Left Feminism and the Return to Class

By Naiman, Joanne | Monthly Review, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Left Feminism and the Return to Class


Naiman, Joanne, Monthly Review


Most contemporary feminist theory has owed at least some of its substantive content to the works of Marx and Engels. And yet a closer examination of the "marriage" of Marxism and feminism - to use Heidi Hartmann's now well-known phrase - indicates a troubled relationship.(1) The various attempts to integrate these two theoretical frameworks have not yet led to either a fully elaborated social analysis of gender inequality or a clear set of proposals for eliminating it. Indeed, much of what shall be referred to in this paper as "left feminism" has increasingly lost its way. This trend can be linked, at least in part, to what Ellen Mieksins Wood has described as a "retreat from class."(2)

The Retreat from Class

Left feminist thought has commonly presented Marxism as a theory of oppression. In explaining the roots of socialist feminism, Hansen and Philipson write: The women who first began to write from the point of view of both Marxism and feminism found their intellectual roots in Marxist categories of thought ... For them, Marxism systematically explained people's oppression, provided a "scientific" understanding of historical change, and offered a vision of a truly just society....(3)

This approach to Marx had already become popular in what is generally referred to as the "new left," particularly with regard to studies of the Third World. By centering on oppression, the focus was on the victims of social inequality and their personal experience of it. Given the focus of radical feminism on the personal lives of women, there was an easy conjuncture between that perspective and theories of the new left. However, while the roots of both were ostensibly Marxist, the "oppression theorists" quickly came to criticize what they felt was the economic determinism of traditional Marxism, and its limited view of the working class as the most revolutionary force in history. These theorists focused on oppressed groups distinct from the working class as central to social transformation. This includes peasants, racial and ethnic minorities, students, and, for radical and left feminists, women.

The argument that women constitute a revolutionary category, either alone or in conjunction with other social groupings, has formed the undercurrent of much left feminist theory, particularly socialist feminism. Socialist feminism developed out of earlier radical feminist theory that saw women's oppression as both the first and most overarching oppression in modern societies. Socialist feminism acknowledged the importance of class inequality, but always by adding it on to, or seeing it as an adjunct to, gender inequality. While Hartmann claimed that, in the "marriage" of Marxism and feminism, "the two had become one and that one is Marxism," in reality exactly the opposite occurred.(4) "A View of Socialist Feminism," an early manifesto of this theoretical framework, clearly articulates this position: (1) Sexism has a life of its own. It has existed throughout human history, under every economic system. (2) Capitalism determines the particular forms of sexism in capitalist society. The subjugation of women contributes to capitalist domination of society.(5)

Most left feminists today would likely repudiate the ahistoricity of the above position. However, while left feminism generally includes some Marxist terminology and an anti-capitalist sentiment, it has leaned toward an analysis that, like radical feminism, generally sees all men as the ultimate perpetrators and beneficiaries of gender inequality. This position was evident in early socialist feminist works. For example, Dorothy Smith has stated that:

what begins to emerge is a built-in complicity within Marxist thinking and within the working class itself with the institutions by which the ruling class dominates society. It is an alliance across class and among men against women.... It is a division which in fact aligns men in this respect on the other side of the class struggle, that is, on the side of the ruling class.

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