Marxism and Feminism: Two Traditions

It is common for students of political theory to ask about the relationship between Marxism and feminism, to question whether it is reasonable for Marxists to be called feminists and if so whether this label is somehow useful or necessary, and to be intrigued by the facts that many Marxists explicitly reject such a label and that many feminists fail to appreciate the emphasis placed on women’s liberation by Marxists. The careful student of history might also note that, at least to a limited extant, Marxism and feminism share a root in the pre-Marxian utopian socialism of the 1800s; indeed, the utopian socialist Fourier is credited with having coined the French word feminisme, which was subsequently translated into English as feminism. However, as the utopian socialism of that period was not destined to last and it quickly found itself under fire from all sides as the opponents of the status quo swung towards more philosophically coherent, scientifically tenable, and/or  explicitly revolutionary standpoints and champions of the emerging capitalist world order proved unwilling to adopt the egalitarian projects of the utopians unless they could be shown to turn a profit. In this historical whirlwind the scientific socialism of Marx and the feminisme of Fourier quickly parted ways, as a Marx and his supporters found their place in the ranks 1st International, where they developed their own analysis of women’s oppression (and many other issues besides) and threw themselves into the revolutionary struggles of the time, whereas the few remaining ‘Fourierists’ drifted into bourgeois discussion clubs to plead with wealthy businessmen to implement a handful of reforms in the interest of marginalized groups, where they were generally met with mocking laughter and little more.

This historical parting of ways led to Marxists formulating their support for the complete political and economic equality of women without making even the slightest use of the term feminism and even the most diligent reader will struggle to find even passing references to it in the fundamental writings of Friedrich Engels, Eleanor Marx, or August Bebel on the subject. For its part, feminism did not acquire the theoretical complexity of Marxism and did not strive to do so in this period. Feminism simply came to denote advocating greater equality for women and, later, equality between men and women without reference to a specific theoretical framework. Within the terms of this definition of feminism it was and is perfectly reasonable to say that Marxists are feminists, although it is hardly necessary to do so since acceptance of a Marxist political framework would include feminism by definition and much else besides, and doing so would be useful to the extant that it is useful to specifically highlight Marxist advocacy of women’s liberation in addition to, and as a component of, other goals.

However, political  history is not written in terms of abstract definitions but in those of concrete historical movements and the term feminism quickly became associated with official bourgeois women’s movements that sought a handful of specific reforms within the context of the capitalist system. These movements, which are the political predecessors of modern day liberal feminism (or white feminism, to use a common if somewhat technically unsatisfactory term), could, somewhat sarcastically, be designated as rich white cisgender women telling their husbands to move over so they could have a bigger share of the wealth extracted from the rest of humanity. Bourgeois feminists championed only those specific limited reforms that they thought would pose no fundamental challenge to the prevailing world order and were all too prepared to sacrifice the interests of the majority of women to in order to secure their own class domination. The comic above, from Kate Evans’ remarkable work, gives an example of this and one that can be generalized to virtually every North American and European country; the English feminist movement deserves to be mentioned in particular as the mainstream feminist movement, represented by the Women’s Social and Political Union, preformed a dramatic volte-face in 1914 to go from using militant tactics to advocate a limited form of suffrage to abandoning all militancy in order to champion the war effort and forgetting about the suffrage movement almost entirely. In almost all countries, those victories for women’s liberation that were achieved in this period came in spite of, and  occasionally against, the mainstream feminist movement. Naturally, Marxists were decidedly unimpressed  and rejected any association between their movement- until the 1st World War expressed in the Social Democratic Parties of the 2nd International and later by the parties of the 3rd and 4th Internationals- and official feminism, something that extended to explicitly rejecting the the label feminist and allowing it to be solely used to designate liberal feminism. It is in this historical context that the otherwise inexplainable denunciations of feminism by the foremost Marxist champions of women’s rights (Alexandria Kollantia and Clara Zetkin stand out in particular) were written and that modern Marxists and feminists began to learn how to relate to each other.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new, radical, feminism would emerge to challenge this relation. During the intervening period, the Stalinist degradation of the Russian revolution, which dragged all the official 3rd International parties down with it (causing Marxists to break away and form the 4th International, initially under the leadership of Trotsky), created the false impression that Marxists were insensitive to many forms of oppression as Stalinist sexism and homophobia was passed off as genuine Marxism (even as Stalin and his successors killed every Marxist they could get their hands on). Radical feminism sought to explain the world in patriarchal terms, with women’s oppression being both self-referential and foundational to all oppression. Marxists immediately replied in the negative to the theses proffered by the radical feminists, taking them to task for being anti-materailist and scientifically unsustainable- modern Marxists would also add oppressive as radical feminism is inherently transphobic. Additionally, the collaborationist political strategy embraced by radical feminism- exemplified by the idea of an abstract “sisterhood of women” as the agent of political change- proved untenable to Marxists, who highlighted that women are not a single united category and that womanhood is not defined in terms of a specific relation to the concrete mechanisms of power. Since the rhetoric and change-stratgey proffered by radical feminism are ultimately little different from that of the more militant expressions of the atheoretic liberal feminism, Marxists often see a minimal distinction between the two and have made few efforts to reclaim the label of feminism from the two movements.

Modern intersectional feminism, developing from mainly in the 1980s and 90s, finally represents  an opposition to all forms of oppression arising from the feminist movement, yet it lacks the sophisticated theoretical analysis developed by Marxists and is irrevocably tied to the idea that various forms of oppression are not causal to one another. Marxists reject this idea as being unscientific and reassert their analysis of how different forms of oppression and exploitation relate to each other that their movement has developed over the past 150 years. In the light of these competing traditions, historical antipathies, and theoretical divisions it is appears increasingly unreasonable and unhelpful to refer to Marxists as feminists and the simplistic definition of feminism as advocating equality between men and women appears unrooted in historical practice. However, it is equally unreasonable to expect the majority of people to be fully conversant with theoretical debates and historical practice stretching back over a century. For the sake of clarity, therefore, it is necessary to insist on understanding precisely what any given individual means by feminism before affirming or denying that Marxists are feminists and any affirmation or denial should be nuanced by extensive references to history and political theory.


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