Labour, life and love: Marxist feminists join the dots

Last weekend two generations of international feminists met at a conference in Berlin designed to prompt fresh thinking on Marxist feminist theory and inspire the renewal of a socialist feminist movement.

Cynthia Cockburn
27 March 2015
Two older women in intense discussion

Frigga Haug (right) [Institute of Critical Theory, Berlin] in discussion with Catherine Hoskins [Coventry University, UK]Since the 1970s, a sizeable fraction of the feminist movement has striven to bring together in one coherent body of thought the Marxist critique of capitalist exploitation and our home-grown feminist critique of male power. 'Socialist feminism'. Propelling this analysis into activism, has seen ups and downs in the ensuing forty years, a wavy graph line that parallels the fluctuating fortunes of trade unionism, left parties and anti-capitalist movements.

An international three-day conference on Marxist-Feminism took place in Berlin last weekend, designed to boost the upward slant of that hesitant graph line. Enabled by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which hosted the event in its spacious premises in formerly Communist east Berlin, the event drew together contributors from across Europe but also from far afield - India, Australia, Turkey, Latin America, the USA, Canada and elsewhere. The invited speakers, many of whom knew each other as hardy survivors from an earlier phase of the women's movement, were astonished to find themselves now in a crowd of five hundred participants, mainly young and mainly resident in Germany, seemingly attracted by a potential renewal of left feminism. What's more, as the conference progressed, many of this audience joined energetically in the debate and seemed hungry for a productive outcome, for ideas that could energize and guide a movement of deep social change.

Woman speaking behind table

Ece Kocabicak, a researcher at Lancaster University, UK, who spoke on 'patriarchal appropriation' in Turkey todayThe conference saw the launch of two new books. One was Der im Gehen erkundete Weg: Marxismus-Feminismus (Making the Road as We Walk It: Marxism-Feminism) by Frigga Haug, who has also devoted many years to editing a multi-volume dictionary of Marxist-Feminist concepts, the Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Feminismus, similarly published by the Institute for Critical Theory, Berlin. The second publication launched at the conference was a collection of essays on Marxist 'key words' as reworked and used today by feminists. Titled simply Marxism and Feminism and published by Zed Books, London, it was edited by Shahrzad Mojab of the University of Toronto, Frigga Haug's principal partner in conceptualizing the conference. 

Many of the presentations at the conference, like the chapters in these books, dwelt on production, on work and labour power. Frigga Haug, in opening the conference, foreshadowed this economic focus. 'For theoretical consistency', she said, Marxism-feminism 'must think of gender relations as relations of production'. This follows necessarily, she believes, from the perception that a dominant class (be it the owners of the means of production, or men in relation to women) has 'the ability to dispose of others' labour power'. In this spirit some of the conference papers dealt with the experience of female workers - for instance in Spain in present conditions of austerity, and in Latin America and India under the contemporary onslaught of neo-liberal global capitalism. Two speakers stressed the self-interest with which bureaucracies and businesses today welcome into prominent jobs a certain category of aspiring women, products of liberal feminism. Hester Eisenstein, whose recent book Feminism Seduced explores the way global elites use women's liberation to their own advantage, was one of them.

The difference between foundational Marxism and feminist Marxism however is that the latter, as Frigga went on to say, understands the relations of production as including not only the production of the means of life (in farms, fisheries, factories) but also the production of life itself (in human pregnancy, birthing, caring, and in nature). In this vein, many of the conference presentations dealt with health services and the 'care sector'. The natural world was discussed, in relation to women and to the labour movement, and its manipulation and devastation by corporate interests.

Sadly, Lena Gunnarsson had to cancel her attendance at the conference. I imagine that she would have treated us to some of the electrifying uses of Marxist concepts she and Anna Jonasdottir have proposed, extending what is understood as 'the production of life itself' beyond conception, pregnancy and parturition, to include emotional life, feelings. They urge us to understand 'love' - bonding, desire, ecstasy - as a material practice occupying the position in feminist theory that 'work' occupies in Marxist theory. Just as the capitalist grows rich on the surplus value generated by the worker's alienated labour, men grow strong by appropriating more of women's loving and caring than they give back to women.

Not everyone in the hall was happy with the scope of the thinking presented from the platform. There were complaints from some that, notwithstanding a contribution by Tucker Farley on lesbian movements, the tone of the conference was overwhelmingly heteronormative, with LGBTQ issues sidelined. And one or two participants, I'm told, walked out of the hall, angered that racialization, racism and racial domination were neglected by the speakers. This was a little unfair, however, for the issue of identity politics versus intersectionality featured in several presentations and was hotly debated. Had they stayed around for the closing lecture they would have heard a compelling tale of subaltern groups from Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak, drawing on her intense engagement with deeply subordinated village communities in caste-ridden, class-divided and post-colonial India.

Woman standing, clapping

Shahrzad Mojab, professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, editor of 'Marxism and Feminism', launched at the conferenceIt's often remarked that, when feminists try to bring Marxist and feminist theory into a single frame, patriarchy tends to shrink into a mere adjective glossing the principal system: 'patriarchal capitalism'. Perhaps because we feminists have contributed a wealth of analysis of women's work, mainstream Marxist economics has deepened its understanding of the mode of production by paying more attention to the way capitalists benefit from the sexual division of labour in society and employment. But the left has been less ready to hear us when we say that men as men, too, have always had an interest in the sexual division of labour, strenuously resisting employers' attempts to substitute cheap females for skilled craftsmen, while profiting from women's unpaid work in the home. Perhaps it's because men are disinclined to acknowledge that they share an interest with the ruling class in this.

Engaging with men in Marxist and socialist milieux we have sometimes been less than assertive in stating (and they have been disinclined to grasp) that there's more than one kind of ruling, one kind of ruling group and one kind of ruled. There is more than one axis of power. Patriarchal power, exerted in myriad ways that cannot be reduced to the economic, is still somehow elusive in the Marxist context, alluded to but seldom brought to view and challenged. The under-stressing of male supremacy was evident, I felt, even during these intense three days in Berlin. The word 'capitalism' was mentioned perhaps twenty times for every mention of 'patriarchy', and the word 'women', at a guess, fifty times for any voicing of the word 'men'.

This could have been due in part to the fact that militarism, war and violence barely surfaced in our discussions. Gender power as we know and suffer it - call it patriarchy, fratriarchy, phallocracy, male supremacy or what you will - is more easily perceived, and its workings understood, if we bring to view what Charles Tilly called 'the means and forces of coercion', the wealth that states or aspirant rulers exact by tribute or taxation to pay for external war and internal repression, and the men and weapons those resources buy. Marxist theory now has the conceptual tools, thanks to Tilly, to address the relationship between the means and forces of production and those of coercion. Our task as Marxist feminists is to clarify the part that gender plays in 'the continuum of violence', the relationship of socially-constituted masculinity to the structural violence of capitalism and the physical violence of militarism, to say nothing of the overwhelming preponderance of men in the incidence of violent crime. Male-on-male violence tells us much about the masculine (racialized and class) hierarchies of patriarchy; male-on-female violence, especially sexualized violence, tells us yet more about the systemic subordination of women. I touched on this in my own paper, and Erica Burman made mention of the gross incidence of sexual abuse and violence that has been coming to light in British society, in which even the left is not innocent.

Quite a few men were present in the audience at the Berlin conference, and it would have been productive, I feel, had they shared thoughts with us from their own positionality, about the persistence of patriarchy into the modern era, its renewal in religious structures and dogma, its empowerment in ever more costly weapons systems, and the way class power, racializing power and gender power are enlaced in the institutions of our everyday lives - in factories, banks, science labs, schools, churches, families. Marxist men engaging constructively with Marxist feminism in facing up to and refusing male dominance 'in the institutions' (including trade unions and left parties) would help put gender transformation - the profound re-shaping of masculinities and femininities from an early age by conscious policy and deliberate practice - onto the anti-capitalist revolutionary agenda. It would greatly strengthen the likelihood of a forward moving, mixed-gender, socialist feminist activism. For this is what last week's Marxist feminist revival in Berlin is ultimately about.

Watch out for the sequel, promised by Swedish feminists, for 2016.

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