Capitalist reproduction and
 women’s oppression

Heather Brown’s new book Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study is an important contribution to a renewed discussion about gender, class, and women’s oppression. Debates about feminism and its relationship to Marxism are nothing new, but Brown seeks to overcome the old dichotomy by developing what she calls a unified theory of Marxist feminism.

Brown explores some of Marx’s well-known works, as well as more obscure ones, on the topics of gender, sexism, and women’s rights, tracing the development of his ideas over time. She places special emphasis on his time as a crusading journalist, explores theoretical and methodological differences between him and his closest collaborator, Friedrich Engels, and breaks new ground by exploring never-before-published fragments of Marx’s work and correspondence that sheds new light on certain questions. 

Brown’s introduction places Marx squarely in the political context of today’s wholesale neoliberal crisis and worldwide fightback, from Egypt to Occupy. She writes, “In recent years, especially since the anti-globalization movement exemplified in the protests in Seattle in 1999, scholars and activists have begun to return to Marx’s critique of capitalism.” Brown contends that this return to Marx ought to include insights into his work, which points toward the necessity of women’s liberation as a central plank in any genuine platform of anticapitalism.

The combined task of exploring women’s lives under capitalism while theorizing women’s oppression itself as an important category of capital’s domination is the driving force of the book. Brown argues that Marx’s writing demonstrates an understanding that socialists must understand and confront the real conditions of women under capitalism. She also argues that Marx’s methodology equips us today to theorize women’s oppression further, even in areas that he did not explore theoretically. 

Or, as she puts it,

I argue that Marx’s discussion of gender extended far beyond merely including women as factory-workers. Although Marx did not write a great deal on gender and the family, it was for him an essential category for understanding the division of labor, production, and society in general. Moreover, there are potential openings within Marx’s overall theory of society that may be amenable to a feminist interpretation.

In other words, Brown believes that Marx developed an understanding of humanity’s relationship both to the natural world and to social development that puts human liberation at the center of his system. This perspective implies the centrality of overcoming the conditions that give rise to—and perpetuate—women’s oppression as a precondition for any potential liberatory socialism. She aims to show this by reading Marx’s work with an eye toward explicit references to gender, as well as examining those works that explicate his understanding of the two issues noted above: nature and social development. 

In her chapters on Marx’s early writings, she examines the 1844 Manuscripts, The Holy Family, and The German Ideology, as well as a journalistic article for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-Ökonomische Revue, the magazine Marx edited in exile following the defeat of the 1848 German Revolution. While none of these texts take gender and the family as their main points or arguments, Brown makes a convincing case that important examples of Marx’s understanding of women’s oppression are woven through them. She explores themes of morality, the oppressiveness of religion, and alienation and argues that in these early writings, “Marx points out the necessity of women’s full liberation and equality with men as a prerequisite to a truly socialist society.”

But, Brown argues, Marx does not just situate women’s oppression within the working class. He observes that the oppression of women occurs not just in the workplace but also in the family, proletarian as well as bourgeois, pointing to the French Revolution as an example of a political revolution that did not alter the oppressive dynamics within the family. To illustrate the negative consequences of this oppressive and alienating dynamic of the family, he discusses the example of female suicide in bourgeois families in remarks based on an essay by contemporary French writer Jacques Peuchet, seeing it as symptomatic of the powerlessness of even bourgeois women within the home but also as a significant (if desperate) act of resistance against their oppression. This discussion shows that, for Marx, analyzing the oppression of women inside the family is central to understanding women’s oppression as a whole. Brown uses this example to push back against the critique that Marx focuses only on productive labor. 

Brown argues throughout the book, quite convincingly, that, while Marx’s writings did not cover all aspects of women’s oppression, his overall framework and methodology provide us with the tools to fill out his analysis of capitalism with an analysis of gender. In the chapter “Political Economy, Gender and the Family,” Brown applies this method in a discussion of social reproduction theory. This theory was developed in the 1980s, most notably by Lise Vogel, in an effort to develop a political economy of domestic labor while developing a unified theory of women’s oppression under capitalism. 

Brown shows how Vogel challenges a dualistic view of productive and reproductive labor as two separate, autonomous spheres, a view which, Brown argues, Marx rejected in favor of a dialectical analysis that considered all social relations under capitalism as one part of an overall totality. While this dualism has marked many feminist trends (e.g., patriarchy produces sexism; capitalism produces exploitation), Brown notes that Vogel traces it back to none other than Marx’s closest collaborator, Engels. 

Brown acknowledges that the bulk of Marx’s political economy is focused on production (that is, how exploitation takes place at work), but she makes a strong case that the framework he set forth in Capital also provides us with the tools to understand domestic labor and the reproduction of labor in the home. This is one of the strongest and most relevant arguments in the book. Brown acknowledges the limitations of the Marxist analysis insofar as it prioritizes production (see the decades of effort Marx put into unlocking the keys to exploitation), but then uses Marx’s own method to elevate reproduction to an equivalent significance for understanding the totality of the workings of capitalism. 

She explains:

He argues that the private sphere could only be understood with a reference to production. Moreover, if the two spheres really do interact to a significant extent, then the same would also be true of production itself: production could only be truly understood once the specific relations involved in human reproduction were understood. . . . The relations of production may have analytical priority over other relations; however these relations must be understood as dialectically related to the whole in order to understand the capitalist or any other mode of production. Marx’s lack of interest in human reproduction should not deter us from exploring these issues within his own framework.

This is an important observation that makes real the possibility of developing a theory of women’s liberation that can be fully woven into Marx’s framework.

In the final two chapters, Brown develops what may be the more controversial of her arguments. She focuses on notes that Marx scribbled while studying different anthropological works on pre-class societies, as well as during his research on revolutionary dynamics in developing societies. Here is where she posits the great divide between Marx and Engels. 

Engels’s famous work The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State is often regarded as a central socialist text with respect to women’s oppression under class society, yet, Brown argues, the text is flawed by an economic determinism that is not present in Marx’s exploration of the same topic, even though Marx’s (informal) commentaries take much of the same anthropological evidence as their starting point. Arguing that the rise of class society and private property were concurrent with the institutionalization of the monogamous, patriarchal family, Engels links women’s oppression and the relegation of women’s work to the private domestic sphere to the rise of class society. In making this case, he relies heavily on nineteenth-century anthropologist Henry Morgan’s work. Engels asserts that the institutions of monogamy and patrilineage constitute the “over-throw of mother-right” and usher in the era of women’s oppression and institutionalized sexism that persists today. 

Brown challenges this framework, arguing that Engels’s analysis “was marred by an overly deterministic framework and by an inadequate focus on the social elements of change.” Engels’s book traces historical eras with corresponding family forms that Brown finds linear; she critiques him for not considering cases of women’s oppression in early pre-class societies. 

Pointing to what she calls a “deterministic assessment” of women’s oppression, she finds fault with the following passage from Engels:

The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is this cellular form of civilized society in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied.

There is some truth to Brown’s claims that Marx explored gender and the development of the family differently than Engels did, but she goes far beyond pointing out a difference in emphasis between their two analyses. Brown implies that Engels’s method is so deeply flawed that it corrupts the entire work. 

It is worth noting that she is far more forgiving in her critique of Marx. For example, she chastises Engels for not acknowledging agency and the role of a political struggle for women’s liberation separate from the struggle for socialism, or at least the need to link the two together explicitly. She argues, “More problematic, however, is Engels’ close association of gender- and class-oppression. Since he views them as developing simultaneously and from the same causes, he automatically assumes that, with the end of private property, gender oppression will end as well.” This automaticity is inferred in Brown’s reading of the text but, arguably, is not clearly based on Engels’s actual argument.  

Likewise, she points to a mistake that Engels does certainly make but which could just as easily be attributed to Marx: that is, their joint assumption that the movement of women into paid labor in the public sphere would serve as a means to equalize relationships between men and women.  This mistake was, in fact, premised on two theoretical missteps.  First, neither Marx nor Engels theorized the “double burden” that women endure as workers in both the domestic and the public spheres.  Second, Marx and Engels paid relatively little attention to theorizing the particularities of women’s oppression and work at this time because they both believed that revolutionary change was imminent—that is, they tended to underestimate capitalism’s adaptability, especially its ability to remake the working-class family unit.  

Engel’s work is not without flaws, as acknowledged above, yet it provides a useful and clear framework for understanding the concept that women’s oppression is a social (and historical) phenomenon, constructed and perpetuated by an economic system which benefits from both free labor in the home and exploited labor in the workplace.  Additionally, while Engels makes some assumptions about sexuality (specifically, adhering to a heterosexual framework and assuming that a higher form of monogamy, rather than alternatives to monogamy, will become the norm for human sexual relationships), his entire book is a testament to the idea that human relationships are shaped by society in an oppressive but also potentially liberatory way.  

In a notable quote from Origin, Engels argues:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences.

It is possible to read economic determinism into this statement, but it is also possible to read it as a condemnation of the way capitalism limits and distorts human sexuality for its own ends, with a hopeful rejoinder—albeit not a program—that human relations without the weight of capitalism will be able to develop in forms yet unknown.

Brown’s decision to counterpose Marx to Engels is unnecessary. Here, perhaps, her readily acknowledged roots in the Marxist humanist political tradition overgrow their usefulness. As pioneered by Raya Dunayevskaya, this trend fruitfully emphasizes Marx’s insistence on dialectical processes, working-class agency, and the concept of alienation as central to his philosophy, but it also proposes (less helpfully) a theoretical gulf between Marx’s and Engels’s points of view. 

As Brown convincingly argues, much of Marx’s writing itself leaves us wanting when it comes to women’s oppression, yet as a whole it is valuable, if not vital, to building a women’s liberation movement. This same could be said of Engels; given that, in life, Marx and Engels were friends and collaborators, the posthumous attempt to uncouple them does not seem to be a necessary exercise. Both make valuable political and methodological contributions to theorizing the struggle for women’s oppression and are useful in our toolbox as we rebuild a women’s movement built on radical, class politics. 

This critique, however, is not meant to take away from the insights that this book makes in advancing our understanding of women’s oppression, both theoretically and politically. Brown has made an invaluable contribution in bringing Marx’s previously ignored writings on women’s oppression to light and demonstrating that his method enables a new generation of Marxists to develop theory to help guide the fight for women’s liberation as an inseparable part of the fight for socialism. 

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

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