Patriarchy theory

The theory of patriarchy, which says that there is a fundamental division between men and women from which men gain power, is accepted without question today by most of the left. The theory was developed by feminists such as Juliet Mitchell and Miriam Dixson who, in her book The Real Matilda, was inclined to blame Irish working class men for women’s oppression, using the theory of patriarchy

as the basis for her argument. Anne Summers helped to popularise the ideas in her book Damned Whores and God’s Police in the early seventies. She wrote «Women are expected to be socially dependent and physically passive because this state is claimed to be necessary for their maternal role. In fact it is because it enhances the power of men.»

But there was some resistance to the idea that all men have power over women, especially from women and men influenced by the Marxist idea that class differences are fundamental in society. Heidi Hartmann, in her essay The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union, attempted to provide a bridge between what are fundamentally opposing views. Hartmann purported to provide a materialist analysis of patriarchy. While capitalists exploit the labour of workers at work, men gained control over women’s labour in the family. This has been the theoretical starting point for much of Australian feminist writing over the past ten to fifteen years. However, Hartmann did not challenge the central idea of Mitchell and others, which is that there is such an identifiable social relation as patriarchy. Patriarchy, Hartmann says, «largely organizes reproduction, sexuality, and childrearing.»

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The arguments of patriarchy theory have been adequately dealt with by the British Socialist Workers’ Party. The purpose of this article is to begin the much-needed task of examining the theory of patriarchy by drawing on the Australian experience from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism. I will briefly outline the theoretical method underlying Marxism and how it differs from the theory of patriarchy. It is necessary to do this because most feminist arguments against «Marxism» are in fact replies to the mechanical «Marxism» either of the Second International from the early 1890’s to 1914 or of Stalinism. Secondly I will show that the historical arguments made by feminists do not stand up to any objective examination. Their determination to make facts fit an untenable theory leads them to distortions and misinterpretation. So I will look at the origins of the family in Australia and the role of the concept of a family wage in the workplace.

Finally, but most importantly, I will show that the ideas of male power and patriarchy have led the women’s movement into an abyss. They have no answer to how women’s oppression can be fought. Rosemary Pringle, in her book Secretaries Talk, expresses a sentiment common in feminist literature today: «no one is at all clear what is involved in transforming the existing (gender stereotyped) categories». Is it any wonder the women’s movement is plagued by pessimism and hesitation? An analysis which says half the human race has power over the other half must in the end question whether this situation can be changed. A theory which says capitalism could be replaced by socialism, but women’s oppression could continue, ends up sliding into the idea that men naturally and inevitably oppress women.

The Marxist analysis is that the historical roots of women’s oppression lie in class society. The specific forms this oppression takes today are the result of the development of the capitalist family and the needs of capital. Therefore the struggle to end the rule of capital, the struggle for socialism, is also the struggle for women’s liberation. Because class is the fundamental division in society, when workers, both women and men, fight back against any aspect of capitalism they can begin to break down the sexism which divides them. Their struggle can begin to «transform the existing categories».

In The German Ideology Marx argued that social relations between people are determined by production. The various institutions of society can only be understood as developing out of this core, productive interaction. His argument applies as much to women’s oppression as to any other aspect of capitalist society.

The history of humanity is the history of changes to the way production is organised. The new economic relations established with each mode of production exert pressure on other social relations, making some obsolete, remoulding others. So any institution must be examined historically and in its relationship to other social relations. For instance, an analysis of the family needs to be rooted in its economic and social role and examine how it helps perpetuate the existing relations of production.

Today it is very popular for those influenced by Louis Althusser and others to brand this approach as «reductionist». It is useful to quote Lukács here again, as he can hardly be accused of covering his back after this objection was raised. «The category of totality does not reduce its various elements to an undifferentiated uniformity, to identity». And «the interaction we have in mind must be more than the interaction of otherwise unchanging objects.»

Marx’s proposition «men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves», sums up the interaction we must look for between the ideas women and men use to justify their actions and responses to social events and the material and economic circumstances in which they operate. This differs radically from the theoretical framework of patriarchy theory. The most common versions take two forms. There are those like Juliet Mitchell who see patriarchy in psychological and ideological terms: «We are dealing with two autonomous areas, the economic mode of capitalism and the ideological mode of patriarchy.» If you make such a distinction between the economic and ideological, then you cannot explain anything about the development of society. Why do some ideas dominate? And why do some dominant ideas change?

However I do not intend answering these ideas more fully because the arguments which seem to offer a more serious challenge to Marxism are not these but the other version of patriarchy theory argued by writers like Heidi Hartmann. She criticised Juliet Mitchell: «Patriarchy operates, Mitchell seems to be saying, (in Psyche/analysis and Feminism) primarily in the psychological realm … She clearly presents patriarchy as the fundamental ideological structure, just as capital is the fundamental economic structure.» Hartmann concludes «although Mitchell discusses their interpenetration, her failure to give patriarchy a material base in the relation between women’s and men’s labour power, and her similar failure to note the material aspects of the process of personality formation and gender creation, limits the usefulness of her analysis.»

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