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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

The ‘F’ Word: Marxism and women’s oppression today

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ISJ #138Sheila McGregor has recently published ‘Marxism and Women’s Oppression Today’ in International Socialism (No. 138). McGregor is able to comment, with a straight face, on the ‘continued disgraceful sexist culture of the BBC’ or ‘being groped by sleazy men’ and apparently not notice a scandal closer to home. There are indications that McGregor has reassessed her position on the scandal in question. If this is the case, it is clearly to be welcomed, but the theoretical questions remain. Her essay presents some comments on ‘raunch culture’, adds a paragraph on austerity and then gets down to criticising patriarchy theories. As much as anything, this contribution is intended to inoculate the members against any form of socialist-feminism or Marxist-feminism. At a moment that sees a serious resurgence of interest in these traditions in theory and activism, Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is administered as an antidote. The best bit of her essay concerns orang-utans engaging in oral sex ten metres up in the trees. Brilliant! The rest reads like pasted-together material from her files with half a mind on current goings-on. The result is a hotchpotch compiled from dated arguments, a narrow range of (mainly SWP) sources and recent news reports. No one needs telling, it was put together in order to address an immediate political question. In this sense, her essay is euphemistic and intended to carefully negotiate, rather than explain, the present.


A particular target, as her title suggests, is the renewed interest in the work of Lise Vogel (Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 1983/2013). McGregor is seemingly unaware of some dimensions of current thinking and her grasp of the ideas is shaky. We’ll come to her idea of biological sex distinctions below. In addition, she glides over the surface of significant debates. Just one example: there are ten references to Jane Humphries’ essay of 1981 on the exclusion of women from the mines in 19th century England. McGregor makes no reference to the voluminous literature that is much more critical of the role of skilled male workers in regulating women’s work. She doesn’t even seem to see that you can’t sustain the argument she wants to make on the basis of one industry, let alone one 32 year old essay.

McGregor’s article adds little; the presentation of old arguments is dreary and writing of this quality isn’t likely to convince anyone; to be fair, it probably isn’t meant to persuade the unconvinced. Rather, this essay is a shibboleth for the faithful, a marker to point to whenever awkward questions are raised: ‘You need to read Sheila McGregor,’ we can already hear the cadre proclaim. This may be why it feels like a rejoinder to a totally imaginary interlocutor. It is one of the odder features of the scandal that has rocked the SWP that, rather than address substantive issues - the unequal authority between comrades, lack of internal democracy, ‘groping’ and worse, a botched cover-up and so on - leading figures feel the need to polemicise on Lenin and Engels. This small drama suggests a bigger psychic upheaval. The SWP leadership currently provide a good illustration to Freud’s account of fetishism, they know the position is untenable, but can’t face the consequences. We know, but nevertheless... Instead, we have displacements and decoys for an embarrassment hiding in plain sight. McGregor's article indicates that the SWP needs a half-decent psychoanalyst.

Roots of oppression

My aim is neither to provide a detailed response to McGregor, nor to offer a worked out analysis of women’s oppression in the 21st century. Rather, I simply want to point to some theoretical problems with the framing of the debate on much of the Trotskyist left. More than anything, McGregor’s article reveals that the SWP doesn’t actually have a theory of women’s oppression. Instead, there are calls to action and an origin story: ‘long, long ago...’ Engels’s book provides a cosmology, reminding us that there was a time before women’s oppression. As in so many areas, rather than develop the conceptual tools we need, the SWP leadership has preferred to defend some imagined orthodoxy, drawing virtue from a self-willed isolation. The only real offering on women’s oppression has been the dismal ‘debate’ on ‘male benefits’. Incidentally, McGregor’s use of the term ‘dependence’ in her essay does introduce power differences into considerations of the working class family. Similar terms appear throughout the writing of Lindsey German. This isn’t surprising; they are trying to manage an uncontainable contradiction, acknowledging the ‘dual burden’ faced by working class women, while trying to prevent this condition from opening criticism of the party’s practice. The task in question isn’t theoretical but political, in the bad sense of the term. There are signs that the crisis has begun to generate some rethinking, intellectual curiosity and new work. That may be a small compensation arising from this horrendous, sorry mess.

The lack of hard evidence means thinkers working from Engels need recourse to other kinds of information. Much of the material used to support the case is drawn from primate behaviour and hunter-gatherer groups, either surviving or recently extant. In fact, most of McGregor’s information is recycled from work by Harman and even Lindsey German, which suggests a certain circularity. In any case, there is a methodological problem involving reasoning by analogy. We can’t presume some unbroken continuity, or contiguity, between the behaviour of early hominids and primates, on the one hand, and ‘pre-capitalist’ social groups, on the other. The assumptions are open to question all along this chain. I won’t belabour the point, because Colin Wilson has made a similar argument in a good response to this dimension of McGregor’s essay (International Socialism No. 139). Wilson correctly questions the relevance of this ‘monkey business’ for understanding human sexuality and questions McGregor’s biological assumptions. It comes to something when he has to give an elementary lesson on the distinction between biological sex difference and gender identification. This is one of the essential points made in feminist thinking and it has changed not only how we think about women’s oppression, but also LGBTQ politics. (What is there to say about the other response in the same issue by Lindisfarne and Neale, except that it is infinitely worse than McGregor’s contribution? It is as vulgar a piece of functionalist class-reductionism as I can remember reading.) There is a constant risk in this account of primitivism, treating human groups as elementary instances of our history - locked in some earlier moment and unchanging through millennia. Engels’s text provides a temptation for the unwary to ethno-primitivism, which has, rightly, been criticised in post-colonial theory.

It is common in the SWP to speak of ‘roots’ as a short-hand metaphor for patterns of causality. This has the advantage of brevity in activist discussion, but it comes with theoretical baggage. Some time ago, Alex Callinicos criticised the idea that investigating the conditions under which phenomena emerge could provide adequate explanation for the continued existence of those phenomena and their hold on the present. It is a pity that the cadre have never taken seriously his philosophical work. His point is that we learn more from considering why the dominant class takes up and reproduces particular ideologies than from the circumstances of their emergence. The reason that an idea, or a practice, comes into being is often contingent and, usually, overdetermined. Addressing how and why ideas or values are accepted and reproduced is much more important theoretically and politically than ‘origin’. (It is notable that throughout his writing, while he has sometimes footnotes Lindsey German’s book, Callinicos has had nothing to say about the oppression of women. This suggests that he has either been completely uninterested in the question or harbours reservations). McGregor doesn’t seem to understand that discussing the roots of oppression in the distant past does not tell us much about women’s oppression today. (In any case, as activists we can’t do much about the dawn of human history.) An adequate Marxist account has to demonstrate what produces oppression in the present; its grip on us here and now; how it is constantly reproduced and perpetuated. Origin fables won’t help with this problem.

Engels, Marx and others

McGregor has a peculiar way of seeing criticism without registering it. She can’t grasp why Heather Brown in her recent book Marx on Gender and the Family (2012) turns away from Engels. She notes that some of Lise Vogel’s criticisms of Engels ‘may be accurate’, but adds we shouldn’t discard his book which is an important resource. This is a very odd assessment; it acknowledges a problem for her own argument and then proceeds as she was unaware it existed. The trouble is Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women is both philologically exact and logically coherent. That is not it say that it solves all our problems; it doesn’t. For instance, in arguing that domestic labour is necessary to the social reproduction of labour power (the continued supply of workers), but, in Marx’s sense, non-productive labour (it doesn’t immediately produce value), Vogel draws on the classic definition of patriarchy - the authority of the male homeowner over wife, children, servants and apprentices. With the end of the master and servant acts, the passing of the married women’s property acts and large-scale entry of women into the labour market, it is not clear what now secures this authority in the heterosexual family. We need some serious thinking to investigate the problem. Nevertheless, Vogel considerably advances the argument for a Marxist account of oppression and her criticisms of Engels are serious and sustained. She lays out what Engels did with his sources (Morgan, Bachofen, Marx’s extract notebooks). In the process, Vogel points to significant contradictions in his argument. Fundamentally, she demonstrates that Engels presents parallel accounts of the emergence of the family and private property or class society. Despite what is frequently claimed, he does not argue that the one instance is founded on the other, or does so inconsistently. Engels was a dual systems theorist. McGregor observes the point and moves on. Incidentally, there is no inherent reason that patriarchy theory has to entail a dual approach to society. In a sense, the parallel tracks in Engels’s book shouldn't come as a shock. We should recognise the nature of this text. Engels wrote The Origin quickly; fundamentally it was intended as a counter to Bebel's primer Women and Socialism, which was one of the most popular texts in the Second International. Engels wanted to push the argument in another direction. The point is that, on careful reading, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State undercuts the very argument that McGregor wants to find there.

In the same way, McGregor notes Marx’s statement from Volume 1 of Capital: ‘The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of the working class. But the capitalist may safely leave this to the workers’ drive for self-propagation.’ But all she can see is an ‘unhelpful’ formulation. She doesn’t recognise that passages like this represent serious weak points in Marxist theory, places where we have to engage in theoretical work to develop his unfinished project. As Susan Ferguson and David McNally argue in their excellent introduction to the new edition of Vogel’s book, this passage is a key fault line in Marx’s Capital. It represents the point at which Marx could have developed his conceptual apparatus to include social reproduction and integrate women’s oppression fully into his account of capitalism. He drew back and left yet another unfinished lead. There are two consequences of his decision or reticence. 1) Marx didn’t see that the state would step in to halt the drift to the destruction of the working class family and ensure social reproduction of labour power. This was already underway. He recognised the importance of the Factory Acts (including restrictions on the employment of women and children), but there was also the sanitary laws, increasing health regulation and, before long, compulsory schooling. The state prevented the drive to total immiseration and the disintegration of the family-form. For all his appreciation of the Factory Acts, Marx thought capitalism would continue to depend exclusively on the market to produce the next generation of workers. A lot more could be said, but a key hold of reformism is tied up with the state’s role in the social reproduction of the working class family. Marx’s mistake on this point has made reckoning with reformism and the state more difficult. In fact, one way to see neoliberalism is as a drive to restructure social reproduction. 2) The concepts that would have allowed for a clearer understanding of women’s oppression remain underdeveloped. It was socialist-feminists who perceived these absences in Marxism and realised that accounting for oppression entailed addressing the gaps and working through the blockages in Marx’s work. Whatever the confusions and errors, this is what the contributors to the domestic labour debate tried to do. Theorists, including some members of the SWP, who contributed to this discussion were on to something fruitful. Ian Birchall recently suggested that the ‘downturn’ dispute didn’t cost the SWP many members. True enough, but from the current perspective, the closing down of the debate on feminism and the exit of key contributors has proved tragic.

From a Marxist standpoint, women’s oppression today is best seen as arising from the organisation of the working class family and domestic labour. McGregor is right to say that it was an error to suggest that domestic work directly produced value and hence point out problems with the wages for housework campaign, but concepts are clarified in the process of discussion and we still have much conceptual work to do. Whatever the problems with domestic-labour theorising, the categories developed in Marx’s work on political economy are a more productive place to begin than Engels’s book. This is why Vogel’s work is important and the reason that many young socialists and feminists are excited by the prospects it opens. Her persistent work on reproduction enabled her to draw out and develop Marx’s logical categories to provide an account of the central place of women’s oppression in capitalism. In the process she cut through much of the confusion in thinking about domestic labour. Vogel is simultaneously appreciative and very critical of this literature.

Much of this shouldn’t need going over again. These are all elementary issues in socialist-feminist thinking, but the deliberate isolation from that strand of theory has tied the thinkers of the SWP in knots. Retreating from the domestic-labour debate and engagement with socialist-feminism to the bunkers of imagined orthodoxy left the SWP poorly equipped to face questions of oppression and to deal with its internal crisis. I don’t claim that Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women provides a fully worked-out analysis. Her argument is tightly focused and whole areas go unaddressed. Vogel has nothing to say about sexual violence, the production of femininity and masculinity, desire... Much would need to be done to work out how this analysis would feed into the intersectionality debate. Representation and subjectivisation need to be put into this picture to avoid yet another economism. What she does provide is a coherent place from which to begin building an analysis of women’s oppression under capitalism. That work urgently needs our attention. Today any Marxism worth a candle will also be feminist or it will not be.