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Len T: The ‘F’ word: a correction - Callinicos, Brenner and Ramas on women's oppression

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I put together my response to Sheila McGregor on feminism in haste (in order to address a political question) and my post shows the signs of speedy composition: it contains a mistake. I wrote of Alex Callinicos, ‘It is notable that throughout his writing, while he sometimes footnotes Lindsey German’s book, Callinicos has had nothing to say about women’s oppression. This suggests that he has either been completely uninterested in the question or harbours reservations.’ It is true that he has been largely unconcerned with feminism and the oppression encountered by women. There is no discussion of these matters in Is There a Future for Marxism? (1982) or in Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (1989). In both books, we might have expected some discussion of gender and feminism, given the prominence of these issues under consideration. For a theorist renowned for his intellectual range the silence is deafening. Nevertheless, as I stated my point, I passed over a telling point of reference. A comrade reminded me that, alongside publications by members of the SWP (Cliff, German and Harman, but not McGregor), he has sometimes cited the essay ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’ by Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas (New Left Review, No.144, 1984; republished in Brenner’s Women and the Politics of Class, 2000). Interesting!


This post is a footnote to the real issue of sexual predation and a botched cover-up, but, nevertheless, I thought I would take another look through some of his writings and try to work out where he stands on the question of women’s oppression. The fact that the answer isn’t apparent is itself revealing. In Theories and Histories (1995) he briefly enlists Sabina Lovibond’s feminist defence of the Enlightenment against postmodernists. This seems pretty contingent. There are a couple of pages in Equality (2000) responding to Nancy Fraser’s distinction between ‘injustices of distribution’ and ‘injustices of recognition’. His point is that tackling the latter requires an ‘egalitarian principle of distributive justice’, which is simply an assertion of his orthodoxy. It is very noticeable, though, that in Equality he has remarkably little to say about ‘non-class-based inequalities’; when these wrongs do appear, the examples are usually drawn from ‘race’ or nationality. In fact, one way to assess his stance might be to draw analogies with his writing on racism, such as Race and Class (1993). I think the result would look quite peculiar, but there are some methodological problems with this approach that would involve conflating distinct forms of oppression. He could legitimately claim that this silence is a result of an intellectual division of labour, leaving the analysis of the oppression of women (and feminist bashing) to German and McGregor, while he gets on with other things. Nevertheless, the absence of gender inequality from his substantive discussions of justice and equality feels like an evasion; the paucity of comment suggests he is skirting around a problem.

This is why, I think, the reference to Brenner and Ramas’s essay is a symptomatic instance. It figures alongside works by Harman and German in Making History (1987) and appears as the only non-SWP source on women’s oppression in The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (2nd edition, 1995). I’m told, though I haven’t found the reference, that he called it the best account of the oppression experienced by women. The most sustained discussion (two paragraphs) is to be found in his essay ‘History, Exploitation and Oppression’ (Imprints, 1997). In this essay Callinicos engages in a defence of the classical Marxist account of exploitation, against conflations of oppression and exploitation made by Alan Carling in Social Division (1991). In the process, Callinicos notes that Marxists claim oppression is explained by exploitation. At the same time, he acknowledges the mechanism by which this occurs is, as yet, unexplained (it ‘is still to be specified’). That is a very telling point. To put it clearly, his argument is twofold: (i) a Marxist account of women’s oppression must derive that condition from the form of exploitation that defines a mode of production; (ii) we do not yet have such an account. Callinicos states a methodological principle, but notes that no worked-out theory yet fulfils this criterion. According to him, then, there is no adequate Marxist theory of women’s oppression. Presumably, the same goes for LGBTQ oppression. It is a good job his comrades haven’t been paying attention.

Here is a summary of what he has to say in those two paragraphs: ‘The prime factor in disadvantaging women both inside and outside the home in modern capitalism is their particular and subordinate position within the family, and the prime responsibility this requires them to take for child care.’ It is this role in the social reproduction of labour, he claims, that explains why women ‘perform worse paid and less skilled jobs than men’. Callinicos continues: ‘the whole gamut of women’s oppression, which, of course, extends to embrace a whole range of non-economic issues such as ideology, sexuality and domestic violence, is best seen in the context of this institution.’ Responsibility for child care prevents working class women from fully participating in the labour market. This is a stronger argument than most of the statements by the SWP on this question, but it is not without its problems. I see two:

  1. He doesn’t suggest how the non-economic aspects of oppression are linked to the institution of the family. I’m not going to pick up this theoretical question here.
  2. He goes on to claim the process of the reproduction of labour power ‘does not concern the welfare of the individuals concerned’.

His point is to suggest that ‘the distribution of burdens and benefits involved in women’s oppression’ does not primarily involve the men and women in the family, but the maintenance of capitalism. He gives no clear reason why this should be so and, in so doing, has to restrict social reproduction to child care, discarding services performed by women for male members of the household - cooking, washing, cleaning, shopping and so forth. Presumably, this also excludes emotional support (‘psychic compensation’). These claims are theoretically unwarranted, introducing into his case an ad hoc political point intended to keep at arm’s length any suggestion that working class men may derive advantage from their position in the family. This is the one indication of his stance on ‘privilege theory’, but he is not entirely consistent. For instance, in this essay he also speaks of women’s ‘subordination in the family’. We are entitled to ask, subordination to whom? Again, he gives as sources for his overall discussion of women’s oppression German’s book along with the essay by Brenner and Ramas. The substantive argument is drawn from the latter two thinkers.

It might be worth looking at what Brenner and Ramas wrote. Their article was offered as a socialist-feminist contribution to the wide-ranging debate at the time on how best to explain the oppression of women; specifically it was a response to Michèle Barrett’s book Women’s Oppression Today (1980). Barrett presented a broad synthesis of the debates that had been raging throughout the 1970s: were production and reproduction two distinct types of power hierarchies or was there a common ground? Barrett argues against dual systems and suggests that we need to examine the ‘family-household system’. She is critical of aspects of Althusserianism, but in one sense, she develops a solution based on other aspects of Althusser’s work, arguing that women’s oppression under capitalism is best seen as a survival (or articulation) of a much older set of production relations reshaped by capital and she assigns a key role to ideology in explaining the persistence of women’s subordinate role. This household-family system, she argues, was in place by the 1860s leading to a ‘sex-segregated labour market’. Barrett argues this generated a contradiction in which working class men pursued a strategy that was in their short-term interests (raising their wages), but divided the working class along gender lines and, therefore, served the longer-term requirements of capital rather well. It is worth noting two points: she was seeking a unitary account and she did not think that women’s oppression could be ended under capitalism.

While agreeing that a Marxist account of the oppression of women must entail a unitary argument based on the ‘historical development and reproduction of the family-household system (and) the sexual division of labour’, Brenner and Ramas advance an alternative explanation. First, their essay is meant to address why capitalists have been willing to exclude so much potentially exploitable labour power from production. All the more so given that women’s labour was usually cheaper than that of male workers, largely because domestic responsibility made it difficult for them to organise. Secondly, they want to avoid what they see as contradictions in Barrett’s account, resulting from her failure to provide an adequate material basis for oppression (what they see as her overreliance on the role of ideology). Thirdly, and more problematically, they seek to avoid the argument that trade unionists colluded in the subordination of women. The solution to these problems, they claim, is to be found in responses by working class families to their experience of capitalism.

While they don’t put it like this, Brenner and Ramas’s argument is based on the idea that working people of both genders were engaged in the rational maximisation of their resources. They consciously selected the best response to possibilities for their reproduction under conditions of capitalist production. Whereas, in a situation of small commodity production, or even outwork, subaltern reproduction could be managed and worked around, the rise of industrial work and the control of the production process threatened the existence of the working class family and its possibility for reproduction. Brenner and Ramas argue that the family-household system allowed for a solution. The working class couldn’t access social reproduction via the market; they simply couldn’t afford to pay for cooking, child care, laundry services and so forth. There were no cooks, maids or nannies for them. So, in the absence of reliable contraception and safe alternatives to breastfeeding, working class women were constrained from permanent employment by child bearing and lactation. This necessitated women taking responsibility for child care, while adopting forms of work that could be fitted around it – primarily, domestic trades or taking in laundry and/or lodgers (we might add to these possibilities ‘penny capitalism’). According to Brenner and Ramas, under these circumstances it made sense to focus on the wages of the male ‘breadwinner’ and agitate for a family wage. That is, they argue the answer to women’s oppression under capitalism lies in a contradiction between ‘the capitalist dynamics of production and the exigencies of biological reproduction’. Biological differences between men and women were transformed into systematic inequalities. Enter the welfare state, which enabled, on the one hand, state support for reproduction and, on the other, its commodification. In these conditions, the full-time housewife became much less common and women entered the labour force in large numbers, substituting for the displaced labour of teenagers. We should not discount the role this played in the long boom. Nonetheless, domestic labour and child care remain a fundamental burden for working class women as tasks performed in addition to wage-labour. For many women, while the sheer physical burden of domestic work has been reduced by technology, injustice was intensified.

Points and questions

There are three key reasons why the explanation advanced by Brenner and Ramas might appeal to Callinicos:

  1. Their claims are compatible with methodological individualism and can, thus, be translated into the analytical rubric that he now prefers. Their account begins from the rational choices made by individuals, rather than a trans-individual response.
  2. It is a unitary account, locating the oppression of women in responses to capitalism. In fact, Brenner and Ramas do more than ground this oppression in the capitalist mode of production; rather they produce it unequivocally out of a working class response to exploitation.
  3. Social democratic welfare reforms did not spell the end of inequality. While not wanting to minimise the real gains for working class women, we could say that the post-war welfare state layered injustice over existing wrongs. Their essay does not offer support to reformist conclusions.

So far, so good. However, there are problems, which Callinicos fails to acknowledge or confront. These relate both to the way the account offered by Brenner and Ramas is incompatible with his representation of their explanation and the gaps and silences in their essay.

(1) Brenner and Ramas provide a unitary account of oppression based in capitalist production relations, but they do not claim the strategy adopted by working people did not disadvantage women. Like Barrett, they recognise that the family-household system led to significant inequalities inside the working class. They reiterate this point in various places in their essay. Here is one particularly clear statement: working class men, they say, had a ‘material interest in the family where men retained control over women and children, were given respect and power, and where men’s needs came first’. Elsewhere in the essay they speak of men’s claim on their wives’ ‘emotional support, respect, deference and sexuality’. They argue forcefully that ‘capitalist production imparted a coercive charge to biological reproduction’. The family-household system resulted in unequal advantages in the working class. As we have seen, Callinicos wants to circumvent this dimension of the argument and, while he uses the phrase ‘benefits and burdens’, he has read enough rational-choice theory and philosophical debates on equality to know ‘benefit’ or ‘privilege’ is not the best way to think about disadvantage, injustice or wrong. He cannot be oblivious to this dimension of the essay by Brenner and Ramas. Of course, he is not obliged to accept the case as they present it and he can develop it in any way he sees fit. However, not elaborating on the issue is mystifying. Further, if the exact relation of oppression to exploitation is yet to be specified, it is not clear why he should rule off-side unequal advantages accrued in the working class family. I suspect this is one place where the SWP’s democratic centralism of ‘a special type’ pulls his argument out of shape. It is a substantive intellectual problem, because eradicating this dimension of Brenner and Ramas’s work significantly weakens the explanatory power of their account. The ‘coercive charge’ given to social reproduction is central to accounting for oppression; without it we just have a series of rational choices. In that case, oppression disappears in a puff of smoke; disadvantage just becomes difference. The working class family offers advantages for capital (privatised reproduction of labour power, cheaper workers, a reserve army of labour) and this results in a direct situation of inequality for single women who can expect lower-paid, and often precarious, work, but the disadvantage involved for married women can only be played out in the family as unequal access to assets, lack of authority and restricted independence. This is why we speak of a double burden or double disadvantage. It will be remembered that Callinicos wrote the family disadvantages women ‘both inside and outside the home’. To use a metaphor, the family is not only the engine of women’s oppression; it is also the transmission belt. This argument is not just abstract; it has practical implications for the demands we make in our unions and community organisations and for the ways we build political groups (and hopefully at some stage, parties). In wanting to preserve, at all costs, unity in struggle, the SWP fail to account for the divisions caused by capitalism.

(2) At the time, critics of Brenner and Ramas noted two key problems with their argument: (a) Their explanation had nothing to say concerning the condition of middle class women or the continuities of women’s oppression experienced across class boundaries. Middle class women were also excluded from work (and large aspects of public life) and this obviously cannot be put down to a crisis of reproduction. Does this mean we have to develop distinct accounts to explain remarkably similar features of the oppression faced by working class and middle class women? That seems a bizarre idea. (b) Why did the working class not pursue a collective response to social reproduction? Collective child minding with wet nurses is familiar from some societies and this option would have allowed working class women to enter the labour market. This solution was feasible and would probably have led to higher family incomes. Why was it not tried? The argument advanced by Brenner and Ramas is carefully constructed, but it does not explain why the working class pursued a privatised solution to reproduction (see Michèle Barrett, ‘Women’s oppression today: a reply to Brenner and Ramas’, New Left Review, No. 144, 1984). To retain critical force, Brenner and Ramas’s explanation has to be developed to engage these issues, but Callinicos has nothing to add. More silence.

(3) Brenner and Ramas overstate the central role of factory work in the 19th century; their key examples are drawn from the cotton mills of the North West. However, the majority of workers, at this time, were actually engaged in small-scale production, based in workshops or the home. This is a major problem for their account, because forms of reproduction other than sex segregation should have been possible on the basis of these labour processes. This may be one reason that they have nothing to say about capitalism before the 19th century. They are undoubtedly correct when they say that working class men were ‘hiding behind the petticoats’ (appealing to middle class moral sensibilities about the employment of women and children, while understanding that restriction on the working hours of wives and children would necessarily bring down the hours of male operatives). Nevertheless, we can’t sidestep the issue of the regulation of female work or the concomitant control over women’s lives. Most historians now agree that skilled male trade unionists had a lot to gain, at the expense of women. For instance, skilled working men’s claim to the franchise was articulated around separating themselves from casual workers. This distinction hinged on two points: (i) an argument for ‘property in skill’ that made them equivalent to middle class property owners; (ii) an insistence on ‘respectability’ – principally, sobriety, thrift, self-improvement and domestic stability. Both criteria required women to stay at home. Ignoring divisions in the working class doesn’t help to explain, or challenge, capitalist injustice.

The leading thinkers of the SWP have preferred not to consider these awkward questions, making do with polemics against separatist straw women. As we have seen, these socialist-feminists explicitly rejected a dual-systems approach. Callinicos is a more rigorous analyst than many of his co-thinkers and his two paragraphs contain more substance than the gruel we have often been dished up. Nevertheless, the commitment to opposing the claims of any possible feminism introduces contradictions that he has not been able to negotiate and his suggestion that unequal power in the family is not an issue involves a sleight of hand. This isn’t surprising, because there is no solution on the basis of a ‘line’ that is actually a magic trick, acknowledging women’s oppression while spiriting away its effects in the working class. It is time to face up to the genuine problems and the real arguments. Confronting his acknowledgement that a Marxist account of the oppression of women ‘is still to be specified’ would be a good initial step.

Len T