Introducing The Politics of Contemporary Motherhood and Mums4Corbyn

Mums4Corbyn will be holding three events, Home Truths: Housing is A Feminist Issue, Radical Demands from the Grassroots and Whose Job is it anyway? Radical Childcare, at which Andrea Marie will be speaking, at The World Transformed in Brighton on September 23rd.

Today, New Socialist begins its series on ‘The Politics of Contemporary Motherhood’ in partnership with Mums4Corbyn, with this collaboration aiming at a unity of theory and practice around motherhood.

The idea of Mums4Corbyn, that is mothers organising as mothers within a Corbyn-led or left-led Labour Party (the point is not so much about Corbyn as an individual), raises two fundamental questions. To put these in the simplest way, “Why Mums?” and “Why Corbyn?”, or put more precisely, if Mums4Corbyn is mothers organising with qualified autonomy within Labour, why qualified?, or why autonomy? This can be clarified by addressing the two broad alternatives to Mums4Corbyn and, finally by addressing what it is that these alternatives share that limits them.

The first alternative, then, attached to “Why Mums?” is why organise with any degree of autonomy within Labour (or the labour movement more widely), why not organise merely as individuals within Labour, Momentum or Trade Unions? What’s so special, politically, about being a mother? Mothers, especially working class mothers have always been excluded from the two dominant Labour traditions, the traditional limited working-class politics of labourism on the one hand and the middle-class, technocratic modernisation from above represented most consistently by Fabianism. These at first may appear antagonistic, but are, in fact, mutually dependent and, approaching them through the question of motherhood, can precisely reveal this mutual dependence. This exclusion of mothers is not contingent, nor accidental, it is grounded in the deep structures of these traditions and, ultimately, in their acceptance of a broadly subordinate position within British capitalism.

Corbynism, to an extent (and this is part of “Why Corbyn?”), is a break from these traditions. However, at present, both because of tendencies internal to Corbynism and because of the deep institutional inertia of the Labour Party apparatus, Corbynism only represents a qualified and vulnerable break. Significantly more is required, whether in terms of institutionalised party culture, or policy, or the general theoretical attitude (and this is a theoretical attitude which is strongly practically expressed and reproduced), for mothers to be included adequately within the labour movement. This, and the range of positive changes that go far beyond the interests of working class mothers (whilst these interests are always necessarily central), justify the need for mothers organising autonomously within the Labour Party.



The ‘labourist’ tendency in the Labour Party has often excluded women and struggles around reproduction, indeed it could be argued that it is constituted, to an extent, by precisely this exclusion. This is because this tendency stems from the importance of the organisation of a particular section of the working class in the inception of the labour movement and then how this privileging has been institutionally reproduced along with the continuation, for some time, of its material bases. Stuart Hall describes how this configuration organised predominantly in workplaces and were formative in instituting the movement’s political and cultural forms:

For this skilled and semi-skilled manual working class stratum defined the dominant patterns of industrial unionism at a formative stage of the labour movement. It is also where the traditions of militancy and struggle are nurtured in the popular memory of the movement. It also defined the culture of the working class movement (1982, p. 17).

Although they later describe how the politics of the miners strikes went beyond their labourist tendencies, Hilary Wainwright and Doreen Massey describe these communities, that were initially emblematic of this type of politics, as

Predominantly white; they are socially conservative; traditional sexual divisions of labour – woman as home-maker, man as bread-winner – have been deeply ingrained...Their politics have been workplace-based. They are the fiefdoms of one of the most important unions in labour movement history, symbolizing – at least for men – the old strengths of a solidarity born of mutual dependence at work, and the reliance of a whole community on a single industry...They are heartlands of labourism [1].

It is not only that women were not subject to the politicisation of work place struggles; they did have a role that included them in the social whole of the wider world of labour through their, often strictly policed, separation; that is, they were included by being excluded. As Lise Vogel argues, capitalism is unique in “forc[ing] a severe spatial, temporal, and institutional separation between domestic labour and the capitalist production-process” [2]. The separation of domestic labour from wage labour means labourist struggles are strictly separated from and do nothing to improve the conditions of women in the spaces of reproductive labour. Moreover, this also means that the traditional spaces of the acquisition of class consciousness, even as women’s labour in the household worked to support labourist struggles carried out largely by and for men, were alien both structurally and experientially to the majority of women. As Hall acknowledges, “working class unity and labour movement fraternity have often been underpinned by certain versions of masculinity, traditionalism and domestic respectability” (1982, p. 19).

Labour Modernisation

On the other hand, where the Labour Party has rejected these labourist tendencies, such as in Fabianism and reaching the highest point of this rejection in the New Labour era, it has predominantly done so as part of an agenda which often deploys a critique (Hall) of “the patriarchalism of leadership, hierarchy and authority which so strongly marks earlier styles of political and industrial organisation” (1982, p. 19) to justify forms of modernisation from above. Here it is necessary to distinguish the thrust and intention of Hall’s work from the (mis)use of it by New Labour. Part of this move to modernise was based on the understanding that labourism was an old-fashioned waning class politics that no longer held any relevance or power in modern Britain. This was because, as the working class was being recomposed in the final third of the twentieth century, the material basis for ‘labourist’ political forms was being dismantled. This lead occupational communities like the miners to be viewed, in Wainwright and Massey’s words, as “‘old fashioned’, sectional and, by implication, bankrupt. Male manual workers, the old working class with a vengeance, fighting to save jobs in what is officially described as a declining industry, state-owned and located in isolated declining regions” [3].

The lack of faith in the industrial and organisational strength of that part of the class which had defined the movement in its labourist formation meant, further, that any attempt to define purposes oppositional to capital, it was felt, had to be relinquished. Labour politics had to adapt itself to a pragmatic acquiescence to capitalist purposes and accept the limitations imposed by a technocratic top-down model of politics tinkering around the edges of, but ultimately not challenging, the shift in power from labour to capital. Raymond Williams explains in 1967 how

The discussion about ‘modernized Britain’ is not about what sort of society, qualitatively, is being aimed at, but simply about how modernization is to be achieved. All programmes and perspectives are treated instrumentally. As a model of social change, modernization crudely foreshortens the historical development of society. Modernization is the ideology of the never-ending present. The whole past belongs to ‘traditional’ society, and modernization is a technical means for breaking with the past without creating a future” (2013, p. 40).

For Silvia Federici, there is a symbiosis between the way a left modernisation agenda views women and the Global South:

In this sense, there is an immediate connection between the strategy the Left has for women and the strategy it has for the “Third World.”...In both cases they presume that the “underdeveloped”- those of us who are unwaged and work at a lower technological level- are backward with respect to the “real working class”...In both cases, the struggle which the Left offers to the wageless, the “underdeveloped,” is not a struggle against capitalism, but a struggle for capital, in a more rationalized, developed and productive form. In our case, they offer us not only the “right to work” (this they offer to every worker), but the right to work more [4].

In New Labour, this analogous attempt to modernise in both international and domestic policy can be seen in the justifications of the wars in Iraq and, in particular in Afghanistan – as intervening on behalf of women’s rights against a pre-modern backward society, and also in their framing of withdrawal of support from women and families as offering a way to advance women’s equality by ending their ‘dependence’. For example, when Labour won office in 1997, they enacted the previous Conservative government’s plans to cut income support. Supporting the cuts to lone parent premium which she had previously opposed, Harriet Harman called the impoverishment of single mothers, “a pioneering programme which marks a radical new approach to welfare, bringing work, skills, opportunities and ambition”.

That the political equality of women within a modernisation frame ultimately runs alongside and articulates capitalist purposes, is, explains Vogel, inevitable given its “material roots in capitalist relations of production.” Vogel explains how “individual freedom” is “bound to class-exploitation by the very logic of capitalist reproduction” [5]. Going back to Marx, this is because of the need to free labour-power for exchange in the market, engendering that double sense of freedom - that workers freely meet (not being bound by feudal bondage or slavery) with the owners of the commodity, capital, to sell their labour-power as a commodity, but also, that they are free from other means of survival, forcing bearers of labour-power into the exploitative conditions of production. As Vogel explains:

Marx devoted considerable effort to showing that this exchange of equivalents ‘on the basis of equal rights’ of buyer and seller goes hand in hand with the exploitation characteristic of capitalist production. In the sphere of circulation, paradoxically, the requirements of the capitalist mode of production itself decrees that equality must reign [6].

This does not mean struggles for political equality are futile; equality is “a real tendency” [7] carrying material effects, it does mean, however, that equality in the sphere of circulation is compatible with, and logically bound to, exploitation in the sphere of production. While struggles to obtain equal rights and freedoms have the potential to go beyond themselves because of their ability to organise the working class; when posed in a modernisation frame that does not aim at the transformation of society, it risks aiding “the perfection of the conditions for the free sale of labour-power” [8].

In this way, the Labour Party’s modernisation agenda has been ambiguous; while transforming sexist discourse and increasing equal opportunities both in the Party and wider society, introducing positive discrimination in all-women short-lists and at work, this has gone hand in hand with removing the means of survival from families precisely in order to end women’s dependence. This is based on an understanding that views not only the Party and society as backward, but women themselves, and is how a seemingly modernising liberal agenda can go hand in hand with authoritarian interventions into those women and their families who are resistant to change.

The Division of Women's Lives from Politics

While seemingly at odds with one another, the labourist and modernising tendencies in the Labour Party are in fact founded on the same sharp separation of the every day lives and struggles of women from the terrain of politics.

Labourist struggles taking place in predominantly male workplaces were premised on the sexual division of labour and did little to directly improve the conditions of women in the spaces of reproductive labour or challenge sexist cultures and practices excluding women. So too, modernising tendencies, while seeking to overcome the discrimination that kept women away from the workplace, equally, did nothing to transform the position of women in the household, or, for that matter, their working conditions in production, with ‘women’s jobs’ often repeating the conditions and undervaluation of their domestic role. A ‘modernising’ view that sees women’s domestic position improve as they enter employment fails to see that it is “not the sex-division of labour or the family per se – that materially underpins the perpetration of women’s oppression and inequality in capitalist society” [9]. Rather, as Susan Ferguson and David McNally write, summarising Vogel’s argument,

The socio-material roots of women’s oppression under capitalism have to do instead with the structural relationship of the household to the reproduction of capital: capital and the state need to be able to regulate their biological capacity to produce the next generation of labourers so that labour-power is available for exploitation [10].

Federici critiques the Left in its modernising mode for

[Translating] their ignorance of the specific relation of women to capital into a theory of women’s political backwardness to be overcome only by our entering the factory gates. Thus, the logic of an analysis that sees women’s oppression as caused by the exclusion from capitalist relations inevitably results in a strategy for us to enter these relations rather than destroy them [11].

In this way, working class mothers are central to capitalism; exploited as direct producers in the sphere of production, as working class men are, but also, subject to the functional disciplining of men on capital’s behalf to ensure they fulfil they’re role in social reproduction. That is, the reproduction of that ‘special commodity’ labour power, which is the source of the capitalist’s profit, and which, in turn, links women to the work of wider domestic labour of daily maintenance and care, which, uniquely in capitalism, is spatially, temporally and institutionally separated from other processes of labour, in private households.

Standing at the sharp end of these contradictions between production and reproduction in capitalism means working class mothers have a unique standpoint from which to understand and struggle against it – something which is often a necessity, not a choice. This echoes what Lukács writes about the standpoint of the proletarian:

For the proletarian the total knowledge of its class-situation was a vital necessity, a matter of life and death; because its class situation becomes comprehensible only if the whole of society can be understood; and because this understanding is the inescapable precondition of its actions. Thus the unity of theory and practice is only the reverse side of the social and historical position of the proletariat. From its own point of view, self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its knowledge [12].

Mothers, similarly, understand their situation under capitalism. We know how difficult it is to meet the requirements of a job and find time to care for our children. We, especially if we are lone mothers, know how hard it is to make ends meet on a wage that undervalues our work and can never cover the costs of raising children. It is this necessity, as various pieces in our Motherhood series will show, that not only means mothers grasp their situation theoretically, but that this grasping can confront it, practically, as “a matter of life and death” for us and our children. This may be a question of struggling for access to the means of survival, for example, against housing benefit cuts (and their eugenicist intentions and implications), it may be direct confrontation over housing, as in Mary Barbour’s army and the Glasgow rent strike; it may be, armed with this understanding, for radical innovations as in Alexandra Kollantai’s vision for a network of children’s centres; it may be for the proper resourcing of care work or better support for feeding babies. But it may go beyond the limits of demanding state resources, whether this is in communal struggles against loneliness or against the targeting of children by police and the judicial system, all of which are explored in our series.


Corbyn and the new ‘New Left’

Corbyn has provided an opportunity to move beyond the labourist and modernising tendencies of the Labour Party, taking up some of the demands of mother’s struggles to address these issues from an expanded site of politics. On a policy level this may include a commitment to forms of rent control, making access to the means of survival more affordable, or, more speculatively, as documented in the Alternative Models of Ownership report, to developing forms of economic democracy whereby the struggles of everyday life and of reproduction can impact on and even determine production.

In this way, Corbyn is bringing to bear on the Party today some of the New Left struggles he was a part of in the 1980s. As Wainwright examines in Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, the efforts of the socialist feminists did a great deal to extend the appeal of the Party beyond male sectional interests, and extend the sites of politics beyond workplaces. In taking up the insights of socialist feminism, the New Left was also able to go beyond Labour’s technocratic Fabian tendencies, with Wainwright explaining that, for the women’s sections within Labour,

The liberation of women is not a matter of political equality alone. Unless women also have economic independence, and control over their own bodies and sexuality, unless child care and other domestic work is reorganised, then women will still, whatever their formal rights, be subordinate. This approach frequently leads the new women’s sections to work with groups of women involved in social, community and economic issues which the rest of the party, left and right, does not consider ‘political’ [13].

Through this approach, although met with resistance, women were able to expand the sites of political struggle beyond work-places and production. Labourism saw the “factory, office or enterprise” as “a black box with the value of labour power going in one end, and surplus value coming out of the other”, and viewed politics as a “confrontation between sectional interests” [14] over the spoils; while Labour’s technocratic tendency accepted capital’s victory for these spoils and concentrated its efforts on the ‘efficiency’ of the process, hoping that this would persuade capital to trickle down its wealth. Here, then, the labourist and the technocratic tendency can be shown to be mutually dependent. Both the kinds of processes of social reproduction required to produce ‘the value of labour power’ as well as what went on inside the ‘black box’, which was a site of struggle taken up by 1980s New Unionism and other parts of the Labour left, were politicised, addressing the concerns of women, both as the new workers of capitalism and within households as primary carers, and, often, now performing the ‘double shift’.

However, Corbyn’s readoption of these struggles in the Labour Party today have not gone far enough. For example, rent controls, for Williams, by aiming to “take rents out of politics”, were opaque, hard to enforce and based on a compromise between the interests of landlord and tenant, compared to the rigid, clear forms under the Wilson government. This lead William’s to complain that “the government has sacrificed many of those most in need of protection” (2013, p. 24)). Even more tellingly and obviously for the lives of mothers, Labour’s existing childcare policies risk a slide into technocracy and the more efficient meeting of the needs of capitalist society rather than the expansive, democratic and co-operative implications that could be drawn out from the Alternative Models of Ownership report.

Organising as Mums4Corbyn means that, in the same ways as women’s sections did as part of the New Left in the 1980s, we can push the potential of this break in a way that other alternatives cannot.

Liberal and Anarchist Alternatives

The alternatives pull in two directions, one that can be characterised as broadly ‘liberal’, one as broadly ‘anarchist’. Both these tendencies would respond to the very clear limits of Labour as it stands when it comes to women, and particularly mothers, by organising independently of Labour.

From the liberal perspective this would mean accepting the broad categories of the state and parliamentarianism with all its mediations (all its mediations perhaps except for political parties), and organise around awareness raising and lobbying of MPs and government to improve policies and cultural understanding of the issues faced by motherhood.

From the anarchist perspective, this would mean an absolute refusal of the state and its mediations, favouring grassroots organising of mothers both to challenge the state directly, for example, over Labour councils’ “gatekeeping” practices with housing support, or organising to directly meet mothers’ needs without any state mediation.

The first response to this is to point to the pure numbers involved in Labour, even in terms of the direct meeting of needs, a Party of hundreds of thousands of members with a significant presence in almost every community is potentially (but only potentially, the struggles of “Why Mums?” are key to realising this potential) a formidable weapon.

Secondly, Corbynism - at least those tendencies within it which break with labourism and technocracy - is at least potentially porous to social movement organisation as it was in the 80s New Left, which Corbyn was a part of:

Many individuals from the new left, the left that both initiated and were attracted to the party by the reform movement in the last seventies...learnt from the tactics and of mass movements like CND, the women’s movement and black community politics. This persuasive, outward-going kind of politics is particularly clear in the behaviour of the new breed of MP and parliamentary candidate: Jeremy Corbyn in Islington [15].

This porosity to social movements can be a means to challenge those entrenched interests and practices hostile to working class mothers within the Party itself. Moreover, a Party, which is already in government in Wales, already runs local councils across the country and which is potentially the next government in Westminster, and which is potentially radically transformed and democratised- a potential only unevenly met at present, will be a valuable instrument for unifying theory and practice, for bringing the experiences and struggles of mothers to bear on policy in a way which can transform lives beyond heroic local efforts at organising for survival.

The rejection of the anarchist perspective on autonomous organising can only be made good on if the Party is transformed beyond its mutually dependent labourism and technocracy, that is, by responding to the pressures enacted in the “Why Mums?” side of the question. Ultimately, moreover, both potential critiques of “Why Mums?” and “Why Corbyn?” rely on a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit set of separations which are fundamental to capitalist society, these are the strict separations between politics, the economy (and a further separation between production and reproduction, a separation which occludes reproduction) and a third term, which could be denoted by community, culture, if culture is broadly understood, or everyday life. Labourism and Fabianism are mutually dependent, for example, within Labour with the idea labourist struggles take care of the economy and Fabian managerialism takes care of politics, liberal autonomism, privileges purely a narrowly understood idea of politics and a vague and narrow notion of culture, whilst the anarchist critique entirely centres struggles in the economy of everyday life. Ultimately, the standpoint of working class mothers can unfold a perspective that unifies these sites against capitalism and the state in all its dimensions.

Photo: Andrea Marie

  1. Hilary Wainwright and Doreen Massey, "Beyond the Coalfields: The Work of the Miners' Support Groups" in Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners' Strike, London: Schoken, 1985, p. 149. ↩︎

  2. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, Chicago, Haymarket, 2013, p. 159. ↩︎

  3. Wainwright and Massey, "Beyond the Coalfields", p. 149. ↩︎

  4. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, PM Press, 2012, pp. 29-30. ↩︎

  5. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. ↩︎

  6. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 170. ↩︎

  7. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. ↩︎

  8. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 174. ↩︎

  9. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 177. ↩︎

  10. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. xxv. ↩︎

  11. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 28. ↩︎

  12. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Exeter, Imprint Digital, 2010, p. 20. ↩︎

  13. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 166. ↩︎

  14. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 256. ↩︎

  15. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 163. ↩︎

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