Joan Acker's Feminist Historical-Materialist Theory of Class
Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review
Marxism and feminism are usually seen as divorced from each other today, following the breakup of what Heidi Hartmann famously called their "unhappy marriage."1 Yet, some theorists still show the influence of both. In my view, Joan Acker is both one of the leading analysts of gender and class associated with the second wave of feminism, and one of the great contributors to what has been called "feminist historical materialism." In the latter respect, I would place her next to such important proponents of feminist standpoint theory as Nancy Hartsock, Dorothy Smith, and Sandra Harding. These thinkers, as Fredric Jameson has rightly said, represent the "most authentic" heirs of Lukács's critical Marxist view articulating the proletarian standpoint - giving this dialectical insight added meaning by applying it to gender relations.2
It is noteworthy that Acker's important theoretical work Class Questions: Feminist Answers appeared in 2006, one year before the onset of the Great Financial Crisis.3 This of course was no mere accident. Acker was deeply concerned about the waning of class analysis, particularly amongst feminist theorists. At the same time she recognized that class was becoming more important than ever, not only because of growing inequality but also growing instability in the capitalist economy. Thus in the beginning of her book she referred to the "bursting of the economic bubble of the late 1990s," i.e., the 2000 stock market crash that brought an end to the New Economy bubble, as presaging a new era of class intensification and class struggle (1). Today in the wake of the bursting of the even bigger housing bubble, and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement with its slogan of the 99%, Acker's analysis can be viewed as prescient.
Class Questions: Feminist Answers provides a rich and insightful history of class analysis in the Marxian, Weberian, and feminist theory traditions, emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Acker's treatment of the long debate over capitalism and patriarchy is particularly useful. In her view the only meaningful approach to class is one that is understood to be gendered and racialized. In this sense, she prefers "verbal forms, such as gendering, or adjectival forms, such as racialized, that better capture the sense of process and diversity" as opposed to the omnipresent noun, which all too often "reifies processes and practices" (5). And while class must (as Marxists have always insisted) be seen as related to relations of production and paid labor, it must also, she argues, be seen as encompassing relations of distribution and unpaid labor too.
This is less of a departure from classical Marxian theory than one might suppose. Marx employed the concept of class more flexibly than we commonly do today - referring to women as a class, i.e., as "slaves," within the bourgeois family. "In private property of every type," he wrote in Capital, "the slavery of the members of the family at least is always implicit since they are made use of and exploited by the head of the family."4 Classical Marxist theory, as a great deal of scholarship in recent decades has shown, defined class primarily in terms of exploitation, i.e., how surplus product/surplus labor was appropriated from the direct producers. And just as classical Marxism applied this concept of class to pre-capitalist and pre-market relations, and hence to non-paid relationships, so the concept was always applicable to unpaid labor, which in Marxian terms is a relation of production. Slaves, as Marx (as opposed to Weber) insisted, constituted a class despite the fact that they were not wage workers and were regarded as property themselves.5
The uniqueness of Acker's work comes out in her critique of "unreconstructed 'class'" notions, particularly those that make race and gender invisible within the class conception (4-5). In exploring how class, race, and gender are "mutually constituted" she not only criticizes Marxian and Weberian conceptions, but also questions popular ferninist and sociological treatments of class, race, and gender in terms of intersectionalities. …