International Women’s Day: only communist society can end the oppression of women

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On March 8th, all the feminist groups once again commemorated International Women's Day with the full blessing of the radical petty bourgeoisie represented in the various left wing groups (the Socialist Party in particular). Once again this day, associated with the struggle of working women, will be perverted and transformed into a giant democratic and reformist masquerade. Like Labour Day (May 1st), March 8th has been recuperated by the bourgeoisie and has become an institution of state capitalism.


In the Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1887), Engels had already denounced the oppression of women in affirming that with the end of matriarchal societies and the rise of patriarchal society, woman had become "the proletarian of the man". In 1891, Auguste Bebel, in his Woman and Socialism continued the work of Engels in a profound historical study of the female condition.

From the end of the 19th century, the ‘woman question' was closely linked to the working class struggle for the emancipation of the whole of humanity. The conditions of poverty and exploitation suffered by women workers pushed them unavoidably into the vanguard of the proletarian struggle at the start of the twentieth century.

Women's struggle within the workers' movement in the twentieth century.

March 8th has its origins in the demonstrations of textile workers in New York that took place on March 8th 1857 and were suppressed by the police (though apparently there is no American workers' movement archive with any evidence of the event).

The international movement of socialist women emerged in Germany in the main party of the working class, the SPD, under the impetus of Clara Zetkin:[1] in 1890 she established the review Die Gleichheit (Equality), with the support of Rosa Luxemburg, which advocated the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, replacing it with a world communist society. Across the world, in both Western Europe and the United States, women workers were beginning to mobilise against their conditions of exploitation. They demanded the reduction of the working day, the same wages as men, the abolition of child labour and an improvement in their living conditions. Along with these economic demands, they also raised political demands, notably woman's right to the vote (though this political demand would subsequently be submerged into and confused with that of the bourgeois women's movement known as ‘the suffragettes').

But it was from 1907 in particular that women workers and socialists would find themselves in the vanguard of the struggle against capitalist barbarism faced with the harbingers of the First World War.

On August 17th of that year Clara Zetkin announced the first conference of the Women's Socialist International in Stuttgart. 58 delegates from all over Europe and the United States attended and adopted a resolution on women's right to the vote. This resolution would be adopted by the Stuttgart congress of the SPD that followed this conference. At the time when women's wages were a half that of male workers doing the same work, there were many women's organisations and the vast majority of them had been actively involved in all the workers' struggles at the turn of the century.

There were mass demonstrations of women textile workers in New York in 1908 and 1909. They demanded "bread and roses", (the roses symbolised improvements in living conditions beyond mere survival), the abolition of child labour and better wages.

In 1910, the Women's Socialist International launched an appeal for peace. On March 8th 1911, on International Women's Day, a million women demonstrated all across Europe. A few days later on March 25th, more than 140 women workers perished in a fire in the Triangle textile factory in New York owing to a lack of safety measures. This drama would further galvanise the women's revolt against their conditions of exploitation and against the denial to them of a political voice in parliament. In 1913, all across the world, women were demanding the right to vote. In Britain, the bourgeois ‘suffragettes' were also adopting a more radical stance. 

But it would be in Tsarist Russia, particularly, that the struggle of women would give an impetus to the revolutionary movement of the whole working class. Between 1912 and 1914, Russian women workers organised clandestine meetings and declared their opposition to the imperialist butchery. After war broke out, women from all across Europe would join them.

In 1915 the French army's open offensive at the front initiated a terrible butchery: 350,000 soldiers were massacred in the trenches.  At home, the women suffered increased exploitation in having to keep the national economy running. Reactions began to explode against the war and women were the first to mobilise. On March 8th 1915, Alexandra Kollontai[2] organised a demonstration of women against the war at Christiana, near Oslo. Clara Zetkin called a new Women's International Conference. This was a prelude to the Zimmerwald Conference that re-grouped all those opposed to the war. On April 15th 1915, 1136 women from 12 different countries assembled in La Haye.

In Germany, particularly from 1916, two of the greatest women figures in the western workers' movement, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, would play a decisive role in the foundation of the German Communist Party, the KPD. In the United States, Emma Goldman, anarchist militant (and friend of journalist John Reed, a founder member of the American Communist Party), led a bitter struggle against the imperialist war. In 1917 she would be imprisoned (and was considered to be "the most dangerous woman in the United States") before being expelled to Russia.

In Russia, it would be women workers who would lead the triumphant march of the proletariat to the revolution. On March 8th (February 23rd in the Gregorian calendar), women workers from the textile factories in Petrograd went on strike spontaneously and took to the streets. They demanded ‘bread and peace'. They called for their sons and husbands to be returned from the front. "Disregarding our instructions, the women workers from several mills went on strike and sent delegations to the engineering workers to ask for their support... It didn't occur to a single worker that this could be the first day of the revolution." (Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution). So the slogan ‘bread and peace' that was a spark to the Russian Revolution was initiated by the women workers of Petrograd, and it gave a lead to the workers from the Putilov factories and the whole of the working class to join the movement.

The recuperation of the women's movement by bourgeois democracy

It wasn't a gamble for the German bourgeoisie to grant women the right to vote on November 12th 1918, the day after it signed the Armistice. It was no surprise that in the country where the international movement of socialist women was born, in the country where the greatest female figures in the workers' movement at the start of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, were militants, that the ruling class would try and break the revolutionary spirit of women by granting this demand when parliament had become an empty shell for the working class. With capitalism's entry into its period of its decadence, it was no longer practical to struggle for reforms and for the right to vote, but only for the overthrow of capitalist order.

The First World War had opened a new period of history: "that of wars and revolutions", as the Communist International had declared in 1919.

From the beginning of the 1920s, the women's movement followed the course of the proletarian struggle; it entered a dynamic of reflux and was rapidly absorbed into the capitalist state. It would become more and more distinct and separate from the proletarian movement and become an inter-classist movement. The question of women's sexual oppression was raised independently of the conditions of women's exploitation in the mills and factories, sowing the illusion that women could indeed be emancipated within a society based on exploitation and the search for profit. From the start of the 1920s the women's ‘liberation' movement started to focus its attention on birth control and abortion rights, particularly in the United States. 

From the mid 1920s in Germany, the women's movement was rapidly derailed onto the terrain of the struggle against Nazism.

In the other European countries, notably France and Spain, women continued to demand the right to vote while allowing themselves to get sucked up into anti-fascism, an ideology that was going to lead to millions of proletarians being recruited into the Second World War.

The women's movement was very quickly recuperated by all kinds of agents of the capitalist state, such as the UFCS (Union Féminine Civique et Sociale) in France and the Catholic women's organisations that called for women to struggle not against the capitalist system as a whole, but against colonialism and fascism. 

Though women's right to vote was still not on the statute book in France, Léon Blum nevertheless introduced women into the government for the first time. On June 4th 1936, three women were appointed Under-Secretaries of State (Cécile Brunschwig, Irène Joliot-Curie et Suzanne Lacore). It was presented it as a ‘radical' move, allowing the left wing capitalist parties to mobilise large numbers of women behind the flag of the Popular Front and getting them involved in the preparations for the Second World War.

During the Occupation, large number of women joined the Resistance, notably behind the flag of the Stalinists of the PCF. De Gaulle would eventually reward their ‘bravery' and ‘patriotism' by granting them the right to vote on March 23rd 1944 so that they would be able... to elect their own exploiters from the right wing or the left wing. 

However, just when women obtained the right to vote in France, the PCF, with its sickening chauvinism, was glorifying in the Liberation of Paris. In 1945, women who had committed the crime of having sexual relations with the enemy (‘the boche') had their heads shaved. They were accused of having tarnished the Tricolor (the French flag) and of having ‘collaborated' with the enemy. They were forced to parade in public and exposed to public ridicule.

Feminism: a sexist and reactionary ideology

At the beginning of the 1970s, the women's movement no longer had any characteristics of the workers' movement. The Women's Liberation Movement was the new voice of feminism and rejected any idea of women joining political parties. In the name of ‘anti-chauvinism', men were forbidden to attend many of their meetings. The movement called itself ‘autonomous' and strengthened the illusion that it was only women that were oppressed, not by the capitalist system, but by men in general. They contributed to a sexist viewpoint whereby feminists didn't just demand the same ‘rights' as men but considered men as their enemies, their real oppressors. Numerous ‘feminists' took up the Don Quiotesque struggle for women's ‘sexual liberation' without the least consideration for the economic foundations of their oppression. The feminist movement had broken definitively with the tradition of the women's struggle inside the workers' movement. It had become a reactionary ideology of the petty bourgeoisie that has no historical perspective, and had blossomed on the streets of May 68. And it's no accident that the feminists had chosen the colour mauve as their emblem, the same colour as that of the ‘suffragettes' at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1975 the feminist movement incorporated prostitutes who were demanding the right to continue selling their bodies "freely" (living off men's sexual impoverishment) without having to suffer police repression.

A mascarade in the service of capital

In 1977, the United Nations gave official recognition to International Women's Day and adopted a resolution inviting each country to dedicate the day to the celebration of ‘women's rights and international peace'. As regards to the ‘peace', it's enough to refer to the numerous massacres that are perpetrated under the aegis of the great democratic powers to show what value is served by noble ‘resolutions' from the den of the imperialist brigands that is the UN. As regards the international day for women's rights, it is nothing but a charade to mystify working class women and to deflect them from struggling as workers exploited by the capitalist class.

In France it was the left (and the PS in particular) with Mitterrand as President that became the main advocate of feminist ideology. In 1982 under the Mauroy government with its Minister for Women's Rights, March 8th became an institution of the bourgeois democratic state.

Since then, every fraction of the left of capital has contributed to creating a multitude of feminist associations that serve to dissolve women workers into the mass of women ‘in general', to involve them in campaigns where women from all layers and classes of society can make common cause as ‘women' without distinction of their class interests.

Today's electoral campaigns (with Hillary Clinton as a candidate for US president, following that of Ségolène Royal in France) want us to kid us into believing that having women in charge of government could possibly bring an end to the brutal attacks against the working class. They would also have us believe that a woman head of state would mean fewer barbaric wars; ‘a woman' would be less ‘violent', more ‘humane' and more ‘peaceful' than men.

All this chatter is nothing but pure mystification. Capitalist domination isn't a problem of sexuality but of social class. When bourgeois women take control of the state, they carry out exactly the same capitalist policies as their male predecessors. They would all follow in the steps of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who is remembered for her leadership in the Falklands War in 1982 and for having let 10 IRA hunger strikers demanding political prisoner status die around the same time. They all  behave the same, like Sarkozy's associates, Michèle Alliot-Marie, Rachida Dati, Valérie Pécresse, Fadela Amara and their consorts. The bourgeoisie can't contemplate any difference between the sexes in the management of its national economy. And the boss of the bosses' organisation, Laurence Parisot, also does a good job for the bourgeoisie, as her predecessors from the ‘stronger sex' did before him.

In 1917, immediately before the October Revolution, Lenin wrote:

"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, receiving their teachings with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it" (State and Revolution).

What happened to the revolutionaries has happened to May 1st. And it has happened to March 8th (international women's day) just as it happened to May 1st.

One of the most pernicious weapons of the bourgeoisie, as the dominant class, is its capacity to turn the symbols that once belonged to the working class in the past back against it. Thus it was with unions and workers' parties as it is with May 1st and international women's day.

Since the end of prehistory, women have always suffered the yoke of oppression. But this oppression cannot be abolished under capitalism. Only the arrival of a world communist society can offer women this perspective. They can only free themselves by actively participating in the general movement of the working class to emancipate the whole of humanity.

Sylvestre (12/02/08)


[1] Clara Zetkin, born in 1887, was actively involved in the foundation of the Second International. Faced with the opportunism gangrening the life of her party, the SPD, Clara Zetkin allied herself with her friend Rosa Luxemburg on the left wing of the party. She participated in the revolutionary movement against the First World War. In 1915, she was a founder member of the Spartakist League at the side of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. She was a delegate of the Communist International at the Tours Congress when the French Communist Party was founded.

[2] Alexandra Kollontaï, born in 1872, was one of the more senior female figures in the Bolshevik Party in 1917. Having joined the Menshevik Party after the Russian Social Democracy congress in 1903, she fought against the war from 1914 and rejoined the party of Lenin in 1915. She participated in the Russian Revolution and was the first woman in the world to have a role in government after the October Revolution. Thanks to her activity and to the revolutionary women workers' movement, voting rights and equal wages were won in Russia and in 1920 the right to abortion. From 1918, Alexandra Kollontaï more and more opposed the direction of the Bolshevik Party and was be involved in the foundation of an internal fraction, the Workers' Opposition, in 1920.