Towards a revolutionary language they can understand
The “Wages for Housework” campaign by the International Feminist Collective (IFC) began with a theoretical concept of social reproduction and formed an activist movement around it. Yet ultimately the IFC failed to go beyond organising women already involved in the left. Maria Macciochi, an activist in the Italian communist party in 1968, started not with a theory but with a question: What was the class composition of Naples, her home city, and how should one organise the class with a revolutionary language that they understand?
The 1960’s-70’s was a pivotal era for socialist theoretical development of the ‘woman question’ and theorising women’s strategic position in the struggle not only for their own emancipation, but also that of the working class. ‘Wages for Housework’, a movement that culminated in the formation of the Autonomia-linked International Feminist Collective, began in the North of Italy in Padua in 1972 following theoretical insights from the likes of Selma James, Silvia Federici and Maria Della Costa. Four years prior in 1968 Maria Macciochi, an activist in the Italian communist party (PCI), returned to Naples from her work as a journalist in Paris to run an election campaign. During her time in Paris she had met the philosopher and French communist party activist Louis Althusser, and they decided to exchange letters during her election campaign. Althusser was to act as her mentor during her time in Naples. Looking at both the campaigns of Macciocchi and Wages for Housework I will identify the three key tenets of difference in their strategic outlook on the woman question and how Macciochi’s intervention in Naples holds key lessons for socialist feminists today. Firstly, the theoretical difference in their conceptions of women and work; secondly their mode of organising; and finally their relationship to mass working class organisations.
The International Feminist Collective was formed in 1972 and lasted until 1978. Their campaign was around the idea of organising for ‘Wages for Housework.’ The demand was simple and can be summarised as a demand that women’s unwaged housework – the cleaning, fucking, comforting your husband after a long day at work, rearing children – should be waged. There were branches across the global north in Italy, Canada, North America, Germany and Switzerland. It was a political and theoretical demand rooted in social reproduction theory. Its theoretical basis as a campaign is that unwaged socially reproductive work needs a wage before women’s work is recognised as work, enabling women to bargain for improved conditions. Silvia Federici states in the seminal text Wages Against Housework:
“But the wage at least recognises that you are a worker, and you can bargain and struggle around and against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and the quantity of that work.”
In a similar time period in the south of Italy, Maria Macciocchi was organising towards an election as an Italian communist party candidate. After meeting the philosopher Louis Althusser in Paris, they agreed to exchange letters during the Naples election of 1968. Althusser was to act as a mentor to Macciochi during the campaign and it’s clear from the letters that they intended to publish them at a later date. In Macciocchi’s letters to Althusser, she details her campaign of speaking to the women of Naples to understand their class position before making her intervention in the election campaign, while simultaneously dealing with her internal disagreements on organisational strategy with the PCI branch.
She details her organising conversations with the proletariat and ‘sub-proletariat’ in the backstreets and squares of Naples. Macciocchi poses the question to Althusser: “I keep wondering how you change a vague rhetoric into a vigorous revolutionary language people can understand” as she speaks with the proletarians of Italy, showing that her vision as a socialist is vested in the principles of class struggle and bringing the class along with her; combining the class’s knowledge with her own theoretical understanding to simultaneously bring both the class and the party closer together. She also documents her journey of theoretical development and understanding of her life not just as a working class intellectual but also as a communist party politician and organiser. Ultimately, Macciocchi won her campaign as a PCI candidate and was elected. More importantly though, she understood the class composition of Naples, and in turn the class became closer to understanding the communist project and became closer to the communist party; a key tenet in the liberation of our class.
Theoretical differences on ‘The Woman Question’
The Wages for Housework campaign believed social reproduction has an exchange value, and that the recognition of that would challenge capitalist social relations. Although this a fairly tired and old debate amongst social reproduction theorists, its importance for its strategic implications bears reckoning with. There are two broad camps of social reproduction theorists: the more orthodox Marxist theorists that believe social reproduction has solely a use value, and that although it contributes to the accumulation of capital that labour time is not directly embodied in the commodity; And many autonomist feminists on the other hand who believe it also has an exchange value and henceforth value embodied in the commodity itself. Although the Wages for Housework campaign made huge contributions to developing a Marxist theory of women and work, the mistake of recognising social reproduction as having an exchange value contributed to the strategic errors of the Wages for Housework campaign. By seeing social reproduction as having an exchange value it logically leads to thinking of the ‘housewife’ as part of a revolutionary subject in and of themselves.
Macciocchi on the other hand did not herself have a theory of social reproduction. She did however recognise the importance of women and their unwaged labour that reproduces the working classes of Naples. Macciocchi labels the housewives of Naples the ‘sub-proletariat’, a recognition that they play a supportive role and are still essential but not the revolutionary subject in and of themselves. She also uses the term ‘underpaid labourers’ as her inquiry reveals they are in fact waged: they often produce goods such as gloves and umbrellas for networks of ‘bosses’- however, these women do not know who their bosses are. In toying with the idea of organising these women into a union, she discovers that to successfully do so she will need to understand who the bosses are, which is virtually impossible.
Furthermore, Macciocchi also recognised the form of wage women do get for their socially reproductive work in the form of state benefits. She noticed many of the women of Naples have enormous families and children. Her first thought was to run a campaign on birth control, but then after inquiring with these women she discovered they did it to survive. Family assistance benefits were often equivalent to the take home wages for some of the men of Naples. Furthermore it was commonplace to send children to work at the age of 9. So, to some degree the women of Naples were in fact already receiving ‘Wages for Housework’, which was only revealed with an extensive enquiry of the working class of Naples to discover the self-interest of the women of Naples in relation to their living conditions.
Macciocchi spent much of her electoral campaign trying to understand the working class of Naples in 1968. Althusser advised her to see the election as a tool rather than a means to an end, stating the ‘electoral campaign is a simple episode, …do your best to learn the lessons it holds, but do not entertain grand illusions’ alluding to the election as a campaign to enable her to listen and truly understand the class composition of Naples. Althusser theorises ‘the people’ as a subject are products of specific social relations according to time and space, not a product of pre-existing categories. She asks the question: ‘What is the people today, in a given country, because the composition can change in different conditions and moments’. She conducted street meetings and hundreds of one to one conversations. Her method was to ask questions and find out the issues that people deeply cared about. This was in contrast to the previous methods of PCI activists. A key discovery she uncovers is that the women of Naples are not in face housewives, just merely looking after their children or husbands that work in the factory but are actually ‘underpaid labourers’ making umbrellas, shoes and gloves, earning poor wages and being unable to unionise because as Macciochi identifies they don’t even know who their bosses are. By listening to the women of Naples she’s able to transform their self-interest and issue and utilise the analytical tools at her disposal as a Marxist to transform their perspective. As Althusser advised Macciocchi:
“The militant knows more than the person he listens to, but what he knows is on a different level than that which the speaker knows, which is the specific contradiction. The militant does not ‘know’ …the lives of the person he listens to. And what the major contradictions are; he learns this by listening to them but on hearing those things the militant understands them in a way for he reorders them within a framework provided for him by Marxist theory and by general mechanisms of society, whose laws, rules, mechanisms of exploitation and the ‘tendencies’ he knows.”
By using this methodology Macciocchi’s election campaign was able to relate the class experience of Naples to the theoretical insights of the party; seeking a path between the party and class to develop an appropriate revolutionary language, which she was able to utilise to successfully intervene and provide the solution in the form of the Communist party as an organ that is able to resolve the numerous struggles the class of Naples face. Althusser further advises her to not see the election as merely something to win, but to see it as an opportunity to do an inquiry to fully understand the current conjuncture and class relations in Naples in 1968.
In contrast, Wages for Housework began their work from a perspective of theoretical understanding before engaging in the class composition analysis that would have enabled Wages for Housework to not just merely be a political demand but a demand that reaches the minds of proletarian women to successfully engage them in political activity revealing the limitations of demands that privilege theory over realityt. Due to the networked nature of the organisation, there were several differing interventions made by wages for housework groups. In Toronto there was a Mothers’ union that managed to recruit only 150 members. Some of their more successful interventions were based in economic organising such as in the Solari factory in which workers demanded time off for health appointments and organised both against their employer and their union who failed to represent women’s interests successfully. Women in England also campaigned against cuts to childcare allowances and won. The struggles the women from the International Feminist Collective engaged with that were successful were based in bread and butter economic issues where there is the capacity to provide a plan to win or hope for women to further their interests. This enabled them to link both the economic conditions of women as a class to a political understanding of their position. The point where the organisation failed was in abstract demands like ‘Wages for Housework’ that further relegated the group into a political sub-culture rather than an international feminist collective that can provide women with the hope necessary to participate in struggles for their emancipation.
The core difference between Macciocchi and Wages for Housework’s strategies are the starting points. Macciocchi’s starting point is class struggle. She tries to understand them deeply to fulfil their desires; she ends with an electoral win. Wages for Housework begins with a theoretical concept and ends in a complex organisation bogged down in organisational labour and theoretical arguments that resulted in its demise, and failed to successfully intervene in feminist struggles uniting their theoretical insights with practice. As socialists, the lesson we can learn is that campaigns must begin with the class and an understanding of the class that is developed from listening rather than assumption. Before plastering demands as our slogans, we need to understand the specific conjecture we are organising.
Relationship to mass working class organisations
The International Feminist Collective was described as a network of groups organising in their different countries. The basis of the group was theoretical agreement on the approach to the women question and the extremely specific demand of wages for housework, yet the network believed in organising autonomously and largely rejected the mass organisations including trade unions and communist parties. Their approach to organisation can be described as an activist approach in which they critique mass organisations and their attitudes towards women: Selma James, IFC activist, noted in her book on women and unions: “in turn some women have been forced to stay in or join left organisations and suffer continuous humiliation in them in order not to be disconnected from class politics.” Yet the alternative was forming a global network of women. I can of course acknowledge as a woman that’s been a left activist for the past seven years dealing with internal sexism in the left is of course tiresome, and furthermore want to acknowledge the power and importance of women’s autonomous organisation. But to abandon the mass organisations; particularly in Europe during that time as key working-class organisations is strategically short-sighted.
The failures of a networked organisational form were revealed only two years into the campaign when the new Montreal branch arrived at the IFC conference and insisted on debating the merits of the wages for housework campaign rather than engaging in the important and practical work of organising in their respective cities. The networked formation of organising led to a lack of clarity on the intentions of the organisation and furthermore fell into confusion with a lack of clear political leadership. The organisation disbanded after only four years, and the question remains: what intervention did they in fact make for the class consciousness of working-class women globally?
Macciocchi saw the Communist Party as the organ for change and imagined an electoral strategy that works in conjunction with a revolutionary strategy. Despite her criticisms of the party as an organisation she still viewed it as essential to the socialist project and remained within it. Throughout her campaign she faced fervent opposition; particularly from the men of the party and oligarchical leaders of the Naples section who were insistent on tired old propaganda material, advertising their abilities to do casework and focusing only on the proletarian men, despite them being a minority in the Naples population. Despite this Macciocchi continued in her organising plans and found allies in some of the younger members to help her carry out a more visionary model of organising. In turn she empowered younger members within the organisation, transforming the branch by focusing on the task at hand, the working class of Naples.
Although Wages for Housework contributed some theoretical insights into the relationship between women and work, it failed to bring along the class with it. Integral to successful interventions in class struggle is bridging the gap between theory and practice. Social reproduction theory is still a key factor to understanding women’s class position but in order for socialists to develop a successful practice it’s important to understand its limitations. For successful interventions, a key component is providing the class with hope; when an impossible task such as Wages for Housework is presented to workers, the impracticality of it is quickly revealed. When organising workers there always must be a plan to win; to successfully engage people in the campaign so they can successfully weigh up the risks (or energy and work) with the potential rewards.
Macciocchi won her electoral campaign. What it does reveal is that she brought the class with her, and the Neapolitan proletariat’s consciousness in that short electoral campaign was shifted, even if only temporarily. She brought the class closer to the party after years of distance. She did this because her interventions were slow, patient and considered. Much of her work was about understanding the class of Naples and reconfiguring her campaign around it.
Under late-stage capitalism the socialist project is integral for the emancipation of women as inequality still exists on a global scale, and women’s participation is integral to the socialist project as we strive for liberation. We need to build power and we need to build it quickly; henceforth our interventions as socialists must meet the class where they are before ‘turning it into a revolutionary language they can understand’. This cannot be done with mere assumption or opportunism. We simultaneously need patience but haste to truly discover how to intervene in the class struggle. This should always begin with questions directed at the class, rather than answers.
The author’s thanks to Sam Mercer (@SJRMercer) for his research and practical contributions to this article. Sam will shortly be publishing a book in the Historical Materialism series entitled “Humanism and the Ideology of Work”.
Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, Althusser, L. and Partito Comunista Italiano (1973). Letters from inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser; London, Nlb.
Toupin, L. and Käthe Roth (2018). Wages for housework : a history of an international feminist movement, 1972-77. Vancouver ; Toronto: Ubc Press ; London.