By Hannah Reustle
The third international marxist-feminist conference took place from the 5th to the 7th of October in 2018. This year’s organizers, the feminist section of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory and DIANA MULINARI, REBECCA SELBERG and CATIA GREGORATTI, progressive academics at Lund University, were able to gather more than 200 scholars and activists to discuss marxist-feminism in Lund, Sweden. The conference was financially supported by Lund University, its department of gender studies, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, transform! europe and by a generous donation of GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK. The idea of an international marxist-feminist conference was originally brought into being and was since then continuously organized by the feminist section of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory around the German sociologist and philosopher FRIGGA HAUG. It was held in Berlin for the first time in 2015, followed by an increasingly international, second congress in Vienna in 2016.
Transforming our lives. Transforming the world
The conference theme this year was Transforming our lives. Transforming the world. The organizers argued that “the main experience haunting marxist-feminists today (and not only them) is the experience of crisis”. In the face of crisis, especially the one of increasing right-wing radicalism, the organizers posed questions on how these crises can be translated into marxist-feminist strategies for a transformation of themselves and the world. Their point of departure specifically being Marx’ third thesis on Feuerbach and more broadly a “revitalization of the tradition of marxist-feminist thought through a critical dialogue with indigenous, Black and queer inspired feminist traditions.” The program layout has to be understood within the context of the criticism the latter conferences received: a program which was too dense and hardly allowed for the participation of the conference visitors. The format of the third conference was therefore substantially changed. Besides a limited number of keynote speeches on the theme, the program consisted predominantly of interactive workshops.
Outside in the Funding Machine
The conference was inaugurated by no less a person than the renowned, postcolonial Indian literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In her speech Outside in the Funding Machine, a reference to her earlier essay publication Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993), Spivak commented on the construction of an emancipatory, subaltern subject, the role of education in this process along with a strong critique of the European development industry. Before starting her talk she, like other speakers of the conference, drew attention to a current, pressing political issue, in Spivak’s case the persecution of Rohingyas and the imprisoned Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam. Being a professor herself and having been involved in education reform and teacher training in rural India, it is not surprising that she dedicated a great part of the lecture to education. Spivak started out by stating that intellectual labour can not be dismissed as bourgeois and that by education she does not refer to an income-producing education, but rather ideas akin to the democratic education by Paulo Freire. Without changing the minds by creating a will for social justice, neither socialism nor democracy can survive. When introduced, Mulinari stated that “everybody has their own Spivak” and that she is “magical.”. Her presentation was indeed highly thought-provoking and you could even call it magical but at times it was difficult to understand every point she was trying to convey. Asked why she never thought about going into politics; Spivak’s answer that she is too messy and indeed too much of an intellectual did ring true indeed.
The second and last event of the first day was a plenary roundtable on marxist-feminism in Sweden and the Nordic countries with internationally known Marxian-influenced Swedish Sociologist GÖRAN THERBORN and Diana Mulinari, Swedish public intellectual, professor of gender studies at Lund University and one of the organizers of the conference. Presenting his new book Kapitalet, överheten och alla vi andra (2018) (freely translated as The capital, the ruling class and the rest of us), Therborn painted the picture of an increasingly unequal Swedish society with private wealth concentrations larger than in any other western european country. Therborn´s quantitative contributions were refreshing, especially in the face of the stubborn myth of Sweden as an everlasting, pacified social democracy. The importance to turn the discourse on Swedish inequality was discussed as well as the framework in which redistribution is envisioned. Mulinari stressed that it should not be limited to citizenship or generally the nation state, but that redistribution has to be global, reflecting ongoing debates within the German left. The second controversial point of discussion revolved around the dialectics in post-Fordist capitalism. Therborn argued that upfront dialectics and antagonisms can no longer be found in this stage of capitalism, whereas Mulinari contested that they are simply different; concerning the destruction and defense of life itself.
The second day consisted of three workshop sessions, two key notes and a dinner with a party afterwards. The workshop themes ranged from fundamentalism to ecofeminism, the rise of the right, body politics, social reproduction, feminist law and many more.
Particularly interesting was the workshop on memory work offered by the feminist section of the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory, namely MELANIE STITZ, FRIGGA HAUG, KATHARINA SCHWABEDISSEN and GÜLDEN EDINGER. They argued that as in Marx’ sixth thesis on Feuerbach, women have to be understood as the ensemble of societal relations. Women are part of reproducing themselves as women, even in their submission. Memory work was thus presented as a method in which a group of women try to recognize practices that lead to their submission, to comprehend themselves as part of a larger women’s history with the aim to gain consciousness and strength for future struggles. The workshops’ participants were then encouraged to collectively practice memory work with a short autobiographical text. It was rewarding to hear about the mostly uplifting experiences with the method as well as to learn more about their extensive experience as female marxist activists.
The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism
The first keynote on Saturday was held by HEIDI HARTMANN, an US-American feminist economic and author of the groundbreaking essay for marxist-feminism The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a more Progressive Union (1979). Even though the hard facts by the Institute for Women’s Research, founded by Hartmann herself, on women’s labour force participation, wage gaps and family leave were enlightening and indeed surprising, her presentation was perceived by many as politically disappointing. In the presentation, Hartmann repeatedly spoke in favor of an equal share of women’s labour force participation, especially in positions of power as key in overcoming patriarchy. Even though she gingerly acknowledged the limitations of representation, her analysis of abolishing the patriarchy seemed nowhere close to the analysis of many anti-capitalist participants. She was, as expected, criticized for liberal career feminism and an essentialist view on women as inherently less greedy and more caring.
On Saturday’s last workshop slot, I attended a very well-visited discussion on transnational solidarity with marxist-feminist scholars and activists from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and India. Particularly memorable was the presentation by RANJANA PADHI, an autonomous feminist activist and writer that put many of the former discussions into perspective and gave insights into important struggles in rural India. Padhi is particularly involved in resistance against the social repercussions of the green revolution in India which caused the suicide of thousands of farmers. In her book Those Who Did Not Die: Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab (2012), she describes both the horrific circumstances and the powerful struggles for social and environmental justice. She succeeded in providing an intimate insight into these ecofeminist struggles that are similar in their anti-capitalist nature to previously mentioned conflicts in the conference, but at the same time differ significantly in the aspect of the resisting subjects, the modes of production, the scale and urgency of the conflict.
Transnational Justice and Gendered Vulnerability: Feminist Politics and (Im)possible Solidarities
Saturday’s second and last keynote speech Transnational Justice and Gendered Vulnerability: Feminist Politics and (Im)possible Solidarities by Indian postcolonial queer philosopher NIKITA DHAWAN was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable yet also most controversial ones. Dhawan is a stirring, dense and rhetorically brilliant speaker, yet her analysis splitted the audience. Introducing her aim, she stated that she did not mean to give answers but that she hoped to ask meaningful questions instead. The first question she raised was on the issue of apathy and a crisis of empathy: “How does the suffering of others make us political and ethical subjects?”. Drawing on Diogenes of Sinope, Foucault and Beck, an excursion into the topic of cosmopolitanism followed. She criticized liberal cosmopolitanism to reproduce power structures, traced the European roots of cosmopolitanism back to antisemitism, criticized Butler on the concept of spontaneous solidarity and commented on the ambiguous nature of resistance by those not belonging to the subaltern. To demonstrate this point, Dhawan turned around Foucault’s famous quote to “where there is resistance, there is power” and added, addressing the audience “we are part of the problem”. Lastly, Dhawan commented on the state and state-phobia of Foucault, neoliberals and anarchists. Even though she insisted that she does not hold romantic views of the state, she argued that the state is still not Nietzsche’s “coldest of all cold monsters […] It is mostly poison, but can also act as medicine”, referring to the state as crucial for the most vulnerable, for example as a provider of public infrastructure. While some praised her non-orthodox approach to marxist-feminism combined with postcolonial and queer theory that is able to highlight the ambiguities of marxist and feminist theories, many others were critical of her speech. They argued that the state should foremostly be radically transformed and not be upheld as one that continues to primarily serve capitalist interest. Lastly, they posed the question of how non-subaltern resistance, if so utterly problematic, can still be possible.
The third and last day of the conference was structured with two workshop slots, one keynote speech and the concluding plenary roundtable. The theme of the third workshop day ranged from the empirical, current women’s movement and practical organizing to feminism and the economic crisis, the rise of the right and postcolonial and ecofeminist discussions.
In the workshop on social reproduction feminism which aimed to explore the links between oppression and exploitation, the contributions of Croatian scholar ANIKICA ČAKARDIC and CELESTE MURILLO from the Argentinian feminist Organisation pan y rosas particularly stood out. Čakardić’s contribution was enlightening insofar as she very clearly mapped out and contrasted the different strands of marxist-feminist thought within the social reproduction theory. Specifically the differences between autonomous feminist theories on the one side and Lise Vogel’s unitary approach on the other side, concerning the topic of production and reproduction as well as on use and exchange value were insightful. Murillo’s contribution as an activist was particularly uplifting due to her experiences with the advanced and vivid feminist struggle in Argentina, especially concerning the establishment of women’s commissions.
Contradictions in Marxist Feminism
The last keynote speech on contradictions in marxist-feminism had been reserved for who was described as a living legend in the introduction of the conference: Frigga Haug. Haug started out by mentioning that the contradictions should be thought of as constructive dialects rather than errors that could help to vitalize both feminism and marxism. The first contradiction was about the hindrance for women in the struggle for liberation. It is precisely their conflicting, vital yet weak role in the care for life that makes it difficult to act in the forefront of the revolution. The second contradiction, drawing on Marx and Luxemburg, concerned the necessary destruction of the old. Haug stated that in order to build the new, the old has to be destroyed. The main question in this conflict that Haug laid out is how to politically navigate this destruction of the old while crises tend to induce feelings of attachment to precisely the old.
The last session was a concluding panel with STEFANIA BARCA, Italian scholar on the intersection of production, reproduction and the environment, Frigga Haug and Nikita Dhawan. Barca stressed the importance of a strong labour movement with feminism and the environment at its core. Rather than thinking the labour and feminist movement separately, the labour movement has to become feminist, not only defending working class interests, but also defending life. Haug highlighted that she was at times bewildered by the term reproduction concerning practices she thought of as highly productive. She furthermore criticized the organizers of the conference. For the lack of theses, she argued, it was close to the impossible to build on the former conferences, instead having to start from scratch each time. Dhawan referred to the theoretical contradictions and inconsistencies of postcolonial, queer, feminist marxism, yet stated that they should equally be thought of as productive and inspiring. She noted that post-structuralism made an important contribution to marxist-feminism and that both cultural relativism and hidden eurocentrism within universalism should be avoided. She continued to raise the question of language and of a lingua franca within the transnationalization of progressive politics as well as the ethics of listening. Lastly, she reminded the audience that radical politics should be thought of, similarly as brushing one’s teeth, as a critique of mortality. Quoting Samuel Beckett she concluded her talk on a somewhat hopeful and similarly discouraging note:
”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.
The floor was then opened to the participants to voice their opinions on the conference. The general perception seemed to be positive. Many experienced the conference as personally and politically uplifting. One woman stated that there was neither an atmosphere of political sectarianism nor academic competition, instead the participants engaged in solidarity with each other. The great effort of organizing such a conference was acknowledged multiple times. The participants also raised their concerns and suggestions for the next conference. Many comments concerned the engagement with social movements and the wish to increase the participation of labour unions. Some experienced the conference workshops as fragmented, often resembling paper panels rather than actual participatory workshops with a common, clearly delimited theme. One aspect the organizers of the next conference in Spain 2020 should indeed think of is the thematic composition of the key notes and workshops. Even though the compositions of speakers and topics was already diverse, addressing different strands of marxist-feminist theories, some important topics and issues, such as for example the current struggles of Kurdish women, have been completely left out. This could be avoided by proactively approaching scholars and activists in addition to the existing open call. The quest for including more labour and social movements is right. There are however limits to such a conference which does not aim to connect international progressive politics as the world social forum for example does. Organizing a large international conference on marxist-feminism is a great success in the context of the marginal position of marxist-feminism in academia at large.
Hannah Reustle studies the master program of sociology at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. She received her bachelor’s degree in International Development at Lund University. She is currently involved in the topic of marxist-feminism as part of a study project.
 Spivak, G. (1993). Outside in the Teaching Machine. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.
 Therborn, G. (2018). Kapitalet, överheten och alla vi andra. 1st ed. Lund: Arkiv.
 Hartmann, H. (1979). The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a more Progressive Union. Capital and Class Vol. 3 (2).
 Padhi, R. (2012). Those Who Did Not Die: Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab. New Delhi: SAGE Publications.