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Feminism: A Revolution Marx Wouldn’t Miss for the World

Don't call it a romance: Laura Fernández Cordero considers the longstanding relationship between feminism and Marxism, and how fresh interpretations are vital in an uncertain world.

Laura Fernández Cordero 4 February 2019

Feminism: A Revolution Marx Wouldn’t Miss for the World

This article was originally published in Nueva Sociedad. It has been translated from Spanish by Nicolas Allen.

Writing on the centenary of Karl Marx’s birth, Antonio Gramsci expressed concern at the contemporary trend, in 1918, to consecrate the German thinker as if he were a messiah or a priest. “Our Marx” is too grand, he wrote, for his ideas to be reduced to a set of parables, his writings to an article of faith.[1] Gramsci’s intent was not so different from Michel Foucault’s when later the French philosopher cast Marx, along with Nietzsche and Freud, as the founder of a new Western “discursivity”.[2] Both thinkers wished to salvage Marx from the inflexible, biased, often anodyne readings that enjoyed currency inside and outside Marxist circles. They looked to restore a sense of Marx’s totality, or, absent that totality, to convey some idea of the imprint his thought had left on the broader perception of the contemporary world.

This year’s bicentenary celebration reveals a very different landscape: Marx’s commemoration is subdivided into a seemingly endless number of topics. The trend has reached a fever pitch in bicentennial conferences, featuring panels and roundtables with titles like “Marx and Women”, “Marx and Feminism”, “Marx and Gender”, or simply, “Marx and the Woman Question”. Worst-case scenario, one suspects that this is a case of thematic affirmative action: specific women, seated on specific panels, discuss issues that, apparently, are quite specific. The invitation to participate in these conferences may even be genuine. Or, it may be a token of the organizers’ need to show that they are in step with today’s vanguard of feminisms, women’s movements, and LGBQTI activisms.

Best-case scenario, these panels offer a more diverse, manifold image of Marx. We are reminded of Marx, husband to Jenny, his self-sacrificing companion through exile and poverty. Or Marx the homophobe, if we’re prepared to admit such an anachronism. There was Marx who theorized the situation of women in anthropological, historical and political terms. And the Marx who raised three daughters, all of them writers and activists. Or the Marx who welcomed one woman’s political enquiries when such a thing was still uncommon (we know that Marx composed multiple drafts in reply to Vera Zasulich, the one-time populist who had pressed the German about the viability of revolution in backwards Tsarist Russia). If we can avoid the common mistake of taking “gender” as a synonym for “woman”, we might even make out the Marx who was born male, with all his potency and all his limitations. There was Marx the eldest son, following the death of his brother. Or the young suitor who took a slightly older wife. The strong-willed writer who wrangled with other men for leadership and to have the final word. The erratic breadwinner and debtor. The father who procreated inside and outside his marriage. The old man with his ailments and his incomplete works, fragmented further by the ravages of sickness.

The socialist figures surrounding Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto were no strangers to the spectre of women’s emancipation. August Bebel and Friedrich Engels made the issue their own, handing down two volumes at the end of the 19thcentury that remain indispensable to any socialist or anarchist library: Woman and Socialism and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In doing so, Bebel and Engels were retracing Marx’s own premises, scattered though they were across his published writings and unpublished notes.

Perhaps for lack of systematic analysis, we don’t think twice today about accusing Marx of being “gender blind”. That verdict is unfortunate though, for several reasons. For one, it supposes that something called “gender” was readily available and in plain sight, like a table. Moreover, it overlooks that gender as an idea was the outcome of an arduous theoretical labor waged by feminists throughout the 20th century. Even more, this oversight is tantamount to forgetting the best part of Marx himself: the intense theoretical labor that led him from the observation of a simple table, to the marvellous pages in Capital on commodity fetishism. As we know, Marx is much more than the sum of the topics he addressed. He is an interpretive machine, a critical force.

Another question impresses upon us today: how did women read Marx? Rather than leading us down the path to longwinded discussions of female essences or historical particularities, the question is useful insofar as it sets up another: how did men read Marx? Some will say –and here, there are plenty of specialists– that men interpreted Marx in all manner of ways, in communion or in open contention with earlier ideas, in conflict or in comradely goodwill with other readers, in keeping with a school of thought or in pursuit of its reinvention. Marx’s women readers did the same thing. Still, few of them are recognized today, and celebrated women intellectuals are rare enough. The left-wing pantheon is notably thin on women figures (there are still plenty of biographical reconstructions to be performed, lots of canons to be revolutionized).

All the same, we know that women followed one of several paths. The women of the socialist and communist parties, for example, tended to follow the commandments of Bebel and Engels: gender subordination is historical; women workers need to organize; women should be freed from domestic labor; the revolution will emancipate women, and so on. And yet, there is much more under the Marxist sun than what the social democrats and communists could fit between the pages of an ideological manual, and, in fact, there were women who were much more interested in what Marx was actually doing. Those women saw Marx seeing the table, and under varying historical circumstances, although with particular intensity in the 1960s, they grasped Marx by the beard and began, along with non-Marxist feminists, to translate patriarchal domination into theories and concepts, personal revolutions and political practices.

Extramarital Relations

To uproot some of the more stubbornly persistent ideas on the subject, we might consider the way in which the checkered history of Marxism and feminism (always in that order) has been presented as if it were the story of a romantic partnership. Read in that light, we will find any number of courtships, flirtations, happy and not so happy marriages, scandalous divorces, signs of neglect, infidelities and touching reconciliations. The metaphor supposes that the two entities could be perfectly fused, as in the proverbial union with one’s “better half”. On that account, Marxism lacks something that only feminism can offer, and vice-versa. In plain-speak, one side offers “class analysis” and the other a “gender perspective”. It is only a matter, so goes the thinking, of crossing the two and isolating their intersection. And there do exist productive intersections. But it is imperative today that we move beyond the schema of romantic love, if only to avoid the creeping reductionism that threatens both traditions.

In his article on the relation between Marxism and utopian thought, Fredric Jameson diagnoses in the intersection of the two traditions a powerful potential to demystify human nature. This union, Jameson explains, is not so different from our own constructivist and anti-essentialist prejudices against the idea of a ‘pre-existing human essence’: “since human nature is historical rather than natural, produced by human beings rather than innately inscribed in the genes or DNA, it follows that human beings can change it; that it is not a doom or destiny but rather the result of human praxis.”[3]

For someone like Silvia Federici, it is this aspect of Marx that stands out as being of particular use for the feminist camp. As a historical materialist method, Marxism has done its part in showing that identities and gender hierarchies are dynamic, alterable social constructions.[4] Marx, in other words, has radically dismantled the supposedly eternal nature of humankind.

That same gesture could also be found among the feminist forbearers, the women who toiled to overcome their historical subordination, and in doing so, were forced to openly question a fixed “nature” that relegated them to the private sphere. In keeping with the most disruptive elements of the Enlightenment tradition, they recognized the idea of “natural” destiny for what it really was: centuries of accumulated customs, rules and creeds. Expressed in manifestos, their demand for female education was more than an appeal to take part in the knowledge of the world around them. It was their way of advancing their vision for a new kind of woman, and with it, a radical cultural transformation that promised nothing less than to drag humanity out from its obscurantism. Olympe de Gouges read by Mary Wollstonecraft, read by Flora Tristán and Emma Goldman. This same conversation continues on through figures such as Virginia Woolf, eventually arriving at Simone de Beauvoir – stonemasons chipping away obstinately at the ossified fallacy of “human nature”. Moles boring through the otherwise serene soil of Western masculinity, like the old mole of the revolution in which Marx had placed his hopes.

These and lesser known names provide us with the opportunity to read Marx back into the century that birthed him. Not as the potential spouse for a feminism looking for the ideal suitor, but as a counterpoint to Marx’s own historical peers. For example: looking back on Marx’s celebrated encomium to Flora Tristán – “precursor to the highest noble ideals” – we might reappraise the Franco-Peruvian socialist and feminist in terms of her contribution to Marxism with same single-mindedness that scholars have spent locating her in the utopian socialist tradition. The resulting image would be a less canonized and more nuanced author: Tristán, calling for the workers of the world to unite, both men and women.

Another Marx might also emerge. This Marx, less blinkered, more polyphonic, could better engage with one of the epoch’s central issues. This would mean not just rereading the canonical texts but also frequenting the lesser-known works, as has occurred in recent times with Marx’s articles on suicide.[5] The point, of course, is not to nominate Marx as the most pioneering figure on all things feminism, but rather to blunt the sting of feminist critique. Because if Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are masters of suspicion (as per Paul Ricoeur) or founders of discursivity (Michel Foucault), it is largely because they were partaking in a debate, sometimes amicably, other times heated, with the female masters of the era’s most insidious suspicion: that half of humanity was probably being side-lined from the world that modernity had brought forth.

This kind of reading method will mean exploring lost texts and doubly marginalized female authors: marginalized first by masculine, heterocentric canons, and second, by the selective restoration of a few women from among their ranks. It can also serve to revisit – reflexively, and without condescension – the existing figures from the feminist canon with the same firmness that the feminist critique has made its trademark. In a similar manner, by reading Marx as the ever-present interlocutor – rather than the groom, spruced-up for the occasion – the German becomes subject to the same kind of interpretive game from which no one emerges unsullied.

Around the world, urban walls and digital timelines remind us that “What they call love is unpaid labor”. The slogan recalls nothing less than the spirit of Marx: “What they call a table is a social relation”. This retrofitted Marx travels any number of pathways, often bypassing the academy on his way to join with social movements and grassroots politics. Federici herself, the de facto author of the celebrated slogan, wanders flesh-and-blood, or in books and photocopies, across the most diverse geographic locations. French materialists circulate in handmade booklets, and the successful republication of Marx’s texts coexists with cyberspace’s uncontrollable proliferation of Marxist readings. This is not the Marx imagined by the rigors of intellectual history or the militant’s purism. All the same, one can hear in this proliferation the echoes of a famous philosophical thesis calling for less theoretical dalliances and more commitment to the world’s transformation. And although it wouldn’t seem that these Marxist fragments were laying waste to grand structures, they move in tandem with the revolution of subjectivities that, much more than the prophesized “new man”, persist in questioning the much-touted universality of the human.

What’s more, this eminently gauche Marx, read fragmentarily (better yet, respecting the fragmentary quality of Marx’s own writing), serves as an antidote to the liberal version of feminism that raises its voice one minute for the legalization of abortion, and in the next stakes its claim atop the social pyramid with her bourgeois partner. Because, just as it is possible to make out various iterations of Marx, feminism too will become multiple. However, here we should guard against the false serenity of “the plural” and reinforce the variant that can best answer to the challenges of our present age. This response will not resemble the currently ubiquitous neoliberal feminism, nor the variant that offers up “Woman” as a transcendent and essential category. More likely it will be that part of feminism, in all its diversity, that dared to question the nature of the emancipatory subject in sophisticated philosophical disquisitions (questioned by working women, POC, lesbians, women of the capitalist periphery), dismantling the subject through transgender theorizations, skewering the surety of identity in the cauldron of queer theory and, of course, nurturing and criticizing the concept of gender, taken as a fluid category. As Sara Ahmed reminds us: “When it no longer centres on the critique of patriarchy or seeks assurance in the categories of ‘woman’ or ‘gender’, only then is feminism doing its most ‘mobilizing’ work.” And this, because, “more than its creation, the loss of its object is what allows for feminism to become a movement, insofar as it creates an opening for forms of action that are not constrained by their opposition to the present moment”.[6]

Hard lessons for today’s left-wing Marxists, particularly those who feel mobilized by the sinking realization that the political subject par excellence – the proletariat, the working class – is suffering an irreparable structural and political instability. Feminist theory offers a reserve of critiques and strategies from which these Marxists could learn a lot, rather than searching for a marriage of convenience in which they imagine themselves as the husband-guardian.

Marx, with Fruits and Vegetables

In one of the many bicentenary activities held in Buenos Aires, a conference dubbed Marx Nace,[7] offered a staging of Marx’s texts to be performed in multiple languages and with an array of perspectives. One stage company, the Columna Durruti,[8] provided a dramatic representation of the young Marx’s unfinished satirical novel Scorpion and Felix. Actors and actresses took turns reading in front of a freshly sculpted bust of Marx that throughout the performance was peppered with fruits and vegetables. The iconic face, long hair and thick beard began to warp for each banana or melon that struck the wet clay, as onlookers broke into laughter at the mischievous text being read aloud. At its peak, the performers frolicked half-nude astride a semblage of Marx that by then looked more like the portraitures of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Although the iconoclastic humour had been foregrounded from the go, the laughter began to sound broken, as if the audience was no longer sure of their own reaction. The mood in the auditorium had turned expectant: what more damage could they inflict on the statue, by that time adorned with a carrot for a horn? How many more blows could the supple clay withstand, or, for that matter, our own attachment to the bearded icon? Can we carry on laughing before the sight of such destruction?

Beyond the artistic realm, where the solemnity of political thought can be more or less safely ridiculed, reflections on the Marxian legacy are not commonly associated with humour or laughter. More often than not, the dominant tone is one of gloom and despair. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical disappearance of non-capitalist societies, the world has abounded in retrospective evaluations of failure and defeat. Failure and defeat can just as often be pregnant with critique, be that for self-analysis or for working through the present mood. In a recently published book that looks to contextualize contemporary theoretical trends,[9] the author opens his first chapter with an unequivocal message: “In the beginning was defeat.” And though the author, Razmig Keucheyan, seeks to sketch some conclusions for a possible radical social transformation to come, his reflections are guided by the words of Perry Anderson that he includes as an epigraph: “Defeat is a hard experience to master: the temptation is always to sublimate it”.

The challenge, then, is not only to reconnect contemporary theory with its theoretical and political past, but also to engage with recent events that have renewed social and political critique (like 1999’s WTO protests, or the 2001 World Social Forum). In a sense, the author’s idea is to invest the very idea of defeat with a different set of meanings, and better still, to delineate what needs to be accomplished if there is to be any kind of future social change. Some possibilities outlined by Keucheyan include: the strategic question as it relates to political and social movements, the environmental issue, and the need for greater attentiveness to critical thinking developed outside the geographies of the hegemonic core.

One is tempted to supplement that list with another issue that the author only recognizes in passing: the need for more profound theorization on the production of subjectivities, without sidestepping those forms of subjectivity associated with neoliberalism. And here, few traditions can boast the same theoretical resources as the diverse feminist currents. Radical left critique simply cannot afford to do without them, much less continue to invent excuses for its indifference by insinuating feminism’s biases or its limited focus on “gender”. Because if anything can be salvaged from our era of fragmentation and compartmentalization, it is feminism’s broad, totalizing provocation, its critical and utopian scope.

In his own attempt to study the memory of left, Enzo Traverso invites us to examine the historical defeats suffered, as well as the vitality of revolutions that never came to pass.[10] This line of exploration, drawing on names like Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Benjamin, is a perfect entryway to think about the feminist deployment of concepts like defeat, melancholy, and the paradoxical power of the meek. Here, against the paralyzing effects of defeat and frustration, the feminist effervescence asserts its strength. Disdaining neither pain nor anger, the feminist movement is far less enamoured of the harsh masculine narrative glorifying the heroic deed, the seizure of the winter palace and the military stratagem that, when faced with defeat, invariably mark a bitter retreat. Feminist and queer activists have adroitly explored other battlegrounds, learned to esteem other laurels, to speculate about the power of negative feelings and dystopian alternatives.[11]

We’ve managed “as women” to do everything imaginable with Marx, just as we’ve managed without him, up to and including declaring that we are not women at all and calling for a revolution of the human as such. Today this transformation is on the move and Marx wouldn’t miss it for the world. The current global outlook and the neoliberal onslaught – with democracy and the global poor in its sights, repression its main tool – is calling out for fresh interpretations. We should also be clear about the risks involved: we might end up with a version Marx primed for the display rack, a Marx that looks more like one in a series of ideological options. Should that come to pass, we should return Marx to his surly origins, rediscovering the version of Marx that couldn’t be more at odds with the “revolution of happiness” that many right-wing governments in Latin America are championing these days. Marx was no moderate, and he wasn’t a nice guy. He wasn’t happy. We feminists who read Marx nowadays aren’t too happy either.

Laura Fernández Cordero is a doctor in Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. She is head of the Academic Area of ​​the Center for Documentation and Research of the Culture of the Left (CeDInCI / UNSAM), where she also coordinates the Sex and Revolution Program.

[1]Antonio Gramsci: “Nuestro Marx”, 1918, <https://gramscilatinoamerica.>.

[2]Michel Foucault: Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, El Cielo por Asalto, Buenos Aires, 1995.

[3]Fredric Jameson: “The Politics of Utopia”, in New Left Review, No. 25, January-February 2004.

[4]S. Federici: El patriarcado del salario. Críticas feministas al marxismo, Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2018.

[5]K. Marx: Acerca del suicidio, Las Cuarenta, Buenos Aires, 2012.

[6]S. Ahmed: La política cultural de las emociones, pueg, Ciudad de México, 2015, pp. 267-268.

[7]This article includes several passages from my presentation on the panel with Emilio de Ípola and Horacio Tarcus for the event Marx nace, in the Teatro Nacional Cervantes (Buenos Aires, April 7, 2018), hosted by the Goethe Institute and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

[8]The “performatic-iconoclastic-Arcimboldean reading” was performed by Emilio García Wehbi and Maricel Álvarez, with assistance by Martín Antuña.

[9]Razmig Keucheyan: The Left Hemisphere. Mapping Critical Theory Today, Verso Books, London, 2014.

[10]Enzo Traverso: Left-wing Melancholia. Marxism, History and Memory, Columbia University Press, New York, 2017.

[11]With Nayla Vacarezz, we explored these types of connections in a graduate seminar: “Izquierdas, feminismos y otros proyectos apasionados. Herramientas teóricas y controversias políticas” (cedinci/unsam, 2018).