Under Communism… Will the sexual division of labor disappear?

18 November, 2021

sexual division of labor

Under communism… why would the sexual division of labor disappear when it pre-dates even class society? Isn’t it an exercise in voluntarism to declare that Communism will simply abolish the sexual division of labor?

Table of Contents

The question at hand

Why would the sexual division of labor disappear in Communism if it pre-dates even class society? Isn’t it an exercise in voluntarism to declare that Communism will simply abolish the sexual division of labor?

Was the sexual division of labor born under primitive Communism?

Hórreos and cultivation in the field in the tripilia cucuteni culture (primitive communism). All the representations in textbooks and popularization books hint at a certain sexual division of labor denied by the archaeological works they seek to represent.
Hórreos and cultivation in the field in the tripilia cucuteni culture (primitive communism). All the representations in textbooks and popularization books hint at a certain sexual division of labor denied by the archaeological works they seek to represent.

The ideology of all class societies has always confused the various forms of task specialization with the division of society into classes. It is clear that this is not an accidental confusion but a form of legitimization of the fracture of society between exploited and exploiters.

In this framework, exaggerating the non-specialization of labor under primitive communism and presenting the existence of tasks physiologically limited to women, such as breastfeeding children, as a “natural” form of sexual division of labor was a real obsession from the first steps of Anthropology.

The reality is that primitive communism experienced in its last millennia agriculture and animal husbandry, the formation of cities, a certain degree of specialization of tasks and a complex community organization.

But specialization of tasks is very different from division of labor into distinct social groups, and what archaeology tells us is that even in the “primitive communist city” there were no spaces restricted to differentiated groups or even tools specifically associated with generic groups such as males and females.

Exaggerating the so-called natural division of labor – basically lactation and pregnancy – to the point of making it synonymous with sexual division of labor and this in turn with a specific form of exploitation of women that pre-dates even class division is inconsistent with the archaeological record, but not innocent. In fact it is necessary to the feminist discourse on the patriarchy.

The aim of feminist discourse on patriarchy is to redefine discrimination against women as a form of exploitation previous to and simultaneous with capitalism. Thus patriarchy would be a system of co-exploitation. Only in this way can it posit a sort of permanent revolution by phases in which patriarchy should be confronted first, or in which, simply, the struggle against capitalism should be sidlinened because no overcoming of it would produce anything other than exclusion if the sexual division of labor and the specific and systemic exploitation of women are not resolved before.

Does patriarchy exist? (in Spanish) 8/12/2018

So, where does the sexual division of labor originate from?

Presentation of "female" labor (domestic industries of spinning and weaving) on a 6th century BCE Greek oil jar (lekytos)
Presentation of “female” labor (domestic industries of spinning and weaving) on a 6th century BCE Greek oil jar (lekytos)

The division of society into classes and the emergence of the first modes of production based on this fracture were a brutal trauma.

Both the “asiatic” and the slave-owning mode of production are born of the conquest of one people/gens by another and not by the evolution and assertion of differentiated groups in developed primitive communism. Even in the prototype of the asiatic mode of production, the first Shang emperor is a conqueror enslaving masses of peasasts according to the official Confucian legend. The classes, as we see in the relationship between Sparta and the helots, are in principle tribal groups that in a non-market framework, maintain a certain ingroup egalitarianism and forms of communal property.

But the survival of communal forms, which actually reaches our days through different myths and cultural elements of the exploited classes, does not deny the totality. Although certain tasks are the collective responsibility of the exploited -originally materialized as tribute- the division of labor into “specialized” social groups necessarily appears as a consequence of the division of society into classes.

Every exploiting class is primarily the organizer of social work, work which it organizes and hierarchizes according to the needs of the perpetuation of exploitation. In these societies of very low productivities, subjected to constant demographic crises, not only the women of the exploited class become property, the women as a whole – also those of the ruling class – become a specialized means of production subjected to the demographic needs of the ruling class as a whole – men and women.

It is here that “patriarchy” appears as an institution characteristic of and necessarily derived from the relationship between the slave-owning class and the slave class.

Patriarchy is a central feature of the set of relations of production in the slave-owning mode of production. It implied a form of material ownership over the whole productive unit – slaves, offspring, spouse – and a certain relationship with the territory.

Does patriarchy exist? (in Spanish) 8/12/2018

That is, the sexual division of labor is the immediate and inseparable consequence of the necessities imposed by the maintenance of the set of slave-owning relations that defined the fracturing of society into classes.

Their results in material culture and architecture are evident in the division of spaces within the dwelling of each class, in all kinds of specialized tools of personal care within the ruling class, and even in the sexual division of public spaces.

Why does the sexual division of labor last after slavery?

Serf men and women, the exploited class characteristic of the feudal mode of production, working the land. Within the exploited class, the sexual division of labor largely blurred until the end of the Carolingian era.
Serf men and women, the exploited class characteristic of the feudal mode of production, working the land. Within the exploited class, the sexual division of labor largely blurred until the end of the Carolingian era.

It can be argued that a portion of patriarchal institutions persist under feudalism after patriarchy as such – a slave-owning institution – had disappeared. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

On the one hand the sexual division of labor blurs within the exploited class in most of Europe between the 5th century and the end of the Carolingian era. A phenomenon that reflects the retreat of the social division of labor in general suffered by christian feudal Europe.

But on the other hand the new ruling class does not cease to suffer from a permanent demographic problem until the twelfth century. At that time and not by chance, a whole reconsideration of women appears, which is manifested from the rise of Marian cults to the appearance of the queen in chess.

But that change will be definitively cut short by the Black Death in the 14th century. Demographic distress will permanently shape the concerns of both the church, which is the main state ideological apparatus and which will try to patch up ideologically the first symptoms of decadence of the system, and a rising merchant bourgeoisie.

Each feudal demographic crisis is accompanied by a new wave of misogyny, with its effects, since the 13th century, on the sexual division of labor within the bourgeoisie and its guilds.

As guild labor becomes labor exploited by the urban bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie incorporates more women into direct exploitation and gives spaces of new economic protagonism to the women of its class. But at the same time, it relies on the church to avert the danger of a new demographic crisis and to exalt domestic confinement and nurture.

Thus, when capitalism emerges, the situation of working women will retain, as Marx denounced, the servile remnants of the domesticity inherited from slavery while they suffer the forced commodification of their labor power and of their life as a whole.

But in the face of the old patriarchal relations, capitalism was not only revolutionary, but implacable, as the “Communist Manifesto” already recalled. Why? Because for surplus value to exist, there must first exist the possibility of conversion of money into capital, that is to say labor power must be a commodity that is freely bought and sold on the market.

For this the seller must be able to meet the buyer as persons exchanging commodities, to hold – formally – “equal rights”. The worker must be “free”, that is owner of the commodity he is going to sell and be willing to sell his labor power for a given time as something separate from himself – if he sold himself he would be a slave and if his labor power did not belong to him by right he would be a serf. For all of which he must in addition to having no alternatives, be dispossessed of the means of production which would enable him to convert his labor-power into commodities for himself. […]

[In this context it is absurd] to defend that the oppression of women – which is not the same as discrimination however systematic it may be- continues under capitalism so that capital can save itself from paying for domestic labor. In reality, the total wage bill received by the proletariat is the cost of reproduction of the labor power that capital employs. This cost of reproduction is independent of the sexual division of labor, it is simply, the minimum that a state of technology, a cost structure and a correlation of forces between social classes can pay at any given moment.

In fact, historically, the incorporation of women into the wage labor force, impelled by massive capitalization during post-war reconstruction in countries such as Spain, Portugal or Argentina, ended as it had begun: the total income of any working family was just enough to support the working capacity of its working-age members, including the cultural costs necessary to sustain a labor force necessarily more skilled.

Does patriarchy exist? (in Spanish) 8/12/2018

Why hasn’t capitalism ended the sexual division of labor?

Female loom workers. From its inception capitalism contained the basis for eliminating the sexual division of labor...but that doesn't mean it will culminate it.
Female loom workers. From its inception capitalism contained the basis for eliminating the sexual division of labor…but that doesn’t mean it will culminate it.

The very exploitative core of capitalism tends to reduce and eliminate the sexual division of labor, homogenizing workers of both sexes on the basis of what they have in common for the system: the exploitation of their labor power. But that is far from meaning that capitalism had this as a conscious “program”, that it is going to culminate it totally or even that it is in historical conditions to achieve it globally.

The overcoming of the division between manual and intellectual labor or the socialization of production are also typically capitalist tendencies. But this does not mean that they cease to be subordinated to the concrete and immediate needs of the accumulation of capital nor do they cease to be conditioned by the general logic of the system.

This logic rewards any form of discrimination while it has already lost the capacity to generate human development alongside its economic growth. At every step, the trends that were once progressive in it, come increasingly into contradiction with human life and Nature.

Capitalism has laid the material foundations for an abundant and non-exploitative society, organized around human needs. A society, communism, in which from the first moment the sexual division of labor will appear as an obstacle to be urgently overthrown.

Neither capitalism can overcome the sexual division of labor nor Communism be achieved without doing overcoming it

Female loom workers. From its inception capitalism contained the basis for eliminating the sexual division of labor...but that doesn't mean it will culminate it.
Female loom workers. From its inception capitalism contained the basis for eliminating the sexual division of labor…but that doesn’t mean it will culminate it.

The inalienable core of communism is the abolition of wage labor. It is the touchstone of a total decommodification of production, which becomes organized for the direct satisfaction of human needs.

To decommodify the whole of social relations, to liberate from their mercantile form both production and life, is the basis of the communist program which expresses the whole struggle of the workers as a class.

"Down with the slavery of the kitchen!" 1919 poster.
“Down with the slavery of the kitchen!” 1919 poster.

It is, among other things, the opposite of the categorization and commodification of care offered to us by feminism as a capitalist way of overcoming the sexual division of labor…. An overcoming that in this approach is not such, but rather an entrenchment and generalization of commodification, atomization and dependence.

As we have seen in other installments of this series, the decommodification that makes the transition to communism rests fundamentally on two tendencies that capitalism can no longer develop except in monstrous and contradictory ways: the development of physical productivity and of the socialization of production.

In a society that is no longer fractured into classes, the organization of social work is no longer subordinated to maintaining that division and does not correspond to an exclusive class or group, it is a task of society as a whole, which becomes a community again (hence the name “communism”). It is society reconstituted into a community which organizes its own work, social work, in a conscious way.

In other words, by definition, communism is the communitarization of social organization and the socialization of the satisfaction of everyone’s needs. Including today’s so-called “care”. Instead of commodifying, socialize. Instead of atomizing and individualizing, collectivizing and communitarizing. And this is absolutely incompatible with maintaining a sexual division of labor. If there were a sexual division of labor, the reality of communism would be negated at the root.

In a reunited society, without classes, there is no possible division of labor by groups of birth or ascription, but voluntary and socialized contribution of each one according to his capacities… which will be, but this is another matter, multiplied and not denied by the new society.

Therefore, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, the end of the sexual division of labor and therefore…

…The political and social equality of the sexes does not emanate from any “women’s rights” referred to by the bourgeois movement for the emancipation of women. These duties can only be deduced from a generalized opposition to the class system, to all forms of social inequality and to all power of domination. In a word, they are deduced from the fundamental principle of socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908

Thus also, the negation of the sexual division of labor is necessarily, dialectically present all along the path to communism, from the demands of the working class to the very form of organization of the political expressions of class; and of course in the communist morality.