Marxist Geography and Historical Materialism: Part II

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

In Part I, we examined Marx and Engel’s theory of Historical Materialism, which argues that human societies progress through material conditions. Through the lens of postcolonial and feminist geographies, I will use this theory to evaluate the contemporary contributions of Marxist Geography to the field.


Class reductionism is the prevalent Marxist view that economic inequality is the root of all other forms of oppression, including racism and sexism. Marx argued that the universal issue facing humans was capitalism, operating on a global scale. One example of this the European colonial exploitation and slavery across America, Africa and Asia within “the dawn of capitalist production”. He identified European capital accumulation of gold, silver, labour, and spices as reliant on the subjugation of non-white bodies, rather than based on white supremacist ideologies. However, while the emancipation from capitalism was considered in the interests of all peoples, this orthodox Marxism has been criticised for being colour- and gender-blind. As Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests, Marx premises the proletariat revolutionary to be a “fully formed subaltern” whose subjugation is based solely on economic inequality rather than multiple causes of oppression.


However, this dogmatic understanding of Marxism is not one that has been readily accepted. Instead, it has been reimagined to integrate strong Marxist perspectives within identity politics: post-colonial scholar Franz Fanon concludes that “Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem” to encompass for such shortfalls. Ruth Rilson Gilmore's analysis of the US prison system explores Racial Capitalism as a Prison-industrial complex, where she argues the expansion of the prison system is due to political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies for profit. Critical Race Theory features prominently in her work, arguing that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself is socially constructed by those in power. This theory is employed to argue that this process is highly racialised through the school-to-prison pipeline in predominantly Black areas. Another example is the 1980s War on Drugs, which disproportionately targeted non-white communities in a variety of ways, such as through longer prison sentences. Therefore, considering the intersectionality of class and race is key in understanding how racism and economic inequality oppress in tandem.


Similarly, Marxist feminists in the 1980s and 1990s used Marxist theory to analyse the ways women are exploited through capitalism. They moved beyond an ‘unhappy marriage’ between Marxism and feminism, which defended a genderless class and classless gender, to create a framework aimed at liberating women from exploitation. A Marxist feminist approach is important in understanding and overcoming gendered barriers in a capitalist society, which primarily addresses the gendered divisions of labour that exist. These range from women being disproportionately in roles of part-time employment or unpaid domestic labour in the home for the purposes of social reproduction, to attitudes towards women in the workplace as being ‘lucky’ or ‘bossy’, or plainly sexualised. Marxist feminists also oppose forms of feminism that reinforce class status, arguing economic inequality must be dissolved for an upper-class woman to be truly equal to a working class woman.


Employing Marxist theory without paying attention to other axes of difference risks glossing over important causes of oppression. The intersectional union between Marxism and other scholarly areas allows Marxism to be seen in context, rather than as a universalist theory that impedes social justice.


Further reading:

  1. Satgar, V. (2019). THE ANTI-RACISM OF MARXISM: PAST AND PRESENT. In Satgar V. (Ed.), Racism After Apartheid: Challenges for Marxism and Anti-Racism (pp. 1-28). Johannesburg: Wits University Press. doi:10.18772/22019033061.5

  2. Hartmann, H.I., 1979. The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union. Capital & Class, 3(2), pp.1-33.

  3. Leonardo, Z., 2004. The unhappy marriage between Marxism and race critique: Political economy and the production of racialized knowledge. Policy Futures in Education, 2(3-4), pp.483-493.

  4. Gilmore, R.W., 2007. Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California (Vol. 21). Univ of California Press.

  5. Gilmore, R.W., 2002. Fatal couplings of power and difference: Notes on racism and geography. The professional geographer, 54(1), pp.15-24.