by Lilijana Burcar
translated from the Slovenian by Mirta Jurilj
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Chapter Three: Distortion and Degradation of Emancipatory Guidelines for the Policy of Self-Management Socialism: Potential Problems of the “New” Post-Socialist Marxist Left
Traps and fallacies of the established Western European Marxist feminism in the context of socialist feminism
Amid ideological distortions and the erasure of the structural achievements of Yugoslav socialism (among others) as relevant starting points for teaching, we should not overlook the supporting and therefore highly critical role played by the noncritical adoption of flawed and contradictory theories of Western European Marxist feminism. The latter had not begun to develop in the form in which it is applied today until the second half of the twentieth century. What characterizes this form is that its central, and later academically implemented current never managed to move beyond a reductive set of references restricted solely to the (early) works of Marx, Engels, and Bebel (Vogel 2013; Davis 1981). Not knowing or deliberately ignoring subsequent canonical works that constituted the core of the first phase of the revolution in the Soviet Union, this current ended up rejecting significant structural insights and key theoretical shifts developed and propagated by Lenin, Alexandra Kollontai, and Clara Zetkin, whose writings identified a structural correlation between the accumulation of private capital and the confinement of reproductive labor within the private sphere, thus an inherent connection between the emancipation of women and the abolition of class society. Precisely these foundational writings and theoretical insights were subsequently further elaborated by generations of Eastern European and Yugoslav political workers, for whom the aforementioned conceptual breakthroughs became the starting point for devising and implementing the structural emancipation of women in most of the nascent socialist systems, particularly those of Eastern Europe, with Yugoslav socialism taking the lead. What raises even more concern—and is likewise directly related to the fact that Western European Marxist feminism is primarily based on Marxist and Engelsian discourse, which are only exceptionally supplemented by the systematically elaborated analyses and theoretical breakthroughs of Lenin and Kollontai, if at all—is the fact that Western European Marxist feminism1 is largely overdetermined by the theory of dual systems. The latter constitutes the fundamental postulates that frame the central debates of Western European Marxist feminism.2 According to the theory of dual systems, capitalism and patriarchy are supposed to be two entirely separate, even opposing systems; according to some derivations of the theory advanced by its main representatives, they even exist in mutual conflict.3
The theory of dual systems is rooted in the premises of Western “radical” feminism, by which radical is here meant as a negative term. Namely, it understands patriarchy as an inherently existing and self-perpetuating phenomenon, whereby individual men, bonded in homosocial groups, exercise their allegedly inborn power over individual women, who also, from the other end, make up a homogeneous, oppressed whole. Patriarchy is supposedly not subject to social variability; rather, it exists as a universal phenomenon originating in male/female roles that are in turn related to sexual reproduction and thus the ever-same division of labor between men and women (Runyan Sisson 1994: 211). This patently ahistorical approach is based on a barely disguised biological determinism (Fine 1992: 33), since it does not consider the projected attributes of femininity and masculinity as constructs but as facts—even though these ascribed attributes, and the naturalization of the division of labor that derives from them, must be established and inscribed again and again within the bodies and minds of explicitly designated and traditionally socialized individuals.
Already within the first two decades of the twentieth century, the avant-garde communist movement, under the influence of Lenin and Kollontai, had recognized that capitalism does not parasitize on the previously existing and thus “primordial” power relations between women and men; rather, they saw that it contemporaneously resets and consolidates these relations on its own and, in this respect, readjusts the patriarchally tailored nuclear form of the seemingly atomic family unit so as to transfer onto it the financial burden of reproduction of the existing and future workforce. Hence, the avant-garde communist movement recognized that the oppression of women is structurally determined and directly related to the accumulation of private capital, whereby the exploitation of men in the so-called public sphere and of women in the private sphere are structurally correlated: not two separate phenomena, but freely flowing and reciprocal aspects of one and the same socioeconomic system (Lenin 1972; Young 1981: 44; Vogel 2008: 242). Such profound and, at the same time, structural analytical recognition does not apply at all to the theory of dual systems. On the contrary.
The latter considers the present domains of public and private—which, to be fair, had not taken form until the onset of industrial capitalism—to be existent in themselves and, at the same time, mutually separate and unrelated units. Therefore, dual systems theory does not treat family or the relationships within it as flexible phenomena, inevitably enmeshed within a wider context which is intersected and determined inter alia by factors related to the material and economic order and the functioning of society as such. Instead, this theory treats the family as an isolated and separate formation and, as such, as a vital core of the inherently existing patriarchy, which, being without apparent triggers, thus supposedly always already exists in itself. Specifically, the theory of two separate systems conceives of the nuclear family as an independent unit and addresses it as the main and sole source of patriarchy, and thereby also as the seat of patriarchal rule—inexplicably adopted and supposedly incontestable—of individual men over individual women (Young 1981: 48). The oppression of women therefore has nothing to do with the society’s macro-framework and the structure of its reproduction, as is otherwise required by the capitalist order. From the perspective of the theory of two separate systems, the source of this oppression is located in the supposedly already given division of labor by gender, long demanded and exercised by the man exclusively to his advantage within the private walls of the family. Consequently, the woman gets trapped in a subordinate relationship with the man and is in turn only able to stand up for her individual struggle against the rule of the man within the narrow family circle (Vogel 2013: 134). [. . .]
The main blemish on the theory of dual systems is its lack of understanding of the dynamic structural correlation between reproductive labor confined to the private sphere and the accumulation of private capital—a correlation that not only requires the breadwinner model and, with it, the patriarchal character of the nuclear family cell, but also actively expands and structurally renews the latter to its own advantage. Since the theory of dual systems treats patriarchy as a naturally occurring formation that supposedly exists above and apart from the broader capitalist framework, with which it is nevertheless regularly associated, it also treats in a similarly narrow and decontextualized manner the purpose and role of reproductive labor. Specifically, dual systems theory interprets the latter as work which, in accordance with the perception of patriarchy as an entirely separate and private family phenomenon, should be carried out merely for the needs and personal benefit of the man in the family—since this, after all, is what patriarchy demands. [. . .]
The theory of dual systems has split the category of reproductive labor into two hierarchical levels, pushing into the background the educational and care work that is needed for the reproduction of the next generation of humankind, i.e. the future workforce (Osborne 1977). Only thus could it single out housework as the sole burning issue affecting women, so as to consolidate the idea that the woman’s primary reproductive task is to tend to the man’s everyday needs. This makes reproductive labor as a whole an entirely separate form of work intended merely for the gratification of individually conceived or private patriarchy. From this also follows the claim that women purportedly constitute a distinct and separate category of the exploited—a category not exploited by capital, but rather merely and solely by their husbands, to whom they are therefore assumed to be directly subordinated within the privacy of their homes (Fine 1992: 12). Hence, it is in the interest of merely individual men to keep women in the private sphere on account of the (household) maintenance services with which the latter directly provides them. [. . .]
- For a general overview, see “Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism” by Lise Vogel and “Beyond the Unhappy Marriage: A Critique of the Dual-Systems Theory” by Iris Marion Young.
- Therefore I use the term Marxist feminism in its strict sense to designate the Western European current that originated exclusively from the interpretation of Marx and Engels and the theory of dual systems; whereas, for feminisms that follow the theoretical breakthroughs of Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai, which originate from a systemic analysis and synthetic understanding of patriarchy and capitalism (and thus of imperialism, racism, and nationalism), I use the term socialist feminism.
- The main representative of the theory is Heidi Hartmann, who is joined—in a more or less resolute way—by Sylvia Walby, Zillah Eisenstein, and Nancy Fraser. These theoreticians are still the most prominent and internationally sought-after names representing Western European Marxist feminism.