Linking class and gender theory

Reviewed by Pip Hinman

Social Reproduction Theory
Edited by Tithi Bhattacharya
Pluto Press $45

December 7, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The rise of #MeToo, the anti-rape culture movement in India, the US women's strike and the pro-choice movements that have rocked Ireland and Argentina reveal that a new generation of feminist activists — some of whom may not have heard of “second-wave feminism” nor read the debates — is now organising for change.

They are fighting back because their hopes and aspirations for a better, more equal life are being thwarted. They experience oppression as women and as workers. They may not all identify as feminist (thanks to liberal feminism), but they are fighters against women’s oppression nonetheless.

These are some of the people Tithi Bhattacharya hopes to reach with Social Reproduction Theory, a collection of essays that focus on developing and linking class and gender theory.

Social reproduction theory is important, Bhattacharya believes, because one of the common charges against Marxism is that, as a theory, it is preoccupied with “class” at the expense of gender.

“The fundamental insight into SR is, simply put, that human labour is at the heart of creating or reproducing society as a whole”, she writes. “Capitalism, however, acknowledges productive labour for the market as the sole form of legitimate ‘work’, while the tremendous amount of familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically her labour power, is naturalized into nonexistence.”

This new compilation covers a range of topics and debates, including: who constitutes the working class today; the problem of narrowly focusing on class struggle without taking into consideration women’s wider social role; and the relationship between exploitation — normally linked to class — and oppression — normally understood through gender and race.

The book is therefore aimed at broadening the discussion among Marxist feminists about how class and gender are connected, as well as influencing those who are active today in terms of the demands and tactics required to radicalise feminist struggles.

In her Introduction, Bhattacharya says that she hopes Social Reproduction Theory will contribute to “practicing critical thinking in open and exploratory ways to combat the challenges of our sly and dangerous times”, and to linking the struggles “in the sphere of production to those outside it in the sphere of reproduction”.

No one today would dispute the statistics showing that women still bear the brunt of the burden of social reproduction — the task of raising the next generation within the family unit — as well as being exploited as members of the working class.

What remains contentious, however, is the question of the sorts of alliances that can and should be made in our struggle for liberation. And this is where this book is most useful: it assists in developing a deeper understanding about how class and gender oppression work together and, in so doing, it can help those active in the struggles to transform lives now while not losing sight of the longer-term aim of eradicating capitalism.

In an era when there is a renewed interest in the ideas of Karl Marx and Marxism, this is a very important discussion to be having.

Strategy debates

Social reproduction theory stems from the strategy debates of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement. Its ebbing, and the ascendency of liberal feminism with its assorted forms of identity politics, has helped confuse many about what feminism’s goals originally were.

Marxist feminists have sought to challenge this. For instance, Lise Vogel in the 1980s reintroduced the notion of class, as well as social reproduction theory, into the debate. In her Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, first published in 1983, Vogel first described “social reproduction theory” as an attempt to “place female oppression more directly within the Marxist understanding of the capital functioning”.

Back then, Vogel, who has contributed a Foreward to this collection, argued against “dual systems theory”, or the idea that struggles around gender and class are distinctive or autonomous systems.

The contributors to this book, including Nancy Fraser, Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman, Susan Ferguson, Carman Teeple Hopkins, Serap Saritas Oran and Alan Sears, continue this approach, albeit with different emphases.

Socialist feminists have long understood women’s oppression as being connected with the rise of class society.

Marx, and particularly Frederick Engels, wrote about the origins of women’s oppression as being intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society. While the exact process is still being studied, and is complicated, Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that because women’s oppression had been historically intertwined with the rise of private property and the division of society into classes, it followed that women’s oppression would be eradicated along with the eradication of private ownership of the means of production.

Engels surmised that women’s emancipation would require women to be freed from the new bourgeois, male-dominated family structure and be able to work as equals in public industry — but he did not foresee that this alone would prove to be inadequate.

The Bolsheviks discovered in the process of leading the Russian Revolution that women’s emancipation did not simply come with the elimination of capitalist property relations or with women's involvement in the labour force.

Bolsheviks Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai could see that women’s emancipation also required a thorough-going transformation and eradication of all the backward social attitudes and ideological justifications that propped up the economic, social and political inequalities women had to bear, especially within the family.

Today, women are still carrying the double load: they work and still take the lion's share of responsibility in the family unit. The phrases “time poor” and “family/work/life balance” reflect the myriad pressures that the largely privatised social reproduction system foists on to them.

Bhattacharya quotes social reproduction theorists Joanna Brenner and Barbara Laslett, who describe the distinction between societal and privatised social reproduction in their “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives” like this:

Societal reproduction is a combination of the organization of production, the organization of social reproduction, the perpetuation of gender, and the continuation of class relations.

Social reproduction includes the care and socialization of children and care of the elderly or infirm. Social reproduction includes the organization of sexuality, biological reproduction, and how food, clothing, and shelter are made available. Most social reproduction occurs within the family unit.


Bhattacharya, who is a professor of South Asian History and the director of Global Studies at Purdue University, says that Social Reproduction Theory is designed to develop a richer way of understanding Marxism, one that “can address the relationship between theory and empirical studies of oppression”.

Marxism, she argues, is better understood as a “totality theory”, rather than as one part of intersectional theory.

A chapter by David McNally, activist and professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto, Ontario, takes up the discussion about intersectionality theory, which, he argues, contains some fundamental theoretical flaws.

Intersectional theory emerged in the 1960s as an attempt to describe and map the complex processes of where oppressions intersect (gender, race and class) which aimed to open up strategic frameworks for struggle. It helped comprehend multiple oppressions, particularly involving women of colour.

McNally said intersectional theorists did provide some important new insights and cited Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class as evidence of this.

But today, McNally says, its non-dialectical limits are being shown up. He says it is no surprise that Marxist-inspired social reproduction theory is resurging as a response to the gaps being left by intersectionality theory.

He argues that to be able to challenge and change the “fundamentally capitalist character” of the world today, social reproduction theory is vital to be able to understand “the unity of the diverse”.

In her chapter “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class”, Bhattacharya approvingly cites Michael Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital for its “integrated analysis of labour power”.

She says that Lebowitz presents “an understanding that the social reproduction of labour power is not an outer or incidental phenomena that ought to be ‘added’ to the understanding of capitalism as a whole, but actually reveals important inner tendencies of the system”.

Social reproductive theory, she says, understands that the production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process.

Otherwise, Bhattacharya says, “if we concede that [the] production of commodities and the social reproduction of labour power belong to separate processes, then we have no explanation for why the worker is subordinate before the moment of production even takes place.

“Why does labor appear, in Marx’s words, ‘timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market’? It is because Marx has a unitary view of the process that he can show us that the moment of production of the simple commodity is not necessarily a singular entry point for the enslavement of labor...

“[T]his link between production and reproduction, and the extension of the class relationship into the latter, means that the very acts where the working class strives to attend to its own needs can be grounds for class struggle.”

Obscuring enslavement

Capital has a major interest in obscuring these relationships and maintaining the enslavement of women within the family because, by privatising the social burden of raising the next generation of workers, the state is relieved of that financial burden.

Bhattacharya cites a 2012 survey that found that US women put in 25.9 hours a week of unpaid domestic labour in 2010, while men put in 16.8, a difference of more than nine hours.

The situation in Australia is not much different. According to the 2017 Census, women in full-time employment are twice as likely as their male counterparts to do at least 15 hours of unpaid domestic work a week.

As Bhattacharya wrote in 2017, “Anyone who has had to soothe a child after a hard day at her own workplace, or figure out care for an ageing parent after a gruelling shift, knows how important such apparently non-material tasks can be”.

There is a lot at stake — theoretical and strategic — in the era of Donald Trump and other neo-conservatives when women’s rights are being eradicated at frightening speed.

So those like Sue Caldwell, who falsely argued in Socialist Review that the authors of Social Reproduction Theory “underplay the role of workplace struggle” and “downplay the absolute centrality of workplace struggle to the fight for socialism”, reveal their own economistic misreading of Marx.

Social reproduction theory explains how women are oppressed as a sex, as well as part of the working class. From this flows an organisational approach that gives weight to women’s struggles around their oppression in its myriad forms. It also pushes back against those who elevate “difference” into an absolute, and theories that justify fragmentation and separation.

Cinzia Arruzza explains this tactic in her chapter on the massive January 2017 US women’s strike — a women’s counter-inauguration of Trump. She said: “Adopting the term strike was meant to emphasize the work that women perform not only in the workplace, but out of it, in the sphere of social reproduction”.

She acknowledged that all the organisers and participants in the strike would have had a theoretical commitment to social reproduction feminism and said that nevertheless there is an “increasing awareness of the need to rebuild solidarity and collective action as the only way to defend ourselves against continuous attacks on our bodies, freedom, and self-determination, as well as against imperialist and neoliberal policies”.

This is “an antidote to the liberal decline of feminist discourse and practice”, as well as “economic reductionism”, Arruzza added.

This fascinating collection of essays covers social reproduction theory and the myriad of oppression women face today, including paid domestic work, pension discrimination and sexualities.

While the theoretical language is a challenge, it is nevertheless worth persisting with — perhaps in reading or study circles — for it redraws the lines around class and gender.

Having a better understanding of how social reproductive theory fits into a class-based approach will definitely expand our battles and battlefields, but there is no other way.