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Some Marxist Concepts and Theories 97
Some Marxist Concepts and Theories



1&7:
Marxist and Socialist Feminism:'- _/
Classical and Contemporary
Although it is possible ro distinguish between Marxist and sociali st femi-
nist thought, it is quite difficult to do so. Over rhe years, I have become
convinced rhar rhe differences between these rwo schools of thought are
more a matter of emphasis than of substance. Classical Marxist feminists
work within the conceptual terrain laid our bv Marx, Engels, Lenin, and
other nineteenth-century t hinkers. T hey regard classism rather
ism as the fundamental cause of women's oppression. In contrast, socialist
feminists are not certain that classism is women's worst or only enemy.
They write in view of Russia's twentieth-century fai lure ro achi eve social-
ism's ultimate goal- namel y, rhe replacement of class oppression and an-
tagonism with "an association, in which rhe free development of each is
rhe condition for the free development of alL "
1
Post-1917 Communism
in rhe Soviet Union and later in the so-called Eastern Bloc was not true
socialism bur si mply a new form of human exploitation and oppression.
Women's lives under Communism, pa'rricularly during the Stalin years v
(1929-1953), were not manifestly better than women's li ves under capi-
talism. Women's move inro rhe productive workplace had nor made them
men's equal s either rhere or ar home. For t hese reasons and related ones,
socialist feminists decided to move beyond relying on class as t he sole cat-
egory for understanding women's subordination to men . Increasi ngl y,
they tried "to understand women's -subordination in a coherent and sys-
tematic way that integrates cl ass and sex, as well as other aspects of iden-
tity such as racelethnicity or sexual orientarion."2
10
96
To appreciate the differences between classical Marxist and contemporary
social ist feminism, we need to understand the Marxist concept of human /
nature. As noted in Chapter 1, liberals believe that several characterisricy
distinguish human bei ngs from other animals. These characterist ics include
a set of abi lities, such as the capacity for rationality and the use of language;
a set of practices, such as religion, art, and science; and a set of attitude and
behavior patterns, such as competitiveness and the tendency to put oneself
over others. Marxists reject the liberal conce tion of human nature,
ing instead that what makes us different from other animals is our a 1 Ity to
.J"'produce our mea ence. We are what we are because of what we
o-specifically, what we do to meet our basic needs through productive
activit ies such as fishing, farming, and building. Unltke bees, beavers, and
ants, whose activities are by instinct and who cannot willfully
change themselves, we create ourselves in rhe process of intentionally trans-
for.!DJng and nature.3
For the liberal , the tdeas, thoughts, and values of individuals account for 1 j
over time. For the Marxist, material forces-the prodpcrion and
reproduction of social life-are the prime movers in histor_y, In laving our a
fUl l explanation of how change r akes place over rime, an explanation
termed historical materialjrm Marx stated , "The mode of production Of
material life conditions the general process of social , political, and intellectual
) life. 1t is not rhe of men that determines their existence, bur
social existence rhar determines their consciousness."4 In other words,
Marx bel ieved a socie_ry's roral mode of production-that is, irs of pro-
ducrion (the raw materials, tools, and workers t hat actually produce goods)
d
lus its relations of production {the wavs in which prod,uction is ::=-----
enerates a superstructure (a layer of legal, politi caL and social ideas) that in
urn reinforces the mode of production. Adding ro Marx's point, Richard
Schmitt later emphasized that the statement " Human beings create them-
selves" is not ro be read as "Men and women, as individuals, make themselves
what they are," but instead as "Men and women, through production coLlec-
tively, create a society that, in turn, shapes them."S So, for example, people in
the United States think in certain ways about liberty, equality, and freedom
because their mode of production is capitalist. -
Like Marxists in general, Marxist and socialist feminists claim that social
existence determines consciousness. For them, the observation that "women's
worT< is never done" is more than an aphorism; it is a description of the nature
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of woman's work. Always on call , women form a conception of themselves
they would not have if their roles in t he fami ly and the workplace did not
keep them socially and economically subordinate to men. T hus, Marxist and /
socialist femi nists bel ieve we need to analyze the links between women's work v
status and women's sel f-image in order to understand the unique character of
women's. oppression.
6
The Marxist Theory of Economics
To the degree Marxist and socialist feminists believe women's work shapes
women's thou hts and thus "female nature," these thinkers also beli eve capi-
..lj; ra ism is a system of power relations as well as cap-
italism is vi ewed as a system of exchange rel atiOns, It IS descnbed as a
commodi ty or market in which everything, including one's own la-
bor power, has a price and all transactions are fundamentall y exchange trans-
act ions. But when capi talism is viewed instead as a system power
relations, it is described as a society in which every kind of transactional rela-
tion is fundamentally exploitative. Thus, depending on one's emphasis, the
worker-employer relati onship can be looked at as either an exchange rela-
t ionship in which items of equi valent value are freely traded-labor
wages-or as a workplace struggle in which the employer, who has supenor
power, takes adva ntage of workers in any number o:... f..:..:w..::.a.L..y:...: s. __ --:-_ ___,
Whereas liberals view capital ism as a system
tions, Marxists and socialists view capitalism as a system of exploitative power
relations. According to Marx, the of any commodi ty is determined by
the amount of labor, or actual expenditure of human energy and intelligence,
necessary ro produce it.7 To be more precise, the value of any commodity is
equal to the t!i!EJ. labor incorporated in the commodi ty by workers, plus. the
indirect labor stored in workers' artificial appendages-the roo Is and machmes
made by the direct labor of their predecessors. a Because al l commodities are
worth exactly the labor necessary ro produce them and because workers' labor
power (capacity for work) is a commodity that can be bought and sold, the
value of workers' labor power is exactly the cost of whatever it takes (food,
clothing, shelter) ro maintain them throughout the workday. But there is a
difference between what employers pay workers for their mere capacity ro
work (labor power) and the value that workers actually create when they put
tl1cir work capacity to use in produci ng commodities.!> Marx termed this dif-
ference "surplus val ue," .and from it employers derive their prQ.{its. T hus,
talism is an exploitative system because employers pay workers only for the1r
JVrrtt: JVJfli'XISC t..-oncepts and I heories 99
labor power, without also paying workers for the human energy they expend
the intelligence tl1cy transfer into the commodities they produce. IO
At this point in an analysis of Marxist economic thought, it seems reasonable
to ask how employers _sec workers ro labor for more hours man are necessary ro
produce me value of meir subsistence, especially when workers receive no com-
pensation for tl1is extra work. The answer to mis query is, as Marx explained in
a simple one: Employers have a monopoly on me means of production,
including factories, tools, land, means of transportation, and means of commu-
_.,1 nication. Workers are forced to choose between being exploited and having no
v \ It is a liberal fiction that workers freely sign mutually beneficial con-
tractual agreements witl1 their employers. Capitalism is just as much a system of
power relations as it is one of exchange relations. Workers are free to contract
;}th (;nployers only in tl1e sense mat employers do not hold a gun to their
heads when mey sign on me dotted line.
Interestingly, there is another, less discussed reason why employers are able
to exploit workers under capitalism. According to Marx, capi talist ideologies
lead workers and employers t o focus on capi talism's surface structure of
exchange relations.
11
As a result of this ideological ploy, which Marx called the
fetishism of commoditiM, workers gradually convince themselves that even
tl1ough meir money is very hard earned, there is nothing inherenrly wrona
with the specific exchange relationships into which they have entered,
life, in all its dimensions, is simply one colossal system of exchange relations.
That liberal ideologies, typical ly spawned in capitalist economics, present
practices such as prosti t ution and surrogate motherhood as contractual exer-
cises of free choi ce, then, is no accident, according to Marxist and socialist
femi ni sts. The liberal ideologies claim that women become prostitutes and
surrogate mothers because they prefor these iobs over ocher available jobs.
But, as Marxist and socialist feminists see it, when a poor, illiterate, unskilled
woman chooses to sell her sexual or reproductive services, chances are her
choice is more coerced chan free. After al l, if one has li trle else of value ro sell v
besides onehoay, one's leverage in the marketplace is quite limited.
The Marxist Theory of Society
Like me Marxis(.anatysis of powei]me Marxist analysis of class has provided
both Marxist and socialist femi nists with some of me conceptual tools necessary
to understand w,gmen's oppression. Marx observed that every poli tical econ-
omy-the primitive communal state, me slave epoch, me precapiralist society,
and the bourgeois society-contains the seeds of its own destruction. Thus,
accordi ng to Marx, rl1ere arc wimin capitalism enough internal contradictions
lUU \.....hapter .>: lVtarXISL auu .JUi..l<tll:. l Clllll ll .>ll
to generate a Class division dramatic enough to overwhelm the very system that
produced it. SpecificalJy, there exist many poor and propertyless workers. These
workers live very modesdy, receiving subsistence wages for their exhausting
labor while their employers live in luxu!J'. When these two groups of people, the
haves and the have-nots, both become conscious of themselves as classes, said
Marx, class struggle ensues and ultimately topples the system that produced
these classes. l2 It is important to emphasize the dynamic nature of class. Classes
do not simply appear. They arc and often painstakingly formed by si mi-
larly situated people who share the same wants and needs. According ro Marx,
people who belong ro any class initially have no more uniry than "potatoes in a
sack of poraroes. I3 Bur t hrough a long and complex process of _srruggli ng
to ether about issues of local and later national interest ro them, a group of
people gradu y becomes a uni ry, a true class. Because class uniry is difficult ro
achieve, irs importance cannot be overstated, said Marx. As soon as a group of
people is fully conscious of itself as a class, it has a better chance of achievin its
fundamental goals ere is ower in o-rou awareness.
Class consciousness is, in the Marxist framework, the opposite of false
consciousness, a state of mind that impedes the creation and maintenance of
true class uni ry. False causes exploited people to believe they
/are as free ro act and speak as their exploiters are. The bourgeoisie is espe-
/cially adept at fooli ng the proletariat. For this reason, Marxists discredit egal-
itarian, or welfare, liberalism, for example, as a ruling-class ideology that
tricks workers into beli eving thei r employers acwal ly care about them. As
Marxists see it, fri nge benefits such as generous health-care plans or paid
materniry leave are not gifts employers generously besrow on workers, bur a
means to pull the wool over workers' eyes. Grateful for the benefits their
employers give t hem, workers minimize their own hardships and suffering.
Like the ruling class, the workers begin ro perceive the staws quo as the best
possible world for workers and employers alike. T he more benefits employers
give their workers, the less likely their workers wi ll form a class capable of
recognizing their t rue needs as human be.;:in:=s::.:.--------------....
Because Marxist and socialist feminisD wish ro view women as a collectivi ,
Marxist teachings on class and class consciousness play a large role in Marxist
and socialist feminist t hought. Much debate within the Marxist and socialist
feminist communiry has centered on the following question: Do women per se
constitute a class? Given that some women are wives, daughters, friends, and
lovers of bourgeois men, whereas other women are the wives, daughters, friends,
and lovers of proletarian men, it would appear women do not constitute a sin-
gle class in the strict Marxist sense. Yet, bour eois and roletarian women's do-
mestic expenences, For exarnp1e, ear enough si milarities motivate
un!fring srruggles such as the 1970s wa_ses-for-housework campaign (see dis-
cussion below). T hus, many Marxist and social ist feminists believe women can
gain a consciousness of themselves as a class of workers by insisting, for exam-
ple, that domestic work be recognized as real work, that is, productive work.
T he observation that wives and mothers usually love the people for whom d
1
ey
work does not mean that cooking, cleaning, and childcare are not productive
\
work. At most it means wives' and mothers' worki ng condi tions are better than
those of people who work for employers they dislike.I 4
By keeping the Marxist conceptions of class and class consciousness in mind,
we can understand another concept that often plays a role in Marxist and social-
ist feminist rllought:fJienation. }like many Marxist terms, the term alienation is
extraordinarily difficult to define simply. In Karl Marx, Al len Wood suggested
we are alienated "if we either experience our lives as meaningless or ourselves as
worrllless, or else are capable of sustaining a sense of meaning and

o[Jy with the hel of illusions about ourselves or our condi tion. "I5 Robert Hei l-
broner a e that alienation is a profoundly fragmenting experience. Things or
persons who are or should be connected in some significant way are insread
viewed as separate. As Heilbroner saw it, this sense of.ragmentation and mean-
inglessness is particular! srrong under capitalism . .
As .a result of invidious class distinctions, as well as the highly specialized
and h1 hi se mented nature of the work process, human existence loses irs
uni and wholenes n four basic ways. First, workers are ali enated from the
f!._roduct of their labor. Not only do workers have no say in what commodities
they will or wil l not .but the fruits .of their labor are snatched from


them. Therefore, the sansfacnon of derermming when, where, how, and ro\..3
whom these commodities wi ll be sold is denied rhe workers. What should
partially express and constitute their being-as-wo!:Jsers confronts them as a
thing apart, a thing alien. l6
Second, workers are al ienated from themselves because when work is experi-
enced as SOOlfthing unpleasant ro be gotten rl1rough as quickly as possible, it is
deadening. When the potential source of workers' humanization becomes the
actual source of their dehumanization, workers may undergo a major psycholog-
ical crisis. They start feeli ng like hamsters on a hamster wheeC going nowhere.
T hird, workers are alienated from other human beings because the srrucrure
of the capitalist economy encourages and even forces workers to see each
other as competirors for jobs and promotions. When rl1e source of workers'
communiry (other workers experienced as cooperators, friends, people to be
with) becomes instead the source of their isolation (other workers experienced
as competitors, enemies, people to avoid), workers become disidenrified with
each other, losi ng an opportunity ro add joy and meaning to thei r li ves.
Fourth, workers are alienated from nature because the kind of work they do
and the condi tions under which they do it make them see nature as an obstacle
to their survival. This negative perception of nature sets up an Op_12>s ition where
in fact a connectedness should exist- the connectedness in
nature. T he elimination of this type of alienation, entailing a return to a
humane kind of work environment, is yet another important justification for
the overthrow of capitalism.17
Building on the idea that in a capitalist society, human relations rake on
an alienated nature in which "the individual only feels himsel f or herself
when detached from others," IS Ann Foreman claimed this state of affairs is
worse for women than it is for men:
The man exists in the social world of business and industry as well as in
the famil y and therefore is able to express himself in these different
spheres. For rhe woman, however, her place is within the home. Men's ob-
jectification within industry, through the expropriation of the product of
their labour, takes the form of al ienation. But the effect of alienation on
the lives and consciousness of women takes an even more oppressive form.
Men seek relieffrom t heir alienation through their rel;tions with women;
for women there is no relief. For these intimate relations are the very ones
that are essential structures of her oppression.
1
9
As Foreman saw it, women's alienation is profoundl y disturbing because
women experience themselves not as selves but as others. All too often, said
Foreman, a woman's sense of self is entirely dependent on her famili es' and
friends' appreciation of her. I f they express loving feelings coward her, she
will be happy, but if they fail to give her even a thank-you, she will be sad.
Thus Marxist and socialist femini sts aim to create a world in whi ch women
can themselves as whole persons, as integrated rather than frag-
mented beings, as people who can be happy even when t hey are unabl e to
make their families and friends happy.
The Marxist Theory of Po itics
Like the Marxist theories o
it ics offers Marxist and so
from the forces that oppres
certain form wit hin the wor
not those of the workers. WH
ever tactics may be necessary
conomics and s the Marxist t heory of pol-
Jist feminists insi s to help li berate women
em. As noted class struggle takes a
v-
I ace because the int t,ests of the employers are
eas it is in the employers' interests to use what-
harassment, firing, viotence) ro get workers to
vumo 1uux1H L.oncepts and I heories 103
work ever more effectively and effi cientll' fo r less wages than their work is
worrh, it is in the workers' interests to use whatever countertactics may be
necessary (sick time, coffee breaks, strikes) to limit the extent to which their
labor power is u d to f>roduce sheer profit for their employers.
The relat ive! mall and everyday cl ass confli cts occurring within the cap-
italist workpl ac serve as f>reliminaries t he full -fl edged, large-scale class
struggles that rx envisioned. As no above, Marx predicted that as
workers becom ncreasingly aware of the common ex loitarion and alien-
ation, they will hieve class consciousnes ni ted, he workers will be able
to fi ght their e1 loyers for control over t means of re duction (e.g., the
nation's factori . Tf the workers mana e win this fi ght, Marx claimed
that a highly co mitred, political! sa -trained group of revolution-
aries would subs uentl emer e from thew <ers' ranks. Marx termed rhis
special group of rkers the "vanguard" of th 11-scale revolution for which
he hoped. More an anything else, Marx de
socialism, a none loirarive, nonalienaring po.Dt:---;-----J'-----:-'----=----.,..-
communism, "d1 om !ere and conscious ret
that is, human bei ,"
20
could come into exist
Under capiralis M;u;x suggested, people a
want to do withi he confi nes of rhe syste
determining rhe c fi nes themselves. "Person
tioned and derermi d by quite definite class re
Richard Schmitt el rated on Marx's powerful
ce.
largely free to do what they
bur they have lirrle say in
ty," said Marx, "is condi-
onship$."21 Decades later,
In as much as per ns do certai n iobs in society, ey tend ro acquire cer-
tain character trai interests, habi ts and so o , Without such adapta-
tions ro rhe dema of their particular occupa ns, rhey would nor be
able to do a great j . A capitalist who cannot be o win in competi tion,
or ro outsmart som ne, will nor be a ca italist ft long. A worker who is
unwilling to rake fders will nor work very . In this way we are
shaped by the wor nvironment, and rhis fact lhuits personal freedom
for ir limits what we 91n choose ro be.n
In contrast ro the living under capitalism, persons living under com-
munism are free not only to do bur also to be what tll y want, because they
have the power to see dearly and change the system th r. shapes d1em.
we read between rhese lines, we can appreciate other of Marxism's
maJOr appeals to Marxis socialist feminists. It pro 'ses to reconstitute
human nature in ways tha J;>reclude all the erni cious di hotomies rhat have
made slaves of some and of orhers. Marxism also 'J(romises to make
106 Chapter 3: Marxist and Socialist Feminism
private property, he insisted that if wives are to e emanci ated from their hus-
bands, women must first become economi ll inde endent of men. He
scresse at t e first presupposition for the mancipation of women is "the
of the enti re female sex into blic industry," and the second is
the socialization of housework and child-rea ng.38 Remarkably, Engels believed
that proletarian women experience less op ession than do bourgeois women.
As he saw it, the bourgeois fami l consists -a relationship between a husband
and a wife in which the husband agrees t support his wife provided that she
promises co remain sexual! faithflll to hi d to reproduce only his legitimate
hei rs. "This marriage of conveni ence," o served Engels, "often enough turns
inco the crassest prostitution-sometimes n both sides, but much more gener-
ally on the parr of the wife, who differs fr rhe ordinary courtesan only in that
she does not hire om rker, on piecework, bur sells it into
slavery once and for all. "39
In contrast ro the bourgeois marri e, the proletarian marriage is not, in
Engels's estimation, a mode of rostit rion because the material conditions
of rhe proletarian famil differ substa iall from those of the bourgeois fam-
ily. Not only is the proletariat's lack rivare ro erty significant in remov-
ing rhe primary male incentive for nogamy-namely, the reproduction of
legitimate heirs for one's property ur the general employment of proletar-
l
ian women as workers outside the orne also leads ro a measure of e uali ty
between husband and wife. T his e ali ty, according ro Engels, provides the
foundation of true "sex-love." In a Clition to these differences, the household
authority of rhe proletarian husb d, unlike that of the bourgeois husband,
is nor likely ro receive the full su orr of the le al establishmenr. For all t hese
reasons, Engels concluded tha ith the exception of "residual brutali ty"
(spouse abuse), all "the materia of male dominance had ceased
to exist" in the
Classical Marxist Feminism: General Reflections
Affi rmi ng the ideas of Marx and Engels, classical Marxist femi nists tried to
use a analysis rather than a gender analysis ro explain women's oppres-
sion. A particularly good example of classical Marxist feminism appeared in
ClassicaL Marxist Feminism: GeneraL Reflections I 07
Evelyn Reed's "Women: Caste, Class, or Oppressed Sex?"41 Stressing that the
same capitalist economic forces and social relations that "brought about the
oppression of one class by another. one race by anorher, and one nation by
another"
42
also brought about the oppression of one sex by another, Reed
resisted the view that women's oppression as women is the worst kind of
oppression for all women. Although Reed agreed that relative to men,
women occupy a subordinate position in a patriarchal or male-dominated
society, she did not think that al l women were eg_ually oppressed by men or
that no women were guilty of oppressing other women. O n the contrary, she
thought bourgeoisie women were capable of oppressing both proletarian
men and women. In a capitalist system, money is most often power.
Not found in Reed is any manifesto urging al l women to band together to
wage a "caste war" against all men.43 Rather, she encourages oppressed women
to join oppressed men in a "cl ass war" against their common capitalist oppres-
sors, female and male. Reed t hought it was misguided to insist that all
'1women, simply by virtue of possessing two X chromosomes, belong to the
same class. On the contrary, she maintained that "women, like men are a muf-
ticfass sex. 'll4 Specifically, proletarian women have li ttle in common with bour-
geoiSie women, who are the economic, social, and poli tical as well as sexual
partners of the bourgeoisie men to whom they are linked. Bourgeoisie women
are not united with proletari an women but with bourgeoisie men "in defense
of private property, profiteering, militarism, racism-and the exploitation of
other women. "45
Clearl y, Reed believed that the primary enemy of at least prolet arian
women is not patriarchy, but first and fo remost, capit alism.
about male-female relations in a postcapitalist society, Reed maintained that
"[f]ar from being eternal, woman's subj ecti on and the bitter hosti lity
between the sexes are no more than a few thousans!_years old. They were pro-
duced by the drastic social changes which brought the family, private prop-
erty, and the state into existence."
4
6 With the end of capitalist male-femal e
relationshi ps, both sexes will thrive in a communist society that enables al l its
members to cooperate with each other in communities of care.
Women's Labor After the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia
During the 1917 Communist Revoluti on and for several years afterward,
Reed's brand of optimism seemed well-founded. Women were invited to enter
the productive workforce to supposedly find in it the beginni ngs of their full
human liberation. With economic independence would come the possibi lity
of women's developing self-confidence and viewing themselves as makers of
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