Theorizing Women’s Liberation Before, During, and After the Revolution

A talk by Anne Jaclard at the Anarchist Book Fair, New York City, April 12, 2008, on a panel entitled “Building a Movement Against Capitalism through Thinking of its Alternatives.”

My title is tongue in cheek because I can’t possibly talk about all that in a few minutes. My point is to pose a theoretic challenge to feminists to work out the relationship of women’s liberation to the transformation of society as a whole. I think such a transformation of all human relations necessitates tearing up capitalism and starting a new society based on a new mode of production. My view is that the mode of production and women’s freedom are inextricably intertwined, not as if one were first and the other second, but as a revolutionary process of self-emancipation by massive movements of people before, during and after the overthrow of capitalism. And I argue that a philosophy of liberation—Marx’s humanism—is essential to this process. I can’t discuss very much of this project today, but I invite you to join the investigation.

Some background: The so-called second wave of feminism (1960s-80s) raised these issues in a period when there was widespread discussion of Marxism and revolution within mass social movements of African Americans, anti-war youth, students questioning their place in society and rank-and-file workers fighting automation. Many feminists came out of those movements and considered themselves to be “socialist-feminists” or “Marxist-feminists. ”

Debates raged over the relationship between feminism and Marxism. They centered on questions concerning the origins of oppression and the agents of revolutionary change, sometimes claiming a theoretic opposition between “workers’” interests and women’s interests. Some feminists turned against Marxism because they mistakenly identified Marx with the Soviet Union’s state-capitalism, the dominant Left tendency in the 20th century. Some concluded that because no workers’ revolution had freed women, there was no use working for one; they failed to see that past revolutions had not freed men either.

“Radical feminism” developed theories of oppression and change based on patriarchy, a system of male domination said to explain the persistence and breadth of sexism. In my view, most theories of patriarchy suffer from the “genetic fallacy” (a philosophic term) in holding that the origins of a form of oppression determine the role that oppression plays in current society. No one disputes that patriarchal culture existed before capitalism, but that does not mean it plays the same role in reproducing modern society that it did in ancient ones. By making patriarchy the systemic basis for modern society, the radical feminists concluded that women need to fight against patriarchy instead of capitalism. When they declared “the personal is political,” they were eschewing much existing Left discourse around politics and economics. Unfortunately, most failed to investigate the Marxist-Humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, who hailed the expression “the personal is political,” not as a rejection of things political, but as a broadening of its definition. In fact, she saw the slogan as a virtual re-statement of Marx’s warning that a socialist society cannot be based on any opposition between the individual and the society. He wrote as early as 1844, in his “humanist” essays, that in the post-capitalist society “the individual is the social entity;” a concept he later elaborated that remained the core of his vision of a new society based on individual freedom.

The women’s liberation movement had conceptualized and concretized ideas about human freedom that very much accord with Marx’s philosophy. Yet the assumption persisted in most feminist theory that there is an inherent opposition between feminism and Marxism. This led to the creation of “dual systems” theories, in which “economic” oppression was attributed to capitalism while the additional oppressions of women—from sexual harassment in the workplace to unpaid labor and degradation at home–were attributed to patriarchy. For many theorists, these constituted distinct systems—a system being a self-contained method of operation. If capitalism and patriarchy developed independently and are independent systems now, then they need be overthrown separately. Even socialist feminists who claimed they were not creating dual systems, ended up combining some concepts from Marxism with a separate system of patriarchal relations.

The relationship between the two systems was left external, as if they could co-exist without interpenetration. This leaves Marxist-feminists in a difficult position:what do we fight for, not just against, and will “victory” within one system really change women’s lives?This is why the concept ofsystem is important. If we fight only the outward manifestations of oppression without changing the system’s inner workings, then we cannot make deep or permanent changes—a lesson we have now learned from the rapidity with which the women’s movement’s victories, such as reproductive rights, have been taken away again.

The seminal work on “dual systems” is Heidi Hartmann’s “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” published along with other views in Women and Revolution in 1981. Hartmann comes to the same conclusion as the radical feminists:that because men receive benefits from sexist society, sexism must be fought in a separate sphere. By focusing on men’s relative advantages, she misses the fact that capital is the real beneficiary of sexism; a post-capitalist world is the only realm in which to work out freedom for everyone. As Dunayevskaya discusses Marx, it is his standpoint of a future socialist society that enables him to expose the unfree essence of this one and to see what must be changed.

With “dual systems” theory ensconced—some paying lip service to “Marxism” by taking up just one idea of his, or merely including “class” in a litany of oppressions—most theorists focused their analyses on women’s lives as separate spheres. For some feminists, the shortcomings of Engels’Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State became an excuse to substitute pseudo-Marxist alternatives for examining his philosophy, or to label him an economic reductionist and disregard him altogether. “Dual systems” theory discouraged serious study of Marx by separating the mode of production and “class struggle” from women’s development. Within another decade, the women’s movement had largely lost interest in both Marxism and revolution. The triumph of “dual systems” was so complete that women’s economic and personal concerns are now widely held to be separate matters, and Marxism is virtually unknown.

I would argue that capitalism is not just one aspect of the world today. It is a system that has filled and shaped every nook and cranny; little of even a personal or cultural nature survives today that is not influenced by capitalism’s attempts to mold all aspects of life into its service. Capitalism is a system whose method and object is self-expanding value; value self-expands by the system pumping labor out of workers; its tendency is to increase the relative magnitude of means of production in relation to workers, leading to the continuous lowering of “socially necessary labor time” (SNLT ) by means of technological change. SNLT is the very essence of the capitalist mode of production, the method by which it expands value. SNLT controls production relations, workplace conditions, women’s labor, and whatever else one calls the miserable way people work today, alienated from our own mental and physical capacities. Capital is not concerned with what use values it produces; it is driven to seek the highest rate of profit possible as it expands value. Today, a huge amount of value is produced by women in sweatshops around the world. Moreover, even women who do not work for wages, such as peasants, have their lives and labor shaped by the domination of the value-oriented world system. This is the case both in the workplace and outside it.

Some ancient relations of oppression serve capitalism well, so those relations, including sexism, have been remodeled and incorporated into modern life. For example, sexism and racism help the capitalists to pit workers against each other, to “divide and conquer” so they can pay low wages to everyone, only relatively higher ones to white men. Doing away with the capitalism’s mode of production for value would change the nature of work to an entirely new, human basis. This would lay the material basis for women, men and children to work out new relations and to construct an entirely new kind of society.

The fact that capitalism is the system within which sexism is perpetuated today does not, of course, mean that there is an economic solution to sexism. On the contrary, a revolution in the mode of production is necessary, but not sufficient, to lay the basis for socialism and women’s liberation. A huge, thinking Women’s Movement is essential to the process of transformation, before, during and after the transcendence of capitalism. Only such movements can work out what freedom will look like for women. Today, I believe our main task is to develop theory which can help give direction to such movements.

If we need a new philosophic ground to create a new direction for the women’s movement, we should begin with a reexamination of “dual systems” theory and of Marx’s own writings. I believe feminist theorists ruled Marx’s philosophy inadequate to ground feminism due to gross misconceptions about his work (whether they intended to mislead or not, and some of them surely knew better).

Marx’s concept of an alternative to capitalism is based not only on overthrowing capitalism, but on a second negation (to use the Hegelian concept, as he did). The second negation he termed “positive humanism beginning from itself.” In other words, instead of defining ourselves by what we are against any longer, we will first begin to develop our full capabilities. The forms of private property that characterize capitalism and “vulgar communism” are historical, transitory, subject to the transformative activity of live human beings, who can make a revolution in the mode of production and re-make all other relations as well.

Today many feminists and Leftists have given up on revolution. They put all their energy into exposing the horrors of this society and supporting campaigns for reforms. Those who have given up on revolution may cling to “dual systems” or patriarchal theories, because they do not think that total societal change of the kind envisioned by Marx is possible. But such theories allow one to believe that we can achieve women’s liberation within capitalism—it’s not possible. I urge striking out on another theoretic road. Marxist-Humanists have as a major perspective theorizing alternatives to capitalism. I invite feminists to participate in this project, and thereby to begin to work out the idea of women’s liberation in reality.


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