Sociology- Marxism

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Marxist Views- Karl Marx

Karl Marx 

Marx (1818-83) described Western societies as being dominated by the bourgeoisie, wealthy owners of bussinesses. They employed the proletariat (working class), paying low wages and enriching themselves with the profits. This economic base of capitalism was reinforced by the super-structure of society, institutions such as religion, the eduction system and the family, which taught the working class to accept the situation as inevitable. People would remain in this state of false consciousness unless this ideology was questioned and they could be united in revolution.

Marxism is a conflict perspective, as it describes a form of inequality where groups could potentially compete for power. Modern Marxists agree that:

  • families socialise children to be obedient and hard working which benefits capitalists;
  • wealth is passed down families perpetuating inequalities; 
  • families are too privatised, discouraging wage- labourers from uniting against capitalism. Community living is peferable; 
  • a Communist society in which all means of production, such as farms and factories, are collectively owned and workers recieve a fair share of the profits should replace private ownship of businesses. 
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Marxist Views- Engels

Friedrich Engels

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1902) Engels, who worked with Marx, suggested that marriage began with early capitalism. As farming became sucessful enough to produce a surplus, men wanted to pass their accumulated property down to their children. They could only be sure which children were their own if they controlled women, creating legal bonds and punishments for those who were unfaithful. Thus wives became unpaid domestic servants dependent on and dominated by their husbands.

To emancipate women, Engels said they must be able to work in public industry, where all workers would share the profits of their labours. The private household as an economic unit headed bya male breadwinner should be abolished. Children could be socialised by the Communist state and couples should only stay together if they wished to. Needs, such as meals and laundry, would be provided for the community by workers rewarded for their labour instead of by housewives performing these duties.

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Marxist Views- Engels


  • Engels' theory is based on unreliable historical evidence but makes an interesting analogy between men's control of women and capitalists' domination of the proletariat.
  • His views were convincing enough to be tired in Russia after the 1917revolution. Attempts to break up the privatised family by building communal dining rooms, laundries and children's towns, where they could be educated away from their parents, were discussed but met with oppostion and were unaffordable. Instead the government made divorce easier, legalised abortion and banned adoption to discourage the nuclear family, though Stalin later reversed these policies when they led to declining birth rates.
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Marxists Views- Zaretsky

Eli Zaretsky

In Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (1976), American Marxist Zaretsky viewed the family and the world of paid work as connected spheres, disagreeing with radical feminists who blame patriarchy and not capitalism for women's opression. He linked changes in family roles to economic developments:

  • In the late Middle Ages and early days of the Industrial Revolution both men and women were engaged in production and children helped;
  • Victorian laws then stopped child labour so that mothers had to care for children at home and men became sole breadwinners. As dependants, women lost status.
  • As industrial processes became automated and unsatisfying, alienated male workers sought satisfaction in their home lives, assigning women comforting domestic roles and expecting them to maintain beautiful homes. Cheap consumer goods were brought to transform homes as sanctuaries from work, but these false needs forced men to worker harder to keep up their conspicuous consumption, increasing their frustration and the pressure on their wives.
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Marxists Views- Zaretsky

To Zaretsky, attempts to liberate women, by encouraging their education and opening up careers through equal pay, would not imporove the status of women within the family. More radical changes were needed, similar to those suggested by Engels but less threatening to family love than those considered in revoluntionary Russia:

  • care of children and other dependants should be carried out by neighbourhood services run by both sexes;
  • this would enable women to work in a Communist collective, reducing their isolation;
  • shorter working hours would enable both sexes to mix with the community, which would no longe be divided by class;
  • family relationships and the value of love would still be respected. 

Evaluation: Jennifer Sommerville (2000) thinks that Zaretsky exaggerated the notion of the family as a refuge from capitalism as it was often violent and cruel. Working- class women have often needed to paid work, so the image of the 'angel in the house' is misleading. Not everyone would agree that getting neighbourhood services to look after children and other dependants is compatible with the idea of loving family relationships.

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Marxists Feminists Views

Margaret Benston

Benston (1972) demonstrated how a woman's domestic labour supports capitalism:

  • she keeps male bradwinner fed and clothed and relaxed enough to return to his gruelling job the next day;
  • she socialises children at no cost to their future employer;
  • as she is unpaid for this labour, the male has to support her and their children and so cannot afford to strike or give up his job, however poor the pay and conditions.

Fran Ansley

Ansley (1972) suggested that housewives act as a sponge to soak up men's frustration about their work, which they are unable to express there for feal of ismissal. At worst this may be expressed through domestic violence. Without the privatised family, workers would bond together intheir free time and channel their anger into revolution.

Diane Feeley

Feeley (1972)suggested that the father-dominated family conditions children to accept authority, preparing them for the oppressive capitalist workplace. 

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Marxists Feminists Views

Veronica Beechey

Beechley (1986) observed that women have to fit paid ork round family responsibilities such as picking children up from school, often limitimg them to ill paid half time work in poor conditions. Others are part of the reserve army of labour, worker available to flljobs when they arise but dismissed without much compensation during a recession. The existence of female workers without much bargining power because they are too busy to join trade unions gives capitalists the flexibility to expand and contract the workforce to maintain profits. 

Heidi Hartmann 

Hartmann (1981) claimed that Marxists paid insufficient attention to women's interests. Marxist theories about the family explain the benefits to capitalists of some individuals performing unpaid domestic labour and belonging to the reserve army of labour but do not explain why most of those people are women. patriarchy is needed to explain this. Even under Communism, men would try to maintain their current dominance. Events in the early Soviet Union support this. When divorce was made easier, to discourage family life associated with capitalism, many mother were left responsible for children they truggled to support, while men walked away unscathed.

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Marxists Feminist Evaluation


  • These ideas are based on stereotypical conventional families in which women are unwaged or under- employed, whereas the majority of women of working age are now employed, many in permanent , full-time jobs. Some are more successful than males.
  • Other types of households such as single-parent families are not considered.
  • Functionalists argue that there are many benefits for women from living in families.

Other left- wing feminists 

In The Anti- Social Family (1982), Michelle Barrett and Mary McIntosh deplored the way alienated workers are cut off from local communities because they use the family as a refuge and spend free time buying domestic goods. Media idealise the conventional family through advertising, so single people feel they are missing out. Barrett and McIntosh are socialists, more moderate then Marxists, and don't suggest the abolition of the family and personal life. They recommend improving the nature of paid work, to make it intrinsically rewarding, and revitalising community life so that people enjoy a better balance of relationaships, private and public.

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