Women in class struggle - Presentation from MDF Meeting

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Women in class struggle

Is the issue of women’s oppression separate to class society and the struggle between classes?  No it is not, but just because there is a patriarchal continuity in class societies does not mean that the role of women, indeed of both mean and women, has not changed with these class societies. Its not a separate thread through history parallel to class society.

I cant do the whole history of sexual relations however so under capitalism in my simplistic view ,  the role of women is defined by ruling class ideas of domestic life.  The family takes a particular form in the bourgeois ruling class based on property.  The ruling class household becomes an individual family home and yes the male is the breadwinner, the boss, he goes out and earns money by employing others.  The woman stays at home as a wife and produces children, the bloodline - but the role is much more than that, she is the management of the household.   Her status in terms of the male female relationship is low agreed but personally and socially, her status it is high.  Money standing in the community, roles in the community

Unfortunately that lesser status in the ruling class family translates into the rest of society and a significant burden on working class women.   The property relations of that family, the sexual role, the housebound role, that subservience to the male, that protection of the bloodline become a series of oppressive social controls which are compounded by the like hood of having to work as well to support the family because the low income of the male is insufficient.  Something that today has become worse where 2 incomes have become almost essential to a reasonable living standard.

Main point here then is that ruling ideology creates an a oppressive and limiting environment for women socially (and establishes some common ground) but that the class context leads to a distinct and opposing set of interests for women of different classes

That was my simplistic historical bit, now for a simplistic bit about class struggle.  If its true that the history of society has been written by ruling class men for the benefit of ruling class men, it is also sad to note that when we talk about workers and class struggle its all too easy to picture men swinging hammers and so forth.   Working class women are not part of a separate group to working class men, they are all the workers.  In the 19th century men went out to work women worked at home as well as looked after the family

OK there is a division of labour with women more connected to household duties and lighter work.  There is also a segregation of type of employments some seen as more suitable to men some to women. But even that is frequently overstated e.g. this description of Black Country cottage industry:

Women that worked at home in shops behind or near to their houses had to divide their time between getting their families off to school and work, cooking, washing, baking bread, brewing home made beer and making chain. Some of them would be tapping away making small chain links until 9 or 10 o’clock at night.

Many women made chain, a great number at home in backyard chainshops usually at the back of their houses, quite often just across the yard or ‘fade’. Some were situated at the top of their gardens and some were built in groups on spare ground near the houses (as in Plant Street, Old Hill). Sometimes a dozen or so women would work together in larger chainshops owned by a chainmaster or chain dealer. Women generally made the lighter gauge chain as used in harness work.

Again it’s all too easy to transfer this view we have been given of women’s role to the perceptions of the class struggle.  Is it only men that strike and go on demonstrations and confront the state?  It what we see in our mind when we think of these terms but NO it is clearly not the case.  There may well be a division of labour in strikes eg the miners on strike in the UK were significantly supported by active miners wives groups – but I would argue that this is a product of a culture imposed by capitalism not of inherent wc behaviour.  

Again its a sad reflection of how we do separate issues of women and class struggle in that we can pick examples that stand out like grunwicks and hailwood. One of the more famous strikes from the black country were those female chainmakers who struck in 1911 for higher wages in fact TUC/lp hold a festival each year commemorating.   So ill repeat women are not separate part but an intrinsic part of the class struggle.

To develop this argument further, I think it appropriate to look at the  Russian revolution again well it is 2017

First point to note is that the spark for the revolution was the international women’s day march and here is a quote from a youngster writing under the name Jock

A century ago, on International Women’s Day (February 23 old style/ March 8 today), women workers of both home and factory took to the streets of Petrograd. Five days of strikes, demonstrations and over 1300 deaths later, the Tsarist edifice had crumbled. In these events, hundreds of thousands of men also took part but,

“It was the women who initiated the action in most cases, primarily working women from the textile mills.”[2]
The final straw for the women workers had come with the breakdown in the supply of bread which began at the start of February when only half the food ordered for Petrograd arrived.
“Long lines stretched in front of shops and bakeries. A winter unprecedented in severity had set in, filling the streets with ice and piling snowdrifts on the roofs of homes, sidewalks and bridges of the city. Shivering from cold, poorly dressed young people, women and old men waited hours for bread and often went home empty-handed. Food shortages provoked an even greater ferment among the masses. In line they discussed why there was no bread and why prices were still rising; they wondered who was responsible for the people’s misery and who needed the war. The Petrograd Okhrana observed that on days of severe crisis the queues had the same force as revolutionary meetings and tens of thousands of revolutionary leaflets. The street had become a political club.”[3]
The war made these conditions particularly exacting for women. Many were left having to work long hours in war industries after their men were conscripted for the front, as well as look after children, and spend what little free time they had in long lines queuing for bread and kerosene. Bread became the issue which sparked off uncontrollable rage. In the days before International Women’s Day bakeries had been sacked and bread shops stoned but what now transformed these bread riots into something more was that women (plus some male) workers held “stormy” mass meetings and decided to celebrate the day by going on strike and not just demonstrating. Having decided to down tools in one factory they then went round others, sometimes throwing snowballs at windows to attract other workers’ attention. Men and women poured out of factories to take part in demonstrations. All told that day somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 workers, the vast majority of them women, went out on strike demanding bread, peace and, more ominously for the regime, an end to Tsarism.

My point of looking at that detail is that it demonstrate precisely my argument that when workers struggle, it unites them as a class whatever gender, race sexuality etc. because only then does the main enemy becomes obvious

Once the workers took power they:  quickly moved to declare a new approach to the issues of women’s rights and sexuality. The December proclamation of the new state’s program struck out the laws which criminalised homosexual acts; it abolished the concept of illegitimacy, made marriage and divorce a secular matter which required simply consent.

These social changes seen as an integral part of a social revolution taking place but for Lenin the laws were not enough however: and we are by no means content with mere decrees. In the sphere of legislation, however, we have done everything required of us to put women in a position of equality and we have every right to be proud of it. The position of women in Soviet Russia is now ideal as compared with their position in the most advanced states. We tell ourselves, however, that this, of course, is only the beginning

Kollontai and Lenin for example had a great deal of common understanding of what they hoped to build after 1917: childcare centres, new housing which allowed more communal living, community kitchens, the socialisation of housework, laundry and cooking.   Its interesting that the Stalin era reversed most of this Bolsheviks legislation but that emphasis on women in work with a corresponding provision of child care facilities remained until the wall came down

Trotsky stated:  To institute the political equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest . . . But to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an infinitely more arduous problem.” He concluded, “All our domestic habits must be revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics.”35

In summary the achievement of workers’ rule is the preconditions for the goals set for women’s rights but it is the threshold for the really significant battle to change behaviour

Communism we say is to be created by a conscious working class. This is consciousness of struggle and cooperation and of a goal to achieve.  This does not mean however that wc can be conscious beforehand of every change that has to be made to improve people’s behaviour.  That is impossibility.  It’s the fact of cooperation to eliminate class exploitation that will draw people together in a way that eliminates alienation and creates equality.  Most of the implications of that activity we cant foresee now and we can’t predict. 

This for mean is what Marx means in thesis on Feuerbach when he says:. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

And Engels adds: it will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage – the dependence rooted in private property, of the woman on the man, and of the children on the parents.
(Principles of Communism)

Feminism and class struggle today

Theft/Burgers accused us a likely to say that all identity struggle are bourgeois.  I think there is a working class feminism and a bourgeois feminism of which the distinction can sometimes be more of form rather than content.  But I hope its clear from the above that working class women’s struggles are part of the overall class struggle.  We don’t identify a separate struggle. 

But this is precisely what bourgeois feminist movement does from the suffragettes and their votes for women to today’s calls for wages for housework or whatever.  And that is also what identity politics does.  Bourgeois feminism is based on women as individuals and fights for individual’s rights in existing society not in conjunction with workers struggles for independence.   There is no basis for gender solidarity precisely because the experiences of wc women wc women, African women, European Chinese America black white  and so forth generate cultural differences which inhibit solidarity.  There is no common social experience that lead to a coherent social unity and it is then the individual’s experiences then lead to differing conceptions of both the oppressions and the opportunities for freedom. 

So we can agree that women are subjugated, the next problem is that we can look a the lives of black people, Asian, Chinese, gay, fat people immigrants, workers, unemployed disabled, factory workers, white collar workers and pretty soon we reach the conclusion that everybody is oppressed and subjugation by today’s system.  So what can be done about the fact we are all being screwed, can we set a priority of importance of the different struggles? Course not.  We can feel sympathy and empathy because or our experiences of this oppressive society.  But “people in general” can’t even agree on precisely what is wrong and what needs to be corrected because all of the issues related to identity politics are by their very nature open to individual interpretations.  There is no group identity that draws them together and whats more no common ground between minorities that brings them all together and clearly no common solution for behaviour whether within capitalism or not.

I also want to comment also on some of the social changes that capitalism has gone through in recent decades because it does appear that  capitalism has been able to improve the situation of women and minority groups and put measure in place to improve the situation of workers eg Equal Opps, Anti Racism, gay marriage, HSW, environmental measures and so forth. I loosely called these changes political correctness but they were not that. Rather there has been a whole raft of social changes and certainly in the UK it is still possible to say that society has become far more accepting and of people from minority groups and interests since say the 50s and I do include freedoms that women now experience in more straightjacketed roles that women had in that period..   Theresa May was even heard to talk about the right for national self determination a little while ago.

Do these measures and social changes really mean capitalism is reforming positively and liberalising???

I would argue not.  Complementing these social changes have been significant changes in the world of work and employment.  Not just Health and Safety legislation and so forth but changes to manufacturing technology and management systems and these give the clue to what has really been going on. 

Its all about increased exploitation and efficiency for capitalism.  Capitalism has been in desperate need of improving the rate of exploitation of workers in order to try to counteract the lack of markets and loss of rate of profit.  Not only the work based measures using high technology and improved quality systems but also all that equal opps, H&S legislation and so forth contribute to that by minimising social disruption for a struggling system and improve capitalism efficiency in the exploitation of the workforce.  The apparent measures liberating women from previous restrictions of part of those reforms that capitalism has been putting into place.

What we are left with when we investigate social oppression is a whole mess of contradictions.  Not so long ago women objected to wearing bras.  This is now seen as a bit of a joke but it was at at the time a serious step against male repressiveness.  Again Miss and Mrs were once seen as sexist tags but nowadays feminism seems quite happy to own these female roles.  Nowadays the fashion is for men to shave their heads and grow beards to prove masculinity and for women to shave of their unseen body hair to identify a strong female.  Some black women believe more liberated than white women but black men are mysogenistic and backward yet they will be happy to join in with gangsta rap cos it supposedly is a voice against mainstream racism.  Some Asian women see asian men as spoilt by their culture which still emphasises male importance.   I find it amazing then that white european culture still somehow believes that minority cultures must be left wing or liberal or revolutionary because they are all oppressed. There is no unity of the oppressed.   Women, both white and black, voted for Trump precisely because he is right wing nationalist, there’s no mystery as to that.   Social identity struggles then vary from period to period, they are a fashion accessory because they don’t solve anything and they do not solve all the social subjugations that capitalism maintains and uses.

One of the reasons for choosing this topic was to discuss Theft’s concerns about recent event in the CWO but then he turns round and refuses to discuss with us any more.  That’s his problem, so while I do want to respond to some of his specific points, I am really unsure as to just what Theft is saying overall about feminism, he doesn’t explain anything!  Theft is right if he is saying that rape is a product and an expression of the general situation of male power and domination over females within capitalism.  I object to that reality -  but I also object to Theft’s argument that males are consequently rape apologists if they do not say exactly the right words all the time. I wonder how much support he gives to the campaigns run by the UN and various other agencies against rape as a weapon of war, but fighting a clean imperialist war is not what we would see as a working class demand.  It is clearly today a bourgeois campaign.   I question what his attitude towards black and asian culture must be if he is logical with his oh so definitive line on behaviour towards women

In this society sexuality and sexism are far too easily confused.  What one woman wants is anathema to another let alone men.  When feminists argue that for men to be support feminism, they should only respond by genuinely, fitting in with an individual women’s needs.   Now personally I quite agree that this is an appropriate approach to relationships -  but - this is always purely personal, its an individual response and not a solution to creating mass action to changing let alone getting rid of capitalism. 

I again argue that that only the actual process of building a communist society can extricate us all.  Just as on all social issues, Capitalism, because of its nature of eliminates legal determination of society and lays bare the social and economic basis of social relationships, it can pose the problems (and dare I say this way, it helps us understand those problems) but it cannot solve them.