Marxism and feminism: ‘unhappy marriage’ or creative partnership? | by Jacklyn Cock

by Oct 16, 2011All Articles

Introduction
the relationship betWeen MarxisM and feMinisM has been a long-standing preoccupation among progressive feminist analysts. In an influential intervention published 30 years ago, Heidi Hartmann complained that the relationship between Marxism and feminism was marked by extreme inequality. She compared it to the marriage between husband and wife depicted in English common law at the time: ‘Marxism and feminism are one, and that one is Marxism.’ She concluded that ‘either we need a healthier marriage or we need a divorce’(Hartmann, 1981: 2). This article argues that it is only very recently that the ‘marriage’ between Marxism and feminism has become ‘healthier’. The relationship has always involved tensions, partly because of radically different objects of analysis. However, a connection is necessary because, as Hartmann wrote, ‘while Marxist analysis offers essential insight into the laws of historical development, and those of capital in particular, the categories of Marxism are sex-blind. Only a specifically feminist analysis reveals the systemic character of relations between men and women. Yet feminist analysis by itself is inadequate because it has been blind to history and insufficiently materialist’ (Hartmann, 1981: 2). Furthermore, particularly in the South African context, an analysis centred on the primary contradiction between capital and labour using categories which are also ‘race­blind’ is particularly problematic.

Classical Marxist analysis
classical MarxisM recoGnised WoMen’s oppression, but the focus in the treatment of ‘the women question’ was on the relationship of women to the economic system rather than gender relations. These early Marxists failed to focus sufficiently on gender differences – on the difference between women and men’s experiences under capitalism. Generally, women’s participation in the labour force was understood as the key to their emancipation. Engels argued that as women were incorporated into wage labour, they would become economically independent and the authority of the male head of the household would be weakened and patriarchal relations destroyed.

In similar terms, Alexandra Kollontai understood the family as the source of women’s oppression. Remembered largely as the proponent of the ‘glass of water theory’, the theory that sex should be as easy and uncomplicated as drinking a glass of water, she wrote of the necessity of introducing public services of every kind that would free women from the petty cares of everyday life involved in social reproduction. Sensitive to the double load of housework and wage work, she emphasised the solution to women’s oppression as the collectivisation of domestic labour under socialism. This provision of such public services was necessary to bring women into politics. She argued that ‘society should relieve women of all those petty household cares which are at present unavoidable (given the existence of individual, scattered, domestic economies)’ and take over ‘responsibility for the younger generation’ (Kollontai, 1911, 1977: 68). But for Kollontai, the struggle for women’s liberation was part of the struggle for socialism. In her view, there should be no separate women’s movement. She was dismissive of ‘the feminists’ because ‘they seek equality in the framework of the existing class society; in no way do they attack the basis of this society’ (Kollontai, 1909: 59).

Lenin was similarly dismissive of feminism but understood women’s position in both the household and the paid workforce as problematic. For Lenin, a housewife was a domestic ‘slave’, and women’s unpaid labour within the family was a major obstacle to progress. Writing in 1919, Lenin points out that despite ‘all the laws emancipating the woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labor on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery’ (Lenin, cited by Vogel, 1983: 121). ‘No matter how much democracy there is under capitalism, the woman remains a “domestic slave”, a slave locked up in the bedroom, nursery, kitchen’ (Lenin, cited by Vogel, 1983: 119). Hence Lenin argued strongly for the socialisation of domestic labour, to ‘transform petty housekeeping into a series of large-scale socialized services: community kitchens, public dining rooms, laundries, repair shops, nurseries, kindergartens and so forth’ (Lenin, cited by Vogel, 1983: 122). However only a specifically feminist politics can ensure that these ‘socialised services’ are not performed exclusively by women workers.

This narrow legacy of the ‘women question’ of classical Marxism was not the only problem for feminists of the 20th century. Throughout the century, a ‘specifically feminist politics’ has been weakened, not only by those Marxists who dismissed women’s concerns as of secondary import and divisive of working class struggles, but also by sectarianism and fragmentation within feminism.

Many varieties of feminism
a Major source of difficulty in constructinG a ‘creative partnership’ between Marxism and feminism is that there are many varieties of both. The history of 20th-century feminism has been scarred by struggles for primacy: struggles over whether class or sex is the determinant feature of social organisation. These could be divided into three strands: liberal feminists seeking equality within the existing order, Marxist or socialist feminists prioritising class inequalities and radical feminists such as Millett (1971) and Firestone (1972) who located unequal gender relations as the primary contradiction of social organisation.

Dualistic analysis
Many of the atteMpts of socialist feMinists to integrate Marxism and feminism involved a dualistic form of analysis which posited two separate structures: the mode of production and patriarchy. Others reduced patriarchy to an ideological structure. A more materialist definition is provided by Hartman, who defines patriarchy in terms of men’s control of women’s labour power both in terms of their sexuality and access to resources. However, patriarchy remained a universal, trans-historical category.

Besides the problem of dualism, there are other criticisms which have been made of attempts to provide a coherent Marxist-feminist analysis such as an essentialism, a tendency to universalise the experiences of women in the global North (in the seventies derided as ‘western feminism’) and a Marxist functionalism or reductionism which reduces women’s oppression to an effect of the operations of capital.

Many of these weaknesses, especially a crude Marxist functionalism, are apparent in the Marxist feminist concern with the relation of housework to capital, what came to be called, ‘the domestic labour debate’.

The domestic labour debate
this focused Mainly on the contribution of domestic labour to the circuit of capitalist accumulation. Central to this debate was the observation by Marx that ‘the most indispensable means of production’ is the worker and that the ‘maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital’ (Marx, [1867] 1976: 718). What he neglected was that this ‘maintenance’ and ‘reproduction’ involved a great deal of work done by women. Contributors to the domestic labour debate tried to bring this work – housework and childrearing – into the sphere of Marxist analysis by arguing that housewives’ unpaid labour reduces the value of labour power and thus cheapens the cost of wage labour to capital (Dalla Costa and James, 1970; Zaretsky, 1973: Seccombe, 1974). But their analysis of the reproduction of labour power failed to explain the sexual division of labour whereby it is women who perform the domestic work involved. Most contributors tended to subsume the feminist struggle into the struggle against capital.

Social reproduction
conteMporary debates locate doMestic labour in the broader notion of social reproduction. The concept of social reproduction refers ‘to the activities and attitudes, behaviours and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis and intergenerationally. Among other things, social reproduction includes how food, clothing and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, the ways in which the care and socialization of children are provided, the care of the infirm and the elderly, and the social organisation of sexuality’ (Luxton, 2006: 36).

An analytical framework based on social reproduction leads to new ways of understanding women’s situation in capitalist society. The ‘concept builds on and deepens debates about domestic labour and women’s economic roles in capitalist societies … it offers a basis for understanding how various institutions (such as the state, the market, the family/household) interact and balance power so that the work involved in the daily and generational production and maintenance of people is completed’ (Bezanson and Luxton, 2006:3). The emphasis is on analysing society as a totality, a totality in which social reproduction is central at various levels.

As Bezanson writes, ‘Social reproduction is … a central aspect of the capitalist economic system’:
1.     at the level of production because labour is considered a produced input to production but one that is produced outside that sphere
2.     at the level of  distribution, because savings on the costs of social reproduction of the labouring population lead to higher profits
3.     at the level of circulation, because the consumption of wage goods is the largest component of aggregate demand
4.     at the institutional level because insecurity of access to the means of reproduction is the fundamental source of command over work processes
5.     at the political level because the process of social reproduction implies a radical conflict between profit and the living standards of the whole labouring population. (Bezanson, 2006:28)

In his analysis of capitalism, Marx notes, ‘When viewed … as a connected whole, and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction’ (Marx, [1887] 1976: 711, cited by Luxton, 2006: 29) The implication is that ‘The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself: on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer’ (Marx, [1887] 1976: 724).

Further, drawing from Marx means recognising that these class relations render the capitalist totality fundamentally unstable. This is because there is a central contradiction between capital accumulation and social reproduction which is anchored in the capital–labour contradiction: ‘it is expressed when workers through their unions try to improve working conditions, pay and benefits to ameliorate their livelihood, while employers resist and, under pressure to make profits, try to cut labour costs by reducing pay, benefits and working conditions’ (Bezanson and Luxton, 2006: 8).
Following this approach means that contemporary analyses of commodified domestic labour pay close attention to the race, class, ethnic and gendered dimensions involved. Furthermore, the scope of analysis is expanded, for instance on how domestic labour is increasingly globalised, as women from the global South and European postsocialist countries have been recruited to service an exploding demand for domestic labour in the United States, Canada, the European Union, Hong Kong and the Middle East. This is ‘the global care chain’ of women moving from poor to rich countries, involving work for low wages under poor working conditions.

Conclusion
clearly Marxist-feMinisM is not a Monolithic theoretical entity. However, much progress has been made in the relation between Marxism and feminism. No one now attempts to appropriate Marxist concepts of value or productive and unproductive work and apply them uncritically in an attempt to establish the value of domestic work (Cock, 1981). The accusations of a white-feminist epistemological imperialism are no longer apt. No one assumes that a socialist order will necessarily guarantee gender equality. No one now presents women, irrespective of class, race, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual preference as comprising a homogeneous group bound together by their shared ‘oppression’.
But much has also been lost. The early feminist emphasis on solidarity, the importance of group discussion and collective work has been eroded by the individualism spread by neoliberal capitalism. Many challenges lie ahead and ultimately a ‘creative partnership’ between Marxism and feminism depends on the further transformation of both parties.
Jacklyn Cock is a an Honorary Professor of Sociology at Wits University.

References
Cock, J. 1981. ‘Disposable nannies: domestic servants in the political
economy of South Africa’, Review of African Political Economy 21, pp. 63–83.
Dalla Costa, M. and S. James. 1970. The Power of Women and Subversion of
the Community, Bristol: Falling Wall Press.
Engels, F. 1972. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New
York: International Publishers.
Hartmann, H. 1981. ‘The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism:
towards a more progressive union’, in L. Sargent, Women and Revolution,
London, Pluto Press, pp. 1–42.
Kollontai, A. [1909] 1977. The Social Basis of the Woman Question. London:
Alison and Busby.

Kollontai, A. 1977. Selected Writings, London: Alison and Busby.
Mitchell, J. 1974. Psychoanalysis and Feminism, New York: Pantheon Books.
Millet, K. 1971. Sexual Politics, New York: Avon Books.
Seccombe, W. 1974. ‘The housewife and her labour under capitalism’, New
Left Review  83, pp. 3– 24.
Vogel L. 1983. Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Rutgers, Pluto Press.
Zaretsky, E. 1973. Capitalism, the family and personal life, New York: Harper.

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