The workers' movement and the oppression of women

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We are publishing below some extracts from a letter to our publication Révolution Internationale in France. The writer of the letter is very preoccupied with the question of the emancipation of women. It is followed by our response.

"(...) In the country of the 'Rights of Man', as perhaps in certain other states, all of social organisation centres around the man (...) The spaces for women, feminine style clubs or women's assemblies of yesteryear or of the time of Rosa Luxemburg have been suppressed (...) Under the pretext of a generalised mixture, women have been put out to pasture because when they change towns or countries and when they don't have work, the spaces for women which would allow them to regain confidence in themselves are practically non-existent. A good number of women have had to 'accommodate themselves' to this fact as well as they can and have ended up by hiding their condition (...) One could say that the woman remains the proletarian of the man even if the bourgeois institution of marriage has gone out of fashion. One escapes the conjugal duty which is synonymous with conjugal prostitution for a dissolution where the communion between beings can no longer exist as long as inequalities of all kinds have not been abolished and therefore as long as human relations are relations of possession and slavery. To rid ourselves of this it is necessary perhaps (...) for women to again find the space for women; without that we will never reach a true communism. Does capitalism have a masculine origin? I don't think so, but some have had every interest in exploiting the desire for domination of one sex over another in order to maintain themselves in power."

Our Response

Our reader raises a question which has preoccupied the workers' movement since its origins; but it can only be understood as a problem of humanity, and not as a particular question. In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx posed the question like this: "The immediate relation of man to man is the relation of the man to the woman (...) It allows a judgement on the whole degree of human development. From the character of this relationship, one can conclude up to what point man has become for himself a species being, human and conscious of his destiny." This vision was taken up and developed in the whole evolution of marxist thought and through revolutionaries in the 19th century who took an interest in the question of the oppression of women in capitalist society (Bebel, Engels, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin).

Feminism: an ideology in the service of the bourgeoisie

Close to two centuries after marxists had posed this question of the oppression of women, it still remains topical. Witness its particular barbarous forms in the Islamic states, inflicting on women the obligation to wear a veil (even forbidding women to work or get an education) or in numerous countries where they are the victims of the worst sexual mutilations. And the intervention of the great western democracies will certainly not resolve this problem, as we were supposed to think from the outburst of bourgeois propaganda at the time of the fall of the Taliban and the 'liberation' of Kabul by the civilised world. In these same countries of the 'civilised' West, with the proliferation of networks of prostitution, a growing number of young girls hardly out of infancy (often of African origin or from the countries of the old eastern bloc) are forced, due to the lack of work, to sell their bodies in order to survive and escape poverty. Although today, with the development of capitalism, women have been integrated into production, although they have acquired the right to participate in the management of public affairs (and even take the reins of government), the oppression of women still remains a reality. But this reality doesn't find its source in the 'natural' and 'biological' domination of one sex over the other.

Only marxism with its scientific, historical materialist and dialectical method can explain the origin of this oppression; and above all it alone provides a way of resolving this problem.

As Marx and Engels showed, the institutions and foundations of bourgeois order have a history. They emerged through a long and tortuous process linked to the evolution of human society. They found their sources in the basic economics of the social relations of production and in the appearance of private property. In the framework of this response we can't lay out all the arguments developed by marxism in the 19th century. We refer our readers to Engels' book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State which analyses very thoroughly this historical evolution, as well as two articles from our series on communism, in International Review 81 and 85.

Although our reader raises what has been a fundamental question for the workers' movement, the approach she takes in order to respond to it, is, with a certain naivety, identical to that of the 'feminist' movement which flourished at the end of the 60s, notably in the United States. According to feminist ideology, the oppression of women in bourgeois society (as in all class societies) finds its origins in the "desire for domination of one sex over the other". This is not only false but dangerous. Such a vision leads her to put forward a totally erroneous response: women must claim "spaces for women, without which we will never reach a true communism". For marxism, the history of humanity is the history of the class struggle and not the struggle of the sexes. Contrary to the feminist vision (which is nothing other than a variant of leftism, not unlike anti-racism) marxism has always fought all the divisions that the bourgeoisie is permanently trying to impose on the only class capable of building a real communist society on a world scale: the proletariat. Because what constitutes the strength of the working class, and will determine its capacity to overthrow bourgeois order, is first and foremost its capacity to defend its class unity and fight the divisions (racial, national, sexual) that the bourgeoisie tries to introduce into its ranks.

In other respects, our reader correctly recalls the existence of assemblies and clubs at the time of Rosa Luxemburg. First of all we should specify that it's not a question of inter-classist associations indiscriminately regrouping the worker and the wife of the boss, but organisations of 'socialist women' (1). But what was still valid at the end of the 19th century, in the ascendant period of capitalism, is no longer so today. At a time when capitalism could still accord significant reforms to the exploited class, it was legitimate for revolutionaries to put forward immediate demands for women, including the right to vote, while warning against any inter-classist illusions (2). It is in this context that the social democratic parties had to support the specific claims of women, inasmuch as they did not immediately liberate them from capitalist oppression but strengthened the proletariat by integrating women workers into the general struggle against exploitation and for the overthrow of capitalism.

So, even in this epoch where the demands of women had a meaning from the point of view of the proletarian struggle, and contributed to the strengthening of the workers' movement, marxists were always opposed to bourgeois feminism. Far from contributing to the unification of the working class, it could only sharpen divisions within it while favouring inter-classist ideology and leading it off its class terrain.

With the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence all struggles for reform were rendered obsolete and a specifically women's movement could only be recuperated by the dominant class and play into the hands of the bourgeois state.

In the final analysis, the "spaces for women" wished for by our reader risk being a new ghetto isolating those workers from the rest of the proletariat, just like 'immigrant movements' tend to cut off immigrant workers from the general combat of their class. Marxism alone provides a response to the problem of the oppression of women

Our reader also affirms that in capitalist society "the woman remains the proletarian of the man even if the bourgeois institution of marriage has gone out of fashion". This affirmation contains a correct idea that Marx and Engels had put forward as early as 1846 in The German Ideology: "The first division of labour is that of the man and woman for procreation". Subsequently, Engels added that "the first class opposition which manifests itself in history coincides [our emphasis] with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in the conjugal relation, and the first class oppression with the oppression of the feminine sex by the masculine sex".

And it is precisely from the fact of this historic coincidence that he tried to understand the link between the antagonism of the sexes in the monogamous marriage and the appearance of a society divided into classes. The discovery of private property constituted the key to the whole marxist vision, which is the sole method that allows an understanding of the material and economic roots of the oppression of women. In his study on the origins of the family, Engels writes: "The modern conjugal family is based on the domestic slavery, acknowledged or hidden, of the woman, and modern society is a mass which is composed exclusively of conjugal families, like so many molecules. In our days, the man in the great majority of cases must be the supporter of the family and must feed it, at least in the possessing classes; and that gives him a sovereign authority that no juridical privilege needs to support. In the family, the man is the bourgeois; the woman plays the role of the proletariat."

But this formulation of Engels, that our reader takes up (and that feminist ideology deprives of its context in order to exploit and distort it) has nothing to do with a 'sexist' approach. What Engels is trying to show is that, essentially with the appearance of private property, the individual, monogamous family became the prime economic entity of society; in other words, the sexual division of labour contained the germ of the future antagonisms between the classes. Thus Marx could affirm that the patriarchal family came out of the "great historical defeat of the feminine sex"; the overthrow of maternal right "contained in miniature all the antagonisms which, subsequently, developed throughout society and its state".

Marx and Engels thus clearly demonstrated that the oppression of the feminine sex made its appearance in the history of humanity with the rise of monogamy (and its corollaries, adultery and prostitution). This constituted the prime form of family based not on natural conditions, but on economic conditions, that's to say the victory of private property over primitive and spontaneous common property: "Sovereignty of the man in the family and the procreation of children which can only be his and who were destined to inherit his fortune, such was frankly proclaimed by the Greeks as the exclusive objective of conjugal marriage (...) Monogamy is born from the concentration of important riches in one hand - the hand of a man, and from the desire to bequeath these riches to the children of this man and no other. For that, the monogamy of the woman is necessary, not that of the man" (Engels). Thus, contrary to the approach of our reader and of feminist ideology, marxism shows that the inequality of the sexes that we have inherited from previous social conditions is not the cause, but the consequence of the economic oppression of the woman; this oppression emerged with the appearance of private property. This came first of all within archaic societies which, through the accumulation of riches and the development of the means of production, subsequently gave way to a society divided into classes. If woman thus became "the proletarian of the man", it's not because of the will power of the masculine sex, but because, with the patriarchal family (which appeared as a historical necessity allowing humanity to pass from the savage state to 'civilisation'), and more so with the individual, monogamous family, the control of the household lost the public character that it had in the old domestic economy of primitive communism. Whereas in these archaic societies the domestic economy was a "public industry of social necessity" entrusted to women (in the same way that procuring basic necessities was left to men), in the monogamous, patriarchal family it became an "individual service". From here on, the woman was removed from social production and became an "early servant" (Engels). And it was only with the appearance of large-scale industry in capitalist society that the door to production could again be open to the woman. It's for this reason that marxism has always proposed that the condition for the emancipation of woman is to be found in her integration into social production as a proletarian. It is in her place within the relations of production, and in her active participation, as a proletarian, in the united struggle of the whole of the exploited class, that the key to the problem is to be found. It is solely by posing the question in terms of classes and from a class point of view that the proletariat can provide an answer.

By overthrowing capitalism and constructing a truly world communist society, the proletariat will have, amongst other things, to re-establish the socialisation of domestic life by developing it on a universal scale (notably through the taking charge of the education of children by the whole of society and not through the family cell conceived as the prime economic entity). Only the world proletariat, by breaking the shackles of the means of production as private property, will be able to initiate a gigantic leap in the productive forces, definitively put an end to scarcity, and take humanity from the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom. Thanks to the building of a new society based on abundance, the proletariat will thus achieve its historic mission as the gravedigger of capitalism by finally realising the old dream of humanity that primitive communism was not capable of achieving.

Contrary to the erroneous vision of our reader, the emancipation of women will not be the work of the struggle of women, with their specific claims, but of the whole working class. Forced to sell its labour or prostitute itself in order to survive (and in decadent capitalism prostitution is not moreover only the 'prerogative' of women), the proletarian, man or woman is, in a system based on the search for profit, nothing other than a commodity.

The oppression of women is an integral part of the exploitation and oppression of a social class deprived of all means of production; it will be ended by the revolutionary action of this class, which can only liberate itself by liberating the whole of humanity from the yoke of capitalist exploitation.



(1) We should also point out that, contrary to her friend Clara Zetkin who was the president of the socialist women's movement and editor-in-chief of the socialist women's newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality), Rosa Luxemburg was never herself involved in this activity. All her energy was devoted to the combat for revolutionary marxism against reformism. As to Clara Zetkin herself, her name in history, much more than her 'feminist' activity, remains attached to her combat, notably at the side of Rosa, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogisches, against the imperialist war of 1914 and for the foundation of the Communist Party in Germany.

(2) In this same epoch, certain countries were the theatre of bourgeois campaigns for the right of women to vote. In Britain, the country most affected by this movement, this demand was supported from the beginning by the bourgeois philosopher John Stuart Mill and the Conservative Prime Minister, Disraeli. The wife of Churchill was an also an old suffragette: that tells you that there was nothing specifically proletarian about this demand!