Marxism and Feminism
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Marxism and Feminism

Shahrzad Mojab, Shahrzad Mojab

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Marxism and Feminism

Shahrzad Mojab, Shahrzad Mojab

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Global events, from economic crisis to social unrest and militarization, disproportionately affect women. Yet around the world it is also women who are leading the struggle against oppression and exploitation. In light of renewed interest in Marxist theory among many women activists and academics, Marxism and Feminism presents a contemporary and accessible Marxist–feminist analysis on a host of issues. It reassesses previous debates and seeks to answer pressing questions of how we should understand the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, and how we can envision a feminist project which emancipates both women and society. With contributions from both renowned scholars and new voices, Marxism and Feminism is set to become the foundational text for modern Marxist-feminist thought.

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Zed Books
Shahrzad Mojab
Histories, theories and possibilities
This book goes to press in 2014, the centenary of the ‘Great War’ in which capitalist states brought immense destruction of life and property to every corner of the world. Another world war recurred on a more destructive scale within the lifespan of a generation, and it has continued to our day in an area extending from the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa, and it threatens other parts of the world. While states, media, academia and many non-state organizations have a stake in commemorating the First World War, it is unlikely that anyone will remember what Mary White Ovington (1865–1951), a socialist and feminist, said four months before the launch of the mass slaughter:
Socialism and Feminism are the two greatest movements of to-day. The one aims to abolish poverty, the other to destroy servitude among women. Both are world movements. No matter how backward the nation may be that you visit, you will find your revolutionist there preaching that poverty is unnecessary, and that a great organization is working to destroy private capital and to build a co-operative commonwealth. And throughout western civilization, and even in the heart of the Orient, you also find the woman revolutionist telling her enslaved sisters of the effort among women to attain their freedom, to gain the right to live, not according to man’s, but according to their own, conception of happiness and right. Ideas fly swiftly about the globe, and we are learning to think on the lines not of family or nation or race but of common interests and common suffering. (Ovington 1914: 143)
Ovington emphasized that ‘the relation of Feminism to Socialism is a matter of profound importance to many women Socialists …’ She was right. Three years earlier, socialist women had launched 8 March as International Working Women’s Day (IWWD), and three years later the first socialist state was established – and women played an active role in it. On the theoretical front, twenty years before Ovington, Friedrich Engels had published The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and years before this major milestone, August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism (1879) was published. I do not intend to write the history of relations between feminism and socialism or Marxism. It is well known that this relationship has been both conflictual and constructive, and today they are evidently apart. Floyd Dell, while defending Ovington, who had been criticized by an anti-feminist, wrote: ‘If there is no necessary connection between Feminism and Socialism, it may yet be advisable to invent one’ (Dell 1914: 353).
Socialism and feminism have changed radically since Ovington, but her ideas, simple and significant as they are, remain on the agenda of many who yearn for an end to both ‘poverty’ and ‘servitude’. The October 1917 revolution in Russia was for many the realization of this dream. This revolution made Marxism the dominant trend in the theory and practice of socialism, and divided the world into socialist and capitalist camps. However, in spite of great leaps towards women’s emancipation, the socialist experiments of the last century came to an end when capitalism was restored first in the Soviet Union (1956) and, within two decades, in China (1976).1 The collapse of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s was trumpeted by the bourgeoisie as the ‘end of history’, one in which socialism (almost always conflated with ‘communism’ in the media and in popular parlance) was buried and capitalism emerged triumphant. During the past century, every success of socialism had attracted many to the cause of freedom, and each retreat has resulted in the turning away of many enthusiasts.2 After the fall of the Soviet Union, which in its last decades was critiqued by many Marxists as a ‘state capitalist’ or ‘social imperialist’ country, the theory and practice of socialism and with it of Marxism came under a new wave of scrutiny and rejection by, among others, feminists.3 Today, many advocates of capitalism seek to justify the way this socio-economic system produces wealth as well as poverty, hunger and destruction of the environment.
Feminism’s trajectory has not been as tumultuous, but not quite dissimilar either. Unlike Marxism, which rose to state power and guided the construction of socialism for a few decades in a number of countries, feminism contributed prominently to reforming patriarchy through women’s movements for equal rights within the contours of the state. While Marxism was hesitantly tolerated in the margins of capitalist academe, feminism was spreading out, by the early 1970s, from the privacy of individual theorists and the publicity of street politics to degree-granting programmes, and has grown into a credible, if still-resisted, international realm of knowledge. Feminist scholarship has seriously challenged the patriarchal nature of all previous knowledge. In stark contrast to Marxism, it comes today with hundreds of women’s and gender studies programmes, hundreds of academic journals, and a powerful publishing industry, enabling it to train new generations of feminist scholars and intelligentsia. However, if Marxism was derailed by the ‘socialist’ state that was meant to plan its own ‘withering away’, feminism has been, according to some feminists, co-opted by its rise to academic status (Eisenstein 2009). Today, while gender and women’s studies programmes proliferate in higher education in Western countries, anti-feminism is hegemonic in popular culture and the mass media, wherein feminism is rejected, even by some self-styled feminists, as ‘extremist’ and as exhibiting an ‘anti-male bias’ (Hammer 2002). In other contexts – for example, in Iran and Turkey – there is considerable interest in feminist theory and research as a venue of struggle against the patriarchal gender politics of the state and its anti-feminist agenda. In Iran, the Islamic theocracy makes use of the anti-feminism of American Christianity in its offensive against feminism (Mojab 2015).
The interest in merging the theoretical positions of Marxism and feminism, which has not subsided since the beginning of the last century, is fuelled by their prominence as two major emancipatory projects.4 This political affinity is, however, constrained by divergent theoretical commitments that are themselves political and ideological. Theoretically, Marxism and feminism have never been so far apart as at present.
The idea of a society without gender oppression and class exploitation pre-dates both feminism and Marxism. Indeed, conflicts over gender and class weave together the entirety of human history. Put in the span of the long history of Homo sapiens (a few hundred thousand years), gender and class conflicts (as well as private property, family, trade, war, armies, states, laws, writings) are social constructions of recent origins, dating back about eight to ten millennia. This nearness in time invites a simple but crucial question: Why do class and patriarchal gender relations survive and even thrive in spite of widespread resistance and theoretical advances?
Feminism is both the product and a producer of the Enlightenment and its bourgeois democratic revolutions, whereas Marxism emerged in the context of the assumption of power by the bourgeoisie and the rise of the working class. Two class positions, one seeking emancipation within the legal and political frameworks of the capitalist system and the other seeking the same through the negation of bourgeois relations, separate the two. Summing up the experience of the first two years of socialist revolution, Lenin noted that ‘one of the principal distinguishing features of capitalism’ is that it ‘combines formal equality with economic and, consequently, social inequality’ (Lenin 1982: 84). Even formal equality, to the extent it has been achieved in capitalist societies, did not come without resistance. It took a century of women’s organized struggle to persuade the state to grant them suffrage rights. Although socialist countries readily granted women extensive legal equality and took steps towards their economic and social equality, the transformation of gender relations was marked by compromise and retreat, and patriarchy survived through to the restoration of capitalism.
Marxist theory has provided clues for understanding the intricacies involved in the dismantling of class and patriarchy. Society is a whole, and class, gender, race, religion and other social phenomena, far from being independent, exist in relationships of determination and conflict as a system, a social formation, or a mode of production. Equally significant is the way this system and its components persist only by reproducing themselves. In his study of capitalist production, for example, Marx noted that ‘When viewed … as a connected whole, and as flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction’ (Marx 1983: 531). From this perspective, patriarchy may be seen as a connected whole, a social process for producing and reproducing the gender hierarchy characterized by male domination. Male power, much like class rule, is exercised through both coercion and consent; consent is created through family, religion, ideology, culture, language, literature, art, folklore, education and all other cultural institutions, while physical violence is perpetrated by males, the police, armies, the law and courts. There is no clear-cut separation between the two; the family, for instance, perpetrates violence while it generates consent. Dialectics predicts that such a system will be fraught with contradictions, with the two genders existing in relations of conflict and dependence. Class, race and religion, among other social formations, also endure only if they reproduce themselves. It happens that these dynamics of producing and reproducing, indispensable in any system, cannot be adequately accounted for by the idea that class, gender, race or sexuality ‘intersect’ (Aguilar 2012; Bannerji 2001).
The experience of socialism in the last century revealed the complexities of negating the capitalist system’s dynamics of production and reproduction and replacing them with a communist system. Socialism was, in Marx’s understanding, a long transition period between capitalism and communism, in which classes and capitalist relations would persist in conflict with communist relations, which have to be consciously created. It involves the dismantling of one social system by building its opposite. This transition for Marx was to involve nothing less than what he called the abolition of class distinctions, ‘the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest’, ‘the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production’ and ‘the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations’ (Marx 1969). Such intervention in social reality calls for some theoretical breakthrough. Politically, such disruptions in the dynamics of production and reproduction invite hostility, both nationally and internationally, from those who have a stake in the survival of capitalism. If this conflict is visibly political, dealing with relations of power, it is no less significant in the realms of philosophy and ideology. This struggle is what Marxist textbooks call ‘the fundamental question of philosophy’ – that is, the dialectics of matter and consciousness, as well as other dialectical relations, such as those between necessity and freedom, essence and phenomenon, and universal and particular.5 Ideologically, the question of alternatives to capitalism drops anchor in class positions.
Feminist theory, in all its diversity today, is not committed to the negation of capitalism, and some theorists do not see gender relations as a system (patriarchy), while others reject the idea of women’s emancipation or liberation as ‘grand narratives’. Even more reductionist is feminism’s delinking of gender relations and capitalism and reducing gender to questions of culture. This is a feminism that finds solace in discarding the conceptual framework of twentieth-century women’s movements, including the concepts of oppression, exploitation, subjugation, subordination, solidarity and internationalism at a time when religious and market fundamentalisms are engaged in a worldwide ‘war on women’. These developments cannot be explained in theoretical terms only; these theoretical positions are not replacements of paradigms à la Kuhn or the falling and rising of ‘waves’ in feminist theory and politics. While feminism has indeed made enormous contributions to our understanding of gender relations since the theoretical twists and turns of the 1980s, its delinking of capitalism and patriarchy is a political undertaking that undermines theoretical gains in our understanding of gender relations. This politics ensures the anchoring of feminism in liberalism and – at best – democratic theory and their links to the market.
It is well known that the economic determinist trend in Marxism and, more evidently, in communist movements has reduced gender relations to class relations. This reading of Marxism, often anti-dialectical in its method, is based on conflating class with gender and reducing the political to the economic. It fails to appreciate that class is not gender and gender is not class, but that the struggle over gender relations (patriarchy) is a political struggle among and within classes. It is, thus, not difficult to find different class positions disagreeing on how and to what extent the patriarchal regime should be transformed. The class reductionist position is, however, not primarily a product of the unfamiliarity of Marxists with feminism; rather, it is related to their undialectical understanding of Marxism. Hence, while the vast knowledge produced by feminism is indispensable for the renewal of Marxism and the communist movement, a new synthesis is unlikely to happen without a dialectical approach to Marxism itself.
The political character of the struggle over two major historical divides, gender and class, is evident also in the perseverance of anti-feminism and anti-communism and their ubiquity. It is also inscribed in the endless conflicts within each theoretical perspective, Marxism and feminism, and between the two. Rather than a question of sectarianism, the politics of theorization is one of splits, ruptures, zigzags, advances and retreats and not a linear march forward. This is the case if only because, dialectically speaking, one always divides into two. I see in the diversity or richness of today’s feminist knowledge seeds of conservatism. Reflecting on my lived experience of the last five decades, I have seen how, in confronting patriarchy, the major element of consciousness – that is, theory – lags behind ‘material reality’ or matter, and at times stays in conflict with it. For instance, I find feminism’s culturalization of gender relations and its abandoning of projects of emancipation at odds with the offensive of capitalism on women throughout the world.
I have realized, following Marx, that we make our own history, but not under circumstances chosen by us; we are constrained by circumstances already existing and given and transmitted from the past (Marx 1979: 103). This dialectic reverberates in another one: ‘freedom’ is, according to Hegel, the recognition of ‘necessity’. But necessity – that is, circumstances of the past and present – cannot be changed through recognition or interpretation only. Contemporary feminist theory engages in interpretation but, as Marx said in another context, the challenge is also to change reality. In other words, transformation occurs when matter transforms into consciousness and consciousness into matter. Feminist consciousness is the outcome of the rise of women as a new social and political f...