Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek's Die Liebhaberinnen

By Haines, Brigid | The Modern Language Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek's Die Liebhaberinnen


Haines, Brigid, The Modern Language Review


Despite their common roots in enlightenment discourses of liberation, Marxism and feminism have always regarded each other with a degree of friendly exasperation. The central problem of Marxism from a feminist point of view is its failure to theorize adequately either subjectivity or gender. In addition, though Marxism explains the workings of capitalism with great conviction and, when pushed, can comment on women's place within capitalism (this is broadly what Marxist-feminists have attempted to do) (1) it has not thrown significant light on the origins of the oppression of women endemic to most known societies. (2) Indeed, it has often been convenient for Marxists to overlook the oppression of women since that oppression serves the interests of men (Hartmann, p. 5). From a Marxist point of view on the other hand, feminism has often been perceived to incline towards ahistoricism and essentialism in its claims to speak for and about women as a group. Feminism has arguably never theorized patriarchy as convincingly as Marx theorized capitalism (3) and, as a consequence, has lacked a coherent political programme.

Marxism and feminism seemed to find common ground in the seminal statement by Simone de Beauvoir that 'one is not born a woman, one becomes one', which laid the basis for the sex/gender distinction, and provided a meeting-point for Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis on the all-important question of subjectivity. (4) Generations of students on gender studies courses felt the penny drop when they heard it argued that while biology is immutable (we are born male or female), the acquisition of gender identity depends on a complex mix of psycho-sexual, historical, political, and cultural factors mediated through the family and through Althusser's other Ideological State Apparatuses. (5) Thus the materialism of Marxism was harnessed for feminism in a model that also included insights drawn from psychoanalysis, and a theory of (gendered) subjectivity could be added to a Marxist analysis of society (though as Terry Lovell and others were quick to point out, Althusser's theory left little room for resistance and agency). (6)

Since those days of lively debate in the 1970s and early 1980s Marxist-feminism has, as a movement, to some extent run out of steam, with theorists such as Hartmann and Barrett arguing for an alliance between the projects rather than a merger, (7) but that Marxism and feminism still need each other, many take to be self-evident: a revolutionary theory that does not seek to end the oppression of women is clearly deficient, while feminism continues to find Marxist theories of historical change, value, and ideology, to name some of the more obvious ones, of enormous relevance to its own concerns, not least in the field of literary studies.

Recently, of course, both Marxism and feminism have been challenged as master discourses by post-structuralism, post-colonialism, and post-Marxism. Western feminists, for example, have been made conscious of the imperialism inherent in the gesture of attempting to speak for women, (8) and a question mark has been placed against some Marxist categories such as the social totality. (9) Even the seemingly obvious sex/gender distinction so dear to feminists has been deconstructed by Judith Butler and others and shown to be an historically produced binary division that serves as a regulatory fiction to perpetuate heterosexuality. (10) It has been argued that clinging to the sex/gender distinction has prevented feminists from historicizing sex. (11) However, some important work has come out of precisely the encounter between post-structuralism and Marxist-feminist debates, such as in the work of Gayatri Spivak, Seyla Benhabib, Drucilla Cornell, Rosemary Hennessey and in Michele Barrett's recent post-Marxist account of ideology, The Politics of Truth, which moves beyond Althusser's 'scientific' and epistemological definition of ideology to a more Foucauldian view of ideology as discourse.

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Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek's Die Liebhaberinnen
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