Marxism and Women's Oppression -
Moving Beyond the Fear of 'Feminism'

Amrit Wilson

At the CPI(ML) Central Party School in 1994, comrades were told that 'communists and feminists should take a new look at each other'. Since that time women have become even more visible as a political force: through mobilisations by global institutions at events such as the Beijing Conference, at 'alternative' sessions in opposition to such events; through quotas in the electoral system - local and national; through women's organisations, 'autonomous' and otherwise, tackling violence and rape; as part of peasant and environmental movements; and in massive education programmes launched by global capital.

Yet the pages of Liberation show little sign of 'a new look at feminism'. And if Comrade Amal (Liberation, September 1994) is to be believed there is no need for a new approach, since decades back 'Chinese communists led by Chairman Mao... successfully resolved the gender and other contradictions by and large'.

Despite this complacency, I would like to suggest that now more than ever it is crucially important to analyse that complex and fast growing body of theory and practice relating to women's oppression and the struggles against it. Too often it has simply been labeled 'feminism' and ascribed to the rubbish heap.

But who are feminists? According to another writer in Liberation (October 1996), they 'identify primary contradiction as between men and women' - they are upper class because 'the main problem of toiling rural women... are more related with their livelihood whereas women belonging to upper classes have gender issues as the main problem'.

This definition and the assumptions inherent within it (e.g. that toiling for your livelihood has nothing to do with gender) and its conclusion, are however, as I will argue, incorrect and misleading.

It is true that like 'Marxist', 'feminist' too is for some people a pejorative term; for other others it is honorific. But whatever it is, surely we can all agree that feminists have a right to have their own definition of themselves placed on the record. The most widely accepted definition is that feminists are those who believe that women are systematically oppressed and subordinated and seek to end this subordination.

There are essentially three basic strands within feminism. Liberal feminists, or bourgeois feminists (who are not necessarily all bourgeois women themselves, but who accept the liberal or bourgeois political theory); radical feminists, who are a more amorphous group but see a fundamental commonality in the experience of all women and as such could be described as regarding the primary contradiction as being between men and women; and socialist feminists who seek to apply Marxist method to conceptualise women's oppression and develop strategies based on this conceptualisation.

Some of us may think - haven't Marx and Engels already done this? According to socialist feminists, Marx' and Engels' work is fraught with contradictions because they often tripped over their own prejudices as 19th century European men, so much of their work on women's oppression (like many of their pronouncements on colonialism or the Irish question) does not represent an application of Marxist method.

For a Marxist party considering the possibility of alliances with the women's movement or even re-examining its own approach to women's oppression, the difference between these feminist strands and particularly the different ways of conceptualising women's oppression are of crucial importance. This is not because any of them provides a model which can be accepted wholesale but because - if we think it is worth taking on women's oppression at all - it is only in the light of this analysis that various movements or initiatives can be judged and understood and placed within the framework of revolutionary strategy.

Here I will focus mainly on liberal feminism and socialist feminism, because while radical feminism has also had an impact on the women's movement, the majority of developments in India can be examined in the context of these two.

Liberal Feminism

Liberalism, the political theory of emerging capitalism is now so pervasive that while Marxists reject it they are all too often influenced by its inferences. Liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries based itself on a specific conceptualisation of human nature crucial to which were the ideas of 'rationality' and metaphysical dualism. 'Rationality' was regarded as a capacity which was fully developed only in educated (and therefore bourgeois) men - and this justified that only they should have full political rights. Working class men could, if they were educated, become fully rational but the rationality of European women was open to question: in general they were regarded as less rational than men. As for black people, male and female, they were defined as not rational - since the racist ideology of the slave trade and colonialism had conveniently defined them as subhuman.

Metaphysical dualism came out of the protestant ethics of a period which divided the world into good and bad, mind and body, intellect and appetite. Woman (the temptress) was categorised as irrational, emotional and dominated by the body, while men were believed to be able to control their instincts and emotions due to their capacity to reason.

Finally, liberals emphasize the notion of two realms - the private and public. Production for profit had just moved out of the domestic sphere. With the demise of independent commodity producing families in which women and men worked together (under the paterfamilias) and the emergence of industrial capitalism, the home now contained the arena for the production of the next generation and the reproduction (i.e. daily regeneration) of labour power, and was defined as the 'private' realm.

The 'public' realm was regulated by the state which was seen as a neutral purveyor of justice. This conceptual division of public and private, by the large, remain today.

The archetypal liberal feminists (and in practice most women's groups-'autonomous' and otherwise - represent a mixture of theoretical positions) accept all aspects of liberal philosophy. Which is why their research projects (even as late as the 1950s and 60s) have concentrated on trying to 'prove' women's rationality. Their campaigns have focussed on equality within the law - equal opportunity legislations, quotas etc. and on another level on shifting more of the private arena (such as marriage) into the realm of the public where it can be brought under the control of the state.

Marx, Engels and the Sexual Division of Labour

Marx and Engels of course rejected the concept of rationality, but their writings about the importance or otherwise of biological difference between men and women are contradictory. On the one hand, they argued that the sexual division of labour - in which women are concerned with the household and men with obtaining food and the instruments required for this - is 'originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act' (1). Howsoever one might choose to interpret 'sexual act', this implies that the division of labour will always reemerge so long as the division of labour in the sexual act remains and this will constantly regenerate the institution of gender.

In other writings (and this is now the standard Marxist view) they are anxious to deny the 'naturalness' of women's subordination and in order to do this, tend to minimise the social and political significance of biological difference.

Again while they see history as 'nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature' through the dialectical interrelationship between human biology, human society and physical environment mediated by human labour or praxis, they never examine the difference between male and female praxis - a difference which is inevitable if human biology is a part of the dialectical relationship.

Most significantly while Marx and Engels identified the sexual division of labour they never subjected the labour of women in the home to analysis. Because of this they never applied the Marxist method to two important areas - the production of fresh life and the regeneration of workers energies - which instead (like the liberal theorists) they simply relegated to the non-political 'private' arena.

The way Marx and Engels defined production also suffers from similar contradictoriness. In The German Ideology they state explicitly that there are two aspects to 'the production of life, both of one's own in labour and of fresh life in procreation' and warn against an historical approach to procreation. Again in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels states clearly: 'The social organisation under which the people of particular historical epoch and particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the state of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other'. Thus by implication at least, Marx and Engels acknowledge that basic human needs include not only food, clothing and shelter but social and often individual needs for bearing and rearing children, for sexual satisfaction and emotional nurturance.(2)

And yet in most of Marx' and Engels' writings 'production' is understood as meaning the production of food, shelter and clothing. The 'economy' of a society is regarded as the way it organises 'production' in this sense. Child bearing and child-rearing and all other tasks within the home are taken to be part of the non-economic or 'superstructural' realm.

Socialist Feminism

Socialist feminists seeks to remedy this anomaly. They point out that the needs for children, for cooked food, a specific domestic environment, clean clothes, sexual satisfaction etc. (like the need for subsistence abstracted into 'food, clothing and shelter') assume specific forms depending on the means available to meet these needs and therefore undergo a continuous historic process of transformation.. Not only are the means to satisfy ALL these needs produced through human labour but the means for fulfilling these needs can be distributed and exchanged (through the institutions of both marriage and prostitution for example). 'Because these sorts of transactions are possible, the system for producing and distributing the means to satisfy them.... is in fact an economic system, or part of one - even though money is not always the currency of exchange. Within this part of economic system....some people have controlled the labour of others. The controlling group has forced to subordinate groups to do (regenerative labour plus) sexual, procreative ... labour; ... The controlling group has always been predominantly men and the producers similarly predominantly women... This control may not be used to extract surplus value or profit from women's labour but it is still a form of exploitation in the Marxist sense - i.e. forced, unpaid surplus labour the product of which is not controlled by the producers.. .thus.. sexuality and procreation are a part of the economic foundation of society, partially determined by 'the economy' in the narrow sense and partially determining it.'(3)

If women are the exploited group and men are in general the controlling group, what does it mean in the context of a capitalist society? Here clearly women are 'involved in the production and reproduction of workers. They service those who are daily destroyed by working for wages and who need to be daily renewed; and they care for and discipline those who are being prepared to work when they grow up.' (4)

The traditional Marxist approach sees the foundation of capitalist society as 'the wage labourer and his or her direct exploitation.' But 'it is precisely through the wage that the exploitation of the non-wage labourers has been organised'. (5)

Just as in colonialism pre-capitalist modes of production supply the raw materials for capitalist production in the metropolis, here the exploitation of women in the home is essential for the capitalist exploitation of workers outside the home to be effective.

Strangely enough, by relegating this arena to the 'private', traditional Marxist theory manages to regard this exploitation as consumption. For example, if a meal of rice and dal requires cultivating, harvesting, husking, packing, transport, purchasing, cleaning and cooking, the first six are production and the last three according to Marxist theory are consumption (if done for the home using family labour) and do not even represent the creation of value.

Socialist feminists argue that one of the main reasons for this confusion is the false and misleading division of the world into private and public. It is not simply that men's greater access to 'production' enables them to dominate women sexually or that women's responsibilities for procreation limits their access to wage labour. '"Production" and "reproduction", work and the family, far from being separate territories like the moon and sun or the kitchen and the shop, are really intimately related modes that reverberate upon one another and frequently occur in the same social, physical and even psychic spaces...'(6)

This reverberation explains why gender becomes a manifestation of class in certain jobs, particularly feminised jobs like nurses, domestic workers, certain types of agricultural labour and increasingly even in industrial jobs (for example in the FTZ in Bangladesh where women can be considered too 'ugly' or 'unattractive' to be employed); and of course gender is openly invoked to justify paying women less than men, or paying a pittance to those low paid workers who do 'women's work', because they are seen as women first and workers second.

So while dalit workers facing exploitation by upper caste employers experience class as caste, women are experiencing class through an attack on themselves as women. Of course this is also the case on a blatant level for the poor peasant woman who daily faces the threat of sexual abuse from the landlord.

While all this shows that the statement 'gender issues matter only to upper class women' is downright wrong, it also suggests that gender, like caste, is something which may in many instances become central to class struggle. And just as attacks on Dalit workers by upper castes must be confronted as caste oppression not solely as an attack on workers, battles around gender must be confronted as such rather than hidden away in the veil of class. They must be identified and resisted as attacks on women, not simply attacks on a particular class or community.

The most well worn argument brought on by traditional Marxists in their effort to avoid examining the 'private' is that class is the primary contradiction and the contradictions between men and women are simply 'contradiction among the people'. This makes sense if women's oppression is seen as non-economic (superstructural). But as soon as it becomes obvious that women are exploited in private sphere and that this exploitation is integral to the extraction of surplus from labour by capital, it becomes obvious that taking on the contradictions in the private sphere actually strengthens, rather than weakens, class struggle.

How do traditional Marxists analyse the exploitation and violence in the 'private' sphere - the killing of girl babies, the systematic malnourishment of women of all ages who, though they prepare food, only eat the leftovers of men? What about the beatings, mutilations and murders of women whose labour has failed to please those who are powerful within the family; the widows who, although burdened with housework, must consider themselves lucky and grateful if they find a roof over their heads; and what about that taboo subject - rape and sexual abuse inside the family which almost always occurred in the context of an exploitative power relationship?

Because like liberals, traditional Marxists too regard the 'private' as unsuitable for analysis they, like liberals, can avoid recognising that this violence underpins exploitation. Instead they see it is as deplorable but only 'superstructural', cultural, unconnected to economic life. Therefore fighting it becomes at best a secondary concern, at worst a dangerous diversion, rather than being an integral part of the class struggle.

But precisely because 'the family' and 'the outside world' are in fact not separate realms but inseparable economic arenas this approach has continued to fail and the daily violence 'inside' continues to make the violence 'outside' normal.

Often the only aspect of violence against women which is regarded as linked to the economy is an attack on the women of one community and/or class by men of another. This is then tackled as part of the 'primary' contradiction, bringing home the message that if these women had not been the possessions of men then no one would be concerned, and that while attacks on them by outside males are not acceptable, men in their own families and community/class can do with them what they like.

On the face of it the liberal feminist strategy to counter male dominance has similarities to the traditional Marxist approach. Liberals see male dominance as rooted in irrational prejudice and so regard it as best countered by rational argument. In addition they seek to fight it through the law, with campaigns for 'equality'. If this suggests that there is room for alliances it is important to question the logical conclusion and inherent meaning of such campaigns. Of course it may still be worth engaging in these campaigns as part of a broader revolutionary strategy to end women's oppression - just as for example it may be worth engaging in electoral politics in order to educate the masses while simultaneously mobilising them in other (revolutionary) struggles. If there is no broader revolutionary programme to fight women's oppression then engaging in these overtly liberal campaigns may be pointless or merely serve to highlight the lack of such a programme.

Given the convergence of liberal feminist tactics and that of the left in India, it is interesting to examine the new role of liberal feminists in the 90s. In the last ten years or so because of a multitude of women's struggles including revolutionary struggles, all over the world, and also because of the new role of women as workers outside the home in the restructured industries of global capital, the organisations which control and advise global capital are finding it necessary to try and co-opt feminism, Liberal feminism (and by this I do not mean those who call themselves liberal feminists because very few do - but those whose concept of women's oppression and strategies correspond to liberal feminism) has provided an easy route to this and is increasingly being used to try and appropriate women's struggle. There is now a powerful 'feminist' (in fact liberal feminist) voice on international issues. They are women who meet at conferences, are professional 'feminists' and as such are consultants to the World Bank, they are researchers at prestigious and influential institutes and universities. They are women from Europe and North America - but also from Asia, Africa and Latin America. They are the ones who argue in favour of population control policies because they will give women 'the basic human right to contraception'. In the context of structural adjustment their view is that 'Effective economic reforms opens up markets, enhances countries' export earning capacity and provides employment opportunities'.... and 'gender balance makes good economic sense'(7). As Devaki Jain, adviser to the Indian government's National Commission of Women puts it, women want 'Justice in liberalisation and honesty in globalisation'(8)

The current electoral quotas for women backed and fought for again by the National Commission is obviously based on the same politics. It may or may not however provide the basis for tactical alliances but only if there is already a revolutionary strategy to fighting women's subordination.

As a revolutionary party, the CPI(ML) today is increasingly finding itself at the forefront of struggles in which the experience of class and gender oppression are inseparable. Battles to bring the perpetrators of the rape and murder of poor peasant women at Bathani Tola to justice, or to organise the women workers whose labour fuels the multinationals in the Export Processing Zones of Madras - are part of struggles, which in the long term, require strategies which only a genuinely Marxist approach to women's oppression could provide. Will the CPI(ML) accept the challenge?

1. K. Marx and F. Engels, German Ideology.
2. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
3. Alison Jagger, Human Nature and Feminist Politics, Rowman and Littlefield, 1988.
4. Op cit.
5. S. James and M. Dallacosta, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Falling Wall Press 1973.
6. R. Petchesky, Dissolving the hyphen - a report on Marxist-feminist groups 1-5, in Capitalist Patriarchy, ed. Z. Eisenstein.
7. Diane Elson in Through Women's Eyes - Gender and Economic Reform an exhibition and pamphlet, British Council 1996.
8. Devaki Jain, paper presented at above seminar.