sexuality helps to connect present debates around identity with historical disagreements on the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. The two major strains of materialist feminism, unitary theory and sex class theory, provide two different understandings of how gender is constituted under capitalism. Sex class theory, as promoted by Christine Delphy and Shulamith Firestone, among others, holds that a patriarchal ruling class exploits women’s reproductive labor, including but not limited to pregnancy and childbearing, in a mode analogous to bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat. In this theory, patriarchy and capitalism are two independent systems of oppression, and proletarian women suffer under the yoke of both. Unitary theory, however, holds that capitalism and gender oppression exist as one totality rather than autonomous symptoms. It provides a materialist analysis of how production and reproduction under capitalism enforce class and reinforce gender, ultimately serving the bourgeoisie rather than producing value for male proletarians. This question is vital to present debates about the foregrounding of identity and the possibility for class solidarity across gender lines. After all, if male proletarians profit from patriarchy, they have class interests that are fundamentally incompatible with women’s; if patriarchy ultimately serves capitalism, however, all proletarians have a material interest in its abolition, which creates the possibility for real solidarity beyond simple “allyship.”

Camfield does not delineate the terms of this debate in We Can Do Better, and in doing so misses his opportunity to fully underline the relevance of his intervention. Despite this, he takes a firm unitary stance; gender, sexuality, and class, he says, “are not separate phenomena that then interact or intersect”, but rather “always exist in and through each other at the same time, as…mutually mediating relations” [1]. The first half of this claim is worthy of particular consideration, as within many of the social movements on which Camfield’s writing is centered, the idea that gender, sexuality, and class “intersect” is almost axiomatic. Rising out of the Black feminist tradition, and first named by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality theory holds that oppression is experienced among multiple axes in ways that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. It is an open question, however, whether these “intersections” should be understood as distinct systems or as elements of a totality, which diverge and reconvene at various points. If we believe that capitalist oppression exists as a coherent whole, should we seek to refute intersectional analysis or incorporate an understanding of intersectionality into our materialism? Unfortunately, Camfield neither addresses this tension nor acknowledges it as yet unresolved.

Another area in need of greater development is the book’s treatment of the origins of gender and sexuality, and how those relate to production and reproduction. Camfield explains how gender and sexuality have varied across cultures, explicitly including non-binary and third genders in this discussion, and clarifies that gender has existed separately from patriarchy. However, while he previously discussed the origins of patriarchy in Chapter 4, he provides no explanation as to the development of gender itself, but rather simply states that gender (and sexuality, which proceeds from gender) has existed in all societies. While this was presumably not the author’s intention, without further explanation this reads like a concession to those who would say gender is natural or necessary for social organization, and seems to preclude the possibility of gender abolition. While Camfield cannot reasonably be expected to state with certainty how gender was constructed, it is worth explicitly stating that the existence of gender is historically contingent, while acknowledging that no consensus has yet been reached as to its specific origins. By not addressing the (interconnected and interdependent) origins of gender and sexuality, Camfield risks naturalizing them even as he seeks to reveal their ever-changing nature.

We Can Do Better succeeds in its translation of fundamental historical materialist concepts for a broader audience. Though Camfield makes no outright commitment to Marxism in this text, the book’s clear, straightforward writing and use of specific examples is nonetheless particularly well suited to familiarizing new leftists with Marxist methods in the many instances where “just read Capital” isn’t a satisfactory suggestion. The emphasis on a unitary theory of gender and sexuality is unique for an introductory text of this sort, and helps outline the relevance of anti-capitalism to contemporary social movements which may not deal directly with “economy” in the traditional sense. It remains rare for both class and “identity” oppression to be addressed in combination at all at this level, and even rarer to find a thorough discussion of the role of production and reproduction in both. As such, this text proves as a valuable intervention on two fronts; first, in its relevance to intraleft debates around the relevance of questions of identity to anti-capitalist struggle, and secondly, in its application of historical materialist thought to contemporary struggles around gender and sexuality (and to a lesser degree, race). Camfield’s foregrounding of the material constitution of oppression helps provide an alternative to reductionisms of all sorts, and ensure that today’s activists are equipped with the tools they need to interpret the world in order to change it.

— Blind Field Journal, Feb. 2019



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