Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Which Side Are You On?

First Published: The Guardian, April 3, 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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“Women hold up half the sky” is a slogan currently popular in China that poignantly affirms the contribution of the female sex to human history.

It is also a slogan that should be pondered by the Revolutionary Union (RU), especially those of their members responsible for the article. “Revolution: Only Road to Women’s Liberation,” appearing in the March issue of their newspaper, Revolution.

The article’s main point correctly asserts that the struggle of women for emancipation is a class question. It shows that woman’s freedom is tied to her economic independence, of her full integration into social production together with the socialization of her household tasks. Since this can’t happen under capitalism, proletarian revolution is the only way out.

The problem, however, is that the RU combines this correct conclusion with a line of reasoning that seriously distorts the role of women in history and thus plays down their potential contribution to the struggle today.

“From earliest times,” says the RU, “the man had been the one primarily responsible for procuring the food because woman was bound by the demands of pregnancy and child raising.” This is supposed to sum up the essence of women’s role in primitive society, although a few embellishments are added:

Women, says the article, “quite literally kept the home fires burning, did limited gathering of nuts, berries, etc., and made clothing of animal skins and did other household-related tasks.” But even as “limited” as these tasks supposedly were, the RU concedes that they were “equally” important for survival and that women were held “in high respect.”

Thus doomed from the very beginning by biology, woman’s lot proceeded steadily downward. Society advanced, says the RU, because “men began to domesticate, breed and herd livestock and, later, plant and grow crops.” To pass on this new surplus of wealth to their sons, men established monogamous marriage to replace group marriage where descent was traced through the female line.

But all this is backwards, incomplete and wrong. It is based on a superficial reading of Engels’ work, “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” and an ignorance of the development of science since the book was written. It is accomplished by writing half of humanity out of prehistory and substituting for women’s creative struggle the efforts of men alone.

The domestication of cattle, for instance, did not develop, in the main, prior to agriculture, but afterwards. Nor did monogamous marriage replace group marriage straightaway. Two intervening stages were required, the pairing family and the patriarchal family.

But the most obvious omission from the RU’s account is any mention of the matriarchy, the form of social organization most typical of savagery and the lower stages of barbarism. Nor is there any mention of how the transition was made from savagery to barbarism.


It is precisely these two aspects of human prehistory that reveal women’s most prominent role. While it is true that the first division of labor was between man and woman in child raising, the character of the primitive commune was such that it hardly meant women were isolated from social production as they are today. The child saw all men in the commune as “mother’s brothers” and all women as “mothers.” All adults saw all children as their own and cared for them collectively, with men training the boys and women the girls.

The communal household itself was the center of social production, the preparation of food. While men primarily hunted and women primarily gathered, it was primarily the efforts of the latter’s struggle against nature that the beginnings of agriculture was born. Still considered “women’s work” in primitive societies today, the growing of food stabilized the commune and effected the transition to barbarism. While men primarily developed herds of cattle, women domesticated the first animals, primarily dogs and cats to protect food stores from vermin.

It would be wrong to romanticize this period, as some feminists do. The matriarchy, despite its egalitarian features, still left humanity the slave of nature. And it remained primarily for the men to advance humanity from barbarism to the first stage of civilization–slave society–through the overthrow of the matriarchy along with the replacement of the pairing family by the absolute power of the patriarch over his wife, children and slaves.

With the patriarchy and its concomintant division of society into classes–slaves and slaveowners–a surplus was created that led to wider exchange, further division of labor, development of productive forces and class struggle–all the ingredients of progress.

The pairing family, which the patriarchy replaced, consisted of one woman and one man mated together as equals, either of which could dissolve the union at any time voluntarily and the children of which were cared for by all. Engels points out that, in practice, it was probably more monogamous than the modern family, where monogamy exists primarily for the woman. Two processes brought it into being as the end refinement cf group marriage. One was natural selection, since those tribes with the strictest inhibitions against inbreeding were most likely to prosper. And the other, Engels notes, was the struggle of women for the right to chastity, limiting the number of men with access to her as the primitive commune grew in size to larger villages.

But like so many other things women first developed in the dawn of history, the men, particularly those of the privileged classes, took it from her, advanced it further and turned it into a weapon against her.


What does this have to do with the struggle today? Simply that the secondary and passive role the RU has assigned to prehistoric women is reflected in their attitude toward vital questions today, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, which it opposes for the sake of protective legislation. Rather than relying on the masses of working women to make sure beneficial protective laws are extended to men, the RU downplays their power and initiative and leaves the ERA as a weapon that only the bourgeoisie can use.

In both arenas then, the dim past and the present, the RU falters on the question of who makes history and particularly fails to note that the female half of the masses makes it as well.