The masculinity of Marxist theory

It is an exaggeration to say that all Marxist theory people are men. But the historical masculinity of that little world — let’s face it —is hard to underestimate. I’m not talking about political Marxists here— though if we look at France, for instance, the Trotskyist Nathalie Artaud is essentially invisible compared to the Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, though both are running for president. (An aside for French analysts — obviously my claim is not that this political difference is entirely determined by gender, just that the gender difference here is symptomatic. Obviously, the French far right is doing pretty well this year with a woman candidate.)

In any event, I have long been struck by the usually-unmarked masculinity of Marxist theory, in both the United States and France. To draw on my personal experience in the academy, I might mention dominant male figures like Terry Turner, an activist Marxist-structuralist anthropologist who taught me an introduction to Marx’s work in college, or Moishe Postone, who has long led an intimidating Marx seminar at the University of Chicago. In these sorts of seminars, you’re not likely to hear much about gender, and the presumption of universal reason usually seems to lodge just a little too comfortably in the figure of the male teacher. It’s the usual critical theory paradox: ostensibly emancipatory ideas get drenched in the conventional authority of male power.

Now of course I’m not saying that there are no important women Marxist theory people — Nicole Pepperell’s work comes to mind, or Kathi Weeks’ recent The Problem With Work. A little farther back, the 1970s socialist-feminist theory world was one of the most important moments in Marxist theory, with books like The Dialectic of Sex and The Politics of Housework. (Though it is not always clear that most male Marxists have read those books…) And I emphasize that I’m not necessarily singling out the Marxist theory part of the academy as being the worst possible case of masculine power. (Though that would be a depressing comparative analysis which I haven’t undertaken.)


The masculinism of Marxist theory continues in the present. And it is a problem.  A not-just-historical problem.

As a case in point, consider this new essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Headquarters of Neo-Marxism” by a political philosopher, Samuel Freeman. Freeman’s essay is a review of three books about the Frankfurt School, all three written by men (Stuart Jeffries, the German Stefan Müller-Doohm, and Peter Gordon). The reviewer is a man. Every single person mentioned in the review is male, except for Hannah Arendt in a footnote. And a quick look at Freeman’s five other book reviews in the New York Review of Books shows that he has only ever deigned to write about fellow male authors.

Gender avalanche. Is that a thing?

Perhaps I should note that Freeman himself is not a Marxist. I hadn’t heard of him before I read this review, but he seems to be a Rawlsian, to judge by his book publications. Rawls’ work, not incidentally, got denounced by at least one card-carrying Marxist philosopher as “an ideological rationalization of mid-twentieth century American welfare state liberalism” — and not surprisingly, Freeman’s seemingly favorite member of the Frankfurt School is Habermas. This on the grounds that “as John Rawls said to me, he is also the first major German philosopher since Kant to endorse and conscientiously defend liberalism and constitutional democracy.”

Freeman predictably goes on to write — in a non-class-conscious way that is entirely out of keeping with this topic — that “We may sometimes lament capitalist excesses and be bothered by the emptiness of consumerism, but few of us condemn capitalism as a moral corruption of the self that prevents us from realizing true human values or from knowing the truth about ourselves and our social relations.” It is only in the last paragraph that he concedes that the current Trump-Republican program might push us back towards thinking about a Frankfurt School-esque analysis of authoritarianism and capitalism.

OK, so Freeman isn’t “really a Marxist” (the gist of his essay is essentially “Marx + Frankfurt School for Dummies,” incidentally, with a strong liberal bias). It would nevertheless be pointless to draw too strict a line between the “official Marxists” and people like Freeman who seem to want to become public spokesmen for Marxism, as the latter role is already a form of participation in the marxian universe of discourse. And it’s that entire social universe of Marxist/marxian theory that is way less feminist and more masculine than it should be.

In Freeman’s defense… Actually, I’m having a hard time thinking of much to say in Freeman’s defense. It’s 2017. Nothing about feminism is really settled (and philosophy qua discipline has immense problems with sexism and sexual violence) but I find it a lamentable commentary on Freeman that he didn’t seem to notice the blatant masculinism of his own discourse, or of the Marxist tradition he is commenting on. And it’s a sad commentary on the New York Review of Books, moreover, that their editorial process evidently does not preclude publishing texts like this.

Total self-consciousness is manifestly impossible. That doesn’t make minimal self-consciousness an unreasonable standard to insist on, whatever one’s gender.

2 thoughts on “The masculinity of Marxist theory”

    1. Come to think of it, I didn’t know anything about the history of the NYRB, so those testimonials were quite informative. Thanks, Victor. And Sivers sounds a bit like I.F. Stone — workaholic, immersed in language, intellectually omnivorous.

      I think this piece would have been intellectually better if it hadn’t been written by someone so committed to consensus liberalism. But I fear that the unstated masculinism may well also have cropped up even in a piece written by a better-informed (male) Marxist…

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