Can Marxist Thought Successfully Accommodate Radical Feminism?

By Bohdana Kurylo
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

The relationship between feminism and socialism is extremely intimate but also immensely intricate. According to feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1977, p. 285), ‘the repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers. Indeed, it is work that has a special significance in the socialist tradition, playing a key role in making people who they are and shaping social relations. In the capitalist world, class becomes its structure, production its aim, and alienation its consequence. In the alternative world of patriarchy, introduced by radical feminism, it is the female body that is the cornerstone for the relation of a woman to herself and ‘both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life’ (Ibid., 286). Biology is its structure, reproduction its destination, and alienation its consequence (MacKinnon, 1989, pp. 3-4).

Yet, socialism and feminism inevitably diverge in their competition for whose issue at stake is more fundamental, accusing each other or undervaluing their respective concerns (Bouchier, 1983, p. 74). This essay offers a critique of the Marxist approach to sexual inequality from the perspective of radical feminism. Indeed, the heavy Marxist focus on economics blatantly casts aside feminist concern with the ‘private’ sphere. Nonetheless, the latter half of the essay will show that Marxist historical materialism can be a guiding methodology for analysing sexual oppression, supported by a number of feminists who combine Marxism and radical feminism. In fact, it is likely that the inability to change the attitude is the main obstacle to the marriage of both theories.

Similar to feminism, Marxism is a theory about power and unjust social arrangements that debunks all that is ‘natural’ about social, political and intellectual developments: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness (Marx & Engels, 1968, p. 182). Karl Marx further debates the extent of man’s agency:

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, … but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’ (Bryson, 2003, pp. 57-58).

Regrettably, in his narrow use of the concepts of ‘economy’ and ‘production’, Marx fails to conceive of a ‘woman’ and its functions beyond nature, taking for granted the established relations between the sexes and the arising limitations to women’s agency. In fact, a reasonable interpretation of ‘mode of production of material life’ would include all activities that contribute to the creation and sustenance of the physical existence of society, explaining why the ‘economy’ and ‘production’ should comprise childbearing and childrearing as their part (Nicholson, 1987, p. 19).

According to Christine Di Stefano (1991, p. 156), he has first ‘denied and then re-appropriated the labour of the mother in his historical and labour-based account of self-created man’, failing to recognise that productive labour is impossible without reproductive labour. In his silence about the preconditions for human labour, he mistakenly tries to explain the division of labour between the two sexes as developing ‘spontaneously or “naturally” by virtue of natural predisposition’ (Marx, 1972, p. 51). In her response to such confinement of women to the family, Catharine MacKinnon (1983, p. 643) also argues that, while liberalism entrusts women to the state and law, Marxism abandons them to ‘rapists and batterers’ in the private sphere. The private sphere becomes a shared female experience of ‘isolation at home and intimate degradation’, it is the arena for ‘battery, marital rape, and women’s exploited labour’, which Marxist socialism fails to adequately address (Ibid., p. 657).

Consequently, the rise of radical feminism, which gained momentum with the Women’s Liberation movement in the late 1960s, came to challenge the deficiency of Marxist analysis of the women’s oppression (Bryson, 2003, p. 163). Many of its members were previously active participants in the New Left movement, who soon became disenchanted with the predominant culture of masculinity in it, questioning whether the end of capitalism would truly bring the change to the women’s status (Rowbotham, 2000, p. 232).

Its revolutionary invention was that at the core of women’s oppression is patriarchy as the most fundamental and universal type of oppression, the eradication of which should begin with the ‘private’ aspects of life (Ibid.). The private sphere is, thus, political, as it speaks the language of dominance and subordination, fitting to what Max Weber defined as ‘Herrschaft’ (Millet, 1969). Sharing the ideas of both socialism and radical feminism, Juliet Mitchell (1966, p. 16) produced a constructive piece proposing four main structures, including production, reproduction, sex and socialisation of children, the combination of which has caused the women’s situation being ‘overdetermined’.

In his work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels takes a closer step towards understanding women’s subordination, yet strictly limiting it to production. For him, the subordination exists only in the specific type of the family, caused by the rise of the private property and the polarisation of the society into classes. Engels suggests that it was during this time when women lost control over the domestic sphere and became economically dependent on their husbands, and this ‘downfall of maternal law was the historical defeat of the female sex’ (Engels, 1902, p. 70).

However, the thinker does not question the existing sexual division of labour, stating that women’s emancipation would be achieved as soon as they ‘are enabled to take part extensively in social production, and when domestic duties require their attention in a minor degree’ (Phillips, 1997; Engels, 1902, p. 196). As a result, although more women may be brought into the workforce, the idea of ‘the right to equal work itself’, as raised by Mitchell, will not be realised (Mitchell, 1966, p. 35). Perhaps, it will also soften the structure of power within the family itself, but Engels’ over-optimistic and economically-focused analysis of the oppression of women renders his solution reformist and insufficient, since it maintains the status quo in other, more ‘private’ structures (Firestone, 1971, p. 212).

The Marxist depiction of prostitution as ‘only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer’ is often viewed as limited due to its economic focus (Marx, 1844). Carole Pateman (1988, p. 192) forcefully critiques that the distinction between alienation as the outcome of selling a worker’s labour and selling a female body is blurred in Marxism. Accordingly, the exploitation of prostitutes is wrongly perceived to be on par with the economic exploitation of workers under capitalism (Ibid.). She claims that prostitution is the subjugation of a woman to a male customer, not an employer (Ibid.). The interest of the employer is in produced commodities, whereas the man is interested in the direct sexual use of the prostitute’s body (Ibid., 202-204).

The ignored question is why there is such a demand for a woman’s body to be sold as a commodity in the market. The answer given by Marxism is impressively simplistic, stating that prostitution is ‘a phenomenon which is closely linked with unearned income’, as proposed by a Communist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai (1921). She then adds that ‘prostitutes … are those women who sell their bodies for material benefit – for decent food, for clothes and other advantages; prostitutes are all those who avoid the necessity of working by giving themselves to a man, either on a temporary basis or for life’, portraying prostitution purely as a female problem (Ibid.).

It is true that prostitutes are usually women, but, by avoiding to scrutinise the role played by men in it, one fails to see that prostitution allows women to earn a lot more money, compared to other jobs open to them under patriarchy (Pateman, 1988, p. 194). A deeper question is also begged whether such use of a woman’s body by a man solely for his satisfaction is truly natural, and not the result of established culture of domination, since the satisfaction of sexual desires does not necessarily require the use of one’s body (Ibid. 198).

Pornography is another example of the society where male sex-right co-exists with economic exploitation. As MacKinnon defines it, pornography is ‘an industry that mass produces sexual intrusion on, access to, possession and use of women by and for men for profit’, using women’s low economic and sexual conditions for gain and, more importantly, the preservation of male supremacy (MacKinnon, 1989, p. 195). In short, prostitution and pornography are part of the many examples that prove that the roots of ‘the Women’s Question’ do not lay purely in economics, verifying the radical feminist appeal to view the struggle between sexes, at a minimum, as equal to that between economic classes.

Notwithstanding, it is the most recent postmodern form of feminism, as Teresa Ebert (1992-1993, p. 5) calls it, ‘lucid’ feminism, that may bring reconciliation to radical feminism and Marxism by showing, though unknowingly, the importance of materialism for feminism. Influenced by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, lucid feminism challenges the idea of emancipation, by arguing that power is a ‘multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organisation’ (Foucault, 1988, p. 103). Such diffused nature of power dispenses with the need for organised revolution to overthrow dominant locus of power, making the idea of resistance redundant, and poses a substantial challenge to the Marxist concept of ‘class’, as well as, to the idea of patriarchal oppression of the body (Ebert, 1992-1993, p. 8). The body is no longer viewed a tool of patriarchal exploitation but rather an abstraction isolated from socioeconomic relations on its own. This analysis of power is clearly simplistic and ahistorical, which describes rather than explain the established forms of coercion and shows no attempt to change exploitative social arrangements.

This bears a chance for radical feminism to enhance its strength by collaborating with Marxism to show that the sexual oppression is the result of the division of labour that is historically determined by coercive social relations and ideologically constructed gender differences. Labour, in this case, would mean ‘the human activity of transforming nature involved in the reproduction of human life itself as well as the basic means to sustain that life’ (Ibid., p. 40). Writing from a socialist feminist perspective, Barbara Ehrenreich (1976) shows that the two forms of oppression, capitalist and patriarchal, always interact when analysed in the historical context. Marxism would, thus, help radical feminism depart from its transfixion with male supremacy and its simplistic view of capitalism as one of its expressions (Nicholson, 1987) In turn, so-called ‘mechanical’ Marxists with their economic determination, could also expand their comprehension of ‘class’ to include the atomisation and exploitation of women (Ebert, 1992-1993, p. 40). In short, the theory of historical materialism has a potential to be applied in feminism in order to explain the development of division within family, state and economy and their interplay.

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning an influential radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, who brings Marxist methodology into radical feminism. First, she agrees with Engels that the sexual oppression originated in the first division of labour, and, although the technological advances can no longer justify the continuation of oppression, the consolidated power of the ruling class, in this case men, finds new means of coercion (Firestone, 1971, p. 10). She also borrows Marxist solutions and employs them in her theory. Since ‘procreation is at the origin of the dualism’, Firestone promotes the revolt of women as the underclass and the seizure of control of reproduction (Ibid., p. 8). Her account culminates in the statement that unless Marxism transforms the most fundamental, in her opinion, form of social organisation that is ‘the source of psychological, economic and political oppression’ – the biological family - exploitation in society will never be eliminated (Ibid., 212).

The reoccurring point of collision arises mainly when neither Marxism nor radical feminism, is willing to agree to accept the concerns of each other as equally important, competing for the prevalence of one concern over the other. For example, Firestone insists that historical materialism should seek ‘the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historic events in the dialectic of sex’, and not in ‘the economic development of society’, as essentially put by Engels in his writing, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Ibid., p. 12; Engels, 1901, p. 17). Although it would be ideal for both accounts to make a step towards creating a common analysis of the interplay of capitalist and sexual forms of oppression, the continuous mistake of both sides is to appropriate particular parts of each other’s analysis only to later use it to make their own conclusions.

The logical solution proposed by some feminists, such as Mary O’Brien, is to modify Marx’s socio-historical model, so as to make it accountable for both production and reproduction, creating so-called ‘feminist materialism’ (Nicholson, 1987, p. 27). This is also supported by the fact that radical feminism is rarely anti-socialist, as well as socialism is rarely opposed to radical feminism (Bouchier, 1983, p. 74). Yet, it is doubtful whether such supplementation is a successful accommodation to feminism, as it does not confront the current gender-neglectful nature of Marxism. Marx himself can be arguably excused for his failure, for it was a general reflection of his contemporary society. However, the fact that Marxism has been reluctant to come to a consensus on the question of women’s subordination until now, with the great majority of those who actively debate it being women, shows that the whole problem is in the attitude (Ibid.). Therefore, without the fundamental change in attitude, the dual systems theory is only likely to reinforce the perception of the women’s oppression as ‘the Other’ and re-assert its secondary importance for Marxism.

In conclusion, the autonomy of the economic has proven detrimental for the Marxist understanding of gender. In consequence, the Marxist tradition has often been viewed as incompatible with feminism, provoking an attack from radical feminists on many issues, such as prostitution and pornography. Indeed, the fact that Marxists limited the definitions of ‘production’ and labour’ to economics has caused them to lose sight of ‘private’ life as an arena for oppression. Yet, the recent move towards lucid feminism within the feminist thought that has challenged both Marxism and radical feminism and shown that Marxist materialism is likely to contribute to the issue of sexual oppression a lot more than initially thought. The integration of radical feminism and Marxism can enhance both socialism and feminism by providing a wider picture of the historical interplay of capitalist and patriarchal forms of oppression and the ways for effective liberation from them. As a first step to developing a common understanding with radical feminism, Marxism, nevertheless, needs to engage into re-thinking of its apathetic attitude to gender issues. Ultimately, both theories ought to show more respect to each other’s concerns and recognise the two forms of exploitation and oppression are not in isolation, but in a symbiotic relationship.


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