Marxist feminism: A question of class

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Can Marxism shape feminism? And if so, what kind of Marxism and what kind of feminism? A 500-strong conference in Berlin provided some answers but left some questions open, writes Sheila McGregor

Along with the rise of the “new feminism” has come a resurgence of interest in Marxist feminism and materialist approaches to the question of women’s oppression. The publication of new books, such as the collection of essays Marxism and Feminism (ed Shahrzad Mojab), and the re-publication of old ones by socialist and Marxist feminists like Lise Vogel and Michele Barrett are signs of this.

These ideas have been debated in the realm of academic Marxism for the past few years, for example at the Historical Materialism conference. This March a three-day event entitled “Trajectories of Marxism-Feminism” sought to build on the trend. Around 500 women (and some men) packed into the main hall of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin to discuss the potential for “feminising Marxism” or injecting Marxism into feminism. A further 300 people were turned away for lack of space.

It was organised by a network of academic Marxist feminists in Germany, the US, Canada and the UK at the initiative of Frigga Haug from Germany. The main speakers included academic Marxist feminists from the 1970s generation, such as Martha Gimenez, Lise Vogel and Hester Eisenstein from the US, Cynthia Cockburn and Helen Colley from the UK, Katja Kipping from Germany and Shahrzad Mojab from Toronto, with theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak giving one of the keynote lectures.

The explicit intention of this network of older Marxist feminists is to bring class back into the debate about women’s oppression. Sensing that the phase of identity politics is beginning to pass as the international neoliberal offensive exposes the divide among women over imperialism, war, racism and the impact of cuts and privatisation; this network feels emboldened to reach out to a new generation and reassert the power of Marxist analysis.

And rightly so, as the audience was packed with much younger women from across Europe and North America, with a sprinkling of women from India, Turkey, Iran and Latin America. The range of topics was vast, though mainly theoretical. However, there were a number of workshops which talked about building struggles in the here and now over health, education and among childcare workers and users.

Celebrating International Women’s Day was the theme of one workshop, discussing how recent impressive demonstrations in Berlin had been organised — 5,000 marched in 2014 and 8,000 in 2015 over sexism, internationalism, pay, jobs and education. Friedericke Benda explained that this success started from patient discussion seeking to establish common ground and ultimately bringing together 80 different groups, including Kurdish women and trade unionists in a broad Fighting Women’s Coalition.

She emphasised that the feminist movement needs to be linked to a left wing project and a real social opposition movement with a political critique of capitalism, whether reformist or revolutionary. This pointed to the potential within a Marxist feminist gathering to reconnect to the best in the socialist tradition.

The likes of Clara Zetkin in Germany and Alexandra Kollontai in Russia organised women workers as part of the struggle for socialist change as well as making the women’s question central to the struggle for the emancipation of the whole working class. But there was far too little reference to that tradition at this conference. This raises the danger of repeating mistakes of the past. One such is to conclude that the continuation of the family after the defeat of the Russian Revolution proved that Marxism was an inadequate tool for combating women’s oppression.

The belief of a whole generation of activists that countries like China, Cuba and Russia from Stalin onwards were socialist fed the belief that women’s oppression must be rooted in a system of patriarchy separate from capitalist society, which women had to fight separately from men. Some participants were rightly critical of the failure to make war and imperialism a central theme of the conference.

The session on Syriza’s victory was a lost opportunity to debate how best to resist austerity and the way in which working class women as workers and users of services are currently bearing the brunt of cut backs. The conference ended with a call for unity and to meet again in 2016. This gives time to develop ideas outlined by Martha Gimenez of going beyond the descriptive approach of intersectionality, which sees racism, class and sexism as overlapping oppressions, to understanding the way in which class profoundly shapes all oppression and the lives of working class men as well as women.

Further, any changes for women necessarily entail changes for and by working class men, hence the need to link the “feminist struggle” to the question of class struggle. Marx saw the potential for working class women as well as men to bring about liberation. A developing “Marxist feminism” will be nothing if it does not root itself in contemporary struggles and social movements for change.