How Marx and Engels fought for women’s liberation

Issue: 166

Judy Cox

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were champions of women’s liberation, both in theory and in practice, in public and in private.1 Important work has already been published exploring both Marx’s and Engels’s writings about women and the family, and developing their theoretical framework into a more systematic understanding of women’s oppression.2 This article will add to that body of work by exploring Marx’s and Engels’s practice—how they lived and how they organised. As August Nimtz has written, there is an enormous edifice of misrepresentation of Marx’s and Engels’s views on women but, “never is there any effort to look at their practice”.3 This article is a step towards redressing that balance.

Throughout their lives, Marx and Engels were active alongside women and men in building opposition to emerging capitalism. In the 1830s, while Marx and Engels were beginning their revolutionary careers, women participated in utopian socialist organisations while raising their own demands for equality.4 In the 1840s in Britain, women organised, rioted, marched and went on strike in the mass campaign for the six-point People’s Charter. In 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe, and women not only built barricades and took up arms against kings and empires, but they also created their own organisations to demand their rights. During the Paris Commune of 1871, women created their own organisations and fought to the death to defend the short-lived workers’ government in the city. In 1860s Britain, female Irish republicans supported militant action against British domination. Marx and Engels interacted with female activists from these struggles. Women influenced the development of Marxism, just as Marxism influenced some of the most dedicated socialist women.

Today Marx and Engels stand accused of preaching emancipation in public, while acting like typical Victorian male chauvinists in private. One biographer of Marx writes, “for all his mockery of bourgeois morals and manners, Marx was at heart a supremely bourgeois patriarch”.5 Former New Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt asserts, “purposeful, intelligent women who were neither pretty nor named Marx were the subject of instinctive misogynistic abuse by Engels”.6 In response, it can be tempting to excuse the great men of the past their prejudices. Every historical period has its own ways of expressing ideas in language that is itself shaped and reshaped by political struggle. But in every period, there are those who reinforce the bigotry and reaction perpetrated by the ruling class and those who oppose them. In private correspondence, both Marx and Engels made derogatory comments about women and their appearance, particularly about women they saw as political opponents. But in their daily lives and in their political organisations, Marx and Engels broke radically from the dominant ideas about women, which left middle-class women stifled and frustrated by their circumscribed lives, while enabling the ruthless, multifaceted exploitation of working women.

There were those in the international socialist movement who combined criticism of capitalism with reactionary ideas about women. Leading French anarchist and revolutionary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon fiercely opposed the idea that women should look beyond their domestic duties and engage with politics, viciously mocking women who aspired to participate in public life. Marx associated with Proudhon when he lived in Paris in the 1840s, but broke with him and fiercely opposed him theoretically and practically. In relation to women, Marx placed himself firmly in an alternative French socialist tradition—that of the utopian socialists who believed that the family was not women’s natural sphere but rather the source of women’s oppression. In The Holy Family, Marx quoted utopian socialist and feminist Charles Fourier: “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom… The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation”.7 Marx, Engels and their circle did not just lay the theoretical basis for understanding women’s oppression; they also built organisations that demonstrated how women could win their liberation.

At home with Marx and Engels

Biographers of Marx and Engels tend to reinforce the very sexist stereotypes that they claim to expose when they describe the women in their lives through clichés and stereotypes. Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, was not a ­downtrodden, neglected housewife, although she did have to cope with political persecution, the death of four children and grinding poverty. Her letters show how she juggled her young family with her political commitment, a frustrating situation familiar to many socialist women. Jenny wrote from Paris during the revolution of February 1848 that she would like to say more about the “interesting goings-on, which grow livelier by the minute (some 400,000 workers are now meeting outside the Hôtel de Ville [town hall]) but I have a house, a home and three little mites”.8 On two occasions politics entered Jenny’s home in dramatic style, enabling her to be at the centre of events. In 1850 a show trial of revolutionaries in Cologne following the 1848 insurgency attracted huge public attention. Jenny described how the whole household was turned into a massive organisation for the defence:

A whole office has been established in our flat. Two or three write, others run errands, and still others scrape the pennies together to make it possible for the writers to continue their existence and furnish proof against the old official world of the most unprecedented outrage. In between, my three gleeful children sing and whistle and often get a good scolding from their papa. What a hubbub!9

A similar household mobilisation occurred in the summer of 1871, when thousands of refugees from the defeated Paris Commune flocked to London. Jenny played a key role in mobilising the Marx household to provide practical support for the refugees. There was always at least one Communard staying with the Marxes, as well as a stream of others knocking on the door. Some 22 years earlier, Jenny herself had arrived in London as a penniless refugee, and, following the brutal repression of the Commune, she extended what help she could to the Communards.10

When possible, Jenny attended political events, sometimes taking her children with her, and her letters are always concerned with political debates, strikes, socialist congresses and new radical movements. In a letter from 1866, she described taking her children to an evening of lectures by secular free-thinkers at London’s St Martin’s Hall, which was “full to bursting”.11 In 1872, the whole Marx family, including Marx’s daughters and their lovers, along with Engels, travelled to a congress of the First International held in The Hague. Jenny was so absorbed in the proceedings that one delegate came away believing that it was Jenny who had lured Marx into radical politics in the first place.12

Jenny was also engaged with the theoretical aspects of Marx’s work. She advised one correspondent who was struggling with the dialectical subtleties of Capital to “read those chapters on the primitive accumulation of capital and the modern theory of colonialism first… It is no small matter to bring the astounded philistine to the giddy heights of the following problems by means of statistical data and dialectical reasoning”.13 The publication of Capital was no small matter for Jenny herself, as she copied out the original German manuscript by hand, deciphering Marx’s terrible handwriting.14 Throughout their lives, Jenny and Karl Marx were both emotional and political partners.

Marx has been accused of acting like a Victorian patriarch towards his daughters. One frequently quoted example is Marx’s hostility to Eleanor’s first serious lover, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, a charismatic socialist who had defended the Paris Commune on the barricades then fled, finding refuge in the Marx home. The middle Marx sister, Laura, was the first of the siblings to get engaged to a radical French student activist, Paul Lafargue, in 1866. Marx was not keen on the relationship, writing to Lafargue:

You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. On the contrary. Had I my career to start again I should do the same. But I would not marry. As far as lies in my power I intend to save my daughter from the reefs upon which her mother’s life had been wrecked.15

Marx’s power was evidently limited as both he and Engels were witnesses at Laura and Paul’s registry office wedding in April 1868. The oldest sister, Jenny, known as Jennychen, became engaged to Charles Longuet, another refugee from the Paris Commune, in March 1872. Both Jenny and Karl Marx thought Longuet lazy and feckless but Jennychen got her way and married him in October. Their marriage was delayed out of respect for the death of Laura’s last surviving child. She buried all her three children by the age of 26, a tragedy suggesting Marx’s concerns were grounded in concern for his daughters rather than assertions of patriarchal control.

Some biographers have viewed Marx’s opposition to Eleanor’s engagement to Lissagaray as a selfish possessiveness, describing him as a “loving paternal tyrant”.16 However, there are many other explanations for Marx’s hostility. Lissa, as Eleanor called him, was another impoverished activist and was also involved in a bitter feud with Laura and Paul Lafargue. Eleanor was 17 when she met him, and he was 34. During these years, Eleanor suffered from repeated mental health issues and Marx took her travelling to restore her health. When an amnesty for the Communards was granted in 1880, Lissagaray returned to Paris and his relationship with Eleanor drew to a close.

Marx was aware of the relationship between mental health and the family from early in his career. In 1846 he reviewed a French study of female suicides, exploring how concepts of virtue and “paternal authority” circumscribed women’s lives. Referring to the French Revolution of 1789, he wrote, “the revolution has not overthrown all tyrannies; the evils which were charged against despotic power continue to exist in the family; here they are the cause of crises analogous to those of revolutions”.17 Understanding the perpetuation of domestic tyranny did not mean that Karl, Jenny or their daughters could escape it. It was a tragic irony that Eleanor committed suicide aged 42 and Laura and her husband Paul committed suicide when Laura was 66.

The demand for better education for women was a consistent theme in 19th century radical thought. Marx’s daughters were encouraged to study subjects considered unsuitable for women, such as history and politics, and Marx often took them to the reading rooms of the British Library, where few women ventured. They were also encouraged to take part in the political discussions that were at the centre of the Marx home. They grew up to be among the leading socialists of their day. Jennychen could claim to be the only Marx who directly influenced government policy. In a series of articles for a French republican paper, The Marseillaise, Jenny Marx wrote about the arrest, imprisonment and torture of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and other Irish Republican campaigners by Gladstone’s Liberal government. During his election campaign, Gladstone had promised an amnesty for the Irish prisoners and within weeks of Jenny’s articles, Rossa and the others were freed.

Laura and Paul Lafargue were both active in the French socialist movement and she contributed to European socialist magazines. A letter from Engels to Laura written during the London Dock Strike of 1889, demonstrates how closely Laura was following developments in the strike movement.18 In 1904, Paul Lafargue published a pamphlet, The Woman Question, in which he analysed the contradiction between women entering the workforce and domestic ideology: “As capitalism has not snatched woman from the domestic hearth and launched into social production to emancipate her, but to exploit her more ferociously than man, so it has been careful not to overthrow the economic, legal political and moral barriers which had been raised to seclude her in the marital dwelling”.19 The couple were held in great esteem by the international socialist movement and Lenin gave their funeral ­oration in 1911.

Eleanor Marx, known as Tussy, was an extraordinarily effective political activist among the exploited workers of the East End of London and the ablest woman trade union organiser of “new unionism”.20 In 1891, Engels wrote to Laura Lafargue that Tussy had the “reputation of being the leader of the Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers”.21 Tussy instigated discussions on the British and the international socialist movement’s attitude to women’s liberation and mingled with leading campaigners. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, sister of suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, was Tussy’s doctor and a regular visitor to the Marx home.22

One incident encapsulates Karl and Jenny Marx’s relationship with their daughters. When the Paris Commune erupted, Jennychen and 16-year-old Eleanor insisted on visiting their ailing sister Laura, who had just had a baby and was living in Bordeaux. The authorities were arresting all those who sympathised with the Communards and moved to arrest Laura’s husband, but the couple escaped to Spain. Jennychen and Eleanor were arrested while Jennychen was carrying a letter from leading Communard and family friend Gustave Flourens. If discovered, the letter would have led to the women being transported to a penal colony, but Jennychen managed to hide it in an old book in the police office.23 After many telegrams were dispatched, the young women were finally released.

Critics of Marx often point to his relationship with Helen Demuth as proof of his exploitative attitude to women. In 1851, while Jenny was visiting her mother in Germany, Marx and Helen slept together; she became pregnant and Engels pretended that the child was his. Considering this incident, biographer Rachel Holmes rejects the clichés of the abused, loyal servant and looks at how “bread, revolution and the universal politics of housework converged” in Demuth’s “extraordinary life and personality”.24 A friend of the Marx family recalled that Helen “reserved to herself the right of speaking her mind, even to the august doctor [Marx]. Her mind was respectfully, even meekly received by all the family”.25 Demuth was Marx’s political confidante and Engels recalled that Marx took advice from her “not only in difficult and intricate party matters, but even in respect of his economical writings”.26 She helped Engels to edit Marx’s work and he paid this tribute to her: “As for me, what work I have been able to do since the death of Marx has been largely due to the sunshine and support of her presence in the house”.27

Engels is often portrayed as a womaniser who abused his power to exploit women. Biographer Terrell Carver writes, “in love, Engels does not seem to have gone in search of his intellectual equal”.28 Hunt informs us that Engels coerced two working-class women, Mary and Lizzie Burns, into a sexual relationship: “Engels had once condemned the tendency of mill owners to take advantage of female hands; here, he did just that”.29 The portrayal of the Burns sisters as passive victims of Engels’s lusts and his intellectual inferiors reveals more about the lazy assumptions of the biographers than about the formidable sisters. Engels’s relationship with Mary Burns lasted for 20 years and her influence over Engels and communism has been badly underestimated.30 The Burns sisters had a huge impact on Engels when he was sent to Manchester in December 1842 by his wealthy, conservative family. The sisters were the daughters of Irish immigrants who lived in Manchester’s most overcrowded slums. Engels may have met Mary at Manchester’s Owenite Hall of Science, so it is possible that she was already a radical.31 Without the Burns sisters as guides, it is unlikely that Engels would have been able to spend two years becoming personally acquainted with the “joys, sorrows and strivings of the working class”, as he wrote in his famous study The Condition of the English Working Class in England, which has a chapter devoted to Irish immigrant life in Manchester.32 The book was first published in 1844 in Germany where it had a huge impact on socialist feminists such as Louise Otto, who used it as the basis for her novel Castle and Factory.33

When Engels travelled to Brussels in August 1845, Mary Burns went with him and the couple moved in next door to the Marx family. After defending the barricades in Germany’s revolution of 1848, Engels returned to Manchester in 1850 and tried to live secretly with Mary and Lizzie. In May 1854 he complained to Marx, “the philistines have got to know that I am living with Mary”, so he felt obliged to move out. Some of the more respectable rebels felt it was “over-confident” of Engels to allow Mary to attend workers’ meetings, as it could open them up to accusations of immorality.34 However, unlike the philistines, many radical friends accepted that they lived as man and wife outside marriage, which was not unusual among the working class of the time. For instance, Chartist leader George Julian Harney wrote to Engels in 1846, finishing his letter, “love to Mrs Engels”. In 1856, the couple travelled around Ireland, witnessing the horrific aftermath of the great potato famine. Mary died in 1863, aged just 42, and Engels and Lizzie then became lovers. Lafargue wrote that Lizzie was in “continual touch with the many Irishmen in Manchester and always well informed of their conspiracies”.35 In 1870, Engels and Lizzie moved to London where they lived close to the Marx’s home. These two households were dominated by politics and culture—and powerful, articulate women.

1848: women on the barricades

The 1848 revolutions prompted an explosion of women’s activism, and of socialist and feminist ideas. Some leading German revolutionary women were part of Marx and Engels’s circle. Matilde Anneke was 19 years old when her bankrupt father married her off to a wealthy merchant who was an abusive drunk. She fought for six years to obtain a divorce and in June 1847 married a socialist, Fritz Anneke. In Cologne the couple became activists in radical circles. Mathilde was the only female member of a political club led by Marx, who was then writing for a radical newspaper in the city.36 Marx’s paper reported Fritz’s arrest for sedition. While Fritz was in prison, Mathilde gave birth to a son, but continued to edit the revolutionary paper they produced. To accommodate both her baby and her paper, Mathilde replaced the furniture and carpets in her parlour with a printing press.37 When the paper was shut down, Mathilde launched one of the first German women’s newspapers which aimed to win women to the revolutionary cause.38 In the spring of 1849, Mathilde and Fritz fought together against invading troops during the Baden insurgency. When the revolt was defeated, they fled to the United States where Mathilde became a celebrated orator and edited a socialist paper for German-speaking women.

Another woman in Marx’s circle was Jewish socialist Emma Siegmund. The French Revolution of 1830 inspired the teenage Emma, who wrote:

I read about French revolutionary history and was seized by a volcanic passion—but how might it be if the time came when everyone was taught such a level of empowerment that people saw one another only as brothers, where only merit mattered, to the point where kings were no longer needed?39

In 1842 she met the radical poet Georg Herwegh, who was in the process of being deported. She travelled to Zurich and married him with Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist, as best man. The couple settled in Paris and became close friends with Jenny and Karl Marx. Another German socialist refugee, Arnold Ruge, proposed that his family, the Herweghs and the Marxes should live communally together. Emma declined but the Marxes did give it a go—although it did not last for long. The Herweghs remained close friends of the Marxes while they lived in Paris. Emma ran a political salon which attracted many leading radicals of the day including Victor Hugo, Ivan Turgenev, Franz Liszt and Georges Sand. When news of the German Revolution of 1848 reached Paris, the Herweghs organised a band of armed radicals to march to Baden and Emma went with them. As the revolt was crushed, the Herweghs escaped and made it back to Paris with their four children.

Engels and the Marx family were also forced to leave Germany, settling permanently in England where they mixed in circles where women’s oppression was widely discussed. In the early 1840s, Engels had contributed several articles for the Owenite paper The New Moral World, which also gave a platform to ­anti-capitalist feminists such as Anna Wheeler and Emma Martin. Marx and Engels were in contact with radicals and feminists who gathered at the Unitarian South Place Chapel, including Sophia Dobson Collet, her Chartist brother Collet Dobson Collet and his feminist daughter Clara.40

Marx and Engels became friends with many leading Chartists, including Helen MacFarlane, who they both deeply admired.41 In December 1850 Jenny sent six copies of Marx’s newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, to Engels, asking him to forward a copy to MacFarlane.42 Although the paper had closed down the year before, back copies would have been of interest to those attempting to make sense of the defeat of the revolutions. MacFarlane had witnessed the revolution in Vienna in October 1848 and concluded, “men are determined to live no longer in lies. And how do men come to perceive that the old social forms are worn out and useless? By the advent of a new Idea”.43 MacFarlane went on to popularise that new idea when she wrote the English translation of The Communist Manifesto for the Chartist Red Republican magazine in November 1850. In the same year, Austrian General Julius Jacob von Haynau, infamous for crushing the Hungarian Revolution and having female insurgents publicly stripped and whipped, visited London. A crowd of men and women met the general at the Barclays and Perkins brewery on London’s South Bank. They tried to drown him in a vat of beer before chasing him down Borough High Street chanting, “Down with the Austrian Butcher.” MacFarlane wrote a defence of the workers: “Some of the Austro-Russian press gang have expressed their surprise that low people, like drayman, coalheavers, and so forth, should understand anything about continental affairs… Yet they are men, and thinking men too. I honour them and congratulate them from the bottom of my heart”.44

The women who built the First International

The female activism Marx and Engels witnessed in the 1840s and 1850s prompted them to involve women in the organisations they built. When the First International was launched at London’s St Martin’s Hall in 1864, many French socialists and British trade unionists opposed women becoming members. In contrast, Marx encouraged Lizzie Burns to join and wrote to other women encouraging them to join independently of husbands.45 Marx bragged about the election of free-thinker Harriet Law to the organisation’s General Council.46 He supported Harriet’s proposal to transfer the church’s property to state-run schools47 and began addressing his speeches to working women as well as men.48 Marx wrote jokingly to an unresponsive comrade, “Mrs Goegg has sent an epistle to the Brussels Congress, asking whether the ladies might join us. The answer, of course, was a courteous affirmative. Should you, therefore, continue in your silence, I shall send your wife credentials as correspondent of the General Council”.49

The Industrial Revolution had created the conditions in which women and children could perform tasks previously reserved for better-paid, male workers. Many in the working-class movement argued that wages could only be maintained by the exclusion of women from the workforce. Only the most audacious argued that wage levels could also be protected by winning equal pay for women. In 1866, Marx opposed a resolution in favour of banning women from paid employment. Four years later, Marx wrote:

Great progress was evident in the last Congress of the American labour union in that, among other things, it treated working women with complete equality. While in this respect the English and still more the gallant French, are burdened with a spirit of narrow-mindedness. Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the “fair sex” (the ugly ones included).50

Given the context, Marx’s comment is unlikely to be an example of casual sexism and is far more likely to be a sarcastic comment on the deeply sexist idea of a “fair sex”.

Thanks to the efforts of Marx and his supporters, the First International attracted some of the most militant women of the time. Seamstress and socialist Jeanne Deroin was one of the great figures of the 1848 French Revolution. She organised working-class women to demand political and social rights for women and to produce and sell The Voice of Women on the streets of Paris. When Deroin became the first woman to stand for the French legislature in April 1849, the French socialist Proudhon joked that a female legislator made as much sense as a male wet nurse. Deroin responded by demanding to know exactly which male organ Proudhon thought essential for the function of legislator.51 After the defeat of the revolution, Deroin and her comrade Pauline Roland were imprisoned. From their cell, they wrote to the American Women’s Rights Convention of 1851:

Sisters of America! Your socialist sisters of France are united with you in the vindication of the right of woman to civil and political equality. We have, moreover, the profound conviction that only by the power of association based on solidarity—by the union of the working classes of both sexes to organise labour—can be acquired, completely and particularly, the civil and political equality of woman, and the social right of all.52

Pauline Roland was transported to Algeria. She was released after two years but died on her way to be reunited with her children. Deroin was released in August 1852 and sought refuge in London. We know she joined the First International because a meeting of the General Council on 3 October 1865 heard a letter from Deroin, most likely reminding the Council of its commitments to gender equality.53 Later she was elected to membership of the Socialist League on 2 August 1886, organising alongside Eleanor Marx and William Morris.

In 1866 a small group of women, including veterans of 1848, organised a socialist feminist association in Paris. The group included the teacher Louise Michel, Paule Mink, a seamstress of Polish descent, and André Léo, a novelist. Both Mink and Léo joined the First International. Another recruit was militant bookbinder and strike leader Natalie Lemel. The women of the International played a key role in ensuring women’s demands were at the heart of the working class democracy that emerged during the Paris Commune. When the French government tried to disarm the citizens of Paris, they rose in revolt and for two months, “across the city, insurgent women enacted, inspired, theorised and led the revolution”.54 Women, babies in arms, flocked to the numerous political clubs which sprang up across the city.

A prominent figure in the political clubs was Russian socialist Elisabeth Dmitrieff. Dmitrieff had spent three months in London, having intense discussions with the Marx family. Marx appointed the then 21-year-old Dmitrieff as the International’s official envoy to Paris, a trust she repaid by becoming one of the Commune’s most effective leaders. In Paris, Elisabeth met another Russian socialist, Anna Jaclard, a leading member of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee that campaigned for women’s rights. When the Commune issued an appeal for aid, Jaclard’s Committee proclaimed: “The women of Montmartre, inspired by the revolutionary spirit, wish to attest by their actions to their devotion to the revolution”.55 Jaclard also founded a socialist newspaper and corresponded regularly with Marx.56 Dimitrieff, Lemel, Léo and Mink established the Union of Women which aimed to build support for the Commune among working women and supported those wounded in street fighting. The Union also campaigned for equal pay, for education for girls, for women’s right to divorce and their right to work. It developed democratic structures and every member had to join the First International. In its short life, the Commune did not grant women the vote—in fact French women did not get the vote until 1945—but radical socialist women sat on the Commune’s committee on women’s rights.

When the Commune came under military attack from the national government, Lemel issued this address: “We have come to the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty! All women to arms! All women to duty!” Dmitrieff, Lemel, Michel and many other women stayed on the barricades for days as the city was bombarded. Some 25,000 children, women and men were shot in Paris. Jaclard and her husband were captured but managed to escape to London where they found refuge with Marx’s family. Lemel was transported to New Caledonia. Dimtrieff escaped to Russia and disappeared.

Lissagaray wrote a history of the Commune, translated by Eleanor Marx and published while they were in a relationship in 1876. In his book, he paid tribute to the activities of Léo and her “eloquent pen”, Michel, who “embodied the proletarian character of the revolution”, and Dmitrieff, whose role echoed that of the women in the 1789 French Revolution. These women, he wrote, formed a central committee and issued “fiery proclamations”, which he quoted: “We must conquer or die. You who say, ‘What matters the triumph of the cause if I must lose those I love?’ know that the only way of saving those who are dear to you is to throw yourselves into the struggle”.57

Marx drew organisational conclusions from the female Communards’ militant actions. At the 1871 Congress of the International, he moved a resolution calling for the formation of working women’s branches which could reach out to working-class women, although he stressed that he did not want the new proposals to interfere “with the existing or formation of branches composed of both sexes”.58 In 1880 Marx wrote an introduction to the programme of a new French socialist party, which stated, “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.59 Marx and Engels ensured that the most militant women could find a political home in the First International and other socialist parties and these women demonstrated the value of women’s activism within the great insurgency of the Paris Commune.

Women organise for equality and socialism

The First International collapsed after the Commune and was replaced in 1889 by the Second International. It was Marxists who most consistently argued for the parties that joined the Second International to agitate for equal rights for women. The founding congress of the Second International, held in Paris, passed this declaration: “Congress declares it is the duty of male workers to admit female workers as equal in their ranks on the basis of the principle of ‘equal work, equal pay’ for workers of both sexes without discrimination of nationality.” In 1891, the Second International mandated member parties to advocate the equality of women.60

Engels and August Bebel, leading figures within the International, encouraged the development of the biggest mass socialist women’s movement in Europe. The Women’s Section of the International, based in Germany, organised its own conferences, campaigned for the vote and established the celebration of International Women’s Day.61 Clara Zetkin was the leader of the International Women’s Section from 1907, editing the newspaper Equality, which was aimed at working-class women and reached a circulation of 70,000 by 1906.62 Many women involved in the Women’s Section went on to play important roles in opposing the First World War and supporting the revolutionary wave which brought that war to an end.

Engels understood the importance of encouraging young women to be confident socialist organisers. Adelheid Popp grew up in great poverty and worked as a seamstress and a factory worker before joining the Austrian Social Democratic Party in 1889.63 She became the party’s first female lecturer and the editor of the party’s influential socialist women’s newspaper.64 In her autobiography, Popp recalls that she was a teenager living with a disapproving mother when she first met Engels:

As then only a few women were working for the party, and the leaders considered the help of women useful, Friedrich Engels interested himself in my development. He, with August Bebel, came to me in my modest suburban home. They wanted to make the old lady understand that she ought to be proud of her daughter. But my mother, who could neither read or write, and who had never understood anything of politics, could not understand the good intentions of the two leaders. Both were famous throughout Europe, their revolutionary speeches had aroused the authorities all over the world; but they met the poor old woman without making any impression on her, she did not even know their names.65

Adelheid’s mother was desperate for her to bring home an eligible young man and was distinctly unimpressed by the visit of two venerable socialists.

Theories of emancipation

Women’s autobiographies show that many came to socialism through reading Marxist accounts of women’s oppression. The first texts to put forward a Marxist explanation of women’s oppression were August Bebel’s Women and Socialism, published in 1879 (republished as Women in the Past, Present and Future in 1883 due to censorship), and Friedrich Engel’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884.

Like many socialists and feminists of the time, Bebel argued that men and women had essentially different natures but that they should have equal rights and freedom. He wrote that, “the Socialist Party is the only party that has made the full equality of women, their liberation from every form of dependence and oppression, an integral part of its progress; not for reasons of propaganda, but from necessity. For their can be no liberation of mankind without social independence and equality of the sexes [italics in the original]”.66

Women and Socialism went through 53 German print editions, was translated into 20 languages and sold around 200,000 copies despite state censorship.67 Records from workers’ libraries show that it was one of the most frequently borrowed books.68 Ottilie Baader was a working-class German woman who rebelled against the social and familial constraints imposed on women. At 13 she had to find work as a seamstress and wrote of her frustration with women’s subordinate role. Her autobiography describes the dramatic effect Bebel’s book had on her:

Life’s bitter needs, overwork and bourgeois family morality had destroyed all joy in me. I lived resigned and without hope. News came of a wonderful book that Bebel had written. Although I was not a Social Democrat, I had friends who belonged to the party. Through them I got the precious work. I read it all night through. Neither in the family nor in public life had I ever heard of all the pain the woman must endure. Bebel’s book courageously broke with the old secretiveness. I read the book not once but ten times. Because everything was so new, it took considerable effort to come to grips with Bebel’s views. I had to break with so many things that I had previously regarded as correct.69

After Marx died, Engels built on his work to develop a materialist understanding of the family, published as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. In this pioneering work, Engels disproved the idea that the family was natural and unchanging, and showed that the oppression of women was not inevitable. The key factor in how societies were organised, Engels wrote, was the production and reproduction of life. He defied prescriptive ideas about sexuality by insisting that the women and men of the future would create their own attitudes to sexuality. The book went through three German editions and was translated into six European languages.70 Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling wrote a pamphlet, The Woman Question, to defend and popularise Engels’s work. In this pamphlet they compare the situation of women in relation with men to that of the working class in relation to the bourgeoisie, a formulation which expresses unqualified support for the struggle of all women against all expressions of male domination.

Engels’s correspondence shows that he took women seriously as writers and activists. In 1885, Engels corresponded with German socialist feminist Gertrude Guillaume-Schack, who wanted to know if the programme of the French Workers Party, which demanded equal pay for women, was written by him and Marx. Engels responded, “equal wages for equal work to either sex are, until abolished in general, demanded, as far as I know, by all socialists.” He argued about revolutionary strategy with a member of the first generation of Russian revolutionaries, Vera Zasulich, and discussed her translations of his own and Marx’s writings. Engels wrote, “it will be a great day for Marx’s daughters and for me when the Russian version of The Poverty of Philosophy comes out”, emphasising how all of Marx’s daughters were involved in disseminating his ideas.71

Engels discussed literary criticism with the German novelist Minna Kautsky, the mother of the socialist Karl Kautsky, and he debated social realism with the British novelist and socialist Margaret Harkness, who sent Engels a copy of her novel A City Girl for comment. Engels also corresponded with Florence Kelley, a US political reformer who campaigned for the eight-hour day and children’s rights. Their letters discussed a US edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, which Kelley translated, along with other political issues. These lengthy, respectful and serious letters were not written by a man who disliked women who were intelligent but not pretty.

Women, work and emancipation

The concrete experiences of working-class women and men constituted a vital element of Marx and Engels’s theoretical insights. Britain in the 1830s and 1840s experienced unprecedented levels of industrialisation, which spread out from the Lancashire cotton industry to transform methods of production across the country. Most women had worked in the past, running family businesses and farms and producing commodities within their homes, but the industrial revolution transformed women’s work. A huge, impersonal market created rapacious but insecure demand for commodities, and large numbers of women became subject to the brutal discipline of factory production with disastrous consequences for their health and that of their children. The employers exploited pre-existing attitudes to women workers as less valuable than men to replace male workers in mechanised industries, devalue wage rates and create divisions within the workforce. Marx wrote of “workmen” but included women in this term, for example in this passage: “The technical subordination of the workman to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour, and the peculiar composition of the body of workpeople, consisting as it does of individuals of both sexes and of all ages, give rise to a barrack discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory”.72

In Capital, Marx describes the catastrophic effect machinery had on the clothing trade, where the “revolutionary” sewing machine attacked the numberless branches of dressmakers, milliners, glovemakers and tailors, and “the cheapness of the human sweat and the human blood, were converted into commodities”.73 Women and children were subject to poisonous substances in printworks known as “slaughter houses” and in the tile industry. Marx called the sorting of rags, “one of the most shameful, the most dirty, and the worst paid kinds of labour, and one on which women and young girls are employed”.74 Women garment workers were dependent on the unpredictable rhythms of the London “season”. They were overworked to the point of death when demand was high. Marx quoted newspaper reports of the death of Mary Anne Walkey, a 20-year-old milliner, from overwork. When demand slumped, these workers were thrown into destitution. Some 150,000 women and children were employed in making lace. They usually started work at the age of six and when demand was brisk, they worked from 6am or 7am until 10pm, 11pm or midnight in horribly overcrowded workrooms.75 These workers were the young, female, zero-hours contract workers of their day.

The contradictory nature of capitalism meant that employers recreated old forms of patriarchal control to facilitate new methods of production. The introduction of machinery meant that labour power became cheaper and one man’s wage could not support a family. The whole family had to work to survive. Marx noted that the capitalist bought the labour power of children, who were treated almost like slaves: “Previously the worker sold his own labour power, now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer”.76 Marx categorically condemned the way employers enabled working-class men to exercise power over their families.

Some feminist critics have argued that while Marxism can explain exploitation in the workplace, it cannot account for the oppression women suffer in the family. What Marx and Engels actually describe is the way in which capitalist relations of production transform every aspect of life. In Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class his understanding of and compassion for working women is evident throughout. He describes how mothers had to leave their young babies with their siblings from 5am until 8pm and work all day with milk pouring from painful breasts.77 He describes the sexual harassment of women who were threatened with dismissal by bosses who let nothing “interfere with exercise of their vested rights”.78

Traditional family roles were reversed as women found employment in factories while their husbands were thrown out of work. For Engels, this development revealed that women’s oppression was a product of society, not of nature:

We must admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can come to pass only because the sexes have been placed in a false position from the beginning. If the reign of the wife over the husband, as inevitably brought about by the factory system is inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the wife must have been inhuman too.79

Engels did not seek a return to the male-dominated family, but rather the abolition of the family altogether.

With no welfare state or education system, the large-scale employment of women outside the home appeared to be incompatible with the existence of the private family unit. Many commentators were horrified by the disintegration of the family, which they saw as a microcosm of the state, with man exercising proper authority over his wife and children. Marx and Engels belonged to a radical socialist tradition which located the family as the cause of women’s oppression, and the source of male tyranny over women. Utopian socialists devoted enormous efforts to create collective alternatives to the family in their communities. By the 1840s, almost all the utopian communities established in England, France and the US had collapsed, leaving socialists with two main options: either they fought for women to work on an equal basis to men, or they campaigned for the family wage and the retreat of women back into the home. Marxists chose the former, but they understood the apparent dissolution of the family as a contradictory process.

Women endured horrifying conditions in the workplace and Marx was appalled by “the enormous mortality rates suffered by the children of the operatives”.80 But Marx and Engels also saw the entry of women into the labour force as the means by which they could emancipate themselves. Marx wrote:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes.81

Given the horrors of working life for women and children, why were Marx and Engels so convinced that work was the key to women’s emancipation? This was not just a question of ending women’s dependence on men, although that was a consideration. Where women worked together, they developed their own culture, of socialising, drinking and engaging in political debates, much to the disgust of Victorian social commentators. More importantly, where women worked, they organised collectively, sometimes with men and sometimes independently.

This focus on the workplace did not mean that Marx and Engels ignored the potential of community mobilisation. In 1855, Marx declared that the revolution had begun when huge riots in London erupted in protest at a new Sunday Trading Law that aimed to close shops and pubs on Sundays and so deprive workers of their only chance to buy fresh food and drink. Marx describes how “zealous Chartists, both men and women, ploughed their way through the throng, distributing leaflets”.82 But it was work-based struggles that provided the most sustained opportunities to overcome deep-seated prejudices about women.

The relationship between gender and the working-class movement in the 1830s and 1840s was contested at the time and has been contested by historians ever since.83 There were many strikes demanding the exclusion of women workers from particular trades and women’s labour was systematically devalued.84 However, there were also examples of solidarity between men and women, including the creation of joint unions. In the General National Consolidated Trade Union, which was established in 1834, men and women organised together in ways not equalled until the 20th century.85

The engine of the working class movement in Marx and Engels’s day was found in the Lancashire cotton industry, which was notable for the large number of women employed on equal terms with men (both being paid the same piece-rate for the job). Most women spent a lifetime in the mills and were active participants in union organisation and strikes.86 Women played a full part in radical movements from Peterloo (1819), to the 1832 Reform Act and Chartism, where they were prominent in the strike wave that swept across Lancashire in 1842. Women also took part in the Preston Lock Out (1853-4). Marx acknowledged their role when he wrote, “the last eight months have seen a strange spectacle in the town—a standing army of 14,000 men and women subsidised by the trades unions and workshops of all parts of the United Kingdom, to fight out a grand social battle for mastery with the capitalists, and the capitalists of Preston, on their side, held up by the capitalists of Lancashire”.87 The cotton workers generally supported the North in the American Civil War, despite a huge campaign of support for the South and the great hardship that the blockade of the South by the North inflicted on them in what became known as the “cotton famine”.88 Marx wrote that it was the heroic resistance of the working class to the criminal folly of the ruling classes that prevented England joining an “infamous crusade” for the perpetuation of slavery. Women were active in this campaign and were present at the huge working-class meetings held to support the North.89 Women in Lancashire were prominent in the socialist revival of the 1880s and the suffragist movement of the early 20th century.90 Women’s position as workers meant they were able to embrace collective organisation in the interests of their class and their gender.91

Criticisms and Conclusions

Marx and Engels established a distinct approach to women’s oppression which has generated both criticism and an important body of work in the same tradition, and which is continuing to evolve.92

A recent essay by Tithi Bhattacharya critiques Marx, Bebel and Engels for locating the roots of women’s oppression in their exclusion from paid employment and their resulting dependence on men. Bhattacharya argues that this analysis led to the mistaken conclusion that the family could not survive women’s entry into the workforce and she points out that women have always worked outside the family without achieving liberation. She adds that the “dependency” explanation places the family as externally related to social production and effected by social production rather than being a co-constituent of that social production.93 It is undeniable that the family has proved to be more enduring than Marx and Engels anticipated. When capitalism stabilised during the long economic boom of the 1860s, and working-class revolt subsided, the working-class family re-emerged as the only available way to ensure the care of children. In response, Marx turned to researching the historical development of the family, a task completed by Engels after Marx’s death. In The Family, Private Property and State, Engels reiterated Marx’s argument that women could only achieve equality when “both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society”.94 The root to emancipation lay in women working because, Engels believed, this would lead to the end of the privatised family. On this question he was wrong, but he was right to argue that social production and the creation of alternatives to the family was the only possible root to women’s liberation.

There are many collective struggles that can strike a blow against capitalism, and women have always played a full part in rent strikes, land occupations, riots and community mobilisations. But relationships in the workplace depend most consistently on collective organisation. It is through collective struggle that women and men can challenge the backward and divisive ideas they have accepted for years and become aware of their own power to remake the system. To strike is to challenge the conditions of exploitation but also carries the potential to replace competition, prejudice and bigotry with solidarity.

The exploitative relationship between capital and labour is born in the workplace but does not confine itself to the world of work. The economic structures of capitalism create alienation which shapes every aspect of life, the workplace and the home, the public and the private. The capitalist mode of production has taken over every individual, family and social need and subordinated them to the generation of profit. Challenging exploitation can create the basis for establishing the collective workers’ organisation that could provide the basis of a new, higher form of democracy and for replacing alienation with the conscious, collective control of relationships with nature and with each other.

Perhaps the most important vindication of Marx and Engels’s argument is provided by the enormous achievements of the only successful workers’ revolution in history, which took place in Russia in 1917. Despite the most difficult conditions, the revolutionary government devoted precious resources to creating collective canteens, nurseries and launderettes, in order to liberate women from the family and enable them to play a full role in public life. As Russian Revolutionary Inessa Armand wrote in 1919: “All the interests of women workers, all the conditions for their emancipation are inseparably connected to the victory of the proletariat, are unthinkable without it. But this victory is unthinkable without their participation, without their struggle”.95

Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019).


1 Thanks to Rob Hoveman, Jan Nielsen and Joseph Choonara for comments on this article.

2 Brown, 2012; Brenner, 2000; Vogel, 2013; Battarcharya, 2017.

3 Nimtz, 2000, p340.

4 Utopian socialist movements, inspired by thinkers such as Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen, constituted an important socialist current prior to the emergence of Marxism. They envisaged a socialist society, often developed in elaborate detail, counterposed to the horrors of existing class society.

5 Wheen, 2010, p74.

6 Hunt, 2009a, p302.

7 Marx, 1975a, pp258-59.

8 Marx, 1982, p539.

9 Marx, 1971, p28.

10 Gabriel, 2011, p426.

11 Marx, 1985, p390.

12 Gabriel, 2011, p443.

13 Marx, 1982, p439.

14 Archey, 2016.

15 Holmes, 2014, p84.

16 Holmes, 2014, p118.

17 Marx, 1975b, p6.

18 Engels, 2001a, p106.

19 Lafargue, 1907, p135.

20 Draper, 1970. New unionism was a militant movement of previously unorganised workers, including those deemed unskilled.

21 Engels, 2001a, p106.

22 Holmes, 2014, p119.

23 Holmes, 2014, p106.

24 Holmes, 2014, p28.

25 Comyn, 1922, p166.

26 Engels, 1990a, p529.

27 Engels, 1990a, p529.

28 Dash, 2013.

29 Hunt, 2009b.

30 Dash, 2013.

31 Dash, 2013. The followers of Owen believed in cooperation rather than competition and established their own halls in which to hold meetings.

32 Engels, 1987, p123.

33 Diethe, 1998, p141.

34 Hunt, 2009a, pp130-131.

35 Dash, 2013.

36 Gabriel, 2011, p139

37 Piepke, 2006, p18.

38 Piepke, 2006, p19.

39 Krausnick, 1998, p8. The term “brothers” was used generally to denote men and women before the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s.

40 Holmes, 2014, p132.

41 Black, 2014, preface, pi.

42 Marx, 1982, p562.

43 Black, 2014, p4.

44 MacFarlane, “The Morning Post and the Woman Flogger”, in Black (ed), 2014, p81.

45 Marx, 1987a, p65 and Marx, 1987b, p89.

46 Marx, 1988a, p184.

47 General Council, 1964, pp145-6.

48 Nimtz, 2000, p200.

49 Marx, 1988b, p130.

50 Marx, 1988a, p184.

51 Scott, 1996, p78.

52 The whole speech is available at “Letter from Imprisoned French Feminists”, Ernestine Rose Society,

53 Kunka, 2016.

54 Eichener, 2004, p25.

55 Eichener, 2004, p114.

56 Eichener, 2004, p114.

57 Lissagaray, 1976, p169.

58 Nimtz, 2000, pp199-202.

59 Marx, 1992, p376.

60 Boxer and Quataert, 1978, p2.

61 Boxer and Quataert, 1978, p3.

62 Evans, 1987, pp15-37.

63 Popp, 1912, p46.

64 Popp, 1912, p8.

65 Popp, 1912, p122.

66 Bebel, 1910, p7.

67 Lopes and Roth, 2000, p29.

68 Vaquas, 2019.

69 Gleichheit, 14 February 1910, quoted in Boxer and Quataert, 1978, p120.

70 See Tatiana Andrushchenko’s prefatory note to Engels, 1990b, p640.

71 Engels, 1995, p111.

72 Marx, 1996, pp426-427.

73 Marx, 1996, p310.

74 Marx, 1996, pp466-7.

75 Marx, 1996, pp470-2.

76 Marx, 1996, p339.

77 Engels, 1987, p166.

78 Engels, 1987, p170.

79 Engels, 1987, p168.

80 Marx, 1996, p401.

81 Marx quoted in Brown, 2012, p95.

82 Marx, 1980a.

83 See for example, Honeyman, 2000; Rose, 1992; Clark, 1997; Valenze, 1995.

84 Clark, 1997, pp197-219.

85 Chase, 2012, p123.

86 Schwarzkopf, 2003, chapter six, pp174-220.

87 Marx, 1980b.

88 Heartfield, 2013, pp19-21.

89 See, for example, London Daily News, 20 February 1863, p6.

90 Liddington and Norris,1978.

91 Schwarzkopf, 2003, p28.

92 See for example, Harman, 1994; Leacock, 1981; Smith, 1997.

93 Bhattacharya, 2020.

94 Engels, 1990b, pp137-138.

95 Clements, 1997, Bolshevik Women, pp209-210.


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