Dialogue on Marx, Gender, Kinship, and Human Emancipation

Rinita Mazumdar,
Heather Tomanovsky

We publish below a dialogue between Rinita Mazumdar and Heather Tomanovsky on Tomanovsky’s essay, “Marx, Gender, and Human Emancipation,” which originally appeared on this website. We would be glad to consider more contributions to this discussion – Editors

Critique of Marx on Gender, Identity, and Kinship Relations – by Rita Mazumdar

While Tomanovsky’s article is interesting, there remain some serious problems with her analysis of gender and Marxian categories. First of all, there is a slight omission with regards to Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in the first volume where in speaking of alienated labor Marx talks about the model of the most human relationship, as that between man and wife! This is really completely Aristotelian and de-politicizes the domestic sphere and maintains the 19th century version of “privacy”. There are two other important problems with Tomanovsky’s reflection on Marx’s categories. First, Marxian categories remain opaque about the notion of identities, such as masculinity, femininity, heterosexual, and homosexual identities. There is very little in Marx from which one could understand how raw biological sexualities are converted into genders. Due to this particular opacity, Marxian categories make gender “natural” (and hence one could say, “un-Marxist”). Third, and this is the most important omission in Marxian theory, the failure to explain patriarchy as an economic structure that is pre-capitalist, since his categories are mostly devoted to explain the class constructions in capitalist societies and private ownership of the means of production. Engels, despite some significant observations in the Origin of the Family, still de-naturalizes gender. Taking a cue from Marx’s thesis that Capital converts a human being into a proletarian, one could show that taking human desire, gender is formed via the installation of cultural totems and taboos. Two universal taboos in human sexualities are incest and sameness. The first one installs a process of exchange (a market) by which humans have to exchange some of their biological relatives; it so happens that sisters and daughters were exchanged by groups of males in a tribe so that kinship relationship with another tribe is established in a pre-State and pre-market society. This itself created a cultural meaning of gender; woman is one who is exchanged, or the universal commodity of exchange. This also established the institution of marriage, whose significance is exchange of female relatives by males to another groups of males; as this is a process of exchange it did incur an exchange value in terms of another woman (“you marry someone else’s sister”) or land, property, title. With this the cultural meaning of “woman” becomes “one who is exchange or transacted and not available”; the cultural meaning of male becomes, “one who does the exchange” (regardless of biological sex, often slaves were considered “half males”, etc). The second taboo, which is the prohibition of sameness in the family, as an economic unit, stems from division of labor (again Aristotle’s “naturalness” of the family). Without diversity the “oikos” would not thrive, and hence sameness (or “homosexuality”) is also another prohibition (even amongst eunuchs same perform “males” and some “females”). The creation of kinship structure is a cultural creation on drives and probably the moment at which humans stepped from “subhuman” to being “human”. The expansion of the market in England freed land and labor (and they entered into the market in the late 16th century), did reduce the importance of creating the market via the exchange of women, and in this sense Marx was right about Capital destroying the family. Incest taboo and institutionalized heterosexuality is tied to creation of families, kinship, population control and eugenics. The primary values are privatized in the family and learnt via the learning of language and the establishment of familial regulations on the primary narcissism and oedipal complexes and of course mandated by the so called secular State. The emergence of the modern market from prior kinship structures and the exchange of women, the double taboos of incest and homosexuality nowhere figures in Marx. Engels’s Origin did not explore these either. Marxist feminists lay too much stress on labor to theorize gender and hence it escapes their framework. Without a thorough re-reading of the labor in terms of taboos, exchanges, identity formation, a strong theory of gender cannot be carved out from Marxian categories.

Second Phase: Labor, Kinship, Use, Exchange, Performance

To continue with my thesis that gender is under-theorized in Marx, I shall next show that gender and “domesticity” (or “privacy”) remain under-theorized as well as de-politicized not only in Marx but also in Marxist feminism; after that I shall return briefly to the narrative I left off previously about the cultural construction of gender via kinship structures; I shall discuss how identities and values emerge in a system of exchange and circulation of goods.

Next, I shall introduce some psycho-analytic theory to go deeper into the theory of gender. I shall show that, while Marx under theorized gender and over theorized class, Freud too under theorized gender and over-theorized sexuality and failed to account for the cultural emergence of gendered identities. I shall discuss some psycho-analysts and their notion of subjectivity, masochism, fantasy, and performativity, before concluding my discussion with the Lacanian notion of what I call “illusions of subjectivity, identity, and gender” and his idea of the phallus as a fetish.

I begin with my critique of Marxist feminism. Tomanovsky, whose article I submitted before, belongs to a group of feminist popularly known in the West as “Marxist feminist”; amongst whom the most famous are the “dual systems” theorists. The name comes from the way they conceive of patriarchy as the “second half” of a two-tiered base/superstructure model. According to the “dual systems” theorists, all one needs in order to provide a theoretical framework for patriarchy is to “add on” to Marx’s Base/Superstructure a second two-tiered structure.

While the form remains the same, the content of the two structures are different. In side A of the two-tiered model a traditional mode of production is responsible for a class-based society (including ideology), while in side B, a special mode of production (that includes both the private and domesticated “care labor” as well as the public “sex affective production”) to produce patriarchy at the super-structural level. According to “dual systems” the surplus produced in the domestic sphere via child rearing and the reproduction of labor power in the domestic sphere creates patriarchy at the super-structural level.

This model is not a useful one to either explain patriarchy as a foundational economic system nor is it a good one to explain the cultural construction of gender. Later Marxist feminists, influenced by Althusser, tried to remove a “base” and talk about only ideology that produces “docile bodies” via mothering in the domestic sphere, but, in the last instance, failed to provide any theoretical support for the emergence of the ideology. Besides, there are other theoretical problems with the base/superstructure model. First of all, the way the model is set up, is almost assumes that patriarchy emerged with capitalism and equates “domesticity” almost entirely with the living place for a Malthusian couple; in doing so it has no theoretical power to explain the patriarchy as a cross cultural economic system, for example, why patriarchy existed much prior to the emergence of the mercantilism and the modern market. In addition, the cultural construction of gender, identity, and subjectivity, is unexplained in “dual systems” theory. Marxist feminists, as I said before, rely too much on theoretical labor, and thus fail to theorize gender or politicize “domesticity”; it seems that they have not yet fully exorcised the specter of Marx. So, we need to move this to a next level of theorizing in order to see how gender has a cultural component, and how patriarchy as an economic system of market and exchange pre-dates capitalism. To continue with my discussion about the difficulties of carving out a theory of identity, subjectivity, and gender both out of Marxian as well as Marxist feminists, I shall go back to my original notion of kinship and the creation of genders and identities via the establishment of the kinship structures. One of my critiques of Marxian categories is that, while Marx’s categories can explain the creation of a “worker” out of a human being (via the machinery of Capital, for the purpose of the creation of “surplus), it has little theoretical framework to show how gendered identities are creation out of human biological identities.

This problem, as I showed previously, also haunts the majority of Marxist feminists like Heidi Hartman, Ferguson and Folbre, Nancy Hartsock, and even later ones who were influenced by Althusser (such as Michele Barrett). Further, none of the Marxist feminists have good theoretical tools to explain the existence of patriarchy prior to capitalism. Going back to my previous theory of kinship structures and universal incest taboo, we can get a better account of how natural biological sexes are converted into genders via the organizing machinery of kinship structures. Kinship is the organizing principle by which raw biological genders are converted into gender via a process of exchange. In his seminal work, Elementary Structures of Kinship, Levi-Strauss showed that the concept of market is very old in human civilization; the essence of market is a process of exchange. Following Marcel Mauss, Levi-Strauss showed that this assumed a form of “gift giving” amongst tribal communities to establish non-blood kinship structures. In fact, Marcel Mauss showed that in the absence of a State, without such elaborate ritual of gift giving, there would be tribal warfare. Gift giving including products of consumption and in the absence of laws were made into “customs” such as prohibition; one cannot consume the potatoes one grows, one has to exchange them. Nonetheless, such gifts did not cement permanent tribal bonding. For this, there needs to be a universal commodity of exchange, which sealed blood relationship between tribes. It is the universal exchange of daughters, sisters and women in kin groups. The incest taboo and compulsory exchange created genders as well as the notion of value. Marx was right in saying that there are not “values” in nature, it is a cultural construct. Similarly, “women” is created out of a female, and thus giving value in exchange; marriage is defined as a process of exchange between tribal groups of what each one possesses, and each process of exchange involves a price in terms of land, title, and prestige. The woman, like Marx’s commodity in circulation the market, carries value, or is the bearer of value, but cannot be the owner of value. Something, interesting has to be noted here as observed by Anthropologist Evans-Pritchard. In sub-Saharan Nuer culture, “marriage” happens between two women and yet, within that culture the meaning of that marriage was a heterosexual arrangement; for one woman “owned” the bride price and parted with it, while the other woman is exchanged. With this, we get into the cultural definition of “man” and “woman”; a “woman” is one who is exchangeable, while a “man” is one who possesses something to be exchanged. Further, in Azande tribes, an older man of means converts a young boy and takes him as a “bride’ by paying bride price to the parents; here again we are getting a cultural meaning of gender. The important thing for our theory is to note that are as follows (1) “woman” means one who carries the value (we can use the word phallus here) from one tribe to another but does not own it (the metaphor of a “beast of burden” is useful here) and (2)” man” means one possesses or owns the valuable property. With the demise of tribal organization of human relationships and insertion of agricultural, feudal, and capitalist systems, the concept of woman as the one who carries value (or one may carry the “phallus”) was depicted that women kept the honor of the family, keeper of family values, honor killings etc. According to Luce Irigary within this process of kinship circulation, women acquire three positions, a virgin (who is pure exchange), a mother (whose exchange is for use for the purpose of propagation of the species), and a prostitute (whose more use increases her exchange). This again was culturally inscribed via the figure of the Goddess and the fantasy of the phallic mother (to which I shall return later), the immaculate conception of both the Virgin and the Holy Child. What I have said so far gives a theoretical framework for explaining the cultural construction of gender and identities, but does not explain how kinship, incest taboo, compulsory heterosexuality, is culturally inscribed into individual psychology. Next, I shall talk about Freud’s theory of gender, the concept of femininity and masochism, performativity, and then move onto Lacan’s theory of the phallus as the fetish. I shall conclude this essay with a note on re-working of Engel’s Origin incorporating into it theories of Subjectivity, identity, and a political economy of gender. I shall try to put the entire article in a file so that everyone can access it. I think it will take more than a week to complete this writing, please bear with me. To continue with what I said so far… our analysis of kinship structures, exchange, conversion of biological sex to cultural gender showed that now we are approaching some kind of gender theory by taking the word “women” (here I am using “woman” as a sign, that consists of the signifier and the signified), that is always in arises in a system of exchange and is a “value bearer” (this de-naturalizes gender somewhat as opposed to an Aristotelian “naturalness” of “master” “slave”), while “man” as a sign that does the exchanging; on the other hand there is a biological definition of the signs, here Levi-Strauss (and feminist theory in general) faces a contradiction. Levi-Strauss said that “woman” is like word, whose real use is in exchange; one who is used like words to communicate, but does not hold the discourse (here again the problem of speaking of the subaltern will come in as we shall move into post modernism). Levi-Strauss flip-flopped between a biological notion of ‘gender” and a cultural one. He was asked if theoretically speaking groups of women could have exchanged men, he said, “yes” but it never happened, because there is always a scarcity of this commodity in nature because of the deep polygamous nature of men; with this explanation he fell back into biology. With patriarchy the exchange happens between the father and the groom, in “matriarchy” between the maternal uncle and the groom. For the sake of theory (and till we actually go into post modernism) we shall keep hovering between the actual embodiment of the gendered Subjectivity and its construction in language… Acknowledging this ambiguity in our theory, one could expand the notion of “sign” that represents a “commodity” to be exchanged beyond tribal communities. Benedict Anderson showed how Nations as imagined communities evolved out of prior kinship and dynastic structures via the ideological construction and organization of “pure race” and “pure ethnicity” (which itself is problematic, as paternity is always doubtful in every genealogical investigation and rests on whether the exchanges have followed all the rules and taboos). The concept of “civilizing mission” of modern colonial power is also based on the notion that “they treat their women in a barbaric way” and exhibits how both “women” as a sign and as an embodiment remains the object and not the Subject of discourse. Then, of course there is always the eugenics by which purity of a Nation is brought about either via elaborate kinship arrangement or rape.

Having set the background, I shall now proceed to show how the notion of Subjectivity and identity can be carved out by incorporating theories of gender into Marxian categories and how ultimately a phallus can be shown as a fetish (Jacques Lacan). In order to get there we need to take a long and circular route in which I have to talk about Freud’s theory of identity and otherness, the debate surrounding castration complex as initiated by Ernest Jones, the theory of femininity and masochism and narcissism of the hypochondriac (both of which will raise the question if masochism and illness can be considered to be the two ways that the Subaltern speak or have can have access to language), femininity as masquerade and performativity.

Around 1898 Freud became interested in the notion of psycho-sexual and identity development, although he practiced hypnosis with Bauer in Paris before that and did not do very well in his profession. His interest in human psycho-sexual development was primarily kindled because of his patient “Dora”. Very briefly, Freud, being a “biological determinist” theorized that (a) human infants start with a primary narcissism (b) there is a psychical energy or libido that flows through different body parts and moves from the oral, anal, to the genital regions and at each stage encounters a prohibition from the outside (later termed by Lacan as “The Big O”), depicted in weaning and toilet training. Being highly influenced by the science of his time, he had a strong belief in determinism and theorized that the primary narcissism or autoeroticism is displaced by the oral pleasure of sucking and then the anal pleasure of passing the feces. The libido through its “natural” course reaches the genital when the sexual difference happens.

During the oral stage, there is a rudimentary desire of all babies towards a phallic mother (a mother who has the phallus), which Freud in later said is an entirely a fantasy (cultural construction of powerful Goddesses are depiction of this fantasy of early childhood, Athena, Durga). Since Freud’s entire theory revolves around the phallus (as the only organ of pleasure), when the libido reaches the genitals, two kinds of identities first evolve: (1) those who realize that they have it, and are afraid of losing it (“castration complex”) and those who realize that they have already lost it (the psyche of the little girl is “I had it but lost it due to my own fault, as I have been a bad girl!”). Subsequently, masculine identity is always vigilant against father’s threat of castration; the boy now has two options, either desiring the phallic mother (via autoeroticism), or his gendered identity (retaining the phallus), and he chooses the latter. Since, the structure of desire is such it never vanishes, the conscious identity of masculinity gives rise to the unconscious desire of the phallic mother (woman as Goddess). With the girl there is a shift in the object libido from the mother (who she realizes like her is already castrated) to the Father, who she thinks will give her the phallus. Psychologically, she accepts father’s beating, rape, and punishment (rape does not exist in Freud as it is a female fantasy to get the phallus), till (if she is a normal woman), substitutes the original desire of the phallus for a desire from father or father substitute, while pushing the desire for the phallus to the unconscious (so the desire for the phallus is a feminine desire par excellence, a desire of the subaltern as one only desires that which one lacks we shall come back to this with the Master Slave Dialectic….) to be continued…




A Response to Rinita Mazumdar – by Heather Tomanovsky

Rinita Mazumdar’s “Critique of Marx, Gender, Identity and Kinship Relations” provides a very interesting discussion of the issues surrounding gender relations and identity. In addition, Mazumdar offers a number of important critiques of Marxist feminism. Most significantly, her discussion of dual systems theory and its inadequacies for understanding “the cultural construction of gender” is quite apt. Dual systems theory by its very nature is marred by a number of difficulties. As Young (1980) has pointed out, dual systems merely adds patriarchy to Marxist economic analysis, giving traditional economistic Marxism primacy over an understanding of patriarchal relations. My article was a preliminary attempt to critically engage those areas of Marx that discuss gender and subjectivity, an area of Marx’s scholarship that has been under theorized by both dual systems theorists and especially those feminists who have appropriated aspects of Althusser’s work.


However, where I part company with Mazumdar is with her argument that patriarchy is “a foundational economic system.” While it is certainly true that some form of patriarchy has existed throughout much of human history and that exchange played a significant role in many early societies, to label it as foundational is problematic. It risks creating a static form of patriarchy rather than one that changes as other elements in society change.

This is where a new reading of Marx may be warranted. Rather than the dual systems theory of socialist feminism or adding Levi-Strauss, Freud and Lacan, I would argue that there are elements of Marx that point toward an understanding of gender and society that does not separate out and privilege some element over all others. In Capital, Vol. 1, there was much of value outside of pure economics. Particularly interesting for feminists are his chapters on “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large Scale Industry.” In these chapters, a veritable book in themselves, Marx spends a great deal of time cataloguing changes in the workplace in terms of the fight for a ten-hour workday and the introduction of machinery into factories. Interestingly, in this material Marx spends quite a bit of time discussing women and children as workers and their effect on labor conditions as a whole. While certainly some Victorianism creeps into his writing, overall, it appears to be an objective account that at least began to get at the social construction of gender. However, this is something that remains on the margins of Marx’s work therefore further theorization based on current conditions is needed for today.

In addition, I would disagree with the notion that Marx fully naturalizes gender in his work. Again, this is a concept in his writing that is undertheorized; however, there are possible openings in his work for the social construction of gender based upon his dialectical method. For example, as Gimenez (2005) points out, Marx’s dialectical method tends to focus on actual social relations and their changing nature in contrast to static a priori formulations. This is particularly relevant for understanding the passage in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts where Marx discusses gender most directly:

The immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is also the relation of man [Mann] to woman [Weib]. In this natural species relationship man’s [Mensch] relation to nature is directly his relation to man [Mensch], and his relation to man [Mensch] is directly his relation to nature, to his own natural function. Thus, in this relation is sensuously revealed, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which human nature has become nature for him. From this relationship man’s [Mensch] whole level of development can be assessed. It follows from the character of this relationship how far man [Mensch] has become, and has understood himself as, a species-being, a human being. The relation of man [Mann] to woman [Weib] is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It indicates, therefore, how far man’s [Mensch] natural behavior has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him. It also shows how far man’s [Mensch] needs have become human needs, and consequently how far the other person [Mensch], as a person, has become one of his needs, and to what extent he is in his individual existence at the same time a social being. (Marx 2004, 103)

Marx’s definition of natural, however, here and elsewhere, does not refer to a fixed biological essence. Instead, it has at least two separate meanings in these texts. First, it refers historically to the spontaneous, unconscious organization of society. Second, in other places it refers to a future state in which humanity realizes its true potential (Ring 1991, 156).

In the above text in the first sentence, is the first and only time in this selection that Marx uses the term “natural” without italics, he seems to be referring to a biological, ahistorical state; it is biologically necessary that men and women coexist in terms of reproduction of the species. However, this is only an “immediate” and abstract statement. Men and women always exist and interact within concrete circumstances mediated by definite social relations. To differentiate his two separate meanings of “natural” in this text, Marx underlines in his manuscript (here rendered in italics) the use of natural when it refers to socially mediated relations that are natural either in the sense that it is the “natural” relations based upon the period in question or whether future “natural” relations (existence) would correspond to humanity’s essence.

Thus, the relation between men and women can be seen as “natural” in a double sense. First, reproduction is necessary to continuation of the species. Second, in order for people to exist as true species beings and live up to their full potential, women must be seen as equal to men. One half of humanity will always be responsible for childbirth, but this does not imply an inevitable inequality between men and women. Instead, through the process of history, humanity overcomes its estrangement from nature through science and technology. This comes about through individuation and thus estrangement from the product, work, and others. This appears to be far from a static and essentialistic understanding of gender where transcendence [Aufhebung] of current gender norms may be possible.



Gimenez, Martha E. 2005. “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,”Science & Society. Vol. 69, no. 1. p. 11-32.

Marx, Karl. 1976. [1867-1875] Capital, Vol. I. New York: Penguin Books.

_____. 2004. [1844] The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. in Erich Fromm, ed., Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum.

Mazumdar, Rinita. 2011. “Critique of Marx, Gender, Identity and Kinship Relations.” http://www.rinitamazumdar.com.

Ring, Jennifer. 1991. Modern Political Theory and Contemporary Feminism: A Dialectical Analysis. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Young, Iris. 1980. “Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory,” Socialist Review. Vol. 10, nos. 2-3. March-June.




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1 Comment

  1. Satyabrata Mitra

    I think a reading of both Marx and Freud are flawed in the essay titled “Dialogue on…”. I think the act of reading is flawed, not that it could ever be otherwise. That being said, to return to the article in question, and remaining faithful to its title, one would expect a certain degree of engagement with three significations of which one is a proper name. A “dialogue” can’t be established by outright rejection. I shall limit myself to Marx, given it is possible to limit oneself on such a giant (a person and a thinker). His own doctoral dissertation was on the difference between two systems of Greek philosophy and is full of Greek. Why provoke something so old that it appears obvious to one reading as a show-off. It is because of two reasons: 1) sometimes this show-off is necessary, perhaps, this time is that some time. 2) The Greeks had in stalk the word Hermaphrodite and it was used by Socrates. It would be unwise on a 21st century scholar to think that a 19th century scholar (someone who knew classical Greek) didn’t read the basics of scholarship that include a 2400 year old “writer”. Marx and his Greek can be left at that. One could move on to Capita. Capital with a capital C. That is one book out of 5 that he wanted to write and ended up dying before finishing it. And even in this unfinished work, he doesn’t keep anything “opaque”. In fact the very first question he puts is: “why opaque” as he devises a method to show how, in the particular subject he has undertaken, such opaqueness could be undone “The fetishism of commodities and the secret their of” (quoting from “memory” something that Freud said can’t be trusted). If one places “woman” “a particular woman” “man” as “commodities”, then this operation hinted above needs to be carried through to its logical conclusion to “the secret”. Half-hearted loitering around the commodity does reach the market talked about in the essay. However, it does little to uncover the secret for the bearer. True the market always, in a sense, always existed. However, is it a critique of market that will do us any good or heart of the matter. For, ultimately isn’t it the heart that matters most?