Marx's Theory Of Class Essay
Marx's definition of class. It's strengths and weaknesses. -
Although the concept of class has a central importance in Marxist theory, Marx does not
define it in a systematic form. Marx left this problem of producing a definition of the concept of
social class until much later. The manuscript of the third volume of Capital breaks off at the
moment when Marx was about to answer the question: 'What constitutes a class?' Even without
his definition of class, one can reconstruct how the term is to be understood in his writings.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents us with a theory of world history as a
succession of class struggles for economic and political power. The main classes of pre-capitalist
societies are stated as: 'freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and
journeyman'1. But the dominant theme of Western society is the conflict between the exploiting
bourgeoisie and the exploited proletariat. Thus it is the class structure of early capitalism, and the
class struggles of this form of society, which constituted the main reference point for the Marxist
theory of history. This is asserted by the Communist Manifesto's famous phrase, that 'the history
of all hitherto existing society is the history of all class struggles'2.
The history of 'civilized' society, for Marx, has been the history of different forms of class
exploitation and domination. It is the form of class domination present which determines the
general character of the whole social structure. For example, the growing of wheat using
traditional, non-mechanical techniques is compatible with a wide range of social relations of
production. A Roman citizen often owned slaves who worked his land growing wheat; a feudal
lord would seize the surplus wheat grown by the serf on the lands; the early capitalist farmers
began to employ landless laborers to do their manual work for a wage which was less than the
total value of the product which they created. In each case, wheat is grown on land by the labor
of men and women, but the social arrangements are totally different. There are totally different
class relationships, leading to totally different forms of society: ancient, feudal, and capitalist. The
one thing that unites these three arrangements is that in each case a minority class rules and takes
the surplus away from the producers. Each society, says Marx, embodies class exploitation based
on the relationships of production, or rather, the modes of production. The key to understanding
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October 2 and 4, 2002
A. Social Class and Class Structure
For Marx, the analysis of social class, class structures and changes in those structures are key to understanding capitalism and other social systems or modes of production. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels comment that
Analysis of class divisions and struggles is especially important in developing an understanding of the nature of capitalism. For Marx, classes are defined and structured by (i) who owns or possesses property and means of production and who performs t he work in the production process, (ii) the social relationships involved in work and labour, and (iii) who produces and who controls the surplus human social labour can produce. These economic factors more fully govern social relationships in capitalis m than they did in earlier societies. While earlier societies contained various strata or groupings which might be considered classes, these may have been strata or elites that were not based solely on economic factors – e.g. priesthood, knights, or mili tary elite.
Marx did not complete the manuscript that would have presented his overall view of social class. Many of his writings concern the class structures of capitalism, the relationship among classes the dynamics of class struggle, political power and classe s, and the development of a classless society, and from these a Marxian approach to class can be developed. Note that Hadden does not discuss class in any detail, although the class structure of capitalism is implicit in the labour theory of value and ca n be derived from this theory.
1. Classes in Capitalism
The main classes in capitalism are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, other classes such as landlords, petty bourgeoisie, peasants, and lumpenproletariat also exist, but are not primary in terms of the dynamics of capitalism.
a. Bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie or capitalists are the owners of capital, purchasing and exploiting labour power, using the surplus value from employment of this labour power to accumulate or expand their capital. It is the ownership of capita l and its use to exploit labour and expand capital are key here. Being wealthy is, in itself, not sufficient to make one a capitalist (e.g. managers in the state sector or landlords). To be a capitalist or member of the bourgeoisie, the owner of a sum o f money must be actively involved in capital accumulation, using this money to organize production, employ and exploit labour, and make the money self-expansive by using the surplus value to continue this cycle of capital accumulation.
Historically, the bourgeoisie began cities of medieval Europe, with the development of traders, merchants, craftspersons, industrialists, manufacturers and others whose economic survival and ability to increase wealth came from trade, commerce, or indu stry. In order for each of these to expand their operations, they needed greater freedom to market products and expand economic activities. In the struggle against the feudal authorities (church and secular political authorities) this class formed and t ook on a progressive role. That is, they helped undermine the old hierarchical and feudal order and create historical progress. For a segment of this class, wealth came by employing labour (industrial capital), for others it came through trade (merchan t capital), banking and finance (finance capital), or using land in a capitalist manner (landed capital). It was the industrial capitalists who employed labour to create capital that became the leading sector of the bourgeoisie, whose economic activities ultimately changed society. In Britain, this class became dominant politically and ideologically by the mid-nineteenth century. By employing workers, industrial capital created the surplus value that could take on the various forms such as profit, inte rest, and rent. This system has continued to expand, with capital accumulation by the bourgeoisie conducted on a global scale today.
b. Proletariat. The proletariat are owners of labour power (the ability to work), and mere owners of labour power, with no resources other than the ability to work with their hands, bodies, and minds. Since these workers have no property, in o rder to survive and obtain an income for themselves and their families, they must find employment and work for an employer. This means working for a capitalist-employer in an exploitative social relationship, that is, the worker works extra time for a ca pitalist.
This exploitative work relationship recreates or reproduces itself continually. If the capitalist-employer is to make profits and accumulate capital, wages must be kept low. This means that the proletariat is exploited, with the surplus time (above t hat required for providing subsistence) worked by the worker creating surplus products. While the worker produces, the products created by this labour are taken by the capitalist and sold – thus producing surplus value or profit for the capitalist but po verty for workers. This occurs each day of labour process, preventing workers from gaining ownership of property and recreating the conditions for further exploitation.
The antagonistic and contradictory nature of this system is evident as capitalists attempting to reduce wages and make workers work more intensively, while workers have exactly the opposite set of interests. Work and the labour process in the capitali st mode of production are organized so that workers remain propertyless members of the proletariat. The surplus products and value created by workers turns into capital, which is accumulated. There is a certain unity between the classes, in that capital ists and workers are in a social relationship with each other, but it is a unity of opposites, an antagonistic social relationship, with struggle between these two classes.
Historically, the proletariat emerged as the aristocracy began to suffer financial difficulties in the later middle ages. Many of those who were supported by working for the aristocracy lost their livelihood – the "disbanding of the feudal retainers a nd the dissolution of the monasteries." Using enclosures, changing the conditions of production in agriculture, and denying peasants access to common lands and resources, landowners transformed land into pasture land for raising sheep, or sold land to f armers who began to develop grain and livestock production. People who had subsisted on the land were denied the possibility of making a living on the land, and they become propertyless. Population growth was also considerable, and in some areas forced labour (slavery, indentured servants, poor, prison) was used. While some people subsisted in rural industry and craft production, factory production, with its cheaper mass produced commodities, began to undermine this in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen turies. Together these changes created a large class of landless and propertyless people who had no choice but to become members of the proletariat – many working in factories. These people became free wage labourers, free from feudal ties and free from a source of livelihood. Today we still talk of free labour markets and the dual meaning is much the same.
While the relationship between workers and capitalists, or between labour and capital may appear to be no more than an economic relationship of equals meeting equals in the labour market, Marx shows how it is an exploitative social relationship. Not o nly is it exploitative, it is contradictory, with the interests of the two partners in the relationship being directly opposed to each other. Although at the same time, the two opposed interests are also partners in the sense that both capital and labour are required in production and an exploitative relationship means an exploiter and someone being exploited.
This relationship is further contradictory in that it is not just two sets of interests, but there is no resolution of the capital-labour contradiction within the organization of capitalism as a system. The contradictory relationship has class conflic t built into it, and leads to periodic bursts of strikes, crises, political struggles, and ultimately to the overthrow of bourgeois rule by the proletariat. Class conflict of this sort results in historical change and is the motive force in the history o f capitalism.
c. Landlords. In addition to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Marx discussed a number of other classes. First, Marx mentions landowners or landlords as a class in Britain. While these were historically important, and many still retain the ir wealth even today (e.g. the Royal Family), they were considered by Marx to be a marginal class, once powerful and dominant but having lost their central role in production and the organization of society. In order to retain their wealth, some of these landowners were able to transform their wealth in land into landed capital. While this constituted a somewhat different form than industrial capital, this meant that the land was also used as capital, to accumulate. Labour may not be directly employed by landowners, but the land is used as a means by which capital can be expanded.
d. Petty Bourgeoisie and Middle Class. The lower middle class or the petty (petite) bourgeoisie (the bourgeoisie was sometimes called the middle class in this era), "are smallowners who still work their own means of production, or owner-wo rkers" (Adams and Sydie, p. 134). The characteristic of this class is that it does own some property, but not sufficient to have all work done by employees or workers. Members of this class must also work in order to survive, so they have a dual ex istence – as (small scale) property owners and as workers. Because of this dual role, members of this class have divided interests, usually wishing to preserve private property and property rights, but with interests often opposed to those of the capital ist class. This class is split internally as well, being geographically, industrially, and politically dispersed, so that it is difficult for it to act as a class. Marx expected that this class would disappear as capitalism developed, with members movin g into the bourgeoisie or into the working class, depending on whether or not they were successful. Many in this class have done this, but at the same time, this class seems to keep recreating itself in different forms.
Marx considers the petite bourgeoisie to be politically conservative or reactionary, preferring to return to an older order. This class has been considered by some Marxists to have been the base of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. At other times, when it is acting in opposition to the interests of large capital, it may have a more radical or reformist bent to it (anti-monopoly).
Note on the Middle Class. The issue of the middle class or classes appears to be a major issue within Marxian theory, one often addressed by later Marxists. Many Marxists attempt to show that the middle class is declining, and polarization of society into two classes is a strong tendency within capitalism. Marx's view was that the successful members of the middle class would become members of the bourgeoisie, while the unsuccessful would be forced into the proletariat. In the last few years, many have argued that in North America, and perhaps on a world scale, there is an increasing gap between rich and poor and there is a declining middle.
While there have been tendencies in this direction, especially among the farmers and peasantry, there has been no clear long run trend toward decline of the middle class. At the same time as there has been polarization of classes, there have been new middle groupings created. Some of these are small business people, shopkeepers, and small producers while others are professional and managerial personnel, and some intellectual personnel. Well paid working class members and independent trades people mi ght consider themselves to be members of the middle class. Some segments of this grouping have expanded in number in recent years. While it is not clear that these groups hold together and constitute a class in any Marxian sense of being combined in opp osition to other classes, they do form a middle grouping. Since Marx's prediction has not come true, sociologists and other writers have devoted much attention to explaining this middle grouping – what is its basis, what are the causes of its stability o r growth, how it fits into the class structure, and what are the effects of its existence on proletariat and bourgeoisie.
e. Lumpenproletariat. Marx also mentions the "dangerous class" or the social scum. Among the members of this group are "ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds .. pickpockets, b rothel keepers, rag-pickers, beggars" etc. (Bottomore, p. 292). This is the lumpenproletariat. He does not consider this group to be of any importance in terms of potential for creating socialism, if anything they may be considered to have a conservativ e influence. Other writers and analysts have considered them to have some revolutionary potential. One of the main reasons for mentioning them is to emphasize how capitalism uses, misuses and discards people, not treating them as humans. Today's repres entative of this class of lumpenproletariat are the homeless and the underclass.
f. Peasantry and Farmers. Marx considered the peasantry to be disorganized, dispersed, and incapable of carrying out change. Marx also expected that this class would tend to disappear, with most becoming displaced from the land and joining the proletariat. The more successful might become landowners or capitalist farmers. With respect to family farmers as a group, much the same could be said. However, Marx was not really very familiar with these as a group, and had little to say about thes e. Canadian political and sociological analyses of the role of farmers in the Prairies constitute a more adequate view of what may be expected from this group. They could be considered to form a class when they act together as a group. In the early day s of Prairie settlement, farms were of similar size, farmers had generally similar interests, and the farm population acted together to create the cooperative movement and the Wheat Board. More recently, Prairie farmers have been split into different gro ups or strata, dependent on type of farming, size of farm, and whether or not they employ labour. Farmers have not been able to act together as a class in political and economic actions in recent years. Lobbying by some farm groups have been successful, but these do not usually represent farmers as a whole.
2. Features of Marx's Analysis
a. Group Basis. For Marx, classes cannot be defined by beginning observation and analysis from individuals, and building a definition of a social class as an aggregate of individuals with particular characteristics. For example, to say that t he upper class is all families with incomes of $500,000 or more is not an adequate manner of understanding social class. The latter is a stratification approach that begins by examining the characteristics of individuals, and from this amassing a view of social class structure as a whole. This stratification approach often combines income, education, and social prestige or status into an index of socioeconomic status, creating a gradation from upper class to lower class. The stratification approach i s essentially a classification, and for Marx classes have meaning only as they are real groups in the social structure. Groups mean interaction among members, common consciousness, and similar types of behaviour that are connected in some way with group behaviour. Categories such as upper class, middle class and lower class, where those in each category may be similar only in the view of the researcher are not fully Marxian in nature.
Classes are groups, and Marx discusses the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, not individual capitalists and individual workers. As individuals, these people may be considered members of a class, but class only acquires real meaning when it the class as a whole and the social relationships defining them that are considered. For example, "The bourgeoisie ... has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. ... " (Giddens and Held, p. 21). Here the bourgeoisie is historically created and is an actor in politics, economics and history.
In terms of individuals as members of classes, they are members of a class as they act as members of that class. For example, Marx notes that burghers or members of the bourgeoisie in early capitalist Europe:
To the extent that individuals are considered in the social system, they are defined by their class. For Marxists, class structures exist as objective facts, and a researcher could examine class and membership of a class, but would have to understand the nature of the whole social and economic structure in order to do so. To the extent that these members act in society, they act as representatives of their class, although Marx would leave some room for individual freedom of action.
b. Property and Class. Classes are formed by the forces that define the mode of production, and classes are an aspect of the relations of production. That is, classes do not result from distribution of products (income differences, lender an d borrower), social evaluation (status honour), or political or military power, but emerge right from relationship to the process of production. Classes are an essential aspect of production, the division of labour and the labour process. Giddens notes:
In describing various societies, Marx lists a number of classes and (antagonistic) social relationship such as "freeman and slave, ... lord and serf, ... oppressor and oppressed" that characterize different historical stages or modes of production. W hile Marx also mentions various ranks and orders of society, such as vassals and knights, the forms of struggle between classes are primarily viewed as occurring around control and use of property, the means of production, and production as a whole, and t he manner in which these are used. The basic struggle concerns who performs the labour, and who obtains the benefits from this labour.
An elite is not necessarily a class for Marx. Examples of elites are military elites, priests or religious leaders, and political elites – these may may very powerful and oppressive, and may exercise formal rule at a certain time or place. An elite could form a class, but a political or military elite is not necessarily a class – an elite may be based on recruitment (rather than ownership) and may not have much ultimate say in determining the direction of society. Or the elite may be based on relig ious, military, political or other structures. This would especially be the case in pre-capitalist or non-capitalist societies. For Marx, and especially in capitalism, domination came from control of the economy or material factors, although it was not confined to this. Thus, the dominant class was the class which was able to own, or at least control, the means of production or property which formed the basis for wealth. This class also had the capability of appropriating much of the social surplus cr eated by workers or producers. An elite may have such power, but might only be able to administer or manage, with real control of the means of production in the hands of owners.
c. Class as Social Relationship – Conflict and Struggle. At several points, Marx notes how the class defines itself, or is a class only as it acts in opposition to other classes. Referring to the emergence of the burghers or bourgeoisi e as a class in early capitalist Europe, Marx notes how
Both competition and unity can thus characterize a class; there can be very cut-throat competition among capitalists, but when the property relations and existence of the bourgeois class is threatened, the bourgeoisie acts together to protect itself. This becomes apparent when rights of private property or the ability of capital to operate freely comes under attack. The reaction of the bourgeoisie may involve common political action and ideological unity, and it is when these come together that the bourgeoisie as a class exists in its fullest form. In commenting on France, Marx notes that the French peasantry may be dispersed and lacking in unity, but
It is when the peasantry as a group is in opposition to other classes that the peasantry form a class. These quotes do not provide an example of the same with respect to the proletariat, but in his other writings Marx noted that the proletariat is a t rue class when organized in opposition to the bourgeoisie, and creating a new society.
Class, for Marx, is defined as a (social) relationship rather than a position or rank in society. In Marx's analysis, the capitalist class could not exist without the proletariat, or vice-versa. The relationship between classes is a contradictory or antagonistic relationship, one that has struggle, conflict, and contradictory interests associated with it. The structure and basis of a social class may be defined in objective terms, as groups with a common position with respect to property or the mean s of production. However, Marx may not be primarily interested in this definition of class. Rather, these classes have meaning in society and are historical actors only to the extent that they do act in their own interests, and in opposition to other c lasses. Unlike much other sociology, Marx's classes are defined by class conflict.
d. Class in and for itself(Adams and Sydie, p. 134)
Marx noted that there were many reasons why the proletariat would become a class that is conscious of its own position, power, responsibilities, and opportunities. The objective situation of a class exists because of its place in the productive proces s. Ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, position in the labour process, and the control over surplus determine this. But a class such as the bourgeoisie or proletariat, may not be aware of this position, or at least the implications of this position. A bourgeoisie may be in disarray and factions of the class may fight with each other. The peasantry rarely is aware of its common position, and situations such as the peasantry in the French Revolution are unusual.
A class in itself is a class that exists in common conditions in a society. These are the classes such as the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, or the petty bourgeoisie. But members of such a class may not be aware of their common position or interests, and are not able to act on these. Adams and Sydie argue that the proletariat was initially such a class since "they do not recognize their common interests" (p. 134).
A class for itself is a class that develops consciousness of itself, knows its position and capabilities within society, and is able to take actions in its own interests using this knowledge. The working class may acquire a subjective awareness of its own position and situation, and thus develops a working class consciousness. This means that workers become aware of their common position, see the possibility of acting in their own interest, and believe it is possible to carry out action, and exercise change. If they take action, such as forming trade unions or using political measures to improve labour legislation, they become a class for itself, able to act in the interests of the working class. The bourgeoisie was able to do this in an earlier pe riod, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the capitalist class today seems very aware of its interests and power.
Some of the means by which the proletariat can become a class in itself is through forming trade unions and political parties. Trade unions may begin with narrow, sectional interests but move beyond this and act on behalf of the working class as a who le. Political parties, such as a labour party may also be necessary, because class struggle moves beyond the economic and into the political sphere. The experience of class conflict and class struggle is the school whereby the working class learns this. Farmers and farm movements in the early twentieth century on the Prairies exhibited a certain degree of class consciousness.
It may be that some workers, or the working class as a whole, is not able to develop into a class for itself because of false consciousness. Workers may believe the dominant ideology, or enough believe it to have a divisive effect on the working class . Other factors that may limit this are the development of a segmented working class (by income, strata, region, occupation, sex, ethnicity, etc.), the lack of struggle and experience, or open repression.
While Marx's views on these issues are incomplete, these are some of the ideas that followers have Marx have considered important. The necessity to link struggles, be involved in conflict experiences, and counter bourgeois ideology, all have become an important part of trade union and socialist movements.
B. Marxian analysis of family and gender
1. Marxism and feminism
Some writers in the Marxian tradition analyzed the family and sex and gender relations and inequalities. For Marxists, class inequalities and class struggles are the primary feature of the structure of any society, and play a key role in the developme nt of these structures. At the same time, many Marxists recognize that women and men have not usually been equal in society, with women have a position inferior to that of men through much of history and in modern society. For some Marxists, this inequa lity is not just a byproduct of class inequality, but has its own separate explanation. Marx also argued that for women and men to be fully equal, private property would have to be abolished, and an egalitarian, socialist society created (Sydie, p. 89).
Marxists have often considered class struggle, the working class, and a political program to attain socialism to be the primary goal of a socialist movement. The inequality of men and women may be considered secondary in importance to class inequality and oppression, and contradictions related to reproduction and gender relations play a secondary role in explaining social change. Women's struggles to attain equality with men have often had to take a secondary place to the struggles of the working cl ass. At the same time, work shapes consciousness, and women's work shapes her status and self-image (Tong, p. 40).
Over the last thirty years, Marxist feminists have attempted to combine the classical Marxian view that class inequality is rooted in the control of material forces by a few, with an understanding of the roots of women's oppression and an examination o f feminist social protest. Sydie notes that this may be an "unhappy marriage" of Marxism and feminism (p. 89), but this approach has had an important influence on recent sociological theorizing.
The Marxist feminist approach has also had an effect on the way women’s struggles are viewed. Unlike a liberal feminist approach, Marxist feminists argue that inequality on the basis of sex cannot be solved within the capitalist system, but requires t ransformation to socialism and communism. Since sex inequalities and class oppression are intertwined, it is necessary to end capitalism to begin solving these problems. If this can be done, the promise of Marxism is to
In the Marxist feminist view, the promise of equality under socialism and communism is great, and women's struggles for equality should become part of the struggle for this. They argue that feminists might best attempt to work at causes such as unioniz ing women, attempting to get equal wages for women, and more generally integrate the struggles of women with the struggles of men for social change.
A further implication is that liberal feminism is bourgeois feminism. Liberal feminists argue for equal rights for women, but may concentrate on providing equal access to middle and upper middle class jobs, higher education, and professional careers. These are often areas that are not open to working class men or women, and providing equal access to upper level jobs for women will not help solve the basic problems of working class people. Further, welfare liberalism may make things look like they ar e improving. In fact, attempting to win concessions from the bourgeoisie can divert the attention of the working class from the fact that the basic position of workers is still opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
2. Engels on the Family
a. Origin of the Family
The Marxian argument concerning male and female inequality is that male dominance began with the development of private property in agricultural societies. As capitalism developed, these inequalities were taken over and further developed as part o f the class oppression that emerges from private property and the structure and development of capitalist oppression and exploitation.
The most important work, and basic reference point, in Marxist feminism is Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This was published in 1884 by Engels, a year after Marx died, but was based on Marx’s notes, especially notes on the work of American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), in Ancient Society (1877). Morgan’s work was an up to date anthropological work of that era, but would now appear quite dated and incorrect, with more recent anthropology yielding different evidence. Partly as a result of this, partly due to the fact that Engels was attempting to explain the origin of the family in terms of the same material forces as he used for the economic system, and partly because Marx a nd Engels generally ignored cultural factors as playing an independent role, Engels’s analysis appears inadequate today. But it was an attempt to explain the roots of the oppression of women, and the inequalities in the family, on a material basis. Adam s and Sydie note that "Marx and Engels saw relations between men and women as located primarily in the family" and Engels "tried to provide a materialist explanation of gender relations" (p. 137) Sociologists such as Weber and Durkhei m paid less attention to these issues than did Marx or Engels. This work of Engels has been the reference point for later Marxists and socialists, so it is important to understand some of the main arguments in this book.
Much of Engels' analysis concerns prehistoric periods, describing Greek, Roman, German and Iroquois family structures. He begins his analysis by dividing history into three broad stages – (i) savagery, (ii) barbarism (prehistory – development of potte ry), and (iii) civilization (development of agriculture) – each of which had several sub stages. These were characterized by different ways of organizing subsistence, producing food and other essential requirements (something like Marx's modes of product ion). The stages of development of the family parallel these stages of human history.
In the earlier stages, there were many different sorts of kinship, family and sexual relationship. Some of these were group marriage, polygamy, polyandry or promiscuous intercourse. In terms of family structures, Engels argues that group marriage was the earliest form of the family. As societies developed, there began to be "prohibitions regarding appropriate sexual partners." (Sydie, p. 95). There was gradually a development toward "the pairing family," a male-female form of relationship where
This is not necessarily monogamous marriage as we know it, but a weaker connection, one in which the male-female tie is easily broken, in which case the children remain with the mother.
For Engels, the history of the family involves the "progressive narrowing of the circle, originally embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation." (Sydie, p. 113). In the period of barbarism, (a) men lived in the woman's household and (b) the sexual division of labour already existed. Women were responsible for subsistence in terms of reproduction and production and preparation of food and other goods – in general the household responsibilities. Su ch societies were most likely matrilineal and matriarchal, with "female rule" (Adams and Sydie, p. 137). That is, lines of descent passed from mother to children, and women had more social and political power than did men. "The social ord er was constructed in terms of the biological link of mother and child, and this link comprised the family." (Sydie, p. 98). That is "fatherhood was impossible to determine with any certainty" (Sydie, p. 95), and this may have led to the supremacy of women.
Two key aspects of this early stage are important for dealing with this argument. First, the sexual division of labour already existed in savagery and barbarism, and Engels does not explain why it emerged. Sydie (p. 98) argues that Engels considers this biological in origin – since only women could have children, this explains the pre-eminence of women. He may also have viewed this as being naturally related to the responsibility of women for household labour. Sydie (p. 99) notes that Marx and Eng els assumed that the greater strength of males meant that they hunt, fish and fight, whereas the weakness of women, compounded by their reproductive role, confined them to the home. Second, since production and human labour is important for how society is organized, the role that women had in providing subsistence in early societies gave them great power. These were not societies that had much surplus yet, and women's labour was necessary to ensure survival, with the result that this labour was the sou rce of livelihood and also of power. Engels notes that "Peoples whose women have to work much harder than we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for theirs." (in Selected Works, 3, p. 227).
Engels notes that "with the patriarchal family, we enter the field of written history." Males gained power within the family and in society with the development of agriculture. As societies moved from being hunter-gatherer societies to deve loping animal production, the animals (cattle, goats, etc.) became instruments of labour which the male could control and take with him. The domestication of animals, along with the development of farming, meant that more surplus products could be produc ed. Property soon developed as a result of this. That is, so long as societies were very close to subsistence, survival depended on cooperation of all. But with a social surplus, it became possible for some to control more of the products of society th an did others. Factors such as the pre-existing division of labour, the mobility and strength of men, along with their control of tools and animals, may have allowed this. Men became property owners, and also wished to have a means of passing this prope rty to their children. Given these conditions, the matrilineal form of descent had to end, since men did not have clear heirs. The result of this was that "the matriarchal law of inheritance was thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them." (Sydie, p. 120).
For Engels, the result was "the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children." (Sydie, pp. 120-121). Engels notes that "within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat." (Sydie, p. 137). The husband, father and patriarch became the master with slaves, and with wife-servant (s) and children-servants. There were many different forms that this took in different societies, "but in all cases the general relationship is seen to hold that women are subject to men in and out of marriage." (Sydie, p. 97).
With the development of private property and patrilineage, the monogamous family developed, at least monogamy for women. This ensured that the mother of child is known, and that the father is sure which children are his. The sole purpose of compulsor y monogamy is thus to "serve as a vehicle for the orderly transfer of a father's private property to his children." (Tong, p. 49). Engels notes that right up through the middle ages, marriage was not decided by the two partners on the basis of "individual sex love" (Sydie, p. 97), but by parents and kin on economic grounds, paying attention to private property rights and inheritance. Dependence of marriage on economic considerations became the norm, with property being key to under standing family and marriage.
When capitalism emerged, this form of family structure existed, and "this manner of marriage exactly suited it." (Tong, p. 142). At the same time, the ideals of freedom and especially freedom of contract had to be met. These rights were fo rmally extended to marriage and the family, but in practice marriage among the propertied class remained dominated by economic considerations. For the bourgeoisie, considerations of maintaining and extending property dominate over considerations related to freedom and love. In that sense, the family is a more important structure for the bourgeoisie than for the proletariat. Inheritance, female chastity, non-employed wives and the reproduction of legitimate heirs, all became important for the bourgeoisi e. (Barrett, p. 48).
For the proletariat, there is no property to pass on, and relationships between husbands and wives could be more equal. Engels also noted that proletarian women are often employed outside the home, and proletarian husbands had relatively few legal rig hts. As a result, there was no material basis for husbands oppressing their wives. (Tong, p. 50). In addition, by moving production outside the home, capitalism tends to destroy the need for families among ordinary producers. "Capital accumulation ‘breaks up the family’" is a common Marxist view of what happens to families under capitalism. (Humphries, p. 18).
Given that male oppression of females depends on property rights and inheritance, the solution to ending oppression is to eliminate property rights. This will create the possibility of true monogamy (Sydie, p. 139), although the exact form of sexual a nd family relations is uncertain. There will be much greater freedom in terms of choices that individuals can make (Sydie, p. 145) and the family might be abolished. Some of the statements by Engels are:
Since the basis on which the oppression of women rests is private property and rights of inheritance, abolishing these would lead to ending oppression of women. Engels argues that this may take a generation or two, but he seems to be optimistic that t his will happen.
Another implication of Engels' analysis is that women should enter public industry, and that those people interested in change should concentrate on organizing women in the workplace and dealing with issues in "the intersection between women's exp erience as workers and their position in the family." (Tong, p. 61). Sydie notes (p. 101) that if women entered into the paid labour force, this would also provide for her entry into class relationships. Women remain subordinate within the family so long as they have no property and have no basis for relating directly to the material productive forces.
In addition, the socialization of housework and child care are important social programs to help achieve this, although issues related to women's sexual and reproductive concerns are secondary. Certainly these efforts should not just be restricted to getting women into management or powerful political positions, as liberal feminists might argue, but should concentrate on working to develop the class consciousness and power of working class women, and the working class as a whole.
b. Critique and Summary of Origin of the Family
i. Production. The emphasis on production would appear to be both the strong and weak point of Engels’s analysis. By emphasizing human labour and production, Marx and Engels point to a feature that has been very important in structuring and chan ging human societies. Private ownership of property and private property in the means of production are important bases for social organization, and also for the oppression of women. Marjorie Cohen's analysis of farm labour in nineteenth century Ontari o shows the importance of inheritance and property rights among agricultural families. Early liberal writers argued for property rights among men, but argued that these rights should not be extended to women.
In terms of these relationships being the root cause of oppression of women though, several questions are not adequately answered by Engels. First, how did men obtain possession of the instruments of production that formed the basis for private proper ty and inheritance? Second, Engels does not show how matrilineal and matriarchal systems changed into patrilineal and patriarchal ones, except to note that such a change could easily have occurred, given the development of private property and inheritance. Third, Engels all oppression of women is a result of private property in the means of production, and no other factors are considered. If there are cultural or other factors that originally played a role in this, or continue to exist, then removing priv ate ownership may not eliminate women's oppression.
ii. Division of Labour. Engels argues that there was a sexual division of labour before systems of agriculture developed. This sexual division was to make men responsible for obtaining food and doing "productive work" and women were responsible for the household. Whether this is correct, or why this developed is not clear. Engels may have viewed this as a natural division of labour, because he considers the origin of this division to have originated with the different functions of male and female in the sex act. Sydie (p. 99) notes that "physical strength has never been a major determinant of the division of labour" but nineteenth century writers may have considered this to be an important factor.
One problem with the approach of Marx and Engels is that it tends to devalue work and labour that are not productive economically or socially. In our society, this means all labour that is not performed for a wage – household work, volunteer work, car e for the elderly, child care, etc. The Marxian system is built on the analysis of productive labour, with the assumption that the rest of work or labour that is performed has little or nothing to do with exploitation or class structure. In this approac h, work and labour become work for a wage, being exploited by an employer, with work performed outside the regular economy not forming part of the analysis.
Further, if the division of labour by sex preceded the development of private property, this division must proceed from something other than property. If that is the case, the abolition of private property may not end this form of inequality, and ther e may be not such a straightforward solution to this inequality.
iii. Reproduction. Engels begins the Preface the 1884 edition of Origin of the Family by noting "According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproductio n of immediate life." (Selected Works, 3, p. 191). Here Engels would seem to be according equality to production and reproduction. By the end of the same paragraph though, Engels notes that the development of the productivity of labour, exc hange and private property lead to "a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggles, which make up the content of all hitherto written history, now freel y develop." (p. 192). One major problem with the Marxian analysis of production is that reproduction is taken for granted, it is not analyzed. The development of the productive forces is certainly important, but Marx and Engels did not spend much t ime analyzing reproductive forces. Even Origin of the Family contains little analysis of this in capitalist society.
This neglect of reproduction creates a number of problems for the Marxian analysis. First, if an argument is made that women are confined to the domestic sphere and are subordinated because of physiologically determined sex roles, then this is natural . Socialism and communism would not necessarily change this and women would consigned permanently to a secondary role. Second, reproduction takes place in very different ways in different societies. Other than the biological birth process, all other as pects surrounding reproduction can be organized very differently than they are – e.g. family structures, roles of children, amount and types of household work, care of the elderly, etc. Each of these is an aspect of the material forces, involving human l abour, yet there is little analysis of these forces in Marxian analysis. This is at the minimum an omission of important material forces, and to the extent that the relations of reproduction interact with the productive forces analyzed within Marxian ana lysis, the latter analysis may be incorrect. Third, creation of surplus value in the Marxian model of capitalism emerges from a distinction between labour and labour power, and the value of labour power. Yet the theory of how the value of labour power i s determined is either nonexistent or incomplete. The same can be said concerning the theory of population. Fourth, what are the real roots of the inequality between men and women? Engels seems to say it is private property. But many feminists argue i t is related more to reproductive than productive factors. Some of the radical approaches to feminism argue that sexual inequalities are related to male attempts to control reproduction and women's sexuality, and have little to do with private property and production.
iv. Contributions. In spite of these problems, Marx and Engels certainly recognized oppression of women and patriarchy as major problems, both historically and in contemporary society. Many other theorists were unwilling to consider the dif ferences a source of inequality and oppression of women. Marx and Engels continually emphasized the exploitative nature of property relationships, and used this to show various ways in which these hurt women. While they were overly optimistic about the ability to end sexual inequalities, their analysis focusses on a major source of social inequality. Followers of the Marxist approach have often been key in organizing women into trade unions, pushing for equal pay, etc.
Both liberalism and Marxism claim to be theoretical approaches with universal application, aiming to change society for the benefit of all. Both are concerned with universal human emancipation and the improvement of conditions of everyone, and these a pproaches do not emphasize sectional interests. It might be noted that the approach of Engels was almost exactly opposite to the liberal view that private property rights should be extended to all. Instead of extending them, it argues that they should b e abolished and that property should become common property – belonging to all. The working class was the key to this, the class that would be able to overcome "particular differences and realize a common identity: the human being as maker, realizin g his ‘species being’ in the course of transforming nature." (Gitlin, p. 19).
3. Contemporary Marxist Feminism
Out of the Marxian and the feminist tradition, there are a number of approaches to the analysis of women and of sex and gender inequalities. These are represented by various social and political movements, organizations, and theorists.
Class structures are primary in determining the main social classes, the main forms of struggle within societies, and the life experiences of people in these classes. But secondary forms of inequality and oppression occur within each class, and these may take the form of racial and ethnic inequalities, or gender inequalities. Marxist feminists argue that "within any class, women are less advantaged than men in their access to material goods, power, status, and possibilities for self-actua lization. The causes of this inequality lie in the organization of capitalism itself." (Ritzer, pp. 468-9) Bourgeois women may be wealthy, but usually are secondary to their husbands in terms of power. These women "provide emotional, social, and sexual services for the men in their class. They are well rewarded for this, often are not able to develop an independent source of livelihood or power. Middle class women may be well off, but often lack property or labour force experience, and if divorced, could find themselves in poverty.
The position of working class women is likely to be mixed, depending on whether or not she participates in the labour force, and depending on her wage. If the latter is adequate to support her and her children, she may be able to have some independenc e. More likely though, the working class woman has little income, responsibility for household tasks, and is inferior socially and in terms of power and independence to her husband. This may allow a male wage earner to exercise "personal power, compensa tion for his actual powerlessness in society. She is in other words, 'the slave of a slave.’" (Ritzer, p. 469).
For women within the labour force, this work is often as alienating as that of men, or perhaps more alienating. Women are often paid less, and tend to be in subordinate positions. There are relatively few cases where women within the work force are m anagers or are in dominant positions within a hierarchy. For women who are not in the work force, alienation occurs in a different form, that of powerlessness, with women being required to serve others. (Based on Code, p. 39).
b. Household and Family
Some Marxists view the household as an institution that functions to support capitalism and it permits or even encourages exploitation. That is, by creating and recreating sexual inequalities, and keeping women in the home with responsibility for fami ly subsistence, emotional support and reproduction, the family helps capitalism continue to exploit labour and helps maintains stability within a system of class oppression and inequality. There are various ways in which the family and sex roles do this.
i.First are the strictly economic features. So long as women have primary responsibility for reproduction (physical and socialization) and household and family maintenance, women constitute a cheap form of labour, a reserve army of labour. T hey have been a latent reserve over the last forty years, some are a short term reserve over the economic cycle, and women are a labour reserve in a generational sense. That is, the expectation that women will not be as committed to many jobs as men, wit h time taken off for childbearing, child care, care of elderly parents, etc., allows employers to pay women less than men. The lower status of women within society also allows women to be paid less, since some wages and salaries are structured on status considerations.
ii.A second feature is that these household and family responsibilities of women allow the extraction of surplus value, although in an indirect form. That is, much of the necessary labour of maintaining and reproducing workers is carried out as unpaid labour by women. Workers come to the labour force at no cost to employers, and if employers had to pay for reproducing workers, the cost would be considerably greater than what wages currently are. Where wages are family wages, so that the mal e wage is large enough to support the whole family, there is still much unpaid work in the home, and paying for this would result in a considerable redistribution of income from males to females.
iii.Third, households and families are good consuming units within modern capitalism. Each household is a separate consuming units, with separate needs. While these consuming units need not be organized on a family basis, or with sexual ineq ualities, in order to perform this role in society, in fact they are very well adapted to maintaining and expanding purchases.
In social and political terms, this role can also play a conservatizing force with respect to class struggles. Women's lower wages and the difficulty of supporting a family, can be used by employers as a means of undermining trade union struggles. Si nce the responsibility of women is to maintain the household, this can have a conservatizing effect. Where there is a need for change, women are often isolated by separation into private households, and organizing to create change can be difficult.
iv.Fourth, the unpaid labour performed by women for men can really be regarded as unpaid labour performed for capitalists. In the classical Marxian framework, such labour is unproductive. Marxist feminists argue that reproductive and househo ld labour is productive of surplus value, and should be compensated in some manner. This has led some Marxists to argue that women should be paid wages for housework.
Others have argued that men exploit women in an economic sense, and men extract surplus value from women. Marxists like Zaretsky (Tong, pp. 66-69) argue that the family must be abolished, that paying wages for housework will just preserve the traditio nal inequalities. What is necessary is more socialization of household work, with women being fully able to participate in the public sphere. Potentially, under communism, the division between public and private would disappear, and this could form the basis for sex and gender equalities.
c. Women as Class
Another line of argument that some feminists have adopted is that women are a class, or a sexual class as opposed to the common Marxist view of a social or economic class. Eisenstein considers women as a sexual class because they "constitute the basic and necessary activities of society: reproduction, child rearing, nurturing, consuming, domestic labouring, and wage-earning. Women are a sexual class because what they do as women -- the activities they are responsible for in society, the labor that they perform -- is essential and necessary to the operation of society as it presently exists." (Eisenstein, p. 146). This consideration of women as a sexual class is based on a common position within the mode of production and reproduction, and a common position with respect to another sexual class, that is, males. This means a different set of interests, and also at least some opposed interests to those of males. Eisenstein argues that patriarchy is somewhat different than capitalism as a system, where the bourgeoisie is organized and must be opposed. Rather than struggling against men, the struggle of women is against patriarchy, and its expressions. The latter may be found in the market, in the state, in the family, etc. For Eisenste in, sexual class consciousness must be formed through social movements like the suffrage movement or feminist movements. The manner in which feminist struggles over the last thirty years have proceeded has develop this sexual class consciousness.
Marxist and socialist feminist solutions embody a wide range of changes. Some would argue that the end of capitalism is sufficient, but the record of the socialist countries was not encouraging in this respect. More likely this approach would argue f or an end of the nuclear family, at least as it is currently structured. But really ending patriarchy and inequality may require changes at all levels, in the economy, in attitudes, in institutions, etc.
C. Conclusions Concerning Marx
1. Predictions. Marx's predictions have often not come true. At the same time, the predictions concerning concentration and centralization, periodic crises, etc. all were accurate forecasts.
2. Concepts. Alienation, value and surplus value, exploitation (as rooted in economics, production and the labour process), labour power, class consciousness, etc. are all useful concepts, many of which have been incorporated into mainstream s ociology.
3. Analysis of Capitalism. Marx's analysis of capitalism, and his basic critique of it remain as one of his great contributions. While missing some aspects of the system, the forces noted by Marx have continued to be important. Just as many o f the forces noted by Smith and Ricardo still operate, so do the forces noted by Marx.
4. Methodology. Marx's method sets an example of how to do social research. Empirical work within an historical setting, whereby a philosophic approach is taken to construct a sound theoretical system. This system has wide scope and raises ma ny hypotheses.
Last edited October 3, 2002
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