Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | On Revolution

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I begin with the Rohingyas being plowed down mercilessly in Burma.  We are of course asking in the short range for a safe zone protected by UN peacekeeping forces.  But the real requirement is a revolution in consciousness, required by UN peacekeepers whose alleged record for rape is scary, and, of course, by all ethnic cleansers – extreme identitarians – around the world.  And, given the upsurge of right-wing sentiment among the student body, I think we need to recognize that the university also requires a revolution in consciousness even as it undertakes to save the world. We have forgotten that a university is a mind-changing machine rather than merely an instrument of upward class mobility leading to entrepreneurial success.

I believe a revolution – indicating a systemic change — can only be lasting if there is a constant attempt to create a will for social justice; a constant attempt to produce the subaltern intellectual required to counteract the incessant subalternization required by the self-determination of capital within globalized capitalism. And I am stumped by the subaltern, even as I am altogether unconvinced by top-down philanthropy or class-continuous reverse racism; I am also stumped, in another way, by gender. I do not have the time to engage myself with the final problem of how to think revolution if one agrees with M. N. Roy-Bukharin-Mao, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is for the Western world and the agricultural sector is for the rest; if one considers Marx’s letter to Zasulich, if one attends to Teodor Shanin, The Late Marx and the Russian Road. I am not quoting the actual Roy-Bukharin slogan, but many of you would be able to reproduce it. As I say, I have material in the agricultural sector that would require going back to square one and not just talk Marxism and ecology. Maybe another time.

I notice that, although the title of this 13/13 was changed from “revolution” to “uprising,” we are still generally thinking “revolution.” I will move with that tenaciousness of the first word.  The texts of Marx and Engels distinguished between Umwälzung (=upheaval, curiously enough cognate with Aufhebung=sublation) and Revolution, following the German classical philosophical habit of using the Latin word for something more systemic.  I have no definition of revolution but we may want to keep the difference between uprising (tamer than upheaval) and revolution in mind.

I was initially asked to speak on Gandhi. I am not an Indianist, only an Indian. Of course as such I have an opinion of Gandhi, but for the occasion, the better analysis of how he fitted into a global consideration of revolution would have been offered by a historian or political theorist of modern India, whatever color. As it happen, Columbia is fortunate to have Akeel Bilgrami, who is both Indian and a specialist on Gandhi, although I am not absolutely sure that he would comment on Gandhi’s lugubrious gender politics.

I mention this because identity politics lays waste the democratic possibility of achieving flexibility of the imagination toward others. And I began with an example of how violent extreme identitarianism can become.

This is of course a double bind.  As I have pointed out in my recent response to Daniel Dennett for Philosophie magazine: “he is unable to appreciate the fact that he speaks from the privileged class, the privileged gender and the privileged race, so he imagines that his concerns are those of the world. His own position in the world dictates what he perceives as truth.”  Yet we must not let supremacists transform us into identitarians.  Gauri Lankesh, assassinated on September 5, 2017, invoked “universality” as the goal of people marked by caste oppression. This way of understanding “we,” claiming the subject of Marxism through the affirmative sabotage of “universalism” – not simply proposing fantasmatic counter-universals with the global South as center – may be a way out of claims to identity in intellectual work. Du Bois recommends a synthesis between race loyalty and opposition to segregation.  We recommend negotiating the double bind every moment of each day.

I support  Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar rather than Gandhi in the matter of the Indian Constitution and will touch on the fact that he interpreted caste in his esrly days as the difference between the treatment of surplus women and surplus men (as opposed to Gandhi’s poor gender politics) and that he thought learning without ethical reflex is dangerous.  Let us also keep in mind that Ambedkar devoted all his energies to securing constitutional subjectship for all rather than engaging in identity politics as an outcaste.  And, I am embarrassed to report that, the first time around, I had not noticed that caste was nowhere mentioned in Guha’s introductory essay to the first volume of Subaltern Studies, published in 1982.  Achyut Chetan’s dissertation will provide information on the contribution of women to the making of the Indian constitution.

As regards this Gandhi/Ambedkar intervention, let me point out that national liberation, in spite of many uprisings, is not a revolution.

National liberation is not a revolution – formally, a systemic change? – because it is generally brought about by the progressive bourgeoisie (Lenin’s too well-known phrase) on an orientalist model of the nation being liberated and the national population are neither epistemologically nor politicaly continuous with it.  Also, there is often another problem for a revolution to occur.  As Marx and Engels learnt from their experience of 1871: the beneficiaries of liberation cannot simply occupy the ready made state-machine, and set it in motion for its own purposes.”

In that very document, the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, where they made this comment, Marx and Engels also remarked that the progress of big business in the last 25 years have made the sections on revolution in the Manifesto outdated.  In other words, revolutionary strategy is connected to the regulation of capital, whatever revolution might be.  On one side, epistemological engagement of the entire population for systemic change.  On the other, regulation of capital.  Both of these requirements for systemic change are absent in the general culture of a network society where economic growth is implicitly development.  I can hear the young voice at the diasporic convention in Ghana as I am hiding in the confines of the decrepit Du Bois library:  “We are no longer seeking freedom.  We are seeking economic growth.”  Over against this the wisdom of our colleague, the co-author of the Global Competitiveness Index, speaking to me about the non-connection between economic growth and social inclusion.  “I can tell you about economic growth,” said Xavier Sala I Martin, “but you,” pointing at me now, “are in charge of social inclusion.”

As I have mentioned above, the general answer to social inclusion in our context is top-down philanthropy or class-continuous reverse-racism.  Why doesn’t it work?  Because the impatience of development, inserting the poor into the circuit of capital, does not come with the painstaking care to the re-arrangement of desires that might be able to generate capital for social use.  And this work does not necessarily imply regulation of capital.  Moreover, not much follow-up care is taken to ensure that the general politico-economic culture of the nation-state within which this global philanthropy is at work will tolerate the development of the deserving poor.  In other words and simply, if national liberation is not revolution, global development is no harbinger of revolution, used in the loose sense of systemic change, either.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, I had a public conversation in Calcutta with an eminent historian.  I was startled by her confidence in the passing of good laws; as much as I am by my colleague, ally and friend Joseph Stiglitz’s insistence that, if the developing countries do not take good advice, the advice should be enforced in the juridico-legal.  There can be no doubt of the absolute goodwill of these colleagues.  Yet we must insist, if we are thinking of revolution, that law is not enforcement. Law is also not a matter of developing a will to social justice. The law is separated from yet related to justice by what Derrida has called a relationship without relationship.  One might say that the letter of the law is to be rigorously embraced as a grounding error, not to be confused with the fuzzy concept of the spirit of the law.  A society where this can be maintained is close to a post-revolutionary society.

Close, for the revolution is never over, can never claim a “post,” as colonialism abundantly can.  When an Ambedkar pushes for the establishment of a general constitutional subject, it can be shown that this is roughly his goal; a society where law is “easy,” as we used to say in the sixties.  This is why law is to be defined, of course by the possibility of perjury, but also by its iterability. The idea that law is defined by interpretability is too humanistic. The revolutionary must now reckon with the post-human. The post-human can nestle in the Marxian Realm of Freedom, where no social engineering is possible, in an extra-moral sense.  Like gender in another way, it brings in the incalculable.

When asked to speak on Gandhi I proposed Du Bois as an alternative and Bernard and Jesus were altogether chagrined that room could not be made for him.   I had hoped to bring out Du Bois’s rewriting of the general strike and relate it to Rosa Luxemburg revising Marx and Engels. I have attached one of my two pieces on the General Strike.  But about making room for Du Bois I will offer another comment.  As Nahum Dmitri Chandler has argued in his XThe Problem of the Negro As A Problem for Thought, Du Bois’s work does not just pose a challenge for thinking the African-American, but it also does so to the usual philosophical broaching of general onto-epistemology.  It is a complex argument and I recommend a reading of the book to understand why room must be made for Du Bois.

Revolution requires a rearrangement of desire.  Antonio Gramsci understood this.  His formula was to produce the subaltern intellectual where the traditional intellectual is in a master-disciple relationship with the subelten environment, in order to learn how to teach the subaltern.  I note the publication of a book on Gramsci’s pedagogy subtitled “A Pedagogy to Change the World.”  My belief, after working at it for 30 years, is that writing a book for academic activists is not going to change the world.  But I am certainly going to give my time to it to see what the contribute to say.  Fanon and Gramsci were both deeply concerned if a liberal education would produce anything but an oligarchic ideology – because functional and vocational education will only give a sense of employability as a right, no citizenly (dirigential in the case of Gramsci) responsibilities. In other words, our task is not only to produce the subaltern intellectual, but also  constantly to undo the millennial presuppositions of liberal education, precolonial and colonial. Otherwise, there is no revolution, even if we could define it. Du Bois also saw the need for a liberal education – there are those famous sentences in Dusk of Dawn “the immediate problem of the Negro was the question of securing existence, of labor and income, of food and home, of spiritual independence and democratic control of the industrial process. It would not do to concenter all effort on economic well-being and forget freedom and manhood and equality. Rather Negroes must live and eat and strive, and still hold unfaltering commerce with the stars.” It is my belief that Du Bois chose rather to engage in building a will to social justice among the Black middle class rather than the Black subaltern, especially in Atlanta, after the traumatic experience in 1899 of hearing that the knuckles of the recently lynched Samuel Holt were on display in a shop window in Atlanta.  Ambedkar also saw the need for a soul-building education, as is  clear in his inclusion of the Buddhist injunction “learning without an ordered soul is dangerous.” This is to be found in an essay called “Buddha or Karl Marx?” Where we could certainly in a respectful way question his assumptions about Marxism – keeping in mind that communism occupied a very special party place in India at the time; which brings to mind George Padmore’s title “Pan-Africanism or Communism?” Where he identifies the Communist Party with white folks although, like Ambedkar, he supports socialism small “s.” However, in the essay the Pali word for “order” (sila) is translated “character.” This confronts us with the world’s wealth of languages, when we consider revolutionary formulas outside of the few that we know. I have, incidentally, absolutely no part in this university’s thinking about what to do with language teaching.  In the context of supporting a will for social justice in the subaltern soul, we should also mention the close of Darko Suvin’s recent essay on “Lessons from the Russian Revolution and Its Fallout: An Epistemological Approach: “citing Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation that I also used in the ‘Approach’ above, Jodi Dean comments that in it the ruled classes ‘have to want in a communist way…. Without collective, communist desire revolutionary upheaval moves in [a] counterrevolutionary directions’(198).  Which is exactly what has been happening in Europe and USA since 2008 or so in the rise of Fascism.”  There is no consideration of the rest of the world.

“Ruled classes” generalizes. If we are to use a generalization, I would much rather use the brilliant generalization produced at the end his book “An African Scholar” by Abiola Irele when he calls for inspired “followership” in the new Africa. I am now engaged in trying to produce an introduction to this fantastic collection, and I will be able to comment responsibly on this stunning concept-metaphor soon. Here let me simply remind ourselves that the subaltern is not generalizable – it is not a class, in Gramsci, the English word “class” is regularly used for what Gramsci calls “social groups on the fringes of history.”

Everyone wants education and schools in the current dispensation, all over the world. Therefore it needs also to be said that if this education of the subaltern – and generally, of course — is supposed to produce a will to social justice, then, if we take the ideological production of teacher and student into consideration, we have to be much more cautious – because ways of direct revolutionary doing-good may not be possible. In the “Eighteenth Brumaire” we find the statement “the human being makes their own history, but does not choose the part,” regularly translated into English as “man makes his own history, but not out of free will.” This is a problem that you don’t have in the pre-60s individualist empiricism in the Euro-US and the elite in their colonies, and the post-60s touchy-feely activism here. Regularly in Marxist-Leninist Congresses outside, one has to question the touchy-feely confidence of the US sectors, who compute success by affective resonance.  Once a US comrade said, when I had made this criticism, that he would rather trudge through nuclear waste than spend any time with me.  Strong words.

In this context, the terse Hegelian paragraph calling the phenomenological “Law of the Heart” an enemy of the law of the heart as understood by the individual is worth citing:

Through its actualization, the law of the heart precisely ceases to be a law of the heart, since it thereby takes on the form of being and is now the universal power for which this heart is a matter of indifference, so that the individual in putting forward his own order no longer finds it to be his own. Hence, through the actualization of his law, he does not bring forth his law. However, 372. Das Individuum vollbringt also das Gesetz seines Herzens; es wird allgemeine Ordnung, und die Lust zu einer an und für sich gesetzmäßigen Wirklichkeit. Aber in dieser Verwirklichung ist es ihm in der Tat entflohen; es wird unmittelbar nur das V erhältnis, welches aufgehoben werden sollte. Das Gesetz des Herzens hört eben durch seine Verwirklichung auf, Gesetz des Herzens zu sein. Denn es erhält darin die Form des Seins, und ist nun allgemeine Macht, für welche dieses Herz gleichgültig ist, so daß das Individuum seine eigene Ordnung dadurch, daß es sie aufstellt, nicht mehr als die seinige findet. Durch die Verwirklichung seines Gesetzes bringt es daher nicht sein Gesetz, sondern indem sie



since both in itself the actualization is his own but is, for him, alien, what he produces is merely that he gets himself entangled in the actual order, namely, he gets himself entangled in an order which is not only alien to him but which is also an enemy which possesses superior strength.


In the “Eighteenth Brumaire,” Marx speaks of self-separation in order to become a revolutionary – we can approach this from our point about a flexibility of the imagination which can approach others who do not resemble us – for revolution is not just for rights but also for democratic responsibility:. Here is the famous Marx passage: “The beginner who has learned a new language always retranslates it into his mother tongue: he can only be said to have appropriated the spirit of the new language and to be able to produce in it freely when he can manipulate it without reference to the old, and when he forgets the language rooted in him when he uses the new one.”  It is once again a matter of learning a foreign language as if it could be a first language. At the teacher of comparative literature I have written so much on this that here I simply attach the pertinent article.

Marx presents the proletarian revolution as responding to situational imperatives from the outside, pushed to keep its promise, rather than choose a planned moment.  Marx does this by way of a story which is about not being able to keep a false promise – where the guy in Aesop said he could jump across the Straits of Rhodes and was told Here is Rhodes don’t jump here. This is implicitly to stage the scientific impossibility of a proletarian revolution: who can jump the Straits of Rhodes?

Marx is revising a Hegelian passage from the Philosophy of Right which is actually talking about Rosicrucianism and mystical action. He makes some interesting changes. He changes Hic Rhodos hic saltus – this is Rhodes this is where to jump – two Hic Rhodos hic salta– jump in the imperative and then, going back to Hegel in a peculiar way and saying here is the rose dance here. We need to hold onto this metaphor of “dance,” if we are to understand that revolution cannot be formally defined. Marx was a formalist in his theory of value – the labor theory of value. Value, which he famously defined as inhaltlos und einfach, regularly translated into English not as contentless inhaltlos but as “slight in content,” thus closing up the possibility for English-readers to understand what Marx was talking about. Value is commensurability – close to data.

However, as unconditional ethics must be conditioned when practiced as politics, and democratic freedoms must be bound to particular occasions when practiced, in the same way, we cannot have a revolution unless it is tied to content. And the double-bind, in this particular essay, is preserved by Marx by the concept metaphors of dance, poetry, and the overarching figure of theater. We do not know the form of our revolution today, we look forward to a content that we must be able to project by our flexibility of the imagination to be able to imagine – let us read the whole passage: “The social revolution of the 19th century can only create its poetry from the future, not the past. . . . Hear is the rose, dance here!”

I want to look at one passage from my essay “Global Marx?” where I discuss this moment. I should also say that it is a pity that I cannot discuss Etienne Balibar’s magisterial book Citizen/Subject, which I’m reading sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. The play of Marx and Hagel is where I am at right now – at first I was inpatient because I thought Balibar was ignoring something but then in a few pages I saw that he was writing like a detective story and he sprang the proper caution exactly when a simple reader of Hegel like myself was beginning to lose it. Anyway, here is my passage:

Marx thought Hegel calculated everything for the mind.  therefore for the heterogeneous dialectic of knowing and doing, we go not to The Science of Logic, as Lenin had suggested, but to “The Beautiful Soul” in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, which Lacan describes as metonymic of psychoanalysis.[1]

Marx was haunted by Hegel; not a question of his being a Hegelian or not.  Ever since finishing his doctorate, he was interested in finding out the economic reality of life under capitalism.  Taken by the brilliance of Hegel’s method, it was the phenomenology of capital that he attempted to work out.  Phenomenology, not onto-phenomenology.  The lesson we learn is that capitalism is for capital’s sake and therefore unreal.  Hence the socialist use of capital cannot be just for capital’s sake alone.[2]

As soon as he understood that capitalism is based on the theft of surplus value, Marx also understood that the play of capital and labor was in terms of contentless value, and that the contents that appear along the line of play as moments of real-ization, were always traces or forms of appearance – Erscheinungsformen.  There are some who think of land in this land-grabbing phenomenology of primitive accumulation as completely real. Marx quotes Ovid in heavy mockery: “and now in addition the ground, inorganic nature as such, rudis indigestaque moles ‘a rough unordered mass’ in its full sylvan primordiality.  Value is labor.  So surplus-value cannot be earth” (C 3 954; translation modified).

Yet, in “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx distinguishes the revolution of the 19th century as content rather than phrase: “Previously the phrase went beyond the content; [in the social revolution of the nineteenth century] the content goes beyond the phrase” (18B 149). This is close to a passage in “Beautiful Soul,” where Hegel is writing about “the moral intuition of the world [Weltanschauung]:”  “[T]he antinomy. . .that there is a moral consciousness, and that there is none, or that the validation of duty [for Marx socially just action] lies beyond consciousness, and conversely, takes place in it.”

This was seen by Hegel to be “a contradiction. . . by content.” And when this thinking “in which the non-moral consciousness counts for moral, and its accidental knowing and willing is taken as fully potent, felicity granted to it by way of grace [perhaps a reference to Kant’s metaleptic invocation of “effect of grace” in the Appendix to the Critique of Pure Reason]” — it is seen as a contradiction “by form.”[3]

Marx, for whom phenomenological definition has become part of mental furniture, is here choosing the double bind of the antinomy of ideology: we can/we cannot – for the social revolution of the nineteenth century as “content” — over the “formal” reconciliation of the antinomy in the mere “phrase” of the revolutions of the past: we can do good. This is also an indication that socialism is not just the use of abstract average labor power to build a just society, for the abstract by definition has no content. There would be content in the nineteenth century revolution – the poetry of the future – not just abstract planning, a point to which we return below.

Everybody knows that Geist is hard to translate. It is clear, however, that it is not consciousness – das Bewusstsein – and not reason – die Vernunft. Like capital, Geist by itself cannot “do.” Hegel charts the course of its estrangements in Part C.BB of Phenomenology. However, when it is contaminated by Gewissen – psychologistically (and unfortunately) only translatable into English as “conscience” – it can only stage the “doing” (cf. Derrida 2016, 21).  Marx finds in this predicament of self-consciousness, instantiated in this constellation, the fact of human beings making their own history but not able to choose their roles. Geist shot through with Gewissen can hold Wissen and Wollen – knowing and willing — but not actually know and will. This counter-intuitive way of a spatializing structure is hard for Marx’s English translators to grasp. But let us continue: Bewusstsein or consciousness cannot really think good and bad, although programmed to think it can and must. On the other hand, it must have the conviction, and it must talk about this conviction collectively, and thus it can bring about abstract collective consciousness. Of course Marx, not a Hegelian, did not act this out in such detail, but all the generalizing convictions – all the writing, the talks, the meetings – use this in action, even as they emphasize the separation of individual subjectivity – in the vanguard or the masses –from its ideological production. Since Marx is not obliged to show that he is a correct or incorrect Hegelian, this rough ironic parallel between Gewissen (conscience) and ideology cannot easily be discarded.

Hegel uses the words Tat, Tätigkeit, Tun, handeln, Handlung, – German words for doing or action — to show if duty was being done. Of course the word Arbeit or work/labor is never used. This is where Marx staged the phantasmagoria of the action of labor power, and in his work, unlike in Hegel, the dialectic becomes heterogeneous, in contrast to Hegel, for whom the separation between knowing and doing is kept brilliantly and counter-intuitively intact.

From time to time Hegel warns that the staging of the phenomenology of Geist into human psychological types short-circuits the account of the march of philosophy.  But the text often seems to ask for this transgression.  Marx, as Fanon later more vividly, steps into this transgression and attempts to move the system away from “the mind alone.”

Balibar charts Marx’s lifetime move from an evolutionist history toward its undoing – by way of the experience and study of failed revolutions (1848, 1871), and the tendency of left movements to move away from Marx’s methods, and, finally, the out-of-system (or anti-systemic) potentialities of the agricultural communes in Russia.  The consequence of this chain of displacements is described this way by Balibar: “I am tempted, rather, to believe that Marx never, in fact, had the time to construct a doctrine because the process of rectification went faster” (PM, 117).  I see this as Marx’s great gift, autodidact as he was, acquiring knowledge as new needs opened up, not only to be constrained to but creatively to be able to learn from his mistakes — again a chain into which we can, transindividually and responsibly, insert ourselves.[4]  A persistent set of epistemological performative instructions kept overtaking the stern requirements of a gnoseology.  Given the Aufhebung into globalization, this persistence is our difficult guide.

The thinking of globality requires thinking the contemporary.

I cannot go any further with this now. I will let you ask questions if you feel you are moved to do so.  One last thing to mention: in the description of the small peasants who cannot represent themselves, cannot make their resistance count – geltend zu machen – I got the first glimpse of the subaltern, before I had read gramsci.

For revolution as a topic I have first attached 5 pieces: “Revolutions That As Yet Have No Model” from 1980, “The New International” from 2001, and “Global Marx?,” forthcoming.

Also “General Strike.”

I have said that I am stumped by gender.  To mark that, I have attached “Old Women.”

At this point, I feel that the social revolution in feminism should be juridico-legal – equal rights, equal pay, recognition of LGBTQtrans, and the kind of consciousness change that must accompany the implementation of such laws. In other words, class-continuous mind-change in men. The subalternist work that I do involves going below class apartheid in education, below the NGO radar, and there, certainly these kinds of mind-changes are our daily work. But beyond this, engagements with so-called gender-struggle, in so-called subaltern normality, this is a tremendous problem that I would be happy to discuss, but about which I would say nothing here.



[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, tr. tr. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).  “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960), Vol. 38, p. 180; Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977); Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits, tr. Bruce Fink (New York: . Norton, 2006), p. 242.

[2] I cite here Amina Mohamed, currently running for the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission and Alicia Bárcena, the Executive Secretary of the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, neither noticeably Marxist, yet both pushing for sustainable development driving the market rather than vice versa, as is the case now.

[3] Hegel, Phenomenology p. 383; translation modifiedThe form-content move is a classic advancing manoeuver in the Phenomenology.  See Miller, p. 399 and passim.  Already in 1844, Marx roughly alludes to this section of the Phenomenology : “[t]he ‘unhappy consciousness,’ the ‘honest consciousness’ the struggle of the ‘noble and base consciousness’, etc. etc., these separate sections contain the critical elements” (385).  Our (Marx’s) task is to supplement intellectual with manual labor.

[4] For the transindividual, see Balibar PM 30.

Can revolution and gender work together? Here are a couple of theses issued by a deeply motivated Marxist-Feminist Congress of which I am a part:


Writing Feminism into Marxism

Brigitte Theiss

The Second International Conference on Marxism-Feminism Brought together in Vienna Left Theoreticians and Activists from All over the World

 Concepts such as “women’s liberation” and “relations of subordination” occur only extremely rarely in the texts of modern gender studies. “Being a Marxist feminist means being a dinosaur in my surroundings”, these were the words used by a Swedish activist in the final plenary session of the Vienna Conference. Her worries about an entire disappearance of Marxist feminism – or feminist Marxism – seemed somewhat unfounded at least in view of the interest this event met with: about five hundred persons, among them a number of students, were registered by the organizers on the three days of the conference at the Atelierhaus of the Academy of Fine Arts. A similar interest had been noticeable last year in Berlin, where the congress, initiated by Frigga Haug, took place for the first time.

Theory and Practice

The densely packed conference programme was divided into two streams, Marxist-Feminist Theory on the one, Organization on the other hand. In the streams running parallel to each other, researchers and activists from Europe but also from Argentina, Brazil, the USA, South Africa and Australia presented their analyses, among them renowned intellectuals such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, theoretician of post-colonialism and professor at Columbia University in New York, and Nira Yuval-Davis, a London-based university professor. Due to the high level of theoretical reflections, participants who were not familiar with all the details of the writings by Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and thinkers of the Frankfurt School, at times found it hard to follow the debates – but discussions aiming at concrete political action were not the focus of the congress anyway.

Already in Berlin criticism had been raised of the excessive a

mount of theory, a criticism Frigga Haug met by stating that it was necessary to strengthen Marxist-feminist theory as a tool for the transformation of society. The concepts of labour and care-work, questions of intersectionality, new materialism and ecofeminism were the subjects of debate at the conference as were Marxist-feminist analyses of motherhood, anti-fundamentalism and anti-racism, illegality, education and sexist islamophobia. In the stream “Feminist Organising beyond Europe” in particular, in which activists reported on the feminist struggles in Turkey and women organising in trade unions in Brazil, the time was lacking to look for cross-national commonalities. Feride Eralp from the Istanbul Feminist Collective, during the war at Kobane a volunteer in the border town of Suruç, was raising the questions in her topical speech of how war and masculinities were forming each other and what women’s resistance could look like in a society marked by an all-pervading “cross-border politics of hatred”.

Marxist-Feminist Manifesto

Frigga Haug, former professor of sociology, president of the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory and member of the party DIE LINKE, has for decades been working at reconciling Marxism and feminism, or, in other words: to make productive the tensions existing between them. To her, feminism without a critique of the capitalist mode of production     is as unthinkable as Marxism excluding an analysis of the relations between the sexes. “It is clear that gender relations are relations of production, not an addition to them”, runs thesis three of a manifesto formulated by Haug and discussed at the Vienna conference.

This manifesto is to be the basis of future co-operation and understanding and revealed that – unlike postmodern feminism – Marxist feminism neither shies back from an overpowering “We” nor from an essentialist concept of women and be it only for strategical reasons. It was this question that made visible a demarcation line often running through feminist contexts between different generations. The proposal by a young theoretician to expand the theses presented (“Marxism-feminism rejects a naturalising conception of gender as well as a postulating of the bi-gender system as a supra-historical and ontological reality”) earned a lot of applause in the room, while it did not meet with approval by Frigga Haug, who had already in her introductory speech delivered a polemical side-blow to the “sixteen genders” it has meanwhile become possible for people to adopt.

Berlin – Vienna – Lund

Even though there was not too much time and space for the exchange between generations and their specific experiences, as one activist criticised, the conference brought together activists and theoreticians of all ages, something that is rarely the case in feminist events. Presumably, the baton will be handed over by Frigga Haug, Nora Räthzel, Heidi Ambrosch and others involved in the organisation of the conference in Vienna to activists in Lund who will host the third international Conference on Marxism-Feminism.

Alone, organising the event offers the chance to work one’s way through neoliberal conditions: The initiative is not backed up by a financially potent organisation, rather it rests on the shoulders of a few individual supporters to bring about another international event of a similar scope. “Organizing a Marxist-Feminist Congress and finding different approaches to cooperation and conflict in it is a means of translating our resistance into the development of a continuous Marxist-Feminist movement”, are the words in which thesis 12 determines the route.

Translated from:

12 Theses, partly formulated at the last Marxism-Feminism congress, in hopes of a strong future cooperation within Marxism-Feminism, together with a debate over its principles. These theses should be discussed, improved and changed at the thesis panel, in order to lay the foundation for both a stronger theory and a stronger movement.



  1. Marxism-Feminism are two sides of a coin, which itself must be transformed. Feminist Marxism holds firmly on to Marx’s legacy, and thus to the significance of the analysis of work in the form of wage labour and as the driving force of the workers’ movement.However, in the attempt to move the remaining female activities likewise into the centre of the analysis, MF shifts the question of the domestic and non-domestic activities from the paralyzing attempts to think them into one another, or, in reverse, completely apart (dual economy debate, domestic labour debate), into the fundamental challenge to occupy and transform the concept of relations of production for feminist questions.
  2. Thereby two productions are assumed, those of life and those of the means of life. The two are then related to each other, so that it is possible to examine individual practices and how they interact. This opens up an enormous field for research, in which specific modes of domination may be investigated and possiblities of transformation can be sought in different historically and culturally specific ways.
  3. It is clear that gender relations are relations of production, not an addition to them. All practices, norms, values, authorities, institutions, language, culture, etc., are coded in gender relations. This assumption makes feminist Marxist research as prolific as it is necessary.
  4. Marxism is not useful for capitalist society and its academic disciplines that legitimize domination. Because Marxism-Feminism assumes that humans make their own history (themselves), or, where they are prevented from doing so, self-empowerment must be gained, Marxism-Feminism is unsuitable for a structure of top-down commands. This makes available research such as memory work as well as the historical-critical treatment of oneself in the collective, thus also self-criticism as a force of production.
  5. That all members of society must participate in relations of domination in order to act necessitates concrete study of those knots of domination that paralyze or shackle the desire for change in the capitalist patriarchy. Feminists have the advantage here of having fewer of the privileges that come with participating in power, they therefore have less to lose, as well as more experience in viewing the world from below.
  6. All members of capitalist society suffer the damage sustained in these relations of domination/subjection; and to that extent, no one is close to living in a liberated society. In our present, there are historically sedimented forms of domination and violence, which can’t be reduced to one continuous path of development or a central contradiction. The savage forms of violence (against women), of brutalization, readiness for war, etc. are to be grasped as the historically disparate horrors stemming from old relations. For Marxist Feminist, these violent relations have to been a fundamental theoretical and practical part of their struggle for liberation, and the struggle for the attainment of the status of subjects over and against male-human underdevelopment.
  7. Marxism-Feminism takes a position on the primacy of the labour movement as a historical subject and agent of transformation. Bringing feminism into Marxism, and thereby changing the latter as well as the former, makes a critical view of traditional Marxism indispensible, which refers solely to the labour movement. Marxism is Marx’s critique of political economy + labour movement – that makes its incomparable strength. It also makes its limitations visible. The fate of the working class also shows its inability to recognize and to further develop questions that transcend the historical horizon of class struggles. This traditional Marxism is neither receptive for the new feminist questions nor for those of ecology, therefore we must keep working on it. The wealth of the various movements as well as the still unused wealth in Marx’s cultural heritage require continued working into the present. This is a challenge for all Marxist feminists, there’s a consensus in nearly all contributions.
  8. The controversy over race, class, and sex (intersectionality) should be taken further. The connection between class and sex in all societies seized by capitalism is to be investigated in detail; what appears as „race question“ is to be answered concretely for each society and culture separately and to be related to the two other kinds of oppression. Nonlinear thinking is necessary.
  9. In the upheavals since the crisis of Fordism and in the rapidly globalized economy from crisis to crisis that are driving people into more and more precarious conditions, women are among those that lose out, just as other marginalised practices and groups.
  10. The dismantling of the welfare state in a globalized economy leaves the concern 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 center to services gets into a profit squeeze, which seizes on ever more barbaric forms of handling the crises through unequal creation of value levels (as Tove Soiland suggests).
  11. Common to us all is to move life into the centre of our struggles and thus the struggles for collectively self-determined time. We can also follow the suggestion to analyze the crises around life as the consequence of unequal time logics within hierarchically organized areas. As a politics Frigga Haug suggests the four-in-one perspective, 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 generalization. Only when all are active in all areas a liberated society shall be possible.
  12. Our struggles are directed against domination and radically democratic – this requires also politics from below. Our 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. To organize a Marxist-Feminist Congress, and to reflect our modes of cooperation and conflict within it, is a means to translate our resistance into the develop of a continuous Marxist-Feminist movement.


Just as I am devoted to my students at Columbia and I want to work at the top as well as I can, in the same way, at this Marxist-feminist Congress, I suggested, and the suggestion has been taken very well by my old friend Friga Haug and those working with her that the Congress should be de-centralized. I am having great difficulty in how to help in this, because inevitably, one falls back on class-continuous folks in other countries, ignoring subalternity. Yet I hang on to Friga Haug’s good words “politics from below.”  For the moment, let’s hold it in abeyance and show this photo as standing for a gendered uprising remembering that 42% women voted for Trump.

How do we square this with the Vienna Festival in 2017 choosing a title from U.S. exceptionalism:  “What time is it on the clock of the world?”  And when I showed a video, taken by a village videographer, of me speaking to three illiterate female friends who could not tell time – to correct the gesture – diasporics in costume came up with the knee-jerk complaint of “anthropologization” an


d “voyeurism.”  So, what are the limits of “intersectionality” in uprisings?  I ask the general question in a gendered context.  I was going to show a little you tube here, but I think it would “mean” in ways that would be difficult to explain.

Let us say, that the most articulate woman in the YouTube actually asked me for the gift of oxen and plow when I was eating at her house and, since my project was not to give anything but my time and skill and salaries and meals, and I have said this many many times, I had to stop eating in any household in that village. Among these women, I have been somewhat successful in somewhat controlling child marriage by bringing up the fact that one does not allow calves to breed.  Is this posthuman or prehuman?  If we use the word “revolution” rather than “uprising,” is this a quiet and tiny, perhaps temporary revolutionary moment?  For marriage is the only social security for female children here and the humanism of the argument against dowry is unpersuasive.

I have often commented on a Sophocles passage that has provided a problem for translators.  I can cite a passage from Sophocles’s Oedipus the King that has mystified generations of translators because they, like Freud, simply assumed that Sophocles was simply repeating myth. In one of the chapters of my last book I have tried to show that moment in Sophocles as a gesture toward the aporias of post-humanism as para-humanism. We who try to learn from the unverifiable—this is the humble gift that I bring in some tribulation—know that it is possible to teach the passage of Oedipus as questioning myth, stating the impossibility of questioning the hetero-norm, addressing the mechanism that secures human-ness, declaring the desire to step outside of a humanism before the letter, opening it for future philosophers beyond the Freud-Lacan ensemble, beyond the Freudo-Marxists and certainly beyond Poulantzas’s declared interest in women’s liberation as one social movement among many. I thank him, but that’s about all I can do. I read Chittrovanu Mazumdar, a Bengali artist, for whom the human body is not the measure. He is attempting to go the other way from the merely human program. What organizes human symbiosis, reproductive heteronormativity, is shorn in his work of the articulatory elements that produce social significance, thus gendering and thus culture itself. Oedipus, the staging of the opposite failure, not to mind the sign system into which reproductive heteronormativities articulate so humankind may be born, laments that articulation.

This is the passage, I’ll read my translation also.

“O marriages, marriages,

you put us in nature, putting us back again,

reversed the seed, and indexed

fathers, brothers, kinblood mingled,

brides, women, mothers, a shameful

thing to know among the works of man.”

It is marriage that gives us the symbolic, and gives meaning to the aesthetics of population from whore to courtisane, catamite to paramour, separates the human from the animal through kinship inscription, making incest possible in performative contradiction. The artist I was reading, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, shows us a dead cow disintegrating until it’s nothing but the configurations of ground. Mazumdar destabilizes the ground as end or origin, sticking with an animal, not graduating it to the human. I connect it with that remark of Oedipus bitterly addressing not the law of the father but addressing in fact the difference which is before the father as it were, and I go into marriage as something that took away his mere animality, made him break the law, and be bound by the double bind of incest.
You cannot tie sex to morality. This is the meaning of Sophocles passage. You cannot connect it to affect. We must understand the libido in a post-humanist way. Positive law is neither just nor always logical. In the contemporary context, marriage must be seen as a sort of contract. The idea of both having a contract and having it “open” is a nonsense. If you do inheritance for children born without the marriage contract, then it is a marriage.

Gendered uprisings. I have a PowerPoint, which would take too long to show where I show a couple of my friends plowing, where another woman turns the entire project into theater. I wish I could discuss these things with you as they provide problems about turning them into women like us, and yet … This double bind is bigger than anything. I can push the girl children in my schools into measuring time by the calendar and entering the mainstream, but that’s a different issue. I think it’s best to stop this blog on this inconclusive difference spelled out by gendered subalternity – dangerously incalculable. And I say to the revolutionary feminists here, do not calculate too quickly how to solve this one.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *