WHAT THE WOMEN OWE TO KARL MARX
Clara Zetkin 1903
… Marx never dealt with the women’s question “per se” or “as such.” Yet he created the most irreplaceable and important weapons for the women’s fight to obtain all of their rights. His materialist concept of history has not supplied us with any read-made formulas concerning the women’s question, yet it has done something much more important: it has given us the correct, unerring method to explore and comprehend that question. It was only the materialist concept of history which enabled us to understand the women’s question within the flux of universal historical development and the light of universally applicable social relationships and their historical necessity and justification. Only thus did we perceive its driving forces and the aims pursued by them as well as the conditions which are essential to a solution of these problems.
The old superstition that the position of women in the family and in society was forever unchangeable because it was created on moral precepts or by divine revelation was smashed. Marx revealed that the family, like all other institutions and forms of existence, is subjected to a constant process of ebb and flow which changes with the economic conditions and the property relationships which result from them. It is the development of the productive forces of the economy which push this transformation by changing the mode of production and by coming into conflict with the prevailing economic and property system. On the basis of the revolutionized economic conditions, human thought is revolutionized and it becomes the endeavor of people to adjust their societal superstructure to the changes that have taken place in the economic substructure. Petrified forms of property and personal relationships must then be removed. These changes are wrought by means of the class struggle.
We know from Engel’s foreword to his illuminating study, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, that the theories and viewpoints developed in this book are derived in good measure from Marx’s unpublished work, which his incomparably loyal and brilliant friend watched over as a testamentary executor.
Whatever parts of it can be (and ought to be) dismissed as hypotheses, one thing is for sure: Taken as a whole, this work contains a dazzling number of clear theoretical insights into the complex conditions that gave rise to the present forms of the family and marriage and the influence of economic and property relationships which are connected with it. It teaches us not merely to judge correctly the position of women in the past, but it enables us to comprehend the social, legal and constitutional positions of the female sex today.
Das Kapital shows most convincingly that there are incessant and irresistible historical forces at work in today’s society which are revolutionizing this situation from the bottom up and will bring about the equality of women. By masterfully examining the development and nature of capitalist production down to the most refined details, and by discovering its law of motion, i.e. the Theory of Surplus Value, he has conclusively proven in his discussions of woman and child labor that capitalism has destroyed the basis for the ancient domestic activity of women, thereby dissolving the anachronistic form of the family. This has made women economically independent outside of the family and created a firm ground for their equality as wives, mothers and citizens. But something else is clearly illustrated by Marx’s works: The proletariat is the only revolutionary class which by establishing Socialism, is able to and must create the indispensable prerequisite for the complete solution of the women’s question. Besides the fact that the bourgeois suffragettes neither want nor are able to achieve the social liberation of women proletarians, they are incapable of solving the serious new conflicts which will be fought over the social and legal equality of the sexes within the capitalist order. These conflicts will not vanish until the exploitation of man by man and the contradictions arising therefrom are abolished.
Marx and Engels’ common work The Communist Manifesto concisely summarizes what Das Kapital teaches us in scholarly fashion about the disintegration of the family and its causes:
The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labor, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labor of men superceded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use according to their age and sex …
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation …
In the conditions of the proletariat, those of old society at large are already virtually swamped. The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations …
On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based?
On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…
The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting as by the action of modern industry all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor...
Marx, however, does not only show us that historical development demolishes, but he also fills us with the victorious conviction that it constructs a newer, better, more perfect world.
Das Kapital states:
As horrendous and disgusting as the disintegration of the old family system within capitalism appears to be, modern industry, by involving women and young people of both sexes in the socially organized production process outside of the domestic sphere, has, nevertheless, created the economic basis for a higher form of the family and the relationship between the two sexes.
Proud and with superior scorn, Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto counter the dirty suspicions cast upon this future ideal by this merciless characterization of present conditions:
The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.
He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.
For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.
Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of the common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.
Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution, for what is hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.
The women’s movement, however, owes much more to Marx than just the fact that he, as no other person before him, shed bright light upon the painful path of the development that leads the female sex from social servitude to freedom and from atrophy to a strong, harmonious existence. By his profound, penetrating analysis of the class contradictions in today’s society and its roots, he opened up our eyes to the different classes. In the atmosphere of the materialist concept of history, the “love drivel” about a “sisterhood” which supposedly wraps a unifying ribbon around bourgeois ladies and female proletarians, burst like so many scintillating soap bubbles. Marx has forged and taught us to use the sword which has severed the connection between the proletarian and the bourgeois women’s movement. But he has also forged the chain of discernment by which the former is inextricably tied to the Socialist labor movement and the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. Thus he has given our struggle the clarity, grandeur and sublimity of its final goal.
Das Kapital is filled with an immeasurable wealth of facts, perceptions and stimuli concerning women’s work, the situation of the female workers and the legal protection of women. It is an inexhaustible spiritual armory for the struggle of our immediate demands as well as the exalted future Socialist goal. Marx teaches us to recognize the small, everyday tasks which are so necessary in raising the fighting ability of the female proletarians. At the same time, he lifts us up to the firm, farseeing recognition of the great revolutionary struggle by the proletariat to conquer political power without the attainment of which, a Socialist society and the liberation of the female sex will remain empty dreams. Above all, he fills us with the conviction that it is this exalted aim that lends value and significance to our daily work. Thus he saves us from losing sight of the great fundamental meaning of our movement when we are beset by a plethora of individual phenomena, tasks and successes and toil, to view the wide historical horizon which reflects the dawn of a new age. Just as he is the master of revolutionary thought, so he remains the leader of the revolutionary struggle in whose battles it is the duty and the glory of the proletarian women’s movement to fight.