Putting Marx back in the picture

Issue: 108

Judy Cox

A review of Martha Gimenez and Lise Vogel (eds), Science and Society Special Issue: Marxist-Feminist Thought Today, vol 69, no 1 (January 2005), £3.50

Any effective challenge to women’s oppression must be based on a Marxist analysis—that is the central argument of a special edition of the respected American left wing journal Science and Society. The journal has produced a special issue entirely devoted to the issue of women’s oppression, with one article on lesbian and gay oppression. By asserting the centrality of class and exploitation to women’s oppression, the authors are going against the stream of 40 years of feminist thinking, as they explain.

In the 1960s the first modern feminists were influenced by Marxism and developed their ideas in a dialogue with Marxism. But they argued that what they understood to be Marxism could not explain the particular condition of women. Marx, they said, was flawed by economic determinism. They constructed an ahistorical theory of patriarchy to attempt to explain women’s oppression purely in terms of men’s intentions.

Patriarchy theory opened the door to identity politics which was embraced by the Third Wave of feminists in the 1980s. ‘Academics, students, the media, and even many on the left denote a postmodern sensibility when, uncritically accepting stereotypes of Marx and his work as deterministic, class reductionist, crass materialist, etc, they focus only on localised struggles and view identity politics as the sole road to political mobilisation and social change’‚ write Martha Gimenez and Lise Vogel. Identity politics, reinforced by postmodernism, signalled a retreat from any coherent attempt to influence society which was replaced by a self-defeating obsession with culture and lifestyle. Now is the time to reverse that trend and put Marx back at the heart of fighting women’s oppression.

In one of the strongest essays in the journal, ‘Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited’, Martha Gimenez outlines the aspects of Marx’s work which are crucial for combating the dead end of postmodernism. She turns to Marx’s method, to a dialectical and historical understanding of the social relations which shape men and women. For too long, she argues, feminists have overlooked how Marx’s general method could provide key insights into how the situation of women is part of a complex totality rooted in historical processes and subject to change. All production, and reproduction, takes place in particular historical circumstances—capitalist society is dominated by the needs of capital accumulation rather than the satisfaction of human needs. This deprives both men and women of real control over their lives.

In ‘Rematerializing Feminism’, Teresa L Ebert calls for the development of a new ‘Red Feminism’ that reinstates labour and exploitation at the centre of women’s lives and of society. She argues that class struggle is the most effective way to bring about the kind of root and branch transformation necessary to liberate women. However, her article is flawed by claims about the superiority of childcare in ‘socialist China’ and impenetrably academic language.

The third article in the collection provides a useful survey and critique of Second Wave and Third Wave feminism, of feminists like Elizabeth Wurtzel who argue, ‘These days putting out one’s pretty power, one’s pussy power, one’s sexual energy for popular consumption no longer makes you a bimbo. It makes you smart.’

Like the journal as a whole, this essay is aimed primarily at left wing academics and students navigating the minefield of women’s studies courses. Such an audience will find much of use in this journal. But what is perhaps most interesting about this edition is that, following the anti-capitalist movement’s resurrection of Marx’s understanding of alienation and globalisation, Marx is finally being rehabilitated in the area that has recently been most hostile to his ideas—that of sexual politics.