Marxism and feminism: Was Marx a ‘class determinist’?

Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study

By Heather A. Brown

Haymarket Books, 2013

232 pp.

Review by Barry Healy

September 1, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- For the most part the Marxist movement has a had a troubled relationship with the women’s liberation movement. While some Marxists (such as those organised in Australia’s Socialist Alliance) have no problem with feminism, others have choked on the thought of a rebellious movement that does not fit neatly into their paradigm of a workers-led revolution.

It was not always so. Between 1917 and 1927, the heyday of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet government passed many laws to give equality between men and women. For example, abortion became free and legal and anti-homosexual laws were repealed

After the degeneration of the revolution into Stalinism things became very different. As Leon Trotsky put it, the bureaucracy “began singing panegyrics to the family supper and the family laundry, that is, the household slavery of women”.

Capital punishment was restored for abortion, thus, Trotsky said, “returning women to the status of pack animals”.

In lock-step, the world’s self-described communist parties, the most powerful left segments of the working class, advanced reactionary ideas about women’s place in the world and the revolutionary movement. Women were to be auxiliaries to male revolutionaries, they said, and bountiful mothers within happy families.

Stalinism promised a sort of “trickle down” socialism. First the (male) workers would benefit, then others. Unfortunately, some Trotskyists, in their anxiety to be more “pro-worker” than the Stalinists adapted versions of that approach.

Was Marx a class determinist?

Given all that, various feminist thinkers have had an, at best, ambiguous relationship with Marxism. Some have woven elements of Marxism together with, say, psychoanalytical theory to overcome what they see as Karl Marx’s, at best, gender blindness. They erected an alternative theory of patriarchy, which stands timelessly above society, dictating the unfolding of history.

To what extent can this conflict be attributed to Karl Marx himself? Was his a dour vision of human liberation where stalwart, proletarian men would achieve socialism and, under their paternal gaze, women and others would then step forward to take control of their own destinies?

US socialist Heather Brown has performed a great service in this short, yet detailed survey of all of Marx’s writings on women and gender – including some that have never before been published in any language. Marx did not just analyse economics and history, she demonstrates, he interrogated all forms of literature (even police files) to tease out the threads of social oppression.

She asks if there is “the possibility of a Marxist feminism that does not lapse into economic determinism or privilege class over gender in analysing contemporary capitalist society?” She compares and contrasts Marx with a wide range of feminist writers, and says that there is enough in Marx indicating “the interdependent relationship between class and gender without fundamentally privileging either in his analysis”.

While Marx was a product of his Victorian times and never developed an explicitly unified theory on women’s liberation, she shows that throughout his life he thought about the matter. Based on this, Brown argues that “there are a number of potential starting points for a less deterministic and less gender-blind form of Marxism”.

The diverse -- and surprising -- nuggets that Brown has unearthed reveal that Marx’s thoughts have a refreshingly modern feel. She demonstrates that as he evolved as a thinker his insights became more penetrating. Moreover, he incorporated his ideas into his political activity.

Early writings

Marx was contemporary with other socialists who thought that women are naturally inferior to men. However, from his earliest writings, Marx dismissed the entire notion that “nature” is static. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts he pointed out that nature and culture are dialectically linked and mutually condition each other.

More than that, the Manuscripts say that the position of women can be used as a measure of the development of a given society. He was not calling for men to liberate women, he was arguing that in going beyond capitalism our society will have to develop new relations that transcend alienation.

That the family form is not a “natural” social arrangement is further elucidated in The German Ideology (co-authored with Engels). The implication is that women’s oppression can be ended as society changes and women can enter more into the world of work.

Following another line of thought in The Holy Family, Marx criticises a novel by French writer Eugene Sue called Les Mysteres de Paris. Sue created a character called Fleur de Marie who is saved from her life of prostitution by a prince and enters a convent, where she dies shortly afterward.

Marx reacted sharply to Sue’s Catholic moralising about prostitution and sexuality in general. “Despite her situation”, Brown writes, “Marx does not see her a merely a powerless victim, but as possessing agency”.

Marx saw Fleur de Marie as an example of the yearning to be fully human and he slams the paternalistic prince for failing “to grasp the general condition of women in modern society as an inhuman one”.

As part of his journalism Marx translated into German writings by Jacques Peuchet on suicide. Peuchet was the French police archivist and his writings on unusual cases were very popular (inspiring, among other things, Alexander Dumas to write The Count of Monte Cristo).

Marx chose parts of Peuchet dealing with the suicide of middle-class women. Marx’s personal leanings come through via the parts he chose to delete and in subtle additions of his own comments.

These show Marx as far removed from a doctrinaire, class-bound theorist. Michel Lowy also reviews these writings in the March 2002 Monthly Review where he says Marx demonstrates an “understanding of the evils of modern bourgeois society, of the suffering that its patriarchal family structure inflicts on women, and of the broad and universal scope of socialism”.

Lowy points out that the most interesting part of this writing is that Marx focuses on women “driven to desperation and suicide by bourgeois society”. Peuchet’s accounts demonstrated to Marx that even members of the bourgeoisie are alienated.

Brown says Marx argues in these writings for total social transformation, because “economic levelling or redistribution are not enough to create a better society, so long as capitalist social relations remain in place”.

The family and its discontents

The alienation that drives some to suicide is to be found in the family sphere as well as the public, Marx says. But more than just pointing to the social causes of individual despair, Marx goes so far as to see suicide as a form of resistance in an oppressive society!

He was not recommending suicide, rather he was reading into it the signs of resistance as much as it was a symptom of misery.

Most tellingly, Marx writes that the French Revolution did not topple all tyrannies. “The evil which one blames on arbitrary forces exists in families, where it causes crises, analogous to those of revolutions”. He does not state it, but that analysis extends out into the future socialist revolution, contra Stalinism.

The bourgeois family is famously lambasted in The Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Frederick Engels mock bourgeois pretentions and argue that the very conditions that had produced the bourgeois family were disappearing among proletarians. Accordingly, the father’s role and power was diminished, opening up the opportunity for a different form of the family.

Brown points to a number of references to women in Capital, Marx’s magnum opus and in his earlier draft material for Capital. In particular, Marx discusses the way that capitalists delighted in drawing women and children into factories because, as specially oppressed people, they could be paid less.

However, Marx saw the dialectical aspects of this process. As women became proletarians they gained power in their private lives and moved out of the control of their fathers and male relatives. This process can be observed today, for example, in the international call centres that have been established in India.

Marx recognised all the pain and tribulations in this. The long hours and shift work undermined traditional family structures and many people suffered. However, women’s economic power led towards an egalitarian form of the family with men.

While not delving deeply into it, in Capital Marx critiques the notion of productive and unproductive labour under capitalism. For the bourgeoisie, only labour that gives them profit through the creation of surplus value is productive. But Marx says that is one-sided as the production of use values is important as well.

That opens up the question of women’s labour in the home, which is essential to the very existence of labour. Marx never took up the question of wages for housework but his ideas regarding women’s independence showed an evolution over time.

Development of Marx’s thinking

When writing about the Preston strikes in 1853-54, Marx was uncritical of the strikers’ demand for a family wage, which implies women as dependent appendages of men. By the 1860s however, he was arguing for equal status for women within the structures of the First International.

This reflected his general thinking about the equality of women. “From the beginning of the First International to the end of his life”, Brown writes, “Marx supported incorporating women in the workforce as equals”.

In 1858, Marx returned to the oppression of women in bourgeois families when he wrote about the case of an English aristocrat, Lady Bulwer-Lytton, who, following the breakdown of her marriage, was declared insane at the instigation of her estranged husband. As in his earlier ruminations about suicide, Marx is clearly describing the bourgeois family as a site of oppression of women.

Those pieces, which were written for the New York Herald Tribune, also contain traces of a critique of the use of labelling mental illness as a tool of social control.

After the heroic spirit shown by women in the Paris Commune Marx demonstrated a keener appreciation of the demands of women. In France the paternalistic ideas of Proudhon were still in evidence in the labour movement. But, in opposition, Marx wrote in 1880 that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.

Marx’s notebooks from the final years of his life contain some of the most interesting developments of his thought. He was reading about the development of many societies, including Indonesia, native American groups, Russia, ancient Greece and India. In these notes are scattered thoughts about the role of women in the historical process.

After Marx’s death Engels discovered these notes, especially those on Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, the pioneering work of anthropology. Using these, Engels produced The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he argues that men and women had lived in equality in pre-class society. Engels, taking Morgan at face value and going further, describes the rise of class society as bringing about the “world historic defeat of the female sex”.

Brown, however, finds a more nuanced appraisal of Morgan in Marx. Marx did not accept Morgan uncritically, he compared and contrasted him with other writers. Also, his underlining and emphasises show that he was far less condescending towards women than Morgan.

Brown says that Engels “provides a deterministic assessment of the beginning of class and gender-conflict”. Engels emphasises the role of men’s need to transfer property rights to their children as central to the oppression of women, whereas, Brown says, for Marx women’s oppression involves far more than that.

Brown highlights Marx’s dialectical method in being vital in understanding gender and the family. She says that Marx did not apply ahistorical philosophical categories to reality, he empirically analysed the world and utilised categories that he discovered there.

“While Marx’s theory remains underdeveloped in terms of providing as account that includes gender as important to understanding capitalism”, Brown says, “his categories, nonetheless, lead in the direction of a systematic critique of patriarchy as it manifest itself in capitalism since he is able to separate out the historically-specific elements of patriarchy from a general form of women’s oppression, as it has existed throughout much of human history”.

This short, comprehensive handbook will no doubt provide the basis for a new wave of feminist engagement with Marxism and is a clarion call for all those who regard themselves as Marxists to re-evaluate their ideological conceptions.

Heather Brown allows us all to read Marx with new eyes.