L-I: Longer version of paper for women's liberation
CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Tue Dec 7 15:11:04 MST 1999
For Women's Liberation: A Comradely
Critique of the Manifesto and Historical
(For Angela Y. Davis)
By Charles Brown
To me _The Manifesto of the Communist Party_ remains extraordinarily
persuasive of the historical epoch of which we are today still a part. The argument
of the Manifesto is convincing in part because it is consistently courageous in
intelligently critiquing the order of the powers that be. Then, as now, the ruling
class ruins and murders those who so take them on. Famous examples in our country are
Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Paul Robeson
and the Communist Party en masse.
However, The Manifesto shows cowardice , and more bourgeois than communist
finesse in dealing with marriage, the family, patriarchy and monogamy. Marx and Engels
say the bourgeoisie accuse the communists of wanting to abolish the monogamous family
when the bourgeoisie have already in fact done so. Then they cleverly, artfully,
correctly show how the bourgeois, male chauvinist practices of adultery, prostitution
and related activities have already in actual fact abolished the monogamous family,
although it hypocritically remains the law and custom.
Marx and Engels dodge the dialectical requirement that they present an
affirmative, not just negative aspect, to their critique of bourgeois society's form
of the family. They defer to the taboo against even discussing sex positively,
What is the Communist proposal for the next form of the family ? Given
Marx and Engels'' dialectical, evolutionary-revolutionary perspective on every other
institution, presumably for them, the mode of the family changes along with the mode
of production and the state. But they mention in the Manifesto no family equivalent in
reproduction to the formula "abolition of private property" in production or "working
class as the ruling class" in politics and the state. We would not expect them to
speculate a full utopian idea of the family, but at least give us a hint as they do in
To me this all demonstrates the European taboo on public (and much private),
revolutionary discussion and critique of reproductive institutions and practices ( the
mode of reproduction) is even stronger than that on revolutionary criticism of
productive institutions and practices, that is the mode of production. Freud's
breaking of this taboo has continuing value today, with all of his faults.
Marx and Engels did creep up on telling the truth about the revolutionary
direction of the development of the family. Many years after the Manifesto, in _The
Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State_ , Engels gained a lot of courage
that had been lacking. Engels also published many years after they had been written
by Marx the Theses on Feuerbach, the fourth of which says:
" Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the
duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His
work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis.
But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes
itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be exploited
by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis.
therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and
revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, _after the
is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must
then itself be destroyed in theory and practice_" (emphasis added,
So, Marx knew that monogamy would be revolutionised and "destroyed". He
just did not shout it, the way he did "expropriate the expropriators" and the like.
Let us examine the issue a little more deeply. By the Manifesto every
Marxist knows the A,B,C's of historical materialism or the materialist conception of
history. The history of hitherto existing society, since the breaking up of the
ancient communes, is a history of class struggles between oppressor and oppressed.
Classes are groups that associate in a division of labor to produce their material
means of existence.
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels asserted an elementary
anthropological or "human nature" rationale for this conception. In a section titled
"History: Fundamental Conditions, they say:
"*life involves before everything else eating and drinking,
a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical
act is thus the production of material life itself. And indeed this
is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which
today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be
fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life."
Production and economic classes are the starting point of Marxist analysis
of human society because human life, like all plant and animal life must fulfill
biological needs to exist as life at all. It is an appeal to biologic (which I
support, all of the anti-vulgar materialist critiques to the contrary notwithstanding,
but that's my other paper). Whatever humans do that is "higher" than plants and
animals, we cannot do if we do not first fulfill or plant/animal like needs.
Therefore, the "higher" (cultural, semiotic etc.) human activities are limited by the
productive activities. This means that historical materialism starts with human
nature, our natural species qualities.
Yet , it is fundamental in biology that the basic life sustaining processes
of a species are twofold. There is obtaining the material means of life and
subsistence or success of survival of the living generation, for existence
("production"). But just as fundamentally there is reproduction or success in creating
a next generation of the species that is fertile, and survives until it too reproduces
viable offspring. Whoever heard of a one generation species ? In fact, one test of
two individual animals being of the same species is their ability to mate and produce
viable offspring. We can imagine a group of living beings with the ultimate success
in eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. But if they do
not also reproduce, they are either not a species or they are an extinct species (
unless the individuals are immortal).
Thus, having premised their theory in part on human biology, our
"species-being",, Marx and Engels are logically obligated to develop historical
materialism based, not only on the logic of subsistence production, but also on the
logic of next generation reproduction.
In The German Ideology, they did recognize reproduction as a "fundamental
condition of history" along with production. However, they give reproduction or , at
least, "the family" a subordinate "fundamental" status to production when they say,
"The third circumstance which, from the very outset, enters into
historical development, is that men, who daily remake their own life
begin to make other men, to propagate their kind: the relation
man and woman, parents and children, the family. The family, which
to begin with is the only social relationship, becomes later, when
increased needs create a new social relations and the increased
population new needs, a subordinate one*"
My thesis in this essay is that the mode of reproduction (in the broad sense,
including, but not limited to social institutions called "the" family) of human beings
remains throughout human history equally fundamental with the mode of production in
shaping society, even with the "new social relations" that come with "increased
population". For there to be history in the sense of many generations of men and
women, all of the way up to Marx, Engels and us today, men had to do more than "begin
to make other men." Women and men had to complete making next generations by sexually
uniting and rearing them for thousands of years. Otherwise history would have ended
long ago. We would be an extinct species. An essential characteristic of history is
its existence in the "medium" , the ":material substratum" of multiple generations.
Thus, with respect to historical materialism, reproduction is as necessary as
Not only that. In the above quoted passage, Marx and Engels give reproduction
a "subordinate" ,"fundamental" condition of history status by the following sleight of
hand: in part population increase or the success of reproduction somehow makes
reproduction less important in "entering into historical development" as a
"fundamental conditon". ( or "primary historical relation" in another translation;
also "basic aspect of social activity"). This is quite a misogynist dialectic, given
that "men" are in the first premise and the third premise, but women only are
mentioned explicitly in the latter. It is also an idealist philosophical error,
because the theory now tends to abstract from the real social life of individuals in
Another passage in The German Ideology demonstrates the same sort of magical
rather than scientific use of "dialectic" with respect to reproduction, and in this
case the impact on the materialist philosophical consistency of their argument is more
direct and explicit. They say,
"Only now, after having considered four moments, four aspects of
primary historical relations, do we find that man also possesses
"consciousness."But even from the outset this is not "pure" consciousness. The "mind"
is from the outset afflicted with the curse of being "burdened" with matter, which
here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of
language, Language is as old as consciousness* language like consciousness, only
arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men*Consciousness is,
therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men
exist at all. Consciousness is at first of course, merely consciousness concerning
the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with
other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious*This
sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development or extension
through increased productivity, the increase in needs, and , what is fundamental!
to both of these,the increase in population. With these there develops the division
of labor, which was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act,
then the division of labor which develops spontaneously or "naturally" by virtue of
natural predisposition (e.g., physical strength, needs, accidents,etc., etc.) Division
of labor becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and
mental labour appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really
flatteritself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that
it really represents something without representing something real; from now on
consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to
formation of "pure" theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc."
In this long paragraph (only partially quoted), we see Marx and Engels's
early formulation and explanation of the origin for what Engels later famously dubbed
the fundamental question of philosophy "*materialism or idealism ?" is rooted in the
"second" original division of labor. For some reason, the "first" original division
of labor, which gives women equivalent complementary status with men, just disappears
and is replaced by a productive division of labor, between "men's" minds and hands.
And to make it worse, once again, the "reason" the reproductive division of labor
disappears as an ongoing fundamental determinate throughout history is it's own
success in creating a population explosion. This seems to be an error of substituting
a negative and destructive dialectic in thought for what in being and becoming is the
most fundamentally positive and fruitful dialectic in human history.
Here is a key connecting point: then Marx and Engels (whom I love dearly)
substitute for the reproductive division of labor a productive division of labor s the
fundamentally determining contradiction of historical development. This division of
labor, between predominantly mental and predominantly material labor, becomes the root
of development of classes, the importance of which is declared in the first sentence
of The Manifesto. Yet, Marx and Engels commit the same error of abstraction at one
level that they criticize at the next level; the error of mental labor in abstracting
from the concrete reality of physical labor. This is also seen from the fact that
they keep depending on "population increase", which is another name for reproduction
and "the sexual act," to explain the origin of increased "productivity" and "needs",
which seem to be the "premises" for the division between material and mental labor
(and are because of the role of material surpluses in m!
aking possible creation of the class of predominantly mental laborers). Thus, we
might say that the original idealist philosophical inconsistency of Marxist
materialism is abstraction from reproduction.
In fact, by 1884, with the impact of anthropological studies, in the Preface
to the First Edition of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,
"According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in
history is , in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate
life. This, again (again ?, C.B.), 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 organization 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."
This formulation and the change in it from that in _The German Ideology_ support the
basic thesis of this essay: that reproduction is an equally fundamental, not a
subordinate, process with production in shaping society from its origins to modern
times. But Engels's formulation in The Origin is after Marx's death and late in their
heroic joint project in developing Marxism. Thus, the main classic writings of Marxism
and Marx and Engels's political activity focussed in production and political economy
not the family and the other institutions of reproduction.
The Origin's is the best scientific formulation of the materialistic
conception of history even after the "family" is surrounded by larger social
institutions in later stages of human history, as asserted in the passage from The
German Ideology, quoted above. Even under capitalism, many of the social relations
and institutions that are quantitatively greater than those in the "nuclear" family
are part of reproduction, such as school and training, and even medical services and
More importantly, reproduction and production have qualitatively different
functions, both fundamental in constituting our species existence, our species- being.
In other words, not only are reproductive relations not quantitatively less important
in determining history, but from the beginning, from the true original division of
labor as the sexual act, reproduction has had a qualitatively, complementarily
necessary relation with production in creating history. From the standpoint of our
uniquely human species character (our culture),it might be said that production makes
objects and reproduction creates subjects.
Thus, problems in dealing with subjectivity in the history of Marxism ( see
my "Activist Materialism and the End of Philosophy") may in part be remedied by
rethinking Marxism based on equating and even privileging reproduction over production
in interpreting and acting to change the world. This is seen as even more so when we
consider that there is now is for Marxism a scientific, materialist, truthseeking need
for intellectual affirmative action in using empirical study of reproduction to
reexplain history to compensate for the sole focus on production. Reproduction has
always been scientifically coequal, as demonstrated by Marx and Engels's clipped
comments and "admissions" quoted above. They never refute their own words about the
importance of reproduction in historical materialist theory. They just
uncharacteristically fail to develop one of their own stated fundamental materialist
premises. Living Marxists must creatively redevelop historical materialism bas!
ed on this compensation.
Dialectical materialism holds that the relationship between subject and object
is dialectical, of course. It is "vulgar" materialism that portrays the subject as
one-sidedly determined by the object. Reproduction and production are complementary
opposites, and their unity in struggle is the fundamental motive force of history
today as in ancient times. Even more, in the orgasmic aspect of reproduction,
struggle itself turns into its opposite.
However, when I say "reproduction creates subjects", I mean
"reproduction" in a broader sense than only sexual conception and birth. Reproduction
includes all childbearing, from the home through all of school and any other type of
training. It is all "caring labor" as defined by Hilary Graham in "Caring: A Labour of
Love" (1983). Reproduction is all of those labors that have as a direct and main
purpose making and caring for a human subject or personality s contrasted with those
labors of production which have as a direct purpose making objects useful to humans.
Reproduction includes affirmative self-creation.
Under capitalism with alienation, production's impact in making subjects is
primarily negative and indirect. Conversely, reproduction indirectly makes objects,
in the sense that the subject, the human laborer, who is the direct and positive
purpose of reproduction, is the possessor of labor power, the active factor making
objects in production (directly).
This conception of reproduction is consistent with Marx's basic reasoning in
Capital. In his famous development of the concept of the labor theory of value and
surplus value, he asserts that human labor is the only source of new value in the
production process. The human laborer and the means of production (tools and raw
materials) all add exchange value to a commodity. But the means of production add no
more value to the commodity than the values added to them by a previous human laborer
in the production of the means of production. The human labor power is the only
element in the process that can add more value to the commodity than the values that
went into producing the labor power. The labor of a worker in one-half day ( or now ¼
of a day) produces enough value to pay for the necessities creating the worker's labor
power for a full day's work. The value produced by the worker in the second half of
the day is the surplus value exploited by the capitalist. The!
creation of the workers' labor power is done in reproduction,, in the broad sense as
I have been using that concept in this essay. Thus, reproduction is the "only source"
of the only source of new value (that is not a typo). Subjectivity is the "source" of
the unique ability (over the means of production) of the human component in the
production process to produce more value than went into producing it.
Subjectivity is the source of a sort of Marxist "mind over matter",
Reproduction is the source of subjectivity. In relation to the discussion, supra, of
the primacy of reproduction with reproduction in the original division of labor over
the division of material and mental labor, we might deduce that it was (and is) within
reproduction that the mind and matter are non-antagonistically related as opposites
(when "men" were simultaneously theoriticians in their practice as mentioned in The
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).
Sociology and common experience teach that historically, women have been the
primary reproductive laborers *from pregnancy and childrearing to housework, from
elementary and high school teaching to nursing. Beyond pregnancy, women's
"assignment" to reproductive roles is historically and ideologically caused by men,
not biologically or genetically caused or necessary (see, for example Not in Our
Genes, by Lewontin , et al.) But as a result, women are a historically constituted,
exploited and oppressed reproductive class, whose defining labor is as fundamental to
our material life as that of the productive laborers Marx and Engels focussed on.
Thus, the materialist conception of history must be modified, and women's liberation
put on an equal footing with workers' liberation in the Marxist project.
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