Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Marxism, feminism, and accusations of "class reductionism"

I recently engaged in a friendly debate with someone who was arguing that Marxism is antithetical to the contemporary struggle for women’s rights because Marx was a “class reductionist” who ignored women’s oppression as something to be dealt with “after the revolution.”

I felt I would reproduce a snippet of my comments here:


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I just wanted to say a quick word as someone who identities as both a Marxist and a feminist.

In fact, Marx and Engels were well ahead of their time, viz., the stuggle for women’s emancipation. Even a terse reading of some of Marx’s collected works reveal him repeatedly inveighing against women’s oppression, both in society generally, and within the labor and socialist movements. Marx fought to have women included as full and equal members — including in leadership positions — in the various movements he engaged in as against many of his (bigoted) contemporaries.

He wrote that their could be no truly revolutionary movement without mass participation of women; indeed, he makes a point of saying that one can judge the level of development of any society by looking at the degree to which women have won their social emancipation in that society.

His collaborators, Frederick Engels and August Bebel, were among the first anti-capitalists to pen books specifically analyzing the history of women’s oppression. Along with Marx, they contend that a fundamental socio-economic revolution is impossible unless premised upon the complete liberation of the female half of the population (both from class exploitation and gender oppression).

Some of the first American feminists, including Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood), Helen Keller, and Lucy Parsons, were themselves members of the American Socialist Party, and they all cite the works of Marx & Engels as a central contributor to the development of their understanding of women’s oppression and liberation.

In sum, I think it’s wrong to say that Marxism is “class reductionist” or ignores the question of women’s rights as something to be dealt with “after the revolution.” Certainly there have been those who have historically claimed the label “Marxist” who have been guilty of such distortions. But then again, the terms “feminism”, “democracy”, and even “human rights” have also been historically subject to distortions by many of their supposed proponents. Just as we need to struggle against those who have tried to turn “feminism” into a dirty word, I personally think the same is true of “Marxism.”

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