Tweedie versus Mitchell.

Dominic Tweedie, December 5th, 2005.

On Juliet Michell’s “Women: The Longest Revolution”, Chapters 1 and 5.

I have looked hard for writing on women and revolution that will be suitable for dialogical political education. Juliet Mitchell’s book “Women: the Longest Revolution” comes highly recommended. So it is a surprise to find that her opening line is this: “The problem of the subordination of women and the need for their liberation was recognized by all the great socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century.” Actually I have not found evidence that this was so. On the contrary, the huge 19th-century legacy of writing contains a tiny amount on women - and it is this actual legacy that Mitchell goes on to attack.

So Mitchell immediately presents herself as someone who asserts things without fear of contradiction. This is the mark of the anti-communist writer assured of a large audience that is eager for a certain version of reality, and without any intention of checking the facts. The next assertion builds upon the first: that the 20th century has produced even less material, which is also not true. This is then followed by an unclear assertion about the family, and in this way the book’s course is set up. “The Womens’ Liberation Movement broke upon a socialist consciousness ignorant of its necessity”, she writes.

Thus Mitchell gives the Women’s Liberation Movement a spurious corporate personality like that of Al Qaeda in our times. She immediately contrasts it with Bebel, Fourier and “the early Marx”. Then she quotes from Capital Vol 1 as follows:

“It is, of course, just as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of the family to be absolute and final as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek, or the Eastern forms which, moreover, taken together form a series in historic development. [Marx, Capital I]”

Mitchell adds the comment: “What is striking in his later comments on the family is that the problem of women becomes submerged in the analysis of the family – women, as such, are not even mentioned!” I will come back to the question of the family.

And then she comes to Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. She immediately falsifies it, saying that:

“Engels declared that the inequality of the sexes was probably the first antagonism within the human species. The first class antagonism ‘coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in the monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male’. Basing much of his theory on Morgan’s fascinating, but inaccurate, anthropological investigations, Engels had many valuable insights...”

This is a travesty of Engels’ work. To understand why, it is necessary to realize how long homo sapiens existed (200 thousand years) without property and class, and therefore de facto as a woman-centred society; and how relatively recent (5000 years and not yet complete) is the subordination of women by men. Of course this subordination corresponds with the development of property. It also corresponds with a change in the marriage-form, or family. These are but three aspects of one phenomenon.

Morgan’s investigations were not inaccurate. They were unwelcome, because they tended to support the Marxist view of human development, but they have never been shown to be wrong. In fact the burying of Morgan’s work by the bourgeois anthropologists is one of the most blatant of academic scandals. Mitchell could not have been unaware of it, because it is part of Engels’ case in the “Origin”.

Evelyn Reed published “Woman’s Evolution” in the United States four years after Mitchell’s book, and had no difficulty showing how accurate Morgan’s findings had been and how gross has been the bourgeois revision of the evidence to suit their bowdlerized theories. We must conclude that Mitchell is a willing co-conspirator. The following remark of hers on Engels bears this out:

“The position of women, then, in the work of Marx and Engels remains dissociated from, or subsidiary to, a discussion of the family, which is in its turn subordinated as merely a precondition of private property. Their solutions retain this overly economist stress, or enter the realm of dislocated speculation.”

This is not disagreement, or argument, but misrepresentation. It depends on a separation of the phrase ”position of women” and the word “family”, which Mitchell has not bothered to define. That is because there is no such difference in common usage and especially not in Engels’ “Origin”. If Mitchell read Engels’ work she must have known that the family is exactly treated as meaning the position of women in that book, and that changes in the position of women are shown in the successive “marriage-forms”, or socially-recognised sex-relations, which are invariably tied to “economic” (material) circumstances. This is what the anthropological facts reveal.

Mitchell then quotes Shulamith Firestone as follows:

“... we must enlarge historical materialism to include the strictly Marxian, in the same way that the physics of relativity did not invalidate Newtonian physics so much as it drew a circle around it, limiting its application – but only through comparison – to a smaller sphere. For an economic diagnosis traced to ownership of the means of production, even of the means of reproduction, does not explain everything. There is a level of reality that does not stem directly from economics.... We can attempt to develop a materialist view of history based on sex itself.”

This is on page 5 of the 19 pages we have in electronic “soft” copy. Mitchell enlarges upon the idea of separation of sex from “economics*”. She then spends time generating a dichotomy between “radical feminists” and “abstract socialists”, which is a charicature, and for the remainder tries to build an argument based on a fixed concept of the family, eternal in nature, which needs to be overthrown in a revolution greater than a socialist one, or indeed a communist one.

This is an adequate point at which to start concretizing a critique of Juliet Mitchell’s book as represented by the two chapters that we have.

Mitchell has chosen to ignore the anthropological evidence of several extreme changes in the marriage form during pre-history and in recorded history up to the present time. In doing so she ignores the prime position of women in human society for most of the period of existence of “homo sapiens” as a species. Women’s liberation is then projected as a God-like cataclysmic act dividing history into before and after, resulting in a completely new situation unconnected with the past.

This is nothing like the Hegelian dialectical and materialist revolution as understood by Marxists, which has a strong and elaborate philosophical basis. Mitchell has not constructed a different philosophy, nor demolished the inherited one. She simply seeks to over-ride it and to downplay the matter altogether.

It is often the case that a writer will cover her weakest point in the very first paragraph, to hide it, as it were, out in the open. This is what Mitchell has done. It is the question of the family that is at the center of the whole affair. Women’s relations with men and society in general are regulated within or in terms of the bourgeois family in bourgeois society and under a bourgeois state. The bourgeois state and the bourgeois family have not always existed, and will pass away. These facts are unwelcome to Mitchell.

An illustration of the poverty of Mitchell’s approach can be illustrated by events in South Africa this week, half a century after Mitchell was writing. The South African Supreme Court has pronounced that the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage is unconstitutional and that parliament must change the law within a year to accommodate them.

The rights that will be granted will be the bourgeois rights of property - either community of property, or the “ante-nuptual contract”. These contracts will be available to gays and lesbians for the first time in South Africa, thus rendering their relationships not only respectable, but fully bourgeois. In fact they are clearly going to be respectable because they are bourgeois, and for no other reason.

The well-known US libertarian peace writer Justin Raimondo put it something like this: The first gay marriage will inevitably be followed by the first gay divorce!

Feminists in South Africa universally support this move, or so it seems. Instead of revolutionary subversion of the bourgeois marriage form, the womens’ liberation movement, such as it remains, is conservative and confirms the bourgeois normality. In spite of Juliet Mitchell’s accusation that socialism preserved the family, it is actually the womens’ movement that is preserving the specifically bourgeois family.

Needless to say, of course gays and lesbians should have all the benefits of equal rights in a bourgeois society. We should all fight for that. Women should have the same rights as anyone else, even in states where the essential right is the right to be bourgeois - if you can. But this is not enough for the vanguard party of the proletariat. As such, we have to start mapping the way forward beyond the bourgeois marriage form, with or without the assistance of the feminist women’s’ movement.

See also: “Tweedie Contra Orr” for more discussion of the bourgeois and proletarian families.

  • economics” in such an argument as this can only mean the general arrangements, as opposed to any specific arrangements like bourgeois, feudal, slave, or barbarian.