Heidi Hartmann’s article “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and
Feminism” caught my attention. I questioned what kind of relationship
between Marxism and feminism, how these two thoughts agree with each other
and where their conflicts are located. I was not convinced by what
I had learned before, including both Rosemarie Tong’s and Hartmann’s analysis.
As I studied Marx and his thoughts, I found that I could not stop exploring
it further. Although I have much difficulty in understanding what
he said and spending a lot of time to get the meaning, even sometimes I
failed to grasp it, I felt power through his words. Being a woman
and feeling from reading Marxism, I believe that it will become a type
of ferment for me to go on a feminist journey in the future. Since
I have not read Marx’ works a lot at this stage, my understanding Marxism
on feminism will be primarily based on Raya Dunayevskaya’s writings, which
include a profound analysis of Marx’s thoughts on gender issues.
Spending more than 40 years studying Marx’s works, Dunayevskaya
devoted herself to rescuing Marx’s Marxism from the theoretical and organizational
systems attributed to him and to reclaiming his ideas from what has been
distorted, or taken only as a part rather than the whole. As a continuously
active woman revolutionary, she exhibited “fierce intellectual and political
independence” (Dunayevskaya, 1991). Dunayevskaya believes that when
thinking and action are not the same, they must continually readdress and
renew each other.
Being a Russian Jewish girl, growing up in an age of revolution, Dunayevskaya
became committed to human freedom. As she studied Marx’s theory,
she believed that philosophy was connected to the making of history: the
envisioning of the day after the revolution and the creation of a new society.
At the same time, her political activities—first among black activists,
then with the West Virginia miners’ strike of 1949-50, into the Women’s
Liberation Movement of the past two decades—set her on a lifelong path
of both participating in and reflecting on mass movements.
Reading Dunayevskaya’s writings, my own passions are tapped and
make me want to explore her work. Rich states:
Hers is not the prose of a disembodied intellectual. She argues;
she challenges; she argues on; she expostulates; her essays have the spontaneity
of an extemporaneous speech … you can hear her thinking aloud. She
has a prevailing sense of ideas as flesh and blood, of the individual thinking,
limited by her or his individuality yet carrying on a conversation in the
world. The thought of the philosopher is a product of what she or
he has lived through (Dunayevskaya, 1991, p. xiii).
In this paper, I will investigate two of Dunayevskaya’s important
concepts—the “new Humanism” and “Woman as Reason and Revolutionary Force”
to help me understand Marxism on gender issues. Through Dunayevskaya’s
interpretation and analysis, I will try to understand how Marx looks at
gender issues and how feminists look at Marxism. Furthermore, I will
make some comments about Marxism in theory and in practice.
The New Humanism: From 1844 Manuscripts to the Ethnological Notebooks
Marx is concerned with humanism in his 1844 Manuscripts.
He places human beings at the center of his thinking. For Marx, human
beings live in a given society and class and yet are able to liberate themselves,
to better know their potentialities. He looks at human beings as
creative beings, who shape the outside world and express specific human
powers. Marx himself held such a concept of human being, who was
productive, non-alienated and, independent. As he said, “nothing
human is alien to me” (Fromm, p. 82). As a humanist, nothing was
more attractive to him than human beings themselves. He presumes
that human beings are self-creative and are able to develop their own human
potentialities, dignity and brotherhood/sisterhood to emancipate themselves.
He states, “A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is
his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence
to himself” (p. 37). For Dunayevskaya, humanism means the self-emancipation
for human beings from the capitalist mode of production and all other forms
Marx’s concept of Man/Woman relationship as the fundamental appears
in Private Property and Communism: “The direct, natural, necessary relationship
of human being to human being is the relationship man to woman” (quoted
in Plaut & Anderson, 1999, p. 6). In Communist Manifesto, he
questions sexual relations, bourgeois monogamy and its double standard.
The patriarchal family along with private property needed total uprooting
in any new society. Marx looks at the family as an economic unit,
within which were traces of slavery and serfdom.
For Dunayevskaya, Marx’s concept of Man/Woman relationship in
his 1844 humanist essays is a break through to the conception of just how
total must be the uprooting of this exploitative society if we are ever
to achieve a new human one. He was a philosopher of a “whole new
continent of thought”. What Marx insists is “the collective labor
of men and women, under different historic conditions, ‘creates a new economic
foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relation between
the sexes’” (Dunayevskaya, 1996, p.197). Also, he pointed out that
situations “where both sexes work collectively could ‘become a source of
humane development’” (p. 198).
Marx was as concerned with humanism at the very end of his life
as in his early writings. In his Ethnological Notebooks, his humanism
manifested itself in his analysis of class struggle, of the values and
structures of pre-capitalist, non-European societies and the relationship
between the sexes in those societies. He was searching for how gender
has been structured in pre-capitalist tribal societies. Marx looks
at women as the oppressed over since pre-capitalist society. The
elements oppression in general of woman arose from within primitive communism.
It was not only related to the change from matriarchy but began with the
establishment of ranks—relationship of chief to mass and the economic interests
that accompanied it.
In the Ethnological Notebooks, he wants to see the possibility
of new human relations, not as they might come through a mere updating
of primitive communism’s equality of the sexes, but as they would burst
forth from a new type of revolution. Marx’s new Humanism never stops
continuing developing, as he keeps with his ears attuned to the voices
from below. In the Notebooks, Marx attacked discrimination against
women, such as women dealing with their own property has to get the consent
of their husbands. Here, he also focuses on the self-development
of humanity from primitive communism to the period in which he lived, through
revolutionary praxis. As a great empiricist and dialectician, Marx
envisioned a totally new man, a totally new woman, a totally new life form,
i.e. a totally new society.
For Marx, “revolution in permanence” would establish a new society
that would totally change human relationships. The Taiping Revolution
in China in the 1850s led to his probing of pre-capitalist forms of society
and seeing the Chinese Revolution as encouraging the West European proletariat.
The Grundrisse contained a chapter on pre-capitalist formations and the
projection of a totally new society wherein human being, in which Marx
wrote that it “does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but
is in the absolute movement of becoming.”
From his Notebooks, we can find that Marx stresses the greatness
of primitive society, but from there we could see the class struggle and
the disintegration of the old communal society. These generated the
famous statement in the Communist Manifesto—“The history of all hitherto
existing society is the history of class struggles”. It also showed
that there is more than one path to social revolution, that revolution
could come to backward Russia ahead of the technological advanced West
if it became the signal for revolution in the advanced countries.
It could be the successful “starting point for communist development”.
In terms of the Man/Woman relationship, Marx never addresses
what kind of relationship should exist between them. However, Marx’s
thoughts on gender issues show in some of his articles that support women.
During the 1850s, there were two events in particular in which women were
involved. The first was the 1853-54 strike Preston, England, where about
15,000 women workers were on strike against the despotic conditions of
labor. Marx wrote an article to support them. The second was
that his support Lady Bulwer-Lytton, a novelist, who tried to publicize
her political views, which were apparently different from her well-known
husband. She then was thrown into an insane asylum. Marx wrote
an article to support her and to attack sexism.
Marx’s writings about labor were never written as if only male
workers were involved. For instance, he wrote about a nine-year little
girl who fell on sleep on the factory floor after working 60 hours; she
was roused and cried, but was forced to resume work. He was very
active in the First International about gender issues during the time when
he wrote Capital. We can see it from three-fold. First, he
insists that the discussion in the First International General Council
should include the working class, male and female. Secondly, women
should be treated equally, because great social change is impossible without
the feminine ferment, which he saw in every revolution. Thirdly, he calls
attention to practicing equality where women are concerned.
In the next section, I will focus on how Dunayevskaya concept
of the “Women’s Liberation Movement as Reason and Revolutionary Force”
and how Marx’s thoughts are connected to practice.
The Women’s Liberation Movement: As Reason and Revolutionary Force
The Women’s Liberation Movement emerged from the Left in 1960s.
The women did not agree with the fact that, within the revolutionary organizations,
men kept writing the leaflets, yet women kept “cranking the mimeo machines”.
Their attack on the male chauvinism and sexism, as well as the elitism
and authoritarianism of the male Left means they are demanding freedom
now, not tomorrow. They also demand respect both as women and political
figures not to be monopolized by any one man. The man/woman question
changed from being a private matter to being a political matter, which
could be discussed and analyzed. For Dunayevskaya, the uniqueness
of today’s Women’s Liberation Movement is that it dares to challenge “the
male chauvinism not only under capitalism but within the revolutionary
movement itself” (p. 115).
Dunayevskaya, who grappled with Women’s Liberation internationally,
found that, no matter how different the group or the country, one organizational
question seemed to prevail. This was the question of whether a new
organizational form can be the answer to women’s never-ending oppression,
inequality and alienation, at work, in the home, and in the supposedly
neutral cultural field.
Dunayevskaya believes that although it is hard to overcome male
chauvinism since we are living in a class society, we can break through
the status quo. She states, “We can and will witness the development
of women themselves not only as force but as reason. We can and will
be a catalyst not only for our development as all-round human beings, but
also for that of men” (p. 28).
For Dunayevskaya, women are not only revolutionary force, such
as contributing courage, support, strength, but also as Reason—as initiators,
thinkers, strategists, and creators of the new. The issue of Women
as Reason and revolutionary force comes out in many ways. She praises
Rosa Luxemburg, as a thinker and revolutionary, a theorist and activist-participant,
who did not stop at oratory. With gun in hand, she made the proprietor-printer
print a workers’ leaflet. What a woman! She combined action,
thought and consciousness as a participant in the German Revolution 1919.
In 1929, Eastern Nigerian market women fought for being taxed by British
Empire with the consent of the African chiefs. The self-organization
of the women established a totally new form of struggle, which transcended
all tribal divisions. They were united, powerful, and violent.
Shots were fired into the crowd, and 40 women lay dead and many more injured.
Finally, the tax was revoked. In the United States, miners’ wives
in 1949-50 organized anti-automation strides in West Virginia. They
played an active role—taking the long fight, blocking the road, and going
door to door and surrounding communities.
For Dunayevskaya, Marx was the only philosopher of “total revolution”—the
revolution that will touch and transform all human relationships, that
is revolution in permanence. This permanence is not as a party-led
state that has found all the answers, but as a society all of whose people
participate in both government and production and in which the division
between manual and mental labor will be ended.
Marx himself practiced what he believed, both in the class struggle
and on the question of women as Reason and force. In doing so, in
the International Workingmen’s Association, he nominated Madame Law was
as member of its leadership, the general council. Also, he encouraged
Elizabeth Dmitrieva to go to Paris and there establish the women’s section
of the First International, which became central to the whole Committee
for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded in the Paris Commune of
1871. From Dunayevskaya’s viewpoint, there was no break in
Marx’s philosophy of liberation from the time the young Marx called his
philosophy a “new Humanism,” to the Marx of the Paris Commune. He
was so consistent and he generated his theory all the time to make it more
What I have learned from Marx’s thoughts are the fundamental
concepts—humanism, philosophy of revolution, and “revolution in permanence”,
which generated “new passions and new forces”.
For gender issues, my understanding from Marx and Dunayevskaya’s
interpretation is that Marx looks at women as equal to men. He does
not want to see women subordinated to men or oppressed by them. He
proclaims the abolition of family because, in the capitalist society, he
sees the husband as master and the wife as slaver, the husband as bourgeois
wife as the proletariat. He sent Dmitrieva to Paris before the outbreak
of the civil war because he valued women as reason and force before and
during the revolutions. He believed that working women should be
treated equally because “great social changes are impossible without the
feminine ferment” (p. 198).
For me, what Marx mainly focuses on is the public sphere instead of
the private sphere of women’s reproductive and sexual concerns, such as
contraception, sterilization, and abortion; pornography, prostitution,
sexual harassment, rape and woman battering. He does fight for shortening
working day to create space for women in the process of production.
Some Marxist feminists nowadays apply his thought to women’s specific concerns,
such as the socialization of domestic labor, the wages-for-housework and
comparable worth (Tong, 1998). They do not related to Marx’s central
thoughts—humanism and philosophy of revolution.
With regard to the move from theory to practice, I saw Marx’s thoughts
being applied at News and Letters—a Marxist/Humanist organization.
It demonstrates this effort in pursuing the abolition of mental and manual
labor. From my observation, I found that the female was not necessarily
the first one to do the housework. I saw one couple with a baby in
meetings several times. When the baby needed to be taken care of,
it was not always mother taking care of her. Instead, many times father
came first. This phenomenon was quite different from my own experience
elsewhere. Another fact is that whether in presentations or
discussions from the floor, female members make a significant contribution.
Also, taking minutes is not necessarily a woman’s job like other organizations.
Male members also take turn to do it. I believe that organization
can become different once Marx’s thoughts are embedded on it.
Dunayevskaya, R. (1991). Rosa Luxemburg, women's liberation,
and Marx’s philosophy of revolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Dunayevskaya, R. (1996). Women’s liberation and the dialectics
of revolution: Reaching for the future. Detroit: Wayne State University
Fromm, E. (1991). Marx’s concept of man. New York:
Plaut, E. A., & Anderson, K. (Eds.) (1999). Marx on
suicide. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
Tong, R. P. (1998). Feminist thought: A more comprehensive
introduction. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.