Marx rediscovered

Issue: 146

Sheila McGregor

A review of Heather A Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study (Brill, 2012/Haymarket, 2013), £85.29/£19.99


Heather Brown has written an important study of Marx’s writings on women’s oppression.1 She situates her book in the current economic and political context, noting the role that women play both in the world economy and in recent tumultuous struggles such as the Occupy movement and, not least, in the revolutions in the Middle East beginning in 2011. In addition, the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in Marxism and the relevance of Marx to the question of gender and women’s oppression. Brown rightly argues that this calls for a reassessment of the value of Marx’s writings, particularly in the light of the failure of past socialist feminists successfully to “integrate Marx’s economics and his methodology into feminist theory”,2 and the domination over the last two decades of poststructuralism and theories of difference, that “have been unable to create an anti-capitalist feminism, due to their almost singular focus on the—­admittedly important—areas of culture, ideology and localised resistance”.3 While Marx did not “develop a systematic theory of gender, it was for him, nonetheless, an essential ­category for ­understanding the division of labour, production, and society in general”.4 Brown concludes from her studies that although some of Marx’s writings “carry the limitations of 19th-century thought”,5 “Marx gave important indications towards a theory of gender and society”6 and that Marx implies that “a classless society cannot be created and maintained so long as familial and gender oppression exists”.7

The study is a welcome reassertion of the “intellectual power and vitality”8 of Marx’s ideas in developing an understanding of exploitation and oppression. Laura Miles’s article “Transgender Oppression and Resistance”, in this journal, is a recent illustration of how a Marxist approach can be used to analyse a form of oppression that did not figure as an issue in the society of Marx’s time.9

Brown analyses Marx’s views on nature, the family and society and reviews what he says about women in his writings on political economy. In addition Brown presents material that illustrates Marx’s sensitivity to the oppression of bourgeois women in the family and wider society, and his support for women in leadership roles in the First International as well as for specific women’s demands both in the unions and the Paris Commune. Brown clearly wants to put Marx “back on the map” and persuade a new audience, particularly of women engaged in fighting oppression today, of the need to look again at Marx and his method of analysing the world.

Although much of the time she faithfully presents Marx’s views, Brown is inconsistent in applying them herself. Some of her interpretations of Marx are shaped by a series of influences which lead her to present some of his views in contradictory ways. This is particuarly true of the relationship between oppression and class; it flows from her concern to use her analysis to reinforce the currently widely accepted view of “intersectionality”, which treats class on an equal basis to other factors shaping people’s lives alongside race and sexuality, among others.10 Hence, in her conclusion, Brown writes: “There are a number of areas in which Marx’s theory of society provides the possibility of incorporating feminist insights into Marxism to establish a unitary theory of gender and class-oppression, which does not fundamentally privilege either”.11

Her view that Soviet Russia, China and the Eastern European countries prior to 1989 were in some sense socialist societies, but where women continued to be oppressed, means that she does not see socialist revolution or the working class as central to overcoming women’s oppression. This no doubt reinforces her view that patriarchy (which she doesn’t define) exists under capitalism.12 She paraphrases arguments developed by Raya Dunayevskaya that “the political and economic revolution of the proletariat would not be enough. Social relations would also have to undergo significant change, and women as women would have to play an important role in creating a new society”.13 This reinforces Brown’s unwillingness to argue consistently that although women’s oppression affects women of all classes in all class societies, women experience their oppression differently according to their class and that this shapes the way women respond to social and class issues.

It is also perhaps why, in her introduction, betraying a remarkably superficial approach to the leading role played by women, particularly in key strikes and the independent unions in Egypt, Brown casts doubt on whether the Egyptian Revolution was a step forward for women. Their impact cannot simply be measured by official positions in government: “Recently, Egyptian women were very actively involved in the revolution to overthrow Mubarak. However, once he was ousted, women’s role was not rewarded by access to high-level government positions. Instead, women make up less of the current cabinet than under Mubarak”.14

More fundamentally, Brown also appears to adopt wholesale Dunayevskaya’s criticisms of Frederick Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.15 Finally, occasionally, Brown attributes ideas to Marx which he did not hold but which bear out her political viewpoint.

In this review I will mention briefly what Brown has to say about Marx as journalist and political activist but I have chosen to focus on what Brown says about nature and gender, capitalism and reproduction, and on the way Brown counterposes Engels to Marx, in particular Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks.16

Human nature and alienation

Human nature is a hotly contested subject for socialists, as one “common sense” argument against the possibility of creating an egalitarian society is rooted in an essentialising view that sees human nature as inborn and unchanging with men being born with one kind of nature and women with another. Women, as the biological reproducers of human beings, can be seen as being closer to nature, a view that can be apprised both negatively and positively.17 Brown, concerned to develop a “unitary” theory of women and gender, quite rightly wants to refute any kind of dualist account of nature and nurture. She makes five important points about Marx’s views to show how they can form the basis for analysing gender.

First, she shows how Marx saw human beings as a distinct, conscious part of nature, who live in a dialectical relationship with the rest of nature. In other words, human beings need to “act” on nature by breathing, eating and the like to survive and, in the process, human beings change their own nature and external nature. For example, a hunter-gatherer society living directly from nature by gathering plants and fruits and hunting animals clearly has an impact on its environment by removing elements from it. In addition, the process of developing tools with which to gather and hunt and the cooperation required to undertake activities to ensure the group’s survival change the human beings involved in those activities, in turn stimulating the development of physical, technical and mental skills.18

Secondly, Brown points out that: “for Marx, there is no essential human nature. Instead, there are only ‘historically specific forms of human nature, that is human nature specific to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism, and so on’. Thus for Marx, human natures can and do change over time”.19

Thirdly, Brown discusses Marx’s concept of alienation, by which he means the way in which in capitalist society the lives of human beings are distorted because workers don’t have control over what is produced, how it is produced or what happens to the products of their labour:

In addition to alienating the labourer from the product of her labour, capitalist alienation produces other more general effects. The worker is alienated from other people as well. This is the case because “when man confronts himself he also confronts other men. What is true of man’s relationship to his work, to the product of his work and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, to their labour and to the objects of their labour”. Therefore alienation exists not just in the workplace, but extends to all social relations. This is especially important to understanding gender-relations.20

The concept of alienation is, for example, an indispensable tool for capturing the impact of the commodification of sexuality in today’s world, whether in rape, child abuse or packaged as advertising, page three of The Sun or explicitly as pornography.21

Fourthly, Brown cites the passage from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in which Marx argues that the measure of human development of a society is the relationship of man to woman:

The relation of man [Mann] to woman [Weib] is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It indicates, therefore how far man’s [Mensch] natural behaviour has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him.22

Finally, she argues that Marx held the same views about the ­relationship between human beings and nature from his early writings in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts through to his mature writings in Capital.

So Brown shows the basis in Marx for developing a theory of gender which would involve showing how men and women are shaped by class society and the roles they play within it; that men’s and women’s gender roles necessarily change from one society to another and from one historical period to another. She also shows that Marx was not essentialising women’s nature quite simply because he did not essentialise human nature in general. Unfortunately she infers, without any evidence, that in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “Marx appears to argue that women’s oppression may be even more fundamental than that of class”.23

Equally, Brown implies, following Dunayevskaya, that Marx did not see women as part of the historical subject for bringing about change, when she argues that it took feminists developing their own movement for liberation before women were seen as a historical subject: “Thus, Marx saw the need for an end to women’s oppression in order to create a new society, but only further historical development could illustrate that women could be subjects in their own right”.24 Here Brown does Marx a disservice by not referring to The German Ideology, for example, where Marx and Engels, writing about revolution, talk about “a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution”.25 Furthermore, they argue that the working class needs to change:

The alteration of people [Menschen] on a mass scale is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.26

There is not the slightest indication in the German text that Marx and Engels were only talking about the male section of the working class. Equally, both were only too well aware from their own observations that, in the mid-19th century, workers were men, women and children. Later in the book Brown herself deals with Marx’s writings about the role of women in the Paris Commune.

Marx, Capital and women

A common objection to Marx is that he is obsessed with the analysis of production which, the argument runs, necessarily relegates the role women have traditionally played in the family, or the reproductive or private sphere, to a lesser status. This in turn leads to the charge that Marx was economistic because he was only concerned with workers and the ­workplace. This view also fed into “dual systems” theories which sought to explain the productive sphere through Marx and reproduction or the private sphere through “patriarchy”. Instead Brown argues that, for Marx, since there is no capital without labour (the two are dialectically related), and as labour is the source of surplus value, the worker has to reproduce herself individually and generationally. Brown argues that Marx “notes the way in which reproduction, both physically and socially, is a necessary feature of the capitalist accumulation-process”27 and that includes reproducing the next generation of workers.

Reproduction is not just a physical or biological question, since how men and women live depends on the specific social context. Here Brown not only explicitly argues that Marx understood that the working class had to reproduce itself and that was crucial to the capitalist mode of production, but also says that “no real understanding of social relationships in the family involving human reproduction could be understood outside of its placement within the capitalist mode of production”.28 Furthermore, she states that “Marx clearly sees production as a primary determinant of the structure of the family and society as a whole”,29 even though she immediately qualifies this: Marx “is only speaking of the capitalist mode of production, in which society has largely ceded its control of social relations to the dictates of the market”.30

Given that Brown herself argues that Marx’s discussions of reproduction in Capital merit a “close reading”,31 it is a pity that she does not quote those passages from Capital that show quite clearly that the reproduction of the working class was not only central to Marx’s analysis but that he had a more complex view of what it entailed than he is usually given credit for. This is a view that constantly recurs as an aspect of his analysis of commodity production. For example:

If the owner of labour power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a labouring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing, vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element.32

Slightly further on in the same discussion about the value of labour-power, Marx talks about how “the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, ie his children”,33 and he refers explicitly to the costs of education which have to be taken into account where special training is required.34

Marx may not have described in detail how workers reproduced themselves but the above provides a clear indication of what he thinks it involves, that it takes place outside the sphere of production, and that the reproduction of the worker also involves consuming commodities. Marx notes elsewhere: “Domestic work, such as sewing and mending, must be replaced by the purchase of ready-made articles”.35 This opens up the perspective for further investigation into how work in the household can be transformed through the use of labour-saving devices such as washing machines and the like.36

Furthermore, from Marx’s discussion of the length of the working day, it is clear that under capitalism the sphere of reproduction is subordinated to the sphere of production. In the drive to accumulate and increase the surplus value extracted from each worker, capital constantly seeks to extend the working day,37 while the worker wants to limit it. So Marx concludes: Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, ie the class of capitalists, and collective labour, ie the working class”.38

This surely goes to the heart of the argument against patriarchy as a necessary concept for explaining women’s oppression in capitalist society. Workers need to live and reproduce themselves individually and as a class. This takes place outside the sphere of production in the sphere of reproduction, which is, however, dominated by the needs of capital. What therefore needs to be explained is how inequality arises in the family, the sphere of reproduction, and how the family is shaped by capitalism. Brown herself thinks that Lise Vogel’s concept of social reproduction “is better able to account for the interaction between the two spheres” of production and reproduction:

In this theoretical formulation, women have a very different position to men because of their unique role in social reproduction due to child-bearing and child-rearing activities. While this is somewhat biologically conditioned, these women’s roles are also socially conditioned by a contradiction present in all class-societies: the contradiction between exploitation of the current labour-force and reproduction of the next generation. Because of women’s biological role in reproduction, they tend to be less efficient workers and thus tend to stay in the domestic realm.39

The use of the word “efficient” is unfortunate as pregnancy is no longer a permanent feature of women’s lives affecting how they work. The development of machinery has long made redundant the argument that there are jobs women are unable to do. It is also not true that working class women, either in Marx’s time or today, stay in the domestic sphere. What is true is that the fact of child bearing has led, in the context of capitalist relations of production, to women being allocated the burden of child rearing and homemaking in the family. This is the key to understanding the oppression of women and the fact that the majority of women do a double shift at work and at home and that the majority of part-time workers are women with young children. This is not something Marx develops in Capital but Brown makes the obvious, but nevertheless important, point that in this work “Marx was primarily interested in understanding and transforming the specifically-capitalist social system in which he lived”.40

Brown counters a criticism of Marx’s discussion of “productive” as opposed to “unproductive” labour by pointing out that Marx used the term “productive” in a specific way. Marx was referring to whether an activity was productive of surplus value from the point of view of capital and not in the general sense of whether it is useful or not. The work done in the family is both useful and essential but is not a source of surplus value, in the same way as cooking a meal for a friend is useful but not productive of surplus value. It is not a moral evaluation of the worth of one kind of work as opposed to another.41

In Capital Marx notes how all members of the family—men, women and children—are drawn into the new factory system. Machinery, which could be “the most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation”.42 Brown rightly points to Marx’s observation that “compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children’s play, but also of independent labour at home, within customary limits, for the family itself”.43 Although Brown does not appear to see the way in which capital reaches into the heart of the working class family and restructures it she does point to an important insight by Marx:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large-scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes.44

It is worth developing the point that Marx was making about “assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside of the domestic, to women, young persons and children of both sexes”.45 Here he is talking about transforming relations between the sexes and the generations. Being part of the working class puts all workers in the position of being able to participate as a class in the transformation of society, of being the subject of history and getting rid of “the muck of ages”. Women workers played a central role in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and there are constant reminders of the role women workers play today, from the Mahalla women who started the Egyptian textile workers’ strikes in 2006 through to predominantly women public sector workers in Britain. There can be very few major working class struggles anywhere in the world that do not involve women workers as part of them.46

Being at work does not, of course, automatically bring equality but it does change women’s lives and has had enormous repercussions by giving women a degree of economic independence, which has fed through into reshaping gender and the family.47 In 2013 I wrote about Britain: “Women’s status as workers continues to underpin many of the advances that have been made… Today men and women who enter relationships with one another can get married, cohabit, remarry, cohabit with someone different in either heterosexual or same sex relationships or stay single”.48 The full potentiality of the kind of transformation Marx is pointing to remains to be fulfilled, but he was right (as was Engels) to insist on the social weight women gain as workers, which gives them the confidence to challenge gender stereotypes.49

Overall, Brown gives a good guide to Marx’s analysis of the reproduction of the working class in Capital and deals with many misconceptions. This makes it even more baffling when she says Marx’s “discussion of capitalist reproduction and consumption could offer a starting point, albeit in a very undeveloped form, for understanding the specifically capitalist nature of patriarchy”.50 The concept “patriarchy” conjures up a dual systems approach to women’s oppression, which Brown herself says she wants to avoid. Developing a Marxist analysis of how the working class reproduces itself should surely involve dispensing with terms used by those who do not believe Marxism can be used to analyse women’s oppression. Brown’s own reading of Capital certainly points to the conclusion that that is possible, even if she herself does not let go of the concept of “patriarchy”.

Similarly, it is annoying when Brown gives ground to arguments about Marx’s “moralistic interventions”51 coming from Claudia Leeb, who goes as far as to accuse Marx of “fear of women who threaten the stability of male/female opposition”.52 Leeb’s article “Marx and the Gendered Structure of Capitalism” is a highly tendentious analysis of some of Marx’s work, the main thrust of which is that Marx reproduced and reinforced prejudices about working class women and failed to understand patriarchy.53 Marx’s writing, at times, does bear the hallmarks of someone who lived in Victorian society and he did sometimes use language in a way unthinkable today. Against that, Marx painstakingly documented and denounced the horrific conditions in the factories, the mines and industrial areas and the impact this was having on the working class and on women and children in particular. He was also angry about the “intellectual degeneration artificially produced by transforming immature human beings into mere machines for the production of surplus-value”.54 Above all, he quite unequivocally opposed women’s oppression, had a vision of a society based on the equality of all and fully supported working class women fighting for change. This is clear from Brown’s discussion of the Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune

When the Paris Commune was set up in April 1871, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, a friend of Marx, was sent as the representative of the First International and became an important figure, helping to create the women’s organisation of the French section of the International.55 The experience of the Paris Commune was crucial for both Marx and Engels in leading them to conclude that workers could not simply take over the capitalist state, and showing, in practice, the kinds of measures needed to create a democratic state as a basis for the working class “to work out their own emancipation”.56 Although working class women did not get the vote in the Paris Commune, they were actively involved and a whole series of measures enacted by the Commune did improve their circumstances. Brown points out that once the wealthy women had left the city, “the real women of Paris’ came to the fore, “heroic, noble, and devoted like the women of antiquity. Working, thinking, bleeding Paris—almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the cannibals at its gates—radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative”.57

When it came to the brutal suppression of the Commune by French government forces from Versailles, the women in the Commune, known as the Incendiaries, fought to the end in defence of the Commune, while bourgeois women re-entering Paris with the army were among some of the most vicious against the Communards, illustrating the way in which class shapes women’s behaviour as well as men’s. Unfortunately, this latter point is not made by Brown. Where conservative critics saw women’s behaviour in particular as offending civilised norms, Marx delivered a robust defence of the Commune including the role of the women, pointing out: “The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives at the barricades and on the places of execution”.58

Women’s oppression may arise out of class society, but all women are shaped by both their oppression and their class. Marx took up the cause of a ruling class woman, Lady Rosina Bulwer Lytton, the wife of a Tory politician, who left him on account of his infidelity. Lady Bulwer Lytton set about disrupting her husband’s political career.59 Her efforts were rewarded by her being declared insane and placed in an asylum. Marx attacked the press for failing to campaign against such an injustice and for the ease with which someone could be declared insane, noting how sending someone to an asylum could render them insane regardless of whether they were treated harshly or “kindly”. Perhaps even more importantly, Marx argued that Lady Bulwer Lytton’s behaviour had been quite rational.60

Marx and his followers integrated the question of women into the revolutionary programme of the Parti ouvrier français, the first part of which was written by Marx and the second co-authored with Jules Guesde, with assistance from Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue and Engels. The preamble starts with an unambiguous statement: “That the emancipation of the class of producers is that of all human beings without distinction of sex and race”.61 Brown points out that the political section explicitly calls for the removal of all the articles of the Napoleonic Code “establishing the inferiority of the worker in relation to the boss, and of woman in relation to man”. In addition, while all the other demands such as for a six-day week and eight-hour day, would have an impact on women, some demands refer to women explicitly such as “Equal pay for equal work, for workers of both sexes”.62

Surprisingly, Brown misses the importance of the sixth demand, ­“Scientific and professional instruction for all children, with their maintenance the responsibility of society, represented by the state and the Commune”. In addition, the seventh demand for “Responsibility of society for the old and the disabled” would have lifted (and would still lift) a huge burden from working class families, particularly working class women. The implementations of the sixth and seventh demands both show an insight into the question of the socialisation of the family and by implication the burden being borne in the privatised family. Unaccountably, Brown intimates that possibly Marx (and presumably his followers) were including demands in relation to women partly to keep out the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon whose attitude to women was profoundly sexist.63

Marx and Engels

Brown’s views about Engels are the weakest part of her book. In a comparison of The Communist Manifesto and Engels’s text The Principles of Communism, which both he and Marx used as a basis of writing The Communist Manifesto, Brown takes issue with Engels’s views on how the family would change. In The Principles of Communism, Engels writes:

It will make the relations between the sexes a purely private affair, which concerns only the two persons involved; a relationship which is in no way the concern of society. This attitude is made possible because private property will have been abolished and the children will be educated communally. The two foundation stones of hitherto existing marriage, the dependence based on private property, of the wife upon the husband and the children upon the parents, will thus have been abolished.64

Brown interprets this as follows:

The argument is problematic for at least two reasons. First, while Engels is correct to point out that economic dependence is an important variable for understanding the position of women in society, it is not the only factor. Patriarchy can exist without private property. This is evident in working-class families which have little property, and was even the case in societies with state ownership of the means of production such as the Soviet Union and China, as well as earlier societies such as ancient Greece and Rome where private property was not yet fully developed and yet women were certainly oppressed by men.65

Marx once famously wrote that: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Brown reveals here just that nightmare of the heritage of a range of ideas which reduced the question of socialism to a matter of property relations and therefore characterised the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe pre-1989, Cuba and China as workers’ states. As Nicola Ginsburgh writes: “Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism allowed the International Socialist tradition to explain quite simply how women’s oppression could exist in socialist countries: it doesn’t”.66 Why not? because those countries were not socialist. In the Soviet Union the state came to embody the capitalist class and exploited the working class, hence the existence of working class families that played the same role as in other capitalist societies. Furthermore, in other societies designated socialist, there had been no socialist revolution in which the working class had taken power.

Brown is making the mistake of not looking at the real relationship of workers to the means of production in such societies. Embedded in the very Programme of the Parti ouvrier français Brown refers to above, are the statements: “That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production” and “that this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class—or ­proletariat—organised in a distinct political party”.67 Hence when Engels and Marx refer to private property it is crucial to look at the class relations being referred to. The other point to note is that the concept of “­patriarchy” again appears without any explanation.

Brown criticises Engels’s view that relations between the sexes would become “a purely private affair”. Brown turns the words “private affair” into “private sphere” and then argues: “The relationship between husband and wife would remain in the private sphere. This could mean that women would remain in the home, or if the society was run more communally, a few women would remain to do the housework”.68 She then counterposes Marx’s sophisticated understanding of oppression to that of Engels who only sees “economic factors”.69 There are a whole series of non sequiturs, starting with the assumption that Engels meant “sphere”, not “affair”. In fact the idea of Engels’s that Brown criticises recurs in The Origin in one of the most powerful passages he wrote, which illustrates Engels’s sensitivity to women’s oppression and leaves no doubt that Brown is wrong in her interpretation:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men and women who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover for the fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.70

Engels was not only acutely sensitive to the dynamics of personal relations he was equally observant of the impact of factory production on men and women and the changes to gender roles. His book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844 (when Engels was 24), is full of examples of how men’s and women’s roles were often inverted, leading him, thinking dialectically, to the following conclusions:

We must admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can have 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.71

Brown has a section comparing Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State with Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, which contain (among other notes) Marx’s extensive notes from Ancient Society – a book by Lewis Henry Morgan published in London in 1877. Engels wrote The Origin after Marx’s death, to counter August Bebel’s view in Woman: Past, Present and Future of the origins of women’s oppression: “It was doubtless a scarcity of women, or admiration of one particular woman, that first roused in him the desire for permanent possession. Male egotism awoke. One man took possession of a woman with or without the consent of the other men, who then followed his example”.72 This leaves the reader with no other explanation for women’s oppression than male desire. The Origin provides a way out of this human nature trap, hence its importance.73

Brown’s objections to The Origin echo those of Raya Dunayevska,74 in particular that Engels’s text differs from Marx’s notebooks and that Marx “showed that the elements of oppression in general, and of women in particular, arose from within primitive communism”75 and that Marx never used the phrase (used by Engels) “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”.76 Brown also thinks Engels has an idealised view of pre-class society.77

In answer to the first point, to write The Origin Engels used Marx’s notes “in so far as they apply to the theme”, as well as his own reading of Morgan and his knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome, the Celts and the Germans.78 Engels’s intense awareness of the need to keep abreast of developments in anthropology and archaeology is apparent from his preface to the Fourth Edition.79 No Marxist today would take either The Origin or Marx’s Notebooks and use the data in them to explain the origins of women’s oppression. There is so much more evidence from anthropology and archaeology and much that is outdated in both texts. Brown herself, however, does not believe that there is sufficient evidence to validate Engels’s proposition that there was a period when the family and oppression did not exist.80 For Marxists today, the question of whether there was a period in our prehistory without women’s oppression is crucial, not whether Marx thought that at the time nor whether he did or did not use a particular phrase.

What Engels was concerned to show was that his and Marx’s approach to understanding history was applicable to prehistory, in other words a) that relations between human beings can best be understood by looking at how humans interact with nature in order to live and b) that changes in how human beings interact with nature to live (the forces of production) lead to changes in relations of production. On that basis, it is possible to trace the three main phases in human development that Engels took from Morgan: “savagery” or what we call hunter-gatherer societies, “barbarism” or horticulture and then fully fledged agriculture, which gives rise to urban society. Engels was also concerned to illustrate the way in which the family was not a static institution but was constantly subject to change as society itself changed.81 Only in the first phase, hunter-gatherer societies, is it possible to say, based on relatively recent observations and historical records,82 that they were egalitarian, there were no class divisions and there was no family as children were cared for by the band. Neither was there a “public power” standing over the band, ie there was no state. The sexual division of labour in such bands did not entail any inequality between men and women.

The material about hunter-gatherer societies was not available to either Marx or Engels. Morgan’s writings are about horticultural societies, so Engels had to make conjectures about hunter-gather societies83 and in substance he was correct to posit an egalitarian stage in the evolution of men and women.84 Interestingly, Engels adds a footnote in Capital, Volume One, which indicates Marx had also changed his views:

Subsequent and very thorough investigations into the primitive condition of man led the author to the conclusion that it was not the family that originally developed into the tribe, but that, on the contrary, the tribe was the primitive and spontaneously developed form of human association based on consanguinity, and that out of the first incipient loosening of the tribal bonds, the many and various forms of the family were afterwards developed.85

Furthermore, Engels as a dialectical thinker saw the way in which small changes in the forces of production over time could lead to the undermining of the egalitarian networks of clan organisation in ­horticultural societies leading to the emergence of classes:

However, within this structure of society dominated by ties of lineage [what we would call clans] the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of using the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on lineage groups is broken up.86

Engels goes on to talk about the way in which family organisation is then completely dominated by class society, with a state and the emergence of class struggles.87 This does not preclude the fact that there could well have been resistance along the way to the development of a fully-fledged class society.88 However, if Brown does not think the evidence about hunter-gatherer society that validates Morgan’s and Engels’s phases of the evolution of human society is sufficiently robust, then, of course, she will not agree about the significance of the emergence of class society, the monogamous family and the state, and hence why Engels quite rightly saw the complete collapse of clan relationships as such a defeat for women. Unfortunately, such a conclusion leaves Marxists without any explanation for the origins of women’s oppression.


Marx on Gender and the Family is a frustrating book to read because Brown sets out with the best of intentions to lay the basis for using Marx’s work to understand women’s oppression today but continually prevaricates. Sadly, her own views about patriarchy, the role of class and Engels hold her back from being consistent in her interpretation of Marx’s views. She shows how human nature is socially and historically formed but does not link that to Engels’s insights about the impact of factory life on gender roles to show how a concrete analysis of society can explain how men and women change their behaviour. Equally, Brown fails to link the question of human nature to how Marx and Engels argued that men and women workers can, and must, change through struggle if they are successfully to create a different society. Again Brown explains that the reproduction of labour power is central to Marx’s analysis of the mode of production, but does not pull together all his insights to show how they can form the basis for an analysis of the family today and women’s role within it; she hesitates between her insight that for Marx the mode of production shaped the sphere of reproduction and her belief that gender and class have equal status. The dismissal of Engels’s views on the origins of women’s oppression leaves a big hole for anyone who believes that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can lay the basis for socialising the functions of the family and ending the oppression of women. Brown does take the reader through readings of Marx, and hopefully that will stimulate a much wider interest in Marx’s original writings because there is much to be discovered in his work that can inform and enrich our understanding of women’s oppression.


1: Brown, 2013. Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Sally Campbell, Judith Orr and Camilla Royle for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. Rosie Nünning’s contribution to the discussion about the theory of social reproduction at Marxism 2014 was also extremely useful.

2: Brown, 2013, p2.

3: Brown, 2013, pp2-3.

4: Brown, 2013, p3.

5: Brown, 2013, p220.

6: Brown, 2013, p4.

7: Brown, 2013, p43.

8: Brown, 2013, p4.

9: Miles, 2014. It is worth noting that Brown makes no reference to the analysis of women’s oppression and the family developed by Lindsey German, Chris Harman and Tony Cliff in the 1980s in this journal, which I would argue does integrate an understanding of women’s oppression and class. She also makes no reference to Hal Draper’s 1970 article, “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation”, in International Socialism, which covers much of the same ground as she does. Brown does list Judith Orr’s 2010 article, “Marxism and Feminism Today”, in the bibliography but does not appear to take any insights from it.

10: The weaknesses in the analysis of oppression based on intersectionality were dealt with in Choonara and Prasad, 2014.

11: Brown, 2013, p219.

12: Brown, 2013, pp219-220.

13: Brown, 2013, p8. Dunayevskaya’s formulation about a “political and economic revolution of the proletariat” is an incorrect formulation, as the working class could not overthrow the rule of capital without simultaneously changing social relations. It is somewhat ironic that Dunayevskaya, unlike Brown, had a state capitalist analysis of Soviet Russia.

14: Brown, 2013, p2.

15: Brown, 2013, pp9-10.

16: Marx, 1881.

17: The development of radical feminism in the late 1970s and 1980s was very much predicated on a “positive” essentialising view of the superiority of women because they were seen as closer to nature.

18: A point made by Engels in 1876—see “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”.

19: Brown, 2013, p23.

20: Brown, 2013, p27. “Mensch” has been mistranslated as “man”. In German “Mensch” means person/human being and is ungendered, a point Brown makes in a footnote on p28.

21: This was my experience when writing the article “Rape, Pornography and Capitalism”—McGregor, 1989.

22: Marx, 1977, quoted in Brown, 2013, p29.

23: Brown, 2013, p8.

24: Brown, 2013, p32.

25: Marx and Engels, 1976, p60.

26: Marx and Engels, 1976, p60.

27: Brown, 2013, p73.

28: Brown, 2013, p74.

29: Brown, 2013, p74.

30: Brown, 2013, p74.

31: Brown, 2013, p70.

32: Marx, 1976, p275.

33: Marx, 1976, p275.

34: Marx, 1976, p276.

35: Marx, 1976, p518.

36: Marx notes that “articles of one kind must be bought or paid for every other day, others every week, others every quarter and so on”—Marx, 1976, p276.

37: Marx, 1976, p342.

38: Marx, 1976, p344.

39: Brown, 2013, pp69-70. See Ginsburgh, 2014, for a review of Vogel, 2013 [1983].

40: Brown, 2013, p75.

41: Brown, 2013, pp76-77. Brown quotes the explanation given by Rosa Luxemburg of why housework is therefore not productive (p77). This is different from the view put forward by Lindsey German, who argues that it is indirectly productive of surplus value: see Ginsburgh, 2014, p131.

42: Marx, 1976, quoted in Brown, 2013, p81.

43: Marx, 1976, quoted in Brown, 2013, p82.

44: Marx, 1976, pp620-621.

45: Marx, 1976, p620.

46: The recent struggle of the Marikana miners in South Africa is an exception, although their wives did play an important role in supporting the strike and in campaigning for justice.

47: Economic independence does feed through into personal confidence. This is a point I develop at much greater length in McGregor, 1989.

48: McGregor, 2013, p118.

49: This struck me really forcefully when interviewing teachers and hospital workers in Cairo in 2012.

50: Brown, 2013, p70.

51: Leeb, 2007, quoted in Brown, 2013, p96.

52: Leeb, 2007, quoted in Brown, 2013, p96.

53: Leeb, 2007. Leeb seems to have entirely missed the point about the importance of exploitation and revolution.

54: Marx, 1976, p523.

55: Brown, 2013, p123.

56: Brown, 2013, pp120-121.

57: Marx, 1871, quoted in Brown, 2013, p124.

58: Marx, 1871, quoted in Brown, 2013, p126.

59: Brown, 2013, p105-112.

60: Brown, 2013, p110.

61: Marx, and Guesde, 1880, quoted in Brown, 2013, p130.

62: Marx, and Guesde, 1880, quoted in Brown, 2013, p132.

63: Brown, 2013, p131.

64: Engels, 1847, quoted in Brown, 2012, p54.

65: Brown, 2013, p54.

66: Ginsburgh, 2014, p137.

67: Marx and Guesde, 1880.

68: Brown, 2013, pp54-55.

69: Brown, 2013, p55.

70: Engels, 1978, p96.

71: Engels, 1993, p156. Interestingly, Brown does not credit Engels with this crucial insight about gender.

72: Bebel, 1897, p4. Bebel’s was the first socialist text to analyse women’s position in society and argue for their emancipation and was highly influential in the social democratic movement in Germany.

73: Bebel rewrote his work in the light of Engels. German revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin also adopted Engels’s explanation.

74: Dunayevskaya, 1991.

75: Brown, 2013, p8.

76: Brown, 2013, p10.

77: Interestingly, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins bears out Engels’s view that hunter-gatherer societies could have meant relatively leisurely ways of life—Sahlins, 2011.

78: Engels, 1978, p5.

79: Engels, 1978, p6. As part of new evidence about transitions from one kind of society to another Engels recounts Johann Jakob Bachofen’s fascinating interpretation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia—Engels, 1978, p9.

80: Brown, 2013, pp170-173.

81: Engels, 1978, p97.

82: See Leacock, 1981, Turnbull, 1965, Harman, 1994.

83: Similarly, Engels was right to posit the central role of tool use in our evolution. Nowhere does Brown mention Engels’s little pamphlet, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”.

84: Although there are some points some writers take issue with—see Harman, 1994, p133.

85: Marx, 1976, p471 (footnote by Engels).

86: Engels, 1978, p4. It is difficult to understand how Brown can quote Dunayevskaya approvingly when she argues “whereas Engels always seems to have antagonisms at the end, as if class society came in very nearly full blown after the communal form was destroyed and private property was established”— Dunayevskaya, 1991, quoted in Brown, 2013, p173.

87: Engels, 1978, p5.

88: This is a point I made in McGregor, 1989.


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