Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

15. The struggle for socialism and women’s liberation



The class roots of women’s oppression

Throughout this book we have taken the relations of class exploitation as our starting point in analysing women’s place in society. In doing so we have followed Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (first published in 1884).

This work laid the basis for a materialist analysis of women’s conditions by locating sexual oppression and the family within the economic structure of society. Engels argued that changes in the mode of production – the way society organises to produce the things needed for life – affected the whole mode of human existence, including the form of relations between men and women.

Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family:

The determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing, and shelter and the tools requisite therefor; on the other, the propagation of the species. [1]

Production and reproduction are not independent of one another; the first is decisive in shaping the second, and the more society develops the more is this the case. What ensues is “a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system.”

Following the American anthropologist Lewis Morgan, Engels argued that women enjoyed a status equal to that of men in the primitive communist societies which preceded the emergence of classes. The division of labour reflected men’s and women’s different natural strengths; sexual relations were based on the free choice of the partners; under the rule of “mother right”, descent passed through the mother and not the father. But, with increases in the productivity of labour, social relations changed. Herds of animals came to be wealth and it was the men who reared the cattle. Gradually women, who had been supreme within the home, found their position eroded. As the new cattle-wealth increased, men wanted to be able to pass it on to their own male children. Mother-right stood in their way, and so was overthrown. In its place was set the monogamous family, in which one woman was bound to one man for life, and subject to his will.

The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins in the house also, the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children. [2]

This defeat, Engels argued, was part of the same process as that through which society was divided into exploited and exploiting classes, with the exploiters monopolising the means of violence through their control of the state:

The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male. [3]

Consequently, the struggle for women’s emancipation could not be separated from the struggle against class society itself.

Since the writings of Morgan and Engels in the late nineteenth century, modern social anthropology has poured scorn on their claim that there was a matriarchal primitive communism. So much mud has been thrown at the theory that, while the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Darwin have been kept alive, those of Morgan have been buried under a mountain of criticism.

It is clear that Morgan and Engels did make errors in their interpretations of the evidence. There is no factual evidence for a primal promiscuous co-habiting horde of brothers and sisters, as Morgan claimed. On the contrary, the more “primitive” the tribe the more strict the sexual prohibition between “brothers” and “sisters”. Nor is it true, as Engels claimed, that pairing marriage evolved from the women’s desire to be free from the sexual claims of a group of men. Considering the evidence against this that he had from Morgan alone, this was an absurd concession to Victorian morality.

Morgan’s and Engels’ view of matriarchy as symmetrical to patriarchy is probably incorrect. For lack of enough data it is difficult to know what, in different periods and places, the relative weight of gathering (women’s work) was vis-à-vis hunting (men’s work), as the material base of matriarchy. For obvious reasons anthropology is bound to be far more speculative than, say, history, not to speak of the exact sciences.

But the critics of Morgan and Engels concentrated, not on such factual errors, but on their historical and materialist method of interpretation. Since there are no primitive tribes remaining from the earliest periods in human society, argue the anthropologists, the historical method cannot be used. The conclusions of Morgan and Engels, they say, are therefore mere “conjecture”. So modern anthropology provides a welter of factual detail concerning life in primitive societies, but without linking these facts to primitive social institutions such as the family. Where they do attempt to explain the origin of primitive marriage laws, however, they are not slow to make con jectures themselves, based upon psychological and economic principles which they claim to be “universal” but which in fact do no more than betray their own class prejudices.

By and large the same anthropologists who reject the method used by Morgan and Engels also deny that there ever existed a period of equality between the sexes, and likewise assert that private property has been a feature of all societies, even the most primitive.

A few writers have used more recent evidence to re-assert the thesis put forward by Engels and Morgan. Robert Briffault, [4] in 1927, used a study of the social life of animals to reject claims that there had been a primordial “nuclear family”. He argued that prolonged maternal care among the higher apes had spurred the females to push forward the development of social life, thereby taking the first step towards humanity. More recently Evelyn Reed [5] has argued that co-operative labour between men and women was established through a taboo against cannibalism and sexual relations within the matriarchal horde. Freedom and equality between the sexes in a hunting and gathering economy, she says, was an essential precondition for women to give the lead from animality to humanity. Much of Evelyn Reed’s work is based on the evidence of orthodox anthropology itself, which may be too speculative a method.

The arguments put forward by Briffault and Reed need detailed evaluation, but it is clear that, whatever errors have been made by Marxists in the study of our earliest beginnings, they do not include either the evolutionary and materialist method, nor the concept of a primitive communism with basic equality between men and women. For Marxists the position of women in society and the structure of the family can be understood only in the context of the prevailing mode of production.

Far from women being the victims of an unchanging “patriarchy”, their position in society and the structure of the family have undergone enormous changes even in the past two hundred years. The peasant household in which most people lived before the Industrial Revolution was very different from the modern nuclear family. It was a unit of production as well as consumption. Women and children worked together under the supervision of the male head of the household, producing goods not only for their own consumption, but for exchange with the outside world. The peasant family was not “privatised”, closed off from outside society. As Mark Poster puts it,

the basic unit of early modern peasant life was not the conjugal family at all but the village. The village was the peasant’s “family” ... Women’s work was vital to the survival of the family and the community, and women worked hard and long. Peasant women cooked, cared for children, tended domestic animals and gardens and joined the village in the fields at crucial times, like the harvest. Women regulated births and supervised courtship at evening gatherings. [6]

Only since the development of industrial capitalism has the role of women tended towards isolation in the home. The family has ceased to be a unit of production, while childcare, cooking and washing have become “domestic labour”, the task of the housewife in the confines of her own home. The “privatised” family has thus emerged, which Tory ideologues such as Margaret Thatcher’s speech-writer, Ferdinand Mount, regard as a “natural” feature of all societies. [7]

Yet women’s labour in the home, though excluded from social production, is essential to the way capitalism organises this production, essential to the capitalist mode of production. For the labour performed inside the family household provides capitalism with its workforce. From generation to generation, it is the labour of women that reproduces the workforce itself, both physically through childbirth and culturally through the raising of children, and on a day-today basis, women’s labour also “reproduces” the workers in the family, making them fit for work the following day. As Marx put it:

This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine qua non of capitalist production ... The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. [8]

The dialectical unity between production and reproduction is, however, concealed by the fact that the domestic labour involved in reproduction is “privatised”; it is an individual task performed outside society. But if women did not perform this unpaid labour inside the working-class family, then, in order to ensure the reproduction of its workforce, capitalism would either have to pay higher wages or provide consider ably more welfare services to replace the services now provided by housewives.

The institution of the family itself is not only part of the economic base of society but also part of its superstructure. We have already shown how women’s oppression, located in the family, permeates every aspect of life, and recreates the distortions of sex stereotyping in the next generation. As Engels argued, the way women’s oppression serves the capitalist mode of production means that it affects women of different classes differently. In capitalist class society, the role of bourgeois women is to produce legitimate heirs, who will be able to carry the accumulated wealth of the ruling class into the next generation. The role of working-class women is to reproduce this and the next generation of workers. And women of the ruling class do benefit from the oppression of working-class women, for they benefit from the employment of cheap female labour.

It is true that bourgeois women are discriminated against vis-à-vis men of the same class. But the divide between the two is nothing compared to the abyss which separates bourgeois women from working-class women. Evidence from two key areas for capitalist society, property and education, shouts loud and clear. In 1970 women, who make up half the population, owned approximately 40 per cent of the privately-owned wealth in Britain [9] – yet of this, millions of working-class women have nothing or a minute share. In education there is discrimination by sex, for only one third of the university students in Britain are women, but discrimination by class is far sharper. In 1975-6 only 2.9 per cent of girls from comprehensive schools went to university, as against 16.9 per cent from grammar schools and 30.1 per cent from direct grant schools. [10] The impact of class on a girl’s chances of going to university is decisive.

In these two key areas, bourgeois women have far more in common with men of their own class than with women of the working class. These so-called “sisters” are worlds apart. [11]

Who are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression? Radical feminists, as well as many who describe themselves as socialist feminists and even Marxist feminists, answer: men. Our answer to this is an emphatic no.

To be a working-class woman, financially dependent on husband, carrying the double burden of housework and holding down a boring, low-paid job, is very oppressive. However, to be a working man, to have the role of breadwinner in a harsh and threatening world, with unemployment hanging like the sword of Damocles over your head, is no privilege. The working man is as dehumanised as the woman. As Lindsey German put it in her excellent article, Theories of Patriarchy:

... the family wage did not materially benefit men. It did not cover more than the minimum costs of reproduction: the amount needed to keep the whole family ...

Under the family wage system, the married woman suffers insofar as she is excluded from direct capitalist production and thus, like the unemployed, is denied even the appearance of being a sovereign consumer. This is an important part of what we mean when we say housewives are oppressed while workers are exploited. But it does not signify that male workers benefit from women’s oppression ...

Housework, by definition, is work that is not subject to the tempo imposed by capitalist exploitation in the factory or the office. It does not involve intensive effort for a certain number of hours, followed by a period of recuperation in order to allow application of another fixed spell of intensive effort. Therefore there is no way the amount of labour that goes into it can be measured against the amount of labour that goes into factory work. All that can be said with certainty is that both factory work and housework are debilitating – one leading to occupational diseases (which is why symptoms such as chronic bronchitis are much higher among male workers than among housewives), horrific accidents, acute fatigue and often, an early death; the other to demoralisation, atomisation, insecurity, and a variety of ailments that are normally ignored by doctors.’ [12]

But, many feminists argue, the actual oppression of women is carried out by men. Men are rapists, pornographers, wife-beaters and so on, they say. But while feminists correctly point to individual men as the agents of these forms of oppression, they are wrong to identify these as the main ways in which women are oppressed. Not all – or even most – men are rapists, pornographers and wife-beaters. Moreover these are the actions of individuals and are small compared to the way the capitalist system structures and perpetuates women’s oppression through its institutions. Low pay, sections of the economy effectively barred to women, lack of childcare provision, and the institution of the family itself are the means by which reproduction remains privatised and whereby women are ensured a double burden. These structures are at the root of women’s oppression. They are built into the class society in which we live, and controlled as it is controlled, not by individual men and certainly not by individual working-class men.

This is not to deny, however, that men behave in certain ways which are oppressive to women. To pretend otherwise is to fall into the idealist error of denying that social relations are always relations between real people. But the blame should be placed squarely on class society, not on its individual agents. Women’s oppression damages the interests of both working women and men. It is a situation from which only the ruling class benefits.



Women in paid employment

If working-class women were only housewives, their oppression would make them powerless. The woman as a housewife is isolated and weak. As Margery Spring Rice, in her unique record of working-class women’s domestic labour in the 1930s, states:

She eats, sleeps, “rests”, on the scene of her labour, and her labour is entirely solitary ... whatever the emotional compensations, whatever her devotion, her family creates her labour, and tightens the bonds that tie her to the lonely and narrow sphere of “home”. [13]

The housewife’s isolation leads to a sense of powerlessness. She is prone to extreme fatalism, defined incisively by Emile Durkheim as “an excess of regulation found in persons whose future is relentlessly blocked, whose passions are violently repressed by an oppressive discipline, by the unavoidable and inflexible character of a role over which one is powerless”.

Working-class mothers who have no alternative to housework bolster their self-esteem through their stereotyped role. As Sue Sharpe put it: “Intense concern with domestic tasks is rational if there seems to be no alternative, and many women draw much of their self-esteem from their indispensability to the family. To deny this seems to remove the whole purpose of their existence.” [14] Linda Gordon, in her brilliant book, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, emphasises the aspect of self-preservation:

... mystique is used by women in their own interests ... it is a rational ideology for women’s survival and for maximising the creative and enjoyable aspects of their lives. Full-time motherhood, when it is possible, is for most women preferable to the other job alternatives they have. [15]

In similar vein, a black American mother explained the value of pregnancy in this way: “To me having a baby inside me is the only time I’m really alive. I know I can make something, do something, no matter what color my skin is and what names people call me.” And Linda Gordon comments: “Child care, for all its difficulty, is inherently less alienated and more creative than most other work; it offers a mother at least a semblance of control over her working conditions and goals.” [16]

A woman may well claim to be “happy” to be “only” a wife and mother, while she suppresses the thought of associated consequences – being cooped up in a flat in a high-rise building, frantically worried about money, working unlimited hours at drudgery. But she claims this because she is caught in a trap she does not know how to get out of, and because it is expected of her to be happy. If she admitted to herself that she was unhappy she would have failed as a person, and that would mean even greater unhappiness.

The traditional image of woman as wife and mother is still held strongly by millions. One crude expression of this prejudice worth quoting is the remark of Patrick Jenkin, Secretary of State for Social Services in the first Thatcher government: “If God had meant women to go out to work, he would not have created two sexes.” Practically all bourgeois sociologists and feminists place women firmly within the family structure, while ignoring, or at least very much downplaying, their role in the labour force. Even many so-called “Marxist feminists” concentrate their attention on domestic labour. Studies which do deal with women as wage-earners by and large concern themselves with the way women’s participation in the labour market is affected by their position in the family.

And this approach is inevitable unless one uses the Marxist method to show the synthesis – both the unity and the contradictions – between the two realms of women’s work. Appearances alone would give domestic labour greater weight than wage labour: after all, women do spend far more time on domestic labour – as Ann Oakley found in an interview with a number of housewives, on average 77 hours a week. [17]

Again, in terms of their own feelings, women make domestic labour take precedence over wage labour – and are conditioned to do so. If asked which they prefer of their exhausting double burden, they naturally say they prefer domestic labour. What alternatives do they visualise? To neglect the children, to employ a servant, to live in a hotel? Hence full-time motherhood, when it is possible, is for most working-class women preferable to other job alternatives.

But when it comes to the reality, most women for most of their lives are engaged in paid labour. The 1971 census showed that 87 per cent of all British women had worked some time in their lives. At present women make up 41 per cent of the labour force in Britain. As noted previously, in 1979 the so-called “typical worker” – a married man with a non-working wife and children – represented a mere 8 per cent of the male labour force and 5 per cent of the total labour force. [18]

In the United States in 1979, 14.6 per cent of all families were provided for by women alone. [19] There too, only one family in ten fits the conventional pattern of the nuclear family.

Since the Second World War, women have entered massively into paid employment. Firstly, the spread of contraception and increasing longevity means that married women are more able to seek work. Secondly there are more jobs available for married women. This table shows the change:

Employment in Great Britain (millions) [20]










Married women





Other women





TOTAL (women)





TOTAL (men and women)





Thus between 1951 and 1976 Britain’s working population increased by 3.3 million. Of this increase three million were women. In 1951 they formed 31 per cent of the labour force; today they form over 40 per cent, and this is probably a considerable underestimate as many of the statistics do not include those workers – part-time or on low incomes – who do not enter the tax bracket.

A similar movement of women into paid jobs took place in other countries of Western Europe and the United States. In the United States the number of women in the labour force rose from 13,840,000 in 1940 to 43,693,000 in 1980, an increase of215 per cent. Even more impressive was the rise in the number of married women in paid employment: from 5,040,000 to 26,347,000, or 422.8 per cent. [21]

This change has brought a radically different reaction to the double burden carried by working-class women when compared with the reaction a century ago. Being at work, their expectations and aspirations are altered and raised, and they acquire the financial ability at least partially to fulfil these. The family side of the burden can also be limited today by more effective contraception. Women today therefore rebel against the traditional sex roles, both of the wife and her husband.

This is brought into sharp relief in an extensive survey carried out in Norway by the sociologist Harriet Holter. [22] This showed that the attitude of women to traditional sex roles depended enormously on whether they were gainfully employed or not:


Least traditional


Most traditional

Housewives not gainfully employed




Housewives gainfully employed part-time




Housewives gainfully employed full-time




Holter comments: “Wives who work outside the home have more egalitarian attitudes than other women.” She shows, in another table, that “men with occupationally active wives are more egalitarian than men whose wives stay home.”


Least traditional


Most traditional

Husbands with wives not gainfully employed




Husbands with wives gainfully employed




Thus, instead of the pat norm accepted by bourgeois sociologists and feminists, which sees women’s attitudes as being formed outside and brought into the workplace, where they help reinforce the irrationalities of degraded women’s labour, we see how the habits and ideas created in the workplace in fact invade the home. While the two realms of production and reproduction are dialectically united, production is the primary of the two. Women’s wage labour is more decisive in affecting domestic labour and attitudes towards it than vice versa.

Marx was right when he wrote of the effect which the drawing of women (and children) into social production would have on relations within the family and relations between the sexes:

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 the 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 relations 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 human development. [23]

The path to the liberation of working-class women from exploitation and oppression is not in their isolated homes, but in their collective relationship as wage-earners where they can unite with fellow workers, men and women.

The change in women’s attitudes at home is especially great when they are engaged in far-reaching industrial struggles. For instance the ideas of the women who occupied the Lee Jeans factory in Scotland for seven months in 1982 changed radically in the struggle, and they challenged the assumptions of men – including their husbands and boyfriends – regarding the relations between the sexes. “I’m busy. You go and make the tea and look after the children,” was a frequent attitude among the women.

Only in the struggle to transform social relations do people change. It is the workplace that opens up to women the widest opportunities to struggle to organise and hence to change themselves. It is through involvement in social production that women, like men, are anchored as workers into the relations of production which are the pivot of class society. Marxism is about class power, and in the workplace this comes into sharpest focus.

Extensive efforts are made by the employing class to divide the working class. The uneven development of different countries, of different regions in the same country, of different branches of the economy, of different enterprises, fragments the working class. Racial, ethnic and sex discords add to the disunity. Disparities of skill, often exacerbated by craft unionism, widen these fissures, as does the employers’ divide-and-rule practice of using women as cheap labour to weaken the bargaining position of men, and using the craftism and sexual prejudices of men to weaken the position of working women.

The ideas of the ruling class prevail in society – and the family home is one of the most effective institutions for ensuring this. The home, where we are isolated into the smallest of groups, is fertile ground for the media to spread the ruling ideas of society. Television in particular is powerful in moulding the ideas of the mass of isolated people, including women.

The domestic division of labour increases a woman’s financial dependence on her husband and this weakens her bargaining position in the labour market. This makes her even more dependent on her husband, and so closes the vicious circle. In another way too, a woman’s role in the family affects her role in paid employment. Domestic labour, with its range of relatively unchanging skills, prepares women for only unskilled work. The break in employment when women leave to rear children, and their treatment on return as new entrants, does not serve to enhance their skills. Thus marriage and motherhood effectively “deskill” women.

The tendency for women to take part-time jobs is also directly related to their domestic responsibilities. The main growth in women s employment since the Second World War has been in the field of part-time work. In 1951, 12 per cent of women in Britain worked part-time; in 1976, 40 per cent. In 1975 two out of every three married working women with two or more children worked part-time. [24] Part-time work is associated with jobs which need little training, are dead-end, boring and low-paid. Women who take part-time jobs are forced to accept wages and conditions which would be unacceptable to full-time workers. Many do not get paid holidays, pensions, or protection by redundancy payments schemes.

The sexual division of labour in the workplace, largely influenced by women’s place in the household, is very much alive.

Despite these difficulties, however, the general sweep of history, with pauses and retreats, has been to narrow the divide between the male and female sections of the industrial working class, to advance the homogeneity of the class. The great expansion of women’s employment, with most women concentrated in large workplaces such as offices, hospitals and department stores, leads to a narrowing of the differences in working conditions for men and women workers. The gap between manual and white-collar workers is also closing.

One clear measure of this is the rapid narrowing of the gap between the unionisation of men and women. The recruitment of women into trade unions took giant steps after the Second World War:

Trade union membership in Britain [25]




Women as percentage
of total membership





























Women are still less unionised than men: 36.7 per cent of women workers were in trade unions in 1974, compared with 56.9 per cent of men. The gap is slightly wider among manual workers – women 42.1 per cent, men 64.7 per cent – and narrower among white-collar workers – women 32.6 per cent, men 44.5 per cent. [26]

We have already seen how the attitudes of women towards stereotyped roles in the family are affected according to whether they go out to work or not. The workplace, and the fight by working women to improve their circumstances there, is the key to changing ideas, “raising consciousness” – for collective action increases your confidence in yourself, your workmates, and your class. It is in fact the only way to break the ideology of oppression which is internalised by women. Working-class women, whose main concern is survival, cannot afford the luxury of purely intellectual “consciousness-raising”.

This does not mean that women workers ought only to organise at the workplace, or only around workplace issues, but that all other dimensions of the struggle are rooted there. Marxism rejects the idea that only at the point where problems arise are the solutions to be found. Women’s oppression cannot be overcome by women simply fighting oppression any more than old age pensioners can free themselves from poverty simply by their own efforts. In the struggle against oppression, the decisive factor is not the wretchedness of the contestants, but their strength. So the starting point for a struggle against women’s oppression is not that of oppression itself, but the point where working-class women are strong, where, with the men of their own class, they can fight to change society.



The need for a workers’ party

Marx and Engels stated that “with the development of industry the working class not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” The independent artisan, the tradesman, the peasants, all disappear because of the development of capitalism, but the working class gains in strength.

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed ... Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeois today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the race of Modern Industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product. [27]

The power of the working class to change society lies in its collective nature. Workers have no ownership over the industrial wealth of society, and cannot obtain it as individuals, since industry cannot be parcelled out into small pieces. Workers are organised collectively by capitalist industry and must act collectively to defend themselves and their working conditions. This collective strength gives the working class the power ultimately to emancipate the whole of human society.

But Marx was clear that while the working class has the potential for united action, actually it is often split, as we have seen. For the majority of workers do not recognise their collective strength and potential, because the prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. It is the ruling class which controls the means for the propagation of ideas: the media, education and – in many societies – the church.

The vast majority of people therefore carry a whole host of conflicting ideas in their heads. Some ideas are the result of what we have been taught to believe by the capitalist society around us; other, contradictory, ideas are the result of struggles in which workers, perhaps we ourselves, have played an active role. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci pointed out:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.

The personality is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over. [28]

Individuals, when isolated, are vulnerable to ruling-class ideas; in the workplace, where workers are able to organise and act collectively, they can resist them.

Because of the lack of homogeneity in the working class and the contradictions in the ideas of workers there is an imperative need for a revolutionary socialist party. The party can help workers to change their ideas in struggle, to free themselves from the influence of bourgeois ideas. The decisive role of the party is in giving a lead, an organisation and a focus to raise the self-activity and consciousness of the workers, so that one day they will take power for themselves.

The revolutionary workers’ party is also crucial for forging unity between all those who are oppressed, in fighting for liberation. In the same way that capitalism divides worker from worker, so it divides one section of the oppressed from another. Black people and women are both oppressed – but blacks do not automatically support women, nor vice versa (as, indeed, the history of the women’s movement has shown).

In fact the opposite is frequently the result. If people see no escape from their oppression, they may turn to oppress someone else in order to overcome their own feeling of powerlessness. For example, the Nazis sent thousands of gays to concentration camps. But gays did not therefore automatically become anti-Nazi. Tens of thousands of gays supported Hitler in his rise to power. For an oppressed gay, putting on a Nazi leather jacket and boots gave a sense of power-and he could then oppress Jews, women and anyone else.

For any oppressed group to fight back there is need for hope. And that is to be found, not in the isolation of oppression – the housewife trapped in the home, the gay in the closet, the Jews in the ghetto – but in the collective strength of the working class. For Marxists the notion that the working class, by liberating itself, will liberate the whole of humanity, is central. Which is why the revolutionary socialist party must support struggles against all forms of oppression, not only of the working class but of any downtrodden section of society, and unite these with the working-class struggle. As Lenin wrote:

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from [a revolutionary socialist] point of view and no other ...

If these tyrannies are exposed, he continues,

the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition. [29]

While the working class is divided by prejudices such as sexism and racism, the revolutionary socialist party, which can see beyond these divisions to the potential of the working class for self-emancipation, must not concede to any pressure from backward workers influenced by the bourgeois prejudices of the society around them. The party must struggle relentlessly against all those divisions in the working class – of race, of nationality, between men and women, skilled and unskilled, employed and unemployed – which are systematically fostered by the ruling class. Hence for Lenin the struggle against anti-Semitism was the task of the revolutionary socialist party as a whole, and not only of its Jewish members. Likewise for us today, the struggle against women’s oppression is the task of the whole party, not just of women.

Because of the specific situations in which working women find themselves, many special demands need to be fought for, such as for equal pay, for free abortion on demand, for the free availability of birth control information and facilities, for improvements in training for women and the up-grading of women’s jobs, for better-paid maternity leave without loss of seniority, for the same rights for part-time as for full-time workers, for free nurseries and so on. These are class issues, and would benefit the working class as a whole, women, men and children.

The importance of struggling for reforms specially tailored to the needs of women workers, like that of the struggle for reforms in general, lies not so much in the intrinsic value of the reforms themselves. Under capitalism any achievable reforms are bound to be small and open to assault, especially during the economic crisis of the system. Their main value is that they raise the confidence, consciousness and organisation of the workers involved. They are class issues in this sense also: that the struggle for them and success in achieving them depend upon the overall balance of class forces. While fighting for such reforms, women workers, and men workers, have to be won to the total politics of revolutionary socialism. For women’s oppression will only fully be ended with the self-emancipation of the working class as a whole, and the final abolition of the class society which benefits from it.



Communism and the liberation of women

For Marx and Engels the emancipation of women demanded not only the entry of women into social production, but also the socialisation of the care of children, the old, invalids and others. The present sexual division of labour is hierarchical, placing men in superior and women in subordinate positions. The hierarchical principle has to be eradicated, together with the division of labour between the sexes. This is a prerequisite for women to attain social equality.

The abolition of the sexual division of labour under communism will be an integral part of the ending of all divisions of labour. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels wrote that

in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. [30]

Only after the division of labour has been abolished will men and women attain the full development of their human personality. Communism will therefore bring real freedom to the individual. Communist society, declares The Communist Manifesto, will be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. [31]

What will be the impact of communism on personal relations?

Marx and Engels never tried to guess what the nature of the family in the future communist society would be before the material conditions for its creation existed. They dealt only in the broadest terms with the likely developments. They believed that individual sexual love would reach much fuller expression under communism, because the old pressures of economic necessity and the alienation of all social relations would disappear. Engels in his draft for The Communist Manifesto wrote that communist society

will make the relation between the sexes a purely private relation which concerns only the persons involved, and in which society has no call to interfere. It is able to do this because it abolishes private property and educates children communally, thus destroying the twin foundation of hitherto existing marriage – the dependence through private property of the wife upon the husband and of the children upon the parents. [32]

Both Engels and Marx took it for granted that under communism equality between the sexes would mean there would be complete freedom to leave a dead union and form a new one. There would be “serial monogamy”. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels wrote that communism would bring about real monogamy:

Since sex love is by its very nature exclusive – although this exclusiveness is fully realised today only in the woman – then marriage based on sex love is by its very nature monogamy ... monogamy, instead of declining, finally becomes a reality – for the man as well. [33]

Similar conclusions about sex relations under communism were reached by Trotsky when he wrote in 1933:

A long and permanent marriage, based on mutual love and co-operation – that is the ideal standard ... Freed from the chains of police and clergy, later also from those of economic necessity, the tie between men and women will find its own way, determined by physiology, psychology, and care for the welfare of the human race. [34]

Similar views were expressed by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

A very different view, assuming the withering away of all forms of monogamy, was put forward by the French Marxist Jules Guesde (1845-1922) when he wrote about the family:

... a day would come when it will no longer have any raison d’être ... It might be that ... the warm atmosphere of benevolence and affection developed in the bosom of the collectivity by the equality of well-being of each member, will render unnecessary that second special matrix which the family constitutes, and will permit the reduction of the family in space to the mother and child, and in time to the period of lactation. On the other hand, sexual relations between men and women, founded on love and mutual concern, can become free, as variable and as multiple as intellectual or moral relations between individuals of the same or opposite sex. [35]

It would be foolish to speculate whether Marx and Engels or Guesde will prove right. We simply do not know. There is no crystal ball to tell us how people will feel and act in their personal relations under communism.

We can, however, be sure of a few points regarding personal relations. In present society the relations between men and women in marriage are held up as the most intimate human relations. But the intimacy is poisoned at its roots by capitalism: women are unequal to men, and real intimacy cannot be achieved except among equals. Real intimacy, emotional fulfilment, sexual satisfaction, will be possible for the first time under communism.

At present the family is seen as a refuge in a hostile world, and the expectations demanded of it are far too high. Under communism caring and loving will be more widespread; the family will not be able to claim them narrowly for its own. Children will be far freer. Today, many a mother and father have a high emotional stake in their children: their own lives have been so frustrating and disappointing that they seek in their children a greater achievement. The child is being used. Such parental expectations are usually cruelly dashed, with both parents and children paying the price. The possessive relationship between parents and children – part of the ethos of competitive individualism engendered by capitalist society – will be replaced under communism by social solidarity.

Human beings will then be living under completely new circumstances, which will affect their lives, including the relations between men and women, men and men, and women and women. The crucial point is that under communism the stereotyped polarisation of sex roles will not exist. Men and women will carry out all necessary tasks communally – child-rearing, cooking, cleaning, these will be tasks of both sexes equally, not one. All sexual relationships will have the same validity. Heterosexuality and homosexuality will both be accepted as valid and normal, in the same way that left-handed people or redheaded people do not stand out as abnormal today. Only under communism can real sexual love between men and women, men and men, and women and women, be possible without twists and distortions. Only under communism can respect for the identity of the individual be achieved, and the use of a person of either sex only as an object for another person’s pleasure be obliterated. The essential humanity~I every individual will be recognised when sexual prejudices are ended.

Above all, communism is about freedom. Certainly many lifestyles will co-exist, and it will be up to individuals to choose, again and again.


1. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, pp.25-6.

2. Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.68.

3. Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.74.

4. R. Briffault, The Mothers (1927).

5. E. Reed, Women’s Evolution (1975).

6. M. Poster, Critical Theory of the Family (London 1978) p.185.

7. See F. Mount, The Subversive Family (London 1982).

8. Marx, Capital vol.1, pp.536-7.

9. Social Trends 1972.

10. M. Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today (London 1980) p.147.

11. Compare the facts given here with feminist ideas, as in Jill Tweedie’s words: “Any rich woman who is a wife and mother has had a great deal more in common with any poor woman who is also married and a mother than any rich man with poor men, since men are defined by their incomes.” (The Guardian, 19 January 1981.)

12. L. German, Theories of Patriarchy, in International Socialism 2:12 (Spring 1981).

13. M.S. Rice, Working-class wives (London 1981) pp.105-6.

14. Sharpe, p.54.

15. Gordon, p.406. Only a woman highly successful in the professions, like Simone de Beauvoir, the eminent feminist, could say the following: “I think a woman must not fall into the trap of children and marriage. Even if a woman wants to have children, she must think very hard about the conditions in which she will have to bring them up, because child-bearing, at the moment, is real slavery. Fathers and society leave to women, and to women alone, the responsibility of bringing up children. It is women who must stop working to bring up children. It is women who must stay at home when children are ill, and it is women who are blamed when children fail.

“And if a woman is still determined to have children, it would be better to have them without being married, because marriage is the biggest trap.” (Talking to Simone de Beauvoir, Spare Rib, March 1977.) By the way, Simone de Beauvoir had no children. For her, child care could not have appeared less alienating or more creative than her work as a successful author.

16. L. Gordon, The Struggle for Reproductive Freedom: Three States of Feminism, in S R Eisenstein (editor), Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York 1979) p.125.

17. A. Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (London 1974) p.94.

18. Study Commission on the Family, Families of the Future, p.19.

19. US Department of Labour, Perspectives on Working Women (1980) pp.30 and 53.

20. J. Hunt and S. Adams, Women, Work and Trade Union Organisation (London 1980) p.8.

21. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Special Labor Force Reports 13, pp.130 and 183; also US Department of Labor, Perspectives on Working Women, p.3.

22. H. Halter, Sex Roles and Social Structure (Oslo 1970) pp.73-4.

23. Marx, Capital vol.1, p.460.

24. Department of Employment, Women and Work: A Review (London 1975) p.46.

25. Clegg, Fox and Thompson, p.489; Hunt and Adams, p.14; and B.C. Roberts, The Trade Union Congresses 1868-1921 (London 1958) p.379.

26. R. Price and C.S. Bain, Union Growth Revisited: 1948-1974 in Perspective, in British Journal of Industrial Relations (November 1976).

27. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Works vol.6, pp.490, 492 and 494.

28. A Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London 1971) pp.324 and 333.

29. Lenin, Works vol.5, pp.412 and 414.

30. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, in Works vol.5, p.47.

31. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Works vol.6, p.506.

32. Engels, Principles of Communism, in Marx and Engels, Works vol.6, p.354.

33. Engels, The Origin of the Family, pp.83 and 88.

34. L. Trotsky, Women and the Family (New York 1974) p.53.

35. Quoted in Boxer, pp.68-9.


Last updated on 31.7.2002