By Rob Sewell
Wednesday, 05 September 2001
Well ye know
What woman is, for none of woman born
Can choose but drain the bitter dregs of woe
Which ever to the oppressed from the oppressors flow.
The oppression of women has been a key question for Marxism. After all, women constitute half the human race, and have faced discrimination and degradation in many areas of life. The oppression of women in the third world has reached abominable levels. It is accompanied by child prostitution, bonded-labour and slavery. It is capitalism in the raw. Recently, an Iranian Islamic court found a woman guilty of adultery. For this heinous crime, she was sentenced to death by stoning. Here, in its most cruel and brutal form, is reflected the worse features of class society. In the 'civilised' west, working class women are treated as second-class citizens, many of who are forced into the menial jobs on poor wages. Despite equal pay legislation, employers still continue to discriminate against women in terms of pay and conditions.
Unlike the petty bourgeois feminists who see the oppression of women as the inherent biological trait of men, Marxism understands that the root of women's oppression lies not in biology, but in social conditions. While feminists blame men for all the ills of women, Marxism sees the liberation of working class women as a part of the struggle for the liberation of the working class as a whole. While feminists set women against men, the socialist movement attempts to forge solidarity between male and female workers in a common struggle against capitalist exploitation. The emancipation of women can never be achieved under capitalist society, which holds working people, both women and men, in subjugation.
Marxism has a duty to win the best women workers to its banner, as from this oppressed layer - "a slave of a slave", to use Engels' words - will come the best class fighters for the socialist revolution. It is no accident that women began the Russian Revolution of 1917 on international women's day.
The oppression of women did not always exist. In fact it is a relatively new phenomenon in historical terms. It arose with the division of society into classes and the emergence of class society some 6,000 or so years ago. Prior to that, in the period described by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan as 'primitive communism', neither classes, the state, private property nor the family existed. There was no domination of man over women, or man over man. As there was no surplus created, only enough to survive, there was no exploitation, which only emerged with the development of the slave empires of Mesopotania, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Engels wrote 'The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State', based mainly on the findings of Lewis Morgan, but also supplemented by his own research, which examined this question from a scientific point of view. The founding-fathers of modern anthropology, in particular Morgan and his English counterpart Edward Tylor, gathered a colossal amount of material from primitive tribes, the accounts of missionaries and travellers, and many other sources in an attempt to reconstruct a picture of primitive society. Morgan himself lived for many years among the Iroquois Indians, who still lived at the higher stage of savagery.
They were completely stunned when they found that primitive society had no resemblance whatsoever, in terms of social structure, customs and institutions, to modern civilised society. It was fundamentally different.
The common assumption held by the scientific establishment until then, was that primitive life was simply a more basic and underdeveloped version of modern-day life. For them, all our class-based institutions would exists in a less developed form. This completely suited the apologists of capitalist society, who regarded exploitation, classes and social division as eternal. This misconception was completely turned on its head. Private property, family and state simply did not exist. There was no ruling class or working class. There was no domination or the degradation of women by men, or men by men. This classless society was built on completely different egalitarian foundations.
According to Morgan, before class society - which embraced some 99% of human development - there existed two distinct phases of human society: Savagery, based upon a hunter/gatherer economy, which corresponds to the Old Stone Age, and Barbarism, based upon agriculture and stock rearing, the New Stone Age. Throughout this massive expanse of time, the structure of society, which was totally different from our own, was based upon a clan or tribal system. This in turn was based upon kinship, in which women were highly respected and played a leading role within the clan. Production and distribution was all carried out in common. There were no privileges or elites. Women were held in esteem, as they were the bringers of life and future of the clan. To quote Engels: "The communistic household, in which most or all of the women belong to one and the same gens (clan), while men come from various gentes (clans), is the material foundation of that supremacy of women which was general in primitive timesÉ"
Both Morgan and Engels were indebted to the German Bachofen, whose book, Der Murrerrecht (Mother Right), provided a history of the family based upon the myths and legends of the past, which showed that women were held in high regard within the clan system. In this primitive society, sexual relations were based upon primitive mating, where conception was thought to have occurred through divine intervention. Primitive mating went through a variety of changes, reaching a phase of group marriage based on kinship. Under these circumstances, a child's biological father was unknown, and so the line of descent was traced through the mother. This was the only way it could possibly be traced. This gave women their pivotal role within society, and determined the matriarchal character of the clan.
The importance of women to society stemmed from - among other things - their role in child bearing and mother-care, which was essential for the survival not only of the clan, but also of the whole species. It is no accident that in all the early myths and legends of creation, it is the woman that is the bringer of life. Again, all the early gods were women. Only with the advent of class society and dominant patriarchal relations, do we see the emergence of the great male gods of the ancients.
Over time a different system of taboos were introduced, with grave punishments for those who transgressed them, to regulate relations between male and female. The rule of incest was invented to give stability to the tribe. Within the clan everyone was a "brother" and "sister", and a "mother" and "father" to everyone. The children would be regarded as everyone's children and brought up in this communal matriarchal community. Sex was forbidden between men and women of the same clan, which prevented competition amongst males for females. Men had to seek sexual partners in another clan and be adopted by them, while women would remain within their original clan. Above all, within this communistic clan there were fraternal relations between all members. Today they are based upon class rule and reflect domination, subordination and exploitation.
In the words of Morgan, "All the members of an Iroquois gens were personally free and they were bound to defend each other's freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin. Liberty, equality and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles of the gens."
The term "mother" was not a family term as today, but a social one. There is no term for "father" or "family" in the matriarchal clan system as these were incomprehensible terms. Biological relationships were subordinate to collective-clan relationships. In clan society, the mother's brother is also regarded as the "male mother."
The bulk of modern anthropologists reject the concept of a communist matriarchy. According to them, all the evidence existing in today's hunter/gatherer tribes at best points to matrilineal descent, but nothing more. They fail to see that existing matrilineal lines are leftovers of a prehistoric past where women played a key role in all spheres. Logically, patriarchal forms could not have pre-dated matriarchal ones as the father was unknown. Of course the early matriarchy was not the mirror opposite of today's patriarchal society. Primitive society was communistic and egalitarian. There were no classes or domination that exists today.
The "family" emerged within the clan system at the stage of Barbarism and the development of settled communities. The "pairing" family was the embryo of the modern family, which emerged first as a matri-family and then patri-family. This development coincided with the "Neothithic Revolution", to use the words of Gordon Childe. It coincided with the increased productivity and wealth that arose. The invention of the iron plough opened the way for surpluses of grain. New methods of breeding livestock increased the herds. This, in its turn, produced social forces that began to undermine the clan/tribal system. It saw the development of private property, which at first remained within the clan, but given the division of labour increasingly fell into the hands of men. "To him, therefore", stated Engels, belonged the cattle, and to him the commodities and the slaves received in exchange for cattle. All the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the women shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership."
However, children, who belonged to their mother's clan, could not inherit from their father, being of a different clan in which his property had to remain. So with the new wealth came new contradictions. As Engels explained: "Thus, on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased, it made the man's position in the family more important than the woman's, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was." As Engels adds, this act constituted "the world historical defeat of the female sex."
With private property came the destruction of the communistic maternal clans. In their place came class society, the state and the patriarchal family. The form of marriage changed from polygamy to monogamy, ensuring that children born in wedlock were those of the husband. Marriage became a way of consolidating family fortunes and power. It was not men who gained, as the majority were still enslaved. Only an elite ruling class gained. The rest of society - men and women - were brought under the heel of class rule. Only with the elimination of class society can the human race be free of this enslavement. The emancipation of women has become a class question, which is inseparable from the socialist transformation of society.
And what of the family? Under socialism, private housekeeping will be transformed into a social industry. The care and education of children will become a public matter. The domination of money relations will come to an end, and men and women will find genuine relationships. To use Engels words: "Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual - and that's the end of it." Socialist society will free us from the inhuman social relations under capitalism and the market economy, and open up new vistas of human development. It will bring about the liberation of men and women.