Animated by the feminist movement, some people have recently begun to pay attention to the significance of sexist language. Others, including many Marxists, have regarded a principled avoidance of sexist language as an unnecessary complication of expression. With regard to a central Marxist concept 'the labourer' we would like to deal with the question whether the replacement of Marx's sexist formulation is mere feminist tokenism or leads to new systematic insights into Capital and the place of a theory of family in a systematic theory of the bourgeois epoch.
There is a tendency both in English and German to give collective nouns that refer to people a male gender. In German this tendency is stronger and more apparent because the definite article also has gender. Thus 'der Arbeiter', as used by Marx, if translated as 'the labourer' does not express the male gender, but nevertheless the gender comes out in the use of the pronoun 'he' with 'the worker'. In English there is a more convenient way of avoiding the male gender by replacing the standard pronoun, 'he' by 'her' or 's/he' or 'their', whereas in German, to avoid the male gender would require a rather awkward expression 'Der Arbeiter beziehungsweise die Arbeiterin ... er/sie' must be used because the female noun has a different article and suffix ('die Arbeiterin'). Was it only for convenience that Marx used the ambiguous collective noun?
At first glance 'labourer' is to 'labour' as 'capitalist' is to 'capital' and with regard to the latter it can be asked: would it make any difference if instead of 'the capitalist ... he', 'the capitalist … s/he' were used? (Graffiti in Redfern, Sydney: Smash the Landlords/Ladies!).
There is no such thing as female or male capital but there are female and male labourers and this in itself signals the end of a parallelism between capitalist and labourer with respect to simply personifying the categories 'capital' and 'wage labour' respectively.
Let us then inspect a few relevant passages in which Marx deals with labour-power, the male adult labourer, the children of the working class and the female labourer and try to find out whether Marx' comments have the status of asides or occasional historical illustrations, etc. or if a theory of family (or a sexist treatment of the family) is essential to the capital-analysis. In the latter case an objection against Marxism would arise out of feminist questioning.
"For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man ("freie Person" = as free persons; cf. MEW 23, p. 183) he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.
The question why this free labourer confronts him in the market, has no interest for the owner of money, who regards the labour-market as a branch of the general market for commodities. And for the present it interests us just as little. We cling to the fact theoretically, as he does practically".(CI 166)
In this passage, Marx uses the method of the dialectic (cf. Introduction) to select a piece of everyday knowledge and, at the same time, postpones objections which arise with this selection i.e. the 'free labourer' in the market is taken as a given and the question of how the labourer comes to appear on the labour market is set aside. Thus the objection that the male labourer is only 'free' to sell his labour power because he has a wife at home doing unpaid domestic labour, etc, is postponed. In addition, it should be noted that 'free labourer' is not narrowed down to the male worker, which is suggested by the phrase 'as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity'. (The original has 'freie Person', which would be more accurately translated as 'free persons'.) Thus this passage can be taken as referring to labour-power in the most abstract and general way without reference to sex, race, age or religion.
"The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer's substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market." (CI 168)
In this passage Marx forgets that he has already set aside the question of the way in which labour-power is reproduced (cf. 1 above) and discusses a very specific case: the working class, nuclear family. The expression 'his children' suggests that the father is the breadwinner for his children and the existence and role of his wife is ignored. (It should be noted that the German original has an equivalent of "the workers' children". Thus the bias seems to be stronger in the English version.)
"The value of labour-power was determined, not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult labourer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery, by throwing every member of that family on to the labour-market, spreads the value of the man's labour-power over his whole family." (CI 373)
There cannot be any doubt here (in the German version also) about Marx using 'the labourer' not in an abstract sense but as the 'male labourer'. Firstly, the sexism of this passage cannot be avoided by giving it an abstract formulation because of the phrase 'spreading of the man's labour-power over his whole family'. Secondly, as it is implied in the quotation that the women's and children's labour-power have no value in themselves but only as part of the man's value, a criticism of this sexist formulation gives rise to challenging the category 'value of labour-power' itself.
"The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence". (CI 169; our emphasis)
In our view this passage expresses that the concept of the 'value of labour-power' dissolves into thin air when looked at carefully. What can be said is that the price of labour-power is the equivalent of the value of a certain quantity of industrial commodities (Lebensmittel = means of life) but a 'value of labour-power' in itself cannot be coherently formulated. Hence it is not that the man's labour-power has a value and the woman's and child's labour-power a value derived from the man's but that labour-power has only a price, which is systematically derived from the value of industrial commodities.
"We must now examine more closely this peculiar commodity, labour- power. Like all others it has a value. How is that value determined?"(CI 167)
It is theoretically inconsistent to claim that labour-power is a commodity like all other (industrial) commodities and at the same time raise the question of how its 'value' is determined. For, if it is like any other commodity its value has already been determined. We find it is only sensible to raise a question like: How is the price of labour-power determined? For the price of labour-power which here confronts us for the first time in the presentation, cannot be understood as a commodity with its own value. Up to this point in the presentation the price of a commodity has been conceived as the value of the commodity expressed in money, but this is only possible with things that have a value i.e. industrial commodities.
"The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it. Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently presupposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence (Means of Life). Therefore the labour-time requisite for the production of labour-power reduces itself to that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence (Means of Life)." (CI 167)
Here Marx forgets that the question of how labour-power is reproduced has been postponed by an assumption of presentation (cf. 1 above) and attempts to answer the question how the value of labour-power is determined by looking at how it is reproduced. The answer - that the value is determined by "a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it" and that this "definite quantity" resolves itself into the abstract labour embodied in the means of life - leaves aside the necessary but unpaid domestic labour performed by women. This poses a problem for the presentation: either the 'value' of labour-power is determined by all the socially necessary labour embodied in it - in which case an account of domestic labour and the family has its systematic place in the analysis of the economic - or its 'value' is not determined by the labour necessary to reproduce it but the money received as wages is the equivalent of the 'socially necessary labour-time' embodied in a certain quantity of means of life. The first alternative is rejected on the grounds that it uses the systematic category 'socially necessary labour' introduced in CI, Chapter 1 with sole reference to industrial commodities, in a quite different sense which surreptitiously depends on an everyday notion of labour. Thus 'socially necessary labour' does not here refer to the value-form but to a loose notion of what social activities (eg. birth, cooking, child-minding, nurturing, education, entertainment, discipline, etc.) are required for the reproduction of the labourer. The presentation cannot cope with all these activities at once and the way out is to bring some systematic order into dealing with them. We can only foreshadow that the analysis of the bourgeois State (including the family as a 'State apparatus', to use a phrase of Althusser's, which anticipates "results still to be proved") will have to deal with those social activities listed above that do not fall under the heading of industrial labour. In the second alternative socially necessary labour appears as a technical term, referring only to abstract labour embodied In industrial commodities. The labourers are not paid in means of life but in money and it is this amount of money which is the nub of the transaction between labourer and capitalist. The amount of money, of course, determines the amount of means of life that can be bought. If the quantity of means of life is taken as given then the price of labour-power is tied to the value of means of life and Marx's formulation of the 'value' of labour-power amounts to an assumption that real wages are uniform and constant. The effect of opting for the second alternative is to free the concept of 'price of labour-power' from a determination by the value of a given set of means of life and to point to the importance of class struggle in the determination of the price of labour-power.
In setting aside the question of the family and of the distinctions between men and women in the determination of the price of labour-power, we conclude that in all systematically important parts of Capital, 'the labourer... he' can be replaced by 'the labour-power... it'. Let it only be remembered that Marx, in using a uniform 'value of labour-power' in Vol I, is only making an assumption of presentation that all labourers get the same wage and that this assumption should be relaxed in the treatment of competition.
Having questioned the concept 'value of labour-power' the treatment by Marx of skilled labour-power and its value becomes shaky. If the price of labour-power is determined by a struggle between wage-labour and capital, then the higher price of skilled labour-power is a result of its better position in that struggle rather than an inherently higher value of their labour-power. In Vol I, Chapter 1, where an objection that skilled labour-power creates more value than unskilled (CI 51f) is dealt with, all that is necessary is to point out that only a qualitative analysis of value is necessary at this stage and that the question of differing 'values' of labour-power can be treated later.
In pressing home the point that skilled labour-power does better in the class struggle than unskilled labour-power because of its monopoly of a particular skill, we conclude that the higher price of skilled labour-power can be treated analogously to monopoly rent as in Capital Vol. III. The capitalist buying more expensive, skilled labour-power can sell the commodity produced above its price of production and recoup the cost of higher wages, precisely because of the relative scarcity of skilled labour-power, in the same way as a monopolisation of land can allow a commodity produced on that land to be sold above its price of production (cf. Paper 4). This does away with the so-called 'reduction problem'. The difference from ground-rent is that skilled labour-power can lose its monopoly position as capital strives to reorganise the production process so that it doesn't need skilled workers.
For the capital-analysis, the reproduction unit of labour-power need only be treated as a 'black box' into which industrial commodities (means of life) are fed and from which labour-power emerges. The details of how this 'black box' functions are not necessary for the systematic presentation at this level. Marx, in fact, in some places leaves out the reproduction of the labourer, treating them as a sexless, raceless individual and in other places treats of a special form of the reproduction unit: the nuclear family. We prefer to take a general view of the reproduction unit as a 'black box' and reserve an analysis of it to the theory of State.
 Marx, K. Preface to 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy' in Marx/ Engels: Selected Works, Volume 1, Moscow 1969, p. 502.