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Letter to editor

Household Labour Dispute

Minakshi Neogi

In the paper "More on Marxism and Feminism" published in Liberation (August 1998), DP Buxi claims, with a quotation from Marx, that domestic labour gets indirect price in the process of wage determination in the capitalist system. We wonder how the author substantiates his claim with this quotation of Marx.

If it is accepted that household labour (of a woman) is paid through wage simply because she is maintained by the same (her husband’s wage), then applying the same logic, a capitalist can claim that the workers’ labour is fully paid because he is being maintained by the capitalist system. In that case we will be unable to find out the hidden exploitation of labour power which Marx had laid bare.

On the other hand the author wants us to believe that there is no inherent exploitative mechanism in a bourgeois family structure and that a portion of the wage automatically comes to the household labour (of a woman); whatever inequality exists is cultural and not valid in a ‘strictly economic sense’.

The paper raises some other critical questions. For one, the writer flatly dismisses the Marxist-feminist proposition that household labour creates value but he does not care to explain. According to him, the value, if at all created, is not important because it does not contribute to the commodity economy. How can this be said with certainty? Is it because of the fact that the productive process within the family is not strictly capitalist, but rather pre-capitalist? In that case I would argue that history offers enough proof of capitalism having been reared on pre-capitalist exploitation. The writer instead of touching this critical point, prefers to harp on superficial observations in the name of analysis.

Secondly, feminists do not say that household labour is to be paid with money. There is rather a world of debate ("Household labour debate") about how the household labour is to be paid. And whatever the outcome of the debate, there are certain lessons to learn from it. Trivialising this is not a difficult task; what is difficult and all the more necessary, is to draw the proper lesson. It is a great misfortune for communists if they fail to do so.

Thirdly, it is not fair to say that all feminists reject Engels’ observations and inferences of ‘Origin of Family, Private Property and State’. At least I know some of them who accept and promote this book as a basic text for studies on women’s exploitation.

Lastly, I feel sorry for the treatment meted out by Comrade Buxi on the question of TU rights for sex workers. According to him, "The question of TU right of sex workers is not only a diversion from the burning problems of working women - the backbone force for women’s liberation, this amounts to justify and institutionalise prostitution."

Clearly this exemplifies a typical conservative communist approach towards new social movements that echoes the same tune of the communist orthodoxy of the early twentieth century, whose legacy is being carried by the present day social democrats.

We just have to read Eleanor Marx to see the interests of the working class presented as contradictory to those of women. She was ready to repudiate the demand of the feminists for suffrage and higher education for women to emphasize the importance of the proletariat in revolutionising society.

But this type of attitude has been proved to be unacceptable and counter-productive. And here we see Comrade Buxi treading the same beaten track and applying it to discover contradictoriness between the interests of the working women and those of the sex workers.

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