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John Molyneux

Do working class men benefit
from women’s oppression?

(Autumn 1984)

Originally published in International Socialism 2:25, Autumn 1984, pp. 117–23.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Chris Harman’s Women’s Liberation and revolutionary socialism (International Socialism 2:23) is in many respects an excellent summary of the Marxist case on the woman question. It provides an effective demolition of idealist theories of women’s oppression, of radical feminist separatism, of the ‘two modes of production’ and the consequent notion of an ‘independent’ revolutionary women’s organisation parallel to the party. It demonstrates clearly the necessity of socialist revolution for women’s revolution and with it the necessity of a united male/female working class struggle to achieve that revolution.

However on one specific question, the question of whether working class men benefit from the oppression of women, Harman is seriously mistaken. The mistake is serious because it has important political consequences, consequences for the way in which revolutionaries relate to the struggles of women workers. Nor is it an isolated or chance error for Harman, on this question, repeats the argument first presented by Lindsey German in Theories of Patriarchy (International Socialism 2:12, pp. 39–41), and the same argument is also to be found in Tony Cliff’s Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation. If, in this critique, I concentrate on Harman rather than German and Cliff it is because his article makes the most systematic attempt to defend the ‘men don’t benefit’ position.

‘In fact’, writes Harman, ‘the benefits working class men get from the oppression of women are marginal indeed.’ (p. 26) The first question we must ask in assessing this proposition is ‘marginal in relation to what?’ Clearly the advantages a male engineering worker has over his wife are ‘marginal’ compared with the advantages the Duke of Westminster and his wife have over both of them. Class not sex is the fundamental division in our society. Equally it is true, as Harman argues, that the benefits such a worker derives from the subordinate position of his wife would be far outweighed by the benefits he would derive from a socialist society in which his wife was liberated. Both socialism and women’s liberation (neither of which is possible without the other) are in the overall historical interests of both working class men and working class women.

However neither of these points exhausts the problem. The fact that the male worker’s benefits are marginal compared to those of the ruling class or to the potential benefits of socialism does not mean that they don’t exist. Nor does it mean that these benefits have only a marginal effect on the social being of working class men and women, on the relationships between them, or on their behaviour in the class struggle within capitalism. This is the fundamental point which is missed out and obscured in the Harman analysis, but which revolutionaries cannot afford to ignore in their approach to women workers.

It is a point that can be illustrated by means of an analogy with the situation in Northern Ireland. The benefits Protestant workers derive from the oppression of the Catholic minority are certainly marginal compared with those of the Orange and British ruling classes or with the advantages of socialism. Nonetheless those marginal privileges have played a major part in securing the loyalty of most Protestant workers to British imperialism for most of the last sixty years. [1] The analogy is not exact of course (I am not saying that working class men generally side with capital against working class women), but it does show that ‘small’ privileges within the working class can have a very significant influence on class unity. Trotsky in his writings on Women and the Family makes a similar analogy between the questions of national liberation and women’s liberation.

Vladimir Ilyich taught us to value the working class parties according to their attitude ... toward the oppressed nations ... Why? Because if you take, say, the English worker, it is much easier to arouse in him the feeling of solidarity with his whole class – he will take part in strikes and will even arrive at revolution – but to make him raise himself to solidarity with a yellow-skinned Chinese coolie, to treat him as a brother in exploitation, will prove much more difficult since here it is necessary to break through a shell of national arrogance which has been built up over centuries. And just so, comrades, has the shell of family prejudices in the attitudes of the head of the family toward women and child – and woman is the coolie of the family – this shell has been laid down over millenia, and not centuries. [2]

Let us pursue this question of benefits further. ‘The benefits’, writes Harman, ‘really come down to the question of housework.’ (p. 26) [3] But is this something marginal? Is it not, together with child rearing, ‘the material root of working class women’s oppression under capitalism today ... which restricts the working class woman’s contact with the world outside the home and makes her dependent on working class men’(pp. 7–8)?

In order to minimise the benefits the male worker receives from his wife’s housework Harman resorts to the device of making a distinction between work done directly for the husband and work done for the children. The former we are told ‘could not be more than an hour or two a day ... not a huge gain for the male worker’ (p. 27); only the burden of childrearing is ‘unbearable’, and this doesn’t count because ‘labour devoted to bringing up children cannot be treated as something given by the wife to the husband. It is rather, something which the wife provides to the system satisfying its need to renew the labour force’.

There are many objections to this argument. Why could this direct servicing to the husband not be more than ‘an hour or two a day’? I’m sure that in many working class families it is considerably more. Is it really not a major gain for the husband that he does not have to shop, cook, wash up, tidy up, vacuum, wash clothes etc. after his 8–10 hours in the factory? Many a bitter workers’ struggle has been fought over much less than an hour or two on the working day. Harman tells us that this is ‘a burden for a woman who has to do this work for two people after a day’s paid labour’, so why is it not an important gain for the worker not to have to do it?

More importantly the distinction between the two forms of women’s labour, labour for the husband and labour for children, is false in practice and in theory.

It is false in practice because actually wives cook, clean, wash etc. for their husbands and children simultaneously. It is false in theory because both kinds of labour are services to the system and to men. When a wife cooks for her husband she is doing something for her husband and reproducing or ‘refreshing’ his labour power for the system. When she takes virtually the whole responsibility for child rearing she is both producing the next generation of labour power for the system and doing something for her husband by relieving him of the necessity of doing his share of this work.

To appreciate the benefit the male worker receives from this unequal division of labour in the home, as it is experienced by workers and as it influences their behaviour in the class struggle, one must ask what he would lose if that division of labour were equalised under capitalism as it is today: i.e. with no 24-hour nurseries or neighbourhood restaurants. The answer is that he would lose a considerable amount of time, freedom and energy to participate in social activities outside the home.

For the average worker this is largely a matter of a restriction in going to the pub, football and other sports and hobbies – all of which (whatever we may think of them) are experienced as a major counterweight to the forty or more hours of alienated wage slavery. For the class conscious worker (and this must be of particular concern to us) it means a substantial restriction on his trade union and political activities.

From here we must go on to ask how the unequal division of labour in the home is maintained day after day, year after year. There is no law which compels women to do the vast bulk of housework and child rearing. To a considerable extent of course it is maintained directly by the system through its socialisation of women into the housewife role, and, even more importantly, through its payment of higher wages to male workers which makes them usually the family’s main breadwinner. But it is also maintained by the system through male workers who refuse to do an equal share of housework or, worse, insist that their wives do all of it. [4]

This brings us to a point which, from a Marxist point of view, is even more fundamental than the quantitative argument about how much male workers benefit from women’s oppression, namely that within the working class family the male worker is the oppressor and the woman the oppressed. [5]

Harman’s article partially recognises this and partially covers it up. It argues (p. 25) that the real cause of women’s oppression is not individual men but the needs of capital accumulation, but that these needs require as an enforcing agency, people who will oppress others, and that many men are involved in the oppression of women. However Harman then counterposes to the Anna Paczuska & Lynn James list of male oppressors (wife beaters, rapists, pimps, pornographers) the fact that not all men are involved in these activities and a list of other elements of women’s oppression, ‘the denial of the right of abortion, unequal pay etc.’, which are enforced not by individual men but by the state and the employer. The point is that neither list includes the fundamental element of women’s oppression, the housewife/mother role which almost all working class men are to some extent involved in enforcing on almost all working class women.

The situation, therefore, is that although the basic and decisive division in society is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat there is nonetheless a certain division, between men and women, within the working class. This division is powerfully reinforced by the dominant sexist ideology but it is not merely a matter of ideology. One reason why sexist ideology is so powerful is because it connects with the immediate (though not the long term) interests of male workers. This immediate interest of male workers in male dominance stands in contradiction to their historical interests in the unification of the class and constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of that unification.

The problem with the Harman/Cliff/German position is that in minimising or denying the material roots of the sexual division in the working class it underestimates the obstacle that exists to achieving class unity and therefore underestimates the conscious intervention required by the revolutionary party to overcome that obstacle.

In fact this is an obstacle that can be overcome only in struggle. Struggle against the ruling class in which it can be demonstrated that sexism weakens the unity of the class, and struggle within the class to ensure that ‘unity’ is not realised at the expense of women. In these struggles women workers themselves will have to come forward (and undoubtedly will come forward) as champions of their own interests – not against male workers but to prevent their interests being neglected, ignored and forgotten. It is the task of the revolutionary party to assist, indeed to lead, working class women in this process and this will necessarily require special efforts and special methods of agitation and propaganda. (At present the SWP makes no such special efforts but they are perfectly in accord with the Marxist tradition. [6])

Moreover just as women workers will have to take the initiative to bring to the fore the women’s aspect of the class struggle so women revolutionaries will have to take the initiative within the revolutionary party. Even the most revolutionary men are not exempt from the influence of the short term benefit men derive from the oppression of women. Hence it cannot be assumed, or taken for granted, that the revolutionary party will ‘automatically’ highlight the interests of women workers. On the contrary the history of the Marxist movement shows that Marxists too have an unfortunate tendency to ‘forget’ the woman question. Cliff himself records how Marx spoke of the Paris Commune introducing ‘universal’ suffrage, ‘not noticing that half the adult population – women were excluded’ and that Lenin repeated the mistake. [7] Kollontai also, as she notes in her autobiography, had to overcome the reluctance and resistance of male Bolsheviks when she began to organise women workers. Indeed the Trotskyist movement as a whole (including the Socialist Review group and the International Socialists – our predecessors) ‘forgot’ the question of women’s liberation throughout the period from the Second World War to the end of the 1960s, that is until it was imposed on us by the rise in the women’s movement, first in America and then in Britain. [8]

The Harman analysis submerges all this. In his eagerness to combat any tendency to petty bourgeois feminist separatism he goes too far, reaching the point where any specific orientation to women workers and their particular needs is ruled out. In conditions of downturn where the party is to a considerable extent concentrating on propaganda this is damaging, but not as damaging as it might be.

In conditions of upturn, where thousands of working class women are being drawn into the struggle and therefore challenging all the disadvantages the sexual division of labour in the home imposes on them, it will be disastrous.

In conditions of upturn we will start to hear from no end of working class women how their husbands have become shop stewards, conveners, trades council delegates and party members while they couldn’t even get to a union meeting. Let’s make sure now that we don’t have an analysis that stops us listening.


1. There is a certain parallel between the current SWP position on women and the position of the Militant tendency on Northern Ireland. Militant denies there are any significant differences in the oppression of Catholic and Protestant workers and consequently do not take up the national question and refuse even critical support for the IRA and Sinn Fein – a position the SWP has always firmly rejected.

2. L. Trotsky, Women and the Family.

3. This follows a decidedly odd statement that ‘Nor can it really be argued they gain from the treatment of women’s bodies as commodities — the only men who can benefit in this way are the men with the wealth to buy and sell commodities’. (p. 26) Surely it cannot have escaped Chris’s attention that all men and women, working class or otherwise, have the wealth to buy and sell commodities. That is how we all live in a capitalist society. Nor can he mean that only ruling class men have the wealth to buy pornography, go to strip clubs, or hire the services of prostitutes since this is obviously not true. This is a minor point as far as the main argument is concerned but it is symptomatic that Harman, normally such a rigorous and exact thinker, should here employ such loose reasoning.

4. The mechanisms of this enforcement range from overt refusal and insistence, backed by economic power and even physical force, (which is certainly the case in many working class families), though a pathetic ‘inability’ to acquire the skills involved, a persistent reluctance and dragging of the feet (which forces the wife into the role of ‘nag’), to the ultimate argument that the man’s external activities are more important than the demands of the home.

5. This is the meaning of the well-known quotation from Engels, Eleanor Marx and others that ‘within the family the man is the bourgeois, the woman the proletarian’.

6. See for example Clara Zetkin’s speech to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International on Organising Working Women (International Socialism 96). In this speech Zetkin asserts: ‘One thing has become apparent; we require special organs to carry on the Communist work of organisation and education among women and make it part of the life of the Party ... To accomplish our purpose it is necessary to set up party organs, Womens’ Secretariats, Womens’ Departments, or whatever we may call them to carry on this work.’ Zetkin then goes on to contrast the situation in the Bulgarian and German CPs where there are Womens’ Secretariats and ‘the Communist Women’s movement has become one of the strong points of the general life of the Party’ to that in Poland and Britain where the CPs have ‘refused or postponed the setting up of a special body for systematic agitation among women’.

7. See T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, pp. 43 and 245 (fn). Cliff calls Marx’s mistake ‘astonishing’ and writes of ‘one of the strangest paradoxes of the Commune: that working class women played a massive role in a revolution which did not even allow them to vote’. Perhaps the analysis in this article enables us to understand why Marx’s oversight is not so ‘astonishing’ and the paradoxes of the Commune not so strange.

8. The explanation for our collective silence on women’s liberation for a generation or more now current in the SWP is that it is due to Stalinism which erased the genuine Marxist tradition on women. Of course Stalinism did this but this does not explain why Stalinism had so much more success in silencing us on this question than it did on say socialism in one country or workers’ democracy. Unfortunately it has to be admitted that it was only the self-activity of women outside the party followed by that of women inside the party that compelled the Trotskyist movement to confront its own theory and practice.

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