Fundamental change for women means challenging the priorities of a system based on profit, and that requires connecting women’s movements to the wider fight for change

Various recent cases to do with the sexual abuse of women have highlighted the scale of this problem and reminded all of us who have seen so many changes in women’s lives in recent decades of, in this respect at least, how little has changed

Questions of rape, domestic violence and other forms of sexual abuse became major political questions in the 1960s and 70s, with the emergence of the modern women’s liberation movement (they had sometimes been issues for earlier socialists and feminists, but like so much else had become ‘forgotten’ in the middle decades of the 20th century). But looking at these cases today it is sometimes hard to remember that the 1960s happened.

There have been a range of scandals: these include that over Jimmy Savile and his systematic abuse of young women and girls, the admissions of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church, the accusations involving former leading French Socialist Party politician Dominique Strauss Kahn, and the Indian rape case, where a young women was gang raped and died from her injuries. All involved abuses of power by individuals and institutions, at least initial reactions of cover up or refusal to acknowledge certain patterns of behaviour. They highlighted the danger from sexual abuse which people found themselves facing within supposedly trusted organisations such as children’s homes, the BBC, Broadmoor prison, NHS hospitals, the Catholic Church and mainstream politics.

At one level none of this is completely new. Probably the majority of women will have some experience in their lifetimes of sexual harassment, often connected with someone in a position of authority (at school, college or work, or in the family).[1] Scandals have also been exposed before. But in the last year the allegations have been coming thick and fast, some of them relating to decades ago but many indicating that little has changed over the generations.

Certainly despite the very real gains for women since the 1960s, women’s position in society remains profoundly unequal. Lower wages, job segregation, sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape are the realities of a supposedly ‘post-feminist’ world which despite claims of women ‘having it all’ has empowered a tiny minority of women economically and socially but has failed to end the oppression facing half of society.

The added problematic in analysing these questions is that the left – which should be able to pride itself on its opposition to oppression and its egalitarian principles – has not been free from such scandals. Most recently, the SWP, an organisation of which I was for many years a member and whose theories on women’s liberation I played a large part in developing, is facing an existential crisis over such allegations. The allegations of rape by a young woman comrade against a leading central committee member ‘Comrade Delta’, and further allegations by another woman against him, have caused uproar on the left.

They have also led to a questioning of much feminist theory, including the roots of socialist theory. In this article I want to return to some of these questions. However, it is worth pointing out from the start that whatever the differences exist between socialists and socialist feminists on questions of theory or practice, the mistakes that have been made cannot be explained by adherence to one particular analysis. It should also go without saying that no theory should be used to justify either the acts of sexual harassment or rape within left-wing organisations, or the cover up of any such acts.

Women’s oppression remains a constant, if changing, feature of capitalist society, and I believe it can only be understood by looking at economic questions and questions of class, in which we have to locate women’s oppression. These were issues which were widely debated from the late 1960s onwards, with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement. Many of the themes articulated then are still relevant today.

What we learnt from Marx

Socialist ideas did not emerge from the 1960s, when the post-war generations in the richest countries began to be attracted to them, but had of course a much longer tradition going back to Marx and beyond. Ideas of free love surfaced in the English Revolution of the 17th century, and theories of women’s equality and emancipation became current around the time of the French Revolution, the most well known proponent in England being Mary Wollstonecraft. Marx and Engels were themselves influenced by the French Utopian socialists, who believed in equality between the sexes and open relationships, and whose ideas were taken up in England by socialists such as William Thompson and Anna Wheeler.[2]

The early revolutionary socialists were acutely aware of women’s sexual and economic oppression under capitalism and certainly commented on it, if not always theorised it extensively. The Communist Manifesto, published just before the 1848 revolutions in Europe, describes the hypocrisy of marriage and the family, and the way in which what should be a loving personal relationship between individuals, is turned into an economic relationship. This is especially true among the family of the bourgeoisie, where women are seen as commodities to be sold into marriage, and where the mirror image of marriage in Marx’s time was widespread prostitution. Marx and Engels argue that ‘it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e. of prostitution both public and private’.[3]

Marx and Engels had a very different view of the working class family, which they believed would be torn asunder as capitalist relations of production forced every member of the family into the labour market and therefore destroyed elements of hierarchy, dependence and obedience within the family: ‘The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations’.[4] They based this assumption on their experience of England particularly, the site of the first and most rapid industrialisation, and of the first mass working class organisation, the Chartists, which clearly included women in many roles and was very attractive to a large number of women.[5]

Within 20 years of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the shape of working class personal relations and the family, the structure of the working class and indeed the level of class struggle, had all taken very different directions from those suggested in the 1840s. But Marx and Engels continued to regard the deep oppression of women throughout class society as a matter for study and debate, and to search for reasons why it might have occurred in order to provide a material explanation for it, and in order to understand how to change it.

Engels published, after Marx’s death but having relied heavily on his ideas, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, where he located women’s oppression in the development of class institutions and the creation of class society.[6] Heather Brown’s recent study shows that Marx saw the role of women in pre-capitalist societies as important in trying to understand the roots of oppression.[7] The approach of Marx and Engels on family and class society was, as it was in so many other areas of their work, to look at the material reasons why oppression occurred.

As Marxist parties developed in Europe in the late 19th century, so these ideas were taken up on a wider basis. This was especially true in Germany, which saw the first mass workers’ party, and where August Bebel wrote his best selling Woman and Socialism, a book that served to educate a whole generation of working men and women into why women had to be equal. While there was nothing elsewhere on the scale of the German party, others took up the theme.

In Britain, Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl, wrote a pamphlet on the subject, The Woman Question, with her partner Edward Aveling, and while the early British socialist movement contained, it’s fair to say, some completely chauvinistic figures such as Belfort Bax, it also contained many who supported ideas of women’s emancipation, such as George Bernard Shaw and William Morris.

What we learnt in the 60s and 70s

While the women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s contained a certain awareness of Marx’s writings and especially his economic categories, there was little practical historical knowledge of what had gone before in terms of organising women on the part of socialists and Marxists. But it was inevitable that women who were attempting to theorise women’s liberation, as it was now called, would want to look back at history to develop a tradition. The tradition of women organising had been truly ‘hidden from history’, in the title of Sheila Rowbotham’s important book, which appeared in Britain in the early 1970s.[8] Why had it been so hidden? In the US, where the women’s movement was by far the strongest and most widespread, left-wing politics had a rich tradition of egalitarianism, producing a range of figures including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman and later Genora Johnson, but it foundered, badly affected through the impact of Stalinism, McCarthyism and the Cold War. The student and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960s developed a macho type of politics that often excluded women, and whose leading spokesmen treated intelligent and articulate women as a contradiction in terms.[9]

In Britain there was always a much stronger left wing connection to the women’s movement (some of its iconic early disputes included the Dagenham equal pay strike in 1968 and that of the London night cleaners led by May Hobbs a couple of years later), but there was also an ignorance of women’s history on the part of most of the left, which began to be reclaimed by socialist women historians in those early years. Rowbotham wrote popular and accessible history on everything from the industrial revolution to China, but there was a special interest among communist and socialist women in their own history as they found out more of the tradition of the Second and Third Internationals, and of two women who played such a leading role in developing theory and practice around the ‘woman question’, Clara Zetkin in Germany and Alexandra Kollontai in Russia.

Their writings were republished, as were those of Rosa Luxemburg, and a small but important collection by Leon Trotsky on Women and the Family.[10] Whereas Marx and Engels had been concerned to locate the roots of women’s oppression in different forms of society, this generation of revolutionaries was concerned above all with how women could be involved in the movement, how their domestic role in childbirth, childcare and housework could be overcome to enable them to become political actors in their own right, and how ‘special demands’ and ‘special organisation’ of women could help achieve this.

The early years of the Russian Revolution saw many of the most progressive ideas put into practice, and a blossoming of new attitudes towards sexuality especially among young people. As with every major revolution, the overthrow of capitalism in Russia led to a transformation of ideas and practices, and the development of egalitarian laws over divorce, marriage, contraception, abortion, equality at work and the family. There were attempts to socialise various aspects of childcare and housework in order to end women’s burden in the home. Women like Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai helped establish the Zhenodtel or women’s department that aimed to organise working women.

The women’s movement of the 1960s itself arose on a tide of social and political change: legal changes which made abortion and divorce easier, a growing militancy among workers, and the development of movements against racism and war. The early demands of the Women’s Movement reflected this militancy. The movement also reflected the patterns of change in women’s lives. It was therefore both natural and positive that the new movement should look for its history in the great socialist and revolutionary movements that had so shaped the 20th century.

The search for a political tradition among socialist and Marxist feminists tended to take two forms: the locating of revolutionary action on the question, for which the parties of the Third International in particular provided much information and examples of past practice. Those who regarded themselves as from this tradition found it particularly important to demonstrate the theory and practice that had informed those earlier revolutionaries. In addition, there were very serious attempts to devise a ‘political economy of women’s oppression’: an understanding of the role that women’s oppression played within capitalism and an analysis of the family within capitalism. These economic writings formed part of the ‘domestic labour debate’ and were heavily influenced by Communist Party economists.

However, the development of women’s history and political economy only took the movement so far. By the 1970s there were developing cleavages between different wings of the movement, reflecting different approaches to how women’s liberation could be achieved. By the mid 1970s the movement had added several demands to the original social and economic demands, all of them centred on individual relations between men and women, for example in opposition to rape and domestic violence.

It is important to remember that before the 1970s these issues were not regarded as political and were far more under-reported and condoned than they are today, so these demands reflected an attempt to force society to come to terms with hidden violence against women, especially in the family, where most sexual abuse took (and still takes) place. It is also important to recognise, however, that these demands marked a shift in the direction of at least some in the movement away from collective organisation alongside men, and a shift towards seeing individual men as the prime oppressors of women. Some of this feminism took a physically separatist form, with women refusing to engage socially or sexually with men.

By the late 1970s profound differences were developing between those who saw women’s oppression as a feature of social oppression and economic exploitation, and those who saw it as connected to oppressive male features of society (including, for example, pornography, violence and sexist images). The radical feminists very much focused on campaigns against rape and domestic violence and for women’s separate spaces that would enable them to organise and act politically without men. The splits in the Women’s Movement hardened and became permanent in 1978, when the last national women’s liberation conference in Britain broke up, never to be reassembled.

In practice, by the late 1970s, some of these arguments had been superseded. At the same time, the socialist and Marxist feminists, many of whom had made some of the greatest contributions to theorising the family and oppression, were being pushed onto the defensive by various strands of radical feminism on the one hand, and the weakening of the socialist and left advance of the 1960s and early 70s on the other. It is in this context that we should assess the various debates that tried to understand the origins of women’s oppression.

The International Socialist tradition

The International Socialist (IS) tradition was not slow in coming to terms with women’s liberation on a practical level, but it was slower theoretically. By the time I joined in 1972, we had the Women’s Voice newspaper and worked around issues like Ford Dagenham, equal pay strikes and the night cleaners. Later we played a significant role in the first campaign against abortion restrictions in 1975. But there was more reticence to engage theoretically, with a few exceptions, most notably Kath Ennis’s 1974 piece in International Socialism, and Irene Breugel’s What keeps the family going in 1978. Breugel’s title is, it seems to me, the key question to be answered both then and today, and it was these major issues that exercised writers on the left on this topic in the 1970s. There was a wide acknowledgement that the family was the centre of women’s oppression. If we could explain why it continued, then we could begin to understand how and why we could end that oppression.

Marxist theory that began to develop in the 1970s often centred on the political economy of women’s oppression, and was much concerned with the economic role of the family and housework under capitalism. Communist Party economists such as Jean Gardiner wrote important theoretical contributions, and there was a series of debates on the economic role of housework under capitalism that became known as the domestic labour debate.[11]

To many of these theorists, housewives produced use values in the shape of servicing the man in the family, cooking, cleaning and childcare, but they did not produce surplus value. This was correct so far as it went but it failed to take into account the production of labour power. Labour power is a commodity that is sold by the worker on the labour market. Perhaps the main objection to much of this debate, however, was not its economics but its understanding of society. The economic categories were not dynamic ones but reflected a static picture of the working class family that was changing before people’s eyes in the 1970s.

Married women, especially mothers, were being drawn into the labour market, increasingly in full time work and with levels of skills which had previously not been associated with most working women. The idealised picture of women at the stove and men in the factory could not be sustained with the increase in married female labour. In these circumstances, domestic labour had to be looked at in different ways. If women were exploited at work as well as oppressed in the home there had to be a different and more satisfactory, and more unitary theory of women’s oppression. This would need to recognise the wage labour carried out socially by men and women as well as the privatised form of domestic labour within the family.

The family continued to survive, to answer Irene Breugel’s question, because capitalism needed both the wage labour of men and women, and the privatised domestic labour of women (and to a lesser extent men) in the home. While in theory many of the tasks and roles within the household can be socialised, and provided by the state, in practice this tends to happen in only the most exceptional circumstances, most notably in Britain during the Second World War, when the war economy depended on women’s labour and so publicly funded nurseries, communal restaurants; even ‘hotels’ for the children of war workers were provided. Even here, they were never universal, often had to be fought for by workers themselves and were rapidly closed down when war ended. These amenities were provided by a highly centralised government that directly controlled much of industry. The competitive nature of capitalism and the need to maximise profit means that it is highly unlikely that one national capitalist class would invest in the provision of these socialised nurseries and restaurants for fear of losing its competitive advantage over its rivals. In any case, why do so when the vast bulk of domestic work and childcare is performed for free and voluntarily within the family, at little cost to the capitalist class?

Domestic labour by the late 20th century centred on childcare and childrearing above all else. The pattern of domestic work was very different from the earlier part of the century. Certainly up until the First World War, working class life and family typically consisted of married women carrying considerable amounts of housework and childcare, and seeing this as their main role, rather than paid work outside the home. Families were much larger, but children joined the labour market at a much earlier age (and were an important source of family income before they too married and started their own families). Housework was so labour-intensive that a whole day every week would be allocated to washing, one to baking etc. Electricity only became widely available after 1918 and many working class households had little or no running water or private washing facilities.

Today that situation has changed beyond recognition. In families without children where two adults work full time, amounts of housework done by each partner tend to be much more equal, and overall far less housework is carried out than in the days when many women were full time housewives.[12] The likelihood of the family surviving just to ensure that the dusting was done or the groceries bought seems unlikely, and indeed some of these aspects of housework can be and frequently are bought as services or commodities on the market, thus contracting out the work previously done by a full time housewife (take away meals, ready meals, Ocado and Tesco home delivery, carpet cleaning, ironing etc.). The crucial and most important part of domestic labour is childcare, both because it is labour-intensive (and can’t be put off like the dusting) but also because it is central to the reproduction of labour power, especially the next generation of labour power.

This is the central economic relation inside the family: domestic labour may not be productive in the sense that it produces profits or surplus value, but only produces use values. However, it is productive of labour power that is then sold on the labour market and in this sense is indirectly productive of surplus value. Even where there are no children within a particular family, it exists to facilitate the reproduction of the existing generation of workers, and with the assumption that the majority of such families will also contribute to reproducing the next generation. However, whereas the traditional view of the reproduction of labour power assumed that existing workers were male, today no such assumption can be made.

My article in International Socialism on Theories of Patriarchy was an attempt to articulate this theory of women’s oppression and to show its material basis, without resorting to patriarchy theory, which tends to fall into the trap of being idealist or ahistorical. Any attempt to analyse the family has to deal with the real material circumstances in which women and men find themselves and become historical actors. It was shaped by the debates of the late 1970s, especially the development of patriarchy theory which became much more widespread at this time, and argued that there were two systems of oppression for women, capitalism and patriarchy. Patriarchy analysis failed to take account of the way that capitalism had transformed all previous social relations, had changed ways of working and living in the most fundamental way and created a completely new mode of production. We were expected to believe that it succeeded in totally changing conditions under which people worked, how they worked, where and how they lived, their education, religion, beliefs, timekeeping, science, arts, philosophy, attitudes to childhood, but maintained the old form of patriarchal family.

Patriarchy theory was often simply a description of oppression, as Ben Fine puts it: ‘patriarchy will always appear to be an explanation where and when women are disadvantaged, but this is merely to (re)name what is already known, rather than to explain why women’s oppression is the way it is and why and how it changes’.[13] The dual systems approach didn’t work politically either, because it failed to take into account the dynamic of capitalism and women’s oppression within it. Instead it predicated an unchanging oppression that survived every change in the mode of production.

Heidi Hartmann attempted to overcome this problem with her Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,[14] which defended patriarchy theory but on a materialist basis, citing an alliance of capitalists and male workers which left women in the home dependent on their husbands for their sustenance, pushed further into a subordinate role while working class men maintained a privileged position in relation to them. She based this cross-class alliance of 19th century men on the development of protective legislation in the workplace, the aspiration towards a ‘family wage’ which covered the costs of reproduction of the whole family and therefore allowed for the existence of the full time housewife and mother, and the strengthening of the ideology of family among the working class.

Like many conspiracy theories, it contained elements of truth and appealed to the ‘common sense’ that many felt, but as various writers have demonstrated (especially Jane Humphries and Johanna Brenner), it does not reflect the actual position of women and men in the mid-19th century, and is based on an inaccurate reading of the history of working class life.[15]

So if not patriarchy then what? During the 1980s we tried to articulate a number of arguments about women in more theoretical depth and at greater length. These began as part of the debate over Women’s Voice, which centred on women-only organisation and whether this could be justified by the need for women to organise separately to overcome their oppression. However, the theoretical arguments should not be seen mainly as a response to this internal argument, which was effectively over by the end of 1981. The Theories of Patriarchy article became a factor in that argument, but it was written in response to particular feminist debates which were not necessarily current in the SWP, successor organisation to the IS.

Tony Cliff decided in 1981 to write a book on women. It appeared in 1984 and its central message was clear: that there have always been two sorts of women’s movements and that they tend to divide on grounds of class. Some early chapters in the book appeared first in International Socialism as articles on Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin. Cliff applied his usual method of using a great deal of empirical data to prove his point, beginning with the ideas of women’s equality which emerged during the English Revolution of the 17th century, going through the history of women’s movements for change. His book is unfairly treated even by some in the IS tradition as seeming to over stress the one point about class divisions among women to the exclusion of other issues. In fact Cliff also tries to locate the basis for women’s oppression and looks sympathetically at women’s role in the family and their specific oppression, in what I feel is the best chapter in the book. He talks about the widespread nature of domestic violence and the way in which this too is affected by class. He talks too about the alienating nature of the family for all its members. Chris Harman also wrote during the 1980s on various aspects of women’s oppression.

I wrote my book Sex, Class and Socialism in the late 1980s to develop our theories further and in different directions from the ones in which Cliff had taken them. The book dealt extensively with different contemporary and historical aspects of the family, and with various socialist and feminist theories of oppression, as well as looking historically at a range of topics from the suffragettes to women in trade unions to the women’s movement of the 1960s. These books and Harman’s articles formed the basis for the SWP theory on women’s oppression, and for that of the IS tendency, so becoming – in the hackneyed phrase – part of the ‘IS tradition’.

It is therefore surprising to see the whole of the ‘IS tradition’ reduced to a much later, briefer, and much less important debate – that of whether men benefit from women’s oppression. This is the approach taken by Sharon Smith of the ISO in the US. Based on a talk given at the organisation’s summer school, her article attacks the IS tradition for ‘reductionism’, ridicules a serious attempt to discuss the different amounts of housework carried out by men and women in the home, and denies that there is a real acknowledgement of oppression in the tradition. It is a travesty of the position, and only manages to achieve its aim by ignoring the two books by myself and Cliff (no mean feat given that Smith appears in the acknowledgements of both).

The main protagonists of the ‘male benefit debate’ in the SWP were John Molyneux and Sheila McGregor, with Sheila arguing that there was no material benefit to working class men from the domestic labour performed by the woman in the home. She argued, correctly as I still believe, that divisions between men and women weakened both sides and that the main beneficiary from the oppression of women is capital. Sheila McGregor has recently written a substantial article in a recent issue of International Socialism that attempts to develop the arguments on women’s oppression still further. Much of it I agree with and it draws considerably at various points on my own arguments.

I would part company with her views in three respects: it gives a great deal of space to Engels and his argument about the origin of the family in trying to deal with contemporary arguments, to which his extremely important theory can only be a general guide, not an explanation; it appears to suggest that the solution to women’s oppression lies in an increase in strike action, which is much too narrow an approach to struggles against oppression (which have tended to take on different forms as well as strikes), and doesn’t point a way to overcoming this oppression; and, mistakenly, it does not discuss the present crisis in the SWP, its attitude to sexual politics, or related issues.

Where then would I locate women’s 21st century oppression? Firstly it is located in the continued contradiction between social production and privatised reproduction. While production remains collective but domestic labour remains private (and where collectivised or communal solutions to the problems of the individual family are actively discouraged by the state and conventional morality), then the existence of the privatised family will be at the centre of women’s oppression, and will shape the conditions in which women live and work, and the attitudes to them. This is true whether or not one lives in a conventional nuclear family, and does not mean that any individual woman’s experience of oppression will centre on the family. But it does mean that this form of privatised reproduction is the root of the material conditions in which women find themselves at work, and of the ideological attitudes to women which pervade capitalist society.

While it is true that the increased number of women in social production has led to the disappearance of some oppressive features of society (e.g. the dependence on men for financial agreements, the attitudes to education that assumed that women would leave work when married, the nominal acceptance of women’s equality at work), it has tended to exacerbate others. This is perhaps most obvious with the dramatic and visible public sexualisation of society, with industries such as porn and lap dancing becoming multi-million pound industries. While many women have welcomed more liberated attitudes to women’s nudity or sexuality, the connection between female sexuality and commodity production has never been greater.

The conditions in which women find themselves in the labour market are a strange hybrid of old and new attitudes: women are expected to be available for work, but also expected to be the partner who takes time off if children are sick; they are expected to equip themselves for skilled work in the labour market through education, but also to present an image of ‘femininity’ or ‘attractiveness’ to those around them.

Capitalism has a great propensity to adapt in the face of changing attitudes, and to incorporate what was once subversive. The demands for legal and social equality which were the hallmark of second wave feminism have to a certain extent been so incorporated, although they usually fall far short of what is required (witness the levels of pay for women which remain stuck below those of men). Forms of the family have changed: far fewer people marry, divorce remains high, numbers of children remain low (at least among the working class), and there is much greater acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships. However, despite these changes, the core of exploitation and oppression remains: the nuclear family is maintained even with different forms of family, hence the widespread acceptance of, for example, gay marriage, despite the complaints of right-wing Tories. Such marriages and civil partnerships are totally compatible with the needs of modern capitalism, which no longer see the need to police working class morality in a way that it did a hundred years ago. Indeed the acceptance of these relationships is seen as a further way not of enforcing morality but of controlling and encouraging the privatised reproduction of labour power. The role of family as a unit of reproduction and consumption, however, intensifies conflicts between its members and wider society.

While levels of sexual violence and abuse in recent cases have reminded us that such instances were always with us, there are a number of common elements that we should highlight and distinctions that we should make. Many of the institutions where abuse has been shown to take place are in some ways substitutes for the family, for example, care homes, Church orphanages and boarding schools. The fact that so many women and girls (and sometimes men and boys) are put in such harm and danger is also connected to the hierarchical nature of capitalist society. A very high number of recent cases stem from abuse carried out within or around institutions (care homes, the BBC, the Catholic Church, schools, prisons and hospitals). These are institutions that are supposedly respected, and those running them people who are supposedly respectable. The inmates of these institutions are nearly all people who are in a weaker position. It is tragic that one girl abused by Stuart Hall was dissuaded from going to the police by her father, who said (maybe correctly) that they would not be believed because they were ‘little people’. Sexual harassment and abuse at work are widespread, yet all too often people do not complain for fear of losing their job, or because the person complained of is deemed too important.

So it is impossible to talk about sexual violence and rape without also looking at class. This is not to reduce such crimes to class – they occur throughout society and within and across different classes – but it is to say that there is often a class element to them. This is true for the girls in care in Rochdale (where we discovered that the Lancashire town has become a hub for care homes run on the cheap, housing children sometimes from hundreds of miles away in conditions of vulnerability), for those victims of BBC ‘family entertainers’ who have not been believed, or for those who are harassed at work, which often occurs when the women are in a subordinate economic position.

Power relationships within society are also reproduced within the family, with adult men in a position to abuse children and women within it. The hierarchy of the individual family is real, however, the working class family is not the seat of real power within capitalist society. Rather the condition of its members is one of powerlessness and alienation. It is in this context that the family becomes both a haven from the outside world, but also a hell for many of its inhabitants. The man who has little control over his own life sees control over his wife or children as more important.

Some of the most disturbing cases, for example, the various Indian rape cases, simply defy belief unless put in the wider social contexts: deep inequality and areas of desperate poverty, the conflict between modernity and traditional attitudes to women, the clash between typical ‘masculine’ values and increasing freedom for women through education, work etc. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into these issues in great detail, but it is undeniable that in a deeply alienated society, where women’s bodies are seen as commodities, where sexuality is both constantly referenced but still contains many secrets and repressions, where the experience of life and work is so miserable for so many, that some people will react in hideous ways to those around them.

Prospects for liberation

Exploitation and oppression are more closely linked than ever today through women’s labour outside and inside the home. This is a permanent state of affairs not just in the richest countries but across much of the developing world, so any discussion of women’s oppression cannot separate out the two spheres in women’s lives, but must connect them. Women’s contribution to the economy is unsurpassed, which alters the form of their oppression if not its fundamental nature. They are major contributors to capitalist profits, producing surplus value outside the home and indirectly producing surplus value inside the home through the reproduction of labour power, which becomes a commodity.

The institutions of power inside capitalism are inherently sexist and racist. One only has to look at the preponderance of (older) white males in parliament, the judiciary, industry, the higher civil service and police, the City, and at the ‘glass ceilings’ in areas where women are employed in large numbers (for example universities).

Most people join or are attracted to left organisations because of a sense of injustice at the class system under which we live and a desire to alter this state of affairs. Left organisations are not powerful within capitalist society but have to fight against these structured inequalities, and have to use their organisation in order to overcome some of them. It is therefore a particularly difficult situation when accusations of sexism and abusive behaviour arise within left organisations that reproduce the inequalities and oppressions that they are committed as a collective to opposing.

While it is important to assert that most men and women inside socialist organisations have, in my experience, a strong and principled commitment to women’s equality, against sexual violence and so on, it is also clear that sometimes individual members don’t always measure up to that principle, and sometimes fall far short of it. In this sense, socialists are also part of capitalist society, sometimes damaged by it and not necessarily free from sexist attitudes. In these situations, any decent leadership of a socialist organisation has to face up to the issue and deal with it appropriately.

Here, we cannot regard opposing sexism as simply a theoretical question, it is also a practical one. Theoretical questions, discussions and ideas also have concrete and practical outcomes. So it is not adequate to say that the organisation has good theory (or indeed inadequate theory) and use that excuse to presume that it must be correct (or incorrect) in its response. If good theory always led to practice we would not have the experience of the Second International and 1914, where Lenin believed that the German paper describing the socialist deputies as voting for war credits was a forgery, so shocked was he at the news. In truth, many issues force socialists to reconsider, to go back to their original assumptions, to assess their political theory and practice, in order to show where they were wrong and whether they should now change their approach.

When issues like those in the SWP arise, they have to be dealt with properly; there can be no suggestion of cover up and there can be no favouritism towards people in a leadership that has been accused. But there also has to be a distinction between this and drawing particular theoretical conclusions from it. In the case of the SWP, for example, both the main protagonists in the ‘male benefit’ debate, Sheila McGregor and John Molyneux, are on the same side in their support for the current leadership, rather vitiating the argument by some that the argument in support of ‘male benefits’ would have prevented the case from being dealt with in the way that it was.

The mistake is not mainly theoretical, but the wrong application of ideas to a concrete and highly unfortunate situation.

Theory and history

If we look at the position of women under capitalism, there have been some very dramatic and fundamental changes within Britain alone, leaving aside a wider international dimension. Women have at different times been confined to the home, worked 16-hour days in dangerous mills, been conscripted during wartime, entered higher education in large numbers, virtually excluded from formal education, suffered many and dangerous pregnancies, and had relatively open access to contraception. All these different circumstances have altered work patterns and patterns of family life, and have altered attitudes of women themselves.

It is inconceivable that these different circumstances have no impact on women’s oppression. While it remains a constant, the impact and manifestations of oppression change to deal with different circumstances.

Any theory of women’s oppression has to deal with this changing reality. Unfortunately, all too often theory is abstracted from history. But if Marxist theory is the condensed experience of past working class struggles, then no living theory can be developed without an understanding of history and how women are not simply victims of it, but actors on the historical stage who have helped change their own lives and those of others.

Today women have achieved more advances than at any time in history, but have come up against the limits of class society in terms of achieving liberation. Any fundamental change for women involves a challenge to the priorities of a system based on profit, and that requires women’s movements to be connected to the wider fight for change.


[1] See Everyday Sexism

[2] Thompson, W. Appeal of One-half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the other Half, Men, To Retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery (London 1983)

[3] Marx, K. and Engels, F. Collected Works Vol 6 (London 1976) p.502

[4] As above p. 494

[5] Thompson, D. Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation , ch 3 (London 1993)

[6] Engels, F. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Peking 1978)

[7] Brown, H. Marx on Gender and the Family (Boston 2012)

[8] Rowbotham, S. Hidden from History (London 1977)

[9] See for example Evans, S. Personal Politics (New York 1979) p.87, p.192

[10] Trotsky, L. Women and the Family (New York 1970)

[11] See German, L. Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989). See Chapter 3 for more on these debates

[12] Hewitt, P. About Time (London 1993) p.57-8

[13] Fine, B. Women’s Employment and the Capitalist Family (London 1992)

[14] Hartmann, H. The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (New York 1981)

[15] For a summary of this see German, L. Material Girls (London 2007) p. 151-8

Dangerous Ideas logoLindsey German is the author of ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’ (Counterfire/Pluto, 2013). She will be speaking at Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times on Fighting Sexism: Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.