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First published in 1983, Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women – toward a unitary theory is regarded as one of the founding texts of Marxist Feminism. It has now been relaunched, and Pod Academy was at the relaunch.
Tithi Battacharya said she had first read the book in the early 1990s, when ‘Marxism was not common parlance in academia’, and she kept going back to it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a book that was explanatory rather than descriptive. To her, Lise Vogel’s book was one of the clearest explanatory texts to speak of the relationship between the capitalist system as a whole and the oppression of women.
Secondly, Battacharya said the word ‘unitary’ had resonance for her – it countered the growing view at the time that patriarchy was a system of oppression that was independent of capitalism – the view that there was capitalism, and then there was racism and sexism etc. Vogel’s book uses the word ‘unitary’ to reject this notion of autonomous tracks of social relations, Vogel asserts that capitalism is a unitary system and we need to explain it. She also suggested that ‘unitary’ was a fantastic word to use in an age of the celebration of ‘the fragment’, ‘the cult of the particular’ [see also our podcast on Beyond the Fragments here]. In that age the book brought thinking back to a unitary way of thinking.
Tithi Battacharya said that Lise Vogel restored to prominence the role of the family within the system as a whole. The book explored why the family is a source of oppression within its role in capitalism. It theorised the role of the family in capitalism, at the level of production, rather than simply at the level of exchange. Vogel, she said, takes some of Marx’s insights in Capital, and builds on them, exploring the gaps and silences. She looks at what labour power is, how it is regenerated, and what it means to labour under capitalism.
Thirdly, in Tithi Battacharya’s view, this thinking is of strategic importance because it looked outside the workplace. This is particularly important, she said, now that 40 years of neoliberalism has denuded the labour movement. She suggests we will see much struggle starting outside the workplace (such as that in Ferguson), and to misunderstand these struggles as not class struggle would be a strategic error for this generation of the left.
Next up was Kate Davison who started by saying she had felt star struck when she realised who else would be on the panel, ‘But’, she added to laughter, ‘I dealt with it!’ Quoting Sue Ferguson, she described the ideas put forward by Lise Vogel as ‘The path not taken’, and said that had they known, in the 1980s, about Vogel’s work, feminists might have avoided ‘much blood letting’. At that time, she said, if you had been able to stick with the label ‘socialist feminist’ and brave the attacks from adherents of identity politics, you nevertheless often developed distrust of Leninism and by extension of Marxism altogether. A small group turned towards socialism or anti-capitalist politics at the end of the 1990s, and undertook a re-evalutation of identity politics, eventually abandoning it in favour of the uniting power of the working class or the anti capitalist movement. Kate said that she herself has dropped the ‘feminist’ from Marxist-Feminist when describing herself.
She went on to say that the book is being re-published at a time of the re-emergence of struggles around sexual and gender based violence (eg the Slut Walks), sexism etc. But many activists and revolutionary Marxists, she said, have little knowledge or understanding of these debates. While some of the issues have come up around gay and lesbian issues (eg the campaign for equal marriage rights), the absence of campaigns around women’s oppression have meant there has been little opportunity to develop the ideas in practice or to tie them into a broader analysis of capitalism, economy and politics. Some activists may have read Lindsey German’s book Sex, Class and Socialism which stands the test of time, she said, as a descriptive account of women’s oppression, but they are less likely to have had the opportunity for theoretical analysis afforded by Lise Vogel’s book. And many of the issues in the book, after a long period of hibernation, are now back on the agenda – privilege theory, identity, women’s only organising, the notion of ‘safe space’, patriarchy theory, as well as the precise nature and origins of sexist thinking.
If the theoretical blade on issues of women’s oppression has become dulled to a suprising if not alarming extent, then Vogel’s book can act as a theoretical primer par excellence. Had ‘my generation’, she said, read just the first few chapters, we would have realised that many key questions had been debated and analysed at length, and we might have started with a deeper understanding, and avoided the mistakes of liberalism that manifested itself in identity politics and post modernism.
She identified two of the most important contributions of the book. Firstly how Vogel points to Lenin’s anticipation of a unitary approach to women’s oppression, and secondly the way Vogel rejects the reductionism of intersectionality theory (which, she said, describes but cannot explain how women’s oppression arises) and instead offers an historical materialist method which insist on the totality of the system and on class as the unifying category.
Sue Ferguson then spoke of the historical and theoretical significance of the book, and said that Lise had provided the theoretical tools to think through issues that still need to be worked on, ‘[Lise Vogel] re-oriented the discussion and set us up for a point of departure, a truly historical materialist explanation of women’s oppression under capitalism.’
Historically, she said, when Vogel was working in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an impasse in feminist discussion. The debate was framed as, ‘what causes women’s oppression – is it capitalism or is it patriarchy, and what is the nature of the interconnection between them?’ But, she said, feminists floundered because the answers are by default reductionist or dualistic trans-historical answers – it was the wrong question. A more historical materialist approach does not search for ’causes’, rather it looks for the relationship between aspects of the social whole (which is not finite, but rather historical, ongoing, moving), trying to explore what we all share in a capitalist world, and to do that, theory is important. Historical materialists should be connecting theory and history all the time, constantly moving between the two. That is what the historical materialist method is all about.
In the book, Vogel was asking how do women’s oppression and capitalist economic relations relate to each other – as part of the capitalist social whole. According to Ferguson, this question was and remains important because capitalism is spoken of as an equalising system – as a purely economic system, distinct from the social world. Vogel, she said, explains the conditions under which women’s oppression is made possible under capitalism, how it is part and parcel of capitalism. Crucially, capitalism requires human labour power, but doesn’t produce it. It has no internal mechanism for producing the very thing on which it is based.
So capitalism is not an economic system unto itself, it is a social system. Labour power is produced external to the direct labour/capital relationship in a socially determined process. Marx talks of slavery, enclosures and immigration, as well as households. What Vogel does is focus on the households, as a central and important part of this – not because households are the sites of men’s appropriation of women’s labour or capitalist appropriation of women’s labour, but because they are a crucial, and near universal, mechanism of ensuring the daily and generational renewal of labour power. They therefore open up to regulation, the internal practices and processes of the household.
Women, for biological and historical reasons, said Ferguson, a unique relationship to household labour – there is considerable autonomy to the form this takes because of the internal/external aspects of the labour/capital relationship, and because households are never simply about reproducing labour power for capital. But it is not limitlessly flexible because households are a condition of capitalist proecution and capitalism favours privatised and cheap labour renewal – which is why the state steps in (eg in 19th century to remove women and children from the workforce because the family was disintigrating and today it facilitates the reproduction of cheap labour via migrant domestics to do paid reproductive labour)
Finally Lise Vogel spoke. She reminded people that the book was first published in 1983 – but nothing happened. “I put the ideas out there,” she said, “some of which I was unsure about , I felt I was writing in isolation……It is amazing now to hear something I waited 30 years for.”
There is always dominant ideology, she pointed out, those who control communication and space, control the narrative in their own favour, so, she said, historical materialists and revolutionaries should always be looking for an alternative. “There must always be some people who think a different way.”
Vogel was a ‘red diaper baby’, a child of the left who had been active in the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 70s. She described those times as times of ferment, with social movements around the world raising questions of justice and liberation. She told how she participated in Marxist study groups (more difficult then with fewer translations of Marx available), and how they became concerned to situate what the left called ‘the woman question’ within a Marxist theoretical framework.
This effort to conceptualise women’s position within capitalism came to be called ‘the domestic labour debate’. It came down to a debate between two systems, capitalism and patriarchy (a term coined around 1970 in Britain). The analysis (often called intersectionality) in which patriarchy, race, sexuality and ethnicity ‘intertwined in a matrix of domination’ is popular, says Vogel, because it seems to include everything in an accessible and nuanced way But she does not think it is right, rather, she sees it as a metaphor. She preferred to find ways of analysing women’s ooppression within the categories of Marxism, the unitary/social reproductive perspective where the dominant perspectives are labour power and the reproduction of labour power, what she calls ‘the social reproduction perspective’.
She was glad that people now see social reproduction as a fruitful and persuasive starting point for analysis, but she is not optimitistic about the future. ‘”We are in a new historical moment”, she said, “when I went down South the enemy was clear- segregation, now things are very mushy.” Although, she conceded, scholars and revolutionaries have many more Marxist texts and more knowledge available,- smart professors, translations – the lack of even an illusion of being part of a world movement is, she said, very hard and she felt very pessimistic.
Photo: Housework by Pascal
This is the third in our series of podcasts on Marxism in the 21st Century, made possible by a grant from the Amiel Melburn Foundation. Other podcasts in the series: