Towards a Marxist theory of gender?

Heather Brown’s book Marx on Gender and the Family was released to great acclaim. Estelle Cooch interviewed her about Engels, intersectionality and feminism today. This interview was originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine.


There has been a shift from looking at Engels’ Origins to looking at Marx’s writings in Capital – why and where do you think this shift has come from?

I would argue that Capital provides a better ground for theory and activism today for feminism. Engels’ Origin of the Family, deals primarily with precapitalist societies that had, for the most part, not been penetrated by capitalism. This was an important source for the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s because it did deal with these origins. Women were instinctively looking to the past to justify different relations between men and women. Engels showed that men were not naturally the dominant party and that in fact women had held a great deal more power in certain precapitalist societies. That seemed to be a logical starting point for socialist feminists in a period where women were fighting for a change in domestic and work relationships.

Today most men would say at least publically that women are relatively equal to men. In fact today there are arguments as to whether feminism is even necessary. I certainly would not go that far, with a large portion of women in low paying service sector jobs and the gender pay gap still in place, among a number of other issues. However, the climate is very different today than it was even 30 years ago. In this sense a study of capitalism for many seems to be a better starting point.

While Capital was not written to be a treatise on women’s rights, a great deal of space is devoted indirectly to these issues. The nearly 90 page chapter on the working day and the nearly 150 page chapter on machinery are devoted to the struggles of the working class and detail in particular the position of women and children in the workforce. Moreover, even where Marx is not directly talking about women such as when he discusses productive labour, I have argued that there is room for feminist interpretations. Thus, Marx seems to speak to those issues in political economy that may be more relevant for women today.

The way Cinzia Arruzza talks about what’s happening in both yours and Lise Vogel’s work is that both argue for a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression based on the fragmentary account in Marx, not the much more articulated account in Engels. Is that an accurate description?

In a certain way it is an accurate description. It would be difficult to argue that Engels did not clearly articulate a theory of gender oppression in Origin of the Family. However, it is not clear that Engels intended it to have the importance for the women’s movement that it has. Perhaps Engels was just being modest when he wrote in the preface that this was simply to introduce Lewis Henry Morgan to European audiences, but it is still hard to make the case that Engels wrote this to explicate a fully worked out view of gender relations.

As some have argued, perhaps he was using this as a means to win over parts of the socialist movement that had been influenced by Bebel’s work. This is certainly a very strong possibility, but trying to win political points in the movement still does not mean that Engels expected this to be the treatise on matters of gender. In fact, he wrote it up very quickly and intended to go back to it later to revise for a new edition—something that never happened. Certainly, Capital and other matters occupied a good portion of his time, however, it seems highly questionable that this would be viewed by Engels in any other way than as a polemic, or as he says, as a primer on Morgan.

Marx’s writings on gender and the family are certainly scattered throughout his work, perhaps illustrating in a way that they only played a marginal role in his work. On the other hand, in comparison to Engels, there seems to be more depth and diversity to his discussion of gender. It is a constant, albeit relatively secondary, interest in gender relations from his earliest publications to the Ethnological Notebooks from topics as wide as female suicide, women activists and the oppression of women workers. Comparing Engels’ Origin, Marx’s work while scattered provides more topics and opportunities to critique and expand upon. Engels, on the other hand, at least in Origin says relatively little about the situation of women in his own time other than saying that it is linked to a past oppression.

Perhaps one could argue as well that Marx is precisely more valuable today because he did not work out a theory of gender oppression as Engels did. Thus, we can look upon what Marx wrote in his fragments on gender and in other places seemingly amenable to feminist interpretation with less historical baggage. Had Marx made an explicit statement on gender, given his middle class sensibilities, it probably would not translate all that well today when the women’s movement has come so far. So in a way, Marx gives us the opportunity to use his theory a little more creatively as a result. Of course this does not mean that we can appropriate without understanding the context in which he lived and the limitations of Marx as a human being structured by very concrete social relations.

Both you and Vogel come across as skeptical about Engels. Do you think there is anything valuable in his writing on women?

I certainly am a bit skeptical about Engels and his value for formulating a Marxist theory of gender relations today, however, we cannot overlook the contribution that he has had historically. In a number of ways Origin of the Family was path breaking for its time. Engels was writing at a time of relative quiet for the radical feminist movement. There were few like Flora Tristan or others influenced by utopian socialists on gender.

Instead, in the socialist movement you had those like Proudhon, a clear misogynist, who had large followings. The fact that Engels, and Bebel for that matter, were writing on the issues of women’s earlier status is important. He was one of the few at the time focusing on women’s economic status. Moreover, Engels was a male in Victorian England writing on women’s sexuality and tried to take into account women’s perspective. While he may not have been all that successful in doing so, the fact that he tried deserves a great deal of credit.

Finally, one cannot understate the influence that Engels had on the socialist movement from the time that it was written up through the 1980s. His work was in many ways the classic treatment of women’s oppression throughout the period. As I mentioned earlier, Engels’ work on precapitalist societies resonated with many feminists of the period and created a starting point for discussing gender and class oppression. My work certainly benefits both directly from these earlier feminist insights as well as in the critiques that have been written on their perceived limitations. These individuals paved the way for the work that is being done today by Marxist feminists through their arguments that Marxism and feminism could be compatible even if the marriage was not a perfect one for these scholars.

People seem to be looking for unitary accounts which bring together Marxist and feminist analyses. What are the sticking points in creating a unitary approach?

As with any theory there are always sticking points and difficulties to them. Theory in some ways will always be an abstraction and the real world is relatively messy. The key to any theory is flexibility and the willingness in actual study to not be overly dogmatic and apply categories that do not necessarily fit. This is where I think that a certain understanding of Marx can be particularly helpful. His emphasis on dialectics and change is one that is very significant. In my book, I talk about this in terms of a potential for understanding categories like man and woman and nature and culture. These are not static categories, but ones that change as societies change. Certainly the notion of woman, for example, has undergone profound change since Marx’s time.

More specifically, the major sticking point for a unitary approach is the potential for one factor to be viewed as dominant all of the time. We cannot assume the dominance of class, race or gender at any particular time or place. Instead, there has to be a very dialectical relationship between theory and real world study. Theory should absolutely drive the questions that are asked, but the results should not be dogmatically interpreted.

Instead, the results should be a basis for refining theory when necessary. A unitary approach must remain flexible enough to ask the right questions and get answers that help deepen our understanding of the world today rather than just coming up with the ‘right’ answers.

What do you think of authors like Lise Vogel and Silvia Federici who attempt this, in their different ways?

Both Vogel and Federici provide valuable insight into gender relations for today. I have been rightly criticised for not giving enough credit to Vogel’s work. This was certainly an unintentional oversight, but an oversight nonetheless. Vogel significantly contributes to our understanding of Marxist feminism by providing a thorough and detailed account of the works of a number of important early Marxists including Marx himself, Engels, Lenin and Clara Zetkin. Vogel makes a very strong case for Engels’ argument being flawed because of his inclination to a dual systems type theory. This is a very important contribution as she also provides a very strong argument for a unitary approach that in a number of ways is consistent with my own approach.

Federici also makes some important contributions. Perhaps most important is her focus on work outside of the “productive sphere” especially involving peasant women. This is an important counter to those studies that tend to focus almost solely on capitalist production. Certainly, daily reproduction of the workforce is just as important to the functioning of capitalism as “productive work.” Moreover, Federici asks some very interesting questions about how these two seemingly different types of economies interact.

Intersectionality has emerged as a concept that claims to bring together the different experiences of oppressed groups. Is there anything in Marx’s writings that suggests what he would have thought about it? Do Marxists need intersectionality?

Intersectionality is one of those terms that has nearly as many definitions as users of the word. However, as you describe it, I think it can have some merit in Marxism. In the past Marxists have been often rightly criticised for economic reductionism. Gender and race can certainly be just as important. Capitalism is certainly capable of using divide and rule tactics to further its own goals under the right conditions. In fact, Marx notes this relatively directly in Capital when he talks about the US Civil War and the effects that that will have on the burgeoning labour movement:

“In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However, a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery”

While even a cursory look at the labour movement in the US shows Marx to be overly optimistic here, I think it illustrates that very different groups can and should come together on issues that affect them both. The difficulty is in organising so that all of these groups have a say in the agenda and implementation of the program.

There seems to have been a flourishing in writings on women and gender studies in recent years. Why do you think this is?

I think that this is particularly true in socialist and Marxist circles because of the issues that women face today. With the seemingly endless recession starting in 2007, women have been disproportionately affected. In the US, the case that I am most familiar with, economic downturn has been met with government austerity, as has of course been true virtually throughout the world. This austerity has meant not only massive job loss in the private sector but also in the public sector. For example, in the US in the period from 2007 to 2011, state and local governments eliminated about 765,000 jobs. Of these job losses, 70 percent were women and 20 percent were African American. This clear disparity has much to do with the fact that state and local governments have tended to provide greater job opportunities to these groups than the private sector has.

While many economists and the press are touting the fact that women have fared better since the recession and actually have had greater job growth than men, the fact is that a good portion of job creation has come in the form of service sector jobs. Those jobs tend to traditionally fall to women because of the gender division of labour that places them in ‘caring’ roles. As such, in most cases they tend to provide less remuneration and labour unions are more difficult to organise because of a lack of centralised work environment and gendered social norms. This is in addition to the fact that a lack of wage growth in nearly all sectors of the economy has meant that many at lower income levels cannot afford child care or nursing care for the elderly. As a result, women have disproportionately taken on these roles, either in addition to their jobs or facing the costs associated with private care options have opted to stay home. This, of course, is also related to the gender pay gap that remains in the US where women make about 77 cents on the dollar to men. All of this seems to point to a need to reevaluate the relationship between gender and class.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just started working on a new project, in certain ways similar to my book in that it looks to Marx’s corpus to see if there is the potential for developing a Marxist theory of ecology. Certainly there has been some very important work done already on this topic. However, many of these recent studies take up particular aspects of Marx’s and/or Engels’ work relative to environmental concerns rather than provide a complete philosophical perspective of Marx’s ecology. These studies certainly do provide an important starting point for a Marxian ecological perspective that does not carry the burden of Soviet style anti‑ecological development and in fact, illustrates that Marx’s perspectives on ecology could not be further away from these types of perspectives. Arguing that Marx and/or a Marxian perspective on the environment is compatible with particular ecological concerns is not enough, however. If we are able to find an alternative to the rapacious nature of capitalist economic development that leaves many behind, then we must create a fully worked out philosophical perspective on ecology that takes account of various forms of human oppression as well. I hope that this will begin to fill the philosophical gap and show that Marx provided an outline for a theory of the human impact on the environment that is useful for today, albeit with some problematic aspects. Looking at the whole of Marx’s work, I argue that his continuing emphasis on overcoming dualisms and especially regarding humanity’s relation to nature provides a starting point for a theory of ecology that can account for both human effects on nature and the seemingly parallel oppression based on race, gender and class without privileging one aspect over the others.

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