Women’s movements contain features that approach Luxemburg’s description like spontaneity and philosophy of revolution, both in terms of organization and agency.

The foreword to Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982) opens with these words of feminist poet Adrienne Rich: “Raya Dunayevskaya was an important thinker in the history of both Marxism and women’s emancipation; she was one of the longest running active revolutionary women of the twentieth century.” 

We are sharing the enlightening interview we had with Melda Yaman, who has introduced the book to Turkish readers with her meticulous and smooth translation.  

Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution is a multilayered work… Dunayevskaya, not only effectively and critically describes Luxemburg, but also visits emancipatory interpretations of Marx. How did you decide to translate this book?

I had been reading Raya Dunayevskaya’s work with enthusiasm. Dunayevskaya is a revolutionary and emancipatory woman who follows the footsteps of Marx’s works and believes in the power of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Also, she conceptualizes theory and practice through the dialectic relationship between them, as processes that are intertwined and conditioned to one another– not as separate processes. She sees the movement from theory to practice, and from practice to theory. That was quite striking for me.

The book revolves around three issues. Dunayevskaya links these three issues, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation Movement and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, in a dialectical manner. There are theoretical connections and dialogues between the chapters. It’s a remarkable work from that perspective. It’s one thing to find that important, and another thing to translate it. Frankly, I had not thought about translating it. I thought to myself it would have been nice for it to get translated but not to translate it myself. When my friends at Köstebek Kolektif suggested that I translate it, I was happy and scared at the same time. I thought it would be thrilling to translate Dunayevskaya into Turkish, but I was nervous about the fact that the book covers three separate issues and their respective literature. Then, I decided to take a leap of faith and start translating. The translation process was not only enjoyable, educational, but also challenging.

Dunayevskaya described Rosa Luxemburg as “although she sometimes appears as a reluctant feminist, she is always a revolutionary”. On the other hand, she does not forget to mention that the so-called “women’s issue” hurt her personally. What would you like to say about how Luxemburg positioned herself to this issue?

Even against today’s standards, Rosa Luxemburg is a woman who has accomplished a lot. She is among the few women who have received PhD level training at the time. At a very young age, she had also become a part of the revolutionary movement. Moreover, she tried to hold her ground as a woman in “a man’s world”. This is apparent in the revolutionary struggle, although Luxemburg is one of its leaders, she is not considered to be on the same level as Jogiches. It seems like Luxemburg has “accepted” the authority of Jogiches. It is also apparent in her effort to exist as a party to political theory/practice discussions among Marxist men during her years in Germany. She is frequently reminded to stay behind/not to put herself forward as a woman in both spheres.

In the latter, we have a more intimate account of what has happened. When she joins the German Social Democratic Party, Luxemburg often declares her position in critical discussions. She criticizes the “grand” Marxists of the time – and no surprise, they are all men. She fights to stand as a woman following the footsteps of Marx, among a worldwide famous, all-male Marxist crowd. Even though she is far superior to almost all of them in theory and practice, she is considered a woman first, then a Marxist/revolutionary woman. Correspondences between Bebel and Adler, in this regard, are noteworthy. These letters attest to the cooperation among men we know very well from chambers, unions, workplaces we are in.

However, Luxemburg does not lead an openly feminist, or perhaps a women’s struggle, against their sexist attacks – she ignores them. That’s another side to her. But again, in her speeches and letters to mobilize women, it is clear that she is cognizant of the male dominance that surrounds her.

There is a preconceived historiography that the women’s movement progressed through two different axes at the beginning of the 20th century. According to this conception, socialist women were focused on organizing women workers, while feminists were fighting for the right to vote. Dunayevskaya reminds that the socialist women’s suffrage struggle in Germany reached its climax on the date of the first celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8, 1911) – as proposed to the Second International by Clara Zetkin. During the same period, Rosa Luxemburg gave an important speech on this issue. Can we infer that these two movements are not mutually exclusive but interacting with each other?

You’ve made a really good point. I think so, too. To claim there are two struggles, does not have to mean they are isolated from one another. Even when socialist women focused on women workers, they had the goal to empower women workers not only as women workers but also as women organizers, and simply as women. Beyond that, as the feminist movement gains traction, it starts to have an impact on all sorts of mobilization, organizations, women’s movements, and women. One of the best examples of that is the period from the 1905 Revolution until the 1917 February Revolution. It’s true that a lot of women became workers; and the Bolsheviks organized women during this period. But that coincided with the rise of (not-socialist) feminist movement. Voting rights struggle was in full action in Russia during that time. Plus, women workers took to the street in February 1917 to celebrate March 8, not just because they were exploited as workers. Most women knew that they were “second-class citizens” as women, and most probably, were putting up a fight about that.

Following her break up with Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg wrote: “I am once again myself after I got rid of Leo”. Contrary to the ongoing scandalous way this duo’s relationship has been treated, Dunayevskaya chooses to approach this “personal issue” politically. For example, she thinks that their breakup had a positive effect on Luxemburg’s intellectual engagements. What do you think about Dunayevskaya’s approach to this subject?

Isn’t every “romantic” relationship also a political issue? Romance itself should be politicized, right? Feminists have been criticizing and discussing both love and the place it occupies in our lives for a long time. As for the relationship between Luxemburg and Jogiches, we cannot ignore the inequality and hierarchy in this relationship, as long as it is a love affair, a man-woman relationship, although it is comradely and friendly. Dunayevskaya underlines a very important point here; we women can be much more free, much more creative as we stand up for ourselves. It’s not simply a matter of chasing liberal emancipatory ideals, but also a matter of discovering our creative potential, human potential and acting on them. I must say that I find Dunayevskaya’s attitude very positive compared to Nettl’s, who wrote one of Rosa Luxemburg’s most important biographies. Nettl called the section, in which Rosa Luxemburg dealt with her break up with Leo Jogiches, “The Lost Years”. He described this separation as “a serious upheaval in her [Rosa’s] personal life, perhaps the most important shock of her life”. Dunayevskaya openly opposes Nettl and recognizes these years as “a wonderful, independent, self-development” period.

Luxemburg’s observations about the 1905 Revolution, pulls her towards focusing on spontaneity of masses. Dunayevskaya has also reminded us of a series of historical events that stemmed from spontaneous actions of women: Could we say that the philosophy of revolution in Luxemburg’s mind came into being with the likes of February Revolution in Russia, Aba Riots in Africa, Women’s Liberation Movement from 1960s onwards?

The 1905 Revolution has a significant place in Luxemburg’s life.  It’s an extraordinary experience, extraordinarily transformational experience to be in and to witness an on-going revolution. These aside, the fact that she could draw lessons from the revolution, that she did not consider revolution to be over, and that she did not stop there makes her more exceptional. She considers the experience of 1905 the first step towards revolutions to come, and especially for the “expected” revolution in Europe, or more precisely in Germany.

Moreover, Luxemburg was critical of the authoritarian/conservative union leadership; she did not think that leadership was “teaching the workers” about organization or class consciousness. She cared about the spontaneous activity of the masses. But, of course, we should not put spontaneity against conscious action and see it as a purely instinctive action. The mass strikes and soviets of the 1905 Revolution were the manifestation of the masses both as reason and power. Spontaneity was the driving force not only of the revolution but of the vanguard leadership. To sum up in her words: “In short, in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a dominant role, not because the Russian proletariat is ‘uneducated’, but because the revolutions do not allow anyone to educate them”.

Dunayevskaya gives various examples from the women’s movement of the period, women’s actions, black women’s actions in the USA, Africa, Portugal. Dunayevskaya wrote that today’sWomen’s Liberation Movement has introduced new and unique aspects that have not been voiced before by either non-Marxists or Marxists. According to Dunayevskaya, the Women’s Liberation Movement at that time transformed from an Idea –whose time had come– to a worldwide movement.

In fact, we are going through a similar process today. While everyone else was silent in Turkey, women were on the streets. Just before the pandemic, feminist strikes, for example, were taking place one after another around the world. In these respects, women’s struggle, women’s actions, feminist strikes are actions through which women’s reason and power leave their mark. Moreover, women’s movements contain features that approach Luxemburg’s description, both in terms of organization and agency.

There are two important primary sources Dunayevskaya refers to when interpreting Marx: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Ethnological Notebooks. The author believes that there is a continuity that flows between these two works, which are part of early and latter works of Marx. (And by doing so, she refutes the structuralist/Althuserrian proposition that points at an epistemological break in Marx.) When I take the article you published in Çatlak Zemin into account, for the most part, you seem to agree with Dunayevskaya’s interpretations of the Ethnological Notebooks – a work you deem important as well.

Dunayevskaya thinks these notebooks are groundbreaking. She thinks they provide a new perspective to see Marx’s works as a whole. According to Dunayevskaya, Marx, just like in his earlier works, focuses on humanism in these notebooks. His interest lies beyond class struggle; he is interested in the values and social organization of pre-capitalist, non-European societies, as well as the relationship of women and men in these societies. Dunayevskaya considers these as parts of Marx’s conceptualization of “permanent revolution”.

I, like Dunayevskaya, find The Ethnological Notebooks groundbreaking. These notebooks are based on his ethnographic studies from 1881-1882. They are far from completed works; they comprise long quotations, unfinished sentences, ironic comments on quotations, and references from history and mythology. Despite all that, the reason I find these notebooks groundbreaking is that Marx devoted his time to (studying) ethnology instead of completing the second and third volumes of Das Kapital. I don’t think that this study has a much different purpose to the overall goal of Das Kapital. On the contrary, I believe that they are an extension of Marx’s life goal. As Stanley Diamond underlines, Marx was trying to further concretize the “human possibilities” idea he had developed as a young philosopher. I believe it corresponds to a “dialectical turn”– as Christine W. Gailey calls it. In this regard, The Ethnological Notebooks and 1844 Manuscripts both revolve around themes of human liberation, unequal relationship between women and men, and suppression of women. The notebooks leave me thinking that Marx was tracing the origins of social inequality. It’s as if he is trying to understand how egalitarian societies, like the Iroquois peoples Morgan wrote about, transformed into a society built on –gender-based– inequalities, class differences, and gave birth to states. How egalitarian relations produced inegalitarian relations, he is trying to understand the dialectics of that. But he doesn’t stop there, what he sees in communal societies like that of Iroquois peoples is the seed of socialist/communist societies of the future: ““the most advanced among the most ancient”  he points at the seeds of socialist tendencies in primitive, communal societies.

Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State continues to be a reference book for socialists in Turkey who try to shape the discourse around the “women question”. On the other hand, Dunayevskaya considers Engel’s approach to the issue rather limiting when compared to The Ethnological Notebooks by Marx. She points at a deep divide between Marx and Engel’s conceptualization of the issue. Do you think the divide lies in the nuances or that there is actually a deep divide between the two?

Let me first indicate that Engels wrote very early on in 1884, in The Origins, that it is not natural that women are oppressed, and that there is history behind that phenomenon. Perhaps not in the same manner as feminists use the term, he talks about patriarchal inequalities, and male dominance, without ever calling it that. I would like to underline that these issues are still very important and relevant.

However, he attributes the history of patriarchy to private property. He argues that there was a transition from a female-dominated society to a male-dominated one; and explains the empowerment of men with the drive to pass on their property to their sons. This explanation was extensively criticized by feminist scholars, with many of Engels’ arguments refuted by anthropological findings. However, especially for the socialist left, the tendency to explain the oppression of women via private property became more and more common, almost universally accepted.

Now, let’s talk about the interplay between The Origins and The Ethnological Notebooks. Engels started reading Marx’s notebooks that contained his notes on ethnology, following Marx’s death towards the end of 1883. He was utterly impressed by them and completed The Origins in order “to honor Marx’s will”. Still, Marx’s ethnological notes contrast with Engel’s analysis in The Origins. It should be noted that the gender analysis in Marx’s ethnology notebooks is far more nuanced. Many researchers find Engel’s analysis far less dialectic than Marx’s. According to Dunayevskaya, Engels failed not only to be dialectic, but also to conduct a comprehensive analysis.

I would like to further break down this methodological difference.[1] Engels, following the footsteps of Morgan,  accepts that family stems from a matriarchy, and that in matriarchal societies, and that kinship is defined via matrilineality. He claims that matrilineage and matriarchy was overthrown by men with private property to be replaced by patrilineage and patriarchy. He explains this transformation with the drive of men to pass on their property to their sons. Whereas Marx adopts a skeptical view on this issue, and, to tell the truth, is not so much particularly interested in the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. Marx does not believe that whether matriarchal or patriarchal societies came first does not have any historical significance. In Marx’s notes regarding communal societies, there is no indication that he believes matriarchal societies came first. Moreover, Marx sees the internal contradictions of communal societies as the dynamics of societal development and transformation and focuses on them. According to Marx, these contradictions possess the roots of factors that gave rise to private property and created classes. Let me put it this way, Marx draws attention to the fact that egalitarian societies started to transform into their antithesis– into castes– due to the creation of castes among family groups in communal societies, which was contradicting their equality principle. Therefore, according to Marx, caste is not a historical process that follows communal societies, it has stemmed from within communal societies, and co-existed with it.

Marx’s approach has a particular importance also for socialist feminist theory. When we refrain from explaining the origin of patriarchy with private property, “the emancipation of women will happen with the abolition of private property” thesis weakens. Of course, we recognize that the abolition of capitalism is a necessary condition for the emancipation of women. But we say that this is not enough, and that women must continue their struggle for emancipation, freedom, and equality.

Thank you.

I would like to thank you and Çatlak Zemin, too.

[1] See Melda Yaman’s article on this subject in English: https://marxismandsciences.org/origin-of-engels-the-origin-a-reappraisal-in-the-light-of-the-ethnological-notebooks-of-marx/

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

Translator: Deniz İnal

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here