It is interesting to read Lorde’s essay on Russia thirty years after “the fall of socialism.” Overtly, these are the notes of a bewildered, but friendly tourist: on many occasions Lorde is unsure of how to interpret what she sees. There are no blacks around, which is understandable, but feels strange; no one is supposed to pick up your bags in hotels and airports (which, at first, she finds “oppressive”); sometimes she suspects that Soviet officials may be telling lies; common folks, however, are nice; belonging to different races and ethnicities, they work well together In Uzbekistan. But there’s somethings else, if one reads carefully.
The essay opens with Lorde’s “dream”: she is making love to a woman in Moscow GUM, a famous department store neighboring Red Square. In the context of the 1970s, the scene is inspired by second-wave feminism with its focus on sexuality which was believed to be at the root of patriarchal oppression. Lorde, a “political lesbian,” is a part of this movement, where whom you love equals standing for a cause.
However, except for this introductory scene, the essay has a very different focus. Wherever Lorde does not describe surrounding scenery, she writes about conversations, facts, or perceptions that are related to social justice. An African American who belongs with the people whose oppression was/is of class nature in its Marxian, economic sense, she understands justice as a labor feminist would: how money/wealth is distributed. Yes, she is saying, Soviet society has its issues, and most probably more of them than she, a foreigner, can see; and “full equality between the sexes” that someone mentions has not been achieved. But there is still so much that people take for granted–in terms of education, and literacy, and women in professions, and childcare, and universal healthcare. The quality of which might be debatable, of course, but Lorde writes from the point of view of a racial group whose members still have shorter life expectancy and die from curable diseases in much greater numbers than their white co-citizens. Coming from where she comes from, she is perceptive of the issue of class.
Which is why the essay can be read as an important argument in contemporary debates in feminism about recognition vs. redistribution. The socialist project had “redistribution” for protection of working mothers at its base. The length of parental leaves, paid vacations, not working nights, avoiding heavy lifting and even prohibiting some occupations considered dangerous for women were a standard by which gender equality was to be measured. Focusing on redistributive justice, socialist emancipation never conceptualized masculine patriarchal domination in social domains from sexuality to language. In a way, the idea of “redistribution” from which the socialist system drew its enthusiasm on behalf of working women was in opposition to the conceptual framework of “recognition” and autonomy produced by new feminist theorizing of the woman condition. This is too sad, and the principles according to which the two approaches can be united are still to be found. However, argues Nancy Fraser, a prominent political theorist, under certain circumstances feminism may become the handmaiden of neoliberalism: this happens if we become oblivious of class inequality and redistribution. Or, in the words of Lorde, of “universal bread,” the issue of which she was so aware.
Elena Gapova is professor at the Department of Sociology, Western Michigan University. She has published extensively on gender, nation, class, and intellectuals in postsocialism. She is the author of Klassy natsiy: feministskaya kritika natsiostroitel’stva (Moscow, NLO, 2016).