What would I like to see in Marxist writing about women’s liberation?

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1 I’d like to see a proper treatment of Engels. I don’t believe that there is any purpose to reading him “defensively”, i.e. using him as a timeless authority, who is by definition correct just because of his close working relationship with Marx. Ultimately, the test of Engels’ brilliance as a historian of pre-class societies h…as to be what anthropologists and archaeologists find in the evidence (once we have stripped out any biases in their interpretation), rather than what Engels guessed from the best pre-historical evidence of more than 100 years ago. If I was going to list the characteristics which made early people “human” I would focus on tool-making rather than meat-eating which was crucial for the most right-wing, and dated, archaeologists of the 1960s. Any discussion of Vogel should try to acknowledge that she is matching the best bits of Engels to the method of Marx’s Capital. Vogel was not trying to depoliticise and diminish Engels, she was doing the opposite.

2 For over a century, Marxists have portrayed the family as key to women’s oppression. Here again we can learn from Vogel, who is very clear (the key is the differential expectation of women’s work in childrearing, which structures occupational segregation, unequal pay, different expectations as to who will initiate sex, sexual stereotyping, sexual imagery, etc etc). Marxists need to do more than merely acknowledge that the family is changing, we need to grasp how it is changing under “neo-liberal austerity capitalism”. In the same way that Soviet-era state capitalism resulted in lots of marriage, little divorce and medals for motherhood, our present mini-epoch of capitalism produces a different kind of family: a relative separation of sex and child-rearing (which goes arm in arm with sexual choice, including the vast increase in the number of people publicly identifying themselves as LGBT), a rapid increase in the number of both the people in relationships outside marriage and (fewer people spot this) the number of people outside relationships at all, the use of benefits to subsidise working class families (the budget for benefits to working people, of greatest value to those with children, outspends benefits to the unemployed by something like 20 to 1), and the removal of benefits (eg the housing tax cap) being of greatest threat to people living in families with children.

3 It’s not enough to say that the solution to women’s oppression is for women to join the workplace and go on strike. This misses out the continuing capacity for men and women to be divided in the workplace. A single episode illustrates this: the equal pay crisis and the local government and health union’s mishandling of it over the last decade – resulting in tens of thousands of tribunal equal pay cases a year, many of them brought (and this should shock any of us out of any political complacency) … against unions, for signing off discriminatory pay deals. It also misses out the problems of trade unionism in an epoch of (relatively) low strikes. We’re not talking about the “schools of socialism” that Marx and Engels hoped for. Not at the moment, not until they move – and any useful Marxist contribution need to start thinking honestly about how we can get them to. Right now, unions are much more defensive organisations, with low participation rates (especially among women), at several stages from revolution. Suggesting that strikes will solve everything also misses out the capacity for women (and men) to organise as workers outside the workplace – eg in fighting the bedroom tax. IE in contrast to those whose short answer to women’s oppression is “syndicalism”, when what we really need is “political class struggle” (i.e. both of political trade unionism -and- working-class struggle outside work).

[Original thread on Facebook here and here]

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