The usual idea behind the collective anthology is that it should serve as a means for bringing together the thought of several different authors in debate upon a common theme. In practice, this rarely happens, and it is all too common for volumes of this kind to be no more than aggregations of quite disparate pieces of writing. Feminism as Critique is an improvement on many collections in this respect.footnote1 It is by no means an entirely integrated whole, and some of the claims to unity made in the introduction are rather forced and not borne out in the articles themselves. Nevertheless, there is a definite community of purpose here, which is manifest at the most general level in the concern of all the articles to move feminism beyond its initial phase of ‘deconstructive’ criticism towards a more positive work of theoretical ‘reconstruction’. What is needed now, it is said, is not so much exposure of the gender bias or blindness of theory as a re-working of the theory itself in order to render it more adequate to female experience. This brings us to a second, somewhat more specific, unity claimed for this volume—namely, that its various authors are all in their differing ways engaged with strands of twentieth-century Marxism. The reworking of Marxist theory, which is viewed as an essential feature of feminist ‘reconstruction’, is held to consist centrally in a ‘displacement of the paradigm of production’, with the main assistance sought in Habermas.

At the same time, there is a general agreement among all the authors—and here we have a third thematic unity—that liberal theory, so far from providing any kind of resource for renewal, is rooted in conceptions of the individual and approaches to the social which have very little to offer feminism: several of the pieces are concerned with the implicit masculinism of the ‘sovereign’ and ‘disencumbered’ self appealed to in liberal theory, and with the ways in which liberal conceptions of the ‘public’ and ‘private’ serve to reinforce an existing gender division of labour and its associated devaluation of traditional female roles.

Such a critique of liberalism is, of course, by no means novel, but as Seyla Benhabib and Drusilla Cornell suggest in their introduction, it is distinguished from a good deal of recent communitarian writing by its keenness to avoid any collapse of personal identity into social role. Though a feminist critique must recognize, against liberalism, the ‘situated’ nature of the subject, it must do it in a way which also challenges conventional social roles and avoids any confirmation of the gender identities and persona behind which the real subjectivity of women has so frequently disappeared. This poses a dilemma that is addressed in several of the later essays: how can feminist theory base itself on the uniqueness of feminine experience without reifying a particular definition of femaleness as paradigmatic, and thus succumbing to essentialist discourse?

It is an extended and convoluted theoretical journey, and by the time we have arrived at Josephine Butler’s existentialistic defence of the notion of ‘gender choice’ or Isaac Balbus’s staged clash between the Foucauldians and the object-relations theorists, we may well wonder how far we are still addressing anything that could be called Marxist or seen as plausibly contributing to its feminist reconstruction. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the most interesting and original feature of this collection lies in the engagement of so many of its pieces—albeit sometimes quite indirectly and often critically—with a central body of Marxist work previously almost unconsidered by feminist writers: the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and in particular of its sole surviving representative, Jürgen Habermas. This is in obvious contrast to the Lacanian and ‘post-structuralist’ preoccupations of a good deal of recent feminist theory, and allows one to mark out this volume as the site of a distinctive ‘Habermasian’ direction in feminist study.

In noting this turn to Habermas as one of the main (though not the only) interests of this book, one is bound to ask why it has come so late. For there would seem to be quite a number of factors predisposing towards it. In the first place, there is the distinctly ‘Marxian’ character of feminist criticism. By this I do not mean to imply that all feminists are Marxist—which would be wholly absurd—but only that feminist argument conforms with the theoretical exercise conducted by Marx under the name of ‘critique’ in fusing critical and substantive elements. The Marxist critique, in explaining the source in reality of the cognitive shortcomings of the theory under attack, called for changes in the reality itself. And it was to signal their commitment to this combined analytic and transformative project that the early theorists of the Frankfurt School gave such prominence to the notion of ‘critique’ in defining their own programme: critique was to function not merely as negative contestation or as Kantian constraint on the flights of speculative reason, but as argued justification for concrete, emancipatory practice. It is with a similar programmatic aim in view that feminist argument seeks to transform, as it exposes, the social reality of the sex/gender system responsible for the sexism and general opacity to feminine concerns of dominant cultural discourse and practice.

It is true that in some of the later writing of the Critical theorists the negative criticism becomes so overshadowing that the emancipatory project dwindles to a flickering light against the general darkness of the historical nightmare. But it is never entirely extinguished; and in any case, as far as Habermas is concerned, his work has always been guided by an optimism which, he would insist, is not purely of the will but is grounded in the real possibilities of human communicative interaction. Contrasting his scientifically oriented critique with Adorno’s more metaphysical leanings, Habermas has often stressed the aim of bringing social philosophy and the empirical social sciences into a mutually advantageous and corrective relationship, and suggested that it represents a return to the more collaborative and constructive spirit guiding the work of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s.footnote2

Indeed, one might argue that it is the distinctive ‘modernism’ of its outlook that makes Habermasian theory more compatible with feminism. For both are opposed to ‘post-modernist’ subversion of the emancipatory project while resisting any ‘anti-modernist’ nostalgic formulations of it.footnote3 Just as contemporary feminism, despite many other disagreements, would seem united in seeking liberation but refusing to find it in any erstwhile condition of women, so Habermas has disallowed the idea that renewal can be sought in traditional forms, insisting that ‘cultural modernism’ is the only resource of any historically enlightened consciousness, while at the same time avoiding all post-structuralist conclusions about the inevitability of domination.footnote4