Marx, Gender, and Human Emancipation

Heather Tomanovsky

Marx’s writings on gender and the family are significantly more substantial and more valuable than is usually acknowledged.  Marx showed considerable insight into the gender relations of his own time, pointing to the need for a total transformation of society that would necessarily involve new relations between men and women, albeit with some problematic elements as well.  – Editors

Marx’s writings on gender and the family are significantly more substantial and more valuable than is usually acknowledged.  Marx showed considerable insight into the gender relations of his own time, pointing to the need for a total transformation of society that would necessarily involve new relations between men and women, albeit with some problematic elements as well.  This was already quite evident in one of his early works, the 1844 Manuscripts, and was a theme that was to recur in his writings and political activity throughout his life.

It is true that Marx’s writings on gender and the family are located sporadically throughout his work and he does not provide a completely worked out theory of gender relations.  However, this does not necessarily mean that Marx was not interested in understanding gender relations or that he was sexist.  There certainly are some problematic areas in his writings on gender and the family such as his ambivalent position regarding the changing moral status of women as they entered the workforce, here potentially illustrating a moderate Victorian viewpoint.  While Marx’s theory remains underdeveloped in terms of providing an account that includes gender as important to understanding capitalism, his categories nonetheless lead in the direction of a systematic critique of patriarchy as it manifests itself in capitalism since he is able to separate out the historically specific elements of patriarchy from a more general form of women’s oppression as it has existed throughout much of human history.  In this sense, his categories provide resources for feminist theory or at least areas for new dialogue at a time when Marx’s critique of capital is coming to the fore once again.

As early as 1844, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx argued that women’s position in society could be used as a measure of development of society as a whole:

The immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is also the relation of man [Mann][1] to woman [Weib].  In this natural species relationship man’s [Mensch] relation to nature is directly his relation to man [Mensch], and his relation to man [Mensch] 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 man’s [Mensch] whole level of development can be assessed.  It follows from the character of this relationship how far man [Mensch] has become, and has understood himself as, a species-being, a human being.  The relation of man [Mann] to woman [Weib] is the most natural relation of human being to human being.  It indicates, therefore, how far man’s [Mensch] natural behavior has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him.  It also shows how far man’s [Mensch] needs have become human needs, and consequently how far the other person [Mensch], as a person, has become one of his needs, and to what extent he is in his individual existence at the same time a social being.  (Marx 2004, 103)

While he was certainly not the first to make a statement such as this—Fourier is often attributed as the inspiration for this statement—for Marx, this was more than simply a call for men to change the position of women.  Instead, Marx was making a dialectical argument that was directly related to his overall theory of society.  In order for society to advance beyond its capitalist form, new social relations would have to be formed that did not rely solely upon a crude formulation of value.  Human beings would have to become able to see each other as valuable in themselves rather than as only valuable for what one individual can provide to another.  Women would be especially significant in this regard since they have tended to be a marginalized group within most if not all societies.  Thus, men and women would have to reach a point of development where an individual is valued for who they are rather than any abstract category of man, woman, etc.

Moreover, Marx appears to point in the direction of gender as a dynamic rather than static category.  Certainly, Marx never directly made this claim, however, in the 1844 Manuscripts and in The German Ideology (1846), he provided a strong critique of and an alternative to traditional dualistic views of the nature/society dualism.  Instead of nature and society existing as two distinct entities that interact with each other without fundamentally changing the essence of itself or the other, Marx argues that the two are dialectically related.  As human beings interact with nature through labor, both the individual and nature is changed (Marx 2004, 141-142).  This occurs because human beings exist as part of nature and the labor process provides the means for such a temporary unity (Marx 2004, 140).  Since both nature and society are not static entities, Marx argued that there can be no transhistorical notion of what is “natural.”  Instead, a concept of “natural” can only be relevant for specific historical circumstances.

While one should not draw too close of a parallel between the nature/culture dualism and the man/woman dualism—to do so could lead to a reification of these categories that we seek to transform—the sort of dialectical thinking that Marx evinces in regard to the nature/culture dualism is also evident in Marx and Engels’s discussion of the gender division of labor in The German Ideology.  Here they point to the division of labor in the early family as something that is not completely “natural.”  Instead, even in their brief discussion of the development of the family, they point out that this division of labor 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 (Marx and Engels 1998, 50, 51-52).  The implication is that women’s supposed inferiority in these societies is something that can change as society changes.  Moreover, since a social element is involved, more is needed than technological development; instead, women will have to work themselves to change their situation.

While it is a text devoted to the critique of political economy, there is a significant amount of material on gender and the family in Capital.  Here Marx returns to and concretizes what he described as the abolition [Aufhebung] of the family in The Communist Manifesto.  As machinery is introduced into the factories, requiring less physically demanding labor, women and children become important categories of workers as well (Marx 1976, 517).  Capital finds these workers particularly valuable since they are from an oppressed group that can be compelled to work for less.

A number of other passages in Capital illustrate that Marx held a much more nuanced view of the position of women in the workforce than most feminists acknowledge.  For example, as women entered the workforce, he writes, they potentially gained power in their private lives since they now contributed monetarily to the family’s welfare and were no longer under the direct control of their husbands or fathers for a large portion of the day.  This had a significant effect on the family:

It was not however the misuse of parental power that created the direct or indirect exploitation of immature labour-powers by capital, but rather the opposite, i.e. the capitalist mode of exploitation, by sweeping away the economic foundation which corresponded to parental power, made the use of parental power into its misuse.  However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, 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. (Marx 1976, 620-621, emphasis added)

Here Marx shows both sides of this development.  On the one hand, long hours and night work tended to undermine traditional family structures as women were to a certain extent “masculinized” by their work and were often unable to care for their children to the same extent that they had been able to do in the past.  On the other hand, in a later passage, Marx notes that this seeming “deterioration of character” led in the opposite direction—toward “a higher form of the family” (Marx 1976, 621) in which women would be the true equals of men.

While at times Marx’s discussion of the oppression of women workers was somewhat limited, in Capital Vol. I and his earlier draft material for Capital he offers a strong critique of the concept of productive labor under capitalism.  Here he makes a strong distinction between the concept of productive labor under capitalism and a concept of productive labor as such.  The first is a one-sided understanding of productivity where the only relevant factor is the production of surplus value for the capitalist.  The second concept of productive labor focuses instead on the production of use values (Marx 1976, 718).  Here labor is valued as such if it produces something that can be used by individuals or society at large.  This provides at least some ground for revaluing traditionally women’s labor even though Marx discussed this very little.

I argue that his last years, 1879-1883, were one of the most theoretically interesting periods of Marx’s life, especially concerning gender and the family.  In his research notebooks as well as his letters and published writings, he began to articulate a less deterministic model of social development in which less developed societies could be the first to carry out revolutions as long as they were followed by revolutions in more advanced states.  But more importantly for this study, Marx incorporated into his theory new historical subjects.  It was not just the working class as an abstract entity that was capable of revolution.  Instead, peasants and especially women became important forces for change within Marx’s theory.  These notebooks give some indications, albeit in a fragmentary way, of how Marx saw women as subjects in the historical process.

Marx’s notes on Morgan are particularly important since they provide a direct comparison with Engels’s Origin of the Family in which Engels claimed to be a relatively close representation of Marx’s reading of Morgan’s Ancient Society (Engels 1986, 35).  Instead of a close representation of Marx’s notes, I argue that there are significant differences.  The most important of these are Marx’s less deterministic understanding of societal development and his more dialectical grasp of contradiction within the relatively egalitarian clan.

While Engels tended to focus almost solely and one-sidedly on economic and technological change as factors in societal development, Marx took a more dialectical approach where social organization is not only a subjective factor but in the right situation can become an objective one as well.  This is particularly relevant to understanding their differences on gender oppression.  Here Engels argued that the development of agricultural technology, private property and the subsequent changes in the clan from mother-right to father-right led to the “world historic defeat of the female sex” where women would remain in a condition of subjugation until the destruction of private property (Engels 1986, 87).  In contrast, Marx not only noted the subordinate position of women, but also pointed to the potential for change even under private property with his discussion of the Greek goddesses.  Even though ancient Greek society was quite oppressive to women, confining them to their own section of the home, Marx argued that the Greek goddesses potentially provided an alternative model for women.  Marx also showed in these notes the progress of upper class Roman women, in contrast to their Greek counterparts.  Moreover, Marx tended to take a more nuanced and dialectical approach to the development of contradictions in these early egalitarian societies.

While not all aspects of Marx’s writings on gender and the family are relevant today, and some carry the limitations of nineteenth-century thought, these texts offer important insights on gender and political thought.  Although Marx did not write a great deal on gender, and did not develop a systematic theory of gender and the family, it was for him an essential category for understanding the division of labor, production, and society in general.  I have argued that Marx’s discussion of gender and the family extended far beyond merely including women as factory workers.  Marx noted the persistence of oppression in the bourgeois family and the need to work out a new form of the family.  Despite their unpolished and fragmentary character, Marx’s notes on ethnology are particularly significant since Marx points quite directly to the historical character of the family through his selections of Morgan, Maine and Lange.  Moreover, Marx’s use of dialectics is an important methodological contribution to feminism and social research in general since he seemed to view gender as subject to change and development rather than as a static concept.



Engels, Friedrich.  1986.  [1884] Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl.  1976.  [1867-1875] Capital, Vol. I.  New York: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl.   2004.  [1844] The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.  in Erich Fromm, ed., Marx’s Concept of Man.  New York: Continuum.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  1998.  [1845-1846] The German Ideology.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

[1] Here I have inserted the original German to denote those places where Marx is referring to individual men (Mann) or women (Weib) and when he is referring to humanity (Mensch).  This helps to overcome the somewhat sexist language in the translation that Marx does not appear to have intended in the original German.




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