A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 25

Working-class marriage under capitalism

In setting the stage for an examination of working-class marriage in the epoch of capitalist society, the words of Karl Marx in his “Genesis of Capitalism” constitute a good introduction: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969, p. 45)

Marx declared that “it was ‘the strange God’ who perched himself on the altar cheek by jowl with the old Gods of Europe, and one fine day with a shove and a kick chucked them all of a heap. It proclaimed surplus-value making as the sole end and aim of humanity.” (p. 48) By “surplus-value making,” Marx was referring to the process of expropriation by which, under the capitalist system, most of the wealth produced by workers ends up in the pockets of the fat cats.

A complementary formulation appears in the Communist Manifesto: “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965, p. 31)

The ironies of ‘legal equality’
in marriage

Addressing the change in marriage relations that accompanied the transition to capitalism in Europe, Frederick Engels writes in “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”: “So it came about that the rising bourgeoisie, especially in Protestant countries where existing conditions had been most severely shaken, increasingly recognized freedom of contract also in marriage. … Marriage remained class marriage, but within the class the partners were conceded a certain degree of freedom of choice. And on paper, in ethical theory and in poetic description, nothing was more immutably established than that every marriage is immoral which does not rest on mutual sexual love and really free agreement of husband and wife. …

“This human right, however, differed in one respect from all other so-called human rights. While the latter in practice remain restricted to the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and are directly or indirectly curtailed for the oppressed class (the proletariat), in the case of the former the irony of history plays another of its tricks. The ruling class remains dominated by the familiar economic influences and therefore only in exceptional cases does it provide instances of really freely contracted marriages, while among the oppressed class … [freely contracted] marriages are the rule.” (New York: International Publishers, 1972, p. 144)

Engels explains that it follows from this class distinction that “sex love in the relationship with a woman becomes and can only become the real rule among the oppressed classes, which means today among the proletariat — whether this relation is officially sanctioned or not. But here all the foundations of typical monogamy are cleared away. Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established: hence there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effective. …

“Here quite other personal and social conditions decide. And now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labor market and into the factory, and made her often the breadwinner of the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household, except, perhaps, for something of the brutality toward women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy. The proletarian family is therefore no longer monogamous in the strict sense, even where there is passionate love and firmest loyalty on both sides and maybe all the blessings of religious and civil authority.

“Here, therefore, the eternal attendants of monogamy, hetaerism [prostitution] and adultery, play only an almost vanishing part. The wife has in fact regained the right to dissolve the marriage, and if two people cannot get on with one another, they prefer to separate. In short, proletarian marriage is monogamous in the etymological sense of the word, but not at all in its historical sense.” (p. 135)

Social, economic inequality remain

Addressing the supposed equality between marriage partners brought into existence by the marriage contract, Engels observes: “Modern civilized systems of law increasingly acknowledge first, that for a marriage to be legal it must be a contract freely entered into by both partners and secondly, that also in the married state both partners must stand on a common footing of equal rights and duties. If both these demands are consistently carried out, say the jurists, women have all they can ask.” (pp. 135-136)

“In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the hus­band is obligated to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.” (p. 137)

Citing and continuing Engels’ train of thought, Dorothy Ballan, in “Feminism and Marxism,” writes: “Engels reminds us that when the monogamous family household lost its public character, it no longer concerned society. It became a private service, and the wife became the head servant excluded from all social production. Only large-scale industry has opened social production to the proletarian wife.

“‘But,’ [Engels] says, ‘it was opened in such a manner that if she carries out her duties in the private service for her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. The wife’s position in the factory is similar to the position of women in all branches of business right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.’” (New York: World View Publishers, 1971, p. 29)

Citing the viewpoint of Marxist theorist and revolutionary V.I. Lenin, Ballan continues: “On this very question, Lenin, after the Russian revolution, had this to say: ‘Notwithstanding all the liberating laws that have been passed, woman continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and to the nursery, and wastes her labor on ‘barbarously unproductive’ [Ballan’s emphasis], petty, nervewracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women … will begin only when a mass struggle is started against this petty domestic economy, or rather when it is transformed on a mass scale into large-scale socialist economy.” (p. 29)

Further on in “Feminism and Marxism” Ballan writes: “The millennium of women’s oppression began, as Engels said, when women were excluded from participation in public life, industry and economic life generally, and were reduced to the pettiness and drudgery of individual private work.

“Today, in the space age, the last vestiges of the crude division of labor, whereby the woman is relegated to the semi-slavery of household chores and the man participates and dominates all other phases of social life, are crumbling. …

“As Marx said, when the production relations of a given society are no longer compatible with the social relations, which really belong to a previous epoch, ‘the social relations burst asunder’ — then comes a period of revolution, first of all in the consciousness of the oppressed.

“There is a virtual revolution going on in the minds of women. It is a harbinger of the general socialist revolution and at the same time is an indispensable ingredient for its success.” (p. 57)

The next installment in this series will further explore the views of V.I. Lenin and those of other Marxists on the institution of marriage and revolutionary efforts to free women from the historic scourge of patriarchal tyranny.