Social reproduction theory: back to (which) Marx?

Issue: 160

Sheila McGregor

In university circles and on the radical left, discussion of oppression has long been dominated by the ideas of privilege theory and intersectionality.1 With the defeat of the workers’ movements from the late 1970s, analysis based on class was buried, giving rise to what Lise Vogel refers to as “the relative isolation many of us felt”.2 Privilege theory stressed the disadvantages that arise from oppression such as being a black, disabled female as opposed to a white, able-bodied male. It called on the latter to acknowledge these relative advantages as “privileges” or “benefits” because they make life easier. Intersectionality looked at the way in which individuals can be shaped by multiple oppressions, with class listed as just one more oppression.3 Neither approach lends itself to the conclusion that the struggle to end oppression might be intimately connected with workers’ self-emancipation or that workers are capable of creating bonds of solidarity that can transcend the very real differences among them.4

However, since the beginning of the 21st century there has been a renewal of interest in Karl Marx, starting with the anti-capitalist movements and reinforced by the banking crisis of 2007-8. Marx and Capital are once more central to the analysis of oppression in the form of social reproduction theory (SRT). A number of Marxist feminists have long referred to “social reproduction” in relation to women’s oppression; but now SRT is winning a new layer to looking at Marx. Every effort to relocate the workings of oppression within a capitalist framework is welcome as it moves the discussion in the direction of fighting against capitalist society instead of fighting different systems of oppression.5 But this, it should be emphasised, does not mean that there is only “one struggle, the class struggle” regardless of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and the like.

An important step forward

The aim of this article then is to give an overview of the development of SRT, starting with a short review of the emergence of Marxist analyses of women’s oppression, stimulated by the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s.6 I will then look more closely at Vogel’s distinctive contribution; her book Marxism and the Oppression of Women is used as a foundational text for the development of the strand of SRT under discussion here.7 Here I query Vogel’s formulation of the role of women’s biological reproductive capacities and question whether it can be generalised to explain women’s oppression in all class societies. The article then discusses recent developments in SRT, covering the contribution of Tithi Bhattacharya, a leading Marxist activist in the United States, her adoption of some of Michael Lebowitz’s work on Capital and her extension of the latter’s approach to racism.8 I shall argue that Bhattacharya tends to blur the ­relationship between exploitation and oppression and to undermine the significance of struggle at the point of production as opposed to social movements. She also attempts to analyse racism through the prism of social reproduction, to the neglect of other extremely rich approaches derived from Marxism. Much of SRT has already proved its worth in understanding women’s oppression, but the direction of some analysis seems to represent an accommodation to ambiguities about the nature of the working class and to low levels of class struggle in the US and in much of Europe.9

SRT has been adopted within quite a wide academic framework. In 2017, the Marxist economist Ben Fine contributed his views in “A Note Towards an Approach Towards Social Reproduction”10 and the London Historical Materialism conference in 2017 saw the launch of a collection of essays, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Bhattacharya.11 In January 2018, in their article “Women, Nature, and Capital in the Industrial Revolution” John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark state: “The remarkable rise in recent years of ‘social reproduction theory’ within the Marxist and revolutionary feminist traditions…has significantly altered how we look at Marx’s (and Friedrich Engels’s) treatment of women and work in 19th century Britain”.12

What is “social reproduction”?

In the 1960s, it was accepted in the women’s liberation movement in the UK and Germany (less so in the US) that there was a close relationship between the struggle for socialism and the struggle against oppression.13 This practical political approach gave rise to important theoretical work analysing the roots of women’s oppression within capitalism among Marxists and feminists influenced by Marxism.

Marx himself used social reproduction to refer to the reproduction of the totality of the capitalist mode of production, hence encompassing production in the public sphere of all goods and services and circulation as well as reproduction in the “private” sphere. Some SR theorists take care to draw attention to the variations in the usage of the term. Johanna Brenner and Barbara Laslett suggest a useful distinction between “societal” and “social” reproduction, with the former retaining the original meaning as Marx used it, and the latter referring to:

The activities and attitudes, behaviours and emotions and responsibilities directly involved in maintaining life, on a daily basis and generationally. It involves various kinds of socially necessary work—mental, physical and emotional—aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined means for maintaining and reproducing population. Among other things, social reproduction includes how food, clothing and shelter are made available for immediate consumption, how the maintenance and socialisation of children is accomplished, how care of the elderly and infirm is provided, and how sexuality is socially constructed.14

This is a wide definition that encompasses different forms of the family, state and private provision of housing, education, healthcare and care for the elderly and comes close to Fine’s distinction between economic and social reproduction. Fine writes: “Social reproduction inhabits the world of the family/household, civil society and the state variously configured in relation to ­economic reproduction both logically and historically”.15

Marxists and domestic labour

In the 1970s and early 1980s a series of Marxist feminists located women’s oppression in the role of women in domestic labour in the reproduction of labour power. Marx distinguishes between two facets of commodities: a commodity that is useful to someone has a “use value”, but it also has a “value” that allows for it to be exchanged on the market. Some Marxists argued that domestic labour or labour in the home is productive of use values but not “productive” in Marx’s sense of being “productive of surplus value” or profits. This does not mean that such labour is not useful or socially necessary, but that it cannot be integrated into Marx’s analysis of the source of profits, which come from the difference between what workers get paid and the value of what they produce. The location of women’s oppression in the reproduction of labour power distinguished Marxists like Brenner, Vogel, Maria Ramas and Chris Harman from writers such as Heidi Hartmann and Juliet Mitchell.16 The latter, known as “dual systems” theorists, developed two systems of analysis, one based on Marx that described the exploitation of the working class and another based on the concept of patriarchy to explain the oppression of women. They therefore developed a practice based on fighting for socialism and fighting women’s oppression separately—two systems and two struggles.

In 1984, Brenner and Ramas, writing in New Left Review, answered Michèle Barrett’s central argument in Women’s Oppression Today—that women’s oppression is rooted in an understanding of ideology as a material force.17 They counter Barrett with an analysis based on a dynamic understanding of the emergence and reshaping of the working class family in the historical development of the capitalist mode of production.

Brenner and Ramas start by arguing that the development of capitalism brought about a separation of the place of work—production—from the place of reproduction—the household. This, they argue, meant that women could no longer easily combine pregnancy, childbirth and childcare in the way that had been possible previously. Furthermore, they believe that the emergence of the working class family in the 19th century was not inevitable, but that the failure to fight for an alternative based on state provision of nurseries, cleaning, laundry, cheap restaurants and the like meant that the exigencies of biological reproduction made it highly likely that the outcome would be a family based on a division of labour. The man would be expected to earn the main wage and the woman to bear the main burden of reproduction in the household.18

Similarly, writers for International Socialism have referred to “the privatised reproduction of labour power”, a theory of the family as the site of women’s oppression under capitalism, where “the family exists for the reproduction of labour power for the capitalist class, which consequently has a great stake in the family even though the reproduction of labour power is privatised”.19

In relation to the 20th century, Brenner and Ramas continue:

We will argue that the rapid development of the forces of production under capitalism has laid the basis for women to transcend the constraints of biological reproduction, but that at the same time, capitalist relations of production continue to limit the development towards equality. This is the case not because gender divisions are “embedded” in capitalist relations of production, as Barrett argues. Indeed, there is a real tendency within capitalism to threaten and undercut these divisions and to restructure the labour force. Rather, the tendency of capitalism towards periodic crises and therefore towards cuts in the standard of living of the working class, prevents a break from the family-household system and reinforces the subordination of women.20

Vogel takes Marx’s analysis in Capital as her starting point and grounds the oppression of women in the non-value producing labour that goes into reproducing the current and future workforce as well as maintaining those who have retired. Furthermore, she argues that: “The reproduction of labour power is a condition of production, for it reposits or replaces the labour power necessary for production”.21 Clearly, however, without the production of food, clothing and shelter, the reproduction of the working class is not possible. Vogel makes a similar point to the one made by Brenner and Ramas and Irene Bruegel,22 that the working class family may well be the most common unit for the reproduction of labour power, but there are other possibilities including immigration, collective dormitories and the like.23

All the Marxists mentioned above (and many not mentioned) agree that domestic labour is necessary from the point of view of capital and that the reproduction of the working class in the household is based on “non-value producing labour” and that it takes place outside of the direct labour-capital relationship. There are two other important issues, namely that the family is constantly subject to the impact of the drive to accumulate and the response of women and men themselves. Martha Gimenez (although she refers somewhat misleadingly to the “mode of reproduction”) argues: “The fundamental principle underlying this analysis is that, in the social formations where capitalism is the dominant mode of production, the functioning of the mode of production determines the social organisation (establishes historical limits for its variability) and the economic foundations of human reproduction or mode of reproduction”.24 Poverty, housing, employment opportunities, wages and the domination over people’s lives of the business cycle all shape women’s oppression.25 Gimenez insists that this understanding of the relationship between the modes of production and reproduction,

is not a form of “economism” or “class reductionism” but the recognition of the complex network of macro-level effects upon male-female relationships, of a mode of production driven by capital accumulation rather than the goal of satisfying ­people’s needs. To argue otherwise, postulating the “mutual interaction” between the organisation of production and the organisation of reproduction, or giving causal primacy to the latter, is to overlook the theoretical significance of the overwhelming evidence documenting the capitalist subordination of ­reproduction to production.26

Brenner and Ramas and Harman give similar concrete examples of what this has meant historically for the reproduction of the working class. According to Harman: “In the mid 19th century, the reproduction of the labour force was only possible if the average working class wife had eight or ten pregnancies (in London nearly 60 percent of infants died by the age of five in 1850) and so spent virtually all her life after marriage either pregnant or nursing young children”.27 In a similar vein, Brenner and Ramas write:

While the consequences of factory work were harmful for women, they appear to have been disastrous for their children because working mothers could not nurse. Bottle-feeding was not an acceptable substitute for most of the 19th century. Sterilisation techniques were unknown and bottle-feeding appreciably increased infant mortality rates. The only other alternative, wet nursing, was also generally unacceptable for the working class, as infants had to be sent long distances to board with poor women who took in far too many babies and generally could not feed them all adequately. Here again, infant mortality rates were quite high.28

From the 1930s onwards, when women were increasingly pulled into factory production, through the Second World War and after, there has been a long-term trend, punctuated with ups and downs,29 towards increased participation by women in the workforce. After the war, the reduction in child mortality due to improved diet and sanitation, followed by new and more reliable methods of birth control plus legal access to abortion, enabled women to regulate more easily the number and timing of children. Changes in technology led to homes being equipped with machines that lightened the load of domestic chores. New fabrics and materials made homes easier to clean and central heating banished the dirt of coal fires. Brenner and Ramas explain:

Correlatively, in the search for new markets, capital commodified reproduction and expanded the array of goods and services available and necessary for an acceptable standard of living.30 By cheapening commodities used in domestic production and lowering fertility, capitalist development has reduced the domestic labour time necessary for reproduction, allowing women to work at two jobs.31

Harman rightly concludes: “From the point of view of capital accumulation, the old stereotyped family came to be very wasteful… The fact that [the woman] labours all day is no consolation for the system; her labour is labour that could be done more efficiently, relieving her for wage slavery”.32 Vogel locates the same process in the potential to create additional surplus value:

To the extent that the domestic labour of a capitalist society takes place within private households, the pressure of capitalist accumulation results in a tendency to decrease the amount performed in each household. That is, the domestic component of necessary labour [domestic labour] is severely reduced. At the same time more household members may enter the workforce, increasing the total amount of wage labour performed by the household, a phenomenon akin to intensification of a single worker’s labour. In short, reduction of domestic labour potentially creates both relative and absolute surplus value.33

A great deal of the work of the reproduction of the working class does not take place inside the family. The delivery of a high proportion of these tasks, however they are funded, depends on workers in workplaces such as schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, surgeries, care homes and offices.34 Such social provision has resulted from the combination of the needs of capital, for example for a more educated and highly skilled workforce, and the impact of women being drawn into paid work, as well social struggles for healthcare, pension provision, proper welfare benefits and the like. Kim Moody, in On New Terrain, argues that after 1950: “Not only did more women enter wage labour, but the number of hours they worked also rose dramatically… The resulting relative shortage of unpaid female labour of reproduction in the home opened the door to the commodification of the labour of reproduction outside of the family in the market”.35 Any analysis of social reproduction needs to be embedded in an analysis of capital accumulation and the nature of the capitalist state. It needs to include the way in which the state intervenes in the process of the reproduction of the working class, through legislation surrounding the family, such as laws about marriage, sexual mores and the like and through provision of aspects of social reproduction. These latter are subject to the impact of capitalist crisis and the pressure of class struggle and social movements.

Vogel’s argument is that: “In class societies, women’s child-bearing creates contradictions from the point of view of the dominant class’s need to appropriate surplus labour. The oppression of women in the exploited class develops in the process of the class struggle over the resolution of these contradictions”.36 Her explanation, she argues, is valid across all class societies for “the class of direct producers”.37 Vogel’s argument,

hinges on the relationship of child-bearing to the appropriation of surplus labour in class society. Child-bearing threatens to diminish the contribution a woman in the subordinate class can make as a direct producer and as a participant in necessary labour. Pregnancy and lactation involve, at the minimum, several months of reduced capacity to work. Even when a woman continues to participate in surplus production, child-bearing therefore interferes to some extent with immediate appropriation of surplus labour.38

The cornerstone of Vogel’s analysis is that biological differences in sexual reproduction necessarily lead to women withdrawing from economic activity and becoming dependent on men. At first reading, this seems unproblematic. The experience of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing in today’s capitalist society are incompatible with taking part in the workplace, in part because of the separation of workplace and home and in part because of the nature of pregnancy and childbirth today. But this was not always the case, as has been well documented; in early capitalist society women would sometimes give birth at work and take babies to work. The question is whether Vogel’s analysis of pregnancy and ­childbirth applies to all class societies or just to capitalism.

Ferguson is aware that her own insistence that “biology matters” can seem problematic to generations of women who fought against the idea that “biology is destiny” and points to the social aspect of human nature.39 Indeed, Vogel, ironically, discusses a tendency in Marx and Engels to “naturalise” aspects of social behaviour, stating that “a quite damaging spectre of ‘the natural’ haunts their work”.40 But she doesn’t apply this to her own category of child-bearing. As we shall see, her reliance on biology stems from her dismissal of Engels’s contribution to understanding the family in class society.

If not Engels—then how?

Vogel presents a series of arguments against Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State41 including the one that Engels’s use of two modes—mode of production and mode of reproduction—is “defective” and that Engels relies on a “biological” concept of the division of labour between men and women. Unfortunately, her dismissal of Engels means she gives no clear statement about whether pre-class societies without women’s oppression existed.42 Nor does she give an account of the origins of women’s oppression. For Engels, the key to understanding the oppression of women was the way in which changing methods of production not only led to the production of a surplus and to the emergence of class differentiation, but that because men produced the surplus, this led to some men dominating the whole of society.43

Vogel looks to radical economist Paddy Quick for an alternative explanation of the existence of oppression.44 In dismissing Engels, Vogel reveals her aversion to paying attention to the forces of production in characterising different modes of production45 and no understanding of why Engels tied the rise of the family to the rise of property and the state:

In the first place, the subject covered in The Origin, as its title indicates, is the development not only of the family but of private property and the state. The observation is important, for it suggests the book’s limited goals with respect to the issue of women’s subordination. Rather than provide a comprehensive analysis of women, the family and the reproduction of the working class, The Origin seeks simply to situate certain aspects of the question securely in a historical and theoretical context.46

These few sentences summarise a crucial difference in method between Vogel (and Quick) and other Marxist writers. What is self-evident from Engels’s Origin is his concern with how human beings secured their living, what tools and materials they used, the social relations this gave rise to and—when human beings changed their tools and techniques—what impact this had on relations between them. It seems that Vogel and Quick both start from Capital and working class women’s oppression in modern capitalism in an attempt to provide an abstract category, women’s labour in childbirth and child-rearing and women’s dependence on men, to account for women’s oppression, and then project backwards.47 The danger in this is that it encourages an inaccurate and ahistorical approach48 to analysing women’s oppression across different kinds of class societies and robs Marxists of the tools needed to understand how women’s status changes according to the mode of production, their relationship to production, changing family forms and the role of the state.

How we make ourselves

In his pathbreaking essay, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, Engels looks at how human beings secure their existence and the development of their physical, mental and social capacities in the evolution of human beings”.49 Marx insisted that nature is social nature, that we produce ourselves and change ourselves through society.50 In Capital, volume 1, he writes:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, heads and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.51

The way we are today is the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution during which we have constantly reshaped our natures, physically, emotionally and mentally, in the process of reshaping external nature. Vogel implies this: “sex differences cannot be considered apart from their existence within a definite social system”,52 but does not appear to see its significance in relation to explaining women’s oppression in all class societies.

It isn’t possible to know exactly what the experiences were in our prehistory. However, we do know that men and women have lived in egalitarian societies in which production and reproduction were closely linked and where pregnancy and childbirth were quite different. George J Engelmann, an obstetrician and professor of gynaecology at the St Louis Post-Graduate School of Medicine, wrote a fascinating study, published in 1883, of different practices relating to childbirth, drawn from a wide variety of hunter-gatherer and tribal societies. He concluded they reflected a way of life that favoured healthy physical development and therefore short and relatively easy births with little impact on the mother’s mobility and physical well being.53 In 1965 Colin Turnbull documented similar experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing among Mbuti hunter-gatherer women (in the Congo region).54 None of these stages was experienced as a physical hindrance to the role women played within their social group, nor did they become dependent on men for provisions.55

Women’s distinctive capacity for biological reproduction of the species is shaped historically and is not inherently oppressive. How it becomes linked to women’s oppression is a historical and analytical question that cannot simply be brushed over, if for no other reason than that so much of the explanation of women’s oppression is put down to an unchanging biology.

Women’s biology, exploitation and oppression

Vogel makes assumptions about the nature of childbirth and child-rearing across class societies. But can her analysis explain changing forms of women’s oppression throughout different class societies? Her substantial argument is that women’s reproductive role means they are unable to partake to the fullest extent in production and that: “It is the provision by men of means of subsistence to women during the child-bearing period, and not the sex-division of labour itself, that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class society”.56

Slavery on the plantations in North America does not accord with this analysis. Angela Davis writes in Women, Race and Class: “The slave system defined Black people as chattel. Since women, no less than men, were viewed as profitable labour-units, they might as well have been genderless as far as the slaveholders were concerned”.57 As well as working on the plantations, women worked as lumberjacks, dug ditches and canals, laid railway lines, built levees in Louisiana and were used in transportation because women slaves “cost less to capitalise and to maintain than prime males”.58

Davis continues: “Where work was concerned, strength and productivity under the threat of the whip outweighed consideration of sex. In this sense, the oppression of women was identical to the oppression of men”. In addition, however, women were subject to sexual abuse as women, with rape being used as “an uncamouflaged expression of the slaveholder’s economic mastery and the overseer’s control over Black women as workers”.59

In the systems of productivity used to calculate average yield per slave, men and women were rated equally and children a quarter.60 There was no exemption from work in the fields for pregnant women or women suckling babies. Pregnant women were subject to the lash in the same way as non-pregnant women and men.61 Women with infants managed as best they could, carrying their babies on their backs, leaving them at the ends of rows in the fields or leaving them with other young children or older slaves.

About this system, Davis concludes:

The special abuses inflicted on women thus facilitated the ruthless economic exploitation of their labour. The demands of this exploitation caused slaveowners to cast aside their orthodox sexist attitudes except for the purposes of repression… Moreover, since Black women as workers could not be treated as the “weaker sex” or the “housewife”, Black men could not be candidates for the figure of “family head” and certainly not for “family provider”. After all, men, women and children alike were all “providers” for the slaveholding class.62

Slave women were both exploited and oppressed. But that oppression cannot be explained using Vogel’s framework. A better approach is to look at the way in which women’s oppression was embedded in the family system in the rest of slave society.63 The existence of that oppression shaped the way in which slaveholders and their overseers treated slave women.64

Women in medieval society were also unquestionably oppressed, but the way in which that oppression worked cannot be analysed by assuming that child-bearing meant a dependence on men and a sustained interruption in economic activity on the part of women in the exploited class.65 It requires a much more nuanced analysis of the mode of production, women’s economic role within society and prevailing customs, laws and other factors.

In parts of North West Europe there was a distinctive marriage and family pattern characterised by the late age of marriage (around 24 years for women and 26 years for men) and the economic role of women. Instead of women leaving the father’s household at the onset of puberty and being transferred by marriage to the household of the husband, single women and men worked either within the household or in service in another household. After marriage, the married woman worked as part of an economic partnership with her husband, usually supporting him in his trade.

Judith Bennett demonstrates this in her 1996 study of women and ale making, a trade predominantly carried out by women in the countryside as part of the medieval household economy.66 Brewsters (female brewers) were usually married but brewing also provided a source of income for single women and widowers before the Black Death. “In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the ale trade provided the households of both occasional brewers and by-industrial brewers with a critical source of supplementary income”.67 Bennett writes:

For many wives, brewing for sale was one of many elements in an “economy of makeshifts”. In medieval households, primary tasks were usually allotted to husbands and supplementary work to wives. A wife undertook a myriad of ancillary responsibilities: she supported her husband when his work required it (helping in the fields, at the workbench, or in the shop); she took primary responsibility for reproductive labour (both biological and social reproduction); and she pursued a variety of small, income producing activities.68

Bennett points to several factors that shaped decisions about women’s involvement in ale making. Where the husband was involved in the metal trades, or a merchant, his wife was most likely to be involved in brewing because he required the supporting labour least, unlike those husbands who worked in clothing, textiles, leather and victualing (food). According to Bennett: “Pregnancy, lactation and childcare seem not to have mattered, but at least sometimes the husband’s trade mattered a great deal… In other words, wives brewed not when they were free from child-bearing or childcare but when the other economic demands of their households gave them time to pursue the trade”.69

At the end of her book, Vogel shifts her focus from women’s oppression in the working class to the question of “equality of persons” in the sphere of circulation70: bourgeois society promotes an ideology of formal equality in society that masks the unequal relationships between capital and labour. Sections of society—racial minorities, national minorities and women to name just a few—have progressively had to fight for even formal equality of status, and Vogel rightly argues that such struggles can have “serious revolutionary import”.71 She also argues, following Marx, that in a future society, real equality means recognising the differences between people and therefore where workers take all the decisions democratically, resources would be used to equalise the “unequal” position of women having children such that the “inequality” would disappear.72

Unfortunately, however, Vogel does not highlight women workers’ potential power as part of the working class and therefore the subject of revolutionary change73; instead she focuses on women’s lack of equal rights and the potential for cross-class movements in the fight for women’s equality.74 She concludes: “the argument that women’s oppression is rooted in their dual position with respect to domestic labour and equal rights provides a framework for both understanding women’s position in wage labour and analysing how a broad-based women’s liberation movement may represent an essential component in the fight for socialism”.75

Writing in 1983, Vogel could not perhaps have foreseen the extent to which late capitalism in North America and parts of Europe would be capable of conceding full bourgeois equality to women and dismantling repressive legislation against LGBT+ people, while presiding over a growing class inequality. This has inexorably widened the rift between women in different classes, not closed it, and intensified the social oppression of working class women so that, for example, working class women face even greater struggles to afford childcare that is easily affordable for middle class women.76 Vogel’s formulation about building “progressive women’s organisations that cross class divisions”,77 by failing to stress the necessary independence of working class women, could lead to a subordination of the needs of working class women to middle class women and to the domination of a perspective of winning bourgeois rights without challenging class inequalities. This is in stark contrast to the approach of fighting for full democractic rights while stressing the independent role of workers, both because of the social weight workers bring to such struggles but also because of the difference in class interests that exists among the oppressed.

From Vogel to Lebowitz

Tithi Bhattacharya has become one of the foremost proponents of social reproduction theory. She has extended Vogel’s account of women’s oppression to racism with an analysis that owes a great deal to Michael Lebowitz’s book Beyond Capital.78

Lebowitz seeks to defend Marx from those who would declare him irrelevant, or reduce his philosophy to the form of mechanical Marxism associated with Karl Kautsky and the Second International. He argues that there is a problem in Capital itself that can lead to mechanical interpretations and this goes part way to explaining why the working class has not dug a grave for capitalism.79 Lebowitz seeks to rectify this by reinserting the subjective element he says is missing from Capital—an analysis of wages or the “circuit of production” seen from the point of view of the worker. He contends that the classic statement of historical materialism taken from Marx’s 1859 “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy itself leads to, or at least allows for, a conservative interpretation and should be rewritten.80 Marx wrote:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution… No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.81

Lebowitz’s version is:

Consider, therefore, an alternative thesis—that it is the needs of socially developed human beings (that is, people developed in particular societies) that are central in determining the course of historical change. Definite human beings both develop their productive forces and change their production relations, and they do so in order to satisfy their needs. In this alternative formulation of Marx’s theory of history (the primacy of needs), social change occurs when the existing structure of society no longer satisfies the needs of people formed within that society; it occurs when the relations of production prevent the development of the productive forces in the way which conforms to the particular needs of definite human beings. Within capitalism, accordingly, the ought which drives beyond capital is the worker’s own need for development.82

Marx in fact believed “that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”,83 but by introducing “the ought” alongside “the workers’ own need for development”, Lebowitz is creating a “moral” and voluntarist tendency not found in Marx’s version. Marx writes in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.84 While avoiding “the iron law of history” approach, it is important not to tip in the other direction. The existence of a fundamental antagonism of interests between capital and labour in the capitalist mode of production (Marx’s point) can be the basis for class struggle, but that cannot mean open class struggle inevitably follows, nor does it tell us what the outcome of any ensuing struggle might be.85

Lebowitz develops his critique through a discussion of the needs of workers for their own reproduction that form the basis for the wage that workers receive for selling their labour power. He points out, following Marx, that needs are socially generated and depend on the society in which people live, so the basis of the wage contains what Marx calls, a “historical and moral element”. These needs are not simply physical but can also be imagined needs, and include the development of the human personality.86 Furthermore, it is in the nature of the capitalist mode of production constantly to generate new needs as new products are developed and therefore new markets have to be created. The quest by capitalists themselves to increase their consumption of luxuries helps to stimulate aspirations and therefore new needs among workers.

Lebowitz identifies three levels of need. The first, “physiological needs”, is the physical minimum needed to reproduce the worker. The second, “necessary needs”, is “the level of needs which is rendered necessary by habit and custom. It includes the use values that are ‘habitually required’ and normally enter into the consumption of workers. This is the level of needs that underlies the concept of the value of labour power in Capital”.87 The third level of need he terms “social needs”: “This is the level of needs of the worker as a socially developed human being at a given point; it constitutes the upper limit in needs for use values in a commodity form”.88 Lebowitz then concludes: “The existence of unfulfilled social needs underlies the worker’s need for more money, her need for a higher wage”.89

This is a strange claim because it seems to preclude workers’ need to struggle for higher wages just to fulfill what he terms “necessary needs”, ie the need both to pay the rent or mortgage and buy enough food to live on, clothes to wear and the like and introduces a mechanical separation between “necessary” and “social” needs. It provides the basis, however, for Lebowitz’s development of the cycle of “production of the worker” (that he alleges is missing from Capital) and the corresponding theory of struggle over wages that are at the heart of Lebowitz’s contention that “there is not only capital for itself but also wage-labour for itself”.90 He continues:

In short, to satisfy those growing social needs constantly generated by capital requires struggle in the “opposite direction” to capitalists. There is, however, no discussion in Capital about the struggle for higher wages—and, there cannot be because Capital assumes the standard of necessity given, ie, that “in a given country at a given period, the average amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum”.91

This argument about lack of struggle over higher wages is disingenuous. Marx devoted two sessions of the General Council of the First International on June 20 and 27, 1865, later transcribed as Value, Price and Profit, to presenting the arguments for the importance of workers fighting over wages. He was responding to John Weston, a respected workers’ representative, who had argued that struggles damaged workers. Marx argued that if the worker: “resigned himself to accept the will, the dictates of the capitalist as a permanent economical law, he would share in all the miseries of the slave, without the security of the slave”.92 Further, he explains:

In their [workers’] attempts at reducing the working day to its former rational dimensions, or, where they cannot enforce a legal fixation of a normal working day, at checking overwork by a rise of wages, a rise not only in proportion to the surplus time exacted, but in a greater proportion, working men fulfill only a duty to themselves and their race. They only set limits to the tyrannical usurpations of capital. Time is the room of human development. A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing Foreign Wealth, broken in body and brutalised in mind.93

Battles over working time are also about wages and, more importantly, about “human development”. Sections 5, 6 and 7 in chapter 10 of Capital, volume one address the struggle for the ten-hour day. In Value, Price and Profit, Marx concludes by saying that struggles only limit the damage done by capital, ultimately the wages system must be abolished.94

To return to Lebowitz’s argument, he lays out the “missing” cycle of “production of the worker” in Capital, starting from the worker, thus implicitly inverting the class power relations in capitalism:

Thus, what emerges from the consideration of wage-labour—is class struggle from the side of the wage-labourer. There is not just capital for itself but wage-labour for itself. Contrary to the picture presented in Capital, there are two oughts not merely capital’s need for valorisation but also the worker’s own need for development. A two-sided struggle, in which each attempts to reduce the other to dependence, is present in every aspect of the relation of capital and wage labour.95

Worker and capital meet on the market as apparently sovereign and equal beings and capital is dependent on the purchase of labour power to reproduce itself. But this is not an equal exchange, otherwise capital would not be able to capture the surplus value. The dependence of the worker on capital’s need to purchase their labour power is greater than the dependence of capital on labour. Without a wage, the worker cannot live, whereas there are myriad ways in which capital can secure labour, unless workers collectively exercise their power to stop that.

More importantly, the circuit of “production of the worker” proposed by Lebowitz (and adopted by Bhattacharya) cannot be seen as commensurate with the cycle of production in Marx, that is about the production of surplus value, the expansion of capital. One way of looking at the difference is in how Marx treats the difference between “productive consumption” by the worker, and “individual consumption”. “Productive consumption” is when the worker uses tools and raw materials provided by the capitalist to produce commodities that are then sold by the capitalist to realise surplus value. “Individual consumption” is when the worker uses their wages to buy what they want to live. He or she then has to return to work to continue the process of “productive consumption” and the expansion of capital.96 The proposed circuit of the “production of the worker” is in reality the social reproduction of labour power, and is subordinate to the sphere of production, not equivalent to it as implied by Lebowitz.

Lebowitz’s thesis about the weakness of Marx’s Capital cannot bear the weight of explaining the failure of the international working class to overthrow capitalism. He is right to criticise mechanical interpretations of Marx and Capital. But no analysis of why international capitalism is still standing—aged, crisis ridden and doing untold damage to humanity and the planet—can avoid investigating the complex historical processes that have got us to this point. It is doubtful whether Marx could ever countenance the idealist proposition that the lack of revolutionary struggle is down to omissions in his writings. Moreover, Lebowitz’s own “writing into Capital” introduces a one-sided voluntarist element into Marx.

Bhattacharya—building on Lebowitz

Bhattacharya’s recent edited collection, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression brings together contributions on an impressive range of topics from the crisis in care through to sexuality. There is much of interest in all the contributions. Vogel, in her foreword, makes a key point: “In the long run, however, I think we must jettison two dearly held assumptions. First the assumption that the various dimensions of difference—for example, race, class and gender—are comparable. Second, the implication that the various categories are equal in causal weight”.97 Therefore SRT has to see how all the different categories fit together.

I found particularly interesting “Without Reserves” by Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman,98 the historical account of the construction of the American working class family and “Children, Childhood and Capitalism: A Social Reproduction Perspective” by Ferguson.99 If there is a weakness in the collection it is that there seems little connection to real struggles except in the final contribution by Cinzia Arruzza on the Women’s Strike in 2017. The focus here will be on Bhattacharya’s introduction and her contribution “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labour and the Global Working Class”,100 which set the theoretical framework for the other contributions to the collection, as well as her presentations at the Capital.150 conference King’s College, London in September 2017 and Marx is Muss 2018.

Bhattacharya’s starting point is that: “Since its very formation, but particularly since the late 20th century, the global working class has faced a tremendous ­challenge—how to overcome all its divisions to appear in shipshape, full combative form to overthrow capitalism”.101 She wants to counter all those who seek to deny the working class as a potential revolutionary subject and to provide arguments for why this is still the case.102 Her major contention is that: “What many of these condemnations [of the role of the working class] have in common is a shared misunderstanding of exactly what the working class really is”.103 Bhattacharya proposes that: “the key to developing an understanding of the working class…is the framework of social reproduction” and that it “is essential to recognise that workers have an existence beyond the workplace”. This in turn means: “The theoretical challenge lies in understanding the relationship between this existence and that of their productive lives under the direct domination of the capitalist”. She contends: “The relationship between these spheres will in turn help us consider strategic directions for class struggle”.104

Bhattacharya follows Lebowitz in arguing for the reproduction of labour power to be seen as a second circuit of capital. She proposes that the sphere of reproduction [of labour power] and the sphere of production cannot be seen as “discrete” but must be viewed as “unified”.105 This begs the question of what is meant by unity: are the two spheres of equal weight or does one dominate the other? As previously argued, the two circuits are not commensurate, so this formulation can lead to a confusion between exploitation and oppression.

Bhattacharya develops her argument following Lebowitz’s schema that capitalism is constantly creating new needs and that therefore the value of labour power is elastic and can only be decided in a struggle between workers and capital: “Thus the worker, due to the very nature of the process, is always reproduced as lacking in what she needs, and hence built into the fabric of wage labour as a form is the struggle for higher wages: class struggle”.106 She takes over from Lebowitz: “that the preconceived goal of production” of the worker is “what Marx described as ‘the worker’s own need of development’”.107

Bhattacharya locates the need for the shift beyond the workplace in the ­weakness of workers’ struggles at the point of production today:

At any given moment of history, a working class may or may not be able to fight for higher wages at the point of production…those battles may emerge away from the point of production, but nevertheless reflect the needs and imperatives of the class. In other words, where a struggle for a higher wage is not possible, different kinds of struggles around the circuit of social reproduction may also erupt.108

She instances the struggles over water in Cochabamba and Ireland, against land evictions in India and for housing in the UK.

There should be no argument about the need to initiate struggles where possible and engage in struggles initiated by others, regardless of whether they originate in the workplace or the street, or concern workplace issues or housing, water, abortion, stopping hospital closures and so on. Marx himself thought that a mass demonstration in 1855 against licensing laws would herald the beginning of an English Revolution.109

There are, however, a number of silences in Bhattacharya’s account (and that of Lebowitz). Bhattacharya does not discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different social movements. Sometimes a street movement can succeed in achieving its objectives, such as successive movements in the UK against fascism led by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the 1970s, 1990s and early 2000s and the movement against the Poll Tax in 1990.110 However, the Stop the War movement in Britain that mobilised between one and two million people in 2003 failed to stop the then prime minister Tony Blair going to war in Iraq.

When it comes to a movement challenging capital, the ruling class can ride out the masses in the streets if workers are not using their collective power to challenge them. Contrast the difference between the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, where the engagement of workers, or the fear of workers’ struggles, initially tipped both societies into a revolutionary process and in Syria, where the working class was not engaged collectively in the same way. Therefore, the centrality of the workplace is not about a fixation with a particular kind of worker, but a fixation with where power in society lies. Bhattacharya is of course right that fighting over wages is insufficient unless such a struggle generalises into a struggle against capital itself. Strangely, however, although Lebowitz mentions Luxemburg’s critique of trade unions,111 neither he nor Bhattacharya look at the way in which movements in the workplace can tip over into wider political struggles in the way that Luxemburg analysed the dynamic of the 1905 Revolution in the Mass Strike.112 For Lebowitz this is because he sees social struggles as generating self-activity currently stifled by the trade union bureaucracy and because he thinks social movements are more important as they focus on the power of capital as a whole.113 In Bhattacharya, the goal of social movements and whether or not they need to be integrated into a struggle for workers’ power is left open. Nowhere is there a serious discussion of the role of the trade union bureaucracy and how to combat its influence, nor of the impact of reformist organisations on the development of working class consciousness and struggle. A focus on social movements on its own can signal a move away from seeing the goal of a revolutionary movement as taking control of the means of production directly, destroying the old state machine and developing an alternative workers’ state.

Bhattacharya conflates other issues: what workers fight over, how workers fight and the state of the class struggle. It is true that working class organisation in the US and UK has been massively weakened. But what workers fight over is not simply a consequence of the strength or weakness of working class organisation and nor should struggle at the point of production be reduced to the issue of wages. To take the last point first: the occupation to defend jobs in 1971 in the Upper Clyde Shipyards signaled an upturn in struggle in the UK that was variously characterised by struggles over wages, jobs, industrial relations law and the imprisonment of dockers’ leaders as well as struggles against racism. Women and immigrant workers were part of the rising tide of struggle; as Yuri Prasad has shown in this journal, Asian workers, for example played a key role.114 The general strike in France in 1968 was triggered by solidarity with students against police brutality. Equally, there are social movements over water, land, housing and pollution regardless of the state of class struggle. What would make a difference in the character of those movements is if workers felt powerful enough to use the strike weapon for those ends. The movement in Greece behind Syriza against the Troika and the EU became so threatening precisely because of the extended strike action that had powered it.

Revolutionaries are not going to disagree about the importance of any of the issues or movements that Bhattacharya raises, nor that the struggle over these things are, broadly speaking, class struggles. When she proposes: “(a) a theoretical restatement of the working class as a revolutionary subject; (b) a broader understanding of the working class than those employed as wage labourers at any given moment; and (c) a reconsideration of class struggle to signify more than the struggle over wages and working conditions”,115 there seems little to disagree on.

It is, however, worth taking a closer look at precisely who Bhattacharya is referring to when she talks about a “broader understanding of the working class”:

The working class, for the revolutionary Marxist, must be perceived as everyone in the producing class who has in their lifetime participated in the totality of the reproduction of society—irrespective of whether that labour has been paid for by capital or remained unpaid. Such an integrative vision of class gathers together the temporary Latinx hotel worker from Los Angeles, the flexitime worker working mother from Indiana who needs to stay home due to high childcare costs, the African American full-time school teacher from Chicago, and the white, male, unemployed erstwhile United Automobile Workers (UAW) worker from Detroit.116

Of course, all the people mentioned by Bhattacharya are part of the working class. But there is a trend towards exaggerating the degree of casualisation in the working class that Bhattacharya’s presentation reinforces rather than undermines, as well as a tendency to underestimate the prospects for collective struggle and to overlook the potential created by the restructuring of American capital. Moody writes:

One of the results of the ongoing accumulation process and the increased flexibility of the workforce demanded by lean production and the growth of extended supply chains in both services and goods production has been the increase in precarious or contingent employment such as temporary agency work, short-term contracts, on-call work, independent contracting (that is, bogus self-employment), involuntary part-time work (part-time for economic reasons by those who usually work full-time), and so on… Yet, surprisingly, the proportion of precarious workers hardly rose at all, from 15.2 percent in 1995 to 15.5 percent in 2005, [according to] the last BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] count.117

Moody estimates that about 85 percent of workers are still in what he terms “traditional” employment arrangements and that the picture is similar in Canada and Europe. The “gigariat” (Moody’s term for workers in the “gig” economy), who supposedly have to work multiple jobs to make a living, has not changed the percentage of workers who have always had to do more than one job to make ends meet.118

Furthermore, the restructuring of capital in the US has led to new centres of accumulation, with huge concentrations of workers in the reorganised supply chains that are central to the “lean” production processes. These concentrations of productive workers (often 100,000 strong) “are poorly paid and treated as dispensable” because the logistics hubs in places such as Chicago and Los Angeles are located close to enormous numbers of poor, unemployed and ­underemployed black and Latino workers who provide a constant source of cheap labour.119 These workers, black, Latino, male and female, have the potential to wield untold economic power. As Moody says: “this is the point of the greatest immediate potential power, the greatest racial and gender integration and also the most likely site of direct democracy”.120

Sectors involving low-paid migrant women workers have indeed seen some impressive struggles in the recent past. In 2015, 80 percent of hotel workers in New York were unionised.121 As Julie Sherry writes: “An estimated 19 million low-paid workers across the US have won $61.5 billion in raises since the Fight for $15 began [in 2012]. Today $15 an hour is law in California and the state of New York. It’s law in Seattle and Pennsylvania for nursing home and hospital workers and for municipal employees in countless other cities”. The Fight for $15 campaign had a political and anti-racist dimension: “From the outset, workers themselves perceived of their strikes as following in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, with much of the language of the campaign framed in those terms”.122

In Britain, the university workers in their battle over pensions in the spring of 2018 provides the best example of how a mixed workforce, including a high percentage of “precarious” workers on short-term contracts, have effectively used the strike weapon. The strike challenged the neoliberal agenda, politicising and radicalising thousands of new workers. It combined issues about education with terms and conditions of university workers, while raising “old” issues such as the different perspectives that emerge in strikes between a rank and file intent on winning and a trade union bureaucracy intent on negotiating a settlement.123

Arruzza’s contribution to Social Reproduction Theory, “From Social Reproduction Feminism to the Women’s Strike”, without any counter-examples provided by Bhattacharya or the other contributors, blurs the issue of where the power of the working class lies. As Arruzza explains, the women’s strike on International Women’s Day in 2017 was called as “a day without women”. “Adopting the word strike was meant to emphasise the work that women perform not only in the workplace but outside it, in the sphere of social reproduction”.124 The organisers encouraged women to take a day off work, whether this was “outside” work or work at home, in order to make visible the work women do on a daily basis. Arruzza locates the use of a women’s strike in the context of the low levels of union organisation and numbers of workplace strikes.

Internationally, the day was a huge success, mobilising women across the world from the US, Poland, Ireland, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand, the Philippines and India as well as in Nairobi and Tokyo.125 But, although a stay-away can be used successfully as a tactic, at some stage workers who are not in unions need to be unionised and women workers have to be able to argue for the whole workforce, men and women, to take strike action over issues, whether over pay or sex discrimination, not stay away on their own. A whole workforce on strike hits capital harder than a partial walk-out based on gender. Strikes are about educating workers about their potential to change the world and can set in train the process by which workers become the subject of history instead of the object of history. They can strike at the very heart of capital in a way that a social movement cannot. That is why revolutionaries need to argue for workers to make social movements their own and become “the tribune of the oppressed”.126

Understanding racism

Social reproduction theory arose out of the need to explain the continued oppression of women under capitalism but is now being extended as a framework for understanding racism and other sources of division between workers. In her contribution at the King’s College conference, Bhattacharya proposed that: “Labour power, SRT shows, can only become available to capital through distinct but reliable sets of gendered, racialised social relations that create their own institutional forms of sustenance”.127 She criticised Johanna and Robert Brenner’s conception of competition between workers being at the root of divisions,128 proposing: “While agreeing with the broad outlines of this account, I think SRT urges us to push the question of differentiation further and pitch it not just at the level of the labour market which expresses the price of labour power but at the level of production of the value of labour power”.129 For Bhattacharya: “differentiation of the working class is produced and sustained at cellular levels of the system”.130

Bhattacharya draws heavily on certain aspects of Marx’s writings about Irish and English workers to argue, firstly, that the “necessary wants” for some workers can be different from those of other workers based on differences in ethnicity. “The Irish worker, in direct contrast with her English counterpart, embodied, for Marx, this production of difference, for the Irish worker was at that ‘level of wage labour’ who accepted ‘the most animal minimum of needs and subsistence’ in her exchange with capital”.131 Secondly, Bhattacharya argues that: “The lowering of value for one section of workers always has conditioning impulses for all sections, for lower wages for some workers allow capital to rationalise and lower wages for all workers. Degraded social reproduction of racialised workers thus helps establish a regime of cheapened wages for all”. This can lead to a lowering of the “necessary needs” of all workers and therefore to a reduction in the value of labour power for all workers.132 Elsewhere, Bhattacharya states that the level of class struggle is a key determinant of the value of labour power:

Obviously Marx did not believe that the value of the labour power of the Irish worker was a constant that remained below that of her English counterpart due to ethnicity. Instead it was a result of class struggle, or lack thereof, and it was English workers who needed to understand the commonality of their class interest with the Irish against capital as a whole.133

This account raises a number of complex issues about the formation of the value of labour power, the impact of strike action on the value of labour power134 and the role of workers of a different ethnicity in the formation of the value of labour power. It omits other factors such as the role of the ruling class in the formation of racist ideology and the role of the state in implementing racist divisions.

Marx, when referring to the antagonism between English and Irish workers in his letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt explains how:

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.135

This was true before Marx’s time, with the development of racist ideology to justify plantation slavery in North America and the Caribbean and has been true ever since. Today, the mass media, if not the pulpit, play an indispensable role in actively spreading racist ideas as part of ideological arguments promoted by the ruling class such as, for example, the demonisation of Islam and Muslims, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, in other words about whichever is the latest group to be scapegoated in society.136 The failure to mention the role of the ruling class’s promotion of racism leaves the door open to views that see racism as the responsibility of the working class.137

The second aspect omitted by Bhattacharya in her account is the role of the state; capitalist states can both actively recruit workers from outside their borders and also regulate the movement of migrant labour through immigration laws, quotas and conditions for acquiring citizenship. Phil Marfleet points to the contradictory approach of US capital to migrant labour:

Irregular migrants are integral to American capitalism. They are also mobilised ideologically to support campaigns of exclusion, becoming part of the repertoire of conservative nationalism and now of the Alt Right and of crypto-fascist currents. This reflects an apparent contradiction evident since the emergence of the modern nation-state. It is the search for profit (“the market”) that shapes patterns of exploitation of the working class. At the same time the nation-state requires ideologies of belonging based on notions of inclusion and exclusion.138

But the role of the state, alongside the mobilisation of racist ideas, is crucial in relation to Bhattacharya’s contention about the impact of lower “necessary wants” of workers of one ethnicity on those of a different ethnicity. The Jim Crow laws institutionalised racist divisions in the southern states of the US in the late 19th century leading to lower wages for black workers than white workers but also to lower wages for both compared with those on offer in the North. Similarly, one driving force in the development of segregation in South Africa was the need to limit the ability of black South Africans to compete as farmers or workers. The result was an enormous gulf in the socially recognised needs of black and white workers, but one that was the effect of a totality of processes: economic, political and ideological.139

In other circumstances, migrant labour does not have this impact. In the post-war boom in the UK, the massive influx of migrant workers did not lead to a generalised lowering of wages or living standards, which continued to rise until the arrival of the Labour government of 1974-9.140 The key to the falling living standards that ensued was the role of the trade union bureaucracy in persuading workers to accept Labour’s incomes policy backed up by encouraging strike breaking at crucial points.141 The increase in racism driven by the rise of the National Front undoubtedly had an impact on society but was not a key mechanism in lowering living standards.

Skilled labour such as that of teachers and doctors recruited to staff the education and health services in the UK have not led to a lowering of pay although their initial reproduction costs have been born elsewhere and may have been lower than in the UK.142 A recent survey of labour from the EU found that: “The vast majority of the estimated 3.6 million to 3.8 million EU citizens in the country were in skilled jobs with 537,000 in ‘high-skilled jobs’ with degree or equivalent qualifications”.143 Certain sectors of industry do depend on a flow of low-paid workers, but arguments about low-paid migrant workers act to deflect the focus from those responsible for paying the low wages, creating the poor working conditions, supplying the poor housing and the like—the capitalist class that actively recruits the migrant workers in the first place.

In her summing up at Marx is Muss 2018, Bhattacharya argued there was no theory of oppression in Marx (apart from national oppression) and that both oppression and exploitation lead to division. Oppression does divide men from women and straight from LGBT+. It is also true that being a woman does not mean that solidarity with Muslims is automatic, nor is solidarity between Muslims and black people or gay people with transgender people.

But Marx did take a position on the relationship between oppression and exploitation. In the “General Rules October 1864” written for the International Workingmen’s Association, Marx writes that “the economical subjection of the man of labour to the monopoliser of the means of labour—that is, the source of life—lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of all social misery, mental degradation and political dependence”.144 In other words, exploitation is the foundation stone for all forms of oppression. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels are quite explicit about the subordinate nature of the family in class socety: “The family, which to begin with is the only social relationship, becomes later, when increased needs create new social relations and the increased population new needs, a subordinate one”.145

In the same General Rules Marx was clear that the political fight to overcome oppression has to challenge for control over the means of production: “That the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means”.146 This does not mean that the left ignores oppression in all its forms but that Marxists have to fight for the workers’ movement to take up every manifestation of oppression as part of the revolutionary struggle for power and the ending of all exploitation. The Second International, at their congress in Stuttgart in 1907, reviewed the question of migrant workers, adopting certain key demands that can serve equally well today: open borders and an end to all restrictions based on ethnicity on the right to stay in a country or to equal economic, social and political rights.147 Or as Karl Liebknecht, a leading German revolutionary, put it: “Away with the Damocles sword of deportation!”148


Social reproduction theory is a step forward from intersectionality to looking at Marx and Capital as a starting point for understanding women’s oppression. Vogel provides an analysis of the contradictory position of capital in relation to women’s labour, but there are weaknesses in her assumptions about the nature of pregnancy and childbirth across all class societies and in her dismissal of Engels. Her discussion of equal rights and the need for a cross-class women’s movement leads to the subordination of the interests of working class women to other class forces in society.

Bhattacharya’s version of SRT ends up placing the reproduction of labour power on the same level as production, obscuring the real balance of forces in the capital-labour relationship and blurring the subordinate relationship of oppression to exploitation. Simultaneously, she undermines the understanding of the power of workers organised at the point of production compared with social movements outside the workplace. Her argument (and similar ones made by others) that Marxists need to take social movements seriously masks a real argument about where power lies in society. The analysis of racism is weak and contributes little to the extensive work of other Marxists.

SRT has long been an additional tool in the Marxist toolbox and can continue to be so, if it is not used to blunt or substitute for the ones Marx (and Engels) already bequeathed to us. We need to build on Engels’s statement 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”.149 Marxists drawn towards SRT need to look beyond Capital to Marx’s (and Engels’s) other writings. Marxists can do without introducing ambiguity into the understanding of class struggle and the relationship between exploitation and oppression, an ambiguity that is not present in Marx.

Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the SWP and a regular contributor to International Socialism.


1 This article is the product of extensive discussions. Many thanks in particular to Sue Caldwell, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Kevin Corr, Gareth Jenkins, Volkhard Mosler, Rosie Nünning and Camilla Royle.

2 Vogel, 2017, px.

3 Susan Ferguson divides intersectionality feminists into two main groups: those who acknowledge the totality within which oppressions are constituted and those who see that oppressions interlock but not how they are embedded within a totality—Ferguson, 2016. In my view, there remains ambiguity about the key driver of oppression in the first group’s understanding of the capitalist framework.

4 See Choonara and Prasad, 2014 for a full analysis of privilege theory and intersectionality.

5 David McNally sees the development of SRT as: “the most promising perspective for those interested in an historical materialist theory of multiple oppressions within capitalist society”—McNally, 2017, p94.

6 It is customary to refer to “waves” of feminism. In my view, this leads to a flattening of the real differences between the different movements. The mainstream Suffragette movement or “first wave feminism’”was not about overthrowing capitalism in the way that the women’s liberation movement, “second wave feminism” was seen as part of the struggle for socialism. The “wave” terminology only serves to make the centrality of class and the fight against capitalism disappear and create the impression that women’s movements are like waves that will appear, crash on the shore and disappear.

7 Vogel, 2014. Originally published in 1983, it was republished with an introduction by Susan Ferguson and David McNally.

8 Lebowitz, 2003; Bhattacharya, 2017a, b and c.

9 Bhattacharya explained the widespread interest in SRT from the nature of current struggles at Marx is Muss 2018 in Berlin. The video of the session can be found on the Marx21 website, go to

10 Fine, 2017.

11 Bhattacharya, 2017b. Pluto Press has announced the launch of a new book series Mapping Social Reproduction Theory to be edited by Bhattacharya and Ferguson.

12 Foster and Clark, 2018.

13 See Barrett, 1980, pp258-259; Cliff, 1984, chapters 10 and 11; Mitchell, 1971, chapter 10; Rowbotham, 1977, postscript.

14 Bhattacharya, 2017b, p6.

15 Fine, 2017.

16 Hartmann, 1979; Mitchell, 1971.

17 Brenner and Ramas, 1984 (reprinted in Brenner, 2000); Barrett, 1980. That is an oversimplification of Barrett’s ideas, but I want to focus on Brenner and Ramas for the purposes of this article.

18 Brenner and Ramas, in Brenner, 2000, pp27-32.

19 German, 1989, p40. See also Cliff, 1984, Harman, 1984, McGregor, 2013 and Orr, 2015. An understanding of the family and women’s oppression underpinned the writings of the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin, the practice of the Bolshevik Party and the work of the early revolutionary government in Russia after 1917.

20 Brenner and Ramas, 1984, reprinted in Brenner, 2000, p27. It is worth noting Brenner and Ramas’s reference to the impact of changes in the forces of production on the family. See Chris Harman’s analysis also written in 1984.

21 Vogel, 2014, p144.

22 Bruegel, 1978. Bruegel’s analysis was a reference point for German and Harman who similarly insisted that the working class family was not the only way to organise the reproduction of the working class.

23 Vogel, 2014, p145.

24 Gimenez, 2005, p19. Gimenez justifies her use of “mode” by citing Engels among others and uses the term in a similar way to Engels. However, others in the past have used Engels’s references to mode of reproduction to justify a “dual systems” approach to analysing women’s oppression. For a critique of such usage by Hartmann, see Harman, 1984.

25 Gimenez, 2005, p20.

26 Gimenez, 2005, p20. This runs counter to the views of Bhattacharya and Lebowitz. See discussion below.

27 Harman, 1984, p9.

28 Brenner and Ramas, 1984, reprinted in Brenner, 2000, p29.

29 See German, 1989, part two for a more detailed analysis of this process.

30 Bruegel makes the same point—Bruegel, 1978.

31 Brenner and Ramas, 1984, in Brenner, 2000, p29.

32 Harman, 1984, p10. See also Marx’s comments about the increase in surplus value made possible by sucking all family members into the workforce, Marx, 1976, chapter 15, section three, p518.

33 Vogel, 2014, pp161-162. See also Vogel, 2014, pp159-161 for further discussion of the impact of accumulation on social reproduction.

34 This is a complex field as care workers, nurses and others often work in people’s homes as paid workers.

35 Moody, 2017, p20. Thanks to Gareth Jenkins for drawing my attention to this passage in Moody’s book.

36 Vogel, 2014, p21. Vogel, mistakenly in my view, refers to all class societies and not just capitalism.

37 Vogel, 2014, p15. At times Vogel seems to be talking about the capitalist mode of production, as on p144, and at other times referring to all class societies.

38 Vogel, 2014, p152.

39 Ferguson, 2008, p50.

40 Vogel, 2014, p65.

41 Engels, 1884. See Ginsburgh, 2014, for a discussion of Vogel’s treatment of Engels and McGregor, 2015, for a discussion of Brown, 2013, on Engels.

42 Paddy Quick distinguishes between pre-class and class societies but Vogel doesn’t give her own view—Vogel, 2014, p150, footnote 18.

43 Much of the data in Engels are outdated, including his understanding of the “natural” division of labour between women and men. However, his understanding that relationships were egalitarian between men and women in early societies and that it was the control over the production of the surplus that led to women’s subordination is right. Harman draws on a wealth of material, including work by Marxists such as anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock and archaeologist Gordon Childe, to explain the origins of women’s oppression. Harman’s analysis still makes a good starting point for understanding the emergence of women’s oppression and the strengths of Engels’s account—Harman, 1994. Conversely, locating women’s oppression in the biological capacity for reproduction can lead to the view that challenging women’s oppression is about challenging women’s reproductive role in society while ignoring the sphere of production.

44 Vogel, 2014, p150. Paddy Quick, a fine activist it would appear, was self evidently a Maoist when she wrote her analysis. See Quick, 1977.

45 Vogel, 2014, p93.

46 Vogel, 2014, p79, my emphasis.

47 This accounts for the many passages in both Quick and Vogel where it is not entirely clear whether they are referring to capitalism or class society in general.

48 This is a point made by Linda J Nicholson in her review of Vogel’s book in The Women’s Review of Books—Nicholson, 1984. See also Brenner’s review—Brenner, 1984. Vogel’s approach is shaped by Louis Althusser’s understanding of Marx, as she herself explains in the appendix “Domestic Labour Revisited” in Vogel, 2014, p187.

49 Engels, 1876.

50 Heather Brown discusses this at length. See Brown, 2013, pp17-27.

51 Marx, 1976, p283.

52 Vogel, 2014, p147.

53 Engelmann also noted: “Accidents rarely occur; thus a physician tells me that during a residence of eight years among the Canadian Indians, he knew of no accident, and heard of no death in childbed. Another professional brother, who lived for 3 years with the Oregon Indians, was not aware of any irregularity occurring in that time, nor was he ever called upon to perform a more serious operation than the rupture of the membranes”—Engelmann, 1883, p8.

54 Vogel could counter that she is only referring to class societies, but by destroying Engels’s account in chapter six: “Engels: a Defective Formulation”, she leaves the reader with no account of pre-class societies—Vogel, 2014.

55 “Medical precautions are minimal. The mother is likely to be off on the hunt, or on the trail somewhere when the birth takes place; there is no lessening of activity for her during pregnancy. Childbirth is said to be effected easily, with complications only rarely happening…if birth took place on the trail, she will continue her journey”—Turnbull, 1965, p129.

56 Vogel, 2014, p153.

57 Davis, 1981, p9.

58 Davis, 1981, p12. Experiences were different in the Caribbean where there was quite an extensive sexual division of labour. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for this point.

59 Davis, 1981, p10.

60 Davis, 1981, p10.

61 To facilitate the beating of pregnant slaves, they were made to lie over a hole dug for the purpose—Davis, 1981, p11.

62 Davis, 1981, p10.

63 Wives of slaveholders were oppressed through the family and also benefitted from the system of slavery.

64 Chris Harman makes a point about single women and women whose children have grown up not being able to escape the effects of oppression that pervade the whole of society. See Harman, 1984.

65 Brenner and Ramas make this point. See Brenner, 2000, p28.

66 Bennett, 1996.

67 Bennett, 1996, p26.

68 Bennett, 1996, p34.

69 Bennett, 1996, p149.

70 Vogel, 2014, pp169-170.

71 Vogel, 2014, p172.

72 Vogel, 2014, p181. Unfortunately, this section in Vogel’s book is somewhat marred by the fact that she believed that Albania, the former USSR, China and Cuba, where there was inequality between capital and labour and men and women and a lack of democratic rights for national minorities, were socialist societies—Vogel, 2014, p180 including footnote 26.

73 As did Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Leon Trotsky and others. Neither does Quick see that participation in social production gives working class women the social weight to fight for their liberation as part of the working class—Quick, 1977, p48.

74 Vogel, 2014, pp174-5.

75 Vogel, 2014, p176.

76 Vogel does not grasp the way in which the closing of inequalities at the level of equal rights intensifies class inequalities and thereby the oppression of women—Vogel, 2014, p172.

77 Vogel, 2014, p176.

78 Lebowitz, 2003.

79 Lebowitz quotes Michael Burawoy: “two anomalies confront Marxism as its refutation: the durability of capitalism and the passivity of its working class”—Lebowitz, 2003, p17. See Vidal, 2018, for a discussion of what he terms the “gravedigger thesis”. Neither Lebowitz nor Bhattacharya offer historical analyses for the decline in class struggle in the US.

80 Lebowitz, 2003, p61.

81 Lebowitz, 2003, p161.

82 Lebowitz, 2003, p63. Italics in the original. It is tempting to respond to this alternative formulation by asking why the level of hunger on the planet has not already led to revolutionary change.

83 Marx, 1864.

84 Marx, 1852. As is often the case, “Menschen” in the German original is translated as “men”, whereas it could be translated as “people”.

85 Vidal, 2018.

86 Lebowitz, 2003, pp24-44.

87 Lebowitz, 2003, p40. Referring to Marx, 1976, p655.

88 Lebowitz, 2003, p40.

89 Lebowitz, 2003, p44.

90 Lebowitz, 2003, p73.

91 Lebowitz, 2003, p43. Just because socially necessary needs can be known at one point doesn’t mean they have to remain constant. That is surely the point of Marx talking about “historical” needs.

92 Marx, 1865, p26.

93 Marx, 1865, p25.

94 Marx, 1865, p30.

95 Lebowitz, 2003, p75.

96 Vogel refers to this distinction when discussing the nature of domestic labour—Vogel, 2014, p66.

97 Vogel, 2017, pxi.

98 Mohandesi and Teitelman, 2017, pp37-67.

99 Ferguson, 2017, pp112-130. I think, though, that Ferguson underplays the way in which childhood is increasingly corralled by the impact of consumer society and the influence of the market on teaching and learning in schools.

100 Bhattacharya, 2017c.

101 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p68. Here Bhattacharya seems to be overlooking the profound racist divisions that have plagued the working class movement in the US since slavery. In Britain, also afflicted by racism, the attitudes to and representation of both women and black and Asian workers in the unions have been transformed since the 1950s, see Prasad, 2017.

102 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p68 and p86.

103 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p68.

104 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p69.

105 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p69.

106 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p69.

107 Quoted in Bhattacharya, 2017c, p82.

108 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p86.

109 Marx, 1855. Thanks to Alex Callinicos for this point.

110 This had the additional merit of being the beginning of the end of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

111 Lebowitz, 2003, p188.

112 Luxemburg, 1906.

113 Lebowitz, 2003, pp189-196. This is what allows Lebowitz to discuss what would need to change about a workers’ state without embedding it in a discussion of the revolutionary process needed to get there.

114 Prasad, 2017.

115 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p86.

116 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p89.

117 Moody, 2017, p24.

118 Moody, 2017, pp25 and 27.

119 Moody, 2017, p60.

120 Moody, 2017, p164 and chapter five.

121 The concentration of hotels in a place like New York provides workers objectively with substantial economic leverage.

122 Sherry, 2017, p75.

123 For a full analysis of the strike by some of its leading participants, see Høgsbjerg, Hearn, Morelli and Royle, 2018.

124 Arruzza, 2017, , p194.

125 See the report in The Guardian—Topping, 2017.

126 Lenin, 1901.

127 Bhattacharya, 2017a. Presentation transcribed by the author from the video recording.

128 Bhattacharya, 2017a.

129 Bhattacharya, 2017a.

130 Bhattacharya, 2017a.

131 Bhattacharya, 2017a. The quote from Marx about the Irish and “the most animal minimum of needs” is taken from Marx, 1973, p285.

132 Bhattacharya, 2017a.

133 Bhattacharya, 2017c, p87.

134 A point I have not dealt with here. See Callinicos, 2014, pp197-198 for a discussion on this point.

135 Marx, 1870.

136 Bhattacharya makes some of these points indirectly when writing about the impact of neoliberalism—Bhattacharya, 2017c, p91.

137 This is the implication in the passage quoted from Bhattacharya.

138 Marfleet, 2018, p10.

139 Thanks to Alex Callinicos for this last point.

140 This is also true for Germany, a point made by Volkhard Mosler.

141 Cliff, 1983.

142 Teachers recruited from South Africa and India in the early part of the 21st century were absorbed into the existing pay and conditions of teachers from the UK and into the unions. That is not to say that black teachers did not face racial discrimination in the workplace, for example in promotion.

143 O’Carroll, 2018.

144 Marx, 1864. Thanks to Volkhard Mosler for making me aware of this source.

145 Marx and Engels, 1976, p48.

146 Marx, 1864.

147 Quoted by Mosler, 2018, p12. My translation.

148 Liebknecht, 1907.

149 Engels, 1884, in the chapter on “The monogamous family”.


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