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Reconciling Marxism with Feminism: Accounting the Woman Class Struggle

Red Detachment of Women (Chinese: 红色娘子军) a Chinese ballet from 1964 that become popularized during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The reconciliation of Marxism with feminism, at first glance may appear as a promising undertaking as it can allow women to be acknowledged as a revolutionary class. However, certain difficulties arise in this reconcilement, which feminists such as Hartmann, Ferguson, and Ehrenreich suggest to be an insufficient capacity of traditional Marxist categories to fully account women as a revolutionary class. The system of patriarchy (as a system of domination), is distinct and independent from the mode of social organization of production and social labor, which traditional Marxist categories for the most part account (Hartman, p.320). However, even a society that transitions from capitalism to communism in accordance to the traditional forms of Marxist class analysis, can nonetheless leave patriarchy as a prevailing system of oppression. Ferguson affirms that patriarchal relations persisted even in socialist modes of production such as those of Russia, China, and Cuba—precisely because certain systems of race and gender were not fully accounted within traditional Marxist class struggle analysis (Ferguson, p.358). The misalignment between Marxism and feminism is what Hartmann, Ferguson, and Ehrenreich, all believe must be overcome for the aim of extending the scope of both, Marxist and feminist analysis. Such a method would strive to not omit emerging exploitative systems of oppression and production based on sex, race, and family status. The extents to which this reconcilement can take place, and how Marxism and feminism can be embodied within a more inclusive analysis of the feminist class struggle, will be the subject of this essay.

Hartman offers a critique of both, why neither capitalism, nor traditional Marxist categories, can fully account for the gender hierarchies reinforced by the system of patriarchy (Hartman, p.321). Traditional Marxism accounts the social relations within a society to the means of production, but does not account the set of interrelations that occur among men and the power relations that men have over women within the private sphere. The system of patriarchy, entails a relation among men who receive patriarchal benefits based on differentiation and segregation of other individuals based on gender, race, martial status, etc. Under this system, it does not necessarily entail that only men can play the role of patriarchal domination; since the system of patriarchy employs not just sex as the necessary category through which power is unevenly allocated, women may too exercise patriarchal power over others (Hartman, p.321). This exemplifies how patriarchy, although socially arranged based on division based on gender; at its core, is a semiautonomous form of expropriation, exploitation, and oppression based not just on gender. Even under the abolishment of the capitalist mode of production, the system of patriarchy can nevertheless persist autonomously and independently from the modes of production and the general social superstructure. An analysis that outlines the nature of these autonomous patriarchal power relations, is precisely what feminism seeks to contribute to the Marxist analysis.

An area in which both, Marxism and feminism converge, is the contempt towards the contradictory relation under capital, and its fundamental incapacity to fully abandon relations of dominance. Hartman argues against capitalism’s capacity to fully dismantle patriarchal relations within a society; the validity of this objection is exemplified by contemporary capitalism, which until this day, failed to dismantle the patriarchal system. An explanation of this condition derives from the fact that patriarchy goes hand in hand with capital in the form of legitimization of dominance, but also the delegitimization of the struggle against this dominance (Hartman, p.331). This exemplifies how patriarchy, just like capital, can employ a flexibility in adapting within new forms of social organization, which subsequently, perpetuate dominance of men over women, but also capital over labor, and the bourgeoise over the proletariat.

An example of how patriarchal social relations that serve as instruments for advancing the interest of capital, is exemplified by the system of hierarchy, where the highest class offers power to the class beneath, who in turn, is granted power over those who are still lower—in this case, over women (Hartman, p.318). The foundation of this hierarchical dominance is the monogamous heterosexual marriage, this is the base of patriarchal power over women’s access to resources and labor (including serving men in house work, and satisfaction through personal, and sexual ways); but most importantly, in the form of reproduction of the nuclear family through the task of rearing children. Ehrenreich recounts how women were initially put onto the ‘Marxist map’ through an analysis of domestic work, which highlighted how it not only served the interests of men within the private sphere, but also the interests of capital at large (Ehrenreich, p.341). If men are the ‘producers’ of commodities, women are ‘reproducers’ of men as sources of expropriateable labor power, which maintains men’s satisfaction by the presence of free domestic work along with what Marx and Engels refer to in The German Ideology as ‘the reproduction of daily life’, which Ferguson interprets as the production of children and meeting man’s sexual needs (Ferguson, p.349). In other places however, Marx and Engels suggest that the family is a form of organization of material needs that becomes inherently intertwined with the general capitalist superstructure. Through the subjugation of women, the system of patriarchy perpetuates and keeps men satisfied, while preserving the control of the capitalist mode of production. Although, as shown previously, the ways in which men maintain patriarchal power over women, varies since the system of patriarchy (like capital) is in itself highly flexible and adaptable.

If capitalism cannot inherently solve the contradictory system of patriarchal dominance, due to its inherent reliance on these forms of dominance, a turn to Marxist analysis may seem compelling. However, both Hartman and Ferguson identify certain difficulties in traditional Marxism that insufficiently accounts for the feminist cause. One of the deficiencies in the classical marxist paradigms—which lies in their incomplete grasp of systems of dominance of race and gender—is formulated by Ferguson as a failure to account the historical theory of social reproduction of sexuality, also referred by Ferguson as the ‘patriarchal sex/effective production’ (Ferguson, p.358). Although traditional marxist account to a certain degree describes the character of production and reproduction that occurs within the sphere of a nuclear family, it is not entirely clear if it accounts family relations as independent relations, or as parts that instrumentally serve the needs of the capitalist superstructure as a whole. Ferguson’s suspicion lies in the fact that an exclusive Marxist categorization of class cannot account for at least four other forms of class relationships which fall under the name of ‘race class’, ‘sex class’, ‘family class’, and ‘individual economic class’ (Ferguson, p.350). The latter category of which, in Ferguson’s view, is the closest form of class relation that resembles the traditional Marxist category which accounts the relation of an individual’s labor power to the capitalist mode of production; while the former categories of class analysis, are insufficiently accounted within the traditional Marxist categories of class struggle analysis. An example where the traditional Marxist account of class relations slips past other potentially present forms of class relations, is exemplified within the household: in the relations between the proletarian husband and wife. In this scenario, the husband and wife both are deemed as individuals who are dispossessed from their means of production, which under the traditional Marxist account, puts them under one class. But in Ferguson’s view, what lacks in this account is a failure to reveal the more intricate class contractions that occur within the private sphere among a man and a woman, and how these contradictions connect with the grander scheme of contractions within the capitalist superstructure—in ways that traditional Marxist analysis frequently slips to account.

To reconcile Marxism with Feminism, certain preliminary attempts were employed by accounting patriarchy as an inherent system of dominance that is intertwined with the capitalist mode of production. Ehrenreich refers to this as the ‘capitalism-plus-patriarchy’ paradigm, which is not enough, since it relies on a fixed and structural account of social categories like ‘the family’, ‘the state’, and ‘the economy’ (Ehrenreich, p.345). With the advent of new modes of production and revolutionizing technology, the social categories that previously existed become re-configured while dislocating previous gender and class relations, which in turn, allows for a new system of patriarchy and rule of capital to emerge. The disruptive forces of capital, which propel ‘dislocations, innovations, and global reshuffling’ of various social groups, serve as requisites in which capital and new systems of patriarchy re-adapt and prevail. Women become impoverished, gain the statuses of refugees and migrants, which makes them even more vulnerable, making them more vulnerable to these systems of dominance and exploitation (Ehrenreich, p.346). Hartman describes how these ‘reshufflings’ create new ‘empty hierarchical gaps’ in which the system of patriarchy and capital effortlessly find a dominant class with which these social ‘gaps’ get filled with, while Marxist categories struggle to identify and prescribe these newly generated ‘gaps’ (Hartman, p.321). Ferguson points out how such ‘reshuffling’ serve as impediments for the formation of a struggle against capital in ways that effectively preclude the formation of a class identity. The formation of these various machinations of dominance allows for forces of capital to essentially prevent the formation of a class consciousness and impedes the emergence of a sense of community; which for example, frequently translates into a low percentage of workers who are represented by worker unions (Ferguson, p.354).

The impediment for the formation of a class consciousness, creates the conditions in which a new question surfaces that poses grand implications regarding the possibility of reconciling Marxism with feminism. This question, namely, is formulated by Ferguson as a query into whether women can be accounted in the traditional Marxist definitions of class (Ferguson, p.352). If so, then to what extents women can be accounted as a revolutionary class that has sufficient ‘historical cohesiveness’ to be a class for itself. Ferguson gives an account as to why women as a sex class, should be considered a revolutionary one; one of the most predominant reasons for which is that women as a class do the most essential work necessary for the perpetuation of capitalist and patriarchal culture (Ferguson, p.365). Since women’s personality structure becomes inherently intertwined in the sustainment of these systems of dominance, it is the imperative of women as a conscious class, to form a coherent struggle against these patriarchal relations. However, a sole emphasis of women and sex is not the only imperative the feminism entails, since race is one of many other categories of class are also intertwined within the system of patriarchal dominance.

Ferguson offers a viewpoint in which Marxism and feminism may be reconciled by pointing out the strengths of Marxism, namely, identifying the key revolutionary agents within society, and overthrowing the systems of oppression that these agents are subjected to (Ferguson, p.353). Just like Marx thought that the capitalist system embodied dialectical instabilities that awaited for a latent revolutionary movement to awake from its slumber, Ferguson believes that parallel instabilities are inherent in the system of ’patriarchal sex/effective production’, which also beg an awakening of its oppressed sex class (Ferguson, pp. 356-7). Hartman offers a materialistic understanding of how patriarchal dominance occurs within a society, which can benefit Marxist analysis and class struggles at large. However, a failure to incorporate systems of dominance based on sex, race, and family into the traditional Marxist analysis, fragments the class struggle, and provides less potential for a revolution that could abolish these systems of dominance in their entirety. It is therefore an imperative for Marxism to become mutually complementary with feminism for the establishment of a revolutionary society that is fully liberated from all systems of oppression. While the contrary is also true, it is an imperative for feminism to find its reconcilement with Marxism—particularly today as we see various feminist movements blindly proliferating under the interests of capital. Feminism and Marxism once reconciled, have the potential to serve the ends of class struggle that seeks to achieve true liberation from all systems of oppression.

Works Cited

Gottlieb, Roger S. An Anthology of Western Marxism: from Lukacs and Gramsci to Socialist-Feminism. Oxford University Press, 1989.

——— Ehrenreich, Barbara “Life Without Father: Reconsidering Socialist-Feminist Theory”, p. 338.

——— Ferguson, Ann, “Sex and Work: Women as a New Revolutionary Class in the United States”, p. 348.

——— Hartmann, Heidi, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards More Progressive Union”, p. 316.