marxist feminism – alive and kicking

There was so much interest in the conference “The Strength of Critique: Trajectories of Marxism and Feminism” organized at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin, 20-22 March 2015, that they had to close the registration a few weeks before the conference was held. The conference organizers interpreted this as a sign of the revival of a marxist-feminist movement, and saw the gathering as a historic moment that will be remembered in years to come. Besides the renewal of interest in marxist feminism in times of austerity and growing economic inequalities, the popularity of the conference probably also had a lot to do with the fact that the program was jam-packed with big names like Saskia Sassen, Gayatri Spivak, Lise Vogel, Zillah Eisenstein, Hester Eisenstein, Nira Yuval-Davis, and others. People who no-one would probably recognize on the street, but who are real academic superstars in their fields. I chatted with Nira Yuval-Davis in the line for the toilet, before I saw her sitting on the podium and was able to connect a face to the readings I’ve done.

The conference was intense: three days of discussions and presentations starting at 10:00 in the morning and lasting until after 21:00 in the evening. Here is a selective account of different topics that were raised at the conference and my reflections on them. You don’t have to take my word for it, though – on the youtube channel of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung you can take a look at the videos of many of the talks and panels.

Rethinking Economies of Time

Frigga Haug, a veteran of marxism-feminism in Germany, was one of the main initiators behind the conference, and an opening speaker. She spoke of her ‘Four-in-One’ perspective, which argues for the importance of taking all domains of life – work, politics, learning/self-development, leisure – in consideration when criticizing contemporary capitalism and tinking about the society that we would like to see. Instead of the classical division between production and reproduction that marxist feminists have long worked with, Haug proposed a different way of understanding the division between paid labour and the unpaid and unseen labour that women often do. She spoke of a division between the production of life itself (leben) and the production of the means of existence (lebensmittel). The last type is what Marxist theory is usually and traditionally focused on: wage labour. But as feminists have long pointed out, this relies on the first domain, the privatized, domestic and unpaid labour such as care work. Haug points out that these two types of labour function according to different and incompatible logics of time. In a capitalist society, the production of lebensmittel works through logic of efficiency, productivity and speeding up. The production of life, on the other hand, simply doesn’t fit into that logic of time, and is neglected and subordinated to profit-making.  The revolution that Haug proposes is then intimately connected to creating time for these ‘unproductive’ and non-capitalist values, slowing down and having time for all aspects of life. I can personally relate to this a lot, and found it an interesting way to think about marxist feminism. As a struggle about time, a redefinition of what is worth-while, so to say.

Intersectionality and Marxist-Feminism

A returning topic of discussion at the conference was the compatability of intersectionality with a Marxist-Feminist perspective. Many voices from an older generation of marxist feminism expressed their unease and doubts with intersectionality. Lise Vogel, sees intersectionality as having been very important, but now it is impeding further theoretical progress. Shahrzad Mohjab expressed wanting to ‘get out of the messy intersectionality that we are stuck in for decades’, and Hester Eisenstein admitted to having an ‘intellectual crisis around intersectionality’. The critiques of intersectionaly were related to whether or not class has a special status among the different axes of domination, and whether intersectionality as a framework is too much based on identity.

Martha Gimenez argued that the talk of a ‘race-gender-class trilogy’ tends to reduce class to just another identity among others. She stressed that here a conception of class is often at work which sees class simply as a descriptive attribute of an individual person (‘middle-class’) –  instead of a Marxist perspective which theorizes class as an economic relation of exploitation. Similarly, Lise Vogel argued that while she does not want to go back to a class reductionism and a class-first approach, it is nevertheless important to disentangle the different systems of inequality and recognize the specificity of each (something which intersectionality apparently does not allow her to do). For Vogel, there is a qualitative difference between class and gender on the on hand, and race on the other hand. According to her, those first two have clear material dimensions. The third, race, she does not understand as internal to capital processes. These statements were challenged from the audience. Audience members pointed out that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery were an economic system that structurally and materially oppressed enslaved peoples. The legacies of that system of slavery still carry through to the present, for example in the prison-industrial complex in the US (where Vogel is from) and the economic disparities along racial lines. These comments would point to the fact that there is a strong economic and material dimension to racial oppression. How do you not see that, the question was repeated.

The discussions around intersectionality seemed to point also a generational gap. The conference was dominated by speakers from an older generation of marxist feminist thought, who have done tremendous work and whose work is still relevant today. Nevertheless, they seemed also in some instances ‘out of touch’ with contemporary debates. Various younger speakers from the audience pointed out that marxism-feminism needs to be stretched and adapted to speak to the multiplicity of contemporary concerns. Yes to marxism-feminism, said also the US novelist and organizer Sarah Schulman: but not without taking in the insights from postcolonial studies, the queer movement, the trans* revolution, indigenous concerns, and so on. Marxism-feminism needs a new vocabulary, so we would start to see these issues as organic to marxism-feminism, and not specific side-issues.

Intersectionality, as one speaker pointed out, does not name a ready-made grid. Instead, it is an invitation to do further work, and to integrate different issues in our thinking and activism. Vanessa Thompson argued that while we should mark the ‘dead ends’ of intersectionality (which she identified as a possible revival of an intersectional identity politics and an increasing invidualization), working against these dead ends should not mean dismissing the experiences of social groups silenced by oppressions. While certain ways of taking up intersectionality may not be critical of capitalism or side-line class, this is not a reason to dismiss intersectionality per se.

Race and Rasse: Contested Vocabularies

Intertwined with the discussion on intersectionality was an ongoing discussion about race. On Friday, a member of the audience challenged the returning mentions of race. She saw these discussion on race as dangerous in themselves, because ‘race does not exist but is a cultural construct’. The comment was addressed to Lise Vogel, who was bewildered by it. She asked: when you say that race doesn’t exist, do you mean in an utopian future? No, she meant here and now: race is not real, and we need to scrap the word from our vocabularies. This comment was echoed by other speakers at the final discussion, who argued that the use of a terminology of race would be itself excluding and offensive to certain other groups, like people of color, colonized people (note that this particular argument was made by a white German speaker).

In my perspective, these interactions were a symptom of a cultural and linguistic gap. In many European contexts, ‘race’ is still a very taboo term. In Germany specifically, the recent history of the Holocaust and Nazism make talking about race very loaded and sensitive. The conference was multi-lingual, and live translation was taking place via headphones. Many participants understood and spoke either English or German, but not both. I can imagine that for German listeners, hearing the US-American speakers throwing around the word race so casually – and having it translated as Rasse in their headphones – was troubling to say the least. If the very term Rasse refers to the belief in essential biological differences and an ideology of racial hierarchy, some would argue that this term is so contaminated that it should not be used any more.

However, there is a very particular step that takes place between recognizing the legacies of racism and racialization and not wanting to repeat them, and then seeing the solution to that in a change of vocabulary alone. As one of the few black women at the conference, Vanessa Thompson made clear that in a context where racism is still operating, speaking about race and naming the workings of race is necessary. Addressing racism and processes of racialization becomes very difficult when the terminology itself becomes taboo. It is hard to change something that we do not have a language to speak about – and solution to solving racism does not really lie in just never saying the word ‘race’ again….

In Defense of Re-Inventing the Wheel!

Another topic that was raised in the final discussion, was whether the conference itself also reproduced some of the inequalities that we should challenge from a marxist feminist perspective. For instance, there was not much space for contributions from the audience and the format was quite ‘top-down’ instead of embodying the ‘radical democracy’ that was discussed in theory. The ages of participants at the conference ranged from early 20s to 80s: a great diversity. Yet while this intergenerational dimension of the conference was there, the exchange could have been more two-directional. Kathe Knittler said about this in the final discussion, that while it is important to learn from earlier generations, it can also be important to ‘re-invent the wheel’, so to say. When we re-invent the wheel, we confirm that the wheel is still relevant to us – and it really becomes ‘ours’, the wheel that we created. I thought this was a really playful and insightful comment about the way that concepts and ideas travel temporally: they have to be taken up anew, prove their relevance in a new context, and become redefined by a next generation.

Knittler also pointed out that the intellectual and practical labour of speakers and panelists was unpaid at the conference. Of course, this fact stands in an uneasy relation to the critique to the increasing precaritization of academic work and the  pressures on critical work in the neoliberal university. The aforementioned fact that most speakers were renowned academics with stable positions probably had something to do with that, but it is nevertheless worth noting. On the other hand, there was no fee for the conference: an anomaly in the current academic landscape. Participants just had to pay €2,50 for the meals the conference offered. Soup and bread, curry and rice: nourishing and tasty, with both a vegan and a meat option. This may seem trivial, but I think it is really important to think about – so many conferences that are inaccessible because the fee is already a few hundred euros, not to think about travel, accommodation and food costs for participants.

The next conference will be hosted in Sweden in 2016. So that we never again have to go to a historical materialism conference dominated by white men, or a feminist conference where class is absent and capitalism is not challenged, to paraphrase Shahrzad Mohjab, but instead have a forum for academic work which is committed to revolutionary social transformation. Sounds pretty good!

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