• EL-/ transform!-Summer University 2018
  • “Under the Pavement, There Lies the Beach.”* The Awakening of a New Feminism in the Aftermath of '68

  • By Heidemarie Ambrosch | 05 Sep 18 | Posted under: Feminisms , History
  • Both bourgeois and left historiographies contain many gaps and alienating views regarding women. Especially since 1968, Feminists have begun to fill these gaps. Following Frigga Haug, I’d like to connect Marxist and feminist historiography.

    It was the merit of the Women’s Movement since 1968, to do historical research and to re-write history. It is this pre-history I want to deal with in short in my introduction, because I think it serves our understanding that both the patriarchal and the capitalist suppression must be studied together with the development of the productive forces.


    The concept of feminism dates back to the ideals of the French Revolution. Olympe de Gouges in France and Mary Wollstonecraft in England, ahead of their time, raised the demands for equal rights and liberties for men and women, demands which were quickly dumped after the revolution but could be revived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Women building organised social movements of their own is a product of Modernity, a by-product of the mass inclusion of women into the capitalist process of production since the middle of the 19th century. At the centre of the struggles of the Proletarian Women’s Movement we find demands for an improvement of working conditions in factories, universal suffrage, the struggle for peace and, at the onset of the 20th century, already the struggle for legal abortion. Communists Zetkin and Kollontai believed that the struggle for work and material independence of women, paired with the social organisation of housework would lead to equality. Patriarchal structures of domination and violence against women were not perceived or neglected. The keyword here would be “side” contradiction.

    With the massive inclusion of women into the educational system since the middle of the 1960s, which corresponded to the requirements of capital at its transition stage from its expansive to its intensive phase, the feminist movements after 1968 regained rapid momentum. Up to the 1980s, Marxist movements and debates had, in a biased way, put their main focus on the contradiction between capital and labour, while sexist and racist but also ecological contradictions remained subordinated. The reaction of the New Feminist Movement was to put their focus, again quite biasedly, on to the contradiction between the sexes/genders. It is their great merit to have founded the social category of sex/gender, something more than just a few Marxist theoreticians have never adopted in their analyses. (With regard to that, the debates here at this Summer University would well be worth closer examination). In the 1990s, with the onset of the backlash against women’s rights, social and ethnic differences moved more strongly into the focus of all feminist movements and debates. More than ever before it is obvious to me today that feminist politics is left politics at the same time or it is not feminist, and that left politics is feminist or it is not left.

    Major Points of Disagreement

    Now, let me deal with the major points of disagreement within feminist movements in the past 50 years.

     1.   Women – Victims or Perpetrators?

    I would like to start out with the feminist debate since the late 1970s about patriarchal political approaches, with the controversy about representational politics and why women ourselves have to lead the struggle for our liberation.

    Quite a short text entitled Women – Victims or Perpetrators? published by Frigga Haug, a German sociologist, at the end of the 1970s, triggered long-term discussions and disturbed the peace among leftists, because the text put into question representational politics on principle by promoting the concept of self-empowerment. It was an appeal for a different understanding of politics, with Haug using Marx as her starting-point, a thesis he formulated in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Or, in other words, men / women do not make their own history as they please, but they make it themselves. This bit of knowledge was taken up again, years later, by the movement of the social forums, yet without reference to the earlier feminist insights.

     2.   The Necessary Extension of the Concept of Labour

    Feminist movements since 1968 widened our perspective to the entire socially necessary work, by introducing the subject of house and reproductive work, family work into the discussion. But even today it seems to be difficult among the Left to understand that there is work amounting to half of all socially necessary work, performed by more than half of the population but still remaining invisible and disregarded in social analyses.

    But if we turn our eye to the entire necessary social work it is not as if – like many theoreticians of neoliberalism are trying to make us believe– we were running out of work. Not work becomes less so that we are running out of it, but payment becomes less or is withheld entirely. That is why I am a fervent advocate of an unconditional basic income, which has to be embedded in the context of demands for a new distribution of all socially necessary work. This way of looking at things seems to blur the sight of all men, because, after all, it is their own privileges that are at stake.

      3.   The Dispute about the Quota

    One might think that it is a matter-of-course that women participate in all spheres of life with equal rights. But only with great effort, things can be moved in this respect. As, in particular, our left male comrades-in-arms do not turn to feminist analyses, they can only think of men when brainstorming about speakers. And even if they can think of a woman it will be one without a clear feminist standpoint.  

    The struggle for the quota is fought on different levels:

    • symbolic: for a gender-equitable language;
    • economic: regarding the appreciation of female labour and on the;
    • political: for democracy, self-empowerment or representational politics;

    Gender Relations are Production Relations

    Understanding the relations between the sexes as productive relations is the central idea in Haug’s theory, an idea I want to deal with in the following.

    Everything that defies acceleration, automation, rationalisation and therefore does not yield enough profit and cannot be marketed, must be performed by humans, or the work simply will not get done. Marx called this the economy of time which structures the capitalist mode of production and his vision was that by means of industrial development it must be possible to reduce the necessary working time – something we witness today with our own eyes – so that altogether and in the development of society as a whole there would remain more time for self-awareness and the development of the cultural and actual human nature. But organised as it is in a capitalist mode, the economy of time only leads to a deepening of the split within society and does not lead to more time for developing our human capacities; rather the economy of time is made use of to increase profits.

    Together with Frigga Haug, I plead for inscribing feminism into the very core of Marxism, to include it into the central Marxist concept of relations of production which refers to the way in which humans produce their lives. Marx himself writes that people do that in two ways, they produce their own life and fresh life external to themselves. They produce life external to themselves in procreation, they produce their own life by developing and reproducing themselves as humans in this process. And they also do so by producing food and commodities. That means that right from the start we have two modes of production: the one which leads to new human beings, the other one which creates the food and commodities these people need.

    Another idea is that the production of life, of both one’s own life via labour and of fresh life via procreation is a double relation right from the start, a natural and a social one. It is a social one in the sense that it requires the cooperation of several individuals. Consequently, Marx demands that the history of mankind must be considered and shaped as both the history of industry and the history of exchange. But the next step is missing, namely that the history of industry and exchange must always be studied together with the history of the natural social relationship, procreation. Taking a view of family and population politics requires opening one’s eyes to the constructions of that what is considered natural, of what sexes are supposed to be and how these questions are supported and secured on the levels of morals, ideology and symbols, how they are organised and this, finally, opens the perspective on patriarchal structures.

    Haug detects another inconsistency. At the outset of industrialisation, Marx and Engels discovered in their analyses that two thirds of the proletariat were female, but still they continued to regard the proletariat as a male category in their analyses. They did not go further considering the question why the proletariat actually had to be male. In a marginal note, Marx recorded in a laconic remark that the capitalist could leave the reproduction of substitute men to the labourer’s instinct of self-preservation, just as if that were a natural law. But he did not continue to conclude that capitalism is a mode of production which requires a male wage labourer who has a housewife taking care of his reproduction and the reproduction of the commodity of working power. If that does not happen, as was the case at the beginning of industrialisation, this leads to the destruction of the foundations of the reproduction of the working class and thus to the destruction of the working class itself. This is the problem neoliberalism is facing today, quite similar to the beginnings of industrialisation.

    Challenges for Today

    Let me conclude with possible challenges for today with theses from the previous two conferences on Marxism-Feminism in Berlin and Vienna, with the next one to follow in Lund / Sweden in October.

    Integrating Feminism into Marxism and changing the later in the process requires a critical view of traditional Marxism which refers to the working-class alone. Marxism is Marxist critique of political economy, of issues of ownership and of the labour movement – this amounts to its incomparable power. But it also makes visible its limits. The fate of the working class also shows traditional Marxism’s inability to recognize and develop further questions surpassing the historical horizon of the class struggles. To the new feminist questions as well as to questions of ecology this traditional Marxism is not receptive. It must be further developed, like Rosa Luxemburg has already demanded in sharp words. Both the richness of the manifold movements and the still unused richness of Marx’s cultural heritage require its development up to and for the presence. The struggles about “race, class and gender” (intersectionality) need to be further developed taking into account that the knots of domination are tied quite differently culture-wise.

    In the upheavals following upon the crisis of Fordism and in the economy globalised at high speed, with crisis following upon crisis which drive people into ever more precarious relations, women are among the losers like others that are considered different and therefore unequal (cultures, peoples, modes of production).

    The Four-in-One-Perspective

    The dismantling of the welfare state in the globalised economy leaves to women the care for life in unpaid domestic work or in badly paid waged work. We can understand this as the crisis of care and as a necessary consequence of capitalist society in a profits squeeze after having shifted the economic centre to services, a profit squeeze which results in ever more barbaric ways of dealing with the crises resulting from unequal levels of value added. Personally, I follow Frigga Haug’s suggestion to analyse the crisis regarding life as a consequence of different time logics in hierarchically related areas. Regarding concrete politics, she suggests the Four-in-One-Perspective, that is, focusing politics on the availability of time, thereby not assimilating the different areas to each other but de-hierarchizing them by means of generalisation. Only when everybody is active in different areas, a liberated society becomes possible. The Four-in-One-Perspective demands the reduction of waged labour to four hours a day, of course without reducing salaries, so that further four hours remain for sharing reproductive work, four hours for political work and four for our individual development. That is why we thwart the law passed in a hurry by the Austrian parliament to introduce the 12-hour-working day and instead demand a 16-hour working-day in the sense of Four-in-One.


    * Title of a song by the German feminist group Schneewittchen, 1978, in the German original: “Unter dem Pflaster, da liegt der Strand";


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