1980s >> 1980 >> no-906-february-1980

Sex, Class and Socialism

The Russian novelist Turgenev once said of George Sand: ‘What a good man she was and what a kind woman’. Rousseau argued in Emile that education was a male prerogative, that women should devote themselves exclusively to the pleasing of men. Aristotle had been somewhat ruder: in his view ‘women were, as it were, deformed males’. The hostility of some modern feminists can be explained in part as a reaction against views of this kind; and yet it is incontestably true that to be a good writer at certain periods in history—indeed, a good almost anything at all—one had to be male. Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804 neatly summed up the relationship of the sexes: ‘Woman is given to man in order to have children. Woman belongs to man as the fruit tree belongs to the gardener’. The view that women were created for the use of men was given its most extreme expression much earlier, however. Eve, according to Moses, was one of Adam’s ribs.

Evidence of modern inequality of treatment between the sexes is more prosaic. In 1976, 71 per cent of the world labour force was male while 45 per cent of unpaid family workers were women. The percentage of illiterate women was higher than that of men. In the social sciences 25 per cent of the workforce was female, in law 15 per cent, in engineering 5 per cent and in the armed forces 2 per cent. However, half of all elementary school teachers were women. (Quoted in Elise Boulding: Women in the 20th Century World.)

There is firm evidence, then, that women and men have been treated unequally throughout history. The feminist and socialist responses to the questions of how this came about and what should be done about it differ fundamentally.

The Cause

Early feminists considered lack of education and an inferior position in law as the causes of women’s subordination. If, they argued, women had certain rights, such as that to be killed, then they ought to have others. The early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft put it thus: ‘If women have the right to go to the guillotine they can have property rights’.

Within their limitations, the Stantons in the United States and the Pankhursts in Britain achieved a measure of success. Laws were passed giving women rights of property, and today their counterparts press for the strict implementation of equal pay and equal rights at work legislation. The trouble with this kind of programme, however, is that it fails to explain why women have been treated as inferiors. It mistakes a symptom for a cause. This superficiality led to a mindless militancy, typified by the suffragette Ida Alexa Ross Wylie:

    “To my astonishment I found that women could at a pinch outrun the average London Bobby. Their aim with a little practice became good enough to land ripe vegetables in ministerial eyes, their wits sharp enough to keep Scotland Yard running around in circles and looking very silly. The day that with a straight left to the jaw, I sent a fair-sized CID officer into the orchestra pit of the theatre was the day of my corning of age. . .”

An indication of the depth of these women’s thinking was the almost total collapse of the movement after the achievement of the vote.

In the United States and elsewhere in the late 1960s, a new women’s movement arose which attempted to fill some of the gaps in the programme by identifying the cause of female subordination. Under the influence of the ‘counterculture’ many groups in society — black people, students and others — became disenchanted with some of the effects of advanced capitalism. They thought that people were becoming the passive recipients of the ‘ideologies’ of advertising and the mass media. Particularly relevant to women was the exposure of the way that capitalism exploited women’s sexuality in order to sell its products. Formed with the general and rather vague aim of doing something about the position of women in society, the movement has grown considerably and embraces persons of many different political persuasions and parties.

Sexual Reality

One influential, though small, group within the movement centres around the ideas of Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex. According to Firestone, Marx’s Materialist Conception of History ought to be extended into the realm of the sexual, for ‘beneath the economic, reality is psycho-sexual’. There are, she claims, two basic classes: men and women; and the origin of this division lies in biology.  ‘Sex class sprang from a biological reality: men and women were created different and not equal.’ Before the advent of birth control, women were at the continual mercy of their biology with menstruation, menopause and wet nursing.

Firestone ‘extends’ Marx and Engels’ analysis simply by altering their words Here is her version of part of Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

    “Historical materialism is that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historical events in the (economic development of society) dialectic of sex: the division of society into biological classes for the purposes of procreative production and the struggle of these classes with one another: in the changes in the modes of (production and exchange) marriage, reproduction and child care created by these struggles. . . ” 

    (The italicised words are Firestone’s insertions; Engels’ original text appears in brackets.)

Instead of the economic, Firestone argues, the sexual-reproductive area of society furnishes the real basis upon which the superstructure of economic. juridical and political institutions arises.

What, then, is to be done? If women’s subordination is biologically determined, the consistent answer would appear to be: change female biology. Firestone agrees. Just as for Marx a condition of socialism is working class control of the means of production, so for her a condition of ‘classless’ society is women controlling their means of reproduction. And this means ceasing to bear as well as rear children. for ‘pregnancy is barbaric: it is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species’. It is proposed instead that test tube babies (made possible by developments in embryology and cybernetics) will facilitate a ‘qualitative change in humanity’s basic relation to both its production and its reproduction’. These new relations will make possible the destruction of the class system and of the family.

The difficulty with this proposition is that it explains social and cultural differences between peoples in biological terms only. More importantly it fails — as it must — in the attempt to transform a theory by altering some of its concepts but not others. According to the Materialist Conception of History, the economic base of society determines the nature of juridical and political institutions and the consciousness that a people has of itself. Further, changes in the economic base are explained in terms of class struggle and the conflict between developing forces of production and the relations of production. Feudalism disappeared because its social relations were not in the interest of the rising bourgeoisie; capitalism will be replaced by socialism when, with a sufficiently developed technology, the working class becomes conscious of its interests.

Firestone wants to argue that ‘sexual-reproductive’ reality conditions the economic, the ideological and other social phenomena. What, then, could correspond to the forces and relations of production within ‘sexual-reproductive’ reality? And what could correlate with the class struggle? If we are to be literal, the forces of production are replaced by the sexual organs — the ‘tools’. For the analogy to hold we need to say that as the sexual organs change and develop so they come into conflict with the relations of reproduction. Maybe the male organ grew much smaller with the change to the Punaluan family and smaller still with the institution of monogamy. But all this is approaching the realm of pure fantasy. And the analogy is clearly invalid when we examine family relations over the course of history, The early changes were due to the simple operation of a survival mechanism and can be explained in terms of biological evolution, while the later came about through the operation of social constraints.

In socialist theory, the history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggle. Under capitalism, it is in the interests of the ruling class to extract as much surplus value from the workers as possible, and one way to do this is by keeping wages low. The interests of the working class are necessarily the opposite. If we interpose Firestone’s theory, however, it is only with couples like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (as they were) or in partnerships where the woman gets satisfaction by ensuring that the man gets none, or vice versa, that the interests of the sexes are necessarily opposed. Firestone’s theory therefore rests on shifting sands and is of no use in the struggle to change the inferior social status of women.

Class Division

For the materialist there is no blanket exploitation of women by men. The subordination of one sex to another was coincident with the division of society into classes. Prior to the beginning of civilisation-the period of written history — there existed primitive communist societies in which nobody was afforded superior status. The period from primitive communism to the beginning of civilisation saw the growth of taboos, first on child-parent relationships and then on those between brother and sister, culminating in the ‘pairing’ family. (For one vital source see Engels: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) Monogamy, however, arose as a consequence of social evolution. This form of family, based as it is on the supremacy of the man, arises alongside the advent of private property. Women’s biological commitment to child bearing meant that it tended to be the man who acquired property and instruments of production, and once men had these things they wanted to keep them. So the monogamous family has as its aim the begetting of children of undisputed paternity and women’s role is essentially a childbearing one. So, to quote Engels: ‘The first class antagonism which appears in history (it begins at civilisation) coincides with the development of the antagonism between men and women in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male’.

It should be emphasised once more that we are not talking of a consistent oppression of one sex by another. In the early stages of capitalism, for example, women enjoyed certain rights and privileges which they later lost. In early 17th century Britain, where some production was still organised in accordance with guild regulations, women in certain trades were protected against male competition. These rights often related to the work of women in the household, for at that stage domestic and industrial work were not clearly distinct. ‘Spinster’ meant not an old maid, but a woman who supported herself by spinning; a ‘brewster’ was a woman who supported herself by brewing beer. Moreover, in spite of Puritanism, women were not thought of as sexually inferior, as is borne out by this 17th century proverb: ‘Women are saints in the church, angels in the street, devils in the kitchen and apes in bed’.

With the increases in the productivity of labour and with changes in the organisation of production these protective features disappeared. The wives of those who owned property were educated to please men, while those who were married to wage slaves simply cooked and looked after the children. The man’s wage sufficed to maintain his family as well as to reproduce his own labour power. Then, in the 19th century, when capitalism began to need a greater workforce, part of the worst exploited sections of the working class was composed of women. Being physically weaker and previously out of work, they provided a cheap source of labour. In Capital Marx cites the case of a milliner who died from overwork (she laboured sixteen and a half hours a day in 1863). He further mentions that women were used instead of horses for hauling canal boats because:

    “the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, whereas that required to maintain the woman is below all calculation.”

The capitalist nonetheless needs labour power—he cannot have part of the workforce dying off. So these extreme conditions were altered and laws were passed improving the conditions of the working class.

Class society, then, creates the conditions for women’s inferior treatment. If the wives of the property owning class are restricted to the home, it is all too easy for the men to reap the benefits. For the same reason, the working man’s wage must suffice for himself and for his family. Whatever form the subordination of women has assumed, it is a consequence of the class division of society; in the case of capitalism, the division between owners and non-owners of the means of producing wealth. Before the advent of class society there was no reason for one sex to treat the other as inferior because there were no owners and non-owners of property, and therefore no need for competition.

It is important to point out that there are female members of the exploiting class. Working class women, by contrast, share with others in their class the condition of wage slavery. Whichever form it takes, whether it is real prostitution or working on the assembly line, they have to sell part of themselves —  their labour power — in order to live. As Marx put it: Prostitution is only the specific form of the universal prostitution of the working class’.

Instead of criticising men, women ought to be criticising capitalism and working for socialism, a classless society of common ownership. In such a society there is no reason to suppose that women will have to become men or men women.

Alison Waters

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