Linda Nicholson (1986)
Gender & History, Chapter 6
Karl Marx: The Theoretical Separation of the Domestic and the Economic
Source: Gender & History (1986) publ. Columbia University Press. Just the first chapter, Contemporary Women's Movement and Chapter on Karl Marx, reproduced here.
As LOCKE'S WRITINGS in the seventeenth century expressed the historical separation of kinship and state taking place in his time, so also in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a new branch of study arose, economic theory, which expressed a comparable separation of the economy from both the state and kinship taking place in these centuries. While nascent versions of an "economy" can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages, it was only by the eighteenth century that this sphere became independent enough to generate its own body of theory, constructed in the writings of such figures as Smith, Ricardo, and Marx.
Distinguishing Karl Marx in this list, not only from Smith and Ricardo but even more strongly from economic theorists who were to come later, was his recognition that the seemingly autonomous operation of the economy belied its interdependence with other aspects of social life. Marx, more than most economic theorists, had a strong sense of history and in consequence was aware of the origins of contemporary economic relations in older political and familial relations and the continuous interaction of state, family, and economy even in the context of their historical separation. However, while Marx more than most economic theorists was aware of the interconnection of family, state, and economy, his theory did not consistently abide by this awareness. Most important, the assumption common to much economic theory, that there is cross-culturally an economic component of human existence which can be studied independently from other aspects of human life, exists as a significant strand within his writings, and most prominently in what might be called his philosophical anthropology or cross-cultural theory on the nature of human life and social organisation. Indeed, Marx, by building a philosophical anthropology on the basis of this assumption, developed and made more explicit that very perspective in much other economic theory which in other contexts he criticised.
This inconsistency makes Marx a crucial figure for feminist theory. In the previous chapter I argued that Locke, by obscuring the separation of family and state as historical, contributed to a perspective on the analytic distinctiveness of these realms which has been harmful for understanding gender. Similarly, I would claim that feminist theory needs to challenge that prevalent modern assumption on the autonomy of the economic which has been equally harmful for comprehending gender. Yet in this respect feminist theory has in Marx both a strong ally and a serious opponent. As we shall see, feminists can employ much of the historical work of Marx and many Marxists in comprehending both the evolution of the separation of family, state, and economy and their interaction. On the other hand, Marx's philosophical anthropology raises serious obstacles for Marxism's understanding of gender, and thus its ability to become an ally of feminism.
A concept which lies at the center of Marx's views on human life and social organisation is the concept of materialism. It is a concept around which there has been much controversy in the various interpretations of Marx. The earliest interpreters, such as Engels, Plekhanov, and Lenin, developed a reading of Marx, labelled "dialectical materialism," which emphasised the continuities between human and natural phenomena and their common comprehension in scientific law. This interpretation was in turn challenged by a variety of writers who found components in Marx's writings which stressed the distinctiveness of human thought and action. An example here is Jurgen Habermas, who, within the tradition of critical theory, has described his project as the creation of a "reconstructed materialism." Many socialist feminists, in the attempt to integrate aspects of Marx's theory with a feminist approach, have stated their intent to build a "feminist materialism." Thus it appears that any adequate analysis of Marxism must come to grips with this concept and answer the question: what is Marx's materialism?
Part of the difficulty involved in answering this question, and one of the reasons why a variety of answers has been given to it, is that there are very few passages in Marx's works where he explicitly elaborates the meaning of this very basic concept in his theory. Moreover, those passages where he does so are highly ambiguous. The ambiguity is illustrated in the well-known description of his theory in the Preface to The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows. In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
In this passage there are five phrases which appear to be key in indicating what Marx considered primary for explaining social life: (I) "the social production of their existence," (2) "the development of their material forces of production," (3) "the economic structure of society," (4) "the mode of production of material life," and (5) "their social existence." The specific meaning of many of these phrases is unclear, and their relationship to each other also is not clear. Particularly problematic is the last sentence claiming that social existence "determines" consciousness.
Following the death of Marx, many of his early interpreters chose to interpret such passages as the above and particularly its last sentence as indicating a commitment of Marx to an ontology composed of two elements: the material and the mental, being and consciousness. The accompanying belief was that Marx's materialism could at least partly be defined in terms of giving causal priority to the former as opposed to the latter. Thus Marxism as social theory came to be viewed as spotlighting the material or physical conditions of human existence: the physiological conditions of human behaviour, the natural environment upon which the behaviour acts and the physical aspect of such behaviour itself. What was seen as differentiating Marx from earlier materialists was that he was also "dialectical," meaning that he viewed such conditions in interaction with each other. Because of this stress on interaction, Marx appeared to be following a certain tradition set by Hegel. Marx, however, was said to "stand Hegel on his "feet" by giving his dialectics a natural content. This interpretation was well supported by much in Marx's writings:
Since we are dealing with the Germans, who are devoid of premises, we must begin by stating the first premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to "make history." But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.
This interpretation of Marxism contains a number of problems. To posit a dichotomy between "social being" and "consciousness" leaves one with the difficulty of explaining how the conscious element can be removed from social existence. Moreover, as is clear from many passages in Marx's writings, Marx himself did not believe this was possible. He states, for example, that human activity is conscious activity, as manifested in the universality of its object.' He also frequently argues that human needs are historically variable. It is difficult understanding this latter claim without attributing to human needs at least a partial cognitive content.
Many of the writers in sympathy with a more humanistic Marxism have attempted to avoid such difficulties through what might be labelled a "praxis" or "instrumentalist" elaboration of materialism. It is well represented in Shlomo Avineri's The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. In this work Avineri interprets the dichotomy that Marx creates between foundation and superstructure or life and consciousness not as a distinction between "matter" and "spirit" but rather as a distinction "between conscious human activity, aimed at the creation and preservation of the conditions of human life, and human consciousness, which furnishes reasons, rationalisations and modes of legitimisation and moral justification for the specific forms that activity takes." This reading of Marx thus draws on Marx's claim that social agents may not necessarily provide the most adequate descriptions and explanations of their activity to salvage his commitment to the position that human existence is conscious existence.
The instrumentalist reading of Marx, found in varying forms in Avineri and other scholars, agrees with the earlier dialectical materialist account in recognising the centrality for Marx of human activity in interaction with its environment. The differences lie in how this activity is described. The instrumentalist approach differs from that of the dialectical materialist in ways similar to early twentieth-century instrumentalists' differences from empiricist and stimulus-response accounts of human behaviour. At stake in both challenges is an emphasis on the role of consciousness in distinguishing human from other forms of natural existence. Thus Avineri and others have tended to point to those passages in Marx's writings where Marx notes the role of consciousness in guiding behaviour. A frequently noted passage, useful because it is found in Marx's later work, is one in Capital where Marx distinguishes the behaviour of humans from animals by noting that for humans the goals which motivate behaviour need not be physically present:
We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as distinctively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many of an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour process we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.
Similarly, Avineri and others have tended to draw on Marx's Theses on Feuerbach where, as in the following, Marx stresses the active role of consciousness in giving content to the objects of perception:
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively."
The instrumentalist reading of Marx is powerful; it is both more sophisticated conceptually than the previous account and truer to at least one significant strain within Marx. It does not, however, resolve an important ambiguity within Marx which contemporary feminists have recently identified.
Both the dialectical and instrumentalist interpretations of Marx recognised the centrality for Marx of human activity engaged in satisfying the conditions of human life. The two interpretations differed only in that the former tended to view such activity and such conditions in biological terms. From a feminist perspective both theories contain a common deficiency. While neither theory provides any grounds for differentiating, for "scientific" Marxists among biological needs, and for "humanistic" Marxists among historically constituted needs, both theories in fact end up giving priority to certain needs-those which can be satisfied by the use or consumption of physical objects. Similarly, both accounts do in fact, though without explanation, stress one type of activity as central for Marx in satisfying the "conditions of life"-that activity which results in procuring or producing such objects. Thus those human activities associated with the gathering, hunting, or growing of food and the making of objects become central and other activities such as child-rearing or nursing become marginal. To be sure, this elimination of certain needs and activities is not universally present in either interpretation. Engels, for example, on at least one occasion describes activities as child-rearing as equivalent in importance to those activities involved in the production of food and objects:
According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other. The lower the development of labor and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure based on kinship groups the productivity of labor increasingly develops . . ., the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property.
Even in the above Engels is somewhat ambivalent regarding the equivalence of what has been described in the feminist literature as "reproductive" and "productive" activities. Engels in this quote locates "reproductive" activities in the institution of the family or kinship. He argues that while in early societies with low productivity of labor the family "dominates," in later societies the system of the family is itself dominated by the system of property. This would seem to imply that whether productive or reproductive activities are basic varies historically. However, since he argues that the factor deciding this variation is itself the productivity of labor, it would appear that production is always the ultimate "determining" factor. This implication of his argument is indeed further elaborated in other sections of the work from which this passage was taken.
The same ambiguity, also culminating in a focus on activity aimed at the creation of food and objects, can be found in writers in the instrumentalist tradition. For example, Avineri elaborates the concept of "material base" in Marx to mean "conscious human activity, aimed at the creation and preservation of the conditions of human life." From this elaboration there would appear to follow no differentiation between productive and reproductive activities. However, a few pages later, Avineri goes on to claim, without explanation, that for Marx "the concrete expression of this human activity is work, the creation of tools of human activity that leaves its impact on the world." A reasonable question to ask, which has recently been asked by feminists, is why this should be so, i.e., why should the concrete expression of human activity be work as so elaborated?
The source of this unclarity in the interpreters of Marx regarding the relation of reproductive to productive activities has its source in Marx. In particular, it stems from an ambiguity in Marx's use of the term "production." This ambiguity is illustrated in the following passage (emphasis added):
The production of life, both of one's own in labour and of fresh life in procreation now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, and on the other as a social relationship. By social we understand the cooperation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a 'productive force.' Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society, hence, that the 'history of humanity' must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange.
In the first sentence "production" refers to all activities necessary for species survival; by the middle of the passage its meaning has become restricted to those activities which are geared to the creation of material objects (industrial). While from the meaning of "production" in the first sentence, Marx could include family forms under the "modes of cooperation" he describes, by the middle of the paragraph its meaning has become such to now include only those "modes of cooperation" found within the "history of industry and exchange." In effect, Marx has eliminated from his theoretical focus all activities basic to human survival which fall outside a capitalist "economy." Those activities he has eliminated include those identified by feminists as "reproductive" (childcare, nursing) and also those concerned with social organisation, i.e., those regulating kinship relations or in modern societies those we would classify as "political." Marx's ability to do this was made possible by his moving from a broad to a narrow meaning of "production."
This ambiguity in Marx's use of "production" can be further understood in terms of the variety of meanings the word possesses. First, in its broadest meaning it can refer to any activity that has consequences. More narrowly, it refers to those activities that result in objects. Finally, in an even more specific sense, it refers to those activities that result in objects that are bought and sold, i.e., commodities. Similarly, if we look at such related words as "labor" and "product" we can find a confusion between respectively (1) activity requiring any effort and the result of such activity, (2) activity resulting in an object and that object, and (3) activity resulting in a commodity and that commodity.
Marx and many of his later followers often do not make clear which of these meanings they are employing when they use these and related words. For example, when Marx claims that labor is the motor of historical change, does he mean all human effort which changes the natural and/or social environment, only that effort which results in objects or effort which results in commodities? Similarly, Marx's concept of the "economy" often becomes confusing, in part as a consequence of ambiguities in his use of "production." To illustrate this point it is helpful to refer again to the passage quoted earlier from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode * of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.
In the above, Marx equates the "economic structure of society" with its "relations of production." Since a reasonable interpretation of "mode of production of material life" would be all activities conducive to the creation and recreation of the society's physical existence, the "relations of production" should reasonably include all social interaction having this object as its end. Thus the family should count as a component of the "economy." Even if we interpret the phrase "mode of production of material life" to refer only to activities concerned with the gathering, hunting, or growing of food and the making of objects, the family, in many societies, would still be included as a component of the economy. Neither of these two meanings of "economy," however, is the same as its meaning in post-industrial capitalism, where the "economy" comes to refer principally to the activities of those engaged in the creation and exchange of commodities. Thus Marx's concept of economy in the above is ambiguous as a consequence of the ambiguity in his concept of production.
Such ambiguities in the meaning of key words in Marx's theory in turn make possible certain serious problems within the theory. In particular, they enable Marx to falsely project features of capitalist society onto all societies. This point is illustrated by examining Marx's claim that "the changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure." This claim is intended as a universal claim of social theory, i.e., it is meant to state that in all societies there is a certain relation between the "economy" and the "superstructure." If we interpret "economy" here to refer to "all activities necessary to meet the conditions of human survival," the claim is non-problematic but trivial. More frequently, "economy" is interpreted by Marx and Marxists to refer to "those activities concerned with the production of food and objects." Here, while the claim ceases to be trivial, it now contains certain problems as a cross-cultural claim. While all societies have some means of organising the production of food and objects as well as some means of organising sexuality and childcare, it is only in capitalist society that the former set of activities becomes differentiated from the latter under the concept of the "economic" and takes on a certain priority. Thus by employing the more specific meaning of "economic" in his cross-cultural claims, Marx projects the specialisation and primacy of the "economic" found in capitalist society onto all human societies.
A Marxist might respond that yes, there is this ambiguity in many of the texts of Marx and his followers, but that it can be avoided by careful attention to the following distinctions: that only the most general meaning of "production," "labor," and "economic'' can be employed cross-culturally; that the more specific meaning of these terms applies only to class societies and the most specific meaning only to capitalist societies. The point might be made that Marx is accomplishing a variety of different tasks in his writing: (I) he is developing a general, cross-cultural theory of human existence and social organisation; (2) he is articulating a theory of class societies; and (3) he is offering a specific analysis of capitalist society. For these different tasks, he needs different meanings for the above terms.' Thus cross-culturally, Marx would define "labor" very generally as that process by which human beings regulate the material reactions between themselves and nature. In class societies this general activity is developed most strongly in the activity of producing food and physical objects. Finally, in capitalist society, the latter activity becomes most predominantly the even more narrowly circumscribed activity of producing commodities.
This response, while forceful, contains certain weaknesses which can be seen when we attempt to translate the above distinctions into actual theoretical claims. Most important, the interpretation of the most general meaning of "labor," as "that process by which human beings regulate the material reactions between themselves and nature" remains ambiguous. If we translate this phrase to incorporate activities we would describe as familial, political, and economic, we have differentiated it from the more narrow meanings but have emerged with a very trivial cross-cultural theory whose specific import is difficult to see. On the other hand, if we mean it to include only activities concerned with the making of food and objects, we have a theory more theoretically interesting but still subject to the preceding charges.
Moreover, it is the latter option which in the literature has almost always been followed; Marx and Marxists most always interpret "labor," "production," and "economic" to refer to those activities concerned with the making of food and objects. The following represent only a few examples:
Production is always a particular branch of production-e.g. agriculture, cattle-breeding, manufacture etc.-or it is a totality.
The obvious, trite notion: in production the members of society approximate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs.... Production creates the objects which correspond to the given need.
Assume a particular state of development in the productive forces of man and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption.
The response could perhaps be made that Marx employs this more narrow meaning of production because of the implicit assumption that he is speaking only of class societies where, according to the above response, this meaning would be appropriate. But even here the objections raised previously still hold: why should we assume that even in all class societies that those activities concerned with the making of food and objects are primary or even that they are sufficiently differentiated to make such a claim? Are we not again merely projecting features of capitalist society backward?
Let us look first at the idea of an economic component of society as a separable sphere. This idea is built into Marx's statements on determinacy, for to argue that anything is a determinant one must be able to separate it from that which is being determined. In Marx's case, the assertion that the nature of production or the "economic" structures all other aspects of society commits him to the point that the "economic" can be differentiated from other aspects of society. But as many commentators on Marx have pointed out-such as Georg Lukacs or the group of theorists writing in Socialisme ou barbarie-such a claim is relatively true only for capitalist societies. In pre-capitalist societies, economic aspects of life are more clearly intertwined with the religious, the sexual, and the political.
One means which Marxists have employed in responding to this point has been to distinguish economic functions from economic institutions. Thus the argument has been made that it is only in capitalist society that the economy, the state, and the family are separated as institutions. However, this does not mean that the theorist cannot differentiate the "economic" as a societal function even in societies which do not differentiate it as an institution. An example of this type of response is to be found in the writings of Maurice Godelier. Godelier argues that in many early societies it is the dominant institution of kinship through which the economic function is expressed. Thus, while here the economic does not determine as an institution, it does as a function.' Isaac Balbus has argued that the above reinterpretation of Marxism makes the theory into a tautology. As he claims:
for Godelier, what activity can be demonstrated to predominate over all the other activities in a society becomes, by definition, the mode of production! The theory of determination by the mode of production, then, becomes true by definition and does not lend itself to possible falsification. Nor is it a terribly useful tautology because it in no way helps us to understand which social activities become determinative-and thus function as the mode of production- under what conditions. We are back to where we started, because this was exactly what the theory of the determinative power of the mode of production was supposed to tell us!
An even more fundamental question can be raised: what grounds do we have for believing that it is important to focus on the economic component of kinship in kinship-organised societies as a separable social component? The argument that we need to separate out an economic function even in societies which themselves do not separate out the economic as an institution rests ultimately on the belief that such a function is basic and thus must receive specialised attention. We are back to the issue of primacy.
Thus, let us look more closely at this issue. Marx, by asserting the primacy of the economic, cannot merely be arguing that the production of food and objects is a necessary condition for human life to continue. That certainly is true, but the same can be said about many other aspects and activities of human beings: that we breathe, communicate with each other through language and other means, engage in heterosexual activity which results in child-bearing, create forms of social organisation, raise children, etc. Rather Marx appears to be making the stronger and more interesting claim that the ways in which we produce food and objects in turn structure the manner in which other necessary human activities are performed. But the force of this claim, I would argue, rests upon a feature true only for capitalist society: that here the mode in which food and object production is organised to a significant extent does structure other necessary human activities. This is because in capitalist society, the production of food and objects takes on an importance going beyond its importance as a necessary life activity.
To express the same point in another way: insofar as capitalist society organises the production and distribution of food and objects according to the profit motive, those activities concerned with the making and exchanging of food and goods assume a value which is relatively independent of their role in satisfying human needs. The ability of such activities to generate a profit gives to them a priority which can be mistakenly associated with their function in satisfying such needs. As Marshall Sahlins has noted, this priority makes credible a kind of reflectionist or economic determinist theory where the system of production and exchange appears basic:
Since the objectives and relations of each subsystem are distinct, each has a certain internal logic and a relative autonomy. But since all are subordinated to the requirements of the economy, this gives credibility to the kind of reflectionist theory which perceives in the superstructure the differentiations (notably of class) established in production and exchange.
Thus, if in capitalist society such activities as raising children or nursing the sick had been as easily conducive to making a profit as activities concerned with the production of food and objects became, we might in turn believe that the manner in which human societies raise children or nurse their sick structures all other life activities in which they engage.
This priority given to the making of food and objects in capitalist society has had many diverse ramifications. One was a transformation in prevailing attitudes toward labor. In pre-capitalist societies, such as that of ancient Greece or medieval Europe, labor was held in contempt. It was recognised that some humans must necessarily engage in it, as it was recognised that all human beings must eat, sleep, defecate, etc. But all these activities were viewed as that which expressed the lowest and most animal-like aspects of human existence, and not those in which humans should take any pride.
This negative stance toward labor began to change in the early modern period. Labor or industriousness became a sign of one's saintliness and no longer a sign of one's beastliness. In association with this change arose also a fundamental alteration in motivation: the rise of the acquisitive motive. R. H. Tawney describes the shift involved by way of contrast with the medieval attitude toward gain:
But economic motives are suspect. Because they are powerful appetites, men fear them, but they are not mean enough to applaud them. Like other strong passions, what they need, it is thought, is not a clear field but repression. There is no place in medieval theory for economic activity which is not related to a moral end, and to found a science of society upon the assumption that the appetite for economic gain is a constant and measurable force, to be accepted, like other natural forces, as an inevitable and self-evident datum would have appeared to the medieval thinker as hardly less irrational or less immoral than to make the premise of social philosophy the unrestrained operation of such necessary human attributes as pugnacity or the sexual instinct. The outer is ordained for the sake of the inner; economic goods are instrumental.... At every turn, therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs.
In an earlier chapter I argued for the specificity of the "family" to the modern period on the grounds that while some of the features we associate with the family may have existed before this period, they did not possess the same significance which they later acquired. Similarly, we might say here that while an acquisitive motive may have existed before the early modern period, it too existed with a different significance; it existed within the context of shame and silence. This context began to disappear in the modern period and the acquisitive motive became the basis upon which the economy-meaning those activities concerned with the production and distribution of food and objects-became organised. With the rise of prominence of the acquisitive motive attendant upon the emergence of capitalism came a change in how these activities, and the conditions which make them possible, were viewed. Activity concerned with the making of food and objects became "labor" and acquired a new evaluative standing. The soil, an important physical condition to such activity, became "land." Finally, with land, the tools conducive to the productivity of labor became "capital." What distinguishes "labor" from "work," "land" from "soil," and "capital" from "tools" is the motive of accumulation.
Marx, in many respects, assumes these values and assumptions of capitalist society within his cross-cultural theory. Thus he assumes that labor is the prime manner in which human beings express and define themselves:
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.... What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.
As Jean Baudrillard comments on the above: why must our vocation always be to distinguish ourselves from animals, and moreover, why must this be in the form of production?
On this dialectical base, Marxist philosophy unfolds in two directions: an ethic of labor and an aesthetic of non-labor. The former traverses all bourgeois and socialist ideology. It exalts labor as value, as end in itself, as categorical imperative. Labor loses its negativity and is raised to an absolute value.... A spectre haunts the revolutionary imagination: the phantom of production. Everywhere it sustains an unbridled romanticism of productivity.
It is not only the idolisation of labor that Marx takes over from bourgeois society. It is also at times, and more surprisingly, an assumption of natural acquisitiveness. For example, Marx and Engels explain the emergence of the first class division on the basis of the creation of an initial social surplus. An implicit premise is that any surplus over what is required for bare subsistence will be sought after and struggled over. But why should we assume this to be the case without an assumption of acquisitiveness? This same reliance on an assumption of acquisitiveness seems also present in Marx's claim that in the conflict between expanding modes of production and existing relations of production, the outcome is, if not determined, at least prejudiced on the side of the expanding productive forces. At least part of the effectiveness of this argument for modern readers rests on the force of the shared assumption of acquisitiveness.
Similar questions can be raised about Marx's dictum on the perpetuity of human need creation. Marx argues that in the process of humans acting on the natural world to satisfy their needs, they create new needs which in turn demand satisfaction. Thus he claims in The German Ideology: "The satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instruments of satisfaction which have been acquired) leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act." This, however, appears a valid description of human behaviour only in capitalist societies.
Such societies have as an important basis the perpetual creation of need. However, there are many examples of societies which after laboring to satisfy their needs, stop working. Marx is aware of societies where needs are not being continually created. In his work he frequently draws on a distinction between societies which consume their surplus and remain stable for long periods of time and societies which invest their surplus and have histories. However, Marx does not appear to have reconciled this historical awareness with the above more general, anthropological claim.
Most significant for the purposes of this book is Marx's projection of the autonomy of the economic into his cross-cultural theory. To illustrate how that projection may be a function not merely of the embeddedness of Marx's work in capitalist values and assumptions but even more specifically of certain unique features of his time, I would like now to look more closely at the historical context in which Marx wrote.
The Historical Context of Marxism
One theorist whose work can provide us with useful tools for understanding the historical context of Marxism is Karl Polanyi. One of the major theses of his book The Great Transformation is similar to a point stressed here: that while it is true that all societies must satisfy the needs of biology to stay alive, it is only true of modern society that the satisfaction of some of these needs in ever increasing amounts becomes a central motive of action. This transformation Polanyi identifies with the establishment of a market economy whose full development, he argues, does not occur until the nineteenth century. Polanyi acknowledges the existence of markets, both external and local, before this century. However, he makes a distinction between what he describes as external, local, and internal trade. External and local trade are complementary to the economies in which they exist. They involve the transfer of goods from a geographical area where they are available to an area where they are not available. The trading that goes on between town and countryside or between areas different in climate represent such types of trading. Internal trade differs from both the above in that it is essentially competitive, involving "a very much larger number of exchanges in which similar goods from different sources are offered in competition with one another." Polanyi claims that these different forms of trade have different origins; in particular, internal trade arose neither from external nor from local trade, as common sense might suggest, but rather from the deliberate intervention on the part of the state. The mercantile system of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries established its initial conditions, making possible the beginnings of a national market.
While state intervention was necessary to establish the initial conditions for a national market, the true flourishing of such a market required the absence of at least some of the kinds of state regulation found under mercantilism. A market economy is one where the movement of the elements of the economy- goods, labor, land, money-is governed by the actions of the market. Under feudalism and the guild system, non-market mechanisms controlled two of these elements, land and labor. This non-market control over labor and land did not disappear under mercantilism; it merely changed its form. The principles of statute and ordinance became employed over those of custom and tradition. Indeed, as Polanyi claims, it is not until after 1834 in England, with the repeal of the Speenhamland law which had provided government subsidies for the unemployed and underemployed, that the last of these elements, labor, was freed to become a commodity. Thus it was not until the nineteenth century in England that a market economy could be said to be fully functioning.
A market economy has certain distinctive features. Of key importance is the dominance of the principle of price as the mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods. This means that not until all the elements necessary to the production and distribution of goods are controlled by price can a market economy be said to be functioning. A market economy demands the freeing of the elements comprising the economy from the governance of other social institutions, such as the state or the family. Polanyi does not discuss the decline of the family in governing such elements. He does, however, stress the separation of the political and the economic as a necessary condition of a market economy:
A self-regulating market demands nothing less than the institutionalised separation of society into an economic and political sphere. Such a dichotomy is, in effect, merely the restatement, from the point of view of society as a whole of the existence of a self-regulating market. It might be argued that the separateness of the two spheres obtains in every type of society at all times. Such an inference, however would be based on a fallacy. True, no society can exist without a system of some kind which ensures order in the production and distribution of goods. But that does not imply the existence of separate economic institutions; normally, the economic order is merely a function of the social, in which it is contained. Neither under tribal, nor feudal, nor mercantile conditions was there, as we have shown, a separate economic system in society. Nineteenth century society, in which economic activity was isolated and imputed to a distinctive economic motive was, indeed, a singular departure.
Polanyi goes on to argue that not only does a market economy require the separation of the elements of the economy from other spheres of social life, but that this means in effect the dominance of the principle of the market over other social principles. Since two of the elements of the economy, land and labor, are basic features of social life, to subordinate them to market mechanisms is in effect to subordinate society to the market:
But labor and land are not other than the human beings themselves of which every society consists and the natural surrounding in which it exists. To include them in the market mechanism means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.
We might qualify Polanyi's argument by saying that not all labor becomes subordinate to the laws of the market when the economy becomes a market economy; domestic labor does not, at least in any simple sense. Since, however, some of the labor essential to human survival does become subordinated to the market, we can still accede to this point of the growing dominance of the market. Moreover, we might also agree with his further claim that the organisation of the economic system under a market mechanism means also the dominance of the economic. He argues that this occurs because "the vital importance of the economic factor to the existence of society precludes any other result. For once the economic system is organised in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws. This is the meaning of the familiar assertion that a market economy can function only in a market society." Such an argument can be supplemented by the earlier claim that the alliance of the production of goods with the acquisitive motive means the rise in importance of the production of goods over other life activities. The acquisitive motive is such so that to allow it as a motive means to allow it as a dominant motive.
Thus, a thesis often thought of as central to Marxism, the separation and dominance of the economic, is in effect a defining condition of a market economy. Moreover, as follows from Polanyi's analysis, it is just this condition which only becomes true within the nineteenth century. Thus one can conclude that Marxism as social theory is very much a product of its time, insightful as an exposition of that which was becoming true, and false to the extent that the limited historical applicability of its claims was not recognised.
Polanyi provides us with another claim about the origins of a market economy which also might shed some light on the historical context of Marxism. Occasionally Marx's materialism has been given a technological interpretation. Following from such a reading, the degree of a society's technical competence in producing food and objects is taken as the primary fact in explaining that society. There is much evidence in Marx's writing for such an interpretation. It is consistent with the previously quoted Preface to The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy where Marx does appear to treat "the development of their material forces of production" as the most basic fact about a society to which even the "relations of production" must be "appropriate." G. A. Cohen convincingly argues for such a reading and also provides examples of many other passages in Marx's work which support it. One often quoted instance is the following from The Poverty of Philosophy:
Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill society with the industrialist capitalist.
However, again we might interpret as historically specific this claim about the socially causal role of technological development. Polanyi points to the importance of technological developments in the eighteenth century for bringing about the rise of a market economy. He notes that as long as the machinery used in production was simple and inexpensive, production remained an accessory to commerce, engaged in only as long as it produced a profit. However, once machinery became more complex and expensive, its purchase demanded steady use to pay back the initial investment. It thus became necessary to ensure the steady supply of the necessary elements of production: labor, land, and money. In consequence, these elements had to be brought within the market system itself.
However, a thesis of technological determinism, while perhaps more true for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than for others, even here needs qualification. As the above example indicates, technological developments can only be socially efficacious when the social conditions allow them to be such. A concern with producing goods more efficiently and in greater amounts makes sense only in a society which both values the increased production of goods and has no means other than technological advance for accomplishing it. As Robert Heilbroner points out, there have been - many societies where such a concern was lacking. Neither the societies of antiquity nor of the Middle Ages showed much interest in technological development, at least as this applied to the production of goods. Even societies such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who created an impressive technology of architecture, showed no interest in developing a technology of production. Thus technological development, even when socially efficacious, itself requires explanation.
As noted, Polanyi claims that a defining condition of a market economy is a separation of the economic and political. Not noted by him, but also essential, is the separation of the economic from the domestic and familial. Indeed, when we think of what is pivotal about industrialisation it is that the production of goods ceases to be organised by kinship relations and to be an activity of the household. The creation of goods by members of the household for the purpose of use by the household and organised primarily in accordance with family roles becomes replaced by the creation of goods by members of many different households for the purpose of exchange and organised in accordance with the profit motive. The commoditisation of the elements of production means not only, as Polanyi notes, a withdrawal of control on the part of the state over these elements but also a withdrawal on the part of the family. When labor remained at home, its content and organisation were primarily family matters; when it left only p its consequences, wages, remained such.
Thus from the above analysis we can comprehend the emergence of the "economic" as separate from both the family and the state as the outcome of a historical process. This kind of analysis, I have repeatedly suggested, is one most in sympathy with the requirements of feminism. It is also one which might be used to challenge and explain the tendency among Marx and his followers to employ the category of the "economic" cross-culturally. The irony, however, is that such a historical analysis could itself be described as Marxist. Polanyi's work builds on the kinds of historical investigations Marx himself carried out in studying the emergence of capitalism out of earlier social forms. This irony reinforces a point suggested earlier-that while in Marx's concrete historical analysis there is much from which feminism can draw in comprehending the changing relation of family, state, and economy, it is most strongly in Marx's cross-cultural claims that the theory becomes unhelpful.
However, one point of qualification needs to be made even to this distinction. It is not only in Marx's actual historical investigations that he avoids the problems found in his cross-cultural theory. Also at times in his reflections on theory he becomes cognisant of the dangers of ahistoricity. Precisely on such grounds, he himself criticises other social theorists. For example, in The Poverty of Philosophy he accuses Proudhon of falling into the mistake of bourgeois economists who fail to recognise the historical specificity of economic categories. Similarly, as Anthony Giddens notes, one of the two principal criticisms which Marx makes against political economists in the Paris Manuscripts is that they assume that the conditions of production present within capitalism can be attributed to all economic forms. In Capital Marx frequently notes that what he is describing is true only of a particular society. For example, he claims that "definite historical conditions are necessary that a product may become a commodity." Thus, many of the distinctions Marx makes in Capital, such as that between use value and exchange value, are distinctions applicable only for certain societies.
The problem, however, is that Marx does not offer clear guidelines for avoiding the mistake of historical projection. He certainly does not want the social theorist to employ only those categories available to the social agents whom the theory describes. Marx, on at least one occasion, argues for the useful application of categories which have arisen in later societies to explain earlier societies:
Bourgeois society is the most advanced and complex historical organisation of production. The categories which express its relations, and an understanding of its structure, therefore, provide an insight into the structure and the relations of production of all formerly existing social formations the ruins and component elements of which were used in the creation of bourgeois society. Some of these unassimilated remains are still carried on within bourgeois society, others, however, which previously existed only in rudimentary form, have been further developed and have attained their full significance, etc. The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape.
Marx explicitly states that the above does not entail that we see "in all social phenomena only bourgeois phenomena," for, as he claims, the earlier phenomena always exist in a different form. However, what he does not further remark on is the always difficult decision of determining for any particular case whether the phenomena being studied are sufficiently similar to be granted an identical label.
Even if Marx's methodological remarks provided us with clear guidelines, this would not remove the possibility that he himself occasionally failed to follow such guidelines and falsely generalised phenomena from his own society onto others. This latter tendency is a feature of his work, and the problems which result, exemplified most strongly in his cross-cultural theory, make that work frequently unhelpful for explaining gender. To elaborate this point, that is, to show that it is precisely Marx's ahistoricity which accounts for the theory's weaknesses in analysing gender, I would now like to focus specifically on the consequences of these problems for Marxism's analysis of gender.
Marx on Women, Gender Relations, and the Family
In comprehending Marxism on gender it is first important to note that Marx's concept of class relies on the narrow translation of "production" and "economic"-i.e., as incorporating only those activities concerned with the making of food and objects. Thus the criterion which Marx employs to demarcate class position, "relations to the means of production," is understood as relation to the means of producing food and objects. For Marx, the first class division arose over the struggle for appropriation of the first social surplus, meaning the first surplus of food and objects. A consequence of such a definition of class is to eliminate from consideration historical conflicts over other socially necessary activities, such as child-bearing and child-rearing. A second consequence is to eliminate from consideration changes in the organisation of such activities as components of historical change. The theory thus eliminates from consideration activities which have historically been at least one important component in gender relations. But again we can ask of the theory questions similar to those raised earlier: why ought we to eliminate or to count as less important in our theory of history changes in reproduction or child-rearing practices than changes involved in food- or object-producing activities? First, does it even make sense to attempt to separate the changes involved, prior to the time when these activities were themselves differentiated, i.e., prior to the time when the "economy" became differentiated from the "family"? Furthermore, is not the assumption of the greater importance of changes in production itself a product of a society which gives priority to food and object creation over other life activities?
Many feminist theorists have noted the consequences for Marx of leaving out reproductive activities from his theory of history. Mary O'Brien, for example, argues that one effect is to separate historical continuity from biological continuity, which one might note is particularly ironic for a "materialist":
Thus Marx talks continuously of the need for men to 'reproduce' themselves, and by this he almost always means reproduction of the self on a daily basis by the continual and necessary restoking of the organism with fuel for its biological needs. Man makes himself materially, and this is of course true. Man, however, is also 'made' reproductively by the parturitive labour of women, but Marx ultimately combines these two processes. This has the effect of negating biological continuity which is mediated by women's reproductive labour, and replacing this with productive continuity in which men, in making themselves, also make history. Marx never observes that men are in fact separated materially from both nature and biological continuity by the alienation of the male seed in copulation.
Similarly, though from a different perspective, Marx's lack of consideration of reproductive activities enables him to ignore, to the extent that he does, the component of socialisation in human history. In other words, the failures in Marx's theory which result from his attraction to a narrow interpretation of "materialism" might have been alleviated had he paid more attention to the activity of child-rearing.
As O'Brien points out, there is a tendency for Marx to negate the sociability and historicity of reproductive activities, to see such activities as natural and thus ahistorical. Alternatively, he occasionally treats changes in the organisation of such activities as historical effects of changes in productive relations. Thus she notes that in The Communist Manifesto, Marx treats the family as a superstructural effect of the economy. This is evidenced also in a letter to P. V. Annenkov of December 28, 1846, where Marx states: "Assume particular stages of development of production, commerce and consumption and you will have a corresponding social constitution, a corresponding organisation of the family, of orders and classes, in a word, a corresponding civil society.... Here again, such tendencies in Marx can be explained by looking to the role and ideology of the family in an industrial society. When "productive" activities leave the household and in turn come to constitute the world of change and dynamism, then activities of "reproduction" become viewed as either the brute, physiological, and non-historical aspects of human existence or as by-products of changes in the economy.
One important problem which specifically follows from seeing "reproductive" activities as universally the consequence of productive" activities is that we are thereby prevented from comprehending the integration of production and reproduction in pre-capitalist societies. Godelier has come closest to this awareness in his claim that in many pre-capitalist societies the institution through which the "economic" determines is kinship. But, in societies organised through kinship, sexual and economic relations are integrally linked. An important consequence is that women and men in such societies occupy very distinctive relations to those activities concerned with the making of food and objects in connection with those rules regulating marriage and sexuality. Moreover, this distinctive relation to "productive" activities cannot be described solely in terms of a "division of labor." While some gender division of labor even in relation to the making of food and objects appears consistent throughout history, women have also had less control over the means and results of such activity than men, again, in connection with those very rules which organise marriage and sexuality in kinship-organised societies.
The conclusion of this recognition, however, is that gender certainly in kinship-organised societies, and perhaps to varying extents in societies following, should be viewed as a significant class division even following a traditional understanding of class. In other words, even if we subscribe to the traditional Marxist translation of production to refer to activities concerned with the making of food and objects, then gender relations, since historically involving different access to and control over these activities constitute class relations. This point takes us beyond the traditional feminist castigation of Marxism for its sole focus on production Part of the limitation of that castigation was that it shared with Marxists the belief in the separability of productive and reproductive activities. But if we recognise this separability as historically tied to a form of social organisation where the principle of exchange has replaced the principle of kinship as a means of organising the production and distribution of goods, then our comprehension of the limitations of Marxism on gender is deepened.
Another means of explicating this point is by noting that when Marx and Marxists use the category of "class," they have most paradigmatically in mind the examples of such societies as capitalism or feudalism. In feudal society kinship relations to a significant extent still organise production relations, but gender here may be less fundamental in some instances in indicating relation to the "means of production" than connection with a specific parental lineage. In capitalist societies, connection with a specific parental lineage remains a component in constituting class, but only also in conjunction with the actions of the market. Neither society, however, illuminates the case of more "egalitarian" societies where differences in parental lineages among men may be less important an indicator of differences in control over production than gender. In other words, whether gender is or is not an important class indicator must be empirically determined in every instance and we cannot assume, as do many Marxists, that gender and class are inherently distinct. Rather the evidence seems to be that in many early societies gender is a fundamental class indicator, a fact resonating throughout subsequent history, though also in conjunction with, and at times in subordination to, other factors. This last point brings us finally to the issue of Marxism's ability to analyse gender in capitalist society. Much of my criticism of Marx has rested on the claim that he falsely generalises features of capitalist society onto societies where such features do not hold and that this failure accounts for the theory's weaknesses in analysing gender. The implication of this argument would be that the theory is adequate as an account of capitalism and as an account of gender relations within capitalist society. One problem with this conclusion is that it ignores the fact that capitalist society contains aspects of pre-capitalist societies within it which are highly relevant to gender. For example, it is true that in capitalist society the economy does become more autonomous of other realms than has been true of any earlier society. But insofar as Marxist theory treats the "economic" as autonomous, it loses sight of the ways in which even capitalist economies grew out of and continue to be affected by "non-economic" aspects of human existence. Indeed, Marxism, by attributing autonomy to the "economic," comes close to that liberal position which would deny the influence over the market of such factors as gender, religion, ideology, etc. Of course, in specific contexts and in specific disagreements with liberals and conservatives, Marxists often argue for the determinacy of such non-economic factors. Again, however, Marxism as historical analysis appears incompatible with Marxism as cross-cultural theory. The way out of this dilemma for Marxists would be to eliminate the cross-cultural theory and more consistently follow the historical analysis. This would mean describing the progressive domination of the state and later the market over kinship as a historical process. This type of approach could enable Marxism to correct two failures which are linked within the theory: its failure in explaining gender and the history of gender relations, and its failure to be adequately cognisant of the historical limitedness of certain of its claims. By recognising that the progressive domination of the market has been a historical process, it might avoid the latter failure. By recognising both the centrality of kinship in structuring early societies and its centuries-long interaction with such other institutions as the state and the market, it could provide itself with a means for analysing gender. In an earlier chapter I noted that Marxists have occasionally described radical feminism as ahistorical. Whereas radical feminism pointed to the universality of the family, Marxists argued that this institution is always the changing effect of developments in the economy. Ironically, however, it may be a function of Marxism's failure to pay sufficient enough attention to the fundamentality of kinship and its changing relation to other social institutions and practices that has caused the theory to become falsely ahistorical itself.
Marxism and Feminism
From the above analysis we can resolve certain disputes among contemporary Marxist feminists. In particular, we can better assess the merits of each side in the dispute over "dual systems theory" discussed briefly in an early chapter. Marxist feminists have recognised that Marx's category of "production" leaves out of account many traditional female activities. In response, some have argued that we need to augment the category with the category of "reproduction." This, for example, is the position of Mary O'Brien: "What does have to be done is a modification of Marx's sociohistorical model, which must now account for two opposing substructures, that of production and that of reproduction. This in fact improves the model."
Other Marxist feminists offer similar or somewhat revised models. Ann Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, for example, prefer to label the augmented category "sex-affective production" rather than "reproduction." They note that the term "reproduction" is used by Marx to describe the "economic process over time." To employ it to refer to activities such as child-bearing and child-rearing might result in some confusion. Moreover, they argue, by including those traditionally female-identified tasks under the category of "production," we are reminded of the social usefulness of such tasks. As discussed earlier, such proposals have been described by Iris Young as constituting variants of what she labels "dual systems theory." Young also recognises the narrowness of Marx's category of production:
Such traditional women's tasks as bearing and rearing children, caring for the sick, cleaning, cooking, etc. fall under the category of labor as much as the making of objects in a factory. Using the category of production or labor to designate only the making of concrete material objects in a modern factory has been one of the unnecessary tragedies of Marxian theory.
Young, however, does not approve of focusing on those activities which have fallen outside this category to make Marxism more explanatory of gender. One weakness in such a solution is that it fails to account for gender relations which occur within "production." In other words, Young is making the point stated earlier in this chapter: that gender has been a significant variable even among those activities concerned with the making of food and objects. Thus any analysis of gender must do more than enlarge the traditional category.
The basic problem of dual systems theory, according to Young, is that it does not seriously enough challenge the very framework of Marxism. That this framework is gender blind must indicate a serious deficiency, whose remedy cannot merely be supplementation. Moreover, dual systems theory, by making the issue of women's oppression separate and distinct from that which is covered by Marxism, reinforces the idea that women's oppression is merely a supplemental topic to the major concerns of Marxism.
The analysis in this chapter enables us both to understand the attractiveness of dual systems theory and to meet Young's challenge. Dual systems theorists are correct in recognising that an important source of Marxism's inability to analyse gender is the narrowness of its category of production. Where they go wrong, however, is in not seeing this problem as in tum a function of Marxism's engulfment within the categories of its time. Marx's exclusion of certain activities from "production" is not sufficiently appreciated as a symptom of the particular period the theory is reflecting. Within industrial society many of those activities the category leaves out do become identified with women and become viewed as outside production. This very exclusion is reflected in Marx's categories.
This assessment of the failure of Marx's category provides us with a different remedy from that proposed by dual systems theorists. While we might agree with such theorists that the addition of the category of "reproduction" to the category of "production" might be necessary for understanding gender relations within industrial society, neither category is necessarily useful for analysing earlier societies. Indeed, since there is no reason to believe that the kinds of social divisions expressed by these categories played a significant role in structuring gender relations within such societies, there would be no reason for employing them. This is not to say, of course, that gender did not play a significant role in earlier societies. It is rather that the categories through which we need to grasp it have to be understood as historically changing, reflecting the changing emergence, dominance, and decline of different institutions. Thus in early societies it appears that the key institution in structuring gender, as well as those activities we would label political or economic, is kinship. Social theory must focus on the differential power relations expressed within this institution to explain relations between men and women as well as among men as a group and women as a group. For later periods, we need to focus on the transformation of kinship into family, the emergence of the economy and the state, and the interaction among these. In short, we need to do the type of historical work described in chapter 4. As noted there, many feminist historians have come to recognise the historicity of many modern institutions and the need to be aware of such historicity if we are to explain gender. It is time for feminist theorists, including Marxist feminist theorists, to join in this recognition.
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