Women’s freedom and Marx’s dialectic

March 22, 2011


Woman as Reason

by Terry Moon

The contemporary nature of Marxist-Humanism is evident when one views the theory and practice of women’s liberation. Today that involves both an unprecedented attack on women’s rights–especially reproductive rights–now taking place in the U.S., and women’s creative activism in the revolutionary developments in the Middle East, where they are fighting repressive regimes from Egypt to Iran, and, at one and the same time, refusing to let women’s freedom be sidelined.

That a vantage point is needed for today’s struggles of women is clear, be that in the developing or developed lands. In Congo women are fighting their annihilation and a brutality that may not have been seen in the world before. In Haiti rape is again becoming endemic and the world seems helpless to stop the spread of cholera–not because the means to do so are not known, but because the will to do so is not there. In the U.S., the recent election brought into office those determined to end not only abortion rights but access to birth control. And the U.S. Senate recently refused to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, thus denying once again the necessary legal tools to fight for equal pay.

How does theory speak to this reality and the new vantage point needed? This is illuminated by contrasting two different approaches to the Marxian dialectic: one, an essay by well-known feminist Marxist theorist Professor Nancy Hartsock, “Marxist Feminist Dialectics for the Twenty-first Century”; the other by the revolutionary author and philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, “Marx’s ‘New Humanism’ and the Dialectics of Women’s Liberation in Primitive and Modern Societies.”

Hartsock aims to explore what the “dialectical understanding of the world contained” in Marxism “can provide in the way of resources for contemporary analysis.” Her title is compelling because it promises to look at Marx’s dialectic and even names something “Marxist Feminist Dialectics,” and proclaims that it is “for the Twenty-first Century.” But when one jams Hartsock’s essay against Dunayevskaya’s, their differences are more important than what they may have in common.


What Hartsock means by dialectics is that: “…one must replace the idea that the world is composed of ‘things’ with that of the importance of ‘process.’ In addition, Marx’s dialectical method holds that things do not ‘exist’ outside of or prior to the process, flows, and relations that create, sustain, or undermine them.'”[1]

The problem isn’t that it is wrong, so much as that it is abstract and incomplete. Hartsock’s essay doesn’t fill out this definition or tell us how this concept of dialectics can help women’s liberation today. Rather, in reading Marx, not in and for himself, but to show how his work fits into her project, she sees three contributions: 1. Marx “enable[d] an alternative to the Enlightenment account of what it is to count as truth or knowledge”; 2. He gives her a “more nuanced and socially embedded understanding of subjectivity and agency than…liberal theory or…post-structuralism”; 3. Marx gives her “criteria for what can count as better, or privileged, knowledges” (NH, p. 225). The rest of her essay goes into what her ideas are about–standpoint theory, for example–and what are the bits and pieces she has taken from Marx to buttress her arguments.

Hartsock uses the word “process” in her definition, but Dunayevskaya makes it concrete by telling us what “process” is to Marx in her work Philosophy and Revolution: “…the dialectic as a continuous process of self-development, a process of development through contradiction, through alienation, through double negation….It is the development of mankind’s history from bondage to freedom.”[2] And it is the development of thought along with it. This concept of dialectics helps us look at struggle, at history, in an entirely different way because one comprehends that it is through the struggle that we transcend the present and that the struggle in life is unseparated from thought, “that the dialectic reveals ‘transcendence as an objective movement'” (P&R, p. 9).


Dunayevskaya’s essay traces that concept of the dialectic in what she calls a great “innovation in Capital” which “bears directly on the subject of women’s liberation.” It is, she writes, the chapter Marx added very late in the writing of Capital on “The Working Day.” Dunayevskaya continues:

“That is the dialectic of Marx’s seeing, not merely the statistics he had amassed, but the live men and women reshaping history. Nowhere is this more true than concerning the so-called ‘Woman Question.’ Having turned away from further arguments with theoreticians to follow instead the happenings at the point of production and their political ramifications on the historic scene, Marx came up with the second great innovation in Capital–his chapter on ‘The Working Day.'”[3]

Why is it that no feminist theoretician seems to see what is in that chapter on “The Working Day”: that Marx is not only talking about men? Not only were women working in the factories, but women and children were replacing men as cheaper labor. Marx certainly took them up, a fact Dunayevskaya makes sure to bring directly into this essay. She drives the point home by declaring that “…Marx devoted that much space to women in the process of production and arrived at very new conclusions on new forms of revolt.” Because Marx saw that the dialectic meant self-development through contradiction, what live women and men experienced in fighting the inhuman factory conditions, and that transcendence comes about only through human striving, he concluded from looking at the struggle on the factory floor, “that the simple worker’s question, When does my day begin and when does it end? was a greater philosophy of freedom than was the bourgeois Declaration of the Rights of Man…” (WLDR, p. 197).

This essay alone debunks not only Nancy Hartsock’s “problems with Marx’s own theories,” but the problem many feminists have with Marx: 1. “class understood…as a relation among men, is the only division that counts”; 2. “workers’ wives and their labor are presumed”; 3. “homosocial birth images mark the analysis…” 4. women are “profoundly absent from Marx’s account of the extraction of surplus value”; 5. he’s a product of his time (NH, p. 224).

Nothing could be further from the truth except, of course, that everyone is a “product of their time.” But it would behoove us to try to see how Marx transcended his. What Hartsock reveals is that she falls solidly into the critique that Dunayevskaya made of “not only bourgeois feminists but of socialist feminists,” that is that they, “above all, have helped those men who have tried to reduce Marx to a single discipline, be that as economist, philosopher, anthropologist, or ‘political strategist.'”[4] Furthermore, she seems to have learned her Marxism not from Marx so much as from post-Marx Marxists, as she quotes more or less approvingly everyone from Lukacs to Fredric Jameson, to Bertell Ollman to the Stalinist, Althusser.

How thoroughly the dialectic became Dunayevskaya’s method of thought can be seen in what she made explicit from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, also taken up in this essay. Marx’s notebooks on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society are some of his most neglected writings. That Dunayevskaya was able to see so much in them, indeed “new moments,” could not have been easy. She was able to “hear him think”–through what he underlined, put quotes around, and sometimes commented on.


As a women’s liberationist, what fascinated me about Dunayevskaya’s discussion of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks was her emphasis on transitions:

“Nothing less than the vital question of transitions is at stake in the difference between Marx’s and Engels’s views. Marx was showing that it is during the transition period that you see the duality emerging to reveal the beginning of antagonisms, whereas Engels always seems to have antagonisms only at the end, as if class society came in very nearly full blown after the communal form was destroyed and private property was established. Moreover, for Marx the dialectical development from one stage to another is related to new revolutionary upsurges, whereas Engels sees it as a unilateral progression” (RLWLMPR, p. 180).

Women marching in Chicago at a demonstration in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia Jan. 29.

Women marching in Chicago at a demonstration in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia Jan. 29.

There is no greater transition than a revolution, and while the U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement did not transform production relations, it was born, grew, and developed in revolutionary times and has certainly changed the world. Revolution is being played out right now in the Middle East as women are fighting in the streets together with the men to topple dictators, and at the same time trying to realize their freedom as women. Everyone is aware that the situation could go towards more freedom for women, or the opposite, which is why Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence speaks so profoundly to our times.

Women have a double fight: against society and its culture, and against the limitations of the movements that are supposed to be about freedom. In every movement, women have had to fight to show that their struggle for freedom was not a diversion from the movement but a contribution. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when women tried to deepen that revolution, only to be met by many in the left with beatings, gunfire and the lie that their struggle revealed them as “agents of imperialism.” That was a transition point that could have gone either way, and all of Iranian society is now living the consequences of the fact that the majority of the Iranian Left not only refused to fight for Iranian women’s freedom, but demanded that they step back.


What is involved in transitions is as well the question of how deep and total revolution has to become. That is why, I think, Dunayevskaya ties the two together in this essay:

“The new moments he [Marx] was experiencing as he intensified his studies of pre-capitalist society, on women, on the primitive commune, on the peasantry, illuminate Marx’s works as a totality. Thus it isn’t a question of a mere return to the concept of women which he first expressed in the 1844 Manuscripts, nor, as some anthropologists would have it, simply a move from a philosophic to an empiric anthropology. Rather, as a revolutionary, Marx’s hostility to capitalism’s colonialism was intensifying to such a degree that his emphasis was on how deep must be its uprooting” (p. 202).

This kind of dialectic, a dialectic of revolution that springs from the whole history of thought and of humanity’s struggle for freedom, is what can give direction to a movement, an organization or an individual. Thus we know that we cannot support the so-called “insurgency” in Iraq or Afghanistan, a force that would destroy women’s autonomy wherever they find it. We knew in 1979 that the Iranian women must have our greatest solidarity, and we know that right now is the time to raise women’s freedom in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt as women fight side by side with men to create a new, free Middle East.

Dunayevskaya was always looking for new revolutionary beginnings. As we face a world whose determination to move towards fascism is being challenged by new freedom movements–especially in the Middle East–we realize that our age too is in transition, and it too can go either towards fascism or to humanity’s desire, a new human society. Theory and philosophy are indispensable in this endeavor.


1. Nancy Hartsock, “Marxist Feminist Dialectics for the 21st Century,” from Bertell Ollman and Tony Bagnall Smith, Dialectics for the New Century (Palgrave Macmillian, April 2008), p. 225. NH in subsequent references.

2.Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao (New York: Lexington Books, 2003), p. 10. P&R in subsequent references.

3. Raya Dunayevskaya, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future, “Marx’s ‘New Humanism’ and the Dialectics of Women’s Liberation in Primitive and Modern Societies” (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), p. 196. WLDR in subsequent references.

4.Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 104. RLWLMPR in subsequent references.

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