Rereading de Beauvoir 4: Historical Materialism

Part One: Destiny

Chapter 3: The Point of View of Historical Materialism

Back to the new translation of The Second Sex after a bit of hiatus. And, time to cover the missed chapter from Part One of the book, Chapter 3: “The Point of View of Historical Materialism”.  I’m actually not sure why that happened, so apologies for this one coming after the first chapter of Part Two. But I’ve numbered the posts (i.e. this is No. 4 of 5) so they’re in the correct order in that regard, even if they’re not on the blog.

Kiddies_CartoonIt’s actually quite useful to be doing this chapter right now, because I’ve nearly finished wading through the three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s 1200-plus pages of Main Currents of Marxism. I know lots of Marxists, lefties, erstwhile Marxists etc. call Kolakowski lots of un-nice names, and the third volume really is filled with lots of foaming at the mouth. On the other hand, purges, famines, etc….!!!

The first volume of Main Currents is all about the philosophical roots of Marx’s writing (as opposed to Marx-ism), including of course, Kant and particularly Hegel etc. and how Marx-ism came to be so closely associated with what’s now called Historical Materialism (even though, let’s face it, hardly anyone knows quite what that means). Kolakowski at times mocks some of the later (post-Marx) Marxist activists and thinkers for their poor understanding of Hegel. To my mind, anyone who thinks they understand Hegel is a liar. (I was nearly driven to jumping from a 5th floor window trying to understand Hegel, though I appreciate this comment is a bit egotistical: if I can’t understand Hegel, no one can. But, yeah!)

Anyway, I digress. I’ve probably read about as much about “Historical Materialism” lately as I’m going to for a while, so I was quite eager to dive into this chapter in The Second Sex to see what SdB has to say.

As she outlines it, Historical Materialism has a lot, I think, in common with Existentialism in seeing humanity as not defined by some innate essence, but through its actions. Or as, SdB puts it here: “Humanity is not an animal species: it is a historical reality.” [63]

What does this mean for woman’s place in that “humanity”? It’s not her biological data that’s defining of her, but what she does; or perhaps, what she is allowed to do in the societal context in which she exists (a context which also is a product of human action, not some kind of natural given).

SdB then runs through Engels’ account of the origins of women’s oppression (in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), which I won’t recreate here but which, as SdB says, “depends principally on the history of technology”. [64] Or, very briefly: (i) Stone Age, a kind of equality with man hunting and fishing; woman gardening and weaving etc., both economically equally valuable tasks (ii) Tools!, man needs labour for agriculture and takes slaves, so private property is born, and man becomes the master of woman (Engles’ “great historical defeat of the female sex”) –> paternity, paternal right, transmission of property from man to son, not woman to clan.

Engels prescription for female emancipation is woman’s wholesale participation in work of equal economic value, i.e. industry. (Aside: Maybe we could try elevating the value of domestic work and parenting to equal that of industry, huh, Friedrich?)

SdB finds this analysis wanting, to say the least. While it makes some advances, she argues it doesn’t explain either how the transition from a communitarian regime to one of private property happened or whether private property necessarily led to the enslavement of women. [65]

On the latter (as she puts it later: “it is impossible to deduce woman’s oppression from private property” [67]) SdB suggests there must already have been, in human consciousness, “both the original category of the Other and an original claim to domination over the Other; the discovery of the bronze tool could not have brought about women’s oppression.” [67]

And she points out the Big Problem with all this: woman with her “reproductive function” cannot be regarded simply as an economic worker: “Her reproductive function is as important as her productive capacity” (I’d say more important to some women; less to others, but either way, distinct!). For another thing, the sex and eroticism and lust and love required (often) for reproduction must be a spontaneous thing; it cannot be part of an economic plan or mandated by the state (though more on how the state tries to do that just below).

So, you can’t assimilate pregnancy and childbirth to have a job or doing military service, which means, unlike jobs and military service…

There is no way to directly oblige a woman to give birth: all that can be done is to enclose her in situations where motherhood is her only option: laws or customs impose marriage on her, anti-conception measures and abortion are banned, divorce is forbidden. [68]

That certainly puts some of the current attacks on reproductive rights across the globe in a wee bit of a wider perspective.

So, in short, Historical Materialism is inadequate (it’s “economic monism”; Freud’s account constituted  “sexual monism), SdB argues, because it treats woman (and man) purely as economic entities, which again doesn’t really explain female oppression, which is what this book is all about trying to do. [69]

 [This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

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