Red Letter
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Bourgeois and Proletarian Marriage (from Woman and Socialism)
by August Bebel
Estimated Reading Time: 6 min

Let's let Rida Vaquas introduce August Bebel's Woman and Socialism (also translated as "Women under socialism"):

A book titled Women and Socialism written by a man may not seem promising to us in 2019. Yet August Bebel, one of the founders of the German Social Democratic Party and its chairman until his death, wrote this book in 1879 – and it soon became one of the most widely bought, borrowed, read and translated books in the German socialist movement and further afield. By 1895, it was on its 25th print run in Germany. By 1909, it was on its 50th. Records from workers’ libraries in this period demonstrate that Women and Socialism was one of the most frequently borrowed books.

Bebel built his book’s argument in encounter with other attempts at developing an analysis of gender according to Marxist principles, most notably work by Friedrich Engels, whose own analysis The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was published five years later. He traced the position of women in class societies from primeval society to contemporary industrial society and made the case that the root of oppression is the economic dependence of women upon men. The conclusion, groundbreaking at the time, was that women must participate in the class struggle, which was a struggle for their own liberation. The socialist revolution will mean that “class rule will forever be at an end, and with it the rule of man over woman.”

If the book’s contents scandalised German elites, its readers further startled them. Women and Socialism is a unique look into the intellectual life of a radical working class movement and its international orientation. Luise Zietz, the daughter of a weaver, described her first experience reading it at the end of the 1880s: “When I, as a youthful woman, took Bebel’s book Women and Socialism into my hands, I felt the same way so many proletarian women did: as if the scales had fallen from our eyes”. She later became one of the leading organisers of the women’s section of Social Democracy. In 1908, the party’s newspaper Vorwärts reported the decision of women in the Tegel association to set up a fortnightly discussion circle for women members with Women and Socialism as its basis. The public meetings on the theme are too numerous to be outlined. For working class women, Bebel’s book was an invitation into the movement, an assertion of their place within it, and a powerful means by which to understand their social conditions.

The book’s subversive impact did not stop at German borders. Vorwärts informed its readers with pride in 1895 that the Italian translation of ‘Women and Socialism’ had been outlawed in Austrian Trieste. It took a similar tone when the Czech translation was confiscated by Prague authorities in 1909. The first English translations appeared in 1885 in London and in 1886 in New York. In 1904, excerpts were translated into Japanese by Toshihiko Sakai and Shusui Kotoku. The story of Women and Socialism is not the story of one man and his ideas: its enduring impact was made possible by a collective movement that crossed borders and decades. Its circulation is the work of hundreds of translators, agitators and comrades, many of whom we will never know.

Among the ruling classes the wife is frequently degraded, just as she was in ancient Greece, to the mere functions of bearing legitimate children, acting as house-keeper, or serving as nurse to a husband ruined by a life of debauchery. For his amusement, or to gratify his desire for love, the man maintains courtesans or mistresses who live in elegance and luxury. Others who do not have the means of maintaining mistresses, associate with prostitutes during marriage as before marriage, and a number of wives are sufficiently corrupted to consider such relations quite proper.6 6. In his book on “The Woman Question in the Middle Ages,” that I have frequently quoted, Buecher laments the dissolution of marriage and the family. He condemns the employment of women in industry, and demands that woman should return to her “particular sphere,” the only one where she creates “real values,” the home and the family. The aims of the modern woman movement appear “amateurish” to him, and he expresses the hope that “a better way may be found.” But he fails to point out a successful way. From his bourgeois point of view it would be impossible to do so. The matrimonial conditions as also the position of women in general, are not the result of wilful creation. They are the natural product of social evolution, and this social evolution is consummated in accordance with inherent laws.

In the upper and middle classes of society the chief evil in marriage is its mercenary character. But this evil is still heightened by the mode of life that prevails among these classes. That applies to the Women as well as to the men, since they frequently lead lives of idleness or devote themselves to corrupting occupations. The society woman’s spiritual nourishment usually consists of the following: Reading ambiguous novels, visiting frivolous plays, enjoying sensuous music, resorting to intoxicating stimulants, and indulging in scandal-mongering. Idleness and ennui frequently entice her into love-intrigues, that are sought more eagerly still by the men of her circles. In the mad pursuit of pleasure she rushes from one banquet and entertainment to another, and in summer she goes to watering-places and summer resorts to rest from the exertions of the winter and to seek new amusement. Scandals are a daily occurrence with this mode of life; men seduce and women allow themselves to be seduced.

Among the lower classes mercenary marriage is practically unknown. The workingman generally marries for love, but nevertheless many harmful and destructive influences exist in the proletarian marriage also. Blessed with many children, cares and worries ensue, and all too often bitter poverty prevails. Disease and death are frequent guests in the proletarian family, and unemployment heightens the misery. Many are the factors that lessen the workingman’s income and frequently deprive him of that meagre income altogether. Hard times and industrial crises throw him out of employment; the introduction of new machinery or of new methods of production, makes him superfluous; wars, unfavorable tariff and commercial treaties, the imposition of new indirect taxes, or black-listing by his employers as a result of his political convictions, destroy his means of subsistence or gravely injure them. From time to time one or another thing occurs that entails a longer or shorter period of unemployment with its accompanying misery and starvation. Uncertainty is the mark of his existence. Such vicissitudes are productive of ill temper and bitter feelings that most frequently lead to outbursts in domestic life where demands are made daily and hourly that cannot be satisfied. This leads to quarrels and harsh words and eventually to a rupture in the marriage relation.

Frequently both husband and wife must work for a living. The children are left to themselves or to the care of older brothers and sisters, who are still in need of care and education themselves. The noon-day meal, usually of the poorest quality, is devoured in utmost haste, provided that the parents have time to come home for this meal. In the majority of cases this is impossible, owing to the distances between homes and factories and to the brevity of the time allowed for rest. Weary and worn, both parents return at night, Instead of a cheerful, pleasant home to come to, theirs is only a small, unsanitary dwelling, frequently wanting in fresh air and light and devoid of the most elementary comforts. The scarcity of available lodgings with all the resulting evils, is one of the darkest phases of our social system that leads to countless vices and crimes. In spite of all attempts at relief, the housing problem is becoming more serious every year in all the larger centers of industry; and other strata of society, such as professional people, clerks, officials, teachers, small dealers, etc” are affected by it. The workingman’s wife who returns to her “home” at night exhausted from a day’s hard labor, must begin work anew. She must toil in feverish haste to attend to the most necessary details of housekeeping. After the children have been put to bed, she still continues to mend and sew until far into the night. Rest and recuperation are unknown to her. The man often is ignorant and the woman still more so, and the little they have to say to one another is quickly said. The man goes to a saloon where he at least finds some of the comforts that he lacks at home; he drinks, and no matter how little he spends, he is spending too much for his income. Sometimes he falls a victim to the vice of gambling, that claims many victims in the upper strata of society also, and then still loses more than he spends on drink. Meanwhile the woman is brooding at home full of grudge. She must toil like a beast of burden, there is no rest or recreation for her; but the man enjoys the liberty that is his, just because he had the good fortune of having been born a man. Thus discord arises. If the woman is less conscientious; if she, too, seeks pleasure and diversion when she has returned from a hard day of work, to which she is surely entitled, her household goes to ruin and the misery becomes greater still. Nevertheless, we are living in “the best of worlds.”

Thus marriage is constantly being disrupted among the proletariat also. Even favorable periods of employment often have a detrimental influence, for they involve over-time work and sometimes also work on Sunday, thereby depriving the worker of the little time he is able to devote to his family. Often the distances from the workingmen’s homes to their places of employment are so great, that they must leave at day-break, when the children are still soundly asleep, and do not return until late at night when they are sleeping again. Thousands of workingmen, especially those connected with the building trades, remain away from home during the entire week and only return to their families on Saturday night. How can family relations prosper under such conditions? At the same time the number of women workers is constantly growing, especially in the textile industries, for thousands of spinning-machines and power-looms are being tended by women and children, whose labor is cheap. Here matrimonial relations have been reversed. While the wife and the children go to the factory, the unemployed man not infrequently, remains at home performing the domestic duties. “In a number of cloth factories in Chemnitz we find women who are employed there only during the winter months, because their husbands who are road-builders, masons or carpenters, earn little or nothing in winter. During the absence of the women, the men attend to the housekeeping." In the United States, where capitalism has developed so rapidly, that all its evils are manifest on a much larger scale than in the industrial countries of Europe, a characteristic name has been coined for this state of affairs. Industrial centers where women are mainly employed while men remain at home, have been called “she-towns.”88. The following clipping taken from an American newspaper in 1893 gives an adequate description of a “she-town”: “A singularity that is met with in the factory towns of Maine, is a class of men who may rightly be called housekeepers. Any one visiting some of these workers’ homes shortly after the noon hour, will find the men, wearing an apron, washing dishes. At other hours of the day they may be seen making the beds, dressing the children, scrubbing or cooking. ... These men do the housekeeping for the simple reason that their wives can earn more in the factories than they, and it is more economical for them to remain at home while the women work.”
9. “Mr. E., a manufacturer. informs me that he employs only women at his power-looms. He prefers married women and especially those who have a family at home depending upon them. They are much more attentive and docile than unmarried women, and are obliged to exert themselves to the utmost in order to earn the necessary means of subsistence. Thus the peculiar virtues of woman’s character are turned to her own detriment, and the gentleness and decency of her nature become a means of her enslavement.” From an address by Lord Ashley on the ten-hour bill, 1844. – Karl Marx, “Capital,” second edition.
10. The Prussian census of 1900 has shown that in Prussia there are 3,467,388 persons not related to tire families in whose midst they live In the entire state about one-quarter of these non-related members of the households consisted of strange boarders and lodgers; in the rural districts they constituted only one-seventh, but in the cities one-third. and in the capital, Berlin, more than one-half. – G. v. Mayer, “Statistics arid Social Science.”

At present it is generally conceded that women should be admitted to all trades. Capitalistic society in its mad chase of profits has long since recognized, that women can be more profitably exploited than men, since they are by nature more pliant and meek.9 Accordingly the number of trades in which women may find employment are increasing with every year. The constant improvement of machinery, the simplifying of the process of labor by an increased division of labor, and the competitive warfare among individual capitalists, as also among rival industrial countries – all favor the steady increase of woman labor. The phenomenon is common to all industrially advanced countries. As the number of women in industry increases, the competition between them and the male workers grows more severe. The reports of factory inspectors and statistical investigations prove this.

The position of women is especially unfavorable in those trades in which they predominate as, for instance, the clothing trades, and particularly in those branches in which the workers perform the work in their own home. Investigations concerning the condition of women workers in the manufacture of underwear and the clothing trades, were made in Germany in 1886. This investigation showed among other things that the miserable pay these workers received frequently drove them to prostitution.

Our Christian government, whose Christianity is sought in vain where it is really needful, but is met with where it is superfluous – our Christian government is like our Christian bourgeoisie, whose interests it serves. This government finds it exceedingly difficult to decide upon the enactment of laws which would limit the work of women to a bearable degree and prohibit child-labor entirely. This same government also fails to grant a normal work-day and sufficient rest on Sundays to its own employees, thereby harming their family relations. Frequently men employed in the mail and railroad service and in prisons must work many hours overtime without receiving adequate remuneration.

As the rents are also far too high in comparison with the incomes of the workers, they must content themselves with the poorest quarters. Lodgers of one sex or the other, sometimes of both, are taken into the workingman’s home.10 Old and young of both sexes live together in a small space and frequently witness the most intimate relations. How modesty and decency fare under such conditions, has been shown by horrible facts. The increasing demoralization and brutalization of the young that is being discussed so much, is partly due to these conditions. Child-labor, too, has the worst possible influence on children, both physically and morally.

The increasing industrial activity of married women has the most detrimental effect during pregnancy and at child-birth and during the early babyhood of the children, when they depend upon the mother for nourishment. During pregnancy it may lead to a number of diseases that are destructive to the unborn child and harmful to the organism of the woman, and bring about premature births and still-births. When the child has been born, the mother is compelled to return to the factory as soon as possible, lest some one else take her place. The inevitable result for the poor, little babes is neglect and improper or insufficient nourishment. They are given opiates to be kept quiet; and as a further result of all this, they perish in masses or grow up sickly and deformed. It means race degeneration. Frequently the children grow up without ever having experienced real parental love. Thus proletarians are born, live and die; and society and the state marvel at it that brutality, immorality and crime are increasing.

Bourgeois and Proletarian Marriage
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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