Gender and the Left
Stefan Hain, Sara Rukaj, Roswitha Scholz
Platypus Review 158 | July-August 2023
On April 29, 2022, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel titled “Gender and the Left.” The speakers were Sara Rukaj (author of Jungle World), Roswitha Scholz (Gruppe EXIT!) and Stefan Hain (Platypus Affiliated Society). A video of the discussion can be found at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7GXrdPO4a4>, and the original German transcript can be found at <https://platypus1917.org/2023/01/19/gender_podium/>. It was translated into English by Julia Keller, Lisa Müller, and Tamas Vilaghy. An edited transcript follows.
The idea of an emancipation of the sexes predates Marxism. Utopian socialists like Charles Fourier and Mary Wollstonecraft declared that the bourgeois revolutions’ promise of “liberty, equality, fraternity” would only be meaningful if it applied to all humans. Marxism picked up this demand in the late 19th and early 20th century in the quest for “women’s emancipation,” which it tried to realize through the dictatorship of the proletariat. After the apparent failure of this attempt between 1919 and 1923, questions around the sexes seemed to be of diminishing importance for what remained of Marxist and socialist politics. It was the New Left that again posed questions about sex and sexuality, but as a critique of Marxism, which had seemingly neglected these questions. Out of the failure of the New Left emerged a disillusioned “second wave of feminism.” The emancipation of all sexes seemed to them like an anesthetic for the real and millenia-old power relations of patriarchy — the emancipation of women could not be postponed indefinitely until an imaginary “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Yet political and ideological differences soon arose within feminism as well. The concept of gender was introduced by the American psychologist John Money in the 1950s as an expression for the psychological and social dimension(s) of what had hitherto been understood as “sex.” This concept entered the discussions of 1980s and 90s feminism, perhaps most prominently in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). Since then, the concept of gender only seems to have grown more important politically, including and maybe especially on the Left. As a concept it seems to smash down, but also re-erect walls between the sexes; and for the Left it remains a bone of contention over which groups and newspapers split. Does gender point to a vacancy in Marxism which can only be filled by new forms of theory? What political meaning does “gender” have for the current Left? Where does “gender emancipation” stand, more than 30 years after it was proclaimed as a political project? What has the Left learned out of the past 200 years of struggle for the emancipation of the sexes? What would be gender’s role in such a struggle for the emancipation of the sexes?
Sara Rukaj: Gender has replaced sex as the paradigm of women’s studies since the 1980s and 90s. This change has been characterized by the abandonment of the assumption that two sexes are constitutive of humanity, which queer theorists consider repressive, in favor of an identity-construction kit with which the disintegrating postmodern subject is supposed to patch itself up again and again in different combinations: as nonbinary, queer, femme, demi-, sapio-, or asexual. According to this approach, the study of gender no longer allows the category of man or woman, or even the category of gender at all, to be taken as a given. These days, the performativity of all possible kinds of identities has replaced the feminist subject.
By refusing to make women a political point of departure and category of analysis, the 1990s post-feminist avant-garde torpedoed the emancipation of women. Today, their epigones are radicalizing themselves further in precisely this direction. This can be seen, for example, in the debate around the definition of sex between queer activists and their radical feminist opponents around Alice Schwarzer. The latter continue to adhere to sex as a biological term, with gender referring to its learned social dimension. Whereas we were once adept at neutralizing persons as bearers of a specific function, today we learn to sexualize them. This process universalizes men, who seemingly continue to represent the norm, by subtracting their specific masculinity. Meanwhile, women are regarded as relational goods, evaluated, and neatly deconstructed until nothing is left of them, as in Jacques Lacan’s existential commandment, “La femme n’existe pas.” Curiously, Judith Butler’s deconstruction of biological and cultural gender likewise always aims at woman, as if she only existed as the lurid fantasy of an omnipotent patriarchy, if she even really exists at all.
Gender studies as a discipline arrived in German universities in the late 1990s. At that time, scholars were still engaging critically with sex and gender from psychoanalytic and sociohistorical perspectives, which queer theory did not take into account. Two decades later, there is hardly any interest in making such connections. Instead, cultural and gender-studies scholars allege that the social sciences participate in the construction of binary categories rather than deconstructing them.
Earlier feminist theorists located the cause of gender inequality in social relations. They considered it self-evident that social conditions themselves, rather than their theorization or verbalization, give rise to gender. The nature of gender belongs to the material “first nature,” which is shaped but not generated by society. Simone de Beauvoir’s statement that one is not born as a woman, but raised by society to become a woman, became a truism of second-wave feminism in the 1960s. Whereas second-wave feminists essentialized womanhood as an experience excluded from bourgeois society, Butler took the justified critique of such gender affirmation too far, to the point of absurdity. By denying the evident fact of biological sexual characteristics, Butler decoupled the physical dimension of the body from the social process of becoming a woman.
Both second-wave feminists and their academic successors, today’s queer theorists, must face the fact that their views have converged with the development of capitalism in the bourgeois epoch. While nominally critical of capitalism, which they usually label as neoliberalism, their demands reveal a double-edged affinity for the renewal of capitalism. Even as capitalism facilitated the development of woman as subject in the first place, through the destruction of pre-modern social conditions, it engendered new forms of unfreedom. Interestingly, queer studies became popular at the exact time that late capitalism began to demand flexible subjects. This striking affirmation of the demands of the market is generally overlooked.
Already in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels identified the causal relationship between the childbearing capacity of women and the misogynistic practices that still exist today all over the world, from female genital mutilation in Islamic countries to the sterilization of poor women in South America. To be able to critique such practices, we must first understand the particular relationship between the nature of gender, sex, and society in each culture. However, queer feminists have rejected human nature and sex as mere conceptual fictions. With them, woman, the subject of feminism, is also lost.
Owing to the restructuring of the competitive market economy, women’s agency has indeed expanded. However, rather than achieving the emancipation of the sexes, this progress has been accompanied by the renegotiation of pre-existing forms of unfreedom. Even as it claims to serve minorities in the name of freedom and equality, intersectionality permanently consecrates the forms of inequality and difference that it is supposed to abolish. Instead of insisting on respecting the assumption of identity at any cost, we must analyze how the women’s movement disintegrated and became subordinated to queer theory, which recognizes neither women nor gendered desire — including homosexual desire. Under these conditions, an autonomous women’s movement and gay movement, which ceased to exist a long time ago, cannot even constitute itself in the first place. To be able to scrutinize this, we must develop a conceptual definition of gender and sex, and we must examine the empirical reality of the living conditions of men and women across different social settings and cultures; queer theory is increasingly undermining the basis for these efforts.
Roswitha Scholz: There can be no doubt that the Marxist tradition has blind spots concerning sexual reproduction and the care work corresponding to it. As we know, the so-called “woman question” was treated as a secondary, rather than principal, contradiction of capitalism, which second-wave feminism objected to. The concept of gender, which did not become hegemonic until the 1990s, assumes that gender and sex, even in their physical dimension, are produced discursively. This, in effect, eliminates the material basis for sex and gender. This paradigm shift has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which has required optimally flexible identities and made traditional gender roles obsolete. In the aftermath of a series of crises, especially the financial crisis of 2008, we have witnessed a renaissance of Marxism since the mid-2000s, including in feminist theory. Moreover, the body is once more becoming an object of study. Even deconstructivist theorists can no longer make do without a certain portion of materialism. There are also no qualms about excavating fossilized Marxist concepts and enriching them with feminism, whereby the woman question is once again relegated to a secondary contradiction.
Today, feminism on the Left is split into two opposing factions: materialist feminists versus gender-deconstructivist queer feminists. A gulf divides class politics and identity politics, with gender diffusely contained in identity politics. At the same time, the concepts of gender and identity are unstable and have begun to slip. Whereas theorists in the 1990s renounced the concept of identity and called for its deconstruction, theorists today are once again falling back on the assumption that certain social positions come along with a corresponding consciousness. For example, according to standpoint theory, the consciousness and interests of black women and white women differ based on their particular positions in society. In the same vein, specific types of discrimination are differentiated to the point of absurdity.
The discourse around identity arose in 1980s Leftist subcultures before entering the mainstream. In response, the Right has defended traditional sex and gender roles. These contradictions reveal that the current stage of capitalist patriarchy still requires the legitimation of compulsorily flexible identities. At the same time, the precarity of their current social condition leads people to seek some form of stability, for instance by falling back on traditional sex and gender roles. In the aftermath of the superfluid postmodern era, we are now living in an age of restoration.
If homophobic and anti-gender views are on the rise once more, their resurgence is connected to the fact that queer theory and queer politics have failed to address the issue of sex and gender outside of a superficial linguistic and discursive playground. Its accompanying politics of language, which approaches the grotesque, even lends itself to authoritarianism in its most extreme form.
Instead, we must take the overall socioeconomic, cultural-symbolic, and psychosocial context into account. This also applies to forms of discrimination and social inequalities which can no longer be encompassed in the old concept of class. Here, it is crucial to break with not just the feminist, but the general Leftist taboo on abstraction, which locates class or other identities as the necessary point of departure for theory and analysis.
Because we live in a constant state of emergency — the climate crisis, housing shortages, the care crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, economic crises, the Russo-Ukrainian War — activism and a focus on praxis seem to be the order of the day. Consequently, Leftist and feminist theory is primarily developed in service to praxis. However, it is high time to take a step back. We must grasp the social totality from a historical perspective, and, in so doing, account for so-called minorities as well as the hierarchy of gender and sex relations, which are by no means adequately covered by gender theory. This step is necessary because the Left is in a profound crisis which is becoming ever more acute today in the context of the worldwide shift to the Right. This in no way precludes practical action. However, we should reflect on praxis from the vantage point of social relations as a totality. Theory is only useful for praxis insofar as theory does not make itself synonymous with praxis in the first place.
I have tried to make such a contribution through my own theory of value-dissociation, which, broadly speaking, posits a dialectical relationship between production and value on the one hand, and reproduction and dissociation from value on the other hand. Through my critique of the logic of identity and, relatedly, the male subject of consciousness, which establishes itself through value-dissociation, I demonstrate that the dynamic of value-dissociation is driven by its own inner forces to relativize itself and make room for social disparities other than the hierarchical relations of sex and gender.
Stefan Hain: The Left is a political tendency of bourgeois society which made the most radical effort to pursue the revolutionary tendencies within bourgeois society and realize these politically. Historical Marxism was a movement within the Left that understood itself as the “ruthless criticism of everything existing.” To critique an object means to grasp the conditions under which the object becomes capable of transforming itself. By taking advantage of the contradictions within the object, critique further develops the potential of the object to become something different than it ever was before.
According to Karl Marx, the totality of the conditions of human life is produced by human beings themselves. It is the product of their labor, even if they are not always conscious of it:
The animal is immediately one with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life-activity. Man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life-activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being. Or it is only because he is a species being that he is a Conscious Being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labour reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life-activity,his essential being, a mere means to his existence.
Thus, for Marx, human beings are not immediately at one with their life-activity, but alienated from it by their will and conscious planning: their own lives become an object to them. As a social species being, humankind produces freedom and alienation as aspects of the same process. This means that human beings find themselves alienated from the social dimension of their existence and its products, as if these were a form of nature external to them. As a result, nature in itself appears to be the material for the production of society. However, the fact that things appear to be this way is not a mere illusion or misunderstanding; this is, in fact, the only way that humanity has access to nature:
It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
Marx held that bourgeois society develops a self-undermining dynamic in which the production of freedom goes hand in hand with the reproduction of unfreedom in the facsimile of nature. In the process of socially producing themselves, human beings become blind to the social character of their own labor. They forget that they produce both themselves and their nature, through their labor, to serve social, i.e. human, purposes.
In 1955, the American psychologist John Money’s work with intersex patients led him to the realization that a person’s sex chromosomes do not necessarily determine the psychological and social dimensions of their sex, and that sex can also be linked to postnatal developmental factors. However, the term “gender” did not reach wider significance and meaning outside of psychology until its use in debates among feminists in the 1970s and 80s, such as Luce Irigaray and, later, Judith Butler. These debates were characterized by an approach to psychoanalysis that derived from Jacques Lacan’s revision of Freudian psychoanalysis. Lacan, in turn, was influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
The beginning of the concept of “gender,” if not the word itself, can be found in a footnote from 1905 by Sigmund Freud. Here, he states that although the terms “masculine” and “feminine” may appear to be unambiguous in everyday life, sex is obscured and consequently difficult to determine in science. According to Freud, male and female are used sometimes in the sense of activity and passivity, then sometimes in a biological, and then again sometimes in a sociological sense. In Freud’s view, the biological approach permits the clearest determination: “‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are characterized by the presence of spermatozoa or ova respectively and by the functions proceeding from them.” Freud held that greater muscle development, aggression, and higher libido are more often correlated with biological maleness, but not necessarily tied to it. Meanwhile, in his view, the sociological approach is based on “the observation of actually existing masculine and feminine individuals.” Thus, for Freud, the sociological dimension was historically contingent and time-bound, constituted by real individuals living under concrete social conditions. Likewise, Freud held that
Such observation shows that in human beings pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture of the character-traits belonging to his own and to the opposite sex; and he shows a combination of activity and passivity whether or not these last character-traits tally with his biological ones.
Theodor Adorno critiqued the sociologists of the 1950s, who held that the problematic division between psychology and sociology could be overcome simply by “collecting more facts” and “refining definitions.” For Adorno, the task of synthesizing psychology and sociology is not a methodological problem. Instead, people are unable to see that they themselves constitute their social institutions, because they have alienated themselves from society as the product of their own labor, and thus find themselves facing society as though it were a force external to them: “What compartmentalized disciplines project on to reality merely reflects back what has taken place in reality. False consciousness is also true; inner and outer life are torn apart.”
Ultimately, according to Adorno, neither sociology nor psychology can fully grasp the problem, for the individual is torn in many ways: not only into ego, id, and superego, but also between the individual’s threefold private personality and the individual’s existence as a purely quantitative unit, a character mask in the gears of society. These reified single halves of a shattered whole reciprocally maintain each other’s truth and falseness at the same time. Only by maintaining the split between these two sides of human subjectivity, a division which is true and false at the same time, can the task as well as the potential of how human beings live together be grasped.
Until such time, Adorno held that the autonomous aspect of human beings, their ego, will wither away, even as their id and superego are mobilized against them under the auspices of power. For Adorno, the ego of individuals has become enslaved as the bearer of two forces: on the one hand, the libidinous needs of the id, the pleasure principle; and on the other hand, the reality principle, forcing the ego to become representative of a system of order external to it. Adorno understood that this identity of the psyche, its “double role,” is precarious: far from being a historical constant, it can change, for better or for worse.
According to Adorno, society itself has become caught in a downward spiral of regression due to the failure of the world revolution in the 20th century, “because the development of a rational collective subject, of a unified humanity, failed to materialize.”
With the most highly developed productive forces, humanity has merely reproduced barbarism in its crudest forms. In Adorno’s view, people must adapt their subjectivity to the objective conditions of society. In his critique of psychoanalysis, Adorno traced the extent to which its object, the bourgeois individual, has progressively fragmented and disintegrated throughout the 20th century.
Adorno saw that individuality and subjectivity are dwindling: “In an antagonistic society each individual is non-identical with himself, both social and psychological character at once, and, because of the split, maimed from the outset. . . . Where the ego fails to develop its intrinsic potential for self-differentiation, it will regress . . . will . . . mingle its conscious functions with unconscious ones.” Common to all regression is that it marks a relapse into a prior stage that has already been overcome. Regression means pathological repetition in a situation that apparently does not allow an adequate response.
For the Frankfurt School, the character masks of identity not only follow the boundaries between different professions and classes, but between all forms of dividing people, including into men and women. Just as these categories are unnatural and variant to Adorno, he emphasizes the real and seemingly invariant conditions that have come to necessitate and organize these divisions between people. Adorno demands that even the bad be recognized in its truthfulness, since it cannot be overcome in any other way. He sees only one way out of this “accursed” situation: the political overcoming of the dominion of people over people. Only in such a society could sex and gender take on a non-ideological character. In order to take advantage of the possibilities for freeing an object, according to Adorno, it is necessary to overcome what he calls “identity thinking”: the idea that concept and object must be cleanly congruent. The task of this line of thinking is “to see all nature, and whatever would install itself as such, as history, and all history as nature — ‘to grasp historic being in its utmost historic definition, in the place where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being.’”
Like everything else does under capitalism, gender serves a function: it is used to get jobs, advertise products, divide groups, exclude individuals, and justify political decisions. It is the desexualized form of psychosocial sex- and gender-identity, the alienated product of social labor, just as all concepts of sex and gender have always been. Yet, as such, gender also testifies to the mutability of human nature, and thus, the potential for freedom within unfreedom. Gender represents the character which human beings create for themselves, volitionally and planned; even if they do not do so under free circumstances. In this sense, gender betrays the unfreedom of both nature and a society that violently reproduces itself in the facsimile of nature, and that wants to make all things equal to and identical with each other. Gender wanted to transcend sex. But the old taboo regarding sex and sexuality does not stop at gender: it becomes Janus-faced, now the perpetrator, now the victim. It attests to the unspeakable nature of dogma and taboos. And thus gender becomes yet another topic of contention between Leftists — and can, in a quite postmodern way, mean everything or nothing at all. It has become identical with the framework in which it was placed.
RS: Stefan’s reference to Marx’s early texts makes me a little nauseous. There is something anthropological about the ontological concepts of labor and alienation found in these texts, which emphasize what is common to humankind as a species. Marx himself further developed these concepts in Capital in the broader concept of the fetish. Moreover, we can trace the intellectual genealogy of this ontological concept of labor down to Georg Lukács and Adorno, who applied it to society as a whole, including culture and leisure time. This approach invites the romanticization of pre-capitalist conditions.
The bottom line of Adorno’s “Psychology and Sociology” is that sociology and psychology can neither manage without one another, nor be fused together, as Slavoj Žižek, for instance, attempts to do with his Lacanian Marxism. Stefan uses Adorno to refer to the missed opportunity for revolution and the absence of subjectivity. This is problematic. How do we get out of that? Should we make a nice life for ourselves in capitalism now, because there is no subject anymore?
SR: One often gets the impression that Platypus is still stuck in the industrial society of the 19th century. Likewise, the question of whether Marxism has a blind spot regarding gender suggests a general confusion about the concept of gender, not only within Platypus. Is gender a new kind of class that I haven’t heard of yet? Lacan’s student Irigaray, in claiming that woman is a class of her own, employs Marxist terms without grasping their meaning. The same goes for the term “patriarchy,” which has long ceased to govern the Western world in the 21st century.
In this respect, there has been a shift in the meaning of materiality in historical materialism that has gone unnoticed. In the Marxist tradition, materiality refers to the mode of division of labor that allows for the extraction of surplus value, which is constitutive of capitalist societies. In contrast, contemporary proponents of gender studies and queer theory are only concerned with a kind of apathetic laundry list of diversity and the sedimentation of cultural norms, including the social dimension of sex and gender.
SH: The Second International, but also the early Third International, certainly took women’s emancipation seriously as a revolutionary movement of 19th century industrial society. The concept of principal and secondary contradictions does not feature centrally in traditional Marxism, but rather mainly in Maoism and Stalinism.
The tendency to pit the young Marx against the older Marx has a lot to do with the helplessness of our present situation. Instead of distancing himself from his earlier writings, Marx fleshed them out in response to the political conflicts he encountered along the way. Marx took up alienation as a Hegelian concept, which refers to the necessary process of self-reflection that is the freedom of becoming and change. Alienation is necessary for emancipation, for without it, one finds oneself in the unmediated life-activity of the animal.
Concepts are themselves products: they transform themselves through history, through the labor of humankind. Marx’s concept of labor is in no way ontological. Marx does not claim that labor is an object that exists in itself, always intangible. Rather, labor, for Marx, is the mediating factor of all human history thus far, and the central category of capitalist society. Marxism advanced the idea that, under capitalism, and in the wake of the bourgeois revolutions, society would be centrally organized around labor. According to Marx, this would remain the case until the dictatorship of the proletariat sets the stage for socialism.
Labor is a product that human beings have brought forth in order to produce themselves and their nature with it. Therefore, according to Marx and Adorno, what we are talking about is the concept and not the object of nature. I have to say, with regard to both Irigaray and Butler, even though I don’t agree with most of their work, that it’s not at all a stupid thought that what we think of as nature is in fact not merely nature, but rather how we currently look at nature from the specific vantage point of our society, and that this is shaped by the conditions in which we live together.
The question of gender, after all, is not reserved exclusively for women; it has a much broader meaning.
Q & A
What is the meaning of Marxism, and why do we need it when we talk about feminist issues? In her essay on the woman question, Rosa Luxemburg criticizes the bourgeois feminists for demanding women’s suffrage in order to push through state reforms. In contrast, she says, Marxists strive for the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to realize a different society and thus solve the woman question. Roswitha, would you consider that to be the traditional Marxist view, and in what way do you differ from it?
RS: I am not that much of a Marxist that I could give a Marxian philological answer. The invocation of Marx is always historical as well. I would object to Stefan’s claim that the so-called woman question has been a central question in the Marxist tradition as a whole. It has always been subordinated, whether you call it a secondary contradiction or not. For Marxists of the Eastern Bloc, it was all about the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that was tied to a kind of ontology of labor.
“Labor” hasn’t always meant the same thing. We have to historicize it. In modernity, labor is a product of society, a kind of compact. There is no such thing as labor per se, just as there is no such thing as gender. Instead of labor, I prefer to take as the overarching point of view Marx’s concept of the process in which both human beings and nature participate, and in which humans of their own accord start, regulate, and control the material reactions between themselves and nature. The problem with traditional and Eastern Bloc Marxism is that the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been processed at all. Instead, all of these concepts are simply repeated mechanically. You can’t just lump together this traditional Marxism with the Frankfurt School. I would insist that they are two different things, and that Adorno did not simply assume the traditional Marxist concept of labor.
My own approach is a mixture of value criticism and Adorno’s critical theory, which points towards a new caliber of theory that goes beyond Marx, Adorno, and value critique itself. We cannot simply undertake a consecutive philology of Marx and Adorno; we must analyze how historical conditions have changed. After all, these are no eternal truths.
SH: To paraphrase Adorno, the question is less what we think of Marx, than what Marx would think of our time. Marx characterizes labor as central, not because he idolizes it, but because he sees that it has become idolized. On the one hand, labor untethers humanity from nature and frees humanity to make itself. On the other hand, humanity only ever makes use of this freedom in order to engender a kind of seemingly ontological labor, and a seemingly constant nature. Marx’s critique encompasses both aspects: that labor continues to reproduce itself as a fixed category, long after it has already become obsolete; and that, as timeless as labor seems, it must become obsolete.
RS: So you’re calling for the abolition of labor?
SH: I’m calling for the overcoming of labor!
SR: A Marxist or materialist critique begins with the fact that society is something that must always be rethought. There is no point in simply carbon copying Marxism while overlooking the fact that a new spirit of capitalism has arisen. Butler and Irigaray are not interesting at all, because the realization that gender and sexuality are taught, learned, and reproduced in myriad ways in everyday life is by no means new. Rather, what is new about the feminist employment of deconstruction is the enthusiastic idea that it could somehow be useful in service of a political and sexual utopia. It brings good tidings: we no longer recognize political parties, classes, or genders; instead, we are banking on fluid human beings enmeshed in their social relations, fit for the future. This may somehow sound interesting, but it cannot be reconciled with Marxism. I would rather say, to paraphrase Wolfgang Pohrt, that one ought to drive Marx out of students’ heads, because he will probably do more harm than good.
RS: I do think that you need to read Marx. My point was not to say that we should throw him in the garbage can. The claim that Stefan made, that the question is not how we think about Marx today, but how he would think about us, is distinctly idealistic.
It seems that Roswitha’s notion of “traditional Marxism” derives from Moishe Postone. Postone primarily arrives at this term in his critique of Lukács, whom he calls a traditional Marxist. For Lukács, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not the utopia, but the transitional stage pointing towards the abolition of the proletariat. So what do you mean by “traditional Marxism”?
Furthermore, the question seems to be to what extent this identity, the “proletariat,” is informed about the historical conditions for/of its own existence and how it constitutes the only possibility of its self-overcoming — that is, to what extent it makes possible a critique, instead of a simple affirmation or rejection. According to Adorno, this utopian moment of non-identity can only unfold on the basis of an existing identity. To what extent does the utopian potential that we are expressing here — through our positions of criticism or support in the gender debate — relate to the necessity of non-identity itself as something that develops out of a potential that is immanent to the setting of identity?
RS: As far as the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness (1923) goes, I’m an outspoken fan. He brings reification and the intellectual genealogy of the humanities together and, already in the 1920s, anticipates the transformation towards a middle-class society. The interesting thing about Lukács is precisely that he doesn’t simply attach Marxism to the proletariat in a vulgar way, but that he translates it on the level of society and the history of ideas as a whole. And another thing about this dictatorship of the proletariat or, as it is also known, the class in and of itself: Max Horkheimer said that you can read Lukács quite well without the proletariat, and I think so, too.
Postone’s reading of the Frankfurt School strikes me as problematic. He claims that one can only grasp totality hermetically, and alleges that possibilities for emancipation can develop immanently, which the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno forecloses by sequestering them into the administered world. In fact, the Frankfurt School — in contrast to many other Marxist approaches that continued to adhere to the dictatorship of the proletariat — responded precisely to this transformation of society: the administered world, the rise of the middle class, and bureaucratization. Indeed, this is the merit of the Frankfurt School: that it established — without resorting to a crude, utopian ideal — that there does not, at the moment, actually exist anything emancipatory, or rather, that it exists only in non-identity or in contradictions that cannot, however, be transcended or unleash their potential. That is what was meant by “a message in a bottle.”
In addition, I have a problem with the concept of non-identity. Whereas Adorno explains non-identity through the exchange of commodities and labor, I argue that it is based on value dissociation; that is, on the rejection of qualitative thought or consideration of our life-world — in short, whatever cannot simply be resolved into a positivist perspective. In this sense, I don’t think that non-identity actually has that much of an emancipatory potential. It is a critical term for describing reality in the here and now, but not for conceptualizing the utopia that goes beyond capitalism.
SH: Identity is always cleanly congruent with itself, and in this respect it contradicts development. As Adorno says in Negative Dialectics, identity is the original form [Urform] of ideology. It is the origin of a thought process that enlightens us about our world, and yet, at the same time, obscures our social conditions. That is precisely the interesting point: in a certain way, capitalism and bourgeois society make people identical with each other. On the one hand, I am the inalienable owner of my labor power as a commodity, and no one else. Without this development, we cannot have an emancipated society, much less imagine one. Only the idea that a person is identical with themself, but also, that things have a quality, identity, that makes them interchangeable with each other, makes it possible to think about emancipation in the first place. It is this identity, this concept that you are cleanly congruent with yourself, that makes it possible for you to realize: “Why, then, am I standing beside myself? Why is a certain part of the product of my labor not with me, but outside of me?” To what extent is bourgeois society — the society of equality, liberty, and fraternity — in crisis, and thus non-identical with itself? To what extent is the absolute barbarism of capitalism — which harkens back to the happy state of primeval barbarity — not simply hell, totally congruent with itself, but in fact the only possible origin point of a classless society?
SR: According to Adorno, the very domain of psychology in which we believe ourselves to be completely ourselves is, in an enigmatic sense, the domain in which we are least of all ourselves. This is because we are already shaped for others, to be something else than what we are, down to our inner selves. The dimension of a person’s being which does not bow to the compulsion to be identical shatters under this pressure. Here, Adorno refers to Hegel and the master-slave dialectic. Perhaps the act of breaking free from the constraints of identity can thus demonstrate not only that master and slave are human, but also that they have yet to become human.
Against this background, the policing of speech among feminists and the idolization of identity pluralism are rather the manifestation of a pervasive powerlessness. Katharina Rutschky attests that the new women’s movement since the 1970s is, in a way, a symptom of a radicalized, dismal consciousness. Instead of fighting for freedom or emancipation, people on the Left seek refuge in concepts such as victimhood, identity, and so on. We live in a time of constant crisis, in which people cling to their own ego in the face of their terrible powerlessness, and lose sight of the extended political horizon of a better society. Instead of being able to live differently in a transformed society, people all of a sudden just want to be “themselves.”
The feminist movement has bourgeois origins in the student movement. Unfortunately, as a result, feminist thought is still tied to the humanities departments of the universities, whose faculty have come to parody themselves with their queer paradigms, which are totally out of touch with reality. People lack imagination, as well as strategies for fighting back. At least the second-wave feminists fought for women’s rights. Even though I don’t always agree with them, I think that they are right to take a critical stance towards issues such as prostitution and Islam. In contrast, this newfangled queer movement is all about self-promotion. Zeitgeist-compatible influencers like Hengameh Yaghoobifarah talk about how cool Marxism is, then turn around and cater to big corporations worldwide with diversity-management strategies and girl-boss business slogans.
I learned a lot about Marxism today. However, the overarching theme — the materialist understanding of society and the deconstructivist theoretical assumption expressed by the word “gender” — did not come across to me so clearly. The dichotomy is in the title: Gender and the Left. To what extent do these two categories interfere with or influence each other? I’m talking about the political dimension, or the concepts of man and woman, which are in themselves a dichotomy, yet also form a union in regard to human beings as biological as well as social beings.
SH: The Left was the political tendency that most radically pursued the revolutionary and emancipatory aspirations of bourgeois society. The idea that men and women are free, equal, and equivalent to one another is originally a bourgeois concept; it never existed in that way before. In that regard, through bourgeois society, the Left is closely connected to the question of the emancipation of the sexes, and to what extent they stand on an equal footing. The idea is that difference in the form of discrimination can be overcome, while at the same time the sexes need not be made totally identical, as things can still exist in difference.
RS: In our critique of identity, we haven’t talked at all yet about the question of whether there are physical differences between men and women. I must say that I think there are. Even if these things are variable to a certain extent, they can’t be dissolved to such an extent that these differences do not exist at all anymore. That brings us to Butler. I do think that there really are in-between identities or genders. But these are a small number of people, and as such, they are non-identical. They have the right to be recognized as such. This also applies to people who feel as though they were born in the body of the wrong sex, and therefore wish to have an operation. It is important that such operations be granted. However, the idea that everything is somehow fluid, and there are no more differences between men and women at all, cannot become the absolute standard.
I am thinking of fears that I personally have had, for instance, of becoming pregnant and being forced to carry the child to term. One must have the courage to name it in these terms, instead of judging it to be this phobia against physical difference. I am consciously using the traditional term “physical difference” here, which insists that these differences do exist, but which has no bearing on gender roles. For me, the latter are a question of socialization.
Society is a material, sociocultural, and psychosocial totality that cannot simply be reduced to economy and superstructure. At that point, you have to go beyond Marx, or fill in these gaps even more substantially than, for example, “materialist feminism” attempts to do.
SR: Upon taking a closer look at the Left today, we find that it is essentially a fad. The contemporary Left has certain tendencies that the New Left of 1968 legitimately fought for, such as freedom and autonomy. But these concepts have all become appropriated by the capitalist mainstream, and have forfeited their potential for resistance in the process.
When I consider the Left today, I ask myself, where is the revolutionary potential? I don’t believe that it will be possible to start a revolution the day after tomorrow. By now, rather, the popular rhetoric of identity politics has unmasked itself as a paltry and cheap surrogate for the promise of emancipation, including women’s emancipation. Now it’s only a matter of distributing misery equitably, regardless of skin color, gender identity, or ethnicity.
The Left has basically no prospects. Instead, the next generation of feminists have become the unwitting bedfellows of capital, which is infinitely fluid. Increasingly, capital is less dependent on actual women than on fragmented subjects, who must continuously reinvent and optimize themselves all over again. All of this is analyzed solely on the level of discourse and treated as pure socialization, without accounting for the concrete conditions under which women, after all, came to be the “second sex,” as de Beauvoir called it — not the “other sex,” as it is mistakenly translated in German.
What is your concrete political horizon? The fact that every social movement is beset with value dissociation casts into question whether Roswitha’s critique of value dissociation actually offers a horizon for the emancipation of the sexes. Sara, should we go back to the second wave of feminism? And Stefan, why do you still hold on to Marxism at all? I would like to invoke Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote that reforms may change certain laws, but revolution can change the structure of society as a totality. You, Roswitha, have said yourself that domination in capitalism no longer operates through laws, but rather in abstract forms. Is it at all possible to conceptualize utopia without revolution?
SR: I would not consider myself a second-wave feminist, although I defend their achievements against what we see on the Left today. However, both have failed to address how the meaning of sex and gender has shifted under dramatically changing conditions. In retrospect, the feminist movement, including the second wave under Schwarzer, acted opportunistically and settled for quotas, etc. Today, queer feminists project fantasies of omnipotence onto sex and gender, according to which anyone can be anything.
In response to the false or unjust neutralization of women, first-wave feminists reconstituted a kind of archaic femininity. This culminated in female essentialism and a new female historiography, which is erroneous and utopian. Third-wave feminists, who are more influential today, seek to overcome sex and gender and expose them as social constructs, that is, completely fluid identities that everyone can choose at a whim, according to their personal taste. Meanwhile, the Left perpetuates essentialism as far as skin color and ethnic identities are concerned. I consider this regressive. What is propagated as progress actually falls below the achievements not just of second-wave feminism, but of feminism as a whole.
People always pretend that they’ve reinvented the wheel without referencing their own history and the origins of the women’s movement. In contrast, I would defend the bourgeois feminists, because they fought for self-determination. The right to have a say in politics, to have unrestricted access to education and skilled work, the decriminalization of abortion — specifically, the abolition of paragraph 218 in German law — and the moderation of traditional divorce law — these are all major demands that second-wave feminism and the student movement realized. It is important to harp on these bourgeois achievements because the following generation of queer feminists have taken them for granted so completely that they barely even mention them. Without adhering to conservative, that is, bourgeois feminism, I would still defend its achievements because at least it still dealt with concrete women’s rights. I don’t see that in queer studies.
RS: In my political approach, I do not rely on identities, but I do criticize discrimination in the form of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Romani sentiment. I don’t demonize any kind of practical engagement. Quite the opposite: it would be nonsense to say that there is no point in doing anything for the struggle for recognition, higher pay, and better working conditions in care work. Antifascist efforts and critical engagement with climate change are also central and important. However, I oppose the fetishization of praxis.
At the moment, the entire Left is basically in the gutter, as is society as a whole. On the one hand, we are descending into regression, and on the other hand, a restoration is underway. First, we have to look at what’s actually happening there, where it’s coming from, and to what it’s connected. I would argue in the spirit of critical theory that we must not make ourselves into an appendage of political praxis, since this is often itself affirmative.
I don’t have a blueprint for the utopia, but I can name a few platitudes: I want all people to be equal, solidarity to prevail, and property relations to change, and I don’t want to be reified as a commodity within a capitalist society anymore. I could recite many such phrases now, as they are found in feminist concepts for a better society. What provokes me immensely is when people leave the informal mode of domination unmentioned and mask it with false humanity and double standards, as if everything is already so nice and equal.
SH: Gender is not a construct, but a product. It is produced by the socially mediated labor of human beings. Roswitha spoke about pregnancy. The conditions that arose at the end of the 20th century have never before existed in the history of humanity. Industrial society and Enlightenment thought made birth control possible, which gave rise to the second wave of feminism. I would contend that second-wave feminists were at least as strongly influenced by capitalism as the queer feminist concept of gender is today. Birth control, women in the workforce, new forms of family law: these were the needs of capitalism at the time. Now, in retrospect, the emergence of these freedoms seems rosy. But why have these forms of freedom developed, and to what extent? Abortion plays a different role in Africa and Asia than it does here. We must take into account the ramifications of living in an international world.
On the question of utopia and revolution, and why I still hold on to Marxism, the problem is rather that we are living in a revolution without utopia. We are still living in the bourgeois revolution — we make our own laws, there is no God to impose them — and in the industrial revolution. The revolution is ongoing; the problem is that it has no utopia and no leadership. This is what a Marxist movement would be responsible for, if it existed. On the one hand, the potential for utopia lies dormant in this contradiction; on the other hand, for the utopia to be realized, the forces of discontent within this system must be consciously directed. Otherwise, these discontents will simply continue to reproduce the misery in which we live.
I do not consider myself a Marxist, because I’m not organizing the proletariat, or consciously leading the revolution. What I am trying to do is remember what Marxism once was. I believe that utopia is impossible in the absence of this memory, and we can’t even engage in this conversation — which is only a relatively paltry substitute anyway for the attempt that Marxism made to overcome these problems productively, as species being. |P
 The original German term used here, Geschlecht, can mean sex and/or gender. Depending on the context, we have chosen to translate Geschlecht as either “sex,” “gender,” or “sex and gender.”
 “The woman doesn’t exist.”
 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, second ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 76, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.
 Ibid., 76–77.
 Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: The 1905 Edition (New York: Verso Books, 2017), available online at <https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Freud_SE_Three_Essays_complete.pdf>.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Sociology and Psychology (1955), published in English translation in two parts: New Left Review I, no. 46 (Nov/Dec 1967): 63–80, and New Left Review I, no. 47 (Jan/Feb 1968): 79–97, available online at <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/archive/library/adorno_socpsych_nlr46.pdf>.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 359. Adorno quotes his “Die Idee der Naturgeschichte,” Kant Society lecture given in Frankfurt, July 1932.