Project of Marxist-Feminist International

Frigga Haug

On the Project of a Marxist-Feminist International – a Project in Movement

Our project of summoning Marxist-feminist women internationally will be seven years old this year 2022. It was clear right from the start that we needed common grounds, a programme or a manifesto, which laid down and passed on what united us, which was at the same time binding for the initiative while it had still to be worked out together, i.e., something that came about as we were walking. In the process we needed to take down what united us and also what we still needed to discuss further so that we would not lose our footing in the turmoil of events. At the same time our connection needed to be strong enough to prevail during storms to be expected while it also had to be open enough to keep track of the many changes in society so as to be a real force within numerous upheavals, to represent a voice bearing weight. But already when we discussed the title of this text there was discord and irritation. Should we call it a manifesto, which was its intended content, or rather opt for a humbler name? Since a combination of both the references of our great project, Marxist thought on the one, feminist partisanship on the other hand, was new and, at the same time, could build on respective traditions, it was obvious that we had to write a manifesto, with the proximity to the “Communist Manifesto” being simultaneously desired, intended and avoided. Eventually, in the face of the manifold crises and developments, steps forward and throwbacks, calling it a manifesto seemed both too extravagant a name and pointing in the wrong direction especially with regard to defeats and pessimism. We neither wanted to bear the burden of the Communist movement nor pay its debts. Basically, we wanted to emphatically “inscribe” women, the female sex, into a history of struggles for liberation, thereby making use of Marxist theory as the heir to the Enlightenment and at the same time enliven, enrich and critically expand it through feminist dissent. Our claim is a great one: the goal must be contained in the path and can, at the same time only be achieved in the walking. We wanted difficult things on untrodden paths while holding on to what we had achieved in order to continue.

The start in the first conference in Berlin in 2015 was overwhelming in terms of the number and diversity of women who had come, their commitment, their willingness to listen and to speak up themselves – it seemed all the easier to capture what we had achieved by giving ourselves a big name. But precisely because our project was understood by many, calling it a manifesto was not open enough to new ideas. Therefore, we decided to counter the suspicion that we were trying to repeat old mistakes by leaving the naming unresolved for the time being. We called our new connectedness Our Theses and numbered[1] them one by one intending to regularly update them and so improve their durability.

I am reporting and recalling what problems and goals we formulated critically and progressively in our theses.

For the last session of the first congress in 2015 I[2] presented 14 Theses for discussion. These were not only my own suggestion, the result of my forty years of work on the women’s question, but compiled by me from the thirty-four lectures at the congress insofar as they were available in writing, and from the discussions in the workshops insofar as I was able to follow them.

I had originally suggested to author a common manifesto for our self-understanding as feminist Marxists. This met with so much resistance that we left it at the theses some of which were so self-evident, that they could be accepted without further discussion, while others were hotly debated. The time was too short, the desire to include further points and to go forward so great that we founded a special group that wanted to organise the follow-up conference in Vienna. There the discussion proper was to take place. – A number of comments was preserved for further elaboration by Nora Räthzel, who was mainly responsible for this second conference. – (These comments are available as files, some of them having come in writing, and were included in the programme folder of the Vienna Conference as were the Theses in German and English).

Of course, the factors of time, the long distances and, also, the unsettling political changes – taking place in Europe and elsewhere in the world – and the need for us to intervene, and last but not least, the failing of my physical condition, kept us occupied so that not many followed this plan, as far as I know. I will report what resulted from the correspondence after Thesis 10.

First, let me dwell shortly on the first ten Theses and how they were changed already during the debate in the congress.

Theses 1 and 2 started out with an attempt of determining Marxism-Feminism which is in itself provocative and requires consensus. The connection has to be made, a process in which both Marxism and feminism undergo a change. As far as I remember there was only one voice opting for a feminism without Marxism, which was somewhat strange in an event dedicated to the refoundation of exactly this connection and thus remained completely without an echo. There was dissent about the consequences for the revitalisation of Marxism if the focus of the analysis was put equally on those activities traditionally reserved for women, mostly unpaid and mostly taking place in the domestic sphere, and on gainful employment, around which the labour movement was founded. In short, it begins with the question of the relationship between class and gender. This discussion remains open – it is partly documented by the objection of Martha Gimenez in the book (Wege des Marxismus-Feminismus, Das Argumentbuch 314, Berlin-Hamburg 2015) and deserves further consideration. 

Equally controversial is the solution offered in Thesis 3: to focus in Marx and Engels towards the two productions, of life and the means of life, and from there to historically and concretely, study the conditions of how humans organise and produce their lives in these double relations of domination.

Thus, the comprehensive research question in Thesis 4, that gender relations are relations of production remains a further task to be tackled. 

Thesis 5 seeks to determine the position of Marxism and, hence, of Marxism-Feminism, within the sciences of capitalist societies, both of them seen as resistance to the dominant science of legitimation. It is oriented towards self-empowerment or acting from below which (since Brexit in Europe and other referenda such as the one on Stuttgart 21 in Germany and the elections of the year 2021, in which the party “Die Linke” fell below the 5%-mark) has become a recognisably difficult and risky work. This was not discussed controversially.

Thesis 6 is actually a thesis which could provoke contradiction because it is the beginning of endowing women, feminist Marxists, with a historically legitimate task of liberation, i.e., the reason proper why we come together at all. It is important to take a closer look at it and to make it a subject of discussion, because together we will find something that will last. Therefore, I am quoting it verbatim in both English and German:

6. The participation of all members of society in domination as a dimension of their capacity to act (agency) necessitates concrete study of those knots of domination that paralyse or shackle the desire for change the capitalist patriarchy. Feminists have the advantage here of having fewer privileges of participating in power, they have less to lose and more experience in viewing the world from below.

6. Die Teilhabe aller Gesellschaftsmitglieder an Herrschaft als Dimension ihrer Handlungsfähigkeit macht konkrete Erforschung der Herrschaftsknoten nötig, die im kapitalistischen Patriarchat Veränderungsverlangen lähmen oder gar ganz fesseln. Feministinnen haben hier den Vorteil, weniger durch Privilegien an der Macht beteiligt zu sein, sie haben weniger zu verlieren und mehr Erfahrung, die Welt von unten zu besichtigen.

Theses 7 and 8 are both philosophically founded in Marx and in the border zones of ontology and anthropology, they seek an answer today to the age-old question: Who is man? Which prompts the question: Who are we as women in patriarchal relationships? As feminist Marxists we always have to orient ourselves in different directions at the same time. The wording in Thesis 8 was particularly controversial:

The human being has yet to come into being – this refers to all and historically also to the relationship of the sexes, who are still in the process of rising from the brutality of the animal world to the social-human. The savage forms of violence (against women), of brutalisation, readiness for war, etc. (on which Zillah Eisenstein focused) are to be seen as non-simultaneous horrors transferred or originating from ancient relations. For Marxist feminists this catching-up development is an integral part of their liberation struggle on both sides: for themselves to achieve their subject status and their rebelling against male-human underdevelopment.

Der Mensch wird erst – das bezieht sich auf alle und historisch auch auf das Verhältnis der Geschlechter, die aus der Brutalität des Tierreichs erst ins Gesellschaftlich-Menschliche heraufsteigen. Die brutalen Formen von Gewalt (gegen Frauen), von Verrohung, Kriegsbereitschaft usw. (worauf Zillah Eisenstein fokussiert) sind als ungleichzeitige Schrecken in alten Verhältnissen zu fassen. Für marxistische Feministinnen ist diese nachholende Entwicklung auf beiden Seiten elementarer Bestandteil ihres Befreiungskampfes: für sich selbst, ihren Subjektstatus zu erringen, und ihr Aufbegehren gegen männlich-menschliche Unterentwicklung.

We could agree that the assumption that the animal world was more brutal than the world of humans, i.e., that there is a kind of higher development from animal to human in this respect, was not justifiable and even contradicts experience. That is why a reformulation is needed here which captures the thought that people, who are not guided by instinct, can use their reason, are therefore reason-controlled beings and that a different coexistence is possible. – But the struggle against violence must remain as a dimension of the feminist struggle for liberation which is always one of the achievements of what we understand to be full humanity (this wording, too, remains difficult.)

Thesis 9 summarises in a nutshell how the Marxist legacy must be expanded and adapted according to today’s questions, insights and dangers in order to remain alive. Although this thesis formulates a tension with the labour movement, there was consensus – thus its concrete elaboration remains a lasting research project.

Although there were several workshops on intersectionality, results remained unsatisfactory. It was clear, though, that non-linear thinking is required and that this connection between race, class and gender must be a major point on the agenda also of the next conference (in Bilbao)[3]

Theses 11-14 formulate the various crises we are currently facing and responses so far. They are programmatically formulated in terms of a joint task and presented once again here to encourage further discussion. Before that, however, I will report what Thonette Myking (Norway) from the working group on the theses writes in letters and as a summary:

What had been important again and again was the inner connection between organisational and structural questions on the one hand and content, i.e., theory and the praxis deducted from it of an international feminist-Marxist congress that is scheduled (for every other year) to last, on the other. It was not to be a conference among many others but one that founded an international movement and force. Agreeing on this goal also determines the content that is being argued about, that is, the topics of the conference, who the participants will be and who will help prepare the next one. Accordingly, six further theses were set up and formulated for future discussion.

Thesis 15 ties in with individuals’ diverse activities of resistance, in different spheres of society, to capitalism and patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, western sciences (called secular fundamentalism), castes, racism, sexism, heteronormativity, gender normativity and militarism.

Thesis 16 emphasises the need for strong democratic practices and plural societies which includes the protection of the natural environment and of life.

Thesis 17 aims at constructive conflict resolution and claims the existence of contradictions as necessary in the development of consciousness. Special measures for positive conflict resolution should be sought and employed in order to avoid silencing, mechanisms of exclusion, ridicule, withholding information and harassment.

Thesis 18 speaks of different forms of cooperation.

Thesis 19 promises the further development of the previous theses in order to mediate between theory and practice in such a way that the organisational method serves to develop our own democracy as initiative.

The latter is again underlined in Thesis 20 both for individuals and for all movements.

In the plenary discussion at the end (recorded by Nora Räthzel) the demand was loudly voiced to include “war” in our debates but also topics such as “the state and indigenous peoples”, “colonialism” and the “concept of reproduction”. It was agreed to conduct a discussion on the Internet and set up a blog dealing with the Theses and their development, thus further developing participatory forms at the same time. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, this has not happened yet.

But let me go back to the programmatic Theses 11-14, which might have been the focus on discussion in Bilbao. But, to my knowledge, this also has not happened.

11. In the upheavals since the crisis of Fordism, manifest in the series of crises of the rapidly globalised economy and driving people into more and more precarious conditions, women are among those that lose out, just as other ‘unequal’ ones (cultures, peoples, modes of production).

12.The dismantling of the welfare state in a globalised economy leaves the responsibility for life to women in unpaid domestic work or in low-paid wage work. We can conceive of this as ‘care crisis’, as a necessary consequence of a capitalist society, which in the shift of its economic centre to services gets into a profit squeeze, while it seizes on ever more barbaric forms of handling the crises through unequal creation of value levels (as Tove Soiland from Switzerland suggests). We can also follow the suggestion (Frigga Haug) to analyse the crises around life as the consequence of unequal time logics within hierarchically organised areas. As a politics she suggests the four-in-one perspective[4], i.e., to let policy-making be led by the disposition of time, thereby not to adapt the areas to each other, but to free them from hierarchy through generalisation. Only when all are active in all areas is a liberated society possible.

13.Common to us all is to move ‘life’ into the centre of our struggles (among others Galcerán, Lise List, Uta von Winterfeld) and thus the struggles for collectively self-determined time.

14.Our struggles are directed against dominant power and radically democratic – this requires politics from below. Resistance is situated culturally and temporally in different ways. But we are in union with Marx, to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being (1/385).

While I am repeating this, it becomes more and more clear that this horizon is stretched too far, into the sphere of that which is not realisable.

Were we, in Lund, at the conference, in which these last theses were no longer passed on, more realistic, concrete, more down-to earth than in the hopes nourished in the years before?

Conversely, we could also conclude that meanwhile the time for theses has passed and that we must become more specific. Accurate analyses of reality as a basis for our politics should take their place. These analyses, together with the report about our project which we have shared and passed on so far, must determine the future of our initiative.

In the absence of them, I will end by noting the Theses that were still available in Vienna.

[1]This numbering was important so that everyone could refer to the same thing in the discussion, yet it also proved to be a new problem when additions were made which had been dealt with elsewhere or when gaps became apparent which required new additions. So, you become unhappy when you take an older version of the theses and fail to find what you had hoped for, because it now appears under different number or has been deleted altogether. But even that is no problem as long as the spirit of the whole is passed on in a comprehensible manner. So, we had 20 Theses after our meeting in Vienna – the place with the most heated discussions –, but after Lund (Sweden) and Bilbao (Spain) we speak only of 13 Theses. We trust each other that the most recently agreed version is the one which will be passed on in trust to the meeting in the next city. These, in the truest sense of the word, are theses in motion.

[2]As far as I write as an individual author and person responsible, I speak in the 1st person singular, otherwise in the spirit of the initiative of "we", which is subject and perspective.

[3]Since, to my knowledge, this did not happen it must be passed on to the group preparing the conference in Warsaw.

[4]Frigga Haug, Die Vier-in-Einem-Perspektive. Eine Utopie von Frauen für alle, Hamburg 2008