Magazine article Monthly Review

Marx on Gender and the Family: A Summary

Magazine article Monthly Review

Marx on Gender and the Family: A Summary

Article excerpt

Many feminist scholars have had, at best, an ambiguous relationship with Marx and Marxism. One of the most important areas of contention involves the Marx/Engels relationship.

Studies by Georg Lukács, Terrell Carver, and others have shown significant differences between Marx and Engels on dialectics as well as a number of other issues.1 Building on these studies, I have explored their differences with regard to gender and the family as well. This is especially relevant to current debates, since a number of feminist scholars have criticized Marx and Engels for what they see as their economic determinism. However, Lukács and Carver both point to the degree of economic determinism as a significant difference between the two. Both view Engels as more monistic and scientist than Marx. Raya Dunayevskaya is one of the few to separate Marx and Engels on gender, while likewise pointing to the more monistic and deterministic nature of Engels's position, in contrast to Marx's more nuanced dialectical understanding of gender-relations.2

In recent years, there has been little discussion of Marx's writings on gender and the family, but in the 1970s and '80s, these writings were subject to a great deal of debate. In a number of cases, elements of Marx's overall theory were merged with psychoanalytic or other forms of feminist theory by feminist scholars such as Nancy Hartsock and Heidi Hartmann.3 These scholars viewed Marx's theory as primarily gender-blind and in need of an additional theory to understand genderrelations as well. However, they retained Marx's historical materialism as a starting point for understanding production. Moreover, a number of Marxist feminists also made their own contributions in the late 1960s to '80s, particularly in the area of political economy. For example, Margaret Benston, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, and Wally Seccombe have all tried to revalue housework.4 In addition, Lise Vogel has attempted to move beyond dual systems towards a unitary understanding of political economy and social reproduction.5 Nancy Holmstrom has also shown that Marx can be used to understand the historical development of women's nature.6

The dual-systems theory of patriarchy and capitalism which was a common form of socialist feminism in the 1970s and '80s was viewed as a failed project by many in the 1990s and beyond. In any event, the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe probably had a negative effect on the popularity of socialist feminism. As Iris Young had already argued, dual-systems theory was inadequate since it was based on two very different theories of society-one involving the historic dynamic development of society, primarily social, economic and technological and the other based on a static psychological view of human nature.7These two theories are very difficult to reconcile because of these vast differences. However, their critiques of what they viewed as Marx's determinism, gender-blind categories, and emphasis on production at the expense of reproduction provided a starting point for my reexamination of Marx's work by means of close textual analysis-this in addition to the work of the Marxist feminists mentioned above.

Marx's work contained elements of Victorian ideology, but there is much of interest on gender and the family scattered throughout his work. As early as 1844, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that women's position in society could be used as a measure of the development of society as a whole. He was certainly not the first to make a statement such as this-Charles Fourier is often attributed as the inspiration for this statement-but for Marx, this was more than simply a call for men to change the position of women. Instead, Marx was making a dialectical argument directly related to his overall theory of society. In order for society to advance beyond its capitalist form, new social relations would have to be formed that did not rely solely upon a crude, alienated formulation of value. …

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