Marxist Feminism Part II: Social Reproduction

This article is part of a series. Read Part I here.

Rejecting dualist and identity approaches to women’s politics, Marxist feminists argue that the domestic sphere and the capitalist mode of production are not separate, autonomous systems; but that social reproduction (including the vast amount of unpaid work which takes place outside the workplace) is the fundamental precondition of capitalism. The process of producing human labour power and the process of producing value is continuous and connected one. Marx alludes to this in Capital Vol I: ‘the capitalist process of production…seen as a total continuous process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation’.

The worker produces surplus value; but who, or what, produces the worker? In a literal sense, the worker is produced by the female who gives birth to him. Alternatively, the worker can ‘produced’ by the (sometimes forced) relocation of people to an area where their labour is required — migration, slavery, labour camps. A migrant population, for example, may be transferred from an area where it is not engaged in productive labour to one where there is high demand for labour — thus ‘producing’ workers. Conceptually, this meshes very neatly with Marx’s reserve army of labour. Here, we can see that questions of social reproduction raised by Marxist feminists in response to ‘the woman question’ have, upon expansion, led to a coherent explanation of race (and other oppressions) in relation to capital, in line with Marxist economics. The ability to conceptualise different strands of oppression — which are otherwise considered to be mere offshoots of socialist theory — within the same unitary economic framework is an extremely valuable theoretical development to Marxists.

Having established who produces the worker, we must now ask: who reproduces the worker? Who feeds the worker? Who clothes the worker? Who makes the bed of the worker? Who cleans the house of the worker? Who tends to the children of the worker? In short, who carries out all the processes which replenish the worker and enable him to return to work each day? Capitalism relies upon on the exploitable labour power of workers; but equally, it requires a set of stable social conditions which produce those workers. Again, Marx does touch upon this social reproduction, saying that ‘capitalism reproduces and perpetuates the conditions for exploiting the labourer’, but he does not analyse the social, sexed relations which surround it. Women of the oppressor class are not exempt from this dynamic. Although they do not produce workers, they are required to produce the next generation of oppressors — thus contributing to the reproduction of class society in its totality. 

It is historically evident that much of this social reproduction — the work necessary to produce and reproduce the worker — is overwhelmingly performed by women within the traditional, nuclear, heterosexual family. Without this, the worker cannot work. Therefore, women’s struggle is not an adjunct or subsidiary to class struggle; it is absolutely integral to it. Lenin recognised this, describing the ‘connection between the social and human position of the woman, and private property in the means of production’ as ‘inseparable’. It is impossible to advocate for the overthrow of capitalism without understanding and challenging those processes which are essential to its function — historically, sex and race oppression.

Social reproduction (including domestic labour) is, of course, necessary labour, and so is not exclusive to the capitalist mode of production. Though the worker in socialist economies is not exploited to extract surplus value, the basic processes required to produce, reproduce and maintain him remain the same. The communist worker must still be born, raised, fed, clothed, etc — just like his capitalist counterpart. This has proved to be an uncomfortable truth for many socialists, who find it difficult to acknowledge that women continue to carry the burden of domestic labour under socialism — and in many cases are relegated back to traditional domestic life immediately post-revolution.

That said, Marxist feminism is not transfixed by domestic labour. Through the lens of social reproduction, we are able to conceptualise an array of social issues (such as housing, healthcare and education) in relation to the extraction of surplus value. By limiting who has access to these services, as well as the quality of them, capitalists are able to broadly control human development. The state uses social policy to reproduce the labour force and cultivate the next generation of class society. Those who have limited access to education, healthcare, housing, etc — or who are otherwise impacted by adverse social experiences — are more likely to be trapped in their subjugated economic position. By viewing the relations between labour-power and social factors through the lens of social reproduction, we avoid the moralistic pitfall of characterising poor social policy as an abstract injustice caused by individual capitalist bogeymen, motivated by greed and spite.

Like domestic labour, these public sphere ‘caring’ professions — those which contribute to human development and well-being — often have a disproportionately female workforce. Teaching, nursing etc. These sectors also often have a disproportionate number of black, asian and migrant workers. Thus, we can see, that those funnelled into social reproduction are those who are economically vulnerable or can be more easily ‘othered’.

Capitalism requires this labour insofar as it needs the workforce to have a minimum standard of health and education in order to be able to be productive workers. We see how capitalism shapes worker’s private lives to meet their labour demands — a service based economy requires literate workers and so all children have some degree of formal education. In times gone by, for example, workers did not need to be literate and so, correspondingly, had no access to formal education.

This article is part of a series. Read Part III here.

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