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Workers Vanguard No. 1068

15 May 2015

The Marxist Approach to Women’s Liberation

Communism and the Family

(Women and Revolution pages)

(Part One)

In the Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program, the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) lays out our task of “building Leninist parties as national sections of a democratic-centralist international whose purpose is to lead the working class to victory through socialist revolutions throughout the world” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998). Only through the seizure of power can the proletariat end capitalism as a system and open the road to a world without exploitation and oppression. Crucial to this perspective is the fight for the emancipation of women, whose oppression goes back to the beginning of private property and cannot be eliminated short of the abolition of class society.

The Declaration explains that ultimately our goal is the creation of a new, communist society:

“The victory of the proletariat on a world scale would place unimagined material abundance at the service of human needs, lay the basis for the elimination of classes and the eradication of social inequality based on sex and the very abolition of the social significance of race, nation and ethnicity. For the first time mankind will grasp the reins of history and control its own creation, society, resulting in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential, and a monumental forward surge of civilization. Only then will it be possible to realize the free development of each individual as the condition for the free development of all.”

It used to be that the goal of a communist society was accepted as the purpose of most tendencies calling themselves Marxist, even as they agreed on little else. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 this is no longer the case. The ICL alone adheres to the prospect of world communism as first put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

This “death of communism” ideological climate has resulted in the prevalence of false and narrow ideas about Marxism. In popular consciousness, communism has been reduced to economic leveling (equality at a low level of income and consumption) under state ownership of economic resources. On the contrary, the material basis for the realization of the Marxist program is the overcoming of economic scarcity through the progressive increase in the productivity of labor. This will take several generations of socialist development based on a worldwide collectivized economy to come into full being. Thus, a society would develop in which the state (a special coercive apparatus defending the ruling-class order through armed bodies of men) has withered away, national affiliation has disappeared, and the institution of the family—the main source of the oppression of women—has been replaced by collective means of caring for and socializing children and by the fullest freedom of sexual relations.

Marxism and “Human Nature”

In the past, intellectuals who considered such a society undesirable and/or impossible to attain nonetheless recognized that it was what Marxists meant by communism. For example, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), a popular exposition of his worldview, Sigmund Freud presented a brief critique of communism. There is no evidence that he had studied the works of Marx and Engels nor read those of V.I. Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. His understanding (and misunderstanding) of communism was held by many European and American intellectuals of the time, whatever their political persuasions.

Freud based his critique of communism on his view that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man.” He concluded that the communist project of a harmonious society was contrary to human nature:

“I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous. But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature.... If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relations, which is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike and the most violent hostility among men who in other respects are on an equal footing. If we were to remove this factor, too, by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.”

Freud rightly understood that in the communist vision of a future society the family will have withered away while there will be “complete freedom in sexual life.” Freud’s view was in error in that Marxists recognize that the family cannot be simply abolished; its necessary functions, especially the rearing of the next generation, must be replaced through socialized means of childcare and housework.

While Freud no longer has the ideological authority he once had, the idea that “human nature” makes a communist world impossible remains a common one, although the specific arguments may differ. Marxists, on the other hand, insist that material scarcity is what gives rise to savage scrambles over scanty resources. This is why communism is conceivable only with unprecedented material abundance, accompanied by a huge leap in the cultural level of society. It is the existence of classes, today in the form of the outmoded capitalist-imperialist order, that infests human society with brutality and violence. As Marxist author Isaac Deutscher wrote in “On Socialist Man” (1967), “Homo homini lupus [man is a wolf to man] is the battle cry against progress and socialism” for those “who operate the bogey of the eternal human lupus in the interest of the real and bloody lupus of contemporary imperialism.” [emphasis in original]

Freud himself identified “innate aggression” in sexual relations as the problem with human nature. And what of that? The social pathology associated with what Freud perceived as sexual rivalry has little reason to exist in a fully free, communal society in which sexual life is independent of access to food, shelter, education and every daily need and comfort. When the family has withered away along with classes and the state, the communal upbringing that replaces it will lead to a new psychology and culture among the people that grow up in those conditions. Patriarchal social values—“my” wife, “my” children—will vanish along with the oppressive system that spawned them. The relationship of children to one another and to the persons who teach and guide them will be many-sided, complex and dynamic. It is the institution of the family that ties sex and love to property, with anything other than the straitjacket of heterosexual monogamy branded as “sin.”

The family under capitalism is the main mechanism for the oppression of women and youth, tied with innumerable, interlocking threads to the basic operations of the “free market” economy. The family, the state and organized religion form a tripod of oppression propping up the capitalist order. In Third World countries, ingrained poverty and backwardness, promoted by imperialist domination, prescribe hideously oppressive practices like the veil, the bride price and female genital mutilation.

In advanced capitalist societies like the United States it may seem as if people’s messy lives bear more resemblance to the TV shows Modern Family or Transparent than the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best. However, people’s personal choices are constricted by the laws, economics and prejudices of class society; this is especially true of the working class and the poor. Replacing the family with collective institutions is the most radical aspect of the communist program and will bring about the deepest, most sweeping changes in daily life, not least for children.

Our Left Opponents and the Anti-Sex Witchhunt

Today, that vision of a society without the oppressive institution of the family can no longer be found among the overwhelming majority of those who claim to stand for Marxism, socialism and the liberation of women. For the Stalinists, the anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country” meant the abandonment many decades ago of the understanding that a global socialist society was necessary to achieve full human liberation, including of women; one consequence was the Stalinist rehabilitation of the oppressive family as a “socialist” mainstay. In “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006), we addressed this subject in depth.

Other putative Marxists today, some claiming to be Trotskyists, simply follow prevailing liberal (bourgeois) feminist doctrine when addressing the question of women’s liberation, implicitly upholding the institutions of the family and the capitalist state. A case in point is their loathing of the Spartacist League/U.S. and the ICL for our defense of the rights of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which advocates the legalization of consensual sex between men and boys, and others persecuted for such sexual “deviancy.” The ICL has consistently opposed government intervention into private life and demands an end to all laws against consensual “crimes without victims,” e.g., prostitution, drug use and pornography.

The howls of many radicals and feminists against NAMBLA are an expression of the “family values” pushed by bourgeois politicians and pundits. For decades, a government-sponsored anti-sex backlash has taken many forms: anti-gay bigotry, a witchhunt against day-care workers, the banning of the distribution of birth control devices and information to teens as well as the jailing of “deviants.” This reactionary onslaught was accompanied by such extra-legal terror as the bombing of abortion clinics. Much of this persecution aims to strengthen the bourgeois state in its regulation of the population and to spread panic as a diversion from the real brutality of life in this twisted, mean, bigoted, racist society.

In past articles, we have explored some of the ambiguities of sexuality in a society where the deformities of class inequality and racial and sexual oppression can lead to a lot of personal pain and ugliness. We have stated that while the abuse of children is a vicious and horrible crime, many illegal sexual encounters are entirely consensual and devoid of harm per se. The willful conflation of everything from mutual fondling of siblings to the heinous rape of an infant by an adult creates a social climate of anti-sex hysteria in which the perpetrators of real violence against children often go free. We have pointed out that the sexual proclivities of a group-living mammalian species like homo sapiens are patently ill-suited to the rigid heterosexual monogamy decreed by bourgeois morality.

As a minimum measure of defense against state persecution of youth who want to have sex (or even just “sext”), we oppose reactionary “age of consent” laws through which the state decrees some arbitrary age when sex is deemed okay, never mind that the age determined by these laws changes through the years and differs from state to state. In addressing such questions, we have our eye firmly on opposition to the capitalist state in all its efforts to reinforce and uphold the exploitative bourgeois order. This is the application to today’s conditions of our goal of full sexual freedom for all, including children and teenagers, in a communist future. This is particularly important for young adults, who today are expected to spend years after reaching puberty in the stranglehold of dependence on their parents. We call for full stipends for all students as part of our program for free, quality education for all, so that youth can be genuinely independent of their families.

In sharp contrast, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) refuses to call for the abolition of the existing age-of-consent laws. In an article titled “Youth, Sexuality and the Left,” ISO honcho Sherry Wolf brandished her pitchfork at NAMBLA supporter David Thorstad for being “the most vocal long-time defender of pederasty on the left” (, 2 March 2010). She quoted from her book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2009): “It is incompatible for genuine consent devoid of the inequality of power to be given by a child to a man of 30.” Wolf’s article continues: “Adults and children do not approach each other as emotional, physical, social or economic equals in our society. Children and young teens do not have the maturity, experience or power to make truly free decisions about their relationships with adults. Without those, there can be no genuine consent.”

“Truly free decisions”? Most relationships between adults would not meet this standard for consent. Wolf is effectively handing over youth under 18 and their partners to the power of the bourgeois state. The only guideline for any sexual relationship should be that of effective consent—that is, mutual agreement and understanding by the parties involved—regardless of age, gender or sexual preference.

The ISO’s abandonment of youth to the oppressive sexual status quo reflects its accommodation to the prejudices of the capitalist order and backward attitudes in the general population. Ultimately, this comes from the ISO’s long-standing opposition to any perspective of the revolutionary mobilization of the working class to seize state power, create a workers state—the dictatorship of the proletariat—and open the road to a communist society. For the ISO, socialism is more or less the accumulated application of “democracy” to all sectors of the oppressed, the working class being seen as simply one more sector. The ISO seeks to pressure the capitalists to reform their exploitative order. Its perspective on women’s liberation reflects the same touching faith in the forces of reform.

Why Marxists Are Not Feminists

Interestingly, within the last few years the ISO has been engaged in a discussion in the pages of its newspaper, Socialist Worker, about theories of women’s liberation. This appears to be motivated by a desire to desert the organization’s previous position of opposition to feminism as a bourgeois ideology in favor of actively embracing the feminist or “socialist feminist” label. For example, in a talk at the ISO’s 2013 Socialism conference (printed in “Marxism, Feminism and the Fight for Liberation,”, 10 July 2013), Abbie Bakan offered, “The theoretical claim that there is grounds for a coherent Marxist approach that is for ‘women’s liberation,’ while against ‘feminism,’ makes no sense.” (Until March of that year, Bakan was a prominent supporter of the Canadian International Socialists, political cousins of the ISO.)

The ISO’s recent, explicit theoretical embrace of “socialist feminism” is simply a different cover for the same liberal content. However, it presents us with an opportunity to restate the long-standing Marxist position on the family and to emphasize that the emancipation of women is fundamental to and inseparable from socialist revolution. Contrary to feminist ideology, full legal equality cannot overcome women’s oppression, which is deeply rooted in the family and private property.

As we have always emphasized, Marxism and feminism are long-standing political enemies. This requires some explanation. In the U.S. and elsewhere, it has become common to use the term “feminist” to describe the belief that men and women should be equal. But in addressing inequality, feminism accepts the confines of the existing capitalist society. Feminism as an ideology was born in the late 19th century, reflecting the aspirations of a layer of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who wanted to claim their class prerogatives: property ownership and inheritance, access to education and the professions, and voting rights. Marxists seek far more than this limited idea of “gender equality.”

Marxists recognize that the liberation of women cannot take place without the liberation of the entire human race from exploitation and oppression—and that is our goal. This was spelled out well over a century ago in Woman Under Socialism (1879), a Marxist classic by August Bebel, the venerable leader of the German Social Democratic Party. In various editions, this work was read by millions of workers for generations before World War I. Its rich vision of the emancipation of women is not to be found in any of the ISO’s writings on the question:

“She chooses her occupation on such field as corresponds with her wishes, inclinations and natural abilities, and she works under conditions identical with man’s. Even if engaged as a practical working-woman on some field or other, at other times of the day she may be educator, teacher or nurse, at yet others she may exercise herself in art, or cultivate some branch of science, and at yet others may be filling some administrative function.”

—Woman Under Socialism, trans. Daniel De Leon (Schocken Books, 1971)

What is especially significant about Bebel’s description of the self-fulfilling nature of work in a socialist society is that it applies equally to men. That points to the heart of why Marxism and feminism are mutually exclusive and indeed antagonistic. Feminists see the basic division in society as between men and women, while socialists recognize that male and female workers must fight together to end oppression and exploitation by the capitalist class.

Misrepresenting Marx

In its theoretical switch to “socialist feminism,” the ISO is promoting Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Haymarket Books, 2013). This book, originally published in 1983, was reissued as part of the Historical Materialism series with a laudatory introduction by two Canadian academics who are supporters of the ultra-reformist New Socialist Group. Even 30 years ago, the “socialist feminist” milieu that Vogel addressed had already dwindled to nothing. But because Vogel purports to represent a Marxist pole in the “social feminist” movement or intellectual current, it suits the ISO to champion her book today.

In the book’s introductory section, Vogel differentiates herself evenhandedly from non-Marxist feminists and non-feminist Marxists. She sets as her main task to analyze the character of women’s oppression within the structure and dynamics of the capitalist economic system. Her discussion of Marx and Engels is confused, contradictory and turgid. She primarily focuses on the relation between domestic or household labor and the generational reproduction of labor power. For Vogel, the oppression of women rests narrowly on women’s (unpaid) household labor. Explicitly stating, “The category of ‘the family’…is found to be wanting as an analytical starting point,” she ignores the broader questions of the role of the family in the oppression of women and children and its importance as a key prop of the capitalist order. The family serves to atomize the working class, propagating bourgeois individualism as a barrier to class solidarity.

While presenting a narrow understanding of women’s oppression, Vogel slanders Engels as an “economic determinist.” She simply dismisses the cultural and social sides of Engels’ rich arguments in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). To take one example, she complains that Engels “does not clearly link the development of a special sphere associated with the reproduction of labour power to the emergence of class-, or, perhaps, capitalist society.” This seems to mean that Engels does not show how the emergence of class society came to bear on women’s child rearing role. This is simply untrue.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels describes how the family originated in the Neolithic Age as society first split into classes. Relying on the information available at the time, Engels drew heavily from the pioneering work of Lewis Henry Morgan among the Iroquois in upstate New York for an understanding of early, pre-class society. Engels described how the invention of agriculture created a social surplus that allowed, for the first time, the development of a leisured ruling class that lived off the labor of others. The family, specifically the monogamy of women, was needed to ensure the orderly transmission of property and power to the patriarch’s heirs, the next generation of the ruling class. While much more has become known of early stages of human society since Engels lived, his fundamental understanding has stood the test of time.

Vogel does not analyze the social role of the family for the working class under capitalism, where it is the means to raise the next generation of wage slaves. In Capital, Marx explained that the cost of labor power is determined by the cost of the maintenance and reproduction of the worker—his daily living expenses, his training and the maintenance of his wife and children. To boost profits, the capitalist seeks to drive down the cost of labor—not just the wages paid into the pockets of the workers but also services like public education and health care, which are necessary to the maintenance of the proletariat.

Feminists sometimes criticize aspects of the family, but usually only to complain about “gender roles,” as if the problem were a lifestyle argument over who should do the dishes or feed the baby its bottle. It is the institution of the family that socializes people from infancy to behave according to certain norms, respect authority and develop the habits of obedience and deference so useful for capitalist profit-making. The family is invaluable to the bourgeoisie as a reservoir of small private property and in some cases petty production, serving as an ideological brake on social consciousness. Vogel ignores these questions and focuses strictly on women’s unpaid “domestic labor.”

The Ultimate Goal

Vogel’s position is even weaker with respect to the ultimate goal of women’s liberation. This is seen especially in what she doesn’t say. Vogel divorces the emancipation of women from overcoming economic scarcity and from the replacement of alienated labor—in the factory as well as the household—by creative, self-satisfying work. Both the ultimate goal of a communist society and the basic means of achieving that goal lie outside the intellectual confines of Vogel’s “socialist feminism.”

When Marx and Engels explained that they subscribed to a materialist understanding of society and social change, they were not only referring to capitalism and earlier class-divided societies (e.g., feudalism). They also provided a materialist understanding of a future classless society. Indeed, that was their fundamental difference with the main socialist currents in the early 19th century—the Owenites, Fourierists and Saint-Simonians—as summarized in Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (originally part of his 1878 polemic, Anti-Dühring). Marx and Engels recognized that a socialist society—understood as the initial stage of communism—requires a level of labor productivity far higher than that in even the most economically advanced capitalist countries today. This is to be achieved through the ongoing expansion of scientific knowledge and its technological application.

Vogel has no such conception. This is especially evident in her discussion of early Soviet Russia. Expressing great appreciation for Lenin’s understanding of and commitment to overcoming the oppression of women, she quotes with approval his 1919 speech, “The Tasks of the Working Women’s Movement in the Soviet Republic”:

“You all know that even when women have full rights, they still remain factually downtrodden because all housework is left to them. In most cases housework is the most unproductive, the most barbarous and the most arduous work a woman can do. It is exceptionally petty and does not include anything that would in any way promote the development of the woman.

“In pursuance of the socialist ideal we want to struggle for the full implementation of socialism, and here an extensive field of labour opens up before women. We are now making serious preparations to clear the ground for the building of socialism, but the building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women and when we undertake the new work together with women who have been emancipated from that petty, stultifying, unproductive work.”

Collected Works, Vol. 30

Vogel wrongly contends that Lenin’s was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. She implies that the main obstacle to overcoming the oppression of women in early Soviet Russia was ideological: the pervasive patriarchal attitudes among working-class and peasant men, combined with the supposed indifference to women’s liberation among the mainly male cadre of the Bolshevik party. Vogel writes:

“Lenin’s remarks about male chauvinism never acquired programmatic form, and the campaign against male ideological backwardness remained at most a minor theme in Bolshevik practice. Nonetheless, his observations on the problem represented an extremely rare acknowledgment of its seriousness.... Lenin’s theoretical contributions failed to make a lasting impression.”

In fact, enormous efforts were made by the Soviet government to relieve working-class women of the burden of housework and childcare through the establishment of communal kitchens, laundries, nurseries and the like. Both the Bolsheviks and the Communist International established special departments for work among women. In the early Soviet workers state, the Zhenotdel was active in both the European and Central Asian regions.

The limits to the liberating policies of the Communist government under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky were not ideological but the result of objective conditions: the poverty of material resources aggravated by years of imperialist war and civil war. Trotsky explained in a 1923 essay, “From the Old Family to the New,” included in the 1924 compilation Problems of Everyday Life (a work that Vogel fails to mention):

“The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work.”

—Problems of Everyday Life (Pathfinder Press, 1973)

Material scarcity was the source of yet another important area of inequality between men and women in early Soviet Russia (and by extension in any economically backward workers state). This was the scarcity of highly skilled labor requiring advanced knowledge and technical capacity. Skilled industrial workers and members of the technical intelligentsia (e.g., engineers, architects) had to be given higher wages than unskilled workers, although the difference was much less than in capitalist countries. This better-paid stratum of the labor force, inherited from the tiny modern capitalist sector of tsarist Russia, was predominantly male. Although efforts were made to rectify this, the early workers state lacked the material resources to educate and train women to become machinists and engineers in numbers sufficient to overcome male predominance in skilled labor.

Vogel concludes her book by offering a projection of the transition to communism following the overthrow of capitalism:

“Confronted with the terrible reality of women’s oppression, nineteenth-century utopian socialists called for the abolition of the family. Their drastic demand continues to find advocates among socialists even today. In its place, however, historical materialism poses the difficult question of simultaneously reducing and redistributing domestic labour in the course of transforming it into an integral component of social production in communist society. Just as in the socialist transition ‘the state is not “abolished”, it withers away’, so too, domestic labour must wither away. The proper management of domestic labour and women’s work during the transition to communism is therefore a critical problem for socialist society, for only on this basis can the economic, political, and ideological conditions for women’s true liberation be established and maintained. In the process, the family in its particular historical form as a kin-based social unit for the reproduction of exploitable labour-power in class-society will also wither away—and with it both patriarchal family-relations and the oppression of women.” [emphasis in original]

But how is this reduction and redistribution of domestic labor to be achieved? In the transition from the dictatorship of the proletariat to full communism, the transformation of the family is a corollary to expanded production and greater abundance. Its withering away, or disintegration, grows out of economic success. In the process, it will be replaced by new ways of living that will be immeasurably richer, more human and fulfilling. There may well be a need to develop some rules in the course of this transformation as people search for new modes of living. In the transitional period, it will be the job of the workers’ democratic collective, the Soviet, to build alternatives and to guide the process.

Vogel does not pose the crucial question: If women are to be liberated from household drudgery, what then are they liberated to do? Will a reduction in the time spent on housework be offset by a comparable increase in the time spent at work—two fewer hours a day washing clothes and mopping floors, two more hours working on a factory assembly line? That’s certainly not the Marxist idea of women’s liberation.

The replacement of housework and child rearing by collective institutions are aspects of a fundamental change in the relation between production and labor time. Under a planned, socialist economy, all kinds of economic activity—from making steel and computers to cleaning clothes, floors and furniture—will undergo a constant, rapid increase in output per unit of labor input. Long before a communist society is attained, most housework may well be automated. More generally, there will be a steady reduction in the total labor time necessary for the production and maintenance of the means of consumption as well as the means of production.

In a fully communist society, most time will be what is now called “free time.” Necessary labor will absorb such a small share of time and energy that the individual will freely grant it to the social collective. Everyone will have the available time along with the requisite material and cultural resources to engage in creative, self-satisfying work. In the Grundrisse (1857), Marx cited composing music as an example of genuinely free labor.



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The Marxist Approach to Women’s Liberation

Communism and the Family

(Women and Revolution pages)

(Part One)