Luxemburg’s critique of bourgeois feminism and early social reproduction theory

25th Feb, 2018

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a Stuttgart crowd in 1907

Ankica Čakardić is an assistant professor and the chair of Social Philosophy and Philosophy of Gender at the Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb. Her research interest include Marxist critique of social contract theory, Political Marxism, Marxist-feminist and Luxemburgian critique of political economy, and history of women’s struggles in Yugoslavia. She is currently finishing her book on the social history of capitalism, Hobbes and Locke. A longer version of this paper, presented at the 2017 London Historical Materialism conference, has been published in the journal's Issue 25.4 as 'From Theory of Accumulation to Social-Reproduction Theory: A Case for Luxemburgian Feminism', available in advance here.

The Accumulation of Capital

Luxemburg did not write many texts on the so-called ‘woman question’.1 However, that does not mean that her work should be omitted from a feminist-revolutionary history. On the contrary, it would be highly inaccurate to claim that her works and, specifically, her critique of political economy lack numerous reference-points for the development of progressive feminist policy and female emancipation, throughout history and today. With Luxemburg’s several essays on the ‘woman question’ and several key theses from her The Accumulation of Capital, let us try to take Luxemburg’s theory a step further. Is it possible to speak of a ‘Luxemburgian feminism’? What does Luxemburg’s critique of bourgeois feminism stand for?

On the eve of WWI, after about fifteen years of preparation, Rosa Luxemburg published The Accumulation of Capital (Berlin, 1913), her most comprehensive theoretical work and one of the most relevant and original classical works of Marxist economics.2 The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism was a follow-up to the Introduction to Political Economy which Luxemburg wrote while preparing her lectures on political economy, held between 1906 and 1916 and delivered at the German Social-Democrats’ Party School.3 Briefly put, The Accumulation of Capital sought a way to scientifically study and explain the conditions of capitalist monopolisation, extended reproduction and imperialism, while taking into account the dynamic relation between capitalist and non-capitalist spatiality. Luxemburg held that Marx had neglected capital’s spatial determination, while in his critique of capital he had centred exclusively on ‘time’, i.e. the temporal dimension of the internal dynamics of capitalist reproduction. In contrast, Luxemburg ‘sought to show that capital’s inner core consists of the drive to consume what is external to it – non-capitalist strata’.4 Luxemburg’s goal was to articulate her own theory of extended reproduction and critique of classical economics, which would contain not only a temporal but also a ‘spatial analytical dimension’. This spatial determination of capitalist accumulation Peter Hudis has termed ‘dialectics of spatiality’.5

Friends and enemies alike piled sharp criticism upon Luxemburg for noting Marx’s ‘glaring inconsistencies’, as she believed, the ‘defects’ of his approach to the problem of accumulation and expanded reproduction from the second volume of Capital.6 In a letter to Franz Mehring referring to critiques of her The Accumulation of Capital, she wrote:

In general, I was well aware that the book would run into resistance in the short term; unfortunately, our prevailing ‘Marxism’, like some gout-ridden old uncle, is afraid of any fresh breeze of thought, and I took it into account that I would have to do a lot of fighting at first.7

Lenin stated that she ‘distorted Marx’,8 and her work was interpreted as a revision of Marx, in spite of the fact that it was Luxemburg who mounted a vehement attack on the revisionist tendencies within the German SPD. In opposition to the Social Democrats who grouped around ‘epigones’ and an opportunistic current of political practice which ‘corrected’ Marx into a gradual dismissal of socialist principles, revolutionary action and internationalism, Luxemburg insisted on harnessing a living Marxist thought in order to offer more-precise responses to and explanations of the growing economic crisis and newly-appearing facts of economic life. While Luxemburg’s works on political organising, revolutionary philosophy, nationalism or militarism are often analysed by scholars of her thought, few authors have tried to provide a systematic retrospective of Luxemburg’s economic theory and its legacy, or offer a contemporary Luxemburgian analysis of political economy.9 In the words of Ingo Schmidt: ‘Leftists interested in Luxemburg’s work looked at her politics but had little time for economics’.10

Although The Accumulation of Capital was met with severe criticism upon publication, by the opportunistic-reformist and revisionist elements of the SPD, as well as by orthodox Marxists led by Karl Kautsky, it was not only her work that was criticised as ostensibly suspect in its Marxism. These critics often used cheap psychological and conservative naturalising arguments that were meant to undermine the credibility of Luxemburg’s work and expose it as inept and insufficiently acquainted with Marxist texts. A good example of this type of criticism is provided by Werner Sombart, who stated in his Der proletarische Sozialismus:

The angriest socialists are those who are burdened with the strongest resentment. This is typical: the blood-thirsty, poisonous soul of Rosa Luxemburg has been burdened with a quadruple resentment: as a woman, as a foreigner, as a Jew and as a cripple.11

Even within the German Communist Party she was dubbed ‘the syphilis of the Comintern’, and Weber once ‘assessed’ Rosa Luxemburg as somebody that ‘[belongs] in a zoo’.12 Dunayevskaya writes:

Virulent male chauvinism permeated the whole party, including both August Bebel, the author of Woman and Socialism – who had created a myth about himself as a veritable feminist – and Karl Kautsky, the main theoretician of the whole International.13

Dunayevskaya’s gender-social analysis also cites a part of a letter in which Victor Adler writes to August Bebel on the subject of Luxemburg:

The poisonous bitch will yet do a lot of damage, all the more so because she is as clever as a monkey [blitzgescheit] while on the other hand her sense of responsibility is totally lacking and her only motive is an almost pervasive desire for self-justification.14

In question was evidently a certain type of conservative political tactics that amounted to attacking prominent women, which in this case included a serious dismissal of Luxemburg’s work based on biology – the fact that she was a woman. Although this important aspect of social and gender history will not be further discussed here, its ubiquity needs to be borne in mind when discussing the theoretical and numerous quasi-theoretical critiques of The Accumulation of Capital and Luxemburg’s experience as a woman theoretician, teacher and revolutionary.

If feminist analyses of Luxemburg’s works in general are rare, even rarer are feminist engagements with her The Accumulation of Capital.15 If there is any interest in feminist interpretation of Luxemburg’s work, it is usually defined in relation to her personal life and occasionally to her theory. Luxemburg not having written much on the subject of the ‘woman question’ certainly contributed to the fact that the subject of most interpretations of Luxemburg’s feminism is linked to episodes from her life and intimacy. These are, naturally enough, highly important subjects, particularly bearing in mind that historical scholarship has traditionally avoided women and their experiences. However, let us try to give an answer to this question: what can a few of Luxemburg’s texts and written speeches tackling the ‘woman question’ tell us about her feminism?

Luxemburg’s Critique of Bourgeois Feminism

Luxemburg did not exclusively devote herself to organising female workers’ groups; her work in that field was obscured by the fact that she usually worked behind the scenes. She fervently supported the organisational work of the socialist women’s movement, understanding the importance and difficulties of work-life for female emancipation. She usually showed her support through cooperation with her close friend Clara Zetkin. In one of her letters to Zetkin we can read how interested and excited she was when it came to the women’s movement: ‘When are you going to write me that big letter about the women’s movement? In fact I beg you for even one little letter!’16 Relating to her interest in the women’s movement, she stated in one of her speeches: ‘I can only marvel at Comrade Zetkin that she ... will still shoulder this work-load’.17 Finally, although rarely acknowledging herself as a feminist, in a letter to Luise Kautsky she wrote: ‘Are you coming for the women’s conference? Just imagine, I have become a feminist!18 Besides the fact that she was working ‘behind the scenes’ and privately showing her interest in the ‘woman question’, she still engaged herself in an open discussion concerning the class problem faced by the women’s movement. In a speech from 1912 entitled ‘Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle’, Luxemburg criticised bourgeois feminism and assertively pointed out:

Monarchy and women’s lack of rights have become the most important tools of the ruling capitalist class.... If it were a matter of bourgeois ladies voting, the capitalist state could expect nothing but effective support for the reaction. Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against ‘male prerogatives’ would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.19

The question of women’s suffrage along with the philosophy of the modern concept of law based on the premises of individual rights played an important role in the so-called big transition from feudalism to capitalism. For Rosa Luxemburg, the question of women’s suffrage is a tactical one, as it formalises, in her words, an already-established ‘political maturity’ of proletarian women. She goes on to emphasise that this is not a question of supporting an isolated case of suffrage which is meaningful and completed, but of supporting universal suffrage through which the women’s socialist movement can further develop a strategy for the struggle for emancipation of women and the working class in general. However, the liberal legal strategy of achieving suffrage was not class inclusive and did not aim to overturn the capitalist system. Far from it. For Luxemburg, the metaphysics of individual rights within the framework of a liberal political project primarily serves to protect private ownership and the accumulation of capital. Liberal rights do not arise as a reflection of actual material social conditions, they are merely set up as abstract and nominal, thus rendering their actual implementation or application impossible. As she contemptuously argued: ‘these are merely formalistic rubbish that has been carted out and parroted so often that it no longer retains any practical meaning’.20

Luxemburg rejected the traditional definition of civil rights in every sense, including the struggle for women’s suffrage, and she pointed to its similarity with the struggle for national self determination:

For the historical dialectic has shown that there are no ‘eternal’ truths and that there are no ‘rights’.... In the words of Engels, ‘What is good in the here and now, is an evil somewhere else, and vice versa’ – or, what is right and reasonable under some circumstances becomes nonsense and absurdity under others. Historical materialism has taught us that the real content of these ‘eternal’ truths, rights, and formulae is determined only by the material social conditions of the environment in a given historical epoch.21

What Rosa Luxemburg suggests in the aforementioned quotation from ‘Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle’ pertains to classical problems initially raised and debated within the framework of socialist feminism from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century: the role of bourgeois feminism in capitalist reproduction and the use of feminist goals as a means of achieving profit. Whenever capitalism is in crisis or needs ‘allies’ for its restoration or the further accumulation of capital, it integrates marginalised ‘Others’ into its legal liberal political form, be they women, children, non-white races, or LGBTIQ people – whoever is disposable or potentially useful for further commodification:

Thus one of the fundamental conditions for accumulation is a supply of living labour that matches its requirements, and that capital sets in motion.... The progressive increase in variable capital that accompanies accumulation must therefore express itself in the employment of a growing workforce. Yet where does this additional workforce come from?22

According to Luxemburg’s economic theory, the capitalist mode of production reproduces itself by creating surplus-values, the appropriation of which can only be hastened by a concomitant expansion in surplus-creating capitalist production. Hence, it is necessary to ensure that production is reproduced in a larger volume than before, meaning that the expansion of capital is the absolute law governing the survival of any individual capitalist. In The Accumulation of Capital Rosa Luxemburg establishes the premises for understanding capitalism as a social relation which permanently produces crises and necessarily faces objective limits to demand and self-expansion. In this sense she developed a theory of imperialism based on an analysis of the process of social production and accumulation of capital realised via various ‘non-capitalist formations’:

There can be no doubt that the explanation of the economic root of imperialism must especially be derived from and brought into harmony with [a correct understanding of] the laws of capital accumulation, for imperialism on the whole and according to universal empirical observation is nothing other than a specific method of accumulation.… The essence of imperialism consists precisely in the expansion of capital from the old capitalist countries into new regions and the competitive economic and political struggle among those for new areas.23

Unlike Marx, who abstracted the actual accumulation by specific capitalist countries and their relations via external trade, Luxemburg claims that expanded reproduction should not be discussed in the context of an ideal-type capitalist society.24 In order to make the issue of expanded reproduction easier to understand, Marx abstracts foreign trade and examines an isolated nation, to present how surplus-value is realised in an ideal capitalist society dominated by the law of value which is the law of the world-market.25 Luxemburg disagrees with Marx, who analyses value relations in the circulation of social capital and reproduction by disregarding the specific characteristics of the production process which creates commodities. Thus, the market functions ‘totally’, that is, in a general analysis of the capitalist process of circulation we assume that the sale takes place directly, ‘without the intervention of a merchant’.

Marx wishes to demonstrate that a substantial portion of surplus is absorbed by capital as such, instead of concrete individuals. The question is not ‘who’ but ‘what’ consumes surplus commodities. Luxemburg, on the other hand, analyses the accumulation of capital starting from the level of international commodity exchange between capitalist and non-capitalist systems. Despite Luxemburg’s objections, she nevertheless realises that Marx’s analysis of the problem of variable capital serves as the basis for establishing the problem of the law of the accumulation of capital, which is the key to her social-economic theory. Equally, that line of argument allows for understanding the highly important distinction between productive and non productive labour,26 without which it would be almost impossible to understand social-reproduction theory as a specific reaction to neoclassical economics and its partnership with liberal feminism. Precisely for this reason in The Accumulation of Capital Luxemburg quotes Marx:

The laboring population can increase, when previously unproductive workers are transformed into productive ones, or sections of the population who did not work previously, such as women and children, or paupers, are drawn into the production process.27

This type of economy and liberalistic inclusion of the ‘labour population’ obviously has low democratic potential and lacks any aspiration to emancipate the oppressed class. Rights are allocated very cautiously, on an identity-level basis (as opposed to the material social level), and exclusively according to the formula designed primarily to safeguard the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. Bourgeois women from the early nineteenth century do not have the abolition of the class system in mind; on the contrary, they support it. Moreover, bourgeois feminism affirms capitalism and one’s own class position, and disregards the rights of working-class women. The processes of accumulation of capital, the modern state, the aspirations of liberalism, and then bourgeois feminism move along the same path:

At a formal level, women’s political rights conform quite harmoniously with the bourgeois state. The examples of Finland, of American states, of a few municipalities, all show that a policy of equal rights for women has not yet overturned the state; it does not encroach upon the domination of capital.28

Luxemburg explains that the role of the women’s suffrage movement is reactionary not only because of the simple failure of bourgeois women to support the struggle for workers’ rights and the social rights of proletarian women, but also because of their active participation in affirming the oppression of women which arises from social relations based on the reproductive work of women within the household sphere. The central methodological point of Luxemburg’s theory of economics consists of an assertive clash with classical political economics. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the subjects of her critique also include precisely those social phenomena and processes which enable capitalism – liberalism, the role of the bourgeoisie in the transition from feudal monarchy to capitalism. Rights, laws, and modern-day social contracts are institutions that played a key historic formal role in the affirmation of capitalism.29 But also, bourgeois feminism plays an important part in the maintenance of capitalist class-structures. On the one hand, the bourgeois class of women demands the political right to vote only for the ruling class of women, and from an individualist standpoint they hold no interest in tackling the issue of the position of women in general or class-related causes of the oppression of women. In Luxemburg’s opinion, the role of bourgeois women is very important and it maintains an active presence in perpetuating the established social relations:

Aside from the few who have jobs or professions, the women of the bourgeoisie do not take part in social production. They are nothing but co-consumers of the surplus value their men extort from the proletariat.30

By opposing the goals of bourgeois women to the goals supported by proletarian women, Luxemburg clarifies that the problem here is not only gender related, a ‘woman problem’, but also a class-related problem. Talking about women in general whilst feigning universality will not do, because gender analysis without class analysis is reductive. Women belonging to the higher classes mostly do not participate in production within the framework of market processes and thus consume surplus-value, which has been drained through the exploitation of the working class; thus their role in the reproduction of social relations is of a ‘parasitic nature’:

They are parasites of the parasites of the social body. And co-consumers are usually even more rabid and cruel in defending their ‘right’ to a parasite’s life than the direct agents of class rule and exploitation.31

Thus, Luxemburg adds, the only social role of bourgeois women is to maintain and reproduce the existing order; they are not allies in the struggle for emancipation:

The women of the property-owning classes will always fanatically defend the exploitation and enslavement of the working people by which they indirectly receive the means for their socially useless existence.32

Luxemburg is not alone in her sharp criticism of bourgeois feminism. Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, among others, contributed a great deal, particularly if we bear in mind their standpoint towards the reactionary attitudes of liberal women on the emancipation of women. Socialist women’s universal demands arose as an effect of social material motives and causes, ultimately finding more in common with men belonging to the same class than with the women of a higher class. This was in spite of the fact that, historically, the appearance of women in the labour market was frequently seen as an attempt to introduce cheaper competition for the male labour-force, which in turn influenced the decline in the price of labour. Considering the problem of the female labour force, socialist women point out that the workload of women is additionally aggravated by reproductive labour within the household sphere. One could almost speak of the ‘first wave’ of social-reproduction theory, when Zetkin states: ‘Women are doubly oppressed, by capitalism and by their dependency in family life’.33 One such brilliant example comes also from Luxemburg’s interpretation of the societal role of the family. Referring to Engels, in a speech from 1912 she differentiated between labour in the market sphere and labour in the household sphere, thereby laying the foundations for early social-reproduction theory:

This kind of work [bringing up children, or their housework] is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent, the thousand little efforts add up to. This is but the private affair of the worker, his happiness and blessing, and for this reason non-existent for our present society. As long as capitalism and the wage system rule, only that kind of work is considered productive which produces surplus value, which creates capitalist profit. From this point of view, the music-hall dancer whose legs sweep profit into her employer’s pocket is a productive worker, whereas all the toil of the proletarian women and mothers in the four walls of their homes is considered unproductive. This sounds brutal and insane, but corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy. And seeing this brutal reality clearly and sharply is the proletarian woman’s first task.34

Luxemburg underlines the key analytical issue we face if we are to attribute the disadvantageousness of women’s position simply to the ideology of the ‘antagonism’ between women and men, instead of to the capitalist mode of production. That warning illustrates how wrong and reductive it is, according to Luxemburg, to interpret the oppression of women transhistorically and in line with liberal feminism, instead of interpreting it as a product of the antagonism between capital and labour:

The call for women’s equality, when it does well up among bourgeois women, is the pure ideology of a few feeble groups without material roots, a phantom of the antagonism between man and woman, a quirk. Thus, the farcical nature of the suffragette movement.35

As neoliberalism successfully exploits gender for the purposes of the class-interests of capital, we are facing an important task of designing anti-capitalist strategies based on the resistance to the market and its reproduction, thereupon focusing simultaneously on the domestic sphere and reproductive processes within the framework of the capitalist mode of production. At a time when systematic analyses of the relation between the market and the state – either at the national or international level – are necessary starting-points for a discussion of any short or long-term alternatives to the capitalist mode of production, Luxemburg’s critique of bourgeois feminism and her connection to social reproduction theory seem to present not only a valuable introductory reference, but also the political model well suited to organising alliances among parallel structures and aligning their progressive goals.

References

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Ping, He 2014, ‘Rosa Luxemburg’s Theories on Capitalism’s Crises: A Review of The Accumulation of Capital’, available at: <http://kapacc.blog.rosalux.de/files/2014/02/RLs-theory-of-crisis-EN-WL1.pdf>.

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Notes

1Restricting ourselves to the available English translations, several works/speeches from the period from 1902 to 1914 in relation to the ‘woman question’ can be identified: ‘A Tactical Question’ (1902), ‘Address to the International Socialist Women’s Conference’ (1907), ‘Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle’ (1912) and ‘The Proletarian Woman’ (1914). All texts are present in Hudis and Anderson (eds.) 2004.

2Luxemburg 2015a.

3In Hudis (ed.) 2013.

4Hudis 2014.

5Ibid.

6See the critiques of Anton Pannekoek, Gustav Eckstein, Otto Bauer and Karl Kautsky in Day and Gaido (eds.) 2012. On the other hand there were also positive responses; see Franz Mehring’s review where he states: ‘While some reject the work as a complete failure, even denouncing it as a worthless compilation, others consider it the most significant phenomenon in socialist literature since Marx and Engels took up the pen. This reviewer belongs completely to the second group.’ (Day and Gaido (eds.) 2012, p. 746.)

7Adler, Hudis and Laschitza (eds.) 2011, p. 324.

8Quoted in Day and Gaido (eds.) 2012, p. 677.

9Certainly the exceptions being Kowalik 2014; Hudis 2014; Bellofiore, Karwowski and Toporowski (eds.) 2014; Ping 2014; and Bellofiore 2010. Also, we can speak of various types of applications of Luxemburg’s dialectics of spatiality to different theories of ‘new imperialism’ which are definitely not systematic analyses of Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism (and we shall refrain from discussing here the quality of each), compare: Harvey 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2014; Federici 2004; Sassen 2010; Arrighi 2004; Panitch and Gindin 2003; Cox 1983. The issue of imperialism is an integral part of the new critical theories and it has a long history, from Hobson and Lenin via Luxemburg, Bukharin and Guevara, to Fanon.

10Schmidt 2014.

11Quoted in Bulajić 1954, p. VIII.

12Quoted in Thomas 2006, p. 154.

13Dunayevskaya 1981, p. 27.

14Ibid.

15We must bear in mind the contributions from Haug 2007 and Dunayevskaya 1981.

16Adler, Hudis and Laschitza (eds.) 2011, p. 153.

17Luxemburg 2004c, p. 237.

18Cited in Dunayevskaya 1981, p. 95.

19Luxemburg 2004d, p. 240.

20Luxemburg 2004a, p. 235.

21Luxemburg 1976, p. 111.

22Luxemburg 2015a, p. 330.

23Luxemburg 2015b, pp. 449–50.

24She poses a question directly criticising Marx and his ‘bloodless schemes’ of the relations between the two departments (c+v+s) from the second volume of Capital: ‘How then can one correctly conceive of this process and its inner laws of motion by using a bloodless theoretical fiction that declares this entire milieu, and the conflicts and interactions within it, to be nonexistent?’ See Luxemburg 2015b, p. 450. As underlined by Krätke 2006, p. 22: ‘Any effort to improve or enlarge the Marxian schemes is futile. In her view, the Marxian reproduction schemes were fundamentally flawed and no reformulation could save them.’

25Although Luxemburg rightly claims that Marx does not deal with external trade in detail, she disregards the fact that he unequivocally placed the society he researched and analysed in the context of the global economy: ‘Capitalist production never exists without foreign trade. If normal annual reproduction on a given scale is presupposed, then it is also supposed together with this that foreign trade replaces domestic articles only by those of other use or natural forms, without affecting ... value ratios.... Bringing foreign trade into an analysis of the value of the product annually reproduced can therefore only confuse things, without supplying any new factor either to the problem or to its solution.’ See Marx 1992, p. 546.

26The difference between productive and non-productive labour is interpreted through Marx’s concept but also through an elaboration of Savran and Tonak 1999 and Cámara Izquierdo 2006. The authors state that the aforementioned difference presents the basis for understanding capitalism as a whole, and particularly in analysis of specific traits of twentieth-century capitalism. The emphasis is on the duality of the problem, depending on whether we refer to ‘productive labour in general’ or ‘productive labour for capital’. This distinction is considered very important in understanding the relation between reproductive (domestic) labour and the problem of non-productive labour.

27Luxemburg 2015b, p. 587.

28Luxemburg 2004b, p. 244.

29For a more detailed elaboration of a social-historic approach to Western liberal theory and modern political thought, with an emphasis on ‘transition’, compare Wood 2012.

30Luxemburg 2004d, p. 240.

31Ibid.

32Ibid.

33Cited in Riddell 2014.

34Luxemburg 2004d, p. 241.

35Luxemburg 2004b, p. 243.