Marxism and Feminism

Sculpture José Resende / Hakone Open Air Museum/ Japan


Lecture given at Stanford University in March 1974

I will take the liberty here to begin and end with somewhat personal considerations. At the outset, I just want to say that this was the only invitation to speak that I accepted during the entire academic year. The reason is very simple. I believe that the women's liberation movement is perhaps the most important and potentially most radical political movement we have, even if awareness of this fact has not yet penetrated the movement as a whole.

Explanation of terms:

Reality Principle
• the sum total of the norms and values ​​that govern behavior in an established society, embodied in its institutions, relationships, etc.

Performance Principle
• a Reality Principle based on efficiency and vigor in fulfilling competitive economic and purchasing functions.

Eros, in contrast to Sexuality
• sexuality: partial drive, libidinal energy confined and concentrated in the erogenous zones of the body, mainly genital sexuality.

• Eros: libidinal energy struggling with aggressive energy, seeking intensification, gratification and unification of life and life environment: the Life Instincts* versus the Death Instinct (Freud).

Reification, Verdinglichung
• the appearance of human beings and relationships between them as objects, things, and as relationships between objects, things.

Now, two preliminary remarks on the situation of the women's liberation movement as I see it. The movement originates and operates in the context of patriarchal civilization; it follows from this that it must be discussed initially in terms of the status of women in male-dominated civilization.

Second, the movement operates in the context of a class society – this is the first problem; women are not a class in the Marxian sense. The male-female relationship cuts across class divisions, but women's immediate needs and potentials are definitely largely class-conditioned. However, there are good reasons why “woman” should be discussed as a general category as opposed to “man”. Namely, the long historical process during which women's social, mental, and even physiological characteristics developed differently from, and in contrast to, those of men.

A word is in order here about whether “feminine” characteristics are socially conditioned or, in some way, “natural”, biological. My answer is: beyond the obviously physiological differences between male and female, female characteristics are socially conditioned. However, the long process of thousands of years of social conditioning means that they can become 'second nature' which is not automatically changed by the establishment of new social institutions. Even under socialism there can be discrimination against women.

In patriarchal civilization, women have been subjected to a specific type of repression, and their mental and physical development has been channeled in a specific direction. For these reasons, an independent women's liberation movement is not only justified, but also necessary. The very aims of this movement require, however, changes of such magnitude in material and intellectual culture that they can only be achieved by a transformation in the social system as a whole. By virtue of its own dynamics, the movement is linked to the political struggle for revolution, for the freedom of men e women. This is because beneath and beyond the masculine-feminine dichotomy is the human being, common to masculine and feminine: the human being whose liberation, whose realization is still at stake.

The movement operates on two levels: first, the struggle for full economic, social and cultural equality. Question: Is such economic, social and cultural equality achievable within the capitalist framework? I will come back to this question, but I want to propose a preliminary hypothesis: there are no economic reasons why such equality cannot be achieved within the capitalist structure, even if it is a vastly modified capitalism. But the potentialities and objectives of the women's liberation movement go much further, towards regions that can never be reached in a capitalist structure, nor in the structure of any class society. Its realization would require a second stage, in which the movement would transcend the framework in which it now operates. In this “beyond equality” stage, liberation implies the construction of a society governed by a different Reality Principle, a society in which the established dichotomy between male and female is overcome in social and individual relations between human beings.

Thus, in the movement itself is contained the image not only of new social institutions, but also of a change of consciousness, of a change in the instinctual needs of men and women, freed from the demands of domination and exploitation. And this is the most radical and subversive potential of the movement. It means not just a commitment to socialism (the full equality of women has always been a basic socialist demand), but a commitment to a specific form of socialism that has been called "feminist socialism". I will return to this concept later.

What is at stake in this transcendence is the denial of the exploitative and repressive values ​​of patriarchal civilization. What is at stake is the negation of the values ​​imposed and reproduced in society by male domination. And this radical subversion of values ​​can never be the mere by-product of new social institutions. It must have its roots in the men and women who build the new institutions.

What is the meaning of this subversion of values ​​in the transition to socialism? And secondly, this transition is, in some way, the release and ascension of characteristics specifically feminine on the social scale?

Starting with the first question, here are the values ​​that govern capitalist society: profitable productivity, assertiveness, efficiency, competitiveness; in other words, the Performance Principle, the domain of functional rationality that discriminates emotions, a dual morality, the “work ethic”, which means for the vast majority of the population the condemnation of alienated and inhuman work, and the will to power, the demonstration of strength and virility.

Now, according to Freud, this hierarchy of values ​​expresses a mental structure in which the primary aggressive energy tends to reduce and weaken the life instincts, that is, the erotic energy. According to Freud, the destructive tendency in society gains momentum as civilization requires intensified repression to maintain domination in the face of increasingly realistic possibilities for liberation, and intensified repression leads to the activation of a surplus [surplus] of aggression and its channeling into socially useful aggression. This total mobilization of aggression is all too familiar to us today: militarization, brutalization of the forces of law and order, fusion of sexuality and violence, direct attack on Life Instincts in their efforts to save the environment, attack on anti-pollution legislation, and so on.

These tendencies are rooted in the very infrastructure of advanced capitalism. The worsening of the economic crisis, the limits of imperialism, the reproduction of the established society through waste and destruction are increasingly being felt and require more intense and expanded controls to keep the population in line, controls and manipulations that penetrate to the depths from the mental structure to the realm of the instincts themselves. Now, as today the totalization of aggressiveness and repression permeates the whole of society, the image of socialism is modified in an essential point. Socialism as a society qualitatively different, must incorporate the antithesis, the determined denial of the aggressive and repressive needs and values ​​of capitalism as a male-dominated form of culture.

The objective conditions for such an antithesis and subversion of values ​​are maturing, and they make possible the rise – at least as a transitory phase in the reconstruction of society – of characteristics that were attributed, in the long history of patriarchal civilization, to the feminine, not the masculine. Formulated as the antithesis of dominant masculine qualities, such feminine qualities would be receptivity, sensitivity, non-violence, tenderness, and so on. These characteristics appear, in fact, as the opposite of domination and exploitation. On the primary psychological level, they would belong to the domain of Eros, they would express the energy of the Life Instincts, against the Death Instinct and the destructive energy. And here the question arises: why do these protective features of life appear as specifically female? Why didn't the same traits shape dominant male qualities as well? This process has a history of thousands of years, during which the defense of the established society and its hierarchy originally depended on physical strength and thus reduced the role of women, who were periodically incapacitated by giving birth and then having to care for of children. Male dominance, once established on these grounds, spread from the originally military sphere to other social and political institutions. The woman came to be considered inferior, weaker, basically as a support or helper for the man, as a sexual object, as an instrument of reproduction. And only as a worker did she have a form of equality, a repressive equality, with men. His body and mind were reified, they became objects. And just as her intellectual development was blocked, so too was her erotic development. Sexuality was objectified as a means to an end: procreation or prostitution.

A first countertrend became effective in the early modern period, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and, very significantly, in direct context with the great and radical heretical movements of the Cathars and Albigenses. In these centuries, the autonomy of love, the autonomy of women, was proclaimed, contrasting and counterbalancing male aggressiveness and brutality. Romantic love: I am acutely aware of the fact that these terms have become downright pejorative, especially within the movement. Still, I take them a little more seriously and take them in the historical context in which these developments must be taken. This was the first great subversion of the established hierarchy of values: the first great protest against the feudal hierarchy and the loyalties established within it, with their specifically pernicious repression of women.

This protest, this antithesis was, of course, largely ideological and confined to the nobility. It was not, however, wholly ideological. Prevailing social norms were subverted in the famous Courts of Love, established by Eleanor of Aquitaine, where the judgment was virtually always in favor of the lovers and against the husband, the right of love trumping the right of the feudal lord. And it is alleged that she was a woman who defended the last stronghold of the Albigenses against the murderous armies of the northern barons.

These progressive movements were ruthlessly suppressed. Feminism's fragile beginnings, in any case on a fragile class basis, were shattered. Nevertheless, the role of women gradually changed in the development of industrial society. Under the impact of technical progress, social reproduction depends less and less on physical strength and vigour, whether in war, in the material process of production or in commerce. The result was the increased exploitation of women as instruments of work. The weakening of the social basis of male dominance did not eliminate the perpetuation of male dominance by the new ruling class. The increasing participation of women in the industrial labor process, which undermined the material foundations of the male hierarchy, also broadened both the human base of exploitation and the surplus of exploitation of women as housewife, mother, maid, in addition to their work in the field. production process.

However, advanced capitalism gradually created the material conditions to translate the ideology of female characteristics into reality, the objective conditions to transform the weakness that was attached to them into a strength, to transform the sexual object into a subject, and to make feminism a force. politics in the fight against capitalism, against the Performance Principle. It is in view of these perspectives that Angela Davis speaks of the revolutionary function of the feminine as the antithesis of the Principle of Performance in an article written in December 1971 in Palo Alto jail, Women and Capitalism.

The main conditions that today emerge for such development are:

  • the mitigation of heavy physical work;
  • the reduction of working time;
  • the production of comfortable and cheap clothes;
  • the liberalization of sexual morality;
  • birth control methods;
  • general education.

These factors indicate the social basis for the antithesis to the Performance Principle, the emancipation of female energy, physical and intellectual, in established society. But at the same time, this emancipation is captured, manipulated and exploited by this society. For capitalism cannot allow the rise of libidinal qualities that would jeopardize the repressive work ethic of the Performance Principle and the constant reproduction of that work ethic by human individuals themselves. At this stage, therefore, these liberating tendencies, in their manipulated form, form part of the reproduction of the established system. They have become exchange values, which sell the system and are sold by the system. The exchange society is completed with the commercialization of sex: the female body not only as a commodity, but also a vital factor in the realization of surplus value. And working women continue, in ever-increasing numbers, to suffer double exploitation as workers and housewives. In this form, the reification of woman persists particularly effectively. How can this reification be dissolved? How can women's emancipation become a decisive force in the construction of socialism as a qualitatively different society?

Let us go back to the first stage of the development of this movement and take full equality for granted. As equals in the economics and politics of capitalism, women must share with men the competitive and aggressive characteristics needed to hold and advance a job. Thus, the Performance Principle and the alienation it implies would be maintained and reproduced by a larger number of individuals. To achieve equality, which is the absolute prerequisite of liberation, the movement must be aggressive. But equality is still not freedom. Only as an egalitarian economic and political subject can women claim a leading role in the radical reconstruction of society. But beyond equality, liberation subverts the established hierarchy of needs – a subversion of values ​​and norms that would give rise to a society governed by a new Reality Principle. And that, in my view, is the radical potential of feminist socialism.

Feminist socialism: I spoke of a necessary modification of the notion of socialism, because I believe that in Marxian socialism there are residues, elements of the continuation of the Performance Principle and its values. I see these elements, for example, in the emphasis on the ever more effective development of the productive forces, on the ever more productive exploitation of nature, on the separation of the “kingdom of freedom” from the world of work.

The potentialities of socialism today transcend this image. Socialism, as a qualitatively different way of life, would use the productive forces not only for the reduction of alienated labor and working time, but also for making life an end in itself, for the development of the senses and the intellect to to pacify aggressiveness, the enjoyment of being, the emancipation of the senses and the intellect in relation to the rationality of domination: creative receptivity versus repressive productivity.

In this context, women's liberation would indeed appear “as the antithesis of the Performance Principle”, as women's revolutionary role in the reconstruction of society. Far from encouraging submission and weakness, in this reconstruction the feminine characteristics would activate aggressive energy against domination and exploitation. They would operate as ultimate needs and ends in the socialist organization of production, in the social division of labor, in the establishment of priorities once scarcity has been overcome. And so, entering into the reconstruction of society as a whole, female characteristics would cease to be specifically female, insofar as they would be universalized in material and intellectual socialist culture. Primary aggressiveness would persist, as it would in any form of society, but it may well lose the specifically masculine quality of dominance and exploitation. Technical progress, the main vehicle of productive aggressiveness, would be freed from its capitalist features and channeled towards the destruction of capitalism's repulsive destructiveness.

I believe that there are good reasons for calling this image of socialist society feminist socialism: woman would have achieved full economic, political and cultural equality in the integral development of her faculties, and above and beyond this equality, both social and personal relations would be permeated by the receptive sensibility which, under masculine domination, was largely concentrated in the woman: the masculine-feminine antithesis would then have been transformed into a synthesis – the legendary idea of androgyny.

I will say a few words about this extreme of romantic (if you like) or speculative thought, which I don't believe is as extreme or as speculative.

No rational meaning can be attributed to the idea of ​​androgyny other than the fusion, in the individual, of the mental and somatic characteristics that in patriarchal civilization were unequally developed in men and women, a fusion in which female characteristics, nullifying male dominance, would prevail. about its repression. But no measure of androgynous fusion could ever abolish the natural differences between men and women as individuals. All joy and all sadness are rooted in that difference, in that relationship with the other, who you want to become a part of, and who you want to become a part of you, and who never can and never will become a part of you. Thus, feminist socialism would continue to be permeated by the conflicts arising from this condition, from the ineradicable conflicts of needs and values, but the androgynous character of society could gradually lessen the violence and humiliation in the resolution of these conflicts.

To conclude: the women's movement gained political importance because of recent changes in the capitalist mode of production itself, which provided the movement with a new material base. I recall the main features:

  • the growing number of women employed in the production process;
  • the increasingly technical form of production, gradually reducing the use of heavy physical labor;
  • the spread of a commodity form hairsalon: the systematic commercial appeal to sensuality, to luxuries; the shift of purchasing power towards pleasurable goods and services;
  • the disintegration of the patriarchal family through the “socialization” of children from the outside (mass media, peer groups, etc.);
  • the increasingly wasteful and destructive productivity of the Performance Principle.

Feminism is a revolt against decadent capitalism, against the historical obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production. This is the precarious link between utopia and reality: the social basis for the movement as a potentially radical and revolutionary force is there; this is the hard core of the dream. But capitalism is still able to keep it as a dream, to suppress the transcendent forces that fight for the subversion of the inhuman values ​​of our civilization.

The struggle is still a political struggle for the abolition of these conditions, and in that struggle the feminist movement plays an increasingly vital role. Its mental and physiological forces assert themselves in education and political action, as well as in the relationship between individuals, at work and at leisure. I stressed that liberation cannot be expected to be a by-product of new institutions, that it must emerge in individuals themselves. Women's liberation begins at home, before it can enter society at large.

And this is my final personal consideration. You can interpret it, if you like, as a declaration of surrender or a declaration of commitment. I believe that we men must pay for the sins of a patriarchal civilization and its tyranny of power: women must become free to determine their own lives, not as wives, mothers, lovers or girlfriends, but as individual human beings. This will be a struggle permeated with bitter conflicts, torment and suffering (mental and physical). The most familiar example today, which recurs again and again, is when a man and a woman have or are able to obtain employment in places far apart from each other, and the question naturally arises: who accompanies whom?

An even more serious example: the conflicting erotic relationships, which will inevitably arise in the process of liberation. These erotic conflicts cannot be resolved either in an easy and playful way, or by force, or by establishing exchange relationships. These must be left to the exchange society to which they belong. Feminist socialism will have to develop its own morality, which will be more, and different, than the mere cancellation of bourgeois morality.

Women's liberation will be a painful process, but I believe it will be a necessary and vital stage in the transition to a better society for men and women.

*Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a professor at the University of California-San Diego (USA). Author, among other books, of the one dimensional man (Edipro).

Translation: Mariana Teixeira for Dissonance: Journal of Critical Theory , v. 2, no.o 1.2.

Originally published in Women's Studies 2(3), 1974, p. 279-88.

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