What tools, principles, and ideas can Marxism bring to feminist theory and politics in our time? Can we think today of a relation between Marxism and feminism other than the “unhappy marriage” that Heidi Hartman depicted in a much-quoted 1979 essay?3
What aspects of Marxism are most important for reimagining feminism and communism in the twenty-first century? How does Marx’s concept of communism compare with the principle of the commons, the political paradigm inspiring so much radical feminist thinking today?
In asking these questions, I join a conversation on the construction of alternatives to capitalism that has begun in encampments and squares across the planet where, in ways replete with contradictions but also with new creative possibilities, a society of “commoners” is coming into existence, striving to build social spaces and relations not governed by the logic of the capitalist market.
Assessing the legacy of Marx’s vision of communism for the twenty-first century is not an easy task, however. Added to the complexity of Marx’s thought is the fact that in the last
period of his life, after the defeat of the Paris Commune, Marx apparently abandoned some of his political axioms, especially with regard to the material preconditions for the construction of a communist society.4
It is also argued that there are important differences between his two major works, Capital
and the Grundrisse
and, above all, that Marx is not a writer whose thought can be grasped through any fixed set of formulations, as “his level of analysis [was] continuously changing with his political design.”6
Feminism and the Viewpoint of Social Reproduction
Feminists have made an important contribution to this process, but they have not been alone. In the 1950s and 1960s, in the wake of the anti-colonial struggle, political theorists like Frantz Fanon questioned an analysis that, like Marx’s, has almost exclusively focused on wage labor and assumed the vanguard role of the metropolitan industrial proletariat,9
thus marginalizing the place of the enslaved, the colonized, and the unwaged in the process of accumulation and anti-capitalist struggle. These political theorists realized that the experience of the colonies called for a rethinking “of Marxism as a whole,” and either Marxist theory would have to be reframed to incorporate the experiences of the 75 percent of the world population, or it would cease to be a liberating force and become instead an obstacle to revolutionary change.10
For the peasants, the peones, and the lumpen who made the revolutions of the twentieth century showed no intention of waiting for a future proletarianization or for “the development of the productive forces” to demand a new world order, as orthodox Marxists and the parties of the left advised them to do. In turn, black revolutionaries in the United States, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Cedric Robinson, have stressed the absence in Marx’s work of an analysis of racial inequalities as a structural characteristic of capitalist society and the capitalist exploitation of labor.11
Ecologists, including some eco-socialists, have also taken Marx to task for promoting an asymmetrical and instrumental view of the man-nature relation, presenting human beings and labor as the only active agents and denying nature any intrinsic value and self-organizing potential.12
But it was with the rise of the feminist movement that a more systematic critique of Marxism could be articulated, for feminists have brought to the table not only the wageless of the world but the vast population of social subjects (women, children, occasionally men) whose daily work in fields, kitchens, and bedrooms produces
and reproduces the workforce and, with it, a set of issues and struggles on the terrain of social reproduction that Marx and the Marxist political tradition have barely touched upon.
It is starting from this critique that I consider the legacy of Marx’s vision of communism, concentrating on those aspects that are most important for a feminist program and for the politics of the commons, by which I refer to the many practices and perspectives embraced by social movements across the planet that today seek to enhance social cooperation, undermine the market’s and state’s control of our lives, and put an end to capital accumulation. Anticipating my conclusions, I argue that Marx’s vision of communism as a society beyond exchange value, private property, and money, based on associations of free producers and governed by the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” represents an ideal that no anti-capitalist feminist can object to. Feminists can also embrace Marx’s inspiring image of a world beyond the social division of labor, although we may want to ensure that between hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and criticizing after dinner—Marx’s vision of the good life in a postcapitalist society—there will be time for everyone to share cleaning and childcare.
However, far more important for feminist politics than any ideal projection of a postcapitalist society are Marx’s relentless critique of capitalist accumulation and his methodology, beginning with his reading of capitalist development as the product of antagonistic social relations. In other words, as Roman Rosdolsky and Antonio Negri,13
among others, have argued, more than the visionary revolutionary projecting a world of achieved liberation, the Marx who most matters to us is the theorist of class struggle, who refused any political program not rooted in real historical possibilities and throughout his work pursued the destruction of capitalist relations, seeing the realization of communism in the movement that abolishes the present state of things. From this point of view, Marx’s historical materialist method, which posits that in order to understand history and society we must understand the material conditions of social reproduction, is
crucial for a feminist perspective. Recognizing that social subordination is a historical product, rooted in a specific organization of work has had a liberating effect on women. It has denaturalized the sexual division of labor and the identities built upon it, projecting gender categories not only as social constructs but also as concepts whose content is constantly redefined, infinitely mobile, open-ended, and always politically charged. Indeed, many feminist debates on the validity of “women” as an analytic and political category could be more easily resolved if this method were applied, for it teaches us that it is possible to express a common interest without ascribing fixed and uniform forms of behavior and social condition.
Analyzing the social position of women through the prism of the capitalist exploitation of labor also discloses the continuity between discrimination on the basis of gender and discrimination on the basis of race and enables us to transcend the politics of rights that assumes the permanence of the existing social order and fails to confront the antagonistic social forces standing in the way of women’s liberation.
However, as many feminists have shown, Marx did not consistently apply his own method, at least not to the question of reproduction and gender relations. As both the theorists of the Wages for Housework movement—Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati14
—and eco-feminist theorists—Maria Mies and Ariel Salleh15
—have demonstrated, there is a contradiction at the center of Marx’s thought. Although he takes the exploitation of labor as the key element in the production of capitalist wealth, he leaves untheorized some of the activities and social relations that are most essential for the production of labor power, including sexual work, procreation, childcare, and domestic work. Marx acknowledged that our capacity to work is not a given but is a product of social activity that always takes a specific historical form,16
for “hunger is hunger, but the hunger that is satisfied by cooked meat eaten with knife and fork is different from the hunger that devours raw meat with the help of hands, nails and teeth.”17
Nevertheless, we do not find in his published work any analysis
of domestic labor, the family and the gender relations specific to capitalism, except for scattered reflections to the effect that the first division of labor was in the sexual act,18
that slavery is latent in the family,19
and so forth. Domestic work is dealt with in two footnotes, one registering its disappearance from the homes of the overworked female factory hands, and the other noting that the crisis caused by the American Civil War brought the female textile workers in England back to their domestic duties.20
Procreation is also underplayed and generally treated as a natural function rather than a form of labor that in capitalism is subsumed to the reproduction of the workforce and, therefore, subject to a specific state regulation.21
Because of these omissions many feminists have viewed feminism’s relation to Marxism as a process of subordination.22
The authors I have quoted, however, have demonstrated that we can work with Marx’s categories but must reconstruct them and change their architectural order, so that their center of gravity is not exclusively waged labor or commodity production but includes the production and reproduction of labor power and especially that part of it that is carried out by women within the home. In doing so, we make visible a key terrain of accumulation and struggle, as well as the full extent of capital’s dependence on unpaid labor and the full length of the workday.23
Indeed, by expanding Marx’s theory of productive work to include reproductive labor in all its different dimensions, we can not only craft a theory of gender relations in capitalism but gain a new understanding of the class struggle and the means by which capitalism reproduces itself through the creation of different labor regimes and different forms of uneven development and underdevelopment.
Placing the reproduction of labor power at the center of capitalist production unearths a world of social relations that are invisible in Marx but are essential to expose the mechanisms that regulate the exploitation of labor. It discloses that the unpaid labor capital extracts from the working class is far greater than Marx ever imagined, extending to women’s domestic work, in addition to the work of those employed on the many plantations that capitalism has constructed in the regions that it has colonized. In all these cases, not only have the forms of work and coercion involved been naturalized, but...