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Q&A: Do men benefit from women’s oppression?

Put simply – yes. Working class men derive a material benefit from the social oppression of women. They benefit from the free labour that women do in the home, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping and caring for children and sick relatives. In the UK, working women do on average 17 hours more domestic work per week, excluding shopping and childcare, than men. Almost one in five men admit to doing nothing at all around the home, despite the fact their partner also works.

In the developing world, the gap is even greater. In Turkey and Mexico, women spend between 4.3 and five hours more per day than men on domestic work – adding up to a maximum of 35 hours per week.

As Frederick Engels described it in ‘The Origins of the Family Private Property and the State’: “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. Within the family (the husband) is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.”

As a result of what Marxists have called “domestic slavery”, i.e. unpaid labour, where childbearing and care interrupts a working life, working class men receive on average higher overall pay and more secure employment. This is true despite equal pay legislation. Women workers are concentrated in low pay, insecure, unionised and part-time employment. In OECD countries, men earn on average 16% more than women in similar full-time jobs. In the UK, significantly more women in employment work part-time (43%) compared to men (13%).

They also benefit from higher social esteem and greater sexual freedom. The famous double standard can still be seen in the media and in everyday life. And in many parts of the word it is not just a matter of vile sexist words for “unfaithful” women but of physical brutality and often murder.

In many parts of the world – most starkly in developing countries – women are second-class citizens within society, with harsh restrictions placed on their movements, clothes and sexual expression. In many countries, women are not seen as equal to men under law. Even in countries like Britain, the failure of police, the authorities and even left-wing organisations to take rape seriously or to believe complaints highlights this fact.

Do working class men collude with the ruling class to oppress women?

Yes – if they do nothing to fight sexism. The benefit they gain provides a material basis for male sexism within the working class just as in other classes. The working class is no more spontaneously immune from sexism than from racism. Which is why for years sections of working class men fought against women joining their unions, refused to support a working class women’s fight for equal pay, or even just idly watched TV while their partners wash up. Fighting spontaneously generated bourgeois ideology (embedded in sexist customs and habits) on all these questions is necessarily a conscious task of socialist and militant trade unionists.

The bourgeoisie uses this spontaneous sexism to divide the working class, in the same why it tries to divide the class on the basis of racism and homophobia. Which is why it is so important that the workers movement and socialists identify the roots of oppression – it is not just an idea without any material basis, or it wouldn’t retain its hold in society.

This enables us to see that without uprooting these conditions – the nuclear family with women burdened with the bulk of domestic labour – and without fully socialising this work, the struggle against sexism will be a “labour of Sisyphus” repeatedly done only to be repeatedly undone by capitalist society. In short, we have to rip up the roots of women’s oppression as an integral, vital and conscious part of abolishing capitalism.

Refusing to acknowledge that these benefits to men really exist, as the Socialist Workers Party does, not only rejects the daily experience of women across the world, it also prevents the development of the strategy, tactics and organisational means to overcome women’s oppression: to create class unity on a higher, revolutionary level.

In a recent Socialist Worker article, ‘Are we all divided by privilege?’ Esme Choonara rightly rejects the bourgeois academic idea of ‘privilege theory’, which argues that all men are complicit in sexism, or are sexist by definition; but at the same time she also categorically claims that “working class men don’t benefit when women are forced to carry a heavier caring responsibility due to cuts in the welfare state.” Well, they do in the sense they aren’t the ones shouldering a heavier burden.

This is the historic position of the SWP, dating back to Tony Cliff and relating to their tailing of the economic (trade union) struggles of the working class in the believe that socialist conscious arises spontaneously from them. They fear that if they recognised the material basis for men’s sexism this would somehow “justify” or even reinforces these divisions. But tailism always leads to following spontaneous consciousness of workers, rather than giving a leading to political i.e. class consciousness.

Does recognising sexism’s roots mean that working class men and women can’t unite?

Not at all. What it means is that to achieve this requires a struggle. Hard political arguments have to be had to show that actively combating sexism is in the best interest of the class as a whole. For working class men also suffer from the oppression of women, from the divisions and weakness it engenders in their struggles and organisations, as the bosses try to pit sections of workers against each other to push wages down. Essentially, the oppression of women also holds the male worker down.

Working class organisations, trade unions and reformist parties – but also, as we have seen, far left ones – do not automatically or spontaneously oppose to women’s oppression just as they do not spontaneously become socialist. It requires a conscious struggle by a revolutionary party with the right policies and programme to fight sexism, racism, and reformism.

These political arguments do crop up spontaneously during heightened class struggle – a woman worker out on the picket line fighting for her livelihood is much less likely to go home quietly to face the dishes. During the Great Miner’s Strike, women went from organising communal kitchens and support groups to fighting with the police on the picket lines and being powerful public speakers, rallying support for the mining community at mass meetings across the country.

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