Why start a course on feminism reading the first volume of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto? Do Marx and Engels have anything to say about gender oppression? How deeply, if at all, is patriarchy intertwined with capitalism? In which terms can the feminist struggle be part of a systemic anti-capitalism resistance? Ultimately, within which framework is feminism most effectively articulated and is Marx at all helpful in this matter?

In the first volume of Marx’s Capital, issues regarding gender and the family are directly addressed but only incidentally and almost marginally. This fact raises doubts about the limits and possibilities of tackling within a Marxist framework issues regarding social inequality between men and women, gendered distribution of roles inside the family and economic exploitation of reproductive labor. Undeniably, the first volume of the Capital contains parts where Marx seems to be expressing seriously gender insensitive opinions and almost Victorian prejudices about the role of women in society and in the family. Not for nothing, significant works in gender and cultural studies have focused in pointing out those contradictions, executing a sort of feminist trial in which Marx is the History’s indicted.

This approach however seems to be quite simple, uninteresting and particularly useless if the aim is to structure a systemically engaged and necessarily complex feminism. For this, it is still not helpful to merely indicate possible quotations capable of supposedly proving that Marx and Engels’ official position about family and women was a progressive one and that they definitely were both relentless opponents of male domination and enthusiastic supporters of women’s emancipation — which, it must be mentioned, should not be difficult to do.

What conversely seems to be a more powerful and potentially emancipatory reading of the Capital and The Communist Manifesto is one capable of understanding how their fundamental conceptions of capitalism’s structure can be an adequate and appropriate for feminism. Even though it is possible to see a glimpse of Marx’s effort to use this framework in a way that clarifies the questions about gender inequality, certainly he leaves this point undeveloped. However, the moment has come to investigate how, if even possible, this framework can be developed. Is this is a path capable of effectively and radically addressing feminist issues? In other words, how deeply do the revisions, reconceptualization and reinterpretations have to go to “rescue” Marx and compel him to join the feminist trenches?

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels present capitalism as this tremendous and irresistible force that universalizes human experience into the labor market and pushes aside all possibilities of distinctions and differentiations, reducing everything to a simplified abstraction. The capitalist production is then a complex ideological system that extrapolates its economic principles to all other existing spheres, instrumentalizing institutions and social practices to reinforce and support its own interests. This does not mean however that one will find in the author’s work any trace of nostalgia for past forms of production. On the contrary, there is an admiration for the force of the capitalist production system and one can note a controlled anger for the squandering of this energy to accumulation of the few, a rage against the oppression on what this development rests. It is not a moral, but a refined political critique though.

Yet in the first volume of the Capital, Marx develops an astoundingly elaborated theory of the commodity, revealing how its value is independent of the usefulness of the thing being sold or the concrete labor applied in its production. In this moment, the discussion about capitalist self-misunderstanding emerges, since the market and the circulation themselves cannot explain how the process of self-expanding value is possible. For this reason, to actually understand capitalism, Marx urges us to leave the focus on circulation and go to the analyses of production. It is then in the production that surplus value appears, especially through exploitative deployment of labor power. This is what really makes capitalism tick, but amazingly it is not a trick or a scam. On the contrary, exploitation is a normal, legal and legitimate practice of the system. Finally, Marx reveals capitalism’s dirty secret — primitive accumulation, i.e. the violent process of expropriation, dispossession, theft and enclosure that concentrated the means of production in the hands of the few and transformed communal property into private property, peasants into propertyless people with nothing more to offer than their own capacity for labor for exploitation.

The challenge feminism faces is to understand how male domination and gender oppression fit within this picture, exploring how gendered familiar relations and unequal distribution of roles and privileges among men and women are a pivotal part of the capitalist structure, without which the system could not stand. A fourth part of the first volume of the Capital is still then to be written, one capable of explaining how the daily and intergenerationally replenishment and reproduction of the labor force happens; whose energies are devoted to that and what forms of exploitation are put into motion in this process. Issues about oppression of women and male domination within this framework are crying out to be discussed.

Several feminists have already started this indispensable chapter of the Capital. They are the ones writing about the capitalist gendered order; about how capitalism opportunistically instrumentalizes historical and social differences, paying women less than men for instance; about capitalism’s efforts to institutionalize the differences between the private and the public, paid and unpaid work, productive and unproductive labor.

Obviously, all these questions must be accompanied by the inquiry about the possibilities of working with the category of women. After all, we must reflect upon the dilemma of either inserting another subject in the struggle against capitalism or gendering the oppressed classes. We certainly need a theory that can account for the gendered order of society and how this impacts women in different classes. While it makes sense to talk about a general gender oppression and male domination in society, we cannot assume that this gendered order affects women equally. Already in Marx, we can get a sense of the differences between the bourgeois family and the proletarian one and of the distinct social roles of rich and poor women.

Part of the problem will be distinguishing what is essential to capitalism and what it can accommodate. When feminist political action and theoretical elaboration of feminism are realized within a solid Marxist anti-capitalist framework, the oppressions and forms of exploitation not based on gender cannot be simply ignored and must be permanently taken into account — even if this means further complexifying issues that seemed simple from a one-sided standpoint. Analyzing distinct feminist movements from the last decades, it becomes clear that the struggle for women’s emancipation may be constructed from entirely different perspectives, depending on the political project of the society it aims to endorse.

Indeed, diverse feminist movements present demands that go from gender parity in public representations — without, however, any deeper elaboration regarding the formal political institutions — to the radical criticism against capitalism, which construes patriarchy as one of its supporting pillars. Frequently the most radical feminist movements must go through important and uncomfortable self-critical processes when they recognize how their demands are reproducing oppressions that support capitalism and naturalizing disciplinary powers that preserve male domination.

Nonetheless, not always do feminist movements find the time, conjuncture or even disposition to engage in systemic discussions capable of revealing the intertwinement of oppression of women and gender inequalities and capitalism. Evidently, this observation does not mean to disparage feminist movements or to undermine their achievements. After all, demands with identitarian scopes are not always straightforwardly constructed and the resistance against patriarchy is not automatically linked to an anti-capitalist perspective.

Feminist struggles usually present themselves in two dimensions that must be connected. The first dimension is exactly the identity affirmation, which enables a sort of political self-esteem that places women in the public arena as a subject of their demands. Women then become more and more empowered, capable of politically resisting gender oppression and emancipating themselves. This identitarian dimension of the struggle may, however, be useless or even antithetical to the anti-capitalist struggle against the exclusionary and exploitative logic of this system. After all, what the last couple of decades have shown us is that capitalism is shrewd enough to appropriate even the most radical feminist demands to legitimize itself and reinforce its practices, making it particularly difficult to resist the system’s strategies to neutralize the contestations addressed to it. For those reasons, feminism must be articulated with a more complex and structural dimension, i.e. the political elaboration of identitarian demands which acknowledges how gender oppression is systemically structuring capitalism.

The undeniable achievements and accurate political elaborations of the identitarian struggles along the 20th century, especially from the 1960s, compels the Marxist framework to incorporate other dimensions of capitalist forms of oppression rather than class exploitation. While it is undeniable that class struggle presents itself evidently entangled with gender oppression, orthodox Marxism and conventional anti-capitalist traditions still ignore the possibility that radical feminism can effectively contribute to the construction a fairer economic system. This defies us to articulate class struggle through the multifaceted perspective of race, gender and sexuality, without however universalizing each of these distinct experiences of oppressions. On the contrary, it has to understand that different experiences forge multiple identities, which cannot be reduced to the idea of a unique subject.

It is time to critically analyze our practices so that they do not merely function as reproductions of the oppressions typical of the system we aim to oppose. The development of a solidarity bond between oppressed and exploited people firmly united in the struggle against capitalism definitely seems to be a promising and exciting perspective. We must seize the moment to join agendas and articulate demands, to structure feminism within the Marxist framework, sharing this unified anti-capitalist political arena.