Feminist theory – a socialist critique

To attempt to write a socialist critique of feminist theory is difficult. This is not the result of any ambiguity in the attitude of socialists towards the role of women workers in capitalism, but because of the difficulty in finding a single body of theory that can be identified as feminist. While most feminists would agree that women are frequently discriminated against in such areas as employment, education and pay, and by the laws relating to taxation and social security, and would also argue that women feel oppressed in other ways too (for example by their frequent depiction in the media as either sex-objects or housewives), their analyses of the causes of such inequality vary considerably as do the strategies they adopt for overcoming it. Broadly speaking though, feminists can be categorised into three groups: liberal feminists, radical feminists and socialist feminists.


Liberal feminists tend to regard women’s inequality as an unfortunate relic of former, less civilised times at a point in history when such attitudes are no longer appropriate. Their remedy for this situation is large doses of “justice” and “equal opportunities” for women backed up by the appropriate legislation. Such equal opportunities legislation as already exists on the statute books in most developed countries is indicative of this approach and, indeed, shows its inherent limitations. Equal opportunities and pay can be, and have been, granted and then withdrawn in accordance with what employees think they can afford and what they think they can get away with. Since the Equal Pay Act was passed in Britain in 1975 the gap between male and female earnings has actually widened. Liberal feminists seek equality between the sexes but within the context of the existing capitalist economic system. So the division of society into the capitalist dass (the minority who own and control the wealth and the means of producing and distributing it) and the working class (the majority of us who produce the wealth through our labour but do not benefit from it) would still remain, together with all the suffering and injustice that that system entails.

It is true that equality of opportunity might result in more women as company directors, judges, politicians, financiers and other capitalist parasites, but this is irrelevant to women in the working class. Most working class women already work, selling their labour power in factories, offices, schools and hospitals. For them it is not equal opportunities legislation which has given them a new “right to work” but economic need which has forced them to do so. While their lives might be made a little easier if they received equal pay for their work and if there were better child care facilities, it should be remembered that their pay and conditions of work could only, ever be equal to male members of the working class – they would never be equal to those of their employers, male or female. Similarly the oppressive necessity that forced them into the labour market in the first place would remain. Equal opportunity within capitalism amounts only to the equal opportunity to be exploited.


Radical feminists claim (with little evidence to back up their claim) that there is a fundamental and deep-seated conflict of interests between men and women and that this is the main division of society cutting across divisions of class, race or religion. They maintain that all women are exploited by all men; that men, whatever their status or class, are always in the role of the oppressor and women always in the role of the oppressed; that it is in the interests of men to maintain this system of patriarchy and that they will endeavour to do so at all costs using violence or the threat of violence to defend their privileged position if necessary. Radical feminists have revitalised traditional stereotypes of men and women, suggesting that men are naturally aggressive, competitive and hierarchical while women are pacific and co-operative. As a result they claim that most social ills such as war, violent crime and racism arise out of patriarchy and so the overthrow of male domination would cure not only sexual inequality but also just about every social problem.

The focus of radical feminists has been the sexual abuse of women by men, the use of violence and the threat of violence. Their solution, apart from short-term attempts to draw attention to their cause by means of attacks on sex-shops (seen as symbols of aggressive male sexuality) and the picketing of cinemas showing films deemed to be offensive to, or exploitative of, women, is rarely made explicit in practical terrns. Most do not actively seek to bring about the feminist revolution that they advocate in theory, but instead often choose to live within the existing system in separatist, all-women enclaves. This reflects their mistaken analysis of the problem – that is that men are necessarily the enemy. Most women know from their own experience that this is not the case. To suggest that all men are in more powerful positions than all women is clearly ridiculous. Is Margaret Thatcher to be considered to be in a less powerful position than a male factory worker just because she is a woman? Is Ronald Reagan powerful because he is a man rather than because he is president of the United States? Are factory bosses more powerful because they are male or because they own wealth and are therefore in a position to exploit the work force? And what of women bosses? Do they have no power over their male employees?

Radical feminists constitute a tiny minority of women; the society they want to bring into being has little appeal for the majority of the population, male or female – not only does it seek to separate the sexes but also to regulate in a totalitarian manner their sexual relations, literature, films and theatre; their analysis of the causes of sexual inequality is crucially flawed with their own “revolutionary programrne” such as it is, does not specify what it is to be its motive force.


“Socialist-feminists” have attempted to reconcile socialism with feminism. On the one hand, most of them would accept the fact that capitalist society is necessarily a class-divided society from which the working class can never benefit. But, on the other hand, they want to incorporate the notion that society is also divided by gender. For this reason they reject the kind of Marxist analysis that the World Socialist movement has found useful in trying to understand the nature of capitalist society on the grounds that it fails to take account of what they see as the specific nature of women’s oppression, or their particular position within capitalism. Women workers, they argue, because of their roles as unpaid mothers and domestic workers, do not have as strong links with their class as they do with their sex, and socialism, with its emphasis on class, cannot be the means of achieving their liberation.

This strand of feminism grew from three roots. Firstly, many “socialist-feminists” received their early political education in the left wing political movements and parti es of the late sixties and early seventies. Within these organisations women of ten found themselves subjected to the same kind of abuse and belittling of their abilities that they had come to expect from those on the right of the political spectrum. They felt that their concerns were being dismissed as “women’s issues” and therefore as trivial and unimportant. They correctly recognised that such organisations which spoke of freedom and equality but which failed to show respect towards their own women supporters, had little to offer. However, such women unfortunately drew the further conclusion that this was a fundamental shortcoming of socialism rather than of the particular organisations which had mis-appropriated that name to describe a politics which had very little to do with socialism as we understand it in the World Socialist Movement: that is, a system of society based up on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for produeing and distributing wealth, by and in the interests of the whole community.

Secondly, many women had seen how, despite some early improvements in their position, women in the Russian empire were no better off under “communism” than they had been before 1917 and in many ways they were even worse off. Again it was wrongly believed that this meant that socialism had nothing to offer women since its apparent application in other parts of the world had so singularly failed to bring about women’s liberation: women were still work-horses on the one hand and breeders of the next generation on the other. What they failed to see however was that Russian-style “communism” had not brought about the liberation of the male workers either. This was hardly surprising since the essential elements of the capitalist system remained intact production for profit and the wages system.

Feminists also looked at the writings of socialist theorists like Karl Marx and criticised them for seeming not to take into account of what they regarded as the different circumstances which affect women as workers, most notably the fact that most women are, at least for part of their lives, not directly engaged in “productive” work outside the home because they are bringing up children and doing the multiplicity of chores that are entailed by “housework”. It was felt that this difference between men and women was sufficiently wide to render women’s links with the working class at best tenuous.

This is a mistaken view and one which plays into the hands of the capitalist class by causing divisions amongst workers. What was Marx’s view of women workers? While it is true that he did not address himself to the question of women’s oppression as women, he did consider the role of women in so far as they are a part of the working class, and, where they are exploited in some way differently from men by virtue of their gender, then he also deals specifically with women. Further, Marx thought that women’s entry into the production proeess was necessary, and ultimately progressive, development within capitalism. It was a necessary development in that capitalists constantly strive to reduce their production costs in order to maximise their profits and since women’s (and children’s) labour could be bought more cheaply than that of men’s it was inevitable that they would be recruited as wage-labourers as soon as the level of sophistication of machinery in factories was such that physical strength need no longer be considered. (lndeed, when labour was in short supply, women and children have been, and in some places still are, employed regardless of their physical fitness to do the job and the damage to their health that results.) So far then, it does not seem that women’s role in capitalism is very different to that of men’s: they are hired and fired, and exploited in accordance with the dictates of capital.


Although many women spend a considerable part of their lives engaged full or part-time in domestic labour and child care, this does not make them any less members of the working class. Part of the problem is caused by the fact that housework is under-valued and is frequently regarded as not really work at all. This in turn is partly due to the ignorance of many men as to what is entailed in housework and child care. (It happens in other cases too, that someone else’s job seems less arduous than our own because we don’t fully appreciate what it involves.) A further cause of confusion is the idea of “productive work”. Marx writes:

“The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes to the self-valorisation of capital.” (K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Chapter 16, Penguin Books, 1976, p.644).

But to say that a person is “productive” in this senes is to say nothing about that person’s class position – a person may be productive or unproductive on this view and yet still be a member of the working class if they do not own or control the means to produce or distribute wealth and are forced to sell their labour power for a wage or salary or to draw state benefit if capital no longer needs their labour, or if they must depend for their livelihood on the wages or salary of someone else. Also the first part of Marx’s statement quoted above is modified by the second part so that it includes those who contribute to the production of surplus value. Marx saw that as capitalism develops, the production proeess becomes more co-operative in nature as labour becomes more specialised and the division of labour more highly developed:

“In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary for the individual himself to put his hand to the object; it is sufficient for him to be an organ of the collective labourer, and to perform any one of its subordinate functions (K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, pp.643-4).

Similarly Marx recognised that reproduction of labour power was an important part of this total process:

“The individual consumption of the worker, whether it occurs inside or outside the workshop, inside or outside the labour process, remains an aspect of the production and reproduction of capital, just as the cleaning of machinery does…” (K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Chapter 23, p.718).

On this analysis then, the working class should be regarded as the “collective labourer” contributing to production either by making goods themselves, by contributing one of the many services needed to keep the wheels of the capitalist machine running smoothly, or by forming part of the reserve army of the unemployed. Even if we then make a distinction between those who receive a wage for what they do and those who do not (such as housewives) both groups can still be seen as productive in that they contribute to the overall capitalist proeess.

Domestic workers clearly are productive in this sense but in any case should consider themselves as full members of the working class since they do not have any share in the wealth owned by the capitalist class. It is also important to recognise that domestic work and child care are not in themselves uninteresting or menial (certainly not more so than many paid jobs) but it is often the context in which they are carried out which makes them seem so (e.g. the isolation of many young mothers and their lack of money).

“Socialist” feminists are thus creating a theoretical problem, and divisions within the working class where none really exists. Their tactic of forming women’s caucuses, within trade unions for example, is misguided and counter-productive since it both divides the working class, making it appear that men and women have conflicting interests, and also marginalises women and so-called women’s issues.


The extent to which feminist theories have highlighted the ways in which women’s subject status is reinforced and maintained through social and cultural conditioning should not be under-estimated. Women need to be confident of their ability to engage in political activity and to believe that they are not the passive, helpless creatures that much of their education and conditioning has encouraged them to be. But to use these insights as the basis for arguments in favour of all-women political movements, or women’s sections, however socialist their proclaimed intent, rests on a faulty assumption about society and has politically damaging results. That assumption is that in some way women’s oppression is fundamentally different from that experienced by working class men. Whilst it is undeniable that women do experience certain forms of economic, cultural and social oppression and discrimination as a result of their gender, the economic basis for exploitative social relations is not gender-specific. To argue that women’s experience of capitalism is crucially different from that of men risks falling into precisely the same trap of sex stereotyping that the feminist movement itself has struggled to resist. That is to say that women’s roles as wives and mothers define them more completely than do their roles as workers..

If socialism is to have any chance of success and if the causes of oppression of women and every other oppressed group within society are to be removed for good, then we should seek to emphasise the essential similarities in lives and experiences of members of the working class irrespective of sex or race, rather than to draw attention to any superficial differences between them.

Socialism must include the liberation of women as a crucial part of the wider project of human emancipation, but of course that is not going to happen in an automatic or inevitable way. The World Socialist movement cannot permit sexism to flourish within itself. For a political organisation to be at all credible it must embody the attitudes, values and practices that it seeks to institute in a future socialist society. Socialism is about liberation of the whole human race, men and women, which is why the socialist movement. in theory and practice makes no distinction between people on the basis of sex or race. Our strength lies in unity and co-operation, not in separatism and division.

Janie Percy-Smith

(World Socialist No.5 Summer 1986)