Capital and the Left - Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici

Against the pro-work left. Published by Falling Wall Press, 1975.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 22, 2022

With its traditional blindness to the dynamics of class movements, the left has interpreted the end of a phase within the women’s movement as the end of the movement itself. Thus, slowly but surely, they are trying to regain the political terrain which in the sixties they had been forced to relinquish. Now that the ground appears to be clear, we increasingly see them drop their ‘feminist’ mask and pour out those dearest beliefs which, though stifled by the movement’s power, were never really snuffed out.

And first and foremost among these is the belief that they, not women, are in the best position to decide what we really need and where the women’s movement should go. In the sixties, when women were leaving the leftist groups in droves, the left had to espouse the validity of autonomy. (They had already gone through the painful experience of complete repudiation by the autonomous black movement.) Reluctantly, they had to concede that women too are part of the revolution. They even went so far as to beat their breasts over their newly discovered sexism. But, most important, they learned to speak in respectful and even subdued tones. Now in the midst of what they perceive as a feminist funeral, their voices are raised again and this time not only to utter the final word, but to pass judgement on our achievements and shortcomings. Their story strikes us with a familiar ring. In the words of one of these self-appointed ‘feminists’: “women also need a socialist movement… and no movement that is composed only of women can substitute for this”1 , which means it was all very well while it lasted, but ultimately we have to be led by them. And in order to do that, they want first to re-establish the correct political line.

The same old story

This line, of course, is nothing new. Once again we are told that serious politics is not kitchen business, and that our struggle to liberate ourselves as women-our struggle to destroy our work in the home, our relations in the family, the prostitution of our sexuality-is definitely subordinate, or at best auxiliary, to the ‘real class struggle’ in the factory. Not accidentally most of today’s leftist polemics against the autonomy of the women’s movement are devoted to denying that Wages for Housework is the feminist and therefore working class strategy in our struggle against capital. They realize that Wages for Housework means less work, less dependence, less blackmail, in one word, more power for women-and they are afraid of it. Why is this so?

One possible answer is that the men are afraid of losing their male ‘privileges’: if women have more money of their own, one day men might find their kitchens and beds empty. True as this might be, there is a deeper reason which has escaped us so far only because years of indoctrination have made us believe that the left is on the side of the working class. The reason why the left is actively trying to prevent us from gaining more power is not only that the men are male chauvinists, but that the left are totally identified with the capitalist viewpoint. The left, in all its varieties, is not interested in destroying capital, the surplus labour we are forced to do, but in making it more efficient. Their revolution is a reorganization of capitalist production which will rationalize our slavery rather than abolish it. This is why when the working class refuses work they immediately worry about ‘who will clean the streets’.

And this is why they always choose their ‘revolutionary agents’ from among those sectors of the working class whose work is most rationalized. Supposedly, the workers who most directly contribute to the accumulation of capital will be those most equipped to manage it. As Andre’ Gorz bluntly put it: “Factory workers are revolutionary because they are not afraid that with the revolution they will lose their jobs”.2 That is, workers are revolutionary not in so far as they are against their exploitation, but in so far as they are producers, not in so far as they refuse work but in so far as they work. How far the working class is from this ‘viewpoint’ can be seen by the amount of energy the left spends in reproaching workers for their lack of ‘class consciousness’, i.e. ‘production consciousness’. The left is horrified by the fact that workers-male and female, waged and unwaged-want more money, more time for themselves, more power, instead of being concerned with figuring out how to rationalise production.

In our case, one thing is clear. The left attacks every struggle that might give women real power, because as primarily house-workers, we do not measure up to the ‘productive role’ they have assigned to the ‘working class’. What this means has been best expressed by Wally Secombe in New Left Review:

Revolutionary transformation is only possible because the proletariat is engaged directly in socialized labour and therefore bears as a class the pre-requisite of a socialist mode of production.
While the labour of housewives remains privatized, they are unable to prefigure the new order nor spearhead the productive forces in breaking the old. (our italics)3

Quite magnanimously, Secombe concedes that in time of capitalist crisis (i.e. when capital is already falling apart, supposedly on its own, independently of us), “mobilizations of housewives” around appropriate demands (e.g. price-watching committees) can make a “contribution” to the revolutionary struggle. “In such circumstances, it is not uncommon that objectively backward layers be thrown forward”. But the fact remains that “housewives still will not provide the decisive motive force of the women’s struggle”.4 Since internationally the overwhelming majority of women work first and above all as house-workers, this actually amounts to writing off women from any revolutionary process, or, in other words, to completely accepting our exploitation.

The ‘Chinese model’

It is not the first time that after the end of a struggle ‘revolutionaries’ have sent us back to the kitchen (now with the promise of ‘sharing the housework’). If this process today appears less clearly it is only because, in complete harmony with capital’s plans, the same hand that pushes us back home is also trying to push us into the factories5 to ‘join them’ in the class struggle, or, more accurately, to get ourselves trained for our ‘future role in production’. The long-term arrangement they have for us is what they call the Chinese model: socialization and rationalization of housework and self-management, self-control in the factory. Or, in other words, a bit more of the factory in the family (higher efficiency and productivity of housework) and a bit more of the family in the factory (more individual concern, responsibility, identification with work). In both cases, the left is espousing long-cherished capitalist Utopias.

Self-management and self-control express the attempt to have the working class not only exploited, but participating in the planning of its own exploitation. It is no accident that capital uses the word ‘alienation’ almost as often as the left and offers the same palliatives: ‘job enrichment’, ‘workers’ participation’, ‘workers’ control’, ‘participatory democracy’. As for the rationalization and socialization of housework (canteens, dormitories etc.), capital has often toyed with this possibility, for in terms of pennies such rationalization might be a saving for capital.

This was the plan in Russia, where speeding up the reproduction of labour power, i.e. housework, to ‘free’ women’s arms for the factories was one of the top priorities after the revolution. As in the dreams of the left, the guideline that inspired the socialist planners was a ‘society of producers’ where everything would be functional to production. From this viewpoint, the “house-commune”, with its collective kitchens, diners, lavatories, dormitories etc., seemed the perfect solution to save money, space, time and “raise the quality and productivity of labour”.6 It was only because of the “obstinate resistance of the working masses”7 that these projects were increasingly abandoned. Anatole Kopp reports a women’s assembly in Novisibirsk to demand “even a whole 5 square meters, provided it is individual space”8 ; and by 1930 the Bolshevik urban planners had to recognize that:

. . . everybody is disillusioned with the so-called ‘house-commune’ . . . the ‘commune-con’ where a worker’s room is only big enough to sleep in . . . The ‘commune-con’ which cuts down living space and comfort (see the lines at the sinks, toilets, dressing rooms, diners…) is beginning to rouse the dissatisfaction of the working masses.9

Since the thirties, the Russian State has upheld the nuclear family as the most effective organism for disciplining workers and ensuring the supply of labour power, and also in China, despite a certain degree of socialization, the State supports the nuclear family. In any case, the Russian experiment demonstrated that once the goal is production, work, the socialization of housework can only be a further regimentation of our lives-ns the examples of schools, hospitals, barracks etc., continuously teach us. And this socialization by no means does away with the family, it simply extends it, for example in the form of ‘political and cultural committees’ which exist at the community and factory level, as in Russia and China. In fact, given the factory, capital needs the family, or more specifically, the discipline of the former is premised on the discipline of the latter, and vice-versa. Nobody is born into this world a worker. This is why, whether dressed up in star-spangled banners or in hammers and sickles, at the heart of capital we always find the glorification of family life.

In the West, capital has been rationalizing and socializing housework for many years. The State has been planning the size, living conditions, housing, policing, education, drugging, and indoctrination of the family on an ever increasing scale. And if it has not succeeded more than it has, it is because of the revolt of the wageless in the family-women and children. It is this revolt which has prevented the family from being more productive, and has made it at times counter-productive.

The left has been crying about this capitalist failure to discipline the family for a long time. As comrade Gramsci saw as early as 1919:

. . . All these factors make any form of regulation of sex and any attempt to create a new sexual ethic suited to the new methods of production and work extremely complicated and difficult. However, it is still necessary to attempt this regulation and to attempt to create a new ethic . . . The truth is that the new type of man demanded by the rationalization of production and work cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it too has been rationalized.10

Today the left is more cautious but not less determined to tie us to the kitchen, whether in its present form or in a more rationalized, productive one. They do not want to abolish housework, because they do not want to abolish factory work. In our case they would like us to do both kinds of work. Here, however, the left reflects exactly the same dilemma that today troubles capital: where can women be most productive, on the assembly-line or on the baby-line? Capital needs us in the factories as cheap labour, to replace other workers who are too expensive, but they also need us at home to keep potential trouble makers off the streets. The seeming difference between the Trotskyist line-housework is barbarism i.e. all women to the factories-and the libertarian linehousework is socialism i.e. no work should be paid-is only a difference in tactics within an overall capitalist strategy.

The libertarians maintain that housework escapes any social-economic categorization: “women’s domestic labour under capitalism is neither productive nor unproductive”-Lisa Vogel11 ; “We may have to decide that housework is neither production nor consumption” – Carol Lopate12 ; and “Housewives are and are not part of the working class “-Eli Zaretsky13 . They place housework outside of capital and claim it is ‘socially necessary labour’ because they believe that in one form or another it will be necessary also under socialism. So Lisa Vogel claims that domestic labour ” . . . is primarily useful labour, it has the power, under the right conditions, [sic] to suggest a future society in which all labour would be primarily useful…” 14 . This is echoed by Lopate’s vision of the family as the last retreat where “we keep our souls alive”15 , and culminates with Zaretsky’s assertion that “housewives are integral the working class and to the working class movement: not because they produce surplus value but because they perform socially necessary labour”16 .

In this context, we are not surprised to hear from Zaretsky that “the tension between them [feminism and socialism] . . . will continue well into the period of socialism . . . with the establishment of a socialist regime class conflict and social antagonism do not disappear, but instead often emerge in a sharper and clearer form.”17 Quite so: if this type of “revolution’ occurs, we will be the first to struggle against it.

* * * * *

When day after day the left proposes what capital proposes it would be irresponsible not to call a club a club. The charge that Wages for Housework would institutionalize women in the home has come from every left bank. Meanwhile they rejoice that we are being institutionalized in the factory. At the moment when the women’s movement gave power to the women institutionalized in both home and factory, the left rushed to channel this subversion into yet another indispensable capitalist institution: the trade unions. This has now become the left wave to the future.

With this pamphlet we want finally to differentiate ourselves from the left by a class line. The knife that draws the line is feminist, but what it divides are not men from women, but the technocracy from the working class it aims to supervise. We have been shy and backward not to have spoken so plainly before, but the left has blackmailed us with the charge of redbaiting (of being for the State if we are not for them) in the same way as the American State has blackmailed the rebellious with the charge of communism and the Russian State has blackmailed the rebellious with the charge of Trotskyism.


New York, May 1975

Text from:

  • 1Eli Zaretsky, ‘Socialist Politics and the Family’, Socialist Revolution, Vol.III, No. 19, Jan-March 1974.
  • 2From a speech given at a Telos conference, Buffalo, Fall 1970.
  • 3Wally Secombe, ‘The Housewife and her Labour under Capitalism’, New Left Review, No.83, Jan-Feb. 1974, p.23.
  • 4Ibid., p.24.
  • 5See Workers’ Fight, No. 79, Dec. 1974-Jan. 1975: ” . . . if men can be factory fodder, why not women? . . . If we want to take our place in the world, to affect its history, we have to leave the safe confines of our homes and go out into the factories… and HELP TO TAKE THEM OVER!”
  • 6Anatole Kopp, Citta e Rivoluzione, Milan, Feltrinelli 1972, p. 147 (translated from the French, Ville et Revolution: Architecture et urbanisme sovietiques des annees vingt, Paris, 1967).
  • 7Ibid.,p.160.
  • 8Ibid.,p.128.
  • 9Ibid., p.267.
  • 10Antonio Gramsci, ‘Americanism and Fordism’, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London, Lawrence &Wishart, 1971 quoted in the Introduction to Selected Sex-Pol Essays 1934-37 by Wilheln Reich & Karl Teschitz, London, Socialist Reproduction, 1973, p.33.
  • 11Lisa Vogel, The Earthly Family’, Radical America, Vol. 7, No. 4/5, July-Oct. 1973, p.28.
  • 12Carol Lopate, ‘Women and Pay for Housework’, Liberation, Vol. 18, No.9, May-June 1974, p . 11 .
  • 13Zaretsky, ‘Socialist Politics and the Family’, p.89.
  • 14Vogel, ‘The Earthly Family’, p.26.
  • 15Lopate, Women and Pay for Housework’, p. 10.
  • 16Zaretsky, ‘Socialist Politics and the Family’, p.89.
  • 17Ibid., pp.83-84.