Summary: Discusses significant role of women, especially Women of Color, in revolutionary struggles, in order to show that women’s liberation and an anti-racist agenda are central to Marxist-Humanism. Adapted from parts of the author’s “A Revolutionary Subject: Pedagogy of Women of Color and Indigeneity” (Peter Lang Publishers, 2019). — Editors
Women’s active participation in revolution has historically often been erased, their leadership capacity often ignored and their specific insights as historically oppressed beings dismissed. This is especially true with regard to Women of Color and Indigenous women. The task of reclaiming this history has been increasingly taken up by women in the last half century. Still, in political circles of the radical left their presence and more so their voices are often missing or minimized, even though at the grassroots level it is women who are often in the daily trenches organizing, marching, and providing needed services. Here we all have to become convinced that Marxist-Humanism is a philosophy for and of the oppressed and thus also for and of Women of Color –we have to come to recognize and create spaces that honor the experiences and insights – the “Reason and force” (as Raya Dunayevskaya argued) of Women of Color and Indigeneity. We also need to convince Women of Color that Marxist-Humanist organizations can be social spaces where our liberation – the liberation of Women of Color, along with that of all others, in both philosophy and in our everyday practice – is a central goal.
It is not uncommon for radical left organizations to struggle with internal tensions surrounding class reductionism and the so-called “identity politics,” particularly in regard to race and class, but also in terms of gender equity. Further, Indigeneity is rarely addressed among non-Indigenous scholars or activists beyond the critique of the history of colonization and current imperialism, with little discussion of existing settler colonialism, neo-colonial relations, or Western ways of defining humanity, epistemology, and organizational structures. This can be significantly disheartening to radical Indigenous women and Women of Color who recognize that although the capitalist mode of production demands an exploited class and thus holds explanatory power, racism and sexism are equally terrorizing structures.
Marxist-Humanism, as developed by Raya Dunayevskaya, considers the totality of Marx’s works, recognizing that his early work in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, was profoundly humanist and led to and embeds his later works, including Capital. Dunayevskaya challenged the narrow ways in which Marx’s work has generally been characterized as an economic critique of capitalism and instead argues that he developed a philosophy of revolution, a theoretical and practical path to a “new humanism” – a new non-alienated human being, whose values and ways of being in the world would arise out of more humane social conditions.
Inherent in this goal to eliminate exploitation and create a classless society is an anti-imperialist, anti-racist and anti-sexist imperative with a commitment to recognize the human right of every individual to engage in creative and life-affirming labor, beyond necessity, that would provide the conditions for real freedom, equality, social responsibility, and unfettered love based on a mutual respect of our many differences.
Marx was a dialectician. He recognized that class struggle involves the struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation and that at times it is these struggles that must take precedence as we build an alternative to capitalism. Marxist-Humanism condemns critiques that particular movements are weak or unworthy of our attention because they may not be specifically professing a class agenda. Marx himself supported particular movements for self-determination. In Marx at the Margins, Kevin Anderson makes a strong case for the fact that Marx recognized the dialectical nature of race and class, such that racism truncated the possibility of developing class consciousness but that he also saw movements for self-determination and other reform movements as worthy in and of themselves.
For example, Marx took great interest in the United States Civil War. He condemned American slavery. Marx recognized slavery to be an economic system spawned of primitive accumulation and pointed out that without slavery the cotton industry in the United States could not have existed, which was instrumental to the development of capitalism. And he proclaimed the intent of the Confederates to continue to amass capital by breaking the souls and bodies of Black peoples. In his words,
The war of the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defense, but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the spread and perpetuation of slavery.
He also stated:
In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.
Although initially hopeful that the working class would unite against the horrors inflicted upon Black slaves in the South, the Serfs in Russia, and the Fenians in Ireland, he finally came to understand that racism and ethnicity were very effective tools for dividing the working class and eliminating the threat of class struggle. In a letter to his friends Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt written in 1870, Marx explains this division between the working class of England and Ireland.
Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life … He regards himself as a member of the ruling nation, and consequently, he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
Marx’s comments reflect the three important functions of racism beyond slavery: (1) to create an ideological ferment against People of Color that serves to justify inequality; (2) to minimize the value of a segment of the working class and drive down the wages of all workers; and (3) to divide the working class and thereby weaken the working-class consciousness and unity necessary to bring down capitalism.
Yet there is an important ideational element to oppression that is dialectally related to the material impact and that has led to the significant traction that “identity politics” holds today. Frantz Fanon has brilliantly depicted the psychological impact of oppression; most working-class People of Color and Indigenous people, myself included, have every reason to feel ill at ease among white people. In the United States for example, not only do many of us know few white persons at a personal level, being racially segregated in working-class neighborhoods and work spaces (Indigenous persons living in American Indian reservations may know even fewer), but we also experience white persons mostly in positions of authority over us—our teachers, our doctors, our bosses and often these people perpetrate against us because they operate under the very system of power and privilege that historically rendered us less than human. While there are many white persons today and even throughout history that have and continue to challenge these atrocities, we can still see across every sphere of life that our material conditions reflect a racism that is deeply rooted in the American “structural unconscious”—and manifested in education, housing, employment, health, politics, and the arts. While People of Color are often rendered incapable or unworthy, Indigenous persons are often conveniently made invisible as if they no longer exist. We also have every reason and every right to seek out social spaces that reflect our experiences of oppression and exploitation, our concerns and interests and where we can feel at ease and be recognized as worthy, smart and beautiful – a social space to be “truly seen”.
Identities are formations that reflect our history of oppression and exploitation. We still have to find a way to work through these very real fractures among us because the divisions only support the maintenance of the white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist class. We have to start building bridges by acknowledging and accepting that racism, sexism, and other antagonisms exist and that people have an important need and desire to embrace their identities and have them validated. While this alone will not create the material conditions for us to thrive, it is a necessary (although not sufficient) step for us to claim the reins of history.
This does not mean I support the cultural turn, with its postmodern and poststructuralist emphasis on difference, that has discursively deployed extreme versions of an identity politics that preclude any sense of shared essential qualities in either our humanity or the oppression and exploitation of oppressed communities, precluding any possibility of working together. In one version, identity politics highlights the multiplicity of singular identities based on diverse experiences and infinite intersectionalities. This is the so-called postcolonial hybridity that renders culture defunct as a political category. At the other extreme is the development of definitive markers of cultural identity that can become exclusionary.
Yet in Marx’s dialectical tradition we need to consider what are the movements around which we can mobilize most effectively, understanding that these movements have legitimate claims to focus on improving their social conditions now, while simultaneously working to understand how these issues relate to the broader goal of building an alternative to capitalism. A race-first approach as proposed by Peter Hudis is not a parallel to class reductionism but rather recognizes three important points:
- That racism is a dehumanizing structure of oppression that is literally killing non-white peoples across the world and an important site of struggle
- That a race struggle from oppressed layers of society must eventually recognize the need for class struggle
- That racism has become the greatest rallying point for mobilization among exploited and oppressed peoples
Marx was also an advocate of women’s liberation throughout his life, noting that the family was a microcosm of capitalist relations.
The division of labour in which all these contradictions are implicit, and which in its turn is based on the natural division of labour in the family and the separation of society into individual families opposed to one another, simultaneously implies the distribution, and indeed the unequal distribution, both quantitative and qualitative, of labour and its products, hence property, the nucleus, the first form of which lies in the family, where wives and children are the slaves of the husband. This latent state of the family, though still very crude, is the first form of property, but even at this stage it corresponds perfectly to the definition of modern economists, who call it the power of disposing of the labour power of others. Division of labour and private property are, moreover, identical expressions: in the one the same thing is affirmed with reference to activity as is affirmed in the other with reference to the product of the activity.
When Marx states that private property and the division of labor are identical expressions he is referring to the identical process of disposing of the labor power of others, which defines the individual in capitalist society, including the woman, solely as worker, as commodity, and in which both the labor and the product of labor turns on the individual and confronts her antagonistically to confine her as a slave.
He goes further to suggest that we can measure the level of our humanity by the extent to which the man woman relation has become the human-human relation.
The direct, natural, necessary relationship of human being [Mensch] to human being is the relationship of man [Mann] to woman [Weib]. … Therefore, on the basis of this relationship, we can judge the whole stage of development of the human being. From the character of this relationship it follows to what degree the human being has become and recognized himself or herself as a species being; a human being; the relationship of man to woman is the most natural relationship of human being to human being. Therefore, in it is revealed the degree to which the natural behavior of the human being has become human…
Although in this passage we witness Marx’s heteronormative worldview (he was a man of his time), the passage makes clear that Marx was at least as concerned with transforming gender relations as he was with the eradication of class. Here, he equates gender relations with human relations and thus marks gender relations a central consideration in the development of humanity.
Dunayevskaya points out that from his earliest works, Marx was after something much bigger than a mere change in economic relations. His vision was for the proletariat to take the reins of history and develop a new humanism, a society wherein alienation ceases to exist—the absolute negation of the alienated existence we endure under capitalism and the emergence of a new person and a new society guided by love, dignity, and social responsibility.
Marx’s opposition to private property was very far removed from a question of ‘property.’ Rather his opposition… was due to the fact that it ‘completely negates the personality of man…
Following Marx, Dunayevskaya placed significant emphasis on the “Reason and force” of women and on the potential of the Black liberation movement to lead us toward revolution. Indeed, we have seen time and again that in the US the greatest movements have been jump-started by the Black masses, including today with the women of Black Lives Matter who have jump-started a new era of social activism.
Many women and People of Color are turned off to Marx on the basis of accusations that he was a sexist and racist “old white man.”
Of course, in many ways, Marx was a man of his time. Consider that at the time in which Marx lived women’s lives were considerably more restricted than today, socially, economically, and politically. It was not until 1893, ten years after Marx died, that the first nation, New Zealand, granted women the right to vote. In England, where Marx spent most of his adult life, women did not gain the right to vote until 1918, but, even then, the vote was restricted to women age 30 or older who held property. The right to vote was not extended to all women in England until 1928.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, even with a certain level of ambivalence toward women’s equality, his writings on women, gender relations, and the family were particularly revolutionary. He fully recognized the treatment of women as property, wrote about the social conditions that pushed many women into prostitution or suicide, noted the Paris Commune women’s agency and courage, and treated his wife and daughters as intellectual beings, sharing his work with them and championing their political involvement.
The most substantive critique against Marx and Marxism among feminists is Marx’s definition of “productive labor,” as “abstract labor” or labor that directly produces surplus value. The critique is that Marx was so androcentric that he failed to recognize or gave little import to the array of work that is often termed “women’s work,” or domestic labor—child bearing and rearing, housekeeping, cooking, and other forms of caring and emotional work. While this work would be considered “concrete” or labor that produces use value, feminists have long argued that this work indirectly increases or makes possible the “productive labor” that creates surplus value by making, generally speaking, men’s lives easier and more pleasant after work so they can be physically and psychologically prepared for the next day of paid work. Lise Vogel adds to this analysis by arguing that women’s greatest and unique productive activity is the production of the next generation of workers and their labor power—the capacity to labor, which is crucial to capitalist production.
Certainly, these are crucial activities to the survival of any society, including under capitalism. However, Marx was describing the process of capital accumulation, such that only the work that created surplus value—profit—would be considered “productive” to the capitalist. Marx never minimized the importance of use value. In fact, his vision for a new society was to be based on use value. Certainly, Marx could have and should have discussed more fully the role of so-called “women’s work” in capitalist production. However, that he did not do so cannot be presumed to mean that his philosophy of revolution cannot speak to women’s liberation. The assumption that Capital’s focus on “productive labor” is invisible to the work of women, suggests a normalized existence for women around middle and upper-class standards. Working-class women have always had to work for pay.
An important aspect of Marx’s critique of alienated labor is the separation of manual from mental labor. In the gender division two dualisms are operating: (1) a dualism between what has traditionally been considered appropriate women’s work and men’s work and (2) the perception that “woman’s work” is predominantly instinctual (non-thinking) and men’s work is cognitive. The first dualism must be smashed by negating the idea that women cannot engage in the type of work that men have traditionally done. Generally speaking, women have made some important gains in breaking down this barrier and positioning themselves in traditionally male fields. This is especially true under the so-called communism of Cuba and in other more developed nations, although the atrocities that continue to be committed against women demonstrate that there is still much work to be done. Dealing with the second dualism has not even been attempted. Few efforts have been made to negate the perception that “women’s work” is purely instinctual and requires little thought. While some aspects of this work may be thus, others, especially the socialization of children into adulthood requires significant cognitive, psychological, and communicative skills. The socialization of “women’s labor”—turning childcare and housework into waged work for other women, created opportunities for predominantly middle-class white women to enter traditionally male spaces but it did nothing to challenge the devaluation of childcare and other caring work that was left to predominantly poor Women of Color.
In addition, Marx’s concept of the human-nature relation can be especially fruitful to women’s liberation. It has long been proclaimed that it is women’s nature to bear and raise children—that they have particular essential biological and physiological qualities that give them the natural instincts and temperament for “caring work.” Marx’s theory of human nature and the relationship of our social being to our nature challenges the biological determinism embedded in this patriarchal and sexist argument. According to Marx, human nature is socially constructed and historically specific to the mode of production. Nancy Holstrom explains that according to Marx, even the biological determinants of human nature take on new forms through history and evolve in ways that stretch its biological ties. “As new needs and capacities are continually being created, biology remains an important determining factor, but human life progressively becomes less directly tied to its biological base. Rather than a narrowly defining determinism, biology merely determines a wide range of possibilities in human beings. As technology develops, biology or nature is socioculturally adapted to serve social and cultural needs. Consider that women decide if and when they will give birth and have at their disposal the ability to considerably reduce the possibility of pregnancy and to terminate an existing pregnancy (regardless of laws). In addition, traditional ways of reproducing are also changing through technology, such that people who, in previous generations, would have been unable to give birth can now be inseminated. Biology is thus always subject to social and cultural conditions.
Accordingly, the gender division of labor has developed particular “natures” among men and women. Yet we can see, given current historical developments in gender fluidity, that the possibilities are much wider than have been made normative. A change in the way we labor will undoubtedly have a significant impact on what human beings develop in terms of temperament, proclivities, instincts, etc.
Beyond the relationship of this human to nature binary to gender is the critique that Marx’s humanism carries an oppressive relation to nature. Specifically, Marx’s vision for a free humanity “beyond necessity” is misconstrued as total human manipulation and domination over nature with the eventual goal of transcending our dependence on nature.
The corpus of Marx’s work, however, suggests that while human beings produce their livelihood through the manipulation and appropriation of nature, we are also defined by and dependent on nature. In other words, humanity and nature are interdependent through a dialectical relation that is mediated (not dominated) by our labor. This is an important clarification since it is one of the most significant critiques among Indigenous peoples whose traditions and beliefs are based on a view of nature as sacred and human beings as stewards of the Earth rather than the pillagers we have become.
Paralleling feminist critiques of gender blindness, critiques have argued that Marx was Eurocentric, with a Western lens that relegated Indigenous communities and People of Color to the margins of humanity. Connected to this is the argument that his theory of revolution provided a universal path to communism that would be led by the “more developed” world. Inherent in such a claim is the advanced development of the white man whose imperial violence upon the non-Western world was both necessary and desirable in order to bring these countries in line to follow Western development. While this Eurocentric perspective is evident in his early work, Kevin Anderson has demonstrated that Marx’s perception of non-Western peoples began to shift as he studied the non-Western world and their struggles against Western imperialism. In Marx at the Margins, Anderson traces the chronology of Marx’s work, thereby demonstrating the impact of his studies and his theoretical growth; specifically, Marx developed what Anderson calls an “internationalist” outlook wherein he recognized the great human potential for revolutionary action among the most oppressed peoples in the world.
Although the young Marx mistakenly believed that capitalism would save the world from its “barbarism” and would create the necessary conditions (industrialization) for communism to develop, his studies of English imperialism brought him to emphatically denounce the British for their savage and barbaric treatment of the Chinese, and to eventually seek new paths to socialism.
Dunayevskaya points out that in the last decade of his life, disillusioned with the setbacks faced by workers’ movements in the west and inspired by the diversity in development he encountered in his studies of pre-capitalist societies, Marx set out to find a new path to communism. Although incomplete upon his death, his extensive collection of notes, some of which have now been published as his Ethnological Notebooks, gave further credence to women’s agency and their species being but also to that of non-Western societies and Indigenous peoples.
Marx studied diverse forms of clan life, including different forms of marriage, lineage, and property rights. Importantly he did not view these as stages, with one following the other. Commonalities of these pre-capitalist societies included that they each had a labor system that emphasized use value even though they did usually have ruling classes that extracted a surplus product from the peasantry. Marx argued that of all modes of production, the Asiatic form was least like modern capitalism and had a greater life span. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse, “Here labor itself still half artistic, half end in itself.” Although conceptualized geographically, Marx recognized this Asiatic form in India, Indonesia, Russia, Peru, and Romania. Marx kept reassessing this mode of production and began to consider how specific aspects could be incorporated into the communism that would come after capitalism.
In particular, Marx noted the greater gender equality and freedoms that women enjoyed within the gens (clan), especially the Iroquois women, than in the later patriarchal and modern nuclear family. He noted that a strict division of labor existed wherein women were primarily involved in food preparation while men were out doing the hunting. However, Marx noted that food preparation was a highly valued and status activity.
Marx perceived that women had greater power in clan society because their food gathering and preparation activities were the clans’ primary source of subsistence whereas the meat men hunted was predominantly a luxury item. The detailed examples of life among various peoples support Maria Mies’s theory that “tools of destruction” led to the theft and enslavement of women to work in food harvesting, which increased food production. Here we find the introduction of property and class distinctions within the clan. The increased production which made smaller family units possible and the increased conflict within the clan led eventually to the disintegration of the clan system and the establishment of the patriarchal family, defined by property relations in which wives, children, slaves, and servants were all members of the family. This property relation led to a desire to establish paternity in order to determine inheritance rights. Women’s lives thus became highly controlled to ensure they would have only one male partner, whereas the same expectation did not apply to men. In addition, Marx noted that women under the patriarchal family were more vulnerable due to the lack of family support that existed within the clan. “Civilization,” was thus a process that took away women’s freedoms. Marx notes that the strict legal controls over women, however, indicate that they were not complacent in the face of their oppression but likely actively resisted. Thus, Marx recognized women, even under constant threat and oppression, to be historical Subjects.
In addition, Marx drew from pre-capitalist civilizations in developing his ideas about the relationship between humanity and nature and the “metabolic rift” that occurred when human beings were separated from the land that was their means of production.
According to Dunayevskaya, Marx noted that the strife recorded between the chiefs and the ranks was evidence of incipient class struggle already taking place within primitive communism. He recognized this discovery to mean that communism did not first require a linear passage through capitalism. Rather, multiple paths to communism existed and there was a definite possibility that the Russian peasantry could become the vanguard of communism, leading the way for the West to join forces. However, it is critical that we not equate Marx’s humanist philosophy of revolution and his vision for a new society with the various communisms that have distorted his ideas and his ideals.
A Revolutionary Subject
History, as written by Western ideologists, predominantly men, has rendered women and especially Women of Color and Indigenous women invisible.
We can recognize the centuries-old patriarchal and white supremacist structures of the world at play in this. Certainly, for the most part, stories of past revolutions have been told and studied by men. The erasure of women in these accounts has reinforced the sexist portrayal of women as weak and fragile and has led to the false assumption that during revolution, women have opted to remain home with their children while men courageously stared death in the face with their rifles. In fact, women have not only been involved in all aspects of revolutionary life but also spearheaded and kept the momentum going in some of the most important revolutions in history.
With more women writing these historical accounts, we are finally documenting women’s roles in revolutionary efforts. In particular these accounts have brought attention to the ways in which women’s rights intersect with class and race struggles and the possibility that socialist movements may have better traction through a race-first approach, particularly in the United States. Finally, we are learning of the histories and courage of these women and the ways in which they often defied traditional gender conventions to fight for better conditions. They have played a host of roles and they have shaped the initial insurgencies and the goals of revolutions. Contrary to sexist ideologies, women have risked their lives and left their families and children behind to support their vision for a better world.
The goal of transforming the world and bringing humanity closer to its full potential requires that we consider who would make the most likely revolutionary Subject, meaning a person with the knowledge and agency—the human consciousness—to act and transform the world. Clearly it is the oppressed and exploited peoples who have the greatest impetus to change the world. The capitalist class that benefits from the existing structure or even the comfortable classes who are not willing to risk their current conditions may be unlikely to want radical change. In addition, racism has historically proven to be an effective tool for dividing the working class, such that whites have often opted to support the capitalist class rather than side with their class interests.
Certainly, the experiences of entire histories of poverty, oppression, exploitation, and indignities are strong catalysts for change. Indigenous women and poor Women of Color across the world face an unparalleled hyper-exploitation and an equally unrelenting thirst to make changes for themselves and their children.
The revolutionary Subject is not born as such. Rather, the revolutionary Subject is made in the process of struggle. That is, particular attitudes, values, and beliefs are learned and developed as individuals take action in processes that affirm their humanity as rational and agentic beings. In Marx’s dialectical method, the “revolutionary spirit” is not mystical but rather sensory—emerging out of severely dehumanizing material and ideological conditions where people are forced to fight for basic material needs and human dignity.
For Marx the working class was capable of transforming itself into a revolutionary Subject because its deplorable living conditions supported the impetus to transform the structures that are literally killing them but also because the basis of capitalism is the production of value, which is produced through the exploitation of labor. Thus, the working class is the one that must negate their exploitation, alter the process of production, and affirm their humanity. As Paulo Freire so aptly stated, “The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” Certainly, there is tremendous potential for these “new forces and new passions” to develop among Women of Color and Indigenous women.
Kruks, Sonia, Reyna Rapp & Marilyn B. Young, eds. Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition
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 Dunayevskaya, Raya. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, 2nd edition.
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 Dunayevskaya, Raya. Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000.
 Anderson, Kevin. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
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 Marx, Karl. Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, April 9, 1870. In Marxists Internet Archive.
 Ibid., para. 13
 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008.
 Lichtman, Richard. Essays in Critical Social Theory: Toward a Marxist Critique of Liberal Ideology.
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 Karl Marx, cited in Kevin Anderson, introduction to Marx on Suicide, p. 6; For an earlier
translation see Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, p. 48.
 Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, p. 81
 Karl Marx, The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx.
 Foster, John Bellamy. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 2 (1999): 366–405.
 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.
 Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg.