Letters to the Editors: Sex Roles
I would like to comment on “Who Will Do the Dirty Work?” (Socialist Standard, July 1981). To support your theory that people will do “dirty work” happily under socialism, you use the example that women “sweep and scrub the floors, dust and polish, do the washing and the washing up, change the nappies and worse . . . for nothing” and that they do it better because it’s motivated by social need and not money. What rubbish! Women don’t do housework “most” of their time as the majority go out to work in low-paid, unskilled and unorganised jobs and then come home and do all these things while men put their feet up.
Your failure to question the sexual division of labour (in any of your few articles on women) is a result of textbook Marxism both Marx and Engels failed to question “women’s role”. Housework is boring, degrading, tiring, isolating and unpaid, considered to be only “women’s work”. The fact that those who can employ domestics (usually women) and that “wages for housework” is an increasingly popular demand, shows that women don’t do housework because they’re motivated by “social need” but because they have no choice in the matter.
There will still be work in socialism, and unless the sexual division of labour is questioned now women will be relegated to the mothreing/servicing roles in society, which plays a large part in their inferior status (even Marx and Engels recognised that). I was very surprised that a woman wrote this article (perhaps she doesn’t mind making the tea, washing up and typing at your meetings). Using unpaid housework as an example to back up your argument makes your case for socialism less than convincing, especially to women who otherwise are probably sympathetic to socialist ideas.
The article referred to by Ms Howard was not about the problems of women in capitalism but about the nature of work and people’s attitudes towards it. It implied neither approval nor disapproval of housework in itself. The point it made was that in socialism the conditions that make work of any kind a chore rather than a source of satisfaction would disappear.
The reason why housework was mentioned was that it seemed an appropriate example of something that most people regard as “dirty work” but that isn’t done for money. This showed that money was not the only motivation that will get people to do “dirty work” and that people will do it for “social need”. Ms Howard disagrees and says that “women have no choice” about doing housework. We find this an overstatement. There is certainly a good deal of social pressure on women to engage in housework, but there is no absolute compulsion — any more than there is an absolute compulsion to be a conformist politically. It may be easier or more comfortable to conform, but this does not amount to there being no choice in the matter.
We feel too that Ms Howard seriously underestimates the number of women who actually choose to spend time and energy making their house look as attractive as possible, either because — rightly or wrongly — they feel it to be necessary for their family’s sake (“social need”) or simply because they get satisfaction from it. Whether one approves of or looks down on this kind of satisfaction is beside the point. The fact is that they are willingly doing what most people consider to be “dirty work” without getting a wage for it.
The answer to Ms Howard’s view that “the sexual division of labour must be questioned now” is that it already is being questioned — by capitalism. Evidence of this is the increasing access women now have to occupations traditionally reserved for men. This is because capitalism needs to make the most profitable use of the human energies available. To push for something like “equality of job opportunity for women” within capitalism might indeed make women less bound to “mothering- servicing roles”, but only to the extent to which it suited the profit-making capacity of the system. And it would do nothing, absolutely nothing, to make people question why they have to hire themselves out for wages in the first place. It is only when people no longer have to work for a wage that they will truly be able to do the work they want to do. Nobody will be relegated to a particular kind of activity, because everyone will be free to choose. Nor will any kind of work bear any kind of stigma, so that — who knows? — the “mothering-servicing roles” might well become very popular among both men and women!
I subscribe monthly to your Socialist Standard. Frankly, I am very impressed by the honest “grass-roots” approach which you take towards such subjects as world nuclear disarmament, for example. However, there are a few passing points which I would like to be answered:
(a) In the light of your stance on War in general (Socialist Standard, February 1981 — “Refuse to be Sitting Targets”), how are pacifists wishing the foundation of a true socialist society going to overthrow hundreds of powerful capitalists in the world (who will definitely use the force of arms to protect their privileges) without the use of weaponry?
(b) How will unarmed socialists persuade “militia workers” — soldiers world-wide, and a potent force in themselves — to disarm and thus surrender their “livelihood”?
(c) Could you please in your reply put forward the SPGB’s argument against administration: i.e, without a representative administration, how will society be run smoothly and efficiently?
(d) How will socialists persuade workers brought up under the monetary system to accept the transition from the gold standard to a “new system of social organisation in which the means of production and distribution of wealth . . . are commonly owned and democratically controlled . . .” by all members of society?
Having said all this however, I thoroughly enjoy and approve of your journal: so, fellow socialists. carry on the campaign — there are not many of us in evidence.
(a) and (b) The Socialist Party of Great Britain is not a pacifist organisation. The reason we are opposed to violence as a means of establishing socialism is that we see no necessity for it. When the majority of workers want it, they will be able to use the already existing — machinery the vote — to bring it into being. And when that happens, what will “hundreds of powerful capitalists” be able to do against the conscious, collective action of millions of workers? The power of the capitalists comes from their political control and will exist no more once this control is taken over by a democratic majority of informed, convinced socialists. Nor is it easy to imagine members of the armed forces — who are also workers and would also be socialists — turning their arms against friends, relatives and fellow workers to defend a system the majority no longer wanted. Would they not rather surrender a futile, negative livelihood like soldiering for a life of voluntary cooperative work that will give them personal satisfaction and a sense of social purpose?
(c) The SPGB has no opposition to administration as such. We wonder what gave you this impression. Socialism will certainly need many and efficient administrators. Perhaps you are thinking of our opposition to political administrations, to governments. These are expressions of class division in society and will disappear in socialism. Government over people will be replaced by administration of things. Regarding “representative administration”, a socialist society will obviously have to delegate certain important organisational tasks to administrators; but they will have no special power or prestige over the rest of the community. They will just be carrying out socially necessary work and there is no reason to suppose that, if they have chosen this kind of work (all work will be voluntary), they will not carry it out smoothly and efficiently.
(d) We cannot hope that our efforts alone will be enough to make socialists of the millions of workers who have been conditioned by capitalism into thinking that the buying and selling system is necessary and eternal. Our argument is that from within capitalism itself come the forces (the SPGB is one of them) to convince workers that the present system, despite its immense productive power and continued raising of expectations, cannot solve the problems it produces and cannot operate in the interests of the working class. There is of course no absolute guarantee that this will happen but certain long-term trends make it increasingly likely. Capitalism, for its own needs, has already had to provide the premises for socialism — a large, organised, highly trained working class driven by its conditions to constantly look for alternatives; rapid worldwide communications and spreading of ideas; the possibility of a vast abundance of goods sufficient to satisfy all human needs; recurrent social problems which even under capitalism can often only be approached on a world scale (pollution, nuclear threat, terrorism, for example) and which thereby spread among workers a consciousness of the need for global solutions.
I subscribe to the Socialist Standard and like you, consider that Marx’s labour theory of value provides the explanation for the origin of surplus value in general and profit in particular. However, I should be grateful if you were to clarify how automated production is accounted for by the labour theory of value. Do you think that the share of surplus value would be determined by the capital invested, notwithstanding the absence of humans from the productive process?
I believe that the wording of article 8 is too ambitious. 1 refer to one specific word really: banner. As I understand, it, your party refutes any suggestion that it should have a banner as such, so surely the presence of this word in article 8 causes confusion and invites unnecessary criticism.
As for the reference to mustering under our banner, we doubt very much that this is a significant reason why workers are not joining the SPGB. The term is clearly metaphorical, as are many other phrases in the Declaration of Principles. If Stephen Shields attends any of the meetings of his local branch he will meet with political clarification, but no banners.
We would like Ms McDermott to explain to us precisely how politically uneducated, non-socialist workers are going to be able to stop the threat of nuclear annihilation within capitalism. Until she does, she will find it difficult to convince us that we are the ones who are wasting our time.