Marxism and women’s liberation
By Nick Jones
The emancipation of women has long been of importance and controversy for Marxists. It is necessary to critically examine those attempts on the left to champion an ‘anti-capitalist feminism’ as the solution to this form of oppression, as expressed most recently by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s front organisation, Feminist Fightback.
It is crucial for us to oppose the suggestion that feminism is able to adequately provide a solution to the root causes of women’s oppression, as well as the claim that feminism – even that of a ‘socialist’ stripe – is able to adequately explain its origins. We must first, however, briefly examine what is meant by the term ‘feminism’, particularly given the wide range of meanings that have been attributed to it.
A clear definition of what Feminist Fightback takes this term to mean is provided within its founding statement of 2006, in which it declared: “We think feminism is about ordinary women coming together to challenge sexism in their own lives, and to support women around the world demanding their rights”. The new organisation was to be part of a movement for “freedom, equality and social justice”.i
Feminist Fightback would later substantiate this vague statement with a commitment to “socialist feminism”, predicated upon a combination of challenging women’s oppression and an equally vague commitment to “anti-capitalism”. As with feminism, the varieties of anti-capitalism, and indeed ‘socialism’, are many, a point upon which Feminist Fightback chose not to dwell in an attempt to reach those “broader layers” the founding statement is aiming to reach.
While the AWL founders of Feminist Fightback acknowledge that leading revolutionary women of the 20th century such as the German communist leaders Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg rejected feminism, they say it would be “sectarian” for socialists today to do so, following the rise of Stalinism in Russia and the movement of ‘socialist feminists’ during the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s.ii
The term ‘feminist’ was coined in the 1890s, at a time of struggles for equal property rights and access to education for women, and eventually, those calling for the extension of the right to vote. These movements were sharply criticised by Zetkin and Luxemburg, despite their own commitment to the principle of the right of women to vote, to engage freely in political activity and other basic rights.
Far from ignoring women’s oppression, Luxemburg famously attacked the reformist-dominated Belgian Social Democrats for dropping their call for women’s suffrage, understanding this as a basic demand that the state must be forced to grant. Luxemburg did not view such issues in a vacuum – she regarded women’s suffrage as not just an aim in itself, but as a common class concern for men and women of the proletariat within the broader context of an explicitly communistic struggle for political power.
For her the “mass struggle for women’s political rights is only an expressing and a part of the proletariat’s general struggle for liberation”. Women’s suffrage “hastens the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat”. Luxemburg strove to unite the whole working class, women alongside men, into a party capable of leading the struggle for human liberation. By contrast feminists who believed that women’s rights had to be won from ‘men’ were dividing the proletariat on grounds of gender.
Marx and Engels
Contrary to the claims of some bourgeois feminists, support for the equality of the sexes and the championing of women’s rights run throughout the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their successors. Marx cites the words of utopian socialist Charles Fourier in arguing that the degree of female emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation of any society, while Engels would expand upon the nature of the nuclear family and its implications for women within The family, private property and the state.
In this work Engels highlights that it is not the case that the oppression of women has occurred in all human societies; indeed it is possible to observe relative equality within pre-class societies. Within what Engels describes as ‘primitive communism’, a degree of right to basic resources and as such embryonic equality is noticeable, due in large part to the fact that the sexual division of labour carries no subordinate social status, as it would later with the emergence of class division. Within primitive communism, the role of women in the production process afforded a degree of political power.
If we accept this premise, it poses the question: what were the logical consequences of the emergence of class society for women and the family? It is possible to understand the repercussions of changes in human social organisation according to how people gain their livelihood – the particular mode of production – for the political power of women.
A number of changes may be observed over time, including technological advances leading to a situation in which a social surplus is created, which is then appropriated by a minority, creating a division of class. Engels notes that with the first iron plough drawn by cattle, large-scale agriculture became possible, creating a comparatively unrestricted food supply. This marked a turning point, where production for use was transformed into production for profit.
Accompanying the development of private property, production transferred from the household. The decline of household production became more marked under capitalism and the prevalence of wage labour, with dramatic effects on the nuclear family. Multi-generational family forms were replaced by the patriarchal family, whose role under capitalism is the reproduction of wage-labour, just as the main role of women is child-rearing. However, for many women there is the ‘double burden’ of waged labour alongside domestic and childcare work.
An understanding of the nuclear family as a product of particular historical circumstance, and as such subject to potential change, must serve as the basis for the furthering of communistic demands pertaining to women’s issues. As Marx notes in The German ideology, “It is with the abolition of private property that the abolition of the family is self-evident.” In drawing this conclusion we as communists argue that women’s oppression can only be ended when relations of production on which it depends are overthrown.
Feminist Fightback argues that there exists a “the massive regression in political culture which Stalinism and social democracy brought about on this issue”. But to understand the emergence of Stalinism and its consequences for the family and women, it is necessary to understand the material basis of this regression in political culture.
The coming to power of the Bolsheviks following the 1917 revolution made substantive gains for women possible, including the removal of “the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it with disgusting formalities, denying recognition to children born out of wedlock, enforcing a search for their fathers, etc, laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilised countries”iii. The October revolution, by contrast, resulted in the winning of formal political and legal equality with men, in sharp contrast to that which has and had been achieved by any government before. However, the gains that were made in the Soviet Union would soon be clawed back by the bureaucracy around Stalin.
The attempt to ‘abolish’ the family in a context of generalised want resulted in a situation in which the laws introducing formal legal equality concerning the family and marriage established by the October revolution were subsequently mutilated by vast regressions to the level of bourgeois countries. Resolutions celebrating the “complete and irrevocable triumph of socialism in the Soviet Union” were made all the more cruelly ironic by the introduction of laws challenging some of the more important civil, political and cultural rights of women, including the right to abortion. Prohibiting abortions served to criminalise working women and peasants’ wives – many of those most vulnerable within the Soviet society.
As Marxists we view the condition of women not in isolation, but inseparable from the particular development of individual societies and the global formation as a whole. The “massive regression in political culture” may only be understood in the needs of the ruling stratum in creating a ‘cult of the family’ in which a stable hierarchy of relations could be ensured in the interests of the Stalinist elite. However, the distorting influence of Stalinism in no way implies that it is “sectarian” to reject the political project of feminism – just as principled female revolutionists rejected it before the advent of Stalinised rule in Russia.
While we insist that the subordinate position of women results from class society and the current capitalist system of exploitation and its grotesquely unjust division of labour, and that women can only be liberated fully when capitalism is overthrown and replaced by communism, we do not passively ‘wait for communism’. The role of Marxists is clear in fighting for full equality, demanded alongside the defence and extension of existing rights.
Revolutionaries regard the struggles to advance equality as intrinsic to a wider project of human liberation. Our solution is the Marxist one: liberating and unifying those directly oppressed and exploited by capitalism in the fight for a politics able to end this exploitation and oppression. In so doing, we fight for an organisation that can unite men and women in struggle. Of course, this organisation must allow democratic space for women to organise independently, but it must also overcome the notion that the fight for women’s liberation is somehow an issue for women only.
The role of the revolutionary is to act, in the words of Lenin, as “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”iv
Cherneshevsky, Nikolai What is to be done?
Trotsky, Leon Women and the family
Kollontai, Alexandra The social basis of the women’s question: http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm.
i. Feminist Fightback founding statement: http://www.feministfightback.org.uk/?page_id=11.
iii. VI Lenin A great beginning: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/jun/28.htm.
iv. VI Lenin What is to be done?: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm.