Patricia Hill Collins……Intersecting Oppressions……………..

Patricia Hill Collins: Intersecting Oppressions

Patricia Hill Collins is principally concerned with the relationships among empowerment, self-definition, and knowledge; and she is obviously concerned with black women: it is the oppression with which she is most intimately familiar. But Collins is also one of the few social thinkers who are able to rise above their own experiences; to challenge us with a significant view of oppression and identity politics that not only has the possibility of changing the world but also of opening up the prospect of continuous change.

For change to be continuous, it can’t be exclusively focused on one social group. In other words, a social movement that is only concerned with racial inequality, will end its influence once equality for that group is achieved. What Patricia Hill Collins gives us is a way of transcending group specific politics that is based upon black feminist epistemology. However, it is vital to note that her intent is to place “U.S. Black women’s experiences in the center of analysis without privileging those experiences” (Collins, 2000, p. 228). Collins is saying that we can learn significantly from black women’s knowledge.

Black women sit at a theoretically interesting point. Collins argues that black women are uniquely situated in that they stand at the focal point where two exceptionally powerful and prevalent systems of oppression come together: race and gender. Being able to understand this position as something she calls “intersectionality” opens up the possibility of seeing and understanding many more spaces of cross-cutting interests. That is, understanding the social position black women ought to compel us to see, and look for, other spaces where systems of inequality come together.

Just as important to this possibility of continuous change are the qualities of what Collins variously terms alternative or black feminist epistemology. This notion implies that the emphasis on social, scientific knowledge has hindered social reform. In this way of thinking about things, all knowledge is political and can be used to serve specific group interests. Social science is particularly susceptible to this because it simultaneously objectifies its subjects and denies the validity of lived experience as a form of knowing.

Black Feminist Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Now, let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Why would people study knowledge? The common sense understanding of knowledge is rather straightforward: knowledge is what you know; it is the fact or condition of knowing. Having knowledge means to have familiarity with an individual, thing, or event. For example, you know your friend; you know sociology; and you know 2+2=4. So,what’stostudy? Commonsensetellsusthatyoueitherknow2+2=4or you don’t; and you can know more or less about sociology or about your friend. If

epistemology is the study of knowledge, why and how is it studied? What are the problems and questions that have produced epistemology?

What I’m trying to get us to recognize is that despite our common sense understanding, there is something odd and disturbing about knowledge, disturbing in the sense that it prompts scrutiny. In fact, the idea of knowledge is so disturbing that philosophers have been studying it for almost 2500 years; and “nearly every great philosopher has contributed to the epistemological literature” (Merriam-Webster, 2002).

Human knowledge is disturbing because we’re not exactly sure what it is, where it comes from, or how it can be validated. With human knowledge, there is at least the possibility that what we know is not the direct knowledge of events or the physical universe. As the philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1944) puts it, “No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances” (p. 42). There are two main philosophical schools that attempt to address this possibility: empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from and must be tested by sense experience; the data that come to us via our five senses. Rationalism, on the other hand, argues that sense experience can be wrong and that reason is our chief source and validation of knowledge.

There are, of course, many other philosophical schools of thought about knowledge. But my point is simply that knowing and knowledge are not as straightforward as they seem. Think of it this way: we are the only animal that takes its knowledge as something to be studied. My dog Maggie for example isn’t concerned one iota about her knowledge; she simply knows what she knows. Knowledge for humans is not so easy.

As sociologists, we aren’t usually concerned with the philosophical investigation of knowledge. However, sociology is interested in the social factors that influence how knowledge is created and how knowledge is socially used. One of the first sociologists to express these concerns was Karl Marx (1859/1978a): “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (p. 4). Marx (1932/1978b) is specifically concerned with the class based and oppressive nature of knowledge: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (p. 172, emphasis original). Notice that Marx connects knowledge (ideas) with material interests. What people know and think are intrinsically wrapped up with class position. Also notice that the elite in any society exercise disproportionate control over what ideas are accepted as truth. Thus, whatever else philosophy may say, sociologically we know that knowledge is influenced by and used in the politics surrounding class position.

Patricia Hill Collins argues that the politics of race and gender also influence knowledge. In Marxian terms, race and gender are part of our “social being.” In order to talk about this issue, and specifically about black feminist knowledge, Collins juxtaposes Eurocentric, positivistic knowledge—the kind of knowledge in back of science. But before we get to that, I need to point out that there is more to knowledge than simply information. Knowledge—information and facts—can only exist within a context that is defined through specific ways of knowing and validation. In other words, human scrutinize how knowledge is produced and how it is validated as true. So, what ways of knowing and methods of validation are specific to Eurocentric, positivistic knowledge? Collins gives us four points. Note that sociology is generally defined as a social science; and insofar as it is a scientific inquiry into social life, it espouses these four points.


First, according to the positivistic approach, true or correct knowledge only comes when the observer separates him or her self from that which is being studied. You undoubtedly came across this idea in your methods class: the researcher must take an objective stand in order to safeguard against bias. Second, personal emotions must be set aside in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Third, no personal ethics or values must come into the research. Social science is to be value-free, not passing judgment or trying to impose values on others. And, fourth, knowledge progresses through cumulation and adversarial debate.

Cumulation in positivism is a particular way of building knowledge. Science is supposed to progress by testing the knowledge that others created before us and by throwing out the bad and holding onto the good. This incremental building is captured by Isaac Newton’s famous dictum: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, as I’ve already implied, information and ideas can’t be taken at face value. Thus, scientific knowledge is validated because it is tested and argued against from every angle. The belief is that only that which is left standing is truth. And it is upon those remnants that objective, scientific knowledge will be built.

Four tenets of black feminist epistemology: Collins gives us four characteristics of alternative epistemologies, ways of knowing and validating knowledge that challenges the status quo. As we review these, notice how each point stands in opposition to the tenets of positivistic knowledge.

The first point is that alternative epistemologies are built upon lived experience not upon an objectified position. Social science argues that to truly understand society and group life one must be removed from the particulars and concerns of the subjects being studied. In this way, subjects are turned into objects of study. Collins’ (2000) alternative epistemology claims that is it only those men and women who experience the consequences of social being who can select “topics for investigation and methodologies used” (p. 258). Black feminist epistemology, then, begins with “connected knowers,” those who know from personal experience.

The second dimension of Collins’ alternative epistemology is the use of dialog rather than adversarial debate. As we’ve seen, knowledge claims in social science are assessed through adversarial debate. Using dialog to evaluate implies the presence of at least two subjects—thus knowledge isn’t seen as having an objective existence apart from lived experiences; knowledge ongoingly emerges through dialog. In alternative epistemologies, then, we tend to see the use of personal pronouns such as “I” and “we” instead of the objectifying and distancing language of social science. Rather than disappearing, the author is central to and present in the text. In black feminist epistemology, the story is told and preserved in narrative form and not “torn apart in analysis” (Collins, 2000, p. 258).

Centering lived experiences and the use of dialog imply that knowledge is built around ethics of caring, Collins’ third characteristic of black feminist knowledge. Rather than believing that researchers can be value-free, Collins argues that all knowledge is intrinsically value-laden and should thus be tested by the presence of empathy and compassion. Collins sees this tenet as healing the binary break between the intellect and emotion that Eurocentric knowledge values. Alternative epistemology is thus holistic; it doesn’t require the separation of the researcher from her or his own experiences nor does it require, or assume that it is possible, to separate our thoughts from our feelings. Additionally, Collins (2000) argues that the presence of emotion validates the argument: “Emotion indicates that a speaker believes in the validity of an argument” (p. 263).

Fourth, black feminist epistemology requires personal accountability. Because knowledge is built upon lived experience, the assessment of knowledge is simultaneous


assessment of an individual’s character, values, and ethics. This approach sees that all knowledge is based upon beliefs, things assumed to be true. And belief implies personal responsibility. Think about the implications of these two different approaches to knowing, information, and truth: One, information can be objective and truth exists apart from any observer; and, two, all information finds its existence and “truth” within a preexisting knowledge system that must be believed in order to work. The first allows for, indeed demands, the separation of personal responsibility from knowledge—knowledge exists as an objective entity apart from the knower. The second places accountability directly on the knower. Collins would ask us, which form of knowing is more likely to lead to social justice, one that denies ethical and moral accountability or one that demands it?

Implications of black feminist thought: By now we should see that for Collins ways of knowing and knowledge are not separable or sterile—they are not abstract entities that exist apart from the political values and beliefs of the individual. How we know and what we know have implications for who we see ourselves to be, how we live our lives, and how we treat others. Collins sees these connections as particularly important for black women in at least three ways.

First, there is a tension between common challenges and diverse experiences. Think for a moment about what it means to center the idea of lived experience. We’ve already touched upon several implications of this idea; but what problem might arise from this way of thinking? The notion of lived experience, if taken to an extreme, can privilege individual experience and knowledge to the exclusion of a collective standpoint. The possibility of this implication is particularly probable in a society like the United States that is built around the idea of individualism.

However, this isn’t what Collins has in mind. One doesn’t overshadow the other. According to Collins, the diverse responses are prompted by what Collins refers to as intersectionality. We’ll explore this idea later but for now we want to see that each individual stands at a unique matrix of cross-cutting interests. These interests and the diverse responses they motivate are defined through such social positions as race, class, gender, sexual identity, religion, nationality, and so on.

So the lived experience of a middle-class, pagan, single, gay black woman living in Los Angeles will undoubtedly be different than a poverty stricken, Catholic, married black woman living in a small town in Mississippi. As Collins (2000) says, “it is important to stress that no homogeneous Black woman’s standpoint exists” (p. 28, emphasis original). However, there are core themes or issues that come from living as a black woman such that “a Black women’s collective standpoint does exist, one characterized by the tensions that accrue to different responses to common challenges” (p. 28, emphasis original). In other words, a black women’s epistemology recognizes this tension between common challenges and diverse responses, which in turn is producing a growing sensibility that black women, because of their gendered racial identity, “may be victimized by racism, misogyny, and poverty” (Collins, 2000, p. 26). Thus, even though individual black women may respond differently, based on different cross-cutting interests, there are themes or core issues that all black women can acknowledge and integrate into their self- identity.

Another implication of black feminist epistemology is informed by this growing sensibility of diversity within commonality: understanding these issues leads to the creation of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are “social spaces where Black women speak freely” (Collins, 2000, p. 100). These safe spaces are of course common occurrences for all oppressed groups. In order for an oppressed group to continue to exist as a viable social


group, the members must have spaces where they can express themselves apart from the hegemonic or ruling ideology.

Collins identifies three primary safe spaces for black women. The first is black women’s relationships with one another. These relationships can form and function within informal relationships such as family and friends or they can occur within more formal and public spaces such as black churches and black women’s organizations. In this context, Collins (2002) also points to the importance of mentoring within black women’s circles; mentoring that empowers black women “by passing on the everyday knowledge essential to survival as African-American women” (p. 102).

The other two safe spaces are cultural and are constituted by the black women’s blues tradition and the voices of black women authors. Such cultural expressions have historically given voice to the voiceless. Those who were denied political or academic power could express their ideas and experiences through story and poetry. As long as the political majority could read these as “fictions,” as long as they weren’t faced with the facts of oppression, blacks were allowed these cultural outlets in “race markets.” However, these books, stories, and poetry allowed oppressed people to communicate one with another and to produce a sense of shared identity.

There are several reasons why the blues are particularly important for constructing safe spaces and identities for black women. Blues originated out of the back and forth call of slaves working in the fields. It was born out of misery but simultaneously gave birth to hope. This hope wasn’t simply expressed in words, but it was more powerfully felt in the rhythm and collectivity that made slave-work less arduous. The blues thus expresses to even the illiterate the experience of black America; and it wraps individual suffering in a transcendent collective consciousness that enables the oppressed to persevere in hope without bitterness.

The music of the classic blues singers of the 1920s—almost exclusively women—marks the early written record of this dimension of U.S. Black oral culture. The songs themselves were originally sung in small communities, where boundaries distinguishing singer from audience, call from response, and thought from action were fluid and permeable. (Collins, 2000, p. 106)

The importance of these safe spaces is that they provide opportunities for self- definition; and self-definition is the first step to empowerment: if a group is not defining itself, then it is being defined by and for the use of others. These safe spaces also allow black women to escape and resist “objectification as the Other” (Collins, 2000, p. 101), the images and ideas about black women found in the larger culture.

These safe spaces, then, are spaces of diversity not homogeneity: “the resulting reality is much more complex than one of an all-powerful White majority objectifying Black women with a unified U.S. Black community staunchly challenging these external assaults” (Collins, 2002, p. 101). However, even though these spaces recognize diversity, they are nonetheless exclusionary (here we can clearly see the tension that Collins notes). If these spaces did not exclude, they would not be safe: “By definition, such spaces become less ‘safe’ if shared with those who were not Black and female” (p. 110). Although exclusionary, the intent of these spaces is to produce “a more inclusionary, just society” (p. 110).

This idea leads us to our third implication of black feminist thought: the struggles for self-identity take place within an ongoing dialog between group knowledge or standpoint and experiences as a heterogeneous collective. Here Collins is


reconceptualizing the tension noted above between common challenges and diverse responses. This is important to note because one of the central features of Collins’ approach is complexity. Collins wants us to see that most social issues, factors, and processes have multiple faces. Understanding how the different facets of inequality work together is paramount for understanding any part of it. In this case, on the one hand we have a tension between common challenges and diverse responses, and on the other hand we have a dialog between a common group standpoint and diverse experiences.

Collins is arguing that changes in thinking may alter behaviors and altering behaviors may produce changes in thinking. Thus, for U.S. black women as a collective, “the struggle for a self-defined Black feminism occurs though an ongoing dialogue whereby action and thought inform one another” (Collins, 2000, p. 30). For example, because black Americans have been racially segregated, black feminist practice and thought have emerged within the context of black community development. Other ideas and practices, such as Black Nationalism, have also come about due to racial segregation. Thus, black feminism and nationalism inform one another in the context of the Black community yet they are both distinct. And, of course, the relationships are reciprocal in that black feminist and nationalist thought influence black community development.

Collins also sees this dialog as a process of rearticulation rather than consciousness raising. During the 1960s and 1970s, consciousness raising was a principal method in the feminist movement. Consciousness raising groups would generally meet weekly, consist of no more than twelve women, and would encourage women to share their personal experiences as women. The intent was a kind of Marxian class consciousness that would precede social change, except that it was oriented around gender rather than class.

Rearticulation, according to Collins, is a vehicle for re-expressing a consciousness that quite often already exists in the public sphere. In rearticulation we can see the dialogic nature of Collins’ perspective. Rather than a specific, limited method designed to motivate women toward social movement, Collins sees black feminism as part of an already existing national discourse. What black feminism can do is to take the core themes of black gendered oppression—such as racism, misogyny, and poverty—and infuse them with the lived experience of black women’s taken-for-granted, everyday knowledge. This is brought back into the national discourse where practice and ideas are in a constant dialog: “Rather than viewing consciousness as a fixed entity, a more useful approach sees it as continually evolving and negotiated. A dynamic consciousness is vital to both individual and group agency.” (Collins, 2000, p. 285)

The place of black intellectuals: Within this rearticulation, black feminist intellectuals have a specific place. To set ourselves up for this consideration, we can divide social intellectuals or academics into two broad groups: those who are pure researchers and those who are praxis researchers. Pure researchers hold to value-free sociology; the kind we noted above in considering Eurocentric thought. They are interested in simply discovering and explaining the social world. Praxis or critically oriented researchers are interested in ferreting out the processes of oppression and changing the social world. Black feminist intellectuals are of the latter kind, blending the lived experiences of black women with the highly specialized knowledge of intellectualism.

This dual intellectual citizenship gives black feminist scholars critical insights into the conditions of oppression. They both experience it as a lived reality and can think about it using the tools of critical analysis. Further, in studying oppression among black women, they are less likely to walk away “when the obstacles seem overwhelming or when the rewards for staying diminish” (Collins, 2000, p. 35). Black feminist intellectuals are


also more motivated in this area because they are defining themselves while studying gendered racial inequality.

Finally, Collins (2002) argues that black feminist intellectuals “alone can foster the group autonomy that fosters effective coalitions with other groups” (p. 36). In thinking about this it is important to remember that Collins recognizes that intellectuals are found within all walks of life. Intellectual status isn’t simply conferred as the result of academic credentials. Black feminist intellectuals are those who think reflexively and publicly about their own lived experiences within the context of broader social issues and ideas.

Black feminist intellectuals, then, function like intermediary groups. On the one hand, they are very much in touch with their own and their confidants’ experiences as a disenfranchised group; on the other hand, they are also in touch with intellectual heritages, diverse groups, and broader social justice issues. “By advocating, refining, and disseminating Black feminist thought, individuals from other groups who are engaged in similar social justice projects—Black men, African women, White men, Latinas, White women, and members of other U.S. racial/ethnic groups, for example—can identify points of connection that further social justice projects” (Collins, 2000, p. 37). Collins notes, however, that coalition building with other groups and intellectuals can be costly. Privileged group members often have to become traitors to the “privileges that their race, class, gender, sexuality, or citizenship status provide them” (p. 37).

Intersectionality and Matrices of Domination

Collins is best known for her ideas of intersectionality and the matrix of domination. Intersectionality is a particular way of understanding social location in terms of crisscross systems of oppression. Specifically, intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299).

This idea goes back to Max Weber and Georg Simmel, two theorists working in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Weber’s concern was to understand the complications that status and power brought to Marx’s idea of class stratification. According to Weber, class consciousness and social change are more difficult to achieve than Marx first thought: status group affiliation and differences in power create concerns that may override class issues. For example, race may be more important than class for two racially distinct families living below the poverty. In such cases, social change becomes less likely.

Simmel was concerned with how modern living in cities created different kinds of friendship patterns. In smaller, more rural settings, Simmel claimed that people generally had what he termed “organic” social relationships. These relations are organic because very little if any choice was involved: many of the social groups in smaller, more stable settings overlap one with another and thus strongly influence group membership. For example, in traditional rural settings an individual would generally go to the same school as her or his family members. Chances are good that work groups would overlap with other groups as well, with one’s boss and fellow employees attending the same church. Such overlapping and “natural” group affiliations produced a good deal of social homogeneity. In modern, urban settings, the “rational” group membership pattern prevails. Here individuals choose their group affiliations apart from pre-existing memberships such as family. Additionally, social groups in large cities tend not to overlap and influence one another.

Simmel’s concern in outlining these two types of group membership patterns is to see how these differing patterns affect the person. Generally speaking, under conditions


of rational group membership, people will tend to see themselves as unique individuals with greater freedom of choice. However, in Simmel’s scheme, this freedom and individuality is offset by increasing levels of anomie and the blasé attitude.

There is a way in which Collins blends these two approaches while at the same time going beyond them. Like Simmel, Collins is concerned with the influences of intersectionality on the individual. But the important issue for Collins is the way intersectionality creates different kinds of lived experiences and social realities. She is particularly concerned with how these interact with what passes as objective knowledge and with how diverse voices of intersectionality are denied under scientism. Like Weber, she is concerned about how intersectionality creates different kinds of inequalities and how these cross-cutting influences affect social change. But Collins brings Weber’s notion of power into this analysis in a much more sophisticated way. Collins sees intersectionality working within a matrix of domination.

The matrix of domination refers to the overall organization of power in a society. There are two features to any matrix. First, any specific matrix has a particular arrangement of intersecting systems of oppression. Just what and how these systems come together is historically and socially specific. Second, intersecting systems of oppression are specifically organized through four interrelated domains of power: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal.

The structural domain consists of social structures such as law, polity, religion, and the economy. This domain sets the structural parameters that organize power relations. For example, prior to February 3, 1870 blacks in the United States could not legally vote. Although constitutionally enabled to vote, voting didn’t become a reality for many African American people until almost a century later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which officially ended Jim Crow law. Collins’ point is that the structural domain sets the overall organization of power within a matrix of domination and that the structural domain is slow to change, often only yielding to large-scale social movements, such as the Civil War and the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States.

The disciplinary domain manages oppression. Collins borrows this idea from both Weber and Michel Foucault: the disciplinary domain consists of bureaucratic organizations whose task it is to control and organize human behavior through routinization, rationalization, and surveillance. Here the matrix of domination is expressed through organizational protocol that hides the effects of racism and sexism under the canopy of efficiency, rationality, and equal treatment.

If we think about the contours of black feminist thought that Collins gives us, we can see that the American university system and the methods of financing research are good examples. Sexism and racism never raise their ugly heads when certain kinds of knowledge are systematically excluded in the name of science and objectivity. This same kind of pattern is seen in the U.S. economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2005), in the first quarter of 2005 the average weekly income for white men was $731.00, for white women $601.00, for black men $579.00, and for black women the average weekly wage was $506.00. In a country that has outlawed discrimination based on race and sex, black women still make on average about 31% less than a white man.

In this domain, change can come through insider resistance. Collins uses the analogy of an egg. From a distance, the surface of the egg looks smooth and seamless. But upon closer inspection, the egg is revealed to be riddled with cracks. For those interested in social justice, working in a bureaucracy is like working the cracks, finding spaces and fissures to work and expand. Again, change is slow and incremental.


The hegemonic domain legitimates oppression. Max Weber was among the first to teach us that authority functions because people believe in it. This is the cultural sphere of influence where ideology and consciousness come together. The hegemonic domain links the structural, disciplinary, and interpersonal domains. It is made up of the language we use, the images we respond to, the values we hold, and the ideas we entertain. And it is produced through school curricula and textbooks, religious teachings, mass media images and contexts, community cultures, and family histories. The black feminist priority of self-definition and critical, reflexive education are important stepping stones to deconstructing and dissuading the hegemonic domain. As Collins (2000) puts it, “Racist and sexist ideologies, if they are disbelieved, lose their impact” (p. 284).

The interpersonal domain influences everyday life. It is made up of the personal relationships we maintain as well as the different interactions that make up our daily life. Collins points out that change in this domain begins with the intrapersonal; that is, how an individual sees and understands her or his own self and experiences. In particular, people don’t generally have a problem identifying ways in which they have been victimized. But the first step in changing the interpersonal domain of the matrix of domination is seeing how our own “thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination” (Collins, 2000, p. 287, emphasis added).

Part of this first step is seeing that people have a tendency to identify with an oppression, most likely the one they have experienced, and to consider all other oppressions as being of less importance. In the person’s mind their oppression has a tendency then to become a master status. This leads to a kind contradiction where the oppressed becomes the oppressor. For example, a black heterosexual woman may discriminate against lesbians without a second thought; or, a black Southern Baptist woman may believe that every school classroom ought to display the Ten Commandments. “Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors” (Collins, 2000, p. 287).

Black Feminist Thought, Intersectionality, and Activism

There are a number of implications for activism that Collins draws out from black feminist thought and the notions of intersectionality and the matrix of domination. The first that I want to point out is the most immediate: Collins’ approach to epistemology and intersectionality conceptualizes resistance as a complex interplay of a variety of forces working at several levels; that is, the four interrelated domains of power that we’ve just reviewed.

This point of Collins’ isn’t an incidental issue. Remember that part of what is meant by modernity is the search for social equality. In modernity, primary paths for these social changes correspond to Collins’ first domain of power. For example, the United States Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights together provide for principal mechanisms of structural change: the electoral process within a civil society guaranteed by the twin freedoms of press and speech and the upheaval or revolutionary process. Though we don’t usually think of the latter as a legitimated means of social change, it is how this nation began and it is how much of the more dramatic changes that surround equality have come about (for example, the social movements behind women’s suffrage and civil rights).

One of the ideas that comes out of postmodernism and considerations of late- modernity is the notion that guided or rational social change is no longer possible (see our chapters for Niklas Luhmann, Anthony Giddens, and Jean Baudrillard). What Collins gives us is a different take on the issues of complexity and fragmentation. While


recognizing the complexity of intersectionality and the different levels of the matrix of domination, Collins also sees the four domains of power as interrelated and thus influencing one another. By themselves, the structural and disciplinary domains are most resilient to change; but the hegemonic and interpersonal domains are open to individual agency and change. Bringing these domains together creates a more dynamic system, wherein the priorities of black feminist thought and understanding the contradictions of oppression can empower social justice causes.

Collins’ approach also has other important implications. Her ideas of intersectionality and the matrix of domination challenge many of our political assumptions. Black feminist epistemology, for example, challenges our assumptions concerning the separation of the private and public spheres. What it means to be a mother in a traditional black community is very different than in a white community: “Black women’s experiences have never fit the logic of work in the public sphere juxtaposed to family obligations in the private sphere” (Collins, 2000, p. 228). Intersectionality also challenges the assumption that gender stratification affects all women in the same way; race and class matter, as does sexual identity.

Additionally, Collins’ approach untangles relationships among knowledge, empowerment, and power; and opens up conceptual space to identify new connections within the matrix of domination. The idea of the matrix emphasizes connections and interdependencies rather than single structures of inequality. The idea itself prompts us to wonder about how social categories are related and mutually constituted. For example, how do race and sexual preference work together? Asking such a question might lead us to discover that homosexuality is viewed and treated differently in different racial cultures—is the lived experience of a black, gay male different than that of a white, gay male? If so, we might take the next step and ask how does class influence those differences? Or, if these lived experiences are different, we might be provoked to ask another question: are there different masculinities in different racial or class cultures?

As you might be able to surmise from this example, Collins’ approach discourages binary thinking and labeling one oppression and/or activism as more important or radical. From Collins’ point of view, it would be much too simplistic to say that a white male living in poverty is enjoying white privilege. In the same way, it would be one dimensional to say that any one group is more oppressed than another.

Collins’ entire approach also shifts our understanding of social categories from bounded to fluid and highlights the processes of self definition as constructed in conjunction with others. Intersectionality implies that social categories are not bounded or static. Your social nearness or distance to another changes as the matrix of domination shifts, depending on which scheme is salient at any given moment. You and the person next to you may both be women; but that social nearness may be severed as the indices change to include religion, race, ethnicity, sexual practices or identities, class, and so forth. Groups are also constructed in connection to others. No group or identity stands alone. To state the obvious: the only way “white” as a social index can exist is if “black” exists. Intersectionality motivates us to look at just how our identities are constructed at the expense of others: “These examples suggest that moral positions as survivors of one expression of systemic violence become eroded in the absence of accepting responsibility of other expressions of systemic violence” (Collins, 2000, p. 247).

One final implication of Collins’ approach: because groups’ histories and inequalities are relational, understanding intersectionality and the matrix of domination means that some coalitions with some social groups are more difficult and less fruitful than others. Groups will more or less align on the issues of “victimization, access to positions of authority, unearned benefits, and traditions of resistance” (Collins, 2000, p.


248). The more closely aligned are these issues, more like likely and beneficial are coalitions. Coalitions will also ebb and flow, “based on the perceived saliency of issues to group members” (p. 248). We end, then, with the insight that inequalities and dominations are complex and dynamic.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2005). Usual Weekly Earnings Summary. Retrieved March 3, 2006 from

Cassirer, E. (1944). An essay on man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). NY: Routledge.

Marx, K. (1978a). A contribution to the critique of political economy. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1859)

Marx, K. (1978b). The German ideology. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1932)

Merriam-Webster (Ed.). (2002). Webster’s collegiate encyclopedia, unabridged. Retrieved March 3, 2006 from


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Interesting evening at the Sociological Imagination last night…………

Some exacting discussions around Marx and Darwin last night………………..Perhaps the article below may be helpful…………………………………………………..Return to History Menu

Marx and Engels…and Darwin? The essential connection between historical materialism and natural selection By IAN ANGUS 

This article first appeared in  International Socialist Review Issue 65, May–June 2009 
Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism ( and a founding member of the Ecosocialist International Network. Some parts of this article were previously published in Socialist Voice ( and Socialist Resistance ( 

2009 IS a dual anniversary year for Charles Darwin. February 12 was the 200th anniversary of his birth and November 24 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterwork, a book that remains controversial to this day. Although Darwin’s political views were far from radical, his insights became the central weapons in the battle to establish materialist science as the basis for the socialist understanding of the world, and contributed to the development of Marxism. 

“The basis for our view”

Only 1,250 copies of the first edition of On the Origin of Species were printed, and they all sold in one day. One of those who obtained a copy was Friedrich Engels, then living in Manchester. Three weeks later, he wrote to Karl Marx: 

Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect.1 

When Marx read Origin a year later, he was just as enthusiastic, calling it “the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.”2 In a letter to the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, he wrote: 

Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle… Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, “teleology” in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.3 

In 1862 Marx made a point of attending the public lectures on evolution given by Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley, and encouraged his political associates to join him. Wilhelm Liebknecht, a friend and comrade who often visited the Marx family in London, later recalled, “when Darwin drew the conclusions from his research work and brought them to the knowledge of the public, we spoke of nothing else for months but Darwin and the enormous significance of his scientific discoveries.”4 Although Marx and Engels criticized various aspects of his “clumsy English style of argument,” they retained the highest regard for Darwin’s scientific work for the rest of their lives.5 In his own masterwork, Marx described On the Origin of Species as an “epoch-making work.”6 In 1872 Marx sent a copy of Capital to Darwin, inscribing it “on the part of his sincere admirer, Karl Marx.”7 

And in 1883, at Marx’s funeral, Engels said, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”8 

Stealing the Darwinian mantle?

Charles Darwin, once condemned as a dangerous atheist, is today the object not only of great veneration, but also of a “Darwin industry” composed of academics and others who churn out an endless stream of books and articles about every possible aspect of his life and work. 

But Marx and Engels are still beyond the pale, so it’s not surprising that some in the Darwin industry argue that there is no real connection between Darwinism and Marxism. Marx and Engels, the claim goes, were illegitimately trying to hitch their wagon to Darwin’s star. Among others:   Allan Megill argues that “Marx and Engels were willing to appeal to Darwinism for propaganda purposes,” but any impression that Darwinian evolution is similar to Marxism is “totally false.”9  Naomi Beck claims that for Marx and Engels, ?“Darwin’s theory fulfilled for them only the function of a pretext and was not in reality connected with their views.” Engels’ comparison of Marx and Darwin was just an opportunist attempt to “establish Marx’s independent scientific status as Darwin’s equal.”10 

D. A. Stack says that Engels’ remarks at Marx’s graveside were part of a “parochial propagandist campaign to steal the Darwinian mantle… The term ‘Darwinian’ was sought as an honorific title, nothing more.” Engels was just “keen for Marxism to bask in the reflected glory of Darwinism.”11 

It’s difficult to decide which is worse—the cynicism that suggests Engels would use his lifelong comrade’s funeral as an occasion to win petty political advantage or the ignorance these writers display of both the revolutionary implications of Darwinism and the importance of natural science to Marxist theory. 

Anyone who seriously studies the works of Marx, Engels, and Darwin will understand—even if they don’t agree with him—that Marx was both honest and exceptionally insightful when he wrote that On the Origin of Species “contains the basis in natural history for our view.” To understand what Marx meant, we need to understand what Darwin wrote, and why his views marked a radical break with the dominant ideas of his day. 

An unlikely revolutionary

Charles Robert Darwin was, to say the least, an unlikely revolutionary. His father was a prominent physician and wealthy investor; his grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of one of the largest manufacturing companies in Europe. He could have lived a life of leisure but instead he devoted his life to science. 

In 1825 his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, but Charles was much more interested in studying nature, a subject not offered as a degree program at any university in Great Britain. After two years he dropped out of Edinburgh and enrolled in Cambridge, aiming to become an Anglican priest—a respectable profession that would allow him leisure time to collect beetles, stuff birds, or search for fossils. (This wasn’t as improbable as it seems today. At the time, the great majority of naturalists in England, including all the professors who taught science at Oxford and Cambridge, were ordained Anglican priests. Clergymen studied nature not just for its own sake but as a contribution to “natural theology”—understanding God by studying His works.) 

Darwin seems to have been a competent theology student, but he particularly impressed the men who taught science. After graduation in 1831, one professor took him on a three-week geology expedition in North Wales, and then his botany professor recommended him to Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Royal Navy, who was looking for a gentleman naturalist to travel with him as an unpaid companion on a surveying voyage to South America and the South Pacific.12 

And so it began. On December 27, 1831, twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the British survey ship HMS Beagle. Although plagued by seasickness, he traveled much more comfortably than the crew: he ate at the captain’s table, was accompanied by a manservant, and had more than sufficient funds (provided by his doting father) to rent comfortable accommodations when the ship was in port. But it wasn’t a pleasure trip; he conducted extensive and detailed geological studies, wrote thousands of pages of scientific observations, and collected more than 1,500 specimens of living and fossil life. 


When he left England, Darwin seems to have been a conventional Christian who agreed with “the great majority of naturalists [who] believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created.”13 Biblical literalists and deists alike agreed that species were fixed by divine law. Dogs might vary in appearance, but dogs don’t turn into pigs or give birth to cats. 

After five years of scientific research on the Beagle and two more years of study at home, Darwin came to a heretical conclusion: species were not immutable. All animals were descended from common ancestors, different species resulted from gradual changes over millions of years, and God had nothing to do with it. 

It is difficult, today, to appreciate just how shocking this idea would be to the middle and upper classes of Darwin’s time. Religion wasn’t just the “opium of the masses”—it gave the wealthy moral justification for their privileged lives in a world of constant change and gross inequality. 

One of the most popular hymns of the Victorian age clearly expressed the link between God the creator of all life and God the preserver of the social stability: 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order’d their estate. 

All Things Bright and Beautiful was published in 1848, shortly after a famine that killed more than a million people in Ireland, and while revolutionary uprisings were sweeping across Europe. In the face of such social crises, hymns like this and the sermons that accompanied them taught both rich and poor that the status quo was divinely ordained. Anyone who questioned God’s word was endangering the very fragile social order. 
The mystery of mysteries

Nevertheless, by the 1830s educated people, including Darwin, knew that the Genesis creation story wasn’t literally true. The expansion of capitalism in the 1700s had led to booms in mining and canal building; those works exposed geological layers and ancient fossils that proved that the earth was millions of years of old—not the six thousand years allowed by Biblical chronology. What’s more, the fossil record showed that animals unknown today were once common, while modern animals appeared relatively recently, contradicting the claim that God created all species at once. 

And in the same period, imperialism led to global exploration and the discovery of more varieties of plant and animal life than any European had ever imagined—far more than could have lived in Eden or found space on Noah’s ark. 

By the 1830s, scientists agreed that there were only two possible explanations for the accumulating evidence. The very influential Cambridge professor William Whewell summed up the choices: 

Either we must accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, and must suppose that the organized species of one geological epoch were transmuted into those of another by some long-continued agency of natural causes; or else, we must believe in many successive acts of creation and extinction of species, out of the common course of nature; acts which, therefore, we may properly call miraculous.14 

Whewell, like every other respectable scientist of the time, had no doubt about the answer: animals and plants may vary in response to external circumstances, but “the extreme limit of variation may usually be reached in a brief period of time: in short, species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist.”15 

If species could not change over time, only miracles could explain the fossil record. But how did God do it? What did the process of divine creation actually look like on earth? “The replacement of extinct species by others,” was, wrote astronomer John Herschell, the “mystery of mysteries.”16 

While some scientists and theologians insisted that God must personally intervene each time a new species is required, others were confident that the Creator had set up the universe so that new species were created through “secondary causes”—i.e., by natural means—whenever they were needed. 

What’s particularly noteworthy today is the fact that “God did it” wasn’t just an acceptable answer to difficult questions, it was standard scientific methodology. Even scientists who believed that nature could be completely explained by natural laws believed that God established those laws to ensure that creation proceeded according to His will. 

Evolution before Darwin

The very fact that the scientific establishment thought it necessary to vigorously deny “transmutation of species” shows that not everyone agreed that species couldn’t change. 

A noteworthy example was Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who described something like evolution in his 1794 book Zoönomia, and again in 1803 in a book-length poem, The Temple of Nature. His evolutionary ideas don’t seem to have influenced anyone—probably the result, as Charles Darwin later wrote, of “the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given.”17 

Others offered similar speculations, but before Darwin, only two writers proposed worked-out theories of species change over time: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Robert Chambers. 

Lamarck was appointed head of the invertebrate division of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris when France’s revolutionary government reorganized the country’s scientific institutions in the 1790s. In the early 1800s, he argued that all modern animals are the descendants of less complex ancestors. 

Unlike Darwin, Lamarck didn’t suggest common descent, but rather a complex model in which every type of organism went through a separate evolutionary process. Nature constantly and spontaneously creates new evolutionary lines, beginning with single-celled animals that have an innate drive to become more complex, or perfect, over time. Eventually, if the climb isn’t interrupted, they reach the peak of perfection as human beings. 

But the climb is often interrupted by environmental changes to which the animal must respond. Giraffes develop long necks by stretching to reach high leaves, while fish that live in caves become blind because they don’t use their eyes—and those changes are then inherited by their offspring. In Lamarck’s works, this was a secondary process, but the term “Lamarckism” has since come to mean “inheritance of acquired characteristics” and nothing else. 

Lamarck’s views won little support from other scientists, even in France, but there was a significant “underground” Lamarckian current in England among radical democrats, socialists, and secularists between 1820 and 1850. Many of them used Lamarckian arguments to criticize the undemocratic English state and the Anglican Church. 

Cannibalized fragments of Lamarck’s evolutionary biology—which provided a model of relentless ascent power-driven “from below”—turned up in the pauper press. Lamarck’s notion that an animal could, through its own exertions, transform itself into a higher being and pass on its gains—all without the aid of a deity—appealed to the insurrectionary working classes. His ideas were propagated in their illegal penny prints, where they mixed with demands for democracy and attacks on the clergy.18 

Much more influential on broad public opinion in England was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 by Robert Chambers, a magazine publisher and amateur geologist from Edinburgh. He attributed the entire history of the universe to a God-ordained “Law of Development” that produced stars, planets, and eventually life. After the first life arose spontaneously on earth, animals and plants ascended the ladder of life. “It has pleased Providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another, until the second highest gave birth to man, who is the very highest.”19 

Chambers meant “gave birth” literally. Drawing on the theory that embryos pass through stages similar to the adults of more primitive animals, he concluded that when it was time for a new species to arrive, females would somehow extend their gestation periods, so that their offspring would emerge as the next species up the ladder. 

Universally condemned by the scientific establishment at the time, and nearly forgotten today, Vestiges was nevertheless a sensational bestseller. Before On the Origin of Species, Vestiges was the only book on evolution that most English readers might have read.20 

Essentialism and teleology 

As we’ve seen, the scientific discoveries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries provoked widespread speculation about Herschell’s “mystery of mysteries.” Most professional scientists and many amateurs and outsiders offered views on how the apparent extinction and creation of species could be explained or explained away. While the explanations varied, they all rested on a common ideology, the twin concepts of essentialism and teleology. 

Essentialism is based on the first law of formal logic: that a thing is always equal to itself, that A always equals A. That’s a useful, even necessary assumption for many purposes, but it ignores the reality of change—that over time all things decay, or transform, or combine, so that A turns into something that is no longer A. 

In nineteenth-century natural science, essentialist thinkers assumed that the definition or idea of a species is more important, indeed more real, than the specific organisms we can actually observe. A species is a constant, unchanging type—the variations we observe in nature are accidental and transitory. 

As we’ve seen, William Whewell believed firmly that “species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist.” Charles Lyell, the leading geologist of that time, devoted several chapters of his most important book, Principles of Geology, to a critique of Lamarck and the very idea that species can change. As Stephen Jay Gould points out, Lyell’s argument was rooted not in actual study of nature, but in his essentialist philosophy: 

The focus of Lyell’s argument—and the reason for lambasting evolution defined as insensible transition between species—rests upon a view of species as entities, not tendencies; things, not arbitrary segments of a flux. Species arise at particular times in particular regions. They are, if you will, particles with a definite point of origin, an unchanging character during their geological duration, and a clear moment of extinction.21 

It is obvious that those who rejected evolution held essentialist views. But people like Chambers, who held that one kind of organism could give birth to another, were also essentialist. In their view of evolution, species didn’t change; rather, one natural kind was wholly replaced by a new one. 

Teleology is the belief that all things are designed for or inherently directed toward a final result. Birds were given wings so that they could fly, giraffes got long necks so that they could reach high leaves, and the earth was created as a place for people to live. 

The idea that the earth and everything in it was designed by God to achieve His divine ends was almost universally accepted by the leading philosophers and scientists in the nineteenth century. Serious thinkers claimed that coal deposits were laid down in England so that they could later be used by industry, or that the fact that the life cycle of most plants equals the duration of the earth’s revolution around the sun is an obvious case of Divine design. 

Even Lamarck, who did not include God in his theory, held that there was a mysterious force driving all organisms to become ever more perfect, until they reach perfection as human beings. 

Natural selection

In Origin, Darwin argued that three factors combine to create new species: population pressure, variation and inheritance, and natural selection. 

1) Population pressure: All organisms tend to have more offspring than can survive in the local environment. Many individuals either do not survive or are not able to reproduce. 
2) Variations and heritability: There are many variations between the members of a given population: no two individuals are exactly alike. Most of these variations are inheritable—that is, they are passed on to the offspring of the individuals concerned. While most of these variations are insignificant (eye color, for example), some will increase or decrease the individual’s chances of surviving and reproducing. 

3) Natural selection: Individuals with favorable variations will tend to have more offspring than average; those with unfavorable variations will tend to have fewer. As a result, over long periods of time unfavorable variations will tend to decrease in frequency, while favorable variations will become more common. 

This implied a very different explanation of the giraffe’s long neck. Contrary to Lamarck, Darwin suggested that the giraffe’s ancestors had necks of various lengths. Those with longer necks could reach more leaves than those with shorter necks. Being better fed, they were stronger, tended to live longer and have more offspring—so over time the population’s average neck length increased. 

Unlike Lamarck and Chambers, Darwin wasn’t just speculating. His “theory of descent with modification through natural selection”22 was developed and then fine-tuned in years of careful study and experimentation. In his home in rural Kent, south of London, he dissected all kinds of animals, raised pigeons to learn about variation and inheritance, and experimented with plant germination and seed dispersal. Above all, he sought out and learned from people with practical, hands-on knowledge—gamekeepers, pigeon enthusiasts, sheep and cattle breeders, gardeners, and zoo managers. 

These materialist methods led him to an entirely materialist theory—at a time when materialism wasn’t just unpopular in respectable circles, it was considered subversive and politically dangerous. Between 1838 and 1848, while he was first working out his ideas, England was swept by an unprecedented wave of mass actions, political protests and strikes. Radical ideas—materialist, atheistic ideas—were infecting the working class, leading many to expect (or fear) revolutionary change. 

Darwin was never actively involved in politics, but he was a privileged member of the wealthy middle class and that class was under attack. As John Bellamy Foster writes, “Darwin was a strong believer in the bourgeois order. His science was revolutionary, but Darwin the man was not.”23 

Rather than risk being identified with the radicals and perhaps being ostracized by his fellow gentleman-scientists, Darwin wrote a 270-page account of his theory in 1844, attached a letter asking his wife to publish it if he died, and told no one else. Between 1840 and 1854 he wrote a popular account of his voyage around the world, scientific books on coral reefs and volcanic islands, and an exhaustive four-volume study of barnacles. Only in the mid-1850s, when his scientific reputation was assured, and the social turbulence of the 1840s was clearly over, did he return to the subject for which he is now most famous. 

Even then he would likely have delayed into the next decade had not a younger naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him an essay containing ideas similar to his own. Pressed by friends to publish, Darwin set aside “the big book on species” he was working on and prepared what he called an abstract. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in November 1859. 

Turning science right way up

Marx wrote that in Hegel’s writings, the dialectic “is standing on its head,” so it had to be turned right side up to discover “the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”24 That is what Marx and Engels did in the process of working out the fundamental basis of their views, historical materialism. 

And that is exactly what Darwin did in On the Origin of Species. He overturned the fundamental concepts of nineteenth-century science, taking an upside-down view of nature, and turned it right side up. 

He overturned essentialism. “I look at the term ‘species’ as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.”25 

A species is not a thing, and change does not involve the transformation or replacement of that thing. A species is a population of real, concrete individuals. Variations are not exceptions or diversions from the species’ essence—variation is the concrete reality of nature. The truth, a Marxist would say, is always concrete. Species are not fixed, immutable things: they have a real history, and can only be properly understood by studying how they change in time. 

He overturned teleology. “Far from imagining that cats exist in order to catch mice well,” wrote Darwin’s close associate Thomas Huxley, “Darwinism supposes that cats exist because they catch mice well—mousing being not the aim, but the condition of their existence.”26 

Living organisms have changed and continue to change as a result of natural processes that have no purpose or goal. A giraffe is not in any sense a “more advanced” or “more perfect” animal than its shorter ancestors—it is simply better adapted to its local environment. Changes to that environment could eliminate its advantage at any time. 

By the time Darwin died in 1882, evolution was accepted by the great majority of scientists—but it took much longer for most to accept the materialist core of Darwin’s work, that variation and natural selection are the processes that drive species change. Even among Darwin’s closest allies and supporters there were many who clung to the essentialist idea that new species must appear as sudden replacements, or to the teleological idea that the evolutionary process was guided or determined in advance by God. 

Evolution and Marxism

Darwin did for the understanding of nature what Marx and Engels did for human society—he overturned teleology and essentialism and established a materialist basis for understanding how organisms change over time. And that is precisely what Marx meant when he said that On the Origin of Species “contains the basis in natural history for our view.” 

In 1844, while Darwin was secretly writing his first full account of natural selection, Karl Marx was in Paris, developing his critique of contemporary political and philosophical thought. In his notebooks he wrote: “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s development into man. Natural science will, in time, incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.”27 

A year later, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, the first mature statement of what became known as historical materialism. Initially they included this passage, which is similar to the 1844 statement, but more complete. 

We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist.28 

They deleted that paragraph from the final draft, deciding not even to mention a subject they had no time to investigate and discuss properly. These passages show why Marx and Engels were so excited by Darwin’s work. As Peter Heyer writes, “both the historical character of nature and the natural character of history” were fundamental to their worldview.29 

Fifteen years before Origin, they were confident that nature could be explained using the same nonessentialist and non-teleological—that is, historical and materialist—principles that underlaid their analysis of human societies. By providing a thoroughly researched and powerfully argued confirmation of that assumption, Darwin’s book completed historical materialism. This was the materialist explanation of the historical character of nature they knew must be possible. As Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific: 

Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically … she does not move in the eternal oneness of a perpetually recurring circle, but goes through a real historical evolution. In this connection, Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of Nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals, and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years.30 

Nature and societyA key element of D. A. Stack’s claim that Engels tried to “steal the Darwinian mantle,” but wasn’t really committed to Darwinism, is his assertion that Engels did not make “any meaningful or successful attempt to unite Marxist politics with Darwinian science.”31 
If we accept a very narrow definition of politics, as Stack seems to, then this charge is absolutely true. Engels didn’t just fail to propose a political program based on Darwin’s science—he explicitly denied that such a program was appropriate.32 

The idea that the theory of natural selection was an appropriate basis for understanding and governing human societies originated with the English libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer, the man who originated the phrase “survival of the fittest.” He argued that natural selection would eventually produce a perfect society, but only if it had free reign to operate so that the unfit could be eliminated. To that end he opposed public education, compulsory smallpox vaccination, free libraries, workplace safety laws, and even charitable support for the “undeserving poor.” 

Such views, later labeled “Social Darwinism,” were eagerly adopted by defenders of unfettered capitalism. John D. Rockefeller famously told a Sunday school class in New York City: 

The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest… The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.33 

Engels was scathing in his rejection of attempts to apply biological laws to human society. In a letter to the Russian socialist Pyotr Lavrov in 1875, he pointed out that the “bourgeois Darwinians”—referring to a political current in Germany that claimed to be applying Darwin’s views—first claimed that the political concept “survival of the fittest” applied to nature, and then reversed the process: 

All that the Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence boils down to is an extrapolation from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all] and of the bourgeois-economic theory of competition together with the Malthusian theory of population. Having accomplished this feat … these people proceed to re-extrapolate the same theories from organic nature to history, and then claim to have proved their validity as eternal laws of human society. The puerility of this procedure is self-evident, and there is no need to waste words on it. 

These political Darwinians, Engels concluded, can be described “firstly as bad economists and secondly as bad naturalists and philosophers.”34 In 1845, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels had argued that the ability to produce life’s needs distinguishes humans from other animals: 

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence they are indirectly producing their material life.35 

Engels repeated and extended that argument in the late 1870s, in his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature: 

Let us accept for a moment the phrase “struggle for existence,” for argument’s sake. The most that the animal can achieve is to collect; man produces, he prepares the means of subsistence, in the widest sense of the words, which without him nature would not have produced. This makes impossible any unqualified transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human society.36 

Engels was restating a fundamental element of the Marxist view of nature—that different forms and complexities of matter involve different scientific laws. The laws governing the movements of atoms and molecules are not the same as the laws that govern the movements of billiard balls. And, if recent developments in astrophysics are to be believed (the hypothetical existence of dark matter and dark energy, for example) the movements of galaxies follow still different laws. The laws that govern inorganic matter also apply to living matter—but they are enhanced and in many respects replaced by biological laws that cannot be reduced to or deduced from Newtonian physics. Similarly, human beings are physical and biological objects, subject to the same physical and biological laws as other animals, but we are also social beings who produce our means of existence, so our lives and history cannot be fully explained by physics and biology. 

As Engels wrote, “The conception of history as a series of class struggles is already much richer in content and deeper than merely reducing it to weakly distinguished phases of the struggle for existence.”37 

Darwin’s achievement

The materialist victory in science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. For that reason alone, no matter what his hesitations, delays, or middle-class prejudices, Charles Darwin deserves to be remembered and honored by everyone who looks forward to the ending of superstition and ignorance in all aspects of life. 

Darwin was not a political radical: apart from his lifelong opposition to slavery and his involvement in the affairs of the small town where he lived, he seems to have had little interest in political activity or theory. And yet, as the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr wrote, “in his scientific works he systematically demolished one after the other of the basic philosophical concepts of his time and replaced them with revolutionary new concepts.”38 

By doing that, Darwin unwittingly contributed to and strengthened the most revolutionary social theories ever developed, the ideas we know today as Marxism. 

It is obviously possible, as Paul Heyer points out, to be a Darwinian in biology while rejecting Marxism, but it is not possible to be a consistent Marxist and reject Darwin. 

The reason is basic. Central to Marx’s vision is the assumption that nature and history fit together to comprise a totality. Since man emerged from and continues to depend on and transform nature, history as a science will remain incomplete until this foundation is fully comprehended. And no one has contributed more toward this comprehension than Darwin.39 
The idea that nature has a history, that species come into existence, change, and disappear through natural processes, is just as revolutionary, and just as important to socialist thought, as the idea that capitalism isn’t eternal, but came into being at a given time and will one day disappear from the earth. 

Darwin and evolution: Recommended reading

Darwin’s life

There are more Darwin biographies in print than anyone could possibly read. A good short overview of Darwin’s life and ideas is A Brief Guide to Charles Darwin, His Life and Times by Cyril Aydon (Robinson Publishing, 2008). 

At the other end of the time-to-read spectrum is Janet Browne’s definitive work, published in two 600-page volumes: Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: the Power of Place (Princeton University Press, 1996 and 2003). Despite its length, it is very readable, with a minimum of intrusive scholarly apparatus.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore focus much more on the social context in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (W. W. Norton, 1994). It’s an important book, but rather mechanistic in its explanation of the social origins of Darwin’s ideas. 

Desmond and Moore’s latest book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) has the same weakness, but is worth reading for its insight into the relationship between racism and biological theory in Darwin’s thinking and in the nineteenth century more generally. 

The Science of Evolution

Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is (Basic Books 2002) isn’t light reading, but it provides a superb materialist account of modern evolutionary theory for non-scientists. 

Stephen Jay Gould wrote hundreds of popular essays on evolution and related topics. All of his books are worth reading, but a good place to start is The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (W. W. Norton, 2007). 

Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment (Harvard University Press, 2000) is a concise dialectical critique of the idea that genetics explains everything. And for a broader Marxist view of evolutionary biology, The Dialectical Biologist, which Lewontin wrote with Richard Levins (Harvard University Press, 1985), is indispensable. 

Marxism and Evolution

Chapter Six of John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2000) is absolutely essential reading on the relationship between Marxism and Darwinism. 

Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present (Monthly Review Press, 2008) by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, is a clearly written account of the philosophical issues that underlie the fight between evolution and creationism. 

Back to the source

Last but certainly not least, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species may be the only great work of science that is also a work of literature. It’s available from many publishers and the full text is available online at

When Origin was published in November 1859, one of the first people to buy a copy was Friedrich Engels: he read it quickly and told Marx that it was “absolutely splendid.” That should be recommendation enough. 

1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works [MECW], vol. 40 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 441. 

2 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Correspondence 1846–1895 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 126 in MECW vol. 41, 232. This passage is translated as “the book which, in the field of natural history, provides the basis for our view.” 

3 MECW, vol. 41: 246–47. 

4 Reminiscences of Marx and Engels (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.), 106. 

5 With one brief exception: in 1866 Marx wrote to Engels that a book on evolution by Pierre Tremaux represented “a very significant advance over Darwin.” Engels, who followed scientific issues much more closely than Marx, replied that Tremaux’s book was “utterly worthless” and drew conclusions that were “totally mistaken or incredibly one-sided and exaggerated.” Marx dropped the subject. MECW, vol. 42, 304, 320, 324. 

6 MECW, vol. 35, 346n. 

7 John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 207. Darwin sent a polite thank-you note, but didn’t read the book. 

8 MECW, vol. 24: 467. 

9 Allan Megill, Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 54. 

10 Naomi Beck. “The Origin and Political Thought,” in Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 313, 310. 

11 D. A. Stack. “The First Darwinian Left: Radical and Socialist Responses to Darwin, 1859–1914.” History of Political Thought [Winter 2000], 683–4. Stack repeats most of these comments, word for word, in The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859–1914 (Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, 2003), 4. 

12 The rigid class hierarchy on naval ships meant that a captain could not socialize with other officers or the crew, but the navy permitted captains to bring appropriate passengers at their own expense. See Stephen J. Gould, “Darwin’s Sea Change,” in Ever Since Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992) 28–33. 

13 Charles Darwin. “An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species,” in the third and subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species (London: Penguin Books, 1985 [1861]), 53. 

14 William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, vol. 2 (London: John W. Parker, 1837), 563–65. 

15 Ibid. 

16 Herschell’s letter to Charles Lyell was published in 1837 in Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (London: John Murray, 1838) 225–36. Darwin quoted it in the first paragraph of On the Origin of Species. 

17 Charles Darwin, “Autobiography,”

18 Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 4. 

19 Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 [1844]), 234. 

20 James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 526. 

21 Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 146–47. 

22 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (London: Penguin Books, 1985 [1859]), 435. Darwin did not use the word “evolution” at all in Origin. At that time the word implied the unfolding of characteristics already present in the organism—the evolution of an embryo into an animal, for example. That concept was alien to Darwin’s theory. 

23 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 179. 

24 MECW, vol. 35, 19. 

25 Darwin, Origin, 108. 

26 Thomas Huxley. “Criticisms of On the Origin Of Species,” [1864] in Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews (London: Macmillan, 1888), 303. 

27 MECW, vol. 3, 303–04. 

28 MECW, vol. 5, 28n. 

29 Peter Heyer. Nature, Human Nature, and Society: Marx, Darwin, Biology and the Human Sciences (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 49. 

30 MECW, vol. 24, 301. 

31 Stack, First Darwinian Left, 684. 

32 Stack discusses this in his essay, a fact that makes his cynical dismissal of Engels’ words at Marx’s graveside hard to understand. 

33 Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993 [1944]), 45. 

34 MECW, vol. 45, 107–08. This passage has frequently been cited by historians as a criticism of Darwin’s theory, but the context clearly shows that he is referring to people who applied Darwin’s views to politics. 

35 MECW, vol. 5, 31. 

36 MECW, vol. 25, 584. 

37 Ibid., 585. 

38 Ernst Mayr, One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1991), 50. 


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Fetishism of Commodities………another explanation which may be helpful……


University of Economics Prague

What does Marx mean by the “fetishism of commodities”?

Alexandra Dobra


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?


The present paper aims to analyse Marx’s concept of “fetishism of commodities” by explaining the mechanism of a social genesis of determined illusions, arising in the sphere of production and circulation of commodities. It highlights the existence of an auto-sustained autarkic system of 4 variables – reification, objectification, duplicity and habit – sustaining and leading to the fetishism of commodities.

Keywords: Marx, Fetishism; Commodities; Social Relations; Reification; Duplication.


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?


“The components of human society are not the Humans but the relations existing between them.”


In The Capital Marx uses the Feuerbachian model of reversal in order to develop his notion of fetishism of commodities. A commodity is defined as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Marx, 1992) while fetishism is defined as attributing inherent value to an object. Commodity fetishism is the appearance that the commodity has a natural and intrinsic value, apart from the labour bestowed on it. So, the main thrust of the commodity fetishism concept is that the exchange-value (what makes something a commodity) doesn’t relate in proportion to the use-value.

For Marx, the capitalist economic world is truly of religious essence, in other words, religious ideology has been replaced by market ideology. As such “human needs are realized and appear in the form of alienated essence in religion just as economic relations do in social life according to Marx” (Hamacher, 1999). The fetishism of commodities corresponds to “a definite social where relation between men assumes the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx, 1992).

The present paper analyses Marx’s concept of “fetishism of commodities” by explaining how an illusory representation can produce tangible effects and contribute to the production of a specific economy and society.

“The mutual relations of the producers take the form of a social relation between products.”

(Marx, 1992)

Under capitalism the social relations of production are established by means of the transfer of “things” from individual to individual. This transfer of things has a coercive power over men via the way production is organized. Commodity fetishism describes a situation in which alienation predominates, due to “the social power which arises through the co-operation of different individuals appears to these individuals not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control” (Marx, 1992). In capitalism the domination of the “material” is not an illusory interpretation of social relations among people, it is a real social fact,


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

fetishism is “a phenomenon of social being” (Rubin, 1972). In other words, “property, capital, money, wage labour, do not in themselves represent phantoms of the imagination, but very practical, very concrete products of self-alienated forms of two worlds”.

The fetishist character of the commodity consists in a symmetrical phenomenon of reification and deification. Reification corresponds to what as an exchange value becomes alienated from the human (Adorno, 2002). It is the confusion of social relations with their material support to objects – commodities and signs in which and through which relations of productions are materialized and signified. It is a fixation opposed to the open realization of the fluctuating and changing nature of life (e.g. : individual is reduced to a wage). In turn, deification corresponds to a supra-human personalization leading to attribute substantially to objects qualities and proprieties. At the heart of fetishism lies the reversal between the subjective and the objective. There is a reificatory objectification of subjects (of human relations and practices) and a deificatory subjectification of the object which institutes the reversal of the world (reverberated in capitalism) in which commodities command humans. The capacity of exchanging commodities is no longer the result of a common identity of products of labour, but the result of a mysterious internal characteristic, that they possess in a substantial manner, the value.

“A commodity is a mysterious thing because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character.”

(Marx, 1992)

At the level of its content, fetishism denotes a functional lack of dialectics because it is the result of a human operation insulating, hypostatizing and therefore absolutizing elements of the real. Fetishization is thus a constitutive form of socialization. “The commodity’s objectivity becomes the model of every objectivity” (Balibar, 2001), and this objectification extends to all human activities. There is a domination of the form value, of the abstraction and ultimately of the commodity. The development of exchange of objects on a marketplace brings humans into novel kinds of relationships. When objects are produced to be commodities, they possess an exchange value, which is a ratio of equivalence to other commodities. As this development of exchange increases, exchange-value loses its arbitrary nature and becomes a social phenomenon, a value inherent in the object it signifies. Commodity “transcends sensuousness” (commodity is fetish because it appears as possessing qualities beyond its own structure). The table steps forth as a commodity and is changed into something transcendent. Hence, “the subject realizes itself through a


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

consideration of external objects, a recursive process, as object and subject act upon each other” (Miller, 1987). Objects become active agents in the construction of society.

The commodity appropriates itself the integrality of the labour’s social power by making it appear as its own power. The commodity seems to assume by its process of circulation, by the intertwining of the multiple atomized fragments, the unity in space and time of the process of production. There is a process of subversion, of transmutation; relations between humans cover the form of relations between objects. There is an illusion of the human conscience having its roots in the trade economy, which attributes to commodities, characteristics having the origins in the social relations between humans during the production process. The illusion and error in the human spirit transforms economic categories in “forms of the intellect having an objective truth” (Marx, 1992).

Labour becomes distorted and the product of labour “appears to these individuals not as their united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control” (Marx, 1992). In other words, a false consciousness occurs and the product lacks a social form anterior to its manifestation as a commodity : “mystery arises because the social character of the production is expressed only in exchange, not in production itself (Marx, 1992)”. Moreover, there is no integration and producers connect only mediately through exchange as marketers. Fetishism has as consequence the division between the concrete side immediately practical and the abstract side, the face proper to the exchange. When elements which must be united are abscinded, they become unified indirectly in illusory forms. A division in what needs to be unified leads to duplication, a second world arises to confer surrogate coherence to the fragmented elements. As such the social form becomes alienated from its productive content.

“The fetishism of commodities has its origin in the peculiar character of the social character of the labour that produces them.”

(Marx, 1992)

“It is not consciousness that determines life but rather life determines consciousness” (Marx, 1976), it follows that the human erects in absolute reality his own vision of the world; he hypostatizes his ideas and considers them as realities. When he obeys these realities he alienates himself. In capitalist societies, members are socially disconnected, “purely atomized” (Marx, 1992), and linked only via the exchange of products. “Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of private individuals or groups who carry on their work independently of


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

each other” (Marx, 1992). Thus individuals consider the exchange of commodities as the reality. Fetishism is an elaborated and constraining form of social illusion, of social consciousness, sustained by the permanent transposition of the socially produced abstract wealth, privately accumulated, into social relations. The fetishism of commodity is the sign of a derealisation of the social consciousness, of a desocialization. Furthermore, the created individual relation to the object and its representation – the commodity – favours narcissist attitudes (narcissism of small differences in Freud’s terminology), illusory and asocial forms of love, contributing to enhance the social atomization and fetishization.

When people live within a capitalist society, their whole life is structured through commodities. They have to work in order to gain the money commodity, which then allows people to buy other commodities from others (C-M-C’ scheme). So, the commodity is a “thing” and a representation entertaining the logic by which it is created. This closed relationship between production and consumption alienates people into an experience of market influenced commodities. Humans are endowed with a false consciousness – the man’s labour products come to play a social determinant role – and thus become alienated by their own work. Fetishism unites the capitalist world of production and exchange to the representations and believes of individuals, which ensure the capitalist reproduction and functioning. A reversal of the world, realized by the commodity fetishism, occurs : “the economic and social reality is indeed perceived as the matrix of all human alienations” (Marx, 1988).

“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development.”

(Marx, 1992)

As stipulated in the ut supra parts, fetishism creates a second world. There is social construction of untruths. Hence, there is a duplicity build into the economic structure of capitalism. This duplicity implies a hidden truth image and a collective social forgetting process. The forgetting operates because habit fixes on price to commodities and the hidden secret – of the value and nature of commodity – disappears from awareness. Hence, the accomplishment of social customs results into a collective unconsciousness. The collective forgetting occurs because of the human desire to drive away a disturbing thought from conscious awareness (confere Freud’s concept of Verdrängung). Succinctly expressed, there is a closed auto-sustained system between four variables, “fetishism”, “duplicity”, “habit” and “unawareness” – F-D-H-U scheme.


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

The collective unawareness is also sustained by the unplanned nature of social relations. Because social relations are unplanned, knowable only à posteriori, they become visible only via the results of man’s activities, the commodities. Hence, man begins with the analysis of the result of his activities. The absence of regulation of the social process directly leads to the indirect regulation of the production process via the market, via the products of labour. So, forgetting is not just the resulting expression of the routine, but does also appear to be socially motivated. Under the capitalistic specific stage of development, human relations established in the social production and reproduction can be known to them only after the event and even then only in the opposed inverted form of the relations between things : “imaginary expressions, arise however, from the relations of production themselves. That in their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted forms is pretty well known in every science except political economy.” (Marx, 1992).


To conclude, the fetishism of commodities designates the collective and individual logic of representation, in which social relations are replaced by material relations.

The concept of fetishism of commodities is especially important in Marx’s theory because it constitutes a tool for the capitalist ideology. It contributes to institutionalize domination and to stabilize class antagonisms, via the alienation. “In all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura” (Marx, 1998).


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?


Adorno, T. (2002). Essays on music. Berkeley : University of California Press. Balibar, E. (2001). La Philosophie de Marx. Paris : La Découverte.

Hamacher, W. (1999). A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Michael Sprinker Eds, London : Verso.

Marx, K., (1988). The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto. New-York : Prometheus Books.

Marx, K., (1998). The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach. New-York : Prometheus Books.

Miller, A., (1987). Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford : Blackwell. Rubin, I., I. (1972). Essays on Marx Theory of Value. Detroit : Black and Red.


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?



Ročník/Year: 2010 (vychází průběžně/ published continuously) Místo vydání/Place of edition: Praha
ISSN 1211-0442

Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze / University of Economics, Prague nám. W. Churchilla 4
Czech Republic
130 67 Praha 3
IČ: 61384399


Redakce a technické informace/Editorial staff and technical information: Miroslav Vacura

Redakční rada/Board of editors:
Ladislav Benyovszky (FHS UK Praha)
Ivan Blecha (FF UP Olomouc)
Martin Hemelík (Masarykovo klasické gymnázium, Říčany u Prahy) Angelo Marocco (Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, Rome) Jozef Kelemen (FPF SU Opava)
Daniel Kroupa (ZU Plzeň)
Vladimír Kvasnička (FIIT STU Bratislava)
Jaroslav Novotný (FHS UK Praha)
Jakub Novotný (Vysoká škola polytechnická, Jihlava)
Ján Pavlík (editor-in-chief) (VŠE Praha)
Karel Pstružina (VŠE Praha)



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