Marx on Gender & the Family: A Critical Study
By Heather A. Brown
US socialist Heather Brown has performed a great service in this short, yet detailed survey of all of Karl Marx’s writings on women and gender ― including some that have never been published in any language.
Brown shows how Marx did not just analyse economics and history, he interrogated all forms of literature (even police files) to tease out the threads of social oppression.
Brown compares and contrasts Marx with a wide range of feminist writers, and says that there is enough in Marx indicating “the interdependent relationship between class and gender without fundamentally privileging either in his analysis”.
The diverse ― and surprising ― nuggets that Brown has unearthed reveal that Marx’s thoughts have a refreshingly modern feel. She demonstrates that as he evolved as a thinker, his insights became more penetrating. Moreover, he incorporated his ideas into his political activity.
At the time of his early writings, Marx was a contemporary of socialists who thought women were naturally inferior to men. However, from his earliest writings, Marx dismissed the entire notion that “nature” is static. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx pointed out that nature and culture are dialectically linked and mutually condition each other.
More than that, the Manuscripts say that the position of women can be used as a measure of the development of a given society. He was not calling for men to liberate women. He was arguing that in going beyond capitalism, our society will have to develop new relations that transcend alienation.
Following another line of thought in The Holy Family, Marx criticises a novel by French writer Eugene Sue called Les Mysteres de Paris. Sue created a character called Fleur de Marie who is saved from her life of prostitution by a prince and enters a convent, where she dies shortly afterward.
Marx reacted sharply to Sue’s Catholic moralising about prostitution and sexuality in general. “Despite her situation,” Brown writes, “Marx does not see her a merely a powerless victim, but as possessing agency.”
Marx saw de Marie as an example of the yearning to be fully human and he slams the paternalistic prince for failing “to grasp the general condition of women in modern society as an inhuman one.”
As part of his journalism, Marx translated into German writings by Jacques Peuchet on suicide. Peuchet was the French police archivist and his writings on unusual cases were very popular ― inspiring, among other things, Alexandre Dumas to write the Count of Monte Cristo.
Marx chose parts of Peuchet dealing with the suicide of middle-class women. Marx’s personal leanings come through via the parts he chose to delete and in subtle additions of his own comments. These show Marx as far removed from a doctrinaire, class-bound theorist.
In these writings, Marx argued for total social transformation, because “economic levelling or redistribution are not enough to create a better society, so long as capitalist social relations remain in place”.
Marx says the alienation that drives some to suicide is found in the family sphere as well as the public. But more than just pointing to the social causes of individual despair, Marx even sees suicide as a form of resistance in an oppressive society.
He was not recommending suicide, rather he was reading into it the signs of opposition to oppression, as well as a symptom of misery.
The bourgeois family is famously lambasted in The Communist Manifesto, where Marx and collaborator Frederick Engels mock bourgeois pretensions and argue that the very conditions that had produced the bourgeois family were disappearing among proletarians.
Accordingly, the father’s role and power was diminished, opening up the opportunity for a different form of the family. Brown points to a number of references to women in Capital, Marx’s magnum opus and in his earlier draft material for Capital.
In particular, Marx discusses the way capitalists delighted in drawing women and children into factories because, as specially oppressed people, they could be paid less. However, Marx saw the dialectical aspects of this process.
As women became proletarians, they gained power in their private lives and moved out of the control of their fathers and male relatives. This process can be observed today in the international call centres that have been established in India.
Marx recognised all the pain and tribulations in this. The long hours and shift work undermined traditional family structures and caused suffering. However, women’s economic power led towards a more egalitarian form of the family with men.
When writing about the Preston strikes in 1853–54, Marx was uncritical of the strikers demand for a “family wage”, which implies women as dependent appendages of men. By the 1860s, however, he was arguing for equal status for women within the structures of the First International.
This reflected his general thinking about the equality of women. “From the beginning of the First International to the end of his life,” Brown writes, “Marx supported incorporating women in the workforce as equals.”
In 1858, Marx returned to the oppression of women in bourgeois families when he wrote about the case of an English aristocrat, Lady Bulwer-Lytton. After the breakdown of her marriage, she was declared insane at the instigation of her estranged husband.
As in his earlier ruminations about suicide, Marx is clearly describing the bourgeois family as a site of oppression of women.
After the heroic spirit shown by women in the 1871 Paris Commune, Marx demonstrated a keener appreciation of the demands of women. In France, the paternalistic ideas of the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon were still in evidence in the labour movement.
But, in opposition, Marx wrote in 1880 that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.
Marx’s notebooks from the final years of his life contain some of the most interesting developments of his thought. After Marx’s death, Engels discovered these notes, especially those on Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, the pioneering work of anthropology.
Using these, Engels produced The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he argues that men and women had lived in equality in pre-class society.
Engels, taking Morgan at face value and going further, describes the rise of class society as bringing about the “world historic defeat of the female sex”.
Brown, however, finds a more nuanced appraisal of Morgan in Marx. Marx did not accept Morgan uncritically, he compared and contrasted him with other writers.
Also, his underlining and emphases show that he was far less condescending towards women than Morgan. Brown says that Engels “provides a deterministic assessment of the beginning of class and gender-conflict”.
Engels emphasises the role of men’s need to transfer property rights to their children as central to the oppression of women. Brown says, on the other hand, that for Marx, women’s oppression involves far more than that.
Brown allows us all to read Marx with new eyes. This short, comprehensive handbook could provide the basis for a new wave of feminist engagement with Marxism. It is also a clarion call for all those regarding themselves as Marxists to re-evaluate their ideological conceptions.