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International Socialism, Winter 1978/79


Joan Smith

Women’s oppression and male alienation


From International Socialism, 2:3, Winter 1978/79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


There are two questions which confront us with regard to the liberation of women. One is how we locate the origins of women’s oppression. Is it to be found in the institutions of the state and the family? Is it to be found in an autonomous patriarchy? Is it to be found in the sex-gender system? If each of these understandings is only partial then how is a fuller, deeper understanding to be synthesised?

The second question is how – as women – do we organise ourselves? Do we work within an autonomous women’s movement?; within an autonomous women’s movement and an existing political organisation (Labour Party, Communist Party, small revolutionary organisation)?; or do we build an independent communist women’s movement which is politically allied but organisationally distinct from a revolutionary party?

Neither of these questions are new but with the founding and development of an independent Women’s Voice organisation they become extremely urgent. What do we say to women when they ask us to explain our fundamental position on these two questions?

This article attempts to deal only with the first of these two questions. It develops some of the points made in articles I wrote in IS 1:100 and IS 1:104 and also deals with some of the questions raised in Irene Bruegel’s article in IS 2:1. More importantly this article is concerned to consider some of the questions raised by Ann Foreman’s Femininity as Alienation. [1] In Part I of this article I briefly summarise and discuss some of the main points of Ann Foreman’s analysis. In Part II I deal with the central question of the relationship of the categories masculine/feminine to the oppression of women. In Part III I deal with Irene Bruegel’s attempt to integrate the Ann Foreman analysis with that of the so-called ‘domestic labour’ school.

This article is not an exhaustive review of Ann Foreman’s position. It is an attempt to provide an alternative analysis of the problems she raises arising from the argument in my previous articles. Other women will wish to take up other questions and develop alternative analyses [2], including the second question of how we organise as women. A debate on this question is still ongoing in the pages of Socialist Review [3], so I shall not repeat it here.

Part I – ‘Little Women’

In IS 2:1 Irene Bruegel argued that it is necessary to synthesise the two current positions on the oppression of women and that the approach she terms (incorrectly) “Marxist-functionalist” must be integrated with the approach of “Patriarchy”. She goes on to argue that this can be done through Ann Foreman’s analysis.

“Ann Foreman’s analysis of ‘Femininity as alienation’ provides the beginning of an alternate account of male domination within capitalism. She argues that femininity – female passivity, acceptance and loving helpfulness – is created, not just individually as each girl is brought up, but much more fundamentally as a social construct, a necessary counterpoint to the alienation of labour under capitalism”. [4]

Irene goes on to argue, “This is an argument about gender attributes, rather than biology. With the development of commodity production women were increasingly excluded from the economy, often by men using their political power to close trades to women. As a result of this and the problems of combining wage labour with child rearing (particularly breast feeding), the split between the economy and family increasingly took the form of a split between a male and female realm. Those who were biologically female developed the attributes that we associate with femininity, in order to sustain the male realm of wage labour”. [5] Finally Irene states “It is precisely the gender attributes of femininity which are oppressive of women and it is these which are maintained by capitalist relations of production”. [6]

Quite clearly Irene, in coming to the conclusion that it is ‘the gender attributes of femininity’ that are oppressive of women is basing her entire position on Ann Foreman.

The argument that Ann Foreman puts forward is this. Capitalist society imposes the separation of public life from the family by separating the family from commodity production. The restriction of women to the family means that there is meaning in the freedom of individual men. Under capitalism alienated men can feel free because women are unfree. Thus the male workforce and the male trade unions are the active agents in securing the exclusion of women from the economy and their seclusion in the home. This she sees as the crucial dynamic of male domination over women in capitalist society in all classes.

Thus Ann Foreman locates the crucial source of women-oppression as male domination within the working class family and the start of this process at the beginning of capitalist relations of production. “Capitalist production” she argues “then dealt a body blow to the position of women within the social workforce”. [7] Her whole argument centres on the following passage.

“The man exists in the social world of business and industry as well as in the family, and therefore is able to express himself in these different spheres. For the women her place is within the home. Men’s objectification within industry, through the expropriation of their labour takes the form of alienation. But the effect of alienation of their lives and consciousness of women takes an even more oppressive form. Men seek relief from their alienation through their relations with women; for women there is no relief For these intimate relationships are the very ones that are the essential structures of their oppression”. [8]

Ann Foreman goes on to argue, “The forms of masculinity and femininity in capitalist society come from real needs and experiences – the alienation of the worker within industry and his need for essential support from his wife”. [9] The argument about women’s oppression therefore comes to focus on the forms of masculinity and femininity which, according to Foreman enter the unconscious of the individuals preventing men from understanding their role as oppressors and women from “developing an awareness of their oppression”.

This argument leads to two conclusions. Firstly, that a new type of sexual relationship is necessary (polymorphous sexuality) in order to develop new personal relationships in order to transform the forms of masculinity and femininity which are experienced. [10] Following this Ann Foreman sees the essential development of the women’s movement having been through consciousness raising rather than through the campaigns of the movement. [11]

The second conclusion is that of necessity there is an inverse relationship between the male trade union movement and the women’s movement – the stronger the union the greater the oppression. [12] Again this leads back to the argument that what is crucial for the struggle against oppression is the separation of the women’s struggle from that of the working class, the preservation of the autonomy of the women’s movement. The references to sexism in Ann Foreman’s book are references to sexism within the working class movement only.

Ann Foreman’s book has been the subject of criticisms within the women’s movement, not only because of her critique of Freudian Marxism but also because she has attempted to deal with the question of the relationship between personal life and the capitalist relations of production. Within the women’s movement a major trend is to identify the specific problems of women’s oppression in terms of a ‘patriarchal discourse’ with its own laws of development completely separate from the laws of development of the mode of production itself. Some women would go further than this and argue that the source of women’s oppression is to be found in a sex-gender system rather than in the patriarchal institutions of the family or the state – whether capitalist or patriarchal.

The strength of Ann Foreman’s analysis and the reason that it has had a favourable reception amongst many socialist feminists is that she does attempt to relate the questions of masculinity/femininity to the development of the capitalist mode of production, and she does focus on the family as a central institution for the oppression of women. Having said that, however, I would disagree with nearly every part of her analysis.

Her analysis appears to me essentially to be a ‘little women’ analysis – women at the hearth, men on the battlefield. It was precisely against this sort of interpretation of women’s lives that my article in IS 1:104 was written. The history of capitalism has not just been the history of the exploitation and alienation of the male workforce but also the history of the exploitation, alienation and oppression of the female workforce.

There are four parts to the ‘little women’ analysis that need to be considered. Firstly the argument that the rise of capitalism dealt a ‘body blow’ to the position of women is untrue. On the contrary, it is in the development of capitalist relations of production – which frees women from the ties of the oppressive patriarchal household of landed societies – that the potentialities of women’s liberation exists.

In Ann Foreman’s analysis the tasks of pre-capitalist societies (glibly labelled ‘social production’) are presented as being neutrally allocated between the sexes:

“In pre-capitalist periods economic and personal and sexual relations had been thoroughly intermingled. The kinship system had provided the rationale for the division of labour within social production. The task that men and women performed were allocated on the basis of their place within the system. For example grandmothers of young girls had their own specific role within industry that was conditioned by the culture and tradition of that particular society”. [13]

In fact in many of these societies the immediate male head – the patriarch – had total power over both women and young people in his household. As Homer wrote of early Greek society “each one gives law to his children and, his wives”, (every man his own state! What a chauvinist’s dream!). [14] The culture and tradition of such societies was entirely patriarchal. The same is also true of later pre-capitalist societies in different degrees: Marx wrote of the ‘patriarchal industries’ of peasant families and then speaks of the distribution of work within the family. [15]

It is against that sort of immediate male domination – man as father, husband, foreman – that Marx argued that capitalism sets women free by removing employment from the sphere of the family by pushing women out of the family into industry. [16] And, of course, it is only such a perspective as this that allows us to explain why it is under capitalism that a women’s liberation movement can develop. As with the working class movement women are in chains but also have the power to break those chains.

Therefore the second part of Ann Foreman’s argument – women as housewives – is not true. The significant history of women under capitalism is the history of the relationship between their role in production and their role in reproduction. Women workers have been a vital part of (British) capitalism throughout its history.

Moreover the ‘women as housewife’ analysis denies the reality of women’s lives in capitalism today. The typical female worker in Britain is a married woman who – as soon as her children reach school age – is a permanent part-time or full-time worker. The essential character of our role is that we are both mothers and workers; the ‘housewife’ is a myth. Furthermore this argument of ‘women as housewife’ leads to the crude economistic argument, in Ann Foreman, that women stress their femininity because of economic need. Because Ann Foreman has argued that the essential structure of the woman’s oppression is her immediate relationship within the family there is no space in her analysis for the complex problem of the society-wide ideology of femininity and its role in capitalist society.

Thirdly her view of the family – the man exists in the social world of business and industry, the woman in the home – is an out-of-date caricature of one type of family. In any class society there is one type of family that appears to be the norm and in 19th century capitalism that family was the Victorian middle class family. For most working class men the ‘social world of business and industry’ was, and is, a place where they dream their lives away waiting for the evenings and the weekends so that they can start real living again – either in the pub, at football, fishing or in their home. The same is also true for working women. The dreams are different but they play the same role.

When Ann Foreman writes of the 19th century family she is not writing of the family of the casual labourer, the handyman, or the immigrant worker. She is talking of the banker, the middle manager, the industrialist and their clerks and skilled workers. The trade unions of which she writes are the craft trade unions of the skilled workers.

And those craft trade unionists were not just determined to keep women out of industry. They organised an entire system of apprenticeship to ensure that handymen and unskilled workers didn’t take their jobs either. Unskilled workers in turn agitated not just against the ‘cheap labour’ of women workers but also the ‘cheap labour’ of migrant workers’ – their racism equalled their sexism. Male workers’ rejection of women workers – like their rejection of other male unskilled workers, other male immigrant workers – is not related to their ‘alienation’ as husbands. It is related to their acceptance of the permanence of capitalism and their adaptation to working within it instead of against it.

There is of course a further acceptance of the permanence of capitalism in their acceptance of the permanence of the capitalist family, and the attempts to protect ‘their’ women and children from the factory system. But from their acceptance of the permanence of the family, it does not follow that they have a material interest in the maintenance of the family and the oppression of women.

Above all, if we follow an Ann Foreman-type analysis then it is the ‘gender attributes of femininity’, the polarity masculine/feminine that is oppressive of women, rather than these being the ideological manifestations of women’s oppression. This is essentially an idealist analysis, in which the ideological forms which oppress women are generated within the relationships women have with the men they live with.

Moreover, in Ann Foreman’s analysis, these ‘gender attributes of femininity’ must be capitalist-specific because they are generated within the family by the male’s flight from alienation. Yet statements on the femininity of women, on the dualism male/female, are to be found in all class societies and are not capitalist specific. Thus we clearly need an analysis of women’s oppression that is capable of discussing women’s oppression in both pre-capitalist societies and capitalist societies.

In Part II I will look at an alternative approach to the question as to how women are objectified – how we become ‘the other’ – in capitalist society. The objectification of women that exists – women as virgins, women as sex symbols, women as mothers – are all related to women’s sexual/reproduction functions. Femininity can only be understood through analysing the double fetishisation of women in capitalist society.

This double fetishisation of women is the ideological manifestation of the material structure of women’s oppression – of her double role as producer and reproducer and the way those roles are mediated by the state. The essential structure of women’s oppression is not to be found in these ideological manifestations – in the forms of masculinity and femininity – as Irene argues. It is to be found in the material reality of women’s lives as structured by the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist family, as mediated by the state.

How the state mediates the relationship between production and reproduction in capitalist society must be studied separately. But clearly it is here that one could begin to locate an analysis of the oppression of youth and an analysis of the oppression of gays. Ann Foreman’s analysis of how women come to be oppressed within the family can only leave both these questions quite separate from that of women’s oppression. Hopefully, the argument posed in Part II will have greater explanatory power than that.

Part II: Women’s oppression and the fetishism of commodities

In focussing on the individual’s relationships within the family Foreman is attempting to create a new theory of the relationship between the individual man, the individual woman, and the capitalist mode of production. She is arguing that the man’s unconsciousness is structured by the alienation and the subsequent relationship to the woman he lives with; the relationship of the woman to the man, and her unconsciousness, is structured by the male’s alienation at work as well.

In arguing this Ann Foreman is rejecting the Freud-Marx synthesis found in the books of Reich, Juliet Mitchell, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. She is rejecting therefore a theory that posits certain innate drives, the frustration of those drives under capitalism and a result that produces as a consequence the distorted individuals of capitalist society.

But she doesn’t also reject the attempt to fuse some kind of individualism and marxism. Her own analysis begins from the existential writings of J.-P. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Sartre had argued that in relationships each person becomes ‘the other’ i.e. an object rather than a many-sided human being. Simone de Beauvoir argued, however, that in relationships it is the woman who becomes ‘the other’, the appropriated, the possessed partner. [17] She then went on to argue that it is because women are reproducers, and therefore remain part of nature, whilst men become full social beings. Ann Foreman takes up the argument that men become full social beings by arguing that it is men who enter ‘the social world of business and industry’ and then goes on to argue that women become ‘the other’ because of male alienation.

I have already put forward several objections to this interpretation but it is clear that the central question is how individuals become objectified in capitalist society, and how that process differs between men and women. It appears to me that the central weakness of all the above writings is that they look for that process within the relationships of the individuals themselves (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foreman) or within the development of the individual under capitalist conditions (the Freud-Marx synthesisers).

It is also wrong to misuse and abuse the concept alienation in the way that Ann Foreman does. For years sociologists have been turning the category ‘alienation’ into a process that happens to individuals within capitalist society rather than an understanding of how capitalism distorts the development of the whole of humankind. Alienation is the process that takes place in all class societies through which people’s products, their natural environment, their producing activity and even their own nature, appear as hostile forces confronting them, and outside their own control. [18] The way this process becomes specifically related to the way the capitalist world is perceived by those who live in it, Marx describes in his section on The Fetishism of Commodities, in Capital, Vol. 1. It is through an understanding of this process that we can begin to deal with the questions of gender and of masculinity/femininity under capitalism.

Marx argued that to understand capitalist society, its development and contradictions, it is essential to understand the commodity. He starts his analysis in Capital, Vol. 1, from the analysis of the commodity. Part of this analysis is a discussion of how, when commodity production comes to dominate the totality of production as with the rise of capitalist society, relationships between people cease to be understood in their true form.

Marx argues that one of the distinguishing features of capitalist society is the way that human beings no longer see themselves as relating directly to each other except through the medium of objects. He argues that in feudal society labour appears in its true form as personal relationships between the feudal lord and the serf, the church and the serf. But in capitalist society labour appears in disguise as the social relationships between the commodities, the products of labour. Rather than social relationships being understood directly, as the relationship between boss and the worker, one worker and another, etc., such relationships are only understood through the mechanism of the market. Thus the labourer sees himself/herself as the owner of labour-power. [19] Marx expresses this argument in the following passages:

“The relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

“There is a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

“This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commoditie.s”. [20]

Quite clearly it is possible to see the whole process by which human beings become ‘the other’ in this process of the fetishism of commodities. This is the starting point of Lukacs in his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.

Lukacs starts from the argument that commodity fetishism is a specific problem of the age of modern capitalism. That capitalism depends on “the emergence of the ‘free’ worker who is freely able to take his labour-power to market and offer it for sale as a commodity ‘belonging’ to him, a thing that he possesses”. [21] In other words already implicit in the whole process of commodity production is the way the free labourer sees himself both as a person and as a possessor of labour power. Lukacs goes on:

“As emphasised above, the worker, too, must present himself as the ‘owner’ of his labour-power, as if it were a commodity. His specific situation is defined by the fact that his labour power is his only possession. His fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation”. [22]

But labour is not the only function which is transformed into a commodity – it also happens to the function of reproduction. Lukacs quotes Kant on the way the most ‘natural’ relation becomes deformed with the development of capitalist society, the qualitative shift into commodity production, and the reification of consciousness that therefore takes place. Kant writes:

“Sexual community is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another ... marriage ... is the union of two different people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives”. [23]

Thus for Kant sex/reproduction is a function that has also become a commodity and Lukacs links his argument to the way the process of fetishisation of commodities destroys all ‘natural’ relationships. Kant, Lukacs argues, is merely naively expressing the way that capitalism indeed does structure personal relationships. Sexuality is a ‘thing’ to be possessed.

Clearly the process by which men and women become ‘the other’ is not to be located within the family, nor within the individual’s development within the family (Freudian marxism) but in the whole process of the fetishism of commodities which destroys all ‘natural’ relationships, turning both the labour function and the sexual/reproduction function into objects that are possessed by individuals. This process results in human beings who see themselves as workers, as sex objects. In capitalist society women must be doubly fetishised – as both worker and mother.

This is the reason why even within the working class, consciousness differs between men and women; the class consciousness of the female half of the working class constantly develops through the contraction of woman as worker and woman as reproducer. But that does not mean that women form a separate social group. Women are not oppressed because they are ‘feminine’; they are seen to be ‘feminine’ because they are oppressed. The source of the double fetishisation of men is to be found in the relationship between the capitalist mode of production and the family system of reproducing capitalist society.

But how did the development of the capitalist mode of production transform the family system of reproduction, transform the oppression of women and thus lead to this double fetishisation of women? In IS 1:100 and IS 1:104, I outlined an argument that the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’ (Engels) arises with the development of privatised reproduction (as opposed to communal reproduction) which occurs necessarily with the development of class society and the rise of the state. The Engels/Briffault/Reed discussion of the nature of the matriarchy in primitive societies leads to the conclusion that the organisation of communal reproduction (’the maternal clan’ where all women are mothers and all men the brothers) dominated production, in the period of ‘primitive communism’.[24]

During the period of ‘primitive communism’, where both reproduction and production are communally organised there is development of the forces of production. In the Eastern hemisphere this led to the development of both cereal production and cattle rearing; giving rise to agricultural surpluses – i.e. the Neolithic revolution. With the rise of surpluses, society is divided into those who appropriate the surpluses and those whose products and whose surplus labour is appropriated. Class society arises and immediately women’s control over the reproduction of society must be broken in order for a system of privatised reproduction – the family – to emerge. [25]

Engels’ argument in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was that only one form of reproduction fits all societies; – that is, the family. Once the epoch of ‘primitive communism’ had passed then there could be no new epoch of communal reproduction and production until the epoch of the future Communism. All class societies reproduce themselves through the family, in one form or another. But the essential element of the family remains unchanged in all class societies, because the family is the only way of reproducing society which allows for essential differences in reproduction from class-to class and which takes the burden of reproduction from society in general and places it upon individuals, groups or sections of society. It is this essential element that I describe as “privatisation” (not a very good word for it).

However, in taking the burden of reproduction from society in general and placing it upon individuals, groups and sections of society (i.e. in the shift from communal reproduction to privatised reproduction) it is women who must bear the burden of this shift. If the burden of reproduction is no longer to be borne by society as a whole (the mothers) but by sections of society, individuals in society, then those who are the reproducers must be doubly oppressed.

The essential history of Patriarchy, and of women’s oppression, is the history of the development of the family system of reproduction, the relationship between the family and the state, and the relationship of the family and the state to the dominant mode of production. In societies based on land as the dominant means of production then the immediate structure of women’s oppression was the patriarchal household. The fact that women were part of the productive system in those societies, through the household, does not mean that women were less oppressed in those societies but more. Being oppressed has nothing to do with whether you are productive or not.

In pre-capitalist societies the family’s relationship to the state, to production, to the religious law, is extremely diverse, but it is usually true that the person who has immediate control of the woman is the male head of the household. That is the origin of the concept ‘Patriarch’. Within these societies the polarity ‘masculine/feminine’ did appear but is a different form from that of capitalism – largely through discussions of religious doctrine.

With the development of capitalism the family ceases to be of the patriarchal household form. Indeed, it must cease to be structured like that. The heart of capitalism is the existence of ‘free wage labour’ – that is legally free (no man legally owns the labour of his wife or daughter) and can therefore move from capital to capital, and free in the sense of not owning any means of production itself. The family has to be separated from the ownership of the means of production in order for every member of the family – men, women, children – to be thrown on to the labour market.

The family – as known in landed societies – is not abolished under capitalism but transformed. Stripped of its productive functions its reproductive functions (both individual and generational) become vital. Individual men and women do not cease to be reproduced, and to reproduce, because they are thrown into wage labour and a whole system of state regulation (Family Law) is brought into being precisely to regulate those sexual relationships/reproduction in accordance with the new capitalist principles that are being applied to society as a whole.

This process doesn’t depend upon the will of some male legislator, or some individual male trade unionists, but is part of the entire re-making of the class structure by which the free wage labourer becomes the very premise of the existence of the capitalist system. As Lukacs argues:

“he fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole; indeed, this fate must become universal as otherwise industrialisation could not develop in this direction, tor it depends on the emergence of the ‘free’ worker who is freely able to take his labour-power to market and offer it for sale as a commodity ‘belonging’ to him, a thing that he ‘possesses’.” [26]

In capitalist society the private family is the essential structure for the reproduction of ‘free’ workers who own their own labour-power. It is for that reason that I argued that the family is part of the necessary base of capitalist society. But that doesn’t only mean the oppression of women – it also means the bringing of women into production outside the household system. How else did British capitalism develop except on the free wage labour of women and children in the textile industry?

Because production and reproduction are torn apart in capitalist society then the immediate control of women in the family is no longer the essential structure of women’s oppression. The patriarchal control of women shifts from the individual patriarchal household to the patriarchal capitalist state with its infinite battery of laws to control women, and to the capitalist market where women are always paid less than men, are the part-time workers because they are the mothers, are part of the reserve army of the unemployed etc., etc.

Thus the family is in a constant contradictory relationship to capitalism. Capitalist production is based on the assumption of a male and female work force; but the reproduction of capitalist society, as co-ordinated by the capitalist state through the family propped up by the ‘welfare’ services, is based on the assumption of women as mothers. In other words it is necessary to locate the contradictory relationship of the family to capitalism in the constantly changing relationship between production and reproduction.

Thus women’s oppression in capitalist society is located in the essential structures of the family and state, not in the relationships within the family. Ann Foreman’s analysis has turned the real world upside down and in doing so she has mistaken ‘the gender attributes of femininity’ as being part of the essential structure of women’s oppression rather than the ideological manifestation of the material world. It is essentially an idealist analysis.

And, of course, it leads directly to the argument for building an autonomous women’s movement – not a socialist one. If all women are oppressed within the family because of the male’s flight from his alienation then the basis for all women’s oppression is the same. But if women’s oppression is essentially structured by the family and the state and their relationship to the capitalist mode of production then the question of which class those women belong to does matter. It matters whether they are part of the class of ‘free wage labourers’ or not. The struggles to free themselves from oppression will not be struggles within the family but against the state and against the boss, and ruling class women will not struggle against either. To concentrate on the struggle within the family is to confuse the often brutal manifestations of male sexism with the essential structures of women’s oppression.

The argument for a communist women’s movement is the argument for building an organisation which will struggle against the material conditions of women’s oppression. It is a working class women’s movement because the struggles of working class women against their oppression is different from that of ruling class women. It is a women’s movement because the struggle of women workers is different from that of men precisely because women are oppressed.

It is a false project to attempt to restructure women’s oppression by restructuring their personal lives. In capitalist society there are no ‘normal’ relationships. The double fetishisation of women in our society means that no individual can break through the way men are viewed and the way women are viewed. Moreover, women are always unequal in those relationships and in that ‘viewing’. Our hope is to create a collective struggle against the material conditions of oppression and to break the chains of ‘femininity’ in doing so.

In the same way that workers (both male and female) can come to see the real social relationship that underlies the distorted images of the market through their struggles as workers, so can women. Women engaged in fighting the state, women engaged in fighting the boss can break through the view of themselves as objects. The essential history of the women’s movement is not to be found in the consciousness-raising groups but in the campaigns and struggles through which women themselves have torn the veil. And where women lead, men can follow through supporting their struggles.

Part III ‘Domestic labour’ vs. reproduction

In Irene Bruegel’s article in IS 2:1 she attempts to synthesise the analysis of the ‘domestic labour’ school with that of Ann Foreman. This is possible as both analyses have the same essential starting point. They both begin by assuming that the woman is at home, the man is

Work; the woman is oppressed, the man is exploited; the woman is a housewife, the man is a worker. In these ‘Little Women’ analyses oppression is severed from exploitation.

The confusion arises in Irene’s article because she assumes my position on the family to be the same as the writers of the ‘domestic labour’ school. She describes them both as ‘Marxist-functionalist’. But it was precisely against the assumption that woman is at home and man is at work and that this is the difference between oppression and exploitation that the article in IS 1:104 was written. Women are not oppressed at home as housewives, and exploited at work as workers; we are both oppressed and exploited at work. Our oppression structures our exploitation and our exploitation structures our oppression throughout our world.

Because of this confusion almost all the points that Irene makes are irrelevant as criticism of the articles in IS 1:100 and IS 1:104. But they do reveal many of the problems of the ‘domestic labour’ analysis and are therefore worth discussing in order to make quite clear the differences between that analysis and the analysis of the family that I put forward.

Irene’s analysis of ‘domestic labour’ appears to be essentially the same as that put forward by Himmelweit and Mohun in their article Domestic Labour and Capital. They argue that domestic labour is the “biological production of human beings, their care, maintenance and continued socialisation as human beings” and “the means through which this occurs is the production of use-values for immediate consumption”. Domestic labour is “integral to the process whereby the capitalist mode of production is a self-reproducing whole”. [27]

She argues that Marx said that the unbridled expansion of the productive forces of capitalism would automatically bring privatised bring privatised domestic production fully into capitalism. Yes, of course, indeed. But Marx never argued that bringing privatised domestic production into capitalist production (i.e. home baking replaced by Mothers Pride, domestic sewing replaced by C&As) would abolish the family. That is a fallacy of the ‘domestic labour’ school. Privatised domestic production is the heart of the family only if you share the assumptions of the domestic labour writers that the heart of women’s oppression is connected with housework – the production of use values.

They argue that to socialise housework is to abolish the family and it is this argument that Irene is defending in her appendix. But in case no-one has noticed women do go out to work, they do buy Mothers Pride and Findus frozen beef slices and housework is being socialised (by capitalism) in this sense all the time. Yet the family has not yet disappeared.

The ‘domestic labour’ analysis not only reduces women’s oppression to housework but it therefore cannot comprehend the peculiar form of women’s exploitation. Irene argues that women’s low wages related to the “structuring of the labour force into a ‘primary’, sector and a ‘secondary’ female sector” and that this development occurs because of some kind of conspiracy between capitalists and the male labour movement. Not only would the conspiracy have to be repeated in exactly the same form in every capitalist country in the world because the same relationship is found in every country in the world but it is a complete abandonment of Marx.

Marx argued that women’s wages are necessarily lower than men’s since the unit of social reproduction in capitalism was the family. The wages of the man and the woman were spread over the necessary costs of subsistence for the entire family. The male wage was dragged down, forcing other members of the family out to work, but the wages of other members of the family never reached the level of the male wage (see IS 1:100). Marx never argued a simple market explanation of women’s wage rates nor would he have argued a conspiracy theory. Women’s oppression is not reducible to oppression within the home; the structure of exploitation determines and is determined by society-wide oppression of women.

Irene argues that the ‘domestic labour’ analysis needs to be synthesised with the analysis of Ann Foreman in order to “both provide an explanation of male domination within capitalism and to come to terms with the contradictory relationship between capitalism and the family”. And this is true. The economistic arguments of the ‘domestic labour’ school do not provide an adequate account of women’s oppression. But it is wrong to argue that their argument can be made adequate by simply adding the idealism of Ann Foreman.

My articles in IS 1:100 and 1:104 attempted to bridge the argument over the nature of the patriarchy with the concern of the domestic labour school over the relationship of women’s oppression to capitalism. It was an attempt to argue the relationship between male domination (the patriarchy) with the capitalist form of production.

It appears to me that the argument in those articles and in Part II of this one can provide both an explanation of male domination within capitalism and come to terms with the contradictory relationship between the family and capitalism. In that analysis it is perfectly possible to understand the contradictory development of the family under capitalism under the dual demands of the capitalist mode of production, and of reproduction, without breaking up the family into ‘five aspects’ as Irene does – some of which are functional for capitalism and some of which are dysfunctional. But in order to do so it is necessary to concentrate on the analysis of the reproduction of society in the social conditions of capitalism not on some abstracted ‘domestic labour’ and the production of use-values.

Irene’s alternative fails to synthesise the most radical elements of the two schools of patriarchy and ‘domestic labour’, but instead synthesises the reformist. Instead of taking from the patriarchy theorists the emphasis on the oppressive role of the male state, the argument from Ann Foreman is taken of male domination within the home. Instead of taking from the domestic labour school the concern for the relationship of oppression to exploitation the argument is taken that women’s oppression is derived from her production of use-values within the home. Thus the entire responsibility for the nuclear family can be laid at the door of the male worker’s response to his alienation.

The logic of this position is essentially a reformist analysis similar to that of many Communist Party women who argue that the problem is who does the housework inside the house, and that it is possible for capitalism to abolish the family.

Not only is it a reformist analysis, but I don’t actually believe a word of it. I don’t believe that as women our oppression is reducible to the male flight from alienation and I certainly don’t believe it is reducible to the accident of who does the housework. Least of all do I believe both positions in one home-made basket.


1. Ann Foreman, Femininity as Alienation (Pluto Press 1977).

2. Barbara Winslow has reviewed the book dealing with Ann Foreman’s analysis of Marxism, women and commodity production, the family and nineteenth century women’s movements. Sheila MacGregor is looking at the question of the fetishisation of women and women’s sexual identity. Anna Pollock is working on women’s consciousness. Judith Hamilton is working on women’s waged labour. Anna Pacszuscka is working on the history of the Russian women’s movement. It would be extremely helpful if other women who are working on different topics (or the same) could get in touch with the Editorial Board of International Socialism.

3. Socialist Review, June 1978, September 1978, October 1978 to date.

4. Irene Bruegel, What Keeps the Family Going, IS 2:1, p. 9.

5. Ibid., p. 10.

6. Ibid., p. 10. (My emphasis – JS).

7. Ann Foreman, op. cit., pp. 93–94.

8. Ibid., pp. 101–2 (My emphasis – JS).

9. Ibid., pp. 103–4.

10. Ibid., pp. 109–11.

11. Ibid., p. 151.

12. Ibid., p. 92, pp. 118–122, and p. l32 on.

13. Ann Foreman, op. cit., pp. 72–73 (My emphasis – JS).

14. Quoted in I. Meszaros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (Merlin 1970), p. 37.

15. K. Marx, Capital (Moscow 1961).

16. Ann Foreman, op. cit., pp. 86–91.

17. Ann Foreman, ibid., pp. 84–85.

18. For a Marxist introduction to the concept of Alienation see I.Meszaros, op.cit.

19. K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Part I, Section 4, pp. 71–83: The Fetishism of Commodities and the secret thereof. This is the section in Capital most-hated by the Althusserians precisely because it is where Marx relates the ideological forms of capitalism to the material conditions of production.

20. K. Marx, ibid., p. 72. See also R. Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital (Pluto 1977), p. 439, on alienation, fetishisation and commodity production (not simply capitalist relations of production).

21. G. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin 1971), p. 91. This argument on fetishisation is only applicable to capitalist societies. The way the understanding of male/female is established in pre-capitalist society is quite different because it is related to the way production and reproduction is organised in those societies. (My emphasis – JS)

22. Ibid., p. 92.

23. Quoted in ibid., p. 100.

24. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (London 1972); R. Braiffault, The Mothers (New York 1927); E. Reed, Woman’s Evolution (New York 1974).

25. Within the Marxist tradition there has been an ongoing debate as to how the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’ actually happened. Why did women lose control of the means of production in the shift from primitive communism to class society? I would favour an argument based on a discussion of gift exchange but that would have to be developed in a different article.

26. G. Lukacs, op. cit., p. 91.

27. S. Himmelweit and S. Mohun, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1977.

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