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Ray Challinor

Utopian feminism

(July 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 56, July 1983, pp. 33–34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ray Challinor reviews Barbara Taylor’s book Eve and the New Jerusalem, and argues a controversial case about women workers in the nineteenth century.

* * *

Barbara Taylor has written a good book, the first serious study of socialism and feminism in the nineteenth century. She has rescued from obscure oblivion a clutch of courageous women – Margaret Chapellsmith, Emma Martin and others – who were prepared to defy all persecution in order to state their message. They denounced emerging capitalism. The industrial revolution left in its wake countless dead and maimed workers, but even those lucky enough to survive had been compelled to endure degradation, exploitation, the denial of freedom. Moreover, they went on to point out that, while this was the lot of the majority of men, women suffered a far worse fate. The answer, they argued, both for men and women, was the creation of a socialist society, based upon freedom and equality. This entailed a complete transformation, not only in economic and social, but equally in sexual relations. For them, socialism was a doctrine of total human liberation.

Fatal weakness

The positive side of these Owenite feminists is explained exceedingly well in this book. Where Barbara Taylor’s work is less satisfactory is when she needs to take the scalpel of criticism in hand, revealing the deficiencies in their political standpoint. Perhaps because she belongs to the Stanislavski school of historians – so engrossed in her study that she has almost become a latter-day Owenite feminist herself – she fails to see the fatal weakness: Eve might have a glorious vision of the new Jerusalem; she had not the faintest notion how to take the first step towards getting there. Barbara Taylor conveys the impression the movement just fizzled out after the collapse of the Queenwood community experiment. This however, is not correct.

The causes lay much deeper. Like Robert Owen himself, these women believed in the all-powerful qualities of human reason. The same principles applied in the social sciences as in the pure sciences. Just as in physics, for example, any individual, irrespective of class, colour or nationality, will accept, say, Boyle’s law, similarly the Owenites believed, by patient explanation, everybody could be got to see the evils of present-day society and the need for socialism. But I do not accept this view: I do not consider, even if I could put the most powerful arguments in the world, I would be able to persuade the likes of Sir Campbell Fraser, head of the CBI, to become a revolutionary socialist.

Thinking of his big, fat salary, not to mention his recent increase, he is likely to conclude capitalism was not too bad. In other words, golden ties of economic self-interest link this kind of person to the established order. By the same token the worker, enduring deprivation and suffering under the present system, will be more receptive to calls for capitalism’s overthrow.

Yet, the Utopian socialists rejected this conclusion. Robert Owen always hankered after the rich and powerful, urging them to come in and build the new society. Cooperation to him meant class collaboration, as the title of an organisation he formed – Association of All Classes of All Nations – implies. He did not regard the working class as the essential ingredient for change. For this reason, he remained aloof from the developing trade union movement. Barbara Taylor, relying upon the old studies of G.D.H. Cole and the Webbs disputes this contention; however more recent historical research has made it abundantly obvious that the Grand National Consolidated and the other unions of the 1829–34 period were only Owenite in name. As Professor A.E. Musson remarks: ‘Robert Owen was never really interested in trade unions as such; he regarded them as futile and hoped to convert them to his schemes of co-operative socialism.’ While this approach was wrong in the 1830s, it became disastrous in the 1840s and 1850s, when trade unions had achieved more strength and stability.

One mistake leads to another. The failure of the Owenites to realise the paramount importance of the class struggle, their failure to become involved in the bread-and-butter struggles of the working class, helped to give them an erroneous understanding of the role of the state. They did not see it as the bosses’ state, constantly striving to assist the employers against the workers, and consequently the overwhelming majority of Owenites did not join the Chartist movement. One looks in vain for the involvement of Owenites in the revolutionary struggles of those times – the Newport uprising, the 1842 general strike, the attempted insurrection of Chartists and Irish Confederates in 1848. Yet, as state papers amply show, it was these events that alarmed the ruling class, not the setting up of co-operative communities in Hampshire.

Distinctly different

In his classic, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (vol. 1, p. 183), Hal Draper refers to the very great indebtedness owed by the author of Das Kapital to the Chartist experience. He writes: ‘In general, the influence of left Chartism, then the most advanced proletarian revolutionary tendency in the world, on the maturation of Marx and Engels has been undervalued.’ Of course, it did not end there. Julian Harney’s Chartist journal, The Red Republican, first published The Communist Manifesto in English, its translator was Helen MacFarlane, of Burnley, a remarkable woman, who wrote articles herself under the nom-de-plume Howard Morton. But she does not even merit a mention from Barbara Taylor, whose book concentrates upon Utopian socialism rather than scientific socialism.

The two schools of thought are distinctly different. The approach of one is static, the other dialectical; the one argues in terms of abstract principles, the other regards truth as concrete; the one sees education as the driving force of change, the other sees education as merely a part, albeit an essential part, in the class struggle. People who hold the latter position are exceedingly reluctant to make general propositions, claiming them to be true at all times and in all places. However, Barbara Taylor does err in this direction. She maintains that women today should have the same employment prospects as men; to deny them this, she quite rightly says, helps to perpetuate their subordinate position in society. Ergo, she argues, the same proposition was equally valid in the nineteenth century. But, surely, may not a move that can be progressive in one context be reactionary in another?

Conditions for women

In my opinion, there was nothing inherently progressive about women working down the mines in early Victorian Britain. Typically, at the Wigan collieries of Lord Balcarres – incidentally, his great-grandson is now a Tory MP – women laboured 12 to 14 hours dragging coal to the surface. Belted round the waist, with chains running between the legs – an unpleasant business if you happened to be pregnant – they received a penny for every three tons of coal they hauled out. In the same way Engels, in his book on 1844, did not comment favourably on the fact that only 96,599 out of a total of 419,590 operatives in the British textile industry, less than quarter happened to be adult males. Nor did Marx refer kindly to the gangs of agricultural labourers, many of them women, who wandered around Lincolnshire and East Anglia: ‘women and children, when once set to work, tend to work till they drop (as Fourier well knew), whereas the adult male labourer is usually shrewd enough to economise in his labour, power.’ Later in Capital, he writes the gangs are ‘making the adult male labourer superfluous’.

The first effective measure to restrict women’s work was the 1842 Mines Act. This was generally welcomed by miners. William Cloughan, leader of the Scottish miners, told a national union conference at Newcastle how much more civilised conditions were in the North East coalfields, where female labour was not used, compared to Lanarkshire, where it was. Both Marx and Engels appear to have endorsed this view. Clearly, they could well have been wrong. Perhaps they should have organised protest demonstrations, carrying banners that read: ‘Repeal the 1842 Act – let Mrs Marx work down the pits’. But somehow I think they were wise not to do so.

It must be remembered the position of women was rather different then. To produce two children there had to be six conceptions. Most wives had more than two children, however, so they were regularly having children, still-births or miscarriages. Add to this the drudgery of housework: Monday was washday, the whole day would be spent over the mangle. Another day would be devoted to baking. And so on. It is in this context that Engels’ remarks must be considered: ‘The employment of women at once breaks up the family; for when the wife spends 12 or 13 hours every day in the mill, and the husband works the same length of time there, what becomes of the children? They grow up like wild weeds ...’ As for women in the pits, Engels wrote: ‘The women seem to suffer especially from this work, and are seldom, if ever, as straight as other women. There is testimony here, too, to the fact that deformities of the pelvis and consequent difficult, even fatal, child-bearing arise from the work of women in the mines’.

Altered attitude

It is worthwhile mentioning the changes that have occurred since the 1840s in the position of women, significant differences in life-situation that justify an altered attitude to the question of female employment. These include the shortening of the working day, the less physically arduous nature of most work, the much wider use of contraception, the smaller size of families, the installation of labour-saving devices in the home, and the involvement of males – admittedly still on a grossly inadequate scale – in household chores, hitherto regarded as an essentially female preserve. All these factors (and many others) create the material pre-requisites for the call for sex equality to be made on a firmer foundation.

It is helpful to visualise these changes as part of a wider process. Throughout its entire existence, capitalism has relentlessly developed the means of production. In doing this, ironically it establishes the material prerequisites for its own destruction. For whereas in a primitive society, unable to produce sufficient food and clothing to go round, there has to be a division into haves and have-nots – the necessary basis for socialism not existing – this is no longer true today. The poverty, poor housing and malnutrition in Britain now result from a failure to harness the country’s productive resources satisfactorily rather than their inadequacy. Yet, so long as these evils exist, women will bear an unfair share of this misery. This means that the struggle for socialism and sex equality are inextricably intertwined.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020