Revisiting social reproduction theory

Issue: 173

Sheila McGregor

A review of Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon: Work, Power and Political Strategy, Aaron Jaffe (Pluto Press, 2020), £18.99

Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon by Aaron Jaffe is another book in the “Mapping Social Reproduction Theory” series, which is edited by Tithi Bhattacharya.1 The strengths in Jaffe’s account of social reproduction theory (SRT) are threefold: his clarity about the competitive drive for accumulation in all capitalist societies; his critique of “gender essentialism”; and his sensitive critique of intersectionality.2 The weaknesses lie in not using all the tools in the “Marxist toolbox”, particularly in relation to racism and the state.3

Jaffe sees his analysis of SRT as a development of Marxism that can help us provide accurate analyses of the world we live in, develop social criticism and point “towards a socialist horizon of emancipation”.4 SRT is not confined to being a theory about women’s oppression: “‘Social reproduction’ is best understood not as a term singling out some distinct content, but as a framework for investigating and understanding the world, with particular attention paid to the way our embodied labour powers are made and sustained”.5 At the heart of Jaffe’s argument for SRT is the need to oppose a version of Marxism that reduces the analysis of capitalism to looking at the the valorisation process, that is, how surplus value is pumped out of the direct producers:

It is obvious that a value-centred account is limited. In order to provide more specific and grounded accounts of value’s role in particular contexts, we need to study actual social relations, as well as their histories.6

Of course this is true, but it is unclear whether Jaffe thinks Karl Marx himself was lacking or that only some developments of Marxism are. I would argue that Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as some others since, went well beyond a “value-centred account”.7

Jaffe grounds SRT in a development of the concept of labour power taken from Marx: “By ‘labour power’ or ‘capacity for labour’ is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical abilities existing in a human being that he [sic] exercises whenever he produces a use value of any description”.8 As Jaffe points out, this is a broad definition of labour power that goes well beyond “the sale of labour power for the production of surplus value”. Instead, “Labour powers are those capacities that produce everything we find valuable”.9 So human needs and our labour powers or labour capacities are developed or stunted depending on the particular society we live in; they are socially and historically shaped. Central to capitalist exploitation is the difference between those who have to sell their capacity for labour to live and those who buy the capacity for labour.

Analysing the social forces that determine whether and how our labour capacities are nurtured and developed, or stunted and neglected, acts as a way of assessing the nature of different kinds of oppression and the impact of exploitation. It enables a judgement, for example, about the limitations of “actually existing socialism”.10 It also shows how racism, sexism, transphobia and disability oppression hold people back in particular ways. Additionally, this concept of labour capacities points to the ways in which society would have to change for everyone to realise their maximum potential.

Jaffe has a chapter on gender and the body in which he carefully analyses these aspects in Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici and Marxism and the Oppression of Women by Lise Vogel, which is the foundational text for many SRT theorists.11 He shows that Federici takes no account of real historical developments in the emergence of capitalism. The problem, according to Jaffe, is that Federici posits the existence of a pre-capitalist “natural body” that had to be deformed to ensure women became reproducers of labour power. Liberation, for Federici, would mean reverting to that “natural body”. However, this reliance on the idea of a biologically sexed female body makes it difficult to develop a non-binary, trans and lesbian and gay inclusive approach to gender and “overlooks the gendered body as a possible site of self-determination”.12

Lise Vogel’s account of women’s oppression is, according to Jaffe, both “more open” and “more closed” than Federici’s. Vogel analyses the way in which women are constrained historically by capitalist conditions. However, she relies purely on women’s child bearing capacity to explain how women are disadvantaged in the capitalist labour market, locating this as the root cause of women’s oppression. Moreover, Vogel fails to explore “the relation between sex, biology and gender”.13 Jaffe concludes, “Though accurate for many women, rooting gender oppression as a whole in biologically reproductive powers assumes too much about gender, and…risks rendering the category ‘women’ and women’s oppression in a biologically essentialist way”.14

Jaffe’s criticisms are important, so it is disappointing that he fails to point to other accounts of women’s oppression, particularly those that build on Engels’s classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels provides an explanation of women’s oppression with his analysis of the construction of the family as the site of the privatised reproduction of labour power under capitalism. Engels’s analysis, and the research of later theorists based on his insights, has the advantage of locating the reproduction of labour power in relation to the accumulation of capital. Rooted in an analysis of historical developments, these accounts provide powerful tools for understanding how the gender binary is constructed under capitalism and how LGBT+ oppression emerges.15

In his chapter on intersectionality, Jaffe states: “I consider SRT to be best suited to tackling the interwoven nature of oppressions in capitalist societies, because it highlights the central role played by class in these oppressions”.16 He acknowledges the rich roots of theories of intersectionality in black feminism. However, he prefers SRT (quite rightly) over the best of intersectional approaches because it provides an overall framework for situating all oppressions, pointing to the central role of accumulation in the class relations of exploitation.17 SRT answers the “why” question, whereas intersectionality remains at the level of description. Jaffe quotes Marx’s description of historical materialism in his unfinished third volume of Capital in order to reinforce this argument:

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community that grows up out of the production relations themselves, and thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity—that reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence: in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis—the same from the standpoint of its main conditions— from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance due to innumerably different empirical circumstances such as natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences and so on. These can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.18

This does provide the framework, I agree, for developing the social and historical analysis of different kinds of oppression, whether they emerged with capitalism, as with racism and what Jaffe calls “ableism”, or with the rise of class society itself, as with women’s oppression. However, Jaffe says Marx “rejected a unidirectional notion of causality”, yet Marx seems to do the opposite with the parameters he sets out in the above.19 For example, modern capitalist societies can exist with different forms of the nuclear family—heterosexual, homosexual, single parent, married, unmarried—but none of those varying forms undermines the reality of the “privatised reproduction of labour power”. Meanwhile, the intensifying crisis in ageing capitalism has led increasingly to cuts to a vast array of social support systems developed for the reproduction of labour power. Social forms may react back upon economic relations, but economic relations condition and limit these social forms in a much more determinate sense.

So where are the weaknesses in Jaffe’s theorisation of SRT? First, they lie in failing to use more of Marx’s and Engels’s writings on oppression. Jaffe argues that not doing so makes SRT seem less of a threat to Marxists, though he uses some references to help to convince sceptics.20 I think the opposite is the case, and that much is missed by taking this approach; Marx’s and Engels’s writings are replete with discussions about women and children, and the relationship between Irish and English workers.21 They also analyse the impact of colonialism in binding English workers to their ruling class and the importance of slave revolts and the Civil War in the United States.22 Marx’s own articulation of the role of systemic racism and slavery is convincing and powerful: “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”.23 For Marx the self-emancipation of the working class cannot happen without overcoming all manner of divisions.24 Reductive and deterministic strands in Marxism encapsulated by Karl Kautsky’s and Stalin’s interpretations of Marxism should not mask Marx’s own position (nor that of Engels) nor that of the revolutionary socialist tradition.25 It is surely important to reassert, albeit critically, Marx’s own approach.

Second, Jaffe emphasises the role of processes of social reproduction and downplays the role of the ruling class in crafting the mainsprings of oppression.26 The working-class family did not simply emerge from nowhere in the late 19th century—it was actively promoted.27 What is more, governments use legislation to ensure the continuation of the privatised reproduction of labour power, intervening ideologically at different points to argue for the family and “family vaues”.28 This is precisely why the question of abortion is always a key weapon for the right.29

To take another example, racism has taken many different forms in the US and Europe, from the Jim Crow laws in the Reconstruction period after the US Civil War to the rise of antisemitism and immigration controls, the promotion of Islamophobia, and the institutional racism that continues today. These profoundly impact daily life, as demonstrated by the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement after the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. However, all these forms of racism have been consciously developed by the ruling class as strategies to divide workers. Of course, some workers behave in ways that are sexist, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic and so on, and such prejudices have to be challenged. Yet, these views do not arise spontaneously. Workers are not born thinking that way, any more than women are oppressed because of their ability to give birth.

The failure to locate the use of racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of oppression in the conscious strategies of the ruling class is the reverse side of the coin of ignoring the impact of divisions on the working class. The latter approach leads to disregarding the need to combat racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic attitudes. However, focusing only on social reproduction leads to under-theorising the role of the state and politics in the institutionalisation of different kinds of oppression. This can move the focus of socialists away from those responsible for promoting divisive strategies. Donald Trump deliberately helped build the far right during the four years of his presidency; in Britain, Boris Johnson is consciously implementing sexist and racist policies, scapegoating refugees and migrants, and attacking the right of oppressed groups to protest.30 Theoretically, SRT simply does not match up to the actuality of the Black Lives Matter movement that challenged the institutionalised racism of the police and the wider capitalist state.

Jaffe is right to celebrate recent struggles around the world, particularly the re-emergence of the strike weapon. Indeed, he would have strengthened his argument if he had drawn out the significance of mass strikes as what Rosa Luxemburg called the “method of motion of the proletarian mass”, which is fundamental to the Marxist view of the self-emanciaption of the working class. These workers’ struggles, alongside the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the anti-sexist demonstrations after the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in Britain in March 2021 and the global Palestinian solidarity movement of May 2020, demonstrate the potentiality for overcoming divisions and give us a glimpse of what Lenin meant when he called revolution the “festival of the oppressed”. Self-emancipation is about having a vision of a totally different kind of society. However, that society is unachievable without winning robust arguments about the need to overthrow the capitalist state and drawing on strategic approaches from the revolutionary socialist tradition such as the united front method and the building of revolutionary organisation.

Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.


1 Bhattacharya, 2017.

2 For his critique of gender essentialism, see Jaffe, 2020, p60.

3 McGregor, 2018.

4 Jaffe, 2020, pp4-5.

5 Jaffe, 2020, p26.

6 Jaffe, 2020, p20.

7 Jaffe, 2020, p27.

8 Jaffe, 2020, p30.

9 Jaffe, 2020, p30. Jaffe makes a distinction between Marx’s concept of value and the everyday use of valuable things. He is using “valuable” here in the everyday sense.

10 Jaffe, 2020, p51. My article on Soviet women offers an alternative analysis—McGregor, 2021a.

11 Jaffe, 2020, p60.

12 Jaffe, 2020, p63.

13 Jaffe, 2020, p67.

14 Jaffe, 2020, p67. For more discussion on this point, see McGregor, 2018.

15 On Engels, see Harman, 1994; on the family, women’s oppression, and sex and gender roles, see German, 1989, and Orr, 2015; on the roots of trans oppression, see Feinberg, 1997, and Miles, 2020; on lesbian and gay oppression, see Weeks, 1981. This is to name but a tiny number of the accounts of the links between the rise of capitalism and gender oppression.

16 Jaffe, 2020, p72.

17 Jaffe, 2020, p81.

18 Quoted in Jaffe, 2020, p83. The original formulation by Marx can be found at

19 Jaffe, 2020, p84. Indeed, Marx did explicitly write that “exploitation is the foundation of all forms of oppression”—Marx, 1864. For a further discussion of this point, see McGregor, 2018.

20 Jaffe, 2020.

21 Engels had an incipient view about gender roles. For a discussion about Engels’s views on gender, see McGregor, 2021b.

22 For further discussion on this see McGregor, 2018.

23 Marx, Karl, 1867, chapter 10.

24 Marx, 1864. “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” is the first ordinance of the General Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association.

25 See Anderson, 2010.

26 See Jaffe, 2020, pp44, 82, 89, 90.

27 Among many who have written about this subject, see German, 1989, and Brenner, 2000.

28 This does not preclude governments from providing different levels of childcare and implementing other measures to encourage women’s participation in work at key points. This occurred in Britain during the Second World War and in Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1989—see McGregor, 2021a.

29 For an account of the fight for reproductive rights, see Orr, 2017.

30 There is a long list of politicians who are doing the same around the world, including Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India.


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Bhattacharya, Tithi (ed), 2017, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto Press).

Brenner, Johanna, 2000, Women and the Politics of Class (Monthly Review Press).

Feinberg, Leslie, 1997, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Beacon Press).

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Jaffe, Aaron, 2020, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon: Work, Power and Political Strategy (Pluto Press).

Marx, Karl, 1864, “General Rules, October 1864”, written for the International Workingmen’s Association,

Marx, Karl, 1867, Capital, volume one,

McGregor, Sheila, 2018, “Social Reproduction Theory: Back to (which) Marx?”, International Socialism 160 (autumn),

McGregor, Sheila, 2021a, “Sexism, Socialism and the State: Women in the Eastern Bloc”, International Socialism 170 (spring),

McGregor, Sheila, 2021b, “Engels on Women, the Family, Class and Gender”, Human Geography, volume 14, issue 2.

Miles, Laura, 2020, Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight For Trans Liberation (Bookmarks).

Orr, Judith, 2015, Marxism and Women’s Liberation (Bookmarks).

Orr, Judith, 2017, Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights (Policy Press).

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