Full Marx Library series

The liberation of women must be at the heart of the struggle for socialism, argues the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY.

THE existence in all known societies of a sexual division of labour has led some to claim that inequality is “natural,” inevitable, due to innate differences in mental make-up or to biology, including women’s vulnerability during pregnancy and the demands of child-rearing.

Others have assumed that, at some point in pre-history, men acquired power over women due to males’ greater strength and/or aggression, including intimidation and rape.

Some maintain that there are two motors to history — the class struggle and an ongoing struggle between the sexes.

They assert that gender — or at least man to woman — relationships were forged in our ancestral past or that they are fixed in our genes.

This ignores the fact that gender relationships have varied over time and they continue to do so between places and cultures.

For Marxists, the roots of oppression are to be sought not in biological “givens” but in the dual processes of production of the means of subsistence — food, clothing, shelter and tools — and reproduction of individuals and social systems.

As Mary Davis says in her book Women and Class, women’s oppression is “a problem of history not of biology.”

Unlike liberal economists, Marxists explore the primary role of internal contradictions within the capitalist economy. The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains why.

SAMANTHA and David Cameron (remember him?) have a sign in their country home which reads: “Calm down dear, it’s only a recession.”

For them, economic crisis is a joke — they’re insulated from the realities of austerity, which their party, and the capitalist interests that they represent, says is an inevitable and necessary requirement to regenerate the economy “in the interests of everyone.”

But the sad joke also hides an implicit acknowledgement that crises are endemic to the system that they champion.

The purpose of austerity is to cut the social wage, enhance profits and “rebalance” power relations in society in favour of the ruling class.

The Marx Memorial Library considers the role of ‘civil society’ groups in agitation for change.

VOLUNTARY organisations, especially the larger ones known as “non-governmental organisations” (NGOs), are extremely varied.

Their number and significance has grown during the development of capitalism to the degree that they are sometimes known collectively as the “third sector,” standing between private capital (manufacturing, property and finance) and the state (the military, police, infrastructure, education, the NHS and other services provided by national or local government).

The term NGO excludes trades unions, employers’ associations and other “political” organisations, as well as not-for-profit companies. NGOs today play a political role that hardly existed prior to the mid-1970s.

Some such as Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, MIND, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace espouse progressive ideals that are aligned with socialism. They bring pressure to bear on public policy, variously at national or international level, in addition to their own direct provision on behalf of their target groups.

Others such as arts charities and wildlife trusts are arguably politically neutral though often implicitly support the status quo.

And many NGOs, despite claims of neutrality, are actively neoliberal, for example assisting the privatisation of education or health services or facilitating the market integration of marginalised peoples though microcredit schemes, particularly in developing countries.

The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains one of Marxism’s most commonly misunderstood concepts.

WHAT is the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? In essence, it means “For the many, not the few” — a phrase that has become well-known since last June’s elections.

More and more people are determined to challenge a society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority (under 4 per cent) of the UK population.

But “dictatorship” commonly refers to autocratic rule by an individual or clique. Socialists and communists have always fought against dictatorships.

So why did Marx and Engels argue for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and what did they mean by this?

This week the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY takes a look at how capitalism got into our heads.

MARX’S critique of capitalism wasn’t limited to economics. It included the way capitalism affects the way people think and behave as individuals.

Capitalist commodity production, he argued, turns everything “into alienable, vendible objects in thrall to egoistic need and huckstering. Selling is the practice of alienation.”

Commodity production and consumption magnifies the significance of an alien entity, namely money.

Alienation arises from the transformation of use-values into commodities. Even people are treated as “things” (employees, consumers) and society is fragmented into isolated individuals.

Expressing this approvingly, Margaret Thatcher once famously said that “there is no such thing as society.”

The two must go hand in hand, says the Marx Memorial Library.

A STUDY last year by London University academics highlighted the shocking disparities in pay between individuals from different backgrounds. Most other papers treated this as minor news or ignored it altogether. The Morning Star rightly put it on the front page under the headline Working Class? That’ll be Six Grand off your Salary (and it was the only paper to mention TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady’s call for worker representation on company boards).

The way class is presented in the media is often divisive, implying that middle-class teachers (for example) do not have a common interest with other workers in building a better world. They do.

The working class constitutes all those who have to sell their labour power by hand and brain in order to subsist and who don’t exploit the labour of others.

The study found that people from working-class backgrounds who get a professional job are paid an average of £6,800 (17 per cent) less each year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds.

Even when they have the same educational attainment, role and experience, as their more privileged colleagues, those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (7 per cent) less. Women and ethnic minorities face an additional earnings disadvantage.

But it’s important to distinguish between the sociologist’s “social class” from economic class. They are often confused. Social class is a hierarchical division of individuals (at its crudest, “upper,” “middle” and “lower” class) according to their income, occupation, lifestyle, or tastes.

Some of Marx’s terms are unfamiliar to people today, so we should be careful how we use them.

"WHY use the terms ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletariat’? Most people don’t know what they mean.”

You’re probably right. And in answer to your question; we probably shouldn’t, except in a historical context.

In a footnote to the 1883 edition of The Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote: “By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour.

By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.”

That’s probably the most succinct definition you’ll find anywhere. 
But both the ruling class (capitalists and their political representatives) and the working class (those who have little or no capital, who have to work to live and to support their families) have changed since the days of Marx and Engels.

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains how a dialectical methodology can help ask the right questions.

AN EARLIER answer looked at what a Marxist approach can reveal about science’s relation to society.

The questions science asks (and the answers that it gets) are closely related to the way that science is organised, who pays and who profits, as well as to the more general needs of society.

That doesn’t mean that science is necessarily lacking in objectivity (although sometimes this is the case).

The scientific method and the knowledge it produces have a relative autonomy. But a Marxist approach can take us still further in relation to “the facts” of science.

The underlying philosophical basis of Marxism, dialectical materialism, is not a magic key to provide the “right” solution to any problem. There have been periods in the history of science where it has been abused, notably during the “Lysenko period” of Soviet genetics.

It is, rather, a potentially helpful approach to asking the right questions (and to examining and challenging answers which are put forward by others) — about nature as well as about human society.

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