The Power of Criticism

The first worldwide Congress on Marxist Feminism is a breakthrough – preparations for a second congress in Lund, Sweden are underway.

Over 500 participants attended the international congress “The strength of Critique: Trajectories of Marxism-Feminism”, organised by the feminist section of InkriT (Berlin Institute of Critical Theory) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, with support from transform! europe, which took place in Berlin from 20 to 22 March. Keen interest in the event meant that it had already become fully booked by the end of February.

On the podiums and in the workshops, at the Luxemburg Lectures and book presentations, participants debated the state-of-play for Marxist feminism, covering wide ranging topics, with points of view which differed, sometimes provoking controversy and heated debate.  This was the first ever worldwide congress on Marxist feminism – held while China is preparing for the first worldwide congress on Marxism, scheduled for 10 to 11 October 2015. At any event, a “world historic”, as one participant expressed it.

The starting point for the congress was the drafting of the term Marxism-Feminism in the recently published volume 8/2 of the Historisch-kritischen Wörterbuchs des Marxismus (Historical-critical dictionary of Marxism), with which Frigga Haug first imbued this term of movements and struggles with a history and relevance to writers; she began her article: “Marxism-feminism is defined by the struggle of the feminist revolution to fight for and carve out a pathway to Marxism. Resistance against Marxism-feminism forces it to assume an adversarial and polemic form. The goal of the feminist revolution is to free women from male dominance and to transform society into a society of solidarity.”

We have seen how feminists have raised their voices among Marxists since the 1970s, in many countries across the world. They criticised the concepts customary in Marxism at that time and their theory of values, the attitude to housework, family, ways of relating to each other and to nature, to the economy and war, their vision of the future and demands for freedom.  And it is thanks to this struggle that many activists from that time came together at the congress. Hundreds from the two generations which followed took up the torch and discussed developments, new concepts and diverse positions on Marxist feminism for over 10 hours on each day of the congress.

Throughout, what was tangible was that this concerned a Marxist feminism in progress, “that everything is in flux”, as Katja Kipping, chair of the German Left Party (Linkspartei) emphasised in her opening speech. How does one actually become a Marxist feminist? She commented on how easy it was to lead a kind of double life in feminism and Marxism – until a certain unconscious block falls away … after all, both have the same goal: “to overturn all relationships in which a person is humiliated, downtrodden, abandoned or despised.” It is time for us to declare ourselves: “I am a feminist Marxist.” In short: “I am a fem-ma”, she announced, by way of her political “coming-out”.

Based on the history of the oppression of women, Frigga Haug has developed this thesis in her introduction: Gender relations are relations of production. The production of life should be seen as part of production relations. In order to work on the research and policies needed, she called on Marxist feminists from across the globe to unite in their agreement that life issues may on no account become subordinated to the stampede for profit.

On the podiums, topics tackled included Learning from history; criticism of contemporary feminism; points for intervention; Perspectives of a human society. There were also the Luxemburg Lectures from Saskia Sassen and Gayatri C. Spivak. There were workshops on issues such as: the feminine proletariat; battles for time; conflict over the capacity to act; analysis of the care sector; relations between people and nature, neo-liberalism, policy and education; lines of conflict between equality and resistance (cf. programme).

Many people and many issues were brought together at the congress, along with experience from various movements. Many people were struck by the wide range of ages, as well the active participation in every single event. Debates initiated 40 years ago, in countries across the world, were taken up; new light was cast on familiar issues; there was an exchange of views, including among the many younger women present; areas for discussion were defined, gaps discovered, controversial points made visible, such as perceptions of intersectionality and the significance of class relations. The feminist section of InkriT and the womens’ editorial office of the publication Das Argument (The Argument: Journal for Philosophy and Social Sciences) will take up and work further with this issues and discussions, with documents from the congress in issue 314 (Autumn 2015).

Two new books on the field were presented at the congress:

Shahrzad Mojab: Marxism and Feminism, Zed Books, London 2015, 400 pages, £21.99 / $30.95

Frigga Haug: Der im Gehen erkundete Weg. Marxismus-Feminismus (Exploring the path while taking it. Marxism-Feminism), Argument Verlag, Hamburg 2015. 384 pages, br., €24  

This congress marked a breakthrough. Numerous women expressed interest in drawing up an ongoing report, for which a first draft drawn from the work at the congress (laid down in 14 theses by Frigga Haug) was discussed in the closing plenary. The next conference is being organised by Diana Mulinari and Kerstin Sandell from the Institute for Gender Studies at Lund University, among others.

For further information on the congress, see also Cynthia Cockburn in Open DemocracyLabour, life and love: Marxist feminists join the dots.