The Rise, Decline and Return of Marxist Feminism

by Frieda Afary and Farzaneh Raji

In this introduction to the forthcoming Persian translation of Heather Brown’s  Marx on Gender and the Family:  A Critical Study (Brill Press, 2012 and Haymarket Press, 2013), the translators situate Brown’s work in the context of the various tendencies within Marxist feminism from the 1970s to today, and their different explanations of the relationship of gender oppression to capitalism.  They discuss Brown’s assessment of Marx  and feminist critiques of Marx by asking four questions:  1. Did Marx consider the sexual division of labor “natural?”  2.  What is the relationship of capitalist value production to the realm of reproduction, including the family?  3.   What are the major differences between Marx and Engels on the origins of women’s oppression?  4.  What was the concept of women’s emancipation in Marx’s activities, journalism and his life?  The Persian original of this introduction was published by Naqd-e Iqtisad-e Siasi on March 8, 2016.  See

This translation is being published at a time when on the one hand, women in Iran and the Middle East are facing regional-imperialist wars, homelessness, poverty, slavery, rape, torture, stoning and acid attacks; on the other hand, a new generation of women are challenging traditional relations.  In Iran, sixty percent of university graduates are women, many consider themselves feminists and demand equal rights with men.

The experience of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the past three and a half decades have been crucial for Iranian women.  On the one hand, they have been deprived of many basic rights.  On the other hand, they have gained experiences that have made them more aware of their rights.  This awareness can be seen in their daily struggles, their independent women’s movement, the profound messages of the films produced by Iranian women,  and the flowering of their fiction.

Among Iranian feminists, there are different understandings of the concept of women’s liberation.  Some view feminism as a new reading of Islam.  Some limit it to the legal equality of women and men and see women’s liberation as the result of an ever increasing development of capitalism.  Some believe that so long as women live in the context of a capitalist world, they will not achieve emancipation and will still suffer from oppression and exploitation despite legal equality.

The third category mentioned above, i.e. leftist women, were the main founders of “women’s circles” during the years 1986 to 1997, and had an active role in the theoretical nourishment of these circles.  After the women’s movement once again became openly active in 1997 and formed itself independently, socialist feminists played a crucial role in critiquing and developing the various tendencies in this movement.   They challenged traditional leftist doctrines that considered “the woman question” to be  “non-political” or claimed that “it would be resolved after the socialist revolution” or labelled any feminist tendency as “deviationist” or viewed feminism as “contradictory” to the interests of the working class.

On the one hand, Iranian socialist feminists had dialogues and debates with Islamic, liberal and reformist feminists.  On the other hand, they had to critique the doctrines of the traditional left.  Most importantly, they had to beware of the assaults of reactionary and capitalist forces at any moment.  Thus, they faced and continue to face difficulties that are more or less similar to those faced by socialist feminists in  other countries.

It was in response to these needs that the recent call issued by Nancy Fraser, U.S. feminist philosopher led to a fruitful discussion among Iranian feminist women and men.  In this call, Fraser had criticized second wave feminism because a large part of the activists in this movement had abandoned a critique of capitalism and a struggle for social justice during the past three decades and had strictly focused their attention on identity politics, culture, the struggle for power and careerism.

Some Iranian activists have argued that Nancy Fraser’s critique is not related to Iranian women’s experiences since they have not yet entered the capitalist stage and do not benefit from legal equality with men.  Others consider Iran a capitalist society and think that women’s emancipation is not possible without social justice and the transcendence of capitalism.

The debate among Iranian feminists concerning Nancy Fraser’s call, went further than her critique of liberal feminism.  It ultimately asked why socialist feminists were not able to offer a perspective that could transcend the experience of countries which called themselves Communist in the 20th century.  Why was the question of the transcendence of the domination of capital and its relation to the transformation of gender relations and the family left unclear by socialist feminists?

In order to confront these challenges, we translated Heather Brown’s book with the hope of opening new pathways for the independent Iranian feminist movement in general and socialist feminists in particular.  In her introduction, Heather Brown asks why the Western debates on the relationship between feminism and Marxism in the 1970s and early 1980s were replaced by postmodern feminism and a strict focus on identity and culture.  Her work is the first which has attempted to explore Marx’s concept of gender and the family by examining the whole of his works from 1844 to 1882.  She has not offered any final answers.  However, through a detailed examination of three decades of feminist critiques of Marx and an exploration of the fundamental differences between Marx’s views and those of Engels’s Origin of the Family, she has offered a new foundation for raising questions.

In this introduction, first we would like to offer a summary of the main theoretical tendencies within Marxist feminism in the 1970s and early 1980’s, in order to clarify the achievements and limitations of these discussions.  Then, we will review the decline and return of Marxist feminism and will take up the unique features and contributions of Brown’s study.  In conclusion, we will compare and contrast Brown’s conclusions to discussions which have been previously offered concerning the relationship between Marxism and feminism, in order to allow readers to have a basis for judging the content of this book.

I. The Achievements and Limitations of Theorizing the Relationship Between Feminism and Marxism in the 1970s and Early 1980s.

Among the many books and articles published in the 1970s and early 1980s on the relationship between feminism and Marxism, one can identify four different explanations of the specificity of gender oppression:  1.  Femininity as Alienation   2.  The relationship of domestic labor to the reproduction of labor power, 3.  An Ideology of domination, independent of the mode of production, 4.  The mental/manual division of labor.

In her Feminity as Alienation:  Women and the Family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis (1977), Anne Foreman has tried to theorize the specificity of women’s oppression under capitalism on the basis of her understanding of the concepts of alienation and reification in Marx.  She argues that the capitalist mode of production on the one hand separated the sphere of labor from the domestic sphere, and on the other hand turned labor into an activity devoid of creativity which destroyed the individuality of the producer.   With the intensification of alienation at work, humans attempted to express themselves outside the work place and in phenomena such as the family and gender identities such as femininity and masculinity.  “In a world of chaos and change, gender appears as the one element of continuity to which individuality can be attached.” (p. 78).

Foreman argues that Freud’s understanding of the sexual drive as the main factor in social and political relations, is really only true in a capitalist system based on alienated labor and reified human relations. On the one hand capitalism, in contrast to prior systems, emphasizes human individuality.  On the other hand, this individuality expresses itself in an alienated way and based on the separation of pleasure from consciousness.

In Foreman’s opinion, the capitalist ideology of reification acts on the level of the unconscious and not necessarily on a conscious level.  Identities such as femininity or masculinity which have been formed as a result of specific historical circumstances,  appear as natural and eternal characteristics.  (pp. 105-111)  At the same time, Foreman emphasizes that women’s increasing participation in social production challenges accepted norms of female conduct and leads to the instability of the family. (p. 129)

Foreman writes: “In our understanding, the structuring of the psyche into a conscious and unconscious area is dependent on the process of reification in capitalist society.  If men were to overcome reification, then the dynamic for this form of mental structuring would cease.”(p. 108)  As a result, the predominant understanding of sexuality and the importance of masculinity and femininity would wane.  Sexuality would not become unimportant but it will be expressed in a conscious and polymorphous form.   In other words, Foreman thinks that the structuring of the psyche into a conscious and an unconscious area is itself the product of a system in which humans cannot live consciously and establish a two-way relationship between mind and body or reason and desire.  At the same time, such a two-way relationship will not signify the disappearance of desires but a more conscious way of expressing them.  “The negation of capitalism in communist society demands that human beings reproduce their sociality consciously rather than in the spontaneous form of the initial stages of human history.”(p. 110)

Foreman considers the former Soviet Union to be a system based on “the monopolization of political power by a bureaucracy” and emphasizes that in the process of Stalinization, women’s achievements were lost and the Zhenotdel {The women’s organization of the Communist Party from 1919 to 1930} was also abolished.  However, she does not offer a coherent understanding of the economic nature of the former USSR and the differences which she thinks exist between this system and capitalism. (p. 40)

In contrast to Ann Foreman, many socialist feminists attempted to explain the specificity of women’s oppression in capitalism by focusing on the relationship of women’s domestic labor to Marx’s theory of surplus value.  In her Marxism and the Oppression of Women:  Toward a Unitary Theory (1983),  Lise Vogel has summarized the different arguments of the theorists of this tendency.  She concludes that women’s domestic labor does not produce value but is related to the capitalist mode of production because of its role in reproducing labor power.

After drawing some limited distinctions between the views of Marx and those of Engels and evaluating their defects as well as the defects of the entire socialist tradition, She claims that although working class and upper class women all suffer from inequality with men, the specific basis of women’s oppression in all class societies is the appropriation of the surplus labor of direct producers by the ruling class. (p. 87, p.129) Then she argues that under capitalism which is based on the separation of the realm of labor from the domestic sphere, women increasingly fall behind in the process of production during the period of childbirth and child-rearing.   Because of their ability to reproduce the next generation of workers, women are placed under men’s control. “In order to stabilize the reproduction of labor power as well as to keep the amount of necessary labor at acceptable levels, the ruling class encourages male supremacy within the exploited class.” (p. 147) She concludes:  “It is the provision by men of means of subsistence to women during the childbearing period, and not the sex division of labor in itself that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class society.” (p. 147)

Vogel thinks that the only way to overcome the oppression that women suffer as women is to change the mode of production in the following way:  The abolition of the private ownership of the means of production; The creation of a planned economy for the purpose of ending surplus production for private ownership; Socializing domestic labor and child-rearing as well as fairly distributing the remainder of the labor of child-rearing and domestic duties among a couple and their children. (pp. 172-173)  She does not think the Soviet Union is a good example of such changes but considers the experience of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to be “inspiring.” (p. 5)

Vogel specifically considers Engels’s Origin of the Family:  Private Property and the State as the source of the theory that separates the foundation of sexual oppression from that of class oppression.  In the introduction to his work, Engels wrote: “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life.  But this itself is of a twofold character.  On the one hand, the production of the means  of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.  The social institutions … are conditioned by both kinds of production; by the state of development of labor, on the one hand, and of the family on the other.” (pp. 5-6)  In her opinion, this passage unconsciously created the basis for what later became theorized as Dual Systems Theory by some socialist feminists.  It identified the source of women’s oppression as independent of class oppression and the social relations of production of each society. (pp. 30-31, p. 91, pp. 130-132).  This view, she argues, has damaged socialist feminism because it reduces the basis of women’s oppression to the ideology of patriarchy without a material foundation in economic relations.

Dual Systems Theory which ultimately became the dominant theory among socialist feminists was elaborated in detail in Michele Barrett’s Women’s Oppression Today:  The Marxist-Feminist Encounter (1980).  Barrett thinks that the specific oppression which women experience as women is relatively independent of the capitalist mode of production or any other mode of production.  She  considers the origin of this oppression to be “the ideology of familialism.”  To further explain this view she cites Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology as relatively independent of the mode of production.

Unlike Ann Foreman who considers gender identities such as femininity and masculinity under capitalism to be expressions of false consciousness, Barrett thinks that “Gender identity and the ideology of the family are embedded in our subjectivity and our desires at a far more profound level than that of ‘false consciousness.’ ” (pp. 225-226)  She defines this ideology by citing Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the relationship of “self” to “other” as a relationship of domination that inheres in human beings.  In later editions of Women’s Oppression Today in 1988 and 2014,  Barrett emphasizes that her concept of ideology is indebted to Michele Foucault’s anti-humanism and his concept of power and domination:  “ ‘power’ understood in processual and micro-social terms rather than as an aspect of social structure.”(p. xxxiv).  She states that if she could rewrite this book, she would have focused much more on Foucault’s theories.

One of the reasons for Barrett’s focus on the  relative and later complete independence of “the ideology of familialism” from the mode of production, is her dissatisfaction with the limitations of the theory which views oppression as based on women’s domestic labor.  Although Barrett admits that capitalism benefits from the sexual division of labor, women’s domestic labor and the separation of the domestic sphere from the realm of wage labor, she argues:  “[I]t is more difficult to argue that gender division necessarily occupies a particular place in the class structure of capitalism.  It has not, at least as yet, been demonstrated that the sexual division of labour forms not simply a historically constituted but a logically pre-given element of the class structure [of capitalism.] …(p. 138)

In order to prove this claim, first Barrett argues that with the widespread use of computers, the separation of the domestic sphere from the sphere of wage labor, a characteristic of industrial capitalism, is no longer “a functional prerequisite of capitalist production.” (p. 175) Secondly, she argues that under capitalism too, it is possible to socialize domestic labor and child-rearing to an increasing extent.  In other words, in her opinion,  the possibility of reorganizing capitalist relations of production without the need for women’s domestic labor and the nuclear family is entirely possible (p. 211)  because “I am not wholly convinced that this household structure is potentially the most beneficial for capital.”(p. 221) and because  “this particular form of household and its accompanying ideology of women’s dependence is not the only possible form for an efficient reproduction of labor power in capitalist relations of production.”(p. 249)

Since women’s emancipation was not realized in the Soviet Union and Maoist China–  societies which Barrett considers socialist– she thinks that women’s lives in a socialist society will not be much different from capitalism.  Hence,  although Barrett called herself a socialist feminist in 1980,  in the later editions of her book in 1988 and 2014 she called herself a liberal feminist and emphasized that the realm of culture and ideology were “much more fertile  than the economic and social concerns of socialist thought.”  She was no longer interested in merging Marxism and feminism. (p. xxxix)

Barrett offers some cogent criticisms of the theory that grounds women’s oppression in their domestic labor.  However,  her concept of power as an ideology independent of the mode of production, closes the door to further consideration of the relationship between women’s oppression and the social division of labor.

In contrast,  Raya Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1982),  returns to a theory that grounds women’s oppression in the mental/manual division of labor.   Hers is the first socialist feminist work to take up Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks from the last decade of his life where she  discerns fundamental differences between the views of Marx and those of Engels’s Origin of the Family.  In presenting her research,  Dunayevskaya argues that from Marx’s standpoint,  “The elements of oppression in general and of woman in particular arose from within primitive communism and not only related to change from ‘matriarchy,” but began with the establishment of ranks– relationship of chief to mass–and the economic interests that accompanied it.”(p. 180) From Engels’s standpoint, however,  primitive societies were free of any oppression.  According to Engels,  it was only with the production of a surplus in the newly emerging agricultural societies and the private ownership of this surplus by men that the origins of oppression arose.

Dunayevskaya attributes Marx’s more critical stance to the fact that his attention as a Hegelian philosopher was always directed at the deepest internal contradictions of any society.  Hence his concept of socialism went far beyond the abolition of the private property of the means of production and embodied the transformation of all human relations.  In examining primitive societies, Marx emphasized women’s greater freedom in these relatively egalitarian societies, but also focused on the existence of ranks, wars between tribes, the capture of members of other tribes, and the limitations imposed on women within those very societies.   On the other hand, he continued to examine the elements of resistance to oppression as well as the different historical paths of development in different societies.  He couldn’t have agreed with Engels’s expression, “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”

Based on her grasp of Marx, Dunayevskaya attributes the formation of classes in general and women’s oppression in particular to the mental/manual division of labor,  a division of labor that becomes more intense under capitalism, is expressed in alienated labor and affects all human relationships,  including  love relationships. (pp. 105-106)

Although her views concerning the relationship between alienation and women oppression in some ways resemble Ann Forman’s, there are major differences between these two thinkers.  1.  Foremen thinks that alienated labor can be overcome through the abolition of the sale of labor power and of  exchange in the market.  Dunayevskaya views the sale of labor power and exchange in the market as the result of a mode of labor based on the domination of machines over human beings and the domination of “socially necessary labor time” over the process of labor.  2.  Dunayevskaya emphasizes that this mode of labor continued in societies that called themselves Communist.  Hence she  analyzed the Soviet Union, Maoist China and their satellite states as “state capitalist” societies.  Foreman calls these societies “bureaucratic socialist.”  3.  It seems that Foreman considers the nuclear family to be a permanent feature of capitalist society.  However,  Dunayevskya, like Marx,  emphasizes the changes and transformations in the institution of the family.  4.  Foreman does not critique Engels’s views in the Origin of the Family.

Vogel thinks that Engels’s views were reductionist because he saw private property as the source of women’s oppression.   However, Vogel does not analyze Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and does not address the differences between Marx’s and Engels’s views on the basis of these Notebooks.

Vogel, like Foreman, mainly considers the nuclear family to be compatible with capitalist society and does not address the changes in the form of the family under capitalism. Barrett, however,  emphasizes the changes and transformations within the institution of the family in each system including capitalism.  She shows that capitalism can develop without the nuclear family and can adjust itself to newer and more advanced forms of the family including families based on same-sex couples.

II. The Decline and Return of Marxist Feminist Debates

Ultimately by the early 1980s, despite the variety of debates among Marxist feminist tendencies, Dual Systems Theory which was based on the separation of capitalist exploitation from patriarchal oppression, prevailed among socialist feminists.    The main reason for the domination of this view was the fact that sexism had not been uprooted and had remained persistent in countries that claimed to be socialist.    Socialist feminists could not explain why the abolition of the private property of the means of production, the creation of a planned economy and the socialization of child care which mainly constituted their definition of socialism had not led to the end of exploitation and oppression.

In the meantime, postmodern theories based on rejecting “grand narratives,”  rejecting the ideal of human emancipation,  rejecting the concept of subjectivity and instead solely focusing on the determinant role of language, culture, identity, power and local struggles,  became commonplace.  Theorists such as Michele Barrett who considered themselves Marxists in the 1970s, now turned to the views of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan.

Some Marxist feminists like Rosemary Hennessy from the materialist feminist school of thought, have argued that turning away from working out the relationship of Marxism to feminism was a result of the trend toward globalization which became evident in the 1980s.  Western industries moved to Asian and Southern Hemisphere countries in search of cheap labor.  As a result, she argues that in Western economically developed nations, the question of the extraction of surplus value from women was no longer concrete to Western feminist theorists.  Furthermore, a sector of feminist women in Western nations found new opportunities for advancement within the framework of the existing system and were successful in gaining high-ranking jobs which no longer made the question of battling capitalism a persistent need for them.  Hennessy emphasizes that on the one hand flexible capitalism and the increase in women’s value-producing labor in Asia, Latin America, Africa and among immigrant women and women of color in the West, and on the other hand the ever-increasing commodification of women’s bodies in society, make the need for dealing with the relationship of patriarchy and capitalism even more indispensable. (p. 8)

From the midst of the 1990s, with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, and specifically after the economic recession in 2008,  we have seen the return of Marxist feminist debates.  Martha Jimenez who belongs to the materialist feminist school,  writes the following in defense of theorizing the relationship of Marxism to feminism: “The notion that under capitalism the mode of production determines the mode of reproduction and, consequently, observable unequal relations between men and women, is not a form of ‘economism’ or ‘class reductionism,’ but the recognition of the complex network of macro-level effects, upon male-female relationships,  of a mode of production driven by capital accumulation rather than by the goal of satisfying people’s needs.  To argue otherwise, postulating the ‘mutual interaction’ between the organization of production and the organization of reproduction, or giving causal primacy to the latter,  is to overlook the theoretical significance of the overwhelming evidence documenting the capitalist subordination of reproduction to production.”(p. 18)

On the other hand,  Frigga Haug,  argues that what Marx called alienated labor which  we know as mechanized production,  has its roots in the sexual division of labor:  “For it was on this basis [gender-specific division of labor—tr] that a social formation developed in which only those things that proved more or less profitable were produced and that any work which could not be accommodated to this logic of time—and thus could not be rationalized, automated or accelerated, such as cherishing and nurturing nature or humankind—came to be neglected or left to women’s (unpaid) provision.”(p. 96)  It seems that Haug,  in adopting a position similar to that of Maria Mies,  concludes that the way to challenge the mechanization of work and the domination of the forces of the market,  is through a  return to  a subsistence economy  which is “incompatible with the logic of continually reduced expenditure of time.”(p. 97)

Now we have to ask how Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender and the Family stands out when placed in the context of this history of theorizing.   In what ways is it unique?  What new issues does it raise?  What questions does it answer?  In what ways is it similar to or different from other Marxist feminist theories?

III. The Unique Contributions of Brown’s Book

In her introduction,  Brown writes that feminist theorists have mostly “deal[t] with a specific aspect of Marx’s thought rather than taking into account the totality of Marx’s work…his relational theory gains its strength based upon its understanding of the interconnections between the whole and its parts.  It is therefore, important to look at Marx’s theory as a totality.” (p. 5)  She has also extensively cited and discussed the critiques and interpretations of feminist theorists.

In this introduction, we would like to take up four key issues in this work:  1.  Marx’s concept of nature:  Did Marx consider the sexual division of labor “natural?”  2.  The capitalist mode of production and the relationship of value production to the realm of reproduction,  including the family.  3.   Major differences between Marx and Engels on the origins of women’s oppression.  4.  The concept of women’s emancipation in Marx’s activities, journalism and his life.

  1. Marx’s Concept of Nature: Did Marx Consider the Sexual Division of Labor “Natural?”

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx writes:  “The immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is the relation of man to woman. In this natural species relationship, the human being’s relation to nature is directly his relation to human being, and his relation to human being is directly his relation to nature, to his own natural function.  Thus, in this relation is sensuously revealed, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which human nature has become nature for him.    From this relationship the human being’s whole level of development can be assessed.  It follows from the character of this relationship how far the human being has become, and has understood himself as, a species-being, a human being.”(Brown, p. 27) [Brown specifies where Marx uses the term Mensch (gender-neutral) instead of man.  We have used The term “human being” as the translation of the German Mensch to emphasize that Marx was referring to both men and women. tr.]

In this famous passage which was quoted by Simone de Beauvoir at the end of her Second Sex, Marx is not only saying that the relationship between men and women is the measure of how human a society has become.  He is also arguing that the measure of one’s humanity is the treatment of the other not as a mere means but as an end in itself.

In her commentary,  Brown has responded to some valid criticisms which consider the term  “natural” as problematic in this passage.  She argues that “the relation between men and women can be seen as ‘natural’ in a double sense.  First,  reproduction is necessary for the continuation of the species.  Second,  in order for people to exist as true species-beings, and live up to their full potential, women must be seen as equal to women.(p.30)

She also explains that in this passage, “Marx is indicating that the relationship between men and women reveals the general degree of alienation.  Marx’s definition of ‘natural,’ however, here and in the German Ideology, does not refer to a fixed biological essence.  Instead, it has at least two separate meanings in these texts.   First, it refers historically to the spontaneous, unconscious organization of society. Second, in other places, it refers to a future state in which humanity realises its true potential.”(p. 28)

Brown cites Marx and the interpretations of Marxist feminist theorist, Nancy Holmstrom, to show that for Marx there were only “historically specific forms of human nature.”(p. 23).  Therefore, what is considered “natural” changes under different historical circumstances.  (pp. 28-31)

In responding to feminists who accuse Marx of essentializing the sexual division of labor,  she returns to a famous passage in the German Ideology.  In this work,  Marx and Engels write:  “…there develops the division of labour, which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act,  then that division of labor which develops spontaneously or ‘naturally’ by virtue of  natural predisposition (e.g. physical strength), needs, accidents, etc. etc. Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. (The first form of ideologists, priests, is concurrent.) …the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity—enjoyment and labour, production and consumption—devolve on different individuals, and that the only possibility of their not coming into contradictions lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labour.”(pp. 51-52)

Some feminist theorists such as Maria Mies claim that the above passage reveals that Marx considers the sexual division of labor as “natural” and pays little attention to its oppressive character.  Brown argues that by “natural,”  Marx and Engels mean spontaneous or seemingly natural for that historical period.  In other words, “they point out that this division of labour based on gender is only ‘natural’ for very undeveloped productive relations, where women’s different biology would make it difficult for them to carry out certain physically-demanding tasks.”(p. 213, p. 219)

Brown also explains that the priority which The German Ideology gives to the mental and manual division of labor arises from the view that this type of division of labor “is the first exploitative social relation.  The division of labor only becomes oppressive when the worker loses control over the creative process,  which necessarily occurs with the division between mental and manual labour.”(p. 41)  That is why The German Ideology discerns the “nucleus” of class division in the “latent slavery” in the patriarchal family in which the patriarch controls the power to dispose of the labor-power of others. (pp. 52-53).

In addressing the critics who consider Marx an absolute rationalist who is insensitive to natural or biological limitations, Brown cites Marx’s texts to show that he saw a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature, did not ignore the limitations of the realm of needs and the human body, and did not see the goal as the domination of humans over nature.  At the same time, when in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx called his philosophy a “thoroughgoing naturalism or humanism” and a unity of idealism and materialism, he emphasized that the capacity of human beings for free and conscious activity is what distinguishes them from other animals.  (p. 26)

2. The Relationship Between the Capitalist Mode of Production and the Family.

A question that some dual systems theorists have raised about Marx is the following:  Why should the mode of production determine the mode of reproduction, and why should the mode of production be industrial production and not the production of children and domestic labor?

First, it has to be said that prior to the rise of capitalism, the mode of production included domestic labor because for most of the world’s population, the realm of subsistence was not separate from domestic labor.  It was only with the rise of capitalism and the development of manufacture and machinofacture that these two realms were separated.  Brown also states that Marx did consider domestic labor and the labor of raising children as valuable,  but was aware of the fact that this labor is not considered “productive” from a capitalist standpoint because it does not produce “value” and “surplus value.”

In his famous essay,  “Alienated Labor” (1844) Marx had discussed the specificity of the capitalist mode of production and had emphasized  that in this system,  the worker is not only alienated from the product of her labor but also from her activity, from other human beings and from her capacity for free and conscious activity.  At the end of this essay,  he had concluded that “all human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all the types of servitude are only modifications or consequences of this relation.”(p. 107)

Brown does not specifically address this formulation but writes the following about the general relationship of the capitalist mode of production and the family: “In our society, children are born, raised and educated in the context of a capitalist society, where they are expected to behave in certain ways once they enter the workforce. . . No real understanding of social relationships in the family involving human reproduction could be understood outside of their placement within the capitalist mode of production.”(p. 74).  She also argues that just as under capitalism, labor is merely a means for the self-valorization of value and not a creative and conscious activity, so in the realm of reproduction are human relations means for the self-valorization of value.”(p. 74)

At the same time, Brown emphasizes that Marx had a dialectical understanding of the effect of the capitalist mode of production on the institution of the family:  He wrote the following in Capital. :  “Large scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organized processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes.  It is of course just as absurd to regard the Christian-Germanic form of the family as absolute and final as it would have been in the case of the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek or the Oriental forms, which moreover form a series in historical development.  It is also obvious that the fact that the collective working group is composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages must under the appropriate conditions turn into a source of humane development, although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalist form, the system works in the opposite direction, and becomes a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery, since here the worker exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the worker.”(pp. 620-621)

Therefore Marx concludes that capitalism can create the basis for a higher form of the family and emphasizes that no form of the family is absolute.  In Brown’s words,  Marx “was one of the few scholars at the time to posit the historical nature of the family.” (p. 98)

3.  Major Differences Between Marx and Engels on the Origins of Women’s Oppression

Brown’s work is the first to offer a detailed exploration of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, from his last decade.  In the two chapters which she has dedicated to this subject, she also compares the content of Marx’s notebooks with Engels’s Origin of the Family, and examines some of the major differences that existed between these two thinkers.   Brown concludes that despite his immense efforts in theorizing and his tireless struggle to present Marx’s theories, Engels was a determinist and a unilinear evolutionist.  In contrast she argues, Marx examined phenomena in a dialectical manner, always analyzed the internal contradictions of each phenomenon or historical period and had a multilinear view of human development throughout history.

Engels followed the views of Louis Morgan, U.S. anthropologist and author of Ancient Society who thought that all societies pass through three stages of  development :  savagery, barbarism and civilization.  Engels considered primitive communal societies from the stage of savagery to be completely egalitarian and without contradiction.  He considered private property in agricultural production during the second half of barbarism as the origin of class society and of women’s oppression.

Brown shows that Marx showed much interest in examining the egalitarian aspects of primitive communal societies such as the Iroquois of North America and Morgan’s discovery of the matrilineal character of these societies, because these facts negated presuppositions concerning the “natural” and eternal character of patriarchy and the patriarchal family.  For example, a passage from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks states:  “Paternal authority ‘[was] impossible’ in the consanguine and punaluan families;’ [I]t began to appear as a feeble influence in the syndyasmian family, and [it became] fully established under monogamy’ while it ‘[passed] beyond <all> bounds of reason’ in the patriarchal family of the Roman type.” (pp. 157-158)

However, Marx also examined the internal contradictions of these societies:  war, the capture of women and men, the creation of ranks within the gentes.  For example, Brown cites passages from the Ethnological Notebooks in which Marx points out the limitations of women’s decision-making rights,  their subordinate position vis-a-vis the chief,  or the fact that despite being in charge of the household and the food supply,  and despite having the right to divorce her husband,  a woman would be severely punished if she slept with a man other than her husband:  “ ‘<the husbands demanded > chastity of the wives under severe penalties [which the husband might inflict], but [he did not admit the] reciprocal obligation…polygamy [was] universally recognized as the right of males, [although the] practice was limited from inability to support the indulgence.”(p. 160)  Brown adds:  “Even among the relatively egalitarian communal society of the Iroquois, women’s sexuality was still controlled by men who did not have to adhere to the same standard.”(p. 160).

Marx had discerned class contradictions in embryo within the ranks of primitive communal societies and before private property was established.   This view is compatible with the formulation in The German Ideology concerning the mental/manual division of labor as the foundation for class contradictions.  Unlike Engels, Marx did not think that the communist society of the future would be a version of primitive communism with the addition of technology.  He had a much deeper vision of the transformations needed for creating a communist society and also did not limit the vision of the future to communism.

Furthermore, Brown emphasizes that Marx unlike Engels, did not equate the rise of private property, monogamy and the patriarchal family with the “world historical defeat of the female sex,” but “viewed women as potential subjects in all periods of history.”(p. 158)   For example he singled out the higher status of Irish women before British colonialism or revealed that instances of women’s property rights in India were remnants of a matrilineal past.  He severely criticized scholars such as Ludwig Lange and Henry Sumner Maine because they assumed that the family had always been patriarchal.  On the contrary,  he thought that the ideology of women’s inferiority had been a socially constructed phenomenon.

4.  The concept of Women’s Emancipation in Marx’s Activities, Journalism and His Personal Life

 By revealing interesting facts about Marx’s political writings and his life, Brown shows that his defense of women’s rights was not limited to working women but included middle class and upper class women as well.   For example she examines the details of Marx’s essay “On Suicide” (1846) which was written on the basis of a report by Jacques Peuchet,  a retired French police administrator.  In this article, Marx calls attention to the plight of women who commit suicide in face of rape, incest, lack of access to abortion, family violence and parental authority.  Brown emphasizes that this article reveals Marx’s attention to alienation and the oppression experienced by women in middle class and upper class families as well.  She writes:  “Within this essay/translation, Marx addresses the topic of alienation in a more concrete way than in the 1844 Manuscripts…Again and again, Marx emphasizes the social element involved in suicide.  Suicide for Marx is not just an individual act of desperation.   As with all other aspects of society, the causes of suicide cannot be separated from social conditions.”(pp. 45-57)

In 1858 when Marx was the European correspondent for the reputable and widely read newspaper New York Daily Tribune, he devoted two articles to defending Lady Bulwer-Lytton.  Bulwer-Lytton was an aristocratic woman who had been accused of insanity and institutionalized by her husband Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a famous writer and politician and by her son.   Brown points out that Marx’s defense of Lady Bulwer-Lytton’s sanity and his call for her immediate release also expressed a powerful critique of the way in which the charge of insanity was used to control the behavior of individuals, and strongly attacked the “treatment” methods used by asylums.

Brown singles out Marx’s role in encouraging women’s equal participation in the leadership of the International Workingmen’s Association.  For example,  in 1871 at the time of the Paris Commune,  he asked  Elizabeth (Tomanovskaya) Dmitrieff , a young Russian woman intellectual who had been sent to London as a representative of Russian revolutionaries to go to Paris as a representative of the International Workingmen’s Association and to establish a women’s chapter of the organization there.    The Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded subsequently played a very important role in defending women’s rights.

Brown contrasts these acts of Marx to the views of Pierre Proudhon, the famous French socialist who considered women essentially base and inferior, and whose ideas represented the views of the majority of French socialists and the majority of the male leadership of the Paris Commune.

Brown’s only discussion of Marx’s treatment of women outside the framework of his writings and political activities, concerns Marx’s friendship with a German physician named Ludwig Kugelmann and his wife.  Although Marx had corresponded with Kugelmann about his economic works and the possibility of revolution in Germany,  he broke off his ties with him after a trip in which he witnessed Kugelmann’s humiliation of his wife, a woman that  Marx thought was “his superior in every respect.”(p. 116).

Brown does not discuss Marx’s relationship with his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, his daughters Jenny, Laura, Eleanor,  and Helene Demuth who was a member of the Marx household for 40 years.  For a comprehensive and objective view of the relationships between the members of the Marx family, readers can consult Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital:  Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (2011).    Gabriel who has examined thousands of pages of heretofore unpublished correspondence between members of the Marx family until the end of their lives, documents the deep intellectual and loving relationship between Marx, his wife and his daughters.  Gabriel also admits that Marx’s sexual relationship with Helene Demuth, the circumstances and duration of which are not clear, did lead to the birth of a child named Frederick Demuth who was raised by another family in London.  By documenting the relationships between the  members of the Marx family, their commitment to Marx’s work and the multiple tragedies which they endured, Gabriel depicts the virtues and limitations of these characters and reveals Marx’s personality defects.

IV.  The Similarities and Differences Between the Views of Brown and Other Marxist Feminists

Brown’s aim in this study has been to create a new basis for Marxist feminism with the aid of a comprehensive view of Marx’s writings as a whole.  Has she been able to open new doors for us by re-examining the whole of Marx’s work in relationship to the category of sexuality and the family?

As we said earlier, different tendencies have existed and continue to exist within Marxist feminism.  These tendencies have focused on specific conceptual frameworks such as the relationship of the capitalist mode of production to women’s domestic labor, or the relationship of the “ideology of familialism” to women’s oppression, or the relationship of the mode of production to alienation.  They have also offered mainly uncritical views concerning Engels’s Origin of the Family.

It seems that Brown’s understanding of the capitalist mode of production is different from thinkers such as Vogel, Barrett and Jimenez.  Unlike Vogel, she emphasizes that Marx does not define capitalist production relations simply in terms of the mode of distribution of surplus production, but considers abstract labor to be capitalism’s main feature.  In other words, in her view, the capitalist mode of production is based on abstract labor which creates value,  and not simply based on the sale of labor power as a commodity in the market.   However, Brown agrees with Jimenez in thinking that the capitalist production of value has a logic of its own which turns human relations including familial and love relationships into a means for the self-valorization of value.

Unlike Michele Barrett who considers the origin of women’s oppression to be an “ideology of familialism” without a material base, Brown has been inspired by Raya Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks which traces the origins of women’s oppression to the mental/manual division of labor inherent in the hierarchy within primitive communal societies, prior to the rise of the private ownershp of the means of production and the patriarchal family.

Brown does not consider domestic labor as the basis for theorizing the relationship of  capitalism to  the specific oppression that women experience as women.  Does she agree with Michele Barrett in emphasizing that domestic labor and child-rearing under capitalism can become socialized?  Brown has not specifically answered this question.  However, based on her understanding of Marx, one can conclude that the socialization of domestic labor and  of child-rearing does not necessarily abolish abstract labor which is the basis for  the logic of capital as a logic of the self-valorization of value and commodification of all human relations.

In her conclusion, Brown writes: “Is there the possibility of a Marxist feminism that does not lapse into economic determinism or privilege class over gender in analyzing contemporary capitalist society?”(p. 218)  This sentence and a few similar sentences have been attacked by some critics of this work.  It seems that what Brown means by “economic determinism” and “class” is the reduction of the origins of oppression to property relations and the relations of distribution of wealth.

In discussing Marx’s early writings, it becomes clear that for him, the division of mental and manual or mental and material labor is the foundation of oppression and exploitation.  In other words, so long as human activity is not done consciously and freely, “the human being’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him.” (German Ideology, p. 53).   Furthermore, when Marx refers to the “latent slavery [of wife and children] in the family” and calls the family “the nucleus, the first form” of property (p.52), he emphasizes that the basis of ownership and slavery of women in the family is the mental/manual division of labor or the way in which human beings are deprived of the ability to develop all their theoretical and practical talents.  Considering that for Marx, the mental/manual division of labor is the starting point for the formation of classes, we can say that he considered the class division of labor to be the basis of gender oppression.

Ultimately Brown concludes that Marx’s concept of human emancipation was much deeper than an updated version of the egalitarianism of primitive societies or the twentieth century Communism which she equates with state capitalism.   Instead, she defines Marx’s vision on the basis of the dialectical view that he had gained from Hegel’s philosophy: “dynamic and based on social relationships rather than static ahistorical formulations.”(p.219)   He was able to discern dualities within phenomena,  identified resisting human subjects and conceptualized  pathways for transcending internal contradictions through acquiring a comprehensive grasp of the process of development of each historical phenomenon.  This is why Brown thinks that Marx’s philosophy can open new paths for feminists.

In conclusion we would like to thank Ms. Azar Akandekuhi, the editor of this translation whose beautiful prose made for a clearer text.  Dr. Kamal Khosravi in Germany translated a key paragraph and a key sentence from the German Ideology and sent us useful explanations.  In translating the quotations from Karl Marx’s works,  we also benefited from Hassan Mortazavi’s translations.    Dariush Ashouri’s Dictionary of the Humanities has been inspirational for us.  Kamran Afary has in many cases suggested appropriate translation equivalents and has offered us important and valuable criticisms.  Farah Ghadernia assisted us in entering some of the final corrections, helped resolve  some word processing problems and asked good questions.

We hope that readers will be inspired by this book to further the discussions concerning the relationship between Marxism and feminism.

Frieda Afary and Farzaneh Raji

February 2016


Afary, Janet.  Sexual Politics in Modern Iran.  Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Afary, Janet and Kevin Anderson.  Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.  University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Anderson, Kevin A.  Marx at the Margins.  University of Chicago Press,  2010.

Anderson, Kristin J.  Modern Misogyny:  Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

Anonymous.  “Manhood:  Men Adrift” in The Economist. May 30, 2015

آفاری، فریدا. “مناقشه ی ایرانیان در باب نقدهای نانسی فریزر و زنان رنگین پوست بر فمینیسم.”  سایت ارغوان. فروردین 1393


آفاری، فریدا.  “درک مارکس از بدیل سرمایه داری”  سایت نقد اقتصاد سیاسی.  بهمن ماه 1392.

درک مارکس از بدیل سرمایه‌داری / فریدا آفاری

عباسقلی زاده، محبوبه.  “جنبش زنان در دهه شصت:  محافل زنان چپ گرا”

Arruza, Cinzia.  Dangerous Liaisons:  The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism. Translated by Marie Lagatta and Dave Kelly.  London:  Merlin Press, 2013.

Benhabib Seyla and Crucilla Cornell. Eds.  Feminism as Critique.  University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Barrett,  Michele.  Women’s Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter.  Verso: 2014(1980).

Brown, Heather.  Marx on Gendar and the Family:  A Critical Study.  Haymarket Books, 2013.

Diamond, Irene and Lee Quinby.  Feminism and Foucault:  Reflections on Resistance. Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.  Humanities Press, 1982.

Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution:  Reaching for the Future.  Humanities Press, 1985.

Engels, Friedrich.  Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.  Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977 [1884]

Foreman, Ann.  Feminity as Alienation:  Women and the Family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis.  Pluto Press, 1977.

Foroohar, Rana.  “The Truth About Men, Women and Work” Time Magazine.  May 21, 2012, p. 22.)


Fraser, Nancy.  “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden and How to Reclaim It.”   Guardian.  October 13, 2013.

Fraser, Nancy.  “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History.”  New Left Review. March-April 2009.

نانسی فریز،  “فمینیسم، سرمایه داری و مکر تاریخ.”  ترجمه فرزانه راجی.  سایت زمانه.  اول مرداد 1394.

Fromme, Erich.  Marx’s Concept of Man. Continuum, 1961.

Gabriel, Mary.  Love and Capital:  Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

German, Lindsay. “Review of Marx on Gender and the Family.”  Counterfire.  July 12, 2013.

Gimenez, Martha E.  “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women:  Marx Revisited.”  Science & Society.  Jan. 2005. pp.  11-32

Haug, Frigga.  “The Marx Within Feminism” in Marxism and Feminsim.  Shahrzad Mojab, ed.  Zed Press, 2015.

Hennessy, Rosemary and Chrys Ingraham, editors.  Materialist Feminism.  Routledge, 1997.

Holmstrom, Nancy.  “A Marxist Theory of Women’s Nature.”   Ethics, 94:3,  1984.

Hudis, Peter,  Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.  Haymarket Books, 2013.

هیودیس،  پیتر.  درک مارکس از بدیل سرمایه داری. ترجمه ی حسن مرتضوی و فریدا آفاری.

تهران: نشر روزبهان، 1394

Jaggar, Allison.  Feminist Politics and Human Nature.  Rowman and Littlefied, 1983.

Kant, Immaneul.  Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.  Translated and Analysed by H.J. Paton.  Harper Torchbooks, 1948.

Krader, Lawrence.  Ed.  The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx.  Van Gorcum, 1974.

Lerner, Gerda.  The Creation of Patriarchy.  Oxford University Press, 1986.

Marx, Karl.  Capital, Volume One.  New York:  Penguin, 1976.

Marx, Karl.  The German Ideology.  Edited with an introduction by C.J. Arthur.  International Publishers, 1981.


مارکس، کارل.  سرمایه:  نقدی بر اقتصاد سیاسی. جلد یکم.   ترجمه حسن مرتضوی.  تهران: نشر آگاه،1386

مارکس، کارل.  دستنوشته های اقتصادی و فلسفی 1844.  ترجمه حسن مرتضوی. تهران:  نشر آگاه،   1378

مارکس، کارل و فردریک انگلس.  مانیفست کمونیست.  در لئو پانیچ و لیز کالین، مانیفست پس از 150 سال.  ترجمه  ی حسن مرتضوی و محمود عبادیان.   نشر آگاه.  1379

Mitchell, Eve.  “I Am a Woman and a Human:  A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.”  Sept. 12, 2013

Moghissi, Haideh.  Populism and Feminism in Iran.  St. Martin’s Press, 1994.


McGregor, Sheila. “Marx Rediscovered:  A Review of Heather A Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family.” International Socialism.  Issue 146.  April 11, 2015.

Mojab, Shahrzad.  Editor.  Marxism and Feminsim.  Zed Press, 2015.

Mies, Maria.  Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale.  Zed Books 1988[1986].

راجی، فرزانه.  دل انار.  انتشارات خاوران.  1392

راجی، فرزانه.  دیدار در دوزخ.  انتشارات خاوران. 1393

 روشنایی، نسیم.  مترجم.  فمینیسم و مارکسیسم.  2010

صادقی، فاطمه.  “ازدواج و خانواده:  سراشیبی در زندگی ایرانیان”  تارنمای رادیو زمانه،  11 خرداد 1394.

Sargent, Lydia.  Ed.  Women and Revolution:  A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism.  South End Press, 1981.

Secombe, Wally.  “The Housewife and Her Labor Under Capitalism.”  New Left Review. January-February 1974.

Vogel, Lise.  Marxism and the Oppression of Women:  Toward a Unitary Theory.  Rutgers University Press, 2014 [1983].


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *