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International Socialism, Winter 1980


Bob Lloyd

The Holy Family

(Winter 1980)


From International Socialism, 2 : 7, (Winter 1980), pp. 100–107.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Over the last two years, a number of articles by Joan Smith have been published in International Socialism on the subject of the family and women’s oppression [1], and apart from a brief critical article by Irene Bruegel [2], the work has by default become accepted SWP theory on the subject.

It is appropriate therefore to subject them to some form of evaluation. This task is all the more urgent in that the political conclusions which can (and should) be drawn from the articles have very significant consequences for the organisation of work around the issues which specifically affect women.

The intention of this article is to demonstrate that Joan Smith has produced a theory which is not based on a Marxist understanding of the connection between the forces and relations of production and the particular historical development of social institutions, but is instead based on an ahistorical conception of the family.

There are three main lines of argument advanced by Joan Smith, each related to the others: the mode of reproduction analysis, the ‘free wage labour’ argument, and the ‘consciousness’ argument. Each will be dealt with in turn.

The mode of reproduction analysis

Joan Smith uses the distinction between ‘mode of production’ and ‘mode of reproduction’ in order to characterise the family as the specific means by which class societies reproduce themselves. This is done as a definition: ‘The different forms of the family are the basic mode of reproduction in all class societies.’ [3]

For her the mode of reproduction implies basically two things; the reproduction of the next generation and the regulation of relations between the sexes. [4] She then goes on to characterise labour and the family as ‘two forms of production’ and claims that this distinction is based on a section from Engels which she quotes. She intends to use this distinction to examine the link between the capitalist mode of production and the family.

But this ‘two forms of production’ is a complete misreading of Engels. He is actually making a general statement of the propositions of historical materialism, indicating that in the last instance, the fundamental factors determining the development of any social institutions are the production and reproduction of material life. He says the production and reproduction of material life is ‘of a two-fold character. On the one side the production of the means of subsistence, 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. The social institutions under which people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live are conditioned by both kinds of production; by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.’ [5]

Engels goes on to describe how the clash between the forces and relations of production results in the displacement of the family as the organiser of production: lineage ties are replaced by territorial groups. He thus uses the tenets of historical materialism to explain the historical changes in the primitive family.

It is quite clear that investing the family with the status of ‘mode of reproduction’ as Joan Smith does has nothing in common with Engels. As far as he is concerned, the family is an historically determined institution just like many others. He uses the notion of mode of production in the sense of relating the forces of production to the relations of production – the result of this contradiction is the mode of production. Defining something as the mode of reproduction which is separate from the mode of production is to violate the whole analysis. The consequence is to fudge the issue over what is central to the system – but we shall return to this.

The mode of production is quite simply the term describing the contradictory result of the clash between the developing forces and relations of production. It is precisely the fact that reproduction of the society is but one aspect of the mode of production which gives historical materialism the power to analyse concrete institutions. Capitalism integrates all superstructural relations in order to maintain the organisation of production. But the important point is that the institutions that result from this contradictory development are themselves contradictory – they bring blessings and curses to the body of capitalism.

When Joan Smith characterises the family as a ‘mode of reproduction’ the very historical details which would have made possible a concrete study of the family are abstracted away. Instead we are left only with a vague catch-all. Both terms, mode of reproduction and the family, are impoverished by this process.

When we come on to view the matter historically, we have severe problems: ‘as the mode of production is transformed, so too is the mode of reproduction. The family changes its form from epoch to epoch and from class to class.’ [6]

Now this is quite unhelpful. It provides no guidance as to what exactly is changing, nor why or what we can expect to develop from such changes. Indeed we are now in difficulty if we try to claim that the family is essential to capitalism because having allowed all concrete factors to change from class to class, epoch to epoch, all that we could offer as essential to capitalism would be some metaphysical essence.

The problem of the analysis began with a definition, an assertion. Having claimed that the family is the basic mode of reproduction of all class societies, she has made it impossible, within that context, to conceive of a class society in which the family was not essential. And if we conceive of the family as being essential, all of its functions tend to take on an essential aspect. This is quite natural since capitalism quite definitely benefits from the existence of the family – for example in the duplication of consumption in family units.

But the shift away from the dynamics of capitalism to the study of superstructural relations of the family is one thing; it is quite another to imagine that here lies the heart of the system. If the family is essential to the continued existence of capitalism, then a successful attack on the institution of the family will be the death blow to the system – not a Marxist but a radical feminist solution to capitalism.

The free wage labour argument

Joan Smith avoids this crude result by appealing to another abstraction maintaining the centrality of the family. She argues that the family is essential to capitalism in that it is the only means by which free wage labour can be formed. But this assertion has wide-ranging implications which she leaves hidden in her articles.

By free wage labour Marx meant free in the double sense of being free of property and free of being owned (and therefore forced to sell his/her labour power on the market). Now it is this enforced market relation which is at the root of the expropriation of surplus value, without which there would be no accumulation of surplus value. And if the family is necessary for this to take place, we are indeed dealing with a basic institution of capitalism. But her argument for this is paper-thin: she finds any alternative to the family inconceivable:

‘If the reproduction of the species is actually brought under the direct control of the capitalist mode of production it seems to me impossible that this class of free wage labourers could continue to exist. On what basis is the wide society constructed within which the mode of production operates? Without the family are we still dealing with free men?’ [7]

One wonders what is so inconceivable about a totally uniform state controlled system of basic education and training which produces labour power (exploited on the labour market etc.) of sufficient quality and quantity for use in capitalist production. Surely single parent families, orphanages etc produce free wage labour. Are these the very kind of institution of which Joan Smith cannot conceive?

But indicating alternatives existing within capitalism is far from claiming that the family could be replaced here and now by these institutions. Joan Smith is quite right to point out that such a huge change would be catastrophic for capitalism at present. But the point surely is that capitalism evolves, and this is one clear way in which it could evolve – socialisation of the factors controlling the quality and supply of labour power. Viewed dynamically there can be no objection to this. Viewed statically it becomes ‘inconceivable’.

If one tries to relate two clearly different levels of abstraction together, the analysis necessarily suffers from strain. The family, here and now, and free wage labour in the sense of Marx’s Capital, volume 1, are clearly miles apart. In the latter, Marx abstracts away all the superstructural aspects, the appearances of capitalism, in order to examine the fundamental relations at work. [8]

But the family is precisely one of these aspects of capitalism that Marx abstracted out of the analysis. In order to reintroduce it, Marx had to reintroduce all the factors which made the analysis concrete. Joan Smith takes the short cut of defining the family at a similar level of abstraction and reverting to her original assertion of the essential nature of the family. There is no real argument here.

Also if the family is essential to the very existence of exploitation, then Marx was wrong on one very fundamental point – the dominance of the relations of production over the form and function of institutions under capitalism (and any other mode of production for that matter). Now if Joan Smith is right, Marx was wrong. For it is impossible both for the family to be the fundamental institution for the production of free wage labour and also for the relations of production to be the prime determinant of the development of the family. One or other has to give. If Joan Smith is right then the family must exercise a decisive influence over the form of labour employed, the rate at which it is paid, the conditions, etc. This is directly opposed to the analysis put forward by Marx but it is the argument Joan Smith uses.

‘Women’s oppression under capitalism arises from the fact that the reproduction of this society takes the form of the family.’ [9]

‘It is only through the analysis of the family’s role in reproduction that we can understand the role of men, women and youth in the labour force.’ [10]

‘It is impossible to explain where women work and what they are paid without reference to the family as the private form of reproduction in our society.’ [11]

Thus not only is the family crucial to the production of free wage labour, but in the same sense it also determines its distribution and also its remuneration. Given this centrality, the political consequences are obvious; the locus for the struggle has shifted away from the workplace. This is particularly important in Joan Smith’s recommendations as to how to organise women.

The consciousness argument

Joan Smith argues that the family is absolutely central to the development of the consciousness of women, indeed that the oppression women suffer in the family actually ‘determines’ their exploitation. Since the family is central to the exploitation of women through their oppression, it becomes imperative for revolutionaries to focus first and foremost on the family if they are to have any success in organising women. She argues that it is possible to recruit women to revolutionary politics on the basis of their oppression and that the main problem is finding a form of organisation which can relate to that oppression.

‘We can organise, win and recruit women to revolutionary politics on the basis of their oppression as well as their exploitation... but to do this we need an organisation of women wider than the revolutionary party to take up every issue of women’s oppression and women’s exploitation – an organisation which includes women members of the revolutionary party and women who are not members. Because women’s oppression fashions the form of their exploitation, because they do not cease to be oppressed by virtue of walking through the factory door, it is pointless to argue that a women’s caucus within a rank and file movement can fulfil the same role. It is necessary for us to build a women’s movement with its own paper which can unite all women – public sector workers, factory workers, women at home. Because capitalism oppresses all women, the material base for such an organisation exists; because capitalist exploitation is fused with capitalist oppression that material base fits with the total revolutionary strategy of a working class party.’ [12]

Since it is claimed that the revolutionary party cannot organise women on the basis of their oppression, another organisation is required which somehow fits better the consciousness generated by capitalist oppression in women. Now there is one immediate point to note – it is claimed that such an organisation would be able to relate to all women, because all women are oppressed. But at the same time this organisation is to fit in nicely with the ‘total revolutionary strategy’ of a working class party. It seems to have escaped Joan’s mind that one of the prime determinants of consciousness is class and that would divide such a movement the moment it became active against capitalism.

Now let us ask why it is that a revolutionary party cannot relate to the oppression women face. Joan Smith doesn’t give any reason at all! This point of the argument is left as an assertion based presumably on a conception of the party which must contain a very dogmatic notion of organisation. What is clear is that her conception of the party is that of an organisation whose principle function is the mediation of different levels of consciousness throughout the class, bringing the lowest to the highest level. There are those women who are conscious of their oppression and there are those who accept that only by overthrowing capitalism will their oppression be ended. The role of the party is in transforming the former into the latter to make them conscious revolutionaries.

But even if the assumption that the revolutionary party would be unable to ‘mediate’ this consciousness gap (and it is a highly questionable assumption), what reason do we have for expecting any other organisation to do the job any better? The reason fundamentally comes down to psychology. Women feel oppressed and that is why they can be recruited to revolutionary politics. The unity felt by an oppressed section of society is seen as the material base for an organisation. But it is very important to stress a point which most revolutionaries take for granted: the basic fact that the working class collectively sells its labour power to the employing class confers a unity on it of a far more fundamental nature than the divisions between the sections of the class, whether men/women, black/white or whatever. If this were not the case, there would be no objective basis for a class becoming revolutionary at all.

A new organisation of the type proposed by Joan Smith would have to come to terms with this fact; a class element would have to predominate. She herself acknowledges this:

‘Obviously such a movement faces the problem of not only uniting all revolutionary feminists from different sectors but also of establishing a women’s strategy that is an integral part of the strategy of the revolutionary party.’ [13]

‘Women in Britain are very well placed to be able to do this. A higher percentage of women in Britain are in the labour force than in any other country in the EEC. [14]

Now why should this fact have any credibility at all given her assertion of the centrality of the family in determining women’s consciousness through their oppression? She is faced with a dilemma. If the family is central as she claims in her earlier article, then the fact of the position of women in the workplace is marginal to the ability of revolutionaries to organise them. If on the other hand, the workplace is as important as she claims in a later article, then her alternative organisation is not necessary. Her justification for a new organisation is never stated in her work, and since the conclusions which can be drawn are contradictory, we are forced to go back to basics.

Starting all over again

Like Marx and Engels, we have to stress that social institutions are fundamentally determined by the historical development of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production. Such institutions are mutable, they change form and function, can arise and disappear depending on the above contradiction. Any study of a superstructural institution such as the family must start with an analysis of the concrete functions it performs in capitalist society but must relate those functions to the dynamics of the system.

What this means in real terms is examining the way in which family organisation contributes to the maintenance of the relations of production (how for example religious, political, social conceptions of society are transmitted), and how the family relates to the economic level, consumption, division of labour, and so on, In other words we should start with concrete analysis and try to relate what we can see happening in the family to the dynamics of capitalist society as a whole. Joan Smith has started with an abstract definition and then tried to fill it full of foreign content. But the abstraction must come from the concrete, not from the imagination.

Having placed the family as central to the system, all kinds of political mistakes are made. Because the family was made ahistorical, class determinations are pushed to the side resulting in the argument for an organisation which would be inherently polarised. Joan Smith would agree that it should be polarised; as a revolutionary she argues for an attack on capitalism. But her theory has left the organisation hamstrung. If it is to go forward it would have to organise on class lines and this conflicts with the ‘all women’ approach. On the other hand failure to adopt this approach would result in an organisation destined to have only verbal influence. The way out of this dilemma is to recognise that an organisation which is to have any chance of success in ending women’s oppression must be based on the commitment to working class revolution. Women can and should be organised on the basis of recognition of their oppression but the politics of such organisations cannot be left to develop independently of class analysis.

What this means concretely is that women revolutionaries should work inside the women’s liberation movement, etc., but must be organisationally and politically independent. Their politics must be determined by independent class analysis, always relating what is possible to the needs of the working class. They should be drawing people towards a revolutionary party, arguing for a generalisation of the political struggle into all sorts of new areas, as well as consistently fighting for the immediate struggles.

To create a new organisation which cannot be rooted firmly in the working class is politically foolish. Such an organisation would be unstable if it wasn’t openly reformist. It is Joan Smith’s inability to recognise this fact that explains the lack of justification for a new organisation.

Finally, let me argue in favour of a separate organisation at certain times of women even inside revolutionary parties. As revolutionaries we have to be realistic, and it is a fact that women comrades can be driven out of the party by men who are far more confident and aggressive than the women themselves. Indeed it can even be the case that women comrades are frightened to speak in branch meetings. This is not simply the fault of men comrades, in fact sometimes it has little to do with them – we need confident aggressive comrades! But the whole ideological and social conditioning of many women render them incapable of taking an active part in branch life without a period of gaining in confidence. In these circumstances women organising separately inside the party to gain confidence is essential and those men who claim it is unnecessary are merely ducking the problem.

But having said that, the purpose of separate organisation is to strengthen the party by having the active involvement of large numbers of women in the branches. As more active women play a significant role in our branches so the need for separate organisation will decrease. At the same time, until that happy day arrives it remains essential for women to work out and formulate policy on the issues which specifically affect them so that the party as a whole can be most effective on these issues.

A separate organisation of the kind Joan Smith proposes will have the disastrous effect of ghettoising the problems into a sister organisation which would remove the possibility of the party benefiting from the growing confidence of its members. The sister organisation would be weak from birth and probably wouldn’t live very long.

Joan Smith’s solution to a very real problem is illusory: we must use the analysis based on historical materialism in order to find the best answer to the problems of women’s oppression, and avoid taking refuge in abstraction.


1. International Socialism, series 1, 100 & 104, and 2 : 3, pp. 39–54.

2. International Socialism, 2 : 1, pp. 2–15.

3. International Socialism, series 1, 100, p. 20.

4. Ibid. p. 21.

5. Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Peking, 1978, p. 4.

6. International Socialism, series 1, 100, p. 21.

7. Ibid. p. 23.

8. See for example Capital volume 1, Parts 1 & 2. On the levels of abstraction involved see Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital, and the excellent book by I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, Detroit, 1972, pp. 7–60.

9. International Socialism, series 1, 104, p. 11.

10. Op. cit.

11. International Socialism, series 1, 104, p. 12.

12. Ibid., p. 16.

13. Ibid., p. 16.

14. Ibid.

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