Marx and women's liberation

Thu, 12 Mar 1998 21:27:38 -0800 (PST)
Terry Moon and Franklin Dmitryev (

It seems to me that certain aspects of the discussion of reproduction are
Methodologically, there seems to be a synthetic construction at work in some
of the contributions. Given the claim of women's "non-inclusion in Marx's
theory as women," a synthetic approach would be to juxtapose some
foundational concept (the one proposed is "reproduction") to what is held to
be the sole foundational concept for Marx, production. This, however,
leaves intact the reduction that has been perpetrated on Marx by post-Marx
Marxists, and simply adds on to it a parallel though not identical reduction
of women's liberation. Reproduction is far from adequate as a theoretical
basis for comprehending women's movements. Theories spun on this basis tend
to reduce women's oppression to one aspect alone, and exclude or make
invisible women who do not engage in reproduction. It also reproduces the
concentration on roots of oppression, rather than on dialectics of
liberation (just as the Manifesto criticized the utopians for seeing the
working class only as suffering and not as subjects of revolution).

And perhaps that is one of the problems of Engels's Origin of the Family.
It is striking how frequently this work has been referred to in the
discussion, while only Kevin Anderson has mentioned Marx's Ethnological
Notebooks, which are very different from Origin of the Family. But to see
that in the proper light, I propose a second look at the assumption that
women "as women" were not included in Marx's theory.

To begin with, in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, Marx makes a major point of
the relationship between the sexes: "The infinite degradation in which man
exists for himself is expressed in this relation to the woman," etc. This
becomes the measure of to what extent human beings have become human. Not
only is it a measure, it is an indication of the depth and totality of
social uprooting needed. Marx here is clearly distinguishing his view from
what he calls "vulgar communism," whose failure to penetrate from questions
of things (abolition of property, "community of goods") to the actual human
relationships (seen in alienated labor and in the relationships of men to
women) is reflected in the idea of "community of women," which Marx rejects
as relegating women to the status of things. In my paper submitted earlier,
I argued that this critique of vulgar communism is carried into the
Manifesto, with its call for "abolition of the family," which I argued was
quite different from Engels's position in "Principles of Communism." (In
light of the call for abolition of the family, I am at a loss to understand
Charles Brown's statement: "But they mention in the Manifesto no family
equivalent in reproduction to the formula 'abolition of private property' in
production.") Rob Beamish, in his paper, took up this question from a
somewhat different point of view, arguing that Marx and Engels were fighting
Hess's more Fourierist position on women and the family.

In the 1850s, it is noteworthy that Marx's 1850 review (perhaps written with
Engels?) in the NRZ-Revue of Daumer's book criticized it as follows:

"It is the same with the cult of the female as with the cult of nature.
Herr Daumer naturally does not say a word about the present social position
of women; on the contrary it is a question only of the female as such. He
tries to console women for their civic destitution by making them the object
of a rhetorical cult which is as empty as it would fain be mysterious."

In 1853-54 Marx wrote a great deal about the weavers' strike in Preston,
England, taking up "both the special exploitation women were subjected to
and the fact that even these monstrous conditions did not limit women to
fighting those exploitative conditions of labor but challenged the
educational system," Raya Dunayevskaya points out in her book Women's
Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution. To single out just one more
event from the 1850s, Marx defended Lady Bulwer-Lytton, whose husband and
son had her thrown into a lunatic asylum when she tried to rent a lecture
hall to make public her views that differed from those of her politician
husband. No doubt it will be argued that Marx took these positions despite
the alleged inadequacy of his theory. And I echo Beamish in opposing a view
of the Communist Manifesto as a "canon of eternal truths." However, in the
spirit of Martha Gimenez, I do believe that a serious discussion of the
question of adequacy of the theory requires a much more critical view of the
assumptions about Marx underlying the claims of theoretical inadequacy,
which tend to rely on isolating certain portions of Marx's writings and
abstracting them from his practice and from other portions of his writings.

In an extreme case, certain portions of one book, *Capital*, are isolated
and other portions are judged to be inconsistent with the theory, whose
nature has been determined precisely by abstracting it from that which is
assumed to be inconsistent. Specifically, I am referring to the discussion
of women, children, and the family in the chapter on "The Working Day."
There Marx gives great detail on the terrible conditions faced by women
factory workers. Yet he also refers to the need to transcend the current
form of the family. I quote Dunayevskaya's remarkable analysis:

"Marx didn't separate his 'economics' in Capital from its social and
political ramifications, and thus he saw one and only 'one positive
feature'--allowing women to go 'outside of the domestic sphere.' However,
he warned at once against factory labor 'in its brutal capitalistic form'
which is nothing other than a 'pestiferous source of corruption and
slavery.' But the collective labor of men and women, under different
historic conditions, 'creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of
the family and of the relation between the sexes.' Marx continued: 'It is,
of course, just as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of the family
to be absolute as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman,
the ancient Greek, or the Eastern forms....' Marx ends by pointing to the
fact that other historic conditions where both sexes work collectively could
'become a source of human development.' That, of course, is not what
capitalism aims at, and therefore Marx intensifies his attack...."

On the basis of this reading of Marx, which refuses to exclude the
"inclusion of women as women" from the theory, Dunayevskaya concludes that
there is a "wide gulf" between the Ethnological Notebooks and the Origin.
If Marx called for the abolition of the family in the 1840s and projected "a
higher form of the family" in the 1860s, in the 1880s he wrote:

"The modern family contains in embryo not only slavery but serfdom also,
since from the very beginning it is connected to agricultural service. It
contains within itself, in miniature, all the antagonisms which later
develop on a wide scale within society and its state."

In the Ethnological Notebooks Marx "showed that the elements of oppression
in general, and of woman in particular, arose from within primitive
communism, and not only related to change from 'matriarchy,' but beginning
with the establishment of 'ranks'--relationship of chief to mass--and the
economic interests that accompanied it....Marx was not hurrying to make easy
generalizations, such as Engels's characterization of the future as being
just a 'higher stage' of primitive communism. No, Marx envisioned a totally
new man, a totally new woman, a totally new life form (and by no means only
for marriage)--in a word, a totally new society. That is why it is so
relevant to today's Women's Liberation Movement and why we still have so
much to learn from Marx's concept of Man/Woman, not only in the abstract
1844 articulation, but in the empiric 1880 formulation when it was
integrated with the need for total uprooting of capitalism and creation of a
classless society" (Dunayevskaya).

Perhaps, then, the discussion of women's liberation can take on the spirit
of Kevin Anderson's discussion of Eurocentrism: not fearing to bring a
critical view to the Manifesto and other writings, yet at the same time
keeping in view that Marx's thought was not static but was developing; and,
as Rob Beamish stressed, it did not develop in a vacuum but in a historical,
organizational, philosophic, political, polemical context.

Franklin Dmitryev