Ana Muñoz and Alan Woods 08 March 2021
Marxism has always been at the forefront of the cause of women’s emancipation. The 8th of March (International Women’s Day) is a red letter day for us as it symbolises the struggle of working class women against capitalism, oppression and discrimination throughout the world. In this article, we outline the first steps given by Marxism to fight for women’s rights, what the first successful revolution meant for the emancipation of women, conditions of women under capitalism both in advanced and Third World countries and pose the question of how to eliminate inequality between men and women for good. Originally published 8 March 2000.
“To alter the position of woman at the root is possible only if all the conditions of social, family, and domestic existence are altered.” (Trotsky, Women and the Family, p. 45.)
Capitalism is in a blind alley. The crisis of capitalism on a world scale falls with special severity on the shoulders of women and youth. Already in the 19th century, Marx pointed to the tendency for capitalism to make super-profits from the exploitation of women and children. In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes:
“The labour of women and children was, therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery. That mighty substitute for labour and labourers was forthwith changed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling, under the direct sway of capital, every member of the workman’s family, without distinction of age or sex. Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children’s play, but also of free labour at home within moderate limits for the support of the family.” (K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1. pp. 394-5.)
In the advanced countries of capitalism the changing modes of production, and the capitalists’ constant attempt to increase the rate of profit, has led to the ever increasing employment of women and young people who are subjected to the worst kind of exploitation, working for low wages in bad conditions with few or no rights. In America alone some 40 million women have joined the workforce over the past 50 years; in Europe another 30 million. In 1950, only about a third of all American women of working age had a paid job; last year the proportion was nearly three-quarters. At some point in their lives, say the statisticians, 99 per cent of all American women will now work for pay. The employment of women is, in itself, a progressive development. It is the prior condition to the liberation of women from the narrow confines of the home and the bourgeois family, and their full and free development as human beings and members of society.
But the capitalist system regards women merely as a convenient source of cheap labour and part of the “reserve army of labour” to be drawn on when there is a shortage of labour in certain areas of production, and discarded again when the need disappears. We saw this in both world wars, when women were drafted into the factories to replace men who had been called up into the army and then sent back to the home when the war ended. Women were again encouraged to enter the workplaces during the period of capitalist upswing of the 1950s and 1960s, when their role was analogous to that of the immigrant workers–as a reservoir of cheap labour. In the more recent period, the number of women workers has increased to fill gaps in the productive process. But, despite all the talk about a “woman’s world” and “girl power”, and despite all the laws that supposedly guarantee equality, women workers remain the most exploited and oppressed section of the proletariat.
In the past, women were conditioned by class society to be politically indifferent, unorganised and, above all, passive, thereby providing a social base for reaction. The bourgeoisie, utilising the services of the Church and the press (“Women’s” magazines, etc.) based itself on this layer to keep itself in power. But this situation is changing with the changing role of women in society. No longer are women, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, content to be kept in ignorance and submit passively to the traditional role of “Kirche, Kücher and Kinder” (Church, Kitchen and Children). This is a very progressive phenomenon, pregnant with consequences for the future. In the same way that the bourgeoisie has largely lost its former mass social reserves of reaction in the peasantry in the USA, Japan and Western Europe, so women no longer constitute a reserve of backwardness and reaction as in the past. The crisis of capitalism, with its constant attacks on women and the family, will further radicalise ever broader layers of women and push them in a revolutionary direction. It is important that Marxists understand the great revolutionary potential of women and take the necessary steps to tap into it.
Women are potentially far more revolutionary than men because they are fresh and untainted by years of conservative routine that so often characterises “normal” trade union existence. Anyone who has seen a strike of women can bear witness to their tremendous determination, courage and elan. It is the duty of Marxists to support every measure to encourage women to join and participate in the unions, with equal rights and equal responsibilities.
The First International
The woman question has always occupied a central place in the theory and practice of Marxism. The First International took the struggle for reforms very seriously. The following is a questionnaire on working conditions, written by Marx at the end of August 1866, sent out by the General Council to all the sections:
1. Industry, name of.
2. Age and sex of the employed.
3. Number of the employed.
4. Salaries and wages; (a) apprentices; (b) wages by the day or piece work; scale paid by middlemen. Weekly, yearly average.
5. (a) Hours of work in factories. (b) The hours of work with small employers and in homework, if the business be carried on in those different modes. (c) Night work and day work.
6. Mealtimes and treatment.
7. Sort of workshop and work” overcrowding, defective ventilation, want of sunlight, use of gaslight. Cleanliness, etc.
8. Nature of occupation.
9. Effect of employment upon the physical condition.
10. Moral condition. Education.
11. State of trade: whether season trade, or more or less uniformly distributed over year, whether greatly fluctuating, whether exposed to foreign competition, whether destined principally for home of foreign competition, etc.
Marx wrote in the third chapter Limitation of the working day:
“A preliminary condition, without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive, is the limitation of the working day.
“It is needed to restore the health and physical energies of the working class, that is, the great body of every nation, as well as to secure them the possibility of intellectual development, sociable intercourse, social and political action.” (Minutes of the General Council of the First International 1864-1866, pp. 342-3.)
They proposed eight hours work as the legal limit of the working day. Night work was to be permitted only exceptionally in trades or branches of trades specified by law. The general tendency must be to suppress all night work. However, the document goes on: “This paragraph refers only to adult persons, male or female, the latter, however, to be rigorously excluded from all night work whatever, and all sort of work hurtful to the delicacy of the sex, or exposing their bodies to poisonous and otherwise deleterious agencies. By adult persons we understand all persons having reached or passed the age of 18 years.” (Ibid., p. 343.)
It is not generally known that Marx’s daughter Eleanor played an active role in work among the women workers in the “sweated trades” in the East End of London. In an article in the press on Sweating in Type-Writing Offices in which she proposed that a union should be formed both by those who typed at home and in business houses where, as she wrote, “if you want to live by your labour you must work at high pressure and a good many more hours than eight a day.” (Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, The Crowded Years, 1884-98, p. 364.) How relevant these lines sound a hundred years later!
An important turning-point was the strike of the London match-girls in 1888, when this most exploited and downtrodden section of workers revolted against their oppressors. At the factory in Bow in the poor East End, the workforce was entirely made up of women, from 13 year old girls to mothers of large families. The barbaric conditions there were similar to those experienced by workers in the Third World now. The use of white phosphorus for making matches produced the dreadful disease which ate away the jaw-bone, as a result of having to eat food in the polluted atmosphere of the workshop. Bad wages were made worse by the iniquitous system of fines, often imposed for the most trivial errors, brought on by fatigue. As a result, the shareholders got a fine dividend of 22 per cent.
Overcoming their fear, in July 1888, 672 of the women struck. In a fortnight, thanks to the support of the trade unions and a public campaign that raised the considerable sum of £400, the women won major concessions. As a result, these unskilled women organised the Matchmakers’ Union–the largest union composed of women and girls in England. This was a giant step forward in the explosion of the “New Unionism” in Britain when, for the first time, the unskilled proletariat became organised into unions. This has important lessons for the present period, when, as 100 years ago, a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers are unorganised, and a large percentage of these are women.
The Bolsheviks and women
The Bolsheviks always took the question of revolutionary work among women workers very seriously. Lenin, in particular, attached an enormous importance to this question, especially in the period of the revolutionary upsurge from 1912-14, and during the First World War. It was at this time that International Women’s Day (8th March) began to be celebrated with mass workers’ demonstrations. It is not an accident that the February (March, according to the new calendar) revolution arose from disturbances around Women’s Day, when women demonstrated against the War and the high cost of living.
Social Democrats had begun consistent work among women workers during the 1912-14 upsurge. The Bolsheviks organised the first International Women’s Day meeting in Russia in 1913. The same year, Pravda began regularly publishing a page devoted to questions facing women. The Bolsheviks launched a women’s newspaper, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), in 1914, with the first issue appearing on International Women’s Day, when the party again organised demonstrations. The paper was suppressed in July along with the rest of the workers’ press. The Bolshevik paper was supported financially by women factory workers and distributed by them in the workplaces. It reported on the conditions and struggles of women workers in Russia and abroad, and encouraged women to join in struggle with their male co-worker. It urged them to reject the women’s movement initiated by bourgeois women following the 1905 revolution.
Revolutionary Social Democratic work in Russia during the First World War faced enormous difficulties. The Party and the unions were illegal. But by 1915 the movement was recovering from the blows it received in the first months of the war. One area where it began to make important gains was among women, who were being drawn into the industrial work force in large numbers. By the outbreak of the war, women made up roughly one-third of the industrial workers, and a still larger portion of those in the textile industry. This increased even further during the war as men were mobilised for military service. The situation of women worsened during the war as many became the sole support of their families and necessities became scarcer and more expensive. Women workers took part in many strikes and demonstrations against the economic hardships created by Russia’s involvement in the war.
While the Bolshevik Party remained predominantly male in composition (at the Bolsheviks’ Sixth Congress in August 1917, women made up about 6 per cent of the delegates), recruitment of women workers in significant numbers began with the 1912-14 upsurge. The following extract is from a leaflet entitled To the Working Women of Kiev, distributed by the Bolsheviks in Kiev, Ukraine on March 8 (International Women’s Day), 1915. The leaflet gives us an idea of how the Bolsheviks posed the question in their public agitation. Their appeal linked the oppression of women to the suffering of male workers, and to a programme for the liberation of all working people:
“Pitiful as the lot of the worker is, the status of the woman is far worse. In the factory, in the workshop, she works for a capitalist boss, at home for the family.
“Thousands of women sell their labour to capital; thousands drudge away at hired labour; thousands and hundreds of thousands suffer under the yoke of family and social oppression. And for the enormous majority of working women it seems this is the way it must be. But is it really true that the working woman cannot hope for a better future, and that fate has consigned her to an entire life of work and only work, without rest night and day?
“Comrades, working women! The men comrades toil along with us. Their fate and ours are one. But they have long since found the only road to a better life–the road of organised labour’s struggle with capital, the road of struggle against all oppression, evil, and violence. Women workers, there is no other road for us. The interests of the working men and women are equal, are one. Only in a united struggle together with the men workers, in joint workers’ organisations–in the Social Democratic Party, the trade unions, workers’ clubs, and co-operatives–shall we obtain our rights and win a better life.” (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 268.)
Women after October
In tsarist Russia women were legally slaves to their husbands. According to tsarist law: “The wife is held to obey her husband, as the head of the family, to remain with him in love, respect, unlimited obedience, to do him every favour, and show him every affection, as a housewife.” The 1919 Communist Party programme stated: “The party’s task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality or prejudices, particularly among backward strata of the proletariat and peasantry. Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc.”
However, the ability to carry out this programme depended on the general standard of living and culture of society, as Trotsky explained in his article From the Old Family to the New, which appeared in Pravda on the 13 July, 1923:
“The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and laundry. Socialisation of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.”
The Bolshevik Revolution laid the basis for the social emancipation of women, and although the Stalinist political counter-revolution represented a partial setback, it is undeniable that women in the Soviet Union made colossal strides forward in the struggle for equality. Women were no longer obliged to live with their husbands or accompany them if a change of job meant a change of house. They were given equal rights to be head of the household and received equal pay. Attention was paid to the women’s childbearing role and special maternity laws were introduced banning long hours and night work and establishing paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and child-care centres. Abortion was legalised in 1920, divorce was simplified and civil registration of marriage was introduced. The concept of illegitimate children was also abolished. In the words of Lenin: “In the literal sense, we did not leave a single brick standing of the despicable laws which placed women in a state of inferiority compared with men”
Material advances were made to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life–the provision of free school meals, milk for children, special food and cloth allowances for children in need, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, creches and other facilities.
In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky writes:
“The October revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman. The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work. However, the boldest revolution, like the ‘all-powerful’ British parliament, cannot convert a woman into a man–or rather, cannot divide equally between them the burden of pregnancy, birth, nursing and the rearing of children. The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called family hearth–that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organisations, moving-picture theatres, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 144.)
The Communist International
The Communist International (CI), following the traditions of the Bolshevik Party, attached great importance to work among women and instructed the Communist Parties to “extend their influence over the widest layers of the female population by means of organising special apparatuses inside the Party and establishing special methods of approaching women, with the aim of liberating them from the influence of the bourgeois world-view or the influence of the compromising parties, and of educating them to be resolute fighters for Communism and consequently for the full development of women.”
By the establishment of “special apparatuses” for the purpose of work among women, the CI by no means had in mind separate women’s organisations. Such an idea would have been as much of an abomination as the idea of separate revolutionary organisations for oppressed nationalities, Jews, blacks, etc.–something Lenin and Trotsky always fought against. In fact, the theses state clearly that “The Third Congress of the Communist International is firmly opposed to any kind of separate women’s associations in the Parties and trade unions or special women’s organisations” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p. 217.)
What they had in mind was the need for special groups of comrades specialised and skilled in this kind of work, for the technical tasks of issuing propaganda, leaflets, etc. and generally to organise this work. It was also made clear that such groups should not work separately but under the control of the normal elected bodies of the Party. The main aims of this work were specified as:
1. to educate women in Communist ideas and draw them into the ranks of the Party;
2. to fight the prejudices against women held by the mass of the male proletariat, and increase the awareness of working men and women that they have common interests;
3. to strengthen the will of working women by drawing them into all forms and types of civil conflict, encouraging women in the bourgeois countries to participate in the struggle against capitalist exploitation, in mass action against the high cost of living, against the housing shortage, unemployment and around other social problems, and women in the Soviet republics to take part in the formation of the Communist personality and the Communist way of life;
4. to put on the Party’s agenda and to include in legislative proposals questions directly concerning the emancipation of women, confirming their liberation, defending their interests as child-bearers;
5. to conduct a well-planned struggle against the power of tradition, bourgeois customs and religious ideas, clearing the way for healthier and more harmonious relations between the sexes, guaranteeing the physical and moral vitality of working people.” (Ibid., p. 218.)
The CI under Lenin and Trotsky would never have accepted a negligent or dismissive attitude towards this vital area of the work. The Third Congress of the CI stated that “without the active participation of the broad masses of the female proletariat and the semi-proletarian women, the proletariat can neither seize power nor realise communism.
“At the same time, the Congress once again draws the attention of all women to the fact that without Communist Party support for all the projects leading to the liberation of women, the recognition of women’s rights as equal human beings and their real emancipation cannot in practice be won.” (Ibid., pp. 213-4.)
Thus, from the outset, the CI under Lenin and Trotsky explained the central role of the question of women, but a) approached it exclusively from a revolutionary and class point of view and b) explained that the real emancipation of women could only be achieved under socialism. The CI stressed the need to integrate the work of women in the general Party work, and not segregate it as something separate:
“In order to strengthen comradeship between working women and working men, it is desirable not to organise special courses and schools for Communist women, but all general Party schools must without fail include a course on the methods of work among women.” (Ibid., p. 227.)
At the Fourth Congress–the last genuinely Leninist Congress of the CI–a brief balance sheet was drawn, which pointed to the great importance of this work for a revolutionary International (and makes a special reference to the problem of women in backward, colonial countries in the East) but also makes it clear that the work had not been taken up with sufficient energy by some of the sections:
“The necessity and value of special organisations for Communist work among women is also proved by the activity of the Women’s Secretariat in the East, which has carried out important and successful work under new and unusual conditions. Unfortunately, the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International has to admit that some sections have either completely failed to fulfil, or have only partially fulfilled, their responsibility to give consistent support to Communist work among women. To this day, they have either failed to take measures to organise women Communists within the Party, or failed to set up the Party organisations vital for work among the masses of women and for establishing links with them.
“The Fourth Congress urgently insists that the Parties concerned make up for all these omissions as quickly as possible. It calls on every section of the Communist International to do all it can to promote Communist work among women, in view of the great importance of this work. The proletarian united front cannot be realised without the active and informed participation of women. In certain conditions, if there are correct and close links between the Communist Parties and working women, women can become pioneers of the proletarian united front and of mass revolutionary movements.” (Ibid., p. 326.)
The role of Stalinism
The great French utopian socialist Fourier wisely said that the position of women was the clearest expression of the true nature of a social regime. Whereas the Bolshevik revolution set women free, the Stalinist counter-revolution led to a drastic reversal of policy on women and the family. Many of the gains made by the revolution were abolished. Abortions were made illegal and divorce was made more and more difficult until it became an expensive court procedure. Prostitutes were arrested, whereas the early Bolshevik policy had been to arrest only the brothel owners and expose the men who bought prostitutes and to provide voluntary job training for the prostitutes. The hours of day-care centres were cut down to coincide with the hours of the working day. And female children were taught special subjects in the schools to prepare them for their role as mothers and housewives.
In 1938, Trotsky characterised the situation in the following words:
“The position of woman is the most graphic and telling indicator for evaluating a social regime and state policy. The October Revolution inscribed on its banner the emancipation of womankind and created the most progressive legislation in history on marriage and the family. This does not mean, of course, that a ‘happy life’ was immediately in store for the Soviet woman. Genuine emancipation of women is inconceivable without a general rise of economy and culture, without the destruction of the petty-bourgeois economic family unit, without the introduction of socialised food preparation, and education. Meanwhile, guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has taken alarm at the ‘disintegration’ of the family. It began singing panegyrics to the family supper and the family laundry, that is, the household slavery of woman. To cap it all, the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with the ABC of Communism, the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and benighted nucleus of the class system, i.e., the petty-bourgeois family.” (Trotsky, Writings (1937-38), p. 170.)
Although after Stalin’s death in 1953 some reforms were reinstated, such as legal abortions, the position of women in the Soviet Union never recovered what it was under Lenin and Trotsky. However, they still enjoyed many advantages with respect to women in the West. The post-war economic growth made possible by the nationalised planned economy allowed a steady general improvement: retirement at 55 years, no discrimination in pay and terms of employment, and the right of pregnant women to shift to lighter work with fully paid maternity leave for 56 days before and 56 days after the birth of a child. New legislation in 1970 abolished night work and underground work for women. The number of women in higher education as a percentage of the total rose from 28 per cent in 1927, to 43 per cent in 1960, to 49 per cent in 1970. The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40 per cent of the total in higher education were Finland, France, and the United States.
There were improvements in pre-school care for children: in 1960 there were 500,000 places, but by 1971 this had risen to over five million. The tremendous advances of the planned economy, with the consequent improvements in health care, were reflected in the doubling of the life expectancy for women to 74 years and the reduction in child mortality by 90 per cent. In 1975 women working in education had risen to 73 per cent. In 1959 one-third of women were in occupations where 70 per cent of the workforce were women, but by 1970 this figure had climbed to 55 per cent. By this time, 98 per cent of nurses were women, as were 75 per cent of teachers, 95 per cent of librarians and 75 per cent of doctors. In 1950 there were 600 female doctors of science, but by 1984 it had climbed to 5,600!
The movement toward capitalism has rapidly reversed the gains of the past, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the family. The biggest part of the burden of the crisis is being placed on the shoulders of the women. Women are the first to be sacked, in order to avoid paying social benefits, like child and maternity benefit. Given the fact that women made up 51 per cent of the Russian workforce a few years ago, and that 90 per cent of women worked, the growth of unemployment has meant that more than 70 per cent of Russia’s unemployed workers are now women. In some areas the figure is 90 per cent.
The collapse of social services and increased unemployment means that all the benefits of the planned economy for women are being systematically wiped out. The growth in unemployment will sentence many more people to poverty in Russia than in the West because many benefits are provided direct by the workplace: “Unemployment still carries a deep stigma in Russia. Only in 1991 did it cease to be a crime. For those without jobs, absolute poverty threatens. Unemployment benefits are linked to the minimum wage of 14,620 roubles a month, a third of the official subsistence level and about one-seventh of the average wage. The jobless are often even worse off than these figures imply because most of the basic social services–such as health, schools and transport are provided by companies rather than local government, and hence are only available to people in work,” reports The Economist, (11/12/93).
Under the previous regime, women received 70 per cent of men’s wages. The figure is now 40 per cent. Keeping a family on one wage was difficult enough in the old USSR. Now, with the dramatic rise in poverty, it is virtually impossible. Thus, women are the main victims of this reactionary regime. Prostitution has increased enormously, as women try to survive by selling their bodies to those with money to buy them–mainly the despicable “new rich” and foreigners. Even here they fall prey to the Mafia which demands at least 20 per cent of all businesses. In Western magazines, Russian women are advertised alongside women from Third World countries as prospective wives for foreigners. In the humiliating slavery of women, reduced to the status of commodities, is encapsulated the humiliation of a land that is being compelled to submit to the yoke of exploitation in its most naked and shameless guise.
On the 10th February 1993, the then labour minister, J. Melikyan announced the government’s solution to unemployment. In a language that would do credit to any rightwing bourgeois politician in the West, he said he saw no need for special programmes to help women return to work. “Why should we try to find jobs for women when men are idle and on unemployment benefits?” he asked. “Let men work and women take care of the homes and their children.” Such language, which would have been unthinkable in the past, is now evidently regarded as something normal and acceptable. Here, more clearly than anywhere else, we see the real face of capitalist counter-revolution–crude, brutal and ignorant–a monstrous throwback to the days of tsarist slavery in which each slave was allowed to lord it over his wife and children in compensation for his own degrading condition.
This situation does not only apply to Russia. In the former East Germany, nine out of ten women had a full time job. Work for women was a right. To make it possible to combine work and family, the state provided comprehensive child care, and a year off for each baby. Now all these gains of a nationalised planned economy have been destroyed. The previous generous child care provision has been abolished. Following the unification of Germany, one third of all women’s jobs were wiped out through mass unemployment in the public sector, textile and agriculture. The Economist (18/7/98) reports that: “Over the past few years the unemployment rate for East German women has consistently hovered around the 20 per cent mark, about five percentage points above the rate for men, and twice the rate for both men and women in Western Germany. East German women, deprived of their earnings capacity (as well as their child-care support system), immediately started economising on babies. The Eastern birth rate halved from an already low 1.56 children per woman in 1989 to around half that level, and remains below one child per woman. But East German women are not giving up on jobs. The draw the dole, and just keep applying.”
The ‘Third World’
In the advanced capitalist countries over the past half century, the position of women has noticeably improved. At least in a formal sense, they have the same legal rights as men. They have the same access to education and, to some extend, have improved their access to work. However, in the ex-colonial world which contains two-thirds of the human race, this is not true. The slavery of women is worse today than at any other time in history. Every year 500,000 women die from complications arising from pregnancy, and perhaps a further 200,000 die from abortions. The ex-colonial countries spend only 4 per cent of their GDP on health, an average of $41 a head, compared with $1900 in the advanced capitalist countries. An estimated 100 million children aged 6 to 11 are not at school. Two thirds of them are girls. The main reason for the grinding poverty of the Third World is the two-fold looting of the resources through the terms of trade, and the two trillion dollars debt owed by the Third World to the big Western banks.
The absolute domination of imperialism and the giant multinationals ensure that the last drop of surplus value is mercilessly squeezed from men, women and children without distinction. Child labour, actually, still exists even in advanced capitalist countries, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America it is the norm. Parents living on the verge of hunger have no alternative but to sell their children into virtual slavery, including that most vile kind of slavery, prostitution. The surplus value extracted by the representatives of humane, Christian, Western civilisation contains the blood, sweat and tears of millions of exploited women and children, just as in Marx’s day. The bourgeois pretend to be horrified at this suffering, but pocket their money anyway.
Big monopolies like Disney and Nike derive their profits from slave labour in countries like Haiti. The penetration of big capital has remorselessly torn apart the old patriarchal relations that existed in the past, as Marx and Engels explained in the pages of the Communist Manifesto. This has given a particularly ferocious character to capitalist exploitation in the Third World. The protection that was given to women and children in the past by the extended family and the rules of tribal-clan society has been destroyed and nothing put in its place. Thus, in the Indian sub-continent, women still suffer the old torments, superimposed on the barbaric economic exploitation of the capitalist system. The Indian bourgeoisie, half a century after so-called independence has not even succeeded in abolishing the caste system. The barbaric practice of “suttee”, whereby women are forced to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of a dead husband, still exists. There are hundreds of cases every year. And those widows who escape this fate are treated as social outcasts and pariahs who have no right to live. They are beaten, starved and humiliated by relatives, until they are driven to suicide.
All over Asia, the birth of a girl is regarded as a misfortune in agrarian communities. Female infanticide is common. In China, the state orphanages are full of mainly female children who are starved and neglected. The reason for this is that poor Asian peasants need large families to maintain them in old age in societies where there is no old age pension or social security. Male children are stronger and can do more kinds of work, whereas girls require a dowry to be married. In India, if the dowry is not considered sufficient, the bride can be killed by the bridegroom’s family. This is the state of India at the beginning of the 21st century. Things are not much better in Pakistan, where the Islamic Shariat is the law. Women have virtually no rights and can be disposed of as their parents and husbands see fit. But Pakistan is a liberal paradise when compared to Afghanistan under the Taliban. Before the 1979 revolution, the main economic activity in Afghanistan was the sale of women as brides. The Afghan Stalinists passed laws giving rights to women. Now all that has been destroyed. Women are deprived of all rights and confined to the home. Since they are not allowed to work, they must starve. This barbaric law is strictly applied even despite the fact that there are serious labour shortages as a result of the large number of men killed in the war. It matters not that many of these women have skills as teachers and nurses that are needed. They must not work. This is the real barbaric face of Islamic reaction. But those really responsible are the imperialists in Washington and their stooges in Pakistan who armed and financed these monsters in their struggle against “Communism”.
In Afghanistan, the struggle for the rights of women is inseparably bound up with the revolutionary struggle for the socialist transformation of society and the overthrow of this horrific regime of religious reaction. The women of Afghanistan constitute a powerful reserve for revolution. This fact is borne out by the experience of Iran. After 20 years of Islamic reaction, the masses are tired of the rule of the Mullahs. The burden of fundamentalism is particularly onerous for the women, who are beginning to show their defiance, as we saw when Iran bit the USA in a football match, when women defiantly came out onto the streets to sing and dance with the men without the “chadoor”, and the mullahs were powerless to prevent it. Here too, the women will play a key role in the coming revolution in Iran.
Lenin once said that “capitalism is horror without end”. That horror affects the women above all, and most cruelly in the Third World. The failure of the “socialist” FLN to carry through the revolution in Algeria has led to the present bloody impasse. The horrific massacres of men, women and children, where whole villages are literally cut to pieces with knives and axes is taking place with the silent complicity of the West. It is clear that these atrocities are not the monopoly of the Islamic terrorists, but are also, probably mainly, the work of the military regime and its death squads. To all the other horrors, women have been deliberately singled out as a target to be kidnapped and raped. A large number of these women have later committed suicide. The use of rape as a weapon of reaction was again seen in Indonesia, where the Suharto regime organised the pogroms against the Chinese, just as the tsarist regime did against the Jews. These horrors show us what the ruling class is capable of. Similar things await the advanced countries in the future if the workers do not take power in the next period.
The main burden of oppression always falls on women from the poorest layers of society. However, particularly in the Third World, there are many cases of brutal and inhuman treatment also against women of other classes. Marxists must fight against all injustice in society, while basing ourselves in the working class which alone can lead society out of this blind alley. Every injustice against women should be denounced.
Without injuring religious sensitivities, using skillful language, we must expose the role of religion. The struggle for revolution in Asia and the Middle East demands a ruthless struggle against all kinds of religious obscurantism and fundamentalism which, irrespective of its “anti-imperialist” demagogy, always plays the most reactionary role in society. The emancipation of women will forever be an utopia unless it goes hand in hand with a struggle against all religion, which inevitably upholds and perpetuates the enslavement of women.
Women and unemployment
The crisis of capitalism expresses itself in the existence of high rates of unemployment even in periods of boom. This affects women and young people far more seriously than other parts of society. Rates of unemployment are far higher among women than the average. And these figures understate the real position since they exclude a large number of women who have given up all hope of finding employment and no longer bother to sign on at the employment exchange. The general tendency towards the casualisation of labour (under the guise of flexibilisation) has its most damaging effects on women. Most women, even without this, were already condemned to the most appalling bad wages and conditions. Now their condition has gone from bad to worse. The uncontrolled spread of part-time and temporary working, which is alleged to be more suitable for women is an ideal excuse to inflict such conditions on the most defenceless section of society, as The Economist admits:
“In America, with its booming economy and tight labour market, women are proving a godsend to many employers. They usually cost less to employ than men, are more prepared to be flexible and less incline to kick up a fuss if working conditions are poor. Far fewer of them are members of trade unions. The only surprise is than American women’s unemployment rates are no lower than men’s.” (The Economist, 18/7/98.)
And it adds:
“Many are what labour-market economists call ‘atypical employment’, the kind that is often better suited to service industries: part-time, temporary, involving irregular or unusual hours, or done on a contract basis. Some of them are insecure, and many of them are poorly paid. Women, anxious to find a way of combining a job with a family, have proved far more flexible and adaptable to this new way of working than men.” (The Economist, 18/7/98.)
Part-time jobs are on the increase everywhere. For many women, this is the only employment they can consider because it is possible to combine work and family. This suits the employers down to the ground because they can treat their employees as they like, pile on the pressure for greater performance and pay them a pittance. New variations on the theme are popping up all the time. The latest is the “contingent” worker: in essence, anyone whose job is not expected to last. Such people work in a wide range of industries, doing temporary or contract work or being on call. In America, recent estimates by the Department of Labour put their number at perhaps 5.5m, over half of whom are women and nearly half part-timers. They are paid less than their non-contingent counterparts, and usually get no health insurance or other fringe benefits from their employers.
The German version is called “minor employment”, and many economists reckon it is growing by leaps and bounds. It relies on a legal concession that exempts people earning less than DM620 ($340) a month from contributing to the comprehensive (and highly expensive) German social-security system, but also excludes them from pension rights and unemployment benefit. One estimate puts the total number of people employed only in such “minor” jobs at over 4m, about half of whom are women.
“Because of family responsibilities, women on average put in far fewer hours at their paid jobs than men,” says The Economist coyly, “so their weekly or annual pay lags even further behind men’s than their hourly pay. In the EU as a whole, about a third of all working women put in less than the standard week of 35-40 hours, (though that average conceals vast differences); among men, the proportion of part-timers is only about 5 per cent, and most of those are either students or older workers heading for retirement. In America, a smaller proportion of women work part-time than in Europe, but a larger proportion of men. The Japanese figures look similar to the European ones, but many women ‘part-timers’ there work almost full-time hours; they just get paid less than official full-timers. ‘Part-time’ everywhere still often translates as ‘second-class’.” (The Economist, 18/7/98.)
Overwork and the family
A recent survey of women at work published by The Economist paints a horrific picture of the kind of overwork that afflicts modern-day Americans–not only blue collar but white collar workers–and which must exercise the most corrosive effects on family life and personal relations:
“Where both parents worked (which other than for the company’s most senior executives was the norm), a typical day would start before dawn to get the children ready and drop them at the company’s (handsomely subsidised) day-care centre. The parents would then spend a long day at work before collecting the children from a ten-hour stint in day-care, doing some shopping on the way home, feeding everybody, putting the laundry in the washing machine, cleaning up the mess, reading the children a bedtime story and heading for bed themselves, utterly worn out. And these were the days when nothing went wrong.
“Ms. Hochschild found that these employees rarely took parental leave, worked flexible hours or availed themselves of any of the other family-friendly policies on offer. Instead, they spent ever longer hours at work, often putting in a lot of overtime on top of their standard hours. Sometimes they really needed the overtime earnings. But more often, confronted with a choice between stress at work and stress at home, both men and women chose work, where at least they enjoyed the contact with colleagues, were taken seriously and got paid for their pains, whereas at home they felt isolated, taken for granted and ground down with never-ending demands. Work had become home, and home had become hard work”
“Certainly a majority of American families with school-age children now lead the sort of lives described in the book,” adds The Economist (18/7/98).
Yet these workers are not satisfied with their lot. Well over half named “lack of time” as their biggest problem. This is one of the most striking contradictions of modern capitalism. At a time when the advances of science and technology have provided the necessary basis for revolutionising people’s lives, providing a better working environment and a shorter working week, millions are condemned to the misery of enforced idleness on the dole, while millions of others “lucky” enough to have employment, are condemned to a life of drudgery, long hours and remorseless pressure at work. They are condemned to sacrifice their health and physical well-being, as well as their family life and access to their children.
The very advances of technology are being used to increase the enslavement of the worker to the boss, making even part-time home workers slaves of the office for unlimited working-day. Inventions such as portable phones, bleepers, pagers and laptops permit an unprecedented level of control over the worker, even when direct supervision is absent. The distinction between workplace and home, between working hours and spare time cease to have any meaning. The tyranny of Capital, its absolute mastery over workers and their families, becomes absolute. The question we should therefore ask ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century is not “Is there a life after death?” but rather “Is there a life before death?”
‘The second shift’
In order to go out to work, women with children must find some way of getting them taken care of. In a sane society, the principle of free universal education should be extended to children at the earliest age, in addition to the most generous conditions of paid parental leave for the first few years. Instead of this, working class mothers are compelled to leave their children in unsatisfactory “child care” with inexperienced and unqualified persons. From such situations, tragedies have occurred. The sensationalist press makes the best of these opportunities to whip up hatred against unfortunate women. But they are careful not to point the accusing finger at the society that creates the conditions for such monstrosities.
According to a recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, some 80 per cent of American babies are regularly cared for by someone other than their mother in their first 12 months of life; most of them start child care before they are four months old; and typically they are in care for about 30 hours a week. But it adds that:
“Most of these settings fall short of any standards that any of us would consider optima. Barely adequate has become the term of art to describe the typical child-care arrangement in this country about 15-20 per cent are in fact dismal and even dangerous.” (The Economist, 18/7/98, our emphasis.)
Even these primitive conditions are too expensive for many women who are obliged to give up the attempt to find work at all. Despite all the talk about emancipated women, career women and so on, many remain trapped between the four walls of the home. In Europe as a whole, around a third of those of working age describe themselves as “housewives”, according to the European Community Household Panel, though that probably includes some with part-time jobs. The more children they have, the more likely they are to be housebound. “That is not necessarily a recipe for happiness,” says The Economist, “in almost every EU country, women who go out to work appear to be healthier and more satisfied with life than those who do not. But at least they are excused the ‘second shift’: a day’s work at home after a day’s work for their employer.” (The Economist, 18/7/98.)
One hundred years ago in the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democracy we read:
“The participation of women in industrial pursuits means the total destruction of the family life of the working-man without substituting for it a higher form of the family relation. The capitalist system of production does not in most cases destroy the single household of the working-man, but robs it of all but its unpleasant features. The activity of woman today in industrial pursuits does not mean to her freedom from household duties; it means an increase of her former burdens by a new one. But one cannot serve two masters. The household of the working-man suffers whenever his wife must help to earn the daily bread. Present society offers, in the place of the individual household which it destroys, only miserable substitutes; soup-houses and day-nurseries, where crumbs of the physical and mental sustenance of the rich are cast to the lower classes.” (K. Kautsky, The Class Struggle, p. 26.)
This remains true today. Women suffer from a double slavery: from the slavery of the workplace is added the “second shift” at home. Japanese working wives, for example, spend about three-and-a-half hours a day on domestic duties–on top of their paid work. A similar position exists in other so-called civilised Western societies.
Women and the trade unions
The socialist transformation of society would be unthinkable without the day to day struggle for advance under capitalism. We are therefore not at all indifferent to the fight for reforms. However, for Marxists, the most important thing about this is the fact that the workers learn through struggle. Our main task is to “patiently explain”, starting with the most conscious and active women in the unions and the workers parties, the need for the socialist transformation of society, not only nationally but internationally. We must strive to raise their level, to interest them in the broader questions, in theory and ideas, and win them for Marxism. We should take care not to fall into the same trap as many reformists, the myriad sects, and certainly many bourgeois feminists, of thinking that women are only interested in so-called women’s issues. Important though many of these issues are, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the interest of women in the broader issues and the fundamental questions of the day. On the contrary, the best female class fighters will be attracted to, and enthused by, the revolutionary theories and programme of Marxism.
The fight for the interests of women must begin in the workplace. The struggle to organise women workers into the unions, and to fight for decent wages and conditions, as well as complete equality with male workers, constitutes the first duty of Marxists. Women workers provide a colossal revolutionary potential for the labour movement, which the hidebound and conservative union bureaucracy is not capable of developing. The new conditions of production, and the huge expansion of the so-called service industries have meant a huge increase in the numbers of women working in sweated conditions, the great majority of whom are not organised in unions. Marxists in the unions should take the initiative wherever possible to raise the demand for a campaign to organise the unorganised layers, and in particular the women and youth in these “trades”.
The central issue is the blatant discrimination against women in the workplace. Women all over the world, on average, are paid less than men–typically about 20-30 per cent less–for similar kinds of work. And lower pay usually means lower or no benefits and a smaller pension on retirement. This is not only harmful to women, but to men workers also. The acceptance of low wages for any group of workers has a depressing effect on wages and conditions in general. The acceptance that women and young people will get lower rates of pay than the rest of the workforce is reactionary, divisive and counter-productive. It also explains the indifference of many women to trade unions which do nothing for them. To organise the unorganised is a fundamental duty of trade unions, especially in the present epoch. Of particular importance is the struggle to win “equal pay for work of equal value”. The principle of “equal pay for equal work” can easily be distorted and evaded by the capitalists, since it is often difficult or impossible to compare the different types of work done by men and women in different branches of production.
As a survey in The Economist put it:
“This time, conveniently, they found the work was waiting for them. As the developed economies were restructuring, lots of new service-sector jobs were being created that were quite unlike the traditional secure, full-time, year-round manufacturing jobs mainly filled by men. Many of these new jobs were part-time or involved odd hours, offering and requiring a degree of flexibility that often suited women. Many of the jobs, too, were in low-status, low-pay sectors such as sales, catering and cleaning, which held little appeal for male breadwinners.” (The Economist, 18/7/98.)
In occupations where lots of women but few men work, pay levels tend to be low. This is particularly true in sales, cleaning and catering, slightly less so in jobs such as nursing and teaching, where the main employer is the public sector. With so many women concentrated in low-paying jobs, it is not surprising that, despite plenty of equal-pay legislation, a large gap remains in all countries between male and female earnings. As a result of pressure from women workers and the trade unions, it is getting smaller: in America, for example, in the past 20 years women’s hourly pay has crept up from 64 per cent of men’s to over 80 per cent. But the differential still exists, and the lower we go down the wage scale, the higher the differential. Whereas young, childless professional workers of either sex working full-time in the USA often get paid similar wages, low paid women workers in sweated industries get paid a fraction of the average wage of men working in industry.
Women are also discriminated against because of their natural child-bearing function. In present-day society, having a child, which should be an occasion for rejoicing, is frequently a calamity, especially for the mother. Often it means losing a job altogether and being reduced to utter poverty and a humiliating dependence on miserable means-tested state benefits. The bourgeois press, especially in Britain and America, cynically brands single mothers as parasites “living off the state”, without explaining how these women are denied access to the labour market and marginalised from society in the most brutal and inhuman fashion. But even if she succeeds in holding onto a job, it still means a drop in income. “But once women start having children, their relative pay drops, and the more children they have, the more their pay falls behind.” (The Economist, 18/7/98, our emphasis.)
Marxism or feminism?
Marxists must energetically take up the cause of women, fighting against inequality and all manifestations of oppression, discrimination and injustice. But we must always do this from a class point of view. While fighting consistently for each and every reform that represents a real advance for women, we must explain that the only way to really achieve the full emancipation of women–and all other oppressed layers of society–is through the abolition of the capitalist system. This requires the utmost unity of men and women workers in the struggle against capitalism. Any tendency to play off women against men, or to divide and segregate off women from the rest of the labour movement in the name of “women’s liberation” or anything else is thoroughly reactionary and must be energetically combated.
We fight for the sacred unity of the proletariat, irrespective of sex, race, colour, religion or nationality. Thus, our fight for the cause of women necessarily presupposes an implacable struggle against all kinds of bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism. Such tendencies, where they gain influence in the labour movement, invariably play into the hands of the most reactionary elements, play a divisive role and sow confusion among those women who are moving in the direction of socialism. In this, as in all other questions, we must take a firm class position. As we have seen, the Bolshevik party and the Communist International in their resolutions always spoke of “working women” and not women in general. It goes without saying that the struggle for the rights of women includes all women proletarians, including housewives, female unemployed, school-students, etc. But the key element is the working women who today represent a large and growing section of the working class.
The mere achievement of formal “equal rights” without transforming social relations, is extremely limited and leaves untouched the fundamental roots of the oppression of women in capitalist society. In the last period much of the supposed “improvements” related to “positive discrimination” have, in fact, served as a vehicle for the advancement of a layer of petty bourgeois careerists. In the last decade or so, the voice of militant petty bourgeois feminism, formerly so strident in its demands for “equality” (the right to have women priests, managers and so on), has got less and less audible. Why? Because, the middle-class feminists are largely getting what they are asking for.
The bourgeoisie has made a bit of extra room for female managing directors, judges, bankers, bureaucrats and priests. The promotion of women in middle management has risen from perhaps 4 to 40 per cent of the total over the past 20 years in the USA. 419 out of the Fortune 500 now have at least one woman on the board, and a third of them two or more. The biggest companies are far better at promoting women than those at the bottom end of the Fortune 500. So some women are doing very nicely. These bourgeois and petty bourgeois careerists were always in favour of the emancipation of women “one by one, commencing with myself”.
That is why we were always implacably opposed to bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism. It has nothing in common with the real struggle for the emancipation of women which can only come about by the overthrow of capitalism. Once these career women had solved their personal “problem” within the confines of capitalism, they were quite happy to forget about the 99 per cent of women who suffer the most dreadful oppression and exploitation, while the erstwhile “feminists” join the ranks of the exploiters. A similar phenomenon has occurred with the middle class blacks who have made a fortune out of the “race relations industry” in recent years. The ruling class can always make this kind of “concession” to a movement that does not threaten its rule in any way.
We are not in favour of “positive discrimination”, whether for women, blacks or any other section. It is a petty bourgeois demand that acts as a diversion from the fundamental roots of inequality. By its very nature, the establishment of arbitrary quotas for women, blacks, etc., serves as a vehicle for the advancement of a minority of careerists which gives the impression that “something is being done” while leaving the basic problem untouched. This method does not provide a genuine answer to the problem of discrimination, but provides a diversion and an exercise in tokenism. Moreover, it is usually a method used by the bureaucracy to block the left and staff leading committees, councils and parliaments with female or black careerists and stooges. The clearest case of this is the USA, where this method has been skillfully used by the bourgeoisie to defuse the race issue by creating quite a big layer of black careerists. Middle class blacks have used the fight against racism to set themselves up with good, well paid jobs and then decide that it would be better for them to be more “moderate” and “reasonable”.
It is true that sometimes honest working women and young girls might call themselves feminists without clearly understanding what this means. We should have a flexible and positive attitude towards them, in the same way that we would have towards members of oppressed nationalities. But just as we are opposed to nationalism, so we are opposed to feminism. The fight against discrimination does not affect this stance in the slightest. We always approach the question of inequality from the standpoint of the working class and socialism and from no other standpoint. It is one thing for working class women to express their concerns about the problems faced by their sex (unequal wages, the burden of housework, the problems of bringing up children, sexual harassment and violence against women) and to want to fight against these things, and another thing altogether when bourgeois and petty bourgeois tendencies attempt to exploit the problems of women to drive a wedge between the sexes. The natural concerns of working class women are a kind of declaration that they see the existence of inequality and are against it. This can be the starting point of participation in the struggle to change society along socialist lines, whereas bourgeois and petit bourgeois feminism treat the question of women in isolation and seek a solution within the confines of the capitalist system. This inevitably leads to reactionary conclusions.
The threat to culture
Women have specific problems which must be catered for. Not just the question of discrimination in the workplace, lower rates of pay on grounds of sex, lack of rights, etc., but also questions related to maternity, pregnancy, etc. The role of women as child-bearers raises the need for special rights to protect pregnant women and mothers. The introduction of formal equality, while undoubtedly a step forward, does not solve the fundamental problem of women:
“The most radical feminist demand–the extension of the suffrage to women in the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism–does not solve the question of real equality for women, especially those of the propertyless classes. The experience of working women in all those capitalist countries in which, over recent years, the bourgeoisie has introduced formal equality of the sexes makes this clear. The vote does not destroy the prime cause of women’s enslavement in the family and society. Some bourgeois states have substituted civil marriage for indissoluble marriage. But as long as the proletarian woman remains economically dependent upon the capitalist boss and her husband, the breadwinner, and in the absence of comprehensive measures to protect motherhood and childhood and provide socialised child-care and education, this cannot equalise the position of women in marriage or solve the problem of relationships between the sexes.” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p. 215.)
The entire history of social reforms affecting women over the past century has shown this to be completely correct.
The problems of women do not stop at the factory or office gate, but extend to the home and society. We must fight for the abolition of all discriminatory legislation; for the complete equality of women and men before the law; for the fullest rights to divorce and abortion; for free access to contraception and health checks; for universal, free and good quality nurseries and child care at all ages. We must work out a programme of transitional demands, setting out from the immediate and most pressing needs of women at all levels, not only in the workplace, but also in the home, child-care, education, housing, public transport, pensions, leisure, legal rights, etc. While fighting for each and every progressive demand that tends to improve the lot of women, it is imperative that we invest these demands with a class content. For example, we should demand the establishment of good quality day nurseries paid by the state. However, the day-to-day struggle for the rights of women workers is not an end in itself, but a means to make women conscious of their position as members of an exploited class, and the need to fight for a different kind of society where their rights as human beings will be upheld.
The decay of the present system threatens the whole basis of civilised life. Alongside the social and economic problems caused by poverty, low wages and unemployment, the proletariat is increasingly faced with the problem of drugs, crime and abuse of all sorts that threatens above all women, children and young people. Reactionaries and priests moan about the symptoms of “moral decay” but are incapable of relating them to the crisis of the system in which we live. It is the duty of the workers’ movement to struggle to defend the elements of culture and civilisation that exist and which are threatened by the decay of capitalism. The old family is already tending to break up, but nothing is put in its place. As a result, millions of women, many of them young and vulnerable, are faced with a life of stultifying misery as lone parents dependent on the tender mercies of the state bureaucracy. As if their suffering is not sufficient, the bourgeois hypocrites wage a merciless campaign to insult, humiliate and criminalise them, portraying them as social outcasts, “living at the expense of society” (which is exactly what the bourgeoisie does).
In Britain, one of the first acts of the Blair government was to attack the benefits given to single mothers. A couple of years ago, a female Australian politician, Ms Pauline Hanson, leader of the comically misnamed One Nation Party, called for welfare payments for single mothers to be cut if they had a second child. “I’m going to really come down on single women out there who are continually having child after child with different fathers, at the taxpayer’s expense,” she is reported as saying. In Australia, there are 360,000 single parents who receive a total of $2.9 billion a year out of a total social security budget of $42 billion. The average age of these women is 33, who, on average, get the princely sum of 170 Australian dollars (US$107) a week on which to feed, house and clothe their families, thereby saving the state a far larger sum that would be necessary to bring up these children in orphanages. Similar examples of the attack on this most vulnerable section of society under the excuse of attacking the so-called culture of dependence can be repeated in all countries. It is an excellent example of the virtues of “Christian moralising” hypocrisy at the service of the ruthless cost-cutting capitalist. It also says a lot about bourgeois society’s attitude to women and children.
The position of divorced women is also a class question. The effects of divorce and “lone parentship” are very different, depending on which social class a woman belongs to. An American judge awarded the divorced wife of millionaire Robert I. Goldman, Chief of Congress Financial Corp., 50 per cent of his $100 million estate. “Welcome to the New Executive Divorce,” writes BusinessWeek (5/8/98). “Powerful cultural, legal and economic forces are combining to make terminating a marriage in the US more expensive than ever–especially for high-ranking, well-compensated (!) business people. And that, in turn, is making the whole process of divorce, never pleasant to begin with, much uglier. Husbands are squirreling their money away in secret Caribbean trusts, wives are accusing their exes of abuse, and lawyers are walking off with seven-figure fees.”
Bourgeois sociologists present the “modern” single parent as a perfect example of social progress and emancipation. In the last 20 years, the US Census Bureau reports that the number of women living alone has doubled to 15 million. A recent book entitled The Improvised Woman, Reinventing Women in a Single Life, presents an ideal picture of these carefree women: “Unmarried women are buying vehicles, bearing or adopting children, and rising to position of influence,” it asserts. But the general statistics conceal the abysm that separates the great majority of single mothers, many of them black, who live in urban ghettos in the cities of the wealthiest country on earth, in third-world conditions, subject to a nightmare of poverty, drugs, crime and violence.
The crisis of capitalism manifests itself on the universal attempt to cut state expenditure. The attack on employment, living standards, health and education affects the working class in general but has its most pernicious effect on women, who find themselves at the end of the chain of exploitation, in the worst jobs, with the least protection and security. Moreover, women are subject to a double oppression. They are oppressed as members of the working class, and also as women. The only solution for the problems of women is by fighting for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, a system that can guarantee genuine freedom to both men and women–freedom to develop themselves personally and intellectually.
While conscious of the fact that only a socialist society will finally liquidate the marks of slavery that scar both men and women, we must also fight as much as possible against backward and reactionary attitudes, especially in the labour movement, which harm the unity of working men and women and hold up the cause of the emancipation of the working class. We must fight for a genuinely proletarian morality that treats all workers, male or female, black or white, as equals and brothers and sisters, united in the cause of the struggle against Capital.
Women in struggle
It is necessary to reach working class women where they are. That is not only the workplace, from which many women are forcibly excluded. Many women can be brought into the struggle against capitalism on other questions–bad housing, the high cost of living, high rents, etc. This was shown by the Poll Tax campaign in Britain. Above all, where a strike in a male dominated workforce takes place, it is vital that the wives of the strikers are actively involved. They can provide colossal reserves of strength, but this is frequently overlooked by the male workers. Thus, during the British miners’ strike in 1984-85, the strikers’ wives, organised in “support committees”, linked to the unions and strike committees, played an invaluable role in the strike, and at the same time they learned very quickly. Once women get active in the struggle, their whole outlook is rapidly transformed. Even women who were formerly politically backward, conservative or religious can very quickly develop a revolutionary consciousness, especially where a Marxist tendency is present to help to explain things to them.
In such circumstances, we should always be prepared to take the initiative, helping to involve the women. Obviously, this should be done in close contact with the union and the strike committee, and not something counterposed to the official movement, as the sects and anarchists always try to do. Such ad hoc committees cannot have an independent significance, and will tend to die away when the movement ends. Attempts to keep them in being artificially means that they will tend to become bureaucratised and monopolised by unrepresentative elements, petty bourgeois, sectarians, etc., so that when the movement starts up again, they become an obstacle. The purpose of participating in such committees is not to turn them against the unions but to ensure that the women begin to get active in the Labour organisations to transform them. Increasingly, as the nature of production becomes transformed and the old heavy industries give way to more modern modes of production based on information technology, women are becoming a decisive part of the workforce and increasingly the majority.
However, ultimately the emancipation of women will be achieved only by the emancipation of the working class as a whole:
“While making the improvement of Party work amongst the female proletariat an immediate task of both the Western and Eastern Communist Parties, the Third Congress of the Communist International at the same time points out to the working women of the whole world that their liberation from centuries of enslavement, lack of rights and inequality is possible only through the victory of Communism, and that the bourgeois women’s movement is completely incapable of guaranteeing women that which Communism gives. So long as the power of capital and private property exists, the liberation of woman from dependence on a husband can go no further than the right to dispose of her own property and her own wage and decide on equal terms with her husband the future of her children.” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp. 214-5.)
Communism and the family
From the earliest beginnings of Marxism, the question of the emancipation of women has occupied a central place in its thinking. In Principles of Communism, which Engels wrote before the Communist Manifesto, we read:
“Question 21: What influence will the communist order of society have upon the family?
“Answer: It will make the relations between the sexes a purely private affair which concerns only the persons involved, and calls for no interference by society. It is able to do this because it abolishes private property and educates children communally, destroying thereby the two foundation stones of hitherto existing marriage–the dependence of the wife upon her husband and of the children upon the parents conditioned by private property. This is an answer to the outcry raised by moralising philistines against the communistic community of wives. Community of wives is a relationship belonging entirely to bourgeois society and existing today in perfect form as prostitution. Prostitution, however, is rooted in private property and falls with it. Hence, the communistic organisation rather than establishing the community of women, puts an end to it.” (Marx and Engels, Principles of Communism, in Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 94.)
The origins of the enslavement of women, as Engels later explained, are to be found in private property, and will only finally be overcome with the radical abolition of private property of the means of production and the division of labour. In The Origin of the Family, Engels writes:
“We saw above how human labour power became able, at a rather early stage of development of production, to produce considerably more than was needed for the producer’s maintenance, and how this stage, in the main, coincided with that of the first appearance of the division of labour and of exchange between individuals. Now, it was not long before the great ‘truth’ was discovered that man, too, may be a commodity; that human power may be exchanged and utilised by converting man into a slave. Men had barely started to engage in exchange when they themselves were exchanged. The active became a passive, whether man wanted it or not.” (F. Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 331.)
The relations between men and women under capitalism are distorted and inhuman because the system of universal commodity production reduces people to the level of things. Not just the relations between the sexes, but all social relations in general tend to become dehumanised and alienated under what Marx and Engels described as the “cash nexus”. This is an unnatural society, dominated by unnatural relations. Is it any wonder that people cease to behave and think as human beings and are even capable of acting like monsters in some cases? Parents begin to regard their children as their private property. Husbands regard their wives in the same way. Under the remorseless pressures of life in the “market economy” where Money is God, relations are twisted and distorted out of all recognition. As Engels explains:
“To this day, the product is master of the producer; to this day, the total production of society is regulated, not by a collectively thought-out plan, but by blind laws, which operate with elemental force, in the last resort in the storms of periodic commercial crises.” (Ibid., p. 331.)
If we are to deal seriously with the question of the enslavement of women, it is not sufficient merely to deal with the most obvious manifestations of this. Of course, as we have said, it is necessary to fight against all kinds of discrimination and inequality. But unless and until the root cause of the oppression of women is eradicated, the essence of the problem will not be overcome. Women will only be free when men are free. That is to say, when humanity begins to live a genuinely human existence. Engels explains:
“What will most definitely disappear from monogamy, however, is all the characteristics stamped on it in consequence of its having arisen out of property relationships. These are, first, the dominance of the man, and secondly, the indissolubility of marriage. The predominance of the man in marriage is simply a consequence of his economic predominance and will vanish with it automatically. The indissolubility of marriage is partly the result of the economic conditions under which monogamy arose, and partly a tradition from the time when the connection between these economic conditions and monogamy was not yet correctly understood and was exaggerated by religion. Today it has been breached a thousandfold. If only marriages that are based on love are moral, then, also, only those are moral in which love continues. The duration of the urge of individual sex love differs very much according to the individual, particularly among men; and a definite cessation of affection, or its displacement by a new passionate love, makes separation a blessing for both parties as well as for society.” (Ibid., p. 254.)
The programme of the Communist International for the transition to socialism envisaged:
“Communal dining-rooms, laundries, repair shops, institutions of social welfare, house-communes, etc., which transform everyday life along new, Communist lines and relieve women of the difficulties of the transitional period. Such social institutions which help emancipate women’s everyday lives, turning the slave of the home and family into a free member of the working class–the class which is its own boss and the creator of new forms of living.” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p. 220.)
But under the prevailing conditions of backwardness and poverty in Russia after 1917, these ideas could not adequately be put into practice. As Trotsky explains:
“You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of ‘generalised want’.” (Trotsky, Women and the Family, p. 62.)
The family can no more be abolished than the state. The gradual disappearance of both in the transition to a classless society depends upon the transformation of the material conditions of existence of the masses, and therefore, in time, the transformation of the way people think and relate to each other. Eventually, with the achievement of super-abundance and a high level of culture, the old habits and slave psychology will be transformed and with it the relations between men and women. But the prior condition for this is a transformation in the conditions of life themselves. The reduction of the working day to the minimum expression is the sine qua non of social emancipation. But beyond that, the advances in technology should make possible the virtual abolition of housework: the basis of the domestic slavery of women.
The root cause of all oppression, whether of women, black people or other oppressed groups, is ultimately to be found in the enslavement and alienation rooted in commodity production. Only when this is abolished, and the conditions of life of the whole of society are transformed will the family and the state–those twin remnants of barbarity–finally cease to exist. When the old primitive, inhuman psychology born of misery finally recedes into the past, the material conditions will have been established for a new social order in which the last vestiges of external compulsion and coercion will have disappeared and men and women will finally be able to relate to each other as free human beings.
Originally published on In Defence of Marxism – marxist.com |