MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

The Subjugation of Women Under Capitalism:
The Bourgeois Morality

It is clear that the nuclear family, far from being “pre-capitalist,” is an integral element in capitalist relations of production. Capital leaves not the tiniest corner of society free of its domination. A simple juridical review of marriage, divorce, custody, bastardy and welfare laws, and of the laws related to sexuality, prostitution and moral life in general, all amply demonstrate capital’s direct concern with marriage, the family, children, sexuality and so-called “morals.” The supervision by the state of the moral life of the proletariat is directly related to the proletariat’s role in commodity production, including the production of labor power itself, without which the entire capitalist society would cease to exist.

Capital and Human Reproduction

The bourgeoisie is not interested in sexual behavior or the family as such. Capital’s interest is in population, the production of human labor power in proportion to its needs. The ruling bourgeoisie is very aware that capitalism could not exist without its ultimate producer and most fundamental commodity, human labor power. Capital’s need to exert population control and to supervise human reproduction, and the contradictions that this entails, are sharply revealed not only in an obsession with the rate of reproduction in the poor and developing countries, but also in the abortion, birth control, sterilization and social assistance laws in North America.

To capital, the family is the economic unit charged with the production and reproduction of labor power. Women’s labor power and reproductive power – the bearing and rearing of children – have economic meaning in the necessary production of capital’s essential commodity. It is clear that capital views motherhood purely in terms of commodity production, as the source of the future labor pool. Women’s reproductive capacities are supervised by the state because capital needs to regulate population, to control production of the product, children. These future proletarians exist only to be exploited, to labor for the entire span of their productive lives to increase capital accumulation, and to be discarded into impoverished old age when they have been used up.

Thus the laws make clear that it is not desirable, from capital’s point of view, for women to control their own bodies, i.e., for women to control the means of reproduction. It is equally clear that capital uses the nuclear family, and women’s subservient position as wife-mother, as the chief means to assure the reproduction of an adequate supply of labor power for future exploitation-at the workers’ expense. Where once children were an economic asset (as they are now for farm families), today children are an economic liability for the working class. Capital must, however, keep the production of new proletarians at desired levels. Motherhood-as-calling, as sole definition of women’s social function, and marriage as the only “normal” condition of women, serve to assure the necessary annual crop of new proletarians. Yet capital is unwilling to pay for the production of these new workers (health, education, housing, training, etc.), displacing these costs onto the working class family. Capital does not view children as the property of parents, but as its future supply of labor power. Children are no more the “private property” of their parents than a wife’s labor power and reproductive power are the private resources of her husband. All returns, directly or indirectly, to capital.

The bourgeois morality serves the purpose, from the point of view of capital, of maintaining the nuclear family and the exploitation and subjugation of women within it. As we have outlined, the actual functions of the nuclear family are to produce and reproduce labor power, absorb female unemployment, regulate the female labor supply, discipline the male labor force and regulate population. Yet, even as the bourgeois morality serves to perpetuate the ideal of the nuclear family, capital itself is battering the family, upsetting orderly proletarian reproduction and generating multiple contradictions within the fabric of capitalist society.

While the “ideal” nuclear family may be the preferred production unit for new labor power, capital itself undermines the family as is clear from the emergence of second, third and even fourth-generation welfare families often without any marriage contracts. This situation clearly indicates that the traditional nuclear family is not absolutely essential to capitalism; indeed, the nuclear family is useful in some sectors of the labor force, while not useful or functionally absent in other sectors.

For example, from the point of view of capital, the United States now faces an over-supply – a glut on the present and future market -of racial and national minority labor power, especially of blacks. The unused and unwanted minority labor supply is dumped in urban ghettos and depressed rural areas. The very fact that capital treats millions of people as unused waste products demonstrates that capitalism has no concern whatsoever for human welfare – it cares only that its production needs are met .

Compounding the situation is the fact that depressed wages and chronic unemployment have worked to undermine the nuclear family in the urban black and Latin proletariat, since many husbands cannot economically support wives and children. The expansion and contraction of welfare payments are related to population control and the over-supply of labor power. The welfare laws themselves are indicators that somebody’s labor power is required to rear new proletarians (new commodities) up to a certain age and that the state recognizes the need to pay wages to women rearing children alone, at least up to age six. However, welfare and social assistance are provided almost exclusively by taxes on the employed proletariat, creating political pressures to reduce welfare – which fits in with capital’s desire to reduce national minority and poor white populations by the tried and true method of semi-starvation diet and limited health care.

The contradictions which beset the family are even more unmanageable when one realizes that “mothers” are potentially unemployed wage workers. The economically forced movement of large numbers of women from childcare to the labor force puts pressure on the job market, increases real unemployment rates, and displaces men who will not or cannot compete against severely depressed wages. The result is the continued existence in the United States of the most ferocious poverty in which the principal victims, as everywhere in the world, are the children, the aged and the women.

By understanding that capitalism concerns itself only with its own problems of supply and demand in the labor market (and not morality or humanity or any value other than the profit motive), we can also understand the source of the brutality and hypocrisy that are the essence of our moral and cultural life. It is in the context of hypocrisy and brutality that we can come to understand the true functions and nature of the bourgeois morality in late monopoly capitalism.

Bourgeois Morality and Contractual Marriage

Bourgeois sexual morality reflects property relations insofar as it defines a woman’s body, the children produced from her body and her labor power as the private property of the husband or protector. From this perspective, it is clear that bourgeois morality is fundamentally a justification of the marriage contract, which itself is no more than a legal agreement giving husbands the right to appropriate wives’ productive and reproductive powers.

Under the trappings of the bourgeois morality – the frail, dependent, helpless wife, the hypocrisies of romantic love, the idyllic images of the happy housewife – is a system which justifies and rationalizes the subjugation of women. It does so by mystifying the real meaning of married women’s labor, convincing a wife that her labor is valueless, a mere service to compensate her husband for her dependency upon his valuable labor power. In the same way, the bourgeois morality emphasizes monogamy, chastity, modesty and obedience. These serve to ensure a woman’s subservience by convincing her that it is “God’s law” or “Nature’s intent” that her labor power is valueless and her children belong, by right, to her husband; that her duties are, above all, service and obedience; that her acceptance of the tutelage of her husband is necessary to her survival since she and her children are dependent upon the husband’s providing.

A woman’s enforced dependency and her consequent subjugation is further justified in the social definition of woman as primarily a sexual object, whose principal reason for existence is in passively giving her body for male sexual satisfaction and in the bearing of his children. Laws against adultery, for example, serve to keep access to women’s sexuality the exclusive right of husbands. Fidelity and monogamy have always been strictly imposed upon women while men have been permitted to violate these norms (the ubiquitous double standard). The imposition of fidelity and monogamy has always been justified morally in terms of a husband’s desire to know that he is the father of the woman’s children. In fact, the question of establishing paternity is only of esoteric interest. The real function of monogamy is to ensure and stabilize an individual husband’s right to appropriate his wife’s labor power and reproductive power. Throughout most of human history, children were valuable pieces of property, potential and real labor power, and a husband needed a “deed” (paternity) to establish his claim to the labor power of his children. Monogamy has always functioned to seclude a woman to one man as his property in order to guard against wife-stealing and to brand her as his property – since women, as with all human beings in bondage, are not above running off, depriving the husband of both her labor power and the labor power of the children she produces.

Every mechanism of social control – moral, religious, governmental – has been used to lock women into marriage and the family. The bourgeois morality for this reason creates a psychology that asserts that a woman is not psychologically complete until she has chosen her mate, that her very human nature cannot be realized without childbearing, that her life is empty and meaningless if she is not a wife and mother -no matter what she may have accomplished. A woman who does not marry is presented as a freak, as incomplete or humanly inadequate. None of these limitations apply to men whose realization is defined in terms of work and in terms of their life outside of the family. Indeed, the power of men to actualize themselves is manifested in the double standard, by which men are thought to require many women to establish masculinity while a woman can realize herself only through a complete submission of her own will and personality to that of a husband.

Women have always resisted, always resented, for the human spirit cannot forever be locked into a servant’s worldview. This is why women are depicted in popular and bourgeois culture as either pure or sluts, where evil lurks always within the Madonna-Whore.

Bourgeois Morality and Men

Marriage, with its dependent wife and children, is the principal means by which capital secures a reliable, dependent and disciplined male labor force. The husband, upon marriage and first child, is locked into a life of work if he is to be a “good husband and father,” that is, a “good provider.” Once the veils of mystification are stripped away, the image is Kafka’s world: women, who are never permitted to dream; men, who if they dream must put away their dreams; men and women condemned to an eternal punishment-to carry the whole parasitical mass of capital on their backs, generation upon generation. The trap is made by neither husband nor wife: the wife blames the husband for her dependency, for his resentment and his harsh treatment, for his complicity in the injustice of “woman’s place”; the man resents the woman for the burden she represents, the demands she has, the complaints she makes. A wife is a bribe to the husband, but she is also his chain; a husband is security to the wife, but also her prison. Thus each is to a greater or lesser degree divided against the other. And over all of this is the dead weight of capital, whose mechanisms of competition and apparatus for the production of poisonous belief turn men against women, white against black, nation against nation.

Bourgeois Morality and Class Consciousness

The bourgeois morality promotes in women a self-identification primarily as wives and mothers (or wives and mothers-to-be) and not as workers, even when they are in the active labor force. Equally, men view women workers as a species apart, not as part of themselves as workers. Furthermore, the traditional segregation between “male” and “female” work in industry, as well as competition for jobs, is a constant source of divisiveness between men and women workers. This also perpetuates the idea that women are not “real” workers, but some strange species of interloper, who properly belong at home with their children. Even though the capacity for childbearing accounts for only a maximum of 25 years of a woman’s life, the whole of a woman’s life is defined by childbearing functions. Single women, childless women, girls, older women, none of whom are child-bearers, nevertheless are defined by the childbearing function. This means that large numbers of women in the labor force, objectively wage workers, are subject to discrimination which is justified in terms of the wife-mother role.

The principal definition of “respectable” women as wife-mothers has been the source of low class consciousness and the limited political development of working women because, while working, they identify more as wife and mother (or wife-to-be) than as wage worker. Consequently, women relate to husbands, not to capital; to their children, not to struggles with capital; to their sexuality and not to the vast world in which they see themselves as passive, dependent and excluded. The alienated and isolated housewife, the strikebreaking wife-mother, the apolitical, passive and submissive female workers in manufacturing are, in part, results of women’s ideological submission to bourgeois morality, reinforced by complementary male prejudices and by the realities of female super-exploitation. The development of class consciousness in women is impeded materially and ideologically by the mental and physical subjugation of marriage – whether or not a woman is, in fact, married! The wife-mother social role is the basis of the whole “feminine” definition of the social and economic functioning of women in general. Subjugation historically has produced low class consciousness and a resistance to political development. Refusal to deal with the realities of female oppression serves only to perpetuate what capital wishes: not to have to fear the militance of the female half of the proletariat.

Bourgeois Morality and Sexuality

The bourgeois morality, as with other anti-feminist moralities which preceded it, is essentially an expression of a master (husband)/slave (wife) class relationship. Inequality and oppression are built into its very foundation. Dependency and inequality produce resentment and depression in wives; having dependents and the limits they impose produces hostility and resentment – and dictatorship – in husbands. The “war between the sexes” derives directly from the programmed inequalities in heterosexual relationships, and, most especially, from the expectations of servility, passivity and sexual repression from women. A woman’s sexuality, since it has to be guarded as a private resource, and monogamy, because it ensures the woman as a private resource, produce great fear of woman’s sexuality, sexual powers and power deriving from her sexual appeal.

Bourgeois morality guards the woman as property by demanding that she repress her own sexuality or that she disguise her own sexual needs and desires in order to fulfill the object expectation placed upon her. It is this demand for sexual repression and sexual submission that has made sexuality so problematic for women. Yet, discussions of the problems of sex have always been confined to women.[1]

The legitimacy of a concern with the problems of sexuality to women is best shown by the fact that the act of sexual intercourse is typically an act of aggression and of dominance (and often of violation) to -which a woman is forced to submit. The sex act as a violation, as an act establishing the inferiority and servility of women, has its most violently brutal expression in the act of rape. Rape is a social punishment and an affirmation of male superiority and female bestiality, buttressed by the bourgeois morality’s “animal” image of woman, the Madonna-Whore, as one who secretly “enjoys” her degradation and humiliation in the act of forcible rape. This is why rapists often ask their victims if they had a climax. Rape is a particularly vicious and sadistic manifestation of the general nature of sexuality as defined by the bourgeois morality – the reality under the hypocritical expressions of “sacred motherhood” and the “lady” on her asexual pedestal.

The severe alienation produced by oppressive and repressive sexual norms and ideals finds its real expression in the horrendous rate of forcible rape and child rape. Rape is an expression of aggression and hatred vented upon a social inferior; it is an act of spiritual murder even when it is not accompanied by murder in fact. Against the image of the “pure and virtuous asexual woman” is the dark counter-image of woman as victim, of a creature whose slow and bloody torturing to death is a source of sexual satisfaction and pleasure.

Heterosexuality and Homosexuality

Human beings are high-order primates. Primates are not noted for displaying a fine degree of sexual discrimination, and neither is the primate homo sapiens. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a variety of sexual styles have existed in most societies from ancient times. Homosexuality has been extensively documented in primitive communist societies, among some slave-owning classes, among the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and among the proletariat in all advanced capitalist countries. There appears to be little or no homosexuality among serfs and peasants – probably because the economy was based on family production and exclusive homosexuals don’t generally make families.[2] In one study of 77 primitive communist societies it was found that for 64% (49 societies) “Homosexual activities of one sort or another are considered normal and socially acceptable for certain members of the community.” In 36% (28 societies) homosexual activities were rare, absent or carried on in secret. In one example, homosexuality was practiced by women only.

Well-known bourgeois sexologist Alfred Kinsey has the following comments concerning the common belief that only heterosexual activity is normal for all mammals:

Biologists and psychologists who have accepted the doctrine that the only natural function of sex is reproduction, have simply ignored the existence of sexual activity which is not reproductive. They have assumed that heterosexual responses are a part of an animal’s innate, “instinctive” equipment, and that all other types of sexual activity represent “perversions” of the “normal instincts.” Such interpretations are, however, mystical. They do not originate in our knowledge of the physiology of sexual responses and can be maintained only if one assumes that sexual function is in some fashion divorced from the physiologic processes which control other functions of the animal body.

The attempt to define heterosexuality as the norm of human sexual behavior is an example of metaphysical science and is not based on the material facts of the diversity of human sexual styles. Therefore the moral and social meanings attached to these styles is a doctrine of bourgeois morality which has evolved with the development of capitalism, and must be understood as an element of the superstructure serving the ends and purposes of imperialism and not as a “natural order of the universe.”

Historically, it is clear that the social meaning of sexuality does not inhere in the style of sexuality (homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality) but in the social meanings attached to styles. In ancient Greece mate homosexuality was philosophically extolled as a love between equals, far superior to the heterosexual coupling between man and beast-woman. Female homosexuality in ancient Greece was obviously a woman’s response to her bestial status – a relief from the social oppression and deprivation of a woman’s life. The rise of lesbianism in the modern women’s movement was a rejection of both bourgeois morality and the prevalent nature of heterosexual relationships in which strong and competent women are virtually sexually ostracized by men. Sexuality and its expressions in sexual styles are so obviously linked to the specific historical conditions in any given society at any given time that it is simply absurd to argue that one or the other style is more or less “natural.”

The real analytical problem lies in understanding the origin and functions of the social meanings ascribed to any given sexual style at any given time. The problem is not psychological in nature but a question of social analysis. We must therefore understand the definitions of “natural” sexuality and acceptable sexual norms in their socioeconomic context. A doctrine of rigid heterosexuality, as it evolved to its present representation in bourgeois morality, must be understood as an element in the superstructure of capitalism, needful to the ends and purposes of capital, rather than a metaphysical exercise in determining a priori the natural sexual order in the universe. Considered within its social context, heterosexuality seen as a natural absolute (in which all other sexual styles are “deviations” or “perversions”) is quite obviously related to the maintenance of the family and the male supremacy around which the family is organized. Sexual control lies at the heart of the doctrine of monogamy; but sexual control also lies at the heart of the doctrine of heterosexuality.

For both men and women, sexual regulation is in fact regulation of reproduction. Thus, the enforcement of anti-homosexual laws is primarily aimed against the working class and lower petty bourgeoisie while homosexuality is tolerated in the upper petty bourgeoisie and ruling class. The selective toleration of homosexuality has, then, a class basis which preserves the material conditions beneficial to capital.

To the primate in us, sexual style is irrelevant. But sexual style is not irrelevant to male supremacy and it is not irrelevant to controlling human reproduction. Equally, the doctrine of the “naturalness” of heterosexuality and norms of rigid heterosexuality are overridingly central to the subjugation of women: they contain some of the principal justifications for sexual and social submission within the family. Above all, the doctrine of natural heterosexuality is the ideological bulwark of male supremacy.

Homosexuality and “Proletarian Morality”

The imposition of the bourgeois morality by means of religious beliefs, social norms, social legislation and education – by all the superstructural institutions of capital – has provided the controlling ideology for the promotion and justification of the subjugation of women and has been the principal means by which capital exercises social and moral control over proletarian life and consciousness. To speak of a special “proletarian morality” arising from within the working class makes as much sense as positing that the revolutionary ideas of Marxism-Leninism spring spontaneously from the consciousness of the proletariat. What is usually invoked as “proletarian morality” is precisely of the same order as trade union consciousness, that is, nothing more than bourgeois ideology reflected in the proletariat and adapted to its conditions of life.

The depiction of homosexuality (or indeed any concern with sexuality) as “bourgeois decadence” is nothing more than the expression of the bourgeois morality itself. The claim that “proletarian morality” condemns homosexuality as “decadent” or “perverted” ignores the bourgeois nature of morals in capitalist society; ignores the widespread existence of homosexual practices in all social classes, including all strata and sectors of the proletariat; fails to make class distinctions (lumping all homosexuals into one group defined by sexual style alone and “declassing” the whole group by definition); ignores the real differences between the social meaning of male and female homosexuality; and above all, refuses to view the nature and origins of sexual style analytically as part of capitalist society.

The result of substituting bourgeois morality for Marxist analysis is a purely liberal debate: 1) homosexuals should be tolerated, i.e., be given “democratic rights”; or 2) homosexuals should be condemned as decadent and be given therapy to overcome their “bourgeois decadent” deviation from the sacred heterosexual absolute; or 3) homosexuals should stay in the “closet” and not bother people.

In fact, the left’s attack against homosexuality is an attack against women, for the attack invariably takes the form of a defense of the bourgeois morality, which is a defense of male supremacy. The left’s attack provides a handy weapon to silence “uppity” women demanding discussion of sexual problems and the position of women, who can thus be accused of condoning “decadence” or of failing in their duty to maintain “unity” with men (especially husbands), or, horror of horrors, lapsing into “bourgeois feminism” and questioning the holy precepts of the nuclear family.

The most destructive consequence of the left-wing sexism has been to drive women and homosexuals into “sexual politics.” Women’s Liberation itself and, later, lesbian vanguardism were consequences of denying women any legitimate place, as women, in the socialist left. People were thus forced back into a fight for their social equality and limited to a fight against their social oppression. Women were forced to fight the left even as they were forced to fight the capitalist society as a whole. The consequence of left-wing anti-feminism was in this way profoundly reactionary, contributing to the rise of reformist and even fascist social movements. The left was in error, for so subjective and self-interested was the anti-feminist attack that class analysis or a class perspective was never addressed to the women’s movement. In time, women themselves undertook to engage in a Marxist analysis of themselves, but only after having spent years of confusion engendered by the self-interested sexism of petty bourgeois male chauvinists in the left.

The predominance of “sexual politics” among homosexuals can be explained in the same way as the prevalence of “sexual politics” in the women’s movement – a response to the left’s definition of a “whole human creature” by but one (socially defined as negative) aspect of human existence: sex or sexuality. The distaste of heterosexual male leftists for any discussion of sexuality is, in fact, a distaste for any discussion of their objective supremacy, of their oppressor roles, of the direct benefit they personally enjoy from the subjugation of women.

Let us suggest that from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism a preference for one sexual style over another is principally irrelevant, and all the more so for the general alienated state of sexual relationships in contemporary society. Opposition to separatist politics, if principled, should be based upon class analysis and political analysis. Thus, we should oppose those groups organized around petty bourgeois class-based reformist demands; we should oppose those groups that make sexual oppression the principal contradiction, whether these are groups of women or groups of homosexuals; we should oppose all those groups holding that the first priority of proletarian revolution should be “sexual liberation” (for example, the contemporary Reichians with their various forms of sex-pol therapeutic politics, etc.).

In the end, we do not aspire to make revolution in order to free people to enjoy any sexual style they please, nor do we agitate for revolution in order to justify the practices of one group or another. We struggle to abolish capital, to liberate the masses of human beings, to build a society in which our species-being can be free to seek its greatest potentiality. It is foolish and wrong to drive dedicated people into a dead end of sexual politics by defining their humanity sexually, and then, on the basis of that definition alone, bar people as “unworthy” of revolutionary struggle. It is sexism – and like all sexism, it is madness.


1. This has been true of socialist movements, where sexuality as an area of concern has been traditionally denied or ridiculed by the men of the left. Nothing speaks more clearly to the unexamined sexism of leftist men than their continuing refusal to deal seriously with the question of sexuality. In a round of letters sent to Monthly Review in reply to an article treating Wilhelm Reich and sexuality, the male correspondents were almost hysterical in their vociferous denial of the relevance of the sexual problematic to serious Marxists. The virulent condemnation of any effort to deal with sexuality, by labeling such attempts as nothing more than manifestations of “petty bourgeois decadence” is, to women, transparent in its defense of vested male interest.

2. This is probably the reason why in some third world and underdeveloped countries homosexuality is identified as a ruling-class vice.


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