by Karin Hilpisch, August 25th 2022
In discussing the contentious, much debated issue of the compatibility of feminism and Marxism, this article aims to show that Marxist feminism is neither an oxymoron nor a tautology. Based on the understanding that sexism, the name by which women’s oppression goes today, is to a large part analogous to racism, my argument will emphasize some analogous aspects of both, and correspondingly, of anti-sexism and anti-racism. It is my impression that some Marxists’ critique of feminism is based on applying double standards to (anti-)sexism and (anti-)racism, which is getting in the way of a non-moralistic, sober discussion.
What is feminism?
I understand feminism to mean the anti-sexism of those affected by sexism, analogous to the anti-racism of those affected by racism, without these terms denoting any specific ideology. Acknowledging that among those opposed to oppression there is a difference between those who are affected by it and those who are not has nothing to do with separatism or identity politics. Sexism and racism establish social power relations within classes. Within a given class, all else being equal, women occupy an inferior power position in relation to men; white people occupy a superior power position in relation to non-white people. Framing power positions, inferior or superior, as identities involves the reification and thus mystification of power relations.
The class standpoint of anti-sexism and anti-racism
The fact that sexism, like racism, is prevalent across classes does not imply that anti-sexism and anti-racism are cross-class causes, that they transcend the class division.
In Alexandra Kollontai’s words,
“The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question. Thus although both camps follow the general slogan of the “liberation of women”, their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class colouring to the targets and tasks it sets itself. …(2)
As Kollontai points out, petty-bourgeois feminists (3) seek equality with men in the framework of class society. So do petty-bourgeois Black civil rights activists. It is their respective class position that creates an “unbridgeable gulf” between them and their working class counterparts.
However, she goes on to observe,
“[T]his does not contradict the fact that the immediate tasks of the two groups of women coincide to a certain degree. (…)
The radical solution of the workers’ question is possible only with the complete reconstruction of modem productive relations; but must this prevent us from working for reforms which would serve to satisfy the most urgent interests of the proletariat? On the contrary, each new gain of the working class represents a step leading mankind towards the kingdom of freedom and social equality: each right that woman wins brings her nearer the defined goal of full emancipation. …“ (4)
Eleanor Marx notes,
“Where the bourgeois women demand rights that are of help to us too, we will fight together with them, just as the men of our class did not reject the right to vote because it came from the bourgeois class.“ (5)
The same may be said regarding abortion rights.
Some Marxists take the attitude that sexism and racism affecting groups of the petit-bourgeoisie are irrelevant from the class standpoint of the proletariat, and that opposing them is actually inimical to working class unity. Such an attitude cannot justifiably claim to be of Marxist origin, however, if we are to go by Lenin when he writes,
“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected … “ (6)
From a working class standpoint all acts of a sexist or racist kind should, I think, be unequivocally condemned, irrespective of the class affiliation of those affected.
The primary social institution of women’s oppression: the family
As early as 1847, Engels states about communist society that it
“abolishes private property and educates children communally, thus destroying the twin foundation of hitherto existing marriage – the dependence through private property of the wife upon the husband and of the children upon the parents.“ (7)
37 years later, Engels writes,
“[T]he peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.” (8)
“With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not.“ (9)
“[T]o emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit of the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends towards ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.“ (10)
Trotsky, another 39 years later, observes,
“As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.“ (11)
Releasing women from private reproductive work is the prerequisite of their fully participating in production.
Marxists have always understood women’s liberation to be dependent above all, on the collectivization, communalization, socialization, ultimately, the economization of domestic work; in other words, women’s liberation depends on turning unproductive labour into productive labour, which allows for increasing productivity through industrialization. Needless to say that the socialization of child rearing and other forms of care work does not imply the economizing/ industrializing of human relationships, as is precisely the case under capitalism.
As long as the commodity form prevails, economization equals commodification, and everything militates against the commodification of reproductive work. Private household labour reproduces productive labour power as a use value, not as a commodity, thereby minimizing its exchange value and making it cheaper for capital. This applies first and foremost to the rearing of children, the next generation of exploitable human material.
Although since the times of Engels, Trotsky, and Kollontai, the emancipation of working women has doubtless made considerable progress, liberation has not been achieved, as it is unachievable under capitalism.
Considerable efforts have been made toward ‘compatibility of family and career’ for women — an illusory path to economic emancipation, since the relation between unproductive and productive labor is a zero sum game: any amount of time spent on the former is less time available for the latter. Therefore, the alleged compatibility does not, in principle, change women’s unequal access to production, relative to men’s, gender-related job segregation, and the super-exploitation of women’s labour power, all of which result directly from their over-proportionate role, compared to men’s, in the private reproduction of labour power, taking place in the family, the basic economic unit of society.
Because it cheapens labour power, capital has an essential interest in maintaining the private family household; that is why agents of the ruling class, such as bourgeois politicians and corporate media, keep propagating “family values.”
As Kollontai observes,
“the modern family structure, to a lesser or greater extent, oppresses women of all classes and all layers of the population,” (12)
However, oppression does not affect women of different classes equally. The same applies to other oppressed groups.
Oppression and exploitation
Capitalist exploitation of labour power constitutes the general economic oppression of all members of the working class, which gives rise to specific forms of structural oppression of various social groups. Sexism and racism deny those affected equal access to production. A subordinate role in production is the economic base out of which grows the social, legal, and political superstructure of discrimination regarding the allocation of material resources, reactionary legislation, and broadly held views about those groups as being morally inferior, manifesting in offensive behaviours and criminal deeds.
Kollontai’s insight is of central importance:
“Only a change in the economic role of woman, and her independent involvement in production, can and will bring about the weakening of these mistaken and hypocritical ideas.” (13)
Given that oppression is structurally linked to exploitation, I argue that only those seeking access to production under conditions of exploitation can be affected. By implication, members of the ruling, i.e, exploiting, class cannot coherently be said to be affected by sexism or racism, for they do not partake in production, in the first place. Also, all members of the ruling class benefit from the system of exploitation that produces sexism and racism, and what one benefits from, one cannot be oppressed by. To claim otherwise, we would have to employ the non-sensical notion of self-oppression.
If a female member of the ruling class were murdered by a sexist, or a Black member, by a racist, they would doubtless be murder victims; but they would be victims of a sexist or racist crime in no sense other than a warmonger who accidentally steps on a landmine is a victim of war.
Ruling class individuals may suffer oppression in the family or other social spheres outside of production. But for them, the benefits they gain from capitalism far outweigh its disadvantages. That’s precisely why their class interest is in capitalism being maintained.
Petty-bourgeois feminism: detaching oppression from exploitation
In accordance with its class standpoint, petty-bourgeois feminism, in its manifold theoretical frameworks, focuses on fighting for reforms within capitalism rather than fighting capitalism itself as an overall oppressive system, the source of all oppression.
Whereas some feminist approaches entirely ignore class issues, dual systems theory sees women’s oppression as rooted and being upheld both in class society and patriarchy, understood as complexly intertwined but separately existing social systems. This theory is based on conceiving — falsely, in my view — private reproduction as part of the base, not the superstructure, of capitalism.
Much of feminist theory is inspired by the notion that sexism benefits men in terms of societal power. This is not the case independently of class. As members of the working class, men don’t benefit from sexism; likewise, white people don’t benefit from racism. On the contrary, their class interests are damaged by all forms of specific oppression since these function to divide the working class, suppress its class consciousness and thus weaken it in class struggle.
The fact that sexism and racism does not affect men or white people respectively, does not entail any privilege. The real and only beneficiary here is the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, which systematically generates and fosters both sexism and racism in all conceivable ways.
On the other hand, in relation to women competing in the job market for privileged middle class positions, men actually do benefit from women’s oppression and have a material interest in maintaining it. Hence, when viewed through the lens of petty-bourgeois women, men are the enemy. From this petty-bourgeois class perspective the way forward is necessarily viewed by feminists as a fight for reforms aimed at allowing women to compete on equal terms with men within capitalism.
Rather than sweepingly dismissing feminism per se as anti-working class, a materialist approach shows how the various feminist theories intelligibly derive from women’s respective class standpoint. As Kollontai remarks,
“We do not accuse the representatives of the bourgeois women’s movement of failure to understand the matter; their view of things flows inevitably from their class position. …“ (14)
Sexualized forms of sexism
The sexualization of oppressed social groups is the paradigmatic form of seeing them as morally inferior. This applies to perceiving women as sex objects, Black men as being sexually more aggressive than white men, and gay men’s sexual relationships as being ‘naturally’ promiscuous and devoid of emotional depth.
Sexualized boundary violations of various degrees of severity, from harassment to rape, are perpetrated primarily against women, predominantly in institutions of power imbalance such as the family and in work places.
When it comes to sexualized forms of oppression, the analogy between sexism and racism seems to break down. However, contrary to the pervasive trivialization of sexist harassment, including in some groups on the political left, I view groping and other unwelcome advances to be as morally pernicious as racist slurs. Turning a blind eye to misogynistic behavior points to an underlying denial of the very existence and reality of sexism.
From a Marxist perspective, anti-sexist and anti-racist campaigns must be scrutinized in terms of the class interest which they are informed by. Campaigns which do not fight specific oppression as a function of capitalism are reformist — but not all reforms are created equal; they are to be assessed according to whether or not they coincide with working class interests in the sense outlined above by Kollontai and E. Marx.
A major criterion for coinciding interests is not only the absence but the explicit rejection of instrumentalizing other forms of oppression. For example, media campaigns targetting males of colour for harassing “white women” are racist, not feminist. A campaign calling for men accused or convicted of sex offences to have their democratic rights to due process and the presumption of innocence curtailed, would likewise be reactionary. Notwithstanding this, the victims’ allegations are not to be assessed according to the judicial or other consequences for the perpetrators.
Anti-sexism and anti-racism are class politics
Sexism and racism are top-down phenomena generated by the ruling class to establish power relations within the ruled classes. In the name of rejecting identity politics some Marxists engage in a policy of denialism with regard to intra-class power relations. This perspective is not, I argue, conducive to working class unity or to class struggle.
In no way am I hurling the anti-Marxist charge of “class-reductionism” at these comrades. On the other hand I am arguing that a concept of class is really reductionist if it dissolves the reality of specific oppression in the acid bath of class. For this reinforces the mystification of class oppression, which takes the form, among other things, of scapegoating certain social groups.
Women are perceived and treated as sex objects because of their subordinate role in production; Black men are disproportionately victimized by the police because the economically disenfranchised are disproportionately non-white people.
Marxist feminists agree with their comrades that the struggle for women’s liberation is inextricably bound up with the struggle for socialism. This perspective is pointedly expressed in the following closing quote,
“We cannot counterpose the class struggle to the sex struggle or the black struggle. These latter struggles are an integral part of the class struggle. The struggle of the working class against the capitalist class, the struggle for socialism, is also the struggle of women against sexism, the struggle of blacks against racism, the struggle of lesbians and gays against homophobic prejudice, the struggle of Latinos against pro-imperialists, etc” (15)
(1) Lenin, “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” (1919)
(2) Kollontai, “The Social Basis of the Women Question” (1909)
(3) Although Kollontai speaks of “bourgeois feminism,” I take her to be actually referring to petty-bourgeois feminism.
(5) Eleanor Marx, “The Woman Question” (1886)
(6) Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)
(7) Engels, “Principles of Communism” (1847)
(8) Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the Sate. (1884), Chapter 4
(10 Ibid., Chapter 9
(11) Trotsky, “From the Old Family to the New” (1923)
(12) Kollontai, ibid.
(13) Kollontai, “Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle”(1921)
(14) Kollontai, “The Social Basis of the Women Question” (1909)
(15) Myra Tanner Weiss, The Bustelo incident: Marxism & feminism (1987)
Image at top of article:
Adolf Strakhov, Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism!, 1926