Sunday, November 2, 2008

Socialist feminism vs. Marxist feminism

I'm in the process of writing statements of purpose for graduate school applications, and in so doing, found it necessary to reference the book Feminist Thought (sort of a primer on different spheres of feminist thought, by Rosemarie Tong), for some help in trying to define my own academic interests. I came across this interesting chapter on "Marxist and Socialist Feminism." It's interesting, because I'd probably loosely identify myself as either one of these types of feminists on any given day if asked to define my feminism in a couple words, but I still learned a lot about the history and context of the discourses I'd never really heard about before, in just this 20-page chapter.

Here's Tong in the intro:

"Although it is possible to distinguish between Marxist and socialist feminist thought, it is quite difficult to do so. Over the years I have become convinced that the differences between these two schools of thought are more a matter of emphasis than of subatance. Marxist feminists tend to pay their respects directly to Marx, Engels, and other nineteenth-century thinkers; they also tend to identify classism rather than sexism as the ultimate cause of women's oppression. In contrast, socialist feminists seem more influenced by twentieth-century thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Jurgen Habermas. Moreover, they insist the fundamental cause of women's oppression is neither "classism" nor "sexism" but an intricate interplay between capitalism and patriarchy. In the final analysis, however, the differences between Marxist and socialist feminists are not nearly as important as their common conviction. Marxist and socilist feminists alike believe women's oppression is not the result of individuals' intentional actions but is th eproduct of the political, social, and ecnomic structures within which individuals live."

While I've never heard the differences between socialist and Marxist feminists described in quite these terms, I've always sensed there must be some assumed or implied differences between calling one's self a Marxist feminist and calling one's self a socialist feminist (like there's a difference I can't wholly articulate between being a Marxist and a socialist). And since I was uninterested in learning about what must be trivial differences, I've tried to avoid taking sides by calling myself a more neutral, "leftist feminist."

And yet, though I don't really know what the difference is, Tong's characterization of it as a difference between being nineteenth century and thinking "classism" is the root of women's oppression and being twentieth century seems a little misguided to me. For one thing, I don't think even Marxists necessarily think "classism" or even more accurately, class , is the root of all human oppression, so I especially doubt Marxist feminists think so. That sort of essentialist thinking seems to be more an accusation made against Marxists than anything I've ever heard or read a Marxist say.

The distinction between primary interest in nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers is more plausible to me, and yet, I have a hard time thinking feminists can really easily distinguish between which ones they're more interested in, since the twentieth century thinkers are obviously the disciples of the nineteenth century thinkers and any academic today would have a hard time justifying neglect of the century of development of socialist thought since Marx and Engels were writing.

Instead, I think it may be more accurate to say socialist feminists are interested in the basics of Marx's conception of capitalism and justice, but think that theory is more relevant when examined in the lights twentieth century thinkers bring (cultural theory, for example). On the contrary, Marxists feminists may share Marx's interests. I'm thinking, for example, interests in Hegelian discourses and the more metaphysical arguments Marx made.

For my part, I probably lean more toward socialist feminism if those are the criteria, and have very little interest in much of what Marx wrote, with the exception of the way he outlines history and capital (which, granted, is a very large chunk of his writing).

Well, in fact, let me take that back. I do think Marx's more metaphysical arguments are incredibly interesting in an academic sense, and make for especially interesting literary analyses, but in a political-activist sense, I can't really say I think they're incredibly important. Hmm...Now I've just suggested I think academics are somehow not completely politically relevant, or that academic interests and political interests should be separated, and that's not exactly an idea I support...See why I might be having trouble with this statement of purpose?


ln said...

You go, girl! Write that statement of purpose! Sounds like one of those round-robin clusterfucks when you're working on it, but there's no doubt in my mind it will emerge as an impressive, thoughtful, "fund-this-woman!" piece.

t said...

Alot of interesting stuff here. Its interesting that Althusser basically argued that Marxists should scrap any vestige of Hegel. I'm not sure I agree, but Althusser thought that the Hegelian roots of Marx's early thought later rebuked in Marx's so-called 'epsitemological break', in which he entirely abjures philosophy as such (i.e. "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it).

I may pick that book up. Nice, clear introductions and overviews are like gold!

t said...

Let us not forget, though, that a lot of academics *are* politically irrelevant. Worse, many are complicit in current state of things.

Forging ahead in a progressive direction in any 'profession' (even the life of the mind) will mean brushing against the grain. I've seen it done, but it isn't necessarily easy.

Here's a nice dialectical platitude: Thought cannot be severed from practice, lest it becomes nothing but empty abstractions. But in precisely the same way, practice/action without thinking runs the risk of barbarism.

Anonymous said...

From what I've read and experienced, I'd agree with Tong's basic premise. At least, that was the way socialist feminism and marxist feminism were differentiated when I was in Intro to Women's Studies - marxist feminists think sexism was caused by class society, whereas socialist feminism argues that patriarchy and capitalism are intersecting systems of oppression. That's the highly simplified version, of course.

However, I've met people who call themselves both Marxist and socialist feminists who do actually believe that sexism was caused by "class society", and is reducible to capitalism, which was part of what set off the rant at my blog. So, I do think it's important to differentiate between the "intersecting systems" view and the "sexism is caused by class society" view.

Arvilla said...

Thanks for letting me know about how different your experiences with self-proclaimed Marxists have been than mine. I absolutely take your point that there are such essentialist "class" thinkers out there. I guess I'll be grateful that I've been able to mostly avoid the vulgar Marxists (as T would call them :) ).

Nate said...

This is a good post. I don't know a lot about either marxist or socialist feminisms, I'd like to know more. From what I've read, I think of marxist feminism as being concerned with explanations whereas as socialist feminism is concerned with projects and organizations. That means the two are independent of each other. I also think that there's not any agreement among marxists about the status of gender and patriarchy, there's not one marxist view on that.

In case you're interested and haven't seen these, this is most of the marxist feminist stuff that I've read, and I think it's intriguing - the book Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici (argues with Marx about the importance of witch hunting and unwaged labor - "women's work" - in capitalism), the pamphlet The Power Of Women And Subversion Of Community by Mariarosa Dallacosta (argues that housework is productive for capitalists and so should be paid), and the article "To Earn Her Daily Bread" by Jeanne Boydston (shows the economic value of housework in 18th/19th century US).

take care,

Unknown said...

Ⅰam Heaven.
Ⅰwrite borrowing Mtisuki's hands.
Now we gods of heaven are implementing project to establish socialist earth government.
We gods of heaven downed 'Capital' to Marx.
We made H.P. of project of Heaven and gods.
In this H.P. we explain what we down to Marx.
This is H.P. of gods of heaven.

Unknown said...

does anyone know what page this is from, I would like to quote it, thank you!