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On the Domestic Mode of Production

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The past two decades has seen the women’s movement move to the right and split into numerous fragments. Why has the position of most women remained subordinate to that of men? Is this simply discrimination, the result of male biology, or the reproduction of women as a class of domestic producers? I argue here that any attempt to reduce women’s oppression to biology, politics, ideology or exchange-based economics, trivialises oppression and dooms most women to permanent domestic slavery. Alternatively, the concept of the Domestic Mode of Production is a means of theorising women’s historic subordination and advancing the struggle towards the goal of future emancipation. Materials available on the struggle over the historic subordination of women during the colonisation of the Pacific and Australasia can be used in an attempt to test the explanatory power of the Domestic Mode.

[Reprinted from Gender and Development Volume 2, eds, BN Ghosh and PK Chopra, Wisdom House, Leeds, 2002]


The position of women today can be viewed from a number of standpoints. Conservative feminists defend the position of women as natural and ‘different’ rather than unequal [Paglia, 1993]. As a deviant form of neo-liberal feminism, post-modern feminism celebrates identity and diversity without taking responsibility for the universal ‘exclusion’ of the majority of women [Butler, 1990; c.f. Webster, 1993]. For example, Yeatman [1995; 1998]claims that neo-liberalism has opened up the possibility of eliminating the paternalist state.

Liberal feminists applaud the ‘gains’ of the second wave of feminism, and despite the resistance of the gender gap to change, argue that it is open to future reforms in liberal democracy once the paternalist state is overrun with women. In New Zealand, Waring [1989] solves the problem by ‘valuing’ domestic labour. James and Saville-Smith [1994] solve the problem by legislating against the ‘cult of domesticity’. Yet the evidence shows that much more elementary reforms have failed to advance the majority of women significantly from a position of subordination [Mies, 1986]. So what is the problem?

The radical feminists’ answer is that the gender gap goes much deeper than re-educating males. Radical feminists make short shrift of post-modern feminism.[1] Male domination of females is historically universal, is rooted in our biological origins or psychological makeup and/or sustained by men’s power over women. Thus radical feminists have an account for the success of some women, but only as ‘honourary’ males at the expense of the continued subordination of most women. The fate of most women then hinges on their ability to overturn male power over women. Put to the test this would seem to be an ill-fated strategy if men indeed have an ultimate biological drive to dominate women. An explanation of oppression that reduces to biology is ultimately incapable of generating a politics of social transformation. [Bell and Klein, 1996].

Socialist or Marxist feminists’ attempt to account for the reform-resistant gender gap, but without falling into the trap of assuming a fatalistic universal male drive to dominate women. Socialist feminists argue that women’s position in capitalist society stems from their historic subordination as domestic labourers. The ‘overthrow’ of women occurred historically as men seized the opportunity to control women’s labour and extract surplus labour to turn into their private property. Therefore, if men came to dominate women historically to appropriate their supplus-labour it is necessary to stop this appropriation to end women’s subordination as domestic labourers!

Most socialist feminists recognise that ‘exploitation’ of women as domestic labourers is the primary cause of gender discrimination in the capitalist wage-labour market explaining why women make up a disproportionately large part of the reserve army of labour. But they don’t all agree on how to bring an end to both forms of exploitation. Some argue after Marx and Engels that capitalism will socialise domestic labour and bring greater equality with men in the wage-labour market so that both genders can unite as workers to overthrow capitalism [Stone, 1996].

Others argue from a materialist feminist standpoint against the identity politics of ludic/pomo feminism that celebrates difference, that post-fordist flexible accumulation means a worsening of women’s oppression.[2] Still others argue that domestic labour is necessary for capital, and that women’s struggle to escape domestic slavery must also fight against their position in the reserve army of labour.[3] This poses the question: what is the relationship of domestic labour to capitalism? Which theoretical standpoint – liberal, radical, socialist or Marxist – looks best after a test?


In the late 1980’s a debate blew up in Australia over who should ‘speak’ for Aboriginal people. Diane Bell a white radical feminist and Topsy Napurrula Nelson an Aboriginal woman from Central Australia spoke out about the high incidence of rape of Aboriginal women by Aboriginal men [1989]. They also claimed that middle class feminists and activists were silent on this abuse while women’s refuges and rape crisis centres that were “modelled on Aboriginal women’s traditional use of social space” were meeting an immediate need.

Shortly after this there appeared an open letter attacking Bell’s right to speak for Aboriginals, Nelson’s right to speak at all on this issue, and their advocacy of traditional solutions to the problem, signed by 12 prominent educated, Aboriginal activists led by Jackie Huggins [Huggins et. al.  1990]. It accused Bell of “creating divisions” within the ‘Aboriginal Community’, of appropriating Topsy Nelson’s voice by citing her as ‘co-author’ rather than ‘informant’, of exhibiting white imperialism, and of exercising middle-class privilege. As Bell [1996] points out, the authors regarded her as racist and sexist for speaking on behalf of Aborigines, and made no mention of the issue of intra-Aboriginal rape.

What had happened was the Bell was being scapegoated for a widely held view among Aboriginal women that rape had to be stopped by empowering Aboriginal women. The Aboriginal activists saw this as a white feminist blaming Aboriginal men who were the victims of white racism. It is true that historically white feminists have been implicated in the white racism that virtually destroyed Aboriginal society and subordinated Aboriginal women to Aboriginal men. But Bell in speaking of the need to restore the autonomy of Aboriginal women against racism, was at the same time attempting to deal with sexism as an effect of this history. This surely is a first step to overcoming the destructive gender divisions that prevent Aboriginal men and women from jointly fighting racism itself [Bell and Nelson, 1989; c.f. Yeatman, 1993; c.f. McGrath 1995a: 388].

The problem with both positions is that in dealing with effects they have lost sight of the fundamental root cause of both racism and sexism in Australasia. Racism was introduced into Australasia by white settlers imbued with a sense of historic mission as the carriers of a superior civilisation. But this ideology was that of British imperialism justifying its conquest of indigenous peoples and the invasion of ‘new lands’ [Wolfe, 1999]. What united the settlers across class lines was their expectation that they would all benefit from the rent extracted from the land when combined with capital and labour [Steven, 1985]. Aboriginals and Maori, if they survived and became assimilated as civilised human beings, would become landless labourers in the new capitalist economy – that is wage-workers [Bedggood, 1978].

In both Aboriginal and Maori society the old social order was largely destroyed. As the land was taken the kinship basis of the social relations was undercut and the gender division of labour undermined. Where gender autonomy had existed, indigenous women now became subordinated to white settler society, were abused by white men, and in turn their own men. Sexism in Aboriginal and Maori society was introduced by a racist and sexist culture that accompanied capitalist colonisation. The widespread abuse of women (and children) by Aboriginal and Maori men is therefore the result of colonisation and can only be reversed by decolonisation [Bedggood, 1980].

Therefore it is possible to speak about the rape of those marginalised by colonisation provided one is prepared to remove the root cause. If one speaks for Aborigines as Bell does but only against male rape, then one is stuck in a liberal feminism that reproduces racism, sexism and classism. If one speaks for Aborigines as Jackie Huggins does but only against racism then one is stuck in reformist anti-capitalism that continues to reproduce racism, sexism and classism. But if one speaks for the marginalised indigenous peoples as a revolutionary anti-capitalist, committed to decolonisation by means of a working class revolution, then one does not reproduce racism, sexism or classism, but tries to end it.

In other words, as this test case has revealed, if one opposes rape by attacking its class roots, then it is possible to unite the struggles against sexism, racism and classism into one revolutionary struggle against capitalism itself. But to make this point is to argue for the view that sexism is ultimately caused by class. To do this convincingly it will be necessary to go back to the beginnings of gender oppression in history. For to prove that gender oppression had an historic class origin is to prove that it can have an historic classless ending.


Each of the feminist standpoints attempts to solve the problem of women’s oppression in its own way. But none can succeed without explaining first the original causes of women’s oppression as unpaid domestic labourers. Without such knowledge there can be no real attempt to remove those causes and bring about women’s liberation. This makes the question of ‘origins’ important. Unlike those who argue against such an approach [Delphy, 1984; Connell, 1983].  I suggest that if we cannot explain the origins of the material bases of women’s oppression how can we identify the causes and eliminate them?

So if liberal feminism cannot explain the persistence of gender inequality; if radical feminism cannot prove the universality of gender inequality; if socialist feminism and Marxist feminism cannot convince us that gender inequality will be eliminated by a successful socialist revolution, then it is necessary to question each of these standpoints on the issue of ‘origins’ and come up with the answer to the historic ‘woman question’ and a program for ‘women’s liberation’.

Is Marxist analysis up to the task of solving the great mystery of the ‘missing link’ in history  i.e. the origins of the material basis of women’s oppression? How do we explain the anomaly that the family is not part of capitalist mode of production as such, yet unpaid domestic labour is a vital source of ‘non-valued’ goods and services for the capitalist economy. Could it be that ‘non-valued’ production, originating outside capitalism – an ‘added’ ingredient to capitalist production – is a vital ‘subsidy’ to capital accumulation? [Mies, 1986]. What is this source of unpaid domestic labour? What are its historical origins, its development and its future?

For those who do seek an answer to the question of origins, radical feminists, socialist feminists and Marxist feminists invoke the evidence of the historic roots of women’s oppression by a ‘patriarchy’ in pre-capitalist society. The radical argument is the least satisfactory. Consider, for example, Lacan/Kristeva’s attempts to turn biological universals into psychological universals based on the Oedipus complex [Cornell and Thurschwell, 1987; Connell, 1983]. Appeals to biological universals (with psychoanalytic derivations) cannot explain women’s oppression, its origins or changing forms, and is ultimately idealist [Kuhn and Wolpe, 1978]. This is because it advances an ahistorical abstracted ideological effect of women’s’ oppression (e.g. women as negativity) as the root cause of that oppression.

If oppression cannot be explained by genetic (or linguistic) universals –male power or sexuality –without contradicting the anthropological evidence and lapsing into idealism, then it must be explained by historically specific conditions i.e. the emergence of a gender inequality. Thus both socialist feminists and Marxist feminists link the origins of gender inequality to the rise of class society, or, capitalism. Women’s subordination is seen as a by-product of class exploitation, though it is not reducible to it. However, socialist feminists and Marxist feminists are divided over the concept of social class.

Socialist feminists are usually neo-Ricardian feminists who see classes as distributional phenomena, struggling over the shares of national income, of wages versus profits. For them, the capitalist class “rips-off” profits by underpaying wages. In the same way, women are kept in the home doing unpaid domestic labour by a male patriarchy. Class may be defined as relations of production where surplus labour is deducted, but in practice this becomes a matter of ‘unequal exchange’ that relies not on the complex reproduction of modes of production, but male power and authority [Delphy and Leonard, 1992]. As always, such an exchange analysis backslides into reformism so that progressive legislation can ‘re-educate’ males, equalise exchange, and return a full and fair wage to wage-labour as well as to house-workers. So socialist feminists join with liberals in the campaign for wages for housework [Connell, 1983; Waring, 1989].

Marxist feminists, on the other hand, define class in terms of historically specific relations of production. Some Marxists reduce class society to capitalist private property [Adamson 1976]. Most say that class society precedes capitalism [Engels, 1976: Leacock, 1972].  But this creates a problem for Marxists. How can a persistent historical gender gap that survives under capitalism be explained as an add-on ‘after-effect’ of other modes or classes? Marxists normally conceive of capitalist class exploitation as the primary source of oppression. This is because wage-labour is ‘forced’ to work for wages and be subordinated to the labour process in order to live. Other forms of oppression such as gender, race and sexual orientation are secondary to wage-labour oppression. They arise as an effect of wage-labour and are not a condition of wage-labour itself. In other words, wage-labour does not require gender, racial or sexual oppression, though these forms of oppression facilitate the reproduction of wage-labour. The usual way of putting this is to say that capitalism is ‘gender blind’. This surely means then, that women’s oppression is secondary to, even if derived from, economic class oppression. What are the political implications of this?

In the case of class, oppression results from wage-labour itself and from the use of state power to enforce the wage-labour/capital relationship. For example, the capitalist state helps to create private property by dispossessing labourers of their means of subsistence, and reproduces the wage-labour/capital relationship by protecting private property. Oppression is therefore, logically, a means to the end of class exploitation. This means then, that class oppression can only be ended with the end of class exploitation.

With secondary forms of oppression this does not follow. Such oppression is not necessary to the constitution or reproduction of the wage-labour/capital relation. Gender oppression is not fundamental to capitalist class society. This is paralleled in the liberal view that ‘racism, sexism and classism’ can be reformed out of existence without overthrowing capitalist social relations. Or, in the radical view, such oppressions are separate from ‘class’ and can persist despite the ending of capitalist class relations as in the case of ‘actually existing socialism’ [Delphy and Leonard, 1992:39].

Unconvinced by the ‘class reductionist’ argument, many women remain trapped in a political position that makes men, including Marxist men, the ‘main enemy’. Christine Delphy [1977] made a well-known statement of this position in rejecting the Stalinist, androcentric reduction of women’s oppression to this ‘by-product’ argument. Given the male chauvinist leadership of the French Communist Party she had no cause to take their pronouncements on women on faith [Delphy, 1996].

Therefore, if women’s oppression is not to be reduced to capitalist class oppression, we are left with the weak and unsatisfactory claims that women’s oppression is a by-product of class society, or has nothing to do with class, and may not disappear as a consequence of overturning class society. The belief that women can join men on the barricades and liberate themselves in socialism is unnecessary for the liberals, and utopian for the radicals [Marshall, 1982]. The challenge is for Marxists to rethink the class argument in relation to women without reducing class to capitalism.


Attempts by Marxists to theorise this problem have tended to be conventional, reflecting a rather dogmatic application of Marx’s method. Engel’s sketch of the historical evolution of the family is used as the basis for explaining the shift from women’s social production to private production in the home, ‘outside’ the capitalist system [Leacock, 1972; Reed, 1975; Aaby, 1977; Coontz and Henderson, 1986; Delphy and Leonard, 1992]. Under Capitalism private domestic labour in the home reproduces the ‘labour power’ of wage labour for exploitation by capitalists, but itself is not part of the Capitalist Mode of Production (CMOP).

Here, an interesting anomaly arises. Much of the surplus value derived from capitalist production has its origins in unpaid domestic labour (UDL) and is useful, and some would say necessary, for capitalism’s reproduction. This is because UDL produces labour-power as a use-value for capitalists to exploit. The use-value of labour-power is not its exchange-value (V) but its capacity to produce more value than its own exchange-value. Labour-power is the only commodity with this use-value and thus is the source of all value and surplus-value. Yet domestic labour is not directly productive of exchange-value in capitalist terms, and therefore women as unpaid domestic labourers are not exploited capitalistically and their specific oppression is a secondary aspect of capitalism [Smith, 1978].

It works like this. Domestic workers (who reproduce labour-power in the home or state services) are paid out of V – i.e. Variable Capital or the wage paid by the capitalist as the market ‘family’ wage plus the social wage discussed below. This total wage bill is supposed to meet the reproductive needs of the ‘family’ including domestic workers. The wage bill of state reproductive workers (in health, education, social welfare etc) is part of V. This is because the capitalists leave workers to reproduce themselves privately but will agree to de-privatise, or ‘nationalise’, domestic work if the wage bill of state workers is less than the additional cost of the family wage that would be necessary to reproduce the same wage labour [Adamson, et. al.1976].

Of course most people don’t see the capitalist as paying the state’s wage bill, but rather taxpayers that include the working class. However, although workers pay taxes, most are deducted at source from their wage, and are actually paid by capital. Even consumption taxes paid by workers are on top of the value of labour power necessary to buy what workers need to live on. Of course, while it is the capitalists who pay the taxes out of their surplus value, we should not forget that it is the productive working class that creates the value in the first place.

Because state reproductive workers are in effect maintaining the value of labour power (by providing health, education and welfare services that would otherwise be done by privatised domestic workers) they are paid out of V. This in effect has seen the so-called ‘family wage’ eroded by individual market wages supplemented by the ‘social wage’. In the last two decades there has been a return to the ‘social wage’ but in the form of ‘minimum family incomes’ financed by negative income taxes (i.e. direct transfers) that fits the neo-liberal model of individual consumers buying their welfare in the market. The payment of state reproductive workers out of V is distinct from the wages of unproductive workers (e.g. finance workers who transfer money) who do not produce commodities or maintain labour power. They are paid out of the capitalists’ revenue as a deduction from profits. Yet both V and revenue are ultimately deductions from the capitalists’ surplus value (S). This explains why capital faced by a crisis of falling profits tries to re-privatise domestic labour to cut its total wage bill (V), and the additional spending on unproductive labour, so as to reduce the drain on S [ibid.].

While this account may be correct as far as capitalism is concerned it does not explain why unpaid domestic labour (udl) exists in the first place. It recognises that udl as an important and even vital ‘additive’ to capitalist production that is cheaper under some conditions than paying V to state workers. But it leaves unexplained the non-capitalist social base of the production of use-values by domestic labour. It doesn’t go much beyond Engels in explaining the origins of women’s oppression in the patriarchal household that has a mysterious parallel evolution alongside (or inside) of class society. It doesn’t explain the different historic forms of women’s oppression. It doesn’t overcome the huge theoretical gap in Marxist analysis – how can we come up with a historical materialist explanation of historic gender inequality without reducing it to ‘capitalist relations of production’? [4]

The failure of Marxism to fill this gap does not mean that it cannot.[5] Marxism is the production of knowledge that apprehends reality in thought in order to transform that reality in practice. The failure to produce knowledge of something that exists can only mean that either it is deliberately ignored, or that knowledge is aborted or suppressed by ideology in the form of bourgeois hegemony.

Marxists usually claim that Marx chose to exclude any consideration of precapitalist modes in his abstract analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism because it was not necessary to his analysis of capitalism as an historic mode of production. Yet Marx found survivals of previous modes (and a future mode – socialism) within capitalism and speculated fruitfully on their nature. The analysis of modes of production today draws on these writings on primitive communism, slave society, feudalism and the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ [Taylor, 1980].

So why, when they investigated the anthropology of Morgan and others on Ancient society, did Marx and Engels refer to the  ‘world historic overthrow of mother right’ in terms of men as ‘bourgeois’ and women as ‘proletariat’ yet not identify a specific Domestic Mode of Production where men and women are two distinct classes? Did this mean as many feminists claim, that Marx and Engels discovered slave society and ‘Oriental Despotism’ yet overlooked women’s class oppression because they were proponents of a patriarchal ideology?

Settling this question requires that we go back to Marx’s method yet again [Rosdolsky, 1977]. Marx analysed capitalism by abstracting its basic elements in isolation from ‘extraneous’ factors, including domestic labour, which he took as ‘given’. This was not a moral judgement about domestic labour, or a sexist rejection of its historical importance. Rather it meant that Marx analysed capitalism as a specific historical mode of production by deliberately removing all the complicating factors such as any surviving modes of production. Once the analysis of capitalism was complete, it was then necessary to recognise that the everyday Capitalist Social Formation was a complex structure of past modes surviving, present capitalism, and the embryo of a future mode, socialism.

The failure of ‘marxists’ (with little ‘m’s) to understand Marx’s method made them dogmatic about the family. This has led to a failure to deal with the ‘anomaly’ of the domestic social relations; or in the case of Delphy and others, a failure to link their ‘materialist’ analysis of a Domestic Mode (DMOP) with that of the CMOP. It is my argument that the solution is not to abort the analysis, nor to ignore, but to retry; to follow Marx’s own method, and his own intentions in applying his analysis of CMOP to  other modes, including a possible DMOP,  showing how they articulate together in the Capitalist Social Formation (CSF). The historic specificity of women’s oppression must be explained materially, or not at all.


Marxism recognises the basic truth that consciousness is the product of social relations. Marxism itself was the product of capitalist social relations. But it was a science of these social relations as historic and exploitative, and not an ideology that reflected those relations as natural and just. It was a scientific critique of bourgeois ideology that penetrated the mystified appearances of capitalism and exposed the basis of exploitation of wage-labour by capital [Yaffe, 1973; Yaffe, 1975].

For Marx, every precapitalist historical Mode of Production had to be ‘invented’ intellectually and reconstructed from their surviving forms under capitalism. He and Engels were not interested in living in the past. They wanted to explain how capitalism, which had developed out of these old modes, would necessarily lead to socialism. One problem that intrigued Marx was whether or not it was necessary for all precapitalist modes, such as the Russian peasant commune, to be transformed into the CMOP, in order to reach socialism? This ceased to be a problem by the 1880’s however, once he decided there were no pure precapitalist modes that were not already transformed, if not destroyed, by capitalism.

The ancient Russian commune was now part of the modern world. So was the patriarchal family. Marx and Engels recognised the patriarchal family as an historically specific social relationship where women were turned into ‘domestic slaves’. They used the language of ‘class’ to convey this oppression – men = ‘bourgeoisie’; women = ‘proletariat’.[6] However, capitalism was in the process of transforming these earlier forms of society. Similarly the development of the CMOP would ‘transform’ domestic slavery into wage slavery in the literal sense. Why did Marx and Engels think that capitalism would totally transform all precapitalist social relations in its own image?

The answer to this is both scientific and political. Marx showed that capitalism was the motor of modern history. Feudal hangovers in Ireland, family life in Soho, South Seas communes, did not make the earth move, capitalism did. Marx died before he could finish his work of applying the scientific laws of Capital to the everyday world of experience in all of its complexity. Where he and Engels sketched in explanations of current political affairs, they used historical examples that were familiar to them.

In the white-settler colonies, like Australia and New Zealand, precapitalist peoples were all but destroyed. In South America, and India, the capitalist market had largely displaced the old methods of production. There were no scientific grounds available that would lead Marx to reject the revolutionising thrust of the universal and general laws of capitalist development. The market would forcibly transform precapitalist production methods and by allowing capitalism to develop to the full, clear the ground for a worldwide socialism.

The political element added to this expectation that men and women would be equalised as wage workers, was Marx and Engels revolutionary optimism that the preconditions for socialism had in their own life time already matured inside capitalism.[7] With hindsight was can now see that this was before capitalism had reached the height of imperialist expansion, when precapitalist modes where allowed to survive to some extent in order to exploit them. Imperialism discovered that surplus-labour could be pumped out of precapitalist producers as ‘unfree’ forms of wage labour. Not only did most colonial workers remain peasants, most women remained domestic slaves [Lenin, 1965].

This did not contradict anything basic about capitalism, but it complicated the problem for Marxists. Either they had to develop Marxism, like Lenin and Trotsky, to keep pace with its modern forms, or fall back on dogma, like the Mensheviks and Stalinists. Marx would not have been surprised by any of these developments at all.[8] In the Grundrisse he anticipated the methods by which the CMOP incorporated ‘stunted’ or even ‘travestied’ precapitalist forms, into its circuit of capital accumulation. Surplus labour would continue to be pumped out of precapitalist modes.

But in order to take stock of the historical complexity since Marx’s time it has been necessary to develop a theory of modern world capitalism as a Capitalist Social Formation (CSF).  This in effect completes Marx’s unfinished project to “reconstitute the concrete” with its many determinations at the level of the state, world trade, crises and international relations [Rosdolsky, 1977].[9] Lenin’s theory of ‘imperialism’ and Trotsky’s theory of ‘combined (and uneven) development’ are notable attempts to develop Marxism to complete this task. [10]

Part of the complication was that the ‘combined development’ of capitalism (incorporating precapitalist modes) also divided the producing classes. The working class was composed of different forms of labour (slave, indentured, peasant, as well as wage labour) and fragmented along the lines of gender, race and nationality on a world scale. This caused privileged layers of workers to take sides with their national bourgeoisie against foreign or indigenous workers; male workers to stand against female workers; European against Asian, African or Latin American migrant workers and peasants, and so on.[11]

The survival of precapitalist modes was now not only a theoretical question of the articulation of past present and future modes, but a practical, political question of strategy and tactics to unite precapitalist forms of labour with capitalist wage labour in order to overthrow capitalism. The dogmatic Marxists took the view that the bourgeois democratic revolution had to happen in ‘backward’ countries to follow the historical route already marked out by the advanced capitalist states. Capitalism had to ‘mature’ and transform all precapitalist modes, and all producers, into wage labour under capitalism, before the conditions for socialism were ripe. The working class as the ‘gravedigger’ of capitalism had to come into existence before the grave could be dug. Women too, obviously, according to this schema would be transformed into wage workers and join with men in the socialist revolution. However, the revolution came and went in Russia, and with it, clearly, no lasting women’s liberation.

But life is not as simple as some would like to think. Lenin and Trotsky understood that imperialism dominated backward countries economically and politically. The weak national bourgeoisie could not break from imperialism, and acted as agents (compradors) in exploiting their own peasants and workers on behalf of imperialism. The super-exploitation of precapitalist peoples would make them rise up and join in revolutionary bourgeois-democratic movements against imperialism, combining the democratic demands of peasants for land, women for equal rights and the end of domestic slavery, and wage workers for bread.

Under the leadership of a revolutionary party these revolutionary nationalist movements would come up against the reaction of their own bourgeoisie siding with imperialism. Such anti-imperialist movements would develop into civil wars that could succeed in realising democracy only under socialism. This would require an international revolutionary organisation capable of overthrowing imperialism not only at its ‘weakest link’ but also at its strongest links – in the imperialist countries.[12]

Included in this struggle were women. Imperialism has not liberated women from domestic slavery any more than it has created a universal CMOP by destroying the remnants of all precapitalist modes. In most of the ‘third (colonial) world’, the former ‘second (soviet) world’, and even the ‘first (imperialist) world’, women are still the most oppressed and exploited labourers. Capitalism continues to extract the surplus labour of women as privatised domestic workers, and as a consequence, as members of the reserve army of wage labour. As imperialism spread across the globe it incorporated existing gender relations into capitalism so that women comprise a major part of the global reserve army. They are more unemployed or underemployed than men; work under worse conditions than men, while remaining the source of unpaid domestic labour. Therefore, typically, women remain second-class citizens under capitalism, because they are primarily privatised workers who are often excluded from the market, except when they function as reservists in a specific range of ‘women’s’ jobs performing ‘nationalised’ domestic services, or during times of war or economic boom.

It is this prior engagement as domestic slaves that makes them part of the reserve army of wage labour. However, in times of crisis or of expanding accumulation, women compete with men for equality in the labour market. In the post war boom, this movement of women into wage labour and up against the gender gap has generated a gender consciousness of oppression. The women’s movement can be seen to have developed in stages along with capitalist development as a movement for equal bourgeois rights that must, however, necessarily fall short of full equality. Why?

Bourgeois political rights reduce to market rights i.e. the right to own and exchange commodities. Ideally bourgeois equality is achieved by equal access to the market and to commodities.[13] But these political demands come up against the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, and against the ultimate reality of domestic social relations. As I have argued, capitalism has no interest in liberating women from domestic slavery or socialising domestic production relations. If women were not available as domestic labourers and as a wage-labour reserve capitalists would have to ‘commodify’ unpaid domestic labour and convert domestic labour into wage labour. This would mean that most capitalists would have to share some of the surplus labour produced with those capitalists that took over producing these commodities. That would be in their interests only if these commodities were cheaper than the goods and services produced for nothing in the home [Adamson, et al 1976].

Since capitalism necessarily creates an expanding reserve army and since women are always available as domestic slaves, there is no way that capitalists can produce domestic goods and services more cheaply than those provided by unpaid domestic labour.  Because of capital’s class interest in exploiting unpaid privatised domestic labour, and using women as reserve army labour, democratic demands for equality of women cannot be achieved under capitalism. Some women may achieve relative economic equality, especially under the ‘new’ conditions of post-fordist ‘flexible accumulation’, but most women will remain in the reserve army [Ebert, 1996].

All of this shows that modern capitalism is a system in which precapitalist domestic social relations are indirectly ‘exploited’ by the capitalist class. The consciousness of that reality at the level of distributional relations produced post-war feminism. The scientific explanation of that reality, as a development of historical materialism on the basis of Marx’s method, must now turn to the question of the reproduction and ultimately, the revolutionising, of ‘domestic social relations’.

The current advanced stage of capitalist development, and the particular form of domestic oppression that accompanies it, now demands more than ever that knowledge of this specific oppression transcends the spontaneous feminist ideology which either radically ‘naturalises’ or (ludically) ‘trivialises’ the material basis of gender oppression, and demonstrates that its roots are in historically specific domestic social relations of production (crudely class relations) so that they can and must be overthrown.

Therefore it is necessary to theorise women’s historic oppression, in all of its concreteness, first, to resolve the theoretical anomaly and establish the historical laws of a Domestic Mode of Production (DMOP) and second, to link the theory and practice of domestic labour to the strategy and tactics of women’s liberation as an integral part of the struggle for socialism.


The Marxist concept mode of production (MOP) identifies a specific form of society in terms of “mode” of production. A MOP comprises a certain level of development of the ‘forces of production’ –the means (tool, instruments etc) which allows humans to transform natural raw materials to meet social needs for shelter, food, clothing etc. It also comprises a particular set of ‘social relations of production’ i.e. how the production process is organised socially and reproduced over time. Marx and Engels classified the history of human societies into six modes, from the most simple, primitive communism to the most advanced, communism.

Outside the Capitalist Mode of Production (CMOP) which they studied in detail, the previous modes –primitive communist, ancient, feudal and Asiatic –were only sketchily described. Marx and Engels were less concerned with their existence and more with the transition from one to the other.[14] They argued that one mode followed another when the existing social relations became barriers to the further development of the forces of production. Those relations were transformed by revolutions and a new MOP with new social relations that allowed the forces to develop further, emerged. In this way they expected capitalism, the most advanced mode to date, to give way to socialism.

There is nothing in this historical sketch that makes it a dogmatic evolutionary blueprint. There was, and is, no inevitability about each transition from one mode to the next. Each revolutionary overthrow required the leadership of a class-conscious vanguard. In Europe a ‘line of succession’ could be seen from the ancient mode to the capitalist mode. But elsewhere no successive stages were evident. However, even the downfall of the ancient slave mode in Europe saw elements of it continue to coexist in the towns, side by side with the clan communities of rural Europe. The same was true of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It occurred unevenly, incompletely, and at different rates and periods from country to country.

As we have seen, it is clear that the concept of ‘mode of production’ is an abstraction from actual history. It is a method of expressing the basic structure and dynamics of particular social forms which in reality coexist together in actual historical social formations.  However, each MOP is succeeded as the dominant mode subordinating all other modes to its organising principle – the expropriation of surplus labour. By the beginning of the 20th century the CMOP came to dominate all other forms, eliminating them or converting them to the requirements of capitalist production of surplus value for private profit.

This is clearly illustrated in Australia and New Zealand. Aboriginal society was largely destroyed where it came into contact with settlers, but still survived in a residual form in areas remote from white settlement. In the early period of colonisation, the impact of new forces of production pushed the Maori mode in the direction of the Asiatic mode – towards classes and kingship as in Tonga and Hawaii [Bedggood and De Dekker, 1977]. Maori society survived alongside peasant family farming as a truncated Lineage mop (LMOP). Under colonisation all the remnants of Aboriginal and Maori society coexisted under the dominance of the CMOP which allowed for the extraction of surplus-labour from several different ‘sub-modes’ of production  [Macrae and Bedggood, 1979].

If it is now recognised that historical modes can survive today as sub-modes of the CMOP then perhaps the ‘unrecognised’ Domestic Mode (DMOP) has survived as well. But before this can be established, we have to make the case for the DMOP against the most obvious objections.


The case for the DMOP is based on the assertion that the watershed social ‘revolution’ which created the patriarchal family as the ’embryo’ of all class society, and which persists to this day, must have had material causes. In other words it must represent a revolution in social relations of production to overcome a barrier to the development of the forces of production. Specifically, it signifies the end of ‘primitive communism’ and collective property that had reached its historic limits, and the beginning of ‘private property’ as the basis for further social development.

Following Marx and Engels many have argued that the ‘overthrow of mother right’ and the establishment of ‘father right’ was motivated by the interests of men to retain the new wealth from pastoralism in the hands of males rather than see this wealth distributed to the whole clan through the female line [Reich, 1976; Leacock, 1972; 1981; Leacock and Safa, 1986; Reed, 1975; Coontz and Henderson, 1986; Delphy and Leonard, 1992]. These commentators agree that the consequence of the overthrow of mother right was to appropriate domestic labour as a form of ‘slavery’ [Leacock, 1972:41]. Yet it seems that none have seen the need to take this analysis to its logical completion and make the case for a specific DMOP that would first arise out of primitive communism and before the formation of ancient society.

Engels stated the obvious point that the ‘overthrow’ served the interests of men and talked about the male/female relationship in ‘class’ terms. Yet, apart from documenting its historic reality, and virtually demonstrating that ‘private property’ originated as the ownership of ‘women and children’ Engels never followed this argument back to its social roots. Reich [1975:76] tried to find a mechanism for the overthrow in a change of rules of cross-cousin marriage allowing the bride price to return to the father’s family rather than stay in the mother’s family. Reed [1975: 420] suggested that the bride price was transformed into a ‘child price’ so that father’s blood family now owned the mother and their children, rather than the mother’s blood family.[15]

However, while this overthrow is politically and ideologically one in which men gained historic ascendancy over women, the class interests of men as a patriarchy who have undermined collective property rights in order to establish private property, is lost to history. For these Marxist feminist anthropologists and historians, ALL men’s interests become immediately subsumed to that of SOME men who constitute the ruling class of a new mode, the Ancient (slave) MOP. It seems the ability of ALL men to enslave their women, and to accumulate collective property as private property, becomes historically downgraded into merely the “embryo” of all successive social antagonisms and contradictions in which SOME men (and even fewer women) constitute ruling classes; hence my hypothesis about the ‘missing link’. Has there ‘gone missing’ in history a social revolution where men overthrew women in order to privatise collective property?

Not all Marxists have entirely overlooked this missing link. There have been some attempts to go beyond patriarchy to class relations [e.g.McDonough and Harrison, 1978] but none have developed a full analysis of a DMOP. Delphy, for example, takes Engel’s use of class terms seriously. She says that the history of classes has excluded women so far into the privatised realm. Delphy rejects the search for origins but not a ‘materialist history’ [Delphy, 1997]. She wants a scientific approach to women by starting with ‘oppression’ and she and Leonard theorise the family as a ‘socio-economic institution’ with ‘relations of production’ that comprises a ‘domestic mode of production’ [1992:158]. Yet for Marxists, ‘oppression’ must be a concrete manifestation of a deeper reality, that of class exploitation. What is the source of the specific oppression of women?

Logically, for Delphy and Leonard to justify their view that men and women are social classes, they have to ground their conception in a theory of origins. When their ‘domestic production relations’ are scrutinised, they are actually a form of contemporary non-market relations which accompanies capitalist market exchange relations. But neither ‘modes’ have a ‘materialist history’. Women’s labour is appropriated by men, and this ‘social relation’ is reproduced by power and ideology, but there is no explanation of where this DMOP originated, or just as important, how it has articulated as a sub-mode with a succession of dominant modes [ibid: 158-159]. Ironically, this has obvious political consequences for women’s liberation. Far from freeing the authors from ‘biologism’ as they claim, it locks them into biologism, empiricism, or both. The danger of tacking on a neo-Marxist analysis of modes of production onto radical feminism, is to remain trapped in essentialising or trivialising assumptions of the causes of women’s oppression.[16]

Other important attempts to ‘theorise’ the origins of ‘patriarchy’ are that of Coontz and Henderson [1986] and Chevillard and Leconte. Coontz and Henderson expand on Leacock’s broad account to suggest that it was necessary for only a few societies to make the transition to male dominance to demonstrate its ‘efficiency’. They pose the problem in terms of the development of social needs in lineage society, which stimulates exchange and warfare, placing men in higher rank positions that then allows them to transform the kinship property relations into ‘patriarchal’ relations gradually over a long period of time. Once this had occurred women’s gender oppression was worsened by the emergence of class society in which accumulation of private property and the rise of the state further excluded them from  a ‘social’ existence into the private realm. Despite their materialist approach, Coontz and Henderson [1986: 158-159] do not regard the shift to male dominance as leading to a new mode of production or the class oppression of women.

Chevillard and Leconte’s [1986] work is more interesting. They agree substantially with Coontz and Henderson (and ultimately Engels and Leacock) on the material transformations in lineage society. However, for them male appropriation of female labour is a much more violent and sudden overturn, or ‘upheaval’, involving a struggle over female labour.[17] Men’s labour in exchange and warfare allowed them to alter the marriage rules, institute patrilocal marriage and benefit from the exchange of women and the exploitation of their labour. Hence ALL women become a class in a new mode of production in which SOME men become a ruling class.

In my view this work comes closest to adequately theorising the DMOP (or patriarchy in their terms) and falls short only because it confuses levels of analysis. Rather than pose the class relations as strictly gender relations, they apriori (and therefore ideologically) allow SOME men to escape characterisation as members of a ruling class in the patriarchy, on the grounds that they subsequently are reduced to slaves or workers in other modes of production. In other words, the author’s approach ahistorically conflates modes one with the other, rather than analysing them in terms of an historically specific articulation of modes.[18]

It may very well be that as soon as more advanced modes dominate the DMOP as a sub-mode, most men do not benefit materially to any significant degree from the expropriation of female labour, however this in not an augment against the end of male/female relations of production.[19] Even for the most advanced materialist analysis of the patriarchy then, the common failing is the adoption by socialist feminists and Marxist feminists of an eclectic post-structuralist neo-marxism that abandons the analysis of the historical specificity of modes of production for a neo-Ricardian analysis of exchange relations in the capitalist market, and in the family, both of which are projected idealistically (and ideologically) back into historical origins.[20]


(1)  “Marx and Engels didn’t discover a DMOP, therefore it cannot exist”.

Apart from the quasi-religious quality of this objection, we have seen that Marx and Engels discovered past modes from their survivals in the CMOP. Maybe they didn’t see the DMOP survival in mature capitalism. They lived during a period of capitalist development where women (and children) were exploited as wage-labour alongside men as well as in the home. Yet as we have seen, neither saw the prospect of capitalism freeing women from domestic labour and the oppressive monogamous family. Marx and Engels coined the term ‘domestic slavery’ and they traced the origins of the patriarchal family from its existence in Ancient slave society through feudalism to capitalism.

I suggest that Marx and Engels did discover the DMOP but did not recognise it as a distinct mode because under capitalism it was a sub-mode in an extremely ‘stunted’ form; that is, the privatised domestic production in the family was excluded from social production for the market. As such, compared with other survivals, such as the FMOP and AMOP, even slavery in the American south, the DMOP was literally ‘marginal’ to the basic analysis of capitalism as a mode of production defined as “generalised commodity production”.

2) “The patriarchal family does not have the necessary constituents of a mode of production, i.e. forces, relations, means of production, or a state to reconcile class antagonism.”

This is not a strong objection, because all these elements are already present in ’embryo’ in Marx and Engels’ account of ‘the overthrow of mother right’ and backed up by more recent research [Reed, 1975; Leacock and Safa, 1986; Tratt, 1998]. It is not too difficult to specify the level and type of forces of production necessary for the DMOP. These include the land, tools and labourers, now owned as slaves. The social relations are the two classes involved –men who appropriated the labour-time of women and other slaves. The ideology of ‘father right’ authorised men to own their wives, children and slaves as private property. As Marx says, this ideological shift was achieved by altering existing kinship rules such as the naming of children as members of the father’s rather than mother’s clans [Engels,1976:57]. This ideology was backed up by the use of legitimate force necessary to reproduce a set of social relations in which men could punish, rape and kill women and children to ensure that they remained their property [ibid:58]. So the exercise of power and ideology of patriarchy against the clan was to establish and reproduce a new set of social relations in which men were able to appropriate unpaid domestic labour of domestic slaves.

3) “Where is the historical evidence of the origin of gender class relations in the transition from classless lineage modes to a DMOP?”

The answer must take the form of showing how a transition from the PCMOP or LMOP to the DMOP occurred as the result of a social barrier to the further development of forces of production. It is only on this basis that a ‘social revolution’ can occur to unblock the barrier of existing social relations to the further development of the forces of production. Primitive communist clan social relations, because they coexist with relatively under-developed productive forces do not allow for a significant surplus to be produced, because they require that the distribution and consumption of the surplus be relatively equal across the whole of society so that it can reproduce itself by meeting the needs of all.

Historically, as new techniques made labour more productive, the existing clan relations prevented the accumulation of a growing surplus in the hands of any one lineage group as the basis for further developing the forces of production i.e. buying more stock, land etc. The ‘overthrow’ of these clan relations by male elders therefore allowed the surplus to be accumulated and inherited by the patriarchal family as ‘private’ property. The means of production that had been formerly owned collectively now became the private property of patriarchal male family heads. The clan social relations of production that were based on lineage i.e. “mother right” had ensured that the productive forces met the collective needs of society. Class social relations of production now replaced these where the patriarchal family as private property expropriated labour, and the social surplus was accumulated and passed down to male heirs.

4) “But how was it that men were already primed as those who controlled the new techniques which increased labour productivity, and therefore were in a position to bring about this revolution in social relations?”

To meet this objection it is necessary to show how an emerging social division of labour where men took responsibility for the domestication of animals, trade and warfare, gave them the initial advantage. Men became elders in these areas of activity since they had the sex-specialised knowledge of hunting, warfare and animal herding. Women had sex-specialised knowledge in other areas of activity – usually that of domestic production.[21]

Engels referred to this as the natural division of labour, though it is obvious that male and female tasks were not rigidly determined by biology. Women were not confined exclusively to domestic duties, nor was it men only that hunted and gathered [Tratt, 1998]. Women were not ‘cut off from social production’ since ‘in primitive communal society, the distinction did not exist between a public world of men’s work and a private world of women’s household services. The large collective household was the community, and within it both sexes worked to produce the goods necessary for livelihood.’ [Leacock, 1972: 33].

Nevertheless the social division of labour made it possible for male elders who controlled land and communal property in pastoral production to convert that control into their own private property by manipulating the bride price into a child price. So while elements of biology enter into the social revolution, they do not determine it. Men made the revolution determined to take advantage of new sources of wealth in their own private, rather than collective, interest. Rather than see this wealth collectively consumed, the new class accumulated it as private property that in turn enabled the productive forces to develop and generate yet more wealth.

5) “Why didn’t the DMOP disappear when it was superseded by more advanced Modes like the AMOP, the FMOP, or the CMOP?”

Like other modes that preceded it and succeeded it, the DMOP had its limits. The surplus generated by women as a slave class inside and outside the home that was expropriated and consumed to the advantage of all men, became in itself a barrier to further accumulation. Once collective property had been privatised, slave labour could then extend to the realm of social production. A ruling class of patriarchs developed the ’embryo’ of domestic slavery to full blown slavery-in-general in the Ancient mode. Of course this mode proved to have limits as well as the need to capture more slaves came up against the costs of imperial conquest.

However, in the AMOP, FMOP and ‘Asiatic’ or Tributary Mode (TMOP), the ruling classes made up of patriarchal families could appropriate the unpaid domestic labour of non-ruling patriarchal families. Historically, the surplus from domestic slavery was augmented by that produced by subordinate males as slaves or bonded peasants. The DMOP becomes a sub-mode of these dominant modes, because unpaid domestic labour remained an important source of labour contributing to the social surplus. But this surplus from the DMOP was no longer appropriated by all men as a class, but by the men (and to a very much lesser extent, women) of the dominant ruling class. [22]

So there is no reason to abolish the DMOP while it can contribute unpaid domestic labour to the dominant MOP (any more than other precapitalist modes that have contributed surplus labour to capitalism).  It will not be superseded unless domestic labour is ‘socialised’. While capitalist society depends upon unpaid domestic labour to reproduce part of the use-value of labour power, the DMOP will remain as a sub-mode. Moreover, this reality becomes all the more pressing when we understand that capitalism in crisis always puts the burden of solving the crisis onto wage workers and non-capitalist producers by intensifying the rate of extraction of surplus labour in all residual modes within the CSF. Therefore, following on from this analysis, the political interests of all these subordinated classes including the unpaid domestic workers is to unite in the overthrow the dominant CMOP. I will return to this point towards the end of this paper.


If this argument is correct, with the emergence of capitalism, previous modes and sub-modes, including the DMOP become articulated into capitalist production in a process of uneven and combined development. Rather than speculate further on the historic overthrows in Europe and Asia Minor, or even North America, we can look at the Pacific, the last region to be penetrated and colonised by capitalism in the 19th century, to prove the point. Here the relatively recent penetration should allow us to observe the process of overthrow much closer at hand using the work of anthropologists some of whom adopt a broadly Marxist standpoint. Not only can we document the recent overthrow of mother right much more accurately, it should be possible to observe, and participate in, forms of resistance which are preventing the completion of the overthrow or even reversing it.

The best documentation of this process can be found in Leacock’s work on the overthrow and resistance of ‘mother right’ in the Pacific and elsewhere [1981, Leacock and Safa, 1986]. The Pacific was unique in the expansion of Europe not only because of its late colonisation but because the CMOP came up against relatively uncontaminated precapitalist MOPs. Marxist Anthropologists like Godelier were able to use these examples of penetration to develop the Marxist theory of MOPs in terms of their concrete history. First, Pacific PCMOPs were theorised, following African and Asian work, as LMOPs modes in transition to AsiaticMOPs or TributaryMOPs. Godelier argued that in the Pacific we can observe a shift from non-class society such as Maori and Australian Aborigine to distinct class society such as Hawaii. This reflects the development of the forces of production and a sufficient surplus to allow a elder class to separate itself from the common lineage [Godelier, 1977:118].

Second, Marxist-feminists critiqued this work for failing to incorporate the analysis of women’s oppression. For example, Molyneux’s [1977] critique of Terray, and Bradby’s [1977] critique of Godelier and ‘male rationality’, both make the point that Marxist anthropologists continued to ignore the gender dimension. Both Terray and Godelier as ‘structural Marxists’ take the ‘gender division of labour’ as a given and treat women’s work as of no ‘value’.  This is a fundamental error for Marxists since it takes the gender division of labour to be ‘natural’ and not the product of an historic overthrow of ‘mother right’. Moreover, as Molyneux comments, to recognise that in these societies women’s labour is un-rewarded certainly poses the question of women’s subordinated position and therefore the question as to whether women constituted a class!

Third, this work on modes and women sharpened the tools of the Marxist critique of the bourgeois analysis of the position of women in the Pacific and Australian Aboriginal society, not only of the traditional Eurocentric and Androcentric analyses, but also more recent post-modern fashions. Take the Marxist analysis of the relatively recent subordination of women in Tongan society.


As a case study of the recent overthrow of mother right in the Pacific, I want to use Christine Ward Gailey’s [1987] study of the emergence of the oppression of women in Tonga. Gailey argues the traditional Marxist position that women’s oppression came into existence “alongside” class society in Tonga. Is it possible that she has overlooked evidence in support of a DMOP, which under the impact of colonisation, emerges alongside, but is subordinated to a CMOP?

Following Engels and Leacock, Gailey argues that the emergence of a “gender hierarchy” was caused by the overthrow of female authority in reproducing non-class kin society. Pre-contact Tongan society was hierarchical but not class-based [ibid: 54]. However, she allows the possibility of earlier class forms and an on-going dynamic tension between kinship and class [ibid: 81]. Yet not until colonial contact did the establishment of property rights and production of commodities for the market on a permanent basis occur. And this required a decisive defeat of women as authority figures in kin-based society [ibid: 79]. A land-owning class could emerge only if rights to goods in the kin-based society were devalued and replaced by rights to patriarchal inheritance. Since it was men who gained from commodity production, and women who lost their position as producers of use-values for kin society, a gender hierarchy was established. Today, women’s social authority is “contingent on class position” though some residual kinship authority remains in conflict with social class [ibid: 266].

However, to talk merely of a gender hierarchy, obscures a more basic inequality. The colonial contact precipitated the incipient tendency towards a tributary (or Asiatic) sub-mode (TMOP) articulated to the CMOP, in which male peasants or agricultural workers produce cash crops as commodities for the market, and pay rent to a ruling class. This tributary sub-mode appears to introduce a stunted form of the Feudal rather than Asiatic mode since it entails a payment of rent to a new land-owning class, rather than tribute to a chiefly ruling class.[23]

Gailey recognises the essentials of both of these modes. But what she doesn’t recognise is the formation of a DMOP which accompanies this process. This is perhaps not surprising, since she is theoretically predisposed not to look for one. Moreover, the parallel uneven and combined development of these modes in a short historical period of less than 200 years in North America, Asia and the Pacific, makes their theoretical ‘disarticulation’ difficult but not impossible, as Marx [1974] describes the process of resistance to the overthrow of mother right over a relatively short period in Ancient Greece.

Not only is women’s right, mana, or authority, overthrown by the development of class society in Tonga, but so are the social relations of equality that underpin it. In the LMOP women’s labour-time was not exploited – women consumed their labour-equivalent in goods and services. But under the tributary sub-mode, where men have rights to land, they now control women’s social labour. Gailey refers to the example of coconut oil production. Traditionally women’s work, and now produced for the market, this has become controlled by males [ibid: 222]. These men are able to extract surplus labour from women to pay their rent to the landlords. I suggest that new gender production relations had arrived in the form of the DMOP articulated to both the tributary sub-mode and CMOP.

The domination of the CMOP over the two sub-modes can be seen in the following example. When the hydraulic press replaced manual methods of extracting oil, copra became the main cash crop. This was traditionally men’s work so women were now displaced from the main social labour and expected to perform privatised domestic labour, as well as augmenting the wage-labour force. The form of ‘patriarchal’ relations associated with more developed capitalism had arrived. Now women’s surplus labour was extracted mainly from privatised domestic labour.

The Tongan case is a very clear example of what happened to women with the penetration of capitalism into the Pacific. It shows that the recent and incomplete overthrow allows both the practical proof of the survival of a domestic mode that sustains a material interest in kin-based social relations of the lineage mode. There is therefore a surviving material base within the domestic sub-mode to sustain the knowledge of mother right that can inform and strengthen contemporary forms of resistance and reversal! Here is the potential to unite the interests of women fighting to reverse the overthrow with those of poor peasant women in the petty commodity sub-mode, and with female wage labour in the CMOP![24]


Like the rest of the South Pacific, in pre-European New Zealand and Australia the evidence from early contact onwards is that neither Maori nor Aboriginal societies were class societies.  As Wolfe [1999: 84] has argued 19th evolutionary anthropology saw Aboriginal society as a matrilineal lineage society i.e. pre-social, pre-patriarchy and pre-private property. It was a convenient rationale for the doctrine of terra nullius. 20th century anthropology reinstated the principle of male dominance through the theory of totemism [ibid: 178].

Despite much commentary on the relatively unequal roles of men and women, especially in pre-contact Aboriginal society, there is no convincing evidence against a DMOP. Recent work that attempts to correct for Androcentrism finds that gender relations were “autonomous”, but that with colonisation there was a clear “shift” towards the subordination of women [Bell, 1993; Bloodworth, nd]. Employing a feminist methodology that avoided the preconceptions of Androcentrism, Bell found that the independence and relative equality of women in pre-contact society was based upon their ritual role in maintaining land both as a material resource and a spiritual value. She was then able to theorise [1993: 247] the “shift from female autonomy to male control” as due to the impact of colonisation “shattering” this relationship.

Maori society was also a simple form of kinship-based society in which the shift towards the CMOP began to emerge only with colonial contact as was the case in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. Women were seen as unequal though this was not interpreted as male dominance [Heuer, 1972]. More recent work by female anthropologists and academics has exposed the assumption of inequality as Eurocentric and Androcentric [Smith, 2000 ]. It is now recognised that there was no structural subordination of women by men. Smith says that: “Indigenous women would argue that their traditional roles included full participation in many aspects of political decision making and marked gender separations which were complementary in order to maintain harmony and stability.” [2000:151]. [25]

If we can interpret this “shift” in the position of Aboriginal and Maori women with colonial contact as the “overthrow of mother right”, how are we to explain it? Like Tonga it seems that this was a process that only took place under the impact of the CMOP and an accompanying ‘patriarchy’.  Perhaps we can re-theorise this recent overthrow as part of a wider revolution from the primitive communist (LMOP) to the DMOP that accompanied the introduction of capitalism in the Pacific?

Existing accounts of the impact of colonisation on the position of Aboriginal women are in terms of the effects of patriarchy rather than the introduction of the DMOP sub-mode articulated to the CMOP. McGrath [1995b] in particular argues that the acceptance of new gendered roles was based in part upon existing gendered roles. This view accepts that the settlers more easily subordinated Aboriginal women because Aboriginal men already dominated them. We can critique this standpoint and show how the mode of production analysis is superior. Why? Because we can account for the ‘resistance’ put up by Aboriginal women to their gender subordination during colonisation.

First, Aboriginal women’s traditional autonomy in the control of land resources meant that they did not passively submit to dispossession and sexual subordination by white settlers. That is, aboriginal women could be incorporated into semi-feudal pastoral production and still resist the imposition of universal ‘patriarchal’ power relations. Not until capitalist landed property was formed and capitalist social relations extended to include Aboriginals in a reserve army of labour and historically specific gender relations did the ‘overthrow of mother right’ occur. Thus it allows us to explain why Aboriginal women could do “mens” work as drovers etc before they were subordinated under the ‘colonial system’ (understood as a Peasant or simple-commodity sub-mode and a DMOP sub-mode articulated to the CMOP). It shows how Aboriginal men too came to adopt the gender role of male dominance of the ‘bourgeois family’ once the reproduction of the LMOP was subordinated to the CMOP.[26]

In the case of the Maori much the same can be said. Webster’s neo-Marxist account supports Bedggood’s claim that the articulation of modes in NZ was one in which the Maori LMOP was adaptive and resistant to the CMOP. It also reinforces the position of Macrae and Bedggood who argued that the Maori mode continued as a sub-mode influencing the capitalist mode as a base for a rural reserve army, and sustaining a collectivist working class culture in the most low-paid sector of the proletariat [Webster, 1998]. Within this sub-mode however, the effects of the DMOP as a sub-mode were also felt. Not just as a political or ideological transmission effect of the ‘cult of domesticity’ as James and Saville Smith [1994] argue. Nor only as a downstream effect of ‘unequal exchange’ which reinforced the patriarchal family and the family wage in settler society as Steven [1985] argues. I shall look at each of these rival non-production based theories in turn.


If we apply the articulation of modes model we can make sense of the introduction of the DMOP as an integral part of the impact of colonisation in Australia and New Zealand. The indigenous peoples of Australasia were in general not required by the colonists for plantation agriculture, so a Tributary (or Asiatic) mode did not evolve out of kin-based social relations.[27] White settlers expropriated the land and established peasant family production for subsistence and later for the capitalist market, introducing peasant family production. Thus the form of ‘patriarchal’ social relations corresponding to feudal production were also established but under the dominance of the CMOP. Women were involved in social production of commodities for the market as well as in privatised domestic labour. Rich farmers or pastoralists could employ domestic servants and eliminate most if not all of the unpaid domestic labour of their wives and daughters. But the poorer the peasant family, the more intense was domestic labour in providing subsistence and commodity labour. Often women were abandoned, or left to farm alone, while husbands looked for work.

It is not difficult to find plenty of evidence to show that under peasant family production women performed two sorts of labour, social and privatised. In both forms, surplus labour was extracted in varying amounts and appropriated by men in the form of use-values, and by capitalists in the form of rent and interest. While men may not necessarily have benefited directly from women’s surplus labour, the domestic social relations meant women were economically dependent on men’s property rights and subjected to their ideological and ‘political’ dominance. That is, for this exploitation to continue, women had to accept their gendered role as natural and just, to see it as part of a hegemonic gendered culture.

Some liberal feminists and socialist feminists interpret this subordination as evidence of a unique gendered culture that was reproduced by the colonial state to reinforce unequal gender roles. James and Saville-Smith recognise the importance of legislation that sanctioned the roles of ‘housewife’ and ‘family man’ as reproducing family relations. However they do not go on to show that the state was actively reproducing gender relations of production. Lacking that hard theoretical edge, their analysis backslides easily into the liberal or radical feminist view that men controlled the state and imposed unequal gender relations by this means [1994]. Analysis of the DMOP however, demonstrates that the state intervenes to reproduce capitalist social relations, and at the same time reproduces domestic social relations. However it does this not merely to reproduce difference, or unequal power relations, but rather domestic social relations of production. [28]


Similarly, Steven’s theory, which argues that male ‘family wage’ earners benefit at the expense of white-settler women, is over-simplified. As its starting point is exchange relations, the distribution of surplus results from the ability of various classes to extract rent at the expense of the others. Steven’s theory can be easily applied to Australia since the early accumulation of capital depended also upon differential rent. Steven claims that differential rent derived from stolen Maori land was distributed not only to landowners but also to manufacturers and ultimately male workers. That is, he argues that the family wage was a ‘historic compromise’ between pakeha male bosses and pakeha male workers to share the ill-gotten rent at the expense of Maori and women [1985, 1989].

Because the sharing of rent from indigenous people’s lands sustains a racist alliance this theory can partly account for white women’s racism towards Aboriginal and Maori women. It has the advantage of locating the cause of racism in the economic motives of the settlers to benefit from stolen land. However, this theory does not begin with relations of production and cannot account for the ‘overthrow of mother right’ as a revolution in production relations. It posits the subordination and the emancipation of women at the level of exchange.

Such a theory starts with the assumption of unequal exchange of labour in the household as well as the marketplace. So it deals with one level of reality only – how the ‘patriarchy’ was reproduced under capitalism by the state and ideology to ensure ‘exploitation’ based on unequal exchange in both domestic labour and wage labour. Yet ‘exploitation’ does not begin and end at the level of exchange. ‘Production relations’ determine ‘Exchange relations’ since what is exchanged is value determined by the mode of production. The theory marks a gain over ahistorical or cultural theories of the reproduction of patriarchy but is incomplete, as it does not recognise the domestic sub-mode and its social relations of production. By itself therefore it cannot provide a full explanation of the causes of women’s oppression in Australasia. It follows that it has no political programme for women’s liberation. Its political programme is one of moderating the market to correct the unequal exchange of labour. As we have seen, reliance upon the capitalist state to bring about the end to oppression is a fatal example of ‘sleeping with the enemy’.[29]


If the DMOP is a mode in its own right, patriarchal power and ideology serves to reproduce that mode. Its historical origins can be reconstructed to fill the huge gap in Marxist analysis of women’s oppression. Its historic importance was in overcoming the barrier to `progress’ constituted by kin-based social relations in the primitive community and freeing-up the development of the forces of production. But the price of this progress was that the domestic mode was not superseded and was to remain a subordinate mode articulated to a sequence of dominant modes for which it provides unpaid domestic labour. It cannot transcend itself until such time as domestic labour is socialised. In the classic Marxist literature there is no cause to suppose that this will happen before the transition to socialism. Therefore since its origins in the first social revolution the evolution (and forms) of the DMOP has been largely determined by the dominant mode to which it is articulated.

Today within a sub-mode articulated to the CMOP, the domestic class struggle over unpaid domestic labour, is subordinated to the capitalist class struggle over the rate of exploitation. The residual DMOP ‘ruling class’ of males, act as agents of the dominant CMOP ruling class. At all times, but particularly in times of crisis, when capital imposes its solutions onto the backs of the workers and under-workers, men may support the intensification of domestic labour and reinforce patriarchal ideology by the use of male violence. Therefore, before women can free themselves of capitalism as the main enemy, they have to free themselves of capitalism’s male agents. The only conclusion that we can draw from this is that women must struggle to take their place alongside and as equals to men in the vanguard of the socialist revolution.

[1] The radical critique of post-modern feminism is good but limited by its own radical assumptions. It can describe but not explain why false consciousness is separated from social being [Brodrib, 1992, 1996]. See also Delphy and Leonard who act as a go-betweens for radical and marxist feminists. They characterise their position as ‘radical feminist’ which uses ‘marxist methodology’ [1992:2].

[2] See Ebert [1996] and Hennessy[1993] and  Hennessy and Ingraham [1997]  Both these critics come from a neo-Ricardian perspective in which globalised post-fordist, flexible accumulation has altered the conditions of reproduction of the family, released some women from domestic labour, but still traps the vast majority in domestic drudgery. Hennessy’s critique of post-modern feminism is based on a post-Althusserian standpoint. She demolishes the emancipatory posturing of pomo very well but from a weak neo-marxist position that is open to left critique. Ebert’s critique comes from a broad regulation school position where post modernism is seen as adapting to the needs of flexible accumulation to assimilate and promote difference as part of the commodity fetish. Neither can escape the defects of a neo-ricardian concept of exploitation.

[3] Adamson et al  [1976] pioneered a classic post-war marxist analysis of women’s position grounded upon Marx’s method. Domestic labour is seen as non-value producing, but essential to the reproduction of capital. This analysis provides a theoretical basis for a revolutionary politics against the reformist ‘wages for housework’ position, or the mechanical ‘socialisation of housework’ position.

[4] A more common objection within socialist feminisim is to any attempt to graft onto Marxism a theory of patriarchy as a social structure [Young, 1980]. Yet unless a materialist analysis of women’ oppression is made along the lines of Engels’ analysis, ‘oppression’ is detached from its productive/reproductive roots, and ultimately the basis of materialism, social being, becomes reduced to political and cultural relations.

[5] The attempt to theorise a Domestic Mode of Reproduction to fill this gap is inadequate.  It takes concepts which reflect a productive reality and illogically invents a ‘mode of reproduction’ alongside the mode of production [Saville-Smith, 1988]. This breaks with Marx’s method in basic ways. First, Marx considers ‘nature’ and ‘society’ to be a unity within each historic MOP. Biological reproduction cannot be separated from social reproduction. See Marx [1973:88-100] on the four moments which include production and reproduction! Therefore the concepts which already incorporate biological reproduction in each historic mop cannot be subtracted and artificially reconstituted outside production. Edholm et al [1977] critique Meillassoux’s [1972] argument about male control of women as a means of controlling labour. However, we shall see that once Meillassoux’s one-sided reproductive analysis is integrated into a mode of production framework, male control of labour can be see to be the basis for the emergence of a DMOP[cf Aaby, 1977]. Much the same can be said for Mies [1986] theory of men as hunters forcibly appropriating women’s labour.

[6] Engels [1976:57-58] says: ‘The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reigns in the house also, the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children …Famulus means a household slave and familia signifies the totality of slaves belonging to one individual …then quotes Marx : “The modern family contains in embryo not only slavery (servitus) but serfdom also, since from the very beginning it is connected with agricultural services. It contains within itself in miniature all the antagonisms which later develop on a wide scale within society and its state”.’

[7] This does not mean that Marx or Engels though that the emancipation of women was possible under capitalism. Engels [1976] states clearly that: ‘…the emancipation of women and their equality with men are impossible and must remain so as long as women are excluded from socially productive work and restricted to housework, which is private. The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree. And this has become possible only as a result of modern large-scale industry, which not only permits of the participation of women in production in large numbers, but actually calls for it and, moreover, strives to convert private domestic work also into public industry’ [158]. Tratt [1998] suggests that Engels ‘idealised individual sex-love’ in the proletarian family because ‘large-scale industry has transferred the women from the house to the labour market and the factory and makes her, often enough the breadwinner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation, except perhaps, for some of the brutality toward women which has become firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy…’  However, to recognise this fact as Engels does, is not to ‘idealise’ it : ‘Thus full freedom in marriage can become generally operative only when the abolition of capitalist production, and the property relations created by it, has removed all those secondary economic considerations which still exert so powerful influence on the choice of a partner.’ [Engels, 1976:81].

[8] In fact Marx and Engels both developed their ideas about pre-capitalist forms in the later life. Writing in 1884 Engels [1976:66]  says: ‘In an old and unpublished manuscript, the work of Marx and myself in 1846 I find the following: “The first division of labour is that between man and woman for child breeding.” And today I can add: The first antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male…It is the cellular form of civilised society, in which we can already study the nature of the antagonisms and contradictions which develop fully in the later’.

[9] See the more ‘concrete’ investigations of Marx’s [1974] Ethnological Notebooks were he extends his historical analysis beyond that of the Grundrisse and Capital, and provides much of the material that Engels used in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

[10] This concept of the law of ‘Combined Development’ [Trotsky, 1932:25] can be applied here to incorporate the articulation of the DMOP so that we can explain why the original overthrow of mother right in Ancient Greece has only recently occurred in the Pacific with the penetration of the Pacific by capitalism.

[11] The classic discussion of this is the concept of the ‘labour aristocracy’ who are a privileged layer of workers in the imperialist countries bribed by the super-profits extracted from the colonies [Lenin, 1977:193-4].

[12] The failure of an international socialist revolution has apparently refuted this theory.  On the contrary the failure is more correctly attributed to the failure of revolution in the ‘strongest links’ in the imperialist chain – in Europe and America. The history of the Russian Revolution reinforced the Bolshevik position. It was women factory workers who sparked off the February Revolution. For about 5 years women in revolutionary Russia made huge steps, gaining rights far exceeding those possible under capitalism. However, with the isolation and containment of the revolution in the USSR, the petty bourgeois bureaucracy came to power and the position of women suffered dramatically. The degeneration of the revolution in the ‘weakest link’ was not inevitable. It followed from the failure of the German revolution in 1923. Therefore, the outcome in the USSR and the other ‘degenerated workers states’ does not prove the futility of women siding with men in the struggle for socialism. Since the only case of any real progress in the liberation of women took place in Russia during and after the revolution, this shows that oppressed nationalities and women cannot liberate themselves in full without a successful international socialist revolution. See Ebert [2001].

[13] Much hot air is vented in bourgeois thought on the question of ‘rights’. For Marx, rights are specific to a MOP [Marx, 1964:98-101]. Under capitalism, rights are property rights. Freedom and liberty are the right to own and dispose of property including one’s right to buy and sell the commodity labour-power which creates more value than its own exchange value. So bourgeois rights reduce to abstract labour i.e. the  value of commodities, and obscure the surplus-value that is extracted from wage-labour.

[14] It is the static nature of the Asiatic mode which explains the rudimentary level of analysis given to it by Marx and Engels and not as often argued, Eurocentrism. See Melotti [1977].

[15] However as Leacock [1981: 183-194] points out, Reed follows Engels in assuming an original matriarchy, and links the overthrow of mother right to the conscious intention of men to control their biological heirs, inserting a spurious idealist motivation for what was a social transformation as men gained control of new wealth generated by exchange and warfare [ibid: 215-216]. See also Giminez, [1987].

[16] For example, Young [1990] also invokes a neo-marxist method in locating the ‘structure of labouring activity, broadly defined, as a crucial determinant of social phenomena’. Yet it is not possible to ‘reclaim anti-capitalist feminism’ without theorising ‘gender-differentiated labouring activity’ in terms of a social relations of production in a specific historical articulation of modes of production [Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997].

[17] The authors cite a universal mythology of men overturning women’s power suggesting both the universality of the myth of male dominance, but also the ongoing struggle to resist the overturn. See also Saliou [1986].

[18] In effect modes of production become modes of exchange. By this I mean that the contradiction between relations and forces of production which implicitly causes the onset of male dominance, is now forgotten, and it its place a calculus of uneven exchange in which male/female production relations become equated with male/female exchange relations. The problem with exchange analysis is that it reduces exploitation to a technical question. If no labour is appropriated directed by some men, they cease to be exploiters despite their continuing social role in reproducing the DMOP via male violence and ideology. A major consequence of this is the familiar criticism directed at Marxists for failing to explain the ‘universality’ of male violence and the ideology of sexism. Thus the ability of articulation theory  to explain the continuing subordination of a sub-mode, including its relations of production, in the reproduction of the dominant mode, is lost.

[19] This of course contradicts the evidence of a universal violent upheaval or overthrow of mother right, and tends to support the position of Coontz and Henderson who view only the high ranked males as the beneficiaries of female labour. Thus the authors write: “We may note that the upheaval out of which patrilocal (and patriarchal, in the usual sense of the term) societies arose, did not institute equality among men. At the same time as they gained power over women, men entered into strongly hierarchical relations. What is significant here, is that the true beginnings of a process of domination not only set man against women, but ruling men against the rest of humankind. The exploitation of man by man did in fact begin as an exploitation of woman by man. But within this original exploitation lay the seeds of the exploitation of humans of both sexes by the ruling human who is again male” [op.cit:107].

[20] Molyneaux’s [1977] critique of Terray [1972] offers an approach that does not separate production from reproduction, and which shows how ALL men come to be ‘elders’ by means of harnessing privatised domestic labour. While she can demonstrate why it was necessary for men to attempt to control women’s productive and reproductive labour, she does not attempt to explain “why” and “how” women come to be subordinated to men. Her approach is however, consistent with the existence of a DMOP. Other unsuccessful attempts include McDonough and Harrison [1978]. They do deal with origins, and try to theorise the historic specificity of patriarchy and capitalism. However, they continue to separate production from reproduction so the unity of labour appropriation and control of procreation in the DMOP is lost. Instead we have patriarchy in which social relations of production regulate procreation, alongside modes of production in which relations of production regulate labour appropriation.

[21] There is much evidence to show that the emergence of this social division of labour increased ranking in lineage society, without altering the reciprocity of matrilineal distribution. Sahlins [1972:132] says: ‘The economic role of the headman is only a differentiation of kinship morality. Leadership is here a higher form of kinship, hence a higher form of reciprocity and liberality.’

[22] This opens the way for a political alliance between women and non-ruling class men against the capitalist ruling class. But it requires that men become conscious of the history of unpaid domestic labour and join with women to fight for the socialisation of domestic work rather than a ‘fair’ redistribution of unpaid domestic labour between the two genders. While an important step in  freeing women to participate as wage workers, and to contribute to political struggle, distributional solutions even if they were possible, do not overcome the fact that capitalism depends on unpaid domestic labour which is exploitative and oppressive.

[23] But this is probably because the form of surplus – rent to land owners – was partly imposed by the fact that cash cropping entered into the capitalist market and represented a particular articulation of LMOP, with peasant production, subordinated to capitalism. Thus Godelier’s argument that the Lineage mode in the Pacific tended to develop towards the Asiatic mode has to be modified to allow for the actual historic articulations between Lineage modes and the CMOP that allows surplus to be generated and accumulated by capitalism in a way that would not have been the case had the surplus been appropriated by a chiefly ruling class.

[24] Molyneaux [1977] suggests a parallel case in her account of the historic process of the subordination of women that fills in some of the gaps left by Engels’ own version. In the Gouro society, male elders are able to  set up private families alongside the communal society and direct social surplus into private wealth. Women’s unpaid labour contributes to this as women’s collective labour is increasingly privatised, and they contribute also to the private labour to the private property of the family!

[25] Note however, the limits of Smith’s critique of colonisation. The “euroconcepts’ reproduced within this ‘decolonising’ discourse e.g. ‘indigenous’ which is used as the antipode of ‘coloniser’ ; also there are historical abstractions such as ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’ which do not refer to the specifics of Maori social organisation. There is no analysis of the way in which the labour of women is used and the rewards distributed to reveal a gender division of labour such as is found in Marxist anthropology. Not surprising since there is a paucity of Marxist anthropology in applying Marxist concepts to Maori society. I would say here, that I have no reason to doubt, that in NZ like Australia and the Pacific, imperialism introduced the DMOP as a sub-mode of the CMOP.

[26] Wolfe [1999: 69-87] comments on the way that 19th century evolutionary anthropology ‘discovered’ that traditional matrilineal society lacked ‘property’ to justify the later shift to the idealised ‘nuclear family’ and patriarchal private property. However, this ‘shift’ was driven by the much more powerful dynamic of the expansion of capitalist social relations. The documented struggle on the frontier of both Aboriginal women and men to resist this ‘shift’ demonstrates that they were defending social relations of production, not merely cultural or ritual practices. This resistance could only be broken by separating Aboriginals from their social relations on their land and forming a reserve army of labourers dependent on wages augmented by subsistence on their remaining land.

[27] Where labour only is required by the CMOP the LMOP may be no more than a labour reserve. For example, when plantation agriculture was set up in Queensland workers were ‘blackbirded’ from the Torres Straight Islands (and other islands). Wolfe [1999::202-3] makes the point that this did not involve a massive loss of land and was the basis for the successful Wik claim that was able to prove continuous land occupancy.

[28] These social relations are given by the articulation of modes. CMOP set up capitalist agriculture where the form of the patriarchal household reproduced gendered relations in which white settler women contributed to unpaid domestic and commodity production. The impact of these relations upon Aboriginal and Maori women can then be explained as the outcome of their resistance to the imposition of these new relations upon their existing  gendered relations of production which may appear as a ‘cultural’  or ‘political’ process if taken in isolation of social relations.

[29] The well documented variability in women’s roles on the ‘frontier’ can be explained as responses to the transition from one mode to another mediated by gendered roles. Women’s economic roles in pre-contact society allowed much more scope and flexibility than the new relations of peasant and pastoral capitalist production relations, yet women often inverted or resisted these relations. Not until capitalist relations in the countryside accompanied by protected domestic manufacturing consolidated the capitalist class relations in the 20th century did Maori and Aboriginal women’s complete overthrow take place.


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