Feminism and Communism: A Debate with Silvia Federici

Communes or communism? A debate with autonomism and the work of Silvia Federici, from the perspective of socialist feminism.

In the introduction to Revolution at Point Zero,1Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012). Silvia Federici offers a look back on her own work and partially reconsiders her theoretical elaborations initiated in the 1970s, and also the strategy carried out by the Wages for Housework (WfH) campaign. She states,

The WfH movement had identified the “house-worker” as the crucial social subject on the premise that the exploitation of her unwaged labor and the unequal power relations built upon her wageless condition were the pillars of the capitalist organization of production. However, the return of “Primitive Accumulation” on a world scale, starting with the immense expansion of the world labor market, the fruit of multiple forms of expropriation, has made it impossible for me to still write (as I had done in the early 1970s) that WfH is the strategy not only for the feminist movement “but for the entire working class.” The reality of entire populations practically demonetized by drastic devaluations in addition to proliferating land privatization schemes and the commercialization of all natural resources urgently poses the question of the reclamation of the means of production and the creation of new forms of social cooperation. These objectives should not be conceived as alternatives to the struggles for and over the “wage.”

This paragraph encapsulates several aspects of Federici’s most important elaborations, while at the same time showing how these have shifted over time. In other articles we have looked at the question of social reproduction and the debate with autonomist feminism on the question of domestic work, as well as the position of the housewife as a “crucial social subject.” In a more recent article, we polemicized with the elaborations of Maria Mies as taken up by Silvia Federici, around the mechanisms of dispossession and “primitive accumulation” that capitalism produces.2Josefina L. Martínez, “Patriarcado, acumulación de capital y desposesión,” Contrapunto, May 7, 2022. We have analyzed the author’s argument that the key to the struggle against capitalism can be found in the women of the Global South. We have explained that the phenomena of dispossession, as a tendency within capitalism today, do not invalidate but rather reaffirm the need for a hegemonic revolutionary strategy for the working class. The working class today is larger, more racialized, and more feminized than ever, and it can constitute a powerful social force against capitalism, in alliances with all oppressed sectors.

Now we want to look at what Federici presents as the final goals of anti-capitalist feminism. What are the commons? Why does the author counterpose them to communism? Can the means of production be recovered and new forms of social cooperation be created without a revolutionary break with capitalism? On the basis of these questions, we want to introduce another aspect to the debate between Federici’s thought — autonomist feminism — and socialist feminism.

What Are the Commons?

In the preface to Silvia Federici’s book Re-enchanting the World, Peter Linebaugh3Peter Linebaugh, a U.S. historian and a student of E. P. Thompson, is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective together with Federici and George Caffentzis. The collective is dedicated to the study of “the historical commons.” offers a preliminary definition of the commons. He writes,

What are the commons? While Federici eschews an essentialist answer, her essays dance around on two points, collective reappropriation and collective struggle against the ways we have been divided. Examples are manifold. Sometimes she offers four characteristics: 1) all wealth should be shared, 2) commons requires obligation as well as entitlement, 3) commons of care are also communities of resistance that oppose all social hierarchies, and 4) commons are the “other” of the state form. Indeed, the discourse of the commons is rooted in the crisis of the state, which now perverts the term to its own ends.

In this definition, the commons are an attempt to establish forms of social cooperation outside the state, prioritizing cooperative forms of care. Federici explains that the “politics of the commons” refers to different practices by social movements that “seek to enhance social cooperation, undermine the market’s and state’s control over our lives, promote the sharing of wealth, and, in this way, set limits to capital accumulation.”4Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (Oakland: PM Press, 2018).

The project is based on the autonomist idea of “changing the world without taking power,” as John Holloway formulated it 20 years ago. This tendency believes it is possible to build alternative, noncapitalist forms of cooperation at the margins of the system, avoiding the state (since it is impossible to defeat it). This is a form of anti-strategic thinking that philosopher and Trotskyist thinker Daniel Bensaïd described as “contemporary utopias” characteristic of the “eclipse of politics” during the period of the neoliberal offensive.

This idea is not new. It goes back to pre-Marxist utopian socialism or anarchist mutualism, which Marx argued against in the International Workingmen’s Association. French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s followers called for the expansion of cooperatives for production and consumption, to be financed by cooperative banks. In this way, they aimed to gradually overcome the most “negative” aspects of capitalist society without the need for a revolution. In opposition to such positions, the “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association,” written by Marx, stressed that “like slave labor, like serf labor, hired [wage] labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor.” But it also stated that “to save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means.” This was going to face resistance, as “the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies.” The conclusion was that the working class needed to conquer political power, in order to break the power of the capitalists.

And if this was the case in Marx’s time, how much more so today? Not only because the internationalization of capitalist production and circulation has expanded to a degree unimaginable back then, making any idea of creating small communes on a local scale a chimera. But also because the experience of more than a century of class struggle shows that the capitalists and their states respond with their entire counterrevolutionary arsenal whenever their privileges are at stake.

For Marxists, the socialization and internationalization of capitalist production is a precondition for the working class and the oppressed to take up the revolutionary struggle for communism. For Federici, however, this is not the case. For her, the goal is to turn back the historical clock, since she denies the need to put modern science and technology in the hands of the producers. She aims for a ruralization of life and the abandonment of modern technology.

Technological Pessimism and Resistance at the Margins

Federici’s point of view on this question is diametrically opposed to that of another sector of autonomism represented by Italian sociologist Toni Negri. Negri sees the techno-scientific development and digitization of the capitalist economy as leading to the primacy of cognitive labor, which will open the possibility for creating communism “here and now.” Federici criticizes this hypothesis in two ways.5According to Federici, Italian autonomists have an excessive “fascination” with Marx’s Gründrisse; Federici, Re-enchanting the World. On the one hand, she argues that Negri invisibilizes the domestic and informal labor of women in the Global South. If he were to take this into account, she says, then he could not speak of the supremacy of cognitive labor. In this respect, her position is much more attuned to the profound inequalities in the capitalist world — between the Global North and the South, and also those created by patriarchy and racism — than Negri’s. Her other critique, however, is much more problematic. For Federici, technology cannot form the basis of any communist perspective, nor can it lead to other forms of cooperation, because its origin and development is linked to capitalism and cannot be separated from its logic. By identifying technological development with domination and destruction, Federici falls into an essentialist technological pessimism.

Let us trace her arguments step by step, as she elaborates them in a polemic with Marx — although she employs a rather distorted view of him. Federici argues that her elaborations on domestic work led her to “rethink one of the main tenets of Marx’s theory of revolution, that is, the assumption that with the development of capitalism all forms of work will be industrialized and, most important, that capitalism and modern industry are preconditions for the liberation of humanity from exploitation.” On the first point, what she identifies as a tenet of Marx (a total industrialization of labor is supposedly disproved by the existence of other forms of nonwage labor, such as informal labor, domestic work, rural subsistence, etc.). But she ignores that Marx was addressing a tendency, not an absolute law. We can nonetheless see that capitalist social relations are immensely more widespread and that rural areas are more industrialized now than they were in the 19th century (or even 30 years ago).

On the relationship between modern industry and socialism, Federici attributes to Marx a kind of “technological determinism” that would inevitably lead to communism. According to Federici,

Marx believed that once this process was completed, once modern industry reduced socially necessary labor to a minimum, an era would begin in which we would finally be the masters of our existence and our natural environment, and we would not only be able to satisfy our needs but would be free to dedicate our time to higher pursuits.

We should first say that nothing could be more absurd than ascribing to Marx this kind of technological inevitability that is supposed to automatically lead to communism. Marx and Engels, followed by the whole tradition of revolutionary Marxism of Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Gramsci, focused on the class struggle and the need to build political organizations of the working class that are independent of the bourgeoisie precisely because this historical leap is not assured.

But Federici goes further, arguing that Marx was wrong to claim that the capitalism’s development of the productive forces makes socialism possible. For her, this is false, since

a century and a half after the publication of Capital, Vol. 1, capitalism gives no sign of dissolving, though the objective conditions that Marx envisioned as necessary for social revolution would seem more than mature.

We can leave aside the small detail that Marx never spoke of capitalism “dissolving” — Federici appears to be debating more with Negri than with Marx. If we want to avoid falling into a technological determinism, as Federici attributes to Marxism, we need to look at what has occurred on the terrain of the class struggle, and of the political and strategic struggles of the exploited. If we are to search for a serious explanation of why capitalism has not been defeated, we should at least take into account the great historical experiences of revolution and counterrevolution that took place throughout the 20th century. We should also consider the role of trade union and political bureaucracies, from social democracy to Stalinism, that led to defeats and setbacks. Yet Federici does nothing of the sort. In fact, her work contains practically no reference to the Russian Revolution or to the great revolutionary struggles of the working class in the 20th century. Instead, an (anti)technological determinism marks her entire argumentation.

She explains it this way:

We must also stress that none of the means of production that capitalism has developed can be unproblematically taken over and applied to a different use. In the same way — as we will see later — that we cannot take over the state, we cannot take over capitalist industry, science, and technology, as the exploitative objectives for which they have been created shape their constitution and mode of operation.

Yet if the exploited and oppressed cannot place any hope in the struggle to expropriate the expropriators and seize the means of production for their own ends, then what future is left? Federici’s technological pessimism leads back to a utopian anti-capitalism anchored in the past — as if the only solution were to seek refuge in spaces far removed from the technological societies of the 21st century. More concretely, this would mean generating spaces for subsistence, linked to the land, rural areas, and shared care work. From this perspective, Federici looks at the struggles of peasant and Indigenous communities against the expansion of extractivism in Latin America, the informal work cooperatives in shantytowns or slums, and other communal experiences in certain African countries. The problem is that she ends up transforming necessity into virtue. She presents experiences of subsistence as a model, in communities that have been deprived of access to goods and technological resources that should be available to everyone: from energy sources to the means for supplying drinking water, from technology for rural work to public health, etc. In the central countries, her vision of the commons would be realized with time banks, urban gardens, or barter systems.

This technological pessimism and the associated call for the ruralization of life overlaps with the idea of degrowth, which has gained prominence in the debates about the ecological catastrophe generated by capitalism.6One of the first systematic presentations of degrowth is by the French author Serge Latouche. In the Spanish State, an important defender of degrowth is Carlos Taibo. A large part of this school of thought maintains that technology is not an “instrument” or a “neutral” tool that depends on who uses it — rather, they argue, it contains “traces” of capitalist hierarchies. This is partially true: technological developments are “shaped” by capitalism, which discards or obstructs thousands of discoveries that are not useful to the monopolies, while others are developed based solely on their potential for commercialization. We have seen dramatic proof of this during the pandemic years. Marx also analyzed that technological-scientific development, in the hands of capital, did not create more free time for workers, but was rather transformed into surplus labor; instead of liberating workers from the burden of labor, capital binds them with heavier chains and uses technical means to discipline and control their labor power.

It is also a fact that technology in capitalist hands has created terrible destructive forces, means of mass annihilation, and all kinds of tendencies toward ecological catastrophe. This impetus, however, is not to be found in the mechanization of the world — as if machines had a spirit of their own — but rather in the private appropriation of humanity’s common goods by monopolies. If we have to forsake science and technology, this would mean renouncing (or handing over to the bourgeoisie) the fruits of several centuries of human labor. And how far does this technological pessimism go? Should we abandon vaccines, cancer research, artificial intelligence, photovoltaic solar energy, robotics? Federici argues that the politics of the commons does not consist of “the promise of an impossible return to the past but the possibility of recovering the power of collectively deciding our fate on this earth.” Yet the negation of the common goods of humanity limits these collective possibilities.

We support the opposite idea: while there can be no capitalism without industrial development, we can keep modern industry and scientific development functioning without capitalists. This would make it possible to reorganize production while creating new foundations for scientific research. Entire branches of the capitalist economy could be drastically reduced: automobile production, for example, could be reoriented toward nonpolluting collective transport. Capitalism generates consumerism and “artificial needs” (via advertising and planned obsolescence) as outlets for the production of commodities, while at the other pole it generates oceans of poverty. In a society where production is not determined by private profit, it would be possible to “degrow” in some sectors while expanding production and applying new technologies in others. Such questions should be decided by democratic planning based on social needs and a nondestructive relationship with nature.

Socialization and Mechanization: On Domestic Work

Federici argues that care work or domestic work cannot be fully mechanized because it requires skills, emotions, and affections that cannot be provided by a machine. Her conclusion is that this “derails” Marx’s program, because all social labor cannot be mechanized.

Two questions on this. First, Federici wrongly assumes that the socialization of domestic work — as we Marxist feminists demand — means the absolute mechanization of these tasks. But socializing domestic work does not necessarily imply total mechanization — it means removing this work from the private sphere of the home and transforming it into a task assumed and organized by society as a whole. In other words, it means recognizing these tasks, which contribute to the reproduction of labor power and to social reproduction. This socialization of course implies a greater degree of mechanization for certain tasks, which in many households are still done by hand. In Soviet Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, this took the form of communal laundries, day care centers, social kitchens, etc. In much of the world today, many of these tasks of social reproduction have already been socialized — as wage labor — and partially mechanized, either in the private sphere (restaurants, fast food chains, commercial laundries) or in the public sphere (hospitals, public education, etc.). Even so, in the 21st century there is still a significant burden of domestic work that remains invisible in households and is naturalized as “women’s work.” Much of this work could be socialized: in communal canteens, laundries, childcare centers, and nursing homes — public, high-quality institutions with specialized staff that would be available for free to everyone. This would reduce the tasks that remain in the private sphere to a minimum.

On the other hand, in a society not based on private property, care work could be transformed into self-organized labor by all members of society, and it would no longer be perceived as a burden. The affections and emotions involved in the relations between people would no longer be mediated by money, the need for wages, precarious conditions, patriarchal oppression, racism, or the lack of free time. Affection could unfold in new ways. And it could also unlock the imagination and unleash enormous creativity in other fields, such as redesigning cities, developing nonpolluting energy sources, or researching the movement of the stars. All of society would benefit from such social labor.

The Past and Future of Communism

In The German Ideology, Marx stated that

things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence. This appropriation is first determined by the object to be appropriated, the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse.

Estimates say that by the end of 2022, 860 million people will be living in extreme poverty, while the richest 10 percent owns 76 percent of all social wealth. Various international organizations are warning of catastrophic famines as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, inflation, and grain shortages. Under these conditions, existence is not assured for a large part of humanity. The subsistence communes proposed by autonomist feminism do not provide a way out of this situation. They do not go beyond the utopian idea of “set[ting] limits to capital accumulation” and socializing the misery that exists today.7As argued by Andrea D’Atri, “El capital nos empuja a la lucha por la subsistencia, pero no puede ser el horizonte estratégico de nuestro feminismo,” La Izquierda Diario, November 13, 2021.

Federici holds up communal peasant experiences in precapitalist societies as well as the peasant rebellions led by Thomas Münzer and the heretical sects in 16th century Germany. That is where she finds precedents for the commons: Omnia sunt communia (All property should be held in common) was the banner that the Anabaptist peasants and the urban plebeians raised against the princes and the Vatican. Indeed, those massive insurrections can be seen as the first seeds of communalism against class societies. Engels explained that Münzer’s ideas were the anticipation of communism in the imagination.8Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 1850. In his analysis, establishing the Kingdom of God on earth meant establishing a society without class differences, without private property, and without a state power rising above the members of society.

In that historical epoch, however, despite their commutativity and heroism, these particularist and fragmented movements had no way to defeat capitalism in formation, nor to construct an alternative society to overcome it. The brutal defeat of the peasant rebellions, by the arms of the nobility and the nascent bourgeoisie, gave tragic proof of this. It is surprising, in any case, that Federici has to go all the way back to the peasant struggles of the 16th century in search of precedents for the politics of the commons. At the same time, she seems to overlook the enormous historical creativity unleashed by millions of workers and peasants — men and women — in the last 150 years in the struggle against capitalism. From the Paris Commune, which shook the power of bourgeois Europe, to the Russian Revolution, in which workers and peasants, after defeating czarism and 14 imperialist armies, resolved to construct their own state, to reorganize the economy on new foundations, and to be a springboard for the extension of the world revolution. Many other examples of self-organization show the potential of the working class when it takes its destiny into its own hands: the Spanish Revolution, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, and many experiences of workers’ control and self-management in factories and other companies. This includes recent experiences of recovered factories in Argentina and Greece, where in times of crisis, workers took over the management of production together with neighbors, students, and poor people.

The return of these “contemporary utopias,” in Bensaïd’s words, which deny the possibility of working-class socialist revolution as a means to open the way to a classless and stateless society, has its historical basis not only in the neoliberal offensive but also in the monstrous experience of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In this context, it is necessary to clearly separate revolutionary Marxism from Stalinism, to understand the historical conditions for the emergence of that bureaucracy, and to assess the historical failure of the theory of “socialism in one country.”

Federici comments on a well-known passage of Marx and Engels, in which they argue that

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

She concludes that the commons is linked to the real movement to abolish the state of things. But to really overcome the present state of things, the movement — the day-to-day struggles — cannot be detached from the goal of an emancipated society. By only holding on to that first moment, and rejecting the goal, the politics of the commons is limited to seeking small reforms at the edges of existing society.

The pandemic, the economic and environmental crises, and now war and militarism — all these things show that the destructive tendencies of capitalism continue to operate unrelentingly. The exploited and the oppressed need to expropriate the expropriators, and to take the totality of the existing productive forces into their hands. Only in this way can the desire for a society where “all property should be held in common” become a reality.

First published in Spanish on June 5, 2022, in Contrapunto.

Translation: Nathaniel Flakin


1 Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012).
2 Josefina L. Martínez, “Patriarcado, acumulación de capital y desposesión,” Contrapunto, May 7, 2022.
3 Peter Linebaugh, a U.S. historian and a student of E. P. Thompson, is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective together with Federici and George Caffentzis. The collective is dedicated to the study of “the historical commons.”
4 Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (Oakland: PM Press, 2018).
5 According to Federici, Italian autonomists have an excessive “fascination” with Marx’s Gründrisse; Federici, Re-enchanting the World.
6 One of the first systematic presentations of degrowth is by the French author Serge Latouche. In the Spanish State, an important defender of degrowth is Carlos Taibo.
7 As argued by Andrea D’Atri, “El capital nos empuja a la lucha por la subsistencia, pero no puede ser el horizonte estratégico de nuestro feminismo,” La Izquierda Diario, November 13, 2021.
8 Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 1850.
Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.