Marxist feminism has been around in some form or another for over a century, but has undergone something of a revival in the last decade. Rooted in a critical but nevertheless fundamentally positive reference to traditional Marxism, today it constitutes an independent point of reference for an ever-growing number of scholars and activists around the world. Accordingly, current debates within Marxist feminism revolve around an analysis of societal developments as much as they do around challenges and reformulations of more traditional approaches, mostly from the Global North.
Jule Goikoetxea is a Professor at the University of the Basque Country and researcher at Oxford University. Her most recent book in English is Privatizing Democracy: Global Ideas, European Politics, and Basque Territories (Peter Lang, 2017).
Since 2015, an important space for these debates has been the International Marxist Feminist Conference, organized by the feminist section of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory (InkriT) with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. As organizers get ready for the fourth conference scheduled for 11–13 November, Alex Wischnewski spoke with organizing committee member Jule Guikoetxea about how Marxist feminism can help us understand the COVID-19 crisis and what new debates are emerging today.
Feminist debates often emphasize that the pandemic did not represent a real break with existing relations, but only exacerbated the uneven distribution of resources and access to care along the various axes of oppression. What do you think? Which new challenges are emerging, and how can Marxist feminist approaches respond?
Since the approaches coming from Marxist feminism are diverse and hybrid, the challenges and contradictions differ. To name one that has emerged during the pandemic: the state. More and more voices on the Left and in feminism are calling for more and better public structures. This is not necessarily in contradiction to the twentieth-century Left, but it is in the way the Left, including many Marxists, understood and theorized the state.
Traditionally, the state often appears as a class enemy in the form of a unified subject or thing, not as a set of relations, strategies, and structures. Now, however, we have seen that public structures saved many workers from death, expropriation, and absolute impoverishment, while others were expropriated and made precarious. That is to say, the state can kill, repress, torture, and marginalize thousands of people, or it can treat thousands of people with cancer, even if they have no money.
That is why the question is more complex than many Marxist analyses suggest, particularly those based on a liberal and androcentric “state phobia” that objectifies, alienates, and essentializes the state. We always say that the state is neither good nor bad, because it has no heart. We find that one of the most pressing demands in Latin America is for the right to free abortion, meaning guaranteed by public structures, ergo, by the state. The same is true of care, health, and education: the majority on the Left, whether Marxist, socialist, or feminist, want it to be public, which requires a state.
That is why I believe it is very important today to think about the state from a non-androcentric and materialist perspective as well as from a decolonial and anti-racist one, which does not reproduce the Eurocentric and supremacist discourse that the state was invented by capital or the bourgeoisie. The state precedes capital and the bourgeoisie, and public administrative structures precede the European state by hundreds of years, in Asia to begin with.
So, again, we see how in thinking about one of the most important (whether dominating or emancipating) structures of our era, it continues to be thought within an androcentric framework without taking into account that in the second half of the twentieth century, at least in some countries, the state “assumed” care work that women performed (and still do in many places) for free, by means of public day-care centres, public health care, or public housing. It diminished the unpaid work that women do, which is essential to their economic and social development.
There is a simplistic, one-dimensional and linear vision of the state, and a colonialist narrative that is quite widespread on the Left, insofar as there are forms of public organization that do not necessarily involve the concept of a liberal institution, or the perception of a public space and a private sphere that certain enlightened or modern ideologies attribute per se to the state.
But the state is not the same everywhere. For the Colombian theorist Ochy Curiel, who will also be speaking at the conference, the state is a purely colonial matter. She therefore promotes forms of self-organized and autonomous communities. Do decolonial approaches like this one challenge Marxist feminist debates in Europe?
Of course, in Latin America the colonial European state was imposed, but public structures are not a European invention. Communitarianism is all very well, but the community cannot treat hundreds of people with cancer, for example, because there are poor and rich communities. That is why there are many feminists—not only, but also within the different currents of decolonial feminism—who do not agree with each other on this issue. The divisions are not that simple. Yes, decolonial proposals challenge classical Marxist feminist approaches in many ways, but most participants are as Marxist as they are decolonial or as structuralist or poststructuralist, materialist and transfeminist as they are decolonial and Marxist.
Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate enlightened or classical feminist Marxism from the framework that includes new decolonial perspectives within a Marxist political economy, such as postcolonial, ecofeminist, materialist, or transfeminist scholars. One of the decolonial critiques of this classical feminist Marxism is that it is Eurocentric, racist, colonialist, and patriarchal, that is to say “Enlightened”, since such a framework assumes that the Enlightenment framework or analysis has universal validity, although everyone knows that the “Universal” is a white male tending towards heterosexuality.
Secondly, the idea that with the end of capitalism all other forms of domination will disappear belongs to a monotheistic metaphysics that is also very typical of white and European infantilism. It is important to understand that this is a critique shared by a large part of communitarian and materialist feminism, not only decolonial.
The debate on the state already reveals different, partly conflicting approaches. What role do Frigga Haug’s 13 Theses on Marxist-Feminism, which she has proposed as a common basis, play? Is it necessary or even possible to somehow formulate a unified Marxist feminism?
The 13 theses on Marxist feminism that Haug proposed and that were worked on in the various conferences are a guide to order thoughts and articulate new struggles. They are not a final manifesto or a dogmatic proposal, they are theses to be rethought, reformulated, used, dirtied, and developed infinitely, if you will. They are heuristics, a technique for collective thinking.
That is why it is important to discuss them in our meeting, to see how, after the latest events and in the midst of the fourth feminist wave, we can think together about the focal points that can articulate a joint struggle for the emancipation of all.
Fourth International Marxist Feminist Conference
11–13 November 2021
Organized and funded by Transform! Europe and the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), along with Iratzar Foundation, Bilbo-Barcelona Critical Theory Group (BIBA CT), Berliner Institut für Kritische Theorie (InkriT), the Roxa Luxemburg Foundation, and ParteHartuz.
The conference will be held online to include more voices, theories, and proposals from the Global South and the stateless nations of the Global North. It will be broadcast through Zoom and Facebook, and registration is not compulsory. More information is available at www.marxfemconference.com.