Inveighing Gramsci into the Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality.


“I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.”

Pretty good piece that does a great job engaging with Eve Mitchell’s critique of intersectionality.  The author is drawing on the categories of Gramsci as a way to get past the abstract and ahistorical framework of intersectionality theory.  I remarked that it is very important that we draw from Gramsci on these questions only I critique what I believe to be a Kautskyist conception of the object/subject absorbed by Gramsci (and virtually the whole of Third International Communism).  Specifically I discuss Gramsci’s problematic critique of the base/superstructure and his Kautskyist conception of it.

I’ve pasted my response below.

Yo, this is dope!

Your critique is a very serious and thoughtful engagement with this piece and a fair presentation of the argument. Guess I’m used to a ruthless Left that makes a polemic of everything.  We need more serious textual and disciplined dialogue to take place between militants.

I also really like that you inveigh Gramsci in your critique.  I think there is a lot we can take from Gramsci that is useful toward these conversations.  I don’t know if you are a militant/organizer/revolutionary–and I’m writing as one and not as an academic–but it is the work of Gramsci, Marx, Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya, Fanon, Biko, etc. that for me represent the distillation of mass activity into revolutionary theory toward liberation.  Without a social praxis or PRACTICAL-critical activity, a practice that is self-critical these debates become absorbed by the mental and manual division of labor that is the very basis of our struggle to begin with.

I am part of a small propaganda circle of Marxist organizers in the US called Unity and Struggle with Eve Mitchell.  We collaborated in the past on some questions that come here as well as in my response below that you should feel free to skim sometime.  It specifically makes a defense of Marxist-feminism against the base/superstructure argument used by some Marxists to say rigidly separate women’s reproductive health from women’s reproductive labor.  The link is here:

You make some interesting points around the centrality of the production of knowledge.  I think this is critical, particularly for the above reference about the mental and manual division of labor.  For Marx, the separation of thinking from acting was absolutely required for the development of bourgeois social relations.  It is this, not the distribution of wealth or private ownership that was the starting point.

So it is good that Gramsci is being introduced here.  But I want to say some things about the way you juxtapose Gramsci and Marx as well as better contexualize Gramsci as a way of helping to both bolster your argument but also counter where I think it is limited.

For one, Gramsci was a Marxist.  But he was a Marxist of a certain historical period in European history.  Gramsci like most early 20th century Marxists came out of the left split in International Social Democracy and the formation of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.  He like the rest broke with the political and some of the theoretical foundations of social democracy, particularly their nationalism and their reformist parliamentary practice.  However, there was not a categorical break with Kautskyism, particularly the theory that socialism and the workers movement are separate and that revolutionary ideas come from theorists that are injected into the movement from outside.  For Kautsky, party was subject, proletariat was object.  This carried over into the International Communist movement.

You may know, being the fan of Gramsci that you are, that he attempted a rupture with the base/superstructure thesis of social democracy, what they all (social dems, communists, and Gramci alike) thought came from Marx.  The base was said to be the material structure of capitalism and superstructure the political activity and ideas of people.  Gramsci, accepting this as Marx’s thesis (it was really distilled into theory by Engels and Kautsky), argued similarly to you, that ideology and not just “economics” is also a determinant of social relations activity.  Gramsci uses the Church as way to support his argument, that the material basis for religion was long overthrown but persists in the ideas of the working class.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a real rupture with the base/superstructure or the object/subject split of Kautsky, though it was an honest attempt to make sense of the powerful force of ideas.  It wasn’t a break because it still maintained a duality between the object, “economics” and the subject, again, a party that would wage a war of position or ideas for the allegiance of the class in the lead up to the war of maneuver or struggle for state power.  Rather the object/subject is an internal contradiction of the working class, not external to it  Furthermore, the Church STILL has a material basis not only as the financial and political power of the Vatican, but by the very nature of capitalist society where human beings appear as abstract individuals rather than as part of a social totality.  This base/superstructure and object/subject duality wasn’t actually what Marx argued in the one time he used those categories (the Preface).

Instead he saw social relations and social activity as a concrete totality.  “Base” or economics is abstract and purely ideal when separated from this totality and for Marx, the truth is the whole.  Toward the conclusion of your essay you contrast capital on one side to social relations on the other.  However, Marx saw capital itself as a social relation.  Political economy, social democracy and Stalinism treated capital and economics as an object and while it does take objectified form in money, credit, money capital, and means of production, it actually conceals a social relation, a relation between workers whose combined social labor time gives it its value.  The objectified form of value then dominates and determines its makers rather than the makers determining it.  Capital appears to move on its own having an inherent value.  But this appearance is not just ideological although it is reflected in the heads of people.  This appearance of self-movement and inherent value is actually concrete and material in the value-form or when one commodity is exchanged for another.  Two unlike things are equated and seem to relate to each other, but this conceals the reality that what makes them alike is that they are products of human labor.  But we think that is just the way things are.  We think we are isolated individuals because in bourgeois society we exist as individuals who live and work in isolated, private spheres meanwhile behind our backs exists a social metabolism and equilibrium that mediates this individual activity.

Marx was not a vulgar materialist, rather he represented a synthesis of idealism and materialism.  He saw the inherent unity of ideas and activity only he started on the footed of activity.  He did this for the very reason Gramsci contrasts good/common sense with praxis.  Because what people think of themselves does not tell us really about who they are.  The world doesn’t just happen to human beings, they experience it, they change it (labor), and they experience their own objectified labor in the world, not just as objects for consumption but as part of the material conditions of labor itself.  Labor for Marx is just another way of saying “human activity” which doesn’t stop when people are painting, or developing categories of knowledge, making music, or having sex.

Gramsci did however make some very critical developments toward grappling with the dynamic and contradiction of consciousness.  His categories of good and common sense, his posing of individuals’ formal or professed politics against their sometimes revolutionary activity, etc.  Of course, to me, his writings on workers councils, his distinction between wage earner and producer, his insight into forms of workers organization as the social basis to leap into the new society can’t be missed and unfortunately is missed in the academy that wants to divest Gramsci of the revolutionary kernel of his thinking just like they do to many Marxist thinkers that become the new vogue (see C.L.R. James).  They fetishize his writings on ideas and culture at the expense of his ideas on workers organization and struggle.

Gramsci also silenced the opposition of Trotskyists and the Communist Left to the encroaching grip of the Stalin model of party organization that emphasized the centralism side of democratic centralism at the expense of its democracy.  And after his death, the party he helped build was responsible for containing the very struggles that wanted to overturn the existing order.  He definitely fucked up.  But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make fundamental contributions to Marxism and liberation.

Anyhow, this is writing is great.  Bringing in Gramsci is super critical.  I think it just needs to be more firmly rooted in Marx’s categories (not Marxist–lol) and likewise with Gramsci, he has to be situated within the Marxist tradition not only formally but also actually.  Gramsci’s Kautskyianism has to be confronted and overcome as way to strengthen the Marxist method, the way his writings on consciousness and workers organization has done.  And since you’re into Italian thinkers, Bordiga completely destroys Gramsci and questions of revolutionary organization.  However, Gramsci is pretty unmatched on workers self-activity and organization.  In Unity and Struggle we read the two as a debate and are aiming to make a partial synthesis of them into the methodology of Marx.

Tyler Zee


1 Comment

  1. Hi Tyler! Thank you for leaving this comment 🙂
    Sorry it took so long to respond!

    You are right to position Gramsci as a Marxist and to point out that Gramsci did not break with the base/superstructure conceptualisation. I still need to do more work on placing Gramsci within Marx’s work to clarify how and where he moved away from him as well as how he reproduced the same ideas. It’s interesting that Marx is often portrayed as economistic and as reducing the complexity of social life to economism even though I would argue it is usually certain strands of Marxism that tend to do that. As you rightly point out, Marx did focus on more than simply the relations of production and I should have made it clear in the post I was referring to Marxism not Marx’s work.

    It’s interesting you bring up the fact that Gramsci’s work if now fetishized to fit into academia, and I really couldn’t agree more. His work (as well as the work by some neo-Gramscians, although not many) on the subaltern classes is often ignored at the expense of his work on hegemony, even though hegemony can’t be understood without his work on the workers and the subaltern classes in general.

    Other than that, I completely agree with what you said and I’m glad you took the time to post this, I learned a lot!

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