From International Socialism (1st series), No.100, July 1977, pp.20-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
MARXISTS have always sought to understand the relationship between the oppression of women in Capitalist society and the exploitation of the working class. Marx’s statement that women were ‘doubly exploited’ is a direct reference to women’s double burden as woman and as worker.
It is impossible to separate the exploitation of women under Capitalism from their oppression. The life of a woman worker is transformed by being a woman. It is impossible to understand the situation of women – full-time workers, part-time workers, home-workers, housewives – without understanding the relationship between the Family and Capitalism.
This article is published in two parts. In this issue there is an outline of a Marxist analysis of the Family and in the next issue the article deals with the present position of Women in the light of that analysis.
There are three major arguments contained in Part I – all are contentious. These are:
All three of these arguments are extremely contentious and are intended as a starting point for discussion in the Journal.
Capitalism is a revolutionary system – constantly transforming the entire world and creating ever wider horizons for the development of humanity. But as a class system based on the oppression and exploitation of the vast majority of mankind bourgeois thinkers must constantly argue the ‘natural’ limits of such revolutionary change! In order that the productive forces created by capitalism should not be unleashed on behalf of the new communist world order, all classes must be led to believe that such changes are made impossible by the very nature of man.
There are two sides to the bourgeois ‘natural’ man. On the one hand he is so ‘greedy’ and ‘aggressive’ that he will constantly fight to become a boss, on the other hand he is eternally a father taking care of his own little ones. (He is, of course, a man). (So potent are such ideas that they are constantly transposed from human males to animal males – male lions and ducks become ‘daddys’ and whole ‘families’ become the pride and joy of zoos).
For bourgeois thought the idea that there might be, or might have been, a time when the Family was not the natural system of reproduction is unthinkable. It is similar to the idea that class society too might be abolished. But for all women this argument is very important. If the Family is only the system of reproduction adopted by Class society under specific historical conditions then women’s oppression is neither biological nor natural but can also be abolished with the abolition of capitalism.
Engels in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State sought to show that the Family did only emerge with the emergence of Class Society and an oppressive State. Just as Marx had argued that the history of the world could be conceived in terms of five major Modes of Production – Primitive Communism, Ancient Society, Asiatic Mode of Production, Feudal, and Capitalist – so Engels attempted to identify the major periods within Primitive Communism and the developments which led to the emergence of a Class society.
Following an American anthropologist, Morgan, Engels identified three stages of the development of human society – Savagery, Barbarism and Civilisation. Morgan identified Savagery as the period of the very earliest developments of Man, as a hunter and gatherer, Barbarism as the period in which Mankind learned to breed animals and cultivated plants and Civilisation as the development of Ancient Society. Engels then identified
‘three principal forms of marriage which correspond broadly to the three principle stages of human development: for the period of savagery, group marriage; for barbarism, pairing marriage; for civilisation, monogamy supplemented by adultery and prostitution.’ 
Engels argued that as society progresses through these three stages of marriage, so the social situation of women regressed ‘ ... the progress which manifests itself in these successive forms is connected with the peculiarity that women, but not men, are increasingly deprived of the sexual freedom of group marriage.’  As well as women’s sexual freedom being increasingly limited in order to protect the descent of property down the male line, Engels argues that her entire life becomes restricted and controlled. Whereas the system of mother-right and matrilineal descent had been part of the social power of women – the establishment of patrilineal descent and the monogamous family deprived them of all rights. Engels described this transition as ‘the world-historic defeat of the female sex’.
There is also a second theme in Engels book. Using Morgan’s work he examines the Iroquois Gens as a primitive form of self-government by an entire people. In the Gens all were free and both men and women voted for the leaders, they had their own council, and all property on death was divided amongst all. Engels then traces the dissolution of this form of government in the case of the Greeks, Roman and Germans, and the origins of Ancient Society.
What Engels was attempting to show in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State was that in the hunting, gathering and primitive agricultural periods of human society there was no monogamous family, no oppressive state, and no private property. The development of the monogamous, patrilineal family occurs at the same time as the development of private property and a State. Although almost all the discussion on Engels’ book has concentrated on the argument about the existence of a ‘Matriarchy’ the history of the development of Primitive Law is equally important to Engels’ argument. (This whole debate will have to be taken up in another article.)
Engels’ perspective is a very important one for Marxists. Many feminists have conceded the bourgeois idea that it is women’s biology that has determined women’s oppression. They have argued that, until now, women as individuals could not control their own lives because they could not control their own fertility. Their solution to women’s oppression has even been for women not to reproduce – a privatised solution which mirrors the privatised reproduction in Capitalism within the monogamous family. This amounts to an acceptance that the privatised family system is the only way to organise reproduction.
But for Engels the most important characteristic of Primitive Communism was the fact that the Primitive Community was both family and society – reproduction and production were not separate spheres of life. The household economy ‘was just as much a public, a socially necessary industry, as the production of food by the men.’ (my emphasis). In the utterly backward conditions of ‘Savagery’ and ‘Barbarism’ it was possible to organise the reproduction of the next generation on a communal basis without the oppression of women. Engels argued that it would also be possible in the future Communist State. But in an advanced Communist State instead of the Family being Society, Society would become the Family – communally organised for all.
In Engels’ own Preface to The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State he argued that the book was but a ‘meagre substitute’ for the book on the Family that Marx would have written had he lived; ‘It was no less a man than Karl Marx who had reserved to himself the privilege of displaying the results of Morgan’s investigations in connection with his own materialistic conception of history.’ 
Engels then quotes some critical notes that he has extracted from Marx’s notes on Morgan. From these notes we can see that Marx had begun to develop a much wider theoretical approach to the relationship between the production of the means of existence of human society, and the reproduction of mankind.
Engels summary of Marx’ notes read as follows:
According to the materialistic conception, the decisive element of history is pre-eminently the production and reproduction of life and its material requirement. This implies, on the one hand, the production of the means of existence (food, clothing, shelter and the necessary tools) on the other hand, the generation of children, the propagation of the species. The social institutions, under which the people of a certain historical period and of a certain country are living, are dependent on these two forms of production; partly on the development of labour, partly on that of the family. The less labour is developed, and the less abundant the quantity of its production, and therefore, the wealth of society, the more society is seen to be under the domination of sexual ties, the productivity of labour is developed more and more ... The old form of society founded on sexual relations is abolished in the clash with the recently developed social classes. A new society steps into being crystallised into the state. The units of the latter are no longer sexual, but local groups; a society in which family relations are entirely subordinated to property relations, thereby freely developing those class antagonisms and class struggles that make up the contents of all written history up to the present time.’  (my emphasis – JS)
In this article I wish to use the idea of ‘two forms of production’ i.e. labour and the family to look at the relationship between the Capitalist Mode of Production and the Capitalist Family (Mode of Reproduction). But before doing so it is important to analyse what the mode of Reproduction – the propagation of the Species – entails.
In all societies the mode of Reproduction includes
Whereas in a Primitive Communist society these functions could be organised communally, in an oppressive Class society the privatised family system is the only way to organise reproduction and by its very nature gives rise to the oppression of women.
This is not to say that the Family remains the same system of privatised reproduction throughout all class societies. On the contrary as the mode of production is transformed so too is the mode of reproduction. The family changes its form from epoch to epoch and from class to class. In particular, in the development of peasant household economies a basic unit of both production and reproduction is the household. Whereas under the Capitalist mode of Production, the sphere of production is removed from the household and the household becomes responsible for consumption alone.
Within the peasant household economy the patriarchal system held sway: the labour of all is organised by the male head of the household. It has been argued that women in these households were less oppressed than modern ‘housewives’ because they were productive. But oppression has nothing to do with being productive. All women in these types of mode of production were more oppressed because their husbands and fathers were also their ‘foremen’ backed by the entire weight of religious law and custom. All law of these societies treat women as property belonging to one man or another.
It is for this reason that Marx argued that women were set free by Capitalism:
However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relation between the sexes ... Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the labourer exists for the process of production and not the process of production for the labourer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery. 
Marx argued that Capitalism itself stripped the process of exploitation of every ‘patriarchial, political, or even religious cloak’. [5a] This is an enormous advance for the social position of women. But the subordination of the Family as the mode of Reproduction to the Capitalist Property relations creates enormous contradictions within the Capitalist society – and it is women who bear the brunt of these contradictions.
The next section looks at how the Family is subordinated to Capitalist Property relations and the development of a society of free wage-labourers.
The capitalist system has generated and regenerated vast wealth over the past two hundred years. Marx argued that the source of this wealth – the source of the accumulation of Capital – was surplus-value. But where did this surplus-value come from? Surplus value could only be created if the capitalist could buy a commodity that had the potential of generating more value than it itself was bought for. There was only one such active commodity – labour power. Only the labourer could create more value than his own wage.
Thus, throughout Capital, Marx constantly stresses that the essential pre-condition of the development of capitalism is the existence of a class of free wage labourers. The only way that man’s capacity to labour could become a commodity was if he was free to sell it to any master and if he himself was free from the ownership of any means of production. Marx described, in Capital, centuries of struggle which resulted in the driving of the English peasantry off the land.
Because the class of free wage-labourers is the essential pre-condition for capitalism, all capitalists have sought to intervene in the reproduction of this class. The Family system under which this class is reproduced is one of the first and most important areas of State intervention. The formless common law marriage of England (established purely by consent) was ‘reformed’ in 1753 into a stipulated Church ceremony after the calling of banns on three successive Sundays, and then in 1836 the office of Superintendent Registrar was established. (Prior to this legislation marriage law was merely canon law). From the beginning of Capitalism the organisation of reproduction in the privatised Family is massively controlled by the laws, repressive apparatus and ideological structures of the State.
‘The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article ... the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer ... The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes i.e. his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market’ (my emphasis). 
Marx emphasised that some capitalists are very unhappy about the way that workers spend their wages: these wages are paid to the workers for them to reproduce themselves and their families, so the capitalists are most anxious that workers should be rational consumers rather than gamblers or drinkers. 
Marx also compared the cost to the nineteenth century Capitalist of taking children from the Workhouse and taking children from the Family. He argued that a Capitalist enterprise could buy children’s wage-labour much cheaper by buying the wage-labour of the family child. The family system reproduces the wage-labour of four nearly as cheaply as one. The same is also true today. The cost of raising an adolescent child in a Local Authority Children’s Home in London has been calculated at being over £80 a week. It is for this reason that Local Authorities offer £15 a week to existing families to encourage them to ‘foster’. Whereas, of course, the average male manual workers wage is only £60 a week which includes, according to Marx, part of the subsistence necessary for the reproduction of the next generation.
Marx was aware of the enormous importance of the Family in terms of the training of the child, in order for the child to adapt to capitalist industry. Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, expressed it in this way:
Life in industry demands a general apprenticeship, a process of psycho-physical adaptation to specific conditions of work, nutrition, housing customs, etc. This is not something ‘natural’ or innate, but has to be acquired, and the urban characteristics thus acquired are passed on by heredity or rather are absorbed in the development of childhood and adolescence. 
Marx also argued that ‘the reproduction of the working-class carried with it the accumulation of skill that is handed down from one generation to another.’  It is hard for us to appreciate how much skill is passed on to the children via the family. Only a minority of mothers with children under 5 go out to work (approx 1/5 or 20 per cent) and thus her children have the exclusive attention of one adult to help them walk, to teach them to speak, to potty-train them, to teach them numbers, to teach them colours, to teach them to dress themselves, to teach them to tell the time, and even to teach them to read. By the time our children reach school they have been given the basis for manipulating the capitalist world. The parent : child ratio compares very favourably with the ratio of nursery staff: child (1 : 5).
Therefore it is clear that, for Marx, the entire wage system of capitalism is based upon the premise that all individuals in society actually live in family units. The wage system itself imposes its own requirements of ‘normal’ life within a family upon the free wage-labourer, as well as all the ideological pressures of our society.
But the wage paid to each individual in the capitalist market is not paid to the family itself – it is paid whatever the individual’s family circumstances. Therefore it is quite wrong to argue that the family ‘produces’ workers and that the family can be seen as a unit of capitalism. It is also wrong to argue that housewives create value. The Capitalist family is a privatised system of reproduction which fits the Capitalist mode of production and is necessary to it – it is not part of the mode of Production in the sense of ‘producing’ wage labourers.
Because the wage already includes ‘the means necessary for the Labourer’s substitutes i.e. his children’, Marx concludes that this is the origin of the lower wages of men as well as women and youths under capitalism:
‘The value of labour-power was determined not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult labourer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery by throwing every member of that family on to the labour-market, spreads the value of the man’s labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may, perhaps, cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days’ labour takes the place of one, and their price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus-labour of the four over the surplus-labour of one. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expend surplus-labour for the capitalists. Thus we see that machinery, whilst augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.’ 
Therefore in order to ‘raise the degree of exploitation’ Capitalism must not only draw men into the labour market as free wage-labourers but also women and children. 
Yet this process has to stop at the natural limits of reproduction. In the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain the workforce in the industrial towns failed to reproduce themselves and were constantly augmented by workers from the rural areas. Marx quotes many sources on the absolutely horrific conditions under which wage-workers lived and died in early Capitalism. At the demand of the most class-conscious Capitalists and at the demand of the wage-workers themselves, the Capitalist State had to intervene in order to impose restricted working hours on both women and children.
Within the capitalist system there is thus a contradiction between the demands of production (women into the labour force) and the demands of reproduction (women into the home). It is this contradiction that is at the heart of women’s double burden of woman and worker. But would it be possible for the demands for women as workers, and the demands of women workers, to become so strong that Capitalism was forced to socialise completely the process of reproduction – i.e. that Capitalism itself should abolish the Family?
Because of the importance of the Family as a cheap means of reproducing wage-labour the abolition of the family system in any one Capitalism could only be accomplished by the abolition of the family system in all capitalisms. The family system could not be abolished in Japan, with the substitution of baby farms and nurseries as profit making enterprises or as part of a state capitalist system, without the reproduction of the Japanese work-force being either more costly or less efficient than its competitors.
If, however, it is argued that all Capitalisms can abolish the family at a stoke and institute a ‘Brave New World’ or ‘1984’ of test-tube babies, baby farms, etc, then the question we must look at is the nature of free wage-labour.
For Marx the essential pre-condition of Capitalism is the existence of a class of free wage-labourers. In his Results of the Immediate Process of Production Marx writes of the worker living his life, reproducing his labour-power, outside of the immediate process of production. He contrasts the free worker with that of the slave:
The slave is the property of a particular master, the worker must indeed sell himself to capital, but not to a particular capitalist, and so within certain limitations he may choose to sell himself to whomever he wishes; and he may also change his master. The effect of all these differences is to make the free worker’s work more intensive, more continuous, more flexible and skilled than that of the slave, quite apart from the fact that they fit him for quite a different historical role.
He can save or hoard a little. Or else he can squander his money on drink. But even so he acts as a free agent; he must pay his own way; he is responsible to himself for the way he spends his wages. He learns to control himself, in contrast to the slave, who needs a master. (Marx’ emphasis)
Should the worker prove more or less incapable of this versatility, he still regards it as open to the next generation, and the new generation of workers is infinitely distributable among, and adaptable to, new expanding branches of industry ... This versatility stands in stark contrast to the utterly monotonous and traditional nature of slave labour, which does not vary with changes in production, but which requires, on the contrary, that production be adapted to whatever mode of work has once been introduced and carried on from one generation to the next. 
If the reproduction of the species is actually brought under the direct control of the Capitalist Mode of Production it seems to me impossible that this class of free wage-labourers could continue to exist. On what base is the wider society constructed within which the Capitalist mode of Production operate? Without the Family as the basic mode of Reproduction within Capitalist society are we still dealing with free men?
It is significant that throughout all the developments within Capitalism during the twentieth century we have not seen the disappearance of the Family as the mode of Reproduction. In Nazi Germany the baby farms were to raise babies of the Aryan elite – often kidnapped from their mothers. They were not a substitute for the Family for the entire society, and especially not for the working class. The official Nazi line was: ‘There is no area of State policy which does not have its foundation in the realm of the family.’  Families were given loans in terms of vouchers for goods in order to enable them to set up house and as each child arrived part of the loan was cancelled! When more women were needed in the labour force jobs were given on condition that the woman had worked previously! Above all women were seen as mothers. 
In Russia the early revolutionary attempts at destroying the family were themselves destroyed with the rise of Stalinism and State Capitalism. The Russian family system of the 1930s was more oppressively enforced than in Britain. In 1935 abortion and divorce were made difficult and homosexuality was forbidden. 
Many writers have pointed to the Israeli Kibbutzim as being an example of a social system where children are communally raised and where the Family is no longer responsible for the reproduction of the society. But the Kibbutzim which practice this form of child-rearing are generally those along the border i.e. those engaged in military activity. It is not the dominant mode of reproduction in Israel but an adjustment to Israel’s colonial military role.
Many have seen the development of the ‘Welfare State’ during and after the Second World War as a substitute for the Family system. But whilst the ‘Welfare State’ seeks to supplement the Family as the mode of reproduction in the areas of health, education, etc, it also seeks to reinforce the Family system through legislation and social work agencies. This process becomes even more apparent as the Capitalist State – faced with an economic crisis – seeks to reverse the previous process and force ever greater demands upon the Family.
Marx identified the ‘three cardinal facts of capitalist production’ and capitalist development as:
1) Concentration of means of production in few hands, whereby they cease to appear as the property of the immediate labourers and turn into social production capacities. Even if initially they are the private property of capitalists. These are the trustees of bourgeois society, but they pocket all the proceeds of the trusteeship.
2) Organisation of labour itself into social labour: through cooperation, division of labour, and the uniting of labour with the natural sciences. In these two senses, the capitalist mode of production abolishes private property and private labour, even though in contradictory forms.
3) Creation of the world market.’ (my emphasis) 
This contradictory development of Capitalism – between the ever greater social productive capacities of capitalism and the capitalist mode of production – is also seen in the contradictory development of the Family in Capitalism. On the one hand women are constantly organised into social labour alongside men and on the other hand reproduction remains privatised within the family.
Therefore just as the Capitalist State has had to become more and more responsible for the organisation of Capitalist production in order to preserve private capital and capital accumulation, so that Capitalist State has had to become more and more active in organising the sphere of reproduction. This State organisation of reproduction takes two forms: on the one hand, I would argue, certain state activities become part of the mode of Reproduction of society – such as education, health etc; on the other hand the state intervenes to organise and preserve the family.
In the 1860s the State intervened to establish the same working conditions for women and children throughout all workshops. In 1870 the State intervened to establish primary education. Before the First World War came the establishment of Welfare Services and the Income Tax that would organise the working class to pay for its own collective reproduction! These were the tiny beginnings of state intervention.
If we look at today’s ‘social wage’ – the £20 per head spent by the Government for every man woman and child that Denis Healey constantly refers to – it is made up of three elements. There are state payments to industry, the costs of administration and coercion, and those costs that directly go to the reproduction of the existing generations of society (including old age pensioners) and future generations, i.e. education services, health services, etc.
In the nineteenth century Marx argued that the enormous development of productivity by the Capitalist mode of production made possible the rise of an enormous class of domestic servants. The function of these domestic servants was to reproduce the ruling class and therefore their labour was extremely unproductive. Marx also argued, throughout Capital and Theories of Surplus Value that the labour of teachers was unproductive.
In the twentieth century the enormous development of productivity has given rise to a class of public servants. In the sphere of Education 67 per of these workers are women and in the sphere of Health, 75 per cent. I would argue that these workers should not be simply classified alongside of the other unproductive workers in the sphere of Production. Instead they should be seen as workers in the necessary base (Reproduction) of the Capitalist Mode of Production – engaged in the necessary reproduction of the working class. This is not to argue that they are productive workers.
In Capital Vol.III Marx argued that there was a division of labour within the working class between those who perform necessary labour and those who perform surplus labour:
We have previously shown that just as the labour of an individual workman breaks up into necessary and surplus labour, the aggregate labour of the working class may be so divided that the portion which produces the total means of subsistence for the working-class (including the means of production required for this purpose) performs the necessary labour for the whole of society. The Labour performed by the remainder of the working class may then be regarded as surplus labour. But the necessary labour consists by no means only of agricultural labour, but also of the labour which produces all other products necessarily included in the average consumption of the labourer. Furthermore, from the social standpoint, some perform only necessary labour because others perform only surplus-labour and vice versa. It is but a division of labour between them. (my emphasis) 
Quite clearly Marx is here discussing the entire class of productive workers – those who produce surplus-value – and the social division of labour amongst them. I would not argue that teachers, nurses, school-cleaners are productive workers reproducing wage-labourers as commodities. Such public sector workers are service workers and not productive. But I would argue that we could extend the concept of the division of labour within the working class and see these workers as being necessary workers for the reproduction of the working class as a whole.
This analysis is crucial for the discussion of the role of women workers in Capitalism – only a quarter of women work in manufacturing industry. This analysis has repercussion for our strategy towards women and it is this that I wish to take up in the Second Part of this article. The Second Part of the article will deal with the question of Women in the Labour Force and the present crisis; with Women’s Oppression and the ideological role of the family as well as its role in sexual repression; and with the issue of revolutionary organisation of women.
1. Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Unwin Bros Ltd, 1972, p.138 This division has been criticised by Evelyn Reed in Women’s Evolution.
2. Ibid., p.138.
4. Ibid., Charles Kerr Ed., Chicago 1902, p.9.
5. Ibid., p.10.
5a. Marx, Capital, Vol.1, Lawrence and Wishart 1961, pp.489-90.
6. Ibid., pp.170-172.
7. Ibid., Vol.II, p.515.
8. Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart 1971, p.296.
9. Marx, Capital, Vol.1, p.574.
10. Ibid., p.395.
11. Ibid., p.470.
12. Results of the Immediate Process of Production, previously unpublished Part VII of Capital, Vol.I, published as an Appendix to 1976 Penguin Edition, pp.1033-4.
13. Quoted in Jill Stephenson, Women in Nazi Society, Croom Helm 1975.
14. Ibid., p.44 on.
15. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life, Pluto Press, p.99.
16. Marx, Capital, Vol.III, p.261.
17. Ibid., p.618.
Last updated on 16.1.2008