I became politicized, like most oppressed people, through my lived experience and identity. Being a working-class, mixed raced, queer woman in a home with domestic violence, I became conscious early on of inequality and domination centered around race and gender. I had an organic awareness of class divides, like most poor people, and a healthy distrust of the rich, as well as a distaste with the greed of bourgeois culture. It didn’t seem fair for a minority to have such exorbitant wealth, while my mother struggled to pay the bills with two jobs. When I became politically active I was drawn to radical feminist and queer politics, because they were both so empowering. It gave me a space to talk about my experiences with gender oppression in a political context, as well as build community with other women and queer people of color. The organizations I built were autonomous student groups with other women and queers, who centralized gender, race and sexuality in our politics and action. I was not aware of marxism or marxist organizations/parties. I knew that Marx was critical of capitalism, and according to my organic class consciousness that meant he was okay and radical in my book. When I moved to the bay and begin to intentionally build and study with other autonomous Marxists I begin to understand that my previous ideas of what Marxism was were totally incorrect. It wasn’t an ideology or a state capitalist/communist party. Marxism is a methodology that represents the unity of theory and practice; it is an outlet to make us socially aware of the totality of the capitalist world and our place in it in order to change our world for the better through our actions. This is what feminism did for me; it made me socially aware of the patriarchal world, and put my experiences in a larger political context. Marxism puts people’s actions and lives in a political context as well as a historical context, revealing that it is the actions and struggle committed by the oppressed that make history. Feminism and Marxism didn’t seem to be in conflict to me, but represented a revolutionary synthesis that could be used to develop revolutionary theory that could be applied in practice to unite the people, and tear down patriarchal capitalist systems of oppression. That said, there are many strands of feminism and marxism that have different theoretical approaches, and thus different forms of struggle from one another. Some Marxists reject feminism and some Feminists reject marxism. However, the only way to rid the world of capitalism and patriarchy is through the bridging of these political frameworks. This post is an attempt to show the organic connections between Marxist and Feminist politics, and the need for revolutionary feminist organizations.
Like I said above, Marxism is not an ideology, which is the way most liberals like to characterize it. It is a methodology called Dialectical historical materialism. German philosopher Hegel revolutionized thought through developing dialectics by looking at the subject, object, and the spirit, and how they manifested into contradictions. I am no Hegelian, but Karl Marx is and he took Hegels dialectics and advanced it by bringing it down from the realm of the spirit and ideas, and grounding it in material reality. A huge inspiration to Marx were the European revolutions, particularly the French revolution, that lead him to understand society through class struggle. Marx developed theory, based off of actual struggle, that was meant to be put in practice in order to liberate ourselves from the chains of capitalism. Here is one of my favorite quotes that demonstrates the dialectic,
“the world has long since possessed something in the form of a dream, which it need only take possession of consciously, in order to possess in reality.”
Marx is speaking to the material power of idea’s; conscious thought is the first step towards conscious action. It also demonstrates the relationship between consciousness and revolution. Revolutions aren’t just about tactics; revolutions happen when people decide they will no longer go on living under the current system. When they decide that consciously then they will act on that basis. That is the dialectic; the relationship between the subject (people) and the object (the system). The subject acts against the object and changes itself and the object in the process. In order for the people to act correctly and strategically they must have an understanding of the total system and how the division of labor is organized along gender and racial lines that also regulate our sexualities. The role of theory should be an analysis of existing systems of oppression, as well as practical strategies, that the oppress can then apply in practice in order fight these systems.
Marxism is a methodology for the working class to use in order to understand capitalist society through self-knowledge. Marx asserted that the true exploitative nature of capitalism can only be obtained by the proletariat; the workers it exploits and oppresses in order to reproduce itself. The bourgeoisie; ruling class; the rich; the man; whatever label you prefer, cannot understand the true nature of the system and solution to crisis, because they believe their own lies that the system is good and free. Meanwhile, the planet is suffering and responding: hurricanes, soil erosion, global warming, tornadoes in the south, tsunami’s hitting Japan and San Francisco. These aren’t natural disasters, but responses to an unnatural system of domination and exploitation of the earth and humanity. The people are suffering and responding too: the standard of living for most of the world is terrible with wide spread poverty and suffering, but there has been political upheavals, general strikes, and revolutions. Yet, when we turn on the bourgeois controlled news, we have our rulers talking about how the economy is looking up; how the three imperialist wars our country is involved in are making us safer, when really it is just a struggle over resources that uses the largely working class soldiers as pawns in their games of greed and destruction.
The bourgeoisie has false consciousness, and it runs so deep that they don’t even understand how to truly solve their own crisis. The only solution to the capitalist crisis is revolution. The bourgeoisie has structured society along its own capitalist interests, relying on the exploitation of the earth and the people to reproduce itself, because the logic of capital is to continually expand in order to reproduce. This system is proving itself to be unsustainable, because capital cannot keep expanding, due to the earth and humanities limits. The bourgeoisie does not see this, because of their place in the division of labor, but the vast majority of the people, who are workers do see this through their daily experience with oppression and exploitation. When workers begin to understand themselves within the context of the political economic system then they understand the truth of the system, and can decide if they want to struggle together to change such a system. This is what Marx means when he argues that capitalism is understood through self knowledge; when we understand that we, the working class, are the foundation of the system that supports it through the division of labor, we can make a decision if we want to continue our lives living that way. The key phrase in all of this, and the subject of much conflict between marxists and other political frameworks, is the division of labor, and how it is defined and understood. The division of labor is complex with many divisions that have their basis in other systems of oppression as well, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, to name a few. We are forced into this role as workers to survive, but other aspects of our identity, such as gender, race, age, citizenship status, effect the type of work we do. As Marxists, we must always strive to understand the total picture of capitalist society, that means we must strive to break through these complexities within the division of labor, in order to understand all the particularities of our class oppression in order to root them out and build a new society. In the past, Marxists and marxism has been accused of being class reductionist and not understanding the many different ways people experience class. Different feminisms have been critical of marxism for this, but feminism can and must play a role in developing an understanding of the truth of the system in the minds of the oppressed.
Just as Marxism makes us aware of the world through our own self-knowledge as workers in it, Feminism makes us aware of the patriarchal world and its system of domination through our self-knowledge as gender oppressed people. Patriarchy structures societies along a gendered division of labor, and rigid gender categories that are harmful to all human beings, and supports the overall devaluation of ‘women’. Like Marx, feminism, particularly Black feminism, has developed an analysis of society through self-knowledge of our place in it. It is important to understand that there isn’t one gendered division of labor. In the United States, the origins of capitalism lie within American Slavery, and the creation of race and white supremacy. This development of a gendered and racialized division of labor created divisions among women that we still see today. Black women are socialized differently then White women; working class women are socialized differently then middle class women. This is because differnt positions within the division of labor carry different social power. Selma James speaks to this directly in her pamphlet Sex, Race & Class,
“The work you do and the wages you receive are not merely “economic” but social determinants, determinants of social power…The social power relations of the sexes, races, nations and generations are precisely, then, particularized forms of class relations. These power relations within the working class weaken us in the power struggle between the classes. They are the particularized forms of indirect rule, one section of the class colonizing another and through this capital imposing its own will on us all.”
Unfortunately, race has often been neglected by the theory produced by Marxist feminists, who have taken a eurocentric and academic approach at times. Contemporary Black feminism was developed by Black feminists, who were dissatisfied with racial, gender, and queer struggles that failed to understand the many divisions within society, and thus ignored the experiences of working class, queer, black women. The Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminists from the 1970s-80′s, published a very important statement, where they assert that their analysis of oppression and the system comes from their daily lives,
“We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”
This work can be done, not only to understand the situation of working-class black women, but to understand how all people are divided and placed within a system that is organized into two classes. Marxism and feminism provide a very powerful tool in the hands of the oppressed. Feminism advances Marxism, and its awareness of the totality of the system, by revealing the divisions of gender, race, and sexuality and their necessary functions to uphold an oppressive and exploitative division of labor. Feminism provides programmatic content for the development of revolutionary theory, as well as helps shape an alternative communist vision of the world, where gender, like class, will no longer exist. These feminist communist politics can also be developed within the structures of revolutionary organizations by implementing a horizontal division of labor that strives to develop women, queer, people of color, and all combinations of, leadership. These internal organizational structures reflect the politics of our alternative vision of the world. Marxism advances feminism, because it makes feminism aware of the development of Capital and its relationship to Patriarchy. It gives feminist theory a method, dialectics, to apply its ideas in practice in order to abolish patriarchy thus making feminism into a revolutionary praxis.
Marxists have critiqued or rejected feminism as reformist at times, and this is true. There are the NOW feminist out there that believe equality for women can be achieved through integrating ourselves into the current system. But that doesn’t mean feminism is inherently reformist. Historically and currently there have been ‘marxists’ who have also been reformists. Revolutionary marxist Rosa Luxemburg polemicized against them in her brilliant work, Reform or Revolution. The Second International, a network of international marxist and revolutionaries formed in the 19th and 20th centuries, even supported World War I. Does that mean that Marxism is actually pro-imperialism? No. It means that feminism and marxism are not monolithic, and that historically there have been opportunistic currents that will use the politics and struggles to further their own reformist agendas. It also speaks to the contradictions within people’s consciousness, because they have failed to understand the total truth of the system, and to understand that reforms in and of themselves will not liberate the people from capitalism or patriarchy. Feminism, like Marxism, should not be used to fight for reforms or solely analyze existing systems. It should use theory to make people understand the realities of the society we live in in order to change it. Many revolutionary organizations (Feminist and Marxist) have failed to build a powerful class struggle, because their analysis has been limited, due to not understanding the total truth of the world and failing to unite the people. A holistic collaboration between marxism and feminism can begin to point us in the right direction so that we learn from the mistakes of the past as we strive to make history today.