On Red Feminism: class, gender and historical materialism

The following article was published in the December 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.

by Alfredo Campos

“…if nature had not wanted women and slaves, it would have given looms the ability to spin by themselves.” (Plato) [1]


This paper aims at providing new, and recovering forgotten, insights into Marxism, as a theoretical and analytical tool for understanding gender inequalities, themselves understood as a limitation on Human Rights.

Marxism was preponderant for its capacity and ambition to provide a theory for the “social totality”. During the twentieth century, however, and particularly after the downfall of the Soviet Union, Marxism has lost much of its public and academic relevance, mainly for its supposed economicism, class centrality and determinism, accused of deconsideration for the role of other social phenomena, namely patriarchy, race, culture, ideology and language.

Other theories on gender inequalities arose, namely post-modern, post-structural and material feminism(s). Although weakened in academia and political action, Marxist feminists have continuously studied other theories weaknesses, while both recovering the classics and formulating new insights into Marxist theory and proposing new approaches on its centrality for the study of gender inequalities.

It is therefore this paper’s goal to analyse gender inequalities, showing Marxism’s potential and uniqueness, both as a theoretical tool and a basis for political action towards women emancipation.

Key-Words: Gender, class, historical materialism, human rights.

  1. Introduction

In this paper we intend to explore,  the inefficiencies it might yet have, a theory on gender inequalities, based on Marxism. It is considered that Marxism, as a theoretical approach to gender, provides the connections here deemed necessary to analyse such inequalities, inserting them both in the material[2], historical and ideological backgrounds[3].

Gender inequalities are  not a new subject  of study, therefore this paper seeks is to contribute to a theorization that, firstly, provides explanations for these inequalities, and secondly, doesn’t follow the erroneous simplicity of disconnecting these from the social system. This means a theory that is well anchored  in history and materialism, and that tries to overcome classical omissions in order to analyse inequalities in present times, but does not forfeit the basis that make it a truly emancipatory theory.

To attain these goals, this paper revisits classical writings of Marxist theorists, in order to pinpoint their actual theorizations on gender inequalities. It will be pointed out, that the aspects of these theories that have been deconsidered, misinterpreted or simply overrun, on recent feminist theorization (Brown, 2014; Gimenez, 1998, 2000), be it by ingenuity, ignorance or,  quite straightforwardly on purpose (Ebert, 1995a, 1995b, 2014). It shall be noted that what has been misunderstood as class and economical determinism, wereas these authors integration of gender issues is in their theory of the total social question.

Delving beyond the classical authors on gender inequalities, there is also no doubt that these were not their main concern, which will be quite explicit in the debates in Leninist thought. As such, an approach to classical feminist Marxist authors is essential – namely, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, precisely for their focus on gender, family, marriage and sex.

Even though this rereading of classical Marxist authors may seem cumbersome, it is considered necessary for three reasons, particularly regarding Marxist feminists: first, it shall disperse common notions of determinism and reductionism; second, there are no works which concisely organize and present Marxist theorization on these issues, scattered among many works,  here we have tried to present them as a whole: third and finally, it is necessary in order to open the paths and clearly establish the basis on which the theorization of Red Feminism shall ensue.

The paper continues with a (necessarily) brief overview of the “first waves” of feminist theorization (Gimenez, 1998, 2000; Stanford, 2004),  continuing with post- materialist or post-modernist theories (Ebert, 1995a, 1995b; Gimenez, 1998, 2000). More recently,  materialist[4] theories have brought new discussions. It will be seen how these either drive towards a notion of materialism with no trace of it deprived of historical and social contextualization, or on the contrary are not actually different from recent Marxist theories (Ebert, 1995a, 1995b, 2014; Gimenez, 1998, 2000).The paper  will examine how, analyses can contribute to Marxist feminism. These theories are in many cases based on misconceptions of Marxist theory (Brown, 2014; Gimenez, 1998, 2000). Furthermore, they fall in contradictions that ensnare their emancipatory potential (Ebert, 1995a, 1995b; Gimenez, 1998, 2000)

Finally, the paper shall try to tie the knots, towards a red feminism (Ebert, 1995a, 2014). Basically meaning Marxist feminism, but definitely one which shows its political and emancipatory aspirations and engagement, without losing ,even strengthening,  its theoretical consistency, through the combination of historical materialism, class and ideology. On which regards Human Rights, then, there is a double linkage when gender inequalities are considered from a Marxist feminist perspective on one hand, regarding gender inequalities as such, on the other regarding work inequalities and gendered work.

Revisiting the classics: Marx, Engels and Lenin on gender inequalities and the contributions of Zetkin and Kollontai

As said by Neves (1973), women are doubly stricken by oppression and inequality, since they suffer the oppression and inequality of the majority of the population – working classes, excluded from the property of the means of production and living through the sale of their work effort,  as well the segregation within that same  population. And in fact, in his Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1848, beyond that6 (1994 [1848]: 17),   here already resides a first insight into how some theories erroneously analyse Marx, concluding  with his class determinism and Marx shows us a woman is “doubly proletarian”, and “doubly slave”[5] (17), whose emancipation requires the emancipation of the proletariat as a whole, but may persist[6] as deconsideration of gender and patriarchy[7] (Brown, 2014). This means that, although Marxism inserts the gender issue on the global social system, considering that women’s emancipation requires workers’ emancipation as a whole, not in any way does this mean that gender inequalities end with the proletariat exploitation, but may go further.

Furthermore, Marx and Engels were quite explicit in their consideration of women, regarding them as historical subjects by themselves, both in their individuality, difference and capacity for change (1974a [1846]; 1974b [1848]). On his theory of value, Marx also made a precise distinction between the production/reproduction of value as surplus and value of use, considering that if in capitalism both men and women participated in the economy and generated surplus value, in the family it was mainly the women who carried the work of producing values of use. As such, they are, doubly proletarian, both in the field of social production and  domestic economy (1997 [1867]). Furthermore, it is precisely this production of values of use that defines the domestic economy in an invisible work which contrasts with the visible social work, but complements it: on one hand, the domestic work of women allows further time for social work and creation of surplus value by men, on the other women themselves also participate in social work, but even more discriminated against, with lower wages (Larguia & Dumoulin, 1975).

Bebel, a contemporary of Marx, also believed men and women workers had in common  exploitation by  capitalism, changeable in time and space, but ever-present. But he also added that, through time, enforced through education, culture and law, a social representation of inferiority was imposed, going forth for generations until it became internalized by both men and women. And considering that all forms of inequality derive from some kind of dependence by the oppressed in relation to the oppressor, Bebel stated that the main difference between men and women workers was that “the woman is the first human being stricken by slavery. She was a slave before slavery”[8] (1973 [1895]: 35-36). Although lacking the materialism and historicism that characterizes Marxism, here too the role of gender inequality and patriarchy and its continuance was regarded.

Another contemporary author, Jules Guesdes, is also very explicit on his understanding of male domination. As he states, women are men’s proletariat, domestically exploited based on gender, just as the whole proletariat is exploited by the bourgeoisie  under capitalism. Social relations at the household are, then, no more than an extension of the social relations of production, such as “that the woman shall be to the man in the same dependence that the male worker is, regarding the capitalist?”[9] ((1973 [1898]: 38).

Lafargue (1973 [1904]) stated that with technological development and increasing industrialization, women were further integrated both in factories and liberal professions, guaranteeing capitalism a low-wage labour. Lafargue concludes that capitalism and the bourgeoisie kept the woman at home when it benefited them, and brought her to the public space when it benefited them as well, not for her emancipation but “to exploit her even more than male workers”[10]. Furthermore, and acknowledging domination and ideology’s roles, he stated that “the woman exploited by capital both carries the miseries of the proletariat and also the burden of the chains of the past”.[11]

The above authors already show quite well how Marxism did not deconsider women’s role, gender inequalities and male dominance. But it is Engels that has written one of  the most preeminent works on these issues, in his book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (2002 [1884]). In his analysis of the historical development of the family Engels places men’s domination  in the consolidation of the monogamist family, purpose being to give birth to children whose paternity cannot be contested, in order to guarantee heirs to the family property: as such, the transition from grouped families, to sindiasmic (allowing polygamy for the man) families and to monogamy is strongly linked to the beginning of accumulation of surplus production and private property. Engels argues that the previous forms of family, based on common property, gave place to monogamy with the rise of private property. Therefore, as he states,

The first division of labour is between man and woman for (pro)creation of their children. Today I may add: the first class antagonism in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamy; and the first class oppression, with the oppression of the female sex by the male[12]  (2002 [1884]: 83).

How, then, can post-structuralist and post-modernist feminism argue  to disregard of Marxism’s gender inequalities and patriarchy? Furthermore, Engels states that, together with slavery and private property, monogamy started the era which has lasted until now[13], where the well-being and development of some is attained at the expense of others suffering and exploitation. As such,

when the monogamist family faithfully reflects its historical origin and clearly manifests the conflict between man and woman, originating the exclusive domination role of the first, we have a miniature portrait of the contradictions and antagonisms throughout which society moves[14], split in classes[15] (idem, 74).

It is worthwhile noting that is it precisely this kind of consideration that has led other feminist theories and movements, to the accusation of class-determinism. Still, even when the connection of family to society is centred on class as the main historical subject of transformation, there is no doubt about these author’s insights into gender inequalities, in truth conceiving their perpetuation through male domination and culture, apart from class inequalities.

Concerning this matter, Engels comments on the economical basis of monogamy, and the connections of monogamy, patriarchy and (social and biological) reproduction, noting how in the proletarian family this economical basis gradually vanishes, therefore ending the material mean of men’s domination, of propriety over his wife and oppression relations, since depriving of their [economic] basis the remaining of men’s supremacy on the household (idem, 91).

Engels also notes on the possible continuation of “brutality against women, very dominant since the establishment of monogamy[16] (idem, ibidem). Yet, the author considers that the economic basis of monogamy shall gradually fall in capitalism, at least for the working class, as its exclusion from property no longer requires the production of heirs of exclusive paternity. Thus, the domestic economy can, through the socialization of the means of production in the socialist revolution, convert to social industry, socializing women’s economical functions in the family, as child-bearing, caring, feeding, the production of values of use, etc. (idem, 94-97).

It is what Shishkin (1973 [wd]) considers to have been built in the Soviet Union, with total integration of women in social production, and the progressive socialization of domestic economies, with the construction of schools, hospitals, caring centres, kindergartens, etc. Still, he also noted, as Lenin had, that

there is a need for educational work around matters concerning the integration of women’s productive strength, not only among the feminine masses, but also among men, on whose conscience (with frequency even in communists) remain not few bourgeois concepts of women as domestic slaves (idem, 117).[17]

Shishkin thus considers fundamental the educational role of society, as the change in the mode of production does not, immediately or by itself, change the role of ideology on gender exploitation and oppression, which may persist beyond the end of domestic economies and the material basis of male dominance. Furthermore, Larguia and Domoulin also demonstrate that, for decades, the Soviet women, just as the women in capitalism, worked for two periods of time, the visible social work and the invisible domestic work, subjected to masculine domination (1975).

Lenin presents his analysis on the development of socialism in the Soviet Union, in a series of writings (1973a [wd], 1973b [1919a], 1973c [1919b], 1973d [1920] which show, on one hand, how the socialization of domestic economies and of the production of values of use freed women from economic exploitation in the family, but on the other hand that male dominance and gender oppression still continued. As such, he considered that

women are still home slaves, albeit freeing laws, as she keeps oppressed, humiliated by petty domestic activity, which convert her into cook and housemaid, which waste her activity in an absurdly unproductive[18] work, nerve racking and tiring. True womens emancipation and real communism cannot begin while mass struggle against this domestic economy, while its mass transformation to a large social economy has not begun (160)[19].

For Lenin, this was the material basis of women oppression, which shall be solved, then, through class struggle against capitalism, and with socialization of domestic needs in socialism. Yet, he recognized that in the first years of the Soviet Union,

(A)lthough with equal rights, women’s oppressive situation continued, domestic activities rest on her. These are, in most cases, the most unproductive[20], most barbaric and most arduous that women practice. This is petty work, which contains nothing to can contribute to women progress. (170)[21].

Furthermore, Lenin considered that “equality in law does not necessarily correspond to equality in life” (184)[22], therefore urging the presence of women in the new soviet enterprises and State, without which equality in life could not be achieved.

It is quite evident that, for these authors, gender inequality was unavoidably connected with the social system, arising from historical processes of property and social relations of production. For them, the transformation of the whole system and its economic basis, would also lead to the downfall of domestic economies and division of labour, with their socialization. Yet, if most acknowledged the perpetuation of gender dominance and oppression even with the lack of its economic basis ,therefore considering aspects as culture and ideology,  they did not theorize it in depth (Brown, 2014).

This is better addressed with the contribution made by the first Marxist feminists, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, and their discussions with Lenin, whose perspectives changed somewhat before and after the Soviet Revolution.

In a discussion with Lenin, it is quite obvious his deconsideration of Zetkin’s work was directed explicitly at gender, family and sexuality, considering that everything ought to be put under the goal of the revolution’s success, and only as such considered these matters (Nye, 1988; Zetkin, 1920). Thus, he considered women’s issues gradually solved with the socialization of domestic economies, despite his previous considerations on dominance and oppression. On the contrary, Zetkin replied that

The questions of sex and marriage, in a bourgeois society of private property, involves many problems, conflicts and much suffering for women of all social classes and ranks (…) Old ties are entangling and breaking, these are the tendencies towards new ideological relationships between men and women. The interest shown in these questions is an expression of the need for enlightment and reorientation. (Zetkin, 1920: 4).

An argument which Lenin cast aside without doubt, when stating that in such a perspective “the great social question appears as an adjunct, a part, of sexual problems. The main thing becomes a subsidiary matter” (idem, 4).

On long consideration of family, gender relations and sexuality[23], Lenin notes that “women’s movement must itself be a mass movement, of all the exploited and oppressed, all the victims of capitalism or other mastery” (8), thus on one hand making women’s emancipation a dependent part of the whole, one the other recognizing its specifity. Furthermore, concerning trans-classism, he referred

(N)ot only the proletarian women (…). The poor peasant women, the petty bourgeois – they, too, are the prey (…) That we hate, yes, hate everything, and will abolish everything which tortures and oppresses the woman worker, the housewife, the peasant woman, the wife of the petty trader, yes, and in many cases the women of the ownership  classes (9)

Therefore, it can be seen in Lenin an unsolved theoretical contradiction between the insertion of the women’s issue in the global social question, and the regards for its specificity and, furthermore, to its possible trans-classism[24]. Even if he regarded the socialization of domestic functions as the main form of women emancipation, he also stated that

Unfortunately it is still true to say of many of our comrades, scratch a communist and find a philistine”. Of course, you must scratch their sensitive spot, their mentality towards woman. (…) So few men, even among the proletariat realize how much effort and trouble they could save women, even quite do away with, if they were to lend a hand in “women’s work”. But not, that is contrary to the “rights and dignity of man. (…) our political work, embraces a great deal of educational work among men. We must root out the old master” idea to its last and smallest root[25] (11).

Still, even though he acknowledged the permanence of forms of dominance and oppression which surpassed the material mode of production, based on culture and ideology, he gave no solution for these, apart from the socialization of domestic economies – which he himself considered insufficient.

Alexandra Kollontai (1909) went further in the theorization of gender inequalities, but still firmly anchoring on Marxist historical materialism. Yet, even though she considered that the women issue could only be totally solved together along with the “total social question”, she did consider that

(B)ut must this prevent us from working for reforms which would serve to satisfy the most urgent interests of the proletariat? On the contrary (…) each right that women win brings her nearer the defined goal of full emancipation. (idem: 1).

She did consider, on the other hand, that there was an irrevocable split between bourgeois and proletarian women, considering the feminists of her time as the feminists of the bourgeoisie, solely able to regard the gain of rights through reforms (whose importance, as noted, Kollontai also acknowledged), while ignoring the necessity of the transformation of the whole social system:

As feminists see men as their main enemy, for men have unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves (…) Proletarian women have a different attitude. (…) The women and her male comrades are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism (idem: 3).

It may be considered, then, that she was one of the first to draw a line between Marxist feminism and other feminisms[26], considering the first as a revolutionary, therefore emancipatory regarding the whole social question, yet also capable of understanding specific matters of gender. This can be noted specially on her considerations on marriage and family, noting how

to become really free, women have to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of family. (…) For women, the solution of the family question is no less important than the achievement of political equality and economic independence (idem: 6-7).

Furthermore, she gave the first theoretical insights unto the role of ideology and culture on Marxist analysis of gender inequalities (Nye, 1988), stating that “where the official and legal servitude of women ends, the force we call “public opinion” begins[27] (Kollontai, 1909: 7). And regarding this aspect, albeit her considerations of non-Marxist feminism, by her named bourgeois feminism, she did consider, regarding trans- classism, that

it is only important for us to note that the modern family structure, to a lesser or greater extent, oppresses women of all classes. (…) Have we not discovered the last aspect of the women question over which women of all classes can unite? Can they not struggle jointly against the conditions oppressing them? (…) Might it not be that on the basis of common desires and aims? (idem: 7).

She did, still, consider that the utmost sacrifice and struggle shall be undergone by proletarian women, as victims of greater exploitation, both by gender and class. Rregarding the notion of property in the family, one may find an excellent description of gender dominance, based on culture and ideology, as Kollontai notes if

the moral and sexual norms and the whole psychology of mankind would have to undergo a through evolution, is the contemporary person psychologically able to cope with “free love”? What about the jealously that eats into even the best human souls? And that deeply- rooted sense of property that demand the possession not only of the body but also of the soul of another[28]? And the inability to have the proper respect for the individuality of another? The habit of either subordinating oneself to the loved one, or of subordinating the loved one to oneself? (idem: 10)

As such, Kollontai considered that both new men and women were necessary for true emancipation, both in society as a whole and the family is, not solely attainable through social transformation of the economic system, but also with the transformation of ideology and the creation of new gender relations (Nye, 1988). Engels had already considered that a new society would still inherit old models of gender relations. Kollontai’s theorization goes further, grounded both on historical materialism, class relations, the total social system, gender relations and ideology, all of which required transformation, for the attainment of full emancipation, both of body and soul (Ebert, 2014).

It is expected that with this reading of classic Marxist authors on gender, and particularly feminist Marxists, it is possible not only to dispel any misconceptions on their so-called economic determinism and class bias (Brown, 2014; Ebert, 1995a, 1995b, 2014; Gimenez, 1998, 2000), but also to establish the theoretical basis on which a Red Feminism can be built. As such, it is considered that:

  1. Gender inequalities are objectively built upon material factors, namely the mode of production and its social relations of production;
  2. The historical development of at least western[29] societies, has led to male property of the domestic economy, in it being reflected, as gender relations, the same class relations of the global social system;
  3. Further, even if the previous condition can transform historically and through political action, a subjective field of oppression and domination exists, based on ideology and culture, which may also be transformable, with or without combinations with the previous factors;
  4. Absolute emancipation requires not only emancipation on the material and objective areas, but also in subjective matters;

Yet, there is no doubt that much must be considered regarding the connections of these factors. Indeed, the authors – with the exception of Zetkin and Kollontai – present a total theory for emancipation, explaining inequalities through their material basis and the social relations of production that not only emanate from them but also acknowledge the  perpetuation of gender inequalities through culture[30].

This is certainly a combination of factors, even though the authors (excepting the cited) did not much explore them and their relations, but are actually scattered through their works. (Brown, 2014).

  1. A brief overview of theoretical perspectives on gender inequalities: from feminism to feminisms – production, Materialism, patriarchy, ideology and language

After the classical Marxist and Marxist feminist analysis of gender inequalities, further theoretical development ensued, usually named socialist, liberal, radical and Marxist. , inequality was studied based on the connections between materiality together with the notion of patriarchy, namely with the development of the dual-systems theory (capitalism and patriarchy) (Gimenez, 2000; Stanford, 2004). Yet, even if descriptively useful, patriarchy is a concept not fit for a Marxist analysis, as it was used in such a way that situates women’s oppression outside history (Gimenez, 2000). Masculine authoritarianism, as conceptualized by Larguia and Dumoulin (1975), seems a better notion, being historically and materially grounded.

More recently, post-modern and post-structuralist theories, critical of what are  considered generalizations, reductionism and determinism, have arisen. (Stanford, 2004). These conceptions have been analysed, with the rereading of the classic authors, and thus can be considered, in themselves, a form of reductionist anti-reductionism (Brown, 2014; Ebert, 1995a, wd). Other contemporary authors, in different ways, have tried or have been trying to reread Marx in renewed forms, as to make it less determinist and reductionist. These theories “can be grouped loosely with a tendency called materialist feminism that incorporates some of the methods of deconstructionism and post- structuralism” (Stanford, 2004: 8).

One of the central problems addressed by these theories is then naturally, materialism, essentially seeking forms of reconceptualising it in different ways than classical materialist analysis. That is, disconnecting materialism, materiality, matter, from its historical, economic, physical and social basis. So will then be analysed how these theories, through this disconnection, loose its emancipatory potential (Ebert, 1995a, 1995b; 2014; Gimenez, 1998, 2000). Still, contrary to Gimenez and even more Ebert – who actually names all post-modern and post-structural theorizations as “ludic feminisms” (1995: 1),  it is considered that certain aspects, especially regarding ideology and power, can be an important contribution to Marxist feminism, as they address precisely what has previously been considered the main aspects not studied in depth in classical theorization.

Gimenez (1998, 2000) and Ebert (1995, wd) developed a deep analysis of materialist feminism, in opposition with Marxist feminism, considering that the first either falls into an immaterial theorization, discarding the traces of historical materialism, or ends not distinguishing itself from Marxist feminism. She considers the difficulty of defining materialist feminism, as its own theorists differ in its theorization and conceptualization, furthering the difficulty of distinguishing and separating it from Marxist feminism (which is Gimenez goal). For example, Jennifer Wicke, a materialist feminist author, defines it as

a feminism that insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangements, including those of gender hierarchy, develop (…) materialist feminism avoids seeing this (gender hierarchy) as the effect of a singular patriarchy and instead gauges the web of social and psychic relations that make up a material historical moment; (…) materialist feminism argues that material conditions of all sorts play a vital role in the social production of gender and assays the different ways in which women collaborate and participate in the productions (…) Materialist feminism is less likely than social constructionism to be embarrassed by the occasional material importance of sex differences. (in Gimenez, 2000: 3)

As Gimenez points out,  although while Wicke often refers to materialism, itself and other concepts remain abstract pronouncements. Landry and MacLean, in turn, define materialist feminism as a

critical investigation, or reading in the strong sense, of the artifacts of culture and social history, including literary and artistic texts, archival documents, and works of theory (…) a potential site of political critique, not through the constant reiteration of home-truths (idem, 4)

Yet, then, what is materialism and history in this definition? It would seem that the novelty is the acknowledgement of culture, but was not culture and language already part of classical Marxist theorization? Marx himself stated that “language is practical consciousness (…) for consciousness is always and from the very first a social product” (idem, ibidem). The authors go further, giving their own distinction between materialist and Marxist feminisms, considering that

Marxist feminism holds class contradictions and class analysis central, and has tried various ways of working an analysis of gender oppression around this central contradiction. In addition to class contradictions and contradictions within gender ideology (…) we are arguing that materialist feminism should recognize as material other contradictions as well” (idem, 5)

Here, then, a definition of what is to be considered as material, or materialism, is clear.. Basically, everything – a transformation of Marxism such as that materiality can be granted to anything, from ideology to discourse and knowledge. One might argue yet, that if materiality is in everything, than ultimately it is nothing, devoid of explanatory potential in the sense of emancipation. As such, devoid of historical analysis, it may be said of this materialism what Marx and Engels said of Feuerbach’s: as far as it is material it does not deal with history and as far as it considers history it is not materialist (Marx & Engels: 1974 [1932]). It is this process of reconceptualising materiality that Ebert claims to be the basis of all she encompasses as “ludic feminisms” (Ebert, 1995, wd).

Hennessy and Ingraham, on another hand, state that “discourse and knowledge have materiality in their effects” (in Ebert, 1995: 7), although they link these to capitalism, patriarchy and the social totality, in a sort of historical materialism with new variables, claiming of Marxist analysis categories proper of post-modernism and post- structuralism, while trying to avoid their contingency and localism. Also, inserting into Marxist feminism categories proper of post-modern and post-structural feminisms, they  argue, as it is here that Marxism has been “misread, distorted, or buried under the weight of flourishing postmodern cultural politics”, considering that “unlike cultural feminists, materialist, socialist and Marxist feminists do not see culture as the whole of social life but rather as only one area of feminist struggle” (idem, 8). For these authors, then, there would not be that much difference between materialist and Marxist feminism, considering that their goal was “to reinsert into Material Feminism (…) that (untimely) Marxist feminist knowledge that the drift to cultural politics in postmodern feminism has supressed” (idem, 9).

To Gimenez (1998, 2000), they are in fact different, on one hand on the relevance given to cultural aspects such as ideology and discourse but, more importantly, because they establish no hierarchy of causality. As such, first, by considering everything as material and, second for acknowledging no causalities between factors of oppression, such a theory cannot be emancipatory: if “all institutions or elements of the social system mutually interact and affect each other, and none is “more” causally efficacious than others” (2000: 6).then where does the struggle for emancipation start, and which paths shall it follow? Butler[31], which many, as Ebert, considered one of the most preeminent feminist theorists, does indeed declare “the “unrealizability of emancipation” because poststructuralism has shown its foundations to be “contradictory and untenable” (Ebert, 1995: 7; wd: 2).

For Gimenez and Ebert  two main forms of theorizing material feminism can be found. One which nearly or completely discards the Marxist notion of matter and materiality, another which keeps it, but it is as such not actually different from Marxist feminism. The first is, to Gimenez not much different from the first post-modern and post-structural feminisms, with its focus on language, discourse, the body and “the resisting matter of the non-discursive”, but with new clothing which disguises it as materialist. Concerning the second, the author states that

a theoretical transformation would have entailed a challenge to Marxism’s fundamental assumptions, rather than the use of those very assumptions to theorize new phenomena (…) introducing in the analysis of the oppression of women the causal (…), is to remain faithful [to] its basic tenets, not to transform it (Gimenez, 1998: 11).

On the contrary, the first draws upon notions of materiality which deprive it from any emancipatory potential. Based, for instance,  Laclau, considering that “social  relations, like all “signifying systems”, are “ultimately arbitrary”, these reduce social, power and inequality to discourse, the discursive and the non-discursive, to subjectivity, with no notion of materialism which can provide them with a basis of struggle, since “if social relations are not exploitative (determined), they no longer require emancipation” (Ebert, 1995: 3). By centreing on discourse and language, discarding their material basis, or considering that anything can become matter through the subject’s signification, they forget what Engels had already remarked to Duhring: “the fact that we understand reality through language does not mean that reality is made by language[32]” (idem, 5).

It is here considered that, if the subjective – discourse, ideology, culture – must be understood historically and in its connections with material totalities, it follows that these subjective matters may carry and affect materiality, but that they arise, and have effects, from and on grounded historical and material factors, which are not local nor contingent but on the contrary, linked to material conditions of production and reproduction. And it is as such that masculine authoritarianism – different from the ahistorical notion of patriarchy – must be conceived (Larguia & Dumoulin, 1975).

  1. On Red Feminism: re-casting Marxist analysis of gender inequalities

It is now, then, time to map out what is to be considered Red Feminism, one that keeps Marxism and historical materialism as its basis, albeit not discarding the basic ideas brought up by post-modern and post-structural analysis, but recognizing historicity, structures and their material basis.

Ebert (1995, wd) defines Red Marxism, in what may be considered both a theoretical and political conceptualization, considering that Red Feminism contests all forms of institutionalized feminism: from cultural feminism (…) to postmodern feminisms with their bourgeois reifications (…) [it] challenges the  effectivity of the new localist, “transnational” feminisms and calls for a renewed internationalism (…) to fight global capitalism. It insists on the priority of production and class struggle in the emancipation of women (…) Red Feminism thus moves away from individualistic desires and the limits of identity politics toward the collective struggle of international socialism. (wd: 1)

Ebert’s theorization is straightforward in its rejection of most considerations of post- modern and post-structuralist feminisms which, again, she globally names as “ludic feminisms” (1995, wd), going further to consider that they are “of course, themself a historical effect of transnational capital and its knowledge industry” (wd: 1). Yet, it is here considered that, albeit the fact that the material conditions of production and reproduction are the first basis of inequality, it is acknowledged that ideology, discourse and culture are factors to be considered, both at the collective and individual levels.

That means, according to Gimenez (1998, 2000), seeking the historical conditions which socially and economically give rise to inequalities among men, women and both, more or less directly. It is here added that also the subjective factors that emerge from these and in their turn can also have effects on materiality: yet not independent, local, a- historical or contingent, but founded on matter. Therefore, again returning to Gimenez, using historical materialism to identify class processes and how they place both men  and women in similar social and economic situations, but also experiencing different opportunities, forms of domination and oppression.

Feminism cannot, therefore, fall into idealism, discarding the essential for the formal, making the last the issue and the former the secondary (Ebert, wd). To do so, will mean forfeiting its emancipatory potential, for women in the first place, but for men as well, if this feminism is to embrace the total social question. That means dropping this “ludic” contemporary feminism, [which] under the influence of post-modernism has developed a number of theories and practices that are represented as progressive. (…) this kind of feminism cuts off the relation of a coherent theory as an explanatory critique to guide its practices (…), such feminism becomes an ally of capitalism. (5)

If a Red Feminism is meant to be able to theoretically analyse gender exploitation and oppression, while at the same time combining it with the social totality, then both gender and social relations must be connected to the materiality of production and reproduction, both of the material and of the subjective. This, in turn, necessarily requires a conceptualization of power as basis of inequality and domination which arises from this materiality of production, even if it may become both a form of subjective and objective power. Not a notion of power as Foucault considers it, not something which “must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization”: self-constituting thus aleatory, immanent thus contingent, local and diffuse thus heterogeneous, a-systematic thus unstable power (Ebert, 1995: 22). In such a conceptualization, power creates its own resistance, making the struggle for organization and emancipation as needless as unnecessary, as power is separated from its material basis and limited to the superstructure.

As Foucault puts it, “power is everywhere (…) comes from everywhere”, but as Hartsock notes, if “power is everywhere [it is] ultimately nowhere”, therefore being everything and nothing (Ebert, 1995: 29). These notions, forfeiting the basis of production and reproduction and the material social relations from which power, ideology and discourse arise and when conceding materiality to everything, do not consider, as Marx and Engels maintain, that they

are only fighting against “phrases”. They forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world (Marx & Engels apud Ebert, 1995: 36).

On the contrary, power and domination must be understood through their material basis, the historically developed social relations established, and the materiality and the subjective which arises from them.

As such,  Red Feminism acknowledges the historical ground on which materiality is based, regarding the social relations of production and reproduction. Other social relations of oppression and domination, such as masculine authoritarianism, are connected with those and from them arise, being part of the superstructure, thus subjective, but can produce effects on materiality, as such rearranging it. It is this materiality to subjective to materiality that Red Feminism must analyse, for a conceptualization of the struggle for emancipation, both of gender and the social totality.

  1. Concluding Remarks

Red Feminism is then based on historical materialism, sustaining that what is material is that which is historically related to the economic relations of production and reproduction, and from which other social relations and phenomena, such as culture, ideology and discourse arise, in turn having effect on the former. Not only, then, does individual subjectivity – even if turned into materiality – not exist independently, but it is from the mode of production and reproduction that it arises.

As such, in order to erase gender inequalities – including social and domestic work and masculine authoritarianism – themselves part of the total social question, this must be solved, with the transformation of the mode of production and the socialization of all means of production and reproduction. As noted, namely with the works of Kollontai and Zetkin, and notes from other authors, this does not mean that subjectivity – ideology, culture – is of no importance. It is a question of regarding such issues through the lenses of historical materialism, therefore observing them in their connections and hierarchical causalities, even if they can be object of separate struggles, their relations cannot be begotten.

Gimenez considers that, given the theoretical confusion regarding material feminism, it is time for Marxist feminists to “separate themselves from material feminism and assert the legitimacy and political urgency of their approach” (2000: 15). For her, the fact that materialist feminism has gained so much relevance, cannot be disconnected from the fact that

there is an “elective affinity” between its dominant theoretical assumptions (…), the dominant ideologies in the advanced capitalist countries, and the life styles and world views of the middle and upper-middle class professionals and students who have eagerly embraced postmodernism and poststructuralism” (2000: 15) and that “self-identified Marxist feminists are likely to face a difficult time, politically and professionally; they would be perceived as “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” Marxists (17).

The moment for Red Feminism may still be yet to come.

Alfredo Campos is a Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (Portugal), where he develops a Marxist approach to human rights and to labour rights in particular. Alfredo Campos is also the Subregional Coordinator at Statistics Portugal on the Agriculture Census.

Bibliographical References

Bebel, August (1973 [1895]), “A História da mulher é a história da sua opressão” in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

BrownHeather  (2014),  “Marx  on  Gender  and  the  Family:  a  Summary”, Monthly Review Vol. 66, N 2.

Ebert, Teresa (1995a), “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism”, in idem, Zavarzadesh, Mas’ud & Morton, Donald, Post-Ality, Marxism and Postmodernism. Maisonneuve Press.

Ebert, Teresa (1995b), Towards a Red Feminism. Solidarity. Available at http://solidaruty-us.org/node/2309

Ebert, Teresa (2014), Alexandra Kollontai and Red Love. Solidarity. Available at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/1724

Engels, Friedrich (2002 [1884]), A Origem da Família, da Propriedade Privada e do Estado. Lisbon: Edições Avante.

Gimenez, Martha (1998), “Marxist/Material Feminism” in idem, Marxist feminism / Material Feminism. Available at http://cddc.vt.edu/feminism/mar.htm

Gimenez, Martha (2000), “What’s Material about Materialist Feminism? A Marxist Feminist Critique”, Radical Philosophy, 101.

Available at http://www.colorado.edu/Sociology/gimenez/work/rphil.htm

Guesdes, Jules (1973 [1898]), “A Mulher deve poder viver trabalhando” in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Kollontai, Alexandra (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question. Available at http://marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social.basis.htm

Lafargue, Paul (1973 [1904]), “A Questão da Mulher” in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Larguia, Isabel & Dumoulin, John (1975), Para uma ciência da libertação da mulher. Lisboa: Prelo Editora.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1973a [wd], “A Emancipação da Mulher”, in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich  (1973b [1919a]), “O Movimento Operário Feminino”, in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich(1973c [1919b]), “O Poder Soviético e a Situação da Mulher”, in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1973d [1920]), “A Igualdade da Mulher”, in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Marx, Karl (1994 [1844]), Manuscritos Económico-Filosóficos de 1844. Lisbon: Edições Avante.

Marx, Karl (1997 [1867]), O Capital – Tomo III. Lisboa: Edições Avante.

Marx, Karl e Engels, Friedrich (1974a [1846]), A Ideologia Alemã. Lisbon: Editorial Presença.

Marx, Karl e Engels, Friedrich (1974b [1848]), Manifesto do Partido Comunista.

Coimbra: Edições Centelha.

Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Nye, Andrea (1988), “Uma Comunidade de Homens: O Marxismo e as Mulheres” in idem, Teoria Feminista e as filosofias do Homem. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Rio de Janeiro: Rosa dos Tempos.

Shishkin, Aleksandr Fedorovich (1973 [wd]), “O Amor, o Casamento e a Família” in Neves, Helena (1973), O Problema feminino e a Questão Social. Viseu: Tipografia Guerra.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004), Feminist perspectives on Class and Work. Available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-class

Zetkin, Clara (1920), “Lenin on the Women’s Question” in idem, From my memorandum book. Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1920/lenin/zetkin1.htm

[1] Author’s translation of the citation on “O Problema Feminino e a Questão Social” (1973: 9).

[2] As shall be seen, the concept of “material”, “materiality” and “matter” has evolved, between Marxist, materialist and post-modern feminists. In this paper, the use of italics shall regard the Marxist conception, considering material solely that is objective and related to the physical domain.

[3] We do not here intend to produce a full approach to all forms of gender inequalities, but to theorize a contemporary Marxist approach. Thus, several aspects will necessarily not be regarded.

[4] See footnote number 2

[5] Translation by the author.

[6] Italics by the author.

[7] It is important to note that neither Marx, Engels, Lenin, Zetkin nor Kollontai, ever used the notion of patriarchy, simply referring to male domination. Patriarchy is a notion which will be developed in the dual-systems theory – as analysed in the next section – although here considered improper, masculine authoritarianism being considered a better concept.


[8] Idem.

[9] Translation and Italics by the author

[10] Idem.

[11] Idem.

[12] Translation and italics by the author.

[13] By “now”, it is obviously relating to Engels time.

[14] Italics by the author.

[15] Translation by the author.

[16] Translation and italics by the author.

[17] Idem.

[18] Italics by the author. This notion of unproductive work, just as in the following quotation, discards Marx’s differentiation of forms of production and kinds of value.

[19] Translation by the author, italics as in the original

[20] Italics by the author. Please read footnote 18.

[21] Translation by the author.

[22] Idem.

[23] Please refer to Zetkin (1920: 5-7).

[24] Although most works by Lenin and other Marxist authors, irrevocably end considering the class issue above gender, meaning that the problems faced by bourgeois women are smaller than those by proletarian women, whose exploitation shall face a double form, of class and gender. Such can be read in most works cited in this paper.

[25] Italics by the author.

[26] A differentiation which shall be continued by Ebert (1995, wd) and Gimenez (1998, 2000), as shall be seen in the following sections of this paper.

[27] Italics by the author.

[28] The “property of the soul”, besides the body, even if a concept not much theorized, is central in Kollontai’s work. The “property of the body” concerned the legal,if existent property and right of dominance through marriage. Kollontai thus considered that, even if destroyed the property of the body which arose from the legal boundaries of marriage, not only could the “property of the soul” resist, but lead to the perpetuation of the “property of the body”.

[29] It is important to recall Marx’s words, when he stated that “in my analysis of the origin of capitalist production (…) I expressly limited the “historical inevitability” of this process to the countries of Western Europe” in Marx, Karl (1970 [wd]), “First Draft of the Reply to V. I. Zasulich’s Letter” in idem & Engels, Friedrich, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

[30] Italics by the author

[31] For a full discussion on post-modern and post-structural materialism, and its developments, regarding many authors, and a Marxist rebuttal, please read Ebert (1995).

[32] Italics by the author.

All articles published in the International Review of Contemporary Law reflect only the position of their author and not the position of the journal, nor of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.