Against patriarchy

Most feminists believe we live in a patriarchal society, although opinions vary as to what that means. The major feminist stream known as ‘radical feminism’ attaches a particular political theory and approach to this. Some feminists simply use the word as a substitute for ‘sexist’.

How do marxists see this?

We don’t see ‘patriarchy’ as a useful catch-all term to describe every ruling elite and class-based economic form that depends on women’s oppression.

We believe it’s very inaccurate and prevents feminists from accurately assessing and opposing the dynamics maintaining our oppression.

Patriarchy was a very early form of class society that involved two crucial dynamics:
1. Male family heads having legal decision-making power over their women, children and family property.
2. The patriarchs, as a social sector, being incorporated into the decision-making processes of society as a whole. [Note: this does not imply absolute equality amongst the patriarchs.]

But 1. no longer holds, except in an altered way in a few countries. While men do retain much of this power in reality, it takes a different form – it is no longer legally mandated.
And 2. is not the case, since only a few men (in the capitalist class and amongst their political servants in governments) have the power to make decisions for society, regardless of the illusions of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Being a father no longer confers that right/power.

So patriarchy theory disguises the current state of women’s oppression – and prevents us from relating well enough to the factors maintaining it, which these days are much less inscribed in law, although still very powerful.

Patriarchy theory often also dissuades its proponents from looking at who the ruling class in our society is (the capitalists/ bourgeoisie), deeming it instead ‘men’, despite most men not having the power to rule society.

It does matter what the ruling class is. It affects the way society works. [Eg capitalism or feudalism? It does matter.]

  • Capitalism has created entirely new forms of female oppression. The porn industry as we know it wouldn’t exist without capitalism. As advanced capitalist industries do, it creates demand. And its images are nothing like the pre-capitalist paintings of nude women – they are now images of actual women, which continue to be sold and bought long after the image’s subject/object has died.
  • Industry as a whole needs different classes of workers, to play us off against each other, with some paid much less. And capitalism needs women to do unpaid work (including rearing the next generation of workers) within the hetero family unit in order for the capitalists to keep more of society’s wealth, rather than devoting it to these important welfare tasks.]

[This is not to say that men won’t in general try to maintain their (relative) material privilege via exerting power over the women around them. Male privilege under capitalism is very real, despite it being less inscribed in law than it used to be. Any socially privileged sector has an immediate objective interest in maintaining that privilege, and capitalism inherited the pre-capitalist sex and sexual relations of male dominance and female subjugation, although it has altered those relations in its own interest. Consequently, female sexuality remains largely subordinate to the political and economic needs of the ruling class (as it has been to the ruling classes of all economic forms), and men maintain their historical role as main gatekeepers and immediate beneficiaries of women’s sexuality. The implementation of this (including the extent to which a woman’s sexuality is determined by her own wishes and enjoyment) varies enormously around the world, which will have to be a subject for a future post.]

And while it has been true that the ruling classes of all types of class society have mainly comprised men, it doesn’t follow that all or even most men are part of the ruling economic class.

This is another reason why conflating capitalism (a women-oppressing system) with patriarchy just confuses us. It can lead to writing off any mention of the role of the capitalist class with (‘well, men created capitalism – it’s part of the patriarchy’). But it is vital to acknowledge that the capitalist class has political interests outside the objective interests of most men. Since knowledge is power, it utterly disorients us, and significantly demobilises us from key aspects of the fight, to assume that discussing and opposing capitalism *specifically* is pointless.

We also recognise that employing terms simply because they are perceived as “stronger language” is not inherently a radical approach; in fact it can impede recognition of the limitations of this method. Political strength of oppressed movements is aided by accuracy of terms and analysis, so that we can better orient our strategies for liberation.



Interesting reading, from ‘Patriarchy or class?’ (1988) by Rose McCann (Chapter 2). The ‘socialist feminism’ referred to is in contrast to marxist feminism, and was created by feminists who were only familiar with the reductionist/ Stalinist (conservative) distortions of Marxism:


Socialist feminism’s starting point – the alleged inadequacy of Marxism in providing a theoretical explanation of women’s oppression and a program for combating it – is based on an extremely distorted interpretation of Marxism. A crude, dogmatic, eclectic caricature is presented as Marxism and then knocked down as inadequate to the task of explaining women’s oppression.

Having rejected Marxist analysis, socialist feminism then sets up the concept of patriarchy as the centrepiece of its viewpoint…. Relations between men and women are said to have their own, independent logic, dynamic and history that do not stand in any necessary or contingent relationship to the prevailing relations of production.

While Marxists reject the underlying philosophical idealism of such a view, this does not mean that they accept the vulgarised, mechanical view often presented as the materialist alternative. Although relations between men and women are historically and materially incomprehensible in isolation from the context of the prevailing relations of production, relations between the sexes cannot simply be reduced to economic/ class relations.

In any society, relations between the sexes do have a substantially autonomous dynamic, influenced by non-economic relations and the social consciousness these relations generate (political, moral, religious, and other ideas).


The Marxist (or historical materialist) approach does not deny that all known class societies have oppressed women. Nor does it dispute the fact that the capitalist system is male-dominated and that male privilege is a central feature of it. Marxism emphatically agrees that men dominate virtually all aspects of capitalist economic, political and social life, and that capitalist society is riddled with degenerate sexist attitudes. It also agrees that a by-product of this is the oppression of individual women by individual men. Sometimes individual men can be responsible for extreme violence against women.

But none of this proves that patriarchy is an autonomous structure with its own history, laws of motion, and material base separate from the class relations associated with exploitative relations of production.

Copyright © Virginia Brown March 2012. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as my authorship is noted, and this article URL is included: