MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



The terms “Feminism” and “Feminist” entered the English language in the 1890s, at the time of the “Second Wave” of the women's emancipation movement. Feminism is the ideology of, or theoretical commitment to, the Women's Liberation Movement.

By the late 1960s, Feminism had developed a number of distinct currents, chiefly:

  1. Socialist Feminism, in which women's emancipation is seen as intimately connected to the emancipation of the working class and consequently of humanity as a whole. Within Socialist Feminism, “Marxist Feminism” is the current which employs the theoretical legacy of Marxism in order to theorise the special oppression of women within the relations of production, both domestic and social. Shulamith Firestone is an example of a feminist who turned Marxist categories to use in feminist theory;
  2. Liberal (or “Bourgeois”) Feminism, in which the claim of women for equal rights is seen in the context of a general opposition to various forms of oppression and discrimination, independently of other political convictions. Liberal feminism tends to emphasise social policy to open up professional, better-paid and prestigious jobs to women and the elimination of laws discriminating against the political, property and social rights of women;
  3. Radical Feminism, which lays emphasis on the “celebration” of femininity, rather than seeing femininity as a social construct which simply constitutes a form of oppression and discrimination within patriarchal, i.e., male-dominated, society. Kate Millett was one of the founders of Radical Feminism.

Although characterised by ideas concerning the nature of women's oppression, historically feminism has drawn on a wide variety of analytical instruments in order to theorise women's oppression and liberation; specifically, Marxism, Hegelian themes, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, natural scientific data (though this has generally proved less than fruitful), empirical historical research, anthropology, deconstruction, structuralism, structural linguistics and much else. A great deal was also learnt from the theorisation of racism by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-colonialists. In its turn, there is no doubt that femininism has had a profound and historic impact on all aspects of social theory, philosophy and ideology, particularly since the 1960s. Marxism is far from alone in having been transformed by the impact of feminist critique.



Fetishism, in ancient religions, meant the belief that inanimate objects such as icons or trees, clouds, etc., possess human properties; in Marxism, the belief that commodities possess human properties.

The Fetishism of commodities is explained in Section 4. of Chapter 1 of Capital:

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. ...

“Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. ...”

In this formulation, Marx has captured the essential nature of all the ideological illusions of bourgeois society.

Fetishism is a form of reification.


Feudal Society

Feudal society is the type of civilisation, generally associated with predominantly small-scale agricultural production, based on traditional patterns of land-ownership and territory, in which the rights and duties of every member of society is defined by traditional inheritance and kinship relations.

Feudal society differs from tribal society in being a class society, in which quite different and unequal rights and duties are enjoyed by different families, according to land rights, wealth and social status inherited from previous generations.

Feudal society differs from slave society in that every class in feudal society has rights and is regarded as human, however lowly, whereas slaves have no rights at all and are treated as property rather than people.

This is not to say that slavery could not exist in feudal society, but it cannot be the principal mode of production. The feudal serf is the main producer, and has inalienable rights to his land and well-defined political rights; the king likewise is not a law unto himself like the ancient despot of slave civilisations, but must act in accordance with law, and his nobles likewise have very specific duties both as his subjects and towards their own subjects.

Feudal society differs from bourgeois society because bourgeois society operates outside the constraints imposed by traditional rights and ethics, being governed only by what can make a profit, by the market.

Feudal society existed across all of Asia, in Central and South America and parts of Africa at the time the European colonialists arrived, and was on the verge of developing in North America. Feudal society took on different forms in every country in which it arose, reflecting the specific features of each culture. Being the immediate precursor to capitalism, feudal society has left its traces on modern society to this day.

Most notably the bourgeois family is a remnant of the feudal family (though to an extent it is also a remnant of tribal society), so long as within the family a traditional division of labour holds, enforced by oaths sworn before a higher authority, rather than being an exchange of services governed by a pre-nuptial contract or on payment of wages. On the other hand, in very many countries, such as Britain, the constitutional monarchy continues to exist as a kind of legitimating authority, as if the election of a head of state by popular mandate cannot provide the same level of authority as kingly descent.

The development of the state in bourgeois society differs from the nature of the state in feudal society. In feudal society, the lowliest serf who is kept in poverty tilling his little strip of land and forced to bring in the harvest for the local noble, give a tenth of his product to the Church and pay taxes to keep the Royal court in luxury is nevertheless seen as part of the state. The state does not present itself as a force standing above society, but rather, it is identical with society. That the state is a system of violence for maintaining the conditions of exploitation remains the case, but it achieves that task quite differently.

The religious conceptions of feudal society differ from those of bourgeois society, too. The ancient despot of slave society was a demi-god (a man-god), but the King of feudal society is not himself a God, but more likely God’s representative on Earth. The exact conception varies from one society to another, but in general feudal society is a hierarchy. Individualism is unknown and every member of that hierarchy has personality and an ethical code only by and through that hierarchy, receiving the knowledge and the blessing of God only through that same hierarchy. The doctrine of Papal infallibility and the reading of the Mass in Latin are classic expressions of the feudal religious conception. To the Protestants, the Christian expression of bourgeois society, every person has their own, independent access to a personal God, and consequently, the first demand of the Reformation was the translation of the Word of God into the language of the local people.

Generally speaking, feudal society is the mode of production most suited to small-scale agricultural forces of production. Slave society flourished in the tilling of large estates where overseers could control the work of large numbers of slaves. In order to take advantage of the benefits of small-scale farming, the labourers had to be given rights in their land, since an insupportable number of overseers would be required to govern their work. Initially, in the British Isles, it was the introduction of sheep and cattle grazing which began to undermine the foundations of feudal society, because the demand for labour was small and large tracts of land were required on which to run herds. This led to the Enclosures in which vast numbers of Scottish and English peasants were brutally and illegally evicted from their land to make way for sheep. The landless paupers created by the enclosures wandered the land without any possible means of living and throughout Georgian times these people were hounded from pillar to post as vagrants, but ultimately they provided the propertyless labourers who would work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution and give rise to the modern proletariat.

The form of exploitation in feudal society differs from that of bourgeois society. The peasant knew exactly what proportion of his labour went to maintaining the superstructure of feudal society because a definite portion of his labour and/or produce was taken from him for this purpose. Contrariwise, the wage-labourer is exploited without knowing it, for it appears that she is paid for every working hour.

Just as was the case with tribal society, it was also the growth in trade and commerce and the presence of large numbers of people and the accumulation of capital outside the scope of feudal society, which served to undermine feudalism. The growth of wage labour and commodity production, and the accumulation of large masses of capital, while the feudal monarchs slid into debt, created the conditions for the English Revolution of 1640, the French Revolution of 1789 which broke the resistance of feudalism to the rise of the bourgeoisie and opened the way to free trade and the rule of money.

Further reading: Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2, Capital, Chapter 26, Primitive Accumulation, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Chapter 8 and The German Ideology, Chapter 1.