Workers Vanguard No. 1045
2 May 2014
On Marriage and Prostitution
15 March 2014
I strongly support most of your article “No to Criminalization of Prostitution” (Workers Vanguard, 21 February 2014). However I take exception to a couple of formulations, in particular your distortion of Frederick Engels’ views through selective quotations from what you correctly refer to as his “brilliant work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State”.
The article states, “Hence there arose the monogamous family, in which marriage meant the subjection of women by men—in Engels’ words, ‘the world-historic defeat of the female sex.’” What Engels actually said was, “The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex.” This led to “the intermediate form of the family which now emerges, the patriarchal family” followed by “monogamy, which developed rapidly following the overthrow of mother right.”
More seriously you state: “Whether it is the hiring of prostitutes by the hour or the ‘acquisition’ of a wife [Why not the acquisition of a husband? Are women always to be considered passive?], the family and the oppression of women are always based on private property; basically, only religious morality and capitalist laws distinguish the wife from the prostitute.” This is absurd. Women who choose to marry are not prostitutes! Similarly prostitutes who have partners/spouses surely are aware of the difference between their chosen personal relationships and their work. And what of the marriage laws of the early Soviet republic: were they nothing but organised prostitution?
Engels regarded prostitution and the monogamous family as “supplemental”, as “inseparable opposites”. In the section of Engels you are paraphrasing above, he says “marriage of convenience often enough turns into the crassest prostitution”, but here he is talking about ruling-class marriages based centrally on considerations of wealth in money or land, and dynastic alliances. In the very next paragraph he talks of:
“Sex love in the relation of husband and wife is and can become the rule only among the oppressed classes, that is, at the present day, among the proletariat, no matter whether this relationship is officially sanctioned or not. But here all the foundations of classical monogamy are removed. Here, there is a complete absence of all property, for the safeguarding and inheritance of which monogamy and male domination were established. …the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation—except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy. Thus, the proletarian family is no longer monogamian in the strict sense, even in cases of the most passionate love and strictest faithfulness of the two parties, and despite all spiritual and worldly benedictions which may have been received.”
I am not so concerned with how you depict human relations in future “classless” society, but more with the strong whiff of moralistic condemnation of today’s working-class women and men. The Church commands: no sex before, or outside of, marriage! The Spartacist League commands: no marriage before, or after, sex! I felt somewhat relieved to read the following issue’s quotation from Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai and your comments (‘Communism and the Family’, Workers Vanguard, 7 March 2014). I was also very happy to see you straighten out the front with regard to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
[All brackets and ellipses are the author’s
We agree that Engels identified “the world-historic defeat of the female sex” with the overthrow of mother-right (the practice of tracing descent through the female line). The end of matrilineal society in prehistoric cultures was part of a process accompanying the rise and consolidation of private property out of which the patriarchal, monogamous family became the norm.
In the passage from The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) quoted by our reader, Friedrich Engels distinguishes between the bourgeois family—the mechanism through which wealth is passed on to offspring—and the proletarian family. For working people, who do not have an inheritance to leave their children, the family serves other functions. In particular, it is an institution that saddles women with the burdens of domestic drudgery, rearing the next generation of wage slaves and care for the old and infirm. As Engels put it, “The modern individual family is based on the overt or covert domestic slavery of the woman; and modern society is a mass composed solely of individual families as its molecules.” The family also acts as a socially conservatizing force by inculcating religious mores, gender roles and obedience to authority.
Although our reader omits it from the lengthy passage quoted, Engels addressed changes to the working-class family: “Large-scale industry has moved the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and made her, often enough, the bread-winner of the family.” However, this development, which chipped away at the foundation of male domination, posed a dilemma. As Engels observed, if a woman “fulfils her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and cannot earn anything; and if she wishes to take part in public industry and earn her living independently, she is not in a position to fulfil her family duties.”
The institution of the family brings money into sexual relations, including in advanced Western societies where retrograde practices like the dowry and bride price are not as common as elsewhere. In the U.S., legally recognized marriage confers certain privileges like medical benefits, tax rebates, visitation rights, custody of children and immigration papers. For poor and working women, a husband’s income can make the difference between having the money to raise her children and being out on the streets. In short, women who “choose to marry” are often compelled to do so in response to economic duress or social pressure or to obtain legal rights.
That’s why the sentence to which our reader objects makes a parallel between marriage and prostitution. As the early German Marxist leader August Bebel explained in his work Woman and Socialism (1879): “Marriage constitutes one phase of the sex relations of bourgeois society; prostitution constitutes the other.” In bourgeois society, marriage is considered moral and prostitution immoral; however, in both cases, a sexual/economic exchange is involved.
We don’t condemn individuals for marrying. Neither do we condemn women who make a living by selling sexual favors, or the men who patronize them. As Marxists, we believe that the way consenting individuals choose to conduct their sexual relations is nobody else’s business. Our aim is the proletarian overthrow of the capitalist system of production for profit, so that society can be organized for human need. Then, the domestic labor that today is the burden of the wife will be collectively organized as the responsibility of society as a whole, leaving women free to participate fully in economic, social and political life. We inherited this outlook from the Bolsheviks, who took measures following the October 1917 Revolution to eliminate the economic and social compulsions that influence individuals to marry.
As Engels concluded: “Full freedom of marriage can become generally operative only when the abolition of capitalist production, and of the property relations created by it, has removed all those secondary economic considerations which still exert so powerful an influence on the choice of a partner. Then, no other motive remains than mutual affection.”