Marxism and feminism have a lot to tell each other: can they find the words?

Thirty years ago women were writing of 'the unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism'. Though the two schools of thought cohabit uneasily, the recent annual Historical Materialism conference in London showed that each has something to gain from listening to the other

Cynthia Cockburn
18 November 2013

The annual Historical Materialism conference is not for the fainthearted. Four days of dawn-to-dusk theorizing on topics like 'a dialectical critique of the necessity-contingency couple in speculative realism' - yer wot? It's always a gruelling experience, and one which, on the face of it, seems to offer little to activists.

'HM', as it's known to intimates, is also a deeply masculine tendency. The HM journal from which the conferences spring has a twenty-member editorial board among whom are three women. There is no woman on the group responsible for the HM books series possibly the reason thirty out of the thirty-one authors and editors in the list are men. 

Nonetheless, feminists are engaging in the HM conferences, as we saw at this year's event, on November 7-10 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The titles of 16 of the 140 sessions in the programme indicated a concern with women or gender, a little feminist eddy in a swirling masculinist mainstream. They had an insistent theme: Marxism and feminism can strengthen each other's grasp of social reality, and feminist activism can be empowered by an input of Marxist-feminist thinking.


Christine Lőw, Katharina Volk and Helen Colley at the Historical Materialism conference in London. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

Prominent in this minority feminist current at the conference were participants from two groups, one based in Canada, the other in Germany, each generating an encyclopaedic work of Marxist-feminist theory. They had recently discovered each others' existence, and welcomed this year's HM conference as an occasion to meet up and present their ideas in a shared panel.

The first group has associations with the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory and the German Marxist journal Das Argument. An editorial team have been working since before the millennium on the production of a multi-volume Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (Historisch-Kritisches Wőrterbuch des Marxismus). The alphabetically ordered entries run from 'Abbau des Staates' (dismantling of the state) on page 1 of Volume 1 (1994), through 'links/rechts' (left/right) at the start of recently issued Volume 8, heading towards 'Zynismus' (cynicism), the final entry of a planned fifteenth volume many years from now.

Frigga Haug, a co-editor of Das Argument journal is, besides, a well known feminist writer and teacher. She has gathered around her a group of left-thinking German-speaking academic/activist feminists and, dissatisfied with the handling of gender in the Marxist Dictionary, they are producing a companion series, a Historical-Critical Dictionary of Feminism (Historisch-Kritisches Wőrterbuch des Feminismus). Characteristically, their volumes are appearing in paperback at €20 (£16), making them far more accessible than the bloke-ish Wőrterbuch des Marxismus with its hardback volumes costing four times that.


Katharina Volk and Helen Colley. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

Katharina Volk came to the HM conference to introduce the work of Frigga Haug and her colleagues. She told us they are just now compiling Volume 3 of the Feminist Dictionary, which runs from the word 'Kollectiv' (collective) to 'Liebe' (love). They are selecting terms from the Marxist dictionary that they deem relevant for women actively engaged in socialist and feminist movements, as well as for those developing Marxist feminist theory. Rather few entries, they find, can be lifted unmodified from the main dictionary. Most terms (imagine 'housewife', 'witch' and, yes, 'love') call for a distinctive women's take on the matter. Katharina invited interested feminist-marxist researchers to join them in working on the project and draft entries for the coming volumes.

Christine Lőw, also of the German team, explained that preparing an entry involves clarifying the term conceptually, tracing its historical development in the work of Marx, Luxembourg, Gramsci and other key thinkers, and finally describing its currency in feminist struggles, past and present. She offered us 'ecofeminism' as an example of a term in the Wőrterbuch des Feminismus that has clear uses for feminist struggle. The entry cites the influential work of Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies (Ecofeminism, 1993), feminist authors who use Marxist analyses creatively, critiquing their male and Euro-centric bias and reworking them for feminist purposes. These ecofeminists point to the affinity between women's work and nature, both lying outside the value system of the capitalist mode of production, both freely appropriated and exploited, and thus contributing massively to capital accumulation on a historic and world scale (Mies,1999). Christine stressed the potential of ecofeminist analysis to enable alliances between women's movements of the Global North and South against corporate capital's privatization of the commons - biological species, water, seeds. 


Christine Lőw. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

The Canadian project, based in Toronto, is newer, more focused and less comprehensive than the German dictionary enterprise. Shahrzad Mojab, at the University of Toronto, has been working for some years with Helen Colley of Huddersfield University in the UK, and a dispersed team of English-speaking feminist academics on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Middle East, on what they are calling their 'Marxist Feminist Keywords' project. They are gathering definitional essays on a range of concepts, and building them into a book that will be titled Marxism and Feminism: A Conceptual Quest.

Helen Colley presented this 'keywords' project at the HM conference. Its first aim is a development of Marxist feminist theory. In the late 1970s Heidi Hartmann wrote a troubled essay with the title 'The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism'. She compared their relationship to that of a married couple in English common law, to wit: 'husband and wife are one person in law, and that one is the husband'. For husband read Marxism, for his incorporated wife, feminism. Hartmann's essay appeared in several versions and drew concerned advice from a load of marriage counsellors.

Submission? Negotiation? Divorce? The Toronto group believe neither subordination nor separation is inevitable. They are tracing the evolution of concepts in both Marxist and feminist thought, and attempting a coherent integration. They see their tussle with theory as serving a second purpose: revolutionary feminist action, emancipatory for women and for humanity as a whole. Like their German colleagues, they want to their book to speak as much to women of the Global South as to those of the developed North. A dozen 'keywords' have been selected for elaboration, including for example 'the state', 'patriarchies', 'labour power', 'nationalism', 'reproduction' and 'revolution'. There will be a major essay by Himani Bannerji, author of Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism and Anti-Racism, arguing for an integrative understanding of gender, class and race. And as a result of this recent discovery of a German Marxist-feminist sister project, the book will be enlarged by the inclusion of two essays by Frigga Haug, freshly translated into English, offering a theoretical basis for the integration of Marxist and feminist thought.


Helen Colley. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

The Canadian keywords concept, and to an even greater extent the German dictionary concept, are, I can't help but feel, rather clumsy in their formulation. The choice of keywords in the Canadian project is arbitrary, responding less to logic than expediency (who's equipped and willing to write what). The dictionary project goes to the other extreme, listing everything that can be named. Its alphabetical structure, and the long time-span of its production, make for rigidity. Suppose you decide, sometime in mid-alphabet, that the word 'anti-militarism' has a significance you overlooked back in the A's. It's too late to include it now. Do you fill the lacuna by inventing the term 'zero-militarism' and shoving it in at the end of the final volume? At the same time, I find the commitment of these editors inspiring. They are assembling a substantial glossary we shall surely be able to mine for usable materials.

For academic work to serve a transnational movement well, however, the problem of language has to be addressed, and this has several facets. We've seen that meanings can't simply be transferred to and fro between Marxist and feminist thought, they have to be actively 'translated'. Claudia Gdaniec concluded the session by speaking furthermore of the challenge to meaningful political dialogue represented by our many national tongues. International feminist debate inevitably involves language translation - and it may be well or poorly done. But it's often evaded by the short-cut of importing words and phrases from the original language. The trouble, Claudia says, is that 'foreign words have no proper connotations, no emotions associated with them. We adopt them, but we don't live them'. She agrees with Frigga Haug when she writes that the adoption of words from foreign cultures impedes thought. 'We don't work them into our own reality and experience.'


Claudia Gdaniec. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

The more authoritative the language (and English is of course the world's premier imperial tongue) the more we are prone to lift its expressions into other languages without deconstructing and questioning their meaning. But political power works in another way too. Even within a single language-community, movements are diluted and subverted by subtle shifts of usage over time, as words are manipulated by dominant groups. 'Women' are disappeared into 'gender' and 'queer'. Changes in practice follow changes in words: the 'women's officer' becomes the 'equality officer', whose job is to look after the interests of 'both genders', and then gets watered down again when the label on the door is rewritten as 'diversity officer'.

Finally, though, for us as women there remains the problem of finding everyday words into which to translate the many useful concepts whose coded signifiers float freely in the elevated discourse of a Historical Materialism conference (alienation? materiality? fetishism?). We need words that speak more directly to us, words we can take home with us, words with which to reach the women we know far from the institutions of higher education, who are struggling to make sense of their exploitation at work, on the street, in the media, in the home - and to resist it.

At a guess, the overlap between the eight or nine hundred people who attended this Historical Materialism conference, and a similar number of participants in the Feminism in London conference, in October, just a couple of weeks before, would be a fraction of 1%. Yet the Marxist thinkers will have no revolution without the energy of angry young women wielding a critique of male dominance, and young women's bid to liberate themselves from patriarchy is a non-starter without a critique of capitalism and imperialism.

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