Marxism and the Women’s Question - .Sharmistha Choudhury
Marx and Engels located the origin of women’s oppression in the rise of class society. Engels wrote The Origin of Family, Private Property and State in 1884 - a year after Marx's death. He used Marx's Ethnological Notebooks as well as his own notes as the basis of the text. The notebooks contained Marx's notes on Ancient Society by Lewis Henry Morgan. The Origin is a short book which dwells on Morgan's findings and puts forward an argument about the nature of "primitive" society, the rise of commodity production and, with it, the emergence of classes and the state. Engels contended that, for the vast majority of human existence, some 200,000 years (or 2 million years if we include other human-like species), people lived in small communities that were relatively egalitarian, did not contain systematic oppression by one group or another, and to whom concepts such as property and wealth would have had no meaning.
Humans had not yet learned how to cultivate plants or rear animals. These hunter-gatherer societies could sustain only a relatively small population which had to move on when resources became scarce. Sharing and communal living were the best way to ensure the survival of the group. There would have been a division of labour between men and women, but this did not mean the domination of one group by the other - each person would make the decisions about the activities they were involved in.
Rather than living in family units of two parents and their children, or an extended patriarchal family centering round the male elder, people lived in communal systems of kinship - children would be the responsibility of everyone.
The old kinship systems were centred on mothers because it was only possible to identify the line of descent through the mother. In such a setup only mothers would know with certainty who their children were and thus build up a network of blood relationships around that knowledge, giving every member of the group a line of descent and a role. The "household" was communal, and the fruits of women's and men's labour were shared among families. There was no separation between what we would now know as ‘housework’ and all other work - there was no public/private divide.
The new male-dominated family broke up this intricate, communal system by placing the family as the key economic unit of society, the means through which wealth would be owned and passed on. Rather than the woman being an equally important economic actor in society, she and her children became dependent upon the individual man in the family.
This change took place with development of production relations and growing people's ability to produce more than they immediately needed to consume. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals meant goods could be produced for trade - commodities could be exchanged for other things or, eventually, money. More specialised tools became crucial to production and thus very valuable property. Men tended to be the ones responsible for animal rearing and increasingly for agriculture - so they owned the tools and made the economic decisions, gradually increasing their importance in relation to women.
For the first time women's ability to give birth became a burden. This was partly because settled communities with greater productive capacity could sustain larger populations - in fact needed more labourers to work in the fields - and so women would tend to spend more time pregnant or with young children. But the main source of women's oppression was the separation of the family from the communal clan. Women's labour in the home became a private service under conditions of subjugation. This was the "world historic defeat of the female sex" that Engels wrote about:
"The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became a slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of women...has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in milder form, in no sense has it been abolished."
As Marx noted, "The modern family contains in germ not only slavery but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state."
This defeat of mother right was a profound change in human relations caused, not by some latent desire in men to dominate women, but by the needs of commodity production and the way it developed. The monogamous family was "the first form of the family to be based...on economic conditions - on the victory of private property over...communal property". Along with domestic slavery came slave labour and the beginning of systematic exploitation. Once communal property was undermined this was inevitable - private property for some always means no property for others. Engels writes that this process "opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others."
Engels built upon Morgan’s theory in The Origin to develop, as the title implies, a theory of how the rise of class society led to both the rise of the state, which represents the interests of the ruling class in the day-to-day class struggle, and the rise of the family, as the means by which the first ruling classes possessed and passed on private wealth. He developed a historical analysis which located the source of women’s oppression. In so doing, he provided a strategy for ending that oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that Engels’ work has defined the terms of debate around ‘the origin’ of women’s oppression for the last 100 years. Most writers on the subject of women’s oppression have set out either to support or reject Marxist theory as laid out by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Until the women’s movement of the late 1960s began to challenge male chauvinism, sexist assumptions provided the basis for broad generalizations. Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading anthropologist within the structuralist school, went so far as to argue that "human society...is primarily a masculine society." He argued that the "exchange of women" is a "practically universal" feature of human society, in which men obtain women from other men – from fathers, brothers and other male relatives. Moreover, he asserted that "the deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient." Therefore, "the most desirable women must form a minority." Because of this, "the demand for women is an actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state of disequilibrium and tension." According to Levi-Strauss, then, women have been the passive victims of men’s sexual aggression since the beginning of human society.
On the other hand, in its purest form, much of feminist theory rests upon more imaginations than facts. There is wideranging supposition like men dominate women because they hold women in contempt for their ability to bear children–or because they are jealous of women’s ability to bear children. Men oppress women because long ago women formed a powerful matriarchy which was overthrown–or because men have always been a tyrannical patriarchy. Gerda Lerner argues in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, "Feminists, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir… [have explained women’s oppression] as caused by either male biology or male psychology." She goes on to describe a sampling of feminist theories, all of which border on the outlandish: Thus, Susan Brownmiller sees man’s ability to rape women leading to their propensity to rape women and shows how this has led to male dominance over women and to male supremacy. Elizabeth Fisher ingeniously argued that the domestication of animals…led men to the idea of raping women. She claimed that the brutalization and violence connected with animal domestication led to men’s sexual dominance and institutionalized aggression. More recently, Mary O’Brien built an elaborate explanation of the ‘origin’ of male dominance on men’s psychological need to compensate for their inability to bear children through the construction of institutions of dominance and, like Fisher, dated this "discovery" in the period of the discovery of animal domestication.
In his introduction to the first edition of The Origin, Engels explains materialism as follows: “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.”
Before class society, the idea of a strictly monogamous pairing of males and females with their offspring – the modern, ‘monogamous‘ family – was unknown to human society. Inequality was also unknown. For more than 2 million years, humans lived in groups made up of people who were mostly related by blood, in conditions of relative equality. This understanding is an important part of Marxist theory.
Human evolution has taken place over a very long time–a period of millions of years. The earliest human ancestors (Homo habilus) probably appeared some 2 million or more years ago, while anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) did not appear until 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. The earliest forms of agriculture did not begin until 10,000 years ago, and it is only over the last thousand years that human society has experienced much more rapid technological development.25
For most of human history, it would have been impossible to accumulate wealth – nor was there much motivation to do so. For one thing, there would have been no place to store it. People lived first in nomadic bands – hunter-gatherer societies – sustaining themselves by some combination of gathering berries, roots and other vegetable growth, and hunting or fishing. In most such societies, there would have been no point in working more than the several hours per day it takes to produce what is necessary for subsistence. But even among the first societies to advance to horticulture, it wasn’t really possible to produce much more than what was to be immediately consumed by members of the band.
With the onset of more advanced agricultural production–through the use of the plow and/or advanced methods of irrigation –and the beginnings of settled communities, in some societies human beings were able to extract more than the means of subsistence from the environment. This led to the first accumulation of surplus, or wealth. As Engels stated in The Origin: "Above all, we now meet the first iron plowshare drawn by cattle, which made large-scale agriculture, the cultivation of fields, possible and thus created a practically unrestricted food supply in comparison with previous conditions." This was a turning point for human society, for it meant that, over time, production for use could be replaced by production for exchange and eventually for profit, leading to the rise of the first class societies some 6,000 years ago.
The crux of Engels’ theory of women’s oppression rests on the relationship between the sexual division of labor and the mode of production, which underwent a fundamental transformation with the onset of class society. In hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, there was a sexual division of labor–rigidly defined sets of responsibilities for women and men. But both sexes were allowed a high degree of autonomy in performing those tasks. Moreover–and this is an element which has been learned since Engels’ time–women not only provided much of the food for the band in hunter-gatherer societies, but also, in many cases, they provided most of the food. So women in pre-class societies were able to combine motherhood and productive labor–in fact, there was no strict demarcation between the reproductive and productive spheres. Women, in many cases, could carry small children with them while they gathered or planted, or leave the children behind with other adults for a few hours at a time. Likewise, many goods could be produced in the household. Because women were central to production in these pre-class societies, systematic inequality between the sexes was nonexistent, and elder women in particular enjoyed relatively high status.
All of that changed with the development of private property. According to the sexual division of labor, men tended to take charge of heavier agricultural jobs, like plowing, since it was more difficult for pregnant or nursing women and might endanger small children to be carried along. Moreover, since men traditionally took care of big-game hunting (though not exclusively), again, it made sense for them to oversee the domestication of cattle. Engels argued that the domestication of cattle preceded the use of the plow in agriculture, although it is now accepted that these two processes developed at the same time. But this does not diminish the validity of his explanation as to why control over cattle fell to men.
As production shifted away from the household, the role of reproduction changed substantially. The shift toward agricultural production sharply increased the productivity of labor. This, in turn, increased the demand for labor–the greater the number of field workers, the higher the surplus. Thus, unlike hunter-gatherer societies, which sought to limit the number of offspring, agricultural societies sought to maximize women’s reproductive potential, so the family would have more children to help out in the fields. Therefore, at the same time that men were playing an increasingly exclusive role in production, women were required to play a much more central role in reproduction.
The rigid sexual division of labor remained the same, but production shifted away from the household. The family no longer served anything but a reproductive function – as such, it became an economic unit of consumption. In the family, men as owners of the means of production and controlling the major share of production, came to be owners of the produce too, and the woman and children of the family became dependent on the man for their share of the produce. This also enabled the men to hold the woman in relative subjugation. Women became trapped within their individual families, as the reproducers of society–cut off from production. These changes took place first among the property-owning families, the first ruling class. But eventually, the monogamous family became an economic unit of society as a whole.
It is important to understand that these changes did not take place overnight, but over a period of thousands of years. Moreover, greed was not responsible, in the first instance, for the unequal distribution of wealth. Nor was male chauvinism the reason why power fell into the hands of (some) men, while the status of women fell dramatically. There is no evidence (nor any reason to assume) that women were coerced into this role by men. For property-owning families, a larger surplus would have been in the interest of all household members. Engels said of the first male "property owners" of domesticated cattle, "What is certain is that we must not think of him as a property owner in the modern sense of the word." He owned his cattle in the same sense that he owned the other tools required to obtain food and other necessities. But "the family did not multiply so rapidly as the cattle." Agricultural output also increased sharply–some of which needed to be stored to feed the community in case of a poor harvest, and some of which could be traded for other goods.
Obviously, every society across the globe did not experience an identical succession of changes in the mode of production. Chris Harman writes, "[T]he exact route from hunter-gathering through horticulture and agriculture to civilization did vary considerably from one society to another." But, “[t]he divergent forms under which class society emerged must not make us forget the enormous similarities from society to society.” Everywhere there was, in the beginning, primitive communism. Everywhere, once settled agricultural societies were formed, some lineages, lineage elders or "big men" could begin to gain prestige through their role in undertaking the redistribution of the little surplus that existed in the interests of the group as a whole. Everywhere, as the surplus grew, this small section of society came to control a greater share of the social wealth, putting it in a position where it could begin to crystallize out into a social class.
What is indisputable is that the onset of class society brought with it a universal shift toward patrilineage–and, more importantly, the role of men as "heads" of their households. Engels was undoubtedly correct–with more supporting evidence today than when he was writing–that the rise of the modern family brought with it a degradation of women which was unknown in pre-class societies. Engels argued, “The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. . . . In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.”
That the rise of the family was a consequence–and not a cause, as some argue–of the rise of classes is central to Engels’ argument.
Engels argued that the rise of class society brought with it rising inequality – between the rulers and the ruled, and between men and women. At first the surplus was shared with the entire clan – so wealth was not accumulated by any one individual or groups of individuals. But gradually, as settled communities grew in size and became more complex social organizations, and, most importantly, as the surplus grew, the distribution of wealth became unequal – and a small number of men rose above the rest of the population in wealth and power.
Engels didn't claim that there was a straightforward, one-way relationship between the development of the productive forces and the social relations - there is always a battle. But everything doesn't influence everything equally: "It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else [political, philosophical, religious, etc, development] is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself."
Engels’ analysis is straightforward–it may need further development, but its essence is there, plain to see. The sexual division of labor which existed in pre-class societies, when production for use was the dominant mode of production, carried no implication of gender inequality. Women were able to combine their reproductive and productive roles, so both sexes were able to perform productive labor. But with the rise of class society, when production for exchange began to dominate, the sexual division of labor helped to erode equality between the sexes. Production and trade increasingly occurred away from the household, so that the household became a sphere primarily for reproduction. As Coontz and Henderson argue,
The increasing need for redistribution (both within local groups and between them) and the political tasks this creates have consequences for sex roles in that these political roles are often filled by males, even in matrilineal/matrilocal societies. Presumably this flows from the division of labor that associates males with long-distance activities, external affairs, and products requiring group-wide distribution, while females are more occupied with daily productive tasks from which they cannot be absented.
Hence, the beginnings of a "public" versus a "private" sphere, with women increasingly trapped in the household in property-owning families. The rise of the family itself explains women’s subordinate role within it. For the first time in human history, women’s ability to give birth kept them from playing a significant part in production.
For Engels, there was a "historic defeat" because something fundamental changed in the economic base of society. We developed ways to produce a surplus, not by nature's bounty but by our own labour. If, as Engels argues, oppression arose alongside class society then is he saying that, once we get rid of class society, oppression will automatically disappear?
A fair reading of The Origin with an open mind makes it clear that the treatise contains no such assumption. No oppression can ever automatically disappear. On the contrary, an uncompromising fight against all forms of gender oppression serves to erode the base on which such oppression stands and paves the way for the uprooting of the base. For instance, the struggles against various aspects of women’s oppression like domestic violence and sexual violence sharpen and intensify the struggle against class. “The first condition for the liberation of women”, argued Engels, “is to bring the whole of the female sex back into public industry”. We have seen over the past few decades how structural changes in capitalism have led to a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce in many countries worldwide. While this has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the ideas and aspirations of women themselves, as well as influencing social attitudes more broadly, women’s economic, social and personal autonomy are limited by the needs of capitalism. Engels went on to explain that “this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”. The family as an institution and women’s role within it, have clearly undergone significant changes since Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Nevertheless, it retains an economic and ideological relevance for 21st century capitalism which is suffering from a systemic crisis and is riven with contradictions: a system which exploits women as low-cost labour in the workplace while defining their existence by their role in the monogamous family.
Capitalist ideology concerning women’s role and status in society has also evolved since the late 19th century, but the ideas and values of a system based on commodity production for profit and inequalities of wealth and power rest on, combine with, and perpetuate the residue of outmoded ideas of male authority and supremacy which have their roots in earlier class societies. As a consequence, women continue to experience violence, sexual abuse and restrictions on their sexuality and reproductive rights, while facing sexism, discrimination, gender stereotyping and double standards.
For Engels the basis for resolving the problems which women face in society entails “the transfer of the means of production into common ownership”. In this way, “the monogamous family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike…” In a socialist society, personal relations will be freed from the economic and social constraints which continue to limit them even today. The basis for true liberation will be laid. Close to 150 years after they were first written, Engels’s words regarding the ending of women’s oppression maintain all their force.
Part - 2
In the present day the women’s organization needs to be broad-based, encompassing the aspirations of all struggling women and gender rights movements, and attempting to bring together all resistances to patriarchy under one umbrella. However, since patriarchy today is nurtured and sustained by imperialism, and in every challenge to patriarchy the world order of imperialism is also challenged to some extent or the other, the general nature of the women’s organization will be anti-imperialist.
In our country, with the fascistic onslaught intensifying, there is need for the women’s organization to be particularly strong in order to combat state-sponsored patriarchal challenges. For that the women’s organization needs to break out of the stereotypical mould of being an appendage to a Party and develop independent organizing and agitating abilities. In our country it is the custom of political parties, ranging from right, centre to left, to have women’s wings as women’s organizations. The CPIM has one, the Congress has another and so does the BJP. Even struggling left organizations like the Liberation and others have their women’s wings which go by the name of women’s organizations. However, just as it is uncommon for these ‘women’s organisations’ to ever go against any position adopted by the Party they are associated with, so also it is rare for them to take up independent positions and struggles.
The primary objective of a women’s organization is women’s liberation, and this can be neither achieved nor struggled for by women who aren’t independent themselves. But it is most often seen that far from being an independent organization with distinctive positions on all questions pertaining to the unceasing attacks on women, the tendency is to tail the Party. Thus the independent assertion of women through their own organization remains a far cry.
The relationship between the Communist Party and women’s organization should necessarily be dialectical, independent of each other and yet each hammering away at class-divided society with a view to replace it with a new order. As struggling trade unions set their own agendas of struggle, but the Party remains a bulwark of support all throughout and helps the trade union to view the long-term goals without positing itself as a Grand Patriarch in relationship to the union, so also the women’s organization should at all times set its own agenda of propaganda and struggle, aided by the Party but never dictated by it or constrained by it.
The Communist Party has a great role to play in the educating and organizing of women. The exclusion of women from all important spaces has become a habit that must be consciously fought. Very often it is convenient not to have a woman or two in a meeting or gathering of a couple of dozen men, especially because including women would necessitate making separate logistical arrangements for them. But we are so used to viewing all space as ‘male space’ that the very idea of organizing a space for women appears downright troublesome. Very often women’s voices are ignored simply because the total unfamiliarity with the female voice makes it difficult for the Party to understand what is being tried to be conveyed. This is also obvious from the total invisibilisation of women not just in formal academia but also the history of the communist movement, both in India as well as abroad. History text books in Indian schools teach a wide range of modern, international historical events ranging from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune and the American War of Independence, the Emancipation of Slaves in the US, Emancipation of Serfs in Russia to the Boer War, and of course the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution and the two World Wars and chunks of the post World War scenario, the United Nations, Israel-Palestine, Cold War, et al. However, one chapter of history that is summarily and deliberately glossed over in all history books – left, right and centre – without exception, is the history of the International Women’s Suffrage Movement and its somewhat less-than-triumphant victory. Although this movement, dealing as it did with the question of citizenship rights for half the population of the globe, had a prolonged, fierce and chequered history, pitting citizens against citizens even as women and men united against governments on a fairest possible demand, and had an international character, it is one movement about which most of us know very little. Neither academic textbooks, nor progressive history books which tell us about the uninterrupted fight of the people of the world for democracy and rights, usually have chapters dedicated to the International Women’s Suffrage Movement, and while Abraham Lincoln remains a greatly famous name not merely for his leadership role in the Civil War but more so as the champion of the emancipation of the African Americans from slavery, the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement are forgotten names relegated to the pages of something that goes by the dubious distinction of ‘feminist literature’. Now take a look at the history of the International Communist Movement. Except for Rosa Luxembourg and Clara Zetkin and a handful others, the women leaders are inexplicably missing. Not that they weren’t there. Not that the ICM was largely a male-only movement. But tomes on the ICM will give you a different idea.
This invisibilisation of women has acquired such a degree of normalcy that it isn’t generally considered a part of what is broadly termed as oppression of women. This picture of violent inequality – where women are intruding ‘others’ in a world of men, for men and by men – however, remains a constant, be it in history or the living present. So the visibilisation of women’s struggles and their role in history remains an important duty of the Communist Party.
The most important challenges before the women’s movement today are the tendency to shy away from forming broad-based women’s organizations and the inclination to limit the organization by the position of the Party. AIRWO is an exception to this general rule. It is not an appendage of CPI(ML) Red Star, or any other Party for that matter. It calls itself revolutionary because it believes in the revolutionary reorganization of society for the achievement of the complete emancipation of women. But that is not to say that it is an organization for only women revolutionaries. It is an organization which aims at bringing together the ranks of women, all struggles of, by and for women, and all the liberatory aspirations of women into one united, yet diverse, platform committed to the uprooting of patriarchy.