The legacy of 1917 and the material historical dialectic of production-reproduction

Chirashree Das Gupta

While contested opinion(s) on socialist
experiences of the 20th century is all-pervasive, the academic
literature on this has been relatively thinly spread. The quantum of views and
opinion stand on a knowledge base that is narrow and the ‘known’ far exceed the
‘unknown’ in a literature highly charged by ideological standpoints defined
largely by ‘ways of seeing’. The political economy focus has often been on
questions around the organisation of production and productive forces. But, the
reorganisation of social reproduction way beyond the tenets of welfarism had been socialism’s greatest
promise of emancipation from patriarchy – the tyranny of family, private property
and the state; and the conscious political attempt of collectivism rather than
individualism forming the basis of new ‘individualities’.

Based on a Marxist-Feminist framework
linking theory, perspective and method, this note is an endeavour to critically
survey the methods by which the reorganisation of social production and
reproduction in societies attempting a socialist transformation had been
approached to extend and add to the contested terrain of the historicisation of
socialist experiences of the twentieth century.
This is a relatively less explored area
in the impressionistic literature around the socialist experiences that have
gained credence especially since the 1990s. The scholarship on actual socialist
transition(s) is thin. Access to works is also limited given both the political
and cultural hegemony and limits of scholarship in a world structured by
Anglophone imperial domination.
This forms the premise of the question on
The denial of a materialist analysis
and of social class as central objects of study in mainstream social science in
US academia had been evident since the 1950s and 1960s in the shaping of
disciplinary imperatives at the height of Cold War politics After the
intellectual upheaval of ‘dependency theory’ and the ‘structuralist school’,
mainstream social science in the USA consistently rejected the idea that social
classes should be objects of study. There was substantial material and
intellectual investment during the Reagan period in a particular strand of
culture and area studies that took the lead in formulating ideas of ‘hybridity’
and ‘fragmented forms’ and ‘fluid identities’ rather than ‘structured social
formations’ like race and class as the counter to different branches of
cultural relativism, essentialism and idealism that emanated as ‘new’ theory
from the mainstream of US academia[i].
These intellectual models ran a serious ‘risk that one’s subject would be
deconstructed into fragments united only by the common experience of an
incommunicable identity crisis’. This risk stems from the emphasis on ‘cultural
collisions, confrontations and dialogues of the deaf ‘and statements ‘devoid of
meaning’ rising from the separation of the ‘cultural’ from the ‘material’ in
the recasting of ‘social history’ and ‘studies of society’ in a form where the
ambiguity of the ‘narrator’ and the ‘non-specificity’ of ‘subject position’
were premised over earlier analytical narratives based on the material
construction of social relations that defined the structures of society[ii].
Moreover, the attempts at ‘theorising’ of
the socialist experiences have largely been based on abstractions informed by fragmented
readings of the developments in China and the erstwhile USSR which led
Dunayevskaya to lament in 1944 in the American Economic Review that ‘theory’
had been replaced by ‘applied’ economics in the USSR[iii].
Thus apart from the lack of ‘newness’ in scholarship, the sociological
genealogy of the attempts at ‘Marxist’ economic theorising in the judgment(s)
of socialist attempts at social transformation is a task at hand in terms of
the implications of the level of abstraction on which the critique rests and to
what extent it helps us to understand the processes of social transformation
towards the creation of an emancipatory society breaking free of alienation. In
doing so, the attempt is not only to break away from the class basis of
production relations, but also transform the domain of state-society
relationships from the aegis of the nation-state.
Multiple strands of later Marxist
interpretations have tried to locate the conflicts and contests of changing
class relations in the attempts at social transformation. However, the abstract
conceptualisation of conflict, contest and the dialectics of transformation
have been limited to the sphere of production in a somewhat direct conflict
with Marx’s and earlier Marxist understanding of the institutional unit(s) of
organisation of society. In doing so, the individual and the collective get
conceived in terms of a conceptualization of class relations that abstracts
away from the role of the patriarchal family as the unit of organisation of
society in a semi-feudal semi-capitalist context within a nation-state and the
spatio-temporal location of that nation-state within the hierarchy of
nation-states defined by imperialism. However, the transformative aspects of
actually existing socialism(s) lay in not only the change in the institutional
zone of production and appropriation of surplus, but the re-conceptualisation
of the radical transformation needed in the sphere of social reproduction
informed by a Marxist understanding of gender, patriarchy and ‘human nature’ in
a context where the transformative potential of socialist revolution became
historically limited to small pockets of the world[iv].
The disciplinary divides of
power-knowledge diffused only in its
but entrenched in structural root of the patriarchal
reproduction(s) of social classes and their institutional units of organisation[v]
has largely bypassed the so-called Marxian economics of actual socialist
transition.  However, in Marx’s vision of
the ‘rich individuality’, this was a defining aspect in the imagining of
socialiam. In the socialist transitions of the 20th century in the
USSR, China, Cuba and Tanzania, this had been central to the process of
In each of these societies, right after the revolution, the securing of a new
and secure material base had been severe –  largely attributable to the isolations and
penalties associated with the breaking away from the imperial axes of material
power. In the ‘conceptualisation of revolution within a revolution’,  collectivisation of production played an
important role in raising new standards in food, health-care, housing,
education and clothing and providing women visibility and better remuneration
as  workers. This was accompanied by more
and more political participation in public affairs at the level of the Soviets
within the pyramidal structure of political power[vii].
At the same time, there was a thinning out of women’s political power at the
topmost levels of the pyramid which was a significant reversal of the
conditions that prevailed both in the making of the revolution and in the first
few years after the revolution in the USSR[viii].
On the other hand, (except for the attempts
in the USSR in its early phase (with the decriminalisation of homosexuality (1918
– 1933) and the conscious cultural attempt to create conditions for breaking
the basis of the sexual division of labour), breaking away from the unit of
organisation of society in terms of the reproduction of the patriarchal monogamous
family became more and more difficult[ix]
to the point where the Marriage Council of Philadelphia in the USA in 1948
celebrated aspects of women’s activities, standards of health-care and
education in what they perceived as ‘fulfiling the vital function of
strengthening of families in the Soviet Union’ as opposed to the situation in
the USA at that time[x].
In the same year, the greatest problem
facing Chinese families was identified as extreme poverty, very high child and
adult mortality rates and health deprivation even among the more affluent
sections of society. In October and November 1948, on the eve of the Chinese
Revolution, 1492 children  were picked up
from the streets and cremated in the Municipal Crematorium[xi].  China’s social transformation after the
revolution was contingent on people’s communes and brigades as the ‘new’ institutional
bases of enterprise in the spheres of both social production and reproduction[xii]
In Cuba, after the revolution, the
emphasis was on employment, distribution and re-distribution with women and
children as the locus of the system. A shift from material to moral incentives
in the organisation of production was at the centre of socialist envisioning in
Cuba. But by the 1970s, the material conditions of increasing problems of
production given the blockade (despite Soviet assistance) led to the tying of
distribution to wage and enterprises were expected to generate the surplus for
re-distribution. The Cuban Federation of `Women rallied thousands of women for
‘volunteer work’ for both productive and reproductive labour (41 million women
in five years) along with incorporation of women in the paid work-force (one
hundred thousand every year). The proportion of women opting out of women from
the paid workforce was very high (76% in a single year). Political
participation was also very low in the early 1970s. This was the context of the
adoption of the Family Code in 1975 which directly addressed inequality within
the home. However, this intervention co-incided with the compulsions of the
reversal from moral incentives to production to the wage-surplus enterprise
Tanzania, ujama after independence entailed
the drawing in of women into the paid labour force in agriculture through the
process of villagization. However the bulk of the land (70% in 1980) remained
under private ownership[xiv].
In that sense, while it lasted, the first necessary condition of reorganisation
of property relations which had been possible in the USSR, China and Cuba could
not be achieved in Tanzania.
Cuba is an example where direct attempts
to break the basis of the patriarchal family were muted by the compulsions of
the enterprise based production system. China’s attempts on the other are an
illustration of the opposite. Soviet History lies between these two. The relationship
of the enterprise system with the family has been the twin locus of determination
of the wage-surplus relationship in the organisation of societies attempting
social transformation in which the sexual division of both productive and
reproductive labour has paid a pivotal role in a. the determination of the
wage-surplus relationship itself b. making the social basis of patriarchy
mutable in progressive ways but reversal of that mutability in the face of
crises of production and/or reproduction.
An attempt to answer as to why this was
so is important for the envisioning of socialism in specific social contexts in
specific epochs. This note does not propose answers but makes a plea for a
Marxist Feminist conception of historically specific state-society relations which
would help to unravel the institutional linkages between enterprise and family
in the material historical dialectic of production-reproduction in the specific
context of the attempted social transformations to socialism in and since the twentieth
century. This is an urgent political task bequeathed by the legacy of the 1917
Bolshevik Revolution.

[i] I L Gendzier, Managing Political
Change: Social Scientists and the Third World
, Westview Press 1985; C Leys,
The Rise and Fall of Development Theory, James Currey 1996; D Roediger,
The Retreat from Race and Class , Monthly Review, 58 (3).
[ii] E
Hobsbawm, On History, Abacus 1998:
[iii] An early exposition of such an attempt
can be seen in Raya Dunayevskaya’s, A New
Revision of Marxian Economics, 1944, American Economic Review 34(3) and
Counter-revolution from within the Revolution 1984
[iv] K Marx, 1944 manuscripts; A Bebel Woman
and Socialism; A Kollontai The Social Basis of the Women’s Question; L Trotsky,
Family Relations under the Soviets; H Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family; A
Davis, Women, Race and Class; H Bannerji (ed) Of Property and Propriety: The
Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism
[v] N Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism,
NLB 1978
[vi] E J Croll, Women in Rural Production and
Reproduction in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Tanzania: Socialist
Development Experiences Signs 7(1) 1981
[vii] G W Lapidus, Political Leadership,
Participation and Leadership: Women in the Soviets, Comparative Politics 8(1)
[viii] A Kollontai, Women Fighters in the Days of the Great
October Revolution,
Articles and Speeches,
Publishers, 1984
[ix] Lapidus op.cit
[x] È H Mudd, The Family in the
Soviet Union, Marriage and Family Living 10(1)
[xi] E G Osborne, Problems of the
Chinese Family, Marriage and Family Living 10(1)
[xii] Z Dong, Mao Zedong and the
Independent and Comprehensive Industrial System and the Modernization of New
China, World Review of Political Economy 5(4)
[xiii] M Nazzari, The ‘Woman Question’ in Cuba:
An Analysis of Material Constraints in its Solution, Signs 9(2) 1983
[xiv] Croll op.cit

Chirashree Dasgupta is Associate Professor at  Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.