Lucien Rey writes: The main purpose of Branka Magas’s article, as I understand it, is to show that there are a number of crucial theoretical shortcomings in the three books she is reviewing. For instance, they are confused about the concept of ‘equality’, they have an unrealistic historical perspective, they underplay the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘property’ and overplay ‘sexual politics’ and man-woman oppression—
It has become traditional on the left to contrast ‘Marxism’ with ‘feminism’ and this kind of contrast seems to me to colour the strategy Magas adopts towards these books, concentrating on their shortcomings and implying the existence (potential, perhaps, but not too distant) of an alternative Marxist model. I think this is far from the truth. As far as I can judge, there is little of value written on women’s oppression within the Marxist tradition and perhaps even less within the Freudian tradition. I am also extremely suspicious of the Marxism/ feminism contrast.
I would like to give an example to show why I am so doubtful. An important section of Magas’s article is devoted to Eva Figes’s attack on Rousseau. There is a good reason for this. Rousseau is widely regarded by Marxists as prefiguring the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin. Yet Figes characterizes him as a particularly rabid sexist and it is obviously impossible to refute this. The temptation, which Magas avoids, without drawing the full conclusions from her own argument, is to separate the good, ‘revolutionary’ Rousseau from the bad ‘sexist’ Rousseau and weigh one against the other, balancing the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality against Emile, La Nouvelle Heloise, etc.
This seems to me to put matters the wrong way round. The fact that Rousseau was a rabid sexist surely casts doubts on the claim that he prefigures Marxism and Leninism, yet this is a problem which is totally ignored by Marxist commentaries on Rousseau, including those of Della Volpe, Colletti and Althusser. Figes remarks that reading the Social Contract you might imagine mankind was uni-sexual and you might still imagine this after reading Della Volpe, Colletti and Althusser as well.
An important absence in the Social Contract is any definition of ‘citizen’. When we turn to the project for a new constitution for Corsica, we are enlightened. A citizen is to be a property-owner, male, married, with at least two children—not just a man, but a paterfamilias as well. For Rousseau the family was the basic and indissoluble unit of society. In this way, his sexism is integrated into his political thought. Moreover, he had to exclude women from citizenship, necessarily, once he admitted an essential difference between men and women, because the whole concept of the general will involved homogeneity of the populace (hence, of course, the vision of a society of small property-owners who could be expected to think alike; hence the Rousseau-an arguments for the loi Chapelier outlawing trade unions during the Revolution).
Magas points out, quite rightly, that underlying Rousseau’s political philosophy is ‘petty commodity production’, to be superseded by large-scale capitalist production in the next century. The Alpine smallholder and craftsman gave way to the Lancashire cotton miller, etc. Rousseau’s proto-Romanticism was wedded to a dying economic class;
Yet there is no Marxist critique of Romanticism and there are important schools of Marxism endlessly rehabilitating Romanticism and even merging it with Marxism. To my mind, the chief merit of Figes’s book is that it launches an attack on Romanticism and traces a tradition of sexist ideology through from Rousseau and Hegel. This attack is definitely patchy and leaves a lot to be desired but it is a start. I think it is more valuable about Rousseau than Colletti or Althusser precisely because it says what they don’t say, because she reads in Rousseau what they don’t read. (Naturally their level of argument and culture is much higher, more scientific, but that’s not the point at issue.)