Bell hooks’ ‘Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center’ and the modern western ‘Left,’ a Marxist critique

Bell hooks’ Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center and the modern Left, a Marxist critique1

Bell hooks was a leading figure in establishing ‘third-wave feminism': a philosophical and practical branch of feminism centered around the history, experience, and interests of ‘women of color.’ Her writings are directly critical of previous feminist movements which favored white middle-class women, and she is generally critical of the standard feminist framework while finding cause in altering the scope of its discourse. Her central thesis in Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center is that the objective of feminism is not simply for equality between sexes but for an end to sexist oppression and the broader “ideology of domination” which supports it. In the process, she gets many things right in regards to the struggle against oppression while bringing a lot of detail and nuance into the discussion. In some regards, her critiques of feminism are applicable to nominally left-wing movements in the US today. Yet her explicit understandings of larger economic questions are lacking. Though she raises many salient points, these ideas are best understood as part of a broader yet more incisive critique of general social practice and relations between classes and groups.

Hooks’ critique of bourgeois feminism

For those grounded in bourgeois feminism and other left-wing bourgeois movements, hooks’ Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center may offer a paradigmatic shift. Though directed at the bourgeois feminists of her day, many of hooks’ remarks form crucial rebuttals to many common notions and practices of today’s First World left-wing political and philosophical tendencies.

Hooks sees feminism in two regards. “Feminism,” she states, “has so far been a bourgeois ideology” informed by “liberal individualism” (p. 9) Secondly, through resisting this narrative surrounding feminism and by insisting it is instead “a theory in the making,” (p. 10-11) she holds onto another definition: “feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression.” (p. 26) For hooks, the second definition is ideal and indicates that feminism is “a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” (ibid) “This would mean,” hook states, “that race and class oppression would be recognized as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.” (p.27)

This critical division between bourgeois and revolutionary aspects in movements and guiding political philosophies in not new. Often it is through such critical division that new ideas are developed which counter previously held assumptions and offer different conceptual and practical frameworks for acting within class struggle. The most famous examples of this occurred during revolutionary periods in Russia and China. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party split before the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. During China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, what was arguably the climax of class struggle during the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party was divided between Maoist and bourgeois factions, the latter ultimately gaining the upper hand. This division between progressive and reactionary aspects is one consistent feature of radical politics.

Hooks challenges bourgeois feminist notions of universal sisterhood and unbridled unity between all women irrespective of national, status, or class background. Responding to author Leah Fritz’s statements that “Women’s suffering under sexist tyranny is a common bond among all women…, [and] suffering cannot be measured and compared quantitatively,” hooks says,

“Fritz’s statement is another example of wishful thinking, as well as the conscious mystification of social division which has characterized much feminist expression. While it is evident that many women suffer from sexist tyranny, there is little indication that this forges a ‘common bond among all women.’ There is much evidence substantiating the reality that race and class identity creates difference in quality of life, social status, and lifestyle that take precedence over the common experiences women share- differences that are rarely transcended. The motives of materially privileged, educated white women with a variety of career and lifestyle options available to them must be questioned when they insist that ‘suffering cannot be measured.’ Fritz is by no means the first white feminist to make this statement. It is a statement that I have never heard a poor woman of any race make. Although there is much I would take issue with in Benjamin Barber’s critique of the women’s movement, Liberating Feminism, I agree with his assertion: ‘Suffering is not necessarily a fixed and universal experience that can be measured by a single rod: it is related to situations, needs, and aspirations. But there must be some historical and political parameters for the use of the term so that political priorities can be established and different forms and degrees of suffering can be given the most attention.’” (p. 4-5)

Hooks’ statements against the ‘feminist’ notion that all women share a direct common bond could equally be applied to much of the Amerikan left. Much of the ‘left’ constructs their politics around a social base of privileged members of First World countries. Often universalizing their own experience into narratives on oppression, these one-sided abstractions of social division are imposed by the mainstream white-led left in ways that obscure the real divisions between genders, nations, and most importantly by classes (i.e., between those embodying different relationships to the process of globally-organized production and accumulation). For those on the left who advocate such vague status-as-class politics and promote the idea that all ‘workers’ share a common bond, the notion that “suffering [or oppression] cannot be measured” provides a convenient yet unillustrative argument. The same could be said of those who uphold vague contemporary humanist politics. As hooks points out (via quoting Benjamin Barber), noting the different types of suffering and oppression faced by people today is part of establishing political priorities and programs. Hence, when those on the American ‘left’ claim that some form of a familiar ‘working class’ or ‘people’ universally represents the vast majority of people’s experience and aspirations, it should be pointed out that these groups are gravely divided, with one small First World section living literally at the expense of the most of the rest.

Along a similar vein, hooks rails against the tendency of white feminists to bond based on perceived victimhood:

“Bonding as ‘victims,’ white women liberationists were not required to assume responsibility for confronting the complexity of their own experience. They were not challenging one another to examine the sexist attitudes towards women unlike themselves or exploring the impact of race and class privilege on their relationships to women outside their race/class groups. Identifying as “victims,” they could abdicate responsibility for their role in the maintenance and perpetuation of sexism, racism, and classism, which they did by insisting that only men were the enemy.” (p. 46)

Hooks details how bourgeois feminism is an expression of bourgeois interest and can become a prop for the larger system,

“Feminist activism called attention to the need for social equality of the sexes, yet ruling groups of men are willing to endorse equal rights only if it is clear that the women who enter spheres of power will work to uphold and maintain the status quo.” (p. 89)

While it is not hard for hooks and similar activists in third-wave feminist movements to imagine situations in which individual women are granted entrance into “spheres of power” so as to protect a more general “status quo,” a wider application of this idea in regards to whole groups of people is absent current left-wing discourse.

It could be argued that following WWII and through the Cold War, Amerikans and citizens of the imperialist triad were given elevated positions in consumptive power in exchange for supporting a larger status quo of imperialist supremacy. Consistent political and ideological support was secured by drastically raising the material standard of living for Amerikans, a larger market for the realization of profit on consumer products was created, and a showcase population was maintained to demonstrate the better side of capitalism to the Eastern Bloc and emerging Third World. By stretching hooks’ notions regarding the nature of bourgeois feminism, it is not hard to see a comparison between reactionary feminism (which seeks to grant mostly white women equal access to men’s privilege) and reactionary left-wing politics (which seeks to grant mostly white people equal access to bourgeois privilege).

Unfortunately hooks, like most who are part of nominally left-wing movements, never takes her arguments that far, nor does she tie the role of global divisions into her own analysis. This is a larger flaw of Feminist Theory. Nonetheless her prescriptions for a liberatory feminism, like her admonishments of bourgeois feminism, has some relevance and insight for contemporary left-wing struggles and movements.

Hooks’ liberatory feminism

Hooks sees liberatory feminism in a holistic light such that different struggles against various forms of oppression reinforce each other:

“The struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles. Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.” (p. 40)

Beginning from the Paris Commune until today, the history of revolutionary movements is one of advancements for women. In places such as China and Afghanistan, Marxist-inspired governments carried out progressive reforms in areas such as family law and gendered social codes. In places like Ghana and Nicaragua (and virtually every other revolutionary movement ever in existence), women’s participation and support was fundamental for the revolutionary movements’ success or failure. For those in radical movements today, the importance of linking different struggles against oppression should be self-evident.

Hooks’ ideas on combating the root cultural basis of oppression are worth drawing out further. If it was simply a matter of supporting different struggles against oppression as a means to overcoming a cultural basis of domination, why stop at sexism, classism, and racism? Why not also look into and challenge other particular cultural and ideological outlooks relate to any number of oppressions which express themselves in society? Obviously, the answer has to do with setting political priorities.

In terms of clearly delineating political priorities, the struggles against different forms of oppression are most connected to the fight against capitalist-imperialism. Efforts for justice and equality in the First World without addressing the systemic injustice and inequality between the First and Third World are at best futile and at worse a prop for the larger system of global oppression (and by implication all systems of oppression).

Hooks rejects subjective identity politics and lifestyle politics in favor of active political and social engagement. In discussing her experience with bourgeois feminist movements, she notes,

“Often emphasis on identity and lifestyle is appealing because it creates the false sense that one is engaged in praxis. […] The ethics of Western society informed by imperialism are personal rather than social. They teach us that the individual good is more important than the collective good, and consequently that individual change is of greater significant than collective change.” (p. 30)

Hooks says she prefers to avoid the phrase, “I am a feminist,” in favor of stating, “I advocate feminism.” (p. 31) Whereas the former indicates something personal, the latter collective. Though for hooks, this distinction has practical implications in her day to day political interactions, the notion has even wider implications for left-wing movements generally.

As with bonding as victims, notions of “feminist” and other subjective political identities tend to be expressed in a way that supposedly protects the title bearer from criticism, absolves them from the responsibility incurred by their actions and behaviors, and preempts the need for actual praxis rooted in progressive struggles and movement building. The way to fight oppression isn’t to champion oneself as a feminist or other -ist, but to critically engage in and promote the struggle against oppression. Sub-reformism, or lifestyle politics, are problematic in a similar light.

Throughout Feminist Theory, hooks notes the degree to which white supremacist assumptions have informed much of feminism and the ways that white women have rendered its theories and practice as something “far removed from anything resembling radical struggle.” (p. 54) “Racism,” hooks says, “teaches an inflated sense of importance and value, especially when coupled with class privilege” and gives whites a sense of entitled leadership. (ibid.)

In many nationally-oppressed and exploited communities today, bourgeois whites retain leadership positions or wield great influence through ‘progressive’ non-profits and NGOs. Deceptively named, non-profit and non-governmental organizations are always funded by for-profit or governmental entities, and rather than struggle against oppression they work to ameliorate the symptoms of oppression so as to preserve its structure. Whites are also quick to assume that they are leaders against forms of oppression for which they’ve only benefited from, and even when they have little direct experience with the struggle against such oppression. While progressive white leadership may confront some aspects of the system, they often limit their critique and practice so as to maintain their privileged position in wider society.

Where hooks goes wrong

While Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center offers an incisive critique of the effect of white supremacy in the Amerikan feminist movement, one that is often translatable to the Amerikan left at large, certain aspects of her work come short of a Marxist methodological approach.

One of the most obvious deficits in hooks’ work is the manner in which her terminology tends to be liberal and cedes too much to status quo assumptions and understandings of central dynamics in the world today.

Hooks is known for her descriptive terminology. “The United states is an imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal society…” she says, for example. (p. 94) Yet Feminist Theory doesn’t attempt a deep exploration of the fundamental elements of the relationships and processes which these terms represent. In Feminist Theory, terms like race, exploitation, imperialism, and “cultural basis of oppression” are frequently used, yet without ever justifying their use or expanding on their full meaning. Instead, hooks often relies on the readers’ background assumptions about the meanings of these terms.

In some cases, terms like “race” are problematic in and of themselves. A construction of European colonialism, “race” implies static essentialist qualities exclusive to universally recognized “races.” As part of a radical understanding, “race” is best seen as a purely ideological construction used to justify a kind of oppression that is clearly racialized. In terms of understanding the objective conditions bore out by this type of oppression, little is gained by adopting the terminology used to justify and explain it. Though problematic as well, the term ‘nation’ and ‘national oppression’ implies a kind of historic construction that is more appropriate to understanding the cultural, political and economic development of different oppressed and oppressor nations. Such a paradigmatic shift would require an understanding that the United States is a multi-national country in which state and economic power has primarily been in the hands of whites. It would also dispense with the idea that there are universal “races” today (i.e., globally homogeneous white, black, ‘latino,’ etc races) and bolster the idea of culturally distinct peoples historically constructed through interacting with each other on the basis of unequal power relations.

Similarly, hooks use of the terms “working class” and “middle class” adhere to common understandings, and throughout Feminist Theory little is added in the way of fundamentally comprehending their meaning in contemporary society, except that these divisions are reflected in the feminist movement. While this type of language may come off as edgy in contemporary Amerika at large and within “bourgeois” feminism specifically, such liberal usage of terminology indicates a departure from a Marxist approach of understanding class as relational in the process of production and accumulation. Because production and accumulation is arranged globally, any view that distinguishes class purely within a single country or group of countries is flawed. Compared to terms like proletariat, labor aristocracy, comprador bourgeoisie and monopoly capitalists, hooks’ discourse relating specifically to class is narrowly descriptive and in sync with typical perspectives of the Amerikan mainstream left, but it is not explanatory on any ground-breaking or fundamental level. 2

Hooks descriptions of capitalism and imperialism suffer from similar problems. That the United States is an imperialist, capitalist country is assumed by many in left wing movements, yet hooks doesn’t add much to the meaning of these terms. While many of her reflections on the impact of capitalism and imperialism within the feminist movement are valid and illustrative, Feminist Theory doesn’t necessarily act as a bridge for the reader to a better understanding of capitalist-imperialism as the driving feature of the world today.

In contemporary society, production and distribution is primarily arranged globally to facilitate capital accumulation for a very small percentage of the population. Historically in order to accomplish the task of expanding this system of accumulation, this small percentage has drawn up groups amongst subservient classes into alliances based on national oppression and gender oppression. In reality, there is no capitalism, which is necessarily expansive, without imperialism. Likewise, there is no imperialism, which is defined as the bourgeoisie of one nation engaged in the exploitation of other nations, without national oppression. To wit, there is no national oppression, imperialism, or capitalism in which women, who dominate both the global productive workforce and are often coerced into unpaid domestic labor, don’t suffered the most. Going even further, there is no such as the aforementioned system which isn’t reliant on exhausting ecological and natural resources. In this light, the ‘interconnectedness’ between these different forms of oppression, all centering around a process of production and accumulation and the capitalist-imperialist system which embodies it, are clear.

From the perspective of a Marxist approach, hooks’ use of the words oppression and exploitation are clunky and misapplied. While hooks defines the word oppression in relation to exploitation and discrimination early in Feminist Theory, these definitions seem acquired from the perspectives she is attempting to expand beyond:

“Being oppressed means absence of choices. It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed and the oppressor. Many women in this society do have choices (as inadequate as they are); therefore exploitation and discrimination are words that more accurately describe the lot of women collectively in the United States. [sic]” (p. 5)

Much later in the book, in the context of critiquing the ways in which “feminist consciousness-raising has not pushed women in the direction of revolutionary politics” nor “helped women understand capitalism,” she correctly explains that First World women (in hooks’ words, “we”) “benefit from the exploitation and oppression of women and men globally…” (p. 161)

Exploitation, which hooks leaves undefined, and oppression, which ‘absence of choices’ describes in the most apolitical manner, are crucially related.

Exploitation is best understood not by the liberal definition of ‘using another for selfish purposes.’ Rather, exploitation relates directly to the process of production and accumulation. It is the rendering of surplus value from labor. And it is oppression, the absence of collective and individual choices imposed on most peoples, which generally enforces conditions under which exploitation occurs. Whereas exploitation is objective (i.e., as part of the process of production and accumulation one either produces surplus value or absorbs it), oppression is transcendent in that it characterizes the structural [actual economics relations] and superstructural [the ideas and institutions which are expressions of such relations] conditions under which capitalism exists and exploitation occurs. Hence, a person or group may be negatively effected by oppression though not necessarily exploited.

Hooks’ focus on an undefined “cultural basis of oppression” reveals a degree of idealism. She makes no explicit attempt to distinguish between progressive class consciousness (which brings together in solidarity different struggles against oppression) and ideology (as an expression of oppressive relations). For hooks, ideology is a neutral term, and part of the solution is to build a “liberatory” one. (p. 163)

Any such cultural basis of oppression is merely the cultural expression of oppression itself. When one group of people is involved in the systemic oppression and robbery of another, there must be an an explanation which justifies such a situation. This is the root of ideology: narratives and attitudes about the world which reflect the perspective of the oppressor and are widely perpetuated (often in hegemonic ways) to the effect of enforcing the situation at hand. Stated another way, ideologies are the common response the system (even in the forms of nominally radical and enlightened movements, or individual everyday actions) which ultimately serve to protect and expand the extant system and the class, national and gender relations which characterize it; expressions of relations of oppression and exploitation which, in accounting for such relations, serve to protect and extend them.

That Feminist Theory doesn’t make these connections is unfortunate, especially given that much of the book is a critique of bourgeois white-supremacist ideology within feminist movements. That such ideology has made its way into feminist thought and practice isn’t unique to feminism. Rather, ideology is pervasive and infects left wing movements in the United States generally.

In line with her general idealism and obscuration on the material basis of oppression, hooks holds idealist solutions in high regard. She places the onus on creating “an oppositional world view” in the US, while ruling out revolution in the material sense of directly altering the relations of power. Instead, hooks’ idea of revolution in the United States is one that will be “gradual and protracted” and focused on “cultural transformation.” (p. 165-166)

Revolution is nothing short of the overthrow of one class by others. Hooks’ liberal mischaracterization of the term widely appeals to liberal-minded Amerikans, who may nonetheless be positively informed in some regards by Feminist Theory while not driven to revolutionary understanding and engagement. Rather than working to overthrow the embodied classes which benefit from capitalist-imperialism, hooks’ vague suggestion on emphasizing “eradicating systems of oppression” has some semblance of hope without offering any real answers for praxis meant to end oppression. (ibid.) If the “cultural basis” of “systems of oppression” are to be rendered to the past, the material relations for which they reflect must be qualitatively changed.

Hooks’ notion that revolution is even possible in the US absent larger international struggles, albeit in a watered-down conceptually liberal form, is due in no small part to a misreading of class relations. Oppressors rarely revolt against the systems of oppression from which they benefit. All Amerikans benefit in some manner from the oppression and exploitation of Third World peoples. Class, nation, and gender traitors are important contributors to the revolutionary struggle. But they are few and far between, and they do not represent the general direction members of oppressor classes, nations, and genders give their support. The general trend for First Worlders is to defend their privileged status and the system through which is it attained. This blind spot in hooks’ understanding diminishes her analysis’ efficacy in the face of actual global social practice.

Conclusion:

Hooks’ Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center is an incisive critique of privileged white women’s influence on the feminist movement. In many ways, these critiques are translatable to the wider left in the United States, which is similarly influenced by a social base and leadership of privileged whites and limited in the degree to which its theories and praxes could be called truly radical or revolutionary.

As part of revolutionary theory, it is important to note the real divisions and contradictions in society so that realistic strategies can be conceived to address the roots causes of oppression. Without a clear understanding of such divisions, the left often sets up implicit political priorities based on whim, opportunism, narrow self interest, ideological biases such as idealism, or unacknowledged chauvinism.

While hooks’ does a wonderful job at exposing the ways in which privileged whites have derailed feminism as a progressive movement, her own descriptions of the modern world often conform to common assumptions. Though attempting to move feminist discourse in a more revolutionary direction, this goal is impeded by the author’s limited critique of society at large and its extant ideologies. Often the practical priorities set by hooks, though well intended, are vague and shaped by her idealistic world view. Hence, Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center, while providing a much needed critique of “bourgeois” feminism and by implication many other left-wing movements, doesn’t itself provide a clear picture of the system at large, its constituent relations, or realistic possibilities for a truly liberatory praxis. While being a useful and illustrative in its own regard, the ideas and political impulses put forward in Feminist Theory are not part of a consistent challenge to capitalist-imperialism and the oppressions through which it is characterized and perpetuated.

1For the purposes of the essay, Marxism refers to specific methodological understandings, including considerations on the role of capitalist-imperialism in shaping class. Needless to say, the notion that imperialist development has involved the buying off and uplifting of significant sections of the working class mostly in First World countries is controversial, even within ‘Marxism’ itself. For the purposes of this essay (and for general understanding) perspectives which claim to adhere to Marxism yet have not developed a clear distinction between workers in First and Third World countries are simply referred to implicitly as part of nominal left-wing movements.

2The proletariat, which is centered in the Third World, represents the labor from which surplus value is largley derived. The labor aristocracy, which is centered in the First World amongst oppressor nations, represent those workers who are privileged over and above and divorced from labor at large. The comprador bourgeoisie represents the classes which act as intermediaries between exploited labor and monopoly capitalists. Monopoly capitalists have a controlling interest in most sectors of global economy, and hence represent a small percentage of people which are chiefly responsible for the exploitation of the most peoples. Though this obviously doesn’t cover every nuance of contemporary global economy, it offers a better conceptual model for today’s social and economic arrangement than “working class v. ruling class” or a critical theory approach which might be derived from hooks’ Feminist Theory.