"Riddles of the Sphinx": What Social Reproduction Theory Says and Does not Say

There has been some comradely, and semi-comradely, discussion on social media of the book on Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) I recently edited from Pluto Press.

SRT Pluto Press.jpeg

My fellow contributors and I are greatly looking forward to responses to the volume, for we think this discussion is an important one.

For those who may, perfectly understandably, not have the time (or inclination) to read such long journal-y responses, I want to flag a few things the book is claiming to do and not to do:

Charge 1: "Marx said it all before, why are you saying this is new?"

The contributors to the volume have never claimed that the way we conceive of SRT is a brand new innovation/invention in Marxist theory.  Quite the opposite.  SRT, in our version, repeatedly declares its commitment to the prefix "re" when it comes to Marxism—to recover, revive, rejuvenate, critical aspects of the Marxist tradition.

It is not a project to "add" things to Marxism (Marxism, fortunately, is not a cauldron to which we can add new things) but an effort to theorize and explore the silences in Marx, and Capital.


One central Marxist idea the volume seeks to probe is how labor power is reproduced under capitalism and what the relationship is between the social processes/relations that reproduce labour power and those that produce commodities.

It is clear that one could not write a Harry Braverman-esque account of the processes of "reproduction of labour power" the way Braverman or Michael Burawoy have done about the workplace, i.e. the production of commodities. The regimes of discipline are very different. It is hard to submit the many aspects of reproduction (of labour power) to a manager's ticking clock.  So what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that capital relinquishes all control over the processes of reproduction of labour power. But what does that control look like? how does it shape society and those who produce wealth for capital in society?

These are the questions we grapple with in the volume.

Charge 2: "SRT claims that domestic labour creates value"

We don't.  And the feminists and activists we work with in this volume do not either. 

There has been a certain confusion about Lise Vogel's interpretation of the Marxist concept of necessary labour.  In the 1983 edition of her book, Vogel, wrongly, includes domestic labour as a component of necessary labour.  

SRT in action.jpg

Susan Ferguson and David McNally's (who are both contributors to the volume I edited) excellent introduction to Vogel's book , reprinted in 2014 by Haymarket Press, draws attention to this and clarifies the error.  The Haymarket edition also helpfully includes a supplemental essay by Vogel herself where she amends the mistake.

I believe that this is allowed, in fact more acknowledgements of mistakes made would probably enrich the revolutionary tradition as a whole!

Charge 3: "Lise Vogel derides Engels"

I have an short piece coming soon in which I discuss both Vogel's political and intellectual development as well as her alleged dismissal of Engels. Here is what I say in the piece:

The passage that Vogel took most exception to was one wherein Engels wrote of human life necessarily assuming a “twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.” Further on this dual process, Engels elaborated that the social organization of a particular era or stage of human history was “determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other
She is not disputing the twofold character of human life that Engels outlines in Origin, or Marx and Engels gestures towards in the German Ideology previously.  What she is objecting to is that in Origin Engels fails to clarify the relationship between social production and “the production of human beings”. In the absence of a discussion as to how the two processes relate, the relative weight of each, or the possibility of determining effects of one on the other, it appears as though, writes Vogel, “the production of human beings constitutes a process that has not only an autonomous character, but a theoretical weight equal to that of the production of the means of existence” [emphasis mine] (Vogel 2013, 33).  If both processes are equally weighted, as a reading of Engels might suggest, this opens the door, Vogel correctly warns, to the “dual system” theories that have plagued the socialist feminist movement for decades. (Bhattacharya, forthcoming).
Red Rag.jpg

In most of her work Vogel emphasizes the overall soundness of Engels's "Origin" but says that if certain things were formulated better Engels would have been better fortified against later misappropriations of his theory. 

Charge 4: "SRT is undialectical"

This is a major criticism of our theoretical approach and must be taken seriously.  But a short blog post is not a place where I can fruitfully engage with this charge.
So you will have to decide for yourself! And I hope you will be fully armed with your Marx and your Bertell Ollman when you judge us.  


Charge 5: "It is a bunch of tenured women with feminist husbands who share the housework, wtf are they complaining about"

In other words we are not industrial or service 'workers' toiling under capitalism (in the way Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and other Marxist theorists were) and so we lack the authenticity to talk about capitalism or of anticapitalist futures.

We plead guilty to this charge.  Even though several of our contributors, far from being "tenured women" with that lovely accessory called a "husband", are openly-Marxist graduate students looking for jobs in a Trumpian world.  Perhaps not the most enviable of enterprises, especially if you consider their race, gender and student loan amounts.


A final word about the book

If the "lesson" of the book could be summed up it would perhaps be how the richness of Marxism as a living theory continues to help us make sense of our neoliberal world and thereby helps us think of ways to change it.

We came together to do this book because we have worked with each other not in seminars alone, but on the streets.  We came together to do this book because all of us, despite how the world looks right now, share a fierce hope about its future.   

IWS March NYC.jpg

So we want you to use the book and its ideas not just in the classroom, but most importantly, in the streets.

In solidarity,
Tithi Bhattacharya


Vienna: With Myself and Some Others

Louis Corinth, "Still life with Chrysanthemum" (1922) “I have found a new way: true art is to practice unreality"

Louis Corinth, "Still life with Chrysanthemum" (1922)
“I have found a new way: true art is to practice unreality"

Watch how in this painting the wind from nowhere blows through the flowers.  Vienna was a bit like that.

Vienna, Day 2, March 10, 2016.

Beautiful, sparkling sky, blue without any mist. 

Took the S-Bahn to the Belvedere Palace.  The train had two floors, very fancy and very clean.  It was a relief of the familiar to find a Viennese man give me wrong directions to the train and a small, immigrant woman correct him and direct me to the right train. 

The Belvedere Palace is a massive Baroque palace that has been turned into a museum.  It is set amidst beautiful gardens and faces a shimmering pool.  It is fitting that it should house the translucent, golden-magical works of Gustav Klimt. 

Belvedere Palace

Belvedere Palace

 But more than Klimt, I fell in love today with Egon Schiele, one whom I knew little about. 

Apparently Schiele led a dissolute life, married a woman he was not particularly close to and then at twenty-eight died of Spanish influenza along with his wife who was then pregnant with their first child. 

There is a vivid and spectral painting by Schiele at the Belvedere—“Mother with two children III” (1915-1917).  A grey, grey, gaunt mother is holding two colordrenched children.  The eyes of the mother are cast downwards while the children look wide eyed upon you.  The mother’s head lies at her shoulders, laden with layers of exhaustion, and her body is draped in a half inclined position between the two children.  She can barely sit up.  Her body is invisible except for her skeletal face and her shroudlike long dress that melds into her face, blurring all distinction between flesh and flesh-cover, both being of the same texture.

“Mother with two children III” (1915-1917)

“Mother with two children III” (1915-1917)

The children wear vividly colored, patterned clothes.  They are based on Bohemian peasant clothes, a region of Austria where Schiele’s own mother was from.  The bright yellows, oranges and reds of the jackets almost hurt my eyes.  Did they drain the colors from their mama? Did they eat her life?

The Mother Again

The second in my Mother series of the day is Giovanni Segantini’s (1858-99) Evil Mothers (1899).   The painting apparently was inspired by a poem by a twelfth century monk, Luigi Illica.  Some sources say Illica was inspired by an Indian epic poem, Pangiavahli.  But I have found nothing on this so called Indian poem, so I am both curious as well as skeptical about this ‘Indian’ connection. 

Giovanni Segantini’s (1858-99) Evil Mothers (1899)

Giovanni Segantini’s (1858-99) Evil Mothers (1899)

Who is an Evil Mother?

One who did not fulfill her true biological destiny but aborted/destroyed her children.  The painting has in its foreground a woman wrapped in a diaphanous material attached to a tree.  A baby is at her exposed full breast.  But she herself along with the baby seems to be being birthed.  The web like mesh around her holding her in its womb.  Her hair is caught in the branches of the tree, but gives the impression of waving in water.  Again, is she in this dry barren landscape, or is she being born in painful waters?

The woman in the foreground is one of the redeemed.  She is birthing her child and hence can be born herself, anew, as a pure soul once more.  Thronging her in the distant desert background are her evil sisters.  The unredeemed.  They writhe in strange bramble woven cocoons, denied a rebirth into purity.  These are the women who have committed the terrible crime of making decisions about their own bodies and their own lives. 

We are the children of these women that they refused to foreground. 

Vienna, Day 3, March 11, 2016.

I am closing my eyes at the Café Central, trying to see Trotsky walking through the doors.  

Cafe Central, Herrengasse 14. 

Cafe Central, Herrengasse 14. 

Is he ordering a drink or a coffee or both? 

Something is wrong with the way the servers are moving around me as I try to think of 1915-17.  I realize that I expect them to move slower in the past, sort of glide around me, rather than keep to this hectic, neoliberal, ready-for-the-tourist pace.  Imperial culture is all about gliding, only when you expose the actual culture of work and labor do you see the rush.  When you make work invisible, everyone glides.  

Dear Leon...

Dear Leon...

Anyway, here comes Trotsky.  Am going to ask him about poetry and sex.  Got to go.  

Vienna, Day 4, March 12, 2016.

Just ordered a “Large Viennese Breakfast” at the charming Café at the Leopold Museum.  Behind me as I sip tea is the Museum Quartier.  A vast expanse with several museums lined with trees.  I can imagine what this place looks like during the warm months when the trees are in full bloom.  There is a children’s museum here in the quad, I hope I get to bring Lulu here one day.  

Leopold Museum, Museum Quartier

Leopold Museum, Museum Quartier

I love the ceiling lights in the café, old 1950s style lamps and there is a bar lining the back of the room.  I just saw a father raise his three year old on to the bar stool and order food and drinks for themselves.  The little boy’s head is framed by a line of Sherries and Cointreaus.  So beautiful this nonsegregated childhood between children and adults.  


Next to me, on my left, a deeply slivered and lined couple just ordered two little cappuccinos and two huge Sacher tortes.  

This is a good place, Vienna.  

Vienna, Day 5, March 13, 2016.

I came out of the underground metro and right there in front of me, a full kilometer long, is Karl Marx Hof.  A full kilometer of 1300 apartments, play area, libraries.  

Karl Marx Hof was built between 1927 and 1930 by Karl Ehn, a student of Otto Wagner, during the Red Vienna years, when Social Democrats controlled the City Council without interruption between 1919 and 1934.

It is an astonishing structure, like a little city.  The outer perimeter wall has large vaults, arches and heavy, grilled gates which look like medieval castle entrances.  Beyond those there are beautiful, wide open, green spaces where the clustering buildings breathe.  Looking around it is astonishing to me how utterly modern the early socialist imaginaire was.  No sentimental or sly nods to ‘tradition’ or the past here, it is all suffused with a relentless now and new.  

Inside the Museum of Red Vienna

Museum is a rather grandiose term for two rooms, in Washhouse 2.  I loved the fact that this archive and memory of working class history was in a laundry building, and a still working one.  

The social democrats won their first municipal election on May 4, 1919 winning 100 out of the 165 seats, making Vienna the world’s first city of over a million people with a social democratic administration.  These were some of the architects of those insurgent times:

Ferdinand Hamisch introduced the 8 hour work day and 48 hour week, social security, unemployment insurance and capping of weekly working hours for women and children.

Julius Tandler, scientist and city councilor said: "What we spend for youth homes we will save on prisons. What we spend for the care of pregnant women and babies we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses."  All parents got a "clothes package" for each baby so that "no child in Vienna has to be wrapped in a newspaper."

Money to pay for all these programs came from a socially graduated taxation system instituted by Hugo Breitner.  Between 1923-34 over 380 council blocks were constructed with more than 64,000 new homes.

Election Poster for Breitner

Election Poster for Breitner

The interwar period saw the consolidation not just of the Left, but also of the Right.  Paramilitary groups of the Right called "Heimwehren" or Home Guards, began to form all over Austria to fight the organized Left.  In response, workers formed their own militia, the Republikanischer Schutzbund. 

The first objects you see when you walk into the museum are a military uniform, rifle, flag and pennant of the Republikanischer Schutzbund.  Why start with defense rather than celebratory achievements?

Perhaps because the memory of 1934 is still encoded in the architecture of Karl Marx Hof.

On February 12, 1934 the Heimwehren raided the Social democratic Party offices in Linz.  Within hours fighting broke out between the Right and the Left all over the country.  Particularly brutal centers of the fighting were working class areas and neighborhoods such as Karl Marx Hof.  In a civil war like situation that lasted for days more than 1000 people were killed and members of the Schutzbund arrested and executed.  On May 1, 1934, the Austro-fascist state was established along with the banning of all organizations of the Social Democrats.  Gentle reforms were not enough against the might of Capital, armed to the teeth. 

At the end of the exhibition there is a slightly unreal installation, a modern flat screen television pops out slightly from the wall.  It plays old black and white film reels of Social Democratic Party propaganda.  Right atop the television screen is a melancholy head of Victor Adler.  

Here he is, the television blares, the old 1920s posters crowd the room.  

Dear Victor, how shall I remember you? For the social housing? For your support for the war in 1914? For your derision of Socialism from below and your utter, unfailing dedication to Socialism from above? In the age of Jeremy, Bernie and Tsipras, your head looks like it’s made from papier maché.   



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