A Time Machine to the 1970s to Save Us: Towards a Socialist Feminism

Collin Chambers | Women's Issues | Theory | April 30th, 2019

The Marxist Feminist Kathi Weeks (2014, xi) suggests that "we are now at a point when the standard critiques of 1970s feminism can be approached as orthodoxies of their own need of unsettling". Feminism, Weeks (2014, ix) says, has a rather "exceptional relationship to its historical traditions. It is as if the clocks in the world of feminist theory run at a faster rate than those in other theoretical domains." Marxist theorists treat Marx as if he were still living, using his work done in 19th century to understand contemporary contradictions of capital accumulation (just read any of David Harvey's work). By contrast, feminist theory treats the theories produced in the 1970s with almost scorn and "as if it were the distant past, over and done." Since the cultural turn in the social sciences and humanities Marxism has been pushed aside. The work of Foucault and Judith Butler (and others) have come to dominate contemporary feminist thought which focuses on discourse and language as if it exists in air and separate from any material determinants i.e., the mode of production. However, as of late-and especially since the financial crisis of 2007/8-there has been a resurgence of Marxism in general and a renewed interest in feminist theoretical formulations from the 1970s within feminist theory in particular (e.g., Barrett 1980/2014; Benzanson and Luxton 2006; Bhattacharya 2017). This renewed and refreshed focus on Marxism within feminism is rooted in what Bhattacharya (2017) calls Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) and this where I think the future of feminist thought is going towards (and should if we are serious about changing the oppressive world in which we live).

SRT theorists do not want to simply critique the sexist and patriarchal world we live in, but they want to change it and act upon their critiques politically. In this essay I argue that SRT is the most efficient way to understand oppression based on identity within a social formation that is dominated by the capitalist mode of production (which is most of the world). Additionally, I argue, since we are going back to the 1970s, we need to take Althusser's (2014) work on the reproduction of capitalism and ideology seriously again. I will do this first by first exploring the methodological and theoretical differences between intersectionality theorists and SRT. Then, I will to attempt to provide a historical-materialist conception of how oppressive ideologies get embedded into the capitalist mode of production to the degree that they become essential to the functioning and reproduction of that system (Sumner 1979). Finally, I offer some thoughts on how we can apply SRT to real political praxis.

Intersectionality and Social Reproduction Theory (SRT)

Intersectional thought has become so incorporated and ingrained into contemporary feminist though that Naomi Zack states that intersectionality "a leading feminist paradigm" (as cited in Nash 2008, 89). Intersectionality has a "theoretical dominance" of understanding and "conceptualizing identity" (Nash 2008. 89). Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989 139), who coined the term intersectionality, defines it as taking seriously and understanding the "multidimensionality of marginalized subjects." It has become so entrenched in feminist thought that Nash (2008, 89) even calls it a "buzzword" that academics use to show that they are not abstracting away from difference even if their studies merely mention difference rather than seriously engage with it. Though there are similarities between intersectionality, originally coined by Crenshaw (1993), and SRT there are some key methodological and theoretical differences that have real political implications. As Bhattacharya (2017, 17) says: "what we theoretically determine has strategic import in the lived experience of our world." One key difference is that Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) is rooted in Marxist understandings of social formations (i.e., historical materialism) and intersectionality does not. This may seem knit-picky considering that perhaps SRT and intersectionality have similar political goals in emancipating oppressed peoples, but as we will see there is clear division between the two in regards to how they understand root cause to oppression (intersectional theorists tend to not deal with "root causes") (Nash 2008).

While class is an important aspect for intersectional theorists, it is simply one of the many "vectors" and "lines" of difference that intersect externally with each other and thus not any more important than race, gender, sexuality, etc. For example, Helma Lutz claims that there are "fourteen lines of difference," while Charlotte Bunch suggests that "social differences run along 'sixteen vectors" (as cited in McNally 2017, 96). The problem with intersectionality for SRT theorists is that intersectional theorists do not connect "interlocking and mutually reinforcing vectors of race, gender, class, and sexuality" back to the material base on which they arise from (Nash 2008, 89). It is as if these different "mutually reinforcing vectors" exist in air independently from any material determinants (determinant in the last instance). SRT takes the role modes of production play in social formations seriously.

Within intersectionality itself there has been critiques and modifications of the notion of separate preconstituted identities that externally relate with other most notably from Black Feminism and others (e.g., Kaur Dhamoon 2011; Nash 2008; Razack 1998). However, as McNally (2017, 96) points out: "these modifications continue to be plagued by the ontological atomism inherent in the founding formulations of intersectionality theory: the idea that there are independently constituted relations of oppression that, in some circumstances, crisscross each other." Theoretically formulating identity in this fashion limits the possibilities for political solidarity across difference. What is the alternative then? Through Patricia Hill Collins' understanding of interlocking systems of oppression being a "part of a single, historically created system," David McNally argues for a "dialectical organicism" understanding of oppression, which "sees a diverse and complex social whole as constitutive of every part, and each part as reciprocally constitutive of every other" (as citied in McNally 2017, 106; 100). Althusser (1969/1996) calls this "overdetermination." Understanding oppression in McNally's dialectical and historical materialist fashion one sees oppression in relation to totality and in relation to the social whole that capitalist mode of production creates, rather than in in fragments as postmodernist and poststructuralist thinking emphasizes. Why this is beneficial not only theoretically, but politically will be explored below.

If read in a certain fashion, McNally's understanding of oppression in relation to capitalism and social reproduction may be looked at with a critical eye by certain feminist thinkers. For example, Gayle S Rubin (2011, 37) acknowledges that "since no wage is paid for housework, the labor of women in the home contributes to the ultimate quantity of surplus value realized by the capitalist." However, Rubin continues: "to explain women's usefulness to capitalism is one thing. To argue that this usefulness explains the genesis of the oppression of women is quite another. It is precisely at this point that the analysis of capitalism ceases to explain very much about women and the oppression of women." Rubin points out that women are systematically oppressed in social formations that can by no means be called capitalist or contain any signs of the capitalist mode of production and its relations. For example, foot binding in feudal China, or chastity belts cannot be explained in relation to capitalism or the reproduction of capitalism. However, I am not talking about capitalism per se, but rather the total system that the capitalist mode of production creates to ensure continued reproduction. The capitalist mode of production did not produce sexism, racism, heteronormativity, etc. In fact, the capitalist mode of production emerged from within sexist and racist social relations. However, the logics of capital accumulation have taken over them and transformed them to such a degree that it has made oppression of particular identities central and integral to the system's reproduction and has also changed these relations to the degree that these forms of oppression take on a historically specific character to the capitalist mode of production itself (more on this below). The social whole (i.e., the combination of the base and superstructure) that capitalism creates relies upon racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist ideologies to sustain itself and reproduce itself.

This expanded notion of social reproduction that exists within SRT will help us better conceptualize and understand how each kind of particular oppression is ingrained in this complex web of the social whole created by the capitalist mode of production. Each particular mode of production creates its own particular complex web of social relations. As Rubin (2011, 39) states: "The realm of human sex, gender, and procreation has been subjected to, and changed by, relentless social activity for millennia. Sex as we know it-gender identity, sexual desire and fantasy, concepts of childhood-is itself a social product." Additionally, the conceptualization sex/gender system, that Rubin (2011, 40) calls for to replace the term patriarchy, "is the product of the specific social relations which organize it." This means we can't fight heteronormativity without also fighting racism, ableism, etc., at the same time as they are all systematically integrated and connected all at once.

All of this has implications for intersectional theory because to be related systematically (i.e., a part of the social whole that a mode of production creates) involves more than simply intersection. Lines or vectors that intersect can do so at random and haphazardly. Systems cannot. Thus, with SRT: "These relations [of oppression] do not need to be brought into intersection because each is already inside the other, co-constituting one another to their very core. Rather than standing at intersections, we stand in the river of life, where multiple creeks and streams have converged into a complex, pulsating system" (McNally 2017, 107).

Before we go any further, we must clarify what is SRT exactly. In a general sense it is about understanding that the "production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process" (Luxton 2006, 36). This theoretically vindicates the equal importance of different and variegated types of work that exists in a particular social formation. Work that is done in the home, childrearing, work of care, etc. is equal and just as important to the functioning of the capitalist system as the work done in a factory, in academia, restaurants, etc. As Marx (275, my emphasis) says: "The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually replaced." And this is done through social reproduction. Work that occurs outside production. Social reproduction as defined by Brenner and Laslett (1991, 314) is:

the activities and attitudes, behaviors and emotions, and responsibilities and relationships directly involved in maintaining life, on a daily basis and intergenerationally. It involves various kinds of socially necessary work-mental, physical, and emotional-aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined means for maintaining and reproducing population. Among other things, social reproduction includes how food, clothing, and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, how the maintenance and socialization of children is accomplished, how care of the elderly and infirm is provided, and how sexuality is socially constructed.

Thus, this necessarily changes and expands orthodox Marx's notion of class. The traditional notion of class for Marxists can be defined by a person's objective relationship to the means of production (technology, machines, tools, factories, land, etc). One group of people own and control the means of production (the capitalist class), and another own nothing but their own labor-power which they are forced to sell to a capitalist, so they can earn a wage to purchase- through the capitalist market-their means of subsistence (the working class). For SRT this traditional conceptualization of class is correct, but not adequate and complete enough if we want to take the labor that is done outside the workplace as fundamental in reproduction of the capitalist system in general. Thus, the working class "must be perceived as everyone in the producing class who has in their lifetime participated in the totality of reproduction of society-irrespective of whether that labor has been paid for by capital or remained unpaid" (Bhattacharya 2017, 89).

This reconceptualization of class for Social Reproduction Theory helps us "restore a sense of the social totality to class," and through this we can "immediately begin to reframe the arena for class struggle" (Bhattacharya 2017, 90). Capital can extract more surplus-value from the unpaid-or under-paid in the case of domestic workers-labor that is done in the household. Capital is able to extract more surplus-value from the realm of social reproduction because the value of labor-power is defined by the value of the bundle of commodities necessary for the worker to come back to work the next day. This "sum of means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker's replacement i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its presence on the market" (Marx 1990, 275). If part of the reproduction of labor-power (i.e., the worker) relies upon the unpaid or underpaid domestic labor, which is done historically by women, the value of labor-power consequently remains low because that bundle of commodities necessary for the worker to reproduce his/her/their self does not have to include child-rearing, cleaning, cooking, care work, etc., thus, capital can pay the worker less and make increased surplus-value. Thus, through the SRT framework we can consider the struggle for better conditions within the realm of social reproduction as a class struggle as well rather than as simply a gender or woman's issue by itself.

Gender and Sexual Ideology, Capitalism, and Althusser

In the first volume of Capital Marx goes at length about the difference between the formal and real subsumption (or in other translations subjection) of labor under capital. Capital is a "coercive relation;" it forces all social relations to bend to its will. Capital first emerges in already-existing material and social relations which are mostly feudal, such as particular types of division of labor, a particular level of development of productive forces, gender relations, sexual relations, etc. As Marx (1990, 425) says: "At first capital subordinates labour on the basis of the technical conditions within which labour has been carried on up to that point in history." In the historical development of capitalism in England, capital finds the labor-process in its undeveloped handicraft form where workers have a degree of power in regard to the pace and type of work that is being done. However, "the life-process of capital consists solely in its own motion as self-valorizing value" (Marx 1990, 425). Thus, the labor process has to be revolutionized to match the demands and logics of capital accumulation. The real subsumption of labor under capital occurs when "[i]t is no longer the worker who employs the means of production, but the means of production which employ the worker" (Marx 1990, 425). The production process completely controlled and dominated by capital can dictate the pace of work and the type of work that is done by individual workers. As Marx would say, dead labor (machines, technology) under capitalism suck the blood of living labor-power like a vampire. I argue that a similar process occurs to other social relations such as gender, sexuality, and race once capitalism becomes the dominant mode of production in a particular social formation. While I do not have enough room in this essay to explore how each social relation gets transformed in detail, I will use Barrett's (1980/2014) work (and others) to help us think through the role ideology, and in particular gender ideology play in sustaining the capitalist system itself and how it has been so transformed by the capitalist mode of production that they both cannot function as they currently do without each other.

Alan Sears (2017, 185) argues that "[g]endered norms are not simply a discourse but a set of everyday practices framed by a matrix of power relations that structure production and reproduction in capitalist societies." Ideas about masculinity do not just emerge from nowhere, they exist and are produced in particular historical epochs. It is historically specific to the capitalist mode production that production and social reproduction (work and life) occur in different spaces (though these spaces can be "porous" as some point out). The different lived experiences between this spatial division of labor between care/social reproductive labor, historically and contemporarily occupied by women, and wage-labor creates variegated ideas and understandings about the world (Smith 1990). In relation to this we can also see how "the formation of identities around erotic preferences (such as 'lesbian')" are a "product of capitalist social organization" (Sears 2017, 173). John D'Emilio (1992, 8) offers a compelling argument that capitalism created the material foundations for the rise of a homosexual identity:

Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity-an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to the one's own sex (see also Morton 2001 for a similar argument in relation to the Closet)

Can we not see here how capitalism emerges within a given set of gender and sexual relations and fundamentally changes them to serve its own needs i.e., formally subsumes them and constructs new ideologies around them? Michele Barrett (1980/2014) argues that there is an "integral connection between ideology and the relations of production." The classical view of "relations of production" are simply defined by class relations. Barrett says this is inadequate if we want to construct a historical materialist theory of the ideology of gender, sex, race, etc. Gender "ideology has played an important part in the historical construction of the capitalist division of labor and in the reproduction of labor power" (Barrett 1980/2014, 98). In addition, "[r]elations of production reflect and embody the outcome of struggles: over the division of labour, the length of the working day, the costs of reproduction" (Barrett 1980/2014, 99, my emphasis). If we take seriously Barrett's arguments about how gender ideology is a part of the relations of production and that they play a fundamental role in reproducing the capitalist system in general, then we must engage with Althusser's ideas about ideology and its apparatuses because Althusser (2014, 209- 217) argues that the relations of production play the determining role, "in the last instance," in characterizing a social formation. I want to turn to Althusser here because I think his concept the Ideological State Apparatuses can help schematically see and understand how the gender and sexual ideology that is embedded in the relations of production are reproduced and how they can be struggled over and thus changed to benefit oppressed groups under the capitalist mode or production.

Althusser (2001; 2014) complicates the orthodox Marxist theory of the state by differentiating two apparatuses where a ruling class consolidates and perpetuates its class power-the Repressive and Ideological State apparatuses respectively (RSA and ISA). The Repressive State Apparatuses, like the army, police, the courts, the prisons, function mostly though violence and the Ideological State Apparatuses function mainly through ideology (the ruling class' ideology):

the ISAs 'function' massively and predominantly by ideology, what unifies their diversity precisely this functioning, insofar as the ideology by which they function is always in fact unified, despite its diversity and its contradictions, beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of 'the ruling class'.

It is largely within the ISAs where the relations of production are reproduced "behind a 'shield' provided by the repressive State apparatus" (Althusser 2001, 101). Examples of the ISAs are: Churches, the family, schools, law, communications (press, radio, television, etc), political ISA ("the political system, including the different Parties"), the cultural ISA ("Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.") (see Althusser 2001, 96). One may question the ISAs by saying how can the state be involved in matters that are "private" like the family, churches, literature, the Arts, sports, etc? Althusser states (2001, 97):

The distinction between the public and private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the (subordinate) domains in which bourgeois law exercises its 'authority.' The domain of the State escapes it because the latter is 'above the law': the State, which is the State of the ruling class, is neither public nor private; on the contrary, it is the precondition for any distinction between public and private. The same thing can be said from the starting-point of our State Ideological Apparatuses. It is unimportant whether the institutions in which they are realized are 'public' or 'private'. What matters is how they function. Private institutions can perfectly well 'function' as Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althusser does not mean the state owns the ISAs in any legal sense. He means that the ideology of the ruling class (which holds state power) runs throughout the different ISAs to reproduce the relations of production and thus the capitalist system as a whole. The ISAs do not reproduce the relations of production in any "functionalist" as some accuse Althusser as being (e.g., Barrett 1980/2014, amongst many others). Quite the contrary, Althusser (2014, 218-219, my emphasis) stresses that:

the dominant ideology is never…exempt from class struggle. […] the reproduction of the dominant ideology is not simple repetition, simple reproduction. It is not even automatic, which is to say mechanical…The combat for the reproduction of the dominant ideology is a combat that is never over; it has to be taken up again and again, and always under the law of the class struggle" (Althusser 2014, 219, my emphasis) [1]

One can see that change is possible both within the confines of the capitalist mode of production and even wholesale change of the mode of production if the political and material conditions allow it.

Synthesizing Barrett's and Althusser's ideas about ideology and the relations of production can be fruitful for oppressed groups under the capitalist mode of production. Even though Althusser did not necessarily theorize about gender, sex, race in any meaningful way or length, we can extend his notion of the ruling ideology that exists within each ISA as being composed of ideologies/discourses about gender, sex, race, ability, etc. With Social Reproduction Theory's expanded notion of class and class politics, we can conceptualize how oppressed groups can struggle politically to change their material and discursive relations i.e., by forcing a change in the dominant ideology in a particular Ideological State Apparatus. We can see this abstract claim if we look historically to the 1960s. The Women's and Civil Rights movements were movements that radically changed the dominant ideology that existed in the family ISA, the cultural ISA, etc. The movements from the 1960s (and other historical eras) can be broadly conceived as class struggles within the Ideological State Apparatuses. It is useful to think of class struggle in this broad conception because it can unite many people with largely different lived experience against the most organized class to ever exist in human history: capital.

Though these ideological changes within particular ISAs are important and do improve the lot of oppressed groups, as long as the capitalist mode of production exists these changes are limiting in two senses. One, the ideological changes get re-incorporated (i.e., appropriated) to the logics of capital accumulation and the production of surplus-value (i.e., capitalist profit from the exploitation of labor-power within the production process). Second, certain people within oppressed groups will always be silenced, excluded, etc., because complete "inclusion" (in quotations for the lack of a better word) and equality is impossible in a capitalist society where power relations are an ingrained structural feature. Capitalism is a class-based society and thus inherently unequal, exploitative, and oppressive.

I must mention in passing that these ideological struggles cannot be thought of as separate or divorced from their material bases. New ideas/ideologies do not just emerge from air, they are tied to the development of the productive forces:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution [(i.e., class struggle within the Ideological State Apparatuses)] (Marx 1970, 21).

Some scholars associate the move from Fordist standardized production techniques to more flexible, just-in-time production as being the material condition that undergirds the cultural shifts in the western capitalist counties to "postmodern" capitalism, a capitalism that is more "inclusive" to difference. It is a capitalism where women, and people of color can be CEOs, where there is an emphasis on "diversity" and "multiculturalism" (see for example Harvey 1989; Morton 2001). So-called multiculturalism becomes integrated into the logics of capital accumulation in postmodern capitalism. Everything from "coming out of the closet" to oppressed culture becomes commodified. One can enjoy postmodern capitalism if one can afford it. As the productive forces develop and change, so do the ideas/ideologies that correspond to them. The material conditions exist to sustain a socialist (and eventually communist) society, where poverty is eradicated and society in general can struggle to put an end to oppressions that exist in relation to identity in a real meaningful way rather than in a generic fashion as is the case in capitalist social formations. What is blocking this from happening is the capitalist class ideology that permeates through the Ideological State Apparatuses. This is where a range of political and social struggles can (and must) unite to end sexism, racism, heteronormativity, ableism, etc.


In this essay I argued that Social Reproduction Theory is the best way to understand oppression based on identity and that we have to once again take feminist arguments originally produced in the 1970s seriously again. Through SRT's understanding of oppression and its broader conceptualization of class we can better act upon on our world to change it. We have theorized enough about how bad the world is, it is time to change it; this was emphasized in the 1970s.
Cinzia Arruzza (2017, 196) urges that "diversity must become our weapon, rather than an obstacle or something that divides us." We must build solidarity amongst ourselves if we are going to win and create a better world. However, the current political forms we have cannot do this type a work. We need a multinational communist party that is led by women, LGBTQ, and people of color that intervenes in a range of struggles based on exploitation and oppression and connect how each struggle/oppression connects to the broader social whole and totality of the capitalist mode of production. Not everyone sees their group-based oppression/struggles as class struggle. This is not necessary, but a political party that is involved in a multitude of struggles can overcome this problem. Arruzza argues that "[i]n lived reality, class, race, and gender inequality are not experienced as separate and compartmentalized phenomena that intersect in an external way: their separation is merely the outcome of an analytical thought process, which should not be mistaken as a reflection of experience" (Arruzza 2017, 195). Taking a time machine back to resurrect the Marxist feminism of the 1970s (that tended to ignore difference and suffered from essentialism at times) and to put it in conversation with a nuanced and contemporary Social Reproduction Theory can provide a theoretical and political plane of analysis that is useful for activists involved in many different struggles.


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[1] I am quoting Althusser at length here out of necessity. There are plenty of misconceptions of Althusser's work in the social sciences and humanities in general and in Marxist circles in particular.