Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

12. Class roots of the women’s movement

As we have seen in Chapters Ten and Eleven, the Women’s Liberation Moyements in the United States and Britain were largely confined to graduates and students of universities and polytechnics. The majority of graduates of universities and polytechnics are destined to be white-collar workers. Many will be classroom teachers, only a few headteachers, or heads of departments. The latter are members of the new middle class. In Marxist terms they belong to the petty bourgeoisie, located between the basic classes of capitalist society, the bourgeoisie or ruling class, and the proletariat, the working class.

For Marx, the petty bourgeoisie was an anachronism, doomed to disappear. He wrote:

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie ... has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. [1]

But since the turn of the century it has become apparent that a new middle stratum of educated and salaried people has arisen and expanded rapidly. Often called the new middle class, this consists of such groups as small employers, managers and professional people of all sorts – such as supervisors, doctors, researchers, journalists, technicians, university teachers, high grade civil servants and local government employees. These have a degree of control over their own immediate labour process and probably over other workers too. [2]

Not all white-collar workers are part of the new middle class. [3] As Braverman shows in Labour and Monopoly Capital, the conditions of work and wages of the bulk of white-collar workers – most are women office workers – are comparable to those of manual workers. Their relationship to the means of production is the same as that of manual workers, and their employers have an identical interest with that of manual workers in lowering their wages and raising their productivity. [4] Most of those who go into white-collar jobs are young people whose parents are manual workers.

The size of the new middle class in the United States is, according to one estimate, 20-25 per cent of the population, while the working class are 65-70 per cent, the old middle class (such as shopkeepers, artisans and farmers) 8-10 per cent, and the ruling class 1-2 per cent. [5]

The new middle class, like the old, finds itself subordinated to capital, but above the working class, from whom it is separated by an abyss. For instance, only a tiny proportion of workers’ children manage to enter the professions – 1.8 per cent of the sons of workers in the United States, and only 0.8 per cent of men from the working class become self-employed professionals. [6]

The new middle class is also culturally differentiated from the working class. Its members share educational background, consumption and life-style patterns. Also marriage “down” to the working class or “up” to the ruling class is comparatively infrequent. [7]

The new middle class lacks homogeneity. Different sections of it will be driven in different directions, towards or away from capital or labour, depending on the pressures upon them. A double pressure, for instance, pushes many groups in the new middle class towards organisation in professional organisations or trade unions: pressure may come from above – such as that on university and polytechnic lecturers for increased workloads; or it may come from below – such as when lower-paid workers relatively increase their wages at the expense of managers. [8]

The new middle class is resented by workers who often suffer harassment and humiliation at the hands of its members, rather than at the hands of the ruling class with whom they have little contact.

At the same time the new middle class, even those members of it who are distant from the working class, feel increasing alienation from capitalism. As Al Szymanksi put it:

Scientists are not really able to determine what kind of research they will do or how their work will be used because of corporate funding and direction of their work; university teachers are under great pressure to mass produce students without raising fundamental criticisms of the way things are; social workers are forced to act like policemen; architects are made to design monstrosities which fall apart and factories that pollute ... [9]

Both men and women of the new middle class suffer from this sense of alienation, but the women doubly so, because of consistent discrimination in job promotion, which blocks their moves up the social ladder compared with men. Thus 19 per cent of all women college graduates and 7 per cent of those with some post-graduate education are employed as clerical, sales, factory or service workers. [10] The prestigious and remunerative positions in the professions and business are overwhelmingly held by men.

The college and its campus, besides giving women the expectation of professional equality with men, also provide an opportunity for new personal relationships away from the control of the family, which later lead many to question their roles within the traditional family structure. Such women no longer go from the house of their father to that of their husband. They go to college first, where more equal relationships abound.

In general, college women have greater expectations than other women and less opportunity for realising them. If they are professionally trained, particularly in one of the male-dominated professions, their “relative deprivation” is as tangible as their comparatively lower pay packets. US vice-president Adlai Stevenson said in 1955 of college-educated housewives: “Once they wrote poetry. Now it’s the laundry list.” Middle-class women, he said, could bewail the lost female “Einsteins, Schweitzers, Roosevelts, Edisons, Fords, Fernis and Frosts”.

Working-class experience is very different. Both women and men suffer from the choking of intellectual advance, from routine and boredom. The idea of equality with men has a completely different meaning for a working-class woman. The shorthand typist, shop assistant, charlady and other women employed in jobs of a similar routine nature, with little prospect of advancement, cannot relate to the professional woman’s desire for equality with men in job satisfaction – which presupposes the “intrinsic value of work”. Working-class women work by and large for one reason only: to earn money. Their jobs offer them little else. For the professional woman domestic routine, where she cannot use her acquired skills, is frustrating. The working-class woman does not notice much difference between the routine work in or outside the home. Nor can she envy the man’s position outside the house. She would not opt for the monotony and stress of a job on the conveyor belt of a car factory. Women’s diseases associated with housework run parallel with men’s diseases associated with their work.

When feminists say they want equality with men they often gloss over the fact that men are unequal in capitalist society. Too often the equality they see is within the present class structure, that is, equality for the more fortunate.

Like the new middle class, the women’s movement is not homogeneous. By and large it can be divided into two groups, a Women s Rights movement and a Women’s Liberation movement. Women s rights members, as Joan Cassell, who made a study of the American women’s movement, describes, are more likely to have professions themselves or upper-middle-class husbands and families, and have a stake in “the system”. Women’s liberation participants, on the other hand, tend to be women in transition – students, recent graduates, political lesbians, women holding low-paying jobs while dreaming of highly-paid prestigious professions, or divorcees seeking new identities and ways of life. [11]

The women’s rights members make no attempt to do away with status and hierarchy’. They do not seek to transform themselves or their world; they wish to improve their situation so that it will more closely resemble the situation of the men they perceive as their equals; they advocate a higher position for women in the structure of power and control’, instead of its being mediated through men only. They want to move women up the ladder. [12] Many of these elite women earn good salaries, like their husbands, so they are able to buy the services of other people, predominantly women, to do their housework and mind their children. Thus Cynthia Epstein, in her book Woman’s Place, quotes a study showing that about half the full-time professional and business women interviewed had two or more full-time servants to look after the house and mind the children. [13]

The Women’s Liberation Movement seeks different ends:

The women with fewest alternatives in the outside world wished to turn their feminist group into a way of life. Rather than attempting to change institutions within the larger society, which meant entering that society and engaging with it, the group was to be an “alternative” ... the group must be a family, a haven, a way of life, a mechanism for earning a living. The feminist group, in short, must replace the traditional role of husband and nuclear family. Rather than helping to change a participant’s outside life, the group is to become that life. [14]

A prominent German feminist at the turn of the century said that “the women’s movement is the product of an individualistic, liberal historical current ... It is the belief. ... in the blessings of individual freedom, which ... has let women strive to free themselves from intellectual, economic and legal bonds.” [15]

Thus do feminists emphasise the individual. As against this, Marx defined “human nature” as “the ensemble of social relations”. [16]

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole ... The human being is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society. Production by an isolated individual outside society ... is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other. [17]

“My analytic method,” Marx wrote towards the end of his life, “does not start from Man but from the economically given period of society.’

The old petty bourgeois individualism was rooted in the aspiration to continue to be one’s own boss; that of the new petty bourgeoisie is rooted in careerism. When there is the possibility of upward mobility, the hopes of the underprivileged focus on individual advancement rather than collective action. Hence in the new middle class the dominant idea is that an individual’s achievement depends on education, will and effort.

Working-class attitudes emphasise the opposite. They stress uniformity – the pre-determination of one’s place by tradition, by the class into which one is born. A worker joins organisations – trade unions – to improve his or her position through the collective to which he or she belongs. New middle class men and women join groups – professional associations and elite clubs – in order to enhance their individual status and as a means of acquiring improved professional contacts. Even when they join proper unions – such as in Britain the National Union of Teachers or the local government officers’ union NALGO, many higher-ranking members are torn between collective aspirations towards improving the conditions for everyone, and individualistic aspirations to climb up the career ladder.

Even the most radical members of the women’s liberation movement, who consider themselves socialists, emphasise individualism rather than collective advancement as a precondition for individual freedom. This is what Marx called “petty-bourgeois socialism”. In the Communist Manifesto he praised the ability of “petty-bourgeois socialism” to criticise capitalism, but showed that its positive contribution was weak; because of its individualism it “ended in a cowardly fit of the blues”. [18]

The radical feminists today seek to detach the bourgeois ideal of individual freedom from the unfree reality of bourgeois society: they seek to withdraw the individual from the social. This is encapsulated in the women’s liberation movement slogan “the personal is political”. This turns politics into a personal matter, redefining it and negating collective action aimed at political change.

The argument prevailing in the women’s movement is that women have to free themselves from repressive patriarchal attitudes – as for example Germaine Greer’s revolution in the bedroom. Marxists argue that it is not attitudes which control our lives but social conditions, the real power of capitalism, and the capitalist state, from which women, as well as men and children, must free themselves.

Another integral part of “personal politics” is “consciousness-raising”. To the extent that membership of the new middle class “begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation” (to use Marx’s words on the individualistic peasantry) [19], “consciousness-raising” is a useful cement for amorphous or cross-class groups. Joan Cassell explains:

the term “consciousness” is ambiguous, referring to a personal, subjective experience. This ambiguity may be a source of strength in the women’s movement, where co-participants are able to agree that the consciousness is ascending, without the necessity to examine the possibly divergent contents of such individual consciousness. In a movement where participants may hold widely differing views, it is more unifying to discuss raised consciousness than to investigate the content of that consciousness. [20]

“Consciousness-raising” is foreign to working-class men and women. They do not come into politics to try and understand themselves and raise their consciousness. They join an organisation because they seek collective power to change their conditions, to change the world.

A further expression of “personal politics” is the emphasis on changing lifestyles: refusing to marry, setting up “liberated communes”, experimenting with free love. This separates these women from most working-class women. For most working-class women a “liberating lifestyle” is determined by the size of the pay packet, the cost of necessities, the housing conditions.

To the extent that “personal politics” separates the individual woman from the social, the lesbian feminists reach the pinnacle – they create enclaves where men do not exist.

The women’s liberation movement, lacking an anchor in the organised working class and in the absence of a mass struggle by workers, slides on a downward spiral, taking refuge in personal relations, or for a few lucky ones, in literary creation or academic work, and abandoning any attempt to change the crisis-ridden world. The two trends in feminism – separatism and reformism – converge. The separatists opt out of the existing structure of society, seeking to create a liberated oasis inside the system; the reformists adapt to it, seeking to alter the capitalist system so that there are places at the top for a few.

A worker who comes to socialism identifies with his or her class. For a member of the middle class to come to socialism, that man or woman has to break the connection with the social milieu of the middle class, and join the proletariat in spirit and body. This is a very difficult task, and only a few manage it.

Even those sections of the women’s movement who speak about the working class generally relegate it to the role of an accessory of their own movement. The class struggle is demoted to being a sideshow outside the broad arena of the women’s movement, the black movement, or whatever. The working class is never for them the subject of history; at best it is one element in a motley variety of left groupings. The Communist Manifesto’s conclusion of its analysis of “petty-bourgeois socialism” – that it is the enemy of proletarian socialism – applies today to the whole feminist movement, even its most radical elements. The recourse to moral posing only increases general helplessness and desperation in face of the increasingly authoritarian capitalist state.


1. Marx and Engels, Works, Vol.6, p.485.

2. E.O. Wright, Class, Crisis and the State (London 1978), pp.61-3. To be precise one should not refer to this collection of strata as a class: a class is defined above all through conflict with other classes. As Marx and Engels put it: “The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry a common battle against another class.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Works, Vol.5, p.77.) With this rider we shall continue to write about the “new middle class”, as we have not found a better term. See also A. Callinicos, The “New Middle Class” and Socialist Politics, in International Socialism 2:20 (1983).

3. Nicos Poulantzas argues, incorrectly, that all white-collar workers, plus technicians and supervisors, belong to the “new petty bourgeoisie”. (N. Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (London 1975).)

4. See, for instance, Marx’s analysis of commercial employees in Capital, Vols.2 and 3.

5. B. and J. Ehrenreich, The Professional-Managerial Class, in P. Walker (editor), Between Labour and Capital (London 1979), p.14. The Ehrenreichs’ estimate of the new middle class is too high, even by their own definition. See M. Albert and R. Hahnel, A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map, in Walker, p.155.

6. R. Sennet and J. Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (Cambridge 1972), p.229.

7. Ehrenreichs, in Walker, p.29.

8. Financial Times (22 November 1982).

9. A. Szymanski, A Critique and Extension of the Professional-Managerial Class, in Walker, p.57.

10. Freeman, p.33.

11. J. Cassell, A Group Called Women (New York 1977), p.104.

12. Cassell, pp.98 and 184.

13. C. Epstein, Woman’s Place (London 1971), p.138. Carl Friedan, the ex-husband of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the pioneering book of modern feminism, once exclaimed in exasperation: “I supported The Feminine Mystique. She had time to write it because she lived in a mansion on the Hudson River, had a full-time maid and was completely supported by me ... Betty never washed 100 dishes in 10 years of marriage.” She herself describes stopping writing “to make a martini when my husband got home, fix dinner, argue, go to the movies, make love, join an expedition to the supermarket or a country auction on Saturday, organise a clambake on the beach ...” (The Leveller, 9-22 July 1982.)

14. Cassell, pp.175-6.

15. A. Hackett, Feminism and Liberalism in Wilhelmine Germany, 1890-1918, in B.A. Carroll (editor), Liberating Women’s History (Chicago 1976), p.128.

16. Marx and Engels, Works, Vol.5, p.4.

17. K. Marx, Grundrisse (London 1973), p.84.

18. Marx and Engels, Works, Vol.6, pp.509-10.

19. Marx and Engels, Works, Vol.11, p.187.

20. Cassell, p.17.


Last updated on 24.10.2002