Revisiting Socialist Feminism
13 October 2021
Capitalism and the Oppression of Women
With all the modern theories about the oppression of women that circulate today, it is increasingly necessary to highlight how capitalism is actually to blame for this oppression. Socialist theory can precisely explain the reasons for this.
Women could not be considered an oppressed group, if there wasn’t another group oppressing them. That other group is men. The oppression of women is therefore defined by their relationship to men. This relationship can be observed and investigated by looking at the family.
Friedrich Engels gave a detailed explanation of how the family has changed as the material conditions changed over the course of human history. In this article, we will confine ourselves to a very compact overview which allows the reader to understand the theory and the arguments which will be built upon it. The theory in this first section refers to the specific situation contemporary to Friedrich Engels.
The first forms of human communities were hunter-gatherer societies of prehistoric times. They knew the differences between men and women because of the sexes’ inherent biological differences. Pregnant women and those with children in need of care could not partake in hunting and had to obtain food in a more ‘peaceful’ way. But we have to note that there was no natural division of labor in male hunters and female gatherers. The specific ways in which labor was divided between the sexes was always a byproduct of the specific context in which respective society they lived in.
When humans became sedentary, they began to keep herds of livestock. This signified an enormous growth in wealth. The scarce resources that a tribe had possessed before were the shared property of all its members. That’s the so-called “primitive communism”. This sudden increase of wealth made possible a new form of property, that is private property. The before-mentioned herds of livestock were usually owned by men because there was a natural separation in domestic and non-domestic labor. The domestic sphere was usually the realm of women. They had full command over it. Men, on the other hand, usually owned the herds because they were responsible for the non-domestic sphere. In addition to that, keeping livestock made possible the ownership of slaves because humans now had more than enough food. When they were still hunters and gatherers, it was impossible to secure the means of subsistence for slaves, in addition to one’s own. Defeated enemies were either killed or integrated in one’s own community. The newly acquired slaves were also property of the men because keeping them was related to keeping livestock as they were mainly needed for looking after the herds.
Therefore a man had a considerable amount of private property which he would like to bequeath to, understandably, his children. He didn’t want his property to be divided among a multitude of people and dispersed. After all, he had spent his whole life accumulating this property for the sake of his family and he wanted his children to profit from this labor. But back then, that wasn’t possible. Humanity comes from a state in which everyone could have sexual intercourse with anyone else. The only family relations that were sure to be known were those between a mother and her children. Nobody could say for sure who was the father. When humans started to keep livestock, there had already been primitive forms of marriage but at that point, it was still a great distance from the institutionalized and monogamous, individual marriage we know of today. Therefore, a child could not inherit from his or her father. Who knew whether or not he actually was the father? When a man died, his property was given to his closest blood relatives on the mother’s side. This could, for example, be his brother or his nephew. His children belonged to another female line of descent and therefore did not come into consideration as heirs. Men, if they wanted their children to inherit their property, had to make sure that there was a form of marriage which made paternity clearly assignable. And this form became our well-known monogamous, individual marriage. Historically speaking, it’s more than obvious that the monogamous, individual marriage is an institution that reflects male interests. The adultery of a man was and is usually tolerated as a peccadillo, while female prostitution is flourishing even to this day. Female infidelity, on the other hand, was hypocritically ostracized by society throughout modern history.
We can see that the bourgeois ideal of marriage is a fundamentally sexist institution. It has nothing to do with romantic love for two reasons. First, it primarily serves the purpose of keeping and increasing private property. Second, men were often still tacitly permitted to have sexual relations with more than one woman, allowing them to satisfy their emotional needs outside of the marriage. Further, patriarchal prejudices against women serve as justification for their husbands to lock them up in the household, so that they can be more easily controlled. What monogamous individual marriage looks like in the proletariat will be explained later.
The advent of capitalism, however, introduced a large proportion of women to the work force and had them being exploited alongside their husbands. Did capitalism therefore not break down traditional conditions? The answer is both yes and no. Proletarian women were much more independent than their bourgeois counterparts. They too, were now providing for their families in the non-domestic sphere. But the oppression and the prejudices did not disappear just because of that fact. On the contrary, capitalists made use of the prejudices that women were weaker or performed worse in order to pay them less and reduce labor costs. At the same time, they would put pressure on male workers. If they demanded higher wages or better work conditions, for example, the capitalists could threaten them with replacement by less well-paid women. As we can see, the discriminatory perception of women is continued and promoted by the capitalists for their benefit. In the same way, child labor is then used as leverage to lower the wages of women. But the capitalists also profited from women who stayed home, while being restricted if not outright excluded from the workforce, in cases where that was an option for them economically. There are many tasks that are vital to the maintenance of society, such as parenting as well as taking care of the sick and the elderly. In the past, these tasks couldn’t be organized in a way that yielded profits. However, by keeping the old structure of the family, capitalism could have these caregiving jobs, as well as a great deal of domestic labor, done by unpaid women. This was the original motivation for adopting the old family relations. But did capitalism at least lower the workload of an individual worker? This would seem logical, considering the fact that suddenly nearly double as much people were engaging in societal labor. However, the answer is clearly ‘no’. Because the rivalry between male and female workers is inflamed by the capitalists in order to make more profits, the conditions of the proletariat and their exploitation actually worsened. In order to truly relieve the workers, the profit motive must disappear from production, and that is only possible under socialism.
Now, how about the proletarian marriage? We remember that the monogamous individual marriage only serves to keep private property; it has nothing to do with love. But the proletariat do not possess private property. For this reason, the proletarian marriage can be the closest to the ideal of a loving marriage.
Socialism and the Liberation of Women
In socialism, the labor power of every individual is used to increase the wealth of society. Workers are no longer competing against each other or technological innovations. Furthermore, they only work in professions that actually benefit society. Unproductive jobs that only serve to maximize capitalist profits (e.g. the advertising industry) won’t exist anymore. If the workforce increases or if there is a technological innovation, then this will shorten the socially necessary labor time and result in relief of all of the workers. There will no longer be a reason to artificially extend the work day. It’s the greed for profit of the capitalist class alone that causes them to extend the work day, or to increase the intensity of labor, or pay the workers the minimum possible. This affects both male and female workers. They therefore have shared interests that are contradictory to the interests of the capitalist class.
In capitalism, workers don’t have rights, regardless of whether they are male or female, because rights depend on the distribution of property. Only those who have money have rights. Demanding full rights for women is therefore pointless as long as you demand them under a capitalist system. Only under socialism will people gain their full rights.
On the way, women will shake the discriminatory prejudices that emerged from the monogamous individual marriage and that are promoted by the capitalist class. How exactly will they achieve this? Simply by fighting alongside their male comrades by struggling with them in socialist organizations; by demanding from their brothers-in-arms nothing less than the full catalog of equal rights and duties, equal solidarity and responsibility, equal gains and sacrifices.
The true liberation of women under socialism has two preconditions. First, all women capable of working have to be integrated into the public industry. Second, the nuclear family must no longer be the economic unit of society. This will be achieved in socialism because the originally domestic task of raising the children will become a public one. It is now the task of society as a whole. Each child will have the same right to receive education and care.
Bourgeois individual marriage is also the cornerstone of prostitution. Only because men were de facto allowed to have affairs, there existed a demand for prostitution that was served by women in economically precarious living conditions. When bourgeois double standards and the precarious living conditions of proletarian women disappear, prostitution will also largely disappear. It’s not that bourgeois women were unaware of their husbands’ infidelities, but they were mostly powerless to do anything about it because they were economically dependent on their husbands. Only with complete economic independence between the sexes (i.e. in socialism), can there be truly love-driven marriages. This socialist love marriage consists of two partners with equal rights and is characterized by the fact that both parties can equally and easily divorce. Because why shouldn’t marriages be dissolved in the event that they become loveless?
II. Third Worldist Theory
The world does not pose a consistent picture in regards to the situation of women. The first distinction we have to make is between the so-called First and the so-called Third World. The Third World is being exploited by the imperialist powers. The population of the imperialist core (that is the rich, western countries that dominate the world economically and militarily) is being tranquilized. These things also make themselves felt in regards to the situation of women. The LLCO wrote in an article:
“In the First World, gender is not connected as it once was to biology. Due to the high standard of living made possible through imperialism and advances in technology, First World women are less and less confined to traditional social and reproductive roles. Women are no longer stuck in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, in the First World. First World women have access to a high degree of life options that are not strictly limited by reproduction. For this reason, inequalities between First World men and First World women should not be confused with traditional-patriarchal oppression which is centered around biology and reproduction. Rather, these remaining inequalities should be considered a residual effect from traditional-patriarchal oppression. It is likely that over time, these echoes of traditional oppression will become less pronounced in the First World.
The end of traditional-patriarchal oppression for most First World women has been made possible by the enormous concentrations of wealth that imperialism has generated for the First World at the expense of the Third World. First World women have gained the ability to enter the economy and earn superwages. This gives First World women the option of opting out of the traditional role where the woman’s survival depends on her husband as earner. First World women have the option of living independently, without a male partner. Thus First World women are freed from the traditional oppression connected up with their role in reproduction, i.e. motherhood. Their liberation from traditional male-centered conceptions of sexuality has also been made possible. First World women have access to a greater range of life options open to them. First World women are able to earn exploiter superwages alongside First World men. First World women are able to partake of the spoils of imperialism on a more and more equal basis with First World men.”
The imperialist core is being prevented from making revolution by bribing it with secure living conditions and all kinds of comforts. Much of the exploitation has been outsourced into the Third World. Therefore it is no longer necessary to keep up sexist narratives that justify paying women lower wages than men. Fully consistent with the self image of an ideal liberal state, women can enjoy the same social mobility that men enjoy. It’s therefore true that the oppression is no longer determined by the economic aspects of reproduction. If we follow the theory of Friedrich Engels, we see that the economic assimilation of First World men and women has lead to a gradual disappearing of gender-based oppression. Women are no longer dependent on men. What is left are the residues of patriarchal society. Of course, this doesn’t mean that First World women do experience true equality. But the imperialist powers bribing the First World workers makes the oppression less pronounced and different. And while the patriarchal oppression of women may become less pronounced over time, under capitalism it will never disappear completely, not even in the wealthy West. It will continue to exist in a commercialized form, next to new forms of oppression.
Now how about the Third World? In the same article, it says:
“The increasing equality between the sexes in the First World is a result of the capitalist-imperialist world system. A big part of maintaining the global system of oppression is the fusion of various aspects of feudalism and capitalism in some parts of the Third World. Third World women are some of the biggest victims of the capitalist-imperialist system. They tend to be locked into traditional, feudalistic oppression in agrarian societies. In industrialized areas, they find themselves the most exploited, working for more hours and for lower wages than their male counterparts. They increasingly find themselves enslaved, often by the global sex industry. The situation of Third World women is a function of, among other things, their gender oppression. And, gender oppression in the Third World aids the imperial system that channels wealth from the Third to the First World. Gender oppression in the Third World props up the gender equality in the First World.”
This analysis is again perfectly in line with Engels’ theory. The Third World is consciously being kept underdeveloped. It has no highly developed industrial nations. There are industrialized areas in which the oppression of women is less pronounced because they are part of the work force. But still they are being paid less than their male colleagues to maximize profits. It goes without saying that they still suffer from the echo of patriarchal oppression; in fact much more so than First World women. In rural areas, women are often bound to the domestic sphere. There, they are oppressed because men deprive them of their rights as we know them from pre-capitalist modes of production. In both cases, the situation of women in the Third World is objectively worse than in the First World.
III. Imperialist Lies
At this point we have all the theoretical tools necessary to analyze the situation of women on the basis of economic conditions. A correct analysis will always lead to the conclusion that it is capitalism which prevents truly equal rights for women. This is true for all women on Earth, whether they live in the First or the Third World. A widespread realization of this fact would pose a real threat to the capitalist system. For this reason, the capitalists employ a lot of effort to blur the reality of class relations. They obfuscate the fact that capitalism is the real problem by making up new culprits. This is not only happening with sexism, but also with racism.
A previous historical example of this practice occurred during the Cold War, when the CIA tried to weaken the western left. At that time, many more people in the west were socialists and were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Through various institutions, like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA specifically promoted leftist artists and intellectuals that presented an “alternative view” on politics. This, often Trotskyist-leaning, view was highly critical of the Soviet Union, obscured the class character of political events, and eventually hand-tamed many leftist movements. But that’s only one of many examples of how intelligence agencies influence the discourse of progressive organizations to their favor. You can read more on this topic in the LLCO article, “Overturning Vulgar Third Worldism: A Practical Internationalist Approach to Revolution”.
Now, what effect did these operations have on the women’s rights movement? It’s simple: the “alternative” narrative no longer states that capitalism has to be overthrown in order to achieve true gender equality, but that men alone are the reason for the oppression of women. Therefore, all women could unite on the basis of their femininity to act against this actual evil. Effectively speaking, this only causes division amongst the exploited, and encourages proletarian women to unite with female capitalists. The capitalists make the working people fight against each other, while they continue to make their profits without anybody even thinking about touching their privileges.
Moreover, this narrative completely ignores the fact that First World bourgeois women profit from the exploitation of women in the Third World. Although it’s difficult to identify the owners of porn companies, it’s likely that there are many women in this sector that stand on the side of the exploiters. Just think of Christie Hefner who leads Playboy Enterprises, as an example. Even those who “work independently” receive their money through the sexual exploitation and commodification of Third World women and other oppressed, marginalized women. Their rich customers (rich enough to pay money for pornography), too, only earn their superwages due to this exploitation. Also, through the social security systems of the imperialist countries, the profits of porn websites indirectly benefit the First World people in the form of tax money.
To make matters worse, the Western sex industry is often celebrated as a means for the “empowerment” of women — another idea that stems from a degenerate pseudo-left. Through this industry, it is alleged that women can earn money with their bodies, “independently” of men and completely “self-determined”. This simply ignores the fact that many women slipped into this sector out of financial need. This also ignores the fact that it perpetuates the sexist stereotypes of women, which we should be striving to get rid of; these degrading stereotypes are being reinforced, commercialized, and legitimized under the current system. Furthermore, it obfuscates the fact that the profits of western women are usually generated in the Third World where women do not see much of this new kind of “empowerment”.
Bourgeois feminism — to sum up all of these misguided ideas that forget the class character of female exploitation — is a dead end. Third world women are being disempowered by it because it discourages them to fight alongside their male colleagues against the actual problem of capitalism. Even women in the First World will never achieve true gender equality if they continue to stick with bourgeois narratives. Considering this, we still must acknowledge the fact that women in imperialist core do have a short term material interest in the continued exploitation of women in the Global South. As stated earlier, this exploitation is funding a decadent western way of life.
IV. First World Women and Socialism
In the article, “Overturning Vulgar Third Worldism: A Practical Internationalist Approach to Revolution,” the LLCO has already illustrated that people in the Global North have two kinds of interests. On the one hand, there are their short-term interests: their desire to keep their comfortable way of life and their social security, even if it means that people have to live in misery in other countries, or that the capitalist system can continue destroying our planet with terrifying speed (Western propaganda does of course also play a role in teaching people to see capitalism as the only way). On the other hand, there are their long-term interests: they want to enjoy true freedom that they can’t have as long as an inefficient capitalist system keeps them prisoners of a job they often don’t like and that prioritizes the maximization of profits over the well-being of the people. Thus, they want to escape the rat race of ever new problems. They also don’t want the planet to be uninhabitable for their children. They are empathetic creatures by nature and would appreciate it, if all humans could live on this Earth with the same rights without anyone being exploited.
In the same way, First World women have short-term and long-term interests with regards to their situation. Their short-term interests align with those of their male counterparts: social security and consumption. But with regards to long-term interests, women do have an interest in shaking off the yoke of capitalism. How heavily it weighs, will briefly be illustrated now.
As mentioned before, the oppression of women in the imperialist core takes on two forms. There are residues of patriarchal oppression which have successfully been commercialized. Aside from those, there are new forms of oppression that were created to make profits. Under the latter, not only do women in the first world suffer, but they take on specific manifestations as well. Moreover, we can’t always sharply distinguish both forms from each other. We will take a look at the new forms first.
Capitalism has to constantly generate new profits if it wants to survive. It is not that easy in the West because everything people need to survive can be produced extremely efficiently using modern machines. Therefore, capitalism is creating needs artificially or artificial needs, respectively, in order to generate more profit. In the case of women, this means that from childhood to adulthood they are bombarded with ridiculous standards of beauty. And to achieve them, they have to spend huge amounts of money on i.e. make-up, expensive clothes, sports foods, etc. The social pressures that emerge from this have already destroyed the lives of many people. There is a reason why the West has a huge problem with depression, anorexia, and other serious mental illnesses. Under such circumstances it’s no wonder that despite all the “achievements of civilization”, we see such unrealistic and superficial image expectations of women among First World men.
Now the residues of patriarchal oppression come into play which have been successfully commercialized. It’s the rule rather than the exception that women are being harassed, insulted, threatened or physically attacked in public places, including the internet. This kind of treatment can easily be commercialized because the stereotype of strong men and obedient women is very attractive to men who can otherwise hardly exercise any control over their lives because they are alienated wage slaves to some ungrateful capitalist. The commercialization takes place in the form of pornography or products of popular culture, like music videos. But we can also find it in a more subtle form in the works of popular pseudo-intellectuals like Jordan Peterson. Of course it would be much more clever for men to blame capitalists for their alienation instead of turning against women. Here we can see that perpetuating patriarchal oppression does also serve a political function. It makes male workers redirect their justified frustration against their own kind.
Another new form of oppression looks like this: men and women are both being told that they can find a romantic partner if they present a certain commodified identity to the public. These carefully constructed identities can be based on brand name clothing, an exciting party lifestyle, a fancy car, a big flat, and the list goes on. Some of us are also probably already aware of the commercialization of “love” during Valentine’s Day. The point is that men and women have to spend money so that they may picture themselves as valuable human beings. This is essentially the foundation of social media and online dating websites. Those who want to attract attention on these platforms need to show off what they’ve got. Platforms like Tinder or OkCupid, however, do not have any material interest in getting their users into a relationship; because if they did, they eventually would not have any users left to buy their premium services or to provide valuable user data to their websites. In a system that defines the value of a human being by its possessions, it’s no surprise that women are often still being treated like objects, even in the “pinnacle of civilization” that the west believes itself to be. Here we are exactly in the gray area between the ‘commercialized old’ and the ‘commercial new’ oppression.
To summarize, Capitalism promotes an extremely unhealthy relationship between the sexes. There are many reasons for why this is, but ultimately the goal is to generate profits, to deflect the blame from the system itself for the people’s problems, and to obscure the reality of class relations.
No man is free until all women are free. Believe in your potential and become your full self; don’t believe the lies of the capitalists!
Postscript 01/19/2022: The above was edited to include the following sentences, “…But the capitalists also profited from women who stayed home[…] This was the original motivation for adopting the old family relations,” in the 8th paragraph. Accordingly, Fascism and Social Revolution: A Study of the Economics and Politics of the Extreme Stages of Capitalism In Decay by Rajani Palme Dutt was added to the list of sources below.
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Featured image: “Women of the world, unite in the struggle for peace, for life, for happiness!” Soviet poster, 1952.