Feminism and Marxism: two dichotomous theoretical currents? Why has a distance been established between these currents? For Valentina Álvarez, doctor in sociology, gender expert and researcher at the International Institute of Philosophy and Social Studies (IIPSS), this tension is related to a restricted interpretation of Marxist theory, which does not allow us to see the contributions made by the Marxist feminist perspective in current discussions.
Surely on more than one occasion we have heard the existence of a kind of ‘tension’ between Marxist and feminist theory, which for the academic Valentina Álvarez, would be nothing more than the result of political priorities in a patriarchal key where – some decades ago – the oppression of women was considered a secondary problem that would be resolved on reaching socialism, from party and political organization, representing “a restricted interpretation of Marxist theory“, says Álvarez.
“As from Marxism, societies are defined according to a concrete mode of production and its specific forms of labor organization, from the parties and other political spaces, questions associated with sexuality and subjectivity tended to be considered, to paraphrase Butler, ‘merely cultural’ issues“, explains the post-doctoral researcher at the University of Valparaíso and member of the Feminist Studies Group, who adds that, “the oppression of women and their position in the class struggle has been a constant concern within Marxism since its origins, but until recently the debates were not very visible“.
As the academic explains, the interesting thing is that the feminist Marxist discussions that took place at the beginning of the 20th century are transcendental for understanding the current political, social, and cultural context. In this line, if we make a historical review, we come to Alexandra Kollontái, the first woman in the Russian government, who installed the need to generate care services for working women, thus allowing them an equal footing in the workplace and in the struggle for socialism. Something similar to what is now a priority demand for the Chilean feminist movement.
For Álvarez, another relevant moment of Marxist feminist reflection was towards the end of the 1960s, when in industrialized countries the model of the housewife began to be questioned from this theoretical perspective, opening reflection on the role of domestic work in the reproduction of capital. “This debate reached an agreement on elements that seem obvious to us today: that domestic work produces use values that allow the reproduction of the labor force both on a daily and generational basis and that, consequently, the capitalist organization of production rests on the unpaid work of women“, adds the doctor from Goldsmiths College, University of London, emphasizing that this issue, among others, today marks the political and social agenda.
In the decades between the 1980s and 2000s, the debate focused on the logical and historical relationship between capitalism and patriarchy. On the other hand, from the linguistic turn, gender was de-essentialized and black feminisms questioned categories such as reproduction and the family, elements which, as Álvarez mentions, “since the second wave had served to identify female oppression“. Along these lines, the discussions carried out by black and indigenous feminists were central to “trying to think of a theory that incorporates the diversity of experiences of being a woman in capitalism“, she adds.
Now, while contemporary feminist theoretical debates have accepted that – perhaps logically – capitalism could survive without the oppression of gender and race, Valentina Álvarez points out that, “in historical terms this has not been the case. Capitalism has been built on racist and colonial violence and in order to ensure its reproduction, it has had to regulate the conditions of reproduction of labor, sexuality being a key element both in terms of the birth rate and the subjective dispositions that lead us to constitute ourselves – and willingly so – as labor. But social reproduction is only of interest to capitalism insofar as it enables capitalism to reproduce itself. And it is women who have the capacity to gestate and breastfeed, without which human life cannot flourish”.
In this sense, the IIPSS researcher explains that “neoliberalism has reorganized, but not eliminated, the sexual division of labor throughout production and reproduction, at the same time as it has made the work and quality of life of increasingly large swathes of the population more precarious“. He added that, “in contrast to a Fordist or developmentalist capitalism that encouraged women to be housewives, today female employment is promoted by international organizations such as the UN as a sign of the economy’s good health. However, what has existed is an expansion of precarious jobs, with little job and social security in most branches and in different social strata, and very low salaries in relation to people’s cost of living”.