Book Cover

Marxism and Feminism explores the connections between capitalism and women’s oppression through a range of serious and perceptive arguments, finds Lindsey German

Marxism and Feminism

Shahrzad Mojab (ed.), Marxism and Feminism Shahrzad Mojab ed (Zed Books 2015), viii, 392pp.

‘We only want women’s rights’ was the slogan on a placard carried by a striking woman worker in a photo from the early 1970s. Nearly fifty years on from the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement, that apparently only too reasonable demand has proved to be much more intractable than many people had thought. The right to social, legal and financial equality – demands to go alongside the demand for political equality, which was the hallmark of first wave feminism in the years before the First World War – seemed ones which were all winnable under capitalism. There were indeed some very big changes: the closing of the gender pay gap, although never coming close to its elimination; the expansion of education for girls; the opening up of new jobs for women in areas dominated by men; the liberalisation of attitudes to marriage and single motherhood. Nonetheless, the divisions between men and women endured: paid less; stuck in low-paid sectors of work; responsible for the vast majority of caring jobs, whether paid or unpaid; and still subject to a wide range of sexist attitudes in every area of life, as well as to high levels of male violence, women’s oppression marked their lives from cradle to grave.

What is the explanation for this? The answer to that question has been debated intensely for the last nearly half century: it has led to divisions, divorces, splits over strategy, and a whole number of different approaches to the question of women’s liberation. It has been of particular importance on the left. The late 1960s women’s movement was itself a product of left-wing movements, and asked the question why these movements had not been able to acknowledge or accommodate women’s demands for equality. Those women who helped found the movement were often socialist or Marxist feminists, who wanted the social transformation of capitalism, but alongside it a women’s revolution; a transformation in women’s social conditions, in attitudes to everything from work to sexuality, and a genuine full equality in every area of life, not just a paper commitment to formal rights.

This new feminism involved a sometimes sharp critique of Marxism, and it is fair to say that by the early 1970s not a single left or Marxist organisation remained untouched by the impact of feminism. Both female and male Marxists attempted to theorise where oppression came from, what was the solution to women’s oppression and how the feminist struggle connected to the class struggle. This involved a serious study of the family and of the role of women’s work in the home, contrasting it to the world of paid work.

While from the late 1970s onwards the connection between Marxism and feminism became more strained, and sometimes disappeared, in recent years there has been a growing interest in reconnecting the two. While Marx’s theory was often seen as wanting on this question in the 1970s, it became more relevant again in a period of neoliberalism and economic crisis. At the same time, the claims of some that feminism had achieved its aims also looked increasingly hollow.

This new book is a serious and welcome attempt to theorise this reconnection and to assert the need for a new Marxist feminism which can inform socialist theory while at the same time creating a class based theory of women’s liberation. It insists on the centrality of class in any Marxist analysis and on the connection between capitalism and women’s oppression. This is not for a minute to deny that women’s oppression predated capitalism: most Marxists would agree that this oppression is a feature not just of capitalism but of class society generally. However, it does insist that one has to study the capitalist mode of production (and the changes within it) in order to understand the specific nature of women’s oppression and the relationship between social production and privatised reproduction. 

So, the German Marxist-feminist, Frigga Haug, in an introductory essay, talks of the connection of women’s domestic labour with the capitalist mode of production. The relations of production which arise from capitalism in relation to the family and sexuality have been subject to considerable change over the past century. She refers to how the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote about personal life in the age of Fordism. Monogamy in the family was highlighted, and abstentionism from pleasure of all sorts was encouraged; workers being expected to live the sorts of life which would enable them to increase productivity at work and not be distracted by drink and drugs or sex (prohibition in the US in the years after the First World War is the most extreme example of this). Today’s family and sexual mores are in great contrast to this: sexual behaviour has to a large extent been ‘deregulated’, and the family form is much more open, now including gay marriage and single motherhood. There is an acceptance of much more traditionally ‘male’ behaviour in women, for example drinking large quantities of alcohol or picking up men. In themselves, while many of the changes in attitudes are welcome, they do not necessarily challenge the structure of the family or women’s oppression.

Indeed, they can perhaps best be seen to illustrate the adaptability of capitalism: the family form can change dramatically, as can attitudes towards women, but women’s oppression, closely connected to the exploitation which is at the heart of the system, endures. One could argue that the role of women in the twenty-first century is one where capital is freer to exploit female labour than ever, while maintaining a system of privatised social reproduction which ensures women’s continued oppression.

The Marxism which most informs this collection appears to be derived from forms of Maoism, and assumes the existence of a capitalist patriarchy. This allows it to separate questions of exploitation and oppression analytically, and to assume a dual-systems approach to oppression. The separation of class exploitation from oppression is in my view a mistake: we don’t have to look further than class society, in this case capitalism, to be able to identify a system where class exploitation helps to shape, create and recreate the various forms of oppression. However, there is much within this collection which is valuable and timely.

There are several broad introductory sections followed by a series of essays on keywords to do with feminism and oppression. These essays are varied but raise a number of important and useful questions. One of the major issues they identify is race. Himani Bannerji’s chapter four, on race and Marxism, argues that there has to be a conception of class struggle in the broadest sense, i.e. including struggles over social reproduction or racism. She argues that to do otherwise separates oppression from class and creates a danger of identifying race and gender with liberal politics; rights and citizenship rather than socialist struggles. It also separates class politics from a critique of imperialism over issues such as war.

The chapter on intersectionality is also thought provoking. Delia D. Aguilar is critical of some current formulations of the theory, seeing them as symptomatic of an academy which has become corporatised and of the de-radicalisation of present day feminism (p.203). She is also critical of the tendency in academia to a projection of Marxism as a theory which is simplistic and collapses everything into class, which she describes as ‘an unquestioned premise’ (p.206).

Aguilar considers the various approaches to intersectionality theory, looking at the importance of the origins of the theory in considering legal cases, for example rape and domestic violence. She is highly critical of approaching the question without understanding the primacy of class, or of failing to make reference to capitalism when looking at oppression and domination. She argues that this leads to a downplaying of class as a central explanatory cause of oppression, making the point that class is not just one other oppression, but that intersectionality studies now look more at race and gender than at class. She quotes Meyerson as saying ‘oppression is multiple and intersecting but its causes are not’ (p.213).

This approach to class runs through much of the book and is a riposte to the ideas either that there is no connection between ideas and material reality, which has been so dominant in academic and often left thinking for several decades; or to the mainstream liberal approach to feminism which sees it as about empowerment, education and rights. In this scenario oppression is seen as being just about ideology and is lacking any concrete basis in reality. As Bannerji’s chapter on ideology points out, this allows feminism to be incorporated into state bureaucracies and corporate agencies, creating the sort of narrow feminism so acceptable in institutions such as the EU, while leaving basic inequalities untouched. 

There are attempts to grapple with questions of labour power and reproduction, which consider work in both their paid and unpaid forms. These questions have taken an increased importance in recent years as younger feminists have rediscovered issues such as the wages for housework debate from the 1970s, as materialist feminism has placed much stress on social reproduction theories. Helen Colley’s chapter on labour power considers the way in which capitalism turns even the most personal and emotional aspects of our lives into commodities. Marx’s theory argues that workers under capitalism have to sell their labour power and that the products of their labour are taken from them. The process of exploitation means that the wages a worker receives only cover the costs of her or his reproduction, the remainder, in the form of surplus value, goes to form the profits of the capitalist.

This is a unique relationship at the heart of capitalism. Paid labour is therefore of a different character from unpaid labour. There is, for women in particular, a connection between the two. Yet domestic labour on its own, while making a vital contribution to capitalist economy through the reproduction of labour power, does not itself produce profits but rather produces use values. However, it is also labour which contributes to the reproduction of labour power itself. It can therefore be argued to be indirectly productive of surplus value. It is not wage labour in itself. That means it has to be regarded differently from paid labour. Such a distinction was not made traditionally by the theorists of wages for housework, and there is a tendency to blur this distinction today. This comes sometimes from autonomist ideas, which want to lessen the distinction between paid and unpaid work, and to move away from a class analysis towards one based only on the division of labour. Colley argues that this downplays the central role of class exploitation.

There are many other issues dealt with here, such as democracy, ideology and standpoint theory. While the reassertion of class politics is strongly argued and refreshingly clear, there seems to me to be still an ambiguity about patriarchy theory. The essay on this considers the history of the term, critiques a number of them, and shows that the term was in some senses replaced with gender, intersectionality, and difference. There is a debate about whether this is a phenomenon which now exists only in parts of the world, for example in Islamic-majority countries. It seems to me that it is impossible to separate class and oppression, or indeed to separate capitalism and imperialism. The particular manifestations of oppression in different parts of the world can be explained by these phenomena, and the combined and uneven development which accompany them, rather than a new or reconstituted patriarchy.

We should also reject the idea that women’s oppression is a thing of the past, or much less significant, in western countries rather than in those of Africa, Asia or the Middle East. This collection is very clearly rooted in a tradition which is highly critical of the role of imperialism. It rejects a feminism which is prepared to accommodate to the structures of class exploitation and oppression. There is much in it to recommend and, even where one disagrees with the analysis or conclusions, it raises questions to which all those who consider themselves Marxists or feminists need to try to find answers.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.