Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Rosie O’Connell and Roosevelt Washington, Jr.

Let’s Go Forward, Not Backwards: Defeat Bourgeois Feminism in the Women’s Movement


Published: Workers Herald, Vol. 1, No. 3, January 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the U.S., the movement for the complete emancipation of women is foundering because of its domination by bourgeois feminism. This domination is not only political and organizational but also ideological. An example of this is the “feminist” political economy being propagated by a variety of revisionists today (Trotskyists, social-democrats, the CPUSA, etc.) in the name of Marxism-Leninism. The bourgeois feminist view that the “battle of the sexes” is the fundamental contradiction in all forms of society has become a guiding principle to some who would claim the banner of Marxism-Leninism.

Many of the deviations on the Woman Question can be traced to the work of the “CPUSA” in the late 1930’s. In 1939, the Daily Peoples World in San Francisco printed a work entitled In Woman’s Defense, by Mary Inman. This work presented the thesis that the working class wife, working in the home, is the “producer of the commodity labor power,” that her labor is “socially necessary, productive” labor for the capitalist class as a whole, and that she is also directly exploited by her husband and family. While the CP did come out with a polemic against these views in 1941, this revisionist thesis on the woman question was published and promoted by the party. Eventually, Inman left the CP, but the influence of her revisionism on the woman question continued to affect the Communist movement in the U.S. Her 1942 book, Woman Power, and a 1964 work entitled The Two Forms of Production Under Capitalism again restate the same thesis.

A number of small circles in the so-called “anti-revisionist trend” of the 1970’s adopted Inman’s thesis and based another whole generation of revisionist theories on Inman’s distortions of Marxist theory. Rather than address all of the variations on this theme, we will address our discussion first of all to the underlying questions of political economy, regarding the production of labor power, productive vs. unproductive labor, etc. and secondly to the reactionary consequences for the struggle if the “Inman thesis” were to be adopted.

Inman distorts a number of Marxist ideas in order to tailor them to her own “theory.” The first is the idea of “productive labor.”


Inman’s fundamental “proof” that the labor of the housewife is both “socially necessary” and “productive” is that the housewife produces the commodity labor power. She seizes upon Engel’s statement “the production and reproduction of immediate life is of a two-fold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production, on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.” [Engels, Origins of the Family, State and Private Property] Thus, Engels made a clear distinction between the organization of the labor process on the one hand, and the corresponding structure of the family in various periods on the other. Inman, however, chooses to confuse the two.

For Marx, “productive” labor is defined from the content of the social form of production, not from the concrete form of labor or the fact that it results in a product. The characteristic content of the capitalist form of production is that production takes the form of commodities (including labor power) for the purpose of the expansion of capital through the expropriation of surplus value. Thus, only that labor is productive which produces surplus value. And only that labor produces surplus value that exchanges itself with capital, directly leading to the self-expansion of the latter. [Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. 1, Chapter 4, and Political Economy, Eaton, Chapter 10] The particular species of labor does not determine if it is productive; the fact that labor produces an object does not qualify it as productive, nor does the fact that a certain kind of labor is socially necessary from the point of view of the division of labor.

Such features are not the distinctive economic content of capitalist production. For Marx, what makes a particular form of labor productive is whether or not its employment yields surplus value for the purchaser.

Productive labor, in its meaning for capitalist production, is wage-labour which exchanged against the variable part of capital (the part of capital that is spent on wages), reproduces not only this part of the capital (or the value of its own labour-power) but in addition produces surplus value for the capitalist. It is only then that the commodity of money is transformed into capital, is produced as capital. Only that wage-labour is productive which produces capital. (This is the same as saying that it reproduces on an enlarged scale the sum of value expended on it, or that it gives in return more labor than it receives in the form of wages. Consequently, only that labour-power is productive which produces a value greater than its own.) [Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. 1, p. 152]

Given this background, there are a number of reasons why we cannot consider the labor of the housewife to be “productive” of surplus value. First, the relation between the woman in the home and the capitalist is neither one between commodity buyers and sellers (because the labor of the housewife does not produce commodities but use-values) nor one between labor (wage) and capital. In this sense, the labor of the woman in the home does not even fall under the capitalist mode of production. That is why her labor is referred to as private, domestic economy. Being such, her labor does not directly exchange with anything or anyone, since her labor produces use-values and services for direct consumption not by the capitalist employer of her husband but by herself and family. Second, in order for her labor to produce surplus value within the confines of the family, she would have to enter into a relation of wage-labor to capital with regard to her husband and the rest of her family. Her husband would have to relate to her as the owner of the means of production and subsistence. But this is totally absurd. By definition, and the facts of real life, the average male wage-worker does not possess any means of production and cannot exploit the labor of the housewife, or for that matter, of anyone else. In order to “get around” this trifle, Mary Inman, in her book, Woman Power, tried to convince the reader that the house, kitchen and spoons of the housewife were the fixed capital of the husband, provided to her to incorporate surplus value. What an absurdity!

All Marxists are aware that the value of the commodity labor power is reducible to so many commodities needed to reproduce the laborer and his or her family. And, until the distortions by Mary Inman, this political economy held that these means of subsistence and their value were reproduced by the labor of the productive laborers. But we axe–told by the revisionist that the housewife, in addition to producing surplus value, also “produces and reproduces the commodity labor power.” This feat is accomplished by her bearing of the children and her maintenance of the husband (cooking, cleaning, washing). There is no doubt a lot of confusion behind this argument. First, the housewife does participate in the biological reproduction of the children and in this sense “produces” the future laborers. But this has nothing to do with the economic problem of the production of labor power in capitalist society. According to Marx, labor power is produced by productive laborers who exchange their labor directly against capital. Again, the labor of the housewife working in the home is divorced from social capitalistic production: she produces use-values, not exchange values. She produces services for the direct consumption of her family. The purpose of her labor is not for exchange at all, and of course there is no direct or indirect exchange with the capitalist. Thus, under capitalistic production her labor in the home is in no way connected with the production of commodities in general, or the particular commodity labor power. How then is the commodity labor power produced?

Labor power is produced by the activities of the productive workers, who in addition to reproducing the value of their own subsistence also provide for the means of subsistence of unproductive labor of the capitalist socioeconomic formation (housewives, government workers, army, other unproductive workers, etc.). They accomplish this deed while incorporating surplus value into the products of the capitalist. Listen to Marx, “... he has also produced, before it flows back to him in the shape of wages, the fund out of which he himself is paid, the variable capital ...” [Capital, Vol. I, p. 566] The housewife’s means of subsistence is paid out of this very fund produced and replenished by the labor of the productive laborer. The housewife, rather than being the producer of the fund, is a beneficiary of the fund. Her toil in no way produces the use-values or exchange values that make up the constituents of the commodity labor power, (i.e., the housing, schooling, etc.,) on a social basis.

While using Engels to “refute” a correct Marxist position on the social and economic role of women, Inman ignores Engels’ statements that women’s work in the family has been removed from social production. In Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, he says:

The legal inequality of the two partners ... is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of women. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the tasks entrusted to women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary (emphasis added) industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family and still more with the monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Engels could not have been more clear on this point. The wife’s labor in the home is completely divorced from and lies outside of social production. It is a private service, therefore it cannot be “socially necessary” in the Marxist sense of the word. Further, the wife’s labor in the home lies outside of capitalist production since it produces only use-values for private consumption of the woman herself and her family.

The reactionary content of the “social necessity” of the housewife should be clear. It implies that it is desirable, even necessary, to keep the housewife in the home. This is in direct contradiction not only to the socialist ideal, but even to the main trend of capitalist development which, because of the higher rate of exploitation of women’s labor, draws increasing numbers of women into social production. If followed to its logical conclusion, this idea would lead to just such demands as wages tor housework, sick pay, etc.

Engels lays out quite clearly the essence of the special oppression of women,

... the wife became the social servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a way that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties.

From this analysis by Engels we get the clue to the real condition for the emancipation of women – women must be drawn into social production, and they must be accorded the same political and social status as men.

To insure that they are brought into social production on an equal basis with men, a certain number of special reforms must be undertaken. The socialization of house work, special leaves for maternity, communal restaurants, kindergartens and creches. At the same time this must be accompanied by major changes in the relation of the woman to the family, the sharing of housework by men, the equalization of the rights of women in the household as regards matters of divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc. Capitalism cannot and will not bring about such complete all around changes for women workers. Capitalism is based on inequality, exploitation and oppression. The equality that women enjoy under even the most democratic capitalist republic is still hypocritical. Only the socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat can create these conditions.

The working women’s movement has for its object the fight for the economic and social, not merely formal, equality of woman. The main task is to draw the women into socially productive labor, extricate them from “domestic slavery,” free them of their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery. [Lenin, Women and Society]

Thus, the working class man and woman have a common interest and a need for joint struggle for socialist revolution. On the other hand, Inman’s thesis claims that working class men and women are enemies. This theory can only aid in preserving the system of exploitation – oppressing workers and women.

And finally, since in Inman’s view the family is the vehicle for the oppression of women, these views lead to feminist demands that the family be dissolved under socialism. On the contrary, the emancipation of women should bring about the strengthening of marriage based on equality of men and women, socialization of household drudgery and the full participation of women in society. The support, by the socialist state, of childcare facilities will allow the working class family to have healthy children without limiting the mother’s ability to participate in the full life of society.


1. The Woman Question, Selections from the Writings of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V.I. Lenin, & Joseph Stalin. International Publishers, New York, 1951.

2. Marx, Karl. Theories of Surplus Value, (Volume IV of Capital, Part I). Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963.

3. Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol. I. New York: International Publishers, 1970.