By The Manifesto of the Communist Party, every Marxist knows the A, B, Cs of historical materialism or the materialist conception of history. The history of all human society, since the breaking up of the ancient Stone Age societies is a history of class struggles between oppressor and oppressed. Classes are groups that associate in a division of labor to produce their material means of existence. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels asserted an elementary anthropological, or "human nature", rationale for this conception. In a section titled "History: Fundamental Conditions" they say: " Life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things.
The first historical act is thus the production of material life itself. And indeed, this is a ... fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life." Production and economic classes are the starting point of Marxist analysis of human society, including in the Manifesto, because human life, like all plant and animal life must fulfill biological needs to exist as life at all. Whatever, humans do that is "higher" than plants and animals, we cannot do if we do not first fulfill our plant/animal like needs. Therefore, the "higher" human activities are limited by and dependent upon the productive activities. This means that historical materialism starts with human nature, our natural species qualities.
Yet, it is fundamental in biology that the basic life sustaining processes of a species are twofold. There is, in the first place, obtaining the material means of life and subsistence, or survival, of the living generation ("production"). But just as fundamentally there is reproduction or success in creating a next generation of the species that is fertile and survives until it too reproduces viable offspring. Whoever heard of a one generation species? In fact, one test of two individual animals being of the same species is their ability to mate and produce fertile offspring. We can imagine a group of living beings with the ultimate success in eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. But if they do not reproduce, either they are not a species or they are an extinct species (unless they are immortal individuals!). Thus, having premised their theory in part on human biology, our "species-being", Marx and Engels were obligated to develop historical materialism, the theory of the Manifesto, based not only on the logic of subsistence production, but also on the logic of next generation reproduction.
In The German Ideology, they do recognize reproduction as a "fundamental condition of history" along with production. However, they give reproduction, or at least, "the family" a subordinate "fundamental" status when they say:
"The third circumstance, which from the very outset, enters into historical development, is that men (sic) who daily remake their own life begin to make other men, to propagate their kind: the relation between man and woman, parents and children, the family. The family, which to begin with is the only social relationship, becomes later, when increased needs create new social relations and the increased population new needs, a subordinate one..."
My thesis in this comradely critique is that the mode of reproduction (in the larger sense, including, but not limited to social institutions called "the family") of human beings remains, throughout human history, equally fundamental with the mode of production in shaping society. This is true even after classes arise, even with the "new social relations" that come with "increased population." For there to be history in the sense of many generations of men and women all of the way up to Marx, Engels and us today, men had to do more than "begin to make other men." Women and men had to complete making next generations by sexually uniting and rearing them for thousands of years. Otherwise, history would have ended long ago. We would be an extinct species. An essential characteristic of history is its existence in the "medium" of multiple generations. Thus, with respect to historical materialism, reproduction is as necessary as production. The upshot is women's liberation must be put on the same footing with workers' liberation in the Marxist project.
Not only did Marx and Engels in The German Ideology give reproduction a "subordinate" fundamental status compared with production. They did it by the following sleight of hand: in part population increase or the success of reproduction somehow makes reproduction less important in "entering into historical development" as a "fundamental condition" (or "primary historical relation" in another translation, or "basic aspect of social activity" in another).
This is quite a misogynist dialectic, given that "men" are in the first premise and the third premise, but women only are mentioned explicitly in the latter. It is also an idealist philosophical error, because the theory now tends to abstract from the real social life of individuals in reproduction. Another passage in The German Ideology demonstrates the same sort of magical rather than scientific use of "dialectic" with respect to reproduction, and in this case the impact on the materialist philosophical consistency of their argument is more direct and explicit. They say:
"Only now, after having considered four moments, four aspects of primary historical relations, do we find that man also possesses "consciousness". But even from the outset this is not "pure" consciousness. The "mind" is from the outset afflicted with the curse of being "burdened" with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness...language like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men...Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. Consciousness is at first of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious.
This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives further development or extension through increased productivity, the increase in needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase in population. With these there develops the division of labor, which was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act, then the division of labor which develops spontaneously or "naturally" by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g. physical strength, needs, accidents, etc.) Division of labor becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real (as the semioticians' signifier is arbitrarily related to what it signifies-C.B); from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to formation of "pure" theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc."
In this paragraph, we see that Marx and Engels's early formulation and explanation of the origin of what Engels later famously dubbed the fundamental question of philosophy (materialism or idealism?) is rooted in the "second" original division of labor. For some reason, the "first" original division of labor, which gives women equivalent complementary status with men, just disappears, and is replaced by a productive division of labor, between "men's" minds and hands. And to make it worse, once again, the "reason" the reproductive division of labor disappears as an ongoing fundamental determinant throughout history is its own success in creating a population explosion.
This seems to be an error of substituting a negative and destructive dialectic in thought for what is the most fundamentally positive and fruitful dialectic in human history--reproduction. Here is a key connecting point: then Marx and Engels (whom I love dearly) substitute for the reproductive division of labor a productive division of labor as the fundamentally determining contradiction of historical development. This division of labor, between predominantly mental and predominantly physical labor, becomes the root of development of classes, the importance of which is declared in the first sentence of the Manifesto.
Yet, Marx and Engels commit the same error of abstraction at one level that they criticize at the next level: the error of mental laborers in abstracting from the concrete reality of physical labor. In addition, they keep depending on "population increase", which is another name for reproduction and "the sexual act", to explain the origin of increased "productivity" and "needs". These, in turn, seem to be the "premises" for the division between material and mental labor (and are because of the role of material surpluses in making possible the creation of the class of predominantly mental laborers). Thus, we might say that the original idealist philosophical inconsistency of Marxist materialism is abstraction from reproduction. For a fuller historical materialism, the theories of workers' liberation and women's liberation must be integrated. This may be done on the basis of Marx and Engels's fundamental logic carried out more consistently. Feminism, therefore, is derived from, not added on to, the original premises.
By 1884, with the impact of anthropological studies (and perhaps greater interaction with women in his maturity) in the Preface to the First Edition of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels says:
"According to the materialistic conception, the decisive element of history is pre-eminently the production and reproduction of life and its material requirements. This implies, on the one hand, the production of the means of existence (food, clothing, shelter and the necessary tools); on the other hand, the generation of children, the propagation of the species. The social institutions, under which the people of a certain historical period and of a certain country are living, are dependent on these two forms of production; partly on the development of labor, partly on that of the family."
The change in this formulation from that in The German Ideology supports our fundamental thesis in this essay: that reproduction is an equally fundamental, not a subordinate, process with production in shaping society from its origins to modern (and post-modern) times. But Engels's formulation in The Origin is after Marx's death and late in their heroic joint project in developing Marxism. Thus, the main classic writings of Marxism, and Marx and Engels's political activity, focused on production and political economy, not the family and the other institutions of reproduction. The Origin's is the best scientific formulation of the materialistic conception of history, even when we consider that "the family" is, in later stages of history, surrounded by larger social institutions, as asserted in the passage from The German Ideology, quoted above.
Even under capitalism, many of the social relations and institutions that are quantitatively greater then those in the "nuclear" family (See anthropologist G.P. Murdock on the "nuclear" family) are part of reproduction, such as school and training, as well as medical services and recreation. More importantly, reproduction and production have qualitatively different functions, both fundamental in constituting the existence of our species, our species-being.
In other words, not only are reproductive relations not quantitatively less important in determining history, but from the beginning, from the true original division of labor as in the sexual act, reproduction has had a qualitatively, necessarily complementary relation with production in creating history. From the standpoint of our uniquely human character (our culture), it might be said that production makes objects and reproduction creates subjects. Thus, problems in dealing with subjectivity in the history of Marxism (see my "Activist Materialism and the ' End ' of Philosophy") may in part be remedied by rethinking Marxism based on equating and even privileging reproduction over production in interpreting and acting to change the world.
This becomes especially important when we consider that there is now for Marxism a scientific, materialist, truth-seeking and urgent need for intellectual affirmative action in using empirical study of reproduction to re-explain history to compensate for the sole focus on production. Reproduction has always been scientifically coequal, as demonstrated by Marx and Engels's clipped comments and "admissions" quoted previously. They never refute their own words about the importance of reproduction in historical materialist theory. They simply (and uncharacteristically) fail to develop one of their own stated fundamental materialist premises. Living Marxists must creatively redevelop historical materialism based on this compensation.
Dialectical materialism holds that the relationship between subject and object is dialectical, of course. It is "vulgar" materialism that portrays the subject as one-sidedly determined by the object. Reproduction and production are complementary opposites, and their unity in struggle is the fundamental motive force of history today as in ancient times.
However, when I say, "reproduction creates subjects", I mean reproduction in a broader sense than only sexual conception and birth. Reproduction includes all child-rearing, from the home through all school and any other type of training. It is all "caring labor" as defined by Hilary Graham in "Caring: A Labour of Love" (1983). Reproduction is all of those labors that have, as a direct and main purpose, making and caring for a human subject or personality as contrasted with those labors of production which have as a direct purpose making objects useful to humans. Reproduction includes affirmative self-creation.
A Wikipedia item gives a fuller definition of what I call "caring labor". "Care work is a subcategory of work that includes all tasks that directly involve care processes done in service of others. Often, it is differentiated from other forms of work because it is intrinsically motivated, meaning that people are motivated to pursue care work for internal reasons, not related to money. Another factor that is often used to differentiate caring labor from other types of work is the motivating factor. This perspective defines care labor as labor undertaken out of affection or a sense of responsibility for other people, with no expectation of immediate pecuniary reward. Despite the importance of this intrinsic motivation factor, care work includes care activities done for pay as well as those done without remuneration.
Specifically, care work refers to those occupations that provide services that help people develop their capabilities, or their ability to pursue the aspects of their life that they value. Examples of these occupations include childcare, all levels of teaching (from preschool through university professors), and health care of all types (nurses, doctors, physical therapists, and psychologists). Care work also includes the array of domestic unpaid work that is often disproportionately done by women.
Often, care work focuses on the responsibilities to provide for dependents--children, the sick, and the elderly. However, care work also refers to any work done in the immediate service of others, regardless of the recipient's dependent or nondependent status. Care work is becoming a popular topic for academic study and discussion. "This study is closely linked with the field of feminist economics and is associated with scholars including Nancy Folbre, Paula England, Maria Floro, Diane Elson, Caren Grown and Virginia Held."
Under capitalism with alienation, production's impact in making subjects is primarily "negative" or indirect. Conversely, reproduction indirectly makes objects, in the sense that the subject, the human laborer, who is the direct and "positive" purpose of reproduction, is the possessor of labor power, the active factor making objects in production (directly). Production makes objects; reproduction creates subjects. This conception of reproduction is consistent with Marx's basic reasoning in Capital. In his famous development of the concept of the labor theory of value (beyond Adam Smith and Ricardo) and surplus value, he asserts that human labor is the only source of new value in the production process. The human laborer and the means of production (tools and raw materials) all add exchange value to a commodity. But the means of production add no more value to the commodity than the values added to them by a previous human laborer in the production of the means of production.
The human labor power is the only element in the process that can add more value to the commodity than the values that went into producing the labor power itself. The labor of a worker in one-half day (or now one-quarter of a day) produces enough value to pay for the necessities creating the worker's labor power for a full day's work. The value produced by the worker in the second half of the day is the surplus value exploited by the capitalist. The creation of the worker's labor power is done in reproduction, in the broad sense we have been using that concept here. Thus, reproduction is the "only source" of the only source of new value. Subjectivity is the "source" of the unique ability (over the means of production) of the human component in the production process to produce more value than went into producing it.
Subjectivity is the source of a sort of Marxist "mind over matter." Reproduction is the source of subjectivity. In relation to the discussion of the primacy of reproduction as the original division of labor (as Marx and Engels said) over the division of predominantly material and predominantly mental labor, we might deduce that it was (and is) within reproduction that the mind and matter are non-antagonistically related as opposites (when "men" were simultaneously theoreticians in their practice as mentioned in "The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844").
Sociology and common experience teach that historically, women have been the primary reproductive laborers - from childrearing to housework, from elementary and high school teaching to nursing. Beyond pregnancy, women's "assignment" to reproductive roles is historically and ideologically caused, not biologically or genetically caused or necessary (see, for example, Not in Our Genes, by Richard Lewontin, et al.). But as a result, women are, historically, an exploited and oppressed reproductive class, whose defining labor is as fundamental to our material life as that of the productive laborers on whom Marx and Engels focused. Thus, the materialist conception of history must be modified, and women's liberation put on equal footing with workers'(women's and men's) liberation in the Marxist project. It is especially incumbent on male Marxists to be and to be known as champions of women’s liberation.
Marx did write the following in 1844: "In the approach to woman as the spoil and hand-maid of communal lust is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself, for the secret of this approach has its unambiguous, decisive, plain and undisguised expression in the relation of man to woman and in the manner in which the direct and natural species-relationship is conceived. The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. In this natural species-relationship man’s relation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature – his own natural destination. In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man. From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development. From the character of this relationship follows how much man as a species-being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s naturalbehaviour has become human, or the extent to which the human essence in him has become a naturalessence – the extent to which his human nature has come to be natural to him. This relationship also reveals the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being." https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm
Charles Brown is a political activist in Detroit, Michigan. He has degrees in anthropology and is a member of the bar. He teaches anthropology at Community College. His favorite slogan is "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”