Feminism and THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO

From the December 1998 issue of News & Letters
Column: Woman as Reason

by Maya Jhansi

This past year, there has been much discussion on Marx inspired by the 150th anniversary of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, from journalistic discourses on Marx’s prescient descriptions of globalized capitalism to more scholarly meditations on its rich history. What is troubling, however, is how little feminists have participated in these important discussions. Why haven’t feminists felt the need to engage with Marx on this important anniversary?

To some, the answer may seem obvious. The history of Marxism and feminism has always been a tortured one, with many, if not most, feminists arguing Marxism to be at best shortsighted on women’s liberation and at worst totally irrelevant.

This is certainly the vantage point of the few feminist discussions of the MANIFESTO that I have been able to find. Sheila Rowbotham, a socialist-feminist theorist and author of one of the earliest books of women’s revolutionary history, WOMEN, RESISTANCE AND REVOLUTION, wrote a piece called “Dear Dr. Marx: A Letter from a Socialist Feminist” published in a recent book, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO NOW: SOCIALIST REGISTER 1998 (ed. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys). In this piece, Rowbotham assumes the persona of a fictional 19th century woman, Annette Devereux, who writes to Marx from a utopian Fourierist society called the Wisconsin Associationists in 1851.

The letter is mostly an excuse for Rowbotham’s predictable and hollow criticisms. For example, Rowbotham anachronistically derides Marx for not recognizing the beginnings of the women’s movement in 1848- even though the MANIFESTO was written before the Seneca Falls Convention. She also criticizes Marx for assuming that women must wait for their freedom until the “abolition of the present system” (p. 7). Certainly, this is hindsighted criticism of a manifesto written for the first of the 19th century proletarian revolutions.

Rowbotham castigates Marx for not recognizing the need for an autonomous women’s movement, but even feminists were not calling for this in the early 1800s! It is true that there is a rich history of women’s activism and philosophic engagement with the Idea of Socialism dating back before THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. In 1843, for example, a woman, Flora Tristan, called for a Worker’s Union and insisted that the emancipation of proletarian men was hindered if women remained oppressed in the family. But even Flora Tristan called for an International of men and women to put an end to the division between mental and manual labor, not for an autonomous women’s movement.

In the famous section on the “abolition of the family” in the MANIFESTO, Marx criticizes the bourgeois “for seeing in his wife a mere instrument of production,” arguing that far from introducing a “community of women” to replace the private property relationship of marriage, “the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.” To Rowbotham and others I have read, this section expresses Marx’s inability to see women as active agents of their own liberation-women are freed as a consequence of (male) proletarian revolution, not their own revolutionary praxis.

But is that really what Marx is saying here? Does Marx imply that women should “rely for their emancipation upon men?” (Rowbotham p. 7)

I think it is, in fact, quite the contrary. The very fact that to Marx the revolution uproots all relations under capitalism, including the patriarchal and alienated relations within the family, means that revolution is not stagified but rather total from the start. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx did not back away from this vision of thorough-going revolution-in his March 1850 Address to the Communist League he called for “revolution in permanence.”

Marx expressed this concept of revolution in permanence in 1844 when he projected the Man/Woman relationship as the most fundamental human relationship in need of uprooting. He developed it in the 1850s in a series of still unpublished notes on women’s history. Later, in 1871, Marx wrote on the centrality of the “feminine ferment” to the extraordinary Paris Commune, and in the 1880s he focused on women and the Third World in his ETHNOLOGICAL NOTEBOOKS. Throughout his lifetime, Marx deepened his view of women’s revolutionary activity and reason. It is just not true that women are excluded or external to Marx’s philosophy.

It is all too easy to slough off onto Marx’s shoulders the responsibilities of our age as Rowbotham does. Bringing out explicitly the centrality of women’s liberation to Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence is OUR task. A full 30 years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, feminists still fail to take responsibility for making what is implicit in Marx EXPLICIT. If we are at all serious about working out a socialist alternative to this sexist, racist, class-ridden society, then we cannot afford to shirk this responsibility any longer. The pages of NEWS & LETTERS are open for such discussion.

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