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Full Marx What do Marxists think … about housework?

Socialists have advanced a number of ideas about work conducted in the home, most of which is done by women. The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explores some of these theories

IT’S a fair bet that some Marxists don’t think about it at all, and some that do, don’t think it’s a matter for serious discussion. But it is!

Marx himself saw housework as an unfortunate necessity, famously declaring that it was “petty, stultifying and degrading.” As a guess he didn’t do too much of it.  

Engels argued that in the earliest societies, sexual divisions of labour were not inherently oppressive.  

The oppression of women emerged with the appearance of the nuclear family at the same time as private property and class society.

It was amplified within capitalism by the development of waged labour.  

Engels declared: “The same cause which had ensured to the woman her previous supremacy in the house — that her activity was confined to domestic labour — this same cause now ensured the man's supremacy in the house: the domestic labour of the woman no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra […] therein lies the great historical defeat of the female sex.”

Engels’s analysis was taken up by other Marxists, including the Irish socialist republican James Connolly who argued that if the (male) worker was the slave of capitalist society then the female worker and home-maker was doubly exploited; “the slave of the slave.”  

Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) began to elaborate a revolutionary vision for women, based on a code of equality and “a withering away of the family.” 

They saw the traditional family as an agent of oppression under capitalism: “Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of the woman a burden which crushes her: it has made her a wage worker without having lessened her cares as a housekeeper and mother.”  

Early Soviet propaganda posters show women being “rescued” from the drudgery of housework by their comrade (female) workers in industry, agriculture or the armed forces.  

By contrast, in Britain after the first world war, marriage bars in many professions — including teaching and the public sector — forced women back to the home to make way for demobbed men.  

Advertisements reinforced the message that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. A similar process happened after the second world war. 

From the 1970s the “Wages for Housework” movement sometimes used Marxist language to call for economic compensation for domestic labour and childcare on the grounds that it underpinned all capitalist exploitation of paid work.  

Domestic labour, it was argued, is an essential and unavoidable adjunct to wage labour and therefore contributes to the value generated by the latter. Consequently it should be paid.

The difficulty here is that the home-maker does not “sell” her labour power on any market or directly create surplus value, however vital the work undertaken.  

Moreover the demand for wages for housework also further monetises and commodifies basic tasks of domestic and bodily maintenance, bringing them formally into the realm of capitalist exchange relations.  

Many feminists countered demands for waging domestic work by pointing out that it represents the abandonment by both sexes of their share of cleaning and childcare, and worse, that it strengthens the attempts of advertisers and the media to persuade women that their destiny is domesticity.  

“Paying women for child-, house-, and husband-care simply reinforces the very traditions and prejudices that keep women in the home,” wrote Lisa Tuttle in The Encyclopaedia of Feminism.

Worse still, it undermines campaigns for social provision of childcare and other public facilities which would allow women — and men — to participate fully in economic and social life.  

The US communist activist Angela Davis argues against the definition of housework “in such a way as to establish women as a special class of workers exploited by capitalism called ‘housewives’.”  

She declares: “While most women would joyously hail the advent of the ‘househusband,’ the desexualisation of domestic labour would not really alter the oppressive nature of the work itself. In the final analysis, neither women nor men should waste precious hours of their lives on work that is neither stimulating nor productive.”  

Davis continues: “[T]he socialisation of housework — including meal preparation and childcare — presupposes an end to the profit-motive’s reign over the economy. The only significant steps toward ending domestic slavery have in fact been taken in the existing socialist countries. Working women, therefore, have a special and vital interest in the struggle for socialism.”

Other socialists, however, would argue that housework is not inherently degrading, and is a legitimate — even enjoyable — activity in its own right.  

The debates go back some time.  

A hugely influential socialist science fiction utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from the Year 2000, published in 1888, prefigured Davis’s vision of the future.  

Its hero falls asleep and wakes up in Boston, Massachusetts, over a century later to find a totally changed world. A socialist United States (if only!) has collectivised most domestic activities (people eat in public kitchens), shopping involves remote selection of goods (this is almost a century before the internet) which are delivered almost instantaneously.  

Manufacturing has been automated and what little menial work (like housework) remains is performed by a well-paid “industrial army” of workers working reduced hours.

But the communist artist, designer, entrepreneur and writer William Morris found Bellamy’s vision so appalling that he produced his own utopia.  

In his News from Nowhere (1890) a socialist Britain has abolished wage slavery, money — and marriage. But domestic work remains, is valued (as are other skilled crafts) and is done, freely — by women:

“The women do what they can do best, and what they like best” — including waiting on men at meals!  

The nature of housework has changed over time, reflecting technical and social trends in society at large.  

Many functions previously the province of the home (such as making candles or bread) have been removed from the domestic sphere while at the same time some chores (such as laundry) which had previously been at least partly socialised have been brought back into the home.  

These are fertile areas for analysis to which the views of earlier Marxists form an interesting historical backcloth.

Most Marxists today — men and women — would probably challenge both Bellamy’s and Morris’s analyses of housework.  

Morris’s vision is echoed today in some pseudoscientific analyses of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that domestic work is programmed into women’s genes from their ancestral past.  

And logically, Bellamy’s view of domestic work as intrinsically menial is not too distant from the parallel argument prevalent among many higher-earning professionals (even among some socialist activists) that they are too busy to do housework and/or that their high pay permits or necessitates virtuously passing some of it on to others to do the dirty work.  

None of these arguments “wash” particularly well.

Perhaps the most prevalent view among Marxists today is that everyone who is capable of doing so should clear up their own mess — that individually, or collectively with other household members, everyone should undertake a “fair share” of domestic work. 



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