National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 5 - Womens liberation and Socialism

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The tasks of providing food, shelter and comfort necessary for the reproduction of labour power must be undertaken collectively by society, ending the individual responsibility of each separate family to try and cope. Only when relieved of this domestic slavery can women be drawn into socialised production fully and equally alongside men.However, this socialisation will only have a really socialist character if it is accompanied by the destruction of the gender-specific division of labour (and the corresponding roles) in socialised production. Women will not be the only historical subject for this special transformation, the deliberate dissolution of the bourgeois family and the overcoming of gender-specific forces, although they will be the most forward pushing section of the working class on this matter.

Of course in this struggle women, as an undifferentiated mass, will not act in a uniform fashion to destroy male dominance and the bourgeois family.To believe this would be to collapse into the spontaneist idea that the fact of oppression will generate uniform resistance amongst the oppressed automatically. In this struggle, as in all others, the vanguard will play a decisive role.The revolutionary party itself, and crucially the women members of the Party, will be in the forefront of this struggle. Communist women will organise the most advanced layers, including non-Party class fighters amongst the working class, especially women, to combat sexism, to fight for equality and to mobilise the whole mass of working women to play their role as the historical subject of socialist transformation and women’s emancipation.

These tasks are inseparable from the overthrow of the private ownership of the means of production. Then, and only then, will it be possible on the basis of a planned economy, to systematically eradicate all aspects of women’s oppression, legal, economic, social and political.To initiate this process the seizure of state power by the working class, armed and organised into workers’ councils and workers’ militias, and the suppression of the resistance of the exploiters is necessary.

Women’s subordination and the centrality of the family in everyday life have been features of all previous class societies. The true liberation of women and children from their oppression, plus the transformation of life for everyone under socialism, will require a long and difficult struggle against the ideas and norms of the past.The transformation of the personality, of the psyche, which will be necessary for people to live collectively and co-operatively will take generations to achieve fully.

The deep psychological scars of being raised and working in a society based on profit, greed and struggle will not disappear overnight.A conscious struggle for change will be required for many years. But with the material basis for collectivity established through the creation of a workers’ state, planning for need and not profit, the destruction of the lonely prison of the privatised household, the “struggle” for the new psyche, for the new, truly human being and really liberated sexual relationships, will be possible.

In 1848 Marx and Engels raised the demand for the abolition of the bourgeois family. In Russia after October 1917, it became clear that the family relations built up by capitalism could not, however, be abolished in one stroke.The workers’ state created the economic basis upon which domestic labour could be socialised (though Stalinism has thwarted the realisation of this gain as it has so many others). By socialising many aspects of domestic labour the workers’ state does not abolish the bourgeois family, advances the means by which women could free themselves from the family prison and from privatised labour.

To the extent that this process of socialisation (through communal child rearing, cleaning and eating facilities) is successful the basis for the “old” family inherited from capitalism is eradicated. In this sense the “old” family, like the state itself will wither away with the advance towards communism.However, just as we will not be drawn into predicting, in a utopian fashion, the nature of sexual relations under communism, we will not be drawn on painting a picture of what the “family” will look like under communism.

The bourgeois family will disappear. What will replace it is something that people of the future will determine, free from the material and ideological constraints that characterise (and torment) familial relations under capitalism. By the same token the conditions for real sexual liberation, in which people are at liberty to determine their own sexuality, will be created.

The role of women in the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism is essential. As part of the working class women must be involved in the struggle for power. Women all over the world have demonstrated their capacity for struggle.Indeed it is often the case that women workers, faced with the severe problems of managing a family and working, are an explosive force within the class struggle (Russia in February 1917 for example).

Moreover, because women are often unorganised, or only recently organised, they can, for a period of time, combine explosive militancy with freedom from bureaucratic rules and regulations that characterise the “normal” trade union routine.Precisely because of the burdens and tasks that our bound up with housework and child-rearing, independent women’s organisations such as (housewives) women’s price control and food distribution committees, play a decisive role, as part of a proletarian women’s movement, in the establishment of organs of workers’ power in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods.

Failure to positively win working class women to the struggle can leave them prey to the arguments of the ruling class and allow them to act as a backward force within the working class. As the people most centrally involved in the rasing of children, the provision of daily needs and as the primary “home-makers", women’s experience and contribution will be vital in the planning of social provision for these tasks.

Working class women are central to the struggle for the emancipation of both women and the working class-they are the most oppressed section of their sex.Amongst women they have the most radical interest in the overthrow of their oppression in capitalism. The achievement of equal rights and opportunities, or utopian schemes for individual sexual and psychological liberation, will not satisfy the fundamental needs of proletarian women. And within the working class they have no aristocratic privileges, and comparatively less skilled status and high wages, to reconcile them to capitalism.

However, all too often the best organised women workers are misled by reformist trade union leaders, who have themselves made their peace with capitalism.This, plus the traditional backwardness of many women due to their isolation in the home, prey to the ideas of the mass media and the church, indicates that intense oppression and exploitation are not sufficient on their own to throw women into the leadership of the struggle for liberation. This remains true even in the semi-colonies where the oppression of women workers and peasants is even more acute than in the imperialist countries.

The working class is the first exploited class capable of ending all exploitation. This is not simply because it is the most exploited and oppressed class, but because capitalism itself organised it at the centre of socialised production, enabling it to become conscious of itself as a class, to organise against and overthrow the capitalists and re-organise production.Women form part of the working class with precisely this potential. Though capitalism has never been able to draw all proletarian women into production, women do form a vital component of the workforce and it is this section, partially released from the stultifying effects of domestic isolation, who can act as the vanguard of all proletarian women.

Working class women’s movements and the revolutionary party
There is a tradition of organising women that does not belong to the feminist movement. Women workers have organised themselves in the course of many struggles over the last one hundred years, and the socialist movement played a central role in the most important examples of such organisation which occurred independently, and generally in opposition to, bourgeois women’s movements.

Before World War One the Second International, and its unofficial leading party the SPD, organised working class women into an explicitly socialist women’s movement. This was led by left wing members of the SPD including Clara Zetkin who played a central role in both the German women’s movement and the International Socialist Women’s organisation.Initially women were not allowed to be members of the SPD because of the repressive laws in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This led to Zetkin organising a network of women through a semi-legal parallel structure to that of the SPD.

Whilst forced separation like this made it difficult for women to play a full and active role in the main party, it did allow them to struggle for their own demands, and organise themselves in ways which made it easier for new women to be drawn into politics.Once the laws in Germany were relaxed and women allowed to be members of political parties there was no longer a reason for a women’s organisation simply as a surrogate for party membership for socialist women. Yet Zetkin fought successfully to retain and expand the women’s movement for by that time she and other party leaders, both men and women, had realised the importance of special forms of organisation and propaganda aimed at women.

This did not mean that Zetkin founded a socialist women’s organisation politically and organisationally divorced from the party. Rather what she fought for was a special organisation led by party members to draw women out of the backwardness, passivity and low level of culture imposed on them by their age-long oppression and maintained by capitalist exploitation.

Zetkin also learned in struggle that it was not only women who were “backward". Because the women’s movement and its principal leaders stood on the revolutionary left of the SPD as the party came to be dominated by party and trade union bureaucrats in the years before the First World War the increasingly reformist leadership sought to subordinate it to their control and at the same time to dilute its radicalism by turning it into a mass social organisation for the wives of male party members, undermining its political character and orientation to women workers’ struggles.Zetkin and the other women around the paper Die Gleicheit continued their revolutionary struggle against the right wing in the workers’ movement and its indifference to the full emancipation of women.

This did not mean that Zetkin was in favour of separate socialist women’s organisations. She always argued for women to be full members of the Socialist, and later the Communist Parties. The special oppression and exploitation to which women were subjected, the backwardness and illiteracy of many working women and the discrimination and underestimation which they experienced even in the SPD in respect of the demands, made it necessary for them to have special methods of work, pioneered by Zetkin (their own press, special meetings and special forms of organisation).

On important questions, such as voting rights in Germany and Austria, the right wing of the Social Democratic leadership was prepared to sacrifice women’s demands for the good of a compromise with the rulers.This expressed both the growing bureaucratic reformism and, equally, the historically determined lack of analysis of women’s oppression and the revolutionary women’s programme. Although even Clara Zetkin was not free of these weaknesses it was she who fought against the giving up of the demand for women’s voting rights.

The tradition of the German Socialist Women’s movement, always in sharp opposition to the bourgeois feminists, is a valuable lesson for us. Attempts to build such movements in other countries were less successful but still important, for example the united attempts of Bolshevik and Menshevik women, such as Alexandra Kollontai, to build a movement of women workers in Russia in the period 1905-7.These attempts were encouraged by the International Women’s Bureau. This, being led by left Social Democrats like Zetkin, played an important role at the outbreak of World War One in trying to rally an international opposition to the chauvinist betrayal of the leaders of the Second International.

After the betrayal of the working class by the Second International in 1914 the struggle for the foundation of what was to become the Communist International, began. The defence of a revolutionary position on women was no less important than the many other issues taken up by the Bolsheviks and left wing of Social Democracy.The 1917 Revolution in Russia involved large mobilisations of thus the February Revolution actually began with strikes and demonstrations of working class women in Petrograd on International Women’s Day.
The Bolsheviks had been doing work amongst women in this period, but it was between February and October that they really tried to build a mass movement of working class women.

After, to some extent stormy, internal discussions they set up a Bolshevik women’s bureau to lead this work. After the revolution this was transformed into the Zhenotdel (women’s departments). The movement of women that the Bolsheviks built was communist-led, but directed its efforts towards drawing non-Party women into joint activity with them. This included special conferences for working women, special representatives of factory and peasant women on local committees and state organisations.

This movement was not “separate” in the sense of being autonomous (it was led by Bolshevik women), although it did allow women workers to participate in conferences, adopting resolutions etc, which were sent to the Soviet government. Neither was it an attempt to lead women into a distinct area of struggle. It had two main aims which Alexandra Kollontai, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks were clear about.

It was firstly to draw women into the Party and the tasks of building socialism through their own direct participation in work, soviets and the state. Special forms of work, organisation and propaganda were necessary to achieve this because the women were backward, isolated in the family, and often had to unite with other women to overcome the sexist reaction of the men around them who would rather their wives and daughters had left the politics up to them.

Secondly the women’s movement was necessary to express the interests of women, to ensure that they were taken up by the Soviet leadership. Neither of these reasons led to the need for a separate organisation, since at all times it was thoroughly integrated into the Party, the unions and the Soviets. As Lenin argued, “This is not bourgeois ’feminism’; it is a practical revolutionary expediency."

The transition to NEP in 1921, which Lenin recognised as a necessary retreat for the young workers’ state, led to a heavy defeat for women. They were the first to lose their jobs and the socialisation of housework was postponed.On the one hand this was the result of the objective economic backwardness of Russia, on the other its was made easier by a serious gap in the programme and, above all the mass agitation, of the Bolsheviks in pursuit of women’s emancipation (e.g. the underestimation of gender-specific division of labour, lack of criticism of sexual oppression).

The Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921 adopted theses on “Methods and forms of work among Communist Party women". They outlined the key positions on how national sections should organise and build departments for work among women. This included all the key tactics used by the Bolsheviks and the German socialist women’s movement.They urged sections to do special work among women in the unions, workplaces, communities etc. This, had it been carried out by the sections, would have led to the kind of mass communist women’s movement which developed in the Soviet union. The theses offer a correct perspective for work in a period when there were mass communist parties in a position to win the vanguard of the working class, men and women, to their banner through mass work.

Trotsky kept alive, just, this revolutionary perspective on work amongst women. He noted and opposed the process of thermidor in the family in the USSR and argued for the defence of those rights to abortion, easy divorce etc, that were won by the revolution and betrayed by Stalin.The struggle of the Left Opposition, and of Trotsky, against the bureaucratic counter-revolution, which advanced even in the areas of family life, sexual morality and women’s rights, did not sufficiently integrate these issues into their overall programme.

Thus even though Trotsky was one of the first to warn of the reactionary effects of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Fourth International was too weak and too isolated to be able to undertake an actual further development of the programme, though its founding document, The Transitional Programme, in stark contrast to the programmes of the Stalinists and social democrats, raised the slogan “open the door to the woman worker".

With the post war degeneration of the FI into centrism it was inevitable that the revolutionary position on the woman question held to by Trotsky, should be dumped along with his revolutionary programme in relation to Stalinism and social democracy. While the occasional document was penned on the woman question little or nothing of note was added to the arsenal of Marxism on this question by the FI.

A further contribution, which should not be underestimated, was made by the Sex-Pol movement under Willhelm Reich in the early 1930s in Germany and Austria. Reich attempted to build a sexual-revolutionary movement, based primarily on women and youth, within the context of the revolutionary workers’ movement, using the methods of psychoanalysis. At first it had some success but was soon discontinued by the Stalinist leadership of the KPD.Whilst Reich was right to see sexual misery/deprivation as an important area for communist mass propaganda and showed some interesting inter-connections between the social oppression of sexuality and susceptibility to reactionary ideologies, his initiative was, nonetheless, limited.

Reich overestimated the contribution of sexual repression to the development of false consciousness within the working class and underestimated the extent to which false consciousness is based on the very nature of the wage labour form. He overlooked the decisive significance of the united front as a tactic against reformism and over-emphasised sexual enlightenment. In addition he stood for a normative heterosexual genitality which characterised departures from this norm as deviant forms of orgasm and pathological forms of sexuality.

It is to the tradition of the German and Russian revolutionary working class women’s movements and of Trotsky and the early FI’s defence of the revolutionary position on the woman question that we look, and which we seek to develop.Not because we slavishly copy their positions and actions, but because they represent an invaluable experience of working class women’s leadership in the struggle for the emancipation of women. It is also necessary to re-assert the Marxist positions developed in those periods, against the capitulation of social democracy and Stalinism to bourgeois positions on women.

We fight today for the building of a mass movement of working class women, based in the workplaces, the unions and the working class communities.Like the movements in Germany and Russia, such a movement would not be separated off, but rooted in the mass organisations of the working class. Its fighting strategy must not be restricted to economic issues alone, or to the sectional interests of “working women” alone.Its programme must be one of struggle against all aspects of the oppression of women under capitalism-against all attacks on abortion and contraception rights, against the physical violence suffered by women, against all the effects of capitalism in crisis such as low wages, job insecurity, rising rents and prices, health service cuts etc. A working class women’s movement would give a lead in these struggles.

Within such a movement revolutionary communists would fight for their programme and for leadership against the reformists, feminists and centrists. Revolutionaries would fight to win women to membership of the Party in order that they are fused in struggle with the overall struggles of the working class.

To those who say that a movement of working class women would divide the working class and lead to separatism and bourgeois feminism rather than revolutionary struggle, we reply:

Firstly, the class is already divided along sex lines by the fact of the oppression of women which leads to the privileges many male workers actively defend (by such methods as excluding women from certain craft unions), and the sexism which pervades the class. In these conditions for women to participate fully and equally in the labour movement, they will have to fight for their voices to be heard, for their participation to be taken seriously and for the class as a whole to take up the demands of women.

Secondly, a working class women’s movement is necessary to reach women who are trapped in the family and outside social production and thus are prey to backward ideas and form a potential pool of support for reaction. Thirdly, whatever we may argue as revolutionary communists, working class women’s movements will emerge spontaneously in the course of struggles.

In country after country, working class women find themselves thrust into political activity and leadership in the townships, democratic movements and trade unions with a tendency to form their own organisations. They have formed sections and caucuses in the unions and create equal pay and pro-abortion campaigns.They have formed women’s organisations to support male workers in struggle such as in support of the miners in Bolivia and Britain, organisations which promoted class unity and solidarity.At the same time the creation of these women’s support groups reflected the recognition that the women had something distinct to offer, and strengthened their own ability to participate in the struggle even when met with sexist hostility.

The building of a really revolutionary women’s movement led by communist women cadre will challenge both the sexism and hostility encountered in sections of the organised labour movement and the sexism, prejudice and obstacles women workers face in the home.The party and particularly its women members will have to consciously struggle around these issues inside the working class and within its own ranks insofar as manifestations of sexism occur in the Party. If communists do not intervene with a clear programme for building working class women’s movements, then the leadership of these organisations will be left to the reformists and feminists and to domination by alien class forces.

We are here posing the question of the united front. To both workers’ organisations and feminists alike we argue that working class women are suffering oppression, facing intensified attack in periods of capitalist crises and need to fight back. They should put no faith in the existing reformist leaders in the unions, nor in the Stalinist or social democratic parties, nor in the petit bourgeois nationalist movements and parties.

But we recognise that in the current period where revolutionaries are a very small section of the class, it would be sectarian and infantile to restrict our call to the building of a Party women’s department or a “communist women’s movement". The vast majority of working class women look to reformist leaders and parties to take up their struggles.We argue for putting demands on these leaders, for calling them to account, and for working class women’s self organisation to prevent the leadership’s betrayals.In this way we employ tactics which win communist influence and leadership and take us towards the building of a communist women’s movement as part of a mass revolutionary party.

The core of the working class and communist women’s movement must lie with women organised in the workplace. This involves organising to ensure that the trade unions take up women’s issues, building caucuses in the unions to allow women to discuss their special oppression and build fighting confidence, drawing more women into the unions and developing class consciousness.In organising against the bureaucracy which refuses to take women’s demand seriously, it will be part of the struggle to build a rank and file opposition and alternative leadership.

But a working class women’s movement will also draw in women organised on the estates, in the barrios and townships, and it will reach into the countryside to the mass of peasant women suffering grinding poverty and oppression.Building such a movement is not an optional extra for revolutionaries, but an essential part of the struggle to unite the working class and its allies in the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism. In the imperialised countries it may be necessary to apply the anti-imperialist united front with bourgeois and petit bourgeois forces for the wining of progressive measures

31. Whilst recognising that the fight for women’s liberation is inseparable from the fight for socialism, we do not ignore the question of democratic rights and the struggles of feminists on these issues. We support the fight for democratic reforms which would grant women equal recognition under the law, over property, in politics etc. The experience of feminism has been that such “rights” are difficult to achieve and retain even under so-called liberal democratic regimes.As with all democratic demands only the working class in power can guarantee such rights. In supporting the struggle for equal suffrage, for example, we fight for suffrage for all, not equal propertied suffrage or equal suffrage based on race or religious group. We would call on workers to organise and take industrial action in support of such demands, linking their attainment to the question of working class power.

We seek to draw petit bourgeois feminists into united action with the working class in the fight for democratic or other demands. We do reject the creation of a popular front of bourgeois and workers’ parties in the name of achieving such democratic reforms. Such cross-class alliances in effect tie the workers to a bourgeois programme and deny the working class parties independence.The WLM of the 1960s and 70s was based on mainly petit bourgeois forces and professional and white collar workers. In its politics it espoused the desirability of an alliance with bourgeois women, but these women in general shunned the approach and continued in their own organisations.

Revolutionaries need to be in constant argument with women in the working class, plus students and intellectuals, who joined and were active in the WLM. Joint activity around issues like abortion can provide the arena for winning such women away from feminism to revolutionary politics.The building of a revolutionary tendency inside any mass petit bourgeois feminist movement could be an important tactic for a revolutionary party, but in no way implies a concession to political autonomy or separatism, since the communist women would oppose such practices and use all opportunities to build links with organised workers, male or female. But we defend the right of a proletarian women’s movement to independent organisational structures (for instance women’s fractions in trade unions) and cultural forms of expression (for instance women only parties).

For Marxists a coherent strategy for the seizure of power by the working class-a programme-is inseparable from organised militants fighting for that programme and applying it tactically-a party.The question of women’s liberation is itself an integral part of that programme and women communists an integral part of that party-both in its leadership and rank and file cadre. Such a party must fight sexism in its own ranks, amongst militant workers and in the working class at large.

To do this it must take special measures to strengthen and support women within the party and the class. The right of women to caucus, the provision of creche facilities, in order to facilitate the participation of mothers in political meetings etc, are vital to this end. Communists propagate the principle that as long as housework and child rearing is not fully socialised, men are politically and morally obliged to participate accordingly.

Whilst these rights must be guaranteed, we reject absolutely the view that the democratic centralist party is inimical to the full participation of women, that women must organise, separately and exclusively, “their struggle” because they alone have subjective experience of their oppression.Whilst the latter is a vital component of working out strategy and tactics, women’s oppression and its relationship to class society was not discovered by subjective experience alone (any more than was working class exploitation). It was, is and will be analysed by scientific work for which the party as a whole is the necessary vehicle.
Women workers will be vital to the building of a revolutionary party as they will be for the building of socialism after the creation of a workers’ state.

Without the leadership of a revolutionary party the spontaneous struggles of women will be unable to draw together the lessons of past struggles, and mount an effective challenge to the reformist leaders of the labour movement, or the feminist leaders of the women’s movement.Any victories such spontaneous struggles achieve would risk being partial and temporary, and would fail to address the fundamental issues of women’s oppression and class unless, that is, they were won in the course of struggle to the revolutionary party with its programme for women’s liberation and socialism.It is to the task of building such a party, and a mass communist-led working class women’s movement, that we commit ourselves.