The Wrongful Rejection of Big Theory (Marxism) by Feminism and Queer Theory: A Brief Debate

AuthorDana Neacsu
PositionHead of Public Services at Columbia Law School Library and a New York attorney

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A specter is haunting America's Left-which includes feminist and queer theories-the specter of fear: the fear of being perceived as "mediocrely petty-bourgeois and vaguely social-democratic,"1 the fear of participating in "any enterprise aimed at building[] against all forms of particularism."2 This is the fear of "essentialist" meta-narratives;3 it is a fear of Marxism.

The Left avoided the damaging perception of Marxism by embracing postmodernist thought.4 Like any theory born toward the end of a century,Page 126 postmodernism nurtured a fin de siecle atmosphere, based on derision, disillusion, and parody of style.5 "Reason" became a metaphor, which ridiculed "the man who wishes to be taken seriously as a philosopher."6 Thus, the Left embraced postmodern and poststructural French thought as its theoretical foundation to explain the "other"7 and such universal social problems as those posed by gender and sexual orientation discrimination.

It is common knowledge that, despite their universality, Marx addressed neither gender nor sexual orientation discrimination in his theory of capitalism.8 Marx focused on the public sphere where the worker's alienation and self-alienation took place.9 He famously explained how the worker felt at home only in his leisure time, while at work he felt homeless.10 While Marx's observations were about workers generally (women, men, and children), he was aware of the inhuman plight that women and children were exposed to at home and in the public sphere.11

Marx described their predicament across Europe from the Danube to the Atlantic Ocean.12 For example, the Danubian Principalities, which are now Romania, embraced the corvee system during the second half of the nineteenth century.13 Under this system, entire peasant families-which included of course, women and children-had to work three days a week "gratis for the capitalist"-the owner of the land.14 Similarly, in England, the "cotton-spinning" industry employed children as young as seven yearsPage 127 old, from six o'clock in the morning to nine o'clock at night, six days a week.15 Women, presumably, were exposed to similar or worse treatment. Nevertheless, Marx was not a feminist. While critical of the status quo, he was not concerned with women's subordination.16 Marx was concerned with commodification,17 with the never-ending process of the creation of new wants that were, by their nature, impossible for the working class to satisfy, causing alienation that begged for wages and eventually exploitation. Marx was aware of gender discrimination, but he very likely thought of it as a result of capitalist exploitation. Moreover, he perceived the very nuclear family as a means to satisfy the capitalist production by ensuring the transfer of property only to the children the wife bore to her husband.18 Capitalist exploitation may well be the result of the exercise of power in a patriarchal society, but he ignored such an analysis,19 and he obviously did not deal with that scenario, because he thought that the most meaningful group identity was economic: neither genetic, age-related, nor cultural.20 Certainly, there is a difference in degree between a child-worker's exploitation and that of his parents, butPage 128 Marx let the liberals, often identified as "liberal cretins,"21 minimize it. Similarly, Marx was not a queer theorist.22 To my knowledge, he ignored sexual orientation discrimination.

To the extent that there had been a Marxist Left in the United States, gender and sexual orientation discrimination eventually replaced the Marxist "essentialist" discourse.23 Currently, identity politics24-politics focused on non-economic "identity" features25-is dominating the Left-leaning public discourse.

Despite the opposing stance of Marxism and identity politics, identity politics relies on "essentialist" points of view.26 On one hand, it tends to reduce its members' identity to some non-economic given trait as determining its individual members' point of view.27 On the other hand, postmodern thought, despite its aspirations, is strikingly modernist.28 It assumes "a grand narrative to make sense of it all."29 For example, Catharine MacKinnon-who acknowledged that "[fjeminism has no theoryPage 129 of the state"30-also recognized that feminist literature relies on either a liberal or a Marxist understanding of society.31 Thus, to the extent that identity politics does not use "redemptive human projects,"32 as Fredric Jameson noted in 1984, and does not care about the world around it, it may be perceived as socially reactionary. Identity politics endorses the existing order,33 which epistemologically relies on essentialist assumptions that Aldous Huxley's Brave New Worlc34 describes so well.35

At first glance, it may seem that identity politics and Marxism have very little in common, but that may not necessarily be true. Of course, '"if you lick my nipple,' [as Michael] Warner remark[ed], 'the world suddenly seems comparatively insignificant,'"36 and with it any macro socio-economic analysis. Identity becomes central and more than a cultural trait; it becomes "the performance of desire."37 It becomes a place of "ideological and material contestation over need"38 in other words, an ideology that demands legitimacy for its desire. However, Marx too talked about desire, albeit as the result of the never-ending production of commodities.39

Moreover, this Article suggests not only that identity politics and Marxism have similarities, but that they need each other. Feminist and queer symbolism need a grand social theory to attract popular support for their demands and a re-discovery of Marxism may do just that.

Ontologically, Marxism is useful to go beyond the regressive nature of postmodern politics that stresses micro-politics to the detriment of massPage 130 politics. While "identity politics seems to breed more identity politics,"40 Marxism can provide the grounds to unify the disparate political movements. It can "provide values and ideals that might unite specific movements for specific goals."41 This would be a bold move for identity politics, which has distanced itself from the masses, seemingly in a desire to be beyond Left and Right.42 However, such distancing is hard to achieve, and is often perceived as undemocratic. For example, gay and feminist activism in the former Soviet bloc arrived with "right-wing neo-liberal ideology."43

Empirically, it might be shown that all major achievements of identity politics took place at a time when the Marxist concepts of "exploitation" and "alienation" were more commonly used than today.44 For instance, perhaps it was the Left-leaning public discourse during the mid-1960s and early 1970s that caused the Supreme Court to recognize the existence of certain women's rights among the other fundamental individual rights.45 Moreover, it is well known that "the greatest gains for affirmative action for Blacks and other oppressed people and women were made under Republican Richard Nixon's presidency in the early 1970s"46 as the likely result of public pressure.47

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Today, by contrast, when a Marxist-constructivist critique of capitalism is taken derisively by so-called progressive lawyers and politicians, even more modest demands-by Marxist standards-can easily be viewed as extreme by both courts and legislators. Absent the Marxist ethical foundation of social justice, identity theories seem to have lost their social edge as well as their goals of resistance and insurgency. Today, feminism is not about socialism-that is too silly.48 Today, feminism seems more focused on lending credibility to "progressive corporate law."49

Current cultural politics discuss two forms of postmodernism: one of "reaction" and one of "resistance."50 The reactionary form "would seem to be [an example] of pure commodification and involves 'an instrumental pastiche of pop- or pseudo-historical forms.'"51 Conversely, the resistant form is "concerned with a critical deconstruction of tradition . . . with a critique of origins, not a return to them."52 Feminist and queer theories belong to the latter form of postmodern theories.53 By rejecting the Marxist theoretical framework, however, the theories may end up focusing too much on the individual, thus sharing the conservative's reactionary social policies that individuals (unlike corporations) do not deserve government subsidies.54 Marxism promotes the values of ensuring a decent lifestyle for all, which underlines both its compatibility with the social and economic rights discourse and its potential role in helping feminist and queer theories reconnect with the "others" that are not part of their culturally identified groups. Through the discourse of human rights in its broader usage, which goes beyond our provincial limitation to civil and political rights,55 the "others" may be more able to empathize with thePage 132 specific demands made on behalf of women and those in the queer community.

I Marxism as the Big Bad Wolf

Marxism56-which I explain in much more depth elsewhere57-is usually described as a comprehensive theory that articulates "the principal lines of historical [human] development as a whole."58 Jon Elster refused to define it per se, but asserted that Marxism could be viewed as the theoretical developments of Marx's writings.59 Thus, at a minimum, Marxism is Marx's writings. Marxism is an essential theoretical foundation for any progressive (mass) movement because it "includes both a specific conception of the good life, and a specific notion of distributive justice."60 Instead of being ignored,61 Marxism can be used as the theoretical base of any progressive identity theory as...

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