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Socialism, Feminism and Men

Socialism, Feminism and Men
Peter Middleton

Feminism has been both welcomed and resisted by socialist
men in the past twenty years. As a critique of exploitation and
inequality, feminism has been easily recognisable to socialism. Women can be added on to its emancipatory project as
another oppressed class to be liberated. In practice this has
often meant that feminist politics and socialist politics have
managed an uneasy co-operation, a co-ordination that breaks
down when specific issues highlight the consequences in
priorities and strategies of their seemingly incompatible fundamental analyses of contemporary society. Feminism has
been resisted when these fundamental differences have become central to political strategy. The respective emphases on
the primacy of patriarchy or the relations of production have
created a split between feminists and socialists. Socialist
feminists have found it very difficult to articulate Marxism
and feminism together within a coherent framework. Men,
even socialist men, have largely remained silent on the issue
of their own gender and its political imperatives.

Socialism was assumed to include the political interests of
women, as it worked towards a society in which the means of
production were controlled by the working class who through
that process of transformation became the whole of society.

The classless society was the end point of a self-transformation of the working class, which immanently contained that
future. Feminism’s emergence over the past two decades has
challenged this assumption. Feminism, by definition, asserts
that socialism has not represented women’s interests adequately. A socialist revolution would not necessarily end the
oppression of women because it might not alter the connections between gender and power.

Feminism has split socialism. Whatever their class or
politics, men are agents of a system oppressive to women.

Socialist men are suddenly split from within. They are both
political activists working for a better society and the very
instruments of exploitation. Socialism is no longer wholly
radical. 1 Nor can socialist men simply become feminists,
because feminism is a politics which defines only women as
both agents and subjects of its action. No such comparable
politics exists for men. They are assumed to be the beneficiaries of women’s oppression as well as its agents. A men’s
movement which aimed to improve men’s lives in any way
could turn out to be a politics that enabled men to consolidate
their existing power more fully and therefore even more
oppressively. If we drop ‘men’ from the title of this essay,
8

they return to either a divided socialism pretending to an
imaginary unity, or an uneasy masquerade as feminists. Neither is tenable. Men can and should support feminism, but
they cannot be its subjects, representatives or policy makers.

How can we speak of a socialist politics in which gender
was recognised to be involved with its every aspect, that
would make it possible for men to take active roles, and that
would remain socialist and pro-feminist? That, I want to
suggest, is one of the most pressing demands on the socialist
agenda, and one of the hardest to respond to in both theory and
practice. 2 In the remainder of this article I will discuss two
areas of especial conceptual difficulty: the questions of oppression and of sexual difference. The confusion these have
generated forms a majqr barrier to developing a· socialist
politics that could properly acknowledge feminism in its
emancipatory critique. A discussion of these refractory concepts might also lead to better ways of understanding how
socialism can negotiate new political practices around other
apparently internal divisions amongst socialists, such as sexuality and race,3 although I shall not try to develop that analysis
here.

OPPRESSION
Since the early ’70s feminism has made the term oppression
central to its analysis of sexual politics. Unlike many other
key concepts in feminist debate, the concept of oppression
seems not to have emerged in the work of one theorist, but to
have developed in the heat of public debate. There is no
founding text where the concept is extensively analysed and
demonstrated. As a result the concept of oppression has never
been well defined in the way that other feminist concepts
have. Its primary roots lie in the long tradition, going back to
essays like Mill and Taylor’s On the Subjection of Women,
which links women’s lack of rights to slavery. In the ’70s the
parallelism of liberation politics in the feminist and black
movements made this term especially useful. For feminism
the term did not need to be analytically exact because it
operated as a basic evocation of the conditions which require
a politics, rather than an analytic concept. Its universal use
gave it the clarity of the obvious. The term ‘oppression’ is
assumed not to need a definition because the oppression can
be so readily demonstrated. Oppression is the historical condition that requires feminism. The term is usually understood
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

as the description of a condition rather than an analytic concept. Analysis is carried out in more specific terms than the
general one of oppression. Rester Eisenstein, for example, in
her study of the development of feminist thought, simply
indexes the term oppression with a cross-reference to ‘subordination’ , but the page references for’ subordination’ take the
reader to references to oppression as well.4 ‘Subordination’ is
understood as the conceptually more analysable, practical
consequence of the undeniable existence of oppression.

The dictionary definition of oppression bears out the link
to black politics and its roots in anti-slavery and civil rights
campaigns. The Webster dictionary entry for the 1971 edition, which can be taken therefore as the standard meaning
from which American feminism began its extension of the
term, reads:

la: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power esp.

by the imposition of burdens; esp: the unlawful, excessive or corrupt exercise of power other than by extortion by any public officer so as to harm anyone in his
rights, person, or property while purporting to act under
color of governmental authority’.5
Oppression is defined not simply as the exercise of power, but
its misuse. The term is therefore a natural heir to the arguments about the exclusion of women from the legal rights
enjoyed by men, arguments which extend back through the
nineteenth century. In the ’70s the term was extended to mean
not just the misuse of power but the possession of power
itself. ‘Men have power over women’ is a common formulation. The traditional use of the term’ oppression’ was based on
the acceptance that there were rules which applied to everyone. The extension of the concept has meant that in some
cases the rules themselves have been assumed to be at fault,
and the implication would then be that the oppressors had
made some of the rules to suit themselves. This extension
might seem unexceptionable from a marxist standpoint, because this description could be reformulated in the more
familiar concepts of recent theories of ideology. That parallel
is misleading however because the dictionary concept of
oppression implies a consciousness of the rules that are broken. Oppression implies a standard which has been violated,
and an intention to do so. Ideology does not. Consciousness of
those rules will take the form of ideology amongst those who
benefit from them, whereas the experience of oppression is
the recognition that the rules have been broken. The extended
concept of oppression results in a double bind for those who
are accused of being oppressors, because they are both assumed to have intentionally violated rights which everyone
can agree to, and to have constructed the system of those
rights for their own aggrandisement. It is confusion generated
by the combination of the two positions that is disabling for
organising political change from within.

In its earlier form oppression meant that an appeal could
be made to the rules which bound both oppressors and the
oppressed, however much such an appeal was likely to fail,
The oppressors could be condemned as intentional violators
of rules that everyone should observe. Oppressors who were
convinced by this appeal that they had indeed broken the rules
could in theory facilitate political change by returning to a
proper adherence to those rules, because their own will, which
had been the cause of the breach, is equally sufficient for its
remedy. The extension of the concept of oppression keeps the
form of the judgement implied by the earlier definition but
extends its scope far beyond the constitutive legal rules of a
society to include many other forms of behaviour. This concept of oppression holds that the rules themselves are the
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

problem, and the power they confer illegitimate, so the only
option for the oppressor who wishes to reform is to abdicate
altogether, relinquishing the power conferred by the rules
which themselves somehow disappear at the same moment.

The difficulty with this account is that there is now no set of
rules or standards to appeal to. We cannot say to the oppressors that they have misused their power by breaking a rule
which we can specify, but simply that their power is an abuse,
without any qualification. Keeping the old structure of the
concept means in the case of men and women that if we say
‘men oppress women’, instead of ‘men oppress women because they deny them the vote’, we thereby make oppression
definitional of men. The result is that a judgement, which attributes an intention and implies the possibility of change,
based on an appeal to universally accepted norms which have
been allegedly violated, is retained in a new context, so that it
appears that the oppressors intend the oppression they insti-

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tute, and could therefore end it if they wished. They appear to
be violators of accepted norms, but at the same time no such
norms are specified. The oppressors appear to be refusing
change that they are capable of, and to be accepting the
violation of basic rights, yet at the same time no such rights
are acknowledged by both sides.

A recent study of masculinity by Jeff Ream becomes
enmeshed in the confusions caused by the uncritical acceptance of the concept as the basis for social analysis. According to the title of his book, men are ‘the gender of oppression’ .

Ris book is unusual because it does try to define oppression,
although the definition itself is too broad to be of much use
except to call our attention to the kind of phenomena that need
explaining.

‘The term “oppression” is a shorthand for social practices, tendencies and relations that discriminate
against, ignore, neglect, degrade or harm people, to
reduce people to less than human. It is thus both a

9

specific term, as in the harming of another person, and
global, in its implication of reaching out to a fuller
humanity of greater ability, variability, flexibility, and
commitment to labouring for all life. It also refers to
direct actions, say of murder and torture, and less direct
social relations, such as the oppression of the Third
World by the neglect and the domination of the first
two. Oppression thus rests on some form of unfair
denial of or exclusion from a preferable alternative
course of action, such as in the gender case, women’s
control over their own fertility or sexuality.6
Heamthen insists that men ‘are the gender which routinely
engages in the oppression of others, women, children and
indeed animals’.’ This definition of oppression, which is
linked with the unproven assertion that such practices can be
explained as the result of men’s innate nature, is theoretically
confused and politically sclerotic. The excessively broad
scope of the term needs to be restricted if we are not to
paralyse all hope of men engaging in a radical gender politics,
by implying, as Heam does, that men are defined by their
tendency to reduce others to a less than human condition.

Heam’s ‘shorthand’ even allows him to blur the differences
between the treatment of animals and people, and to blur the
distinctions between different social practices and the interpretations that human subjects make of them. Animals are
mistreated, but they are not oppressed because they are not
capable of recognising rights and their denial. Hearn has

latter argument was often used in the men’s movement in the
’70s and is still current in some branches of that movement.

Recent books on masculinity by men have rejected both
arguments and accepted that men do oppress women. R. W.

Connell, in the Preface to his comprehensive study of gender,
insists that the men’s movement was wrong to say ‘that men
are equally oppressed. This claim is demonstrably false. Some
of the relevant evidence is set out below … as an introduction
to the facts of gender inequality for those not already familiar
with the issue’.8 For Connell the facts can speak for themselves. Men are ‘beneficiaries of an oppressive system’.9
Connell largely avoids the pitfalls that Heam encounters by
focusing on system lO rather than oppression. His fundamental
argument is that ‘the patriarchal state can be seen … not as the
manifestation of a patriarchal essence, but as the centre of a
reverberating set of power relations and political processes in
which patriarchy is both constructed and contested’.n His
careful attempt to preserve the complex formations of social
theory and practice marks a new stage in discussions of
masculinity by men, especially his clarity about the distinctions between structural analyses and theories of praxis, but
his concern to avoid talking reductively of masculinity (he
refers to masculinities) and social practice results in a loss of
clarity about the political imperatives for men who are committed to change. 12 The failure to analyse the fundamental
assumption of oppression results in an avoidance of the very
challenge that feminism has issued to men.

A particularly forceful version of that challenge can be
found in Rosi Braidotti’ s recent essay for the timely collection

Men in Feminism:

It must be very uncomfortable to be a male, white,
middle class intellectual at a time in history when so
many minorities and oppressed groups are speaking up
for themselves; a time when the hegemony Qf the white
knowing subject is crumbling. Lacking the historical
experience of oppression on the basis of sex, they
paradoxically lack a minus. Lacking the lack, they
cannot participate in the great ferment of ideas that is
shaking up Western culture: it must be very painful
indeed to have no option other than being the empirical
referent of the historical oppressor of women, and
being asked to account for his atrocities. 13

replaced the concept of rights with the much more general
phrase ‘a preferable alternative course of action’. This definition is so broad as to make the concept of oppression apply to
almost all the activities of daily life and to all those who
participate in them. Yet Hearn’ s attempt at a broad definition
is a necessary attempt to recognise that oppression cannot be
defined purely in terms of rights since feminism has redefined
the political sphere to include sexuality, which is not easily
subsumed by the language of rights. I will argue that oppression is useful as an informal descriptive term used in the way
Heam proposes, but is a major obstacle to the participation of
men in gender politics if it becomes a key element in political
analysis.

From the start of its use in the early ’70s there have been
protests from men about its widespread use to define axiomatically the relations between men and women. Such protests usually took the form either of a denial that men oppress
women, or of an argument that men, too, are oppressed. That
10

Men lack the experience of oppression that women have.

Women necessarily lack the phallus that signifies men’s
power. That incubus, the male, white, middle class intellectual lacks the experience of oppression several times over,
through his gender, class and colour. To argue that since most
intellectuals sell their labour they are working class, or to say
that despite their middle-class life style many intellectuals
come from working class backgrounds is obviously an insufficient response. Such arguments don’t address the full force
of Braidotti’ s argument that oppression cannot be known
merely theoretically, it has to be experienced. Nor does it
answer the demand that every individual man account for all
men’s atrocities. The concept of oppression makes the individual subject co-extensive with a collective singular subject.

A man is a man (but not Man, i.e., mankind). ‘His atrocities’

are both an individual man’s responsibility and all men’s.

Braidotti’s blend of semiology, the concept of oppression and
the appeal to an individual’s experience of marginalized identity, is characteristic of the use of the concept of oppression.

The painful lack of options, I will argue, resutls from the confusion of theory, not from history.

The root of the confusion here lies in the use of the term
‘subject’ both in a Kantian sense as the reference point for
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

theories of knowledge and morality, and as an empirical
figure entangled in contingency or history. In the Kantian
sense the transcendental subject is an abstract structuring
principle of experience, but even in Kant’s work there are
signs of the difficulty of maintaining this idealizing fiction
when discussing issues similar to oppression. In Groundwork
of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant presents his ‘categorical
imperative’, or universal moral principle that one should ‘act

only on that maxim through which you can at the same time
will that it should become a universal law’, 14 in a way that
could give grounds for reading his concept of the subject in
historical terms.

A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a
member, when, although he makes its universal laws,
he is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to
it as its head, when as the maker of laws he is himself
subject to the will of no other .IS
People should treat one another as ends in themselves and not
merely as means to an end, and a society where that actually
occurred would be a kingdom of ends. The paradoxical position of being both sovereign and subject at once arises because the subject is both the paradigm for the unconditioned
self able to choose to follow the moral law, and in practice
bound to follow actual social rules in specific cases. Kant’s
image of the sovereign who is also subject has the effect of
identifying the sovereign with the entire populace. Historical
contingency is implicit in the idea of a rational being who is
subject to the laws, because that subjection must occur at
specific moments when the person finds him or herself subject. In Kantian terms oppression occurs when this perfect
translation from member to head breaks down, when subject
and sovereign are not interchangeable. In other words oppression is a disorder of the very founding concept of the subject
on which the whole Kantian project depends. The existence of
oppression seems to ‘disrupt the notion of the white sovereign
subject’ ,16 to use the words of the preface to Unwrapping
Masculinity. At the most basic level the concept of oppression
emerges from the Kantian framework as the sign of its internal contradictions which can only be thought of as the demise
of a sovereign subject.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

Braidotti ‘s argument that men lack the lack depends on the
validity of her use of the concept of the subject. She uses the
concept to name both a transcendent structuring principle of
experience and the empirical collective groups that live
through the vicissitudes of history. In other words she conflates a transcendent subject and a historical subject, or a man
and men. This conceptual confusion, which has antecedents
in Kant, is centrally evident in much semiology P
Braidotti’s essay implicitly endorses what has become
known as the theory of multiple oppressions. IS In the past ten
years the women’s movement has been faced by a parallel
dilemma to that of socialist men who wish to support feminism, a dilemma that has developed around the idea of multiple oppression. Black women have confronted white feminists with their complicity in racism. As a result white women
have had to acknowledge that despite their feminism they
might still be acting oppressively toward black women and
benefitting from the general racism of our society. Women
could not automatically assume sisterhood on the basis of
gender. The theory of multiple oppressions assumes that an
individual can be oppressed in an additive way. Someone with
several oppressions could claim a kind of political priority
and existential authority over someone with only one oppression. The tendency to do this, and also to assume the right to
speak for an oppressed group purely on the basis of membership, has been criticised by some feminists, but its influence
in political debate remains strong. To claim oppression gives
one an identity and an understanding of one’s own history.

The difficulty arises when some members of a political grouping to which one belongs are claimed to be oppressors by
another group with which one is identified. Multiple oppressions mean multiple scissions.

The concept of oppression thus involves several assumptions. It implies a wider social context. Oppression thus may
be mediated through individuals but oppression implies that
the individual is acting as a member of the oppressor group.

Therefore the individual may act in an unpleasant or even
cruel way and still not be acting oppressively, if their behaviour is not determined by their membership of the oppressor
group. The difficulty with the concept of oppression is that it
makes it hard to distinguish the origins and character of
different types of relations between so-called oppressor and
oppressed groups. All behaviour of whatever kind that takes
place between members of the two groups cannot simply be
assumed to be determined by that general group relation. If
there are more than two groups in relation the situation is even
more complex.

Oppression confers an identity. For members of a group
that is oppressed, to recognise that they are oppressed is
crucial, because that is the moment when they perceive that
their experience is not the result of their own specific nature
or the nature of the world, but the result of an alterable state of
things (however difficult change might be in practical terms).

It is the recognition of injustice, of the fact that their oppression is the result of a systematic treatment of the group with
which they are identified by others but with which they may
not even identify from their own conscious point of view.

This treatment has physical, emotional, intellectual, economic
and political consequences for the individual. Identification
of the oppression is the first move toward organised resistance because it is the moment of recognising the possibility
of change. As an organised group the oppressed can begin to
act politically and at the same time identify the group(s)
causing their oppression.

Oppression operates only in terms of collectivities. An
individual is oppressed as part of a group. You could not be
11

oppressed if you were the only member of your group. The
idea of an individual oppressor has little meaning, because the
individual’s action, however horrifying, is only oppression
within the framework of the relation of collectivities. It is
meaningless to talk of an individual’s intention to act oppressively because oppression is a systematic determination (and
interpretation) of individual behaviours. The concept is fundamentally interpretive of the relations between collectivities

and is not a valid description of specific instances or intentions. Oppression is a term that refers to a general structure,
and in that way is very close to the concept of power that has
gained wide currency in theories of sexual politics.

Oppression is similar to but not identical with power.

Adults have power over children but that does not mean that
children are directly oppressed by adults (although there is a
case for arguing that some oppression does result from this).

Power is a ‘virtual’ force. Power is not an action or a history,
but a potential for either. The concept of power answers
questions about the conditions necessary for events to occur.

Power is a catch-all concept for an originating dynamic of
historical change. Its widespread use today is the result of the
disappearance of agency in post-structuralist theories of the
subject, a disappearance which has left a conceptual vacuum.

Where social groups were formerly theorised as singular
subjects, the semiological critique of the philosophy of the
subject leaves them without any potential for interaction.

Power substitutes for this potential. The difficulty is that this
model of society cannot account for instances of action in
history, without taking the concept of power out of its legitimate field and misusing it as a means of explaining historical
events. Power, however, cannot act.

The tendency to misuse the concept of power occurs for
the same reason that oppression, another virtual concept, is
taken as identifiable through individual experience. We tend
to think of groups as singular subjects; man and men are seen
as conforming to the same analytic and theoretic constraints.

What we need to recognise is that groups are not united,
singular subjects. Oppression and power are perfectly valid
concepts within a restricted sphere of analysis. They explain
the potential of groups to act in certain ways in relation to one
another. They give answers to questions about experience by
12

specifying not causes, but limiting conditions.

The consequence of the complex character of the concept
of oppression is that, although it can be argued from women’s
point of view that men oppress women, it does not necessarily
follow that a specific individual man oppresses women, nor
that all relations between individuals from the two groups are
oppressive. Men must recognise this while also recognising
the anger and outrage that women feel, and which necessarily
find individual as well as group targets. I don’t mean that an
individual man can disown complicity. Men do benefit from
the oppression of women. As black women have pointed out
to white feminists, the members of an oppressor group benefit
from the oppression whether they are conscious of the benefits or not. They also lose out in certain obvious ways too. But
this complicity is only part of the picture. An individual man
is in some ways an embodiment of the group identity of men,
as well as outside it in others. These changing relations to the
group are not the result of different moments, as if now I am
acting like men in general and now I am not, but different
simultaneous elements of a particular moment or situation.

Some of what I am doing happens because I am acting as a
man and some of it has other determinations. This point can
be seen even more clearly if we compare two apparently
similar formulations: ‘Men oppress women’ and’ All men
oppress women’. They seem very similar but are actually
quite different. The first describes a structured relation between individuals considered through their group identity.

The second implies that each and every man is an oppressor of
women and thereby further implies that this oppression originates in the intentionality of individual men, to whom a male
identity as oppressor is intrinsic. That formulation is politi..

cally disabling for men.

Thus the idea of the experience of oppression leads to
conceptual confusion. It is not oppression that is experienced.

Rather, certain experiences are made possible by oppression.

There cannot be a direct experience of oppression because
oppression only describes the conditions of possible group
relations. Oppression does not ‘occur’ in the historical sense,
and the experiences it makes possible cannot be interpreted as
the meaning of oppression. The meaning of these experiences
depends on the history of the relations between members of
the group and others. That is why the appeal to group identity
as giving political significance to an existential account of
experiences of oppression is itself an illegitimate seizure of
authority, however authentic and damaging the experiences to
be recounted. We can go on using the terms of oppression and
power in the ordinary way, but we cannot also assume that
they offer coherent analytic explanations of sexual politics
unless we recognise their restriction to virtuality.

Oppression is a concept of limited analytic value and a
hindrance to the development of effective political alliances.

It harks back to a consensual theory of law and therefore
suggests both the abrogation of shared norms and the denial
that the disputed norms have any validity at all. Those termed
oppressors are therefore depicted as both intentional violators
of these norms and the creators of false norms. Oppression is
a structure that defines some of the possible relations between
groups and is conceptually a virtual condition, one that delineates the bounds of possibility. Once there is talk of the experience of oppression what is actually being considered is
the experience of events made possible by oppression. Analysis on the basis of shared political criteria would be needed to
transform this into knowledge of oppression. Since the concept of oppression defines r~lations between groups and has a
virtual status, oppressions cannot be added or formed into
hierarchies.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

The relations between men and women are and have been
oppressive. The deprivations, cruelties, exploitations and misrepresentations that social and psychological structures enable men to perpetrate on women are pervasive and sometimes appalling. For socialist men to begin to respond politically to this, a theoretical and practical rethinking of the
politics of oppression is needed. But the problem with the
concept of oppression is that what appears to be obvious (the
suffering, domination and deprivation) becomes the basis for
a concept that is used as if the determining structure were
itself the actuality. What is needed is a politics that begins
with a study of the constitution of groups through their interactions with one another. Oppression is too undifferentiating
a concept. Above all it divides those who need to negotiate
their differences and relations. No one is ‘innocent’. Everyone is placed in structural relations where they are at times
members of an oppressor group. A socialist political practice
has to begin there.

My argument can be summed up in this way. Women
discover that they are oppressed. A feminist politics develops.

What must men’s response then be? To tackle their own role
as oppressors? That is where the problems begin. A politics
cannot start there for the reasons I have outlined, because the
concept of oppression effectively entails the erasure of the
oppressing group, at least insofar as its constitution as a group
determines the oppression. If men are defined by their role as
agents of oppression then all they can do is will their own
demise, at least as men in any sense we understand it. Yet that
is not possible if masculinity means anything more than a
limited set of behaviours. If however the concept of oppression is understood as describing a precondition of the relations between men and women but not the intentions, aims or
experiences of either sex, then it becomes possible for men to
begin to differentiate the processes of oppression and other
social processes of emancipatory potential. Discovering what
is not oppression is one way oppression can be challenged.

The emergence of identity politics based on the concept of
multiple oppression points to the need for a socialism that is
constantly negotiating the constitutive differences that will
fissure every socialist grouping. The project of socialism can
only be based on alliances. General principles will always
need to be reinflected at every level and at every point of that
alliance. Otherwise the socialist project will become selfoppressive. As it has been practised, identity politics has too
often been the left’s unconscious internalisation of the multiple ways an oppressive social system identifies its subjects.

post-structuralist discourses with which many of us are now
perhaps over-familiar.’ Although many feminists have queried the validity of this link between feminist theory and poststructuralism, such connections have been historically important, especially in the academic world. Paul Smith, however,
simply assumes that the two are identical, and that therefore a
man with access to semiological theory has automatic access
to feminist theory. The masculine imperialism of that assumption was immediately challenged by other contributors to the
collection, but I want to argue that sexual difference theory
itself poses some insurmountable barriers to the engagement
of men working for social change.

Antony Easthope’s book, What a Man’s Gotta Do, is an
exception to the lack of specific accounts of masculinity in
terms of sexual difference. Written from within a clear commitment to the form of theory that Paul Smith mentions, the
book concludes that our society produces ‘masculine myth’

that is central to its functioning.

The myth posits masculinity as natural, normal and
universal … In terms of the myth masculinity wants to
present itself as an essence – fixed, self-consistent,
pure. In fact it has no essence and no core. Gender is
marked in three areas or levels of human experience that of the body and the biological; that of social roles;
and that at which gender is defined internally in the
unconscious. The myth aims to bring together all three
levels in a perfect unity, the completely masculine
individual. 20
In practice this means that analysis must look at the way
sexual identity develops in three different ways: through
Freud’s theory of desire, through the way popular culture
enforces representations of masculinity, and by examining
the most basic structures of all, those of ‘patriarchy and the
phallic system’ .

At every point this system turns on what is seen as the
male symbol. Sexual difference is represented by having or not having the phallus …. But the phallus, however deeply wrought by the traditions of patriarchal
culture, is nevertheless merely a symbol. 21
Easthope then refers this point to Juliet Mitchell’s introduc-

SEXUAL DIFFERENCE
Sexual difference theory, like the concept of oppression, is
widely used in public political debate, and is equally the result
of collective discussions rather than the work of a specific
theorist. There has however been much more written analysis
of the ideas that underpin the theory, al though recent accounts
of masculinity have tended to take them for granted. One
reason for this is indicated unconsciously by Paul Smith, the
co-editor of Men in Feminism: ‘Feminist theory broadly
speaking sees (“through” phallocentric theory) that malecentred social and psychical structures place biological men
as enforcing agents for those structures. ’19 He then asks
whether mel (‘male theorists’) can understand and ‘be of any
political use to feminist theory’ and decides that they can.

‘The intellectual task of understanding feminist theory is not
a problem since feminist theory is situated within the array of
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

13

tion to Lacan’s essays on feminine sexuality for confirmation. 22 I will argue that there are serious difficulties with this
conjunction of semiology, discourse theory and Lacanian
psychoanalysis, that has come to be known as sexual difference theory, when it is extended from feminism into a politics
of masculinity, difficulties that lie in the fundamental assumptions of those fields rather than the exposition that Easthope offers.

Feminism has explored many different strands of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, but it is the development of this
one specific appropriation of psychoanalysis as a theory of
sexual difference that has most influenced the Left.23 Emerging out of a conjuncture between British feminism, French
semiology and Screen film theory, it has enjoyed a renewed
authority in recent work on masculinity. According to sexual
difference theory, gender is constructed within discourses and
their work of representation, on the basis of the sexual difference that is only achieved through the oedipal process and the
entry into language. The different sources for the theoretical
concepts need to be separated out for the implications to
become clear. Foucault’s theory of discourse is used as the
basis of the idea that knowledge and therefore gender are
effects of discourses. The Kantian concept of representation
that semiology has reproduced is used to indicate that what
are produced are not real objects in themselves but cognitive
models of them. Freud’s conception of the polysexuality of
the infant whose desire is only slowly fixed to an approved
object choice underlies the assumption that sexual difference
emerges after the oedipal transition. Lacan’s rereading of that
transmutation of desire as the process whereby the subject
enters language (and by extension the symbolic, the whole
array of culture understood as a series of sign systems), is
used to produce an equation between the semiological concept of language as a system of differences, and sexuality.

There is also an allusion to Derrida’s anti-foundational founding concept of ‘differance’ .

The
analytic

fuoctioo~g

~

sexuality around the male term, or the privileging of
that term which shows sexuality to be constructed
within language, so this raises the issue of women’s relationship to that

th~~—————————-~l~pqe

complex constellation of philosophical,
scientific, linguistic
and empirical concepts is not my main
concern here, but
rather its political
implications and capacities. The constellation involves two
different kinds of
appeal to the authority of its founding
concepts which have
a crucial effect on extensions of the apparatus to the politics
of masculinity. One
is the appeal to the
authority of psychoanalysis as both a science and a coherent philosophical anthropology. The other is an appeal to the authority of the work of
Foucault, Lacan and Derrida, and more generally to semiology. The two forms of authority are very different, produce
different analytic consequences, and offer different problems
to the theorist of masculinity. Semiology has been widely
assumed to offer fruitful methods for the study of masculinity
because its status is not obviously compromised as the expres14

sion of a male standpoint. By contrast, the difficulties of the
masculine bias in psychoanalysis have been generally recognised.

Psychoanalysis is an institution deeply complicit with
men’s authority and power. Any appropriation of psychoanalysis to theorise masculinity would have to begin by challenging the evidential, the structural, the institutional and the
ideological formations of this institution. None of the recent
attempts to extend psychoanalysis into the critical analysis of
masculinity have done that. Feminism offers a misleading
ease in its use of psychoanalysis, because, as I have suggested, feminism is able to work oppositionally through the
already constituted marginality of women to the discipline.

Feminism provides an immanent critique not dissimilar to
Marx’s critique of the classical economists.24 The language of
psychoanalysis has also provided a place for feminists to
develop an articulation of silenced experience, because of its
richness in terminologies for the desire that women had been
historically denied public expression of. This language provides the opportunity for emancipatory dialogue, not an authoritative theory of the psyche. To develop such a theory
would require both theoretical work on, and an immanent
critique of, the whole range of modern psychologies and their
social foundations.

We can begin to see how there might be a problem in using
this form of feminist thought for analyses of masculinity if we
turn to Jacqueline Rose’s companion introduction to Feminine Sexuality. She begins with the assumption that there is no
‘pre-discursive reality’ ,25 a formulation that alludes to both
language and discourse. The conflation of the two creates a
contradiction inimical to the analysis of masculinity. She
writes:

In so far as it is the order of language which constructs

~d

that sexuality simultaneously. 26
The English word
‘language’ is used
here to refer to langue as a universal
set of rules and
structures (an ‘order’) which logically precedes any
specific social practice.

Therefore
sexuality is constructed at the level
of a structure that
transcends discursive practice. The
word ‘language’ is
used three times in a
sentence, twice without any article at all, implying universality, and the third time with the deictic ‘that’ (‘the issue of
women’s relationship to that language and that sexuality’).

This third appearance produces a distance between women
and language. It could also be read as implying that ‘the order
of language which constructs sexuality around the male term’

is not the only language, but this interpretation would amount
to the acknowledgement that language is a practice, not a
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

categorial structure which is the necessary condition of all
experience, independent of practice and history.

If language ‘structures sexuailty around the male term’,
then we are dealing with terms, both male and female, which
are given, a priori, since they are co-eval with this unified
ahistorical structure, language. The terms are then empty,
universal linguistic structures with no logical connection to
behaviour, context, practice, nor any actual human beings.

This form of idealism is especially obstructive of any attempt
to consider the construction of masculinity, because it leads to
the conclusion that masculinity is coextensive with language
itself, and therefore fixed and unchanging. When Jacqueline
Rose says elsewhere in the essay that ‘the feminine is constituted as a division in language, a division which produces the
feminine as its negative term’, the word ‘feminine’ logically
has no meaning apart from its use as the label of the division.

It can’t be used to refer to social practice because, if it were,
parole would be mistaken for langue. Similar problems arise
if we try to analyse the phrase ‘women’s relation to that
language’, for this phrase assumes that women are historically locatable individuals who can be known to be women
independently of language. Yet women are allegedly an effect
of language. The two positions are in contradiction. If we
further analyse where it is that masculinity is ‘constructed’

(‘sexuality 00′ constructed within language’), it is by means of
psychoanalytic theory that both the privileging and the construction take place. Sexuality is represented as a phenomenon comprehensible a priori, and is therefore not a historical,
contingent process. The metaphor of construction implies a
process that takes time, and such duration is by definition
excluded at the level of sexual difference theory and the
langue on which it is modelled. It is quite different to say that
masculinity is socially constructed, because that construction
is precisely a historical and developmental process, continually occurring and itself being remade.

The assumption that language is a system leads to a model
of sexual difference that confuses a priori concepts and historical practice. Masculinity is theorised as the inevitable
primacy of the symbolic. The valuable emphasis on the social
construction of sexual difference gets partially obscured by
the use of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as structural terms at
the level of langue. Sexual difference theory sets out to avoid
essentialism but tends to reproduce that fallacy in another
form.

Psychoanalysis can be seen as an immanent critique of the
analysand’s speech. The terms of an actual analysis derive
from the analysand, and the analysis proceeds by revealing
the contradictions within consciousness arising from the unconscious. It also has a normative dimension. The shared
rationality of the communicative relation between analyst and
analysand forms the basis for the analysis of the analysand’s
life, the fantasies and frustrations that it evidences. These
conflicts are then interpreted by the theory in such a way that
the painful contradictions can be healed. A feminist appropriation of psychoanalysis can question the processes of this
resolution by reinterpreting the divisions as a result of social
processes of gender based domination and therefore relocate
the therapy as politics. The latent emancipatory project of
psychoanalysis, its aim to understand self-division in order to
heal it (a healing that at its most extreme may be simply a
tragic reconciliation with inevitable division, as it is in some
of Lacan’s work), is made explicit, but then transferred from
the domain of categorial reason to social history. Beyond the
restoration of reflexivity, feminist psychoanalysis offers a
transformation of such restorations which is revolutionary in
scope. A project that would link psychoanalysis to an analysis
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

of masculinity aimed at transformation would have to bring to
psychoanalysis a politics that could similarly reshape its latent imperative into a social, political process. Psychoanalysis
cannot effect this transformation itself. Nor can feminism as
such, because its appropriation of psychoanalysis identifies
masculinity as the very process of conservation. Masculinity
is the name given to the refusal of politics that is the positivist
and therapeutic horizon of psychoanalytic institutions.

Political critiques of masculinity that have appeared in the
past decade have often been based on the apparently radical
possibilities of feminist appropriations of psychoanalysis.

Yet the concept of difference has provided a formidable
barrier to the development of a radical men’s politics. I want
to argue that such appropriations encounter theoretical obstacles that make the understanding of masculinity as a historical and social phenomenon more difficult, rather than
offering the in sights that feminism has achieyed. Feminism is
able to use psychoanalysis from points of both internal and
external opposition, so that its very use becomes a powerful
political strategy and analytic method. The asymmetries of
power and knowledge make it impossible to simply extend or
reverse that critical strategy to consider men and masculinity,
without reinstating the very authoritarianism that feminism
has challenged.

Theories of sexual difference have tended to elide the
problems of the authority of Freudian psychoanalysis by the
use of semiology, which does not present the same difficulties. Semiology, however, has the effect of transforming a
theory whose claims to validity are ultimately dependent on
the results of empirical enquiry, into a theory which is idealist
and universalist. Sexual difference theory simply replaces
theories of material determinism (or essentialism as it is often
called) which it explicitly challenges, with a position reminiscent of Neo-Kantianism. The apparent success in exposing
essentialist errors is paid for by the inability of the theory to
conceptualise determination in any form. Odd circularities
result from this. Consider the phrase ‘sexual difference’ itself. The meaning of the sexual is precisely what difference is
supposed to explain. Its inclusion in this phrase suggests that
sexual difference has to smuggle in a socially determined
understanding of the sexual in order to give meaning to the
process of differentiation in the first place. Otherwise we
would not know what the word ‘sexual’ meant in this context.

Sexual difference theory is an unpromising basis for a
politics of masculinity because of the effect of its semiological appropriation of psychoanalysis. History and society vanish from the analysis. This idealism is concealed by the
apparent success of the theory in challenging widespread
15

fallacies about gender, those that derive gender either from
biology or from an idea of universal sexual division, comparable to right and left handedness. Sexual difference theory
explains both the biological fallacy and the universalist fallacy (whose structure does not need further elucidation because of its more familiar form) in semiological terms, as
examples of a metaphysics of the referent. Both fallacies are
alleged to be what Parveen Adams, writing in rnl/, called the
result of assuming that there is ‘a prior and given state of
social being’, prior, that is, to the work of representation.

Only what is represented for us is real in this account. ‘The
work of representation produces differences that cannot be
known in advance. ’28 Michele Barrett seized on this assertion
in Women’s Oppression Today where she pointed out that
such a position would make a historical materialism impossible.29 Knowledge of class and the social relations of production would be inconceivable.

Sexual difference is contrasted by Parveen Adams with
sexual division, which is her label for the biological and
universalist fallacies. Sexual division depends on an absolutely prior reality which determines it, just as the metaphysical idea of the signifier depends on the prior and given reality
of a referent outside discourse. ‘Prior’ is a term which here
merges temporal precedence and theoretical precedence, and
therefore makes a claim to temporal precedence or history
appear to be a claim to logical priority. ‘Given’ conflates
material determination and logical necessity.

A child is only slowly able to grow into or through the
process of positioning that sexual difference effectuates. To
say that sexual division was ‘prior’ in this context would
mean that the child was born already wholly constituted as a
masculine or feminine individual, whose traits simply had to
emerge like the plant out of a seed. Contrary to this, sexual
difference theory argues that the desire of the child confronted by the differentiation of the mother and father positions will, during the process of development, result in the
child taking up a position in the system of sexual difference
not determined by internal factors. If ‘prior’ did only imply
such an assumption about the emergence at birth of a fully
gendered individual, then this critique would be very effective but ‘prior’ can be interpreted in more ordinary, historical
terms. There is a sexual division prior to the emergence of the
child, if we mean that gender already has a history. The child
is not born into a world without sexual division and could not
take up a position outside it. The role of history has been
elided in this attempt to assert the indeterminacy of the child’s
sexual character. Sexual division is prior to the child even in
the very person of the parents, but not in the form of a fixed,
absolute pair of identities. This division always has a history
and is as varied as our class and multi-racial society can be.

The denial of priority is a denial of history. ‘Prior’ elides the
distinction between temporal precedence and logical precedence in order to argue that the former always entails the
latter. That is not the case.

The term ‘prior’ is an abstraction from history. ‘Given’ on
the other hand is an abstraction from material causation. It
implies that any appeal to a material determination (for example to physiology or chromosomes) also makes a logical
claim. If epistemological realism were the only form that
reference to an outside world could take, this might be valid.

An objective reality whose externality can be considered permanent and universal is not the only theoretical implication of
‘given’, if we step outside a narrowly realist framework.

Material differences may be real, and therefore ‘given’, but
need not therefore logically be determinants of sexual identity
in social relations. The significance assigned to what is given
16

is dependent on the history of both material differences and
human meanings. Neither need be a sole determinant of sexuality.

The biological fallacy is a fallacy of causation. It assumes
that a particular character trait which is allegedly widespread
in one sex is caused by an anatomical or biological characteristic. The term ‘biology’ refers to a field of science, with its
own theories, methods, objects of study and institutions. For
the causal link to be established, an entity in one conceptual
field, biology, would have to be directly connected to an
entity in a completely different conceptual field. Such a connection would have to be established conceptually, and that
connection would necessitate a negotiation between the two
fields in their entirety. The biological fallacy consists of
assuming that the body handled by the doctor is the same body
that raises a family or holds down a job.

Sexual difference theory avoids this reduction ism , but
only by relying on some of the more extreme claims of
semiology and psychoanalysis, and fails to be coherent, even
if we accept those claims. It ignores the role of history in the
formation of gender. Focusing on the synchronic sign system
and the ab initio development of the child it loses sight of the
way we all begin with existing, historically determined, sex-

ual differences as we think, speak, mature and ourselves
reproduce what we have learnt.

Another variant of sexual difference theory uses the concept of ‘discourse’ to analyse social structures of representation, especially in recent accounts of masculinity. It is common to hear people talk of sexist discourse and discourses of
masculinity.30 Such usage is misleading. Discourse theory
was developed as a means of analysing the history of specific
knowledges, especially legal and medical ones. In ordinary
use the word discourse means speech. Discourse theory uses
the term both metonymically and metaphorically, but not
literally. Metonymically it indicates the variety of verbal
forms a historical institution can instate. Metaphorically it
suggests the conditions of actual practice as opposed to structural paradigms (which structuralists had set in opposition to
‘parole’ or discourse, as the proper foci of cultural enquiry).

The well-defined uses by Foucault and others give little support for unjustified reference to discourses of masculinity.

This is because FoucauIt’s theory of discourses is a pragmatics: ‘This field is made up of the totality of all effective
statements (whether spoken or written) in their dispersion as
events and in the occurrence that is proper to them.’31 Analysis of intention or ‘langue’ is irrelevant. Nor does discourse
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

analysis examine the logical coherences in these events. The
nearest thing to an analysable logic that Foucault offers is the
idea of a recognisable relation between a ‘system of dispersion’ and a ‘number of statements’ .

Whenever between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity
(an order, correlations, positions and functionings,
transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation. 32
This summary is made in the specific context of an attempt to
formulate general principles for the study of economics,
medicine, and grammar. Therefore a legitimate extension of
Foucault’s discourse theory to gender politics would have to
observe several conditions:

(1) It could not make statements about intention, whether
individual or collective. You cannot talk about the intentions
behind a sexist discourse, for example.

(2) It would have to identify both statements and a system
of dispersion. The existence of statements doesn’t prove the
existence of a system.

(3) It would have to engage with pragmatics. Analysis
would have to study in detail the structures of social relations
in order to assign significance to the statements. The statements cannot be treated as self-evidently meaningful in the
absence of such analysis of contexts.

Much of the attractiveness of what has appeared as an aestheticising linguistification of politics in recent cultural theory diminishes if these conditions are observed. The need for
a political and historical account of masculinities cannot be
sidestepped by projecting those relations from the analysis of
statements (or representation in general) into a determinate
structure of social relations.

To speak legitimately of a discourse of masculinity it
would be necessary to show that a particular set of usages was
located structurally within a clearly defined institution with
its own methods, objects and practices. Otherwise the reference to discourses of masculinity is simply a reference to
repeated patterns of linguistic usage, which may be significant, but cannot be theorised in the way some legal and
medical discourses can. Masculinity is produced within some
discourses in the stricter theoretical sense, but most examples
of ‘masculine’ utterance are not structured discourses. They
are not organised around specific knowledges. The presentation of men in popular cultural forms or the recurrent use of
specific languages to describe men are highly significant and
must be analysed, but we cannot simply call them discourses
and assume we have established a link with histories of power
and knowledge.

In an interesting series of papers distributed at the Southampton University Sexual Difference conference in 1985, the
Representations of Masculinity Study Group from Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies argued very strongly for a
Foucauldian version of the theory of sexual difference. They
suggested that there are masculinities rather than a single
masculinity, but then focused methodologically on the theory
that these masculinities are ‘produced in and by different
discourses of representation’.33 ‘Male discourse’ is a ‘strategy’ available to women as well as men, one that a woman can
‘speak with its codes but as a biological female … run rings
round its assumptions and prejudices’.34 This appealing notion of subversion reveals the same confusion as we saw in
Jacqueline Rose’s essay. Discourse is said to produce gender,
and then through an appeal to experience a position outside it
is embraced in order to allow the possibility of resistance.

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

That resistance masks the way masculinity is assumed to be a
fixed product of discourse.

My remarks about sexual difference theory, representation and discourse are not in fact intended as criticisms of
their use in feminist politics, but of their unanalysed extension to the discussion of masculinity by men. Feminism can
use these concepts strategically as long as they are appropriated in an oppositional mode. Once set up as general accounts
of human society or extended to the predicaments of masculinity their inherent limits are transgressed. A circularity in
the terms and theories available to us becomes evident once
we start exploring masculinity.

CONCLUSION
Neither men nor masculinity can claim an emancipatory politics on the basis of gender alone. Men do not form a group
constituted by a specific mode of production in the way
classes do. The concepts of oppression and power describe
the conditions of historical action in terms of potential and
constraint, but do not make possible a theoretical basis for a
socialist men’s politics because the theory of oppression is
not a theory of agency. Indeed a global theory of oppression
has made it difficult for men to think of themselves as possible agents of a radical politics of gender. The recognition
that as historical agents they need not be individual oppressors, nor be wholly defined as oppressors of women, can help
make such politics thinkable. Recognising that sexual politics
need not depend on a theory of masculinity as an effect of
sexual difference makes it possible to recognise that gender
relations are neither the result of discourses which wholly
determine men’s experience, nor merely the result of a process of emergence into language in the universalised oedipal
moment. A new set of political strategies which will
strengthen existing socialist practice can then emerge from
the rethinking of the social relations that our ‘Societies determine.

This is not the place to detail the aims and practices of a
socialism that takes masculinity seriously. Such work needs
to be done by large numbers of men and women on the Left
who listen to and negotiate with one another. From the foregoing analysis it should be apparent that certain issues are of
central importance. A commitment to better social and personal relations within the Left and especially between men,
perhaps in the form of consciousness raising3s that early contemporary feminism was centred upon, or perhaps in some
other form, would not only strengthen the Left and lessen the
strains between men and women that so undermine us, but
would also generate new ideas about social organisation and
change that could form part of the larger political project. If,
as many feminists say, men on the Left often set themselves
into militaristic conflict with one another, and have little idea
how to offer certain kinds of support which it is almost always
left to women to provide, then there is much to be done.

That last paragraph seems both scrupulous and disappointing to me. If I were reading this essay I would be looking for
more information, speculation, and proposals about men and
socialism. In particular I would like to see more affirmation of
the contribution that men have made and can make to human
emancipation. A reorganisation of child care in the whole
context of work would have, it seems to me, a revolutionary
effect on our society. There is surely a great need for men to
become self-reflective about their gender. How and why has
their gender formed their experience, their identity, their very
bodily place in the world? My experience of men’s workshops
suggests that the results of such reflection can be surprising to
17

men. The exhaustion that most men who work accept as the
confirmation of their duty to work, the violence from other
men that men come to expect from their earliest toy weapons
to the actuality of gang or national warfare, the homophobia
that most men experience as isolation and a driving need for
female reassurance, the self-doubt and guilt about gender
inequality, are pervasive. Becoming accustomed to unthreatening closeness and the possibility of emotional support from
men as well as women, learning that a man’s worth need not
depend solely on productive labour and its undoubted rewards, and connecting hurtful experiences which arose from
oppression with the role men play in gender oppression, can
immeasurably strengthen men. Yet here I am using the term
oppression myself in an essay that explains how obstructive it
can be for a socialist politics. I think I could defend its use
here as an informal usage of the kind that I hope I have
indicated is valuable, as long as it is not taken as a basis for
analysis and theory. That development of the understanding
which analysis and theory can offer is the challenge we all
face, and one that cannot simply be produced by individual
intellectual endeavour. It requires a basis in widespread political practice. My proposals about men’s strategies are a
contribution to a debate that has only very tentatively begun.

The discussion of the obstructions that some recent cultural
theory creates for the practice of a socialist men’s politics has
focused on theory, not in order to produce the final form of
some new theory, but to explore the relations between theory
and practice. It is not so much new theory that we need as
further exploration of that political engagement of theory.

There is no uniformity about men. The heterogeneity must
be recognised, across age, class, race, religion and world
view. These differences must form part of a dialectical process, in which socialist practice, feminism (and other emancipatory projects), and the reflexive engagement of men, are
brought together, for our new politics to emerge stronger and
freer.

We cannot go back to a pre-semiological or pre-feminist
socialism. What male intellectuals on the Left can do is
recognise that they have to do new theoretical work that
begins with our new situation, but recognises the importance
of the familiar goals of socialism, as well as the new understandings of feminism. Without feminism the Left would lose
much of its energy. Without men who are willing to reflect
upon their masculinity, socialism is likely to direct that energy towards self-defeating ends.

Notes
1

2

18

Heidi Hartmann put the dilemma bluntly: ‘A struggle aimed
only at capitalist relations of oppression will fail, since their
underlying supports in patriarchal relations of oppression
will fail.’ Heidi Hartmann, ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’, in
Lydia Sargent (ed.), Women and Revolution: A Discussion of
the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, London,
1981, p. 32.

A similar point was recently made by Jeff Rodriguez: ‘First
of all we need to tackle the theoretical level. Underpinning
much of the left’s view of this issue is the notion that
women’s oppression is purely a class-based thing. It is to do
with them being workers – being in production and part of
the working class. And they naturally assume therefore that
to be pro-women is to be pro-socialist. But I don’t think
that’s true at all. They think that there is some basic alliance
between women and the workers’ movement. I don’t think
there is. So I think that at a theoretical level left men, with
their marxist tradition, need to question this view in a funda-

3

4

5
6
7

8

9
10

11

12

13

14
15
16
17

18

mental way, and to recognise that they aren’t going to hitch
up women to the workers’ movement unless they really try,
unless they change their structures completely.’ Jeff
Rodriguez in a round-table discussion, ‘Mending the Broken
Heart of Socialism’, in Rowena Chapman and Ionathan
Rutherford (eds.), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity,
London, 1988, p. 264.

The editors of Unwrapping Masculinity echo a widespread
conviction on the left that ‘socialism, as it is presently
defmed, cannot withstand the realities of feminism, nor the
politics of lesbian and gay affirmation, with its critique of
masculinity and heterosexuality, nor the presence of black
politics; these all disrupt the notion of the white sovereign
subject’ (Chapman and Rutherford, p. 18). While I agree
with their general picture I will argue in this article that the
theoretical position implicit in their diagnosis of the ‘white
sovereign subject’ is a hindrance not a help to the kind of
analysis and political change they are calling for.

Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought, London, 1984, p. 192.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, London,
1971, p. 1584.

Ieff Heam, The Gender of Oppression: Men, Masculinity,
and the Critique of Marxism, Brighton, 1987, p. xiii.

Ibid., p. xiv.

R. W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person and
Sexual Politics, Oxford, 1987, p. xi.

Ibid., p. xiii.

Connell disclaims the functionalist emphasis of the term but
he still thinks in terms of interactive networks rather than individuals, political strategies or moral theory.

Ibid., p. 130.

Connell’s comparison of the way gender operates in society
to musical composition – ‘a tangible, active and often difficult process of bringing elements into connection with each
other and thrashing out their relationships … ]l matter of the
real historical process of interaction and group formation’

(p. 116) – is an extreme example of this tendency throughout
the book.

Rosi Braidotti, ‘Envy: or With My Brains and Your Looks’,
in Alice Iardine and Paul Smith (eds.), Men in Feminism, p.

235.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals,
trans. H. I. Paton, London, 1948, p. 84.

Ibid., p. 95.

Loc. cit.

Mark Cousins, in an article which sums up much of the work
of this kind (Mark Cousins, ‘Material Arguments and
Feminism’, mlf, no. 2, p. 66), and typifies the position of the
magazine mlf, argues that the concept of oppression is problematic, saying that the ‘concept of the oppression of women
often results in an algebra where one man’s power is another
woman’s oppression’, in a way that epitomises a common
frustration amongst men at the use of the term, but his
answer is unconvincing. He goes on using the term oppression while he argues that its ‘referents’ cannot be assumed to
be ‘an unproblematic totality of women as concrete individuals’ (p. 70). Like other contributors to mlfhe adopts an
idealist theory that gender has no reality outside representations within discourses.

A good discussion of this debate can be found in Susan
Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan, ‘Upsetting an Applecart: Difference, Desire and Lesbian Sadomasochism’, Feminist Review. See for example p. 33: ‘As we see it, there are two key
ingredients: an analysis of the world as made up of a fixed
hierarchy of oppressions (or a select collection of oppressions) around gender, sexuality, age and ability; and notions

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

19
20
21
22

23

24

25

25

of the “authenticity” of subjective experience – experience
which can be understood only with reference to the hierarchy…. Within these politics there’s little room for distinguishing between politics and those who speak them …. To
speak experiences, to claim identities, is to be tied into
positions, and everything is assumed to follow on from
them. A lesbian mother, then, will automatically have certain postiions on men, women, money, sex.’

Paul Smith, ‘Men in Feminism: Men and Feminist Theory’,
in Jardine and Smith, p. 35.

Antony Easthope, What a Man’s Gotta Do: The Masculine
Myth in Popular Culture, London, 1986, p. 166.

Ibid., p. 170.

Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.), Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ‘ecole freudienne’, London,
1982.

The magazine mlfwas the main forum for this development
of feminist thought. It was one of the few feminist journals
that not only published men, but aimed at a politics that
would include men. To do so it had to address issues similar
to those with which this essay is concerned, but did so in
very different fashion. Mustapha Safouan, for example, argued that the oedipus complex was universal. Changing the
pattern of childcare so that men were the main caring parent
would not alter sexual identity at all. The implicit conclusion
was that the present order contained an unalterable truth.

Men were not destined to be primarily engaged in domestic
labour.

Full discussion of this assertion would require more space
than this article permits, and shift attention directly onto
feminism away from the issue of masculinity and theory. An
example of what I mean would be the work of J ane Gallop in
Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter’s Seduction,
London, 1982. An extended discussion of the way feminism
can function as critique can be found in Seyla Benhabib and
Drucilla Comell, Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies, Cambridge,
1987. However, the phenomenon is pervasive and pushes
critique of psychoanalysis to the limits where it becomes
almost a new theory altogether.

This assertion is allegedly based on a remark from Encore,
Jacques Lacan’s Semina ire XX, which she translates as ‘How
return, other than by means of a special discourse, to a prediscursive reality’ (p. 55). His comment occurs in a discussion of ontology where he says “Toute dimension de I’ etre se
produit. dans le courant du discours du maitre, de celui qui,
proferant le signifiant, en attend ce qui est un de ses effets de
lien a ne pas negliger, qui tient a ceci que le signifiant
commande. Le signifiant est d’ abord imperatif. Comment
retourner, si ce n’est d’un discours special, a une realite prediscursive? C’est la ce qui est le reve -le reve, fondateur de
toute idee de connaissance. Mais c’est la aussi bien ce qui est
a considerer comme mythique. 11 n ‘y a aucune realite prediscursive. Chaque realite se fonde et se definit d ‘un discours’ (p. 33). Rose’s translation is accurate but Lacan’s
context is a discussion of the idea of an ontology, and his
general point seems to be that such philosophies tend to
imagine that there could be a state of being which is known
without language, rather like Hegel’s state of ‘self-certainty’

in his Phenomenology of Spirit. To conclude that reality is
discursive is a defmite extrapolation of Lac an ‘s point, especially given that Lacan uses the term ‘real’ elsewhere to
mean what is outside the symbolic order. Lac an ‘s
This assertion is allegedly based on a remark from Encore,
Jacques Lacan’s Seminaire XX, which she translates as
“How return, other than by means of a special discourse, to
a prediscursive reality” (p. 55). His comment occurs in a
discussion of ontology where he says ”Toute dimension de
I’ etre se produit dans le courant du discours du maitre, de

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

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29

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32
33

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celui qui, proferant le signifiant, en attend ce qui est un de
ses effets de lien a ne pas negliger, qui tient a ceci que le
signifiant commande. Le signifiant est d’abord imperatif.

Comment retoumer, si ce n’est d’un discours special, aune
realite pre-discursive? C’ est la ce qui est le reve – le reve,
fondateur de toute idee de connaissance. Mais c’est la aussi
bien ce qui est aconsiderer comme mythique. 11 n ‘y a aucune
realite pre-discursive. Chaque realite se fonde et se definit
d’un discours.” (p. 33) Rose’s translation is accurate but
Lacan’s context is a discussion of the idea of an ontology,
and his general point seems to be that such philosophies tend
to imagine that there could be a state of being which is
known without language, rather like Hegel’s state of “selfcertainty” in his Phenomenology of Spirit. To conclude that
reality is discursive is a definite extrapolation of Lacan’s
point, especially given that Lacan uses the term “real” elsewhere to mean what is outside the symbolic order. Lacan’s
argument would seem to be close to Wittgenstein’s theme
that there can be no thought without language. In both cases
the argument is not that non-discursive or pre-discursive
fields don’t exist, but that what we mean by reality, being or
thought is only intelligible if we recognise that they are
forms of articulation. Lacan is also careful to use the term
discourse rather than language, because discourse is a communicative social relation. Reality is what we speak.

Mitchell and Rose, p. 53.

Mitchell and Rose, p. 55.

Parveen Adams, “A note on the Distinction between Sexual
Division and Sexual differences’, mlf, no. 3, 1979, p. 52.

Michele Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in
Marxist Feminist Analysis, London 1980. ‘Without denying
that representation plays an important constitutive role in
this process we can still insist that at any given time we can
have a knowledge of these categories prior to any particular
representation in which they may be reproduces or subverted’. Despite her critical stance she still uses the Kantian
terminology of categories, knowledge and the a priori.

For example Wendy Holloway in “Gender· Difference and
the Production of Subjectivity”, in Henriques et. aI. eds.,
Changing the Subject, London 1984, says “several co-existing and potentially contradictory discourses concerning
sexuality make available different positions and different
powers for men and women” (p.230).

Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, tr. Alan
Sheridan, London, 1972, p. 27.

Ibid., p. 37-38.

Carolyn Brown, Ann Cullis and John Mumford, “Laws of
Gender. Concerning some problems encountered in studying
representations of masculinity”, Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies, Birmingham University 1985, p. 1.

Ibid., p. 3.

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