1  Modes of economy

The Marxist starting point on these questions comes from three classical sources, the section in the communist manifesto on the abolition of the family, the analysis of the value of labour power in Capital[Marx(1887)], and the work of Morgan[Morgan(1907)] and Engels[Engels and Hunt(2010)] on the family. The Manifesto alludes in a very brief way to the aim of abolishing the family and creating a ‘community of women’, but the meaning of this is not immediately apparent from the text. To understand the implications one has to refer to the pre-existing communist literature of the day and to infer conclusions from the later works.

1.1  Basic concepts

The methodological premise of historical materialist investigation is set out in the preface to [Engels and Hunt(2010)].

According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other.

A key point that Engels wanted to emphasise, drawing on Morgan, was that monogamous marriage is a late historical invention. The aboriginal form of human sexual relations was general promiscuity within a band or horde. Natural selection operating at the group level then favoured groups or tribes who adopted successively more elaborate rules prohibiting consanguineous sex, since such rules against incest improved genetic fitness of the group. Promiscuous sex is replaced by various forms of group marriage: groups of ‘brothers’ marrying groups of ‘sisters’ who are not their sisters.

The development of first horticulture, and then plough agriculture then leads via forms of matriarchal marriage to patriarchal polygamous or monogamous marriage. The programmatic interest of Engels in what would otherwise seem arcane works of ethnology comes down I think, to his and Marx commitment way back in 1848 to the abolition of the family as it then exists. This is why he is so enthusiastic about Morgan’s discovery that group marriage was a general predecessor to modern marriage forms. Not only did this prove that contemporary marriage was just one of multiple possible forms; it suggested that just as society was, as the communists maintained, destined to move from primitive communism via class society to a future communism, so would marriage move from group or matriarchal family forms, via monogamy and private property, back to a future system of group sexual relations.

Morgan and Engels views have been controversial, and there has been a strong social pressure for writers to project back contemporary monogamy and patriarchy onto the distant paleolithic past. But the argument that pre-agricultural societies had much more promiscuous sexual relations than post agricultural ones can be supported by modern reseach. [Ryan and Jethá(2012)] collect data from anthropology, primate behaviour and sperm competition theory to argue that Morgan’s basic hypothesis of aboriginal promiscuity is right. But although with Engels the methodological point the importance of production and reproduction is hammered home, there are still a couple of key concepts that are missing and either developed by or made explicit by later Marxists. These are the concepts of combinations of modes of production and the concept of domestic or patriarchal economy otherwise called the domestic mode of production. [Lenin(1965)] described the modes of production or forms of economy in revolutionary Russia as follows:

Let us enumerate these elements:

(1)patriarchal, i.e., to a considerable extent natural, peasant farming;

(2)small commodity production (this includcs the majority of those peasants who sell their grain);

(3)private capitalism;

(4)state capitalism;


Lenin was concerned to chart a political strategy of political class alliances in a society characterised by several forms of economy. This concept was developed and popularised in [Rey(1973)]. Although Rey is little known to English readers, his ideas ( sometimes misattributed to Althusser ) are crucial and have had an influence on other thinkers.

[Sahlins and Economics(1972)] developed the concept of the domestic mode of production to describe early economies, and Delphy [Delphy(1980),Delphy and Leonard(1984)] develops the concept of the coexistence of the domestic mode of production with capitalism in her studies of French patriarchal families, particularly peasant families. The idea of the domestic mode of production or domestic economy is examined in greater depth by the Marxist anthropologist Claude Meillassoux[Meillassoux(1981)] who says:

Neither feudalism, nor slavery, even less capitalism, know such regulating and correcting built-in mechanisms governing the process of reproduction. On the contrary, in the last analysis, we find that all modem modes of production, all classes of societies depend, for the supply of labour-power, on the domestic community. As for capitalism, it depends both on the domestic communities of the colonised countries and on its modem transformation, the family, which still maintains its reproductive functions although deprived of its productive ones. From this point of view, the domestic relations of production can be considered as the organic basis of feudalism, slavery as well as of capitalism or bureaucratic socialism. None of these forms of social organisation can be said to represent an integrated mode of production to the extent that they are not based on homogeneous relations of production and of reproduction.[Meillassoux(1981),p. xiii]

The domestic mode of production in the feudal period was the real base of the economy. Peasant households grew food, milled grain, cooked it, spun wool, wove it and out of this fed themselves, clothed themselves and raised the next generation. Since this could typically be done in say 3 days labour a week, that left 3 other days during which they could work, unpaid, in the manorial economy. With the liberation of the peasantry in France from feudal dues, the surplus time could be devoted to producing cash crops to sell on the market. This was the incipient state of the domestic peasant economy when Lenin wrote A Tax in Kind.

Inside the domestic economy there is, Delphy argues, a class antagonism between patriarchs on the one side and on the other side wives and to an extent older children. The patriarchs exploit their wives and children. The wives and children provide labour which yields goods which are partly consumed on the farms, and partly sold on the market. The property relations ensure that the product from the sales of these commodities belong to the male head of household. In addition, the patriarchs typically did fewer hours work a week than their wives. This is not from a historical materialist standpoint women’s oppression, that it too liberal and vague. It is an exploitative class relationship built into the production and property relations.

In the stage of patriarchal commodity production, the patriarchs have a direct interest in their wives bearing children. Children, in a period before compulsory schooling, are an additional labour force to be exploited on the farm from an early age. The pro-natalist ideology of Catholicism, with its accompanying emphasis on pre-marital chastity for girls, is a pretty direct ideological expression of these production relations.

As capitalist industry developed the number of use values produced within the domestic economy started to decline. First went milling as water and wind mills replaced querns. This was well under way in the late feudal period. Next spinning and weaving as factory production of cloth took over by the mid 19th century. Home manufacture of clothes, extended by home sewing machines lasted until the mid 20th century. But production of people continued unabated. So much so that the domestic economy characteristically produced a surplus population that migrated to towns to become wage workers. This stage constituted Lenin’s second economic form : petty commodity producing peasant farms. It was also the dominant economic form over much of the US countryside at the same period.

Expanding capitalist industry required an ever greater labour force, and got it cheap. The wage rate paid did not have to be sufficient to fully recompense the cost of reproducing the next generation, since the patriarchal domestic economy was the main source of supply of labour. This is still the case in India for example.

Marx termed the supply of workers from the countryside the latent reserve army of labour. Latent, because the reserve population was hidden but present, to be called to the colours when industrial cycle goes through an expansionary phase. But this latent reserve army eventually dries up. Once the latent reserve starts to be exhausted real wages have to rise to fully cover the cost of reproducing labour power. [Kuczynski(1946)] argued that it was not until almost a century after the start of the industrial revolution in Britain tha this stage was reached in the 1870s.

2  Domestic and market economy

Working class families are a partial transformation of the old domestic economy. They still produce people, but they do no longer produce any other commodities, and the children they produce have a quite different economic significance to the family. In the rural patriarchal family the children were, within a few years, useful workers who contributed to the family income. In the first phase of industrialisation, families would hire out their children as young factory workers. But soon capitalist industry required an educated workforce. Compulsory schooling followed. Children now became a cost not an asset. The work of child rearing lasts longer, without the income in kind or cash that kids once brought.

Figure 1: Characteristic capitalist law of population. Developed capitalism suppresses fertility below reproduction requirements. Illustration is the historical trend of German birth rate. From [Michael J. Kendzia(2012)].

Children remain necessary to society, and as a future source of labour power, they are an obvious necessity for employers, but the family now raises them in what amounts more to a social duty conditioned by ideological expectations, than an internal economic necessity. The inevitable consequence of this has been a decline in family size: a falling birth rate. As Fig 1, shows for Germany, the tendancy is for birthrate to fall below reproduction levels. Similar trends exist for other developed countries. Capitalist countries like the US with substantial immigration from predominantly agricultural countries show higher fertility due to the delayed transformation of family forms.

Table 1: Time use of Canadians by sex. Note: Averaged over a seven-day week, for population 15 and older. Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2005, Catalogue no. 12F0080XWE. Last modified: 2009-09-08.
Males Females
hours per day hours per day
total 24 24
Total work 7.8 7.9
 Paid Work and related activities 4.7 3.1
   Paid work for employer 4.2 2.8
   Commuting 0.4 0.3
 Unpaid work in domestic economy 2.7 4.2
    Household work and related activities 2.3 3.8
    Child care 0.3 0.5
Civic and voluntary activities 0.3 0.4
Education and related activities 0.5 0.6
Personal Care 10.4 10.8
  Night sleep 8.2 8.4
  Meals (excl. restaurant meals) 1 1
  Other personal activities 1.2 1.4
Free time 5.7 5.3

In patriarchal domestic economy the labour wives and children are directly exploited by the husband. Their labour contributed directly to his property. The development of capitalist society gives women equal rights to property and eliminates most of the productive activity in the household. Both sexes are now forced to sell their labour power, something that neither did in the old patriarchal family. For both sexes the working day is divided into working hours they sell to an employer, and hours that they continue to work in the domestic economy. If we take Canada as an example, because it publishes excellent statistics on time use, we can see from Table 1 that whilst total working hours for men and women are almost exactly the same, the way these hours divide between work in the domestic and market economes are in reciprocal proportions for men and women. For men it divides [3/2] in favour of the market economy, whereas for women the ratio market/domestic is only [2/3]. The important thing to note however, is that whilst we would conventionally say that Canada is a capitalist economy, the time use statistics show that it is only at most 50% capitalist. Half the work done each day is still done in the home, and a signicant part of the paid work, particularly that done by women[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu], is done for the state not for private firms, and as such generates no profit.

2.1  Gender pay inequality

Now let us look at how the interaction of the domestic and capitalist modes of production affects the position of women in paid employment.

In 2005, the year that Table 1 covers, average male hourly pay was $ 23.41 and average female pay was $ 19.96[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu].Taking into account the difference in hours worked that means that on average a Candian woman earned only a little over half as much money per day as men.

Gender Paid hours Pay rate Daily earning
per day
Female 2.8 19.96 55.89
Male 4.2 23.41 98.32

It is obvious that the biggest factor affecting daily earnings of women was the shorter number of hours for which they sold their labour power. But that left a gap in pay rates to explain. Let us take what a prominent organisations speaking for women says. The Canadian Womens’ Association1 gave the following reasons for the gap.

  1. First, traditional  women s work  pays less than traditional men s work.  As one researcher notes: ” Female-dominated job classes are often seen as not being skilled because the tasks are related to domestic jobs that women were expected to carry out for free in the home. ”
  2. Second, most women workers are employed in lower-wage occupations and lower-paid industries. Women work in a narrower range of occupations than men and have high representation in the 20 lowest-paid occupations. About two-thirds of the female work force are concentrated in teaching, nursing, and health care, office and administrative work, and sales and service industries. Women aged 25 to 54 accounted for 22% of the Canada’s minimum-wage workers in 2009, more than double the proportion of men in the same age group.
  3. Another reason for the wage gap is that more women than men work part-time. About 70% of part-time workers in 2013 were women, a proportion that has remained steady for three decades. Women working part-time or temporary jobs are much less likely to receive promotions and training than those in full-time jobs.

    Women work part-time for several reasons, including lack of affordable child care and family leave policies, along with social pressure to carry the bulk of domestic responsibilities. These factors make it more likely for women to have interruptions in employment, which has a negative effect on income.

  4. A large portion of the wage gap remains unexplained and is partly due to discrimination. An estimated 10-15% of the wage gap is attributed to gender-based wage discrimination

This appears as a good surface account of the difference but it begs some questions. Why does traditional womens work pay less?

Surely that is just using the gender wage gap to explain the gender wage gap?

The same circular reasoning is present in point 2. If there is a gender wage gap, it follows that any industry with a high portion of women will have relatively low wages compared to an industry with a high portion of men. So this is again circular and can not get to the cause of the gap.

Point 3 is the only real causal explanation, related to the role of women in the domestic economy and a reason why they have difficulty getting out of that economy. Point 4 is merely saying that there is some unexplained difference and that this must by this definition be discrimination. But what causes this discrimination. Employers would like to reduce the wages of all employees. The question is why they are more successful in holding down womens’ wages?

Figure 2: Canadian real wages for men and women. Source [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]

Look at Figure 2, it is clear from this that the historical trend has been for the wage gap to decline. There was a 20 year period from the mid 1980s during which men’s wages were static and during which women’s wages rose. We need to explain first why a gap exists at all, and then why the gap has changed with time.

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu,table 4] examine the change in the gap by doing multi-factorial analysis against union membership, marital status, tenure of job, education and occupation. Taking all factors into account they could explain about 38% of the decline in the wage gap. The three most significant explanatory variables were union membership, educational status and occupation. Changes in union membership by men and women accounted for 11% of the decline in the wage gap(see Table 3).

Women in Canada are now more unionised and better educated than men, reversing the previous situation. Women typically have been in their job slightly longer than men again reversing the situation that used to hold and whilst both men and women are more likely to be employed in health or government services which have been growth sectors of the economy (Table 2).

Table 2: Change in statuses for Men and Women, Canada. [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu,table3]
Men Women
1998 2011 Change 1998 2011 Change
Workers aged 17 to 64
Average tenure (months) 102.2 99.9 -2.3 94.2 101.3 7.1
Percent with a university degree 19.4 24.6 5.2 20.4 29.9 9.5
Percent unionized 33 29.7 -3.3 31.3 33.1 1.8
Percent in health occupations 1.5 1.9 0.3 8.9 11.7 2.8
Percent in occupations in
 social sciences, education,
 and government service 5.2 5.3 0.1 11.2 14.5 3.3

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu] have as summary conclusion:

Although women today still earn relatively less than men on average, the gender hourly wage gap decreased significantly over the last three decades. Relative to men, women increased their productivity-enhancing characteristics at a faster pace than men did.
Table 3: Explanation of change in wage gap according to [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]
Change Percent of gap explained
Age 0.002 -2.8
Education -0.006 10.5
Province 0.003 -4.6
Union status -0.006 11.4
Marital status -0.001 1.3
Tenure -0.004 7.3
Occupation -0.01 18
Industry 0.002 -2.8
Total portion explained -0.021 38.4
Portion unexplained -0.035 61.6

This account depends on the idea that wages are determined by productivity. That is to say it follows the textbook neo-classical idea that wages are set by the marginal product of labour and that the wage contract is an equal non-exploitative one. But even if we accept this, which obviously Marxian economists do not, they are only able to account for 38% of the change. They are left with 62% unexplained.

The statistical analysis in Table 3 focuses on things where there are only minor differences between men and women and leaves out the one big thing that differentiates them, womens’ greater participation in the domestic economy.

Now look at Figure 3 and compare it with Figure 2, and you can see that they look pretty similar. As the womens share of the workforce rises their wage rate as a percentage of mens wages rises. In fact the correlation between the two series is 90.9%. That means that only 9.1% of the change in the wage gap needs to be explained by other factors: for instance union membership.

This strongly suggests that should men and women end up working equal number of hours the wage gap will either be eliminated or slightly reversed in Canada; taking into account womens’ higher unionisation and better education.

Figure 3: Canadian employment rates of women and men, 1976 to 2009. Source Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, online catalogue entry 89-503-X.

3  Exploitation and the wage gap

But what are the obstacles to a higher rate of women participating in the workforce?

The key point is that a set of activities are still performed within the domestic economy, and of those women do more than men ( Table 1). The domestic economy still organises a part of the work necessary for social reproduction. This work still needs to get done. Basically there are three ways that womens’ workload in the home can be reduced: (1) a larger share of housework has to be done by men; (2) the productivity of labour in these tasks has to rise; (3) the same tasks have to move out of the domestic economy.

3.1  Division of domestic labour

Table 4: Comparison of hours housework in 1998 and 2008 in the respective editions of Time Use of Canadians.
Year Mens’ hours Womens’ hours Ratio
housework per day housework per day m/f
1998 2.4 4.1 0.58
2008 2.7 4.2 0.64

There was a previous edition of Time use of Canadians in 1998. By comparing it with the 2008 edition we can see if, over a decade there was a change in the housework done by men and women. As Table 4 shows the share of housework done by men did rise modestly over the 10 years, but this did not reduce womens’ housework, since both men and women did more of it. If women were actually doing more housework in 2008 than in 1998, how did their participation in paid work rise ?

Because they worked longer paid hours too!

So men doing more housework only frees women of it, if the total amount of housework remains constant.

Table 5: Relative rates of exploitation of Men and Women in Canada 2011. s/v indicates rate of surplus value. Data derived from Statistics Canada, Income and Expenditure Tables, Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, and Figure 2.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
(2)/(1) Av Av Av Av
wages surplus s/v Male wage Female wage Both value created
$ 766B $ 497B 0.65 $ 25.03 $ 21.85 $ 23.48 $ 38.72
s/v 0.55 0.77 0.65


Christine Delphy. The main enemy. Gender Issues, 1 (1): 23-40, 1980.

[Delphy and Leonard(1984)]
Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard. Close to home: A materialist analysis of women’s oppression. Hutchinson, 1984.

[Engels and Hunt(2010)]
Friedrich Engels and Tristram Hunt. The origin of the family, private property and the state. Penguin UK, 2010.

Jürgen Kuczynski. Labour conditions in Great Britain, 1750 to the present. International Publishers, 1946.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The tax in kind. Collected Works, 32: 329-365, 1965.

K. Marx. Capital, Vol. 1. The process of production of capital. Trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling, Ed. F. Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers. URL (accessed December 2007): Marx/Engels Internet Archive http://www. marxists. org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1, 1887.

Claude Meillassoux. Maidens, meal and money: Capitalism and the domestic community. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[Michael J. Kendzia(2012)]
Klaus F. Zimmermann Michael J. Kendzia. Celebrating 150 Years of Analyzing Fertility Trends in Germany. Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, 2012.

Lewis Henry Morgan. Ancient society; or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism to civilization. H. Holt, 1907.

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]
René Morissette, Garnett Picot, and Yuqian Lu. The Evolution of Canadian Wages over the Last Three Decades. Statistics Canada, 2013.

Pierre Philippe Rey. Les alliances de classes: Sur l’articulation des modes de production: Suivi de Matérialisme historique et luttes de classes. F. Maspero, 1973.

[Ryan and Jethá(2012)]
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Sex at dawn: How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. Harper Collins, 2012.

[Sahlins and Economics(1972)]
Marshall Sahlins and Stone Age Economics. London, 1972.



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