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Continuing Sources of Marxism

Looking for the Movement as a Whole

Richard Levins (humaneco [at] teaches Human Ecology at the Harvard School of Public Health and is an adjunct foreign researcher at the Cuban Institute of Ecology and Systematics. He is the author, with Richard Lewontin, of Biology Under the Influence (Monthly Review Press, 2007).

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that what distinguishes communists from other socialists is internationalism and looking for the movement as a whole. “Looking for the movement as a whole” is a fluid concept that expands to embrace ever more inclusive struggles against capitalism and for a just and sustainable world. Increasingly, a movement centered on the working class has to champion the entire cause of the species.

In 1913 Lenin identified three intellectual sources of Marxism: German philosophy, English political economy, and French utopian socialism—each in turn created in the social conditions of their societies.1 But the process did not end there. Marxism continues to grow and to learn from the most advanced, liberating ideas of each period. (It is also influenced in negative ways, narrowing its horizons and getting dragged along by fashion in times of defeat). Here, I want to identify four contemporary sources of enrichment of Marxism: ecology, feminism, national/racial struggles, and pacifism. It is important to recognize them as sources of ideas, not only as allies in political struggles. Their interaction with Marxism is, of course, different from the pre-Marxist sources. They come to Marxism from the outside, but from an outside already influenced in part by Marxism, and they are both welcomed and resisted.


Marxism, since its origin, took a global approach to the position of our species in the world.2 The plundering of nature by early industrialization, the metabolic rift between city and countryside, the pollution of the cities and the whole earth, were already known, denounced, and incorporated into the critique of capitalism. The inseparability of humanity and nature was implicit in a dialectical view of life and society.

But socialist movements also resisted ecology. Especially those movements that had abandoned the socialist goal saw jobs as the overwhelming urgency of the male working class, and any notions that might slow down job creation were viewed with hostility. Environmental movements that were based in the middle and upper classes were seen as a bourgeois luxury, and environmentalism, with its use of the generic “we” for all of humanity, often was seen to be a way to divert us from class struggle. Concern for animals was dismissed as obscene in the face of so much human suffering. In Bertold Brecht’s poem “To Posterity,” we are told, “Ah, what an age it is/When to speak of trees is almost a crime/For it is a kind of silence about injustice.”3 Now, of course, we would say the opposite (congruent with Brecht’s irony): silence about trees is the crime, complicit with injustice.

Yet, despite this uneasiness about ecology, individual Marxists participated in environmental struggles and developed ecological theory. In the USSR and its European allies, an early constitutional commitment to the preservation of nature was undermined by the frantic urgency to expand production under a progressivist notion of modernization that did not criticize capitalist technology but only its uses. With the later debasing of Marxism, Soviet pioneering in soil science, evolutionary ecology, and ecosystem, research languished. Brezhnev’s touting of “the scientific-technical revolution” as the solution for the economic stagnation of the USSR also accepted the notion of a single pathway of development of production, which was especially disastrous for agriculture. Fines had long been imposed for polluting, but soon, state enterprises began to incorporate the payment of these fines into their budgets for their five-year plans.

In the third world, where environmental destruction was obviously part of the colonialist onslaught, the defense of the environment was more immediately and obviously seen as part of the struggle for liberation. But this insight came into conflict with the urgency for “development.”

Individual Marxists always participated in the struggles against pesticide poisoning, especially of farm workers, and of occupational hazards. Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring in 1962. And, starting in the 1960s, the left began to struggle toward reincorporating ecology into its worldview and politics. Students for a Democratic Society and the New University Conference published pamphlets about the environment as part of a liberating agenda. A dialectical approach to humanity saw us as a species among the species of the world, caught in a six-thousand-year detour through class society, and changing its relations with the rest of nature whenever a new social form replaced the previous one. In Cuba the 1980s and ’90s saw the self-conscious adoption of an ecological pathway of development that included ecological agriculture in the cities and countryside, reforestation, protection of water resources and fragile habitats, and concern for biodiversity and climate change.4 Ecology’s contribution to modern Marxism is as a guide to practice and as criticism of the opportunist sacrifice of the future for immediate urgency where Marxists lead governments. It focuses resistance to capitalist destruction where governments do not. In the domain of large-scale theory, Marxist ecology looks out for the species as a whole.


The second refreshing influence on Marxism is feminism. Early feminist writings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, called for women’s equality and rejected any religious or biological justification for the subordination of women. They sometimes attributed the suppression of women to a hypothesized patriarchal revolution. This was a view that was carried over into classical Marxism in Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which referred to “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”5

Engels pointed out that a society is built on its relations of “production and reproduction of immediate life” but in practice, reproduction has usually been acknowledged and then ignored.6 Marxist movements produced outstanding feminist women such as Eleanor Marx, Alexandra Kollontai, and Claudia Jones, but often marginalized them (or their concerns) within the movement as a whole. Male-dominated unions and parties saw women in the workforce as a threat to men’s employment and called for a family wage that would allow a man to keep “his” woman and children. The emergence of bourgeois feminism was used to justify the rejection of feminism as a diversion from the class struggle. But in the 1940s, a core of strong proto-feminist women emerged in the Communist Party USA just at the time when McCarthyism was making all red organizing difficult.7 Many of the pioneers of Second Wave feminism in the United States had roots in communist and socialist movements and the unions.

Left-wing feminists soon came to grips with the triple oppression of class, gender, and race, struggling against “classism” (beliefs associated with class hierarchy), sexism, and racism. But although the three oppressions are linked linguistically as “ism”s and in slogans as manifestations of oppression, our goal in relation to each of them is different. Racism will be eliminated by the elimination of the pseudo-biological category of race, not by abolishing pigmentation. Sexism will not fall by erasing sexual differences but gender oppression. And “classism” is not to be defeated by promoting a more “tolerant” attitude but by abolishing class society.

Feminism enriched Marxism not only through the recognition of the exploitation of women, but also through the leading roles women often played in labor and peace struggles. Feminism also gave our movement some important theoretical propositions (and critical questions) that deepen our understanding of labor, reproduction and sexuality, social process, ideology, and organization.

(1) Women work. They probably do the majority of the world’s work, contradicting the heroic cartoon “worker,” a muscle-bound male pounding steel. Women’s labor is allocated between production and reproduction in each society, and how this is done is a major determinant of their social status. But further analysis has focused on production, while reproduction has been largely ignored in the building of our theory. Reproduction is a broader category than pregnancy, including all activities that produce the population of producers. This includes child care and socialization and extends to non-reproductive sexuality.

(2) Women are wage workers in many industries; they engage in service employment as domestic, restaurant, and hotel workers; they carry out unpaid labor within the farm and home. Much of what we label “consumption” is really the final stages of production, such as artisanal food preparation, and a significant part of what we call consumer goods are the tools and inputs for this production.

(3) The private life of any society is a social product. The inequality that a class society imposes on women is also expressed within the home, so that left feminism came forward with the slogan “The Personal is Political.” Sexism within the home and within left political movements has resulted in a major weakening of struggle, a waste of talent, a reproduction of the oppression in the public sphere. Therefore the struggle against sexism is an essential ingredient in building a movement and in building socialism. When a society falters in its commitment to feminism, it is often a symptom of regression toward capitalism. In Cuba the struggle against sexism is embodied in the Family Code, which prescribes equal rights and obligations in the family. But sexism remains in the culture, and feminists must continually identify and challenge sexist expression in prevailing practices and attitudes. Revolutionaries also have personal lives. Young revolutionaries have to decide on their life course, how to combine personal goals with their commitment to social change, how to deal with the emotional impact of oppression both for themselves and their children, how to combine risking the disruption of their lives with responsible parenthood. To the extent that we ignore the personal and inner dimensions of our commitment, we will be vulnerable to the lure of magical and religious views of the world.

(4) The feminist criticism of male domination expanded to become a critique of hierarchical structures in organizations and in society. This was often informed by an anarchist sensibility. Feminist organizations introduced procedures aimed at making sure that everybody had not only a chance but also real encouragement to participate; that in discussion, a topic has to be finished before new subjects are raised (“Roberta’s Rules” in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union). The Marxist tradition of criticism and self-criticism evolved to include the evaluation of meetings from the point of view of how a discussion helped people develop their capacities.

(5) Inequality and abuse in reproduction, and more broadly in sexual relations, made the examination of these areas of life part of feminist thinking. Even though both men and women engage in sex, it is often embedded in unequal relations of power. Women took the lead in the struggles around sexuality and from there also against homophobia.

(6) The women’s movement is not a single thing. In the United States it usually has been associated with the middle-class white feminism that dominates organizations such as the National Organization for Women and journals such as Ms., and emphasizes the issues closest to that constituency. The male media have led the way in defining feminism and anointing its leaders. But this most visible, almost respectable, feminism coexisted with various kinds of radical feminism, lesbian separatism, socialist feminism, ecofeminism, and the womanism of those people of color who rejected feminism’s white middle-class bias.8 Groups such as Redstockings, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, and the Combahee River Collective and publications such as Sojourner developed a stance against the whole system of oppression. Within feminism, Marxists have played a leading role in insisting on a class analysis that showed that “women” cannot be treated as a homogeneous mass with common interests, and also struggled against racism within the feminist movement. It is now more common for left feminists to look at the intersection of race, class, and gender without trying to rank them in order of importance. The Combahee River Collective, a collective of black feminists, prepared their Black Feminist Statement in 1977. “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”9 But sometimes this obscures the real differences among kinds of oppression: race is a socially constructed category with an entirely false biological justification. Our goal is to abolish this socially constructed racial-biological category as a definer of peoples. Gender is a differentiation of social roles derived from biology but passed through the sieve of social relations beginning with the family in each society. Our goal here is to abolish gender oppression so that men and women can relate as equals. Finally, classes are the divisions of society through which economic exploitation (the appropriation of the surplus product of the direct producers) takes place. Here, our goal is the abolition of classes.

(7) Household labor is not commodity production, although it has its economic aspects. The producer is not alienated from the product of her labor but has a stake in its outcome and satisfactions from the process. It is one area of life not constrained into narrow specialization. The resistance to commoditization of all of life shows up as resistance to the capitalist penetration of agriculture, where women have often led the struggles against the sacrifice of production for use to production for exchange. Such sacrifice makes farming more vulnerable to ecological depredation, as well as and making such basic, essential activities as the harvesting of wood and water more difficult. The household is also the center of resistance to the commoditization of reproductive functions, emotional support, and sex, which at all times characterize capitalist market relations. Because commodity production is the ultimate alienation from nature, women have often been seen as closer to nature. This is not inherent in their double-X chromosomes but their social condition, and it has resulted in women being especially prominent in seeking a humane and sustainable relation to the rest of nature.

National/Racial Struggles

People connect to the whole of humanity through many kinds of affiliation such as class, religion, ethnic and racial identities, and in some places, by caste. Marxists have generally dismissed non-class affiliations such as religion and nationality as products of oppression that keep working people divided. Therefore, we often undervalued the importance that these loyalties play in the struggles for human liberation and the consciousness of oppressed peoples. Taken by themselves, they can be reactionary if they divide working people, but in oppressed groups, they have also served as rallying points against oppression. Thus, we have had to maintain a dual view of nationalism. We oppose the aggressive nationalism that serves as a rationale for empire, and give relative support to the defensive nationalisms of the oppressed. In South Africa the struggle against apartheid was a struggle for black liberation. But today, appeals to black solidarity against the continuing inequality are being used as a weapon against the African National Congress’s goal of a non-racial society. Yet the solidarity among different peoples of color as in the African diaspora is a way of confronting the dominant racist ideology. The major error that Marxist movements have made in this regard has been to confuse the ultimate obsolescence of ethnic and racial identity with its immediate significance in people’s lives, and to ignore the complexities of racist ideology. Despite the fear that black consciousness can divide a people who need to be united, we need to absorb from the various black consciousness movements the reality of the persistence of racism and the need for active struggle against it in all its forms, before and after the overthrow of capitalism. Racism will not go away by itself. The inequality received from the past remains as a social and economic reality that provides the daily experience that reinforces racist beliefs and practices. This vicious circle has to be broken at many levels simultaneously by allowing ethnic and racial solidarity to become a bridge to the whole of humanity.

José Carlos Mariátegui la Chira, the Peruvian Communist, raised the “Indian Question”10 as a key to revolutionary movements in Latin America, an orientation carried forward by the Bolivian, Venezuelan, and Ecuadorean revolutions today.

Therefore, we reject the primitive, linear kind of Marxism that imagines that societies with pre-capitalist systems of production are also backward intellectually and that their replacement by capitalist relations is progressive. And we also reject the sentimentalized versions of the past that often start with “The Ancients say…” without asking which Ancients, how come their sayings were preserved and not the sayings of other equally ancient ones, what was their social location, what experiences gave them insight, and what blinded them? What pre-capitalist achievements can help us look beyond capitalism? Which can hold us back?

The defense of peoples’ cultures does not mean supporting everything a culture does because it is “ours.” Pre-capitalist societies also had their oppressions. There is nothing progressive in the traditional and often barbaric forms of sexism. Today our cultures are not something to freeze-dry to preserve against colonialism but the base from which to build a new, more humane society.

The examination of cultures of the oppressed is also a major theoretical issue, combining social determination with relative autonomy of ideology and confronting the problem of how beliefs change. In Latin America, the new efforts to build “Twenty-first Century Socialism” derive their inspiration from indigenous movements and liberation theology as well as the traditional left. Their major innovations have been around bottom-up collective governance and humanist values, not as something new but as a priority.

It is important here not to use the cheap argument that some theories are foreign or old, and therefore not relevant to us. Most ideas in any one place are foreign, and most good ideas are foreign almost everywhere where they have not been adopted. The welcoming of revolutionary thought wherever it arises and the study of the experiences of all movements for liberation are quite different from the copying of iconic examples.


In the peace movement and in the civil rights movement, we often work with pacifists who bring their Christian, Ghandian, humanist, and other sources of inspiration. Although often described as pacifism, they derive the term from peacefulness, not passivity. They are in no sense passive. The term “pacifism” itself is misleading, and is often replaced by “nonviolence.” I continue to use the term “pacifist” for want of a better noun.

The first thing we learn from pacifists is that nonviolence is not passivity in the face of oppression but a particular way of confronting it. The shared struggles of Marxists with pacifists expanded from alliance to ties of mutual regard and affection and deep discussion. Pacifists show that the intensity of anger is not the measure of commitment. They also give us the principle of witness: whereas we too often think that an action is not worthwhile unless it mobilizes masses, the notion of witness is that a few people’s commitment can teach large numbers.11 The French Communists were relatively passive about the oppression of colonized Algerians out of fear of isolating themselves from the masses, until individual rank-and-file members began to protest and dragged their Party along. The fear of being isolated, a common response to the bad experience of going out on a dogmatic limb, has often deterred communists from “looking for the movement as a whole.”

Pacifists have, of course, emphasized the critique of violence. What we can learn from them is to look at the full range of consequences of proposed actions, not only the desired target. The full consequences of our actions include the impact on the immediate direct target of our action, the long-term effect on people whom we oppose but who should be on our side and whom we will have to live with afterward, the effect on observers of our activity, and the effect on ourselves. “Our actions” also includes our non-actions. Do our decisions strengthen our revolutionary humanism or do they make us callous about the inevitability of injuries? Does an action win or lose allies? Does it make us better or worse revolutionaries? Is the appeal to violence an evasion of the more difficult task of organizing people and convincing them of the need for a new society? To the callous aphorism “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” we learn to acknowledge that breaking eggs doesn’t make an omelet. How will bystanders understand what we do? What will they learn from our actions? And after it is over (and every campaign will sooner or later be over), does what we do leave the movement ahead of where we started? Therefore, for us, the question of violence has always to be reexamined in the broadest social context beyond (but including) individual morality. In any revolutionary human movement, it is our humanity itself that is at stake, and the movement should be judged ultimately in these terms.

To all these infusions into Marxism from partway outside, it is easy, in retrospect, to say, “Of course, we knew it all along” and to document this claim with appropriate citations. We both knew it and did not know it, not as something deeply felt in the core of our movements. The partly external, partly internal influences help to correct a common pattern of error that comes from the dominant mechanistic philosophies of our time: posing a problem too narrowly; treating as static what is always changing; taking as a given boundary condition that which has a history, got the way it is, and need not stay that way; a pragmatism that disguises itself as realism and even materialism. Openness to new currents in mutual influence continues to help us to “Look for the movement as a whole.”


  1. Written in March 1913, first published in Bolshevik monthly magazine Prosveshcheniye, vol. 3 (August 1913). Translated from Collective Works, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1998), 23-28. Transcribed for the Internet by Lee Joon Koo and Marc Luzetti, June 1998.
  2. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
  3. Bertolt Brecht, “To Posterity,” Selected Poems (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), 172.
  4. Richard Levins, “Cuba’s Environmental Strategy,” DRCLAS News (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2000).
  5. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 120.
  6. Engels, Origin of the Family.
  7. Kate Weigand, Red Feminism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001).
  8. In Latin America, the term “feminist” is used by radical as well as conservative women. Here, I use the term generically.
  9. Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” This Bridge Called My Back, Cherrie L. Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981).
  10. José Carlos Mariátegui la Chira, Seven Interpretive Essays on the Peruvian Reality (Austin: Austin University Press, 1971).
  11. The notion of witness is that a small number of people, multiplied by the intensity of their commitment, can change the consciousness of large numbers. It often involves risk, sacrifice, or the living demonstration of another way to act in the world.
2011, Volume 62, Issue 08 (January)
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