MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

Monopoly Capitalism and the Women’s Movement

Against the Socialist Feminist Response to Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital

Harry Braverman wrote, in commenting upon his own work, that “the unraveling of every complex social reality requires a starting point, and it is my strong conviction that the best starting point in every case is the analysis of the dynamic elements rather than the traditional and static aspects of a given problem.” Later in the same essay, Braverman observed that “Marxism is not merely an exercise in satisfying intellectual curiosity, nor an academic pursuit, but a theory of revolution and thus a tool of combat.” [1]


The beauty and power of Braverman’s ability to use the Marxian method of dialectical materialism is wonderfully displayed in Chapter 17 of Labor and Monopoly Capital, “The Structure of the Working Class and its -Reserve Armies,” and nowhere more eloquently or clearly than in his analysis of the working class:

Labor and capital are the opposite poles of capitalist society .... And yet this polarity is incorporated in a necessary identity between the two. Whatever its form, whether as money or commodities or means of production, capital is labor: it is labor that has been performed in the past, the objectified product of preceding phases of the cycle of production which becomes capital only through appropriation by the capitalist and its use in the accumulation of more capital .... That portion of money capital which is set aside for the payment of labor, the portion which in each cycle is converted into living labor power, is the portion of capital which stands for and corresponds to the working population, and upon which the latter subsists.

Before it is anything else, therefore, the working class is the animate part of capital, the part which will set in motion the process that yields to the total capital its increment of surplus value. As such, the working class is first of all raw material for exploitation .... Since, in its permanent existence it is the living part of capital, its occupational structure, modes of work, and distribution through the industries of society are determined by the ongoing processes of the accumulation of capital. It is seized, released, flung into various parts of the social machinery and expelled by others, not in accord with its own will or self-activity, but in accord with the movement of capital. [2]

Braverman does us the great service of providing an adequate understanding of who and what the working class is; that understanding is critical to the development of all working-class struggles in this country. Formally, the working class is “that class which, possessing nothing but its power to labor, sells that power to capital in return for its subsistence.”

The publication of Labor and Monopoly Capital marks the appearance of a genuine Marxian class analysis of the United States. The power of a Marxian analysis is demonstrated by its predictive power. No other work shows greater promise of this capacity; Braverman describes not only the present, but also those processes that lead to the probable future. In describing the probable future, Braverman meets the Marxian criterion of “theory as a tool of combat,” for it is the future that dictates the practice of revolutionaries in the present. It is this analysis of processes leading to the future, and therefore strategies for the present, that we shall examine for its relevance to the issue of the social and economic emancipation of women.


Labor and Monopoly Capital has come under frequent attack by a number of individuals claiming a “socialist feminist” or feminist perspective. This school of criticism is exemplified by the critique by Rosalyn Baxandall, Elizabeth Ewen and Linda Gordon that appeared in the Monthly Review special issue on Braverman’s book. [3] Braverman replied to Baxandall, et al, by pointing out:

Beyond the fact that a consideration of household work would have fallen far outside the bounds of my subject (not to mention my competence), there is also this to consider; that household work, although it has been the special domain of women, is not thereby necessarily so central to the issues of women’s liberation as might appear from this fact On the contrary, it is the breakdown of the traditional household economy which has produced the present-day feminist movement. This movement in its modern form is almost entirely a product of women who have been summoned from the household by the requirements of the capital accumulation process, and subjected to experiences and stresses unknown in the previous thousands of years of household labor under a variety of social arrangements. Thus it is the analysis of this new situation that in my opinion occupies the place of first importance in the theory of modern feminism .... Thus I have the feeling that the most light will be shed on the totality of problems and issues embraced in the feminist movement, including those of household work, by an analysis that begins not with the forms of household work that have been practiced for thousands of years, but by their weakening and by the dissociation of an increasing number of women from them in the last few decades. [4]

Since Women’s Liberation (to which Baxandall, et al, claim to be indebted) has stressed psychological oppression, and particularly the psychological oppression of petty bourgeois housewives, to the exclusion of any genuine class understanding, it has become fashionable in feminist circles to center concern almost exclusively on the ideol ogy of sexism and the organization of the family. This leads Baxandall, et al, to criticize Braverman for paying insufficient attention to the “female” experience of working women and to ignore the issue of “unwaged” labor in the home. In his reply to this critique, Braverman displays an understandable impatience with his critics’ failure to grasp his analysis of the impact of monopoly capitalism upon women, the family and household labor.

Braverman’s analysis of the family and household labor is found in Chapter 13, “The Universal Market.” The chapter begins with a review of the history of household use value production (things and services produced for human use, but not for sale on the market) which continued throughout the early period of industrialization. Most household goods (clothing, food and household artifacts) were produced by the family unit. However, with the expansion of capital accumulation (and therefore the expansion of manufacture) the home production of use values began to be increasingly supplanted by cheap manufactured goods. It was quite literally cheaper to buy ready-made clothes than to manufacture them at home; it was cheaper to buy milk in a bottle than to keep a cow. In this way soap-making, brewing, churning, baking, preserving, spinning, weaving, tin-smithing, cheese-making, bread-making and a host of other productive home activities have been “rendered uneconomic as compared with wage labor by the cheapening of manufactured goods, and this, together with all the other pressures bearing on the working-class family, helps drive the woman out of the home and into industry.”

With both husband and wife, and often children as well, drawn into wage labor, the service functions of the family also became gradually supplanted by commodity services: hospitals, old folks’ homes, paid entertainment, paid sports, public schools. This constant pressure of the expansion of capital accumulation has resulted in the conversion into a commodity of every product of human labor, with the result that goods-producing labor is carried on in none but its capitalist form:

But the industrialization of food and other elementary home provisions is only the first step in a process which eventually leads to the dependence of all social life, and indeed of all the interrelatedness of humankind, upon the marketplace .... Social artifice has been destroyed in all but its marketable forms. Thus the population no longer relies upon social organization in the form of family, friends, neighbors, community, elders, children, but with few exceptions must go to market and only to market, not only for food, clothing and shelter, but also for recreation, amusement, security, for the care of the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped. In time not only the material and service needs but even the emotional patterns of life are channeled through the market. [5]

In the period of monopoly capitalism, the first step in the creation of a universal market is the conquest of all goods production by the commodity form; the second step is the conquest of services and their transformation into the commodity form; the third step is the creation of a “product cycle” which invents new goods and services and so expands the market for them. Under monopoly capitalism the market has become universal: it has destroyed all alternatives to the market. This conquest was at the expense of the traditional household economy, for the universal market of our age has meant that “the function of the family as a cooperative ... way of life is brought to an end, and with this its other functions are progressively weakened.” [6] This is what Braverman means when he says that it is the breakdown of the traditional household economy that is relevant for women.

How shall we now understand Braverman’s assertion that the present-day feminist movement “in its modern form is almost entirely a product of women who have been summoned from the household by the requirements of the capital accumulation process"? This refers, in the first instance, to the 33 million women who presently make up 40 percent of the entire labor force, and in the second instance, to the weakening of the function of household work and the dissociation of an increasing number of women from it.

Since we began with a critique of a critique, derived from Women’s Liberation, which accused Braverman of omitting a consideration of housewives, let us now discuss the housewife (whether she is working or not). The housewife is at the very nexus of the changes: the disintegration of the family and family life.

Just as in the factory it is not the machines that are at fault but the conditions of the capitalist mode of production under which they are used, so here it is not the necessary provision of social services that is at fault, but the effects of an all-powerful marketplace .... As the advances of modern household and service industries lighten the family labor, they increase the futility of family life; as they remove the burdens of personal relations, they strip away its affections; as they create an intricate social life, they rob it of every vestige of community and leave in its place the cash nexus. [7]

For modern woman, the cash nexus means that she is consumer, not a producer; it means that she is economically dependent upon the husband (unless she is working) and appears to be more of a burden than a contributor in her own right; it means that her home function is primarily childrearing, and even that function is being eroded by the proliferation of commodity child-rearing services; it means that her labor in the home is principally that of an endless round of maintenance, much of it useless (does the family really care if there are six coats of super-gloss on the kitchen floor?). These are the conditions of life that create the housewife’s “illness without a name,” that so degrade household labor as to make it intolerable. It is the nature of human beings to attempt to realize their human potential through labor; just as rationalization degrades industrial labor, so the sheer futility of modern household labor leads to frustration and depression.

Therefore, it is the disintegration of the family and of traditional household labor – the futility and paucity of social relations – that produces the profound dislocation and rebellion of women subjected to it. Indeed, we are in a period of transition between the older form of the family and some new form arising out of the conditions of monopoly capitalism. Since the norms and values of social life change more slowly than do the material conditions of life, rebellion arises when individuals attempt to realize social values and fail. A woman believes she should be a wife and homemaker: but a wife is a non-productive dependent, and a “homemaker” is in fact an unpaid housekeeper.

Many millions of women are drawn into waged labor because home labor is uneconomic and because additional wages are needed to buy the commodity goods and services upon which the family depends. Home maintenance is the extra burden carried by working women, although increasingly husband and wife share the burdens of housework. It is the women remaining in the home who suffer the brunt of the disintegration of the traditional family; it is also these women who see their home labor as little more than “unpaid service work.” The so-called “wages for housework” argument is very persuasive because housework (and often childcare) takes on the character of alienated labor, the more so as service work identical to that of the housewife is turned into waged work and commodity services. However, we must always distinguish between what is persuasive and what is accurate. The “wages for housework” argument ignores capitalist relations of production:

According to the statistical conventions of economics, the conversion of much household labor into labor in factories, offices, hospitals, canneries, laundries, clothing shops, retail stores, restaurants, and so forth, represents a vast enlargement of the national product. The goods and services produced by unpaid labor in the home are not reckoned at all, but when the same goods and services are produced by paid labor outside the home they are counted. From a capitalist point of view, which is the only viewpoint recognized for national accounting purposes, such a reckoning makes sense. The work of the housewife, though it has the same material or service effect as that of the chambermaid, restaurant worker, cleaner, porter, or laundry worker, is outside the purview of capital; but when she takes one of these jobs outside the home she becomes a productive worker. Her labor now enriches capital and thus deserves a place in the national product. This is the logic of the universal market. [8]

Thus, the “wages for housework” argument misunderstands the relationship between husband and wife. The critical point here is that unpaid household labor does not directly contribute to capital accumulation (the definition of a “Productive” worker under monopoly capitalism – see Chapter 19, “Productive and Unproductive Labor”). Household work may be a service to the husband, but to turn that into a commodity service, the housewife would have to become the employee of a capitalist, as the husband does not accumulate capital through his wife’s household labor, and therefore is not an “employer” (does not appropriate surplus value or purchase his wife’s labor power). If, for example, the wife were employed by a commercial housekeeping business, the husband paid the business a fee, and the business returned a portion of the fee (less the surplus value) to the wife, then it could be possible to pay “wages for housework.”

If the program of the “wages for housework” movement were put into practice, it could not amount to more than a government dole to housewives (which would be extracted from working-class taxation – a disguised tax on the employed working class, male and female). This would benefit the housebound wife (much more likely to be petty bourgeois) at the expense of the working-class wife, for what capital gives with one hand it takes away with the other. If the government dole were not the source of the “wages’’ for housewives, then the program could demand no more than a regular allowance paid by the husband to the wife in return for her housework. How the payment of such allowances could be enforced by a state that cannot even manage to enforce the payment of child support escapes me. Furthermore, “wages for housework” is a regressive demand, one that reinforces a degraded form of household labor. Women are better advised to grasp the emerging and contradictory nature of family and motherhood under capitalism, for, at a horrendous price to be sure, monopoly capitalism is freeing women from the bonds of economic dependence and degraded household labor. Amidst the most fearful exploitation, monopoly capitalism also establishes the material basis for the social equality of women.

Although it was estimated in 1968 that household labor done by women would be equivalent to one-fourth of the U.S. gross national product (not to mention 14.2 billion dollars’ worth of volunteer work, mostly in the field of social services), [9] unwaged household work is the production of use values, and as such, is “unproductive” (unproductive in that it does not directly contribute to capital accumulation). It is for this reason that the tendency from the very beginning of industrial capitalism has been to transform use values produced by household labor into commodity products and services, disintegrating the family in the process. The growth of the universal market really portends the increasing commercialization of the remaining areas of household labor, for the equivalent of one-fourth of the U.S. gross national product is a large kettle of potential profit! And this indeed is the tendency, from microwave ovens, Stouffer’s gourmet frozen dinners (or McDonald’s and Doggie Diners) to California Homemakers, Inc.

Thus, as the development of market relations substitutes for individual and community relations, as the social and family life of the community are weakened, new branches of production are brought into being to fill the resulting gap; and as these new services and commodities provide substitutes for human relations in the form of market relations, social and family life are further weakened. This is a process that both calls forth a very large service employment (and new service industries) to further supplant household use value production and draws ever-larger numbers of women into waged employment, while women’s waged employment creates the need for even more services. The growth of the service sector is the decline of the family, and the decline of the family is both cause and result of capital’s pressure upon women “who have been summoned from the household by the requirements of the capital accumulation process, and subjected to experiences and stresses unknown in the previous thousands of years of household labor ...” [10]

The ebbing of family facilities, and of family, community and neighborly feelings upon which the performance of many social functions formerly depended, leaves a void. As the family members, more of them now at work away from the home, become less and less able to care for each other in time of need, and as the ties of neighborhood, community, and friendship are reinterpreted on a narrower scale to exclude onerous responsibilities, the care of humans for each other becomes increasingly institutionalized ....

(The growth of such institutions calls forth a very large “service” employment.) It is characteristic of most of the jobs created in this “service sector” that, by the nature of the labor processes they incorporate, they are less susceptible to technological change than the processes of most goods-producing industries. Thus while labor tends to stagnate or shrink in the manufacturing sector, it piles up in these services and meets a renewal of the traditional forms of pre-monopoly competition among the many firms that proliferate in fields with lower capital-entry requirements. Largely nonunion and drawing on the pool of pauperized labor at the bottom of the working-class population, these industries create new low-wage sectors of the working class, more intensely exploited and oppressed than those in the mechanized fields of production.

This is the field of employment, along with clerical work, into which women in large numbers are drawn out of the household.[11]

For socialists, the contemporary problem is to concentrate precisely upon those “experiences and stresses” that are a product of the summons to waged labor. The future of working-class* women’s struggle does not lie in a rebellion against housework but in a rebellion against women’s utilization in the labor force, that is, a working-class rebellion against the exploitation of waged labor.


1. Harry Braverman, “Two Comments,” Monthly Review (Vol. 28, no. 3, July-August 1976), pp. 120, 122.

2. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1974 , pp. 377-78.

3. Rosalyn Baxandall, Elizabeth Ewen and Linda Gordon, “The Working Class Has Two Sexes,” Monthly Review (Vol. 28, no. 3, July-August 1976).

4. Braverman, “Two Comments,” p. 120.

5. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p. 276.

6. Ibid., p. 277.

7. Ibid., p. 282.

8. Loc. cit.

9. Juanita Kreps, Sex in the Marketplace (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), p. 67 and Doris Gold, “Women and Voluntarism,” in Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran, eds., Woman in Sexist Society (New York, Signet Books, 1972), p. 534.

10. Braverman, “Two Comments,” p. 120.

11. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, pp. 279-82.

12. By “working class” I do not mean 1) 90% of the population; 2) everyone who works for wages or is dependent upon someone who works for wages. By working class I mean precisely “craftsmen, clerical workers, operatives, sales workers, service workers, and non-farm laborers,” Braverman’s description in Chapter 17, “The Structure of the Working Class.” In Chapter 18, “The ‘Middle Layers’ of Employment,” Braverman dismisses the so-called “new working class” theory so prevalent among the self-identified socialist feminists. While it is true that members of the stratum embracing the engineering, technical and scientific cadre, the lower ranks of supervision and management, and considerable numbers of specialized and “professional” employees occupied in business and outside of capitalist industry proper, in hospitals, schools, government administration and so forth, are employed by capital for wages, they cannot be considered to be part of the working class:

All in all, therefore, those in this area of capitalist employment enjoy, in greater or lesser degree depending upon their specific place in the hierarchy, the privileges of exemption from the worst features of the proletarian situation, including, as a rule, significantly higher scales of pay. [13]

But it is not merely that the wages are higher, but rather that:

Their pay level is significant because beyond a certain point, like the pay of the commanders of the corporation, it clearly represents not just the exchange of labor power for money – a commodity exchange – but a share in the surplus produced. [14]

The members of the “new middle class” do not sell their labor power to capital in return for subsistence; their wages, therefore, represent a portion of the surplus value produced. To be sure, segments of this “new middle class” are being proletarianized and are responding to the process with their own version of petty bourgeois radicalism – but that does not make them working class today (although a somewhat distant tomorrow is clearly on the agenda) no matter how much they insist that the college professor is no different from the office help.

The working class, then, is made up of craftsmen, clerical workers, operatives, sales workers, service workers and non-farm laborers.

13. Ibid., p. 407.

14. Ibid., p. 405.


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