Marxism and class, gender, and race: Rethinking the trilogy

Martha Gimenez
Race, Gender, Class
Vol. 8, № 2 (2001)

Young Uzbek woman from Tashkent holding up her Komsomol membership card, 1927.

Dr. Martha E. Gimenez is an Argentinian Marxist-feminist theorist and retired Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Studies Program. She studied Law and sociology at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, receiving her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on Marxist Feminist Theory, the political economy of population, U.S. politics of racial/ethnic construction, and problems of democratization in the global economy. Gimenez is the founding editor of PSN — the Progressive Sociologists Network, PPN — the Progressive Population Network, and together with Chrys Ingraham and Rosemary Hennessy, founded MATFEM — Materialist Feminism, and together with Malgosia Askanas and Carrol Cox, moderates M-Fem — Marxist-feminism. In her work, Martha E. Gimenez has sought to use Marx’s methodology and theoretical framework for understanding the oppression of women under the capitalist mode of production. Her work aims to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Marx and Marxist theory for feminist theorizing and feminist politics.


A taken for granted feature of most social science publications today, especially those about inequality, is the ritual critique of Marx and Marxism in the process of introducing theoretical alternatives intended to remedy its alleged “failures.” This practice became popular in early feminist literature: Marx and Marxists were criticized for not developing an in-depth analysis of the oppression of women, their “economism,” “class reductionism,” and “sex blind” categories of analysis. Soon after it became common place to assert that Marxism was also at fault for neglecting race, demography, ethnicity, the environment and practically everything that mattered to the “new social movements” in the West. As the movements died, scholarship informed by those political concerns flourished; the energy that might have been spent in the public arena found expression in academic programs (e.g., women’s studies, racial/ethnic studies) and efforts to increase “diversity” in the curriculum and the population of educational institutions.

Publication of the journal Race, Sex, & Class (changed afterwards to Race, Gender, & Class), in 1993, signaled the convergence of those political and intellectual interests into a new social science perspective that soon acquired enormous visibility, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journal articles and books with race, gender and class in their titles. This perspective, put forth primarily but not exclusively by social scientists of color, emerged as a reaction to feminist theories which neglected racial/ethnic and class differences among women, theories of racial/ethnic inequality which neglected sexism among men of color and, predictably, as a corrective to Marxism’s alleged shortcomings. For example, Jean Belkhir, editor and founder of Race, Sex, & Class, prefaces an article on this topic as follows: “The ‘failure’ of Marxism to develop adequate tools and a comprehensive theory of ethnicity, gender, and class issues is undisputable” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). The list of putative “failures” could be as long as we wanted it to be but what would that prove, beyond the fact that Marx’s and Engels’ political and theoretical priorities differed from those of contemporary social scientists? Less biased, albeit debatable, is the conclusion that Marxism, although offering “crucial and unparalleled insights” into the operation of capitalism, “needs to develop the analytical tools to investigate the study of racism, sexism and classism” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). To refer to class as “classism” is, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, “a deeply misleading formulation” (Eagleton, 1996: 57; see also Kandal, 1995: 143) because class is not simply another ideology legitimating oppression; it denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. Nevertheless, it is the case that neither Marx nor Engels devoted the intensity of effort to the investigation of gender and race (and other issues) that would have satisfied today’s critics. It is (and any literature review would support this point) far easier to emphasize their “sins” of omission and — in light of current political sensibilities — commission, than it is to use their theoretical and methodological contributions to theorize and investigate those aspects of capitalist social formations that today concern us. Notable exceptions are Berberoglu (1994), who has examined the underlying class forces leading to gender and racial divisions in the U.S. working class, linking gender and racial oppression to capital accumulation, and Kandal (1995), who has forcefully argued for the need to avoid the racialization and feminization of social conflicts while minimizing or overlooking the significance of class.

In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.


Race, gender, and class as part of a social science perspective

Long before the popularization of the race, gender, & class (RGC) perspective, I suspect that most Marxist sociologists teaching social stratification were already adept practitioners. For many years, for example, the Section on Marxist sociology of the American Sociological Association included in its annual program a session on Class, Gender, and Race. I certainly called my students’ attention, in twenty nine years of teaching social stratification and other subjects in which inequality matters, to the fact that everybody’s lives are affected by class, gender, and race/ethnic structures (in addition to age and other sources of inequality). We are, in Marx’s terms, “an ensemble of social relations” (Marx, 1994: 100, emphasis added), and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations. I also routinely called students’ attention to the problems inherent in the widespread practice of assuming the existence of common interests, ideologies, politics, and experiences based on gender, race, and ethnicity because class location, and socioeconomic status differences within classes, divide those population aggregates into classes and strata with contradictory and conflicting interests. In turn, aggregates sharing the same class location, or similar socioeconomic characteristics within a class, are themselves divided by gender, race, and ethnicity so that it is problematic to assume that they might spontaneously coalesce into class or status self-conscious, organized groups. This is why, in the late sixties and early 1970s, I was critical of feminist theories which ignored class, racial and ethnic divisions among women and men, and theories of patriarchy that ignored how most men under capitalism are relatively powerless (Gimenez, 1975). Later on, I published a critical assessment of the “feminization of poverty” thesis because it was not sensitive to the effects of class, socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic divisions among men and women; it neglected the connections between the poverty of women and the poverty of men and overlooked the significance of this thesis as a powerful indicator of the immiseration of the lower strata within the U.S. working class (Gimenez, 1990).

I am aware, however, that most sociologists do not take Marxism seriously and that theorists of gender and racial oppression have been, on the whole, hostile to Marxism’s alleged reductionisms. More importantly, this is a country where class is not part of the common sense understanding of the world and remains conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of politicians and most mass media pundits. Continue reading

Postmodern origins of intersectionality

In a three-part series of posts, I’ll try to sketch the conceptual genealogy of intersectionality as a mode of postmodern discourse, politically not far removed from the “politics of difference” or “politics of recognition” characteristic of this period (1980s-2000s). At the same time, I’ll be relating it to concurrent historical transformations taking place within leftist politics. Though social, economic, and political transformations might not straightforwardly determine transformations in other spheres, on a one-to-one basis at least, I nevertheless consider it decisive in the reconfiguration of other ideologies around it. Postmodernism itself is (was?) more or less a symptom of the failure of Marxism to overcome the capitalist social formation in the twentieth century. So “intersectionality,” which I consider to be a botched or bowdlerized attempt to articulate a postmodern political practice — this never having been Crenshaw’s intent, incidentally, since for her it was meant for juridical use — would itself be a further vulgarization of theoretical postmodernism. A subsequent post will attempt to formulate a more rigorous political critique of the concept, thus properly situated, drawing upon the critical social theory of Adolph Reed, the Marxist feminism of Eve Mitchell, and the literary criticism of Elif Batuman, as well as other authors who’ve recently written on the subject (Maya Gonzalez of Endnotes, for example). Then after that, in a third post I’ll try to outline the only standpoint from which to grasp the complexities of race, gender, class, and so on without falling into reductionism on the one hand or nebulous, tangled confusions like “intersectionality”: namely, the totality of social relations. Without further ado then, let’s proceed.

The “cultural turn” following the death of the Left

The concept of “intersectionality” as a mode of analysis first emerged and was popularized during the late 1980s and early 1990s, up through the end of the millennium. In other words, at a moment where the Left, and the struggle against capitalism in general, was in abeyance. (Yes, “the Left is dead,” as the saying goes, and has been for some time. But sometimes it’s even deader than usual). With the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the consolidation of Dengism in China after the 1989 suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, even the grim alternative of “actually-existing socialism” no longer seemed available. Economic neoliberalism was the order of the day. Liberal-bourgeois democracy was heralded by neocons like Francis Fukuyama as the inevitable “end of history,” having at last defeated its great rival in communism.

At the same time, there wasn’t much life in the traditional sectarian Marxist parties or leftist intellectual groupings. Many of the professors and students radicalized after 1956 and 1968 had already capitulated to Eurocommunism by the 1980s — such as Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantall Mouffe, to name just a few. Some succumbed to even more reactionary ideologies — Roger Garaudy went from the PCF to Catholicism to fundamentalist Islam within the space of a few decades; Bernard-Henri Lévy gave himself over to various forms of liberal opportunism; Lucio Colletti became a supporter of Berlusconi in Italy. The “new social movements” that arose during the 1960s and 1970s — civil rights and black nationalism, second-wave feminism, and gay pride — all but collapsed during the 1980s and 1990s, moving into the very institutions they’d once critiqued. Participants in these movements tended to become either full-time activists or tenured professors. A new status quo solidified around them. With this, what had been living in the New Left was institutionalized and doubled back upon itself. Critical race theory attempted to theoretically formalize the practices developed in struggles for racial equality over the previous two decades. Second-wave feminism slowly gave way to the newer brand of third-wave feminism. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered reexaminations of sexuality and gender norms drifted toward what would become known as queer theory (thus LGBTQ, and not just LGBT). One common thread between these new fields of academic study was a shared shift in emphasis away from the social toward the cultural. Whereas the “new social movements” had prioritized social and economic matters such as equality, increased opportunity for employment, and comparable pay-scales, their scholarly counterparts were preoccupied with cultural and linguistic representations of women, minorities, and different sexual orientations in popular media. They followed the so-called “cultural turn,” moving from base to superstructure in terms of overall focus. Continue reading